Day 69 – conundrum

February 16, 2010

‘John Crow with a riddle in a madcap rhyme
here to reveal my Mystery
in London Town at the End of Time
John he go down on History.’

from John Crow’s Riddle, The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable (Oberon Books)

These are the first words John Crow speaks in the play. A crowd of unquiet spirits, including him,  The Goose, the Bishop of Winchester and a Band of Devils, have just emerged through a gaping rip in a huge map of medieval Bankside showing The Liberty of the Clink. This rip in the veil, in the very fabric of reality, has been opened up at the Crossbones Graveyard by an unwitting gang of underground tunnellers working on the Jubilee Line Extension.

The Goose introduces herself in her own song:

‘I was born a Goose of Southwark
By the Grace of Mary Overie
Whose Bishop gives me licence
To Sin within The Liberty…’

She claims the protection of her Bishop “within The Liberty”, effectively a semi-autonomous manor, within which for some five centuries the world’s oldest profession was licensed by the Church:

‘Over ‘ere’s the Ward Without
The Law of London City
Where Whores are subject only to
Fair Southwark and Her Liberty.’

Her song segues into a John Crow’s riddle, beginning with the four lines which began this post. They are also the first words John Crow spoke in his own right, as it were, when I first transcribed his “riddle” on the night of 23rd November 1996. The composition, or perhaps more accurately the reception,  in a single night, of that first Vision Book, The Book of The Goose, was the seed from which flowered all the works collectively known as The Southwark Mysteries.

The fourth line of John Crow’s Riddle is much more than mere bawdy wordplay. I’ve heard others perform this poem who’ve unconsciously “corrected”  the line, reducing it to an obvious, straightforward statement: ‘John he go down IN history’.  This is, of course, one of the associations of the phrase – that John Crow is staking his own peculiar claim to immortality, simply by uttering his prophesy.  Yes, but that’s not it!

‘John he go down ON history.’

The playful allusion is far from gratuitous. The wordplay makes the connection with the oral tradition in which John Crow is working and with his identification as a ‘Whore’s Prophet’ and initiate of The Goose’s secret arts. By performing this act (generally performed to pleasure another, without regard to any of the justifications for carnal activity that are bandied about: propagation of the species, the need for men to “spread their genes”), by literally “going down on” the body of history (or, in this case  – Her Story), our Crow Shaman is seeking to elicit a response, a shudder, a shaking, perhaps even a full-blown sequence of multiple orgasms. If we then revert to a symbolic or metaphorical reading, we shall see that this transpersonal orgasm reverberates throughout the work, where it is frequently identified with an apocalyptic transformation:

‘Take a Goose and a Crow
in a Bankside show,

a Mad Tom and he Mad Maud

Take a Rig to rip
and a Whore to strip

and a Shaman to go down
on her.

But don’t fret, my pet,
it’s a family show.

There’s nothing to upset
yer Mum.

It’ll all be very
tastefully done

when We

From The Bankside Book of Revelation, The Southwark Mysteries

Yes,  The Southwark Mysteries reaffirms the primacy of sexual energy as the driving force for our spiritual journey in this flesh.

And when I glance at the tabloid newspapers, with their remorseless objectification and sexualisation of young women, with their snaps of “wardrobe malfunctions” and “upskirt shots”, their titillating exposes of infidelities and indiscretions – all juxtaposed with well-rehearsed cries of moral outrage…

And then compare that with The Southwark Mysteries, in which the life-force is portrayed as playful and consensual and empowering – without for one moment denying the many ways in which it can be perverted by the desire to control, exploit and use others for our own gratification – and where humanity is celebrated, despite all its undeniable crimes against itself, as being worthy of compassion, healing and forgiveness…

Then I have to say that, though it may not sound so sexy to say so, The Southwark Mysteries is a deeply moral – though not, I hope,  moralistic – work.

Yes, The Southwark Mysteries is about sex, and death – but not in the alienated, obsessive-compulsive ways we’ve become used to. If there is anything shocking about this work it’s that it embraces sex, and death, as entirely natural and integral to life itself, intrinsic to the human experience and a vital component of  our spiritual lives.

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