People are instilled with terrible fear about Shakespeare, told they won’t understand his language. “It couldn’t be easier,” says Judi Dench, quoting from Macbeth (II.ii) : … the innocent sleep, / Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, / The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, / Balm of hurt minds…. “Well,” she continues, “if you’d written that, you’d be up all night looking at yourself in the mirror, wouldn’t you.”
When my older son was little, I was often directing Shakespeare. Stone in one hand, stick in the other, he invented a game called Shylock, or 5 ducats. “I don’t like Shylock,” he tells me, “he wants to kill a man.” Why? “Because he’s stressed,” my son decides, under pressure from anti-semites. Years of victimisation and prejudice come to a head. Shylock snaps. Aged 2, my son worked that out.
In New York in 2017, the eponymous hero in a production of Julius Caesar appeared dressed in white shirt, long red tie and baseball cap. Trump had recently been inaugurated and now here was a dictator brutally assassinated before captive audiences. Fox news, not realising the play was by Shakespeare, denounced it. Delta Air Lines withdrew sponsorship.
In the year before Dylan Thomas died, one patron took an overdose, his father, sister and three friends all died, his wife terminated a pregnancy and he, “the greatest living poet in the English language,” felt his best work was behind him. In A Poet in New York Tom Hollander wonderfully portrays the Welsh poet’s last, lost, sweating, breathless, whisky-sodden days.
When asked how he was, Dylan Thomas, newly turned 39, replied “apart from a spot of gout and the gastritis of course and the asthma, and piles, warts, boils and carbuncles, a bit of cirrhosis, a touch of TB, brittle bones and an overwhelming sense of panic and terror, I’m absolutely tip-top.” Days later, lungs destroyed by smoking, liver and brain by booze, he died.
The inspirational, brilliantly original performance poet of “tenderness scrubbed raw” has cut off a remarkable mane of golden curls and changed their name (no more “she” or “her”) from Kate to the non-binary “Kae” Tempest. Kae, an old English word for a jay. Pronounced like the letter “K”, the bird is associated with communication, curiosity, adaptation to new situations and courage.
Son phones daily, regales me with stories from his summer job at the old people’s home. “Write them down,” I say. He does. And has me weeping at their dark humour. A born comedian, he brilliantly mimics the way these doubly incontinent, demented, institutionalised folk speak, their accents, the patois, the every day horrors of life’s drawn-out, depressingly lonely last few years.
I’ve ordered an inflatable canoe, am toying with the idea of an electric bike, have even flirted with the idea of a micro pod. I’ve lived in France a long time, yet barely know it. I want to explore its rivers and gorges, cycle along coastal paths and canals, perhaps retrace Robert Louis Stevenson’s travels in the Cévennes (though definitely without the donkey).
Maybe it was the email about our second annual pay cut (18% in 2 years??!) that makes me, like Kenneth Grahame’s Toad, dream of the open road: “Here today, up and off somewhere else tomorrow !” Seeing a canary-yellow gypsy caravan Toad says, ”Glorious, stirring sight ! The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!”
In 1833, the British government spent £20 million – 40% of its total budget – buying freedom for slaves. That’s equivalent to approximately £20 billion today. Until five years ago, the British tax payers, some of whom are descendants of the transatlantic slave trade, were still paying off that debt. The money had been paid, not to slaves, but to their owners for their loss of ‘property.’
I dream up adventures in my head. An old favourite is to sail the Mediterranean coastline from France around Spain, North Africa, Cyprus over to Lebanon, back along the shores of Turkey, Greece and Italy. Then I would walk Scotland’s coastline. And recreate David Balfour’s journey in Kidnapped.
Heatwaves make me sluggish but I force myself to get the bike out and head out of town. Crossing fields with sunflowers and strangely neat piles of scrap metal, I enjoy seeing bees on thistles, fluttering butterflies and meadow flowers. I push my bike up hills, freewheel down through vines and so home to tea and – somewhat defeating the exercise – homemade fruitcake.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring is unlike anything else I’ve read, subtle, comic, teetering on the tragic, deeply quirky. Peopled with oddballs, outcasts and marginals, it’s a miniature masterpiece set in Moscow in 1913. Fitzgerald published the first of her 9 novels when she was in her sixties. Her second won the Booker prize.
English can be deliciously drôle. Collecting nouns leads to a murder of crows, a parliament of owls, mess of iguanas, smack of jellyfish, drift of pigs, sleuth of bears and a mob of kangaroos. You can have a swarm, grist, hive and rabble of bees; a troop, gang or obstinacy of buffalos; and kittens come in kindles and pillows as well as litters.
At 3am it’s 35°C in the house. Unable to sleep, I go to the freezer and take out some ice blocks designed to keep picnics cold. Balancing them the length of my body, eventually I sleep, and dream of patenting a cold water bottle for globally-warmed heatwave nights.
For more than a decade I’ve been writing training proposals for French companies. I never get a reply, so follow up, invariably to be told there’s no money in the budget. Under Macron, budgets have been ruthlessly cut and tens of thousands of training centres axed in a short-sighted bid to save money. How can economies grow without training?
In 1981 a Harvard professor of conflict management suggested implanting nuclear launch codes in a volunteer. Before ordering a nuclear attack, the US president would have to look the volunteer in the eye and kill him with a butcher’s knife. Sadly 40 years on, I doubt the US president would have any scruples about retrieving the codes.
In C16th Ireland England’s queen stole land and Spenser, penning allegories of Knights and Ladies’ gentle deeds starved the Irish into submission: “out of every corner of the woods they came/ creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not carry them/ anatomies of death/ scraping carcasses in graves.”
Describing his inner demons, an old man says he has two dogs in him, one good, the other a mean old devil. The dogs are constantly at each other’s throats, fighting. Asked which one wins, the man pauses before answering, “the one I feed the most.”
A persistent cough in Seattle, shortness of breath in Chicago, followed by 13 more cases by mid-Feb. Trump says “The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” Roll on 4 months and the real number is close to five million and rising steeply – sometimes by 40 or even 50,000 a day.