Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Shakespeare in Pieces.

Off to the British Museum to see the astonishing Staging the World exhibition, looking at Shakespeare's life and times through a series of remarkable artefact both from the museum's own collection and beyond.

It's a deliberately eclectic display of stuff which leads you through some key themes London as a global city, the rural countryside of Shakespeare's youth, kingship and the English nation and rooms dedicated to Shakespeare's view of classical civilisation, the religious conversions of the sixteenth century and finally a look at the brave new worlds of the Americas that were being explored during the Jacobean age.

Almost every object carries a fascinating story and help to paint a picture of the World 400 years ago and the three hours I'd given myself to explore wasn't nearly enough time.

Early on you come across an evocative revision from the multi-authored play, Sir Thomas More. The corrections are clearly in Shakespeare's spidery hand, including crossings out, experiments and inserts. It's a reassuringly familiar document of trial and error.

 Next door is Henry V's 'bruised helmet' along with the shield and saddle used at Agincourt. From Henry's death in 1422, right up until 1972 these tributes were displayed on the crossbeam above the King's tomb in Westminster Abbey. Visual icons of our ancestors triumphant victory over France, and well known to the citizens of the Elizabethan city. I had never seen them before.

Towards the end the gorgeous intricacy of the Lyte Jewel, presented to Thomas Lyte by James I in thanks for the genealogical research that helped the new King establish noble credentials by tracing his blood line, somewhat unbelievably, back to Brutus, the mythical founder of Britain.

There are more gruesome exhibits as well, the skull of a bear found in excavations of the baiting pits in Southwark, a fossilised calf's heart stuck with pins, used as a counter charm to protect livestock from witches and hobgoblins and most stomach churning of all, the shrivelled eye of Father Edward Oldcorne, a Jesuit priest, saved as a relic at his execution. 'Out vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?'

Finally, right at the exit, modestly sits The Robben Island Bible, opened at Mandela's signature. After four years following it's story it was a strange experience to actually see it, proud, battered but still and lifeless, protected behind in a glass case. It was like meeting a familiar friend in a strange place and not quite knowing how to react.


Sunday, 26 August 2012

How to Destroy a Sixteen Year Old's Confidence.

Assessment is a fascinating area of education practice.

We spend hours each year looking at each student's work and then trying to match what we're seeing or reading against pre-ordained criteria, in order to set a grade or value. We spend almost as much time looking and re looking at how those criteria are written, to make sure that they record, as accurately as language will allow, a description of the kinds of accomplishments that we believe will be needed for a successful future.

In fact, it could be argued that as educators, it's the most essential role we play. Assessment is a powerful teaching tool.

The most important aspect of assessment is that students believe it. They knock on our doors and ask us to explain the grades they've been given. They rightly celebrate first class marks and look to try and analyse what they could have done differently when the grade disappoints. They trust that the mark written on the bottom right of their feedback sheet actually carries meaning.

And so it's distressing to hear this week of the GCSE debacle where it appears that the desire to send a strong message that exams are there to discriminate has led to Ofqual downgrading thousands of marks in the name of academic rigour.

There has, of course, until this year, been year on year improvements to the GCSE grades.

It makes sense, reflecting the investment in Schools over the past twenty years and the fact that teachers get better year on year at delivering successful candidates against the exam criteria. In other disciplines this would be cause for celebration. Teachers improving year on year their own performance in the art of making students more successful at exams. In education, however, the worries around grade inflation mean that politicians and the media greet these improvements with profound scepticism and accusations of dumbing down. Damned if you do...

It's why at Drama St Mary's we review the criteria each year. Are they too tough? Are they too easy? We revise accordingly before publishing them for the students to see. Thus the grade thresholds are manipulated gently to keep them relevent and challenging, but, vitally this is done before anybody undergoes their assessment. This means the staff are also clear on how a standard of performance links to a mark before they begin to teach their modules.

The cruel and arbitrary way in which the boundaries have shifted for GCSE students mid session, means students who would have been awarded a C had they taken the exam in January have, simply by taking the exam in July been given a D. Intelligence is not assessed here. It's more important to have been born in the right year!

It's hard to persuade young people of the importance of education. Many are already suspicious and some increasingly cynical of the notion that qualifications are a surefire path to employment or happiness. Trust is the vital element in any relationship between teachers and learners and once young people begin to lose confidence in the formal processes by which their work is judged then it's not long before they lose confidence in the need to study or train at all.

If we expect children to stick to school rules, it might be useful if we let them know when we've decided to change them.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Teddington Libraries and Political Diaries.

With the new year approaching time is running out for summer reading. Soon enough our inboxes will begin filling up with reports, committee papers, minutes and journal articles. This year with so much else going on the time for tucking up with a good book has been limited, but the last few days and the week ahead seem open enough to allow page turning time.

I had an hour or so in ever so friendly Teddington library, which has plenty of armchairs and a small walled garden out the back. Recently I've taken more effort to use the local libraries. They're a brilliant resource and are inevitably under threat as the council tries to make savings. This in turn has meant that I've bought less books this year than ever before. It's not a bad discipline to get out of the house to read the papers and to browse the shelves for interesting titles, and if the effort helps the footfall and therefore the life of the libraries, everybody wins.

In the end I picked up former MP Michael Spicer's diaries, which have just come out.

Spicer was first elected to parliament in 1974, but seems to have spent most of his first five years avoiding the house and building up his business interests. He failed to back Margaret Thatcher in her successful bid for the Tory Party leadership, but slowly, mostly working alongside Cecil Parkinson, began to climb the greasy poll, once she'd led her party to victory in 1979. As a Euro-sceptic he spent much of the early nineties happily undermining John Major's leadership, before finally becoming the chair of the 1922 committee. I disagree with almost everything he says, whilst revelling in the delightful way he spends thirty years slipping from one conspiracy to conspiracy about the corridors of power.

I do find political diaries endlessly fascinating. Chris Mullen, Gyles Brandreth and Alan Clark have all, in slightly different ways given us fascinating, gossipy insights into the Blair, Major and Thatcher administrations respectively and Spicer's journals seem a worthy addition to the genre.

What makes these works so interesting is that they're not written by those directly in power, who, even in hindsight, are compelled to fight hard to control the historical narrative and their own personal reputation, but instead they present the perspective of backbenchers, thrilled to be bit players, present at key moments, occasionally adding breathe to the sails, but for the most part standing unnoticed in the backwaters.

In this respect they follow in the noble Pepysian tradition, majoring in voyeurism, whilst minoring in personal ambition. It's the perfect balance for a diarist. Without the former they couldn't pull us readers in, but without the latter they wouldn't be in position from which to record in the first place.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Isabella Plantation at Dusk.

Back in London and a lovely evening walk into Richmond Park and the gorgeous Isabella Plantation, a couple of hundred metres in from Ham Gate.

The plantation is fenced off, mostly to protect it from the deer, and has over the hundred and fifty years of its existence provided a lush ornamental garden, quite in contrast with the wild openness of the rest of the park.

Large enough to get lost in, it's real beauty lies is its subtle seasonal changes and fades as the Japanese Irises and day lilies close up to be replaced by the Autumn glory of the Acer trees blazing red. Elsewhere the rowan and spindle trees and beginning to swell, their berries riping for harvest.

Most visitors come to the plantation in Spring, glorying in the bluebell carpets and explosive displays of azaleas and rhododendrons, but tonight in the calm and warmth of late Summer it was as beautiful as I've ever seen it.

It has the air of a secret garden and passing through the gate we followed the deep cut stream that leads from Peg's Pond, with its jumping fish, through Fallen Oak Glade to Still Pond and the Southern end, without meeting a soul. Finally we headed back along Camellia Walk, round to the Beech Bay and back to the peace of the pond.

This part of London really is a fantastic place to live. The park itself is the biggest green lung south in the capital and the Thames is also at its proudest as it winds past Hampton Court and Richmond on its way to regal splendour of London. I often wonder whether the students, heads down as they run from lectures to the library, to the clubs and bars in Kingston are aware enough of these magical places that lie just a leap of imagination and short walk away from the routines of undergraduate life. I hope some of them, maybe staggering home on a Sunday morning after a big night out, do stumble across the Isabella Plantation. It's as magical as falling down a rabbit hole or stepping through a wardrobe into a snow covered world.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Handsome Hanson Way.

I've been back in Oxfordshire for a couple of days enjoying what's left of the Summer break before heading back to St Mary's and as the weather was onside I spent most of the afternoon exploring the Hanson Way which runs between steam trains in Didcot and the city of Dreaming Spires.

It's one of the many routes on the Sustrans National Cycle Network, an organisation which gently, over the past couple of decades has created a wonderful collection of cycle paths across the UK, encouraging commuters and families back onto their bikes for work and leisure.

Oxfordshire, it a bit of a plateau. The Ridgeway lies South and the Chilterns to the East, but in the main it's perfect biking country.

The route from Didcot, cuts through Sutton Courtney and took me up the charmingly named Peep O Day Lane, through Abingdon Marina and into St Helen' heads out towards thes before heading out through Abbey Gardens, across the river just above the weir and away across the fields to Radley.

On turning out of the village I got stuck on the main road, but only for a couple of miles before the route turns down a side track and cuts along parallel with the railway line on one side and the  sparkling Thames on the other, past the fishermen looking for pike by Sandford lock and on to Ifley, with it's ancient Norman church. There's a sense that Oxford is near at hand.

The last few miles are lovely, under Donnington Bridge, and then up past the University boathouses before finally emerging at the Head of the River, St Aldgates and Christchurch Meadow.

The whole trip took about an hour but sitting in the late afternoon sun with a welcome beer and the day trippers boarding Salters ferry for a leisurely cruise back to Abingdon it felt good to have taken the effort to enjoy such a picturesque route into town.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Troilus and Cressida.

To Stratford to see a strange and largely unsatisfying production of Troilus and Cressida, a co-production between the RSC and New York's experimental Wooster Group.

The idea behind the production - to direct one army, the Trojans, in New York using the techniques and rehearsal approaches developed by the Woosters over the last thirty years, whilst simultaneously directing the Greeks using the RSC's traditional rehearsal process is interesting - wars are indeed normally begun because two cultures clash over disputed territory; but what comes out in the wash is a self-conscious mish mash of game playing and cleverness, which abandons narrative clarity and imposes abstract philosophical ideas about appropriation, virtuality and the authority of text on the audience.

The Trojans are a miked, post-modern parody of native Americans, whilst the Greeks are a modern NATO force. It could be an intriguing anachronism, but in effect is just a callous assault on the audience's intelligence. After initial delight, it's as boring as a child's unstructured rambling. None of this is helped by some fairly dire verse speaking on the American side and a strange decision to keep most of the play in tact, keeping us in our seats for well over three and a half hours.

If you can entertain the frankly spurious notion, spelt out by co-director Mark Ravenhill in the programme note, that the intention is to create something 'inconsistant in tone' you're still left with the bewildering casualness of arbitrary choices. Even the use of monitors to screen snippets of Inuit cinema, which are then mirrored through the stage choreography, suggesting perhaps that behaviour and action are mediated through a dominant hegemony, is made inconsequential simply because the screens are too small.

There are some moments. Scott Handy is smashing as Ulysses and Zubin Varla brings a snarling malcontent to Thersites, but these are the rare occasions when the company relaxes back on Shakespeare's verse and allows it space to breathe.

The play already has its problems, mostly to do with Shakespeare's decision to begin and end the action within the siege of Troy, creating almost a fly on the wall documentary without context or conclusion. This seems to me fascinating enough for post-structural exploration, the additional layers introduced by both directors, seem ultimately to obscure rather than elucidate this fascinating play.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Great Olympic Wedgy.

And so the Olympics comes to and end with a fun packed closing ceremony featuring waves of surprises and a very British mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Tim Spall, again appearing as Churchill, nonsensically speaking Caliban's lines from atop a newsprint decked Big Ben, whilst Julian Lloyd-Webber played the cello. Russell Brand out of key as Willy Wonka, Fat Boy Slim emerging from an inflatable octopus. Eccentric and meaningless stuff.

In keeping with the style over substance theme the athletes were corralled into trivial pursuit shaped wedges so that a complicated, cat walk union flag stage could be made in the centre of the stadium. A global TV audience marvelled at the coherence stage management, but apart from the moment when The Spice Girls united the crowd with childhood memories of Zig-a-zig-ah, the athletes looked lost, disconnected and, trapped in their zones, unsure of where the focus of the show should be.

The tight marshaling and designation seemed to me to be the real metaphor for modern Britain, where the rebellious conditions that broke appeasement, created a magical chocolate factory and championed surrealism, have long since disappeared in clouds of conformity and regulation. The legacy runs deep, the identity cards we've been asked to wear during St Mary's time as a training camp, are to be kept in place. Ours is an odd culture, enthralled both to rules and to those who get away with breaking them.

There is a sense of empowerment engendered by the games that I hope will lead to some positive investment in Schools and clubs. The fact remains that 40% of Britain's Gold medallists were educated in private schools, where resources and facilities are plentiful. It's not defeatist to suggest that confidence and entitlement develops much faster when the conditions are right, but it is offensive for those from privileged backgrounds, to suggest that all that is needed is a change of attitude amongst those who are forced to structure their provision around a football and two rusty sets of goalposts. World class resources and investment promote world class athletes. It's underinvestment, not working class conservatism that leads to squabbles and tribalism.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Mo-mentus Days!!!

In true British style the chances of Mo winning a second gold tonight were underplayed. No pressure. After all he'd already got his Gold at his preferred distance last Saturday, five of the other athletes in the race had run faster times at 5000 metres this year and remember he'd disappointed at this distance four years ago when he didn't even qualify for the Beijing final. A couple of weeks after that I'd spotted early one morning as I cycled into work. He was running on his own around St Mary's running track an anonymous and lonely figure. He was beginning again.

So when 7.30pm came round and the TV coverage switched to Olympic Park I was rather taken by surprise. Suddenly it was race time again and no matter how much time had been spent playing down the possibility of glory the butterflies were fluttering when he stepped up to the starting line.

The first laps were slow and I wondered whether the Ethiopian team, in particular, were trying to box him in. Mo bided his time, sat at the back, in touch but looking for the opportunity to move safely up onto the shoulder of the leaders. A mile out, he stepped up, perfect positioning, ready to strike. The slow pace now became an advantage for Mo. Hold the ground and wait to kick. No one surely can out run him over the last 600 metres. The laps were counting down 4...3...2... come on Mo!

At the sound of the bell the runners were still bunched. It had come down to a fairly straight 400. Come on Mo!

He gritted his teeth, his eyes began to bulge. On our feet now. Come on Mo! With 100 metres to go another kick and although Ethiopian Dejen Gebremeskel and the Kenyan Thomas Longoslwa tried to respond it was in vain and unbelievably... really unbelievably Mo crashed over the line, arms out stretched, mouth wide open in a scream of joy. St Mary's favourite son is a double Olympic gold medallist!!! Arise then Sir Mo? I should coco!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Why All Can Still Have Medals.

The Olympic Games are drawing slowly but surely to an end and politicians of all parties are beginning to move in to grab the legacy agenda. Is it up to teachers to work harder providing extra-curricular support? Is it time to revamp the School Sports Partnerships? Should Schools look to provide two hours of 'competitive' sport a week or a day? Should all teachers, regardless of their subject skills, be expected to contribute to Schools sport?

At the heart of all of the debate is yet another attack on non-competitive sport - the so called 'all must have prizes' syndrome, so brilliantly parodied by Lewis Carroll through the Caucus race in Alice in Wonderland, and an implicit attack on activities that promote collaboration and 'not for profit' involvement. Is there a threat that the push to dedicate more time and resources to sport might push to one side the time offered to other non-academic activities - Drama, Dance, Art, Music?

The consensus seems to be that unless some form of hierarchy or grading can take place then some how the activity is diminished. Competition, we're told, raises standards and enjoyment for all. Learning to be a good loser is all part of the deal and 'if you can't win make sure the person who does breaks the world record.'

Of course all this is positive and true, but I do worry that the focus on 'competitive' hides the notion that all victory is in some way a collaboration between those who participate. The best of the Olympics is actually the grand collaboration that brings nations together, agrees rules, accepts decisions and shares emotions.

There is of course a grand conformity about all this which part of me baulks against, but in as much as the Olympics, on this level, is inclusive and values a diversity of talents I think it can provide an incredibly inspiring legacy for community development. It's worth noting that, athletics aside, the sports in which we've won gold medals are not part of a traditional PE curriculum and the achievements of our sportsmen and women seem to have grown from them picking up or inheriting a sport as a hobby, joining a club and realising some success in it. Parents, it's clear, have a huge hand in turning enthusiastic children into world class athletes.

I was interested to hear yesterday that everybody who takes part in the Olympics receives a certificate that unambiguously names them as an Olympian - of course it lacks the prestige of the Gold Medal. But in essence it seems identical to the Primary School Sports day where every child is rewarded for their own achievement or idiosyncrasy.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Catching Up.

Back in the UK and a chance to catch up with news from Edinburgh. Jo Nastri, who graduated from Drama St Mary's this summer, is clearly doing a brilliant job in Morning, the highly acclaimed new play by Simon Stephen's which already, a week in, seems to be one of the festival's must see productions. It had a great review in The Guardian yesterday and strong notices in both The Telelgraph and The Independent. The show is coming back into London with an extended run at the Lyric in September.

Meanwhile Stef's new show A Guide to Second Date Sex opens next week at the Udderbelly, after a couple of strong previews in London.

And Barbershopera are also picking up some good support for The Three Musketeers which opened last week at The Pleasance.

We're hoping to bring some of these shows into our theatre in the Autumn.

Meanwhile back at college things are quiet. The Olympics have taken over everything and as we're hosting athletes from China, Ireland and South Africa, you're as likely to bump into a medal prospect as you are a lecturer.  There is still a buzz from Mo's 10,000 metre Gold Medal success last weekend and further good news today as Mo qualified for the 5,000 metre final and another former student Andrew Osagie, much to his own surprise, made it through to the 800 metre final tomorrow night. It's all very exciting.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Salem in the Summer.

Our final day in the States. We set off early from Laconia and hit the Interstate back South out of New Hampshire, back towards Massachusetts and into Salem for a last excursion.

The town itself has long since become a convenient, grab a Starbucks, commuter town for nearby Boston and it's historic past seems now to be squashed into a couple of streets running alongside the rather gorgeous natural harbour. From here the first American merchant ships to explore Canton and Macau set out and, like so many of the towns on the New England coast, the huge houses of the sea captains stand as testament to the lucrative nature of these early enterprises to the other side of the world.

One of these houses found literary fame when local boy Nataniel Hawthorne imagined a gothic adventure set in The House of the Seven Gables and so, with a couple of hours to kill, we headed there for a whistle stop tour.

The house itself is one of the oldest in the town, pre-dating the witchcraft trials of 1692, and as such carries a layered history. Hawthorne himself was, to his eternal shame, a distant relative of one of the prosecuting judges and the novel is on one level an act of atonement for his families involvement in the lynchings. At the end of the novel the remaining characters all escape the house, and the past, to live freer and happier lives. I couldn't help but think back to the light and space of the Old Manse and Wayside House in Concord, in contrast to the ramshackle secret rooms here. Hawthorne, although aware of his ancestry, clearly refused to be trapped by his Puritan background. Compared to his writing, his own life seems remarkably uncluttered.

Back in town the temperature began to soar. We headed off past the kitsch ghoul themed tourist shops to see the witch trial memorial. Each victim given a rough stone on which their name, date of sentence and manner of death is engraved. Out the back of from yet another attraction, two young men, white paint sweating off their faces, removed their black capes, prosthetic skull masks and tried to cool down before heading back to scare more willing tourists. On a blazing August afternoon Salem's dark past seemed particularly hard to conjure.

But it was time to go so, full of new stories, we made the short drive back to Logan in time for the early evening flight back to London.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Cog Railway.

Up early and away from Pinestead Lodge as the sun rose over the mountains to Bretton Woods for our trip up Mount Washington on the famous steam powered Cog Railway.

The journey looks impossible. The gradient of the track, at times steeper the 1 in 3, the hissing and pouting of the old engine and the perilous narrow gauge all make you feel, as you stare up towards the clouds swirling around the summit, that you are heading off on a mighty adventure.

It takes about an hour to get to the top, but some of the reflective beauty and potential solitude of leaving civilisation behind is lost by the cacophony of recorded voice over narrative cutting in and out of the speakers and constant shoving of fellow passengers, diving around the wooden carriage to take photograph after photograph. Some are videoing the entire 3 mile an hour journey, providing their own commentary for good measure, occasionally widening out the shot and encouraging the rest of passengers to holla, hoot and wave.Have we mistakenly boarded the world's slowest roller coaster? It's the loudest train I've ever been on!

Still if you can tune it all out the spectacle is quite something. Soon we are above the tree line and, for the first time since arriving in the States, cold. By the time we pull into the summit station 6,288ft in the air visibility is down to a few yards. We hurry indoors avoiding the exhausted and scornful stares from those who've trudged up the hiking trails, to the highest cafe this side of the Mississippi for a warm cup of coffee.

Even up here the American desire to entertain and inform is everywhere. A full list of the hundreds of climbers who've died on the Mountain proves an attraction placed, as it is, next to a big sign: I've made it up Mount Washington - home to America's worst weather - underneath which thumbs up, smiling tourists record their presence.

Before long it's time to head back down. The brakeman skillfully turning the wheels, allowing us to reach speeds of up to six miles an hour as we drop back to the car park and souvenir shop at the foot of the mountain.

We head off to the pretty town of Jackson to see their beautifully preserved covered bridge and look for an opportunity to go swimming underneath the town falls, but, with the heat of the day back on us, it proved impossible to find a parking space within striking distance and so we drove on to the Kancamagus Highway, which cuts a breathtaking path through the white mountains. Again the bathing pools and picnic spots were chockablock full of weekenders and so we contented ourselves with the scenery and drove on.

By nightfall we'd reached our final stop Laconia on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. Tomorrow we begin the long journey home.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Where the Pioneers Ended Up.

Up early with the White Mountains on our doorstep. Bob had already made a positive start to the day, the suckling piglet had been stuck on the spit and all was in full preparation for his daughter's wedding which was happening in the huge barn his grandfather had built across from our lodge.

We decided it was best to get out early and so we headed for Peggy's Pancake Parlour just up the valley in Sugar Hill for a maple syrup covered, coconut, blueberry and walnut infused start to the day. We met Polly's daughter Nancy, who, now in her late eighties, still drifts around the restaurant telling customers stories and checking on their well being.

'In the depression my father Wilfred, who everybody knew as Sugar Bill needed to find a way of selling his syrup' she explained 'so he started to offer as many pancakes as you can eat for 50 cents, and that way people began to get a taste for his product.'

The start up scheme worked and eighty years later people travel from all over New England for an astonishing breakfast; there's regularly a half hour wait for a place at one of the communal tables.

Sated we headed back down Franconia Notch to the Flume Gorge - a gorgeous three mile hike following the wildly flowing Pemigeswasset river through shaded groves and past still alluring pools. New Hampshire has a more rugged feel compared with Massachusetts and it's no surprise to hear that in the late nineteenth century Boston socialites would regularly travel north to have their photographs taken in front of the many beauty spots found around the Notch.

For the longest time the gorge was home to the Old Man of the Mountain, whose craggy profile stared out across the land, becoming an icon of New Hampshire ruggedness and continuity. Unfortunately the outcrop collapsed in 2003, many here are still in shock.

We headed into Lincoln to see if we could book on to one of the twilight Moose tours that head out into woods and grazing grounds around the town. Unfortunately they were all booked up, but in true New Hampshire style the bus driver gave us our own map and told us where to look.

'The trouble is with the critters is that their hooves don't grip on the tarmac,' he explained 'so when they step out it's like them being on ice. They panic, try to run and before you know it you've got a moose sticking out your bonnet.  The tour bus has light at the level of their eyes, which gives you a fighting chance of picking them out if they're standing in the road. It's a heap harder in a car which is why you gotta take care. We have hundreds of fatalities every year.'

'Human or moose?'


We thanked him for the map and headed back to Franconia to have a look round Robert Frost's farmstead, looking up at the mountains. The poet lived here in the twenties a period of great creativity for him. It's a peaceful place with many of his most famous poems including The Road Not Taken carved onto wooden sheets and displayed in the overgrown garden. Nowadays the house provides a retreat for an annual poet in residence, whose only disturbances are the buzzing bees and the handful of visitors who tread the paths gently in search of a simple understanding and delicate touch.

We headed north and crossed the State line into Vermont, heading for Glover and The Bread and Puppet Theater, near to the Canadian border.

The company were started by the mercurial Peter Schumann in New York way back in the sixties but moved to spacious barns here to the Northeastern Kingdom in 1974. Their basic philosophy that theatre is as essential as eating and that puppets provide a clear expression of our deepest dreams and desires has influenced so many companies and protest movements from the Vietnam War onwards. I remember in the eighties going on CND demos, where huge effigies of Thatcher loomed over the procession.

The Bread and Puppet Theater were one of the real pioneers of Applied Theatre. In taking their art onto the street they looked beyond the idea of conventional show making to suggest that the formation and maintenance of the company itself might provide a rehearsal for a Utopian society. It's an idea that continues to entice imaginative community focused practitioners to this day. Much of the work that Drama St Mary's has done with Spiral over the last few years has an aesthetic link back to here to these Vermont barns.

It's good to know that they're still alive and making theatre. We arrived just after six hoping that they might have something on, but alas the company had just finished rehearsals for the day and were setting up for a barbecue. They let us have a little snoop about and invited us back to see tomorrow's pageant, unfortunately we're heading back towards Boston.

We were close enough to drive up to the border and look briefly over into Canada. Not for us this time, however - it's a whole other adventure. Twilight was drawing on and so, with half an eye out for skating Moose, we drove back to share a pint of celebration home brew with slightly worse for wear Bob back on our New Hampshire farmstead.

Friday, 3 August 2012

A Walk Round Walden Pond.

A long drive North. We set out early and curled back round Cape Cod and were across the Sagamore Bridge into central Massachusetts by ten am. I'll miss the Cape,  Sand dunes, salty air, quaint little villages here and there. The American Dolche Vita. It's everything Patti Page promised.

We motored on and took the ring road round the West side of Boston, back to Concord, where we stopped for lunch at the Colonial Inn, overlooking Monument Square.

When we were here a week or so ago we were so full of revolutionary history that we didn't pay any attention to Concord's other major contribution to the evolution of American identity, namely the transcendental movement, which grew up in the town from the 1830s.

Transcendentalism speaks to the American longing for escape and self-sufficiency and the distrust of organised institutions or religions. In many ways they were the first environmentalists, resisting the growing intellectual rationalism of the Harvard scholars, philosophising just ten miles down the road

The father of the movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the third generation Emerson, to occupy the Old Manse, a large detached house overlooking the North Bridge. It was here his seminal essay Nature was first drafted. Nine years later Emerson rented the house to newlyweds Sophie Peabody and Nataniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne's interest in transcendentalism seems to have been encouraged more by a desire to be with Sophie, rather than deeply held belief, despite this the years in the Manse seem poor but happy. Another friend Henry David Thoreau created a vegetable garden for them, which exists to this day.

For a while Hawthorne enraptured by the glory of his new life failed to write anything. Sophia, ever the pragmatist and with children to feed, turned his desk away from the window. Facing the blandness of the wall Hawthorne began to write again producing Mosses from an Old Manse, the book of sketches that inspired Herman Melville to dedicate Moby Dick to him.

We toured the house with a laconic guide, who took all the time in the world to lead us through rooms. A living embodiment of the philosophy. He was particularly impressed with the stuffed owl in the living room, which Hawthorne named Longfellow, after his Harvard-centric friend. Most touching to me was the gentle observations engraved with diamond on the window panes.

 The smallest twig leans clear against the sky
Composed by my wife and written with her diamond
Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3 1843. In the Gold light.

Perhaps the most famous transcendental tract is Thoreau's  meditative Walden. A study of his two years, looking for the meaning of life from the simplicity of a tiny cabin on the water's edge of Walden pond a couple of miles South of the town. We drove there late in the afternoon, parked the car and walked a circuit.

Impossible now to imagine the isolation Thoreau sought, the pond is happily filled with swimmers and canoeists, whilst day trippers populate the surrounding woods with picnics and barbecues. Eventually we came across a cairn, built a stone at a time by Thoreau's admirers on the site of the long gone cabin and took a moment to imagine waking in the wilderness. Although I'm still unconvinced that setting up a mile or so away from your family home, really constitutes a brave adventure. It's like when you run away from home as a child, only to sit on the pavement round the corner waiting to be found.

Time had run out. which meant a visit to Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women would have to wait for another time.

Back on the road we headed north across the State line into New Hampshire. As twilight approached the landscape changed. The river's became wider, the mountains higher and the towns smaller.

Just as the light began to fail we reached Franconia Notch, turned off the Interstate and wound our way through to Pinestead Farm Lodge, where we received a warm welcome from farmer Bob, who shows us to our simple, but comfortable room.

All is quiet here. The White mountains brood, their outline picked out by the silver moon. Mist rolls across the meadow and, unlike the mugginess of the coast, we feel a welcome chill in the air. Just three hours north of Boston we feel like we've made it to the backwoods. I can't help but think Thoreau might have been overwhelmed.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Dunes and the Drive In.

Provincetown does mornings reluctantly. We headed back to near deserted Commercial Street, hired a couple of bikes, picked up a basketful of picnic provisions and headed out of town via the salt marsh to Herring Cove Beach, which runs the Western length of the peninsula. We locked up the bikes and waded through the warm white sands to the water's edge, where the earliest of the days sunbathers were beginning to take up positions.

Local news yesterday had reported a great white shark attack ten miles South in Truro, but the news didn't seem to have put anybody off. Slowly, like an extended yawn, the town began to wake up and lazily make it's way down to the sea.

The beach is long and populated in a fairly gendered way. Men gather at the Southern end, mixed couples in the middle and women and families towards the north. Only children, it seems, have the full run. We had a quick dip in the cooling water and then let the sun suck the water, a droplet at a time, off our skin before setting off again on the bikes to the dunes which stretch out, protected from development, to the North of the town. A single track bike trail winds this way and that through a magical pine forest, punctuated in places with impressive salt encrusted dunes until, after several miles you emerge at Race Point, Provincetown's second beach, on the Northern shore.

We went to explore the Old Harbour Life-Saving Station, a welcome shelter from the midday sun, before heading on through the Beech Forest back to our bed and breakfast, where our perfect hosts Brian and Bill had left out chilled white wine and lemonade for those returning for siesta.

As the sun began to set and day cooled we took the car and headed down to Wellfleet for some fried fish at Mac's Seafood Market in the harbour before heading onto the nostalgic glory of the fifties drive in movie theatre to see The Dark Knight Rises under a gorgeous full moon.

This was a different side of the Cape, very different from the sockless, polo shirted shabby chic of the resorts. Large families drove up in their well worn four by fours, excitedly piling out hampers of chicken wings and coleslaw to settle down for an affordable evening out.

The complex still offers the attachable speakers which perch on the dashboard, but most of the audience preferred to tune their car radios into the cinema's channel to get their soundscape. Soon enough we were settled in, the beams of light cutting through the night sky onto the huge screen at one end of the lot. It's a surprisingly good way to watch a movie and made me wonder why these places have slipped into the world of heritage curiosity. There's only a handful left across the States.

As the film ended we revered our engines, flicked on our headlights, and, with the sound of the dramatic play out music still coming through our car speakers, snaked our own Batmobiles back onto the open road, back through the warm night back to Provincetown.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Provincetown at Nightfall.

By morning the storm had passed and so we climbed the steeple of the First Congregational Church to have a final birds eye look across the fields. It's a stunning view and I wished we'd got more time to take a bike over to secluded Siasconset on the Eastern side. Sadly though the ferry was waiting to take us back to the mainland and so we wondered down to the quay and said our goodbyes to the island.

As we approached Hyannis I caught a glimpse of the Kennedy compound, shyly protected by a breakwater from the yacht club and beach loving tourists. The houses are still owned and occupied privately by the family and there are no plans to turn it into a national monument, seekers of Camelot are restricted to peering through binoculars from on board the harbour cruise boats.

Back on land Eleanor tucked up in a coffee shop with a book whilst I headed off to the tiny museum on the main street which remembers JFK's summer breaks through a series of photographs and crackly home movies. Outside is a statue of the former President in identical striding pose to the one outside the State House in Boston. Gone though is the suit and tie of the congressman, here he is open necked and barefoot on the sand.

By early afternoon we were back on the road again, motoring east along the peninsula through the pretty villages of the southern shoreline. We stopped for food in picture perfect Chatham, where seals bask on the rocks, and then followed the curving road north towards Provincetown.

I love the shape of Cape Cod. Most tourist guides describe it as an arm, bent at the elbow; but to me it's much more a scrawny, witch like finger beckoning visitors from the old world towards Salem, Boston and the pact of New England. It doesn't surprise me to learn that the Mayflower, contrary to popular understanding first docked here, but failing to find adequate fresh water, set sail again for the short hop across Cape Cod Bay to Plymouth. Perhaps Cape Cod should make more of a fuss about this? It's a pretty big deal to be the first landing site, but as you drive further and further along Route 6, you realise that nobody here needs to shout for attention. Those who come here, come to relax. It's not a place for Puritans anyway.

We pulled off the road and parked overlooking Marconi Beach, where the Italian inventor set up his station and on January 19th, 1903, successfully transmitting a message in Morse code from his President across 3000 miles of ocean via the receiving station at Poldhu in Cornwall and onto the Edward VII, waiting in Sandringham.

In taking advantage of the wonderful triumph of scientific research and ingenuity which has been achieved in perfecting a system of wireless telegraphy, I extend on behalf of the American People most cordial greetings and good wishes to you and to all the people of the British Empire.

The King, clearly impressed, responded before the day was out.

I thank you most sincerely for the kind message which I have just received from you, through Marconi's trans-Atlantic wireless telegraphy. I sincerely reciprocate in the name of the British Empire the cordial greetings and friendly sentiment expressed by you on behalf of the American Nation, I heartily wish you and your country every possible prosperity. EDWARD R. and I.

It was the first two way trans Atlantic wireless communication.  Nine years later the station also picked up the first SOS distress signals from the Titanic, floundering 500 miles to the East - but looking out from the high cliff into the dark North Atlantic night the operator could do little with the information. All that remains now is an overgrown concrete footprint marking the site and a pile of rubble.

Marconi was a genius but he thought radio waves travelling across space was only the start of his exploration. The next frontier for him was time and he believed that given the funding he could find the frequencies by which the living would be able to communicate with the dead. Who knows maybe he's still working on this?

The sun was setting now and so we continued, curving round into Provincetown itself. The night was just beginning and the Commercial Street was beginning to fill with sun kissed revellers. Drag Queens towered above us in bouffant hair and platform soles, handing out flyers for their midnight shows. A quartet of beefcake musicians called, appropriately, Well Strung played a beautiful arrangement of Rhianna's S&M to an appreciative crowd outside the Arthouse.

There was a wonderful sense of good fortune and bonhomie, as though nobody could quite believe that they'd travelled this far from home and whether they'd arrived by land or sea it's clear to all that, for tonight at least, there's nowhere else to go. We found a bar overlooking the sea, bought some drinks and let the night drift around us, happy to rest awhile here at land's end.