Shakespeare and I

Not only has April 23rd been the International Day of the Book (or World Book Day) ever since 1995… for much longer it has also been the birthday (and death-day, actually) of a certain someone called William Shakespeare, and today we are celebrating it for the 450th time. Since the birthday boy is unable to make it to the party for obvious reasons (well… IF they were already done filming Series 8 of “Doctor Who” and IF they’d had the good sense to include a Shakespeare-themed episode this would have been a different story, perhaps, but alas, it isn’t to be 😉 ), I thought it would be nice to write a bit about my personal “encounters” with The Bard.

The first time I read anything by Shakespeare was in late 1996, around the time when the “Romeo & Juliet” movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes was released. I read the play before I’d seen the movie (I think) and even though I was struggling with Shakespearean English (I was 15 and had only been learning English for about 4 years), I thought the story was lovely and I even liked the writing (well, the parts I understood, at least). To be honest, though, I found it a bit weird to read about a pair of lovers who were only around my own age and wanted to be MARRIED (!!). Back then I didn’t really know much about history and that it was quite normal for people from a certain era to be married at such a young age. However, this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the play and I wanted to read more of Shakespeare’s works. My friends got me The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for my birthday that year – a big, chunky paperback edition that is still sitting on my bookshelves to this day (and looking quite battered and well-loved by now).

The next time I came across a Shakespeare play was when we watched “Dead Poets Society” at school and that movie made me want to read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I didn’t get very far, though, because to be honest, I found it a bit too silly and weird with all the enchanted humans-/woodland creatures-/fantasy-themed drama. That wasn’t my cup of tea back then (it still isn’t, really), so I stopped reading pretty soon and when we did the play in class at uni several years later (what with me doing English Lit and all), it took some convincing to get me to pick it up again. This time around, I enjoyed it a bit more but I can’t say that it’ll ever be among my favourites.

Another play I came across at school was “Much Ado About Nothing”. I had watched the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie adaptation first and got to watch a brilliant modern performance of the play during a visit to Berlin with my mum in 1998 before actually reading the play myself for class. Sadly my English teacher at the time wasn’t very successful in getting my classmates interested in the play, so we basically just read it and talked about the text very briefly. Still, it’s my all-time favourite of the plays I’ve read, I just love all the witty wordplays and innuendoes and the characters of Benedick and Beatrice.

In 2000 we went on a week-long school trip to London and got to do a workshop at The Globe Theatre there, which also included going up on stage and reciting/acting out a few lines from various Shakespeare plays. To this day I never fail to mention to everyone who cares to hear it (and those who don’t 😉 ) that I once stood on the stage of The Globe, reciting Shakespeare! 🙂 We also went to Stratford-upon-Avon during this trip and saw Shakespeare’s birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s cottage and also Shakespeare’s grave in the Holy Trinity Church there.

When I started uni I got my first taste of Shakespeare’s history plays and it came in the form of “Richard II”. I absolutely hated that play! Well, not the play itself, but the character of Richard with his whiny, spoilt-brat-personality, who kind of reminded me of Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter books. He totally ruined the play for me. And yes, I know that the reader is supposed to hate him but I just couldn’t get past this and enjoy the plot, I just kept thinking what an awful person he was and that overshadowed everything. I plan on reading it again sometime, though, hopefully I’ll enjoy it a bit more then.

For the same class at uni I had to read “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” and I quite liked both of them, possibly “Hamlet” a bit more than “Macbeth” because I got really fed up and annoyed with the character of Lady Macbeth, kind of in the same vein as with Richard II. These two I plan on reading again sometime as well because I’ve forgotten quite a lot about their plots already.

A different class at uni dealt with a few others of the history plays, namely “Richard III”, “Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2)” and “Henry V”. Out of these, I liked the two Henries the best but for some reason I wouldn’t want to read them again, as opposed to “Richard III”, which I somehow feel I’ll enjoy much more now that I know quite a bit more about the real Richard III.

That’s it for the plays I’ve read so far. Not too many, I know, but hopefully that’ll change over time. As for the poetical works of Shakespeare, I’ve only read a few of the sonnets. My favourites are Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”). I can still recite both of these off by heart, even though I haven’t read them in ages. They are just so lovely!

So which are your favourite works by Shakespeare and why? Let me know in the comments.

RMS Titanic

In the early hours of April 15th, 1912 the RMS Titanic bade her final farewell to the world and sank to the depths of the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg two hours and forty minutes earlier. I don’t think there’s much to be said about how and why this happened that hasn’t been said already but I would like to use this anniversary to share with you all my favourite Titanic-related videos.

Here is a video of the accounts given by five survivors of the disaster, among them 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller:

Titanic: Ghosts of the Abyss, a documentary by James Cameron and Bill Paxton (who played Titanic treasure hunter Brock Lovett in the 1997 blockbuster movie):

The Curse of the Titanic Sister Ships, a documentary about the ill fate suffered by the three White Star Line sisters, Titanic, Britannic and Olympic:

I hope you enjoy watching these as much as I did.

The Last Frost Fair on the River Thames

When I first read about the River Thames frost fairs in a novel I was instantly fascinated by the idea. Living in a time and area where the winter is hardly ever cold enough for a small lake to freeze over solidly enough for ice-skating, it is a rather marvellous thought to have a mighty river such as the Thames freeze so solidly that even an elephant was able to cross it – this was done at the last Thames frost fair that lasted four days from February 1st, 1814.
Between the 1400s and the early 19th century the Thames froze over about 25 times. The flow of the river was much slower back then – ever since the old London Bridge with its huge pillars was dismantled, riverside marches have been drained and embankments erected, the river has been able to flow more freely and this combined with the mild winters of modern times makes it highly unlikely for the Thames to ever really freeze over again.

When it did, though, Londoners made the most of it and set up huts and stalls on the ice and turned the frozen river into a full-blown party location, unlicensed drinking and gambling being the main attractions. During the last frost fair of 1814, even printers set up shop with their presses on the ice to produce postcards and other printed memorabilia of the event. A small sheep was roasted and fair visitors charged to view it and its meat then sold as ‘Lapland mutton’.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though, even if the area between Blackfriars and London Bridge was lined with over 30 stalls and booths and the main throughfare quickly named ‘City Road’. The ground was still ice and ice can melt or break. A large chunk of it broke off near London Bridge and carried off a man and two boys, who were lucky enough to be rescued by fishermen at Billingsgate. Two women fell through the ice and were also rescued by Thames watermen (who also often charged people for entry to the fair) but a plumber carrying some lead wasn’t so lucky when he fell through the ice.

On the 5th of February the wind turned to the south and brought sleet, rain and warmer temperatures. The thaw was so quick that two men who went on the ice on the 6th fell in and were carried off before they could be rescued. This marked the end of the last frost fair on the Thames. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a time-machine now to be able to go and see this event for myself – actually, the frost fairs are such a huge part of London folklore that even The Doctor and a few of his companions went there in the TARDIS (only in the audio or printed adventures, though, sadly).

The last frost fair in 1814

The King’s Army Parade

Yesterday was the last Sunday of January, which meant that the English Civil War Society gathered on The Mall to hold their annual King’s Army Parade to commemorate the execution of King Charles I on 30th January 1649. Elevated by his son, Charles II, to the position of a martyr, Charles I is immortalised in the form of a statue that stands on a traffic island in Trafalgar Square (this used to be the site of the original Charing Cross and it is from here that all distances from London are measured).

The Royalist division of the English Civil War Society sets off on a sombre march from St James’s Palace to Horseguards Parade and there the chaplain of the society gives a brief explanation of the goings-on (mostly for the benefits of any tourists watching) and afterwards reads from the Book of Common Prayer. Medals are being presented and more readings carried out by other participants and finally, three officers of the King’s Army proceed through the arches of Horseguards and cross busy Whitehall to hang a wreath on the metal railings outside Banquetting House, which is the spot where Charles I was executed. The parade is no longer allowed to continue onto Whitehall due to the inconvenience of having to close off the street for traffic.

Pics of yesterday’s parade can be seen on this site.

Terra Nova Expedition

Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.

Thus reads the last journal entry by Captain Robert Falcon Scott from March 29th, 1912 while he and his team mates were on the return journey of their Antarctic expedition. They had tried to be the first human beings to reach the South Pole, had arrived at their destination on January 17th, 1912 after first setting off from Wales on June 10th, 1910 and 11 weeks after leaving their expedition’s base camp, only to find that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team had beaten them by 33 days, having reached the South Pole on December 14th, 1911. The Terra Nova Expedition, named after the ship Scott and his team left Wales in, covered 1842 miles of Antarctica and was the longest continuous sledge journey ever made in the polar regions.

Sadly, not only were Scott and his team not the first to reach the South Pole, but also all 5 of them died on the return journey due to frostbite, malnutrition, dehydration and injury. In an attempt to save his comrades, Captain Lawrence Oates, who was suffering from a foot injury and felt he was holding his team mates back, walked out of their tent on March 17th into the freezing weather and was never seen again. The search party that set off in October 1912 to find out what had become of the expedition only ever found his sleeping bag a few miles south of the tent that contained the frozen bodies of Scott and his two companions Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson and Henry Robertson Bowers (another team mate, Edgar Evans, having died on February 17th already at a different location). They are believed to have died sometime around the date of Scott’s last journal entry from March 29th, 1912.

What I find the most interesting about this expedition and its fate are little tidbits about the characteristics of some of the team members and how they came to be on this ill-fated endeavour. First, there’s Edgar Evans, who was chosen by Scott to be among the 5-men-team to attempt the final leg of the journey towards the South Pole even though he is described as having been something of a “beery womanizer” who even fell into the water upon boarding the ship once because he was drunk.  Henry Robertson Bowers was originally only the storekeeper aboard the Terra Nova but due to his organisational skills and his bright and cheerful nature and dauntless spirit he became a valuable member of Scott’s team. Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1898 (who would have thought he’d partake in an Antarctic expedition just 12 years later?) and had just married his wife only three weeks prior to setting of on Terra Nova. Talk about bad luck, eh?

Over the years there have been varying theories about who is to blame for Scott’s expedition failing in this tragic manner but I’m not going to comment on those simply because I know too little about what is important for such an endeavour to be successful. I’ll just go with the “bad luck”-theory because in my view we’ll never know for sure what really happened on that journey and blaming the adverse weather conditions – that even scientists have judged to have been unusually bad – is the safest option here (and a typically British one at that ;-)).

Scott and his team at the South Pole
L-R: Wilson, Scott, Oates
Bowers, Evans (seated)

23/24 Leinster Gardens (as seen on ‘Sherlock’)

If you’re a ‘Sherlock’ fan like me you’ll no doubt have seen the most recent episode about the world-famous (if fictional) sleuth Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson. The show, written by Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame) and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s even more ingenious brother Mycroft on the show), regularly delights its viewers with quirky little tidbits of trivia knowledge about London. The most recent example of this are the dummy houses at 23/24 Leinster Gardens. Dummy houses, you say? Yes, indeed.

In the 1860s, when the terraced houses in this upmarket area of Bayswater were erected, London’s Underground trains were still running on steam engines and in order to keep the subterranean parts of the lines free of smoke, there had to be a few open spaces here and there where the fumes could be released. To hide this rather unattractive sight from a picturesque street such as Leinster Gardens, the Tube people came up with the idea to have two fake house frontispieces built to provide an unbroken façade along the street.

ImageWalking past No. 23/24 Leinster Gardens you hardly notice anything odd about these houses. It’s only upon closer inspection that you realise the windows are painted and there are no letterboxes (or even doorknobs) on the front doors. Otherwise, it all looks just the same as the neighbouring properties. Go round the back, however, and you get to see a completely different view.

ImageSo in typically British fashion, the ‘necessary evil’ in the form of the London Underground has been put “out of sight, out of mind” here and on top of that people like me get to blog about this quirky little fact of London life. 🙂 Win-win, eh?

Bill Lamin – Letters from the Trenches

Letters from the TrenchesWhen I was still at uni I attended a class on World War I literature and I have been fascinated with WWI stories ever since.

The book I’d like to introduce you to in this post is the true account of Harry Lamin, a young man from Yorkshire who served in the Great War with the York and Lancaster Regiment and later the Royal Munster Fusiliers. The reviews this book is getting on the usual book rating communities are mixed. This is due to the fact that as opposed to most war stories it’s not a tale of shining heroes and acts of bravery in the face of the enemy but simply a tale of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, doing his duty for his country. It’s presented in the form of letters written by Harry Lamin to various members of his family back home, annotated and edited by his grandson, Bill. It is not particularly gripping entertainment due to the fact that the letters are really very similar and you do get tired of the seemingly endless repetitions of what Harry did during his time at the front and the ever-present ‘could you send some paper/clean shirts/socks etc.’ requests to his relatives. But it is this drabness and monotony that makes the book so realistic because repetition and boredom were basically the main parts of life at the front for the lower ranks, interspersed with stints of fighting that brought a bit of action and escape from homesickness. Harry also very stoically described the long marches or train journeys to new locations in both France and Italy and he never failed to send his family postcards of the different regions he was stationed at and to describe the most prominent features of the landscape and the people he encountered there.

Harry saw action in the Battle of the Messines Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele, he was wounded in the latter and sent home to recuperate, and after the war had ended he transferred to the Royal Munster Fusiliers in Italy and had to bide his time there until he was finally demobbed in 1920. What was especially remarkable to me is how long and incredibly tedious it must have been for the lower ranking soldiers to wait out the time after the war had ended until they could finally go home. Harry worked as a cook for the officers of his regiment to make some money and he repeatedly mentions in his letters that it probably won’t be long now until they have it all sorted to have the remaining soldiers sent home but in the end it’s almost a year and a half he has to wait before he can return to England. Somehow I had always imagined that as soon as the war was over they would just pack up and put all the soldiers on trains and ships and have them sent home but it wasn’t like that at all. Of course it was a huge challenge the people in charge were facing, logistically, to get thousands of soldiers back home from the various locations, that had to take a certain length of time, and once you were discharged from the army there was no-one who would provide for you, so many chose to stay on even after the armistice just to have a secure source of income, just as Harry did.

Luckily Harry wasn’t too traumatized from his time in the war so when he finally did get home he led a relatively ordinary and uneventful life and the book includes photographs of him as an old(er) man surrounded by his family. His grandson Bill found the letters years later in a drawer and decided to publish them, first as a blog and later in the form of a book. I urge you to persevere with this seemingly dull book if you’re interested to know what real life was like for the ordinary soldiers of the Great War. You won’t regret it and maybe you’ll even learn something new, like I did.

Lark Rise to Candleford

I spent the past few months watching all 4 series of ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’. As with so many British series I was late to the party on this one – it finished airing in early 2011 – which gave me the chance to watch all series straight through without having to wait for the next one. Not that there would have been massive cliffhangers, though. ‘Lark Rise…’ isn’t that kind of show, it doesn’t focus on big drama or action, it’s all about the little things, the random acts of kindness, the often petty quarrels and the friendships that keep a community, or rather two communities, going.

The two communities in this case are Lark Rise and Candleford, Lark Rise being a tiny hamlet about 8 miles from the neighbouring prosperous market town of Candleford in rural Oxfordshire at the end of the 19th century. Laura Timmins is a Lark Rise girl just on the brink of adulthood, who swaps her family’s cottage for the hustle and bustle of the Candleford post office, where she starts working alongside her mother’s cousin: formidable, headstrong and independent postmistress Dorcas Lane. Situated right at the centre of town, the Candleford post office – and Dorcas Lane in particular – provides the customers with advice on matters of both business and the heart. Through Laura’s eyes we get to experience what it means to be a woman in late 19th century England and Dorcas Lane teaches us that we can achieve anything if we only set our minds to it. The series shows the daily lives of the townsfolk as well as the villagers and the various grievances that come with it. Through all of those grievances, however, there is the post office and there is Miss Lane, who, though not short of problems of her own, is always there to give her opinion on the matter at hand – if sometimes not entirely welcomed by those around her.

Over the course of the 4 series we get to see Laura grow up from a teenager into a young woman, we get to follow postman Thomas Brown’s courtship of the timid but kind and funny daughter of the town’s vicar, we see hamlet families struggling through periods of extreme poverty without ever losing their appetite for life and we get to know a good deal about 19th century society and its ways.

While I like almost every one of the characters in the series, I particularly love Thomas Brown and Margaret, his wife. Whatever life throws at them, they take it in their stride and they must be one of the funniest TV couples I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. The following scene is one of my favourites:

Another favourite of mine is Pearl Pratt (solo and in combination with her sister Ruby), the proprietor of Candleford’s ’boutique’. Her character is probably changing the most over the course of the series, from an annoying, gossip-loving nag to a loving and kind person who is very protective of her and her sister’s livelihood. This scene is probably my favourite of the entire series and perfectly captures the essence of the plot and what makes it so special and lovely to watch:

So, have any of you ever watched this series? What did you think? If you haven’t, please do give it a try! I think almost all episodes can be found on YouTube and it’s out on DVD as well, of course. Since the series is based on a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson, I’ll be reading those at some point as well (you can click on the image below to buy an all-in-one copy of the trilogy at The Book Depository):

Lark Rise to Candleford

Hats off, Strangers!

The State Opening of Parliament is always an excellent opportunity to watch the British monarchy in action at what they do best: Pomp and pageantry! It marks the commencement of a session of Parliament including a speech by the monarch, outlining what measures and actions will be put into place by the government in the coming year. It is a ceremony full of rituals and symbolism dating back centuries, and therefore it is a must-see event for a British history buff like myself. 🙂 Just in case you aren’t familiar with the proceedings, let me explain a few of the key parts of the ceremony.

Before the Queen arrives at the Houses of Parliament a ceremonial searching of the cellars is carried out by the Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest existing British military corp (not to be confused with the Yeomen Warders a.k.a. “Beefeaters”, who are guarding the Tower of London). This dates back to 1605, when on November 5 of that year the Catholic revolutionary Guy Fawkes and his accomplices were caught red-handed in the cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster, trying to blow up the House of Lords in an attempt to kill the Protestant king James I. Ever since then the cellars have been searched before the State Opening of Parliament.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who usually accompanies her to this event, arrive from Buckingham Palace in a carriage procession. Prior to that the Imperial State Crown is being taken to the Palace of Westminster in a separate State Coach to be worn by the Queen during her speech.

Once the Queen has put on the Parliament Robe of State and the Imperial State Crown in the robing chamber and has entered the House of Lords, she first addresses the House with the words “My Lords, pray be seated” and then instructs the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod to summon the House of Commons. Black Rod walks down the corridor connecting both chambers, accompanied by an inspector of police who shouts “Hats off, strangers!” to the people watching along the way. Upon approaching the House of Commons the doors of the chamber are slammed shut in Black Rod’s face. This is due to the fact that ever since in 1642 King Charles I rushed into the House of Commons to have five members arrested for treason no monarch has been allowed to enter the House of Commons. Black Rod then knocks on the door to the chamber with his staff three times and is then allowed to enter. With the following words he commands the House of Commons to follow him to the House of Lords: “Mister Speaker, The Queen commands this honourable House [pauses to bow to both sides of the House] to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers.” Usually this is greeted by an amusing remark from Labour MP Dennis Skinner (who is known for having been suspended from Parliament several times for using foul language) before the MPs set off in a casual procession down the corridor. Once they have arrived at the Bar of the House of Lords the Queen begins reading out her speech, which really isn’t her speech at all but has been written by the government. The speech concludes with the words: “My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels”. The Queen then leaves the House of Lords and the Commons return to their chamber for a debate on the speech, which concludes the proceedings.

If you’d like to watch today’s State Opening of Parliament, I recommend YouTube user belfastjack’s videos, who uploaded the entire BBC broadcast from this morning in four parts. Here’s the first:

A Night to Remember

Today marks the 101st anniversary of the sinking of one of the greatest ships of all time, the RMS Titanic. She sank at 2:20am in the morning of April 15th, 1912, 2 hours and 40 minutes after hitting an iceberg four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. More than 1,500 men, women and children died, making this one of the most catastrophic maritime disasters in history.

As I’m sure most of you will have heard the story about the ship and the sinking and how everyone thought she was unsinkable, I won’t bore you with the details. So let’s just enjoy a few pictures, both of the still and the moving variety, and remember this truly great ship as it once was.