Birthday weekend

I’m not normally a big birthday celebrator, but it just so happened that some of the things I really wanted to do were best done this weekend — so I made a birthday treat of it.

First thing was to get up early and open a little wrapped package that had been hiding in my linen chest since Amanda’s visit over the summer. In honor of our summer of English gardens, she had found a copy of Gardener’s Nightcap by Muriel Stuart published by Persephone Books (a small publisher dedicated to republishing books by women authors that ought not be forgotten).

I knew instantly I would enjoy it when I opened the book and discovered these gems of wisdom about statuary in the garden:

Thank heavens I don’t have any gnomes or pheasants!  I’ll need to see if I can find a stone nymph breast somewhere….

Filing those nuggets of wisdom and good taste away, I packed an overnight bag and went to St Pancras station to pick up a rental car.  A bit of a hiccup there:  As soon as I emerged into the busy traffic around the station I found the clutch very difficult to manage, and I soon found myself behind the wheel of a stalled and non-responsive vehicle in the middle of a busy intersection.  I thought at first it was my fault — either I was too unused to driving, or there was some trick to British manual transmissions — but many awkward minutes and a distressed phone call later, I was rescued by a guy from the rental agency who agreed that the clutch indeed was not working properly.  He did manage to get the car started again, but there was no way I was doing a road trip with an unreliable vehicle, so we went back and traded up for a car that worked but was inconveniently out of gas.  Grateful at least to have a working car, I signed for it and had a white-knuckled drive to the nearest petrol station where I could fill up.

Unfortunately, all that put me well behind schedule.  So instead of having a pleasant drive up to Stratford-upon-Avon in time for a leisurely lunch and stroll around town before an early matinee at the RSC, I had to race straight to the theatre, making it with three minutes to spare, and munch on a bag of mixed nuts that I’d had the foresight to buy when I filled up at the gas station.

But famine aside, the play was very good.  It was a new adaptation of Tartuffe that had intrigued me when I read the review in The Guardian.  It kept much of the feel of 18th Century French farce (which I love) while looking at modern dynamics of a British Pakistani Muslim family trying to fit in and still maintain ties with their heritage.

I was starving by the time the play was over, and fortunately I had already made a reservation for dinner before the evening play (because of course I was going to see an evening play!).  So I whiled away the time before my reservation by calling Heather (her birthday too!) and Justin.  Alas, the connection was poor and we spent most of our time asking if we could hear each other now (and often the answer was no).

So after scraping in a few minutes of decent conversation, we gave up on technology and I went to dinner at The Opposition (the aptness of which pleased me, given the opposition I had been feeling from the rental car and cellular networks).  Fortunately, there was no opposition at dinner — it was delicious.

Started with a caprese salad . . .

. . . followed by roast lamb shank . . .

. . . and finishing with a vanilla cheesecake and berries.

Feeling MUCH better, I walked back over to the theatre and took my seat for Troilus and Cressida.  It’s one of Shakespeare’s less-often performed plays and I needed it in my quest to see all of Shakespeare’s plays before I turn forty (which I now have officially less than 12 months to do!!!).

The play is, well, strange.  Shakespeare is telling part of the story of the Trojan war — basically the series of events that lead to the death of Hector — and it alternates between the ill-fated love story of the title characters, and the ill-fated posturing/scheming of the better-known warriors (Agamemnon, Ulysses, Achilles, Ajax, etc.).  I didn’t come away loving it as a play, though I did like some of the directing choices (especially casting a deaf actor as Cassandra; and the color-blind, gender-parity casting), and I loved seeing the incredible talent of the RSC actors (oh, they say words so beautifully!).

Also?  Their faces.  Yes, there were gorgeous young people with fit, beautiful bodies (Achilles was ridiculous).  But the old people — men and women alike — there was no shying away from the aging of the face, and the beauty and power of those lines was striking.  If I can have a face half so interesting when I am old, it will be some consolation for aging.

Emerging from the theatre, I was again hungry, and I knew I wouldn’t have anything in the B&B, so I got some chicken strips at McDonald’s and walked around in the rain until midnight talking to Ashley (the cell reception was miraculously perfect by then…).

Next morning I got up early for a delicious full English breakfast made by the bustling proprietors, and then headed out toward Warwick.  According to Google it was only 17 minutes away, and I wanted to see the famous castle.

Turns out the castle was harder to find than you’d expect.  But I did find the church where JRR Tolkien was married . . .

. . . a ramshackle clump of buildings from the 14th Century that have served continuously as housing for veterans for hundreds of years . . .

. . . an adorable little road lined with medieval half-timbered houses as if it was nothing . . .

. . . until finally, the castle!

But then it was time to go.  Because I had to be in Oxford at the Ashmolean Museum at 11am.  So that’s all of the castle and Warwick that any of us gets for now.  On to Oxford!

Back in August I had read about an exhibit called Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum that sounded fascinating.

And fascinating it was!  It started excellently by reminding us that magic is not something buried in the distant Dark Ages but rather something that humans do all the time.  Well, maybe not real magic, but at least magical thinking:  Knock on wood; lucky jerseys; don’t walk under a ladder; etc.  With that frame of reference, the exhibit walked us through different themes:

First the body, and how the medieval world understood the body to be subject all sorts of external “magic” influences, from the planets that affected the health to demons who infiltrated through orifices.  The medical texts and the religious talismans made so much more sense when considered through the lens of magic.

Then love:  From medieval love potions to the modern “love locks” that people put on bridges in Paris.  Then the home:  Doors etched with symbols to keep the witches out.  All sorts of things that people wall up in crevices in their house to imbue the place with protections or remembrances; everything from the mundane (children’s clothes) to the strange (mummified cats and rats) to the freaky (animal hearts stabbed with pins; a poppet with a giant spike through the head).

The section on witches themselves was the most interesting.  They were of course fantastically imagined, but in reality they were typically elderly unmarried women on the margins of society who happened to become the focus of intense emotions and fear.  Of the many thousands who were executed as witches, I’m sure there were some bad eggs.  But I think many of them were probably tragic cases of misunderstanding, poverty, and scapegoating.

By the time I had finished the exhibit, it was time for lunch.  Roast chicken and more of Muriel Stuart’s gardening wisdom!

After lunch I dove back into the museum.  This was my first time at the museum, and I was impressed with the collection.  It had a bit of everything, including an intriguing exhibit on representation of LGBT people/experiences/communities through history (from the Greeks to the Mesopotamians to the Japanse and Southeast Asians to Native Americans).  And a fantastic textiles collection that, somewhat randomly, had the real-life Arabic clothes of Lawrence of Arabia!  (FYI, Lady made me an outfit very similar to this in fifth grade for a school history project, and which later served as a terrific Halloween costume.)

Leaving the museum, I strolled around Oxford, marveling again at just how beautiful the architecture is and what a remarkable place it must be to study.

I also appreciated seeing the remembrances of Armistice Day.  One hundred years ago today WWI was ended, and the reverence and visibility of the commemoration was more visible than anything I’ve ever seen in the US.  Everyone wore poppies on their lapels, and the war memorials were all covered in poppy wreaths.  The impact of WWI and WWI on England — where entire generations of men were lost, and cities battered — seems to have left deeper traces in the collective memory than in the US.

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