Archive for the ‘travel writing’ Category

Faye Vanderveer — an idealized Alexandria City street

Dear friends,

One should not be astonished either at what people are willing to do to one another nor what they will accept as living conditions. Only a realization that conveniency and self-interest when it comes to economic circumstances conquer all objections can explain how Washington, D.C. has grown to this large metropolis when every summer we have weeks & weeks of weather that is hard to breath in. I’m told not that it’s just as hot in New York City, but that you can be miserable there too — indeed 89 degree with lower 70s humidity is not fun, but it’s still not as deadly as temperatures in high 90s with 81% humidity. That’s what it’s been for over a week now and we are promised temperatures in the 100s this weekend.

I dream of Maine, and look forward to my 10 days in Inverness, Scotland in August. I tell myself if I find I like the Road Scholar program truly, next summer not only will I go to the Lake District in August but if I don’t go on a Jane Austen tour in June (that’s when most of them are), I will find something for a widow with no friends to travel with for June to New England — one of the packages which include many plays. That’s what Jim used to concoct for him and me — with Izzy sometimes. Rent a Landmark house from the 19th century in Vermont, go to a lake for swimming when not on the road to a good play in the Berkshires (including one summer Lillian Hellman’s Summer Garden, other years Stoppard, Turgenev, Shakespeare, Shaw …)

Road, a feminist blog I follow included one of more perceptive essays on “ages of grief” I’ve read. It seemed to be my case: once surrounded by parents, with husband, two daughters, now alone with memories

These days when I read or hear about the death of anyone at any age and think about those who loved them, I have more than a glimmer as to how those left behind might be feeling. One of the many wonders of old age is what happens when your mind encounters sad, perhaps devastating, events. It sweeps over your knowledge of such things, whether personal or through friendships, like a strong breeze passing over a variety of prairie grasses: Big bluestem, salt grass, bottlebrush, porcupine, rice grass, foxtail, timothy, cupgrass, tufted lovegrass, wild rye. You ask, Which one is this? And then comes a moment when a known grief springs up green and fresh. Oh yes, this kind again.


Here are the two extraordinary experiences I hope you can reach:

I’m writing to recommend daring the heat — enduring it — and going to the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts or wherever the next place the exhibit of Yves St Laurent’s extraordinary art in dresses, costumes, jewelry, accessories, shoes, hats, headdresses, capes, cloaks, just about everything you can dress a woman in, which art includes the cloth he himself makes a first version of, the weave of each material, the designs and colors of the objects. I am naturally inclined to be sceptical and see “fashion” and “high couture” as commercial art (which it is) aimed at making huge amounts of money from the super-rich. That would take attracting the lowest common denominator in that class’s taste. But that’s not what this man did. Over the course of a long life-time he invented deeply appealing costumes for women. He begins as a homosexual boy making cut-outs (yes dressing paper dolls), which his parents don’t discourage him from.

Quickly he learns to sew, make patterns and his first fashion costumes. His parents were upper middle class people with good connections in Algeria, and before Yves was in his twenties he had a central position in Christian Dior’s firm. He lived a highly unconventional life in Paris, traveling, partying with all the important people in the arts, and so his artistry, talent, and by this time intuitive ability to make costumes that mirrored the spirit of each decade or helped create it brought him within a few years management of the firm when Dior died early unexpectedly. I’d say the exhibit has at least 8 rooms of mannequins which take you through the phases of his career, the different emphases of fashion.

Along the walls one sees his drawings and designs; the items are numbered so you can follow along with a free slender catalogue. There are on-going films of famous fashion shows here and there — like when Laurent broke with the constructed clothing of the 50s

Not that these are not fashioning the self

Or the costume-like fashions of more recent decades..

Within each staged presentation of a kind of fashion, the costumes are arranged to reinforce and contrast with one another. Two huge staged presentations of earring, necklaces, chokers, bracelet jewelry, from the beautifully tasteful to gorgeously bizarre. I was with a friend and we discussed and talked as we went through: we could see he didn’t lived a troubled life (he succumbed to drug addiction for periods).
It was the poetry of fashion. I kept coming across a dress, or full outfit, or cloak I could see myself not only wearing but quietly reveling in.

It was a 2 hour trip by car there — in the broiling heat — we got lost at one point. The museum does have a good cafe (and better restaurant but by the time we got to lunch, well after 3:30 it was closed). Then 2 hours back by car. This museum (like the Brooklyn Academy of Arts), specializes in the unusual so that it draws people to come from all over. A few years ago Jim drove us down to the museum to see a huge exhibit of Picasso’s art. The collection is not big but what they have is well-culled — and this time smaller exhibits (Tiffany art glass).

Then two nights ago I saw at the Folger the RSC Live production of Antony & Cleopatra, from Stratford-upon-Avon. It started slow and in the middle of the first act seemed to drag, but as it move on (it was three full hours, with one brief intermission) the actors playing Antony (Antony Byrne), Cleopatra (Josette Simon), their entourages, her women, his men, Enobarbus were viscerally deeply affecting, engaged. I had read the play as erotic, imagined aging wildly adoring and playful lovers, who cut down, rise to heights of ecstatic poetry. Also that it was a political parable about the effectiveness of cold ambition, hypocrisy, ruthlessness, heartlessness (Caesar). But I had not taken into account how it explores the lives of women (Octavia is not a small part), their relationships with one another. More important I didn’t know it dramatizes defeat at length. Yes it’s about characters who make bad self-sabotaging decisions. As if they wanted to blow away public life. I was so moved by Antony’s speeches berating himself, Cleopatra’s turn to suicide, and all the other characters’ failed attempts to rescue this pair or themselves. It explores the inner anguish of tragedy spread out before us. An black English actress played Cleopatra, and dressed exotically; the older great male actor (I’ve seen him many times before) was self-ripped up loss in dignity. Their costumes terrific; doubtless what would draw S Laurent to go.


My class at the OLLI at George Mason this summer ended Tuesday around 1:30. All those who stayed the course, and that included nearly 25, said how much they enjoyed the two contrasting historical fictions, DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. They said they loved how I choose books slightly off beaten path. I had found on the Internet a YoutTube of a remarkable lecture on why Sontag wrote and lived the life of a radically activist public intellectual as well as writer, poet, film-maker. I summarized for them the content of this remarkable lecture on Sontag’s work by Savanna Illinger which I here share with you:

Brief high points: Sontag felt literature should advance our understanding of the real, and denounce things which conceal human misery under the cover of sentimentalism. What Mary Wollstonecraft said was the justification for literature (poetry) to extend the sympathetic imagination in Sontag’s words is we have a duty to reveal other people’s true reality, warts and all, and suffering. Very hard because we have a hard time taking the sufferng of another as real. We cannot understand what war or battle is unless we have lived in a war zone. Photographs often constitute a barrier because while they acknowledge what is seen, they offer no understanding of what they picture, no admission of how photos are artificially framed; they promote emotional detachment and thus inauthenticity. For the imaginative contemplating the art work to be a fully ethical experience, you should be moved to translate your empathy into action. Early on, she thought essays, discourse, verse were much better at conveying reality, reason, against sentimentalism; but around time of Volcano Lover and In America, she saw in stories an ability to lead readers to enter into, ponder the lives of others. In the 18th century the significant moment pictured occurred just before or after the trauma; nowadays the deeply traumatic, wildly violent without dignity is what we show to disturb our readers. There is a superb essay on Sontag by A. S. Byatt.


One good enough experience, and one thrown-away opportunity

With Izzy this past Sunday night I went again to the Kennedy Center. This time to see Cabaret, in the Eisenhower theater in the 2nd balcony where we remembered sitting with Jim for Sondheim many a time, and our last New Year’s Eve together — a group of actors/singers imitated the rock stars of the 1950s, with “Elvis” the chief personality. The terrace was again beautiful, but now too warm to walk much. We’d never seen this famous musical: it is very much mainstream Broadway (or at least this production was), all gussied up and partly disguised by the imitation of German Weimar culture of the 1920s. It was a very humdrum production and I could see through to where its numbers resembled all sorts of others in other mainstream sweet and sentimental musicals. For example, “Money makes the world go round” is the equivalent of “Money doesn’t grow on trees in Oliver Twist. Now I know the context for the different songs: so “What good is sitting alone in your room” is sardonically ironic in context. I knew it was based on stories by Christopher Isherwood with an invented Bohemian heroine, Sally Bowles, who becomes involved with one of your white, blond virtuous American males (as appeared in this production). I had not realized there is a poignant story of an aging German landlady who is frightened out of marrying a deeply tenderly kind aging Jewish tenant. I now know why the musical appeals.’

Tonight I betook myself to the Smithsonian for what looked like a good lecture on George Orwell in the 21st century but most unusually the speaker was dull: Andrew Rubin was very cautious and all qualification, so I wondered who he was worried he was offending. He read his paper without attempting to reach the audience; he was disdainful of said audience too — not that their questions did not show utter misapprehensions, likening ISIS for example to the Republicans in Spain who were for a decent humane secular life — showed real obtuseness. As Rubin said, ISIS is pathological destruction. Read The New Yorker on the destruction of the Mosul library, or irrelevant an about their own identity, such as was Orwell anti-semitic?).

What’s left of the millions of wonderful books, ms’s, art, several heritages found together — now a site filled with landmines

I thought of a question I didn’t get to ask: on surveillance. Winston Smith is famously being watched, monitored, is in danger of being destroyed. Ruben didn’t broach this topic. I wondered what specifically in Orwell’s era was he worried about, and was he ever threatened. He broadcast for the BBC, and perhaps had had his fill of timid and political censorship. Despite this disappointment, I saw in the catalogue the institution has some good lectures on literary (one on a Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London) and film people coming up (Mingle with Marlene Dietrich), and I’ll try to go in the coming summer evenings.

Susan Herbert

And that’s the news from this Lake Woebegone, where my cats are my good companions and my younger daughter my beloved. Still listening to Gaskell’s Ruth read aloud: what a painful book. Next up: Woolf’s Night and Day.

Miss Drake

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From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990 film, scripted by Harold Pinter, featuring Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s probably not a pure coincidence that a new version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be screened on Hulu, a new computer channel which shows movies, that they have chosen this distopian tale for their first venture. I’ve read that top sellers for this week at Amazon (which by the way operates with Trump businesses, so if you want to boycott these you can at least try to find other online stores to buy your books from), as listed in the New York Times Book Review include Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If you want genuinely to understand what we are living through, what we appear to be watching happening at its final visible phase (it’s been mostly stealth or only seen in local instances for some 40 years) — the setting up of a dictatorship, you might do better to read a serious history of the first hundred days or say six months of Hitler’s regime.

I’ve not read It Can’t Happen Here, but have read the others, probably with the mistaken impression in my mind that in fact this is a democracy, people, real individuals in the millions, believe in voting and having their votes properly counted. I have now seen how such a certainly in the mind (I thought) of every American citizen makes it hard truly to believe in the dystopia of your choice. Trollope wrote one: The Fixed Period, taking place on an island that seems coterminous with New Zealand. All people at age 67 are required to “deposit” themselves in an asylum, a year later they will be killed. (His New Zealander, first published in 1972 in an edition by N.John Hall, is a somber analysis of 19th century British political culture as he so lucidly understood it.)

The roll out of destructions by the Republican rump and their ignorant malevolent shamelessly self-centered leader has been and continues to be done piece-meal. He’s putting it together with remarkable ease. His vicious people in the powerful places. Firing the staff just below. Slowly felt contradictory vague executive orders are an attempt to divide people by when they are hard hit – all the while lying. So I have not yet personally felt anything economically critical gone. Just heart. Just. The grief is hard to characterize. This morning I tried Dance Workshop again: they have a new woman, just relentlessly cheerful. Talks about the 45 minutes as a party. I wilt under such treatment.

Kathryn Schulz

I recommend to my reader Kathryn Schultz’s “Losing Streak,” or When Things Go Missing, in this week’s New Yorker (13, 20 February 2017): she begins with the word loss, which apparently goes back to “Old English” and means “perish;” it was in the 13th century that “lose” meant failing to win; in the 16th century we began to lose our minds (so mental distress, trouble), in the 17th century our hearts. It’s been expanding so now it includes all those hundreds of losses of things we endure over the course of our lives, from “mittens” to money, to beloved people. Now we are feeling our whole future has been stolen from us, robbed by the gerrymandering, politicization of our courts, electoral college, insane campaign against Hillary Clinton; all that we could had in improvement is now reversed and our very republic, safety from all-out war, civil and human and women’s rights about to be lost and in a way that might be irretrievable for decades and more to come. Losing a beloved, losing her father, she talks of death, not of losing friends, which has been part of my losing streak this year.

But in the meantime I’ve met an honest man! My neighbor-friend recommended as a contractor, a German man, semi-retired, and he has offered to do all I want (enclose porch, and make a fully functioning room, paint outside of house cream color, update electricity in house &c&c) for what may come out to be less than the kitchen renovation cost. It seems the demand I have the foundation dug out is a way for builders to make huge sums; the way veterinarians to clean a cat’s teeth want to put them under anesthesia and stick a tube down them (risking their lives) in order to make $500. So after all I’ll have what I’ve longed for for so many years. Too bad Jim is not here now. I’ve no one to take pleasure in it but myself. Izzy approves but it does not mean for her what it does for me. The neighbors will like this as it will help property values. I will have more space for my books 🙂 and not be ashamed any more.


I can link the two entertainments I’ve gone to over this week to our present dystopia. I was finally able to remember the name of the woman who ran an inexpensive and sometimes innovative and intelligent repertoire company in DC: Carla Huber; her group, The In-Series, located in DC just off 14th Street, a walk along U Avenue (from the Metro). It was a show made up of songs of Irving Berlin with a narration carried on by the performers situating songs in his life, his career, the particular musical or just song cycle. The songs were chosen to reflect some characterization of a type in one of his musicals, the actors and singers people one knew would put the material across. I conquered driving there and back by car, so learned where it was, and then going there by Metro on Saturday evening. One song prompted long, strong and extended applause: a black woman singer-actress, Krislynn T. Perry, sang “Supper Time,” in a deeply moving way, belting it out. I did not know before this that it’s a song by a black woman whose husband has been lynched. Here’s Ethel Waters performing the song:

I attended the first of our Washington Area Print Group’s lectures for this spring: Deirdre Johnson discussed popular series fiction by two American women: their circumstances and what they produced are typical of the era: Adelaide F. Samuels (1845-1941) and her much more upper class sister-in-law Susan Caldwell Samuels (1846-1931). Middling educated white people with connections to publishers, especially through a father, Emanuel Smith (1816-86, zoologist, botanist, collector) and Susan’s husband, Edward Samuel (1836-1908, naturalist). The stories focus on central characters who live individualist successful lives, attached to churches, looking now and again to their family for help. Although strongly teleological, the titles tell an occasional tale of lives stranded and broken (Adrift in the World). Susan and Edward’s divorce led her to concentrate on how the power a husband has can inflict cruelty and failure on those in his charge. Adelaide had come from much poorer people and when she was widowed, with one son, she listed herself as a “writer” and attempted to live off her earnings. Her stories are less moral than Susan’s. But (what the lecturer didn’t say) all these stories are a depiction of a large (taken as a whole) ceaselessly on the move culture treating itself as ever so moral. We got to talking as a group about children’s literature, how it’s changed in the last half-century, and how in contrast to American, British books for children were a melange of fantasy and realism (e.g., The Borrowers). What American children were give was imagined communities. British children were offered an escape from local reality.

Robert Southey’s desk in Greta Hall as drawn/painted by Caroline Bowles Southey: it’s the world as seen from her husband’s desk; he had the biggest best room in the house; not entirely unfairly as he supported himself, his nuclear family and Coleridge’s, as well as women and children attached to other romantic and dispossessed poets and writers when needed

On Trollope19thCStudies we are into Wordsworth’s Prelude and I’m reading Kenneth Johnston’s excellent The Hidden Wordsworth (it’s really a history-biography of the realities of intimate oppression in the later 18th and early 19th century in Cumberland), and I’m trying to accompany it with reading a fine woman poet’s autobiographical poem, much less well-known, Caroline Bowles Southey: The Birthday: A Life in Verse. I hope by the time we finish I can wrote my first foremother poet blog in a long time. For now, in case you’ve never heard of her (talk about the enemies of promise), here’s a brief literary biography by me:

Caroline Bowles’s years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absconded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant’s wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper’s Task. She does write in the poetic diction of Cowper. Wordsworth’s greatness is based on his original use of a natural spoken English not seen before. At the time Wordsworth’s Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey’s wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854. Unhappily too she has been blamed for marrying him, blamed for somehow getting between his wife and him (she didn’t) and then her own work seen as super-influenced by him — which it wasn’t.

There’s a wonderful essay on Bowles Southey in Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, ”’Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation,” pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey’s poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain:, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: the Making of a Woman Writer .

“The Birthday” is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet’s mind through retelling her story. It’s called “The Birthday” because it’s imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. “The Birthday” gives us a woman’s version of Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s shameful “The Birthday” is not better known. Unlike Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as it hasn’t got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can’t. He can’t begin to get the books he needs (shades of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and hasn’t got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; in her Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and (in the poem) deserved to be dropped. Not Caroline’s heroine, herself.

To the reading and papers I’m working on (described in previous diary entries), tonight I begin the second of my chosen books for the course I hope to teach at the OLLI at Mason, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (short-listed), a kind of distilled Cathy Come Home, starting late March. I’m now listening to Nadia May read aloud Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: it focuses on the coming into maturity of a super-sheltered, minimally educated intelligent young woman, Rachel Vinrace. Much water imagery. This from The London Scene which I read with someone on Wwtta last week:

A group of sketches, all at most 5-7 pages or so; like much of Woolf’s work, it’s a posthumous publication carefully staggered/staged and packaged by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books of non-fiction by her and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. This is a late book, first published in 1975, put together by Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law, published nominally by Hogarth Press but really a small press hired and in a limited edition. These feel bright, seemingly cheerful excursions — the sort of thing one sees in a magazine. I say seeming because the undercurrent leads us to her The Waves. Time is doing its work across the centuries and in single hours, days, weeks, years, all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)

What strikes me as I’ve finished The Waves, and begun The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women. Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager shows all this replaced by these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed.) I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books. Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – Woolf imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults: Cask after cask. Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first determined army of police effort.

The phrase “use produces beauty as a bye-product” could sum up all Jane Austen on the picturesque … Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things and animals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say. And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

From my window where I sit most of the time there has hardly been any snow: very summery days, so here to remind us of winter: Pytor Konchalovsky’s Poet’s Window (1875-1956)

I handed in a proposal for teaching at OLLI at Mason for this coming summer (how relentless is time and it’s been just about accepted:

Romancing 18th century historical fiction

Our topic will be the nature of recent post-modern post-colonial historical fiction as well as how as a genre historical romance differs from historical fiction, and what happens when the two subgenres mix. We’ll read as examples the older traditional The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier (1946) against the recent innovative The Volcano Lover (1992) by Susan Sontag. Bringing in as part of the discussion, other popular novels set in the 18th century (from Poldark to Outlander) and 18th century historical films (from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to Scola’s That Night in Varennes), we’ll explore these questions: How do such books use documents and relics (e.g. houses and paintings) from an era; landscape then and now, history, biography, life-writing; biographical fiction and fantasy, to reach and recreate the irretrievable, the unknowable past, to persuade us to imagine we are in the past as presences with the author. Why do we want to do this? Why is it important for the text or film to be authentic and yet familiar? For us to bond with the characters? And be fascinated by their era?

I end on yet another woman poet-writer, 19th century, American: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). In Cox’s case what’s telling is she was very popular, and part of the 19th century progressive or populist socialist movement (Bernie Sanders is a rare unashamed modern representative), which has been crushed since the advent of the FBI and ceaseless repression from the 1950s on.


To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

I just thought that I’ve never focused on Scarlett Johansson’s eloquent speech at the Women’s March, on January 21st:

It is still hard and brave for most women to speak before a huge audience, and she’s telling intimate realities of her life. Elizabeth Robins’s The convert is about how hard it was for the first suffragettes to talk before a crowd. It is harder yet to be sincere.

Miss Drake

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Myself standing on a cliff not far from our Padstow cottage

I do like to be beside the seaside — John A. Glover-Kind

Dear friends and readers,

For a long time now I’ve wanted to go to Cornwall. I date it from my first reading of Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark. Perhaps it was the chapter on the pilchards coming late to the coast

They set off for Nampara Cove shortly after nine. It was a _ warm still evening with the three-quarter moon already high. In Nampara Cove they dragged their small boat from the cave where it was kept, across the pale firm sand the sea’s edge. Demelza got in and Ross pushed the boat through the fringe of whispering surf and jumped in as it floated.
    The sea was very calm tonight and the light craft was quite steady as he pulled towards the open sea … They skirted the high bleak cliffs between Nampara Cove and Sawle Bay, and the jutting rocks stood in sharp silhouette against the moonlit sky. The water sucked and slithered about the base of the cliffs. They passed two inlets which were inaccessible except by boat at any tide, being surrounded by steep cliffs . . . She had only once been out in a boat before.

I had never felt immersed in the natural world of Cornwall in Daphne DuMaurier’s novels the way I had in Graham’s Poldarks, where Graham seems never to have Cornwall as a place far from his consciousness. For Graham Cornwall is not just some rural fantasy backdrop, a historical setting which becomes archetypal, but a concrete beloved place whose rhythms, human patterns, particular way of life figure forth an ethical meaning dear to his heart about human and British past and present.

So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach; further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides, was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and licked at the foot of the stile, leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow, losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea, with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath, and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea (The Angry Tide).

Here is one of many photographs by Simon McBride, from the first edition (1983) of Graham’s Poldark’s Cornwall, of the north coast above Boscastle (which I and my friends visited), called Crackington Haven:

NOrthCoastaboveBoscastleCrackingtonhaven (Large)

Nevertheless, DuMaurier’s and other evocations of this edge of a sophisticated world, its (nowadays) holiday periphery for those lucky enough to have money and the wherewithal (time, a car) to get there, had had their effect. In her non-fiction today you peer through railway viaducts, in the best fiction, a deeply melancholy distraught past to the quiet of an aloofness, unpeopled ridges of the world at the edge of dangerous seas, neolithic and slate stones, bent trees, canopies of wild flowers, Celtic crosses and churches, walls built as a needed defenses:


At age 10 or 11, I fell in love with the Arthurian matter (stories of Arthur, Guinevere, followed by Tristram and Isolde) because of the pictures; in the summer of 2004 Jim and I had dragged our daughters up and down hills (following Jacquenetta Hawkes and other Arthurian naturalists and geologers) seeking Cadbury, what’s left of the dungeons of medieval and early modern kings (like Richard III):


We’d locate plaques, or some small landmark confirming this is an as yet unearthed archaeological sites, or remains of monasteries on top of hills (now I know that is what Tintagel is). Jim liked the poetry of Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells (Betjeman was born in Cornwall) and would read to me poems like “Trebetherick” aloud to me

We used to picnic where the thrift
Grew deep and tufted to the edge;
We saw the yellow foam flakes drift
In trembling sponges on the ledge
Below us, till the wind would lift
Them up the cliff and o’er the hedge.

Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea,
Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet,
Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea,
Fleas around the tamarisk, an early cigarette.

From where the coastguard houses stood
One used to see below the hill,
The lichened branches of a wood
In summer silver cool and still …

Lonely round the hedge, the heavy meadow was remote,
The oldest part of Cornwall was the wood as black as night,
And the pheasant and the rabbit lay torn open at the throat.

But when a storm was at its height,
And feathery slate was black in rain,
And tamarisks were hung with light
And golden sand was brown again,
Spring tide and blizzard would unite
And sea come flooding up the lane.

Waves full of treasure then were roaring up the beach,
Ropes round our mackintoshes, waders warm and dry,
We waited for the wreckage to come swirling into reach,
Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and I.

Then roller into roller curled
And thundered down the rocky bay,
And we were in a water world
Of rain and blizzard, sea and spray,
And one against the other hurled
We struggled round to Greenaway.
Blesséd be St Enodoc, blesséd be the wave,
BlessĂ©d be the springy turf, we pray, pray to thee …

One of Betjeman’s poems I had printed on Jim’s funeral cards.

I had read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: the Stephens family holidayed each year in St Ives, and her famous novel is set on a coastline there (though I did not find an evocation of Cornwall by her that I remembered until I began to read her short memoirs, e.g. “A Sketch of the Past” and life-writing pieces):

Hamlyn Bay, near St Merryn, Lancarrow in a cottage not far from Padstow where I stayed with friends last week (8/24-8/31).


A few tellable moments:

Another English friend (so many of my friends are English, live in England, with whom I correspond here on the Net) had told me to walk past Padstow into a long lane that takes one into an estuary which by boat can lead to St Enoch and then Bejteman’s burial place. My friends were agreeable but because of time constraints (it takes time to drive to each place), we contented ourselves with walking in the town, along the harbor. I climbed on a wall across the way from the town called Rock, and watched people take hour-long “cruises” around the bay.

I and my friend, Clare, went into the Lobster Hatchery and a good art museum (beautiful local scenes of Padstow), which I’ll talk about in separate blogs devoted to the various remarkable places. (This blog is a general account situating what’s to come.)

Similarly we made it to Fowey, a town perched on the side of a steep cliff; you almost have to hold onto the shops as you walk down to the waters where many private boats are harbored.

Here’s the estuary from Fowey which we managed to drive too, and where one can take to the house DuMaurier rented after Menabilly, Kilmarth: again we didn’t do it, not enough time, and wow were those streets steep.

Estuary (Large)
(from DuMaurier’s Enchanted Cornwall)

From there you can reach Menabilly (Du Maurier’s Manderley today), though as it’s still in private hands, you cannot visit; you can also take a ferry to Kilmarth, the house she rented after she was forced out of Menabilly (Manderley’s legal name) when her lease was up (and after she had invested considerable money fixing what had been utterly derelict). We didn’t have the time, so again I perched on a wall and looked outwards to see the people taking hour-long “cruises” in the bay and imagined Du Maurier’s house.

In Fowey we did find two good bookstores (they still exist in England, though far fewer than once where there, and small most of them), where I purchased The Daphne DuMaurier Companion, a very good collection by Sarah Waters, Claude Berry’s old substantial county book, Portrait of Cornwall, and an absolute treasure I will be using for my blogs on this coming season’s Poldarks: Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark: The Complete Scripts, Series 1: what a revelation I have had, learned how much better a set of films the scripts call for, it’s nuanced, the characters developed far more slowly and fully than the mini-series director and producer permitted and some of the actors were able to realize.

I took snaps of people bathing and boating wherever they could, as Clare, I and her partner, Mark ferried along from Truro to Falmouth and back again. At Falmouth we saw the remains of a once vital government port (badly bombed by the Germans as was Southampton), and a maritime museum which has become a child’s playground in its effort to make the shipping and industrial history appeal broadly:

On the two-hour (each way) ferry

We saw many boats, some working fisherman, some leisurely yachts

We saw people boating, one man pulling his three children behind him on a speech motor boat, they holding onto a large raft for dear life. Fishermen in alcoves. It was in these waters that I felt myself here alone now, a deep sense of how here my life’s great adventure began when I married Jim and now I was back, standing there alone. I used to stand on my spot in the world by Jim’s side, now I must stand alone. That is the meaning of the photo at the opening of this blog, of how I was holding myself firm.

I like to read archaeological post-modern musings like Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of the Place, this one too in Cornwall, in ex-mining country, and desperate political polemics like Rob Shields’s Place on the Margin; Alternative geographies of modernity, with its chapters on “the true north” in the UK, the “North-South” divide, Margate and other marginalized places from the viewpoint of marginalized people. Shields reprints semi-facetious cartoons

This “papa sees us bathing” reminds me of Orwell’s postcards in his depictions of popular culture

and quiet illustrations: This one puts me in mind of how people in NYC will sit themselves down on stretches of grass by a highway or under a bridge and picnic too:


I took snaps of people swimming and lying on beaches by walls, on the edge of whatever body of water they were near (and water is everywhere seeping in close up in Cornwall), or picnicking by some old building now transformed into an inn or hotel or tourist attraction:


I had not realized until this visit how Cornwall is a seashore of jagged edges, a land of slates that dug into china clay pits turns lunar, how it’s an edge, one of the sophisticated world’s peripheries not too far for its denizens to reach. LeCarre has lived here for years (his residence a well-kept secret). (On the way home because I had bought Economy Premium, not quite the abusive conditions of sheer Economy I was able to watch the astonishing Night Manager (HBO mini-series which mixes the best of recent Shakespearean actors, with BBC stalwarts), and noticed (as I have many times before) how magical in LeCarre are the words, Devon, Cornwall, as a places to refuge, hide yourself in.


It took five hours to get there. When I told a friend on the Net (she lives 10 minutes away from me by car) the trip to and from, door (mine) to door (this cottage) took well over 30 hours, she remarked “You could have gone to Australia for crying out loud..” Much of this is the train wending its way through this country around its coast, and one knew this was Cornwall when right below there were these steep steep rock cliffs, from which were growing ancient dark evergreens, with the sea just over an expanse of land and further rocks. One can see how a flood, a strong snow storm, ice, could cut this place off, at any rate for a day or so.

This keeps out day-trippers, but there seems to be real snobbery about the proliferation of cheaper eateries, stores selling junk memorabilia, or ice-cream, (I admit) awful (from the outside) looking bungalows. They do spoil the atmosphere if you are seeking silence and solitude. Not just around the most famous landmarks (Tintagel), and the over-praised St Ives — you must hunt out the exquisite art shops, and artists’ studios, the museums (of which there are many), between the usual eateries, cheap shoe shops (yes even here).

But these are as natural as drain pipes installed all about another famous site, St Michael’s Mount: this photo was taken before the causeway filled with water (as it does daily)


Here’s one my friend took of me half-way up that stupendous climb inbetween bouts of people climbing between her and me:


So humanly speaking what I liked best about the famous Jamaica Inn were the cheese-filled Cornish pasties they served. I like the traditional spicey-oniony-meat pasty, but prefer the cheese


The inn itself is a fine restaurant, next to which a museum is not about smuggling so much (though it tries, and is serious about the dangerous conditions of smuggling, why done, and has a good film) as a site to show us aspects of Du Maurier’s life and family and books. I can grow weak with hunger if I go too many hours with no food, and the pasty afterward cheered my body and heart.


Shall I say what it’s like to be in these towns whose primary business is now tourism in summer, and what they connect to at the center through educational institutions: it’s as if some cataclysm has occurred in a world of violence and hard work for most. All the reasons for the vast fortresses and shipping, mining, agricultural work except sheep, and cows (which I saw in abundance) have gone. What’s left is all of us, the 99% wandering about these sites, passing time as (if we are lucky) we have income from where we lived in the centers of finance and social services. The remnants of the past have become the settings for costume dramas set in the past. Or we imagine the back-breaking, youth-destroying work of a mine, or the horrifying punishments meted out in prisons — alas, in the US prisons today privatized are in some ways actually worse than Bodmin or Launceston.

The past is a leisure activity; landscape places to play and muse in: We walked along many a beach, on cliffs, my friends standing together on the same one I am photographed above from:


Mark is an excellent cook. All good men should be.

There are extraordinary and ordinary sites to visit in Cornwall: Greevor Mine, first opened in the 16th century and kept going until 1987; an afternoon exploring Landhyrock House (basically now an later 19th century mansion) and another afternoon at Trerice (a more modest early 18th century variety of manor house): both of these were filmed and inspirations for the 1970s Poldark mini-series.

Lanhydrock House was Francis Basset’s house where the characters dine at a political gathering and Demelza is momentarily bewitched by the poetry and romance of a young romantic nephew Hugh.

We went to the manor house of Trerice which was the model for Trenwith in the first season

Norma Streader as Verity asks Robin Ellis as Ross for help in meeting Captain Blamey: in the background you see Trenwith (Poldark mini-series)

Bodmin jail, a grim place where you are allowed to gather the horrific injustices and devastatingly hard conditions prisoners lived and died in, and by contrast, the juvenating St Juliot’s Church, where Thomas Hardy met his wife Emma, and which he renovated:

Here is a lovely photo of perpendicular Cornish gothic in churches, a window, used in the 1970s mini-series (the window of the church where Dwight Enys marries Caroline Penvenenen. from the 1983 Poldark’s Cornwall) modelled on such a church:


Here’s a photo of my friends sitting on bench just outside the St Juliot’s church, which is still offering services for parishioners and help-group support for the bereaved:


From the height of deep mining in the later 18th and early 19th century the southwest coast has many ruined towers and engine houses. It is well ever to remember how dangerous mining was and is, what hard work. A few of the last men who worked in these mines are now guides at Greevor (which nowadays also hosts a Poldark day where employees dress up as Poldark characters and perform 18th century activities for visitors).

An extraordinary good exhibit of paintings, at Penlee House, in Penzance: Encompassed by the Inviolate Sea, from which I show here but one of many pictures:


some by a superb Pre-Raphaelite John Brett, famous ones by Stanford Forbes, though I was dismayed to discover out of many rooms, but three pictures by women, and only a print of Elizabeth Forbes Armstrong in the woman’s bathroom:

We did not neglect the Eden Project;a high ideal of environmentalism is often found in the good tourist sites:

A modern sculpture


As during the five weeks in 1994 when Jim and I and our daughters lived in Rome in an apartment and used buses, trains and a boat to visit other nearby places as well as the sights of Rome, not to omit one memorable three days in Ischia, so in Cornwall in 2016 when different parts of one large place are built centuries apart, I feel I’m in a palimpsest of time, in its layers. In one room one can find objects from the 6th through the 20th century, each there not to represent some era, but to function today, as a chair, a sculpture, a bed, toys, gardening implements, and forms of guns. I saw from our car, Bronze age Cornwall:


Elizabethan and 17th century Cornwall:

GodolphinHouseCornwallblog (Large)
Godolphin House (these pictures are from Winston Graham’s mistitled Spanish Armada: it should be called “The Spanish Armada as experienced in Cornwall”)

It was last year when I and Izzy returned from Leuven, Belgium, instead of returning to London, we took a detour to Exeter, and for two days then with my friend, Clare and her partner, we exhausted ourselves doing much in such a few spaces; it was Devon, though, and (I have a customer — stage voice) while we ferried across, and explored one castle-cum wealthy man’s estate. We decided to return next year if Clare could rent a cottage; she did.

This past week was a summer holiday, a summer vacation for me. All summer long here in Alexandria, Virginia, the heat has been intense; for a few weeks it was continually over 100 if you include the “index” (how it feels). Consequently I went out little, evening for Wolf Trap, once a week during the time I was teaching, out to a movie with a friend: it could have been winter. In Cornwall I sat on beaches and watched people swim, got my shoes all muddy, felt I was among people enjoying the summer.


As one should not ignore what is going on around one in the here and now at any site (as a 13th century manor house is now a post office), so the traveling experience matters too. This is where ordinary people come up against the power of the corporation and the wealthy of our world. We are endlessly scrutinized, photographed, surveyed: the theater is now there for “security.”

So, as those who read this blog regularly know, I was fleeced by Expedia (ultimately it was the airlines who collude with these middlemen): paying my bills today I had the mortification of seeing how much I lost and on top of that what I had to pay for a non-stop ticket direct from the airline.

The price for me of such experiences is such ordeals and the anxiety I experience coming up to travel and stress I experience during (I’m not much on contingencies). Since I was flying British Airways I did note for the first time two planes (one going to the UK and one coming home for me to the US) which had an upstairs and downstairs utterly cut off from one another as far as passengers were concerned. Upstairs was first and business and other levels of super-expensive decent treatment. We downstairs were not permitted to see the disposition of space and service up there. We had some version of business class: it was seats that looked like time capsules facing one another, that came with tables, turned into beds but no room to walk about. Both ways I paid for Economy Plus or Premium, and was not treated abusively. Soon after we were seated, we were offered drinks, amenities in the form of hot towels, newspapers, free films, blankets, eye-covers, two lavatories. Further back the seats were smaller, very uncomfortable they looked for sleeping on night flights or a 7-8 hour day trip.

I have seen this before. What I have not seen is planes where I’d say over half the people were paying the huge prices. When it was time to line up, it took a long-time for “priority” people to be seated. They were more than half the plane. Hitherto recently I have flown airlines like Southwest (where once an obnoxious lead stewardess actually forbid people to use the bathroom for quite a time, and did it as if it were a joke) or Icelandic and thus perhaps been among a preponderance of people flying as cheaply as they could.

No more or never again and some such words for me. Either I buy a ticket direct, or pay a travel agent, or stay home. Inside the US when it’s feasible, drive, or as a second choice, train or comfortable bus, if there is such a thing in this land of inbuilt humiliations of crowding and long waits while one watches other people sail through– even on the highway due to the way E-Z pass is administered and the way far more lanes are offered to people with E-Z passes than people driving “for free”.


Back to what we like to dwell on, one motive for going, the moments by the past where it can speak to us, and offer some meaning to existence by its attachment to some pattern. For me these come from books and humanized landscapes

Fresh flowers on a grave in St Juliot’s churchyard which I’m glad to report has community services, which include grief-support. The church built first in the 15th century, its gravestones go back to the 6th century (Celtic crosses)

At times I can go back to St Ives more completely than I can this morning. I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favourable moods, memories — what one has forgotten — come to the top. Now if this is so, is it not possible — I often wonder — that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? … There … are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound. I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emoition must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start (Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being)


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Friends, this is an addendum to “I go into a Towering Rage: Airplane Travel today.” I have read that Small Claims Court in Virginia has a top of $5000, and Expedia has cheated Izzy and I out of $1800, but she feels and I cannot disagree (not being a lawyer) that it may be when we clicked “accept conditions,” we accepted this ruthless fleecing. You will remember that two weeks ago I discovered that suddenly I had a 10 hours layover in Iceland going to London and when I tried to change that it took me 5 hours on the phone, only to discover the charges and penalities would made a 2 hour cut in time more money than the ticket cost. Then one week ago I noticed for the first time coming back from London Izzy and I had an 1 day and 3 hour layover. What I left out in my talk with Expedia is my suspicion they changed the tickets at the last moment. But I have no proof.

Around 4:00 today I received a phone call from Expedia. I had four times filed a complaint on their site, outlining what happened to me (see my previous blog linked in above). A young man came on the line, saying he wanted to respond to my complaint (or words to this effect). What happened was this: he said that he could not refund my money as he had first to call Icelandic as their policy needed to be “clarified” (which was what I was told on Tuesday when I was led to spend 5 hours and on Saturday 3 on the phone). He claimed that Icelandic had a policy of not refunding or changing this ticket. I again said (as I did the second time on Saturday) that I had phoned Icelandic on Tuesday and their representative denied that Icelandic had any such policy. They said they had not sold these tickets and had no control over them. They said the tickets were issued by Expedia and it was Expedia setting these rules.

He appeared not to hear me and repeated his mantra of having to call them to “get permission” to refund the money. I replied that if he persisted in this lie, I could do nothing about it, but if he wanted to go off the phone and pretend to call them or do whatever he did, that was fine (as what he does is invisible to me); but if he called back refund the money or make it go for another flight I would be grateful. I got him to acknowledge he had heard what I said and taken it in. There was a pause.

He then repeated he had to call Icelandic, except now he came up with a new rule which it seems I had to obey. He could not follow my suggestion that I get off the phone; and if he wanted to call me back, he could. This was not doable. I had to be on the phone while he phoned Icelandic and wait until he finished. I told him this is absurd. Who made such a rule? He did not say, but repeated it was a rule he had to obey. This what I was told and listened to on Tuesday: I must wait; and again told on Saturday, and after 40 minutes refused to wait any longer. I said a man I had hired to renovate my house today had received a wrong door from Home Depot; he phoned Home Depot and without him staying on the line (his time is valuable), Home Depot called the place where they acquired doors, made the substitute and then called him back. I refused to play this game. He repeated the mantra. I then hung up after I repeated what I had said before (I cannot tell what he is doing during the long periods of waiting and Icelandic had denied his assertions) and that if he called again to tell me he was refunding the money I would be grateful.

About half an hour later this email came into my box from travel@customercare.expedia.com. I read it twenty minutes after that as I had gone to the supermarket around 4:30 pm (shortly after I got off the phone) in the interval:

Dear Ellen,

Thank you for contacting Expedia about your flight reservation. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience that may have occurred and would like to assure you that every reservation is important to us.

We appreciate you take the time to let us know your comments, your feedback is very valuable for us to prevent similar situations in the future.

As per our conversation, we have called Icelandair and they unfortunately informed us that all your tickets are non refundable. If you cancel your tickets unfortunately there would be no refund back to your credit card and there is no credit that this airline can provide for future travel use. It means that if you cancel, the value of these tickets will be forfeited.

We tried to call you to inform about this and to also know if you wanted to continue with the cancellation. However, we were not able to reach you. If you still need to cancel this reservation following these rules and restrictions that Icelandair advised, please call us directly at 1-866-310-5768 local, toll-free or 1 404-728-8787. This is an international collect call number, but Expedia will accept the charges for calls to this number and provide the case number M-14539157.


Customer Service Team

It’s possible he called very quickly after I left and then sent the above email.

I replied as follows:

Dear Sir,

I will not phone you again. I have spent 8 hours on the phone plus today another useless half hour. In your letter you ignore what I told you. On the first five hours on the phone I phoned Icelandic and they told me they did not say the these tickets were non-refundable nor not changeable. They said the tickets were issued by Expedia and it was Expedia setting these rules. I told you if you persisted in this lie, I could do nothing about it, but if you wanted to go off the phone and pretend to call them or do whatever you did, that was fine (as what you do is invisible to me); but if you called back refund the money or make it go for another flight I would be grateful. You then came up with a new rule. I had to be on the phone while you phoned Icelandic. This is an absurd rule. You told me it was a rule you must obey. I said my contractor today had received a wrong door; he phoned Home Depot and without him staying on the line (his time is valuable), Home Depot called the place where they acquired doors, made the substitute and then called him back. I refused to play this game. I hung up after I repeated if you called again to tell me you were refunding the money I would be grateful.

Now I get the same lies, the same game with an invite to phone again.

I will do all I can to tell everyone I can reach about how you have treated me.

As my readers will imagine, I had been upset when I got off the phone, but had remained calm this time. This letter reiterated the deceit. There is nowhere on the site that enables a customer to cancel a flight by using the website; if I go to the website, I reach a place which gives me the same phone number. As seen in the letter, I would be drawn into these phone conversations again. I realize now the purpose of making me wait is to exasperate me and to claim that I disobeyed some rule (that I must be waiting on the line while the Expedia representative is said to be contacting and talking to Icelandic in this case) and thereby am ineligible for a refund. I also realize I should never buy from one of these companies because they reserve the right to change flights and times at any time. It is improbable Izzy and I did not see the 1 day and 3 hour layover until last week, but if Expedia changed it, it’s one of the conditions that they reserve the right to do that.

I am keeping my stated intent at the close of my email reply. I am trying to tell as many people as I can by writing this blog, placing a URL on Face-book and twitter to expose these people. One of my tickets (just for myself, single) is from 8/23 and again on 8/31 (round-trip) so there is plenty of time to cancel; the other for two of us, 10/13 and again on 10/18 (round-trip.

My hope is I will discourage others from buying at Expedia and any other on-line airplane ticket buying service. At least others who read my two blogs will have been warned of what can happen. Never buy a ticket from one of these online services if you value your money, your time, your state of health, your very trip.


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Stevie Smith

Dear friends and readers,

I hesitated in telling of this but I’ve been told by a close friend “I don’t know if you’ll be surprised when I say that your Towering Rage episode was nothing uncommon? Dealings with the airline industry, organizing your own itinerary, can be extremely frustrating, and almost everyone I know has had like experiences,” and that what I am about to tell has happened to her several times. Lost hundreds of dollars (and more) several times, been treated ruthlessly abominably with lies. Another close friend tells me she has had a similar experience with Orbitz. I don’t have that many friends and few people confide in this sort of thing. If it was so easy to discover other victims, there must be uncountable many. So I’ll tell my experience to make visible what is perhaps rarely said in public but ought to be SIGNED somewhere in letter twelve feet tall.

I could have called this, How I have wasted endless hours this past two weeks after we either made a mistake and purchased tickets, which had a 1 day and 3 hour layover. Is it probable we would not notice such a thing? or they were silently changed on us, twice?

I have rarely in my life felt this kind of emotion. This Saturday afternoon I had to take a walk in the supreme heat to calm down. I didn’t trust myself to drive anywhere. I found I could not settle to my work, could not read, could not cope with my cats who sensed something different. The last time I experienced this must’ve been years ago as then too I had to go for a walk to calm down. (Maybe in my younger years I did experience this kind of anger and explode — vague memories of a couple of occasions –, but I managed to stop before it got so bad I didn’t know what to do with this intensity of anger.) I probably remember this incident so well since when I returned Jim came to the door concerned and reproachfully: did I realize I had upset Isobel by suddenly departing? It was like Mr Knightley reproaching Emma for insulting Miss Bates. I felt terrible. I had slammed the door. My anger may have been started or continued by quarrel with him, but as I recall there was far more to it than that. I no longer remember the cause, only that I needed to calm down, it took time and then felt I had behaved unforgivably as a mother. She had not understood nor could I make her understand. Well I have not felt such a need again (or controlled it way earlier) until this Saturday afternoon. This time I told Izzy now well over 30 I could not calm down and needed to walk and she understood all right. She had heard it all from her room.

As I wrote about in my last entry, last week on Tuesday, I noticed the tickets for my trip to London included an 18 hour layover in Iceland, and to change it would cost me as much as the round trip ticket had done and all I would gain would be one-hour less going, nothing coming home. Now this week, Thursday (so 9 days later), I noticed that her and my round trip ticket included a day and 2 hour layover coming home. Either we didn’t notice such stretches (is it likely) or they changed our layovers to ridiculous amounts of hours in Reykjavit. ( Last September it was a sudden change made by Aer Lingus and would have meant I would not be in time to give my paper at the conference I was going to. I had printed out the previous document and was able after a couple of hours to get our tickets changed back.) This time it had taken 5 hours to discover this: at one point the person at the other end of the phone either hung up or we were disconnected, and I had had to start the process (which seemed to necessitate this person going to three different people to discover information or “get permission”) all over again. I was shaking when it was over. I decided to endure an 18 hour layover going home and a 10 hour one going there.

But I knew how intolerable these flights are. No food worthy the name on the plane, squeezed in a tight seat, no amenities at all; the airport hangar a horror of crowds, and unless I was in a European hangar cheap inedible over-sugared, sauced, salted stuff out of machines or be fleeced in a super-expensive restaurant. Airline travel in economy class is now a form of abuse. The people directly in contact with customers rely on shaming people; they stay just this side on the edge of neglect. And how people are afraid the plane will fall out of the sky so are willing to put up with a lot. The airplane companies have discovered it costs them less to have teams of people finding and delivering lost baggage than to be sure the person never loses his or her baggage. Izzy was without her case for two days during our time in Devonshire last summer.

Not Izzy; someone else; such photos are easy to find on the ‘Net

By Saturday I had decided to swallow the money the two tickets cost and buy anew. And I would go no stop. Less chance to lose baggage too. I would pay what was necessary. But what if I ended up having something similar happen. Either I not notice (or more likely) the airplane or Expedia change the layover. Business class takes a ticket into say $1800 and first class is astronomical. A friend suggested I call British Airway direct and buy from them. She went to her computer, spent more than a half hour away (in another room) (over half an hour at least) and came back relieved. She had found such a phone number.

I phoned and in no time was talking to a polite young man who was marvelously empowered to sell me decent tickets. He said different tickets from those available at Expedia or Orbitz. I was able to buy a ticket for myself going and coming with a 6-8 hour travel time, arriving in London in mid-morning so it would be comfortable and simple for me to get to Paddington and take a train to Devonshire where I was going to meet a friend. Ditto for Izzy and I going in October; I cut short our time in London, leaving us just one day to be there in order to make it easy for us to get to the plane the next morning as we had to come to London from elsewhere first. Yes I paid much more, but not out of sight (not the cost of Business or First class.) Izzy had said the time in London was inconvenient to her; she didn’t care if we left, and I knew I would find the extra effort such individual times take hard. I did buy something called Economy Premium, which meant we had bigger seats, more leg room and some promised amenities. I could change it at $275 charge; cancel before a certain date and get my money back. It took less than half an hour for me to be printing out confirmations with times and plane numbers. Sanity.


But then I made my second mistake. I tried to cancel the tickets we had had. I could have left it. After all, that would allow Expedia to take our money and then put others in these seats, but Izzy (ethical) said that would probably be wrong, worse we might be bothered about these tickets at some point. So I foolishly, gullibly went back to that fucking Expedia site. I tried to cancel the present tickets, knowing I was told they were non-refundable, and guess what? the only way to cancel a flight was to call one phone number which all FAQs led to. I found myself being subjected to the same rigmarole. I told the woman I didn’t expect my money back, and she left the phone before I could say anything else — for 40 minutes. Back she came with the same absurdity: now she had to call Icelandic air to discover their terms. I know from my 5 hour wait last time that Icelandic told me these are tickets they did not issue, have nothing to do with and as far as they are concerned should be refundable or changeable. So this is a lie. I became so angry I could scarce control my voice. Why cannot I not just cancel these tickets with you. She can’t do that. She doesn’t know numbers, doesn’t have permission. I began to scream on that phone. I demanded that she write a complaint to her supervisor about what had happened. It seems that she was permitted to do. She kept talking ever so polite and reasonable. I wonder how they train people to behave this way. I hung up. I went online and put complaints in the two places provided.

I am calm now and am not conveying the rage I felt at being so treated. I think my rage was the accumulation of several wretched plane trips, my experience of hours in an airplane hanger, and my reactions to the Expedia and other websites like it.

I thought is this what these crazed people we (US and colonialists) have so immiserated feel 100 fold because every day of their existence. then arrested, tortured, imprisoned for years by one of the tyrants our billions have put in place. Imagine such a young man coming out and how he feels. Mine was nothing to this.

I have now cancelled the extra days at the hotel in rapid time. We save some money this way, but it’s more than that as I indicated above.

I truly loathe what happens at airports. I am photographed incessantly; I was subjected to a “random [thorough body and baggage] check on the trip home from Belgium. Only because the people doing it were not Americans, was Izzy allowed to come in with me, and they behaved apologetically throughout. No humiliation. I was not the only person so singled out. I saw a long line and wait caused by this outside in that hangar. Again in most European places last September once I got past American security I was not subjected to this “security theater” as it’s called. It’s largely a pretense, supposedly wanted by Americans. Really? this paranoid atmosphere?

I seem to waive the reality that planes fall out of the sky and the death is horrible. But I don’t forget it. And that in this ever-on-going war planes are shot down.

John Tenniel, Chessboard seen through the looking glass (19th century, for Lewis Carroll)

So now I have some rules for the future for myself.

AVOID Expedia, Orbitz and all such websites. Find a phone number for the airline itself and buy direct. If you cannot phone the airline going to where you want to go, think again. Go somewhere you can buy tickets for. One can use package tours where this is done for you, but make sure you are going to get good treatment.

The above will not be so hard if I NEVER ever take a plane unless I am going across an ocean or a trip of say 1000 miles. Be sure I want that trip, that I know I’ll have a good time. Buy at least Economy Premium. Again phone the airline direct.

On shorter trips, go for a train. If there is no decent schedule and I’ve now discovered that Amtrac is so underfunded (as is most public transportation across the US) this is common, look at the buses. If the buses are similar, drive. If none of these work, stay home.

In other areas of my life I and Jim when he was alive did not compromise. We did without whatever it was in order to avoid such egregious abuse and exploitation — and here I include getting into debt which we have only gone into voluntarily for one car once and for this house. Our children did not go to undergraduate college out of state. I must get back to that principle Jim and I lived by for 45 years. It was very rare that we couldn’t do without whatever it was.

Late summer: my flowering bush holding out under intense heat assault ….

Miss Drake

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By the Potomac on the Virginia shore, July 9th

Oroonoko Park, facing the other way, July 9th

Dear friends and readers,

I am not sure why I keep this diary-journal up but either I carry on, or I quit. Considering these past two weeks, I am so aware that there is a boasting, possibly show-offy element in my writing up the good times I’ve had, or seeming successes, or just what I’ve enjoyed every couple of weeks, a feeling or characteristic I find is sometimes so falsifying, egoistic, and policing (of the reality of ambiguous experience) on face-book where this sort of thing goes on all the time.

Maybe not so much this last week or so: since Brexit and its aftermath (I was for Remain) and now another two clear-cut ruthless murders of black men by US police in Louisiana and Minnesota (apparently trained to shoot to kill even before any threat or wrong-doing occurs) and a retaliation in Dallas by another of these single young men, this time black and trained by the US military, to use assault weapons accurately and efficiently to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time — face-book has had less of this kind of thing; all of these popular social media have been filled with commentary on hatred and violence towards “minority” and immigrant populations in the UK and US. They’ve driven from the news the latest Trump ugliness, the results of NATO setting up military zones upon Russian borders after Russia secured the Ukraine, to say nothing of the killing fields of the middle east and the latest suicide bombings in public places around the world where large groups of people congregate.

I was thinking of presenting the way I, Izzy, and our friend, Vivian, spent a second Alexandria Birthday Party together in Oroonoko Park, out under the stars, picnicking, listening to a band play popular movie scores and a few famous military marches and symphonies, especially Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as prelude to, at 9:45 an outburst, flowering of 20 minutes of fireworks in the sky. In a large park at the edge of the town part of the city, next to the Potomac, a couple of hundred thousand people from the city show up, most of them with picnics, sitting on blankets, or lawn chairs. There are concession stands with ice-cream and pizzas, hot dog, and for free, cupcakes with icing (the “birthday cake” of Alexandria). Speeches from mayor and people like that, music and then fireworks. We parked with greater ease this year, Vivian and I tried for ice-cream (but the line was too long), Izzy wandered along the river. It was good to see this huge bunch of people, black and white intermingling (as well as Asian and Hispanic), sitting together within groups too. All peaceful, no guns. I’m not much for anthems but remarkably when the anthem begins to play, without any one policing all stand up in a group and seem to sing along. It was mostly democratic throng; they would have most of them lit up had Bernie Sanders come. We had a good time. It felt like the city had come out when we drove home as the streets were overwhelmed by cars. It took over an hour for us to drive back to where we live off Little River Turnpike, where it is usually a 10 minute drive. People were walking every where home too. All seeming cheerful.

But on the following morning I was brought up short. Each week I make an effort to shop in the morning at Giant because on weekends, an ex-student of mine, a young black woman, aged early 30s, is a cashier, and we manage to have quick but good talk together. She remembered me first (she was in my class some 13 years ago): she has a good degree, and even a masters but has to work 6 and 1/2 days a week it seems to make ends meet: she supports her mother, her child, herself, and now her coming wedding to a long-time boyfriend by 5 days in a local prison where she has an office job, and on the weekends at Giant. I told her about the fireworks in the context of quick comments about the week’s dire events: her reply was she didn’t go to, and would not take her small daughter to such large community events, stays away from this “sort of thing.” I heard her and replied, “Better safe than sorry.” I then thought a bit and realized that the number of black people at the July 9th event was much smaller proportionally than our black population. Those there were fully integrated, but they were decidedly in the minority. Hardly any Muslims. More hispanic and Asian people.

How white people do not begin to imagine what a black person’s life is in the US on a daily basis. I just know were this young woman white she’d not be working 6 and 1/2 days a week and would have a job more commensurate with her education. It is sad to think that this young woman is shut out. She knew about “the birthday party.” This keeping away has been her policy since a young girl. This is the life of an intelligent highly educated black young woman in the US

For the fourth of July I had listened to James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglas’s “What to the slave is the fourth of July?”, listen to Howard Zinn on the “three holy wars” (showing that no war is a good war, none worth it, all started by, shaped, and in the end benefiting only the wealthy and powerful), and then the nearly 4 hour Hamlet with David Tennant as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart as Claudius, and Penny Downie as Gertrude.


As with HD opera, and the Hollow Crown series (R2, H4, H5; H6 and R3), it made such a difference to have the actors close up; I saw what a great leap into subjectivity Shakespeare had made when he made Hamlet’s psyche the play itself, and from some Net talk with a friend realized the breaking down of stereotypes for men (so that they are vulnerable) and for women (individualistic, strong) in the Tudor Henry VIII and Elizabeth I plays is found in Shakespeare’s history and tragic plays too.


My proposal for a paper on “Men under Pressure in Tudor plays: Overturning Gender Stereotypes,” was accurate, and maybe next summer I’ll get back to the subject as a project. Another Net friend who spent her July 4th watching the Hollow Crown, play after play, wrote me that she came to a similar argument: Hillary withstood another humiliation; strong and individualistic women then and now are punished — in these Tudor plays and Shakespeare too.

A Bluer shade of blue; my new 2016 mini-Prius

Le pièce de rĂ©sistance: what felt like and was a bold daring act (for me): I bought another car, a second one on my own. I invented its name: mini-Prius. It’s a PriusC Type 2. I have for quite a while been dissatisfied with the hatch-backed 2010 Prius I bought so hastily in January 2014 after I totaled the 2013 grey PriusC Jim and I had bought together as a car for the two of us to use in our retirement together. The 2010 HB Prius was just too large; there is no proper back window; the right side view is utterly obscured. I never got a sense of where it ended; it rattled. The last straw was I finally hit my right fender on another car in a parking lot: I didn’t realize the damage I’d done to my fender until I got home. I had thought it a light tap. That smash on the right back side came from not seeing properly and not having a good sense of where the car ended.

I had gone to have an oil change and scheduled check-up (like one does for one’s cats) this past Friday and was told I had a $500 bill to fix the body and do other things. I said, I was thinking of buying a new small Prius and could they show me one if they had a new or used one. Within a half-hour the salesman had produced a car that was just what I wanted: I wanted the same car or as close as I could to what I had in order not to have to learn a new dashboard. It’s much smaller. I could see out the back window; I had full vision from the right back; he took off those high head rests. I have room in the front which I didn’t before. My dashboard is simpler (I actually have less gadgets). I have a gear box again. A key, a real key with the computer gadget as part of it. And it’s even more efficient on gas than was the 2010. $14,600 after I traded in my 2010. This new one lacks a GPS system, but then so did the 2010, and today I bought myself a new garmin as the old one has been failing. I’m much more comfortable driving it. I’ll grow to have a sense of where it ends. Calm. It’s as close to the compact Chevy Cavalier I had for 20 years.

I did make a fool out of myself by falling for another $400 (!) sealing-in of my car’s color: I was told some malarky story about how water-based paint will fade, insects and leaves will get struck, the rain is acidic and I will just have to have it waxed once a month, and this wonderful sealing will do the trick. I know how I begin to panic when I am inside the machine car washes and waxes inside my car. I did it once and never will again. But as the salesman phoned for the mechanic to do this in another part of the store, I realized how silly this was perhaps, I’d been had, but it was too late. However I resisted all other add-ons and proposals.

There is a larger context, another final impulse. It is now difficult (time-consuming and awkward) to get into DCby train. If there is to be no Metro for however long I will have to drive into DC, and this past Saturday I was stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation in an encounter that resembled Sandra Bland’s except there was no escalation into violence. On the contrary, the police officer gradually became polite. Still it was scary (read about it here). So I need a car I feel comfortable in and can feel safe from police because I can drive it calmly. It’s not my old Chevy Cavalier but it may be the closest thing I could get in a modern car.

You might say these are successes but this time I am providing a genuine larger social context.

ClaryCat waiting inside

My last not very significant adventure has a context too. I lost the key to my house for the first time ever in 33 years of living here. The context here is I hadn’t taken measures to provide for someone having a key to let me in now that Jim is not here. I have vague memories of having to phone him for help like this; it might have been I was locked out for some other reason. As I told the two women I was having lunch with before going home that day, I remember at no time when Jim was not traveling (and he traveled very rarely as most of the time he didn’t care for it) that he was unavailable to help me. He would leave meetings: I could phone him and he’d pick up; I could drive to wherever he was and he’d come out. He’d drive to me if necessary, drop everything. I suppose my not sleeping deeply or more than 4 hours at a stretch because I didn’t feel I needed to as he was doing that sleeping for me, and if I grew tired or needed a nap, he’d be there was an analogous stance. We were utterly intertwined, our existences functioning as part of a pair.

What happened was I left my house to go to teach, and as I climbed into my car, I felt my house and car key entangled and disentangled them. I thought I put the house key onto the dashboard and then used the car key, but as I drove away and looked I saw the house key was not there. Panic and upset driving to teaching. I told myself I dropped the house key on the car park. Still I was somewhat distracted while teaching, and then the anxiety and worry grew during the lunch so driving home I found myself going faster and faster so as to get the experience over with when I arrived. I get there and no house key on the car park.

Suffice to say I broke in. I knew what window was openable and climbed in over the piano. The cats were startled. I remembered a time years ago when pregnant with Izzy, I locked myself and Laura (with me at the time) out of my car. I didn’t phone a locksmith or police. I went over to a nearby cleaner’s when I was able to push one of my driver’s side windows slightly askew. I took a hanger and made a tiny circle and after about an hour’s effort had opened the car by myself. That key was on the dashboard.

But it was upsetting. Later that day I had two more sets of keys made, and now my friend, Phyllis, has one and I can call her if I lock myself out. I put the third in my car permanently.

On the house: I finally saw my contractor and went with him to buy a new front and back door, and screen, and found him to be an honest decent man, I am now looking forward to a decently priced renovation of my kitchen, new front and back doors, a smoke detector system, two of the doors in the house removed, the other five painted (they are a mess). By August he’ll have painted the kitchen, I’ll have new cabinets I can reach, a new sink and working faucet, and a newly painted room.

I’ve a hunch I’ll be satisfied with the price and ask him to enclose the screen porch and make a modest room which is usable. The early years we used the porch for when it was super-hot and we didn’t have central air-conditioning: we ate on that porch (scandalizing the neighborhood), but since we have had central air, it’s a lost space. I feel a bit absurd as there is only me to use the room and maybe Izzy. But I have wanted to enclose it for some 20 years: it gets so filthy, the screens tear, the cement slab gritty and soaked. With a floor, walls, heat, electricity, it could be another small area for an exercise machine. A radio. More bookcases. A small TV or computer screen. Maybe I’ll put a large window facing out.

I will also at long last have the house painted a sensible color. I will remove the mortification of living in this light blue house. I’ve lived with this color (it has faded somewhat in 23 years) since 1993 when the contractor refused to do blended colors and when I saw the color, Laura made fun of it, and Jim said we’d spent the money. To try to get rid of the paint often made things worse, he said. Another $5000 thrown out. My choice will be a cream color that one of the contractors I’ve hired over the years to renew said porch painted the brick wall that separates the house from the porch. I will be sure to write into a contract, blended color.

Izzy, a photo taken on the morning before she holidayed briefly in NYC

The degradation, danger and failure of the Metro system prompted Izzy to take off the first three days we lost a major connective piece of our yellow and blue lines here in Virginia. She stayed at the Larchmont where the air-conditioning was discovered not to be adequate for the heat the city was having. But she found that the cafe on the corner that I liked so did have scrumptious breakfasts, and she enjoyed her three hectic days in NYC: Tuesday night when she arrived, all day Wednesday and Thursday.

Here are her photos of the park after she reveled for a couple of hours in the Pegamon and Hellenistic exhibit.

The Met by the side of the park as the sun begins to set

On Wednesday she waited for hours in lines to see the last live 5-10 minute show in the street. “If you have a slip and you’re not moving, you’re doing it wrong,” she said. With Lin-Manuel Miranda reading aloud a letter Hamilton wrote to Eliza Schuyler. She was exhilarated by the experience and will remember the brief skit and reading for a long time to come. She did enter the on-line lottery to see Hamilton but like most entering, was not one of those chosen by chance. See A farewell to #Ham4Ham

So that’s the news from Lake Potomac where in our house we have no men but Ian pussycat and all our women are surviving as best they can.

Miss Drake

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After today and two evenings past, and contemplating this week’s end, I say that’s one wise New Yorker cat.

Around 8 o’clock this morning this PC computer on which I am typing this blog went black, and I could not get the screen to function again beyond it asking me to switch the user. My guardian angel, aka IT guy who comes into my computer by remote control and makes visits (like physicians of old) picked up the phone after I wrote EMERGENCY on my Apple laptop to him and called.

“He who gives graciously gives twice.” I had emailed him yesterday (Sunday, Easter) because the upsetting messages that my computer did not have enough memory, that my files were enlarged, and sudden black windows taking over parts of my screen were beginning to unnerve me. He emailed a few hours later; he was away on a vacation but would be back Monday, but in the meantime I was assured (as he usually does) “it’s nothing to worry about,” just a minor glitch and he would attend to it tomorrow. Well it took him 2 hours of fixing in the morning with me looking on; I left at 11:45 to go to the OLLI at AU to lead (teach) a class on Trollope’s 1st 3 Barsetshire novels, and when I returned at 4, I recognized his presence working at it (the cursor, the changes going on in the screen).

I did have a moment of lost faith but screwed my courage up again, apologized and tonight my computer is “cleaned out,” all “junk” from 2 years of working using it eliminated, much updated, the back-up mechanisms re-set (including a program called Carbonite) and newly working right. I still cannot shut the large laptop attached to the PC without the screen on the PC going dark, but it’s not the worst thing in the world to leave the screen of the laptop open for now.

Next week Jonathan will visit and install more memory; then I’ll show this glitch to him. I did not think I had added so much to the computer: I do far less than I used to, and Jim is no longer here to add movies, power-point presentations, but I have been working for 2 years since I bought the computer, done a number of papers, reviews, so many blogs, endless postings, letters, pictures audio-books nowadays. It adds up.

Davis and White — Olympic winners, among Izzy’s favorites

In the same early part of the morning I also drove Izzy to the train station. She was off to Boston to join in and watch for 7 days Junior World Ice-Skating Championship. This weekend she did her annual walk under the cherry blossom trees on the Mall, and took herself in the direction of the Vietnam Wall. Both of us were aware this is the first trip she’s taken by herself since August 2011 (she spent a week in NYC at the Princeton Club, going from there to the US open tennis championships in Queens). Izzy had a strenuous day too. The train took 9 hours! It seems a body was found on the tracks and the train was delayed for a couple of hours while an unhappy person’s remains were removed. She is in her hotel room now, ipad nearby, having devoured much Daredevil on her long long way.

The first day and night alone since Jim died. I’ve been away from her and the cats 5-6 times (!), never more than 5 days, mostly 3, and she and I have taken 3 trips together. This is the first night I’ve been alone in the house (except for my cats) since Jim died. I cooked my own dinner (simple affair) for the third or fourth time since he’s been gone. I did get to eat when I want, and choose to watch Amy Goodman (DemocracyNow.org) on Howard University TV and then switch to PBS Reports. Tomorrow I may actually cook myself a vegetable.

I watched Part 1 of Fellowes’s Dr Thorne after supper:

An ITV Dr Thorne (badly scripted by Julian Fellowes, 2016): Tom Hollander as Thorne and Stephanie Martini as Mary


provide whatever good moments there are

As I’ve said I’m going to Pittsburgh myself this Thursday around noon, a 4 hour 16 minute drive there. Infinitely preferable to 4+ hour trip by plane, with cab fares, treatment on the plane on the edge of abuse, surveillance everywhere, starvation; the 10 hour train trip unthinkable especially since on Saturday I’d have to leave by 7 am to make it; and megabus doesn’t have a phone or office so no questions may be asked about where this bus lets you off. I’m planning to listen to Simon Vance reading aloud Dr Thorne for the long stretch of 230 miles each way. Garmin to the side, maps nearby, drawing of local streets. Being away will of course break up the time for me to be here by myself.

So today’s activities included me reading aloud my Poldark paper which I plan to deliver (“Poldark Re-booted: 40 years on” twice (practice, 17 minutes each time). This after returning from a very pleasant two hours with the class mentioned above, where we are reading Barchester Towers just now and I showed two segments from Barchester Chronicles — carefully chosen to show the skillful subtle art of Alan Plater who understands the book’s complicated mood and many themes — and the marvelous acting of all the principals. Much as I like to believe the students regard the class discussion as so much more important than movie-watching, they asked if I would bring my DVD back next week to show a scene with Rickman and Hampshire in Slope and Madeline tete-a-tetes.
Alan Rickman as Slope approaching Susan Hampshire as Signora Neroni for their first encouncter (1983 Barchester Chronicles)

The trouble is these are not scenes that open the segments so we would have to watch more to get to them. They said they didn’t mind if we had to watch more scenes to get to these confrontations. How doth the busy bee improve each shining hour …


My anxiety over my trip has been alleviated somewhat by a visit on Saturday evening by my friend, Phyllis. She drank my cheap Shiraz wine with me (Robert Shaw) and we downed pita chips. She lived right near Pittsburgh for years, and we went over the route a couple of times: better, she described what the streets I go through in the city itself would look like, why and where to turn. Funny, she noticed something I never thought about: my mail box by my front door comes from 1947. It is very ancient, black, rusted, half coming out of the wall. Why had I not replaced it, she asked. I must replace it! I said it was not important enough to think about. But when I finally have the kitchen painted, new vinyl on the floor, new cabinets, replace the doors, paint a couple and paint the house cream, and put the number of my address somewhere in the front while I’m about it I’ll pay to have smoke detectors put back and a new mailbox. Not that this would prevent lost or misdirected mail. Strange to say, after she left I found myself drained, emotionally exhausted. I had been reading all day, shopped with Izzy, wrote, but I think that I rarely have visitors may have been the root cause of my collapse. The next night I experienced the same sudden depletion of energy after friends had been over.


The above photo is one taken by my old friend, Sophie, who unexpectedly visited me with her partner, Friedrich — remember how she just loves to take photos. Luckily I had bought some bel paese cheese, had Earl Grey tea and a fresh bread when I had shopped on Saturday, so was able to be hospitable. I showed him Jim’s books: he has Ph.D. in molecular biochemistry and does research for the NIH, in among other areas, cancer. He understood what some of Jim’s books were about, he recognized the languages they are in (beyond the math) better than I. I didn’t know several are in Hungarian. For the first time ever I had an explanation of how the underlying pattern of cancer can general and yet not reducible to finding a cure or how to predict how a given regimen of chemo, radiation, surgery and the rest of the torture will affect someone’s body. Briefly, reductively, as the DNA strands replicate themselves (billions of these), they make mistakes, and into the gaps in asymmetry a cancer can emerge, but each literally takes the form of the particular cell and the complicated surrounding chemistry and neurology is also on a molecular level almost impossible for now to understand with enough precision. After they were here for a couple of hours I felt drained.


Many firsts or unusual experiences for me these past few days. Such as more tulips came up on Friday, the day of the OLLI at AU luncheon where I met some friends, acquaintances I had not seen in quite a while. Two women especially, where one told me of where to go in Cornwall next August (St Ives!) and with the other we talked of books and plans for courses next fall. Today too I sent in my proposal for a course at the OLLI at AU next fall.

19th century women of letters. We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like in the 19th century English-reading world? We will see what genres women published in, what kinds of journalism they did, what were the obstacles and advantages these women experienced. How is this like and different from the 20th and 21st century. We will read four books, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (gothic, 1818), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (“condition of England” novel, 1849), George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance” (one of the Clerical Tales, domestic fiction-romance, 1857) and Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography and Letters (posthumous, a fragment, 1899). We’ll also read on-line excerpts on women artists, travel writing by Harriet Martineau (abolitionist, de Toqueville-like US travels), mid-century journalists and 1890s suffragette writing.

To conclude this diary entry: I’ve bought for Izzy and I tickets to return to the Folger for another concert, April 10th matinee, this time Purchell’s Faerie Queen, a re-write and setting of the poetry of Shakespeare’s MND On-line I had caught these Renaissance Flemish dances:


No diary blog without my cat companions.

Ian three minutes ago — on my library table to the right of my desk where I’m typing

Pussycats will have to be alone together from Thursday around 10:30 am to Saturday around 6 pm. Caroline will visit on Friday to replenish the food supply and perhaps play with them a while. Ian may spend the time among Izzy’s shoes deep in her closet or in a cat bed under her desk — just now his favorite places.

I came home last Wednesday from OLLI at Mason (our subject, Gaskell and her “Old Nurse’s Story”), and a full half hour goes by and no Clarycat. Unusual. She usually trots up to greet me. So I go into my room and start opening drawers, in the high narrow bureau I hear her tinkling bells. I pull open a drawer, and I see the back part of her body all tense, tail erect at me; she’s stuck somehow. But cat-like she instinctively moves in a direction opposite from me, and falls behind the drawers in the space between the wooden back and the backs of the drawers. A yowling kind of mewing ensues. I pulled out the drawer so insistently, that I broke the runner. She leaps up and out and scrambles away — made very nervous. Where she went I know not. But it took her some time to calm down when she turned up nearby, a crouched-down catloaf.


It seemed amusing until I saw her on the floor nearby me like that.

I have not felt nerve-wracked; more that life has been strenuous. All of it pales besides my sense of loss of Jim. What does it matter if I have an old mail box or not? Hold on.

While at AU today I ate at a table with other people; I did say something to convey I’m a widow; another woman was talking of her grown children, living in three places in Europe; a daughter who works in one city and commutes to her husband in another, and she mentioned her husband and she hesitated before she used a tense: the past. She described him as in the past tense and could not just do it. No one who loved or was loved ever forgets.

Life without Jim is wearing. I feel worn.

It gives me this funny feeling when I remind myself Izzy not here and I hope blissfully absorbed while watching ice-skating live in Boston. She’s earned it at the library in the Pentagon (where she’s now a GS-ll)

So, a poem and picture for this skating and travel week:

Woman Skating

by Margaret Atwood

A lake sunken among
cedar and black spruce hills;
late afternoon.

On the ice a woman skating,
jacket sudden
red against the white,

concentrating on moving
in perfect circles.

    (actually she is my mother, she is
    over at the outdoor skating rink
    near the cemetery. On three sides
    of her there are streets of brown
    brick houses; cars go by; on the
    fourth side is the park building.
    The snow banked around the rink
    is grey with soot. She never skates
    Here. She’s wearing a sweater and
    faded maroon earmuffs, she has
    taken off her gloves)

Now near the horizon
the enlarged pink sun swings down.
Soon it will be zero.

With arms wide the skater
turns, leaving her breath like a diver’s
trail of bubbles.

Seeing the ice
as what it is, water:
seeing the months
as they are, the years
in sequence occurring
underfoot, watching
the miniature human
figure balanced on steel
needles (those compasses
floated in saucers) on time
sustained, above
time circling:     miracle

Over all I place
a glass bell

Susan Herbert

Miss Drake

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