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Sing When You’re Winning

In these strange times, it’s hard to feel motivated. Plans get scuppered, so we can be forgiven for thinking that there’s no point in trying. I have battled that demon most days over the past months and, when I woke today wanting to do something creative, I wondered if I could defeat it. How will it turn out today, I wondered? Today is October 25th – what the old Christian calendar used to call St. Crispin’s Day. And it is a day that History tells us can go either way!

On this day in 1415, the Battle of Agincourt was fought. Shakespeare later immortalised Henry V’s victory over the French with the famous ‘band of brothers’ speech, which has been embarrassingly hijacked by SkySports a few too many times.

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Coincidentally, it was on October 25th that the “Charge of the Light Brigade” took place (in 1854 during the Crimean War). That day didn’t turn out quite so well for the English but it also inspired a poet’s response.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
   Rode the six hundred.

Tennyson’s poem, although heroic and proud, is never appropriated by patriotism in the same way as the Band of Brother’s speech. Perhaps this says more about patriotism than it does about the arts. Patriots sing when they’re winning. Artists feel the pain and speak it anyway.


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