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Moth orchid?

Friends,

This is my fifth summer without Jim and I find myself remembering the final sentence of Henry James’s Washington Square:  “Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again, as it were, for life.”   I don’t sew, nor garden, nor cook but pick up my books, turn movies, writing, and reading and writing with  friends on the Net (Ayala’s Angel and then Howard’s End on one list, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw for now on another). She did not have my options: I’ll be teaching “Trollope’s Traveler, Colonialist, Editor and Rural Tales” at OLLI at AU for four weeks, and “Woolf’s Flush, Orlando, and Three Guineas” for six. Just once a week. I have a new course to prepare for in the fall at AU:

The Enlightenment: at Risk?

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. We’ll read Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and excerpts from Madame Roland’s Memoirs.

And over at Mason in fall, I’ll repeat Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as Tudor matter, using the great film. August for under two weeks I’ll go with Road Scholar to the Lake District and Scottish borders.

So no fear of nothing to do this summer — with memories of him and my cats by my side. Nevertheless, I find if I am home alone all day by 4 in the afternoon I become desperate; I can take a couple of days of it no more. So I teach and nowadays go to classes too.

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Paths of Glory (Kubrick 1957, starring George C. Scott; reviewed in Guardian)

Since I last wrote on Milan, I have written about the films, plays, concerts Izzy and I have been to together and me alone on Jim and Ellen have a blog, two. There is a remarkable black Hamlet from the RSC touring about; not to be missed. And a Future Learn course on Jane Austen on Austen Reveries. There’s still 8 days to join in.

As an end-of-term thank you gift, my Later Virginia Woolf spring class at OLLI at AU gave me the above lovely flowering plant you see above. I don’t know if the person who chose it had in mind Woolf’s “Death of the Moth,” but the other gift a DVD of Elizabeth Bowen’s Last September (with Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, Lambert Wilson, Jane Birkin, David Tennant, script: John Banville) did emerge from my having said that Elizabeth is a daughter of Woolf. I watched it with Izzy a few years ago (Jim was still alive and he half-watched, coming in and out of the room) when she took a post-graduate course (for her) in Irish literature and “did” Bowen’s novel for her term project (a paper and talk). A superb film. Can I fit in re-reading that? blogging on the comparison? I’ll see.

The spring courses at OLLI at Mason are just coming to an end: my He Knew He Was Right, sexual and marital conflicts in Trollope and the 19th century is going astonishingly well. I hardly have to prompt discussion. I am attending a four week course where we hear about the life of and listen to and watch Leonard Cohen performing his extraordinary masterpieces of poetry and music. A little from this:

Of course this was not written recently — the year of Tiananem Square. He meant to be ironic.

A brilliantly accurate course on the aftermath of World War One has included stunning discussions on the part of the lecturer of the real behavior of the colonializers and a further three anti-war masterpieces of film: Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Kubrick’s uncompromisingly truthful Paths of Glory, featuring George C. Scott; and this week a 1995 BBC and PBS film named All the King’s Men (a more precise clearer name is Gallipoli).

The last less well-known than the other two merits a little attention: it tells the larger story of the catastrophic slaughter of thousands and thousands of men at Gallipolli

It uses an incident where all the men from a single country house — the king’s Sandringham — went as a battalion to Gallipolli and only one returned. No one has ever offered an official explanation, much less any kind of apology. Basically they were thrown away: these young men went with foolish naive ideas about glory and honor, seeming almost not to consider they are invading a country, sent there to kill, and so of course the people there will try to kill you. No provision made for them of any long term supplies, no study of the terrain, they were told to take a hill (rather like Paths of Glory) only there were no trenches to hide in. it’s too sentimental about the country house and much compromise of nostalgia for this “earlier innocent world” (I thought of Gosford Park) but the effect was as strong as Paths of Glory and it by telling this incident in such detail taught me what happened at Gallipolli. I heard one watcher say as if this is adequate: Churchill stubbed his toe. Another woman moaned about the bad Turks but most people could see what was put before us.

So house improvements:  Izzy and I dared to build a cat tree. It was harder than building a large Edwardian dollhouse (came up to my waist) that she, I and Laura built years ago. But no one was burnt as there was no need for a hot melt glue gun. We had a faded complex diagram, everything lettered and many screws and parts.

It’s in my bedroom. Those are the books against one of the windowless walls in my bedroom. (All the rooms in house have large windows on two of the walls.) Last night they climbed on it, They sat up high and surveyed their world; they fought (playfully) on different parts; it’s a scratching post and then went into and out of one of the stacks. Our pussycats have begun to use climb in and around it. The soft bowl sticking out I turned round to be inside the cat tree space and they sniff about it. I had a small or low tree, which I have now moved to my sunroom. It’s just the height of the window sills, which are very narrow and hard to sit on. Now they can sit on that cat tree and look out.

It’s all a pretty beige or cream colored tight fur or hard carpet and wickerwork. This morning I discovered that when Ian, the ginger tabby male sits behind the soft bowl pushed in and a thick string and the stack, he cannot see me very well. This is the sort of thing that makes him think I cannot see him at all. So he is happy there. The low slung sort of awning has a sort of cat purpose too. Ian falls into it because he puts his paw into a made round hole in the same flat; he then scrambles. It’s not just to amuse me but also puzzle him as he goes round and round pawing at it, trying to work out what it is. Clarycat has never been as playful a cat, though she can get possessive over specific toys (like her small grey mouse). But she leaps from platform to platform all the way to top and is mistress of all she surveys. $70, prime amazon so no shipping cost.

On face-book people did something I didn’t expect (they often do). Tried to work out what were the books behind the cat tree. I was asked about alphabetizing and if items were out of place near Devendra P. Varma’s Gothic Flame. So answer here: behind the cat tree lower down is my film books section, my gothic books section, and my translation books section; further up language books and it’s mostly books in Italian. The acqua book to the left high up is an Elsa Morante novel. Bookcase one over (or next): all books in French. If you see two crimson colored books that’s George Sand’s Consuelo, a row of books by George Sand who I used to love to read. Still do but am onto other things now. More individual: close to Varma on one side Tyler Tichelaar’s Gothic Wanderer and next to that Tzetan Todorov’s The Fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre. On the other side of xeroxes of Varma’s other essays in a red folder, two anthologies (out of order, lots of my books are out of order) and then a favore, Anne Williams’s wonderful Art of Darkness: a Poetics of Gothic, about female gothic books.

It does look like I will not be able to have a garden this year: to do it with a plan, and hiring a landscape/gardening place is outrageously expensive.  So I don’t know what to do about my five flower plots as yet.  For now I’m just leaving them there.

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Image online from Archives at the British Library

And I’m at long last reading away for my Winston Graham-Poldark modernist biography. I’m re-watching the old Poldarks serial and falling in love with them all over again. I listen to Davina Porter read aloud Gabaldon’s Voyager (Outlander 3), and watch the seasons, one hour at a time, obsessively after midnight. I rejoined the once-a-month-film-club and have a new friend to go with, and for Izzy and I have bought a few tickets to see Shakespeare, two operas and Gilbert and Sullivan this summer.

The worst thing about the area I live in is we are land-locked so one cannot get in one’s car and drive to the beach for the day and then home again. In NYC Jim and I used to do that in the 1970s: on Tuesday and Thursday early in the morning with our dog Llyr we’d set out for Jones Beach, close by we’d buy coffee and croissants and then go to an area where dogs were allowed. She liked going in the water and playing on the sand. We’d be home by 2.

Foolishly perhaps discussing what is real life with a friend. People keep excluding life on the Internet from “real life,” or reading, or writing, and watching movies seems not to count either. Or what do we mean by “building a life?” In the US today I’d offer this doubt as a note of reassurance: there is no building a life that one can rely on except for the few lucky who 1) above all hold onto the same middle class job that is respected for a long time and provides enough income to do what’s called entertain; 2) thus live more or less in the same vicinity for a long time; and 3) often as important stay in one relationship, again for a long time. The deprivation of ordinary daily happinesses and loneliness we are told so many Americans live with is from the insecurity of jobs, the destroying of social places open to all.

Gentle reader, do you know this poem by Leonie Adams:

The Horn

While coming to the feast I found
A venerable silver-throated horn,
Which were I brave enough to sound,
Then all, as from that moment born,
Would breathe the honey of this clime,
And three times merry in their time
Would praise the virtue of the horn.

The mist is risen like thin breath;
The young leaves of the ground smell chill,
So faintly are they strewn on death,
The road I came down a west hill;
But none can name as I can name
A little golden-bright thing, flame,
Since bones have caught their marrow chill.

And in a thicket passed me by,
In the black brush, a running hare,
Having a spectre in his eye,
That sped in darkness to the snare;
And who but I can know in pride
The heart, set beating in the side,
Has but the wisdom of a hare?

People are trying to revive foremother poetry for Fridays on Wom-po.

This what it is for me. I’ve tried to express something of my life by telling these activities and also provide context for the rest of the summer’s blogs.

Miss Drake

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Via Navigli, Sunday March 25th, Antiques sale …


with my friend, Luca Gandolfi

The cats of Campagnatico,
Which are never fully grown and have never
Been kittens, will not move for the honking motorist
But expect to be gone round — Peter Porter (1929-2010)

Friends,

The last of my Milan diaries. I’ve described wandering in central Milan on Friday, 4/16 afternoon and evening, and Tuesday, Wednesday and our neighborhood. We are come to all day Friday, Saturday morning, and a long Sunday morning and again in the evening into night.

We began Friday 4/23 by heading for fabric stores and bookshops. Laura likes to sew and make herself clothes. These were goals to take out outside the core place of cathedral, castle, and environs. We took trolleys and trams to find two fabric stores and two used bookshops.


New Tess, Milan

When we entered the fabric stores, at first the owner and/or employees wondered at us, and seemed decidedly uneager — they seemed to me to sell to the privileged. There was a language barrier, but as soon as they realized Laura meant business, somehow all was accommodated, and she came away with some beautiful material folded in rectangles in big shopping bags. For myself I bought Enzo Striano’s Il Resto Di Niente, a fictionalized biography of the later 18th century Italian woman political radical and poet, Eleonora Pimentnel de Fonseca, tragically executed during the brief Neapolitan republic of 1798, Elena Ferrante’s La figlia oscura, and Mario Soldati’s Lettere da Capri. Used bookstores in Italy are polite, quiet places, small, subdued, books set out in alphabetical order by the author’s name within categories.

We did go to Rizzoli’s and I could not find any Italian book that I might want that I did not own already. I was dismayed to discover that like US bookstores, there are less books than there used to be. Things are set up in fanfare ways: I found and bought (Italian) Atwood’s L’Assassino Cieco, traduzione di Raffaella Belletti; in the “classics” E.M. Forster’s Passaggio in India, traduzione di Adriana Motti.

What did we notice in all (some elite and expensive) and ordinary neighborhoods of apartment houses, shops, small parks? Laura noticed that Italian women tended to dress in black. A male-kind of jacket, sweater, subdued, black skirt. Very unchallenging, unobtrusive. Men very casual. Suits for those clearly going to offices.

People are permitted to bring dogs into public transportation as long as the dog is somehow kept close in a carrier of some sort. All on leashes and all small. People must buy or adopt dogs small enough to put in carriers to take on buses and trains. The dogs look nervous when the jump is made onto a trolley, but trust to the master-friend. Just about all these dogs had sweaters on (it was cold), but I spied no boots, so I conclude no corrosive salt is used to remove snow and ice (as in NYC). One woman’s dog’s sweater matched the color of her cell phone cover.

It was distressing to me to see how beggars behaved – very like in France. Utterly humbling themselves. Abjectly squatting on the street like they were praying. Alas, there was no place next to one of them I kept seeing to put money.

We then hopped onto a trolley that took us back to the park in the back of the Castle Forza (which I described in my last blog), and visited a museum with very contemporary art:


Outside sculpture

Unlike older museums (Castle Sforza or the Metropolitan in NYC), where you meander about unexpected corridors, mazes, but like contemporary ones (the Whitney, MoMA), all is clearly laid out, a few select and permanent rationalized exhibits labelled. We spent time in three.

The first was a Rick Owens exhibit (see one of Laura’s blogs on one of his fashion shows): a vast installation of a hundred or so mannikin models in de-humanized, aggressive, parodic outfits, a dark disquieting satire on what we wear and fashion shows themselves:

After a few rooms of these, we sat and watched films of models doing shows of these clothes — many with heavier bodies, many people of African heritage. Haunting, and creepy images.

They still had some of the traditional kinds of art one sees; there was a sculpture exhibit of the history of the bicycle, and intriguing paintings and photos on walls here and there:


A photo-painting of realistically conceived figures looking at art

On the upper floor there was a vast exhibit showing the visitor how we live now or how we ought to live — very modern furniture and appliances; there was a kind of neon-lit forest of electric poles. What kinds of habitations we make for ourselves, how many of our rooms don’t make sense if the point were to be comfortable.

We walked around the park to where the two main streets are, and found a restaurant for lunch. Unluckily, it featured bad service and worse food, but from there we spotted a sight-seeing bus-stop, so we hurried away and took a bus all around another part of Milan. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the microphone sets which were supposed to tell us where we were and the history of what we were seeing didn’t work.

Evening was coming, we were very tired by this time, and hopped off the bus around the shopping centers near the Cathedral and walked through very expensive shops, took a train back to a supermarket and then a cab home. You can see our feet had had enough. We stayed close to our apartment, we had reserved a table at a restaurant nearby so exclusive you could miss it as you walk by. The meal was exquisitely good.


This was the appetizer from another night: a restaurant where you pay a set fee and have many small courses where you have a taste of this or that food, and with each a glass of wine.

Home again that night to read quietly and rest.

Saturday, 4/24: we had seen on our peregrinations what we thought were basilicas, and decided the next day we would try to go into one of these. We tried for three, and they were either turned into schools or closed.

I suppose if you use Road Scholar, you won’t make these kinds of mistakes but we did learn that basilicas have found new uses in 21st century Milan.


An horse-shoe shaped church in front of the cemetery

What we did happen on was an an enormous monumental cemetery. If you have deluded yourself into assuming the impulse which made Egyptian pyramids is gone, think again. Huge cement buildings as crypts, tombs, massive sculptures of idealized figures (mythological, Catholic-religious, some realistic), many doing things (looking like they are thinking, or about to pick something up, the material they are made of often in bad shape (the damp is not good) in which families asserted their wealth, status, heritage, some of them built as far back as late Roman times, some dated 2015.


One of several wide and long lanes


Yes that’s me looking cold

The newer ones had photographs framed. The effect very creepy. Worse yet was a large house-like structure: we went into it and discovered that the poorer could buy a sort of drawer or shelf; rows and rows of these with people’s names. This reminded me of Arlington National Cemetery where there are now vast rectangles of cremated bodies and urns, each having a kind of drawer with the name of the person who once lived on its outside plaques. People were coming in to leave flowers. Everywhere also evidence that this was a way of extending the person’s life, memory, creating let’s say a deathtime. Laura fascinated took quite a number of photos. I’ll spare you the rest except for one of a cat who has found a home there:

He or she has a corner with an umbrella and under it dishes of food and water. Puss did not appear to have any cat-mates.

Perhaps our the pleasantest time we had was on Sunday morning,4/25, at the Antiques market, where I came upon my friend, Luca (above) on the lookout for good rare books. He did find one, a nineteenth century edition of Dante’s Commedia with illustrations. As I reported in my first blog this market runs up and down the length of a central canal, spreads out to side streets, and as the day progresses all around open cafes, and gradually walls are covered with artists pictures, and people come from all round to buy both ordinary clothes and needed things as well as art and craft objects. I wanted to buy a lovely watercolor of a woman and daughter on the seashore but couldn’t convey in Italian I wanted to be shipped as well as wrapped. Maybe she didn’t have any shipping services. I now regret not persisting. I worried over the price and that I might not get the picture by mail after all. It was a woman on a beach with a young girl.

It’s a flea market too: every kind of hand and machine crafted object you can imagine; some very old, some made recently, art. People talking to one another. Friendliness. I bought a sculpture in a sort of China of a sleeping cat. I looked for Trollope in Italian but no luck; most of the Italian books I found I wanted to read I already had. People kept coming and stalls being added to. There was also a marathon running in Milan that. Every one knew of the massive march in Washington DC and approved heartily.

I found the ceramic cat I described and took home (scared that wrapped up it would be taken for a bomb at the airport but it was not),


Her face held up to the light by Izzy

and here I’ll add a pink warm woolen cap with a fluffy pom-pom, lovely part leather gloves, grey on one side and multi-colored the other, Izzy found a piece of jewelry. Around 11 church bells began to ring upon the hour and seemed to keep that up until 5. Laura said that first ringing of the bells somehow made the day.


Houseboats allowed

Much later in the evening we went to the 19th century museum to one side of the Cathedral for another excellent dinner. The restaurant was on the top floor and we could see the Cathedral to our right and across the square as we ate. Later we tried to walk around the lively square for our last night. Some of the stores closed all day for Sunday opened in the evening. There were street musicians, and yes homeless people (some with pet dogs).

Our time away had come to an end, and the next day getting up around 7 am (our time Milan) we had a 19 hour trip by cab, plane, cab, train and perhaps Laura’s husband Rob’s car awaiting us at 11 at night (his time DC).

I remembered trips Jim and I took within the US, up to Canada, or just to Maine, twice to Vermont, several times to New York State, and how we’d have driven there and drive home together. How content I’d be to go home. How eager then. And tonight I’ve found a poem to express this:

David Holbrook (1923-2011)

Coming Home from Abroad

The air is high and blue yet, as we drive
Northwards across High Marne: summer
Again, after the stormy cold of June.
Yet there’s a ghostliness a sadness in the wind:
I feel it first, in the little park at Enghein
Where the tall plane trees shivered in the breeze.

Oh, I am so content, sitting beside you,
Driving home over the Northern Plains of France,
The sun still strong, everything going well,
The wine and poulard good at lunch at Chalons;
Yet, in the sky, there’s this tall hustling ghost
Drawing a veil across the face of summer.

On Zeebrugge beach all next day, the sane
Unites me to Suffolk: the cold onshore breeze
Whispers of Cotman, and those severe scenes
Of grey half-muted tones, the figures bent
Against the elements: and so we sail
Steering irrevocably into the Felixstowe fog ….


John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) Carnavon 1800

Ellen

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Izzy wearing Laura’s hat just as we entered the castle chapel


A small park, and ruin in a street near ours

Friends,

I’ve told of our trip, our first evening in Milan, three day jaunt out to Zurich, nearby Germany and France, and first general impressions of Italian culture.


When they do have trees on their blocks, they tend to place the same kind of tree in rows (as they do in France)

For the rest of our time away we stayed in Milan, either exploring the city and partaking of its pleasures (each night a different restaurant), or gazing at ice-skaters in the stadium. For me the enjoyable and engaging moments were in the city: all Tuesday, Wednesday morning and night, and all day Friday, early Saturday morning and Sunday morning until 1. Here I tell of Tuesday and Wednesday, early mornings and the neighborhood.


Izzy on the cathedral roof, wearing Laura’s hat


Walking into the castle entrance — a fountain is in front

The center of Milan (not just for visitors) exists between the large square called the Duomo, around which are the enormous cathedral, which everyone will tell you took 6 centuries to build, two beautiful glass covered shopping malls, two museums, with smaller institutional (cultural, gov’t, educational) buildings scattered all about. And blocks going this way and that. The opera house La Scala is right there. Two long wide parallel streets coming away from the back of the cathedral take you to the Sforza castle, an enormous building, which probably took a few centuries to settle into its present state. Between the castle and wide streets, there is what in the UK would be called a round-about where you can catch buses touring all Milan, and see different groups of people gathering. Nearby a movie theater and further along a playhouse (with a repertoire going on). Behind the castle is a large park that reminded me of Central Park in NYC (except not so big): picturesque, meant for leisured walking, with at least one lake, birds, a modern museum at one edge, near which there is an in-door and an out-door stage (for plays or concerts).


The wrapped up person is me contentedly gazing at water birds in a lake in the park — do not mistake how old I look for discontent

Further on, you come upon a beautiful state-of-the-art library for ordinary citizens’ use; wander a bit and you’re sure to come upon the usual ruins tucked away here and there, I believe a carousel, and bike paths.


Ruins

You leave the park area through a massive carved gate which tells you it commemorates a probably not very welcome visit from the armies of Napoleon III.

Tuesday we spent all morning in the castle in the morning, and much of the afternoon in the cathedral. The high point of the castle came swiftly: a sort of chapel in which we could view Michelangelo’s late Pieta.


Michelangelo’s late Pieta, at the Sforza castle

Michelangelo’s work just stands out as more sincere, realer than anything near it, anything we saw in that castle and most that we later saw in the modern museum. we viewed his last work. I sat by it for a while. All around the chapel were artefacts and plaques telling the story of its many adventures before it came to rest, let us hope safely for a long time to come, in the quiet room. It took a long time to walk all around the castle, up and down: clearly originally a fortress from which arrows and later guns could be aimed. Among the more interesting objects we saw were some beautiful later 19th and 20th century (recent) furniture, musical instruments from across the ages. We three enjoyed a good meal in a place where we could watch people go by and I listened to a street musician who played very well and whose apparent poverty touched my heart.


The cathedral roof from just one of many angles

Doing the cathedral is no trivial task. First you must avoid waiting for hours to get in through the front. A comparable tourist attraction is the Eiffel Tower, which is a many hour wait if you want to climb up. You can save the wasted hours and tedium by buying a more expensive ticket which allows you to take an elevator straight up to the first level of the roof.

Then you climb and climb and climb in and out of nooks, stairways, past gargoyles, statues, rows of battlements, seeing Milan become lower and seeing our farther, until you get to the very top.

I almost didn’t make it, and was saying “Non posso,” when someone helped me up the last stairway.


The cathedral highest roof

I saw one young woman with a baby in a carrier against her chest, holding a toddler’s hand. I would not have risked that child. You then climb back down, not all the way, and are led into a corridor where you take another elevator, and by some sleight of hand your ticket takes you into the cathedral by a side or back entrance, and voila.


What we saw as we came in


Walking about


The altar

In order to enjoy the place you have to forget that it was and is a seat of power, intended to impress you with its wealth. Every inch carved; many places sites of worship, shameless individual tombs, marble floors, magnificent windows. Perhaps one can reconcile oneself to it by reverse thinking: imagine where it bombed to the ground, then it’s a treasure of history, beauty, aspiration lost forever. Besides an ancient crypt, there is beneath the building an archaeological dig which has unearthed a previous basilica on the same site. Now we were in early Roman Italy. So this spot has been a community center for thousands of years. We regretted leaving.


The same Duomo square, another angle, at night when after resting in our own apartment we returned for dinner

Wednesday morning we learned how difficult it would be to leave Milan on Thursday to go out by train to the countryside: the biggest disappointment for me of this trip was that I did not get to visit another friend, the biographer of Veronica Gambara, Antonia Chimenti. She lives not far from Reggio Emilia, the area Gambara lived in. There is but one bus from where she lives to the train station, and another to Correggio. A city whose institutional buildings she said not all that much changed from the outside physically from the 16th century. People there still living a quieter traditional life. We would not have had time to get to Correggio, stay there, and get back to the train for Laura and I to return to Milan and she to her home. She sent pictures, we emailed but it seems what we needed was to have someone drive us. I translated all of Gambara’s poetry, wrote a short life myself.


Piazza del Monte, in Reggio Emilia, Correggio today

Laura and I also worried that Izzy would not be able to get all the tickets to go to the ice-skating events at once, and that she might need help from us on Thursday.

So on Wednesday instead of buying tickets at a local train station, we ended up in a local supermarket, and brought home some needed comforts for the flat (juice, milk, sugar, tea, bread, cheese, wine, cereal for the morning).


From our seats inside La Scala

But Wednesday night we had a rare treat: while Izzy remained at the ice-skating stadium, Laura and me hurried back to Milan for a quick dinner and to watch the Goldberg Variations as a ballet at La Scala. Astonishing. As we watched I realized I had seen part of this modern ballet in clips of videos on TV. A wikipedia article details the Bach music. As for Robbins’s choreography, the work consists of many ballet dancers, men and women dressed in the most minimal outfits, beginning dancing as a group, gradually emerging as varying couples and individuals, with no single individual emerging as a star or personality, and then back to the group dancing, with many moods, and much repetition. The last movements repeat the first and the dancers are all back where they began on the floor. By the end you feel you have experienced a life-cycle of humanity.

Here is a typical moment from almost an hour and one half

We were one night too late for Gluck’s Orpheus & Eurydice. Izzy almost said that had that opera been on, she’d have taken off from ice-skating.

Not all our adventures were outside or far away from the house our apartment was in. Laura had brought her laptop and we watched two (to me) unusual movies where food was the central subtext of stories and interviews; one traced the life story of am impoverished girl who became an austere nun who lives to cook simply; another was part of a series, each featuring a different type of food or dish which is central to a class-, race- or culture-laden experience, and that experience is ethnographically considered. Each morning Laura found herself breakfast in nearby bars. She and Izzy took walks around the neighborhood. We discovered two rare book stores, one much better than the other, but alas I owned a copy of the very book that tempted me: a volume of poetry by Elsa Morante. There was a convenient lunch place around the corner from where we were, a sort of snack place for the late afternoon. I read the books I had brought with me, and wrote to a friend; Izzy wrote in her diary (and kept very good records of the ice-skating she was seeing); and Laura kept up her paid work online and texted with her husband and a friend.


Another photo taken from our windows, a different angle includes a basilica like roof near us

Miss Drake

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I can’t resist this one:

Cats sleep, anywhere,
Any table, any chair
Top of piano, window-ledge,
In the middle, on the edge,
Open drawer, empty shoe,
Anybody’s lap will do,
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard, with your frocks-
Anywhere! They don’t care!
Cats sleep anywhere.

I accompanied this with a deeply appealing video but it has been removed by some omnipresent software machine protecting this particular YouTube.

Of course the poem’s assertion not true any. Any lap will not do. Cats will sleep anywhere once they feel safe, so if they have kind owners, such scenes Eleanor Farjeon conjures up come to mind. These are images of peace, security, quiet calm, and associated with cats help explain why we love our cats. Their behavior around us is comforting.

For example, here is one such image (though more tremulous, not quite so secure — note the wary open eyes) I photographed in my house since returning home:

Clarycat’s GreyMouse has turned up: a few days ago I saw Ian or Snuffycat carrying the toy about in his mouth. I put it on the floor after dusting off, and not much later found it as you see. Once again Clarycat continually removes Greymouse from the catbed to put it near where I am — my chair, by the threshold of the door to my workroom … Cats grow attached to objects. They attach objects to us, us to the objects we use. That’s why they sit in our shoes or among our socks.

Cats are symbolic animals — as are we. The end of the first seek home after much effort I re-found consignment thrift shop that Laura had taken Izzy and me to, Evolution Home not far from my house. I went to buy a few home improvements: a pretty lamp, finally a rug big enough to cover the new vestibule as you walk into my house, that was not super-costly, and came upon this:

There is much cross-stitching; along the outline of the cat, in his or her ears, to suggest where muscle lines go, the lines between feet, up and down his or her tail. The green is somewhat lighter than it appears in the photograph, and the ribbon is a duller red. It’s very feminine in its furls and furbelows. Both sniffed it all around and then, having accepted or approved, more or less ignored it. They cuddle around me. I’m glad for this way it will get less hair and no clawing.

Well, a friend on face-book wondered that someone would give “such a lovely thing away.” My immediate thought was how the world seems to be filled with people who don’t invest any or much emotional in things beyond personal interest, so we see that few value a book, a work of art for whatever beauty it has in and of itself — never mind the prestige of a name who made it, how it’s identified as part of an upper class taste. So this nameless pillow easily labelled kitsche would be discarded. But another friend suggested I should not assume the people didn’t care, and stories emerged of having to sell so much when you move from a larger place to a much much smaller, how you can end up discarding someone’s household who you are related to after the person dies, how some people discard things if they feel it looks “odd” (in a small apartment): “people give away gifts they just don’t care for or have room for … and people die and their stuff gets donated!”

Still to me ideas about decor — as how the objects fit together — don’t matter so much. To my mind that means you are worrying a bit too much about how the place looks to other eyes. I probably don’t have a decor in my house. Much was bought at different times and in different places.

Our things, our stuff, for some of us are central to our identity. Cherished as reminding us, as having been there when memories of the past formed.

This is from my Profile on Library Thing: “La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, Souffrir). My life is a continuation of Jim and my play without him there. I see him in my dreams and experience him in my memories daily and nightly still. Five years gone by and maybe I seem to forget but in truth I do not ever forget his now absent presence. “Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (from Carol Shields, Swann where a section of the book is about a man who is forced to sell his library).

It’s not silly to be attached to things, no sillier than cats.

This is one of the reasons I don’t want to move; it would be like erasing Jim and my past. I am not so much inventing a new past as adding on. I have added Milan to the other places in Italy where I went with Jim.

And I am now watching Season 3 of Outlander, using DVDs and listening to Davina Porter read aloud the book upon which the season is based: Gabaldon’s Voyager where however long the time going by seems, however varied and different her life, another person will not do:

Frank: Might you have forgotten him, with time?
Claire: That amount of time doesn’t exist

and the parallel in Lord John Grey’s story:

He said I would overcome it.
Come to terms with it.
In time.
Hal is generally right, but not always.
Some people, you grieve over forever.
(from the script, Episode 3, “All Debts Paid,” by Matthew B Roberts and Ronald Moore, from Gabaldon’s Voyager)

Miss Drake

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Laura & me


Izzy & me
Photos taken the first afternoon in the Duomo square (Friday, 4/16) before the Cathedral

Friends,

Last Monday (4/26) we walked out of Union Station (a DC train and Metro center), pulling and carrying our bags after 19 hours of travel from Milan: around 9:30 am Milan time that morning we had gotten into an Uber cab for a 45 minute ride to the Milan airport; it was now 10:30 pm Washington DC time and we were stacking our stuff into Laura’s husband’s car for a half-hour ride home to Alexandria. It was an arduous trip and had been an arduous time away.

So vigorous (rigorous?) had we been that I had come down with a bad cold on Wednesday before (4/21) after a long day at the Assago Milanfiori Forum (where the ice-skating championship was held) and it had not abated one jot. By Thursday (4/29, a week and one day later) Laura was diagnosed with walking pneumonia, and yesterday, Monday (4/2) Izzy was suffering from the same bad cold (painful chest, rough hot throat, constant sneezing, blowing of nose and so on) I still have as I write ths tonight. I will drive Izzy to the doctor tomorrow for antibiotic, cough medicine and (we hope) nose spray.

Next time we better take better care of our selves. There was a raw cold in the air throughout our stay. We just never felt the balmy (warm) air we often enjoy in this southern end of the mid-Atlantic temperature zone. We kept hoping and we would take one of our layers off, and say how warm and sunny it was. But go inside some heated place, and we knew better.


What I saw each morning and evening from my window in the flat — look how antique much below is

We also had not reckoned on steep stairs on long high stairways everywhere. I became convinced Milanese people have yet to be educated into the true wonders of elevators everywhere, with conveniently located escalators a ready alternative, such as we more or less expect in NYC and Washington DC. We had a comfortable enough flat, airy, high ceiling, enough beds, a TV, wi-fi, fridge, tables, chairs, decent bathroom, but getting there was arduous: it was on the third floor. Laura counted 68 steps, stone. One merciless stairway was 14 steep ones. The stairs at the Forum looked like nearly a foot high or inbetween. By Thursday (4/22), both my knees were in pain as I walked up the stairs one last time after dinner, and my legs ached so as I got into bed, I wanted never to take off the covers or move them again. Laura’s feet were covered in bandages. Izzy was so buoyed up by her long days at the Forum she probably didn’t notice, and anyway since she spent long hours, early in the morning to late at night 4 of the days, watching the ice-skating didn’t walk nearly as much.

But now you have had the worst of it.

I’ll tell the second worst and then we can get on with what was good, instructive, fun, beautiful: if you are determined to see the world, and where you want to go is so far, you must take a plane, I would even recommend Alitalia. The Milanese airport had enough chairs for people to sit in (by contrast, in the Icelandic airport nowadays people are treated like cattle). Granted Malpensa is not genuinely comfortably with cafeteria-like places with a variety of food to eat nearby such as I saw in Dublin’s airport. Food was limited to croissants and pizza, and not in convenient locations (Italians have not discovered the wonders of attending to convenience, nearby-ness). But there were no humiliating practices of extra scrutiny at the airport or conducted by the airline (nor at the Forum — there I was waved by) as in all US airports (and twice for me in Iceland, once in Brussels in US space). Alitalia seats were fantastically small but we were fed going and coming, two meals, plenty of water, soda and wine and tea and what they called coffee for free; movies for all (I saw a movie about Thurgood Marshall and Holofcener’s wonderful Friends with Money going). The Italians were not determined to punish us because oodles of money had not been extracted from us. We were not mistreated as one is on so many airlines and in US airports today (where you officially have no civil rights).

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

So the first night, Friday (4/16). I had messengered (is that the verb?) a long-time Internet friend, Luca Gandolfi, just before we left, and that very afternon he phoned me to say he was giving a lecture on Jane Austen and her contemporaries: minor women writers. Would I like to come? Would I? Laura’s google map enabled her to help me find the place among turning alleyways and streets near the Duomo. Laura and Izzy thought they’d be bored so went for an hour’s walk near this institute, which houses a club, lecture hall (Luca is teaching a class of about 6 women as a volunteer lecturer — which scene reminded me of the OLLIs), musical concert places. Imagine we were talking of Julia Kavanagh and her novels. Luca said he preferred women writers to men. So do I.

His wife, Grazia, was there and at the end of the lecture Laura and Izzy were back and we all retired to a local Italian restaurant he and his wife often go to. Lovely place, good pizza and wine, and lots of company. Much good talk. Laura began to take many photos. Unfortunately, she put them on instagram which only later did I realize would not let someone else download them as jpgs. Nor does face-book, where you can find a photo of Luca and me.

I did not realize as yet I was having my first experience of an ancient thriving city. As the days and nights wore on, I was impressed by how everyone is interdependent in Milan. Wealth does not insulate you. Most stores have some time they are closed and everyone seems to know, for example, which pharmacies are open when. So you get lines. Everyone in Milan seems to accept lining up. The antiques market we spent hours at on Sunday morning (4/25) winded up and down the long canal, moving left and right with little spurs on side streets: slowly all the spaces filled up, slowly more and more people; around 11 the hourly church bells heard across the city. and what a higgledy-piggedy of things. I came home with this ceramic cat:

In much bubblewrap. The great Milan cathedral on the one side of a great square and down a wide pair of streets, the Castle Sforza with its vast park — are central sites, the first is tourist-infested but the places all around, the shopping is for everyone. There is some system of cabs where you must phone first but when you do phone, everyone is served. Uber is disruptive of this. The repeated trolley cars and trams going every which way. Higgedy, piggedly modern shops with ancient ruins, old buildings with new made to fit them. The restaurants are places for groups of people and are used a great deal until late at night. You must make a reservation but many do this seems.

There are exclusive practices. La Scala was so dull. As opposed to the wonderful bars (more than 2 usually) in the bowels of UK theaters and on different levels in the US which makes for much interactive experience, there is just the show, hardly announced, it’s over and all spill out. Cabs picking people up. Except for places like La Scala the lesson taught is we must and do all of us live together interconnectedly. Egalitarianism is too much an abstract word for what days really spent across Milan makes one feel.

To return to our lecture and dinner out with a friend, we were very tired, having left DC that morning 19 hours before we got to Duomo square. He and his wife walked us home and on the way showed us where the Milanese gov’t is found. In front of it is a large statue of a hand with its third finger stuck up. (Fuck you is universal.) We said goodbye and hoped we would see each other on Sunday (we did, albeit briefly) at the antiques fair where he sometimes has a stall and hunts every other week for good buys in books (collector’s items). Izzy, Laura and I must have been going 27 hours before we went up those stairs, opened the difficult door, managed to arrange the space in the flat so we slept in separate areas with doors inbetween. Privacy to read or write on ipads. And collapsed.


A Swiss lake from the train as we wound through the mountains of the Southern alps (where there are palm trees!)

Up the next morning bright and early, Saturday (4/17) to get to the Milan railway station leading us out of the country by train to Zurich, Switzerland. Why? We had been invited by a very long-time Internet friend, Fran, to visit her in her house in a small town in Germany about an hour’s drive from Zurich. I have known her since around 1997 on listservs, via email letters, in group reads, as friends, and whom I once met for an afternoon in London for lunch and a visit to a museum (the Wallace collection).


The Black forest from the car

She showed us all around Zurich that afternoon: its church, its very expensive shops, its library; its canals, bridges.


Modern shopping area

Zurich
Zurich church with spire

Then into her area of Germany by Saturday evening and we saw some remarkable small towns. One was called Doherty, Germany. Original gates preserved, streets and squares from 14th century.


A community place

There was at one end community center where immigrants could come to be acclimated, where clubs and civic activities go on; near by the statue of local woman who did much to build the town center. Home again to Fran’s beautifully custom-made house and lovely meal of melted cheese and boiled potato and pickles and pineapple and other things (it has a name but I missed it). It was the next day we visited 4 countries: we drove through the Black Forest, into Frieberg, Germany; Colmar and a French village surrounded by vines; ended in wine-bar.


Three different French villages

We were inside several interesting and quite different churches — it matters whether it was Protestant and stripped bare or high church Catholic, both were built in this region (and ferocious wars fought).


Outside a cathedral


Inside


A clock tower

High points of what we saw: one small Catholic church; Chagall stained windows; little scenes — in one street with the 14th century floors and windows and roofs I remembered how hard it was in Austen’s Emma to get a pianoforte into Miss Bates’s flat. You dropped it by ropes from the roof. Birds nesting on a roof

It has been so heartening to see so much civic pride. This is what is not seen in the US anymore. Everything has been done that can be done to break the spirit and shrink the pocketbook of the average American, at the same time as prices for everything are jacked up, no money put into anything public (not into transportation, not into schools, community centers are closed down if not run by a religious organization). Wide stretches of impoverishment and despair as the blight spreads.

Nourishing meal again at home with Fran and Karl. Much talk. Sleep. Next morning light snow, so pretty in Dogern. We returned to Zurich with Fran and got back on the train. I was sorry to part. I used to have a friend who consoled me after we had visited Salisbury cathedral and a house said to be the one Trollope modeled the Warden’s house on (in Southern England), and it was time to part. He lived in Arizona and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. “You know you’ve had a good time when you feel you are parting too soon.” His name was Sigmund Eisner and he was an important presence on the Trollope list with Mike Powe, the first listowner, and me and a few others in the early years. He would describe the original illustrations to Trollope’s novels as we went through them. Sigmund died about 15 years ago. I hold him in my memory.

We were in Milan by 5 pm and had to find a place to eat in — without reservations. We managed it — with difficulty. It took much walking, several rejections, and then luck. After the dinner we returned to the flat and collapsed. We slept late the following Tuesday morning (3/20). When I next write, you’ll hear all about Tuesday exploring,eating, planning for the week, shopping for food in Milan.

Gentle reader, I hope you forgive me these records of the time away with my daughters and contact with a few friends. Most of my life is spent alone. I’m back to that now: I go out to the courses at OLLI so as to be with people. I read with others online so as to be part of an imagined good community. On any given night when so many people might be out with or visiting friends, I’ll be in my house reading, writing, watching movies, listening to music, my cats nearby. So I write these to extend the times and relive them again I’ve had been out in the world with others.

Ellen

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Vivian and me, July 14, 2015, taken by Izzy: Alexandria’s yearly birthday party, a large park area by the Potomac, a concert and fireworks for all for free; we had a picnic

Dear friends and readers,

We are near setting off on our journey to Milan, Italy — Laura, Izzy, and I — where among other things (a visit to a friend who lives near Zurick which will necessitate a train-ride through the Alps and beautiful lakes; a visit to a fellow biographer of Veronica Gambara, in Reggio Emilia) we plan to attend the World Figure-Skating Championships, and find and look into what fashion museums and exhibits there are in this famous world city.

The last time the three of us were in Italy was 1994, 5 weeks with Jim in an apartment in Rome, from the which we took 4 trips: to Pompei, to Naples, to the island of Ischia for 3 days (where there is a beautiful beach and Vittoria Colonna lived for a number of years it’s thought), to Marino (where Colonna was born). We all three have many memories of that time. Upon coming into the flat, Laura, then 15, declared Italy had not invented air conditioning yet. Izzy said to another child at the beach: “mi chiamo Isabella.” A high point for Jim and I was a fresco we saw in a fourteenth century church one morning. We all wandered in the heat over the forum, the Colosseum, saw an opera amid some ancient Roman stones.

And early yesterday evening my good friend, Vivian, died: she went quickly, three weeks after the cancer resumed. I wrote about my visit to her in a hospice place in my last blog. I have learned as she died she was quiet (perhaps sleeping?), appeared to be at peace, kept out of consciousness of pain by drugs. Did she go gentle into that good night? I was not there and in her two earlier phone calls she expressed anguish.

What is it Macbeth says upon being told: “She should have dy’de hereafter;/There would have been time for such a word.” I will not be here when the memorial service is held. I grieve for her and will miss her.

Every moment I’ve been able to I’ve been either reading, writing, thinking for the courses I’m teaching (The Later Virginia Woolf; Sexual & Marital Conflicts in Anthony Trollope: HKHWR), or taking (The Brontes, a book club whose first item is Atwood’s The Blind Assassin), or still at that paper (Woolf & Johnson, biographers), or online with friends, blogging, nurturing (so so speak) my 3 groups.io (the book, the extraordinary American Senator) — not to omit getting through all things needful for the trip. Some of them arduous, time-consuming, confusing — like airline reservations supposed to be on a website which are not there. Not to worry: Laura made a phone call in her firm determined voice and our tickets & we now exist again. “Able to” is the operative phrase: many a later afternoon or evening I give out and succumb to a movie that can keep me up; this weekend I reached the fifth episode of Alias Grace (another Atwood adapted).

I’m more awake tonight than I have been for several, enough to tell of how this past Wednesday I went to the last of the four lectures on Impressionism outside France: so to my last blog on Russia, the low countries and Italy, I add the UK, and I was not surprised it was the most interesting because he had the most paintings to show. Gariff went on for nearly 3 hours. This time I had heard of most of the painters, but had not realized that the work of many of the painters I had “placed” in separate schools when regarded as impressionist made a different kind of sense. Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), who I’ve written about as an Edwardian woman painter in the Newlyn School, links to Laura Knight (1877-1970), who I wrote more briefly about as a Cornish artist. Victorian artists familiar to me as recording the abysmal poverty of the countryside and cities, i.e., George Clausen (1852-1944) belong here; and some I’d never heard of, Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914):


The Icknield Way (1912) — a road in Surrey since Roman times

Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, and his fostering of post-impressionism, his pictures belong here too. A Scottish woman artist, Ethel Walker (1861-1951) now fits. She painted Vanessa Bell, the first image I’ve seen that enables me to begin to understand why Bell was so liked:


Vanessa 1937

Two American artists this time were very influential: Whistler and John Singer Sargent. I learned that the next time I go to London I should go the London Imperial War Museum. Its name (because of the militarist connotations) is misleading: it is a leading place for artist painting during WW1, which most of these people did. Sidney Starr (1857-1925) has such a poor wikipedia page, I have to link in a sales one (he was an important art critic):


Starr’s City Atlas (1889-90) was part of an exhibit or talk about how difficult to get to know London

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) ended up an important teacher (teachers matter), he was influenced by Monet and this is his most famous painting.


Children Paddling, Walberswick (1894)


But perhaps this curiosity, of an over-dressed woman with a cat called Hydrangeas is more characteristic

Vivian’s favorite painter was Monet, and during the visit her brother and sister took her on to Paris this summer they took her to Giverny. She also had a cat called Sammy (Samantha) for seven years.

Izzy and I almost didn’t go to a performance by Catherine Flye accompanied by Michael Tolaydo as narrator at the Metrostage of a revue of the life and songs of Joan Grenfell. We had tickets for Saturday, and were so preoccupied we forgot to go. The woman who basically runs the Metrostage single-handed phoned us 5 minutes before, and offered to let us come Sunday instead. This remarkable pair of actors presented a later afternoon of witty cheer with an undercurrent of desperate acceptance; there were some twee moments but also direct hits at frustrated longing hearts. My favorite was a piece called “The Telephone Call” (a woman spending her life caring for an aged parent). A couple very funny: one of a woman on her first airplane flight when people were still treated with respect and given comfort as human beings. The pianist played wonderful older melodies I recognized, one famous from WW2, The Warsaw Concert by Richard Addinsell (who wrote most of the music performed).


Michael Tolaydo and Catherine Flye, 2002 (Gardener McKay’s Sea Marks)

We had both wanted to go because we both remembered the moving play Sea Marks, with Tolaydo and Flye, which we saw with Jim in 2002 at this Metrostage. I’ve had that black-and-white newsprint picture on the wall of my study all this time

I return to Vivian. One of the class members of my Later Woolf came for the first class and for the rest I’ll keep him in the email list as I send comments and readings out, and lectures too. He can’t come regularly as he’s taking chemotherapy and radiation for cancer. Vivian was killed by lymphoma (as was Jenny Diski) combined with brain cancer. She was no reader: odd for a best friend for me, but there are other things that matter. She was a kind person, sensitive. Charitable and forbearing at others’ flaws. She shared my politics, my lack of religion. While she didn’t read books, she always seemed to know the latest US political development; she’d take the progressive side most of the time, and post about it on face-book. We went to Bernie Sanders rallies. We also took wandering walks in Old Town. We’d go to some movies together (we didn’t quite have the same tastes): I went twice to Kedi (the movie set in Isanbul about feral cats and their caretakers in that city) so she could see it, and she cried. She stayed up (she had problems sleeping so would often fall asleep at movies) for and was moved by Still Alice.

Here is one of the poems Flye recited, movingly:

If I should die before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell.
But life goes on …

That doesn’t mean one forgets however little one is given chance to mourn with any ceremony. I feel bad because Vivian had emailed the suggestion when she still thought she would live (some 5 weeks ago) that she and I go to the Grand Canyon this coming May. I had balked at the idea of the plane and asked if there was a way to go by train. No. It would take some absurd amount of time. A drive was ridiculous. I was adjusting to the idea of taking yet another plane (how I hate them all) and was beginning to propose we look into a package tour. I told her I imagined us on donkeys going up and down vast cliffs, which probably showed how little I know about modern tourism in the Grand Canyon. It was still in the realm of half-joke when she phoned to say the cancer had returned and she was in hospital. We had some good walks in Old Towne this summer: a ghost tour, one night along the water eating ice-cream listening to street musicians in the mild crowd.

We all come from the past … life is a braided cord of humanity stretching from time long gone … it cannot be defined by a single journey from diaper to shroud … (Russell Baker, Growing Up, an autobiography I read with freshman composition students decades ago, which I remembered tonight)

Ellen

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Photo taken by Izzy from the 2nd tier of the opera house at Kennedy Center (where we were seeing An American in Paris)

Where does Christmas occur? for those who dream. First we must define what we mean by this word. It does not occur in the events we experience outwardly but the feeling in an individual heart that gave rise to a willingness to go to them and (if you are very lucky) a good feeling while you are there and just after.


An American in Paris: Gene Kelly hero (MeGee Maddox as Jerry Mulligan) and French ballerina heroine (Allison Walsh as Lise Dassine)

Yesterday (Saturday) Laura came over around 11 and she and I and Izzy proceeded to the Kennedy Center to see An American in Paris. As a story it has great problems: a re-make of a 1951 movie clearly devised to showcase Gene Kelly’s extraordinary presence, dancing, it suffers from the Hays Code so the males are emasculated and females child-like.

We were bored by the first tame act but somehow momentum was built, it emerged one of the three males absurdly in love with the heroine is homosexual (Henri Bauel played by Ben Michael), the second more than physically disabled, probably Aspergers (Adam Hochberg played by Matthew Scott), the heroine herself a Jew whose parents were murdered by the Vichy-Hitler regimes, and the grand moneyed lady had a brain (Milo Davenport played by Kirsten Scott), and they all began to dance these entrancing absorbing numbers with a large troop of dancers. Meanwhile Gerswin’s music took over the brain. The great hall was beautifully decorated, the terrace so pleasant by the water.

Then we had little trouble getting to a very good Asian restaurant where Laura’s husband joined us, we had Peking duck and exchanged gifts. Drinks. Good talk. Hugs when bidding adieu.


Marley’s ghost visiting Scrooge (Alistair Sim)

The night before (Friday) I’d watched the 1951 A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim. We are observing Christmas on Trollope and his Contemporaries by reading Dickens’s tale for two weeks and then Margaret Olphant’s Beleaguered City (another profound ghost story). I’d finished Staves 1 and 2; my reaction I felt I had read these lines hundreds of times before. I haven’t. It must be that bits are quoted so frequently. The air is filled with phantoms. One “cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below upon a door-step.” Sim is wonderful at irony and sarcasm and succeeds in undercutting somehow perfectly the emotionalism of the film. He makes fun of the ghosts at first; he produces wry comments; he is shy over his new found joy. While the first ghost’s journey is fully done, and the second graphically vivid, the third is scanted and the lesson too self-centered: Scrooge fears he will die, a desire for love is re-awakened, and pity.

Still I found myself crying suddenly and strongly suddenly at moments of great power from Alistair Sim’s performance (his face is so mobile, his eyes) in the context of an older aesthetic of civility, kindliness, humaneness.

As ever I paid attention to last part when he sees the older Alice in the workhouse: I used to have a fantasy I would go to homeless shelters where they do lunch on Christmas day when I was alone but I’ve discovered in DC at any rate, you have to register online to do that, tell about yourself (I suppose that makes sense but the form is intrusive, seeking to know my status) and now this year pay $50 — with nothing on the website telling what the $50 is used for.


Jimmy Stewart as suicidal George Bailey

And then last night (back to Saturday) I dosed myself further with the 1945 It’s a Wonderful Life. I was again moved and entered into the fiction. Like Alistair Sim, Jimmy Stewart’s deeply emotional and distraught presence was essential; he was supported by a cast which was allowed (more than the British actors) to have their intense moments of near suicide, several famous names: Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy, Henry Travers as Clarence, the angel who wants his wings and speaks over-voice, Lionel Barrymore as Mr Potter (Scrooge as capitalist); over-voice was important, Donna Reed as the wife and Gloria Grahame as the promiscuous woman.

Living in the Trumpian American that has been created by 50 years of propaganda (since 1947 — the severe control to prevent anything cooperative, socialistic in the least begins with the McCarthy era) and is now triumphing I saw something I had not before: before I concentrated on the fallacious nature of the bargain: George Bailey is made to experience the world as if he had never lived and all else the same happening the same way. The way the film is discussed is it teaches us that each individual matters.

Now I saw the overarching larger story: what is shown is when the Building and Loan association is not there to give reasonable loans, gradually the town’s life is destroyed under the cruel infliction and imposition of Potter’s ruthless high rates of interest, low paying jobs, no social services. Not only is there no lovely set of houses for the average person. The center of town is given over to drink and whoring and violence, and people behave angrily and suspiciously because it’s each person for him or herself in this capitalist environment. The movie shows us not only the results of this tax code in a few years but how it came to be: the mindset engendered by 50 years of propaganda and insufficient social services and destruction of union. I’m not exaggerating.


Scrooge stopped short by death (Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come)

So as opposed to the Christmas Carol, which is about an individual, George Bailey’s life and choices are about a whole society his behavior and norms fostered. Unjust economic arrangements are central again and again. Capra said he got many letters of people upset that Mr Potter is allowed to get away with stealing the $8000 which Uncle Billy misplaced. The fable shows that George doesn’t erase ruthless capitalism, he ameliorated it. I was impressed by how much better everyone behaved to one another when all were doing better and/or well.

We might ask what should a good Christmas story or movie have? Anthony Trollope argued it should exemplify charity. Of Trollope’s Christmas stories my favorite is The Widow’s Mite. I recommend it, and ask if you think the moral is the one I conclude Trollope turns the old parable into. When giving it matters not if the gift takes anything from the giver, what matters is to give something needed to the person given the gift. He reveals the self-centered fallacy at the heart of the fable. See what you and if you agree with me.

The idea of a miracle is more to the forefront in both A Christmas Carol and It’s a wonderful life. Both have ghosts; Clarence does not look so different from the ghost of Christmas past. The 20th century fable has other people seeing Clarence.


Henry Travers as Clarence explaining himself to George

Capra’s movie also uses the of two realms of time going on at the same time and since George’s nightmare doesn’t last it’s a fantasy, but it does use the time-traveling trope with its improbabilities and deeply structured “what if” idea — in Outlander the heroine, Claire, again and again fights against history and fails to stop happening whatever was destined or already happened. I was happy to notice something else not emphasized enough: it is Mary who saves the day. While George is off with Clarence, she calls Uncle billy, finds out what happened and she goes off to individuals and customers and everyone asking for help. George’s happiness in life is also attributed to their relationship.

A parallel incident in Winston Graham’s 1977 The Angry Tide: there is a run on the bank engineered by the ruthless capitalist banker, George Warleggan. So instead of paying the miners the salary Ross had been gathering for them from profit, Demelza ostentatiously puts it in the attacked bank, and, this explained, the miners accept the way the people of Bedford Falls do — for a while. A week later Ross comes home and with his high status, maleness, abnd good will engineers a consortium of banks to overcome Warleggan. But the idea of the people helping the man who was providing a good life against the establishments’ wishes is in both books. This latter is not a miracle though and thus not a Christmas story?

Ghosts. Traditionally Christmas stories use ghosts, and I have been reading Tyler Tichelaar’s exploration of real ghosts testified to in the history of Marquette, Upper Michigan (Haunted Marquette), spiritual mediums, haunted institutions, people to whom great cruelty was done. Appropriately or serendipitiously, Victorian Studies for December published something highly unusual: a funny scholarly article, Victorian Studies, 50:2 (Winter 2007):

Aviva Briefel in “Freaks of Furniture” writes about critical appraisals in magazines and periodicals of the popularity of ghost stories and séances. It seems that people were worried lest readers and the public become afraid of their furniture. And indeed Briefel quotes articles and letters ordinary people wrote about their fear of a piece of furniture; that some chair or bureau or lamp was not to be trusted to sit there unmoved. Things were behaving badly in some Victorian households. How spectral displays of objects got in the way of servants doing their jobs. Tables were particularly aggressive. Photography had begun to be used by spiritual mediums – Tyler’s book records some uses of this – the light in the center of the photo which seem inexplicable. This was seen by some as “excess energy” we could put to better use. Of course some is direct parody: Punch published a directive telling prospective customers they need to “carefully source” their stuff before buying it. Scrutinize it, find out its history, how it had behaved in previous houses …

Of course it’s skeptical but it also shows how this belief in ghosts and presences was pervasive. In my case I have never seen any furniture or other object in any house I’ve lived in act up, much less in similar ways. When I was very young and lived with my father’s sister (my aunt) and her children, these children did play mean tricks and once the trick was aimed at me. I was terrified and they didn’t reveal this trick until my aunt came home and discovered of course what was occurring. Because of such experiences (there were a couple of such) when I read of tricks played on some specific young person in a family — say in Smollett or Burney or more recently Waugh or Anthony Powell — I am not amused.

There are powerful ghost stories from the 1930s — I could cite them if anyone is interested, where the event is a mean trick. The person is fooled, but then what happens towards the end is suddenly the trick is real, and some real revenant punished someone hard. One of these was called “It,” and the idea of the story was to reveal to the reader that these games with an “It” in the center are left-over scapegoating rituals. Sometimes I’m glad I was an only child. These Christmas stories can turn mean.

But there is another sine qua non, a very different kind of Christmas event to hallucinatory movies, riveting musicals, transformative stories: the Christmas pantomime and music hall antics in taverns and theaters. These connect to traditional plays (as in the medieval Second Shepherd’s). A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful have very comic moments. Clarence is oddly hilarious.


Albert Coia and Tracey Stephens (Miss Florrie Ford)

Today at 3 Izzy and I re-found Metro-stage. A flyer had come onto my stoop about a month ago: once again Catherine Flyte, impresario, was staging Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush, this time in Alexandria City. I phoned, reserved with a credit card, took down the address, and trusted to my garmin to get us there. We were getting nervous as the garmin kept disagreeing with our paper map but as we drove up, both of us said, Oh, we’ve been here before — with Dad. I felt happy that Izzy remembered so well a moving play we saw here years ago, Sea Marks with Michael Toleydo and Catherine Flyte as an aging fisherman and lonely woman finding love again. I have a still from it on my wall today.

Jim and I used to go here justthe two of us occasionally for rarely-done plays too: we saw Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. It’s a small theater-auditorium in a plain small building at the end of a residential block of attached houses, very suitable for intimate plays — and shows. They had only the one piano.

Then we looked at our program and there was the unique Albert Coia, still alive and doing Mr Bertie Ramsbottom, and routines like “The Night I appeared as Macbeth:” he didn’t get the laughter over how he had missed Bill’s [Shakespeare] being ill, much less dead, that he should have. No one can do British music hall the way he does — or Catherine Flyte as the aging Fairy (“Nobody Loves a Fairy”) and the schoolmistress putting on play with young children. Izzy said it was 1994 that Laura interned at the British embassy and we saw a genuine full Christmas pantomime: “Little Red Riding Hood,” complete with two dames, and then in 2001 that we saw this show with Toleydo himself as Chairman. He made me laugh that time until I almost couldn’t stop.

This time Brian O’Connor was Chairman. I again found parts of routines hilarious that around me other people were made uncomfortable by (some of the numbers are very salacious: “Spotted Dick” and “Me Little Yo-Yo” for male performers and “Please Don’t Touch Me Plums” for women). To some in the audience this was like Gilbert and Sullivan to the audience I was in 4 weeks ago: another culture. Still it draws people wherever it plays.


This is not the one we saw but a version of it I found at YouTube

Well there was “Champagne Charlie is my name,” “The Road to Mandalay or Come into the Garden Maud” mashed into “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God” (a man speaks Kipling like lines and behind him is a woman whose arms do much work about his body), other routines (“Christmas in the Trenches”), altogether some 30 songs, in bits, as choruses, with audience singing along or in competition, continual moan-and-groan puns, questions and answers, interruptions, repetitions, a soprano (Katherine Riddle as Miss Daisy May), a wonderfully resonant baritone (Bob McDonald), sad songs (“In the Bleak Midwinter”), gay (“Let’s All Go Down the Strand”) and longing — many from World War One: “It’s a long way from Tipperary.” Christmas crackers were pulled. This iteration has been very favorably reviewed and it was (alas) the last performance for this year.

So another outward manifestation of Christmas is (to quote the reviewer) is “soothing the soul” by “spending a couple of hours laughing in the dark at silly jokes and stomping to give your approval.” Something cathartic.


Again this is not from the Gershwin production we saw, but is Judy Garland singing on the radio one of the songs we heard (“Not for me”)

When we were at the Old Bush and Bull and Izzy was singing sitting next to me I heard her beautiful soprano voice so clearly and knew it was superior to anyone else’s in the row; and when we returned from the Asian place after Kennedy Center she had such a relaxed tone in her voice, it sounded so harmonious and easy for a moment. She has had Christmas happen to her this year.

Miss Drake

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