Category Archives: Arts

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.


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.


Filed under Arts, Culture, Current events

How did those feet in ancient time become a patriotic song? : “Jerusalem” (part 1)

The Olympics may seem like ancient history to the fast-moving blogosphere, but I’m still mining the opening ceremony for elements of British life that Americans and other foreigners might not have understood.  After all, the designers set out explicitly to display Britishness, and they didn’t make many concessions to people unfamiliar with Britain.

In that ceremony—after the countdown, and after Bradley Wiggins rang the enormous Olympic bell—11-year-old Humphrey Keeper sang these words from a poem by William Blake:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

(Rules of punctuation weren’t as firmly set in Blake’s time, so those aren’t typos you see there, I’m just presenting the lines the way Blake wrote them.)

The William Blake poem that furnished the lyrics for the hymn “Jerusalem”

To anybody here in the UK, this hymn, generally called “Jerusalem”, immediately ticks the box (US: checks the box) marked Patriotic Song, though most foreigners must have been puzzled.  Jerusalem? And, um, something Satanic?

The first stanza is straightforward, if odd: the poet seems to ask whether it’s true that Jesus visited England, and in fact many different legends here say he did.  This isn’t like the Mormon story of Jesus appearing in the US after the resurrection; these legends suggest that in the gap the Bible leaves between Jesus, age 12, and Jesus, age 30, he dropped in on us.

Blake’s engraving “Christ as the Redeemer of Man”

Other people say he traveled through India, Tibet, Persia, Greece, Egypt—clearly he got around rather more than the average Judaean teenager—but in England alone you can take your pick from several options: Joseph of Arimathea (the man who donated Jesus’ tomb) was Jesus’ uncle/great-uncle and was a sailor/a shipwright/a tin refining worker/a tin merchant, who visited Cornwall/Somerset for his business/on the request of St Paul/because Jesus wanted him to deliver the Holy Grail/to become the first bishop of these islands.  He brought young Jesus along on the trip once/twice as a cabin boy/as a ship’s carpenter/to enroll him in a school run by the Druids, who at the time offered the best education to be had.  His mother Mary came, too/didn’t come/came, died, and is buried on these shores, but in any case, Jesus came and settled here a while/was shipwrecked here/was stranded here for the winter, until the weather was favorable to sail back. (And those aren’t even all the known variations. It isn’t only nature that abhors a vacuum; a lot of people must have felt a need to fill in those missing years.)

“Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion” by Blake

Unfortunately, after I had a great time researching all that, I found that Blake probably wasn’t writing about a visit from Jesus at all.  Once the idea of such a visit comes up, it seems almost impossible to think Blake could be talking about anything else, but folklorists have found no other trace of the stories before about 1890, which is almost 100 years after Blake wrote the poem.  That doesn’t mean that the stories originated with Blake, either; scholars have found no other evidence, in the thousands of pages Blake wrote, showing that he believed any such thing, though they’ve found similar passages in which it’s clear that Blake was thinking about Jerusalem, not Jesus.

The frontispiece to Blake’s poem “Milton”, from which the lines for the song were taken; Blake did write a poem called Jerusalem, but the words for the song didn’t come from that poem, because that would be far too easy…

For my purposes it doesn’t matter; I write about British life, and I’d bet my house that the average Britons on the street, if they have opinions about the lyrics at all, believe Blake referred to those same old stories.  The stories themselves are part of British history anyway; early 20th-century folklorists recorded plenty of tales of the form “Of course everybody knows Jesus visited our town”, particularly in tin-mining communities, where they also found a folksong, “Joseph was a tin man”, and where tin workers used to call out “Joseph was in the tin trade” as a good luck charm at one dangerous step in the refining process. It’s a good bet that at least a few people in Britain today still believe that Jesus walked “upon England’s mountains green”.

In any case, Blake’s poem moves right along from the feet and countenance (whatever they refer to) to the building of Jerusalem, apparently in England—a strange idea, but one for which there’s a lot more data out there.

Emanuel Swedenborg. For a visionary who claimed to speak with angels and demons, he looks remarkably ordinary, even boring.

Blake, for all his personal mythology, was a Christian, though a Nonconformist (one who rejects the Church of England; it’s a term still in use).  And, at least for a while, he followed the teachings of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who said that anybody can understand the Bible in the obvious, earthly way, but only he, Swedenborg, could read it in a special, spiritual way and interpret it for everybody else.

That’s because the second coming had already occurred, in the form of a revelation to Swedenborg personally, which resulted in Swedenborg’s freedom to come and go from heaven and hell as he pleased, and to converse with angels, with demons, and with spirits from other celestial bodies: the moon, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus,  and planets beyond our solar system.  His list didn’t include Neptune, Uranus or Pluto, which hadn’t been discovered yet, which seems a bit of a giveaway about  Swedenborg’s celestial knowledge.  (Although I’m skeptical, to say the least, I don’t mean to offend any of the 10,000 members of Swedenborgian congregations in the US, the UK, the Netherlands and South Africa who are actively worshiping along these lines.)

A bust of Swedenborg in Stockholm. Before he became a mystic, he was a scientist, mathematician, engineer and inventor.

Blake, with others, signed a declaration saying he believed all that to be true and called for the establishment of the New Jerusalem Church, but he didn’t have to be a Swedenborgian to talk about the New Jerusalem; the term comes from the book of Revelation, which is full of mystical stuff and therefore right up Blake’s alley (UK: right up Blake’s street).  Mysticism was in the air back then; Blake knew people who claimed they could raise the dead, and not only did these people say they had conversations with God and Jesus, one artist he knew claimed the Virgin Mary had posed for his painting, which must have given him an edge over all Madonna-painting artists before or since.

The preface to “Milton”, showing the poem that provided the lyrics for “Jerusalem” as they appeared on the page, under a prose paragraph calling Homer, Ovid, Plato and Cicero “Perverted”–Blake didn’t pull his punches–and calling the Bible “Sublime”.

Blake, following Swedenborg, didn’t take Revelations literally, but thought of the New Jerusalem as symbolic of a new church movement that would sweep away the old, and clearly from the poem (that is, from the second verse, which I haven’t mentioned yet, sorry) Blake believed we would have to put in the effort to construct it ourselves, among the “dark Satanic mills” of the industrial revolution.

But, having made it through the first stanza, with Jesus’ visit to England, and most of the second, with the new Jerusalem, I’ll have to leave the subject until the next post—along with the question of how this song came to be associated with patriotism in the first place.  To tide you over, here’s a clip of the crowd at the last night of the Proms singing “Jerusalem”; I’ll have to tell you about the Proms another time, but for now you only need to know that it’s a series of concerts, conventional until the last night when, er, audience participation breaks out in a big way.  Believe it or not, this clip from 2011 doesn’t show nearly as much flag-waving as clips of some other years, but I like this one because you can see close-ups of people singing.  Okay, a few are looking down at their programmes to be sure of the words, but most of them are just singing along because almost everybody here knows this song, with its obscure words, the same way most Americans know “America, the Beautiful” (which is a lot easier to understand).

The video shows the interior of the Albert Hall, where the orchestra is, and Hyde Park, where big screens display events to the thousands who didn’t get tickets.  Unfortunately the video isn’t always in sync with the sound; the young men with beer cans seem to be almost a phrase behind, but you can tell they know all the words and are singing their hearts out.  Near the end of the video, back inside the hall, you can see a young lady in an Islamic-style headscarf waving a Union jack and singing what is fundamentally a Christian song about Jerusalem—which is, to my eye, rather a nice way to characterize modern multicultural Britain.  I wonder what Blake would think of it.


Filed under Arts, Culture

A Last Word about Isaac Newton and a First Word about William Blake

Sorry that there hasn’t been a post here for a couple of weeks; sometimes real-world deadlines intrude. I hope to get back on schedule soon.

A peek through the main gate of the British Library in London, where you can just make out the colossal statue of Newton, hunched over, measuring with a compass, or as the British would say, with compasses.

Although I’ve never posted about the British Library in London, it’s one of my favorite places over here. Heck, it’s one of my favorite places on the planet—and while that’s mainly because of the books, manuscripts, maps, and more that they keep inside, there’s also the sculpture outside to consider.

The first thing you see if you enter through the main gate is a statue of Isaac Newton, by artist Edouardo Paolozzi. With a name like that, of course he must be…Scottish. He came from the north side of Edinburgh, but perhaps, given that his parents were Italian, he felt at home in the pedestrian court enclosed by the wings of the British Library, as it’s officially called the piazza.

Paolozzi’s Newton

Paolozzi’s bronze version of Newton is almost 4 metres tall—that’s about 13 feet, and that’s to the top of the curve of its back.  If that hunched-over giant stood up, it would tower over the rest of us. That’s common enough for public statues, but perhaps especially appropriate for Newton, who said that if he saw farther than others had seen, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants—those scientists and mathematicians who went before—and Einstein presumably stood on the metaphorical shoulders of the giant Newton in his turn.

Blake’s Newton

But the giant Newton in the Library’s piazza isn’t standing at all, nor is it looking out at the world, because Paolozzi based his design on William Blake’s painting of Newton. While Blake would have appreciated the monumental size of the statue, I’m guessing that’s about the only thing he’d approve about the piece. He wouldn’t have found Newton a fit subject for a national institution dedicated to human thought, life, art, philosophy, and more. The Blake engraving that inspired Paolozzi is actually titled Newton: Personification of Man Limited by Reason.

Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Leading Leviathan

I say he’d approve of the scale of the bronze Newton because Blake lamented, back in the earliest 19th century, that huge civic artworks had fallen out of fashion, because he liked the idea of getting to paint 100-foot-high versions of his works The Spiritual Form of Pitt and The Spiritual Form of Nelson. That would be something like an American artist today saying it’s too bad the country has lost its taste for what Blake called “paintings on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation” and proposing 100-foot-high interpretations of The Spiritual Form of Obama and The Spiritual Form of General Petraeus. Even in 1805, I think that was probably seriously weird.

Blake was a poet, a painter, a visionary, an illustrator, a prophet, an engraver, and possibly a madman. He began seeing visions at age 9 and saw them all his life, so you can see how, since he thought these were glimpses of something eternal, divine, and true, he’d think that using reason might but a damper on things.

A page from Blake’s America: A Prophecy, typical in that he printed the page from his own engraving, and colored the illustrations by hand.

Blake eventually worked out an entire mythology involving a pantheon of figures you might call demigods, as an illustration of his ideas of the divine and eternal, and of mankind’s place within the grand scheme of things.  He presented his creations in epic poems as well as in artwork, usually in illuminated books which he engraved and then, helped by his wife, painted on the colors by hand.

In this mythology, mankind’s long-ago fall from grace was a fall out of eternity and into time and space, which fractured Albion—the Cosmic man and, while we’re at it, the personification of England—into four parts. Now, here it really gets messy, because everything is overloaded, carrying more than one meaning. But we only need to look at one of the four: Urizen.

The title page of The Book of Urizen. Behind him there’s a tree which has bent over and re-rooted, to grow again. If you read the previous post, you might recognize that as something you’ve heard of before…

Urizen is a creator god (except that he isn’t) and maps in some ways to the Biblical Jehovan (except that he doesn’t; I told you Blake was seriously weird). Urizen is man’s reason, without the stabilizing balance of the three other qualities Blake found essential—emotion, imagination, and instinct—and is an oppressor, an enslaver, of humanity.  His name is a pun on horizon, indicating that his vision is limited, and on your reason.

Urizen as The Ancient of Days

Blake’s painting of Newton casts him as Urizen (compare the illustrations), and shows him measuring and calculating, having turned his back on the beauty and variety of nature as shown in colors on what looks to me like lichen-encrusted rock. Blake despised Newton’s approach; 100 years or so after Newton, when rest of the world venerated Newton in large part for his experiments with light and vision, Blake said Newton brought us night rather than light, and that Newton’s single vision didn’t compare to Blake’s own fourfold vision. Newton might have stood on the shoulders of giants, but Blake suggested that Newton saw so little from his perch that he might as well have been asleep. He lumped Newton, materialist philosopher John Locke, and Francis “Father of Empiricism” Bacon together as what has been called an infernal trinity. They were to Blake ‘the three great teachers of atheism, or Satan’s Doctrine’, though Newton was not an atheist at all, but quite the contrary; he thought the precision and mechanics of the universe was evidence of the Creator.

In this view of the sculpture, the bolts/pivots for the joints show up a bit better–look at his shoulder, and at his ankle

Paolozzi took Blake’s view of Newton as advocating a mechanistic universe and ran with it, making his Newton out of metal and making the features of his body segmented, idealized, and symmetrical; removing the colors, the lichens and the rock entirely; seating his figure on some kind of rectilinear constructed box; and even showing the bolts that hold the body together, the pivots of the joints, making sure we can see the linear divisions between the pieces of the head, suggesting Newton’s head was made of precisely manufactured units. Paolozzi might as well have said “Yeah, Newton gave us a measured, understandable, reasonable, quantifiable view of the world—and isn’t it great?”

In any case, Paolozzi’s Newton provides the perfect segue from the previous posts on Newton to the next posts, which will involve Blake—because it was Blake who wrote the lines of the hymn “Jerusalem” that one little choirboy sang near the beginning of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and I figured there must have been lots of Americans who, if they understood what the song was about at all, didn’t understand why the English apparently chose a piece about Jerusalem as a patriotic song. It’s just one more basic fact of British life in the collection of elements of Britishness set out in that ceremony, and one I plan to tell you about next time.


Filed under Architecture, Arts, Culture, History, Travel

Isaac Newton and the Paralympic Apples

Apple dancers at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics

Olympic sports have continued here; the Paralympics don’t end until tonight. British viewers saw the full Paralympic opening ceremony, and we’ve had 4 channels showing events live all day long. I gather that in the US, NBC showed only about 5 hours of the Paralympic action, total—hard to believe.

A performer enters, riding in her wheelchair on a gigantic apple, which sits on a book. Books made up another theme of the ceremony, representing, among other works, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Newton’s Principia Mathematica

The Paralympics’ opening ceremony, like the Olympic ceremony, tackled a revolution, in this case the scientific revolution. The connection between Newton’s apple—represented in many forms, including the real apples given to each spectator on arrival—and the Paralympics might not be obvious, though when you watch some of the people who run on those remarkable blades instead of feet, it’s clear that science and technology underpin some events. But I’d guess that the choice of theme had much to do with the contemporary world’s most famous disabled person being British and a scientist: Stephen Hawking, who narrated the production.

Professor Hawking, looking very small on the main set in the enormous arena

The UK can’t actually claim that the scientific revolution began here—can’t leave out Copernicus for starters, and he was Polish—but I guarantee you that a good proportion of the population finds that the phrase “scientific revolution” brings to mind that apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head 100 years after Copernicus. Newton wasn’t actually conked on the head, but there was an apple tree, he did watch an apple fall and, watching it, wondered why apples always fall down and never out to the side or something, a bit of daydreaming that led to the universal law of gravitation. Descendants of Newton’s apple tree still grow in the same orchard at his home in Lincolnshire, which I visited just a couple of days before those apple-wielding performers (see illustrations) appeared on my TV/telly, so I’m using that as an excuse to write about Newton in the middle of my streak of Olympic-ceremony posts.

A 430-voice chorus sings Principia , a violently discordant piece by composer Errollyn Wallen inspired by Newton’s work

Isaac Newton was born prematurely at Woolsthorpe Manor on Christmas Day 1642, so small that the nurse said he could fit into a quart jug (in the US we’d have said pitcher; Brits think pitcher is as quaint and old-fashioned as Americans think jug is). Servants sent out for supplies for the baby sat down and goofed off rather than hurry, as they didn’t expect him to be alive when they got back anyway.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Isaac Newton was born, grew up, and did some of his most famous work.

On the other hand, local superstition at the time held that it was lucky to be born on Christmas Day. It was also supposed to be lucky to be born after the death of your father, as odd as that sounds, and the baby’s father had died a few months before. When his mother, Hannah, remarried, she left three-year-old Isaac at Woolsthorpe Manor with his grandmother. Lots of books will tell you that this meant her new husband didn’t accept his step-son, but the National Trust (historic preservation group that maintains the house) says it’s more likely that Hannah shrewdly left her son in the Newton home to make sure no one questioned his right to inherit the place.

The farm at Woolsthorpe Manor

When he was older, his mother also demanded he do his familial duty and work on the farm—Woolsthorpe Manor sounds grand, but it was really just a glorified farmhouse. Had that worked out, he might have remained illiterate like his father, who never learned to write his own name. (There’s a grid of small cup-shaped gouges on a plaster wall at Woolsthorpe Manor that historians think is an inventory of livestock; presumably that was how you kept track if you couldn’t read or write.) But Newton’s mother found she could lead a scientific genius to the land, but she couldn’t make him cultivate it.

Newton, first scientist ever knighted, was granted a coat of arms; claiming descent from a certain baron, he was allowed to adopt that baron’s ancient symbol. The crossed bones are not uncommon on arms and don’t imply piracy; National Trust staff suggested they are sheep bones, as the family made its money in sheep.

In the end, she allowed him to go to school, and from school to Cambridge, where she expressed her feelings about his choice not to be a farmer by giving him so little money that he had to work as a servant for richer students. It doesn’t seem to have mattered much. The only thing that could keep him away from Cambridge was the plague, which closed the place down in 1665.

As far as is known, this is the apple tree from which Newton said he saw the apple fall, one of several in the orchard that lies just outside the front door at Woolsthorpe Manor. It’s certainly over 400 years old. The variety is Flower of Kent, and it’s a cooking apple.

So Newton went back to the farm and sat there by himself, totally revolutionizing science, later saying “I was in the prime of my age for invention”. He not only saw the apple fall and worked out his theory of gravitation, but developed the three Laws of Motion, invented calculus, worked out principles of mechanics and of planetary motion, and did famous experiments with light. His work always began with observation, and he was such an inveterate experimenter that, rather less famously, he stuck a blunt needle into his eye to see how pressing on his retina would alter his vision.

Performers pull giant apples into the stadium

A trip to Woolsthorpe Manor includes a chance to see the window that Newton covered, leaving only a small opening so that he could direct sunlight through a prism and break white light up into colours. Newton didn’t invent the prism; people knew them from way back. Ships used prisms to let light in below decks, for one thing, and Newton bought his prism at a country fair, maybe sold as toy for children. In any case, before Newton, people thought that prisms added colour to light, and that all colours were mixtures of dark and light, so that (I’m not making this up) one theorist said that red was produced by the purest white light with the least amount of dark mixed in (I know, I know) and black was pure darkness, but if there was just a little light mixed into the darkness, you got a sort of dull blue. Newton used a second prism to bend the light again, merging the colours to produce white light, which pretty much knocked the ol’ prisms-apply-colours theory off the table (and at least it didn’t require any of that needle-in-the-eye business).

A giant apple floats in.  Before Newton, people thought objects contained more or less of properties called gravity and levity, which made those objects heavy or light.  This, then, is an apple full of levity, I suppose.

Isaac Newton ended up the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, an extremely prestigious position. One of his professors had the job, but resigned so Newton could have it; he was that good. Three-hundred and ten years later, Stephen Hawking got the job*, which leads us back to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, in all its apple-y glory.

Apples floated in on wires. Performers rode in on gigantic apples, dragged in enormous apples on carts, tossed around beachball-sized apples, juggled apples. On cue, everyone in the stadium bit into their free apples for one thunderous communal crunch.

Apples everywhere…

And Professor Hawking told us via his synthetic voice that “There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being”. True, but some are less run-of-the-mill than others, and watching Paralympic athletes you can’t help but be majorly impressed. I’m going to miss the games. (I’ve already looked up a wheelchair basketball team near me and hope to go see them play.) But at the moment, I’m looking forward to tonight’s closing ceremony. Just in case there’s audience participation, I’ve got some apples standing by.

* Lucasian professors are required to retire at 67, so Professor Hawking left the Lucasian Chair in 2009, replaced by physicist Michael Green.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor are mine; others are screenshots from the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics


Filed under Arts, Culture, Food, History, Sports, Technology, Travel

Update: Peter Collyer’s watercolours illustrate the Shipping Forecast

Since I uploaded my last blog post, on the Shipping Forecast, artist Peter Collyer has given me permission to illustrate the post with images from his book Rain Later, Good — for which I am extremely grateful.

He reports that a new edition of the book is to be published in September by Adlard Coles.  This will be a paperback with a new introduction, and will include the sea areas only (so not the section on coastal stations).

Please do go see the images now illustrating that post — they’re well worth a look!  Or you may prefer to go to Peter Collyer’s web site to see more of his work.  (Click on the link  Stolen paintings and you may help to catch a thief!)

Also please note that some time ago the Royal National Lifeboat Institute chose Rain Later, Good as the publication to celebrate their 175th anniversary (which was the year I moved to the UK).  I’ve made the RNLI a Featured Link, too — it’s a remarkable charity providing life-saving services, and worthy of all the support you can give.
Next post will continue with topics from the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  I’ll try not to let watching the sports and cheering for the US and the UK slow me down.  (Though actually I cheer for Belgium, too, because I once lived there, and for Sudan because my husband used to live there, and for the women on teams from Arab countries, and for the Zambians because I have a friend from Zambia, and for the Dutch and the Swedes because my husband has long-time clients there who have become friends, and…I cheer for a lot of people, actually).


Filed under Arts, Zzzzz... (Administrative Details)

The Shipping Forecast

Rockall by Peter Collyer, from his book Rain Later, Good. Used by permission.
Original caption — too small to be read here and so not reproduced — reads:
Southerly 4 backing southeasterly then increasing 6 to gale 8 perhaps gale 9.
Showers then rain.
Good becoming moderate.

I’ve mentioned before how the British see themselves as seafarers; you don’t have to look far for web pages such as “The Importance of Ships to Our Island Nation”  or for lines such as  “As an island nation, [the sea] occupies a special place in our national psyche.”

Admittedly, Britain doesn’t have a good climate for grass skirts, nor exotic native plants for making flowery leis—though we can make a mean daisy chain over here—but the British are islanders nonetheless, and life for many people here depends on what the British call the sea and Americans would more usually call the ocean.  However you refer to it, it can be treacherously changeable.  To keep tabs on what the sea is doing, mariners turn to BBC Radio 4 for the Shipping Forecast on FM or long wave several times a day, but the one I’m familiar with is at 0048 (12 minutes to 1:00 in the morning).  It’s the first one of the day, I suppose, but we landlubbers think of it as the last one.  The Shipping Forecast is like a bedtime story; we go to sleep with it.

So when the Shipping Forecast faded into Elgar’s “Nimrod” at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I knew that the production that evening was going to be about ordinary, everyday Britain—the real Britain as I know it.  The lines they used were:

…24 hours.  North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth.  Mainly easterly or northeasterly 4, occasionally 5.  Fog patches. Moderate, occasionally very poor.  Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover. North or northeast 4 or 5, occasionally 6.  Fog patches. Moderate, occasionally very poor.  Wight, Portland…

Sea Areas.
(Map from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.)

The numbers give the strength of the wind on the Beaufort scale, moderate and poor refer to visibility, and the names are the names of sea areas, which I’ll get to in a minute.  The information comes from the Met Office, Britain’s official weather service (a modernized name; it used to be the Meteorological Office), but the Shipping Forecast is more than the sum of its data.

The words themselves, given in concise language for brevity and clarity, come across with the compactness and rhythm of poetry. Taken altogether, they  have the comforting repetitive effect of a litany, even when the announcer is calmly warning craft of a force 10 gale.  Elisabeth Mahoney wrote in The Guardian  of the Shipping Forecast’s “talismanic, haunting power”; a recent AP article  called it a “melodic and soothing chant”, “a reminder that even in the jet age, Britain is an island nation where much depends on the movement of the sea.”

So it’s a litany, a chant, and in at least one context, has been likened to prayer; Carol Ann Duffy, one of several poets who’ve used bits of the Shipping Forecast in their work,  puts words from the Forecast at the intersection of poetry and religious incantation.  Duffy, the current poet laureate and the first woman, the first Scot, and the first out gay person to have the title, ends her poem “Prayer” with:

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer —

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

(Read the full poem by clicking here .)

I first heard the shipping forecast long before I visited England—and must have had no idea back then what I was hearing—when Jethro Tull released the album Stormwatch.  In between verses of “North Sea Oil”, you can hear:

Viking, Forties, Fisher. Northwest backing west, 4 or 5.

Dogger, German Bight. Northwest 5 or 6, occasionally gale 8.

There’s a good map of these sea areas on Wikipedia (click here).    The recitation always begins with Viking and then works its way around, mainly clockwise,  in an established order.  I notice that Carol Ann Duffy disrupted that order for her poem even though the names themselves could be taken, as is, to be found poetry ; scholarly articles have actually been written on the Shipping Forecast as poetry.

If you choose a section of the list of sea areas carefully you can even find, without changing the word order, what I like to call found doggerel:

Dogger, Fisher, German Bight,

Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight

Poets may recite the areas out of order for effect, but other changes creep in that might make you think poets were taking even more liberties than they are, because the names of the sea areas sometimes change.  North and South Utsire (pronounced uht-SIH-ruh) were carved out of Viking in 1984; and as recently as 2002, since I’ve lived in the UK,  the more musical Finisterre was renamed Fitzroy.  Both changes were made to  coordinate the British names with those used by other European countries, though I’d put money on the British versions having been established earlier than others.  (Yes, I should look it up, but I’m tired of entering links into this column, sorry.)

A whimsical painting of a paintbrush-wielding puffin listening to the Shipping Forecast, from Rain Later, Good. Original caption reads “And that ends The Shipping Forecast.  The next will be at…” Used by permission of Peter Collyer.

So those are the Shipping Forecast basics.  There are other intricacies, such as that the shipping forecast, at certain times of day, includes notes about the conditions in inshore waters, meaning areas no more than 12 miles from shore.  These include data from coastal [weather] stations, including buoys that function as lighthouses  in waters too deep for building a stationary lighthouse.  So you’ll hear references to, say, observations taken at Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic.

If you wonder about these places—where they are and what they look like—I can recommend the book Rain Later, Good by Peter Collyer.  Mr Collyer is a watercolorist who has traveled to all the sea areas painting seascapes or landscapes-with-sea-coast of each.  You can find his web site under “Featured Links” on the right-hand side of this blog.

Radio 4 signs off every night with the Shipping Forecast, preceded by an orchestra playing a piece in waltz time called “Sailing By” (though I’ve read that was written with hot-air balloon flight in mind), which is sort of horribly wonderful.  It’s sentimental schmaltz—which is probably redundant, but I think my British readers may not be used to the word schmaltz so I had to add sentimental—but has a nostalgic pull that seems to function in this country something like “Happy Trails” does in the US.  The music is convenient because you can fill up time with it or shorten it if you need to, should the preceding programme run short or long, and it’s distinctive—nobody would broadcast that stuff for any other reason—and alerts seafarers that they’ve found the right radio frequency.

After the music, we get the Shipping Forecast complete with inshore waters, a brief weather forecast for those on land, a quick goodnight from whatever presenter is still on duty in what I imagine to be a studio showing the only light in a darkened BBC building, and then the National Anthem.  It feels like being tucked into bed; all’s right with the world.

I’ll sign off now with a complete list of the sea areas.  God Save the Queen.  Sleep well.

Cromarty by Peter Collyer from Rain Later, Good. Used by permission. The original caption reads:
Northerly backing westerly 3 or 4, increasing 6 later.


North Utsire

South Utsire







German Bight









FitzRoy (was Finisterre)




Irish Sea






Fair Isle


Southeast Iceland


Filed under Arts, Culture, Current events

Dylan Thomas and the Boathouse at Laugharne

The landscape dwarfing the Boathouse

Last week, as part of that European travel that I told you I hardly ever do, I spent a few days roaming south Wales.  My husband had business in Swansea, and we stayed on for a few days to tour castles, to climb hills for views of dramatic coastlines, and to visit, among other places, the boathouse where Dylan Thomas lived.

Dylan Thomas, the best-known Welsh poet since the legendary bards of Wales died out in the 13th century, started out in Swansea, too: he was born there in 1914.  I’ve you aren’t familiar with him, you don’t have to take my word for it that he’s famous; just look on the cover of your old Sgt. Pepper’s album; he’s two rows behind Paul McCartney (the clean-shaven McCartney in a dark suit, not the moustachioed McCartney in blue satin), the one with the chubby face of an overgrown cherub.

The Boathouse, seen from Dylan’s Walk

And even if you haven’t heard of Dylan Thomas there’s a good chance you might recognize some of his most-quoted lines: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs”, maybe, or “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light”, a powerful response to his father’s death.*  When Dylan was a child (in the same way fans of Virginia Woolf tend to call her Virginia, Dylan Thomas fans tend to feel they’re on first-names terms, which is saying something—I mean, you wouldn’t call T.S.Eliot “Tom”, would you?) his father taught at the local grammar school Dylan attended. When the school’s headmaster asked Dylan one day where he was going, he said “Home, to write poetry”.  The headmaster said “Well, don’t get caught, then.”

Despite calling Wales “the land of my fathers” and adding “my fathers can keep it”, Dylan eventually settled in Laugharne (pronounced Larn**), then a little village of 400 people. He lived with his wife, Caitlin, and three children in a boathouse on the Tâf estuary, bought for them by a patron.  (Those were the days.) That’s the house I wanted to see.

The front steps

We parked at Laugharne castle, which has, unfortunately as it turns out, been chosen by Cadw (the government agency in charge of maintaining Welsh historic sites) to be a center for community arts projects in the cultural Olympiad—events and exhibitions scheduled to run during the Olympics so Britain can show the world what’s happening here in the arts.  What’s happening at Laugharne castle is an installation of enormous—and I mean at least a couple or three feet across—bright pink flowers on what ought to be the stern and forbidding 13th-century stone walls.  I found it so off-putting that I didn’t think to take a photo, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine it.

The path skirts the castle, then goes up (and up and up) the hill into the village and out again, through a tunnel of green leaves where its name changes from Cliff Road to Dylan’s Walk, passing the poet’s “wordsplashed hut”, otherwise known as his writing shed and, before he moved in, known as the garage. (We’ll come back to the writing shed, I promise).  Down the other side of the hill at the water’s edge, we found the house.

Seen from what was once the harbour

It was an actual boathouse once; old photos show boats in drydock where visitors today sip tea at picnic tables.  When the tide is highest, the Tâf still invites itself across the patio, and has been known to come right into the Thomas’ sitting room.

On the next floor up, high and dry, the family kept a more formal parlour used mainly for seeing guests, and a bedroom for Llewellyn, the eldest son. Dylan and Caitlin’s bedroom and a bedroom for Aeronwy and Colm, the younger children, were on the floor above; the bottom floor had a kitchen as well as the sitting room, and there was a lavatory outside.  The house didn’t have running water or electricity until the Thomases moved in.

The writing shed. The doors have been replaced; there wouldn’t have been a window on that side.

Dylan’s father’s desk—at which the teenaged Dylan wrote innumerable poems in his parents’ house in Swansea—sits in the parlour of the Boathouse now, looking rather unimportant, when actually over half the Dylan Thomas poems we read today had their roots in those early efforts.  He copied over 200 poems into neat notebooks, and mined them for material for years afterwards. The notebooks themselves aren’t on display, though; they’re in a university library in Buffalo, New York, because Dylan sold them in the 1940s when he was, according to Boathouse staff member, “skint” (a good British word you can understand from the context, I’m sure).

Llewellan’s bedroom is now the ticket office and bookshop.  I commented to the lady at the ticket desk that while it was a pleasant walk from the village on a nice day, Caitlin Thomas probably thought differently when she had to walk to the village in all weathers, carrying a shopping basket and towing three children.  “Oh, but she didn’t,” said the ticket lady, who grew up in Laugharne and remembers the Thomases.  It seems the family had food delivered from a lady the whole village called Auntie Louie, who kept a grocery.  And after a delivery boy came back wide-eyed, saying that Mrs Thomas had opened the door to him without a stitch on, Auntie Louie had no trouble at all finding someone to take the groceries all that way.

Interior of the writing shed

It occurs to me that the delivery boy might have pulled a Tom Sawyer on his friends to get out of the long walk. If Caitlin Thomas had a reputation for public nudity, nobody seems to have recorded it, though she and Dylan were unconventional, with their personal histories running to several lovers and to truly prodigious drinking. Historians say that Dylan may have been an alcoholic, but he also played up his image as a drinker and lady’s man, and in fact wasn’t as profligate as he liked to let people think. My faithful reader Malcolm, who often comments on my posts here, tells me that as a student he once went into a London pub, sat at the bar, and heard from the barkeep that the last person to sit on that stool before he did was Dylan Thomas.

Dylan’s reputation was apparently enough to keep him from being buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where he might have lain alongside distinguished writers from Chaucer to Kipling.  When President Jimmy Carter, a fan of the poems, led a campaign to add a memorial to Dylan Thomas, officials at the Abbey at first declined, mentioning his “dissolute lifestyle”. (Carter noted—when the the Abbey eventually allowed the placing of a plaque—that  there was “no need to list the human foibles of some of the others who had already been honored there.”)

The tea shop in what was the family’s sitting room had a display of the same china I collect (long-time readers might have seen it in one of my posts about tea: The employee in the photo heard me say that I’d love to have one of the teapots, and went — unasked by me! — to see if maybe she could sell me one. They aren’t original, and it’s not clear who donated the set, but it is part of the catalog of goods in the house, and not for sale.

Instead, Dylan is buried with Caitlin in Laugharne, which he once called the “strangest town in Wales”.  Scholars tend to agree that Laugharnians inspired the characters in Under Milk Wood, Dylan’s play for voices, which is widely considered a masterpiece, though he set the action in a fictional town named Llareggub—which may look like a Welsh placename because of the double-L at the beginning, but is really bugger all spelled backwards.

Guidebooks will tell you he wrote most of Under Milk Wood in his writing shed, a former garage perched on the cliff above the Boathouse. Recent research suggests he probably didn’t, but it must have made a wonderful study, and it had the advantage of being a good way towards the pub from the house, so when he was finished working, he had less of a walk to get to his pint.

Some say his last words were “I’ve had 18 whiskeys in a row.  I believe that’s a record”, but from statements made at the time by friends and doctors, that was another exaggeration.  His health had never been very good; he was excused from the military in WWII due to asthma.  It might have been that the doctors gave him too much morphine.

In any case–and to misquote him only a little—the metronome fell with a clout to the ground, stopped, and there was no more time.  He had just turned 39. But he left us the poems, though in his judgment, he was only “the top of the second eleven”, a term from cricket, for which the closest American equivalent might be “the best player in the second string”.  But a lot of people all around the world would place him far above that.

* “Do Not Go Gentle…” is a villanelle; click here for more info about that kind of poem or, even better, buy this book.

** I’ve touched on the subject of names with unusual pronunciations before, but just stumbled across this “List of names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations”, which might very well interest some readers.

Please note that the featured link will now point you to the website of the Dylan Thomas Boathouse.


Filed under Arts, Culture, Travel

Sims Reed, St James, London: My Kind of Bookshop

Sims Reed Rare Books, Duke Street St James at Ryder St. Visit their web site at

The cover of December 5th’s New Yorker  shows a clerk in a bookstore—at least, the word BOOKS is painted on the plate-glass window—pointing out to a customer the sole shelf of real books, near the floor and easy to miss. The prime selling space offers caps and calendars, e-readers and reading lamps, T-shirts (Shakespeare), paperweights (Twain and Shakespeare), and shopping bags (Hemingway, Woolf, and Joyce).

Last week I visited the antithesis of the New Yorker‘s nightmarishly bookless bookstore: Sims Reed Rare Books in St James in central London.

St James is a district within the City of Westminster—London being made up of two cities, two royal boroughs, and 30-odd ordinary boroughs—filled with upscale shops and traditional gentlemen’s clubs. If you need antiques, art, or indeed antique art, it’s a fine place to browse; if you need bespoke (US: custom-made) shirts or even bespoke shoes, someone in St James can provide them.

"Two Stories" by Leonard & Virginia Woolf, 1917. This is one of at least two different covers in which they issued the book; the one at the British Library has a solid blue paper wrapper.

The gentlemen’s clubs of St James I know only from books, of course, not being a gentleman and not, even as a lady, being the sort the British call clubbable (the class of person to whom clubs would offer membership). If I have anything approaching a club in St James, it’s the London Library, a private lending library, where I can sometimes be found in a red leather chair in the Reading Room with Granta or the Sewanee Review.  But I could read about Bertie Wooster, who belonged to the Drones Club, or about Sherlock Holmes meeting up with his brother, Mycroft, at the Diogenes. When Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, tells his man Bunter that he’ll be dining at his club, he could mean the fictional Egotists club or he might mean the Marlborough, not only a real club, but a favorite of King Edward VII. Lord Peter’s (fictional) entry in Debrett’s lists his pedigree and his clubs, but also reminds the reader that “bibliophily” was one of his hobbies, and that he was the author of Notes on the Collecting of Incunabula—which brings us back to the subject of rare books, as incunabula are early printed books (especially those printed before 1501).

An inviting shelf at Sims Reed. There's nothing in the photo to indicate the scale, so you'll have to take my word for it that the tallest books shown here are a good 30 inches tall.

My visit to Sims Reed was sparked by a much later volume, hardly more than a pamphlet really, and published only in 1917. Two Stories was the first book issued by the Hogarth Press, which began with one small hand-operated machine on Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s dining-room table. She set the type, he operated the press itself, and they shared the work of stitching the pages and adding Japanese grass-paper covers. The copy I went to see fell just slightly out of my price range at £18,000 (not quite $28,000), but I wasn’t there to buy, only to do research for an article.

Kew Gardens, by Virginia Woolf with illustrations by her sister, Vanessa Bell. This edition, from 1927, is more lavishly illustrated than the first edition, produced in 1919, and this copy once belonged to Ellen Terry.

Sims Reed specializes in books on art, architecture, and related subjects, which often call for extra-large layouts, so just inside the door I ran into an impressive case of enormous books. People write about the smell of old books and the way light falls on matured leather spines with gold-stamped titles, but there’s an extra intrigue in books (or anything, really) of extraordinary size, whether monstrous or miniature. By luck, the first title that caught my eye, on a red leather spine that might have measured a full three feet, was Architectural Drawings by William Burges—a coincidence, because it was Burges who brought me to Sims Reed the first time, almost a dozen years ago. On that visit I was after a copy of the only book-length scholarly work on Burges, the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, at £175. There’s a copy on eBay at the moment, listed at £450 ($700), but mine wouldn’t be worth nearly so much, because it shows the wear of lots of reading.

An intriguing glimpse of the stock at Sims Reed

And in any case I was in the shop this time in pursuit of Woolfs. I put Burges back on the shelf and followed my guide downstairs to a room without floor space, only book space. That the walls were lined with bookshelves almost goes without saying, but a huge table piled with books took up most of the room itself. My host brought out Two Stories from a cardboard sleeve. The grass-paper of the red-and-white covers wasn’t meant to last through years of handling—it’s sold as wallpaper—and had frayed, but the condition of the cover matters rather less in such an important work. There was the imprint of the Caslon Old Face type as Virginia Woolf had set it, with the eccentric punctuation and rather nontraditional spacing of a novice trying to right- and left-justify the lines; there were the darker and lighter characters where Leonard Woolf inked the type unevenly, in part because he was famously parsimonious and didn’t want to waste a drop. And if the book weren’t rare enough itself, the woodcuts alone—one noticeably crooked on the page—by Dora Carrington would make it a book of artistic interest.

The upper floors of the building, above the bookshop, offers service apartments let by the day or the week. You could come to London and stay just an elevator's ride away from the books you'd come to browse.

And what of the two stories? They were by the Woolfs, too: Virginia’s “The Mark on the Wall” and Leonard’s “Three Jews”. They produced the entire book, from story ideas to posting the finished book out to buyers, and made a profit (they even made Carrington pay for her copy, which seems a bit much). And Virginia, feeling the power of the press, wrote in her diary “I’m the only woman in England free to write what I like.”

Sims Reed currently has another early Hogarth Press book on offer: Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens. The catalogue may say that it’s illustrated by Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, but it’s not so much that the book is illustrated, but that the lines of the text themselves are illustrated, that is, the lines of the illustrations twine their way right into the words. I’d read Kew Gardens before, but it’s a completely different story when seen with the artwork. This copy, remarkably, is signed by both author and artist, and carries the bookplate of Victorian actress Ellen Terry.

The 1527 Polycronycon

I idly wondered what the oldest book in the shop might be, and a few minutes later a 1527 edition of the Polycronycon appeared on the table. In seconds, I moved from the first pages to come off of the Woolfs’s press, to a book associated with the first known printer in England, William Caxton. The Polycronycon is a history of the world written in the 13th century, in Latin, by a Benedictine monk. Translated into English and expanded by several hands (including those of Caxton, who brought it right up to date—as of 1460) it’s still an important source of information about the Roman Empire, about the Norman conquest of Britain, and about King Arthur (pace our own self-styled post-Thatcher King Arthur). The book itself is a work of art, with ornate capitals and finely detailed woodcuts, including a nearly full-page scene of St George and the dragon. The Polycronycon may not be 30 inches tall, but it’s a good 5 or 6 inches thick, and impressive on all counts: content, construction, illustration, typography—everything.

If I could own any one of the treasures I saw that day—the 1527 Polycronycon, Burges’s Architectural Drawings, or either of the Hogarth Press gems—it’d be a hard call. They’re all books I’d almost class as holy relics. Many, many thanks to Sims Reed; a place that can offer that kind of choice, and all free from calendars or coffee mugs, is what I call a real bookshop.

Many thanks to Sims Reed, and especially to Rupert Halliwell.  Photos of the shop are mine, photos of individual books are used by permission.


Filed under Arts, Culture, Many Books Little Time, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Brother Cadfael Was Here.

Shrewsbury Abbey

In 1135, King Henry I died, naming his only legitimate child as his successor, but this obvious choice came with two problems: she was a girl, and her husband was on the wrong political side. Who would be the next to rule England? 

From among the possibilities—Henry’s illegitimate son plus a couple of nephews—one emerged as a serious contender, and so began a period of war called the Anarchy, as the followers of Empress Mathilda (the daughter) battled those of King Stephen (her cousin) for the crown.

East end of the abbey, which is Victorian, but the pillars and arches on the sdes are original Norman construction

During the Anarchy, a clever Welsh monk became known for solving murders in a place of no large consequence, known as Shrubstown. Except that he didn’t, really, because Brother Cadfael is fictional. 

Shrubstown, however, is real. That’s a translation into modern English of Scrobbesburh, a name which morphed over the years into Shrewsbury, the name used today and used in the Cadfael stories. American readers may be most familiar with Shrewsbury as the site of the abbey where Ellis Peters’s most famous character carried on his healing work as well as his detecting. 

I first encountered Brother Cadfael when Derek Jacobi played him on television, but the Shrewsbury Abbey of the TV version looks nothing like the real thing.  A set, built in Hungary and based on the chapel at the Tower of London, stood in for the interior of Shrewsbury Abbey.

The upper stories on the south side, plus a bit of the roof.

That televised ‘abbey’ had a flight of stairs up to the front door–for no apparent reason, since just inside the door there’s another flight that goes right back down to ground level again.  This does make for good dramatic effect, since a falsely accused murderer rushing headlong down the steps with a mob after him, then racing up the nave to grab the alter cloth and cry “Sanctuary!”, looks altogether more spectacular with the stairs than it would have done without. 

As for exterior shots, I don’t know whether the film crew used set or location, but their abbey is built of gray stone, and the first thing you notice about the real Shrewsbury Abbey—founded 1083 and officially called the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul— is that it’s redIt’s made of sandstone quarried from a spot a bit lower down the River Severn. 

List of all the abbots over the centuries showing the earliest and including Herebert and Radulfus (here called Herbert and Ranulph), who figure in the Cadfael stories

Due to the wrath of kings, the ire of rebels, and the disregard of road builders, the abbey is now half the size it used to be. Modern buildings crowding the abbey reduce the grandeur of the building, too, and make it difficult to get a good angle for a photograph, which is one of the reasons the TV people didn’t film Cadfael there. 

The font's cover is Victorian Gothic, but the font itself is a Roman column

Once inside, though, you can forget about the modern town, although what you see isn’t all as old as you might first think. Little of the original Norman architecture survives; the whole eastern end is Victorian, a product of the Gothic revival rather than truly Gothic, built to take the place of what Henry VIII demolished. The baptismal font is probably the oldest of all, being an inverted Roman column, probably from nearby Viroconium (see my last post). 

Ellis Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) is known for historical accuracy, so if she said the monks at Shrewsbury Abbey took care of the lepers at a place called St Giles, you can be sure they did (St Giles is less than a mile away), and if she said the bones of St Winifred were moved to the abbey in the 12th century, then they were; I only had to find out whether they were still there. 

Fragment of the shrine of St Winefride, with a bit of the text explaining her legend so that you get a feeling for the size of the carving

Sure enough, carved stone from St Winefride’s shrine in the north aisle presumably means her dust is nearby.  She is considered a martyr, although in the legends she died to preserve her chastity rather than to preserve her faith, and she didn’t actually stay dead.  When her betrothed found she wouldn’t marry him but wanted to become a nun instead, he beheaded her. Fortunately her brother, St Beuno (can’t have too many saints in the family), put her head back on and miraculously brought her back to life. A spring appeared where her head fell, and people still make pilgrimages to the healing water, about 60 miles away, close to Liverpool. 

The St Winefride window

A modern window above the shrine dedicated to St Winefride (the abbey’s preferred spelling) shows her with palm fronds and other symbolic objects; Wikipedia says she’s the patron saint of payroll clerks, but I doubt that history or religious teaching would bear that out. Or maybe whoever added that remark  is a payroll clerk, and decided to adopt St Winefride as patron, there being no saint already assigned to the job.  

In any case, it’s clear that St Winefride still inspires people; there is an active Guild of St Winefride supporting various good works including upkeep of the abbey. Henry VII licensed the original guild (one of the tasks of the Guild at the time being to pray daily for the king), but Henry VIII abolished it; the current group dates from 1987, and welcomes new members. 

exterior, taken from the east

But is there anything of Cadfael here? There is. The window over the door shows St Benedict with symbolic images and Latin phrases; a banner reads “pray and work”, while he holds a book reading “Listen carefully, my sons, to the words of the master” (the first line of his Rule of St Benedict, the text that dictated how Benedictine monks live every day).  But in the bottom right corner, there’s another book, and on it is written only “Cadfael”. 

Detail of the St Benedict window; the book reads Cadfael, and the initials EP show up in the red area. The blue teardrop is a bottle, though I can't decide whether the shape rising from it is the fumes of some noxious concoction or an almost-transparent quill. The wording at the top of the square reads "Remembering the life and writing of Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters) 1913-1995"

Oh, and in case anybody isn’t up to speed, King Stephen beat Empress Mathilda and took the throne. I figure that’s not a spoiler, since it happened about 900 years ago.


Filed under Architecture, Arts, Culture, Many Books Little Time, Travel

Radio 4: Not Just BBC English

Second in a series of posts touching on English accents.

Before we moved to the UK, we used to come here on vacation/holiday every chance we got, rent/hire a car, and drive from stone circle to stone circle and from castle to castle until our time or our money ran out. On one of these trips, twiddling the radio dial in the car, we ran across a comedy improv program/programme that had us laughing so hard we had to pull off the road until the show was over.  We’d stumbled across BBC Radio 4, the BBC’s spoken-word radio station, which fills the airwaves with drama, news, documentaries, readings from books, and lots and lots of comedy.

Before the show was over—it was “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”, but the BBC web site doesn’t offer any clips I can link to at the moment—we were fans. As soon as we had a place to live in the UK, we subscribed to the Radio Times, the BBC’s guide to what’s on, launched in 1923 because newspapers refused to carry radio listings, afraid that radio would put them out of business. Back then it only listed BBC programmes, but it now covers radio and television—broadcast, cable, and satellite—from all kinds of providers.

With so much to choose from, it was a good six months before I caught the Radio 4 panel show/comedy game show “Just a Minute”. The Radio Times didn’t make it sound appealing; it listed big-name comedians, sure, but the point was apparently for them to speak on a given topic for a minute. So what?

So funny, that’s what, and sometimes outstandingly hilariously funny. The host gives four panellists a topic, and they have to speak entertainingly for 60 seconds without hesitating, deviating from the subject, or repeating a word they’ve already used, while the other panellists listen for clever ways to catch them out. In the hands of the kind of performers they get it’s great improvisional comedy, but you don’t have to take my word for it, you can listen via the BBC website; the most recent show can be heard here.

As luck would have it, the next-to-most-recent show (as I write this, anyway; I’m referring to episode 4 of series 58) included a round on the topic “My Accent”, and aired just after I posted my last blog piece. I’d mentioned RP and the mainstream use of the pronunciation “samwidges” here, both of which cropped up on the show.

Sheila Hancock (actress and author; widow of John Thaw who played Inspector Morse) spoke about the two years of training at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, a prestigious British acting school) that erased her original Cockney accent and left her speaking Received Pronunciation.

Gyles Brandreth (actor, author, former Member of Parliament) in a different round said “I never forget a face, but I’ll make an exception in your case” and implied he might have been quoting Harpo Marx, until he was challenged on the grounds that Harpo never spoke. Brandreth said the challenger clearly didn’t know Harpo as well as he did, and that Harpo “was quite chatty at home over the samwidges”.

The Harpo challenge came from Paul Merton, who speaks with a working-class London accent. During his turn to extemporize on “My Accent”, he said that in the 1980s someone at the BBC told him that with his voice (meaning accent) he’d never appear on BBC Radio 4. That’s about the same time the BBC moved announcer Susan Rae, who speaks with a Scottish accent, onto Radio 4; rumour has it she got death threats, though I’ve only been able to confirm that there was a neo-nationalist outcry and she got some rather impolite suggestions, the printable ones telling her to go back to Scotland.

Clearly, times have changed. And even though people had strongly negative feelings about non-standard accents on the Beeb as recently as the 1980s, it’s possible that opinion began to change during World War II. Since German propaganda radio broadcasts in English used RP, the BBC began using announcers with non-standard accents so listeners could be sure they were listening to real British news, or so Wikipedia suggests.

I like what Radio 4 offers so much that I don’t much care what accents I hear. I have to discipline myself, or I’d putter around all day listening to the radio and, er, never get my next blog post finished.

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