The magic of MacNiece

Growing up in sight of Glastonbury Tor. I lived for three years in Newtownards, Co Down near where to Louis MacNiece’s mother was buried at Carrowdore. I took services in the church to which is attached the graveyard in which MacNiece lies beside his mother. I lived for three years in Larne, Co Antrim, a neighbouring town to Carrickfergus, where MacNiece grew up in the rectory. Reading his autobiography The Strings are False, there are many moments of recognition of familiar landmarks.

The description of his days at Sherborne, where he was sent to the preparatory school when he was ten years old evoke childhood imaginings:

Euston, Waterloo, then Dorset. County Down had been different from Co. Antrim, the drumlins of the former seeming to me highly exotic and it being also the county where I had eaten a turkey’s egg in a farm near my mother’s grave, but Dorset was most unlike either. Woods, yellow stone houses and fossils for picking. I was not used to buildings with style nor to such a variety of landscape, though I missed the Irish light for the lack of which my father condemned all English landscape as ‘stodgy’. I came to Sherborne with no preconceptions about it, but before my four years there were up I was reading into this country of the Dorset-Somerset border a wealth of legend, mainly drawn from Malory. From a point within walking distance we could see Glastonbury Tor which someone, possibly our headmaster Littleton Powys, told us was the site of Camelot. So I organised some of the boys into Knights of the Round Table, I myself being Sir Gawaine (we tactfully had no King Arthur), and we roamed the country with lances, once luckily finding a cave. This make-believe, which we might have been thought too old for, did, I think, enhance my feeling for the Arthurian legends. After all, nearly everyone who reads Hamlet is playing Hamlet in his head. But Hamlet is for adolescents (which we all to some extent remain) whereas Arthur’s knights have fewer problems too old for a prep school. And their battles and joustings have the fascination of cricket averages, while the country they move through is, like Spenser’s, so indeterminate or never-never that it can easily be superimposed even on the parklands and quarries and pinewoods of Dorset. This transposition was helped by the placards saying ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’.

Playing the knights of the Round Table would be thought absurd by most boys of such an age group now, it would be an activity considered immature by those who inhabit the virtual reality of the world online. Few of the eleven year old boys I meet have an awareness of the legends that filled the story books of the past, few have any knowledge of the backdrop of history against which such legends grew.

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