Sunday, November 18, 2012

Into the World of Celts, England and Beatles

I've always loved travel.  Even before I ventured beyond my own city, I loved reading of different places and eras.  One reason I'm a novelist is because I loved reading about different places and people when I was a child.  I hated being rooted to one place--even one era--and oh, I liked having a place to which to return, but I hated feeling rooted.  Wanderlust has never deserted me.

My first trip out of the country was to London.  That was a revelation.  I was enthralled by the Strand, the British Museum, and Trafalgar Square.  The West End theatre scene was a delight, and I attended as many plays as I could.  While attending a production of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, I caught a glimpse of Ringo Starr and his wife Barbara Bach in the audience.  They cut out immediately after the show, but my celebrity sighting was thrilling nonetheless.  When I visited Westminister Abbey, the graves of the literary dead and late politicians transported me to other eras of adventure and daring.  What was it like to live in Elizabeth's day, to be her lady-in-waiting?  A side trip to Stratford transported me to Renaissance England.  The carefully preserved structures serve as illusory tricks, and the observer almost expects to see gentlemen and ladies in period clothes.  The theatre there astounded me. I saw Derek Jacobi as Prospero in THE TEMPEST. His ringing soliloquy at the play's end had the audience on its feet clapping, and the stage went black when he broke the staff above his head.  Of course, one of my fondest personal memories is of walking back to the hotel on New Year's Eve.  I'd ventured out alone and couldn't find a taxi. The streets were filled with revelers, and I'd left THE MOUSETRAP.  I had no alternative but to walk.  When I came to Trafalgar Square, wild revelers were  jumping into the fountain.  Hell, when in Rome. . . I did, too!  Then, I walked back dripping wet and cold but very happy.  When I returned to New Orleans, my mother asked me why my coat was so dirty.  I gave her some lame excuse, but I don't think was fooled.

That wasn't my only sojourn into the land of Shakespeare.  I've returned several times, but the most memorable visit to London was when I was a scholar, finishing my doctorate.  I spent time in the British Library--so much time that I thought I'd become a library rat, hiding in the stacks.  I had to surrender my possessions when I made my way to the desk.  I donned gloves to touch some of the work my Blake.  While I was there, I looked for some books that no one could find.  One young man said, "It may have been lost in the war, ma'am." An alarm went off later, and we had to vacate the building.  The reality of war, and by extension terrorism, became very real.  This was before 9/11, but the British filed out the building very calmly.  KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. This was a country that had been bombed extensively, and I realized the price of war.  When my mother died, I read her own brothers' letters home while they were stationed overseas.  It was then that I began to formulate the plot of LOVE AT WAR, but when I write, my influences are only subliminally in my consciousness.  It is only later that I realize their impact, and my travels to England, being steeped in its history, also contributed to parts of the novel.

My time in London didn't end my traveling.  Ireland is the ancestral home of many long gone relatives; I first visited Galway and the Aran Islands.  Never had I seen land so green, so lush.  The people were friendly, generous, and open. The local music scene in Galway pulsated.  In the Aran Islands, sheep sometimes blocked traffic, and I climbed Dun Aengus with people who would become close friends.  During the day, I explored the city and village.  At night, I listened to my friends Danny and Misha crank out amazing Irish music.  When I stood by the Cliffs of Moher and looked at the rugged but beautiful land, I think I knew even then I'd write a book about this place.  Years later, when I went to Dublin, I learned more about the grit of my ancestors.  As I explored the famous General Post Office and the National Museum, I discovered more about the "terrible beauty" that formed this great country. I attended Mass in the Pro Cathedral and toured St. Patrick's.  I put back a few pints of Guinness and loved being in the land of Joyce and Yeats.  Oh, let's not forget Heaney.  And I loved the connection to the sea.  Whenever I thought of the West, I wanted to celebrate that land, and I think PIRATE WOMAN, my book about Grace O'Malley formed then.  She was the ultimate rebel woman who embodied the dangerous and rugged existence of this country and its people.

My musical taste has always been eclectic, and I've journeyed twice to Liverpool, reveling in the history and spirit of the people.  I ventured into the preserved homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  I toured Beatle haunts like the Grapes as well as the resurrected Cavern.  I was moved by the White Feather exhibit, Julian Lennon's tribute to his father, but I soon learned that Liverpool had even more to offer than Beatles memorabilia.  The Tate Liverpool contains some amazing artwork, and the Maritime Museum celebrates Liverpool's contribution to Britain's naval history.  Most moving was the exhibit on slavery and the many stories of young people still sold into slavery of one kind or another. I toured St. George's Hall and imagined the fate of criminals in the 1800s.  I strolled a street called Penny Lane and then ran my hand along the gates at Strawberry Field.  The ideas flowed.  THE DOCTOR AND THE WAR WIDOW is set partly in Liverpool, and my main character accepts a marriage proposal there.

Where will my nest journey take me? I don't know, but the other part of my family is German.  My mother used to tell me of my great-grandmother Katherine who came from Baden, Germany. She went to work in a butcher's shop and was so small she had to stand on a box.  No child labor laws then! I wish I'd known Katherine. I wish I'd learned German at her knee.  Maybe Germany should be next--or Italy. I like Italian men. Both would be great places to set stories.

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