Tuesday, May 14, 2019

10 reasons you wish you had Samuel Pepys’ life

Samuel Pepys at the time he wrote his diary
I have been reading Samuel Pepys' diary. The abridged version: one volume of about 600 pages whereas the whole diary takes up 10 such volumes. It makes for a fascinating read, and offers such a unique insight in the London of the mid 17th century. It's a raucous time: he saw the execution of Charles I, the Restoration, the persecution of Catholics and Quakers and other non Anglican church believers, various wars, the Great Fire of London, the Plague. He lived from 1633 to 1703.

1. You have no schedule. He works for the Navy but no one seems to have heard of office hours. He usually gets up really early, but he might go to bed one night at 3am, and another day get up at 3am.
2. You socialize all the time.  He typically went to the pub two to three times a day. He has people over for dinner, at midday, or is invited. Also in the evening, but not as much. He had tens of friends, women and men alike, as well as relatives.
3. You go to the theater a lot. Pepys sees the same plays many times over. Here's what he thought of A Midsummer’s Night: 'we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.' – well, he’s not remembered for being a literary critic.
Allegory of Music, Czech wall painting
4. Music is a huge part of your life. When Pepys goes home at lunch time, he often plays music on his flagelette (a wind instrument) while his wife sings. And then again at night. If he hears music played, a song sung, he cannot resist the attraction, and has to find who is playing, who is singing, particularly if they’re good. A talent for music will reinforce his friendships of which he has many. His wife asks him for a lady companion as they re going up in the world. At first, he renegades at the expense. But when the young lady comes and he finds she can sing, and is rather pretty, he yields.
5. There was little censorship yet, you didn’t have to worry so much about being correct. Pepys “shits”, and talks about his anus and his stools abundantly. And there is no correct spelling. He writes people’s names as he sees fits. And spells some words in various variants with no particular rule. Behavior also seems to have been looser, less repressed if a bit cruder. Pepys and his wife enjoy watching an execution on a Sunday, though these shows do get mobbed. A couple of Lords regularly enjoy running around the streets of London naked and singing "bawdy" songs. They get arrested by the watch, and the King has to go and bail them out. Then they all go to visit prostitutes together.
6. It was an exciting time, half way between an era of obscurantism and one of discoveries. It’s curious the irrational things Pepys will believe, when he is a man of intelligence, and passionate about science. He teaches his wife mathematics, and takes lessons himself from various scholars. He’s delighted that he’s been invited to belong to the Royal Society. There, he attends scientific demonstrations. He has a friend who invents an unsinkable double-shelled ship, the model of which gets sold to the navy, but the first one produced promptly sinks. An early Titanic.
7. Goods were precious. Pepys gets excited about getting a pettycoat for his wife, or a trinket. He's very excited about the purchase of a watch. Then he remembers he had had one, but didn't like using it! But he’s most passionate about books, each acquisition is a source of future joy: they offer knowledge to his avid mind, whether about microscopy or other parts of the world. Sometimes, he goes and reads at his bookseller, who seems to encourage it. The bookseller’s entire lot goes in smoke during the Great Fire.
Elisabeth de St-Michel,
Samuel Pepys enduring wife
L'Histoire amoureuse des Gaules
8. You have flexible morals. Pepys, who never had to worry about #metoo, puts pressure on his suppliants’ wives to have sex with him. He describes these interactions in a despicable mixture of Spanish and French and English, producing a kind of Lingua Franca of misbehavior. That’s a most detestable aspect to his personality which is quite attractive otherwise. Moments after these spurts of fornication, he goes to church. Mostly to watch the attractive women at the service, but he does pay attention to the sermon which he is usually critical of.
He reads titillating books such as “L’Histoire amoureuse desGaules” then burns them because he does not wish them to bring him posthumous shame by being to catalogued in his library after he dies. 
Samuel Pepys, later in life, with his wig
9. You are moving up socially. Pepys was the son of a tailor. He was smart and got a scholarship to attend Oxford where he learned Latin and Ancient Greek. He got under the protection of an aristocrat that was a remote family connection and entered the administration of the Navy. Thanks to his connections, and probably to his intelligence and social skills, he gets more and more responsibility, and he becomes richer. Every month, he makes his account to figure out how rich he has become. It’s fascinating to see him hit landmarks in that ascension: he purchases a powdered wig, which takes some encouragements from his servants for him to wear outside the house. Later, he plans on getting his own coach with coachman and horses.

10. But best of all, you are always so glad just to be alive and safe. He escaped the great Fire of London, and the Plague. His account makes you realize that the Plague was much more lethal for poor people. Anyone who could afford it fled the City. It’s surprising how much it was business as usual. The government, the nobility, the bourgeoisie all transfer to the outer suburbs. And party away. Pepys takes a ferry back and forth to visit his wife. A ferry! That seems the worst place to be in a time of epidemics, the equivalent of taking a plane, as you know a sure way nowadays to catch a virus going around. The City is much more affected, and he worries every time he has to leave the countryside. He does mention stumbling in the dark on a corpse left on the street. But it’s not the image we might have of ghostly streets with barricaded windows and doors, of lone passerby wearing masks and walking close to the walls, head down. Maybe that mental picture of the Plague is closer to what the situation was like in mainland Europe. At the end of every month, he takes the time to review his situation, and he thanks God for him and his wife being in good health, for his good economic situation. Almost everyday, he eats and drinks and sings with friends, reporting in his diary they "made very merry".


                                           written and published by  - -  Arabella von Arx

Great Fire of London

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

I was bored at Mark Morris’ Pepperland! I swear!

Take The Beatles superlative Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Heart Club Band album, have it turned into a modern dance show by super fun choreographer Mark Morris: we had to be in for a treat. Even if the show didn’t break the intellectual sound barrier, it was bound to be highly entertaining and pleasurable. Well, no, and I am compelled to introduce a sad face 😢to support this statement.
The costumes were super yummy, I admit.
The music was awesome, it was arranged by Ethan Iverson to sound more like a musical's score, and the Beatles music can go there without blushing.
The whole show came across as a homage to the American musicals of the 60s, think American in Paris. Don’t think West Side Story with its grand tragedies. So what about the Beatles? What about their genial breakthrough in terms of the history of music with that album?
The Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Heart Club Band was the band’s homage to their working class origin. They offered the music band culture’s naive artistry to the wild wild world of the 60s with drugs and yoga and crazy costumes and... and dark glasses. They paid homage to the working class’ sweet taste for tackiness, and at the same time they acknowledged the hardships of these Lonely Hearts. So little of that groundbreaking approach to making an album is conveyed by the show. The Penny Lane song does contribute some nice working class content, but again it’s all fun and eye candy.
Unfortunately, additionally to the lack of meaning, the choreography was so so so so repetitive. A little repetition is satisfying, a lot turns sedative. Lots and lots of pieces with couples, female/male couples, female/female couples, male/male couples, loving, having fun. How did that relate to the album?
The dance movements had some relevance to what is being done now, nothing very ground breaking, and to American musicals, as mentioned, and to 60s pop dance such as the twist – that last part most enjoyable, naturally. Some of the dancing was quite casual, a bit sloppy, without the usual perfection reached for in modern dance. Nice.
The cancan was fun. There was some interesting stuff about mathematical permutations of movements: at first the whole line does the same movements, then they get shifted so that one dancer does movement #1, 2nd dancer movement #2, 3rd dancer movement #1. At the next round, the movements shift across three dancers (easier to do than to explain) instead of two. That was fun. That type of permutation was applied to another part of the choreography too. Choreographers can get quite obsessed with mathematical patterns. But what’s that got to do with the Beatles? With the 60s?

The show was sprightly and pretty vacuous, it was like The Monkees to the Beatles. The sense of optimism hit the mark better. But the 60s were not just about being a pretty face, it was not just about sex, drugs and rock and roll, remember? Vietnam War protests. Women’s Lib. Civil Rights movements. An interest in other cultures. Non violence. Tolerance. Change. Imagination. The only part where this was alluded to, aside from the homosexual couples, was the interpretation of the song A Day In The Life aka “I heard the news today”. The choreography nailed the feeling of the song, the music supporting beautifully with the use of the theremin: a bit sad, a bit sloppy, and a bit political. The Beatles! How I wish the rest of the show had been in tune, a contemporary dance show offering us an interpretation of that genius album.
The musicians were great. The dancers were great. They’re all shapes and forms, that’s cool. One was pregnant! How about that?! A woman, I think.
Mark Morris bypassed Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds for this show. HOW ABOUT THAT?! I couldn’t believe it. But I respect that choice, it is an obvious iconic song to exploit, though the choreographer of the superlatively fun Nutcracker ballet is usually not too worried about subtlety.

written and published by  - -  Arabella von Arx