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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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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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Van Gogh’s Red Vineyard was an important painting for Impressionist outside France, though Monet’s work was the most strongly influential

Dear friends,

Today was a strange day. I woke to hear a wuthering wind — appropriately enough I’ve begun to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (in a fine thorough Norton — editions matter), and while I had a little trouble getting into it again, with the help of one of the BBC’s marvelous 1970s serials, I’ve caught its peculiar visionary atmosphere now. Sometimes the wind became a kind of ceaseless roar as if one were in a hurricane with no storm in the center. At the same time all day and night freezing cold as if it were winter out there. Meanwhile the sun shines. Everything in the DC and Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland area has shut down, wide electrical outages (we have been lucky thus far and not lost power), because of the dangerous winds (so it’s said). Climate break-up. We have not begun to imagine the phenomena that lie ahead …


1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights: the moment of Lockwood’s nightmare where a hand from outside the window grasps his

It takes me a very long time to do something I’ve never done before. I’m not much for change. So I wondered if I would ever sit in that front room I’d wanted for so long. About a week and a half ago, I suddenly began. I tried the experiment of sitting in it after I’ve had my morning bout of posting with friends and on what business I have. I’ve now spent successive afternoons there, quietly reading, away from distractions in cyberspace, with no TV nearby, no radio, no phone in sight. I’ve begun to look forward to my afternoons and (sometimes) early evenings there. I love it. The cats moved in with me (so to speak). They now have a cat bed there, water bowl, dish for treats. They prefer the soft chair: Snuffy turns himself into a doughnut sitting just atop my shoulders and Clary settles down on the thick rug by the oil-filled electric radiator. A drawback is I cannot take notes on what I read because my handwriting has fallen apart and I have not yet taught myself to use the “note” program on my ipad but perhaps it’s all the more rejuvenating for that. I write in the margins and on the blank back and front pages of my book. I began with two afternoons of Poldark reading.

I remembered Jim laughing at me when we got our first dishwasher. It came with the apartment in 1981. For a while I kept cardboard boxes in it as I felt I didn’t know how to use it. Quipped he: “give the poor bathtubs and they’ll keep coal in them.” That was a mocking saying the Tories used in the 1940s to try to stop Atlee’s gov’t from giving subsidies to those who could get up half the amount for renovating their bathrooms. Due to Atlee’s gov’t’s passage of that bill, when Jim was 8 or so, his parents had an extension built on their house with a bathtub and toilet inside the house (in an unheated room) for the first time.


One of the singers at the Folger: we took home all the lyrics

I did have two marvelous experiences last weekend. On Saturday afternoon with a friend I went to Folger to hear and see their spring concert, Il lauro verde. It was quieter than most of their concerts recently, less “flash:” nothing on screen at the back, a more limited set of instruments (though the recorder and tambourine and harpsichord were much in evidence), no “star:” there was a play within a play, and dramatized duets; two singers from Italy, and all was sung in Italian. Nothing amplified falsely, nothing computerized, people playing their instruments. I feared my friend would be bored and was so relieved when she was not. She seemed to love the experience. I said it was like Easter or spring celebrated through themes from nature. By the end my heart was easier than it had been all week, it did my heart and soul good to be there in this non-commercialized quiet place where people played musical instruments with little fanfare, and they sang beautifully to deeply humane touching very delicate songs. Some witty, some erotic, some religious, some this ironic menace. No one a star. When I’m at the Folger and they return to the Renaissance this way I remember why I wanted to major in this material so long ago. Not that the world of early modern Europe was not as treacherous and crazed in many ways as ours.


Roz White in a performance some years back ….

On Sunday Izzy and I returned to the Metrostage where we had participated in a Christmas pantomime and music hall on Boxing Day. The music could not have been more different: it was a one-woman performance, Roz White, an African-American singer doing “A revolutionary cabaret.” A man at the piano, and some minimal props and clothes (hat, shawl). Years ago Jim and I saw a show in a restaurant in Greenwich village with an 80+ year old Alberta Hunter. She was just marvelous. Well Roz White did a couple of hers, two by Nina Simone, Roberta Flack — I had album by her even more years ago that I used to listen to again and again. Each time she imitated the particular singer mildly. They were protest and angry songs, but also songs of hope, witty, wistful, very contemporary. She uplifted and cheered us, exhilarating at moments. I wished it had gone on for longer.


Anna Boch (1848-1936): Dutch impressionist, Cottage in Flanders

This Wednesday I went to the third four (what are turning out to be) informative, insightful lectures (sharp intelligent comments on the painters, paintings) on Wednesday evenings on “Impressionism outside France” by David Gariff, a curator at the National Gallery. Instead of ending early (as is alas typical) he’d go on to 9:30 and later. Who knew there were so many beautiful, interesting varied Impressionist pictures across western Europe. I now realize most people see only a few of what impressionist pictures there are, the same ones over and over by the same artists. We are French centered, and because Americans see some American impressionism, and because we speak English, a few English. This seems to add up to less than fifth of the beauty and interest available. It’s that museums won’t buy these other paintings from other countries (on the basis no one is interested — but then how can they be if they’ve never heard of them).


Vasily Polenov (1844-1927), Russian impressionist: Early Snow

To characterize each country (and say at least ten painters) in a sentence or so is so inadequate but with my stenography so bad nowadays, and his pace so quick (to include a lot), I can do no more. Basically the Russians one are apolitical (no wonder, under such terrorizing regimes) and paint heart-stoppingly beautiful landscapes, often around great houses; the Italians in reverse are highly political (regional, it’s the risorgimento period) and we see realistic urbane scenes where the interest is a real building, real looking people, the culture. Belgium, the Netherlands seemed more contemporary, continually moving beyond impressionism to break-ups of naturalism. Next week impressionism in the UK. He said there is no single book.


It’s been adapted for the stage

My life goes into a different rhythm starting next week. It will be the OLLI at AU Mondays for teaching (leading a study group) on “The Later Virginia Woolf” and Tuesdays attending (a study group) on “The Best of Bronte.” 8 sessions each. My afternoons in my room I’ve reread Woolf’s Flush, Three Guineas, and am now into Between the Acts. The first a brilliant modernist, genuine biography of a dog; the second as necessary to read as Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce. I hope I can lead people to like and understand them. I get so aroused inwardly I begin to think next fall I’ll try a course I’ll call The Enlightenment: at risk!, and assign Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Johnson’s Life of Savage, and because no woman at the time dared, fast forward to Sontag’s Volcano Lover with brief online texts like Kant’s defining the term “what is the Enlightenment?” Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. A friend has added to the DVD collection of Bronte movies I gathered when I reviewed a book on “Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies,” two of whose essays were on the Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights films. A veritable feast of watching I’ve already begun.

Late March I’ll add the OLLI at Mason 8 Wednesdays for teaching Trollope’sHe Knew He Was Right and ‘Journey to Panama'” followed by 8 sessions on how WW1 transformed the world (a mix of unusual films and lectures) and 4 Thursdays the career and songs by Leonard Cohen (music not “to commit suicide by”); I’ve joined their Reston book club (3 sessions far apart) & first up Atwood’s Blind Assassins (I’ve longed to read since someone told me it’s about an older woman — like Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises), second a favorite, Swift’s Last Orders, and an Americanization of the Booker Prize, Saunders’ Lincoln at the Bardo.

The real news — affecting my life daily — is with the help of a digital expert, I rescued my 3 yahoo lists and they are now at groups.io, and our early verdict is we love our new home. It’s so easy to find postings, photos, links. Everything so clear and works well. I may be loathe to endure change, but when I have to — as Verizon is slowly getting rid of its yahoo parts that don’t yield huge profits — I do. Over the three weeks it has sometimes been stressful, but the (bearded) man who helped me was wonderful. He wrote out instructions step-by-step, literally, only occasionally leaving a step out. I should add (as it’s relevant) in the last 2 weeks the Future Learn course in autism suddenly switched gears and began describing the characteristics of autism thoroughly, and although the woman running never ceased asking her inane, indeed neurotypical question (for she didn’t mean it literally, it was a ploy), by the end she was asking what are the drawbacks for “coming out,” what the advantages (as a group these outweigh silence and erasure, for only then can you hope for help and understanding). I did tell Shal (that is his name) that I think I have Aspergers Syndrome traits, and it was then, he told me his son is Autistic Level 2, and he began to help me in earnest.


This soft cat toy is something like the one I left with Vivian

Not all good. In most lives some Acid rain must fall. I saw my friend, Vivian, for the last time. I drove to Bethesda, Maryland, found the assisted living facility her sibling have placed her in where she is having excellent kind (it seems) hospice care. Her life is over, drugged, controlled by her sister, I can’t reach her where she used to live as the sister as deliberately put herself in the way (telling me what I could and could not say before I was allowed in) and I could see when Vivian began to talk of her “issues” (her cover-up term for Aspergers), the sister grew impatient and changed the subject. I left by Vivian’s side a small soft toy cat, grey, with blue eyes, I’ve had for ever so long. A token to remember me by. I admit I hope to retrieve it when I go to the funeral. For Izzy’s sake. I will send Vivian a Jacqui Lawson card tonight — with her sister’s help she can read the Internet still.

[I will ask Laura for a photo of the apartment she has rented for us — it’s on her email bnb site where she’s registered]

My, Izzy and Laura’s preparations for our Milan trip included a trip to a Apple store, a stressful place where everything is arranged to extort from the customer absurdly high rental costs monthly by leasing phones built to last less than 2 years. We went into an Evolution Home store which from the outside looked like some once bombed rotting building, but inside was filled with exquisitely chosen and set up second hand furniture at reasonable prices (sold by whom? I wondered, after how many forced moves). On Route 1 one can see the blight of spreading poverty in the appearance and growth of trailer camp sites. Some huge percentage of people in he US between ages 55 and 65 are now near homeless or homeless and soon will have no health care whatsoever unless they work 80 hours a month … But Izzy, Laura and I have an invitation to visit a long-time Net friend (who I met once in London, so many years ago, 1990s), who lives just outside Zurich. We’ll see the Alps from a train and also beautiful lakes.


Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1807): Italian impressionist: La Fiumana

A pocket of hope: this is the first year since Jim’s death when I was not fleeced outrageously by someone claiming to do my tax returns — an expensive accountant hardly looked at mine individually (went there twice), a man in an H&R block store in a strip mall did not know what he was doing (there is a federal law forbidding states to require minimum education before you can put out a sign). And on top of that had to pay several hundred dollars in taxes! But two sessions of a truly expert AARP man at the OLLI at Mason where he taught us to understand the forms and then told us about AARP sites all over the US where people will make out your forms for free.


Sherwood Regional Library — it was a bit of a trip, but my garmin & mapquest got us there

So on two different nights around 5:10 Izzy and I set off for a library where we participated in filling out tax forms. The two women helping me paid attention, and I came back with papers showing my real estate and personal property taxes (deducible from the federal tax) and now I am getting a few hundred dollars back. The place is infected with the fundamental distrust across US society and only a social security card or number on a car would get you in; turned out this number is no where reprinted anywhere on any document but said card. At the same time not friendly people, not like British people in their daily impersonal relationships where there is a feeling of camaradarie. I told my name to both the women who did my taxes with me after we had finished and shook her hand and only then did we make eye contact: both turned, looked at me and smiled.

I have not been in a place like this since I went to Manhattan Eye Ear Nose and Throat (a hospital in Manhattan) regularly in the later 1970s. All services for free. The personnel could be blunt. I’d fill out the “need” form and someone would ask, “How do you live?” “With difficulty,” I’d reply. When Laura was born, we’d get money back from the tax system through Earned Income Tax Credit. (Jim did the tax returns all our lives). Like the people at OLLI all older people doing good deeds — one man became interested in a black young woman with a child who had been evicted some time this year (it’s recorded on tax forms!) and before you know it three people were attempting to navigate that horrible medical marketplace to help her find insurance that was better for her. Obama’s ACA stopped lousy insurance from being sold; it’s back. I know Virginia is one of the states that set up offices to help people. Another young white man was helped with something else not directly related to tax. A plain unadorned room in the back of a large public library.

So my fifth March without Jim begins:


(A Judith) Kliban cat

Miss Drake

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Night time ending (Season 2, Episode 6, 2016 Poldark)

Night Thoughts

What pain did I see in your eyes
and still something beautiful inside?

My fear that you will go —
because no one stays forever.

This memory: at the outdoor cafe near the sea,
the waiter’s black shirt

and some stranger waiving to another stranger,
waving.

Live move on like shadows of the windblown willows
to other lives.

Wounds heal but the scars remain vulnerable,
Sand sifts across the high dunes endlessly.

My body turns and turns again moving in and out of sleep,
dreams like sand dollars sinking.
— Patricia Fargnoli

Friends,

I wake to find I’ve been dreaming of character in movies I’m moved by — especially serial drama, and lately the new Poldark series. I am not sure if I’ve always done this but think not: I remember when I wrote my books (my dissertation on Richardson, the unfinished ones on Vittoria Colonna and Anne Finch), I used to dream of these people I’d been writing and thinking about so much. Since I’ve known him, I’ve dreamt of Jim. He’d come in late from wherever and I’d lift my arms to him, “my darling,” and hours later wake having dreamt of him, too. Now I’ve not got any people that close any more. No person to dream of. So I dream of characters in movies. Much of our lives is spent in dreams.

Diary-journals shared with others are daylight events I record here. These past few weeks I tried taking or following a few courses at the two OLLIs I teach at, went to the Smithsonian, and also signed up for a couple of online Future learn courses. The first week I did and tried out too much, went out 5 of 6 days! (also lunch and a movie with a friend). By Sunday I was so dizzy I couldn’t keep it up. Now I’m down to two OLLI at Mason courses on Wednesday (four 1 hour and 1/2 sessions each): one on Sylvia Plath, and the other early modern American women writers (not just Anglo either). In a two session course I learnt a lot about making out my tax returns (what is a deduction anyway?) and where is the local AARP who will help Izzy and I for free. On-line I’m following an excellent course on autism at Future Learn once a week — I wish I had a way of telling how good it is to participate in these dialogues. Hope triumphed over experience at the Smithsonian again: of hearing good conversation or intelligent thorough analysis (which didn’t happen, again it was dumbing down, silly histories of kings and queens instead of the Scottish culture I expected to hear about from the descriptions).

I go because I spent so many decades of my life in effect (as to social life) alone. This is probably the social life I am most comfortable at.

I can offer informative detail for but a select few of such experiences. To round off this opening section, this week I read for the Plath class Plath’s night dreams under the title of a Mermaid:

Lorelei

It is no night to drown in:
A full moon, river- lapsing
Black beneath bland mirror-sheen,

The blue water-mists dropping
Scrim after scrim like fishnets
Though fishermen are sleeping,

The massive castle turrets
Doubling themselves in a glass
All stillness. Yet these shapes float

Up toward me, troubling the face
Of quiet. From the nadir
They rise, their limbs ponderous

With richness, hair heavier
Than sculpted marble. They sing
Of a world more full and clear

Than can be. Sisters, your song
Bears a burden too weighty
For the whorled ear’s listening

Here, in a well-steered country,
Under a balanced ruler.
Deranging by harmony

Beyond the mundane order,
Your voices lay siege. You lodge
On the pitched reefs of nightmare,

Promising sure harborage;
By day, descant from borders
Of hebetude, from the ledge

Also of high windows. Worse
Even than your maddening
Song, your silence. At the source

Of your ice-hearted calling­
Drunkenness of the great depths.
O river, I see drifting

Deep in your flux of silver
Those great goddesses of peace.
Stone, stone, ferry me down there.


Susan Herbert’s sad daylight Mercat

We have two more sessions of Plath and then I will make a separate blog for under Austen Reveries. Below, today’s middle section is on two lectures, the second one contrasted to my reaction to the early modern American women writers class thus far.

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A coherent lecture from the Washington Area Print Group last Friday afternoon: American romance in translation in Turkey


Harlequin marketed at Amazon: Twilight Crossing

Heather Schell talked of the business and production of Harlequin romances originally written in the US and translated into Turkish and sold across Turkey. She called it “American Delightz: Harlequin Romance in Turkey.” My sten is so weak I have had to omit much detail but I hope what I transmit is of interest. Prof Schell began with the assertion that Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is seen as the foundational text for romances. That observation, which I’ve no doubt is true in some large circles of people, is so ironic, but is the reason the subject belongs with Austen studies. Georgette Heyer is the modern quintessential regency romance; her Regency Buck was cited. Then she cited three recent American authors and two novels, one of which after the lecture another woman scholar at the meeting said she loved as a girl: Janet Daily with her Dangerous Masquerades; Violent Winsfrey; Shirley Jump’s Doorstep Daddy.

In 2001 supported by various grants, Heather Schell traveled to Turkey to Turkey and lived there for a year. She had taken a year of Turkish, and had been studying romance for some time. Alas when she arrived her main contact had died, but she made her way to this Harlequin company, which is located in a small townhouse (another shop in the front first floor). This was a small firm going since 1949; it began with 25-65 books a year and now publishes 110 books every month. They bought up Mills and Boon. She showed us a group of books, where the authors’ name is de-emphasized, the covers are naive pictures of sentimentally attached lovers. There are an astonishing number of small bookshops selling such books across Turkey; otherwise you must buy them by mail order.
Gov’t censorship remains strong; you can be put on trial. The books were originally about strictly chaste heroines, heroes successful in whatever they endeavor, and this utter mainstream point of view protects them still today when they have somewhat departed from this formula. They used euphemistic language reminiscent of US romance in the 1950s. Most authors and translators and bookshops seek to stay “under the radar: so pseudonyms are used; translators’ names rarely appear on the covers. She asked how the books are chosen: apparently the firm employees look at the number of stars given a book on Amazon and choose a book with the most stars.

She outlined the conditions and constraints under which this company published these translations: the translator is given a month to translate. He (there were two males hired by this firm) or she makes a pittance compared to translators in the US or Europe and even tinier in comparison to the original author whose incentive is they need do nothing for a good profit but offer the text. The books are regarded as interchangeable. She suggested in fact the books are individual, but the translators sit down to translate without having read the book through; they will omit descriptions and dialogues to keep to a certain length. If they find they have omitted too much and have too few words when they get to the end, instead of going back to find good passages and restoring them in translated form, they just add on their own stories and ideas. She found that the publishers and translators would not allow the idea that men read these books, and would not discuss anything having to do with religion in them

She told us the story of Shirley Jump’s One more Chance; Jump professed herself fascinated by the changes made to her book. A couple married for many years living in Indianapolis separate. Cade is a corporate attorney and Melanie has dedicated her life to him and her family for many years. Upon separation, she opens a coffee shop. The translator made many small changes, the effect of which is to turn a mildly progressive realistic book into a conservative romance. She made the heroine conventionally much prettier (e.g., thin waist); the American heroine showed her age. The translator also made them lower in class and status. In general translators play a mediating role, changing the book to suit the tastes and understood culture of their target audience. When American texts are translated in Turkey, the heroine is made less intelligent, less educated, without knowledge of sports (very common in American novels for heroines to be involved with sports). The woman’s function is to redeem the man. (This reminded me of the new Poldark films: the new Ross is made to say how Demelza has redeemed him, an idea and feeling no where to be found in Graham’s novels or the older Poldark films.) There are a large number of TV soap operas in Turkey, most of which do not go on for more than half a season and have happy endings, and such endings are tacked onto the American book if the American book is at all ambiguous. Asked, Turkish women said they long for very rich husbands, a prince in the story, or a cowboy. Sex scenes are varied and may be “hot” and “heavy,” and how they are translated depends on the sensibility of the individual translator.

The pseudo-contemporary content of the books as described left me cold, what material Prof Schell could carry away (filch) about authors, themes, ritual product promotion was not new. I love the Poldark, find Outlander irresistible, read when I can fictionalized biography and the Booker Prize books, but these sorts of contemporary things even when respected don’t attract me (or sometimes, conversely, threaten me), so what was interesting was all the Turkish sociological and other circumstances surrounding them.

Sometimes you learn by contrast. Other women in the audience said they had read more of the Outlander books than I have, and that these are a cut and more well above the Harlequins Prof Schell was describing. One woman said to me when she was a girl she devoured Violent Winsfrey. I replied that I never read these curiously innocent books: instead I veered between lurid, violent, openly masochistic journals like True Story, and the middle-brow historical and contemporary novels that came through my mother’s book-of-the-month club which were packaged with more staid pictures (of houses, or heroines say at the typewriter or doing some job) and were in more complicated language; and the 19th and early 20th century classics I found on my father’s bookshelves.

Then there were 12 for dinner and the talk was good and lively. I was snubbed by one woman. I tell about this since she snubbed me by saying to my attempting to introduce myself, “oh I knew you, from WMST-L and your blogs” in this dismissive kind of voice. Well “there was me placed,” not the tenured person she and her husband (aging, half-blind) were as she proceeded to let me know, by telling me of how she lives in Dupont Circle and travels back and forth between DC and to where their prestigious Pennsylvania college is. I, OTOH, waste myself in these blogs, which so tiresomely make some names better known than others on lists (of all places).

And so to class and race in the US: A muddled lecture, a reflection of US culture accompanied by a selection from early 20th century paintings and films


Edward Potthast, Coney Island (this was not one of the paintings shown in the course below)

The OLLI at AU (3 morning sessions): Art and film, 1900-1950:

Unfortunately the woman appeared either to know little about the art (paintings) of the 20th century or be unwilling to discuss or evaluate it. She was even more reluctant to discuss her very early films, which she was unable to show for the most part because power-point presentation is not that easy. She refused to (or could not) describe them in words. Surely she was not as empty-headed as she seemed, but worried lest she offend someone somewhere somehow.

What I picked up from her selection: US paintings and films of this era were as egregiously racist, class-ridden, and commercialized as today, only the surface content different. According to her, some artists drew rich people portraits (like John Singer Sergeant and Cecilia Beaux), some piously sentimental group pictures where poor Negroes are happy all the live-long day and while working people just enduring all stoically, to these abstract pictures of the city (awful, hardly any sun, or moon, or even recognizable buildings, all abstraction, stick figures for people). She showed no influence from Europe and when I asked about the 1913 Armory show, she seemed to know nothing!. Moving along with what slides she managed to show, she cited all sorts of names, mostly men e.g., Henry Ossawa Tanner, Alfred Steiglitz, Robert Henri (many socialite types), a roster of early 20th century commercial male artists, photographers who sold from NYC galleries, now and then a woman (Georgia O’Keefe, Isobel Bishop). We saw “The Great Train-Robbery,” some railway scenes, proto-typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers luxury liner piece. All she could say over and over, was “see the movement.” Well, duh. The high-point (or shall I say low) of these films was the 1915 Birth of Nation.

The above is the first full-length film made in the US and is referred to as a “classic.”

All her chosen material was part of the formation of a nation all right (not just the Klan, the US itself) or one stream of it, based on fantasy norms, atavistic nightmares and slapstick. This very real American grain group just voted in the hideous Trump. She appeared to condone the depiction in paintings of blacks as innocuously innocent or wild devils. I was uncomfortable to have to sit there and be silent while hardly anyone spoke so asked a few questions. When I asked if the 1910 Fry Exhibition influenced the 1913 Armory Show, she muttered something about not wanting to describe or discuss anything not American. She also seemed not to know what was in it, and finally came up with (as if this said all one needed to say, as when someone says of someone else they “Have you seen their resume?”): “it was curated!” A little later I asked about audiences who went to galleries to see these pictures (were they elite?) and mass audiences for films? so how much interaction could there be between these classes and thus between films and art? somehow she resisted that. No, lots of people went to museums, but then she began to drip with condescension over the guards at museums today. “Did you ever ask them if they stay and look at the pictures?” “Of course not” and as she answered her rhetorical question, she smiled. Far more professional looking than me with her styled hair and even a two-piece pantsuit. She was well packaged (most presentable — she claimed she was once a writer for the New Yorker). What talk she had (without statistics) was how much money someone could make or how their career demanded this or that. That was her level, what she thought motivated each artist whose work she showed.

By contrast, the female professor at the OLLI at Mason who presented real material about two early women writers (Sor Juana de la Cruz and Anne Bradstreet), was in a relaxed sweater over a blouse, and jeans: she gave concrete details, evaluated, critiqued. After about 10 years of my life going to the Library of Congress at night and on weekends during the 1980s and early 1900s where I used to read these early modern and 17th century women writers alone, now I heard two discussed for the first time, and it was a kind of revelation to hear the perspective, the context offered. Also the other women in the audience reacting, commenting. This is the sort of thing I used to read by myself in the library and at home: personal poetry by these women:

Sor Juana On Her Portrait

This that you see, the false presentment planned
With finest art and all the colored shows
And reasonings of shade, doth but disclose
The poor deceits by earthly senses fanned!
Here where in constant flattery expand
Excuses for the stains that old age knows,
Pretexts against the years’ advancing snows,
The footprints of old seasons to withstand;

‘Tis but vain artifice of scheming minds;
‘Tis but a flower fading on the winds;
‘Tis but a useless protest against Fate;
‘Tis but stupidity without a thought,
A lifeless shadow, if we meditate;
‘Tis death, tis dust, tis shadow, yea, ’tis nought.

(A poor online translation — I will see if I can find something better in my conventionally printed older book)

This professor presented very different difficult-to-read verse by these women meant to make very compromised public statements. Her material too I shall present separately after all four sessions are done with the lectures on Plath (on Austen Reveries). After all the OLLI at Mason these past weeks was not for me what Feynman used to call Cargo Cult Experience.

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Walk Where They Fought. Battle of Waterloo. June 18, 1815. (Petho Cartography)

Daylight hours at home, on the train, in my car: reading and writing (though not my paper, only notes towards it and postings). Outstanding best critical book has been Andre Maurois, Aspects of Biography. Deeply moved by Graham’s Twisted Sword (the 11th Poldark novel, where Demelza and Ross’s son, Jeremy is killed at Waterloo), re-fascinated by the de-constructive abilities of Trollope (in An American Senator), now listening to every single word garnered by Boswell in his Life of Johnson, unabridged!) as read by Bernard Mayes. Lots of Latin quoted and then patiently translated …

Sometimes it’s been freezing cold, and sometimes balmy.

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 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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