Archive | August, 2012

BBC America, “Copper”, and Haberdashery

26 Aug

Against my better judgement, I watched the season opener of BBC America’s Copper. The show is, as far as I can tell, about a rough and tumble detective named Kevin Corcoran in 1864 New York. I was wary to watch it because the commercials made it look like the BBC interpreted 19th century New York City (i.e. the biggest city/most urban area in the United States already by that time) as the Wild Wild West- muddy streets, wooden storefronts, and all. I did decide to watch it; however, because they lured me in with promises of a mid-episode sneak peak at the next season of Doctor Who (plus I’m weak to the wiles of historical fiction in any format). Despite their commercials, the characterization of 1864 New York City is not as bad as I anticipated. Id even go as far as to say that over, all the show is okay. But I have to say that my overriding thought while watching the show is: “OH MY GOSH- HATS!”

Haberdashery is such a lost art. I feel like great hats sneaked off the scene somewhere in the 60s, leaving Americans in particular in boring, bare-headed turmoil. Now I have to think about styling my hair every day, when I could have been gallivanting around in a fabulous hat. Not that I’d give up the internet, microwavable chicken nuggets, daily hot showers, or anything to to go back in time and live out my hat-wearing fantasies,  but still… I’m hoping that at some point, hats come back in fashion in a big way. Yes, Copper is mostly about men (and their bowlers, top hats, and assorted other headgear), but the “OMG HATS!” feeling is even stronger during this TV show than the feeling I get watching Downton Abbey or any incarnation of Masterpiece Theater. (Hrm…I’m getting the feeling that I’m more likely to experience the reification of haberdashery in Great Britain than I am in America.)

Perhaps I’m getting distracted from the point of the show by all of the hats (I am definitely getting distracted from the point of the show by the hats), but at least it keeps my mind off of the occasionally strange accents that pop up (yes, BBC America, I understand that NYC circa 1864 was a cultural and linguistic melting pot…no, I do not think that means all New Yorkers pronounced “about” like a native Vancouverite), and the logical inconsistencies that crop up in any TV show. (Police back then had, do now have, and will continue to have in the future, jurisdictions and districts. They do not just run around investigating crimes wherever they feel like. Also- they never miss a shot, ever? With a gun in 1864? Really? Seems unlikely, but hey, I’m no firearms expert.)

All that being said, I will probably continue to watch the show. And I encourage you to watch the show (although if you’re looking for historical New York City with a slightly lighter flare, I suggest New Amsterdam, starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is now in Game of Thrones, another quasi-historical/fictional show I enjoy.), because there are never enough historical-ish shows on television, at least for my taste anyways. I tend to love whatever BBC puts on air anyways, why should Copper be any different? As a warning, it’s a little dark, and probably inappropriate for children (more than just in the normal crime/detective show gore kind of way, since I think CSI, Bones, and NCIS are all appropriate for children. Copper is inappropriate in an on-screen violence, naked people, and prostitutes kind of way). Still, it features the excellent writing, zinging one-liners, good acting, and well-executed settings that are hallmarks of any BBC show.  Go for it!

P.S. In addition to the frequent “OMG HATS!” feeling, this show also elicits a well-earned “WOAHHHH, MUTTONCHOPS…” reaction as well. It is the 1860s…

P.P.S. You have to love the BBC for letting their writers use whatever vocabulary they want. Dumbing it down for the Americans? No way! Bring on the 19th century words!


What do the Great Depression and Pieter Bruegel the Elder Have in Common?

12 Aug

Funny how things are sometimes. For instance, yesterday I was listening to the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and up came the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, which is a song first recorded in 1928 by Harry McClintock. In case you’re not familiar with either soundtracks or Depression-Era folk music, the song is essentially about a hobo’s paradise, full of plentiful food, alcohol, and other goods (streams of lemonade, licorice trees, a whiskey lake). On a whim, I ran a quick google on the song, to find out when it was written (e.i. whether it was actually from the time period that the movie was set in, or made up in the 2000s for the sake of the film). Turns out, it is originally to the time period. BUT, my dear friend Wikipedia also informs me that the “hobo’s paradise” described in the song, ostensibly describing a feeling particular to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, actually has a connection to the Middle Ages. And there’s nothing I like more than a connection to the Middle Ages.

Turns out that the idea of a hobo’s paradise has been around for a long time, centuries even. In Medieval Europe (and following periods), the concept is called Cockaigne. Essentially it’s a lazy man’s paradise, where there’s tons of food and luxury goods and no one ever has to work.

In a fun bit of linguistic-ness, the name Cockaigne (which is the Middle-English iteration) is also recorded as the Latin Cucaniensis, or better yet, the modern English “Cuckoo-land”. German writings have it as Schlaraffenland, which, after much internet searching, I believe is not connected to monkeys/apes (der Affe/die Äffin). My favorite versions of the name are the Swedish Lubberland (“lubber” referring to a fat, lazy man) and the Dutch Luilekkerland, which Wikipedia translates as “lazy, luscious land”. Excellent!

Medieval folks (and, I’ll admit, Renaissance folks) really enjoy their utopias. Cockaigne worked itself into a lot of poems, books, and works of art. There are some particularly memorable Northern Renaissance paintings, such as this one by Pieter Bruegel the Elder:


Das Schlaraffenland, 1567. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, oil on wood panel. München, Alte Pinakothek.

Or, for people who like things who prefer things a little more Medieval, Cockaigne ends up as a topic for discussion in the Kildare poems, which date to the mid-14th century. Manuscript lovers and paleography buffs, feast your eyes:

The Land of Cockaigne, MS Harley 913, ff. 3r-6v. London, British Library.

As in the tough times in the early 20th century, the Land of Cockaigne was a popular topic among peasants and poor folks. Of course, back then, although the land of plenty was alluring, it was also a scary idea for the regular people (temptation being what it is, and all). So while it was nice to think that there was a magical bountiful place out there, it was also seen as tempting people to sloth and laziness and generally encouraging them not to be good, hardworking, God-fearing people. And that was definitely bad. I love a good moral conundrum.

The moral of this story is that Cockaigne is cool- cool enough that people have been talking about it for centuries! Cool enough that people sing about it, write about it, and paint it- now and then. In addition to the Middle Ages and moral conundrums, I also love me some artistic continuity. Now, if you’re ever sitting around playing six degrees of artistic separation (is that a real thing? It ought to be a real thing. I’m adding it to my list of party games), you will be able to instantly connect Pieter Bruegel the Elder and hobos in the 1920s, or Harry McClintock and Irish-dialect Middle English verse!