Monday, September 17, 2007

Shakespeare's home in Stratford

Saturday I went to Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born and bred, and where he spent the last half-dozen years of his life.

Here I am at the house where he was born and lived his early years. There have been two excellent biographies about Shakespeare recently, "Will in His World," which explained a lot about his acting and business career, and "1591," which focuses on the biographical roots of "Hamlet." Both made this visit much more meaningful for me.

When he was in his 30s, Shakespeare was wealthy enough to buy one of the best and biggest houses in Stratford, a large five-gabled affair, which is now gone. This is the garden behind the site. A spiteful minister who had bought the house in the 18th century had it torn down, the story goes, to avoid being pestered by Shakespeare pilgrims and to avoid paying taxes on the house (he lived there only a few months of the year and wanted to pay taxes for only a few months).

This shows his granddaughter's house, with a banner where Shakespeare's house once stood. Shakespeare's granddaughter was the last of Shakespeare's direct line descendants. She had no issue.

Stratford is a lovely place because of its gardens and its restrained tourism. The guides I heard stuck to the facts and avoided the kind of sensationalistic and misleading speculation designed to get laughs that you hear at a lot of places. This is the garden beside the cottage of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, with whom he had three children. The death of their son Hamnet, when he was 11, may have haunted Shakespeare and had a role in the writing of his play "Hamlet."

(Shakespeare's favorite kebab house.)

I went to see "Twelfth Night" performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in a fine modern theatre. It was an excellent production of a difficult play, one of Shakespeare's dark comedies. John Lithgow, famous for "Third Rock from the Sun," among other things, played the role of the foppish Malvolio to the hilt. He was great. (Lithgow's father, incidentally, was the first artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, so for me it all made a neat circle –Shakespeare in Cleveland with Lithgow pere, Shakespeare onstage in Stratford with Lithgow fils. The GLSF started in Lakewood in 1964, 400th anniversary of his birth.)

This is Trinity Church, where he is buried.
Shakespeare acquired crypts in the sanctuary for himself, his wife, his daughter and his son-in-law, another sign of his wealth acquired from his shares in theaters and acting companies. All four are in the floor right in front of the altar.

The people who suggest that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays don't know what they are talking about. That canard was created by some 18th century scholars who couldn't believe that someone who hadn't studied at Oxford or Cambridge could have written so brilliantly.

Everyone told me that finding a room in Stratford would be nearly impossible and expensive. I found a perfect B&B through my Lonely Planet guidebook for only $50 a night and walking distance to everything. No froo-froo, and a good English breakfast, almost the full Monty, with eggs, ham, sausage, cooked tomato, beans, toast, juice and coffee.

The next day I took a half-hour bus ride to Warwick Castle, said to be the best preserved, most stunning medieval castle in England. It's impressive, but I was annoyed that after paying the 18-pound admission ($36), I couldn't go up on the walls or the towers because of some private event. After being were politely tenacious in the face of many, "I'm very sorrys" and "there's nothing to be dones", I got them to give me my money back.

A bike race through the heart of Warwick.

Everything in England is twice as expensive as in the U.S. Gasoline is $7 a gallon. A daily newspaper costs $1.60 (80 pence). The average home price in England is $450,000 ($658,000 for detached homes). My short tram ride to work costs $3.60 each way. I made the mistake of ordering the standard buffet breakfast in the Hilton Hotel my first day here -- $33. My room there was $336 a night. Let's not even talk about London prices, which are much higher. When converted from pounds to dollars, journalist salaries are twice as high as in the U.S., but they earn no more in real terms.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

From Manchester to York

I'm in Manchester, England, for the next four months to help with the startup of a weekly business newspaper here, Crain's Manchester Business. My former colleague at American City Business Journals, Arthur Porter, had always dreamed of doing this. Manchester is his hometown. At the moment, we're interviewing candidates like mad and have hired a few key people.

Manchester is in northwest England, about 30 miles upriver from Liverpool. It has quite a mix of modern architecture and old brick buildings. It's a city on the move, and growing rapidly. Manchester was the first industrialized city in the world and was a center of textile manufacturing for the better part of three centuries. Today much of that industry is gone, but it is England's No. 2 economic center and is growing in business services.
I have a studio apartment for the next few months in the old industrial quays area which has been rebuilt with apartments, condos, etc. The old ship channel is now used for recreation. I haven't seen a single barge or ship. The slips have names associated with the Great Lakes -- Ontario, Erie and Superior basins, and Detroit Bridge. Haven't the foggiest why. Must ask.

Medieval York

Saturday I took a train east about 90 miles across the Pennnine Mountains (hills, really) to York, which is famous for its miles of medieval walls still standing. It was mobbed with English and German tourists. The narrow streets in the city centre are quite charming.

The walls are impressive. The first ones were built by the Romans, and you can see the remains of those in several places. They established a fort on the site in 71 A.D. Those walls were the base for many of York's later walls, which were extended up to 20 feet high. The Romans pulled out in the 400s when protecting Rome from barbarians seemed more important.

This is a ruined abbey in the center of the museum park. Lots of young people hang out and medicate themselves here. The city of York got its name from the Vikings, who called it Jorvik. They invaded and took over from the Anglo-Saxons in around 870 A.D. A lot of their words survive in place names. York street names often end in "gate" -- Highgate, Deansgate, etc. -- from the Viking word for street. DNA tests of York residents show a high percentage have Viking blood. In some parts of the Scottish isles, the percentage is as high as 60.

While living in Bolivia, I despaired over my inability to understand more than half of what any cab driver was saying to me. Now I don't feel so bad about that, because I understand only half of what any English cab driver says. Sitting on a train to York yesterday, I was next to a bunch of guys who were going to Leeds to watch a rugby match on television. (There are televisions in Manchester, so there is no logical explanation for this. It's a guy thing.) They were all pounding down beers at 10 in the morning and talking at a fast clip. I believe they were talking about sports, drinking, sex and cards. Perhaps they were talking about Yeats's poetry and Renaissance sculpture. There is evidently a requirement that the F word be in every sentence and subordinate clause, either as a subject, verb, adverb, adjective, object, imperative or interjection.