Friday, August 17, 2007

New Blog

The Sabbatical blog is now complete. Now that I'm back in the United States, regular blogging will resume at http://rbhardy3rd.blogspot. com

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Monday, August 13, 2007

English Instructions for Installing New Toilet Seat Hardware

1. Offer up seat and lid centrally to holes in toilet. Mark edges of seat and lid to show the centres of both holes.
2. Fit the lid first. Line the right hand fitting centre upright C with the right hand mark you have made on the lid. Place the right hand arm A as illustrated against the lid.
3. Ensuring the marks are lined up as in 3, fit screws provided through the two holes in each fitting into the lid as illustrated.
4. The left hand fitting is a mirror image design to the right hand fitting so the arm A will now be on the left. Repeat 2 and 3.
5. Position seat centrally under lid and ensure marks line up with the centre upright C of each fitting, and offer the seat so that it butts up to the back of arm B of both left and right hand fittings. Fit screws provided as in (3) (screws not shown).
6. Screw the straight threaded bolts into one of the holes in the underside of the fitting (whichever is more suitable). Take care not to damage the thread.
7. Slide the washers onto the threaded bolts and offer the complete unit to the holes in the toilet so that the bolt protrudes below the holes.
8. Screw the nylon nuts to the protruding bolts and finger tighten only.

Note: I discovered that if you don't attempt to make sense of the instructions, the entire operation of replacing the toilet seat hardware takes about 15 minutes.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Curtain Call

Last night, we went down to Stratford again for our last play of the season at the Royal Shakespeare Company: Henry IV, Part II. The performance was a little unusual this time. David Warner (Falstaff) was sick, and the understudy (Julius D'Silva) hadn't thoroughly learned the part yet. It's perfectly understandable: the same 34 actors have been performing 264 different roles in the RSC's complete cycle of the History Plays. Henry IV, Part II is the penultimate play to join the repertoire, and has only been running for two or three weeks, and this was the first time that understudies were needed. In any case, poor Julius D'Silva had to come out as Falstaff holding the script in his hand for the entire play. The remarkable thing was that, in many ways, he was better than David Warner—he has a clearer, louder voice, and a greater sense of vitality. He was given a well-deserved solo bow at the end for his remarkable high-wire act.

The last play of the History Plays cycle to join the repertoire will be Henry V, at the end of October. It would be tempting to fly back to England in March, when all eight plays in the cycle will be performed, in historical order, over three days. We've seen six of the eight plays, and one of the highlights of the year for me was seeing the three parts of Henry VI in a single 24-hour period.

Here are all of the plays we've seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company since the beginning of September 2006: The Tempest (with Patrick Stewart), Much Ado About Nothing, Coriolanus, Merry Wives: The Musical (with Judi Dench), A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry VI, Parts I, II and III, The Seagull (with Ian McKellen), King Lear (with Ian McKellen), Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I and II.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Warwick Castle

Mary, Michael, Peter and Clara on top of Guy's Tower at Warwick Castle, with St. Mary's church in the background. Peter is holding ice on his head, since he didn't heed the sign warning him of a low stone doorway.

Last night, Clara and I joined Mary and Steve for Henry IV, Part I at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Another brilliant production (with David Warner as Falstaff). Unfortunately, during the first act I started to feel a sore throat and congestion coming on, and I am now in the midst of my record-breaking fifth cold of the year. These aggressive British cold germs really like me.

The exterior of Warwick Castle.

Today, despite a slight fever, I joined Clara, Mary, Michael and Peter for a morning at Warwick Castle—our last tourist experience of the year. Warwick Castle, billed as "Britain's Greatest Medieval Experience," is astonishingly expensive, but we paid for our admission entirely with "Nectar points" earned each time we've shopped at Sainsbury's this year. The castle was begun in 1068 under orders from William the Conqueror, and became for centuries the home of the Earls of Warwick, including Richard Neville, "The Kingmaker," who played a crucial role in the Wars of the Roses.

The castle was heaving with people on a fine July Saturday morning (perhaps, according to the forecast, our last sunny day in England this time around). Highlights of the visit were the firing of the world's largest trebuchet, and a medieval tournament—complete with jousting. Below are some pictures: Guy's Tower with the tower of St. Mary's church in the background; the trebuchet; two pictures from the tournament; and the crowds leaving the tournament grounds.

Tonight, we go back to Stratford for Henry IV, Part II—our last play at the Royal Shakespeare Company for the year. Meanwhile, here's a new thing for me to worry about: the Met Office has issued a severe weather warning for the West Midlands for Wednesday, when we are due to fly out of Birmingham. Gale force winds are expected for parts of the UK.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Kensington Gardens Picnic and a West End Matinée

Twelve of us took the train down to London this morning for a picnic lunch in Kensington Gardens, followed by a matinée of The Sound of Music, Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production at the London Palladium. We had been hoping to see Connie Fisher as Maria—the role she won as the result of the BBC One programme How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? in the fall. Instead, we saw her excellent understudy, Aoife Mulholland, who was also a contestant and semifinalist on the programme. Today's show was actually quite wonderful. Now, however, I am exhausted, so let's move on to the photographs: the once-controversial 1822 nude statue of Achilles in Hyde Park, honoring the Duke of Wellington; the Serpentine in Hyde Park, looking back toward the Houses of Parliament; our picnic in Kensington Gardens; Phoebe and Helen at the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens; a sign whose advice we all followed.

From left to right: Phoebe, Clara, Peter, Will, Margaret (Maggie), Chris, Steph, Mary, Michael (not pictured: Helen, who is behind the tree, reading the first of three books she finished in the course of the day; me, taking the picture; Steve, who joined us later at the Palladium for the show)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Quiet Evenings at Home

Each evening, the unread portion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows grows smaller and Clara's sweater grows larger.
Oxford Revisited

The Bodleian Library, Oxford University

This morning, Clara had an appointment to do some research at the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), so I decided to join her for another day in Oxford. While Clara settled down at the Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies on St. Giles, I walked over to the Bodleian Library to look at an exhibit of 15th-century manuscripts and early printed editions of Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante. For me, the biggest thrill was seeing Petrarch's own copy of Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars, with Petrarch's own marginal annotations. There, in Petrarch's own handwriting, was the name "Cicero." Let me explain my geekish glee. Petrarch was such a fan of Cicero that he even wrote a letter to the long-dead Roman author—perhaps one of the first examples of "fan fiction" in the history of literature.

From the Bodleian, I walked over to the university church of St. Mary the Virgin and climbed the tower, which gave me good views over Oxford. Below are the tower of St. Mary's behind the Radcliffe Camera (the famous Palladian style annex of the Bodleian); the best view of the Radcliffe Camera, from the tower; and a view of the quadrangle of All Souls College from the tower.

From St. Mary's, I forced myself to resist the pull of Blackwell's Bookshop and met Clara for lunch at the café in the Ashmolean (carrot and leek soup, bread, elderflower pressé, and pear and vanilla cake). After lunch, we looked at Greek vases, then Clara returned to the APGRD while I wandered through the Ashmolean (stopping again to see the charming portrait of Camille Pissarro's little daughter, Jeanne), then walked over to the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum. The natural history museum is where Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) used to take little Alice Liddell to show her the taxidermy, including the famous Oxford dodo, and tell her fantastic stories. Below are: Clara looking at Greek vases in the Ashmolean Museum; violins (the one in the center is a Stradivarius) in the Ashmolean; and the view the greets the visitor upon entering the Museum of Natural History.

The Pitt-Rivers Museum, in the rear of the Museum of Natural History, is quite cluttered and dimly lit, so it was not conducive to photography. Here's the best I could do, showing the enormous totem pole that dominates the museum. The museum contains an enormous Victorian anthropological collection, with everything from musical instruments to shrunken human heads (tsantsas) from South America.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Book Review: Stella Gibbons, The Matchmaker (1950)

Stella Gibbons (1902-1989)

In 1995, Kate Beckinsale appeared as Flora Poste in a television adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ novel Cold Comfort Farm, and in the following year starred in the title role in a television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. The casting of Beckinsale in these particular roles may have been fortuitous, or it may have been a clever attempt at intertextuality. Stella Gibbons herself wrote an introduction to an edition of Emma (1964), and the character of Flora Poste is similar in many ways to Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Like Emma, Flora thinks she can successfully arrange other peoples’ lives.

The Matchmaker (1949) is Stella Gibbons’ postwar take on Emma, with Mrs. Alda Lucie-Browne in the role of the meddling Emma Woodhouse. After their home has been destroyed in an air raid, the family—Alda and her three young daughters—find themselves living in a bleak cottage in Sussex, with a middle-aged chicken farmer, Mr. Waite, as their nearest neighbor. Alda’s husband, Ronald, is absent for most of the novel as part of the occupying force in Germany. Once settled at Pine Cottage, Alda immediately sets about attempting to pair off her unmarried acquaintances in the neighborhood.

It has been suggested that there is a colonial subtext in Flora’s efforts, in Cold Comfort Farm, to improve the lives of the backwards, rural Starkadders. There is a sense of the “white man’s burden”—or rather, upper class Englishwoman’s burden—in the attitude of not only Flora Poste and Alda Lucie-Browne, but of Emma Woodhouse herself. This is not to suggest that Emma is an overt critique of British colonialism, but it certainly seems to understand the frame of mind behind colonialism—the idea that a certain type of English person should be given the task of sorting out the rest of the world. One can imagine Tony Blair, blundering into Iraq with George W. Bush, as a kind of geopolitical Emma Woodhouse, confident that he can arrange a marriage between Islamic tribalism and Western liberal democracy.

Gibbons' novel is full of lovely descriptions of the Sussex landscape, of the passing seasons, and of rural English life. Clearly, Stella Gibbons was a meticulous observer of the English countryside. When she describes one of the characters sorting though seeds and placing them into labeled envelopes—“the large curved seed of the marigold; and the poppy seed small as dust; the flat yellow grain in which dwells the wallflower; and the large, blue and purple, marbled seed of the runner bean”—I imagine the seeds before the writer’s eye, spread out on the desk as she writes. The descriptions of the landscape, too, have the vivid freshness of something seen just outside the window.

It’s a shame that The Matchmaker has long been out of print. On, there are only three second-hand copies available, starting at just over $94. Near the end of the novel, one of the characters walks through a small meadow, surrounded by coppices, and crosses a small stream; Gibbons comments:

Meadow, coppices and stream covered not more than five acres of land and were only two miles from the main road: but they proved, as they lay there under the grey evening sky in deep solitude, how small England is, and how secret still: in spite of holiday camps, and motor coaches and the horrifying increase in our numbers, how secret still!

I have had that feeling, as I’ve walked the footpaths this year, that England is still full of small, secret places, still holding onto their unspoiled beauty. And English literature is still full of small, secret treasures like The Matchmaker.

My Last Purchase

This morning's post brought the new CD, Eternal Light, from the young Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, featuring pieces by Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, Dowland and others. Elin Manahan Thomas is the soprano who provided the ethereal high Cs in Allegri's Miserere with The Sixteen at Tewkesbury Abbey back in March. The CD, on the Heliodor label (available only as n expensive import in the USA), begins with a short unaccompanied piece by Hildegard von Bingen that shows off Thomas's ravishingly pure and lovely voice. She's joined on the rest of the CD by The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by The Sixteen's Harry Christophers. The last of the sixteen selections on the CD—"Pur Ti Miro" from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppaea, with countertenor Robin Blaze—is absolutely breathtaking, and leaves me gasping for more. You can hear excerpts from the CD at the soprano's website.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Farewell to the Tipperary

This afternoon, Clara's sister Mary joined us for our last walk over for a pint at the Tipperary Inn. The sun was beating down upon us, but there was a pleasant breeze, and the Tipperary beer garden was waiting for us at the end of the four-mile journey. The four miles back, after a pint of Old Speckled Hen, were the hard part!

English Summer

Today it's finally summer in England. The sky is clear and blue, and the thermometer is inching up toward 28°C (or 80°F). Yesterday, on my walk around the castle, the air hummed with the sound of tractors at work on the grain harvest. Yesterday evening, we had a cookout at Clara's sister's house—lamb and sausage kebabs, tabouli, strawberries and blueberries with cream—and this afternoon we're looking forward to a farewell visit to the beer garden at the Tipperary Inn. Meanwhile, here's a photograph I had meant to include in my post on Chichester. These lovely summery-looking light pastel houses stand on the road that leads into town from Fishbourne. If only there weren't so many cars spoiling the view.

Friday, August 03, 2007

13 Days and Counting...

A lovely summer day. I slept well last night, and today I'm lazing around reading a novel in the flickering shadow of laundry drying in the back garden. The novel is Stella Gibbons' The Matchmaker (1950), which I found on a shelf in my sister-in-law's house. Inside the front cover, the book is inscribed with a woman's name and then: "On loan to S— H— [my brother-in-law]. August 1978." I guess the loan has become rather permanent.

Stella Gibbons' only novel to remain in print is the perennially popular Cold Comfort Farm, which was made into a charming film starring the lovely young Kate Beckinsale. There are only three copies of The Matchmaker available on, the least expensive of which costs $94.14. The situation is even worse for Rachel Ferguson's astonishing novel The Brontës Went to Woolworths, two paperback copies of which are available on Amazon starting at $167.19. Worst of all is the $2,475 price tag for the unique copy available on Amazon of Margery Sharp's first novel, Rhododendron Pie.

What is one to do when one develops a taste for authors like Stella Gibbons, Rachel Ferguson, and Margery Sharp? Acquire their books on permanent loan, I suppose.

One of the side effects of my reading is to make me look forward to returning to England and spending more time in the south. The Matchmaker takes place in West Sussex, about fifteen miles from the village of Amberley, to which two of the characters have just made a Sunday afternoon expedition and walked beneath the walls of the castle (now a luxury hotel, then a near-ruin). The novel is full of beautiful and affectionate descriptions of the Sussex countryside. This year in England, we favored the Midlands and the north of the country, with week-long holidays in the Lake District and North Yorkshire. Clara and I have talked about coming back in a couple of years and walking the South Downs Way.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

14 Days and Counting....

Clara and I packed up five boxes of books and took them to the Post Office, and sent them via surface mail for about £130. At the Post Office, a customer in another line finished his transaction and said to the woman behind the counter, "Have a nice day!" The woman behid the counter said, "I can tell you've spent time in America. Here people just grunt." As soon as the polite man left, the woman behind the counter started mocking him, repeating, "Have a nice day! Have a nice day!" in a voice like a parrot.

I woke up last night at midnight with my heart pounding. Unable to sleep, I went downstairs and found out on the internet about the collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis.

In two weeks, we'll be back home in Northfield. This is what we're currently missing back home:

Today at Northfield's own English pub, The Contented Cow, volunteers will pose for a photographic reproduction of Renoir's painting Le Dejeuner des Canotiers (The Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881). Too bad I won't be there to pose as the redhead in the yellow straw hat. I love Renoir. His Les Parapluies is one of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery.

Starting tomorrow evening, the Northfield Arts Guild is presenting Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes (a version of Sophocles' Antigone) on the stage in Central Park.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Countdown Begins: 15 Days

Today, Clara and I walked to the University of Warwick through battalions of stinging nettles and returned Clara's library books. I washed and hung out three loads of laundry. I made piles of stuff on the bed and on the living room floor, and threw some stuff away, including a stack of old train tickets and Tube passes.