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Archive for the ‘Anglophilia’ Category

This week was the first Shakespeare Week in the UK, a nationwide deal where they try to bring the big guy’s works to life for elementary kids, a terrific idea and a tricky thing to do. Hell, it’s hard to bring Shakespeare to life for grownups; that’s when you get the faux-important approach, simply reading lines out in posh accents and hoping it looks intelligent. Here’s what it looks like when a brilliant pair of actors really speak the words as though they’re just talking to each other. (Kenneth Branagh has just been set up by his friends, who have told him Emma Thompson is in love with him)

Stunt casting can help keep viewers’ attention — who doesn’t want to watch more of Catherine Tate being snarky and David Tennant doing, you know, anything? But so little of the comedy here has anything to do with Shakespeare’s words. Tennant wears a Superman T-shirt and bumbles around the stage — quite charmingly, but it’s just that: charming slapstick. Same scene:

It’s very funny, but they’re cheating. They barely try to make the big wodges of Elizabethan understandable, just play the funny lines we can all get, then shovel the hard bits out the sides of their mouths to get to the next gag. As a way to get young people to watch, it’s not bad. But you never really get to meet Beatrice and Benedick. How are you supposed to care later when they’re forced to admit they’re in love?

The epitome of the stunt-cast and faux-important approaches is “Shakespeare in Love,” which contains 0% true Shakespeare, just some pretty people, posh accents (some quite fake indeed) and a few gags on the level of “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter,” for God’s sake.

Puke. Shakespeare isn’t sexy Joseph Fiennes leaping in and out of boats. He’s a 32-year-old father of three when he writes “R&J” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a middle-aged businessman imagining himself back into the hot tights of a teenager and imagining himself into the mind of a short brunette who is furious with a tall blonde for taking her boyfriend. They’ve been friends since they were in school together, these women, and they don’t understand at all what has just happened to them.

The next clip, of those two women in an epic catfight, is the actual moment I fell in love with Shakespeare.

I was ten years old and saw it on PBS. Yes, it’s the 1980s so the hair is floppy, and yes they play some of it broadly. But watch what they’re not doing: skipping the hard words. They’re making them work. Watch Helena get through that speech about her and Hermia as schoolgirls, a block of almost incomprehensible English. It’s like trying to convey emotions in Martian.

But it sets up how betrayed both women feel, and sets up that perfect payoff, a comedy catfight with real human love and pain underneath it.

So playing Shakespeare today requires actors to communicate really hard, and the modern viewer’s experience is different from the groundling’s, but there’s a different payoff too.

If you follow all the parts, the hard bits and the Elizabethan impenetrability and so on, then when you see that moment, a phrase or a joke or a feeling that skips over the centuries in between, it springs out with total clarity no archaeologist can dig up: Four hundred years ago, a person felt exactly the same way you did when their heart broke.

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Photo by Norman Walsh

Web-surfing recently brought me to a trove of scholarly reviews of Oxfordshire pubs. Its index page alone is great for the lovely names it catalogues: the Penny Black, the Coach and Horses, the Five Bells, the Rose and Crown, the Lamb and Flag, the Jolly Postboys, the Catherine Wheel. (I’m quite the fan of pub names, as the name of my jewelry business shows.)

The site’s guardian apologizes that some of the reviews are as old as six years, but of course to somebody like me all the way over here, they’re all valuable for their wit, their color and the way they show how much this crowd cares about their pubs.

At the Gardeners Arms in North Parade, a reviewer notes, “The dog is very small and yappy.” (Contrast this with the plaintive “No dog. Why?” at the

Photo by Norman Walsh

Wheatsheaf in Abingdon.) The “labyrinthine” Royal Oak on Woodstock Road is “A pub for all tastes, but perhaps a tricky place to meet friends, unless they are tall friends with flamboyant hats,” writes reviewer Pontus Lurcock.

In some reviews, there is a notation of what the sign outside looks like, but much more attention is paid to which beers are served for how much money and in what condition they are served. Also important are the newspapers available and the general ambience.

Though here’s a nice description, from the Chequers, in Cholsey: “The pub sign is mock heraldic with the head, wings and feet of an eagle sticking out of the sides of a chessboard. Intriguingly, the bottom-right-hand square is white, not black. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.” And the Crumpled Horn, in Heathfield Village: “The pub sign is a bull (with one horn crumpled) in a morning suit, leaning on a cane.”

Photo by Norman Walsh

Language/communication geek that I am, I love observing what doesn’t need to be spoken between these members of a fairly specific sub-group. There is an apparent feeling of antipathy towards Morrells, a pub and brewing group that used to own a lot of these places and might have either homogenized them or just served its own beer there, it’s hard to tell exactly.

Photographs are used by kind permission of Norman Walsh, who blogs about UK pub signs. Thank you!

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Compared to the stars, blocks of color and occasional cannon of other early Texas flags, the San Jacinto flag is a complex mass of symbolism. Here’s a reproduction (which I have kinda brightened up) of the image at the center of the actual, refurbished flag, from Robert Maberry’s 2001 book “Texas Flags”:

It’s clear that the image carries special meaning, but to modern eyes (at least mine) it’s not clear what. Well, the sword and the “Liberty or Death” motto are pretty unambiguous. But what’s the lumpy red thing on the spear, and why is she crouching, and who is she?

You can make out a shield at bottom right, which Maberry says is decorated with wheat sheaves and a plow. Clear enough, that’s for the settlers and farmers.

The red doohickey on the pole, Maberry says, is a Phrygian-style liberty cap, and after some research I have concluded that our Revolutionary forebears would burst into tears if they knew their descendants had forgotten what it was. Red, conical, felt. Traditionally supposed to have been worn by slaves in ancient Rome once they were freed. Very big with the Revolutionary Americans, also the French, whose “Marianne” wears one. It gets a nod in “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), where it’s referred to humorously as a kind of “red night-cap” atop a pole in such a way that it’s clear Washington Irving expects everybody to get the reference.

This led me to a path of research that showed me just who the lady is, and why she’s sitting down. She’s an Americanized version of “seated Britannia,” a traditional depiction of a goddess who embodies Britain, but who actually goes back to the days when the Roman empire had just slapped a great big wall across the island. Emperor Hadrian’s coins first use seated Britannia to represent Britain — a military province, as shown by the shield and spear — perched on a rock, possibly to show subjugation to Rome.

This image was recycled in 1672, when British coins of Charles II picked up the image of Britannia as a goddess with spear and shield, even keeping her seat on the rock. (The design was modeled directly on the Roman coin, using an image of a Scottish lady Charles II was lusting after.) She was used continuously on British coins for the next 300 years. In 1835, an American artist gave her a Yankee makeover with stars, stripes and the revolutionary hat on a stick. That image was used on U.S. coins from 1836 to 1891. Since James Henry Beard is supposed to have painted the San Jacinto flag in 1835 for Kentucky volunteers headed to help Texas fight Mexico…  either two artists had the same bright idea at the same time, or somebody’s got their dates mixed up. Our flag’s been repainted and refurbished a bit too much, so maybe somebody did the most recent repaint with a half-dollar in their hand. (Other versions do show up now and then.)

The visual evidence is compelling: This is a design that has pretty much been standardized since about 134 A.D.

Top photo: Heritage Auction Galleries. Middle photo: Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group. Bottom photo: Courtesy of CNG Triton XIII Auction 2009. http://www.cngcoins.com. Chart by Sue Owen Whaley.

So there you have it: She’s a British (or Scottish) babe on a Roman rock, carrying an Anatolian hat on a stick. With perhaps a slightly French attitude toward upper-body clothing.

In case you’re wondering (I started to), the Statue of Liberty is sometimes said to be a depiction of the Roman goddess Libertas, but she was originally conceived as a colossal lighthouse in the form of an Egyptian woman with a torch, to stand on the Suez Canal. Egypt couldn’t afford her, and in 1870 Auguste Bartholdi retooled his plans, making her a gift to America. She was dedicated in 1886, and at least one source says she’s not wearing a Phrygian cap because it was a little too radical for the times, which saw a fair amount of monarchist sentiment going around in France.

And speaking of inspiring women, I cannot say enough about the knowledge and helpfulness of Dane Kurth, whose website www.wildwinds.com is a fantastic reference and a wealth of information on ancient coins. She tells me, “This (seated) figure of Britannia — as well as most of these female personifications — all hail from ancient depictions of Athena… Britannia, America, France, Italia etc… even Roma – all the same person, basically.” Thank you so much, Dane. Viva Helvetia!

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Click here now to upload this important update to your Guide!

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Expanded capabilities: As you can see, the latest upgrades of the Guide include the ability to control nearby Nutri-Matic dispensers and several settings that allow it to work in tandem with your shipboard computer. Most importantly, the latest Guide relieves you of the need to carry a separate Sub-Etha Sens-o-Matic, incorporating as it now does a lighted indicator of Sub-Etha reception plus a Thumb switch. Hitchhikers everywhere can now complain along with everyone else about how many bars they’re getting or not getting.

Safety and comfort features: When events become overwhelming you can now adjust the Perspective in your immediate vicinity to something a little more comfortably self-centered, or opt to “grey out” perception of the immediate future and its dangers by toggling Temporal Focus.*

The Guide’s latest edition also incorporates the mind-bogglingly successful “Somebody Else’s Problem” Field, which renders troublesome objects completely invisible with a flick of the switch.

And while the Guide’s location sensors are as powerful and accurate as ever, we realize that the modern hitchhiker may not always wish their exact location to be known. Thus we have added a Location obfuscator, which not only hides the user’s current position but actually represents the hitchhiker as being at another location, the randomness and distance of which are adjustable. In beta testing, our field researchers pronounced this their favorite feature.

Touch technology: While the expanded feature set has not reduced what some reviewers have called the “insanely complicated” appearance of the Guide, we have by popular demand retained the original message, so calming to generations of hitchhikers: “Don’t Panic.” Even these large friendly letters are improved, however, as you will see they are now raised in a smooth embossed plastic that is not only soothing to pet and stroke but also osmotically releases low-level endorphins.

* Note: These functions bear no similarity to products of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and any suggestion to the contrary will be dealt with by our large and rapaciously effective legal department.

Graphic design by Sue Owen offered in tribute to Douglas Adams, who would have had the first iPad out of the box. He’d have loved it, wouldn’t he?

Short link for this entry: http://bit.ly/guidecover

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I’m a big James Herriot fan, and thanks to the JamesHerriot.org Twitter feed, I recently learned that there’s a BBC 4 documentary — a good one, with modern-day interviews with all the actors plus lots of behind-the-scenes footage — available on YouTube about the making of the “All Creatures Great and Small” TV series. It’s split into parts One, Two and Three.

See “Boris” the hellion cat actually tear into the actors! (What an amazing example of an actress staying in character as the cat tears strips of skin off her back.) See “James” and “Helen” talk sweetly about their real-life romance!

Bonus: A 1985 news feature that visits the set during filming at the end of the third series, just as they ran out of original Herriot material and before they knew the show’s producer would persuade the veterinarian himself to let them continue by writing new material that didn’t come from his own life.

Second bonus: Here is the gag they played on actor Robert Hardy (Siegfried) once they found out they were going to be able to make a fourth series. Hardy believes they are filming a real episode as the cameras roll… Come to think of it, Hardy does a pretty spiffy job of staying in character here himself.

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Watch just the first 1:03 of this video (actually you can jump in at 0:35, the first bit is the credits) and tell me if you don’t want to watch the rest of this show.

I can now retroactively complete my list of British TV on Netflix “Watch Instantly” (streaming video to your computer; free with any plan, which start at $9/month). “Black Adder” is probably the best of the bunch, and if you don’t want to pay $50 to $80 for a box set, you can watch all but the “Back and Forth” special RIGHT NOW in your pajamas! Which I am about to do. Starting with Series II, which I love the most dearly.

If you think Hugh Laurie’s good in “House,” … oh boy do you owe it to yourself to watch this. My crush on Mr. Laurie dates to the episode “Chains,” excerpted above. (Hugh shows up a little later.)

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Viola cornuta "Coconut Swirl"

Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:

It fell upon a little western flower,

Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,

And maidens call it Love-in-idleness.

— A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This is the lovely Viola cornuta, a modern cousin of the deep purple violet Shakespeare knew and used in his play — Puck squeezes the juice from this flower on the young Athenians’ eyes to make them fall in love with the first person they see upon waking. “Shakespeare’s Flowers” identifies the plant as Viola tricolor, or Johnny jump-ups, a vibrant little violet-and-gold thing.  But doesn’t that description just fit?  Milk-white, with an infusion of lavender blue.

There are many shades in the “Sorbet” viola line — this one, I think, is “Coconut Swirl.” But I dislike that name (partly because I hate coconut) and think it should be called “Blackberry Cobbler,” after the single best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.  Much more fitting.  These are blooming now in every pot around my house — I can’t get enough of them.

Viola cornuta "Coconut Swirl"

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