The Prostitutes’ Graveyard

The Shard towers over Crossbones memorial fence

Within sight of the gleaming Shard, a forest of construction cranes, and a Victorian railway bridge lies Crossbones, a hidden corner of London history. We turn off Southwark Street into a narrow lane called Redcross Way and pass through a dank tunnel. It seems like the kind of alleyway Jack the Ripper may have favored, but this is another part of London, Southwark, south of the river. We are looking for the prostitutes’ graveyard. Opposite The Boot and Flogger pub we see a sign for our destination, the Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance. From here all we can see is a high iron railing festooned with ribbons, plastic flowers, and all manner of memorial objects. A plaque reads “R.I.P. The Outcast Dead.” This was unhallowed ground. I see one soiled white ribbon with a name in fading script, “Elizabeth Hayes from the Workhouse.” Turning the corner to find the Continue reading

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London in the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe’s grave

One day last week we stood in London’s Bunhill Fields burial ground before the grave of Daniel Defoe. Of course his Journal of the Plague Year was the book that came to mind. Based on eyewitness reports in his uncle’s journal, it is a fictional account of the infamous 1665 plague that decimated the population of London. Now in 2020 London news of the coronavirus plague grew grimmer by the hour.

We were in London for an exhibit of my late brother Paul’s work at the Menier Gallery in Southwark. If it had been scheduled just one week later it could never have happened. By Continue reading

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On Memory and Churchill’s Funeral

When I was very small my Uncle Lievin saved me from a bear. I was in bed at my grandmother’s house in Belgium when he came running up the stairs chased by a bear. Don’t worry, he assured me, I’ll get it. He grabbed a rifle from behind the door and stood on guard in the doorway poking at the bear as it tried to get past him to eat me up. At last, with many dramatic grunts and shouts, he drove it down the stairs and out the door. Now you’re safe, he assured me with a hug, the bear is gone. My uncle was my protector and my hero. How brave he was!

My memory of this episode is vivid. I can still almost see my uncle and the bear in mortal combat, hear his exited voice giving a running commentary on the battle. Of course at some point I realized it couldn’t really have happened. There was no bear, the growling Continue reading

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An Impromptu Health Seminar

An unusual place for a health seminar

One recent morning I attended a health seminar. In the waiting room of a car service center in Gaithersburg. It was an impromptu kind of thing. Certainly not what I expected when I checked my car in for its 40,000 mile service, then settled down in the spacious lounge for the usual tedious wait. On the muted television CNN relayed the latest alarming news of the world but no-one paid attention. Vehicle anxiety and international crisis don’t mix well. We stared at our phones or worked on our laptops and avoided eye contact as strangers thrown together in public spaces tend to do. But we were about to be nudged out of our cocoons.

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What Handel’s Messiah Means To Me

In December 2002 I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was a change from our annual tradition of going to the Folger Shakespeare Library for the Folger Consort’s Christmas concert, always wonderful Medieval, Renaissance, or Baroque music. My husband and I had been going every year since we began dating in 1982, and we have gone every year since. What was different in 2002 was that I knew I could not endure the pain of the memory of the year before, the year my son Patrick announced that he wanted to join in the family tradition.

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A Good Guy With A Narwhal Tusk

Unidentified men use a narwhal tusk and a fire extinguisher against the London knife attacker

According to Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” But in London on November 29th a bad guy with a knife was stopped by a good guy with a narwhal whale tusk. And another with a fire extinguisher. And a few more with just their bare hands. The incident reveals much about the difference between the cultures on either side of the pond.

First, the attacker used a knife. He managed to kill two people and seriously injure three others before he was subdued. But here in America he would undoubtedly have been Continue reading

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Can You Say Poulsbo?

How would you pronounce the name of Poulsbo, a tiny town on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State? This is a trick question, because unless you live there or you know someone who does, you are certain to get it wrong. That’s because Poulsbo may be the only town in the United States, or perhaps the world, that ended up with the wrong name. All Continue reading

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Ghent – A Harmony of Old and New

The three towers of Ghent seen from the castle, St. Baaf’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas Church.

One summer afternoon in 2005 my husband and I strolled along the Graslei, the east bank of the river Leie in the historic heart of Ghent. To our right were the old medieval warehouse buildings with their distinctive stepped gables. Behind them the three famous towers of Ghent stood sentry over the city – St. Baaf’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas Church. Directly ahead loomed the grim Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts of Flanders. But across the river on the Korenlei was an incongruous sight, an enormous construction crane towering over the historic buildings of the old grain port. We learned from my cousins who live in Ghent that a Marriott hotel was under construction there. Not Continue reading

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Regency Isn’t Just Romance

My latest blog for Montgomery County Public Libraries is about the Regency years in England, a decade that compares to the 1960’s, a time of radical politics, war, social change, and literary experimentation. In other parallels, the 1812 assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval caused political turmoil, and protests for social justice were sometimes harshly suppressed, for example in the Peterloo massacre.

Regency Isn’t Just Romance

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Water Water Everywhere

You could be forgiven for mistaking the network evening news for the Weather Channel these days. Night after night scenes of devastating flooding somewhere and everywhere. Hurricanes, cyclones, torrential rainfall, storm surges, rivers overflowing their banks, whole towns inundated, homes lost, islands disappearing, glaciers and polar ice melting. Here in Washington D.C. alarming scenes of stranded motorists crouching on the roofs of their submerged cars awaiting rescue. Dire warnings from climate scientists ignored, even suppressed, by our government.

I learned more about the watery world that awaits us in Robert Macfarlane’s marvelous new book Underland. The book is not specifically about climate change or rising seas. It is Continue reading

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