Thursday, 20 January 2011

Travel Tales #2 A spiritual haven for the New Age Traveller

Every so often the traveller stumbles upon a location that almost leaps out at him (or her) and such it was with this peaceful cobbled street in Antibes.

It was a hot day and had seemed a long one, not helped by a discourse with a passenger on a bus on the “merits” (he said) of the Revolutionary Calendar, this “supreme monument to human folly and stupidity” (I said) from the French Revolution.

The Revolutionary Calendar was a part of the Metric System which decided that everything should be divisible by ten. It therefore decreed that each year would be composed of ten months, each week of ten days and each day of ten hours. 

“Clearly the citizens behind this foolery had never heard of the Laws of Nature and the cyclical movements of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth”, I told my fellow traveller.

He laughed amiably, but already I was in full flow.

“We can only be grateful”, I told him, “that your revolution occurred in the eighteenth century and not at the dawn of human civilisation, otherwise Hercules would have had Ten Labours to perform; there would be Ten Deadly Sins; Ten Wonders of the Ancient World; Jesus would have had Ten Disciples; and Shakespeare would have had to redraft his play as The Ten Gentlemen of Verona.”

We moved on to discuss Globalization. 

“Is it a plot? A conspiracy? Some sinister design to rid every community of each last vestige of its culture and its uniqueness and replace it with a bland one-size-fits-all monoculture? Or is it a mere marketing ploy to allow global multi-nationals get their grubby little hands on the contents of your wallet?”

This was me. Clearly I was unstoppable. Almost New Age. He disagreed, said it was helping to lift poor people out of their poverty. I disagreed, said that was “Bollocks!”

He got off the bus before me and I continued to Antibes and came upon this picturesque café where Revolutionary Calendars and Globalization seemed light years away, and where it was more congenial, almost spiritual even, to watch people than to dispute with them.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Travel Tales #1 Charles de Gaulle Airport

We’ve all met them, on planes or on trains, maybe at train stations or airport departure lounges, bores who insist on telling you every boring detail of their boring lives.

I remember one at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport while waiting for a plane that was around five hours late. He droned on in his Estuary English, which is the fashion these days, and told me his life had once been routine and predictable, without any purpose or meaning, until one day he discovered what was missing from it.
“You’re probably wondering what it was that was missing from my life, aren’t you? he asked me.
“No”. I replied.
“Yes, you are”, he persisted. “Go on, ask me what was missing from my life”.
I breathed heavily and then with as much disinterest as I could muster said: “What was missing from your life?”
“MONEY!” he screamed and burst out laughing.

He showed me a photo of his wife who was absolutely stunning. 
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” he said.
“She is”, I said. “Did you win her in a competition?”

He wasn’t insulted by my sarcastic impertinence, he just laughed again, the kind of laugh that told me that in his mind at least we were now old friends. 

We talked some more, by which I mean he talked some more, and told me among other things that he was on his way back home from a trip to Italy where he’d been to Rome, Venice, Florence, Verona, Milan, the full Monty in fact. 

“It must have been marvellous”, I said with obvious irony, but he was deficient in that particular commodity and took me at my word and proceeded to show me some photographs on his digital camera of just how marvellous Italy had been.

As it happens Verona is one of those places I have always wanted to visit but never have, though of course I didn‘t tell him that. But I’d heard they have a Shakespeare festival every year in recognition of the plays that the lad set in Verona, including Romeo and Juliet.  It is even possible to see Juliet’s balcony, even though she never existed and Shakespeare doesn’t mention a balcony anywhere in the play. I once saw a production in which she was on a step ladder and her star-crossed teenage beloved was standing on a table.  

Juliet's balcony, Verona, But did she ever stand on it?

Apropos of Shakespeare, what kind of a man was he, after all? The professors’ write volumes in their unreadable university jargon trying to address this question when it’s obvious that they no more know a hawk from a handsaw about it than the rest of us.  I once asked the curator of Hall Croft, the house of Shakespeare’s son-in-law in Stratford-upon-Avon, what he thought. “A bit of a boy”, he replied, without hesitation. It sounded good to me.

After we’d looked at his photos for about half an hour my new friend asked me: “So what do you do for a living?”
“Well”, I said, “do you know those official forms you get to fill in with a box on them with the words ‘DO NOT WRITE HERE’? Well my job is to rub candle wax over the box on the grounds that if I can’t write there nobody else can either”.
“Did you need a lot training for the job?” he asked me.
“Not a lot”, I replied.

A short while later the airline decided that we could all have a cup of coffee free, gratis and for nothing, and told us to make our way to the café. 
“You coming?” my friend asked me.
“I have a caffeine intolerance”, I lied, and as soon as he had walked away I looked for refuge in another part of the departure lounge where I skulked for a couple of hours behind a party from Glasgow. Then I saw him going through the boarding gate for a flight to God knows where, but not back to his gorgeous wife who he told me he was separated from (did I mention it?), and not where I was going, and that was all that mattered.

Two or three hours later my flight was called and they bussed us to the plane out on the apron. And no, I still haven’t ticked Verona off my list of places to go. Not that I ever tick places off my list of places to go. Not that I even have a list of places to go.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

London: the city of kites and crows

It is 10 a.m. on the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day, Tuesday 24th August 1604, as William Shakespeare leaves the house of Mountjoy, his Huguenot landlord, on Silver street, and sets off eastwards along Cheapside.

The day is warm and sunny, and the streets are full of the cries of traders and the rumble of carts bringing the day’s provisions from the surrounding countryside. 

Arriving at Bishopsgate, Shakespeare glances at the tiny church of St. Helen’s where he worshipped when he first came to the metropolis, then continues his journey towards the Bridge, the pride of all Londoners. It is a large and animated structure with shops and residences, and even a tiny chapel. Shakespeare pays his toll and quickens his step, for he has an important meeting to attend.

He looks to the left, to the Tower of London, the mighty edifice in which Sir Walter Raleigh languishes in his cell in the Bloody Tower, perhaps working on his Historie of the World, or reminiscing on the heady days of the School of Night not long past. Cries of the wherry boatmen, the river taxi-drivers, rise up from the river. Shakespeare stops briefly to buy a herring pie, then continues onward, through Bridge Gate and into Southwick.

Above the gate, impaled on grisly pikes, are the severed heads of traitors. Birds perch on the heads and try to tear the flesh off them. But the birds are useful, cleansing the city of its dead animal carcasses. The people even identify themselves with them….

- Where dwell’st thou?
- Under the canopy.
- Under the canopy?
- Ay.
- Where’s that?
- I’th’ city of kites and crows.          [Coriolanus 4.5]

Southwick is the entertainment hub of London, though technically not in London at all, but under the jurisdiction of the county of Surrey. It exists as a thorn in the side of the puritans who control London on the other side of the river. The entertainments on offer are three-fold: theatres, animal bating arenas, and brothels. And the most celebrated venue is Paris Garden, a brothel and a bear bating pit rolled into one.

Shakespeare continues past St Mary Overie where his brother Edmund was buried a year earlier to the sound of the great bell being tolled; then past Winchester House, the residence of the Bishop of Winchester. Prostitutes are frequently seen entering and leaving the house and have been awarded the charming sobriquet of ‘Winchester Geese’. They are also known as punks, and usually called Doll. [Doll Tearsheet, 2 Henry IV] But beware, for a Winchester Goose can also give you ‘goose bumps’, slang for the symptoms of venereal disease.

And then he is there, his theatre, his destination, a stone’s throw from the Clink prison in the Liberty of the Clink, the Wooden O, the Globe.

Many things have changed, of course, since Shakespeare walked the streets of London, though some things have also remained the same. The Tower is still there, as are St. Helen’s and St. Mary Overie, now Southwick Cathedral. The coney-catchers and cutpurses are there, too, only now called conmen and pickpockets. And also there is the Globe. Not the original structure, of course, that was destroyed by fire in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, but a magnificent reconstruction and the inspiration of Sam Wannamaker, an American actor, director, film producer, and lifelong Shakespearean.

The Globe was a large, open-air theatre with a yard in front of the stage and a two-tier terrace. It was constructed entirely from wood and during the reconstruction they remained as faithful as possible to the original. The same type of wood was used, the same carpentry methods and the same kind of tools were employed. It even has a straw roof, the first building in London to do so since the Great Fire of 1666, albeit with sprinklers to comply with fire regulations.

The plans of the original theatre were not, of course, available, but based on excavations of the old Globe, and of the nearby Rose Theatre, it was possible to obtain important information on the dimensions and the position of the stage.

But they had to compromise on audience capacity. The original theatre accommodated 3,000 spectators - 2,000 seated in the terraces, and 1,000 groundlings standing in the yard. But the new theatre only has half this amount, firstly to comply with health and safety regulations, and secondly for reasons of comfort, as people are physically larger today than they were 400 years ago.

Even before the building was finally completed it mounted its first production, on 21 August 1996, a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Back in 1604 Shakespeare goes into the theatre and heads straight to the tiring room where a sharers’ meeting is planned. The company’s last production, Troilus and Cressida, had not pleased the masses, so this time Shakespeare, the original ’snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ had turned to Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi for a tale from his Gli Ecatammite (The Hundred Tales) about a Moorish commander.  Shakespeare named his character Othello and is excited about the work.

In the tiring room the sharers are all present, among them Richard Burbage, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, William Sly and Henry Condell. Dick Burbage wastes no time in asking the question.
“So what have you got for us, Will?”
“Well, lads, I think you’ll like it. It’s the story of a man who in a rage of sexual jealousy murders his wife”.
“He’d been cuckolded by the wench, eh Will? Yes, I do like it!”
“Oh no, she is the most pure, virtuous and innocent of women”.
“Then it must villainy of his part, eh? I‘ll dust off my Machiavellian costume.”
“You won’t need that, Dick. You see, he’s the noblest hero of them all”.
“A noble gentleman killing his virtuous wife? Are you sure you’ve got this one right, Will? ”
“And we’ll need to get some African costumes, too”.
“African costumes? Why the devil do we need African costumes?”
“Oh, didn’t I mention it? He’s also black”.

There is no recorded date for the first performance of Othello, but it was given before King James I on 1 November 1604 at Banqueting House at Whitehall and has now become one of the world’s most popular and enduring plays and Othello himself part of our mythology.

As for the new Globe, it is now one of London’s most visited tourist destinations. But you won’t see the kites and the crows unless you close your eyes. For the theatre, never forget, and especially the theatre of Shakespeare, is a place of the imagination. And with imagination you can see anything.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

When in France do as the French do: Don't!

Boulevard des Batignolles, Paris
As an avowed and unashamed people watcher, I once observed a Japanese tourist in a Paris bookshop, his hand clutching a book, his face twisted with confusion and misery, as he struggled in desperation to understand the fiendishly foreign system operated in the bookshop to allow him to make his purchase.

The French have a mania for bureaucracy, a legacy of the Napoleonic era, and this bookshop seemed to embrace it with a patriotic fervour. To make your purchase, you took the book to a assistant standing at a pod. She kept the book and gave you a receipt which you took to the cashier. You paid the money, the cashier stamped your receipt, and you took it back to the assistant to exchange for your book. 

My poor hapless Japanese tourist was completely at sea. He wandered first to the cashier who waved him away, then to a floor assistant, who pointed in the direction of the pod, then to another customer, and so on in ever decreasing circles, until finally, I have no reason to disbelieve, disappearing up his own fundament.

Back in Japan, in his own culture and with a language that he’s fluent in, he may well have been a fierce protagonist, not the kind of man you’d want to get into an argument with. But take a man out of the milieu in which he’s at home, drop him down in a new one, surround him with a language that he doesn’t understand, and he’s about as imposing as a broiler chicken in a battery farm, wired-up, de-beaked, gazing blankly at the world through infra-red spectacles. 

So why didn’t I do something to help my poor brother in humanity? What a low, sneaky question to ask. But the reason I did nothing is because I believe in respecting the cultures and practices of the country that I happen to be in. And as the French customers in the shop did nothing I simply did as they did: I didn’t! 

Et voilà tout !