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My house, photographed from the right side

Funny, the things that cheer you up.

Without much thinking about it, to people walking by who bring up my renovation of my house or my newly made garden (usually to compliment me), I’ve been calling the house a “cottage.” It is probably too difficult and would not be socially acceptable to explain my aim was to make the appearance of my site in the world respectable. I’ve an idea it differs from other houses in my area … like Widmerpool’s jacket at the opening of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

Well, a friend was over here the other day and said in reply to my unconscious characterization, that yes my house does look like a “cottage,” and then obviously trying to be tactful said the new garden, trees and flowers “soften” the effect, for now the house looks “less stark.” Then: “maybe you should get shutters on the windows.” I looked at her. “It would be more cozy,” she said. Today someone came over and offered to give me some sort of grass, to put on the two corners of the fence, one on each side. I told how another neighbor took back her sedge grass (turns out she was an Indian-giver) because she was not pleased with how I was behaving towards it with less than regular watering this summer. Then we turned to look at all the trees and plants, she said, congratulating me, also said something like the house is now not “so stark” and suggested “shutters.” So I remembered Austen about how the Dashwoods’ house “as a cottage was defective.” My house is regular, I’ve not even got shutters, much less green ones, no ivy, no hopes of honeysuckle at all. “As a cottage it is defective.”

I had told the woman neighbor whom I paid to do a garden plan when she asked me, What is your vision?” — stumped at such an unexpected pomposity (she really asked that) –, I paused and then came up with “I like clarity, simplicity, and symmetry.” Like a Pope couplet, explaining who Alexander Pope was. She looked at me as if I were mad. This is not what she expected me to say. What was she expecting? me to cite some super-expensive bushes? I don’t know the names of most plants, much less how much they cost one compared to another or rate on the scales of admiration.


Drenched by hose twice a day, my miniature magnolias begin to thrive

No I won’t add shutters. The way I put it to myself is it would cost money and would be a bother, is not easy to do. Besides which, the windows’ frameworks are utterly minimal and shutters would look absurd. Out of place. I would never have used that term stark for the house, and though now I half-see it, to me the house is plain, functional, simple, four walls on two squares, with two triangles, one on each square.

Would I do better to drop the word?

This is not coming out funny — the important inner point is I am no longer ashamed of my house, I know it does not have to look like a magazine image — but I did laugh when I thought of Austen. How ridiculous we all are.

As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles. (Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 6)

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Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel (2018 HBO Howards End, scripted Kenneth Lonergan, directed Hettie Macdonald)

The hardest thing about life as widow for me is to live without love. I can be cheerful from much that I do, feel buoyant, deeply satisfied by reading a great text (say Forster’s Howards End), watching and re-watching the two film adaptations (1990s, Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala, 2018 Lonergan), but happy no.

I’ve discovered that Ian wants laptime and playtime every day. Yes. A new demand. He never used to. Ever since I can remember Clarycat has plumped herself on my lap and looked up to me with yearning eyes. She wants me to look down and make eye contact for hours. If I don’t look down, she puts a paw on my arm, or hand, nudges me with her whole body. When I give in, look down, she begins to lick my face thoroughly and nowadays I do look down and far more quickly and let her lick to her heart’s content. Such have I become because I lack love.

Now Ian aka Snuffy has taken to following me about about sometimes, wherever I am, and making little mews. I ask him, what do you want? but he can’t say. Over and over this interaction until today I have figured it out. From his new patterns of behavior. Periodically over the day, he comes over to the side of my chair, and puts a paw on my arm. Waits. I turn to him, look down and he waits for eye contact, and then jumps up. He will not allow me to pull him up, no he must jump up in his own right. Then he pressed his whole body against mine on the left side, with his head pressed to mine, facing backwards. He nudges my face with his cheek over and over, one paw winding around my neck. And there we sit, I stroke him, behind the ears, under the neck and he stretches, purring with a low growl. His tale moves back and forth, fat, full, on top of my keyboard. In effect we make love. He likes to do this around midnight too when I am sat here watching a movie or writing a blog.

Around 6:30 each evening when Izzy and I get together in the front of the house (dining room, kitchen) to do what’s necessary to finish off preparing supper (takes about a half-hour), there is Snuffy, looking expectant. What does he want? Without realizing this I had begun each night to play with a string with him. He began to remember this and now each night we must do it. He looks forward to it. Sometimes Clarycat joins in. Playtime.

As I type this tonight after having failed not stop myself suddenly falling asleep for over an hour it seems, and lost my reading glasses (hopelessly misplaced), so bought yet a fourth pair on the Net (cannot read without them), Clarycat is firmly ensconced in my lap, with Ian over on the library table in the cat bed seeming asleep. Their softly jingling bells silent.


One afternoon not long ago, the pair on the library table, he looking out the window …

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As a policy I find it counter-productive to go to the trouble of critiquing harshly any book or movie at length (in a separate blog), and as I often on this blog talk of my social time, especially my going to the OLLIs, conferences, out to plays and so on, and this story is more about the reaction of others to a book, than the book itself, so for the last third of this week’s diary, I’ll tell it here.


Jia Torentino writing smoothly in the New Yorker says the novel “instantly feels canonical, a world remarkably gorgeously permanently overrun by migrants ….

I read swiftly last week, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. It’s one of these be-prized, widely-read recent best-sellers — just the kind that book clubs with discrimination choose to read as a group. When I read it alone, I thought it fairly good. Do you know it? a fable about refugee immigrants fleeing about the world, in each place at continual risk of horrifying senseless death from crazed bands of people locally or bombs from the air. Hamid uses magic realism so they keep exiting through magically appearing doors. Beginning perhaps in Pakistan, or Syria, Turkey, they move through (Mary Poppins like?) and find themselves first in a refugee camp on an island in the sea, then in London, then California ….

When I wrote briefly about the book on WomenWriters@groups.io (apologizing for bringing up a book by a male), I linked it into a book read and discussion we had had of Kamilla Shamsie’s Home Fire:

On my own, I saw the fluidity of the style, its grace, the occasional gnomic statement, the poignancy of some of what happens and is felt. But I was disappointed at the end. As the story carried on, to me the underlying archetype that was keeping all these zigzag moves, the improbable fantasies together was the intense relationship of Nadia and Saeed and I began to see parallels continual with the ancient Daphnis and Chloe story (by Longus) and so Paul et Virginie or Tristan and Isolde aesthetics. So I felt thwarted when they just gradually separated. Not that I had another ending in mind (as some say of say Mansfield Park or Little Women). Only the end I was fobbed off with didn’t work — had there been a political ending (as in Shamsie’s Home Fire, another Pakistani fable written in English to appeal to wealthy western audiences) I could have understood something, but Hamid to me just punted. He didn’t know what to do.

I realized then the real ending of the story is senseless death. They should have died like the couple in McEwan’s Atonement. Saeed just shot one day as he walks along, and Nadia beat to the death anyway despite her burka. Or from disease, from hunger. Now that would not have been a Daphnis & Chloe Or Tristan and Isolde ending: in both the lovers are either in bliss forever or they die together. What Hamid couldn’t face, and despite his false anti-Clarissa fable, McEwan could — senseless death, apart, absurd. Like so many in Candide. That’s the probable fate of this young couple and he hadn’t the heart or wit or stomach for it.

True, they never consummated, had full sexual intercourse. The rationale is he is religious. They are not married. I’ve read and know from personal experience, a woman’s inability to have full sexual intercourse even in marriage for years is not uncommon and most of the time when married they are forced. This turns up in literature again and again: one place is Byatt’s Possession: Ellen Ashe. It’s theorized Anne Radcliffe couldn’t let her husband “go all the way.” The burka was to keep men and all sex off. So I’m not sure of that. I also thought maybe we are to think she was inflicted by FGM. She is a Muslim, maybe her vagina has been destroyed. The book has this curious discretion: no soft core porn here 🙂 I didn’t laugh at him, I figured he had been kept innocent and was kind or sensitive if a bit dumb (like the male in Shamsie).

A member of WomenWriters@groups.io suggested we were to understand Nadia is lesbian. Nadia gets involved with a woman and I thought this a daughter-mother pattern, but then it didn’t go anywhere. Jim used to say I was hopelessly heteronormative. Maybe — like Henry James’s closet homosexuals, she is all the time and ever alone — except for Saeed, his father and one woman friend late in the book.

Then I attended a face-to-face talkative book club — and they talk about the book (not gossip about themselves).

While they are an intelligent group of women who know how to analyze a book, what the book allowed them to do was feel self-congratulations at their own positive attitudes towards immigration and refugees. The great moral a few kept saying was the book taught us we must move on, we must change with the demand for change. And they produced stories of older people who don’t change and they will be sorry for this soon …. It was a story we could all experienced, had experienced. They quoted a line from the book about how we are all immigrants in time. They implied they of course moved on.

Until then I had not realized how book shows a remarkable lack of anger in the protagonists, how all the character but one that we know live, how in fact the ending is benign, that this is a a providentially gentle book.

So after a while I brought up that the immigration or refuge stories were not the same as they had experienced, but was more like hispanic people coming to the US and being murdered (there was a grave of hundreds of people found in Texas a few years ago), that the whole thing was shot through with violence, terror, and while no one denied that, no one elaborated on that angle. I mentioned the detention camps around the US, the 1300 children now jailed. They seemed not to register that one at all. That part of this silence is they try not to discuss anything seen as taboo or partly controversial came out when I told of my friend saying the heroine was lesbian. I did this half-sceptically but they responded, oh yes, of course. They had seen that …

Then as one woman had been objecting to the magic realism (like her I do prefer straight realism), another commented (changing the subject), the doors are a deux ex machina, but I, persisting again, said yes when things are getting truly beyond endurance, a door opens and they escape. (Silently to myself I thought: in A Man for All Seasons when Robert Bolt’s More says “our natural business lies in escaping,” he means something else. Alas Bolt’s More does not want to escape — now I see everywhere in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies those not gone mad with religion do want to escape and most of the time try to only when it’s too late.) I then repeated how the book’s actual content is utter misery, abysmal poverty, deprivation, violence, they protested that that violence was not the purpose of the book. It didn’t need to be angry. It was about how people managed, how they functioned so well in these dire conditions.

One woman each time brings in research, sometimes from the New York Times book club discussions, or questions. This time she brought and read aloud from a biographical essay on Hamid. While he’s a Pakistani he also comes from a dizzingly privileged environment, seems to have hit every Ivy League college in the US or UK one can imagine (one parent a professor at one), when he went into business to pay his loans, he quickly rose to CEO, made just oodles more money. No wonder he writes the kind of distanced fable he does. Not Hamid’s fault these readers turned his story to one analogous with Fairfax housewives’ family pasts? They wanted analogies from long ago, say the Japanese in the US in the 1940s, not the Nazi state being set up by Trump.

My friend on WomenWriters (where as I said we had read as a group Kamilla Shamie’s Home Fire, whose story is far more genuinely about the plight and tragic and co-opted lives of immigrants) said that Hamid said he quit the CEO job because he realized he was joining the predators. She wrote: “I do think the title of Exit West gives away his politics. One could certainly object to his “tour” of refugee camps. Nothing too upsetting there. In a weird way, the novel almost ends up being a feel good piece — pretends to raise political awareness without making any demands on the reader. But it’s well written and sells. Hamid must be laughing” “All the way to the bank” I quipped. She then said it is even now being filmed.


Alice Bailly (1872-1938) A Concert Garden (1920)

But this time I didn’t laugh: it seems Helen Keller may be eliminated from school curricula across Texas, about which see my next Sylvia I blog.

Ellen

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Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes (second is Ullswater, all others much smaller, meres, waters)

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart … ” — Wordsworth, Michael

Dear Friends and readers,

I’ve been back from the Lake District and Northumberland for two days now, and am re-settling in. I fulfilled a long-held wish thoroughly: for six days two tour guides, one from the area, Anne (with a strong Lancashire accent) and the other originally from London, Peter (so a sort of Cockney accent now laid over by several others), who was said to know a lot about local northern border history, took 20 Americans on two mini-buses for an average of 8 hours a day up, down, and all around the winding roads and many lakes of Cumbria. Immersion. Like last time, the first night we were asked each of us to tell why we had chosen to come to this area, and a little bit about who we are. I spoke (briefly) of my bad miscarriage in 1974 in the Lake District, which had led to Jim and I spending the five days we had planned to travel about in, in a small Kendal hospital, that I had come originally because it might be said 5 lines of Wordsworth’s Michael decided me in my line of life, English major, teacher of English literature, then literary scholar and college teacher, writer. I had come back alone because my husband died 5 years ago, but I was there with him in my spirit. I came to England after the first year every year since he died.


Otterburn Castle, where we stayed — the Internet access was dodgy, but my room was magnificent, large, with a landscape tapestry above my bed

That first night was indicative of an important aspect of the trip this time: it was a Road Scholar experience. I had not realized this so strongly last time. Last time had been 7 days at the Aigas House restoration ecology estate (2 days arduous traveling), in Inverness, and I sort of put down what happened to John Lister-Kaye, and his wife, Lady Lucy, with their hierarchical ways, and various interning science students as guides with deep interest in the area, its history, its culture, gardens, cookery, animals, the Scottish environment and history. Now I realize whatever they were individually, and the local culture, the program was shaped, inflected by the Road Scholar point of view, which is thus far educational touring. There are athletic programs, and (I was told) much more “commercial” ones with a large group of people, say a cruise. I thought people were friendly but last time had gotten to know only a few people’s names well, and little about them individually (one woman artist, a widow, working in New York City, and another never married woman who lives about five minutes from me especially); I just saw most of the people as types. This time it was some 11 days (again 2 day traveling ordeal), in three hotels (one in Manchester one night at airport), two places, Lake District in Cumbria, Lindeth Howe Country Hotel, Bowness, which had been Beatrice Potter’s country house mansion; Otterburn Castle, Northumberland, which had been a Peel Tower in the days of ferocious Reiver violence, then a 10th century castle (which is from the outside still what it looks like), renovated again and again, especially in Victorian and then later 20th century. The Aigas experience dominated by two people, all tourists in single large bus, with little free time, evenings occupied too (lectures, music one night); this time four different Road Scholar tour guides, evenings free, a full Sunday free day to do what I liked — I mostly sat in front of a real fire reading Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques. Free hours in several towns — I saw exhibits, and there were pre-paid lunches sometimes together, sometimes separately or formed into smaller groups: Keswick, Grasmere, Hawkshead, Jedburgh (Scotland), and Durham. This time by the end I knew everyone’s name, something of the history and character of each individual or couple; they became very vivid in my mind. I keep hearing one man’s pleasant voice.


The tapestry over my bed in Otterburn castle

One problem I’ve been having is I dream of them. Each night I find myself waking early and not realizing I am in my house in my own bed living my usual life in Alexandria, but coming out of a dream which is inhabited by these people, and for a few moments am so confused as I try to work out which hotel I’m in. Usually when I wake from a troubling or obsessive dream, I break “the spell,” and it stops or is transformed so that the material is being lived in by someone else and begins to fade. But today I had a brief nap in the afternoon (I am very tired) and found the same phenomenon occurring: I woke in confusion, got up and began to walk about, stressed, to see what was happening now, where I was, only to find that I am home after all, not surrounded by these others, but rather my two very loving cats:

Clarycat missed me badly: Izzy said Clary would not have anything to do with her, but remained in a kind of retreat, and until today Clary has been yowling at me (vocalizing) in a harsh tone, now she is simply all over me, all the time. Ian did sleep with Izzy, stay around her, and at first stayed with that pattern, but today he began to nudge me, rub me, stay close, playing, and making me alert to his companionable presence.


You see some of the group: the woman with white page boy hair facing us and other woman, helping her, is the fellow New Yorker, Barbara (same accent as me): Inside the Hermitage: a place of fierce cruelty. The story repeated is how Bothwell was badly wounded trying to arrest some murderous Reivers lords so Mary Queen of Scots rode here to see him. She didn’t stay long. Walter Scott included it in a couple of his historical romances …

I don’t want to intrude on anyone’s privacy, but would like briefly to name and describe them (using substitute first names) so as not to forget. It was a group of people very similar in type, age, profession, and marital status and income to last time: ages from mid-50s to later 80s, mostly retired, though some had jobs they could carry on with in older age or volunteered (teachers for example, writers).  Mostly pensions from years of working were enabling this. Both times I have been in all white groups but then my choice of literary writers and places would lead to that.

5 married couples in their sixties to mid-eighties. Larry and Lea (from Oklahoma, he wrote a poem for the last night, not very good, she boasted of how he was thinking all the time); Clarence and Sheila (from Alabama, not far from Asheville, North Carolina, where they attend an OLLI as students; he a retired mine owner, she with him had had 4 children, then discovered she was good at running non-profits, he went to Yale, she Vassar, living a charmed life, by virtue of wealth from his career, and a sale of property in Florida so that today they have a beautiful apartment in Tudor City, Manhattan too, conservative democrats); Bob and Cynthia (New York Jews from Rochester, he a practicing psychiatrist of the old school who really try to help people, humane brilliant witty man, interesting to talk to about human relationships, with daughter who was a White House correspondent but quit after Trump and wrote a book about a community destroyed after a corporation left, Janesville (Amy Goldstein), Paul Ryan’s home town); Sandi and Dave (from Florida, decades ago he traveled with a friend all over southeast Asia, he kept getting left behind, at one point locked into a dungeon like fort-castle, he was determined to do all as if he were 40, and not so forgetful, refusing one of the guide’s offer of his van instead of walking, she told a story of a previous miserable Road Scholar cruise tour; as in the previous trip here was a couple who were living in a late second marriage); Rick and Maggie (she originally from Australia wrote a wonderful Chaucerian parody with vignettes of all the people channeling different Canterbury Tale characters, which gave me the idea for the title to this blog; he helped me download my boarding pass from my cell phone in the 10th century castle renovated into a hotel, the hotel reception clerk helping; otherwise they go from holiday to holiday, from Broadway play to musical). All with children and grandchildren.

Four aging widows: me; Norah (from North Carolina, husband died at 40 but as alive in her mind today as he ever was, an environmentalist, she has written 7 books, gave the impression of countless articles, reviews, post-polio she called herself, but personally daring, at dinner an effectively sharp tongue when she wanted to); Suzanne (also North Carolina, Bavarde, social worker, psychologist, doing good work with groups trying to raise minimum wage, kindly easy going mostly silent lady with a cane, lucky to be alive after many operations, husband died 24 years ago next month); Sara (Cape Cod, widowed 3 months, in throes of trauma, ceaselessly talking, insistent). Two sisters, Ginny and Linda (from California, perhaps divorced, perhaps widowed, living near one another, lots of stories, one a teacher of disabled children, teacherly; the other living this seeming cheerful life, so good-humored, with children living these successful prestige lives of university, laboratory and business). One widower, Gary, turned out to be divorced years ago, brought up his children himself (Swedish by background, has traveled to every continent, so many countries, son lives in Germany and talked of how good life is there for him). All with children and some grandchildren.


Steve, one of the 20, at the Wallington House conservatory gardens

Single people. Two never married women living in mid-town Manhattan, Dorothy (successful academic art historian professor, interested in 12th century church architecture, lived much in Italy, worked for the Met); Barbara (high school teacher in English for 35 years, I liked her, we compared notes on British costume dramas, including Poldark, liberal democrat, Jewish her talk of nieces, nephews, brother she reminded me of Vivian). They told me of how in the last 10 days of August, the Met Opera puts up a huge screen in the Kennedy Center square and screen one a night each of the 10 HD operas for that year for free. Who knew? and other stories of delightful lectures, poetry reading (Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s The wasteland at the 92nd Street Y. One single man, Steven (from Texas, MD, PhD, pathologist, retired has taken or is taking anywhere from 17 [to 34?] Road Scholar and Overseas adventures tours, highly intelligent man, vegetarian, up early in morning, walking away, something of a loner,thought grave by the others, prickly).

One conversation. How what we use as words matters. Somehow famine came up, and I said that famine is not the result of not enough food in an area; it’s that a group of people have precarious entitlement to the food that is there, and the amount of food goes down, becomes scarce and prices soar. Steve said, “yeah, it’s a distribution problem.”

Then two of the tour guides who were with us most of the time: Anne, “happily divorced” (from the Lake District, northern Lancashire accent, thoughtful of everyone, conscientious, a model of patience, good driver, knew a lot about the area’s culture and history and geology, botany, bogus and real history, very bright, as so many Brits accepted her lot and the world she finds herself in, loves to hike, bike); Peter, now living alone on a small island (from London originally, said to be an expert in history, he did know the fierce legends, about battles, lively and tactful, bubbling over if a man can bubble over, also conscientious and knew better than a GPS where everything is, except when he got tired).

Something like 10 people had Ph.Ds, several had been teachers in college or high school, a librarian, three physicians. People with professional certificates. Three business people.  A well-educated bunch of people (like last time). Comfortably well off but not above trying to save $200 say in the fare. A number had been on quite a number of Road Scholar tours.

I learned as much from being with these people as from being on the trip. I found myself remembering back to when I was 5 and asking myself where I was or how I related to all the different houses we visited, museums exhibits I saw, amid all these different eras and varying cultural groups (Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, French Normans, Reivers, modern English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish) who left their rubbish and precious things and writings and inventions, and made the world we are now living in a palimpsest (if we will only look) through whose relics, remains, and texts we see them. I am become versions of my central self after these 6 plus decades, first in New York City, then in England, and now in Alexandria.


Lady Mary Lowther (1738-1824), The Waterfall — from Stephon Hebron’s In the Line of Beauty: Early Views of the Lake District by Amateur Artists

Most days were sunny and very warm by noon, though I needed the fleece I bought for the trip by the later afternoon; it would rain now and again. The mini-bus going up and around in narrow twisty-lanes sometimes very close to a steep edge of a cliff made for excitement at Hardnut and other passes. I began to wear my training shoes towards the end.

So, gentle reader, now I have prepared us to tell of my latest pilgrimage on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two. It is crucial to understand that everything I saw and did was in the company of these people and the choices I made were limited and shaped by their presence. It is not true that when one visits a site de memoire what matters only is the history of place, its function as a symbol to a culture, but what is being done at the moment, how it is functioning today as what 20th and 21st century people do around it and as a result of the visit. I will now go on to describe the tour itself.

I did read away for a couple of hours a day every day while away, and (among other volumes) my remarks blog style on Gina May’s moving biography of Madame Roland, and her famous memoir, and Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen At Home will be found on Austen reveries.

Ellen

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Izzy on the train

All the time they seemed to be skating in fathomless depths of air, so blue the ice had become; and so glassy smooth was it that they sped quicker and quicker to the city with the white gulls circling about them, and cutting in the air with their wings the very same sweeps that they cut on the ice with their skates — a dream of ice-skating during a hard frost, the Thames, Virginia Woolf, Orlando


Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Friends,

While last week’s account was the last about Milan and nearby environs, I have yet to speak of why we came when we did: the World’s Championship Ice-Skating contest was held from March 21st to 25th at a nearby (just outside the city proper) forum. My daughter Isobel is a devoted expert, blogger, fiction writer, evaluative fan of ice-skating. There are people who know as much as she does of the recent history of ice-skating, but I doubt you’d find anyone who knows more.

Starting Wednesday mid-morning when the tickets were handed out (no, you could not print out the tickets on any website, though you were advised to buy them well ahead), until late at night for the next four nights, and Sunday 2 to 5 for a gala performance (aired on TV), she absorbed herself in the ice-skating. She also went to a couple of early morning practices:

Laura and I joined her for three afternoons and the gala.

I could wish you had her to blog here as I’m sure she could and would describe all that happened and the many technical and other contexts with a knowledgeable critical eye. Here you may read her many blogs since Izzy gave up on her own Miss Izzy and stopped blogging there for Fan-Sided for several months, and now to where Laura moved her website from “I should have been a blogger” to Miss Izzy Ani & Izzy. I can’t.

There is also an underside, the realities of the life, the pressures, and the politics of ice-skating. What happens to ice-skaters mirrors what happens to ambition in sports in American and global life (as seen in media too) today.  I review a movie, which, if you at all interested in ice-skating as presently experienced in the US, you ought to see: I, Tonya: Tonya Harding, an ambitious working class girl (and many of those who go in for the championship and those who go are working to lower middle people) driven by the lack of wins because she was not playing the role of a sweet gentile middle class girl, either herself encouraged or was instigated by her violent desperate husband, Jeff Gilloly (Sebastian Stan) into directly attacking her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The husband and a thug friend tried to destroy one of Kerrigan’s knees. It was quickly found out who had done and became the scandal not only of the decade but perpetually of ice-skating itself.


A photograph Laura snapped of one (athletic) pair

I can tell you something of the experience of watching ice-skating in the Milan stadium. We took a train from where we were staying some 8 stops to just outside the city. About half an hour’s journey after a 5-7 minute walk both ways. Here is what the place looks like from the outside:


Daytime from the side


Nightime from within looking out.

It looks innocuous enough but as one reporter who regularly goes to these mass events, the least of the stadium’s concerns were the human needs of the customers. There two toilets for thousands of women. Two. The lines were not as horrendous as you might imagine because I suppose most women did like me: held themselves in until they got home. Long lines were the order of the day and night. It took hours to collect our tickets. Huge crowds forced to move into five crowd and then thin lines, and all you needed was one person to have troubles on any given line.

Inside the forum you had to wait on three lines to get any food. A line to pay and get your tickets. A line to put in a ticket for whatever food or drink was available. Another line to collect your purchase. I was told this was because very few people were empowered to sell tickets because few were trusted with money. Why two lines and not one were then called for I know not. Maybe because food was so minimal, unvaried, and poor by the time you got it your spirit was cowed. You were not allowed to bring in food or drink. Three years ago I went with Izzy to a stadium in Boston also set up to prevent people bringing food: prices were exhorbitant and I didn’t recognize as food most of what was sold, but there was just one line and there was a large variety of food and drink. Most of the customers in Milan stadium played safe and bought water & simple chip snacks.

Inside the forum the seats were small, the steep incline of the stairs painful if you went up and down more than say twice. The ushers appeared not to know their own stadium and misdirected Izzy, Laura and I at least three times. It was not freezing cold as other ice-skating stadiums I’ve been to are, but it seemed to me the noisiest of all the stadiums I’ve ever been to. Constant loud music inbetween events, flashing commercials from a central turning box, strobe lights when a new turn in events was about to proceed. As if this wasn’t enough, they had hired a bellowing clown to demand of individuals in the crowd that they make spectacles of themselves, of groups to wave flags and clap and hammer the floor with their feet.

More than a decade ago, the first time I went to an ice-skating event at a stadium in DC, I was enchanted. It was not a competition, but a show, not televised. Each of the pairs or individuals performed as personalities; there were shared group sequences. There was no excess noise in the one intermission. Since then in DC no shows come anymore, and it is all fierce competition for places in line-ups for the next contest.

Our prize-obsessed culture has won out. Just about every event is a competition or contest, and the whole atmosphere of the event is intermixed with that of an ordeal. Each of the skaters has thrown their lives into this sport, and they have spent hugely (or their parents have) and it is crucial to win. Some of them fall away quickly; those who stay the course can become anorexic (if girls) or otherwise suffer the various ills that come from such a lifestyle. Their sexual orientation becomes a matter of speculation, and until recently gay men had to hide their sexuality. A figure like Michael Weiss did very well because he is so obviously stereotypically heterosexual white male.

In Milan stadium, after a given contestant’s routine was over, the contestant was led to sit before a replica of the Milan Cathedral waiting for their score: scores in ice-skating are subjective when it comes to decimal differences. most of them are trained not to show deep disappointment but now and then you would see it.

Do most of the people sitting there “tune out” what is going on about them? or does it excite them to feel they are in some celebrity aura? I know this celebrity aura is hard to resist, and when you are near someone thought so famous, and feel the way others about them, you yourself (I myself) act oddly. I once met a Prime Minister of the UK at a Trollope dinner: John Major. I found it hard not to try to impress him somehow in our talk and afterwards felt ashamed of myself.

In watching these young people, I found the earlier dancers (who were the less competent or less be-prized) sometimes more interesting. I wish some overt attention were paid to grace and lyrical beauty, but the way the scores are talked about are in terms of feats of physical derring-do or if the person defied physics in this or that way in how many times they twirled or jumped or in a pair stayed in dazzling sync while risking falling. Many hurt themselves on the ice.

During the Sunday gala I was impressed how a ballerina who was hired to do highjinks on a wire, was carried from the ice. I’ve seen announcers carried too. It’s hard to walk, and hard simply to skate, much less do the kinds of things these young people do. I keep saying young people because their career is usually over by their early 30s.

At Milan I found three hours my limit. The shows I’ve gone to with Izzy usually last two and one half hours with half an hour intermission. I went to one championship with her in Boston five years ago now and found I couldn’t last more than three hours either though the place was more comfortable. I couldn’t endure the noise, the flashing lights, and in the one case where we found ourselves the audience in a show that was televised — asked to sit utterly still, to clap here, to endure boredom there, to not mind all the cameras, I felt we were badly exploited.

People endure this because they have been taught that they don’t count, that it’s some how bad sportsmanship to complain of bad treatment. Attitudes like these are fostered by the celebrity culture and regarding some people as superior to others.

Most of the time I find individuals skating not as varied as the couple dancers and the athletic pairs, and enjoy the couples much more. Best of all are in shows when long-time trained performers know how to keep their individuality and yet be part of a group configuration. But if you watch carefully or take a photo and look later, you can appreciate individual feats & grace — though it’s hard to feel in the atmosphere of intense competition and in this particular case the discomfort of the Milan stadium.

Here is someone gliding:

Sometimes the camera captures gestures in dancers that in motion would be prettier:

Each set begins with the contestants lining up:


Men

When they won, they were put into ritualized tableaux in princess or prince costumes:

One the elements of the experience that interested me was the difference between what we in the forum were experiencing and seeing, and what those watching broadcasts saw and experienced. It seems somehow to prefer the false to say ice-skating is more pleasurable (and much less expensive) in the comfort of your home watching TV or a digital computer screen, but I like to remember how thrilled I was in the early years as dancing, skating, athletics on the ice is hard. You won’t experience the same thrill that you do when you are there near the body that can fall or mess up and then doesn’t. Izzy is so invested in a number of individual skaters for her to see them is a kind of validation of herself, her dreams.

This gets me to the movie, I, Tonya. The actress who played the harridan mother of Tonya, La Vonya Fay Golden (Allison Janney) won a Golden Globe. I wish I could think the this prize did not reflect the misogynist pleasure of our world where people get a kick out of seeing a mother figure made into a cruel bitch. The mother is presented as the one who originally drove Tonya into becoming a competitive ice-skater. She is presented as deeply bitter because her husband (rightly) left her her; no berating is too far for this woman as she “coaches” her daughter; she also will do anything for money. At the close of the movie she accepts money from court authorities as she tries to trick her daughter into confessing she was the instigator of the crime while she has a tape going around her body.

The movie is darkly funny: part of the way it’s done is that the actors play the people being interviewed by a unseen reporter and there are continual flashbacks as the story in chronological order unfolds before us. This allows for many occasions for irony. We identify with the downtrodden working class Tonya, and she is not caricatured or condescended to nor the mother. But her husband is: he is presented as most Americans’ idea of someone trying hard to be a macho male and not quite succeeding because among other things he hasn’t got the competence to make enough money to support the role with the necessary paraphernalia: fine house, fancy car, “in” clothes. He has an idiotic sidekick who reminded me of Trump: continually lying, ceaselessly boasting, profoundly ignorant, he has the foggiest idea of how to to a deed and cover it up. It was apparently the sidekick’s continual re-parking of a car outside the event where the attack took place that provided the police with their first clues.


The scene where the police confront Tonya and her husband and coach

The value of the money is to expose the hidden injuries of class and the impoverishment of the American working and middle class. We see that in the mother’s life especially, in the dives these people eat in. As Helen O’Hara says, it was a trial by media, the very media which builds up celebrity. This is brought out. The acceptance of violence of American life is seen in Tonya’s relationship with her mother and then husband: they both beat her. The one half-humane relationship in the film is between Tonya and her trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), but from what I have been told by college students in colleges where I’ve taught, these people are bullies too.

By the end of the film you feel for Tonya while at the same time are left unsure how complicit she was in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. She is presented as someone with decent impulses whose life and surroundings teach her to make bad choices (in her husband and leaving school) and drive her to rages like the others around her. The jury decision suggests that the jury was undecided how guilty she was but convinced her husband and the friend who literally attacked Kerrigan were criminal. Harding did not lose her ambition or her turning to physical competition for prize money: later in life she tried professional wrestling, and even became a celebrity boxer. She was made part of the sordid underbelly of movies: for example,a video of her having sex with her husband was released. She used this notoriety to keep afloat.

I suppose what makes the film a story for 2017 is she is not a victim heroine but someone part of a system that is fosters internal war in people’s psyches, which they then bring to their social experience. I recommend reading Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas for the full context for all this.


Fixing her shoes — she is crying from dismay and hurt

It can all begin with innocent enough dreams of accomplishment, of pride, of achievement in the world’s eyes. I’ve been asked more than once if Izzy skates. She has, mostly for fun, and except for the one time I tried to skate with her by herself. I can think of five sequences in books and films where ice-skating is presented — H. E. Bates’s Love for Lydia, the opening; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the opening; John Gay’s early 18th century poem; Trivia, or the Art of Walking in London, where a central sequence is devoted to showing life on the ice in the midst of one of the intense frosts of the 18th century in England , and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where Levin and Kitty as ideal sweet lovers yearning for one another ice-skate together. In all these the moments are idyllic, a halycon hiatus, physically beautiful too. The fifth is in It’s a Wonderful Life where George’s brother falls on thin ice, and George risks his own life to rescue him. Deep heroism, self-sacrifice. It is somehow indicative of the human psyche that this sport is rarely presented with any reality to our eyes.

About two weeks before we went, Izzy took herself ice-skating (partly looking forward to our trip) and fell. When much younger, she did ice-skate regularly by herself. But I had to drive her and it was not that much fun by herself. Now she was kindly taken care of while there and came home limping. It was only a twisted ankle, and within a couple of days she had no pain. A couple of weeks after we came home, she went with her JCC social club ice-skating. She didn’t fall.

For her I believe the time was very good and she is planning to go to Nationals (as she calls them) the next time they come to Boston or perhaps the World’s at Montreal. She loves to blog about ice-skating, participates intensely in this world of ice-skating, knows the politics which she reports on too. The sport and her participation in it help give her life meaning. There are thousands of people like her; each time I’ve gone to an event I’ve been impressed by the variety of types of people who are there fully absorbed. I think they were not well treated in by the Milan stadium owners. Izzy used to put up lovely YouTubes on her old blog, and I would share some too — where she shows her gift for elegant concise writing and carrying much knowledge lightly — but the commercialization of YouTube has taken most of her hard-worked efforts down.


The famous Nathan Chen whom Izzy and I first saw as a 12 year old seeking a scholarship at a Michael Weiss run skating event in (remote) Maryland — what has his life been.

I liked how he made a point of dressing simply. I wondered if that was part of his way of dealing with the stress.

Miss Drake

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Closure

Friends,

More than two weeks since the festivities were over, and more than a week since I turned into a class member at the Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning for 4 weeks at Mason (and soon, very briefly, but 3 mornings worth) at AU. The above tree has been taken away, and bitterly cold spells keeping us in so that after weeks of pushing myself reading as much Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson and on biography as I could take I achieved the proposal and an outline and plan for the paper I’m working on: “Presences Among Us Imagining People: Modernism in [Samuel] Johnson and [Virginia] Woolf’s Biographical Art” — too long to quote here – and send it to the editor of the volume it’s intended for, whereupon it was approved. And there’ve been balmy afternoons, permitting a museum visit and afternoon walks,


Me at the National Gallery with


my friend, Panorea,

much reading, as in Roger Fry, whose Vision and Design taught me what was wrong with the Vermeer and His Contemporaries exhibit we saw on that day in the museum (when we also had that hellish experience of parking in today’s world):

I liked the paintings, and of course, especially Vermeer, who of course stood out, but of course one knew that would be so already. I saw two new Vermeers I’d seen before and some of his contemporaries’ paintings I’d only seen in reproductions were made far truer for me. But it was a disappointment. Why? it was organized by motifs, by what was shown, the literal content (musicians with women of dubious reputations, women writing letters &c) and I learned nothing new. It should and could have been organized by painter. I did see that several had one or two paintings as good as Vermeer and there were two Vermeer duds. I could get no sense of the vision or development or uniqueness of these others.

I’d been reading Roger Fry and while looking at these persuaded me his total dismissal of content, of imitation of reality, as unimportant won’t do, his insistence this is a medium that the artist expresses emotion through and we contemplate and enjoy from aesthetic criteria is accurate. I couldn’t do that because the exhibit was arranged only with literal content in mind. Outside the exhibit there were two expensive books filled with artistry of one or another of these people separately ; that means they could have organized the exhibit that way. Surely they know better too.


Amelie Beaury-Saurel, Dans Le Bleu (1895?) — one of the many artists and pictures I’ve never seen before

I did buy a book, an equally expensive one — under $40 — Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, once I stop this doing of papers for others and get to my own projects I will return to blogging for women artists among other things.

Also in no particular order a few marvels of novels, literary criticism, and biography, and movies, of which I’ll describe just one: Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent:


On her own at last (Wendy Hiller as Deborah, Lady Slane)

Deborah, Lady Slane, is an 88 (!) year old heroine. At long last she is standing up — well sitting down mostly — for what she would like to do with her life, where she would like to live. Her husband dies — shall I say at long last again?– and she refuses to live with her children, or to travel from one to another but instead sets up her own apartment in Hampstead in a place she saw 30 years ago. I couldn’t quite believe that not only does no one want to cheat her but she comes across two elderly men who do all they can to cater to her — she meets these gentle non-materialistic noncompetitive people, giving her book a long central space for a long soliloquy in the middle of the book (very like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) that just riveted me. How she was deprived of her deepest desire to paint; how no one of course wanted to deprive her, but neither could anyone take such a desire seriously. She must (they all thought) value her work as a mother (and especially of sons) infinitely more. She thinks about the anti-feminist point of view, and asks herself why is life as a mother not as valuable? why is producing a fine human being not as valuable as a work of art. The answer is the other person is apart from us and it’s us we want to embody in something beautiful or truthful or relevant that speaks to others.

It has funny passages such that I laughed aloud. Not a very common occurrence with me. Jokes in the dialogues between Deborah, our 88 year old heroine, and her beloved maid, Genou (played by Eileen Way, barely recognizable from her part as Aunt Agatha in the 1970s Poldark). As novel began, it resembled the humor of Patricia Duncker’s Miss Webster and Cherif, about an aging spinster to whose door comes a young African or black English young man and she takes him in as a handyman about the house. Very dangerous and Andrew Davies picked that up in his film adaptation of Barbara Howard’s Falling with Penelope Wilton as the older woman living alone who takes Michael Kitchen, as the seeming kindly alone older man, who becomes terrifyingly abusive. It’s probably skirting that which makes the delight of such books. The origins are ultimately the kind of thing we find in Mrs Miniver, or The Egg and I — or they participate in this fantasy.


Her unkempt garden

When Mr FitzGeorge, an equally elderly man who has kept an image of our heroine somewhere in his mind for many decades since the time when he saw her in India (despite hemmed in by family and children) and recognized a kindred spirit, when he I say comes to visit, and then he leaves her his vast collection of art objects, what does she do? Not leave it in legacies to her children (most of whom she dislikes — her spinster daughter so happy on her own at long last and unmarried son not so much), but give it to the state and charities. Everyone thinks this is throwing it away as the worst people may get their hands on it and what will they do with it.

The meaning the heroine’s mind wants is a final gesture contra mundi. She refuses to acknowledge that all this is valued for the money it will fetch, its status (who did it), its prestige – what Roger Fry said was true of why people valued what art they paid for. Then a visit from a great-granddaughter shows her that this one girl despite the photos which made her out to be an utter sell-out don’t represent her for real. Soothed by this thought but not regretting she didn’t leave this granddaughter anything she dies.

I love the way S-W’s mind just leaps on to the telling descriptive detail that so convinces and amuses — suddenly she lifts, John, her cat, John off the magazine she is pretending to read. Of course John was there, and of course he struggles when she attempts to make him look at something.

Ah me

Also the depth of feeling between a woman and her “maid” found in Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing (a historical novel centering on Marie le Jars de Gournay, her maid and Montaigne), for the two live meaningfully because they are together, one serving the other, with the tragic close of the death of the rich one with the poor thrown out. Poor Genou. She will be kicked out and only if there is some kind of tiny legacy will she know any comfort after this. We get a quick picture of what her life was before becoming this 24 hour servant – one where she was 12th child, utterly mistreated. More than merely bitter-sweet.


With her faithful Genou (Eileen Way)

And I watched a deeply satisfying dream-like realization of it in a film with Wendy Hiller (1986, TV film) at the center this.

What does a diary do but mark time? I’m not the only one in this house who has changed in the last four years. I newly appreciated Rudyard Kipling’s “The Cat That Walked By Himself” (a story that in another life Jim read aloud to me and Laura when Laura was around 9, sitting in front of a winter fire in the front room fireplace).


Snuffy in the morning near his cat tree and water bowl

My cat, Ian, now Snuffy has undergone a profound change. Four years ago when Jim died, Snuffy spent most days under the bed or hiding somewhere. He’d come out to sit on the top of chairs and watch us, seemingly for hours never moving. Each night after dinner when Jim and I would sit by the table drinking wine or coffee, he’d come onto Jim’s lap. Once in a long while, he’d come over to be petted by me. After much effort, when Laura spent four days and nights he, he began to play with her, follow her about and open up his body to her, sitting up straight, putting out paws, and looking at her longingly. But he remained wary and played from a corner of the room. He never asserted himself that I could see. Jim had forbidden him and Clarycat to come into my study during the day because once long ago Snuffy had eaten the wires to the computer and messed them all up. It took Jim hours to repair and replace.

Shortly before Jim grew sick, shortly after I retired, I rebelled against this regime and said they come into my room with me because they are old enough to know not to gnaw on wires when bored, lonely, tired, frustrated. (I am not sure of this and would not want to leave them in this house alone for days to try this out.) Gradually I was making better friends with them.


Togetherness

Well now four years have gone by, and I have let them become part of all my daily rhythms; they have their place in all that happens. He still hides out for a couple of hours a day, but when he’s finished this calming stint, he comes over to me, puts his paw out and nudges me gently and gets onto my lap. We have lap time. We also have chest and head time; he pushes his body against my chest, his head against mine, his tail waving away, and lets me hug him tight. We do this a couple of times a day. He follows me from room to room, sometimes getting out in front of me and then moving on in the expectation I will follow him, but turning to make sure and then alter his path if I do. He spends most of the rest of the day quite visible — running about, sitting in front of windows, hanging around me or ClaryCat — often making a nuisance of himself as he tries to mount her (she will spat at him after a while), wrestle with her, or lick her thoroughly all around. She cannot bully him the way she once did as she held fiercely in her mouth a toy. He remains wholly unimpressed nowadays. Night time he takes his place curled into my legs; Clarycat has lain nestled by the side of my body most nights for years. (This is how I slept with my dog, Llyr, and 40 years ago, with another cat, Tom I called him, the stray-feral I had to leave behind in Leeds.)


Clary waking one morning

Izzy’s door. This is a bone of contention and he is winning. He stands by her closed door for hours mewing. He used to make half-hearted attempts to get her to open it, but now he is persistent. We open it, and he goes in, but he wants out. He stands before the closed door on the other side. Goes over to Izzy, paw on her arm. He then stands in front of the door after she opens it. What he wants is a door ajar. And he is winning. I threatened to strangle him one day if she didn’t leave that door ajar. He will trot over to my chair and mew at me, and put his paw on me to get my attention. If I talk at him, it doesn’t help. Another day she threatened to go mad if he didn’t leave the room so she could write in peace. She says the room gets cold if it’s ajar, since he opens it farther to come in and farther to come out. I don’t like hearing her music. But he is winning. He wants access to us both at once. He feels securer. Access to her room where there are places he hides. As I type this this morning the door is ajar, he has pushed it and trotted into her room. Clarycat in front of my computer looking out the window with alertness.

Most striking of all is how he treats others coming to the house. Yes he will still run and hide when people come into the house. And most of the time not come out until they leave. He does not chase or pursue insects the way he once did, keeping at them and then somehow killing the poor things as they become exhausted or crippled, and then pushing them with his paw. He grows older I expect. Maybe wiser in the sense that there’s nothing practical here for him. He was never one for toys the way Clary is. Yet once in a while he will venture to show himself to people and have a look. But often time nowadays as someone comes down the path, he growls and loud. He shows his displeasure by going to the door and growling. Sometimes he prowls about guarding the space. We have never had a guest who brought in a pet.

Startlingly he solved the problem of Greymalkin. You may remember Greymalkin as this peremptory grey cat I thought was a feral or stray and was putting food out for when I discovered that she or he had an owner, a neglectful one who had left her or him there for two weeks with only a brief visit a day from his daughter to replenish food. I can do nothing for him or her because he or she is defined as property, “owned” by this man. That cat is still neglected and still comes round and meows quite loudly on my stoop for food and water — and attention. He or she wants to be petted, and I can see wants to come out of the cold and wet by immediate feeling; if I thought it wouldn’t cause trouble, and I’d let him or her come in. It’s been very cold, sometimes pouring ice when I see this poor cat come round. It would cause trouble for me, for what would happen if this cat ran under a chair or hid, as it has no bell as part of its collar the way mine do and it is “owned” by someone else. (Thus I experience how someone living near an enslaved person could be helpless to protect him or her).

Well, Snuffy does not feel this way. He apparently resents the cat coming to the stoop and eating food I gave him or he. Some “smart aleck” type person would say Snuffy is wise to this cat. When Snuffy sees this cat coming down the path, he leaps off my desk (he might be sitting between the back of my computer and the window over my desk), growling and spatting and runs to the door and makes loud noises. Poor Greymalkin flees in fright, leaping away like a kangaroo.

Snuffy’s basic wary nature is still there. I mention he needs hiding time. He will spend time opening drawers and then getting in and staying there. It is important that I don’t let him know I see him, which I do (he thinks if he cannot see me easily I cannot see him), for when he sees that I know where the place is, he finds a new place. Were he a human being would he be the less intelligent seeming, less senstive type, and (forbid the thought) vote conservatively. I feel sorry for Greymalkin, who is a neglected cat. He or she is a hard fat sturdy cat, but I feel the hard behavior is in imitation of his or her owner and if he or she had a kinder environment a nicer personality would develop eventually. Greymalkin does not expect to be treated with affection.

Clarycat is not quite the same as she was when Jim lived either. She was deeply attached to Jim, and grieved for days after his death. She knew he was dying and was distraught the two days he died. Caw-cawed and walked back and fourth in the corridor between the front part of the house and the bedroom where he lay. Then she sat squat down in his chair tight for days on end. Now she is attached to me. But not quite the way she was to Jim because he was a different personality.

She is my perpetual pal, murmurs and talks to me all the live-long day, my companion, ever there. She was attached to Jim, but not in this way. Snuffy is nowadays around my computer much of the time, but he does not make little murmurs in reply to my speech the way she does. He is not Loving or dependent in the way Clary is. He is a cat who walks by himself, she is not. She is also much more alert, picks up what’s happening around her, eager to join in once she deems it safe, pro-active, open to experience: as to Greymalkin, Clary was terribly curious but would just watch from the window. Jim would not permit the endless interventions she imposes. He would have her in his lap and engage in eye-contact time for a while; he’d play with her, letting her cat-bite him gently; then that would be that. I don’t play; I’m not playful with people either; most games bore me. She has just now lost her little grey mouse toy; it’s disappeared. She probably took it somewhere I can’see and for a time, it’s gone. She does walk by herself in the manner that Kipling suggests: she negotiates. In return (she is aware) for good treatment, she sits by my radiator, drinks what I give her, but as for killing (another aspect of the negotiations in Kipling’s story; the cat agrees to seek out and kill certain yet smaller animals) that’s out in this house.

What is the refrain of Kipling’s story: “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. I will not come …. And he went back through the Wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone. And he never told anybody” (This is much resented by the Man and the Dog.)


Emma Lowstadt-Chadwick, Beach Parasol (portrait of Amanda Sidwall, 1880) — another from Women Artists of Paris

Miss Drake


Mary Poppins’ Cat: and some considerable sorrow for Garrison Keillor, with troubles over taxes, Yahoo groups, and (sigh) once again travel in the NB and PS comments

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Photo of my newly painted house — gentle reader imagine a much lighter, whiter cream color ….

Friends,

Eleven days since I last wrote, and I and Izzy and my older daughter, Laura, are off to Rehoboth Beach on Friday morning to stay in a hotel on the beach front, a suite of rooms where we hope to relax. Sun, wind, fresh air, sand, a boardwalk, I just hope it won’t be too hot — as it has been today.

I’ve had a new pleasant experience — I attended my first face-to-face book club where the people discussed the book for real, Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, such that I wanted to go back and reread because I realized as we talked the book had more depth and varied rich passages and characters than I had given it credit for (Booker Prize winner or no). It’s organized by the OLLI at Mason: serious fiction, with a moderator, all in circle on plain chairs. It’s a bit far for me: Reston, but then I learned how to get there now and it felt worth it. I am listening to a reading of Winston Graham’s sixth Poldark novel, The Four Swans, a fully mature stage within this continuing cycle of novels, about to be dramatized this coming June on the BBC (the third season, which will begin with fifth, The Black Moon). So however tiring, the time in the car is not wasted at all. I look forward to going again; the club meets from September to May. I’m getting better at finding places by car (with my trusty garmin and printed out maps).

I’ve also — unhappy this one — been again astonished by the irresponsibility of doctors at Kaiser when it comes to prescribing drugs (pills). A doctor knowingly prescribed a sleeping pill he must’ve know was addictive and then showed no concern if I was addicted to it. Paid no mind to this aspect of what happened at all. And in true Trump-style manifested a shameless disregard, denial, of obvious truth. After three years and some months of taking a mild depressant each night to help me sleep sufficiently to be able to drive and live my days, I discovered the pill a doctor prescribed is no longer working. I’ve become inured; to make me sleep, I have to take say two pills and they don’t always do the trick — or as much heavier, addictive pill, Restoril, becomes necessary. As my widowhood and the contour of a life that will be mine (with my disabilities over travel, circumstances, placement &c), on my own (as they say) — a long, long road stretching out before me, years I must walk through, I was understanding Julian Barnes’s word for his wife’s “disappearance” as a death-time, since he didn’t and couldn’t forget her, shaping this aftermath; then growing so tired of coping with all sorts of things, deep angst.

So I tell a little of this to the psychiatrist and his reaction: prescribe a pill (new drug!) said to make the patient sleep and provide release from anxiety, Remeron it’s called. He seemed to care that I have a bleeding problem at first; was going to send me to hematology but when he contacted them, he recontacted asking me about bleeding episodes “so so we are on the same page.” Then behaved as if I had had no hemorrhages in my life (when I’ve probably had 4-5). In effect he refused to question an old diagnosis from the oncology and hematology people at Kaiser that I have no hemorrhage problem after I have experienced 4, twice coming near death. That’s not his area. I took one Remeron Tuesday night and found myself in the grip of a trauma, a kind of intense trance where my feelings were no different but at a distance, my body feeling sickened. It was harrowing. I came near a car accident! Not until Thursday noon, did it wear off. I tell this to the psychiatrist and what does he say, Oh, we’ll try another anti-depressant in a couple of days when this wears off. This should be astonishing. Is it? Well, in a mood of self-preservation (what happens when I grow old, I must maintain independence as long as I can), I instead for the next three nights I went “cold turkey,” and took no pills. I felt better physically, more alert than I had in a long time. But I am not sleeping enough — 2-3 hours is not enough.


Vanessa Bell (18791961), gorgeous (just look at that hat) Lady with a Book — from later in her career

I simply returned to segmented sleep, which is my natural pattern, sleep four hours (if I’m lucky), up for a couple where I read in bed, and then hope for another hour or so, from new tiredness. I won’t take any more of these drugs. So a new pattern of daily life is emerging. I’m reading good books at night, and then again just after the second awakening. I might not make it to the gym the way I had been this past winter.

I need a good doctor. Responsible. Looking after my health as an individual.

Leave Kaiser? If I did, I could never go back as I was not the federal employee, it would cost me so much more (I am grandmothered into an earlier deal), and I know from experience when I find myself facing lists of doctors from say an insurance hand-out I don’t know who to go and end up with no one. More than half the time before the HMO I had bad encounters, and no regular doctor. And was fleeced, often disrespected. I remember years ago being charged $37 for five minutes of man’s time – he laughed at me when I said I was suffering from headache. The American health care system is indeed a joke, even when they are not outright fleecing and bankrupting you. I did frighten the present Kaiser psychiatrist by my email to him on the Kaiser site; he phoned me (!) and talked of how he was so concerned, how much thought he had put into this, did I want to come and “chat” (that’s his word for what passes for serious talk with him), and I heard him typing, taking down every word I said lest I sue. That’s why he cares about: his career. (Addiction doesn’t concern him at all. Like some dentists’ attitude towards teeth: the real ones are not as good as the pretty crowns.)

Outside Kaiser I am told this prescribe-drugs and send the patient to a social-worker therapist is the protocol. I did have a good psychiatrist when I went to the Haven for a few months after Jim died — pure luck. She did talk of my past and deeply and helped me see things I had not before. But I lost her when the DMV removed my “driving privileges” and harassed me for months over it (invisible computer monitoring is the way they use the cops to stop people from driving — in the state of Virginia there is a class action suit against the DMV for egregious use of this technique, among other things impoverishing people who can’t get to their jobs) and I couldn’t reach her any more. American institutions, American lack of public transportation. Deep culture here? from many practices followed, isolation structured in.


An interesting mid-20th century painter, John Piper who I read about recently in the LRB: Chicester Cathedral from the Deanery

Just one small life — insignificant against the unfolding of the Trump regime (stop gentle reader and watch this two-part Dutch documentary). Today I spent some 5 hours altogether at the OLLI at AU anniversary party/luncheon (they have been going for 35 years) where Diane Reims spoke. While she is a decent woman I can see, intelligent I did discover why I never listened much: too schmaltzy, too mainstream, and they applauded her for her sentiments a couple of times. What a group these people are. Many went to private colleges, even Ivy League and this in the 1950s, or early 60s. Many of them slightly older than me, most just luckier than me. Many came from genuinely middle class families which led to their careers. So many were lawyers — the men of course. All with grown children, two to four, grandchildren, traveling as a pair to them in say Switzerland or Florida. Though I know there are some single women there (divorced, widowed).

I sat with the good intelligent woman who was the teacher of the Woolf class I attended, who herself used to teach at University of Maryland. It was good talk — of the Brontes, the neglected Anne, the greatness of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Bronte’s poetry, DuMaurier’s powerful Branwell Bronte (a biography) and Gaskell’s Life of Bronte. She and her husband used to go sailing down from Cape May to Bermuda (never did get caught by pirates); she described wonderful evenings after a day’s sail, friends where their crew. She travels regularly; rents apartments in Italy, there for art biennales (the Venice one), goes on hiking trips to Maine with him (at 80); he was a tenured professor of chemistry, Emeritus. I was again berating myself for when Jim suggested we learn to sail decades ago, somehow we never did it — he had found a flyer about lessons; maybe it was my fault; my nervousness; there was the problem of having a boat — we couldn’t afford to own one and Linda and her husband did own a boat.

Through it all I felt how lucky this woman has been. She attributed to her husband the sailing expeditions. He knew how. (Jim could have learned; it would have been good for him.) I was wishing too how I had bought some summer house when he suggested that — somehow we’d go out and look and not do it, not buy — they were another mortgage. He did love boats — or the idea of boats from his growing up in Southampton. I remember one year he said let’s go to this Renaissance conference in Italy and I demurred. Why? shy? in Florence it was. Had we done that would we have begun to go to Italy regularly? with what money? well, he was making enough to go to England and Landmark Trust houses. My fault he and I didn’t live the life we could have?

Others at this table and elsewhere were talking of their Road Scholar vacations and casual holiday in historical places, and I can’t do this — to go on a tour by myself I will have to get up immense courage, to the Lake District and just beyond, it’s 14 days and $5,000. The places to look at sound alluring. Do I want to go to this schedule, I’d have to buy some clothes, sit down with others to 3 meals a day and so on. Would I enjoy this? strangers. What would they be like? I’m told by people that you make acquaintances, even can get sort of close, but then the trip is over, the relationship ends.

But I long for a good life: it’s like I died just as I retired. Jim had been retired for 8 years or so and then I retired, but my life depended on his and his ways, so his dying within a year of my retiring is in effect the death of the life I would have had — it might not have been like these people probably, but in that direction. I had a sort of revulsion or came home from it exhausted. Nervous. I left a little early, had endured enough I felt — everyone talking of the courses we teach or take. Meaning well. It was relief to leave. I said to myself I am over 70 and I don’t want to be pressured — felt so just intensely reluctant at what profession I had had (the offer of that adjunct at the Georgetown place in an innovative BA program for older returning students, the first year I was widowed which I flubbed, couldn’t seem to cope with the dean). I’d have to learn Blackboard, or some other latest technology and cope seriously with students. Eagerness comes from youth, from hope. And my learning curves in tech are so deep.

What life would I gain this way? Tired after a lifetime of in my way trying hard, repeated perhaps making bad and wrong decisions but not because I didn’t care and didn’t mean to end up well — because at the time they were what seemed best, what I could do, what I was led to do, yes by Jim’s advice too; he would say why beat your head against a wall driving two hours to get to this job? I hoped I would somehow know some fulfillment and I did for a time, after I came onto the Net and for say 15 years. I did fear so, that he would die youngish, but turned away from the possibility this disaster would happen. Dreaded it too much. He did leave me solvent, in this comfortable house, with 10,000 books …. our lives history.

Julian Barnes’s phrase is deathtime — a person has a lifetime and then afterward a deathtime in the memory of the life left behind … and in the memory of others (in say books).


A dream picture: put on face-book for another FB friend, Harold Knight (1874-1961), Morning Sun

I finished Oliphant’s Kirsteen this week, in the end a flawed satisfying book, like others of hers (deserves a separate blog). I tell myself I’m still working towards a possible book on “The Anomaly,” and serious reading there has shown me there were very few women living alone until 1850 (in any kind of comfort or safety). Not possible. Not allowed an income to do it on, not allowed the security of knowing no one can break in. And I’m reading a delightful Portrait of Cornwall by Claude Berry. Wonderful black-and-white, grey, photos from all over Cornwall.

Teaching has come to an end for now. I did have a wonderful findal session with the class group at the OLLI at Mason over the profoundly moving Last Orders by Graham Swift. They loved it too. Since then I returned to Waterland, the book and film. Soon I’ll start preparing for this summer’s course: historical fiction, old fashioned first, DuMaurier’s King’s General, which I remember as so erotic, lyrical, so melancholy (the heroine crippled in a wheelchair), and then the post-colonial, post-modern, anti-foundational type, Sontag’s immensely brilliant The Volcano Lover. My review work includes Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Bronte.


One of Laura’s four cats, either they cooperate more or she is better at capturing them in a photo ….

Since Nine O’Clock

Half past twelve. The time has passed quickly
since I first lit the lamp at nine o’clock,
and sat down here. I’ve sat without reading,
without speaking. With whom could I speak,
all alone in this house?

Since nine o’clock when I lit the lamp
a ghostly image of my adolescent body
came to me, reminding me
of closed and scented chambers,
and past pleasures – what brazen pleasures!
It brought before my eyes
streets now unrecognizable,
bars once filled with movement, now closed,
cafes and theatres that once existed.

The vision of my body in its youth
brought sorrowful memories also:
the grieving of my family, separations,
the feelings I had for my own kin, feelings
for the dead, whom I little acknowledged.

Half past twelve; how the time has passed.
Half past twelve; how the years have passed

— C. P. Cavafy — one of Jim’s favored poets — I have the book of his poetry in my house

Too late, too late, too late, turning to see too late.

Probably I ought to start signing Ellen

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Evelyn Dunbar (1906-60): In the garden gardening

You did it for yourself, for you to be comfortable and take pleasure in — my therapist about this year’s renovations

Dear friends and readers,

I realize I’ve not been posting regular diary entries. As I’ve said (doubtless too often) I am probably in yet another phase of learning what it is to be a widow like me (not all that individual as a number of aspects of my situatio are found across the population). For me another fuller sense of what my loss means in terms of what my life is and can be like. Jim was my fortress of friends, and at my age, given how social life is organized, and my own particular version of if, the invisible ignored adjunct, I find I end up shaking some days after an unbroken period of literal aloneness. I am fortunate in having a deeply companionable online life; other widows have more family or career relationships. In the US generally people rely on their churches (or synagogues, meeting houses, mosques). I’m an atheist. I would be so much better off with a pub culture for the evenings. More prosaically until tonight I have not found a day when I could say definitely I have succeeded in my goals for renovation. This is something you can find older widows doing: renovating their houses. I try for each of my blogs to have something good to tell of.

So, as of several nights ago (about a week) I am the possessor of two items Virginia Woolf says I must have to be a woman writer of fiction. To be fair, I had a room of my own since the later 1980s when Jim and I turned a small room meant to be another bedroom into my study. It had become overloaded 10 years ago: too much stuff, too many projects, not orderly in its central thought-through core. But now I have a second room, and the fitted in porch space turned into a room crosses the yards of the house space. My study in 9 by 12; the new “sun-room” (it has two very large windows facing the front street — very old fashioned that) stretches out to something like 12 by 20 feet. It is colored light green with white trim. A very 18th century color scheme (as I discovered this is not popular when I paid for) shades a very pretty soft green. A photo would not capture the feel of this space. It does not fit most definitions: I find the workmen and contractor didn’t know quite what to call it and settled on sun-room. So I have taken my term from them. In the morning this room faces east and the sun comes shining in as it does in my dining room.

I also have a floor at the entrance to my house — a side door which is the culmination of something I have been unable to think of a better word for than a stoop (indestructible cement — well if someone dropped a drone on it I could see it shattering). This is a long impossible to explain story.

Only the surface events: we move as tenants into “this old house” in December 183, and discover a cast iron tub with feet leaks across the vestibule to the entrance of the house and probably hither and yon, meaning it loosens the once splendid parquet floors across a large front room area. We are able to buy said house four years later (June 1987) and hire a plumber to stop leaks, discover there were termites and get rid of them (but not before some base boards were devoured in this central wettish area). In a closet right next to the tub this plumber fixes said tub (he says don’t throw out cast iron even with feet) and rebuilds the floor with plain (but real) wood.

We are told in later years (1990s) twice to do anything about the vestibule where the tiles are can be regarded as a puzzle. one must put back into order every once in a while, we would have to remove all our bookcases from the front half of said house, and practically move out to replace the whole floor. How many times in this house have I had contractors tell me the house is about to fall down, or any small job is somehow an enormous one. But after Jim died, a kindly older man nearby (father to the chairwoman of the Home-Owners Association) fixed my fence after snow did some damage and told me “nonsense, you can certainly replace this small area of flooring.” I didn’t forget that remark, and when the contractor who succeeded in (in effect) doing my sun-room for much less money than a permit would have demanded (the requirements make money for the building industry) said, what else do I need done and I showed him this floor he gave me 3 small businessmen.

None of all this could have happened but that I made a friend who told me of these small businessmen contractors. Jim and I knowing no one fell back on these larger companies, and they do what they can to fleece you while cutting corners on fundamental upgradings.

Nonetheless, making a new floor for the vestibule was (like so much else in this house) a bad trial. The young man discovered asbestos riddled everywhere in a floor whose glue was 70 years old. He tried to remove the asbestos and glue in an inexpensive way and the result was a poisonous muck in the front area of my house. He worked on it for two days but since Izzy and I are living here (apparently the done thing is to lodge elsewhere) at night he had to leave the area somewhat cleared. Quarrels, he blamed me, and (as with enclosing the porch after the city got after me and my contractor) I began to despair. He found another option and (not as good) he “floated” a new wood floor using 3 strong pads on top of the dried concrete. I assure my reader it is a beautiful looking floor: a honey wood, he make all sorts of new baseboards, interim wood for thresholds. It’s as if for the 1st time in 33 years I have floor at my entrance. He also replaced a 30+ year old outdoor green carpet on the stoop (vile by this time) with a much more expensive silvery-brown one that is glued to the stoop! and a welcome mat. I did ask myself, “Why I waited this long?” I did say to myself no wonder people who came into the house were put off.

I’ve used the opportunity to have fewer bookcases in this new vestibule and in my dining area. I moved four bookcases into the new sun-room. It is by no means overwhelmed. One is a low wide one containing all my DVDs and books on CD and notebooks of films studies, another a narrow one for women’s studied. Two crossing one wall (and hiding a door) come from the dining area which is now less oppressed by having too much in it.

I hope I am not boring you, gentle reader. I will claim the authority of tradition. I’ve read enough early modern diaries by women to know that it is this kind of detail Elizabethan and 17th century women provide concretely when they are comfortably (because no fear of publication) writing of their life experience. Nothing the enormously wealthy (I’m not) Elizabeth Hardwicke and Anne Clifford like better to do than make a new sound floor. And they love to rebuild the outside of their houses. I can’t compete but my pièce de résistance is my whole house is now a beautiful, stunningly if I may say so myself, cream color. I was astonished to see that in fact power-washing does remove the previous coat (Jim doubted it would and feared we’d spend another $7000 for a worse color — maybe the compounds have improved). The dark red maple in the front and the white flowers and silver ferns are eye-pleasing enough for someone who can handle their cell phone camera better than I can. Gentle reader, rest satisfied with my words.


More by Evelyn Dunbar — in lieu of photographs of my house, which will not impress my reader. The simple modest changes I made and their beauty can only be seen in the reality (after all two of the walls are still brick outside walls in my sun-room, it’s the contrast of what was on the stoop; a hardwood floor is not glamorous; and the cream color itself somehow does not hit the eye strongly in my photo

Looking back, then, since Jim and I got hold of the money my mother unexpectedly left me, it’s been on and off renovation after renovation, starting with rebuilding 2 1947 bathrooms in March 2013. Summer 2013 rebuilding chimneys and major machines in the industrial closet (cleverly disguised as the back of a fireplace/hearth by an architect, Joseph Beach, whose work based on Wright has largely been destroyed across this neighborhood). Then starting in October 2016 redoing a good deal of the kitchen (though not replacing the large appliances except for the dishwasher), including pipes rebuilt, electricity recovered up to “code” in the attic (I have an attic), ending in November. Then starting up again in March for this new room of my own (porch transformed to a comfortable living space), all sorts of small but significant improvements (getting rid of unnecessary doors – yes houses from the 1940s had meandering halls and unnecessary doors), a smoke detector system, new lights in the ceilings (no more pull chains). A ceiling fan! — very pretty in the my official “front” or living room where the TV, piano, what passes for two sofas, and is a honey wood coffee table resides. On the two occasions since Jim died I have had guest, we’ve sat in that area and I’ve had a couple of women friends now and again there.

My latest therapist, a decent well-meaning intelligent young (in her 30s) cognitive therapist said in response to my plaintive I wish I had someone to invite and come into the house and “warm” it with praise, and I only will see it, that one fixed one’s house for yourself. And I’ve not had any kind of party or people for dinner over since the 1970s. I don’t know how any more (not that I ever did). I am thinking of trying for a dinner for my neighbor across-the-street who introduced me to all these contractors and had Izzy and I over for Thanksgiving dinner with her son.

*****************************


Eileen Atkins performing Woolf in a reading of A Room of One’s Own (she wrote the screenplay for Mrs Dalloway)

My teaching and being a class member are going well: in one we have moved from Gaskell’s masterpiece, North and South to Trollope’s, Framley Parsonage; in the other, from Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop to JL Carr’s Month in the Country onto Ondaatje’s English Patient). As class member I reread Mrs Dalloway, to the Lighthouse (and watched the two marvelous films), A Room of One’s Own and many of the essays in the first Common Reader. The class is fun as the teacher knows how to coax people into revealing their views of these books.
Virginia Woolf’s Monk House — a country residence

How Chekhovian is Woolf? I went to Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Kennedy Center. It was not just performed in Russian with English subtitles (in 2 inconvenient places if you are trying to take in much nuanced movement and acting and words). The production taught me I don’t sufficiently appreciate how hard subtitles are if you really want the audience to understand who is speaking to who and what’s happening — because you must epitomize. I leaving with a new feeling: along side the desperation of these aristocrats to find something to do: for the first time I saw Chekhov as comic. the players were half-mocking the intense melancholy, delivering the lines so differently. Attitudinizing funnily. This may not be Chekhov as his stories translated well are not like this. Cheknov’s Three Sisters is aimlessly, feelingly inconsequential much that is done. This is closely aligned with the movie, To the Lighthouse, which uses many of Woolf’s dialogues and words. The film with Rosemary Harris and Michael Gough as Mr and Mrs Ramsay is not funny or mocking but there is this utterly Chekhovian life going on feel — if only she could have been thrown off somewhere into deep (a cliff). One of Woolf’s essays in her Common Reader, “From the Russian Point of view, ” concentrates on Chekhov who she does discuss as intensely melancholy but she would have been aware of this aspect of his art which resembles hers. No imposed patterns.

I did wonder if this was rather the reaction of a common wider harder sensibility which finds the Chekhovian point of view ludicrous because in his prose (as translated) I’ve never seen much of this parody. And for me it didn’t work, quite. Apart from the inadequate subtitling, the play seemed to make no sense. If they weren’t grieving, frustrated, bitter and so on, then what was this all about: happy family pictures (because several times all the actors get together and have a happy family photo)? or sudden out bursts of dancing (this too happened). Some scenes of love-making were presented seriously but there was no over-arching idea.

So I’m not Cheknov is comic but it’s clear that the cast presented it this way and in the audience many Russian people were laughing. At the same time while people were not leaving in droves at the intermission, I was by no means alone going down the escalator to the garage for my car to go home. But it’s clear that Woolf in her To the Lighthouse (and its film) is the serious Cheknov

It’s been something of a Russian week: I saw the HD screening of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

We are not told the librettist most of the time, and a plethora of writers including Pushkin are cited in Wikipedia. I went because of my reading and discussion of Tolstoy’sWar and Peace the last half year has excited my interest in Russia Literature, and what I enjoyed most or what held me truly was the story: this inward story of twisted people. I have not been able to carry on reading the biography of Sophia Tolstoy I started but I hope to return to it when we finally get back to Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. The story moves slowly in Deborah Warner’s production (Fiona Shaw the director) but the sets are what they should be and not overdone. But I did stay the whole of the performance: I’ve not been doing that lately. I know this is very unusual but I find Anna Nebtrebko dull, unable to act, stiff, and any scene she’s in feels somehow tedious in places, but I admit she has a gloriously beautiful voice and can sing for hours. The conventional costumes suited her too. Still for me when she’s in something it is never what it could be since acting counts.

Still I stayed. I just loved Alexey Dolgov’s plaintive (poignant) rendition of Lenski’s aria before the duel (fatal to him). I had never heard it before and thought the man sung so poignantly. Mattei is very great: handsome, beautiful voice, he can act. I’ve seen the movie of Onegin with Fiennes in the role.

Someday maybe I’ll read the novel in verse. I’ve only an old copy — not a good modern translation at all. The interviews felt phony over the source — Renee Fleming would ask the Russian singer how much the poem had meant to him or her, and they would say ever since a young child. Haaa…

Nineteenth century English novels in verse include Aurora Leigh, The Ring and the Book, the form was used: George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy, which is good and I’ve even read! It’s good I’m remembering that this morning.

At home I watched on DVD, a marvelous 2002 film adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, scripted by Douglas McGrath. I was deeply moved and for the first time had a real feel for what this famous book by Dickens is. My father thought NN the most characteristically Dickens of all his books. I had realized that Smike (Jamie Bell) was another of Dickens’s disabled characters and he dies of the world’s treatment of him. Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) befriends but cannot save him. I had not understood who or what the Cheerybles or Crummies are. By unashamedly and boldly dramatizing the simple goodness, or exploitation and suffering of the characters, the burlesque-like caricatures against the sheer evil of the Squeers (inimitable performances by Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson) and hypocritical insidious venom of Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer), McGrath crossed the wide range of emotion. The women cast included Romolai Garai as Kate Nickleby, Anna Hathaway as Madeleine Bray, for comic good people Timothy Squall, Tom Courtney (the butler who betrays Ralph), Sophie Thomson as Mrs Lacreevy, and a rare ambiguous presence. Phil Davis.

I have a beautiful illustrated edition of the book from my father’s collection, and perhaps if we all are here and the destruction of Net Neutrality does not thrown the last wrench at Yahoo, we could as a group read the book together. It’s be the only way I’d read it 🙂


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life

Another brilliant use of over-the-topness is Ozon’s Frantz.

Not much else notable. I listen in my car to good dramatic readings of the Poldark novels (the dark Black Moon right now). but it seems I may not be able to throw myself into a literary biography of Graham.

The first half would have told Winston Graham’s life, where I would bring out how important Cornwall was to him but not dwell on this at length, keep it in perspective across a whole life. I would be discreet as large numbers of the people involved with various aspects of your father’s life are still living. In this first half of the book I would then discuss his non-Poldark books as a group, mostly the contemporary novels. I would bring out those elements in this which connect them to his historical fiction (the characters, the archetypal situations), situate them in their eras, evaluate them (I am aware of how much rewriting there was). The second half of the book would begin with how much Cornwall meant to him, be about Cornwall, and also historical fiction. A fairly long section (proportionate to the book’s size) on the Poldark novels, the couple of historical fictions set in Cornwall, would come then. I’d end on a film study of the two mini-series.

I’ve now written Winston Graham’s son, Andrew twice (email and snail mail) and he doesn’t even deign a response; my next try will be the assistant of the man who was Winston Graham’s agent for many years. I can’t begin to do research unless I know I will have permission to quote sources in the library, and a contact with an editor at Macmillan say would perform a miracle. I’ve never had many miracles in my life: the only I can think of was meeting and marrying Jim. It was to be Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark world (or novels):

Consequently I’ve begun reading as a book project (early stages) on “The anomaly” and am so enjoying Oliphant’s Kirsteen. How anxious and involved with the heroine I am. Women to include Margaret Oliphant, Geraldine Jewsbury, Anna Jameson, Julia Kavanagh ….

I don’t know that I have it in me to write fiction but I could write about fiction, through literary lenses on fiction. That way I can express myself indirectly.

On our Trollope19thCStudies yahoo listserv, we are just finishing Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, about which I’ll blog separately — bringing in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which I’ve managed to see the first terrifying episode of on Hulu.

Tomorrow is the Climate Change March in DC and I am going. I’ll be on the trains on my way to a concert with a friend (!) at the University of the District of Columbia (lovely classical music if I make it), and on Sunday, the Folger Concert again, this time The Play of Love, about which I’ll write in my next diary entry.

Miss Drake

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About 2/3s the way through Hungry, Part One of The Gabriels, the family begin to talk about the election campaign supposedly 8 months before election day, and when they come to talk of Hillary Clinton, and talk of how she is disliked, and women are not keen on her because of what seems to be her privileged background, they make this vague reference to Trump without using his name, too “unthinkable” and “dreadful” to contemplate. Then one character says: he feels “something very bad is just about to happen.” The audience as a group made this sound, not a laugh, but a real groan of what felt like semi-distress. The reference in immediate context is now Inauguration Day …

Dear friends and readers,

During this week seeing Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels has taken enough time from my wide awake hours to write about. I was more moved by Parts 3 (“Women of a Certain Age?”) and 2 (“What did you expect?”) than I’ve been at any movie, play or opera, for a very long time. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, comes closest to doing justice to the whole trilogy and making available what is so tremblingly relevant to us, two days before “a very bad thing is about to happen” (a line from Part 1 (“Hungry,” written and first produced months before Trump gained the nomination of the Republican Party).

10gabrielspublictheater
From The Gabriels… Part Three: Women of a Certain Age? (Maryann Plunkett is Mary leaning over the mother, Patricia played by Roberta Maxwell; George, her son is played by Jay O Sanders is comforting his mother who has lost her house; Hannah, his wife to the back, is played by Lynn Hawley; Joyce, Patricia’s daughter round the back (Amy Warren)

Let me begin with Part Three first, Women of a Certain Age, as I began there Saturday afternoon into early evening. Here is a brief synopsis (scroll down).

I loved it. The experience might be regarded as aesthetically old-fashioned, but the realism is done in such quietly rigorous naturalistic ways I’d call the technique innovative: how the talk was delivered, the gestures, the rooting in private realities brought forth indirectly was among the most naturalistic experiences on offer I’ve seen. The directors included Oskar Eustis and Patrick Willingham. It is about previously comfortable white middle class people who have lost out badly. The house owned by the mother, Patricia, is being foreclosed because she fell for a con-artist and went for a reverse mortgage and didn’t understand what this meant; she has been quickly fleeced at an assisted living facility and is now bankrupted by them. Mary, a widow, a doctor by profession, has not kept up her license to practice, as a result of four years of caring for a beloved husband who had Parkinson’s disease, intense grief. We gather over the play that his marriage to Thomas Gabriel, relatively late in life, was her second: she has a daughter from a previous husband (divorce ending it) and her one daughter feels so hostile she tells her mother not only can Mary not count on her for a place to stay however temporarily and to move near, but the daughter wants Mary to stay away from the whole city she lives in (Pittsburgh) or she’ll never even speak to her again. All three plays open with Mary (as the action takes place in what she discovers is nominally her house from her mother-in-law, now foreclosed). The relevance of details is obvious: the foreclosure king is now in charge of one of Trump’s departments of government, Treasury I believe and he was convicted (though had no money to pay or prison term) of foreclosing over thousands illegally to enrich his bank (himself and associates)

Hannah has taken a job as a maid in a hotel working with Hispanic people to try to get some money and keep her son by George (Gabriel), until late years a deeply proud carpenter — in college, which seems their own (however forlorn) hope. What George has had to endure in the last years is the very wealthy no longer think they need to pay him much (when they do pay him). The play has quiet tragedy beyond anguished humor — as the Gabriels are gifted people. Karin, Thomas’s first wife, now teaching play-writing, and come to live with the Gabriels (allowed out of Mary’s kindness) and trying to find a venue for her play on Hillary Clinton, can never tell if she has a date: she shows up for appointments to discover the man wants to exploit her monetarily, to learn about the house Mary has allowed her to rend a room in. The place is the Berkshires where there are many sites of memory, summer culture for the very wealthy. They are hard put to name Trump. At one point someone says what if “he” wins, and Mary replies, well, we’ll just all take a walk to a cliff and jump off.

Among other things, the play puts paid to the notion that it is declining standards of living, a feeling of being left out of globalization and technology led to voting for Trump. This group of people is not super-educated at all. But they are not racist, not bigoted, are mildly feminist (they would be with five women there), not into glamor– the audience for the New Yorker. It’s Edward Albee without the wrenching, Terence Rattigan in American mode.

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Hungry Public Theatre LuEster HUNGRY Written and Directed by Richard Nelson  Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren Sets & Costumes  Susan Hilferty Lighting  Jennifer Tipton
From The Gabriels … Play One: Hungry: beyond Joyce (Amy Warren) leaning over on one side; next facing us to the left is Thomas’s first wife (Mary was his second wife), Karin (Meg Gibson) who was once Patricia’s daugher-in-law and Hannah’s sister in law (but divorce cancelled that); and then Hannah (Lynn Hawley), George’s wife so Patricia’s daughter-in-law & Mary’s sister-in-law; then facing Joyce on the other side, we see Mary (Maryann Plunkett), also Patricia’s daughter-in-law

Onto Part One, Hungry: there is this problem if you choose to see the plays separately. And I admit not everyone has the time, stamina, to say nothing (at the Kennedy Center where it’s $23 to park in the garage) of the price to see all three plays (nearly two hours each) in a row. Partly (for me and a woman I sat next to who was so un-entertained that she said she would not go on to see the other two when she had planned to with friends) Nelson is expecting too much of a theater experience, which is unique and cannot be replayed, rewound, fast forwarded.

So now seeing Part One I began to better understand Part Three. Bad events are about to happen in Part one (foreclosure on the mother’s property) I hadn’t understood everything in the third play, and upon seeing the first, much was explained. Even the names of the central characters and how they related as “long-time” family and friends. I now from seeing Hungry know a lot more: who the characters are, their relationships. Now I’d like to re-see Play 3 — which one reviewer whose reviews I trust said is the best. There was a standing ovation for Part 3. But understandably, not so Part 1. It was scene setting and character and situation explication. Since I had seen Part 3 I was more moved by Part 1 (relatively hopeful than people who’d seen none: a woman sitting next to me who said she was disappointed and would not come to see the others. I knew more of what these characters were hiding (Hanna about to go to work the next week as a “maid” in a vast luxurious hotel, the only white cleaning woman. Nelson’s problem is he is expecting too much for a theater goer who has literally to get him or herself there. The experience of The Gabriels (cooking and preparing food, political discussions reading aloud to one another taking 4 hours to develop his story to intense engagement.

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THE GABRIELS: Election Year in the Life of One Family Play Two: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? September 10 - October 9 Meg Gibson Roberta Maxwell Jat O. Saunders Maryann Plunkett Amy Warren
From The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play Two: What did you expect?: George and Hannah the married couple, son and daughter-in-law to Patricia (brother- and sister-in-law to Mary)

Part Two, What did you expect?, the last I saw: I felt unbearably moved tonight (Wednesday) at the close of Part Two. If anything Part 2 is the most moving of the three. Since we are not encouraged to weep, I cannot liken it to Chekhov but the experience is closely analogous.

In Part Two the hard economic conditions under which this group of people are living emerges. What is conveyed is the inexorable lack of any help for the average person from gov’t or any other entity, and how family groups as individuals with no group to belong to (no union comes to mind, but there could be other entities such as I remember in the UK: Friendly Societies for mortgages, Building Societies, school programs), they are fleeced and cheated so fundamentally that they cannot win to security, and in the present gov’t induced “austerity” are condemned to struggle which gets them nowhere. They have lost the family house they are now living in because the mother was preyed upon by mortgage in reverse people — she agreed to give her house away and get payments for it because her social security was so small. She did not understand what she needed to pay and now she has lost the house. She must leave her assisted living because the charges are way too high and she now owes them thousands she cannot pay. The charge is $4500 a month for living in a single room, for meals, and for the individual dinners she had with her son and daughters-in-law. The discussion over this that suddenly breaks out is painful in the extreme to watch because it is the kind of discussion families avoid and allow to come out only in parts.

The one saving that George, the son, and his wife, Hannah have done, has been for the boy’s college and they must use that just to get the mother debt-free; they will have to borrow to pay for the boy’s college. We the audience know he may not get a decent living from this degree. They live in a community where super-rich people come for the summer to their summer homes. George wants to go on a picnic with a rich friend he recently made because they will go on a literary walk, but it emerges he is hoping to be hired to build bookcases for this man all over the man’s house. The man’s wife has three times since buying the house renovated the walls. We have seen how easy it is to cheat him of his pay. Hanna says the man agreed to it because he’s hoping to hire George to carry things for him (be a handyman-drudge). She has been asked to provide the picnic because George told these people she caters sometimes, but it was put as a favor, and she is not to be paid. We see the whole family preparing this picnic in What Did You Expect?

It’s just endless. The election as backdrop is a show, there is no sense that this Hillary or Bill who come round will do anything in gov’t for them. Nelson seems to know that Trump will win. We see a hollow government order. There are hidden powers these people don’t come near that are keeping them this way. They live in a vacuum. These powerful people are what is putting Trump (or Hillary) in power and it is they who call the shots. Nothing will be done to help these people, and they sink more and more. George we are told is not well but does not go to the doctor. He is not an aggressive man and during the second play we see how easy it is for a woman to buy a precious piano for much less than she should pay. It’s an upright no prestige, has these scratches (just what the Toyota store used to give me much less money for the car I traded in); it breaks his heart to lose the piano and he gets so much less for it than he should. He is a kind good-hearted man. I thought to myself that now that Trump won he will take power not because the constitution is being obeyed: when Obama wa sin power the constitution was not obeyed over senate appointments and they congress stopped him from passing everything they could. Becaus of Citizens United (put in place by the courts and corporations who brought the case) huge sums have put Republicans in power in all states and in congress. Now these powers will back whatever Trump does to the to the hilt now no matter what he does or says as long as he gets rid of the New Deal, and runs a gov’t by billionaires for millionaires.

That is the larger political reality this play slowly conveys. Not through speeches and a strong allegorical mirroring situation but in bits and pieces through real talk. In this talk we see a group of people who are good to one another and supportive: these characters are luckier than many. They have known griefs. Thomas whom Mary so loved and who was her meaning and mainstay for the last ten years did divorce Karin who now has come to live with Mary. In the first act Karin comes for a visit to commemorate Thomas’s death (Mary’s birthday), by the second she is renting Thomas’s old office to live in; by the third she has to find herself a new place she can afford. Not easy. She is alone, and at first Patricia and Hannah are not sure Mary should even let Karin stay the night (which is how she begins to insinuate herself into the family group). Mary’s one daughter will have nothing to do with her and it breaks her heart. Joyce, the third child of Patricia’s family now grown has intense “issues” with her mother who favored her two sons, George and Thomas, heavily. She has come each time because of an important occasion: Mary’s birthday where they commemorated Thomas; the mother moving out of assisted living. She is an assistant dress designer and like George services the super-rich. Hanna clearly loves George for him, what he is. The desperation is Chekhovian, the delicacy of the talk that moves into anguish only at heights. It seems that both George and Joyce resented Thomas’s success and his search for an “identity,” which seems to have meant really him trying to break away from this group and be a successful playwright, which he didn’t manage.

Something is omitted: like other middle class vehicles which play to white audiences (all three audiences were mostly white people): the systemic racism that fuels the refusal of the average person to identify with social programs and want to end them. This is a group of people seemingly not bigoted, the only time ethnicity comes up is when Hannah says in play three she will be the only white woman on the staff. Rhinebeck where they live is apparently heavily white in the native as well as the summering rich groups of people. It does show that immiseration does not have to lead to voting for Trump. These people are for Hillary Clinton because they are not racist; they never bring up immigrants either. This is probably improbable. Never to mention these as issues. Only Bill Clinton’s sex life, the bill that let the bank loose on people. Never as women to mention the end of welfare — since they are women who might need to go to unemployment offices. So there’s the flaw if made acceptable by its placement.

There is self-reflexive talk by the playwright too as when Karin is going over Thomas’s plays to see if anything can be sold. Talk about playwriting, what people go to plays to see. Nelson justifies his technique and goals in some of this. When George is pretending the sole reason he is going on the picnic, he goes on with great warmth over Hawthorne, Melville and Emerson and other American writers who lived in the area once upon a time. They read from a novel at one point (a graphic charged description of a scene of sexual intercourse from a woman’s point of view). And how could it not be implicitly truly feminist with five women on stage, and it’s deeply humane social vision. As with Austen’s Emma, the play has other invisible presences or characters so intensely talked about they are there: Thomas, the dead man; Paul, George and Hannah’s son, someone George gives a piano lesson to, the cruel women who drives down the price of the piano and lies she has another she might buy, and plays games like going to leave; the two dates that Karin goes out on, only to return quickly as they wanted only to exploit her (she is too old to attract a man); others they describe in their stories.

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whatdidyouexpect
Women of a Certain Age as title fits this scene: going round the table left to right: animated Joyce, single (never married); Mary, widowed (previously married with one estranged daughter); Hannah, married but now must work as a maid in a hotel; Karin divorced and no where to go, a stray (in patriarchal arrangements that’s what women of a certain age frequently become … )

So I came near tears at the end of the third play, and my last night at the end of the second didn’t dare speak or look at anyone or I would have burst into crying. Each play opened and closed with Mary, and her grief and loss. Here I sit week after week writing what I do? why? it’s the only way I know how to communicate with people.

So many thousands years in solitary confinement in the US. The extreme symbol. It was the play’s human dimension that hit me hard. The acting is so persuasively real and not at all overdone. What a relief. I did recognize people in the audience from Part 1, there for Part 2, and a couple from Part 3 on both nights. So I was not mesmerized alone.

I get so involved with literature that allows me to be with others and talk to others (or write) because (from Virginia Woolf on novels) “they are about people, they excite in us [me] feelings that people excite in real life.” This play attaches itself to an idea of what life is about, what makes it valuable, beyond community people need self-esteem, they need to be comfortable and secure, they need to feel good about themselves, need to value their activities and think of them as worth while. The Gabriels are a form of angels because they do want the finer values, not sheer material wealth, though they need some of that too. It’s about America’s spiritual condition which is being torn down and torn apart. In my solitary life I am representative of a lot of people. Karen in the play is closest to me but I recognized myself in all the women and recognized men I’ve known in George and Thomas (including Jim, in his last years an adjunct dressing down the way George does).

As I looked at the audience last night I saw displeased faces. People there did not like what they were shown. All three times the audience auditorium was about half full at best. There was a standing ovation at the end of the third part, but only applause (and standing has become a new standard) at the end of the second. I almost did not stand at the end of the second, but I so respected these actors for conveying such a depth of intelligent understanding and Maryann Plunkett for what it is to be a widow, containing in herself such stifled emotion and loneliness even amid these family members that I stood. I caught the eye of one of the actresses, Lynn Hawley who played Hannah and saw she was grateful to me. My standing made her feel better. Another woman had stood up too.

E. M.

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