Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Diski’

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.

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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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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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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Julie Christie (from the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Survivor)

Dear friends and readers,

Just think about how many of us live by reacting to one another by typing and reading words:

Paradoxes and Oxymorons

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

— John Ashberry

Arguably or at least to me it may be read (I don’t know when it was written) as about life on the Internet: so much of our social experience today is had by typing; we read one another and are read. The problem is not that so much information is lost — it often is, who does not guard themselves face-to-face in other ways — but that what we offer is not taken in because we are ontologically, radically, each of us individually utterly different. It is sad, we reach out and cannot be taken in; we don’t take others in. Our words wants to be others but they cannot be others. Something I read the other day said that written words were so much more painful than spoken, what we read hurts far more than what we hear.

Still typed words what I have. Today’s Jenny Diski entry about her relationship with Doris Lessing and others on the LRB website, open to the public, “My eyes were diamonds,” is beyond painful. If I could send her a few words I would say that when you die, and your mind ceases, you will be relieved of the burden of these burning thoughts. This is what I tell myself, when all my distressing memories of those last six months will no longer have to be endured.

I didn’t notice at first that the first time she wrote about how Doris Lessing in effect saved her from never living a decent life by semi-adopting Jenny, it was after Lessing’s death. I noticed once Diski said she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer (it’s spread all about her lymph nodes), it was then she said the character of Emily in Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor was supposedly her. How cruel Lessing could be, as when in one of these entries Jenny asks for a word of reassurance, love, open emotion, and is confronted with angry suspicion of her motives, is told by others she had no right to ask for promises of stability. Lessing could open up to cats more than people. Diski is revisiting (brave of her), getting back too, correcting the record but at a cost of reliving such painful memories.

A cat placed for adoption (Humane Society, Internet website)


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On Yvette’s journey by Metro to the 2015 Japanese Stone Lantern Lighting Ceremony, she snapped this photo with her cell phone at the Reagan National Airport stop

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve counted four daffodils and three crocuses. They have come up out of the ground from the small plots I made that first year Jim was retired. I take no responsibility for their persistence. Since we had such a astonishingly cold February into March, in reality the flowering trees were rare today.

A photo Yvette took at the above Lighting Ceremony — the birds were there and that’s an early spring sky

In our neighborhood (called Clover) the only ones flowered were the very young; the tulip tree that hangs over my window has flowered on part of one side, and it looks like 3/4s will not make it. We had high winds yesterday and a couple of days of rain. Yvette said the ceremony was lovely; there was a good speech by a Japanese clergyman (I’ll call him), and music.


Jim and I used to observe Easter-time, spring, an equinox by going, most of the time with Yvette, to point-to-point races about an hour or more drive away into middle Virginia. It’s breeding time for the foxes so the elite hunting clubs host races, and the hoi polloi (like our small family) were invited to come too, and there would be bookies and tents of items to buy (I bought a big hat a couple of times), food. Sometimes the day would coincide with Easter or Passover, but not always. I’d come home exhausted from a long day’s outing. I remember Caroline came once and she bet with Jim (I’m not much on betting, my US working class background prohibits any enjoyment of this), but most years he’d bet alone with me looking on and sometimes chosing “our horse,” so we would have a horse & jockey we were “rooting” for and watch. We’d take his father’s indestructible binoculars, which his mother gave us after his father died of cancer. I remember the NYC festivals we’d join in on too.

How do identities form? A lecture I went to on Friday night, the Washington Area Print Group’s monthly meeting at the Library of Congress prompts me to see this previous existence of mine and Yvette’s trip to DC to join in a local public ceremony as a matter of having an identity one can see oneself in. Vanessa Harding, a professor of history at Birbeck College, University of London, is spending a couple of months at the Folger Shakespeare library researching a learned 17th century book collector, and chronicler, Richard Smythe (1590-1670). Her research is into early modern London and published book is The Dead and Living in Paris and London (1500-16770) and she told us about the social and cultural world of this man as projected by his collection of books, his annotations in them, his unpublished papers (which he kept in the form of little booklets) and a published Obituary (list of all the people who died and how,from the famous and notorious to the children of his friends) during his life. Prof Harding is just now developing a project with the Historic Towns Trust to map London on the eve of the Great Fire of 1666. So you can see she is interested in the larger city Smythe lived in.

Stowe’s Survey of London, mapping

She held her audience’s interest all she was able to say of this obscure man (he never signed anything), and how his (in effect) scrapbooks carefully preserved contributed to a wider urban consciousness while that developing urban consciousness experienced in ceremonies (like the one Yvette attended and those she used to go to with Jim and I) sustained him. Prof Harding’s descriptions of these stitched together booklets, with their inserted pages, and portraits reminded me of descriptions of Renaissance women’s manuscripts to Jane Austen’s. He had a vast library for someone of this period (could she have said 2000? or was it 8000?), and was known by other book collectors, sellers, learned and scientific people (acknowledged in some central sources); he was a polemicist for the Church of England (Anglican, and this during the interregnum too), and used books like Stowe’s Survey of London (1720, a massive folio edition), Fuller’s church history. Smythe was writing London’s history, which had a diverse rapidly changing population during his long lifetime. His personal contribution is that of a bibliographer (he left lists of books), of a corrector of misinformation. He was a socially gregarious man who was able to spend his time with like-minded men. Off he would go to Little Britain to look at books (St Paul’s became a center for book selling later). She talked of her frustrations over what he does not tell: he never described his library (by contrast, Pepys tells us he had modular bookcases). She was able to tell us of his wife, Elizabeth, whom he was married to for 44 years, a widowed daughter who he lived with in his last years and inherited his library. his sister-in-law became important to him after his wife’s death; he mentions other women friends. She told of how there were more records of him in St Giles, Cripplegate, but they were destroyed in WW2.

As usual with me now I went with the group to dinner afterward, a nearby Thai place and the talk was good. Two people who are regulars are mounting an exhibition of Lewis Carroll books and memorabilia (we are talking 4700 items they own in their own library). The central field of research for one of the organizers of this group, Sabrina, is the early to mid-17th century and book history. The talk veered into university gossip and we talked of what is happening in Britain and the US to universities today, about online sites for research. I mentioned Future Learn and asked how much pressure there was for university academics and staff to participate in these online MOOCs, to get credit for being involved in communities. I probably drank too much or didn’t eat enough (pain in dentures prevents eating much), and going home alone I ended crying bitterly for Jim.

I was glad this morning that Easter has remained a religious holiday (and passover too) and is not made into insistently public group rejoicing. I thought I’d bring spring in by staying longer in bed, and began Rumer Godden’s “middle brow” “woman’s novel” (both no-nos), China Court, a deeply felt evocation thus far of a house through the memories of an old woman who has just died, and those of her close servant, Cecily. Set in Cornwall. Books like this provide peace.

Clarycat this past Wednesday, photo taken by Caroline who came over to download Episode 4 of the BBC 2015 Poldark

My schedule had kept me very busy all week. Friday morning I had been to the JCC for Dance Fusion and Core, I taught (and think it went very well) at the two OLLIS, AU and Mason, Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza, and Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers, respectively. Monday was especially wearing as I went into DC twice, the second time to watch an HD screening of a truly interesting production of Love’s Labor’s Lost done in Stratford by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Christopher Luscombe’s production, featuring Richard Bennet as Berowne and Benedick, and Michelle Terry as Rosaline and Beatrice). I hope to go again tomorrow after teaching and see Love’s Labor’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing) which my experience of Future Learn has shown me will be powerful; I did not realize that it was paired with an unusual production of Love’s Labor’s lost; I mean to write a blog on this pairing by Tuesday (strength holding out). Would I be doing any of this if he were here? maybe not. He might have found the HD production of these two plays; that’s the sort of thing he looked out for. A friend who is semi-retired told me of how he and his wife go kayaking in Florida for a couple of weeks of February. We never had a chance to evolve a retired life together, different from the one we had endured and enjoyed as working people together.

Nonetheless, I found time late at night to watch all three 2 hour episodes of Ken Burn’s Cancer: the Empire of all Maladies, which appears to have been based on Pulitzer Prize winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee who appeared in the film as a explanatory narrator. It was not as bad as I feared it might be. I did cry for the first hour and had a hard time watching it now and again, but although (as these shows did) it focused on the few people who lived because of these horrific treatments, and its outline was that of a story of progress, it told a tale of dysfunctional knowledge. Yes human beings have gone from knowing nothing and being able to do nothing about any cancer, to knowing a lot of details about specific manifestations (kinds of cancer) and having unpredictable ever-more narrowly targeted treatments where some people can be saved. Hard economic topics were avoided — like the use of devastating surgeries. And no individual groups were blamed. It was generally that prices are well beyond the means of many; that pollution is playing a major role. But at the close of the first two hours it was insisted that we do not know fundamentally what makes a cell turn cancerous. I learned what the mass mainstream media says about cancer. Meanwhile I read stories daily about people dying: a friend’s 10 year old niece died after she was first diagnosed at age 6. Unfortunate lovely child. Her photo appeared and story was told in a local Italian newspaper. Oliver Sacks tells of his embolization of his liver cancer (he is dying, NYRB April 23, 2015 issue); I read the increasingly poignant story told by Jenny Diski as she faces death from lung cancer. She has kept up a stages diary (LRB, 9 April 2015): how do you go about imagining your death? can you?

Jenny Diski a couple of years ago

After watching this determinedly upbeat presentation where all was done contradicted what Atul Gawande had said of not giving people false hope which drives them to make their last months miserable through torturous procedures (and Marcia Angell’s review of Being Mortal), but to tell them their prognosis so they can decide what they want to do with their last months, I wondered to myself after all, can people enjoy their last four months if they are told they are going to die? Look at Diski. She can’t forget it. Look at how Sacks is putting himself through such a horror of pain, himself a doctor. I wondered to myself if Jim had not been given false hope, would he have had the strength to enjoy a trip away or would he have ever wondered if he had tried, he would have had more life? he was extraordinarily patient in that last two weeks, brave, silent mostly, kind to me. What were his thoughts? I fear that he went for the surgery because he had decided he would not have been able to enjoy a trip away — probably though it was the false hope of five more years. Yvette at breakfast told me of a classic Japanese film, Ikiru, where a man is told he has only a few months to live and tries to do what he enjoys to experience a last happiness. He cannot. Daily life with others and his own dread will not permit this. What can he do with his last time alive. He conceives of a plan to make a meaningful contribution — to build a playground. What troubles and vexations he goes through to achieve this. The film seems to end with the playground built and him sitting on one of the swings and in flashbacks remembering back. The wikipedia article makes these last memories into something more peaceful than they are; but they do compensate. They kept him busy with a hope of some form of useful immortality. Yvette and I talked of our desire to have what we write on Net saved. I know many people talk of carrying on in their children and make do with that. I’ve put Ikiru on my Netflix queue as next.

I’ve made a proposal to teach Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones next fall at the OLLI at AU. I realize I cannot do a second new course again and also a paper on Trollope for the Belgium conference and teach Framley Parsonage in summer. So I will offer to do the two Poldark novels at Mason in the fall. If that won’t do, sobeit. The next spring I’d love to work up a course on Gaskell’s North and South but it must wait. I am doing these courses for my own enjoyment of study and learning too.

I keep getting thinner. Eating a problem. Gum ache and a dull hard pain: either one of my eyeteeth has now gone bad, or my jaw is sore from my denture and I can’t bite down. Now there’s not only, Can I bring myself to eat it? There’s, Am I successful at eating it? I have to wait until Friday to see the dentist. My clothes drop off me; my trousers grow longer, past my shoes. Bad moments: Thursday morning 3 viruses invaded my computer; within 2 minutes of my contacting him, my hero, my IT guy, Jonathan, had come into my computer by remote control and “quarantined them,” uninstalled Yahoo (the portal was the culprit) and after 3 hours of scrutiny, declared the computer fine, reinstalled Yahoo and I could be at peace again.

Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) — at beginning of long sequence just after they marry

At close after pilchard episode, death of Charles, Christmas

I had one insight important to me this week in teaching the Poldark books and watching the fourth episode of the new (2015) Poldark: films can bring out graphically what is deeply appealing in a novel without discussing this explicitly: I have wondered why I love these books so. Well I saw in the fourth episode that what I love so is the relationship between Demelza and Ross Poldark: I identify utterly with her and find him intensely appealing through her eyes. Horsfield at long last was closely faithful to several long episodes at the close of Ross Poldark, allowing for the long scenes at the pilchard harvest, the visit of Verity and friendship with Demelza, the finding of copper, and finally at Christmas where the couple find themselves pulling apart as his upper class heritage closes in on them and then somehow manage to overcome this: they achieve communion of spirits walking home in the landscape as Verity, his close beloved cousin, has walked by his side with him. Far from this ancient imposing house, with its pictures, that hard social world, and in the night, the “old peculiar silence” ceases to make a barrier and “becomes a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend.” That’s how it was for us.

I also watched the first episode of Wolf Hall, the film adaptation mini-series from Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction. Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell the best new actor (to me) I’ve seen in a long time. He seemed to transcend the drama of wolves he is caught up in. Heidi Thomas has made Rylance as Cromwell a quiet watcher, a POV, and Rylance in conveying how amoral, lying, snobbish to the nth degree, and awful everyone is to one another as some of them try to protect themselves (Cromwell’s father or brother by contrast savagely beats a boy servant or his son), conveys how strange costume drama itself is. He makes you feel how bizarre it is to watch these people in their extravagant outfits. His calm reasoning presence, and his stance in his outfit, unostentatious (yet rich and becoming — blacks and greys mostly), brought home how strange these costume dramas really are: a ritual version of our humanity.

He is the only sane spirit about — looking on

Hilary Mantel has re-seen most of the familiar characters: More (Anton Lesser, a great reader for books on CDs) is not the noble martyr, but a narrow minded dangerous man; Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) sly and manipulative; Wolseley (Jonathan Pryce) is not a seething bully but a individual without the power to do what others want, and above all the striking change, is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless politician, is now an ordinary decent man, lower class, quietly, intelligently, patiently trying to make his way. Making Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss) important is historically accurate. How Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, must’ve grated on Mantel. Henry VIII remains the same complicated enigmatic figure — in reality a fearful tyrant and more than half-mad by the end. Damien Lewis plays the role; he is as big a star as Bernard Cumberbatch. He’s not an heart-throb but is as ubiquitous in big parts. Joanne Whallay a dignified pathetic Katherine of Aragon. During the course of the first hour, Cromwell’s wife (the actress playing his wife was familiar to me, Natasha Little, once Becky Sharp, and very touching) and children (beloved by him) all die suddenly of the sweating (or sleeping) sickness as it was called. They did, and there was such a fatal illness which killed for a decade or so and then vanished.

I fill my life at home with such presences.


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Dear friends and readers,

I regret to report that the cancer epidemic has reached Jenny Diski. In a determinedly comic column Diski announced she had been diagnosed as having a form of inoperable cancer which features cancer traveling into your lypmph nodes and (“very bad” she writes) into the esophagus. Statistically she is told she has 2-3 years before she dies: in the case of cancer you ignore statistics at your peril: I ignored the 40% of all people diagnosed with esophageal cancer dead within a year, and we went ahead with a horribly mutilating operation (if in doubt remove it) for him, which when the cancer metastasized only made him die quicker and suffer much more. I hoped he’d be in the 60%.

She writes:

One thing I state as soon as we’re out of the door: ‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’ I will not personify the cancer cells inside me in any form. I reject all metaphors of attack or enmity in the midst, and will have nothing whatever to do with any notion of desert, punishment, fairness or unfairness, or any kind of moral causality. But I sense that I can’t avoid the cancer clichés simply by rejecting them.

Jim too thought this kind of language ridiculous but eventually was driven to say the physicians had intended to battle the cancer in his body. All they did was ruin his body.

She jokes:

So – we’d better get cooking the meth,’ I said to the Poet, sitting to one side and slightly behind me. The Poet with an effort got his face to work and responded properly. ‘This time we quit while the going’s good.’ The doctor and nurse were blank. When we got home the Poet said he supposed they didn’t watch much US TV drama.

I hope she does keep a cancer diary in public; from my reading of so many of her essays (whenever I come across one, I read it, pronta), she will be perceptive and wise. Her book might tell of the hurt, the pain and lies, will be another voice calling attention to the crying need for fundamental research.

People in the world writing, reportage, and in colleges need to know that this epidemic is killing out of all proportion old, middle-aged and now young, rare cancers no longer rare.

Just now I’m reading Diski’s Skating to Antartica, which is lending me courage to go on the trips I’ve planned this fall. I realize I should read her Stranger on a Train. As a regular essayist she’s in a league with Hilary Mantel, Lorna Sage, Margaret Atwood, Diane Johnson, Anita Brookner; among men, Richard Holmes, Richard Davenport-Hines.

Poor woman. Cooking did distract Walter White and that “lost waif,” Jesse Pinkman.


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