The Missing Lines

Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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Profundity

In 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote one of the most profound poems in the English language: The Red Wheelbarrow. It reads like a Japanese Zen haiku:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Wikipedia tells us that the poem’s title is not its original, but rather one applied by its readers. The poem was first published in anthology titled Spring and All. The poem itself was simply titled “XXII,” indicating its place in the collection.

Referring to the poem as “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been frowned upon by some critics, including Neil Easterbrook, who said that such reference gives the text “a specifically different frame” than that which Williams originally intended. The poem is removed from its place in the anthology and thus takes on a different meaning.

This I think is overly critical. The name isn’t the poem. It’s simply a mnemonic to help us remember.

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Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then,

Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. I can’t think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare’s many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names – Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.

I don’t think of it as a controversy as much as a conspiracy theory, since, like UFOs and chemtrails, it doesn’t get any significant traction in academia. The dating of a particular play, or even if it belongs in the canon, may be controversial, but not conspiratorial.

However, it’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories, at least in the literary world (Atlantis, the Noachian flood, and Freemasonry may be older, but not literary). And I have to admit to still enjoying reading about it. This old conspiracy still has legs. Plus, it has generated serious, intellectual and scholarly debate for centuries.* It’s even become a meme, thanks to the internet.

History PlayA couple of years ago, in my endless search for books on the Bard, I picked up History Play, by Rodney Bolt (Perennial, New York, USA, 2005). I only started to read it last week. Bolt revives an old idea: that Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright, was the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Like that of the contemporary favourite among literary conspiracy theorists, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe’s life presents a significant challenge to explain in terms of the theory: Marlowe was murdered in 1593.

That’s twenty years before the last known works by Shakespeare were penned (Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen). de Vere, at least, died in 1604, more than a decade after Marlowe, so his supporters have a shorter time to cover.

The “solutions” for this rather uncomfortable historical fact are either that the person in question didn’t really die, but rather went into hiding and continued to write, or that he (or she in the case of those who attribute the plays to Elizabeth I) wrote them all before, and they were released sporadically after that death.

For Marlowe, it was even more inconvenient to “die” at age 29. Considering he was in university until 1587, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write the 36-plus plays and numerous poems attributed to Shakespeare. Unless, of course, we was really alive all this time, as Bolt suggests.

Bolt overcomes this significant problem in grand fashion: Marlowe faked his own death and fled to the continent with a copy of Hollinshead’s Chronicles in his chest (Chronicles was, of course, one of Shakespeare’s prime sources). The book is full of Elizabethan spy stories – if nothing else it’s wildly entertaining.

Marlowe has been presented as the actual author of the Bard’s works since at least 1819 (this article dates it to 1895). While it’s accepted that Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, his death usually involves some rather fantastic explanation to make him stand up among the other conspirators.

The argument is generally that a “lout” like William Shakespeare had neither the education nor experience to write about such a wide range of topics as he did. Only a nobleman like de Vere and Bacon had that background. Marlowe, despite being raised in a middle-class background similar to Shakespeare’s (Marlowe\s father was a cobbler) had better tutelage and Cambridge schooling. As it says on Shakespeare-Oxford.com:***

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

So how did Shakespeare’s name get put on them? The real, noble authors would lose face if they were identified as the authors, so they used a minor actor as their mouthpiece.** Wikipedia notes:

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe to avoid imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

Savage ChickensThat argument, however, doesn’t hold a lot of water since many nobles in the Elizabethan era wrote plays and poems openly, including de Vere.

It all hinges on how you perceive talent and genius. There’s a certain snobbishness in believing that one needs noble birth and university degrees to have the talent to be creative and artistic. Yet every notion we have of genius says that it belongs to individuals regardless of background, upbringing and formal education.

The argument against Shakespeare as the author overlooks simple plagiarism, too. Shakespeare’s sources are well known, and it’s clear that he lifted many of his plots, characters and settings from the works of others, even some of the dialogue. His genius lay in how he assembled them into his plays.

In Shakespeare, Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:

You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition.

Personally, I find all of the arguments against Shakespeare flimsy and contrived.  Most of the arguments in favour of alternative authors depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence,  “what-if” suppositions, and interpretations of internal “evidence” in the plays.****

The conspiracy looks for answers in the shadows and ignores those in common sight. And simply because 400-plus-year-old records are incomplete or were kept in ways different from our practices today doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

But back to Bolt. His tale is fascinating reading, and he makes it clear his belief in Marlowe’s authorship is absolute. Quotes from the plays are identified as Marlowe’s work from the first pages. Yet Bolt pulls back in his afterword and teases us by saying it is all the “purest conjecture.” Despite this, and despite the trips along what is clearly leaps of intellectual faith, what Bolt offers is entertaining and well researched, and in the end a rewarding read.

If only all conspiracy theories were so much fun to read.

~~~~~

* In his book, Contested Will, James Shapiro identifies at least 50 persons have been put forward as potential authors of the Shakespearean canon, since the notion of alternate authorship was first raised, in 1785. Wikipedia includes other dates for doubters.

** I’ve heard similar conspiracies about local blogs.

*** The site also boasts an “honor role” of skeptics who doubted Shakespeare as the author. However, simply because others believe in it, does not make it true, regardless of the perceived eminence of the skeptic. Just because some doctors smoke does not make the practice healthy or sanitary, no matter how good they are as surgeons. I cannot see any names of literary scholars or historians on the list, but there are a lot of actors.

**** I’m seldom convinced by interpretations by critics, historians and scholars that try to tell me what the author intended, thought, believed, or felt. Only the author can do that. Interpretations too often assume that what is written is not what was meant.

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The Consolation of Literature

For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading.

And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. He opens by saying:

There are as many legitimate ways of reading Shakespeare’s plays as there are of having a conversation, making a meal, or rearing children.

I suppose we assign meaning to whatever we read – the Bard and everyone else – according to our circumstances and moods. I might read Othello now with a different eye than when I read it a few years ago. I might perceive Iago as a more real, more cunning and more malicious villain today than I did then. Iago – who at one point swears by Janus, the two-faced god – tells Roderigo:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Announcing himself to be a deceiver. Later in Act One, Iago contemptuously says of Othello:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Such villainy, such deception. But of course, without Iago, there would be no drama. We want drama in literature, if not always in life.

Similarly, in The Tempest, which I recently restarted, Caliban seems a darker, more monstrous figure than he did when I first opened the play. Prospero mutters quietly about,

…that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates…

Although there is some redemption to be had, towards the end of the play. There often is redemption in literature. It cleans things up, closes the circle, completes the cycle. But life isn’t like literature – more’s the pity. Redemption does not always pour oil on our troubled waters in life.

Meaning, of course, derives from context, and separate quotes cannot convey that properly. Everyone’s understanding is different, so we read into things what we want to see. Intent and meaning may not be parallel paths. The fullness of the play carries the real meaning, not simply lines drawn at random.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust (part one). Faust himself speaks:

Ah, happy he who can still hope to rise,
Emerging from this sea of fear and doubt!
What no man knows, alone could make us wise;
And what we know, we could well do without.

They seem deeper, richer than I recall them from my first reading. A few pages further, Mephistopheles comments to the audience after the deal with Faust has been signed:

So, knowledge and fair reason you’ll despise,
The highest powers by which you mortals rise.
The Prince of Lies it is that edifies you,
With all the flash of magic he supplies you

Ah, that crafty Prince of Lies. The opposer who leads humankind astray. Satan, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I see it as a metaphor for more human manifestation, something archetypal: Coyote, Loki, and Trickster. Br’er Rabbit with evil intent. Or is it Br’er Fox? Either way, a deceiver also creates drama in literature.

Is what we read really what the author intended, or is what comes through the veil of our own circumstances the truer meaning? Literature as the psyche’s mirror? Is it more valid to read Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, novelist or poet, looking for your own intent rather than the author’s?

Meager seems to think so. He says we can never really see the author’s true intent, no matter how we strive to find it:

…a search for the author’s intention is not a proper way to read a text…

I think Harold Bloom might disagree somewhat with him. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverside, New York, 1998), Bloom wrote:

…no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare,the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe… They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us…

Which suggests to me that he means our own contextual understanding, the through-the-personal-lens view, is limited, and we must search for the greater, even universal, meaning in the author’s intent. Look for the intrinsic, not the extrinsic.

Of course, trying to understand Shakespeare at any reasonable level of comprehension depends on having some grasp of the author’s own background, his education, his cultural, political and social influences, and his language. What I read into, say, Julius Caesar’s comment,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Or Casca’s description to Brutus of Caesar being lauded by the crowd:

Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.

…is filtered through my own experience. My derived meaning may not be even close to Shakespeare’s intent. Shakespeare’s references might be not to historical (Roman) times, or even to the general human condition, but to characters or events at Elizabeth’s contemporary court. It could be a veiled comment on politics of his day.

Reading Shakespeare is always like that: layered. Yet four hundred years later we can still find resonance in his writing. Which is why I still pick him up and read him with awe.

Whether what I read in those words reflects the author’s intent or is merely a mirror to my own imagination I can’t say.

All I know for sure that, opening the pages of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen or any of a number of works by great writers, gives me respite from the daily turmoil. Consolation and reflection.

~~~~~

* From Wikipedia:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial … for the crime of treason … This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

..

 

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10,000 words too many

Scribble, scribbleBeen working the last two-and-a-half months on my latest book for Municipal World. A bit of a challenge, actually – trying to combine marketing, branding, advertising, public relations and communications topics into one coherent yet succinct package has been difficult. There are so many things to say, so many areas to cover, that brevity often escapes me (there are those that say it’s always that way with me…).

I’ve been reading about three dozen books on the topics, and an unknown (but very high) number of websites and white papers on the same subjects. I have almost 2GB of PDF files printed from or downloaded from the Net related to the various topics in the book.

Whatever royalties I get from this book will have to go back to paying for the other books I bought from Amazon and Abebooks. And I still have a half-dozen titles in my cart I hoped to get next week… they’ll join all those other books piled around my computer with little sticky notes like colourful tongues, marking pages with quotes I want to add or ideas I want to ponder (and include). I am glad Susan is a tolerant, loving person, who puts up with my habits and obsessions.

There have been some really interesting areas of research – too many, actually; some very distracting – the psychology of persuasion, the changing nature of PR and public affairs, the historical development of media relations in the last century, ethics in marketing, lobbyists… but most of all, the new emphasis on storytelling as a vehicle for content. That has really caught my attention (so much so that I also got an audio course on storytelling from The Great Courses to listen to as I walk my dog…)

Not to mention the books and reports about metrics, demographics, psychographics, design and video. Books from the earliest of Bernays’ writing (1923) to recent marketing gurus and professors (2012) clutter my floor, my tabletop, and bedside. If nothing more, my bibliography is comprehensive!

Altogether too much time spend reading and not enough in writing and editing. I tend to do that – get engrossed in the topic and absorb it through as many sources as I can. Well, I eventually got my book into rough shape – 50,000 words of it by mid week. Took 2-3,000 out Friday, relentlessly hacking away the excess. Probably do that many again this weekend.

As a result, I’ll still be about 10,000 words over the expected limit. If a typical 8.5 x 11 page of writing has 500 words, that’s 20 pages too many. Sigh. How and what to cut? Big decision the next week, because the first draft is due by month end.

My knowledge of the business of PR and marketing has gone from modest but practical to broad and philosophical, bolstered by come intriguing science about human psychology and what motivates consumers. Lots of new insight into social media and how it has changed PR, too.

Wonder how much of it I will be able to actually use. Not much before my next book has to get started (my fourth book for MW is due this summer), I expect.

Actually I’ll probably take a short break between books to declutter my workspace, and maybe get back to reading a few off-topic books I’ve been holding off in order to cram for this work. Maybe I can donate a few of the read books to the library. And just maybe I can put some more time into a novel I started on last year. And of course, there’s always this blog… and my stories….but I do love to write….

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Scaramouche

Librivox coverHe was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. That has to rank among the best opening lines in a novel, up there with Dickens’ “It was the best of times…” opening in A Tale of Two Cities. This line, however, is from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, Scaramouche.

Yesterday, I was rummaging through my rather messy and erratic book collection, poking among books stacked upon books, and in piles on the floor, looking for a copy of Albert and the Lion that I wrote about recently. I didn’t find it, but I did find my copy of Scaramouche, a book I thought I had lost a few years back.*

What a delight it is to find a book you thought you had lost! I immediately pulled it out of the pile and took it to bed with me to read. Finished the first three chapters last night, before I picked up another book.

Mine is an old edition; a little rough, with lightly yellowed pages. No foxing, though, and the binding is fragile but still intact. My copy was published by the Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stewart, in 1923; the second Canadian edition – this one has six illustrations; photographs actually: stills from a silent film of the same name, also shot in 1923. I found out today, as I wrote this, that the film has been restored and is available from TCM.

There was also a 1952 film of the novel, starring Stewart Granger and Janet Leigh. The silent film follows the novel better, however.

The novel is subtitled “A Romance of the French Revolution,” and it’s a swashbuckling, sprawling tale of love, friendship, intrigue, politics, swordfighting – all the elements that Hollywood loves. Sabatini also wrote, among others, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, both also swashbucklers and both made into movies. It’s along the lines of the books by the Baroness Orczy – the Scarlet Pimpernel and similar titles – written only a few years earlier – but with more politics, action and discourse.

You can read Scaramouche online or as an e-book today (I have not yet got myself an e-reader, and still like the tactile sense of actual books, but I do appreciate the technology). You can also down an audiobook at Librivox (I like to listen to audio books and courses when I drive long distances, or when I walk the dog).

It has some great lines, although the writing style is a bit florid for today’s standards.

He was too impish, too caustic, too much disposed—so thought his colleagues—to ridicule their sublime theories for the regeneration of mankind. Himself he protested that he merely held them up to the mirror of truth, and that it was not his fault if when reflected there they looked ridiculous.

It starts in France in the years just before the Revolution and follows the hero as he joins the revolutionaries, but many of the comments and political descriptions sound remarkably like a metaphor for modern American society:

“The King? All the world knows there has been no king in France since Louis XIV. There is an obese gentleman at Versailles who wears the crown, but the very news you bring shows for how little he really counts. It is the nobles and clergy who sit in the high places, with the people of France harnessed under their feet, who are the real rulers. That is why I say that France is a republic; she is a republic built on the best pattern—the Roman pattern. Then, as now, there were great patrician families in luxury, preserving for themselves power and wealth, and what else is accounted worth possessing; and there was the populace crushed and groaning, sweating, bleeding, starving, and perishing in the Roman kennels. That was a republic; the mightiest we have seen…

“Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness?”

and…

“You do not speak of the abuses, the horrible, intolerable abuses of power under which we labour at present.”
“Where there is power there will always be the abuse of it.”

“Not if the tenure of power is dependent upon its equitable administration.”

“The tenure of power is power. We cannot dictate to those who hold it.”

“The people can—the people in its might.”

“Again I ask you, when you say the people do you mean the populace? You do. What power can the populace wield? It can run wild. It can burn and slay for a time. But enduring power it cannot wield, because power demands qualities which the populace does not possess, or it would not be populace. The inevitable, tragic corollary of civilization is populace. For the rest, abuses can be corrected by equity; and equity, if it is not found in the enlightened, is not to be found at all. M. Necker is to set about correcting abuses, and limiting privileges. That is decided. To that end the States General are to assemble.”

I read a recent translation by Richard Pevear of Dumas’ great novel, The Three Musketeers, a few months back, and this novel seems the perfect companion to that. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book – all 346 pages of it.

~~~~~

* You may know the name Scaramouche from the lyrics in Queen’s hit, Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Perfect Sense

Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=iexMJrBzZtA]

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.

~~~~~

* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

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Albert and the Lion

Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=Putw3by4-e8]

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

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Another day on the job in Paradise… chapter one

Mayor QuimbyMayor Ralph “Bosco” Hearne, whistling softly “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” under his breath, gazed at the wood-and-polished-brass, 19th-century front doors of town hall and nodded slightly in approval. He stopped whistling, paused, and breathed out a gentle sigh of satisfaction. The gleam of the brass was unobstructed; his view extended through the big glass window clear into the atrium and to the back with its veined marble wall without a single thing to distract it. A few short minutes and the doors would open; town hall would be bustling with staff; residents would come and go, doing their municipal business, checking tax records, buying dog tags. Yet at almost 8:30, with the sun already peering onto the main street, there was no one waiting to be let in; no one tapping impatiently at the glass trying to attract staff’s attention; no one pacing nervously in front of the doors and muttering darkly at the inability of staff to tell time.

Any morning that began with an empty entranceway promised to be a good day for Mayor Hearne, because any day that began without an early morning encounter with Caroline Rune was a morning to enjoy. Meeting her always involved a tirade led into a slew of accusations about how he and council were trying to destroy not only the town, but the region and even democracy in general. Not seeing her waiting for him gave him hope he would not develop one of those nail-in-the-temple headaches before noon. He could keep the whiskey locked up in his desk drawer until at least mid-afternoon. It could, just maybe, be a normal day in town hall, maybe even in all of Neuville.

He looked up and down the street, a little nervously, expecting any moment to see a harridan in full flight coming towards him, but the sidewalk was empty, except for old Nick Charnley slowly sweeping in front of his bookstore; his daily exercise, after which he would retreat behind a desk and remain there until closing, nose deep in a book.  And down further a young couple were emerging from the doughnut shop with hands full of coffee and sugary delights, laughing. A few pigeons pecked at the curb, undisturbed by the noise and bustle of pedestrians that would soon develop. Another day in paradise. Mayor Hearne smiled and stepped towards the door, fumbling a bit for his keys.

Before he could retrieve them, inside, a dark figure coalesced from the shadows and waved in his direction. He saw only the silhouette, but he knew who it was. Janet Sparling, the mayor’s executive assistant. She opened the door, smiled, and took his briefcase from him, then glanced hurriedly up and down the street before closing the door with a satisfying snick of the lock.

Hearne and his assistant exchanged sly smiles at the empty streetscape. No one said the name; no one wanted to invoke the demons of bad luck and thus draw down on them the fury of Caroline.There was, after all, a hurricane once named Caroline and it caused only a fraction of the havoc the local one had wreaked upon the town staff.

“Morning, Janet,” Hearne said, and headed to his corner office with his assistant tailing behind. His Blackberry buzzed at his waist, but he ignored it. “Anything up today?”

“Nothing much this morning. A meeting with Tony from the developers’ association at 10, something about east end servicing. Andy wants to speak to you about the waste water plant and I’ve got him in at 10:45. I think he wants money for an upgrade. I told him he should wait until for budget before bringing it up, but he insisted. Kelly is coming at 11:30 to discuss a library issue, something about personnel, probably wants more front desk staff because Judy is retiring this year. And then you have a ribbon cutting at noon for the new hair salon on Barricade Street. But nothing booked until 10, so I pulled out the county report for you to go over. They want it reviewed by council before the end of the month.”

Janet’s idea of “nothing much” was usually a day where meetings were scheduled to allow bathroom breaks between them, but little else. For her a busy day meant overlapping appointments, a slate of crucial decisions that had to be made within minutes, and photo-op commitments until at least 8 p.m. All without the breaks. Lunch, if he was lucky enough to grab it, would be a toasted bagel, usually received cold, then shovelled into his mouth between meetings or in his car, rinsed down by enough coffee to keep half the town jittery and awake for a week. Janet lived to fill his schedule. For her an hour without a scheduled event was a personal failure to fulfill her job requirements.

“But this afternoon is a bit busy,” she continued, following him into the office and putting his briefcase on his desk as the mayor looked at the full inbox with a frown. The county report was bulging over the sides. “You’ve got the police services board about the upcoming police contract talks at one, at 1:45 the mall owners are coming in. They want to you to lower their taxes so they can attract more businesses. At 2:30 the downtown merchants have a petition about pigeon control they want to present at the next council meeting. And the animal shelter wants the town to pay for more dog runs. They’ll be here at 2:45. Then at three, you have to present a certificate for 25 years in business to the Smalleys at their clothing store. Not the secondhand one on Wine Street, the one on Carson. And then the paper wants Sean to interview you about the condition of the bridge over the Beau River. I have that scheduled for 3:30. But I’ll bet he wants to sneak in some questions about your brother’s trip to Florida last winter. Betty overheard him saying something at the coffee shop last week and she thinks he plans to phone the condo office to find out who paid for it. After that the planning department wants…”

“Don’t you ever stop to take a breath?” Hearne interrupted, and then laughed when she looked hurt. “Sorry. I sometimes wonder what a day without a crisis, a crucial meeting that couldn’t be postponed, or a ribbon cutting would be like. Have I got time to call the flower shop and order something for my anniversary this week?”

“Already done. A nice arrangement. I asked them for something tropical, maybe some ginger blossoms and a bird of paradise or two. Tasteful but not too expensive. I used your credit card. The personal one, of course, not the town’s. Don’t want to upset you-know-who. I’ve also booked you and the missus at the steak house for dinner at seven, but you’ll have to leave by 8:30 because the Presbyterian church has a service to pray for peace in Somalia and they expect you to be there. So that means just one glass of wine and no liqueur afterwards.”

“You always amaze me, Janet. You’re so efficient that one day the dictionary will have your picture instead of a definition of the word. Thanks. Let me get started on this report before the masses start to line up. Are there any staff comments to go along with it, or am I on my own?”

“The rec department report is attached, and planning sent an e-mail…”

She never got to finish. The words got caught in her throat by a screeching, “A ha!” from the hallway that made the mayor’s teeth hurt and dogs within a quarter mile perk up their ears ready to bark. Caroline Rune had arrived, unseen and late, but certainly not unheard. “There you are! Mayor Hearne, I know what you and council are planning for the old Brown property and if you go ahead, I promise you there will be hellfury and damnation.”

“Morning, Caroline,” said Hearne, trying not to roll his eyes and shake his head. Janet put a hand to her mouth, and debated within herself whether to step between them or flee to her own office. The choice was between ignoble flight and putting her hands, at least metaphorically, into a raging blender. She chose flight, and, nodding apologetically at Hearne, scuttled past the woman in the doorway to the safety of the hallway beyond.

“Won’t you have a seat?” Hearne asked, resignedly, feeling the edge of that headache creeping up and pressing on his temples. He pointed at a chair across from his desk, then rubbed his temples with small circular motions. “Perhaps you could tell me what you think we’ve done so I can set the record straight and get on with my day’s work.”

“I don’t think,” the woman replied as she stepped towards the chair, then sat down heavily. “I know.”

Hearne gave her a tired smile, refusing himself the opportunity to make a wisecrack at her statement. Once upon a time he had had a crush on Caroline Rune, back when she was Caroline Crumby. Back in the school days, those hormone-filled teen years, so long ago. When he still played football, and he didn’t pack the oversize midriff he sported these days. Back then Caroline, to his testosterone-laced jock brain, was a hottie. Back then Caroline didn’t dabble in crystals, astrology, UFOs, or politics. Back then Caroline didn’t build conspiracy theories out of every council motion or bylaw.

She was still a slim, attractive woman, with shoulder-length brown hair and a shapely figure for her age. As long as you didn’t look at her eyes, didn’t look into the slightly wild and whirling pupils, you might still be attracted to her. Until, of course, she opened her mouth. Once that happened, you entered a world that belonged in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Or the X-Files. Something not quite connected with reality. A fantasy of lies, conspiracies and accusations in which Mayor Hearne played a leading role.

For Caroline, everything was a conspiracy. From changing the parking rates to zoning amendments, she saw the dark hand of evil forces at work, saw the local branch of the Illuminati pulling the strings from the shadows. In an age of vampire pop, Hearne was her Nosferatu.

As he lowered himself into his leather chair, Caroline was busy digging into her purse. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and waved them at the mayor, the rustle of the sheets loud in the room.

“I mean to file these today. I will find out what you’re doing. And once I do, I will tell everyone about your plans. I will tell the press. I will post it on Facebook. I don’t care what it costs. People have to know.”

Freedom of Information requests. A dozen, maybe more from the look of it. She filed at least that many almost every week, so many that the clerk’s office kept a supply of them with her name and address pre-printed, just for Caroline’s unceasing demands. But this week she looked like she would outdo herself in filing. She tucked the papers back into her bag and settled back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the mayor to respond.

“Okay, Caroline, I give up,” he said. “What have we done now? Last I recall, we were entertaining a request to re-zone the property so a developer could build a strip mall out on the east end of town. It’s all been done in public meetings. The Brown family sold the land after the old house fell down, and the new owner wants to change it from residential to commercial zoning. What’s wrong with that? Residents in the east end want something nearby so they didn’t have to drive into town just to get a bag of milk.”

“You can’t pawn me off with some lame excuse, Ralph Hearne. I know what’s going on. You and that cabal you call a council have been offered a lot of money to turn the east end into a resort and casino development. Once you get this foothold, you plan to expropriate all the homes along the waterfront and sell the land to developers. Of course you’ll get a kickback. Then you will take your wages of sin and buy properties in Bermuda or Barbados so you can live in luxury while the rest of us have to deal while the effects of crime, social degradation and gambling addiction decimate our community.”

“Come on, Caroline. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for you. We’ve got an application for a convenience store, an oil change shop, and a fishing tackle place. That’s a pretty long way from a casino and resort. You couldn’t fit a motel on that property, let alone a resort.”

“It’s just a smokescreen,” she replied. “I know you’ve been meeting with people from the government about building a secret casino. Lobbyists, too. There are rumours of big commissions being paid. Hush money to local real estate agents. I know what you’re planning. You’re going to make your brother manager, too. Keep the money in the family.”

“Caroline,” Hearne said, trying to smile but feeling it rise to a grimace. “Peter isn’t going to be manager of anything. He already has a job and he’s looking at retirement soon, not changing careers. No one’s proposing a casino or resort for the east end. I wish they would because we could use the taxes and jobs. But this is just a small strip mall, nothing more sinister than that.”

Nothing more? It’s a foot in the door for organized crime. The next thing you’ll be privatizing the road and turning the whole area into a gated community for crime lords and millionaires. Private facilities. Private clinics. I know what happens when they get a foothold. You want to make us into Las Vegas north. I will fight you to the bitter end, Ralph. I will file my Freedom of Information requests today so I can make it public and warn people about you.”

“It’s your money,” Hearne said, resignedly. “But you might want to save it for at least a week. We haven’t even approved the zoning change. Until then, there’s nothing much we can give you.”

“Wait?” Caroline snorted. “So you can direct staff to hide the records and falsify the reports like you always do? Not on your life, Ralph Hearne. You can fool others, but not me. I can file now and later. That way you won’t be able to hide anything.”

“I’m not trying to fool you, Caroline. I’m just trying to save you some money. But it’s yours and you can spend it anyway you wish. Did you get anything from the last requests you filed, the ones about the ice rink?”

Caroline glared at the mayor, then glowered at the doorway where Janet was seen fleetingly peering into the office. “You know I didn’t. You’ve got everything too well hidden.”

“I could have told you we weren’t planning to buy a fleet of helicopters for council’s personal use. It’s not something we could hide in the budget. Besides, where would we put  a dozen choppers?”

“Don’t patronize me, Ralph. I still believe you plan to put them in that tent you’re building over the ice rink. Why else would you want to cover it?”

“It’s not a tent, Caroline. It’s a high-tech architectural membrane structure. A tent is something you go camping in. And we wanted to cover it so kids could skate year-round.”

She sniffed. “Call it what you like. Might as well call it a bubble. We know it’s just another boondoggle. You’re building a hanger for your helicopters and your jets. No child in this town will ever skate inside it.”

Jets? Where’s the runway? Don’t we need a runway for jets?”

“Oh, you’ll build one, I know you. You’ve got plans to bulldoze all those houses on Lane Street so you can fly to your mansion in the Caribbean. You think we don’t know about this? That’s why you prevented Doctor Basildon from opening his clinic there. You need the space for your runway.”

“Caroline, Caroline,” Hearne muttered. “Where do you get these ideas? Basildon started building his clinic without permits, in an area zoned residential. We had to stop him from breaking the law. It was a minor delay for his own sake. We don’t want to have to charge him. We went out of our way to make it easy for him to get his paperwork in order and finish the construction.”

“You have not. You forced him to pay usurious charges for the privilege of creating jobs and paying taxes. You want to bankrupt him before he even opens his doors.”

“No, we don’t. He has to pay the same development charges and permit fees every other developer has to pay for a commercial property as per our bylaws and the county’s rules. They’re not secret. If he had applied for a permit before he started building, he would have known about them.”

“You could have given him an exemption as a medical clinic. It’s a necessary service. After all, you said we need the jobs, and the community desperately needs his medical services.”

“No we couldn’t. The province doesn’t allow us to bonus any private business. Even if we could, half of the charges are the county’s and we have no control over them. Besides, he’s a chiropractor and we already have more of them than we have doughnut shops in this town. A few extra weeks won’t make a lot of difference to our general well-being.”

“You are such an ignorant man, Ralph Hearne,” she snuffed. “It’s a wonder you ever got elected by anyone who can read. But we’ll change that, next election. For your information, Dr. Basildon is bringing the latest in proven alternative health services here. We will be the centre of a health care revolution in this province. The healing energy radiating from his site will cure everyone within miles, even if they’re not his patients. Think of the money everyone will save from not having to go to the doctor or hospital once he opens. We’ll be able to close the hospital in a few months. Of course that means you won’t be able to get your under-the-counter payback from the Ministry of Health any more.”

“Caroline, the ministry doesn’t give me a dime. You already looked into that, what, two months, three months ago? Basildon is planning to put in a hot tub with big magnets and crystals around it. The only thing that will change is the direction compasses point and a few lighter wallets. I don’t think the hospital will be able to close very soon.”

“Not like you’ll ever know. You’ll be flying to Antigua or Tortuga or some island paradise with the money you get from developers and crime lords long before he ever opens.”

“If I do, I’ll be sure to send you a postcard. Now is there anything else you need from me? I have several meetings today and need to read this…” He gestured at the county report in his inbox. “…sometime very soon. I’d like to get it started before I’m too old to lift it.”

“Your phone records. I want to see your phone records.”

“We’ve gone over this before, Caroline. You filed that request already and got them.”

“But the numbers were blanked out. You’re hiding them.”

“Like the clerk told you, the numbers are private and we need the permission of the caller to show them. We have to respect their privacy.”

“You think you can hide those calls you make to Antigua and your bank in the Bahamas? We’ll find the truth. You won’t get away with it forever. I’ll keep filing requests until the truth comes out.” At this she pulled the sheaf of papers out of her purse and brandished them at the mayor again.

Hearne sighed. “You do that. That’s the wonderful thing about living in a democracy. No one can stop you from spending your money on lost causes.”

But Caroline wasn’t listening. She was already on her feet and halfway out the door by the time he finished speaking. She headed in the direction of the clerk’s office. A few seconds later, Janet stuck her head in the doorway, looking sheepish. “Can I get you a coffee? Maybe a cookie or a doughnut?”

“Thanks, I could use the coffee. But I better pass on the dessert.” He patted his bulging midriff. “If it’s not too late, call the clerk’s office and warn them Caroline is on her way.”

“Already done. They have last week’s requests for her ready to go.”

“The ones about why we chose the heritage paint colours for downtown?”

“That and the correspondence on the shape of the new wayfinding signs.”

“That’ll be rivetting reading. I’m always tempted to drop in some hints about being abducted by aliens into my emails to staff and council. Give Caroline and her circle something to gnaw on for a while, the proof they’re always looking for. Council is controlled by aliens. The truth is out there, so they say.”

“Didn’t she already file for that when she got your automobile mileage reports? Something about travelling to Nevada?”

“Yeah, looking for unexplained trips to Area 51. I can’t keep track of all my secret meetings with the aliens and crime lords. I’m glad you manage my schedule for me. I might end up in Bogota when I’m supposed to be in a spaceship.”

Janet smiled, then vanished, heading briskly towards the front door and the coffee shop a few doors away. Ralph watched her go, briefly thought about going home and getting back into bed, then picked up the heavy county report and started reading.

…to be continued…

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Rereading the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Wikipedia: Sullivan image for V. 51There are many books weighing down my bookshelves into soft, drooping curves, but not many of them have the privilege of tenure. Only a handful have travelled with me for more than a couple of decades; a small selection of tomes that are read, perhaps infrequently, but more than once, and still manage to speak to me every time.

Most of my books have, over the years, been donated to libraries or sold to bookstores, to make room for the new ones always crowding in and demanding attention. Those that have escaped the culling so long are ones that mean the most to me. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of them. You may know it for this memorable verse:

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
1st Translation: 51

Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, philosopher and astronomer. He wrote between 1,200 and 2,000 quatrains (depending on which researcher is counting.). He lived from around 1048 CE to 1122 CE.

I first encountered the Rubaiyat when I was in my pre-teens. I can’t recall today whether it was one of those gems buried on a public library shelf that I found (I waited in the library after school for my father to come home from work and collect me), or if it was among my father’s books I found tucked away on a bookshelf at home. Either way, it stuck with me. Since then, I’ve owned several editions of it. Two sit cheek-to-jowl on my shelves today.

“‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.”
1st translation: 49 

Edward FitzGerald, a reclusive and somewhat odd scholar, first translated the collection of stanzas from the ancient Persian in the mid-1850s. Seventy-five of the quatrains were published anonymously in 1859. It took almost ten years for it to become well-known.Today it stands as one of the greatest works of English poetry.

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.”
1st Translation: 51

Robert Sherriffs illustrationI wasn’t aware, at the time when I first found it, that there were several translations of the book, and that the number of verses and their order would change in each (starting from 75 in the first to 110 then reduced to 101 in the last three, but because he replaced some, the total unique verses in all editions is 114).

FitzGerald continued to work at his translation, adding and subtracting verses, from his original, re-ordering and tweaking the wording right until his death. Four versions were published in his lifetime, and a fifth was published after his death, based on notes he left behind.

My copies include a 1951 reprint of the first translation, with the stunning B&W illustrations by Edmund Sullivan reproduced. The other is a 1963 reprint of a 1947 edition, with the first, second and fifth translations, colourfully illustrated by cartoonist Robert Sherriffs. Samples of both are in this post.

While later translations may represent an improvement in the translator’s art, for me the first is still the best. It was the one I first discovered, the one I carried with me while hitchhiking around the country in the 1960s, and the one that still moves me most today. However, I find some of the later versions are sometimes slightly better, slightly more powerful or smoother. That’s why it’s good to have several editions.

For example, verse 7, above is rendered thus in the subsequent editions:

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter – garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.”
2nd-5th translations, verse 7

Which doesn’t strike as quite as lovely, or poetic as the first. I don’t like the change from “the” to “your” in the second line because it personalizes what I see as a more universal sentiment.. And I really don’t think the bird of time should “flutter,” which seems less potent and more random than “fly.” “Fly” scans better, too.

Fitzgerald’s work is overall, however, magnificent, beautiful, and problematic (it even spawned many parodies). It reflects the best of Victorian literary aspirations; flowery and rich without being saccharine, deep without being stodgy or moralizing, readable in whole or in part. It is rich in imagery and symbolism. His chosen rhyming scheme makes it easy to read and memorize  – the AABA scheme has even been called the “Rubaiyat” method.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, on reading the Rubaiyat:

‘Like a sudden conversion – the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours’

However, it is not really very accurate, at least by today’s standards of translation. It’s certainly not literal. In fact, it may be considered more an interpretation than a translation. Wikipedia notes:

“…as a translation of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam’s quatrains at all. Some critics informally refer to the FitzGerald’s English versions as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a nickname that both recognizes the liberties FitzGerald inflicted on his purported source and also credits FitzGerald for the considerable portion of the “translation” that is his own creation.”

Fitzgerald himself recognized this, and wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow scholar:

“My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is.”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58) 

Later he would write to the same friend,

“But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59).

Scholars have reacted differently to FitzGerald’s work; some with scorn, others with understanding praise:

“…FitzGerald was faithful to the quintessence of the poetic message communicated by Khayyam: that while taking well-deserved liberties with the original text, he recreated the original poet’s message in forms and metaphors more familiar to his Victorian audience -hence his incredible popularity in literary circles of his time. The ‘Wine of Nishapur’ in this sense represents the intoxicating essence of the Quatrains of ‘Umar Khayyam, the fiery way of beauty and wisdom imbibed in Persian by Edward FitzGerald, then outpoured again in Victorian cups of charm and grace.”

from 1921 editionFitzGerald’s Rubaiyat can be read in many different ways: as a long poem with an overarching theme; a series of short poems with loose thematic connections; aphorisms about life and meditations on morality and mortality (like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius); a religious commentary (in particular a Sufi or Islamic manifesto); a non-religious spiritual guide (like a Persian Bardo Thodol but through life, not the afterlife), an intellectual exercise in translation, or in interpretation (like Witter Bynner’s or Ursula Leguin’s editions of the Tao Teh Ching), or as randomly chosen thoughts for today (like I Ching verses).

No matter how you approach it, it is both beautiful and potent, even more than 150 years later. The Telegraph noted that, by its 150th anniversary in 2009, Fitzgerald’s version had been printed in “650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.”

Since FitzGerald (yes, he capitalized the G), many other writers have attempted to translate the verses into English and other languages. Whether they have equalled or surpassed FitzGerald’s efforts, is a personal choice. As Wikipedia notes, the tone of the translation depends on one’s own personal philosophy:

The nature of a translation very much depends on what interpretation one places on Khayyam’s philosophy. The fact that the rubaiyat are a collection of quatrains – and may be selected and rearranged subjectively to support one interpretation or another – has led to widely differing versions. Nicolas took the view that Khayyam himself clearly was a Sufi. Others have seen signs of mysticism, even atheism, or conversely devout and orthodox Islam. FitzGerald gave the Rubaiyat a distinct fatalistic spin, although it has been claimed that he softened the impact of Khayyam’s nihilism and his preoccupation with the mortality and transience of all things. Even such a question as to whether Khayyam was pro- or anti-alcohol gives rise to more discussion than might at first glance have seemed plausible.

FitzGerald himself seems to have been somewhat of a fatalist, or nihilist, albeit gently so. He grew increasingly disenchanted with Christianity, and eventually gave up attending church. His own outlook on  mortality and the fleeting nature of life is evident throughout all of his versions, but it’s far from a pessimistic work.

The Rubaiyat.com compares versions by five translators (Fitzgerald – four editions – Brodie, Talbot, Sadie and Whinfield; Brodie is an ‘anagrammatic paraphrase’ of FitzGerald).You can also compare the first, second, fourth and fifth FitzGerald translations, as well as the Whinfield at Arabiannights.org.

It’s fascinating to compare how others have turned the original into their own words.It’s even fascinating to see how Fitzgerald himself struggled to refine the verses. For example, in his first translation, Fitzgerald wrote this:

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
1st translation: 11

In the second edition, this became:

“Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
2nd translation: 12

For the third to fifth editions, this became:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
3rd-5th translations: 12

As the Rubaiyat.com shows, this is sometimes represented by more than one verse, depending on the translator:

“Some wine, a Houri (Houris if there be),
A green bank by a stream, with minstrelsy;—
Toil not to find a better Paradise
If other Paradise indeed there be!
~~~

In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought,
And thither wine, and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
~~~

Give me a skin of wine, a crust of bread,
A pittance bare, a book of verse to read;
With thee, O love, to share my lowly roof,
I would not take the Sultan’s realm instead!
~~~

So long as I possess two maunds of wine,
Bread of the flower of wheat, and mutton chine,
And you, O Tulip cheek, to share my hut,
Not every Sultan’s lot can vie with mine.
Whinfield, verses 79, 84, 452, 479

and:

If in the Spring, she whom I love so well
Meet me by some green bank – the truth I tell –
Bringing my thirsty soul a cup of wine,
I want no better Heaven, nor fear a Hell.
~~~

Whether my destin’d fate shall be to dwell
Midst Heaven’s joys or in the fires of Hell
I know not; here with Spring, and bread, and wine,
And thee, my love, my heart says “All is well.”
~~~

Give me a scroll of verse, a little wine,
With half a loaf to fill thy needs and mine,
And with the desert sand our resting place,
For ne’er a Sultan’s kingdom would we pine.
~~~

Let Fortune but provide me bread of wheat,
A gourd of wine a bone of mutton sweet,
Then in the desert if we twain might sit,
Joys such as ours no Sultan could defeat
Talbot, verses 25, 40, 149, 155

Others translate it into a single verse:

A Poem, and Trees a-blowing in a Wind.
A Brew I’ll drink — base Needs of other Stuff
Ignore. Ah see here how we do behave;
Indeed for us a Song is just enough.
Brodie, verse 12

and:

Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare,
A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare,
And you and I in wilderness encamped –
No Sultan’s pleasure could with ours compare.
Sadie, verse 16

There ar a lot of versions of the Rubaiyat online, as well as a lot of scholarship. Several post-2000 editions are listed at omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com, although they all appear based on FitzGerald.

You can read all of FitzGerald’s various editions, as well as at least half-a-dozen others online. But I recommend instead that you get a print version. It’s the sort of book you will want to read on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine, or just before bedtime, when you can ponder each verse in the quiet of the night. Besides, every home library should have a copy. It’s one of those books, like Shakespeare’s collected works, you should not be without.

I try to read it, if not always in one sitting, at least in its entirety, every few years. It’s always worth the time to do so.

“Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.”
2nd translation, verse 8

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The Bedside Library

Bedside booksWhen the books stacked beside the bed get tall enough to hold not only a cup of tea at easy reach, but a plate of toast with no threat of falling, then perhaps it’s time to cull the pile and put aside those books not being actively read. That takes some time to sort out the reading-right-now from the reading-now-and-then, and the reading-for-a-purpose from the reading-when-it-pleases-me books. There is at least a shelf of books beside my bedside, perhaps more.

I’m not sure how many of my blog readers have a bedside book stack, but it goes without saying that reading at bedtime is a practice of the civilized life. Books have a revered place within arm’s reach of the covers.

Under some circumstances, I might grudgingly accept an e-reader, as a modern accessory to permit reading in other situations (like travel abroad), but in a bedroom, a TV is a place where only Philistines cavort.

Or, actually, stare vacantly at their piece of furniture. TV does not encourage participation, discussion or engagement.

Susan agrees wholeheartedly with my prejudices against TV sets in bedrooms, and has her own book stack, albeit in a more tidy and shevelled* manor than mine.

TVs belong in public places, like airports, bus depots or family living rooms. They do not belong in intimate places like bedrooms where couples can shed their daily woes. Watching a TV is a passive, submissive act, an act of self-inflicted mental slavery.

Reading is an active act, a participation between reader and author, a sharing of ideas, an exploration of new worlds.

Reading is one of the few acts we engage in, in which we share the immortality of another, in which we get close to another’s thoughts. Reading is second only to sex for intimacy. Reading Shakespeare or Chaucer is a time machine that allows me to visit a world that would otherwise be beyond my grasp. But it is equally so for Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Mike Hammer and Emily Bronte. Doors open when you read, worlds are laid at your feet. Neurons fire up when you read.

TV, on the other hand, is about as intimate as any dentist’s office. That’s one reason it should be kept out of places like bedrooms. Doors close when you watch TV. So do minds. Neurons sleep when you watch TV.

My own reading habits and Susan’s are polar opposites. She reads a book, one at a time, cover to cover, word for word, then tackles the next. I read a chapter here, there, picking up books from the pile in no order, usually having a dozen on the go at any time. I have separate books in different bathrooms, books for travel, books for comfort, books for study, books for inspiration, books to argue with, books to teach. I read like a magpie, picking at bits and pieces.

A few years past, when we went to Mexico, I foolishly took a box of books as a separate item of luggage. In our two weeks, I got through most; at least those I wanted to complete or read the specific portions if not all (I took, for example, a complete works of Shakespeare, and read three plays). I can easily appreciate the value of an e-reader in these circumstances, since it can carry hundreds of works in one light unit.

Susan, on the other hand, took a few of her own books, read them, and then traded them for others from hotel guests and friends. Clever girl.

My reluctance to get an e-reader is based on three basic issues. First is that I am uneasy about paying for a digital book that doesn’t translate into something on my bookshelf I can handle, read in the bath, or lend to others. The sheer physicality of books is its own reward. I love holding one, turning the pages, feeling the heft, smelling the paper and ink. An old or vintage book is a sensual time machine. An e-book is… what? An electric charge in a machine?

The second is that I tend to read mostly non-fiction and most of what I read isn’t yet available in e-reader format, at least as far as I’ve been able to discern. That may be changing for contemporary works, but my library also has a large component of older books that predate e-readers by a few decades, sometimes by a century or more. I can find books to read on Abebooks, but not in Kindle format.

Would I be able to get all of my old Edgar Rice Burroughs on an e-reader? Or my 12-volume edition of Casanova’s memoirs? The chess books I still have (gathering dust, I admit, but nonetheless beloved) from my chess heyday 30-plus years ago, but still pick up now and then to peruse?

My third sticking point is price. I am willing to pay for a physical book, but when I see an e-book version that costs almost as much, I fail to see the advantage of the investment. Years later, the physical book will still be on my shelf (assuming I have not donated it to the local library as I like to do), but the e-book? Gone, forgotten. Digital dust. Maybe even deleted by the seller after its limited licence runs out. What do you leave in your will of an e-reader’s contents?

For me, an e-reader will be great for classics – Darwin, Dickens, Kipling, Austen, Machiavelli – the authors in the public domain (thus free or inexpensive). But I would never purchase a new book that way without assurances that it would not be deleted without my approval, that it could be printed or text copied from it (for transmission by email if necessary) and that I had some price bonus like a discount when I decided to buy the physical version. But would it give me the same joy as when I open a volume of the 1930s’ collected works of Rudyard Kipling and start reading a story or poem at random?

Right now, beside the bed, I am reading a book on how Shakespeare’s first folio changed publishing, several books on etymology, language and grammar, one on the history of Christianity and another on biblical archeology (odd for an atheist, I know, but religion fascinates me as a social and historical topic and I read a lot about it), two books on demonology and the history of the idea of evil (for a novel I’m playing with), several books on marketing and public relations (for another book I’m writing), some books on Machiavelli and Renaissance politics (always learning about him), about Tudor history (with Jacobean, is a favourite topic of mine), about CSS and HTML (to improve my coding skills), a few novels (Christopher Moore, Michael Quinn and a Tom Clancy, plus a couple of fantasy and scifi novels), some books on technological changes and developments (for another book), an annotated Municipal Act (for council), a book on emerging viruses, another on the history of vaccines (and one on the emergence of “fear” cultures including the current New Age anti-vaccine mania), a book on the Mufti of Jerusalem’s Nazi connections in the 1930s, a revised history of the fall of Rome, a book on creative design and architecture, a book on urban startup communities, a book on gambling culture in Canada, Anthony and Cleopatra, Cicero’s speeches, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and a few others I can’t recall because I pulled them off the bookshelves to look something up and will put them back in the next day or two. Plus, of course, an Oxford Dictionary, and a thesaurus, which are ever-present.

I can’t imagine that an e-reader could fill that void if the books were all to vanish. And certainly all the TV shows in the world for an entire year would never, ever compensate for the loss of a single book. It would be like trading a world for a piece of simple gravel. It would be turning off my mind and joining the sheep in mindless adoration of the flickering screen.

I will sort, I will change my bedside books, but I will never get rid of that pile. Besides, where would I put my Ovaltine when I’m reading at night before sleep?

 ~~~~~

* The opposite of dishevelled, of course.

 

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A Delightful Farce Called Anonymous

AnonymousWatched a delightful, satirical farce last night, called Anonymous. It’s a spoof about the conspiracy theory that the Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere) wrote the works of William Shakespeare.

This conspiracy notion has a pop following, but lacks significant scholarly and any historical support. Like other conspiracy theories, it has gained ground on the Internet from the simple fact that most people are naturally superstitious and suspicious, and would rather not apply critical thinking or do any serious research to prove or disprove outlandish claims.

As theories go, de Vere-as-Shakespeare is up there with the Elvis-is-still-alive, JFK-survived-the-Dallas-shooting or the-American-government-was-behind-the-9/11-attacks. Even a movie that attempted to treat it seriously would have to stretch the facts beyond reasonable belief.

Anonymous is to the de Vere theory what Jim Carey is to acting: an over-the-top, madcap, histrionic and sometimes painfully exaggerated performance. It weaves together a series of improbable events, relationships and characters so intricately that it almost collapses from its own excessiveness. Only the superb acting and sets make it hold together. However, even a casual knowledge of the history of the era, or of Shakespeare’s life, pulls the whole tale into tatters. You can’t even begin to take it seriously. But the silliness is part of the fun.

Anonymous is from director Roland Emmerich, who also directed the rather thin spoof on prehistory, 10,000 BC, which I commented on previously. The script was written by John Orloff, previously known as the author of the brilliant, Oscar-deserving documentary, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” Combined, the two make a potent force in satiric film making.

Historically, however, it’s a mess. Start with the fire in the theatre, early in the movie. It wasn’t the Globe. That theatre burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s play, Henry VIII, in 1613, when fireworks hit the thatch and roof beams. The movie has a theatre being burned down by Robert Cecil’s men as they hunt the playwright Ben Jonson, hiding under the stage.

The theatre might be the Rose, but there is no indication from modern excavations that it burned down. It was used by theatre companies until at least 1604, and was apparently pulled down in 1606.

The film then jumps back in time five years to show Elizabeth I’s court… but that would make it 1608 if this was the Globe, five years after she died. But the year we go back to is actually 1598. No London theatres burned down in 1603.

The movie suggests Shakespeare was an illiterate, womanizing, greedy drunkard – he could read, but bizarrely could not write. But that would be very unlikely in the Elizabethan era schools which Shakespeare attended. This characterization is based on imagination, not any historical source. Shakespeare’s signature exists on several documents and many scholars believe the fragments of the play about Thomas Moore contain notes in his hand.

The Earl of Oxford is portrayed as a brilliant writer who has to keep his talent secret – well, it’s an open secret, since just about everybody in the court seems to know about his writing, including the Queen. That he was a writer is true – he was a respected albeit rather ordinary poet and playwright in his day, and a patron of the theatre as well.

There is nothing to indicate any social stigma attached to his or any other noble’s writing. Some of his poems survive today, although none of his plays seem to have. And as for being a well-educated man, his degrees from Oxford and Cambridge were honorary degrees, the sort handed out in great numbers to royal attendants by Elizabeth when she visited those institutions.

Elizabeth herself wrote poetry, as did Sir Edward Dyer, Sir John Harrington, Sir Philip Sidney, and others – including Raleigh, Grenville, Robert Sidney, and Essex. So why being a poet and a playwright in a literary and cultured court that fancied such artistic achievements would be taboo is never explained. Plus, there is not a single word in all the documentation from the era, that connects de Vere with even one of the plays he supposedly wrote. Yet Shakespeare is mentioned in documents in association with his writing years before the movie makes him pretend to be author (as early as 1592).

As a young man in the film, de Vere has an affair with the sexually active and promiscuous Elizabeth and fathers what seems to be one of a litter of bastard children with her. But later in the film, we learn de Vere was actually himself one of Elizabeth’s bastard kids, her eldest. Messy. But of course there is no historical evidence that de Vere nor any other courtier bedded Elizabeth, let alone that she had illegitimate children from the union.

When we learn de Vere allegedly fathered a son on his mother, Elizabeth, this is the movie’s “jump the shark” moment. It’s a groaner for sure, and you wonder if the author needed to go so far to ridicule the de Vere theorists.

Christopher Marlowe is found murdered in an alley in the movie. Oops, that event happened five years earlier, in another location and another wound. From Wikipedia:

The death of Christopher Marlowe plays a small but significant role in the storyline. Marlowe is portrayed alive in 1598, while in fact he died in 1593. The slashing of Marlowe’s throat occurs in Southwark with Shakespeare as his suggested murderer, whereas Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer with a knife stab above the left eye, in Deptford. Marlowe is shown mocking Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday in 1598, although it wasn’t written until the following year. Marlowe dies on the same day Essex departs for Ireland. These events actually happened 6 years apart. Another writer shown to be alive after his death is Thomas Nashe, who appears in a scene set after 1601. He is known to have died by that year, though the exact date is uncertain.

It’s just one of those scenes that underscore the film’s satirical nature. The writer makes so many glaring historical errors merely to mock the Oxfordians who probably can’t see they are being teased.

A high point in the film’s action comes when Essex (apparently another of Elizabeth’s bastards) returns from Ireland to try to save his reputation, then tries to lead an armed rebellion in 1601, with only a handful of men. Anonymous doesn’t bother to tell you Essex was placed under house arrest for a full year after returning from Ireland, and his anger was sparked not by some injustice of Robert Cecil, but by the queen not renewing his licence to collect taxes on sweet wine, which hurt his income. Even then, it took months of brooding for him to spur himself to act.

What the film also doesn’t tell you is that Essex took several members of the Privy Council captive and held them as hostages. He then took 300 armed men into London. The citizens did not rally to support his cause, and there was no army shooting unarmed civilians as shown in the film. When Essex found the gates into the city locked, he fled ignominiously, abandoning his followers, and headed home to burn any incriminating documents. He was captured at his house.

Essex also went to trial – he wasn’t beheaded right away, as the film suggests.

In the film, de Vere saves his bastard son with Elizabeth, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who had been captured among Essex’s men and sentenced to death. Actually it was Robert Cecil who had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. He was released three years later, by James I, who restored him to honour and a court position.

In Anonymous, Shakespeare’s stage troop are hired by de Vere’s men to perform the play, Richard III, which is used to stir the audience into mob action in support of Essex (the detested Richard III appears as a hunchback in Shakespeare’s play – without any historical proof – and Robert Cecil was also a hunchback). It was actually Southampton who hired the players at the Globe Theatre to revive Richard II, not Richard III.

Elizabeth’s funeral procession is shown walking along the frozen Thames. Not so: it took place on land because the Thames did not freeze that winter.

Elizabeth, both young and old, and the older de Vere are all powerfully played. The two Cecils, are also well portrayed, although the younger Robert in particular comes across as more Machiavellian than history shows him to be.

Shakespeare, Johnson, Marlowe and the other playwrights are less convincing as artists than as con men. As one might expect, only de Vere gets any recognition for talent; the others are all hacks at best, frauds at worst.

The nobles who are trying to save England from the imposition of a foreign ruler (James VI of Scotland) are all blonde; those looking to put James on the throne (the Cecils) are dark-haired.

de Vere is shown watching a performance of Macbeth on stage – but the play was likely never staged in his lifetime (some scholars argue for a first performance date of 1605).

All in all, Anonymous is a historical and dramatic failure, but it’s a wonderful period-piece farce, flitting somewhere between swashbuckling and slapstick. It’s absurd, wildly fanciful and at times downright silly, but the masterful English cast, the stunningly well-created sets and the action-style pacing keep you glued to the TV. Watch it for the sheer fun of seeing the Oxfordians and their wacky theories lampooned so thoroughly.

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