In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

The Parrot’s liberty to speak


Here is my reading of a poem about a truth-telling parrot in a cage. It is based on a sixteenth century poem called “Speak, Parrot” by John Skelton. I think the parrot has much to say to us Britons now, in 2015, in the weeks following the Tory win here.


The reading is accompanied by photographs taken in and around the Tyndale Monument, a tower on the edge of the Cotswolds, overlooking the Bristol Channel. From the top, you can see for miles. But you are surrounded by bars, just like the parrot.


It seems a good setting for the poem. For Skelton’s parrot is a bird of paradise behind bars. In turn, the parrot is our heart and soul, the truth, caged. But paradoxically, the poet may also need a cage for protection from the repercussions of his truth-telling. So the monument works as both cage and sanctuary for the “popinjay royale.”


But there are other reasons why the Tyndale Monument is suitable. It honours William Tyndale, the first man to translate the Christian New Testament into English. Until then, the bible could only be read in Latin, with the result that the poor and uneducated could not read it for themselves. Tyndale risked and lost his life through doing this work. The authorities caught up with him and burnt him at the stake.

Nicholas Tyndale


William Tyndale is burned at the stake in Belgium in 1536, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, published in 1563.


All this took place in the reign of Henry VIIIth. Skelton, Tyndale’s contemporary, had died less than ten years earlier – of natural causes. But he too had been a risk-taker. For, amongst much else, his poem “Speak, Parrot” incorporates a sustained verbal onslaught on Cardinal Wolsey who, for some years, held unprecedented power in England. As Skelton saw it, that power, and Wolsey’s abuse of it, constituted a threat to good order in the state and in nature. But incurring the displeasure of such a powerful man was dangerous, of course. Claiming the liberty to publish his word, Skelton – like Tyndale – put his life at risk.

My version of Skelton’s poem is in three parts. The first is largely just a translation of Skelton’s words into contemporary English. I have made deep cuts in his text and also replaced some of his topical references with my own. For there is a Wolsey in every generation. Accordingly, that name is replaced in my version by something more general – “the Felon Lord.” In every generation, the Felon Lord abuses power and threatens the governance of state and nature.

In the second part, covering Skelton’s middle sections, I go more my own way, but still echo some of Skelton’s resonant phrases, and keep as close as I can to the spirit and direction of his argument.

In the third part, the nervous Parrot in his cage is finally persuaded to ”speak out, true and plain” and that Felon Lord of our own time emerges from out of the Skeltonic mists and ryme royale phalanxes, and is presented to us, true and plain. Or fairly plain. Who is this Lord of Murdor, ruling a world through Hacking, bought Orcs and Dust ? Who is this Davie.orc, giving the people the lies they like, so as to keep them in Murdor’s power ?

The poem contains quite a few references to the UK hacking scandals mostly involving Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. And it touches on details associated with those scandals, such as Rebekah Brooks’ wedding in Oxfordshire, that borrowed police horse on which Cameron rode with her in Oxfordshire fields, and Andy Coulson, Brook’s ex-lover over ten years, and Cameron’s friend and close advisor, who went to jail. I would like to give due acknowledgement to Nick Davies, Guardian journalist, for his work in bringing dark things to light.

Here are three excerpts from the poem, as examples :

Like Parrot, the Truth is caged. Outside in the street
Felony’s slaves and creatures sing their song.
Up and down upon untaxed horses they strut
Kicking the poor aside as they canter along.
Much money, we know, is spent for wrong
Purposes, for poor to stay poor, and Lord on top.
And caged is Truth, and Love, and Youth, and Hope…


This England
this Bling Land

this Bling and Buy Land
this Hack and Spy Land

This Try a Lie Land
this Me and My Land…


“’Mumsy, Mumsy, it’s all Gordon’s fault, not mine’ –
That’s a good one – Georgie thought so too.
And look, they bought it ! Making people toe your line
Means feeding them the lies they like. Like sleek glue
My lies have cleaved my friends to me….”