ESSAY Dai George

NWR Issue 97

A Radical English Identity?

Let's start with two musical memories from university, neither of which, unusually, has anything to do with staying up way too late in one of Bristol’s many reggae bars. The first takes place in a lecture hall. It’s my first term, and uni has so far taken some getting used to. Everyone seems posh and gifted with the extraordinary, erratic self-belief that cocaine confers. One Tuesday
morning I take my place among the yawning, red-eyed survivors of Monday night at Lizard Lounge for a lecture advertised as ‘Poetry and Song’. Taking it is Nick Groom, an academic we’ve already clocked as something of a maverick operator, with his broad, unpolished vowels, rakish waistcoats and fat ponytail. To warm us up, he gets everyone to stand. We obey, reluctantly. Once we’re up, he asks for a quick straw poll: who knows the words to ‘Jerusalem’? Slowly hands start to rise. When we’ve all vouched for our knowledge of Blake, he asks if we’d mind singing it with him. A disbelieving giggle ripples around the room, but then it happens: a hundred posturing, hungover freshers release their inhibitions and belt out England’s unofficial national anthem.

My second memory: I’m in the audience for an open mic night at the White Bear, nursing a pint and debating whether or not to perform my semi-famous acoustic take on ‘Nothing but a Heartache’ by The Flirtations. So far we’ve heard the standard fare: mellow Jack Johnson and Regina Spektor covers, a few comedy numbers, a couple of more talented songwriters shyly offering up their tunes. Two guys take the stage, bothholding guitars, one of them plugged into a dinky Fender amp. They start up a folk song, with the electric guitarist playing a spindly lead line over the top. It takes me a while to recognise the melody but, once I do, I realise that I know every word of the lyrics. It’s ‘Matty Groves’, an old ballad to which Fairport Convention gave a rude, rocking boot up the backside on their Liege and Leif album. Tonight’s rendition may lack Sandy Denny’s bellclear delivery and Richard Thompson’s raga-inspired licks, but I’m transported by the story, which is more or less invincible. Matty goes to church, gets seduced by Lady Arnold, goes home with her, gets caught, gets killed in a duel. Lord Arnold asks his wife how she likes Matty’s bloody corpse; Lady Arnold surprises him by saying, well, quite a lot really. Lord kills Lady before we finish with the killer punchline: ‘A grave, a grave, Lord Arnold cried, to put these lovers in, / but bury my Lady on the top, for she was of noble kin.’

On both occasions, I felt simultaneously involved and excluded. These were tremendous popular poems, set to mysterious and stirring music, and both gave me this great rush of affinity. But they didn’t belong to me.

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previous essay: Of Dinosaurs and Theoretical Corsetry
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