Stay in and Watch: Spoken Word Poetry

I’ve recently been recommending some great books to check out during this period of lockdown. But, as a poet myself, I would be remiss if I didn’t throw some poetry recommendations in there too! And as a spoken word poet, I was especially keen to recommend to you some poetry that you could watch (instead of just read) right from the comfort of your couch!

So here are live performance of four brilliant poems. I tried to create a varied list in terms of subject, style and delivery. I hope you enjoy!

1 – ‘Dinosaurs in the Hood’ by Danez Smith

I have watched some of Danez Smith‘s poetry performances, I kid you not, dozens of times.

Their blend of humor and lyricism and social criticism and dynamic performance style has inspired me as a performer for years. This particular poem, ‘Dinosaurs in the Hood’, gives me chills – it’s about the representation of people of color in mainstream cinema and it is searing, but it’s so SO funny: ‘I want scenes of grandmas taking out raptors with the guns they hid in the walls.’ It’s about today, but it’s also about a hope for the future where ‘nobody kills the black boy’. And that ending! Wow. They end the poem at exactly the right moment.

2 – ’59’ by Harry Baker

A fun, witty poem from a mathematician/poet: Harry Baker. Lots of clever wordplay (which Harry is really known for). I’m a sucker for a good pun. Puts a smile on my face each time I see it.

3 – ‘Polos’ by Katie Ailes

This video from American poet Katie Ailes (who, like me, has made her home in Scotland!) is really special because it blends poetry and dance.

It’s about beauty standards and the unintentional ‘lessons’ about perfection that a beloved ballet teacher instilled in her pupils.

Ailes_2017_CreditPerryJonsson2

Katie Ailes, photo by Perry Jonsson

4 – ‘It’s amazing what you can get on the internet these days’ by Jemima Foxtrot 

‘Come with me baby. Your lips taste like anchovies. And thankfully for you, they’re my favorite food.’ 

Jemima Foxtrot is a hugely innovative performer and one of the things I love about her work is the mixture of poetry and song. You can see that here, in this short poem about a crummy internet hook-up, which, like all her work, manages to stay grounded in the day-to-day while soaring past that also to speak to other issues, like wealth and isolation in a big city.

*

So there we have it, friends! Hopefully there was something in that list for you. This is a teeny tiny sample of poets whose work I enjoy (being a spoken word poet myself, I’ve had the great opportunity to see/meet brilliant poets at festivals, gigs, and literary events for the last few years and have lots to recommend!).

And, on a serious note, there are a lot of amazing performance poets out there (and performance-based artists period: actors, dancers, musicians etc.) who are struggling at this time, due to the cancellation of all public events. So if you like any of these poets, do give them a like or a share, because it does help these artists and for more people to see their work! Or better yet – buy their books and support the arts. All of the poets I’ve linked above have books out and I’m sure would appreciate your support at this difficult time. Plus, you would get some great poetry to read – a win-win!

IMG_0322

Thanks for reading and let me know what you thought of these poems!

Madeira Mondays: Washington Miniseries Review (Episodes 2-3)

‘Within the colonies, within families, there was division. There were loyalists and patriots living within the same house. This was a civil war.’ – Alexis Coe on the American Revolution

A few weeks ago, I posted my review of Episode One of Washington, the History Channel’s new documentary series about America’s first president: George Washington. Today we’re talking Episode Two (‘Rebel Commander’) and Three (‘Father of His Country’). I’d recommend having a read of that first blog post if you want to know more general information about the series: who they interview, the format etc. I’ll be chatting more here about specific things I enjoyed about these last two episodes and things I wish they’d done differently.

800px-Gwashington

Will the real George Washington please stand up? (This is a painting of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797)

Firstly, the stuff I liked!

1 – Nicholas Rowe is much better in these last two episodes

Scottish stage actor Nicholas Rowe portrays Washington in the live-action reenactments that the show uses to dramatize Washington’s life. These scenes are woven throughout the interview clips with historians, biographers, and politicians. I had some complaints about Rowe in Episode 1, where he failed to convince as the charming younger Washington who was meant to dazzle all the ladies, but he does a much better job playing the older, resolute General under stress. I especially liked his understated delivery of the orders to go and find Benedict Arnold, after he learns of Arnold’s betrayal. Rowe looks ready to scream but then says with a quiet fury: Go. Get him. Now. I got chills.

2 – Really gets across how difficult it was for Americans to win the Revolutionary War

It’s impossible to overstate now how crazy it was for a handful of disparate colonies to take on the world’s great superpower of the time. There was no guarantee that the Americans would win and, in fact, quite the opposite. Lots of people, quite reasonably, thought they would surely lose and did not support the rebellion. And, as Alexis Coe points out in the quote at the start of this post, there were often loyalists and patriots in the same family! The British army and navy were the best in the world, and the colonies literally had no army until the Continental Congress decided to try and make one. Washington’s struggle to whip these non-professional soldiers into shape, to keep their spirits up, to get supplies, to prevent mutiny, all while trying to fight the best army in the world is all conveyed well in the show.

I especially liked the scene when the British army arrives in New York in 1776 and the New Yorkers, and rebel army, look out and see all the warships. King George wanted to intimidate the colonists and he sent the largest British expeditionary force to ever be assembled. When the New Yorkers saw all the impressive warships amassing in their harbor, they were all like…shit. I remember reading an account of the time from a guy in New York who looked out over the harbor and said: ‘It looked like all of London was afloat.’ So Washington did well to highlight that moment.

3 – Also conveys how Washington set the precedent for Presidential behavior

Winning a Revolution is just step one. Then you need to establish a new government which will not devolve into a new kind of tyranny. Washington makes it clear how important it was that Washington himself did not become an emperor or a tyrant, but rather stepped down after two presidential terms. It argues that he didn’t even really want to be president in the first place, but took the job because he was a national war hero and people loved him. He wanted to be at home in Virginia. But there was nobody else who could take that role (John Adams certainly had a rough time as the second U.S President). The show makes it clear how the republic could have failed, if we didn’t have someone like Washington at the helm in those fragile, early days.

Now, for stuff I didn’t like so much…

1 – So much Benedict Arnold stuff

The story of Benedict Arnold is inherently interesting (spy craft, intrigue, betrayal etc.). And maybe it’s just because I’m pretty familiar with the story already, but I felt that we had too much of a focus on this, purely for the sake of drama. The second episode actually ends on an Arnold related cliffhanger. I think you need to make mention of Arnold, a continental officer who was secretly helping the British, but felt the amount of time devoted to this whole saga was kind of excessive.

I also felt that the amount of focus on Hamilton was a little excessive. I’m guessing it’s because of his fame from the popular musical, but I was more okay with this than the Arnold stuff, because at least Hamilton was Washington’s second in command and always with Washington during the war.

2 – ‘Can I offer you some water?’

Okay, so this is a pedantic point, but there’s a scene during one of the reenactments when Washington is meeting with one of British General Howe’s top officers and Washington offers him ‘ale or water’? I’m already skeptical that he would offer him ale. That’s something people would have in a casual tavern, probably not what a General would drink with a high ranking British officer at a formal meeting though. I’m guessing they would drink wine like Madeira (yay!) or maybe sack (a fortified white wine from Spain)? Or port? But even if he did offer him ale, he definitely wouldn’t have offered him water! Water wasn’t sanitary to drink during this time and only those who could afford nothing else would drink it. If I was that British officer guy, I would have been super insulted if the American General offered me water. I would have been like: ‘No, I don’t want your crappy sewer water! Geez, you guys are a lot worse off than I thought.’

3 – The level of violence was unnecessary

I’m not one to shrink from too much violence onscreen, but context is important and this is the sort of documentary series that could easily be shown in schools etc. (there are so many legit historians interviewed in it), if not for the overly graphic moments of violence. I was okay with this in Episode One, but it started to grate on me in Episodes Two and Three. We have another scalping in Episode Three, and a tarring and feathering. While this level of violence works great in the HBO John Adams miniseries (which also shows a tarring and feathering), it felt out of place here in an otherwise pretty sanitized, educational production. The moments of violence stand out as unnecessary.

*

Those are just a few thoughts I had on Episodes Two and Three. Overall, I found these episodes less engaging than Episode One, but that might have been because I was more familiar with the information in them. But still the balance of reenactment to interview works pretty well, the production quality of the reenactments is overall fairly high (despite Martha Washington’s awful wig in the last few scenes) and I liked how they wove in information about slavery throughout too.

I’d be curious to know what you thought of Episodes Two or Three, or indeed of the entire series? Did you learn anything new about Washington’s life? What did you think of the format: reenactment mixed with interviews? I don’t know much about Washington’s life so I’m especially curious to know if there’s anything you think Washington got wrong? Let me know!

(Today’s featured image is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851), acceded via the Wikimedia Commons. I was actually fortunate enough to see this image in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and it was breathtaking. The real painting is enormous and you can see all the colors of dawn. And, of course, Washington wouldn’t have stood like that. It would have tipped over the boat. But it’s still a great painting!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

Stay in and Read: The Girls by Emma Cline

‘Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.’
Emma Cline, The Girls

Last week, I promised to recommend a few books that would be perfect reading material during these upcoming weeks of ‘self-isolation.’ Today I wanted to recommend to you one of my favorite books: The Girls by Emma Cline!

This book was all the rage a few summers ago. It has a splashy, sensational premise – a fictionalized retelling of the Manson murders, from the perspective of one of the girls in the cult – but this book is SO much more than that. It is, at its core, an exploration of teenage loneliness and longing, and specifically the extraordinary lengths that young women will go to to feel loved, appreciated, seen. It’s a heartbreaking book, but one that is so exceptionally well written and so evocative of late 1960’s California – the oppressive heat, the ‘drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets’, and ‘the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air’.

IMG_0318

My copy of The Girls. I love the developing polaroid cover image!

The Girls tells the story of Evie Boyd, a middle aged woman reflecting back on the summer of 1969 when, bored and alone, she fell in with a wild group of girls. They are teenage runaways, living on a ranch outside of town which is presided over by a manipulative and charismatic man called Russell. The book alternates between the past and present, as young Evie falls in deeper and deeper with these girls and their actions escalate from petty vandalism to something much, much darker.

This narrative distance from the summer of ’69 is absolutely essential, because it lets older Evie ruminate on why she became involved with these girls and gives her a level of self-awareness, maturity and insight that she wouldn’t have had as an early teen. I remember seeing an interview with Cline where she mentioned that the 1960’s was kind of a metaphor for teenage-hood itself in the book (Is ‘teenage-hood’ a word? Let’s make it a word!). When you’re a teenager, everything is heightened, extreme, exciting, full of promise.

I should say that I know nothing about the real Manson murders, except for the fact that our culture seems to be obsessed with them. Just last year, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came out! But I’m not interested in the details of the real murders and the book isn’t either, so if you’re looking for a grizzly story – this isn’t the one. Without giving anything away, the book REALLY isn’t about the murders at all, but rather about Evie’s coming of age and her relationship with one of the girls in the cult, Suzannah, who she becomes infatuated with. In fact, one of Cline’s major strengths is that she is able to really capture the nuances of teenage girl behavior and friendship:

Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.

It’s also full of achingly insightful one-liners about the difference between growing up male and female. Evie, like so many real young woman, is taught that her value lies in how others perceive her, and throughout her childhood she ‘wait(s) to be told what was good about me.’ She waits to be noticed:

All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

The Girls isn’t for everyone, but it is one of my top 10 favorite books and I think it would be the perfect, immersive reading experience for these slow, indoor days of ‘self-isolation’ and quarentine. It’s an inherently exciting premise: Cults! Murders! 1960s! But the quiet, cutting observations are what really stick with you, as they have stuck with me in the years since I’ve read it.

Do let me know if you give The Girls a try, and also feel free to recommend books to me as well! I love historical fiction (of course), coming of age stories and books with lyrical and lovely writing. But I’m a pretty omnivorous reader and read across lots of different genres and styles, so feel free to toss any recommendations my way. And be sure to check out last week’s post where I talked about another favorite book, Dracula!

Thanks for reading, and I hope that you are keeping well in these strange times.

Madeira Mondays: Grace and Frankie…and John Adams

I think most people have ‘their shows’, those they gravitate to when times are tough and they just want to zone out and relax. Aside from Gilmore Girls (my #1 feel-good show), I love to watch Grace and Frankie. It’s good, quality easy-watching TV, and today, I wanted to tell you a little more about it and its surprising connections to early American history! Read on, friends…

maxresdefault

Lily Tomlin, left, and Jane Fonda, right, star as the titular Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie is in many ways a radical show for network TV. It features two unconventional leading ladies – older women in their 70’s and 80’s – often talking frankly about sex, relationships and (small spoiler alert) trying to start a company where they sell sex toys! The premise is basically that these two women, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), get stuck together when their husbands, longtime business partners, announce that they are gay…and marrying each other. So it’s a bit of an Odd Couple set-up: Grace and Frankie move in together when their husbands leave them. Grace is organized, severe, Type A. Frankie is a hippie, scattered, creative. They clash. Then they become besties. It’s cute.

The show has been running now for six seasons (the 7th one comes out later this year I believe and will be the last). But it’s a very relaxing watch because it’s funny, the stakes are low, and everyone more or less gets along with and loves each other.

But of course there is drama in the show, which brings me to how it ties together with American history! At the end of Season 3, Grace’s ex-husband Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) becomes involved with a gay theatre company’s production of 1776. For those of you who don’t know – 1776 is a musical set during the American Revolution. It’s about John Adams and his push for the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. Robert is cast in the leading role as John Adams, but his theatre company is plagued by homophobic protestors who try (and fail) to shut down the play.

Later, Robert wins an acting award for his portrayal of John Adams. He uses his acceptance speech as a platform for LGBT+ activism, citing Adams as his inspiration:

It was an honor to play John Adams, a man who stood up to things that were bigger and scarier and more powerful than he was. And you know we had a little taste of that during our run of 1776. We had to stand up to bullies, who were threatening to shut us down because we are a gay theatre group. But we did stand up. Because the show of eradicating intolerance must go on…I thank the one man who truly made all of this possible. John Adams.

grace and frankie

Martin Sheen as Robert Hanson, playing John Adams in a gay community theatre production of 1776 in Grace and Frankie

 

Robert’s statement that Adams ‘made all of this possible’ refers not only to how Adams inspired the musical, but also that Adams made America possible, a country where he has the right to stand up and express his beliefs. I found this scene very moving and I’ll talk more about the musical 1776, and its connections to modern progressive politics, in a later post.

So I would recommend Grace and Frankie not only because it’s cute, smart, sweet and enjoyable, but also because of its fun nods to American history. I hope that it brings you joy during this troubling time. Let me know if you’ve seen it in the comments below and please do recommend other ‘feel good’ shows. What are your favorites?

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Stay in and Read: Dracula

Most of us are looking ahead at a lot more time spent at home these next few weeks. So I thought I’d recommend a few excellent books that would make for perfect reading material during this time of ‘self-isolation.’ The wonderful thing about books is that, even if you are at home alone, they can provide a source of company and a means of imaginative escape. You can travel to distant lands (in the case of today’s read, 19th century Transylvania!), meet new people, and lose yourself in someone else’s adventure.

I’m going to try and recommend books which I think are especially ‘immersive’, that really plunge you into another place and time. These happen to be my favorite sorts of books anyway, so I’ve got lots of recommendations!

First up is a thrilling piece of gothic fiction! I read it for the first time last year and simply could not put it down and that is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

IMG_0308

My epic copy of Dracula that I found a few years ago on sale at a gift shop. I thought I’d just use it as Halloween decor, but eventually read the book itself.

You might be familiar with one of the many film versions of this book, but trust me – the original book itself is well worth a read! It’s atmospheric and suspenseful and, in my opinion, no film version has ever captured the true spirit of the book. For me, Dracula is the original Scooby Doo. At its heart, it’s about a group of people who are trying to solve a mystery and defeat a dastardly villain intent on destroying their society. Lots of films try to make this into a romantic story, but to me it’s a tale of friendship and camaraderie.

If you don’t know the story of Dracula, I actually don’t want to give too much away (because the less you know, the more exciting the story is!). But it’s about a count with supernatural powers who tries to invade Victorian England. We follow various characters who try to figure out how to stop him, starting with the young lawyer Jonathan Harker who is imprisoned in Dracula’s castle in Transylvania at the start of the book. We also meet his fiancée Mina, her close friend Lucy, a goofy Dutch doctor who is an expert in the occult (I pictured Christoph Waltz for some reason), a Texan cowboy, an English Lord and a whole bunch of other people. All these people have to come together and try to stop Dracula’s plan, which is to turn more people into vampires (See, I bet you didn’t know that there was a COWBOY in Dracula? He plays a pretty big role too…). So in many ways it’s an appropriate story to read right now: one where smart people all come together to stop a dangerous contagion.

One of the things that makes Dracula such an engaging read is its epistolary style. It’s told in a series of letters and the occasional newspaper report which gives it almost a ‘true crime’ feel. The reader is piecing together the story, just as our characters do.

Another things that makes Dracula exciting to read, if I’m perfectly honest, is that it’s sexy. There is also a genuine terror in it of sex, particularly female sexual power. You have to read this book in the context of its own time (it was first published in 1897) and don’t except what we would call now ‘well-rounded’ female characters. Women are either pure and virtuous, like Mina, or literal demons who have fallen under Dracula’s power and want only to seduce and destroy men. But the female vampires definitely ARE super sexy. Take this passage when Harker encounters a vampire lady in Dracula’s castle:

The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, til I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on her scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat.

When people think of ‘classic’ novels, I think they imagine that these books are dry or tedious. That’s often not the case and it’s definitely not the case with Dracula (see passage above). Dracula is a strange window into Victorian fears (fears of female sexuality, fears of foreign invasion, fears of animal desires and impulses) and a damn good read. It’s one of my favorite books and, coincidentally, I’ve actually been to Transylvania (which is a part of modern day Romania!). I went there before I had read Dracula – one of my partner’s good friends lives there. But, now that I have read Dracula, I can picture even more vividly the haunting settings of Bram Stoker’s book: the mist-shrouded Carpathian mountains, the crumbling ancient fortresses, the steep ravines. But you don’t need to go to Romania to experience the world of Dracula. Just curl up with this fabulous book and let yourself fall under its spell.

IMG_0312

Stay tuned for more reading recommendations, and don’t forget to check out my series Madeira Mondays, every Monday, where I talk about early American history and historical fiction!

Do you have any reading recommendations for me? What books should I sink my teeth into (okay, there had to be one Dracula joke!) during this period?

I hope you’re well, and thanks very much for reading!

Madeira Mondays: Beyond the Mask film review

I have spoken in the past about how it is a shame that there are so few books and films set during the Revolutionary War. As a lover of this time period, I am always on the lookout for new ones. So when I heard about Beyond the Mask, a swashbuckling Revolutionary War era film released in 2015, I was curious to see it. And, oh boy, I was not prepared for what was in store!

Wikipedia describes Beyond the Mask as a ‘Christian historical action-adventure’, and it follows the life of a former assassin, William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney), who wants to redeem himself and start a new life. Through a series of overly complicated mishaps which I won’t bother to explain, he finds himself in the American colonies, helping the Americans fight for independence from Great Britain while dressed as a masked vigilante called ‘The Highwayman’. Who gives Reynolds this moniker? Why, no other than Benjamin Franklin himself! There is a pretty hilarious scene where Ben Franklin, who runs the local printing press, is trying to figure out what to call this new, mysterious vigilante running around Philadelphia and says: ‘We’ll call him what he is! A highwayman.’ This makes no sense. Reynolds is not in any way a highwayman (a robber who stole from travelers, usually on country roads). But this is just one confusing detail in a film which is full of confusing details, bonkers plot twists, and tons of explosions.

beyond the mask

But, I will tell you this right now: I really enjoyed watching Beyond the Mask. It is like a zany medley of several other, better films (mostly Zorro, but there’s a bit of V for Vendetta in there and the score sounds like a crappier version of Pirates of the Caribbean). Sure, it is wildly historically inaccurate. Sure, it moves along at a break-neck pace and I was often confused about what was going on. Sure, the characters were completely empty and devoid of ANY personality (why do the main two people fall in love?? What do they like about each other?). And sure, the theology in it never makes a ton of sense or seems to really matter for the plot. BUT it was super silly and super fun. Especially John Rhys-Davies, who plays the one-dimensional villain character whose evil scheme is (spoiler alert) to blow up the Continental Congress using an electrical generator that he stole from Ben Franklin and has hidden in an underground submarine hideout! This stuff is gold.

beyondthemask

Our leads, Kara Killmer as Charlotte Holloway and Andrew Cheney as William Reynolds run away from a flaming windmill (some of the worst CGI in the film)

I expected this to be more of a wannabe Les Miserables, a story which has an overtly Christian moral about redemption. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, a criminal, is given a second chance of life when a priest shows him kindness and the whole book (and film and musical) is about the redemptive power of kindness and love. I think that might have been what director Chad Burns was going for here (a story about how love transforms a man from a murderous assassin to a guy who just beats people up sometimes), but all of that is lost in the sheer weirdness of the drama and the many wannabe Jackie Chan fist-fight sequences.

I’m not even going to touch on the historical accuracy of this film, but I will mention that, just like The Patriot (which I discussed here), it seems to think that only rebels were tormented and harassed by loyalist citizens and British soldiers, whereas in reality often it was those who remained loyal to the King who faced violence. But that is the least of the movie’s issues and if you’re going into it looking for any sort of historical accuracy, or even attempts at historical accuracy, then you’re looking in the wrong place, my friend.

Still, there are a couple of things that work well in the film (besides Rhys-Davies). The costumes are largely period-appropriate and look pretty good! Also I was impressed with the sets. They are obviously working with a limited budget and the 18th century Philadelphia set was particularly impressive.

So would I recommend this deeply silly movie? If you enjoy this sort of thing, then 100%! I watched it with two pals who enjoy films like this as much as me and we had a blast, giggling at all the absurdities and frequently pausing the film to ask: ‘WHAT JUST HAPPENED?’

If you are looking for an ambitious or thought-provoking or well-researched film about this period, then I would direct you to something like The Witch, or perhaps the John Adams Miniseries. But if you’re looking for a film where the main character exclaims things like ‘I live in a web of lies!!’ and leaps around in the darkness like Batman, then you’re going to enjoy Beyond the Mask. I know that I did.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Beyond the Mask directed by Chad Burns (so long as you know what you’re in for!)

Film Review: Beyond the Mask in Variety

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Washington Miniseries Review (Episode 1)

‘You could argue that the British empire slowly built the man who would destroy them from the inside out.’ – Alexis Coe in Washington

This month The History Channel released a new miniseries about the life of America’s first President: George Washington. It was titled, quite simply: WASHINGTON. To be honest, I went into this series with low expectations. The History Channel screens some pretty questionable and often hilarious content (see: Ancient Aliens). Growing up, whenever I turned on this channel there was always some show about conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati or the Freemasons. So I was fairly shocked to discover that this miniseries was pretty darn good!

Thus far I’ve only seen Episode 1 (‘Loyal Subject’) which follows Washington’s early life and military career, but here are some thoughts about the pros and cons of the show – which may help you decide if you want to give it a watch too.

washington-1920x1080-all-shows

Washington released by The History Channel last month (February 2020)

Okay, let’s focus on the positives first!

1 – They interview tons of big name historians, biographers and politicians

I was surprised to see lots of famous early American historians interviewed here (Annette Gordon-Reed! Joseph J. Ellis!), in addition to people like Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. The whole series is actually produced by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is fascinating to see all of these big name politicians and historians reflecting on Washington, and they bring so much knowledge, gravitas and, frankly, legitimacy to the whole thing. These people are the experts in their fields and I’m inherently curious about what they have to say. Well done, History Channel.

2 – Production value of reenactments

The interview clips are interspersed with short re-enactments of Washington’s life, featuring actors in period costume. So it’s almost like a little biopic film mixed with historical commentary. That could have been quite a cheesy format, but I think the balance works pretty well and keeps the whole thing quite engaging.

These reenactment scenes can get surprisingly violent (we see a Native American guy scalping someone and later there is a hanging), which is something to be aware of. The acting is passable, but I was overall impressed with the costumes and the scale of these reenactments. I can’t wait to see more of them actually!

3 – It doesn’t sugarcoat his life too much

The series isn’t overly reverential. It delves into how, early on in his career, Washington made a lot of mistakes. He makes tactical blunders, signs documents he doesn’t understand because they are in French (lol!), and misrepresents some of his military deeds in newspapers of the time. He’s human and this show is quick to point that out.

It also discusses how he was a slave owner. I especially liked the discussion of this from Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University. She said: ‘I believe he knew that slavery was wrong but it was also crucial to his financial success.’ YES. I’m so glad they included this quote from Dunbar because there’s a big misconception that people back then didn’t think slavery was wrong, because their morals were just so different from our own. But honestly – lots of them did know it was cruel and wrong, it was just the economic system that they lived under at the time and they didn’t seen an alternative. That’s a crucial thing for modern audiences to comprehend and I like that the show addressed it.

4 – There’s a focus on his character/personality

I took some notes for this post while I was watching the show and I wrote down: ‘he was tall and women were into it’. I also wrote: ‘self-control but with fire crackling inside.’ The historians interviewed talk about contemporary accounts of Washington (who was really tall for the time, like 6’2”) and by all accounts had a very restrained but commanding presence. He was also apparently very disciplined with his men and very quietly ambitious. It was his feelings of being snubbed by the British army early in his career that, the series argues, sets him on the path to becoming a Revolutionary. So we really get to know the guy a bit through the series: his temperament, his personal goals etc.

Washington_at_Verplanck's_Point_by_John_Trumbull

Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull (1790)

Now, for the cons:

1 – Not a great introduction to the entire Revolutionary War

Because of the limited scope of the show, they have to gloss over a lot of stuff. So everything apart from Washington’s life feels really rushed. We hop from the Boston Massacre to Lexington and Concord, with very little explanation for what those things are or how they impacted the colonies. So this isn’t the best thing to watch for a general introduction to the revolutionary war.

2 – The actor who plays Washington

I’m sorry to say that Nicholas Rowe, the actor who plays Washington in the reenactments, doesn’t really exhibit some of the gravitas and personal magnetism that the historians are saying that the real Washington had. There’s a somewhat unintentionally funny bit where the interviewees are quoting from period accounts of how charming Washington was, how he had a fire behind his eyes etc., and it cuts to Rowe dancing with some ladies with just a mildly engaged look on his face. He isn’t really bringing that gravitas to the table.

This stuff wouldn’t usually bother me – after all, this is a documentary and not a feature film! These scenes are just to dramatize what the interviewees are talking about. BUT since they go on and on about how much unusual gravitas Washington had, I think most actors would fail to live up to that build-up. Most people don’t have that kind of quiet charisma – that was part of what made Washington special! But Rowe overall does an okay job and I’m curious to see how he does as the older Washington.

*

All in all, I’d recommend the show so far! Definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in this time period, if only to see the all-star historians and biographers line-up. Also, at a time of such great political division in the USA, I do think it’s important to focus on our shared history, which is so unique.

Have you seen Washington? If so, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts! I’m looking forward to Episodes 2 and 3.

PS Two pieces of poetry news!

Last week I was at StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, introducing and chairing some poetry events. I’ve been volunteering for this festival for almost 9 years (!) and for several years have served as their in-house Festival blogger. This year, I was mainly introducing events, but they asked me to do one blog post as well. You can read my post, ‘Moonlight and Mermaids’, here if you’re interested in learning about StAnza (the biggest poetry festival in the UK), which takes place every year in a little Scottish town by the sea. The post also features some discussion of late 18th century gothic women poets.

Also, I have a poem in the Scottish Writers Centre’s new chapbook ‘Island and Sea’, published last week. If you happen to be Scotland-based (I know that some ‘Madeira Mondays’ readers are!), the chapbook is launching tomorrow (March 10th) at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. Several poets from the book will be reading on the night. I’m hoping to make it through to read. If that sounds like your cup of tea, here’s the event page!

(Today’s featured image is of, you guessed it, George Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons. It is the earliest authenticated portrait of Washington.)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Historical Short Stories

When we think of historical fiction, we tend to think about novels. It seems like a collective decision was made, somewhere down the line, that fiction set in the past should be EPIC in its scope. That historical tales were best suited to sprawling tomes with many sequels. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good historical novel (I’m writing one as we speak!). And I understand the appeal of getting wholly immersed in another time period, which one can do with a novel: learning about the minutia of life, meeting a big cast of characters, covering several years etc. BUT there is also something to be said for the short story as a medium for exploring history too.

Why are short stories such a brilliant form for historical fiction?

Well, for one thing, they reflect the way that the past often comes to us, which is in brief, fragmented, incomplete bursts. An old photograph discovered in an attic. A torn out page from a diary. Pieces of historical evidence often provide tiny windows to another world, but so much is left unknowable. Similarly, short stories are tiny windows into another world. A brief flash, a glimpse, but with much that you have to fill in and guess for yourself.

Also, maybe I am greedy, but sometimes I would rather read a collection with many different settings and characters, rather than commit to a whole book with just one time period and one setting. Enter Karen Russell. One of my absolute favorite writers. She writes both short stories and novels and many of her stories take place in the past – whether that is the old American West, 17th century Greece, or 19thcentury Japan. Lots of her stories are set in the present too. But all of her tales have fantastical or magical realism elements to them and they are all ridiculously well written. I actually feel wiser after reading her stories, like I have understood something new about human nature. Or, at least, have recognized something that I had not thought about before.

IMG_0205

I was so excited to read her new collection last week – Orange World – and it exceeded my (very high!) expectations. So, for today’s ‘Madeira Mondays’, I wanted to point you towards some of my favorite, historical fiction stories by Karen Russell! Even though, regrettably, none of her short stories are set in 18th century America (Please write a story set in 18th century America, Karen! Please!!), lots of them explore other periods of American history and the American landscape. Here are four of her stories that I recommend reading ASAP.

1 – ‘from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration‘, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Russell is an American writer originally from Florida, and many of the stories in her first collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, take place in a weird, heightened version of a Florida swamp. But she’s also clearly interested in the landscape of the American West and one of my favorite stories from that collection is titled: ‘from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration‘.  The title suggests a historical document, that the story we’re about to read is one from a larger collection of children looking back on their experience moving out west. But this expectation is playfully subverted in the very first line when we release that our boy narrator has a father who is a MINOTAUR. Yup. A Minotaur. Half-man, half-bull.

Thus begins a story that is really about myths: the myth of the American West (versus the harsh reality of life there), the myth of the Minotaur, the myth of this particular Minotaur character who, our narrator tells us, was once a famous rodeo star, AND about how parents seem like myths to their children, until we start to see their flaws.

You can hear Russell reading the beginning of the story here, to see if it might be your cup of tea!

IMG_0216

2 – ‘Proving Up’ from Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Russell’s second collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is my personal favorite and there’s another story about the American West in it, although this one is much darker than ‘Westward Migration’. It is about the rapacious desire for land and ownership, and this dark greed manifests itself as a very dark force that threatens the characters, who are settlers on the American frontier. The ending is so sinister it took my breath away! Apparently it has also been turned into an opera.

3 – ‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ from Vampires in the Lemon Grove

This is a goofy story which is dear to my heart, about US Presidents reincarnated as horses. Yes. Horses.

I actually wrote about it for part of my PhD thesis, which looked at different iterations of John Adams in fiction, because Adams the horse is a central character in the story. He tries to lead the other Presidents-turned-horses to rebel and break out of the barn. Sure, it’s a silly and fun concept, but it’s really about legacy and what kind of ‘afterlife’ these Presidents have in our imaginations. So it’s not so much ‘historical fiction’ as fiction ABOUT history. It’s also funny as hell and insightful.

4 – ‘Black Corfu’ from Orange World and other stories

Okay, so this story is definitely historical, but not set in America. The setting is the island of Corfu, 1620. I included it on this list because it is my favorite story from her latest collection and I’ve read it twice already. This story is about an ambitious, intellectual physician whose job it is to cut the hamstrings of corpses so that they do not rise from the dead and become zombies. He once aspired to be a great doctor, but his dark skin color and his class have prevented him from rising in his profession. When rumors start to spread that a dead woman has been seen roaming the island, the doctor is blamed and chaos ensues.

This story, like all of her stories, is about many things at once. Its themes are super relevant to us today, although they are explored in a historical context: class, race, science, superstition, ambition and the power of fear.

*

Have I convinced you to read her yet? I hope so! And I hope that you will enjoy these strange historical stories as much as I do.

Recommended Reading:

Orange World and Other Stories; Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (obviously!)

Voices Against the Wall: The Hilarious Terror of Karen Russell’s “Orange World and Other Stories” (in-depth review of Orange World and other stories) from the LA Times

‘Bog Girl’ by Karen Russell in The New Yorker (also featured in Orange World)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: A Forgotten 18th Century Drink

Last week, I received two very good pieces of news. One I cannot talk about publicly yet (ohhhh secret!) but the other I can happily announce is that I have a new poetry book coming out! My second poetry pamphlet will be published later this year with Scottish indie press, Stewed Rhubarb. They specialize in publishing spoken word poetry and as a spoken word poet myself, it was the perfect fit! The book has poems about early American history, about sex, about literature…basically, all the stuff I’m interested in! (Can you tell I’m excited?). I can’t wait to work with Stewed Rhubarb, and with my fabulous editor Katie Ailes, on this book and I’ll share lots more info. when we’re closer to publication day.

But I wanted to celebrate the publication news this week by making an 18th century drink. Since it was a chilly February day, I chose a warm drink called ‘Flip’. I’m not going to include the full recipe here because (spoiler alert) I found this drink pretty vile, BUT I will tell you what it is, how I made it, and here’s a link to an excellent video with step-by-step instructions of how you can make it too, if it seems like your sort of thing (It was definitely not mine!). Jas Townsend, the re-enactor who makes it in the video, seems to really enjoy his though so…maybe it just wasn’t for me?

So, what is ‘Flip’?

The 1890’s had the gimlet. The 1990’s had the Cosmo. In the 1690’s and even the 1790’s, it was the creamy flip that ruled the bar…

Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch

Flip is a hot, frothy drink that is a blend of ale, rum, some sort of sweetener (molasses or sugar) and sometimes eggs and cream. It’s also usually spiced with nutmeg and/or ginger, and it was very popular in 18th century America. It popped up in American taverns in the 1690’s and was still popular during the Revolutionary War. Food writer Corin Hirsch, in the book quoted above, found one instance of a tavern in Holden, Massachusetts, who charged more during the Revolutionary War for their Flip than they did for a bed. A mug of ‘New England Flip’ was 9 Dollars, versus a bed in the common boarding room for women, 2 shillings! Either those sleeping arrangements were really bad, or their flip was really good, or both.

How do you make it?

I have to admit that making Flip was kind of fun because you are meant to pour the drink between two separate pitchers until it is blended. So I mixed an egg and some spices in one bowl, then heated up some ale separately, and then added them together in these two pitchers – pouring back and forth until it was creamy.

IMG_0189

The two pitchers I used to make my (pretty dreadful) ‘Flip’

IMG_0194

Pouring the mixture from one pitcher to another to mix it. (Even the flowers in this picture look sad. They probably don’t like Flip either!)

I was vaguely following along with the Townsend video linked above and also there’s a recipe for it in Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England. In any case, the resulting mixture was creamy-ish, but there were itty bitty chunks of cooked egg inside it, which I suppose I could have strained out. But I also did not like the smell of it: the hot, yeasty smell of the beer, mixed with the nutmeg and ginger, mixed with the egg.

But I think where I really went wrong is that in the 18th century Flip was heated up a second time (after you’d mixed the drink) by plunging a hot fire poker into the middle of it. The poker heated it (of course), but also added burnt flavors. I would imagine this might work better than what I did, which was put the whole thing back on the stovetop briefly, once I’d mixed it all together, just to get it warm again. By not using an actual fire poker, you lose some of that fire flavor, which was probably part of what made the drink special.

What did it taste like?

Not nice, you guys.

Even though I drank it from a fantastic Bernie Sanders ‘Feel the Bern’ mug, that was not enough to save this drink from tasting really, really bad to me.

IMG_0195

For one thing, it was pretty sweet. I tasted the sugar definitely and also rum has its own sweetness…all of that together made for a thick, HEAVY, brownish drink that actually turned my stomach.

Looking back on it, I’m not really sure why I picked Flip in the first place, other than the fact that it looked fun to pour the drink between the two pitchers. I’m not a beer drinker, and I don’t love rum, so I’m not sure why I thought I would enjoy those two things heated up and mixed together with an egg. I would still try it again if someone else made it who knew what they were doing, but I think this experiment was probably doomed from the outset!

Nevertheless, I am glad that I tried it, because now I will know what it is if I ever run across it in a historical source. And my stomach will turn at the memory of making this forgotten concoction from the 18th century. Which I will not be resurrecting again any time soon!

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer by Corin Hirsch

‘Popular Drink Fallen into Obscurity- ‘Flip’ from the 1820s’ on Townsends YouTube Channel

For an 18th century drink that I definitely did enjoy, check out my recipe for whipped syllabub!

(Today’s Featured Image is an 18th century oil painting, ‘Young Couple in a Rural Tavern’, by Giacomo Francesco Cipper)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Hamilton Wasn’t Wearing Any Underwear

As a graduation present, my mom took me to go see the musical Hamilton in London’s West End last summer. It was, predictably, fantastic. I had written about the musical as part of my Doctorate of Fine Arts project, which looked at (among other things) how contemporary fiction writers represent the American Revolution. So it was a fitting PhD grad gift! We had fabulous seats and we laughed, cried, and cheered with the rest of the audience. I also managed to keep my singing along to a minimum, which I’m pretty proud of.

Afterwards we got a drink and my ever-tolerant, encouraging mother listened to all my reflections on the show: the set, the costumes, the characterizations etc. I went on and on about how I liked the choice of using mostly period-appropriate clothes and I made a joke about how I hoped they were wearing 21st century underwear though.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked with confused laughter.

It was then that I explained what precisely the real Alexander Hamilton would most likely have been wearing as underclothes and it surprised her so much that I thought I’d do a whole post about it here!

Hamilton 4

Me and my mom in seeing Hamilton: An American Musical in London’s West End!

When it comes to visualizing clothing of the past, it’s always helpful for me to look at videos, drawings, and (if possible) real life historical artifacts in museums. But since we can’t all go to a museum together, let me direct you to National Museums Liverpool’s very helpful video ‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’.

In this video, you will see that the gentleman’s first layer of clothing is a big white shirt with voluminous sleeves (imagine like a pirate shirt?). Then he puts on white stockings, which go up over the knee. A gentleman might wear drawers (which are like short trousers made of thin linen) but it’s not necessary because the white shirt was really long and you just tucked it between your legs when you put on your breeches (which are short ‘trousers’ for those in the UK, ‘pants’ if you’re in the US) and the shirt acted as modern men’s underwear would!

men's shirt

Example of Late 18th century man’s shirt. Photo from Pinterest.

So basically, the ‘underwear’ or base garment for men was just a long shirt! The quality and consistency of this shirt of course varied. A gentleman might have ruffles at the wrist, a laborer’s might have had stripes. But basically, as far as I could tell, our modern concept of men’s underwear (i.e boxers, briefs etc.) didn’t come about until around the 1930’s.

So Hamilton would have been wearing something under his outer clothing, it just probably wasn’t what you would have expected!

So what were women wearing as a form of undergarments? Let’s save that for another post…

Further Reading:

‘Underwear in the 18th Century’ from The Macaronis

‘A Colonial Gentleman’s Clothing: A Glossary of Terms’ from the Colonial Williamsburg site

‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’, YouTube video from National Museums Liverpool

(Today’s Featured Image is of none other than, you guessed it, Alexander Hamilton! It’s from the 1805 portrait of him by John Trumbull, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.)

Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!