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.’

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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.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

IMG_0147After struggling through Love’s Labours Lost, it was a relief to put the heavy collected edition back on the shelf and borrow a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice from the university library. It’s part of a Cambridge Shakespeare series from 1958, and it’s small, squarish, a rather pleasant faded blue colour, and blessedly lightweight. It’s not for every pocket – it would be hard to slip this inflexible hardback into the back pocket of my jeans, for example – but it turns out to slip very nicely into the large square pockets of my favourite denim jacket, where it swiftly found a place among the cycling gloves, notebooks and mint humbugs. As it was quick access, I read several scenes in the queue at the supermarket. The editor apparently has a quixotic fondness for preserving archaic spellings such as ‘piring’ for ‘peering’, ‘moe’ for ‘more’ and ‘roth’ for ‘ruth’, but this difficulty is easily solved by turning to the helpful glossary.

Aside from the edition, however, there’s little about this play that’s lightweight. Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself, begins the play in a state of apparently causeless melancholy. If we assume he is both gay and in love with his straight friend Bassanio, much about the play that was mysterious now becomes readily fathomable. But that’s just my theory.

Bassanio wants money in order to woo the beautiful Portia, and though Antonio’s assets are currently all invested in shipping, he agrees to borrow money on credit to give to Bassanio. However, this was the Renaissance, where Christians were forbidden from practicing the sin of usury (i.e. earning a profit on interest). So Antonio must borrow from Shylock the Jew, towards whose race he has the usual unedifying prejudices. Shylock, who looks on Antonio with equal dislike, agrees to lend him the money on no interest at all, provided he puts up a pound of his own flesh as forfeit upon non-payment – for what use would that be to anyone?

Once he has the money, Bassanio soon succeeds in wooing the beautiful, witty and brilliant Portia. That’s hardly surprising in a Shakespearean comedy. The real drama is when Shylock, incensed by the way Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo has seduced his daughter, demands his pound of flesh of the Doge of Venice after Antonio fails to make repayments.

IMG_0148Like Measure for Measure, it’s a problem play where the ending leaves us with questions still to be answered. The portrayal of anti-Semitism is unflinching – Shylock concludes the play forcibly converted to Christianity – and some scenes are certainly uncomfortable. Shakespeare gives Bassanio and the play’s heroes all the figures, rhetoric and fine language of courtly gentlemen, but no-one could accuse him of not giving Shylock a voice. The Jew’s finest speech begins with the kind of inspirational language familiar from nineteenth century abolitionist speeches, then doubles back down a dark path indeed:

Hath not  a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if we poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

The legal expert called in by the court to settle Shylock’s demand for his pound of flesh turns out to be Portia in disguise, and though she gets some of the most beautiful and eloquent language in the play:

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

Yet when Shylock will not show that mercy, she avails herself of a legal quibble that wouldn’t hold up a moment in any proper court of law, and has him harassed and taunted from the stage. Unlike its great predecessorChristopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, where the anti-hero Barabas is an entertainingly diabolical rogue capable of poisoning whole convents of nuns to get his own way, and who dies after accidentally falling into one of his own death-traps, The Merchant of Venice evokes a surprising and persistent sympathy with its sullen, stubborn and covetous adversary. Long after the final page is turned, or the curtain falls, one might find oneself pondering whether the characters with the fine, elaborate speeches, the fancy clothes, the riches and the sex appeal, might just be the villains of the piece after all.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Scan 7This is an odd play to come upon at this point, only three texts into my grand project to read all the works of Shakespeare in a year. In truth, it’s the closest Shakespeare ever came to writing the Renaissance equivalent of a spin-off TV show. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, that when he stomped off the stage at the close of Henry IV Part 2, she demanded the playwright write a sequel, bringing the fat knight to England in the modern day and giving him a love story. In some accounts, she was so impatient she only gave him a fortnight to write the play. Wisely, Shakespeare did as the Queen bid him, but – perhaps wary of the possibility of having to write new episodes of The Falstaff Show until Kingdom Come – promptly killed Falstaff off at the beginning of Henry V. But all of that is a long way in the future – somewhere in June, when I’m out of the comedies and midway through the histories.

In search of an interesting edition to read the play in, I turned to the bookshelves in the postgraduate office, ever an interesting guide to people’s interests and research topics. My colleague Calum Gardner thoughtfully allowed me to borrow a thoroughly charming early twentieth-century edition, printed in New York and previously belonging to one A. Napier. There was no date on it anywhere I could spot, but it’s dedicated to Sir Henry Irving, a famous Shakespearean actor who also employed an Irish scribbler of penny dreadfuls with the unlikely name of Bram Stoker. Irving also provides part of the introduction to the edition, in a short and a wittily sarcastic essay on the Baconian controversy. His suggestion is that Francis Bacon wrote the entire output of the Elizabethan stage, including Shakespeare, but notes that who actually wrote Bacon’s work for him remains forever a mystery. It seems as likely as any of the other conspiracy theories!

Among the other treasures in the old book are a scattering of early photographs of Shakespearean actors and actresses. The Merry Wives of Windsor is represented by a studio portrait of Ellen Terry as Mistress Ford; Terry was one of the most famous actresses of her day, now sadly only known for having been Dickens’s mistress. In a delightful period feature, a collection of tabs recessed into the sides of the pages make it easier to flick from play to play.

Turning to The Merry Wives, I am struck once again by the comparison to what went before – the language of Two Gentlemen of Verona was elaborate, beautiful and almost constantly in blank verse; Merry Wives is written mostly in prose, and the language is heavily spiced with Welsh and Spanish malapropisms from the two comic rivals in love, Sir Hugh Evans and Doctor Caius.

Scan 5But it’s not their play. It’s not even Falstaff’s play, though he steals every scene in which he appears. Uniquely, the heroes are two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, to each of whom Falstaff sends exactly the same letter, pledging his whole heart and undying affection, and not realising that these two best friends might just get together and uncover his ruse. Together, they foster a scheme not only to humiliate Falstaff for his impudence, but to teach Mistress Ford’s needlessly suspicious husband a lesson in trust, climaxing in a night of fairytale revels that looks forward to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My favourite line in the production belongs to Mistress Page, in conversation with the jealous Mister Ford:

Ford: Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

Mrs Page: Truly sir, to see your wife. Is she at home? 

Ford: Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company; I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

Mrs Page: Be sure of that, – two other husbands.

Actually, my favourite Merry Wives joke belongs not to any of the characters in the play, but to that well-known master of mirth and merriment, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It’s his only recorded joke. Due to wartime anti-German feeling, King George V issued a proclamation changing the Royal Family Name from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the more English sounding ‘Windsor’. Kaiser Bill shrugged this off this snub by saying he looked forward to seeing a performance of The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Heh. I fancy Shakespeare would have groaned as loudly as the rest of us.

A Year in Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

I’ve always loved reading on trains. The views are great, you can do what you like, and the romance of travel always stirs something in me. This Saturday’s trip to London proved particularly pleasant, going from the grey predawn drizzle of Cardiff into the Newport sunrise, to snow on the fields of England and ever-changing January skies – very beautiful to look at while sheltered from the constant alternation of sunshine, rain and hail. It was a perfect time for the second part of my project to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a year.

IMG_0845After reading The Tempest in the RSC’s modern edition of the First Folio, I decided to do something different with Two Gentlemen of Verona and read it in the oldest edition Cardiff University Library still kept on loan. After a few minutes browsing the dustiest and least regarded avenues of Shakespeare Criticism, I found myself holding a 122 year-old edition published in 1893 as part of the original Cambridge Shakespeare series. A tall book printed on handmade paper with generous margins, it was clearly something of a prestige object, and the bookplates in the endpapers revealed a long working life. Originally part of the City of Cardiff Libraries Collection, it was withdrawn as duplicate stock and presented to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, as it was then, in 1939. Now broken in the spine and largely held together by sticky tape, it still proves a pleasure to read – thScan 6e thick luxurious paper feels good under the fingers, and the whole volume exudes a strange sweet smell, like aged honey. It feels strange to be bereft of the usual cribs and glosses with which modern editors fill the margins, and to find in its place a variorum commentary in the page footer referring to the long-superseded eighteenth-century editions of Pope, Theobald, Rowe and Johnson (of which, more later in the blog) but it adds to the interest of the reading experience.

And so to Two Gentlemen of Verona, regarded by critics as being one of Shakespeare’s very first plays – an interesting comparison with The Tempest, one of his latest and finest. If you’ve heard any of it at all, it will probably be these fine lines, which Tom Stoppard borrowed for Shakespeare in Love:

What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me look upon.

The plot bears many familiar Shakespearean comic motifs, later to be honed and finessed  in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It – girls dress up as boys, letters miscarry, and love affairs are pleaded by proxies with their own agendas. The eponymous Veronese gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who have been friends since the nursery. Proteus has long been in love with Julia, who grows to respond to his passion, but Valentine’s heart remains unencumbered until he is sent to Milan, and falls in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. (What, if any, relation this Duke of Milan bears to the lineage we see in The Tempest is pure speculation – but he seems more than tyrannical enough to be Antonio, Prospero’s usurper. I know, I’ll be writing fan fiction next.)

This is the cue for a lot of charmingly silly romantic games that wouldn’t be far out of place in your average playground – Julia rips Proteus’s love letter in pieces, and then has a change of heart and goes to great lengths gathering up the fragments. She stamps on and scatters all those that bear her name, tucks all that bear his name in her bosom and, where the fragment bears both, folds them over so they kiss. Silvia, the more resourceful of the two, saves a lot of labour and invention by getting Valentine to write a love letter for her, to ‘a secret unknown friend’ and then pointedly delivering it back to him – something that has to be explained to the clueless Valentine by his valet, Launce, in the usual ‘cheeky servant’ role. His wilful misunderstandings and laboured wordplay quickly become tiresome, but his selfless devotion to his dog, Crab, is equally touching and hilarious.

A darker element to the plot emerges when Proteus’s peremptory father decides to send his son to Milan after Valentine. Proteus duly says his heartfelt goodbyes to Julia, exchanging rings and pledging eternal affection, and no sooner arrives in Milan than he forgets all about her and falls wildly in love with Silvia. His machinations cause the Duke of Milan to discover Valentine’s plot to elope with Silvia, and to banish him from the realm, while Proteus, pretending to forward the suit of the Duke’s preferred husband, the foppish and cowardly Thurio, pleads his own case to Silvia in the form of a series of very Shakespearean songs and sonnets. Unknown to him, his infidelity is witnessed by Julia, who has come to Milan disguised as a male page, and found a position in Proteus’s employ.

At this point the plot, which until this point has held up pretty well, begins to unravel. The exiled Valentine is captured in the forest by a bunch of soft-hearted outlaws, the elder brothers of the Pirates of Penzance, who elect him their King with comical haste. Back in Milan, meanwhile, Silvia enlists the aid of the honest widower Sir Plot-Device in order to escape her enforced captivity in her father’s house. Sir Plot-Device, the most thankless role in the production, duly rescues her, accompanies to the forest, and then vanishes from the play without a word. The reader is left to guess whether he was secretly murdered by Proteus or if he merely knocked himself out on a low-hanging branch. His absence gives space for the disgracefully rushes final scene, a confrontation between Proteus and Silvia in the forest, while Julia wrings her hands on the sidelines in disguise and Valentine, unknown to any of them, watches from afar. Maddened by lust, Proteus resolves to rape Silvia – at which point Valentine intervenes to avert tragedy. Proteus goes down on his knees and begs forgiveness, and in a worryingly short space of time – about 20 blank verse lines – Valentine forgives him, and seems to offer him Silvia as pledge of their renewed friendship. At this point Julia faints, and her disguise is penetrated by means of the rings she and Proteus exchanged earlier; Proteus is allowed to revert to his former love with hardly a word of blame. The Duke of Milan is dragged on stage by the outlaws just in time to give Valentine’s marriage his blessing and issue a general pardon, and the play concludes in the least convincing happy ending until I get round to Measure for Measure.

It would be no exaggeration to call the resolution problematic. I caught the cinema version of last year’s RSC production, which at least attempts to inflect Valentine’s forgiveness with some doubt and consideration by filling it with very long, awkward silences. Julia’s silence in this scene irritates me in the extreme. It would surely be a good moment to tiptoe up behind Proteus with a blackjack in hand, or at the very least, make a moving speech of dissuasion – but she remains voiceless and passive, and it’s only Valentine’s appearance that saves the day. Surely, having witnessed Proteus’s behaviour in the play, her opinion of him has changed? Just a trifle? Often with Shakespeare, I find myself wondering whether the problematic bits are really that bigoted, or just there to make you think. This time, it just feels like he was writing in a hurry, and produced a rushed and ill thought out conclusion to a play that, despite its flaws, remains broadly enjoyable, and shadows forward the greater dramaturgy and the more triumphant poetry of Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Sonnets.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Tempest

There’s something appropriate in the circularity of the fact that Shakespeare’s first play is his last: that when you open the Collected Works, the first play to meet your eye is The Tempest, traditionally and critically regarded as his final independently authored play. Whether this was a conscious artistic decision by the compilers of the First Folio, or whether they simply decided to set it first because they had a legible manuscript to hand, remains anyone’s guess. But like I say, appropriate.

Appropriately enough, it’s also the first Shakespeare play to really make an impression on me. I have vague memories of looking at Romeo and Juliet in Primary School, and perhaps Othello, long before I really understood the language or was fully capable of being moved by it. But I can remember the some of the kids from secondary school putting on The Tempest for us in a class assembly, (they seemed like adults, back then, huge and unknowable) and I have a vivid memory of one of them playing Caliban as Freddy Krueger in green face paint. I think they’d had one of those horrible knife-hand props lying around, and decided to throw it in to the costume mix. Less scarringly, I can remember trying out tunes for the songs under my breath in English class during my first year at Henry Beaufort, when I was well on the way to becoming one of those giants myself. So it’s a good place for me to start too.

My project for this year is to read all 38 of Shakespeare’s canonical plays, which works out roughly as reading and posting about a play every 9 days. To make things interesting, I’m going to read each play in a different edition, ranging from Renaissance quartos (or, more likely, their facsimiles) to ornate private press editions to modern critical texts. If you’d like to recommend an edition for a particular play – or still more generously, to send me one – get in touch in the comments section below.

One goal is to be able to tick off the Complete Works of Shakespeare when it makes its inevitable appearance in the list of 100 books to read before you die, instead of mumbling caveats about how I only got halfway through Richard III, and never bothered with Timon of Athens. Another is to find some pleasure in writing about great literature in an easy and relaxed manner, while I’m labouring over the stiff and formal pages of my doctoral thesis. Another is to read some unique editions in a series of unique places, and get a few good stories of my own from it.

IMG_0819For the first session though, I’ve made it easier on myself. I’m plonked down in my living room, in a rocking chair that used to belong to my grandfather, and reading The Tempest in my RSC First Folio edition. It follows the arrangement and print composition of the First Folio, the very first collected edition of Shakespeare’s work, while correcting obvious misreadings, modernising the spelling, and throwing in marginal glosses for the aid of the confused reader. It’s a student text, bought for a university course (well, strictly speaking, we were supposed to buy the Norton Edition, but I was irritated by the patronising footnotes and sans-serif font, and went my own way.) Even so, it doesn’t do much to defuse the strangeness of the opening scene. The prize for the most baffling opening speech in Renaissance Drama still goes to ‘Not marching now in fields of Thrasymene, Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens’ from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but for the reader at least, the first scene is a confusion of minor characters shouting things like ‘Fall to’t yarely! Yare, yare! Tend to th’master’s whistle. Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough.’

On stage, it’s exciting and thrilling – a heavy storm, a ship in danger and about to be wrecked, a confusion of orders and oaths amid ‘a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’. On the page, it’s just a bit confusing.

This is one thing about The Tempest that marks it out as a late play – in the earlier plays, Shakespeare’s linguistic inventiveness was used to cloak a stage bare of most effects and engines. Here his stagecraft has reached its peak, and the plot progresses through a series of masques and dances, feasts and bogs for which you really need a stage, or an exceptional imagination, to bring to life. I saw it last in The Globe, standing in the yard with my father, who’d printed out a plot summary and brought it with him to make sure he knew what was going on. The plot summary was even more confusing than the play. It made it sound worse than opera. Sure, the nuances take a little sorting out, but the basic march of the plot is fairly simple.

Before the play begins, Prospero, the Duke of Milan and a formidable magician, was deposed by his brother Antonio, with the aid of Adrian, King of Naples, and set adrift with his daughter Miranda in a boat to die. They washed up on the island where the play takes place, and found two creatures to serve them – the etherial spirit Ariel, and the monstrous yet pitiable Caliban. The play begins when Prospero magics up a storm, which seems to cause the ship in which Antonio and Adrian are travelling back from a wedding to sink, and it’s passengers to be cast ashore onto the island. There are three plots to be reckoned with: a love story between Prince Ferdinand of Naples and Prospero’s daughter Miranda; a story of usurpation to mirror Prospero’s own, wherein Antonio and Sebastian, Adrian’s brother, plot to kill the King of Naples and take his crown; and finally Caliban’s doomed alliance with two drunkards, Stephano and Trinculo, in an attempt to depose Prospero and take control of the island. In the end Ferdinand is married to Miranda, all the plots against authority are foiled, and Prospero leaves the island in control of Ariel and Caliban.

It’s whose examination of the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, the coloniser and the colonised, anticipate a vast swathe of post-colonial literature, while the variety and inventiveness of the staging anticipate the capabilities of the modern theatre. Yet even after the greatest spectacles and triumphs of stagecraft, there comes a reminder from Prospero, the stage master, that life, like all great fictions, is transitory.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Such wistful notes lend emotional force to the reading that identifies Prospero with Shakespeare, and reads the play as Shakespeare’s farewell to his dramatic art.

But I’m talking like an academic again, hedging around the most important points. I knew it was a bad sign when, after a seminar laying out opposing critical points of view on Paradise Lost, one of my students asked me ‘What do you think?’ and I floundered. Academic reading – keeping critical arguments in mind, adducing this point or that from the text – is a very different thing to the way I’m trying to read The Tempest. I’m sitting in a rocking chair with a cup of tea at hand, running an eye across the page and allowing myself to be caught up in the interaction of the characters and the music of the verse, only pausing to read some particularly choice passage aloud and savour its feeling on the tongue. Reading this way, you sense the mood and the emotions of the play rather than deconstruct them analytically – and it’s true that I can feel, amid Shakespeare’s constant delight in language and enthusiasm for the possibilities of the staging, a wistfulness and sense of ending that creeps beneath, and gives the play a not-unpleasant bittersweetness. It’s a fine place to end, and a fine place to begin again.

2014 Blog Statistics!

My addiction to webcomics is crippling my ability to study, and I’m struggling to keep the Facebook habit under control, but my blog statistics page usually makes me feel good about myself. It’s wonderful to see how many people, and from how far away, have been led to my blog. I’m astonished that when you google a major Shakespearean character, I’m now on the first page of Google (albeit at the bottom). I have had a lot of unusual search terms, thanks mostly to my post about the York Naked Bike Ride. As the stats page also breaks down views by country, I noticed that one of the lewdest search strings coincided with my first view from Vatican City. Coincidence? I think not.

It’s hard to pick a favourite among this year’s entries, but The Drunk Samaritan was the most interesting to write, while Waterlog 7: Laugharne and Pendine Sands didn’t quite get the attention I was hoping for.

Thank you all for dropping by, subscribing, and showing your willingness to read what I write!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Conversations with Strangers: The Forager

50 Since I started this blog in December 2013 I’ve written 50 blogposts and achieved 7300 views from all around the world, including Indonesia, Iraq and Vatican City. This would be the ideal point to look back, evaluate and reminisce, and such indeed was my original purpose, before I remembered how much I hate writing self-reflexive articles. True though it may be that the unexamined life is not worth living, I’ve never enjoyed doing it in front of an audience. I keep a journal for that, now well into its ninth volume, and woe betide he who peruses it without permission! So it is with some delight I have tossed aside my projected plan of discussing the motives that led me to begin blogging, complaining about how much I hate taking photos – the worst part of the blog – and trying to impose a retroactive rationale on a rattlebag of miscellaneous writing that incorporates anecdotes, poetry readings and academic conference reports, on topics as varied as astronomy, wild swimming, flying a glider, the Homeric translations of George Chapman and the embarrassments of taking a tramp home after a beer festival.

Instead, here’s an interesting conversation I had with a complete stranger.

 

… Over the bridge, a couple of people had vaulted the railings and were browsing on the blackberry bushes sloping down to the edge of the Taff, that mostly flows grey, brown or greasy green, but in these hot summer days had grown so clear that its rocky bottom was just visible through the weed.

– Found any juicy ones? I inquired, leaning against the railings.

The girl looked up. – They’re all a bit sour at the moment.

A green stripe varied the blonde hair that curved down her cheek toward her chin, and her bare bronzed arms were daubed with abstract colour, worked into her skin with the needle’s point, striped white also with the fainter mark of thorns. Her friend or boyfriend, with similar tattoos and a wild tangle of hair and beard, never spoke.

– Everything is coming into season about three weeks early this year, I observed, but even so I’d give the blackberries till the end of the month.

– Want to try one? she said, extending a purple hand. I picked the largest, dark, plump and softly bobbled; still my mouth filled with the familiar bitterness of a berry a few weeks under-ripe.

– No, not quite there. Have you ever tried making blackberry gin?

– We’ve done blackberry vodka.

– Does it still go that wonderful blood colour?

– Oh yes. Tastes great with cloudy apple juice.

– I like doing mine as a gin and tonic – then it bubbles upwards into a foaming glass of gore! I’m looking forward to laying in a stock for Halloween. Have you ever made nettle tea?

– No, but I made a chickpea and nettle curry the other day. It’s very versatile. I use it instead of spinach in a couple of recipes.

– Really? I’ve done it up with butter and pepper before, but it just tasted of pepper and butter. Kind of flavourless. Ah, just like…

-Just like spinach, yes. Bute Park’s a really good place for foraging. Her gaze roamed beyond me, upriver and down. There’s a big patch of elderflower over there. We made a ton of cordial. And there’s wild garlic and dandelion for salads.

She was eating up the rest of the blackberries from the palm of her hand as we spoke. Her friend or boyfriend found a little worm in his last, and threw it away. Then, not without awkwardness, they climbed back over the railings.

– See you when they come into season, I guess.

Oh, you tease

Teaser trailers are getting stingier. True, they were always meant to tantalise us with a few seconds of footage from films and TV programmes we wouldn’t get to see for months, but as studio execs get slicker at viral marketing and riding the hype whilst keeping every bit of plot information they can under wraps, the teaser trailer is torn in two directions – revelation and secrecy. Too often, this becomes a pointless exercise in frustrating your audience.

To illustrate my point, let us return to the halcyon days of my youth – to the golden year of 2001, when two of my favourite books hit the big screen at once: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

At the time, I thought Harry Potter was the better movie. I was young and naieve. It’s still plain, however, that while the Lord of the Rings teaser is overloaded with exposition, the Harry Potter teaser contains everything a young fan might want to see without giving too much away – the letters swooping down the chimney! The Hogwarts Express! Hagrid! The Great Hall! Dumbledore! Snape! McGonagall! Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the tantalising prospect of Quidditch on the big screen! Nothing could be more exciting.

Fast forward to 2012, and the teaser for The Dark Knight Rises resembles something put out by one of those irritating people who fake trailers for new movies by splicing together footage from old ones. Some offcuts from Inception – a few clips from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – while Commissioner Gordon wheezes something inaudible from a hospital bed. Even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances by Bane and the new Batman costume can’t save it.

It is possible to do this properly, as JJ. Abraham’s trailer for Star Trek (2009)showed. It contains no footage from the film we saw in cinemas – it doesn’t even tell you the name of the film. Yet, lifted as it is by marvellous sound design, Leonard Nimoy’s goose-pimply voice over and the surprise reveal, it’s a wonderful bit of cinema in its own right, and a concise introduction to the dynamic visual style of the Star Trek reboots.

The worst culprit is the most recent – the first teaser trailer for Doctor Who Series 8, the first season starring Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. Of the 15 seconds the trailer lasts, 10 of them are taken up with the Doctor Who logos that top and tail it. 2 of the remaining 6 seconds are taken up by staring at a dark screen. The other 3 seconds show a few frames of Peter Capaldi, standing in silhouette, against the TARDIS console. And that’s it. No monsters, no Daleks, no alien planets. No glimpse of the main characters in action – not even a proper look at the new Doctor’s costume, and photographs of that were released to the media months ago. Instead, a total waste of 30 seconds of my life.

(Yes, I played it twice.)

BARS Romantic Locations Conference 2014

BARS Locations - Thomas Tyrell

My account of the conference is reblogged from the BARS blog, curated by Matthew Sangster.

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I had not even started my PhD when I first saw the call for papers for the BARS early career and postgraduate conference on Romantic Locations, but I had come away from an internal postgraduate conference at York brimful of misplaced confidence, and that very week I was hitch-hiking into Keswick for a few nights free board at the youth hostel where my friend worked. I took a copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the District of the Lakes with me, and in the meditative moments between the rambles and the wild swims, an idea took root. It grew slowly – I sent my final abstract from a public library in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the three month interregnum, and I received my invitation to present a paper just before I moved into Cardiff for my PhD.

As the conference approached, I was filled with nervousness. I was after all a PhD of only three months seniority, and my research area wasn’t even properly in Romantic Studies. Would the others sniff me out as a romantic imposter, the Dr. Polidori amidst the Byrons, Clairmonts and Shelleys around me?

Such was the gloomy tenor of my thoughts, but as the train left Oxenholme and began to rumble towards Windermere, I found myself uplifted by the sublimity of the scenes around me. Arriving in Grasmere, I followed the hum of mighty workings into the Jerwood Centre, and over a reviving cup of tea I was reassured to discover that more than a few of my peers had cudgeled their brains, ransacked their notes and creatively re-interpreted their research plans in order to attend a conference in so splendid a location as Wordsworth’s own Grasmere; furthermore, I was the only one who would be talking about Romanticism and cartography, and would have a wide field in which to range. Feeling much more confident, I sat down to the first panel.

Highlights of the first day included Kate Ingle’s paper on ‘Personal Place-names and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Writing of Grasmere’, which immediately made me want to run out and find all the places mentioned; Daniel Eltringham’s on upland enclosure and Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, which read more critical theory into the practice of sheep-farming than I thought it ever could hold; and the final panel of the day, where Alexis Wolf, Honor Rieley and George Stringer introduced us to the impact of Romanticism in places as diverse as France, Canada and India. The concluding plenary lecture was given by Professor Simon Bainbridge of Lancaster, whose paper on Romanticism and the history of mountaineering made every postgraduate with a pair of muddy boots in their luggage wish they had thought of the idea first. The wine reception, held by candlelight in Dove Cottage, was an experience I am sure that none of us will forget.

Next morning dawned bright and early, and in despite of having drunk an inadvisable amount of wine the night before, the fresh air and change of location wrought wonders. This was a good thing too, as my paper on ‘The map, the territory, and the small cloud between Scafell and Great Gavel’ opened the first panel of the day, at 9:30 in the morning. Other highlights included Philip Aherne’s ‘Incomplete Communion: The Reception of the Conversation Poem’ and Leanne Stokoe, whose paper on Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and Shelley’s prose I had secretly been dreading, but which turned out to be absolutely fascinating. The day was varied by a talk from Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust’s collection (pictured below), who passed around plenty of original manuscripts for us to coo over and sent us home with our very own love letters – from Mary to William. This was followed by a seminar with Jeremy Davies on Percy Shelley’s time in Tremadoc, North Wales.

BARS Locations - Jeff Cowton

After the last panel of the day, we adjourned to the Traveller’s Rest for dinner. Last orders was called at eleven o’clock, but by a combination of special pleading and skilful flirting, we kept the drinks coming until well after midnight, and it was a little after two in the morning before this bleary postgraduate scrambled into his bunk. Nonetheless, Shoshannah Bryn Jones Square, Hannah Britton and Joanna Taylor had clearly eaten their Shreddies the next morning, and their panel on Romantic Borderlands was one of the best of the conference. It left me eager not only to discover Mary Shelley’s Matilda, but to reread The Eve of St Agnes and the poems of Hartley Coleridge with the benefit of their insights.

Interesting papers on Byron’s closet dramas, Mary Tighe’s sonnets and the layout of Hardwick Park followed, alongside a film by MA students from Newcastle University, who took on the challenge of presenting Wordsworth to a new audience with fortitude and invention. Sadly, after two nights of wine and revelry, not even the combined brilliance of Craig Lamont, Tristan Burke and Mary Shannon could keep my head from nodding a little during the final panel. I was, however, much refreshed by the second plenary lecture, where Professor Nicola Watson, president of BARS (below), entertained us all with her tales of fell walking with Jonathan Bate and Duncan Wu, and the wizard-like way in which she transformed a block of wood from a thing, to an object, to a literary artifact before our very eyes.

BARS Locations - Nicky Watson

With that, the conference concluded. Some were whisked off by minibus to Windermere to begin their journey home, while others (myself among them) remained for a weekend of walking the fells and communing with nature. As Wordsworth said,

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

On the arrangement of books

A rainbow of books

Clearing out my childhood bedroom recently, I found throwing out all my old books to be a miserable experience. There’s something crushing about coming face-to-face with those hopes and ambitions of long ago and realising that there’s no day rainy enough that I’m going to read the Mahabharata, that research project on Dark Age Wales has long since fallen by the wayside, and that no-one, not even Andrew Motion, has ever written a halfway satisfactory sequel to Treasure Island. Still, now that I’ve moved them all to my new flat and have begun to find them homes on my shelves, I find the cliché is truer that many people realise: books really do furnish a room. Of course, you can bind them all identically in morocco leather and house them in oak cabinets; or you can buy individual cased hardbacks from the Folio Society to adorn your living room in style; but even my ragtag collection of poetry, science fiction, outdoor adventure and Russian Literature; ranging from svelte, selected modern paperbacks to tome-like turn-of-the-century collected works; even this can furnish a room. It provides an abstract pleasure for the eye as it slides along the row of spines, enjoying the change of colour and texture from jacket to jacket without thinking unduly of authors or subjects. A well-tuned bookcase can be a work of art, a kind of linear mosaic that provides visual pleasure independent of intellectual association. After having moved and reshelfed several times in the past few months, I can see fragments of the old patterns on my shelves, broken up where I unloaded a box in a different order, or found space to squeeze in an extra volume. It would be possible to agonise infinitely over the placement of everything, but I’ve decided to slot them in in any order and let them settle in for themselves.

A French friend once asked my advice on ordering her books, and I flippantly suggested colour-coding them by spine. What I didn’t realise is that French paperbacks are an almost uniform flat white, of a sort I only recall seeing here on the spine of a 1970’s Dickens reprint, so that idea was doomed from the start. English books may be more colourful, but they present their own problems. Do I shelf the matte black Penguin Classics together in one great uniform block, or leaven the effect by scattering them among the more vivid shelves? What do I do with something like Branch Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, whose publishers gave it a dust jacket that was half green, half brown? Do I even own any indigo or violet books? At least the Faber and Faber paperbacks provide a basic spectrum from which to expand.

All this for the moment is academic; perhaps some very rainy day, after I’ve laid the Mahabharata aside, I may set to work on an aesthetic theory of bookshelves. In the meantime, it merely adds a new pleasure to that small empty space in the bottom right hand corner, where every night, at the stroke of midnight, the ghosts of all the books I have ever owned and am yet to acquire flicker past; red, purple, green and sober black, they dance briefly and then vanish into a haze of possibility.