April 23rd…white roses and free books

April 23rd…white roses and free books

Last Saturday I was sitting in the grounds of London’s Middle Temple. It was a sunny day and I’d arrived early to hear the formidable Madeleine Albright talk about global political changes since her time in office as the US’s first female Secretary of State. There was no one else around, except a lazy gardener pushing his broom to and fro, so I enjoyed the tepid sunshine. But then a group of tourists ambled down some steps to the pond, near my seat, all clutching long-stemmed white roses.

Ah, religious nutters, I assumed, about to lay down their roses and pray? I was about to move away. But the yellow-jacketed gardener moved towards them and suddenly addressed them with an intensity and directness that forced me to look up from my engrossing thriller and listen. Was he deranged too…someone given to clearing rubbish one minute, uttering beautiful poetry to strangers the next? He soon finished, they went on their way and I continued with my book in the sunshine wondering if I’d stumbled upon a meeting of reformed addicts. But addicts of what?

Fifteen minutes later the ‘gardener’ started picking out the litter from his black bag and, bizarrely, spreading it out on the ground, just as another group of rose clutching tourists wandered down the steps. They too got no further than the pond when they were accosted by the man, who swept for a minute or two before declaiming his love poem. They were mesmerised, as was I. When he cleared up the litter for a second time I could not resist asking him, what on earth was going on?

Ah, he said – big surprise this – he wasn’t really a gardener at all! He was an actor from the Globe Theatre taking part in a special project in honour of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd and the tourists were on a ‘Sonnet Walk,’  the brainchild of director Mark Rylance.  After all, Middle Temple Hall was where,  at Candlemas 1602,  Shakespeare’s newly completed ‘Twelfth Night’ was performed for the first time. So, when the white roses were eventually laid at the gates of the Globe Theatre, perhaps it was a form of prayer, giving thanks for the survival of such literary treasures?

But actually today is important for another reason. It’s the day when half a million books are given away by 20,000 volunteers to people who would not otherwise read or have access to books  Chosen authors waive their royalties, publishers their production costs and Shakespeare, I am sure, would be proud to share his birthday with such an original idea.

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