Category Archives: Downton Abbey

Long to Reign Over Us?

Well – Jack’s a day late and a dollar short – again

I have been watching the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ over the last few nights (with strict instructions from Wendy to not spoil it by swearing!).

Queen-Nazi-Salute-Getty

I should explain that, although I have some admiration for the Queen I have no time at all for the rest of them. I hover somewhere between a Monarch and a President as the figurehead for a democracy and can see the arguments both ways.

But the series does show that the British monarch sits at the top of a privileged establishment pyramid that rules and controls from ‘behind the curtain’, and in my view that’s the problem – always has been and is still.

As for ‘The Crown’?

We’re only part way through, but the most interesting angle for me is the history played out in parallel. The actual domestic stuff is a mixture of truth, gossip, innuendo and guesswork. It’s played well by the actors but in many ways it replays decades of media manipulation by a very hard working establishment.

It’s the stuff around the edge that I find most interesting. The ‘non-political’ Queen connected to lots of political situations. Her weekly audiences with the Prime Minister of the day.

Of course I lived most of my life through all of this – the Suez crisis, the Profumo affair, Churchill, McMillan, Home and Wilson. But I only saw what I was allowed to see! This series is revealing a lot of stuff that was hidden at the time, such as Philip’s link to the Profumo affair and the Nazi connections.

There are some interesting conversations between Elizabeth and Philip around the question – “are you in, or out”. He opted to be in because there was no alternative. The Duke of Windsor tried to get back in, and Princess Margaret opted to stay in, for what seemed to be mostly about the money and the lifestyle.

I will be continuing to watch the series with a mixture of personal memories and a not-so-open mind!

 

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The Monday Book: The Story of the Tweed

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Story Of the Tweed by Herbert Maxwell

I’m not usually all that keen on travel books, but this one intrigued me as it’s about a part of Scotland with which I’m familiar. In fact I was there in June this year with my tour group, as I have been every other year for the last fourteen.

This is a facsimile reprint of a book first published in 1909, but it holds up well and could easily have been written more recently.

Maxwell traces the journey of the river Tweed from its source near Moffat to the North Sea at Berwick. But he takes a good few side turnings to explore the countryside, adjacent towns and other smaller rivers that feed into the Tweed.

river_tweed

The Tweed with the Eildon Hills in the background

Of course this is ‘ballad country’, and Maxwell was clearly well acquainted with many of them – many are quoted, including ‘The Dowie Dens o Yarrow’, ‘True Thomas’, ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ and more. Walter Scott’s famous ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ is the definitive collection and it would seem Maxwell had his own copy!

The writing is excellent, descriptive and humorous. Much of Scotland’s history was played out in this ‘debatable land’ covering the much disputed border with England. Again the author proves himself well up to the task of dissecting and explaining the history as he leads us along. Like most of my generation my schooling included very little Scottish history so it’s through books like this that I’ve had to re-educate myself.

Maxwell is clearly a big fan of Walter Scott, who lived the last part of his life in his mansion beside the Tweed. It’s clear also that he, like Scott was a big supporter of the union of Scotland and England. However I think the reason was more to do with the ending of cross border raids and the establishment of peace than for the economic reasons Scott espoused.

If you can find a copy then I highly recommend this to anyone with connections to the area or with an interest in Scottish history and balladry. Fans of Outlander will also recognize some familiar themes!

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To See Ourselves as Others See Us

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!” — R Burns

I don’t write about politics. It’s a rule of mine – make some people mad and other people smug, for what purpose? BobDewardrawing

Jack and I just got back from his annual tour taking Americans to Scotland, my first return in a few years. When we lived there, I used my bi-annual trips to the States as yardsticks, measuring how things were progressing for me and for my country. Living in Scotland as an American back in the 2000s could be tricky. US-ers weren’t popular.

This year, taking nine guests across familiar territory, it was almost unfamiliar. Edinburgh’s High Street has become Myrtle Beach. The smaller towns and hidden gems we led the group through are still hidden and lovely, but the people in them went out of their way to speak to us, to ask where we were from, tell us of their relatives Stateside, wonder how we were enjoying the holiday. Warmth, not patronage. (Well, except in Edinburgh, but that’s expected in a tourism Mecca.)

The “puir wee souls, how ya gettin on there” attitude continued across the Southwest of Scotland, the edge of the Highlands, and even Ulster in N. Ireland. I said as much to Colin, the long-time family friend who is our driver, as we sat in the hotel bar one night.

He gave an eye-averted smile. “The Trump Effect, we calls it,” he said.

A lengthy conversation ensued I won’t bore you with, but the jist was that America had shifted in the minds of most Scots, from “country voted most likely to drag Britain into a war” to a thoughtful consideration that we had outed our true values with the result that your basic poor sod on the street was screwed.

Money. America was always a corporate raider in the minds of Scots, its embodiment less Lady Liberty than a sharp-eyed man in a tailored suit, legal brief in one pocket, gun in the other. A country that talked about Democracy and played shell games with cash.

Now we had voted, in the minds of others, for a guy we thought would make us rich again. But not two-chickens-in-every-pot rich, just get-us-out-of-this-grindinng-poverty rich. Honestly, I never put Scots down for having a lot of good insights into America, their views being largely shaped by Channel 5 TV. If you watch enough reruns of Dallas and The Wolf of Wall Street… but Scots were now explaining to me how sad it was that America’s middle class was shrinking, its wealth consolidating.

Brigitta, the hotel hostess, paused to listen to our conversation. Brigitta had become a hospitality diva in our eyes because of her sweet efficiency, non-stop motion, and natural kindness. A native of Poland who had married her Scottish chef husband twenty years before, she often spiked her English with metaphors to make her meanings clear.

“America, its roots are showing.”

We looked at her, inviting more. She set down the water pitchers in her never-still hands and gestured to the part in her hair.

“Women, you know, we hide the grey, we color, here. Sometimes you don’t have enough money, you don’t do it again, it grows, so. Then roots show you are not who you show you are.”

“America is such. Says one thing, is another. Wants money. But poor people, no blame, of course want money. NEED money. Desperate makes you hope rich man helps. Is mistake, thinking rich man get them money. No. Money from, not for. Why they think rich man wants help anyone get money?” She clicked her tongue, picked up her pitchers, and disappeared.

Colin, Jack, and I stared at one another.

Finally I said, “That is what I have been trying to get to grips with for some time now. It’s that Burns poem come to life, to see ourselves as others see us.”

Colin turned and gestured for the bartender. “Then you’re gonna need another drink, lassie,” he said.

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Homeward Bound

We apologize for not blogging on Monday and Wednesday. Jack is leading his annual tour through Scotland and Ireland, and this is the first time Wendy has gone with him. We’ve had our hands full with the fun and logistics, and are now homeward bound. We invite everyone to hop over to Wendy’s Facebook page, which is public, and view the videos of the trip. It was lovely, if we do say so ourselves. And Wendy will be back on schedule with the Monday book, plus a few observations about life and love and living well.

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A Walled Garden

19206160_1634797773197947_1339798747_nIn the city, space is a commodity. I’ve always thought of cities as incongruous lonely spaces – so many people, so little humanity interacting.

But we are staying with friends in downtown Edinburgh, not a mile off Princes Street (downtown) and they have a walled garden…..

I love walled gardens. Your own little bit of marked off territory for just sitting, thinking, being quiet and contemplative with a book and a cup of tea, or loud and boisterous with instruments and a bottle of wine and a handful of mates.

In the middle of the city, you can find the greenery and the fountains and the people who actually live in the cities, whose lives are rooted like the gardens they plant in their little secret places.

Perhaps my fondness for gardens stems back to the day after Jack’s mum died, and I was away from home in Ayrshire, in Wigtown, Scotland’s book city, and had nowhere to go to be by myself and have a good cry. And I spilled my guts to say as much to one of the bookshop owners, at Ceridwin’s Cauldron, and she took me back to her garden and brought me tea and told me to stay as long as I wanted. I spent an hour back there composing myself and being nothing but alone. Ever since then, walled gardens have been a special space.

The garden here at Barbara and Oliver’s has been a jolly place, shared for music and reminiscences and politics and the mystery of the noise coming from somewhere nearby. (Jack cracked that; it was a two-note sound not unlike the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS alien five-note theme, and he found the sewer pipe in the apartment next door was letting off gas, one note opening, the other closing. A farting building, in essence.)

Walled gardens are lovely, and every city has such little tucked-away spaces. Explore them when you can, with friends when you can. They are the heartbeat of humanity.

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The Monday Book: SLOW LOVE by Dominique Browning

I really like memoirs, so when Browning’s came in with the charming title, “How I lost my job, put in my pajamas, and learned to enjoy life” I packed it on a recent flight. (It is also smaller than the average trade paperback.)

Although following a predictable pattern – NYC insider gets the boot because of hard times – what I liked about the book was Browning’s meta-writing: slow, lyrical sentences to illustrate how her life slowed down, picked up on music and gentle living, and added some herbs.

Granted, Browning is wealthy. Even though she wrote about the fear of the plummeting stock market harming her retirement savings, well, she had savings. And another house to move into that she could afford to renovate. Etc. This is a yuppie memoir.

And beautifully written. Her lazy, gentle sentences don’t meander. They are densely packed with words you might have to look up every now and then. Her observations are pithy but not concise. I found myself following her for the way she told the story, not the story she was telling.  Browning is a writer’s writer.

Following my quest to find how other writers handle making the inaccessible (or at least the non-experienced) interesting to readers who don’t share the passion of the book, I read Browning to the end, and enjoyed it. If you like lyrical writing and peeking at others’ strange lives, this is a good one for those of us who don’t live, and don’t care to think about living, in Manhattan.

A full bouquet of home-grown roses for Dominique Browning’s SLOW LOVE.

 

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The Monday TV adaptation of a book: JOHNATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

Eddie MarsanSo when this book came to me as a pre-publication edition, sent to several bookstore, I couldn’t get into it. Timing probably had a lot to do with this, but I didn’t give the fantasy novel a second shot.

The other night, in a weird frame of mind, I was looking for something to crochet by on Netflix and saw “Season 1” of the BBC adaptation. And thought, “Why not?”

It’s so much fun, watching this. I’m sure the special effects of written magic have something to do with it – reading about sand horses and ships made of rain only works in some writing styles, but watching them appear? Oh yes, very nice.

For those unfamiliar (the book was a bestseller, after all) this is a novel about two magicians bringing magic back to England during the Georgian era. They play fast and loose with history timelines, but oh they’ve got the fops and pageantry down. The series is a visual feast with lots of cultural insider jokes and brilliant acting moments. The story that I found clunky on the page comes alive in cinematography.

Not that Clarke doesn’t write well, just to each their own. The plot is character-driven. Mr. Norrell is afraid of his own shadow. Johnathon Strange is two degrees off a nitwit. And all their supporters and detractors are very well drawn. There aren’t any paper thin people in this production.

So if you are inclined, pick up the book or tune into the series, whichever suits you better. Read about the King of Lost Hope, the would-be musicians who decide to open a lunatic asylum and wind up with more than they bargained for, the enigmatic Childermass, and the other unexplained mysteries of a world bound by rules that suddenly gets to break them all.

It’s fun.

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