Sunday, 17 December 2006

Alan Bennett and the Green Knight

As a student, I lacked the diligence to reach the true treasures of Middle English, though the glimpses I got were enough to make me question the assumptions underpinning most of the later English literature I was studying. And from the fierce pride with which Alan Garner (whose judgement I'd trust on just about anything) writes of the Gawain poet, I know what I missed out on.

Simon Armitage has just published a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In yesterday's Times, Garner retells the story of his own discovery of a poem written in the language he knew as "talking broad" - and for which he'd had his mouth washed out with carbolic at the age of 5. He also provides a masterful rendering of a passage in modern North West Midlands English.

Meanwhile, The Guardian had Armitage telling the story of how he came to write his version of the poem. His description of the Alan Bennett mode nails an experience with which I'm all too familiar:

It isn't a particularly cold day in London, though when I left Yorkshire at 7am there was frost on the pavement. This is why I am wearing a heavy-duty parka, a pair of big boots, and why I am sweating. I've never been in the British Library before, and with my new membership card laminated less than an hour ago, I'm beginning to wish that was still the case. At this stage, the best course of action would be to say something like, "My name is Simon Armitage, I'm a published poet, and I've been commissioned to translate the poem." Who knows, she might even have heard of me. But instead, I have entered what is often referred to in our house as Alan Bennett mode, characterised by the outward demonstration of inadequacy and unworthiness when standing before the edifices of the establishment. So instead of speaking, I just sweat some more, and the lady on the desk, says, "There aren't amany pictures in it."

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