Land of Cockaigne

Land of Cockaigne from ‘A Coat Worth Wearing’ by Neil McSweeney

I have been able to support myself solely on the proceeds of music making only rarely. Windows of heavy gigging that happily aligned with temporarily low domestic overheads. The rest of the time I have found work of various types to keep afloat. I’ve been fortunate in that much of this work has been agreeable rather than burdensome. One of my jobs was in a university library and I would often find a little time here and there to explore the collection of books.

It usually wasn’t entirely idle or random enquiry; I’d have some idea floating around in my head that I wanted to investigate. However, I can’t now recall the thought that lead me to the shelves in the art collection dedicated to the Flemish Renaissance. Perhaps I was looking for representations of wolves or something. But instead, in a book largely dedicated to Hieronymus Bosch, this is what I found:

breugel-cockaigne‘Land of Cockaigne’ (1567) oil painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder

It’s not clear to me why one particular image in a book of images, out of all the thousands of images that pass before my modern eye should provoke a response. I read the discussion of the painting in the book and have researched it further since. But I can’t remember much of that now – I think Bruegel intended a satirical meaning for the contemporary viewer.

However, my first thought on seeing the plump bodies slobbing about was that this was a pretty good representation of the average Sunday afternoon round our house.

That might in truth be stretching it a bit, but I certainly have plenty of experience of surfeit. I’ve been over-faced by plates of food and stuffed to my gills on countless occasions. And lying on my back staring at the ceiling or sky is one of my favourite attitudes. However…

Cockaigne or Cockayne /kɒˈkeɪn/ is a land of plenty in medieval myth, an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist.

Not a documentary image in the 16th century, then.

Here’s the lyric I ended up with plus some simple notes:

Land of Cockaigne

Summer’s here again
Men are working
We hear them coming in
Through the meadow

Labouring we’ve been
Through the day
And labouring again
We’ll be tomorrow

The first verse is just a simple scene-setter. I chose to write it from the perspective of a mother – a quick, instinctive decision that I can’t explain. I guess it won’t come across obviously when I sing it myself but it’s in the lyric.

Now to dream of Cockaigne
Fatted land of leisure.
The laying off of pain
The taking up of pleasure

 The idea of pleasure and pain as human motivators is, for me, both immediate and substantial.

When the summer’s passed
We’ll have our time back
Then a turn of the wheel
Will have us fighting

In the second verse the harvest passes and winter comes on. I remember reading once about the terrible harshness of winter during the little ice-age for medieval peasants. I guess there were still jobs to be done and keeping occupied would be important physically and psychologically. And many would have stores on which they could get fat. But I imagine that for the poorest in the colder north of Europe life might have been very hard. So I meant ‘fighting’ to mean the general fight for survival rather than martial combat.

I’ve got two are strong,
Lord save the other
From the snow & the filth
And from the hunger

Our ability to face and to survive loss is one of the threads I tried to stitch though the record.

Now to dream of Cockaigne
Fatted land of leisure.
The laying off of pain
The taking up of pleasure

The painting made me think about everything that wasn’t in it. The reality of the life of many people at that time. The various differing circumstances in which people live today. And through this provoked me to think on the fundamentals of human life and also the variables.

And this was the kind of thing I decided to try to do with each of the tracks on the album.

“….I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.”



Watch a live performance of Land of Cockaigne HERE

A Coat Worth Wearing is out now on Hudson Records


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