Antony and Cleopatra isn’t really about them

I’ve found it quite hard to read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for no better reason than the film screen in my head kept going to the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film. Well, it was an epic that spawned a thousand make up looks, so it’s hardly surprising. It’s also a true – and quite well known – story, unlike Coriolanus, which we only really know about through Shakespeare and Plutarch, and not many people have read either or both (apart from me, apparently). I have a feeling that Julius Caesar will suffer from a similar problem, but in that case I’ll have to rid myself of Kenneth Williams exclaiming “infamy” at every available opportunity.

If I’m honest, the most interesting character in the play is Caesar. This is, of course, Caesar Augustus, Julius’ nephew and soon to become the first Emperor of Rome; but first he must rid himself of his co-triumvirs, Lepidus and Antony, which involves quite a bit of skulduggery and reading between the lines. Lepidus is quickly despatched, having become drunk and quite friendly with Cleopatra’s half-brother Ptolomy, who then stupidly goes and declares war on Rome. That there’s treason, that is, says Caesar and has his co-ruler clapped in irons and quickly removed from power. That just leaves that pesky Mark Antony, and he’s in Egypt…

Trying to marry him off to one’s sister doesn’t work, as Antony sends Octavia back with a flea in her ear before returning to his true love, Elizabeth Taylor… sorry, Cleopatra. This leaves Caesar no alternative but to declare war on Egypt and triumph at the Battle of Actium. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have to admit that I dislike the characterisation Shakespeare uses in this play; Cleopatra is histrionic and unreasonable, Antony is moody and dour, Caesar is petulant and conniving. However, it does mean that the casting in the Taylor/Burton/Harrison film is spot on, which might be why I keep thinking about it. The scenes with the title characters are simply not very interesting; I get it that Cleopatra is trying to manipulate Rome, but unlike Tamora from Titus Andronicus, her manipulations seem petty and ineffective. The Battle of Actium is dealt with as an aside – why did the Egyptian fleet flee? It’s not discussed. We know that Antony followed Cleopatra, and consequently was viewed as a coward in Rome – but why did she retreat?

Much as I love Shakespeare – and I do – this is not one of my favourite plays. That’s okay, I’ve got a “comedy” lined up next, and I usually hate those.

So What Is Goth, Then?

Well, my other posts on the subject illustrate just how broad a church Goth can be if it’s allowed to be. I’ve long believed that Goth is much more than a fashion – in fact, the dress code should be (and in my case, often is) entirely optional. It’s a sensibility and if cultivated, can be found pretty much anywhere.

I suppose a little personal history needs to be provided to explain this. I’ve been Goth since about 1982, when I was still at school and going through what my fellow pupils termed “a bit of a weird phase”; fortunately, the school uniform was navy blue or black so I had ample opportunity to tinker. Black tights and not-entirely-regulation shoes were by far the easiest bit. I listened to Bauhaus, The Cure, The (Southern Death/Death) Cult (still my personal faves), The Mission, Sisters of Mercy while reading Dracula and books about Transylvania. Nothing in the (however many) years since then has changed. I still listen to the same bands (and a few newer ones), read the same books (and a few newer ones) and have to be physically restrained from putting my name down for a Transylvanian mansion that I still can’t afford. This phase is not one I’ve grown out of – even if I no longer look the part.

Although the majority of my wardrobe is black, there are other colours – blue, purple, green and red all make an appearance, mainly on the top half. Pink doesn’t appear much, I don’t like it and it doesn’t suit me. More to the point, my bank balance no longer supports the amount of shopping I would need to do to follow the fashion – most of my clothes are from supermarkets these days. Yet nobody who knows me doubts for a second that I’m Goth. Even my daughter understands that mummy is a little bit strange.

To me, this means that Goth is not just a fashion – although that is a useful way of identifying those of a similar mind set – but really is a sensibility; and if that is the case, can it be cultivated? I think it can if one is prepared to open their mind to all eventualities – shadows are everywhere if you know what to look for. If the Dark Side calls you, by all means explore but don’t let it take over.

Just for the record, it’s also important to point out what Goth is NOT. It’s not Satanism. It’s not Witchcraft. It’s not Black Magic (although I do have a box of them at home which I’m still eating). I don’t want to kill people (unless it’s 34 degrees in the shade and I’m trying to fight my way through Victoria Station to catch my train). Admittedly, I do have my own mental health issues to deal with but that is something personal to me and can’t be applied to Goths everywhere – some of them are the sanest people I know. If you want to suggest it’s just a fashion, that’s fine. I would suggest that a fashion is only skimming the surface and Goth has hidden depths that could keep you entertained for the rest of your life.

Summertime Goth

I hate summer. There, I’ve said it. I hate the heat, I hate the sunshine and I just want to sit in a fridge all day; but that’s also because I’m middle aged, overheat at the drop of a sixpence and burn rather than tan, even though I’m naturally dark haired. It’s about the only time I ever say that I’d much rather be pale and interesting and mean it.

The thing I’ve really noticed over the years is the number of people saying “Aren’t you hot in that?” just because I’m wearing black. They seem fixated on the idea that just because it’s black, my outfit will suck all the heat from the atmosphere and turn my body into a molten core. Look, it feels like that anyway, so whatever I’m wearing isn’t going to make a blind spot of difference. Besides which, have you seen the number of Saudi women who wear head to toe black? It isn’t the colour that makes the difference – it’s the fabric and the cut of the outfit that determines whether you melt or not.

For example, velvet is, as far as I’m concerned, a cool weather fabric. Cotton, linen and lace are warm weather fabrics. Silk is the fabric to wear for those “oh my god its thirty degrees in the shade and I’m on fire” days. Looser, less fitted clothes are cooler than tightly strapped in corseted to the hilt outfits. Heels if you must, but I refuse to give up my black sequinned flip flops because they don’t “look Goth”. Listen, sweetie, it’s too bloody hot for that nonsense. They’re comfy, they keep my feet cool and they’re black which are the three things that bother me most.

Thinking about it, Goths could really revitalise a summer trend that has gone out of fashion – the parasol. Designed in the Victorian era to keep the sun off a lady’s skin (as pale skin was considered more attractive because it suggested you didn’t have to work for a living), many Goths still use parasols and I think in weather like this they are an essential accessory. They also double up as a useful prod in the tube station to make sure the Sweaty Betty doesn’t get too near you! The only reason I don’t have one is that I don’t possess an umbrella either, but that’s just reverse vanity on my part.

So, my advice is to enjoy summer as best you can and bring back the parasol. Being Britain, chances are it won’t last.

Going Back to Black

So what’s started this drift back into the dark recesses of Goth? Well, I was talking to an old friend about the time I spent in Los Angeles. There were two little shops on Melrose Avenue, one a distinctly Goth shop (all bats, long black dresses and Alchemy Gothic merchandise) and one which didn’t look the part, but was definitely much more Goth in my mind. This was about twenty years ago (I don’t even have a passport any more) so I doubt that either of the shops in question are still there – not that it would matter much anyway, as my sieve-like brain has totally forgotten what either of them were called!

The former, more “traditional” Goth shop was on the corner of Melrose Avenue and a little side street (which again, I have successfully forgotten the name of) and sold a variety of men’s and women’s garments, stationery (I bought a lovely set of pale blue notepaper with an embossed border and matching envelopes – US sizes mind!), crockery, jewellery and assorted trinkets and baubles. It was all very much of a muchness and, with odd exceptions like the stationery, I didn’t feel that there was much there I wouldn’t find in my local Goth emporium back home in the UK.

The latter, though – well, what a revelation. It was further back down the street, over the road from some basketball courts and just looked like a fairly nondescript kind of junk shop. It was the coffee table constructed of wrought iron and a gravestone that gave the game away for me though, and it became my regular haunt for most of my three month stay in the City of Angels. Inside was a treasure trove of weird and wonderful – stuff.

It transpired that the coffee table also had a matching dining room set (I kid you not – the dining table was a mausoleum slab), there were old x-rays, Victorian surgical and trepanning sets, jewellery made from glass eyes and linen embroidered with human hair – it was heaven to a certain sad old Goth. I could very easily have bankrupted myself (especially on that dining table, I fell in love with it) but behaved remarkably well, settling for a Victorian gynaecologist’s set, some LA County Coroner stickers (which I immediately stuck on a variety of things), a bracelet with a glass eye set into the top and a pendant made of a mouse skull with onyx set into the eye sockets. There may have been something else, but I can’t remember now. If I do I’ll edit this post.

Because I haven’t been back to LA for so long, I genuinely have no idea if the shop is still there, but in the event that it is – and in the equally unlikely event that I win the lottery between now and the great hereafter – that dining table is mine.

Fifty Shades of Magnolia

Let’s face it, when you think of a magnolia, this is usually what springs to mind – or worse, if you live in rented accommodation (like I do) something like this –

Something vaguely cream, off white, inoffensive and bland are words usually used to describe magnolia. In plants, I often think of spring, cascades of gorgeous flowers and sweeping up petals about a week and a half after they bloom. They do get everywhere. So imagine my glee when I discovered that there are over 200 types of magnolia in the world – and they certainly don’t all look like that! In fact, very few of them are actually magnolia coloured – and yet again, I’m surprised.

The most common variation in magnolia is the colour, and the overwhelming majority of magnolias are various shades of pink, as you can see here:

This is Magnolia Betty, a deep pink/mauve which retains the “traditional” shape of the magnolia flower. Another, Magnolia Marilyn, combines the pink and white in a beautifully contrasting flower:

It’s a bit of a showstopper isn’t it? I’d be delighted to have that in my garden, although I’d need to keep her well pruned back as magnolia do like to take up space.

A very unusual type of magnolia is the star magnolia, so called because they have beautiful stellate flowers. They also come in a range of colours but the one I’ve chosen is almost pure white – simply gorgeous:

It doesn’t really look like a magnolia does it?

And, because I simply can’t resist finding a flower that totally bucks the trend, here’s a yellow magnolia – just to prove that they really do come in all shapes and sizes:

I’m fairly sure if I looked hard enough, fifty shades of magnolia wouldn’t be difficult to find at all.

ROMANTIC OUTLAWS by CHARLOTTE GORDON

Of late, I’ve found good biographies pretty difficult to find. Good biographies that are interesting and easy to read are rare enough; but a biography that is interesting and easy to read whilst simultaneously telling two life stories side by side is about as easy to find as unicorn poop. Finding this book, which details the lives of two women I’ve long found fascinating, can only really be described as a fine example of the best unicorn poop I’ve come across. If you see what I mean.

It helps, of course, that Mary Wollestonecraft and Mary Shelley were mother and daughter and, in their own way, blazed particularly distinctive trails, one as an early feminist and political libertarian, the other as a noted Gothic novelist whose greatest creation survives today. One of the (many) things which struck me, however, is how despite having written a number of novels between them, each woman was best known for her first work – Wollestonecraft for A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Shelley for Frankenstein.

The book interweaves their lives, giving each woman a chapter in turn – the first and final chapters are, if you like, joint chapters – shows the parallels their lives took to remarkable effect and allows the reader to show just how deeply the daughter was influenced by her mother, despite never having known her.

The central figure linking both women is William Godwin, husband to one and father to the other. Gordon does not paint a terribly flattering picture of him and the most charitable view of him from the biography is of a curmudgeonly old hypocrite more interested in extracting money from his son in law than in having any kind of social relationships. Indeed, he frequently ignored his family members, noticing them only if a bill was to be paid or they had some money with which to settle the outstanding (and rising) debts.

Of course, it is impossible to write about Mary Shelley without mentioning the Romantic poets, given her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the close association both of them had with Lord Byron. Both of the poets came across realistically, but I can’t help wondering if Gordon instinctively felt closer to the Romantics than she did to Godwin. Of course, there is always the possibility that Godwin really was a curmudgeonly old hypocrite and both poets were arrogant and idealistic, although Shelley seemed the more empty-headed and flighty of the two.

Gordon makes extensive use of the women’s unpublished writings, relying on letters and journals to illustrate their mental processes and the development of their respective outlooks on life. For both women radical politics were of fundamental importance and their interpretations of what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the 19th century is still worth reading today. It doesn’t feel like much has changed sometimes, although at least wives are no longer their husband’s property – for now.

This book was a chance find in my local library and I’ve loved every page of it. It’s an essential read if you love either of the main subjects, or even radical politics or Romantic poetry. It doesn’t feel like a heavyweight book, which is an amazing achievement for 500 plus pages.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Yesterday, upon the stair
I saw a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh how I wish he’d go away.

My first version of this blog was, I will admit, entirely different, mainly because I’d always thought this poem was written by someone else and wrote the entire blog about that person. This means, of course, that my wonderful theory about the underlying message in a piece of nonsense verse has become, of itself, nonsense. Poetic really.

That said, the story behind this poem is still quite interesting. It was written by William Hughes Mearns, a child psychologist who believed that silly poems which attracted children’s attention would improve their language development and encourage creativity. It’s certainly easy to remember, and the silliness of seeing a man who wasn’t there is something that a lot of children do find appealing. And, because I thought it was written by Spike Milligan, led me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about mental illness that I’m going to share them anyway – even though they bear no relation to the poem whatsoever.

At the time that Milligan was writing some of his best known nonsense verse – including my favourite, In the Land of the Ning Nang Nong – a common way of referring to people who suffered from mental health issues was to say that they “weren’t all there”. It’s not such a leap, especially for a child, from “not all there” to “not there”. As Milligan himself suffered from mental health problems, including depression, I’m quite sure he would have seen this aspect of the poem quite clearly.

Looking at the poem in that light, it loses its silliness and becomes quite poignant. Can you imagine – being the man who wasn’t (all) there, not (all) there again today, and someone wishing you’d go away? What an indictment on how we treat the mentally ill!

Although the next time I write a post about a favourite piece of nonsense verse, I’ll make sure I’ve established who wrote the poem well in advance of writing.