Thursday, July 8, 2010


I had lost all track of time. Like awestruck Alice, I wandered through the maze in a wondrous bookland called Foyles and stood in front of an intense pair of eyes. I had trudged from Wellington Arch, past the Queen’s window under which bear-skin capped red coats marched to an imperial beat, through a forest of handycam toting tourists and past Green Park and on to Trafalgar Square, straight into a tidal wave of pigeons taking wing… left behind in their wake lay droppings, feathers, One-eyed Nelson and a rather stunned I. The lights of Soho soothed and said, “Come hither, tramp…’ and tramp I did till I knew I was lost”.

“Excuse me sir. Which way is Foyles – the book store…?” asked I of a green-eyed man who looked a fair bit like Hugh Jackman right after he’d been wrung dry – you know the type, handsome in a twisted sort of way. “Straight down and a long right”, said he with a wink. As I began to walk that way, the man called me back, put an arm around my shoulder and said, “Nah… I’m kidding… the Irishman in me shows up without warning. It’s there…” and he pointed straight up, across the road. I’d walked right past it and somehow missed it. I thanked Twisted Jack, crossed the road and that’s how I got to be here, staring into those mesmeric eyes.

They were staring at me from the cover of a book. The face wasn’t extraordinarily handsome. He wore an earring in one ear and was balding, but those eyes, like smouldering embers glowing through the ashes of time and space, told well told tales of tempests and shrews, twins and jews and kings and clowns… it was the face that the world has come to believe to be the face of English literature at its glorious best – the face of William Shakespeare.

The funny bit is that no one really can vouch and say for sure that the balding bearded man actually is William Shakespeare. The truth is that there are three rather different likenesses, one on canvas, another one a copper-plate engraving and the third, a statue erected in Trinity Church in Stratfordupon- Avon, where rest his stage-weary bones. Curiously, they all look like different people (the last one actually looked more like Vladimir Lenin than old Will, if you will). And every other picture of the man is drawn from one of, or good heavens, perhaps a combination, of these three distinct faces that go by the same name.

I was heading for Stratford the next day and picked up a couple of books to keep me company including Bill Bryson’s eminent rendition of Will’s ‘murky’ life of which he says, “There is nothing – not a scrap… that gives insight into Shakespeare’s feelings as a private person. We can only know what came out of his work, not what went into it.”

For one whose works are as well known as Shakespeare’s, surprisingly little is known about the man. His life in history is limited to three lines: a record of his birth, his marriage and his death, and three signatures on his will. The rest, including the way he actually looked, is all mere conjecture. Even some of his plays, according to some theorists, were written by Christopher Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth herself, amongst other contenders, and attributed to William.

My trip to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon (which is why the name) where Shakespeare was born, where his family lived, and where he, it is said, returned from the London stage and died,I hoped would reveal more to me about the man who has left us a language and lore enriched beyond belief in the half a century and a bit that William spent on the planet.

But more about the man later. Stratford, even if William were never to have cried in a cradle here, is still a town you won’t regret driving through. The surrounding countryside and even the town itself, without the cars and tourists, is like a John Constable painting come to life. Gently undulating and a soothing hue of verdant green, its little streets meander from the farms where roam horses and sheep and long-horned cattle and converge into the centre of town. The skies that day were a rumbling grey, threatening but never committing to a downpour.

References to the town’s favourite son abound, on the names of inns and taverns, at the foot of stone figures immortalized in his plays that stare at us from every corner and on signs that point towards his birthplace, his wife’s cottage, his mother’s farm, his horse’s hay counter, his great grand son’s bed pans and so on… and yet, the red brick houses, and the church steeples that pierce the clouds, the smoky street-side cafes that promise warm and delicious delights, the mulberry trees that line the parks and streets and through it all glides the beautiful Avon, quietly and gently…

I will tell you about everything William in Stratford-upon-Avon next week but what you must know is that if your soul seeks peace, there are few places that compare to the aforementioned Trinity Church that rests by the river. The tour bus had dropped me off at the gates and I was told that this was the bard’s final resting place. Unlike the rest of Stratford, there were no tourists here. The gates, sufficiently weather beaten, to give them a sense of history opened to lime tree boulevard. On either side rose grave stones from centuries ago; moss and ivy clung to the edges, signs of life, on signs of death… don’t go inside the church just yet, but turn left and walk towards the river bank. There, on a bench, just sit down and sigh… look upon the green waters and the greener fields… let the sonnets of the song-birds waft into your heart on the whispers of the wind that carries them to you, just as much as they carry those silken notes to a pair of swans that nuzzle each other in the warm glow of an afternoon sun as it makes an unannounced appearance. Aaah…afternoons, as they were meant to be…

I know I’ll find you sitting right here next week, but do pick up one of William’s plays meanwhile… might help you see him better when we go looking for the real Will. Until then sigh on….