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Swords & pointy slippers: art at play

IN WARNER Brothers’s King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), the Norman monarch (lantern-jawed George Sanders) tests his steel broadsword against the scimitar of the Muslim leader Saladin (an improbably dusky Rex Harrison). Lordy, those words. The long sword cleaves an iron bar; the Levantine razor slices a silken scarf which, tossed into the air, is let fall across the gleaming face of its lethal cutting edge.

Ceremony. Choreography. Magic. A stand-off of cultures, geographies, climates; even couture and varieties of facial hair. A feigned encounter, in every way - no such meeting occurred during the Third Crusade; if it had, it wouldn’t have been between a White Russian with a stentorian voice (Ivan Skavinsky Skivar, as Percy French would have it?) and a Lancashire would-be sultan, blind in one eye (Abdul Abulbul Ameer, anyone?).

By the time I saw the movie on TV, I had already been primed for the metaphoric impact of that particular scene. The Ladybird children’s reader Richard The Lion Heart: an adventure from history (1965), had already presented a frame with the heroic king - all shoulders and red cruciform bib - standing over the split iron bar, with the dainty Saladin - all turban and Ali Baba pointy slippers - flourishing his shining curved blade like a question mark.

For all the little book’s outdated narrative and solid middle-class Plantagenet, the image even then represented complementary qualities and values: bluntness, honour and reliability on the one hand, subtlety, grace and wit on the other ... As racial stereotypes go, not a bad trade-off.

How deeply that one vivid image is impressed, that blistering exchange of utterly bogus yet compelling manly virtues. How profoundly, I wonder now, did that straight back and arrogant head of Coeur de Lion occupy the imagination of an Irish boy in a contested landscape, the romance of the victor striding through the darkness again and again as El Cid, as Gordon of Khartoum, as Sir Robert Morton (that uncomplicated sunny incarnation of Ulster’s own real-life anti-hero, Sir Edward Carson) in The Winslow Boy (1948), as Jack Hawkins’s Roman patrician Quintus Arrius (indeed, as Judah Ben-Hur himself) – all turning hurt and defeat into pragmatic but still luminous, miraculous, triumph?

The part of my childhood that wasn’t spent reading was spent in front of a tiny TV screen watching movies. It was practically the same thing.

The great figures of fiction – Zorro, D’Artagnan, Joan of Arc, Monte Cristo, Scarlett O’Hara, Sydney Carton, Beth Morgan, Shane, Maxine Faulk, Magwitch, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Ma Joad, the Lone Ranger – swapped media from pages to celluloid, but entered in to the psyche, into the aesthetic also, whole, pure, complete, as one might say, without touching the sides.

That the intensity of the movie moment – focused, mannered, choreographed, manipulative, ablaze with light – can duplicate and replicate the reading experience is undoubted now; also that it can generate its own memorable cascade of emotion and reflection from the most fleeting glimpse or gesture or glance.

Easily the most powerful identifiably-aesthetic moments in films in my recollection are located, not in the self-conscious deliberate artistry of the film school manufactory, but are instead deep in the shallow heart of Hollywood fantasy.

Riches found among the cheapest coin – in Douglas Sirk’s gorgeous, harrowing melodramas as much as the stern ethics of 1930s gangster flicks or the great horse operas of Ford and Hawks. Just as Dot Cotton can strut as potently for 15 minutes as a cockney Lady Macbeth, delivering a masterclass of pathos and smoky, burnt throatware or ex-Carry On beauty Liz Fraser can be allowed a soliloquy of breathtaking skill in Nemesis, as part of Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple TV series, so the not-quite-so accidental marvels of Hollywood release mighty spectacles, both large-scale and of an intimacy which is almost, but never quite, unbearable.

The context of our contemporary art forms is such that artists manage to secure their beautiful instant, their epiphanies, their ‘moments of being’, by shaping materiel which has come to them often from the Tin Pan Alley of scriptwriters or the nostrums of daytime TV.

In there, with that stuff, they manage to make the very miracle, suddenly and perfectly, that another age and another economy would have struggled to represent on stage or in a three-deck Victorian potboiler.

I give you Tyrone Power facing off with Basil Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro (1940). Two swordsmen (ahem!); one sweeping the tip of a lit candle off its base onto the floor with a flick of his wrist, sword in hand; the other sweeping, apparently missing, but then lifting the tip gently with his fingertips and a loud ‘Aha!’.

The swordplay is outrageously ‘knowing’, of course. Two extravagantly sexy men baiting each other relentlessly to a conclusion which is never in doubt.

What it is, of course, is art and at the same time a metaphor for art. It is also ‘play’. It is also ‘fun’. It is also serious and exact and perfect. All those things and all at once.

The quintessence of such ‘making’ is easily found. The Stewart Granger vehicle Scaramouche (1952) features an extended, balletic, inventive and persistent sword fight between Granger as Andre Moreau and Mel Ferrer as the fiendish cad Marquis de Maynes. The sequence is a masterpiece in itself – compelling, beautiful, accurate, menacing, credible.

But there is an equally satisfying ‘training’ sequence, where Moreau seeks to be skilled up as a swordsman to match the mortal talents of de Maynes. The character of the tutor on film, Doutreval of Dijon, delivers one of the most memorable movie lines of all time: ‘A sword is like a bird. If you clutch it too tightly, you choke it – too lightly ... and it flies away.’

Even at seven years old, the magic of that formula struck home as forcefully as ‘abracadabra’ or ‘Open Sesame’. Even now – try it out – it acts as an oath to bind rogues among artists the glint in whose eyes has been ignited by dreams of an épée puncturing a doublet or a silk stocking.

What of it?

The symbiosis of physical dexterity, agility, co-ordination and psychic precision, formal virtuosity, breadth of vision, forensic accuracy and fluidity of pace and rhythm, is clear; exhilarating, in fact, lending to activities often caricatured as fey and effete (poetry, fiction), a new vigour, a masculine legitimacy ...

That’s all nonsense, of course, but the something lithe, slippery and serpentine about fencing is attractive to loons like me. Portly middle age beside impossibly limber acrobatics is hypnotising, a point illustrated by the late darts commentator Sid Waddell’s many coloratura runs on the least likely combatants. We know that “At 33, Alexander of Macedonia sat down and cried salt tears because he had no more worlds to conquer. Eric Bristow is 27:” also, that “if William Tell could take an apple off your head, Phil Taylor could take out a processed pea” and “If we'd had Taylor at Hastings against the Normans, they'd have gone home”. The access of gracelessness to the beauty of geometry and aerodynamics, which are the gifts of snooker and darts, is epitomised in those swallows described by Andrew Young:

All in one instant everywhere

Jugglers with their own bodies in the air.

The proximity of artistic fashioning to the precisions of sporting prowess exposes a certain excitement which has all the joys of randomness but which arrives not by accident but by design and inevitably every time other conditions (of practice, training, experience, daring, intensity, adversity and a strangely exhausting love) are met.

Is this not one of the several reasons Claudia Rankine set Serena Williams at the centre of Citizen? Success itself cannot erase the footprints it leaves behind arriving at the point of victory.

The word ‘win’ finds its roots in both joy and grace. Serena’s grace comes because she won’t be forced into stillness; she won’t accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back; she won’t go gently into the white light of victory. Her excellence doesn’t mask the struggle it takes to achieve each win.

The great poet is drawn to the supremely great athlete, into her very company, by a magnetism which is mesmerising, radically enabling and thrilling merely to be next to – everything, in short, we hope will be the case in the presence of that thing we recognise in an instant: greatness. “Every knee must bend, every head must bow, every tongue must confess: thou art the greatest, Muhammad Ali.”

It is also the player as hero or heroine; the poet as agent and actor – embodying the largest themes, of classical and mythical stature; becoming gods; at the very least, magicians, exercising transformative representational power on behalf of millions.

No myth I run barefoot ...

No myth Mary Decker denies a doping charge.

No myth my neighbor stands behind her screen for hours, watching the street for signs of other. When she cracks the door, I don't know if it's to let air in or out.

Lynn Melnick’s poem ‘Zola Budd Is No Myth’ is about another encounter rank with race and prejudice, but also replete with the technics of physical stress, the naked feet pressed to the surface – “I leave what you leave – dust”. Mortality, in fact. Death.

In the ancient ‘Ulster Cycle’ of tales, Cú Chulainn – ‘Hound of Ulster’ – counts among his superpowers possession of a thermonuclear spear: the ‘gae bolga’, meaning ‘spear of death’. Sort of. The hero was trained exclusively in its use by the warrior woman Scathach – his Doutreval of Dijon.

The fetish of Irish ‘national myth’ never quite gripped my imagination, largely thanks to the relentless charmlessness of all the protagonists - in the end, Cú Chulainn in effect murders his boyhood friend Ferdia with the gae bolga, the only implement that permits him to do so.

But broadsword or scimitar? Honour or wit? Reliability or subtlety?

In our latter days, one would be disappointed if one expected the most eminent sage or mage to flirt with the art of the Games. Seamus Heaney, though alert beyond any of the moderns other than R S Thomas to the presence of the possibility of ‘miracle’, and easy with journeying through the fourth wall, that (we think) two-way screen separating us from the underworld and its protocols, is not especially attuned to the sporting world.

His poem on playing football in the dark as a child is really another version of searching for the black cat in the dark room, a metaphor for the hunt for poems rather than an engagement with the physics of movement.

Nonetheless, surely his poem ‘The Diviner’, about the rural charm of dowsing for water, gets as close to the sorcery of the magician’s wand and, by extension, the javelin, the dart, the bat, the club; even, the racquet or the croquet mallet; by consubstantiation, then, to the cutlass, the bare bodkin, the shank, the claymore, the poniard, the stiletto, the foil, the skean, the sabre, the dirk, the scimitar, Thin Lizzy’s rapier? Indeed, Excalibur itself?

The bystanders would ask to have a try.

He handed them the rod without a word.

It lay dead in their grasp till nonchalantly

He gripped the expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.

This piece first appeared in issue xx of Iota magazine, xx 2018

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