Benjamin Bowmaneer Rides Again

Eyes and No Eyes, Oil on canvas, Frank Bramley, 1857 - 1915 (Penlee Gallery) Frank Bramley is the artist behind one of the Newlyn School's most iconic images - the painting 'A Hopeless Dawn', purchased for the nation in 1888 and now in the Tate collection.

Eyes and No Eyes, Oil on canvas, Frank Bramley, 1857 – 1915 (Penlee Gallery)
Frank Bramley is the artist behind one of the Newlyn School’s most iconic images – the painting ‘A Hopeless Dawn’, purchased for the nation in 1888 and now in the Tate collection.

At the moment, Britain is engaged in debate and deadly intent regarding the headlong rush to war with limitless outcomes in Syria. We’ve been here before.

A recurring image of the debate is the pinpoint accuracy of the weapons, as though they can single out the ideologically incorrect from innocent bystanders, and prevent collateral damage.

I have a ghastly image of PM David Cameron sitting in the tub practise-bombing plastic ducks with a sponge.

But there’s nothing new in this debate. Pin point accuracy, and military superiority, has occupied English folk song writers and artists for many years, and I can see why such a powerful national image of cold accuracy and skill with the bow and arrow would be celebrated, or otherwise, in song. For example, in Benjamin Bowmaneer, from 1871, it’s expressed through the eyelet and thread of the tailor:

Have you heard how the wars began?
Benjamin Bowmaneer!
Have you heard how the wars begun? Castors away!
Have you heard how the wars begun
When England fought to a man
And the proud tailor rode prancing away?
Of his shear board he made a horse
All for him to ride across.
Of his scissors he made bridle bits
For to keep his horse all in its wits.
And as he road o’re the lea
He spied a flea all on his knee.
Of his needle he made a spear
All for to prick that flee all in its ear.
From his thimble he made a bell
All for to ring that flea’s funeral knell.
And that is how the wars began
When England fought to a man.

(Roud 1514, from the Penguin Book of English Folksongs)

Confused? Who isn’t? Benjamin Bowmaneer, the war-like tailor, whose precise abilities effortlessly stretch to accuracy with the bow and arrow. The song is much ignored and hard to fathom. Versions are shrouded in sexual innuendo, imagery and metaphor, and there are as many interpretations and discussions as there are versions. In the same way, Shakespeare, in being prevented from saying what he means, ensures no one’s ever exactly certain what he’s saying.

Fortunately, these days, we’re not so encumbered by censorship. It’s anti-war. It’s about underestimating people, that machismo and warmongering are not the way, but it feels dark, and unsettling, as it gets under the skin of the tailor, and shows something we don’t understand. And why shouldn’t it? The inexplicable might always remains out of reach. After all, as an island nation, England cannot possibly see the whole world.

And on a similar theme: Deftly, Admiral, Cast Your Fly by WH Auden

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