Category Archives: Current Events

Flowers and Flags

That’s what late June and early July are all about in essence:  flowers (mostly roses) and flags. This particular year, even more so regarding the latter. I worked on my garden quite a bit during this mostly sunny week, and I was so happy to wake up to hard-driving rain this morning because it meant I could have a Sunday day of rest–or laundry. Much of the garden is in full flower, but as I’ve been going for interesting leaves rather than short-lived flowers over the past few years green dominates. I think I went a bit too far in this direction so I introduced some interspersed old-fashioned mallows in the central garden this year, and I think they provide a nice pop of color. But mostly it’s about roses, which I have yet to master and probably never will–but even a fool can grow roses in June (July and August are quite another matter). Now for the flags: we usually have a full range of flags flying on Chestnut–from standard and more unique versions of the stars and stripes to the Hawaiian flag at the Phillips House to the rainbow flag, flying for last week’s North Shore Pride Parade but obviously bearing even more resonance now. I like to display my great-great-grandfather’s 45-star memorial flag on the side of the house, but it’s “flying” in the front parlor until the weather clears up. If anyone knows a good source for (cotton) reproductions of historic flags, please let me know: I’d like to buy a 24-star flag, the official version when our house was built in 1827. There was a more jarring display of flags last week, fortunately only digital, when The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore used a photograph of Hamilton Hall (just next door!) to create a “Confederate Flag Museum”: I’m including it here because it’s always good to remember that not everything is beautiful.

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Late June Flag in Salem

Nightly Show Confederate Flag Museum

Late June garden with roses, roses, roses (only the yellow ones are mine: the rest are from the Ropes Garden and Flint and Becket Streets). Flags–real and fortunately NOT–on Chestnut Street.

Appendix: and even worse, someone hung a real Confederate flag on the Robert Gould Shaw/ Massachusetts 54th Memorial in Boston yesterday, and it remained there for several hours before a Lowell woman pulled it off: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/06/28/confederate-flag-hung-from-regiment-memorial/bLFrtGsKCLAEpFFDBsX0DK/story.html.


Cobblestone Contest

A very literal streets of Salem post today. A repaving project on Lynn and River Streets in the largest of our historic districts uncovered a subsurface of cobblestones at the streets’ intersection, which several residents want to keep uncovered: for historic, aesthetic, and traffic-related reasons. The City wants them paved over (again), so we have a standoff, and quite a public one at that: there have been stories in all the local newspapers and a piece on one of the Boston television stations. I’m not impartial on this one: I think we should take up all of the pavement and have cobblestones everywhere, or at the very least cobblestone crosswalks in the city’s historic districts. Chestnut Street, the widest in the city, has not one crosswalk (cobblestone or otherwise) to slow down the SUV-driving, phone-adhered-to-their (Marble)head commuters barreling through our neighborhood on their way home. The River Street residents are employing the traffic-calming argument, which I think is a good one, especially as the particular intersection in question transitions traffic from a major artery into a neighborhood–and smooth pavement will make this transition all too speedy–not a transition at all. City officials have cited safety concerns (for bicycles–and this in a city which has a bike lane between two car lanes–but baby carriages and wheelchairs were mentioned as well) and I’m sure cost is a factor. I think a compromise is in the works: the city engineer as offered two 30″ strips of cobblestones at the end of each street to give people an “indication that they are entering into a historic neighborhood”. Sounds like a precedent to me–although I’m a bit wary: a similar cobblestone contest played out in a Brooklyn neighborhood a few years ago, and its compromise solution was the replacement of the old cobblestones with new, machine-cut ones, which I’m not sure are cobblestones at all.

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River Street Flag

cobblestones Brooklyn NYT

Cobblestones at the intersection of River and Lynn Streets in Salem and a River Street flag; the old cobblestones of Brooklyn, © New York Times; you can see the television piece here.

Update: The Mayor has written to the neighbors informing them of the resumption of work at the intersection, which will involve not only the installation of the aforementioned strips, but also an additional triangular buffer–all comprised of the old cobblestones (which she appropriately calls “Belgian blocks”–see comments below). Sounds like a good compromise to me.


Desperately seeking Distractions

A difficult week: we had to put our beautiful calico cat Moneypenny down after she suffered some sort of stroke, and then Charleston. Too awful for words, and I just walked past that church last week. We’ve had some lovely late spring early summer days, which seem almost cruel in my morose mood. My garden looks beautiful from far away, but up close it is full of weeds that I’ve been too busy to yank out. So that’s my plan–I shall tend to my garden and pursue the other distractions that have always been helpful in tough times: shopping (for everything from clothing to vintage lawn games), old movies (life is always good when Doris Day is on, submarine movies always plunge me into another world, and I’m currently obsessed with George Sanders), history (not only my profession but also my daily preoccupation–the perfect perspective corrective), and drinking (another great perspective corrective, in moderation of course). I need a new bicycle too: that will help. I do have some nice pictures that belie my dark mood: the garden–from afar so you can’t see the weeds! The lilac and variegated dogwood trees are particularly beautiful this year. Chestnut Street Park across the street, with the remains of a lovely neighborhood party last night, a thoughtful offering from my friend Pamela, and the gardens and antiques at the Massachusetts Horticulture Society’s Elm Bank last weekend, when all was well with the world.

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Very impressed with this lady’s bedstraw–must get some.


Magna Carta Monday

As today marks the 800th anniversary of the reluctant concession to the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymeade, there clearly is no other topic on which to focus than this Charter, which has become far more momentous with history than in its own time. There is a seemingly-definitive exhibition at the British Library: “The Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy”, which is full of iconic documents, including Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, and interesting facts: apparently the British were contemplating luring the U.S. into World War II by offering us the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta! Neither of these inclusions surprise me, as Americans have always viewed the Great Charter through the prism of their own constitutional struggles, rather than its more precise historical context. Invariably if I ask a student in my Medieval class what it is, they will say: “the British Constitution”.  This horrifies my British friends, who maintain that they don’t need a constitution: the beauty of British history and government is the gradual, organic evolution of civil liberties and the universal understanding of just what these liberties should be, rather than their explicit expression on a piece of paper. But there have been many pieces of paper (or parchment) which have defined individual rights in relation to government, and the Magna Carta is a particularly prominent one. Its reissuing in 1216, 1217 and 1225, printing in 1534, and role as a touchstone in the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and after) determined its greatness, over time and as precedent.

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Cropped image of one of four 1215 Magna Cartas and the big moment portrayed in a colored print based on a 1776 painting by John Hamilton Mortimer, British Museum, from the British Library exhibition The Magna Carta:  Law, Liberty, Legacy. It’s impossible to find an image of this historic signing before the early modern era, and they really proliferate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The legacy of the Magna Carta, below:

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Magna Carta 18th BM

Magna Carta 1792 BM

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Magna Carta Stamp

First printing by Robert Redman, 1534; inclusion as one of the “Emblems of England” during the Cromwellian Regime, 1650s; Thomas Bewick’s engraving of the feudal knight passing Magna Carta to Britannia, with Lady Liberty overlooking (very important–the feudal knight passes the torch of “liberty” to the Enlightenment!), and the contrast between liberty in Britain and France in 1792, all from the British Museum; Ladies handkerchief portraying the signing of the Magna Carta, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum; “Votes for Women” reference, 1911 and editorial cartoon protesting the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Bill, ©The Times and the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent (“mini Carta”!!!); Royal Mail commemorative stamp, 2015.


A Week of Fascinators

In honor of the new royal princess, whose mother seems to favor fascinators above all other forms of millinery, and the Kentucky Derby, and my friend Trish the fantastic fascinator-maker, here’s a few hats which popped up in Salem over the past week, almost like harbingers of spring: first at a certain celebration at Hamilton Hall and then yesterday at the new Sea Level Oyster Bar at Pickering Wharf, where we watched the Derby (and the Friendship) sipping minty drinks. Moments of graceful living in a pretty busy week.

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Trish’s fascinators–including the one she made for lucky me!–and the more commercial variety at the Sea Level, which features possibly the best view of Salem Harbor next to the Custom House.


May Wine

I have a particularly fond childhood memory of dancing around a Maypole wearing festive (alpine? Elizabethan?) dress at the hippie nursery school I attended in Vermont, and consequently I always celebrate May Day. I do not erect a Maypole in my backyard, but I been known to don the occasional flower wreath or sprig in my hair (especially if I don’t have to go anywhere) and I usually make May Wine, the traditional German spring spirit. May Wine (Maiwein) is simply sweet white wine infused with sweet woodruff (galium odoratum, or Waldmeister, “master of the woods”, in German), and there are lots of variations, both from the past and in the present. You can simply take a few sprigs of the herb, tie them together, and drop them in a bottle of Moselle to infuse for the afternoon in the refrigerator if you like, or you can make a May Punch, by adding sparkling water or wine and fruit. Have your own Happy Hour, or invite your neighbors and drink to the retreat of winter and the onset of spring, a universal sentiment but one that seems very apt this particular year!

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A Health to all Good-Fellowes (c. 1615-40), British Library; German May Day postcard, c. 1900.

My “recipe” for May Wine is always evolving. Generally I take one bottle of Moselle and another of sparkling wine (Proseco, Cava, or if you can find it, German Sekt) and pour them into a glass pitcher to which I add the sweet woodruff (you must snip it before it flowers) and a few splashes of Italian sparkling lemon soda. I leave this concoction for most of the day, and then strain it and pour it into glasses filled with a few strawberries or raspberries. My sweet woodruff is definitely not ready for prime time this year (it is barely out of the ground), so I bought several potted plants, for the first time ever: even if my garden is not ready for May Day, I am.

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Sweet Woodruff Bluestone Perennials

Sweet Woodruff (Galium Odoratum, Asperula Odorata, the “master of the woods”,  from Dietrich, A.G., Flora regni borussici (1833-1844); Kerner von Marilaun, A.J., Hansen, A., Pflanzenleben: Erster Band: Der Bau und die Eigenschaften der Pflanzen (1887-1891), and Bluestone Perennials.


Why I like Wolf Hall

How many times have I read this story, taught this story, seen this story? Countless, yet I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall faithfully and fervently these past two Sundays, despite some stiff competition. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Hilary Mantel’s novels have focused a trans-Atlantic public attention on the juicy story of Henry’s “great matter” yet again, resulting in adaptations on both the small screen and the stage right now. I like the language, the characterizations, and the details of the books–and these attributes carry over onto the screen as well, but the latter also gives us both more and less. So this is what I like about Wolf Hall:

1) Cromwell-centrism: as the Protestant product of a Catholic-Episcopalian union, I have admired Thomas Cromwell since I was a teenager, so Mantel’s “revisionist” perspective pleased me in the books and continues to do so on screen, especially as presented by the amazing actor Mark Rylance. It’s a timely corrective, after years of the reign of the heroic heretic-hunter Thomas More, whom Mantel depicts as a pompous prude.

2) Stillness: everything is so quiet, in stark contrast to all of the other recent Tudor films with their booming soundtracks. Too often contemporary music is utilized to strengthen a film that has weak dialogue or transitions–this is not the case here. You can hear every well-chosen word, the papers crackling and the birds singing.

3) Naturalism: though the Tudors admired material embellishment, for the most part it was based on nature, and this was a time in which people were much, much closer to nature than we can ever realize. Wolf Hall takes place primarily indoors, but nature is always present. So many animals! Just in episode #2 alone, we see just-born kittens, greyhounds black and white, Thomas More walking around with a white rabbit which he passes to our hero Thomas Cromwell, a monkey on the More table, and of course lots of horses. Cromwell pinches a flower as he walks to a stable-conference with yet another Thomas, Cranmer.

4) Spareness: of words, of spaces, of “action”. Restraint (and dim light) rules, and each excess points to a consequential problem.

5) We are spared Henry and Anne Boleyn together: of course, I’ve only watched the first two episodes, so this will change, but the Cromwellian perspective places the two “central” characters in this oft-told story on the margins for quite awhile. This is refreshing, and spares us all the “romance” and bodice-ripping of more predictable and commercial versions of this tale. Quite literally, the change in perspective enables us to see things in an entirely new light.

Mark Rylance Thomas Cromwell Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during filming for the BBC/ PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd.


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