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

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 “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.

Regency Isn’t Just Romance

Tales of the Asylum

The ruins of Severalls Hospital

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.

An ideal English garden border

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”

On My Bookshelf – The Marxist Brontes?

Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes by Terry Eagleton, published in 1975. Quite what this book is doing on my bookshelf I have no idea. I must have acquired it long, long ago judging by the antique fashion in literary criticism it represents. Back in the 1960’s when I was educated at an English university the term “dialectical materialism” was tossed around with abandon by anyone wishing to seem a true intellectual. Marx was dragged into analysis of just about anything. But the Brontes? Surely not. The wild romantic moors of Yorkshire seem a world away from theories of an oppressed proletariat and dominant bourgeoisie locked in class struggle. Or are they? I don’t remember reading the book in the past but I decided to dig in and see if Marx can really shed light on the Bronte novels. Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – The Marxist Brontes?”

On Thanksgiving and Guy Fawkes Day

The Execution of Guy Fawkes by Nicholas Visscher

One of the oddest questions I’ve been asked since moving to the U.S. is “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving in England?” Yes, this was a real question. I resisted the temptation to answer “Yes, we celebrate that the Puritans left and took their repressive ban on dancing and merriment with them!” More tactfully I said “No, but we have our own November holiday, Guy Fawkes Day.” That met with blank stares. So I explained that Guy Fawkes was a guy who plotted to blow up King James and the Houses of Parliament in 1605. He was part of a Catholic plot to restore the true faith in Protestant England. “You mean you have a day to celebrate a domestic terrorist?”  “No, no” I hastily corrected. “We burn him Continue reading “On Thanksgiving and Guy Fawkes Day”

The Darkest Hour, The Suspect V

I finally got to watch the much lauded film The Darkest Hour last weekend. Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill certainly deserved the Oscar Award for Best Actor. Equally deserving were the creative group who won the Oscar for Makeup. In real life Oldman looks nothing at all like Churchill, but with an inspired combination of acting skill and makeup bravura he pulls off the seemingly impossible. Director Joe Wright brings a suspenseful “you are there” quality to the story of Churchill’s first days in office in 1940, battling with political rivals who favored a pact with Hitler and strategizing to save the British army trapped in Dunkirk. It is a “warts and all” portrait including Churchill’s excessive drinking and his controversial decision to sacrifice the garrison at Calais to buy time to evacuate the troops from Dunkirk. So far, so historical. But then came a scene I knew was an anachronism. Churchill giving his famous V sign for Victory. But that couldn’t have happened in 1940 for the V campaign didn’t start until Continue reading “The Darkest Hour, The Suspect V”