"For mirth of May wyth skippis and wyth hoppis"
Irregular update from James M'Kay, poet, of Gravesend, Kent, a small and ancient ferryport in a small and ancient county of a collapsing kingdom.
First up, thanks to everyone who’s signed up since I sent out the last of these back in the depths of the winter of our discontent, it’s good of you to lend even a little of your attention in a world where attention is at a premium, and I hope you like it here.
Thanks even more to everyone who got back to me with feedback about the sample audiobook chapters I posted - it’s been a slow process working out how (and even whether) I can produce professional quality recordings of my favourite old books, and your comments were invaluable in deciding that (and how) I can. Watch this space for further releases, whole book this time.
One author I shall not be attempting to record quite yet is William Dunbar (1460-1520), from whom the title of this newsletter is taken. One of the generation of Scots poets who fell upon imported copies of the poems of Chaucer (Scotland and England were mostly and seriously at war during his lifetime) and created out of them a poetic vernacular style of their own. Here’s the stanza of his grand allegory “The Golden Targe” that kept me cheerful over this wet and windy Bank Holiday, see what you make of it (footnotes at the very end of the newsletter)
For mirth of May wyth skippis and wyth hoppis
The birdis sang upon the tender croppis
With curiouse note, as Venus chapell clerkis1.
The rosis yong, new spreding of thair knopis2,
War powderit brycht with hevinly beriall3 droppis
Throu bemes rede birnyng as ruby sperkis.
The skyes rang for schoutying of the larkis,
The purpur hevyn, ourscailit in silvir sloppis4,
Ourgilt the treis branchis, lef, and barkis.
Personally, I can’t get enough of “the skies rang with the shouting of the larks”, nor the phenomenal compounds ourscailit (“scaled over”) and ourgilt (“gilded over”).
Much interest, predictably, centred around the piece last time on the gipsy tart, regional speciality of Kent, which - being a pudding that can be thrown together from store-cupboard ingredients - is probably not named after any particular travelling community, but as a slur on the domestic efficiency of the housewife whose best effort it is.
An inspired suggestion from a reader compares this to the Neapolitan dish spaghetti alla puttanesca (“working girl’s spaghetti”), which is similarly made from jars and tins - anchovies, olives, tomatoes - and seems to me very likely to be named after the same principle.
And suddenly we arrive at a solution to one of the most vexed questions in culinary literature - the space devoted in cookery book after cookery book to “unexpected guests” who are supposed to turn up in droves all the time and need feeding quickly after the shops are shut. Many cookery writers have wondered who these tiresome people are, but I think we can now suggest an answer: they don’t exist, it’s just code for when you need to cook a meal and haven’t managed to get to the shops in time (or at all).
So we arrive at an irregular verb of the kind beloved of Bernard in Yes, Minister: “I have unexpected guests; you are a gipsy; she’s on the game. . .”
And finally, great commotion this end in preparation for Gravesham Estuary Fringe Festival (June 5th-12th), which will see me take to the internet live each night as host of Fringe TV (reviewing, previewing and commenting on each day’s Fringe events), and also (via Lightship LV21’s SILTINGS programme) the arrival on the streets of Gravesend of a number of Blue Porcupines (stay tuned here for more details soon). . .
“choirboys of Love”