What fine vestments memory and associations weave and work for us, needing neither needle nor thread to imbricate the pieces that have come from the looms of the fates.
Take cambric, a rich word, cambered with c’s and bricked with m, learnèd as Cambridge and savoury as turmeric. Where have we heard this? Is it a kind of cheese? No, hum and you will know it:
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Without no seams nor needlework,
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.
A shirt. But what shirt bears this rubric? One made of fabric from Cambrai (called Kameryk in Flemish, and so the French and Flemish come together in one cloth). It is a fine, dense fabric, of high quality, made originally of linen but now also of cotton.
And who will make this shirt, and who will wear it? For many in modern times, it must be Mrs. Robinson, or perhaps her daughter, Elaine, in The Graduate, scored incessantly with this song, sung by Simon and Garfunkel. I don’t mean the eponymous “Mrs. Robinson,” of course; I mean “Scarborough Fair,” an English folk song of some antiquity, known as an anthem to the impossibility of foregone and bygone attachments, and incidentally as a good recipe for seasoning roast chicken.
Are you going to Scarborough fair,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?
Remember me to one who lives there;
She once was a true love of mine.
Where is Scarborough? In my youth I knew only that it was in England, though I can tell you now that it is on the sea coast in North Yorkshire, its castle sitting on bluffs above the salt water and the sea strand. It is those bluffs that led to its name being given to a suburb of Toronto, now thought of by many as the great Siberia of Metro Toronto (they call it Scarberia, in fact). It has an unjust reputation thanks to pockets of rough neighbourhoods, but much of it is leafy green neighbourhoods, rolling parklands and shopping centres, cliff crests and golf courses. It has been around long enough to become a land of memories and futures, adverted to in songs by such as Bruce Cockburn and Rush, the archetype of the Canadian suburb, a forgotten fabric for some but still present and woven seamlessly into the warp and woof of Toronto’s streets. And why Scar? For no other reason than that the original Scarborough was settled a millennium ago by a Viking named Skathi and his clan. We know no more of him and yet he is the mark on this fabric.
And so what colour is our cambric shirt? Is it scarlet? Blue? Or a plain clean white? I think it has been calendered to give it a shine. The remembrances of which it is made are as well seasoned as a fowl. Is it fair? Not all in life is, and scars burrow into our hearts and minds like runs and rough fibres and rend us so that we are left with separate pieces. We may seek sage advice, but what we need most is time. And in time, however we are torn, we do our best to assemble it coherently and leave no scraps on the floor. It may seem impossible, but we do it anyway. We find at long last that we can do no other, and so we make our own cambric shirts.
It’s my pet balladry theory that the chorus of Scarborough Fair was MEANT to be a mnemonic for what herbs to use with chicken. Something to hum while wives were out picking wild herbs.
Much better than the Child Ballad variant that has the chorus “palsied and sage grows merry with time.”
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