Friday, June 24, 2022

Hilaire Belloc's influence on A Canterbury Tale

This public lecture by Mr Colpeper (played by Eric Portman) from A Canterbury Tale is probably my favourite moment in probably my favourite film - a film I've learnt not to take lightly.

A reader has now alerted me to an obvious source for it: Hilaire Belloc's The Old Road. Published in 1904, it describes the author's journey along what he claims to be an ancient trackway from Winchester to Canterbury.

Describing what he hoped to gain from this journey, Belloc writes:

For my part I desired to step exactly in the footprints of such ancestors. I believed that, as I followed their hesitations at the river crossings, as I climbed where they had climbed to a shrine whence they also had seen a wide plain, as I suffered the fatigue they suffered, and laboriously chose, as they had chosen, the proper soils for going, something of their much keener life would wake again in the blood I drew from them, and that in a sort I should forget the vileness of my own time, and renew for some few days the better freedom of that vigorous morning when men were already erect, articulate, and worshipping God, but not yet broken by complexity and the long accumulation of evil.

You can certainly here echoes of this passage in Colpeper's lecture, but as the person who put my reader on to this connection said:

I think the three Ps (Powell, Pressburger in particular as the screenwriter, and Portman) did a better job of it, not least by toning down the religious aspect Belloc the Catholic was keen to stress.

I agree. Indeed, there is something pre-Christian in Colpeper's complex character. He is in part an aristocratic Puck.

Hilaire Belloc sat for Salford South as a Liberal between 1906 and the second general election of 1910. He was a nasty antisemite, but his book The Servile State remains a challenging read and is well worth seeking out.

No comments: