Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Monday, 29 March 2010

Falling Back on the Familiar

That's what I've accused Will Shakespeare of doing with The Merry Wives of Windsor.

See, I'd come across this Worcestershire tradition that our Willy spent eight months, at some point in his life, hiding out in a village called Earl's Common. Why would he be hiding out, I wondered? And when did he have had eight months spare to do his hiding?

Exploring Earl's Common and its environs, a few things struck me. One was that it was a profoundly Catholic neighbourhood back then, with one of the closest houses belonging to two of the Gunpowder Plotters (in fact, three brothers died as a result of the plot - the house is called Huddington Court, and I bigged it up a few blogs back as one of my favourite places). The other was that I kept finding echoes of The Merry Wives of Windsor in the area.

So, the theory I evolved was that Will, aged seventeen or thereabouts, had to go into hiding. He'd been associating with Jesuits, principally Edmund Campion, and when Campion was arrested, tortured and executed by the government Catholics all across the country panicked. Will had to lie low.

According to Shakespearean legend, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written in a hurry. Queen Elizabeth demanded to see 'Falstaff in love' and Will had just two weeks to come up with a show. Under that kind of pressure, what could he do but fall back on the familiar? So he recalled those eight months spent hiding from government agents and turned it into comedy (and, in the process, 'invented' the legend of Herne's Oak in Windsor Great Park).

The thing is, I'm falling back on the familiar, too. What with a host of distractions and suchlike, it's taken me ages to write my sample chapters for Will's Treason. Last week I realised that I was far from satisfied with what I'd got, so I set about rewriting the chapters, yet again, only this time with STRUCTURE.

Structure is one of the things I teach as a screenwriter. In screenwriting, structure is everything. 'Normal' writing (like fiction novels) has always scared me because where's the structure?

So now I'm trying to apply some of the rules of screenwriting structure to my historical chapters. Will it work? Who can say? But that's what we do when we're under pressure, yeah?

We fall back on the familiar.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Life in Middle Earth

Oh, this is bad ... and it's not as if I haven't had one or two things worth blogging about. But what with birthdays, colds, gigs, balls and various other distractions, let alone trying to finish my sample chapters of the Shakespeare book, I've neglected my blog.

Bad me. Bad, bad, naughty, thoughtless me.

Anyway, it's not just Shakespeare round here, you know. Yes, I know I've written about visits to Shakespearean places, but there was someone else whose trail I keep stumbling across.

Every day I went to school I passed a road in Hall Green where one J.R.R. Tolkien was said to have grown up. A bit further on was Moseley Bog (a tiny bit of nature in the midst of the city), where he was supposedly inspired.

When I moved to the wilds of Worcestershire, my wife - the Divine Kim - told me that she'd grown up in a wee village called Abberton, which the locals called 'Obbiton. A little while later I was having a chat with an entertainer in a local hostelry and he explained how he had traced the journey undertaken in The Lord of the Rings from somewhere nearby to somewhere on the Welsh border.

Seems J.R.R. Tolkien wrote more or less from memory, inspired by places he knew - the Hobbits came from 'Hobbiton', of course. And it was all around here. Looks like I live in The Shire.

At the weekend, I took Divine Kim out on a special birthday treat. She wasn't allowed to know where. We drove to the Forest of Dean (very strange place - lovely, but weird) and stopped at Puzzlewood, where we had a picnic, talked to some animals ... and then entered the wood.

The Romans did a bit of mining there, a couple of thousands of years ago. Thereafter, nature slowly reclaimed the workings. Now, as you walk through this wood, following curious little paths through mini gorges of mossy stone, you feel as though you're walking through the long-forgotten ruins of an ancient civilisation. Or you're in Jurassic Park. Or a fairy/elf/witch/dragon is about to appear.

It's difficult to describe the magical, enchanting effect of Puzzlewood. I'd been there once before, one week day, on my own, and I was a little disconcerted at the weekend to find that there were other people in the wood (but never mind, they were all very friendly and polite, and we rarely saw them). Kim and I took loads of photos (they're up on Facebook) and she loved it - I think it cured her lingering cold.

But - guess what. J.R.R. Tolkien used to spend quite a bit of time wandering round Puzzlewood. They say it inspired him ...

I've never seen the Lord of the Rings movies. In some ways, I feel I don't need to. I mean - they were shot in New Zealand, on the other side of the world. Whereas I grew up in, live in and occasionally get to visit Middle Earth.

Friday, 12 March 2010

What I'm Looking Forward To

We've got our main holiday booked for this summer - a week at Calgary Bay on the Isle of Mull.

Usually, we'd head straight for the Isle of Iona, where Kim and I got married in 2002, but this year it'll be the neighbouring island we'll mostly be exploring - if, that is, we can tear ourselves away from Calgary beach.

But one place that's top of my agenda to visit is the island of Ulva, just off the coast of Mull. It was once the family territory of the Clan MacQuarrie or 'Sons of Guaire'.

Guaire (meaning 'hair') is a name to conjure with if, like me, you're fascinated by the historical Arthur and his brethren. Arthur's nephew Gawain (originally, Gwalchmai) was supposedly the son of 'Gwyar', a version of Guaire rendered phonetically into Welsh.

Guaire himself appears in the seventh-century 'Life of St Columba' as the 'strongest layman' in Argyll in his time and a man who died in a rather curious way, reminiscent of the Celtic triple-death sacrifice. In the 'Life of St Columba' he was referred to as 'Guaire son of Aedan', making him brother to Arthur (Artuir mac Aedain) and Muirgein.

Finally, in Taliesin's funerary poem for Arthur, Preiddeu Annwn ('The Treasures of the Cauldron'), Guaire is the only person to go into the grave before Arthur. Go back a few blogposts and you'll see this grave.

So, Guaire was fairly important, in the Arthurian scheme of things. I suspect that his real name, as it were, was Owain, and that he was the prince of North Rheged (Cumbria), as well as being Arthur's nephew (the son of his half-sister Muirgein) and an adoptive son of King Aedan. St Columba tried to convert him to Christianity, which may explain the need for his sacrifice after Arthur's last battle - because Owain had betrayed the faith and, directly or indirectly, caused the death of Arthur.

The island of Ulva was seemingly colonised by Owain/Guaire's descendants - Gwalchmai or Gawain included - after their true spiritual home was denied them by Columba's monks. They were the Sons of Guaire, forerunners of the Clan MacQuarrie.

I can't wait to set foot on the island of Gawain.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Decisions, Decisions

Okay, no blog post for a week or two (had a birthday to deal with, amongst other things). And now, I'm torn ...

Do I blog about some of the fantastic Shakespearean places I've visited with the Divine Kim over the last couple of weekends?

Or do I write something about some workshops I've done for SCRIPT, a terrific agency based in the West Midlands dedicated to helping writers in film, TV, radio, etc.?

Oh, decisions, decisions ...

Places then (workshops sometime soon). My birthday - 28 Feb. The Divine K said, 'Where do you want to go?' We'd had a busy weekend anyway, with a surprise birthday party for somebody else, then a day-long workshop and a family event, so I thought we'd keep it simple. Visit Huddington, then head over to some friends of ours in Throckmorton.

Huddington Court is surely one of the loveliest houses in England. It's a half-timbered manor house with a separate private chapel, a moat, beautifully landscaped gardens (not huge, but just lovely) and a footpath which leads through a copse, past the lake which feeds the moat and alongside the moat beside the house to the summer house at the end of the garden. When I grow up, I want to live there.

Queen Elizabeth visited Huddington in 1584. I suspect that a young Will Shakespeare might have visited two or three years earlier. But the house's real claim to fame is that it is where three brothers involved in the Gunpowder Plot lived, and where the plotters spent their last night as they tried desperately to escape.

The quiet beauty of the place prompts reflection. You see, having studied Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot for years now, I find I don't really believe in the Gunpowder Plot. That is to say, I'm not quite sure what really happened, but I'm damn sure it wasn't what the government made it out to be. Rather, it was a fake plot, at least in part, engineered and/or manipulated by the government with one purpose in mind - to destroy Catholicism in England.

At Huddington, you get a glimpse of Shakespeare's world - and a sense of something under threat, hated or coveted by powerful 'new men' enough for them to murder, massacre and malign as many as they needed to in order to possess or destroy.

At Bordesley Abbey, that feeling became stronger. We went there yesterday (Sunday), after dropping our daughter's boyfriend off in Bromsgrove.

Bordesley Abbey is no more than a few ruined remains. Once, it was a grand church and monastic complex, but all that was destroyed in the 1530s. Such beauty, such magnificence ... and such utility, such a settlement created to provide food, alms, shelter, knowledge and support. Destroyed.

Shakespeare must have despised the people who ordered the desecration of such places. He may even have had family connections with Bordesley Abbey (a Roger Shakespeare, buried in 1558, was thought to have been 'the old monk of Bordesley'). And a legend attached to Bordesley concerning the folklore figure of Herne the Hunter was transplanted by Shakespeare to Windsor Great Park in his 'Merry Wives of Windsor' in 1597. Herne (or Horne) was also the name of the priest-hunter who had terrorised a local Catholic chaplain, the last abbot of Westminster. So maybe Shakespeare was trying to make a point. But, if so, English thickos chose only to think that Herne the Hunter was something to do with Windsor, and not that Herne was the Reformation in action.

From Bordesley, it's a mile as the crow flies to one of the prettiest churches I've ever been to. Beoley seems to be a prosperous little village close to the Worcestershire/Warwickshire border. That affluence is reflected in St Leonard's Church - beautifully preserved - and its surprisingly popular churchyard. Didn't get to look inside the church (there was a service of baptism taking place), but checked out the exterior masonry.

According to the vicar of Beoley in the 1880s, Shakespeare's skull was hidden in the private vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel in St Leonard's Church. There was supposedly a way into the vault from the outside through a broken ventilation grille, back in 1799. I think I could see where it would have been.

Huddington, Bordesley, Beoley - these are all local places, seldom if ever mentioned in biographies of the Bard. And yet they all have something to tell us about him - even if the story of his skull is a bit weird (although I've researched a great deal of the Rev. Charles Jones Langston's tale, 'How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found', and discovered that much of it is verifiable).

And continually, there is that question of the state of England, with a vicious, sly government of men on the make and two monarchs whose personal preference for Protestant beliefs meant that the country as a whole had to agree or face dreadful penalties. The abbey at Bordesley was razed to the ground, the land sold. Huddington was privy to secrets concerning the Gunpowder Plot - whatever that was. And Beoley ... why should Shakespeare's skull have ended up in the private vault of a defiantly Catholic family - the Sheldons - with whom he shared various links?

I'm lucky to be able to wander round these beautiful places, but they do make me wonder why there is seldom if ever any mention of Catholicism or the Reformation in discussions of Shakespeare. Explore his world, and you can't escape those issues. So why do the so-called experts keep ignoring, overlooking or sidelining the matter? (and yes, Germaine Greer - that includes you!)