No Time Like The Future

A rare heart-felt ballad from Vivian Stanshall (1943-1995), founding member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. They were a huge influence on my musical tastes, eccentric to perfection, in a peculiarly British way that was also groundbreaking in its effect on music and culture. Vivian Stanshall personified the intoxicating, surreal, art school, dada, music hall, trad jazz, psychedelic pop mix.

Stanshall appears in this 1991 BBC documentary, Crank, introduced by John Peel in a special obituary show. Anarchic genius.

Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins

Rooting about in the great YouTube basement of forgotten television programmes, I came across this BBC documentary in the Beautiful Minds series. I saw all the second series, broadcast last year.  This episode was interesting to me because I knew practically nothing about Dawkins’ scientific credentials – it was primarily as a polemicist for atheism that I came to know him, and of his many books I’ve only read The God Delusion. I’m probably similar in that respect to his detractors, who may not even have read that one book.

What comes across is his absolute respect for the scientific method, combined with an almost child-like wonder at the world it reveals:

Science is magical in the best sense of being spell-binding, spine-crawling, exciting, magical in that sense.

I  can understand his impatience with religion, which seeks to reduce all this incredible complexity to an authority-driven dogma.

Blasphemy for the Day: In God We Trust?

A response to the BBC’s Thought for the DayYou don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

This documentary, about the town of King, N. Carolina, brings into sharp focus the culture wars raging over the issue of the separation of church and state. Scott Burdick made it in response to the furore “ignited by a returning Afghanistan Veteran who threatened to sue the town if they didn’t remove the Christian Flag from the public Veteran’s Memorial.” You can read his blog post here. It examines not only the Christian attitude to what faith entails, but also other religions. Nor is Christianity represented as a monolithic bloc – some churches were appalled at the fundamentalist reaction.

I think it’s important not to focus too much on N. Carolina being a Bible Belt state. It’s too much of a cop-out to say, “Well, this isn’t my town or state.” Hannah Arendt’s unsettling notion of the banality of evil is more disturbing when the context is universal. And no, I don’t think evil is too strong a word, given what some of the people are saying. The Holocaust was built on similar attitudes, expressed as political action.

First up is the trailer, followed by the full documentary.

Blasphemy for the Day: Depraved penguins – won’t someone please think of the children?

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

Shocking news from the Natural History Museum – a scientist with the 1910-1913 Scott Antarctic Expedition noted such “astonishing depravity” among the Adelie penguins that he felt compelled to record his findings in Greek to spare the blushes of anyone except educated gentlemen like himself. From the Guardian article:

Levick spent the Antarctic summer of 1911-12 observing the colony of Adélies at Cape Adare, making him the only scientist to this day to have studied an entire breeding cycle there. During that time, he witnessed males having sex with other males and also with dead females, including several that had died the previous year. He also saw them sexually coerce females and chicks and occasionally kill them.

Since then we’ve learned much more, not just about penguins, but about other species who flaunt their immorality in the face of innocent scientists. Kees Moeliker, for example, curator of the Rotterdam Natural History Museum. A male mallard slammed into the glass side of the building and dropped stone dead to the ground. Moeliker went to investigate and saw another male mallard having sex with the corpse for 75 minutes, only reluctantly backing off when Moeliker had completed his observations. From this auspicious beginning, he went on to win the coveted Ig Nobel Prize for research into homosexual necrophilia in mallard ducks. Here he explains the findings in his own inimitable way.

Moving right along to the 2005 film, March of the Penguins, a French nature documentary chronicling a year in the arduous life cycle of Adelie penguins. With an English narrative intoned by Morgan Freeman (the Voice of God?), it has from the trailer a distinctly anthropomorphic take on penguin family life.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Christians have taken to heart the Adelie penguin as a moral exemplar, ignoring what was already known – that they do not mate for life, only for the year. In other words, they’re into serial marriage. This New York Times article surveys the ideological battle ground and disposition of the moral crusaders. I was curious to find out what the most anally retentive of the Christian movie sites – the CAP Movie Ministry – had to say. You can see my post on their methodology here. The site gave March of the Penguins an outstanding 97/100 points, with a few tiny caveats and this (for them) extremely liberal comment:

March of the Penguins also includes an instance of animal copulation. There is absolutely nothing lewd about it and no animal privates are seen, but it is still a sexual act that can create thinking in your adolescents.

Don’t want our adolescents to think, do we? There’s a long tradition in Christianity of animals representing moral values, so it’s interesting to see penguins – probably unknown in medieval times when bestiaries were a teaching tool – enrolled in the fight against sin.

Which begs the question. Now that penguins are unmasked as murderers, rapists (hetero and homo), and child abusers, what’s to become of them? Will the research be denied, or will Christians say the sinners represent only a small sample of the population? It’s hard to square with God having created them, but without free will, because that makes Him either evil or a bad Designer. And the penguins can’t speak for themselves, issuing tearful apologies to God and their congregations, in the approved manner of disgraced evangelists.

Interesting times, and bad news for the Happy Feet franchise.

Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 3: At Work and Play)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 1 – At Court
My Review: Act 2 – At Home

Act 3 (At Work and Play) looks at female servants, prostitutes, explorers, soldiers, spies, actresses, scientists, and writers in the 17th century. Lucy Worsley talks about the general lot of middle class women, servants, and prostitutes while showcasing examples of extraordinary women in the professions. The question under consideration is whether the advances made by women were the result of better social conditions afforded by the Restoration.

The 17th century saw a huge increase in trade in new and exotic goods – tobacco, sugar, silk, spices, calico, pepper, tea, coffee, porcelain – and this rising tide of prosperity benefitted the wives of merchants, who became an important economic demographic. Many of these goods were marketed with middle and upper class women in mind. For those who couldn’t afford the best, cheaper alternatives became available. For the first time, shopping became an occupation and shops courted female customers. More prosperity created a demand for more female servants, who saw this employment less as a lifetime job and more as a necessary step in establishing their own households.

But it was still a precarious life for these often single women – they outnumbered men by a ratio of 4:3 – and the price of disgrace or unemployment could mean working as a prostitute at Covent Garden. There were dozens of brothels in the area and thousands of prostitutes. Even respectable women were not immune from what we would call sexual harrassment today. It was easier for men because the fashion decreed a low cut dress, and underwear had not yet been invented. Samuel Pepys – remember him from the previous two acts? – liked an illicit grope. He even tried it on in church and was fended off with a hat pin.

For prostitutes, or simply poor, single women, seen as immoral by the Puritans, life took a turn for the worse when William III became King. Puritans had long blamed the Great Plague and Great Fire on lax morality – they now they had a King to their liking. They formed a Society for the Reformation of Manners, allowing Talibanesque morality police to roam the streets and arrest women based on tip-offs from informers. These poor women were locked up in Bridewell Prison, stripped to the waist, and forced to beat hemp while visitors watched.

The theatre flourished, though, much to the Puritans’ disgust. Charles II re-opened the playhouses and Covent Garden became the prime location for new theatres. Not only that, they were re-invented with new technology that could raise and lower curtains plus other bells and whistles, like trapdoors with lifts. Worsley had a lovely time playing with the Restoration toys in the perfectly preserved Theatre Royal in Richmond, N. Yorks. There was a new seating arrangement, reflecting the social classes. The pit held rowdy young men who wanted to be close to the actresses, the boxes held respectable men and women, and the gallery was the cheap and cheerful section.

And yes, there were now actresses playing female roles, the most famous of whom was Charles’ mistress, Nell Gwyn. John Dryden created the role of Florimel in The Maiden Queen specially for her. Worsley points out that it was a tough gig for actresses. They had to be as robust and quick-witted as stand up comics, able to put down hecklers and give as good as they got. There were also breeches roles for women, where they could mock male pomposity and misogyny.

Women were active in other areas usually thought of as male domains. Celia Fiennes, single and wealthy, travelled alone around England from Penzance to Newcastle, documenting the emerging mercantile economy. If the name sounds familiar, the explorer, Ranulph Fiennes, is a descendant.

Christian Davies joined the army to track down her publican husband and liked the life so much she stayed there for nine years. She had to dress as a man, of course, and use a “urinary instrument” so she could piss standing up, but nobody rumbled the deception until she received a groin wound and the game was up. Rather than being disgraced, the public took her to their hearts, and Daniel Defoe wrote a best selling biography called, The Life and Adventures of Mrs Christian Davies. In later life she became a Chelsea pensioner and was buried with full military honours.

Women also served as spies. Aphra Behn, who became famous as a playwright, started life as a spy in Antwerp for Charles II. Behn wrote plays – more of her plays were performed during the Restoration than any other writer – poems, and fiction. She was unashamed about wanting a successful career: “I value fame as much as if I had been a hero.”

We’ve heard of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in Act 2, as Yoko of the “John and Yoko of the Restoration age.” She wrote scientific works – Observations upon Experimental Philosophy is one – and was invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Margaret had a falling out with Robert Hooke, one of its leading lights, over the value of observations gained by microscopic observation. She also wrote a satirical science fiction utopia, The Blazing World.

These were extraordinary women. I think there’s no doubt the more permissive values of the Restoration had a significant effect in raising the social status of women, even if there was a pervasive underlying misogynistic ethos. The pity is that these advances were eroded away, culminating in the stultifying repression of the Victorian age.

Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 2: At Home)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 1 – At Court
My Review: Act 3 – At Work and Play

Act 2 (At Home) shifts the focus to housewives.  There were three female categories – maidens, wives, and widows – but since every girl was brought up in the expectation of marriage, perhaps that could be recast as pre-wives, wives, and post-wives. Lucy Worsley opens with a Punch & Judy Show, first recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662 in Covent Garden, with the aim of looking at Judy’s life in the 17th century.

In the process of uncovering historical attitudes to housewives, Worsley also illuminates some of the debates raging today. Take marriage. Instead of being the immutable tradition touted by those who fear “redefinition,” the institution has historically been rather fluid. James I established a church ritual in 1604, complete with the reading of banns, and an exchange of vows and rings. The Puritans, under Cromwell, took weddings out of the church – too celebratory, perhaps, people having too much fun? – and replaced them with a sort of civil marriage. All you needed was a Justice of the Peace, vows but no rings, and a joining of hands. As a nod to injuries sustained during the Civil War, the last requirement was waived for those who didn’t have hands. Charles II restored the status quo, but weddings could only be performed by ordained Anglican clergy.

There was another, barely legal, way to get married – a Fleet Wedding. Fleet Street specialized in “marriage houses,” which were actually pubs, and the ceremonies were performed by disgraced priests from the Fleet Prison. But you got a certificate, and it could always be backdated to disguise pre-existing pregnancies.

As you might suppose, women had hardly any rights within marriage, and their families were expected to provide sometimes substantial dowries to the prospective husband. Daniel Defoe called marriage a “Smithfield bargain,” illustrated by Worsley walking round the present day livestock market. Divorce was almost impossible, so some men sold their wives, despite the practice being illegal. And for independently-minded women whose husbands disapproved, there was the Scold’s bridle, modeled briefly and with much distaste by Worsley.

But for all the importance placed on marriage, the Civil War killed so many men that by the 1690s in some towns, half the women were unmarried. Spinsters, as in unmarried women rather than spinners of wool, became a distinct demographic, while the comic figure of the old maid started to appear in popular entertainment.

Worsley points out that with the development of more elaborate houses – i.e. more rooms for specific purposes – middle and upper class women became household managers, including the responsibility for keeping accounts. Hannah Woolley wrote a series of books for them on cookery and household management. She was so influential that a man stole her name to write The Gentlewoman’s Companion or, A Guide for the Female Sex. Needless to say, it promoted the idea of obedience to men. Changing times brought an improvement in status. This was especially so in the case of upper class women who managed large country houses.

She highlights some of these exceptional women – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, for example. A feminist and playwright, she so charmed her husband, William, that they became “the John and Yoko of the Restoration age.” Pepys, who we last encountered at court creaming his breeches at the sight of King’s mistress in her night clothes, was disgusted by the pair of them. Margaret was “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman,” and William “an ass” for being led by her.

Women were also involved in the preparation of medicinal herbs, but had to be careful to avoid the taint of witchcraft. While the official attitude towards it was becoming more skeptical, some were  hanged, and many ordinary people were still deeply superstitious. Worsley had her hands tied to her feet, but was spared the indignity of being chucked into a pond to demonstrate trial by swimming. Given that she was wearing a period dress, I was rather looking forward to the sweet and literal “liquefaction of her clothes” (Robert Herrick), but you can’t have everything. If they sank, they were innocent and actually pulled out in time. I’d always assumed these poor women were left to drown, just to make sure the test was carried out properly. If they floated, they weren’t necessarily guilty, but were tried for witchcraft. Another myth exploded.

Midwives were originally an important, relatively high-status group, with instruction manuals written for their profession. They were pillars of the community, responsible not only for the birth of babies, but also required to attend christenings. Doctors were male, and only attended a birth if there were complications. As new medical technology was developed, like forceps, they slowly began to replace midwives at even normal births – a medicalization of childbirth that has continued to the present.

So it was a mixed bag for women in the 17th century. But in one area they were better off than their successors, due to the mistaken idea that conception was only possible if the woman had an orgasm. Hence the attentiveness of husbands who wanted an heir, guided by a remarkable book – Aristotle’s Masterpiece – a comprehensive sex manual that included a detailed description of the clitoris so the chaps could find it. Worsley read the excerpt, then blushingly looked round at the film crew and burst out laughing. I’m glad they kept that bit in.

Next week it’s the heroines of the stage.

Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 1: At Court)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 2 – At Home
My Review: Act 3 – At Work and Play

This is Act 1 (At Court) of a three-parter narrated by the splendid Dr Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. I have a thing for Lucy Worsley – she is petite, posh, sexy, and a bit sly. There’s something indefinably exciting about that red coat and the way she always wears gloves. I could happily watch her reading from a telephone book.

Too much information? OK, moving right along. At Court looks at the royal mistresses who flourished during the reign of Charles II (1660 – 1685). Her central question is whether this represented female empowerment or another form of oppression. While exiled in France during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Charles imbibed the ethos of a courtly life in which women were powerful both politically as mistresses and intellectually as the patronesses of salons. A bit of a lad, Charles already had seven mistresses before he left France, and would acquire another six in England, as well as thirteen acknowledged illegitimate children. Who he apparently adored and would tuck up in bed at night. This in addition to his dynastic marriage to the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. The most famous of his mistresses was Nell Gwyn, a talented actress and the only commoner – the rest were all of aristocratic birth. Charles’ dying words were said to be, “Let not poor Nell starve.”

Many of them coexisted at the same time in the Palace of Whitehall, or in houses close by. In this conflation of the sexual, personal, and political, anyone seeking favours from the King had first to approach his mistresses. There existed a dual system of government. Those making a formal approach would negotiate a series of rooms, starting in a large chamber where the hoi polloi could assemble, then be winnowed down into smaller and smaller rooms, only the most powerful being granted access to the study where Charles did the actual work of government. But those who had the ear of his mistresses could take advantage of an architectural feature, the back stairs, that led from Charles’ study to their apartments.

It was a luxurious, sexually liberated world, one that attracted much prurience and censure, with satirical pamphlets and gossip being circulated in the London coffee houses. Charles, mindful of the fate of his father, was fairly tolerant and preferred spin to censorship. The gossip writers had a wonderful time. The great diarist, Samuel Pepys could sometimes barely contain himself. He records on one occasion seeing the Queen with Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, when Barbara was in her night clothes. Pepys came in his breeches, in public, through the power of his imagination.

In answer to Lucy Worsley’s original question, it does seem the mistresses were genuinely empowered. They had the political influence to ensure their own interests, no-one was thrown out of court when the King’s fancy moved on to another woman, and they all survived him. Barbara became keeper of Hampton Court Palace. And “poor Nell” did not starve – her pension from the Treasury continued until she died two years after Charles in 1687.

This is an excellent series, full of solid scholarship, odd insights and revelations, and enlivened by a thoroughly engaging narrator. Next week, Lucy Worsley looks at housewives.

For the thumbnail sketch of Charles II, here’s a song from Horrible Histories.