Monday, 11 May 2009

Some Great Public Servants

Journalists and bloggers were working overtime this weekend coining names for the current discredited Parliament. The ‘Rotten Parliament’ sounded suitably authentic with its echoes of the Rump, while the ‘Parliament of Thieves’ struck a Chaucerian note, reminding me at least of the great medieval poet’s little-known work the Parlement of Foules. Perhaps the most overwrought was the fiercely Calvinistic ‘Whorehouse of Ill-repute’ suggested by Cranmer, the blog devoted to religion and politics. Overwrought, but not entirely inaccurate.

To take one’s mind off the sleaze I suggest watching the excellent documentary on Henry Purcell that was the first episode in Charles Hazlewood’s BBC2 series The Birth of British Music. No composer managed to marry words and music quite like Purcell and his short life (he died just 36) and his work provide a crash course in English early modern history.

For example, we see the rise of a specifically English aesthetic informed by the nascent pursuit of antiquarianism revealed in his wonderful stage work
King Arthur. Purcell was just one genius among many, working in Wren’s newly conceived London and setting poetry by Dryden. The programme’s historical context was provided by History Today contributor Leo Hollis whose The Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London, recently published in paperback, is an atmospheric and entertaining account of Purcell’s city.

Do watch the programme and read Hollis’s book. Both serve to remind us of what great public servants can achieve.

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