Monday, June 11, 2012

A few years ago, an old World War II poster was rediscovered among a pile of dusty, antiquarian books. It read: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. That simple slogan, so quintessentially British, is plastered everywhere now—on T-shirts and coffee mugs, and in endless variations, such as KEEP CALM AND STUDY (in Oxford) and NOW PANIC AND FREAK OUT (back in London).

I thought about that poster this morning as I sat at the train station in Leomington Spa. I was traveling between Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon, but I missed my connection in Banbury. A conductor there told me to go on to Leomington, where I learned that my only two options were equally bad—either wait two hours in the cold and pouring rain for a direct train to Stratford, or take a train all the way up to Birmingham and another one back. Instead, I pulled out my iPhone and used the GPS to check my location. Incredibly, I was just 11.6 miles away from my hotel.

What’s the practical answer to keeping calm and carrying on? I took a cab!

So here I am in the city of Shakespeare’s birth, eating a late lunch at Café Rouge, as droplets of rain creep down the red and gold letters painted on the window in front of me—Plats du Jour, Menu Enfant, Prix Fixe, and Vins Fins. I’m enjoying a croque-monsieur, a decidedly French sandwich that reminds me of Paris, but the weather and the steaming pot of tea before me are entirely British, and for the latter, at least, I am grateful.

I’m staying at the Legacy Falcon Hotel on Chapel Street, next to a fine row of 15th century almshouses and a grammar school. It’s a creaky, old building with exposed oak timbers turned black with age. There’s a cozy lounge inside with an open fireplace and a straight-back settee with worn red cushions and soft pillows. It’s the kind of place where Falstaff and a young Prince Hal might stop by for a pint. There is a new building sewn onto the original, however, and my room is situated there, pleasantly large and blessedly modern.

After settling in, I grab my umbrella, walk down Chapel Lane and then bear right along the River Avon, toward Holy Trinity Church, which holds the grave of William Shakespeare. It’s a beautiful place in its own right, with a graceful Gothic spire, but most of the 200,000 tourists that come here every year do so for one reason only, and the church is pragmatic about it. A sign out front confirms that Shakespeare’s grave is inside, and another in the nave gently points “this way.”

Shakespeare is buried beneath a funerary monument mounted to the wall in the church’s chancel. A badly eroded stone slab in the floor below displays his famous epitaph:

GOOD FREND FOR IESUS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE.
BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CVRST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.

When Washington Irving visited Stratford-Upon-Avon in the early 19th century, he came to Holy Trinity Church and stood where I am standing now. “As I trod the sounding pavement,” he later wrote, “there was something intense and thrilling in the idea that in very truth the remains of Shakespeare were mouldering beneath my feet.” And here they stay, long turned to dust. Because of the threat in his epitaph, Shakepeare’s remains were never reinterred in Westminster Abbey alongside other great English writers and poets.

For some reason, the site reminds me uncomfortably of the time I wrote an essay on Henry IV, Part I in 11th grade English based almost entirely on Cliff Notes, and I hang my head in shame for the “A” that I received, convinced nonetheless that I am not alone in my angst over reading Shakespeare’s verse.

Determined to make amends, I stop by the Royal Shakespeare Company on my way back to the hotel and inquire about tickets for the night’s performances. I have two options. I can see a re-imagined version of Julius Caesar set in contemporary Africa on the main stage, or I can watch an evil-hearted Richard III cry “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” in the smaller Swan Theatre next door.

Years ago in school I had to memorize the famous monologue in which Brutus says: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is often interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar.” I’ve also seen the Temple of Caesar in the Roman Forum in Italy, marking the place where Caesar’s mutilated corpse was cremated. Seeing the murderous act and hearing the speech on stage appeals to me, but admittedly the post-modern setting does not. In the end, the intrigue of the princes in the tower wins out, and I opt for the hunchback.

After a relaxed dinner at Pizza Express, I head back to the Swan and settle into the cheap seats high above the stage, in the second row of the second balcony. For £16 I’m not expecting much, but the view is shockingly good! The theatre is small and intimate, and there is a wooden railing in front of me. I lean forward against it with my elbows and prop by chin in my hands, transfixed by the world that has been conjured before me.

This is not the Shakespeare I struggled to read in my youth. Despite—or perhaps because of—the spartan stage, the minimal props, and the vaguely modern costumes—the text has come alive, and I watch in fascination as Rupert Goold’s Richard spins off kilter into a final, neurotic insanity before meeting his fate on Bosworth Field.

For a night at the theatre, I’ve had a rollicking good time, as playwrights always intended in the Elizabethan era. It was an age when audiences were crammed with boisterous groundlings, willing to throw rotted fruit at plays that met their displeasure. Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that Shakespeare was high brow, and that actors needed to recite his lines with a proper and mannered respect.

“What fools these mortals be,” he might say. 

On the short walk back to my hotel in the dark, I can’t quite remember why I ever feared the Bard.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This morning, I’m standing in front of William Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street, waiting to buy a £21 ticket for all five properties in town run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, including Hall’s Croft, Nash’s House and New Place, and two sites farther afield—Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm—for which there’s a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus.

Shakespeare was born in a half-timber frame building with tan plaster walls, pointed gables, and diamond-paned windows—not terribly impressive in its own right in a city awash in Tudor homes, but because of its literary connection, this has been a tourist destination for more than 250 years, visited by the likes of Charles Dickens, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, and, of course, Washington Irving, who wrote of his visit during a “poetical pilgrimage” to Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1820. Even then, it was a “small mean-looking edifice of wood and plaster,” but one that was undoubtedly, he said, “a true nestling-place of genius.”

Irving was hardly the first to write about his visit. When the city of Stratford erected a statue to Shakespeare during a Jubilee celebration in 1769, the playwright David Garrick penned these fanciful lines in a lengthy “Ode”:

The fairies by moonlight dance round his green bed
For hallow’d the turf is which pillow’d his head.

The bed is indeed draped in a green coverlet to this day, but as I wander from room to room, it occurs to me that the house says more about those who admire Shakespeare than it does about the Bard himself; more, it would seem, about his reputation after death, than about his earliest years of life. Of that we know remarkably little, aside from the register of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church. Instead, what stands out here is the original window from what is traditionally thought to be the birthing room (in all honesty, historians have no idea in which room Shakespeare was born). The tiny panes of glass were covered with so much graffiti through the years—with so many etched names of ordinary visitors, as well as literary giants such as Sir Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson—that it had to be removed for safekeeping.  

Shakespeare is credited with coining a great many words and phrases in the English language, including these: “A plague upon both your houses,” “All that glitters is not gold,” and “As dead as a doornail,” later used so memorably by Dickens to describe old Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol. Standing here among the relics, I am reminded—just a bit—of a line from As You Like It: “Too much of a good thing.”

Outside in the garden, things are less hallowed, but far more lively. There are two actors performing scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there is a small crowd of school kids dressed like characters in a Harry Potter book, with black jackets and red and yellow striped ties. When one of the men asks a question and a young girl raises her hand to answer, I’m reminded of Hermione Granger and think: “Five points for Gryffindor!”

The younger of the two actors has a sweet voice and tuft of ginger hair, and he turns and says:  

 If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And if I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friend,
And Robin shall restore amends.

We all applaud appreciatively. It’s a fitting cue to leave, so I walk to the corner and grab the sightseeing bus to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, which is just a ten minute ride down the road. This is the childhood home of Shakepeare’s wife and it’s a decidedly romantic place with climbing roses and a thick, thatched roof, and there is a sea of flowers spilling out across the yard. Oddly enough, I recognize it immediately because of a blue and white china plate I once bought at a small antique shop. For years, I used it every day for lunch until it finally broke.

Inside, the cottage is cramped and cozy, with a large open fireplace and a low-hanging ceiling supported by dark oak beams. In the hallway on the way out, there is a corkboard where visitors can leave a note behind that reflects on their visit. It reminds me of Juliet’s house in Verona, Italy, and I wonder if it’s covered with similarly inane commentary. It is! One slip of paper reads: “Zip, zip. Wisconsin, USA” and another, “Where is all the Batman stuff?” But my personal favorite is: “I am cool like sausages.” This one makes me burst out laughing. I suspect that William Shakespeare would turn over in his grave to see how we waste the English language today.

I hop back aboard the sightseeing bus and ride on to Mary Arden’s Farm and the adjacent Palmer’s Farm, where I break for lunch. I look over the menu and because I have no idea what it is and it intrigues me, I order the “Bay & cider infused pot roasted hot hog & pippin bap, sage seasoning with old English slaw.” I am somewhat disappointed to see it’s simply a hot pork sandwich with potato chips and rather conventional looking coleslaw, but it’s warm and satisfying nevertheless.

The farm is a lovely place to be, even on a dreary day. There’s a woman playing a flute, the heavy smell of charcoal embers, and a bevy of farm animals under foot—pigs, goats, sheep, chickens and geese. Nearby, a Falconer is demonstrating her technique with a barn owl. There’s even a group of schoolchildren roaming about in Tudor costumes. It feels as though I’ve stepped back in time.

I finish the afternoon back in Stratford-Upon-Avon with brief visits to Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susannah, and her husband, and to Nash’s Hall, which rests alongside the foundations of New Place, the excavated site of Shakespeare’s final home on Chapel Street, long since demolished. Then, I wander down to the RSC and ride the elevator to the top of the tower to survey the town and the surrounding countryside. From here, I can spot the Legacy Falcon Hotel and the adjacent Guild Chapel, and when I look past the swans and the weeping willows along the River Avon, I see the spire of Holy Trinity Church rising high above a forest of green.

With some time left before dinner, I decide do a little shopping and buy a tiny silver mirror embossed with angels for my Mom at the Stratford Antique Centre on Ely Street. Then I make a loop, darting in and out of shops, and walk back along Henley, where there’s a street musician singing “In the Summertime.” You know the song. “Sing along with us, dee dee dee dee dee. Da da da da da, yea we’re hap-pap-py.” For the second time today, I actually laugh out loud. Why? Because it’s freezing cold in Britain, despite what the calendar says, and this poor woman is strumming her guitar while wearing a winter coat, hood, hat, and gloves! I drop a one pound coin into the open case at her feet. Surely, she’s earned it.

I explore some menu boards posted outside by local restaurants before selecting Vintner on Sheep Street for dinner. The breast of chicken I order is roasted in lime butter with mango and spinach, covered in a mild curry sauce, and served over basmati rice. It’s my best meal of the trip so far, and as I eat one delicious bite after another I thumb through a cute little book of Shakespearean insults I bought for my nephew in the gift shop at Nash’s House. It’s called The Bard’s Guide to Abuses and Affronts.

“Thou art as loathsome as a toad.”
“The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.”
“Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes.”
“I was searching for a fool when I found you.”
“I do desire we may be better strangers.”

I think about those lines later as I sit in the lounge of The Legacy Falcon and try in vain to connect my iPad to the hotel’s wireless router so that I can upload some pictures from the day’s events. There is no signal in my room and this has been an ongoing source of frustration. I talk to the clerk at the front desk. She is surly and seems to have heard the complaint before, but she insists that the hotel doesn’t advertise internet access, therefore I haven’t been deprived of anything I was promised.

Feeling challenged, I stomp back to my room and return with a printed copy of my reservation and point to where it says, very clearly: “Free! Wi-fi is available in the entire hotel and is free of charge.” She is unrepentant. She shrugs mildly and says nothing.

I doubt I could deliver a line with the same flourish as those actors in the garden this morning at Shakespeare’s birthplace, but perhaps with a little practice and small amount of daring, I might just say:

“There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.”

I don’t, obviously. But I wish I had.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

This is my final morning in Stratford-Upon-Avon and when I part the drapes in my room, I see a crystal blue sky. Always a day late and a dollar short. As far as I know, Shakespeare didn’t write that, but he may as well have. Like in Bath, I hurry through breakfast and make a mad dash around town trying to improve upon my pictures before I catch the train back to London.

By 10:00 AM, I’m bound for Marylebone station. I’m prepared for a dull, two-hour journey, but then something extraordinary happens.

I meet Eileen Sullivan.

She’s an elderly woman with a kind face and a tremulous voice. She’s heading to Chester for an historical society conference and in case she nods off, she wants me to wake her up in time to make her connection. She says she’s been nervous about making the trip on her own and she hasn’t slept all night. She’d rather stay alert, so we talk. And talk some more.

Eileen was one of those brave souls who kept calm and carried on. She was twelve when Hitler invaded Poland, so I ask her what it was like during the Blitz, and she tells me that after the bombs fell over London she could walk across broken glass because her bare feet had been toughened by the sharp pebbles on Brighton beach. She was a working class girl with little education and there were few opportunities back then, so she took a job at a biscuit factory. She never married. And after all these years, she still remembers how rationed cheese tasted like cardboard during the war.

When we pull into her station, I help gather her things and I wish her well, which seems inadequate somehow and far too mundane for the extraordinary life she has lived. She nods, and as she climbs carefully down the steps to the platform to await the next train, I am grateful for whatever random circumstances allowed us to meet.  

I take a black cab from Marylebone station back to the Rubens at the Palace hotel on Buckingham Palace Road and when the doorman’s hand reaches for the handle, he recognizes my face through the window and smiles. It feels good to be back!

For this last stint at the Rubens, I’ve splurged and gone all out. I’m staying in the Royal Wing, where there are themed rooms devoted to various British monarchs. Mine is Henry VIII and the furnishings are appropriately lavish. There are heavy drapes in deep red, patterned with gold lions, and there’s even a Henry VIII teapot on the table at the foot of the bed. In all of my years of travel, only my room in Paris at the Hotel des Grands Hommes in 2007, with its toile fabric walls and view of the Pantheon, comes close to matching this. I crash on the bed, with a half canopy overhead, and find that it’s as soft and comfortable as it looks. I’ll be sleeping here for the next four nights, and I may never want to leave.

I’m devoting the afternoon to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms near Downing Street, a visit made all the more timely by my serendipitous meeting with Eileen Sullivan on the train this morning. This is the underground bunker where Churchill and his cabinet planned their military strategy to defeat Hitler, and the rooms appear to be frozen in time, left just as they were at the close of the war. There are columns of figures tacked to the wall noting how many Nazi bombs were launched each day, and how many casualties—fatal, serious, and slight—resulted. The numbers are staggering.

I also squint at a map on the wall, outlined in colored pegs, and spot München and Würzburg and in between a small white pin near Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I think of the repaired medieval walls I walked there just last year, and I shutter to think of the damage done on both sides.

The adjoining Churchill Museum is equally fascinating and thoroughly modern. There are electronic ticker tapes, giant video screens, and interactive timelines, as well as photographs linked to motion sensors that play radio recordings of Churchill’s most stirring speeches as visitors approach. Still, I am most moved by the relics themselves—an Enigma machine used to encode German messages, the prime minister’s gold pocket watch, a desk diary used by a secretary in the days leading up to D-Day, and a letter from George VI dated 1944 in which the King writes:

My dear Winston,

     I have been thinking a great deal of our conversation yesterday & I have come to the conclusion that it would not be right for either you or I to be where we planned to be on D day. I don’t think I need emphasize what it would mean to me personally, & to the whole Allied cause, if at this juncture a chance bomb, torpedo or even a mine should remove you from the scene; equally a change of Sovereign at this moment would be a serious matter for the country & Empire. We should both I know love to be there, but in all seriousness I would ask you to reconsider your plan.

My head swirling, I climb back up the stairs and emerge into London at rush hour. I walk the short distance to Trafalgar Square and then on to Covent Garden. I grab an easy dinner at the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin in the Fields, and then wander down to Embankment where I cross the Golden Jubilee footbridge and follow along the Thames to Westminster Bridge and back, stopping off at a souvenir shop on Whitehall to buy a London sweatshirt. It’s about time I had something warmer to wear.

As I fall into my luxurious bed back at the Rubens, I think once again about Eileen Sullivan, and I can almost hear Churchill’s voice from the recording at the museum ringing in my ears:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

Thank God they never did.