Sunday, 25 April 2010

Georges and dragons

I missed St. George's Day itself. I was too busy with work to head to Leicester Market for the traditional dragon-slaying and distribution of red roses. But Leicester has never been content with small festivals. St. George's Day has spilled over to become a three-day event, involving more than any individual could fit into the time available.

I scanned the programme in amazement. Everyone was getting in on the act. There were morris dances, a maypole, church services and a beer festival. There was face-painting and dragon-making and a choice between Shakespeare, poetry readings outdoors and prose and poetry indoors. Some of the events had a rather slight connection to St. George, unless there's something I missed - there wasn't any flamenco dancing in any version of the story I knew. But why not? It all sounded like great fun. I determined to attend on Saturday and take lots of pictures.

Plans don't always work. My back, still painful after my fall on the ice in January, was hurting more than usual. I left home late with my camera in my bag. Photogenic sights abounded. I saw the bunting first - I wonder if the council will leave it up for the World Cup. Two minutes later I spotted my first St George, accompanied by his maiden. They posed for a photo and smiled. I framed the picture, clicked - and the resulting image was flooded with light. I thought I'd messed up the settings, tried to check them, wished I had an instruction book. I tried new settings, more pictures. No luck - and they would have been such good pictures too. The ones that get away are always the best.

I listened to some readings. They were good but, worried about the camera and other matters, I could give then only half my concentration. I wriggled in my seat, trying to make my back comfortable. I failed and headed out into the sun.

Leicester was flooded with St. Georges, all much better-looking than the slightly sad specimen escorting Nick Griffin at the BNP manifesto launch. (I wonder if Nick Griffin knows how multi-cultural Leicester celebrates St. George's Day - and how pathetic his own attempt looks by comparison.) I think there was even a St. George on stilts but I was too far away to check the identification. I was happily impressed by the George and Dragon cupcakes.

I headed to the station via my favourite camera shop. The staff inspected my camera, checked the programming and eventually diagnosed the problem - serious and expensive. "It would cost a lot to mend it," one said. They didn't need to spell it out - I knew it would cost more than the camera itself. "Which is your cheapest camera?" I asked, and got out my credit card.

By the time I reached Nottingham St. George's Day celebrations were winding down - they had lasted a mere two days. Here England's special days involved William Booth and Feargus O'Connor as well as more markets, Georges and dragons. Shoppers, children, Goths and football supporters ambled in the sunny Market Square.

I didn't pause for long. My destination was the Playhouse and a play about another George. I read Julian Barnes' novel Arthur and George a couple of years ago and was curious to see what sort of play David Edgar would make of it. It didn't seem a natural choice for a drama - the novel goes back and forth in time and deals with complex questions of law and evidence. But David Edgar's a confident, experienced playwright who knows how to move characters and keep the audience interested. He's not to reshape a novel to ensure it works as a play.

In a way, Arthur and George is a play about Englishness, although Edgar doesn't labour the point. George Edalji, a vicar's son and solicitor, sees himself as an Englishman. His passions are railways and English law - he likes to see the world as an orderly place. Chris Nayak, in an entirely convincing performance, brought out the character's slight strangeness which the play relates in part to a protective and defensive family and in part to George's extreme short-sightedness and consequent focus on details.

At the beginning of the 20th century George takes his isolated life and its oddities for granted. When he comes under suspicion for horrific crimes - maiming horses and leaving them to bleed to death - he limits his consideration of the case to matters of evidence, law and courtroom practice. He never mentions the virulent racial hatred that condemns him because he is the product of a mixed marriage - his father is Indian and his mother Scottish. Eventually, when his life has been shattered, he turns for help to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur - famous, admired but also an outsider - looks at the larger picture and is determined to secure justice, compensation and public vindication for George. Adrian Lukis's performance shows the bluff, hearty persona Arthur presents to the world but there's also a hint of vulnerability - Arthur is uneasy with his fame and the complications of his own personal life. George's case provides Arthur with an escape from guilt and worry as well as a cause to fight. One of the enjoyable aspects of the play is the way in which George and Arthur, who, with little in common, treat each other with careful respect and do their best to see one another's point of view.

It's an delightful play. The two major characters are complex and layered. Actors in the other roles take the opportunity to hint at complexity on occasion. While racism is uncovered - the kind of racism that was written into British text books at the time - it's not the only factor working against George. Ideas of manliness play part and so do networks of unspoken loyalty. George is a very convenient scapegoat.

Watching the play was entirely pleasurable. It helped that pain-killers, combined with rather good cider, banished my back-pain for a a few hours. Comfortable seats at the Playhouse helped too.

George Edalji probably contributed more to Britain than the historical St. George - or even the legendary dragon-killer. George Edlaji's case - and Arthur's defence of George - was a major factor in creating the Court of Appeal.


Anonymous said...

Read this beautiful post a few weeks ago, but was just reminded of it when I found the Muppets version of Jabberwocky. I like the way they make the Jabberwock into a real character, and thought you might enjoy it too!

Kathz said...

Thanks - I love the Muppets but hadn't come across their version of Jabberwocky which is a great delight.