Monthly Archives: April 2013

The other British Holidays

In December, I did a post on British Christmas traditions and Boxing Day.  Since this week was St. George’s Day, I thought I might explain some of the other popular (and less popular) holidays celebrated in the UK.   In addition to holidays we also celebrate in the US, like Halloween and Easter, there are a number of uniquely British holidays that we would be hard pressed to understand on this side of the pond. Cause what the fuck is Guy Fawkes Day, right?

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Guy Fawkes Day is also called Bonfire Night, and falls on November 5th each year.  The holiday commemorates the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ you may (but probably won’t) remember from history class. Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in 1605.  He and his co-criminals wanted to kill King James I and install a Catholic king. The holiday started with people celebrating James’ survival by lighting bonfires. It has evolved in the past 400 years, but often featured the burning of effigies. Effigies of Guy Fawkes were obviously the most popular,

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but people also burned effigies of the pope and the devil, making it a pretty anti-Catholic holiday in the 17th and 18th centuries. Children would usually make the Guy effigies and then collect money from neighbors (I’m unclear on why they deserved money, but for an enterprising child I’m sure it was a good deal). The holiday declined in popularity in the late 19th century, and in the 20th became more of Firework Night. One assumes that throughout the centuries, it has also been a holiday that involved heavy drinking.  But it’s mostly a holiday in decline, having lost all meaning with respect to government or religion.  One exception is Lewes, which has the (arguably) largest Bonfire Night celebration in Great Britain.

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Saint George's DaySaint George is the patron saint of England, so this is a holiday really only celebrated in England. It falls on April 23rd each year.  His flag, the white background and the red cross is the flag of England as well. (If you’re confused right now, I’ll help you by telling you that the Union Jack is the flag of the UK). The myth says that St. George (presumably known just as George when he was alive) was a Roman soldier in the 3rd century. As a Christian, he protested the Roman empire’s persecution of his faith, earning him some enemies in Rome and he was beheaded in 303 AD. Some time before his beheading, he slayed a dragon that was terrorizing a village in modern-day Libya. Since he never visited England, I’m a little unsure why he is the patron saint of that country, but he is also the patron saint of a lot of other countries and regions, as well as scouting, soldiers, archers, etc. etc.  Those patron saints are busy people. St. George, because he was a famous soldier, became a figure of admiration for European knights during the age of chivalry, and I think that’s how St. George was adopted as the patron saint of a country he’d never visited.

St. George’s day isn’t really ‘celebrated’ in England.  People might have a rose in their button-hole. Businesses might fly the flag of St. George. One website suggested excellent ways to celebrate might include ‘eating fish and chips’ and ‘going on a pub crawl’.  As far as I can tell, that’s how England celebrates days that end in y. People don’t even have the day off work, unfortunately. There are events for children, reenacting the story of St. George and the dragon, but not much more.  There has been a movement in recent years to make it a national holiday, and to bring it back as a big part of English culture, but I’m not certain they’ll come to much.

If you are going to choose a holiday to celebrate on April 23rd, I would celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday. Shakespeare was actually English, for one thing, and he was far more significant than St. George to the English identity and legacy.

May Day UKNext week, May will begin, and with it, May Day!
I remember being somewhat aware of this holiday growing up in the US, but I’ve never actually seen a maypole.  In the UK, they do dance around the maypole, covering it with ribbons.  They also engage in something called Morris Dancing, which seems to involve black-face.  I’ll pass on that. People dress up like weirdos, play the accordion, and dance around with black faces.

Morris DancerThe racially insensitive face paint doesn’t seem to be absolutely necessary, but looking like an idiot is clearly integral to the celebration. We have something similar here in Philadelphia, called the Mummer’s parade.

May Day, like Halloween, has its roots in Pagan traditions, and unofficially celebrates the beginning of good weather.  I like it. I think the spirit of it is similar to our Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of what we think of as summer. It is a national bank holiday in the UK, so no work! Yay! I would venture to guess that most people don’t engage in the celebrations the holiday was made for, but do take the long weekend to spend time outdoors and enjoy the spring.  I was in London for one of the nicest spring seasons they’ve had in a long time, so my experience is not perhaps representative, but I can say that warm days in London are worth more than any weather in any other place on earth.  If you don’t believe me, go sit in Hyde Park or along the Victoria Embankment on a sunny day.

The UK has a number of other ‘bank holidays’, meaning businesses are closed and few people work, that don’t have any inherent traditions attached to them.  The Spring bank holiday is the last week of May, the late Summer bank holiday is in August, and sometimes there are others for special occasions (the royal wedding in 2011, the jubilee in 2012).  These are pretty similar to our Memorial and Labor day holidays.  I think I like secular holidays best.  No haughty traditions, no need to see relatives if you don’t care to.  Just a day off work to do with as you like.

Remembrance Day is one of the more somber holiday on the UK calendar. Remembrance DayCommemorated on November 11th each year (but often celebrated on the Sunday nearest that date), it marks the armistice that ended World War I.  In reality, after so many other wars since 1918, the day becomes a catch-all for honoring service men and women who died during all the wars and skirmishes since that date.  People wear poppies in their lapels and wreaths are laid at the many war memorials throughout the UK.  One thing I noticed in my travels is that every small village has a monument listing the men they lost at war.  It’s sort of lovely and humbling to see them all, and think of how those deaths would have impacted the people they left behind–especially in small villages that must have been even smaller 100 years ago.

A more light-hearted ‘holiday’ is Red Nose Day.  I like this one.  Comic Relief is a charity that organizes Red Nose Day. There are lots of entertainers and local events to get donations, in addition to a national telethon. Whenever we have charity events in the US, we get celebrities to sing patriotic songs about suffering and overcoming adversity.  In the UK, they get them to make us laugh, and they do it every year.  I like that. J.K. Rowling’s two Hogwarts ‘textbooks’ (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Quidditch Through the Ages) were both written for Red Nose Day.

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So, thank you Comic Relief. If you’re wondering, it’s called Red Nose Day because they sell red noses for you to wear at shops for donations to the charity.

This year’s Red Nose Day brought David Brent into the spotlight again for the first time in 10 years.  Apparently, he’s a music agent now representing a young rapper.

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You may notice that there’s no national holiday for England or for the UK, the way we celebrate July 4th. St. George’s day is the closest they have.  N. Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s day, and Wales celebrates St. David’s day as almost national holidays. A time to celebrate their unique identity within the UK. Similarly, Scotland has St. Andrew’s day. England, though, does not have a firm origin story around which to rally at a specific time.  And if you think about it, it is impossible to say when England began to be England and ceased to be Briton.  The Romans invaded in the 1st century AD (CE), but the area was already occupied by native Britons.  Those people were gradually pushed further and further west, and are most closely related to the modern Welsh.  After the Romans left, there were the waves and waves of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions.  England is named after the Anglo-Saxons, so did it become England at that point? You could argue that when England became a unified country is a date to be celebrated.  ‘Edgar the Peaceful’ united the country in the 10th century…and then it was promptly and thoroughly invaded, first by Danish vikings, then by William the Conqueror in 1066 AD.  Much of modern British tradition stems from William’s rule (coronation at Westminster abbey, for example) rather than from Edgar’s influence.  So the whole thing is a big ole confusing mess.  I suppose they could just pick a day, but that doesn’t quite have the same significance as our 4th of July, or other national holidays more closely related to a great story of overcoming oppression. Then again, our traditions dictate we mark this great date by having my idiot neighbors set off amateur fireworks in the parking lot across the street and everyone eating dead animals while sitting on picnic tables.  Not to mention, the Declaration of Independence was actually signed in the fall of 1776; John Hancock didn’t sign until November.
So, all holidays are utterly removed from the significance of the original day, and we should all feel free to celebrate whatever we like whenever we like. On that note, I’d better get ready to celebrate International Tuba Day next week!

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The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistI’m having terrible luck with books lately.  The last four or five I’ve read were (at best) ‘meh’.  I’ve also read a few lately written by historians-turned-novelists.  I thought perhaps I might do better with someone who has an English degree.

I was wrong.  Despite earning a ‘first’ (British equivalent of Summa Cum Laude) in English Lit at Oxford, Barnes does not make a better novelist than the historians I’ve read of late.  In fact, this book was quite a bit worse.

I don’t like writing about books I dislike, or disliking books in the first place. I feel very ungenerous for being harsh on writers and their work, especially in a medium where they can see my bald criticisms (and several of them have).  I would vastly prefer to only find great books and be able to swoon and flail over them in private, and pontificate over them on this blog. But that is not my fate. And I feel like it’s better to put my thoughts out there and keep other people from wasting their time on books that aren’t worth the effort it takes to read them. So forgive my harshness, but this was not a good book. Not at all.

I picked it up because the cover very clearly says ’19th century England’, from the dark hat and cloak to the gas-lit facade of the Houses of Parliament.  That’s my place and my time period, so I was in.  I wasn’t really drawn in by the jacket copy, focusing on a conjurer/illusionist/magician figure (I dislike magic), or by the title. Somnambulist means sleepwalker, in case you didn’t know.  But the setting is enough for me when it comes to books–a policy I may have to change when I think about the last few books I’ve read.

The story is about a magician, Edward Moon, who also is relatively famous for his skills as a part-time detective, a Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin type character. His sidekick, both in his magical show and in his mystery-solving adventures is the Somnambulist, a mute giant with superhuman strength and an apparent immunity to being stabbed with multiple swords. The Somnamulist reminded me of the mythical Golem of Jewish Folklore.

Other characters include an albino who works for a government agency called the Directorate, his Tiny Tim-esque son on crutches, a bearded prostitute with a deformed third arm emerging from the middle of her chest, two aged men dressed as English schoolboys who happen to be supernatural assassins, fake ‘Chinamen’, the Human Fly, the sewn together and reanimated body of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and an all-powerful cult bent on destroying London. Oh, yes, and a Benjamin-Button character who travels through his life backwards, getting younger by the day. But he’s also living through time backwards and lives for thousands of years, eventually ‘founding’ London in pre-Roman times.

The sad thing is that in that description, I didn’t even include all of the different assassins or crackpots running through this story. I left out the Mongoose, Reverand Tan, the all-knowing Archivist, Moon’s ex-partner and now-nemesis Barabbas, the list goes on.  This book is a mess of absolutely unbelievable crap. And none of it is ever well explained.  Essentially, the plot revolves around Moon trying to solve a murder, and being led slowly into this large conspiracy to destroy London and start a new society in its place.  This is all based on a theory Coleridge actually had, called pantisocracy.  He and some mates were going to leave England and start an agrarian utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in middle-Pennsylvania.  They gave up the idea after only a few months, but Barnes has resurrected it for this novel.

In an attempt to summarize this story, I realize that I don’t truly understand it.  Part of the problem was that I had a hard time reading the book–it was not captivating, not exciting. I had to struggle to finish a few pages at a time.

Another problem is the story makes no sense, the narrator is totally unreliable and admits to telling lies in the story, and no one bothers to explain anything that’s going on.  The plot was a complete clusterfuck. I have no idea how this shit got published. I don’t say that often, but I mean it.

My other problems with the book revolved around character.  Moon is described as a great detective, but we never see any evidence.  Unlike the Holmes stories, where we see snippets of his abilities in deduction, Moon is just described as a great detective by others.There is talk of past cases, successful and not so much, but in this mystery he is shockingly passive.   He waits for others to tell him what is going on, give him clues and point him in the right direction. And they do, time and time again.  He even has a man on his side who has traveled from the future and knows how the story goes–and yet Moon bumbles from one place to another until he wanders into a trap and is nearly killed.  His one proactive moment is putting ads in the papers for someone who might have information he needs, but the gentleman who answers the ad is sent directly from Moon’s enemies.  It’s all a trap, and he has no capacity for seeing that.  He is an incredibly disappointing detective.  And a disappointing character all around, with very little depth or back story.

I should have put this book down when I read the first paragraph:

Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. 

This is the most truthful and realistic part of the novel. I had an intense and immediate dislike of the book and the author as soon as I read this.  I dislike narrative ‘tricks’ for the sake of trickery, and this one seemed to also be apologizing for sub-par writing which did not engender confidence in me as a reader.  Barnes continues with the narrative tricks with confusing lies by the narrator, and with the final reveal of the narrator’s identity.  I don’t want narrative tricks; I want an actual story.  There are a few books where these tricks work–because you’ve believed a story to a certain point, and you are thrown completely from the narrative saddle by a revelation halfway.  The example for me is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I both adore and hate. I absolutely detest that book for how horrible it made me feel, like a friend had walked beside me for a while, then turned around and stabbed me in the gut.  That is a narrative trick that works. It left me weeping for a good hour. These narrative tricks that Barnes employs are just annoying, a nuisance.

I’m afraid to say I don’t think anything was redeeming about this book.  None of the characters were particularly likeable or whole.  A lot of them seemed like rip-offs of other characters–Moon was meant to be like Holmes, The Prefects seemed to be Croup and Vandemar light, there was also Tiny Tim, the Golem, and Benjamin Button.  An original, or fully fleshed-out character would have been nice.

The plot was nonsensical and unsatisfying. The writing wasn’t engaging, nor was it stylistically pleasant.  I think the phrase ‘ersatz Chinaman’ was used at least 4 times. The narrator was annoying at best.  It was a really terrible book. Normally, when I don’t like a book very much I try to say ‘if you really like X time period, or X genre then this might be worth reading’. I cannot think of a single type of person who would enjoy this book. It’s not satisfying as a mystery, it’s not satisfying as a part of the time period, it’s useless if you value complicated characters or beautiful prose.  I guess if you enjoy being jerked around by a narrator and like to leave a book with less comprehension of the plot than during the first few pages, then this one’s for you!

TV Series Review – The Misfits (seasons 1 and 2)

misfits_wallpaperI am generally skeptical of British shows involving supernatural powers or fantasy settings, because to be quite honest the production values and special effects are usually awful. The sort of special effects you would have seen ten-fifteen years ago on American TV.  Luckily for me, I gave this show a chance after hearing lots of good things.

The show opens with the first day of community service for Simon, Nathan, Kelly, Alisha, and Curtis–a group of juvenile delinquents with nothing at all in common.

Curtis was an all-star track athlete, headed for the Olympics before he got busted for drugs. He seems the most sane of the group.

Misfits_202_1224

He definitely doesn’t think he belongs with the rest of these losers.

Kelly got in a fight over a boy, Simon set a fire, Alisha was caught drunk driving (or drink driving, if you’d prefer the UK vernacular). Nathan is just your typical rebel without a cause, only he’s more of a moron without a cause.

Misfits NathanAt first, I absolutely hated him, but he was my favorite character by episode two. He is devoid of all shame, all sense of propriety, and possibly any ability to scrutinize his own behavior.  He’s the id, incarnate, and he says lots of things we wish we could say in social situations.  On the other hand, he says a lot of things we wish we could unhear after they are said. So, fair warning there.

The team is sentenced to work at a community center cleaning up graffiti, picking up garbage, etc.  They are out doing just that when a freak lightning storm hits and they all sort of get zapped.  This section is a bit ridiculous because well, the special effects just aren’t that good.  Still, the show is worth putting up with this sequence.

The long and short of it is that the group get super powers from the crazy lightning strike.  Curtis, we soon learn, can rewind time.  Nathan’s power takes a while to reveal itself, but he turns out to be immortal.  Kelly, the chavviest of all the chavs,

Misfits Kellycan read people’s minds.  She is kind of awesome, despite how trashy she is and how strange her accent sounds to an American ear. She is brave and loyal and has a pretty good moral compass when it comes down to important decisions.

Simon, the shy one who (according to Nathan) looks like a ‘panty sniffer’ has the ability to become invisible.

simonTrue to form, I liked Simon the most at first.  After all, if there’s someone who is socially awkward and shy, I’m going to empathize with them. That’s obvious.  Plus, he’s pale.  He might, in fact, be the male version of me.

Over the two seasons, Simon has the biggest transformation.  Mostly he transforms from a lonely nerd to a parkour-expert and generally shirtless badass. Still pale though! We, the melanin-challenged, can still be superheroes! Take note, world.

Alisha gets genuinely fucked when it comes to super powers.  All of them get super powers that sort of reflect a main facet of their personalities.  Curtis is overcome with regret, so he gets the ability to turn back time and make right his big mistakes. Simon is painfully shy and he can turn invisible.  Alisha is…promiscuous?  What’s a nice way to say her main reason for life seems to be to get as many men to want her as possible?

Misfits Alisha

Well, she gets her wish. Her superpower is that when men (or women) touch her, they try to rape her because they just can’t stop themselves.  Sex with her is the only thing they can think about.  If a man she doesn’t want or like touches her, she’ll be raped.  If she touches a man she does want, she’s basically raping him.  Rape either way. So…yay.  Worst super power, ever.

If you get confused about their powers, here’s a handy infographic:

Misfits infographic

Very quickly after the lightning storm, things start to go to shit at the community center.  Their probation officer, also affected by the storm, attacks and kills them.  Curtis has to turn back time to undo what has happened, and instead they are forced to kill their probation officer and hide his body.

The thing about this show is that it walks a very fine line between comedy and drama.  Somehow they allow you to be in the moment when really serious, scary, or emotional things happen, but seconds later you can be laughing hysterically–usually at something Nathan says to defuse the situation. It’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that is really helpful when you’re dealing with the supernatural.

Over the course of the first two seasons, they kill at least 2 probation officers, someone has sex with an octogenarian, someone has sex with a gorilla, they all die at least once, there are two separate semi-religious cults, a character called SuperHoodie, people who travel into the future and past, Simon is referred to as ‘the Invisible Cunt’ and Barry, the group is overpowered by a man who can control dairy products, and Jesus rises again during the Christmas special. The show is funny and goofy and really truly enjoyable.

You need a dark sense of humor to appreciate this show, but if you have one then it is excellent. You also need to be able to laugh off incredibly heinous language and slang.  And if you watch the Christmas special, please be aware that there is a truly traumatic bit with an ‘afterbirth’.  There’s a reason I’m not having kids.  Actually, there are 500 reasons, but that is definitely on the list.

I really enjoyed the show, and I especially adored the main theme song. Must. own.

The entire series is up on Hulu or on DVD.  The trailer is here.

My Thoughts on Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher died this week.  I think in America (if my boyfriend’s thoughts on the matter are any indication) people have a pretty strange idea about who she was and what she did.  Probably because of all those pictures of her slow dancing with Ronald Reagan. Regardless of your politics, anyone who knows anything about her and the way she led the country, her party, or her family knows she was divisive, controversial, and should never be described as ‘a nice lady’.  So before you’re swept up in the idea that those Reagan pictures accurately portrayed her as a leader, here’s a little primer on who she really was and how she is seen in the eyes of Brits.  Of course, I can’t claim the knowledge of someone who lived in the UK in the ’80s, so undoubtedly I won’t get it all right, but I did do a report on her at university, so that makes me practically an expert.  Who am I kidding, that literally makes me an expert.  All knowledge gleaned from Elvis Costello or Morrissey songs is just icing on my expert cake.

Thatcher on NewsweekSo, let’s start with some facts about her.

She grew up in a middle-class household, the daughter of a grocer.  This middle class background may not seem a big deal to Americans and to younger people in particular, but it should be pointed out that Britain was at this point still in the habit of picking Prime Ministers from the House of Lords–picking their leaders from people who got their place in government by birth. Not often, but they still did it in the 20th century (Churchill, Douglas-Home).  A class system was very much still in place.  This middle-class background of Thatcher’s was a serious point for or against her, depending on who you asked.  It was something unique about her, that’s for sure, especially as a Conservative.

She worked hard in school, went off to Oxford in 1943 and studied Chemistry. During university, she was active in Conservative politics on campus and also read extensively on economics. She stood for her first political post only 4 years after graduating from Oxford, and before she married Denis Thatcher. Fun fact–she worked as a research chemist for a food corporation that made soft-serve ice cream.

She stood for office as a Conservative two times, and lost both times.  She married Denis and studied to be a barrister (re: lawyer). She specialized in tax law.

A note to Americans–the election system in the UK doesn’t require you to live in the place you are going to represent.  So when Thatcher kept being defeated in elections, she looked for a Conservative district where she could run.  She found one, and was elected as an MP in 1958.

She worked her way up the ranks to obtain a Cabinet position under Conservative PM Heath in 1970. She was the Secretary for Education and Science. This post brought her unwanted notoriety when, in an attempt to cut education costs, the government cut a free milk program for school children. After that date, she was vilified as ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’.

Milk Snatcher Thatcher

People were not happy about this.  Perhaps the saddest part about this story is that Cabinet meeting documents available now reveal she was against the decision.  When the Cabinet goes into their conference room, they can say whatever they like, but once a decision is made the members are expected to stand by whatever the majority has determined.  So she got absolutely speared for a policy she didn’t favor.

The Conservative party was in shambles in the late ’70s, and (rather shockingly to be honest) Thatcher wound up as their leader.  In the next election, they won, and the UK had its first female PM. What followed were a few short lived periods of popularity, but mostly an extremely unhappy British public.  Perhaps the most infuriating part of her was that she really didn’t care whether the public approved of her or not.

So what do people like about her?

1. She led the British in their first military victory in nearly 50 years. Thatcher in a tank

 

Not single-handedly, as this picture might suggest, but she did take a risk and bring about a decisive victory.

2. She cut back extensively on government spending–except for defense and police.

3. She believed that people should make their own way through hard work, and that they should not rely on their government for handouts. She valued the individual more than any group, including unions, the church, her own party.

4. As a Middle Class woman leading the Conservative party, she silenced any complaints from liberals that the Tories were just privileged rich old men, all from the same families and same places.  It’s the same effect a black Republican leader from a poor family might have on American politics–hard to argue that their party is discriminatory if they had a leader so outside the stereotypical image of their membership.

5. She was tough and extremely aggressive, but also a ‘lady’.

The sort of people who love Thatcher will always look like Uncle Vernon in my eyes. I would guess he adored her.

Why do people hate her?

Basically, they hate her for those same reasons.

1. The military ‘victory’ in the Falkland Islands was…questionable at best. It is absolutely true that the Argentine government invaded the British-held territory in the South Atlantic.  On the other hand, the Argentinians argue that the islands have belonged to them since the 19th century.  I’m not a history expert, so I’m not going there. I think the reason people were so angry after the war is because of a few factors:

  • -the success of this war was almost the sole reason Thatcher got re-elected to a second term as PM. The election took place when everyone was feeling patriotic and proud, and they rallied behind the PM, despite the fact that things were in the toilet domestically.
  • -the war showed a particularly unflattering xenophobia (also reflected in Thatcher & Co’s treatment of Ireland and S. Africa at the time) and jingoism in the British government and people.  Thatcher was particularly adamant that everyone celebrate their great victory in restoring this completely insignificant, nearly uninhabited island group to the glorious empire.  She literally urged them to ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’
  • -the way the war was conducted did not ascribe to the all-important notion of British fair play (even in war).  Particularly with regards to the sinking of an Argentine boat called the General Belgrano.  The boat seemed to be retreating and heading back to Argentina when it was torpedoed and sunk. 360 people died.  Not good form.

2. When I say she cut back on spending, I mean she wanted to eliminate almost all government spending. She privatized industry, she cut back on government programs. People were terrified and infuriated that she might cut the NHS, but she seemed to know that it would be political suicide if she did. Unemployment skyrocketed in her first few years in office, as did inflation. There were quite simply no jobs, and everything cost twice as much as it used to. It would have been a pretty terrible time to live in the UK.  Everyone begged her to change her policies, turn things around, but she replied that she was ‘not for turning’.   Everyone suffering because of her decisions was just meant to trust that she knew best, I guess. Things recovered briefly in the ’80s, but (just like in America) wealth was incredibly unequal. The top 5% of earners made the top 25% of the money. Those numbers were nearly reversed for the destitute.  It was not a good economic time, unless you were already super wealthy.

3. I’m going to be fair and say that the unions at the time were too powerful, and someone had to eventually take them on.  On the other hand, Thatcher’s way of dealing with everyone involved complete alienation. The unions were more or less decimated in the first few years of her premiership. She compared them to the Argentine combatants, calling unions ‘the enemy within’.

She cut people from her Cabinet, she cut government positions that she didn’t think were necessary.  She cut funding to universities. She ridiculed the church openly and publicly. She was rude and aggressively disrespectful to the people, to the MPs, to her own Cabinet.  She ruled as a despot, not as a democratically elected individual.  If you weren’t ‘one of us’, meaning you did not agree with nearly everything she believed, then you usually were mistreated and would probably end up being  sacked or resigning.

4. Yep, she was from the Middle Class.  A middle class woman who stood up and defended the rights of the super wealthy over the rights of anyone else.  She surrounded herself with entrepreneurs and businessmen, and proceeded to trod on the poor and destitute. It’s a worse betrayal than when an upper-crusty Lord does the exact same thing, because she should have known better.

5. This last one is perhaps the most irritating to me.  Feminists should be happy about a woman being in power, yes?  I’m a feminist, but man did I hate her methods.  This cartoon sort of sums it up.

Thatcher lady

She was rude, aggressive, disrespectful to even people in her own Cabinet and to her closest advisers. But she would play the female card in expecting perfectly gentlemanly behavior from them.  I hate that. For more on why she was the worst feminist ever, see this article (complete with Liz Lemon gifs).

The bottom line about Thatcher is that she treated the citizens of the UK like naughty schoolboys, and believed that a proper spanking was the only thing that could get them back on track.  People who agreed with her (Uncle Vernon did say what was wrong with Harry was ‘nothing a good beating wouldn’t have cured’) thought this was exactly what the country needed, and applauded her for it.  People who disagreed with her, or didn’t think her disrespectful tactics were helpful, loathed her.

Her least popular policies (other than the milk snatching debacle) included the riot-inducing poll tax (Community Charge), a general disregard for all of the UK that did not exist in the 100 miles surrounding London, she refused to place sanctions on apartheid South Africa (even befriending the Premier of that government), and every policy that involved cutting funding to government programs (not just welfare programs, but education, infrastructure, industry).  I’m certain I’m missing lots of policies that were incredibly unpopular, but I think she will be remembered for her ‘style’ of leadership that was really just…confrontational at best.

I’m not an expert, despite earlier claims.  Anyone who grew up in the UK at that time would know more about this than I do, but I’m hoping this is enough information that people from the US won’t just think of her as that nice lady that danced with Ronald Reagan.  On the other hand, people in the US think Ronald Reagan was a good president, so they’re obviously not listening to me anyway!  Americans should, at the very least, be aware that she is not universally loved.  These are two newspaper covers published the day after her death:

1365519031285.cachedThat says it all.

Upcoming TV highlights

There are a whole score of new and returning shows on TV this month and next. I thought it might be a good time to discuss them.

First of all, the end of March marked the return of Doctor Who!

The Doctor and OswinAnd there’s a new outfit, a new TARDIS, and a new companion.  If you watched season 7, you already know Oswin.  Can I say already that I love her?  I love her.  She is super smart, she is a conundrum, and she is simultaneously friendly, playful, and not afraid to stand up to the Doctor.  Add to the wonderfulness of her character, she is a real enigma.  The Doctor doesn’t understand her, and he finds anything he doesn’t understand really mesmerizing.  It’s a totally different dynamic than the big brother relationship he had with Amy and Rory.  And I really like his new coat.  I feel like maybe I’m getting my expectations up too high.  Last season was a little disappointing for me, and I don’t want to get too excited and then be disappointed again. But…it’s probably too late.  I’ve seen the first episode and I really liked it, and I love their dynamic, and I’m really excited for what’s coming next.  Dr. Who is on BBC America on Saturday nights at 8 Eastern.

Orphan Black bannerPremiering that same night was the new series,  Orphan Black. Although this is on BBC America, it doesn’t actually seem to be a British show. It is set in Canada, I believe, though it is never explicitly stated.  The ‘main’ character, Sarah, is British, as is her best friend Paul.  Only the actors aren’t actually British, but whatever.  The show seems interesting; I haven’t made my mind up about it yet.  It begins with Sarah (a woman with questionable morals and a shady background) seeing a woman, Beth, who looks exactly like her, jump in front of a train.  She takes over Beth’s seemingly swanky life (wasn’t this the plot to that Sarah Michelle Gellar show, Ringer?), mostly based on the fact that the woman had money and nice clothes.  Remind me to never take over my dead clone’s life based on her clothing quality, because it just doesn’t turn out well.  She has to get to know Beth’s boyfriend (including possibly the most graphic sex scene I’ve ever seen on a non-premium channel), deal with a police inquest over a shooting in the line of duty (oh, Beth was a cop?) and a mysterious safety deposit box full of birth certificates.  Sarah proves herself to be pretty stupid in this first episode.  Her goal is to get her daughter back from whomever is caring for her, and to start a new life.  Her first plan is to steal heroin from her ex and sell it for $20k.  Her next plan is to have her best friend identify Beth’s mangled body as Sarah, and steal all of Beth’s savings.  It never occurs to her that her daughter might find out that Sarah has been declared dead, but of course that is what happens.  She seems to really lack the ability to think about consequences, but we know very little about her back story, except that she is an orphan.

This show is iffy.  Could turn out well, could be implausible and ridiculous.  I’m going to give it a few more episodes before I make a verdict.  It’s on after Doctor Who, Saturdays on BBC America at 9 Eastern.

Mr. SelfridgeThe last weekend in March was a big one for me! Also premiering, on PBS this time, was Mr. Selfridge, a proper British period drama about Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of the eponymous store on Oxford Street.  I had no idea he was American, but apparently he emigrated from Chicago to open the world’s best department store in London.  It just finished airing in England, so kudos to PBS for getting it over here in less than 6 months.  They’re getting better!

Jeremy Piven plays a non-douchebag, which I didn’t approve of at first.  Have they seen Entourage?  I haven’t, I’ll admit, but his suits were too shiny for me to see him as a non-douche.  Right? Look at this picture and then argue with me:

Ari Gold

So, I’ll reiterate that I wasn’t sure about all this, but Jeremy Piven is really good!  It helps that the character is bombastic and grandiose. He needs to act that way because, as we learn in the very first episode, he is in deep trouble with money.  He needs a lot of money, press, and publicity to make his store a hit, so he has to be more confident than he is.

The show follows Mr. Selfridge, obviously, but it is also a Downton-esque ensemble cast of high- and low-class characters. There are: his wife, who meets a (very) handsome artist at the National Gallery; the shopgirl Agnes Towler who works in the accessories department and her struggles with her brother, her father, and her suitor; other employees in the store both friendly and not; Miss Love, the actress and potential mistress for Mr. Selfridge; ruthless investors in the store; and I’m sure there will be more in later episodes.

There were a lot of interesting dynamics between classes, like any British drama worth its name.  Add to that, the genuinely interesting concept of the first true department store.  Most shops prior to this time period, especially in England, did not have displays as we do now.  There were counters, and you would go up and ask to see a specific type of glove or hat, etc.  Or, if you were wealthy, you would have a dressmaker, milliner, etc., come to your house for a fitting in your own home.  The art and hobby of shopping wasn’t the same.  Ready-to-wear clothing wasn’t the same, either.  So seeing this revolution happen in the show is intriguing.  I found the first episode really entertaining and cannot wait for the next episode.  Hopefully the quality stays the same throughout.  My only complaint is that in the intro on PBS, Laura Linney was talking about the show and described it using the following words about Mr. Selfridge: “He was the first person to know what women really want.  They want to go shopping.”

Oh, Laura Linney.  Why?  Why would you say that? Who wrote that?  Blech.

The Spies of WarsawAttention all Doctor Who fans! David Tennant is returning to our TV screens!  For a limited time only!  This is a two-part mini-series on BBC America, about a WWII era spy.  It begins in 1937, in Poland, France, and Germany.  David Tennant stars as Col. Mercier, a French ‘military attaché stationed in Poland. He alone sees the war coming, where his comrades don’t want to admit what is happening in Europe.  I don’t know much about the plot yet, but the NY Times called describes it almost as a whodunnit, more like a Christie novel than Casablanca, which it seems to want to be.  There is a love triangle, but the upcoming War is the real story of the mini-series.  Also according to the Times, despite the weaknesses in Spies of Warsaw, “there is nothing more satisfying than a prewar espionage story that shows, up close and told-you-so, how most of Europe slept through Hitler’s rise.”

It’s playing on BBC America on April 3rd and 10th, but I’m quite certain they will replay it several times over the next month or two.

Although I didn’t watch it, I should mention that the second season of Call the Midwife also premiered at the end of March. It airs every Sunday night on PBS, and is also available on their website.

Also coming soon on PBS is something I’m really excited to see: The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley CircleThis aired last year in the UK.  Set in 1952, it follows four women who worked as code breakers at Bletchley Park (the main center for decryption/codebreaking in the UK during WWII).  If that wasn’t bad ass enough, it’s also a murder mystery. Police are overlooking a pattern in the killings, but these code-breaking badass ladies in their cardigans are smart enough to see it. It’s only a 3 part mini-series, but it sounds awesome. I love to see women in period pieces that have more to do than just swoon and get married.  The Bletchley Circle premieres on PBS on April 21st.

Looks like it’s going to be a great spring for us anglophiles!

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere on BBC Radio

the cast of neverwhere

I have to confess that this was my first ‘radio play’.  In the US, I think they went out of fashion pretty much as soon as the TV became available.  I’ve heard the stories about Wells War of the Worlds being performed and the audience thinking aliens had actually attacked Earth. But that was 80 years ago. There haven’t been regular radio dramas in the US since the ’60s. In a lot of other countries they are still really popular though (even countries with TVs!), so perhaps I’m missing out. In explaining to people that I was going to listen to a radio play based on Neverwhere, I was met with confusion.  “So, is it filmed or not?” was the reaction–partially because I kept mistakenly saying I was going to watch it rather than listen.  It’s a confusing proposition for a Yankee.

And after watching listening to it, I can’t say I love the format.  It has definite merits.  The voices of the actors become far more meaningful and it is easy to catch small moments and equivocations in a pause or a wavering syllable.  It demands more attention, and I’m always happy to give attention to stories that require it of me.  On the other hand, I did continue to wish I could see what I was witnessing.  With a book, the self-determined pace of reading allows for imagination to flourish and to flesh out the world with your own ideas. With film, the auteur’s version of the story is presented and our imaginations aren’t required.  With a radio play, it was as quick as a film and left little time for my mind to sit and contemplate how the space might look or feel, but also lacked narration or description to fill in gaps.  Occasionally, it was difficult for my imagination to keep up with the changing locales. Because of that, I’m not sure it’s the medium for me.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this play.  It was clear that there was a lot of money and skill going into this production.  The cast is spectacular, the writing impeccable and whoever is in charge of background sound and prop sound did a wonderful job of creating the impression that this existed in the real world and not in the vacuum of a sound stage.  I really enjoyed it, and cannot wait to read Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere on which this is obviously based.

Enough rambling about format, what’s the story?

Richard Mayhew is a young Scot who moves to London to start a business job. He’s voiced (in his fabulous natural Scottish accent) by James McAvoy.

McAvoy

He has a good life there, by any standard.  One day, he meets a woman named Door, who is hurt and needs help.  He takes her in and hides her from two villains out to kill her.

These villains are the impeccably vile and heinous Croup and Vandemar, hired henchmen/assassins of a most sadistic and unfeeling nature. In this play, they are voiced by Anthony (Stewart) Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame and David Schofield,an English character actor who has been in approximately 9000 films and shows.

From that moment when Richard protects Door, he is drawn into her world, London Below.  The real geography and landmarks of London are used brilliantly to color and flesh out this underworld.  The characters navigate through underground tunnels and sewers. There is an actual Earl of Earl’s Court (voiced by Sir Christopher Lee),

Earl of Earl's Court

some friars at Blackfriars, the Shepherd of Shepherd’s Bush, the Angel Islington, Hammersmith, etc. For those who have ever spent time in London, these names are familiar places.  It gives the idea that this world and these people existed long before the city above.

The people who make up London Below are the fringes of society, those that look like homeless people and the destitute to us, but they live in a complex society with magic, beasts, angels, all the things you can imagine when you think about the history of London anyway.  Once Richard crosses into Door’s world, he is invisible or unknown to the other above-world people (including his landlord, his fiance, and his boss). He has no choice but to go along with Door on her quest and to explore the world below.

They meet many characters that inhabit London Below. Some are nefarious, some are kind, some are inscrutable.  Door is trying to get revenge on the persons responsible for the death of her family members, Richard only wants to go back to the above-world.  They are joined by the Marquis de Carabas (voiced by Homeland’s David Harewood) and Hunter, employed as Door’s bodyguard. Together, they go off in search of the Angel Islington believing he may be able to help. It’s a quest story, essentially, and Islington acts as the Wizard of Oz.

A word about the Angel Islington.  He is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and was one of my main reasons for listening to this play. Islington

Obviously, I’m a big fan of his work.  But this is also a great medium for him, because of the tenor of his voice. I have to say, actually, that Christopher Lee’s voice far outstripped Benedict’s in terms of the amount of power and presence that came through, but I can’t think of anyone with a more incredible voice than Christopher Lee.

The Angel Islington is a bit ineffable as a character.  He is an actual angel, an embodiment of an angel that very much goes along with Romantic tradition and their images of Michael or Lucifer. He says he looks after London, is its caregiver. His first city was Atlantis, which obviously didn’t go that well.  So is he on a mission of redemption with this second city?  I don’t want to give anything away, but his character is complex and other-worldly, and I really enjoyed Benedict’s work in this.

Everyone gave wonderful performances and I was shocked at how easily I could pick up on small moments and pivots of emotion just through voice alone.  It denotes serious acting chops, and they must put in a lot of thought about how to convey emotion without the use of the most obvious tools (expressions).

The writing struck an excellent balance between humorous and fantastical. Through all the unbelievable and other-worldly things and people they encounter, Richard acts as a thoroughly average person who is just as clueless as we are in this new place.  It’s very similar to Arthur Dent, guiding us through his adventures in the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy.  And any similarity to Douglas Adams is a huge plus in my book.

I can’t help but wish this was a full movie or TV series.  I wanted them to show more, to take more time with the story occasionally. I wanted to learn more about London Below.  But I think the reason they were able to get such incredible talent to act and write and produce this is because it was a short and cheap endeavor, as radio plays must be when compared to film or TV.  There was in fact, a BBC series, Neverwhere, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t make it very far into the show.  I love the BBC, but their special effects budget is apparently quite paltry, and the production values for the show were just too terrible to be ignored. But I’m glad the show existed because it actually came before the novel. It prompted Neil Gaiman to novelize the story.  And there is a pretty rabid fan base around this story that are very grateful he did.  I imagine one day soon, I will join them, since I fully intend to read the novel.

For those of you who wish to listen, the entire 6-part play is available (free) on iTunes (under podcasts). It may be under BBC Drama of the Week.  I highly recommend it if you like London, or fantasy stories, or anything Neil Gaiman.