Thursday, December 28, 2006

Best General View of Kenilworth Castle

Carleton E. Watkins, "Yosemite Valley, Best General View" (1866)

In the nineteenth century, artists and photographers looked for what they called "the best general view" of a landscape or monument—the "finest and most comprehensive view," which encompassed what was best and most characteristic in a scene. For the nineteenth-century American photographic pioneer Carleton Watkins, this was the "best general view" of the Yosemite Valley.

I've been wondering, since we arrived in Kenilworth, what would be the "best general view" of Kenilworth Castle. In the fall, most of my walks took me to the northeast of the castle, but lately I've been walking to the southeast, and I've become convinced that the "best general view" is from that direction—especially now that the low winter sun brings out the shadows and the warm pink glow of the stone. This photograph was taken on the footpath leading from the Pleasaunce, the pleasure grounds built for King Henry V in 1414. Notice the mud puddles around the kissing gate—an almost unavoidable feature of country walks in England, and the reason that Wellington boots are standard equipment.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


One of my favorite entertainments on British television is the programme University Challenge, a British version of College Bowl in which teams from two universities compete to answer questions posed by prickly host Jeremy Paxman. The questions often require the teams to make complex mathematical calculations in their heads, or identify songs associated with various football teams, or know which former Prime Minister was created Baron of Bedwelty. One question which completely stumped both teams—a rare occurrence—was, "How many years are marked by a sesquicentennial?"

In England, apparently, few things as young as 150 are worthy of being celebrated. But in America, sesquicentennials are happening all the time. I celebrated my first sesquicentennial in in my freshman year in college (1982-1983), when Oberlin College celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding. In Minnesota, we are now experiencing a rash of sesquicentennials: the University of Minnesota (2001), Hamline University (2004), the city of Northfield (2005), the First United Church of Christ, Northfield (2006), Minnesota statehood (2008).

Yesterday, Boxing Day, was the quadricentennial (400 years) of the premier of Shakespeare's King Lear, first performed for King James I at Whitehall Palace on December 26, 1606.

Etymological note. Sesqui- comes from the Latin semis (a half) + -que (and), so a sesquicentennial is "a centennial and a half" (or, 150 years).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Royal Christmas Card

"With Love at This Time and Happy Smiles for 2007"

Those of you who are occasionally embarrassed by your parents will sympathize with Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, the teenage daughters of Prince Andrew. Here they are with their father on the cover of the Christmas card he sent out to hundreds of people. You can imagine, from the look on their faces in the left-hand picture, what each person is thinking:

Beatrice: Don't you dare take this picture!
Eugenie: Omigod! You aren't actually going to show this picture to anyone, are you?
Andrew: I'm wearing an orange turban!!

You will notice that both girls have a lovely reddish tint to their hair. Being recessive, the gene for red hair must be passed along by both parents. (The gene, a mutated form of the gene MC1R, prevents the conversion of red-headed phomelanin into non-red-headed eumelanin.) The girls' mother is Sarah Ferguson, the red-headed Duchess of York; their father, Prince Andrew, must have at least some genetic material in common with red-headed Queen Elizabeth I.

Today's fog photograph. A spiderweb hanging out to dry on the laundry carousel in our back garden:

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Henri Cole

Poor summer, it doesn't know it's dying.
A few days are all it has. Still, the lake
is with me, its strokes of blue-violet
and the fiery sun replacing loneliness.
I feel like an animal that has found a place.
This is my burrow, my nest, my attempt
to say, I exist. A rose can't shut itself
and be a bud again. It's a malady,
wanting it. On the shore, the moon sprinkles
light over everything, like a campfire,
and in the green-black night, the tall pines
hold their arms out as God held His arms
out to say that He was lonely and that
He was making Himself a man.

© 2006 The New Republic, LLC

Oak trees in the fog in Abbey Fields.

Since Wednesday morning, a cold fog has lain heavily over much of England. Hundreds of flights have been cancelled out of Heathrow, and Coventry Airport has been closed. The fog is expected to last through the day tomorrow, which was expected to be the busiest day for air travel in the entire year. 2006 has also been the warmest year in England since systematic temperature records began in 1659. While the forecast holds out little hope for a white Christmas, the fog does seem like more traditional English Christmas weather. Here's a passage from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol:

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The News from England

We are not saturated here, as we are at home, with American news. For the past week, the evening news on the BBC has led with a story on the prostitute murders in Ipswich, which has supplanted the Litvinenko spy thriller as the top story. There have also been stories about the National Health Service (NHS) and its controversial plan to place all patient records into a national database. The dismal collapse of the English cricket team against the Australians has also been a recurring story. There has also been regular news on the war in Iraq. A coroner's inquest has determined that a British soldier, killed in the first days of the war, would have survived had he been equipped with adequate body armor. It has also transpired that the government, under the leadership of Tony Blair and the defense minister Jeff Hoon, delayed ordering body armor for the troops during the winter of 2002-2003 because they didn't want to create the impression that the decision to go to war was "a foregone conclusion."

Imagine this: You have already decided, in collusion with the American President, that you are going to war in Iraq. But for political reasons you don't want to create the impression that the decision has been made—after all, there is still the minor irritation, from your point of view, of Hans Blix and the United Nations weapons inspectors, who say that there is no basis for making the decision you have already secretly made. So, you make the decision, but to keep the decision secret from the public, you delay ordering the military equipment necessary for the successful implementation of the decision you have secretly made. Then you stumble into war without that equipment because you chose to cover your political backside. As a result, British soldiers die. (In this particular case, the tragic irony is heightened by the fact that the soldier who died for lack of body armor was killed by friendly fire.)

I have to admit that for the first time, I find the smooth and eloquent Mr. Blair as criminally negligent as the colossally stupid George W. Bush.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

More on Red Hair

The gene for red hair is more concentrated among the Scots than among any other people on earth. While fewer than 4% of people in the general population carry the gene, more than 10% of Scots have red hair, and another 40% carry the red-headed gene. The Celts of the British Isles may have derived the gene for red hair from interbreeding with the Vikings who inflicted so much damage on England in the ninth and tenth centuries. That gene was part of the genetic material which the marauding Norsemen passed along to the Normans who invaded England in the eleventh century. With England’s long history of conquest by red-headed peoples, the average Anglo-Saxon has retreated into racial prejudice against the minority among whom the “ginger gene” has expressed itself.

A team of molecular biologists at Oxford University has conducted research which seems to locate the origin of the red-headed gene among the Neanderthals who inhabited Europe beginning about 250,000 years ago. The researchers speculate that some of the Neanderthals may have successfully interbred with Homo sapiens to preserve the red-headed gene. If this is the case, the prejudice against “gingers” may be among the oldest forms of racial prejudice, having its origins in the influx of Homo sapiens from Africa into Europe some 40,000 years ago.

My new short English haircut.

In a strange reversal of the white prejudice against those of African descent, genetic material that existed in Europe 100,000 years ago has singled me out for prejudice on the part of those whose genetic material came out of Africa 40,000 years ago. Fortunately, this prejudice doesn’t seem to manifest itself as overt discrimination, only in relatively harmless pointing, laughing, and name-calling. Daniel Davies, a red-headed columnist for the English newspaper The Guardian, writes that “although it is clear that hatred of gingers is a form of racial prejudice, it is the most trivial form of prejudice on earth.” He quips: “There is no sense in which the white man is keeping the even whiter man down.”

It’s strange, nonetheless, to find myself the target of slurs based entirely on my genetic and cultural background—part Scottish, part Scandinavian, part Neanderthal.

Left: Judas. Detail from Gaspart Isenmann (15th c. German), Betrayal and Arrest of Christ. Right: Gareth Armstrong in his one-man show, Shylock, a hit of the 2003 Edinburgh Festival.

There is an old tradition, dating to the sixteenth century or earlier, that Judas Iscariot had red hair. This tradition connects the trival prejudice against red hair with the much more damaging prejudice of anti-Semitism. Until the early nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s Jewish merchant, Shylock, was portrayed on stage with red hair. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes Fagin as “a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.” Red hair and a large hooked nose were the two most common visual markers of the stereotypical Jew, just as greed was the most common character trait (a trait stereotypically shared with the red-headed Scottish).

It’s interesting, in light of my experience as a “ginger” person in England, to reflect on J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of the red-headed Weasley family. Clearly, the Weasleys are sympathetic characters, but it’s also clear that there are wizards (including the suspiciously Aryan Malfoys) who regard them as wizard white-trash. Within the racial categories of wizarding world, the red-headed Weasleys are only a step up from mudbloods.

E.U. Commissioner Lord Kinnock

Perhaps because of their experience of trivial prejudice, red-heads tend to be prominent in the left-leaning political opposition in Britain. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Scotsman Charles Kennedy, is a red-head. So is Welshman Neil Kinnock, who languished as leader of the Labour Party during the Tory ascendancy of the 1980s. Baron Kinnock laments: “I’ve lost count of the times male characters in films who are odd, psycho, or can’t get a date are ginger. Usually they’re fat and wear glasses too.”

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Happy Feet

This morning, I made a significant advance in my Englishness: I bought a pair of green wellies. The weather has been miserable this past week, and the footpaths have become unpassable by mere Americans in relatively porous hiking boots. I haven't had a good walk in yonks, and the lack of exercise has begun to affect my mood as well as, to a limited extent, my waistline (fewer walks has meant fewer pints, which has balanced things a little). But this morning, Clara and I made an excursion to Leamington Spa and bought wellies as an early Christmas gift to each other at a camping goods shop on the Parade. As soon as I got home, I took a walk in the squelching fields around Kenilworth Castle for the first time in over a week. Then I came home and made myself a lovely cup of tea and ate a chocolate digestive.

A tricolon crescendo of physical deformities, from the point-of-view of an Englishman (from R.C. Sherriff, The Fortnight in September): "They had a small servant girl called Molly, who, being squat, bow-legged, and red-haired, had remained with them faithfully throughout the years."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Persephone Books

In an earlier post about last week's visit to London, I mentioned stopping at the Persephone Books shop on Lamb's Conduit Street. Persephone Books is an independent publisher that "reprints forgotten classics by twentieth-century (mostly women) writers." According to the publisher:

The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial.

The books Persephone Books chooses to publish are generally feature a softer, more domestic feminism than the books published by Virago Modern Classics, the other independent publisher of classic women's fiction in England. Among the treasures reprinted by Persephone Books are the often luminous short stories about ordinary life in wartime England that Mollie Panter-Downes originally published in the New Yorker (which also published her "Letter from London" periodically during World War II). Persephone even reprints cookbooks and gardening books and a 1949 self-help book for homemakers called How to Run Your Home Without Help. The books come in attractive gray covers, with endpapers based on fabric patterns from the period in which the book was first published. At right is the endpaper from the book I bought at the shop on Lamb's Conduit Street, R. C. Sherriff's The Fortnight in September (originally published in 1931)—a lovely novel about an ordinary English family's annual holiday at the seashore.

The Virago Modern Classics imprint was started in England in 1978, partly in response to the challenge set forth in Elaine Showalter's 1977 book A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Showalter observed that the women’s literary canon had traditionally been limited to a handful of representative authors who are widely considered “great”: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. This narrow canon created the impression that the great women novelists were miraculous prodigies, instead of outstanding representatives of an evolving tradition of women’s writing carried forward in the works of hundreds of lesser-known novelists. Showalter urged scholars to turn their attention to these lesser-known women novelists in order to understand “the continuities in women’s writing,” and the ways in which women’s fiction had responded to changes in the status of women and the circumstances of women’s lives. One of the non-fiction books later published by Virago was Nicola Beauman's 1995 study A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel, 1914-1939. The book examined the more domestic, middle-class literature read by ordinary women between the wars—exactly the books that Beauman set about reprinting when she founded Persephone Books in the late 1990s.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1878-1958).

My favorite Persephone Book is Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Home-Maker, originally published in 1924. Dorothy Canfield grew up in the Midwest, but spent most of her creative life in Vermont, where she also served on the state Board of Education. She is perhaps best known for a children's book, Understood Betsy (1917), which reflects her advocacy of the Montessori method of elementary education. The Home-Maker is about a husband who wants to stay home and raise his children and a wife who wants to pursue her own career outside the home. An extraordinary book for 1924, and a very moving one as well.

If you order a book from Persephone Books, they'll put you on their mailing list and send you their interesting quarterly newsletter and a bookmark with the endpaper pattern from a recent release. The Autumn 2006 newsletter also includes a short story by E.M. Delafield, originally published in 1927.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dinner Table Conversations in England and America

The New York Times today weighs in on the controversy surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow's remarks about dinner table conversation being more interesting in England than in America. The article even mentions Mrs. Trollope.

On P.M., the BBC4 equivalent of All Things Considered, I just heard Conservative leader David Cameron express his unqualified approval of civil unions between same-sex partners. He approves of any couple, gay or straight, that chooses to commit itself to a stable and loving relationship. Here's my new idea for a reality show: how about if we in America swap our Republicans for Britain's Conservatives?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Hardy Family's
BEST OF 2006
(from the people who brought you the Hardy Family's Best of 2005)

Family Highlights. The beginning of our sabbatical year in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England; our half-term trip to Salzburg, Austria; taking the cable car to the top of the Untersberg, near Salzburg; hiking to the top of Mam Tor in the fog; watching the new Jane Eyre and Robin Hood on the BBC; living in Kenilworth with the Houlgates

Memorable Meals. Dinner at the Harborview Café after Clara bicycled sixty miles from Northfield with Rebecca; Dinner at the Stiftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg, the oldest restaurant in Europe (opened in 803), with Salzburger Nockerl for dessert; fettucini with roasted red pepper cream sauce and fresh Scottish scallops (cooked by Rob); Welsh mussels in coconut milk (cooked by Rob; note: Will discovered that he’s allergic to mussels)

Favorite Local Pubs. The Virgins and Castle (Kenilworth) for historic ambience; The Saxon Mill (Guy’s Cliff/Warwick) for good food and ambience and a good walk; The Tipperary Inn (Meer End) for a good walk, sunny beer garden, and attractive barmaids; The Waterman (Hatton) for a good walk, good food, a view of the Grand Union Canal, and Arkwright’s Special Bitter; The Green Man (Kenilworth) for a large non-smoking area and friendly bar staff

Memorable Cultural Experiences. Much Ado About Nothing (Royal Shakespeare Company); The History Boys (National Theatre/Warwick Arts Centre); “Best of Mozart” concert at the Mozarteum in Salzburg; sacred music by Michael Haydn at the church of St. Peter in Salzburg; Mendelssohn’s Elijah at Coventry Cathedral; antiquities at the British Museum; “Holbein in England” at the Tate Britain; Clara Louise’s senior violin recital

Book: Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Non-Classical Music: Bjork, “It’s Oh So Quiet”
Accomplishments: serving a term as an Associate Dean; bicycling sixty miles, from Northfield, Minnesota, to Pepin, Wisconsin; singing Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the St. Michael’s Singers at Coventry Cathedral and Westminster Cathedral; driving a car in England
What I Miss Most About Home: the people
What I Like Best About England: being with my sister Mary; singing with the St. Michael’s Singers; BBC Radio 4

Books: Doris Kearns Godwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness; Geraldine Brooks, March
CDs: The Decemberists, The Crane Wife; Jolie Holland, Springtime Can Kill You; Calexico, Feast of Wire
Experiences: Salzburg, London, and the Peak District; teaching Latin 101 at Carleton
: blogging
What I Miss Most About Home: home, friends, half pint cartons of half-and-half for coffee, and reading Latin with Peytie
What I Like Best About England: rural footpaths and Ordnance Survey Maps, the history, and pints of real ale

CDs: Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; Nada Surf, Let’s Go; Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
Movies: Mission Impossible 3; Fight Club
Experience: the trip to Salzburg
Accomplishment: recording two CDs of original songs
What I Miss Most About Home: the people
What I Like Best About England: the people

CD: The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
Book: Anne Ursu, The Shadow Thieves
Experience: Bible camp
What I Miss Most About Home: friends and Pippi
What I Like Best About England: the people

Friday, December 08, 2006

Pre-Raphaelite Red-Heads at the Tate
(The last of three postings about our first trip to London; to read these in order, start below, with the posting on The British Museum)

The English pre-Raphaelites—Holman Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Ford Maddox Brown, Waterhouse—were one eccentric group of Englishmen who thought that red hair was beautiful. One of the accidental pleasures of visiting the Tate Britain for the Holbein exhibit (see below) was being able to follow it up with a tour of the wonderful pre-Raphaelite collection on the second floor. In fact, the "most popular painting" at the Tate is John Everett Millais' red-headed "Ophelia" (1852). What I found fascinating were three pre-Raphaelite paintings in which Jesus and the Virgin Mary are depicted as red-heads (click to enlarge the images):

John Everett Millais, "Christ in the House of His Parents" (1849)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Ecce Ancilla Domini" (1850)

Ford Maddox Brown, "Christ Washing St. Peter's Feet" (1856)

In the last painting, notice the dark-haired woman behind St. Peter (why is St. Peter depicted as an old man?). The other pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, modeled for Brown as the disciples while he was painting this canvas. The dark-haired woman is Rossetti's sister, Christina Rossetti (author of "In the Bleak Midwinter," pictured left). In her brother's "Ecce Ancilla Domini," she is transformed into a red-head as the model for the Virgin Mary.

For a "guided tour" of pre-Raphaelite red-heads, click this link.
Holbein in England

Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein was a genius at capturing facial expressions.

Another highlight of our twenty-four hours in London was the "Holbein in England" exhibit at the Tate Britain (running through January 7). Holbein had made his reputation in Basel, before coming to England in 1510s with a letter of introduction from the humanist Erasmus, who was well-respected among prominent Englishmen like Sir Thomas More. During his years in England, Holbein established himself as a court painter to King Henry VIII. After the death of the beloved, male-heir-producing Queen Jane Seymour in 1537, the King was soon shopping around for another wife. In 1538, Henry sent Holbein to Brussels to paint a full-length portrait of the sixteen-year old Christina of Denmark, famous for her lovely dimples when she smiled (click link to see an image of the portrait, which was part of the Tate exhibit). In the portrait, she has a rather knowing expression on her face, and in the end she responded to Henry's offer of marriage by saying that she would gladly marry him, but only if she had two heads to offer—a reference to his beheading of wife number two, Anne Boleyn. Christina went on to marry the Duke of Lorraine.

Anne of Cleves (1539). Henry VIII commissioned Holbein to paint this portrait so that the King could chcck out Anne as a potential bride.

Meanwhile, in 1539 Henry sent Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves so that he could check her out as a potential bride. He apparently liked what he saw, and had his ambassadors arrange a marriage. According to the woman standing next to me as I examined Anne's portrait, Anne smelled of goose fat when she first met the King. Some historians believe that she was completely grossed out by her obese husband, and deliberately made herself so unattractive that he never consummated their marriage. Henry refused to sleep with her and referred to her as "the Flanders mare," and had the marriage annulled after six months.* The portrait at left, now in the Louvre, was not part of the exhibit at the Tate. The exhibit did include the small, round portrait below, which does make her seem quite lovely.

Back in Lorraine, Christina's husband died in 1544, leaving her as Regent of Lorraine. Click this link to see her shortly after her husband's death, in a portrait by Michael van Coxcie in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin. She seems to be reflecting on her wise choice in refusing Henry VIII—since a couple of years before this portrait was painted, Henry had beheaded yet another wife. After dumping Anne of Cleves, Henry decided not to trust to Holbein's portraits, lovely as they were (perhaps too lovely), and married a pretty English bride, Kathryn Howard. Like Anne, she was grossed out by Henry, but evidently wasn't clever enough to smear herself with goose fat and make herself unattractive. Rumors of her infidelity soon began to circulate, and Henry had her beheaded.

*Anne of Cleves is the only wife of Henry VIII buried in Westminster Abbey. During my visit to the Abbey, immediately after leaving the Tate, I walked past her tomb, not far from those of King Richard II and King Henry V.
The British Museum

Our twenty-four hours in London (Wednesday, December 6-Thursday, December 7) had many highlights, including the "Holbein in England" exhibit at the Tate Britain, Clara's concert of Mendelssohn's Elijah at Westminster Cathedral, a brief stop at Persephone Books, and a brief but awe-inspiring visit to the graves of poets and monarchs at Westminster Abbey. But the first thing we did, after checking into our hotel in Bloomsbury, was to make a pilgrimage to the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. I've wanted to see the Elgin Marbles since I was in college and fell in love with John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." That famous ode was inspired, in part, by Keats' viewing of the Elgin Marbles in 1816 at the invitation of his friend, the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Leadest thou that heifer lowing at the skies?
And all her silken flanks with garlands dest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

The marbles were removed (some would say, looted) from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, when the Turks were occupying Greece. When the Greeks (with some minor romantic assistance from Lord Byron) achieved their independence, they pressed for the return of the marbles. But Britain passed a special Act of Parliament granting themselves ownership of the marbles in perpetuity. It was with mixed feelings that I admired those brilliant fifth-century Greek works of art in their English surroundings. The British were arrogant imperialists, but for the moment I (along with hundreds of primarily English, Spanish, and Japanese tourists) was selfishly happy for the opportunity to see the Parthenon sculptures in such a magnificent museum. I'm sure it would be possible to spend a year in London, and spend part of each day in the British Museum, and still not grow tired of it or exhaust the riches it has to offer.