Excerpt from The Fortress Unvanquishable

Some of you may remember my high-fantasy ballad, The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth; I wrote a making-of blog here. Here’s two minutes of the full thirty minute run time, presented as an audition piece.

In this part of the poem, the hero Leothric has been told that he must defeat Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, in order to forge the sword Sacnoth from his body. Accordingly,

He wore his coat of shining mail,
He wore his battle-helm…

 

Advertisements

Books I read this August

img_1427.jpg

This wasn’t my most ravenous month for reading, distracted as I was by a two week residential course and preparations to move to Birmingham. Lord knows how far my rate will fall off do when I’m holding down a job! Most of these were rather slim things, apart from one mighty tome I’d been nibbling away at for months.

William Morgan, by Richard Tudor Edwards

A biography of the first Welsh translator of the Bible, read because a friend of mine is looking after his birthplace for the National Trust. It’s beautifully printed, and the first chapter is a charmingly dated sketch of Tudor Wales compared to the Wales of the 1960s, before the A470 linked the country up. As a biography, however, it’s a bust: tedious in its speculations, boringly repetitive in its use of the few known facts of Morgan’s life, and without any useful insight into his character.

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, by Ambrose Bierce

An enjoyable little Gothic novella by a writer I always get confused with Algernon Blackwood. From what I’ve read, however, Bierce seems to be a better and less anti-Semitic author.

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, by Nicola Shulman

A good biography that leverages the little that’s known of Wyatt’s early career to give us a potted history of Tudor intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, sustained by brilliant and accessible close readings of Wyatt’s poetry. Particularly good on Wyatt’s later life, when we’re past the reigns of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (rather familiar ground for me) and Wyatt starts to come into his own as a diplomat. Made me keen to reread the poetry, armed with new knowledge.

Othello, by William Shakespeare

Read while dogsitting for my girlfriend’s mother, a Shakespeare PhD, and the Irish wolfhound tried to eat it. Not one I’ve seen onstage, so I imagined Daniel Kaluuya as Othello and Gemma Arterton as Desdemona.

The Hound of Ulster, by Rosemary Sutcliff

A beautifully written retelling of the story of Cuchulain for children. I had only very vague ideas of the Irish myths before hand, so this was an education, and will be handy next time I try to read William Butler Yeats’s early poetry. Rather similar to the Iranian stories of Rostam in the Shanameh, the book focuses on a superhuman hero who kills his own son without learning his identity. Reading Sutcliff, however, is much easier than battling through Ferdowsi in translation.

Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters, by Georges Simenon

A thriller rather than a detective novel, which is not quite what I want when I pick up a Maigret, but the Paris of the 1950s comes through vividly, and the French impressions of the American gangsters give the book an interesting viewpoint.

Life of Numa, by Plutarch

A biography of Rome’s almost mythological second King, the one who is credited with first bringing peace to the city state and instituting their religious practices. Like the biography of Lycurgus the Spartan it’s paired with, it’s less interesting for any insight into character than it is for customs, especially in the case of the Vestal Virgins, and the special priest-caste who had the responsibility of declaring war. It’s also amusing, as a recovering academic, to see Plutarch spend pages defending his thesis of Pythagoras’s influence on Numa, only to conclude that to spend much longer on this vexed issue would savour of youthful contentiousness.

Charmenides, by Plato

A brief inconclusive dialogue on wisdom or temperance (language barriers make the distinction confusing). Socrates is introduced to the beautiful youth, Charmenides, but instead of accepting his host’s invitation to look at him naked, he debates philosophy with him (only in Plato). Read online, in a Victorian translation that held up surprisingly well.

The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff

While reading The Hound of Ulster I never lost sight of the fact I was reading a high, gloomy myth cycle about the days when the great heroes bestrode Ireland like giants. With Finn MacCool, I relaxed, and started enjoying it the same way I enjoy a children’s fantasy like The Wizard of Earthsea. It helps that Finn is so much more human than Cuchulain, with his love for his hunting dogs and his first wife doing a lot to make him identifiable. Even when jealousy turns him against his friend Dearmid at the end, he’s still more engaging than the gloomy beserker of Ulster, and the stories that cluster around him are a stranger and more varied bunch, including the same origin story, regarding the salmon of knowledge, that the Welsh give to Taliesin.

Ion, by Plato

Socrates in dialogue with Ion, a vain and rather silly rhapsode (reciter of Homer) who he ties in rhetorical knots. Worth reading for its conception of the work of art as a magnetic chain: the Muse inspires the poet who inspires the performer who inspires the audience. The poet in me rather than the philosopher, however, wishes that Ion had put up more of a fight.

The Moon-Eyed People, by Peter Stevenson

A rather mixed bag of Welsh and American folk tales, with delightful illustrations. Reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Mason and Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

A 700+ page tome I read a few chapters at a time as the mood took me, like Les Miserables and some of Dickens. As an eighteenth centuryist, I caught a few of the obscure references in this rambling novel, but no doubt many others passed me by completely. The loose structure allows for charming digressions and excursions: a Samuel Johnson cameo, a mechanical duck that achieves consciousness, and most agreeably, a retelling of the story of the Lambton Worm, which I remember from my childhood. Of the Pynchon I’ve read, it’s more satisfying than Bleeding Edge, but less approachable than Inherent Vice.

Doctor Who: The Roundheads, by Mark Gatiss

Some find period scene setting, and Gatiss, who went on to write for the modern show, has a good grasp of how to write dialogue, run scenes in parallel, and end on a cliffhanger. In the end, though, this felt like a runaround without much substance behind it.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty

A 12 hour read, pacy and deeply enjoyable, with a little post-modern frisson in its later pages. One of the rare ones where the writer seems to be having as much fun as the reader.

Lives of Publicola and Timoleon, by Plutarch

Publicola drops you right into the middle of the aftermath of the rape of Lucrece, a period I vaguely know from Shakespeare, Macaulay and obscure Restoration tragedy. It would be hard to understand without that assumed background knowledge. Timoleon is from a period entirely unknown to me, but I caught up fast, and found the eviction of the tyrants and the restoration of democracy to Greek Sicily rather stirring.

Books I read this July

IMG_1397

Some good reading in the sunshine this month, as I worked my way through fourteen books, some of which were read in a hammock.

Byron: The Years of Fame, by Peter Quennell

The only people I’ve read more than one biography of are Samuel Johnson, John Milton and Lord Byron–and for all that Byron’s life was cut short at half the age of the two latter poets, his life is immeasurably greater in incident. Witness this charming Penguin paperback from the 1950s, which devotes 270 pages to the five years he spent in London between continental trips.

The book suffers a little from the limitations of its era–Lord B’s bisexuality is barely explored and the author sometimes gives him the benefit of the doubt where he really doesn’t deserve it. It’s impossible to write a boring book about Byron, however and the poet’s meteoric trajectory from prickly outsider to literary celebrity, from Don Juan to Bluebeard, from socialite to exile, is grippingly traced. Byron himself never writes a dull word. I particularly like his put down of a society beauty: ‘Her figure, though genteel, was too thin to be good, and wanted that roundness which elegance would vainly supply.

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

Many of these I’ve read before–starting with ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, which I ploughed through in my early teens because Douglas Adams told me to. Their cleverness can be exhausting in the aggregate; if Samuel Johnson accused Milton of looking at nature through the spectacles of books, Borges looks at books through the spectacles of books through the spectacles of yet more books!

One of the delights of this reread is that I’ve caught up with the master, and can cast a knowing eye over his references and even catch him out where he fudges the plot of Attar’s poem The Conference of the Birds.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Feeling a sudden appetite for a long, dense Dad book, I devoured this 750 page doorstop. I found myself surprising exercised by the arrogance and constant procrastination of General McClellan, and relishing it whenever Lincoln would digress into storytelling. Following Lincoln’s rivals for the presidential nomination into his cabinet means we follow four protagonists over decades–the events of Spielberg’s film Lincoln take up about 4 pages! Huge in scale and ambition, you feel a genuine pang when Lincoln is shot and Seward stabbed.

The Unexplored Ocean, by Catherine Fisher

Found this in the library, to follow on from The Bramble King last month. Recognised a handful of poems from anthologies. Enjoyed the title sequence, but preferred Bramble King overall, where the themes and sequences seemed tighter and better formed.

Sonnets, by Cecco Angiolieri, trans C.H. Scott and Anthony Mortimer

I’m a fan of Mortimer’s translations, and this collection of 130 sonnets by the black sheep of the age of Dante preserves form and metre faultlessly, together with a rowdy sense of humour. It’s not as infectious or compelling as Mortimer’s translation of Villon’s Testament, but that’s a difference in the original authors, not a lapse in the translator’s craft.

61 hours, by Lee Child

A swift punchy Jack Reacher novel to follow Team of Rivals. I like the small town Reacher novels best, and this one has him in a South Dakota winter, which is a whole new element to fight. The bad guy is satisfyingly evil, and it ends on an effective cliffhanger. Of course, I know Reacher survives, because I’ve already read the fourth book on from this one.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is the one everyone raves about, but I liked this a great deal more. Imaginatively constructed as a poem and commentary that tell wildly different stories. Hugely entertaining and amusing. Thought, however, that the proposed alternative solution–that the commentator is mad–was a sop thrown to the kind of dreary critics who can’t suspend disbelief for anything.

Reflections on Writing, by Diana Wynn Jones

An essay collection by a children’s author I never got into at the right age, but am thinking of seeking out. The same old anecdotes recur, as is inevitable in a collection of pieces, but there’s usually a new phrase or detail in them, and the advice on writing is cogent, helpful and nowhere near as repetitive as Terry Pratchett’s in A Slip of the Keyboard. My favourite parts were her memories of being taught by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, her superbly funny memory of what must have been a difficult childhood, and the transcript of a radio talk by her son, which helps put the whole book into perspective and makes sure the sympathy’s not wholly on her side.

Half a War, by Joe Abercrombie

I’ve waited so long for this book to hit the library! The third and probably my least favourite of the trilogy, but largely because the set-pieces in the last two books were so thrilling, and this one, for all of its battles and stratagems, has nothing to rival them. The characters are still just as intriguing, however. Yarvi, the unlikely hero of Half a King, warped by the years into a Machiavellian manipulator as cruel as the power he seeks to supplant; rough-edged Thorn Batthu, the female warrior of Half the World; and the new pair, Raith, a beserker, and Skara, thrust into the role of Queen. Pacy read, making good use of multiple perspectives.

Afternoons Go Nowhere, by Sheenagh Pugh

Wry and wide-ranging poetry collection, reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, by Marina Warner

A deeply read history of fairy tale collections: Grimm, Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, the Arabian Nights, and separate chapters dedicated to psychological and feminist response. Interesting, but somewhat dry and rather a chore–and it gets tiring being bombarded with references to books one hasn’t read and films one hasn’t seen, even if familiar figures like Angela Carter do occasionally pop up. Closest thing to an academic book I’ve read since my Viva!

American Supernatural Tales, ed. S.T. Joshi

I skipped the House of Usher and Cthulu as overfamiliar. The immediately post-war era was a particular favourite of mine–enjoyed Clark Ashton-Smith’s Martian grave ghouls, Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) doing a Faustian pact story, and Fritz Leiber (who I mainly know from fantasy) writing a vampire supermodel who, I think, inspired a Neil Gaiman story. My interest wanes a little in the post-modern reference and stylistic pyrotechnics towards the end of the book, but Ligotti and McKielan produce a good shudder. Joshi is good on the changing dynamics of the publishing industry, but rather snobbish towards Stephen King, whose genre claims he artificially weakens by selecting ‘Night Surf’, a forgettable dry-run for The Stand, rather than the genuine pulpy thrills of something like ‘The Mangler’.

On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea, by Maggie Harris

This book was sent to me by a woman who liked my review of The Bramble King. The deliberately eccentric title heralds a collection interested in the unlikely juxtapostions of Harris’s Guyanese-British heritage. The mood throughout is lyrical and overflowing with colours and tastes, leaning towards long lines that droop off the pages of even this squarish book. I like the way the Guyanese poems use a dialect not present anywhere else in the word, and the relationship with the inanimate in ecstatic apostrophes and personifications. The third person poems where the person described is clearly the poet herself strike me as rather arch; better is the Yeatsian title of ‘Daphne laments her coming of age’ with its rueful beginning ‘We are no longer friends, my body and I.’

Selected Prose, by Sir Thomas Browne

I found myself avid for more Browne after the brief excerpts from In Search of Sir Thomas Browne last month, and thankfully this Carcanet anthology, bought purely out of love for Carcanet anthologies, was already on the shelf. Broken into thematic chunks, it’s more suitable for browsing than reading through, except for the central chunk, which produces Browne’s most famous prose piece, Urn Burial, in full. Gorgeously ornate in his musings on mortality, his scientific writings on biology are also entertaining for their insight into the 17th century world, and the sheer charm of his descriptions. I revived the contemporary habit of leaving a manicule in the margin of sections I found particularly arresting.

Writing a High Fantasy Ballad

the_fortress_unvanquishable3Many stories aspire to the condition of ballads, to the roots of folk storytelling. After reinventing myself as a writer of pirate ballads, I decided to go in search of one such story, preferably out of copright, in order to test my ballad-mongering craftsmanship.

I alit on ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth’ by Lord Dunsay, freshly republished in a Penguin anthology of his shorter works. Dunsany, an Irish peer, belongs to the tradition of pre-Tolkien fantasy before it calved off into a whole genre. He had a prickly relationship with the Irish Literary Revival–a less than effusive introduction by W.B. Yeats makes it pretty clear that the future Nobel Prize winner hated his guts–but there was a strong public following for his plays, short stories and novels, the best of which are still in print.

Fortress is a simple tale, yet an eerie one. It tells how the villagers of Allathurion become plagued by nightmares, which the village mage determines to be the work of the evil wizard Gaznak. The only way for these nightmares to cease is for the Lord’s son, Leothric, to slay Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, and forge from its spine the legendary sword Sacnoth. Only then will he be able to force an entrance to Gaznak’s fortress and face the wizard in single combat.

Appropriately for a story about the vanquishing of nightmares, ‘Fortress’ leans towards the nightmarish and dreamlike rather than Tolkien’s grounded worldbuilding or Lewis’s homely anthropomorphism. There maybe something silly about naming a dragon Wong Bongerok or a metal crocodile Tharagaverug, but Dunsany deploys the names carefully, using them to heighten the rich, melodious rhythm of his prose. Leothric and the sword Sacnoth have about the same depth of characterisation between them, but as in many fairy tales or stories from the Arabian Nights, the emphasis is not on the hero but on the strange and terrible marvels he encounters. Fantasy here is the last true refuge of the tall tale, and it ends with the frame story itself merging into the doubtful realm of dream, with the possibility that the defeat of the nightmare wizard was itself a long and terrible nightmare.

This is the tale of the vanquishing of The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword. And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

It’s also, I feel, an invitation to future adaptors, which is partly why the concluding verse were among the first parts of the ballad I wrote, not knowing I would spend months inching towards them, verse by verse.

Alas, it seems all splendid dreams
in morning light must fade.
The sweetest songs must have an end,
like this ballad I have made
of The Fortress Unvanquishable
Except Through Sacnoth’s Blade.

Yet fair things gone do linger on
as phantoms of delight
to charm away the dullest day;
sweet be your dreams this night.

I wanted, in my retelling, to capture the quality of a healthy bed-time story–something that thrills and scares but ultimately sends you to sleep reassured. I had in mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And so I set to work.

Many of Dunsany’s grace notes and side-details are an absolute gift to the versifier. The village-mage’s spell, for example, ‘had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”‘ I followed this description closely, with a ‘rasp / grasp / wasp’ off-rhyme had often qets a chuckle in my recitations. On the other hand, I thought some of his structure could use a little polish and rearrangement. In the first part of the story, the mage tells Leothric exactly what he must do to kill Tharagaverug, and Leothric goes off and does it like someone ticking off a to-do list. I decided to split the exposition between the village mage and an old man at the gate of the marsh people’s village, which had the multiple advantages of giving the poem a different voice, and giving the marsh people a modicum of agency in their own deliverance. Likewise, once inside the castle, I decided to reorder events to follow a more allegorical scheme: before he can confront Gaznak, Leothric is threatened first by an ambush of naked power, then by his feudal overlords, by a giant spider who represents fatalism and depression and finally by a vast abyss. My castle descends more slowly into the surreal that Dunsay’s original, where elephants flee trumpeting the moment Leothric forces and entrance. I also cut, with a twinge, the ball-room full of beautiful women who turn out to be Gaznak’s fever dreams. There were some lovely details, such as the wolves gnawing at the wainscot and the flames flickering in the sockets of their eyes, but I was determined to keep the episodes from overwhelming the forward thrust of the poem as a whole, and the seducing temptress angle seemed a little overtired.

In the final duel with Gaznak, I faced the age-old problem of making a sword-fight interesting on the page, but as Dunsany had already done it in prose, it wasn’t too difficult to pull off in verse. The traditional motif of the wizard’s castle dissolving into air after his death was satisfying to perform.

Sacnoth laid all his magic waste
and sundered every spell
and with a sound to rival all
the screaming choirs of Hell
in ruin unimaginable
the vanquished fortress fell.

RUIN UNIMAGINABLE!!! would probably be a more accurate representation of the way I bellow it out.

When the last rhyme was honed and the last verse polished, I had the longest poem I’d ever written: 575 lines and 132 stanzas, across two separate parts. The poem had taught me how to merge versifying with storytelling, bringing the much slighted arts of narrative back into the rhythms and images of verse. For me, composing and revising a poem is synonymous with memorising it, so I also had a half-hour long performance piece, and I’ve taken my staff and sword to venues across Cardiff and the valleys to tell me tale of dreams and magic, giant spiders and metal crocodiles. It’s a story now lodged in my head until the day I die, which is the best tribute I can offer to Lord Dunsany, that grand pioneer of fantastic fiction.

A Sestina for the Huntington

Something I wrote for the AHRC about my time in Los Angeles studying at the Huntington Library, and the poem that came out of it.

Research beyond borders

In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.

On my first day at the Huntington Library,Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre - Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre – Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington

View original post 822 more words

Elegy of the Anglo-Saxon Cyclist

Every cycle tour has a nightmare day. On my first tour it was Day 2, the short leg between Bristol and Bath midway through my journey from my university at Cardiff to my parent’s house in Winchester. The rain poured down unrelentingly as I slogged along the old railway track between the two cities, the first bike path of a national network that now threads through most of the country.

I had spent the last couple of weeks on my sofa revising Old English adjectives for an exam, testing how well I could understand and translate the language of Beowulf and King Alfred. One of the key texts had been ‘The Seafarer’s Elegy’ a long and mournful poem where a sailor laments that the weather is awful, the ship comfortless, his feet are ‘forste gebunden’ or fettered by frost, and everyone on land is having a much nicer time.

As the rain dripped off my nose and my shorts reached saturation point, I wondered what ‘The Cyclist’s Elegy’ would sound like.

I decided it would sound pretty much like this.

https://soundcloud.com/user998852738/elegy-of-the-anglo-saxon-cyclist

I will tell my story, such as it is,
A short and a soggy one. At cease of exams,
I undertook a taxing journey,
A cycle trip from Cardiff home.
I disregarded railway lines,
Trams, taxis and all transport links,
And through the force of thighs and calves
I made my way through Wales and England
To Hampshire and home. Hardly he guesses,
For whom the miles pass unremarked,
Cocooned in cars, comfortable dwellings
Away from the wet, how the weary cyclist,
Remains by the roadside. Rain never ended;
A daylong drizzle, drenching and cold,
Soaks into my shorts; sagging tyres,
Flat and deflated, force me to spend
Aggravating hours, alone in the rain,
Patching the puncture. Appalling weather,
The bane of the British, brings no relief.
My ankles ache with every motion,
Chainwheel and sprocket clank and groan,
And hunger harries the heart of the engine.
And yet, in the morning, I yearn to continue,
To take to the saddle, sore as I am,
Put foot to the pedals and push myself onwards.

While his bike is whole and sturdy
The cyclist is unstoppable,
An entire engine in himself.
And come the crash, when his bicycle hurls him
Headlong over the handlebars
To a painful impact, plastered in mud,
Face down in the dirt, his dignity gone,
His body bruised and bloody-kneed,
Still he will stride on, stronger than ever,
Firm in his frame, a fearless traveller,
Dreadless, undaunted. Durable men
Will live to outlast the little systems
Constructed to keep them. The cyclist knows
When after all this he arrives at his doorstep
Bloody, mud-splattered and spent with exertion,
His is a hero’s homecoming.

Thanks to everyone at the Cycle Touring Festival at Clitheroe, whose enthusiasm and kind remarks at the open mic night inspired me to put this post up.

And full credit to Ezra Pound, whose unique performance of his 1911 translation has been the inspiration for my own strange growlings.

Cycling USA

FullSizeRenderOn my fourth day in Los Angeles, I bought myself a bicycle. Before that, I’d borrowed the one my AirBnB host, Albert, keeps for the guests, but it was the sort of deathtrap people who know nothing about bicycles buy for $30 off Craigslist and congratulate themselves for being such savvy consumers. The rear brakes didn’t work, along with most of the gears, and the front wheel wobbled worryingly between the two forks. It was heavy as a sledgehammer, and so old there wasn’t an allen key socket on the whole thing, never mind a quick release.

A little research and $145 later, I got my hands on a white fixie with red wheels and bullhorn handlebars, much like my ride back home. LA has turned out to be a hillier city than I reckoned on, but the two mile sprint from my house to the Huntington is pleasantly level.IMG_0548

LA, as everyone knows, is built for the automobile, but this far I’ve been pleased with the cycling provision in Pasadena. After years in Britain duking it out for priority with Chelsea tractors – or actual tractors – in lanes originally designed for medieval haywains, it’s surprisingly relaxing to be somewhere that actually gives you space. Some of the roads even have a bike lane that isn’t a little patch of red paint in the gutter with five cars parked in it, but a whole extra lane between the traffic and the kerb. You can take bikes on trains and buses, you can ride on the sidewalk and no-one gives a damn, you can work up a good head of speed on the long straight boulevards and, of course, you can turn right on a red light. For me, at least, it’s a great alternative to hiring a car and having to ease my way onto one of those scary scary freeways.

In other news it was raining this Sunday in Los Angeles. Rain! In California! Who knew? IMG_0553Apparently LA hasn’t seen this kind of cloudburst in years. Before the rain it was easily as warm as an English summer out here, and now in spite of the constant sunshine there’s a definite chill in the air. Mine host downstairs has switched on his heating, but I’m calling on my reservoirs of student grit and doing my reading and writing wrapped up in duvets.

While I’m spending three months away from my girlfriend, I have decided to fill the some of thetime by trying out wildly experimental facial hair. This Friday I lopped off the moustache and went down to a chin beard. I’m not sure whether I look like a Quaker or a 70’s Marvel villain – certainly nothing like Lincoln – but I kind of like it. I think I’ll try out mutton chops sometime in March.

Next week I’ll write you something about the Huntington Library, and the photos will be gorgeous.

A Year in Shakespeare: As You Like It

as you likeAs winter nights enlarge the number of their hours, and autumn’s gold begins to displace summer green among the leaves of Bute Park, I look back on the promises of the spring and their fruits. It’s true that while several deadlines were met, chapters written and poems composed, my project, my project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays this year fell by the wayside. Partly this was due to other writing commitments, and partly due to the testing conditions I set myself: viz, one play every nine days, different editions each time, with an accompanying blog post. However, I’m determined to get out of the Comedies by Christmas, and that seems like a goal I can achieve.
I read As You Like It early in the spring, forging out into the woods and perching on various stumps, fallen trunks and climbable crowns in order to enjoy this least claustrophobic of all Shakespeare’s plays; almost every scene, apart from a smattering in the first act, might be played out of doors. My slim and pocketsized Penguin paperback was a delightfully portable companion, and like the play’s exiled Duke I found ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.’

IMG_0114_1024I should have written this then, but by letting the year mellow I was able to catch two excellent performances that will linger in my mind long after my pleasant afternoon among the ancient oaks and alder coppices. The first was the annual family trip to Shakespeare’s Globe, the second Everyman theatre’s open air performance in Cardiff’s Bute Park, and it would be hard to say which performance I most enjoyed. While the Globe, as ever, wound up their performance with a lively Elizabethan jig, the Irish band at the Everyman combined Shakespeare’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘What shall he have that killed the deer’ with traditional numbers dear to my own heart like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’; while the Globe’s Jacques was excoriatingly satirical, gleefully mirthful and fulsomely melancholy, the sexual electricity between Orlando and Rosalind in the Everyman version crackled and leapt; while in the Globe irish bandwe had the up-close underling experience of watching the play from the level of the actor’s boots, in the Everyman we had a wonderful arboreal backdrop to the stage as the evening drew on and the full moon began to dally with the treetops before arising in splendour to shine upon the wedding scene.

The title As You Like It, like What You Will, the alternative name for Twelfth Night, strikes a challenging note from a writer skilled at pleasing all classes of society from the poor groundlings to rich aristocratic patrons. No-one would dismiss this as insubstantial fare, for the characters are vivid and the dialogue substantial, but the plotting is often delightfully insouciant. Not that it particularly matters, but the play begins with the Wrongful Duke having usurped and exiled the Rightful Duke to the Forest of Arden, where His Rightfulness is content not to raise an army and scheme how to reclaim his throne, but to live like Robin Hood of England, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.

2076His Wrongfulness, meanwhile, steadily drives everyone to the forest with his tyrannical ways – first the talented young Orlando, then the Rightful Duke’s daughter, Rosalind. Here His Wrongfulness makes a big mistake, not realising his own daughter Celia is BFFs with Rosalind and more than willing to accompany her into exile, where Orlando and Rosalind enjoy a winning romance, complicated by the fact that, inevitably, Rosalind is cross-dressing as a man for no good reason. And then starts pretending to be a woman. It all gets a bit recursive at this point.

Part of the fun lies in what is brought onstage and what is left off. Most of the set-piece speeches, including Jacques’ party piece, the Seven Ages of Man, do little to advance the plot; a complex action sequence involving a snake, a lion, and a slumbering villainous brother is told entirely in narration; and the Wrongful Duke, who has been advancing threateningly upon the other characters’ location for at least three whole acts, is disposed of in a handful of lines at the plays end when a previously unheard of character enters to tell us he’s met with a religious hermit and had a change of heart about the whole thing. Yet what would be an utter disaster in anyone else’s hands remains utterly charming in Shakespeare’s own. It’s illuminating to compare the passage that seems most ridiculous in the print version with its performance on stage. In the scene Celia and Orlando’s brother Olivier meet, exchange a few civil words, and part. It seems fairly innocuous until the beginning of the next scene where are told they fell madly in love with one another at first sight and are to be married directly. Laughable on the page, but with the aid of lighting, sound cues, and a pair of good actors it works beautifully – indeed at the Everyman Olivier and Celia’s moment was not only obvious to everyone, but it got one of the best laughs of the evening. It’s a striking example of the confidence Shakespeare had not merely in his own language but in the skills of his acting company.

It’s that confidence and panache, not in the midnight faerie magic of a midsummer dream but the daylit quotidian magic of the Elizabethan stage that lends As You Like It its subtle, individual and unquantifiable charm, as fragile and as eternally renewable as the the English spring itself. To see two good productions in a year has been a fabulous treat.

A Year in Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

More than anything else Shakespeare wrote, how you interpret A Midsummer Night’s Dream centres around how you play the fairies. Are they the sweet delicate little things of the Victorian myth, posing in gardens for young girls to photograph? Are they proud, noble, natural aristocrats? The stuff of your worst nightmares? Or all of these in turn? Neil Gaiman rather captured the problem in an issue of The Sandman, where Shakespeare’s strolling players perform the play for the King and Queen of Faerie. Peaseblossom, a monster like a walking thorn bush, is outraged at his portrayal. ‘It’s nuffink like me! Nuffink! Issa wossname. Travelogue? Nah, travesty.’

FullSizeRender
Arthur Rackham, New York, Limited Editions Club, 1939. By kind permission of Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives

For these reasons, I was keen to get hold of an illustrated edition for my blog. Cardiff University Library hold one of the most beautiful examples ever printed, but to my disappointment I’d already covered that edition in my reading of The Comedy of Errors. I was sorely tempted to break my own rule of reading each play in a different edition, but eventually decided to move on – but not without giving you a view of Arthur Rackham’s incomparable Bottom. (No, sorry, that didn’t come out right.)

Fortunately, my friend Mikey is compiling a database of Shakespearean illustration, and let me borrow a hefty mid-Victorian volume of plays illustrated by Kenny Meadows who honed his trade on that stalwart of the era, Punch Magazine. It is quite fun for once to turn to Introductory Remarks that begin, in high Victorian style ‘Variegated, light, and splendid as though woven in the woof of Iris, the wondrous texture of this enchanting dream is yet of stamina to last till doomsday.’ A modern critiFullSizeRender 16c would be laughed out of his job for writing this, but everyone can admire the sentiment. The small print, two column format allow Meadows’s sketches to sit close to the actions they illustrate – sometimes, as with some of the fairy songs, the two seem almost to interact. It’s an organic way of illustration and one he seems much more comfortable with than the more standard dedication of a large illustration to a single page, to judge by the rather stiff and ungainly frontispiece to the play.

Meadows’s talents tend more to the light and delicate – the tiny fairies playing games with snails or encircling the moon. His portrait of Puck as a wicked cherub is unintentionally creepy, and his Bottom isn’t a patch on Rackham’s magnificent specimen. (Not quite right, again!) Yet what I really miss is the feel of the wild wood and the darkness, the maze in which the foolish, lovestruck mortals (and Faerie Queen) are wandering throughout the middle acts. Meadows, I think, gives us too clear a prospect out of Shakespeare’s tangled plotting and characterisation.

FullSizeRender 6Some of the comedies thus far, like Measure for Measure or Much Ado About Nothing, have felt like tragedies only lightly deferred, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels like an entirely new genre. Even having read Shakespeare’s early trials of the stage mechanics in the final fairy scenes of The Merry Wives of Windsorthe play seems to have a touch of the uncanny about it, as if sprung from nowhere. I will always remember the shiver that went down my spine the first time I read the play through, in my first year of university, and finished the play just as the chimes of midnight struck out over the sleeping city. For a moment, I was still in fairyland.