Can Lit, Culture, and “The Hockey Sweater”

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens haven’t met in the NHL playoffs since 1979. That same year, a pivotal work of Canadian Literature was published: Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater. Whether intended or not, the story reveals an age-old culture clash between Ontario and Quebec.

By Serena Ypelaar

Have you read The Hockey Sweater (1979) by Roch Carrier? If you grew up in Canada and had parents even mildly invested in hockey, chances are you have. 

Titled Le chandail de hockey in its original French, it was illustrated by Sheldon Cohen and translated into English by Sheila Fischman. The story is enjoyed across Canada, among anglophones and francophones alike. It’s a children’s book about a young Roch Carrier growing up in Sainte-Justine, Quebec, who – along with every kid in his village – loves the Montreal Canadiens and wants to be just like Maurice Richard. In the winter of 1946, Roch’s Canadiens sweater becomes too small, and his mother orders him a new one from “Monsieur Eaton” (of the family behind Eaton’s department stores). After a mishap with the order, Roch is sent a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. How will he cope with the stigma of wearing the wrong jersey? 

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

Now seems like the perfect time to be writing about The Hockey Sweater. This year’s Stanley Cup playoffs are underway in the National Hockey League (NHL). The Toronto Maple Leafs are facing the Montreal Canadiens in the first round for the first time since 1979 (incidentally the same year The Hockey Sweater was published). The Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens rivalry is the oldest in Canadian hockey history, as they were the only two Canadian teams in the NHL’s Original Six from 1942 to 1967. They have met 16 times in the playoffs: Montreal has won the matchup eight times and Toronto has won seven (potential eighth underway tonight? knock on wood). 

Tim Horton of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Claude Provost of the Montreal Canadiens battling for the puck c. 1960s. Photo: Canadian Press / AP

Unlike the Leafs, who have only won the Stanley Cup once in 1967, the Canadiens – nicknamed “Habs” in reference to Habitants, the early French settlers of Quebec –  have won it 24 times, more than any team in NHL history. Yet despite this discrepancy, the rivalry between the two teams endures. How does The Hockey Sweater help preserve it? 

The Hockey Sweater was adapted into an animated short film for the National Film Board of Canada in 1980, with Carrier narrating his childhood story in both the French and English versions. The film was animated by Montreal-based illustrator Sheldon Cohen, in keeping with the aesthetic style of the picture book. Carrier had a long career in storytelling, receiving the Order of Canada in 1991 and serving as National Librarian of Canada from 1999 to 2004. He helped unify the National Archive and the National Library with Ian E. Wilson, the National Archivist at the time.

The 1980 short film adaptation by the National Film Board of Canada, narrated by Roch Carrier and animated by Sheldon Cohen.

Full disclosure: born and raised in Toronto, I’ll always be partial to the Leafs, albeit in the most passive way possible. We were by no means a hockey family when I was growing up (and still aren’t). My uncles and cousins are big fans, and while my dad also loved hockey growing up, his true passion is soccer. He raised us with that love of soccer, so that’s what we know best. At the same time, my parents enrolled my siblings and I in the Leafs Buds Club, the official kids club of the Toronto Maple Leafs, when we were little. We got to go to Leafs practices and chill with the Leafs’ mascot Carlton the Bear. (I think I’m more invested in Carlton than I am the actual hockey… he’s just so cute!) 

So how come my family and I, along with countless anglophones across Canada, have always loved this little book even though it scorns the Leafs? 

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

Kids have grown up with the story regardless of their favourite teams because it resonates as a cornerstone of Canadian culture. We can all identify with team rivalries in general, especially in childhood. The Hockey Sweater is incredibly funny and offers a glimpse into life in Quebec during the 20th century. But beyond being a fun piece of Can Lit, it’s also emblematic of wider cultural implications between English Canada and French Canada. And although we might not have known it at the time we read or watched it, we as children were internalizing a key element of Canadian culture from a young age. 

To put it simply, Canada’s post-European contact history is rooted in the French and the British battling over the traditional lands of Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a decisive victory that paved the way for the British to take over France’s colonial presence, unilaterally establishing British North America to add to their existing American colonies. The ensuing tensions between French and English culture in what would eventually become Canada – from language to religion – set a precedent for the strained interplay between French Canada and English Canada today.

The Hockey Sweater illustrates that cultural clash, whether or not it intends to (more on that later). Despite being a straightforward retelling of the author Roch Carrier’s childhood experience, many critics and readers consider it an allegory for the French-English divide. The issue is complex, and goes beyond the simple act of wearing hockey jerseys, but we see in the story that the Quebecois culture is fiercely defended within society. Roch is not permitted to play hockey with the others while wearing the Leafs sweater; both the referee and young curate discipline him for his lack of conformity. “Just because you’re wearing a new Toronto Maple Leafs sweater, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make the laws around here,” the curate tells him. He’s sent off the ice to go pray in the church, where he asks for the most important thing on his mind: 

“I asked God to send me right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.” 

The Hockey Sweater (1979)

And so ends the book. It’s punchy, and drives two points home: first, the sense of being othered for non-conformity, especially in a cultural context (Ontario’s team vs. Quebec’s); and second, the fact that hockey rivalries run deep in Canada, and it’s been that way since the NHL first started. 

But whatever The Hockey Sweater may show us about Canadian culture, Roch Carrier insists that he wasn’t trying to make a political statement or promote Quebec nationalism. Instead, he was simply sharing his personal experience.

“I never tried to portray Canada to anyone. I’m just a storyteller. I’m interested by the experience people have and everybody has personal experiences, and everybody has limited experiences about something but that’s what life is made of.”

Roch Carrier at St. Andrew’s College, 2015

There isn’t really a moral to the story. In a children’s book you might expect a lesson about not being embarrassed to be different, or how it doesn’t matter what you wear (Roch’s mother actually says the latter in the book and film). But the young Roch maintains his dislike for the blue sweater. There’s something so endearingly unapologetic about his adamance that readers can’t help but love. As I said before, I’m inclined toward the Leafs even though I rarely even follow hockey, yet I’m not offended by this book at all. It represents a specific point of view and it’s funny. Sports rivalries will always persist, and trying to end them would be futile – we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

The Hockey Sweater and its film counterpart are considered standout works within the Canadian canon for a reason, somehow transcending heated cultural (and athletic) frictions to become well-loved across the board. Roch Carrier’s story is strongly emblematic of Quebecois identity, culture, and sport, but the story’s themes are broadly appealing. Sheldon Cohen’s illustrations are stylistically memorable. The whole package manages to be quintessentially Canadian. 

Regardless of whether you’re a Leafs fan, non-Quebecer, anglophone, or all of the above, you can still relate to those feelings portrayed in the book and animated film. We all understand the pressures to conform – sometimes we derive comfort and community simply from the act of conforming. As humans, we’re always seeking connection, and identifying with something that represents home makes us feel united.

BBC’s “Upstart Crow” and Why Shakespeare Makes the Perfect Sitcom Star

As the world still celebrates William Shakespeare’s birth and death day each year, the playwright’s immortal relevance is clear. Among countless reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s life and work, BBC’s sitcom Upstart Crow is a surprisingly fitting way to reinvent Shakespearean comedy.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another year, another Shakespeare day. Having just passed the Bard’s joint birthday and death day (April 23) again, it’s become a tradition here at The Mindful Rambler to feature an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s life and career. 

This year, I’ve been watching BBC’s Upstart Crow during lockdown. The Shakespeare-themed sitcom was created and written by Ben Elton, of Blackadder fame. I watched the historical comedy show Blackadder growing up and I’ve been meaning to write about it for ages … I’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, let’s talk about Upstart Crow and why Shakespeare is an ideal (albeit unlikely) sitcom star.

It’s true – Shakespeare’s continued relevance and success make his life and works the perfect topic for a sitcom. His comedies and their signature plot devices lend themselves well to the modern-day sitcom genre.

David Mitchell as William Shakespeare in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Upstart Crow takes place alternately between London and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. In the late 16th century and a more or less middle-aged Shakespeare (played by David Mitchell) is an established playwright, travelling back and forth between his Stratford homestead and his lodgings in London – where, of course, all the best playhouses are at the time. The biographical details of the show are hazy, a reminder that Upstart Crow is ahistorical in its approach – it plays with Shakespeare’s life.

For instance, although the real Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway is still debated (Did they love each other? Was he snubbing her in his will, or honouring her?), Upstart Crow treats us to a warm and fuzzy family dynamic with plenty of banter between Shakespeare and his wife, children, and parents. The show’s style unites Shakespeare’s well-known stories with modern-day comedy conventions, veiling current pop culture references behind Elizabethan social mores. In a way, the sitcom is both a product of Shakespeare’s time and ours – as a genre, it’s strangely fitting for the playwright’s quirky style. 

The 16th century and 21st century collide as Shakespeare (David Mitchell), Kate (Gemma Whelan), and Bottom (Rob Rouse) discuss poetry.

The series boasts an abundance of Shakespeare references for fans of the Bard, while delivering a well-written sitcom in its own right. In many ways, we can actually read Shakespeare’s comedy plays as precursors to the sitcom as we know it today. Many of Shakespeare’s comedic plotlines have the makings of a situational comedy, whether it’s misunderstandings, disguises, marriage proposals both failed and successful… you get the picture. Elton takes advantage of Shakespeare’s hilarious gags to create premises for Upstart Crow episodes.

Not only that, but the show also subverts Shakespeare’s tragedies, making them into ridiculous scenarios to round out the series with works from across Shakespeare’s bibliography. Even the sonnets are touched upon, regarding the Earl of Southampton, who has long been rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s man-crush (crush? who knows). The popular theory of Christopher Marlowe having written Shakespeare’s plays is delightfully turned on its head, with Shakespeare producing work for an indolent yet charming Kit (who was actually a successful playwright before Shakespeare, despite their being born in the same year). 

Christopher Marlowe (Tim Downie) and William Shakespeare (David Mitchell). Photo: BBC

The show’s subversions bring Shakespeare into a liminal place, an alternate universe of sorts. Upstart Crow doesn’t pursue accuracy, which isn’t technically necessary for good storytelling anyway. The show’s cheeky tone and good pacing make for sound storytelling. There are running jokes about Shakespeare stealing other people’s ideas, and rants about Elizabethan-era transport – anyone who’s taken the tube (the London Underground) or any public transit can relate. Upstart Crow is littered with similar tongue-in-cheek references to present-day pop culture amid the Elizabethan wisecracks. There was even a plague-themed lockdown Christmas special last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring a fifteenth wave of quarantine (God forbid!). 

It’s fascinating to see elements of our society given the Shakespearean treatment. However, Upstart Crow is at times too on-the-nose about social issues such as sexism and racism. I think viewers are meant to understand those gaffes as evidence of the “backwardness” of the time; however, the fact that a lot of those jokes go uncontested make them a bit gratuitous. It’s fairly obvious that the tone is satirical, but at times some of the characters’ overreliance on reductive humour is jarring for a witty and upbeat comedy.

Anne (Liza Tarbuck) giving Shakespeare (David Mitchell) another brilliant idea. Photo: BBC

Nevertheless, that’s not to say that Upstart Crow lacks female characters with agency. Kate (Gemma Whelan), the daughter of Shakespeare’s landlady, is always on the scene to point out regressive themes and problematic elements of Shakespeare’s drafts, her strong moral compass no doubt mirroring the views of many of us who watch. Kate is an excellent bridge from the modern viewer to Elizabethan times, and she often grounds the episodes in a present-day context. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna is also outspoken, and her bold, sometimes rough manner undercuts the confining idealization of women’s innocence in Elizabethan times.

Finally, Shakespeare’s wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck) is credited with many of the brilliant plot ideas in Shakespeare’s plays: each episode ends with Shakespeare and Anne smoking by the fire in their Stratford home, reflecting on recent events. Anne tosses out insightful suggestions every time; from our knowledge of his plays it’s implied that Shakespeare goes on to use her ideas, riffing on the concept of a woman’s ingenuity being repackaged and sold by a man (often to his benefit) in a patriarchal society. Upstart Crow therefore asserts that Anne is responsible for most of her husband’s iconic storylines and titles. The show doesn’t often slow down long enough to ruminate on the social tensions I’ve illustrated here, as the action trots along at a sprightly pace – but hints of contemporary awareness are definitely present, however they come across.

Kate (Gemma Whelan) raises concerns about Shakespeare’s in-progress works while Bottom (Rob Rouse) and Marlowe (Tim Downie) look on. Photo: BBC

To really achieve a lively Shakespeare adaptation, one must include copious Shakespearean insults, something Upstart Crow excels at. In fact, the show itself is named after an insult from a real-life rival poet, Robert Greene, who published a pamphlet in 1592 deriding Shakespeare as “an upstart crow” – referring to his middle-class birth. Greene (Mark Heap) appears as the show’s snobbish villain, devising dastardly schemes to humiliate Shakespeare – many of which come straight from the Shakespeare canon. For instance, Greene convinces Shakespeare to wear yellow stockings to a high-profile London ball, à la Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Mark Heap as Shakespeare’s snobbish rival poet Robert Greene in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Greene’s antagonism aside, the real payoff of the show is seeing Shakespeare blast other characters with streams of clever insults, slightly modernized but no less verbose. In creating his own inventive barbs, Ben Elton twists the Bard’s talents of language to great comic effect. One such example, so you can get a taste for it: “Spurious unearned social status will polish even the most stinksome turdlingtons – by which, of course, I mean you, Dad.” Or, in Robert Greene’s supercilious words: “Your family be turnip-chewing country bumshankles without influence or connexion.” These linguistic treats are a major asset to the show, making the sitcom-Shakespeare a memorable character.

In bringing together these trademark elements of Shakespeare’s style – complete with witticisms and asides that break the fourth wall – Upstart Crow plays with Shakespeare’s biography to offer a fun and irreverent look at the life of England’s most famous playwright. Celebrations of Shakespeare’s profound effect on the English language are offset by a humorous dressing-down of the Bard in every episode, making the show’s approach truly unique. It’s worth a watch if you enjoy both Shakespeare and sitcoms and want to see how the two spectacularly collide.

After all, even serious heavyweights of literature shouldn’t be taken too seriously. 

I’m Not Like Them, But I Can Pretend

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died 27 years ago, aged 27. Between his rock star persona and gentle offstage aura, it’s hard to reconcile Cobain’s humanity with his legend status. But in 1993, Canadian journalist Erica Ehm did just that, in a now-famous interview for MuchMusic.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article mentions drug use and suicide, and may be disturbing for some readers.

Kurt Cobain – lead singer and guitarist of the wildly famous grunge rock band Nirvana – died by suicide on April 5, 1994, at the age of 27. This year marks the 27th anniversary of his passing, which means he’s now been dead as long as he was alive. 

Why commemorate an artist’s death? Perhaps because their exit from the world is so heavily marked by their artistic contributions. There’s a legacy left behind in those moments – the person is grieved by family, friends, and people who never knew them personally but appreciate their art, their work, or their public persona. 

Kurt Cobain’s legend status has been upheld by admirers for almost 30 years. Photo: Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Being part of the “27 Club” means being enshrined in myth forever: Cobain’s legendary status is unarguable. Nirvana has sold 75 million records worldwide. Nirvana T-shirts are still worn by fans (and non-fans) daily. And just last year, Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar (used at the band’s famous 1993 MTV Unplugged session just five months before his death) became the highest-selling guitar in history, fetching $6 million USD at auction.

Nirvana’s fame wasn’t easy for Cobain, however. The three-piece band, whose final lineup comprised Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl (now Foo Fighters frontman), became superstars almost overnight. Their career yielded just three studio albums: Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and In Utero (1993). Growing commercial pressures after Nevermind‘s success contributed to Cobain’s fear of “selling out”. His depression, coupled with an addiction to heroin, would lead to his premature death. A few overdoses, an intervention from family and friends, and an aborted rehab stay ended in tragedy with Cobain’s suicide – he shot himself in his Seattle home less than a year after Nirvana’s third album was released. 

I first picked up Nirvana as an angsty teen (I mean, is there any better time for it?) starting university. The band’s legacy was already written, and I was just jumping in. Yet the music still resonated, 20 years after Nirvana’s unplanned dissolution. Their lyrics, often scathing critiques of society, still apply today.

Nirvana in 1993 (from left): Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl. Photo: Anton Corbijn

Although he’s venerated as a progressive punk rock icon, feminist, and empath, Kurt Cobain wasn’t known for his effusiveness. He was sensitive and self-critical; bandmates and friends commented that he was always overthinking, and it bothered him to hear about sexism, homophobia, racism, rape, and other injustices. In interview footage, he often appears spaced-out, moody, and taciturn. 

Many musicians dislike interviews, which is understandable given their rigorous schedules. Between songwriting, rehearsals, recording, and touring, journalists don’t get many chances to speak to band members outside rare periods of downtime. Add the fact that musicians are often asked the same questions repeatedly, and it’s no wonder we sometimes see gruffness, apathy, or all-out exhaustion during interviews. Once a musician or artist dies, these interviews become like gold – valuable snippets into their creative processes, insights, opinions, and personalities. 

As a historian and lover of old stuff, I often find myself getting into media after its creator has died. I read and watch interviews to better understand the artist behind the work. I want to get closer to their personality, to recognize them as a human being. It’s the best way to spot mannerisms and offstage persona, which can often be very different from the impression given while performing. After they’re gone, the life of a musician often achieves a mythical existence. The person can no longer contribute to the narrative; they can’t speak for themselves. They’re defined by their overall legacy. That’s why existing interviews become such treasured glimpses into their essence as a person, especially when recorded on video.

And if the interviewer manages against all odds to get something special, it becomes iconic.

Kurt Cobain speaking to Erica Ehm on a balcony in Seattle. Photo: YouTube / MuchMusic

This is where Erica Ehm comes in. A Canadian journalist and longtime VJ at MuchMusic, Ehm interviewed numerous musicians during her time at the television station (1985-1994). Her 1993 conversation with Kurt Cobain is one of her most famous interviews, if not the most famous. It was late summer in Seattle, Washington. Ehm had been sent out to interview Cobain for the release of In Utero

Each of us [journalists] was asked to set up our cameras in a nondescript hotel room, and assigned a short window of time with each band member. As soon as one interview would wrap, they’d be escorted to the next. It’s an impersonal grind. For alt rockers like Nirvana, it must have been a mind-numbing process. 

I knew I’d have to stand out to get a decent interview with Kurt. My hope was to make him see me as more than another faceless media type.

Erica Ehm in 2019

The extended cut of the now-famous MuchMusic interview has over 10 million views on YouTube, and is well-regarded among Nirvana fans and music journalists. Fans often remark on how genuine Cobain seems in this interview – charming but pensive, and most importantly, relaxed. It’s hard to tap into the authenticity of a person in just a few minutes’ conversation, but Ehm does this well by balancing music-related questions with more personal ones. It’s a candid talk by the water, with low-key (if sometimes erratic) camera work. Cobain seems comfortable and Ehm is professional yet casual.

Erica Ehm with Paul Langlois and Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. Photo: Erica Ehm / MuchMusic

For my interview with Kurt, I came prepared to talk about his album, touring and other standard questioning the record company expected. However, it was the quirkier ones like “What are you reading?” or “Why would you bring a baby [into] a world that you hate?” that allowed him to reveal a bit of himself to us. 

Erica Ehm

It’s a point of pride that it was a Canadian who captured such a meaningful interview. Ehm treated Cobain like a person rather than a commodity (even though he’d begun to feel like the latter over the last few months of his life, as the pressures of fame mounted and his depression and addiction worsened). He was already becoming a symbol, yet Ehm’s approach transcended that: she asked about Kurt the human being, not Kurt the performer. To me, watching this as a music enthusiast, Ehm’s thoughtfulness felt far away from the usual intensity of the music industry. It’s hard to believe that this interview took place on a day crammed full of press for Cobain – it feels like a one-off conversation on an average day.

Extended cut of Canadian journalist Erica Ehm’s 1993 MuchMusic interview with Kurt Cobain.

Not much about Cobain’s life at that point was very “average”. He’d become a rock star in next to no time, and was dealing with copyright infringement and sensationalist press pieces, being interviewed by dozens of journalists. Yet the thing that brought him the most joy – and Ehm seemed to intuit this – was talking about his wife, Courtney Love, and their baby daughter, Frances Bean. These personal insights grant us a glimpse into the life of someone whose fame was so huge that a respite into the everyday was more than welcome. 

It’s hard to say what would’ve happened with Cobain and Nirvana had he not died in early 1994, only a few months after this interview. But one thing is certain: his death cemented his status as an icon and an inspiration to many. As per the Neil Young lyrics quoted in Cobain’s suicide letter, he did indeed “burn out” rather than “fade away”. He never had to slip slowly into obscurity or irrelevance, because he died at the height of his and Nirvana’s acclaim.

Nirvana’s discography. Photo: Diffuser

Ehm’s interview is a big part of the Nirvana “canon” for those learning about Cobain for the first time, a piece of remembrance for those already familiar. Her work in bringing out his personality for us to see and appreciate – which shows us his uniqueness as a person – helps ensure Cobain is still loved and celebrated even 27 years after his death. He preached empathy, acceptance, love for others and self-love, making people love him not just as a musician, but as a human being. In this case the artist is very much intertwined with the art, and the band’s sincerity has immortalized them in the hearts of rock fans worldwide. 

Nirvana continues to resonate, and in the words of Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain “has become something more than a human being to others.” But apart from his talent, it’s his humanity that people latched onto in the first place – and skilled interviewers like Ehm helped preserve it for the ages. 

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy For Ever: Keats 200

At the bicentenary of his death, John Keats remains an iconic figure in the literary world. Keats died believing himself a failure, but his work is more admired than he ever knew – and in the midst of a global pandemic, his life story is especially poignant.

By Serena Ypelaar

23rd of February, 1821 – Rome. The English poet John Keats dies, aged just 25 and convinced he had never amounted to anything.

Today, 200 years later, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While he went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Keats’ posthumous rise to distinction and his perception as a tragic hero have enshrined him in literary history, never to be removed. This week, the #Keats200 campaign commemorates the bicentenary of the famed Romantic poet’s death.

Portrait of John Keats (detail) c. 1822 by painter William Hilton, who had been acquainted with the poet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clever, sensitive, thoughtful, eloquent – these words are often used to describe Keats, yet during his own time he was relatively unappreciated but for the loyalty of his friends and family. His talent has since immortalized him within the English literary canon as a key figure of the second generation of Romantic poets. Keats’ 1819 Odes, as well as “Bright Star”, “To Autumn”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “Endymion” are among the most studied and admired poems today. His personal letters have been lauded as literary gems in themselves, bringing us closer to Keats the man – and to that morbidly compelling picture of untimely suffering – to which Keats’ current renown is something of an antidote.

The Keats Foundation, Keats House (which I wrote about in 2018), and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association are leading the worldwide event which culminates today, on the 200th anniversary itself. To fully appreciate Keats’ journey from relative unknown to legendary poet, it’s best if we wind the clock back two centuries: back to 1818.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on …

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), lines 11-12
Copy of Keats’ life mask at Keats House; one of many made for Keats’ friends to remember him by. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Believe it or not, Keats trained as a surgeon in London before quitting his studies to focus on his writing. In June of 1818 he and his close friend Charles Armitage Brown went on a tour of Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District – and Keats returned with a bad cold. Nursing his younger brother Tom, who had consumption (now known as tuberculosis), Keats was thus exposed to infection.

Although Tom died that December, the following year (1819) was the most fruitful for Keats’ work. His most famous poems were written during that time, but their merits went mostly unrecognized – Keats was still in debt and unable to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne as a result.

One day, in early 1820, he coughed up blood.

He realized immediately that he must have consumption. After struggling with mounting symptoms over the following months, Keats agreed to relocate to Rome in the hope that its warmer climate would improve his condition. His friends paid for his passage, with painter Joseph Severn accompanying him. He would never return to England.

I know the colour of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant.

Keats to his friend Charles Brown, upon coughing up blood in early 1820

Keats was fairly well-connected, having met and formed friendships with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth (my thoughts on him here), Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Despite the pedigree of many of his peers, however, it was difficult for Keats to establish footholds beyond his circle – he was middle-class, a would-be surgeon without noble birth. His background was fodder for snobbish critics such as Blackwood’s Magazine, who wrote that he was not well-educated enough to be a proper poet or write about classical subject matter. These reviews vexed Keats, putting a pressure on his work (alongside the need to earn a living) that aristocratic poets simply didn’t face.

By the time Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820, it may have been too late. In his final days before succumbing to his illness the following February, he requested that his tombstone bear the following inscription in place of his name: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats thought he’d made no mark on the world. He didn’t know his poems would be considered among the best in the English language. He died at the same age as I am now – it’s humbling to think of all he accomplished in his short life.

Keats’ gravestone in the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma (the Protestant cemetery). Photo: Giovanni Dall’orto

And now we’re commemorating the bicentenary of his death. Not just a century later – two centuries later. I’ve always felt it’s important to mark these anniversaries. It makes us reflect on the lives of those before us. And this really is the perfect time to understand Keats’ circumstances. He contracted a widespread disease which ended his life far too soon, robbing him of the opportunity to write more, to enjoy critical acclaim, and to find happiness.

His tragedy resonates during our current pandemic. Lives are being lost in a similar fashion. Keats’ ship was even quarantined before he could disembark in Italy – his letters to Charles Brown during quarantine describe a restlessness that is all too relatable today.

I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, and at my worst even in quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.

Excerpt from Keats’ final letter to Charles Brown (30th November 1820), in which he describes his restlessness in quarantine

We don’t necessarily need to relate to Keats to empathize with his hardships. But it certainly helps.

Portrait of Keats in Hampstead c. 1821-1823. Painted from memory by Joseph Severn, who was with him at his death in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A prolific Romantic poet, Keats captures the timelessness of nature, emotion, and beauty. His abstract explorations and emphasis on sensory stimulation transcend any one time or place. From exaltation to lamentation, Keats felt deeply. Those who knew him remarked on his distinctive intensity; and the sensitive among us can take solace in his musings. His writing exemplifies the great care and consideration with which he engaged with his surroundings, documenting his understanding of the world; validating the complexity of our own emotions.

Keats’ works were published and circulated during his lifetime, but he received as many negative reviews as he did positive ones, if not more. It was only posthumously, during the 19th century that his works gradually became more well-known and highly venerated by Victorians (Tennyson chief among them). Today, people love Keats’ poems – and they’re attracted to the story of the emotional young poet whose tragic end came too soon. It goes to show how we can form strong personal attachments to an artist – a collective appreciation that continues to grow over two centuries.

Keats may have thought his name was writ in water – easily washed away and forgotten – but the joy he brings, the sense of feeling he encapsulates in his works – outlive any concept of self-perceived failure. Loved in life by his friends and family, in death Keats has achieved mythical status. I wish I knew how Keats would feel if he learned how successful his work is now, but one thing is for sure – some things will always move us.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, “Endymion” (1818), lines 1-5
You can read more about Keats and the significance of his life and death masks here.

Travel in the Time of COVID (It’s Not What You Think)

The year was 2020. Heritage professionals and travel buddies Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar were excited for their annual weekend trip with friends. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic thwarted such plans, but the duo went ahead with a Christmastime trip to Quebec City – virtually. Their online “visitor experience” explored how sensory immersion can convincingly take us elsewhere. 

By Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar 

Serena Ypelaar: This is one of my top memories from 2020 – which I guess isn’t saying much, as everyone spent most of the year at home. Back in December, Emily and I travelled to Quebec City ~virtually~ since we couldn’t do so in person. It helped that we’d both been there before; we had sensory memory to work from. Moving our trip online actually shaped a unique experience that was almost as fun as the real thing – I was surprised how absorbing it was. 

We travelled to Quebec City at Christmas without leaving our homes. Photo: Shorttrips / ed. Serena Ypelaar

As part of our pseudo-trip, I planned a virtual stay at the Fairmont Château Frontenac, which has always been on my bucket list. Can’t afford to stay there irl, so why not pretend, with the help of PowerPoint and HQ images? But we couldn’t just appear in Quebec – a virtual train ride would bridge the gap between Ontario and Quebec nicely, so I hopped onto YouTube to find the goods. You’d be surprised how many Ontarians post videos of their train rides. As our Zoom call connected on Day 1 of the trip*, I for some reason decided Ozzy Osbourne’s “all aboard!” (from “Crazy Train“) was a mandatory soundtrack to our simulated journey via Zoom screensharing and someone’s train video. Sorry for subjecting you to it, Emily! 

In the virtual tourism world, money is no object – we could “choose” our rooms. Photos: Château Frontenac / ed. Serena Ypelaar

Emily Welsh: “All aboard! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” The perfect way to start a trip! Music plays such a large role in travel, especially for us. The first person POV helped me feel as if I was actually departing on a trip, rather than simply showing up at our virtual hotel stay, which likely would have been a jarring introduction. I was immersed in the experience from the very beginning, and it only got better from there. After exploring the public spaces and rooms of the Château Frontenac, we explored the Old City with a first person night time walk. Walking among others bundled up against the cold, hearing the snow crunching underfoot, seeing the Christmas lights and skaters, it was as if I was breathing in the cold air and exploring the city with friends. I was mentally choosing benches to sit on and Christmas booths to visit. 

The walk we “went on” in Quebec City. There are many others like it on YouTube, shot in 4K. Delightful when you’re stuck in lockdown! Video: NAC Design on YouTube

SVY: I couldn’t have described it better myself – the sights and sounds really got me! I can’t convey how much I enjoyed the night walk. Another boon from YouTube and shot in 4K, it was as if we were actually walking through the snowy night, through the streets of 17th and 18th century architecture I love. Perfect way to spend the simulated evening. 

It’s not a vacation without a food tour! Photo: Kerrmess

EKW: For Day 2 of our trip, I was excited to curate a walking food tour, or dessert hop, of Old Quebec City. Quebec City provided the opportunity to taste traditional French and French Canadian dishes, and explore the modern inspirations offered by restaurants and shops. For instance the piesicle, frozen pie on a stick, offered at Kerrmess seemed too cool to pass by (pun intended). 

However, I quickly realized this trip must also be realistic, and although we may wish, we cannot simply eat the day away! I decided to pair a tour of historic homes and architecture with the dessert hop, as food and architecture seemed to go hand in hand in my mind. By examining the architecture of the Old City, I was constantly surprised by stories of cultural influences, military campaigns, epidemics, natural disasters, building codes, and modern reconstructions. I was pleased to gain a fuller understanding of the city’s history, and excited to share what I had learned. 

Map of our food tour. Photo: Google Maps / ed. Emily Welsh

SVY: Your tour was engrossing, and can I just say I was glad I had tea and stroopwafel on my end, because taste-testing-without-actually-tasting was a killer! Your visuals of bakeries, restaurants, and of course, food sparked my imaginative powers, that’s for sure. And the way you interwove all the stops with local building history, the evolution of the city, and landmark features made the experience really organic, yet again fooling me into thinking I was there. It’s amazing how much you can engage with a faraway place if you tune your senses in. If we ever get back to QC, we’re re-enacting this food tour, s’il vous plait!

EKW: I’d be honoured to offer this tour dans la vraie vie!

SVY: We engaged with even more places as the trip went on. When organizing travel itineraries, the first place my mind goes to is “HISTORIC SITES” (yes, my brain yells it in all caps). So it was only fitting that we checked out the Fortifications du Quebec National Historic Site, Lévis Forts National Historic Site, and Le Monastère des Augustines. The Plains of Abraham and other sites were not on the list (despite my fascination with Wolfe and Montcalm) as we’d both been there, done that. Instead we watched a rather dramatic video about the Fortifications, followed by a few lads’ recent visit to the site thanks to YouTube (overlaid by my on-the-spot spiel about the colonial history of Quebec and New France). Visitors captured in that video were masked up, which struck me as particularly authentic – how it would be if we were really there in 2020.

Virtual heritage tour slide, with embedded videos (like this intense Parks Canada one) bringing the sites to life.
Within Le Monastère des Augustines. Photo: Facebook

Google Maps / Street View brought the Lévis Forts before our eyes, as if we were standing there. While it was interesting learning the history of the British-built forts, not much is left of them today to engage with. The virtual trip served us well in that sense. We didn’t have to make the long trek to the outskirts just to see… well, not much. We learned, we interacted, but we also decided we don’t need to see the forts in person, thanks to virtual tourism! On the other hand, Le Monastère is a place I’ve seen from outside and always wanted to enter, so it was fulfilling to traverse the halls in some form and I definitely want to explore further in person.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Major-General Sir Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone & Governor-General of Canada, at the First Quebec Conference, August 1943. Photo: Wikimedia

EKW: How else should one’s brain shout historic sites? The fortifications of the city are impossible to miss, so I was excited to learn we were going on top of the walls and inside the associated structures! Again, the immersion of the virtual trip was paramount and your curated tour made it as if I was actually exploring all of the exhibits in person. Plus, your personal re-telling of the city’s history, with fun historical photographs thrown in, made it an even more valuable and enjoyable experience.   

I was also excited to explore the museum and archives at Le Monastère Des Augustines. The site, its collection, and interpretation provided me with the opportunity to learn about early healthcare practices in the community, as well as the opportunity to investigate how tourism, accommodation, wellness, and heritage can be blended in a single site. I’m glad you were able to walk its halls, albeit in your digital presence.  

SVY: Thanks! I had the ideal company. So, the big question: would you do a trip like this again?

EKW: In a heartbeat! From researching our destination, to designing experiences, and finally executing the trip, this educational experience exceeded my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by how immersive a virtual trip could feel. Even outside of a global pandemic, I would consider completing a virtual trip prior to a physical one, as it provided such a well-rounded introduction to a city and would help inform decisions for the real deal! I think it would be an interesting experiment to try a virtual trip for a city we had not visited before to examine whether the level of immersion is equally as deep without prior memories.   

SVY: I’m right there with you (ha). This trip was awesome and like you, I’m taken aback by how effective it ended up being. Agreed about using virtual tourism to plan in-person trips. A virtual first-time visit somewhere would be intriguing … Shoutout to the power of imagination and memory, and to you, Emily, for your partnership in this worthy endeavour. Before long it’ll be time to pack our virtual suitcases for a spring adventure! If this is all the travel we have in the time of COVID, well, I’m not that mad about it anymore.

If you’ve taken a virtual trip of your own over the course of the pandemic or otherwise, we’d love to hear about it! Let us know in the comments or via social media where you “travelled” and how it went.

*We did the trip over one afternoon, but pretended there were multiple days because why not? Gotta make the most out of our fake trip, ya know… 

1917: Walking in a Soldier’s Boots

Cinematography and sound in the film 1917 take us through the trials of World War I soldiers on a visceral level. There’s no better way to empathize with those who fought in the trenches than seemingly embarking on their journey ourselves – thanks to sensory storytelling techniques.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another Remembrance Day has passed, albeit very differently this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic surging in parts of Canada and worldwide, we weren’t able to gather at town squares and city halls with veterans in the same way. We weren’t out as much; we didn’t see as many poppies on each other’s lapels. But all this aside, we can still pay tribute to those who made sacrifices for our freedom. Especially now, the theme of sacrifice is crucial as we try to protect each other by staying apart.

I’ve written about this before: no matter the politics of war, its toll on our fellow humans is something we can all recognize. We feel it through devastation, through loss, through grief, glory, and gratitude.

It’s often said that the best way to understand someone’s struggle is to walk a mile in their shoes. One film that does an excellent job of putting us in a soldier’s boots is Sam Mendes’ 2019 war film, 1917. The film is critically acclaimed for its immersive powers, having won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing, on top of seven other nominations, including for Best Picture. Having seen it at the start of this year, I was captivated by the cinematic techniques that told the story.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) lead us on a tense journey through no man’s land, illustrating both the horrors and the human aspect of war. Photo: Roger Ebert

1917 follows two young lance corporals in the British army during World War I. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a do-or-die mission in northern France. The duo must trek across the treacherous no man’s land to prevent a different British battalion from launching a planned attack, which would play right into a German ambush if it were to go ahead. Schofield and Blake must get there within 24 hours, before the attack is scheduled to take place. They’re sent off with a terse warning: “If you fail, it will be a massacre”.

George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917 (2019). Photo: Vulture

The ensuing story is harrowing enough on its own, bluntly depicting the theatre of war and the horrors that come with it. Death, violence, poverty, destruction – we know what to expect from a war film, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when it’s before our eyes, or ringing in our ears. Now imagine actually being there in person. We don’t need to work hard to do so, because the film’s cinematography (in the capable hands of Roger Deakins) situates us right alongside Schofield and Blake as if we were walking, running, climbing, and crawling with them. We’re made to feel like we’re right there thanks to incredibly long takes – the whole film looks as if it were filmed in one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but it might as well have been; it seems impossible to distinguish where takes end because they span minutes, each take cleverly shifting into the next.

Photo: Ourculture

As a result, 1917 comes across as a progression of events in real-time – much as you might walk through a field yourself, for instance. Even if you blink, your view doesn’t cut to various images in succession – you’re likely to take in your surroundings more gradually, organically. You might also get swept up in the sounds of your environment. Likewise, the film replicates empirical observation intuitively, thanks to the long takes and sound mixing. Perhaps my analogy makes assumptions about accessibility, but my point is that we’re made to follow Schofield and Blake through no man’s land directly: the film is linear, never using the same location twice. There are no omissions from the action unfolding in front of us, thereby absorbing us into a rawness that feels like the present. The result is an immersive experience (my favourite phrase). We desperately hope the soldiers will get there in time, and it’s that suspense that helps to pull us in.

Using clever transitions from one long take to another, 1917 creates the illusion of one continuous shot – and in so doing, makes us feel as though we are right in the middle of the battlefields.

“That was my battle every day; to marry something that technically had to be incredibly precise with performances that felt spontaneous and real and a little rough around the edges, and not in any way robotic or preplanned or over-rehearsed. And to make sure that the technical scale of it didn’t overwhelm the human story … to make sure those two things could coexist without one destroying the other.”

Sam Mendes, Director
Photo: Ourculture

1917 isn’t based on a particular battle, and all its characters are fictional. This could be any World War I battlefield, any soldiers – what matters is that they’re human, like us. The casting of relative newcomers MacKay and Chapman in the lead roles gives the film an air of anonymity and grim humility; the narrative doesn’t chase glory or pride. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), 1917 is sober in tone, illustrating war on an intimate, human level: the story of a few individuals. Notably, 1917 balances low-profile leads with the high-profile casting of the military officers: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden. Yet they have about five minutes’ screen time each, because it’s not the generals that carry this film; it’s the average soldier.

Likewise, when remembering war, we’re not just remembering conflicts between faraway countries, a long time ago (there are people living through war right now). We have to remember the enduring humanity, the selflessness and courage of veterans and civilians over a sustained period of time – even through the inhumanity of war. It’s something that 1917 illustrates very well through its cinematography, casting, and pacing. The heightened uncertainty of global situations (be it war or pandemic) underscores just how much each person’s contribution can mean in the greater scheme of things.

So by watching films like this, by simply paying attention for a while, we can honour their sacrifices.

Canadian Music Picks 2020: Indigenous

Canada Day is a time to reflect on the creation of this country, including the colonial legacies that remain. We’ve picked songs by Indigenous musicians to celebrate Indigenous arts and facilitate a deeper awareness of the complexities of this holiday.

By Serena Ypelaar

This should have been the first Canadian Music Picks playlist.

Back in 2018 when we started this segment with the “Canadian Music Starter Pack”, we shared top picks from musicians across the country, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to mark Canada Day.

But despite the celebrations every July 1, Canada Day is a painful reminder to many – of the trauma of forced removals, residential schools, the outlawing of cultural practices, and the other instruments of colonialism that were used in an effort to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples who have been here on the land long before European colonists arrived. The fact is that cultural genocide took place in Canada to achieve the Confederation of 1867 that many still celebrate today.

Yes, Canada became a nation 153 years ago today. But at what cost to Indigenous peoples, the rightful occupants of this land? If you’re uncomfortable thinking about this today, imagine feeling uncomfortable or unsafe every day, or living in a place that has been hostile to your very existence here.

In this year’s Canada Day playlist, we honour Indigenous peoples who have lived on this land since time immemorial. We celebrate Indigenous musicians from diverse nations and cultures, each with their own stories to tell, whose talents weave tales of resilience, love, suffering, strength, retribution, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

A Tribe Called Red at CBC Music Festival at Echo Beach in 2018. Photo: Mac Downey

On Canada Day, you may feel proud and grateful, you may feel uncomfortable or sad; you may feel any or all of these things and beyond. Take a listen to our playlist – and in so doing, take a moment to acknowledge the complexities of Canadian history and listen to the perspectives of these Indigenous artists. The Mindful Rambler is pleased to share the playlist here and on Spotify.

Canadian Music Picks: Indigenous

The Virus – A Tribe Called Red, Saul Williams, Chippewa Travellers
Toothsayer – Tanya Tagaq
I Can’t Remember My Name – Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Kimmortal
Healers – iskwē
Someone Call An Angel Down – Derek Miller
Takugiursugit – Beatrice Deer
Generation – Buffy Sainte-Marie
Big Crow – DJ Shub ft. Black Lodge Singers
Havava – The Jerry Cans
Evil Memory – Crystal Shawanda
Oqiton – Jeremy Dutcher
Mixed Blood Lullaby – Jani Lauzon
Arnaq – Elisapie
Warpath – Drezus
Tiny Hands – Quantum Tangle
Remembrance – Robbie Robertson
Stay Strong – Kelly Fraser
Pieces – Leonard Sumner
All Night – Digging Roots
Soul Angel – Tom Jackson
Tavva – Riit
Better Place – Winnipeg Boyz
Spirit Child – Willie Thrasher
Nutarâsuk – Deantha Edmunds
Suffer in Silence – Susan Aglukark
I Pity the Country – Willie Dunn
Hay in the Loft / Six Nations Reel – Métis Fiddler Quartet
Bring the Thunder – Northern Cree
copper – nêhiyawak
Modern Rock – Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys
Proud Métis – Arlette Alcock
Halfbreed Blues – Andrea Menard
Jungle Night – Joey Stylez, Carsen Gray
Rolling Thunder – Leela Gilday
ALie Nation – A Tribe Called Red, John Trudell, Tanya Tagaq, Lido Pimienta, Northern Voice

Have No Fear, Shakespeare’s Here!

As we pass William Shakespeare’s birthday, we reflect upon his plays and their readability among modern audiences. Why do some scholars and purists look down on No Fear Shakespeare, Sparknotes’ series of comprehensive Shakespeare “translations”?

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s fascinating to think that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) significantly evolved the English language during his lifetime, introducing new idioms and even new words. He created new verbs from nouns (e.g. “to elbow”), and was especially illustrious for his mastery of insults. Yet despite his achievements in shaping the English language we use today, many people have difficulty understanding his writings.

Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom in Richard III (1955). Photo: IMDb

There’s a distance between Elizabethan/Jacobean English and contemporary English, of course. So it’s understandable that reading Shakespeare requires some mental gymnastics compared to, say, reading your everyday newspaper or a new novel. This year, to honour the Bard on the occasion of his 456th birthday (presumed April 23 – he died the same day in 1616), I’d like to discuss No Fear Shakespeare.

The Macbeth version of No Fear Shakespeare. Photo: Kobo

No Fear Shakespeare is a student’s dream come true: it’s a modern-day translation, and therefore an interpretation, of Shakespeare’s plays. Published by Sparknotes and known for distinctive blue and white covers, each paperback volume includes the original text of a Shakespeare play, side by side with a modern translation. Depending on how you want to be perceived in English class, copies of No Fear Shakespeare are either coveted or derided among schoolfellows.

At least in my high school, I remember being grateful for No Fear but hesitant to be seen using it. During undergrad, I definitely wouldn’t dare flaunt a copy – to do so might be akin to admitting you didn’t understand Shakespeare. But I’ll readily admit I own copies of No Fear for King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest. In truth, it doesn’t hurt to have a translation available for when you’re tired or simply want to read Shakespeare for fun (don’t laugh; it happens worldwide). Literary skills aside, there’s no point pretending translations aren’t useful, no matter how clever you want to appear. Take this translation from King Lear (my favourite tragedy):

It is the cowish terror of his spirit
That dares not undertake. He’ll not feel wrongs
Which tie him to an answer.
Our wishes on the way
May prove effects. Back, Edmund, to my brother.
Hasten his musters and conduct his powers.
I must change names at home, and give the distaff
Into my husband’s hands.

William Shakespeare, “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

He’s a coward and can’t commit himself to doing anything risky. He chooses not to be insulted rather than challenge those who offend him. But what we talked about with longing on the way may soon come true. Edmund, go back to see my brother-in-law. Gather his soldiers and organize his troops. I plan to take charge of my household. From now on I will wear the pants, and my husband can play the housewife.

No Fear Shakespeare, modern translation of “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

Here, Shakespeare’s language may seem oblique or confusing in terms of what Goneril is saying; No Fear has brought it down to a clear-cut modern translation.

No Fear is aptly named, as people often approach Shakespeare’s writing with just that: fear, or at least a feeling of intimidation. We often fear that which is difficult to understand. But among scholars, why is No Fear tacitly shamed? Because there’s a pronounced sense of pride that comes with being able to understand, appreciate, and quote Shakespeare. I say “pride”, but in fact it reeks of elitism. No Fear Shakespeare is seen as cheating – the easy way out, as one avoids doing the bulk of the interpretation one’s self. There’s also a strong case against No Fear translations in the sense that they’ve “stripped” the plays of what makes them great: Shakespeare’s unparalleled writing style.

Kenneth Branagh as Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). Photo: IMDb

Shakespeare is known for his eloquence, and by interpreting his plays yourself, you can engage with them in a way that No Fear would preclude – unless you can resist looking at the translations on the right-hand side of each page. That’s why English majors don’t bring copies to their university lectures, apart from the actual optics of the thing: even though it’s available, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by simply reading a translation, and we don’t want to look over-reliant on the watered-down No Fear. If you were to only read translations, you’d be missing the essence of Shakespeare’s writing itself, and that would be a shame.

But using No Fear doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. As demonstrated above, it can help with those hard-to-understand passages – and I can never fault anyone who’s working to make Shakespeare more accessible. I applaud the No Fear team, because the more barriers we eliminate between people and their enjoyment of literature, the more inclusive literature can be. If No Fear Shakespeare acts as a doorway to a lifetime of loving Shakespeare and his stories, then that can only be a good thing – we should never look down on anyone trying to learn something.

After all, I first got into Shakespeare by reading kids’ comic versions of his plays, adapted by Terry Deary. Film adaptations like She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) also offer a contemporary lens. If these adaptations are successful in introducing modern audiences to the Bard, then count me in. Just don’t ever ask me to give up the real deal: Shakespeare’s words, verbatim.

“We Cannot Speak Other Than By Our Paintings”

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned painters in the world. In a stunning visual undertaking, Loving Vincent pays tribute to the artist by reinterpreting his paintings in the world’s first painted feature-length film.

By Serena Ypelaar

Moviegoers often remember visually stunning films for years to come. Beautiful cinematography, outstanding production, and vivid imagery stays with us – that much is certainly true with the biopic Loving Vincent (2017), a feature-length film about Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

A still of Vincent van Gogh as depicted in Loving Vincent (2017). Photo: Medium

Starring Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Aidan Turner, and Robert Gulaczyk, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British co-production exploring the end of Van Gogh’s life. Though the film’s pacing is somewhat drawn-out at times and the plot is speculative, it stands out for one reason: it was entirely hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, “Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” (1890). Image: Wikiart

Loving Vincent is the first feature-length painting animation film in the world. 94 of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were reimagined for the film, along with new visuals. Dorota Kobiela, the film’s co-director alongside Hugh Welchman, launched the project after reading Van Gogh’s letters. She felt a profound desire to tell his story by capturing his art and its subject matter from a biographical perspective. Kobiela thought it was only right that the film should be painted. Despite pitching a seven-minute short film in 2008 and having been told it would be impossible to pursue a feature-length film, Kobiela started a successful crowdfunding campaign and set to work.

You may wonder how paintings can integrate seamlessly as a film. Surely they were supplemented with computer-generated imagery (CGI)? The answer is no – the actors performed their roles and CGI was only used to supplement the visuals captured on film, as well as to add the movement of the backgrounds. However, none of that footage was really used in the final cut of the film, which was entirely comprised of paintings. Every single frame was its own painting, with 12 frames per second. That’s 66,960 frames – which means just as many individual paintings were created by hand.

From left: Eleanor Tomlinson during the live-action filming phase; Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890); the final keyframe for “Loving Vincent”. Photo: Loving Vincent
Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (1888). Image: Wikiart

Production took place largely in Gdańsk, Poland, with 80 highly skilled painters recruited from worldwide to paint each frame of the film. These paintings interpret the story of Van Gogh, diverting us from details we’ll never know for sure and redirecting our attention to the essence of his visual art. The delivery of this film is what captivates us – its sense of movement brings Van Gogh’s work to life. Some of the famous paintings used in the film had to be extended or reimagined; Van Gogh used many different sizes of canvas for his works, whereas the film had to be one frame size. Producers also changed some colour palettes of well-known paintings on a seasonal basis, as Loving Vincent takes place in summer.

For the sake of authenticity, actors who closely resembled Van Gogh’s portrait sitters were cast – though their questionable accents and pronunciation slightly hamper the film’s impact. There are no French accents to be heard, though the film is set in France, and Van Gogh does not sound Dutch – the actors also anglicize the pronunciation of Van Gogh’s brother Theo’s name (which would be “Tay-OH” in Dutch). If these slight details were presented more accurately, the film could be even more absorbing; it’s definitely a tad distracting to hear the dissonant accents. Nevertheless, the true marvel lies in the visual spectacle.

Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin in “Loving Vincent” (2017). Each frame of the film required an individual painting. Image: Loving Vincent

How might Van Gogh feel if he saw this film? Would he be flattered, touched, or feel it invasive? Some may question the artists’ approach of directly imitating Van Gogh’s style, from his signature brushstrokes to the colours that grew more vivid over his career. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition whereby painters engage in artistic “schools” of thought or technique. You may have seen portraits “in the style of” Hans Holbein the Younger, for instance, or heard of numerous students of Rembrandt van Rijn. Even today, artists often have a team of painters who do some of the work when creating large-scale paintings. With this in mind, it might therefore be an oversimplification to call Loving Vincent‘s paintings plagiarism rather than an act of reinterpretation.

Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Café” (1888). Image: Wikipedia

Whatever your opinion on a brigade of artists painting literal thousands of Van Gogh-esque paintings – whether you think they’re a form of uncanny talent, plagiarism, or a bit of both – the production team working on this biopic took the ultimate risk, both financially and creatively. Loving Vincent could have been a flop; it could have been poorly executed (some may think it is). But I feel it’s a gorgeous treat for the eyes, one that pays tribute to Vincent van Gogh the best way it knows how: by bringing his paintings to life.

As Vincent himself said in his penultimate letter to his brother Theo (which was found on Van Gogh’s body after his death): “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”. If anyone lived up to that edict, it was certainly Van Gogh. He constructed the most beautiful scenes for us, telling stories in landscapes and portraits we still love over a century later – all through his paintings.

Worthy of His Words: Wordsworth 250

It’s the 250th anniversary of Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s birth, and his love for nature continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I learned that April 7th was the 250th birthday of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), I knew we had to tribute his legacy in some way. And what’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Wordsworth’s poems?

That’s right: nature.

As we isolate ourselves these days, it’s easy to feel lonely. But it seems that many of us have turned to nature as our saving grace. Nature is known to boost mental health and well-being – and now, when we’re unable to go to public places, a solo walk outdoors can do us a world of good.

William Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Robert Southey professed a profound regard for nature. So what better time to celebrate one of the most famous English writers of all time (and a personal favourite) than now, as we rely on nature to preserve our sanity? The timing of the #Wordsworth250 commemoration may seem unfortunate, but it’s also rather apt. Though events scheduled in the Lake District and northwestern England for the year-long celebration have been cancelled or moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the works of England’s former Poet Laureate.

The Lake District, the region where Wordsworth was born and later lived. Photo: Robert J. Heath

Nature’s offerings are bountiful: fresh air, tranquil scenery, ambient sounds and smells. It’s no wonder humans worship nature, in a sense. In remembering Wordsworth, we can appreciate how eloquently he conveys his love of nature, to which I’m sure many of us can relate. The sense of connection we derive from our shared love of nature provides us with some common ground, as the human experience is an integral element of Romantic poetry.

Interestingly enough, Wordsworth wrote much of his most famous work, The Prelude (1799), during a time of intense stress and loneliness while living in Germany. It was intended as part of a larger work titled The Recluse, which was never finished. I think the theme of isolation throughout Wordsworth’s poetry holds some relevance to our current situation, a consoling thought for anyone reading poems alone in their room (ahem, me).

Wordsworth is well-known for his ability to take readers through countryside rambles, using sensory imagery and lines heaving with emotion. His descriptions are vivid but also abstract, allowing us to travel to a site ourselves. Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798) does just that. Upon reading, we’re transported to the landscape above the Abbey, taking in the lush scenery and sublime beauty of nature through the experience of the speaker.

Richard Carruthers’ 1818 portrait of William Wordsworth. Collection of The Wordsworth Trust. Photo: Art UK

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), from lines 93-105

Wordsworth lets us witness the scene (and the speaker’s relationship with it) as if we were there too. How does he do this? Through senses and the imagination. Wordsworth saw imagination as a spiritual force. Famous for invoking the power of the sublime – whereby words incite thoughts and emotions beyond the ordinary – Wordsworth confronts the metaphysical, exploring concepts of time, space, knowing, and being. It can therefore reassure us to escape into nature through his words on the page. So even when we can’t walk through the countryside, we can see, smell, and hear it so convincingly as if we are there – through imagination.

William Havell’s painting “Tintern Abbey in a bend of the Wye” (1804). Wordsworth would have walked here a few years earlier when writing his 1798 poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. Photo: Wikimedia

Why do we love interacting with nature so much, anyway? Here we’re shown how rejuvenated Wordsworth’s speaker feels to be out of doors observing the ruins of Tintern Abbey:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din,
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too

Wordsworth, lines 22-30

Nature awakens our senses through sights, sounds, smells, and even touch – sitting in the grass, or feeling the wind lift your hair. Wordsworth was a master at evoking these sensations in his poetry, which is why he’s lauded as one of the most iconic British poets of all time – we really do feel his experiences as if they could be our own. In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, the pull of our individual relationships with nature still holds weight with readers worldwide.

I’m an ardent fan of Romantic poetry at the best of times (if you couldn’t already tell). But despite the slant of my own opinion, if you’re feeling cooped up, I encourage you to check out Wordsworth’s poems and marvel at the splendour of nature. Perhaps his works will inspire you to take a solitary walk outdoors, or maybe you’ll go there from the comfort of your living room – but either way, you might just feel transported for a while.

After all, there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to refresh your mind and soul. In remembering Wordsworth, we can do just that.

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Wordsworth, from lines 134-146
You can read some of Wordsworth’s poetry here, here, and here.
The Prelude (1799)
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798)
For more on isolation, poetry, and the power of the mind to take us elsewhere, check out Adriana Wiszniewska on Emily Dickinson’s solitary lifestyle and its impact on her work.