29 March, 2012

Find Tongues in Trees

A dramatic event happened last weekend.  I'll set the scene, complete with due respect for Dr. Kidd's consistency in recounting Shakespeare's younger years.

It's a sunny Saturday morning.  The sun is shining and getting warmer.  Birds sing and swans swim in the Avon.  A four person boat of rowers-in-training swiftly glides along the river while their cox encourages them to row faster.  A group of 80, or so, Ithacans gathers on the edge of the river.  Bill Sheasgreen quietly keeps towards the back of the group.  Tim Kidd carries the attention in the front of the group.  He stands on the ledge of the embankment.  Sunglasses are on and he wears a blue coat.  Or does he wear a black coat?  The color makes no difference.  Dr. Kidd wears a jacket.
Dr. Kidd wore a black coat.

He introduces his audience to the early year's of Shakespeare's life- the years spent living in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The son of a glove maker, he was apprenticed to a butcher from whom he would bring the leather to his father for the gloves.  And like putting together the 5 fingers of a glove, Shakespeare put together the 5 feet of iambic pentameter.  Shakespeare was a student at the local grammar school where he learned his "little Latin and less Greek".  His teachers were likely to have been Oxford scholars of Welsh origin, as teaching is the traditional profession of the Welsh.  They also say that Welsh is the language of heaven, so some of you should start learning it.  Others of you need not bother.  He and Anne Hathaway got into a spot of trouble in a local bush, which was solved with a special license and a shot-gun wedding.  They had 3 children- Susanna was his eldest and favorite, Hamnet who died aged 9 and Judith who married a local good-for-nothing man who had hoped that in marrying her the old man would be good for a few bob.  But he was wrong, and the majority of Shakespeare's estate was left to Susanna.  She married a doctor, who treated Shakespeare in his final illness.
A rapt audience on a sunny morning
But I digress.  I've run ahead of the story.  The group listens intently in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, wondering if they're sitting near Hamnet Shakespeare's lost grave.  A local man out for a morning stroll is confronted with our group in the path on the river edge and diverts around us.  It's possible that a baby cries in the distance.

A small crack is heard overhead.  The group thinks, oh, that's weird, and continues listening to the story of Shakespeare's young life.  And then it happens.

A massive branch, the size of a small car crashed down next to our group.  There's a moment of startled silence, a sigh of relief that no one was injured and the talk goes on.  Most of us thought no more of the incident, but there was a lesson to be taken from it.

Shakespeare penned his own epitaph, saying,

Be warned, the man meant what he said.  Did he see one of our numbers as a threat to the repose of his bones?  In As You Like It Shakespeare writes that we "Find tongues in trees", and this past Saturday I think he said what he needed to in the form of a tree.  I'm pleased to announce the innocence of our entire group.  We heeded his warning and spared both the stones and his bones for another year. 


21 March, 2012

Bill Goes Home- to Stratford

Claire Mokrauer-Madden: Well, you're certainly a jet setter these days!
Bill Sheasgreen: I should say the same for you, Sarah and Heather!
CMM: Yes, Sarah's off at orientation in sunny Ithaca, which I hear really is sunny, and Heather has been on a rather more secret mission.
BS: Right, no need to divulge the details of that!
CMM: And this weekend we're headed for another trip.  This time to Stratford upon Avon.  Over the years I'm sure you've made plenty of trips to Stratford.
BS: I think it would be more appropriate to say I have made a lot of trips from Stratford.
CMM: Why do you say that?
BS: Didn't you know I'm one of Stratford's local boys?
CMM: I thought you were Canadian?  Or are you from Bath?  I can't remember...
BS: I can't believe you couldn't tell from my name.  I'm Bill Sheasgreen.  I've changed the spelling of my name over the years, but since I didn't really establish any standard version until much later, my contemporaries took off running with one of the variant spellings.
CMM: So how did you used to spell Sheasgreen?
BS: The pronunciation has changed over time, but when I was young I favored Shakspear.
CMM: Are you saying you're William Shakespeare?!?!
BS: Please.  I prefer Bill.  You know that.
CMM: I'm actually not sure at all who you are anymore!
BS: Is there anyway I can prove I am who I am?
CMM: Can you sit down and write a sonnet right now?
BS: Don't be silly.  I never have time to do that anymore.  I have too many essays to mark.
CMM: Would you act out one of your famous scenes for me?
BS: I did my farewell tour in the mid 1970's as the Drunk Porter in MacBeth.  My performing days are over.
CMM: How do you plan on proving that you're William Shakespeare?
BS: I can explain the thing about my second best bed.
CMM: The one you left your wife when you died?  How are you here if you died and she inherited your second best bed?
BS: I faked my death. 
CMM: I heard a tale that you and Ben Johnson drank too much and you didn't recover.
BS: I'm glad someone bought that story.  What really happened was that Ben, who works for MI-5, came down to see me in my retirement in the country to ask me to help him on a mission.  Ann was against it, but as she hadn't known much about my work in the security services while I was "working as an actor and playwright in London", faking my death seemed like an easy way around her.  I explained everything and left it in the mattress of our second best bed.  I'm sure she found my letter at some point after I was long gone from Stratford.
CMM: Let's backtrack for a moment.  You referred to Ben Johnson in the present tense, but I've seen his grave at Westminster Abbey.
BS: Do you really think anyone as large as Ben could have been buried in a hole that small?  He's not dead either.
CMM: To tell you the truth I haven't had the pleasure of meeting the man and seeing how big he is.
BS: The size of that tomb is a bit of an inside joke. 
CMM: Clearly.  So what kind of work was he enlisting you to do?
BS: That's still classified.  I doubt that file will ever be declassified, but I can say that Guy Fawkes was such an unwitting patsy.  It was years of work, and frankly too much to explain in one sitting.
CMM: Did you set him up in the Gunpowder Plot?
BS: Oh no!  That was his own doing.  I'm not at liberty to say what my professional relationship with him was.
CMM: Ok, I'm willing to let that lie.  So are you looking forward to going back to Stratford?
BS: I used to dread it for fear of running into friends of Ann's, but none of them are left there now, so I'm happy enough to sneak a peak at my old digs these days.
CMM: Hang on!  You're so reticent to mention what Heather has been doing!  Is she working with you at MI-5?
BS: I'm sorry, did you say something?  I couldn't hear anything.  My, what a sunny day it is!  I think I'll go for a walk now.  See you later!.....
CMM: ....ummmm.  Ok... thanks for his interview....

15 March, 2012

When in Paris, Eat like a German

Last time I had writer's block I wrote about chairs.  So this time I'll hit the tables.  Just joking.  I crack myself up.  I have other more immediate material at hand.

Paris.  What's it famous for?  French manners come to mind, but not before French cuisine.  I love crepes.  You can have your moules et frites to your heart's content, I'll have crepes any day.  They were the food of my childhood and though my mother's will always take pride of place when rating them, I won't knock the French for trying to outdo her.  After all, my mother took the recipe from her Alsatian mother, so my Fre-German roots offer credence to my opinion.

As a child I preferred my crepes hot and plain, straight out of the pan.  Nothing could beat that. My sister liked damson plum jam on hers and her best friend like maple syrup, but for me the taste of the salted butter they had been fried in was what I wanted most.

I had my first French crepes when I was 17.  Strictly speaking, I learned that year that I had grown up on pfannkuchen, which is the German for crepe.  The batter created a thinner, less spongy cake than what I experienced in Paris, and to my mind the pancake itself was more flavorful.  The Parisian crepes were much larger and seemed first and foremost to be vehicles for topping.  I remember finding this first crepe stall.  My mother said, I know exactly where to get our first crepes!  This man is great!  He's from the Balkans!  I was surprised that we weren't going to a stall run by a genuine French person, but the man from the Balkans did not disappoint.  I had my first crepe with sugar and lemon juice.  Later I would experiment with Nutella and marshmallow.  Very sweet!  Next I had one that had something to do with banana.  I have no recollection of my reaction.  I should also point out that I didn't have all these crepes in one sitting, they were spread out over a few days.

This weekend I'm planning on exploiting my weakness for crepes once more, because how do we travel except to plan our excursions around meals?


01 March, 2012

It's St. David's Day! Eat My Leek!

I want to wish everyone safe travels and issue a reminder to hold on to your possessions on busy trains, in hostels, in market places, etc. A lost or stolen passport is a proper pain. Make sure also that you carry the appropriate papers to get back ‘home’ to London. Some immigration officers can be difficult.

CELEBRATE TODAY not because spring break begins at 4.45pm [by the way, the next person who wishes me a ‘good’ break will be banned from my office for the rest of the term, which means no coffee talks!], but also because it is our first national day of the year. The UK is a land made up of four ‘home nations’, the dominant English, the haggis-eating Scots, the singing Welsh, and the green and orange Irish. Each has a patron saint and a ‘national’ day, but there is no unified national day, i.e., no British JULY 4th. David is Wales’ patron saint and March 1st is his day; next comes the famous ‘Patrick’ who was a Romanised Briton [possibly Welsh] on March 17th; the dragon slayer, St George England follows on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd; and, ostracised at the other end of the year is Andrew of Scotland [Nov. 30th] who, condemned to death for his religious beliefs, deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on an upright cross as Jesus was and so he died on a ‘saltire’, a cross on its side [an ‘x’]. now Scotland’s national symbol.

Today is a special day for about 3 million Britons, the Welsh. It is St David’s day and down in the valleys, in the central mountains, along the Irish sea coastline and in the north-western castellar landscape, the welsh are celebrating. Men will wear the leek [the national vegetable] and kitchens will be busy turning out welsh cakes. Wales is unique in several ways: the dragon is its national symbol, Brains its most famous beer, it is the only country conquered by the Romans [who soon left] not subsequently taken over by a ‘barbarian’ tribe, it has NO PLACE IN THE UNION FLAG  [an amazing slap in the face], it is officially bilingual, it is the home of the Arthurian legends, it provided the country with the Tudor dynasty, it just won rugby’s triple crown, it is famous for male voice choirs and dissenting Protestantism [chapels] and, in some areas, the Welsh had to live under strict sabbatarian laws meaning that it was not the most fun place in the world to live.

Remember when you pick travel destinations, there is no place like home. VISIT WALES and try some Brains.