Who Do You Like the Best of Us?

by Mary Jackson (December 2011)


It is a measure of Islam’s intrusiveness that, in the midst of some very English and very enjoyable pursuit, I am pulled up short by the thought of how un-Islamic it is. Where two or three are gathered in the name of pleasure or profit, the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, is not among them. Mohammed, PBUH, was present by his absence at the Royal Wedding; he, PBUH, has stood me up at the theatre and failed to direct my reading; and on my summer visit to Norfolk, he, PBUH, refused to come to the PBUH – sorry, pub.

The pub in question – let’s call it the Turk’s Head for the sheer haram hell of it – is a functional country pub, not a tourist’s idea of one, in a pretty but unexceptional village in Norfolk. Cut off by British Rail, it serves mainly local residents, human and canine, and a few stragglers from outlying villages and hamlets. Its decor is old hat rather than olde worlde. There is not a horse-brass to be seen; the rooms are long, narrow and draughty, and some of the furniture doesn’t match too well, seemingly cobbled together over many decades rather than bought as an “authentic” job lot. The pub was not vibrant, nor was it multicultural, and the only diversity was that of the ales. To look at this pub, this village, or indeed much of Norfolk, you might think that the last few decades had never happened. More importantly you might think Islam had never come to England.  

The occasion that brought me and my Norfolk-born companions to this pub was an “Open Folk Night”. Guests of varying talents came along with their guitars, accordions, or in one instance two pieces of wood, and played and sang whatever they wanted, with others joining in the chorus if they knew it or could pick it up in time. A warm welcome from the landlord and a pint of cider, and I was comfortably settled in for the evening. Mohammed, as I said, stayed away, perhaps scared off by the dogs.

The songs ranged from folk to “protest” to music hall. The best voice, as far as I could judge, belonged to a woman in her late thirties or early forties – who sang the song from which the title of this piece is taken:  Matty Groves:

"Matty Groves" is an English folk ballad that describes an adulterous tryst between a man and a woman that is ended when the woman's husband discovers and kills them. It dates to at least the 17th century, and is one of the Child Ballads collected by 19th-century American scholar Francis James Child. It has several variant names, including "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard."

I had heard the song before. There are several versions, including a sentimental one by Joan Baez, who omits the wife’s murder, but the one that closely reflects the pace and spirit of the story is by Fairport Convention. Click here for their version of the lyrics, right at the end of the blog post. It should be read in conjunction with the YouTube recording below to get the feel of it – those who do not like this or other folk rock bands can stop at 4:30 minutes, when the purely instrumental part kicks in:

That pub-going Englishmen and women still sing of this violent slaying of adulterers could be taken as a moral equivalence with Islam. In the Golden Age before English morals decayed, when marriage still mattered, we killed adulterers too. And isn’t this an honour killing of sorts? To this I would answer yes and no. Let’s take a closer look at the song, with Fairport Convention’s brisk tune ringing in our ears.

A holiday, a holiday
And the first one of the year
Lord Darnell's wife came into the church
The Gospel for to hear

And when the meeting it was done
She cast her eyes about
And there she saw little Matty Groves
Walking in the crowd

I admire the way so much information is packed into eight lines. The scene is quite un-Islamic and substituting the words Koran for Gospel and mosque for church would not make it so. Lord Darnell’s wife is unaccompanied by her master – sorry – husband, to say nothing of any co-wives. Ah yes, say the mullahs, but look what happens when you let women off the leash. This lady has a roving eye, and has picked out a young lover – a commoner, it seems, since he is in the crowd, but uncommonly good looking. Even in our more liberal age, it shocks that she does this in church.

"Come home with me, little Matty Groves
Come home with me tonight
Come home with me, little Matty Groves
And sleep with me 'til light"

Sleep? One is put in mind of the old divorce court joke: Judge to co-respondent, “Did you sleep with the defendant?” Co-respondent replies: “Not a wink, my lord.” Young Matty puts up a token fight, wrestles with his conscience and wins.

"Oh, I can't come home, I won't come home
And sleep with you tonight
By the rings on your fingers
I can tell you are Lord Darnell's wife"

"But if I am Lord Darnell's wife
Lord Darnell's not at home
He is out in the far cornfields
Bringing the yearlings home"

The soon-to-be-cuckolded husband is behaving most un-Islamically. Despite his title, status and presumed wealth, he is engaging in agricultural labour. Mohammed and his companions would never have stooped so low. Their wealth came from looting the fruits of infidel labour. The adulterous pair are betrayed by a servant, and Lord Darnell comes home to catch them in the act:

Little Matty Groves, he lay down
And took a little sleep
When he awoke, Lord Darnell
Was standing at his feet

Saying, "How do you like my feather bed
And how do you like my sheets
How do you like my lady
Who lies in your arms asleep?"

There is no good answer to this question. “It’s a fair cop – I’ll come quietly,” is too much of a double entendre. “It’s not what it looks like,” is anachronistic, belonging to trashy, yet-to-be-made-for-TV films. And “little Matty” is probably not old enough or American enough to say “Who you gonna believe – me or your lyin’ eyes?” But whatever the right answer, it is not the one Matty gives:

"Oh, well, I like your feather bed
And well, I like your sheets
But better I like your lady gay
Who lies in my arms asleep"

Discretion might yet have been the better part of valour, but now he is pushing his luck. Details of the lovers’ tryst are not recorded, but it is safe to say that young Matty has blown it. The injured husband’s reaction is quite restrained, all things considered – this is the seventeenth century, so the two men are not going to resolve their differences over a latte. Nevertheless, we see at work a distinctly un-Islamic honour code.

"Well, get up, get up", Lord Darnell cried
"Get up as quick as you can
It'll never be said in fair England
I slew a naked man"

In fair England, this would be dishonourable. But in unfair Arabia it would not be. Islam intrudes into this point in the story with a story of its own:

`Asma' was the wife of Yazid Ibn Zayd Ibn Hisn al-Khatmi. She used to revile Islam, offend the prophet and instigate the (people) against him. She composed verses. Umayr Ibn Adi came to her in the night and entered her house. Her children were sleeping around her. There was one whom she was suckling. He searched her with his hand because he was blind, and separated the child from her. He thrust his sword in her chest till it pierced up to her back. Then he offered the morning prayers with the prophet at al-Medina. The apostle of Allah said to him: "Have you slain the daughter of Marwan?" He said: "Yes. Is there something more for me to do?" He [Muhammad] said: "No. Two goats will butt together about her.

In the name of honour, Mohammed ordered the killing of a sleeping woman who was breastfeeding and on another occasion a pregnant woman. Neither of these women was his wife, caught in flagrante. The women had merely “disparaged” the prophet, the first in comic verse. Note, too, how the Prophet delegates his dirty work, and like Islamic honour killings today, his murders are cowardly and committed in cold blood.

In contrast, Lord Darnell recognises Matty Groves as the weaker party, and insists on a fair fight. Matty protests:

"Oh, I can't get up, I won't get up
I can't get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords
And I not a pocket knife"

He should have thought of that before. But Lord Darnell, to his credit, concedes the point, the better to impress his lady:

"Well, it's true I have two beaten swords
And they cost me deep in the purse
But you will have the better of them
And I will have the worse"

"And you will strike the very first blow
And strike it like a man
I will strike the very next blow
And I'll kill you if I can"

This is reasonable. Matty may be a young whippersnapper, but as his paramour could doubtless attest, he is old enough to know what to do with a sword. Lord Darnell has, in effect, challenged him to a duel. Duelling, Richard Landes argues in The Telegraph, derives from a concept of honour no longer alive in “fair England”:

In a seminal book, Anthony Kwame Appiah wrote about these dramatic shifts in terms of what the “honour group” considers honorable. The Honor Code and Moral Revolutions addresses three such reversals in which what had previously been considered honourable came to be seen as shameful – slavery in the USA, duelling in England, foot-binding in China – and one so-far failed revolution, honour killings in Pakistan.

These reversals in values can be so complete that they become invisible. It’s hard for we [sic] moderns, raised in a civil polity, to even imagine what it’s like to think that slavery is an honourable thing (for the slave-owners).

Liberal cognitive egocentrism has difficulty conceiving of the zero-sum mentality in which the slave’s degradation brings honour to he [sic] who enslaves and degrades him.

The concept of honour behind duelling is more Islamic than we are used to in the modern West. There is an absurdity to it: a man is forced to take umbrage when insulted, whatever his private feelings on the matter, as ably satirised in Arthur Schnitzler’s 1900 novella Leutnant Gustl (“I have to shoot myself dead because a baker called me a stupid boy”), and yet there is a difference: men do not fight women. Even the Kray twins, the vicious East End gangsters of the Sixties, did not fight women.

As I have argued before at this site, while Islam is aggressively “masculine”, with rape not only a weapon of war, but a perfectly normal act when sanctioned by the Koran, it is not a manly faith. Killing pregnant women or defenceless farmers – or one’s daughter for marrying a Christian – is not a manly thing to do.

Back to our fight: young Matty is a lover not a fighter, and this time cannot rise to the occasion:

So Matty struck the very first blow
And he hurt Lord Darnell sore
Lord Darnell struck the very next blow
And Matty struck no more

And then Lord Darnell he took his wife
And he sat her on his knee
Saying, "Who do you like the best of us
Matty Groves or me?"

What an un-Islamic question that is. “Who do you like the best of us?” asks the husband. Why should he care, when he holds all the cards? Mohammed didn’t care whether his child-wife Aisha might have preferred a boy nearer her age. “Who do you like the best of us?” is a question that a Muslim husband would never ask his wife – any of his wives. Her likes and dislikes are of no account, since she is his for the taking. Muslim women’s position is so wretchedly inferior that even faintest of Muslim hearts can “win” her – or, in the case of Modern day Saudi men, buy her with unearned oil money. Muslim men do not have to prove themselves worthy; they can simply honour-kill their opponents, including women.

Arrogant, violent as Lord Darnell may be, his wife’s preference matters to him. “Who do you like the best of us?” is a question asked of a free woman. Nevertheless, in the context, “Matty Groves or me”, discretion might be the better part of valour. “Let me sleep on it,” is both risky and risqué; “I’ll take a rain check” is too American. There is only one correct answer, and prudence and practicality might dictate that the wife plump for the man with the pulse. But the wife is neither prudent nor practical, and like her dead lover, she blows it:

And then up spoke his own dear wife
Never heard to speak so free
"I'd rather a kiss from dead Matty's lips
Than you or your finery"

Lord Darnell, he jumped up
And loudly he did bawl
He struck his wife right through the heart
And pinned her against the wall

So, like Asma bint Marwen, she gets stabbed in the chest. Dead is dead, and doubtless Islamic apologists would not see any difference. But to me there is a world of difference between a crime of passion, of injured feelings and unrequited love, and the cold-blooded killing of an unconnected person. Perhaps the husband already regrets his actions in the last verse of the song:

"A grave, a grave", Lord Darnell cried
"To put these lovers in
But bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin"

Compare and contrast Mohammed’s words:  “Two goats will butt together about her.” And Lord Darnell was not a prophet of God – that much he and Mohammed had in common.

Enough of Matty Groves for now – it’s only a song. Perhaps I have made too much of the words, but it is a cracking good tune – have another listen. Now try setting the killing of Asma bint Marwan to music. Something might be done with the butting goats, but apart from that, not a lot of scope.

Back to the Norfolk pub where it all started: the evening passed convivially. Nobody got drunk, nobody committed adultery, despite all that music and “free mixing” and nobody got murdered. Fact, nothing to laugh at at all. So it is “in fair England”, at least for now.


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