26 February 2011

Hooligans and Gentlemen

Football is a gentlemen's game, played by hooligans;                                                              Rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen.
                                                                                                                                                                     I began following the fortunes of English Rugby while I was a graduate student here in the 1990s. Lucky for me, that was a Golden Age of English Rubgy. England's national side at that time was a “dream team” in every sense of the word. 

Under the leadership of dashing team captain, Will Carling, these boys were the stuff of legend and fantasy on and off the pitch. 

Rob Andrew, Jeremy Guscott, Rory Underwood, Tony Underwood brought crowds to their feet, and could make old men weep at the sight of their staggering speed and agility. But, a bonus for female fans, they were as incredibly good-looking as they were amazingly talented. 

These Darling English Boys in their dazzling white uniforms made me almost tearful, whenever I saw them singing the National anthem at the start of each match. Their voices and chests lifted with national pride. They seemed so wholesome, noble, and well…English. The sort of boys you’d want to take home to meet your mother.

And, speaking of mothers, who can forget the sight of Mrs. Underwood, Tony and Rory’s mum, at every Twickenham match cheering her sons on, with great pride. She would go absolutely mad when one of them was carrying the ball. And heaven help anyone sitting near her if one of them made through, and scored a try! Bless her! But, who can blame her? We were all right there, cheering with her.

And yet, in some matches, there was an air of the under-dog about the English side. Often, when they were playing against some rough, ill-mannered, brutish team like the New Zealand All Blacks, Australia, or South Africa, I would worry for days about the outcome. Of course, the English press and media would give England no hope of winning. There was an ever-present air that England would expect England to lose.

And, of course, sometimes they did lose. Badly. But, I always felt no matter how badly they played, they always played bravely. For an overly-romantic girl like me, watching England in those days became like seeing a strange dramatisation of a Jane Austen novel come to life on the pitch: The Mr. Darcys vs. The Mr. Wickhams!

Back then, the Six Nations championship was just Five Nations. The “big match” then, as now, was England versus France.

Although none of my “dream boys” will be on the pitch – I think Jeremy Guscott is a commentator these days – England will still have my heart. I shall be urging them on to victory this afternoon, as I did all those years ago.

You know, I think that is the thing about rugby, and what makes it so endearing: heart. Unlike in football, especially the American variety, one is truly able to see the real physical struggle between the combatants that is present in rugby.

Now, I’m not ‘slagging off’ “footy” because I do enjoy watching English football, too. It's just swings and roundabouts, hooligans and gentlemen.

25 February 2011

Where are the snowdrops?

Everywhere, but my garden! 

"Snowdrop walks" - such a lovely, and oh so English idea. 
I think I shall grab the DEB, and find a nice "snowdrop walk" for us to do this weekend.
Happy Friday!

Purpose, at last

Over the past few weeks, I have felt myself slipping into an ever-increasing, self-pitying state. The “poor me” syndrome is a chronic and highly contagious illness. It strikes sufferers in varying degrees, from the legitimately lamentable to the absurd. 

Missives from two friends this week helped me to shake my blues. Both were written from a place of despair. One, was from a friend who is an incredibly talented artist, an American, who, like me, feels set a drift in sea of uncertainty in this green and pleasant land.

Also like me, she can recall with great ease a tremendously fulfilling and urbane professional life, recently left behind; wherein she felt valued, respected and rewarded for her achievements. Now, living in Britain, her “education, experience, street cred and accomplishments” seem to count for very little. Her applications to local charities and libraries, for jobs she could do in her sleep, go unheeded and unanswered. A sorry state of affairs, and I know how she feels.

I was humbled by the words of her message: “I know you want more from your life here,” she said. “But right now I'd be happy with a bit of what you have.” I was struck to the core but my own general lack of gratitude. It’s so much easier to look at what we don’t have.

The other missive can from the opposite direction. A plea for advice - from a friend best described as, “a woman who has it all”. No, she really does. She doesn’t realize it, of course. I love her to bits, but there are times when we clearly see the world in very different ways.

She was seeking my advice because a man, a work colleague in her office, has been consistently “ignoring” her. He’s not rude or mean. Just, indifferent. No matter how nicely dressed she is, are how she smiles, jokes, flirts, etc. he “pays [her] no attention at all”.

And, it bothers her. The other men in the office find her very attractive and amusing. As she describes it, they seem to hover around her in a “Mad Men” kind of way. And, her husband adores her, too, but, it is this one minion, who refuses to become an acolyte, who drives her to tears and despair. “Why doesn’t he like me?” she sobbed virtually, on email.

I sat perplexed, staring at my computer screen, feeling that I had suddenly slipped by time warp back to High School. I sat, watching my cursor blink incessantly, words utterly escaping me.
“Where have we gone?” I thought to myself aloud. “How has everything become ‘a problem’, even when it isn’t one?” As I lost myself in existential thought, I was rescued by a ping in my inbox…

“Hit the pool and make a difference! Join the 2011 Swimathon and support the work of Marie Curie Cancer Care” - the headline announced.

The thought of doing something good for charity struck a very deep and immediate chord for me in that moment. And, it suddenly lifted me out of the silly, hapless wasteland in which I was now rambling. 

“I’m going to do this!” I thought, and before I knew it, I was ready to register! First, a short message to my darling DEB: “Wanna join my team?” Short, sweet reply back: “Yes!” So, the DEB and I are taking on the swim of our lives as part of the world’s biggest fundraising swim! The money we raise will allow Marie Curie Nurses to provide free care at home to people with terminal cancer and other illnesses.

We have decided to do a 10K swim, and will be doing it in my beloved hobbit-sized pool at the gym. It will take us ages in that tiny pool, but we think the Marie Curie Nurses are worth it! We are swimming in memory of two of our beloved parents, lost to cancer.

Our Swimathon mission has really propelled me this week. It is so, so, so, wonderful to have a goal. A clear, precise objective that can be reached. An attainable, sizeable goal. 

And, a goal that is bigger than “me” and my needs.

14 February 2011

Men, Money & Chocolate (February column)

Men, Money & Chocolate is the delicious title of a new book by my friend, Menna Van Praag. Menna considers these three luxuries the most primal desires of every woman. As a roaming Shakespeare scholar, I don’t know much about money, but I certainly have opinions on the other two, especially the English varieties!

What is there not to love about an Englishman? He’s well read, knows how to dress, can hold his own in a conversation, has impeccable manners, knows which fork to use, isn't afraid to be romantic or cry, and enjoys a good laugh.
My very own ‘Darling English Boy’ is an apt example. A few months ago, his folk duo performed for the Barford W.I. After their performance, a fellow WI member made a beeline for me. “Aren’t you lucky?” she exclaimed breathlessly. But instead of praising his musical talent, or his boyish good looks, she was enthralled by how, during the performance, he had removed his jumper and placed it neatly on his chair - after first folding it with great care.

Last February, I was a guest on Annie Othen’s radio show for Valentine’s Day. After indulging in a massive chocolate fountain, we were treated by a visit from “Mr. England”- Andreas Kattou.
Annie asked Andreas (a handsome, Warwickshire lad from Nuneaton) if there might be “a special someone” to whom he’d like to send his love? Andreas set dozens of hearts and the in-studio phone alight when he responded affectionately: “My mum.”

That’s what we love about Darling English Boys. They love their mums, and know how to handle cashmere!

A university chum of mine, Meggie, grew up in what she described as a “very English” household in Muswell Hill, where her father got up and made tea for everyone each morning. I spent a lovely weekend with them and, true to form, every morning there was a light knock on my door: Meg’s dad with a cup of tea. He whispered softly, “Good morning”, as he placed the cup on my bedside table.
I have no doubt that this experience shaped my thoughts about men, and Englishmen in particular. Meg’s dad became an archetype of the sort of man I hoped to find in later life.

Before Meggie’s dad there was “Mister Rogers" – an American children’s TV presenter. Although he wasn’t English, he seemed very much so to me. He was caring and tidy. At the start of each show he came into his house, changed out of his outdoor shoes, hung his jacket up on a hook, and wrapped himself in a cashmere cardigan. He personified gentleness and quiet strength. At the end of each show, he smiled warmly into the camera enquiring: “Won’t you be my neighbour?”
Without a doubt, I was brainwashed at the age of 5. Mister Rogers and cashmere - my life would never be the same. Now, after years in the wilderness, I have finally found this sort of man in real life.
And, yes, he even brings me a cup of tea each morning.

Not to forget the chocolate…
Sweet As - “Passionate about Chocolate”, 7 Warwick Place, Leamington Spa                               Tel. 01926 330073                                                                                                               www.sweet-as.co.uk
Special Valentine’s chocolate treat for Warwickshire Life readers! Mention “The Shakespeare Diva” and receive a £2.00 discount on a Sweet As cupcake box of two (normally £5.00). 

Love Definitely

Today has to be my favo(u)rite Sunday of the year. Every year, the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, we have a “A Celebration and Thanksgiving for Marriage” service at St. Peter's.

Couples, particularly those who were married at St. Peter’s, are invited to “return to the scene of the crime” and recall their beautiful, blissful wedding days.
We all stand, and once again repeat our vows before God and to one another. *SIGH* 


Today’s service was especially poignant for me as it was a reminder to me of what it truly important in my life. The fact that after years of living woefully solitary lives, the DEB and I found each other, across space and time. The fact of our meeting and marrying is truly miraculous. And, that is well worth remembering.

Sometimes, this very important fact gets a little lost in the daily shuffle. There are times, in the day-to-day slog of trying to “make something happen” on this side of the Atlantic, that I find myself, well, in tears, frankly. Days when I think of how far I’ve come in my life, how hard I’ve worked/struggled/survived, and yet here I am feeling more of a “zero” than a “hero”.

In the past two and half years, I have struggled to get my writing career off the ground, and been rejected by more agents than I can count. I have applied for four (4) full-time Shakespeare lecturing jobs in a 50 mile radius, interviewed for two (2) of them, and turned-down by them all.

The latest blow came on Thursday:

Dear Dr. Smith-Howard,

Thank you very much for applying to the post in Shakespeare in the Department of… at … University.   I am very sorry to have to tell you that we were unable to short-list your application on this occasion.   We received a very large number of responses and the field was a truly extraordinarily strong one.   I would like to thank you for your application, however, and to say how much I appreciate your interest in the Department.  

With all good wishes,
Professor Blah-Blah-Blah

There was a moment, sitting, staring at my computer screen, poised to reply to this message, when I felt as if I were suddenly trapped in a scene from Lord of the Rings.

Allow me to explain.

There’s this bit in Lord of the Rings, I don’t know which one, where the character Smeagol/Gollum is having a debate with himself, or rather the two-sides of him are having an argument... “Kill the Hobbit!” the evil side of Smeagol hisses. “No, no! We love the Hobbit!” the good side pleads.

My internal ‘Bad Smeagol’ dangled a carrot before me: “You could send that cow a short and snarky reply. You’ve got nothing to lose. We’ll show her who is ‘truly extraordinary’!” While my good side begged: “No, no! That wouldn’t be nice or polite at all!”

Every molecule in my body wanted to type venom in an email, it was all I could do to step away from the computer…

It’s incredible how moments of disappointment can overshadow our lives. So much so that we can almost forget the positive, the good, the beautiful, the joyous and the wonderful that surrounds us each day.

Today, I received an email from reader who enjoys my column in Warwickshire Life magazine. The message was short, simple and sweet: “You have a great job!”

In its own way, this, too, was a wake-up call for me. A gentle reminder that it’s not all doom and gloom. Okay, I’d love it if my pay cheque from the magazine had a few more zeroes (noughts) on the end, but, the fact that I am getting paid to write all is a huge blessing!

It is too easy to look at life and lament the things we don’t have, or pine over the things that aren’t the way we’d like them to be. But, to borrow from Shakespeare, “that way, madness lies”. 

The key, I think, is thankfulness.

There was a couple scurrying into church this morning. The man, it seemed, was still getting dressed as they jumped from their car. As he fought with his tie, his wife huffed, rolled her eyes and stomped off without him. How ironic, to be behaving in such a way on route to a service where one of the scriptures to be read was: “Love is patient, love is kind…”

No doubt, by the end of the service that couple had made amends. But, it’s human nature, isn’t it? So easy to get caught up in the details, the minutiae, and to lose sight of why we’re here, and what really matters. Not jobs, or status, or success, being right or wrong, what others think of you, or having the last word.

What matters is Love, definitely.