A while back, I wrote this post about vampires and history. This time round, I thought I’d focus on magic. This is, in part, thanks to the new Mr Norrell and Dr Strange TV series, which looks at what would happen if magic was around in the Napoleonic 19th century. It also happens to be the weekend I am *ahem* going to the Harry Potter studio tour. So what better time?
Much like vampires, magic wasn’t actually a thing. At least, as far as I know. In fact, any film, TV series, or game, tends to focus on this, rather than the actual – you know – magic. Merlin is a good example of this; the first season made a big deal of the will-he-won’t-he aspect of whether Merlin would reveal his gift to his best friend Arthur. <SPOILER ALERT> He never does</SPOILER>. For this reason, above anything else, it is a useful proxy for talking about secret societies and emergent religions. Early Arthurian legends focussed on the contrast between paganism and Christianity.
Then, of course, you’ve got the animal side of things. Monsters are a major part of the magic genre, up there with castles and shiny swords, and they’ve been around for centuries. I have a theory that magical monsters are really a stand-in for extinct European megafauna. But, really, it is just a great way to talk about the wild and dangerous animals that were out there in our historic past.
But perhaps the single most important thing that magic does, is reintroduce mystery. With magic, you’re never going to know all of the things. You, let’s face it, are a muggle. You cannot do magic, and you don’t understand the limitations of the art. When Harry Potter introduced new elements every year, that was allowed, because no-one said it couldn’t. Things do go bump in the night, but with modern knowledge what it is, it’s harder to be afraid of that. With magic, you get All Of That back. And it’s awesome!
This week I have mainly been playing Mount & Blade; a game series that attempts to straddle the gap between first-person combat, and broader third-person strategy. While it doesn’t completely nail either, it reaches further than almost any other. I’m feeling particularly generous due to the sheer weight of hours I have clocked since I bought it a little over a week ago. The game itself is set in the low-fantasy realm of Calradia, but gets its inclusion on this blog by dint of the expanded content. These include games set in Northern Europe in the 9th century, Eastern Europe in the 17th Century, and Western Europe in the 19th century. The Fire and Sword series in particular has taught me a lot about Eastern European history that I really didn’t know. The depictions of Tartars and Cossacks, hussars and dragoons, and the burgeoning settlements are particularly vivid. So my question is this: What is the best perspective to take in history games? The Mount & Blade games try to work the large-scale army combat from a first-person perspective. However, they also throw in broader tactical views, as well as more RPG action in settlements. In many ways it mirrors Sid Meiers’ Pirates, which let you command fleet-to-fleet engagements, duel renowned pirates, and woo the governor’s daughter. Other games dominate the ends of the spectrum, from Assassins’ Creed’s detailed urban environments to Total War’s dynastic grandeur. But none of them get every angle perfectly. In particular, I think that it is harder to get the broad-stroke strategic angle right. First-person shooters have been around long enough that single-player games know where to put themselves. Larger ‘ruling’ games still need to develop their platform. And that’s bad news as far as historical games are concerned, because ‘big history’ seriously overshadows the everyday kind. And I think I’d like more horse crap on the roads.
This was the year I started this blog and, looking at how popular it has been, I think it was a good time to do so. 2014 has been a very interesting year for history. We really won’t just let it stay in the past. We insist on bringing it up again and again, and we don’t mind distorting it for our own entertainment. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to run down the top 12 posts of the last year for your consumption.
This February blog argued that, if Middle Earth is supposed to be set in prehistoric Europe, the tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins are completely out of place. What’s more, strictly speaking, it probably should be cannabis they are smoking, not tobacco.
When it comes to history in popular culture, counterfactual histories (which did not happen, and would’ve changed the course of history if they had) are pretty damn popular. Don’t be surprised if we revisit this topic later. Hat tip to Alternate History for linking to this article.
2014 has also been the year of the Lego brick, with the franchise releasing a major blockbuster this year. In much the same spirit, I had a conversation with James Pegrum, who specialises in building historical Lego models. Since that conversation, he has set up a group, called Brick to the Past, and they go from strength to strength.
We are very lucky to have spoken to a large number of creative history fans this year. One man who embodies this trait is Scott Maynard, the illustrator behind the Happle Tea web comic. If you’re into crude humour and interesting historical facts, this is the place for you.
As someone who is interested in film and history, I can’t help but notice that some time periods just don’t get the same kind of coverage that others do. In this blog, I got all analytical and worked out exactly *how* neglected those periods are. Verdict? There’s plenty of scope for more films throughout our earlier history, but that imbalance isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon.
Bored with modern celebrities? The lovely Historical Honey gave us a guest blog about what the heroes and villains of our past would get up to if they were around today. Would they slink to the shadows? Or are they more likely to grab the limelight, ever the attention grabber? What do you think?
One thing that I definitely needed to address this year is just why Anne Boleyn is so popular with the world of web historians. Because she is. If historians anywhere need a figurehead, this woman is, apparently, the one to go for. Thanks again to Historical Honey for the inspiration.
Alan Moore is, primarily, a graphic novelist. But he’s also a wizard, and a cult icon, and he really doesn’t like it when people get taken advantage of. So when he cropped up in the news twice in one week, in historically-related areas, I figured it was only fair we had a look at him, and why he matters.
If there’s one vaguely-historical thing the public loves, it’s vampires. They’ve got that whole neck-nibbling thing going on. What with them being immortal, any film, TV series, or game that features them could quite justifiably see itself heading into the past at some point. But how helpful are vampires as a medium for history?
Epic Rap Battles of History is an important part of modern culture, inasmuch as it teaches young people about important historical figures through the medium of confrontational music and aggressive posturing. With that in mind, I felt it was only appropriate to get one of the show’s creators in to discuss the hows and whys of the show.
Janine Spendlove is a high school history teacher/US Marine/pilot/published author/mother/historical cosplayer. While all of those things are pretty impressive, and combined they’re are totally awesome, it was that last one that particularly interested us. We had a chat with the woman behind the outfits to find out how she does it.
By far my most popular blog this year has been the time I interviewed Erin and Morag from Manfeels Park. The web comic combines quotes from actual comment threads and combines them with art from Jane Austen films, to highlight just how silly they are. Further comment threads ensue.
The other day I was watching Cowboys and Aliens. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great concept, with top actors, great CGI, and terrible writing. Case in point? At one point the posse stumbles upon a paddle steamer. It is upside down, “500 miles away from any river big enough to hold it”. No further explanation is given, and, if this is supposed to be an indication of just how messed up things have gotten, there are no other examples.
But the point I wanted to make is about the film’s portrayal of the Chiricahua Apaches. Their introduction comes via a swift ambush on the beleaguered posse. When the unconscious protagonist comes round they are being shoved around the camp by a mob of ululating braves. A dead member of the posse is aggressively thrown on the fire, and things look like they’re going to go south pretty quickly. [SPOILERS] occur, and attention shifts before things can get out of hand. Eventually, an alliance is formed, and the Chiricahuas heal the protagonist’s amnesia with psychedelics.
My point is, the tribe only seems to be there to drive the plot. The main character needs to start of with amnesia because the plot demands it. But when the writers needed a way to heal that amnesia quick, they got them some of that Injun magic. I’m no expert with psychedelics, but I’m pretty confident that they can’t just heal unspecified mental trauma on demand. Still, the confident way the Chiricahua chief says “they will take care of that” implies that they’ve done this thousands of times.
At the end, the main town of Absolution becomes a [SPOILER] mining town. This is despite the fact that the major deposits of [SPOILER] that we know about (because of plot) are right in the middle of Apache territory. I have a hard time believing that the Chiricahuas would just roll over and allow that. I also have beef with the fact that the white men are willing to let the fugitive protagonist ride off into the sunset because of their shared experiences, but presumably run the Chiricahuas off their land despite the fact that THEY ALSO SHARED IN THOSE EXPERIENCES.
But let’s stop picking on this particular film. These are actually some pretty common themes.
For example, in the Call of Juarez game, an Apache medicine man called Calm Water appears as a quest giver. Because of him the protagonist, Billy, learns how to use a bow and horse, and climbs up a steep mesa to retrieve an eagle’s feather. Billy goes on to become a braver man; facing his inner turmoil and standing up for himself and those he cares about. Yay for Apache-sponsored spiritual growth. Calm Water is subsequently killed for helping Billy, possibly because the plot demanded it.
Want more examples? I didn’t play Assassin’s Creed 3, and neither did any of my gamer friends, so I can’t really talk about Ratonhnhaké:ton, the Mohawk-English protagonist of that game. You’ll also notice I haven’t really gone into Red Dead Redemption. Again, this is because I haven’t played it, much as I would like to. But from all I’ve read, the old tropes are alive and well there. Neither do I want to talk about Fallout New Vegas: Honest Hearts, or the Twilight franchise because neither is set in the past. That said, they do comply with several of the common tropes associated with Native Americans. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Star Wars’ Sand People and Avatar’s Na’vi are both proxies for Native American cultures. And they both stink.
I did watch Appalloosa, the Ed Harris-directed film about two marshals who are trying to bring peace to a lawless town. While the two heroes are on the trail of their quarry, some more of those pesky Chiricahua turn up to ransack the bad guys, and carry off their guns, horses and wimmun. After a shoot-out, Viggo Mortensen resolves the thing by giving them a horse.
Another film I watched recently was A Million Ways to Die in the West. If there’s one thing that film did right it was to knowingly admit that the indigenous peoples were treated terribly by the settlers. But then Seth MacFarlane does drugs with them and grows spiritually so that he can go back and face the bad guy. Oh, and also, they provide him with [SPOILERS] so that he can outsmart that bad guy.
I could also go into Disney cartoons with Pocahontas and Peter Pan, but I think I’d probably get more hate there for ruining your childhoods. Suffice it to say, it’s always the white guys who end up with the minority women, and never the other way around. No wonder Save the Last Dance felt so progressive…
But anyway, Native American cultures are still suffering persecutions to this day. This frequently comes in the form of the erosion of their territories and reservations. However, it is also in the reduction of their culture to that of a plot device. They are inserted as one more hurdle for the inevitably white male protagonists to overcome. Hell, one reason I enjoyed True Grit so much was that it was told through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl. Switching things up a bit. History has not been kind to the more-than 500 different First Nations peoples. They had an oral culture, which has not often made the jump to the written word. Furthermore, their place within American society has very much been determined by others.
In media terms, Native Americans generally crop up in ‘Westerns’, which are dated to a specific era. It is very rare to find them depicted outside of this time period, and even when they do, such as in Twilight, they are generally portrayed as savages. They are shown as animals, who are defined by their curse, not by their mastery of it. And that sucks. I really want to see something different. No more magic, no psychedelics, no brave warriors. There has to be a whole side to that culture that I know nothing about, and I want a bit more balance, please.
A couple of years ago, a guy called Christopher Booker came up with a theory that there are only seven (7) basic stories in existence. You’ve probably heard of it. According to Chrissy B, all the tales you know are based on these seven (7). No more, no less. Enterprising geniuses have since whittled this number down. But that generally means removing parallel points ’til all you have left is the theory of one story, wherein all you can say is that *plot happens*, which isn’t really all that genius.
However! If, like me, you enjoy watching films, you may have noticed that some of them seem oddly familiar. First, there’s this:
Pulp Fiction is Arthurian Legend
OK, I can sort-of see what’s going on here. Tarantino likes to borrow heavily from other genres. That said, it’s usually Hong Kong cinema and Westerns, right? There are a whole bunch of other things going on which rather undermine this theory. I’m pretty sure Arthurian legend doesn’t include sex dungeons or shoving family heirlooms into bodily orifices. But it’s true, it has been a while since I last read any, and the last adaptation I saw was Merlin, which, as a BBC show, probably wouldn’t depict that stuff anyway. On the other hand, this does actually lay on the religious side of things, which Merlin avoided completely, so what the hell, we’ll give it a pass. If nothing else, this does give a reason for the contrived way Vincent Vega ends up on a date with Mia Wallace.
O Brother Where Art Thou is Homer’s Odyssey
This one is no secret. The Coen brothers made plenty of allusions to their literary inspiration across the length and breath of this film. Everything from the hero’s name ‘Ulysses’ (the Roman version of ‘Odysseus’) to their adventures on the road. They are waylaid by sirens, assaulted by a one-eyed ‘cyclops’ and eventually have to see off a suitor who has been hanging round the hero’s wife.
Ulysses is supposed to be a smart guy, but in this scene, as throughout the movie, his biggest obstacle is water. Early on in the film he passes up the chance to get baptised, and is pursued by a policeman who is described as ‘the devil’. In this scene, three very wet sirens seduce and drug them. In the penultimate scene, he is caught in a flash flood. He survives by clinging to the remains of his old life, in the same manner as an Odyssean shipwreck.
Star Wars is the Downfall of the Roman Republic
Science fiction has been massively influenced by classical literature. Take, for example Star Trek, with its Romulans, Vulcans and James *Tiberius* Kirk. But, perhaps a better example is Star Wars, which borrows from both Roman history – not to mention the ‘immaculate conception’ of Anakin Skywalker.
What’s that? You want examples? Well alllllllrighty then! Darth Vader is Julius Caesar. Both men were generals, who were a little overconfident in their abilities. Sure, both of them dabbled in politics, but they made their names in conflict situations. Furthermore, when they want to build their power, they do it through alliances. Even after passing his Jedi trials, Anakin is still hanging out with Obi Wan, and when he goes over to the dark side, it is to play an important role in a governing partnership with Darth Sidious (Always two, there are!).
Luke Skywalker is Caesar’s rumoured son Brutus blended with Caesar’s adopted son Octavian. Brutus and Caesar ended up on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but their fortunes were very much intertwined. Brutus was one of Caesar’s killers, whereas Darth Vader had a late change of heart, and gave his life to save his son. It is unknown whether Brutus actually knew or believed the rumours about his parentage, but HBO covers the subject pretty well. Sure, it’s no “I am your father.” But nothing is. And if Luke is Brutus, then Padmé Amidala represents Servilia, who was Caesar’s long-term on-the-sly shag buddy and paramour, as well as Brutus’ mother.
Han Solo is Mark Anthony. In the expanded universe, Han starts out as a beggar and pickpocket who subsequently joins the Imperial navy. Likewise, Mark Anthony was a plebian, who ran with street gangs as a teen, and ended up in the Roman army.Either way, after Caesar’s death he joined up with Octavian and one other dude to form a new government. Han also marries princess Leia, who is the daughter of Anakin Skywalker and the Sister of Luke Skywalker. Octavian’s sister Octavia Minor was the fourth of Mark Anthony’s five wives. And, yep, even that incest thing is paralleled.
Modern stories borrow heavily from history and classic literature, just as Shakespeare borrowed from Ovid. But it’s down to the individuals to decide whether those storylines are cleverly re-worked, or just lazily rehashed. If you have any other ideas, please let me know in the comments section.
The first character I want to discuss is from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, which was recently released as the surprisingly good movie; The Eagle. The hero of the story is Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, and in the film he is portrayed by Channing Tatum.
I have got beef with this name. It’s not that it’s a terribly bad name. Instead, rather like the ‘Captain John C. Shepherd Christ’, his name has certain connotations that just seem a bit too obvious. ‘Marcus’ is one of the most Roman names that also has biblical connotations. ‘Flavius’ is a clear nod to the Flavian dynasty of emperors, who ruled the empire around 100 years before this story was set. I actually have one issue with this, because Marcus’s father is a Legate. I am not convinced that the Roman government would give a member of a previous ruling dynasty command of a legion. Maybe that’s just me though.
But my real problem is the cognomen ‘Aquila’. This literally means ‘Eagle’. This name did exist at the time, but when your book is all about a guy going to find an Eagle, calling him ‘Eagle’, albeit in Latin, seems a bit cheap. The trouble is; since The Life of Brian, giving Roman characters names that foreshadow their role has become a bit of a joke. Now, I appreciate that the book was published in the ’50s, a long time before The Life of Brian, but the subsequent BBC radio drama and the film both came after. One tweak is all I’m asking, here.
Names in Assassin’s Creed
But let’s mix things up a bit here. What about the assassins of Assassin’s Creed? Sure, the series do reference a lot of real historical characters. Sometimes the hero is just bouncing between them, but the heroes are all entirely fictional. The first assassin you play as is Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. In Arabic this apparently means ‘the bird son of no one’. I don’t speak Arabic, but even I know that ‘Alt’ has certain connotations. In Germanic languages it means ‘other’ – as in ‘alternative’. In Romantic languages it suggests heights – as in ‘altitude’ – I also know this because my Uni’s motto was ‘per ardua ad alta’; ‘through hard work, great heights are achieved’.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. Altaïr is an ‘other’. He is radically different from the less-well-rendered civilians that inhabit his world. He also likes climbing. He *really* likes climbing. Plus heights. As long as there is a well-placed haystack at the bottom of his climb, he has absolutely no fear of heights. I might be stretching the point here, but I think that Altaïr also sounds a bit like ‘ulterior’, which, given that he is an assassin, may be fitting. It may also be worth mentioning that the second main character, Ezio, goes on to have a daughter, named Flavia. So there’s your segue.
Names in Oscar Wilde
While looking for a third example – and deciding not to include Asterix and company – I came across this, by Listverse. The infamous Dorian Gray is apparently based on John Gray; an acquaintance of Wilde’s. The first name change is possibly a reference to the Dorian Greeks (as opposed to the Ionians) who, yes, liked to have their way with teenage boys. There is also an undertone of this in the book, so this might be a deliberate connotation.
Referencing the Dorians may also be a less subtle way of explaining how cultured the main character is. The book came out in 1891, near the peak of the NeoClassical period. Wilde’s readers would’ve known the difference between a Doric and an Ionic column, but few of them would have had the balls to name their child after the classical cultures. Biblical names, such as ‘John’, were all the rage but Dorian Gray is a stranger animal and the reader is meant to know it.
For what it’s worth
I can’t hate authors too much for using these tricks. I once read a statistic that said something like 10% of all women’s names during the Tudor period can be accounted for by Henry VIII’s wives, and even then there are only three different Christian names. Don’t quote me on this one, and if you do know the real statistic, I would love to read it. My point is that historical names (particularly if they come from the Bible) are very common. It is quite hard to make a character seem ‘of that era’, and when you take the generation gap into consideration, it can be particularly tough to place your hero.
Character names can give a subtle indication of who that person is and where they are going. Far more subtle that most visual descriptions. As someone who has never named anything more significant than a guinea pig, I’m probably not the person to talk about naming real-live tiny human beings, but I think that many parents pick a name that they think will reflect who that person is, or who they hope that person will become. Those who create fictional characters do the same thing, with the added complication that their character must seem at home in the world around them. We know the past better than we know the future our children will grow up in.
This is how I imagine Jon Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow. The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From this site.
This is an unashamedly geeky post, which I writing because it’s hot, and I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading, and because I enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones, misogyny and medieval romance last time. I’ve had a question from Rachel Moss (tweeting over on @WetheHumanities today) going round and round in my head today. She was talking about the popularity of the medieval era for fiction writers, and asked ‘What is it about the Middle Ages than encourages people to use it for fantasy?’
Two weeks ago History Mine featured a blog about Anne Boleyn, and why she is so popular online. That blog featured a picture of a Lego model, which was carefully researched and built by Mr James Pegrum. Mr Pegrum is a true artist with bricks, and a great historian, with an eye for everyday dramas as much as important historical events. I thought it was time we had a proper look at his work.
History Mine: What are Lego MOCs, and what is the appeal?
James Pegrum: MOCs are ‘my own creation’; basically something individuals come up with as opposed to a set made by Lego or somebody else. As a kid I never got on too well with Airfix and similar kit models. All that glue got messy and then the painting; oh dear. With Lego I could make a mistake and put it right as many times as I felt necessary.
I could also make my own creations, whether it be a model of something in real life or from my own imagination. My older brother used balsa wood, but I didn’t have the skill to follow him. Having continued the hobby into adulthood it has kept its appeal. It helps me unwind from work, and at the same time is highly rewarding once you have made a model. I’ve also combined it with my interest in history and, at times, architecture, which has influenced quite a few day trips!
HM: With LEGO you have to work with the bricks that are available. You’re doubly limiting yourself by building historically accurate pieces. Do you like to make things hard for yourself?
JP: Yes! For me part of the enjoyment is the challenge of trying to recreate something in Lego and keep it as close as possible to the real scene of building. The number of types of Lego bricks has increased since I was a child, and that has made it a lot easier. At the same time I’ve learnt from other adult fans of Lego (AFOLs) ways of using older bricks in different ways, it’s been amazing how much I use basic old bricks in techniques I never knew as a child. It has helped of course being able to get more bricks as an adult.
From the historical accuracy aspect, I get great enjoyment studying a building, a boat, a plane or whatever it maybe I’m modelling. In my everyday job I work in the construction industry as a surveyor and detailing is a very important part of the job, so I’ve brought that into my modelling. So if you ever see somebody at a castle looking at the stone work in close detail; that could be me!
HM: Which creations are you most proud of?
JP: That is an increasingly hard question! My Great Fire of London scene was very rewarding, from both a model and photography aspect. Lego doesn’t lend its self to wonky leaning buildings and I wanted to try to capture the old timber frame buildings of London, which came out quite well. With the lighting it took a lot of shots, but was fun
The Golden Hinde/Pelican is high up there for me. I have always enjoyed building ships and I visited the recreation of this ship in London with my oldest boy a few years. We spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring and taking loads of images of the ship to help me make a model. Sculpting the hull was very draining and I’m happy with how it came out.
In my top three would have to be one of bigger projects; Tigelfah Castle. This isn’t based on a real castle but takes inspiration from many castles around the UK. I tried to capture the stages of castle development is this model and keep it as realistic as possible at the same time. It has features such as working drawbridges, portcullises, toilets, fires and much more. Furthermore it was part of a team build with seven other UK AFOLs, and overall the medieval scene we created was amazing and a great privilege to be part of.
HM: Do they get broken down once you’ve finished with them?
JP: The large majority do. Part of the appeal of Lego is that it’s recyclable (it would have to be to make it economically viable as a hobby!). The models also take up a great deal of space. That said, I have kept the Golden Hinde along with a few other smaller builds.
HM: How much planning goes into a piece?
JP: It varies depending on the size and complexity of the model. A large castle can take over a year of building and planning. With the Tigelfah castle I kept changing the layout as I progressed. A big factor is whether I have an idea/technique to hand, I’ve found as I’ve been making more models the planning is taking less time as I’ve got more techniques developed and ‘filled’ in my technique library. Recently I’ve been doing forestry scenes so have been developing how I do trees and the like.
HM: How do you go about buying the bricks? What about the very specific bricks (I think I saw a ‘dissolution of the monasteries’ that used diving flippers as gargoyle ears)?
JP: There’s a number of sources to get bricks. Going direct to Lego means you can get pretty much anything that’s current, though it does cost more. The Lego stores have a wall of parts, which can be a good source, though there parts are very limited. Other than that I use a website called Bricklink. It’s cheaper, but you can’t get everything, or in the quantity you need.
I used to buy more in bulk, though now I’ve got a good stock (particularly in light bluish grey) so it’s more about getting those few bricks to finish something off. On specific parts, I would use Bricklink, on the flippers that was a friend, Barney, he worked on the Tigelfah project, and I believe he picked them up on Bricklink.
HM: If LEGO licensed 3D printers, would you get one?
JP: Interesting idea! As long as the bricks were official Lego and at their high quality, yes! There are a number of other brands out there, but they don’t match Lego’s quality, which is why Lego are the leading brand.
HM: And is this a social activity as well?
JP: Very much so, there’s a lot social interaction done on the internet as well as public shows. Over the years I have made good friends with other AFOLs and it hasn’t just been limited to doing group projects. I belong to a couple of Lego user groups (LUGs, as Lego likes to call them) and these vary in social activity. The London LUG meets in a pub, which raises a few eyebrows!
Thanks to James for sharing your thoughts. If you’d like to see more of his creations, they are available through James’s Flickr page. We’ve now spoken to guys from both sides of the Atlantic, but the rest of the world, not to mention the ladies out there, are still a bit underrepresented here. Please get in touch and help me redress the balance.
To the backdrop of hip-hop beats experience Chaucer remixed to the cultures and lives of Deptford, taking us from modern day inner London life to the 14th Century and around the world to Nigeria and elsewhere.
Entering the large domed performance space, the drumbeats permeated around the dimly lit room, creating a relaxed ambience as the audience settled at their tables, the sound of chatter softly filling the space. With the DJ Mantis offering a suitable musical contribution to each development of the evening, the night of poetry slam with a twist got into swing.
The Albany in Deptford was hosting the event Telling Tales, a retelling of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer for the 21st Century. A new poetry book by Patience Agbabi, it is an inspired remix of the Middle-English classic, taking us from The Miller’s Tale to the Wife of Bath.
Organised by Apples and Snakes, an organisation for performance poetry in England, the show is taking a tour around the UK over the next 6 months, from Gravesend to its finale on October 29 at the Canterbury Festival.
The poetry slam consists of a traditional format with the poets battling it out between one another – but with a twist. Normally consisting of poets performing their own work, in this case they were taking on a poem and character from the book by Agbabi, and competing for the best interpretation and performance; which they were free to create as they saw fit.
The poems themselves were an eclectic mix that took us from Nigeria to 14th Century ‘olde’ English and modern day inner city London, with a touch of hip-hop smoothed over the top.
The six performances were completely original and took us through the themes of love, relationships, marriage, infidelity, each embedded in different cultures and accents. The haunting, magnetic yet darkly humorous performance of ‘The Crow’, exploring the broken heart of a man over his wife’s affair leading him to tragic conclusions, was in stark contrast to the cheeky city café chef with his Italian stallion partner in crime.
The performance of ‘The Debutante’, the sardonic wealth obsessed lady who would do anything for diamonds was delivered marvellously by Claudia Shipman, while The Parson with his dramatic, gospel-like performance left the evening with the warning of ‘marrying pride with lust’ leading to disaster, guiding us instead that ‘tempting power of prayer… helps us fight back.’
A wholly interactive show, the judging was based on the scorecards of the four ‘expert’ judges who were able to navigate the demands of their interpretations and those of the audience. Each holding a scorecard at the end of a performance, the audience showed their approval or disapproval of the given scores. The high energy audience feedback was maintained by the enthusiastic and rousing performance of host and poet Harry Bells Bailey. It was, he assured us, a democratically decided judging. The criteria were quality of the poem, the audience response, and the performance itself.
Some performances were undoubtedly more colourful and better prepared, however the all round participation of the audience and the interesting, eclectic and cheeky poetry itself more than compensated throughout.
As the final scores were tallied up we were treated to an impromptu performance of an ode to Deptford by a local poet, examining its past and transformation through gentrification in a rather amusing way. The audience showed their approval for the judges’ high scores all-round and the winners. They will remain a secret as you should see and decide for yourself!