EDWIN ARNOLD (1512-1588); joined the Navy at the age of twelve, wanted to explore the world. Sold into slavery. But saw countries beyond imagining.
No, we are not nearly there yet.
Yes, it is a long way.
Eight hours. It isn’t so bad. Eight hours, think of it in terms of – how long are those Spongebob Squarepants of yours? Half an hour? Think of the flight as lasting sixteen Spongebob Squarepants. You’re always watching Spongebob Squarepants, sweetie, you can do sixteen standing on your head!
No, I’m not cross with you. I couldn’t… How could… No. It’s just. Edie. This is a big thing, Edie, what we’re doing, and yes. Yes, it is a long way.
But we’re lucky. There was a time, you know, when it would have taken us ages to travel to another country. Back in the days of history! We would have had to go on a ship, it would have taken months. And it would have been very dangerous, there would have been waves, and sharks, and, and things. We might have drowned, sweetie. Ssh, no, you’re safe, it’s all right.
Months. Just think of how many Spongebob Squarepants that would be!
Edie? If you take off your headphones, I’ll tell you a little story. Edie, do you. Yes. That’s it. No, you can put them on again afterwards.
Once upon a time. The world wasn’t like it is today. It was bigger, and more mysterious. There was still so much of it to explore. People would know about the country they lived in, of course, it was beneath their feet. And they might know of the one next to it. They’d fight this other country from time to time, just to keep themselves busy. But beyond that, who knew? – and the wise men would stare down the beaches and look out into the distance, across all that blue and that wet, and think that there might be out there worlds of giants and pygmies, where the people were different colours, where wizards could control the elements and emperors lived in the sky. On the maps, for the places they didn’t know, they would write ‘Here Be Dragons’. Because, as far as they knew, there might have been dragons, and in that mysterious part of not-knowing-anything-ness, that’s where the dragons might have lived.
No, there weren’t really dragons, sweetie. Or perhaps. Perhaps there were. Yes.
People thought the world was flat. And it might as well have been, that’s all they could see of it. And it was flat, I think, maybe we only bent it to a curve when we started running over the side of it, maybe it only took on a shape when we needed it to. Yes, yes, there were dragons.
Once upon a time the people got tired of fighting their neighbours, they wanted someone new to fight with. So they decided to go across those oceans, and find what magical lands were out there. They decided to invent Explorers.
And these explorers went off in their ships. They braved the waves and they outran the sharks. It took them months to get anywhere. Sometimes they didn’t see land for days! Sometimes they ran out of food, because the ships were only so big, and they crammed so many explorers on to them, and they had to eat each other. Sometimes they had to eat their very own legs.
And it was such fun for a while. They discovered America, and Australia, and Africa too, I think. I expect. They began to fill in their maps. There were fewer and fewer places they didn’t know about, fewer and fewer places where the dragons could be hiding.
Once upon a time the explorers found a brand new country. Another land mass they could tick off their list, like that, see, tick! Truth was, they’d discovered so much land by this time they thought they’d seen everything, it was very hard to get them excited. And they all got back on board the ship, they’d just set off to find some new place to visit, when someone noticed something glinting on the beach, something catching the sunlight, so they put on the brakes and went into reverse.
It was what they had dreamed of. The pebbles on the beach were jewels. The very grains of sand, little specks of golden gold. There was a sweet perfume to the air, and the sun beat down most warmly. They thought this must be Heaven. They thought, at last, they’d sailed right up to Heaven, where everything was perfect.
This new land had a king, and the king had a daughter. She was a beautiful princess. Her skin was soft and smooth, and rich like butterscotch. Her eyes were pebble jewels. Her hair, strands of sandy golden gold. And the explorer captain asked the king for her hand in marriage. Because he’d worked out, you see, that the king her father would die one day, and the land would need a new king, and that king might as well be him.
But the princess’ heart was not an easy thing to win. Because she had an Ironic Glance.
You know what an ironic glance is, sweetie. Of course you do. It’s the look a woman gives when she sees right through a man, and knows him for what he is. It’s the look all men fear, because it cuts to the very soul of us. The look that says, I’m not taking any more of your lies or any more of your bullshit. (Sorry.)
You know what it is. Your mummy has an ironic glance. Your mummy has used it on me enough. Quite a lot recently, it’s barely been off her face.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess with an ironic glance. It was a glance so exact and so incisive that it was known and feared throughout the land. Even the king was frightened of it, and he was a powerful monarch, he wasn’t frightened by facial expressions easily. And one day the king went to visit his daughter, and he was nervous that the glance would be turned upon him, he feared his daughter, like all fathers fear their daughters. Because who can say, deep down, what sort of person they’ll really end up? Who knows what they’re ever thinking?
(No, sweetie, I have no idea what you’re thinking. But I’m not afraid of you. You and me, we’re the exceptions.)
The king explained his predicament, cogently and precisely. Explorers had come to their land. At first all they’d wanted was worthless rubbish. They wanted the pebbles from the beach, they wanted to sift the colours from the sand. But now they wanted something precious. They wanted love. And they came to ask for it with swords, and wooden sticks that made a bang. The king did not like the wooden sticks, not if they were pointing in the wrong direction. And besides, it wasn’t all veiled threats, they promised stuff too, oh, such stuff – Diplomatic Relations, and Trade Agreements, and entry into the Hanseatic League, whatever that might be – it all sounded most exciting, and it would elevate their little country into a Major Power on the World Stage. “I think you should marry,” said the king. “I think you should marry, and we’ll all be so much better off.”
“I love you,” then added the king, and the princess gave him a glance that was pretty ironic, and the king knew that he should shut up.
“If he really wants me, he can have me,” said the princess. “If he thinks his love is up to it.”
The explorer brought her many gifts. He said they were symbols of the great love he felt for her, and the great respect he had for her charming countryfolk. He stood before her, in his finery, and in his armour, and held his swordstick erect with pride, and stroked at his beard, cut into the Italianate style that was then the fashion, and he smiled. He gave her a necklace, but the princess could see it for what it was – stones from the seaside threaded together with string. He gave her his finest stallion, and bowls of exotic fruits, but the princess could see them for what they were too – this man hadn’t created the horse, he hadn’t conceived it nor had he weened it nor had he bred it, and no more had he done the fruit – these were not of him, just things he had once taken and was now giving away again – and besides, the princess could see that the horse would one day die, the fruit would rot. He gave her a little slave boy, a young lad who had gone to sea to make his fortune, a whelp who had scrubbed the decks and climbed the rigging and sang treble in the sea shanties. A boy who had crossed the oceans but who would never see home again.
What’s his name? I don’t know. What do you think? Eddie. Oh yes, clever. Yes, I see what you did there.
The princess liked Eddie the slave boy. She decided this gift she would keep. But for the rest, the explorer could take them back again, they were nothing to her. And she turned upon the explorer the most ironic glance she could muster.
The explorer stopped stroking his beard. His smile withered, then died. His swordstick drooped, never to stand to attention again. He began to stammer. “Right,” he said. “Right. Well. I’m sorry. Sorry to have, um, bothered you.”
And the next day he and his crew set sail for home.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess, and she was famed throughout the world for the irony of her glances. And lords and dukes, earls and knights, little princelings and larger princelings, indeed princelings of all shapes and sizes – all of them thought they had the charm and the wit to win her heart. They would win too a kingdom boasting treasures beyond imagining, that is right – but for most of them the quest itself to enflame the passions of la belle dame sans merci, this was what drove them on.
Now the kingdom was on a map it was easy to find. So scores of foreigners set across the seas to try their luck. Delegates from Spain, from Portugal, from France and the Holy Roman Empire, delegates from the Papal See, or with the authority of Allah and the Ottoman sultans, all, all set sail. So many ships crowded the harbour they had to queue up on arrival, the potentates had to take tickets and wait their turns. And one by one they were led into the princess’ presence. Her little slave boy, quickly grown to manhood now, beat a sceptre upon the ground and called for silence as one by one he announced their names. What was his name again, Eddie, oh yes.
How they tried to prove their love! How they tried to melt that cynical heart. The tsar of all the Russias promised for her sake he would set the world on fire, he would make a single empire they could rule together. She told him the smell of copper on his breath displeased her. A Sicilian senator suggested that the love he felt could transform reality, that from now on he would live on that love and that love alone, not another morsel of food would pass his lips until she agreed to be his. It took him only three weeks to starve. Someone chopped off his own ear to impress her – it didn’t – another sent his own wife’s head – she found that mildly distasteful. One man recited for three whole days and three whole nights an epic poem of a hundred thousand stanzas, telling of her beauty and his own need to possess it; under interrogation he admitted he’d copied it all from a book.
One old man came, he said, knowing he hadn’t a hope in hell, but just wanting to look upon her before he died. The ironic glance she shot at him burst his heart where he stood. But it’s said he died with a smile on his face.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess. And every day, after yet another man tried his love, and was found wanting, and was shown out of her chambers – or, in extreme cases, carried out – every day, when the suitors were dismissed, her face would soften. Her eyes would brim with tears. And she would wonder why man was so inconstant and so weak, and why for all the thousands of them who had proclaimed their love not a single one was sincere. She wondered if anyone would ever love her. She worried that it was something wrong with her. And no one saw her cry. No one, except Eddie, who stood in the doorway, pretending he was just the furniture, or pretending to be invisible, pretending to be anything except a fellow human being – stood there all the while and said not a word.
And the pebble jewels had been crushed to glass beneath a thousand foot treads. And the golden gold sands were now speckled with dirt, and oil, and soot, and shit. With each new visit from the civilised world of explorers and delegates and people who traded in nutmeg, a little bit of the magic went. And had there been any dragons, and there may have been dragons, sweetie, don’t forget, they had crawled away to die.
The princess became a queen. The king had grown older and older and older and then suddenly had stopped growing any older at all, and neither his trade agreements or his place upon the World Stage had saved him. The queen’s coronation was a lavish one, but her courtiers were displeased; a queen without a king to rule her was a weak sort of monarch, the country needed the strength only a man could offer. Parliament asked her to wed someone – anyone – wed, and procreate, and produce an heir, and save the dynasty. She said she would. She said she’d try. She wanted love, she said – but she couldn’t turn off the ironic glance. It hung upon her face at all times now, and its gaze was ever piercing.
There came one day a delegate – a Turk, I think it was, or maybe it was an Irish – and the slave beat his sceptre and announced the suitor as usual, and the princeling stood forward, and cleared his throat, and stroked at his beard cut into the Austro-Hungarian style that was then the fashion, and the queen turned her face towards him in ironic preparation – and then, the man laughed, he just laughed. He said he didn’t want to marry this woman after all. Not now he’d seen her. He said her beauty had been exaggerated. She was an old crone now, he said, her face was wrinkled, her cheeks sagged down to her shoulders like dewlaps. Her pebble jewel eyes were now cold and dead, her golden gold hair was grey. The queen turned the glance upon him, made it as ironic as she could, she squeezed ever last bit of irony into it. And the man didn’t care, he didn’t stop laughing. She told him she wouldn’t marry him. “Too right you won’t!” he said. She told him to leave her kingdom. “No,” he said, “I think I’ll stick around for a while.”
And that is when the armies started arriving. From all over the world, seizing all the booty they could. There were no pebbles now worth the taking, but there was gold in the treasury to plunder, there was silver in the church. There were people, lots of people, strong people, women, children, fine young men, all could be taken as slaves. From her palace the queen glared at all these antics with an irony so caustic it could have stripped paint – but it did nothing to stop them.
The queen shut herself up in her palace. Foreign enemies were invading, her subjects were in revolt. She locked the doors against them all. She sat upon her throne. Her face, now defeated, now listless, at last was slack and void of expression.
All alone. Except for her slave. Who was now old himself, with wrinkles of his own, and dewlapped cheeks, and hair white and thinning. Who had seen each and every one of her ironic glances over countless years, and had built up an immunity to their poison. He saw the glances for what they were. A cry for love. A cry, at least, for something true.
Eddie had always loved her. Right from the day when he had been the one gift she thought worth accepting. But he was no prince to declare his love, he wasn’t even a free man. Yet now, with the angry mob outside, screaming its intention to tear his mistress into pieces, with the battering at the door growing ever louder, with the splintering and cracking as the wood began to break, he felt at last he was her equal.
And he walked the steps to her throne. She looked up at him in surprise. He cupped her face in his hands. He looked deeply into that face. She looked right back at him, judging – but he didn’t flinch from it. He looked at her face hard, at every aspect of it, sizing it up – in all its age, in all it had been misused, seeing its innocence, seeing just how soft irony could be. And they looked at each other for a long time. For the longest time. And didn’t kiss – not yet, not yet – as the smashing at the door got louder still, with the smell of fire and the smell of blood impossible to ignore – and yet, and yet – it was possible, they did ignore it, they ignored it all. They looked into each other’s eyes, and saw themselves mirrored there, and saw the love.
Yes. That’s where it ends.
It hasn’t got a moral. Not everything has to have a moral. This isn’t Spongebob Squarepants, this is history. For Christ’s sake.
I’m not cross.
Edie. I’m not. Edie. Edie.
All right, sweetie. You want a happier ending?
Once upon a time there was a beautiful queen, and her dearest love. They were in deadly peril. The door to the throne room was giving way. “I can save us,” said the slave. “But you have to trust me. Do you trust me?” “Yes,” said the queen. And the slave opened up a secret passageway, one that only he knew about – oh, over the years of beating his sceptre and announcing suitors he’d learned a few things – and inside it was… a dragon. A sleeping dragon. The very last one left alive. The queen stroked its neck, and the dragon stirred and woke, it trilled with pleasure – do you know what a dragon trill sounds like? Ttrrrrr. And the dragon lifted its mighty head, and unfolded its mighty wings. “Come on,” said the slave, and together they climbed on to the dragon’s back, and there they kissed, at last they kissed, there the kiss made sense, at last it felt right. And the ironic glance faded from the queen’s face, and she was young and beautiful once more. “I’ve always loved you,” said the slave; “I love you too,” said his queen; “Ttrrrrr,” said the dragon. And the dragon rose into the air – it burst through the roof – debris rained down on the rioters as they burst into the room, and shook their fists up at the queen in impotent fury, and how the queen laughed – and there was no irony to that laugh, and at the sound of it even the angriest of the mob felt his heart grow soft. And the dragon flew into the night sky, flew on, flew to a place where man had not yet set foot, to a land still unmapped and uncorrupted, ‘here be dragons’.
Yes, I think you’ll be able to do an ironic glance, sweetie. I think you’ll manage one very well. You’re nearly there already. You clearly don’t believe a word I’ve told you.
You’ll have an ironic glance all of your own, my sweetheart, my dearest dear, and it’ll stop men’s hearts in their chests, it’ll bring down civilisations.
I love you. Hold on to that, I love you. And I love you whatever, no matter how much you tire of me when I grow too old, no matter how hard or cruel you become. I’ll love you and I’ll always love you and I’ll never leave you and I’ll never die.
No, we are not nearly there yet. But we’re nearer than we were.
You’ll see Mummy again, I promise. Just not for a while.