Saturday, June 17, 2006

And now for something....

...completely different.

I would like to dedicate this to my friend, Lindsay, who is the only other person I know with the capacity to understand the hilarity behind the lines:

"What did you just say Burma for?"
"I panicked."

Early work by both John Cleese and Grahmn Chapman of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The "chartered accountant" figure would make countless appearances in the Flying Circus, if only to highlight the extraordinary caliber of his extremely dull job. This is from 1967's At Last the 1948 Show.

Friday, June 16, 2006

"So, Where's Summer?" and other questions relating to England

It's June, finally. Starting in May, I stopped having to expect at least one low-lying cloud-originating rain storm to sneak up on me every day. My umbrellas (and yes, that word is pluralized) have been hung on my coat rack, but certainly not retired. Why, well, this picture tells the whole story. No, that's not a swamp, that is outside my second-story window. This problem was so widespread that first, I had to break out the ENTIRE rain gear collection my father, ever weather ready as he is, sent to me, which includes a pair of boots and a matching water resistent overpants and jacket. After this monsoon finally resided, I made my way to the nearest bus stop, and this walk involves a trip down a dirt path covered in packed wood chips. I took one step "onto" this path, and my boot (thankfully my boot, that is) sunk into what I can only term a "river" where the path once had been.

One thing that never goes away is wind. It is always windy, or at least breezy, out here. That tends to bring the temperature down a bit, and we aren't even close to the water--well, not by English standards anyway.

So, we have a succession of nice days, sun, warm, people in shorts lying on lawns, and then, the cloud cover, never to be thwarted and rarely abated, creeps over the delightful cheeriness that is clear blue sky and now, we're back to the usual "Englishness" that is overcast, just not threatening to dump two inches of water on you at any minute.

Right now, I am sorry to report that I am suffering from THE WORST possible ailment one could be stricken with here in York.

And that is....a foot injury, complete with swelling.

Ok, so that's no big deal. I'm sure you were all thinking cancer or a heart attack. Why is THAT so bad?

York is what I would call your walking city in England. The entire city center has been designated a pedestrian zone for most of the hours of the day. If I want to get anywhere for anything useful, I have to walk about half a mile for a bus, take the bus to the city, get off OUTSIDE of the city center (no matter what the FTR calls their Clifford Street stop), walk into the pedestrian zone, then walk back to the bus, and walk from the stop I get off back to my room. All in all, this has got to come close to nearly two miles of walking, and just for necessities. My other options are to pay Tesco or Sainsbury's to deliver food to me, for example, but I have to order about two days in advance, or to hobble over to the CostCutter here at Halifax College, which usually stocks milk, Asian delicacies, and the occasional bag of prawn-flavored crisps.

There have been many times when I have felt like I was in a live Monty Python sketch here in the UK. It goes back to my father's now-famous quote within days of my arrival here. I was waking up in my hotel room, next to that of my parents, and I heard between blow-dryer motors and shower uses, "I don't want to leave my oldest daughter in the middle of Monty Pythonland. That wasn't a comedy show; it was reality TV."

My most recent experience along these lines occurred when I called the Health Center on campus for an appointment when my foot injury really started to become bothersome. I knew that I needed to stay off of it, but that is next to impossible here in York and vicinity. After explaining my reason for needing the appointment, I asked about the acquisition of crutches.

Me: Well, there probably isn't much you can do about it. I really need to stay off of it, so I could really use some crutches to borrow in the meantime.

Health Center Secretary: Oh, we don't have crutches down here.

Me: So, you can take a look at it, and if I say, needed crutches, you couldn't give them to me.

Health Center Secretary: Yes, we can look at it for you, but we do not have any crutches.

Me: So, where can I get crutches if the nurse I see there tells me I need them?

Health Center Secretary: At the hospital in town you should be able to get them.

Me: How do I get there?

Health Center Secretary: You'll have to walk.

Yet another example of the brilliant British service you can expect here in England. Who says Monty Python isn't a reality TV show? Perhaps this is why I cannot get the series on DVD for Region 2 unless I buy an Asian knock-off on Ebay.

Oh, and another burning question. Why is Richard still with Judy (ref: Richard and Judy)? She has transformed into a bleached-blond hobbit, officially. Watch for press releases on this one when they restart at 5 pm on Channel 4. Maybe I'm just bitter about losing The Paul O'Grady Show.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


Canterbury Cathedral was one of those "must visit" places for me when I knew I was coming to the UK study. When I was in college at Holy Cross, I had the good fortune to take a number of excellent Medieval History classes with two professors in particular who had seen literally everything Medieval in western Europe and beyond (or at least it seemed they had). They both used a whole host of slides to show the places they were describing, and both of them covered Canterbury Cathedral at different times in different courses. It was hard for me to get a picture in my head of how it was placed or what it really looked like inside, but all of that was easily straightened out by my own visit there.

All Cathedrals have their assortment of famous dead people in them. You never quite know who you are going to find until you get there, and then when you see the tombs, your first thought is always "oh, yeah, I remember that guy...". The most impressive collection of dead folks must be in Westminster Cathedral, where, of course, you can't take any pictures. In Canterbury, I came across the tomb of Edward III's son, the Black Prince. Apparently, he was either a rather humble guy or he just didn't want hundreds of people to gawk at him after he died, so he requested to be buried in the crypt underneath the cathedral building. The monks thought this was improper for a man of his status and reputation, so they put him here, on the north side towards the back, and next to the shrine of Thomas Becket. His colored shirt of armor, his gloves, and his sword were never stolen (unlike other grave goods, especially in the Reformation), and they are on display on the wall nearby while reproductions of the originals are hanging above the tomb. Even Oliver Cromwell, Puritan extraordinaire, respected the Black Prince enough to carry his sword in battle against the Royalists.

The inside of the cathedral is rather impressive, as are all of them. Lots of arches, columns, and windows. This Cathedral can get a little dark inside, especially behind the altar here where the choir stalls are. A lot of the columns here, instead of the huge Norman versions in Durham and Norwich, are lighter, sometimes trefoiled, and in many cases, made of smooth marble. This interior space is behind a very large, carved stone screen, which served to separate the laity from the activities of the monks and priests.

The outside of the cathedral was a little difficult to get a full look at because it was obscured by a set of buildings right in front of it (unlike York, whick exists almost on its own in the middle of a square, and the front is viewable for several blocks). Like Norwich, the cathedral is behind a set of gates and is very much like part of a complex. The towers are very ornately done and unlike York, the statues by the doors at the front and sides under the towers are still there today (in York, they have been removed and some are in the museum) but they have certainly been repaired or replaced in one form or another. However, it is pretty impressive to walk around. Like Norwich, there is a cloister attached to it, but there is additional evidence of different monastic buildings that have been left to ruin. The limits of the complex were bordered by walls, which may have also been the case at one time in Norwich, too, but they no longer exist there.

The biggest point of interest at Canterbury is, of course, the shrine of Thomas Becket. Becket had apparently been rather close to Henry II before being appointed, through this friendship, Archbishop of Canterbury. The biggest point of disagreement between them had to do with the prosecution of churchmen. Prior to this time (the mid 12th century), there was a separate law for offending churchmen that was notoriously lax in punishing offenders. Becket sought to preserve this right and tradition while Henry wanted members of the clergy to be prosecuted according to secular law. Henry presented his demands in the Constitutions of Clarendon, which Becket refused to sign. Becket, regardless of his friendship with the king, did not back down on the issue, which led to all sorts of complications for Henry. At one point, Becket was exiled (or willingly exiled himself), and he had a host of well known and well schooled supporters amongst the English and others, such as John of Salisbury, his student and aid.

Unfortunately for Becket, regardless of his return to England, his vigilance to his cause was the author of his end. Famously, Henry was said to have exclaimed in frustration "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?!" which prompted four of his knights to launch an assasination attempt on Becket. They killed him in the entrance to the quire in the Cathedral at the celebration of vespers on December 29, 1170, apparently giving him a blow to the head to finish the act (this is the best source for the description of his murder). He was cannonized quickly, in 1173.

There isn't anything left of his shrine or relics today. Henry VIII took everything, along with the treasures associated with them, during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Today, as you can see, there is a single lit candle where the shrine once stood on the marble floor panels at the back of the cathedral. The simplicity is actually surprisingly impressive--maybe even more so than the ornate elements that no longer exist. It's quiet and completely blocked off from immediate access. Even the floor is amazing--the smooth marble tiles are all colored and inlaid. The light from the windows also adds to the effect. The back of the cathedral arches around in a semi-circle, with more accessible windows--meaning windows at the level of the viewers--than anywhere else in the cathedral.

The stained glass windows themselves are also a very unique element in Canterbury Cathedral. My own photograph does not do it justice, but the picture you see here of the window is what is called the "Donor's Window" or the window illustrating those guilds that donated either labor or money to the creation of different parts of the Cathedral. Each circle shows a different trade-in-motion. In fact, in the picture of the Becket shrine above, you can see the "Donor's Window" straight ahead, immediately behind the candle at the back. To see a layout of some of the cathedral windows and what they depict, this is a good resource, but unfortunately pictureless. For some other details, but without an in depth description, try this, these pilgrims, and this miracle.

Unlike in other Cathedrals, or churches for that matter, there is a lot of original stained glass at Canterbury. It's one of the few places that retains it after the zealous English turnover to Protestantism. It isn't all in tact, however. There are a few places here and there where the panes are all clear or partially clear--notably parts of some of the larger windows in the trancepts, for example--in fact one of the trancepts has mostly new windows with the other has bands of 14th and 15th century windows with clear panes between them. Again, it is at the back where Becket's shrine is where you can really get up close to the original stained glass. Most of the windows have themes. There are two that tell the story of Becket's life and martyrdom and another window dedicated to the miracles associated with his influence after his death. As I mentioned above, the donors are also featured in their own window. Some of it has been restored, naturally, but without adulterating the original form or figures. In some of the other pictures above, you can see peeks of the other stained glass windows, and it really gives you a feel for what the other cathedrals in England would have looked like in their hayday. Today, most of them are clear, which makes the cathedrals brighter, but it is deceiving to the historical eye.

I wasn't in Canterbury for long--it was a stop on the train on the way to Dover where I was staying overnight. However, when I did see it, I was very disappointed that I hadn't planned to stay there. It is very much like York in how it is mainly a walking city dominated by a large Cathedral, but smaller than Norwich. I did also get to see the city walls, many of which are still in tact on the south side of the city, and St. Augustine's which is outside of the city, and apparently, the first church in England. St. Augustine's, which is a ruin today, would have been a smaller version of Canterbury Cathedral, but it has a history that goes back much farther, which makes it disappointing to see the state it is in. St. Augustine himself was buried there at one time, but his, like Becket's, relics were removed by Henry VIII. However, other figures mentioned in Bede, notably the bishops that followed Augustine, are all buried there in a section that has maintained it's Anglo-Saxon feel. There are also four of the kings of Kent also buried there, and many other figures that were significant to the history of the abbey. The audio tour there is absolutely fantastic and very informative.

I would certainly like to return to Canterbury for a longer stay. It is hard for me to rate it first, because my stay was so short, and second, because it was your typical cloudy, rainy (maybe the adjective "English" is best here....) day there. I will give it a 7 and 1/2 with the potential for an upgrade if I make it back there and if the weather is cooperating.