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Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Cutpurse Lives

This, from today's New York Times: a story about "Lush Workers," as they're called in our day and age, who slice open the pants pockets of drunken subway riders to steal their wallets.

I'm posting it here because it's such a nice revision of a canonical historical oddity -- The Cutpurse -- that sits so prominently in the ways we think about theatrical culture in Tudor and Stuart London. All of the familiar features are here: the unsuspecting, overly confident mark, slumped over and drunk in a public place; the constable, rolling his eyes both at the naivete of the victims and the intractable practices of petty thieves; and the purse-cutter -- now a pocket-slicer -- knowing precisely who to rob and how to do it without attracting notice. Admittedly, there's something a bit inelegant about robbing a corpse-like drunk, and I have a hard time imagining my favorite Jacobean cutpurse, Edgworth, from Bartholomew Fair, bragging about robbing a catatonic Cokes. But there is something to be learned about the contrast set up here in any case.

Here and now, in 21st century New York, a cutpurse -- not a pickpocket, mind you, but an actual cutpurse -- works on anesthetized victims. Men (at least, those of us who still prefer the front-pocket spot) hold their wallets very close to their bodies, and it's a very delicate operation to get in there unnoticed. Says Officer Rudolph of the NYPD: “It’s unbelievable they don’t cut the person’s leg wide open. They’re like surgeons with a razor blade, for God’s sake.” ("Leg" seems like a bit of a euphemism here to me, but that's more my problem than Officer Rudolph's.)

In 1607, owing in part to a different kind of wallet technology, men lost purses in broad daylight when they were wide awake. The enabling element for the cutpurse wasn't alcohol, but sheer distraction. And while there were many, many, many ways to keep someone's attention long enough to permit a quick cut, one of them could have been a performance of, say, Titus Andronicus. The absorption of an audience member into the action on stage would have been thought of -- by thieves, by aldermen, by playwrights, by playgoers -- in the same way we think about falling asleep dead drunk on a train. A particularly good play would leave people open to attack and loss. And, like subway riders who wake up walletless and fuzzy-mouthed six stops past their own, those robbed, distracted audience members would have been embarrassed by their misfortune. They all have no one but themselves to blame.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More props for a largely defunct blog

It seems like, now that we have gone dark, or at least grey, we are getting more kudos than ever. Something calling itself the Accredited Online Universities has posted something calling itself the "100 Best Blogs and Websites for Innovative Academics." So if you are innovative, you really should be checking out these blogs and websites. Included among these best for the innovative is BtR:
Whether you like pretty pictures or pretty words (hopefully both), this site’s got you covered. There are summaries of renaissance conferences, an online reading group, and great photos that help bring Europe to life.
We really do hope you like both pretty pictures or pretty words. If you like only one, you are a Philistine. Also, we hope that we have succeeded in bringing Europe to life. It's been kind of dead for a few hundred years. Our British friends certainly know this well.

(I'm upset that Accredited Online Universities did not highlight our special blend of scholarship and snarkiness. This post really brings the scholarship.)

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Fleet

One of the good things about living in Old Europe is that there are plenty of abandoned sewers, and on Sunday I walked much of the route that the Fleet River once flowed. Still flows, in fact, although now it’s a subterranean waterway. The Fleet was a major river in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, with wells and springs dotting its banks: hence Clerkenwell. But by the time we get to our period, it was in a terrible way, a dumping ground for all kinds of waste. Ben Jonson’s ‘On the Famous Voyage’ imagines two part-drunk city boys journeying up the polluted Fleet Ditch from Bridewell to Holborn, perhaps in search of a brothel. Richard Helgerson called Jonson’s verse one of ‘the filthiest, the most deliberately and insistently disgusting poems in the language’, which is praise of a sort. And it is an insistently scatological poem: ‘How dare / Your daintie nostrills … / Tempt such a passage? when each priuies seate / Is fill’d with buttock? And the walls doe sweate / Urine.’ Not unlike a couple of north London pubs I frequent.

Anyway, today you can still see the origin of the Fleet on Hampstead Heath in the form of the eighteenth-century ponds, created by damming the Fleet’s two headwaters. The Fleet’s two streams then travel underground, through Dartmouth Park, down Kentish Town, where they join, under Quinn’s: the bright yellow Camden pub, for those of you with local knowledge, itself no friend of daintie nostrills. From there, the Fleet heads to Kings Cross: no obvious signs of it here, although there is a plaque marking Fleet-derived ‘Bagnigge Wells’, where, if you were one of the ratherest things in eighteenth-century London, you might take the waters and the tea. The sign stands behind a bus-stop, opposite a hideous Travelodge on the spot of Nell Gwynne’s former house. (The bus-stop is called ‘Gwynne Place’.)
The Fleet then runs on to Farringdon Road, cutting its way under gastropubs full of Guardian journalists, eventually exiting into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.

So far, so underground, but, rather thrillingly, it’s possible to hear the Fleet passing beneath, at one point. There is a grate in the road outside the otherwise forgettable Coach and Horses pub, on Ray Street, just off Farringdon, and if you risk lying down with your ear to the ground, you can hear the amazingly loud sound of the Fleet’s rushing water. ‘All, that they boast of Styx, of Acheron, / Cocytus, Phlegethon, our haue prou’d in one.’

The other chance for Fleet-glimpsing is beneath Blackfriars Bridge. The spot is unmarked, but if you have a low-tide, and if you walk to the right, and lean out as far as you can, you can see, lurking, the hole where the Fleet hits the Thames. It’s hidden away – everyone walks by – but you can see the waters that started off in dainty Hampstead, tumbling out into the Thames.

Monday, March 23, 2009

More Bones and Cheesecake


This image is freaky as all get out (and completely off topic). Barbie has hip and leg "bones." And a skull. If only Richard Brome or A. S. were alive to make a joke about the flesh and the bones.

More cool CT scans here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cambria

Is Cambria becoming the new Times New Roman? Would this be a good development?

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Faces of Shakespeare

Stanley Wells has the goods on the Cobbe portrait.

I personally like to imagine Shakespeare having weight issues as the reason for the fluctuating rotundity of his face in various paintings and carvings.

Iago Marbury

It appears Stephon Marbury is doing his best Iago on the Boston Celtics.

Commented Kevin Garnett: "Weird thing is, he kept calling the other guys moors, which is just really messed up," the 12-time all-star said. "I mean, what is that, anyway? He didn't say it like it was a good thing. If he plays good basketball he can do what he wants, but I'm not going to listen to anyone call me or my guys moors."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's Winter in the New World


From a relative of mine in the midwest, not snow, but ice. Many places without power for a second week.