What the Stuarts did for us

Bonus culture in the time of King James.

Just over 400 years ago this week, Ben Jonson, John Marston and George Chapman presented their play Eastward Ho, a scandalous satire about two London apprentices, to King James I. The protagonists were hard-working and sensible Golding and the recklessly ambitious Quicksilver.

Golding marries the equally temperate Mildred, while her vain sister, Gertrude, is won over by the false promises of the penniless Sir Petronel Flash. He and Quicksilver attempt to steal Gertrude's dowry, but after being shipwrecked on the Isle of Dogs they are sent to prison by Golding, whose financial steadiness has made him an alderman. Flash and Quicksilver are released when they have repented of their dishonesty.

Because of its mercurial capacity to transform people's characters and circumstances, money holds a special fascination for art. The subject is usually approached in satire, partly because it is a way to dig beneath the dazzling superficiality of wealth to find the conflict beneath. And a simple parable can make the complex subject of finance intelligible to a wide audience.

So, Aristophanes depicts the god of wealth as a blind beggar; Jesus declares it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and Chaucer's Pardoner spins a suspenseful tale of how greed is the root of all evil. Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, Caryl Churchill's Serious Money and Lucy Prebble's ENRON all treat money and the people who worship it with a mocking, sharp and scathing tongue.

Eastward Ho speaks to our contradictory feelings about stories of money. Our moral sense requires greedy schemes to miscarry, but the real thrill comes from seeing the audacity of those who try to pull them off, as in the film Ocean's 11.

The cast-iron puritan virtues that make the moral world of the play run like clockwork are topsy-turvy today, where failure is rewarded with bailouts and bonuses. A more satirical scenario would give bonuses to the millions of taxpayers who have propped up the banks. Non-payment of these bonuses would lead every UK taxpayer to board the next plane to Switzerland, where they would live until the banks stumped up.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt