Monthly Archives: February 2013

Hampton Court Palace and the Pigeon Pie Mystery

I recently finished another book by Julia Stuart. The first I read was heavily centered on the Tower of London and the curious people who live inside its walls.  I reviewed it, and talked about the history of the tower itself, in this post.This time, Julia Stuart chose to set her book at Hampton Court Palace.  I’ve also been to HCP, so I thought I would do the same thing: talk about the book and the setting.

Hampton Court Palace front entranceFirst, I’ll tackle a bit of history.  HCP started out as property of the Church of England. Cardinal Wolsey (a close adviser to Henry VIII during the pre-Reformation period) took over the house and spent lots of money turning it into an incredibly lavish and luxurious private residence. He included some ‘state apartments’ specifically for Henry VIII and his entourage, and they were used almost as soon as work on the palace was completed. Unfortunately for Wolsey, he fell out of favor with the tempestuous king and only enjoyed his palace for a few years before he started a long journey out of power (he died before he could be imprisoned in the Tower of London, but that’s the only thing that ‘saved’ him from that fate). He gifted the palace to Henry, presumably in an attempt to curry some favor, but it did not work.  Henry took ownership of the palace and started further expansion and upgrading of the property. Notably, he added the Great Hall, the tennis court, and the “post-Copernican astronomical clock” as the Wiki calls it.  I found this clock by far the most impressive part of the entire palace.  It tells you the phases of the moon, the current astrological sign, the time (obviously) and the state of the tide on the Thames at London Bridge.  If you’re wondering why you would need that last bit of info–the best way to reach HCP was by boat, but if the water level was too low at London Bridge it made for a perilous journey. It’s a seriously gorgeous clock:

HCP clock

Henry and a great many of his wives spent time at HCP.  Jane Seymour gave birth at HCP to Henry’s only legitimate son (and died a few weeks later). After Henry died, his daughter Mary I lived there for a while, as did Elizabeth I.  I would say the most famous Tudor residents of HCP, however, are the ghosts. More on that in a moment.

After the Tudor period, James I and Charles I (of the house of Stuart) spent time at HCP.  The King James Bible was commissioned from HCP. Charles I was imprisoned there before he was beheaded in London.

During the English Civil War and the Restoration period afterward, the palace was largely ignored.  It wasn’t until William and Mary came to the crown that it experienced renewed interest and new inhabitants.  They hired the architect of the day, Christopher Wren (you may recognize him from such buildings as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Kensington Palace in London) to slowly strip away the Tudor style of the place and remake it to be something to rival Versailles across the channel. If you go to visit the palace now, they’ve done a lot to recreate the Tudor way of life, but much of the interior is clearly from the later period. I found some of the murals to be the most beautiful part of the palace:

HCP murals

After George II (mid-18th century), no monarch has resided at the palace. After the 1760s, the palace was divided into apartments for ‘grace-and-favour residents’. These were people (usually upper-class ladies) who had fallen on hard times, but had a reason to be of interest to the monarch.  Often they were widows of war heroes or noblemen, or daughters of the entitled, or had worked in service to the crown for a long time.  They were granted (by the monarch) a place to live at the palace, free of charge.  Michael Faraday (the scientist) had apartments on the Green. This is something that still happens, though not at HCP.

Queen Victoria opened the palace to all visitors in the first few years of her reign (1830s).

If you want to visit, I definitely recommend it!  The official website, here, has info on visits and tours, etc. Here are some of my top things to see:

The Tudor kitchen–warning to all vegetarians that it’s a bit meat-heavy, as one might expect. Everyone talks about what Henry VIII ate, and my own vision of him does tend to include a turkey leg in hand.  The HCP historians have recreated the Tudor kitchen, from the tradesmen dropping off the ingredients, to cooks preparing the feasts for Henry and his (very large) court. If you’re wondering just how many animals they slaughtered to feed Henry and his entourage, there is a helpful (and slightly nauseating) infographic on the official site:

tudor slaughterAren’t you glad you asked? 8,200 sheep??? PER YEAR?

Anyway, the kitchen is really cool and I imagine if you’re a happy carnivore you’d enjoy it far more than me.

The great hall–another of the aspects of the palace that go straight back to the Tudor period.  Not only is it an immaculate example of a ‘Great Hall’, it was also the biggest theatre in the period.  Shakespeare and his men performed there for James I for one winter season.

Hampton Court Palace Great Hall


The maze–One of the most famous aspects of HCP is the maze in the garden. Stuart discusses the maze in her book, describing the flocks of tourists who visited it in the 19th century, when its fame was just beginning. I’ve been through the maze and it wasn’t that challenging, but in the book people get lost in it so often that one of the characters is a man employed just to yell instructions to lost people inside.

hampton_court_palace_mazeApparently, mazes were less complicated in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The maze is off the main gardens, which are gorgeous. Unlike the Versailles gardens, which I thought were a bit too cultivated, the HCP gardens are a bit more natural.  They’re still looked after, obviously, but they have more grass and less gravel. Symmetry was a huge part of the aesthetics of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the gardens reflect that.  I went in early Spring, and everything was impossibly green.

So, what of the ghosts?  Not as active as Tower of London, HCP is still a home to many ghosts, if legend is to be believed. The fifth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, has been seen many times screaming and running along the Haunted Gallery.  It is said that she escaped her guards and ran down this gallery to beg for her life from Henry.  The guards caught her and dragged her (screaming) back.  She was later executed.

Jane Seymour, another of Henry’s wives, is often seen gliding down some stairs in the palace headed toward her newborn son’s rooms.

There are a few other ghosts, but the one that honestly and truly gives me chills has the nickname Skeletor.  I think it scares me most because it was CAUGHT ON CCTV in 2003. The video is on youtube, if you want to see. The palace offers ghost tours at night, but you have to book in advance.

So, enough about the palace.  What about the book?

pigeon pie mysteryThe book takes place in the 1890s.  Mink (a nickname for an Indian princess) has just lost her father, the Maharaja, and is granted a grace-and-favour residence at HCP because of her status as a foreign royal.

Soon after she takes up residence at HCP and begins to meet the eccentric residents therein, one of them is murdered.  The General, a corpulent and lascivious man disliked by all, is poisoned by arsenic.  Mink’s maid, Pookie (an Indian woman as well) is the prime suspect, because of her suspect Pigeon Pies. If you don’t know (I didn’t), Pigeon Pies are not a euphemism.  They are pies with pigeon meet in them, and usually feature a few pigeon legs sticking out of the top.  Gross.

This doesn’t really function like a mystery. There is no sense of doom or impending disaster; everyone dislikes the General and no one is sorry to see him go.  But because her maid is accused, Mink takes it upon herself to find out who actually did the crime.  On her way, she discovers more and more about her oddball neighbors (the other grace-and-favour residents, a local doctor, a homeopath, and some of the palace staff).

Similar to her last book, Julia Stuart has created a lot of very strange and somewhat goofy characters, but doesn’t seem to be capable of taking any of them seriously.  Everything is lighthearted, except for the insertion of a few paragraphs sprinkled throughout that seem to acknowledge the difficulty of life.  I think she did a better job than with the last novel, but it was still too light. She also has a tendency to add so many characters, with such odd names, that even with the help of a character list in the front matter, I’m unable to keep them straight.

The story has a lot of good aspects: burgeoning love, grief, tragedy, secrets and mysteries. They all could be made into a really moving story, but it doesn’t work out as well as it could.  I hoped I would enjoy this book more because it’s set in the Victorian era, but it still relies more on lightness and comedy than on truth and honesty.  It’s too light for me. I find it unrealistic and therefore lacking in meaning.

The saving grace of both this book and her last one were the setting.  Having the story take place in such an iconic and interesting location, one that many tourists have visited, adds some interest and grounds the story in a lovely world.  I enjoyed spending time thinking about the life of a grace-and-favour resident, and loved the exotic aspects inherent to that sort of life.

TV Review: Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife DVD cover

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t like babies, and wouldn’t normally be drawn to this show.  The only thing I might like less than babies is the process by which they come into the world.  So…take those things, remove the last 70 years of medical technology and improvements in standard of living, and you have Call the Midwife. Oh, and add some nuns (one of my big fears in life).  Not my favorite show.

The show is based on the memoirs of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s.  It was an absolute ratings smash in the UK when the first season aired, and they’ve already started airing series 2 in the UK.  PBS picked up the rights to series 1 and the Christmas special, and aired them during the fall and early winter. The second season will start on PBS in March. A third season is already planned.

The show primarily follows Nurse Jenny Lee, who has just come to the East End to start her career as a midwife.  She is shocked (as was I) at the horrid living conditions in the slums.  Jenny is pretty much perfect, her only vice being that she once had an affair with a married man. She is boooring.  In addition to the lovely actress playing her, Jessica Raine, we get these voice-over bits from older Jenny, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave.  These drove me crazy.  It was always ridiculously vague stuff like “I learned what true love was that day…” or something equally inane.  I especially hated these voice-overs.

The highlight of the entire series is the character of Chummy, a distinctly upper-crust lady who (despite her upbringing) shows strength and courage in confronting new challenges and terrible living conditions.  She is also hilarious. Miranda Hart does a great job playing the character both for laughs and as a very real person.  Despite looking something like a linebacker compared to the svelte Nurse Lee (on the right), Chummy (on the left) has an adorable romance with a local constable.

Chmmy and Jenny

The other girls look lovely in their period costumes, but the show makes no effort to distinguish them as having lives of their own. I can’t even remember their names.

Then there are the nuns.  Pam Ferris (aka Aunt Marge) makes an appearance as the crabby Sister Evangelina, and Judy Parfitt (she played the terrifying Mrs. Clennam in BBC’s Little Dorrit) is the slightly mental/eccentric Sister Monica Joan. Again, the rest are a blur.

I had a few problems with this show:

1-Almost every episode contains not-so-subtle plugs for the NHS. The Christmas special, for example, shows the nurses/nuns taking a local homeless woman and getting her cleaned up and examined at the doctor, the dentist, and the eye doctor. She complains that she doesn’t have the money and they have to explain that it won’t cost anything.  The NHS was a new thing then, and it undoubtedly made a massive difference to the lives of the poor and destitute in London.  I’m not against the NHS, in any way. As someone who spent most of the last ten years without health insurance, and still debates whether going to the doctor is worth the copay, I get the value of the NHS.  But I don’t need it shoved down my throat.  And I don’t think anyone who is against the NHS (very few Brits, if compared to the people against public medicine in the US) is unaware that it helps people.  The propaganda was just really tiring after a while.

2-It was dull.  It was ass-numbingly dull, to borrow a phrase. Even though each episode had highlights like birth and/or the tragedy of death, they all ended with the same sort of all-works-out-in-the-end tone that negated any truly emotional response to the events. People want to feel the hurt sometimes.  Occasionally, you just need to devastate your audience–really knock them on their asses–and then mike-drop until next week.  For examples, see anything Joss Whedon has ever done.

Add that it was all seen through the eyes of unconnected parties (the nurses and nuns).  Witnessing someone else’s joy or tragedy can be an immensely difficult thing, but the writers failed to bring any of that emotion across.  Add the voice-overs from the modern era and we’re too disconnected from the action. I was bored.  Chummy was the only character I wanted to see and be with, week after week.

3-It was a bit unrealistic.  I think this is related to the tone.  It all ended up for the best, even when people died it was with sweet music or a sense of purpose.  It’s painted with too sweet a brush, with the severely-hued glasses of nostalgia.

I return to the Christmas special.  The homeless woman was forced to enter the workhouse (a heinous Victorian invention akin to a debtor’s prison. You worked for most of your life, only in exchange for food and rent; you gave up any claim to property or family.  Children were separated from parents, wives from husbands.  It was glorified slavery, all done with some sort of nod to a Christian charity ideal. A truly awful place.  For more info, see the works of Dickens).  Her 5 or 6 children all died in the workhouse, but she never got to see them or mourn them.  Nurse Lee and the nuns clean her up, get her to the doctor, and then take her to her children’s graves.  It’s a nice gesture, and she certainly looks better.  And despite having a tragic and terrible life with enough horrible events to send anyone around the bend, she’s magically salient and coherent and capable again? She’s cured by their help?  As if a bath and a new sweater can change what happened to her?

For anyone who has experienced life, we know that that is utter bullshit.

I frankly cannot understand why this show was such a big hit.  I imagine it has a lot to do with nostalgia.  Older people like to remember a time when things were simpler and think it was all roses and sunshine. Parents like to remember when their children were born. Maybe it’s easy to look back and think things were better when we were younger.  They weren’t.  We were just more naive.

The L.A. Times called it “unapologetically sentimental”, and I can’t help but agree.  Except for me that is not a compliment.

Add to my genuine dislike of the show itself, it features a lot of truly nauseating footage of deliveries that seem WAY too realistic.  I am a woman, but I want nothing to do with seeing this stuff.  There are a lot of reasons I don’t want kids, and this show gave me a few extra reasons.  One example that was particularly horrifying was when a baby is born breech and the mom-to-be has to stop pushing and let the baby hang out of her vagina for about a minute, with its head still inside.  WHAT?  No. No. No.

Judging by reviews and ratings, I’m in the minority in not liking this show.  But, I’m in the minority for not liking babies.  Coincidence?

Regardless, I won’t be tuning in for the next season.


One-year blog anniversary

blog-anniversaryThis year marks one year since I began to write this blog.  I’d like to say I’ve learned and grown a lot as a writer and blogger during this year, but I have to say most of what I have learned is how addictive the WordPress ‘Stats’ page can be.  I check it about 10 times per day, just to see the view count tick up.  This isn’t the sort of blog that I imagine will ever garner lots of attention; there just aren’t many Americans interested in my views on Downton Abbey, even among the subset of Americans that are interested in Downton Abbey. But I still get a thrill from anything that gives me a lot of hits.  I find one thing the most addictive–the WordPress map.  I desperately want to fill in all of the countries! I like the idea of my blog being read round the world.  So far, I’m doing pretty

There are some countries I’m fairly certain I won’t ever get to fill in.  Internet access is tightly controlled, and often unavailable at all, in places like Iran and North Korea.  I don’t know a lot about, say Madagascar, but given their tiny population I doubt they will be visiting anytime soon.  I’m holding out a lot of hope for Mongolia, partially because it’s such a big country. I don’t understand why Greenland is not colored-in, because Greenland is technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark.  And I’ve got Denmark, so I think I should have Greenland.  *cough-WordPress-are-you-listening-cough* And it’s huge!

Not surprisingly, my blog is most popular in the US and the UK, with the rest of Europe and some other post-colonial countries (Australia, India) not far behind. But I have a lot of 1-offs, where one person from an entire country has deigned to visit my blog.  I’m always thrilled when I have new countries on the list, so thank you to the one of you from the Bahamas, Jersey, Uganda, Cyprus, Honduras, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritius, Uruguay, St. Lucia, Grenada, and Nicaragua who have wandered in and then wandered back out.  Next time, tell your friends!

Other amusing pastimes include obsessively monitoring why people found my blog–what they searched for that lead them to my little corner of the internet. My most popular topic (more popular than all of the rest combined, I would wager) is any variation on ‘English Stereotypes’.  That makes up most of my traffic.  But when you get down to the end of the list you get to the more amusing keywords.  WHY were people searching for this stuff? WHY does searching for it lead to my blog?! Here is a sample of the weirdest searches:

Martin Freeman naked/nude (more popular than Benedict Cumberbatch naked, so Martin should be happy about that)

Benedict Cumberbatch + sloth OR ice age

bike mustache chops.   ????

Albus Dumbledore read Pride and Prejudice

Jane Eyre the hoes of these moves

bluffball did you see that ludicrous display last night

my possible favorite,

what is “wagger pagger bagger” slang for in England?

Excellent question, but one my blog does not answer.  There are also some that are less PG rated, including several people wanting to search about Fred Weasley performing certain sex acts, and something related to horses, dolls, and sex.  Yikes! For the record, my blog came up for that last one because of my review of Anna Karenina, which has a sex affair, a character named Dolly, and a horse race.  But I googled that same string of words and my blog was the second result, right behind a fetish porn site.  So…awesome.

I have learned that all publicity is good publicity.  I’ve had two writers retweet/link reviews that I posted.  In fact, the busiest day my blog ever had was when Steven Grasse linked to my review of his book.  If you didn’t read it, be aware that my review can be summarized by three words “Worst. Book. Ever.”  He seemed to find it amusing that his terrible book almost caused me to have a stroke.  I have to say that him personally linking to my scathing review means he has a better sense of humor than any of his humor book seemed to display.  Luckily, my other retweet came for a positive review.

I don’t mind being a small blog.  I think the best part of this blog is finding other like-minded individuals. I now follow a lot more people on WP, on Twitter, etc., who are interested in British TV and culture, who are British and are interested in TV and culture, and just people who are interesting.  I find that the most rewarding part, since it involves interaction and a conversation rather than answering misspelled Google queries.  It’s almost as rewarding as it will inevitably be when someone from Mongolia visits my blog.

Tsherlock and john laughingo the next year!


Same-Sex Marriage in the U.K.

Big Ben and Gay flagNormally, this is not a political blog, but something happened this week in the U.K. that I can’t resist commenting on. On the 6th, the House of Commons voted to allow same-sex marriage in the U.K. While this doesn’t make it a law yet (there is one more vote in the H-o-C and then a vote in the House of Lords), the large majority who passed the bill make me optimistic for its chances in the additional votes required.

Of course, civil partnerships have existed in the U.K. since 2005, so they have already been light years ahead of us in the U.S.  2005?  That’s one year before some idiots over here were trying to amend the constitution to define marriage as between men and women.  Gay couples have been able to have the same rights as married heterosexual couples for 8 years there, which is pretty damn impressive.  Especially when you consider that more of our states have prohibited gay marriage than allowed it (by a big margin).

If you’re wondering why there would be a big push for gay ‘marriage’ as opposed to a ‘civil partnership’, CNN had an interview with an adorable couple that had been together for 25 years. They already had a civil partnership, but they wanted a marriage because they wanted their relationship to be celebrated and recognized in a religious institution.  Here’s a video of them explaining why the difference is important.

On the Guardian website, I found another quote that points out something very important about the difference. I hadn’t even thought of this:

I believe a UK marriage is currently accepted worldwide, which has particular importance for visa applications, work permits and health and social security, when a couple moves overseas. A civil partnership, however, is binding only in the UK and certain other countries which recognise it. If David Cameron can ensure that all countries, no matter how intolerant their own laws, will recognise a UK marriage between a couple of the same sex, then he is indeed making history.
Chris Hosty

I think the most remarkable and beautiful thing about this vote passing (besides the huge majority that were in favor) is that it wasn’t across party lines.  David Cameron (the current Conservative party leader, and P.M.) along with the numbers 2 and 3 (Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary) all came out strongly in favor of the bill and its stance on equality.  Most of the Nay votes for the bill did come from the Conservative party, but its leaders have been brave and said what they think is right.  And that’s something to be applauded, regardless of how I feel about the rest of their politics.

You wouldn’t see a lot of that bipartisan support here.  I’m a liberal (if this blog didn’t tip you off), but I think anyone awake in America today can see that the Conservative party is aligned very closely with people with very strict notions about Christianity and a moral compass tied to those beliefs. This isn’t an issue about equality for them, but of their own ideas of right and wrong.  Jon Stewart pointed out some of the differences between the opposition to this measure in the U.K. versus the U.S. Watch it here.  With bonus Harry Potter references.

Of course, there are strong opponents in the U.K., particularly the Church of England. The new Archbishop of Canterbury strongly opposes the bill. Big shock there.  I would like to point out that the bill allows for religious marriage ceremonies in institutions that don’t object to the idea.  So if your parish doesn’t want to marry you, I guess they don’t have to.  The couple on CNN points out that they wouldn’t want the happiest day of their lives to be ruined by someone who was forced to take part, so this is no issue for them.  I hope there are enough enlightened vicars & etc. in the UK that this part of the law is not an issue for couples that want to get married.

One strong MP opponent said that defining marriage is not the place of the legislature…apparently it’s just the job of the church? Well, wake up guy, you’re in a country with a massive amount of immigrants from a ton of different countries. You’ve got every religion under the sun in a few square blocks of London.  For the Anglican church to determine what those people get to do is ludicrous; how would you feel if…Islam got to determine what you did? Or Buddhism? And what about the estimated 30% of UK citizens who don’t ascribe to any specific religion or are not religious? Why should the church determine what their marriages should be?  This is exactly the job for the legislature, because no one church can represent the UK.

David Cameron is also on the receiving end of some angry grumbling within his own party. Some are concerned that this measure will cost them votes in the next election.  I don’t see how that argument works out.  It’s a Conservative party, doing something that might attract liberal voters.  So they may lose some hardcore Tory votes but they will probably gain a lot more moderate liberal votes.

David Cameron, I am not your biggest fan, but I hope you tell them all to piss off. You’re doing the right thing. And it will earn you votes (which I think you’re smart enough to know) because people like me won’t think you’re quite as big of a dick as previously estimated.

Cameron has successfully rebranded his party by taking on issues like gay marriage and environmentalism.  The only openly gay lesbian MP in the Conservative party, Margot James, pointed out that the party had to modernize if it wasn’t going to go the way of the US Republican party and alienate moderate voters.  Smart lady.

I can only hope that some politicians and newsmakers in this country will look at the UK Conservative party and see that this sort of reasonable behavior does win respect and it does win votes.  It might be easier for me to say I hope the Republicans continue to implode via discussions about legitimate rape, and Democrats keep winning…but that’s not what’s best for the country. I’d like two logical and reasonable parties please.  For an example, look across the pond.

Top Gear season premiere

top gear trioThe nineteenth season of Top Gear starts tonight on BBC America.  It premiered in the U.K. last Sunday (the 27th).  This will be the first time TG is airing in the US anywhere near the same time it airs in the U.K., so that is exciting.  And, like Ripper Street, BBC America has decided not to condense the program to fit into a 1 hour block of American TV.  If you’re confused–these shows are both 1 hour in the U.K., but because the BBC doesn’t have commercials, the American networks have to decide how to handle this difference when they import the show.  Previously, BBC America generally removed about 12 minutes of programming from TG episodes in order to fit in commercials and make it take a 1-hour block of programming.  I’m not sure if they’ve changed their strategy because of the popularity of TG and of the network as a whole, or because they realize that sticking to strict blocks of programming time is not as important in the age of the DVR.  Either way, TG will be 1 hour 20 minutes on BBC America, same as Ripper Street.

For those of you unfamiliar with TG, despite my many mentions of it on this blog, let me indoctrinate you a bit.  It stars three morons: James May, Jeremy Clarkson, and Richard Hammond.  James is a pedantic old bore, Jeremy is the most conceited and impatient man in the world, and Hammond is roughly the same as any 10-year-old boy.  Together, they review new cars, discuss trends in motor sports and car culture, engage in challenges (all to do with cars), and there is always a celebrity interview.

If you like cars at all, watching this show is a no brainer.  If you don’t particularly like or care about cars (I’m not exactly a gearhead), there are still plenty of reasons to watch.

The celebrity interviews are unique in that they revolve around the car history of the celebrity in question.  Season 19’s premiere features Damian Lewis (of Homeland fame) sporting his natural British accent.  Each celebrity that comes in goes for a lap in a ‘reasonably priced car’ on the TG test track, and his/her time is compared to the celebrities that have come before.  They get a good mix of the uber-famous (Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz), musicians (, to some more Brit-centric celebs (Nick Frost, Bill Bailey).  It’s just different than your typical crappy Access Hollywood interview, or some shit you would hear on Ryan Seacrest.  So it’s automatically better.

Most importantly, it’s very funny.  I tend to zone out during a lot of the car reviews, although they are written and explained in a way that makes it easy to understand and engaging to anyone with even a slight interest or knowledge of cars.  But the challenges! They are the best thing.  They make me so happy.  Invariably the guys have to each buy a car for X amount of dollars and cross across Y number of dangerous countries/states/deserts/jungles in order to get bragging rights.  It’s hard to explain what makes this so very funny.  The best I can do is offer some funny moments:

If you’ve never watched Top Gear before, give it a try tonight.  Jeremy tries his hand at making the smallest car in the world, then presents it in front of the cast of the Dragon’s Den (the UK equivalent of the Shark Tank).  Also, a word of warning–do NOT mix up this hilarious and witty show with the American version on the History Channel.  That one is …well it is exactly the same, but with all the charm, intellect, and class taken out.  All of it.  Skip that one, unless you really like flannel shirts, pickup trucks, and the like–in which case, what are you doing on this blog?!