But Christmas was over ages ago! (Oh, no it wasn’t!)

(British readers will probably find the headline for this post trite, a cliche; American readers probably won’t know why.  Read on to find out.)

You think Christmas is long gone?  There’s one Christmas tradition in Britain that begins in earliest November, and in some places runs well past the end of January, without anybody complaining that it starts too early or stays too long.  And it’s almost invariably known by a diminutive of its proper name without anybody—not even me—complaining that people shorten the name.  And that’s panto.

The Genie of the Ring and the Genie of the Lamp at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

The Genie of the Ring (Alison Moulden) and the Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

Yes, it’s short for pantomime, but there’re no coyly silent mimes grinning from under berets; panto is louder than most theatre performances, because the audience gets to talk back.  A lot. It’s not panto without audience participation.

A panto is ostensibly a play for children, although I’ve read that well over 90% of people in Britain see a panto every year, a total which must include people who, like me, have no children to give them an excuse.  They dramatize a few traditional children’s stories (generally Cinderella, Snow White, Babes in the Wood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Dick Whittington, or Aladdin), but it’s common to see whole families showing up with three or even four generations.  In the best pantos—well, in my opinion—a lot of the lines work on two levels: straightforward and wholesome for the kiddies, with a second and ever-so-slightly racy sense for adults.

Abenazar, the villain, played by

Good vs. Evil stories sink or swim on their bad guys, and this production lucked into a wonderful villain, the sorcerer Abenazer, as played by Lara Milne, with enormous swishing cape and truly evil chuckle.  In another of those British-English spelling variations for words ending in -er, Abenazer appeared in the programme for this production as “Abanaza”.  (In the edition of the Arabian Nights I have, he’s only called “the African magician”, and has no name.)

All pantos offer dastardly villains, whom we are encouraged to boo.  Each stars a principal boy: a plucky young male hero played by a beautiful young lady.  Each includes a pantomime Dame: an older female character (or two, in the case of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters), played by an older man.  Assorted members of the company handle the parts that complete the story, as well as the musical numbers, slapstick sketches and other wacky mayhem the director has dreamed up.  The most fun I’ve had in years came when some of these players of unnamed parts—in this case, the Lost Boys and the “redskins” (ah, yes; we’ll come to them in a minute) of Peter Pan—handed out grey, foam-rubber, cube-shaped “rocks” to the crowd.  (Sorry, I don’t know the British term for foam rubber, although I do know it isn’t foam rubber.)  They told us to wait for a particular line, and then defend Peter Pan from Captain Hook by throwing our rocks.  Our cue came in the second act.  The air filled with flying grey blocks.  We threw ours from the ground-floor seats, got pelted with rocks that didn’t make it to the stage from the audience in the balcony, picked those up and threw them at the stage, too, while the pirates on stage picked up all the rocks they could and threw ’em back; it was total bedlam, and complete second-childhood bliss, all to the music of the 1812 Overture.

Ahem.

A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In calmer productions, the cast may throw candy into the crowd, or ask you to check your seat to see whether there’s a golden key hidden under it, or just ask for volunteers to come on stage to help with some of the nonsense.  Inevitably, there will be traditional lines for the audience, a sort of call-and-response that all British-born people seem to know, apparently having absorbed it with their mother’s milk.

The hero, you see, depends on the audience for messages about some of the action.  Often it’s that the villain is creeping up, which the audience indicates by shouting out together “He’s beHIIIIND you!”, to which the usual response is “What?” so that the audience can shout the line again and again, only louder.  Granted, this makes the characters seem a bit dim; they also seem rather contrary, going by the traditional disagreements, which go something like this:

Dame, as Evil Stepsister: “The glass slipper is MINE!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes, it is!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes…”

(Repeat until the last moment before it gets tiresome; timing is everything.)

Widow Twankay and the Emperor of China

Widow Twankey (Rosemary Woodcock) and the Emperor of China (Jo Heaphy).  Rosemary gets special credit for stepping into the role when the gent who was playing the Dame had to cancel; she did the cast proud, at one point turning a line she did remember–”I don’t know what to do”–into a hilarious cry for help–”I don’t know what to do.  I’ve no idea what to do [to crew offstage] Tell me what to do!

 This exchange may be the essence of panto.  Do an internet search on panto and I guarantee you’ll find headlines like “Traditional Panto on the Way Out? Oh, no, it isn’t!” or “Panto as Demanding for Actors as Serious Theatre – oh, yes, it is!”

Then there are audience lines I just don’t get, which nobody has been able to explain, most notably “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper”.  Even if you take into account that oompah and jumper rhyme (well, sort of) in standard British English, it’s still nonsense.  But much of panto is nonsense.

Sometimes, though, it’s politically incorrect nonsense.  Peter Pan includes a tribe of “redskins” that I would venture to say would not be seen on any American stage today, certainly  not under the name redskins.  And then there’s Aladdin, which is set in China.  China?

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

As a child, I thought Aladdin lived just down the road from Ali Baba, in a land of camels and date palms—but listeners the world over like tales of exotic lands, and apparently the original Arabian folktale set Aladdin in China.   That China, however, is a land where shops close on Friday to observe the Muslim holy day, and the inhabitants are called by names such as Mustapha (according to my edition of the Arabian Nights).   The panto version sticks to the original as far as setting the scene in China—but not much beyond that.

In the world of panto, Aladdin’s Chinese mother conforms to English stereotype by running a laundry, which seems a bit culturally insensitive, but…okay; there must be laundries in China and somebody has to run them, presumably somebody Chinese, as it’s doubtful there’s a long-running cultural exchange program whereby English people run laundries in Beijing.  Aladdin’s brother, a laundry worker, is called Wishee Washee (hmmmm…) and their mother is called Widow Twankey—a name that comes from the supposedly Chinese brand-name of a low-grade tea once sold in Britain, chosen to hint that she’s past her prime, since that tea consisted of old leaves.  But then we come to the Emperor’s guards, a trio of Keystone-style cops—Woo, Choo, and Poo—who’re played as fools, and who swap their Rs for Ls.  They appear several times, “rooking for Araddin”, and talk about practicing karate, a Japanese art, as if Asian cultures were interchangeable.  With their entrance, the play descends so far into stereotype that in the US it would be frankly offensive, but it’s cheerfully accepted here as just good fun.

The Emporer and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy.  I loved the orange hightops!

The Emperor and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy. I loved the orange hightops!

We wondered, at our neighborhood production of Aladdin this year, what the family sitting next to us, clearly from some far-eastern country and very possibly Chinese, would think. To go by their reaction, Asian immigrants don’t mind.  And the girls playing the Emperor’s Keystone-like guards were, just like the girls playing Aladdin, Wishee Washee, and Rosebud (equivalent of Disney’s Princess Jasmin), so beautiful, they just glowed—despite enormous false moustaches, in the case of the guards.  You couldn’t help but cheer them.

This Aladdin, performed for friends, parents, and locals in a church hall, was a blast, every bit as much fun as a professional panto with big-budget bells and whistles.  Nobody minded when the villain, still in character, dropped suddenly off the script, following a silence after “Noooow, Aladdin…”, with “Noooow, Aladdin, I have forgotten my line”.  Somebody offstage helped, and the whole effect was so charming, it seemed inspired.  They ought to write such things into the scripts on purpose.

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The Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) with two members of the chorus: Emily Moulden (left) and Ellie Wells (right), daughter of the Genie himself

For all I know, they have.  It’s traditional to change lines in the script, to add bad jokes (“My dog can talk!  How’re you feeling?” “Ruff!”  “What’s that on the tree?” “Bark!”) or to namecheck local places and personalities.  Characters in the local Aladdin went up the Farnham Road from Onslow Village, and saw the Hog’s Back—all local features, neither Chinese nor Arabian.  It all adds to the wacky (UK-ians might say “daft”) humour of panto that gives us a Wishee Washee in orange hightops, a Chinese/Arabian chorus singing Michael Jackson, and a Genie of the Ring who keeps a can of beer (UK: tin of lager) under her turban and whose theme song, played at her every entrance, is Nokia’s default ring-tone—get it? Get it?)

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

All over Britain, churches, amateur dramatics societies, and community groups put on local pantos at Christmas-time, while for professional actors, pantos are big business.  Sir Ian McKellan took time off from being Gandalf a while back to play Widow Twankey;  John Barrowman (of Doctor Who and Torchwood) defied tradition to take the part of Aladdin (in a production visited by Daleks) several years in a row; and a famous soap star (Steve McFadden of Eastenders) reportedly earned £200,000 (about US$300,000) as Captain Hook in a production about 5 miles from my house.  You can find them in the National Database of Pantomime Performance along with the smaller fry, and you’ll see there that some of these larger productions actually continue into March.

No, really–March.  So, do you think Christmas is over?  Oh, n—  Well, now you know what to say.

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Crimbo Comes but Once a Year

Happy New Year to readers still with me after a 6-month hiatus in posts, during which my Anglo-American experiences kept me so busy I didn’t pause to document them, for which I apologize.  I’ll kick off 2014 with holiday-induced thoughts on the perennially interesting subject of our common language.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill.  Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill. Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

I’ve mentioned my Theory of Trans-Atlantic Word Shortening before: Americans think that Britons brutally truncate perfectly innocent words, and Britons think Americans do the same thing, so the only reasonable conclusion is that we must all be shortening words, it’s just that we shorten different words, or shorten words differently.  Christmas in England offers a bunch of strange-to-American-ears examples, starting with decs (what you put on the tree) and pressies (what you put under it).  As for Christmas dinner, the British eat roasties (roast potatoes), and sprouts (Brussels sprouts), and no matter what else is on the menu, you’re almost guaranteed to end with Christmas pud (Christmas pudding). Oddly, the four-syllable word chipolata, which seems a good candidate for truncation, isn’t shortened, but I guess chips is already taken, and chippies is overloaded as it is; chippy can mean a fish-and-chip shop, a carpenter, a nickname for somebody with the surname Carpenter, or a young lady with dubious morals.

This year I ran into a new example when a supermarket’s TV commercial (telly advert) invited me to buy their “sweet clems”—clementines.  Where I grew up, we got tangerines in our Christmas stockings, we had heard of but had never seen satsumas, and we could get mandarins in cans(tins), but here you can buy all of those small orange citrus fruits, plus clementines, fresh.  Frankly, I can’t tell them apart, but clementines seem to be the traditional choice for Christmas.  I doubt that calling them clems is traditional, at least in our part of England; in 14 Christmas seasons in these islands, I’ve never heard that one, though I’ve seen it on greengrocers’ signs in the market (meaning signs on greengrocers’ stalls at the weekly outdoor market).

Linguists call these kinds of slang or informal terms, derived from existing words, diminutives; there’s even a British diminutive of the word Christmas itself.  Are you thinking Xmas? Nope, it’s Crimbo. The OED doesn’t know what to make of it, either, suggesting it comes from baby talk.  It’s not new: use of Crimbo dates back at least to the 1920s.  And, like a lot of diminutives, it’s slightly derogatory.  Crimbo is most often used by people poking fun, or worse, at the excesses and the materialistic aspects of festivities.

A box of "easy peelers", small clementines sold mainly for kids.

A box of “easy peelers”, small clementines sold mainly for kids.

There’s a more recent slang/diminutive here, said to originate in Liverpool but to be spreading, though I’ve never heard anyone use it. If you’re a Beatles fan you might already know it. John Lennon is said to have come up with Crimble as another name for Christmas.  You can hear it used in some 1960s Beatles’ Christmas videos for fans, but the Wikipedia page for Crimble is about to be deleted due to lack of evidence that the word is truly in common use.  (If you have evidence of the use of Crimble in Liverpool or anywhere else and you want to save the page, you have until January 6 to speak up.)

Recently UK media outlets have taken to using crimbo to mean a CBO, a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is a new type of court order similar to the older ASBO, or Anti-Social Behaviour Order (which I’ve written about before, too).  But that’s just an irony too far, if you ask me, and unnecessarily confusing.

Why do we shorten words in the first place?  Are we all just lazy speakers? Do we yearn for the cozy world of baby talk?  Some researchers suggest that we make up new words for old to boost social cohesion, which is presumably part of the reason for any kind of slang, as if we say to the world “Anybody can learn standard English, but we are the people who use this vocabulary”.  If true, then the people who are concerned that they can’t define “Britishness” in today’s melting pot of immigrants, a subject raised in the British press again and again, might find it useful to look at how we speak.  And if social cohesion is the name of the game, it makes sense that US-ians and UK-ians shorten different words: we are drawing lines to separate us, each group defining itself against the other.  And if that’s the case, then after 14 years in England, I ought to speak these days in a mishmash of words from both sides of the ocean—and I do.

Long live interesting differences in English!  And long live Christmas-Crimbo-Crimble!  I know people complain that the season starts earlier and earlier each year, but as for the celebrating itself, that’s one thing I don’t particularly want to see shortened.

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The shortest, least-hyped-up piece you’ll read about the new royal baby

A couple of weeks ago I started getting requests from American readers to write about the excitement over here  surrounding the wait for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new baby.

The only problem was that…there wasn’t much excitement.  There was much less excitement than there’d been about the wedding, but that’s only natural in that the wedding was a big public spectacle and everybody was  getting the day off work.  Now, if the birth came with a national holiday and we all got a day off, that would be different.

There was a bit of a stir of the “Did you hear?” variety when the Duchess’ pregnancy was announced in mid-December, and then pretty much nothing.  Now, I don’t read the tabloids, it’s true, and for all I know, the Daily Mail, the Sun, and other papers of that ilk were speculating right and left–I wouldn’t know.  Nobody I knew talked about it, and I’m guessing the press was politely leaving the poor girl alone to get over her morning sickness.

The first talk I heard of the baby, among all my friends and neighbours, in all of 2013, came when celebrating my friend Jocelyn’s birthday at the pub a couple of weeks ago, when the guest of honour said she’d been hoping the baby would hold off and not be born on her birthday.  And I said “Oh, is the baby due?”  and she said “Yes, it’s overdue”.  That was kind of it.

One of my friends admitted on Facebook that until he heard of the birth he hadn’t realized the Duchess was expecting, and a chorus of his friends chided him for being out of touch, so clearly there were people who thought we all ought to be on top of this blessed event.  The media coverage is pretty low-key though; we are updated every so often by news that the Queen is thrilled, that Prince Charles is thrilled, that Camilla is thrilled, and so forth.

I am interested in what name they’ll choose–no question they’ll tag the little mite with a name out of history, but which one?  The bookmakers are getting rich on people’s guesses, so in some quarters it must be hotly debated, but I haven’t heard a word other than from some stories on the internet news sites (mostly about the bookies).

So I’m sincerely pleased for the royal parents and wish them and the baby all the best, and…that’s about it.  Sorry.

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Wherein I make the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Dorset

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wiki Commons

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, when I was living in Belgium, my parents came to visit, and we drove over to England to see a cousin who lived here. (Well, we crossed the Channel by hovercraft, but you know what I mean.)

I don’t remember where we ended up going sightseeing, but I remember very well where we didn’t go: to the little village of Cerne Abbas, in Dorset, to see the Cerne Abbas Giant.  My cousin diplomatically vetoed that as inappropriate for the conservative sensibilities of the party there assembled; you can see why from the photos.

The naked and decidedly male Cerne Abbas Giant is one of many, many displays known as hill figures or chalk figures in the UK, but one of only three—the others being the Uffington White Horse and the Long Man of Wilmington—that are thought to date from ancient times.  Nobody knows who made them or why, but made they were, by cutting through the green turf and down to the white chalk beneath, and filling up, with more chalk, the troughs that were cut.   (You knew southern England is built on lots of chalk, right?  Chalk is what puts the white in the White Cliffs of Dover.)

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I finally saw the Giant last week, though he looked a little the worse for wear.  His head was pretty much gone, for starters, at least when looking with the naked eye—nakedness being something of the point of the priapic Giant.  Lots of the interior details—the lines that you might see as ribs or as a six-pack; the pectorals and nipples—that makes this figure different from most others, which are plain, seem to have disappeared, too, along with his left arm and a good bit of the club he holds in his right hand.  What he had instead, when I visited, was a somewhat polka-dotted (UK: spotted) midriff, with sheep as the polka-dots.

It takes a lot of work to keep the grass from growing back over the white outlines of a hill figure; it turns out that one good way of keeping the plants in check is to allow sheep to graze the hillside. (Not cattle; their hooves would mar the lines, apparently.)  But sheep don’t have the ability—nor yet the tools—to do the job entirely by themselves.  The National Trust, in charge of the maintainance, says it costs £1 per metre to re-furbish the white lines, which are about a foot wide (or 0.3 metre, if you prefer not to mix your measurements).  As the Giant is the largest hill figure in these islands at 55 metres (180 feet) tall and 51 metres wide, and carries a club 37 metres long, that’s a lot of metres of outline to keep up, and it looks like it’s been a while since the Giant has had an overhaul.

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

During WWII, the Giant was covered over on purpose, to prevent German planes from using him as a landmark.  More recently, he’s been used to advertise a variety of products, including condoms and, in 2007, The Simpsons Movie.  For that, a comparably scaled (but non-aroused) Homer Simpson, in underpants and waving a doughnut, appeared on the hill next to the Giant.  Funny, but…unfortunate.  Let the Giant have his gravitas.  (Homer was rendered in water-soluble paint, and washed away in the next rain, so that’s okay.)

Another man-made feature, known locally as the Trendle, sits over the Giant’s left shoulder.  That’s a rather odd name for a rectangular geoglyph (design on the ground) since trendle comes from earlier terms meaning round or circle or wheel.  The Trendle is also called the Frying Pan (again, a round name for a square figure); the Giant is also called the Old Man, or the Rude Man (or so say internet sources; I’ve never heard anybody use those names); and the hill itself is call Giant Hill or Trendle Hill.

Renovation work in 2008

Renovation work in 2008, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And while we’re on place names, what about Cerne AbbasCerne may be related to words meaning a circle, or a cairn (a pile of stones), while Abbas indicates an abbot. And in fact a nearby abbey, complete with abbot, flourished there until Henry VIII rousted out all the monasteries and took their lands and money in the 16th century.

It’s not clear why the monks and their abbot allowed such a pagan symbol to dominate the skyline—and maybe they didn’t.  Some people claim the Giant isn’t as old as all that, and the lack of criticism from the abbey is part of their evidence.  The first solid written record—which describes money spent on the never-ending task of clearing the weeds from the white lines—seems to date from the 17th century, whereas writers in the middle ages mention the White Horse of Uffington; the late appearance of written records, too, might suggest that the Giant didn’t appear much before the records did.

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are some—particularly since more lines, now obscured, seem to indicate the Giant used to carry a cloak or skin over his left arm—who say the figure is a traditional Roman depiction of Hercules, which would make him about 2000 years old, but then again, there are those who think some 17th-century servants cut out the Giant to criticize the way the landowner ran his estate.  I can’t imagine how servants had the time or the energy to organize such a protest, or how they thought it would help their situation, but that’s no more strange than the theory that somebody cut the figure to insult Oliver Cromwell (who helped overthrow the monarchy for a while in the 1600s) or that the monks themselves did it, to irritate the abbot.  Okay, this was before television and paperback books, but I thought the monks filled their long quiet evenings with prayer and/or flagellation, and besides—any monks, servants, or Royalists who started work on the figure would surely have been caught before they finished it; all the powers that be would have had to do was wait for them to come back.  (The Trendle, in any case, is an Iron Age construction, probably a fortification.)

Homer Simpson with the Giant

Homer Simpson with the Giant

A local legend says that a real giant was killed on that very hillside, and people cut an outline in the turf around his body, which would make Giant Hill the first crime scene to sport a chalk outline of the victim.  (Textbooks for modern detectives point out that such chalk outlines are seldom required, but also admit that every force seems to have at least one “chalk fairy” who can’t resist drawing them.) Many local people have, rather than speculate, accepted the Giant as a fertility symbol, whether they believed a woman who slept on the hill would conceive soon afterward, or that having sex on the giant assured fertility, or that dancing around a maypole in the Trendle assured fertility, or…there are probably infinite variations.  Some said a woman who walked around the figure three times would ensure that her lover was true; I’d say your lover could get up to a lot of mischief while you were hiking around and around.  In any case, every May Day, a troupe of Morris Men still dance in the Trendle and in the streets of Cerne Abbas to ensure good crops.

So I finally made the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Cerne Abbas. Long may he ensure the fertility of the beautiful Dorset countryside.

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle).  Courtesy of Ernest Adams

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle). Courtesy of Ernest Adams

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Gotland Rocks 1: Fårö

[I'm back in the UK, but my mind is still on Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic]

According to the Guta Saga, the ancient tale of the origins of the place,

Gotland was first discovered by a man called Tjelvar.  Then, Gotland was so bewitched that it sank beneath the waves by day and rose again at night.  This man, however, was the first to bring fire to the island, and afterwards it never sank again.

As Gotland is a solid—if small—island, that’s some powerful bewitchery going on.  In fact, “Gotland” is not only the name of one island; it’s also the name of the whole province including a few smaller islands, only one of which is inhabited enough so’s you’d notice.  This is the first post of three or so that make up something of a photo safari through the remarkable stones—natural or erected—of the island of Gotland and of that smaller island, sometimes called its ‘sister island’, Fårö.

That's me in the purple parka, at Langhammers, on the northern tip of faro

That’s me in the purple parka, at Langhammers, on the northern tip of Fårö

The most famous of the stones of Fårö (pronounced something like FAW-roo) are the rauks (pronounced, um, pretty much like rocks) which were left behind on the west cost of the island when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated.

And that one's not by any means the only one; when you see a cluster of them, you can imagine folktales about trolls or giants very easily.

And that one’s not by any means the only one; when you see a cluster of them, you can imagine folktales about trolls or giants very easily.

Now, if these stones look familiar, it’s likely that you’ve been to a Bergman film; Ingmar Bergman lived on Fårö and used it as a backdrop more than once.  (Visitors can stop in at the Bergman Center to see exhibitions and learn more about Bergman and Fårö, though it was closed for renovation when I was there.)

Lighthouse on Faro

Lighthouse on Fårö

A Victorian-era lighthouse and…

This labrynth on Faro, half-covered by snow, could have been built last summer or centuries ago -- hard to say

This labrynth on Fårö, half-covered by snow, could have been built last summer or centuries ago — hard to say

an unexpected, unsignposted labrynth  rounded out the day on Fårö, where the most interesting stones were posed by nature; on Gotland itself, the stones arranged by humans were more interesting, starting with the Bronze Age, boat-shaped, burials.

Which I’ll tell you about in the next post (if the island I’m on doesn’t sink beneath the waves in the meantime).

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He’s Nailed It (or in Swedish: “Spikning”)

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

Visby (see previous post) is a summer town, where most visitors go to enjoy the beach.  Sure, the medieval walls and the museums are there year-round, but some tours and other visitor services only run mid-June to mid-August.  So why would I go there in an unseasonably frigid April?  To watch my husband, Ernest Adams, take part in a strange European ceremony left over from the Middle Ages.

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest's was added

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest’s was added

But first, you need a little paragraph of history to get the background:  The Protestants split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as the result of a movement called the Protestant Reformation, which was kicked off by a German monk called Martin Luther, who famously nailed 95 theses to the door of a church.  The biggest bee in Luther’s bonnet was about the selling of indulgences, that is, people paying money to the church for official documents saying that their sins would be forgiven.  Luther was appalled that the tremendously wealthy Pope Leo X would defraud people of money when surely only God could forgive sins (and without money changing hands, even if the church did need the money to repair St Peter’s Basilica), and Luther not only said so, he pretty much wrote down 95 reasons why and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, in Germany, in 1517.

Selecting a place for the nail (Stephen on the bench, Ernest standing by)

Selecting a place for the nail before the audience arrives (Prof. Stephen Batchelder on the bench, Ernest Adams kibbitzing from the floor)

Now, having learned about that years and years ago, I had always assumed this was a bit of seriously in-your-face vandalism in the cause of religious activism, and that nailing his opinions up on the church door was a slap in the face of the establishment, but I’ve recently learned that I’d gotten it absolutely wrong.  Nailing your thesis to the door—or to whatever other bit of architecture was traditional where you lived—was, back then, a valid means of scholarly publication.  You wrote your argument and nailed it up so people could take your paper down off the door, read it, and put it back for the next person to read.

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

And in some parts of Europe they continue the practice to this day, generally nailing up the theses (US: dissertations) of new PhDs. The author pounds in a nail and hangs the thesis on it by a loop of string, the idea being that the public can take down the document, read what someone has written, and then come to hear the author’s defense (aka their orals,  oral examination, or viva), prepared with questions to ask.  And that’s why I went to Visby: because my husband’s colleagues at the Hogskola på Gotland, a university where he’s a part-time lecturer, asked him to nail up his PhD thesis—something of an honour, since he earned his degree elsewhere.

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest's dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest’s dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

The spikning (nailing) ceremony didn’t actually involve a church door, or any door at all.  Spikning ceremonies at Gotland  use a plank of wood set into the wall of the library’s café.   And they haven’t been nailing theses on Gotland for very long; the Hogskola there is the youngest university in Sweden, although it’s merging this summer with the prestigious university in Uppsala (established 1477) where they’ve been nailing up papers for centuries.  Some new PhDs in Uppsala, it seems, use hand-forged iron spikes; my husband actually ordered some of these, but they didn’t arrive in time for him to use one. (So now we’ve got a couple of hand-forged iron spikes lying around.  Any ideas on what we could use them for?)

Ernest's hammers in the nail

Ernest hammers in the nail

At some Swedish institutions, your adviser signs off on your thesis by writing Må spikas—meaning “May be nailed”; at some, nailing up your thesis is a requirement for getting your degree.  Some require you to give a copy of the thesis to the university library as well, as that’s a bit more practical for readers, and some have gone over to what’s called e-spikning or e-nailing—posting theses on-line.  I rather like the sound of the Institute of Technology at Linköpings Universitet, where PhD candidates nail their theses to “the oak outside…building C”, which seems much more authentic than the bulletin boards and such that other places use.

Ernest and the Rektor

Ernest and the Rektor

The University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies advises students to “contact the reception for borrowing a drill, hammer, and nail.”  That would have been handy at Gotland, where staff made arrangements for the hammer and nail to show up at 2:00, but they didn’t arrive until 3:00, brought by a young woman in blue jeans, a striped T-shirt, and running shoes, whom Ernest thought at first was someone from the facilities staff.  She turned out to be Erika Sandström, Rektor of the university, that is, the head of the whole institution, what in the US we’d call the President and in the UK we’d call the Chancellor.   That mix of formality and informality is particularly Swedish, I’m told, and I rather like it; they seem to value substance over formalities.

Colleagues and game design students at the party

Colleagues and game design students at the party

At 3:00 the speeches started, with professor Stephen Batchelder introducing Ernest, and then turning the microphone over to Ernest to talk a little about what he’d written, after which Stephen drilled a hole through a copy of the thesis with an electric drill (whatever they used in the Middle Ages, it must have taken a lot longer).  Then we all trooped into the café where Ernest stood on a bench to reach the empty spot they’d chosen in advance (and into which they’d secretly drilled a pilot hole).  He pounded in the nail, hung up the thesis, got a bouquet and a gift (and a hug from the Rektor), after which we all had drinks and canapes.

The process works!  Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The process works! Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The punchline here is that Martin Luther probably didn’t nail his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, or at least that’s the most recent word from historians who’ve looked at the evidence.  That church burned down in 1760, but was rebuilt, and in the 19th century it was given new doors, with Luther’s 95 arguments inscribed in bronze.

In any case, now my husband is not just Ernest, but Dr Ernest; his dissertation/thesis—Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling—is the last student paper he’ll ever have to write; and you could say, using an American expression, that he’s nailed it.

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Went to Sweden, found Mississippi

The Anglo-American Experience will be a Swedish-American experience for the next week or so.

A mannequin wears one of Veronica's designs for Mississippi in the Visby shop.

A mannequin wears one of Veronica’s designs for Mississippi in the Visby shop.

A couple of days ago I got lost in an unfamiliar city and stumbled across a shop called Mississippi.  That might not have been too surprising, except that I’m on an island in the Baltic.

I’ve lucked into 10 days of vacation (UK: holiday) in the World Heritage town of Visby, on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island.  Vikings lived here in the 12th century, it was a hub of international trade through the middle ages, and today Visby is the best-preserved of the fortified trading cities of Northern Europe, full of medieval stone buildings and surrounded by a 13th century city wall.

Peach-coloured summer dresses, which the English would call frocks.

Peach-coloured summer dresses, which the English would call frocks.

Inside that wall—all 3.6 kilometres, or about 2 ¼ miles of it, largely intact—lots of trading goes on to this day.  Pedestrians and (a few) cars share stone-paved streets lined with any number of boutiques and shops, with many of the shops selling hand-made goods you won’t find elsewhere.  Lots of these only open seasonally, because the population burgeons in the summer as Scandinavians come here for the beaches and cruise ships stop in, until it all culminates in an 8-day festival called Medieval Week, with jesters and jousting and—well, if this were a tourist brochure, I’d have to come up with a third item beginning with J, jollity or some such, but as this is a blog about finding Mississippi in the Baltic, I’d better get back to the point.

Staffan himself, in front of some of the merchandise at Mississippi

Staffan himself, in front of some of the merchandise at Mississippi

I went back to the Mississippi boutique today—on purpose this time—and spoke to Staffan, one of the proprietors, who had only opened for the season a couple of days before.  He was suffering in the cold, having just arrived from Bali; he and his wife, Veronica, designer of their clothing lines, live in Indonesia in the winters and have a second shop there.

They’ve been in business over 25 years, and never intended to call the place Mississippi at all.  Veronica’s mother came from Mississippi, and Veronica holds a US passport, though she’s never been there.  Staffan told me how, when they were first opening the shop, they were on the phone (presumably to some official in charge of registering new businesses) and found that the name they’d planned on using wasn’t available, so they had to come up with something else, right there and then, before they even hung up the phone.  Mississippi simply came to mind; Mississippi it has been ever since, although they’ve played around with other names, including Mrs. Hippy (say it out loud and you’ll get the connection), which I rather like.

Dresses in the doorway of the shop

Dresses in the doorway of the shop

I loved their clothing, though they don’t make it in a size for the likes of me, and I have to admit I’m a bit too old for the styles; Mississippi’s creations are for younger Misses.  The items are so distinctive that customers can recognize each other; if they happen across someone wearing a similar sort of dress as they walk along in Stockholm, they’ll say “I see you’ve been to Visby!”

The shop itself -- if you hurry, you can get 50% off last year's styles!

The shop itself — if you hurry, you can get 50% off last year’s styles!

So Mississippi’s brand-new styles change hands inside the medieval city walls that have seen centuries of trading, and I sit here—I’m in the public library, which doubles as the university library—and write about it for you to read wherever you are.  This is globalization, I suppose, but in a good way.  If you get as far as Visby, stop in and do some Mississippi shopping.  Just remember to pack for the climate; this ain’t the bayou.  And if global warming keeps upsetting the weather patterns, you may need a cardigan over your beautiful summer dress from Mississippi.

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