Civil War, England, History, NY, Ships, UK, Uncategorized, William Seward

American Civil War in the English Channel.

 

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If you don’t know him, William Henry Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and right-hand man.  Lawyer, Governor of N.Y., U.S. Senator, the man who purchased Alaska.  And expected to be the first Republican President, instead of Lincoln.

Wm Seward LOCI spent two summers as a docent in the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York.  Seward’s prominent role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helped attract even more visitors to this great old house,  located in an otherwise obscure town in Upstate New York.

The Seward family not only donated the house, but its contents – artifacts, pictures of diplomats and rulers from around the world, paintings, objets d’art, furnishings, etc.

An Inuit kayak, a glass humidor with more-than-century-old Cuban cigars, a blood-stained sheet from an attempted assassination – you know, the usual stuff found in any household.

 

Last of the Alabama Commodore Winslows grand victory march. L.N. Rosenthal chromolithograph

Celebratory sheet music. “Last of the Alabama ~ Commodore Winslow’s Grand Victory March” LOC

You simply cannot talk about everything in the plethora of art and artifacts.

But after spending hundreds of hours as a guide, one object stands out for me, as likely to be overlooked by visitors.

2010 grabbag 198It’s an old painting of two ships.  If you’ve got a couple of minutes, it’s a really interesting story from the Civil War.  And tells something about the wheels-within-wheels that a Secretary of State needs to operate.

First-time visitors are often a bit stunned by the sheer number of interesting bits and bobs.  They’ll pause to admire a gorgeous stone fireplace, one of many in the house, glance at the painting hung above it, and move on.

The paintings which draw more attention are the large Thomas Cole landscape, and the portrait of Seward’s daughter by Emanuel Leutze  (best known for “Washington Crossing the Delaware”).

 

Kearsarge Alabama Seward House painting

I think the J. W. Anderson painting in the Seward House may be the most historically-accurate. The small ship in the middle is the Deerhound. http://www.SewardHouse.org. 33 South St, Auburn, NY 13021

 

But this year, the museum is focusing on the painting with the melodious name Action between the U.S.S. steamer Kearsarge, Capt. J.A. Winslow, and the Alabama, off Cherbourg, June 19, 1864,  painted by a British maritime artist, Captain J. W.  Anderson.

One of the Civil War’s few sea battles, fought two miles off the French coast, and the only battle from that war, fought outside the country.   The CSS Alabama, a fantastically successful Confederate commerce raider, was finally sunk by the USS Kearsarge.

 

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Manet, 1864. Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

F.D.R. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson), had a similar painting of the ships, and it hangs in the library at Hyde Park.

And yet another, the most famous, is by Manet, who also painted the Kearsarge when it visited France after the battle.

I love the contrast in Manet’s latter work, now in the Met — the harbor at Boulogne is filled with jolly little sailboats, buzzing around a stark and menacing black warship.

Manet Kearsarge

Manet, 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art

This incident is also part of a larger story, about the complex and dangerous international situation facing the U.S. during the Civil War.  Like Farragut sailing through the mines in Mobile Bay, Seward often proved adept at navigating foreign relations and avoiding European recognition of the Confederacy, or even European military intervention.

Remember that at that time, Britain had the world’s most powerful navy, and an army stationed in Canada.  France’s militant 2nd Empire was busily doubling its overseas possessions, and sent tens of thousands of troops to Mexico in 1861 to install a puppet regime.  That same year, Spanish soldiers reoccupied the Dominican Republic.

The Monroe Doctrine did not appear to be holding water, and Seward must have felt like the Dutch boy at the dike.

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Seward had endorsed Winfield Scott’s plan to block off southern ports, but in 1864, the blockade was still a sieve.  Fast, custom-built blockade runners continued to bring European weapons and supplies to the Confederacy.  Huge profits compensated for the ships that were captured or run aground.

Coming just after the slaughter of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, the highly-publicized sea battle, in international waters, buoyed the reputation of the U.S. Navy, and Lincoln’s war effort.

It’s sometimes recited in typical post-Reconstruction romanticism:  a sea-worn and outgunned Rebel raider, with its gallant Confederate crew defying the odds, and bravely sailing out to its inevitable Lost Cause doom, against the more powerful Federal behemoth.Eagle shield postcard 1907

I am biased, as an unrepentant Unionist, and in seaman’s terms, I think that’s a load of codswallop.  Let’s take a look.

 

Like so many Civil War commanders, the two captains knew each other from the Mexican War.  Both men had been given ships during the war, and both men had lost those ships in accidents.

Semmes AlabamaThe Confederate captain was Raphael Semmes – now a pirate, or a privateer, depending on whether or not you viewed the Confederacy as a legitimate entity.  During 657 days at sea, the his Alabama sank a Union gunboat, and captured or burned 65 American merchant ships.  She took boats all across the world, from Newfoundland to South Africa, Bermuda to the Straits of Malacca.

This Confederate raider seemed to be everywhere.  Everywhere, that is, except the Confederacy, which the ship never visited.

Alabama LOC

Alabama with one of its victims burning in the background. LOC

Finally, after two years of cruising and destruction, in June of 1864, the Alabama called into the port at Cherbourg for repairs.

The Union captain, John Winslow, anchored his ship, the USS Kearsarge just outside French waters, called in the older USS Saint Louis to re-stock supplies and help block the Confederates from escape, and sent a challenge to his old shipmate to come out and fight.

Semmes could have tried to sneak out on some foggy night, or left his ship docked in neutral waters for the duration, but he chose to respond to the challenge.

It was an interesting match-up.  Both “sloops-of-war” were hybrids – a combination of sails and steam/screw propeller. Steampower gave the ships much more maneuverability in than in the days of sail, but also created a vulnerability – a hit to the steam boiler could be as catastrophic as one to the gunpowder magazine.

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Along its sides, the Alabama mounted six 32-pounders, big five- or six-thousand pound cannons, basically unchanged from the days of Admiral Nelson, which could fire a 6-inch, 32 pound cannonball for up to a mile. The Kearsarge only mounted four.

This doesn’t seem like very impressive armament.  Lord Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, had 110 guns.  During the evacuation of the Norfolk Naval Yard, at the start of the Civil War, the navy burned the old USS Pennsylvania (to keep it out of Confederate hands), a 140-gun ship, including 104 of these 32-pounders.

Alabama Currier & Ives LOC

Currier & Ives. LOC

However, the Alabama was packing something much more lethal:  two huge pivot guns (able to fire in a wide arc), a 68-pounder smoothbore, and a 7-inch rifled gun that fired a 100-pound shot with great accuracy.

 

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Pivot gun on the Kearsarge. This is a wonderful model at the Strawbery Banke Museum, near the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the ship was built.

 

The Kearsarge also had pivot guns:  two 11-inch smoothbore “Dahlgren’s.”  Named for their inventor, an U.S. admiral, these were giant bottle-shaped cannons, each one weighing more than five automobiles, firing 110-pound projectiles. There was also a 30-pounder Parrott rifled cannon — smaller, but more accurate.

 

11-inch Dahlgren Winslow LOC

A postwar postcard, showing the 11-inch Dahlgren gun “Winslow” that sank the Alabama. Library of Congress

 

There was another factor in this fight.  Both ships were wooden-hulled, but the Kearsarge, like an undercover cop, was wearing concealed body armor.

 

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Chain mail, last seen in these parts during the Norman Conquest, made a comeback.

Hidden under a thin layer of boards, heavy chains had been stapled to the sides of the Kearsarge, helping to protect the hull from cannonballs.

 

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So, anyways… true to her namesake state, Alabama come out shootin’.  It fired 150 shots, by some accounts, or more than twice that, by others.  But after so much time at sea, the Alabama’s gunpowder and fuses were contaminated and less effective. One shot hit the Kearsarge’s rudder, but luckily, the shell didn’t explode;  hits to the hull did not penetrate.

The Union ship shot less, but with more effect.  A cannonball punched through the Alabama’s hull at the waterline, flooding the engine room, and ended the fight.  As his ship sank, Semmes, in what seems like a dishonorable fit of pique or spite, threw his sword into the ocean, rather than giving it to Winslow.  Some accounts indicate that the Alabama struck its colors, but then got off a few more shots.  Teddy Roosevelt believed that his uncle, Lt. Irvine Bulloch, fired the last two shots (two of his maternal uncles fought for the Confederacy).

Kearsarge Alabama 1887 lithograph

1887 lithograph, with the Alabama sinking in the background. LOC

 

Winslow sent out a boat to pick up the pirates/privateers, and asked some of the “spectator” boats to assist, but then watched  as Semmes and some of his crew were whisked off to England by a private yacht.  This was the Deerhound, a fast steamship, built in the same shipyard as the Alabama, and owned by a rich industrialist who had come out to watch the fight, along with his wife and relatives, including children.

Despite the frustration of watching the raiders escape, Winslow refrained, wisely, from firing on the British yacht.  In any case, the Kearsarge had little room, and kept only a few Confederate officers.  The captured crew was simply paroled (basically sent ashore, on their word of honor to stop fighting).

 

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Looking down the barrel of a rifled cannon.

In the smoke of battle, we seem to have lost our Secretary of State (notorious for operating in a smokescreen of cigar fumes).

What does all this cannonading have to do with William Seward?

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Here’s a few things about this Confederate ship, that interested Seward so much.

It was a British-made sloop-of-war, armed with state-of-the-art British weapons (the rifled pivot guns), and had a primarily British crew, some trained by the Royal Navy.  The London Times proudly proclaimed that it was Portsmouth-trained gun crews that had performed the best on board the Alabama.  

 

So it was not Confederates, as a rule, in this fight, but British mercenaries, paid double wages in gold.

 

V0024799 Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving widow, war, and the Duke of Wellington rejecting Harriet Winter [?]. Coloured lithograph, n.d. [c.1839?]. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

“The Ancient Grudge” was an expression heard during the WWI period, and it has an old, fusty sound to it, like something your grandmother might say, about a disagreeable neighbor.   I might use it to express the distrust and hostility that persisted between the U.S. and Britain, for decades after the Revolution and the War of 1812 —  in tensions at sea, along the Canadian border, especially in the Oregon region, and in political and economic competition around the world.

Nowadays, we view history from a time when the U.S. and Britain are die-hard allies.  We’ve fought together, in two world wars, and various military adventures since.  But in William Seward’s time, the British empire-builders were not-entirely-neutral or well-disposed toward the former colonies.

Alabama claims LOC

A post-war British cartoon. Europe watches as John Bull/Gladstone, playing William Tell, with a diminutive Uncle Sam as his son, during the Alabama claims settlement. Britain doing the sporting thing with the little chap, what? Kaiser Wilhelm I, a more reasonable fellow than his grandson, referees from the sideline.

Some of this friction was simply profit motive.  Britain desperately needed cotton for its unemployed textile mills, and was happy to allow its industrialists to reap profits from the war.  Private gun-makers sold Enfield rifle-muskets to both sides — something like 900,000 all told!  Blockade-runners, many built in British shipyards, supplied the Confederates with Whitworth rifles (favored by sharpshooters), breech-loading cannons, Colt revolvers made in London, uniforms, and other supplies.  Also compelling was Britain’s desire to split and weaken the U.S., and protect Canada.

DSC00709U.S.-British tension was more serious than most people remember.  British leaders were debating not just recognition of the Confederacy, but even military intervention to force U.S. recognition, even at the cost of outright war with the U.S.  Eleven thousand British soldiers were sent to Canada.  And there were these ships.

 

Blockade-runners were considered by Europeans to be good clean fun, a legitimate enterprise under international maritime laws.   But armed raiders like the CSS Florida and the CSS Shenandoah, that captured or destroyed over one hundred Yankee civilian vessels, were also built in Liverpool and Glasgow.  Britain’s government employed Admiral Nelson’s trick, and turned a blind eye.  Ships were bought through third-parties, and then equipped with British-made cannons when they reached the Azores, Bahamas, or Madeira.  They re-supplied in Europe, Brazil, Cuba, and Cape Town, and then attacked U.S. cargo ships and whalers around the globe.

Luckily, Seward’s agents, using a network of consulates and paid informants, blocked many more raiders from taking to sea.

But finally, the pretense became obvious, as the Laird shipyard, which built the Alabama, began work on what were undeniably warships:  armored rams, with massive gun turrets.  (The Laird shipyard survives in some form to this day, and did some of the work on the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.)

Alabama cartoon John Bull LOC

A period cartoon, showing a disgruntled John Bull, who’s just realized the Confederate raiders were making out like bandits, and leaving Britain holding the bag, in the form of insurance claims for the lost ships and their cargoes. LOC

 

Seward’s people tracked the Confederate purchases, piling up evidence that was later used to successfully sue Britain for damages to U.S. shipping.  Britain was reminded of possible repercussions if the relationship went south:  American privateers’ toll upon their shipping in the past, the interdependence of Anglo-American trade and investments, and Britain’s dependence on American wheat.

British warships had been sent to Halifax and Bermuda, to intimidate, and to attack the East Coast in the event of war.  However, these sailing ships were now faced by an ever-increasing U.S. fleet, including armored monitors (low-slung steamships with revolving metal turrets, containing enormous cannons). The Confederate attack at Hampton Roads had demonstrated how easily an ironclad could sink wooden frigates.

“The secret of politics?  Make a good treaty with Russia.”  I don’t know if Bismarck really said that.  But the U.S., faced with a generally hostile Europe, found an ally in what seems an unlikely place, to modern readers, worried by the bellicose Vladimir Putin.

Seward cultivated friendly relations with Russia.  Two years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Tsar had liberated the serfs, and steadfastly refused to join any Anglo-French plans to intervene in the Civil War.  Russia’s refusal to join former enemies in such an alliance was hardly surprising, so soon after the bitter Crimean War.  Russian fleets arrived in the harbors of NYC and San Francisco.  Perhaps mostly to avoid being bottled up in the Baltic by the Royal Navy, in the event of war, but it was also taken by the U.S. as a much-appreciated gesture of support.

Spain, looking for opportunities to regain ground in the New World, was reminded that Confederate leaders had long advocated the takeover of Cuba.  And as the Confederacy continued to lose ground, Napoleon III understood that his forces in Mexico, already sustaining thousands of casualties, might face a large and experienced Union army on the Rio Grande in the near future.  (Indeed, Phil Sheridan missed the end-of-the-war Grand Review in Washington, hustling down to the Rio Grande with 50,000 men.  And U.S. rifles and ammo somehow ended up with Juárez’s anti-French forces. )

Finally, as Grant besieged Lee’s dwindling army twenty miles outside Richmond, and Sherman marched inexorably through Atlanta and toward the sea, with the Confederacy shrinking within the federal anaconda of armies and blockaders, and under Seward’s watchful pressure, Britain seized the armored warships from the shipyard.

Years later, as the story goes, Queen Victoria saw two ugly little gunboats, by then obsolete, chug by in a naval review, and asked if that was what all the fuss was about.

Alabama claims Harper's Weekly

Another postwar cartoon – America/Lady Liberty trimming British claws with shears marked “Alabama Claims”. The lion doesn’t look thrilled, but seems like a pretty amicable relationship. Harper’s Weekly, LOC

The issues and challenges faced by Seward in dealing with neutral countries, seem very current, in our modern age of  “Proxy Wars” and “Drone Wars”.   We fight without declarations of war, supply weaponry to rebels and secessionists, and to the Saudis and other anti-democratic regimes.  Confederate pirates/privateers were sometimes detained in Fortress Monroe, without trial, reminding us of Guantanamo Bay.  We pursue terrorists and guerrilla fighters into Pakistan or other “neutral” countries;  the raider CSS Florida was finally captured in a U.S. raid on a Brazilian port.  (When an international court ordered the ship be returned to Brazil, people were shocked, shocked! to learn it suddenly sank after a collision, and was never handed over.)

Today, the U.K. and France also continue to sell weapons, often to countries of questionable friendliness, as do Russia, China, Germany, and Israel.  And, of course, neutral, peace-loving Sweden.  And, of course, nobody peddles as many weapons as the U.S.

If you’re ever in Upstate New York, go to the Seward House and listen to a few stories about an amazing person and a memorable Secretary of State.  Seward demonstrated that, even in a time of swords, there’s still power in a pen, a diplomat, and sometimes, a really clever New York lawyer.

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Preserve the Union! Fenimore Art Museum.

 

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England, Not humorous, Study Abroad, UK, Uncategorized

Stompin’ the Blues Away. Hull, England. A Study Abroad.

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     A man walks down the street
     It’s a street in a strange world…
     You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore…     
     Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al

 

Hull Church 1A couple of years ago, I spent a half-year at the university in Kingston-Upon-Hull, on the east coast of England.

At the time I lived there, Hull was a city on the rebound.

The city’s economy had turned from old-time shipbuilding and fishing, to healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and the university. It was right near the fantastic Humber Bridge and the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds, Vales, Dales, and other expanses of heather & gorse or whatever, all dripping with healthy picturesque outdoorsy-ness.  Yachts in the marina.  Aquarium. Ferry lines carrying a million people a year to the Continent.  Beautiful museums, theatres, and art galleries.    About to be named the UK’s “City of Culture” for 2017.

 

Personally, I was in the dumps.

It was a big adjustment, to move from a college in subtropical Hong Kong, to northern Yorkshire, in the wintertime.  Hull is about the same latitude as Minsk, perhaps not quite as festive.  I missed my friends at home, and the new friends I’d made in Hong Kong.  I missed the beautiful neon swirl and perpetual energy of HK, too.  I even missed the snow back home.  This place wasn’t as cold as Upstate NY, but it was often chilly and gray.

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So here is my unvarnished, non-résumé-building recollection of a “study abroad” semester.

 

 

 

The Student Ghetto

I’d chosen the U of Hull for some history courses that sounded really interesting, and they turned out to be fascinating.  But it was a tough semester – I was playing catch-up in an unfamiliar field, and unused to the British approach to learning.  I felt unhappy and claustrophobic in my tiny house in the student ghetto, surrounded night and day, inside and out, with drunks, bad pop music, and racket.

I know this sounds “snarky.”  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a party on Saturday night, and love music, but to cross the Atlantic Ocean, think you’re safe, and then wake up at 2 AM to find that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus have followed you, and crawled ashore, making their crappy noise?  And sounding waterlogged, because you have a head cold.

I also love English beers.  But by the glassful, not the gallon.  And as a rule, not for breakfast.

The constant uproar made me miserable.

The actual classes, I loved.  The professors and my classmates – they were great.   Some of them were locals, former ‘Ull fishermen and sailors, being re-purposed for the new, improved UK.  Their deadpan jerkin’ and muttered comments on the professor’s knowledge of ships were hysterical.  But somehow, I had set up a schedule at odds with everyone else’s, making it hard to hang out with classmates or housemates.  The courses themselves were excellent, even if the readings were sometimes the only thing that could put me out at night.

Other than at the library, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.  The University had converted an entire street of tiny row-houses into student housing – mine wasn’t bad, but featured dripping pipes, an unpredictable, malevolent little cooker that kept incinerating my dinner, and a bunch of housemates practicing The Tao of Alcohol:  Beer As a Way of Life.  With that goal in mind, the kids in my house had chosen only afternoon classes, so they could go out every night, and crash home about 3 AM. Every night.

 

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Most of the American, African, and Australian students in the ghetto didn’t give a damn about the University.  They were there to drink.

Hull followed an old seafaring pattern – take aboard as much cargo as you could, tack to the other end of the street, careen & offload the cargo.  I guess the old competitive drive that built the Empire still exists — even on a wet Tuesday night in February, Hull produces more drunks than an entire New Orleans Mardi Gras.

So every night, the Yanks, Brits and Aussies in the street, outside my ground floor window, gave off clouds of cigarette smoke and unloaded gallons of used beer from various orifices.

And then they sang.

At first, the singing was kind of endearing.  Seriously.  Hulking rugby players, weaving down the street, or in the back alley, falling over the dustbins, singing songs from “Frozen” in their bizarre accents.

By the end of the week, it was not so amusing.  And there were months of this to go.

Hull Church 2

Walk the Walk

So, since I couldn’t concentrate or sleep, I would walk.

All winter, I wandered the town’s confusing back alleys, church yards, windy narrow roads, cobble-stoned rows.  Many secluded and private in that peculiarly British manner.  In the U.S., there’s always a sign, alerting you to dead ends and cul-de-sacs.  In England, streets may just peter out without warning, stranding the walker, as if it was just a road crew’s oversight, or lack of interest in going any farther that direction, or maybe they ran out of macadam, and decided to put up a house instead.

Leaving 1 Cottingham Road, I’d slip out, usually in a bad mood, angry at my sloppy-drunk roommates, my horrible cooking, the gray weather.

Based on the day, the time, and which way the freezing rain was driving in from, I would either wander until I arrived on the far side of campus, or make a right turn, and arrive at a Chinese-owned deli. Because I know a few words of Cantonese, the deli’s owners would always question me in depth about things in Hong Kong, no matter how many times I ‘d explained, I was in fact an American who’d just spent one semester there.

National Health’s “Early Retirement” Squad, gunning for victims.

Zebra Crossings.  Run, Robbie, Run!

On my longer walks, I’d begin by taking my life in my hands.

Meaning, I’d try to actually cross the street.  Hoping that this particular day, the insane and homicidal bus drivers that define life across the pond, were in a mood to stop at the light.  Or else, I’d walk down the avenues near Cottingham, pass the fenced-in yard of the old school, and scramble across the street, toward the Tesco and the battered women’s shelter.  Those two institutions were an interesting combo to be sure. One of the local merchants actually explained to me that he believed there was a connection – the denizens of that Tesco, according to him, were a wife-beating mob.  One Supposes that the More Enlightened might only Purchase Provisions & Provender at Marks & Sparks.  Whole Foods in all its pristine-ness has not yet reached Hull.

One plus:  walking angrily in England means that those who normally ignore you stay clear out of your way.

When I wasn’t looking deranged and angry, and sometimes, literally feverish, it was slow going.  Sleep-deprived and cranky, it seemed I was endlessly weaving through lumbering throngs from the slower-moving parts of the old empire, and as I negotiated the crowds of local shoppers or pub-hoppers, in my hyper-irritated state, they seemed to be a consistent mass of  the chain-smoking, heavy, and alcoholic.

But sticking to my weaving, in-and-out, gradually I’d make headway down Newland Avenue, and my black mood would lift.

As I arrived somewhere that I loved. This street was full of vendors, hawking fresh produce, a bakery, a Polish grocery where no one smiled or spoke English, a tailor, several barbers, clothing shops, night clubs, pubs, coffee houses, and trendy joints for all the hip young monied English folks. Everything you need, could be had on Newland.

Fish & Chips & Vinegar

Another Tesco was there – you could grab the overpriced produce, that went brown by the next morning, and bread that either went bad in two days, or else never went bad at all.  Pale-skinned chickens, onions with strange case of spots, frozen cod or haddock. You’d make small talk with the cashier, one of the few locals to do so, and so you’d stop in more than you should normally. Same goes for the fish-and-chips shop, a chance to chat with someone normal.  I’d stop in after a weary day and get rejuvenated with the warm, crumbly haddock and vinegar-soaked fries. So good.  The British have delicious malt “Win-a-Gah,” as the shopkeep called it.

Or, I’d go to Pie 2, a local chain, and get savory meat pies, for five pounds, not a shabby deal, seeing what food costs in that culinary-dreary student ghetto. On nights when I couldn’t hack my own cooking, I’d get these meat pies, stuffed with anything, all of them really good.  Or I’d go to the Greek gyro place, or the “Macau” house – although I’d often regret eating their odd fusion of Asian and British foods.

 

Back on the walk, I’d only made it to the antiquated rail bridge over the street, that announced you’d arrived on Newland, and I had a ways to walk. I could make a right, head down a beer bottle-strewn back alley, into a very lovely part of town, with nice homes of the Victorian style, interesting European cars, and nice, respectable-looking folks milling about, in their slow and awkward Yorkshire manner.

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A Walk in the Park

At the end of the way, I’d pass the old pub and arrive at Pearson Park. An old Victorian park, indeed, the old queen herself was sitting there, cast in bronze.  On days I was short on time, I’d make this my destination, and just wander around the little gardens and manicured lawns. Somewhere around here, Hull’s resident poet Philip Larkin had lived, scowling out his window no doubt at the lovely trees. Here, among fountains, statuary, and a greenhouse that offered some respite from the North Sea’s cold winds, constantly blowing into this city, I’d go and feel refreshed.  Until seeing all the happy couples, families, and friends  hanging out together, while I was on my own, made me feel blue again.

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I’d then race down the next set of streets to hit downtown, passing by the more upscale shops and restaurants, stopping once to eat some incredible Moroccan food.

After this lovely jaunt in the park, I’d roar by all the hip places in town. If I went straight down the way, past the Polar Bear pub (which can be seen in The Hubbards “Is it Me?” video), you’d arrive at the KC stadium.

Tigers Tigers Burning Bright

I only watched one match at the stadium, with my roommate Jaden, to see Hull City play Newcastle.  We cheered and had a great time, and the local crowd turned out to be great, even when watching with dismay as their proud footy team was dismembered by the Magpies, and the cheers turned rather vulgar. Here, for the first time, I saw Brits from all walks of life come together. And to their credit, the Hull fans demanded that the Newcastle people get kicked out, when they turned unsporting, and to nasty jeering.  To the Hull fans, singing a few bits of profane lyrics about genitalia and the other team’s manager was sporting, anything beyond that was not. I was proud of them.

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Sometimes I’d head down to the old city. Passing by a sketchy part of town, with a housing project for recovering addicts, you arrive at the theater, the new hotel, and the wonderful train station,next to the gorgeous George Hotel (Saint George? King? Prince? something George hotel, where Larkin used to hide out, when he couldn’t hack living with people).

 

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Old Town

The hotel marked the start of the old part of town.  Walking along the cobbled streets, among pubs from centuries ago, next to modern shops, where all of the English lads would come out with trendy clothing, looking like very hip tablecloths. Old restaurants, arcades, museums, and cool old pubs were the highlights of this part of the town, culminating with the gorgeous harbor along the river.  The museum street also housed the oldest pub in town, the no longer PC “Ye Olde Black Boy” from the 1300’s.  The publicans and drinkers, to my surprise, would listen to my accent, stare at me a bit, and then quietly nod and make me welcome.  Friendly drunks would insist on jumping in and posing for my photos.

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Walking along past the excellent Maritime Museum, the BBC regional studios, the big glassy mall, and remnants of the old city gate – where the Civil War began, when the King was denied entrance. Ran across William Wilberforce’s house by accident. The old warehouses along the river side, now converted to clubs and bars. Wandering along curved walkways on echoing cobbled streets, it was easy to get lost. And I often did, stumbling along and arriving by statues of people I’d never heard of, by old pubs, arriving at some point by the magnificent church, and pass “The Smallest Window in England” which always make me laugh for some reason. It was here, in this old part of town, I spent a lot of hours, wandering and exploring.  And I’d have spent even more, if the restaurants weren’t so prohibitively expensive on a student budget.

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Starting to get cold.  The house lights coming on.  I’d head back before it got dangerous, after all, late nights, Hull does have a reputation for occasional violence.

As I read back through what I’ve written, I guess this isn’t a particularly inspiring tale of “study abroad” tale?  And not an very organized or enlightening city tour.  But for some reason, I replay these walks sometimes in my head.

I close my eyes and re-walk it, passing through distinctive zones, from the public-lavatory-brick-student-ghetto, past dreary Victorian row houses,  through a winter-gray but lovely park, to docks, winding old lanes, hallowed pubs, and the ancient-modern combination that defined the downtown.

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This was my survival stomp through Hull, and it got me through.  Spent time in a real place, not just the university bubble.

After all that grousing — I’m glad I went, I learned a lot, I came to feel some affection for a place pretty foreign to me.

But, still, years later,  whenever I hear a song from “Frozen,” I smell cigarettes, secondhand beer and rugby players.

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England, Study Abroad, travel, UK

Grantham. The Quintessential English Town

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DSC05302One of my favorite moments in England was a visit to Grantham, a small town in Lincolnshire, halfway between Hull and London.

 

I arrived at an old-fashioned train station and immediately fell for the charm of the place. Staying at a little inn, painted bright red for some reason, I felt like I’d been dropped into the stereotypical English holiday depicted in the old movies — a quaint old town set in a picturesque countryside.

 

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Roaming the winding alleys and cobblestone streets, past little parks with statues and flower beds, past buildings standing since medieval times, I felt most definitely in England.

 

 

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statue in front of City Hall, dedicated to the English Civil Servant, and every bit as animated, brandishing a sheaf of useless paperwork.

 

We ventured into the High Victorian-styled City Hall, where the staff were perfectly cast, like a waxwork museum, fulfilling their stereotypical roles as British Civil Servants.  Polite, pleasant manners, combined with total indifference to their jobs or visitors, and lacking the slightest interest in, or knowledge of, the town they where they worked.

 

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Sections of the church not only pre-dated the United States, it even pre-dated the Normans. As I studied the Saxon-Norman-Gothic church, housing its chained library and perhaps a bone or two from old St. Wulfram, I really felt like I was in England for the first time, and not just in a continuation of the Rust Belt where I’d grown up — it might be in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Hull seemed like it could just as easily be Cleveland or Detroit in some regards — it even had a Chrysler plant.  Hull somehow didn’t feel entirely British, though it was distinctly un-American.

 

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Grantham felt how England should feel: damp, but not cold, grey, and ancient. Under the massive steeple of a thousand year-old church, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. Roaming by Sir Issac Newtown’s school and home, I felt that it really is true, there isn’t a spot in England that isn’t touched by history, I don’t think any other nation in the world can make that claim, especially in the third world, with cities rising out of jungle, desert, or seemingly from thin air.

The Grantham cabbies, the gingerbread biscuits, fish-and-chip shops, a medieval inn, the pubs lining the street – these were exactly the elements of the England I had hoped to discover in Hull, but never found there.

 

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The next day was spent at Belton House, an estate and manor. Roaming the grounds with its own forest, deer herd, and even a small railroad for children, it reinforced the sense of a movie-set England. The house was massive — 72 rooms and over a thousand acres of land (and a lake, a boathouse, gardens including a maze, carriage houses, etc). I loved the greenhouse, the immense library, even the servants’ quarters.

 

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Everything about this trip was wonderful. For the first time in England, I felt like I had finally arrived on the right Island, and not in some historical Disneyland like York, or an American-style Rust Belt burg like Hull, or a modern cityscape like Leeds, which felt like a Canadian city minus the joviality and hockey.

 

Travel and “study abroad” involve learning something new, challenging your preconceptions, and encounters with the unexpected.

But — Grantham is England for me — I finally found the England of my expectations.

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England, London, Study Abroad, travel, UK

A commitment to The Commitments

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Cast of the Commitments on the marquee of the Palace Theatre. (I think? it’s possible some of my photos got mis-labeled)

Halfway through a semester at the University of Hull, I was sick of England.

At that exact point, I could only think about the mass of readings and papers facing me at school, while trying to function on the few hours of sleep I could manage amidst the noisy, drunken student ghetto where I was living. I’d reached the low point in my regard for Life in Outer Yorkshire – – I did not feel at home, and I was sick of feeling like an outsider in a strange, decrepit corner of an island nation.

I took the train down to London to visit my mother, who was there briefly on business, and even then, didn’t feel as enraptured with London as I had expected. It was hard to generate too much enthusiasm when I’d decided that I hated England.

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Sure, London was cool. It was neat to see the great old buildings, the fantastic, though wholly overwhelming British Museum, walk through Hyde Park and some of the nicer neighborhoods, Covent Garden…and eat good food, rather than my own horrible experiments with codfish in an unpredictable and malevolent cooker. But it felt hollow (since it was all tourist stuff) and I felt that I needed something with a feeling, with soul, to welcome me, or make me feel more at home.

What finally helped me out of this rut was unexpected — going to see the play “The Commitments” on the West End.

On impulse, we got half-price tickets and then sat in a comically high part of the theater, past the nose-bleed seats, possibly in converted attic space, farther up than I would’ve expected possible in the creaky old building, looking down a long way to the stage. Three or four more rows up, the vegetation became stunted, and the seats were reserved for goatherds, as you hit the alpine timberline.

Despite a theater building that seemed to qualify as a comedy improv in its own right, the seats were fine and the crowd around us was interesting (between the middle-aged Irish women in front, singing and dancing the entire time, to the old British woman who turned around halfway through, to ask Mom if she, too, “thought tha’ show was rubbish”). The audience was a treat, and could’ve been a show in itself.

The actual show, while simple in plot, was more of a concert, highlighted by some bit of acting, rather than being a musical, which is more like a show interrupted by singing.

The songs, all protest and soul songs from the sixties (and therefore all songs I enjoyed greatly) were wonderful and done expertly, the dialogue was funny, and everyone was having a good time (save for the crabby old lady in front of us, who was kind of entertaining, in her own way). It was hard to be downbeat when the show was nothing but great beats.

Perhaps it was the music, perhaps it was the atmosphere of British people cutting loose a bit, having a good time, not being cold and aloof in their usual London manner (even Scandinavians and Germans are warmer than white Londoners), but I was finally able to have my spirits lifted. Maybe it was because the characters, Irish folk living in the 80’s, were also in a rut, that I was able to really get into the show… and from that point on, the city felt less dead and cold.

Like New York, and of comparable size and status, London has an edge — you know you don’t impress anyone there, and no one rushes to make you feel welcome, probably because you aren’t. At least folks in Hull were friendlier, probably due to the relative novelty of an American visitor to the East Riding of Yorkshire (especially one visiting on purpose, and not just a random tourist stranded when they missed their “All Creatures Great and Small” tour bus).

While a return to the Uni ghetto and drudgery didn’t help my mood or mental state, the show granted me a short-term escape, and helped me enjoy London and England more.  The positive effect was strong enough to last the rest of my stay. More escapes and happier times were around the bend, visiting friends on the Continent and then taking a brief trip to Spain. And even if I never acclimated to the student ghetto’s endless cycle of boozing-and-singing-Disney-theme-songs-very-badly-at-3AM-outside-my-window, I came to appreciate and like the people of Hull, even if I rarely understood more than a word of two of their dialect.  But the better mood and higher spirits all started with the Commitments.

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