Monday, March 30, 2009

Shakespeare didn't make his wife THAT miserable!

I'd always assumed (I think like most people) that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and I saw no reason to believe that he was anyone other than that guy who was born during April 1564 in Stratford upon Avon, until a couple of colleagues began muttering about Marlowe and various other candidates. Since then, I've read up a little on the issue, and I remain convinced that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. As far as I can see, those who feel that someone else did the writing and our Will was a front for some better-educated nobleman who didn't want to be associated with the grubby business of making plays base their fundamental objections to Will being the author on a mix of snobbery and an inadequacy in themselves rather than in the man from Stratford.

I've just ruled out a major candidate for myself - the 17th Earl of Oxford. Apart from the fact that he died in 1604, before a number of Shakespeare's masterpieces were written, I never knew much about him, but in the course of reading some women writers of the Renaissance, I recently did some background research into his first wife, Anne Cecil. Edward de Vere treated her absolutely monstrously: he was raised as a ward of her family, so knew her from early childhood, they married when she was 15 and they had several children together. Four years after their marriage, she bore her first child, a daughter. De Vere repudiated both his wife and his child, largely because her father (Lord Burghley) refused to pay Oxford's outstanding debts or save his treasonous uncle, Norfolk (who had been plotting against Elizabeth I) from execution.

Oxford circulated rumours that his wife had had an affair while she was pregnant, and rejected her entirely on the birth of their daughter. After five years of letters and petitioning, he took her back. It was widely acknowledged in court circles that Anne had never been unfaithful, but nonetheless, Oxford's treatment caused her considerable humiliation. He was explicit in letters and conversations with cousins that he intended to ruin his wife because of the humiliations he felt that his father in law had heaped on him.

He did take her back five years after the repudiation, they had more children, and she died in 1588 in childbirth.

Apart from the deep implausibility of an active courtier of Elizabeth I having the time to write over 100 sonnets and 40 plays as well as several longer poems, apart from the tricky fact of Oxford's demise occurring before the composition of masterpieces such as Lear, Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra, The Tempest and A Winter's Tale, apart from the fact that Will Shakespeare was quite educated enough to have written his own material, there is the uncomfortable fact that few supporters of De Vere address, of his thoroughly unpleasant personality and morals. De Vere was a man of his time - dismissive of womenkind in general and his wife in particular, and clearly incapable of imagining let alone writing women such as Rosalind, Beatrice, Portia, Viola. And while he might have as personal characteristics the charm and intelligence of thoroughly unpleasant characters such as Iago and Richard III, Oxford clearly lacked characteristics such as compassion, ambiguity and self-knowledge that produced a Benedick, a Hamlet, a Brutus or Cassius, a Richard II...

Reading Shakespeare, day in, day out, attempting to help children to understand his genius and his talent has only confirmed to me that Will Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon wrote his own plays and was not an original man, but a man who managed to synthesise and reframe key questions of his own age in a way that continues to intrigue and perplex modern readers and audiences. Recently, I've read Peter Ackroyd's biography, Anthony Nuttall's exploration of his ideas and Jonathan Bates's account of his influences and the more I read by Shakespeare himself and of Shakespeare, the more convinced I am that one quite extraordinary man was responsible for the range of poetry and plays that we have as part of our literary canon today. Instead of wasting time trying to make the scanty facts of the plays and the life fit alternative possible writers, people with doubts should return to the works themselves. Whoever wrote them was a consummate man of the theatre, who knew his audience inside out and understood his own and others' humanity better than virtually every other writer before or since - with maybe the odd honourable exception for Homer, or Chekhov, say.

The honest truth is that it does not matter who wrote Shakespeare's oeuvre - we should simply thank the fates or Fortune's Wheel that they were written and survive to enrich us still.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rolling Stone rocks on the financial crisis

Here's a link to an article that explains exactly how and why we are all in a deep dark, smelly, paddle-free environment:

The article explores the seedy world of AIG and its big cheeses, as well as all those CDOs and CDSs which were basically betting instruments for testosterone-led risk-munching monkeys, not to mention the regulators who were well, meant to regulate...

The author, Matt Taibbi, is flip, fluent and very very angry. It's long, lucid and well worth the time.

I particularly liked his analogy of the debt peddlers as alchemists - about 1 in every 1000 might have been a genuine good guy, but basically, most alchemists were con artists just like the investment managers who have made the mess.

BTW, although I am generally pro-Obama, I have read my Krugman and don't believe in the rescue package. But I suppose it is like the emperor's new clothes: enough of the world's stockbrokers seem to believe and perhaps that will be enough to restore confidence. Until the next big bank is discovered to have sat on its own cookies and reduced them to crumbs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aigamemnon (A Fragment)

If you like Greek drama and are in search of a little catharsis, look no further than Crooked Timber where the whole AIG bonus business comes in for a little Sophoclean perspective:

And that's all folks - deadlines to meet.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sex kittens and fruit-eating bats

I'm still seething over an article I read in yesterday's paper - I know I should know better than to take too seriously an article in the Sunday Times Style section, but somehow, this one really got to me. It's called 'Where did my sex kitten go?' and it's written by a man called Simon Jones. Here's the link:

To sum up: Simon fell in love with Frances, glamorous medical career woman. According to the article, she pressured him first into marriage and then into having a child. Once the baby was born, she became, according to him, 'overweight, unfit... a boring frump'. So he had an affair with another woman he met through his work in a hospital, Maria. When she issued him with an ultimatum, he told Frances, who punched him and f***ed him, but the next morning he left to move in with Maria. Who then pressured him into marriage and a child. Now Simon feels betrayed and he has decided to put himself first.

He rather glosses over the fact that it is ten years since he left Frances, and that Maria had her baby only nine months ago. He bewails the transformation of hot, intelligent women into obsessive mothers. And while he doesn't spell it out, it is clear that he is contemplating ditching Maria and his second daughter just as he ran out on Frances and his first daughter.

I read this article with my jaw dropping further and further at Simon's totally skewed and deeply offensive perspective. He makes the sweeping generalisation that all women are treacherous liars. He objectifies his women, longing for independent sex kittens who provide sexual services with a side helping of decent conversation. He holds the women in his life solely responsible for the predicament he is in, instead of thinking that just maybe, he should have stood up to them and stuck to his principles if he was so anti-marriage and anti-child. And now he has fathered two children by different mothers with no real intention of providing them any of the stability or guidance that a father should provide. Chiefly because he doesn't understand that those are the responsibilities once you've caved in and agreed to breed, and of course, he has the commitment of a fruit-eating bat. Sheesh, no wonder his ex-wife is 'frosty' and his elder daughter doesn't seem to like him much. Actually, the surprise to me was that such a witless, whingeing windbag had managed to persuade two intelligent career minded women to have sex with him at all. Maybe he looks like Brad Pitt or Jake Gyllenhaal, but somehow, I think probably not.

I too have met the obsessive mothers: a very brief flirtation with mother-baby groups in Brighton was one of the many spurs that encouraged me back into the workplace, because all the conversation about nappies, cracked nipples and competitive parenting spooked me. But women usually snap out of this pretty promptly - certainly within a year or so, if nurtured and cherished by their partners. But he doesn't seem to have taken the time with Frances, and since he is writing about nine months after his second wife has given birth, he clearly isn't giving her much time to bounce back from the birth.

Simon does describe how he generously upped the hours of the cleaner and brought takeaway dinners home so Frances didn't have to cook. He bought her jewellery and perfume, brought home champagne and flowers. He doesn't mention looking after his daughter, or talking to his wife. His perspective on what makes a decent, loving man is pitifully limited and superficial. His frustration that he is no longer the centre of attention is only going to increase a woman's natural insecurity and encourage her to focus on the baby that is unconditional in its demands and desires. Stuff doesn't cut it.

So what does cut it? Pacing the floors at 3am with a colicky baby while letting your wife sleep; looking after the baby so she can have some time to herself, whether she chooses to spend that getting back into shape or having a bath and reading Vogue; cooking once a week and then making sure the kitchen is immaculate afterwards; showering her with hugs and kisses without applying pressure to have sex (which I think many mothers fear for anywhere between weeks, months and years after giving birth for a multiplicity of reasons usually explored in full in any good pregnancy guide); reading pregnancy and parenting guides; letting her wallow in the weirdness that is motherhood, especially the first time round; organising the babysitter if you want a night out together; understanding that with patience, affection, respect and humour, women will emerge from the hormonal fog that clouds their perspective.

I suppose, really, I was as much saddened by this pitiful article as angered, because it illustrates that there are still men out there who are utterly stupid. At least, in Simon's case he has been honest. Now, as a real service to woman- and mankind, he should tattoo himself with the words: 'complete fool, avoid like the plague' - that would save him from any further difficulties with commitment and fatherhood.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Banker in January, Teacher in June

So, there's this plan that all the people who are being booted out of the financial services sector can usefully fill all the gaps in the teaching profession, notably Maths and Science, where it is true, teachers actually qualified in their subject areas (e.g. a physicist teaching physics) are thin on the ground and often deeply uninspiring even where they do exist. Even better, there's a plan to train the hordes ditched by the City in six months. Applications to teacher training courses are up by 30% in some shortage subject areas, and we want these people up and at our kids as quickly as possible.

It made me think about the skills that cross the great divide between banking and the classroom.
  • First of all, it will take no time at all for converts to adapt their jargon to the world of education, where we talk of empowerment, level playing fields, outcomes and assessment, NCLS, QCA, Ofsted and all the other verbiage easily understood for those with experience of low-hanging fruit and Bullshit Bingo.
  • The politics of the office are fully applicable to the subtle and at times vicious territorial wars of the staffroom - coffee mugs at dawn.
  • The bellow as practised by traders, whether on the floor or via a phone is an ideal form of communication in a busy classroom.
  • The smarming up to clients and soothing of savage egos is just what is needed to calm agitated headteachers or the skunk-addled teen following a post-prandial spliff.
  • Wading one's way through Financial Service Regulations is surely a suitable training for reading up on the Department for Children, Families, Schools and Kitchen Sinks policy documents - after all, the Bankers seem to have pretty much ignored regulatory control with little adverse effect.
  • Regular visits to lap-dancing clubs are ideal training for handling adolescent females: indeed, our converted bankers may bond when they recognise those students who are too tired to do their coursework because they were writhing the night away at Spearmint Rhino.
The only area that will come as a real and perhaps deal-breaking shock to the bankers is school food, but of course, Jamie, with his River Café background, is sorting that side of things out, although umpteen thousand pound bottles of Petrus are unlikely to be available even in the most enlightened of school canteens.

Six months seems crazily long for a conversion course - I should think the finer points of teaching could be easily assimilated in a month or six weeks by the brilliant minds that have plunged us into the worst financial crisis that the UK has known. And if they are truly hopeless in the classroom, they will soon be fast-tracked into headships so that they can wreak even more havoc in a management role.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Generation Kill

We have one ep of Generation Kill to go, and I've finished reading the book. Reading the book was a really good idea, because it made the TV series somewhat (not wholly) more comprehensible although it has left me with a near unconquerable urge to end every sentence I address to someone else with the term 'dawg'.

Enjoy is not the right expression for engagement with GK. Evan Wright is a decent writer, he allows himself a moment of indulgence when he talks very briefly once in 400 + pages about his own therapy and issues, the story he tells is really interesting, and I did come out of the book feeling more sympathetic to Marines than when I went in. Both book and tv series capture that horrible mix of boredom and sheer confusion/terror that seems to epitomise warfare since 1914, and in the tradition of WW1 war writing, by and large the senior officers come off as remote and a little careless with their men's lives, there is incompetence and there is genuine heroism. One of the facets of this depiction of combat that struck me was the miracle that more Marines weren't killed/maimed.

War stories like this are fascinating and paradoxical. The camaraderie and wit, the banter and companionship make the life seem almost attractive, but there are balanced descriptions of the repulsiveness of the meals, the layers of grime and footrot thanks to a life of no apparent hygiene facilities, not to mention the consequent stomach problems ranging from squits to full on dysentery, and also most seriously, the brutalisation that comes with the territory. Military units go to the heart of our purpose here: they are at once deeply artificial, and also more intensely real - and they are adrenaline factories for young men (and I suppose, increasingly, young women) who find the buzz of extreme situations addictive.

Minion number 2 is at that stage of experimenting with career choices, telling me when he is a 'growed man' he will be a firefighter, no, a policeman, no, a cook, and maybe a pizza delivery man. When we hit soldier, my devout hope was that this would be another flash in the pan moment. Noel Coward advised Mrs Worthington against putting her daughter on the stage, and on the basis of the experiences described in GK, where extremely expensively trained Reconnaissance Marines were used experimentally by strategists playing with a new way to fight wars, I'd tell Mrs Worthington to keep her boy out of the military too. On the other hand, I'd recommend the book and the TV series to anyone interested in modern warfare.