Birthday with Dad

Creative Histories conference, Bristol (July 19-21, 2017)

Last month I went to a three-day conference organised by the University of Bristol, on “Creative Histories”. I signed up basically as soon as registrations were open, and it was exciting to go hang out with people for three days and talk about history-stories.

Sometimes public history can feel like a corrective, like: here is a thing people commonly think, but actually, here is how that is WRONG WRONG WRONG! Often that corrective is needed – like evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain, or of 17th-century women knowing what swears were – but it’s also the sad thing that happens when a tour guide tells a lively story and adds, “of course, the real history is a little bit different [more dull].” There’s the fun history which is light and un-rigorous, and then there’s the proper factual history which is a super buzzkill, and they are different and you can’t be both.

What was pleasing about the Creative History conference is that it is about, as it says, creating – understanding and communicating history by generating something. Presenters and attendees were novelists, artists, a theatre group, a storyteller-dramaturg (I know!), and even the people who have ‘traditional’ historian jobs were doing creative work: making films, commissioning theatre, making comics as part of their PhDs on history-in-comics (I know!). Making something is more fun than cutting off or corralling something, and people who make things are generally pretty great people to spend time with. Read more...

Birthday with Dad

Reading print books

It’s pleasing to see what kinds of books used bookstores in different places have. Chicago’s Myopic Books has a “history – labor history” section, which I’ve never seen before and half-ran over to, and Green Dragon in Ashland, OR has shelves of scripts and acting technique books marked up by Oregon Shakespeare Festival alumni.

I’m in Ashland for my best friend from college’s wedding, and yesterday we went out wine tasting with the wedding party. One of the bridesmaids works for an audio book publisher, and her company has recently started putting out print books. “Interesting time to be getting into print!” someone commented ironically. But it turns out her publisher’s print books have sold very well, and – for example – in the UK, also, print sales are rising and e-book sales are falling. (Overall book sales are also rising which is reassuring!)

Most books I read are still e-books, mostly because I do a lot of reading on my commute and it’s much harder to keep a paper book open and at eye level when you’re clinging one-handed to the pole on the Northern line, but I’ve been making more time to read for pleasure and those are usually print books. Read more...

Birthday with Dad

April 2017

Dad’s funeral

People have been asking, “How was it?” It’s hard to know how to answer about a funeral, because the usual response to that kind of question is a bright, nodding “Really nice, thanks!” But it was actually really nice. Someone said it was noticeable how there was no friction or  “oh, you know how he could be…” or “well, we had our issues but…” Everyone there had the same thing to say about him, which was: what a good guy. And then we went back to a friend’s house to drink beer and tell stories. It wasn’t what I would call a FUN event but it was pleasurable to spend time with people who knew my dad when he was younger, and to get a fuller picture of his life than you get from inside the child-parent relationship. Also actually it was sometimes fun, there were lots of jokes and great stories.

Portland Read more...

Birthday with Dad

“Hamlet”, Almeida Theatre (Andrew Scott/dir. Robert Icke)

We had tickets to Hamlet for the evening of 20 March, and early on 18 March my father died, after a heart attack six days before that he never woke up from. So I’m not really sure how much of the show felt raw and fresh because it was a really good production, although everyone says it is, so it must be at least partially that, and how much of it is because, you know, my dad had died forty hours before, pretty suddenly, and Hamlet isn’t exactly a show lacking in “sudden dead dad” emotions.

A surprisingly helpful thing about grieving in my tradition is how prescribed the activities and times are. There is an extensive framework that walks you through things: what you do (and don’t do) the first week, the first month, the first year. Each period of grieving eases you into the next one, and they don’t exactly taper off but there’s a feeling of being able to let each emotion inhabit fully in the space, giving you room to breathe it in and experience it properly, and knowing that it’s okay to do it fully because it has an end time and it’s not going to be this big forever.

Hamlet hasn’t had a proper mourning space: he’s barely processed the fact of it before his mother’s wedding celebration breaks into the space of family grief, and suddenly everyone’s going “cheer up Hamlet!” and “get over it!” and “come on, it’s only natural, everything dies! get a move on and grab a glass of champagne already!” Read more...

Birthday with Dad

“The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” (BBC Two, 2016)

Note: I wrote a first draft of this last summer with the idea of shopping it to an American outlet before the new Hollow Crown series aired there in December 2016, but whenever I tried to revise it for publication, I kept getting madder and adding more wordcount, and, well, here it is.   

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown (2012), a starry adaption of Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, and Henry V, was successful enough to easily justify a second series, adapting the next four history plays: the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. But the announcement and production were a long time coming, and the second series, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses only aired in 2016. I suspect the problem was hesitation over the source material, specifically the three parts of Henry VI.

The Henry VI plays, according to common wisdom, are just not very good. Shakespeare’s earliest work, and not even all by him, a tangled mess that needs trimming and rewriting for audiences to understand. In the 20th century, major British theatres usually cut the trilogy down to two plays, most famously as The Wars of the Roses at the RSC in 1963, extensively rewritten by John Barton. The cuts usually fall heavily on Henry VI Part One, which was written as a standalone prequel, after the other two: while Part Two and Part Three focus on the civil war between York and Lancaster in England, Part One tracks the rise and fall of Joan of Arc and the English wars in France. In most of the 20th-century British productions, the abbreviated pair of Henry VI plays were followed by a Richard III – a more popular history play that is considered good enough to stand by itself. This is the tack The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses took, cutting most of Part One and rewriting the other two parts heavily, much more than any of the other plays in The Hollow Crown series. Read more...

Birthday with Dad

Hamlet: “the Devil made them do it” version

Ten years ago, my flatmates and I had an ongoing conversation about doing a horror production of Hamlet where the Ghost really was a devil. In Act Two, Hamlet wonders if the Ghost is an evil spirit preying on his depression:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape: yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

and we thought it could be fun to see what would happen if he was right to wonder that. Read more...