". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Turn Premieres April 6 on AMC

Turn is AMC's  new series that features the Culper Ring, General Washington' network of spies who provided him information about the British.  They mostly were "undistinguished" individuals in the history of the American War of Independence, meaning they were successful spies, who were not caught, thus footnotes rather than titles of books.  Their region was New York - Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut.  They were mostly small tradesmen, farmers, and so on.

This is a series to which I've been looking forward.  I spent a fair amount time while working at the Fraunces Tavern Museum -- another center for Washington's spies -- looking at the activities of the Culper Ring.

For background in this action of the War of Independence there is an excellent book, Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring (2006),  by Alexander Rose.

For a detailed background and shooting of the AMC Turn, Hank Stuever of the Washington Post has written one, which can be read here (with the caveat -- really? the only comparison, Mr. Stuever, you can make about the character of

General Washington and the actor playing him is to frackin' Don Draper? -- how pathetic is that -- even though Mad Men is an AMC show? Television writing has a long way to go ....)

Personally, I find it more than ironic, considering our national history, particularly of who held the presidency more than any other state or region, that the shooting of Turn -- a story of the role of the New York region -- is done in Virginia. Even in television Virginia 'owns' all of our history: all of it still belongs to Old Dominion, as it has always and still claims!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ruth's Journey - Prequel to Gone With The Wind

The Margaret Mitchell estate has given its permission for the publication of a prequel to Gone With the Wind, centering as protagonist Mammy from the Georgia writer's Civil War novel that was an updating of Thomas Dixon Jr.'s The Clansman.  Like The Clansman, on which D.W. Griffith based the vile film, Birth of a Nation, the Gone With the Wind novel was the basis of an enormously popular movie.  Unlike Dixon's novel, however, Mitchell's novel still sells in the millions.

Thus sequels -- Scarlett (1991) by Alexandra Ripley, and Rhett Butler's People (2007), by Donald McCaig --

and an unauthorized parody -- The Wind Done Gone (2001), by Alice Randal, told in the antic manner of Kara Walker's silhouettes, in the voice of one of Mammy's children. The parody cause a great deal of controversy as well as a legal case as the Mitchell estate attempted to block the novel's publication.

Now a Gone With the Wind prequel, Ruth's Journey,

suggested and written by Donald McCaig, the author of Rhett Butler's People.

McCaig was a working sheepman on a Virginia farm (though his writing career began as an adman in NYC)  whose first book was about training and working with a sheepdog, Nop's Trials: A Novel (1984), whose sequel was Nop's Hope (1990). He has written other books about dogs, including Mr. and Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies, just published last year, 20013.*

He has written much else besides, including novels set in the Civil War.  Jacob's Ladder (1998), was awarded the Library of Virginia Fiction Award, the John Eston Cooke Award for Southern Fiction, and the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction.  Canaan (2008) won the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction.

Ruth's Journey will be published in October 2014.  From the NY Times article:

Mitchell was criticized for the one-dimensional nature of many African-American characters in the book, particularly Mammy, who cared for the fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. An unauthorized parody of the classic novel, “The Wind Done Gone,” published in 2001 over the objections of the Mitchell estate, was told from the perspective of a slave whose mother was Mammy.
Mr. Borland said the new book addresses those criticisms head on.
“What’s really remarkable about what Donald has done is that it’s a book that respects and honors its source material, but it also provides a necessary correction to what is one of the more troubling aspects of the book, which is how the black characters are portrayed,” Mr. Borland said. ....
The first two-thirds of the 416-page “Ruth’s Journey” are in the third person, and the last portion is told in Ruth’s own dialect. 
It seems we are determined to redeem Gone With the Wind from Reconstruction, white supremacy and Glorious Lost Cause revisionism no matter what it takes -- which perhaps will also make even more money for the Mitchell estate, though we are not supposed to think that the publishers are even thinking like that:
Booksellers said the book’s selling power was far from certain.
Sarah Brown, a buyer with Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., said that, “Rhett Butler’s People” was not a strong seller, but that “maybe people who love ‘Gone With the Wind’ will want to get more of it.”
She added, “I think it will get a lot of press but I don’t think it will be a huge blockbuster.” The book could, however, fit in with popular historical novels told by women, like “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain or “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler, she said. Atria acquired the rights in 2010, after reading about 25 pages and labored to keep it secret while Mr. McCaig worked.

The publishers are really not expecting this novel to sell well and make them money, so they are doing this book surely out of -- what?
The publisher said it would print an ambitious 250,000 copies in hardcover.

* Another dogman occurs to anyone who studies  these related matters -- Kyle Onstott.  He began his writing career with books about dog breeding -- followed by the 1950's infamous Mandingo - Falconhurst series -- the later ones co-authored by Lance Horner --  set in the 1830's antebellum south.

Recall -- many slave traders of the antebellum south began as horse traders - breeders, or went back-and-forth between the horse dealing and slave trading. Many slave traders, after the war was finished, went back to horse dealing or changed their trade to horse trading.  Not to mention how obsessed the antebellum south was with the "breeding" of everything and everyone.  Even now, people claiming membership in even the local 'old' families, tend to inquire delicately upon meeting a stranger as to the stranger's background, attempting to establish as quickly as possible whether or not this person may be a relative, a distant one or more closely related.

These Onstott novels sold well, and became famous as movies released in the 1970's.  In some ways one might look at Mandingo and Drum as prequels to QT's vile Django, though the details of much of the novels is historically accurate -- though not the slave-breeding set-up -- unlike in the Django movie. There is nothing historically accurate in QT's film.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Nashville -- Gallatin -- the Whippoorwill -- Loney Hutchins

This is hard to believe.  I'm in this club-restaurant-bar, with wifi and listening to live country music, while catching up with my other life that isn't spent in a car and looking / listening and then trying to go to sleep.  Another historic district trying to revitalize as a hipster's paradise, with music and so on.  It's easier to do in this part of the world -- the music part -- than some other places, of course.

We had just heard described at Sun Studios what Johnny Cash did to get that buzzy percussion sound out of his strings in "Walk the Line," -- and Loney Hutchins just did it now.  Loosen the strings and insert a piece of paper and get the flutter.  (In those days country didn't allow drums.  Not until 1972 could you play at the Grand Old Opry with drums in your band.)

This after having dinner at the country club on the land that once was Issac Franklin's plantation -- his widow's plantation ... we just barged in, asking directions to the mansion and other questions -- and ended up being invited to dinner.

I am drinking Harp draft in the Whippoorwill (not to be confused with the Bluebird on the television series, Nashville).  Having one heck of a grand time!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Issac Franklin Slave Trader of Slave Traders Tour Is Almost Concluded

We've gone from New Orleans on Hwy 61, pretty much, with detours, such as to Angola Penitentiary, to Natchez, done a bit on the scenic - historic Natchez Trace Parkway -- along which Andrew Jackson took slaves back with him to Nashville -- and from Nashville led, floated and sold slaves further south.  He has the distinction among the very many U.S. presidents to own slaves to be the only who actually drove a slave coffle.

Hwy 61, a/k/a the Blues Highway, follows the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota.  But the heartland of the Blues is the Mississippi Delta.*

The Delta proper begins soon after leaving Greenville, home to William Alexander Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee; Walker Percy was the orphaned son of one of William Alexander Percy's cousins; he took Walker and his siblings in and raised them when their parents were killed / died.  Greenville is all about literature -- and what a fine library the town has too.**

But soon after you leave Greenville, the county seat of Washington County, and cross the Yazoo Bridge you're in the Delta and on your way to Leland, Clarksdale and all world that made the Blues.  This is Guitarlandia too.  The entrance into Clarksdale is a monument of giant guitars, surrounding the cross of Hwy 61 and 49, where supposedly Robert Johnson sold his soul etc.  I'm not going into it here but if you don't know what Robert Johnson really did it's all in Elijah Wald's book, Escaping the Delta (among Elijah's other works is, with Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of McDougal Street, which sort of inspired the last Coen Bros. film Inside Llewyn Davis.

These last few days in the Delta are the setting of the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou -- we even had lunch in a great cafe in Greenville, Jim's, that happened to be in the film, though we didn't realize it when going there). I was so fascinated by the town's own photographs of the great floods that I nearly missed the films that were filmed here, where the locations shots need no set dressing.

Our sojourn in Guitarlandia ended today in Memphis, with a tour of Sun Records Studio

and lunch on Beale Street in the Rum Boogie, which has some of the artifacts of the lost Stax Records Studio, including the huge red neon Stax sign and guitars, guitars, guitars, hundreds of guitars hanging on the walls, from the ceilings, in cases and not, with the famous names who owned and played them, many of them recorded by Stax.  Then, just up the street from the Beale Street neo Bourbon Street tourist thang, is the Fender Guitar factory ....

This is not all we did these last days by any means, but the theme here is guitars, so that's what this is. El V was deeply moved, even to tears.  Why this would be, read his The Year Before the Flood, the early chapters about growing up in Louisiana and listening to Elvis.  However, others have been even more demonstrative: kissing the x's in the floor of Sun's studio where They stood when making "That's All Right Mama."

Tomorrow Nashville -- home on Saturday.  SO MUCH WORK we are cutting our spring break short by a day.


The state of Mississippi's Delta is not to be confused with the Mississippi River's delta, which is at least 300 miles further south, in Louisiana.  This Delta region is actually an alluvial flood plain and does not debouch into the River, though the River will overflow the plain on many an occasion.

**   Imagine, a town in which writing of all kinds is considered a legitimate objective for a kid!  Alas, in-between Natchez and Greenville is Vicksburg, where we spend a day and night.  The less said about Vicksburg the better.  It is one of the universe's armpits.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Forks in the Road

The most important thing we did today was visiting the historic site of the terrible slave market, the Forks in the Road.  That it exists is due to years of agitating by the local black community.

This was the final market, retail only, not wholesale.  Hundreds of thousands of people were sold here. Planters bought here, not other traders, collecting full complements for re-sale to other traders.

There is nothing to evoke the scenes of blood, torture, sorrow and humiliation that took place there for so many years. The memorial site is open-fronted to the sight and sound of traffic flowing along the standard highway businesses geared automobiles -- tire shops and so on.  In the further distance, the area is surrounded by church steeples jutting through the tree branches.  Except -- the cowrie shells embedded without comment in the cement of the legs of the several information markers, and set flat in the grass, a stone with broken, rusting manacles and chains. So plain, simple, unassertive, so -- beyond sorrow.

I sat on a bench for a while and thought about what I was looking at.  If this had been a Holocaust memorial it would be manicured and landscaped, large and with sculpture, big sculpture.  Just to get this took years of work by African Americans.

Worse, last year Henry Louis Gates wrote and co-produced for PBS, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.  I was so excited, thinking I'd see the Forks in the Road memorial in his Natchez segment.  But no. He not only did not mention it, but when he and his companion, supposedly a local expert, talked about the Forks, it was while they walked along side a highway that isn't where the memorial is located.  Further, they shook their heads in metaphorical sorrow that there was nothing at all to see or look at that would tell someone about the Forks in the Road ....

Wilkinson County - Natchez

Got into Natchez in the late afternoon.  Rain began as soon as we crossed out of Louisiana into Wilkinson county -- named for Our Favorite, General Wilkinson, the American Flashman.

The rain got heavier all through dinner and the night.

Clear and sunny at 7 AM, but clouded over and became dreary during breakfast. Off again to see Under-the-Hill in the daytime and without pouring rain.  Old Man River hurtled on below the Bluffs is not the Big Brown Muddy but an iron grey. Not even going to church this morning (the AME 1858 one, across from the nightclub where 200 people burned to death back in the 1920's) changed that. But Sister Clementine changed our hearts so we don't believe in evolution no more!

Out again, soon, to do what it is we do.  Bad weather is supposedly arriving.

Don't think I've spent any serious time in Mississippi before -- only along the Gulf strip.  My geographical sense of where I am in relationship to other parts of the world -- or, in this case, the Atlantic coastal locations, NYC, and the rest of the south has become deeper and more unconscious.  I am aware in a way I've never been before of the sense of unity that is Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.  I knew it abstractly, intellectually, and from the map.  But this last year has made it physical and emotional too.  I love that!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Whitney Plantation Museum

Today we visited the wonderful work in progress, the Whitney Plantation Museum.  The Whitney's proprietor, who educated seven of his eight children at Metairie Park Country Day School, invited us to visit after Wednesday evening's presentation there from The American Slave Coast. Thus, we had the privilege of personal guidance within what is now there now on the Whitney, and what further the proprietor is dreaming into existence via the application of very much very hard work, very much expense, a very discerning eye and a fine sensibility. Mr. JC  thinks he has disdain for dreaming and is interested only doing -- but what's he doing, he's doing because he thought of it, dreamed it, first.  He sees what will be and works with his whole soul to make be now. (He's a retired, notable trial counsel.)

This isn't a plantation museum like any other one already existing or in the process of being resurrected as a tourist destination.

Mr. JC is creating a memorial to all the slaves who worked and died in Louisiana, and to the slaves on the Whitney in particular.  It’s not difficult for perceive the entire entity as an enormous altar, composed of many interlocking moving parts. An historical slave labor plantation was a factory-prison of many interlocking moving parts, the most important of the parts, the laborers.

The plantation chapel is filled with sculpture replicas of the Whitney’s children – whom John knows all by name.  The sculptures are filled with life and presence. The children see you. They are judging, though neither cruel nor kind, just present. The sculptor who has called them back from the past is Rod Moorhead.  Behind the chapel is the Field of Angels, dedicated slave children. Presiding over this Memorial is a beautiful black angel, wings sweeping out, protectively receiving a tiny infant in her arms. One of the Field of Angels memorial plaques reads:
The Field of Angels is in honor of the 2200 slave infants born in St. John the Baptist parish who perished prior to the second birthday.  They were deposited in earthen holes on the plantations and occasionally at the catholic church cemetery.
Behind this memorial surrounded by willows weeping veils of spring green gauze are other commemorative art, which, so far is represented by a classic columned octogonal gazebo. Like the chapel this extensive area too is a deeply spiritual space. Because the children are called by name these are places of power, that contain both peace and sorrow. Sorrow for this terrible world human beings dreamed into existence for the sake of selfish, greedy convenience. Peace because John is a magician who has created a world to come, a world of healing for the world of evil passed away far too late.

After the tour we were guided back to the present by a cajun lunch at the B & C Seafood Restaurant on Highway 18.

Our second guide into Whitney's past is Ibrahima Seck. He drove us to the plantation and back again (el V and Ibahima had met more than once previously, but this was my first opportunity to spend time with this brilliant historian and scholar). What he has to say when talking about American blues is informative and exciting, as is everything else he thinks about. (Blues ultimately has its roots in the music Ibrahima grew up on, among other things that makes him so well educated in the elements of the form.)

On the way back, filled with gratitude for the riches of this day, I was able to be peacefully silent, able to witness the beakneck speed the swamp world's spring time renewal. We drove out from New Orleans between 10 and 11 AM and back from the Whitney between 4 and 5 PM.  In that time the trees all along the highway had burst into bloom. The female of the current twenty-some generation of a bald eagle family that has held that huge nest visible from the highway, had gone into brood mode -- or maybe egg laying? She wasn't in the nest in the morning, but flapping and perching alternately as we drove along the highway.  While we went and returned she decided to get to her business.

Spring is here, if not there ....

And, our faces are fairly finely sunburned.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

We Are Here

This trip has started out at such a high point, to where can it continue?

Picked up by a fellow historian, and the sponsor of tonight's gig.  Fantastic conversation all the way to Our Hostess's home.  New fantastic conversation with Hostess -- let us not forget Doyle the Boxer, who was rescued after Rita, stranded on a highway with a broken leg.  A bit of orientation, then Sponsor takes us to lunch at Ralph's On the Park, a most excellent lunch with a view of live oaks draped in Spanish Moss, accompanied by excellent conversation. War of 1812! The Battle of New Orleans!  Henry Adams! 

A tour of the school, an orientation in the theater, and now attempting to rest (to bed at midnight and up again at 4:30 AM, car service arrived at 5 AM).  

Grey here, until now, as in the way of New Orleans, the sun showing up without invitation, getting the sky to flash the audience with glimpses of blue that extend for longer and longer phrases ....

There are flowers.  And birds.

Reception after the talk -- which threatens to be attended by fabulously interesting people.

I'm back home again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tomorrow / Wednesday - The American Slave Coast

Ned Sublette presents The Mother of Slavery: A Preview of The American
Slave Coast
Wed, Mar 12, 2014
7:00pm - 8:30pm

Author and musician Ned Sublette will preview material from The American 
Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, by Ned and
Constance Sublette, forthcoming in 2015 from Chicago Review Press, on
Wednesday, March 12, at 7:00 p.m., in Metairie Park Country Day School’s
Weinmann Auditorium, 300 Park Road, Metairie . . . . Admission is free.

Monday, March 10, 2014

New Orleans - Metairie

El V will be reading from the work-in-production (publication early 2015), The American Slave Coast, on Wednesday night (12) at 7 p.m. sharp in the school auditorium at Metairie Park Country Day School, 300 Park Road, Metairie, LA 70005. It's a big room. Foxessa will be there too. Y'all come!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Treats for Time Traveling Historians

Do two things back-to-back:

Watch the new Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, while reading for the first time the long awaited final volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor's classic travel trilogy through eastern Europe to Instanbul between the wars known as The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.  The other books are A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and Water (1986).

The New York Times has reviews of both The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Broken Road.

Though Fermor made this journey in those years, starting when he was eighteen, as seen from the publication dates, he didn't actually write the books until many years later.  The Broken Road review includes a brief overview as to why this is the case, and an outline of the life of this man who fascinated everyone he met.

I've had this book on order for so long, and now it's finally achieved U.S. publication.  Perfect to take on our just about to be embarked upon road trip through the CSA's fire-eating heart: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississppi and Tennessee (we did South Carolina during last year's road trip).  This trip is associated, naturally, with our forthcoming publication of The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-breeding Industry, the matters of which, including the geography, have absorbed our efforts for so long.

The same as for so long most of our efforts were absorbed by the African Caribbean. That's not unconnected to Fermor, for the first book of his I ever read, was in the winter months before my first visit to Cuba, all that time ago, was The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands (1950).  It was Fermor's first published travel book.  The more time I spent in the Caribbean the more wary of Mr. Fermor I became; for starters, for him, the Caribbean was entirely English, with the exception of Haiti -- which he understood not at all. He taught me that traveler's tales as travel writing are deeply unreliable source material for serious place research.  Perhaps not always, but in his case, when it came to cultures such as in the Caribbean which left him feeling rather disturbed and had so many, to him, offensive aspects, it was the case.

The recently published biography (2013) of Fermor by Artemis Cooper confirmed my initial doubts about his strict veracity.  There were reasons he and Ian Fleming were good friends, influencing each other, turn and turn about.

Nevertheless, as the above photographs illustrate, Mr. Fermor was fairly irresistible, uniting perfectly as did Bruce Chatwin, beautiful face and form with romantic matter and dashing event -- a darling of glossy magazines and social columns even today.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Vikings - "Invasion" - Season 2, Ep. 2

The second episode takes place four years after the events in the first episode.

In this episode, Athelstan, Ragnar's captive Christian priest, wins an arm ring.

This is one of the reasons Vikings is such a pleasurable watch. That the enslaved Christian priest from the first series was turning himself into a Norseman was not surprising, and certainly plausible, considering how young he was when captured.  But that he would / could turn himself into a fighting man good enough for the shield wall, and to win a ring -- it is believable in the way it is played, yet it was a surprise.

Some were disappointed with the first episode of this season because there was a sole scene of battle, and it was very much done behind the shield wall. Instead of limbs and heads flying everywhere and sprays of blood -- though there were buckets of blood -- there wasn't enough of it. They called the domestic and political scenes boring and unnecessary.

These complaintants are on the other end of the fan spectrum from those who want only romance-sex-domestic scenes. Fans, who demand only their idea of the "good parts" in entertainment, spoil the whole kettle. For a stew to be good to excellent, it needs a variety of ingredients, in proper proportion. If there's a single ingredient -- why bother cooking or writing? With a single element the narrative lacks a story. What there is instead is repetition, the same thing again and again, without a narrative arc, without conflict, tension and surprise. That's the structure, such as it is. of porn.

On the other hand, surely in the Hall, when the troubadors sang in the softer 12th and 13th centuries, a contingent at least of the knights got very tired of the Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot courtly love triangle -- let's get back to a fight!

The battle in the second episode, "Invasion," ( this time a fleet of Norsemen sailed to invade England, with the idea of perhaps staying a while rather than doing a hit and sail home) was outstanding, partly due to its staging.  Whether or not it was authentic, that's for people who know a great deal about military history to judge. But it looked like a realistic depiction of how a shield wall can function defensively and offensively, and even do both simultaneously, especially when surrounded by forces on all sides.  When the wall opens and the melee begins -- such a close entanglement of fighting men and weapons, so close that distinguishing friend and foe isn't hard, but avoiding striking your friends seems almost impossible. The action looked like early European manuscript illustrations of such battles: all participants locked together, heaving, swaying in one bristling mass over bloody ground, stabbing, thrusting and hacking.

The second reason this battle was so impressive is that important things happened during it, beyond winning or losing. It was a very hard battle for both sides. Ragnar and King Horrick's forces were up against equals, King Ecbert's battle-hardened soldiers, with good armor and weapons. More than once it looked as though the Norsemen would succumb. One of the reasons Ragnar and Horrick's side prevailed was at a crucial moment, Athelstan, the former priest, hurled himself out of the wall to King Horrick's assistance. In another he took out a soldier about to end Ragnar. Athelston well earned his arm ring (awarded for battle courage and effectiveness).

In the four years since Lagertha left Ragnar, and his son Bjorn chose to go with his mother, the two seem to have disappeared. Ragnar wishes his son Bjorn was here to go raiding with him.  Aslaug's little boys are too young. Still, Ragnar continually remarks that fathers are jealous of sons' strength and fame, even as the father's own fame begins to be forgotten and his strength droops.

Hopefully these missing characters will return in future episodes. For one thing, Lagertha is too interesting and finely done to jettison.

Though in these four years Princess Aslaug has presented Ragnar with two sons, and has another one on the way, it's her turn to be afflicted with Ragnar's roving eyes, which appear to be lighting even upon serving wenches, barely above the station of a slave -- or out of childhood.  It's difficult to sympathize with Aslaug, since, unlike Lagertha, she's uninteresting.

The suspicions about Eorl Haroldson's widow, Siggy and what her agenda may be don't go away.  Last season, while Ragnar was far away, covorting with Aslaug, Lagertha lost the child she was carrying. Did Siggy have something to do with the miscarriage? Siggy, partnered with Ragnar's less than loyal brother, Rollo, asked Lagertha for her friendship, which open-hearted Lagertha gave.  Yet, made widow, losing her status, Siggy isn't necessarily wishing the best for Ragnar, and by extension, his children. This time it's Aslaug, the ruler's consort, who reached out in friendship to deposed Siggy. Can any good come of this?  But, Aslaug, more sophisticated than the straight-forward, straight-seeing, straight-talking common-born Lagertha, will surely have her own agenda.

Ragnar, surrounded by all these women whom he insults and humiliates at will, should perhaps reconsider his behaviors. More than one of them can use battle weapons and at least one of them has a deep understanding not only of politics but of herbs, potions and poisons.

Now we are waiting to see what romanized, blonde, well-bathed and groomed King Ecbert of Wessex will do.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

All On A Mardi Gras Day!

The wheel has come around as it does every year to Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday in English.  And a frigid Fat Tuesday it is, all down the country here.

It’s not nice there either.  Our friends are saying the weather’s awful and this isn’t going to be even a good Mardi Gras, much less a great one.  But that the thing with Mardi Gras: you can depend on Mardi Gras – it will be back next year and the probabilities are next year’s Mardi Gras will be good, and there’s always the chance of Great!

It’s hard to believe we’re heading off to New Orleans very soon, but we are, just not for Mardi Gras.  We'll be breaking out some of the subject matter from The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-breeding Industry, at Metairie  Country Park Day School. The event is open to the public and without admission.

But today, here, instead we are going to the Whitney Biennial Reception -- as part of this Biennial's program, el V will be performing in Robert Ashley's  Las Vidas Perfectas -- and then to Le Poison Rouge's benefit Mardi Gras, for the Lower East Side Girls' Club, with Steve Buscemi as Mardi Gras King.

Hey -- all you NO amigos and amigas -- may you all catch a Zulu Coconut!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Vikings - History Channel - Season 2

The television series Vikings returned for a second season Thursday night, on the History Channel. It was a deeply satisfying opening episode -- though perhaps not so much for those who haven't seen the first season.

Vikings is a dramatic series, as opposed to the channel's generally poor history documentaries, which often are neither factual nor interesting, or so have complained many people who watch the channel. But in 2012 the History Channel experimented with Hatfields and McCoys, its first dramatic miniseries.  It did well in the ratings -- I liked it too (though the West Virginia and Kentucky counties were remarkably free of any nonwhite residents).

In a discussion Elsewhere, Vikings watchers who think this television series is one of the best things going at the moment, have asked, "How did the History Channel manage do this right?"

They did it right because the History Channel essentially didn't do it. MGM and Michael Hirst did it, both experienced and professional at creating period spectacle.  Hirst (The Tudors is among his previous credits) produces and writes much of Vikings

The show is a class production in every aspect, from the opening credits (visuals, lyrics and the musical composition) to cast, script, locations and set dressing. It's gorgeous and majestic as the mountains and fjords, as indifferent as the sea and sky, warm and intimate as fire and wool, as real as friends and sword.

Hirst based the characters and the story arcs loosely on the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok -- From wiki:
It follows the exploits of the legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lodbrok and his crew and family, as notably laid down in the 13th century sagas Ragnars saga Loðbrókar and Ragnarssona þáttr, as well as in Saxo Grammaticus's 12th century work Gesta Danorum. Norse legendary sagas were partially fictional tales based in Norse oral tradition, written down about 200 to 400 years after the events they describe. Further inspiration is taken from historical sources of the period, such as records of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne depicted in the second episode, or Ahmad ibn Fadlan's 10th-century account of the Volga Vikings. The series is set at the beginning of the Viking Age, marked by the Lindisfarne raid in 793. 
I re-watched the first season on dvd, prior to the new season's first episode broadcast. While last year I enjoyed the first season, this re-watch, without commercial interruptions, two - three episodes at a time, revealed the production to be even better than I'd initially thought.

A re-watch underlines Vikings's strong contrast to the HBO Got series. It's particularly different in the attitude with which an historic people's violence is depicted, and the attitude of fantasy writers toward the violence attributed to fantasy cultures -- a fantasy that yet is declared to reflect the realism of a medieval time. The violence in Got is purely for entertainment -- or perhaps, secondarily, it is there to be shoved into the audience's face -- take that! -- so the writers of Got can snicker at how much that can shove in a gullible face. Mostly gratuitous, unrooted in real world consequences, Got's violence is nearly always coupled with sexual violation-humiliation in some way (see Brienne, Maid of Tarth, gnerally, for instance, and Brienne particularly with the bear). Got wallows, when it comes to Theon Greyjoy,  in snickering, sickly, creepy gratuitous torture -- entwined with sexual snickering, sickly, creepy, immature emotional sickness. I recently clocked those scenes of Greyjoy's season 3 torture -- they are the longest scenes in the episodes. Instead of story line, plot development or character, the producer-writers prefer prolonged, close-up of some hunan beings rejoicing in doing the worst things they can think of to another human being's body -- for our and their entertainment. I also kept count in one season 3 episode of the number of times the word "rape" was used -- it was the favorite noun in that episode.  In the world of Got there's no joy of any kind.

For lovers of the shield wall, we see it, often; it's even more terrifying than Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred's description in the Saxon Chronicals
Vikings is different. Battles, violence, vengeance, torture and rape happen, among these people for whom a fatal world view is their culture. There is battle joy and there are the consequences; torture is not acceptable except within well defined circumstances that everyone understands, and rape (of non-slaves) is not only not acceptable, it's illegal. Indeed two dumbeffs think they shall rape Lagertha, a mother and wife, who was and still is a shield maiden; she makes short order of them -- yet it's not an occasion of celebration, but one of relief. Her 12 year old daughter is with her .... Lagertha is one of the favorite characters on Vikings -- fierce in love and hate, fair in judgment, wise, capable of strategic planning and behavior, womanly and a warrior.

There is a whole cast of fascinating characters, among whom is the protagonist and Lagertha's husband, Ragnar -- as dark as he can be, and even as shyte-eating as he is at one point in season 2 opening episode.  In other words, he's an authentic human hero, who lives bigger than life, yet is not one of the gods to whose allegiance he is sworn -- and with whom he will bargain.

One may wonder about some things: did men use cosmetics for ornamentation as much as for ceremonial purpose or cutting sun glare? Those hair styles -- are they authentic?  Were couples in this time and place open about inviting a third into their marital embrace? Most of all: were these sea-faring people so ignorant at the close of the 8th century of knowledge that there were lands in the west?

Nevertheless, Vikings convinces the audience that these people took great joy in living, in their friends and family, good food, songs and stories, that they enjoyed their curiosity about other lands and gods, and they loved beauty for its own sake. t It gets us to believe in their battle joy too, rooted as it is in their belief system which never forgets that death is always on its way.

So, for those of us who love historical fiction, Vikings is the best thing on television this spring.