Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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Will in the World – Stephen Greenblatt

Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare? After reading this piercingly smart assessment on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare I’d say emphatically: Yes!

Amid a void of verifiable information on the topic, an industry in academic analysis has flourished, some good, some weak, but all of it built on flimsy foundations and topped with much speculation.

The perceptiveness of this book comes from the author’s skillful and intelligent construction of arguments that give glimpses into the enigma of the Bard and his genius.

Greenblatt layers intimate knowledge of the plays with a scholarly understanding of the context in which they were written – lines, passages, scenes and whole plays come alive with new meaning.

While we have to accept that we’ll never fully know the man, the gift of this book lets us draw nearer to him, enriching our grasp of the events that shaped his talent and enhancing our appreciation of a body of literary work that has no equal.

dillenA Stratford Story: Including The Dillen and Mary, After the Queen

Imagine warming yourself round a log fire, flames flickering, sap hissing, wood spitting and being carried off to another world on the rustic dialect of a withered little man with a gleam in his eye and the gift of the gab.

George Hewins is The Dillen, the runt of the litter, a born storyteller who lived in such straightened circumstances that he and his wife had to share a bed with his mother-in-law yet still managed to conceive eight children.

The story of his hardscrabble life in my home town, Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, covers the period between 1878 and the 1920s and is derived from a series of audio recordings made by his grandson’s wife, Angela Hewins, over a three-year period.

As she says, she’s added some h’s and omitted some repetitions but the grammar, the contractions and the speech patterns are still there and if you’re familiar with the Stratford accent, you can almost hear George speaking.

It’s this, George’s voice, George’s perspective, that give power to the narrative. It’s part oral history, part social history, and part memoir of poverty by someone who lived it, not just witnessed it. Above all it’s a thoroughly absorbing read.

From the off George relates how perilous his start in life was, how an old chap had told him of a man called Womack: “‘E sold your mother some medicine to get rid o’ you.”

Womack was “an ordinary working chap who made up pills and medicines for folks as couldn’t afford the doctor or chemist.”

George’s mother Emmie, then 18 and unmarried, was sent to him by her lover Tom Farr and “as soon as she’d took a couple o’ swigs of Womack’s medicine Emmie stopped fretting. She knowed it would work, like a spell, make the babby vanish; that’s what Tom said and he was always right.”

Not this time he wasn’t. He didn’t hang around and nor did Emmie, leaving George to be brought up by his mother’s aunt Cal.

What follows is a life of grinding poverty. George and his family live from hand to mouth. Work is scarce, wages are depressed and earnings sporadic. Rent arrears and eviction are ever-present fears surpassed only by the terrifying awfulness of the workhouse, the last port of the utterly destitute, where even dignity is taken.

It’s grim, for sure, but in the telling it’s not depressing. George the raconteur laces his tale with bawdy anecdotes and black humor. The story of how Tommy Taters got his nickname had me laughing out loud and George even manages to make light of a war wound he suffered after going over the top in 1917.

Caught in No Man’s Land, wounded in the hip by a shell burst, his officer also injured, George tells how a German came up behind them: “They was coming from behind! Captain Edwards saw him and shot him with his revolver, shot him from where he lay. He fell dead on me. But not afore he’d stuck his bayonet in my arse.”

George lost his ‘crown jewels’ in that encounter but not his sense of humor. His cheerful optimism lifts the book from being a bleak plod through the worst of times to an important record of life among those on the bottom rung of society, an authentic voice that is seldom captured.


The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey Oregon trail

You can go a long way with enthusiasm: Two thousand miles in the case of journalist, historian and adventurer Rinker Buck.

His covered wagon epic following in the wheel ruts of America’s 19th Century pioneers is an absorbing mix of trail tales, mule-wrangling and brotherly clashes.

Where Rink is measured and cautious, his younger sibling Nick is gung-ho and excitable. Where Rink is mannered and polite, Nick is brash and vulgar. It’s the bickering between them that provides much of the color.

There’s plenty of humor, too, in the characters of the mules where only one is reliably steady. The second beast exhibits the airs of a prom queen and the third a skittishness bordering on crazy.

They’re a handful for sure and potential dangers are ever present. Items as innocuous expansion joints on a bridge, or a plastic bag snagged on wire and snapping in the breeze, risk spooking the animals with risky consequences for the four-ton rig.

The history of the trail is richly fascinating and it’s here where the book is at its best.

Far from the migration being a deliberate movement, Rink paints details of the varied reasons for joining the exodus: a country riven with clashes between ethnic populations for jobs and space, bitter religious denominational spats and an economy lurching from boom to bust.

Flooding the West with pioneers also suited the purpose of Congress in overwhelming Britain’s lucrative but thinly-staffed fur-trading empire managed by the Hudson Bay Company. And, of course, there was gold fever.

There are some great anecdotes about how the early pioneers were scammed by merchants into oversupplying their wagons. Heavyweight items dumped within the first few miles were recovered by traders and sold again to the next gullible group.

Animals abandoned in the morning by one wagon train were shot and eaten in the evening by members of the one that followed, using utensils that had also been left behind.

Pollution, disease and death were constant companions of the 400,000 or so who made the journey. The Hollywood version would have you believe most were killed by marauding Indians, but filthy water, questionable hygiene and dysentery took the highest toll. And native people, lacking immunity to diseases brought in by the settlers, were cut down as well.

Rink isn’t shy about confronting myths of old, or those being created now, reserving especial odium for the Mormons’ renaming of Devil’s Gate to Martin’s Cove as part of the church’s “parable of noble suffering”.

There are instances where the book descends into mawkish, Waltonesque territory that I could have done without. This is where Rink sheds wagonloads of Catholic guilt about not being at his dying father’s bedside, of always being a disappointment to him and of his own general feelings of inadequacy.

However, movie executives will, I’m sure, be champing at the bit for a family friendly version of this modern-day glimpse into How The West Was Really Won.

20288812572_b85c321e3e_mShadowplay: The hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be tough to decipher at the best of times and now there’s another layer of complexity to think about.

Fortunately, code-breaking author Clare Asquith is an excellent interpreter and fashions a page-turning thriller from a tangled web of period politics.

Why did the Bard quit writing and return to Stratford at the height of his powers? Is it credible to think that the greatest playwright of the age would have nothing to say about the turbulent times in which he lived? What did Shakespeare believe in and to whom did his sympathies lie?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy. The concealed messages and ambiguities have eluded scholars for more than 400 years and modern day academic skeptics abound.

It’s the breadth and depth of Asquith’s research in support of her conclusions that make the book so compelling. Little is known about the man, but her painstaking and rigorous inquiries give great insight into neglected areas of an already well documented era.

Shakespeare was living in a virtual police state, an England where political beliefs weren’t just cerebral debating points: Where you stood on an issue, what you said and what you did had consequences – and the wrong answers could cost you dear.

Coded messages

Was your ultimate allegiance to the church or state, monarch or to God? Were you Catholic or Protestant, Jesuit or Puritan? Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do? Where did your loyalties lie?

Walsingham’s spy network was constantly on alert for plots from abroad and dissidence from within. An allegation, a rumor, a betrayal, any whiff of insurrection could lead to dispossession, torture and a grisly execution.

It’s within this context that Asquith unravels the coded messages that have become even more opaque through the passage of time.

Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are read today and, as she explains, the sophisticated elite then were better versed in the classics than many modern theatregoers; they were attuned to allegories, allusions and hidden meanings.

One court dramatist of the time described his play as a Trojan horse: an elaborate gift concealing an unpalatable message.

The subversive genius of Shakespeare was to get his message through to a Catholic audience while concealing the true meaning from the rest. This was a dangerous tightrope to be on and one he walked for many years until, it seems, he had a major fall from grace.

THEY’DSC_0093RE museum pieces now. Badged, chromed, finned, gas-guzzling monsters that had their heyday more than half a century ago.

Silky curves, streamlined tails and rocket motifs sold the notion of cars taking journeys to the future.

Symbols of speed, agility and aggression advertised what was under the hood. Sleek styling and ornamentation offered distinctive personality – and form always trumped function if it looked good.

There’s a n13552617634_1140f44a5b_mostalgic pull towards vehicles like these. The open road with the wind in your hair is all very well……but there are no airbags or power-steering and you can forget sat-nav and the million-and-one other improvements that come as standard on modern vehicle.

Not to mention their dire fuel economy. Think about it. Would you really like a gas guzzler that does only 6-7 mpg? You would? Me too, though in another half century these vehicles may come to symbolize a shallow, destructive culture – if they don’t already.

The LeMay muse13567411383_56369cfd8d_mum is a pistonhead’s dream and even if you don’t count yourself as one of those there’s plenty to absorb.

The history of the car is part of all our lives and with 350 examples on display the context of their evolution is brilliantly told.