I met a man with a plan last weekend, whose stories and ways reminded me of Chaucer’s Merchant and his tale – but maybe we all have some aspect of those characters and their stories in us today? You decide, starting with what Chaucer had to say:
There was a Merchant with a forking beard
And motley dress; high on his horse he sat,
Upon his head a Flemish beaver hat
And on his feet daintily buckled boots
He told of his opinions and pursuits
In solemn tones, he harped on his increase
Of capital; there should be sea-police
(He thought) upon the Harwich-Holland ranges
He was expert at dabbling in exchanges….
The Prologue, The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer, c 1391
So what characters are you likely to meet on the road to Canterbury today? The prologue of the Canterbury Tales tells about some of the ones that Geoffrey Chaucer met – and for some reason the Merchant, with his Flemish beaver hat and daintily buckled boots telling of opinions and pursuits, stands out in my mind as one of the more interesting ones.
The tale that the merchant chooses to tell is not one of trade upon the Harwich-Holland ranges but rather one about the marriage of an elderly merchant to a young girl, who subsequently betrays him with a younger lover – something that the sugar daddies of today should perhaps bear in mind when seeking to be seen as silver foxes.
As fate would have it, last weekend, 9 April 2011 – a warm spring day, that tempted me to think of the sweet scents and sun of May – I happened to meet a Supply Chain Planner who works for a shipping company here in Canary Wharf, London, and not far from where Chaucer would have come to his second or perhaps third pub stop along the way to Greenwich.
Sadly, it was not there in Greenwich that I met him (although I will find the pub there at some point) – but at the Toastmasters’ Division B finals of the International Speech competition at the Royal Veterinary College’s rooms in Camden (and, believe me, some of the, er, massive turd-like exhibits in the museum there are something worth seeing in themselves).
It was a day for ironic and uplifting tales, as it happened, as seven contestants told stories about mixed personal trials and triumphs (often both in one). Their competency in recounting these experiences was with a view to, ultimately, winning a place in representing Britain and Ireland at the World Toastmasters’ Championship. The winning stories included ones about dragon-like mother-in-laws, with princesses hidden inside, and relenting stepmothers – but the final winner was one who told a speech from the heart about his rescue from the clutches of death – and perhaps prospect of never walking again – where he was reassured by a simple smile, in the face of this adversity, into realising all was not lost.
Given Toastmasters is all about being able to stand up and speak well before an audience, it is probably one of the closest organisations we have today that perhaps parodies weekly, at a range of different clubs located at different places around London (and often in a room off the back or side of a pub), the type of tale-telling that Chaucer encouraged his fellow travellers to do as a source of amusement on their way to Canterbury. The beauty of it is that it is all about finding ones’ voice – and perhaps self in the process – through being able to tell a good tale well as much as make a speech. That is perhaps a whole part of the journey in itself for some.
Tis not Toastmasters that is the tale to tell for this day though. Rather, I believe ’tis that of the Supply Chain Planner, the man I met through St Paul’s Speakers , and the one who kindly allowed me to sit with him and his beautiful young lady friend who attended this day’s competition with him.
Although he was not wearing a Flemish beaver hat, there was just a hint of the ornately dressed Chaucerian merchant about him as he mentioned to me about how much an image can make a difference in standing up to talk – possibly also because, once again (as I have been caught out before), I was not as well attired as I perhaps ought to have been for the occasion.
Still my dress sense was not so bad as to prevent him from heading out with me after the competition was over, along with one of the good knights from the previous weekend – Sir Dave Longley as we shall now dub him – who had been a judge of the day’s competition.
The idea we had was to go on to see the delights of Camden, as this is somewhere that I have had the good fortune to get to know in my single man’s days, and he admitted to me that he was keen now – as getting a little older – to meet the young lady of his dreams.
Still, there was perhaps, in a way, a hark back to the original Chaucerian Merchant’s story in our journey that night – as we did manage to meet a young teacher or three, thanks to Sir Dave’s spillage of the beverages compelling me to pass the hand towels past them to clean it up and my friend realising the opportunity to talk to them.
Sadly, holding the attention of these three fair maidens was not something we three were able to do – perhaps parodying in one night, what the Merchant’s Tale tells about those who cannot see and remember their age and how that might be seen through others’ eyes. In the messy process, I also realised that my days of having fun, in such noisy pubs and clubs at least, are now well done.
Of course, perhaps if they had served White Knight ales there – like they did at The Tabard that weekend before – then it would have been a different story for helping fulfill the orders of our younger supply chain planner friend. Then again, perhaps our friend simply needs some younger and more adept companions to help wing him on his way to sharing vows with some angel at a church or cathedral somewhere.
However whether those vows would be made in Canterbury, or some other place, is a whole other story for another time. There is probably more yet to this story – where either the angel or the demon will out herself – however I will need to consult the good supply chain planner himself on what he remembers from the night.
Certainly some wisdom on’t was shared, and surprisingly not unlike that shared by the Merchant those 600 years ago. So, on this road together, as we head along the way – and perhaps some time poignantly in May, the Supply Chain Planner will not fail, and tell this or a later adjunct, to complete this little tale….