Archive for May, 2015


Dear friends and readers,

Jim used to have over his desk a copy of a New Yorker cartoon where you saw a man with a long set of fold down instructions — paper went down to the floor. He is studying them intently, he is puzzled. Next to him is a boy holding a ball, waiting. Dad and polite son.

Yesterday I received my E-Z thingamajig. Perhaps you will recall my description of what highways have become in my area since the extended use of E-Z passes for HOV lanes: “I understand WTF Fielding is on about in Tom Jones“.


I read the instructions and puzzled for quite a while about what they meant by clear plastic and switches as I could see neither. It had taken me phoning, and waiting my turn on the phone, after failing at the website in two different ways (a matter of two hours). Luckily I got a polite young man who filled out a form as he spoke. So I didn’t want to waste or goof on this thingamajig, and emailed Caroline to say as she was stopping by today to go with Yvette somewhere (an Awesome conference in DC) that I might need help with this object.

Caroline came and I asked her where was this clear plastic and switches. She first said the pouch the object came in was the clear plastic and I had bought a version of the E-Z pass without switches as just about all the time I would have less than 3 people in my car. (On the phone I had not been told that there were different kinds of E-Z passes there, so I assume the guy sent me what he thought appropriate when I told him my age and some of my circumstances.)

Well I went over to my car and still could not get the thingamajig to stick to the windshield. It took 2 trips back and forth to understand that what was meant by “the plastic” was a thin (to my eyes almost invisible) piece of plastic the velcro had on it that I was to peel off. Caroline explained that by mistake I took off the half of the sticky-block there to enable me to take off the E-Z pass and put it on the seat and not stick to the seat when I was in neighborhoods where I might worry someone would break into my car and steal my E-Z pass. I pointed out that “no where in the instructions was this mentioned.” Caroline replied by assuring me I would probably not be in neighborhoods where I would have to do this. (She ignored or didn’t hear or take seriously my objection). I replied to her in a way that similarly sidelined her utterance: “I never would have thought this train of thought in the first place when looking at this pass and my car.”

I got 800 out of 800 on my GREs in literature and 798 out of 800 on my GREs in math. Jim’s joke was “Ellen was always weak in math.” (He got 800 on both). Jim had had an smaller E-Z pass on the car I totalled last year. It looked different and was only for getting through toll booths with ease. How he mounted it I never knew. Now it takes much effort and my 37 year old daughter to get an E-Z pass onto my car so I too could join in the spectacle of inequality and whiz through the highway on two E-Z pass lanes and the toll boths while countless others were stuck in traffic jams getting nowhere on too few lanes and too few non E-Z pass toll booths. Because the instructions omit unwritten assumptions and codes of behavior I don’t have nor practice.

Ian contemplative … he is imagining he is with the people all around him, one taking the photo. He knows nothing of the exclusionary E-Z pass thresholds

Miss Drake

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Dear friends and readers,

As so many of my FB friends “liked” my comment on face-book last night around 10:

Just back from a full two hour show of Prairie Home Companion at Wolf Trap. I have not enjoyed something so much in a very long time. I learned to get there and back on my own. So if I can discover something else I will enjoy as much I’ll take myself again. Back home with cats,

I thought I’d expatiate a little. Although for what in retrospect seems for reasonably long times (more than an hour?) a long time ago (later 1970s) Jim and I used to listen to Prairie Home Companion on Saturday early evenings from some PBS radio channel; and Yvette tells me that Robert Altman’s last movie was not Gosford Park (forever memorable to me), but about Prairie Home Companion (with Meryl Streep no less), and she and I saw it, I had never seen the show live. So I bought a ticket and went.

If you haven’t seen it live, you are missing out. You have been listening to an weakened abridgement.

The show demonstrates the truth that live performance is irreplaceable. It’s hard to find words to characterize quite what this show is: a cross between religious revival (in feel and ritual observances, like hymn all sing together to start and all sing together to end, with an opening and final invocation), country music extravaganza (Grand Ole Opry as it used to appear on Channel 9, Metromedia on Sunday night TV in NYC), where the central singer has this resonant voice and seemingly relaxed emotional reach, whose tones vary between implicit shared compassion for us all, and disillusioned ironic quips. Keillor is the center and makes it — the radio show did have the essential thing that was for me the high points of the two hours — his monologues, which have the trick of registering a quiet wild anguish/despaire amid the platitudes of everyday life, very funny, rueful, and as ever contemporary. They are forms of therapy. He is ever self-deprecating, appears to wander about the stage in his cream-coloured suit, white dress shirt nicely-ironed, and red tie, red shoes, not sure what he will do next. A gift for having his finger on a mood and capturing it with a familiar phrase.

I didn’t realize the show was done as if it were a live radio show from the 1940s. He has a group of musicians, a group of sound makers, some fellow comedians, and the allusions were to the present president campaigns, with one young woman presenting herself first as Hilary and then these lunatic Republicans running against her. To tell the truth, the subversion is mild, if persistent. Lots of fun with the NSA. Maybe the reassurance comes from it being lots of fun to have skits about the difficulties of the surveillance people. As with radio, there is an on-going mini-series, this one a detective story mocking hard-boiled mystery thrillers. An allusion to a commercial for Powermilk biscuits (it’s become too much of a cliche). A big part is the music — the songs. There was a trio of soft-rock-country young women singers, who (we were told again and again) were just back from touring Spain and the UK. Since it was Memorial Day there was the US Navy Band playing rousing John Philip Sousa (I remember doing patterned dances with a couple of hundred girls in godawful uniforms in high school gym class) and a couple of familiar military melody sequences. Separate musicians from the band came out to play in front. Everything was carefully tailored so the patriotism was not modern day militarism: the high point was a rendition of “Tenting Tonight,” with a letter from Walt Whitman’s brother to him telling Whitman of his brother’s terrible days at Antietam (which he survived). The politics are homespun progressivism.

When I got there, and sat down, I realized I was just wretched. I had lost a friend the day before, all my fault. I couldn’t get myself to pack a proper picnic for myself (food remains a problem) but knew I should eat, and discovered I hadn’t left enough time to get to Wolf Trap, much less eat. I fear getting lost. But previous experience on this highway and my google map and garmin kept me getting there. The problem was the engineered traffic jam caused by the use of E-Z passes so as a person without one and on cut-down crowded roads (as the fairly free E-Z pass lanes had cars zipping by) I barely made it. Had I not had a ticket for Lot 1 (unknown to me) and thus been in close walking distance of the show I’d have missed the beginning. As it was, I was finding my seat as the first set of hymns were sung. Then I felt so alone, seemingly the one person for miles of seats without a partner or friend/s. I wasn’t sure why I had come. I wondered if it was again this business of doing what I thought I should do, what people say to do, what I’m supposed to enjoy and don’t.

But as Keillor came out and first wandered about the auditorium and then got onto the stage and began, I was slowly brought into it, and my mood altered. Not that any feelings were violated or even changed much. But when he got near the end and just before the final close and began to sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Coming for to carry me home,” I began to sing too.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Coming for to carry me home,
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

If you get there before I do,
Coming for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends I’m coming, too.
Coming for to carry me home.

I could see other people around me had entered into the spirit of this show in their ways, transcending or coming out of themselves. Being in the group, all encompassed by the music, was central to the feeling too. I expressed how I long to be carried home too, and when I got to my friends I sang “tell my friend I’m coming to him soon,” I longed to be carried where my beloved isn’t, join his presence wherever in oblivion, a symbolic act maybe (and I’m not a symbol type), but not endure endlessly his absence any more.

I love these negro spirituals as well as country music. The two fit, black and white, two sides of one American coinage.

The garmin it was that got me home. She kept saying “Turn right on Trap Road.” I did. And the so many miles to the ramp to 267E Washington, and after that there was one guess I had to do and I was lucky. So except for another engineered long wait to pay a toll, driving home was (as they say everywhere in NYC nowadays and according to Keillor elsewhere), “not a problem.” When I got home, I managed to eat a small sandwich and downed two glasses of wine watching the first episodes of Poldark 1975 and 2015. Then read in the NYRB and with a pill to bed and sleep.

Tonight Ian who I sometimes think is a demented cat is sitting squatting in the back bathroom with his string, old blue toy and a mussed-up rug in the back corner. Guarding them. From what it’s hard to say. I wish Ian could profit from a Prairie Home Companion.

Photo of Ian taken yesterday morning

I have to admit to myself that Jim would not have wanted to go. He had less tolerance for compromise as the years went on.

I saw my neighbor, Sybilla, across the street gardening today and went out to ask her if she liked Wolf Trap and did she think she might like to come with me a couple of times this summer. Yes, she said. She looked enthusiastic. She told of how she and her husband went to a Prairie Home Companion Show about 4 years ago — at Wolf Trap. What a good time they’d had. She just needs time ahead. She stipulated sitting out in the grass under the stars. (I bought myself a ticket for seat near the back I had thought, why I had access to that parking lot, but that’s fine. This time I’ll leave in plenty of time. I am trying to buy an E-Z pass.)

So I’m to find a couple of shows and bring them over and we’ll go together twice. Sybilla’s husband died 4 years ago of pancreatic cancer, terribly, at age 66. He had endured 10 months of dreadful (useless, counterproductive, prolonging-the-ordeal) treatments. Never got a chance to retire.

I listened to Amy Goodman tonight and in the spirit of Prairie Home Companion‘s news-reporting contemporaneity, I report that she reported:

U.S. Cancer Charities Accused of $187M Fraud

Four U.S. cancer charities are being accused of massive fraud. The Federal Trade Commission says the groups funneled some $187 million into top officials’ pockets. The charities are the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society. It could be one of the largest charity fraud cases of all time.

Are you surprised? I hope not. Were you fooled to think there is money put into fundamental research? Because cancer rates are shooting up 70%? Think of how much is charged for cancer surgeries, drugs, all the paraphernalia, equipment. Look at the huge profits to be made by the surgeons, drug people, physicians ordering poisons, with the proviso that they can’t predict how this will work.

My neighbor friend said that Keillor had a stroke a few years ago. I didn’t know. I don’t read The Writers’ Almanac regularly. I find the anthologies of poetry that Keillor has put together too conventional with too few women — I don’t know why he does that. He often chooses good poems for the almanac:

Do you know who you are

O you forever listed
under some other heading
when you are listed at all

you whose addresses
when you have them
are never sold except
for another reason
something else that is
supposed to identify you

who carry no card
stating that you are—
what would it say you were
to someone turning it over
looking perhaps for
a date or for
anything to go by

you with no secret handshake
no proof of membership
no way to prove such a thing
even to yourselves

you without a word
of explanation
and only yourselves
as evidence
— W. S. Merwin

I like how Keillor ends each of his online pieces: “Be well, do good work, stay in touch.” Last night he told us to “drive carefully, be patient, big traffic jam.”



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FullSizeRender‘ Sophie and I at the Metropolitan museum on Monday afternoon

Dear friends and readers,

Yes that’s another photo of me in a museum; this time with my friend, Sophie, at the bottom of the grand stairway at the Metropolitan Museum on Monday afternoon — we stood a long while in front of some Monets and Pissarros; we planned to spend Tuesday morning at the Whitney to see the new building and exhibit of the history of American painting and the museum’s collection (as if it were one), but found the Whitney was closed on Tuesday. (Later that day she did get to the Frick and mused surrounded by Boucher.) So we walked on the Highline park, and after walking about in the low areas (the village itself, shops and streets, and some originally beautiful churches still standing) had breakfast together.

I stayed at the Larchmont on West 11th on the advice of my friend, Diana; it’s relatively inexpensive, quiet, and comfortable enough. To have done with my Village adventures, I had a lovely dinner with another friend in Chapter One on Greenwich Avenue, and yet another long-time friend (on the Net, we met in person finally!) a hearty brunch at the French Roast.

The purpose of my visit was once again to go the Trollope annual dinner. Jim and I had gone the year Trollope on the Net was published, and I wrote and delivered at the Reform Club (Pall Mall, London) my “Partly Told in Letters: Trollope’s Story-Telling Art.” The Knickerbocker in NYC is now in a different place and I almost didn’t make it — taking a subway on the wrong side of the park and then resorting to Uber Cab to make it on time. This year John Wirenius who wrote the first true Trollope sequel, Phineas at Bay, gave a talk on the writing of his book, and since on Trollope19thCStudies we read the book and talked about it week-by-week, I wanted to meet him and to be there for his speech. I also renewed a couple of cherished and remembered friendships in person (since 2001 conducted by phone or email). Douglas Gerlach replaced Randy Williams as the president,and I met Doug’s wife — ate next to her. I can remember talking of Austen. Jim would have appreciated the wines. I liked the yummy vanilla ice cream.


I enjoyed it– people who can afford such an event but liking Trollope in all sorts of ways and talking of the books casually — but think in future I should try for the lectures (less dressing up and more genuine calm talk, especially about Trollope). I could come by Megabus of a morning, stay at the Larchmont, go the lecture in the evening, and if there is no good theater (after having tried to research this) or great movie I won’t see otherwise, or museum exhibit, or friend to see, come straight back the next day.

I had had an ordeal of an exhausting trip to get to NYC from DC since the Amtrak train accident (on the avoidable causes for which see John Nichols), traveling hard 9 hours, but with the help of a cab actually got to and saw Wolf Hall Part 2 on Saturday evening. I regret to have to say it was very poor: it may be that the vast theater will not allow intimate drama (no close-ups), but some imaginative effort could have made some substitute for the subjective filmic techniques of Straughan and Percival’s brilliant mini-series (including the ability of a film to get close to an unflinching view of a someone experiencing beheading); totally unnecessary was the way Anne was blackened and Cromwell simplified into a stiff Machiavel. I quickly saw the audience was older mainstream couples. Their intermission talk was dismaying; how bad a woman was Anne Boleyn seemed to be the moral some drew. This kind of adaptation gives a bad name to historical fiction.

I had intended to see The Heidi Chronicles but it was cancelled (for lack of audience — the repeatedly obtuse New Yorker critic, Hilton Alys treated its feminism as corny)

Perhaps the archly performative nature of the production was ironically appropriate to Mantel’s vision? (Bad joke alert.) While in my room or on a train I read straight through Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary Bring Up the Bodies, which I fear will be hard to do justice to in a blog: shall I read first a good biography of Thomas Cromwell, or Eric Ives’s Life and Death of Queen Anne (the stealth central character of the book), or turn to Diana Wallace’s The Woman’s Historical novel, British Women Writers, 1900-2000 to grasp its context, or maybe I should add to her memoir Giving up the Ghost and Eight Months on Gaza Street (a revelation of the underlying terror of living in a place like Saudi Arabia for the average citizen not even a woman) — the bleak dark center of apprehension about the nature of human beings’ relationships to one another needs none of these it might be said, nor the occasional moving poetry of Cromwell’s quiet voice turned steely criminal. You should feel fearful when you finish it.

Not that reality is trivial in comparison (it mirrors our world). As my train neared Baltimore on my way back to Alexandria, and I looked out the window to see miles of semi-abandoned streets and houses, I wondered why the choice has been acquiesced to allow a very few to live in super-luxury hidden away behind closed and locks walls of all sorts, with the rest holding onto tiny vantage places equally closed off within such wasteland landscapes. The wanton vile brutal destruction of Freddy Grey (killed as if he were some foldable animal) was distressing to watch, worse the full realization of how this kind of thing has been meted out something like twice a week for years on those black people in the US who don’t end up surviving for decades in appalling prisons.

I wish I could say David Hare’s Skylight (which on the spur of the moment, I fitted in on Sunday afternoon) more than made up for the disappointment of Saturday’s late evening, but it was another stiff performance: I noticed very favorable reviews. But Bill Nighy seemed unable to forget he was Bill Nighy and only became Tom Sergeant towards the every end of the play; one of the best moments was Carey Mulligan as Kira his disillusioned girlfriend mocking his (usual) artifical shrugs and gestures. The play itself moved me: Kira has been his younger mistress, a close friend of the family until his wife Alice discovered they were lovers; Kira felt all she could do was desert the whole family she had been undermining but in the intervening three years of no contact, Tom’s wife had died of cancer: he deserted her too, physically after setting her up in a beautiful room with a vast glass skylight. The confrontations with death in the talk, and the ironic wit towards all sorts of cant conventions (Tom would like gardening to be made illegal) could have been moving had the theater been smaller. I was so aware of how fake the experience felt as a whole, from the jostlings of the audience to the audience laughing at the least excuse for a joke which both sets of actors played to (in both plays this was so).


A rare quiet moment of genuine feeling only intermittently worked up to The city seemed to me sans Jim crowded, dirty, old, noisy, people struggling as best they can to carve out some modicum of quality life here and there in the crevices. I did find some food to eat now and again in not-such-expensive restaurants, two hearty breakfasts, one good dinner (where individual food items were recognizable, as eggs, bread, a piece of honest chicken plainly cooked). But mostly the eateries in NYC present the same hideous concoctions that I have noticed pass for food nowadays in most restaurants so I spent the usual long hours hungry, with styrofoam cups of coffee (sickening after a while) to get me through. I had a hard time getting cabs to stop for me; they kept shooing me away. I wondered if I look poor; was it a woman alone? One cab driver looked worried lest I not pay him. I discovered Uber cab operates in Manhattan by cruising (the hectic pace of life seems to preclude people standing and waiting for a cab to come using a cell phone app map) because they were willing to stop when I found myself (a couple of times) far away from where I needed to be at a certain time. I did use the subway and got quite good at the IRT lines, could tell north from south and east from west after a while. I kept in contact with Net friends through email on my cell phone mostly.

EllenHighLine (1)
Me at Highline park just before bidding adieu to Sophie and hurrying back to Penn Station to catch a train I remembered Jim again, moments here and there — on highline park the day of my mother’s funeral with Caroline and Yvette.

I was not so desperate as I have been traveling; after all NYC is the place I grew up in, know physically well (the Larchmont resembles the inside of my house in some ways). I still longed intensely to get home again — as if it is a substitute for him. I had left as soon as I could directly before Tuesday noon by taking a cab from the highline park to Penn Station — getting home to my cats by 4:30.

Both cats came to the door as I came in and have stayed close to me ever since. I missed them too, especially at night and in the early morning. Ian did sleep with Yvette, but Clarycat just was at a loss and kept to herself at night. She is sitting close to me now, nudging, putting her paw on me to pay attention and I am.

For tomorrow and on and off for four days I shall try to rest. I just about stumbled into the train home and my ankles now feel very weak. I am badly in need of rest, regular food and quiet.


Retro- and prospective: Last week had been hectic with my two final lectures and a fine (enjoyable) concert by the aging pianist of popular music, John Eaton, the way the OLLI people at AU ended their term (my class on the first 4 Poldark books went very well), and a luncheon for me with the OLLI people at Mason. This will give you an idea of what John Eaton was like — and the taste of people at AU:

Very pleasant, moving, touching, invigorating:

I shall distract and enjoy myself this summer teaching Framley Parsonage at the OLLI at Mason where I sense I will have a number of students who read The Warden, Barchester Towers, and Dr Thorne with me. In the fall I’ll do a partial repetition of my Poldark course this spring at AU: only 2 of the novels to fit the new series of 8 episodes for Ross Poldark and Demelza (and to fit in 7 weeks). At luncheon I was assured if I played a whole episode for a session and left the left over 40 minutes for discussion that would be fine, so while I’ll do some history, I will be comparing the two film adaptations, and perhaps write a proposal to do a paper on the Poldark films at the ASECS next spring in Pittsburg: For Fall 2015:

The Poldark World. In this course we’ll read Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza, the first two of the twelve novel series, and we’ll watch and compare episodes from the first and second Poldark mini-series (1975-76, 2015). The first two Poldarks are brilliantly realized regional romances, excellently researched historical novels dramatizing later 18th century politically radical movements, medicine and, mining, prisons, custom and law and smuggling. Written in the aftermath of World War Two, the books mirror issues of concern to that war-torn world, and the 1970 and 2015 adapt them to speak to issues of the 1970s and 2015. We will treat the novels and films as historical fiction, creating usable pasts across 70 years. Suggested editions: Ross Poldark, Demelza. NY: Sourcebooks, 2009/2010, or London & NY: PanMacmillan, 2008. 7 Sessions, beginning the week of Sept 28th and ending Nov 11th.

I should stress how much I continue to enjoy the Poldark books and want to read more of Winston Graham’s mystery fiction. Just now listening in my car to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as read by Ken Zanziger (for AU in the fall) — I sort of enjoy it.  And I’ll try seriously to think about colonialism in Trollope as reflected in his Australian or other travel books (including the fiction set in English new colonies) and write a paper deliverable inside twenty minutes.

Yvette and I will participate as we can in the summer activities of DC (Fringe Festival, this coming Saturday I will drive myself to Wolf Trap to watch and hear Garrison Keillor). I’ve got to go to City Hall as I discovered I may be eligible for tax relief on this house and property — that’ll be Thursday.

This will be my second summer without Jim, the third since he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I keep him with me in my heart.


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A recent photo of Ian high on his cat tree near the mantelpiece

Visitor:  ‘You will feel a gap in your life’ … Demelza: ’tis more than a gap …  ‘ (the cant of condolence answered in Warleggan, Bk 1, Ch 4, p 55)

“How doth the busy bee improve each shining hour …” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Dear friends and readers,

This weekend we managed to improve a number of our hours. On Friday night 31 years ago Yvette was born, after a protacted seige of labor, C-section, hemmorhage, and blood tranfusion for me, and tests for her that wrongly discovered she was in danger of a fatal cat disease so an ICU unit for her, needles in her tiny feet, and then when she forgot to breathe, an apnea monitor for the next four months. Caroline was lost to view and Jim went wild with grief. We weathered it, just.

On Friday night the three of us now left went to the Olive Garden and had a yummy meal and talked and laughed. Today Yvette and I went to a local cinema to see a second film adaptation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

1967 Christie as Bathseeba, ludicrous seething-aggressive, with a lamb (looked stuffed)

2015 Carey Mulligan as the same, rather witty-grated upon, alert, with Gabriel’s dog as second center

I’ve seen it twice before: once with Jim in the 1970s in a movie-theater (complete with a ten minute intermission between two-hour segments) because he so liked Julie Christie; and then again in the mid-1980s with Yvette and Jim having rented a DVD and having a color TV. Yvette still remembered it today; all I can recall is we saw it again and Jim could scarce understand why he had been so infatuated. Well the new rendition is very good, though both are Hardy by way of D.H. Lawrence; I will recommend seeing it, and rereading the book on Austen Reveries in the next couple of days. Yvette has begun working on another song, carries on with her novel, and Caroline, following Jim’s perverse bee, relaxed from Constant Writing.

For the rest when I’m not reading, writing, working towards teaching and otherwise like the exemplary busy bee (which Jim used to quote in the perverse version), the experience of widowhood now more than a year and six months after my beloved died, is of a silence without borders. It is endless and everywhere and goes deeper and spreads further and feels hard in the bearing of it as time goes on. This increase in iron shot through life’s experience comes partly from the sense I feel increasing from others’ implicitly (as usual unwritten codes enforced by expressions, gestures, silence) and explicitly (sometimes to me astonishingly, shamelessly I feel, voiced) that the past doesn’t matter, and memories should be erased. Get rid of memories’ objects. Then what are you left with? But to answer such a command, is dialoguing with, entering into it. As if memories could be erased, as if one could live extracted from one’s past.

Specifically in this instance of course the point made when I am around (advice given!) and at me is implicitly the person who is dead doesn’t count or matter anymore because he doesn’t literally exist and can’t know what you are doing now; one of them someone who supposedly believes in an afterlife. The person who isn’t there is irrelevant for everyday experience; it’s only when he or she exists elsewhere that the effect of his existence is acknowledged. I know that most people seem not to use words meaningfully, not think what their words mean when they say them or their implications, only the approved social message they think implicitly conveyed by it. So let’s think about that message.

Each minute of our existence comes out of the memory of the previous; we define and understand our identities, do what we do today because of what happened last week, last month, last year, memories from decades of life back to early childhood. Death (to quote the title of Rowling’s non-Harry Potter novel) is not a casual vacancy.

I watched Ian the other day, pick up a favorite string toy — it is just a string with a kind of knot at its end — in his mouth. He trotted along with it through the dining room into and out of the living room, into the hall which goes into the back of my house. There he did drop it and appeared for a moment or more to forget it was there, shake himself, turn about, look at Yvette’s door, for the umpteenth time not liking it to be shut.

How he and Clarycat both behave when confronted with open doors they are not sure will stay open once they go through

But then as it were resolutely, he picked the string up again, and carried it into my bedroom, through to the bathroom — which is where I often find it. Later I came in and found both rugs all mussed up, with the string entwined somehow in them. He had proceeded to play with his toy. He acts on memory which enables him to plan and put into effect a desire to do something, be somewhere, feel something. How he loves to be high up on his cat tree, feeling safe and looking about to see far and wide across the house. The mantelpiece has fun objects sometimes too.

His personality emerges now that I am with him without any second human presence continually. He meows far more than Clarycat: I will come into a room and there he is waiting, and as I come in he meows. I’ve read meowing is the cat’s imitation of talk to human beings. They don’t meow that way to one another. He is trying to tell me something. Sometimes it’s “pay attention to me:” then he usually makes some rustling mew noise. Sometimes it’s “play with me:” then he comes over and puts his paw on my arm. Sometimes he has that string toy near him or is sitting on it, and the message is “play with the string with me.”

Clarycat does neither of these things — though she is direct, comes up on me and hunkers down cuddling up, and using her paws to clutch at me, pushing her face under my typing arm,nudge, nudge, nudging me with her wet nose and when I look down making intense eye contact with my eyes. Both will cry — separately, this to me distressing caw-sound and I go over and ask them, “what is wrong pussycat?” and cry back, slightly frantic, “don’t cry, it upsets me.”

Have I mentioned my grandchildren have four paws?

Sent me today by Caroline because (she wrote) “it’s funny … ” It is.


Trollope’s 200th birthday passed April 24th and it seems lots of people acted on memories they didn’t even have. Dinners, parties, lectures, and an announcement by Julian Fellowes at a particularly posh one (Susan Hampshire was there, so too John Major) held in the Athenaeum to which Trollope once belonged, a building he may have known part s of. Fellowes has signed a contract with ITV to do a three part mini-series film adaptation of Dr Thorne. The New Yorker felt it had to observe the birthday of this famous Victorian novelist and Adam Gopnik was given the task of reading enough of Trollope to write an essay. He called or his editors called it “Trending Trollope,” and indeed Hashtag-AnthonyTrollope (or ATrollope or just Trollope) was trending on twitter over the course of several days.

Gopnik had read enough Trollope to make some intelligent remarks and emerged with a man who shares many of our supposedly liberal enlightened attitudes. He says the form of these books takes is the novels of manners. Not all but any means, but many do, so, What is a novel of manners? Gopnik neglects to tell us. It’s a phrase used for English novels in general – from Barchester Towers to Brideshead Revisited. American novels are said to be symbolic: man called Ahab goes about chasing whales called Moby Dick. Women wear red letter A’s under their blouses and stand on scaffolds at midnight. William Styron wrote a hilarious play about a hospital for sick military men: each man wore a yellow Letter V under his shirt. Novels of manners dramatize customary codes of acting, behaving and thinking, and some of those who read Barchester Towers with me this term agreed that no police are needed in Barchester Towers because the codes are enforced and policed by everyone in the community.

In his Annoying the Victorians, James Kincaid suggest this category is a pious fraud. What Trollope does that makes him worth reading – and other novelists worth reading – is to expose these systems, and the values attached to them, and show how they work to protect the positions of those in power and in this novel at any rate how they hurt vulnerable others, those without rank, status, money, outcasts, misfits. The whole category is part of a “pious fraud” which allowed good novels like this to slip under the radar of the Cornhill disciplinary image of this is what upper middle class life looks like and to be part of it you must obey and be like. The problem is the way people often gossip about the characters as if they were people is ideologically conservative: characters are supposed to be admirable within the terms of the code so some readers use the exposure of the code to reinforce it. What Trollope does is he makes these codes talk, everyone is forced out of hiding. He is showing us bogus ways of thinking about what happens and why these things happen. He is exposing to us that why and how. Put case Dr Thorne, through characters like Miss Dunstable, Sir Roger Scatcherd, and Dr Thorne himself.

By digressions we find directions out (somewhere in Hamlet someone says this). This blog is partly about (what Dr Thorne is partly about) how customary codes of acting, behaving and thinking police people, hurt and maim them, leave them to turn to borderless silence.

Trollope also took up the 1st 3 articles in The Times literary Supplement for April 24, 2015; Two illustrations provided, perhaps not well known, the first not by both Phiz and Miss E. Taylor (as it was labelled); just Miss E. I add the correction because in the second of the articles there are several errors by Gerri Kimber on a new edition of the Autobiography edited by Nicholas Shrimpton (“Never a slave to it”),  If you make a very narrow definition of “major Victorian novelist,” he’s almost right that Trollope was the single Victorian well-known writer to write an autobiography — except he forgets Hardy and Edmund Gosse and Margaret Oliphant. Substitute writer and there’s Ruskin, Mill, and several others (see AOJ Cockshut, The Art of Autobiography, 19th & 20th centuries).

The first is by John Sutherland (still there, not yet erased!) centered on the new edition of The Duke’s Children and is (as usual) very interesting. The opening on AT’s last years of ill health fully described (not common), Sutherland suggests Trollope himself sort of elected to cut DC, some reasons for this, and he offers a reading of the novel “A father’s dilemma.” The third by Matthew Ingleby, “Town and Country” on new editions of all six Barsetshire novels, with commentary to show these new editions take exemplarily frame the books by our contemporary way of seeing Trollope, with Dinah Birch covering Amelia Roper much more (from Carolyn Dever); the theme of ‘precarious livings and tenancy” dominates Framley Parsonage (ed Katherine Mullin and Francis O’Gorman).  Simon Dentith, using “ground-breaking Queer Trollope by Holly Furneaux for Dr Thorne, tells us the novel presents an alternative or elective family group. There we are. In Barchester Towers we can console ourselves with the “delightfully unmarriageable Bertie Stanhope.” We’re told about continuing radio dramatizations, and although Trollope’s birthplace has been literally knocked down (replaced by new structures) he is now the subject of papers in conferences.


An illustration sketching part of the place in London where Trollope was born in 1815, a place whose buildings are not so wholly configured as to erase any cement-and-mortar evidence of what Trollope’s world experienced on that site in 1815.


This is for all those widows, widowers, people who have experienced loss and are asked to make their fundamental situation and realities invisible, to rip away the instincts of their hearts, by the assertion (hearts, realities, situation) they don’t exist, don’t matter. Yes the great fact of his death (and our mutual failure to act effectively in the crisis of our existence, from which there is now no retrieval) or whatever your grief or loss was — might seem to make small these codes, but if the codes don’t matter Trollope certainly wasted much ink and paper in many books analyzing, exposing and — let’s be as for Veritas as Miss Dunstable — in his most powerful novels attacking them.


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Takasi Shimura as Watanabe (Ikiru)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been for months it seems writing about a subgenre of novels I called “grief memoirs,” some are ostensibly non-fiction and may be in verse (Donald Hall’s Without), others novels (Toibin’s Nora Webster), memoir’s (Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking), sermon disguised as science (Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die). I have bought myself an art history book, T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, which I found focuses on precisely a couple of Poussin’s paintings that Jim loved so, and will come back to that another time. For now I add movies, one 24 hours after the first viewing has worn off seems to me as meaningful and beautiful too (deep, true, subtle, complex and complicated emotions) as any list of best prose or poetry books you can find.

The trouble with hyperbole is when you want to single out something you can be at a loss for words. After I watched Ikiru by Kurosawa last night (Yvette told me about it over supper last week) I was at a loss for words to find adequate expression. Maybe unforgettable, maybe so direct with true emotions which in life we are taught by experience and our own need to guard ourselves from showing or even feeling, we hardly ever acknowledge openly and yet are in such need of — for ourselves, to help others, to be with, and to experience from others. I had never heard of Ikiru though I had seen (years ago with Jim in a tiny movie-house in Leeds, for 12 and 6) Rashomon. So here’s wikipedia for the vanilla version (it lacks stills), and Ebert, headed with the justly famous moment of the man at the close of the film on a swing.

The story: Kanji Watanabe, an old man who has spent 30 years in a dull office where work is meaningless, and promotions come by staying put and doing nothing that displeases those above you, discovers he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live, probably 6 months. This is 1952 and there is no treatment at all in Japan. He is not given the dignity of truth: told he has a mild ulcer and must try to eat as long as he can, but he has had a conversation with someone who told him just the same words from a doctor means you are dying of stomach cancer. Already he can’t eat much, vomits most of what he takes in. Shimura is a powerful actor; he is unashamed to put the most vulnerable abject emotions on his face: in his eyes come and go the terror of death, but since no one in the doctor’s office will admit he’s dying, and he cannot bring himself to tell the cold son, he has no one to express himself to.


Watanabe has spent 30 years in an office where nothing is done and any one trying to get help is given the runaround. Like Dickens’s Nobody’s fault – now not to get anything done. he has this intense revulsion and for several nights goes about with two young people, a man who is a novelist and has compassion for him when he tells the man he is dying of stomach cancer, a young girl who he is driven to tell as she tires of him and grows frightened. He tells her he has spent these long nights with her because her youth and intense aliveness makes him feel alive again, younger (Jim used to say that’s why older men left their wives for younger women). She calls him creepy. He is creepy looking. now unshaven, desperate, deeply hungry in his soul.


The nights are awful: hugely overcrowded places where people are in an endless circle of useless (meaningless) activities, all smiling and seeming to enact pleasure. Horrible nightmares really, but the old man tries to enjoy himself — his old hat is destroyed by a passing car and the young man helps him buy a snazzy one. At home his relationship with his son and daughter-in-law has become cold; they resent him, they want his money when he dies; they leap to the worst conclusions: that he is after the young girl sexually; that he is suddenly becoming a layabout; he is disgracing them the son says. He should stick to the job and do what’s wanted.


He remembers things as he is going about at the clubs and in the night streets — seeing couples, seeing groups of people. In a flashback, wee see him and his son in a car with his parents — they are driving to or from his wife’s funeral. She died very young. All crowded in. The feel so impersonal because there is a driver in front too. He remembers intensely happy moments as in later years alone he watched his son achieve this or that. He remembers his son making gestures of love to him. Oh it is just heart-breaking.


Well, when the young girl says she has had enough he remembers — finally — a group of women who had come to beg for having a huge cesspool near where they live fixed, and then if possible build a playground. We cut to his funeral where a Deputy Mayor and high functionaries are with his son and daughter-in-law. The DM is angry because people are saying the old man built the playground; he did not.

As these people talk, the women come in who he helped, and they cry and put incense in front of the Watanabe’s picture. As they sit there for a couple of hours and then are replaced by close co-workers, the story of how the playground came to be is told in flasbacks. The co-workers include a few people who have intelligence and hearts and under the influence of lots of liquor they realize the old man was transformed all at once, put together memories and realize he was dying of stomach cancer.


In the flashbacks we see that as a minor Chief Something-or-other he can and does sign for this project to be done, but to get it done requires terrific terrible patience, bowed over before so many mean hostile irritated selfish people — really it’s all about selfishness, how selfish we all learn to be.

Scene after scene of him bent over begging, of people — restaurant owners infuriated because they want the space for their profit-making establishment (doubtless another of the rooms crowded with people supposed to be enjoying themselves), whom he lurches past.


He is endlessly hunched over, whether walking the streets at night with the two companions, with his office workers begging for playground or with his son (a huge newspaper dividing them) or daughter-in-law, resentment itself.

It’s a parable. Alas it’s improbable that he would have gotten so many people to agree and act just to get rid of him. This is where we are in the improbable. By his open vulnerabilty he gets everyone to act to make him go away. We see him on the site. But Kurosawa has forestalled our objections.

Several times in the film he or others is nearly run over by cars and/or huge trucks as in one of the site scenes.

The workers getting ever drunker remember seeing the old man on a swing looking happy one night in the rain with the playground all around him — that is the moment of the miraculous serenity. When the co-workers are talking and one denies the old man had stomach cancer, says he is putting together a story that didn’t happen that way, it was by chance it was achieved, for other practical reasons it was done, because the DM had an election, another worker looks at him. He doesn’t believe this: the old man was an inane fool. The worker says if that is so, there is nothing but this dark place (as life, for life). The worker begins to cry. So if we rule out Kurosawa’s story, we are left bottomlessly bereft.

As all who have seen the film recall we switch to the old man swinging on the swing. It is night and raining. Kurosawa manages this shimmering beauty in the texture of what we are seeing. The old man sings a brief slow melancholy ballad which he had gotten one of the musicians on the nights he went out to play: life is brief, it urges you to enjoy it while you are young. My favorite of the many stills taken from this scene is one where we see the old man from the side, swinging, singing.

From what he sees at the funeral the son gradually realizes that he misunderstood totally, especially (the film continually does this, provides a mean motive for what is happening) as when he gets home, his wife finds the old man left him and her his whole pension. One of his grief feelings is clearly from his now being left with irretrievable remorse. He cannot undo the life they led.

He is intensely hurt his father never told him he had stomach cancer. But everything all around them pushed the old man to tell only the two semi-strangers at night in moments of sudden anguish, and the girl does not react well. The character who reacts best over the whole film to this news is the young man the first night, this novelist who can’t get his novels published, who looks poor and awful and who we at first fear will cheat the old man, but does not.


It is he who helped the old man buy himself the new hat. That hat all battered is in the son’s hands as the film ceases. This is, ladies and gentlemen, an affirmative film.

Someone in the group at the funeral asserts he has seen Watanabe walking on the bridge over the playground, wandering among the children. We see them in the office and the co-worker who cried sees another group of people in need of help come in and at first stands up to try to do something for them. But no one stands with him. He soon sits down.


How long will the playground last? who will mend it when things break? these children will grow into the adults we saw late at night wandering wildly.

The film’s last image is of a man in shadows standing on the bridge looking down: is it the co-worker who cried? Watanabe’s ghost? if so, this is a a redemptive ghost moment: most tales come out of the irretrievability of a life’s experience. But it’s not clear what we see.

A larger perspective: the film shows Japan after WW2: the devastation of the bombing from the Allies, dreadful before the atom bombs hit.


I felt I ought to write a novel about some of things I carry on thinking to myself and feeling since Jim died but when I once tried it came out so raw (and grim) I had to stop. What is astonishing is the control in the film which makes the surface cool and produces these capabilities of human hearts in the midst of a society desolate of uncorrupted structures for people to relate to one another too, instead with structures which reinforce the worst feelings of materialism and superficial gaiety.

Maybe in Wolf Hall there are in it, due to Rylance’s presence, tone, face, moments of deep gravitas, projections of still true emotion, that reach near what flowers in Ikiru.

Last night I dreamt of Jim, it was disturbing because the dream was he was back but with the cancer. Probably I was longing to have him back with me on any terms. Yes I can survive — I have conversations with people where I gather I am expected to have “gotten over what happened” by now. That is, by those who have never had such a loss or have never felt life at its core. Those who have know better.


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Dear friends and readers,

Yvette has made another YouTube of herself singing, this time Comes and Goes in Waves.

A Greg Laswell song, here are the first two stanzas of the lyrics:

This one’s for the lonely
The one’s that seek and find
Only to be let down
Time after time

This one’s for the torn down
The experts at the fall
Come on friends get up now
You’re not alone at all.

The last year and one half has changed me, even some fundamental conceptions, what I see. Or maybe it’s that what I see I used to apprehend intellectually. Now I experience the nature of people’s non-experience and experience of, non-relationship and relationship with one another feelingly..


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Dear friends and readers,

I wanted to celebrate this ancient ritual day which the international socialist, labor and workers’ movement around the earth took as their commemorative day by linking in a blog I wrote here during the high point of the Occupy Wall Street era, when (it seemed) all over New York City there were parades, picnics, singing, speeches in honor of the day, and as a mode of strengthening ties among the 99% as the OWS movement so memorably called us all. But like Amazon (no longer a place you can go to to see what books are in print, available from all booksellers registering with this company), Google has so corrupted its engine I can no longer find my blogs by typing in strings of letters — or for that matter research any topic generally (all I get are the commercial sites Google hopes to make money from or are tied to Google to generate eyeballs). I’m sure I did write such a blog here.

This was discouraging, but I did find a blog I wrote on LiveJournal May 1, 2012. And I found this record of a full day’s schedule in NYC on May 2012. But I resolutely told myself there was a time I could not reach anyone at all beyond those in my house or a few friends I might see around May 1st.

So some signs of hope: Bernie Sanders declared his candidacy for the president of the United States. I’ve sent him a small donation, endorsed him, and shared one of the announcements. Even if he does not win (and in the New Yorker he was characterized as someone ineligible to run as the laws the US are set up to prevent anyone of integrity running), he will bring into the public conversation central issues and move Hillary Clinton (we may hope) to make promises and shape her agenda to a more humane decent one. From the mainstream online press, the CNN interview, and from Amy Goodman’s interview of Ralph Nader on this.

Today 6 of the police officers who together were responsible for the hideous death (screaming in an agony of pain as his spinal cord was severed) of Freddie Grey in Baltimore last week were indicted for homicide. Even if the later trial does not result in a conviction, this is significant. It’s apparent for a number of years now police have been trained to shoot first with impunity (not worry about the consequences to themselves). This is a moment to feel some hope for change from murdering black and minority people — and treating any poor or white people with disrespect. Read Ta Nehisi-Coates on where the plunder and invisible violence lies everywhere.

Mothers day for a portion of the thousands of women whose sons are dead from police killings:

Read about Valerie Bell’s son’s murder, November 25, 2006

A whole host of issues may be brought in to change: the mass incarceration of black men, the horrible conditions of our prisons for anyone in them, the draconian sentences which destroy lives. I saw the first article I’ve seen by a respected judge questioning the idea that apparently enough middle class white people believe and the priorities acting on such a judgement assume: that locking up for life or decades black people will directly decrease serious or trivial street crime: “The Silence of the Judges” by Jed Rakoff (NYRB, May 21, 2015).

In a world wide bleak landscape, these developments are small and local, but they are signs that the huge percentage of people so suffering in the present economic and political climate can make their will felt through the legal and judicial and electoral systems of given countries. I’ve not mentioned (as I’ve not been writing anything about politics lately) how Syriza winning Greece is significant and the courage they have shown in their attempts to turn back the clock on the punitive austerity measures that the people now running the EU and World Bank are perpetrating.

Words matter of course. Here in the US the some few years ago now supreme court defined money as free speech (Citizens United) so the more money a group can give to a candidate or use in an election the more free speech they’ve exercised. Then this past year they defined discrimination as religious liberty (Hobby Lobby) so now in many localities in the US Republicans are passing laws on behalf of people’s right to discriminate. This past week the Republicans in Congress tried to pass a bill they can impose on DC to allow employers not to pay for women employees’ health insurance; on that principle they could fire her for private decisions with her doctor). We know the 8th amendment (bill of rights, anyone?) where the gov’t is forbidden to bankrupt individuals has been gutted; the 2nd perverted, the 1st and 4th nullified.

Muriel Rukeyser did not give up hope and in August 2012 I wrote a foremother poet blog about her, quoting some of her greatest poems, including the famous “I lived in the century of world wars” and from “Kathe Kollwitz.” To these I add another:

This morning

Waking this morning,
a violent woman in the violent day
Past the line of memory
along the long body of your life
in which move childhood, youth, your lifetime of touch,
eyes, lips, chest, belly, sex, legs, to the waves of the sheet.
I look past the little plant
on the city windowsill
to the tall towers bookshaped, crushed together in greed,
the river flashing flowing corroded,
the intricate harbor and the sea, the wars, the moon, the planets,
all who people space
in the sun visible invisible.
African violets in the light
breathing, in a breathing universe.    I want strong peace,
and delight,
the wild good.
I want to make my touch poems:
to find my morning, to find you entire
alive moving among the anti-touch people.

I say across the waves of the air to you:
today once more
I will try to be non-violent
one more day
this morning, waking the world away
in the violent day.

Clarycat last month


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