JKS on… Broads and Bards

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines (BBC4) & Evidently… John Cooper Clarke (BBC4)

Despite the witch-hunts and the convenience of a husband being able to sell his wife in the street, the second episode of Harlots, Housewives and Heroines (BBC4) set out to make the case that, compared to medieval standards at least, things started getting better for women during the Restoration period. For some women, that is, and apparently only those with, at the very least, money and, better still, a titled husband. It’s no shock that we only know about the lives of notables from the 17th century but it is a little surprising that there were few words to be said in this documentary about the common wifely surf. One supposes that peasants aren’t a big draw.

Nevertheless, money was where it was at in those days and romance seemed to be of little concern to either party in a prospective marriage: ‘Nothing but money recommends a woman’ said Daniel Defoe. Sexual pleasure, however, was a different matter and one we will return to. It is obvious that financial concerns, then as now, should’ve played an important part in a marriage, especially when you realise that the entire running of a household, from supplies to vast, extravagant renovations of the manor, was down to the wife. A role that they seemed to relish. Indeed, at the cost of all other pursuits – ‘women were not born to read’ advised Mary Evelyn, a matrimonial moral matron of the times.

One can’t really quibble if the records to paint the whole portrait of the time do not exist and this series has been excellent – made all the more so by an excellent presenter. Some deranged wantwits espouse nature host Kate Humble-Bumble as the crumpet of all thinking men’s crumpets but she can hardly compete with the real ale swilling Dr Lucy ‘Charge your glasses’ Worsley. Besides having an endearing flare for putting her historical knowledge across with ease, she isn’t afraid to make history come ‘alive’; one moment she’s being locked into an insidious scold’s bridle and the next she’s preparing to be dunked in order to abate any suspicions about her being a witch. Nor is her enthusiasm in any way tarnished by the prospect of a health remedy prepared with brandy or currents soaked in claret, and she seems to relish the opportunity to peruse a 17th century sex manual – one that was aimed at satisfaction for women.

Yes, due to a medical misunderstanding 17th century women were almost guaranteed to be having better sex than those of modern times because it was thought that they could only conceive if they reached orgasm. It could, of course, be argued that this primacy of orgasm was only to fulfill a male end, so to speak, and produce an heir, but at least the Restoration chaps were having a try.

Presumably it was thanks to the BBC’s current celebration of punk rock that we were allowed to hear poetry even mentioned on television, and some people, I’m sure, would try to say that Evidently… John Cooper Clarke (BBC4) couldn’t possibly be about poetry at all. And they would be right, to some extent, but not because Clarke isn’t a poet, but because this was a tribute by people who love the man and love his work. As Bill Bailey says, everyone’s either never heard of him or loves him, which is probably a fair assessment (naysayers notwithstanding). The segments of interview with the old bastard were certainly  the highlights of the programme, and of those the best were when he was briefly allowed to discuss his craft at a working level – tight metres, strong enough rhymes – and any aspiring poet would be well advised to watch this show solely for his words of encouragement and his passion.

Of course, the best advice to aspiring poets is to actually listen to his work with a close ear. There will naturally follow a urge to parody him, but fear not: it’s much more difficult than just putting on a bad Salford accent. In a language as difficult to rhyme in as English, Clarke has achieved remarkably inventive things, the rhyming of ‘ransacked’ and ‘dhansaked’ in ‘The Day My Pad Went Mad’ is a perennial delight to me, but I won’t bore you with any deeper analysis here. Those aforementioned naysayers would say I was wasting my time anyway because Clarke isn’t a real poet and something more like a mere support act relic from the punk era, but they’re wrong and I’ll be happy to invite anyone who disagrees outside. On the other hand, some of the commentators in this documentary seemed to be under the impression that there have never been any other gritty poets who speak for real people – whomever they are – and that all other poets are off in faeryland, or Hertfordshire. I’m sure the latter was an opinion feigned for the cameras but the point should be to never fence ourselves into a cultural isolation. Clarke is right when he says art is a luxury – but it is one we can all afford because culture is part of life, not external to it.

(Originally written for SKRBBLR.com, June 2012.)