The Prince Of Aquitaine

[Annotation by Andrew Curry (additional notes S J Birkill)]

I flew home into the city after dark and in the clear
With a seat beside the window and the usual thrill of fear
When the spoilers send you sliding down the drain

According to Wikipedia: "In aeronautics a spoiler is a device intended to reduce lift in an aircraft. Spoilers are plates on the top surface of a wing which can be extended upward into the smooth airflow and spoiling it. By doing so, the spoiler creates a carefully controlled stall over the portion of the wing behind it, dramatically reducing lift."

The sky was full of London all around the tilting wing
I could have hooked a street out like a pearl and diamond string
But I think my fingers couldn't stand the strain

[At busy times, flights incoming to Heathrow may be directed to circle in one of four holding patterns around the capital. On a rare clear evening return from Hong Kong I experienced a P of A moment when, after a couple of circuits of the Lambourne (Essex) stack, my Cathay Pacific flight came in southward over London's docklands, banking to the right onto the westbound LHR glidepath. During the turn, first Canary Wharf, then the Thames and London from Tower Bridge through the City and Westminster to Chelsea, filled the entire starboard windows of the plane around the wing's silhouette, within what almost seemed like touching distance — SJB]

And to the ruined tower came the Prince of Aquitaine

As with 'The Shadow and the Widower' this is from a poem, "El Desdichado", by the 19th century French poet Gérard de Nerval, in his 'Les Chimerès' sequence, published in 1854, a year before his suicide. In French: "Le prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie". (In the translation by Peter Jay, published in 1984 - after the song was written - this line is rendered as, "The Aquitanian prince of the stricken tower", which some may find unduly flowery.)

In the continental terminal the maxi-coats look rich

A three-quarter length coat fashionable in the seventies

It'd take a better eye than mine to even fault a stitch
The simple hair is golden as the grain
While in Piccadilly Circus, hunkered down and neon-lit
There are kids with ancient faces who are praying for a hit
But tonight the only free one is the rain

And to the ruined tower came the Prince of Aquitaine

The highway lights of sodium are cut and set like gems
They run like this in whisperlines until they reach the Thames
Their afterimage wealthy in the brain
Beneath the bridge's footway in the shelter of the stair

[This seems to be a reference to the pitch beside the southern steps of the old pedestrian walkway on the Hungerford rail bridge, where buskers could entertain concertgoers on their way to the RFH/QEH/Purcell Room complex. Jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill would occasionally play there in the early 70s — SJB]

A cripple plays harmonica for pennies from the air
While the river proffers answers to his pain

And to the ruined tower came the Prince of Aquitaine

In idle docks they're due now to be running out of meths
Their eyes inside the darkness like a latterday Macbeth's
As Birnam Wood comes close to Dunsinane

In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth is told by the three witches that he will be King of Scotland until Birnam Wood comes to his castle, Dunsinane, along with two other equally implausible sounding conditions. But Prince Malcolm and the English armies disguise themselves with branches from the Birnam trees, thereby creating the impression that the wood is indeed marching on Dunsinane. It is the first of the three witches' conditions to be realised, and hence Macbeth's fearful recognition that his brief and bloody reign (at least as depicted in Shakespeare's play) is coming to an end.

[Andrew points out that my 10-year-old lyric transcription on the Website has always read "Burnham Wood"! I thought I must have had an unconscious desire to relocate Dunsinane to the Home Counties, but then I looked at the DTMA LP sleeve and found the same error. I'm sure Pete sings "Birnam wood" though, so I've corrected it — SJB]

I have brought them all the plunder of the international jets
An envelope of sugar and two hundred cigarettes
[There was some discussion on the old MV mailing list about a drugs reference here, but I believe this phrase is generally accepted as pertaining to the detritus one may inadvertently carry away from the in-flight food and drink service! — SJB]

The standard quantity of cigarettes sold in duty free

So I know now that my quest was not in vain

And to the ruined tower came the Prince of Aquitaine

[Further reading: Literary references in the lyrics of Clive James by Mel Powell — SJB]

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