Queen Reopens Stately Home Of Sir Walter Scott

Abbotsford House, Sir Walter Scott
Christian Bickel

The Queen has officially reopened Abbotsford House, a mansion that was once home to Sir Walter Scott, the BBC reports.

The house, located in Melrose, Scotland, was closed for an $18.3 million restoration that is continuing in parts of the grounds. Work included building a visitor center, repairing the roof and making an inventory of Scott’s massive collection of antiques, medieval arms and armor, an extensive library of rare volumes, and thousands of other items such as a clock once owned by Marie Antoinette.

Sir Walter Scott was a hugely influential and popular novelist in the late 18th and early 19th century and wrote enduring classics such as “Rob Roy” and “Ivanhoe.” He died at Abbotsford House in 1832. He spent a great deal of time, money and care building the house and it reflects his passion for history. Basically, he set himself up like some feudal lord from one of his novels. A visit to the stately home gives you a look at what a creative, romantic individual will create if given enough money. There’s a 45-minute circular walk around the grounds that takes you through the broad gardens, a forest, and within sight of the River Tweed, one of Sir Scott’s favorite views.

The house, a visitor center and the gardens are now open. From August there will also be rooms available for people who want to stay overnight.
Abbotsford House, Sir Walter Scott

Shakespeare Slept Here: Hidden Old Room In Oxford Once Hosted The Bard

ShakespeareBehind an eighteenth-century facade in downtown Oxford, just above a clothing shop, is a bedroom that was once used by William Shakespeare.

It was part of the Crown Tavern, owned by Shakespeare’s friend John Davenant. The Bard frequently stopped in Oxford on his trips between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. A nearby courtyard may have hosted his troupe’s performances.

Known as the Painted Room, it’s been remarkably preserved since Elizabethan times and still has hand-painted wall decoration from the late 16th century. This rare artwork survived thanks to oak paneling installed in the following century, and was only rediscovered in 1927.

Part of the decoration includes a religious text:
“And last of thi rest be thou
Gods servante for that hold I best / In the mornynge earlye
Serve god devoutlye
Feare god above allthynge. . .”

This week the Oxford Preservation Trust is offering guided tours of the Painted Room. If you can’t make it, BBC has posted a video tour of the room, led by some silly guy in an anachronistic tricorne hat. The Trust is also working on making the rooms permanently available to the public.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

George Orwell’s Birthplace To Become Monument To Gandhi

George OrwellGeorge Orwell’s birthplace in Motihari, Bihar, India, is being turned into a monument and park, but not to the famous English writer. Instead, Art Daily reports, the new park will be dedicated to independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

The ramshackle bungalow where Orwell was born in 1903 has long been the subject of discussion as to what to do with it. The local government said it would fix up the place in 2009 but nothing was done. A statue of George Orwell on the grounds has been damaged.

The move has drawn criticism from many Indians. The Hindustan Times reports that locals want the park dedicated to Orwell, saying it will draw foreign tourists to the area. Bihar is the poorest or second poorest state in India depending on what statistics you focus on.

Orwell, an outspoken socialist, frequently criticized the colonial system of which he was a part. His father was serving in the Indian Civil Service when he was born and Orwell himself served as a policeman in Burma. He later expressed his ambivalence towards British rule in Asia in essays such as “Shooting an Elephant” and the novel “Burmese Days.”

He also had mixed feelings towards Gandhi. He opens his essay “Reflections on Gandhi” with the line, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. . .” and went on to say Gandhi was ascetic to a fault and that “his medievalist program was obviously not viable in a backward, starving, over-populated country.” On the other hand, Orwell praises his integrity and courage. For a deep thinker like Orwell, there were no easy answers, no quick labels.

What do you think should be done with Orwell’s birthplace? Take the poll!

[Photo courtesy National Union of Journalists]

%Poll-82085%

Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country


For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

Student Travel Writing Contest Offers $500 For Best Essay Of Student Life Abroad

Travel Writing ContestAre you a student who is aspiring to be a travel writer? Now’s your chance to strut your stuff and perhaps win $500.

Transitions Abroad has announced their 2013 Travel Writing Contest. It’s billed as “the only student travel writing contest to cover studying, working, interning, volunteering and living abroad.”

The contest is open to all “currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students, students who have graduated within the past year, and students currently on leave from school.” The judges want to see essays of 1,000-2,000 words that offer solid advice for adjusting to student life overseas. Check out their guidelines carefully before putting pen to paper.

First prize is $500; second prize is $150; third prize is $100; and runners-up get $50. All get published in “Transitions Abroad” print and webzine. Deadline is April 15.

It’s always a good idea to check out what won in the past. Last year’s winner was “A Foreigner in the Middle Kingdom: Living, Working, and Studying in China.” My personal favorite was the practical and insightful “A High School Summer in Egypt Studying Arabic: Practical Advice and Tips.”

Thanks to the excellent online writing newsletter Writing World for bringing this to my attention. Check out their site for tons of free advice of value to aspiring and experienced writers.

[Photo courtesy Sarah Rose]