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IN COMPETITION No. 2008 you were invited to supply, in the spirit and metre of Chaucer but not in his language, a portrait of a modern 'pilgrim' — to Lourdes, to a pop festival, on a demo march or whatever.
Hands up those who read Chaucer for pleasure in the original ... I feared as much. I was lucky enough to read him as a special subject at university, and rereading him now in a very fine modernised version by David Wright to be issued by the Folio Society next year, I am amazed how often he gives one the physical frisson which Housman thought was the test of true poetry — just take that one line: The smil- er with the knife under his cloak'. The rate at, and the way in, which our language is developing make it gloomily certain that in a couple of hundred years there will have to be modernised versions of Shakespeare. Frank McDonald vividly portrayed an alco- holic Glaswegian priest on his way to Lourdes, Alanna Blake a Princess Di freak heading for Althorp and W.J. Webster a demo demon 'Whose knuckles bore the scars of many a wound,/ Not from his fights but where they scraped the ground'. The prizewinners, printed below, take £25 each, and the bonus bottle of Isle of Jura Single Malt Scotch whisky goes to Alyson Nikiteas, who confesses to having once had the same job as her target.
A courier smart led them upon their trip, Skilled in the arts of instant fellowship. Full well he guided girls and bores and boors, Clad in a coat embroidered 'Eros Tours'. No ruin was his flock allowed to miss From Delphi to the thronged Acropolis; He paused whene'er they crossed Corinth's
canal To let them take their snaps, bright and banal, Nor tired he their thick ears with learned speech, He knew each famous spot, how long for each,
Thence a taverna, where, at special rates, The cynic waiters watched them smashing plates. With girls he played the role of boyfriend bluff, And well could handle lads who'd had enough. Right late he was to bed and prompt to rise. He smiled a lot, but never with his eyes.
(Alyson Nikiteas) With them there was a teacher from a school, Who never gladly suffered any fool. In youth, indeed, were any to misdo, He smote them on the bottom with a shoe. No more, alas! for soon the law was changed, And from that day his life was disarranged. 'Let no one on a pupil lay a hand!' Such was the law, and by it he must stand. All melancholy was this teacher's face, His weary manner lacking hope and grace. His voice long drowned by noise, all order gone, He knew no way to pass his knowledge on. Therefore to Lourdes in company he passed, Seeking to find a miracle at last. He prayed that God some miracle would do: `My shoe!' he cried. 'Please give me back my shoe!' (Paul Griffin) With us there also rode an Eco-freak, Called Pumpkin, though he looked more like a leek, That is, a long boy, topped with tufted hair (His skull else shaved with admirable care). This fellow knocked all tunnellers for six; He could have taught an earthworm brand-new tricks, And this was good, for digging is a skill Which foxes use when hounds move in to kill, And colliers, too, and prisoners-of-war.
He loathed the digger most, and power-saw, For he was fast intent on saving trees Which councils chop for lorry-drivers' ease.
To save the earth, he'd once lain underground Ten weeks, in chains, until he had been found.
This brave young man looked pale, as if con- cussed.
His bike, alas, was suffering from rust.
(Bill Greenwell) A gay-rights clergyman was there who'd been A lead guitarist on the rock-group scene: Questioned on TV chat-shows, he'd confess The clue to being a priest was how you dress. In church he'd have the sunlight slanting where It seemed to sanctify his silvery hair.
He urged his flock to hug each other more And let their hearts like his keep searching for The New Jerusalem: to tell the truth He'd been a closet Marxist in his youth. Though Blairite now and more right-wing than left, He still half-hoped that property was theft. He'd worn out many a creepy Jesus boot Marching the well-trod Aldermaston route. He got folk dancing in the aisles. How odd That long ago he'd taken leave of God.
(Robert Roberts) Next in the jam a cowboy roofer sat, A jovial lad, and prematurely fat From lager guzzled when the day was through.
No graduate star could match his yearly screw.
He knew the ropes: he'd fix a bargain price, Then have the hapless owner settle twice Through hidden extras brought about, he swore, By botches of the roofers gone before.
He was the boy to seal with leaky roll, Or cobble lino on a gaping hole.
Old ladies were his staple and his stay.
With kindly face he'd talk of ridge decay, Or how their chimney, perilously weak, Might topple any day and brain their peke.
His pose, half-slouched, was manifestly cool, And on his cap was written 'Hammers Rule'.