Friday, March 30, 2012

Why I Love Train Travel in England

I was on the train to Cardiff to see my aunts and a cousin who were there for a rugby game this past Thursday. I spent about three and a half hours on the train, going from Stratford-upon-Avon, to Birmingham Moor Street, to Birmingham New Street, to Bristol Parkway, to Cardiff Central. Sounds like a lot, but it was not that bad.

Anyway, on with what I love about British train travel. I have only really taken trains in America twice: once on a trip to the east coast and once from Tacoma to San Francisco. The east coast trip was fine, the Tacoma to San Francisco was the worst travel experience of my life (including the 12 hour night-bus across Turkey that stopped every 30 minutes). Here is why:

The train was three hours late by the time it arrived in Tacoma. The real amazing thing was that it left Seattle, its point of origin, on time, and made no stops between Seattle and Tacoma (a driving time of maybe 40 minutes). Strike 1. Then, mom and John got a private berth; I was stuck in the lowest class (not sure what the official term is) in a single seat surrounded by other people, including many, many children. Strike 2! Every time another train approached ours we were forced to stop, allowing it to pass (they have to do this because the train company does not own the tracks, and so has to give way to all other traffic). This would not have been quite so intolerable had they not accounted for this in the time the journey takes, because it clearly happens every time they make the journey. STRIKE 3!

So for all of you who understand baseball you should realize that the train company has struck out already, and we haven’t even left Oregon yet! Stay tuned for more annoyance.

The dining car was abysmal. About 1/3 of the booths were used for storage of random crap, there was very little choice in what you could eat and almost none of the food was warm. My mom ordered a Corona (for something ridiculous like $6.00), and when she told the waiter it was flat and stale he said too bad, and refused to give her another or refund her money, because she had taken more than one sip from the bottle.

We eventually arrived in San Francisco, about seven hours late. I was so pissed off that I refused to take the train back and made mom buy me a plain ticket to fly home (I was still young enough that I could do that). The price of the train tickets actually cost about the same as plane tickets, but John was and is afraid of flying (which he will not admit) and so we were forced to take the journey-of-the-damned-by-train.

Now what does this have to do with traveling by train in England? Well, I have never had an experience on the train in Europe that even comes close to the hell that was that trip. By contrast, if a train is 30 minutes or more late in England, they are legally obliged to refund all of your ticket. If this were the policy of the train company we used to San Francisco, they would be bankrupt. The trains are much more comfortable, even the crap trains in England are more comfortable than the seat I had to SF.

But the crowning glory, in my most humble of opinions, is the people watching. Generally, I do not get the idea of people watching. How can someone sit down and just watch people walk? It is s boring. However, when I am on a train I am forced to just sit and watch. My preference is to watch the frolicking lambs that are very prevalent at this time of year, but occasionally a little old couple will board the train and take my heart and attention. Today, as I was traveling between Birmingham and Bristol, a couple of about seventy boarded in Cheltenham Spa. They sat across the aisle from me, both seated on the same side of the table. They seemed normal, until the man handed his wife a small black backpack.

This backpack seemed to be Mary Poppins’ version of a travel bag; it was the kind of stylish yet practical accessory that screams “I’M USEFUL AND MATCH NEARLY ALL OF YOUR OUTFITS!!!” From this bag came two plastic coffee mugs with a pink flower/blue checkerboard pattern that clearly announced that the man had no hand in their purchase. In the bottom of each of these cups was a small sandwich bag filled with on teaspoon of instant coffee and then carefully tied. As the husband carefully emptied the contents of his too-big-for-what-it-contained bag into his coffee cup (an event that took nearly two minutes and required the assistance of his wife), the woman removed two sandwiches from the black bag, placing them in front of them on the table.

Once the instant coffee was emptied into the cups, patiently waiting for its transformation from a solid to a liquid, the black-bag-of-fabulousness revealed a giant thermos of steaming water. The only thing missing was milk for the coffee. “I guess they drink their coffee black.” I began thinking to myself, but before the though finished its journey through my mind, a tiny plastic bottle of milk was extracted from the magic bag. “Hot and cold in one bag? Now that is versatile.” I thought to myself.

But there was one last item that was needed to make the train picnic complete: two teaspoons, one for each of the adorable little old people. The spoons were removed from the bag, stirred briefly to combine the ingredients, tapped on the edge of the cup and replaced in the bag of wonder.

I truly believe the couple has done this many times before, and had timed everything out perfectly. As soon as they finished their meal, all the remaining residue was quickly swept back into the black-bag-of-stylish-organization in time for their stop, never to be seen by my eyes again.

What wonders await me on my next trip?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday in Tewkesbury

Since Spring officially started on Wednesday the weather in Stratford has been beautiful. In order to take advantage of these nice days my friend Stuart and I spent the afternoon in the Town of Tewkesbury.

The town is dominated by the 12th century abbey. It was a lovely day.

When the abbey was dissolved under Henry VIII in 1540 (one of the last monastic groups to be dissolved) the people of Tewkesbury bought the church, claiming it as their parish church, and therefore necessary. The rest of the abbey grounds, cloisters, monastic building, etc., were destroyed.

The half-timbered, black and white building on the left is the oldest Baptist chapel in SE England, dating from the mid 17th century.
Old Baptist burial ground.
This is the eastern end of the abbey. Notice the lighter stone on the central part of the building. Before the dissolution there was an extension on the eastern end that served as the Lady Chapel (the cult of the Virgin Mary was very prevalent in the 15th century, when many lady chapels were built all over the country; the most famous being the Henry VII Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey). In order to be allowed to keep the church as a parish church, the chapel had to be destroyed. You can also see apsidal (circular) chapels on either side, of which there are seven.
This is the south transept. Notice the pink stone? The other, yellow stones are traditional Cotswold stone. If you have read my entry on Chipping Camden (and you are a geek), you will remember that there is pink stone there. When Cotswold stone is burned it turns pink. So these stones went through a fire before they were used in building the church.
The building is Norman (which is British for Romanesque), having been built in the 12th century. I love the round, Norman arches on the main doorway here, with the Gothic windows the arches frame.
This is a painted tympanium from a chantry chapel in the south aisle of the abbey.
Since it is Lent, and this is a very high church, all statues are covered. This is a rood loft in the abbey.
A Victorian (?) Greenman in the gate to the abbey.


Funny Signs

I found some funny signs in the town of Tewkesbury today. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


This is very late, as the play was done last August, but I just realized I had not put any pictures up.

Last summer I directed the late medieval morality play EVERYMAN for The Shakespeare Institute Players. First a little background, that way you can be bored and take a nap before getting onto the rest of the story.

EVERYMAN was first printed in the 1510s, and is either a translation of the Dutch play ELCKERLIJC, or ELCKERLIJC is a translation of EVERYMAN. It tells the story of Everyman being approached by Death, who is sent by God. Everyman does not want to die (duh!) and convinces Death to give him time to amend for his life and find someone to go with him to the grave.

Thus begins his journey (I love the word THUS, we must bring it back into common use)! Everyman visits Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Knowledge, Good Deeds, Discretion, Strength, Confession, Fellowship, Beauty and Five Wits. Medieval plays love allegorical characters.

All those who he visits say they will not follow him to his grave, except Good Deeds, who must be released from his prison through contrition and penance. Once this is done, Everyman must go through all the stages of preparation for death that a good Medieval Catholic would. In the end Everyman is taken to Heaven by an Angel, for his good deeds, penance and contrition.

(Everyman lays in her grave, watched over my Knowledge, as Good Deeds accompanied her)

That is a very brief introduction to the play. I did the play as part of the research for my dissertation on the use of churches as performance spaces in medieval and early modern England. We performed in the chancel (eastern end) of Holy Trinity Church, in front of Shakespeare's was a kind of a geeky/amazing thing.

The performances went well, with one reviewer saying it was the best production she had seen by The Shakespeare Institute Players.

(Kindred prompts Cousin to pretend he has a cramp in his toe in order not go with Everyman)

Here is a blog by a former PhD student at Warwick University, Pete Kirwan:

"August 20, 2011

The Summoning of Everyman (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ Holy Trinity Church

Everyman is a genuinely powerful text. Whether you’re religious or not, this anonymous medieval morality play gets to the absolute nub of the big questions. What can we take with us? What is the point of life? And at the end of it all, are we ultimately alone?

The Shakespeare Institute Players made a virtue of their usual performance venue being out of commission by doing a site-specific piece in Holy Trinity Church. Director Jason Burg is researching the use of churches as performance spaces, and this production drew on its surroundings throughout.

("No, by Our Lady, I have a cramp in my toe!" Cousin refuses to follow Everyman. Since the actors for Kindred and Cousin were both southern we gave them southern accents; it was fun!)

Good Deeds lay crumped under a blanket leaning against the altar, the Doctor waited to welcome people into the main space, Five Wits referred to the church’s presentation copy of the Bible, and Knowledge gestured to the glorious stained glass windows that dominated the space. It was an evocative space for a religious message, and one which the production treated respectfully.

(The chorus takes Everyman's coffin out of the chancel)

The staging was simple, and made the most of the episodic structure of the play. Harriet Laing's Everyman entered the choir from the nave surrounded by the rest of the company, who voiced God collectively, standing round the edges of the space. Helen Osborne's black-clad Death swaggered into the space shortly thereafter, addressing God with a deferential yet slightly mocking tone, emphasised by a quiet chuckle as she prepared to claim Everyman's soul. Formal patterning organised the progression of characters: Victoria Mountford's Good Deeds was huddled up under a blanket at the altar, Cecilia Kendall-White's Knowledge strolled around the altar space, and the assorted kindred and flaky qualities passed from the choir into the nave of the church as they forsook Everyman, returning to worldly places - where the Doctor finally emerged from, as well as Everyman's wicker coffin.

Everyman was played as a woman (Chaka Khan jokes were restricted to the programme), a decision which saw the company use obvious materialist stereotypes to comic effect - Everyman was entranced by the pair of beautiful shoes that John Curtis's Goods held up for her, slipping into a longing voice even as she admonished Goods. The obsession of this Everyman with appearances and possessions was made obvious from the start, as she appeared adjusting her bright red top. She was gloriously oblivious to Death's intent, and her initial selfish shock progressed through the piece to anger and panic, and finally to something approaching transcendent acceptance.

(Death circles Everyman, waiting to take her)

The play is powerful in itself. The gradual forsaking of Everyman by her kin, her Fellowship and her Goods was a straightforward series of vignettes, made comic by the Texan drawl of Red Smucker and Drew Hippel as Kindred and Cousin, and the fey performance of Curtis as Goods. It was with the appearance of Knowledge that the play began to take on its more forceful and harrowing aspects. The scene of penance, presided over by the clerical Confession, saw Everyman kneeling and flogging herself hard with a quite nasty-looking piece of rope, while Knowledge looked coldly on. The subsequent emergence of Good Deeds added an impression of safety to the subsequent scenes, framing Everyman's journey within an instructive context, but this made the second set of abjurrations all the more hard. Beauty, Strength, Five Wits and Discretion were presented as a formidable set of companions who Everyman placed her faith in. As they began leaving, one by one, her terror was moving. The fear of death, prompted by the appearance of the coffin, was effectively captured in these scenes; and, as Laing lay down in the coffin, one felt the import of the issues that the text was confronting.

The experience of seeing a secular production of a didactic and Catholic-inflected theological piece in an Anglican church was an unusual one, and in some ways it feels odd to put on such an instructive play as a piece of historical interest when it still holds such a powerful vernacular message about the importance of good deeds and of recognising one's own mortality. A thought-provoking evening, and one that left me wishing I had a chance to see Mankind in the near future too." (

(All those who say they will go with Everyman to the grave, except Knowledge and Good Deeds, are about to abandon her and leave.)

The play went well and so did my dissertation, on which I got a distinction (translation for Americans: very good!).

(Good Deeds, in front of the high altar, is unable to move, weighed down by the bad deeds done by Everyman)

(This is me and Shakespeare's grave. UM, WOW!)

(We received an email from this woman, saying she and her husband were in town and had to leave the day before we opened. They tried to extend their hotel stay an extra night just to see our show, but where unable. She saw a production of EVERYMAN about 50 years ago in Oxford, and had always wanted to see it again, but never had the opportunity. They asked if they could watch a rehearsal, and we obliged. They were so cute to watch)

(The cast and crew in front of the Shakespeare monument)

Thus endeth this blog, imprinted on Rother Street, by me, Jason. (If you have ever read the play, this should be funny to you).

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Life is too short to wear boring socks!

I was sitting with some friends the other day, eating lunch, while wearing some amazing yellow, blue and red argyle socks. My friend noticed the small amount of color showing from under my jean cuff and said "While do you always wear such bright socks?"

"I'm just impressed that they always match; I can never find a matching pair." My friend Zelda said.

My response, which is the same when asked this questions, was "Life is too short to wear boring socks."

When I first moved to England I had English friends make fun of my boring"white American socks." One time at the gym, I was even identified as The American with American [white] Socks. So my first Christmas in England I decided to use some Christmas money to buy my first, non-boring socks for daily wear. I now rarely ear the "American socks."

Since then I have bought more and more colorful (dare I say fabulous?) socks. Above is a picture of my sock-mobile that hangs above our fridge (see previous post for a picture of it in my garden). The pair on the right are those I was wearing when my friend asked the above question.

To the left is a picture of my socks. Since summer is coming, the cheap store in Birmingham (Primark) has all their new bright socks out. I am looking forward to buying the neon-argyle they have in.

Yes, I am a sock weirdo! :)