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Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Diski’

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Standing Rock, this Thanksgiving Day: by Medea Benjamin the water protectors

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since Jim died (and perhaps a few years before that), Izzy and I had a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner and with other people. A beautifully cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, a kind of puree of broccoli (with various delicious ingredients blended in), red cabbage (somehow made sweet), stuffing, muffins, for me wine, for her apple juice. My neighbor who lives across the street invited us over and made this dinner: I brought an apple pie and bottle of wine. We talked, and ate, and talked again with good music from NPR: like Aaron Copeland, while we sat around a table doing some serious puzzle putting together. I’ve no photos to prove it; you’ll just have to believe me. I did read an article in the Washington Post which had your regulation photos of turkeys (not cooked, but alive): Debbie Berkowitz told about the terrible conditions poultry workers (that’s people who prepared the unfortunate chickens too) endure (freezing cold, dangerous hard repetitive work, very low wages). A thought which might hinder the usual showing off by photographing the unfortunate bird.

We went across the street around 4 and were there about four hours. The generosity of this woman gladdened our hearts and made the coming winter time more cheerful to contemplate. I wish I could get myself to volunteer in a local homeless shelter where they make meals for people on Christmas day, but I hesitate each year since Jim died. They want me to fill out forms, to agree to have any photos they want, and this year $50 on top of that. So I don’t know again. At any rate, we came back me to read, and she to sleep because she’s promised to write for Fan-Sided another report on ice-skating (I think it is) which starts US time at midnight; she’ll watch, take notes, off to work at 7:30 am, and back again to resume work. Do not underestimate the great solace of writing. About mid-morning today I wrote four letters to friends who had written me, two because it’s Thanksgiving and they know I have birthday coming up.

Another is reading. Over on Wwtta @ Yahoo, about three of us are reading Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and we are into Chapter 24 or so where Lee writes of how important to Woolf was reading. I loved the chapter, but my companion in reading, Diane Reynolds, suggested there is something missing: Lee does not tell which were Woolf’s “touchstone” books (the word from Matthew Arnold’s famous essay on how he tells if a passage is great writing (he reads it against “touchstone” lines of greatness): “which books did she return to again and again in the course of her life.” And why these? In the case of Woolf, one problem is she read so much, it’s not clear she might have thought to write about this until until her immersion was such, she would probably talk of a kind of book (Russian, say, classical). Then as a paid reviewer, she’d have had to think about so many she was paid to read.

So I thought in this desolate, desperate and frightening time before Trump takes office (it’s hard to take in that huge numbers of human beings are willing to allow this corrupt bully monster such power — what a mass failure of imagination is here, Jim might have said), I’d cite the books that I’ve read and reread and reread and those that have changed my reading life and thus me profoundly.

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At 8 I’d read and reread P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park — for the park: I lived in the Southeast Bronx and loved tracing the park on the end papers. I loved the quietly magical adventures where this enigmatic strict woman emerged as all kindness, courtesy, reciprocal love. In another of the Poppins books the children visited the Pleiade, the “seven sisters” Margaret Drabble called them and I remembered ever after the drawing of Maia skipping along on the sidewalk. Alcott’s Little Women over and over and I still think in terms of some of its parables. I was lured by The Secret Garden too. I read one copy of Gone with the Wind until it fell apart. All this around age 10 to 12.

From the time (same age) I’ve read Sense and Sensibility Elinor has helped me. She provides a way of thinking, a kind of (yes) self-control, self-protection, that I’d try to emulate and hold to. I remember doing that around age 17 and thought it helped keep me sane. Having spent 5 years on Richardson’s Clarissa it too has been central — though I wish I had known Mary Piper’s Saving Ophelia. It might have helped save me years of mental anguish — I probably would have practiced the same kind of guarded retreat as the best way for me to cope with aggressive heterosexual male culture. How I identified with Fanny, loved the melancholy neuroticism of Anne Eliot. I have never stopped reading Austen for long, especially the six famous books, even Emma which at least has the rhythms of deep heart beat with order and harmony in the sentences, rather like letting Bach or Handel get into the pulses of my blood going through my chest and heart Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre are books I read and reread in my teens. Bronte sent my pulses soaring with her comments about having a treasure within her she’d not sell away

These will seem strange and won’t resonate but this set of books has been as important: Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A user-Friendly Guide. For the first time I could understand what was meant by de-construction, all these “theoretical” outlooks put into words which were meaningful. It was Tyson’s book which made me a feminist. I am not a feminist out of a search for power, or influence, or about a career (none of which I’ve ever had), but as a liberation from the dark nightmare of the way sexuality is conducted in our society. For the first time I had words which did not shame me to discuss the experiences I had endured, and this book took me to others where I understood for the first time I was not only not alone or rare, but my experiences were commonplace. Lois Tyson’s book enabled me to utter my thoughts to myself clearly and at least think about them and then voice them (here on the Net mostly) to others. Emily White’s Fast Girls (about how such girls become “fast,” are stigmatized, treated horribly), Peggy Reeves Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape (ought to be required reading for every girl) and especially Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (wherein we learn why there is no recovery if by that is meant forgetting, going back to what one was). These did changed how I read.

Close at hand, near to heart: I have Trollope’s books and all sorts of secondary studies in a book case that stretches from ceiling to floor and is about 4 feet wide — he helps and certainly he changed what I do 🙂 The novel I read first and never forget was Dr Thorne I was 18, it was assigned in a college class; I wanted to write a paper on it but was discouraged by the professor because Trollope was (just) “a mirror of his age. Then re-hooked when the Palliser films were aired on PBS in the 1970s: Jim and I watched and read the books in turn as we went through the series. Then re-hooked in the 1990s with Last Chronicle of Barset in Rome (it got me through) and The Vicar of Bullhampton (given me by my father when I landed in hospital.) I have read and re-read Trollope’s books, and while his depiction of women leaves much to be desired, his attitude towards colonialism shameful, he does see the truth and is candid enough to suggest it. I give him the high compliment of saying he sees the same world Samuel Johnson does.

Over the years I’ve added this or that author who speaks home to me: there has got to be a strengthening offered, a way of coping as well understanding what existence is — especially for women and in books by women. There is a strong perpetual fault-line between women’s and men’s art. Lately it’s been Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell (yes I like older books) but before that Elsa Morante (in the Italian) as well as Elena Ferrante’s first couple of books (Days of Abandonment is astonishing), Chantal Thomas (Souffrir), Jenny Diski. Graduate school introduced me to Samuel Johnson (how’s that for a different voice), Anne Finch’s poetry, Charlotte Smith but she is so corrosive; she permits self-expression through her but not the calm acceptance and understanding of how this came to be; now and again in different life-writing, memoirs I find women who do this: Iris Origo, George Sand, George Eliot (though too much violation of natural impulses).

In the first few years after graduate school, I discovered Renaissance women wrote (who knew?) great sonnets, and loved Vittoria Colonna (why I taught myself Italian, though I first loved her poetry in fin-de-siecle French translation), Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampa, Lady Mary Sidney Wroth. I discovered Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, read all three volumes. Now and again I’ve clutched some contemporary woman author as yes yes yes: Rosamund Lehmann’s mistitled The Echoing Grove comes to mind (The Weather in the Streets might contain the first frank story of an abortion, had just around the time the heroine reads Austen’s Pride and Prejudice); Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children tells such good hard truth but offers not enough comfort.

Well of course each day (almost) I reach something which makes being alive worth while. I love reading about women artists, and reading women’s poetry. Today I was having a deeply enjoyable time reading Martha Bowden’s Descendents of Waverley, a stimulating book about historical romance and novels whose reflections criss-crossed with another set of post-modern historical fictions I had been reading about in another book I’m reviewing: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River and Cambridge. Between this book and others about historical fictions and films, and reading Booker Prize versions of these, thinking about earlier ones (Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, even the Poldark novels, Walter Scott) I’ve come to the thought that we so love post-modern historical fiction with great dollops of romantic fantasy (time-traveling, re-enactment, erotic giving of the self to a beloved) because through intertextuality they include precious historical documents (books from previous eras), the remnants of a past that have survived which can open worlds of minds and places to us, cultures, while the 20th and 21st century authors, film-makers produce a perspective on this past and our present that is sustaining and comforting today.

Do you love the older images on Virago covers? often I do. Also black-and-white picturesque illustrations.

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This Monet is my header picture on Twitter

So that’s what I have been thinking and what I did this Thanksgiving day. It was a day where no further irrational (unless you believe everything must be set up for a few people to make as much profit as possible), vile (deeply inhumane) and despicable (choosing inept people who known nothing about the area except that they want to destroy what’s there) appointments were paraded by the president elect, not even one of his snark jokes. I’ve in effect praised the Post for one of its Thanksgiving day stories, so let me be clear: the rest of their page was advice to those who see what Trump is to be humble before those who voted for this man if we have to sit down to dinner with any of them: the overt theory is again they are good deluded people (the old shibboleth of “false consciousness”) and we are to blame for this horror about to unfold because we have been elitist: with such a conclusion, how can the paper’s staff hope ever to help those poultry workers they grieved for on the same page?

So I also remember the lesson of the 1930s when a segment of my then extant family in Europe was rounded up, send to camps and many of them exterminated or died of hellish treatment or were shot. I’ve saved for last two books, both slender. The first a sine qua non for a 20th century reader: Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (if you can in the Italian, but if not the English translation is good). I read these (bound together as one book) when I was teaching myself Italian (I was about 44). Indirect, but saying the same thing is Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, which each time I was given the second half of British Literature to teach I assigned as our penultimate read.

Miss Drake

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Remembering Jenny Diski and her What I don’t Know about Animals.

Miss Drake

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Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay;
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree,
And every hour a step towards thee.
At night when I betake to rest,
Next morn I rise nearer my west …
Henry King, after the death of his beloved wife, his “matchless friend”

“the poet” announced this past Thursday morning on twitter “my darling Jenny @diski has died — perhaps in his arms

Dear friends and readers,

I have just heard the news that Ted Cruz has dropped out of the presidential race; there is no one on the Republican side to stop the coming catastrophe if Trump should win the presidency. Thus it seems tastelessly solipsistic for me to carry on with my calendar diary, each time a few experiences I’ve had,this time since mid-April — without first acknowledging we live under the shadow of a possible social breakdown as a paranoiac and bankrupted state (considering the threatened lawless commercial and totalitarian tactics and tax cuts for the wealthy Trump plans), not to omit nuclear catastrophe. The moral disaster has been with us for a long while; it began a new phase at the time of 9/11. It’s so worrying as Hillary Clinton is so weak with voters: consider her “New College Compact:” lower costs for students, expand Obamacare, family leave, veterans and child services, a surtax on the very wealthy, rates on capital gains, change the immigrant system carefully — all thought out — then Sanders beats her in Indiana.

But what I am to do? I excuse myself with Voltaire’s advice from Candide, ou l’optimisme: like Gorey who has his Mr Earbrass close the curtains, with the crippled Cunegone, he gathers what is left (he has not lost all his sheep), to live on with the exhortation: “il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

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Is not Lily James somehow exquisitely appealing in this photograph (from my desk calendar for this week)

The good news I told about on my Austen reveries blog that my proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde; has been accepted for the coming Chawton House Library conference and my edition of the novel will be out by later this summer has begun to keep me busy. I’ve begun reading away Smith’s letters, on Scottish literature, and Margaret Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores, a Scottish-English novels which shows the same strains, implicitly international or global and post-colonialist perspective, with an accent on women’s issues found in Ethelinde, and (to allude to my paper last fall) Anne Grant and Anne Hunter’s poetry and prose. I carried on with my women artists blogs (Angelica Kauffman to be specific), Constance Fenimore Woolson (I find the tone of her mind deeply congenial). The course I gave on Making Barsetshire at the AU OLLI came to an end; the people applauded me and were very kind; it was really friendly the last day so that felt good, and to tell the truth, I thought about how Trollope came to make this sub-genre to create a commercially successful career for himself than I had the first time I taught these three books. I gave a first lecture on Austen’s Lady Susan, guest invited at NOVA (this is stuff for a full separate blog). I’ve another two sessions on Gaskell’s profound North and South — it’s l’ecriture-femme structure, deep melancholy sustaining me. I would not have looked for these teaching satisfactions and the worlds I’ve become acquainted with were Jim here.

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A thank you card I received from the AU OLLI people

Good moments this time have been as much at home as in theaters, auditoriums, and someone’s house (!).

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Calling themselves the Rusticway Chamber Music Series

New experiences. Sunday afternoon (5/1) I went to thoroughly delightful (charming was a good word, tasteful) concert which my friend Phyllis told me about and drove me to. It was two men (Robert Petillo and Alex Hassan) who have not that much fame but highly gifted professional artists who’ve had long careers and played in European concert houses, Festivals around the world, in a woman’s house set up for these kinds of concerts, a series organized by the local community — upper middle class people in a kind of select place called “Lake Barcroft.” It felt like a 21st century variant of private concerts in 19th century genteel homes. Complete with a garden outside, wine and an edible cake-bread and conversation inside afterward. I was struck by one comment: someone asked Mr Hassan if he needed the scores to play; Mr Petillo said the sheet music was for popular use and thus very simplified. I knew what we had heard were varied intricate melodies all intertwined, melodious. How hard it is to get anything serious in this world; you have to train yourself in the initial stages and then look out for the rare serious text of whatever it is. The music played had been mostly the kind of music played in Gosford Park, 1930s and 40s Tin Pan Alley songs (“You oughta be in pictures,” “Youre’ the Cream in my Coffee,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” a couple of Handel’s songs, songs from musicals of the era, long forgotten — brilliantly played by Hassan as virtuoso pianist, so touching and warm, with Petillo the Irish tenor type, Handelian by training. I put my name down on the mailing list and could drive there on my own. I bought a DVD of British 1930s and 40s songs I like.

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Charlotte Bronte’s traveling desk

Old. We went the Northern Virginia Library book sale together once again, found a couple of treasures. Thursday evening (4/28). The Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry for me — superb poetry, I am astonished at how good they are, translations excellent, editor J.D. McClatchy. We went separately to museums. I went to the Smithsonian the next night (4/29) for the best lecture I’ve heard thus far: Deborah Lutz out of her book, The Bronte Cabinet, encountering the Brontes through what was left after death, how they themselves saved bits of one another’s hair, relics, papers. The depths of opening yourself to death, of religious sensibilities, pre-photographic era. Body wants that evening: I had to leave too early to eat, so by the time I got home I feel weak with hunger for supper. I cook for myself a bowl of farfalle, heat sauce. throw on ketchup, with glass of shiraz, better than Noodles and Company. Saturday we saw our last HD opera, Elektra (also must have separate blog). I had picked Izzy up to come with me when I had my hair dyed and cut to have her hair trimmed and for the first time ever she allowed the women to cut her hair more so now it’s trimmed beautifully — it’s still long but like a bow and looks beautiful brushed, and with a ribbon across her head. She took her trip to the museum of American history looking like that, and told me all about an exhibit over Sunday supper.

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Returning. I’ve begun journey back to Shakespeare I hope to continue. It began with the birthday — Izzy and I went to the Folger on the 23rd to see The Lost First Play of Shakespeare (by the Reduced Shakespeare Company) . ..

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Austin Tichenor, Teddy Spenser, Reed Martin

I enjoyed the abridged group and this is a different or new 3 hours of “fun with Shakespeare.” The one I saw years ago was very like the Fringe theater one or Stoppard’s play. The idea was rapidity and to make fun of the typical way a Shakespeare play feels, how the language is hard for some, and the whole hysterical kind of mood (Voltaire noticed this a while back), the wild melancholy, the coincidences and so on. Plays focused on where the (to modern audiences) strange history plays, the wild tragedies. Now the idea is they’ve found Shakeseare’s lost first play. To some extent they are doing the same thing but not quite. They hardly include the history plays and little of the tragedies — prime fodder for the older type. Instead they try to tell a story combining Ariel and Puck as rivals, with bringing in so many characters and lines from across the plays. The fun was to recognize the original lines and see them displaced, revamped, put in new contexts, with now and again one of the actors did a speech from a play seriously bringing out (to me) the original thought and deep feeling. I’m not sure it worked, at moments they were tedious (to me); they didn’t seem to know when to have done lest they not have given us our money’s worth of inspired silliness, but they had a warm-hearted spirit and they honored Shakespeare thoroughly by the ending.

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Ben Whislaw as Richard II (how can he compete with David Morrisey as a brutal Northumberland, Rory Kinnear a wily enimgmatic Bolingbroke)

I did feel I had attended a sort of travesty so I told myself it’s about time I watched my 4 DVDs of Hollow Crown. So that evening I had two and a half more hours: Richard II was beautifully well done and lovingly with attention to detail, depth psychology, scenic designs in perfectly appropriate places (the churches, landscape, rooms) — what struck me and why I’m writing this is the film seemed to be a descendent of the 1972 War and Peace. It is vivifying to see the BBC can still do this — and they did it for Wolf Hall. The elaborate art has changed, there is more symbolism but essentially it was very like and in its likeness was its strength. Many great actors. David Bradley as the allegorical gardener superb. And my favorite Lindsay Duncan was there as the Duchess of York, the vignette of the family life with Suchet as the Duke hardly having any feel for his wife, despising his wife, she too despising their son, but fighting for his life frantically as he is all they have. Ben Whislaw as Richard II’s speeches at the close reminded me of how Shakespeare himself speaks to us through this character. I had forgotten how Shakespeare’s deep depressive insights and radical pouring of himself into his characters began so early.

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First shot of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess, a moment of still hope as she turns to look at her son

Then Henry IV Part 1 this past Saturday night: what was remarkable was how realistically they did it, it was not over-produced or over-acted and they spoke the lines as one would ordinary talk. I had never seen anyone try to dramatize what a 13th century battle was like: as vicious as Culloden’s 18th century distraught destruction and our own bombing and fueled horrors today. Simone Beale’s Falstaff”s nihilism to Julie Walters’s much put-upon sentimental Mistress Quickly was pitch perfect. But I learned too — how hard both Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston on the battlefield as Hal played it replicated the heartless ruthlessness of life. How early on Shakespeare rejected the cold manipulative performer and saw how the passion-ridden person is deeply at risk — Worcester keeps from Hotspur Henry IV’s offer to reconcile, Hal’s to have a one-on-one honorable combat to end the day. I was especially moved by Joe Armstrong playing Hotspur to Michelle Dockery’s Kate (son of Alun, who appropriately played Northumberland, Hotspur’s father). As it used to in reading, their wild love and ironies reminded me of Jim and I when young; I remembered Hal’s mockery spoken so swiftly by Hiddlestone as one throws away a joke, but he said it all and yet I cared not what happened in the junkyard of what did not matter when I was young too.

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Medium and then close up

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air …
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

How better can one pass one’s hours than comforting the self with imaginative truth. I love Shakespeare. I once hoped to do my dissertation on Cymbeline. I’ve read all the plays, some several times, lines from the sonnets run through my head. I taught R2 once, Hamlet once, and Winter’s Tale (a favorite) 3 times. So for me this past Monday night even the popularly conceived Shakespeare Live! on my BBC iplayer was mostly compelling. I had never heard Shakespeare’s speech for Sir Thomas More before: when Ian McKellen said it’s hime and then did it I knew. The words to the cruel idiot mob bent on destroying the stranger immigrants could be said of those voting for Trump today. A ballet of Othello and Desdemona was revelatory of male violence and female shattering. Harriet Walter enacting Cleopatra’s suicide to come nearer Anthony. My favorite Marie-Anne Duff as Lady Macbeth and (again) Rory Kinnear as Macbeth just come from the murder scene. Yet as Anne Elliot says the deep wretchedness and letting go of the self in mutual passion went through my body until I writhed in missing Jim. Paradoxically I grow more wretched, more desperate at night than I ever did before. He is gone and what makes it not a dream is all I am surrounded by, my solvency, the life he has provided for me.

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Daniel Berrigan around the time of 9/11 when he commented on what had happened

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A younger Jenny, recalling her book smoking through America on a train

More good people gone. Daniel Berrigan at age 94. How that man’s noble soul seems so out of place today.

I have in my house a book of poems by Berrigan, which I can see Jim read, but I’ll chose a less religious one, by Patrizia Cavalli (from my New Vintage Poetry Book) as it is about coping with the death, the loss of a beloved friend:

Now that time seems all mine
and no one calls mefor lunch or dinner,
now that I can stay to watch
how a cloud loosens and loses its color,
how a cat walks on the roof
in the immense luxury of a prowl, now
that what waits for me every day
is the unlimited length of a night
where there is no call and no longer a reason
to undress in a hurry to rest inside
the blinding sweetness of a body that waits for me,
now that the morning no longer has a beginning
and silently leaves me to my plans,
to all the cadences of my voice, now …
— translated by Judith Baumel

And Jenny Diski passed through her agon.

And what do you think, that I couldn’t see you
die around a corner …. if I really think about your death
in whatever house, hotel or hospital bed,
in whatever street, perhaps in air
about your eyes that surrender
to the invasion: about the ultimate terrible lie
with what you will want to repulse the attack ….
what will survive you
well then, how can I let you go away
— Cavalli trans Baumel

I was expecting it. I had noticed that more LRBs had gone by without her than usual. I had told myself, she must be very ill now, near the end. When a friend emailed me to tell me I cried on and off that morning. I felt her to be an intimate friend, almost. I loved her essays, travel writing, the novels, her book on animals. She spoke up for the vulnerable, the lonely, those who felt and acted differently from many, and for the depressed — as far as I read, she seemed almost never to think cant (well once in a while). I first encountered her in the LRB in a diary entry telling the full truth about when she was raped at age 14. It stayed with me because she was more accurate about how assaults happen: first she did go back with the man to his flat. As I grow more aware of how much my cats are reacting to me, how much they understand, I want to tell her Bundy was waiting for you. I’ve written at length about her too often. Tributes from The Guardian and Tim Adams’s memory of her and the last columns. Robert Laird in the Paris Review characterizes how we now die in the world through the Net and her characteristic tone and stances so well.

Her last gift to us was to tell us blow-by-blow of her experience of cancer. How few do this. Here was courage.

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J. Waterhouse, Miranda looking out at the tempest

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Lovelytulips
Home again

Dear friends and readers,

The temperature going down to freezing here; I’ve flowers in all three patches, white tulips, soft lavender, clumps of different flowerets and buds.

For these weeks I’m feeling I am moving in and out of peopled worlds in Pittsburgh and here in DC and Alexandria, where I abide. Who knew there were so many constantly reforming clouds of people. And then Izzy finds herself over the moon after several 10 hour days watching ice-skating at Junior World Championship in Boston.

For myself: Around Thursday noon I started off. So many miles. Thanks to my “garmin,” which talks to me with a bland American women’s accent, I had little trouble driving from Alexandria, Va to the Omni William Penn Hotel. The voice is most important at these transition moments when the highway gives out, you have to come off and drive through some series of low-cost gas stations, “family” food restaurants, and motels that have grown up precisely because this the highway gives out here. She tells you a few minutes ahead to bear left or bear right, cites the sign accurately, and with ease you get back onto said highway going in the right direction.

The route in the city reminded me of old highways in Brooklyn, and then I had simply to drive up a wide street, turn left twice and there I was, in front of the hotel. Nearly 5 hours each way. Homeward I worried intensely at one point because my gas was low and I had to realize that there were no on-highway gas stations. I got off said highway and nearby filled “‘er up,” and back on I went. I began to feel dizzy once I was near home, so got off the highway and found myself in a traffic jam around an accident.

This led me to stop off at Noodles and Company for a pasta dish to bring home; I downed it with Shiraz wine while watching yet another episode of the very well-done 1972 War and Peace scripted by Jack Pulman and the 2nd episode (Of 3) of the utterly inadequately adapted Dr Thorne, scripted by Julian Fellowes: a friend has likened him to Popplecourt; it’s as if Popplecourt were explaining Trollope’s art to us. I’ll write about this film adaptation separately too: coming to and going from I had listened half-way through Trollope’s Dr Thorne as read dramatically well by Simon Vance. I collapsed into bed, by that time my pussycats staying close by.

I had a good time while there: it was rejuvenating to go to sessions filled with varied intelligent talk and papers on new aspects of a subject matter I’ve spent my life reading about, studying. I’ll write of these separately. I was at two nights of receptions. I renewed old friendships during the first night’s dinner and first day’s lunch

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40 years on Robin Ellis returns as the deeply reaction Halse and Aidan Turner defies him (2015, scripted by Debbie Horsfield)

My paper, “Poldark Rebooted: 4 Years on” went over well; the three other papers were from different points of view and done differently yet all linked as about recent TV and movie films (Outlander among them). The audience was not too small and we got good questions. The second night I seemed to gravitate towards the Burney group, and spent the second night’s dinner time and the next day women’s caucus with them. I can’t say I participated in intellectual political talk (as I do regularly now at the OLLI at AU in DC), but I did hear about local politics in different places from friends as well as happenings among books and writers and coming conferences (at Chawton). What people were working on, their topics of special interest and told of mine. One woman on sabbatical reading Burney’s manuscripts in the NYPL, living in Brooklyn for the year.

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The William Penn Omni hotel is a beautiful building: art deco central hall or lobby downstairs, and the grand ballroom beautifully carved. It was the second time I’d been there: before with Jim I arrived at 11 at night and remember we got a meal!

As a memento I found on sale Norma Clarke’s probably highly readable biographical Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street — its cover takes the left-hand side of Hogarth’s picture, enrichens the browns and yellows, suggestive of Grub Street life.

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William Hogarth, The Distressed Poet (1736)

The experience occurred in the context of the two OLLIs, going to the Jewish Community Center, Smithsonian, the Folger, so I felt how I enter into and float out of differently peopled worlds. How different this is from the way I lived by Jim’s side. It’s like a quiet merry-go-round or roundabout. You get off and find under this pavillon a set of numerous people having adventures, stay and talk in whatever form is appropriate, then you go back to the path towards the merry-go-round and get on and off at another place. Interesting and informative discussion over lunch at Temple Baptist Church (one of the AU OLLI locations) by a retired lawyer and an economist about the importance of the supreme court, how much of US civic life corporations through their control of media is being poisoned.

But how and why do all these people keep it up? Cheerfully too. I feel so aware of these worlds’ fragility. That’s the strange and built-in dangerous thing: the necessary disconnect between casual friends and other people all the while you renew what you can or just have fleeting good talk. Here’s a question: how do you define friends?

Snow
Outside Izzy’s window in Boston: celebratory and commentating snow ….

Izzy had taken a 10 hour train trip to Boston via Amtrak. She had a long trip there and back and there was an accident at Philadelphia the day before she came home. No money in the US for public transportation. Fortunately her trip back was only (only) 40 minutes longer, so it took 11 hours. But she was comfortable the whole time. A decent seat, decent enough food available (real sandwiches with people to serve it), free wi-fi. She was not continually photographed or scrutinized as in a airport. She did not have to sign up for “paid privileges” which allow a cell phone or ipad to work, and separately for any music or movies (as in abusive airplanes).

She stayed in a hotel in Boston, from the which there were trains each day going back and forth from hotel to convention center. She found herself coming back to the hotel with the same people each night. Her day sometimes started after 10 or 11 or once noon. She often returned at 11 at night, once much later.

Flags

Rink

She got herself to the Museum of Fine Arts twice (it was a stop on her train), and explored the first floor. She said it was huge:

HUge

She saw a sign outside “to the Isabella Gardner museum,” but did not have the time for it. She walked in the city commons, on three different mornings, and late in the evening ate in different places around her hotel room, mostly Italian restaurants. Those nights she did return early it was very cold out; her window high and the winds strong. So she stayed in with her ipad and books.

Boston

Since she had the same seat for all but one day (as did most others), she sat behind the same group most days: British women who talked to one another and briefly to her too. Her sense of ecstasy as she watched and watched and the experience mounts she captured in a phrase she used to my question, “How’s it going?” “I’m over the moon.”

Miss Drake

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4-November-Afternoon-Stapleton-Park-city-scenes-landscape-John-Atkinson-Grimshaw
Stapleton Park, Leeds, November [4] Afternoon by John Atkinson Grimshaw (Leeds, 1880s)

I can’t even get close to what they call faith, though I quite see Pascal had a point; and so did Wittgenstein (though quite wrong globally) when he said: ‘Go on, believe! It does no harm.’ I don’t and won’t and there it is — Diski, “Who’ll be last?”

Dear friends and readers,

The third November without Jim is passing by and by the calendar we are almost up to Thanksgiving once again. Lately I’ve been remembering Leeds, the excellent bus service when I lived there (1968-70), how once I needed to get somewhere and took 6 buses, but the service was so frequent and stops so many that I got where I needed to go and back again in what felt like record time: and how beautiful Yorkshire was, I went all around the West Riding. I remember Headingley, Horsforth and then round in a circle to Wakefield, and home again to Leeds.

I find it more and more difficult to write on this blog. I don’t know what to say that is truthful. I mostly talk about my outer life, and I go on about how I’m doing this, attended that, was active with new acquaintances locally (after all I’m not sure I should say friends except that a couple nearly fit the definition as I’m coming to understand it), seeming cheerful and fulfilled enough. This is quite different from how I would talk about my inner life, where inside me, I’m very still, in a stasis. I can’t say I’m in a struggle to be or find myself as my experience is when I try to go outside this self, which I’ve come to see is now an independent scholar (yes that phrase captures this), I cannot because I can’t misrepresent my tastes, inwardly compelling ideas about what is worth spending time on or why I spend it this or that way. If I try, I’m found out, or a reaction to me grates on me and I (as it were, using the modern slang) push back, if only to protect my past, memories, self-esteem, present. So the 3 local friends I made attenuate.

My entries read this way mostly so here’s another: This past week I went to two lectures, one at the Smithsonian on Castles, Country Houses, and Cottage (by Bill Keene, introduced as an independent scholar) was not disappointing in the sense I was given huge amounts of information and saw many slides of wealthy and powerful people in the UK and US since the middle ages. I was not sure there was a perspective beyond evolution of structural elements and lifestyles. The auditorium was full, lots of “mature” women (as usual), and the occasional extra comment, wry, usually about the blindness of the rich to their privilege, elicited laughter. Keene did provide a long bibliography which I can avail myself of. Another at the Folger (members only sort of thing, the first time I’ve gone since I joined about a year and one half ago), about the life of someone studying law, what they studied, what courts they argued in, some central content of their arguments as they affected life in Elizabethan England significantly. Not quite dryasdust in comparison: I learned who Edward Coke was, why his legal views important (he argued the king was subject to the law) and also (very bad) he was a violent man, jealous, and beat his wife, what was the life of a law student at the time, where did they get the books they studied (private libraries mostl). Movies at night, including the remarkable 1979 The Long Good Friday (which maybe I’ll write a blog about), Shoulder to Shoulder into Suffragette.

I’ve been glad of less teaching (at the same time very glad of reading and reading about Tom Jones) and more time to follow my own bends again: I finished Linda Porter’s felicitously written and perceptive Katherine the Queen [Katherine Parr the subject] where Porter explained more lucidly and memorably to me some political movements at the time which shaped Parr’s life (Pilgrimage of Grace, the evangelical turn of forward-thinking religious writers and readers). I wrote more about this sort of thing for me in my Victorian to Edwardian. I’ve begun Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen (first of a trilogy on Katharine Howard’s life): who knew that Katharine Howard was a component in Thomas Cromwell’s downfall? No wonder it’s taking Hilary Mantel so long to write the 3rd book of her trilogy. I do things that interest me because what else can I do?

But only fractionally does any of this touch me where I live. Do my cats? I’ve grown very fond of them indeed, and IanPussycat comes out of his former shell more and more. When I came home last Sunday, he was in some hidey-hole (seeking refuge in a closed tight space to feel secure is certainly his way):

cat-in-a-box
From a study on the Net which informed readers that cats are calmed by placing themselves in snug places — Yvette (Izzy) said to that, it’s true of large cats too.

He came out and sat like a top in the way cats do (tail wrapped around their close-together feet), and swayed slightly, he was tremble-shaking ever so perceptively. He had missed me. Clarycat thinks she is a dog and comes right up, tail not wagging, but miaowing at me, standing on chairs and whatever is near by, reaching out to stay my progress or movement with her paws. This is heart-rending and comforting (such self-centered creatures that we are) and I reciprocated in all physical and word ways I could, assuring them (though they have so little English) at the same time that I won’t be away again until next March.

FunnyCat
Yvette’s great joke: this is wrong, we ought to see the cat inside heaven, looking at the barred way, glaring at St Peter to be let out …

The best way to communicate with cats directly through playing is string. My two never tire of playing with string with me.

Rack up my achievements? I have learned getting, using , accessing, spending money while traveling as far away as Europe, and to more than one country, is no problem for a lady like me. I can drive long distances by myself — with within reason for a 69 year old woman. (Note the different formulation.) I could tell of my daughters and me, and their lives but that is trespassing.

I admire Jenny Diski (her latest, “Who’ll be last”) but cannot myself imitate her nuanced detail of misery — any more. Hers she still thinks is soon coming to end. I’ve been led to think not so for me, nor do I want the end as I know it will, must go hard. So to take a metaphor from Samuel Johnson on Henry Fielding’s art, I’m telling my readers and friends what time it is on the clock, not how the clock is working or why, not how it feels as it ticks away. I fear to dismay those few and valued real friends and family who might read what I write by putting into words the full effect of his absence on me. But (like Diski in this) do not want to give a false impression for the sake of my fellow widowed.

From another perspective I sometimes say to myself I have two selves; in literature it’s so common to come across the doppelganger figure, either in parallel characters or within one character. I probably parroted this theory without crediting it. Now I wonder if I have two selves.

A poem I found:

Unpalatable

Living with grief is like having to eat what is put in front
of you.
You look for the napkin,
    or the dog
but they are nowhere in sight. So you have to swallow the
whole thing.

The friends who are willing to sit at the table with you
are the water that helps to wash it down.
— Seren Fargo

Just make that napkin a glass of wine; that dog, two cats; and friends, Net-friends.

Miss Drake

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DangerUXB
From Danger UXB (one of the great anti-war mini-series)

This is the anniversary of Jim’s dying two years ago. He has lost the ability to speak back as of October 7th and on October 8th he was beginning that terrible ordeal/agon of literally dying.

I feel I’m living through these days for a third time: the first two years ago, as he lay dying; the second last year when somehow I kept the sense of it all at a distance; and now:

On October 3rd this year when Jim would have been 67 I felt how uncanny it is that he is not here, how weird is death in comparison to how we feel about someone’s existence. We have to feel deeply that the person we are attached to has deep reality, and yet they are no more than 98?% water (as I’ve read in different places). I felt haunted the way I had for a time after my father died. Then it was the irretrievably of never being able to make contact again, and I felt such a strong desire to I projected psychologically a presence hiding somewhere, invisible, silent.

It’s not like that for Jim. I have this sense of the unbelievability of existence itself. I can hardly believe I am here concretely if he’s not. I don’t know why I don’t vanish away softly in the night — like one of Lewis Carroll’s mad figures — if he could so vanish.

I’d call such feelings are one of the origins of religious belief. Tonight we would have been married 46 years, met 47 years ago.

I remember Shakespeare’s lines as Prospero: we are such things as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep.

And also that 90th sonnet: Do not drop in for an afterloss … in the onset come; so shall I know the very worst … which compared to loss of thee will not seem so

Jenny Diski’s latest entry as she moves into death is devastating. Her cancer is for now (what a sardonic joke in such words) in remission, for how long (ditto) the doctors can’t say (as they know nothing). Like the heroine in Wit, she is dying in immiseration because of the effect of the treatments on her, her lungs gone, she has (like Hilary Mantel) been made to look awful so that she is alienated from her body. at once feeble, unable to walk steadily and fat. Why should she care say the heartless neat doctors and nurses. She opens with talking of letters she has received; I was almost tempted to write. We learn in this one she has two grandchildren and we know the father of her daughter, once her partner-husband died a couple of years ago. So her daughter parentless.

People have asked me (well one person) what is gained by telling of Doris and me, well the same thing that is gained by her telling of these dreadful symptoms, her pain, her feebleness, how others will not help except for the Poet. Insofar as you can stop people from mouthing nonsense about triumphs, conquests, and bravery and instead tell what cancer is, you help a little in the pressure to do fundamental research. The research that is done is expensive surgery to prolong life and pills that cost huge sums — all garnering profit. What they discover fundamentally is a bye-product and not much sought. The TTP was signed yesterday: a key provision fought over was the US on behalf of the pharmaceuticals (like the fascist gov’t it is) to give them the right to charge outrageously for 5-8 years; 12 was what was wanted and the “balance” is it’s just 6-8 and uncountable thousands excluded because of the price at least until then.

I omit all the provisions which supercede workers’ rights and hand a good deal of the world over to corporations (with military backing) to exploit and immiserate everyone who is not in the elite genuinely rich and well connected.

Cancer is our great and ever spreading plague — like the engineered (in effect) famines and mass diseases of early times — India, Ireland. Settler colonialism now exterminating the Palestinians a little at a time — punctuated by the terror of lethal bombing.

Diski speaks for us all — she says don’t talk about bravery so instead I’ll say she writes what she does because she cannot help herself and thinks truth has a function in the world that helps others– if only by saying see here I am, is this the way you are? if so, we are not alone.

JennyDiski
Diski (before cancer)

She does say it’s hard not to feel what’s happening to her is a punishment — like it’s hard not to feel the death and disappearance of someone is uncanny. But what it’s vital to remember is not to take what happens ever as a punishment. That is your psyche doubling in on itself and wanting to find some reason, some ultimate meaning for what is happening. For me not comfort, but that way madness lies.

Miss Drake

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HenriettaPussycat
Henrietta Pussycat (Mr Roger’s Neighborhood)

I’ve had cats in my life since I was fostered at the age of fifteen. When I arrived at the house in London, the woman who was fostering me greeted me at the door, holding a small grey kitten under her arm.
    ‘This is Grey Cat,’ she said, ‘I only got her yesterday.’
    Grey Cat and I were co-fosterings. She was supposed to be my cat … (Diski, What I Don’t Know About Animals, Chapter 4)

Dear friends and readers,

Since reading Kathryn Shevelow’s For the Love of Animals, about the rise of the animal rights movement and development of real fellow feeling in people generally for animals and animal protection laws and effective agencies, I’ve been wanting to know more about how such feeling develops — for myself, an exponential increase since Jim died. Since I’ve also became interested in Jenny Diski’s writing in the last two years, I noticed her What I don’t Know About Animals. Billed as a serious philosophical essay, I wondered how much it was written in reaction to Doris Lessing’s On Cats: Diski, it was said, went into human anthropomorphic responses to animals, and certainly, Lessing’s moving book on two of Lessing’s many beloved cats depends on endowing her cats with complicated moving lives.

Diski’s book has a highly problematic center. Her purpose is to make us agree that animals are “other;” to see that, acknowledge it, and yet give animals full rights and (as she apparently does) treat them when pets as real companions, equals in their way. She goes over several examples to “prove” we attribute feelings to cats (ever her example) that we can’t say they have. For example, when you leave a room and a cat sitting there, near a toy, and then you come back some time later and the cat is still sitting there, is he or she waiting for you? You don’t know that, but then I’d reply, you don’t know she isn’t. Briefly, her examples don’t hold up. Worse yet 2) as she acknowledges the “otherness” argument is the fundamental ammunition of those who want to use animals to benefit humans first and foremost, not attribute real value to their lives. Hers is a philosophical book where she argues with various experts on animals and philosophers of the type Kathryn Shevelow discusses.

Cover

However, Diski has what might seem a strange and telling procedure. She begins by telling us her experience of animals by telling us of her early dolls, stuffed toys, and of the animals she came across as dead which she and her mother (biological, a back formation) ate. She calls herself “post-domestic. ” A “domestic” life in animal studies means you grew up with working animals around you (cows, chickens, horses). So her first experience of animals includes watching her mother buy and cook a chicken, eating the bird. This seems to have been enough for Diski to imagine this as a once live animal victimized, and she says soon after she felt impelled to save a baby bird from a nest who was not grateful but terrified. The bird couldn’t understand what she was aiming at, could not trust, much less love her. The result was the poor bird hid behind the stove in their small kitchen where it was dangerous, and they had to pull it out by force. By the time they prodded it out, it was badly wounded; Jenny ended up wishing the bird would die immediately. The point was how vulnerable animals are to us in our habitats. She then moved onto stuffed animals she saw in museums, caught up in death, very dreary (no tigers burnt bright here); then dream animals, as in storybooks and especially Disney films, where they are not quite children, but dressed; and finally zoos, the early ones where the animals were put in caged prisons, for human entertainment.

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

9Ellen76thLlyr1971
Me and Llyr, 1971 (in 76th Street flat in NYC)

I grant these are influential and perhaps where our earliest attitudes towards animals are shaped, but somehow to me this is not where my feeling for animals came, and I rather suspected she wanted to deny the importance of her first pet, that cat pushed on her (in effect) by Doris as an intermediary between them. Perversely (rather in the spirit of Jenny herself there), I tried to remember if I had an early relationship with a real animal and could not think of any beyond those I’d see as other people’s pets when my parents and I visited. That I saw dead chickens hanging up at a butcher’s (which I did as when I was young there were butcher shops and chickens that still had their heads and feet hanging from hooks on walls), well the interaction just doesn’t hack it. I must’ve been taken to a zoo but it didn’t affect me that I can recall. My aunt had a dog but I never got to know her; I wasn’t there often enough, and when I was I wanted to be with my cousins and paid attention to them.

I remember I longed for a pet, or thought I did. My parents refused saying the dog or cat would ruin the furniture and was a responsibility. I was an only child with only one or no friends at a time. After we moved away from my aunt and cousins, my father bought me a blue parakeet which we called Joey, thinking the bird was a boy. I did love it for a time but then even though I dutifully cleaned the cage once a week (I was an obedient child, especially good at routines), I didn’t play with it enough, my father said, and we got another because (he said) Joey was lonely. Well, Joey grew listless and unwell, and one day we found him dead; we went to vet then and discovered Joey was girl and had gotten pregnant and we needed to hep her give birth. This occurred before the days of the kind of animal medicine people regularly nowadays buy from vets. Nancy, the green parakeet, named by me with a girl’s name, but a boy, died son after that. Was she pining for Joey? The experiment was a failure. Now I see from Diski’s book, yes, animals are vulnerable to us.

Much briefer: when I was 10 or 11 my father attempted to buy me a dog; but he wouldn’t pay money for one and didn’t want to go to a rescue shelter; the dog really belonged to someone else. I had already begun to withdraw from painful experiences and didn’t try to make friends with the dog. I don’t even remember his or her name. Only that he or she was medium-sized and white. He or she was returned to the owner before the end of one week.

So truly my second experience of an animal for real was a feral cat (if that’s the appropriate term) I half-adopted shortly before Jim and I married (September 1969) and we came to live together permanently in a “self-enclosed flat” (£2 10 shillings a week), both of us with jobs (Jim a stockbroker’s clerk, me a personal assistant cum-secretary in a toy-packaging firm, Waddington’s). We lived in a poor Pakistani area of Leeds (England) just off a great park. Somehow he got into our flat. My hunch is it was through a small opening with a flap in the wall next to which the milkman left milk. I gave him a dish of milk. I did not know milk is not good for cats! Stories and films pictured cats happily lapping up milk. He did not know he was not supposed to drink milk either. He began to show up regularly, sat under the cooker (as we called the stove) where it was warm, and I began to buy cat food for him, also cans of fish, before you know it, he was sleeping in bed with me most nights. Jim wasn’t keen, but didn’t object as long as the cat stayed on my side of the bed.

I didn’t name him that I can remember.

I had to abandon him when we left for Southampton and the US (April, seven months later). It was not practicable for us. I understood we needed money to pay to make him healthy enough, for shots, to vouch for him, and who would take him on board a plane? Would it not be prohibitively expensive? We didn’t begin to have it. And after all, he was a stray; sometimes he didn’t return for several nights or a whole weekend would go by without seeing him. Who knew if he wanted to come? I’d have to put him in a carrier. He would not care for that. One night he came in all bloody, looking just so awful. I cried and exclaimed and began to wash and care for him. I’ll swear he looked at me and communicated the idea, ‘You should see the others.’ Was he really triumphant? Or did I imagine this (as Diski might ask). He stayed in for a couple of nights after that. I wasn’t sure how attached to me he was. Maybe he preferred Leeds. When I’d get home from work, Jim and I often went out to a pub because we didn’t have central heat. We had no TV or radio even in those days. Or I read.

Years later (14 to be precise) I realized I was very sick for 2 weeks shortly after my cat came to live with us on-and-off because I caught some potentially deadly virus from him. My immune system had thrown it off with difficulty. I was out of work for over a week and went back before I was quite ready (lest I lose the job). I found out when Yvette was born prematurely, and the tests showed she had these antibodies to this dread disease. At first this panicked the hospital staff in Fairfax hospital, and they thought she had this dread disease, and looked funny (suspiciously) at me; but then they saw it was rather that I had actually transmitted antibodies to this premature baby. The disease hadn’t been known about until AIDs had spread and homosexual men came down with it and died. Jim’s mother had had a cat and dog (called Judy, a Pomeranian) during much of his childhood and so maybe he had developed antibodies early on to this disease and that’s why he hadn’t gotten sick.

I left one last bowl of milk and dish of cat food and the door ajar when we left that flat.

JimLlyr76thSt
Jim and Llry (same day as above)

Then there was Llyr, the dog we bought shortly after we came to NYC and who lived with us for 12 years. I walk around with intense guilt over her last two years or so of life — which coincided with our last two years in NYC. I was very good to her for 10 years, so too Jim; but we didn’t act to her as we would today. One evening after we came home from work and discovered she had torn apart a couch, we wanted to go out and so we tied her long leash to the radiator so she could not get near the furniture. I can almost still hear her cry of distress as we left. We rushed back and took off that leash and told her to destroy the furniture if she wanted to. But that we could even think to do such a thing to her (tie her to a radiator) shows how thoughtless as young people we could be. We did play with her; she slept with me, one summer when I was studying Latin night and day to pass an exam in it, she was my steady companion.

Another time a year after Caroline was born (1979) she may have saved our lives. I heard a man’s voice making a huge ruckus and opened the door to see someone there in uniform. Llyr suddenly began to growl ferociously and showed her teeth. That was most unlike her. The man angrily demanded I “put away that dog,” so he could read the meters. What meters I asked. Nervously I shut the door. Later that day I heard the man was not an employee of a utility company and had attacked another woman in another building later that day. How grateful I was to Llyr. When I’d walk with her in Central Park, I believe she functioned to protect me. When I had Caroline, Llyr would look at her over her cradle. When Caroline would cry, Llyr would howl. Jim went nuts trying to pay attention to his math studies.

It’s probably true to say about 10 years on, I was having a nervous breakdown (finishing my dissertation and unable to contemplate looking for interviews, no idea how to cope with them), Jim in a bad way (his dissertation had been rejected!), no money for food even at times. He had quit his full-time job to get a Ph.D. in math and we were both adjuncts with small salaries. So Llyr suffered too — as much because I didn’t have an emotional strength to companion her properly. Then she looked terrible, so thin (like us), and my father paid for a vet and we discovered she had cancers on her legs. He paid for an operation, complete with cone upon coming home, and I began to pay much more attention again. But within the year the cancers returned. The vet told us we should “put her down,” she was old, 14. Nowadays I’d question that, and take my dog to another Vet. Nowadays maybe the Vet would try again.

I cried hysterically the night she laid on the bathroom floor after several nights of not wanting to sleep with me. Jim kept saying, “it’s just a dog.” He was upset at how upset I became. I had failed her and couldn’t retrieve what I had done.

Then another of these brief incidents. We came to Alexandria, and Jim agreed to get another dog. We went to a rescue shelter and brought home a dog that Jim worried had been abused: Gueneviere her name. White, middle-sized. Caroline liked her and we said it would be hers. Of course I knew she was too young to care for a dog. But soon after that again I was feeling this was too much for me, when the dog acted oddly and was difficult to train to make outside, and a phone call from the shelter told us the dog had not been given up by its master. It was “a mistake” of some sort (?). Jim said let’s not look into this; let’s return her. We did. Poor creature.

bothbrightbabies
Clarissa (as I called her then) and Ian as kittens

Fast forward to 7 years ago now when Caroline and I went to buy Clarycat and Ian. Caroline had two cats and I was seeking to have common ground with her. I thought too (like my parents the presence of the two kittens might keep Yvette company (she was home from college) and bring her out of herself. Jim did not want this and I overrode what I knew he was against. It turned out, he became far closer to Clarycat than I did because he was retired and at home. I was still working (in effect) full-time, and after an initial destruction by said kittens of the wires in this room attaching the computers to the outside world, Jim forbade them this room. Since I spend a lot of time here, I didn’t see them enough. About a year before I retired though, I felt they so disliked my staying in the room without them, and I myself disliked it so much (we were missing out), I insisted they be let in again. That’s nearly 4 years ago.

And now they are my close companion-friends — as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows. They are attached to Yvette too.

Jim was not post-domestic. His mother had a greenhouse where she grew vegetables and also chickens who she would kill, pluck and cook and the family eat them. Jim told me that one day when he was around four he was “playing” with one of these chickens and it pecked him hard. He ran away, but then he came back and told it his mother was going to kill it and they would eat it, so there. Now I wonder if he was teasing the animal.

The second early experience of animals Jim told me about is fuzzy. A dog is after him, and he is terrified, and his mother puts him high on a shelf. I wonder now if he teased animals when they were around him, and had done so to this dog, and it lunged for him.

He also had a long-term experience: the cat and Pomeranian, Judy. He said Judy was fierce and every once in a while would attack the cat and it would flee in terror. When we came to Southampton and lived with his mother and father for a month, I saw this pair of animals. The dog was long-lived; the cat was one of several his mother had had, one after another. Jim thought there was not much sentimentality or emotionalism towards these pets since he could not remember anyone grieving over each cat’s death; each one (in his memory) was simply replaced by another. But perhaps Jim under-estimated the complexity of his mother’s feelings: she was a woman who had grown up in the countryside of Hampshire.

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

KeiraKittycat
Caroline’s calico cat, Keira

Nonetheless, Diski persuaded me of the importance of all our contacts with animals (cooked, dream, on film, in books, zoos, wherever). So I feel vindicated that early on and for years in teaching Advanced Comp in the Natural Science and Tech, the second paper I assigned to students was to ask for an observation and most students who had no lab courses, and didn’t garden (a rare choice but it happened) chose to observe animals insofar as they could — complaining often that zoo experiences were artificial. But they had to sit and watch an animal for hours on end, and a repeated comment was they had had a distorted notion of that animal from Disney or animal film. She is probably right to say David Attenborough has had a strong and beneficial influence on how people who get to watch his films regard animals. I loved his Life on Earth; Yvette talked of his Life on this Planet. Like Mr Rogers, he is still on TV talking to young people. Since Attenborough or occurring at the same time, zoos treat animals very differently: insofar as zoos can they offer the animal an environment the animal can enjoy and thrive in, and animal companions, and follow their timetable. The animls are not there for our entertainment in the same way at all.

MitziRecovering
Caroline’s Mitzi, recovered from an operation to save her life

I am now thinking Caroline developed her love of cats when she watched Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. I remember how she would get so involved with Henrietta Pussycat if anything the least untoward happened to that cat. OTOH, she developed her cat family in response to her husband, Rob. When she first came to live with him, he was living in a close relationship with a cat named Lucy. Caroline was Lucy’s rival, and Caroline took Lucy’s central place in the household by buying two more cats, so Lucy was put in her place as one of three. Maybe Lucy provided an excuse for a long-delayed response to Henrietta Pussycat. Now Caroline has four cats and daily puts photos or videos of her four beloved companions on her I should have been a blogger blog.

PushkieMyfatherscatAge5blog
My father’s cat when she was 5

My father could love an animal. He told me of when he was a boy coming across a dog hiding in an alleyway. It was cold, looked miserable and beaten. He went over to it to make friends and it tried to bite and scratch him. He was startled out of his complacency: he realized that the dog had learned to guard itself from others from its hard experience of the world. Fast forward many many years later after my father retired. Briefly he had a Siamese cat. It was fierce to outsiders and since I’d never had a cat and cats don’t reveal their inner nature to anyone but their owner, I didn’t believe the cat was as capable as a dog of attaching itself to a human being. I was wrong. That cat loved my father. My father grieved intensely when “Pushky” died.

I can’t resist saying a second core of What I Don’t Know about Cats is Diski’s relationship with Doris Lessing. There is an intense frisson when that fourth chapter opens and there is her foster mother (sort of) never named with a kitten or cat in her arm. Their first meeting together was Doris giving Jenny a cat to have a relationship with. We learn that the cat turned to Doris more than to her as Doris was there much more of the time, was more reliable for food and Grey Cat’s timetable. The foster mother is never named. I have to think that Doris asked Jenny (using their first names) never to in print talk about their relationship. Others clearly knew (from the columns and this book too) or asked that she not until Doris died. I don’t think the latter as Jenny didn’t tell until Jenny was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Jenny Diski did not want to die not having told about this central person in her life, how she fits into her biological parents and having shown that she was very important to Doris too: she is the one who followed in Doris’s footsteps, not just as a writer, but a person with cats. At any rate, this is Jenny’s response to Doris’s On Cats, a very anthropomorphic masterpiece. Jenny’s book is not a masterpiece.

I find myself so drawn to their relationship because 1) I had a very sore relationship with my mother and from other women I’ve known this relationship sore or not goes as deep into understanding the person and their choices in life as any and 2) it’s a central paradigm of l’ecriture-femme, women’s literature. Wolf Hall is not l’ecriture femme even if it has a woman in drag at its center because Cromwell and his fathers are the issue.

Diski’s relationship with the bird she tried to rescue is a kind of fable. It died terribly. I remembered my early experiences with animals and realize the lesson I should have taken away was how dangerous I was as a keeper; they could die if I didn’t do right. In later years I was at long last old enough to see this and thus we didn’t replace Llyr for many years as I feared I would not be up to the responisbility. Her fable is to show how vulnerable animals are and how often if we look they end up dead well before they have to if they are given inadequates mistress/masters keepers, unloving.

Miss Drake

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