Monthly Archives: June 2012

Anonymous–Shakespeare and Conspiracy Theories

Reluctant as I was to watch this movie, I have done it.  And because I have, I can firmly tell you that you don’t have to.

Let me start by saying that I love Shakespeare. I have read all of his Sonnets and poems, and I think I’m up to about 20 of the 37 plays. I have taken 3 college Shakespeare courses, and done a two-week program at the Globe in London that taught everything from acting and makeup to set design and costumes.  I enjoy Shakespeare. I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I am an educated English major who has read a lot of his work.  As such, I find the ‘Oxfordian theory’ completely and utterly ridiculous, as well as being infuriatingly pompous and pretentious.  But I’ll get to that later.  I’m going to discuss two aspects of my dislike for this film: the film itself, and the conspiracy theory that makes up its premise.

First, the film.  The basic plot revolves around the life of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.  (In the film) he was a gifted writer and actor whose passions were squashed by his Puritanical guardian/advisor to Queen Elizabeth, William Cecil.  Puritans certainly hated the theatre, closing most of them down during the reign of Cromwell, but this was a good 40 years before the English Civil War and I’m not certain they held that much sway in England at the time.  But I digress! Young Edward can’t write publicly, but he does so privately.  The film shows him first performing what appears to be a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he is only a tween, and then later reveals him to have stacks and stacks of completed plays in his manor house.  As an adult, when he sees the influence that theatres are beginning to have on the English public, he convinces Ben Jonson to help him get his plays performed under a pseudonym.  Ben Jonson, being one of the protagonists of the movie, and a good man, refuses to attach his own name to the play that he did not write.  Will Shakespeare, an actor who can read but not write (in this fetid nonsensical ridiculous film) scoops up the acclaim when he sees that the play is a hit.

The rest of the film is two stories, one of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson dealing with the glory and success the plays receive.  The larger and more difficult to follow plotline involves Edward and the Queen.  It is revealed that Edward de Vere had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and fathered a secret son, the Earl of Southampton, who gets mixed up in a rebellion with the Earl of Essex (also a secret son of Elizabeth who seems to have been quite up for it, considering she was known as the virgin queen), and they are both sentenced to death.  Confused yet? Because it gets even more ludicrous.  Edward finds out that not only does he have a son with Elizabeth, but he himself is a son of Elizabeth.  Yep, he had a child with his own mother.  Originally, William Cecil wanted him to become king (there’s a ludicrous side-plot about the ascension of James I upon Elizabeth’s death), but that’s gone out the window now.  In the end, Edward begs Elizabeth to spare their son (never telling her that the kid is also her grandson and that she is really gross). She agrees to spare him, but as punishment, Edward’s name will never be attached to any of his plays.

As if this isn’t bad enough, it all takes place through continuously shifting timelines and flashes forward and back! Edward de Vere is played by 3 different actors, Queen Elizabeth by 2 different actresses.  If you can manage to keep track of what’s going on and who’s who, you’re a better viewer than me.  But even if you do, the movie just isn’t that good.  The acting is competent, the costumes and the recreation of Tudor London is great to see, but that’s the most praise I can heap on this film.

I feel I’m being a bit unfair.  It’s not the worst film ever–Michael Bay didn’t make it, after all.  My hatred of it is mostly due to my hatred of the theory behind it. But even if I subscribed to the theory, the film does a terrible job supporting it! So allow me a small paragraph to dispute some of the inaccuracies and nonsense that the film employs to make this theory more believable.

First of all, the idea of a young de Vere performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream some 40 years before it was first showed on stage is akin to (as the NYT puts it) Jay Z putting out The Blueprint in 1961.  Or (to use a reference I feel I understand better) the Beatles releasing Sgt. Pepper’s in the 1920s.  The genre did not exist yet, is the material point.  But beyond that stupidity.  The timeline of plays being released does not even remotely match the accounts we have from diarists of the time or from the playhouses themselves.  Henry V is the first play that is attributed to Shakespeare, in this film.  According to most chronologies, Henry V wasn’t performed until 1598ish, whereas over 15 other plays are believed to have been performed earlier than that (as early as 1590). There doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought put into which plays they chose to include in the film in terms of chronology, these plays are just chosen to advance the plot.  They use Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III. All of these were performed before 1599, but they are used in this film to incite a rebellion which actually took place in 1601.

At one point, in order to gain an audience with Elizabeth, Edward de Vere publishes the poem Venus and Adonis to get her attention.  The poem, based on the Greek myth, features the god Venus essentially attempting to rape a young and disinterested boy who only wants to go hunting.  Later, he dies after being impaled by a tusk.  I suppose you could make some allegory of Elizabeth the Queen embodying Venus the goddess, and young Edward making a good Adonis.  But…in the film this is seen as a love poem intended to make Elizabeth remember the love she shared with Edward de Vere.  The poem is pretty graphically sexual for the time period, something of the 50 Shades of Gray of that era, but let’s rewind.  Remember 2 seconds ago when I said the plot was that she wants Adonis but he couldn’t care less?  He tells her to go away, despite her throwing herself at him, and then he goes off hunting and dies.  If the Queen is Venus, how is this meant to woo her?  It doesn’t even make sense.

Also, even if I believed this theory, the film portrays Edward de Vere as a writer and a nobleman.  When he goes to the theatre to see his own plays performed, he is more or less uninterested and detached. He is pleased to see the influence his plays can have, but has no attachment to the actor’s performances or the reception his work gets.

One more note about the film before I get to why the whole Oxfordian theory makes my blood boil.  The film depicts a righteous but incompetent Ben Jonson and a Christopher Marlowe who is conniving and a backstabber. I could perhaps forgive that, but their depiction of Will Shakespeare is so pathetic and moronic that I cannot believe it.  It is as if they think we will only believe their theory if we also see a Shakespeare who is a glory-hound, money-hound, cannot even write his own name, borderline-illiterate moron.  The film portrays him with less sympathy and less depth than the puritans or the palace guards.  And they propose that he murdered Christopher Marlowe.  It’s the equivalent of those swiftboat captain ads in the John Kerry campaign.  You can’t believe it’s happening, and even more so you cannot possibly believe other people accept it as true.

Okay, so the movie sucks.  What about the theory? Why do I hate it so much?

The big point of the Oxfordian theory, their bread and butter, is that Shakespeare was uneducated and not a nobleman.  How could a common man from a small town, whose father made gloves, write so well? How could he know Greek and Latin myths without going to Cambridge or Oxford? How could he know about the politics at court without living in that environment his whole life?

Let’s just take a moment and think about what that means.  They are basically saying that only a person of noble blood could write these plays, because…because they’re better than commoners. That’s their main argument. The presumptuousness makes me crazy.  I know I sound pedantic and ridiculous, but I don’t care! In fact, it makes my point for me! I am someone who was born in the Midwest, to parents who didn’t graduate from college (they later went back and got their B.S.s).  I was educated at public school.  When I was 19 I had to leave my (state) university and try to get my life together, because I was a mess.  Anyone might have looked at me at that point, or in the ensuing years, and seen someone completely average or possibly less successful or intelligent than average. I had no experience of high society, of elite education, of culture or financial success. I had never been out of the country or even to NYC.

But those things did not define who I am or my potential or my passion.  I read constantly, I taught myself about history, about literature. I went back to an Ivy League university and got my degree, with honors. I spent 6 months living in Europe and saw 10 countries. I continue to learn and to grow. I write, I read, I embrace all the knowledge I can get my hands on.  And I’m just an average person with a lot of curiosity! Shakespeare was a bona fide, once a century sort of genius.  When has genius ever needed anything other than itself to succeed? Leonardo Da Vinci was the bastard son of a wealthy man and a peasant girl, born in a small town in Tuscany. He received only an informal education. Michael Faraday was a bookseller with no formal education, but he read a lot, and he ended up making incredible scientific discoveries (mostly related to electricity) and making much of our modern life possible. I think the bottom line is that if you are one of those people, a genius, someone destined to forever change the world and how we understand it, the only thing that can stop you is death.  The idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have learned Greek or Latin on his own, or couldn’t have learned of court politics from his patrons and friends in the upper classes, is ridiculous.  Not to mention that the incredible understanding of humanity, of personalities and emotions, that Shakespeare displays is not something that could ever be learned.

That’s my main problem with the theory, the utterly insulting idea that anyone from humble means could not have achieved so much or written so well.  But there are other problems.  Like, for example, Edward de Vere died in 1604 but Shakespeare continued to debut new material much later.  Unless he’s Tupac Shakur, I don’t see how that works.

And what about the performances?  If you’ve ever taken a Shakespeare class (or 10th grade language arts) you’ve gotten the speech about how these were never meant to be read, they were meant to be performed.  And if you’ve ever gone to the Globe or seen a real Shakespeare company (I highly recommend it), you will undoubtedly ‘get’ things that you didn’t understand before (mostly bawdy puns, but still).  We are meant to believe that:

1-de Vere was such a genius at writing plays that he could simply hand them over and not have any part in the production of them. He would just have faith that all the actors would portray his parts as he envisioned them.

2-None of the actors ever had any questions about how things should sound or look.

3-If they did have questions, no one was confused by why Will Shakespeare couldn’t answer them.

And, one last hiccup.  Shakespeare collaborated on many of his later works, most usually with John Fletcher.  Fletcher (or his other collaborators) never noticed that Will didn’t do any of the writing?  Oh yeah, and they are believed to have written these plays together in the 1610s, despite Edward de Vere having been dead for nearly a decade.  Even if I believed the nonsense about a bunch of plays being left behind in Ben Jonson’s possession, that doesn’t really track with the collaboration with other playwriters.  And anyone who reads a lot of Shakespeare can clearly see the writing style differences in his solo plays and his collaborations.

I read one article about this theory that said it was given as much credit in the literary world as the theory that we didn’t actually land on the moon.  I think that’s giving it too much credit! It is absolutely insulting and stupid.  And so is this film!

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I finally got to see the latest of the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, and to rewatch the first one.  Warning, past here, there be spoilers.

I remember when the first movie came out, I really enjoyed it.  I thought it was a really fun movie and loved RDJ, as always.  But…now that I’ve seen Sherlock, it is hard to think of these movies in the way I once did.  It is difficult to compare them.  The BBC version is modern, taking place in 21st century London.  But in many ways, it is far more true to the ideas and the characters of the original stories than any other adaptation I can think of.

My problems with the RDJ movies mostly come up when I compare them to the BBC series or to the original stories. Starting with RDJ as Sherlock Holmes.  There are some parts that work–the boredom, the erratic behavior, the somewhat co-dependent relationship with Watson.  But much of what they do in the movies does not work. For one thing, RDJ seems to be mostly playing himself. Or he’s playing Tony Stark, who I imagine to be just like him.  Arrogant, strutting, egotistical and self-aware simultaneously.  In many ways, a petulant child. In the BBC series, on the other hand, Benedict Cumberbatch (and the writers, obviously) portray him more as someone who lacks empathy, a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ with no time for details (or people) who detract from his desire to occupy his mind with a mystery.

Another problem I have is that there is very little of the actual deductive skills on display in these films.  In the first, the most obvious example is when Holmes meets Watson’s fiance. In the second, his meeting of Madam Simza (played by the kick-ass Noomi Rapace) is the best example of his deductive skills.

In the BBC series, we see multiple examples in every episode of these deductive skills, displayed both through dialogue and through text on the screen to indicate what, exactly, Holmes can see when he looks at people. The closest to this that we get in the RDJ movies is the prescience he has about physical combat.  They spend time in every fight scene (and there are multiple per movie) to display Holmes’ ability to know what will happen before his opponent moves. This is the most powerful of his abilities in the movies.  And even when he is fighting Moriarty, the big climax between two brilliant men, their incredible powers of deduction lead them to…be able to anticipate the fighting skills of the other.

And what of the enemies, the arch-nemeses of Moriarty and Holmes?  I do like Jared Harris as Moriarty, perhaps because he was such a good baddy on Fringe.
But the movie barely features him, and his grand evil plan is…to acquire guns, money, and power. To make war in order to sell the implements of war? How common. Boring.  I didn’t feel any of the tension that came with the Moriarty and Holmes of the BBC series.  Those two seemed evenly matched.

So in comparison to the BBC series, obviously I find the RDJ movies severely and incredibly lacking.  But…on the other hand, if I do not compare them, then I can tolerate the movies much better.  If I do not think of these movies as in any way affiliated with the Doyle stories or the Holmes characters, then they are quite good.

I like the cinematography and the amazing job they did recreating 19th century London for the exteriors.  RDJ is entertaining to watch, even as he is being goofy and ridiculous.  Jude Law is awesome as Watson, and I even like him with a mustache. (A side note that I prefer the vulnerability of Martin Freeman as Watson, but I digress). And the sequel even had Stephen Fry as Mycroft!  He was nothing like I would expect Mycroft to be, and he was shockingly nude for much of the time, but I love Stephen Fry no matter what he does. These are great comedy/action films, and that is high praise from someone who normally doesn’t like any action films and not a lot of comedies ever. If you’re in the mood for a little mindless fun, they’re perfect.  My only problem is that Sherlock Holmes is the last person who should ever be associated with mindless fun.

W./E.

Despite some terrible reviews, I decided to give this film a chance because I really find the whole abdication scandal of Edward VIII very interesting, and this did have a very different spin on it than all of those History Channel specials talking about how Edward was a Nazi sympathizer.  I think a lot of the terrible reviews come from people who dislike Madonna, or dislike her as a filmmaker.  Because while it wasn’t a great film, there were parts of it that were nice (the music, the visuals, the costumes).  It certainly doesn’t deserve the same Rotten Tomatoes rating as Showgirls.

The film follows two similar stories.  One is that of Wallis Simpson, an American woman who was married and divorced twice before the King of England decided he wanted to marry her (actually she was still married to the second guy when they really fell in love).  The PM, the British people, his family didn’t want Edward to be with her, and he ended up giving up the throne so that they could be together.

The other story is of a very wealthy American housewife, Wally (Abbie Cornish), married to a workaholic philandering abusive doctor in Manhattan.  She was named after Wallis Simpson, and she jokes that her parents ‘wanted her to marry a Prince’.  That probably influenced her in marrying her dreadful husband.  She is drawn to the story of Wallis and Edward, because of her namesake and her similar situation, so when there is an exhibit and a Sotheby’s auction selling many of their personal possessions, she goes every day to …well basically to imagine herself living out Wallis Simpson’s life.  She meets a security guard there, who is really a Russian intellectual, named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac).

The 1920s half of the story is infinitely more interesting than its modern counterpart.  Wallis Simpson’s abusive first husband makes you sort of immediately sympathize with her and excuse most of her behavior. I found both actors who portrayed Wallis and Edward (Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy) to be really charming and believable.  You understand immediately why Wallis is fearless, is a survivor. You also understand why Edward would be drawn to her when he’s surrounded by sycophantic socialites.

When the 20th century equivalent Wallis is abused and cheated on, however, you just wonder why she doesn’t just leave him.  She complains he made her give up her career when they got married, and she does cliché housewife crap like secretly take IVF drugs to try to get pregnant.  All I was thinking was why doesn’t she just leave him, get her job back (or a job), and have a kid on her own.  Or something. Do something. It doesn’t make me empathize with her, it makes me dislike her.

As I said before, the film is really visually appealing, particularly the period half of the plot.  There were also a few really interesting scenes that made me think about what it is to be a woman.  Wallis (the original) talks about how people have never called her beautiful. They’ve called her attractive, which is the polite way of saying she has done the best she can with what she has.  She also says something like…if I couldn’t be the most beautiful, at least I could dress better than anyone else in the room.  It is so sad and so true that so many women feel that the best they can hope for is to have people notice the effort they put into their appearance, even if they never feel confidence spring out of all that effort.  And the really sad thing is that a woman like that is probably better off than most women who don’t put in any effort, because they are too busy despising themselves for having chubby ankles or non-photoshopped ab muscles.  But I digress!

I did find myself being bothered by some of the glossing over of facts.  I mean, Edward and Wallis did meet with Hitler in 1937, and Edward gave a full Nazi salute during the visit.

The film sort of palliated this whole incident as rumor and malicious gossip, but there’s …there’s a fair bit of evidence that Hitler, at least, thought that Edward was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. I read an article that said the FBI was conducting surveillance on the couple, and that there were suspicions that Wallis had an affair with a Nazi, to whom she passed secrets.  Of course the FBI haven’t released any of these files, to my knowledge, so it’s still all conjecture. Still that puts a rather unpleasant spin on what the film calls an incredible love story.

Not that the movie is trying to paint it as a fairy tale, especially for Wallis.  It’s very obvious that the abdication crisis meant that neither Wallis nor Edward would be able to be together without giving up a lot of their lives.  In fact, they were never allowed back to England again–Wallis came back for Edward’s funeral in 1972, but they were never brought back as a couple.  They both were sort of miserable (in the film) because though they could now be together, they couldn’t really live their lives.  Edward’s brother, the new king George VI, wouldn’t take his calls or allow him to return home.  Tabloids (and apparently the FBI) followed them everywhere.  And, as the film points out, after such a monumental sacrifice, it was impossible for either of them to end the relationship, even if it soured. They were rather stuck together.

The film also really deifies Edward as a doting, loving husband and a genuinely good man who was forced to choose between his country and the woman he loved.  Some of that may be true, but it also makes you wonder about that choice.  If you consider that his abdication came in the mid 1930s, when the entire continent could already see that another horrific war was coming. In that same year, Nazi Germany invaded the Rhineland, radical forces took over Japan, Italian forces started to expand into neighboring territories, the Spanish civil war began, Italy, Germany, and Japan became de facto allies–this was all during one year! It was a full 3 years before WWII officially began, but it’s as clear as day what was going on.  This is the moment that Edward decides to leave his post, his country, his duty.  To leave it to his poor brother, George VI, played recently by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.  As a younger brother, George (known as Bertie by his family) had never expected to have to be king, and here was the responsibility heaped on his shoulders less than 1 year after his father had died, with a world preparing for an epic disaster. Not to mention his speech impediment and his discomfort in the public arena. In the movie and in real life, Edward doesn’t seem to have put much thought into what that meant for his brother, his family, his country. That’s not a man that I think I could love.  I’m not one for duty, traditionally, but in situations like that your responsibilities are not only to your own happiness.  And the film just…glazes over these facts, painting Edward as someone who wants to help in the war and contribute something, but isn’t allowed to.

So the film is naive at best.  It also seems sort of…self-indulgent.  I’m not enough of a film buff to really describe why I got this impression. I don’t have pretentious words to describe the choices directors make in setting up shots or whatever. I found the period half of the movie interesting, even if it was unrealistic.  The 20th century part of the movie was just …pointless.  Predictably, Wally eventually leaves her abusive psychotic husband–though I must point out that she only leaves him when Evgeni comes and takes her away from their apartment to his own.  So, really, she gets rescued.  And he takes her back to his apartment in Queens or Brooklyn or similar, and he has one of those apartments that is meant to look Spartan and bare, and be the opposite of her posh Upper East Side place with her husband.  So there’s exposed brick and a grand piano and lots of second-hand paperbacks.  But in reality, people pay thousands and thousands of dollars for their apartments to look exactly like that.  So it’s bullshit.  Then the two of them, again, predictably, start dating and she’s so much happier that she abandons her Chanel dresses and starts wearing newsboy caps and playing pool at bars.  Okay then.  Because if you change men, your wardrobe changes immediately too.  Or maybe I’m just supposed to believe she was really hip the whole time and now her true self can come out.  Either way, I found it nauseating.

I think you could make a really amazing film out of just the period parts of this movie, and that it would be 1000 times better for eliminating the modern equivalent altogether.  It’s an interesting subject, especially when you consider if he had not abdicated, whether England would have had a Nazi sympathizer for a king and a pacifist for a PM.  How would modern Europe look if that had happened?  That’s a far more interesting topic than one silly housewife and her need to compare her life to the woman she was named after.

Ricky Gervais news

Yesterday, Ricky came out with some news that I’m honestly not thrilled about.  He’s said, on his blog, that he doesn’t plan to continue with the Ricky Gervais Show, Life’s Too Short or with An Idiot Abroad after this year.

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, as this past year was the first time he ever did any project that lasted beyond two seasons and a Christmas special.  As for the Ricky Gervais Show, which takes bits from his popular podcast with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, he claims he has gone through the best stuff from the original podcasts for the show, so it’s really about running out of material.

But I think it’s mostly about a fear of commitment.  He wants to have these perfect little runs with everything he does, so he backs out just as they’re sort of hitting their stride.  Going out on a high note I guess.  And I think some US shows could maybe take a page from his book (Veronica Mars, I’m looking at you), but it also is a bit annoying to constantly get attached to a project he’s doing and then it’s over two minutes later.

Ricky said he will do two specials to end An Idiot Abroad.  I’m not 100% clear on whether these specials are the same as the ‘Short Way Round’ project he is working on, where Karl and Warwick Davis travel about on a scooter. I suspect they are one in the same, because how long can you film those two on a scooter? First of all, it’s a scooter, so they’re not going to be traveling the world at a very high rate of speed.  It’s meant to be a spoof on the popular British shows Long way Round and Long Way Down, which featured Ewan MacGregor and his friend Charley Boorman on motorcycles doing epic trips around the globe.  But they could go a proper 80 miles per hour on good roads.  How’s a Vespa going to fair in the Sahara?  We’ll have to wait and see. Even if they’re epic trek is from London to the Cotswolds, I’ll be tuning in.

As for Life’s Too Short, they have confirmed a second season and Ricky said he has written a finale, so it will follow the two seasons and a Christmas Easter special pattern. To be expected, really.

Ricky did mention a lot of new projects he’s working on.  The main one is a show called Derek, which he shot a pilot for Channel 4 in the UK earlier this year, and he will be producing a few more episodes later in the year.  He has said he wants a US airing, and I’m sure it’s in negotiations.  My guess would be with HBO, as aired his comedy specials, Ricky Gervais Show, and Life’s Too Short. Plus, you can swear.

My only concern with this show is that it doesn’t seem as accessible to an American audience as the others he’s made.

The show features Ricky as Derek, a potentially intellectually sub-normal retirement home worker, and also has Karl in his acting debut as the janitor/handyman type at the retirement home.

There was a lot of controversy when it first came out because people have accused Ricky of playing up a mental disability for laughs, but Ricky says that Derek is not disabled, only a bit slow.  I think a lot of the criticism has died down since the pilot aired.

My concerns with an American audience are that:

a-it seems very entrenched in an aspect of British society that doesn’t usually make it to this side of the pond.  The lives of the uneducated, the decidedly not-posh, the poor.  The type of people you see in the supermarket or something and you know they are either not trying to live an active life, or they are unaware of the impression they’re putting out. Usually, the shows that make it to the US feature at least educated professionals, if not the out and out wealthy.

b-We are a lot more sensitive to p.c.-ness on this side of the pond.  I remember being absolutely shocked at the blatant sexual harassment in the Office, and I know that’s not something that would fly on an American show.  Ricky himself has said that for the US Office all the characters had to be much more likeable than they were in the original show.  So I think the controversy over Derek in the UK will be more of a big deal here.

Even if he is not purposefully portraying a disabled man, he is obviously portraying a man of sub-par intelligence, and he is walking a very thin line between making that character loveable and heartwarming, and playing up his stupidity for a laugh.  Ricky likes to toe that line in all of his work.  But I think there’s a big difference with this. In Life’s Too Short, you would find yourself laughing at Warwick Davis’ character.  You wouldn’t be laughing at him for being a little person, but for being a smart person doing incredibly stupid things.  In Derek, you have someone of normal intelligence playing someone of below average intelligence, and you are meant to laugh at him for being a bumbling moron. There’s a big difference in that, for me. You’re meant to care about him, and like him, but also laugh at him.  I think that we Americans find that much harder than the Brits.  Maybe that’s just me?

But I have watched the pilot, which is up on YouTube.  I’m not sure the legality of that, but I’ll risk incarceration to give you my opinion.

I really love the Hannah character, who is sort of a female Tim (Martin Freeman from the Office UK)–the everyman of the show that we can relate to and we genuinely root for.

Karl Pilkington’s ‘character’ seems to me to be just him being himself, with a bit of fake hair and some glasses.  He complains a lot, likes to fix things, doesn’t know why he’s friends with Ricky.  Check, check, check.

I did find it very difficult to laugh at Derek, because he is obviously a bit odd and not very clever.  What shocked me the most, I think, is that I cried. I cried more than I laughed, which is certainly a departure from a lot of stuff like An Idiot Abroad.

I think the bottom line is that I trust Ricky as an auteur, as a story-teller.  I don’t think that Derek will be a huge hit here, but I do hope it airs on HBO or similar. I will definitely watch it, but I’m sad that all of his other projects are ending, all in the next year. And I’m going to miss Stephen Merchant being on my TV!

Johnson’s Life of London by Boris Johnson

I tuned into the Today show a few days ago, which is not something I normally do.  Insomnia lately has meant that I am either up at 5 am or don’t sleep all night.  So, in the morning there’s little else on.  Anyway, I happened to catch a few minutes of Matt Lauer interviewing Boris Johnson, newly re-elected Mayor of London and the first conservative I’ve liked since Alex P. Keaton.  In addition to talking about the Diamond Jubilee and the upcoming Olympics, he was plugging his new book, so I went out and bought it the next day.

I’m not sure I knew much about the Mayor when I was living in London, but I have seen him on TV a number of times since.  Most notably, I saw him on Top Gear and he was hilarious. Recommended viewing! I can’t get the video to embed, so here is a link:

boris johnson on top gear

I think he’s probably a favorite with the Top Gear trio because a-his background is in journalism, including automotive journalism,  b- he’s quite funny and can definitely hold his own in a conversation, and c- he’s got ridiculous hair.

Or maybe Clarkson, et al. are not particularly interested in his hair, but I like that he doesn’t look like everyone else.  He also rides a bike to work every day, has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humor, and it’s obvious how much he cares about London. He doesn’t have a (or I have never seen him display it) cynicism about London that a lot of people from the UK fall victim to.

So, when I heard him talking about this book, which is basically a list of his picks for the most influential people in the history of the greatest city in the world, I knew I would enjoy it.

He has picked 18 individuals who have had the biggest influence on the future of London.  Some of them are quite obscure.  I took a whole class on pre-Norman Conquest England, read all of Bede’s works, but I don’t even remember Boudica.  Some are more well known, like the obvious Winston Churchill.  Some are surprising picks–Keith Richards over Mick Jagger?  What’s interesting and worthwhile about the book is not who he has chosen, or even why, but how he has described their connection to the city and its place on the world’s stage.

He also includes four or five little snippets about important inventions and features in London history, such as the King James Bible, the flush toilet, the bicycle, and the tube.

Johnson also has a distinct point of view when it comes to describing the city–he is the one responsible for running it.  As such, he places particular attention and importance on people and things that have improved the city infrastructure.  The tube, the railways, the docks, the bridges.  He starts with a discussion of London Bridge, and it is clear through numerous examples that a lot of what has allowed the city to grow and improve, or wane and falter, has been down to these tangible features.  Much of the post-WWII decline could be set down to the destruction of docks and homes during the Blitz. The improvement in living conditions, population growth, and life expectancy that came at the end of the Victorian era can be attributed largely to the sewer systems built during the late 19th century, allowing for clean and hygienic living in a crowded area.  Of course these things seem obvious once they’re stated, but I’ve taken multiple English/British history courses and never had anyone point out how directly and completely these physical features affect the city.

The other main point Johnson makes is one that most people know, but it is very true: London is a city with two cities and tons of villages.  The main tensions and changes throughout the centuries have occurred because of the relationship between Westminster and ‘the City’.  One is the home of politics, the other the home of banking and commerce.  Such was true 1000 years ago, and is still true today.  Perhaps more so today.  Much of the changes that came to define London were due to merchants putting pressure on the crown and Parliament, and that tension meant that no one got too much of an upper hand.  Unlike places like France, where the wealth and power was dominated by only the elite, in London there grew a (comparatively) reasonably large merchant class.  As the aristocracy is often lacking funds to continue their lavish lifestyle, they often come to rely on the bankers and financiers for the money to finance their lives and their wars.  This meant a give and take of power that you wouldn’t find in lots of other countries on the continent.  This tension actually led to increased government stability, and the city grew as a result.

I think the growth of the city is how Johnson chiefly measures the success of the changes he is discussing.  He explains that many of the chief geniuses of the history of London were spurred on by competition.  Shakespeare was competing with tons of other playwrights, like Marlowe and Ben Jonson.  Keith Richards was competing with Mick Jagger inside the group, and they were all competing with the Beatles.  Turner was competing with other painters like John Constable.  The competition of brilliant men (and women) with others is what leads to an explosion of talent and genius.  And that competition is only possible, or for most of history it has only been possible, with geographic proximity.

I really enjoyed this book.  I don’t read tons of non-fiction, but this was interesting and written in a very easy and readable manner.  I really enjoy Johnson’s writing, and his history as a journalist is obvious. He writes well, he is funny, he is not taking any of it too seriously, which allows you to take him a lot more seriously.

A note of warning though.  I consider myself to have a pretty damn good vocabulary, more so since I have been studying for the GRE and memorizing flashcards full of vocabulary.  This man, however, put me to shame.  I had to look up, on average 3-4 words per chapter.  I mean, I may pat myself on the back for knowing the words denouement, apogee, and bellicose without the help of Webster, but I was flummoxed by coelenterate, impecunious, and contumacious.  Have a dictionary or web-searching device handy.

Enola Holmes series

I came across these books while searching for some new historical fiction to read.  They are middle grade level, which can sometimes be quite tiresome as the characters are oversimplified for the children that read them.  I was pleasantly surprised by these books however.  It’s not Proust or anything, but I enjoyed reading them and they fed my current obsession with Sherlock Holmes.  Nancy Springer, the author, has been nominated for a few Edgar Awards, so that is always a good sign!

First, let me say to anyone who thinks it’s ridiculous for a grown woman to read books for children: 1-I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading ‘children’s’ books. 2-Many of the classics of English literature have teen/tween protagonists–David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Scout Finch, Holden Caulfield. 3-I think to keep your interest and imagination as a reader (and as a writer), it’s vital to embrace variety.  Last month, I reread Slaughterhouse Five and finished two modern classics that were challenging and rewarding intellectually.  But it’s also important to view reading as entertainment.  I went through a period in my life where I only read things that were intellectually challenging, and in the end you are burnt out and you don’t want to read anymore.  I like to switch between challenging works and works that are rewarding and entertaining.  These books fall, as do most of the YA I read, into the latter category.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, on to my review!

I was a bit skeptical of these books when I heard the premise: Enola Holmes is the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft.  In the first book, The Case of the Missing Marquis, Enola’s mother walks out of the house on her birthday and doesn’t come back.  Mycroft tries to enroll Enola in a restrictive boarding school, a harsh change after a carefree youth spent in the country, so Enola runs away.

The thing that I ended up really loving about these books–besides the kickass covers–is Enola herself.  She’s 14 when the first book starts, but she is incredibly smart, brave, and honest about her feelings.  She’s a really rare type of heroine and I liked her immediately.  She has the fragility of every 14-year old girl, but she is incredibly self-aware for her age.

She spends the next three books trying to evade her brothers as they search for her, and also trying to fulfill her dream of becoming a ‘scientific perditorian’ or a seeker of things lost. She solves a mystery in each book, though I have to say that her mystery solving is less exciting to me than the fun/challenge of outwitting her brothers. She idolizes Sherlock, but she refuses to fit into the restrictive feminine life that would be her fate if she turned herself over to her brothers.  Because of Victorian law, she cannot control her own destiny until she is 21 years old, so they could do anything they want with her, regardless of her feelings.

Enola has two huge advantages that her brothers don’t really get.  One-she is a female.  She understands things about female life that they would never know.  For example, when she is preparing to run away, she stocks ‘bust enhancers’ and other corset accessories meant to augment a lady’s shape with things like money and food, extra clothes, etc. Ladies of the time had a lot more hiding and pretense in their lives than men did, nor did most men (particularly her bachelor brothers) know how much artifice goes into making a woman beautiful.  She uses that to her advantage.  Two-she is habitually underestimated.  Her brothers always see that she must be desperately in trouble because she is a young girl in the big bad world.  An example: Sherlock attempts to lure her to meet him at one point by sending her a message supposedly from their mother.  She sees through his ploy, and takes the opportunity of breaking into 221B Baker Street while she knows he is off trying to catch her.  She is able to repeatedly slip out from the fingers of both her brothers because she knows how to disguise herself, and because she devotes a lot of time to thinking about what they might be thinking about her.  As I said, she is very self-aware.  She knows they think her an unattractive young girl with a beaky nose, so she disguises herself as a beautiful woman at one point, and fools them both utterly.  It’s a rare 14-year-old that can think of herself so objectively.

Obviously, these books are not for everyone.  But as someone obsessed with Victorian London, going through an extreme Sherlock Holmes phase, and always in the mood for YA Historical Fiction, they were perfect for me.  They are short, quick, and give you a really good perspective on some aspects of Victorian England not usually seen in more straightforward novels.  A lot of fiction from that time was made by men or does not include some ubiquitous parts of society, like the different colors of sealing wax women used to seal letters–each had a meaning, apparently.  I liked the attention to detail, the quick format, and I really loved the heroine.

There are 6 books total, but I have only read the first three so far: The Case(s) of the Missing Marquess, Left-Handed Lady, and the Bizarre Bouquets. The first book mostly revolves around Enola’s escape from her brother’s plans for her, though she is also looking for the eponymous Marquess.  The second book involves another missing noble, a lady who secretly drew portraits of London’s poorest occupants.  The third book revolves around John Watson going missing, and Enola’s attempts to help find him. In each book, she also has to avoid her brothers, always searching for her. I’m looking forward to reading the next three once I order them from Amazon–I haven’t been able to find them in local bookstores.

UK 101–Slang, Trivia, History & more

In this post, I’m going to tackle everything you ever/never wanted to know about the UK.

My dad called me last weekend to let me know that he is going off to the UK for a few months for work.  First of all, jealous!  Second of all, as my Dad is not quite the anglophile that I am, I thought it might be nice to supply him with some basic knowledge about the country he is going to call home (albeit temporarily). With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee getting into swing and the Olympics less than two months away, I’m guessing there are lots of people traveling to the UK who may not have been there before. So this is my basic primer on all things British, gleaned from college courses, living there for a short time, and lots and lots of TV.

Basic Facts- you will be mocked and/or condescended to if you do not know these! Ask your stupid questions now, before you go.

What is the United Kingdom? What is Great Britain? Who is British, who is English?

The United Kingdom refers to the countries under the British Crown, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Do not make the mistake of thinking the Republic of Ireland is a part of this.

Great Britain, on the other hand, is just the island containing Scotland, Wales, and England.  The British Isles refers to all of these lands, plus other small islands like the Shetlands to the North and the Channel Islands.

So someone is British if they come from the Island of Britain, though they probably usually prefer to be called Scottish if they’re Scottish, English if they’re English, etc. Someone is only English if they are from England.

Government: There is a royal family, headed by Queen Elizabeth the II. We all know that.  But they don’t really do a lot of governing anymore. There is also Parliament, which contains the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  The House of Lords consists of men who have inherited seats, part of the nobility.  Their powers have diminished over the last century or two, and there is some talk of getting rid of that house entirely.  Most of the powerful figures are in the House of Commons, meaning they were elected democratically.  The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that is in the majority. The 2nd most important man (or woman, I guess) would be the Chanceller of the Exchequer, similar to our Treasury Secretary.

Big Ben is the bell, not the clock or the clock tower! Just the bell.

They drive on the left side of the road, and the left side of the car.  Before walking across a zebra crossing (crosswalk), look RIGHT.

Money: The UK money system is Pound Sterling. There are coins: 1 penny, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence, a 1 pound coin and a 2 pound coin.  FYI: pence is just the term for multiple pennies. Paper money starts at 5 pounds and also includes 10, 20, and 50 pound notes.  Carry a coin purse.  You will need it.  If you’re like me, you will end up with tons of stupid 2 pence pieces.  A quid is slang for a pound. Credit Cards are accepted in most places, with the exception of outdoor markets and stalls.

A lot of pronunciation cuts out the middle syllables of words. A quick pronunciation guide:

The River Thames is pronounced Tems, Rhymes with Gems.

Edinburgh, Scotland is pronounced Ed-in-burr-a

Words, usually place/county names like Worcestershire, Leicester, Gloucester, etc. leave out the middle syllable. They are pronounced Worstershire (or Woostershire), Lester, Glowster, etc.

schedule is pronounced shedule

Z is pronounced Zed.  Always.

Okay, lets get to some specifics:

First things first, some notes about Traveling:

1-I would hope most travelers would know this, but if not, your American appliances will not work with British plugs.  You need to buy adapters before you go.  Don’t bother bringing hairdryers or anything that produces heat. Buy them there if you’re staying a while. They have the highest chance of overheating a circuit, even with an adapter.

2-Getting Around:

In London: There are several options.  Unless you’re moving furniture, skip the car. You have to pay congestion charges to drive into the city, and it’s generally quite slow.  Taxis are expensive, so only take them if you really need to.  The majority of the time, the tube (also called the Underground, what we would call the Subway) is your best bet.  Get an Oyster card. You can usually get a week pass or a day pass, or you can put a set amount of money on it.  Much easier than buying individual tickets. If you’re a student or over 60, you can get a discount card.  The Oyster card will work on the Tube and the London buses, so it’s well worth it.  The tube is inexpensive, clean, and very reliable.  Compared to the NYC subway, it’s spectacular. Use it. Buses are also very clean and great for shorter trips that aren’t convenient on the tube.  But another note, Walk! London is a walking city.  Don’t take the tube everywhere.

Elsewhere: I tried to do as much traveling as possible while I was in England, and hope others will do the same. It’s not just London. The rest is vastly different.  And you can get almost anywhere in the country by railroad.  Major stations include Waterloo, Paddington, and King’s Cross.  Head to one of those for a day trip to places like Oxford, Brighton, York, Liverpool, and see a different side of the country.

Internationally: If you’re staying in the UK for any length of time, consider a trip abroad.  There are ridiculously cheap flights and tour groups. You can catch the Eurostar to Paris in just a few hours, or hop a ferry to Dublin for a weekend.  Amsterdam and Belgium are similarly close.  Research on cheap airfare, some of the airlines offer great deals and then charge an arm and a leg by the time you get there.  Also, there are strict weight limits and fees for baggage, so inquire ahead of time.

Living: If you’re going to be spending some time in the UK, here’s some essential info.

TV licenses-because a lot of British TV is subsidized by the government, you have to pay tax for your TV, based on its size.  Even if you just have a computer and watch online, you are supposed to pay tax for the privilege.  The BBC creates a lot of great programming, so it’s (arguably) worth it, but be aware.

Another note about TV: They are sometimes a season or more behind on shows of ours that have made the jump.  So be careful not to spoil it for them if you are ahead.

Baking Ingredients are measured by weight, not volume. You may have to invest in a scale and a different recipe book.  Or bring one of the American measuring cups and your own recipes.

Electric sockets have on/off switches.  I looked like a proper idiot when I couldn’t work the oven in our dorm because the switch was turned off.

Stoplights go from red  to yellow  to green  to yellow back to red, but I advise getting your butt out of the street well before green.

Stores that claim to be 24 hours (I’m looking at you, Sainsbury’s on Finchley Road) might be lying to you.  That particular shop was, if I recall, open 24 hours per day on Monday and Tuesday, Closed at 9 or 10 Wednesday-Saturday, and closed at FIVE on Sunday.  Double check the hours.

Public bathrooms: Some require money to enter. Carry change.

Some random trivia:

The City of London vs Greater London–The City refers to the part of London (1 square mile) that contained all of London back in the Middle Ages. “The City” is now the home of the financial district, and bankers and financial employees are often referred to as City Boys (or Girls, I suppose). Greater London refers to the entire metropolis.  A lot of tourists spend time in Westminster, which is a different part of London, where the Houses of Parliament are located.

London Bridge:

This IS NOT IT.  This is the Tower Bridge. Easy to remember as it is right next to the Tower of London.

College vs University-Oxford is one University, made up of tons of small colleges. Each has its own dorms, dining hall, etc. You are admitted to a college within a university.

Public school in the UK is what we would call private school or prep school here.  It originally meant open to anyone in the public who could pay, even if they were not local to that area.

Clothing and Shoe sizes-

For Women’s Clothing: Add 1-2 sizes to get your UK size.  So a size 8 US is a 10 or 12 there.

For Men’s Clothing: This tends to be about the same, as it is measured in inches.

For Shoes: A Size 8 women’s shoe in the US is a 5 1/2 in the UK. 8.5 US is 6 in UK sizing, and so on. For Men, inexplicably, it is very different. a Men’s 10 is a 9.5 in the UK, a 12 is an 11.5, etc.

Slang :  Some of these are slang and some just have VASTLY different meanings in UK vernacular. This is by no means comprehensive. Consult Wikipedia for a much longer list.

UK word-     our word/definition

Food:

Crisps-Potato Chips

Chips-French Fries (these two are important to keep separate if you want to eat what you think you ordered!)

Biscuit-cookie!

Canteen-Cafeteria

Crumpet-English muffin

Pudding-Any dessert

Shopping, Around town:

Pants-Underwear

Trousers-What we would call pants or slacks (again, these two are important to keep separate!)

Fag-cigarette

Chemist-Pharmacist/Drug Store

Trainers-Tennis shoes

Homes & Cars:

Loo-Bathroom

Toilet or WC-what we would call a 1/2 bath.

Lift- Elevator

Flat-Apartment

Mobile-Cell Phone

Hob-Stove

Bonnet-hood of a car

Boot-Trunk

Hire-Rent (a flat, a car)

Caravan-Minivan

Buggy-stroller

Garden-Yard

Hoover-Vacuum (the noun and the verb), i.e. I haven’t hoovered in a while, the place is a mess.

Spanner-Wrench

Other:

Barrister, Solicitor–We would call both of these lawyers in the US, though they do quite different jobs in the UK.  To oversimplify, Barristers argue criminal cases and solicitors are more likely to handle ‘family law’ such as wills and estates.

Fringe-what we call bangs.

Bang-have sex with

Brackets-parentheses

Cheers-this is an idiom used to say thank you or as a way of saying goodbye.

Sick vs Ill:  In the UK, if you say you were/are sick, that means vomiting.  Ill is the correct term for a cold, etc.

fancy dress- usually applies to parties, this means costumes, not tuxedos. Unless you go as James Bond.

full stop- period (as in the punctuation mark).  When describing web sites, they say www full stop wordpress full stop com

Restroom-break room, a room where one rests

Words you didn’t know were vulgar in the UK:

bum, bent, fanny, bugger, knob, bell end–I wont define these here, but do not use them in the American context.  They do not mean the same thing!

 

I know I am missing tons of stuff, but it’s hard to think of the things I already know that other people might not.  Suggestions?  What have I gotten wrong/left out?