Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Saint Mary's Ovaries? or 30 Second History

Okay, I knew relic worship was weird, but when we came upon a large plaque for "St. Mary Overies" in Suthurk, I thought "Whaaa???" Medieval spelling being what it was, I figured someone had come up with a new body part for veneration.

Turns out the story is actually more entertaining than that, and not nearly so medical. "Overies" is a corrupted spelling of something that means "Over [the] river."

According to legend, Mary was the daughter of John Overs--who ran a ferry east of London Bridge, near where the Golden Hinde is now docked. He made plenty of money with this ferry, and was mean enough that he saved much of it. In fact, the man was such a miser that he decided to pretend he was dead, calculating that the entire household would fast in mouring, thus saving him the cost of feeding them for 24 hours.

Instead, the servants were so glad he died, that they broke out the brandy and held a feast. This so enraged the miser that he leapt up from his "deathbed" to castigate them for their behavior. This so frightened one of the (presumably drunk) servants that he picked up a shovel and brained the man, killing him for real.

His daughter Mary was distraught at his death, and so sent a message to her lover to come be with her in her troubles. The lover was so excited and anxious to get his hands on the (presumably large) inheritance that he rode his horse so quickly that he fell off and died before he got there.

Poor Mary was so upset by the double misfortune that she took her inheritance and joined a convent. The ferry fortune was used to build a church, called St. Mary Overies, where Mary was buried.

While the story in a good one, Mr. Sweetie spiced it up for the kidlets. Imagine this acted out:

[Rubbing hands and cackling with malicious glee]: "I'll pretend to be dead, and no one will eat. Ha ha, and I'll save even more money."

"Yeah! The master is dead! Let's have a party!"

"What! How dare you....!"

[Large eyes of terror]: "Aaaagh! It's the devil possessing his body! Kill it!" [Pantomime lifting long heavy object and bashing with it]

[Choking, staggering, falling over dead. Xs over eyes a nice touch.]

[Clasping hands under chin] "Oh, my poor dead father. Yoo hoo! Lover! Come quickly!"

[Nobly] "I'm coming my love!" [Sotto voce] "Now I'll be rich!" [To horse] "Come trusty steed, we're off! [Strains of William Tell Overture] "Ahh!" *crash* [Falling down dead. More Xs over eyes]

[Clasped hands under chin] "Boo hoo. Now they are both dead. Guess I'll join a convent."

Well, I have my doubts about all the particulars of this story, but it is written out on a large public sign, so it must be true.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

One Giant Leap Backward

I'm through reading Anchee Min's latest novel Empress Orchid. Yes, I like my history novelized. Sure, there are the traps of making people from other times too modern, and thus unbelievable, but novels can sure be a nifty way to convey the stories that make historical figures memorable, as well as dramatizing ways of life that are now extinct.

Philippa Gregory's novel The Other Boleyn Girl for example posits a plausible dramatic arc which lead to Henry VIII's willingness to defy his religious upbringing and behead his friends in order to marry Anne Boleyn, only to have her beheaded three years later.

I cannot say the same for Min's work about the last Empress of China. In fact, compared to Arthur Golden's work Memoirs Of A Geisha (about which I said "It's not entirely a waste of time), Empress Orchid reads like the outline of a book.

I heard Anchee Min interviewed a couple of years ago when the book first came out. I remember being impressed with her take on her subject. The Empress Tzu Hsi has been long vilified as a manipulative and conniving sociopath with an unquenchable craving for power. Anchee Min's novel is an attempt to reclaim the woman and her humanity from the characture "Dragon Lady" she had become.

Which might have been a lovely book, had Min not gone so far in the other direction. This Tzu Hsi is practically inert, she is so passive. Far from being an iron-willed and ruthless tyrant, Min presents her Orchid as lifted by her beauty and pedigree from desperate poverty in Peking, where she is on the verge of being forced to marry her retarded cousin to keep a roof over the heads of her family, to her own palace on the grounds of the Forbidden City, draped with fine clothing and jewels, given servants and slaves, so well attended that it is considered an insult for her to do anything for herself that could be done by others. Her family is also showered with money and gifts as befitting a new member of the Imperial family.

This, however, is not enough for our Orchid, who is a lonely girl who wishes only to love and be loved. Which is a pretty desperate dream for one of 3000 concubines in the Forbidden City, a city populated by women, eunuchs, and the Emperor. She sits around in her palace, bored for two months, wishing only to be chosen by the Emperor for his attention. It is only through the machinations of one of her eunuchs that she is delivered to the Emperor's bed.

Okay, so maybe I'm too modern, but so far this story doesn't hold together for me. An impoverished girl, who has no future, a dead father, a frail and powerless mother, living in the household of a resentful uncle with rags for clothing and not enough food--suddenly, through her own initiative, signs herself up to be presented to the Emperor, makes it through the selection process (which had to have taken months), manages to find (with no missteps) the right people to teach her Imperial protocol, leaves her family forever...and then all she can do is sit around for two months and sigh that she has not yet been called to the Emperor?

It gets worse. We meet the young empress Tzu Hsi is suspected of poisoning (many years later) and are told (improbably) that they are good friends. Even though they never see each other after they enter the palace. When she is called to the Emperor's bed, the Emperor is unwilling to be seduced because he has had a bad day at work. Those foreign devils are insisting that China be open to European trade, and they are overrunning his country. Poor Emperor. So Orchid talks to him, sings him some songs, and he has the first night of good sleep in months. He won't let her go. He needs her.

But poor Emperor, he is so overworked. He is falling asleep onto his documents, even with the pen in his hand. So Orchid tries to help by reading the documents and summarizing them for him, and copying over his replies so when he falls asleep on them and spills the ink, he will not have to re-write them himself. Now, before this time, there is no indication that she can read and write--as I recall, in fact, such learning was discouraged in women. But here she picks it up easily, without training or teaching, because she is learning it only for love. Sigh.

Not because she is iron-willed. Not because she sees the Emperor as weak and needing a stronger hand to guide him. Not because she gains anything for herself by doing so. Just because she "loves" him and is willing to do anything to help him. Ah, love. True Love. Anything is possible--even the impossible--if it is done for True Love.

Frankly, I like the stronger version of the woman so much better. I mean, someone who has some sort of idea of what she is doing and why. This illiterate young girl who seeks only the good of her Emperor-love and the preservation of her country--what a sap!

This review of the life of Tzu Hsi by Pearl Buck makes it sound like the project of reclaiming her humanity was carried out much more successfully decades ago. I'm going to read this book and not waste any more time on Empress Orchid.

Padawan Skywalker?

So, I'm walking home from the auto repair shop (see My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma) and I see this guy coming out of the apartment building behind my house. He's clearly going to work--it's about 8:20 in the morning, he's carrying a LL Bean type messenger bag/brief case, wearing heavy khaki pants and the kind of shoes they used to call "Wallabys" back in the day.

All of which would have been fine on a guy in his 20s, but this guy has the thickset build and male pattern baldness of a 47 year old who is still a programmer.

The worst of it is that he's grown the hair around the bald spot long, then pulled it back--no, slicked it back--into a ponytail in the center of the back of his head. Not down at his nape, but in the center of his head, right where Ani Skywalker wears his in The Clone Wars.

Only even Ani wouldn't have borrowed one of his daughter's thick white scrunchie, and left the pony tail part halfway pulled through, so it makes a little sort of bun-thing with the end hairs sticking straight up.

Um, sir? The lesbian biker from Madison called, and she wants her hairdo back. Sure, it's spelled "Padawan Skywalker" but it's pronounced "dork."

My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma

There is an old story--I think it's from Midrash--about a wise rabbi and his apprentice. The two are travelling through the countryside, and stop at a rich man's house to seek lodging for the night.

The man is rich and miserly. He gives the rabbi and apprentice some moldy bread and water for dinner, some dirty rags for bedding and lets them sleep in the corner of a stone floor. The next morning, and rabbi thanks the man, and sends for workmen to repair a wall on the estate.

The next night, the two stop at the home of a poor and elderly couple. They have only a hovel, and their cow (their only possession) also lives in the hovel, as they have no barn. They give their won dinner to the travellers, as well as their own bed. The two elderly people go without dinner and sleep themselves on the dirt floor.

The next morning, they wake to find their cow is dead.

The apprentice cannot stand it. Once out of hearing, he turns to the rabbi and chastises him. "How could you let that happen? That mean rich man already has more than he needs, and you rebuilt his walls! And those poor people who gave us everything they had, how could you let their cow die? That was all they had to live on!"

The rabbi spoke quietly. "The rich man did not know that a chest of gold was hidden in the crumbling wall. If I had not had it repaired, he would have found that money and become even more wealthy and mean. As for the poor couple--it was the wife who was to die last night. Her life was spared in exchange for the life of the cow."

The apprentice was silenced.

I think about this story a lot--probably too often. Because I have this thing about flat tires.

Flat tires happen. They just happen to me more than to other people. I can just be driving down a road, inding my own business, when suddenly, the car gecomes incredibly sluggish. It doesn't accelerate the way it usually does. It feels like I'm driving in molasses. Nope--just another flat tire. Never a dramatic "bang" or anything, just a slowness to the car's response, and a slight increase in the road noise.

Yesterday I drove up my street, pulling toward the curb in order to avoid a sunken manhole cover/pothole, when all the sudden I'm hearing this loud and horrible "fwap fwap fwap fwap" from the undercarriage of the vehicle. I'm 5 feet away from my house, so I pull over immediately and jump out to examine what happened. A long piece of molded black plastic is sticking out from my rear passenger tire. The noise was probably the plastic banging around in the wheel well. It's held in place by about 2 inches of screw embedded into my tire tread.

My kidlets are jaded. At the first horrible "fwap" the older one says "What is that?" and the younger one says "That doesn't sound good." We all congregate around the injured tire, and the Bunny says in a resigned voice "I'll get the spare."

But it's getting to be bedtime, so I promise I'll check it in the morning. I did break off the black plastic thing--about 20 inches of something I still don't know what it was. Next morning, we check the tire--not flat. Okay, maybe we can drive it into the auto mechanic's up the street. We get one block, and --uh-oh, there's that molasses feeling again. We get out, examine the tire...

Hey! What's the deal? It's not flat.

No, the front tire is.

Fortunately, the auto mechanic's is walking distance from school. The Nice Man from the repair shop sends a tow truck, since I'm pretty sure it's just a matter of time before I have TWO flat tires.

Okay, so I'm unlucky with tires. REALLY unlucky with tires. I could feel persecuted by fate, until I think about that cow. Maybe I'm really lucky in some other way I don't know about, because the worse thing that could happen turns out only to be a flat tire. Or two.

LATER. I got a call from the repair shop. The front tire is pretty much ruined--can't be repaired. However, it was down to only about 1/32 inch of tread. The tire with the screw in it? It was at 3/32 inch of tread. The other two tires are just as bad, if not worse. Good thing we had such a dry winter, as this car would have been a sled on snow. Not only should ALL FOUR tires been replaced 6 months ago (wow--I really did dodge a bullet!), but they have the tires already in the shop, so there is no ordering delay! Hey, that's actually lucky! Plus, I'm only 200 miles from needing an oil change, so they can do it all at once! Save me another trip in! Keep my car safe for me and the precious little souls that travel with me every day!

So, I'm not exactly -- you know-- happy about this. But it could have been something So. Much. Worse.

Friday, May 20, 2005

It's Still Funny, Too.

Rented A Fish Called Wanda a couple of days ago--expressly for the purpose of re-viewing the love shack where John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis go for their dates. You remember--where John Cleese strips while speaking Russian, only to be exposed when a Nice English Family (with three little children) walk in the door.

Yes, it is a flat in Southwark--probably on Shad Thames, actually. The view (of which they make a point) is the same as the one from "our" flat--only we could see St. Paul's, but they didn't have the "Erotic Gherkin" pornifying the skyline.

Extra bonus points to Mr. Sweetie for remembering this.

Double extra bonus points, since the movie is still very very funny.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

For History Geeks Only

So, I managed to return to America without a fake English accent, and I don't call the bathroom the "loo." What I did bring home, however, was a fascination with the history of England embodied in the sovreigns. I can't quite recite them all in order of appearance, but every time you turn around in London and environs, you fall over something that was built by and for them.

And yet...

I have become so comfortable with the different eras and styles of the different monarchs, that it just seems like it's Not That Much History. I mean, sure, there's plenty of history and all, but it really only goes back to about 1066--not even a full thousand years.

Oh, don't get me wrong--the English know their kings back to about 800 A.D., when the kings of Wessex started throwing out the Vikings. But as far as recorded history goes, it goes back to 1066.

(William the Conqueror? Oh, surely I don't have to tell you about William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings and the institution of Norman rule! Well, then, your assignment is to look it up, write a brief essay--no longer than 2 pages-- and turn it in. Yes, it will be on the exam.)

There is one great exception--Edward the Confessor, aka St. Edward. This is the Edward who died in January of 1066 without children, leading at least three major contenders to jockey for the throne. Harold got himself crowned at Westminster Abbey (begun by Edward the Confessor--so he would have a place to go for confessions?) before racing north to beat the Norweigans trying to get the throne, and then racing south only to die from an arrow in the eye at Hastings.

This Edward is not to be confused with the later Norman kings who were also named Edward--Edward I (castle builder and conqueror of Wales), Edward II (first Prince of Wales, later deposed and murdered by his wife and her boyfriend) and Edward III. Edward the Confessor comes from the pre-Norman line where people didn't get numbers. This Edward is buried in Westminster Abbey, right in the center of the church, in a where no one is allowed anymore because the tomb is so fragile. In earlier years, however, it was thought that the tomb itself had the power to heal the sick, and so sick people were left overnight in little niches along the base.

Anyway, once you start differentiating among all the Edwards, the rest of the history of England starts to seem like current events.

How Was The London Flat, You Ask?

I'm so glad you asked!

The flat was fabulous. It was as big as the entire first floor of our house. I thought it was every bit as lovely as the pictures. The rest of the family thought it was even better than the pictures.

Yes, if you stand on the balcony and look upriver, that is indeed the view.

Yes, if you stand on the balcony and look straight down (at high tide) you see water and ducks and swans under your feet.

Bermondsey (where the flat is) has a rich history--while walking to the Mayflower pub, we came across the remains of Edward III's moated manor house. Just sitting there.

Bermondsey is part of the borough of Southwark, which is just south of The City of London, across the London Bridge, and was the location of the playhouses, animal baiting rings, brothels and other entertainments banned in the City proper. Shakespeare probably lived here, Chaucer's pilgrims left from the Tabard Inn which was here, Dickens lived here...as I said, very historic.

The trouble? How the hell do you pronounce "Southwark?" I tried the logical "South-wark" and the driver who brought us from the airport nearly choked with laughter. He pronounced it for me, and I kept hearing it as "Suv-vurk." Mr. Sweetie finally took pity on me and parsed it out for me: "Suth" like the first syllable of "southern", and "urk"--Suthurk.

Which raises the question of why? Why have all those extra letters in all those words if they aren't going to pron0unce them? "Suthurk" is less ridiculous than the pronounciation of "Worcestershire"--"Wooster." Applied to the works of P.G. Wodehouse, "Lord Blicester" becomes "Lord Blister."

I think it has to do with Edward I, who made a point of conquering the Welsh. He killed their soldiers, built lots and lots of castles to show them who was boss, and stole most of the letters from their alphabet, leaving them to spell things like "I am true to my country" as "PLEIDIOL WYF I'M GWLAD."

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Okay, I'll Tell You...If You Beg

So, I can't stop thinking about Madame Tussaud's. Yes we went there on our first day in London, yes we were grubby with travelling all night on the air plane, yes we were falling asleep on the Tube--

So of course we went to Madame Tussaud's. Let me tell you, it's a different kind of wax museum. We had been to the wax museum in San Francisco, down at Fisherman's Wharf not long ago, and that's what I expected--life-sized dioramas of Important Dead White Guys signing fake papers, and recreations of Famous Artworks, and some Movie Stars (does anyone really want to see Nicholas Cage in wax?)! All safely behind glass, or roped off, or in a separate room or something.

Not at Madame Tussaud's. I guess it's so expensive because they have to keep replacing the figures. In the first "gallery" the Stars! are all standing around as if its a really dead Hollywood party, and you can go up to them. Really! And take a picture so it looks like you are really there with a famous Hollywood personage. In your travel clothes with jet lag, which is how I go to all my Hollywood parties, don't you?

Kylie Minogue is crawling across the top of a piano, and apparently the costume budget for that figure is higher than average because they have to keep replacing her 50p panties. That's right--apparently grabbing wax ass is popular over there.

Simon Caldwell sits grumpily on a sofa--and you can sit next to him! And put your hand on your chin and be grumpy too!

JLo stands alone in the center of the room in a taupe dress with her head turned over her shoulder, making moues at the paparazzi (I'm just guessing here). Does she look so real because of the craftman's skill, or is it because she really does look like wax?

Aww, how cute--there sits the George Clooney figure at a fancy dining table, a fake bottle of champagne on ice, and you can sit across from him as he holds your hand. Say "NO! I will not marry you, so stop asking me" very loudly as someone snaps your picture. Everybody back home will really think you had dinner with George. No, really! They will!

Britney Spears was off the floor--refurbishment, or faded from public demand? You make the call. In her place was a terrible "Beyonce Knowles" which just looked like some catalogue model who had thrown out her hip. Also in place were some British people that even with nameplates I didn't know who they were, but one looked creepily like a creepy Jack Nicholson. Okay, that was redundant.

So, you continue to walk through the museum, and most of the figures are truly within touching distance, although very few people actually touched them that I saw. David Beckham (in football uniform) looked very real, and quite handsome in a way that most photos don't catch. He has two figures in the museum--the second one is with Posh. You can add a feather boa and be professionally photographed with the two of them. I passed.

Let's see--HRH QEII has a really bad wig--far too large for her head. Princess Di is on a small dias, so she's even taller than usual, and she has a disapproving look on her pursed lips. Hitler is very short. No one pays any attention to the Prince Phillip and Prince Charles mannequins. There is no Camilla.

I refused to look at the W one.

There is an "animatronic" ride that shows the "Spirit of London" if by spirit you mean a couple of famous characters (QEI, Shakespeare), the Black Plague, Twiggy, and then a hot air balloon (?!?) with a punk and some other people in it. Was it too short--did it go by to quickly, or was it a kindness that it was over so quickly?

Ah well, the kidlets liked it. And we all slept well that night.

No More Jet Lag

Well, we're back, over our jet lag, kidlets are back in school, and I can finally get onto the computer. I won't bore you with a blow by blow account of the trip. Here is the short version:

  • Madame Tussaud's is overpriced (and Michael Caine is not glamorous)
  • We spent 6 hours at the Tower of London and still missed a lot
  • Bus tours of London last for 2.5 hours because of traffic
  • Windsor Castle is fabulous, but even if QEII is in, she won't invite you to tea.
  • Hampton Court Palace is wonderful when it is empty--and you can even stay there!
  • It's good to be Queen