And we are in the heart of Twixtmas: those days between Christmas and the New Year.
At times like these one needs a pick-me-up; something to raise the spirits as we look introspectively towards the milestone of a New Year. The sands of time trickle with inevitability through our life’s hour glass, and now I have half a lifetime’s Winters and Summers to look back upon, when once I had only twenty one.
The Shakespearean heroines of old would have turned to their fool at a time like this.
Take the beautiful Olivia, in that magical romance of Shakespeare’s, Twelfth NIght. She is lost: a widow, who mourns and will see nothing of the bright side of life.
The fool has displeased Olivia. Yet he barters his way back dextrously, as he has promised he will. He has a clever mind with a deep rooted affection for his mistress, and a habit of alienating those he despises. “Now you see, sir,” she berates him affectionately, “how your fooling grows old, and people dislike it.”
He does not stop telling the truth. He does not curb his distaste for Olivia’s arrogant, humourless steward, nor does he disguise his affection for the lady’s inebriate uncle. He tells it how it is, sharp-bladed, witty and sardonic.
I would love such a fool as that.
Fools, it is said, disappeared with Oliver Cromwell. A political Malvolio, he had no truck with entertaining folk and laughing unnecessarily. And when Charles II returned, well, he patronised all the arts and the theatre; but he did not keep a professional fool close. Perhaps he did not care for someone who would know him that well, and speak that plainly.
A good fool could keep anyone sweet: even Henry VIII. Will Somers was his fool, a wit of such magnitude that whilst wives were being bumped off and rejected left right and centre. Will kept his job from the moment he was presented to the King in 1525 to Henry’s death. Indeed, he was so honoured it was said he could make Mary laugh, and his last professional engagement was at the coronation of Elizabeth I.
The crux of the matter is this: life, for a person with great power, is a lonely business. But somehow the fool was sanctioned to slip past the pomp and ceremony and speak to the powerful one with frank, clever sincerity.
A fool was the closest someone like that had to a friend.
Today I jumped in the car and motored through lashing rain up to Hampton Court, where England’s foremost fool was making crowds chuckle.
For we have a fool, still. More than 350 years after Muckle John -Charles I’s jester – bowed out, English Heritage held a competiton for a National State Jester.
And they found the perfect candidate for the job. Kester the Jester was crowned State Jester.
But something happened which could only happen in England: the Guild of Jesters intervened.
This is not an ancient guild. It was formed in 1996, and formalised in 1999. WIth around 30 members, the Guild’s representatives complained that there had been scant notice for auditions for this prized post; and there was no approval by the government for the title of state jester.
English Heritage gave in. These days their fool is called the English Heritage National Jester. And there he was on a rainy Twixtmas afternoon in the Clock Court at Hampton Court: Peterkin the Fool. Unlike his predecessors, He can rest easy that his patrons will not cut off his head, or worse, if he ventures a comment which is de trop.
He knows his trade. Today he mixed the driest of English wit with bawdy slapstick in a routine which involved recruiting onlookers to help him mount a pair of stilts. He affably maligned those who supported him and they all loved it, there in the damp grey dwindling English light.
Nothing like a fool to chase those Winter blues away.