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September 21st, 2009

Portmeirion (09/14/09)

When last I wrote, dear readers, I was in the country--in a working farm-cum-B&B in Derbyshire, in fact, surrounded by sheep and gently rolling hills, tucking into fresh scrambled eggs and smoked salmon and making cheerful conversation with our fellow-guests about Shropshire and East Anglia and an exhibit one of them had seen the day before, in Tissingham, of scenes from the Narnia books done in flower arrangements.

Today (I'm writing this on Thursday the 17th), we're in London, tucked up on the sofa-bed in Geoff Ryman's flat.

Wales seems very long ago and far away--which last, in fact, it is. A 5 hours' drive, anyway,which is a long way in Britain. Certainly, we're a long way psychically from the serious whimsy that is Portmeirion [link].

If you're interested in learning about Lord Clough Williams-Ellis [link] and his dream of bringing an Italian hill village to rural Wales and the lifetime he spent bringing it to life, there are books and books on the subject, also a DVD that portrays him, at the age of 90-something, striding through the village in plus-fours, a shooting jacket, and yellow stockings that would have sent Malvolio into a frenzy with his hands linked behind his back, looking cheerful and faintly embarrassed, against a soundtrack alternating between a voice-over of him talking about Portmeirion and the worst trumpeter in the world playing a fanfare over and over and over and over again.

Here, I'll just say that he was an eccentric idealist with a very sound sense of business, an elitist who spent his entire life making his favorite bits of culture easily accessible to anybody with the price of the entrance-fee. And he had a beautiful, springing nose and an incredibly sweet smile. My kind of guy.

First, we visited a working woollen mill that boasts the oldest steam engine in Wales and truly beautiful textiles. Ellen called her father in Cleveland to ask his head size so she could buy him a nice flat cap such as he favors, and I took many pictures of spinning, carding, winding, and weaving machines. What with one thing and another, we didn't arrive in Portmeirion until 4--time enough to check into our lovely and luxurious room at the edge of the Village, refresh ourselves with Earl Grey from Botanical Garden cups just like the ones we've got at home, plus Welsh cakes acquired the day before, and biscuits brought from Chagford. Then we wandered through the Village with the rest of the tourists, taking pictures of the multi-colored hydrangeas (which reminded me irrisistably of Diana Wynne Jones's The House of Many Doors) and the slightly down-scaled villas and vistas and pergolas and arches and fountains and towers, all painted daffodil and peach and sky blue and light green.

Peter at Gywdir told us that Williams-Ellis had the houses painted on a rota system, so some were always faded and stained. It's more uniform now, and generally brighter, but thankfully not to the standard of Disneyland. There's no question but the place is utterly and unapologetically artificial, but it also looks comfortable in its setting, like an exotic plant in a garden. There are plenty of those, too, from palm trees to fuschias, and plenty of non-Italianate sculpture, most notably a pair of golden Thai dancers on pillars in the central loggia. My father, who was severely classical in his architectural tastes, would probably not have liked it much. But he would have been interested and amused.

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As I Like It (9/18/09)

Friday was a beautiful autumn day in London: warmish, clear and shady by turns. A perfect day to see a play outdoors, or semi-outdoors, in the rebuilt Globe theatre. And that, six weeks ago, sitting at the dining table in our New York apartment with the Globe website open and maps of England and Wales spread around us, is just what we'd planned to do. Although we thought we'd more likely be doing it in the rain.

The play was As You Like It, which I haven't seen often, and most lately indifferently (and certainly unmemorably) done at the Huntington. The first time I saw it was in 1967 or 68, in London, by the RSC, with Helen Mirren as a jeans-and-cowboy hat clad Rosalind. I still have the program, too, in storage in Northampton. After all this time, I don't remember a lot, but I do remember thinking that only a blind man could have mistaken her for any kind of boy.

This Rosalind was much more ambiguous.

They did the right thing, I think, by keeping it in High Elizabethan costume. The gender differences were so extreme, then, that any woman willing to cut her hair and pay attention to her body language might have a prayer of passing for male. And this actress was good. She had a strong, gamine, androgynous face, she was slight and lithe, she paid attention to her body language (except when Rosalind was clearly losing her grip on the part of Ganymede), and she delivered her lines with a boyish delight.

The rest of the cast was strong, too. In fact, it was the most consistently strong acting I've seen on stage in a long time. Everybody could speak the verse. Everybody had a real character. I thought Touchstone owed a great debt to Blackadder in his Elizabethan mode, but I could be mistaken. The evil Duke would have put Basil Rathbone as Prince John to shame, the good Duke was an Elizabethan tree-hugger, and Celia was dear, enthusiastic, warm, and very young--a real charmer. And all without microphones, with planes going overhead and a mobile ringing unstoppably in someone's backpack and a helicopter hovering through a good part of one scene.

I loved it. I loved the costumes, and the fact that Rosalind wore servant's blue in her uncle's court, and Celia wore her gown as Aliena, so that Rosalind was wed in her petticoat, chemise, and stays. I loved the exits and entrances through the audience, with the actors pushing the mostly 20-something groundlings aside. I loved the drums that underscored the new duke's coronation with which the play opened and the wrestling match and the bird-song in Arden. I did not love the music, which was bland. And I loathed the incomprehensibly out-of-character curtain call, in which the consort of music played what they imagined to be house music while the cast boogeyed down in their petticoats, stays, and doublets.

All in all, though, a very satisfactory experience, and one that made me think about themes of honor, siblings, envy, and villany in the play, which I hadn't thought about before. And that's part of what seeing a play is about, isn't it?

That same evening, we heard June Tabor sing a concert of songs about the sea at Elizabeth Hall, as part of Topic Records's 70 Anniversary celebrations. She was in fine voice, dressed in a long black dress and a Chinese embroidered silk jacket she told me Maddy Prior had bought for her at a street market maybe 30 years ago. She sang "The Grey Funnel Line" and "Sir Patrick Spens" and modern songs by Les Barker and others whose names I can't remember, with the able accompaniment of Mark Emerson and Huw Warren, a bassist and a concertina player. We went backstage afterwards for a hug and a glass of wine and promises to come back to visit soon.

The Artful Dodger Rides Again (Sept 20)

Yeah, I'm behind. And the trip is almost over. Which is just as well, because at Brick Lane market (or perhaps Spitalfields) a latter-day Artful Dodger boosted my brand new iPhone from my purse.

Ellen cleverly got the international operator to connect us free to AT&T's help line so we could get the phone and data service suspended, and we made a report at the local police station in case Am Ex's purchase insurance will cover the loss. The WPC was very sweet and sympathetic, and attempted to guide us to a tea shop to recruit nature after our experience, but, er, we couldn't find it. She's coming to New York next week. We hope she has a lovely time.

How grateful am I that the AD didn't get my wallet or my passport or anything that really makes life and travel possible? Very. How peeved am I that I hadn't synchronized my iPhone lately, and thus lost a lot of really cool pictures I'd taken? Extremely. Have I learned a lesson from any of this? I certainly hope so.

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