12 August 2019

The unelected court jester
gestures crudely at
the people on the streets

The London Eye, across the river from Whitehall … London is in the eye of a constitutional storm (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Britain is in the middle of a constitutional crisis and a major political debate that could shape the democratic process for decades to come. The Prime Minister could face and lose a confidence vote; the leader of the opposition is unlikely to be pushed into a taxi and sent to Buckingham Palace demanding to be made Prime Minister, no matter what John McDonald says; Labour has failed to deal with integrity about the claims of antisemitism in the party; and politicians of all hues and shades seemto be like lemmings rushing for the cliff edge.

I arrived in London earlier this morning, having caught a flight from Dublin to Stansted and then a train to Liverpool Street Station.

But unlike my three or four visits to London earlier this year, this is a quick family visit, and I am staying for just one night at the St Giles Hotel on Bedford Avenue in Bloomsbury, near the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, and around the corner from the British Museum.

This is the heart of Bloomsbury, and just a few steps away from the top attractions, including museums, theatres, restaurants, public transport and even the best of London’s shopping, although I can hardly imagine myself looking for many shops – apart from coffee shops and book shops.

This is a large hotel with 675 hotel guest rooms, some with large windows that have views of the London skyline, as well as three distinct restaurants. The Central YMCA Club is on the ground floor.

This afternoon involved a walk around the major tourist spots for a family member on his first-ever visit to London. But the bitterness that is dividing Britain today was obvious as we strolled along Whitehall, from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. A group of protesters had gathered on the street, waving EU flags and carrying EU umbrellas. As Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings emerged from a government building to heckles and jeers, Cummings raised his fist and then his finger at the protesters in ugly crude gestures.

This is the court jester who claims his task is to wrestle back power for the people from unelected officials. But this shows clearly what one unelected official thinks of the people on the streets as they seek to have their voice heard.

After today’s walkabout, and dinner out this evening, two of us are planning to visit Peterborough tomorrow, where I hope to spend some time visiting the cathedral. Doubtless, the constitutional crisis will have deepened by the time I catch a late evening flight from Stansted back to Dublin.

Two horsemen about to mount and join the procession, from the north frieze of the Parthenon in Athens the British Museum … I am staying nearby in Bedford Avenue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
and gather it all in a bunch of heather’

‘Tell her to find me an acre of land … Between the salt water and the sea strands’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

‘Scarborough Fair’ was a popular song in folk sessions and in pubs and clubs on Saturday nights in the late 1960s and in the 1970s.

It was made popular by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, first in 1965 and again in 1968, and it retained its popularity throughout those years in my late teens and early 20s when I enjoyed the folk scene in England and Ireland.

I knew that ‘Scarborough Fair’ had been a traditional English folk ballad long before it become a chart-topping hit half a century ago. One suggestion says it is about the Great Plague in the late Middle Ages. It was recorded by a long list of English folk singers long before it gained international popularity.

Until recently, however, I had not realised that the version made popular by Simon and Garfunkel also contained a subliminal anti-war message that is rarely repeated in the strummed folk-club and bar-room versions.

The song contains a list of tasks the singer puts to his former lover, who has moved to Scarborough, if she is to earn back his love. But these are impossible tasks, probably indicating he has no intention of being reconciled with her. These tasks include making a shirt without a seam or needlework and then washing it in a dry empty well, finding an acre of land Between the salt water and the sea strands.

Paul Simon learned the song in London in 1965 from the English folk singer Martin Carthy, who in turn ad picked up the tune from a songbook by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and then included it as Track 8 in his first album that year.

Later, Martin Carthy was twice a member of my favourite English folk group, Steeleye Span, and contributed to four of their albums: Please to See the King (1971); Ten Man Mop, or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971); Storm Force Ten (1977); Live at Last (1978); and The Journey (Live at The Forum, London, 1995) (1999).

Paul Simon and Alf Garfunkel made their own arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’ but interpolated it in counterpoint with ‘Canticle’ – a reworking of the lyrics from Paul Simon’s 1963 anti-war song, ‘The Side of a Hill,’ set to a new melody composed mainly by Art Garfunkel. The lyrics had some changes and so the song was renamed ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle.’

The song was the first track on their album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966). The copyright credited only Simon and Garfunkel as the authors, causing ill-feeling on the part of Martin Carthy, who felt the traditional source should have been credited.

Two years later, it was released as a single in 1968, after it was included on the soundtrack of The Graduate, and reached No 11 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No 9 in the UK Singles chart.

But that anti-war message from half-a-century ago are to difficult to hear without carefully listening to the recording:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
(On the side of a hill in the deep forest green)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Tracing of sparrow on snow-crested ground)
Without no seams nor needle work
(Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine
(Sleeps unaware of the clarion call)

Tell her to find me an acre of land
(On the side of a hill a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Washes the grave with silvery tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strands
(A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
(War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
(And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine