Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as 'Paul'

London Museums: The Art of Unapologetically Stealing Stuff

September 14th, 2009 · 3 Comments

After all of this time spent in museums in London, especially the British Museum, I find myself asking just one question: How are they still allowed to keep this kind of stuff? I mean, I can’t exactly speak for the Greek government, but I imagine that they would want the sculptures taken from likely the most important structure in Ancient Greek history back. Oh wait, Yes I Can. Despite the fact that England’s age of Imperialism is most certainly gone and past, it is peculiar and almost funny to see that certain citizens of Britain are still holding to the imperialist mentality decades after their actual country gave it up.

In 1801, the Earl of Elgin decided that in order to prevent pieces of the Parthenon from being burned to obtain lime, he was going to excavate pieces of the temple and its sculptures to put under his protection. The only problem is that in order to protect them, he took them out of the country and sold them to the British Museum. Masked under the cause of protecting cultural artifacts, it is apparent today that it was nothing more than a trophy to liberate from Greece and its people. In fact today the term elginism means the practice of plundering artifacts from their original setting. So why is it that despite Greece’s continuous calling for the return of these artifacts that are rightfully theirs, England seems reluctant to give them up?

The answer seems to lie with everyone’s favorite blog topic: identity. There are some opinions that state that as a center of world heritage, Parthenon sculptures are better off in the British Museum that in the actual Parthenon. This probably would have been a valid argument at around the time that the marbles were actually stolen, but is laughable today. Playing the role of cultural center of the world, British supporters insinuate that Greece is in some sort of corner of the planet that doesn’t see anyone other than its inhabitants. This is the 21st century. There are few people who live in Europe who cannot in a moment’s notice hop on a plane and be in Greece within a 24 hour period. The truth behind the matter is that there are those in Britain (mostly likely A.N. Wilson is one of them) that yearn for the time that their country moved and shook the very foundations of the planet with its actions, enabling to go into countries and plunder what they pleased. Instead, they live in a country whose capital city is kept afloat by the tourist dollars of the very people that they ruled not a few hundred years ago. Whether legal at the time or not, it is long overdue for the marbles to be returned and for some individuals to live in the present, regardless of whether they work in museums.

Tags: Paul

Cheers to All Things Not Made in the 1980′ (Besides Me)

September 14th, 2009 · No Comments

Just when I thought things had taken a turn for the better in my London Theatre experience. Ah well, it’s probably for the best. Everyone knows that happiness is unhealthy for you, but I digress, let’s make structured arguments on how Blood Brothers managed to be so awful.

I think the greatest problem of the play had to have been the music. Premiering in the West End in 1983, I would not be surprised if the score has not changed by even a note since then. With crashing synthetic drums on every number (why people got it into their head that actual drums were simply not good enough is simply beyond the scope of imagination. That being said, the single greatest success in synth drumming: The Pinacle of the Synth Drum) and saxophones trumpeting at seemingly random times, the score was disorganized at best and a reason to pop a handful of Advil at its worst. All of this can hardly go being mentioned without also adding also that this music was being played so loudly, that it was actually drowning out the actors and actresses trying to sing. Amid complete the complete chaos that was the soundtrack, I feebly tried to pick out whatever words I could, the most frequently heard phrase being “Marylyn Monroe”. After having a generally pleasant time going to both theatres and concerts in London, I was shocked to see how something like this could be in existence. I realize that show has been playing for nearly twenty years, but at some point the directors of this show have to realize that this is a theatre performance and not a museum exhibit. It seems that at some point along the two decades of Blood Brothers, the producers and directors and even actors forgot that Theatre is something that grows and changes over time. While I’m sure that several people would be upset if the writers cut out half of the pointless and sometimes tactless references to a certain blonde-haired actress, most of the audience would understand that at some point the show has to grow beyond its original conception.

Take the Shakespeare performances at the new Globe Theater for instance. It’s pretty safe to say that the performances that go on today are quite far from how they were a few hundred years ago. In As You Like It, Touchstone’s role in the play was expanded to play more of a comedic role. While this was in no means necessary for the progression of the plot, Touchstone’s added hilarity only added to the jubilant and light-hearted nature of the play.

After walking out of Blood Brothers into the fading afternoon with a profound headache, I was struck with a slightly twisted thought. Maybe Blood Brothers should stay at the Phoenix as an exhibit more than a production. People can come from around the world to see what happens when complacency replaces ambition and something that lives and breathes as theatre does can be turned into nothing more than a VHS tape (no DVD’s back then), playing the same video that lost its significance somewhere between the 500th and 1000th showing (I’m actually slightly scared to even imagine the 2nd showing, much less the 1000th).

Tags: Paul

How Do You Respond to “Cheers”? (And Pubs)

September 12th, 2009 · 4 Comments

My time in England is almost up. I have done more reading on Roman London that I care to share with someone I would maybe like to keep as a friend. I have been to many neighborhoods in both the East and the West Ends of London. I am not only very good looking man but like to think I’m intelligent. Despite this overwhelming evidence that I would know at least something about London, I am stumped by a six letter word that nearly every single British person uses on a daily basis: “cheers”. In my time in this country, I have heard it used in no less than five different situations. For example, I recently had the following conversation with a cashier at Boots:

(I walk up)

Cashier: Cheers

(He checks my items and I hand him money)

Cashier: Cheers

(I am handed my receipt and walk away)

Cashier: Cheers

While I haven’t actually confronted a British person about this, it is astounding to realize the flexibility of a word that truly has next to little relevance in terms of its actual definition. The only problem is, that as an American whenever I’m greeted with the prospect of responding to “cheers”, I usually come miles short of saying anything intelligent/intelligible. I instead find myself in the simply perfect situation of mumbling something and proceeding to exit as quickly as possible. My guess is I still have a lot to learn. I can only imagine how such a word got to be such that it can be used for literally every situation, but the easiest guess to make is it originated from pub culture in England.

In terms of drinking, socializing, and the combination of the two, I feel like England and most of Europe are light-years ahead of us. In the United States, we have come under the unfortunate situation that drinking has become very much like a forbidden fruit for anyone who is legally prohibited to consume alcohol. Rather than just acknowledge that alcohol exists, we Americans in general treat it like it is something that should never be done by teenagers at any time, which of course then makes it thousands of times more desirable to do. When we are finally able to do it as young adults, we make the mistake of centering entire events around it, making it difficult to casually drink.

In my time in London pubs, I have seen quite a difference in their drinking culture to its American counterpart. The first and most interesting difference is the time in which people go to pubs. While in America it is generally seen as uncool to go to a bar any earlier than 10pm, large crowds of people in England are already drinking outside of pubs as early as 4pm. Already, this signifies that people are not so much interested in getting drunk than just having a few drinks. The other major element that seems to warped in American drinking culture that the British have also got right is the social element. In the United States, bars have been turned into places to meet people romantically (or not so romantically). English pubs on the other hand seem to be more open socially. On a clear day, you can typically see just as many people outside of a pub mingling as there are people inside. Additionally there doesn’t seem to be any strict groups, as people just float from one group to the next at will. Because all of the forbidden nature of alcohol has been removed from their perception, British people can instead enjoy both nice ale and the company of friends without sacrificing one for the other. Whether America catches on seems yet to be determined, but in the meantime I will gladly take advantage of the generally more pleasant British pub culture. Cheers.

Tags: Paul

A Matter of Humility

September 9th, 2009 · No Comments

I feel very fortunate to have been to both a Sikh Gurdwara and a Hindu temple in such a short period of time. Truly there are not two better examples of divergent immigrant communities than the Sikh and Hindi. Both religions originated from South Asia but due to differences in their philosophies, have taken to life in England quite differently. The followers at Wembley’s Shri Swaminarayan Mandir seem eager to embrace life in England, while the Sikh Gurdwara in Southall seems more intent on just existing wherever they are. Have these two religions been changed by England, or is it something about their inherent beliefs that have created these two different situations? Unfortunately for this blogger, the answer is: both.

A possible argument can be made for how long each religion has existed. In terms of age, Hinduism is one of the oldest religions to still be widely practiced in the world. Sikhism on the other hand is only an infant in comparison, starting around 1500. However, we cannot judge these two communities based on how long they have been in existence, but rather how long they have existed in their new homeland. Living in a country unlike India, there have undoubtedly been compromises that both religions have had to make in order to survive at the minimum in England. For example, followers of Hinduism in England have to come to terms that many of their non-believing coworkers, neighbors, etc. are very likely to have beef in their diet. On the other hand, Sikhs strictly forbid any kind of abortion, and yet must live in a country where it is tolerated. Therefore, we must consider not the original religions of Sikhism and Hinduism, but the new Sikh/British and Hindu/British identities they have certainly formed. According to the BBC (and their respective links here and here), both the Sikh and Hindis had their first large waves of immigration to England at around 1950, therefore we can not only say that both communities has the same amount of time to develop, but were affected by factors of the same time period. The differences in how their communities have adapted then must be caused by fundamental differences in their religion and how the reacted to life in England.

Thankfully, there are more than enough differences between both their religions and their England-based temples to ascribe these differences to. The largest of these differences is each religion’s sense of humility and how in turn that mentality changes the way each community acts in a capitalist society. As I was guided around each temple with my classmates and was able to look at my surroundings, this factor immediately struck me. The temple itself was furnished very modestly. While there were some places that were elaborate, the most impressive room was the main prayer hall. Although this was the place that an entire of community of Sikhs met to pray, the room was meant to hold the Sikh prayer book, not take away from it. To do this, the entire room was draped in white cloth and the only vibrant color in the entire room was displayed around their holy text. While the building was quite large, every part of it served a function and according to our guide cost around 17 million pounds.

In the case of the Gurdwara, the people who worked at the temple did not even have someone who was trained as a tour guide for their temple. The person that ended up showing us around was purely a student of the religion, and talked to us as such. The focus of his talk (from what I could hear, as he was speaking almost directly to Professor Qualls) was on the philosophies of his faith. What seemed to matter most to the man was the Sikhism’s emphasis of community and how those that followed the religion were part of the community without prejudice. The idea of a tightly knit community seems to be just what Sikh’s in England desire. Although they are immigrants just like the Hindis, they are without a doubt the minority religion of people from India, with there being slightly less than twice as many Hindus than Sikhs. In order to retain their relevance within England, it seems that Sikhs have pushed idea of a unified Sikh community to the level of the 5 K’s, five items that represent the pillars of Sikhism. While caring for and protecting the weak has always been a part of the Sikh religion, it would seem that in their immigration to England, Sikhs expanded this ideal in order to protect their people who in an instant became an even smaller minority than they already were. In addition to wanting to preserve the Sikh community, it seems that the philosophy of Sikhism does not mesh well with British capitalism. Take for example when we were told that we would be getting a free lunch. Most of us couldn’t understand why a temple would give out a free lunch to anyone who came to the temple. Our incredulity was well justified, as it was hard to imagine a group of people working towards pure charity rather than profit. It is likely for these reasons that Sikhism in England has not matched Hinduism in cultural influence.

Some of the students grumbled about how some of the money that went towards building the Gurdwara should have gone to the surrounding community, but those grumbles only fell to the wayside when we entered the Hindu temple. Although the Gurdwara was a large building, the Hindu temple looked to be almost twice as large, the reason for that being the temple’s head-first dive into capitalism. Upon entering the temple, the first thing you are immediately greeted with is the Cultural Center’s gift shop. The temple was also able to provide an actual tour guide who in many ways was the opposite of the Sikh guide. Instead of explaining about the fundamentals of Hinduism, the man instead explained about the magnificence of the building we were in, and how the materials that it was built from came from only the best places in the world. As a class we were shocked by the 16 million pound cost of the Sikh temple, but it is easy to imagine that a building of the Hindu temples grandeur easily cost hundreds of millions of pounds. While it seems that the Sikhs wish to believe in charity and modest (Pride is actually one of their five “vices”), the Hindus have no problem proving to everyone how great they are. In a country where it is up to each person to create his/her own success, Hinduism seems to be more of a fit than Sikhism.

While we now can possibly guess the reasons behind how these two different religious communities act, there is still the question of reason. Are these communities acting as such in order to assimilate with British society, or are they just trying to survive? It seems that each of the religious groups have chosen different paths, as the Hindus aim to thrive and the Sikhs simply want to exist. Is one choice more effective than the other? Will the Hindu’s give up too much of their beliefs in order to succeed? Will the Sikh’s reluctance to reach outside of their community force them to fade into irrelevancy? Only time will tell, but we can be certain that England will keep calm and carry on, with or without them.

Tags: Paul

Chicken Tikka Masala = British Immigrant Identity

September 7th, 2009 · 1 Comment

After every major wave of immigrants that come to a country like Britain, the debate over national identity will inevitably come up. If these people are here to stay, will they affect our society in a way that changes our everyday lives? What does it mean to be British? Will these people ever become one of us, or will they always just be outsiders? For a country with such a long standing national identity, it would only make sense that the British would be unyielding to the newest members of their nation. However given England’s history, it seems that incorporating these new cultures would be the more British thing to do.

Take food for example: If you had asked the public only fifteen years ago what the national dish of England was, chances were they would say “fish and chips”. Ask that question today and you would be shocked to hear that “chicken tikka masala” is the dish of choice for the majority of British people. The origin of the recipe is the perfect example of immigrant identity in England. The (unconfirmed but generally accepted) story goes like this: A customer in a Glasgow restaurant complained that the chicken tikka, a dish Punjabi in origin was too dry and asked for some gravy. Allegedly, the chef then composed a sauce out of yogurt and spices and POOF, chicken tikka masala. Today, you would be hard pressed to find an Indian restaurant that did not at least offer the dish, and there are even some non-Indian restaurants who serve it. How was it that a dish so un-British in nature could have such a serious effect on British cuisine? Some could say it is the increasing amount of people who are either from or descended from India. While this answer is certainly plausible, that doesn’t account for the overwhelming white British population who still chose this dish over “fish and chips” (Another very plausible answer could be that fish and chips simply isn’t appetizing, but that is an entirely different debate).

What happens instead is something much more unexpected: British Identity changes. Chicken tikka masala is only one of many instances throughout British history in which England has absorbed a part of its immigrant culture and called it its own. It was Jewish immigrants from that modernized England’s banking system. Many members of the royal family throughout history have been from other countries. Even fish and chips, the pride and joy of English cuisine (which is sad beyond words), is actually French in origin. The character of Aktar in Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane describes it best as being “Englished” and points out that despite the mindset of the English to be predisposed against foreigners joining the fold, the assimilation will inevitably happen. However, who changes who will be and always has been largely up to debate.

Tags: Paul

Shameful Shakespeare in a Vibrant London

September 5th, 2009 · No Comments

In our recent talk about the state of theatre in London, Rick Fisher described the different types of theatre that exist. From small plays run out of pubs to full-blown productions of the Lion King, Fisher claimed that it was in London that the art of theatre is truly living. Although I have only been to three plays so far in London, I would agree with Mr. Fisher’s claim. Although there are places like New York City that house both Broadway shows and those of lesser fame, the difference lies in how it is accessible to people. For ten and five pounds respectively, I was able to see two of Shakespeare’s works, All’s Well That Ends Well and Trolius and Cressida . These plays were not staged in some low capacity theatres as well, but the National Theatre and the re-imagined Globe Theatre. Can anyone even imagine paying so little to see a show at big name theatre in New York City? I didn’t think so. In their infinite wisdom, England subsidizes various theatres in order to encourage the art. While not everyone gets a piece of the pie, enough do to encourage new plays and possibly even innovations in theatre. Whether England and more specifically London does it is a matter of debate. Is it truly interested in helping develop the play as an art form, or is it instead purely a way to attract tourists to spend more of their money into an aspect of London? One option certainly seems to fit in with the pattern that London follows with most aspects of itself (rhymes with door-ism), but we should at least entertain the notion that there could be different intentions behind this, if only for a second.

My personal experience with London theatre is admittedly only limited to the more successful theatres (The National, The Globe, The Duke of York), yet I feel that in terms  of identifying a genuine tourist element, it is ultimately helpful. The answer is it turns out… is mixed. Or rather it tries to do both. Take the two Shakespeare plays for instance: Trolius and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s Well was almost completely true to the actual spoken word of the play, but reinvented the set and the stage arrangements for many of the scenes. Trolius on the other hand took a more traditional approach to the set and costume design, but took slightly more liberties in terms of the script. While this in both cases by itself is no grievous crime, Trolius did something that I’m not so sure I liked: made it too easy for people. Perhaps this is just the English major in me complaining, but in terms of Shakespeare, its difficulty of language is one of the most important parts of it. In the performance of Trolius and Cressida, the acting really left nothing to the imagination. Every piece of complicated acting was overacted to make it simple to understand, Characters were making comments of selling photographs and selling souvenirs in order to get a few cheap laughs, but worst of all, the actors and actresses acted out every single sexual innuendo. If there is one thing the Shakespeare was good at, it’s bending and molding words in order to make the raunchy mind of Shakespeare seemingly appropriate. However, this expert craft of words is lost when an actor points to every part of the body that he is referring to through metaphor. The audience in turn stops listening to what the actors are saying and instead depends on the visual cues from the actor in order to understand what part they should be laughing at. When people stop listening to the literary genius of Shakespeare, you know that something is wrong. I have no problem with helping the audience understand major plot points, but there has to be a line drawn as to what is made obvious. Otherwise the actors are doing the equivalent of explaining the punch line of a joke after you tell it: it makes the joke less funny.

(That all being said, Arcadia at the Duke of York was an excellent play that everyone should see)

Tags: Paul

The Park Situation

September 1st, 2009 · No Comments

Although they all act as places of rest for the public, the parks of London all seem to have unique identities, stemming from where they are geographically. Take St. James park for instance: Located between the Prime Minister’s house and Buckingham Palace, the park highlights elaborate flower formations and the vast amount of birds that live in the pond that runs through the park. Because of the high volume of tourists that are running through the park, a sizeable cafe is located right in the middle of it all, offering overpriced espressos and a view of the ducks for all that are interested. In turn, all of the paths lead in the park point right to tourist attractions, like the Churchill Museum, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey.

Regent’s Park on the other hand is much more low-key. Surrounded completely by houses, the park acts more as an area for relaxation than a way to direct foot-traffic. With long and circular paths, the park is a great area for both exercise and recreation. While there is a cafe in the park, it is small in size and offers more reasonably priced food and drink.

Even more inconspicuous are the numerous parks around the Bloomsbury area. The same concept as Regent’s Park but on a smaller scale, most of the parks just have sitting areas surrounded by a single path. Those parks that special will even have a plaque or two to famous figures.

It is staggering to think how something so simple as a park can be transformed to fit the specific needs of the area it is in. However, given the fact that London survives on the tourist dollar, it should come as no surprise that something as simple as a park would be transformed to streamline the tourist industry.

Tags: Paul

The Too-Perfect Bath

September 1st, 2009 · No Comments

Recently the Dickinson gang (including those Sciences weirdoes) took a trip to the picturesque town of Bath. Originally a resort town for the nobles of England, the town has thankfully spread out to let us mere mortals in. Situated between two hills with a river running through the center of town, it all seems too good to be true, and in a way is. The commercial center of the town is filled with shops of all variety, from stores like Tesco and Boots, to expensive boutique stores. Additionally, the town market was centered towards serving functional goods rather than souvenirs. After all of the obvious tourist traps in London, I was admittedly a little miffed at not being able to find too many places to criticize (That being said, it was pretty inexcusable to charge 1 pound just to enter the park. I guess I’m just spoiled from the fee-less parks of London… and everywhere else). Of course there were things like the street performers and tourist spots like the Roman Baths, but after hiking to the top of one of the hills through a purely residential area, all of that seemed to slip away. Perhaps this is the actual aim of Bath, to make it a place of recognition but at the same time be able to exist outside of its tourist identity (If only most parts of London could take a note).

Tags: Paul

Westminster Abbey: Memorial and Church

August 26th, 2009 · No Comments

DSCN3032I was lucky enough today to witness both sides to the Westminster Abbey. This afternoon, I went on the guided tour with my classmates and was shown the innumerable amounts of graves and memorials to some of the most important figures in British history. To say that nearly every aspect of the abbey is extravagant would be a severe understatement. There is gold everywhere and every tomb of the royal family is detailed downto the square inch. If I learned anything on the tour, it was that the royalty spared no expense when it came to one of their own (Henry VIII apparently had over 55 estates throughout England). I can only imagine how many roads went unpaved and schools unbuilt in order to fund such opulent funerals. Perhaps it was just reluctance to rebel or just pure loyalty to the crown but it is astounding what the public has let royalty of not only England but of Europe, do over history. However, I do understand that the abbey is not only a testament to royalty, but to all the great British citizens. I was especially touched by the Grave of the Unknown Warrior and the near-royal treatment it received being buried in Westminster Abby. There is certainly more than enough to be proud of in the chapels of Westminster Abby.

Modern Martyrs

Modern Martyrs

Only a few hours later, I attended Evening Prayer at the chapel. One would think that one of the greatest churches in London would perhaps hold more appeal, but as it turned 5 o’clock, there were seats to spare in the back. In its progression to a more secular society, the British have transformed these incredible churches into mere spectacles. My guess is that St. Paul’s Cathedral, the other famous church in London, like Westminster receives most of its participants in prayer from tourists. Although there is nothing particularly wrong with it, it’s still amusing to see what these grand testaments to God have turned into: yet another photo opportunity.

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Docklands Museum Inspires Nostalgia for Lost Identity

August 24th, 2009 · 1 Comment

It is hard to believe that a century ago, London was the center of the world of the international trade of physical goods. Not only was the London area one of the most productive manufacturers of goods in the world, but the London harbor was likely the single most important hub for international trade. It should probably come as a shock then that the London today deals with a fraction of a percent in goods that it once did. When I took visited the tour to the Docklands museum, I was struck by an extreme nostalgia for the London and also Great Britain that was actively engaged in the world market. While there were things that the British were not proud of (the list of all the slave ships that passed through London with the names of their owners and contributors was especially powerful), there was definite evidence that there was more than one British person who was disappointed with the London of today. In one corner of the exhibit, there was a map of the global trade routes that also indicated those that were most in use. In the center of the map (thanks to the British discovery of Longitude), sat London, the center for all of these goods being shipped from around the world. It should come as not shock then, when authors such as A.N. Wilson are openly hostile to the London of the 21st century, kept afloat by its massive tourist market.

Tags: Paul