England has produced one of the world's greatest libraries of literature and drama -- and not just William Shakespeare. Here is a mere preview of what's out there, at least enough to whet your appetite.
General & History -- Anthony Sampson's The Changing Anatomy of Britain (Random House) still gives great insight into the idiosyncrasies of English society; Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples (Dodd Mead) is a tour de force in four volumes; while The Gathering Storm (Houghton-Mifflin) captures Europe on the brink of World War II.
My Love Affair with England (Ballantine), by Susan Allan Toth, tells of England's "many-layered past" and includes such tidbits as why English marmalade tastes good only when consumed as part of a real (make that greasy) English breakfast.
Britons: Forging the Nation (1707-1837) (Yale University Press), by Linda Colley, took more than a decade to finish. Ms. Colley takes the reader from the date of the Act of Union (formally joining Scotland and Wales to England) to the succession of the adolescent Victoria to the British throne. Children of the Sun (Basics Books), by Martin Green, portrays the "decadent" 1920s and the lives of such people as Randolph Churchill, poet Rupert Brooke, the prince of Wales, and Christopher Isherwood.
In A Writer's Britain (Knopf), contemporary English author Margaret Drabble takes readers on a tour of the sacred and haunted literary landscapes of England, places that inspired Hardy, Woolf, Spenser, and Marvell.
Outsiders often paint more penetrating portraits than residents of any culture ever can. In England's case, many have expressed their views of the country at different periods. An early-18th-century portrait is provided by K. P. Moritz in Journeys of a German in England in 1782 (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), which covers his travels from London to the Midlands. Nathaniel Hawthorne recorded his impressions in Our Old Home (1863), as did Ralph Waldo Emerson in English Traits (1856). For an ironic portrait of mid-19th-century Victorian British morals, manners, and society, seek out Taine's Notes on England (1872). Henry James's comments on England at the turn of the 20th century in English Hours (1905) are worth a read. In A Passage to England (St. Martins Press), Nirad Chaudhuri analyzes Britain and the British in a delightful, humorous book -- a process continued today by such authors as Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, and Paul Theroux. Among the interesting portraits written by natives are Cobbet's Rural Rides (1830), depicting early-19th-century England; In Search of England (Methuen), by H. V. Morton; and English Journey (Harper), by J. B. Priestley. For what's really going on behind that serene Suffolk village scene, read Ronald Blythe's Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (Random House).
Art & Architecture -- For general reference, there's the huge multivolume Oxford History of English Art (Oxford University Press) and also the Encyclopedia of British Art (Thames Hudson), by David Bindman. Painting in Britain 1530-1790 (Penguin), by Ellis Waterhouse, covers British art from the Tudor miniaturists to Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Hogarth, while English Art, 1870-1940 (Oxford University Press), by Dennis Farr, covers the modern period.
On architecture, for sheer amusing, opinionated entertainment, try John Betjeman's Ghastly Good Taste -- the Rise and Fall of English Architecture (St. Martin's Press). A History of English Architecture (Penguin), by Peter Kidson, Peter Murray, and Paul Thompson, covers the subject from Anglo-Saxon to modern times. Nikolaus Pevsner's The Best Buildings of England: An Anthology (Viking) and his Outline of European Architecture (Penguin) concentrate on the great periods of Tudor, Georgian, and Regency architecture. Mark Girouard has written several books on British architecture, including The Victorian Country House (Country Life) and Life in the English Country House (Yale University Press), a fascinating social/architectural history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, with handsome illustrations.
About London -- London Perceived (Hogarth), by novelist and literary critic V. S. Pritchett, is a witty portrait of the city's history, art, literature, and life. Virginia Woolf's The London Scene: Five Essays (Random House) brilliantly depicts the London of the 1930s. In Search of London (Methuen), by H. V. Morton, is filled with anecdotal history and well worth reading, though written in the 1950s.
In London: The Biography of a City (Penguin), popular historian Christopher Hibbert paints a lively portrait. For some real 17th-century history, you can't beat the Diary of Samuel Pepys (written 1660-69); and for the flavor of the 18th century, try Daniel Defoe's Tour Thro' London About the Year 1725 (Ayer).
Americans in London (William Morrow), by Brian N. Morton, is a street-by-street guide to clubs, homes, and favorite pubs of more than 250 illustrious Americans who made London a temporary home. The Guide to Literary London (Batsford), by George Williams, charts literary tours through London from Chelsea to Bloomsbury.
The Architect's Guide to London (Reed International), by Renzo Salvadori, documents 100 landmark buildings with photographs and maps. Nairn's London (Penguin), by Ian Nairn, is a stimulating discourse on London's buildings. Donald Olsen's The City as a Work of Art: London, Paris, and Vienna (Yale University Press) is a well-illustrated text tracing the evolution of these great cities. London One: The Cities of London and Westminster and London Two: South (Penguin) are works of love by well-known architectural writers Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner. David Piper's The Artist's London (Oxford University Press) does what the title suggests -- captures the city that artists have portrayed. In Victorian and Edwardian London (Batsford), John Betjeman expresses his great love of those eras and their great buildings. Looking Up in London (Wiley Academy), by Jane Peyton, offers colorful photos of some of London's architectural features.
Fiction & Biography -- Among English writers are found some of the greatest exponents of mystery and suspense novels, from which a reader can get a good feel for English life both urban and rural. Agatha Christie, P. D. James, and Dorothy Sayers are a few of the familiar names, but the great London character, of course, is Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Any of these writers will give pleasure and insight into your London experience.
England's literary heritage is so vast, it's hard to select particular titles, but here are a few favorites. Master storyteller Charles Dickens re-creates Victorian London in such books as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and his earlier satirical Sketches by Boz.
Edwardian London and the 1920s and 1930s are captured wonderfully in any of Evelyn Waugh's social satires and comedies; any work from the Bloomsbury group will also prove enlightening, such as Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, which peers beneath the surface of the London scene. For a portrait of wartime London there's Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day; for an American slant on England and London there's Henry James's The Awkward Age.
Among 18th-century figures, there's a great biography of Samuel Johnson by his friend James Boswell, whose Life of Samuel Johnson (Modern Library College Editions) was first published in 1791. Antonia Fraser has written several biographies of English monarchs and political figures, including Charles II and Oliver Cromwell. Her most recent is The Wives of Henry VIII (Knopf), telling the sad story of the six women foolish enough to marry the Tudor monarch.
Another great Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, emerges in a fully rounded portrait: The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age (Addison-Wesley), by Christopher Hibbert.
Another historian, Anne Somerset, wrote Elizabeth I (St. Martin's Press), which was hailed by some critics as the most "readable and reliable" portrait of England's most revered monarch to have emerged since 1934.
No woman -- or man, for that matter -- had greater influence on London than did Queen Victoria during her long reign (1837-1901). Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York (Prince Andrew's former wife, "Fergie"), along with Benita Stoney, a professional researcher, captures the era in Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House (Prentice Hall). One reviewer said that Fergie writes about "England's 19th-century rulers not as historical figures but as a loving couple and caring parents."
Another point of view is projected in Victoria: The Young Queen (Blackwell), by Monica Charlot. This book has been praised for its "fresh information"; it traces the life of Victoria until the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Queen Elizabeth II granted Charlot access to the Royal Archives.
In Elizabeth II, Portrait of a Monarch (St. Martin's Press), Douglas Keay drew on interviews with Prince Philip and Prince Charles.
Richard Ellman's Oscar Wilde (Knopf) also reveals such Victorian-era personalities as Lillie Langtry, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Henry James along the way. Quintessential English playwright Noel Coward and the London he inhabited, along with the likes of Nancy Mitford, Cecil Beaton, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Evelyn Waugh, and Rebecca West, are captured in Cole Lesley's Remembered Laughter (Knopf). The Lives of John Lennon (William Morrow), by Albert Goldman, traces the life of this most famous of all '60s musicians.
Dickens (Harper Perennial), by Peter Ackroyd, is a study of the painful life of the novelist. It's a massive volume, tracing everything from the reception of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, to his scandalous desertion of his wife.
Other good reads include Wild Spirit: The Story of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Hodder & Stoughton), by Margaret Morley, a fictionalized biography of the poet. Gertrude Jekyll (Viking), by Sally Festing, paints a portrait of the woman called "the greatest artist in horticulture." Anthony Trollope (Knopf), by Victoria Glendinning, is a provocative portrait of the English novelist. Lawrence and the Women: The Intimate Life of D. H. Lawrence (HarperCollins), by Elaine Feinstein, examines involvements with the female friends and lovers of this passionately sensitive novelist.
Contemporary Literature -- Born to a Jamaican mother and a British father, Zadie Smith is one of the most talented young authors in England. Published in 2000, her bestselling novel, White Teeth (Vintage), brought her early acclaim. She followed up with The Autograph Man (Vintage, 2002) and On Beauty (Penguin, 2005), both of which won prizes for fiction. Her writings are known for their deep penetration of the rainbow-hued races inhabiting Britain today.
The writings of Nick Hornby have earned him the title "European Ambassador of Goodness." An autobiographical work, his first book, Fever Pitch (Penguin), was published in 1992 to both success and acclaim. In subsequent novels, he explores sports, music, "and aimless and obsessive personalities." Several of his works have been adapted for film, including About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant.
Influenced by the writing of his father, Sir Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis has written some of the best-known works of English modern literature, especially Money, (Penguin, 1986), and London Fields, (Vintage, 1989). The New York Times called him the undisputed master of "the new unpleasantness." He explores the excesses of the capitalist world, plunging a sword into the heart of grotesque caricatures. His memoir, Experience (Vintage), explored his relationship with his father, and his 2003 novel Yellow Dog (Vintage), although praised by fans, was a disappointment in some quarters.
The English fiction writer Joanne Rowling, writing under the pen name of J. K. Rowling, created the Harry Potter fantasy series, which has sold nearly 400 million copies worldwide and made her an estimated fortune of $1 billion, a first for any author. She was an unemployed single mom when she completed her first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997; the American title is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). In 2007 Rowling released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which she claims will be the last of the series.
Other acclaimed modern writers include Adam Thorpe, a poet, playwright, and novelist. Although born in Paris, he grew up in India. His first novel, Ulverton (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1992), a panoramic portrait of English rural history, brought him worldwide acclaim. He continues to write today, publishing Between Each Breath (Vintage) in 2007.
Another acclaimed and often controversial writer is Irvine Welsh, a brilliant storyteller and -- unarguably -- one of the funniest and "filthiest" writers in Britain. He shot to fame upon the release of his book, Trainspotting (W.W. Norton), in 1993.
Some of the greatest stars came from Britain but made their mark in Hollywood, notably Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor. In spite of its native-born talent, Hollywood even turned to Britain to cast Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind.
Great directors, including that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, also moved from London to Hollywood for greater fame. Lord Laurence Olivier frequently was cast in Hollywood films, as were a long line of Shakespeare-trained actors who followed him -- Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Irons, Ian McKellen.
Some British films seem to live on forever, as in the case of A Hard Day's Night (1964), which depicts a "typical" day in the life of the Beatles and includes many of their famous songs.
Tame by today's standards, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) was a scandal upon its release. It not only brought Daniel Day-Lewis into international renown, but dealt with homosexuality and interracial relationships.
Born in poverty in Northern Ireland, Kenneth Branagh has brought Shakespeare to mainstream audiences, notably with Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and a widely acclaimed Hamlet (1996). He's been nominated for four Oscars. Director-writer Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies (1996) was nominated for five Oscars; it depicted a black woman who traces her birth mother to a lower-class white woman.
The happy household of Merchant and Ivory formed a director-producer team that turned out a series of films that achieved international fame, including Maurice (1987), A Room with a View (1985), and Howards End (1992).
Still a great favorite with British students, Withnail & I (1987) is set in London in 1969, featuring two unemployed and unemployable actors who go for an idyllic (yeah, right) holiday in the countryside.
Two films depicting unusual stories from the blue-collar ghettos of the north of England were much honored: Billy Elliot (2000), where Jamie Bell played a talented young boy who wanted to be a ballet dancer, and The Full Monty (1997) in which six unemployed steel worker blokes form a male striptease act.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), a comedy-drama about a group of British friends, starred Hugh Grant giving his most charming performance to date.
24 Hour Party People (2002) was a tale of music, sex, drugs, and larger-than-life characters, plus the birth of one of the most famous dance clubs in the world. The music and dance heritage of Manchester from the late '70s to the early '90s is depicted.
Guy Ritchie is a director-actor-producer-writer who achieved fame with such releases as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), the latter starring Brad Pitt. He's had a bad run of luck in recent years, including when he cast his wife in Swept Away (2002). The public was hardly swept away; nor were the critics. But Ritchie is still a young man and might redeem his early promise, although Revolver (2005) waited 2 years to find a distributor and then opened and closed overnight.
No films ever equaled the success of the Harry Potter franchise, a series based on the novels of J. K. Rowling. Kicked off in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the series continues to break box-office records. Many Potter fans visit film sites, including Alnwick Castle and Christ Church College in Oxford, and even Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. The latest is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009).
One of the most viewed British films of 2008 was actually a TV miniseries, Sense & Sensibility based on the Jane Austin novel. The cast and settings were more wonderful than the screenplay.
When in England, tune in to "the Beeb," as the BBC, or British Broadcasting Corporation, is affectionately known. Whether on radio or TV, nothing is better suited to acquaint you with British life. The stated mission of the BBC is "to inform, educate, and entertain," and it does so magnificently. Check out what's going on at www.bbc.co.uk. Its combined TV and radio services form the largest broadcasting system in the world.
TV shows originating in Britain have often attracted audiences around the world, notably Monty Python's Flying Circus, a BBC sketch comedy first aired in 1969, with its surreal plots, innuendo-laden humor, and sight gags. The adjective "Pythonesque" had to be invented to define their original comedy. Other British TV hits have included Mr. Bean, with Rowan Atkinson as the title character, "a child in a grown man's body." The Da Ali G Show brought world fame to Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat notoriety. The Office, the title of multiple TV situation comedy shows, found success across the pond.
Current hits include Big Brother, which returned for its ninth season in 2008. This is a reality TV show taking its name from George Orwell's 1949 novel, 1984. Originating in 2001, Pop Idol led to an international spin-off, launching such American shows as American Idol.
The music performed at Elizabeth I's court, including compositions by Thomas Morley (ca. 1557-1602), have been recorded by the Deller Consort; one of their titles is Now Is the Month of Maying: Madrigal Masterpieces.
England's Renaissance church music is best exemplified by English composer William Byrd (1543-1623); listen to his Cantiones sacrae: 1575, performed by the Choir of New College, Oxford, and recorded in the New College Chapel for London Records.
Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is widely available in several performances. For an example of Purcell's orchestral music, listen to The Virtuoso Trumpet, performed by trumpeter Maurice André, who is accompanied by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with Sir Neville Mariner conducting.
John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, first performed in 1728, is available in a recording by Britain's National Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Opera Chorus for Polygram Records.
The works of the beloved British team of Sir Arthur Sullivan (composer) and Sir W. S. Gilbert (librettist) are widely available. The Mikado, performed by the Pro Arte Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting, is available on CD.
The compositions of Sir Edward Elgar can be heard on the British Philharmonic Orchestra's recording of the Pomp and Circumstance marches, conducted by Andrew Davis.
Two fine recordings of England's modern master, Ralph Vaughan Williams, are his Symphony no. 3 ("Pastoral"), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra; and his Sea Symphony, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with conductor André Previn.
Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols, performed by the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, and his Variations for a String Orchestra, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with Roger Best on viola, are both fine examples of this preeminent British composer.
A recording of interest to music historians is All Back Home, which traces the musical themes of American and Australian folk and blues back to Irish, English, and Scottish roots. The recording includes tracks by Sinead O'Connor, the Everly Brothers, Kate Bush, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, the Waterboys, and Thin Lizzy.
Richard Thompson, who performs on Amnesia, has been reviewed as one of the most unusual and iconoclastic of modern British folk performers. He uses guitar, mandolin, and hammer dulcimer in his melodies, and his lyrics showcase political and social satire as well as soulfully nostalgic ballads.
Of course, nothing in British musical history has equaled the popular enthusiasm that greeted the British revolution of the 1960s. Aided by improvements in acoustical technology and the changing sociology of Britain, music was suddenly the passionate interest of millions of youthful Brits, setting the scene for a cultural invasion of American shores that hadn't been seen since the 18th century.
It began with the Beatles, of course -- John, Paul, George, and Ringo, who won the hearts of every schoolgirl in America when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. They seemed to be in the vanguard of every cultural and musical movement, and as the 1960s progressed, the Beatles didn't simply capitalize on their success or the musical styles that had originally made them popular. Their music evolved with the times and helped shape the cultural and political texture of their era.
The Beatles were only the first of many British bands who found fertile ground and a receptive audience overseas. They were soon followed by the Rolling Stones, the Who, and David Bowie.
Past Masters is a two-volume retrospective collection of Beatles music. Equally important is their milestone album Sergeant Pepper, which was a musical watershed when it was released in 1967.
The Rolling Stones's Flashpoint is a textbook study of the spirit of rock 'n' roll, with a guest performance by Eric Clapton on a track entitled "Little Red Rooster." Another Rolling Stone great is Exile on Main Street.
These icons were followed by the neo-Brit brats, Oasis, with brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher selling millions of records. Along came Blur, Cast, and Ocean Colour Scene, acknowledging the influence of the Beatles and the Stones. Britain birthed David Bowie, Gary Glitter, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Faces. The cities that gave birth to these talents -- London, Liverpool, and Manchester -- have an ever-changing but always exciting music scene today.
Prince Harry fell hard for the Spice Girls, an English pop group formed in 1994, but David Beckham made off with Posh.
The biggest name today is the Grammy Award-winning Amy Winehouse, mistress of soul, vocal jazz, R&B, and doo-wop. Her personal troubles and beehive hairstyle continue to make tabloid headlines.
Way down the musical scale in pecking order are the London group, the Rakes -- "skinny as rakes" -- shooting to fame in 2005 with post-punk rock music. From Leeds, the Pigeon Detectives, with their indie rock were voted "the band most likely to leap to the main stage in 2007." From Brighton comes the Kooks, both indie and pop rockers who released their second album, Konk, in the spring of 2008.
Bloc Party, another London group singing indie, rock, and post-punk revival, made "Album of the Year" in 2005 with their debut, Silent Alarm. Yet another post-punk revival group, Franz Ferdinand, originated in Glasgow as an indie favorite. The band's second album, You Could Have It So Much Better, topped the charts in the U.K. An alternative rock group, Coldplay, achieved worldwide fame for their hit single, "Yellow," followed by the success of their debut album, Parachutes.
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