Shakespeare’s England

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: Shakespeare's England | Tags: , |



by Inderjeet Mani


On a summer’s day, in Oxford, England. I walk by the river, leaving behind the towers of Christ Church and its cathedral.  A small flotilla of punts lists lazily downstream, while a pair of smart punks swing briskly by on the grass. Pale women in calico skirts stretch out on the green. The grass is soft, slightly muddy; beyond lie rich green fields, and in the distance the spires of country churches rise solemnly into a sky flecked with a few wispy clouds. The light is soft, full of quiet exuberance, staining the stones of Christ Church with a dull gold. I fling off my shoes and lie back on the grass. A flock of starlings suddenly sweeps overhead, leaving behind an empty expanse of delicate blue. Sky, grass, more grass, river, sky…..I lie back, the green banks inviting the eructation of summer thoughts.


From the river I hear the helpless cry of an inept punter. Two otherwise pretty women are sitting back on their haunches laughing uproari­ously, their teeth flashing in the sunlight. By the Folly Bridge pink-skinned boys and girls sweat and puff at the oars like galley slaves, while their trainers bark at them from bicycles. A turnstile away a cricket match is in progress. Another flock of starlings flutters overhead, and then a crowd of gaily-clad tourists drifts by, pointing, clicking cameras, chattering excitedly in Japanese and French and Italian.


“Why have you come back?”, a Pakistani taxi driver asked me earlier.


He murmured something obscene in Urdu. “There’s nothing here for people like us.”




The very first time I visited, the light by the river seemed full of poetry and innocence. It was a glorious summer afternoon when I arrived at Oxford, and the men getting down from the train wore elegant summer suits and hats and the women long frilled dresses. I followed them down to the colleges, where they stripped off their pinstriped jackets and relaxed elegantly by the water. A few punters went drifting by hunched on their punts like silent gondoliers. The light fell gently on the grass, cast­ing long shadows; the colleges with their ancient towers hung dis­cretely in the background, their cold stones suffused with quiet light. I heard a few ploppings (of ducks) and a few quiet observations (by civilized, smartly dressed people). It was a dust-free world of sweetness and light, and rather like being on another planet.


Later I strolled into St. John’s College, to visit someone from St. Stephen’s who had won or wangled a Rhodes Scholarship. I found him in an ancient room overlooking the quad, sinking his teeth into a slice of freshly buttered toast. He seemed to have some difficulty remem­bering me – a common reaction – but he was very polite.


“I’m a bit busy with exams”, he told me after half an hour. “But you must come again and visit.”




I have been invited to tea by the Pakistani taxi-driver, a thin bald man with a dark scar on his forehead. In a modest little council house his daughters serve pakoras and tea. He watches them proudly as they settle into their knitting, two quiet girls in spectacles with ruggedly working-class British accents. Their mother, a shy wispy woman in salwar kameez, sits in the shadows, murmuring nervously in Urdu to her children. A soccer match dutifully unfurls on the telly.


“It’s much better here”, says the driver. “Even though I pine for home. But even there, nothing matters, only money.” He rubs his fingers together scornfully.


I inquire politely about his origins. He explains that his family owned a tea-shop in a side-street in Karachi. He had grown up in the streets, had been a prolific gambler in his youth, knew how to handle a knife. Then the police goons came after him, so he was forced to disappear, eventually wangling his way to England.


“One thing about these damn Englishers. If you work hard, they’ll leave you alone”, he adds, thoughtfully scratching himself. 


There are many British like the taxi driver, sweeping the floors at Heathrow, or hurrying from grocery to council home, tired men spitting and scratching their privates in public. Their women wear gold earrings and bold saris and chatter boldly to each other in alleys and under bridges. Their voices and flowing garments summon up memories of the rural Punjab, its fields full with wheat, its smiling sardars sitting out on their bedsteads drinking milk foaming up in tall glasses, a world where one may open one’s mouth wide to devour hot chat with bright yellow lemons, where lusty men and women dance the Bhangra.




I have now left behind the towers of Oxford, to spend the day cruising down the gentle country roads of Middle England, driving past flower strewn meadows with sheep and cattle grazing bucolically and birds chasing each other giddily into the air. The road winds down gracefully, past hedgerow and hayrick, passing country churches, furrowed fields, old stone manors; in the distance are more gentle hills, and then the M40 thundering its way to London. I am on board a tour bus. The driver informs me that he’s been to India; he went to Kashmir after dropping out from film studies at the University of Kent. He certainly looks the part, dressed as he is in a kurta, beret, and silver ear­rings. 


I look around at my fellow passengers. The Moskowitzs are seated behind me, a mother and daughter team from Cincinnati, first time in England, and already missing the comforts of suburban America. They explain the difficulties faced by the American traveler, getting used to separate hot and cold water faucets, the spartan facilities offered by bed-and-breakfasts, the scarcity of attached baths and showers.


“To experience true discomfort you must travel in India”, I tell them, by way of encouragement.


“Where are you from?”, inquires Mother Moskowitz, curiosity flickering in her long lizard eyes.


“From New York.”


She guffaws. “But ya weren’t born there now, were ya?”


The daughter smiles in apology at her mother’s unintended rudeness. I ask her if she’s related to Carol Moskowitz, who shared a house with me and several other lads and lasses in Brighton in the 1970’s.. 


“No, we’re from Cincinnati”, the daughter tells me proudly. “Where’re you staying?”


“In a B&B – on the Iffley Road.”


She nods sym­pathetically, while Mother Moskowitz launches into a long jeremiad about the sorry state of plumbing in B&Bs on the Iffley Road. But despite the good woman’s complaints, in reality the Bed&Breakfasts are places which invite reflection and contemplation. There is something special about staying up all night in a tiny bedroom, listening to footsteps in the corridors, hearing cou­ples returning joyfully from their haunts and tired travelers padding furtively to the bathroom; there is nothing to do but to gather your thoughts and sip tea from a bedside elec­tric ket­tle and munch on McVitie’s Biscuits. Boredom soon sets in; the only escape is inwards. At times like these I can sympathize with the plight of Moskowitzs the world over. To suffer the ignominies of harsh travel accommodations, to lay one’s head down on unfamiliar pillows – far better never to set out in the first place!


“At least they’re better than before the War”, says a husky, Lauren Baccallish voice, interrupting the flow of Mother Moskowitz’s lamentations. The voice issues from an old lady in dark glasses with a broad smile under thick lipstick. “When I first came here as a teenager in ‘37 you never knew what to expect – you could end up sharing a bed with a stranger.”


She turns to the old man beside her, who has just elbowed her in the ribs.


“Ernie!”  But Ernie has turned away, looking out at some distant gargoyle on a country church.


“You’re not going on about that guide book are you?”, she asks him.


He continues to stare, glumly, out of the window.


“But there wasn’t enough time”, she says exasperatedly. “We’d have missed our flight. Anyway, we can pick up another..”


She shrugs her shoulders, in defiance of her husband’s continued si­lence. She tells us she’s from Rochester, New York, Ernie is a retired leather executive, and guidebook or no guidebook, they visit England every summer. I wonder why they bother; like so many others struggling with old age, exhaustion and ill-humor seem permanently etched on Ernie’s face. 


By contrast, the other passen­gers appear cheerful, resigned to each other’s company, dutifully awaiting with a vacuous expression the next segment of the tour, awaiting instructions to photograph, to collect souvenirs. The driver meanwhile amuses everyone with droll tales of local customs. My eye falls on Anna, a big girl with pretty green eyes and a somewhat flushed face.


“Der was a girl from India on der tour yesterday”, Anna informs me later, while we stroll through the village of Lower Slaughter. The Moskowitzs are walking ahead, holding hands. Other tourists are strolling by in the sunshine, sniffing roses and gingerly crossing small brooks. The cottages look half asleep, as if they have been plunked down from picture postcards. As if to complete the scene, a  few suitably rustic villagers appear frozen in postures of semi-immobility as they sit in pairs swilling beer outside a pub.


“Isn’t it amazing that people still live this way”, says Moskowitz the younger, turning to me.


“She came from Bom-bay”, Anna continues, a little insistent. “She wast traveling a-lone. Are you traveling a-lone?”


We pass the village Upper Slaughter, and then Anna comes to the back to sit beside me. I can feel her body close by, a whiff of some strong deodorant or soap, her small childlike fingers scratching at the seat in front. The Moskowitz girl cups her chin in her hands and gives me a conspiratorial smile. Anna tells me she is a teacher of English, from a small town near Heidelberg. She men­tions the Black Forest, just as I notice the brown down of a very faint moustache that flourishes on her upper lip. She is very sincere, she seems the perfect tourist, gathering tidbits of useful information wherever she goes; she comes often to England, be­cause of the History, and the Language. So we talk for a while about the glories of language, of the basics that find utterance in every tongue.


“Never give up traveling”, she tells me mysteriously, “it’s der one ting dat vill survive.”


The van rushes down old Roman roads, passing small villages and churches, Saxon, Norman, Elizabethan, then rolling hills with iron-age forts along the ridges. A man walks his dog in a verdant meadow; another leans casually on a fence and smiles as we go by. His face is ruddy beneath honest blue eyes, with a mysteriously twisted nose, a cross between an elderly Druid and an anglicized Dr. Gachet. The van gathers speed. We pass the imposing gates of county seats, and vil­lages with dry stone walls, where thatched and slated roofs are be­ing groomed devotedly.  A crowd of BMWs look on, their bonnets gleaming in the sunlight.


“The houses are being spiffed up for the yuppies”, observes the driver. 


We soon spot these British yuppies, dashing by in their Jaguars and German chariots, eager to devour the countryside, pottering about at country markets, lounging casually in beer gardens in their Polo shirts, all of them indirectly championing the cause of historic preservation, helping to transform rustic hamlets into cunningly disguised suburbs. But in the market towns I come across other, untrammeled properties, the town houses of wool merchants, their slabs of golden stone speaking of a different England, a mercantile nation boasting prosperous marketeers. Then the golden Cotswold stone gives way to gray, and we are back among the wooden houses of the Tudors. The driver is taking us to Stratford-on-Avon.


I have no desire to visit this holiest of English shrines. Stratford-on-Avon, the Eiffel Tower,  Disneyland, the Statue of Liberty – these infamous and popular attractions have each a certain ineffable essence, but they are best experienced alone, away from the stifling chatter of crowds and tour guides. However, today everyone else is dead set on going to Stratford, so to Stratford we go. The driver promises to be back in three hours, but Anna wants to stay until evening to watch The Tempest – and hopes that I will join her. I decline the invitation, and Anna flashes me a treacherous look. The driver refuses to accommodate her, insisting on leaving at the stroke of three.


We are deposited at the bus stop, a block from Shakespeare’s first home. Stratford is much as I expected, a lively theme park buzzing with tour buses and loudspeakers; messages pound at your ears, the Arden home is a must, such-and-such an exhibit will close at three, please remember to reserve seats at the theater. You stagger through the crowds, brushing past parents yelling at their young, past smartly capped policewomen in short skirts and black stockings. The usual capitalistic tributes to Shakespeare are in evidence everywhere – on shop and restaurant signs, on T-shirts and beer mugs, on an infinite variety of bric-a-brac, all lovingly purchased by the American tourists who flock here in vast numbers as if to an ancestral burial site, accompanied by equally eager Germans and Japanese. Also conspicuously present is an army of old age pensioners, who can be found mulling about in the sunshine in dull overcoats and wheelchairs drinking endless cups of tea.


“At least ve can valk togeder, can’t ve?” asks Anna, falling into step beside me.


She leads me into a gallery of theatrical cos­tumes. Here I come across Hamlet’s sword, Caliban’s skimpy costume, and the tasteful nightie worn by Desdemona at the moment of her untimely death. The characters from the plays stand boldly about, some in battle armor, others in ermine cloaks. An incisorless Japanese gentleman who has been photographing the exhibits bows graciously to us and hands Anna his camera, requesting a picture. I escape, hoping they will hit it off, but Anna follows soon after.


Meanwhile I try to absorb little bits of Shakespearean trivia. It is difficult, given the polite jostling of the crowds and the relentless chattering of tour guides. But wait – is that Elizabethan music being piped through the speakers? Yes, I am now being transponded back into Shakespeare’s life and times. I am introduced to his proud parents, John Shakespeare, a prominent Stratford man, who rose from glovemaker to the wealthy to town chamberlain, and Mary Arden, an elegant woman of the Warwickshire landed classes. And there is the childe Shakespeare’s crib, where he lay cosseted in blankets, presumably burping heartily after his first taste of mother’s milk.


I follow the tour, reliving the stages of his life. I’m introduced to a schoolboy with his satchel and shiny morning face, hurrying along to the locally prestigious Stratford Grammar School. There, hunched over an antique graffiti-engraved desk, he marvels over the classics, pores over Holinshed’s chronicles, the first fertile thoughts forming delicately on his brow…..But he is a young man now, a handsome fellow humming Greensleeves and O Mistress Mine and other lovely ballads and ditties of his day, and in the evenings he indulges in Wenching and Carousing, pastimes popular among Stratford teens. One night he strides across miles of farmland to bed down Anne Hathaway, a farmer’s illiterate daughter. A few months later her belly is swollen with child. The Hathaway brothers march to William’s house, and he agrees to a hurried mar­riage. But all these are mere irritations, bubbles on the surface. Beneath it all some great force lies simmering. And then one fine day the call of his ul­timate vocation is too strong; he falls in with a group of wandering players, and deserting his wife, sets off for the bright lights of London.


The remaining biographical details are somewhat glossed over by the British Tourist Authority. They speak of him in terms one would use for a successful banker or jeweler. After making it big in London, he invests shrewdly in real estate, and then gets his father a coat of arms, settling Anne and the kids into New Place, a posh residence in Stratford. His daughter Susanna does rather well, marrying a promi­nent surgeon; the couple inherit most of his money, while Anne is willed the master’s second-best bed, his best one being apparently reserved for guests. 


It is hard to reconcile this rather dull businessman with the extraordinary mind which emerges from the texts. The biographical record reveals very little about his inner life; outside his oeuvre there is no evidence of anguish, of the suffering, desperation, and boredom that is so often justified as a necessary condition for true knowledge. The record merely points to an out­wardly successful and vigorous life, to a man who seemed rather non­chalant about his poems and plays, not even bothering to save any of them. 


Of course, what the British Tourist Authority says matters very little. We continue to imagine him as the archetypal poet, at heart a deeply private, contemplative man, his wellsprings of feeling transformed by the upsurge of a tremendous imagina­tion – an imagination that thrived in a brilliant age, and yet a man able to sketch the wider view, to come to terms with the essence of our condition. That is, to recog­nize that we are such stuff as dreams are made on; and that our lit­tle life is rounded with a sleep.


Meanwhile, the British have upped the ante, milking his soul for whatever it’s worth in dollars, marks, and yen. The pilgrims now come from the world over to gaze fondly at Shakespeare’s birthplace and tomb, at the Great Britain of rotting wooden houses tended lovingly by the English Heritage society. Most poignant of all is the sight of the crinkled faces of the old age pensioners, some of whom sport the mustaches of former military men; they remind one of the defenders of the faith at Lenin’s tomb. They nod to themselves, these pensioners, their eyes shining through the tears: all is not lost, England is still in good hands, despite all the loss of empire and the damn unemployment and all the bloody immigration. They are witnesses to history, to the disintegration of an empire, of a short but brilliant civilization. These whiskered old fogeys take on a sudden nobility, they are representatives of the lost cultures of time, they are one with the last denizens of Erbil and Pompei and Chichen Itza. In time, their legacy too will disappear, as the last vestiges of British culture give way to the relentless wave of Americanization.


An old lady makes way for me at her sidewalk table, clucking all the while and call­ing me love and darling. I try hard to munch on something re­sembling a miniature quiche, but it proves unrewarding. A sparrow arrives and perches near my teacup, and I feed it a crumb. Anna drums nervously. This is her last day on tour and she wants to see everything. Finally, exasperated by my spending nearly half an hour at the table, she stands up and ac­cuses me.


“You come all der way to dis famous place, and all you do is eat!”


I am taken aback by this rude onslaught, with its disturbing implication of shared goals and values. I wander off alone into a dark church, finding myself among crowds solemnly admiring what’s left of Shakespeare and his kin. It is a quiet church, rather cave-like. As I sit in there trapped beside Anna, who has followed close behind, thoughts of death come crowding in, jumbled with vaguely Shakespearean associations. I can feel someone nearby, a pale woman dressed in black – I suddenly remember Jennifer Kendall, one of three sisters from a Shakespearean troupe who visited during my days at the Doon School, Jennifer who played a sexy Desdemona in the cool Himalayan air. Jennifer, who later married the Bombay screen star Shashi Kapoor, and who died of cancer in her husband’s arms. Dead and gone, gone to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.


Out, out, it is time to be out. After all these dark intimations of mortality and the death of cultures, it is important to take things one at a time, instead of rushing about madly, to savor those special moments, a quiet walk in the sunlight by the river, beside the gliding perfection of the latter-day swans of Avon. In the past I have en­joyed many fine English walks by the water. But it is not to be.


“Quick, the bus”, Anna shouts.


I take one last look at the river.


“Vat are you vaiting for!”, she bellows. Stratford has completely transformed her.


I hand her handbag and camera and climb onto an open-topped Stratford doubledecker.


“On top dis time!”, she gestures angrily.


“Topless in Stratford”, giggles the tour operator.


We ride into the wind, and Anna tightens her rather formidable grip on her dark glasses. We are bound for Anne Hathaway’s house. The ugly borough of Stratford rushes past, revealed finally as a flurry of sooty red brick homes and betting shops, and then we are in green and open country. The tour operator jabbers on about the glories of English history, while England flies by, the wind becoming fiercer, tearing about us in a hellish vortex. People clutch wildly at flying hair and glasses. Anna shouts to me that the tasteless com­mercial­ism is all for a good cause – vich other country honors its poets like dis? I try to think of some, Russia, for one, but she has turned away, her hair billowing into the wind.


The Hathaway house turns out to be a vulgar little place, comically offset by a thatch that looks fairly Rastafarian. By the time Anna and I sprint back along the cobblestones to our Spires and Shires bus, people on board have started getting rather impatient.


“Watch out for the driver”, says Mother Moskowitz. “He’s go­ing to put you in the doghouse.”


I apologize profusely to everyone, but things are a bit tense on the way back. We stop to admire from a safe distance Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, landscaping by Capability Brown, and then walk around an ancient stone circle, the King’s Men. A withered yew tree stands nearby, a symbol of death as well as immortality. As the driver prattles on about various local legends, adding his own feverish speculations about the peculiar magnetic fields as­sociated with stone circles as evinced by the odd behavior of dous­ing rods when placed directly in their center, the old lady from Rochester suddenly touches my arm and tells me about her son.


He was apparently at Harvard when he took the summer off to go to England. It was 1968. On Midsummer’s day.


“People were dancing naked at Stonehenge”, she chuckles. “ ‘Mom’, he said, ‘it was awful’.  Poor boy, he just didn’t know what to make of them.”


She laughs now, a husky, attractive laugh, running a jeweled finger down the side of an immense oblong stone. The husband remains stonily silent.


I wonder about her son, but something tells me that he may have died. So I head back to the bus, leaving behind the stones and their memories.


At Anna’s request, we make an unscheduled stop at a Jacobean country house, famed for the poisoning over dinner of twenty Roundheads. The owner, an ec­centric old lady dressed in a housecoat, will not let us in – arrangements to visit the fifty-odd rooms must be made in advance. Anna is furious – this is her very last hour on tour, tomorrow she returns to London and Frankfurt. I wander off lightheadedly into the chapel, my sneaker accidentally brushing away the dust on the floor beside a crumbling tomb. There, revealed in a mosaic of bright purple and orange despite a good thousand years, is a crudely drawn carica­ture of a king with a weakly phallic scepter. The face of England, peering through centuries of grime.


We have dismounted from the tour bus into the twilight, and are back on the Broad, opposite Blackwell’s. The bookstore is closed for the day.


“Let me carry dat for you”, says Anna, grabbing my rucksack. There is a funny look in her eyes.


“No,” I say firmly, regaining control of my life. “This is it. Adios. Auf wiedersehen.”


I wave her a quick smiling goodbye, and hurry away down the street into the growing darkness.



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