Archive for April, 2014


If you go down to the woods today…the meth heads will have the catalytic converter off your SUV before you’ve plucked your first porcini.

The remote forest areas of Washington State, Oregon, California and Idaho are as scary as any you’ll find in story-book fables, but for those prepared to bear the risk there’s money in them thar hills.

For pickers it’s barely a living – just enough to keep the wolf from the door. Theirs is a world of relentlessly tough work, uncertain reward and a nomadic lifestyle that makes for a miserable existence.

Like rotten jobs the world over, it’s populated by people with low skills or no skills, of addicts and immigrants and those who make their living on the fringes of society.

But for a few with a passion for funghi and the business instincts of an NYSE trader the rewards are there.

Langdon Cook brings an anthropologist’s eye to his investigation of this tribal group and just like the mycelium pathways that produce the coveted fruiting bodies, there’s a lot to this murky business that happens underground.

Cook’s journey into this shadowy sub-culture makes for a riveting adventure. He has the social skills to pass muster in rough company, the culinary talent to schmooze with restaurateurs who snap up the treasures of the forest and the storyteller’s gift of taking you along with him.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell a morel from a chanterelle, or porcini from trompettes de mort; this is a glimpse into a veiled world that provides plenty of food for thought about how we live and how we behave.



With the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth fast approaching, the ‘Bardolatory’ industry is in full swing.

There are screeds of scholarly opinion and conspiracy theories out there, all of which are drawn from the barest scraps of information.

The truth is, we know very little about the greatest playwright of the age, even his true date of birth; the official record doesn’t tell us the day, it gives only his baptism date.

The information vacuum around Stratford’s most famous son gives academics licence to indulge in ‘Bard Wars’ – intellectual jousting that’s all very interesting, but ultimately inconclusive.

The authorship debate is at once both fascinating and sterile. Without new information we’ll never know. Was the true author my fellow Stratfordian, William, or was it Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson or any of the other dozens of candidates advanced over the past two centuries?

Neil MacGregor’s book is refreshingly different in that it takes as its starting point knowledge that we do have about life in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and the people for whom Shakespeare was writing.

From objects as disparate as a model ship, a peddler’s trunk, a fork and a woollen cap he brings context to the life of the Bard of Avon by illustrating the prevailing fears and tensions of audiences of the time.

The reverberations of The Gunpowder Plot equate to the modern world’s post 9-11 period. Plots and conspiracies are seen everywhere, Jesuit priests are hunted down and tortured; martyrdom represents the ultimate test of faith and sacrifice.

Magic, ghosts and the power to call up spirits are readily accepted by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It’s a concept hard for us to comprehend now and one MacGregor likens to acceptance of today’s celebrity scientists; we admire their work but only dimly comprehend.

Plague, pestilence, state-directed hangings and dismemberment, mean death is never far away. An Italianate rapier and dagger recovered from the foreshore of the Thames attest to routine levels of violence on London’s mean streets but also illuminate the status and style of ambitions of the owner.

The book’s glimpses into the backdrop of the lives of the people are woven with an historical narrative that catalyses the fears and anxieties that dogged them.

Issues such as the succession, no more than tabloid fodder now had, back then, the potential to unleash persecution and terror at every level of society.

Bridging the past and the present to aid understanding is MacGregor’s great gift. Much of what you’ll read is familiar, but there are many “aha!” moments to enjoy and to reinforce appreciation of the Bard and his works – whoever he (or she) may be.

Garrison KeillorGarrison Keillor at Benaroya Hall, Seattle

America’s favorite raconteur cast his spell from the minute he walked on stage. There was no preamble to the act, no “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”, no “Hello Seattle”, no bonhomie. He just walked to the center of the stage, picked up his microphone and started to sing. You could hear a pin drop.

The rich baritone seemed oddly out of place coming from the figure before us, a crumpled man of 71, with a shock of unruly grey hair that a lifetime ago his mother would surely have licked and flattened down with a Kleenex.  The red sneakers and red tie were quite a shock too, a signpost of rebellion against formality and convention and  a vivid contrast to the sober, grey suit.

It wasn’t long before a murmur of suppressed audience humming became fuller-throated participation, encouraged by Keillor’s invitation that “hymns weren’t meant to be sung alone”. And with that, the bond was established.

What followed was two hours of unbroken performance; rambling stories, schoolboy smut (“As a boy I always liked Saturday…because it contained the word turd”), limericks, anecdotes, songs and reminiscences – all delivered without notes and without ever missing a beat.

Keillor’s a skillful storyteller who knows his audience and knows his stuff. He has a fund of great material and even when he lapses into weaker one-liners his timing and delivery get him off the hook.

Some of the humor dates back to the music hall era: “My mother used to say it’s best to marry a woman with a great sense of humor…because she’s going to need it later on”. That gag was old even then and might have drawn an invitation to “kindly leave the stage”, but taken on its own it misrepresents the wider arc of Keillor’s show.

It was a night of nostalgia and shared values, of humor and sentimentality, of life as it was and life as it is, with a sharp eye on the shuffle towards old age: “They start calling you ‘sir,’ and they start taking your elbow as you go down the stairs.”

Keillor’s observations come wrapped with reassuring warmth, like a favorite blanket. Be grateful and be cheerful, he exhorts, think how lucky you are, he says, and goes on to tell how lucky he was to have escaped severe brain damage after suffering a stroke.

He spoke, too, in typically self-deprecatory terms, about how he got his first job in radio: there was no formal interview; they just needed someone to drive 40 miles in the dark of the Minnesotan winter to turn on the station transmitter at 5am.

Forty years later and A Prairie Home Companion is still going strong and a legend of America broadcasting continues to hold us in his thrall.