The Holy Bee Recommends, #21: “On Golden Pond”

 

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The New Yorker’s former film critic Pauline Kael may be one of the most polarizing film critics of, well…since the art form began. On one side, she’s so beloved that she had/has a coterie of dedicated acolytes known as “Paulettes,” who believed her every pronouncement was pure genius (many of whom went on to be film critics themselves), and there’s the other side who felt her high-handed pomposity reflected the worst excesses of the “New Hollywood” era. Catty and vindictive, Kael slavishly championed her favorites (even the laziest, sloppiest Marlon Brando performance would win gushing raves) and sneered icily at those she took a notion to viscerally dislike on an almost personal level (Clint Eastwood never got off her shit list for four decades.) 

Well, she’s dead now, and possibly doing a stint in purgatory for her cynical and oh-so-above it all skewering of On Golden Pond, a movie I took to my heart when I was eight years old. (Kael’s review can be found in her collection Taking It All In.)

Why would a sentimental dramedy about aging, fear of death, and family dysfunction with a pair of elderly leads become a favorite movie of an 8-year-old boy? Three letters: H…B…O. It drilled it into me

So this is the third or possibly the fourth time in this blog that I’ve thrown a warm, nostalgic shout-out to the Home Box Office cable channel, the place it occupied in my household of the early 1980s, and its profound influence on my burgeoning cultural tastes. HBO dabbled in original programming from the get-go (decades before totally revolutionizing television with The Sopranos), but back in the day its primary specialty was bringing major motion pictures to your TV screen, uninterrupted and uncut, within about twelve months or so of their theatrical release.

Jane Fonda had purchased the film rights to the source material, a 1979 play by Ernest showImageThompson, specifically to work with her father, Henry, on it. The story reflected their own difficult relationship. Location filming on Squam Lake in New Hampshire occurred through summer/fall of 1980, and On Golden Pond received its “award contender” limited release in December of 1981. It went wide the following February, and showed up as HBO’s main feature for December of 1982, gracing the cover of the channel’s monthly viewing guide. (So primitive was the era, the guide wasn’t even mailed to you. You had to pick it up at the local office of your cable provider.) According to the Guide Archive website, HBO showed On Golden Pond on December 12, 16, 20, 22, 25, 29, and 31, before putting it out to pasture to make room for January 1983’s viewing choices. Despite its summer setting, it felt like a Christmas movie due to the month in which I first saw it, and I’ll bet I caught each airing that December.

What kept me coming back? I fell in love with the constant stream of hilarious remarks from its main character. As a child, I saw it as more of a comedy (with a few heavy moments), and didn’t pick up on the deeper implications of the story or how the character used humor as a barrier. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about the material’s comedic bones. The film’s director, Mark Rydell, has stated that the original play did have a lighter comedic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects.

So On Golden Pond and I parted ways, and it had been well over thirty years since I’d watched it when it popped up as a streaming option on Netflix a couple of years ago (don’t bother to look, it’s gone now.) Fittingly, I re-watched it around the holidays (as I was taking down our Christmas tree), and every line was instantly familiar to me. The images I was glancing at on my laptop as I disentangled strands of tree lights had last passed before my eyes on our big cabinet TV in my childhood family room, in the glow of another, long-gone Christmas tree. Besides the nostalgia pangs, as an adult I felt the tension and melancholy in the story much more forcefully.

And yes, I now noticed some of the same flaws that Pauline Kael noticed, but they didn’t piss me off nearly as much as they did her.

The film begins with an elderly retired couple arriving for a season at their summer home on the titular lake somewhere in New England. The arrival/opening credits sequence is played out to the strains of Dave Grusin’s memorable score. On Golden Pond is as unthinkable without its score as Caddyshack is without its gopher. The music — led by a tinkling piano, countered with some gentle woodwinds and strings — can be cloying and even a little obtrusive, but it is indelibly part of the film’s fabric. We see various twilight shots of the gorgeous lake, the surrounding woods, and its population of loons (the aquatic birds, not crazy neighbors.) It does look a little like the beginning of a Hallmark Channel TV movie, but luckily, the direction becomes more grounded once the opening credits end.

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The couple exits their old-person brown sedan (it probably has curb-feelers), enter their roomy cabin, and we begin to get to know them through their dialogue and decades’ worth of mementos packing each room. The production design and set decoration are impeccable.

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The husband is Norman Thayer, Jr. (Henry Fonda), a former college professor on the verge of his 80th birthday. It is revealed early on that Norman’s health is growing fragile. He is going somewhat deaf, suffers from increasing memory loss, and has heart problems. He is ill-tempered and snappish, but as indicated above, has a way with a funny remark and a clear affection for his wife. He is also obsessed with his own mortality, and masks his fear of approaching death with morbid jokes.

Norman’s wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is a typical Hepburn character — flighty, easily distracted, kind, and free-spirited. The type who dances alone in the woods while gathering wildflowers and singing her old summer camp song. The pair are definitely a contrasting couple, both in temperament and physically. Ethel is a decade or so younger than Norman, and still robust as he grows frail. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #20B: The Byrds (Mark II) Discography

Prologue: West Saugerties, NY. Summer 1967

The instruments and recording equipment are set up in the basement of the big pink rental house on a rural woodsy road, just as they had been for several weeks. The intention is to make demo tapes, and the recording rig is simple — a Nagra tape recorder, an Ampex mixer, and three microphones (although many decades later this set-up will be hotly disputed by audiophiles on internet forums.) One by one, the band wanders in. Garth Hudson settles in behind his Lowrey organ, Richard Manuel parks himself on the piano bench, or maybe the drum stool. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson strap on a bass and electric guitar, respectively. At the center of the group of informally arranged musicians, with a short haircut and a 12-string acoustic, is Bob Dylan. Dylan has not recorded or toured since the previous spring. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, and the enigmatic songwriter decided to use his injuries (the extent of which is shrouded in mystery) as an excuse to go off the grid for awhile. Now he’s ready to dip his foot in the water again, but he’s going to do it his way. Not with a new tour, or album, but with a batch of original songs…intended to be given away to other artists.

Hudson hits “record” on the tape recorder, and Dylan begins tentatively strumming. The musicians, who were Dylan’s backing band on his last tour, try to anticipate where this brand-new composition is going. The bass and organ start fumbling along. Dylan doesn’t seem too sure, either. He leans into the microphone, and lets loose a stream of nonsense…

“Now look here, dear soup, you’d best feed the cats/The cats need feeding and you’re the one to do it/Get your hat, feed the cat/You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

The real lyrics are soon filled in and the song eventually comes together, as do several others…Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman strategically “leaks” the final tape of fourteen finished demos (out of dozens recorded) to various artists and producers that autumn, and gets his adding machine ready to tally the song publishing windfall that’s sure to come.

The backing musicians (with the addition of drummer Levon Helm) become known as The Band and are soon signed to Capitol Records.

A copy of the tape ends up in the possession of one Chris Hillman…

The first song from these “basement tapes” to be made public is “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” recorded by the British group Manfred Mann and released on January 12, 1968. It goes to #10.

Dylan, in the vanguard as usual, sends up the signal flare that is the first indication of a sea change in popular music. Psychedelic excess would soon be old hat, and the traditional sounds of American pre-rock roots music from the first half of the 20th century would be the guiding inspiration for many well-known acts in 1968, and into 1969 and the 70s. Dylan finally breaks his public silence by putting out an album, with no publicity, in the final days of 1967 — a modest collection of archaic-sounding original folk and country songs called John Wesley Harding that sounds nothing like the speed-freak rock of his previous few albums. None of the tracks were from that summer’s basement tapes.

The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers drops a mere two weeks later… still steeped in trippy experimentation and sonic fripperies, and if Roger McGuinn has his way, more of the same is to come…a precocious Georgia millionaire’s son and Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons would change all that…

The Byrds had changed management in the autumn of 1967. Jim Dickson was out, Larry Spector (no relation to the gun-happy record producer) was in. Larry Spector also managed a band called the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons. The visionary Parsons was a walking music encyclopedia (especially country), and had a dream of creating the perfect blend of old-school country and gospel-inflected soul/R&B. He called it, somewhat loftily, “Cosmic American Music.” The ISB recorded an album that was currently sitting in the vaults of LHI Records, waiting for release. The ever restless Parsons, like David Crosby the indulged son of an immensely wealthy family, ran out of patience and bailed on the band, looking for his next big opportunity.

Roger McGuinn had an ambitious vision, too. He wanted to explore the more experimental path indicated by some of the material on the last few albums. His interest in modern jazz was joined by a fascination with the possibilities of the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. If McGuinn followed his muse to its full fruition, the Byrds would be pioneers of a new genre — a spacy, science fiction-influenced blend of electronic music and jazz. But fate had other plans.

McGuinn knew the recently reduced Byrds couldn’t pull off his new ideas as a trio. He wanted to add a keyboard player, and asked manager Larry Spector if he knew of any. Gram Parsons, wasn’t a keyboard player per se, but he could handle almost any instrument passably, and Spector felt he would be a good fit for the band. Parsons joined the Byrds in February 1968. McGuinn wasted no time in explaining his ambitious plans for the next recording project — a massive double album, two dozen songs, following a musical chronology. The first few tracks would be the old-time string band music of 1920s Appalachia, then the material would gradually morph into modern folk and country, and the album would close with a sequence speculating on the future, featuring space-age electronica.

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L.A. Cowboys on Sunset, early ’68: Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

Gram Parsons didn’t care a fig for McGuinn’s electric space jazz, and instead raised the idea of a start-to-finish traditional country album. He managed to keep a straight face while convincing McGuinn that country audiences were incredibly loyal, and would provide a hardcore fan base for years to come. McGuinn, blasted by the full force of Parson’s enthusiasm (which could be formidable while it lasted), swallowed the whopping mistruth and agreed to put his concept album on hold for the time being. The Byrds would turn totally country. Hillman, the old bluegrass hand, gave the idea his full support. The 12-string Rickenbacker was put aside, Parsons mostly ditched his planned role on keyboards and joined McGuinn on acoustic guitar, and the group booked time in a Nashville studio to commence recording almost immediately. The only issue: McGuinn and Hillman had not written any new songs since Notorious, certainly none in their recently-chosen genre. No problem! Parsons had a couple of stellar originals in his back pocket. Traditional country and bluegrass covers could also fill the some of the space. And they had a secret weapon: the tape of Dylan demos, all of which could be easily adapted to the new style. 

Over the course of six days in early March, in the sterile confines of a usually regimented, disciplined song-factory studio in the heart of the country music capital, the Byrds burned their previous incarnation to the ground, and built a new one. With the sometimes-puzzled help of a few crew-cutted Nashville session pros (they didn’t know what to make of these shaggy, mystic West Coasters who seemed to take forever to pin down a take), the core of their new album came together. The session players went from bemusement to admiration, and all of them recall it as a happy experience. They remember the stodgy, fluorescent-lit Nashville studio growing hazy with pot smoke, red wine being passed around, and everyone having a grand time. In a surprise move, the Byrds capped off the week with a live appearance on none other but the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast on WSM from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. (You have to say “hallowed” before you mention the Ryman. It’s a rule of music writing, like using “jangly” for the Byrds, “enigmatic” for Dylan, and it’s always “the great” Hal Blaine.)

Before the appearance, the group had to grit their teeth through a hostile radio interview with WSM DJ Ralph Emery, who made clear his distaste for “hippies” and the counterculture movement, and was the mouthpiece for all the conservative Southerners who resented this long-haired rock group for invading their territory. He refused to play the just-recorded “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on the air. The song is done in a solid country arrangement, but because it was penned by left-wing hero Bob Dylan (who applied his usual lyrical surrealism) and performed by a group of freaks, Emery received it with condescending disdain. “What’s the song about?” demanded Emery. McGuinn was honest: “I don’t know.” The Byrds could not leave the radio station fast enough. McGuinn and Parsons took their revenge by writing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery, holding him up as the epitome of every piss-ignorant racist redneck stereotype they could devise. (The song wouldn’t make it onto the new album, but it didn’t go away.)

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Onstage at the Ryman, Parsons front and center

They nervously took the stage at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, joined by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green. Kevin Kelley was denied the use of his full drum kit as per Opry tradition, and had to make do with a pair of brushes and a single snare. As they were introduced to a smattering of applause, there were some boos, jeers, and catcalls (“Tweet, tweet!” “Get a haircut!”). They launched into their first number, and actually won a large portion of the audience over with their sincere performance and clear affection for their newly-adopted genre. They had agreed ahead of time to cover Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” as their encore, and the MC announced that number to the live audience and over the airwaves. But then, in a Crosby-like display of hubris, Gram Parsons stepped to microphone and announced a change of plans — they would close with the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” The Opry brass were furious, and the group destroyed whatever goodwill they had earned with the rest of their performance. They were banned from future performances.

The newly-recorded album was also facing a crisis. Evidently, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. There was a possibility that the tracks on which he sang lead might have to be re-recorded by McGuinn. The process to do just that began, then the legal disputes were suddenly settled. McGuinn cannily decided to trim Parson’s lead vocal appearances anyway. The newest Byrd originally sang lead on six of the eleven tracks, and McGuinn reduced it to three. The Byrds would not become the Gram Parsons Show on McGuinn’s watch. Despite being granted freedom to dictate the creative direction for a short while, the upstart had been schooled as to whose band it really was.

There was good news, though, as the new Byrds left Nashville and hit the road all that spring and early summer. They had finally stabilized as a live act, and turned in solid sets night after night. After ignoring their early hits during the last year with David Crosby, they reintroduced material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” as highlights of the first half of their concerts. Their country material, augmented by touring musicians Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and Doug Dillard on banjo, would be featured in the later portion. Parsons, so recently the dominant force in the recording studio, seemed to now accept his secondary status on stage, bouncing between electric piano and acoustic guitar, happily harmonizing on all the stuff that predated his time with the band, and only taking two or three lead vocals for himself. Perhaps he already had his eye on the door…

On a short U.K. trip that July, the Byrds socialized frequently with the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons developed something of a man-crush on Keith Richards, trailing after him like an over-eager puppy and babbling non-stop about the virtues and sub-genres of country music. When word reached the Stones that the next stop on the Byrds’ touring itinerary was South Africa, Mick and Keith explained to the somewhat naive Parsons that playing to segregated audiences in an apartheid country was not cool. McGuinn, who had at various times worked closely with South African musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, was encouraged by them to see the situation firsthand, and ignored the Stones’ judgement. When the plane left London for Johannesburg on July 9, 1968, Gram Parsons was not on it. He quit after having been a Byrd for less than five months.

But what a legacy he left them! The album he willed into existence through sheer force of personality came out on August 30. Sweetheart of the Rodeo not only signaled the birth of the second phase of the Byrds, it became the founding document of the country rock of the 70s and the alt-country movement of the 90s.

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #20A: The Byrds (Mark I) Discography

My wife loves to cook, and she loves to have music on while she cooks. She usually doesn’t pick any specific album or artist, but uses a Pandora channel curated to her tastes (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, etc.) During her pot- and pan-rattling and music listening, I relax in the next room sipping my pre-dinner cocktail. (Don’t judge — my job is to do all the post-dinner washing and scrubbing.) Every so often, something incredibly random that Pandora, in its infinite AI wisdom, has decided fits on that channel will grab my ear from her countertop speaker. Maybe something featuring guitar with a touch of “jangle,” some vocal harmony, and a little light on the bass end. I hold up my SoundHound app and the song is invariably something from Matchbox Twenty or Mumford & Sons or some other generic Wonder Bread radio-rock band. I grimace and briefly wrestle with the notion that I may actually like these bands (or at least these songs), but then find relief in the knowledge that these guys are clearly channeling the Byrds. Maybe they think they’re channeling the Beatles, or Big Star, or R.E.M, but no…it’s the Byrds, whose legend seems to be fading even as their influence remains pervasive, if by now second- or third-hand.

I’m talking primarily about the first version of the Byrds here. Most people who know their music history know that the Byrds were really two bands — the 1965-67 folk-influenced rock band, and the 1968-73 country-rock band. The only thing the two had in common was lead guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn. The second iteration of the band we’ll leave for another entry next month.

The iconic five-piece original line-up lasted just over a year, but they made a hell of an impact…

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Jim McGuinn, with his distinctive square-framed tinted glasses, mushroom of hair, and 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was the group’s visual anchor, usually parked stage left. In the center, working a tambourine for all he was worth, was vocalist and primary songwriter Gene Clark. Next to him was rhythm guitarist David Crosby, shoulders draped in a bottle-green velvet cape and flashing a lopsided, mischievous grin. The backline was bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, both glowering stand-offishly under identical Brian Jones-style blonde bowl cuts fringing their eyebrows. Ethereal McGuinn and the deeper-voiced Clark traded off on lead vocals, or sung in unison. Crosby added the distinctive high harmony vocal. The driving engine was McGuinn’s electric 12-string, providing the adjective that’s always used to describe the Byrds’ sound — “jangly.”

All of them got their start on the coffeehouse folk scene. Three of them were already music business veterans. And none of them really got along with each other very well. The Byrds were all born into, if not privilege, then at least comfort. David Crosby’s parents were literal millionaires, who kept him out of juvenile hall as he spent his teen years crashing cars and vandalizing property. When Michael Clarke dropped out of school to “find himself” on an odyssey down the west coast, his doting grandmother sent him care packages and cash. This led to a certain self-centeredness in all the band members that contributed to the group’s eventual demise. And this is why I always preferred (and romanticized, I suppose) more working-class rock bands, who fought their way up from nothing together, and had a little more team spirit. The early-Sixties “folkies” always rubbed me the wrong way, anyway. White, well-scrubbed, middle-class college types warbling the “music of the people” with lilting, clearly-enuciated phrasing,  and being so goddamned precious about it. They looked down their noses on “commercial” rock and pop, all the while judging and backstabbing each other mercilessly over their perceived “authenticity.” They were just as competitive as anyone else in the music business, while pretending to above such things

Jim McGuinn of Chicago always seemed somewhat otherworldly. A quiet, aloof presence, at first glance almost shy, but with an unstoppable ambitious streak and an iron will that kept him on top as the de facto leader of a very tempestuous band. He attended music school, and went professional at an early age, specializing in folk. As a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a touring member of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, playing the 5-string banjo. When Bobby Darin introduced a folk music segment as part of his live act, McGuinn was his accompanist on 12-string acoustic.

Gene Clark of Kansas City had played in various rock and folk groups since high school. He was discovered and hired by the famous folk collective the New Christy Minstrels in 1962, joining them for two albums before quitting. Sensitive and high-strung, Clark had a smooth tenor voice and a knack for songwriting.

David Crosby of Hollywood. Jesus, this guy. He impulsively became a folk musician out of rich-kid boredom, after dabbling in acting. He was spoiled, extremely temperamental, and thoroughly obnoxious. He admitted to being a “terrible folkie,” unable to properly finger-pick guitar in the traditional folk style (even his strumming was erratic). But he had a pretty voice.

McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had all been aware of each other as fellow members of the L.A. folk scene, and they hung out together at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. In the first flush of Beatlemania, they put their still-shorthaired heads together and came up with a brilliant idea — combine the lyric poetry and protest songs of folk god Bob Dylan with the big-beat sound of The Beatles! They convinced a deep-pocketed music producer by the name of Jim Dickson to serve as their manager. He provided the trio with free studio space and unlimited time therein, and used his connections to get Columbia Records interested in hearing them. Fewer bands have ever been handed such an auspicious starting kit on a silver platter.

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The Jet Set, 1964: Crosby, Clark, and McGuinn

The trio — known as the Jet Set — immediately set to work recording demos, mostly from the pen of Gene Clark. The songs were decent enough, but still missing something. A more electric sound perhaps? McGuinn and Crosby were blown away after seeing the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in August of 1964. The film prominently featured George Harrison playing a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, which at the time of the movie’s production was still a one-off prototype. The Byrds immediately had Dickson shell out for the now-available Rickenbacker, with a blonde wood finish, and also Harrison’s preferred 6-string, a plum-colored Gretsch Tennessean.

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As they developed their sound further, committing to a more rock-oriented approach, they realized they needed a bassist and a drummer on a permanent basis. A friend of the trio, songwriter Ivan Ulz, recommended an 18-year-old dropout he knew from San Francisco. Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick in Seattle) had never touched a drum kit before in his life. His sole percussion experience was playing bongos on the beach like the beatnik he was. But he looked perfect. Strikingly handsome with a head full of shimmering hair, already insanely long. He was immediately hired and brought to the studio space, where he was given a pair of drumsticks and some cardboard boxes and told to master the rudiments of rock and roll drumming while funds were gathered for a real drum kit. 

With McGuinn firmly installed on the Rickenbacker, the instrumental roles of Clark and Crosby were up in the air. Originally, Clark played rhythm guitar and Crosby’s sole task was to provide harmony vocals. But his awkward gyrations onstage during an early practice gig at the Troubadour provoked audience hysterics, and convinced everyone he needed to be stock-still and behind an instrument. At first, the bass player vacancy appeared to be neatly filled — but Crosby found he couldn’t play single-note bass and sing at the same time. So the Gretsch was stripped from Clark and given to Crosby, who could comfortably strum rhythm while harmonizing. A bass player would have to found elsewhere, as Clark was even weaker on the instrument.

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They didn’t look far. Dickson, whose original production specialty was bluegrass, had a pet project in the form of bluegrass combo the Hillmen, named after their young mandolin prodigy, L.A. native Chris Hillman. The Hillmen could not get a record deal, and had recently gone defunct. Like Clarke and the drums, Chris Hillman had never even held a bass guitar before. That did not seem to be an obstacle to Dickson, who assumed anyone who could play mandolin could play bass. Hillman was duly hired, strapped to a cheap red Japanese bass guitar, and told to straighten his naturally curly hair into the proper British Invasion bowl cut. (His instrument was later upgraded to a Fender, and later still to a nice Guild semi-hollow body with a sunburst finish.)

Over the course of a memorable Thanksgiving dinner at the end of ‘64, ideas for a new band name were tossed around by the band’s brain trust (Dickson and McGuinn) after they found out that there was already a band called the Jet Set. “The Birds” quickly came up — it had that all-important “B” at the beginning, putting people in mind of that other “B” band, but it didn’t become a lock until they came up with the key spelling twist. “The Byrds” sounded suitably British. (Also, there was already a British rock band called the Birds, featuring future Rolling Stone Ron Wood.)

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1st official photo session, January 1965. L. to r. Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, Michael Clarke, David Crosby. Hillman’s hair-straightening hadn’t quite taken yet.

Rehearsals and demo sessions completed (the Jet Set demos can be heard on The Preflyte Sessions compilation), hair all grown out, and a recording contract in hand, the band did not even play a proper gig before heading into the Columbia studio on Sunset Boulevard to record their first single on January 20, 1965.

Or, more precisely, McGuinn went into the studio, accompanied only by session musicians. In what was common industry practice, Columbia did not want to waste expensive studio time recording take after take with untested instrumentalists, so they brought in some ringers. The label bosses grudgingly accepted McGuinn (they originally wanted Glen Campbell on the 12-string), but he would be backed by members of L.A.’s fabled “Wrecking Crew” — a loose-knit squad of seasoned pros who played on just about every pop record recorded in L.A. in the 1960s. So Crosby and Clark waited impatiently in the control room as McGuinn laid down the backing track with Larry Knetchel (bass), Leon Russell (electric piano), Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole (rhythm guitars), and the great Hal Blaine (drums). McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark taped their vocals later.

The song? Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan’s version was not even released yet, but Dickson got his hands on an early version recorded for and rejected from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Their studio-assigned producer, Terry Melcher, made some great post-recording production choices: McGuinn’s guitar is boosted to the max, and compressed heavily to provide that long sustain (“jangle”), with the rhythm guitars faded low and the electric piano entirely dropped (sorry, Leon). The other primary instrument is, of course, the tambourine, mixed high with heavy reverb. Funnily enough, I was unable to discover the actual tambourine player on the track (my guess would be Blaine via an overdub). They retained only one of Dylan’s four verses, and focused on the chorus, turning Dylan’s epic poem into a perfect, glistening pop song. “Folk rock” was officially born. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 12)

I was fully recovered from the previous day’s ailments, but Shannon’s injured toe was paying the price for the long J.K. Rowling walk. She would opt out of this morning’s activity — a cross-country hike to the coastal town of North Berwick, about two miles away.

Unlike in the Cotswolds, there was no detailed hiking map. We knew the general direction, but it would be mostly guesswork. No grey skies or fog this morning, we were back into California temperatures. I was already running with sweat with Fenton Tower still in sight behind us. IMG_20180628_100758A few twists and turns along seemingly endless vistas of barley fields brought us to a long gravel driveway leading to a ranch-style property with several outbuildings. We headed hesitantly up it, and were soon overtaken by a silver Mercedes kicking up plumes of dust behind it. The tinted window rolled down, and Bret recognized the driver as the person with whom he discussed arrangements at Fenton Tower when we first arrived (the rest of us were busy scouting out rooms). It turned out he actually owns Fenton Tower. And the ranch we were now on. And everything currently visible to the naked eye. He gave us a few pointers for the remainder of the walk.

“I hope we won’t be trespassing on anyone’s property,” Karen said.

“Nah,” said Mr. Fenton (I didn’t catch his real name) with a wave of his hand. “Everything is mine until the town limits. Have a nice walk.” He roared off up the drive.

We did have to hop a barbed wire fence with uncertain footing on the other side, but the rest of the hike passed uneventfully.

North Berwick was originally established as a ferry port, shuttling passengers across the Forth of Firth to St. Andrews or Kirkcaldy as long ago as the 1100s. A series of witch trials were held on Berwick Green in the 1590s. Nowadays, the small seaside town caters to vacationers, and especially golfers attracted to the many historic Scottish links courses that dot the area.

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We nosed around the town, and clambered out onto the rocky cliffs near the little harbor. Other rock islets further offshore serve as a habitat for a variety of seabirds, such as puffins and gannets. On the North Berwick beach, a crowd of young swimmers paddled around a safe shallow area enclosed by a rock wall. The water was a suspiciously cloudy pale yellow color and wouldn’t be my choice for a refreshing dip, but to each their own.

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News reports were calling today the hottest day in Scotland since 1990. We had a trattoria-style lunch at the Zitto Italian Wine Bar. Some of us decided to hike back at that point. Sheila, Karen, and the kids wanted to explore the town shops some more, and would return via taxi.

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North Berwick Law, rising 600 feet above sea level. Once topped by an Iron Age fort, the modern day summit is crowned with a whale’s jawbone. A little too ambitious for today’s walk.

By the time we returned to Fenton Tower, my clothes were wringing wet with perspiration. Restored by a cool shower and fresh garments, I was ready for that afternoon’s big activity — touring the Glenkinchie single malt Scotch distillery just south of the village of Pencaitland.

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Glenkinchie distillery workers, 1920s

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The same building seen in the photo above

One of only six distilleries in the Lowlands, Glenkinchie was established in 1837. Although they stopped malting their own grain in 1969, and recently outsourced their aging cellars, it was still a fascinating look at an insanely complex process that I could barely wrap my head around. Since I didn’t carry my notebook around, and was mostly anticipating the tasting at the end, most of the technical details I am unable to report back to you with any degree of accuracy.

Here’s a good link if you want to know more.

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Our guide, Kay, walked us through the various rooms in the distillery (some of which were searingly hot on a day like today) and explained the process and the history of the company in her warm Scottish burr.

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The old malting floors have been converted to museum space, including a massive scale model of the entire distilling process.

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One wall of the Glenkinchie museum was dominated by a vintage map of the East Lothian region

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Map detail — note “Northberwick,” the Law, and “Fentoun Tour”

We ended up in the tasting room with pens, notepads, eyedroppers of water, and six glasses in front of each of us, each glass with a splash of Scotch. Five varieties were from Glenkinchie, the sixth was a smokier peat-flavored Scotch from another distillery for purposes of comparison. (Glenkinchie specializes in very smooth, non-peaty flavors, perfect for a Scotch newbie.) We noted color, body, nose, taste, and finish. No one liked the peaty Scotch (except me, I liked it just fine), but we all agreed #2 and #5 were the best.

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Going to Scotch school with Kay

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#5 was, naturally, the most expensive Scotch Glenkinchie offered, at several hundred dollars a bottle. #2 was a nice, mid-priced option. Bret bought us all a bottle as we exited, slightly woozy, through the gift shop.

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For our final night in Fenton Tower, the kitchen staff outdid themselves with a three-course dinner. After dinner, we watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail in anticipation of our visit to Doune Castle in the morning. Continue reading

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A History of Santa Claus

This piece is basically a transcription of a lecture I’ve frequently delivered to my social studies classes on the day before winter break since about 2002.

I got hooked on Santa lore when I saw an A&E Biography on St. Nicholas in 1994. I wrote a paper on him in college a few years later, and saved all my notes. As a teacher, I spun it into a class presentation to have something fun to do on the last day before winter break when no one wants to do any real work. (I can justify it in the educational world of academic standards by calling it a lesson on “cultural diffusion.”)

Nowadays, there’s not much here that can’t be found on the Santa Claus or St. Nicholas Wikipedia pages, but in the absence of anything else to post this time of year with a suitable holiday feel, I thought I would send this artifact from my bottom drawer into the ether of internet posterity.

How did this…

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Become this?

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Here’s what I would say to the students:

“It’s not too much of a stretch to figure out that the term ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day.’ Days set aside for the veneration of religious figures have been a facet of human existence as far back as the historical record can peer (and presumably into the mists of prehistory). When the human species gradually abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around ten thousand years ago, an existence based on animal husbandry and cultivation of planted crops allowed for some downtime in the cold season between harvest and planting. The crops had been gathered and stored in granaries, and the animals earmarked for slaughter were salted away or consumed before they spoiled, frequently in observance of one of these holy days. Be it celebrating primitive pagan nature gods or the Christian saints of a later era, any excuse to retire the yoke and hoe for a day (or twelve) of feasting was enthusiastically seized.

Winter and summer solstices were considered very important, the winter solstice particularly so. When you lived and died based on what you could wrest from the soil, noting that the days were gradually getting longer and warmer again was cause for rejoicing.

The Romans had a calendar with months we would (mostly) recognize since the earliest days of the old Roman Republic (500s BCE). Their winter solstice (‘bruma’) date was December 25.

Saturnalia was a pre-solstice, multi-day Roman festival that traditionally ran from December 17 to December 23. It was definitely a carnival atmosphere, similar to Mardis Gras in modern-day New Orleans, but the characteristic that’s noteworthy for our purposes was the tradition of gift-giving.

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Saturnalia

Many Romans of the later period of the Empire (300s CE) worshipped a sun god called Sol Invictus (‘Invincible Sun’). A Roman codex made by an engraver named Filocalus in 354, and copied and re-copied many times over the next few centuries (the original was lost), is the source of a lot of our knowledge about Roman institutions of the third and fourth centuries. Essentially a kind of almanac/encyclopedia, it included a calendar of important dates. The day celebrating this particular sun-god, ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invictus,’ is listed as December 25.

Also on December 25, Filocalus noted the ‘birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea,’ the first surviving reference to this event happening on that date. Certainly no such date ever appeared in the New Testament, but there are many biblical passages linking Jesus to the sun (‘the light of the world’ according to John, etc.), and there was also symbolic importance attached to his conception being connected to the vernal equinox (beginning of spring.) So the date caught on relatively quickly, being mentioned in a sermon by St. Augustine as soon as the early 400s. It was regularly celebrated on that date as the feast of ‘Christ’s Mass’ by the 800s. Modern and ancient theologians both agree that December 25 is almost certainly not the birthdate of the historical Jesus, but acknowledged that metaphoric symbolism superseded a completely blank historical record. The gospels were not intended to be historical documents, but historians have gleaned what they could from context, passing references, and geographical details buried in what were explicitly created as religious dogma.

As Christianity gained more of a foothold in western Europe, missionaries and other early supporters of the new religion eased various local population’s transition away from paganism by gradually replacing pagan festival days with days venerating Christian figures. They kept the same dates, and a lot of the same traditions. As long as the celebration was held in the name of the newly-ascendant monotheistic religion, everyone seemed happy. The feast of Christ’s Mass incorporated many elements of the dissolute Roman Saturnalia, and grew increasingly raucous until its reputation had become disreputable among the devout by the early modern era.

Other western cultures had their solstice festivals as well. The pre-Christian Germanic lands of northern Europe had ‘Yule,’ and its associated massive log, which was expected to burn in the village square for all twelve days of the festival, and still have enough consumable fuel to provide the starting kindling for next year’s Yule log. The Celts liked to decorate for their solstice festival with pine, holly, and mistletoe.

As Christianity spread out of the Mediterranean area in the first part of the Middle Ages, the Christ’s Mass festivities began incorporating local traditions, such as Yule. A medieval Christmas was twelve days of revelry (partridge in a pear tree optional), beginning on December 25 and ending on ‘Twelfth Night,’ January 5.

The day after Twelfth Night was another important date on the old Christian calendar, celebrating the Epiphany — the arrival of the magi (‘three wise men’) in Bethlehem and the revelation that God was made incarnate in the newborn Jesus. Other sources indicate the Epiphany is in observance of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist many years later. Either way, a heads-up to all of you lazy slackers who leave their Christmas lights up until March — it is considered bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up past Twelfth Night.

The rise of Christianity coincided with the decline of the western Roman Empire. While the religion crawled its way north and west in dribs and drabs, Emperor Constantine shifted the base of operations for the newly-Christian Imperial government eastward, to Byzantine (soon to be renamed Constantinople) on the edge of Asia Minor. So Asia Minor (now Turkey) was really the home base of Christianity for a couple of centuries, where it eventually evolved into its own unique flavor — Eastern Orthodox. The eastern portion of the old Roman Empire became known to historians as the Byzantine Empire, and took on many Hellenistic (Greek) cultural traits.

St. Nicholas originates here.

Lycia, in ancient times an independent kingdom, and in the 300s a largely self-governing province in the eastern Roman empire, was tucked away along the southwest coast of Asia Minor. The terrain was rugged and its inhabitants were mostly Greek-speaking. Its principal port town was Myra, although the once-bustling harbor has long since silted up, and Myra itself is now nothing more than archaeological ruins.

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Detail of rectangle in the above map

Keep in mind that there is no historical evidence that the person that became known as St. Nicholas ever existed. The Catholic Church demoted him on their ‘calendar of saints’ in 1969 due to this lack of historical verification. (Along with 93 others, whose origins were ‘more mystery than manuscripts,’ according to a Church spokesperson, although they retained full sainthood.) All information about — and images of — St. Nicholas came from sources working centuries after his supposed death. So he could be as imaginary as his later incarnation, Santa Claus.

With that in mind, let’s tell his story.

Nicholas was born in Patara, another Lycian city a few miles west of Myra, in March of 270, and would have answered to the Greek form of his name, Nikolaos. His parents were wealthy Greek Christians who died when Nicholas was still in his teens. He gave away his inherited fortune to the needy, and soon became an ordained priest in Myra, where his reputation for generosity began to grow. (Some sources say he was never ordained, but was a ‘lay brother,’ or monk, in his early years.) According the legend, one of his first acts as a man of the cloth was to surreptitiously, in the darkness of three successive nights, slip bags of gold through the window of a family who could not provide proper dowries for their three daughters and were about to sell them into prostitution. He was caught by the father on the third night, and Nicholas swore him to secrecy, wanting the good deed to remain totally anonymous.

The father evidently did not keep his promise, as soon Nicholas became a kind of Byzantine Superman. Stories shared among the Lycians had him rescuing drowning sailors, reanimating dead children who had been pickled in brine, freeing unjustly accused prisoners, calming hurricanes, teleporting himself, flying, and so on.

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Young Nicholas, depicted as he may have looked when he became a bishop, c. 300

Around 300, Nicholas was elevated to the post of Bishop of Myra. Later visual depictions of him often had him clad in red and white bishop’s robes, a color scheme that would remain associated with him. It was around this time that Diocletian (r. 284-305), the last Roman Emperor who made a policy of persecuting Christians, had Nicholas imprisoned and tortured, some said for as long as a decade. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, not only ended the persecutions (and freed Nicholas), he converted the Empire to Christianity.

By 325, early Christianity was already splintering into factions. Constantine called together the First Council of Nicaea to iron out the differences and get everyone on the same page. Over 1,800 bishops attended, Nicholas supposedly among them. Things got heated. Nicholas was the center of attention at one point when he belted the leader of the Arianism sect right in the chops. (The Arianists believed Christ himself was not a part of God as stated by the Trinitarians, but a separate and distinct “Son of God.” Nicholas was a staunch Trinitarian, evidently.)

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Nicholas died on December 6, 343, and was likely entombed in a fourth century church on the nearby island of Gemile, the ruins of which can still be seen. The church in Myra that was the seat of his bishopric was torn down or crumbled away. Anything he wrote, if he wrote anything at all, was lost. The only things that remained, for 200 years, were the fantastical stories. Nicholas was a righter of wrongs, a defender of religious orthodoxy, and a special protector of children and sailors.

Some of these stories finally got jotted down in the late 500s, and provide the first written mention of Nicholas (apart from his name scrawled on the ruined wall of the church on the aforementioned island of Gemile). He remained an immensely popular figure, especially among sailors working the Mediterranean coast, who enjoyed spreading the Nicholas tales as far as Italy. His church in Myra was rebuilt. Locals gave gifts to each other in his name. Michael the Archimandrite finally produced the first full-length manuscript to survive into the modern era, The Life and Wondrous Works of our Father Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra, in Lycia in the late 800s. Then came Simeon Metaphrastes’ The Life of St. Nicholas about a hundred years later. Both were based on oral traditions and earlier written sources now lost, and are the basis for pretty much everything we know about the figure of St. Nicholas.

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St. Nicholas as imagined by the Renaissance. Detail from the 1490 Florentine painting The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot by Piero Di Cosimo

There is no fixed date for when he officially became a saint. The standardizing of the canonization procedure was not fixed until the 1100s, and Nicholas had been referred to as a saint for at least 300 years before that. His feast day was observed on the traditionally accepted date of his death, December 6.

As the Arabs made more and more incursions along the southern Turkish coast, Nicholas’s remains were moved to his re-built church in Myra, where they were treated as a shrine with healing properties for the next 400 years. By 1087, the Muslim Turks were overrunning Asia Minor, so concerned sailors (Nicholas’ biggest fanboys) spirited the bones of the saint across the sea to a safer place — Bari, on the heel of Italy’s boot. There they remain to this day, in the Basilica de San Nicola, built especially to accommodate Nicholas’s relics. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 11)

The bulk of Sunday morning was taken up by an eight-mile loop hike through the Cotswolds countryside. The previous day we had purchased a walking map, “North Cotswold Classic Walks (Revised Edition”) (not revised enough, as it turned out).

It was a small party that set out after breakfast — Shannon and myself, her parents, and Bret & Sammy. I was put in charge of the “laminated, waterproof, and tear-resistant” map. The only way the map would get wet on this day was by me sweating on it. Clear skies and temperatures in the mid-eighties again. Having done it a couple of times before, we covered the first leg from Lower Slaughter to Upper Slaughter with ease. Then we headed into the open country to the north. The challenge here was the narrow country roads’ almost non-existent shoulders, forcing the intrepid hiker to thread a needle between occasional traffic and thick hedgerows. Luckily this scenario was somewhat rare, and most of the hike was on public right-of-way trails through meadows, farmland, and wooded areas. A red fox — in considerably better condition than the flea-bitten specimen we saw skulking in Highgate Cemetery — scampered down a sloping orchard into the brush that lined the River Eye.

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We were just shy of the halfway point when my navigational skills were put to the test for the first time. Our map instructions stated “6. Turn L, walk beside road to x-roads, and turn R along a wide grassy kerb to first metal gate (between stone walls) on your L. Follow farm tracks between stone walls to old barn. Through wooden gate following W/M sign.” The first bit was no problem. It was a delight to have a wide grassy anything along the side of a road to walk on. The first metal gate appeared in due course, we went through it…and nothing on the other side matched the map’s descriptions. No “farm tracks,” but a paved asphalt driveway. No “old barn,” no “wooden gate.” The whole property had been thoroughly upgraded. We took turns peering at the map and pointing at random things, trying to decide if we were in the right place. Did the Navigator screw up, or was the map incorrect? Our shufflings and mutterings drew the attention of the occupants of the property, who glanced at us over their yard fence, and seemed used to seeing confused hikers. We eventually made an educated guess as to direction, and scooted down a steep incline to a little grassy ravine chock-full of cows. According to writer Bill Bryson, several hikers in Britain have been killed by cows over the years. I kept this nugget of information to myself, as the cows showed no more interest in us than the property owners did a few moments ago.

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Scrambling up the other side of the ravine, we encountered a way marker that matched the map, and we continued with confidence. There was another slight detour when one of the access gates was blocked, due to that particular pasture being occupied by a couple of sharp-horned steers.

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The path grew damper and the shade more frequent as we began to follow the track of a disused railway along a wooded hillside path. When we came to a fork, there was a group of obviously new semi-detached bungalows where the map promised open fields…so I took the wrong fork, thinking the map couldn’t be wrong twice in a row. The sense of going the wrong way grew until I called the group to a halt, and took a chance at us doubling back the way we came. It’s a good thing I did, or we may have ended up in Wales looking at the Irish Sea. We picked our way around the new housing, and sure enough, the proper trail continued.

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Overgrown tunnel under the disused railway

Upon our arrival back at River Cottage around 1:00, Shannon really wanted to experience the traditional English Sunday lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She and a few others headed for the Slaughters restaurant, and I settled in to my hidden den to watch the England v. Panama World Cup game, lunching on crackers, prosciutto, and Peroni. England gave Panama a sound 6-0 drubbing. Post-lunch, Shannon, her mom, and two nieces went horseback riding.

A leisurely afternoon stretched into an equally leisurely evening. I took a hot and criminally long shower, followed by an attempt to completely drain the Irish whiskey bottle so there would be one less thing to pack onto the minibus in the morning. Thoughts turned to dinner as the horseback-riding party returned. Options being limited, we wandered over to the Slaughters once more. Our fluttering waiter had world’s most hard-to-trace accent. Sheila finally pinpointed it as belonging to “Franc,” the fluttering wedding planner played by Martin Short in Father of the Bride.

The next morning we regretfully bade farewell to the wonderful River Cottage. Our new minibus driver seemed to be a carbon copy of our previous minibus driver, John. Silver-haired, stocky, but with a military bearing. Despite his cheery, Northern-accented gregariousness, I never caught his name, and before long, we were so chummy it would be embarrassing to ask. He simply became “Not-John” in my mind.

We were heading for Scotland, and decided to break the drive into two days. After a few hours heading north, passing exits for Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, we stopped at a nondescript roadside service area for a nondescript Burger King lunch. As I pulled a Peroni from the bus’s cooler, Not-John spoke of the day’s World Cup match. He was actively rooting against the Argentinians, still bitter about spending his 19th birthday fighting 1982’s Falklands War. After another hour-and-a-half or so, we were among the green crags and sparkling waters of England’s famous Lake District. We were in the north now, where the pace was a little slower and the people more relaxed. “Lovely” replaced “brilliant” as the one-word expression of approval.

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The Lake District

Located entirely in the rustic county of Cumbria, the Lake District is the land of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter. If you think the Cotswolds are aesthetically pleasing, the Lake District doubles down. Home of 21 freshwater lakes (almost none of which are actually called lakes — they’re “tarns,” “waters,” or “meres”) and the highest elevations in England, the Lake District receives 12 million visitors per year.

We reached our destination, the Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere, by two that afternoon. William Wordsworth used the locale of what would one day be the hotel as a setting for his narrative poem “Michael”

“Upon the forest-side in Grasmere vale/There dwelt a shepherd; Michael was his name…”

The property was indeed a sheep farm in Wordsworth’s day. The current building was built as a “gentleman’s residence” for one Stephen Heelis in 1853. It remained as a private residence until the 1930s when it became the “Cooperative Holidays Association,” offering organized holiday activities for working-class youths. It was refurbished into a luxury hotel in the late 1990s.

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We chose it for our stop en route to Scotland due to its attached restaurant boasting Michelin-star status. “Inspired by the Cumbrian countryside,” the restaurant offered dishes such as venison pastrami with smoked juniper yogurt, West Coast langoustine with asparagus, North Atlantic cod, oyster, and tarragon salsa, and several others that do not crop up on a typical menu. All vegetables are grown in the Forest Side’s own extensive gardens.

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The Forest Side gardens

The porter who brought our bags to our room was the first person to absolutely stump me with the thickness of his Cumbrian accent. My ears are normally very good at parsing the various British dialects, but all I could get from this fellow was “‘ow nit omsby onna rike?” or something of the sort. I could tell it was a question, and luckily, by his gestures, I understood he was asking if I wanted the luggage on the bed, so I didn’t have to embarrass us both by asking him to repeat himself. After a short walk and a nap in our room (complete with a bathroom bigger than my first apartment), Shannon and I met the rest of the party in the lounge for cocktails at six-thirty. The bartender, Michael, was on his summer break from university, and made one of the Forest Side’s signature cocktails, the name and ingredients for which are now lost as I did not jot them down. Whiskey-based, it was one of the best cocktails I’ve had. Old-fashioned-like, but with a touch of more tropical fruitiness. When Michael handed it over to me, I thanked him in the proper northern English way — “cheers” — and received the proper northern English response — “that’s all right, then.”

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Dinner was at seven, followed by another round of cocktails on the veranda. The sky finally began to darken around ten, and the mosquitoes forced us inside, but we were sad that the Forest Side was to be a one-night-only experience.

Up and out, with Not-John behind the wheel, by nine-thirty the next morning. We trundled through the furthest northern reaches of England, and scraps of ancient masonry began appearing along the roadside. We had reached Hadrian’s Wall.

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Traditionally regarded as the boundary between England and Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall actually lies entirely within England. It extends about 80 miles across one of the narrowest points on the island of Great Britain, from the Tyne estuary in the east to Solway Firth in the west. Construction began in 122 AD on the orders of Roman Emperor Hadrian to manage and protect Roman holdings in the southern half of Britain. Historians now believe the wall may have purposes in addition to fending off Pictish barbarians, such as controlling the flow of goods and making sure customs were paid. Built into the wall were small “milecastle” fortifications every (Roman) mile or so, and larger forts every five miles. Although Roman influence extended far beyond the wall, it represented the demarcation line between civilization and wilderness. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 10)

Today was the first low-key day of the trip. No rushing around to squeeze in as much stuff as possible like we did in London. I slept late enough to actually be a little hungry upon awakening, so I augmented my coffee with a couple of rashers of bacon, and toasted “bloomer” bread with rich, fatty English butter.

There may be no better place in the world for a walk than the Cotswolds. By late morning, we were on one of the many footpaths that criss-cross the woods and pastures surrounding Lower Slaughter, Upper Slaughter, and the larger village of Bourton-on-the-Water. (“Slaughter” comes not from the ultimate fate of many of the area’s sheep, but from “slough,” meaning “wet land.”) We crossed the River Eye (which takes about five steps on a footbridge — the scale of what earns the name “river” is a little smaller over here), noting the trout idling lazily just beneath the surface, and the duck families paddling to and fro. The only thing that could make everything ever more like a children’s storybook setting would be a bunny rabbit. As if on cue, one hopped out from behind a hedge. It was almost sickening how perfect the scene was.

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Just beyond the village, our leisurely progress was observed by a herd of curious cows, and two horses wandered over to the fence line to say hello. These horses seemed absolutely delighted to see us and have their noses stroked. Shannon, our group’s true horse aficionado, reached under the jaw of one of them to scratch its ear on the far side. The horse actually leaned into her and closed its eyes in bliss. I have a feeling it would have rolled over to have its belly scratched if we were on the other side of the fence.

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The footpath passed by the parish church of St. Lawrence. The interior chancel was preserved from the old Norman church that once stood here back in the 14th century, but the rest of the building dates from 1784. The churchyard was the usual jumble of slender, tilted headstones, and the practice of burying randomly connected family members not only in the same plot but the same grave was very much in evidence. And it seems that tombstone engravers got paid by the word. “Here is interred the mortal remains of Harold Wyckham-Pigg, Esq., parish deacon and beloved husband, father, brother, cousin, and humble servant of the Lord, called home from his earthly toils in his sixty-sixth year of life, Monday the twenty-third of June, eighteen hundred and thirty-six, anno domini. Also, Mrs. Margaret Wyckham-Pigg, beloved daughter-in-law of same, wife of Peter Wyckham-Pigg, solicitor, passed from this life on…etc. etc.” Each line in a different font, like the annoying co-worker who tapes up signs in the office break room.

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We reached Bourton-on-the-Water just in time to start looking for a place to have lunch. Bourton is often referred to as the “Venice of the Cotswolds” due to the five arched bridges that span the River Windrush as it flows through the center of town. The distinctive yellow limestone buildings that give Cotswold villages their quaint character line the stone channel that carries the river. Like much of the Cotswolds, Bourton-on-the-Water shows evidence of continual habitation since prehistoric times and its name reflects a heavy Saxon influence. “Burgh” meaning camp, and “ton” meaning estate, enclosure, or village. So Bourton is the “village beside the camp.” (On the water.) The camp may have been the remains of an old Roman camp, as Roman-era coins and pottery have been found nearby.

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Our choice for lunch was De La Haye’s Cafe Tea Room, where I indulged in what might be my favorite traditional British dish, bangers and mash. The tiny bit of green onion in the mashed potatoes was a brilliant touch. Just across the street from the cafe was Bourton’s war memorial, listing names of the village’s young men lost in World War I and II. Even the smallest village we visited had one of these, a reminder of what a toll these conflicts took on every corner of Britain.

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After lunch, some of our party went to the Motoring Museum (“Bourton’s #1 Tourist Attraction”) next door, and a few of us (myself included) wandered back to River Cottage to while away the afternoon reading, dozing, and watching World Cup (Iceland v. Nigeria).

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Not even a reach-in.

My father-in-law and brother-in-law are both super-busy-type businessmen, and a two-and-a-half week sojourn overseas was only possible for them thanks to modern technology. Most late afternoons they would have their ever-present laptops open and tabbed up with memos, spreadsheets, and schematics that I could never presume to come close to understanding, while I, as a teacher on summer break, filled my time making ice and peering into the cupboards for more crackers. 

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River Cottage living room.

Because I had so much extra time to stake out our lodgings, I commandeered the best room in River Cottage for myself. Behind a small, nondescript wooden door off the kitchen — it looked like it led to a closet or pantry — was a tiny, perfect, wood-paneled study with a low, exposed-beam ceiling, the world’s softest armchair, and a flat-screen TV mounted next to the stone fireplace. This was where I would spend the next few evenings finishing my Nelson biography, sipping whiskey with painstakingly harvested ice, writing up the notes that are the basis for what you’re reading right now, and ignoring accusations of being anti-social. The only downside was the window was right on the heavily-traveled footpath through the village center. On one memorable occasion a Japanese tourist cupped his hands and stared directly into the window, only to find me, drink in hand, staring right back. I raised my glass in friendly salutation, but he seemed terrified and scampered off. I don’t know what he was expecting to see.

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Recessed door to my hideway.

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Introvert’s paradise.

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River Cottage back garden and sunroom.

Dinner that evening was at Lords of the Manor, just outside Upper Slaughter. We took a different footpath in a different direction, passing by Lower Slaughter’s historic Old Mill, through sun-dappled woods, and sheep pastures where the sheep barely bothered to get out of our way.

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Sheep pasture selfie, on the way to Lords of the Manor.

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Located in the lower floors of a manor house dating from 1649, Lords of the Manor recently lost its Michelin star due to a change in chefs, but I have no doubt it will soon earn it back. The 19th-century Witts family once occupied the house and grounds, and were the “lords” referred to in the restaurant’s name, and their manor was Upper Slaughter and its surrounding lands. The manor house sits on eight acres of gardens and lawns. Continue reading

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