A Peter Pan Sort of Christmas…

Have you noticed over this festive season just how many different versions of the Peter Pan story there have been? Boxing Day alone had three, one after the other, on three different channels – and two days later, we were treated to Finding Neverland, the story behind the story (or so I’m told, I’ve never seen it).

I have to state immediately that I’ve never read Peter Pan, and everything I know about it comes from the Disney cartoon and the Disney remake years later, Hook. So I have no idea how close to the source material any of these versions are – and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of them one dot. It’s a thrilling story of a land where kids stay kids, the grown ups are evil pirates and the fairies have an attitude problem. Oh, and the gigantic crocodiles have ten legs instead of the usual four, but hey – it’s Neverland.

All of this said, there has always been something extremely dark about Peter Pan, and I’ve felt that before Michael Jackson bought a huge plot of land and created a theme park for his own amusement. A boy who never grew up (step aside, Sir Cliff, if you don’t mind) has never learned the lessons that life brings and while it’s great to be young and have fun all the time, there is a lot to be said for growing up and looking back. There’s also something sinister in Peter’s vendetta with Hook – traditionally, Hook is a father figure whom Peter rebels against, but it feels deeper than that to me. One version I heard was that Hook was a Lost Boy who escaped when Peter tried to kill him for being too old, but the escape cost him his hand. That would explain quite a lot.

I don’t doubt that if he’d bothered reading it, Freud would have had a field day with Peter Pan. As it is, I’ve just had it all over Christmas and now I never want to see it again. Unless it’s got Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams chewing the scenery, in which case, I’ll make an exception.


Oz The Great And Powerful….

I have two disclaimers to make before this post goes any further.

Firstly, I LOVE anything about The Land of Oz. I’ve read the books, seen the movie, seen the Wicked show on stage (and read those books as well) – I was even in the school production*. So the idea of a prequel showing how the Great and Powerful Wizard came to be was always going to float my boat.

Secondly, I’m not a fan of James Franco. I’ve seen a few films with him in now, and quite honestly, I found I was always rooting for the other guy. I can’t decide if he’s exceptionally clever at playing the Hollywood game, or he really is a self-centered egotistical twerp. I fear it may be the latter, although I do keep giving him the benefit of the doubt. So I wasn’t thrilled to see that he was playing the lead role.

In fact, and not surprisingly to any of my friends, it wasn’t long before I was rooting for the witches, but they did have the most fantastic outfits.

On the whole, if you like Oz as much as I do, you’ll love this film. It even starts in black and white, like the original 1939 movie! One of the characters seen in this early part of the film, if you paid attention, would turn out to be Dorothy’s mother. It’s clear that Sam Raimi has carefully studied his source material and had a lot of fun turning it all on its head. Mila Kunis makes the most of her role and, I have to say, was thoroughly convincing as Theodora. Despite the tight leather trousers. Did they really have those in Oz?

Personally, I think it’s a great fun film, filling in some backstory both of the wizard but also of the witches. It could have done with a few song and dance routines, but then I would have just hated James Franco even more. However, if you have seen Wicked, please note that it is totally different to the story set out in that show – it follows the MGM original film rather more closely than Wicked does.

* I won’t say what as, because I know a number of my friends believe I was typecast, even though I’m not green.

At Last, The Voyage Is Over

Well, after 21 chapters, an immense reading binge and an awful lot of sleep, I have now finished Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and can honestly say that I found it really interesting. It’s very dense and quite heavy going but reading it has opened my eyes to just how little we really understood Darwin’s thinking.

Over two thirds of the book detail the ship’s travels around the coast of South America – and Darwin’s frequent excursions through the inland – and only one chapter deals with the Galapagos Islands, yet it is these with which he is synonymous. And that is all because of the finches! Yet the analyses and conjectures Darwin raised in his writings in the early part of the book – especially around the coast of Brazil – probably did as much damage as the adaptations to a bird’s beak to the idea of a Divine Creator. He collected fossils and gathered geological samples, noting that it was the rise and fall of the earth’s crust which allowed him to collect shells up mountainsides and trees to become hardened crystal.

The sections in Chile, where Darwin (and the crew of the Beagle) experienced a huge earthquake and saw the damage it caused were very moving. Darwin tries to retain the scientist’s objective mind, but he frequently fails and is often moved by the plight of people forced from their homes by the sheer power of the Earth.

Although Darwin was a naturalist – and from what I can see, a very good one – it is his geological conjectures that fascinated me, and I don’t doubt he referred to Lyell’s Principles of Geology a good many times during his voyage. The descriptions are wonderful and I found it very easy to picture the scenes. He would have been a wonderful travel writer if he hadn’t decided to change the world.

So, would I recommend the Voyage of the Beagle? Yes, very much, but with the caveat that it is a detailed book, so take it slowly and enjoy. Not sure I fancy The Origin of Species, but at least I can say I’ve read what he had to say for himself!

Darwin’s Fulgurites

I’m fairly convinced by now that the Voyage of the Beagle is a decent cure for insomnia. I only manage a chapter at most before the eyelids start drooping. I don’t understand it, it’s actually a really interesting book with lots of stuff to take in but it invariably makes me fall asleep. One of those little mysteries of life, I expect.

I’ve already found a favourite bit. At the end of Chapter 3, Darwin mentions finding “a group of those vitrified, siliceous tubes which are formed by lightning entering loose sand”. These tubes are fulgurites and can be found all over the world – anywhere, in fact, you have sand exposed to the elements and a recent thunderstorm.

Despite being common, fulgurites are incredibly fragile and can break very easily. Many beach fulgurites can be in excess of ten or fifteen feet tall initially, but if the storm is especially fierce, they will often fall and shatter into numerous smaller pieces which wash away and surface on other beaches which may be less sandy. The fulgurites that I have are all between 1-2 inches long which I believe is about average.

Darwin gives a very detailed description of the fulgurites he found near Maldonado and this leads to an analysis of the action of the lightning on the sand. He notes that attempts to replicate this action in laboratories has proved unsuccessful, so don’t expect to be coming across artificially formed fulgurites any time soon. It’s a fascinating section and extremely thorough given that at the time Darwin was an amateur natural historian rather than a professional scientist. He comes across as being well read, learned and very objective.

On the whole, the Voyage is a fascinating insight into the mind that changed the nature of biological and geological history forever and well worth a read – if you can stay awake long enough.

Rise of the Guardians

Years and years ago, I wrote a story where Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Abominable Snowman and the Man in the Moon all realised that nobody believed in them anymore, so in an effort to boost their profile they all went on Celebrity Big Brother but lost out to the Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe. I’ve lost the story in one of my many house moves which is a shame, because it was one of my better efforts. However, having seen this film (again – look, it’s Christmas and I don’t care), I realise that (1) it wasn’t as good as I thought it was and (2) it’s pretty pointless looking for it because this film is so much more fun.

Essentially, Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost – representing the American contingent I believe, because I didn’t grow up with either of them – have to save the world’s children from the nightmarish efforts of the Bogeyman. Who was voiced by Jude Law channelling Tom Hiddleston’s Loki at his most mischevious. Hugh Jackman’s ninja Easter Bunny has clearly seen too much Crocodile Dundee and Alec Baldwin is voicing a tattooed Cossack Santa. There are some fairly hairy moments – the loss of the Sandman being one of them – but all is not lost because our heroes, along with a handful of little whippersnappers, save the day. And Christmas, Easter, fairies and everything else.

Let’s be honest, it’s absolutely marvellous. A silly, feel-good film for all the family with a fair few in jokes and some brilliant animation. The story isn’t bad either. Just can’t help feeling like I’ve read it somewhere before… was that Davina McCall’s voice I heard in the background there?

Life in Lilliput

So, just for something a bit different, I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. More, admittedly, so that I can cross it off my “To Read” list than anything else, it’s really not something that I would have picked up otherwise. Why? Because I know too well that it would show up the gaps in my knowledge of late 17th century English history; given that I have both O and A levels in history, that’s a bit of a big thing to admit. Not only that, because I’m also reading Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (much more interesting) I’m only reading the Swift a couple of chapters at a time. Fortunately, this means that I can break up the history lessons into more manageable chunks and work out exactly what it is that Swift is pointing satirical fingers at; so I’ve decided to post one entry for each of the four lands he visits, even though chances are he’s going to make the same points in each of them.
Oh well, that’s one of the joys of classical literature. You learn things as you read.
And the first thing I learned with Gulliver’s Travels is that I think I’ve read this before; either that or the story is so well known that I’m channelling a universal memory of certain episodes. The gigantic man being tied down by little bits of thread with little people scampering over him is an extremely well known image and occurs right at the beginning of the book. Don’t be put off from continuing, though – I had forgotten the episode of Gulliver hooking all the Blefescan ships onto ropes and dragging them into the Lilliputian harbour! Then again, the imagery is well known and used in other texts aside from Gulliver – The Borrowers is just one example (although that might be more appropriate to consider when we get to Brobdingnag – next stop!).
What I didn’t remember is just how unlikeable the Lilliputians were. This was Swift’s sideswipe at the “little Englander” mindset, how one may be little but still great. (That in turn reminded me of a line from Shakespeare, but I’m keeping that to myself for now). At the time of writing, England was building its empire, using its naval dominance to explore and colonise vast lands and strange peoples. The serious tone of Swift’s writing is in line with the travelogues which were popular in his day, but he uses the absurd situations he creates to make broader points. The lengthy enmity between Lilliput and Blefescu implies the poor relations between England and France in the late 1600s (and nothing’s changed 300 years later); and if you guessed that the egg-cracking controversy related to the split in the church between Catholic and Protestant, you would have been quite correct. Swift is showing us how daft some of these ideas are when held up for cold, calculating analysis, and he takes great pleasure in popping the arrogant balloons.
Something else I forgot was the process the Lilliputian Court selects its ministers – rope dancing. They literally jump through hoops and limbo dance their way into power. I wonder if a sizeable chunk of the current Cabinet have done similar – they couldn’t be any worse qualified than they are otherwise. On the one hand it’s quite bonkers but on the other hand, quite terrifying to see how calcified things are in today’s society. Things really haven’t changed very much, only the labels have changed. England still holds the Lilliputian mindset of greatness in spite of size, sectarian violence has never really gone away – even if the labels change periodically – and some of our institutions cling to rituals and rules hundreds of years old that nobody even understands anymore. Which only made me think of Gormenghast, and then I panicked because I couldn’t remember which shelf I put my copy on.
So – still an important read. And it’s fun because the kids don’t have to get the political points – you can read it to them and they think it’s a daft story about a giant man in a land of little people. How many books do you know do that?

Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris)

There’s something earthy about a plant with the ending –wort; in Old English it indicated a tuber or root. In fact, mugwort actually means “marsh root” which tells you all you need to know about where it could be found. For many years it was used to keep the midges found near stagnant water at bay – so how’s that for sympathetic medicine?
It’s an old plant with a long history although little used in traditional herbalism these days for one reason or another. It was well known to Shakespeare – he has the witches mention it in Act 4 of Macbeth. Aside from its uses as an insecticide, it was primarily used as a female herb. Midwives would use it to help labour along and also to promote lactation. Because of its effects on the uterus, it is known to cause miscarriage in early pregnancy and was probably one of the many herbs used by medieval women to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies. The oil produced by the mugwort plant is, however, highly toxic and this is another reason why mugwort is little used today.
That said, Traditional Chinese Medicine does make use of mugwort, although I believe a slightly different species, by using the dried leaves in moxibustion. This is a process where a tiny amount of dried herb is burned on or close to the skin at meridian points to promote the flow of ch’i.
It is best known, however, for its magical uses – and yes, we’re back to the witches again. It was an ingredient of the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herb Charm mentioned in Bard’s Leechbook, used in spells to protect travellers and rumoured to be part of the fabled “flying ointment”. But its main use was in moon magic. Long associated with Artemis, the lunar twin of the solar Apollo, because of the silvery underside to its leaves, mugwort was said to enhance grounding whilst allowing the psyche to fly.
And alongside all this, it still has the most wonderful, earthy sounding name.

Conflicts of Interest

There is a scene in Chapter 5 of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (which is repeated further along in the narrative) where it is revealed that some of the company workers employed in bulldozing the tenant farmers to forcibly evict them from the Oklahoman farmland and force them to migrate west to California are local men. They are confronted by the farmers, and explain that their families are also starving; but this is work, it provides a decent wage and allows them to keep roofs over heads and meals on tables. It makes the farmers angry but they know they cannot take it out on the ploughmen; their real enemy is a faceless corporation whose only motivation is a profit margin.
In 1938, I expect three or four dollars a day was an exceptionally good wage for a man with little education, so it is very hard to lay any blame on those local men who took the work and forced friends and neighbours from their homes and into large faceless camps where they are no more than a number. Steinbeck isn’t asking us to blame anyone – except the corporations who foreclose their mortgages and refuse to answer to anything but money. It is clear, as one reads on through the novel, that Steinbeck has taken sides – anyone with a business interest is slightly demonised to reinforce the political point that he wishes to make (the salespeople selling unroadworthy and overpriced cars in Chapter 7, the merchants taking entire houses of furniture for next to nothing in Chapter 9 are examples of this). But I find myself repeatedly thinking about the man in the bulldozer. How did he make that decision? How would I make that decision if I were him?
Fortunately, it isn’t a position I anticipate being in, but if I were truthful, I would put my family above loyalty to friends and neighbours. I would take the money, feed my family and get out just as soon as I could. I may never be trusted by my friends and neighbours again, but I would know that I made a decision I could live with. And I expect anyone with children would say the same thing. Sometimes you cannot afford to be sentimental. And interestingly, the tenant farmers tend not to blame to the bulldozer drivers – until one decides to become a Deputy Sheriff and a little drunk with power. They know that if they had had the same opportunity, they would have done the same thing.
But it does show just how callous the banks and corporations are in the world that Steinbeck portrays. They think so little of their tenants that they will play one off against the other by making them offers impossible to refuse and stepping back to watch the fireworks. That is the real conflict that Steinbeck wants us to look at here – and one that, in its own way, still operates eighty years later.

Another Historical Repetition?

The book I’m reading at the moment features a family driven from their home by forces beyond their control, who have to traverse hundreds of miles across difficult terrain in search of sanctuary, to find themselves housed in camps with hundreds of thousands of other people, all of whom have made the same journey. They are without money, food or medicines. Disease is rife, starvation is common and all they want is a home, a job and an income. The local people where the camps are situated dislike the family, falsely accuse them of all sorts of wrongs and do their level best to send them back where they came from.

Sound familiar? You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m reading the latest journalistic expose of this summer’s migrant crisis. No, I’m reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath published in 1939 after the Midwestern Dust Bowl crisis forced many Oklahoman farmers from their lands and towards California in search of work and somewhere to live. Admittedly, the Joad family are primarily economic migrants rather than refugees, and only travel across their own country, but at the time it must have seemed like they were travelling halfway across the world. Even when they reached California, they were not welcomed with open arms; many people starved to death or died of smallpox or cholera due to the insanitary conditions they were forced to live in.

Yet the parallels between an eighty year old story and the events of last summer are so similar to have taken my breath away. Part of me feels that there is something wrong in writing this post, as if I am making light of very serious situations. Far from it. I just feel that lessons which should have been learned – moral lessons, if not humanitarian ones – all those years ago have not been, and that this crisis may have been dealt with differently.

I do not have any solutions. Neither did Steinbeck. But what he did was to open people’s eyes at mankind’s stunning inhumanity to mankind by holding up a mirror to the “them and us” mentality. What can I say? Read Grapes of Wrath and start a dialogue without jumping to conclusions or resorting to stereotype. Just try it and see what happens. It might prove interesting.

Iago’s Poisonous Garden

It has to be said; I have really struggled to read Othello. It’s everything that I used to really dislike about Shakespeare when I was at school – unlikeable and fairly interchangeable characters (with a few notable exceptions) giving long wordy speeches to pass the time and gloss over a stagnating plot. Yes, it’s very sad at the end, but I just can’t get on with it.

I especially disliked Iago. I know he’s meant to be the villain of the piece anyway, but he’s so thoroughly unpleasant, scheming and conniving that he has no apparent redeeming features. He’s even unpleasant to his own wife, so a quiet life is clearly unimportant to him. However, he seems to be a man who knows his medicinal plants very well, as two speeches of his demonstrate.

Firstly, in Act 1, Scene 3, he lectures Roderigo on the folly of committing suicide over his unrequited love for Desdemona by saying:

“Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up tine, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry – why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.” (lines 320-325)

Now, as any herbalist worth her gardening gloves would know, this is straight out of Culpeper’s Herbal. Tines, by the way, are thorny weeds – think of the tines of a fork for an idea of what I mean. Hyssop is bitter and used as an expectorant although it can cause seizures in high doses, nettles are a diuretic and useful for “dropsy” (or oedema as we like to call it) and lettuce, quite apart from being nice in a salad, is a cooling food and used for fevers. He’s not daft, this Iago. This was information that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been aware of; Culpeper published his Herbal in 1653, some years after this play, having collated all the available information on medicinal plants he could find. Like much contemporary medicine, there was a strong correlation between illness and astrology, and many plants were said to be ruled by certain planets or having certain genders.

It’s fascinating stuff and yet I’m surprised that a military man would be so at ease with this knowledge. It’s unexpected and to my mind hints at certain nefarious extracurricular activities. We get a further hint of the nature of these activities with his speech in Act 3, Scene 3:

“Look where he comes. Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep which thou owedst yesterday.” (lines 333-336)

Now isn’t this interesting? Poppy, even by Shakespeare’s time, was known to be the source of opium and used to dull pain and aid sleep – see my previous post on Lady Macbeth for another example. Death from accidental overdose would have been fairly common I expect, and I don’t doubt that many people didn’t really live long enough to have to deal with opium’s addictive qualities. I suspect here that Iago is fully aware of what opium was capable of in terms of its toxicity.

Mandragora is the scientific term for the mandrake, a plant with enough stories and legends surrounding it to fill a blog post of its own (I shall get round to writing it one day, I promise). Suffice to say that every part of the mandrake plant is highly toxic; used externally as part of the witches’ “flying ointment” it was hypnotic, hallucinogenic and highly sedative. So far as I can tell, mandrake has always been associated with witchcraft, magic and malice, so it’s a very telling example of what is on Iago’s mind – for it can be nothing more than the death of Othello.

And now, I’m so much more interested in the story than I was earlier. Perhaps if I gave it another go when I was less inclined to hibernation?