Perhaps it was the restlessness induced by quarantine that had me prowling my own bookshelves in search of diversion. I needed a break from the world of Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. (I know it is tantamount to sacrilege to criticize Miss Mantel, whose Cromwell trilogy I agree is a magnificent achievement, but did we need the menu for his every meal in the year leading up to his execution, surely the last meal would have been sufficient?) In this grumpy mood I came upon The Singing Game by Iona and Peter Opie, the legendary English folklorists, a book I hadn’t picked up Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – The Singing Game”
Hidden Lives in Victorian England
In my final blog for MCPL (my former professional home Montgomery County Public Libraries, Maryland) I discuss The Five, a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper, a wonderful piece of social history that restores dignity to the five women. Other titles explore the Victorian craze for true crime stories and how they influenced some of the great Victorian writers.
The Prostitutes’ Graveyard
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 “The Prostitutes’ Graveyard”
London in the Plague Year
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 “London in the Plague Year”
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 “On Memory and Churchill’s Funeral”
A Good Guy With A Narwhal Tusk
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 “A Good Guy With A Narwhal Tusk”
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.
Tales of the Asylum
One day in the early 1960’s I came home to find that while I was in school my grandmother had been whisked away in an ambulance and taken to a mental hospital. The news followed several unsettling days, days of half heard whispered adult conversations, days when my grandmother kept to her room and my mother placed her meals on a tray outside the door. I learned a phrase I only half understood, paranoid delusions, but somehow I knew it meant my grandmother had gone mad.
It all started one evening when our neighbor came to the door. I was doing homework in the kitchen and overheard the conversation. She explained that she waited until my Continue reading “Tales of the Asylum”
On My Bookshelf – Witchfinders
Witchfinders – no, not characters in our contemporary political drama. But it could be that hearing cries of “Witch Hunt” almost every day for two years was what led me to this particular book on my shelf. Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill is a mesmerizing account of a seventeenth century English witch hunt, one of the most vicious on record, led by two Essex gentlemen, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Hopkins earned the title Witchfinder General and became something of a folk hero in the villages and towns of East Anglia. Through torture and intimidation he extracted confessions and false witness accounts from terrified people, mostly women, arresting a total of 250 presumed witches. Over a hundred were publicly hanged. Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – Witchfinders”
The Dream of an English Garden
Spring is here at last and my thoughts turn to the garden. Weeds are already beginning their annual takeover before I’ve even finished cleaning up the dead remains of summer past. A good time to reprise my garden dream first published in The Dabbler in 2013. One bit of good news – no mad robin disturbs the spring idyll this year.
As I write the demented robin who inhabits the dogwood tree in our garden is repeatedly flinging himself against the window in a kind of avian kamikaze assault. The thump, thump, thump of bird meeting glass is a strange counterpoint to the sweet tweeting and trilling of the other garden birds. I don’t know why the robin does this every day for hours, Continue reading “The Dream of an English Garden”