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Archive for June, 2019


A flowering bush in my front garden

“Sitting alone in a room reading a book, with no one to interrupt me. That is all I ever consciously wanted out of life.” — Anne Tyler’s novel, Celestial Navigations

Friends,

The quotation that begins this blog comes from a long wonderful thread we had on Trollope&Peers in which members told one another about ourselves: it was headed: “Introductions,” but since we all knew one another in some ways, what we were really doing was telling of the significant choices and moments and the roles we played in the social world in our pasts (where you a librarian? a musician? a computer software specialist? and many other jobs), and to some extent why, and how, and where, and also why we post to one another, read and watch movies together, why we read one another’s posts (and blogs too). It was a deeply inspiriting conversation to begin a new season together. This list or our group has been going in one form or other since 1995 or 1997 depending on whether you want to count the beginning on a usenet site (majordomo software) as simply “Trollope” or our breakaway to a site run by Mike Powe with the more coherent explicit name Trollope and His Contemporaries (Trollope-l). So 24 or 22 years; with a few of our original 11-12 having died, and many changes in people, and at least 5 different places in cyberspace. Someone summed up what I said of my “career goal” with the Anne Tyler utterance.


Bookermania

It’s odd to imply (by my header) that summer has just started, for I’ve had my Cornwall early summer holiday, and now the first course I was scheduled to teach (at OLLI at AU, The Mann Booker Prize: Short and Short-listed) is over. I think the class went splendidly for all of us there — we began with 40 and about 35 stayed the course, everyone seemed to be deeply engaged by the books and enjoyed the movies, especially J L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Pat O’Connor and Simon Gray’s film. We had new insights into Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and people loved that film too (I showed clips). The applause and praise were music to my soul, and (not to be too ethereal) I had again cleared over $300 in the honorarium envelope I was given in the last session as a parting gift.

A course I was taking came to an end too: Hitchcock films, four of them: the teacher is gifted in his ability to analyze the films (he had studied these for years) and prompt many people in a class to talk. He assigned four (Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Psycho). He demonstrated that as film art, they are fascinating experiences, lending themselves to Freudian psychoanalysis, and very intricate aesthetically, but (I think) did not prove his case that they are meant to expose and critique fundamental patriarchal and cruel paradigms that shape human lives through customs and laws. Yes Hitchcock has a gift for intuiting what is unnerving, uncanny, and presenting the amorality and appetites of people, but he is also misogynistic, homophobic, enjoys marshaling stories and images that prey on, do hostile mischief against the peace of his audience.

I watched six Hitchcock movies this time altogether. I added two to those the teacher discussed (voluntarily — as extras) The Lady Vanishes, Vertigo; and two I fell asleep on: 39 Steps and The Trouble with Harry, i.e., what shall we do with this corpse of a man who had a stroke after his silly wife hit him over the head with a milk bottle. You have to admit this was a mighty amount of film watching — I did it all after 11 at night. I have also seen and remember Marnie (very well, I’ve read a book in it) and The Birds (the latter of which is especially cruel — perhaps to the birds traumatized to behave that way too); vaguely I remember Rebecca; of the TV program Alcoa Presents many years ago I remember being frightened and Hitchcock getting a kick out of frigthenting people with uncanny stories that could arouse their atavism. So I did give Hitchcock a fair shake.

Of all ten I now remember the only one I enjoyed was The Lady Vanishes. I could say why I didn’t like each of them, but it’s a thankless task. Let me just write of Psycho and The Lady Vanishes.

I felt in the case of Psycho that Catherine MacKinnon’s argument that violent pornography aimed at hurting women violates real women’s rights to life, liberty and safety and should be controlled is well taken. It’s a mean cruel picture where a reductive Freudian explanation for people’s sexual and emotional misery is used to make a story that exemplifies that paradigm; after the homosexual man dressed as his hag-mother murders the fleeing woman in her shower, a psychiatrist is produced who explains what we have seen by the myth that was used to put the story together.


May Whittie, Margaret Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes)

As for The Lady Vanishes, the film centers on an older woman (played by Dame May Whitty) who vanishes and turns out to be a working spy for the UK gov’t; she is rescued from murder by the heroine (Margaret Lockwood) who will not believe the woman never existed, and her witty romantic male companion (Michael Redgrave). There is light good-natured (!) comedy; an unusual (for the time) use of camera tricks of all sorts, some beautiful filming of sets and scenes. As in other movies of this era, central is the danger and excitement and “awesomeness” of a train all the characters are on.

This film is not misogynistic at all — it has several brave women who are treated with dignity and respect. A sort of jokey-ness surrounds sex and the men are not predators. Nor are they little boys gone wrong, or wronged, or super-vulnerable or intent on controlling the identity and body of the heroine. The heroine was going to marry for money and rank but is very reluctant and in the end marries the hero because she likes him as a companion and he her.


1972 cast — that’s Diana Quick in the key role of Marion Halcombe


2018 — Jessie Buckley and Dougray Scott as Marion and Laura

Very good hours went into reading (with friends on Trollope&Peers @ groups.io Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White, which I now think an underrated masterpiece, and watching both the 1972 and 2018 BBC five part serial dramas. I will be blogging on this on EllenandJim have a blog, two. We are about to begin Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, a bit early for yet another Little Women movie, we have been told is coming out next Christmas: directed by Gerta Gerwig, with Saonise Ronan as Jo, Meryl Streep as Aunt March (this is what age does to us). I’m just ending Rioux’s brilliant Writing for Immortality (again full blog to follow separately on Austen Reveries, two). Soon to try on Womenwriters@groups.io Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and then Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: topics are Afro-women writers, and mother-daughter paradigms as central to women’s lives and art.

And the second phase of summer teaching and courses began: I started my second course (at OLLI at Mason, The Enlightenment: At Risk?) and the class is much much more enthusiastic, we had a rousing time this past Wednesday. Even I am surprised. And the Cinema Art Theater film club began with the wonderfully enjoyable Hampstead (blog to follow) while the Folger Theater ended its marvelous year with an HD screening of Ghost Light, a poignant comic appropriation of Macbeth.

NB: I took the Metro to get there as 7 pm is an awkward time for me. Many shuttle buses are there for the ride back and forth from National Airport or Crystal City to King Street, but the ride is in traffic and takes longer. I got home after midnight. I had enjoyed myself, even had a friend to talk to coming back — another widow like myself. But the next day I was so tired I found myself ever so slightly nodding off as I drove. Can’t have that so this may be the last time I venture forth at night where I need to take the Metro until it’s fixed. So I am back to bouts of Outlander, books and serial drama at midnight …

I am happy to say my Anomaly project with my friend is back on track and I’ve begun to immerse myself in my first subject: Margaret Oliphant, a life-long self- and family-supporting widow as writer. I love her Autobiography and Letters as edited by her niece Annie Walker (1899 edition). Am not giving up on my Poldark studies. I listen to David Rintoul reading aloud Scott’s Waverley with such genius that he almost makes the book wholly delightful (as well as a serious presentation of cultural politics in Scotland around the time of Culloden). I came up with a proposal for the coming EC/ASECS in October: At the Crossroad of my Life; although Izzy and I will probably be excluded from the coming Williamsbury JASNA, for her sake, for the next one in Cleveland I am going to write one out of the blog I made on Austen’s History of England: “Tudor and Stuart Queens of Jane Austen ….”, as in

It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman [Anne Bullen] was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character; all of which add some confirmation, tho’ perhaps slight ones when in comparison with those before alledged in her favour … His Majesty’s 5th Wife was the Duke of Norfolk’s Neice who, tho’ universally acquitted of the crimes for which she was beheaded, has been by many people supposed to have led an abandoned Life before her Marriage — Of this however I have many doubts … The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it (her History of England)

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On my family and physical companionship life, I shall say the obvious, which needs more to be said than people admit (but I often do and can feel others responding with a “well, duh ….”)


He is a beautiful cat — with yellow eyes. He tried to get Clarycat to play. And she hissed growled and spat at him: “I’m not in the mood just now.” So now he’s vanished, gone to hide because a contractor came … who said the life of a cat is easy …

That cats need companionship is not said often enough though. The other morning Ian was following Izzy about as she got ready for work. It was quietly done and not intrusive but persistent. He does often sit at her door when it’s closed and cry, whimper, whine, protest, scratch, until the door is open enough so he can go in and out when he wants. He is the kind of cat who loves to hide, especially high up places (like my kitchen cabinets) showing immense strength when he jumps up to them. He comes down by stages: loud thump and he is on the washing machine; another flatter thump is him hitting the floor. I worry for the machine and his underpaws. Yet when not hiding he is often with me or her and sometimes overly seeks play (brings a toy over) or sits in my lap and in effect makes love to me — murmuring, head rubbed against mine, body against my chest, his upper paws around my neck ….

Cats need companionship with people, their significant person and should not be left alone (with someone coming in to put down water and food) for any real length of time. They need another cat who they have bonded with, but both need their person too.

I also mean they grow ill without this — exhibit signs of self-harm to ward off anxiety and stress. One can read about this in better books about cats–and also occasionally see in an unfortunate cat.

Today Ian murmuring a lot at me. His way of saying I’m here and pay attention or talk to, somehow be with me.

The Cats of Outlander: Did you know the fifth season of Outlander will include cats: yes in Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross Jamie gifts Claire with a gray kitten, Adso, and the advertisement promotion photographs include the three kittens — to film a cat in a show, one needs three so as not to overwork any one cat.


The cats of Outlander — that’s Caitriona Balfe and Anita Anderson

Izzy spent two days at her first American Librarians Association conference (here in DC) last week, and now five days in New York City: among other things, she took the boat ride around Manhattan, spent a whole day at the Whitney and another at the Metropolitan Museum and Central Park. She saw a musical, a play, spent time at the Strand. We kept in touch by email.

I had a beautiful conversation with my scholarly Johnsonian friend, Tony tonight — three hours — and talk sometimes with Panorea.

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Some funny New Yorker cartoons: Victorian heroines with adequate birth control by Glynnis Fawkes:

Classical heroine who did not need birth control measures:

So I have recovered from the first of my two summer trips. Never say keeping sadness at bay is not hard work.

by Eugenio Montale, as translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi

The Lemons

Listen to me, the poets laureate
walk only among the plants
with rare names: boxwood, privet, and acanthus.
But I like roads that lead to grassy
ditches where boys
scoop up a few starved
eels out of half-dry puddles:
paths that run along the banks
come down among the tufted canes
and end in orchards, among the lemon trees.

Better if the hubbub of the birds
dies out, swallowed by the blue:
we can hear more of the whispering
of friendly branches in not-quite-quiet air,
and the sensations of this smell
that can’t divorce itself from earth
and rains a restless sweetness on the heart.
Here, by some miracle, the war
of troubled passions calls a truce;
here we poor, too, receive our share of riches,
which is the fragrance of the lemons.

See, in these silences where things
give over and seem on the verge of betraying
their final secret,
sometimes we feel we’re about
to uncover an error in Nature,
the still point of the world, the link that won’t hold,
the thread to untangle that will finally lead
to the heart of a truth.

The eye scans its surroundings,
the mind inquires aligns divides
in the perfume it gets diffused
at the day’s most languid
It’s in these silences you see
in every fleeting human
shadow some disturbed Divinity.

But the illusion fails, and time returns to us
to noisy cities where the blue
is see in patches, up between the roofs.
The rain exhausts the earth then;
winter’s tedium weighs the houses down,
the light turns miserly — the soul bitter.
Till one day through a half-shut gate
in a courtyard, there among the trees,
we can see the yellow of the lemons;
and the chill in the heart
melts, and deep in us
the golden horns of sunlight
pelt their songs.

Ellen

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From Times Literary Supplement: Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, by Eugene Atget, c 1902  — the TLS is probably my favorite among all the periodicals I subscribe to

The anguish never ceases …

Friends,

One more about this Cornwall trip and its aftermath: I don’t let myself speak hard truth too often but once in a while I must let some full truth of feeling speak

I didn’t tell that the friend I was partly with, Stephen, confirmed my hunch about what caused esophageal cancer in Jim. After I told him much that had happened, he said, yes, when a hernia formed in Jim’s diaphragm, it became a constant irritant to that and other organs nearby. I had said how at first Kaiser gave Jim a strong prescriptive medicine that endangered his kidneys. He had been suffering terrific acid. Every three months he had to take a test to see if his kidneys were managing.

Then (they said) and over-the-counter preparations had improved enormously and why didn’t Jim try one of these. It would not threaten his kidneys so directly. As I recall at first the non-prescription pills helped, but gradually (over the years) it seemed to me Jim was eating 5 tums at a time and even several times a day. Why didn’t he go to to the doctor? For all I know Jim might have told the doctors about his suffering with acid. Until this last fatal illness, Jim would not let me come into the doctor’s office with him because he, Jim, wanted to be in charge wholly. I doubt they advised a preventative esophagectomy: he would have told me that.

Stephen implied they should have done one of these – -or something about this extraordinary condition. When I said the Kaiser people said that the hernia was not implicated, Stephen laughed and said obviously this rubbing and acid was the trigger. What is cancer but an error in replicating one’s DNA? His cells would have been constantly made sore. Stephen said the suggestions Jim’s smoking or anything else were not the culprits: alcohol insofar as it exacerbated his stomach distress — it’s a poison.

Now I know too that I didn’t contract hepitatis C 40 years ago; that is between, 1976 and 1984 when I had several hemorrhages and was given blood. That’s what the Kaiser Dr Chowla and the others all claimed. (Chowla looked at me suspiciously as if I had been taking illegal drugs. Oh no it could not be Kaiser.) So  supposedly for decades I was exacerbating my liver with alcohol while having this virus and it was still in good condition. Even she saw the improbability.

I said it was more likely three years ago when I had the semi-permanent denture on top of four implants put in my lower jaw. They said, could’t be since they have these impeccable methods. I was also on this trip rooming with a retired nurse. She snorted when I told her what Kaiser said, and replied “sloppy techniques.” Hospitals are places where people contract illness because of sloppy techniques. Of course you contracted it more recently, said she.

Kaiser doctors are ever protecting themselves against suit. Careful to protect their place in the organization.

I remember after Jim contracted this cancer my neighbor told me his father-in-law had had a preventative esophagectomy (it has some medical name) and he advised others ever after not to. He had been made miserable by it: he couldn’t eat much, and only the blandest food. Now I think to myself, he was still alive years later. Then I still (foolishly) was led to hope that perhaps the operation done then, chemotherapy and radiation would save Jim.

Now I’m thinking how long ago was that? I didn’t know the man’s age. Maybe when Jim was in his mid-40s when this hernia occurred, there was not the skill or ability to do this drastic surgery. Can anyone be sure Jim would contract cancer? they might think this measure could cause other fatal events? They might have recommended some other harsh medicine. At the time Jim was contracting diverticulitis and at each episode he’d take this super-strong stuff and suffer. It would work after a while. A surgeon did offer to remove part of Jim’s lower intestine but Jim declined “for now.” Said the medicine was working better than it had. Who knows what kinds of mistakes could happen in such surgeries?

I’m telling this now because I have been very hurt by people’s comments when I tell this. Stephen right away said, he should have gone to the doctor, and implied I was in the wrong not doing anything. He is a tactless man, his politics utterly heartless, and we hardly knew one another for real — he comprehended little of my feelings.

Others since have been more aggressive and said to me, it was Jim’s fault — or mine. A few years ago on a listserv a woman having read something I said about what had happened, pointed out that Hilary Mantel was still alive because she had been so smart about her medical conditions and aggressive and thus saved herself. I asked this woman, do you mean to say he’s dead because we were so stupid, to which she replied, if you can’t face up to the truth, that’s your look-out. She wanted to believe that if you are smart you can beat terminal illness; maybe there is none?

I did tell from early on how Jim would not go for a second opinion to a super-expensive doctor in Boston, would not take the time and put off the operation to see another who would have advised massive amounts of chemotherapy — said to be successful nowadays for some. Others it can be a disaster, but it is more and more successful, better than brutal surgery which does not stop metastasis. Then when 5 weeks after that horrendous operation was healing, and the cancer had spread, he would not try for Sloane-Kettering — a friend had offered to try for an appointment. No guarantee of course. He was by that time so weak and sick. He couldn’t face even the idea of removing his liver or parts of it after the operation he had had. I couldn’t see how I could get him to NY short of a chartered cab or plane and cab.  But this is the first time this implication his death was his or my fault was said so explicitly — by three people now. People can’t accept death as natural and to be sure Jim died hard, his body fought death tooth and nail as he was not 90 but 65, and strong before the cancer began to devour him.

I have to live with Jim’s death every day of my life, every night I go to bed. I push it from my mind by keeping so absorbed in my studies, reading, writing, movie-watching, teaching, going out to plays or whatever can absorb my mind. I distract and tire myself as best I can. Now I have this to live with.


Wyre Meadow — “Ruskin” Land — I was at the National Gallery yesterday where there was an exhibit of Ruskin’s art — I didn’t get to see it, but this image is appropriate for him (click to enlarge)

A well-meaning friend gave me an anthology of widow’s reflections called Widow’s Words, and edited by Nan Bauer-Maglin. I’ve now read many memoirs of grief, fiction, poetry, and for the most part they have helped me — I’ve felt much less alone; I’ve found that my experiences are common; some of the thoughts others have written down have helped me cope. Best thus far are Julian Barnes’s third essay in Levels of Life, Sherwin Nuland, How We Die, Jacqueline Lapidus and Lise Menu’s anthology of poetry, Widow’s Handbook. But this one makes me feel terrible. Almost all the women are upper middle class and very successful people in life; they have no troubles about money (this is very unusual for widows); they are surrounded by family and just tons of friends. When they have a gathering to commemorate the spouse, 300 people show up.

Along the way we learn how successful the husband was, often this famous scholar; one left a large archive of his papers which seems to have constituted his widow’s worst problem. She was determined to get out of the apartment but she didn’t want to throw away his life’s work in papers, document, editions, books, essays of all sorts. Finally the college she was chairman of a department at took the archive. Then we usually (not all I grant) hear how well they are doing now, how useful their existences, how busy, and most have a new partner.

Good thing I didn’t not come across this earlier: among Jim’s last coherent words to me were “I don’t want to die.”  I probably would not have killed myself reading this earlier (though it can make me feel so bad) because I learned in that first six months after Jim died that I didn’t want to die either.

I have found I am too old and ugly to attract a man; it may be that I give off signals “noli me tangere.” Do none of these women find submitting to a man sexually once again too much to ask?  Submitting by a woman is central to the experience. I don’t enjoy performing fellatio to be frank, nor anal sex. And there’s how about living your own life according to your own patterns and not having to be sure to please him or fit into his preconceptions or life patterns? They are just all buoyancy with strength enough to remain an individual …

Of course I’d have known this is not a representative book at all. Why then have I read about 3/4s of this material? Well because they are so confident, filled with a sense of their admirableness, they tell more truths in other ways: this is the first anthology I’ve read where the woman really tells the horrors of pain and suffering that the victims of some of these hugely painful fatal deteriorating diseases goes through in the US — especially when it’s cancer. They also tell of the abuse they put up with — from the hospice, from the medical establishment, not usually from the insurers (though here and there ominous comments about egregious bills are alluded to); but, what is most astonishing, from their spouse or partner. Most widows or widowers hide what they went through and do not admit to enduring as a typical experience vexation, corrosive cruel comments, denigration. In the Widow’s Handbook there are cases where the husband lied and left her broke, or without a pension or any health care but this area of emotional life is omitted. For once the “battle” is not presented as heroic and self-sustaining.

Indeed some of these people seem to me to behave like mad people, crazy.  Several of these essays tell of ceaseless toleration for pain with the implication practically until the person stops breathing and his heart ceases, that he may yet live. There is nothing they won’t do and to give up hope is what they refuse. Utter unrealism to the end. Well I suppose we may say their death is not their fault. They don’t seem to realize they are putting in for this horrendous experience. Maybe this is what is meant by that word “battle.”  It’s as if they have no other choice but to torture their bodies to the end. People are really kinder to their pets.

I remember Jim telling me once the operation was over and we did realize what a mistake this had been, “don’t let them hurt me” if I can’t protect myself from them. And I didn’t let them.

Bauer-Maglin herself has a couple of pieces where it’s clear her husband was violent bully: she seems to have looked upon this personality as admirable because so strong and effective. He left her once for a much younger woman and then came back. Since this anthology reflects her outlook, it’s not surprising that her pieces are characteristic of the whole volume. She chose people like herself that she knew — heavily New York City and east coast academics. So she too is doing splendidly well now. How could she think it would help others to have gathered women together to say how wonderful their existence still is and ever will be?

Well mine isn’t. I still endure the same ordeals that I have to encounter without Jim, and as ever (this is true when he was alive too) I do what I can, and what is hard for me doesn’t get easier. I am literally alone except for my cats most of the time. My life is mostly quiet and peaceful and sometimes pleasant and I know some enjoyments and have felt a few accomplishments (even if others would not recognize these as accomplishments because they don’t recognize me).

I remember that many widows, many people have much worse things to contend with than I do because Jim left me much better off than solvent and unexpectedly I inherited substantial (for me) savings from my mother and father, and an insurance policy intended to give me a lot if he died at 65 or before. I pay decently honest people to help me with my money, the garden, the cleaning of the house.

I have many internet and FB friends and acquaintances, lots of acquaintances from the two OLLIs and from the scholarly conferences I have gone to a couple of people carry on emailing me once in a while. I have my books, movies, this computer, my house (including nowadays a few small garden patches). My teaching is for now going very well: the people like the Booker Prize books I picked out and enjoy the films.  Unlike the lady with the archive, the world Jim and I created together — our house with everything in it  — gives me what meaning I feel, and what safety I have now. (Shall I tell you I know her and happened to tell her my attitude and her reaction was light scorn; well, if you want to delude yourself … ?) I watch Isobel bravely stalwartly carrying on. She is now at work on  a new song.

But I will never write the book I would like to write because I can’t travel by myself to do the needed research; I can’t figure out how to use “word” program so won’t send off essays to journals. I would like to do these and other things.  So I don’t need to be told the life I am driven to lead now without him is my fault, or it’s his fault that he was cut off from time and life and erased from all existence, leaving behind just the things he used and had gathered for himself and us.


A photo I took from the front part of my garden this weekend: the flowers won’t last, so I take a photo to remember: I like the dark yellow ones on the wide bush best …

One thing I cannot begin to convey with a photo is the intense relief I feel when on these trips I go into a large church or cathedral, which is cool and quiet. I feel this strongest in the central nave, and it’s most common in Anglican churches — some large formal beauty but not overdone — sitting by one of the columns not far from the usual row of high windows. I like the absolute quiet, away from sun and noise and movement. It is broken (sometimes ruined altogether) when a guide comes by and starts to talk and a crowd forms, or worse yet, people begin taking these endless photos. It’s at first just getting in to a sense of deep escape. I am not communing with any god. It’s solitude in these places of stone. Quasimodo: remember Charles Laughton’s cry at the end of the 1930s film.

And, so as I enter here from day to day
And leave my burden …
The tumult of the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away
— from Longfellow’s sonnets on translating Dante

Ellen

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Friends,

Izzy has worked up another new version of a brilliant rock song: U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name:

I love her rendition of the music. Here are the lyrics:

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I wanna reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I wanna take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name, oh oh

Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name
We’re still building then burning down love
Burning down love
And when I go there, I go there with you
It’s all I can do

The city’s a flood
And our love turns to rust
We’re beaten and blown by the wind
Trampled into dust

I’ll show you a place
High on the desert plain
Where the streets have no name, oh oh

Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name
We’re still building then burning down love
Burning down love
And when I go there, I go there with you
It’s all I can do

Our love turns to rust
We’re beaten and blown by the wind
Blown by the wind
Oh and I see love
See our love turn to rust
We’re beaten and blown by the wind
Blown by the wind
Oh when I go there
I go there with you
It’s all I can do

Songwriters: Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul Hewson

E.M.

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The Road Scholar group aboard the Fowey ferry

Fowey — a place not far from Menabilly (Daphne Du Maurier would row a boat on the river from one house to another when she went visiting). You can see me all the way on the right-hand corner, all wrapped up (kerchief, hat, red fleece jacket with hood), next to me my friend, Stephen. The man standing up with all the way to the left, white hat, red jacket, jeans is Peter Maxted, our guide (one of his several books on Cornwall is The Natural Beauty of Cornwall). Moving right along down from Peter is a woman in a light violet jacket, a stick to help her walk, sunglasses, my roommate, whose name (alas) I have already forgotten, very sweet woman


Two Swans gliding along in the moat by Wells Cathedral and its close

Dear friends and readers,

The second half of the journeys. Saturday morning (May 18), we visited a China Clay mine, Wheal Martyn Center. As with the Levant mine, we had a remarkably able guide who took us through the landscape and steps in manufacturing china clay.


Figures sculpted in china clay, representing typical workers

What was unexpected is the beauty of the park all around the parts of the mine no longer in use,

and then that there is a vast quarry where the people are still mining and using china clay.


Hard work at the end of the process

I learnt about kaopectate and other compounds made from China Clay, which I use daily. Also that copper and tin mining are more dangerous: you are directly risking your life in the early eras, at real continual risk in the 19th century; but both occupations caused early death through disease. It was the person’s lungs that usually went. Fishing too is a risky occupation — so life in Cornwall was not idyllic at all, and often impoverished even if it was early in industrialization.

I’d say the tour took at least two hours. It was one of the high points of the whole tour. The guide was knowledgeable, humane, witty, curiously moving too. He had spent most of his life as a fireman.

We stopped off in a small fishing village for lunch (cheese pasty and tea) — Mevagissey, it was low tide:

The afternoon was spent in a huge garden owned by the Tremayne family for the last 400 years. Tim Smit who was the moving force in the creation of the Eden project, which I saw with my friends, has been instrumental in convert the park back from its 20th century role as a place for apartments to a farm, a Victorian/Edwardian garden, with memorials to different groups of people living in Cornwall

It was tiring as it was very warm that afternoon and the gardens have steep hills. Finally we came upon a shop where there was a choice of four films, one of them told the history of the changes in the landscape.


Here is our group again at Heligan


A formal garden

I love glimpsing birds and animals in their habitats:

Some of the landscapes was thick and wild with flowers, bushes, trees

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Cheesewring

Sunday (May 19) another deeply satisfying experience: our trip into and through Bodmin Moor. We visited circles of ancient stones called the Hurlers, at the top of the hill a formation of rock called “the Cheesewring.” The place had a feel of mystery in the sense that 6000 years ago people thought to put these markers up, and attached them to visions and finding basic needs, like water


While we were there we saw another smaller group of people engaged in an ancient ritual

The afternoon of this day included frustrating and disappointing moments. We were taken to see too much in a small space, and one of the places we were invited to explore was a tiny place, hot, where a slapstick situation comedy on PBS is filmed. We were told we were be seeing things from far (out of a bus window) which were in fact way out of sight.

So we stopped at Jamaica Inn, — it is an interesting place, first building there in the 17th century, and the one which survives makes ends meet and a profit as a restaurant, bar, bakery, from tourist relics, and its museum.


Jamaica Inn outside


How Jamaica Inn survives


Inside

We drove around 15 minutes to eat at Boscastle, and ostensibly to explore the harbor and town. I was there last time with my friends, so I have explored it; good thing as we didn’t have enough time to do so


Boscastle from below and on the edge – we were walking to the harbor, once a major one used for ships


A picturesque shop

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Photo of Boscastle taken from a distance upon a hill

Then we drove past Tintagel (not seeing it) and into Port Isaac: a tiny town, which has received a modicum of renown and more tourists looking to find what they seen for years on their televisions. All of these villages are under pressure from neoliberal EU and gov’t policies and also the realities of climate change (there was a serious flood in 2004) and what we were seeing were the people’s attempt to find new ways to make money (not easy) and improve on the older ones (that they are doing). Tourism has become a chief “industry.”

We passed by Lemon Street in one of the towns on the way back to the hotel that night: it is “very pretty” as the Beatles said, lovely Georgian buildings in limestone.

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Sign welcoming us

It was on Monday (May 20) we went to Fowey and I asked myself if they had saved up this last series of journeys for the last day; they were so consistently fun and interesting. It is a steep narrow city just off a river and bay. Most of the people live in modern apartments and older houses on the shallow hills above; the wealthier live in the picturesque houses near the water.


An older mansion


Fowey Church

First we took a long leisurely ferry ride while a young man from the area told us of its long history as we sailed along Cornish shores (see photo at the head of this blog).


Upriver — a manufacturing plant

Fowey has several of blocks of houses, a residential population with not so-well heeled people in apartment houses further from the shore. We had a good meal at a King George III Cornish pub, and then I went back to the bookstore I had last bought a book in 4 years ago.

I am glad to say it looks as thriving as ever: this time I bought a recent good literary biography of Daphne DuMaurier. The bookshop specialized in items by authors who write about Cornwall or are thought of as Cornish. I saw what looked like a good book of poems about Betjeman but it was so slender and thirty pounds. It is a serious bookshop and hard to sustain. So prices are high but DuMaurier is well known, this was a paperback so only 9 pounds 90 pence.

As a side comment: it was very disappointing but not unexpected to discover that in the case say of DuMaurier, bookstores stocked not only her novels and biographies but studies of her, essays, books about subjects her books cover; in the case of Winston Graham, all they had was the first seven Poldark novels and nothing else, no other book by or on him. Instead there was usually a shrine to Aidan Turner. This suggests to me he has not yet broken through to be a respected author whose life and work people are interested in.

Just before we left we happened upon another hotel in the town, a renovated ex-mansion called Manor Hall where the owner once loved Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows and inside were pictures and playful statues taken from the stories of Toad, Rat and so on. This was Jim’s favorite book as a boy; he would quote lines from it (“nothing” so wonderful as “messing around in boats”).


Manor Hall

Another journey took us to Charlestown because it has a quai which is used to photograph ships leaving port in Poldark. While the harbor is beautiful and quiet, and we came upon a beach nearby where people were sun-bathing and trying to swim, the truly interesting experience was in the shipwreck museum; the entry fee quite modest:

It was filled with detailed information about what seemed hundreds of shipwrecks with focus on a few a century: how dangerous it is to live by and on the sea was brought home to us; all the different technologies over the centuries; poignant human interest stories as well as war, politics, piracy (privateering) — very somber some of it.

By contrast, to see a small exhibit on the quai about the Poldark filming the people wanted 11£ so I didn’t go in.

I felt I had a far more telling experience in Charlestown quite by chance than in any of the bookstores or other modern encounters all trip. I saw a little dog rescued by someone working in a nearby restaurant. The poor creature fell down the wall into the water on the quai and her master was feebly trying to send a ring with rope (absurd) to the dog down the wall. It was his fault the dog fell: it should have been on a leash or not that close. The man could have run around the wall and through a sort of concrete gangplank and rescued the dog. He was just not truly engaged with the dog’s fate. Well, a girl in a waitress outfit runs out, jumps in (she risked herself banging against the wall so she jumped far to keep from the wall and yet she had to land in the narrow amount of water), swims to the dog; people on a boat not far suddenly appear and come over to rescue her and said dog. They have a blanket. I was irritated to have to hear heartless remarks like “in some countries animals are treated better than people” (where? pray tell) or Stephen critiquing that she risked her life. Hers was the best act I have seen on this trip.

That evening we had our last true meal together — the meal in the airport hotel has usually been hasty; closure is provided by the last night in wherever the trip has taken place. There was an attempt to say goodbye and a few of us talked of what was our favorite experiences. I cited the Hurlers; in response Peter Maxted said he liked being there too, but preferably in the bleak winter when snow is on the ground.

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Wells Cathedral altar — photo taken by another woman in the group (all others were taken by Stephen)

Our last day and as in the previous three trips, the drive back to the airport is leisurely so that you can visit and see places on the way. We went through Glastonbury where Jim and I had stopped with Laura and Isabel so long ago (2005) and really explored the ruins of the abbey, the town — again it would have been frustrating just to be told about it as we swung by. We drove similarly through Bath and I had to listen to the guide who knew little of the 18th century town, had a very distorted view of Austen. Somehow it did not look as beautiful as when Jim and I and Izzy spent a full week there. We were going through the traffic-crowded streets of course – but I did see Queen Square and a few other streets recognizable to me once again.

The best part of the day was the long time — two hours at Wells Cathedral. Stephen and I did manage to squeeze in a very good tour of the cathedral by a sweet learning old man; we saw the click chime the hour, participated in listening to a prayer (humane, decent). Jim and I had gone to Wells repeatedly to shop in its excellent modern supermarket when we stayed at Lympton in a Clock Tower so I could attend a Trollope conference in Exeter, but when we went to the town we did not go as tourists but people living there and stayed in the modern part. This time I saw the old narrow streets, the fifteenth century pub, the ancient church, its close and square, a beautiful pub (but there was no time to eat – we did not want what had happened at Boscastle to happen here).


The cathedral front


The choir


One of the sets of windows taken down during World War Two and put in a cave until the war was over …


The gatehouse into the close


The close and gardens

Walking through the winding older streets back to the bus (which would take us to the airport hotel) I felt sad to remember the literary festivals I’ve seen (in Chichester) and heard about, which in the last two decades take place in older provincial cities like this (say Hay-on-Wye). How I wish I were still part of this older culture with Jim.

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I am trying to remember that last meal at the airport hotel, but it is gone from me. The guide again did not want to facilitate any last ceremonies & the day had been tiring, so most people went up to bed early. Many had to get to the airport early the next morning to make their plane on time.

In writing this blog I found we had gone to so many places in a short time, and Stephen taken so many photos, and what was worth listening to (the talks about the mines, about Wells, on the Fowey ferry) I couldn’t take notes on. It was all walking or moving about. So I’ve had to leave the information in the form of all the guidebooks and xeroxes and colorful maps the guides gave us out. So you’ll have just to believe me that for myself in the last two days I have returned to my project on “Winston Graham, Poldark and Cornwall” in the context of other analogous historical fiction and film, and find that indeed my sense of the geography and realities of Cornwall is much improved. I am understanding a lot more of what Halliday in his superb History of Cornwall has to tell me. I was listening to Demelza today while I drove in my car and rereading Warleggan for about an hour and could picture so much more accurately characters’ comings and goings. Picking up DuMaurier’s King’s General and I can see I would read it with precise visual appreciation of places that I couldn’t before.

So in my feeble ever inadequate (half-crippled) way I did do some research towards my mythical, dreamed of, yearned for book, A Matter of Genre.

Ellen

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