Tag Archives: Peterborough Cathedral

Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 

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The Day After BREXIT

CATHEDRAL SQUARE; DAY AFTER “BREXIT”

The nation is divided,
but sitting here, in Cathedral Square,
jubilation is in the air.
And inebriation.
Union Jacks held on high,
emblematic against the clear blue sky.
A stubble-faced, hardened drinker,
beer can in hand, rushes up to a man,
slaps him on the back. “Cheers, mate!
We got our effing country back!”

As one of those who lost this fight,
I am bemused; the nature of our plight
is not grasped here. Fuelled by beer,
by blinkered enmity, by fear
of invading cultures,
different colours, different races,
a frenzy of ignorance escalates.
An alien presence in this jostling square,
I am adrift, in a sea of sun-reddened faces.
I turn away, impatient to leave,
to look for a quieter place, to grieve.

The day after the fateful European Referendum of June 23’rd, I happened to be at Cathedral Square, in the centre of Peterborough, around lunchtime.  Nothing unusual in that; I live in Peterborough, and walk through the square most days.  As the day was fine and sunny, I quite fancied sitting on one of the benches there for a while, and taking in the sights.  I soon realized that the unexpected result of the referendum had created  ripples of excitement, running through the people around the square.  The above poem is a fairly straightforward account of what I saw there, and my reactions to the events.

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Cathedral

CATHEDRAL

Here it stands;
a monument to time
(which doesn’t
actually exist,
by the way;
or so the particle
physicists say).
Imposing edifice,
coated in grime.

Admiration and wonder
are compelled;
how medieval
masons understood.
The cavalcade
of blood and thunder
it has withstood.

Symbol of what
still, stubbornly, persists;
Larkin’s “brocade”:
patterns of belief,
transcending mortality,
love and grief.
All for something else
that doesn’t exist.

My views on the immense subject of belief in God could be summarised as essentially atheistic, with a tinge of agnosticism.  I am basically convinced by the scientific, rationalist explanations of the workings of the universe, without the necessity for the idea of a God, and am not convinced by the arguments of any religion I have so far come across.  There remains, however, a vestigial sense of awe and bafflement; a feeling that we simply don’t know the answers to the “how?” and “why” of the universe, and that anything is possible.  Also, of course – as Professor Joad* used to say – it all depends on what you mean by “God”.

All this came into play in the composition of the poem “Cathedral”.  Living in Peterborough I have always had, at the back of my mind, the need to write a poem about the cathedral, but have lacked the particular inspiration to do it.  I finally got around to it – curiously enough – due to a combination of a reinvigorated interest in local history and some recent books on particle physics.  Lovers of Philip Larkin will recognise the line “Larkin’s brocade” as a reference to his wonderful poem “Aubade”, where he compares religion to a moth-eaten brocade.

(* Professor C.E.M. Joad was a prominent member of The Brains Trust: a highly popular programme on BBC Radio in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He became famous for prefacing his answers to almost any question with “Well, it all depends on what you mean by . . . “, which became one of the first modern catchphrases).   

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Cathedral Square

CATHEDRAL SQUARE:

Cathedral Square, in summertime glow;
fountains and children provide the show.
The cathedral, nearby, just part of the view;
with slender spires puncturing the blue.

Surging fountains spatter and spray;
children enticed to unfettered play.
Whimsical, as life, fountains fascinate.
Spontaneous, wilful, they tease, frustrate.

Small children laugh, scream with delight;
run forward, boldly, back-off with fright.
People sit on benches, take in the sights,
think back to a time when they still could be
as these children are: innocent and free.

Sun-worshippers sit idly, frazzling their skins;
brainier pigeons shower their wings.
Others seem less at ease in the heat;
shifting, nervously, in their seats,

fancying they hear the haunting “tick-tock”,
the hurrying hands of the Guildhall clock.
In the back of their minds, unsettling truth:
that brief burst of glory, evanescence of youth.

“Cathedral Square” is a poem inspired by the real Cathedral Square, in Peterborough (i.e. Cambridgeshire, UK), where I live.  It is a kind of companion-piece to an earlier poem “Sun-Salutation”, which I wrote about the other prominent square in Peterborough, Laxton Square.  Both squares are situated adjacent to Peterborough’s famous cathedral, yet they have completely different atmospheres and identities, which are – somewhat ironically – nothing to do with the cathedral itself.

 

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