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Posts Tagged ‘Last Orders’


Vince (Ray Winston) cradling Jack’s ashes in a jar, in a box, in a plastic shopping bag as if he had a baby in his arms, near the war monument at Wick Farm (Fred Shepisi’s Last Orders, 2001)

Dear friends and readers,

This week I began talking with my class where we are reading Booker Prize winners about Graham Swift’s Last Orders, at this point in my life one of my favorite books. I love the film adaptation too, and thought I’d start my diary entry with referring to the central climax in the film: Vince (Ray Winston) drives himself and his deceased yet still and ever felt-to-be-there father Jack’s three friends, Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tom Courtney), and Lenny (David Hemmings) to Wick Farm where decades ago, Jack (Michael Caine, then J.J. Fields) and Amy (Helen Mirren, then Kelly Reilly) made love in the fields and produced a severely mentally disabled daughter, June, and then ten years later or so, Jack and Amy drove Vince there once again and Jack told Vince of how he had a disabled sister living in a asylum and that he, Vince, was adopted.

The plot-design: a group of four men are taking the ashes of their friend Jack Dodds which are in a jar and going to scatter them on the pier/jetty at Margate. This is a place where people go for holiday, a kind of Coney Island amusement Park at the edge of the sea. Beach, gambling, boardwalk. As they get together at the bar and drive to Margate they take detours. The detours are stages in their life’s journeys which make them remember the past. Finally they get there and scatter the ashes. Meanwhile his wife, or widow, Amy, is traveling by bus for the last time to visit their mentally disabled daughter. We have her memories too; the stages of her journey in her mind.

Along the way all of them are back to his past. Some of the chapters are the characters other than Ray moving back into the past and we go to different levels of past. Some of the characters are the characters other than Ray in the present. Towards the end of the book we also get the thoughts and memories of Amy who is visiting a severely mentally retarded daughter in an institution. We also get the thoughts of Mandy, Jack’s adopted son, Vince’s wife. Once and once only Jack

Well, Vince wants to scatter some of his father’s ashes on this spot and attempts to explain to these men why. He stands there in the middle of the field paralyzed by traumatic emotions arising from the recesses of his being. He is accused of mindlessly throwing bits of his father away and yells frantically, Scatter! what does scatter mean? the text says

he sputters like he’s trying to announce something but he can’t get it out or he don’t know what it is. He delves in the jar and he throws quickly, sputtering, once, twice. It looks like white dust, like pepper, but the wind blows it into nothing. Then he screws the cap back on and turns, coming towards us.

This is where, he says, wiping his face, ‘This is where’

I find this almost unbearably moving. So many of us have these crucial moments in our lives where something happens that lives no visible trace but ever after changed our existence, or lead directly to something that changed our existence radically. For me these occurred when I was about 12 and lived in Kew Gardens one afternoon on May 26, 1959, but to this day I cannot tell anyone the details as they are still so searingly shaming; and again when I was 19 and sat on a bench and told the one friend I thought I had what I had decided would be my life’s goals, what I felt I had it in my character to do in order to live some kind of fulfilled life, probably somewhere in the Queens College grounds, and then crucial moments with Jim. Going back? well I could go back to Edinburgh and I did return to Scotland if it was the Highlands where I had yearned to go since that the two times in Edinburgh together and reading Samuel Johnson and James Boswell twin tours to the Hebrides.

“This is where” memories include than the socially acceptable the first time I went away with Jim and fucked all weekend together, or in summer had in effect a honeymoon for a marriage that had happened months ago.


Me in Edinburgh that summer (1968)


Jim in Leeds that summer after we returned (August 1968)

I can’t tell these other either, not because they are so humiliating or euphoric; rather they are so intimate, complex with also painful feeling, private, and tell of him what he might not want others to know.

I bring this up to introduce two kinds of happenings over the last 8 days or so. I’ve kept up my promise to myself to take myself out more, and this past Saturday afternoon experienced an astonishingly moving work, a sort of play, Wilderness, co-written by Anne Hamburger and Seth Bockley. The core is six supposedly disabled or mentally troubled teenagers, who are sent to a kind of camp for troubled youngsters in Utah. It is said to be based on real teenagers or 20+ year olds and their parents.

I believe it is so based since one of the girls tells a story that resembled my experience as a young adult, age 12-15 (which is where occurred at the beginning of a unspeakably miserable lonely time for me) from which I went into anorexia at age 16 and retreat the year before: this girl found herself trying to have friends and ending exploited sexually by boys, shunned by girls, and gaining a reputation as a slut — a slightly altered version of that happened to me only it was quickly over (by comparison), and crucially there was no internet at the time I was young, as there is in this girl’s experience so she became far more humiliated, mortified, far less able to shut down what had happened: I tried to kill myself only once; she kept at it, and did much worse self-harm. This is but one of five stories, another by a girl (believable as I saw versions of that from afar) and four by boys. The truth is only one was the story of a disabled young adult (perhaps autistic) and the others simply real stories of what it is like to grow up in the US in the last 70 years, about what is inflicted on young and older adults by US society, for which they are blamed, inner worlds we rarely see.

In each case the story as enacted and told to the audience split over to parents who tried to do something about what they saw. Mine did not. They ignored what was happening, and when confronted once or twice, my mother denied what she had seen, or castigated me, sneered at me, and my father exhibited compassion but nothing else, at a loss it seems since his values were of the society we were living in and he just didn’t know what to do about me — for example, as a lone reading girl. These parents discussed their lives — often shot through with divorce, drunkenness, economic dislocation, how they found these children too much to take (one tries to hang the child — my mother was jealous of my father’s affections for me and hated me), how they couldn’t bear and had to act against or do something about a child who didn’t conform (I am actually glad my parents didn’t try to force me into some kind of conformity as that might have ended me in an asylum).

It’s telling to read how the the first review in the New York Times misframes it as mental illness, and what occurs in the camp is called therapy and then clings to the semi-upbeat ending in order to normalize and not discuss any of the searing details of lives these stories expose. Christopher Isherwood does much much better. It’s not about the gulfs between parents from children, it’s about us, the underbelly of say this opiod epidemic, the alcoholism, drug-taking — our underbelly.

People in the audience were slightly shocked; I heard no talk at first, and then very gingerly about “how powerful” that was. Recently I mentioned to someone my suicide attempt; the reaction, I didn’t realize you were so “unstable.” The play was done in a newly re-vamped “family” theater at the Kennedy Center and two school groups filled out the audience, which might otherwise have been very small. I hope some of them felt less alone when it was over.

But otherwise the experience has been less than whatever I vaguely hoped. Including a week or so before we went to California. I’ve been to the Kennedy Center two other times, once to hear the National Symphony play Aaron Copeland (whose music I like so), a second time to be entertained and relieved (I hoped) by Whoopi Goldberg (in the event she was disappointingly cautious, timid about all references to Trump, taking that route that somehow we the audience were at fault or needed to do something not “bitch,” what she didn’t say). It is significant that Joan Rivers could “get away with” hard-hitting comments on gender and sex, and Goldberg does not dare do this on race relations.

Because we care more about race relations? because it’s more acceptable to ruin women than blacks? Or is it not okay to mention blacks because white people want to carry on destroying them to have someone to scapegoat? In Virginia nowadays all cars go slow on the streets. I said to a woman I was trying to become friends with for a bit, and her reply: oh yes people are finally obeying: this was to my remark the brutality of the police has made all races afraid and citing this. She didn’t register or didn’t care about the brutality. I’ve taken a principled stand against “joining in” and writing letter of so-called comfort to the victim young black men, often in solitary confinement that a group at the OLLI at AU calls “doing something useful,” and of course getting a social time together. When I questioned it, one woman answered quickly, they did commit crimes you know. Did they? what kind? why? This is a police state where in black neighborhood police incessantly invade the privacy of black people.

I’ve heard three lectures at the Smithsonian, all less than satisfying. Two weeks ago or so, by Bill Goldstein, on his book, The World Broke in Two, purporting to be about modernism and focusing on the work of Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and T.S. Eliot, was in effect gossipy biography, somewhat trivializing (he dissed Leonard Woolf in the usual ways, see how the man said nothing he had done had had any effect, see how the man obsessed over money) with grand generalizations, none of them about the literary movement these people participated in. The book I grant is chock-a-block with cruious information brought together (hard research) so I bought it (on the Net afterward).


A clip from a movie, Wilde, featuring Stephen Fry interestingly in the role (played by Griffith for 5 or so minutes)

Tonight an Irish Professor, Christopher Griffin, on the birthday of Oscar Wilde, whose writing Jim so loved (I have two shelves of Wilde’s complete works), a slightly incoherent lecture, thrown together, no deep insight, just asserting how profound or great this or that passage or text (often a quotation, aphorism) was, but with film clips (the very poor movie of Importance of Being Earnest with Colin Firth), and Robert Aubrey Davis (local semi-PBS celebrity) pretending to be Wilde, since Wilde is great, and there was so much material and the life so tragic in the end, I’m glad I went. Wilde was an anguished man who could find no place in his society for his deep gayness and when he tried to defend it, the society scapegoated, jailed and then destroyed him. Griffin never said anything close to that.

The last by Elizabeth Griffith on “American Women in Politics:” her theme, Did Suffrage Matter? (on September 27th, so quite a while back now). She’s written a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and is in the throes of a huge volume on the history of women in politics. Perhaps a companion volume to Zinn’s People’s History of the US. A more ultimately demoralizing talk I can’t right now imagine — given her progessive stance. Her burden was why the vote has not helped more (though it’s made huge differences), why feminism has again been silenced or failed as a movement. The polite word is women are so diverse — like men, but men don’t need to make a single movement, they own the place. I had not realized how centrally race was used not just to divide women but how they were divided. I did not know there were women’s groups for lynching. There were women who fought against giving black people suffrage if it meant men only. I did not know how vile upper class white women could be and how hard they worked (as they do today) against poorer more vulnerable and non-white women. She was all friendliness and a kind of comfortable as she went fast-talking through her material. Names of women I’ve never heard of especially black women. Alice Paul I knew was so important. Came the questions though and the idiocy of some elicited from her raw dismissals and sarcasm…

I’ve been teaching and it’s going well. Beyond the Booker Prize, the 19th century women of letters course, who if there are some women who have been so inculcated that only action-thrust forward masculinist kinds of structures and upbeat material from me can hold them, there are others much interested. I’ve been to a few courses as someone in the class too: A History and Aesthetics of Film, today Shakespeare’s Last Romances. I’ll talk about these more after I’ve attended more than one class (which is all I’ve managed); for now in my film club and in this course not one film by a woman, not one film centered on woman’s issues, not one where women are treated with any full subjectivity and interest the men are. All our classics are masculinist. I used the word on Trollope19thCStudies and was told I am immature. Right. I’ll write more about this film club and class when I’ve more time and am further into the term; the latter started late.

I am trying to forge ahead on my projects and papers (Devoney Looser’s Making of JA is one, Gaskell and disability another, the Poldark novels, a third) and will be blogging separately on these, but for now I’ll end on two proposals for courses in the spring already accepted. Building on the Virginia Woolf course I took at OLLI at AU last spring (where we read [and I watched on my own films of] Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, The First Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own) and my own coming paper on Woolf and Johnson as biographers, for OLLI at AU:

The Later Woolf. We will read and discuss four of Woolf’s later books: two playful satires, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], owned (so she thought) by the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Orlando, a novel which is also a time-traveling tale through literature and culture and gender changes from the Renaissance to our own times; two books written during the crisis time of World War Two: Three Guineas, an essay analyzing the origins of war and suggesting how we may prevent future wars; and Between the Acts, a novella in which a group of characters put on a historical pageant. The contexts will be literary (about biography, fantasy, historical novels), political, and biographical. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these delightful and original books.

And returning to Trollope’s in-depth anguished psychology, mad and normalizing comedy: for the OLLI at Mason:

Sexual and Marital Politics in Anthony Trollope. In this course we will read Trollope’s most candid and contemporary analysis of sex and marriage, He Knew He Was Right: we have at least seven couples, with themes including sexual anxiety, possession, companionate and business transactions, custody and separation disputes, and insanity. It is a comedy which has been brilliantly filmed in a BBC mini-series. With this, “Journey to Panama,” one of his colonial short stories about a woman about to marry a man she doesn’t know in order to marry and the relationship she forms on board

We are having good time reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on my Trollope19thCStudies listserv and I’ve proposed we watch all of the 1974 Palliser films, all 24, one every two weeks. I cannot seem to bring Women Writers through the Age alive again, alas. What I need to do is find the time to read more 19th century women writers: Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved, Amy Levy’s Romance of the Shop, when instead I promised to read Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time for a coming Reston Book club. Which good as Barnes’s book probably is (I’ve begun), honest I get more out of group reads from writing selves when people really do write about their experience reading. We need more people, more women readers. And I want to read more women writers, see more women’s films (generously interpreted to include Outlander). I’d settle for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands, Marina Warner’s The Lost Father. I wish I had what I see on a Goodreads group where they are about to read Eliot’s Mill on the Floss after they’ve had a successful time with Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda. I’m going to follow two Future Learn courses, one on Opera, and the other a crucial era in Irish politics, 1916-23 (“this is where” for Ireland), late at night for a few weeks. So filling my life as best I can.

Robert Aubrey Davis did recite Wilde’s The Harlot’s House and left off jocularity: one of the themes I dealt with last week in Mary Barton was prostitution as dramatized by Gaskell in the tragic story of the backstory heroine of the novel, Esther, but it’s the last two lines that contain Wilde’s fin-de-siecle great twilight poetry

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The ‘Treues Liebes Herz’ of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
‘The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.’

But she–she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.


A Scottish Impressionist painting

Miss Drake

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