Oaks and boles and other royal nursery rhymes

Joan Smith@polblonde
Saturday 05 August 1995 23:02

WHEN you spot a gnomic headline like "'Mighty tree' tribute to Queen Mother" it can mean only one thing: the poet laureate, Ted Hughes, has written a set of execrable verses to mark a royal occasion. His latest, in honour of the Queen Mother's 95th birthday, opens with one of those brain-teasing images that are an obligatory feature of the form.

"Your tap-root deep in starry heaven, /Brought your life to you." Tap- roots, as any gardener knows, go deep into the earth, which is what makes them such a trial to dig out. I sympathise with journalists assigned to write the copy that runs besides "The Oak Tree"; it cannot be easy to provide a straight-faced exegesis of lines such as "Survivors, who knew what it meant /To be fumes in a shell-hole ... were eager /To let your sixth root steal /Through all their veins, your leaves their faces /You their one oak bole".

If you have been vapourised, in a shell hole or anywhere else, you are not going to know much about the experience. As for roots stealing through veins, it sounds suspiciously like an urban myth, one of those stories in which a friend of a friend goes to a Japanese restaurant, orders some exotic raw vegetable and ends up with a bonsai tree in his or her abdomen.

Like the Sun newspaper, the royal poem has become a parody of itself. Unlike the Sun, it has a pedigree stretching back to undistinguished figures such as Henry James Pye, who became poet laureate in 1790. Pye's first production, an ode for the king's birthday with fanciful references to "vocal groves and feathered choir", was very much in the Hughes vein, so to speak.

A far superior poet, Lord Byron, savagely mocked Pye and his successor, Robert Southey, in the dedication to his own poem Don Juan. Given Ted Hughes's predilection for fishy metaphors - a previous royal effort, if I remember rightly, was about salmon - Byron's image of Southey as a flying fish, exhausted by excessive flights of fancy, seems equally applicable to the present laureate. It also gives me an excuse to repeat one of Byron's better dirty jokes, which plays on Southey's first name and the Regency slang for "coition without emission", as the Penguin edition of Don Juan coyly puts it: "And then you overstrain yourself, or so/And tumble downward like the flying fish/Gasping on deck, because you soar too high, Bob,/And fall for lack of moisture quite a dry Bob".

LAST weekend, against my better judgement, I was persuaded to go for a walk in the country. The day began at a pub, hyperbolically praised in our guidebook, where the landlord was reluctant to serve lunch even though the pies and salads were still laid out in front of us and the pub wasn't busy.

Eventually he relented and I chewed my way through a meat pie which seemed to consist mainly of pemmican. Then we set off on our walk, our plans quickly confounded by the fact that someone was building a golf course in the middle of our patently out-of-date map. We got lost, strayed into a field of nettles where the others got stung because they were wearing shorts and arrived back in London footsore and weary as dusk fell.

It was my own fault. I moved to London to get away from cow-pats and nettles; my only consolation is that I was sensibly dressed, in trousers and a pair of loafers. The former protect you from hostile vegetation and the latter you can kick off to rest your feet without having to fiddle with laces. But I've seldom been so pleased to see the London suburbs; by 8.30 on Sunday evening, Hendon and Finchley and Willesden were like music - no, poetry - to my ears.

IN RECENT years a series of court cases, in which men who killed their wives were found guilty of manslaughter and given absurdly short prison sentences, rightly led to an outcry. At the same time, a sad procession of women who had killed violent husbands passed through the courts, heading inexorably towards a murder conviction.

Judges and juries regularly accepted a male defendant's claim that his wife nagged him but were unmoved by cases where the female defendant could prove a history of violence towards her. As a result, a proposal that the defence of provocation should be extended to cover cases where a woman kills her partner when the immediate threat to her has subsided, is getting a sympathetic hearing.

I'm not sure that the people pushing for this change have thought through its implications. It assumes that women, like children below the age of criminal responsibility, are lacking in moral sense - a move from demonising women to infantilising them. The obvious and better remedy is to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder so that a battered wife doesn't automatically end up with the same sentence as the Yorkshire Ripper.

MELVYN Bragg is upset by indications that the heritage secretary, Virginia Bottomley, intends to write a clause on taste and decency, whatever those may be, into the BBC's new charter; naturally he seized on a study published this week which argues that television isn't responsible for crime and violence.

I've clashed with Bragg before on this subject, not because I hold television responsible for rapes and murders but because I think both camps, pro- and anti-censorship, wildly over-estimate its influence. In many households it's a form of moving wallpaper, an untaxing distraction whose inability to hold viewers' attention is signified by the practice of channel-hopping.

If you say you don't watch television, people (especially Bragg) often react as though you've admitted an addiction to cocaine or some perverted sexual practice. What they can't stand is the idea that television is a trivial medium with less lasting influence on our lives than people who work in it like to think. Holding it responsible for mugging is almost more acceptable than saying it doesn't matter a jot.

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