Monday, August 2, 2021


 ‘The debate in 2016 stirred powerful emotions of fear, loss and betrayal, with deep roots in British history. Its signature issues – immigration, ‘sovereignty’, citizenship and trade – spoke to diffuse and sometimes inchoate ideas about identity, nationhood and Britain’s place in the world. Campaigners on both sides invoked contested memories of the past and made normative claims about Britain’s ‘natural’ allies and markets. In all these respects, the campaign was closely interwoven with the histories of empire and with the imaginative possibilities to which it gave rise ‘ 

Robert Saunders (2020): Brexit and Empire: ‘Global Britain’ and the Myth of Imperial Nostalgia, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2020.1848403 To link to this article:

It is intriguing in this current period of uncertainty caused, in part, by a toxic cocktail of Brexit, the pandemic, climate change and the ongoing culture wars of identity politics, scapegoating and blame, to find historical parallels in the experiences of earlier generations. 

I have recently returned from visiting family in Lancashire, following the onerous required covid protocols and quarantines. As a duel national, (Belgian/British), walking around Lancaster, with its grim castle and slave trade associations, and Prescot, near Liverpool, where I took a look at the building site which will shortly become The Shakespeare North Playhouse.   I asked myself the question; If someone had been born, like Shakespeare, in 1564 instead of 1964, and it was 1621 instead of 2021, how would they have experienced, perhaps similarly, the effects of plague, economic, social and cultural upheaval, a sense of displacement arising out of conflicts of power, contested religious or political ideologies, affiliations or identities, and a changing sense of 'self' re-orientated to a rapidly evolving global environment with a geography of altered time and space ? What false dichotomies or opposing dualities would one be forced to choose between?  What dislocations and discontinuities would one need to bridge to remain whole? 

' The County of Lancashire may now be said to abound as much in Witches, as Seminaries, Jesuits and Papists' . Thomas Potts 'Discovery'  1612 trials 

Some of these themes are explored in Richard Wilson’s book ‘Secret Shakespeare’ which investigates the enigmatic ‘silence’ that surrounds the ‘lacuna’ of facts about the poet’s life, and especially the ‘lost years’, which he may have spent in a series of Catholic ‘safe houses', like Houghton Tower, in the North. Using contextual evidence and textual analysis of the plays, ‘masques/masks’, which paradoxically hide as much as they reveal, he contributes to a convincing case that Shakespeare was an ambivalent ‘recusant’ Catholic who ‘played’ a deadly game of appearance and illusion, with the confessional identities and power politics of the cultural revolution unleashed by the reformation in England and continental Europe.  

‘Born into an Escher-like world of secret chapels, priest holes, subterranean passages, false walls and trap doors, Shakespeare constructed a theatre not of discovery, like his rivals, but of darkness, deferral, evasion and disguise, where, for all his hopes of a ‘golden time’ of future toleration, ‘what’s to come’ is always still unsure’  

I recently visited the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp where Peiter Bruegel’s painting of ‘Dulle Griet’ painted in 1563, depicts just such a world of cataclysmic apocalyptic chaos, a world turned upside down through both human folly and natural disaster, in which the individual, the embattled ‘Dulle Griet’, the Flemish version of ‘Mad Meg’ storms the gates of hell for plunder.

Whilst Dulle Griet may be about the battle of the sexes in a topsy turvy world of madness and mayhem, the museum also houses this amazing and powerful 13th century sculpture of Christ with the beloved disciple John by Master Heinrich von Konstanz.

This beguiling work, made for the Dominican convent of Sankt Katharinental in Switzerland, speaks, perhaps, to the sexual politics of our own age, albeit anachronistically, and it is tempting to appropriate this Christian neo-Platonic image of human and divine same-sex devotion and protection to the contemporary politics of LGBT identities. Whilst this may well be considered by some to be an ‘inappropriate’ appropriation of the 'sacred' to the 'profane', the reverse has often been the case in literature or art that attempts to express the ineffable. This homoerotic ‘language of symbols’ can be seen in the mystical poetry of the Carmelite St. John of the Cross in verses 6-8 of ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ or in the ecstatic verses of Jalaluddin Rumi the 13th century Sufi mystic. 

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.


8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

From: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, revised edition (1991). Copyright 1991 ICS Publications.

Likewise Bernini’s 'St. Theresa' in the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome borrows iconography that references a classical Cupid and Venus, and uses it as a visual metaphor, clothing it in Christian mystical significance, the moment of ecstatic sacred spiritual union represented by its profane equivalent. The public performance of what is private and hidden is explicit in the architectural theatricality of the little chapel as its patrons, the Conaro family, for whom the chapel is named, are represented observing the scene, which has been created for them, from the viewpoint of their window on an ornate marble balcony mounted in the side walls, as if they were watching an operatic diva breath her last. 

‘Spiritual friendships’ were celebrated by the Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaux, who continued a tradition of writing about friendship and love that had classical roots in writers like Plato and Cicero.  Like the celebrated aristocratic codes of loyalty and honor between Japanese samurai warriors, which often carried homoerotic connotations, in 16th century Florence the dramatic potential of characters acting out the scenes of love and sacrifice, betrayal, dishonor and death was a visual trope exploited by Renaissance painters when they depicted the crucial moments of leading up to Christ's passion and death. Here Giotto's fresco, from the cycle in the Arena Chapel in Padova, shows Judas's kiss of betrayal, the gesture of trust and the contradictory act of betrayal, framed at the 'still point of the turning world',  the axis of a wheel of violence, whose spokes are made from clubs, spears and torches. 


The Last Supper was often frescoed onto the refectory walls of monasteries where the brethren met daily to eat in silence and hear gospel and other spiritual readings. The central drama in Ghirlandaio’s fresco at the convent of the Ognissanti in Florence juxtaposes the clean-shaven disciple John, ‘the one whom Jesus loved’, represented in close physical intimacy with Jesus, to Judas, who is separated from the group by being seated on the opposite side of the table. It is to him Christ refers when he says, ‘One of you will betray me’. In the all-male hierarchical communities of religious brothers sworn to poverty, chastity and obedience, the psychological and emotional power and charge of such an image should not be underestimated.  

In ‘As You Like It’ complex ironic multi-layered games involving gender, role-reversal, appearance and reality are woven into the language of the text, the performance by the all-male actors and the illusion of the play and its conventions, which involved the active participation of the real world of the audience and the theatre. Shakespeare's sonnets dedicated to the mysterious Mr. W H. and addressed to his ‘dark lady’ have long been analyzed for just such sexual ambivalence.  

In Elizabethan England, as elsewhere in Europe, during the schisms of the 16th  and 17th century, the question of sovereignty linked to one’s religious and political allegiances. Individuals were sometimes forced to confess their side in this conflict which involved love and loyalty, or treason and betrayal between the contested powers of religion and the state.

 In chapter 5 of ‘Secret Shakespeare’ Wilson claims that Shakespeare’s poem ‘Venus and Adonis’, 

 ‘….conceals politics beneath the erotic; yet behind the false facade of pornographic narrative the text discloses its topicality as nothing less than the ‘Bloody Question’ of loyalty or betrayal.' 

Shakespeare’s distant cousin, the Jesuit priest St. Robert Southwell, had studied at Douai, Louvain and Rome before returning to England where he was subsequently betrayed, captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally executed at Tyburn. Southwell wrote his poem ‘Saint Peter’s Complaint’, as a criticism of ‘Venus and Adonis’ which he called a ‘pagan toy’ and dedicated it via a prose letter in the 1616 edition ‘To my worthy cousin Master W.S. signed your loving cousin R.S.’ 

Referring to the portress of the poem who asks Peter ‘art though not also one of this man’s disciples?’ which leads to Peter’s denial, Wilson says,

'If the portress figures Queen Elizabeth, Southwell seems to interpret Venus and Adonis as an example of craven capitulation to the Crown that followed the introduction of the ‘Bloody Question’ in 1588, when all English Catholics were confronted with a deadly test: If the Pope were to send over an army….whose side would you be on : the Pope’s or the Queen’s?'

Wilson states that '… the Elizabethan association of popery and sodomy complicates our understanding of both sexual and religious identity in the Shakespearian period. It had been Southwell, after all, who perfected what Louis Martz calls the ‘sacred parody’ of sexual love, by arguing that  ‘If on thy beauty God enamoured be, /Base is thy love of any less than he;’ and when Burghley’s secretary scorned such sublimation, he may have been cued by the fervent homoeroticism in which the Jesuit moved.'

 To identify or be branded as either a papist or a sodomite, or both, as they were often conflated, carried severe and barbaric penalties in which death or exile might be preferred to torture and imprisonment. To these two accusations could be added a third, witchcraft. In chapter 8 of Wilson's book he asks why Shakespeare anathematizes the Jesuits as Witches in 'The Scottish Play'. 

'What prompted this transfer of guilt from the Gunpowder assassins to Macbeth's Witches, and why were the Weird Sisters presented, like Garnet's Jesuits, as an organized political conspiracy? ' 

Byrd’s setting of Henry Walpole’s poem was written to commemorate the execution, at which he was present, of the Jesuit Edmond Campion in 1581. Performed here by Fretwork it evokes the troubled  times and the challenge to individual conscience in the title, ‘why should I use my paper ink and pen’. 

It survives as do other 'silent witnesses' in the cult of relics from this period that continue simultaneously to assert, provoke and challenge various cherished narratives.

Shakespeare may well have been connected to the Baroque culture of Catholic counter-reformation Europe through recusant family networks and his association with a string of safe houses in the Midlands and the North for missionary priests moving between England, the Spanish Netherlands and Italy, but his chameleon like ability to assume different characters and roles throughout the plays, holds up a mirror in which viewers could, and still can, see themselves reflected obliquely within a convincing illusion of the world, even as it deflects sight away from a reality that hides behind and beyond the focus of its ornamented frame. 

‘All the rest is silence’..............................or is it ?

Conflicted identities and divided loyalties certainly played a part in my early adulthood as I strove to escape and/or reconcile apparent contradictions. A Lancashire Catholic seminary boarding school education in the 1970s was no less toxic to someone emerging into adulthood through the difficult years of adolescent self-discovery. British/Irish sectarian violence, the emerging sexual politics of a more liberated age, and the pedophile scandals that have subsequently rocked the Catholic Church. 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'. Perhaps those 'demons' still need to be 'exorcised', by more humanist/humane and rational methods than the violent ones invoked by the ghost of Hamlet's father in the play.  I painted this mural of Michael Pennington as Hamlet, 'The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king', onto the wall of my room during those years, after seeing his performance at Stratford-upon-Avon, and amazingly it is still there. This drone footage below reveals the ruins, in my own lifetime, of the old school and calls to mind the 'bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang' of Shakespeare's sonnet 73. 

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


Sunday, August 1, 2021



Travel these days, even for humanitarian reasons, requires that we submit to periods of enforced tests and isolation in order to conform to the legal requirements and protocols of the ongoing pandemic.  This is my re-worked version of Pope's delightful 'Ode on Solitude', supposedly written when he was only 12 years old. I bought this small battered leather volume in the photos from the labyrinthine Carnforth second hand book shop on a recent visit to Lancashire. 


After Alexander Pope by Alan Mitchell

Happy the one content to care

For his small plot of land, breathing

Mindfully on well-trod ground.


In winter warm, in summer cool,

Whose clothes and shelter,

Food and drink, are easily found.


Healthy body, healthy mind,

In peace and quiet, watching

Each moment pass contentedly.


Read and rest, work and play,

He meditates on his clean slate,

By day, sleeps well at night.  


Living anonymous, dying alone,

Unknown, leaving no trace, returns. 

Circle,  point,  infinity.