Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Nantucket's Whalers.

After an overnight stop in a cheap roadside motel we parked up by the picturesque harbour in Hyannis and boarded the first ferry of the day across the sound to the semi-mythical island of Nantucket.

It took the best part of two hours to make the choppy crossing, but soon enough we made out the Brant Point lighthouse and were guided gently into port. There's a party atmosphere ashore. Nantucket town is filled with wealthy Cape Cod teenagers, their shiny, happy parents and immaculately groomed pedigree dogs, all looking forward a couple of weeks fishing in the harbour, lounging on the beaches or cycling out for a posh picnic by the cranberry bogs. Each boat that comes in brings new friends, greeted with squeals of excitement and anticipation from those already arrived.

Nantucket preserves its affluence by banning camping. To be here means you either live in one of the impressive houses, built by the sea captains, or have managed to club together enough money to stay in one of the boutique hotels. It's expensive, but there are plenty of takers.

We set out for a stroll, the Nantucketers call it laning, around the cobbled Main Street, browsing in the exclusive shops and soaking up the late morning, before heading of to the town's main attraction, the Whaling Museum, which now occupies the site of a former spermaceti candle factory.

For over a two hundred years this tiny island, just fourteen miles long and barely five metres wide, was the centre of the lucrative whaling industry, providing the fuel for all the lamplights of the Western World. The museum brilliantly captures the treacherous voyages, the cruel carnage and the sudden rewards for those who set sail from here. Captain Ahab, the vengeful Captain of the Pequod in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, was a Nantucketer.  A ruthless, rough talking man who, over the course of his forty years of whaling had spent less than three on land. His Quaker determination to rid the world of, in his eyes, the monstrous creature, was typical of the moral as well as commercial drive of the Islanders.

Melville based his story on the true account of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, commanded by Captain George Pollard, which had been sunk by a sperm whale of the coast of Japan in 1820. Cast adrift in tiny whaleboats the surviving crew were forced to resort to cannibalism, drawing lots to determine who should be shot and eaten first. Many days later, still gnawing on the bones of their dead comrades, a handful of the men were rescued and returned to their astonished families back in Nantucket. Most were back at sea within a year.

Melville describes the unique outlook of the Nantucket whalers in one particularly poignant sentence. It's painted bold over the entrance to the museum.

Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.

We went in and were immediately confronted by a 46 foot skeleton of a Sperm whale suspended from the roof. Dwarfed next to it a rigged whale boat from where the hand held harpoons would be thrust, matador like, as close to the whale's heart as possible. On the adjoining wall a selection of mangled weapons, displayed as testament to the physical battle between whale and man, whilst upstairs is an impressive collection of scrimshaw. The engraved folk art that sailor's practiced by pricking dots with a needle into the enamel of discarded whale teeth. It was a way to retain sanity on the interminable voyages to the South Seas.

We had hoped to walk out of town for a look round the wilder sides of the Island, but a huge squall, came charging in from the ocean sending us scuttling back to the safety of our hotel room. And so we sat looking out on Centre Street towards the Coffin House where Melville, on his first visit to the Island in the 1850s, met the now mad Captain Pollard, who by this time had, to his eternal disgrace, lost a second ship, The Two Brothers. In later life Pollard, despite his traumatic adventures, become a ridiculed figure in the town, reduced from a swaggering sea captain to a shuffling, nightmare haunted, night watchman. Melville recalled the meeting with a sad diary entry.

To the islanders he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming, even humble — that I ever encountered.


Monday, 30 July 2012

Plimouth Plantation. A Lesson in Drama and Heritage.

We picked up our car from the airport, put the top down and headed, with a sense of adventure, south through the Boston suburbs, onto the Interstate and down to the Plymouth.

The arrival here of the Mayflower in 1620 is the founding myth of America as a nation and just a couple of miles away from the famous rock where the pilgrims first disembarked is the remarkable Plimouth Plantation, a living history museum taking the visitor back in time to the first puritan settlement.

The Site has two villages in one. The Wampanoag Homesite which recreates the home of Hobbamock and his extended family. The Wampanoag tribe were native to Massachusetts and had, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, had the run of the land for over 12,000 years. Hobbamock initially made friends with the settlers, teaching them many of the survival techniques that helped the colony survive the first harsh winters.

The twentieth century interpreters are all members of native nations, although today they speak to visitors in modern English, and the village abounds with demonstrations of traditional craft skills. In one corner a father and son were burning out the centre of a felled pine trunk to make a dug out Mishoon canoe whilst across the way a young man told stories of his ancestors under the shaded shelter of the domed shaped Wetuash house that he and his brothers had built earlier in the Spring. Elsewhere hides were being tanned, stews prepared and jewellery forged.

We continued on to the English village, slightly further up the hill. It's an amazing set up as you step through the gates straight back into 1627.

The key to the museum is its covert theatricality. At any one time 40 or so role players populate the fenced village. They are organised according to experience as Apprentice-Interpreters, who are given juvenile introductory roles, Journeyman-Interpreters, who develop more complex narratives and Master-Interpreters who take on leadership roles.

Each has had an extensive training and rehearsal and remains absolutely fixed in first person character for the entire day.

Unlike other costumed interpretations, however, the actors don't look to engage the visitors directly, but go about their business, preparing food, cultivating livestock, repairing buildings, in relative private. Occasionally interaction is induced by with a nod of welcome, but it's up to us to decide how deeply we wish to delve into the dynamics of the community.

And it's worth delving into. The colony's early governor, William Bradford, left a wonderful diary account of the Plantation's early years and from this the role players choose and develop daily scenarios, usually choosing the same calender date to ensure seasonal authenticity. The politics of these events can be teased out by talking to the players. The coherence of this private world is perfect.

Today a dispute was threatening to divide the village. Pilgrims John Oldham and the Rev John Lyford opposing the separatist practice of the Colony had begun to agitate for a return to a more Anglicised form of worship. Governor Bradford had intercepted disparaging letters en route back to England and challenged their sedition. Oldham, upset, had by way of protest, refused to stand guard as a watchman and in the subsequent dispute with Miles Standish, the colony's military adviser, had pulled a knife.

Yesterday had seen the trial of both men and for 'plotting and disturbing the peace, both in respects of their civil and church state' they had been banished.

We bumped into Oldham as he was making his way back to his house. He greeted us as members of the old country and told us, in a perfect Derbyshire accent, the story of the trial and how he feared for the ungodly practices of the people. We asked him where he and his family would go and he thought he'd try his luck trading with the natives up the coast in Nantasket, where a new settlement had recently been established.

We wished him well and went to seek a village elder able to give us a counter view and soon came across William Brewster, one of the original Mayflower pilgrims, eating lobster in his house. As religious adviser to the colony Brewster, a Nottinghamshire man by birth, was grieved by Lyford and Oldham's actions, all the more so as his son John had only recently married Oldham's sister Lucretia. He felt though that for the good of the colony, both men needed to leave. This public dispute acted out immersively in a site-specific environment was brilliantly done.

We could have spent all day scratching for gossip and news, but had to push on. I left with a sense of awe at the pedagogic effectiveness of these rigorous interactive sequences. There are huge lessons here for those who would 'perform' heritage.

We nipped into Plymouth itself, walked the cramped decks of the replica Mayflower and looked at the rather sad rock, stamped unceremoniously with a 1620 date mark  and ostentatiously protected under a neo-Grecian temple.  Already, though, the sun was setting, the sailors were bringing their yachts to shore and we were keen to get down to our overnight stop in Hyannis.


Sunday, 29 July 2012

A Sleepy Sunday in a Field of Dreams.

Today was our last full day in Boston. We feel we've only scratched the surface. We started the day by walking down to Griffin's Walk, site of the infamous Tea Party, where a replica of the good ship Eleanor sits. The first tours of  had begun and a huddle of excited children were standing on deck, holding tea chests above their heads.

'Let it begin here!' shouted the costumed interpreter and with a roar the children dumped their crates over the side with a loud splash.

We spent most of the morning taking a gentle boat cruise around the islands in the harbour. Boston is an evolving city. Landfill and waste is constantly being used to change and redefine its shape. The neck, which all but cut the city off in siege times, has been expanded to create the Back Bay and South Boston. Logan airport was created by connecting an expanded Noddle's Island to the mainland and several of the Islands in the bay are themselves man made.

Bostonians short on the time or money to head for the Cape ferry out here on hot summer days and picnic or paddle on the beaches. The really enthusiastic take camping gear and spend the night watching the twinkling lights of the city skyline from a distance.

It was a relaxed hour and a half. Incoming planes flew overhead, almost close enough to touch. The weekend sailors waved happily as we passed and all seemed well in the world.

The boat detoured a little down the Charles River to point out the Golden Stairs on the Charlestown side. The stairs led out of the Immigration Processing centre that operated during the early years of the twentieth century. Between 1920 - 1954 thousands of new arrivals stayed here in locust infected dormitories whilst they had their documents and suitability for work checked. For those accepted the stairs represented a climb to the relative freedom of a new life 3000 miles away from the purges in the Old World.

Back on dry land we caught the T across town to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. It's been a shame that the team have been out of town all week and we haven't been able to catch a game. Nevertheless, I find touring venerable old stadiums, like Fenway, strangely moving.

They act as receptacles for drama, excitement and anticipation, moments when you, along with the thousands of other sports fans present, realise that things will never be the same again. Even in their latent moments, when the only noises come from the wooden bleachers creaking gently in the drying sun and the whizz of the sprinklers, they seem to echo with the sound of the crowd.

It's crazy really, there are hundreds of pitches, hundreds of strikes over hundreds of games over many, many seasons and yet each ground carries just a handful of phenomenal moments. Moments true fans long to say they witnessed.

The Red Sox cash in on this and all over the ground are small monuments and plaques commemorating the great, good and eccentric. The town is baseball crazy and the team have, over the last hundred years done all they can to create proud and quirky local traditions, that offer substance to the notion of being a fan.

In Section 42 of the right field a single red seat stands out amongst the fen green of the rest of the stand, marking the distance that Ted Williams, the great Red Sox hero, hit the longest home run ever recorded at the park.

Whilst others lingered staring back across the ball park, trying to remember their own moments of magic or perhaps projecting a successful outcome for Monday night's game, we slipped away and wandered slowly down Boylston Street, through the common, back to Rowe's wharf and home.

We hit the road tomorrow.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Harvard Yard and Meeting Kismet.

It was a lovely morning and so we hired bikes from a little shop opposite Columbus Park, rode around the knuckle of the North End, crossed the Charles River Dam and followed the north bank of the river round to Cambridge and Harvard Square. Boston's modest skyscrapers sparkled across the water as we zig zagged past other cyclists, joggers and the occasional group of sightseers admiring the view.

We locked up the bikes and headed into the yard for a look round. We're in the summer recess so apart from the occasional research student scurrying head down towards a library or lab the campus was mostly populated by tourists, wandering around, trying to work out what gives the University it's magic. Is it in the bricks? Does it seep up from the ground? Or drop from the sky? Is it simply a case of rubbing the shoe on John Harvard's statue? My guess is those, like me, who have to look for it, whatever it is, have no chance of success here. Harvard, like Oxbridge remains, for most of us honest and hard working as we may be, a spectator sport.

The yard is pretty enough, but reminded me more of Birmingham, with it's criss cross of paths, sturdy halls and occasional self-conscious nods to neo-classicism rather than seemingly evolved monastic reverence engendered by the secretive colleges back in Oxford or Cambridge. Beyond this inner sanctum lie the more lively shops and cafes of Harvard Yard, including the marvellous Harvard Bookstore which we spent an hour or so browsing in.

By midday the temperature had become uncomfortably muggy and so after the briefest look round Cambridge Common we headed over to the Museum of Natural History to look round the  astonishing Ware collection of glass flowers. Over 3000 models of plant species blown with exacting, delicate precision by Czech emigre Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph. The handmade craftsmanship is quite staggering.

Back on the bikes we headed through Cambridge to the Massachusetts Institution of Technology Museum to have a look at some of the fascinating machines. MIT has always combined scientific rationalism with artistic bravado in its efforts to expand the possibilities of artificial intelligence and the Museum is a fine mix of the eccentric and the brilliant. Star of the show is Kismet, who in the late nineties became one of the first robots capable of registering and responding to human emotions.

She's a rather sad shell now, but video footage of the early experiments show clearly how nuanced humanoid interaction with her had become.

We were kicked out at closing time just as the skies opened. We sheltered in a coffee shop for a little while, but in soon became apparent that the storm was just gathering and so off we went again, drenched on Harvard Bridge and through the Back Bay as we struggled to return our bikes to the shop by closing time. Cold and soaked we made our way back to the home comforts of Winthrop on the T-train.

Friday, 27 July 2012

The March to Concord.

Off on an excursion, following in the hoof prints of Paul Revere's horse, west from the city centre to Lexington and Concord, towns with twin claims to being birthplaces of the revolutionary war.

It's hard to know exactly when the fires of liberty were lit. Was it when the unpopular Stamp Act was imposed from remote London in 1765? Was the turning point the death of the snowball throwing citizens at the Boston Massacre five years later in 1770? Was it the overrunning of the three East India Company tea-ships and the destruction of 342 chests of their taxable cargo at Griffin's Wharf in 1773?  Or the subsequent decision to turn Boston into a garrison town by filling it with redcoats during the Summer and Autumn of 1774?

What is certain is that by the Spring of 1775 the countryside surrounding Boston was filled with local militia groups, all rallying to the Patriot cause, whilst the Loyalist army, under the command of the treaty seeking General Gage, retained the city itself, looking for an excuse and opportunity to capture Hancock, Adams and the other patriot leaders.

On the night of 18th April 1775 the troops began to leave the city, crossing the Charles River and heading for Lexington, where it was known Adams and Hancock were staying. Dr Warren, the senior member of the patriot's shadow government remaining in Boston, commissioned William Dawes, by land, and Paul Revere, across the river, to use the cover of night, overtake the Loyalist columns and give warning of the march.

By dawn the Redcoats had arrived in Lexington and were met on the green by the local minute men, who'd been up all night in the Buckman Tavern, awaiting their arrival. What happened next is the cause of much debate. Major Pitcairn leading the soldiers demanded that the rebels lay down their arms and disperse. Captain Parker, head of the militia, recognising how heavily outnumbered his company were, concurred. However, in the tiredness and tension shots were fired and minutes later eight villagers lay dead on the grass. With a loud 'Huzzah!' the troops marched on towards Concord, where they had intelligence that a huge stockpile of ammunition had been built up. The first shots had been fired.

Today Lexington is an unassuming place. Dog walkers wander across the historic green barely noticing the minuteman statue and the Parker Boulder. We crossed to the Buckman Tavern and had a fascinating guided tour with a costumed interpreter, who wanted to stress the mercantile interests of the patriots. She was a little nervous coming off script, and apologised that, as a history major, she felt a need to provide a subtler context than the recognised narratives afford. Most colonists, she suggested, saw themselves as British citizens, unable to afford goods shipped from Europe and
 indifferent to the escalating dispute. For them shelter and security mattered more than freedom. The future governance of New England was a matter for debate, but fewer than reported had a desire to risk their citizenship by standing up to the most sophisticated army in the world. Most hoped things would blow over and peace be made between London and the New World.
Given the risks it must have been a terrifyingly tense few hours, then, for the seventy seven men in Captain Parker's company waiting in these small wood panelled rooms for the regular troops to arrive.

We moved onto the Hancock-Clarke House, Revere and Dawes' destination on that fateful evening, where Hancock and Adams were lodging, before boarding the Liberty Ride Trolley bus that links Lexington with Concord.

We'd assumed that we'd be able to hop on and off and explore the various landmarks on Battle Road, but unfortunately the bus only runs three times a day and so we had to be more selective over what we chose to see.

A lot of trouble is going into acquiring property and land between the two towns in an attempt to accurately recreate the two hundred year old landscape through the creation of the Minute Man National Park. We got out at the visitors centre and walked for a couple of miles along a wooded trail to the Hartwell Tavern. It's an evocative walk past several tributes to fallen soldiers, as well as the homes of patriots William Smith and Elizabeth Hartwell, both of who watched in awe and dread as the soldiers boldly marched towards Concord.

We would have continued there ourselves, but without our own transport, were forced to board the final trolley bus of the day to the North Bridge, where facing each other across the Concord river the first order to open fire on loyalist troops was given by Major Buttrick.

The twenty mile redcoat retreat back to Boston was a bloody and ragged affair. Local militia swarmed the woods, hiding behind trees and stone walls, filling in behind the exhausted troops. Atrocities were carried out on both sides as the angry and petrified soldiers tried desperately to get themselves back to barracks. Relief troops were sent to Lexington, but the enraged patriots maintained their pursuit back into Charlestown. Boston was effectively under siege.

Four months earlier George III, sitting pretty in Buckingham House, had predicted events in a letter to his Prime Minister Lord North

'The New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent... The people are in a state of mischief and we must either master them or totally leave them to themselves and treat them as aliens.'

The time for diplomacy had passed.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Modern Romance of JFK.

Jump forward another 150 years and a new generation of leaders were making waves in Boston. John 'Honey Fitz' Fitzgerald, the smooth talking son of Irish immigrants became, just a generation after his parents fled the potato famine, the first Catholic mayor of Boston. To solidify his position he encouraged his eldest daughter Rose to marry Joe, the son of Patrick Kennedy, one of his democratic rivals. Their second son John Fitzgerald Kennedy would, with the able assistance of his glamorous wife Jackie and two younger brothers, Bobby and Teddy, go on to reinvent politics for the charismatic media age.

We spent the morning investigating the appeal at the JFK Presidential Library, a beautiful concrete and glass building overlooking Dorchester bay, south of the city centre.

The Kennedy's throw a long shadow over Eastern Massachusetts. They educated themselves at Harvard, cut their political teeth in Boston, and regenerated at their compound at Hyannisport fifty miles South of here on Cape Cod.

The museum itself is fascinating, particularly in documenting the JFK's early life as the son of an ambassador. Initially he saw himself as an academic and teacher, developing a private intellectual life in the slip stream of elder brother Joseph Jnr's political ambition. It was Joe's death in an air crash towards the end of the war that catapulted John into the limelight, firstly as a serving an East Boston district in the House of Representatives, then as Senator for Massachusetts, before finally receiving the Democratic nomination to run for President in 1960.

Kennedy's fluent rhetoric was remarkable, from his clipped, polite diplomacy as a young congressman, to his towering inaugural speech, which more than any other moment captured the excitement of a new generation standing on the brink of progressive change. The black and white images of formal austerity and serious patricians, flushed out in favour of technicolour footage of swimming parties and families. It's this persuasive image of the leader as home maker that still pervades.

For all the style Kennedy remained deeply affected by the history of New England. His speeches drew heavily on the brave, uncertain sea journeys of both the Pilgrim fathers and his Irish ancestors, finding parallels between their voyages across the Atlantic to an strange land with his own dreams of space exploration. His was a life created on the edge. America was always at his back but, like so many of those who grow up by the ocean, he couldn't help but look the other way and wonder what awaited on the far shore. Freedom embodied as an escape towards the unknown.

We headed back into town and took a less treacherous boat trip, an early afternoon glide on the famous swan boats in the public gardens - a Boston institution - before heading back to the North End to take a more detailed look at some of the monuments in the Old North Church and Copp's Hill.

 The day ended down the hill in the chaotic glory of the Pizzeria Regina where huge plates of gorgeously stacked pizza and ice cold local beer are passed over head into the same wooden booths that have housed customers since the 1940s. Some things pull you home.


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

There She Blows!

We caught the first boat out from the harbour this morning and headed for out across the ocean towards the plankton rich Stellwagen Bank, home of migrating Humpback Whales. It took about an hour to reach the sanctuary, skimming along above the waves, leaving the skyscrapers of Boston as dots in the distance. Eventually we cut engines and made our way out on deck to look for water spouts, a tell tale indication that a whale is about to surface.

There were several boats out of Gloucester and Provincetown in the area already, all circling round looking for a sign and for twenty minutes or so you could have cut the tension with a knife and then ... suddenly... from nowhere, a cry. About 100 metres away, as clear as anything, a thin jet of spray rising high into the air. The engines flicked on again and off we sped.

I was amazed how close we could get. We arrived on the scene just as the majestic black back flowed in front of the boat. A perfect arc, cutting through the surface of the sea, running itself smoothly through the bright light of a sunny morning and ending with the flicked Y-shaped fluke of the tail as the great beast dived. It's hard to describe the feeling of being so close to such a magnificent creature. Several on the boat burst into tears. It was truly awesome.

The flukes of the whales are as individual as fingerprints and it didn't take our marine biologist guide long to flick through her data base of 2,500 whales to identify twenty two year old Rapier, who returns to these feeding grounds every year. She had a calf, as yet unnamed, with her. Rapier seemed totally unconcerned by our presence.The calf, more curious, came close to our bows.

For about an hour they came for air, dived, teasing us with her undetected movements underwater before spouting again. The boat twisted and turned, accelerated and reversed, trying to anticipate the next move. It was all over too quickly and long before we'd had enough we were heading back to shore.

Back in Boston, and buoyed by the morning's wonder, we decided to head back to the Common and trace the red bricked Freedom Trail, which takes visitors on a three mile walking tour past many of the key sites linked to the War of Independence.

We passed the impressive gold domed Massachusetts State House and followed Park Street into the Old Granary Burying Ground, home of departed patriots, brewer Sam Adams, bank rolling merchant John Hancock and silversmith Paul Revere, whose midnight ride to alert the coming of the Loyalist Redcoats was made famous by Longfellow's poem.

It's fascinating to realise that for the first 150 years of it's history America was essentially an outpost of England and that these men, the Sons of Liberty, were to all intents and purposes, English. The narrative of the journey to Independence is deeply ingrained in the American conscience, but it quickly becomes apparent that this was no Hollywood epic where the forces of good overcame the forces of evil, but rather a slow process of disillusionment with the Mother Country, and a growing belief that self-determination was the more profitable direction to go.

As if to reinforce the ambiguity the trail led us next to the King's Chapel and burial ground, the principal Anglican church in Puritan Boston. Over half the congregation fled at the outbreak of revolution. Winthrop is buried here and it's wine glass shaped pulpit, chandeliers and large vaulted windows, it's impossible to escape the sad whiff of repressed baroque. This was the Tories church and I began to see the parallels between the War of Independence and the English Civil War, a hundred and twenty years earlier. The patriots wanted to create a New England.

On we went to the South Street church, the meeting place, where Sam Adams encouraged the mob to march on Griffin's wharf and tip the tea into the harbour, and the Old State House, site of the Boston Massacre, where, in 1770, five colonists where killed by British troops, irritated by having snowballs thrown at them. Six years later the Declaration of Independence was read out to the citizens from a balcony overlooking the spot.

The historic sites were, by this time, beginning to close, so we decided we'd simply follow the route past Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market into the North End with its Italian restaurants, bursting into al fresco life. We found Paul Revere's house and the Old North Church, where the patriot sexton on the night of Revere's ride, secretly signalled to his colleagues across the water in Charlestown of the Westward departure of the Redcoats, by hanging two lanterns in the belfry.

With evening fast descending and the attractions thinning out we crossed the river ourselves to look from a distance at USS Constitution in the navel yard and climb Bunker Hill, where the first full scale battle of the revolution occurred. It's here that the Commander William Prescott, aware of the limited ammunition available to the militias in comparison with the well equipped redcoat forces instructed his men to avoid firing until they could see 'the whites of their eyes.'

Here we sat under the huge Obelisk, Prescott facing away from us looking out over peaceful Charlestown and began to realise just how fascinating and opportunistic the birth of America, as a nation, was.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The City on a Hill.

Winthrop is named after John Winthrop, the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who came over on the Arbella in the second wave of Pilgrims in 1630. He's best known for, during an on board sermon, describing his vision and warning for the new settlement: 'a city on a hill - the eyes of all people are upon us.' This puritan idea of the high moral standards and behaviour required to be God's chosen people has remained at the heart of many American dreams. Boston is, after a couple of false starts, where he eventually settled.

We were up early and across the harbour on the Winthrop Ferry, which whisks commuters across the bay to the downtown Rowes wharf. Boston is postage stamp sized and it's quite easy to get anywhere on its knuckle within half an hour. We decided to start at the beginning and headed for the Common, which was the original farm of William Blaxon, a deserter from the Plymouth Colony, who sold the ground to Winthrop and his men. Since that time the common has been the spiritual heart of the city. Home of  executions, picnics, and musters. It's an essential lung, especially on such a hot summer's day.

Today was for the sunbathers. Occasionally a half hearted game of Frisbee would start up, only to collapse under the heat of the afternoon.  A few queued for homemade lemonade, others read in the shade of the trees.

The somnambulant calm was only punctuated by sweaty costume interpreters, dressed in the full eighteenth century regalia of the patriots, animating strange and eventful histories to bemused groups of parasol sheltered tourists.

We'd wanted to follow them along freedom trail, to get our historical and geographical bearings, but realised that in the heat a more relaxed approach might be to get on the Beantown Trolley Bus and get a sense of the town from relative comfort. It was a good move. As soon as we boarded the heavens opened and we were hot by torrential rain. The tour was gentle and after taking us through the Back Bay, circled up through Cambridge, back across the Longfellow Bridge, through the West End to deposit us at the aquarium. The weather was still dodgy as so we hopped off and spent an hour watching sea turtles, barracudas and rays spiral around the giant ocean tank.

By early evening jet lag was beginning to set in and so we headed back to catch the last Winthrop ferry of the day Eastward, back towards the sunset and the homemade cookies that Maggie had left out for us.


Monday, 23 July 2012

The Sun Sinks Under Boston, Bloody Red.

Off to New England for a couple of weeks. We caught an early flight to Boston and arrived just after lunch, American time. For the first week we're staying in the beautiful nineteenth century clapboard Harrington House in the East Boston town of Winthrop, a jutting peninsula five miles east of the airport. We caught a Tube out to Orient Heights and picked up the bus, over a connecting bridge, past a clam shack and into the town proper.

It's an unassuming place. A glooping centre of suburban houses and proud businesses, funnelling down to a spit of land bounded by the ocean on either side, which in turn connects with Deer Island, one of the processing centres for the Irish migrants escaping the potato famine. Some 4,000 or more stayed as  refugees here awaiting work and shelter across the bay in Boston.

Winthrop's main claim to fame, which it conspicuously ignores, is that it was the childhood home of Sylvia Plath, who lived here until she was ten, when the sudden death of her father, drove the family to seek pastures new. The Winthrop years were happy ones for Sylvia, running between her grandparents house and her own home, playing on the silver sands, nursing starfish, collecting shark teeth and watching the aeroplanes take off, like huge metal insects, from Logan airport, just a couple of miles out in Boston harbour. In later life she wrote two memorial poems set in the town, Point Shirley about her grandmother and Electra on the Azalea Path, which recalls a visit to her father's grave. Winthrop was a paradise which closed it doors abruptly on Sylvia.

In The Bell Jar, Esther, Plath's autobiographical heroine, returns, depressed, in her early twenties, hoping to find, somewhere in the shingle, the courage to take her life here, on the beach. She ends up in casual conversation with one of the Prison guards on Deer Island.

'If I'd had the sense to go on living in that old town I might just have met this prison guard in school and married him and had a parcel of kids by now. It would be nice, living up by the sea with piles of little kids and pigs and chickens, wearing what my grandmother called wash dresses, and sitting about in some kitchen with bright linoleum and fat arms, drinking pots of coffee.'

In contrast, death by drowning, in the darkness of sea, would, she concludes, be an act of cowardice. So having allowed the waves to lick her feet, she retrieves her shoes from the water's edge and turns for home. It doesn't take you long to realise that most people in Winthrop go quietly about their business. It's a hard place for poets.

As we were early, we left our bags in the porch and found a pizza shop on the water's edge whilst we waited for Maggie and Joey, our hosts, to return from the their day jobs. The view across the bay was wonderful. Boston, a promised land, waiting for tomorrow morning's adventures.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


Today was graduation day, always a highlight of the University year, and a real opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the last three years. The ceremony in Westminster cathederal seems to get more flamboyant each year, with a trumpet fanfare greeting this year's cohort and all the staff replete in uniform white bow ties. It certainly added an element of grandeur which made this year's procession of the academics feel less Harry Potter and more like the march of the stormtroopers from Star Wars.

After a hymn and a speech the roll call began. Each student is given just a few seconds on the dias, shaking hands with the principal, before heading off to pick up the certificate.  The sad thing is that, after all the highs and lows of a three year degree, this is the last time we see many of them and the time each one spends in the spotlight never seems long enough, leaving proud lecturers just one short moment in which to recall so many happy memories. Sometimes you think of a startling performance, an act of kindness or a shared joke. Sometimes you remember how they were they first arrived, occasionally a more general sense of their journey springs to mind.  Afterwards we mingle outside for a while, mortars are thrown in the air and photos taken before we're ushered back to the changing rooms to derobe.

As with every year about 100 Drama St Mary's graduates come through, and they represent many hundreds of hours of shared workshop, rehearsal, discussion and performance. Alongside the standing ovations, broad smiles and parental handshakes is, for most of us, a real sense of gratitude for having the priviledge of working with such bright and positive young people.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Doctor's Dilemma

To the National to see a revival of George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma directed by Nadia Fell, who came through Trevor's MA Directing programme, when it ran at Goldsmiths. Having assisted Nick Hytner on a couple of shows, this is her first main house production. Andy Brunskill, who graduated from Drama St Mary's a couple of years ago, assists.

Eminent Harley Street physician, Sir Colenso Ridgeon, recently knighted for his pioneering work on discovering a tuberculosis cure, is faced with a dilemma. He has only secured funding for a finite number of patients. The arrival on the scene of the beautiful Jennifer Dubedat, begging help for her consumptive husband, the talented but wayward, Louis, takes him over the quota. Who to the save? The self-indulgent but brilliant artist or a mediocre, but good hearted, colleague.

It's a tough play to make your debut with. Shaw's characters nearly always demonstrate their attitudes rather than reveal them in a Stanislavskian way. There's a thin line to tread between creating a psychologically coherent universe, in which we empathise directly with the play's problems, and revelling in the satiric parody. Nadia's production works through this problem brilliantly, by creating a mini chorus from the Doctors, played with relish by David Calder, Malcolm Sinclair, Robert Portal and Paul Herzberg; who, in their clucking and preening, become a curious menagerie of vanities and opinions.

This frees the audience to focus on the actions of the three central characters, each of whom, in their own way, behave with moral ambiguity. Tom Burke, is particularly strong, as the insouciant Louis.

Much has been made of the play's contemporary relevance, where matters of life and death are subject to the vagaries of funding and the prioritisation of administrators, but I saw the work as a reminder of how dangerous it is when health care is privatised in the hands of a gentrified minority, who are happy to speculate on the future of their patients over a long lunch, playing God between the main course and desert.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Changing Posts and Finding Space.

Things are reshuffling at Drama St Mary's. After eight years as academic director Trevor is moving sideways to concentrate on pursuing projects beyond College. He's still going to be very much part of the department however and we're hoping that he'll pick up an ambassadorial role searching for exciting new professional partnerships and opportunities for our students in the future. Although I know he'll find it hard not to be at the hub of the decision making I think he's quite looking forward to getting away from the daily battles and administrative duties that go with the job and having a fresh look at ways in which we can strengthen our provision. He's also got to plan and deliver his Professorial lecture, some time in the next year so he's unlikely to fade into the background just yet. I'm looking forward to seeing him back in the classroom. The tragedy of educational management is it takes the best teachers away from the students.

This change to staffing comes hand in hand with a larger institutional change which will see our School CCCA merge with Theology, Philosophy and History to create a new School of Arts and Humanities. There's been some pressure to push this through before we return in September, but it's now more likely that the new School will open in January 2013. In effect this will streamline the University into four sizable areas: Education, Management and Social Sciences, Sport and Arts and Humanities.

For Drama the main preoccupation is, as ever, for space. We've recently been sizing up a former industrial bakery on Swan Island, about 200 metres away from the main campus and overlooking the river. It'd need a big make over job, but if we can acquire it would make a fantastic rehearsal/ workshop space and could house the long sought for Applied Theatre Centre. The beauty of it is that being just off-campus we'll be able to develop a different kind of artistic space, which may in turn reflect more closely the student's own sense of visual creativity.

The University authorities are keen for us to try and negotiate a deal with them... so fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Why Teaching Matters.

Today was my last official duty on the College wide Teaching and Learning Committee. An away day at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. Ironically I'm stepping down to spend more time advocating effective practice within the institution, but I do feel torn having served as the rep for CCCA for four years. The time, however, is right for a change.

The art of teaching is under threat in all HE institutions and not just from the increased market forces that a rise in fees brings. The need for increased research funding means that, in many cases, lecturers and departments are actively looking to minimise the contact they have with their students perhaps recognising that essentially quality research and effectual teaching are, except when working with exceptionally gifted students, hard to bring together. In response the government are insisting that all courses publish accurate figures demonstrating contact hours. Welcome as the efforts to raise standards are, both initiatives put added pressure onto staff.

St Mary's has always had an excellent reputation as an institution with teaching at its heart, although recently the efforts to up the number of staff engaged in active research has led to some colleagues resisting and proposed changes to the way we deliver. It'll be devastating if we take our eye off the ball. Whatever else happens we have 4000 students to educate. One of the worst scenarios is where students are left largely unguided. Hand out a reading list, a series of downloads and an essay question and let them get on with it. There's no role for charisma in that future and, in the final analysis it's charismatic lecturers that persuade students to make decisions and take on adult responsibilities.

The general feeling of today's meeting was that time is ripe for a little counter punch and a number of ideas came through to strengthen the profile of teaching and learning over the coming year. My feeling is, and has always been, that real progress in effective learning will really be made if we can integrate student's into the debate, not just at the level of holding us to account, but by encouraging the Union to play an involved role in the way in academic as well as social issues. It's crazy that the student experience committee is chaired by a co-opted governor rather than the SU President. It's dangerous if students feel that education is something that happens to them rather than something they have a genuine personal investment in.

I suggested investing in a series of high profile lectures about educational issues within HE which could be advertised for both students and staff. It won't solve all the problems, but it will make a very public statement that whatever else happens in these turbulent times teaching and learning remains the core activity of St Mary's.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Value of Assessment.

Back at St Mary's for a Teaching and Learning day looking particularly at assessment, it's pedagogic value and importance to students. At the centre of the day was a really good keynote lecture from Sally Brown of Leeds Met, who is a passionate advocate of using assessment to help design curriculum.

I was particularly interested in her observations that assessment actually shapes student behaviours. That, when intelligently designed, assessment motivates, encourages and guides students into new areas, stretching them to explore the structures they use to participate in tasks. This is a development of the traditional idea that assessment runs parallel, but has little to do with the task itself.

By the same token poorly designed assessment encourages strategic approaches to tasks, where the focus is on understanding the arbitrarily set criteria in order to effectively tick the boxes.

Can we put together tasks that insist on fluent writing, good time management, the ability to take a brainstormed idea through to a completed project? And in so doing can we begin effectively challenge plagiarism, pointless cutting and pasting and procrastination.

Sally challenged the assumption that the job of the University is to impart knowledge, but rather to help students see achievement as incremental. If student's can separate themselves emotionally from the summative assessment grade and begin to see the challenge of learning in a more three dimensional way.

Most of us working in Drama St Mary's have an intuitive, and in the main I would argue effective, approach to assessment. We're involved in formative assessment through feedback, encouragement, correction and suggestion hundreds of time a day - but maybe the time has come to take a more proactive and integrated approach to the summative tasks we set. A small step may be to link assessments across the three year cycle so that rather than closing doors on modules once they're completed, we use the feedback to set forward thinking targets to keep our students looking for future progress ahead.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Robben Island Reading.

A really good day at the South Bank working on The Robben Island Bible reading in the Purcell Room with our excellent cast. Vincent and Chuk were joined by the twinkling Cornelius McCarthy, currently in rehearsal to play Jesse Owens in Tom McNab's new play at Sadler's Wells.

We worked fast, setting some ground rules, marking the changes from one section to another and negotiating the Shakespeare. The key to understanding The Bible and, I think, to making real sense of Matt's script, is to put aside of any Euro-centric contextual understanding of the chosen passages and re imbue each with the context of the men's incarceration. The most notable example is Wilton Mkwayi's choice of Malvolio's letter from Twelfth Night 'If this fall into your hand, revolve...'

In Twelfth Night itself the letter is planted and the key part of an elaborate gull designed to humiliate the puritan steward Malvolio. The audience are of course in on the joke and, sympathetic to the rowdy fun of the play's clowns, delight in Malvolio's developing misunderstanding of his circumstance.

Wilton's circumstance was different. At the time of his imprisonment with his fellow Rivonia trialists, in January 1965, he'd recently become engaged to Irene. Every six months she was allowed to visit. On these occasions Wilton was allowed to go down to the small harbour and watch the boat arrive. However, the arrival didn't automatically lead to reunion. Often the guards, having fulfilled the brief that close relatives be allowed to see each other, would turn the boat around and send families back to the mainland, leaving the prisoners to wait for a further six months.

Chuk plays Wilton and we decided to imagine the speech as a letter of encouragement from Irene. Taken in this context the words...'appear fresh,' 'put thyself in the trick of singularity''she thus advises thee that sighs for thee, 'Farewell. She that would alter services with thee. The fortunate unhappy,' suddenly take on a striking and moving new resonance. Chuk imagined reading it, with the boat disappearing in the distance.

Wilton married Irene immediately prior to his release in 1987. She died the year after.

Some of the hardest passages to find a context for were the Sonnets. Vincent made the fascinating point that as many of the men had had a Marxist political training, it was the dialectical construction of the Sonnets that may well have proved attractive. This gave us a way in. Treated as rational argument rather than passionate confession they also took on fresh meaning.

Time flew by, but by 5pm, we had a good shape and had made all of our decisions. The actors broke to grab a bite to eat and to let the notes settle whilst Matt and I went off to the reception.

The event itself went really well. I was delighted, given the short time we'd had, how brilliantly the three actors found a common narrative and held the story. Afterwards the 300 strong audience stayed for a Q & A with Ashwin Desai, who's recently written on the education structures devised by the Prisoners on the island, South African actress Pamela Nomvette, Vincent and Matt. It was a very inspiring evening.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Crow in Greenwich.

Off to Greenwich to see Handspring's latest show based on Ted Hughes' Crow poems. It's a strange mixture of the expected innovative puppetry and a rather unsophisticated, almost naive use of choreography and verse speaking. It's a bit of a muddled evening, Hughes abstract, nihilistic mediation on creation doesn't transfer easily to stage and much of the dark undertow of the work is made meaningless by the over literal interpretation of the production.

There are side lights, the almost obligatory disembodying microphones and a huge rubbish tip of a set on which the sack cloth dressed cast perch whilst waiting to swoop into manipulative action. None of these choices feel right, they simply offer a rather cliched vocabulary for a tired form of dance theatre.

With each episode Crow, in his cunning existential battle with God, grows larger, more demanding, more dangerous and this expansion of an idea gives the company an opportunity to take a simple puppet and develop its mechanics over the course of the hour into a monstrous writhing phallic creation. This is what they're good at but from gentle peck to astonishing pecker, War Horse this isn't!

Ultimately the work is rather dull, mono paced and lacking the textured nuance of the original work. I couldn't help feeling this was a company still coming to terms with the possibilities of the text on which they'd chosen to work, rather than insightful artists reaching out for a coherent and satisfying realisation.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Sad Death of Langton's Bookshop.

Sad to see, on a walk over to Twickenham, that Langton's bookshop on Church Street has been forced to close down. It's a real shame and quite a blow to the character of the town. For many years Drama St Mary's students rented rooms above. A stone's throw from the river, it was one of the smartest digs available.

The bookshop has been struggling for as long as I've lived in the area, and a flood last year wiped out a lot of its stock. Ultimately the various initiatives, an leather sofa furnished eco-friendly coffee shop, weekly reading groups, children's story hours and above all, knowledgeable and approachable staff have failed in the face of increasingly cheap supermarket book deals, Amazon and the rise of down loadable books, to save it. For quite a while now many local patrons have been paying £1 extra on each book to try and prolong the inevitable.

It's the third bookshop that we've lost locally in the last six years. Our campus shop disappeared within a year of me joining St Marys, swiftly followed by Borders in Kingston. For now we're still well served by three Waterstones in Richmond, Kingston and Twickenham, as well as the magical Lion and Unicorn children's bookshop and The Open Book on Richmond Green - but it's a great sadness that another independent seller has bitten the dust, particularly one that had been in operation for nearly sixty years and provided such a relaxed and friendly service.

I hope the future includes bookshops. For all the convenience and user friendliness of the Kindle and the One Click Buy there are very few pleasures as distracting as half an hour spent browsing for books, flicking through a contents page or an index, and finally selecting a potential jewel to take away. There is nothing quite as wonderful as returning to a book twenty or thirty years after a first reading, holding the battered spine, reading the faded annotations and remembering that a poem or quote propelled your understanding of the world forward. Books bury treasure and the joy of them is in the excavation. The bookshop is where it all starts.