Monday, July 30, 2012

A Professional Gentleman of Leisure

One of the points that Emerson makes in his English Traits is a vast difference between the British and American. He states that in England there is a noble race of men, committed to an aesthetic and higher morality than the common man, whose lofty ambition is to enjoy life through meditation on art, discourse with other nobility, and the pursuit of greatness in literature. In short... a complete gentleman. I love this... so in true Emerson fashion... here are some gentlemanly details to chew on and aspire toward.
Shakespeare was born April 23rd 1564 and died around the same day in April 1616, most scholars agree he may not have “officially” died on his birthday, but it just sounds cooler. He was 52.
Will had seven brothers and sisters and two of them were named Joan. He married Anne Hathaway, no… not Catwoman, because he knocked her up when he was 17 and she was 26. Sweet! They had three children together, but son Hamnet died as a boy sending Will into desperate grief.
Shakespeare died very wealthy, bequeathing to his wife their bedclothes… which she probably appreciated more than one might think.
He is buried in Holy Trinity Church, just about half a mile from his home. One of Shakespeare’s relatives, William Arden (like the Forest in As You Like It which is a street behind the house) was executed for plotting against Queen Lizzie… in the Tower of London.
He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. There is even a record that he played the Ghost in Hamlet. The American President Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer of Shakespeare’s plays and often quoted them, his assassin, John Wilkes Booth was a famous Shakespearean actor. Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Comedy of Errors is only about 1/3 the length of his longest, Hamlet, which takes over 4 hours. Speaking of Hamlet, along with Much Ado About Nothing, both have been translated into Klingon.

Cool Stuff I Learned Visiting Shakespeare's Home in Straford

To enter the house you have to go through the Visitor Center. Yes, I was given a free pass by the Bed and Breakfast lady… but no matter… I just passed right in with a crowd. I’m pardoned… Time Served with Good Behavior.
The first thing you notice when you enter Shakespeare’s house is that there’s a bed in the front room. Why? Beds were totally expensive in Will’s time and people like to show them off. They’re tiny too. Barely kid size today. Speaking of beds in the Renaissance… they were basically a box board with ropes attached to the bottom and a mattress stuffed with straw or cloth. That means, every night you would have to wake up several times and re-fluff or “Make” your bed. This is where the expression “Sleep Tight” comes from.
Another cool thing I learned was about canopies over beds… Okay, suppose you have a thatched straw roof and mice and spiders were constantly falling on you while you slept. You’d want a canopy too. Also, another reason that beds were so small is that people slept sitting up. This is because there were fires constantly going in the hearth and rooms were covered in smoke. The only way to get a good rest was to sit up and hope not to choke.
After leaving London, Shakespeare returned to Stratford a wealthy man and converted his home into an inn and pub. He even had a special swinging door built that led to his bed chamber… charging visitors a shilling each. Quite a business mind, our Will.
Will’s father, John, an alderman and glove maker… yes, you should see all the gloves these guys made, quite a profitable business in itself… was not the cleanliest man. There is a public record of him being fined for not cleaning up a big pile of manure and muck that sat in front of the house for months. Totally disgusting... I mean, totally awesome!

Finally, although the house has changed hands many times over and it really isn’t the “exact” same dwelling that Will and family lived in years before… I mean how could it be with all the new wood and plaster over the walls… the stones on the floor remain the same… and I thought that was pretty cool. Apparently it was also quite fashionable years ago to sign one of the walls in the house for visitors… some famous signatures are Walter Scott, John Keats, Percy Shelley, William Butler Yeats, William Blake, and Queen Victoria. How’s that for a list.

Overall, the house is a must for any visitor… it was fun and silly and the actors inside marvelous and well informed. Thanks, Shakespeare House!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Be Not Afeard of Flying Mary Poppins or Bicycled Doves... the Isle is Full of Noises

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,” -Caliban, the Tempest

The following speech by Caliban in the Tempest was read by Kenneth Branaugh during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games... it's good to know there are people out there who love this stuff even MORE than me!
“Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” -Caliban, the Tempest

Running around Stratford like a complete silly dork, taking the tours and just grinning to myself, here is the first folio published after Will's death by, of course, his friends.
“Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices…” -Caliban, the Tempest

This is the Garrick Inn which has been around since 1594.  What I love about this place is that they advertise an ale from that time, so I went in and asked about it and the bartender laughed at me and then this American tourist walked by me laughing as if to say I'm the reason most Americans are embarrassed abroad.  It was a total reversal of fortune and I loved it.
“That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.” -Caliban, the Tempest

Speaking of things I loved... okay, the London Olympic Opening Ceremony had some head scratching moments, I'll give you that... but overall, what a smashing success.  At one point on stage there were dozens of Mick Jaggers dancing alongside dozens of Freddy Mercuries and Ziggy Stardusts.  That's pretty insane!
“and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open,” -Caliban, the Tempest

But my favorite moment was when the legion of Mary Poppins fell calmly out of the sky and pushed away the Cruella DeVille and Voldemort villains.  I just about jumped out of my chair!
“and show riches ready to drop upon me,” -Caliban, the Tempest

But back to Stratford, there isn't a city in the world that does a better job of celebrating ONE of her hometown kids.  I loved traveling here and...well, as you can see from these pictures... just loved everything.
“that when I waked, I cried to dream again.” -Caliban, the Tempest

This is why reading is important... not just because you can quote alongside Mr. Monopoly during the Olympics... or that you can identify who the character in the Tempest is that is speaking... or when you come upon River Avon and see a bunch of rowboats apply named for Shakespeare heroines... but that you know why that's special.... and you just long for a moment out on the water to tell someone that.

Total Shakespeare GEEK OUT Time in Stratford

“O! I am Fortune’s Fool” -Romeo and Juliet

I've always known that I live a life differently than most people.  I've always known that I'm just a little bit off.  I spend too much time sticking my nose in books that are hundreds of years old... I don't socialize well with contemporaries... I just, freak people out.
“There is no evil angel but LOVE!” -Love’s Labour’s Lost

It’s been like this since I was a kid, walking around in the fields with the big Shakespeare anthology under my arm, racing bicycles down the gravel road and when one kid would crash into a tree and was laying there half bleeding and dizzy I would lay down next to them in the grass and say, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin…that’s from Trolius and Cresida.”
“Action is eloquence.” -Coriolanus

OR if I was at the store and a buddy didn’t have enough pocket change for candy I’d tell him, “Neither a borrower or a lender be… that’s from Hamlet.”
“Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.” -Macbeth

I know, total dork. Right? What is wrong with me?
“Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.” -Romeo and Juliet

But the older I get, the more I realize that everyone is like this. That we all gravitate towards things that relate and connect the world to us. For some it’s comic books and video games, for others it’s sports or religion, to some it’s drawing or hiking… I get that now. I really do.
“Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee!”

But I look at the choices in my life, the books and stories and poetry I’ve surrounded myself with, and realize that I’ve done insanely disastrous things to myself, in part, because I read them in Shakespeare plays.
“They do not love that do not show their love.” -Two Gentlemen of Verona

I dabbled with women and broke hearts for sport, I created rivals out of nothing, I perpetrated slights to force duels with inconsequential contemporaries, I chased stars in the eyes of dreamers, I acted on impulses of the heart and body without regard for my own safety or sanity all because the heroes of my youth… these Romeos and Lears and Lysanders and Orlandos and Hamlets and Antonios all did the same.
“Let every man be master of his time.” -Macbeth

But the funny thing is... I would do it all again! All because of Shakespeare. I have had such great loves and lost them all. I have had such wild nights and woken up to remember them only in blurs. I have followed my heart in ways that only lead to truth... I have had so much fun! And through love and loss and scorn and strife, through pain and passion and worry and woe there has always been the poetry.  Those lines of the Bard have sustained me a thousand times over.  The collected works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible, those two books have sustained me through ever trial of my life.  So you can't blame me for being a little giddy here, can you?  So thank you, Willy the Shake.  More than any other person, you have taught me how to live sweetly, drink deeply, laugh loudly, and love passionately. These days in your hometown, I geek out, for you.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"A Guy Called Mitt"

If you don’t mind, gentle reader, I need to take a time out from the road and comment on the London Olympics which I’m just so excited for. I love the Olympics. I love everything they stand for. I love the Opening Ceremony, (especially the Parade of Nations, which gets me totally emotional), I love the competition, the backstories of athletes, the medal ceremonies. Win or Lose... I totally Geek Out during the Olympics…. And…for Mitt Romney, this multifarious weasel…, to pick a fight with England over their preparation of the Games…is, well… bloody painful.

This is England we’re talking about … ENGLAND! What other country over the past 500 years has proven herself more than ENGLAND, you dolt! OF course they’re going to be ready. And for the Mayor of London to stand in Hyde Park at a Torch Lighting Ceremony and say to a crowd of thousands…”So I hear there's this guy called Mitt Romney who says London isn’t ready for the games…” OR to even force David Cameron to quip back and defend his city…what are you doing, Mitt? You don’t pick a fight with England, not if you want to be OUR guy. America’s relationship with England is the most significantly important international friendship we have. We share everything, common language, history, ideals, morals, sense of industry, a shared destiny. Don’t you get that? Don't you see that from your ivory tower?

And then… to have it slip that you would be a better ally to the British than Obama because of the Anglo-Saxon thing? Seriously, you make me want to bury my head in the sand. I used to live in this homeowner’s association back in Beaverton, Oregon, and I was always getting letters in the mail that my garbage bin was not tucked safely on the side of my house and could be seen from the cul-de-sac, or that my garden hose was not coiled correctly or that my door was the “improper” color to coincide with the agreed house pallet …OR I would have these snooty douche bag neighbors that would stop to comment all the time, “Say neighbor, I just wanted to bring to your attention that your lawn needs watering…” OR, “Hey neighbor, this has probably slipped your mind but it’s been a week after the January deadline and your Christmas lights are still up, just FYI!”

I LOATHED those guys…. And that’s what Romney is…. He’s your crappy, snooty moronic neighbor with the manicured lawn who doesn’t believe in you and is going to let you know his superiority every chance he gets. He’s the guy in the cul-de-sac who makes an insipid comment then walks away while you’re flipping him off with both fingers, double barrel style from behind.

Thanks, “Guy called Mitt,” excellent job representing me and my country. Get back on your plane and go home. You embarrassed us and humiliated yourself. Bring on the Games… Go London, 2012!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Emerson's English Traits

The following excerpts come from Ralph Waldo Emerson's fine collection of essays entitled, English Traits first published in 1856. I know these selections are quite long, but oh, so well worth it. As I travel around England, I have found Emerson's words to be a wonderful companion to my own thoughts. Anyone particularly traveling within the UK during the Olympics would most certainly benefit from reading here as it would lend great insight into the mind and habits of your gracious host.  I hope you enjoy.

“From London, on the 5th August, I went to Highgate, and wrote a note to Mr. Coleridge, requesting leave to pay my respects to him. It was near noon. Mr. Coleridge sent a verbal message, that he was in bed, but if I would call after one o'clock, he would see me. I returned at one, and he appeared, a short, thick old man, with bright blue eyes and fine clear complexion, leaning on his cane. He took snuff freely, which presently soiled his cravat and neat black suit. He asked whether I knew Allston, and spoke warmly of his merits…” Emerson’s English Traits
“On the 28th August, I went to Rydal Mount, to pay my respects to Mr. Wordsworth. His daughters called in their father, a plain, elderly, white-haired man, not prepossessing, and disfigured by green goggles. He sat down, and talked with great simplicity. He had just returned from a journey. His health was good, but he had broken a tooth by a fall, when walking with two lawyers, and had said, that he was glad it did not happen forty years ago; whereupon they had praised his philosophy. He had much to say of America, the more that it gave occasion for his favorite topic, — that society is being enlightened by a superficial tuition, out of all proportion to its being restrained by moral culture. Schools do no good. Tuition is not education. He thinks more of the education of circumstances than of tuition. 'Tis not question whether there are offences of which the law takes cognizance, but whether there are offences of which the law does not take cognizance. Sin is what he fears, and how society is to escape without gravest mischiefs from this source —— ? He has even said, what seemed a paradox, that they needed a civil war in America, to teach the necessity of knitting the social ties stronger. `There may be,' he said, `in America some vulgarity in manner, but that's not important. That comes of the pioneer state of things. But I fear they are too much given to the making of money; and secondly, to politics; that they make political distinction the end, and not the means. And I fear they lack a class of men of leisure, — in short, of gentlemen…” -Emerson’s English Traits
“I am not a good traveller, nor have I found that long journeys yield a fair share of reasonable hours. But the invitation was repeated and pressed at a moment of more leisure, and when I was a little spent by some unusual studies. I wanted a change and a tonic, and England was proposed to me.” -Emerson’s English Traits
“England is a garden. Under an ash-colored sky, the fields have been combed and rolled till they appear to have been finished with a pencil instead of a plough. The solidity of the structures that compose the towns speaks the industry of ages. Nothing is left as it was made. Rivers, hills, valleys, the sea itself feel the hand of a master.” -Emerson’s English Traits
“A wise traveller will naturally choose to visit the best of actual nations; and an American has more reasons than another to draw him to Britain.” -Emerson’s English Traits
“See what books fill our libraries. Every book we read, every biography, play, romance, in whatever form, is still English history and manners. So that a sensible Englishman once said to me, "As long as you do not grant us copyright, we shall have the teaching of you." -Emerson’s English Traits
“The territory has a singular perfection. The climate is warmer by many degrees than it is entitled to by latitude. Neither hot nor cold, there is no hour in the whole year when one cannot work. Here is no winter, but such days as we have in Massachusetts in November, a temperature which makes no exhausting demand on human strength, but allows the attainment of the largest stature. Charles the Second said, "it invited men abroad more days in the year and more hours in the day than another country." Then England has all the materials of a working country except wood. The constant rain, — a rain with every tide, in some parts of the island, — keeps its multitude of rivers full, and brings agricultural production up to the highest point. It has plenty of water, of stone, of potter's clay, of coal, of salt, and of iron. The land naturally abounds with game, immense heaths and downs are paved with quails, grouse, and woodcock, and the shores are animated by water birds. The rivers and the surrounding sea spawn with fish; there are salmon for the rich, and sprats and herrings for the poor. In the northern lochs, the herring are in innumerable shoals; at one season, the country people say, the lakes contain one part water and two parts fish.” -Emerson’s English Traits

My Amesbury Crush, You had me at Mirabeau!

Amesbury is this little rocking town in Wiltshire I found myself wandering through in the early blue light of morning looking for anything resembling a cup of coffee or some freshly baked bread. AND yes… I totally fell in love. Why, you ask… well, how could I not?
First off, Amesbury is located about eight miles from Salisbury, which is home to STONEHENGE … (oh my, total disappointment) and is upon the River Avon… (Shakespeare's hometown Cometh). Even though it’s population is under 9 thousand, she’s got awesome claims to fame.
The first is that Eleanor of Provence (why don’t we give people more names like this…?) who was Queen of England in 1291, died and was buried there in Amesbury Abbey. (I know, you’re totally jealous)
The second is Druids. What’s a Druid? Nobody knows. Seriously, they might have just been bad tourists from the Neolithic period… but they did build Stonehenge… which sits up the hill through the grass. How’d they get it there…? Dragons!
The name Amesbury comes from Ambrosius Aurelianus, leader of the Romano British resistance to Saxon invasion in the 5th century… I know, totally bad ass!
Want more…? Amesbury is also associated with the Arthurian legend… (yes, that Arthur… Sword and the Stone Arthur … Knights of the Round Table Arthur … Camelot and clomping coconut shells Monty Python Holy Grail Arthur… ) because the convent here is where Guinevere retired after she left Mr. High and Mighty for Johnny Come Lately Lancelot.
Still not satisfied? Okay, my good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson stayed here at the St. George Hotel on his way to penning English Traits… this awesome little collection of essays on his travels to England which totally captivated my reading mind for a two day period where I could do nothing but grin and grimace at Emerson’s intellectual grandstandings… “I found Carlyle to be… an absolute man of the world… we talked of books. Plato he does not read, and he disparaged Socrates; and, when pressed, persisted in making Mirabeau a hero. Gibbon he called the splendid bridge from the old world to the new. His own reading had been multifarious. Tristram Shandy was one of his first books after Robinson Crusoe, and Robertson's America an early favorite. Rousseau's Confessions had discovered to him that he was not a dunce; and it was now ten years since he had learned German, by the advice of a man who told him he would find in that language what he wanted."

(Totally, man… you had me at Mirabeau!)
Finally, in 1965, the Beatles stayed at the Antrobus Arms Hotel during the filming of HELP! This is also the place used in the filming of the BBC’s Miss Marple Mystery. Rocking!
So I must admit, I stumbled into this town on fumes. I walked the dark night streets in total silence. I sat in the little graveyard and listened to crows, I watched the blue light of dawn break and the lights in windows flicker on and then I passed through an open door in the St. George Hotel and found this lovely indecipherable woman who, bless her, mixed me up the most vile and unpleasant scalding black water coffee I’ve ever tasted. I listened as she told me about the aviation museum and the British Flying Aces of World War II until her even more indecipherable bar manager strode in and settled himself behind the bar at 6 a.m. and told me about the “Water of Life,” the importance of “chamber pots,” and what the Pub Rules were. Yes, he was impressed I knew what a “fakir” was.
Then after walking in Emerson and the Beatles footsteps… I came around the corner and found a little bakery that had opened and stopped for some fresh pastries, almost passing out from the glorious smell of baked bread in the morning. Yeah, I have a little crush on you Amesbury… You’re my kind of town.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Traveling with Books through the UK

You see them everywhere when you travel, these funny kindred spirits of mine, hunched in train station benches over their Thomas Cook road maps or wandering through a museum with their finger on a paragraph nodding back and forth between some amazing hanging portrait and the explanation of the painter’s motivation in their guidebook. I love travelers who carry books.
Voltaire wrote… “When I want to travel, I head to the library.” And I get that, I do. I’m sure some of the world’s greatest travelers have never stepped outside their front door but rather live in an imaginary world of faraway places where ruins whisper and ancient cities beckon to be explored.
But as for me, I walk with a rolled up paperback in my coat pocket and a Lonely Planet wrapped in rubber bands under my arm. I need books when I move through the world.
Books explode in life. The people, the color, the history, the land, the language, the ways of life… books expand your travel in every way possible. In fact, there is no other greater feeling than reading about a place, about the artists and historians that have lived there, and then to go and see it for yourself. I really believe that.
This feeling is only second to the book/movie theory that I’ve outlined on this blog before. That reading a book and then going to see the movie (in that correct order, reversing it is always a disappointment) is one of the most pleasant experiences a person can have as they are able to virtually witness the pages come alive. Even if they disagree and hate the movie, they do so with a fervent passion that comes from loving the pages, the descriptive passages, the characters desires and dreams that have now become their own.
So it is also for the traveler who reads, and there is no better reading / traveling country, than the United Kingdom of England, who had the good sense to celebrate their writers and artists in the same way other countries vault their presidents, fallen soldiers, and religious leaders.
Let’s ponder just some on this list, and I’m not even going to mention Chaucer and Milton or… well, you know who’s coming just north of here in Stratford… but the travelogues of Byron or the brilliant class struggles of Dickens, the pondering brooding countryside life portrayed by the Bronte sisters or “come to life” descriptive passages found in Thackery or Trollope.
In fact, I have the most unusual confession to make, as a boy sitting in my mother’s library, perusing all of the great literature she left on the shelf for me to discover, browsing and falling in love with Tennyson and Browning, Hardy and Woolf, Lawrence and Forster and Wodehouse… I never really thought of them as British or foreign to me. In fact, I always just imagined them as American.
I know that’s absurd, to read Jane Austen or Rudyard Kipling and imagine them as American as Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, but I did. I just never made the distinction, even when they were writing about British cities or events in history through a particularly “English” eye and “stiff” upper lip, or using some Cockney’d slang that wrapped my brain’s tongue in knots… I still didn’t care, because they wrote in ways that stirred my imagination to soar. Their language was the very best that my language could become. They believed in ideals that only the greatest of men could accomplish. They described even the simplest, most mundane of daily events with such wit and care that I was enthralled. I wanted to be as them.
And so as I travel through this countryside, stopping to rest in a grassy field covered in clover and thistle or lay atop a stone wall descending into the mist, I fill my head with books. I re-read Jane Eyre and laugh outloud. I scribble in Vanity Fair and marvel. I close my eyes and recall passages from Tess of the D’Urbervilles or a Christopher Marlow poem and smile. I’m in England, and my head is lost in thought.