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FINDING NEW GEMS IN THE STRATFORD-SHAKESPEARE CROWN

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It was the woman at the New Place ticket office grudgingly lending me a cheap biro, then sourly commenting that not even the Birthplace Trust staff get discounts from the RSC, that had me wondering how everyone really rubs up together in little and hugely over-commercialised Stratford-Upon-Avon.  The house on Henley Street is at the centre of it, Shakespeare’s family house, and the shop where John was a whittawer, a maker of expensive white leather gloves, though the name The Birthplace does give the Bard the gravity of some kind of British Secular Christ.  But the Birthplace Trust are the chief Guardians of Shakespeare’s historical and physical legacy, running, with Royal backing, his house, the archive, and several properties, from New Place to  Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s House and Mary Arden’s farm.

“The Jewel in the Crown” of all Shakespeare exhibits around the world is how the reopening of New Place is described, highly ambitiously, in the bumf. New Place being the site of the house Shakespeare bought in 1597 for around £120 (I thought it was sixty) and the second largest in Stratford.  The house is no longer there, though the gardens are, where that mulberry tree was, until it was cut down.  It now has a smart new wooden entrance, where Bill’s front door was,  and sculpture park, I’m afraid I found rather fey and underwhelming, with lots of weather veins and things. Though I liked the Shakespeare Processional frieze, if I think that there already. There is also a new walk through-exhibition and shop in the Jacobean house next door, that belonged to Thomas Nashe.  That isn’t at all bad, with the odd little period object in drawers about the place and good time lines to make it interactive, though very much designed for kids and families, to bring ’em in. Well, the folk in the shop, where you can buy imitation jewellery for £75 and £140, were pleased that since opening in August his year it has topped its target of 12,000 visitors.  Though I was annoyed at the door that tickets, which let you into several properties, are £17 but you cannot buy individually.  So you can make a deal out of the merciless Shakespeare industry that has developed,  if you get it right. The foodies were trying to get it right that weekend, with a three-day event of global cuisine, at the reinstated Food Festival in tents around the town, and a bright red Pimms teapot. While a Michaelmas fair at Mary Arden’s farm, my favourite in terms of hockey recreations of Shakespeare’s living world, had mummers, cider makers, basket weavers, archers, falconers and a fellow with a splendid eagle owl to delight the wide-eyed kids.

But for me the real jewels in the crown, if not owned by the Birthplace Trust at all, came just over the way from New Place. First was the splendid little Guild chapel, just across the road, I had never seen before and Shakespeare must have known very well indeed. Since the medieval Catholic frescoes have been somewhat uncovered, with excellent placards to explain and recreate, it perfectly elucidates Andrew Graham Dixon’s point in the programme to the RSC’s King Lear (see review below), about England being culturally and visually blinded in the Puritan whitewashing of images, so giving space to the explosion of the secular word to make us see again, or in a different way.

How thrilling though to stumble next door on Chapel street into a brand new exhibit, The King Edward VI School Museum.  I had often walked past, hoping to catch an imaginative glimpse at Shakespeare’s shining morning face, because he was very probably educated here, six days a week, from 6am to 6pm, for seven years, if his real education was a pastoral one, in life and nature.  So perhaps were his brothers Edmund, Richard and Gilbert. What better way to start to understand the man, and with a very mature exhibit?  Lo and behold, the grammar school itself, given royal charter in Edward VI’s brief reign, one of those 120 or so that still exist, with more mooted by Theresa May, and which is a State funded free school, have, with the help of a million and a half from the Lottery Fund, just opened the place up to pedagogy, or lovely private enterprise. Modern pupils still have morning lessons there too.

It is exceptionally well done, a beautiful building, with positive comments from theatrical luminaries like Sir Ian Mckellan blazoned on the wall, a great little film by the always infectious historian Michael Woods, in the old counting house, very welcoming staff and none-invasive but interesting touch screen displays. Upstairs in the schoolroom even a very knowledgeable Magister, in costume, to tell you about how they learnt Latin and Greek, though I’m not at all sure Shakespeare would have had fluent Latin, sat not at desks but opposite each other, and had to learn things by rote.  Quite enough to make any young Shakespeare play truant and run off to the grounds of Charlcotte to hunt deer, or to London to become the greatest and raunchiest playwright that ever lived. The Bard of course, that “upstart crow”, never went to University, unlike Robert Greene or Kit Marlowe, but still topped them all.  Probably one of the reasons people come up with their snobbish Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon theories, though what would it do to the Stratford gold mine if it was ever proved?

Still part of the modern school, that has created a trust to preserve and open the building, it is really the epicentre of the historical town too. For here before the Reformation was the Guild of the Holy Cross, that turned into the town council, one Shakespeare’s father John sat on, for all his naughty dealings.  Where a court was held too, downstairs, and upstairs perhaps professional players had to perform before snooty aldermen to get a licence. I say perhaps because with lack of records a deal is still speculation in the whole Shakespeare story, from the bogusness of Hall’s Croft, to certainties about most of the properties.  But it was there, and because it thrives as an active and artistic school to the present, that I really felt in touch with the living Shakespeare story. The ‘school master’ was a bit sheepish about how the Museum is doing, but then it is in competition with The Birthplace, and still has to be properly placed on the Shakespeare map.  It should and will be, because it’s very good indeed and should certainly have no one creeping unwillingly to school!

David Clement-Davies was given entry courtesy of The Birthplace Trust and independent King Edward School Museum. The photo is of the knowledgeable ‘Elizabethan’ school master in situ.

 

 

 

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THE SHAKESPEARE BLOG – SOUTHWARK, CURE’S COLLEGE AND THE ORDER OF NOBLE POVERTY

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I blogged last week on the founding in 1588 of the little Alms House run by Saviour’s Church, Cure’s College, on Maid Lane in Southwark, where the Rose, Globe and finally Hope theatres stood, by the Stewes and the river. Parish Gardens, that centre of theatre, brothels and bear-baiting, was nicknamed ‘The Bear College”. I also said that the draconian rules for those 16 local poor folk, men and women, laid down by that saddler to Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Cure, were a forewarning of the dreaded Workhouses to come, that Dickens so pilloried in novels like Oliver Twist. I’m certainly convinced that the shape of modern Capitalism and many of the woes we face today were born in Tudor London. In that privatisation of Church land called The Reformation, but most especially in the explosion of Private enterprise from the walled City, that turned the old English idea of Empire, lost in France, into an Empire of trade around the World. So the East India Company was founded in the same year the little wooden Globe theatre went up, 1599, and in 1605, I think, the Virginia Bay Companies too, that led the expansion in the Americas and the race, especially with the Dutch, for brave new worlds. The East India Company would of course define British power and Foreign Policy for Centuries, owning private armies and putting up their first little fort in Madras in 1607, the year Shakespeare’s brother Edmund died and was buried in Southwark. That same year there is a record of Hamlet being performed on board an East Indian ship, The Red Dragon, off the coast of Sierra Leone. It was formerly a warship called The Spirit of Malice and is mentioned in AL Rowse’s book on the astrologer Simon Foreman. The echoes of such a dynamic time are all over Shakespeare, of course in The Tempest, but also in Falstaff’s descriptions of himself in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in terms of Continents and Countries. Then there is that strange, almost unintelligible dedication on the cover of the sonnets about ‘well wishing adventurers’ setting forth. Those vital player’s patrons The Herbert brothers were of course major share holders in those City Companies, as the idea of sharers and private enterprise is also reflected in Shakespeare’s own theatrical Company, whose leading members had fingers in several little business pies in London, like groceries and sea-coal. In 1612 the first ‘Free Standing Lotterie’ was launched in the city too, to fund New World endeavours, and from common purses too, which all 13 original American colonies would soon take up. I’ve said before they were remarkably early origins then to that so-called ‘American Dream’ (and Shakespeare is filled with dreaming) born in London and the City. It was of course all about trade but also private banking and ownership, along with the massively lucrative beer trade, that in terms of private wealth remains true to this day.

Meanwhile, although Elizabethan ‘social security’ nets were remarkably fragile, they were there, in Parish organisation, although with the often hypocritical and allied hands of Church and State control. Take the unconsecrated graves of prostitutes and the poor at ‘Crossbones’ in Southwark. While there is that telling note in one of the St Saviour’s Records, of a payment ‘to send a woman out of the parish’, as Wards tried to deal with the growing issue of the Urban Poor in London and to fob it off on neighbouring parishes. In the meantime much of the condition South of the River grew into a true nightmare, with places like the Marshalsea Prison on Long Southwark, but also those Liberties themselves, areas of independent jurisdiction, that also spawned Crime, prostitution and slums like ‘The Rookeries’, where Daniel Defoe sets much of Moll Flanders. Despite all our worries then about Banking scandals today and the inequality of rules and playing fields, it was probably only the changing of the laws of debt in the 19th Century that saw true social reform. It is also true that the one old photo I have seen of Cure’s College, by the time it had developed into a stone structure by the early 19th Century, is very forbidding indeed.

Yet I got a fascinating insight into modern Alms Houses the other day when I helped a friend move rooms at the oldest Alms House in England, in Winchester, at The Hospital St. Cross and The Order of Noble Poverty. Of course the links with Winchester and Southwark were very strong indeed. It is very doubtful that poverty was ever considered especially noble in England, outside the beliefs and Orders of sections of the Church, but it is a charming and very historic place, rather like an Oxford College, and dominated by a huge Norman stone Church. It boasts the title of the oldest charitable institution in England. Incidentally scenes from the brilliant Wolf Hall, now running on the BBC, were shot here. It’s a pity I didn’t get to bump into Mark Rylance then and ask such a fantastic actor and former Artistic Director at the modern Globe why he believes the silly and impossible theory that Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford. It just happens to be that the beneficiaries at St Cross today are all men, and refer to one another as ‘Brothers’, while at Cure’s College there were certainly men, women and children too. You do not have to be of any Religion, I believe, and Cure’s founding document specifically laid down that members had to be of a Protestant faith, though the Brothers today are required to attend Matins in the Church in their red robes. But in return they have charming rooms, peace and quiet, friendship and excellent and highly subsidised lunches too. They are not, as the poor of Cure’s College certainly were, required to work for their bed and board. I didn’t see around the whole place, like The 100’s Hall where a hundred locals were fed regularly, and my dog Rascal upset the ordered tranquility a little when we wandered into the Garden, but that and other Alms Houses in Winchester and around England are a testament to an ancient and noble tradition.

David Clement-Davies February 2nd 2015

For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work.  If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below.  Many thanks.

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The photo shows the main Courtyard of St Cross,medieval but edged by an original Tudor balcony.

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THE RASCAL’S RETURN

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RASCAL IN GREECE AND AFTER ARRIVING IN ENGLAND

Just a quick post on one of the lovlier elements of trying to live between Corfu and Hampshire and that was befriending Rascal the super dog on the island! When I left in December it was bite the bullet time though, so I got injections, a pet passport and microchip. But just too late, and along with the prohibitive costs of flying him over and the potential trauma of having to send him in cargo to the UK, he had to be left with a friend. Never fear, the Ark is here, and that redoubtable Dutch lady Louisa, who told me about the possibility of Rascal being driven overland. It cost £300, so I hope the Rascal’s grateful, but this post is really to recommned Clare and Stimatis at Delfini.

From start to finish Clare set my mind at rest, with constant texts about their travels, via ferry to Igoumanitsa, to the Italian mainland and up through Germany. I was almost jealous of the journey. When I drove to Bedfordshire to meet the pup they were sweet, clearly love and understand animals, both cats and dogs, and I saw the excellent travelling cages they have and the three very contented dogs they had brought back, including mine. Their transport business is not limited to pets but they travel regularly between the UK and Corfu, so if you are minded to adopt, be aware of the options before you think it all too difficult.

To visit Delfini’s website just CLICK HERE

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THE SHAKESPEARE BLOG – THE MYSTERY AND MAGIC OF RESEARCH

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An American friend has just asked, in this very free form Shakespeare and London blog, what it is like doing the research itself, in the backrooms and the stacks of great libraries?  A worthy digression, I think, about real life in London, past and present, and the hunt for Edmund Shakespeare or his brother.  Although I first heard about Edmund’s tombstone in St Saviour’s church from a schoolteacher in a pub up in Clapham, and had already started a pretty bogus novel, perhaps that search really began in earnest when I heard a London lecture by Professor Alan Nelson from Berkley University, talking to a small audience in that church about the St Saviours Token Books. Then another to his theatre students down in the lecture hall at the modern Globe reconstruction, explaining how to use the main resources – the London Metropolitan and the National Archives. So talking of the detective work around wills especially, mostly held in the National Archives, among all those pipe rolls and government documents, but also giving that name of the place Edmund Shakespeare was in 1607, the Vine Tavern on Maid Lane in Southwark.   I should say that from start to finish in that search though I have found the academics mostly pretty uncooperative, and of course there is a competition that surrounds everything to do with Shakespeare.  Alan Nelson is doing his own biography of the bard for the 2016 anniversary, but I do think he might have been more forthcoming, as might others, especially James Shapiro’s UK publishers.  Perhaps anyone on the hunt for the bard succumbs to that twinge of paranoia or jealousy that infected that American couple, the Wallaces, who unearthed the Mountjoy Court case early last century and the Silver Street story, but came to believe the British Establishment were spying on them and trying to steal their work.  To add a semi psychic twinge to the Wallace’s peculiar talents, perhaps needed in the imagining of any past, they returned to Texas during the oil rush determined to strike black gold and did exactly that.

But so I set off, in my little Gold Peugeot, to the main centre of the work done, the London Metropolitan Archive in Clerkenwell.   Like every area in London proper, visiting that much changed part of the city of course has its own place in the jigsaw, because scrubby and little-streeted Clerkenwell, with its rough market and emergent cappuccino shops, its modern Turkish immigrants or its Roumanian dominated strip bar, was in Shakespeare’s day the Clerk’s Well, where clerks, scribes and limners settled and Dutch and Flemish immigrants probably ended up in brothels too. There were other major wells, like The Bridewell, Hanwell and so on. Those limners later morphed into the printers and booksellers who especially congregated around St Paul’s Cathedral and Paternoster Row, and modern St Paul’s, with Wren’s proud dome, as opposed to the wood steepled church, of course still looms up now and then among the constuctions.  The idea of wells though, in a City once famous for its clean and pure springs, as Peter Ackroyd says, became as redolent in my head as the 212 parish churches that defined both the development of London and the creation of Reformation records too, or as important as the river itself. So the topography of the place became vital, passing streets like Bowling Green Alley, among so many in London echoing that popular sport, once played out in open fields, as eagerly as archers practiced at Newington Butts, or falconers hunted on the Morefields .  Like visiting the still working pub on the corner of Cowross and Turnmill Streets, near to Smithfield market, which was once George Wilkin’s brothel tavern, where the young Mary Mountjoy stayed with her lover Stephen Bellot.  That would have been in a near rural district outside the now vanished City wall and Smithfield was both a market and a place of popular burnings. Then there is that original remnant of a wattle and daub Elizabethan tenement building, through the arch approaching the very ancient St Bartholemew’s Church, just down the road, that once also had a spittal, or hospital.

Where I was coming from became just as important too, living in Lambeth, in a little flat on Gilbert Road in Kennington, that just happened to have the name of another of Shakespeare’s brother’s – Gilbert. Richard was the other. Kennington, with it’s Dog House pub, probably on the site of one of the old dog houses that surrounded London, once on lands of The Black Prince and where Sir John Fastolf, who fought at Agincourt and that echo of Jack Falstaff, owned land as well as a tavern, the Boar’s Head, in Southwark. I got to know much more about the area in the light of the Shakespeare research. For instance that Lambeth was once the Lamb’s Bath on the river, or that the little market street ‘Lower Marsh’, like ‘Upper Ground’ in Paris Gardens, testified to the effective swamp land this was South of the unembanked river, haunt of cutpurses and gypsies. Hence on Maid Lane too the Globe theatre had been ‘forced out of a marish’ in 1599, or a marsh, as Ben Jonson records in his long poem The Exacration Against Vulcan. Of course the astrologer Simon Foreman also lived in Lambeth, marrying in St Mary’s, beside Lambeth Palace, now the modern Garden Museum. But right at the end of Gilbert Road, turning into Renfrew Road and running into Kennington Lane, the search also began for another lost Elizabethan theatre, the wooden playhouse in Newington Butts, where Shakespeare may have played. On Kennington Lane the names of some ugly Council Estates, like Othello and Brutus Court, testify to its presence, perhaps in the circle that is now a garden, although a mile from the river down Newington Causeway it proved too far out, which is why Henslowe cashed in by building The Rose on Maid Lane. The most likely source of any extant records or clues was at its local church too, St Mary’s Newington, there being nothing in the Metropolitan Archive, which still has a thin sliver of medieval curtain wall looking especially incongrous on Kennington Park Road. A vicar I had befriended told me that Giles Frazer had taken over there, the Cannon who resigned at St Paul’s over the Occupy London protests, but whether he had become too much of a celebrity, was too busy, or thinks Shakespeare and the players unimportant to the plight of the modern urban poor, he never got back to me. That modern poverty is of course much in evidence, especially around the Elephant and Castle, that rather swamps the lost area of Newington Butts.

The London Metropolitan Archive itself though is in an unremarkable little street in Clerkenwell north of the river, faced by a large deconsecrated church and a playground, once a plague burial ground, I think.  Through the glass door, once you’ve pressed the button, and have signed in with the usually polite but disinterested security guard, up you go, see-through plastic Metropolitan bag in hand, to deposit any closed bags in the locker room.  Much the same process and security as in the British Library, where I spent a great deal of time too, reading their copy of Frances Meres’s book, or learning more of Kit Marlowe.   The place is modern, efficient and helpful, and the sourcing is done on a row of computers, mostly, or via the shelved parish record catalogues. Your hand written order chits are then slipped into the order box, to await delivery in the glass sided and temperature regulated reading room beyond.  Pencils and sharpeners in hand you then await the thrilling delivery of those buff boxes, filled with vestry minutes, token books, wills, covenants, scraps of semi-legible medieval paper, hand drawings, or leases, to unfurl them on the reading tables, open delicate volumes on large v-shaped foam reading mounts, keep the tomes open with heavy lead book snakes, or fall fast asleep.  I admit I have never been very good with libraries, easily distracted, keen to flirt, hungry for discoveries that take a long time,  Yet when Shakespeare is in the frame, or that particular period, there is a very special thrill getting your hands on original Elizabethan paper.  As Alan Nelson pointed out of the Token Books, which are just like long restaurant menus, bound with breaking linen threads, all hand written lists of Southwark locals and purchases of Communion Tokens, paper far long-lasting than anything we would produce today, often with particular watermarks. Summoning up images of that first paper mill on the Thames that saw its founder knighted by the Queen, as the establishment have always knighted captains of industry. This was the very beginnings of the printed word though.

So what are you exactly holding there, as you search for that golden moment that never comes, the sight of an unknown record of Shakespeare, or his brother Edmund?  Well, the loose leafed vestry minutes from St Saviours, for instance, are often single or double folds of paper, scratched with fading black ink, often with the minute instincts of the accountant or secretary and hard to read. But so the thrill begins of seeing those words on the covers of the Token Books, that are already numinous places in your head – “Ye Liberty of the Clink, “Ye Libertie of Bankside, “Ye Liberty of Paris Gardens.” Then there is the variable spelling, especially of names, the accounting of pounds and pence, L an i, and the Elizabethan confusion with f, ff, and s.  At first too you have no idea who these hieroglyphs refer to at all, until, screwing up your eyes and your brain too, an english sentence suddenly pops out  and firms up in your  mind- “To the widowe Bradshawe”, “paid to the bishop to bringe water from the Thames in their cartes” –  “A forenoon toll of ye greate bell“, “Paid to the sexton for the burning of mens bones“.  Lives, love, commerce, the past, the church, begin to echo in your head, flicker like candle light, and just for a moment the jigsaw becomes clear, until it is lost again in a maze of broken pieces.  Depending too perhaps on whether or not you believe in ghosts, or trying to get to some harder truth, the conjunction of realities and falsehoods that makes any life, it can be both depressing and even frightening sometimes doing that lonely research.  Take for instance the year 1603, five years before Edmund Shakespeare’s little tragedy, when Queen Elizabeth I finally died, I think in March, after standing for hours on her feet.  As with the death of King James, meaningfully or not, plague hit London very hard that year, and its echo is held in the St Saviour’s Burial Register.  That, like some of the Token Books, is too fragile to be released into the eager hands in the Reading Room and so is on microfilm now. But look at that year patterned on a scrolling neon screen, a patient etherised upon a table, and you will get an astoundingly dark taste of that time.  I believe the average monthly mortality rates in the parish of Southwark were something like 80 deaths, nasty, short and brutal enough, but in May that “Suma Mensis” rises to something like 200, then around 350, to over five hundred by July. So the agonising litany unfolds, in a year that took the player and original Globe sharer Will Kemp too – “A man in the street”, “A servant dropped by the wall”, “A woman in ye Church yard” “A Gentleman”, “A boy”, “A girl” “A stranger”.This was Shakespeare’s real and very dangerous London and remember that Southwark, across the river and outside London wall, was only one Parish among those 212. By October the tally has climbed to over 850 dead and then, the next month, it suddenly dips again.  What lets you really touch it across the centuries though, gives the sense that that great church of St Saviours had become almost besieged by the dead, is the physical sigh of relief you can detect in that unknown vestryman’s hand, as below the list of the fallen a scrolling line trails off down the page.  The plague had finally broken, taking over 100,000 lives across London, and it also shows that although some believed it was a visitation by God, or the ‘foul miasma’s’ of the brothels, bear pits and theatres, these people must have known that it had a pathology.  You sigh and look out of the window at a winter night, or leaves coming on the trees, and wonder what it all signifies, or if it is a tale told by an idiot.

That’s the dark stuff though, compared with the fun of the hunt, and those moments of greater satisfaction.  The egg on the face moment of thinking I had found a reference to a Ben Jonson play in the ‘records’ of Cure’s College, the accumulating data of the centuries, the fascinating snippets about a death ‘in sui felo’, a suicide at the house at Bank End that was overturned in such a rowdy liberty because it would have meant a daughter did not inherit when her father drowned in the river, the approach to the local poor shown in a payment “to send a woman out of the Parish“, and the real thrill of linking the Vine Tavern where Edmund died, to the founding of that local fraternity at St Margaret’s Church on Long Southwark, in the reign of Henry VI, and its ownership by John Le Hunte, Edward Hunt Esquire’s ancestor.  There is another very remarkable thing you of course learn at the London Metropolitan Archive too, as you chat to the staff about the Guilds structures in London, the 12 great Livery Companies, or who might have fallen into what parish, and in what particular Ward, as a group of uneager schoolboys arrive to try something else with the computers, or a lone figures plods away at their own family history. Namely that before Henry VIII’s shattering Reformation itself there simply are no records, apart from a scrap of a document from the Magna Carta period referring to the rights of a Man.  In that sense Shakespeare’s or the Tudor age is a kind of beginning of modern time, in that crowding but still deeply rural and wooden London, and in the municipalization of us all. Nothing ever so certain as Death and Taxes! In the restructuring of the Church into parishes too and the very founding of Parish Registers of christenings, weddings and funerals, in the suring up of Sir Names, so often based on trades, once called The Mysteries, in the all-consuming account of daily expenditure, and in the move from the fable and the chronicle to the conception of modern history and sociology. Then of course there is that secularisation of theatre, or players, the explosion of printing, literature and poetry and of course the man of the moment and all time, Shakespeare, with his strange, eventful histories. A man who knew so well how both the records and people lie, or veil, but that the real history is the history of the human heart, mind and soul.

David Clement-Davies January 24th 2015   

For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work.  If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below.  Many thanks.

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The image is a Wikipdia photgraph of Shakespeare’s Stratford will, written in the classic ‘secretary’ hand, not Shakespeare’s but a scrivener’s, but with his signature at the bottom.

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THE SHAKESPEARE BLOG – THE STRANGE CASE OF EDMUND SHAKESPEARE AND MR JONSON!

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One of the less succesful moments in the search through St Saviour’s records for Edmund Shakespeare, his immortal brother William and Southwark in general was when I stumbled on a payment in the London records “For Mr Jonson’s Book“. It came in an odd place though, namely the loose leaf records of Cure’s College, that little Southwark Alms house founded in 1588. You have to know the difficulty of reading those records, most especially deciphering variously spelled names, and gradually beginning to recognise them too, to understand why, as your eyes start to deteriorate or your pencil blunts in the London Metropolitan Archive, you can suddenly give into the tendency to convince yourself of a Eureka moment.

The first and real Eureka moment was when I had linked the lease of that tavern where Edmund Shakespeare very probably died in December 1607, The Vine on Maid Lane, directly to a local Southwark fraternity granted Livery back in 1460, The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, and given rights by the King at Westminster, Henry VI, to buy local land of up to Sixty Marks. That was a true window on the history of the entire area because it established the significance of St Margaret’s Church, in the middle of Long Southwark and right opposite the Tabard. Which linked lay church life to the growth of London and commerce in general, in a very louche area, famous for the Bishops of Winchester licensing those ‘Winchester Geese’, for bear and bull-baiting and later for its theatres too. Peter Avergne and John Le Hunte were two of those livery wearing church wardens who invested in both The Vine and The Axe on Maid Lane, in a riverside district of perhaps 300 inns by Shakespeare’s day. John Le Hunte is clearly the direct ancestor of Edward Hunt, Esquire, who by Elizabeth’s reign owned sizeable land in Southwark called ‘Hunt’s Rents’ and bequeathed the Vine tavern to his pregnant wife Mary, also in 1588. His will is up on line. From there many discoveries arose, from the appearance of ‘pleyers’ working for the church back in the 15th Century and performing around St Margaret’s Cross, to the story of the rebel Jack Cade. Who marched from Blackheath and sacked the City in the real beginning of the Wars of the Roses, and fought the Battle of London Bridge, meeting the Bishop of Winchester, William Waynflete, inside St Margaret’s. Cade and his men were staying just opposite at the White Hart Inn, a few doors up from the Tabard. The very catholic and originally Norman church of St Margarets was of course suppressed at the Reformation, and turned into a local compter prison. As the big church, St Mary’s Ovaries Priory, was renamed St Saviours and Bermondsey abbey was broken up too. The Tudor revolution had begun and Southwark was hit dramatically.

But there was a valid reason for my false Eureka moment over “Mr Jonson’s book”, which at the time I thought might be a payment for a lost play by Ben Jonson himself, perhaps the missing “Isle of Dogges”, because of the date of 1598, or possibly “Every Man in his Humour”. Though there are no extant records for the Globe theatre, and Phillip Henslowe’s account books remain the prime source for the period and the theatres, it was not so absurd to assume, in the ad hoc nature of early impresarios and payments from the bag in local churches too, that Henslowe’s hand had got in here somehow. After all Henslowe was both vestryman and warden of St Saviours, which he lived right next door to at the Bell, for several years with his son-in-law the great actor Edward Alleyn. Whose name appears with Henslowe’s on The Great Enqueste in James’s reign, when a scandal developed at the church over abuse of money for the poor. The other reason is those ancient papers for St Margaret’s, St Saviours, and Cures College too, are all bunched together in those buff boxes in the London Metropolitan archive.

Heart in mouth I turned to The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and Professor Martin Wiggins, a Jonsonesque figure himself in his leathers and Doc Martins. Martin was encouraging at first, although it was tellingly the price of the payment, which I hadn’t written down properly, that raised the greatest question mark. He explained that plays of the period were worth £5 or £6, although Henslowe often gave advances of 20 shillings to writers, which is incidentally the same amount that was paid for Edmund Shakespeare’s funeral. True to any writer’s concern with money, fame and fortune though, as I sought for the book I was trying to write too, I rushed back to the archives only to discover that this payment for ‘Mr Jonson’s Book” was for a mere tuppence! On further eye-scrunching scrutiny of those often illegible papers, if on very good and thick Elizabethan paper, it turned out that this Mr Jonson was just a local scrivener, his little ‘book’ perhaps for copying something, or making an accounts book for the church, and my hopes were dashed.

Yet never be disheartened too easily in the search for such a fascinating period. This goodly scrivener became another of the local figures coming back to life along the river, characters dimly discernible through the veil of financial records, like the Sexton paid at a time of obvious plague “for the burning of men’s bones”, or one “Widow Bradshawe”, one of the local beneficiaries of a place at that alms house, Cure’s College, whose name appears repeatedly. With the likes of Henslowe himself, Ned Alleyn and lost Edmund Shakespeare, they help build a fascinating sociological history of Southwark and theatreland, much about London’s poor too, among whom the players moved constantly. As fascinating as the characters in the Token Books or Vestry Minutes, in trouble with local Constables for refusing to buy Communion Tokens, at various times of heightened religious tensions, or marked down for the number of women moving in with them. Or as the foul mouthed watermen and taverners along the river, among the Stewes, or the sudden occurence of new professions in the marriage and christening records of St Saviours; like shipwrights or a ‘Hansom man’, one of the first moving ‘taxis’, joined with the arrival in Southwark of printers and publishers called ‘men in books’. An odd tale for a blog, in an age when millions of words are spewed out onto the web every day, and so losing so much value, meaning and power. But I am still convinced that was an age as revolutionary to the world of thought, because of printing, reform and theatres, as the internet or the closing of the London Stationers office only as recently as 2005 is to the now.

David Clement-Davies January 22 2015

For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work.  If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below.  Many thanks.

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The image is taken from Wikipedia and is a portrait of Ben Jonson.

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THE SHAKESPEARE BLOG – SOUTHWARK, SHOES, SCANDALS AND SADDLERS

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One of the most famous of all Shakespeare’s soliloquies must be Henry V’s immortal “St Cripsin’s Day” speech, but few know its special significance to a Southwark audience, in particular at the Globe. Agincourt of course took place on October 25th 1415, the feast of Crispin Crispianus, brother Saints who would have had special significance to soldiers because they were the patron saints of cobblers and shoemakers. Of course Southwark, as well as being theatreland and crowded with taverners and watermen along the river and Long Southwarke, the great thoroughfare across the bridge, was, as an area of ‘the stink trades’, butchery, tanning and leather working, also a great centre for cobblers. Indeed, when Henry VIII called St Saviour’s ‘a verie great churche’ it was also at a time when he granted incorporation to the Guild of Leatherworkers and one Leonard Scragges as Warden. The associations with the leather trade would continue, particularly in the presence of one Thomas Cure, Warden of St Saviour’s, as Phillip Henslowe would become too, and saddler to Queen Elizabeth I herself.

The Cures became a prominent Southwark family and are mentioned several times in Al Rowse’s book on the astrologer Simon Foreman, who specifically referenced visits to the Globe to see Macbeth and The Tempest. There were two Thomas Cures, father and son, but one Cure attended Foreman’s wedding, further along the river in Lambeth, in the Church of St Mary’s Lambeth, which today is the Garden Museum. Elias Ashmole, William Tredescent and Captain Bligh were all buried there, but Foreman’s house was just across the road, all in the shadow of the beautiful Elizabethan building and seat of the archbishops of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace. There is a wonderful inscription on the wall outside St Mary’s regarding a bequest of £100 to be used for the education of two local boys, yearly, but which specifically forbids it to ‘Watermen, chimney sweeps and Catholiks’!

The social role and purpose of the church was one that would be specifically challenged in Southwark at St Saviours in the days when Henslowe was a Warden and also running his theatres and the Royal Barge House, along with being ‘Master of the Game’. Then a scandal erupted around their use of alms for the poor and the building of a huge new refectory, when the number of Vestrymen had risen to 80 strong. An act was even mooted in the parliament, though in the end the Wardens appeared to have reformed themselves. They were already running a local school and alms house though called Cure’s College, which appears constantly in the records I was searching through in my hunt for Edmund Shakespeare. It stood on Maid Lane too and by the 18th Century had become a forbidding stone institution around a central garden. It was founded though in 1588 in the Will of Thomas Cure, who died in the same year as Edward Hunt, that owner of the Vine Tavern on Maid Lane and direct descendent of John Le Hunte, one of the Brethren of that Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption at St Margaret’s Church on Long Southwarke, repressed at the Reformation. Cure’s bound will is one of the more remarkable documents in a collection I think so important I even approached the Liberal MP Simon Hughes to try and establish a special Southwark-Shakespeare collection, though to no avail.

There will be a further blog of the importance of Southwark to the Reformation battle itself, especially in a church that lay at the beginning of the Canterbury Road, where Becket had preached, and which later became highly prominent in Mary’s attempt to take England back to Catholicism too, because she staged the Marian heresy trials inside the church. But Thomas Cure was of a very Elizabethan religious stamp, veering towards that puritanism that would spread in London closer to James’s I’s reign, at least on the surface. His will establishes provision for 16 local poor, men and women, but also the rules under which the college functioned. So they had to kneel at dawn and dusk, on the ringing of the hand bell, and recite the Lord’s Prayer. They had to work for their upkeep too, and Cure laid down specific fines against brawling, swearing and fornicating. It all makes starker reading in the light of Southwark’s especially colourful reputation, that land of theatres, brothels and gamboling houses, but is absolutely the prototype for the hated Victorian Workhouse. Except in Shakespeare’s day it was a much humbler affair with the records full of little payments to buy a cloak or hose, stockings, for one of the boys or girls, to send for a Doctor, or to buy bread. I have wondered if Phillip Henslowe’s own hand is on those records, as he continued to fill his purse from his entertainments, but it gives a fascinating picture of local life and of the very thin social support networks they had.

David Clement-Davies 20 January 2015

For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work.  If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below.  Many thanks.

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The image is a Wikipedia photo of Southwark Cathedral, renamed St Saviour’s at the Reformation but originally part of St Mary’s Overies priory. Thomas Cure was a Warden here as was the famous Phillip Henslowe and for a time his Son-in-Law the actor Edward Alleyn. Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund was buried inside the church on December 31st, 1607, at the age of 27.

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Albania – With a clear blue eye on the wounded ox, in the city of Nymphs…

“What Country, friend, is this?”
“This is Illyria, Lady.”
“And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown’d: what think you, sailors?”

Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare

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“And Hoxha did good and bad, but built 700,000 bunkers across our country of Albania”. It was possibly the most astonishing and depressing fact too, in an astonishing but only sometimes depressing day. It deserved a bit of the Borat treatment as well, from that ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’, as our coach snaked up the Albanian coast to the ancient citadel of Butrint. Leaving behind the six story hulk of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth Cruise liner, monstering it in the charmless port but more beautiful bay of Seranda. Which USA Today included this year as one of the top 10 undiscovered cruise destinations. We were making for a citadel anyone interested in history or civilisation simply cannot afford to miss though, especially at 56 Euros. But as our tour guide Davina, trained in the Albanian Capital of Tirana, spoke of the facts of her country and the place where ‘Our Dictator’ was born too, Enver Hoxha, in part of that all or nothing attempt at Tourism, you wondered if she might joke that if you didn’t like the food they’d be attaching electrodes to your privates or, if you did, selling you their younger sister. Hoxha’s 45 year rule may have brought rapid economic growth and improved literacy too, but it was notorious for the suppression of opposition, detainment camps and the use of the death penalty.

No such horror stories now, on an easy day out from Corfu, forty minutes on the hydrofoil. Although to me packaged coach tours (lunch included), are always depressingly ‘Communistic’ somehow. With the dodgy looking bloke in the white jacket overseeing us, that very human tendency to behave like sheep and the few Euros guided carefully from your pockets via the unnecessary early restaurant stop. In a town that is winning more tourists – the guide said 80,000 to Albania as a whole, although most to the riviera are Greek or Italian – but which is a skeletal facade of dreary half-built breeze block hotels and empty bars, that may well harm future tourism, and the faint sproutings of small ‘International’ businesses. Nearby Corfu’s charm is it’s living history, its style, it’s comparative complexity, while Sarande’s lack of it is its functional emptiness. Yet when you see how little there is around, you forgive the simple packaging, and enjoy the ride and views, especially with the glorious weather that October brought here, which forgives so much.

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So to dispense quickly with any depressing bits; Albania’s obvious poverty, especially compared to thriving and culturally rich Corfu, the romany shanti-towns on the reasonable roads, the lack of any skilled artisinal crafts to bring anyone real ‘Suvenir’ sales, over cheap plastic tourist tat, unlike all those crafts in Corfu’s old town, and the rubbish strewn not only on the verges but at supposedly natural oases too. Or the little girl begging at the coach, you see in London now too, and, at a harbour restaurant where all the moulded plastic chairs seemed to have broken their backs, the bruising looking guy in white socks who almost threatened to buy me a drink, to try and talk to me. “Where you from?” It might be no different in any struggling port, but I had just seen ‘Taken’ on TV. Then I felt guilty at the stereotyping of Albanians, so common across the water in Corfu, and on mainland Greece too, where something like a million emigrated after those iron ‘walls’ came down. In the old days the searchlights roamed the straights at Kalami and the small Albanian town beyond Seranda that means six, from the six mile gap of water, and people were shot too. While the husband of an English friend on Corfu had his boat stolen to be used by Albanian drug runners though, and crime has tarnished the image of some of whom have made it into the Greek Middle Classes, of course desperation and economic migration have happened a great deal in Italy recently as well.

Then to revelations though, only to underline my ignorance – that Albania, which uses the Lex, is Muslim, for instance, although its Communist past ruthlessly suppressed any faith. The guide defined it as 70% Muslim now, 20% Greek Orthodox and 10% Catholic, pointing at the church and simple hilltop mosque, as if atheists and agnostics had been eradicated in the new Dawn. She assured us folk live here in peace and intermarry easily too. Not much was said of Albania’s year long Civil War in 1997 then, although if I had a Euro for the number of times the guide used the word privatised, I could probably do a lot to help the Albanian economy.

How different the terrain on the mainland is to Corfu though, with those expansive, now half-drained and cultivated marshlands, where Gerald Durrell went hunting as a child and recorded it so elegiacally in “My Family and Other Animals”. From the coast, Albania is a four tiered hunchback of steep mountain ranges, feeding the many rivers that bring an astonishing variety of trees, giant bull-rushes and burgeoning flaura and fauna, among the dusty scrubland, burned by the Mediterranean sun. So we were quickly on the edge of the new 86 Square kilometer National Park and lake Butrint, ringed with half submerged cages for the huge mussel production here, in the brackish half-salt, half fresh water lake. The whole landscape suddenly seemed to glow a kind of electric mauve-green, dancing with vibrant, healing colours. Colour and light are the things I’ll remember the day for most, a draw to artists and water colourists for centuries. Like the Frenchman Dupre, and the limerick-writing Edward Lear, who came here in the 19th Century, along with those celebrated Grand Tourists, like Lord Byron himself. It pleased the Finnish Construction engineer, who had turned to painting and natural photography instead. Not least in our visit to the ‘Blue Eye‘, a bubbling natural spring that rises from more than forty metres through solid rock and is the visible source of the Bistritza river. When you’ve nothing you always make too much of something, perhaps. So the simple eco-cabins tried to compete with the broken down saw-mill and abandoned boats, or the Double Eagle of the Albanian flag, black on red, fluttered humbly but hopefully by the US and EU ones. Then Unesco’s intervention to define a world heritage site also helped create the national park. At first I wondered if the 40 minute excursion was worth it, for these ‘Naturalistic Learnings of Free Albania’, but that water is so pure it seems made of glass and in the afternoon light it suddenly looked as if you were gazing across a holy river in India.

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Perhaps above all though came the revelation that this is claimed to be the land of the ancient Illyrians, proud soldiers and master shipbuilders, which vaguely competes with the miserable image of modern Albanians, not least to many Greeks, as dirt poor Armenian peasants. “What do you call an Albanian peasant?” someone joked, “An Albanian.” So to a natural diversion though and that quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when Viola is shipwrecked and believes her brother Sebastian has been drowned. “What country, friend, is this? – This is Illyria, Lady.” Whether Shakespeare ever traveled literally or not, his very English plays were vitally informed by the stories, legends and histories flooding into a Renaissance London, that also had very practical experience of seafaring and piracy in ‘Europa’, as England exploded as a maritime power in the late 16th Century and started competing with the likes of Venice. I believe the start of so much that is still not enough understood in the beginnings of World and American Capitalism. Of course Illyria, like Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, is chosen as a place of exotic difference, for it’s mystery and otherness, to welcome and test a foreigner in a strange land, as Shakespeare usually proves himself a friend of strangers. Perhaps also as a kind of creative gateway to that dominating imaginative landscape inside Shakespeare’s mind and education though, before science had herded the forces of Psyche and Eros into the clothes of modern psychology – ancient Greece and classical Rome. ‘What Country, friend, is this?” is exactly the point of so many of Shakespeare’s themes, inner and outer. One that Greeks might not take for granted either, considering the disparate ethnic histories here and their own Nation only being founded in 1830, as Albania was in 1913. Yet the literary point for someone living on Corfu is that Illyria perhaps adds a bit of credence to the tale Gerald’s brother Lawrence’s scholastic friend relayed in his own little travel gem, Propsero’s Cell, claiming that Corfu was the magic isle that Shakespeare had in mind for The Tempest. I still think Shakespeare’s greatest bark was his avid reading and all assimilating imagination, devouring the patterns of storytelling and myth, that ran like a river through trading London, while the magic of Shakespeare’s isle is really his own art. But that imagination ranged so often back to this world, not only in Twelfth Night and The Tempest, but in Timon of Athens, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Comedy of Errors, that you start to wonder. Like the marshes though, at times it could all be taken for Elysian Fields.

First in the day we had made for Butrint though, by one of the castles of Ali Pasha and the old rope ferry over the canal, sparking in the sunlight, to discover the remains of so many days. Perhaps it is because Butrint is such a microcosm of competing civilizations and changing, impossible time. With its re-positioned doric columns rising in front of the sturdy Venetian tower, Butrint was a wonderful revelation for me. Only touched by visiting Epidavros, or the much under-rated port of Ostia outside Rome, that so tops treking even the Forum itself. The acoustically perfect little amphi-theatre here was re-built by Roman settlers, under Julius Caesar, who established a Roman colony eleven years after he had invaded Britain. So the original Greek Agora and Acropolis (hilltop City) expanded, beyond the huge 4th Century BC ‘Caeclopean’ walls that began the fortified settlement. Which you can also see in Etruscan fortresses in Lazio, like the one above Florence in Fiesole, as well as original settlements in Mycaenean Greece. To remind us that everything lasting began with fortified towns, before Nations or Ideologies, with tribes and City States. So to the Roman period though and those heads unearthed here of different kinds of dictators, that makes it all a more seamless and intimate tapestry. Like those of Augustus and Livia in the museum, that became as common and recognizable symbols as the Holy Family, or as an important a meme as the coinage. Then came the building of a pillared Baptistry nearly a half a millenia later, once Constantine had turned Rome to Christianity. With a very natural ‘Christian’ mosaic circle, sporting birds and flowers and animals, sadly covered at the moment by sand to protect it. The large Basilica too, which originally meant a kind of market and meeting place, rather than a Church. As a side note, it was fascinating too to find that Partridge as an early Christian symbol also used here, related to work at Phoenix Ark Press on that carol, the 12 Days of Christmas, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

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Like Shakespeare reaching back to the psychic source of the Gods though, it was the original remains that had the most power to me. Like the fine stone gate on the edge of the sleepy, lime blue and green lake, almost a secret scar in the rock, a magic doorway, that Virgil perhaps immortalised in the Aenead. Was it really here then that Aeneas himself, Trojan emmigree and mythical founder of Rome, after that 10 year war over a woman, landed on his way to Italy, in a still mythic world, that understood history as storytelling in a struggle between eternal fact and the needed journey and qualities of any individual life? – “I saw before me Troy in miniature, a slender copy of our massive tower…and I pressed my body gainst a Scaen Gate.” With that competes the much later carved gateway that at first I thought depicted a Wild Boar, but which is in fact a lion, devouring the head of a bull. Butrint’s name actually means Wounded Ox though, when the Greek foundation supposedly saw an Ox let ashore and killed by another animal, to prove auspicious omens. The city was also mentioned by Cicero though, after a friend with a country villa near here complained about Roman development and urged him to lobby against it in Rome, who in his letters wrote “Let me tell you that Buthrotum is to Corcyrca (Corfu) what Antium is to Rome…the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.” It shows how lively Corfu was at the time too.

For all the interest of the monuments though, and despite the aging guard in his overblown outfit blowing on his whistle as if Dictatorship had no tomorrow, or the fascinating artifacts in the little museum, so depleted by thefts in 1997, Butrint has something else that could wake Keats to his greatest song – “Thou still unravished bride of quietness, that foster child of silence and slow time………” It is the enchanted setting, on a sparkling day, wandering through sylvan groves blooming with wildflowers, edged by that wide blue-green lake, lifting with herons, as a fisherman tilted dreamily at the waters with his rod. Resources of fish were one of the reasons for the place’s ancient economic importance, though with those mussels Albania has other exports, like the wine on display in plush bottles in one of the port bars. For all the coachloads too, which must be far worse in high summer, you can hang back and find a space off beaten tracks to contemplate those vanished ghosts, of fact and mind and time. It is exactly what would have appealed to that 19th Century imagination obsessed with ‘the fragment‘ too. Those many ravished fragments of Butrint, crossing so much time, were picked out for me most in the sacred well of Minerva, bound by the hard rock, as firm as hope. Then the discovery of a Nympheum, a temple to those Nymphs and Dryads that sported through an ancient imagination, when Gods and Goddesses were living in everything. Then, to prove this was a City of Nymphs, by another well they found some Roman graffiti, in the achingly moving little dedication by one inhabitant “Julia Rufina – lover of Nymphs.” The painted head of Dionysus adorns one of the Nypheum’s alcoves, although I would take issue with the guide that he was just the God of Wine, rather than of natural Ecstasy and a transport to the Divine, unlike his debased Roman counterpart Bacchus.

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Of course those super efficient conquerors and engineers, the Romans, stole everything from the ancient Greeks, except the Aqueduct and the Arch. But there was an older ‘religion’ here then, since 400 years before Chirst Butrint was a votive centre to the healing God Aesclepius. Where real sacred snakes, to wind symbolically around the staff of the Cadeucus too, were kept in pens and laid on the stomachs of the sick to induce dreams. As those wrestling with life and mortality took baths and visited the theatre too, a sacred space, as Shakespeare knew it was a sacred space too, and a place of artistic magic, even in hungry, entertainment driven, Reformation London. Everyone came here though, from ancient Greeks, to Romans, to Byzantine Greek Christians, Ottomans, Venetians, the gruesome but effective Ali Pashi, by which time Butrint had near vanished under the mud and topsoil, to bad old Enver Hoxha. Who closed off Albania completely, as paranoia saw him building all those pointless concrete bunkers. Then that fear and militarism deep in the Soviet psyche too has a very long history among regional warlords in the Balkans.

Forget it. Time is trying to and if they had the money in Tirana, or could persuade either some philanthropic Oligarch or Unesco, they should pour in as much money as they can to exploit its archaeological heritage, in the best sense. Only 60% of Butrint has been excavated, for instance, and the ancient town of Finiq, obviously linked to those tribal and seafaring Phoenecians, hardly at all. Come to think of it Phoenix Ark Press has to discover the etimology of the Phoenix and whether there is any link. Yet before Hoxha was even fighting in the mountains as a Partisan, or Mussolini made Albania as cheap a conquest as Abyssinia for his Fascistic dreams of Ancient Rome and invasion of Greece, Italian Archaeologists had begun to uncover the City again, in the twenties and thirties. What a glorious experience it must have been for those archaeologists. Mussolini renamed Seranda Port Edda, after his favourite daughter, who turned against her father on the execution of her husband, Count Ciano, and fled to Switzerland. To sell her husband’s diaries to Alan Dulles and the Chicago Daily News. It is written up at Phoenix Ark. In fact Hoxha, from an important local family, crucially linked Archaeology to the creation of Albanian National Identity. He and the Fascists too were wrong though thinking it provided any convenient truth, in that such sites really link the movement of peoples across deep time, and the long process of real Civilisation. It could be an even more powerful gateway to tourism then, if uncontrolled building doesn’t ruin the riviera and they learn the charm of real local family bars and restaurants. But Albania has something else shared by Greece, Bulgaria, up into Romania too, perhaps Romania above all, that reaches back to the nature worship of the ancients. Namely astonishing natural scenery, wildlife that includes wolf and bear and some of the most pristine but now threatened forests in Western Europe. It is exactly why the Albanians must try to keep an enlightened and open blue eye on its wounded ox of a country, shutting tight in Seranda, if it is to develop and change, as it might. But they also need to remember too that real prosperity has a far deeper and wider meaning that just the ‘Capitalist’ discovery of quick cash.

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As the T-shirts saying ‘I Love Albania‘ flapped unconvincingly in the breeze then, the guide was cheerful, jokey but half apologetic, suggesting it would all be better in a few years and then those mosaics might be on display too. Like the man who apologised when I gave that little girl some Euros, or the waiter doing his damndest to offer good service, but looking rather small. Then there is a shame in that negative image of Albanians, its down-at-heelness and its recent past. But a great deal has changed too and in ‘Six’ families and kids were doing what everyone does, going to school or playing in playgrounds. Then the collapse of Communism opened another vital door to Butrint too and saw more archaeological work up to 2005, which has spruced up the museum and produced a National Park. More understanding and proactive engagement might come from Greece too, despite its own woes, meaning perhaps Greek efforts too to open up and make capital from a heritage where many people’s have intermingled for so long. Though the girl leading me to the hydrofoil was quick to point out she was part of the Greek Albanian minority, a community that revolted before the First War, and the association of religion with ethnicity has caused such harm around the world. As for Butrint, of course nothing especially important to the Greek lady who shrugged and said ‘it’s just a pile of stones’, to make my hair curl and remind me of an American who had said exactly the same thing years ago passing under the Lion Gate in Mycenae.

No, it is not just a pile of stones, it is literally one of the theatres of everything, so related to that healing son of the Sun God, Apollo, for those you like their sun worship intense. Where votive shrines to pure and natural wells first sprang up, as all settlements spring from rivers and clean waters. So came the burgeoning of trade, thought, literature, philosophy, and a symbolism that refers to everything still: the theatre of Gods and Man, the theatre of art, the theatre of magic and medicine, sadly the theatre of war too. It was only getting the Flying Dolphin back though, as the sunset burned the big white ships in Corfu Port a fiery bronze, making them look as if Vulcan had returned them to their smelting yards, that the full significance of Corfu’s Venetian Fortresses came into view in my head. Not so much on the tip of the Eastern headland, but the old Fort with its square, lionine eye to the little island of Vidos, and to Saranda and Butrint just beyond. Because it was dominating the straights of Corfu that was the key to shipping and trade, the gateway to the Ionian, and why the Venetians bought Butrint in the 14th Century to straddle those straights like a Colossus. Venice did so too, even as the Ottomans held Albania, Turkey and ‘Greece’ in their grip for five hundred years, at times pushing to the gates of Vienna. Until Napoleon marched into that “Drawing room of Europe”, St Mark’s Square, and the Venetian Empire came to an end, then the Balkans convulsed into the politics of ethnic hatred. Meat to remind you too though of the threats and unreformed horrors of now, and how significant that fall of Byzantium was in 1485, when Memmet II stamped his unreformed Islamic shields on the walls of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. Then Monotheistic Religion is like Communism, it attempts to impose an absolute truth, which is why it should be separated from the State. Except perhaps that religion of the ancients, when the Gods were a reflection of the psyche of humans, good and bad, but magic forces lived so deeply in nature too. But so a fascinating and profoundly colourful day came to a close, back home on Corfu. In the end making me feel that if they keep that blue eye clear and open, this part of Albania and Butrint National park especially, could long be the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.

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David Clement-Davies October 1214

The photographs are in Copyright to Phoenix Ark Press – They show Lake Butrint, The Port of Seranda, The ‘Blue Eye’ spring, Bistritza river at its source, the ancient amphitheatre in the Temple of Aesclepius, the pillared circular baptistry, a fragment of lake and city, the ancient gate Virgil may have described as ‘Troy in Miniature‘, the later ‘Lion’ gate, the Albanian flag and a submerged boat opposite one of the little castles of Ali Pasha.

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CYPRESSES, CORFEATS, NAUSICAA AND A HOUSE ON PARADISE ISLAND

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The island, she won’t let you go,” whispered the hazel-eyed local on Corfu’s Agios Gordios beach, on the West Coast of my magic isle. She told me about her struggle and satisfaction in becoming a tourist rep, the legend of Nausicaa finding naked Odysseus here, washed up in the surf, and noticed the Disk of Phaestos hanging around my neck – Crete’s un-deciphered Linear B. I had bought it in my favourite artisan shop in Corfu town, where I get charming old postcards too. Then I’d been upset when it had tarnished in the bath and had taken it back to complain. “Life is never straight, my friend” the owner had twinkled nomicly, trying to convince me it made a better story too, as he assured me it was Stirling Silver, that very British hallmark. I was pleased above all that I hadn’t been lied to by him or been made a fool of either.

On Agios Gordios, this sudden Nausicaa and I joked about life, the real island of Corfu, ‘mad and wild’ Corfeats (according to other Greeks) and paradises naturally lost, or sometimes won again. If Corfu really was Homeric Scheria, at Thucydides claimed, home to those westernmost Phoenicians too, and so perhaps that link with the teacher of Zeno, Parmenides, she plays the strangest role in his rebirth and journey home. A symbol of half unrequited love, perhaps half mother figure, so much so one British scholar remarked that Nausicaa’s beach encounter and laundry scene is so realistic it meant that blind Homer was really a woman. Then the translations of Linear A on Crete turned out to be a laundry list! On Scheria cunning Odysseus, ship wrecked by Poseidon for tricking and blinding his one-eyed son Polyphemus, had to penetrate the palace of Nausicaa’s father, to get help, or breach what Wikipedia so anachronistically calls its magical ‘security systems’.

Since life is a beach though, what could be more magical then than to drink cold beer in the golden October sun, to swim in crystal waters but abandon some of the cliches too, as time and contact help me really experience a place. It has been a wonderful five weeks writing Dragon In The Post here, living in my rented house on Paradise Island, with its gentle garden, a place of recent barbecues and a new Dutch friend who was born here picking garden herbs for the marinade. So it was a bit of a shock to discover time rushing on, as ever, like Chronos eating his own children. The little ferry to Vidos from Corfu port has already stopped running, after three days of very heavy rains and gloomy skies. The Liston arcade in Corfu town still lights up and throbs at night, and the tourist shops bristle in the day, the electric evenings too, as a Maestre, a masterful Northerly wind, sweeps in to dispel the clouds around the great Venetian fort and the 18th century shuttered houses. But the season here is definitely winding to a pleasant autumnal close. Winter threatens in the falling leaves, the coming browns, the cooling airs, the death of each year’s life, but with something far less threatening than England and home.

On Agios Gordios we went swimming together at sunset in front of that burning red fire disk of exploding Hydrogen and Helium, so far beyond the real horizon, seemingly dissolving into a near-whispering, wine-dark sea. The bay held us like a friend, as the slanting afternoon sun painted our skins more golden and that renewed clarity of low afternoon light made everything sharp and real and very fresh and beautiful indeed. It picked out the shape of ‘Buddha Rock’ too, lying on his back on a nearby islet, beyond the Black Rocks, that to me looks more like a jolly Norwegian Troll, with a gigantic, bulbous nose. Then something of the ancient Gods descended, and light and sea and dying sun-disc became a filmy one.

The water does feel different suddenly, like warm silk, below the vaulting Cypresses climbing the slopes like markers to the island’s vigour, and as you stand in the sea, looking back at the hills, smiling or laughing, opening your arms, who would want her to let you go? The generous rains are the cause, and Corfu’s miracle micro climate, although with 10-15 days solid rain in September, it has not exactly been the perfect season. I’ve seen more of Corfu than I ever did last year though, swapping a battered bicycle that once kept me fitter for a sharp-engined white Mercedes (thanks to a free Airport upgrade, although with a struggle). So doing far more of the winding mountain roads, to Halikounas, Sinarades or Paliokastritsa, with its beetling Castello St Angelo and plunging, impossibly turquoise blues. Corfu always gives you a newly inspiring vista and opens your heart and mind, whenever you get locked too much inside yourself. “Oh, think twice, it’s just another day in Paradise” beats the Phil Collins song incessantly from Corfu Radio, of course, with its warning about forgetting other people’s problems. No, sorry, not at the moment.

It was driving up to a beer festival in Arillas in the North West this weekend though that I got to see much more of the ‘interior’ too – Those ever fascinating twisting, witch-hair olive groves, tipping down the slopes into mysteries of cool shade, the lifting massifs of hills, a sudden plain rich with wildflowers, pomegranate trees and pools of yellow sunlight, a flock of very smelly goats and, of course, among such lush vegetation, God-tall Cyprus trees everywhere, like perky sentinels, or officers of the watch. “Do you know their sex?” whispered someone in my garden, with a wink, as if introducing me to some great life secret, and of course the tall, straight ones are boys and the rounded, shorter, pear-like ones are girls. It’s all quite simple really.

I prodded my new friend on Agios Gordios and impressed her talking not about natural Phallic symbols, but the Omphalos, the World Navel and so the belly button. Also a time marker at ancient Delphi, once centre of the ‘known’ and imagined, where those weird women sat on their tripods, breathing in natural hallucinogenic vapours and whispering impossible oracles, or riddling warnings! She countered with talk of columns and the light on Delos, where the place seems to give birth to light itself. Perhaps then, while I learnt her real names are a feminized mix of the ever-present Orthodox Saint here and anti-Turkish intercessor Saint Spiridon and Alexander himself, such a green and fecund isle is an eternal antidote to that superstitious Greek association of Cyprus trees with death, misfortune and graveyards, like the sound of Scop’s Owls hooting in the night.

They are superstitions and legends much explored in the novel I’ve been reading here too, by Sofka Zinovieff, The House On Paradise Street. It is not a masterpiece, no Homer, with little of the literary panache or indeed sparkling charm of a Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but it is compelling and more importantly valuable. In solid prose it moves between the present, especially that moment of recent Greek ‘crisis’ of 2008, where many worlds seemed to fall apart, and the Occupation by the Nazis, until 1942. Then the bitter tragedy of the Greek Civil War, through the dictatorship of The Colonels too. They could certainly make a far better film of it than that atrocious Americanisation of Captain Corelli with Nicholas Cage. Zinovieff writes like a journalist discovering fiction, which I believe she is, and with that name but also an agent in London, you wonder if English is her first language. She is married to a Greek and has two children. In a sense it is always a story somehow in exile from itself, seeking its own heart, but it is most fascinating both in providing a foreigner’s eye and experience too, with the detail of a tour guide and travel writer, sometimes a touch of the poet, and for its discussion of the British legacy too.

On Corfu they still play cricket!” is the patriotic hero Nikitas’s dismissive quip that references this island in the novel. Nikitas’s sudden death provokes the historical investigation by Antigone his mother, an exile to Soviet and then modern Super Capitalist and ‘Cowboy’ Moscow, forced to abandon him to her sister as a baby, and his English wife Maud, bringing up their children in the anguished environment of student riots and the modern ‘Crisis’ in Athens, while coping with death, loss, age and decay that springs out so suddenly in everyone’s little life. The novel moves chapter by chapter between their competing narratives and one of its biggest flaws is that as such it internalizes none of its male protagonists, perhaps men are the book’s real Greek mystery and threat, but also creates few characters you can really love and so passionately identify with.

Its two central stings in the tale, most clever in the use of the seeming acronym ‘Wasp’ to reference those endless political groups from ELAS to PASOC, and least emotionally satisfying in the revelation over the British protagonist Johnny’s real human love affair, could have been far better handled dramatically. Meaning their power, outrage or beauty are not sought out from within for the reader and so lose effect. Yet they sustain the action and the themes and help a book approach depth and sometimes passion too, if, and precisely because of it’s dark themes, it is perhaps an attempt to avoid passion and get at fact and clarity in recording events many don’t know about. “Passion,” sparkled the girl on Agios Gordios, “That’s what Greeks are.” Meanwhile a book relayed the story of the brave women of Souli opposite Corfu dancing to their deaths in 1803, rather than surrendering to the Turks, or the 400 pleats in the traditional costumes of freedom fighters to mark every year of Ottoman occupation, as it reminds you that passion also brings a talent for tragedy.

I felt peculiarly British then as I saw them playing Cricket the other day in white flannels on the green in front of the Liston and the beautiful Archaeological Museum in Corfu town. “Pakistanis” observed a Greek friend though, with more than a hint of that schadenfreude that sometimes brands all Albanians too, and which is far more prevalent, and redolent with a threat that you can’t feel on Britain’s little island, so much closer to that real fault line of modern Europe; Turkey and the Bosphorous. That evening we listened to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in the tiny Time Machine bar, then of course I saw the headline about UKIP’s victory back in the UK and its effect on the Tory Party and remembered the threat of atavism or real economic and cultural conflict is spreading everywhere.

That bar was part of the delight of getting to know Corfeats and a place though. Like tea and backlava with my friend and a young mathematician and Wikipedia guru opposite the Cafe Bristol. Or a game of ‘Gringlish’ and 1980’s Trivial Pursuit in my friend’s half built house with a view, as a storm fired lightening bolts across the bay, and too much booze after supper in my favourite restaurant here, Stimati in the village of Viros. There Spiros deals with his talent and ache as an artist by covering the walls with paintings bright with those ‘Iconic’ or primary Byzantine colours, although unfolding erotic Jungian dreamscapes, instead of God, in between the cooking. While his Scots wife Margaret bustles through with efficient practicality, stopping to discuss Scottish Independence, or to share some clear-eyed jokes and fun.

As for things being not quite cricket, or perhaps exactly Imperial Cricket, down in Corfu town I had noticed how I had noticed several young Pakistani players with surprise too, since this is what equates to a National Greek Cricket team. As the odd African peddles watches on the beaches, or there are so many cheap China stores here. Meanwhile a vastly tall, aging Greek Heavy-Metal hippy, with an Archbishop Makarios beard the length of a shaggy dog story, begs defiantly among the pretty cobbles and the wealthy trippers in the Old Town. Thankfully Corfu is no island to embrace the likes of Golden Dawn though, except perhaps in humorous talk of Independence for Corfu itself. Then, with its highly successful tourist industry and relative wealth, including a deal of British ownership, nor has it faced quite the hardships on the mainland. Despite complaints about sudden house taxes imposed, more than temporarily too, stories of local graft among doctors, to plump the Middle Classes, or that eternal accusation of political corruption at the top in Athens. More than that though, however bad things get, Corfu has an expansion and generosity that is in the landscape itself.

The British legacy is of course very strong on Corfu, the map of which looks a bit like Britain turned upside down. Not only with the cricket, but Prince Phillip having been born at Mon Repos, and celebrated English visitors here, from Edward Lear and the Durrell brothers to Joanna Lumley. ‘Kensington-on-Sea’ they call Kassiopi, South East of Sidari, the island’s most Northern point, bulging in the summer with rich Notting Hillites from London. Both of them above Kalami, where Lawrence Durrell and his lover had that White House on the sea, the property I think now owned by Lord Rothschild, or perhaps that’s above. Lawrence was of course a very different creature to his brother Gerald, that oh so British naturalist of the charming My Family and Other Animals. Whose practical, observant, scientific echo reminds you of the Brit care of local animals here; the tiny kittens like pocket watches and the battered cat families that survive around the dustbins. Perhaps I share fictional Nikitas’s prejudice against Right-Wing people, (except when you’re trying to get some decent service, or to fix my fridge, yet again), but I would translate it to people who don’t like animals instead.

Lawrence’s different kettle of fish to his brother, like some familial fault line at the centre of Paradise Street too, was in his attraction to Eastern philosophy, his protracted philandering, that help some remark he was ‘not a nice man’, but his skill too at history and very gorgeous travel writing, that did a great service to Greece. I’ve never read the Alexandria Quartet but know his painting the island of Corfu as ‘Prospero’s Cell’, referencing a bogus local legend a friend told him that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was set here. As if imagination and literature, from Homer to now, are not a country to themselves, as Martin Amis once remarked in shock at the Islamic reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Well, the art of the novel, and of course the older ‘God Consciousness’ of Myth too, in the very emergence of language and storytelling itself, is that they aren’t entirely separate countries either, if they have power and meaning.

As for the map, physical and internal, and my obviously scruffier end of the isle below the airport, whose open runway always gives me a strange buzz, it is apparently Agios Stephanos to the North of Kalami that attracts the true cognoscenti and the elite ‘Philhelenes’ so questioned in The House on Paradise Street. So the novel discusses that superiority of knowledge and power that in the eyes of Nikitas made the British almost as bad as other conquerors, from Lord Elgin to even mosquito-bitten Lord Byron, but especially Churchill, with his carving up of Europe with Stalin at Yalta. A pact that saw both British and American influence after 1947 go unchallenged by the Soviets, although a role that other Greek protagonists in the story are very grateful for. It made me think of the pretty waitress in the Tea shop who had said so warmly “I like the British”. In the factual historical postscript to the book and with regard to Metaxa and the Colonels, who I first heard about personally on holiday visits as a child with my parents, when Greece was still a Homeric dream, comes that phrase that has haunted the World from London to Iran since WWII – “supported by the CIA.”

Meanwhile my chance friend on Agios Gordios tried to mimic being so ‘verrrrry British’, although she hardly knew where to look when I told her that at Edinburgh University I had once visited a friend at Broom Hall, only to see a tiny bit of the Parthenon on the Drawing Room wall.  It was the Bruce home, and so Lord Elgin’s house and to be fare to myself I tried to pierce the grandeur of it by pretending to steal the cutlery. That Elgin Marble thing, or how you rewrite or correct history in a globalised World, or indeed if you should in a multicultural epicentre like London and The British Museum, serving so many visitors and scholars too, is an aspect that is intelligently dismissed by Nikitas in visiting Maud in London.

So instead to the human horror of war and especially Civil War and the atrocities on both sides, which was of course redefined by that super battle that began before World War II ever ended, the function and ideology of money and so power, Capitalism versus Communism, as the Cold War began. Fought with such vigour by the likes of Allen Dulles in Switzerland and then from America. That East Coast lawyer, OSS man and first Civilian director of the CIA, and great share holder in the American Fruit Company too. It is Churchill’s role I don’t really know about though, who incidentally was brought to power instead of Chamberlain partly through the offices of my grandfather Clement Davies, as Liberal leader and head of the All-Party Group in the UK Parliament.

The novel is fair minded by giving different voices and perspectives, just as one character says Greece was not a British Colony. Although what truth can be reached if Greece still thinks it was ‘them’ doing it all cynically, like modern day Politicians up at the top? When graft can go from top to bottom, all humans have potentially murderous instincts, the British Empire bankrupted itself fighting Nazi evils, for any Imperial evils, as America achieved a new Hegemony, and that ruling instinct was always towards law and order, especially in the vicious and tragic maelstrom of the Balkans. Churchill did not have the power to impose his will at Yalta and had to engage in real-politique, just as the Philhelene ideal was perhaps betrayed by the horrible realities of war, resources and survival. Something to wake up to, as much as Communist Idealists in softer countries woke up to the horrors of Stalin.

A historical postscript reminds you of the fact Greece did not become a country until 1830 either and then references the ‘catastrophe’ of Smyrna in 1927. Not so much Ethnic Cleansing as Ethnic Rearranging, shifting 500,000 Turks and 400,000 Greeks, always the problem of the Nation State, especially when religious identity and ideology steps in too – Christian versus Islam, that fault line so much clearer at the Bosphorous. One that competes with a ‘Greece’ that stretches back to Byzantium and the Eastern Empire. “I’m orthodox and respect their faith,” one waiter had grunted, looking out to sea and talking of ‘them’, after new beheadings on TV, as I failed to get the boat to Vidos. But he certainly didn’t agree when I gave him my weak-livered ‘One Planet’ liberalism. It was of course Ataturk though who tried to modernize a sclerotic Ottoman world, removed his mother’s headscarf in public saying she was too beautiful to hide her face, shifted the Capital to Ankara and tried to separate religion from the State.

Fatherland and God are defined as powerful forces in Greece in Zinovieff’s novel too, as they were in Spain, against those supposedly ‘Godless’ and youthful instincts to create a new world among the often Communist Partisans fighting the Nazis from the mountains or the idealistic Red Brigades. Meanwhile though The House on Paradise Street attempts a story that heals with the instincts of a woman and mother, while not sitting on the fence either. That phrase then – ‘atrocities on both sides’ – which is such a challenge in places like Syria now, is not quite good enough and is countered with the instinct to expose the Right Wing prison camps, the suffering in women’s detention centres, being much a book about women, and indeed the often ruthless support of the British Establishment up to 1947, that included decapitations of at least dead soldiers.

All potentially at the heart of modern debates too about the role of Greece in Europe, or Germany in Greece, just as a new German company was just exposed as one of the most corrupt of all. Or what happened when the European Troika insisted both on restructuring and savage cutbacks, and the actions of the likes of the Universal banking Spider, Goldman Sachs. It was interesting to see Zinovief take a differently slanted line then in the story of Maud’s children, echoing many things I have heard too, from my Economics teacher friend, or local mothers, about the old fashioned rote teaching methods here, in a sense the patriarchalism of history and National loyalty, and that much of it is about the frustrations and bewilderment of young people. So it references the murder of a young student by police, or the student deaths under the Colonels too, but balances that with a skepticism about ‘hoodie’ anarchy and lost generations. So too I’ve heard among new younger friends perhaps a worrying tendency to grow old or give up too soon, though it’s something many feel facing the vast capital gulfs of today. Don’t give up. Remember the light, the beauty, the future and the Gods that make you eternally young. Greece does have a working Democracy, it is investigating the crimes of Golden Dawn members and it also has a right to talk about the flaws of the European or Global Capital model too. Meanwhile Zinovieff can use the protection of fiction to address things that might cause offense here, or furious over-reaction, like why driving is so challenged, smoking is everywhere, or how the loud shouts of malaka at every slam of a backgammon piece sometimes frightens the non natives. Others might find it a quality of foreign difference and charm.

Much meat for my Greek guest at a barbecue who seemed convinced everything from to Ebola to Iraq is a global conspiracy and that old bug bear too, an Israeli one. With that you can’t really argue the facts though, as much as I might agree with the potential conspiracy of Capital and Corporations to always reproduce themselves, sometimes at deep human cost, because it usually descends into a kind of paralyzed mysticism. Yet I also wanted to chat to him about Parmenides, and one theory that the belief the entire history of Western Civilization is based on Socratic rationalism is in fact a misreading or writing of Plato, Parmenides writing just one fragmentary poem on Nature, and about the Snake and the Cadeucus, theatre, dream caves and Aesclepius too. Perhaps that was the lead in to the discussion too of how to learn and earn the joys of just living simply, free of the storms of the world, in such a beautiful place.

As for Britishness, my other experience of it here though was far less dramatic or imperial, at a friend’s birthday in the little Paradise bar overlooking ‘Mouse Island’, Pontikonisis, just below my house, where someone said the Albanian owner foolishly watered the wine. A group of fifteen English ladies, a German and my fiesty American friend, met for drinks and oily snacks. All of whom had married Greek husbands in the heyday of their romance with Paradise, like Shirley Valentines swept into a sea of passion and new possibility. Another English wife I talked to the day before in Corfu Town though now finds that roots are roots and that for her there remains a gulf of understanding or experience at times with her Greek man. The ladies at the supper are mothers, have jobs teaching, or working in the tourist industry, face the common issues of survival and every day life. Sometimes perhaps a cultural paucity too, or a lack of stimulation perhaps, common to young locals too, though Corfu Town is home to the Ionian University, that makes the likes of the Arillas beer festival a weekend must, engagement with the amateur theatre group vital, or talk of celebrity a place of a special frisson. The big, exciting world.

Now though, since the day Jude Law came, to be naughty or not in his villa, the reps have to sign special non-disclosure agreements. We all like the wild, the naughty and the indiscreet too, life-gossip, if not quite the loucheness of Kavos in the far South. I drove down one day, in search of who knows what, to find Kavos, even emptied of tourists, a gaudy horror story of strip pubs, indecorous lounge pools and Medical Clinics seemingly every 100 metres, to take in the drunk and the wounded, from the evening fights or the blow job competitions. The mayor complained loudly when a British Documentary about it was screened, as if it had offended Greek Honour, or Manhood. In that it probably does offer a cliche of a Brit Package Tour, ever pilloried as being the drunks or thugs abroad. But Corfu is big enough, sexy enough, roomy enough, to allow for that too, like a touch of the dark side in the Southern subconscious. I now call Kavos Corfu’s Torrid Zone.

So to sitting in the immortal Robins Nest in Agios Gordios, the charming little bar run by a sparky lady from Chicago who has been here 29 years, seems to have done everything, lets people flow through her place like magic and say’s she dislikes money and is ‘a trader’, the trade being human potential and fun. From dressing up parties, to the beautiful hand painted rocks that litter her place. “We don’t have Greek comedians” said the young car mechanic glumly, over a Trivial Pursuit question, and there are not many jokes in The House on Paradise Street either, but here there’s lots of laughter. So folk come, year in year out, friends and near family, Robin has four Greek children – from America, Britain, Norway, Serbia, although not everywhere. Since Robin thinks I’m far too posh, and that Pink Palace Hotel above is so very pink, it brings a slight yearning for the days when Sir Frederick Adam got so romantic with his Greek wife. As for how little I know, I never realized William Ewart Gladstone was a High Commissioner in Greece. But that world is gone, as the novel warns modern Greeks should embrace a new if however confusing world that they can only understand by jettisoning both some of the prejudices and especially bitter memories of the past, that essentially feed on the dead. The problem is that Greek identity or the search for it among the sense of pride and self worth is so mixed up in the past, and Soumian’s Marble Steep, that abandoning it sometimes seems like abandoning the Gods themselves, or the roots of language. On the other hand, one of my friends hates all that Greek Bazouki music and all life movement is a battle between past and present, localised or wider horizons. Last year my attempt to contact The Lawrence Durrell Society, for instance, as a Brit writer perhaps dreaming of Consulates, exotic Balkan Trilogies or sexy spies, resulted in a very desultory response. With not only the discovery that the budget had been slashed, and the lease on their building gone, but that lunch up North was far more appealing than making an effort to have a drink with a nosy Brit like me.

Hey ho, perhaps Corfu needs some brand new writers and poets, I thought, if anyone reads anymore, especially as I watched a gaggle of Russian sailors decamp around Corfu town last month, in those huge, flat, wide-brimmed sailor’s caps, that always look decidedly fascist. Apparently one of Russia’s largest warships was in port, The Moscow, docked among the giant ferries sailing between Turin or Venice, and bristling with missiles the size of White Mercedes. Young men in a foreign town, they sat politely in the Souvlaki restaurants, or gathered to drink beer and smoke cigarettes, as they got snaps and it all became part of their life memories too. Perhaps, with Mr Putin’s taste for muscle-flexing and the anguish in Ukraine, they’ll do what the Brits did, and not so long ago according to a nostalgic English friend at super who told me her husband’s stolen boat turned up on the news, used as transport for Albanian drug smugglers, and invite the growing phalanx of Russian package tourists swarming to the island on board for evening cocktails. You hear the Slavic voices in my local shop, Nikki Foros, or on the promontory below the big hotel beyond Mouse Island. It all seems so unreal though, on this generous, gentle island, where EasyJet plans to open Winter routes next year. Except when the sun sets and that nagging warning voice comes again, as you watch the News or look at Mr Putin’s face, that history not only repeats itself, but never learns the lessons of history.

So to what’s above me on the hillside, and apropos of a friend writing to ask me if I had been to the house and palace of Sisi. That rather bizarre and tragic woman, Elizabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria, murdered by a young anarchist in 1898, often lived in the Achilleon, the fine white marble mansion bursting with old curios, wide terraces with marvelous views and statues of the ancient Gods, to remind you of Germanic Philhelenism. Achilles is the centre piece, of course, the greatest of especially Greek warriors, only to remind you his wound was weak humanity, or mortality itself, as his mother dipped him in the river Styx, but had to hold him by that Achilles’ heal. Perhaps we should remember though that Athens, the home of those lost marbles, Democracy and Pericles, was also a warring City State, built by men and founded in slavery, or that the best of Greece, like the best of anything, was always a kind of myth.

The Achilleon is far better and more proudly preserved a place than the likes of the dusty museum on Mon Repos, open to 8pm everyday of the year, at 7 Euros a pop. It is of course also the place where the Greek experiment in Europe was first hammered out and then the bailout too. I didn’t visit again, but had an ice cream outside and enjoyed the Cypruses and the glowing evening sunlight, just beyond the sleepy village of Gastouri. Where thanks to lost English friends I first came to visit Corfu, three years ago. I thought of one whose father was murdered and told my new Dutch friend about it. “It happened” he said, “though it doesn’t really now. Often with two warnings and then a shotgun.” The crime has never been solved. That new friend of nostalgic British memories at the birthday supper had offered me a little flat to buy in Gastouri, but do up too, that wouldn’t exactly break a very down trodden bank yet, unless I got caught up in too much skimming off the top. Which my dutch friend remarked in his father’s experience of building, as he criticized the mentality here, especially in blaming others, planned to return for some Eco-living and bravely defended the honesty of his Albanian neighbour too.

Such things remind you always of real people and real lives beyond the borders, images and isms, washed up or not, which is what The House on Paradise Street is about too. I suddenly wondered and thought too it would not be remotely possible if the economy was not down. So to the real question, whether to stay on here writing through the winter, perhaps renting, and where any roots really are now? I thought of the little painting I had given my Scot’s friend for her birthday, a pleasant watercolour of Mouse island, bought in an art shop in Corfu town, then of that US girl who had so strangely wanted to get a very confusing tattoo – “Sail on Ulysses”. Then of the big eyed girl on Agios Gordios, who had so suddenly vanished that evening at Robin’s bar, with no reason and little rhyme, that put me in a bad mood for days. Who had told me of the ancient legend, that Pontikonisis had been the boat of Nausicaa, transformed by the Gods. It added to Nausicaa’s paradox, because while it was the Phoenicians who took poor, belabouring Odysseus home to Ithaca, and Nausicaa is said to have married his son Telemachus, that name never mentioned to patient Penelope actually means ‘burner of ships’. Hmmm, whatever the myths or truth, sometimes it is so lovely here I wonder if the island will let me go.

David Clement-Davies October 2014

Around the World? The photo is from the road above Agios Gordios on Corfu.

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Filed under Community, Culture, Education, Environment, Fantasy, Language, The Phoenix Story

WRESTLING DRAGONS ON CORFU AND QUESTIONING THE FISH!

photo (2) Hello, I haven’t run away with the cash, nor spent it celebrating the new United harmony of the British peoples, convinced the Welsh and the real Celts were always the warmest and the best, but flown off to live cheap on Corfu and write Dragon In The Post! Fire Bringer is coming too, thanks to you, although I have a lot to say about the packaged awfulness of Amazon and Createspace, while I’m pondering whether to try and Crowd Fund Light of The White Bear too, giving Phoenix Ark the USP (Unique Selling Point – eeeew) of being the only little publisher to be truly grass roots and completely Crowd Funded. Along with the tag line “The author they couldn’t kill!” I know it might strike terror in the hearts and wallets of backers, not to mention my own, but it would also make a grass roots publishing tale entirely real. Would it work though and how painful would it be?

But is the question now, never go back? I say it because after a lovely few days, following 15 solid days of rain out here and now sharp, Greek sun across that sparking blue, things are not as they seemed or were. The charming waiter on the little island of Vidos, opposite Corfu town, has vanished, to be replaced by a sullen old timer slamming down ashtrays, while I found the beautiful groved restaurant overlooking the sea, at Aloniki Bay, where we had a lovely home cooked lunch when I first arrived too years ago. Yet only to be jipped a vast 14 Euros on the tiny, oily, boggle-eyed fish. Ah me, all is change and sometimes too fast. It seems embarrassing and petty to complain when everyone is going through it, and the nice owner made some amends when he said ‘come back and eat free next time – if you don’t have the fish!” yet it troubled the perfection of this magic isle. But the place is beautiful and rich as ever, Prospero’s Isle, work is being done and the answer is, ever forward, with stories and real life too.

The picture is DCD’s, of the fishy grove and a writer’s lunch table, where at least some postcards have been written!

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SCOTLAND, INDEPENDENCE, GREAT BRITAIN AND THE IMPORTANCE OF NO

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On the eve of this crucial vote what questions are we asking about Scotland, if those in Northern Ireland, England and Wales have a right to ask too? Perhaps a bit of history, and from Edmund Shakespeare’s time, might help. It was in 1607, the year of Shakespeare’s brother’s death, that a Scots King, James I, on the throne of England for only four years, failed in his vision of a ‘Greate Britaigne’, and an attempt to unite Scots and English laws, despite changing the flags. An Act of Union did not take place for nearly 200 years, in 1801, and after both a Civil War and that ‘Glorious Revolution’ that had brought Willian of Orange to the throne. None of those Scots monarchs though were especially laudable, despite the high romance of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ’45. In the meantime, out of an Elizabethan genius, in a country that never had an Empire, and after the long and gradual loss of France, England sailed out to both explore and conquer the World, with a new mercantile imperialism founded in the City of London that was defined by those East and West India companies. Which built a rather unique Empire too, founded both in the idea of trade and law, with very many flaws, for sure, and yet, especially if we accept the idea of Capitalism at all and that always essentially privatised enterprise, a far better track record than many equivalent powers and Empires. Far more than my homeland of Wales, that truly suffered both from English repression and contempt and never had the Welsh Dragon incorporated into the flag (pause for thought for Dragon In The Post), Scottish genius and enterprise played its role in that too, just as it had an Enlightenment at home. It also involved poverty and cruelty and a Scottish world diaspora, much influenced by the fact or truth of English land ownership in the North.

But what are we really asking now, in a modern world that may need and benefit from kinds of devolution, and those local parliaments that have given cultures greater autonomy and identity, but which is also seeing such calamities of conflict, fear and hatred Worldwide? Do we really need to take that ‘Great’ out of Great Britain and further undermine a United Kingdom, as well as that ‘Mother of Parliaments’ at Westminster, when this highly opportunistic attempt at Independence by the likes of Alex Salmond has been badly thought through, with no plans for an army, nor a currency nor a true discussion of the costs and benefits of the entire enterprise? Not only are companies talking of moving back to that financial hub in London, but if oil prices fall with new technologies, or when those resources decline, the kind of plans Scotland’s ‘Yes Men and Women’ have will see resources drawn down to government both by cuts, that have already happened with the SNP, but raised taxes. It is in fact British money that has underwritten the progressive social policies like free University education. Isn’t it telling too that the likes of UKIP leader Nigel Farage should want an independent Scotland, furthering the kind of dangerous petty atavisms his stamp of politics indulge in? Is it not also extremely arrogant that the SNP should simply have expected to keep the pound, yet not show a similar responsibility to the future of a weakened Union, or all our voices on a highly integrated island? Countries and Kingdoms also need to find an appropriate scale, on this geographic island of ours, to be a power in the World, to find a united direction that supersedes localised interests and to talk with a truly strong or coherent voice. In the end it is not just a question of some ancient sentimentality then but the damage this will do to a rather unusual European centre in the sea, that needs to pull and work together, especially if Great Britain is that island bridge between Europe and America. It is already having echoes in tiny European regions that will not benefit the World or themselves in trying to pull away, but a Yes will lessen all of our identities and voices on a world stage. Whatever this brings up, and promises have already been made from Westminster, do not break the Union Scotland and let a new genius and sense of united confidence stand out instead.

PA PRESS

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