MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. As classics of English literature go, Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" stands out for any number of reasons. But today we're going to zero in on just one - that it is shockingly bawdy. The medieval English mind, it seems, was a million miles away from, say, Jane Austen's stuffy mannered world.
NPR's Rob Gifford is traveling the same road as Chaucer's pilgrims from London to Canterbury. He's meeting some of the modern-day Britons who live along that road, and he's taking stock of just how much British society has changed over the years. Today, he hears from a number of locals in the county of Kent about how Britain, after a long stint of good behavior, is returning to its bawdy Chaucerian ways.
ROB GIFFORD: Visitors are often surprised by the phenomenal changes in modern Britain. Whether it's the large-scale immigration or the binge drinking on a Saturday night, it doesn't always feel quite how you were expecting if you grew up watching Masterpiece Theater. So it's particularly heartwarming when you stumble across a genuine eccentric Englishman of the old school, especially one who has memorized the entire Canterbury Tales in Middle English.
BLOCK: My name is Trevor Eaton. For 22 years I've been performing Chaucer in schools, universities, pubs. What I'm going to do now, I'm going to do a performance of "The Reeve's Tale."
GIFFORD: Since he wasn't due to perform anywhere as I was passing through, retired academic Trevor Eaton has offered to perform his show in his own living room just for me.
BLOCK: Well hath the miller varnished his head. Full pale he was, for-drunken, and nought red. He yoxeth and he speaketh through the nose...
GIFFORD: Using empty wine bottles placed on a table to represent characters, and green shoeboxes as the beds, Eaton acts out in Middle English the medieval bedroom farce that is "The Reeve's Tale."
BLOCK: ...so was her jolly whistle well ywet.
GIFFORD: You don't need to understand all the Middle English to be reminded of just how bawdy it is.
BLOCK: If he had reached a scale of indecency, then "The Miller's Tale" would hit jackpot every time and "The Reeve's Tale" comes not very far behind.
GIFFORD: And in that sense, says Eaton, Geoffrey Chaucer from the 14th century, would recognize today's Britain much more than he would, say, Victorian times.
BLOCK: The crudity that is rife in England now is back to Chaucerian times and it's what people would regard as much, much, much worse than Chaucer's times. It is there in a way that it's never been in English society before. I mean, it's there overwhelmingly now.
GIFFORD: In 1934, Cole Porter wrote those immortal lines, in olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes. No doubt every generation laments the loose morals of the next, but it sometimes feels that Cole Porter song could be the theme tune of modern Britain. And as if to prove that point, what do the nice middle class ladies of Royal Tunbridge Wells, a conservative stronghold just off the Canterbury Road, getting up to on a Thursday night? Ballroom dancing perhaps? Well, not quite.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GIFFORD: Thirty-seven-year-old advertising executive Emma Mitchell is giving a pole dancing lesson to a group of young women in the side room of a pub. This isn't some seedy gentlemen's club, it's all very middle class. Doctors, lawyers, professionals all come to Emma's classes.
U: (singing) Baby, take off your clothes.
BLOCK: Okay. So, you're going to throw that leg, the outside leg up. And you're looking at making contact with the pole above your thigh. And then (unintelligible) tucking that inside leg up behind the pole.
GIFFORD: Mitchell has a master's degree in 18th century English literature. Four years ago, she was a school teacher. But when a long-term relationship ended, she decided to reinvent herself as a part-time teacher of what she calls pole fitness. She and her friends also perform in burlesque shows across Britain.
Mitchell is part of a broader sexualization of British culture that's taken place over the last decade. It's no more difficult to open a lap dancing club in Britain these days than it is to open a bar. In fact, as I discover at the end of my trip, there's a lap dancing club opposite Canterbury Cathedral. Emma Mitchell says it's just the country getting back to its Chaucerian roots.
BLOCK: My specialty is actually 18th century English literature. And one of the reasons I love the 18th century is because it's pre-Victorian. And no, there was none of that ridiculous prudery or, you know, niceties about sex. You know, sex is part of everyday life for everybody. And we're slowly coming out of the dark ages of the Victorian Era.
GIFFORD: Needless to say, not everyone sees it that way. Feminists and conservatives alike have opposed the lax laws on establishments like lap dancing clubs, and lamented the general trend in public morals and on the television. But that doesn't seem to faze people like 27-year-old new mother Laura Ansty(ph), who emerges sweating from the pole dancing class.
This is Tunbridge Wells. This is the heart of rural conservative England. I mean you should be...
BLOCK: Yes, and I am very conservative. And, you know, I am conservative.
GIFFORD: You should be arranging bridge parties or playing lawn tennis or something. Organizing pole dancing classes? I mean it's not exactly Jane Austen, is it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: Maybe not. But I think Britain is not Jane Austen. You know, it's a bit more grubby now.
GIFFORD: I leave the pole dancers of Royal Tunbridge Wells and head back to the Canterbury Road, passing through some beautiful Kent countryside, those gentle rolling hills that are so typical of rural Britain. There are no mountains here or steep gorges, nothing too dangerous at all. It's all just very, very beautiful and seems so very separate from the cities with their immigration and their lap dancing clubs. And the pastimes here are more traditional, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BUGLE AND HORSES)
BLOCK: I'm Sarah Leggat and I'm the secretary of the West Street Tickham Hunt. And we're meeting today on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. All right, get the trailer open. This is Barney who is 17 years old. He's the equivalent of me, young middle-aged.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GIFFORD: Sarah and her horse, Barney, are going out fox hunting today with a group of about 20 other riders. But there's a catch. Fox hunting was banned by the Labour Party government in 2005. So they rush about the countryside on their horses but don't catch foxes, or at least that's what they say.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
GIFFORD: They're all very angry that ancient British traditions, not just fox hunting, are being attacked by the government and by the multicultural new nature of much of Britain.
BLOCK: These rural communities and farmers, in particular, have been marginalized. They have stopped a very ancient pastime and they have stopped hunt doing what they were set up to do, which is to control foxes. The government is a very urban-based government and really doesn't seem to understand the country, the way of life.
GIFFORD: Everyone here is working to get the ban on fox hunting repealed. For now, though, they'll carry on hunting even if not chasing a fox. Somehow, I was expecting them all to be what are known here as toffs, upper-class English types with plumy accents stammering their way into a Monty Python sketch.
But the huntsman, Paul Saunders, sitting erect on his horse, holding his bugle, dressed in his bright red coat, says as far as class is concerned, Britain has completely changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: No, I'm definitely not a toff. Years ago, it was a sport for the gentry. Those times are passed on and you're getting normal people. Farmers, plumbers, electricians, all that sort of thing all involved in hunting.
GIFFORD: Enchanting to the other hunters today, it's true. They're from all walks of life, all classes, if you like. Although they all say class doesn't really matter anymore in Britain. And there's a feeling that they all seem more British than anyone else I've met, as though globalization and immigration hadn't intruded into their little corner of rural England. But I can't help thinking that the idea of fox hunting without a fox must be a metaphor for something in the confused discussion about being British these days.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BUGLE)
GIFFORD: But before I can ask the question, the huntsman blows his bugle again, the horses turn onto the country lane, and then they're off into the field, out across the green, green English countryside.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, on the Isle of Sheppey, not far from the Canterbury Road.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow, Rob reaches Canterbury where he hears about the possible breakup of the United Kingdom and why Brits just can't seem to be European.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.