Poet Laureate’s Flagging Scotsman adds to his errors


A man with a face and voice to turn a funeral up a side street, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has written a turgid piece and made it even worse by speaking it out loud.

Do we need another Flying Scotsman poem?

Nope. We have this:

This isn’t the first time Armitage’s historical ventures have annoyed. Back in 2016, we had this:

One more brick in the wall to make Britain great again: BBC’s pet poet, Simon Armitage, helps to deny its Celtic origins



Images: vulture.com,alchetron.com, bbc.co.uk

‘Who’s our greatest national hero? Nobby Stiles anyone?’

Watching the strangely flat-for-a-poet delivery of Simon Armitage in his ‘The Making of King Arthur’ (2010) for BBC 4, I was reminded of things more recent in the making of Great Britain, Brexit. Should that be Exit? We all know this is really about England and its burning resentment of the ways in which the EU restricts or at least seems to restrict its freedom. That we Scots should want a bit of freedom is of course narrow-minded.

Only a few decades ago, media commentators would have felt quite free to substitute the word ‘England’ for the word ‘Britain’ thinking them largely interchangeable.  As recently as the 1960s, I was taught Higher History with no Scottish content whatsoever by young Glasgow University graduates who had not had the opportunity to study Scottish history there. Indeed, they had been able to supplement the study of post-1707 British imperial history with courses on earlier English history. Scotland had no history of its own worth of study at that level. If your primary school head teacher chose to do so, you might get a bit of Wallace, Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots, taught as fairy tales.

Step back and look more critically and what you see there is an education system with its origins in an attempt to justify England’s dominant position in the British Isles and to write out or to appropriate the traces of an earlier identity, loosely termed ‘Celtic’, which survives only in the Arts, on the fringes of the UK, in Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

I say above ‘loosely Celtic’ because I know that the term ‘Keltoi’ used by the Greeks to describe the Iron Age tribes of Northern Europe was never used by those tribes themselves. Also, unlike the people of the post-Roman historical period such as the Germans, the French or the English, there is no evidence that they had any sense of their tribal neighbours as part of a shared wider culture. They did, of course, have other strong indicators of connections in language, art and customs.

So, there was something loosely Celtic about much of Britain before the Roman and Germanic (Angles, Saxons…) invasions. The latter tribes who were to come to dominate much of the main island began a process of writing their conquered predecessors out of the story and writing themselves into the story so as to confirm their right to ownership. One consequence of this was the tendency for schoolchildren in England and Scotland to jump from the study of Ancient Egypt and Greece to the Roman and post-Roman periods, neatly missing out around 1 000 years in which the people of the British Isles mostly spoke languages closely linked to those of much of Europe at the time and which were demonstrably part of a wider family of languages referred to as ‘Celtic’. The word ‘Britain’ itself: originates with a group of P-Celtic speakers, resident on Great Britain, who were referred to, and perhaps referred to themselves, by the earliest known form of the term “British”.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britain_(place_name)

The aristocratic warrior elites of early England and their tribal story-tellers began then a long process of writing out the Celts and, when it suited, appropriating their iconic figures. You can see this latter process in the mutation of Celtic warrior queen Boudicca into Britannia and, most of all, in the transformation of Arthur, from Romano-Celtic leader in wars against the proto-English invasions and into the ancestor of English kings keen to justify their right to rule Britain.

This process is just what Simon Armitage was helping to maintain with another wee brick (See the photo above, good eh?) in his TV programme ‘The Making of King Arthur’ made first in 2010 but repeated last night , 19th October 2016. Here’s what he did.

First he asked:

‘Who’s our greatest national hero? Nobby Stiles anyone?’

He then goes on to name King Arthur as his choice. For younger readers, Nobby Stiles was an England footballer in 1966 and all that. Isn’t that revealing? Armitage unthinkingly (?) characterises a Romano-Celtic warrior who fought against the early English invaders as his choice for ‘our’ hero.

Then we get:

‘It’s said he will one day return in ‘our’ hour of need’. Surely Brexit is ‘the hour’? In the background we see an old film clip where Arthur is proclaimed ‘King of England’ but it’s not qualified in any way.

Armitage reveals that he knows all about cultural appropriation by telling us that the Norman invaders of 1066 ‘didn’t just have to conquer the country, they had to conquer the culture.’ By this he meant the way Norman writers would attempt to give William ‘the Bastard’ or ‘Conqueror’, an Arthurian lineage to justify his place on the throne. The bastard indeed, stealing our (English) Arthurian lineage which we only recently stole from the Welsh (Celts).

That ‘our’ means ‘English’ is reinforced as Armitage then talks of ‘How a new generation of ‘English’ writers would reclaim him as ‘our’ quintessential hero.’

It goes on like this. Watch it yourself if you dare. Why hasn’t the wizard Merlin returned to turn Simple Simon into a toad?



10 thoughts on “Poet Laureate’s Flagging Scotsman adds to his errors

  1. Good lord. I am something of a fan of Auden’s poetry, but I couldn’t last long through that. Fortunately, it is almost entirely forgotten. I believe it was intended to boost the morale of postal workers, but it probably sent them into a deep depression.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I had a friend (English) who referred several times to “Scots” as being “Irish” because that was the origin of the name.
    I then referred to the English as being “Germanic” (Angles, Saxons and Jutes), a proposition he was not pleased at.
    We remained friends.
    “Wales (Wealas)”–the term in Anglo-Saxon referred to “foreigners”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If we’re being word-nerdy, which we should, I gather the Belgian Walloons and the Romanian Wallachs/Vlachs have the same backstory of German othering.

      And, and the Germans themselves were dismissively (I might be making that up) thought, by those Romans, of as only germane (indistinguishable hairy barbarians) to the Celts.

      Your turn.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Greeks thought everyone who spoke a different language from them were “barbarians”—the Romans thought the same.
        So Germans, Celts et al were all barbarian, until they were conquered and then could be slaves or pseudo-Romans.
        “Free barbarians” could also be noble savages, into whose mouths could be put speeches articulating comments critical of Roman Emperors/society the author could not use themselves.

        I remember a “Scottish” Peer (born, educated and resident in England) in the 70’s talking about the Scottish tribes (clans) not wonting an Assembly (as was mooted then). He happened to be a clan chieftain (whose people had all been turfed out by the ancestors of his class), though he appeared not to see the derogatory nature or irony of his comments.

        And the circle becomes complete when our southren friends regard “Roman Britain”, they see England, and they see Scots/Welsh/Irish carrying on being “barbarians” and only becoming “British” when they are good Brit Nats, and subvert or deny their own nationality.
        You can be English and occasionally British (when it suits) , but pretending to be Scottish and British does not compute, it would appear.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting that this Britnat should name as ‘our’ national hero, someone who probably never lived at all This is an extract from his Wiki page
    “This lack of convincing early evidence is the reason many recent historians exclude Arthur from their accounts of sub-Roman Britain. In the view of historian Thomas Charles-Edwards, “at this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur [but …] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him”.[11] These modern admissions of ignorance are a relatively recent trend; earlier generations of historians were less sceptical. The historian John Morris made the putative reign of Arthur the organising principle of his history of sub-Roman Britain and Ireland, The Age of Arthur (1973). Even so, he found little to say about a historical Arthur”
    So there may very well never have been an “Arthur” of the type who could bear the weight of the role attributed to him by Armitage. He just didnt exist. Rather like tomatoes etc in the supermarkets.
    On that issue – yes, I know its off topic – see this https://twitter.com/i/status/1628731208094842880 – a video of the relevant Minister at WM (Therese Coffee) stumbling her way through a number of non-seqs in response to a question from Labour MP.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.