Last Day in Malaysia

I reluctantly left the grand E & O hotel and spent my last two days in Penang at the Bayview Beach Resort at Batu Ferringhi beach. Both the hotel and the beach were a letdown.

But let’s start with the lemonade, not the lemons.

Whereas the E & O was a luxury destination for international travelers, the Bayview was filled with local families, enjoying a school holiday week. And so I had a non-stop view of local culture, a chance to observe bodies at rest and at play.

A sign at the pool brought me up short. The dress code was complex. Bikinis and “Muslim swimwear,” yes. “Traditional clothing” and “non-swim headscarf,” no.

And indeed, there were a few Caucasian women in bikinis, whom nobody hassled. There were burkinis everywhere, polyester Muslim garb which covered everything except a woman’s face, hands, and feet. The Chinese and Indian women mostly wore shorts and t-shirts (long-sleeved for the Chinese, short-sleeved for the Indians); a few wore leggings, while some twenty-somethings wore Western-style one-piece swimsuits. The Chinese and Indian men either wore t-shirts or were bare-chested.

As I’ve noted before, Malaysia’s three distinct ethnic groups don’t mix in any meaningful ways. Their national legislature is even apportioned by race. And so one could observe contrasting genetics between the Chinese, Indian, and Malay people.

I won’t say this is true around the world, but when comparing the three groups in Malaysia:
~ Indians have broader feet. The men have much bigger calves;
~ A huge percentage of Chinese wear glasses;
~ Malay and Chinese women have much smaller breasts;
~ None of the three groups has people with well-developed shoulders.

And in the social realm:
~ None of the groups display much physical affection in public, except toward children;
~ The Chinese shuffle. The Indians walk straight ahead. The Malays walk slowly;
~ Over two days, observing some 300 people, I didn’t see a single Malay actually swim.
~ In all three groups, adults rarely run. Adults typically call to others (whether a child or adult) rather than walk over to them to speak.

Walking on the coarse sand of the narrow beach, I encountered four young Malaysian women gabbing and having a picnic. I took off my sunglasses and walked toward them.

They were celebrating one of their birthdays. They were all 23, friendly and full of energy. I asked to take their photos, for which they happily posed. And they took mine, which they thought was hilarious. I asked about their hijabs, which they discussed quite openly. They had each started wearing one at their mother’s instruction, between the ages of 7-9.

I asked them about their hair hidden underneath, which each reported was longer than shoulder-length. “So a big surprise for your husband,” I said. They agreed. “And maybe other surprises,” I gently said, tactfully gesturing to their baggy outfits. “Yes,” they giggled. “Surprise is good, that’s the wisdom of our faith,” said one. “Unless it’s unhappy surprise,” I responded gently.

These young women were bouncy and pleasant, but I couldn’t shake the image of them on the day they were first wrapped in a hijab. It’s a proud day for some kids, a confusing day for others. In my Western mind’s eye, it’s also the last day that their shoulders or shins will ever feel the sun’s caress. Some will feel honored by the responsibility that men don’t have. Others will feel burdened. None will experience a choice.

That’s what I wish for all people: the caress of choice.

Thank you, reader, for travelling with me.

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Malaysia, Day 5

Religion is everywhere in Malaysia. And that means ethnicity, and that means politics.

When you saw someone on the street in Boston 200 years ago, you immediately knew most important things about them, based on their clothes and grooming: their income, marital status, occupation, religion. Today, you can walk that same Boston street and know almost nothing about passersby.

Not so here. For starters, local Muslim women cover some or all of their bodies and hair. If they’re seen on the street with adult males, they’re typically husbands or relatives. So men walking with Muslim women can be identified as Muslim as well. The kind and amount of gold jewelry worn denotes marital and social status.

Chinese and Indian Malaysians have their own distinct dress, food, music, religion, and other customs. After being here just a few days, I instinctively began to see people in these categories, which today hit me quite strongly. It’s as if we’d walk along Broadway or El Camino and see a woman wearing a three-foot large cross. Or a man with a sign around his neck saying he comes from Taiwan, NOT mainland China. You and I might see that and shrug, surprised but uncaring. But soon, “people” and “ethnically categorized people” would be the same thing. And that’s how it is here.

Of course, we’re not category-free in America. Most of us sort others by race, not to mention physical attractiveness, ableness, and gender. But while intermarriage across any domain in the U.S. is still unusual, there are many places where Americans of various communities mix.

Perhaps more to the point, Westerners don’t announce their social categories nearly as immediately as Asians do. You may not know an acquaintance’s income, and hesitate to ask their religion or ethnic background. If you meet someone of indeterminate race, you wouldn’t ask them.

Around the world, we see how easily ethnic tension can explode overnight. Hutus and Tutsis in the 1990s. The Balkans in the 1990s (and just last week in Kosovo). Ethiopia and Eritrea today. Burmese and Rohingya today. Turks and Kurds today.

From all appearances, Malaysia manages its multi-ethnic society. It does so in a way that’s unfamiliar to modern Americans—by institutionalizing difference and discrimination, rather than officially encouraging assimilation. For example, converting to Islam carries political, social, and financial advantages in Malaysia. How many people do it because of theological, rather than practical reasons? Not many I imagine. No one knows, of course.

In therapy, I focus on the shared values and traits of couples in conflict, while they typically focus on differences. And people in therapy tend to categorize themselves, telling me what kind of person they are instead of inviting me get to know them.

Modern societies wrestle with how to honor individual traits and idiosyncratic culture while finding things to bind people together. Art can be a great binder–although periodically politicians try to politicize it, from Alexander the Great to Stalin to Dan Quayle (remember Murphy Brown?). Sports can be a great binder–people can fiercely debate Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James and still be friends (although fans at international soccer games can great pretty nasty). Right about now, it would be nice if love of the planet, and concern for its future, was humanity’s binding agent.

In Malaysia, at least we all agree that it’s hot. And soccer is good. And children are a gift. Well, some children.

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Malaysia, Day 4

My website is censored in Malaysia. You can’t even go to my shopping cart and buy a webinar on doing better intake sessions.

Having thought it over, I sincerely say, “Fuck the Malaysian government.”

This isn’t the first time I couldn’t access my own website while travelling (see Myanmar, China). Heck, there are places in the U.S. where I can’t access my own website (University of Arkansas, FedEx/Kinkos). Fuck them, too.

I don’t take it personally, as my website isn’t the only one. Anything having to do with sex—education, porn, health, news—is considered dangerous for the 33 million people of Malaysia.

Imagine deliberately imposing ignorance—of any kind—on an entire population. Regimes that do so may be powerful, but they aren’t strong—they’re afraid. They deserve to fall. Russians should know what their army is doing in Ukraine. Malaysians should know that some people have sex without being married, and don’t die.

American teens should know there’s a safe, cheap vaccine that can help prevent HPV (which can cause sterility). And that teens pledging abstinence-until-marriage are more likely to get pregnant before they marry. And that watching porn doesn’t undermine your erections, but that trying to have sex like a porn star does.

In Malaysia, it’s not only sexual topics that are censored. Like Singapore, Malaysia is an authoritarian parliamentary system. The government decides what’s moral and ethical, and enshrines its opinions in law. This is different than, say, setting highway speed limits or criminalizing murder. In those latter instances, science confirms certain harms, which are tangible, and which can be certifiably limited. Exposure to my website? Well, the data’s still coming in.

The connection between censoring my website, legally defining immorality, and jailing people for criticizing the government is simple and direct. For as Lenny Bruce once said after being arrested for on-stage “profanity,” “If you can’t say fuck, you can’t say fuck the government.”

So fuck you, Malaysia, for imagining my voice is so dangerous that you have to hide it from your own people. And bless every country, including America, in which you can say fuck the government.

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Malaysia, Day 3

Have I mentioned how hot and humid it is here? I’ve a new appreciation for the word “enervated.” Even the enormous coconut trees seem to sway languidly, almost reluctantly.

So I strolled, equally languidly, through Georgetown today. I basically took in the colors and sounds–no great insights today, I’m afraid. It’s just too hot. But walking around and unabashedly pointing my camera everywhere, people did smile at me. And no one turned down my request of “photo, please?”

I heard a gaggle of young people fussing around one corner, and found a group of friends adjusting each others’ graduation robes. Seems that the big ceremony was tonight, and they wanted to rehearse–and take jillions of photos, of course. They were all graduating in “sports science,” and all had professional aspirations. No, none of their parents had gone to university. The American dream, Malaysia-style.

Of course, there’s the other end of the economic spectrum here. Even elegant restaurants need unskilled restaurant labor, and these sidewalk shops were hardly elegant. A guy scrubbing out cooking pots in an alleyway didn’t stop when he saw me, but nodded just enough to let me know I could take his photo.

We hear a lot about the coming demographic collapse in China, which is also true in Malaysia. But while births to Malays (Muslims) are declining, the norm is still three kids, even among the poor. Six kids per woman? Not so much anymore.

Well, that’s enough tropical sweating for one day. Let me cool off at the old E & O and we’ll see what (in)sights tomorrow brings.

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Malaysia, Day 2

Penang is a thumb-shaped island off the northwest coast of Malaysia. In 1786 the British East India Company founded a port there on the budding commercial shipping lane between India and China. Structured as a tariff-free port, it quickly became a major center for exporting spices to the West.

That shipping lane, the Strait of Malacca, is today the busiest in the world, carrying 25% of the world’s traded goods–including most of China’s oil. At its narrowest, the Strait is less than 2 miles wide. This makes Penang–and its competitor Singapore–key players in the world economy.

And I’m spending every day this week looking through swaying palm trees at its cloudy waters. As a modern deep-water port, mammoth cruise ships dock here alongside giant container ships and the occasional military vessel. I saw all three just yesterday.

Mr. Wong drove us to Penang’s main city, Georgetown (named after King George III, of the American Revolution), where we walked around. He was especially proud of Harmony Street, on which you can find a 19th-century Anglican church, Chinese temples, and Muslim and Hindu shrines all within a few blocks. I asked how, in a world riven by ethnic and racial conflict, Malaysia had achieved the accord he talked of so often. “Strong leader,” he replied. “And everybody wants peace so they can do business,” he added.

The Chinese mostly arrived from southern cities like Guanzhou and Fuzhou. “Their food’s not so spicy,” I said, to which Mr. Wong nodded approvingly (and we agreed that Indian food could be “very, very hot–too hot”). When a new Chinese family arrived here in the early 19th century, that would set up a benevolent association for their clansmen, centered on a temple. These temples dot Georgetown, and we saw them in use by everyday people.

Across the globe, the most modern of Chinese still believe in family gods, propitious days, and lucky numbers. In just six weeks, Chinese New Year will once again witness the largest human migration in history. A stick of incense–made here and burned here, or in South Korea, San Francisco or Shanghai–is part of the millenium-old trade network that put this very spot under my feet on the global map.

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Malaysia, Day 1

Weatherwise, it’s always Groundhog Day in Malaysia—95 degrees, 95% humidity. Gin & tonic anyone?

Malaysia occupies the southern half of a long narrow strip of land that points into the crescent bowl of Indonesia’s many islands. The northern half of the peninsula belongs to Thailand; the southernmost tip is Singapore. It’s 2/3 the size of California, with 2/3 the population.

Seeing my name on a sign when arriving at an international airport seems the height of glamor to me, and Mr. Wong did not disappoint. Chatting happily for 45 minutes, he drove me from the Penang airport to the E & O (Eastern & Oriental) Hotel. Built in 1885, this will be home for 5 days, complete with ceiling fans, sea-facing balconies, high tea, and “yes, no problem” as the answer to every question.

The island of Penang has over 600,000 people: 2/3 ethnic Malay, 1/4 Chinese, the rest primarily Indian. The Malays are primarily Muslim, the Chinese a mix of Buddhist, Tao, and various family religions, while the Indians are split between Hindu and Muslim. I mention this because everything in Malaysia starts with ethnicity. It’s in their Constitution, it’s in their history, and it’s in their, well, blood.
But more on that later.

From the second I arrived, the E & O lived up to its reputation. I had booked a lovely suite, and they upgraded me on top of that, so I stayed in a place that had actually hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana (“We had to make some special plans for them,” the concierge confided). The place had also hosted Noel Coward, Rita Hayworth, Sun Yat-Sen, Rudyard Kipling, and Charlie Chaplin. Good company with whom to relax.

Now for a bath, enjoying the breeze from the enormous window open to the world’s busiest shipping chokepoint. More on that tomorrow, I daresay.

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Leaving Singapore—Through Little India

There are a half-million Indians and Bangladeshis in Singapore. On my last day here I do believe I was jostled by most of them.

South Asians have been coming here for almost two centuries, and continue coming today. Especially today, as it’s just a four-hour flight from Chennai (Madras), Kolkata (Calcutta) or Bangladesh’s capitol Dhaka (Dacca). As today’s migrant workers they often live in crowded dormitories—lean young men working six-day weeks to keep Singapore fed, cleaned, and glittering.

I went to Little India on Sunday, the workers’ day off. The neighborhood was a loud, colorful, congested warren of alleys and side streets lined with shops and blaring speakers. Men and women in both Western and Asian dress were an undulating organism slithering up and down the sidewalks, spilling into the streets, laughing, gesturing, eating, and oh yes, sweating (in the usual 95 degrees, 95% humidity).

Old men at sidewalk tailor shops quietly worked their ancient sewing machines, oblivious to the crowd. Self-educated young techies pried apart and (maybe) repaired mobile phones (“Iphone, Samsung, we fix everything, no cares!”). Gaggles of sari-clad women, arms linked, selfied their way from shop to shop, corner to corner. And everyone south Asian, except for me and the occasional tall European pinkie out for a gawk and a meal.

I asked around for “mild” food, and was pointed to “any” Northern Indian restaurant. I finally settled on Hindustan, and squeezed into a battered chair at a battered table on a battered floor at the corner of chaos and cacophony. I told the waiter “must be mild!” and patted my stomach with feigned distress. He shrugged. I ordered the biryani. “OK mild?” I asked. “Yes, good mild,” he replied.

Well, I won’t say the food could peel paint (although it could, I swear), but even the raita—supposed to cool me off, right?—was the spicy kind, loaded with onion. They were both tasty, but my watering eyes were warming the diet coke, so I ate what I could, paid, and left.

I walked another few blocks, managed not to buy any trinkets (plastic or gold), and withering in the heat, headed for the Gandhi monument. I admit that I was more grateful than disappointed to discover that it was closed on Sundays, so I could just head back to the air-conditioned part of the city. A cab suddenly appeared and disgorged an elderly couple, and while Madame was still gathering her sari into a dignified handful I jumped through the cab’s other door, pretending to not notice the small family slowly organizing itself to enter.

We drove toward my hotel, surrounded by bicycles, motorbikes, trishaws, and pedestrians. I didn’t mind the traffic, as I was (a) sitting and (b) sitting in air conditioning. Crossing the Singapore River we slowly passed Esplanade Park, where Filipina domestic workers and Indian restaurant workers were spending their precious day off. A crazy-quilt of homemade food, recorded music, and worn shoes covered the grass, as groups of friends chatted in the shade of huge trees.

And then I was back in my hotel. And then I packed. And then I was off to the world’s cleanest international airport, flying north.

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Big News In Singapore! (And a Raspberry to Indonesia)

Yesterday, Singapore decriminalized sex between two men.

Gay men will continue to face a certain amount of social stigma, but not jail time, fines, or court-ordered beatings.

The law that was just rescinded dates from British colonial times, the very same one under which Oscar Wilde was jailed (an experience from which he ultimately died).

Legally, this brings Singapore slightly more in line with modern Western norms.

But the country is wrestling mightily between its two identities—one a liberal, constitutional, competitive-capitalist Western one; the other a patriarchal, ancestor-centric, shame-oriented, rules-valuing Asian one.

As a country, Singapore is more liberal than many of its neighbors. Indonesia, for example, is increasingly changing its legal system to accommodate a radical Muslim faction. Having instituted actual Sharia in northern Aceh province several years ago, last week the country criminalized sex between unmarried adults—difficult to see as anything other than a huge cultural step backward.

But Singaporean laws and informal norms keep a tight lid on most aspects of society. Virginity-until-marriage is still considered necessary among much of the country. Political gatherings of more than five people must be approved by the government. And the two million foreign guestworkers, mostly from India and Bangladesh, are treated like third-class citizens, which creates ethical dilemmas that are mostly ignored.

Realistically, same-sex marriage is nowhere on the horizon here. Nevertheless, let’s toast Singapore’s decriminalization of same-gender sex. And let’s thumb our noses at Indonesia—where even if same-gender sex were legal, it would be outlawed among gays who aren’t married. Which, of course, is all Indonesian gays—if any even existed, which the government and Muslim clergy keeps saying they don’t.

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Singapore: Tropical Humidity, Futuristic Architecture

Singapore is 85 miles from the equator. That explains the year-round humidity and heat–but doesn’t make it any easier to breath here. At this latitude (one degree!), the sun rises and sets virtually the same time 365 days per year.

After a century of British colonial control, followed by the brutal Japanese occupation during WWII, Singapore was given limited self-rule. In 1963 it joined with northern neighbor (formerly British) Malaya and two other states to form Malaysia.

Only two years later, Singapore was tossed out of Malaysia because of (1) Singapore’s continual whining about the new constitution’s guarantee of favoritism toward ethnic Malays and (2) Malaya’s fears that Singapore’s Chinese population would overrun Malaysia’s Muslim population and (3) everyone’s mistrust about who was going to resist a Communist insurgency and southern neighbor Indonesia’s bizarre declaration of limited guerilla war.

And so Singapore dates its foundation as a nation-state to 1965. It was poor, tiny, and it had to import its food and water. So western-trained attorney Lee Kuan Yew took control of the country for the next 45 years. He started as an autocrat, and ended as a democrat.

He turned Singapore into a rich, tiny, country that has to import its food and water. And guest workers, who make up half the population. And ton after ton of sand, for continued attempts to “reclaim” a bit of land at its perimeters.

Singapore now has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world, the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, and almost no adult obesity. On the other hand, free speech is limited, private ownership of TV satellite dishes is banned, and if someone peeks into your window and can see you having sex, you get arrested.

Zoning here is, um, quite relaxed, so the skyscraper architecture is quite spectacular–and there isn’t one building that matches any other.

Well, I must have yet another cold drink. And there’s the sunset, at the usual time. This country is a little too well-organized.

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Singapore: The Town That Became a Country

A thousand years before Marco Polo travelled the Silk Route between Venice and China, there was a little town in the strategic location of Singapore.

In 1320 the Mongols shopped for elephants there. As Europeans scrambled for footholds in the Spice Islands–gambling their lives for nutmeg, cloves, and pepper–Singapore attracted increasing attention. And in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles set up a British trading post on the island, founding modern Singapore.


Today the little town is a wealthy country of 5.5 million people, its economy driven by electronics exports, financial services, and the world’s busiest cargo seaport.

I’m heading there to work with a few clients. It will be hot, humid, drizzling–and fascinating.

Enter your email address under my photo to the right to get daily updates from this food-obsessed, highly-organized tropical paradox. I’ll also be in Malaysia for a week–more on that tomorrow.

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Day 13: The Final Battle

So Richard became king. He had many supporters, but many enemies. One was his dead brother Edward’s widow Elizabeth Woodville—mother of the nephews in the tower, head of a family abruptly out of power. Another was Margaret Beaufort, great-great-granddaughter of Edward III, he already the ancestor of seven kings of England.

A contemporary of Henry VI and Edward IV, Margaret had given birth at age 13 to a son. Her husband, who died when the boy was an infant, was the Welsh nobleman Edmund Tudor. A religious zealot, Margaret believed all her life that her boy Henry was destined to be king. And throughout everything including exile and separation, she urged this obsession on her son for decades.

When Richard took the crown in 1483, various nobles opposing him supported Henry’s return from exile. His mother knew the moment of destiny had come. And so Henry Tudor returned and challenged Richard.

They met on Bosworth Field, about 100 miles north of London, in 1485. Which is where I was standing today.

It’s still a field, with a hill, marsh, and forests just where they’d been when they had shaped the battle. The noise and smoke would have been horrific. There would be carpets of dead bodies, terrified horses falling everywhere, tens of thousands of exhausted men literally fighting for their lives.

King Richard’s horse was eventually killed, tumbling Richard to the ground. The king wanted to keep fighting, so he yelled out for a fresh mount—“My horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Alas, he was soon cornered and killed. Not captured, but killed. His crown was physically handed to Henry Tudor, the commander of the winning army.

Henry Tudor became Henry VII.
He married Elizabeth of York, the dead Edward IV’s daughter, uniting the long-battling Lancastrian and Yorkist families, ending the Wars of the Roses. Thus his symbol was a white and red rose intertwined. Henry VII started the Tudor dynasty; his son would eventually be crowned Henry VIII, and his daughter would eventually be crowned Elizabeth I.

This was the day that I’d been planning for almost a year. The end of the 300-year Plantagenet dynasty, and the start of the Tudor dynasty. The end of the Middle Ages, opening the door to the Renaissance. Today was 1485, and I was at Bosworth, right where I belonged.

I now understand the difference between Edward III, IV, and V, and Henry IV, V, VI, and VII. I know the difference between Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and French architecture, and between English Gothic and Perpendicular Gothic. I’ve learned the difference between Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beaufort. And I can tell you why it all matters.

I suppose what doesn’t really matter is that I know these things. I created and went on this trip for the very same reason that people did things in the Middle Ages—because it seemed like a good idea.

It was.

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Day 12: A Day With King Richard

This rainy morning I walked to Leicester Cathedral. Far less grand than York’s, it was tastefully built in 1086 in a beautiful brown stone I hadn’t yet seen in England. I was here to see Richard.

Decade by decade, the Wars of the Roses gradually eliminated almost every legitimate contender for the throne of England. With the death of the Yorkist King Edward IV in 1483, his oldest son of course succeeded him (as Edward V). But the new king was only twelve years old (with an even younger brother), and so a Regent was needed. The dead king’s brother Richard was the logical choice.

After years as a military and political figure (and the King’s beloved advisor), Richard had amassed his own power base. These people stood to gain immensely were Richard to become king. There was no comparable Lancastrian figure—the Lancastrian king Henry VI only had one son, killed at Towton. All that stood in the way of Richard’s succession were his two nephews, the dead king’s sons.

It was a turbulent time, and so Richard—Regent and Uncle, brother of the king so recently dead—had the boys escorted to the Tower of London for their temporary safety.

And that’s the last that anyone ever saw of them. Did Richard have them killed? People have been arguing about it ever since. But with the boys gone, Richard took the crown as his own, becoming Richard III, Shakespeare’s hunchback villain and history’s obsession.

Across from the Cathedral is the new Richard the Third Center. Its genealogies and displays of medieval clothes and weapons were by now familiar. It did have a wonderful display on the historiography of Richard—how he has been described and portrayed through the centuries. Contrasting film clips featuring Lawrence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Spacey were fascinating.

Richard ruled only two years, killed in the climactic battle of the Wars of the Roses (which we’ll visit tomorrow). For political reasons, he was buried with only minimal honors, and eventually his burial site was considered lost to the ages. And then in 2012 a group of persistent archeologists discovered it under a parking lot 300 yards from the church—a million to one chance, validated 100% by DNA testing.After a terrible legal fight between the cities of York and Leicester (at least they didn’t use archers or cannon), Richard was reburied in Leicester cathedral with enormously solemn ceremony in 2015 (the Cathedral’s video of this is quite moving).

This Richard has been reimagined—by some—as a devoted prince, rising to (and dying for) the civic duty of protecting his fragile country. The cathedral built a beautiful gothic chamber to house his remains. On the floor above the buried casket is a low plinth of silent black Irish stone (he was Governor there), inscribed Richard III. Topping that is an elegant piece of ancient local marble carved coffin-shape and inscribed with a cross.

This is where I touched a king. King Richard. For a long, intimate moment I had him all to myself. I would have given almost anything to know…when you took the crown, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, what were you thinking? What did you want? How did you feel?

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Day 11: A Day in the Country at Conisborough

Today we drove south into Yorkist country, and headed for Conisborough Castle. It sat on the sidelines during the Wars of the Roses, but it’s an architectural gem with a quirky history.

The castle was built by William, Earl of Surrey who had taken part in the Norman conquest of England in 1066. He was rewarded by his father-in-law William the Conqueror with extensive estates, including the land on which to build Conisborough.

Several generations later it pass through marriage to Hamelin Plantagenet, the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II. Hamelin extensively rebuilt the castle in the 1180s, including the gorgeous stone tower. If you’re a fan of Magna Carta you’ll enjoy knowing that King John visited the castle in 1201.

Eventually Edward III gave the castle to his son Edmund, Duke of York. Two generations later it was inherited by Richard of York—who had, you’ll recall, tried to seize the crown from Henry VI, but died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. His son Edward then inherited it, and when he seized the throne as Edward IV at the Battle of Towton in 1461, the castle once again belonged to the Crown.

It gradually fell into some disrepair, but it wasn’t attacked, Cromwell didn’t destroy it, and so it sat there accumulating a lovely patina. In 1811 Sir Walter Scott rode by and later used the location for his novel Ivanhoe. That made the castle a tourist attraction, so a century later the government restored it, and it’s now glorious again.

It’s an innovative design, with polygonal corners to improve its defense, and walls that flare out at ground level to discourage undermining during sieges. The sun came out as we we climbed the tower, and it shown straight through the window of the Lady’s Chapel on the third floor. The commanding views from the parapet were peacefully stunning.

From here we continued driving south to Leicester, where we had a date with a king.

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Day 10: Castles & Walls

For our last day in this area, we drove south again, on England’s A1 motorway (essentially a modern version of the 500-year-old Great North Road between London and Edinburgh).

An hour later, we arrived at a small hill studded with medieval walls. Pontefract Castle was constructed around 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy on land granted personally by Willam the Conqueror as a reward for his support during the Norman Conquest. It passed out and back into the family with the fortunes of war, and in 1311 it came into the House of Lancaster, and so eventually to John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. Gaunt was the kingdom’s richest, most respected statesman.

As the 14th century ended, King Richard II (king because his father was Gaunt’s older brother) exiled John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke. When Gaunt died, his son Henry should have been invited back to receive his enormous lands—including Pontefract—but Richard II seized and gave them away to his cronies.

Bolingbroke responded by returning to England with a private army. He headed for Pontefract, rallied the local nobles (aghast that Gaunt’s property had been seized—who would be the next target?), and with Richard in Ireland at the time, declared himself King Henry IV. Henry eventually captured Richard and dragged him to Pontefract Castle, where he died.

By preventing Henry’s inheritance, Richard had broken feudal protocol. By deposing an anointed king, Henry had overturned the natural order of the world even more. Thus began the blood feud between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family, setting the stage for a half-century of civil war.

The remains at Pontefract aren’t extensive. But the hilltop’s central location hasn’t changed, and when the wind quieted, we thought we could feel betrayal in the air, and hear vows of vengeance. After a few moments we drove straight into the late-afternoon sun, to Wakefield.
It’s 1460. Henry IV has died. His son Henry V has died. His grandson Henry VI has been king almost 40 years—a weak, sometimes-mad, unprepared king whom no one respects. His wife, the intelligent and noble-born Margaret of Anjou, is the real power behind the throne.

Richard Plantagenet—a Yorkist great-grandson of Edward III with a legitimate claim to the throne, grabs for it. He and the Lancastrian nobility compromise—Henry VI can remain king, but Richard is recognized as his heir, disinheriting Henry’s and Margaret’s son. But Richard can’t wait, and Margaret’s enraged. At Wakefield’s Sandal Castle he is stunned to encounter an enormous Lancastrian force.

Outmaneuvered by an army marched here from Pontefract and personally commanded by Queen Margaret, the Yorkists are crushed. Richard himself is killed, putting the Yorkists in the hands of his son Edward. Two months later, at the Battle of Towton (yes, at the very site we visited just days ago), Edward will get revenge, butchering a retreating Lancastrian army and declaring himself Edward IV. He will reign for 22 years, until he dies in bed—after which the killing will resume.

The Sandal castle’s remains are still standing. We climbed up to the top and surveyed the landscape, barely changed in 560 years. I could see the same road the Yorkists marched on, and the same forests in which Margaret hid her ambushing divisions. Richard never had a chance. The deaths of so many nobles at Wakefield cleared the way for a new generation on each side to pick up the seemingly endless cause.
After driving back to York, I finished off the day with a walk on its famous medieval walls. They are in fabulous condition, built on the Roman (of course) footprint. Several original gates into the city are still intact. Cars and bikes pass through them every day; I took my chances and simply gawked at one for several minutes, my last in this city of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and medieval treasures.

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Day 9: York Cathedral, From Bottom to Top

I had a perfect day today at York Minster (Cathedral). I started below it, continued above it, and finished in the center of it.

The first church on the site was built in 627CE. One big fire and a few Viking raids later, it was again damaged (along with the whole rebellious area) by William the Conqueror in 1069CE.

As soon as things settled down politically, work began on a grand Norman stone church. A century later, plans changed to showcase the snazzy new Gothic style imported from the Continent. York’s Archbishop ordered that the cathedral be built to rival Canterbury (its only architectural competitor to this day), damn the expense. It’s now the second-largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe.

I started the day with a special tour of the underground crypt. Protected down there from the wear-and-tear of everyday use, it is remarkably well-preserved. Our passionate guide lovingly showed us features of the Roman, Norman, and Gothic foundations, as well as later medieval and Victorian upgrades.

With all the old stone I’ve seen around the world, she showed us something I’d never seen: mason’s marks. These are monograms inconspicuously chipped into finished stone so the accountants would know how much to pay each craftsman. Using a flashlight, she also showed us tiny parallel striations meticulously scratched into the stone surface that would catch the light and make the stone shimmer.

The next special tour continued our affinity for stone. Leaving the building, we entered the stoneyard to see and touch the cut-to-order blocks of limestone arriving from the same quarry as the original stone that built the cathedral. Then we went to the masons’ actual workshops, talking with the masters who map and draw the individual stones, and observing the journeymen who were chip, chip, chipping away, creating hand-carved replacements for stones (including gargoyles, window ornaments, and vaulting) that need replacement.

The artisans spoke humbly about working in tandem with their brilliant predecessors of 600 and 800 years ago. I myself have a tiny taste of this when I play music written during the Renaissance—communing with a fellow artist (albeit one far grander than I!) to produce the sound he imagined when he composed.

Exiting the workshops we donned hard hats and took a construction elevator nine stories up. We walked the scaffolding surrounding a section of the Cathedral under renovation. We got to see and touch the carvings, repairs, and windows that mortals normally see from 100 or 200 feet below. We could watch the painstaking work of artisans, alone out there in the cold, chiseling an angel’s expression, or curling a saint’s toes. No one down below could possibly see the difference if a mason stopped short of perfection. But the masons up here knew no other standard for their work.

After a brief rest and late lunch (another tiresome pizza—if only these Brits could cook the way they used to build!), we returned to the Cathedral. The medieval glass is still beautiful—transcending centuries is the point of the artform. The soaring vaulting, the contrasting Gothic styles facing each other, the lachrymose memorials to dead soldiers, dead children, dead dreams, all combined to reduce our voices to whispers and slowed our pulses. They walked these floors twenty generations ago.

Among those buried there are Thomas Bayeux (who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, narrating the Norman Conquest of 1066) and the infant son of 14th-century Edward III.

We walked into the Cathedral’s largest chapel for the Evensong service, mostly to hear the music. There was some chanting by the choir of twelve. And the Psalms that were recited were familiar, if repetitive. But I received an unexpected jolt when the Minister read the scriptural portion about the Jews killing Christ. I am not making this up—the week’s portion was about Pilate offering to free the arrested Jesus, but the Jews passionately objecting. And so Pilate ordered Christ killed.

Architecture, artisanship, and history aside, I was, after all, in an old Christian church. Hearing a very old—and very modern—Christian story.

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Day 8, Part II: The Killing Fields of Towton

While I pondered the bustling day in York, John brought the car around and we drove a half-hour southwest to the enormous battlefield of Towton. It was here on March 29, 1461 that the Wars of the Roses continued. The Yorkist royal contender completely routed the forces of Lancastrian Henry VI (who had ruled almost 40 years), declared himself King Edward IV, and drove the remaining Lancastrian leadership into exile. Spoiler alert: they do return; hence Wars of the Roses.

We parked at the side of the road and walked the empty killing field on a very cold, blustery, damp gray day as John retold the story. Towton was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil—28,000 knights, archers, mercenaries, and peasant conscripts cut down in 10 hours of fighting. Having marched for days to get here, the two sides ultimately faced each other on a front that stretched a mile from left to right. Every man knew he was fighting a battle to the death. Sleet blew into the Lancastrians’ faces, and the wind behind the Yorkists gave their arrows an extra 30 yards of reach.

John and I stood shivering in the middle of the battle line, the field unchanged since then: a ridge here, trees over there, low ground cover between. We strained to hear the horrible groans and see the horrible sights of five centuries ago.

At the battle’s climax the Lancastrians broke and ran some five miles back to their camp, chased by Yorkists on horseback or foot, thirsty for blood. Their weapons were primitive but effective—archaeologists say that many, many people died of blunt-trauma head wounds.

On the drive back from Towton John spoke less than usual, and I was pretty quiet. Comfortable in our modern car with the heat turned on, we were still deeply chilled by the carnage we had vicariously experienced.

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Day 8: York’s Medieval Metropolis

York is halfway between London and Edinburgh. Occupied on and off for 10,000 years, the actual town was founded by the Roman IXth Legion in 71 BCE. When the Emperor died in 306CE, it was in York that Roman soldiers declared Constantine (later “the Great”) emperor.

York’s location in northern England, with access to the sea via the Ouse River, destined it for greatness. It became a seat of power, commerce, learning, and the arts for a succession of empires. The Vikings first terrorized it and then made it part of their trading network. Things got a huge boost when William the Conqueror arrived shortly after 1066.

I spent the day exploring the city. We started at Clifford’s Tower, all that’s left of the 12th century Norman castle built on the remains of William’s castle on a commanding hilltop. The small Jewish population in York during medieval times apparently became quite wealthy lending money to the king and various nobles. When the debts became too high for the nobles to manage, they’d encourage the local peasants to riot and kill the Jews, whose debts were then conveniently erased. Then the cycle would start again.

In 1190 all the city’s 150 Jews took refuge here at Clifford’s from a mob crazed by the belief that the Jews were ritually killing Gentile children (yes, the start of the Blood Libel). Depending on whom you believe, the Jews were either massacred by the mob, or they killed themselves Masada-style to avoid the mob’s torture and murder. A century later King Edward I expelled all the Jews in England, who didn’t return until invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1650.

I appreciate that the story of a crazed mob massacring the city’s Jews is presented in a fairly unblinking way by the signage and the city’s tourism industry. Throughout our two weeks together, John periodically repeated that in those days it wasn’t anti-semitism, but anti-judaism. The first is hatred of race: Jews can’t help who they are, and we hate them. The second is hatred of religion: Jews are choosing to be blind and ignorant, and we hate them. In the Middle Ages Jews could therefore save themselves by converting (if they wanted to)—the opposite of Hitler’s policy that a single drop of Jewish blood contaminated someone, which conversion could not change.

Once again I experienced first-hand the power and importance of William the Conqueror. He connected England and France politically, brought sophisticated Norman culture to England, and united the various clans here—some by bribery, some by marriage, and many through a brutal scorched-earth policy in 1069.

Walking the medieval cobblestoned streets, we stopped at two churches—All Saints and Holy Trinity Goodramgate. They were both pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon churches, built before The Conquest. As with all the old churches across Europe, some of its finest artwork—frescos, statues, stained-glass windows—was damaged or destroyed in the iconoclastic frenzy of the 16th-century Reformation. My expert guide John was able to show me where, over time, the architecture transitioned from Romanesque to early Gothic to later Gothic.

These and dozens of other places in York are living textbooks, with stones and wood arranged in ways both exotic and familiar. After all, steps are steps and roofs are roofs. But we know that material culture shapes the people in it. How did the dramatically limited light in these people’s lives affect their perception of color? How did the ongoing near-silence (no cars or planes, no electronics, no ringing phones or talking TVs) affect their response to a baby crying? Calf-deep in mud or straw most of their waking hours, how did they perceive the stone floor of a church?


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Day 7: Time Out for Trains

That sound you hear is Europe’s largest train museum calling me, right here in York. I didn’t even try to resist.

I spent most of today there, and barely scratched the surface of the place. The world’s first actual train (1831). The royal carriages designed by Queen Victoria and each of her various royal descendants, including Queen Elizabeth—truly palaces on wheels. The loco with the largest wheel ever (diameter 8.5’). The fastest steam train ever (125 mph). Dozens of glorious beasts with parts now all shiny, each one with a million soot-covered stories.

Specialty stuff: a hospital train that ferried the wounded away from WWI battlefields. The last steam locomotive ever built. A working turntable (with a cool demonstration). A diesel locomotive with the steel side panels cut away, exposing its innards. Perhaps best of all, a walkway built beneath a steam engine, providing a view of the machinery I certainly had never had before.

A knowledgeable and generous docent named David showed me around, his stories bringing the exhibits to life. He explained how a steam loco re-watered while driving 50 miles per hour, deftly sucking up thousands of gallons of water from strategically placed troughs along the tracks. “A train man had to be really good to manage that,” he understated. David also talked at length about the working partnership between driver and fireman. “The drivers made more money,” he said, “But they said the firemen had more skills.”

There was a huge exhibit about the Flying Scotsman, the name of both a famous train and a famous route—London-to-Edinburgh in just a few luxurious hours. After leaving active service the locomotive was almost scrapped. Public outcry (and private money) saved it—and a succession of famous owners have been exhibiting it (and losing money doing so) ever since.

The place was, of course, filled with kids. And although I didn’t enjoy their continuing squealing, I was glad they were there. We need to spark every generation’s engagement in the romance of this extraordinary technology that transformed the 19th century, making the 20th possible.

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Day 6: Medieval Abbeys, Connected By a Steam Train

Fully rested (and fully windblown), I finally bid farewell to the little seaside town of Redcar and headed south along the coast to another little seaside town, Whitby. Except this town hosted a blockbuster attraction—Whitby Abbey.

Whitby Abbey started as a 7th-century Christian monastery that later became a Benedictine abbey. It overlooks the North Sea in North Yorkshire, which was a key area of the medieval kingdom of Northumbria (which kept changing hands over centuries of border wars).

As we crested a small hill the abbey suddenly appeared, floating between earth and sky. It is absolutely magnificent—enormous yet graceful. Although less than half of it remains, the site can’t really be called the abbey’s “ruins,” because it’s perfect exactly as is. The soaring height and broad size are plenty to take in.

Because it was built and modernized over several medieval centuries, the abbey combines several building styles. John helped me see the difference between Early Gothic and the subsequent Decorated Gothic—I do love those fancy windows. Like so much of “English” culture, Gothic design had first been used in France, and was imported into England in the late 1100s.

It’s esoteric but of lasting significance: In 664 the abbey hosted the Whitby Synod to reconcile local Celtic and Roman Christian practices. The Roman practices won out, including the date of Easter, which was then set for succeeding millennia.

Continuing south toward York, I stopped at Kirkham Priory. Unlike Whitby, the place was empty—in fact, a small wooden admission gate was locked (a full hour ahead of the posted closing time), and in the tradition of the self-sufficient Augustinians who had founded the place in 1122, we climbed over the fence and strolled around.

There were fewer buildings than at Whitby and they were smaller, but the place had a dignified beauty of its own. On the front of the gatehouse I saw the armorials of the main 12th-century benefactors sculpted onto the stone.

Because of its isolation, sheer walls, and nearby lakes, the site was used to test the vehicles and tactics used in D-Day—supervised by Winston Churchill himself. And apparently John has been hired multiple times to reenact Churchill responding to that challenge.

Both Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Priory suffered similar fates when King Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries and seized all church land and property in the 1530s. The Catholic Church had owned about 1/3 of the country’s land, including its income (wool, wine, etc.), so seizing its property across the country created an enormous windfall for Henry.

And how had I travelled between Whitby and Kirkham? By steam train, a two-hour trip via the North York Moors historical railroad. I saw some lovely scenery inaccessible to cars, spoke at length to the on-board docent, heard the most beautiful 19th-century sounds of steam and rail, and got my share of soot on hair, clothes and hands. It was a slightly jarring interlude between medieval sites, but it was a calm two hours to reflect and relax.

Two revolutionary technologies: gothic architecture and the steam engine. Still very, very easy to admire each.

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Days 4 & 5: By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea…

I’m taking a break from the 15th century at a little seaside resort in 1962.

I had this brilliant idea of spending two days by the sea—walking for miles along a placid beach, sitting outside reading, after-dinner strolling through a quaint town. Well, note to self: the North Sea isn’t the Caribbean, ducky.

I’m in a gently shabby hotel in the gently shabby town of Redcar. My gently shabby room does face the sea—I’m close enough to see the sandpipers poking along just 25 feet away. But how windy is it here? Less than a mile away, clear as those birds, I can also see the silent sentinels of the offshore Teesside Wind Farm. Completed in 2013, the 27 vertical turbines are part of group of 40 such farms ringing the sea off the coasts of Germany, Denmark, Norway, and the UK.

Not exactly bikini countries, right?

I sat in the window of my room, reading, writing, and enjoying a cuppa. At high tide, the sea was rambunctious, white waves crashing against the wall of the two-lane road separating the water from my humble inn. Low tide, however, was a revelation: a quarter-mile of fine clean sand, lightly rippled by wind, leading right up to the water, now absolutely still.

So I bundled up and took a winter walk. It was, well, quite fresh out there. And glorious. Even when it (sigh) sprinkled a bit. And definitely when the sun came out, oblivious to the raindrops, which soon stopped. It was easy to imagine the burly Norsemen arriving here, wide-eyed, a thousand years ago—“Ay, Eric, pretty mild here!”
~ ~ ~
I couldn’t survive on just the traditional British food in the hotel, so I ventured into the little town a few times. It was mostly pubs, a few restaurants, and a bit of halfhearted commerce (including a barber shop called “The Barber Shop”). I ventured into a couple of small cafes over my two days here with mixed results. As is often true, the Asian place (here it was Thai, in Edinburgh, Indian) was best.

The tiny town was Central Casting come alive—twenty-something couples shepherding their three blonde children; elderly people calling each other Mum and Dad sipping pints at all hours; people smoking and speaking in accents so strong I could only understand half of what I overheard.

Across the two days, I asked locals their view of Brexit. Sometimes I didn’t even have to ask; as a foreigner I was sometimes enlightened on sight. The consensus here is that Brexit’s essential, and that Boris is heaven-sent. Why? To end ‘free movement’—“We can’t have the whole world just coming in here and living off Benefits,” as a taxi driver put it.

I didn’t argue, I just wanted to hear unedited opinions. So, let’s restrict the immigration of people like the Poles? “Nah, they’re OK, they work,” said a café manager. It was Middle Eastern people he was resentful about. And what about the predicted shortages of produce and medicine? “I don’t worry about all that international trade stuff,” he said.

Redcar is part of Britain’s depressed northern belt that hasn’t gotten much of the advantages of the 21st century. These people voted for the Brexit vision of turning the clock back a century to when Britain was powerful, self-sufficient, and everyone’s neighbor was, well, British. The world will never be that way again, of course.

If you haven’t been following Brexit, you might want to start. In just eight weeks Great Britain will start to collapse of a self-inflicted wound. Towns like Redcar will take it right back to 1962—years of agonizing slide into irrelevance, unemployment, bad food, and wondering where it all went wrong.

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