Wednesday 27 February 2019

Trip: John Clare's Cottage

My parents have recently moved to the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire and I went up to see the new house, meet up with them and check they’ve looked after the boxes of books I’ve left with them. On the third day they offered me a trip out and I had a look to see what was around. I was surprised at the range of interesting things on offer but quickly decided I’d like to visit Helpston and the cottage of John Clare.

I didn’t know much about the man, other than he was born in the late eighteenth-century, was on the fringe of the romantic movement and hobbed and nobbed with Hazlitt. Part of me was expecting a slightly twee affair about a famous but rather dull poet - I was wrong.

We drove through tiny roads winding through fields where flocks of crows swooped from tree to tree, it was easy to imagine the country poet wandering around doing country things (whatever they might be). The cottage itself is a small, stone building with a thatched roof and looks exactly as quaint as I imagined. It’s only open a few days a week and the visitors centre was full, not with people visiting the house though, the visitors centre being home to a very popular cafe. The person at the front desk was a little brusque and quickly handed us our audio guides and pointed us in the direction of the cottage itself. I have a mixed feeling about audio-guides, they can enhance an experience but can also weigh you down with their interpretation of the museum and can become a bit of a chore. I was a little unsure as we went in.

The first room explains who John Clare was and contained the few items of his the museum owns. This is a common thing with house museums, their collections are often quite small and it is how they overcome them that points to their success. Ben Franklin House uses a complicated show with actor interaction, Handel House relies on its informative and friendly volunteers and Dr Johnson’s House focus on the building as a still-living hub of literature and fellowship. John Clare’s Cottage relies on its life and poetry of its famous resident, one poem in particular.

The second room dealt with the poetry and the audio-guide read out various extracts of John Clare’s poetry. They were read beautifully by someone who sounded like the late Pete Postlethwaite. This was where my initial expectations started to be surprised. John Clare did write plenty of ‘nice’ nature poetry but there was an anger and an outsider quality that bubbled up in many of them. The poem about Helpston did paint a rural picture but compounded it with a frustration of the ignorance of the people there. This culminated in ‘I Am’, a poem of strident urgency that wrested identity out of a confused life - I was looking forward to finding out more.

The third room was done up like a living room, with a fake fire, stools, a spinning wheel and a large table. It told of Clare’s childhood as an introspective, smart boy who attended as much school as he was able but still had to down pen and up tools at harvest time. There started to grow an understanding of the frustration I found in his poems, the feeling that even as a child, he was not completely in his place.

The next room was a kitchen, with that special kind of fake food that was also in the Dicken’s House and the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum - the very same food, I wonder where they get it. This room emphasised the hard work and precarious existence of rural life, how a bad harvest could starve a family and even a good year required lots of hard work. Again, the quaint countrysideyness that I was expecting was being subverted.

Then we climbed the stairs into a room with a desk. This room was about Clare’s brush with London fame. How he was celebrated and lauded but quickly began to feel like he was being treated as a novelty like the earlier milkmaid poets or cobbler poets. When he was no longer novel, he was dismissed back to the country, soured by London surface.

The room after that was filled with beds and talked about how John, his wife, his children, parents and sister all had to squeeze in the little cottage, how noisy it must have been and how difficult for Clare to find quiet. Again I was struck by the feeling of the poet feeling not wholly of his world, but not of the London scene either. 

The next room showed the fallout of this, Clare went mad. He occasionally forgot who he was, was confused about simple things and had wild fantasies. He still remained a poet though and some of his strongest poems (including ‘I Am’, which came up again) were written in madhouses. He even got out for a while and roamed woods like a hermit before being put back in again.. Old, broken and poor he died and was taken to Helpston church where he was buried. I was really taken by the man who had written hundreds of poems (and a few prose works) despite poverty, lack of opportunity and eventual madness - he still managed it, imagine what he could have created with support.

The cottage ended there but the tour didn’t. Out in a courtyard was a statue of him. It was instantly peculiar because it was smaller than me and not on a pedestal. Looking closer, there were animals and people carved into his heavy jacket, looking even closer there were numbers. The numbers linked to the audio-guide where all the symbolism of the statue was explained - I think more statues should do that. We got another reading of ‘I Am’.

We then had a look at the gardens where the audio-guide got a bit hippy-dippy and asked us to look around and view things new as John Clare had done. It was a nice idea, but the tone was so different from the matter of fact one that had accompanied us on the way that it was a little jarring.

Finally we went into a dovecote where comments from visitors and even little poems were places in the pigeon-holes. There was also a screen where various people, locals and celebrities read ‘I Am’ on a loop. It’s a good poem but I was reaching ‘I Am’ overkill at this time.

And that was our visit. My parents had been pleasantly surprised, not altogether thrilled by my dragging them off to some old poet’s house. I was also pleasantly surprised. The presentation is a little rudimentary, and like many other smaller attractions it felt like it had enjoyed a huge cash boost on the run-up to the millennium and not much else since. What made the visit such a good one was the surprising freshness of John Clare’s poetry and the aching sadness of his story, I recommend it if you’re in the area.

Oh, and if you plan to go, check the dates and bring a warm jumper, unheated stone cottages are not warm.

Of course there was a try-a-costume section, it was a historic house. This is me with a puritan-esque hat and I think I look good.

All Yours

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Review: 'Ulysses' by James Joyce

Usually I write a review on here because it has an eighteenth century connection, sometimes I include something because it pleased/baffled me enough to be noticed but occasionally I just want to boast. This is one of those times. I finished James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Though, to anyone patient enough to read to the end, I did find something eighteenth century relevant to say about it.

There seems to be two main ways of reading ‘Ulysses’, one involves a great deal of research and footnotes, the other is a little looser where the harder parts are allowed to wash by a little. I chose the second way and for the most part, it worked. It was only the chapter set in the maternity hospital that sent me to SparkNotes - I found that chapter almost incomprehensible.

It was a disorientating experience, being thrown in with Buck Mulligan shaving at the top of the Martello tower. After this we meet Stephen Dedalus, Haines and a milk lady. Throughout the section the characters refer to events we haven’t been told about, characters we haven’t met and a whole slew of references to other works. Rather like overhearing a conversation (and later, overhearing thoughts) the reader needs to constantly piece together small gobbets of knowledge. I reread that first chapter having finished the whole book and it felt so easy and natural knowing the characters and situation as I now do. I can see why people reread this book if it gives a little more each time.

As for the references, they are one of the main reasons one way of reading the text is with a guide or an annotated edition. I found that I grasped many of the references throughout the book, what I had trouble with was working out how those references shone light on what was happening at the time. For example, there was a part close to the end of the book where Stephen says, “farewell and adieu to you Spanish onions.” Of course I got the reference to the famous sea-shanty, I made the link that they were talking about Spanish ladies, I also remembered a discussion earlier about Spanish onions being larger than Irish - probably a breast reference, but I still couldn’t understand why Stephen had said it.

I think this is my first novel that uses stream of consciousness. I’ve tended to skirt around modernism in my reading before so I don’t know if this is Joyce’s handling of it or a feature of the form, but as far as I am concerned, consciousness does not stream the way it is portrayed here. A few chapters in, I caught a virus which gave me a raging fever like none I’ve had before. Even with my body burning like a hot iron, my mind still didn’t skip and jump and interrupt itself the way the stream of consciousness does here. When I was half-way through the penultimate chapter, I fell asleep and had a nightmare where my thought-patterns resembled ‘Ulysses’ and I required invasive brain surgery (which took the form of really long needles). If anything, the book resembles a stream of sub-consciousness. 

The crunch time for me was the third section at the beach which I read shortly after my fever. The section starts with the sentence; “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.” I wracked my brain over and over, completely unable to work out what it meant yet I knew it was important as it was the first line in the section. Reading a little further, it became clear that he had decided to close his eyes. Personally, I think that sentence is bad writing as communication that refuses to communicate is bad communication. Then followed a section where the writing represents sound and Stephen falls into a reverie. 

Opening his eyes, he sees two women and a dog romping around the beach. The dog is referenced in terms of a dog, horse, buck, deer, wolf, fawn, bear, panther, leopard, and a vulture. The prose then talks about dogskull, dogbark, dogsniff, dogsbody - Joyce loves shoving two words together, he also enjoys shifting word order around for aural effect. At this point, I was both attracted and repelled; thrilled by the grand arpeggios of words and also irritated by the efforts the section goes through to distance the reader. My notes include a Johnson quote where, having sat through a complicated violin solo and being told it was difficult responded that he wished it was impossible.

Then the fourth section started with, “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” I was intrigued. Then, as the section continued, I was invested. It remained the same for the rest of the book, the sections with Stephen turned me off and those with Bloom pulled me in. While Stephen wanders around Dublin full of self-importance and a mild contempt for everyone he meets, whereas Bloom has a way of opening himself up to all the people around him. As the book progresses, we learn more about Bloom. He’s thinking about his wife preparing to take a lover, trying to get a few jobs done (most of which he fails) and seeing how many women’s knickers he can ogle. Despite being rather ineffective, laying plans he will never fulfil and also being relentlessly kinky, he is extremely likeable and he led me through the book with much enjoyment until the fourteenth section.

From here we entered the parts where the experimenting takes over. The fourteenth section was the one set in the maternity hospital where Joyce parodies/pastiches different writing styles over the last thousand years of writing. I had no idea what was happening (not much) and I needed a synopsis to work it out. The longest section is next, written as a script and including a number of hallucinations. As this section taught me more about Bloom (he likes being sissified as well as underwear, urine and scat stuff). I enjoyed it. 

The last part with Stephen and Leopold was written as a series of questions with unemotional answers. All the threads that have been spooling out throughout the rest of the book are sort-of pulled together but in the flattest way possible, which I oddly found more moving then if it had built to a dramatic end. 

As an afterword we had the much praised monologue of Molly Bloom. Personally, I preferred it when Kate Bush did it and it was called ‘The Sensual World’. That said, it does bring the novel to a climax.

Although I did find the book difficult and rather frustrating at times, I also enjoyed it a great deal and learnt a lot from it. As a person, I was encouraged to take notice of my own thoughts and to notice those things that caught my attention, which is always a good thing. As a reader and writer, I learnt how much a novel can be pulled, stretched and experimented with and still remain an enjoyable experience if there are some characters to be cling onto. There were many interesting side-characters but for me the book was all about Bloom and I loved the book as much as I engaged with him.

This is where I add my eighteenth century thoughts, though there aren’t many of these.

First, there was a paragraph in ‘flash’ slang, which I followed better than much of the modern stuff.

Second, there were pastiches of eighteenth century writers including Oliver Goldsmith, which I didn’t pick up on at all.

Third, this is basically ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’. Both novels are full of digression and experiment. Both novels tie themselves in knots by trying to be true to life experience. Both have a love of sex-based jokery. And both are ultimately saved by the strength of the characters. - I could have gone into more details on this, but I’ve said enough.

Over and out.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Review: Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre

It may come as a surprise, but I am a big musical fan. It’s not something I get to discuss on this blog very often as so few musicals have even a tangential link to the eighteenth-century but generally, if I’m going to the theatre, I’m seeing a musical. This is especially true at the beginning of the year, something to do with the dark nights, tickets received for Christmas and the availability of reduced tickets in winter, but the first few months of the year are full of musicals. Over the last fortnight I’ve seen three and one of them was the hot ticket of the moment, ‘Hamilton’.

It was a present from my sister, who hogged the phone-lines from March till July to get me tickets in January. ‘Hamilton’ really intrigued me as it had an eighteenth century connection, was so very hard to get hold of and has been lauded by everyone I’ve heard. I was still a little unsure though, the notion of a hip-hop musical about the man who set up the American Reserve Bank seemed an odd choice for flavour of the year, I couldn’t wait to see how that rather weak premise had been turned into a smash hit.

We sat in a box, with plenty of leg room and no people to distract us and took a deep breath as the lights went down. The first half of the play deals with Hamilton as a smart but down-on-his-luck immigrant into New York. He finds a group of friends and is sucked in the American Revolution, largely dealing with logistics but finally getting a command of his own. He also got married to the sister of someone who loved him more. The second half dealt with his essaying career, his establishment of a bank as Secretary of the Treasury, his run-in with Thomas Jefferson, his ruin through a sex scandal, his son’s death by duel and later his own.

The whole play was full of energy with no dialogue scenes. Each scene was a song of its own, with the emotional heart of it sung, the exposition dealt in quick scenes of patter (I won’t call it rap) and a little dialogue in the middle of the songs. Many of the songs had extremely catchy hooks (I can’t get the phrase ‘room where it happens’ out of my head) and the cast threw themselves into everything with verve. When the lights came up after the show had ended, I felt a little… flat. I still couldn’t see where the hype was coming from and now I had seen it, I couldn’t really see the point. That would have been the end of my engagement (or relative lack thereof) if I hadn’t seen a few other musicals shortly after.

Six days after ‘Hamilton’, my sister and I went to see ‘Six’. In many ways it is a completely different beast to ‘Hamilton’, performed in a far smaller theatre, with a far smaller cast and no costume or set changes. In another way it was very similar, retelling history using modern musical tropes. The scenario for ‘Six’ is that Henry VIII’s wives have formed a girl-group and are having a song competition to establish who got the worst deal and deserves to be lead singer. It’s a pretty naff idea but it came together beautifully.

I had experienced problems with the history in ‘Hamilton’. I’ve visited Disney, I’ve seen the Hall of Presidents, I have a strong stomach for ‘Merican Yeah! sentiments. I already knew I’d have trouble with the revolution sections as I don’t really see the War of Independence as some great fight for freedom so much as a struggle for tax-dodging. I honestly don’t think the British government was unfair for trying to get the colonies to pay one tax for the upkeep of the navy that had protected them during the Seven Year’s War. I thought this was especially fair as the home country was paying a myriad of taxes including window tax and brick tax - I think one for tea isn’t excessive. Of course, according to the musical, Britain taxed them 'relentlessly'... one

There was also the fact that ‘Hamilton’ seemed to expect that we were American. George Washington was introduced as “the father of our nation” and New York was described as “the greatest city in the World.” Aside from the fact I was sitting in London (obviously the greatest city in the World, we have Speaker’s Corner) but at the time the play was set, New York wasn’t even the greatest city in America compared to places like Philadelphia. 

‘Six’, as unsubtle and brash as it was, revealed two faults with ‘Hamilton’s’ approach to its history, it didn’t have fun with it and it didn’t question it.

Each of the wives in ‘Six’ had a song where they got to expand their character beyond the ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ cliché. Each one was a pastiche of a musical style designed to fit with the gist of the woman’s story. Catherine of Aragon got a Beyoncé-esque ‘angry woman scorned’ song, Anne Boleyn had a ditzy Katy Perry number, Jane Seymour had an Adele torch ballad.. &c. Not only did the musical have fun matching musical style with character, but they bantered and bickered, the beheaded wives ganging up on the non-beheaded ones. The only humour in ‘Hamilton’ was the song (and reprises) of George III, singing sarcastic love songs to his former colonies - which, incidentally were the best parts of the show.

What’s more, ‘Six’ wasn’t content to tell history, it questioned it. Catherine Howard’s song started as a boy-crazy number which devolved into the story of a woman forced into a relationship with the king before being murdered, whilst the final wife, Catherine Parr, questioned the whole set-up in the first place. After she argued that the only reason we imagined the women together was because they had happened to be married to the same man, they joined together in a final number. This number emphasised how each of the women was a person in their own right, with their own desires and lives and it was lazy historiography to lump them together. (Incidentally it reminded me of the new book ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold, which focusses on the women killed by Jack the Ripper, as opposed to the killer himself.) At no point did ‘Hamilton’ questioned its founding myths of the United States, not even slightly.

Two days after we saw ‘Six’, my sister and I went to see ‘Come From Away’. In subject matter, it’s nothing like the other two musicals, telling a modern story of some events to the side of 9/11. In terms of staging, the two have much in common. The cast play multiple roles (as some did in ‘Hamilton’) but more similarly, there wasn’t a split between dialogue and song, each scene was a song with dialogue seeded through it.

What ‘Come From Away’ showed was how awkward the choreography of Hamilton was. ‘Come From Away’ had an extremely tight ensemble cast who worked as a cohesive unit throughout. A bunch of mismatched chairs became a cafe, a school, a bar, a cliff-face, a plane and a bus through the seamless movement of the actors and a few well places lights. With the exception of ‘The Room Where it Happens’, where characters walk into and out of small rooms of boxed light, Hamilton was so cluttered and unfocused visually. The stage was full of extras, sometimes sliding across the floor but mainly strutting one way or the other. Most choreography in the piece involved people walking in hurried directions across the stage and occasionally picking up a chair and waving it in slow-motion - for some reason.

Finally, the big blow to ‘Hamilton’ was that when I walked away from ‘Six’ and when I walked away from ‘Come From Away’ I had an emotion. I had been cheered and buzzed, a teensy bit moved but ultimately uplifted by those two experiences, whereas ‘Hamilton’ left me feeling rather empty. The story was too baggy, the characters where mostly bland (except Burr, I liked him) and the storytelling linear and plain. It does have some catchy ear-worms though.

I can see the point of ‘Hamilton’ in the US, the last song is about ‘telling his story’. It was clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda had read a biography of the man, thought he was too interesting to languish in obscurity and decided to publicise ‘our’ least known Founding Father. Fair enough, but as a British person in the UK, his story does not have much significance beyond being being one of many interesting historical figures - why don’t the others get a chance? I want to write the punk rock William McGonagall musical, now that will be epic.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

If I Could 'Fix' Language: Three Words I Hate

When Samuel Johnson was commissioned to write the English Dictionary, he had some big ideas about what he might do.

“This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary; a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.”

His idea was powerful, to ‘fix’ the English language. This was not to fix in the sense of something broken, but to fix in its place, to glue the language into a solid and unchanging state. He knew this was a difficult, almost impossible task and compared it to the task before Julius Cæsar who tried and failed to conquer the unruly British Isles.  

“When I survey the Plan which I have laid before you, I cannot, my Lord, but confess, that I am frighted at its extent, and, like the soldiers of Cæsar, look on Britain as a new world, which it is almost madness to invade.”

When he got to the end of his project, nine pain-filled years later, he realised that the idea of ‘fixing’ the language was impossible. His preface to the dictionary explains how difficult it is to pin any idea of language at all, and how language change is a force impossible to resist.

“If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity?”

Since then, English Lexicography has taken the inevitable notion of language change as the joy of language. For a modern lexicographer in English, language exists in transaction, words are not objects to be pinned but tokens to be exchanged. The Oxford English Dictionary, begun as a continuation of Johnson’s dictionary, is founded on the notion of watching and recording language rather than controlling it.

However, if I could change language, here are three words I would eliminate.


The other week it was #penguinawarenessday. The fact is that I am aware of penguins. They are short dudes in black and white who waddle around in the snow and weave beautifully in the water. There is no-one above the age of three who are not aware of penguins. There are loads of children’s books about penguins - I particularly like Oliver Jeffers books like ‘Lost and Found’.

Awareness is the wrong word. What is trying to be raised far more than ‘awareness’ is money. Awareness is politer.

Homo/Trans Phobia

The trouble with this phrase is that ‘phobia’ sounds sort of sweet - that such people may see the sight of a rainbow flag above a pub or a masculine face above a dress, and run away terrified and screaming. 

It’s simple. These people aren’t scared, they’re bigoted.


I was introduced to this word by the phrase, ‘check your privilege,’ every word in the phrase is wrong.

This is not to say that I disagree with the intention of the phrase. The fact is that I am a white male, I have only been stopped by police twice in my life and when I go on a trip, the tour guide frequently comes to me as ‘person in the know’ than the teacher I am assisting. I am completely in agreement that I have perks simply in being what I appear to be. But every aspect of that three word phrase irks me.

The first is the word ‘check’. It is the verb of the sentence and as such is the most important one there. It is the job of the verb to make plain what it is I am required to do. Unfortunately, I can think of at least three readings of the word ‘check’ that are plausible readings. The first is that I must check my privilege as I would check for keys, that I should merely note and acknowledge it. The second is that I must check my privilege as I would check in a coat in a cloakroom, divest myself of said privilege so I can communicate at an equal footing. The third is that I must hold my privilege in check, like a dog on a short lead, that I might not be able to divest myself of it but must keep it under control. As each version could be the one meant by the phrase, it makes the whole thing fuzzy and indistinct as it’s not obvious. 'Check' is clearly the wrong verb to use.

The second word I have a problem with is ‘your’. It turns the phrase into an accusatory, finger-pointing activity, Everybody is telling everybody else to check their privilege. No wonder the idea has met resistance. If the phrase used the word ‘my’ it would be much better. An encouragement for each person to take notice of the little benefits they receive from their perceived identities is far healthier than the nagging, pestering use of ‘your’.

The last word, and the one I think most pernicious, is ‘privilege’.

The fact is, that a privilege is something extra that we give someone. In my case, not being repeatedly stopped by police or being dismissed by tour guides is something given to me extra than normal human cordiality. The fact is, that these things ought not be privilege at all. They are not extras, they should be the standard by which we treat each other.

Worse still, privileges are earned. they are the reward granted for something. To use the word ‘privilege’ is to imply that I deserve not to be checked by police for the merit of being white, or that I deserve not to be ignored for the merit of being male. To say such beneficial treatments are privilege is to say that they are deserved, which is surely against the whole ideology of the notion.

As such, the phrase ‘check your privilege’ manages to be (in three words) indistinct, needlessly confrontational and secretly undermining the equality sought. It’s a shittily produced phrase.

The fact is, privileged or not, I don’t have the power to keep the English language in check. So I have to live with the words that don’t quite say what I think they should, and hope people understand what I actually mean.


For a long time ‘enthusiasm’ would have been on this list, but luckily even employers are beginning to realise that an emotion as genuine as enthusiasm can’t be faked.