British pop culture, history, travel

British vs. American: Part 3

Continuing with this series, today I’ll be waxing longingly about travel around the UK. I just started with the cute cat picture because I simply had to. (It’s been approximately a week since I used a cute cat picture in a post — too long.) It’s a British shorthair, so it also works for the purposes of this post.

And while we’re at it, you’re welcome for the cute puppy picture, too… (A lovely little British bulldog…)

When I lived in England, we were in the Midlands, this absolutely beautiful, hilly, very green in the spring and summer, a little more bleak and wet but still lovely the rest of the year, region between the North and the South of the island (hence the name).

Some of the hot spots for travel in that area include Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon (or, former home of the Bard), canals along the famous River Avon, automobile and airplane museums, various sporting events (such as football and cricket), and some absolutely gorgeous public gardens.

The really great thing about England being so small (compared to, say, America) is that you can easily get awesome day trips in by simply hopping the train to the next town or county. If you have the money, you can travel by coach or ferry to Scotland or Ireland, which are so close, but so magical, and even more gloriously foreign to stuck-in-a-rut Americans like me.

(By the way, I just spent all weekend watching Outlander on DVD, and I didn’t even like the book. But it was so totally worth it for the Celtic scenery and accents.)

Being able to walk out your front door and see countryside like this is just a totally amazing experience for me. Yes, I live in a very tree-filled area of North America, with four seasons and plenty of historical monuments. But none of that changes the fact that the British Isles have been continually settled by more or less the same peoples for the past thousand years. Their history and traditions and culture are so much more rich and deep and complex and long-standing than anything I grew up with.

Not that I would wish to actually be living in the past (like Outlander). What I really love is that the past has such a strong presence in the current lives of British citizens. History isn’t considered “irrelevant” or “unimportant” (did I mention I’m American, and pretty ashamed of what many of my peers here think of history?).

These places are real, not movie sets, or found only in pictures in books. Strolling along the canal, seeing actual castle turrets in the near distance, while you pick wild blackberries growing near the water of the River Avon, is the type of thing many American tourists dream of, the type of outright magical experience that I cherish in my memories and my heart.

I so want to go back. That’s pretty obvious. Before too much longer, I’m going to need to. I need to walk in the woods that inspired Tolkien’s forests of Middle Earth. I need to climb to the top of that castle turret. To embarrass myself at a Renaissance Fair. To eat haggis while searching for Nessie.

(By the way, the Loch Ness Monster is 100% real. I won’t believe any naysayers.)

I need to show all this to my boys. To the one who was so little when we lived there that he doesn’t remember. And to the one who has no idea anything bigger than state route 13 even exists.

There is so, so much on these wonderful, small islands, boys, so much. Go and see, experience, live, be part of it.

historical fiction, history

Don’t Call It History If It’s Not


So, I’m having a whole lot of issue with recent depictions of “historical” dramas. There are major differences between presenting well-known or widely-believed circumstances, and making up personal interactions and motivations that have no basis in the historical record with people who actually existed.

When we’re discussing historical fiction, putting characters who are authors’ or screenwriters’ inventions into real time periods, I don’t have any problem at all with the situation the people find themselves in, or the choices they make, as long as it makes sense for the setting (the period’s culture/religion/politics). But when authors take intense liberties with very biased rumors and gossip that has never been proven by historians, and then dare to call their writing “historically accurate” — well, I make this face:

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Take, for big example, the recent slander of the Tudor period by programs such as Reign and The White Queenand pretty much anything written by Phillipa Gregory regarding that time. I’m no scholar on the 15th-16th centuries, but I know how to do my research; I know how to check the references and find out where each biographer got their information from, and how reliable it was. And I also know to consider both sides of the argument. There’s a saying that “history is written by the winners,” and unfortunately, that has too often been true; but, as part of our advance as a civilization, we truly need to do better than that.

After catching season 2 of The Tudors (back when we had extended cable), I got curious as to how accurate it was, and started looking into that. After several months (not all at once, over a long stretch) of reading up and watching other movies and documentaries, I came to this conclusion: The Tudors did a pretty good job of portraying both sides of the coin (in terms of the Catholic vs. Protestant stuff), and both the merits and the flaws of such pivotal figures in British history as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

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Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren have both received critical praise for pretty accurate portrayals of Elizabeth I (not fully, but certainly not horrifically inaccurate). Compare to Reign, which suggested Elizabeth was constantly losing her head over a man, and hardly qualified to rule, and whenever her seat on the throne was challenged, she apparently threw a fit like a 14-year-old girl — when all the historical records and personal testimonies regarding the Queen’s character state quite differently. And did anybody else see that truly terrible film, Anonymous, suggesting the Virgin Queen was actually guilty of repeatedly producing illegitimate children and even incest?!

But what really drove me crazy about Reign was the absolutely ridiculous depictions of Mary, Queen of Scots, as nothing but a victim (she was a very scheming woman who tried by force to take not one but two thrones that she barely had legal claim to). Nor was that enough for the writers of Reign — they also found it necessary to depict a secret homosexual/crossdressing lifestyle at the royal courts (which we know would not have happened in the 16th century), just to insert a modern social agenda; as well as painting people (like Lord Bothwell of Scotland, who was, by all accounts, a madman) who were definitely the bad guys as heroes and champions of chivalry.

And now there’s the miniseries of The White Queen, which insinuates that the entire dynasty of Edward IV of York was put into place by the practice of witchcraft. Well, what more can we expect from a program based on novels (novels, people, meaning it’s fiction) by Phillipa Gregory? Witchcraft was such a serious accusation in those days that no one’s reputation (especially a woman’s) would have fully recovered from it; so, why then, if most of the English court of the time believed Elizabeth Woodville to be a witch, was she recorded one of the most beloved queens of the age? Her daughter became, in fact, the mother of King Henry VIII — so it turns out Elizabeth I was named after her grandmother.

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Making programs and writing books like this aren’t just trying to “present a different view” of history. They’re trying to rewrite history itself.

In art, we get to create things with our own personal bent, and display opinions or ideals as we choose. It’s called creative license, and even if I don’t agree with someone else’s fictional invention, I stand by their right (I feel) to make it.

But when you’re dealing with history, there are some things it’s just not okay to fabricate. Whether you like the outcome of the actual event or not. For example, do I think Anne Boleyn got a raw deal? Yes, I do. However, if I were writing a historical fiction piece about her, it would still end with her execution. Because it’s totally all right for me to decide that she wore a red and gold gown to a party at Court last Tuesday — but not at all to suddenly declare she was sent to a convent after her supposed betrayal of the King and lived the rest of her days in saintly solitude, when that’s simply not what happened.

It’s about preserving the facts — the good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly — for future generations. How will we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve come from?

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Fantasy fiction, history, reading, Science fiction

My Official Title is Book Dragon

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Once upon a time, people who liked to read a lot were called “book worms,” and the notion formed around this phrase that habitual readers were extremely shy and introverted, of course wore very thick glasses, never were seen anywhere without a book in hand, and were naturally clumsy and socially awkward and should be made fun of. The misconception that we aren’t too fond of the real world — or even worse, can’t deal with it — hence we hide in fictional tales, became rather popular.

It was a bare-faced insult to the readers of this Earth.

Sometime last year, I noticed a discussion going around the blogisphere, a sort of petition to re-name book “worms.” To something that suited our true selves much better. The possibility I subscribed to was “book dragon.”

This is really quite accurate. Dragons are fierce, not easily intimidated creatures who stand up for themselves. Certainly not the shrinking, bumbling worm of pop culture misnomers. And indeed, those of us who not only find solace in a good novel, but truly, see the way to the future in it, are fiery about our passion, and we shall defend our views with that fire.

Also, we like to hoard what we see as treasure (i.e. books, bookmarks, book-related merchandise), and often are somewhat solitary (so the introvert thing is slightly true — but it’s still not a bad thing).

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The other thing about dragons (along with the flying, which, unfortunately, some of us may not master) is that they’re very smart. They know a lot, they remember a lot, they observe and take in details. In many of the very old stories, dragons are considered wise. And often people feared them. But I have a feeling it was less because of the potential fire hazard, and more from the fact the dragon had all the knowledge.

The saying “knowledge is power” goes back a ways. Lots of people honestly believe in it.

So, shouldn’t those of us who read and learn new things on a regular basis be, well, feared?

Okay, I’ll settle for respected.

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But seriously, where did this idea come from that we’re tiny, literally spineless animals, unable to be bold and courageous? Why has it perpetuated throughout the modern age, to associate reading with something boring, a waste of time, only for chumps? When every important cultural movement has always been started by people reading something — the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, the theories of Dr. Maria Montessori, Green Eggs and Ham.

Look at all the fantastic and amazing technology that exists in today’s civilization because of people reading books by Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. Consider how many TV shows and movies that you, average human, enjoy that may never have been made if the writers and directors weren’t inspired by reading, everything from the Grimm Brothers’ accounts of folklore to graphic novels based on ancient mythology.

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So, the next time you pass by a single figure sitting at a cafe table, armed only with their vanilla latte and the latest civil rights struggles memoir or astrophysics-for-dummies release, and carelessly toss out a, “What a nerd” remark — watch out.

Today’s nerds will be tomorrow’s teachers, inventors, architects, filmmakers, scientists, researchers, designers, neurodiversity advocates. We don’t read to escape the world we live in — we read to give us ideas on how to make it better.

So, watch out — we’re coming.

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British pop culture, Encouragement, history, travel

British vs. American: Part 2

Today’s theme: entertainment. I’m including little snippets on film, television, music, and literature all in one. (Get a comfy sofa and a cup of tea and a package of biscuits.)

When I was a kid, my favorite TV programs were British exports (Danger Mouse, The Clangers, Bagpuss), as I’ve written about before (here: Oh, I watched American stuff, too, but my preferred viewing was always English — period dramas (think Downton Abbey), Masterpiece Mystery!, adaptations of Jane Austen novels and Shakespeare. My heart definitely lies with the likes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, the scenery from Highlander, The Secret Garden, Pride and Prejudice, and pretty much anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch (because, hey, the eye candy doesn’t really get better than that).

Many of the American authors I read in my youth let me down; I was just bored by cliched plots and stereotyped characters and plots that I had figured out by page 50. Once I discovered Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman, there was no going back (and I’m very happy to be a regular visitor to their fictional worlds). Even before I hit England’s shores and was introduced to such bands as All About Eve and Clannad, the greats of the past were always high on my radio-station-choosing-criteria — David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd.

Probably it comes as no surprise to most of us that British entertainers, performers, and writers are known around the world. After all, if you search the internet for many of the names found in blockbuster movie credits, or look up who’s responsible for most of the music hits in the past 50 years, or who’s on the bestseller list in fiction, you’ll see that Brits from all areas of England, Scotland, Wales — and the lovely Irish, too — are world famous. And the British Empire’s former colonies in Australia and New Zealand have now produced rich centers of culture and talent with their own flair and fame.

As someone with a lot of Anglo-Saxon heritage, I take great pride in coming from one of the most influential places on the planet. Yes, it was several generations ago (my ancestors came to “the colonies” even before the Revolution), but the lineage is still there, and for my oldest son, who is genuinely half-American, half-English, it’s very strong.

It’s very interesting that both my kids (although the youngest has never set foot in the UK, and, really, has no idea what a country even is) are more into British/British-inspired entertainment than American. The toddler is not at all excited by Disney or Nickelodeon. But Thomas and Friends, he just eats up. And the original Bob the Builder — we can still get the DVDs (made and produced in England and exported with American voices dubbed in) from our local library — he loves that. And The Clangers are back (yay!) — programs that thrilled White Fang when he was a little guy, now Muffin enjoys them, too.

It turns out that even Warriors, which is one of White Fang’s favorites, is authored by the British, set in England, and the cats are, for all intents and purposes, Brits.

What is it about the Brits that creates such a prolific resume of creativity and leadership? For centuries, they’ve been enormously influential not just in the arts, but world cuisine, politics, scientific discoveries, architecture…

That’s right, I’m supposed to be discussing books and movies and plays…

And yet, I think I’ve just said it all.

So much of the entire world has been reached by the pens of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie. By traditional Celtic ballads and hymns that are most at home on the Scottish Highlands and the sweeping Irish countryside. By performances of the Royal Ballet, at the Globe Theatre, or the Royal Albert Hall.

Fascination with legendary figures like King Arthur and Robin Hood lives on to this day. There’s something about bagpipes and haggis that many foreigners find so endearing. (For the record, I love haggis, and make no apologies for it.)

At home, and abroad, British culture has provided inspiration to millions and millions of people.

And we should be proud of it.


British pop culture, family, friendship, history, travel

How to be an American in Great Britain

When White Fang was young, we lived in England for a few years. This is a topic I’d really like to write more about, and just haven’t gotten around to, for whatever reason. Today I’m touching on the fact that I was a foreigner in that wonderful place, so, despite my best attempts to blend in, I definitely was identified as a visitor pretty quickly. (Generally opening my mouth and speaking in an American accent let the cat out of the bag.)

Luckily I was a huge fan of imported British television growing up, and had read a lot of books by British authors (classics and modern novels alike), and therefore I was aware of some popular slang terms, and knew some particular important details (like who the current monarch is, what the big cities are, and that “the loo” meant the restroom). But of course there was so much more to learn, so much that you can really only learn by being immersed in a foreign culture — for example, by living there for 4 years.

Once I got used to the time difference (5 hours ahead of what I was accustomed to), and started to settle in, the adventure really began. One of the biggest changes for me was the food. For me, “pies” had only meant apple, strawberry, pumpkin…not meat, chicken and mushroom, or vegetarian. I’d never had sweet corn on pizza before, or lamb chops, or curry. (Now I’m devoted to chicken tikka masala.) And British chips are what we’d call fries…but chips are so much better!

We visited places that I knew existed — such as Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and places that were new to me –like Warwick Castle in (sensibly) Warwickshire. I watched movies — sorry, films — and television with titles that were familiar: Pride and Prejudice, Harry PotterJames Bond, Sherlock Holmes…and came across new favorites — Lord of the RingsDoctor Who, Monty Python, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I listened to lots of Pink Floyd, and began consuming books by Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett at a nearly insatiable pace.

Almost like a native…

Some things I never did get used to. The pronunciation of certain words, or the way kids had to wear uniforms to school. The way the sun doesn’t set until 10:00 at night in the summer. The fact that summer seems only to run from late July to the beginning of September.

It was a small price to pay to be in a country I had dreamed of visiting since I was about 7 years old.

Since Americans and the British have a lot of cultural exchange, not only were there familiar TV shows on in the evening, and songs on the radio I had heard before, but I hung out with other Americans abroad. In the pub on a Saturday night, there would sometimes be half a dozen of us gathered together at a corner table, commenting on the climate, the dialect, the National Health Service, the Eurovision song competition. We were all in awe or puzzlement, or both, of all these things, and shared this feeling in a way that only other Americans in England could.

Visiting Great Britain in the 21st century is, in a lot of ways, like visiting it 200 or 300 years ago. Historic preservation runs rampant, and since I come from a country that doesn’t necessarily think knowing its history is important, this was a refreshing change. People actually know who the statues on street corners are representing; if an old building is falling apart, funds are gathered to repair it; there are signs all over the place explaining which important person slept where in what year.

Despite this island country being a very influential world power, it still looks a lot like the farmlands and forests it was in centuries past. One day you’re strolling down a thoroughly modern street with cars whizzing by; the next you’ll be walking in a woods that could easily be home to faeries and hobbits.

Do I miss it? It’s been nearly a decade since we returned to the nation of my birth; and yes, I do miss my adopted homeland. My family over there bears no legal ties to me, and only to my son by blood; but I know they love me as if I came from the UK and not the U.S.

Airfare is expensive these days, so traveling across the Atlantic probably won’t happen in the near future. I can hope, though…