In many British towns of note, there is a building devoted to the British Legion.
A charity which supports the armed forces past and present, encouraging remembrance and comradeship, the Royal British Legion is there in our town, a large red brick focal point for the men who have defended our shores.
It is a well known Standing Place.
Yes: outside the Legion men stand around and watch the world go by in a small town. It is a comfortable kind of happiness.
This standing, this watching the world go by, it seems to come more easily with age. Young people do not often have standing places. They scurry from place to place and time to time. They do not often stand and stare, or carefully observe the small detail which best distinguishes the living from the dead.
When the word ‘stage ‘ first came to be, sometime in the thirteenth century, it was born of a vulgar latin word : staticum. The standing place.
And two wildly different polarisations of it were subsequently born. First, stage, that showy, Dionysian theatricality which takes place on a flat platform above the rabble. A stage lifts a tiny sliver of life above the melee and holds it in the limelight, artfully scripted and meticulously crafted. Is it reality? Is it real life reflected?
In the same way that our perceptions are refracted through a prism, it is. The stage might be called pretend-life, yet how does it draw our deepest fears and desires into the light, unless it represents what it draws out?
The second meaning is more a matter of degree. A stage is a single step in an ongoing process.
Thus every recipe has stages, each of which holds its own challenges. The whipping of the eggs, the folding of the sugar, the slow inexorable heating, all are vital but separate stages in the creation of the perfect meringue.
It is on the lips of the morose Jaques, in As You Like It, that Shakespeare draws the two meanings back together again after nearly four hundred splintered years.
All the world’s a stage, he says. And all the men and women merely players.
Life is a theatrical thing, he says. But he harps back to the different steps in life through which a man might pass.
Ah, Jaques. His stages of man are dour and joyless, though expressed with such persuasive artistry that our mind fills with pictures: from a “whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school” to the old sixth-stage man, for whom the hose of a young man would be far too roomy for his “shrunk shank”.
Jaques adopts his own standing place, and watches life, and draws his sour conclusions.
Yet we have all stood in a standing place, and watched.
A lifetime ago, it seems, I left the Cornish holiday cottage where I was staying and walked in a storm to the cliffs which frowned in purple half-light and barred the way to the waves which rose up like great giants to lash them.
That was a standing place. I know, as I look back. I looked and I decided that place would be mine to live in, one day. And eventually, it was, though it proved very costly.
And now I can feel a standing-place beckoning. But I’m afraid to look.
For Jaques was not all talk. There are stages in life which are a little cruel, and I will not stare them in the face just yet.
All the world is a standing place. And all the men and women in it bit parts: walk-ons for four score years and ten. One man in his time plays many parts.
But in the end, it’s all one.
Written in response to Side View’s Weekend Theme: All the World’s a stage, which you can find here