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DRUNK THEATRE: Henry IV, Part One and Part Two, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican

Last week I had three days off in a row (unprecedented pleasure!) and on Wednesday night I stopped by the Barbican ten minutes before curtain to see which Henry IV was playing, and whether there were any tickets left. It was Part One, and I got what I think must be the best seat in the Barbican. It’s AA3 in the upper circle, and I think it is the best because:

  1. It is £10
  2. The view is hardly restricted at all
  3. When you leave it opens straight out onto a martini bar.

Thirty seconds away from your seat.

 

AA3 is also right against the railing, so you can press your face against it once the martinis start working, and next to the bar is a loo with no queue. I’m never buying a ticket for another seat there again.

Henry IV, Part One (Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican)

Antony Sher is the big name, playing Falstaff. He said all the words very well, which sounds patronising but is really incredibly difficult with lines as dense as Falstaff’s: not a bad joke was dropped. He started at depressing and tired from the first scene, which I think is a mistake as it doesn’t leave anywhere to go in Part Two.

Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) is hot and takes his shirt off quite often, hurrah. His best friend Poins (Sam Marks) is also hot and takes his shirt off but not quite as often (this is remedied in Part Two). Both were Fine. Hal was a bit self-loathing about hanging around in Eastcheap all the time, but not sure on how to break out of it. The speech where he explains to the audience that it’s all part of a grand PR plan read like self-delusion that he kind of knew was self-delusion.

Northern rebel Hotspur (Trevor White) was not at all awkward like the character sometimes is, just angry. He, Warwick and Northumberland were very macho physical with each other, and the first scene about the rebel plot involved a lot of throwing each other around and doing intense talking while holding the other person’s throat. This dropped a lot of the humour but laid the work for the uprising falling apart later, from the potential rebel who writes to Hotspur to drop out to Northumberland just failing to turn up at the big battle. This is not a rebellion that is based on trust and good relationships among the conspirators, which is likely a reaction to Bolingbroke’s original breach of trust with them that prompted the uprising in the first place. I am not sure about this choice, because it made all the scenes about the rebellion veer hard into Blokes With Place Names Shouting At Each Other, and at least for me, you have to work harder to make me care about a bunch of rich white guys yelling, especially if you are the Royal Shakespeare Company. It should not be assumed that the audience will come with you, or care. It also meant rebellion lacked the bright apocalyptic feeling behind ‘Die all, die merrily'; there just wasn’t enough warm verve there.

Hotspur and Kate Percy (Jennifer Kirby)’s marriage was the usual mix of exasperation, insecurity and desperate love, two people who do love each other very much but can’t figure out how to say so, are sharp and jumpy and often decide to just drop it and run away instead of trying to thread the minefield of miscommunication. In such a hostile and fragmented family, Hotspur may very well have wanted to talk to his wife about the rebellion, but couldn’t bring himself to make the leap of trust, and Kate clearly saw that and internalised it (‘nay, since you do not love me, I will not love myself’). There was a bit where he held her up with one hand while speaking verse, which was quite hot. The clearest and most trusting relationship Hotspur had was with the Scottish fighter Douglas, which was based simply on enthusiasm for fighting, in which there is no room for misunderstandings.

Sitting in AA3 also means you get a good view of Sir Walter Blunt’s dead body lying half in the wings for the whole battle scene. Poor Walter Blunt.

Finally, the script changed the minor character’s name from ‘Gadshill’ to ‘Rakehell’ for no apparent reason? I think the audience can figure out that a character with a London place name, who turns up in the middle of the night at an inn and to whom everyone responds “Oh, go away, I’m onto you!” is a bit dodgy? It just felt annoyingly patronising and not necessary.

Henry IV, Part Two (Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican)

I’m coming to realise that Part Two is actually my favourite, after on Wednesday I found I was a bit sad that Part One was the one showing that night. It is extremely interesting and admirable, in my opinion, how much Shakespeare commits to doing everything he did in Part One all over again, but more crap.

Both parts have Hal and Poins pulling a hilarious practical joke on Falstaff in the pub. In Part One this is a great setpiece showing off Falstaff’s pleasingly self-aware exaggeration, and a flourishing coup de rhetoric in which he gets out of embarrassing both himself and Hal. In Part Two, Hal and Poins disguise themselves as bar staff and hide, and wait for Falstaff to say something embarrassing, but he doesn’t; Hal and Poins make fun of him for his affection for the sex worker Doll Tearsheet – but Falstaff and Doll already find their own relationship amusing, and don’t care – and then pull off their disguises to go “it was us all along!” to which everyone says “Oh, um, okay?”.

Both parts have a rebellion. In Part One this has Hotspur, Glendower, the great map scene which is possibly the best scene in both plays, compelling lines like ‘Send danger from the east unto the west, so honour cross it from the north to south’ and ‘broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong’, an over-the-top fightin’ Scotsman, a super dramatic full-circle-coming mano a mano, Harry a Harry fight, Falstaff fake dying, Prince John being a cold dick, a thrilling sense of catastrophe. Now – name me one of the rebels in Part Two. (You can have Hastings because of that line about him sounding bottoms.) Name me one thing they’re cross about. Quote me one line from any of them. They are, in my opinion, absolutely the shittest rebellion in Shakespeare. And when Prince John, notable d-bag extraordinaire, tells them “oh hey, we 100% agree with all your terms, why don’t you dismiss all your army and have a drink with us, and um we are keeping our army ready with swords aimed at you because of Reasons” they just go “oh man, brilliant, okay! We win! Way to go Team Us!” Muppets!

There are even smaller little echoes that are notably worse in Part Two: In both parts, Falstaff casually raises troops for his commission, and in Part One he laughs them off to Hal as ‘food for powder, food for powder’, a chilling joke that is I think one of Shakespeare’s strongest anti-war arguments. In Part Two there’s a tedious scene of him and his mates auditioning recruits that’s only bearable because his friends, Shallow and Silence, are so lovely. In Part One, Prince John’s cold dickery takes up about two lines; in Part Two it takes the place of a climactic battle, since he tricks the rebels into betraying themselves then immediately sends them off to execution, and Falstaff stretches out the time spent on it by complaining about it to the audience.

This is on purpose, I’m sure, the point of the play is Everything’s Shit Now. And I’m not being mean when I say the RSC is much better at Everything’s Shit Now than Whoo Rebellion Pub Whee! There’s a kind of static degrading that an establishment ensemble company can do more easily than the unhewed energy of the northern rebellion and the Boar’s Head. Part Two is about ripening, maturation and the death and decay that must come along with that, and this production conveyed that very fully and evocatively.

The other thing about my ticket on Thursday is that it turned out to be press night, so the upper circle was closed and I couldn’t get my new favourite seat. However, my £10 circle seat turned out to open onto another bar, the official RSC Press Reception, so at the interval I obviously walked confidently straight in and grabbed a glass of white and pretended to tweet thoughtfully. Everyone else there had been to Part One in the afternoon and to the previous three drinks receptions (pre-show Part One, interval Part One, pre-show Part Two) and I was confusingly one of the least drunk people in the room, an experience I’m not used to. I had a nice brief chat with the digital editor of a magazine I will not name, about the word ‘disruptive’, and some ‘really potent pot’ he had in my hometown of Portland. Never prouder.

Other impressions from Part Two:

Kate Percy and her father-in-law Northumberland were alone when she gave her good speech to him about why he shouldn’t start another rebellion, and although I thought her grief acting afterwards was a bit OTT considering how relatively pulled-together you have to be to make a speech like that, I liked the implication that they had a good enough relationship that she thought he’d listen to her. They also shared a small bit of exasperation about Hotspur’s Hotspurness which was lovely.

Pistol enters from the ‘hell’ trapdoor below the stage in a puff of smoke, or steam, with his hair standing up and his face smudged. He was doubled with Rumour, and that and the jokes objectifying him – about how he may ‘go off’, for example – made him seem a bit otherworldly and not human.

Oliver Ford Davies as the retired Gloucestershire judge Justice Shallow, who went to university with Falstaff, was simply lovely, friendly and open, someone you really want to be friends with in real life. So much of the plays are about conflict, realpolitik and deception, but every scene with Shallow it was just a joy to be in the same room as him.

For me the pleasure of Drunk Theatre (other than, um, the drinking, and the theatre) is the occasional moment late in the second act, when the cogs stop whirring and I just stop and go ‘oh, shit, that’s good’.

In the last ten minutes of Part Two, Henry IV sits on his deathbed, rattling off king lessons to his son Hal, and got to the advice to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign broils’, ie to distract from problems at home by starting wars abroad – which we know Hal, when he becomes Henry V, will do in France. At this line Prince John, Hal’s younger brother and one of the play’s worst people, who has just brutally put down a rebellion by lying, appears in the doorway in silver armour, holding his helmet on his hip, lit in chilly blue-white light. Cripes, guys, that was a good image. I’ll pay £10 for that any day.

 

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Who needs prosceniums

Another lovely thing happened at the Dover Castle ghost tour (post) that I’ve been turning around in my head.

Around forty-five minutes into it, we were all warmed up and really getting into being scared. Three nine-year-old boys had befriended each other and were goofing around near the front, and one of their mothers was giving me tips on Dover pubs for lunch. At the opening to the castle’s underground tunnels, the guide stopped us and we got ready to hear another ghost story.

“It was during the Napoleonic Wars that a big trunk of gold came in,” he started, “gold to pay the castle soldiers.” According to the story, the soldiers hadn’t been paid for months, so they knew the money pile would be a big one. Two scurrilous deserters (scurrilous is always an excellent word to get into a ghost story) found out when the trunk was going to be moved into the castle, and staked out the tunnel to the treasury that night.

“There was a little drummer boy who was carrying the money.” The guide held his hand up to indicate how tall the drummer boy had been – about the same height as the most wide-eyed of the boys up front. He made eye contact with him. “They came up behind him – are you going to be my little drummer boy?” The boy nodded, and jogged over. The guide grabbed his shoulders and held him in front of him. “They came up behind him, and said – give us your money! And the drummer boy said – what do you think he said?”

The boy looked up. “No.”

“That’s right. So they said it again. Give us your money! And the drummer boy said – ?”

“No!”

“Very good. Are you psychic? So,” with a flourishing sweep across his neck, “they slit his throat. And his body lay strewn on the ground.” An expectant space. “Strewn on the ground.”

“Well, go on!” a few people called out, laughing. The boy got it, and made the ‘erkgggg’ universal dying noise and flopped backwards onto the grass, throwing his arms out dramatically. We applauded. He lay there for a few seconds, then jumped back up, looking pleased, and did a little bow and went back to stand with his friends. The tour guide continued with and now his body haunts the tunnels and you can hear a tap-tap-tap drumming late at night when the blah blah blah.

I thought this was amazing.

First, how not a problem it was that we could see the seams of the story being created, and how easy it was to follow the guide as he jumped in and out of storyworld every half sentence. None of us knew the story beforehand, but he told it in a way that was impossible not to follow: folk tale logic demands that the virtuous young character says ‘no’ to the bad guys, and that he do it twice before something changes. The threats were actually a bit moving, with the real boy’s real nine-year-old body standing in for the doomed one in the story. And it made me realise how when you think about it it is quite weird to have a bunch of people including his mum and dad laughingly telling a child to get on with it and die. His death was exactly what happens in every tragedy: the lead character dies in a super dramatic way, is briefly still, then hops back on their feet to wave cheerfully at the audience, whose applause has brought them back to the real world and life.

I mean, basically what that boy acted out – resist, resist, die, revive to applause – was Hamlet. Then he went back to his friends and started making fart noises. It genuinely made me feel all teary-up about theatre.

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The Witch of Endor in ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ at the British Museum

Wow the second half of November went on rocket boosters! I have little to no memory of the past two weeks and not for the good reasons (although yes, some wine was involved too). So um  AT SOME POINT LAST MONTH I had a few hours free from work, and went to take a breather at the British Museum, one of the secular temples of London. Having already ‘done’ the Greatest Hits when I first moved here – the Parthenon room, the Rosetta Stone, the Lakhish reliefs, the mummies – now I feel more freedom to go straight to the smaller rooms and see how many treasures aren’t shown so dramatically, that the museum can afford to throw away in patchily lit plexiglass cases.

There’s an exhibition called ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ on until 11 January, looking at European artists’ representations of witches from 1450-1900. I’m always up for some historical witchcraft, especially when it covers Shakespeare’s time, although starting at 1450 does miss my favourite medieval witch-related incident, in 1441, when the Duchess of Gloucester allegedly hired magicians to try to become queen (Shakespeare showed this in Henry VI, Part Two). It’s true that medieval European anxiety around witches is very focused on their bodies – often distorted, ugly and unnatural, sometimes titillating and sexy – so I was looking forward to the art as I walked up around the reading room, past Iran, Japan and Mesopotamia, to the little Print and Drawings room.

The first text box says this, which immediately seemed wrong:

THE BODY OF THE WITCH 1450-1650

Predatory female creatures abound in the classical world from the Greek myths of Homer and Hesiod, to the Latin poetry of Ovid and Virgil and are depicted on ceramics, sculpture and architectural decoration. Mythic beings of another realm, they fly like the taloned harpies who attack babies in their cradles, or swim like fish and ascend on wings in the guise of sirens who entice seafarers to their death with their songs. The classical sorceresses Circe and Medea are the inspiration for Torquato Tasso’s Armida (Rinaldo and Armida, 1562) as well as centuries of operas and plays. These fanciful Renaissance witches live side-by-side with the biblical tradition of the Witch of Endor, a hideous hag who can raise the dead by incantation.

It was the last sentence that especially caught my eye, since I’m very interested in women in the Hebrew Bible.

First, the phrase ‘biblical tradition’ is odd. ‘Tradition’ implies a folk tale or a legend, like Robin Hood or Baba Yaga, that doesn’t have one set version. But the Bible is practically the definition of a fixed canonical text, and the Witch of Endor is definitely in the Bible by any reasonable definition: she’s in the book of Samuel (usually split into 1 and 2 Samuel), which tells the story of the Israelite kings Saul and David, and is included in the Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christian holy texts. What about the Witch of Endor is a ‘tradition’ rather than biblical canon?

Or is the tradition that she looks like a ‘hideous hag’? It’s a very visceral description, and it caught my attention because it’s unusual for the Bible to describe people’s looks, and it’s especially unusual for those descriptions to be negative. Physical descriptions of people in the Bible are usually short and fairly neutral: Esau is ‘hairy’, Leah is ‘weak-eyed’, Saul is ‘tall’, Joseph is ‘beautiful and well-shaped’. The Bible lacks “the kind of detailed physical or physiological description of characters that creates a visual image for the reader,” summarises biblical scholar Adele Berlin: “We may know that Bathsheba was beautiful, but we have no idea what she looked like.” (source) (Look, a proper citation! Yes, I was so curious about this that I bought a monthly pass to the JSTOR journal archive.)

After looking around the rest of the exhibition – which is a very cool collection of art even if I have issues with some of the scholarship – I went to closely read the story of the Witch of Endor in the Bible. It’s so much weirder than I remembered that I have to go over it again here.

The books of Samuel were among the earliest books of the Bible to be written, relatively soon after the historical stories they’re about. As this story begins, the reign of Saul, the moody king of Israel, is declining, and he’s threatened both outside and inside the country: outside by the Philistine army, and inside by a band of mercenaries led by David, the popular up-and-coming shepherd boy/music star. God seems to have abandoned Saul and taken David’s side: God used to talk regularly with Saul, but doesn’t any more; and Saul’s friend and mentor, the prophet Samuel, has just died. Before a major battle with the Philistines, Saul, who has been experiencing the symptoms of clinical depression all his life, is isolated, anxious and doesn’t have anyone to ask for advice.

Saul banishes all wizards, magicians and sorcerers from Israel, which seems like a non sequitur but I think is because he’s trying to get God to talk to him again. It doesn’t work. Saul tries all the ways he knows to contact God: through dreams, sacred objects, and asking prophets. No response. Desperate, he asks his servants if they know of any woman who can communicate with ghosts. His servants say they know of a ‘woman who is master of ghosts’ in Endor. (In this context, this is a small town near the palace, not the place where Ewoks live.)

So Saul dresses up in commoner clothes, and in the middle of the night goes with two servants to the Witch (or Medium) of Endor and asks her to raise a spirit. The Witch, who doesn’t recognise Saul, accuses him of trying to trick her into a capital crime, since everyone knows the king has banned all kinds of magic. Saul swears nothing will happen to her, and asks her to raise the ghost of Samuel. She agrees, and uses a prop of some kind to do the summoning. Samuel’s ghost appears, and she screams. Samuel’s ghost starts shouting at Saul, along the lines of “You’ve let me down, you’ve let your parents down, you’ve let your school down, and worst of all…!”, as Saul briefly complains that he hasn’t had anyone to talk to lately before falling on the ground and grovelling. Samuel’s ghost says God is angry at Saul for not killing enough Amalekites (long story), tells Saul that he will die in the next day’s battle, and disappears. Saul, who hasn’t eaten all day, can’t get back up on his feet. The Witch of Endor brings him and his servants bread, and kills a calf and cooks it. Saul and his servants eat and leave.

It’s a really interesting look at religious and ritual practice in ancient Israel, and again, because it was written relatively closely to the time it portrays, I think it can be taken as a less distorted representation of it. It’s also given a lot of Christian theologians headaches as they tried to parse a story in which a witch is not only visited by a king of Israel but seems to successfully raise the spirit of a dead holy prophet. (Jewish theologians seem to be more chilled out about it, for reasons I’m very curious about but haven’t yet had time to look into.)

These theologians came up with a few explanations of how the Witch of Endor could have appeared to raise Samuel’s ghost, so they didn’t have to accept the implication that witches had power over holy prophets:

  • She used a demon to impersonate Samuel’s ghost.
  • Samuel’s ghost did appear, but only because God sent him to yell at Saul. This is why she screamed when she saw the ghost, as she hadn’t expected her summoning to work.
  • The prop she used for the summoning was part of a theatrical sham, possibly a way to disguise her voice to sound like Samuel. It was easy to know what to say, since everything ‘Samuel’ said – that God had abandoned Saul, and Saul would die in battle the next day – was fairly obviously likely to be true.

These theories spin off into a few thousand years of discussions, all about whether the ghost of Samuel actually did appear, and if so, who made it happen.

What none of these conversations touch on, or seem to care about, is anything at all about what the Witch of Endor looks like.

We don’t know if she’s old or young, wealthy or poor, what her ethnicity is, how she dresses, what her hair looks like, whether she moisturises. All we know about how other people perceive her is that she has a reputation as a ghost medium and the palace servants know who she is. Maybe they know about her because she’s an impressively ugly lady – but from what the text tells us, it’s just as possible the servants know her because she’s a pretty, fun fortune-teller, who puts on an exciting whizzy show and everyone likes to visit when they’re off-duty. There’s just zero information at all about what she looks like, meaning the so-called ‘biblical tradition’ of ‘the Witch of Endor, a hideous hag’ is not, in any way, biblical.

Then I thought, maybe when it says ‘biblical tradition’, the British Museum means a tradition about the biblical character – like how the Witch of Endor is represented in European art, ie what the exhibition is about. I still don’t think this is what ‘biblical tradition’ means, but maybe it was a problem of imprecise language instead of content. So I spent my Sunday evening looking up paintings and drawings of her (although at the end I annoyingly found that I was just duplicating work Wikipedia had already done: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Witch_of_Endor)

Here’s what I think are a representative selection of pictures of the Witch of Endor. Generally, she’s waving her hands, Samuel is in white, and Saul is looking shocked and/or on the ground:


Master of Otto von Moerdrecht, 15th century  (source/copyright).

Casper Luiken, 1712 (source/copyright).

Engraving after a painting by Salvatore Rosa, 18th century (source/copyright). A version of this is what’s on display in the British Museum ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ exhibition.

Benjamin West, 1777 (source/copyright).

Henry Fuseli, 1777 (source/copyright).

Dmitri Martynov, 1857 (source/copyright).

Nikolay Ge, 1857 (source/copyright).

Kunz Meyer-Waldeck, 1902 (source/copyright).

As you can see, there are pictures of her that are ugly and pictures that are sexualised, and pictures that are neither, where the focus is on her dramatic clothes and gestures. Saying something is a ‘tradition’ makes it hard to define, but I don’t think there’s enough of a theme in the art I found of her to say the Witch of Endor being notably ugly is a ‘tradition’, unless the bar for ‘tradition’ is so low as to be ‘at least two artists have portrayed her that way in all of European art history’.

So I think the British Museum goofed – and not only that, but goofed on the very specific subject the exhibition is about, representations of witches’ bodies.

Why is this important? I suppose just because it illustrates the easy trap of circular scholarship. You see the phrase ‘Witch of Endor’ and you have a print of her that looks ugly, so you think ‘witch, gross!’ and put it in your museum info box without bothering to fact check it because, hey, everyone knows that witches look like ‘hideous hags’, right? And how do we know witches are so ugly? Because they always have been – see, it goes back all the way to the Bible!

It’s not that museum curators are never allowed to mess up; they’re pressed for time and resources and we all make mistakes. But this does illustrate how easy it is to forget that the cultural assumptions that we make in the 21st century London are not true of the text at the time it was written.

I think the Bible and Shakespeare are especially susceptible to this, because of their huge influence on our culture. Ours was shaped by the cultures that created those literary works, so people think those cultures are the same as ours. They aren’t. The biblical author and commentators didn’t care at all about what the Witch of Endor looked like; they cared what she could do, and how powerful she was. The modern obsession with determining whether every single woman in the world is attractive or not was not true of the biblical period. Go look and see if what you’re saying about the text is actually there. This is especially important if you’re a museum curator and it’s literally the exact topic that the entire exhibit is about, because people may assume you know what you’re talking about.

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Dishoom, King’s Cross

NOTE: IF YOU ARE READING THIS BEFORE 19 NOVEMBER AT 5PM, SKIP TO THE FOOD PICTURES AND SOFT LAUNCH INFORMATION AND THEN GO IMMEDIATELY.

I work half my shifts from home, and while our little study is a great space for Getting Things Done, I try to leave the house to do creative writing. Partially because a change of place helps you think in new ways, partially so that when I’m famous and dead, London tour guides will have somewhere to take people and go ‘and here’s the very place where she wrote Bard For Life: No Seriously The Globe Won’t Let Me Back In, in fact just at this table here’ and everyone will go ooh and imagine me sitting there thoughtfully crafting sentences about boners in Coriolanus.

This has mostly been Yumchaa in Camden, an excellent tea shop with a lot of light that is just not-busy enough that I don’t feel bad about parking it with my laptop for four hours, but they don’t do savoury hot food and I get grumpy when I’m hungry. I tried making regular writing visits to Dishoom in Shoreditch, where we had an amazing Christmas lunch last year, but the ten-minute walk from Old Street tube is a bit annoying especially now that it’s November and rainy.

Then Dishoom opened a branch right behind King’s Cross last week and all my problems in the world were solved, especially since it’s still in soft opening and everything* is 50% off, including drinks* which isn’t always true.

Dishoom (the Bollywood equivalent of “Kapow!”, the sound a punch makes when it connects – “DISHOOM!”) is the result of one of those wonderful culinary-historical things that happen in an open world: in the 19th century, large numbers of Persian Zoroastrians emigrated to Bombay/Mumbai and brought with them Iranian café culture, which was already influenced by European high-ceilinged all-day coffeehouses. Iranian cafés in Mumbai flourished in the middle of the 20th century, but have been falling off from nearly 400 in the 1960s to around thirty now. And in London eight years ago, three British Indian cousins opened the first Dishoom restaurant – in other words, bringing these cafés to London, from India, from Iran, from continental Europe. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being excited by the ways history makes food culture happen, and vice versa.

I’ve been eating at the King’s Cross Dishoom literally every other day since it opened (days it has been open: 7, days I have eaten there: 4, though I plan to bump this up to 5 tonight) and although reviewing a restaurant in soft opening is a bit like reviewing a play in previews, I feel pretty confident in saying:

  1. The food’s really good
  2. The service is really good too
  3. It’s definitely worth going while it’s half-off but also
  4. Even after it isn’t.

Here is what I have eaten there and photographed (photos behind cut):

Continue Reading →

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Two minutes’ silence

My office is near London Bridge, and most of us walked to the riverside this morning to observe the two minutes’ silence. The embankment at Hays Galleria is one of the most London-feeling places in the city, because you can see all different kinds of London from there: looking straight across the river and going clockwise, you have the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater skyscrapers, their superior predecessor the Gherkin, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, St Katharine Docks, City Hall, HMS Belfast, a few pretty good pubs, and London Bridge. It’s a lot of new and old London scrunched up next to each other, a very direct line from the city’s famous past to the history we’re making now by living here. I love coming here to eat lunch, have a midday walk and just feel like I’m participating in London.

So many people left our office buildings this morning to stand on the river bank and look out over the railings that it made me think of Enobarbus describing how “the city cast her people out” to see Cleopatra. Some people looked to the Tower, trying to see the poppy installation, or to HMS Belfast, where a row of uniformed sailors were standing at attention with their backs to us, or to Tower Bridge, which was slowly raising in salute. At 11:00 a piper played on the Belfast and we all went silent. It was cold and dry, and we could hear the river rustling.

I thought it would just be a nice moment but I was really surprisingly moved. I thought: I’m in the heart of this ancient city with thousands of people who have come outside to be sad together, and not only here, but everyone in the whole country is doing this same thing, at the same time, together. Silence is a powerful way of marking grief as a community because it only takes one person to screw it up, so everyone has to participate, but we can only participate inside ourselves; it’s being alone together, which is sort of what grief is, especially grief about such a tremendous world-affecting tragedy as the First World War. I had a little British lip-wobble and felt sad and angry that War still exists in the world and tried to be thoughtful about how to fix it but mostly just felt sad. The piper on the Belfast played out again and the people on the bank breathed and started to make eye contact and move away, back inside.

And then I heard – and hoped I was wrong, although I later found out I wasn’t – the faint sound of applause coming across the river from the Tower of London.

Guys.

This seems like stating the obvious, but: reflecting on the First World War should not result in applause. “Well done!” is the opposite of what happened. Feelings inspired by the First World War should be more along the lines of, “Never again”, or “Seriously that was horrible and pointless”, or “How do we work towards world peace in our lifetimes?”, or “Jesus, what a shitshow”.

When I first saw ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, the poppy installation at the Tower of London (in August, above), I thought it was a strong and painful image and a powerful way to memorialise the British military deaths in the war. It was designed by Tom Piper, who among other things did the excellent set design for the RSC Histories in 2000 and 2006-8, and knows a lot about making art to evoke bleak depressing futile war. But in British media this week, the poppies went past being a memorial and became a great national accomplishment – they’re being seen as a triumph. Again, I feel like this is obvious, but absolutely nothing about the First World War was a triumph except for the part where it ended, which is why we commemorate Armistice Day and not Millions Of People Dying Pointlessly: What A Good Idea! Day (otherwise known as every day of the previous 4+ years). It feels like we’ve moved from ‘being sad together in public’, well past ‘being sad together in public and doing visible things to mark how sad we are’ and all the way to ‘applauding ourselves for being sad in really ostentatiously impressive ways’. Applause and pride should be nowhere near the First World War, unless it’s pride at how we managed to knock it off that one time. The glorious stories to celebrate are ones about people finding ways to create peace, like the Christmas Truce, and (like we in theory do today) the eventual armistice.

I feel like I’m working up to “Newsflash: Peace > War!” which feels insultingly basic but is harder to put into practice, I think, because peace is actually incredibly hard because it means building and working with people, including people who you may not like very much, and war is dramatic and easy to have emotions about.

Anyway I wrote all this and then checked Twitter and found out that Siegfried Sassoon said exactly the same thing but 96 years ago and better and more concisely, which is why he’s one of the greatest poets of the past century and I’m not.

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World Travel Market 2014

On Wednesday afternoon I’d just got off my 7am shift on the news desk when I got a message from my friend Katrinka Abroad, who lives in Turkey and whom I met at TBEX Dublin last year, saying she was in London for the World Travel Market and I should come over to hang out. I took the train to the ExCeL centre, flashed my NUJ press card at registration and received an entry lanyard, then went to find the Canadian tourism ministry’s hospitality room, which was hosting a reception for bloggers. There was wine. There were some kick-ass salmon brochettes. There were free bottles of concentrated beet juice to take home. I’d been up since 5:45 and was a little staggered, but made my way through a few glasses of chardonnay and had a really good catch-up with Katie and met some new people before deciding to spend a few minutes ‘walking the floor’ of the exhibition hall.

JFC guys there’s is a lot of money being thrown around in the travel industry! The ‘Global Village’ (…what) was basically like Disneyland’s It’s A Small World, but instead of singing, there was free themed food and alcoholic drinks. (And also singing, actually, there were a lot of local musicians performing near their stands.) Each country’s stand was decorated thematically, eg New England and Egypt:

I found Ye Olde England Row, where Shakespeare’s Globe/Historic Royal Palaces/English Heritage/Kew Gardens etc were lined up, and had the following conversation with each one:

Me: [makes eye contact] Hi!
SG/HRP/EH/KG: Hi!
Me: Hi!
SG/HRP/EH/KG: [waits expectantly]
Me: Hi! Um, I, hi. I…write? I write about travel and history and Shakespeare and I go to your theatre/palaces/heritage sites a lot.
SG/HRP/EH/KG: [takes in sweaty hair, up-since-5:45am eyes, breathy aura of chardonnay]
Me: I have a blog and I’m writing a book, kind of!
SG/HRP/EH/KG: Here is our literature. Please go away.

Which was fair enough, and I was actually really glad that their bullshit-o-meter seemed to be so well calibrated, especially when I walked through the rest of the hall. I know ‘marketers throw lots of money at making things look flashy’ isn’t news in any industry, but I was just floored by how glossy and big everything was, and how much free stuff was being pushed on attendees: at the Caribbean stand’s ‘happy hour’ there was a small mob for a huge cooler of pink rum drink, who all started pressing in on each other when the polite but clearly overworked server stepped away for 45 seconds to grab more cups, and there was a scrum for the Steenbrugge beer taps at the poppy-encrusted Flanders booth. An Italian tourism rep chased me down half an aisle to hand me a plate of ham.

Because it was the end of the day and most stands were closing up (or maybe the English tourism reps had radioed ahead about me), I did not get to visit the booths that looked most interesting – North Korea and Palestine – or that of my home state Oregon. I did get an invitation to the Brazil tourism ministry’s World Cup-themed blogger afterparty at Bar Kick in Shoreditch, where I played in a fun doubles foosball tournament with a nice Mancunian chap (we made it out of group stages, although my crap goalkeeping eventually lost us the title) and got to catch up with another blogger friend from Dublin, Ryan from Turnipseed Travel.

I did not, to be fair, go to any of the WTM talks, which might have given me a different view of the event – this discussion of ‘the invisible chambermaid’ seems encouraging – though the exhibition halls were so over-the-top that it’s hard to see how anything could have totally countered that and I’m sure there were a lot of wanky talks about eg social-as-a-noun too. I did feel generally glad that tourism ministries are state offices rather than private bodies so that in theory they can encourage all this expenditure to go in a way that helps the country. I was a bit baffled by how tourism stands were happy to aggressively throw free drinks and food (I mean, really nice drinks and food) at me but not talk about content/writing, although I’m sure a lot of that was again because it was the end of the day, everyone was going home and I was clearly neither polished nor prepared, nor the kind of industry attendee that most stands were aimed at engaging with.

I don’t have any conclusions here, I’m really still trying to process those surreal three hours; in the meantime I’m bumping Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism to the top of my reading list, because I hadn’t quite appreciated simply how much money is flying around in the travel industry until it was so visibly in front of me.

 

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Header art by Tod Wills.