I was on an official, non-pastoral visit to the All Souls or West London Cemetery, Kensal Green. As one of the cemetery directors and I strolled in the winter sunshine down the principal allee, he drew my attention to one of the many grand stone monuments. It adorned the grave of some high Victorian notable, and in the way of memorials to one of his time and status, unreservedly proclaimed his many qualities and achievements. These included the boast that he had "abstained from alcoholic drink for 50 years". The director and I joked that, since neither of us had 50 years left to us in which to abstain from drink, there was no point in starting now. But there is a delicious little irony here. And it is, quite simply, that the cemetery in question was immortalised in a poem extolling (or at least, defending) the pleasures of booze.
One of the less commonplace features of my suburban and otherwise pretty ordinary childhood was to have been a son of a man who loved poetry. He did not love it in any highbrow or intellectual way, but out of a natural and quite unaffected empathy for the romantic and the lyrical. There were always poetry books in our house, which my father would take from the bookcase again and again to remind himself of an invariably misremembered turn of phrase from Keats or Shelley. One of these was an (even then, distinctly dated - and I suppose more serious poetry-lovers would judge - rather "popular") anthology compiled during WW2 by Field Marshall Earl Wavell: Other Men's Flowers. This contains pretty much every poem you've ever learned/loved/hated/avoided, including G K Chesterton's The Rolling English Road, reproduced below.
Now I won't attempt to analyse or critique the poem since Carol Rumens has done so rather expertly here: http://bit.ly/trhHw6. But, in case you don't feel like looking, suffice it to say that GKC wrote it in 1913 because he feared that American-style Prohibition was about to be introduced in Britain. The Rolling English Road is a defence of the moderate enjoyment of alcohol, which is the Englishman's birthright, predating even the arrival of the Romans - who, GKC suggests, "straightened" the rambling roads that had already been established by the drunken natives. The English have always had a weakness for alcohol, he seems to say; it's part of who we are. Get over it.
But it's the final stanza that has always resonated. In this he seems to say that drunken episodes are normal enough in the young and we shouldn't be unduly censorious about them. But as life draws to its close, we need to perceive more clearly the way ahead, and to "see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death". There are many good things to enjoy before we get there (not necessarily excluding a glass or two).
- The joke is that there is a pub not far from the cemetery gates called the "Paradise by way of Kensal Green". Forthcoming attractions: Pump Up the Volume and NU Northern Soul. I wonder if its proprietors see themselves as landlords of a decent inn of death? I'm guessing probably not.
- The Rolling English Road - G K Chesterton
- Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
- The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
- A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
- And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
- A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
- The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
- I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
- And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
- But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
- To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
- Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
- The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.
- His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
- Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
- The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
- But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
- God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
- The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.
- My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
- Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
- But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
- And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
- For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
- Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.