Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"And Let the Rest, of the World, Go By": Streep & Redford Simply Are New Year's Eve for Me

One of my favorite cinematic New Year's is in Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack's lyrical film loosely based on Isak Dinesen's memoir. Karen Blixen and Denys Hatton meet up at the British East Africa colonials' New Year's Eve dance as 1918 becomes 1919.

They waltz to a tune played on a solo violin that is just audible enough to make out:  "Let the Rest of the World Go By," words [not heard] by J. Keirn Brennan, music by Ernest R Ball. It's anachronistic for this scene, because it was only written in 1919, so it couldn't be played on December 31, 1918, but it's close-enough for Hollywood work. If I had to bet, I would say that Pollack's mother sang it to him as a child. That's the most frequent comment on all the YouTube versions, and my mother sang it to me too. (It must be in the manual they've been giving out since 1919 when you become a mother.) It's part of YouTube's endless charm that you can learn that a detail about a very small part of your life can have such a widespread connection.

The solo violin then goes into Auld Lang Syne. The scene is a beautiful visualization of nostalgia and melancholy—and doomed love if you know the story, although you can guess even if you don't—as one is want to feel on the last day of the year.  And Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are the perfect actors to bring these feelings to life: so physically beautiful, Hollywood avatars of the ideal of "man" and "woman" and all that that means.

Gordan MacRae and
Jo Stafford have a beautiful rendition of the song. They correctly sing  the waltz beat at the very beginning, which most versions do not. The second note is clearly a half note; I don't know why most people make it 2 even quarter notes.  Thanks to very much to Duke University library for scanning the original sheet music. It also shows the intro verse, which they do not sing.

Here is the scene from the film

But melancholy does not get the last word, even in this year of unrelenting global pain.  I have never thought about next year "being better." That kind of comparison never appealed to me. But it is an opportunity—however arbitrary and artificial the calibrating—to do things differently, to handle things differently and see things in a new light, and I try to hang on to that idea of "freshness," of the New Year's baby image, as long as possible. 

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets/Little Gidding

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas, 2014 Edition

There is little mirth in the world today, and especially closer to home in my beloved Gotham. The word "merry" seems very out of place this year.

So it is with a heavy heart I go to sing in the celebrations to welcome the Word Made Flesh, the Son of God by Name,  to the world. The juxtaposition of this Holy Night against man's inhumanity to man that seems like a bad movie plot right now.  Or a twisted Twitter trope: Baby Jesus, YOU HAD ONE JOB: PRINCE OF PEACE. (Ok, bad theology, but feeling frustrated and disillusioned with the human race He came to save.)

For those who enter these churches, I am glad that they will find beauty in the music by some of the city's finest musicians. And sometimes small contributions, to specific individuals within your reach, is all you have.

Isaiah 9:6, and later, Handel

For unto us a Child is born,
unto us
a Son is given:
unto us
a Son is given
and the government shall be upon His shoulder:
and His name shall be called
Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

(painting: Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

The Carol of a Chrismtas Carol: God Rest You Merry[ily], Gentlemen

The choir of King's College, Cambridge, is in the middle of it's Advent Lessons & Carols service, singing this classic carol. Their phrasing is impeccable, and you can hear the comma between "merry" and "gentlemen." Thank goodness.  But that is not always the case, leading to several hundred years of 'happy guys,' rather than a soul 'being well and happily kept' by God.

I love that Charles Dickens chose "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" to represent the whole kit and kaboodle to Scrooge.

" the first sound of — "God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!"— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror”

This carol was first written down in the 18th century, with no known composer.

As a song it is a triumph of clear, simple exposition of faith: the Son of God came by name to save us from sin and bring us comfort and joy. That’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown.

As syntax, it is a little less successful, because "merry" is an adverb in hiding describing ‘how God should rest you’ where rest is the sense of "keep" or make," and not an adjective describing gentlemen, even when that comma goes astray (God rest you merry gentlemen). Which, I’m sorry to say, it did in the juvenile edition of the Dickens story that I bought for my niece. Sigh.

There is also the "ye" versus "you." Because it feels like it's from Merry Olde England, most people reach for the "ye." But "ye" is the nominative case, and so would not have been used as the object.  And we know this because in one of the earliest surviving written documents for the song, from 1760 London, when thees and thous were in abundance, the word is "you." It's also what Dickens transcribed in 1843 for his story, and it's what Bing Crosby so clearly sings, so that settles it.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray:

O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

From God our heavenly Father
A blessèd angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name:

O tidings ...

(update from 2009 post)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Today, 12/21/14, the exceptional actress Billie Whitelaw died at 82. I did not see her as Winnie in Happy Days (pictured above), but did see Fiona Shaw at BAM in 2008, and wrote this post that the woman buried in the sand, with just ritual and verbal/intellectual exercise to pass the time, defines a blogger. Yikes. Beckett, as genius: check.

Happy days are here again,
The skies above are clear again,
So let's sing a song of cheer again,
Happy days are here again.

I was never a student of Samuel Beckett, Ireland’s great, bleak ultramodernist, master of black humor. When I was at college at Southampton University (England, not Long Island), one of the dons performed Krapp’s Last Tape. It was compelling, and the intimate nature of the performance was memorable, but it did not send me running to a Beckett tutorial.

The chance to see Fiona Shaw, however, sent me running to BAM for her limited engagement in Happy Days in 2008. I went with few preconceived notions. I had seen photos of Irene Worth somewhere along the way. Her aging music hall woman, with flapper headband, stuck in the sand never looked very appealing. I did not know of Billie Whitelaw's embodiment, which is immediately more appealing.

But from the moment I walked into the Brooklyn theater, I was carried away. Tom Pye’s “mound” is a visually stunning mixture of English seaside gone nightmare and post apocalyptic landscape. The lighting is piercingly LCD bright, unnatural, startling.

An elegant white parachute material curtain rises to the ceiling, and when it gently falls, Winnie is there, buried to her waist in the sand, gently folded over herself, with her head and arms resting on the ground.

A loud, jarring, ugly alarm sounds—jolting everyone--and Winnie wakes up. Her day is book ended by the buzzer that tells her to sleep.

She begins her morning rituals by brushing her teeth, and reading the toothpaste tube.

The absurdity of the situation is heightened by the familiarity of it—-both in the normalcy of brushing your teeth in the morning, and in the fears being embodied before your very eyes: the fear of being stuck, or buried alive, or isolated from all humanity.

It turns out Winnie is not completely isolated. There is Willie, her husband, who lives in a hole to the side of her mound. He grunts monosyllabic answers to her questions and reads headlines from his paper. Winnie speaks of how wonderful it will be if/when he moves to the front of her mound and she’ll be able to see him without straining her neck.

The rest of Winnie’s world is a parasol and a black bag that contains her mirror, a revolver, and a hat. The sun is merciless, and she is baking. The hat offers a little protection, as does the parasol, until it mysteriously blows up.

Winne As Blogger.
Winnie’s life is ritual punctuated by verbal utterances. Her conversation is peppered with quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, Browning, Keats, Byron, authors who make her feel less alone. (Here is a guide to them--scroll down to the Literary Allusions). Even her oft repeated “sorrow keeps breaking in” is apparently from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

The fear that she articulates is that there will be no one to listen to her. "Just to know that in theory you hear me even though in fact you don't is all I need." Just how much of blogging did Beckett foreshadow?

All of our voices are “out there” in the barren landscape of the blogosphere in the hope that someone is listening. In the hope that we don’t come across as the droning, tedious wife. We bring as much of life as we can into the void, soldiering on through anxiety and angst. From the other perspective, Winnie herself is the consummate blogger, with her daily entries of conversation.

Back in her theatrical world, what comes across most in Act I is the life force at its purest. Fiona Shaw is luminous. Her “chatter,” as it has been called, is not grating in the least, but engaging, measured, rhythmically inflected, with extraordinary facial gestures and arm movements.

There is a lot going on here. The piece could be a metaphor for what happens to married couples when they settle into the coexisting grunting state. Willie as the henpecked husband, who has shut himself off from his wife’s eternal yammering. Winnie can’t stop yammering because she literally can do nothing else. Willie could leave the mound, could leave Winnie, and we have no idea why he doesn’t.

The gun is an ominous presence. Winnie kisses it, and could use it to end her situation, at least in Act 1.

In Act II, with no relative time to Act I, Winnie wakes up and is buried up to her neck; she can no longer do her morning rituals, or reach the gun. Winnie doesn’t comment directly on her worsening condition. She continues to try to organize her time as best she can, knowing that the song must be sung before the bell to sleep. That she shows no outward sign of complete despair is deeply unnerving.

At the end of the play, Willie moves to the front of the mound, ‘dressed to kill” as it says in the play in formal mourning trousers and top hat, and Winnie is excited that he is reaching out to her. She sings “The Merry Widow Waltz” (I love you so) since she can no longer open the music box. The last moment is Willie reaching up toward her, and the two looking at each other.

But is he reaching for the gun? Is it to use on himself, or her? It is a haunting ambiguity.

I grew attached to Winnie in the course of the play, drawn in by her spirit and determinism. “This will have been another happy day.” I could say the same from my mound here in Lucky for me Steed always responds in full sentences and doesn’t like guns at all. In fact we BBBBBUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZ.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Vistations of "A Christmas Carol"

 A Christmas Carol was first published today, December 19, 1843.  I wrote this post in 2009 when I saw the Disney 3-D version written by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey with  Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, and Cary Elwes. It still bothers me that Scrooge is not shorthand for a redeemed soul. Read on.

* * * * *

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little post, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
M.A., December 2009

Stave One: The First of the Three Versions

Seeing the new 3D Disney version over Thanksgiving sent me off to finally read the novella  to see if they were making stuff up. Their Ghost of Christmas Past looked like a cousin of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, and at one point Scrooge seemed to be paying homage to The Rescuers, so I was concerned, although overall the adaptation was very true and enjoyable.

Turns out the GOCP depiction was accurate. Dickens’s description of the first spirit is elaborate, protracted, and very odd. The figure is old and young: “being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body.”

It holds a piece of holly in one hand, and there’s more:

But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.”

So the depiction wasn’t a Disneyfication: it is very much like a candle, and it carries its own candle snuffer, which it will use to take leave of Scrooge (Dickens never uses “he” or “she” for this spirit.) Turning Scrooge into a 3” high person as he’s fleeing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, however, was very silly, and not of Dickens. The depiction of Christmas Present is true, and he ages to the point of death at the stroke of midnight just like Dickens says he does.

All in all, the Disney version gives life to the story, although if you want a serious film experience, you must, must go the 1951 Alastair Sim version. That’s a brilliant, artful adaptation with Sim’s masterful portrayal of every cell, fiber, and nuance of Ebeneezer. I believe that the magic is because both the actor and the director were of Celtic blood. More about that here.


Stave Two: The Second of the Three Versions

The Paley Center recently screened Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. It was the first animated special created specifically for TV, predating Rudolph by 2 years. The Magoo character first appeared in a theatrical cartoon short in 1949 (The Ragtime Bear.) Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were hired to write the score, and then went on to write the score for Funny Girl shortly after.

The songs are good. “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” “Ringle, Ringle” and “We’re Despicable” are appealing but not as sticky or classic as “Silver and Gold” and Holly, Jolly Christmas.” And they decided to reorder the Spirits, so that the Ghost of Christmas Present comes first, then Christmas Past. Ye shall not tamper with Dickens!

I like to think that this sacrilege is why Mr. Magoo didn’t entirely enter the Christmas canon, but it’s more likely that the whole ruse of his being dangerously myoptic seemed progressively less funny as society became more sensitized to people with disabilities.

Stave Three: The Last of the Spirits

The manuscript itself. With all these media versions swirling about, I made the pilgrimage down to see it sitting quietly encased in J. P. Morgan’s study, this year turned to page 38. The script handwriting is dense, tightly spaced.

The New York Times partnered with the Morgan Library to photograph the entire manuscript and allow us to see where and how Charles changed his mind.

One change is that he had a tangent about Hamlet being a chump, which he decided not to use. A scholar suggested Shakeapeare was too popular to attack like that, and it does have the scent of an Oedipal issue.

Dickens did keep his hilarious issues with the expression “dead as a door-nail.”

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Hilarious! I love it!!

Stave 4: The End of It

This tale has not been out of print since it was written in 1843. It helped to create the Victorian Christmas celebrations that took root. Mr. Fezziwig alone could have done that. The fact that he wrote it in 6 weeks is the stuff of genius.

As a character of world literature, Scrooge was given a raw deal. His name is associated with abject misanthropy. Yet the point of the story is his (secular) redemption: at the end we are told he is filled with charity and love and generosity. He is the embodiment of the secular spirit Christmas; his name could have come down to us as its synonym. Why doesn't anyone remember that?

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. . . . and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

Maybe in this century the tide will turn for him. He is the avatar of hope: life can harden our hearts, but Scrooge reminds us every year that it can be different. The past does not have to have power over our future. Thank you, Mr. Dickens. What a beautiful gift you have given us.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent: The Spiritual & Commercial Countdowns to Christmas

I grew up with cardboard Advent calendars of various types. There were 25 little cutout doors that when you opened, showed a picture underneath of some sort of present, and on December 25th the picture was of the baby Jesus, he being the ultimate gift. It took some real restraint as a child, not to open them all at once the first week.

There is a wonderful online version of the classic idea from Jacquie Lawson. You enter through a snow globe that you download, and by clicking an ornament on the background you get an animated scene with music or an interactive tableau, like decorating a wreath or gingerbread men.  You cannot click ahead, because the the flash activations are connected to a clock. Petty sneaky.

I try to use this time—marked by both the commercial world's great expectations for the season and the spiritual rites of Advent, both leading to the end-of-year odometer turnover that is our New Years—to see where I am spiritually.  Sometimes I find grace in the most unlikely places. Other times, like now,  I feel parched, yearning for the cool, enlivening sense of life and love and purpose that started with the waters of baptism.

T.S. Eliot captured this sense of dryness in The Waste Land

From 'What the Thunder Said'

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

Of course It's not all parched out there. There are clever people who have made wine rack advent calendars. Now, that's the spirit.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"I Have a Rendezvous with Death"

It almost defies imagination--like many elements that were the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—that the man whose life force was extreme would declare his favorite poem to be Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." (Wouldn't a life-affirming Yeats or Keats poem have served him better?) And that he would "often ask his wife to recite it."  You might expect this kind of reveal to be on a list in People Magazine, but it's on the Kennedy Library site, so one would expect it's true. Seeger died in World War 1, on the Somme.

Things I Have Always Known about JFK
It's not that my family had formal discussions about our first Irish-Catholic president, but growing up I seemed to amass many tidbits about JFK from my parents and grandparents.

•Papa Joe Kennedy wanted his first son, Joseph, to be the first Irish Catholic president, and started grooming him very young. When Joe died in WWII, Papa turned his eyes to Jack, and that was it. Jack had no say in the matter. Joe was smarter than Jack, and might have been a better man for the presidency.

•Papa Joe "bought" Jack the election through a combination of old school dealmaking and straight out bribes and corruption.

•His Addison's disease.

"Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's in the 1940s. In 1955 he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an insufficient output of thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include many of those associated with Addison's, as well as paleness, intolerance to cold, depression and a low heart rate."

•Sister Rosemary was "slow" and her father wanted to "fix" her. He brought her to have a frontal lobotomy when she was 23, while her protective mother was away in France. It incapacitated her permanently, and she lived on the grounds of a convent in Wisconsin until she died in 2005 at 86.

•Jackie wanted to divorce Jack before the election because of his rampant infidelities, and Papa Joe paid her a huge amount to stay.

•There was a second son, Patrick, who was born in the White House but died after only three days. (See below.)

•I wrote about Ted Kennedy's death here.

Things I Learned Later
•Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born on August 7, 1963, and died August 9. It was an emergency C-section for Jackie, and his lungs weren't fully formed.

•Lee Radzwill, Jackie's sister, had been in Greece on on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis. He says 'you should go to your sister to console her.'  Lee ends up bringing Jackie back to the yacht in Greece for her to recover from her son's death. That is where she meets the shipping magnate she will marry in 1968. Hmm.

•The gorgeous couple in the above photo are grieving parents of just three months.  And then they get in that car.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

(President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, arrive at Love Field in Dallas on a campaign tour with Vice President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. (Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

“Three Irishmen Walk into a Ferry Waiting Room . . . Again“

 If they had walked into a bar, Kevin, Dermot, and Joe would have been no more than an obscure trio in the long tradition of Irish jokes.

But instead, they are part of the memorable fictional world of Conor McPherson’s 2002 play Port Authority, which I saw in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater Company, and again today in the closing performance at the Irish Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly. It is one of the joys of theatergoing, to see different stagings of the same play.

Our characters are in a ferry dock waiting room in Dublin harbor, erroneously referred to as bus station by many critics back in 2008, I guess because New York's Port Authority is a bus terminal. But that was the jetty of Dublin harbor on the Playbill cover. The set at the Irish Rep was more successful in conveying the time/place, with the blue sky over a horizon of water.

Each of our trio is a million miles away in his own thoughts, which he gives voice to as we all raptly listen in.  It is a tour de force of monologue writing and acting across three stages of man: the senior (Jim Norton/Peter Maloney), the middle aged (Brian D’Arcy/Billy Carter), and the twentysomething (John Gallagher/James Russell). They speak of life from the perspective of their age, and of love, which knows no such boundary.

With the barest of sets and the absence of any action, it is the sheer power of language and tale-spinning that pulls you in. Each is able to give you a sense of the entire life of that man, just from these revealed thoughts. That's what makes this such a special, powerful play. That primacy of the spoken word reminded me of HBO’s In Treatment, where another Irishman, Gabriel Byrne, absolutely commanded our attention, all the while sitting in a chair.

A line in Terry Teachout’s rave review of the play back in 2008 surprised me. He described it as a “series of interwoven monologues by three unhappy Irishmen.”

Unhappy Irishman. It never occurred to me that these men were unhappy. From my own experience, there is something about the Celtic soul that doesn’t think in happy/unhappy terms. Life is. There are highs and lows, joys and disappointments. So be it.

I saw Martin Sheen back in 2008 on The Graham Norton Show. Graham asked him what the secret was to having such a long and happy marriage. Sheen answered, it’s not really about happiness. What makes a loving marriage work is if your partner helps you to experience joy. It’s a subtle, important distinction which McPherson understands.

Each of our waiting-room Irishmen speaks of specific moments of joy within his tale. There is also deep disappointment all around, and they all wish many things were different.

But they are Irish. Their wit and wisdom and whisky will sustain them, until the final Ferryman comes to take them across that other river.

(photo, Doug Hamilton)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Remembrance Sunday: Life and Death 100 Years After the Great War Started

Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetary, Ypres Salient. 11,954, of which 8,367 are unnamed. Cross is built on site of a German pillbox.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Trench photo in the Flanders Field Museum, Ghent, Belgium

* * * * * *

I recently returned from Belgium, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres as part of a singing holiday run by some very talented Brits.  The company arranges for a music director to meet up with singers in a European city, with a preselected repertoire that will be performed in a concert or service after a series of rehearsals, and then everyone goes their own way.

On 7th October 1914, some 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army proudly marched into Ypres, Belgium. They represented the vanguard of a nation hell-bent on claiming its share of empire, and although the Great War was still in its infancy, the notorious Schlieffen Plan appeared to be working as intended. The following day, they promptly left the city’s walled enclave to continue on their great march westwards. It was to be the last time that the German army would set foot in Ypres during the war, something that would ultimately lead to the deaths of almost 600,000 people and the annihilation of the city [as they tried for 4 bloody years to re-take the city]. [Text from an open educational resource website on the Great War.]

This outing was built around participating in the beginning of Europe's "ritual act of remembrance" for the World War One centenary: singing at a Mass in Ghent; the Faure Requiem in a church in Bruges; and at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony in Ypres, along with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient (my photo above). It is the largest cemetery in the area, but as you drive along the Zonnebeke road, you see signs for dozens upon dozens of others. 160 cemeteries in total, in the Ypres Salient alone.

I learned about Ypres from Paul Fussell, studying his highly acclaimed The Great War in Modern Memory with him back in the day, and so it was very special to be on the very ground I studied so many years ago.

It was also very moving to be with the grandchildren of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) that entered on the side of France & Belgium to stop the German aggression.

But there is still the fact of Ypres. From a wall card in the Ypres Flanders Field Museum:

From October 1914 onwards, the German artillery began to shell Ypres and the Cathedral went up in flames. In May 1915 the last inhabitants had to leave their town and Ypres was completely delivered up to military violence. By the end of 1917 not a single house or tree was left standing.

The Menin Gate
The Menin Road was the main road to the front for the Commonwealth troops. It bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from the UK and Commonwealth (except New Zealand & Newfoundland) who died on the Salient and whose remains were never found for a proper burial.

From 11th November, 1929, the Last Post [the British version of Taps] has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. [Text from a UK Great War website.]

The town that you see today is a complete reconstruction, following the war. They chose to rebuild the great medieval Cloth Hall--built in the 15th Century--exactly as it had looked. Our charming local guide kept saying, "everything you see is a copycat of the original."  It is an astonishing story.

I witnessed and participated in the "ritual act of remembrance" at the Menin Gate on September 22, 2014. Traffic is stopped, the Belgian buglers arrive to sound the Last Post. Sometimes there are extra elements, like our choir, and that day also a Scottish bagpipe contingent. Sometimes there are ceremonial wreath layings.

On this day there were English children from a public school, and a highly decorated, active duty English soldier.  We sang the very haunting Douglas Guest setting of For the Fallen. It is remarkable that this ceremony has continued daily for almost 100 years.  It's hard to sustain anything, but this small, ritual remembrance connects the living through the decades to all those lives slaughtered.

[top and third Menin Gate photo by Nick Couchman]

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pops with Our Better Ghosts and Goblins: Happy Halloween

This Louis Armstrong number from the 1936 Bing Crosby movie Pennies from Heaven is a great, great Halloween treat. Louis and the skeletons swing it hot.

The Skeleton in the Closet, (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston)

There's an old deserted mansion
On an old forgotten road
Where the better ghosts and goblins
Always hang out.

One night they threw a party
In a manner a la mode
And they cordially invited
All the gang out
At a dark bewitchin' hour
When the fun was loud and hearty
A notorious wall flower
Became the life of the party

Mmm! The spooks were havin' their midnight fling
The merry makin' was in full swing
They shrieked themselves into a cheerful trance
When the skeleton in the closet started to dance
Now a goblin giggled with fiendish glee
A shout rang out from a big banshee
Amazement was in every ghostly glance
When the skeleton in the closet started to dance
All the witches were in stitches
While his steps made rhythmic thumps
And they nearly dropped their broomsticks
When he tried to do the bumps
You never heard such unearthly laughter
Such hilarious groans
When the skeleton in the closet rattled his bones

Dracula-Go-Bragh: The Celtic Story That Will Not Die

 From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

 An Old Scottish Prayer.

Happy All Hallow's Eve. And by Hallow we mean a Saint, because tomorrow is All Saint's Day. Halloween as a feast is derived from the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain.

And so perhaps it's not so surprising that it’s an Irishman who wrote one of the definitive horror stories of all time.

In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula, and so gave life to the Romanian Count who will not die. Oh he is fully dispatched in Stoker’s tale, but his story haunts each generation of artists who bring him back to life in updated forms. The august Masterpiece Theatre did a version a few years ago  that is quite excellent, although version is the operative word. There is something about this story that begs the new tellers to play with the actual story points to suit their new retellings. That’s why no two filmed versions seem to tell exactly the same tale, except in the broad strokes.

I first read the tale in an Irish Lit. class, right after Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), which is considered the first historical novel. The book is not the easiest read, because the epistolary/journal form can be tedious. But the story now lives so entirely in collective DNA, there’s almost no need to return to the original pages.

Stoker was born near Clontarf, outside of Dublin, to Protestant parents. In Dublin, they would have been in the minority, going to the Church of Ireland. The academics started finding meaning here in the 1990s:

"Once considered as almost beneath serious critical notice, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of Bram Stoker's vampire novel, when psychoanalytical and feminist critics began to see it as a veritable circus of fin-de-siecle sexual fears and longings.

“At the same time [1990s], the question of the novel's origins came to the fore, and critics began to locate it as a Victorian Irish rather than Victorian British text . . . ."

Not to be too reductionist, but it doesn’t take a team of academics to suss out that blood matters to the Irish, very deeply, as does soil/land. The fear of women’s sexuality, on the other hand, knows no geographical boundaries.

But what’s even more interesting is to look at our Irishman. He toils as a civil servant in Dublin for some eight years, and writes a nonfiction book, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions. Clearly he is more Wallace Stevens than Edgar Allen Poe.

He meets the rock star actor Henry Irving, moves to London, marries an Oscar Wilde-cast off beauty named Florence Balcombe, and becomes the business manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre.

Thus his day job is filled with the creativity and talent of the likes of Ellen Terry, George Bernard Shaw, later Walt Whitman, and Irving himself. His biographer, Barbara Belford, believes that Irving is the “monster with manners,” that Stoker models the Count on. Stoker was overwhelmed and dazzled in many ways by his egocentric boss. He wrote a monograh on Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving.

Still, it begs the question: how did this civil servant cum business manager create the lasting story that is Dracula?

Kirkus did the same head-scratching:

“As for Dracula itself, it remains a conundrum of violation, rapacious desire, and death under the cloak of Victorian civility. It mirrors the fundamental conundrum of Stoker's life, as posed by a journalist of his time: How could this ""great shambling, good-natured overgrown boy"" have been the author of Dracula?”

I like to think it all goes back to the essence of Irishness: it’s deeper, darker, more complex than ever meets the eye. Nothing surprises me about those tantalizing people.

I hear they invented the Jack O’Lantern when a lazy farmer named Jack tried to trick the Devil. . . .

(post first published in 2007.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Love is the jewel that wins the world": Inspiration for a birthday, for every day

Today, October 21,  is my birthday.  There is one card that has arrived without fail for the last twenty-two years that will not arrive today. It was from my friend Barbara, who died in August, 2014. I offer some of her story today because it is so extraordinary and so inspirational.

It is an epistolary story of a woman who suffered a catastrophic stroke following surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor that would have killed her. The surgery saved her life but cruelly took away the ordinary life she had and replaced it with, well, keep reading.

Barbara befriended me when I first walked into the alto section of Church of Notre Dame near Columbia University.  She is a big reason why I have had the pleasure of singing in polyphony workshops throughout Europe.

She was also the first intellectual Catholic I ever met. Not surprising, as she was the daughter of two prominent, Catholic, English philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe "considered by some to be the greatest English philosopher of her generation" and the literary co-administer for Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was her good friend at the end of his life, and Peter Geach. It all added to Barbara's distinctive elan. Barbara was living in Texas when she had the devastating operation. Her husband divorced her, and her elderly parents brought her back to England to live out her life in nursing homes.

Barbara was partially paralyzed after the surgery, which was in 1992. She needed a trach tube to breath and feeding tubes for nourishment. She had lost the ability to speak, much of her hearing was gone, and her vision was damaged and would continue to degenerate.  And yet, her mind was entirely intact. She had a PH.D in nursing, and so she completely understood what was happening to her . . .

Locked-In Syndrome and Literary Letters
 I never heard the actual diagnosis "locked-in syndrome" but her situation amounted to a very similar condition. One difference was that Barbara could move her hand, which meant she could finger-spell letters into someone's hand to a communicate.  Locked-in people generally can only move their eyes.  And that is how the magazine Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby was able to write the stunning, haunting memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, detailing his experience. He blinked it. Letter. By. Letter. I highly recommend it.

Through friends I learned that Barbara was asking to receive mail to keep her connected with her old life. She could only answer by finger-spelling every letter. to every word. into a caregiver's hand, who would transcribe the words, first in snail mail, and later email. Here is more about Finger Spelling communication from the American Sign Language association.

This lead to the most rich, poignant, inspiring correspondence of my life. I'm sorry to say that it took me three years to actually start sending Barbara letters. I didn't know what to say to a dear friend who was suffering such catastrophic circumstances. Thank God I didn't let my initial slowness to act keep me from starting, a lesson I have applied elsewhere.

And since I wrote my first letter back in 1996, I have received a chestful of letters, including a birthday and a Christmas card, every year.

Barbara died on August 3, 2014, twenty-two years after the surgery. I know at least the last five years of which were in extreme physical distress, because I visited with her in England.  The duration of her suffering is part of what makes her writing so extraordinary. For some context, the Elle editor only lived eighteen months in his "diving bell body with the butterfly mind." Not 22 years.

I offer excerpts from Barbara's letters to me because I want to share her spirit, wit, faith, philosophy, and ability to love and care for her friends from the confines of her bed, in hellish circumstances.  Her concern about my own frequent, romantic heartaches is particularly poignant. I want Barbara to live on in everyone who reads this little blog as an example of the staggering courage of her life.

Do you know your purple dress is what the French call demi-deuil?

Right now God is asking me to take a lot, but, I keep saying to myself, this can’t last. I look forward to it being over, and maybe to take my place in the back row of the altos.  Please give everyone my love and keep lots for yourself.

I was surprised that you polished your nails blue. I’m sure it’s very modern, but I liked ‘Fire and Ice.’  It was bright red.

I’m afraid I’m jaundiced about John John [Kennedy's] wedding, but not so much I didn’t wonder where it happened and who he married.

I never watch TV because I can't hear or see much. I did read Vile Bodies. I agree Evelyn Waugh is interesting, but I understand a bit of a bastard. He said he'd be even worse if he weren't a Catholic. What a guy!

I have my computer back again but my tinnitus and cold are so bad that I haven't worked on it in a while. I'm really cowardly about my ataxia too. It's silly because if my number is up it's up. I do have these fears and I'm terrified to work alone. As it is I think people are more impressed than they should be by it [a computer]. It is just an aid to writing and arithmetic, after all. People act like it will solve all problems. It won't. Our Lord is the only one who'll do that.

I am learning to lip-read. You see I rather like learning new things.

Teaching me is a race against time anyway, because I'm going blind slowly but surely.

I'm supposed to have a new trach because my current one is too small. I will have to have plastic surgery because my stoma has closed up and got too small, but when God knows.

2/23/1997 [Five years since the surgery]

What a hoot seeing the wreck I am now! I wouldn't have aged gracefully so maybe it's as well I won't have a chance.

How the hell do I convince the bureaucracy that I need a new trach that fits. And how do I cope in the mean time? How do I manage increasing deafness and blindness?

I voted ‘cos I think the franchise is important, and I may be disabled but I don’t want to lose the vote as well as everything else.

I will face new problems 'cos I think Labour won't want us cripples. I bet they want us just to kill ourselves. Well, we are willing to support abortion, and why not pick on somebody else that's defenseless? I don't mind dying, but not 'cos they say so.

I am very depressed and quite willing to die. I was told this was selfish and selfpitying, but five years is a long time and I spend time thinking what good I’ve done, and I think the world would be a better place without me. Of course I may be useful in the future, but I’ve lost my powers, to say the least, and feel I can go. I wonder if you know how galling it is to be me? They want me to take antidepressants, but the happy pill doesn’t exist which can make up for all my losses. Anyhow, they make me stupid, and I need what little intelligence I have left.

Well done for moving to a one bedroom apartment. Seriously, have you any needs? I am an old apartment dweller from way back, and remember being quite pleased with house gifts, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need something.

[When I misquoted Browning !]
My brother, who comes nearly every day, says I should phrase this differently, but I’m shameless and haven’t changed it. You misquoted “Oh! To be in England!” It’s Browning and one of my brothers gave it to me for Christmas so I’m sure. My sister takes a dim view of Browning, but I rather like him.

You don’t say anything about your love. I had a moment’s hope that he’d gone away.

I hope I do cheer you up. ‘cos frankly you worry me. Marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just think, you could end up like me.  A junked wife is a junked wife, and believe me, dumping isn’t any fun for the dumpee.

Did you know I was a State Scholar? It’s all meaningless now of course, but I thought I was the cat’s pajamas at the time. I’m glad you are rereading Lord Peter Whimsey. I like whodunits myself. Lately I’ve been on a jag with Margery Allingham. She isn’t quite as literary as Sayers, but she is a good read.

I was pleased that your brother got a new job. I rather narcissistically attribute it to my prayers.

In our language it would be o.t.t. if we had to worship the Virgin, which many Protestants think we do. Calling her co-redemptorix is surely just a way of formalizing her status, but I believe that expression has been specifically condemned so fuck Newsweek. Christ died for us and great as she is Our Lady didn't.

I am struck over and over again by how boring life is. Of course it is for me, but I mean generally. I think people sin 'cos they are bored, though of course sin is pretty dull. Actually virtue is much more interesting, but people won't know that. Their minds are darkened by the devil.

I don't think we celebrate St. Patrick's day much because it's an Irish feast.  Did you drink green beer? Did you have real shamrocks? I hear it is a big religious deal but not as big as the feast of St. Joseph that occurs two days later.

One of the priests in the Dominican community here says it is a providential thing that St. Patrick's day never falls in Holy Week 'cos otherwise the Irish would forget about celebrating Easter! I might be English but I do honor him. I think people often forget about the doctrine of the Trinity or take it for granted. I know St. Patrick's Breastplate so I have no excuse.

You'd think I'd care but in fact I often allow worldly concerns to drive it right out of my head. I suppose I'm like others in that way.

Sorry for the delay in answering your letter which I did like. I went to Lourdes in the time since I last wrote.

Now I have one eye sewn shut I guess I'm not attractive and am perhaps frightening. But my niece copes and says I don't scare her. [Note: The Elle editor JB Dauby had the same thing happen. He explained that when the lid ceases to function to close and keep the eye clean there is danger of cornea burn, so the doctors sew the lid shut to prevent that.]

The memory banks got stirred up when you spoke of what you were singing. I recall singing Palestrina's Missa Brevis with you in Brooklyn. Come to think of it we never had a crash in over two years.

You'd soon stop writing if I complained so I don't on the whole, but since you  ask about my tinnitus I must tell you it is so loud now that I can't hear much else.

This is a good home and I'm glad I'm here. I have been in some bad nursing homes, and this isn't. Of course nothing in this life is perfect but I am much loved here, which I know doesn't always happen. I have a nurse and an aid interested in me and if I didn't have so many problems life would be perfect. But hey, who has a problem-free life?

I'm sad at the moment 'cos a resident is leaving and I want to leave and can't. On the bright side I am hearing more in my left ear and the machines are even detecting some hearing in my right ear. The trouble is I depend on my vision a lot and it is slowly going.

I'm not at all offended by your participating in a Schola at St. Barts. Just don't become an Episcopalian!

You must think I fell off the edge of the earth.

I rather liked thinking of you in the Dordogne. You said you had seen the place where Poulenc wrote the Black Madonna Vespers. I remember those very well, though I have to sing them in my head, as I do for many things.

I'm sending you a note to tide you over 'til I can write properly. The letters keep on piling up and I'm very glad to get them. Also I'm glad to hear your news and I really mean it 'cos I'm very cut
off, as if I went to prison. Given all my sins that wouldn't be too surprising.

[Amidst a letter of extreme sorrow and sadness within her family . . .]

Today I had clothes put on me that I chose. You'd think this wouldn't matter. It does.

Are you still the pretty blonde I recall? As far as I can tell my mind is OK but my body is a mess. Specifically my time sense is off.

I did hear about the World Trade Center by the way. We are remote but somebody showed me newspaper pics of the plane in the second case. Also another friend wrote from Brooklyn that the stench was noticeable for months and the wind blew burned letters into people's backyards for a while, so I guess these events will not be forgotten.

5/24/2003  [I love this extremely poetic thought]
I'm glad you had a good time in Italy and enjoyed singing in Spain. Now you have planned your summer. Where will it take you this time? I'm quite tied down but I love hearing about other people's travels. I gather this was common in Soviet countries when people weren't free in body and their minds roamed.

I must stop 'cos it is late, but I think of you often.

I recall you said my letters meant a lot to you. I feel pretty futile so I was touched. I have to go, but am I nuts? Help!

Thank you for the card. Amalfi is quite beautiful and I envied you your trip. I was especially taken by the bougainvillas.  A priest came to see me today and gave me a tract about Marthe Robin. I'm not very like her. For openers she was a peasant and I'm middle class.

[Marthe became bedridden when she was 21 years old, and remained so until her death 60 years later.]

How are YOU doing? I'm worried about you saying you are depressed. My reaction was to say "Bloody men!" Don't let the bastards get you down. I must go now, but you have my prayers.

p.s. I now have e-mail fully, and a busy person like you may find my address useful.

[I broke my ankle running for a subway]

I’m very sorry your foot is being so slow. I hope the rest of you is ok and you have lots of books to while away the time.  It’s a drag but later you may see the reason.

Your recent email about your trip to Chicago reminded me that I never answered your last one.  Most remiss.  Mea culpa.  I read a few articles by Peter Phillips in the Spectator and assumed wrongly that some hack had written them.  I think there was something about the Tallis Singers as well.  I didn’t pay much attention.  I was able to read then, and skimmed through a lot of things. 

If you can manage a Sunday visit that would be very nice.  I see nothing wrong with Sunday July 12th.  I often get no visitors on Sunday so the day yawns like a chasm.  As I recall, you do not know alphabetic sign.  It’s not hard and there is a one for one match with ordinary English letters.  I never went further than finger spelling.  So if you can pick up a bit before you come that will be a big help.

7/13/2009  AFTER MY VISIT

I dunno when you will get this but I did want to thank you for your visit.  The signing was probably too fast for you.  I am forced to use gaps in communication like the phone company does.  It is very hard to follow my sign and it’s my fault not yours I fear.  I go fast cos people get so cross with me when I go slow, but they can’t follow me when I am fast, so I can’t win.  To make things worse, I have developed a stammer in my signing.  This doesn’t help.

[Note: Barbara asked her nurses to bring me tea, and she was all dressed for my visit, with a lovely purple sweater and very tasteful makeup. Such hospitality in the midst of enormous suffering.]

I'm moving. The name of the home is ironic cos I feel really desperate.  I do not enjoy it when nobody can talk alphabetic sign.  It’s what I use to communicate, but not everyone has good friends like you.  This makes up for a lot.  I hope to hear from some of you soon.  All the emails are a lifesaver.  Be well.

I know what you mean about the Russian language.  Years ago I learned a little Russian cos when I was a schoolgirl invasion seemed inevitable.  As you know, it didn’t happen, but I still have a few words and I once freaked out a Latvian carer by thanking her in Russian.  I believe Stalin didn’t allow Latvian to be taught.  A whole generation of Latvians don’t know their own language.  This is what conquest is like.

I want to be sure to wish you a very happy Christmas.  I dunno if you will join your mother in her condominium?  I’m finding Christmas cards a struggle.  The constant weariness I feel is taking its toll.  It also makes my letters shorter than I would like and now I must stop.

I had an old Irish woman as a patient who paid me a great compliment.  She said my friends must be all Irish.  Then and now this is not true, but I do have you of course.  I used to own a disc called The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  Goodness knows where it is now.  I wonder if it’s the same Clancy Brothers as the ones you mention.  Of course the name Clancy is quite common in Ireland.  Do you think they need and extra voice?  I was once told by a woman outside a store named Clancy that I had saved her from going to The Grange.  This was the local loony bin.  It was a lovely moment which I cherish.  I have to go now but I hope you are well.

I wonder how you are doing?  One thinks one knows a person but you may be doing something new and my former ideas are silly.  My brother takes me to Mass here in the chapel every Sunday.  The poor man can’t speak to me so he simply rubs my hands a bit.  Otherwise my Sundays would be very dull and they are often bad anyway.  I keep hoping for some breakthrough that will change my life.  As Auden says, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. 

I use these times to find out how badly I am doing.  There is a big black cross on the wall and this time it was a little fuzzy for the first time.  People come up and shake my hand at the Kiss of Peace I often don’t know who it was.  The chaplain is a nun called Sister Margaret.  She always squeezes my hand so I know it’s her.  Touch becomes very important when you are nearly blind.  In the summer months maybe there is no singing but are you going away?  Do tell me where to.  Now I must run.

I do not think there will be a breakthrough for me, but I always was a pessimist. I hope you had a good time in Italy and that your birthday is very nice. I'm the same as ever, only weaker, which is very annoying. When I get to heaven I will shout at God like Saint Teresa of Avila. I think I might have been her friend. Be well. Many happy returns.

Lovely to hear from you.  I can remember picking an apartment cos its bathtub had claw feet.  I think bathroom fittings are very much a matter of fashion, and it was surprising that you found a tub like that.  You said your niece went skydiving. I should also have been impressed. I haven’t the nerve for that.  What it is to be young!

I meant to ask you if there were a clan system in Ireland as there is in Scotland.  If so, I wanted to know if there were an O’Neill clan.  I have a dim memory of being told that some one who asked where the head of the table was being told, “Where the O’Neill sits is the head of the table!” 

You asked me how I felt about the monarchy.  It is rather complicated cos I don’t approve of the current house.  At the same time I was very pleased to hear from you that the [Irish] State Visit had gone so well.  I don’t think I am a monarchist but one has to open buildings and name ships.  On the whole I am against them cos I don’t think kings are very good for nations.  Human beings are odd cos we are not very happy with no king as in the USA.  I think many presidents secretly think they are monarchs.  Being a republic does not seem any protection.  Some of them have been pretty bad.  Remember Nixon.  I think people were glad when he fell.  I hope you are well.

I have never been to Portugal so I was very pleased to get your email.  Actually you rang several bells.  About Portugal I thought you would be amused to hear there was a bureaucratic directive in World War Two which said it is strictly forbidden to call our gallant allies the Portuguese the “pork-and-beans”.  Somebody with no sense of humour wrote that.  I have a vague idea that the people of Portugal are great sailors and that they found a lot of the known world.

Have you ever read poems by a woman called Moira O’Neill?  I ask cos I was trying to find a student by that name.  It turns out that there are a few women named for this poet, but I had never heard of her let alone read her.  There are probably lots of O’Neills.

[I sent B. opening lines to O'Neill's poem "Beauty's a Flower"

Youth's for an hour,
Beauty's a flower,
But love is the jewel that wins the world.]

Mainly I want to say Merry Christmas.  We say Happy Christmas.  It’s a small shibboleth.  I try to remember to talk American.   I have not heard either piece you mention; so do say how you liked them.   As it happens, I have read a few poems by Wilfred Owen, but I did not know he was set in the requiem.  I do think WWI was a terrible waste of young men.  I gather WWII was a bit less wasteful.

A while ago you said you had enjoyed some P.D. James stories.  I have been meaning to tell you I like her too.  I specially like her detective, named Adam Dalgliesh.  I enjoyed the fact that he was a poet as well as a cop.  Did you read the one set in Sussex marshes?  I liked the idea of a house that was somehow set apart.  Of course he does order a criminal shot in that one, but I don’t think he has a choice.  I also read The Dark Tower.  I don’t think Dalgliesh is in that one.  I think he does improve a story.  I am not sure why.  Anyhow I wanted to say I had asked my friend in Canada if she had ever heard of Moira O’Neill.  She hadn’t.  So much for fame!  I have to stop but I hope you have a very nice St Patrick’s Day.  Do you have something lined up for that day?

I have thought some more about what you wrote about the poet Moira O’Neill.  I dunno if it still exists, but there used to be a publishing house that specialized in the works of women.  The place was called “Virago”.  I think the stuff you have sent by her is quite good and if it is typical of her, she maybe should be read by others.  Think what a gas it would be if an O’Neill got her republished in a special new edition!

 I am very blind now and I can’t read my own emails, which is a big drag.  I haven’t been able to read anybody for months, so the days are long.  I hope you are well.

I had hoped to write to you before Easter, but that was vain and so I do now what I intended then and wish you a very happy Easter period.  You have been out of touch for a few months and I wondered if you were busy or if I had lost you.  I do notice when I stop hearing from a friend.

I had made up my mind you were in the midst of various labours with Virago Press getting Moira O’Neill, better known in the present.  It can take lots of time to work with publishers.  I didn’t have nearly such an important job as you and I still found that.

I guess you all know there has been a delay.  I went far too blind to read even my own emails a year ago.  I thought this was just temporary so I did not say much about it.  You have gone on sending fairly long emails and they have mounded up.  So I thought you deserved to know I am still around and not dead yet.  To make matters harder I have great trouble in processing information and any speech and I seem to have developed a stammer.  So it is very hard to reach me.  My brother has been slogging away and he has coped with my emails.  All I can say is thank heaven for his assistance.  I send you all my best wishes.


I believe you sent a line or two of poems by Moira O’Neill.  I want to thank you for one in particular.  It said, “Love is the jewel that wins the world”.  I say it over and over to myself and find it very nourishing.  Maybe you could use a bit of that nourishment right now, cos I have not heard a peep from you in a little while.  So what ‘s the story?   I believe in my last I asked about your nephew particularly, since I have one too, and I gather that Tom is having a bad time with college.  Gosh, it does seem to be hard to get over this first hurdle and start on one’s life.   I don’t remember it was so bad for me.  Getting old is another matter.


That was the last letter, a month before she died.

I have never prayed for this sentiment more deeply: Rest in peace, Barbara.

Updated for Christmas 2014: Along with an annual birthday card, Barbara sent Christmas cards to her friends every year. So this is the first year of no Christmas card coming from Norwich, England. I did get a card from one of my dear blog friends, Lance Mannion.  It is of a rural winter scene, with a black bird sitting amid the snow on a wooden fence. When I turned it over, the name of the painting is "The Magpie" by no less a painter than Claude Monet.  Honest to God,  Magpie was Barbara's nickname for me, because I like shiny things. What are the odds? Lump in throat, tear in eye . . .  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Happy 75th GWTW: You Reign Supreme Forever Because of the Love Story, and the Acting

Thank goodness for TCM. What a national treasure to help lovers of classic movies come together and celebrate great American classic films outside of individual living rooms.

Two years ago I was very grateful when they sponsored bringing Casablanca back into theaters for its 70 birthday.

That was an interesting experience because I was sitting near a group of 20something friends, who were chatting away and had come to mock the picture, but  from Bogart's first entrance, they got quieter and quieter. Great films have that effect, even on the current crop of jejunes.

Anniversary Screenings, Across the Country #GWTW75
I didn't know what to expect for the 2:00pm Sunday showing of GWTW in Times Square in conjunction with Fathom Events & Warner Home Video, one of only four total times this anniversary treat is showing. The actual premiere was on December 15, 1939, in Atlanta, an event to which Hattie McDaniel was not invited.

I'm happy to say that every age, race, and ethnicity you can think of was in attendance in Times Square.  Much applause in all the right places, much laughter in all the right places. And the weeping. Even the geeky/tech-looking young guy of Indian descent sitting next to me didn't make it through the crane shot of Scarlett going to the Atlanta depot without some very furtive tear wiping. But that's what it's all about, isn't it? 

Though I have not seen 12 Years a Slave, I appreciate in contrast the cultural damage that GWTW's sentimental depiction of slavery has had. But the film endures because, like the novel, it is not a story about slavery. It is a deeply resonant depiction of the battle of the sexes, with a most astonishing, strong, stunted, selfish female character in Scarlett. It's the relationships between all the characters that pulls you in for the fastest four hours in cinema history, even with the intermission.

And it will endure because of the acting. Vivian Leigh is absolutely compelling in every frame. She conveys a multitude of subtle yet complex emotions with every facial gesture, as does Clark Gable.  Their chemistry together is for the ages. Their talent simply radiates off the screen, it is dazzling in a way that no modern counterparts match. Their kind of Hollywood of 1939 is itself gone with the wind, and another reason why this  film will still be around in another 75 years.

The restoration is the most astonishing I have seen. It is the most vibrant Technicolor I have ever witnessed, and the overall acuity of the frames breathtaking. The aspect ration means that the picture goes top to bottom of the screen, but not side to side. By having the black letterbox effect only left and right, the figures look even more larger than life than they do when the image fills the screen, or in IMAX. It is a thrilling, "natural" looking movie experience like no other. The film is simply a sequence of superlatives for me.

Below is from a broader appreciation I wrote about the novel & the movie in 2007.

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae

I don’t brook no literary snobs who dismiss Margaret Mitchell’s tale. Yes, I first found it in junior high school, like many other girls. But the serious reader does not hold that factoid against it.

What I could appreciate only later was how exquisitely, masterfully, Mitchell captures the painful zig and zag between ill-fated lovers. Scarlett’s constant fear and loathing of Rhett’s mocking of her (both real and imagined) matched point for point Rhett’s constant fear that Scarlett had only contempt for the men who worshipped her.

With these two, Mitchell captures that sickening, life-destroying panic you feel when you can't trust the one who’s next to you, no matter how well suited you are for each other. For Rhett and Scarlett, when one starts to trust just a little, the other answers with cruelty. It's a dark, dark tennis match.

Thus GWTW is a tragedy of the most human kind—-of two people who throw happiness away with both hands. Rhett is right that they are two of a kind, and Scarlett can't see it because of the fog of Ashley in her head, clouding her vision, until she finally "sees" that it's been Rhett all along, just as he is done, with a capital "D."

The storytelling overall is stellar, especially the early chapters about Scarlett’s mother Ellen (played by Barbara O'Neill, which always ticked me), and how she came to marry Gerald O’Hara.

The Civil War is there too. But that I have no personal experience of that . . . .

Margaret Mitchell is a unique figure in literary history. She wrote the novel while recuperating from ankle surgery, with no intention of anyone besides her husband reading it.

She had gone to Smith College in 1918, engaged to a Harvard man, Lt. Clifford Henry. He was killed in France, and shortly after her mother died of the pandemic flu, before MM got back to Atlanta to see her. She knew too well much of what she wrote for Scarlett, and her life hints at the theme of haunted love: the fiancé who died, then her first marriage ended in divorce, and the second was to her ex‘s friend. But Mitchell raised the idea of shadows in love to an art in Scarlett's attachment to Ashley.

Mitchell ultimately took her book title from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae,” which is from the opening of Horace’s Odes, Book 4.1: “I am not the same as I was in the days of Cynara.” (Well, she was a Smith girl, although she left when her mother died, before she graduated.) Dowson was an English poet of the Decadent Movement, which included Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. His poem is about a lover who is “desolate and sick of an old passion.” (Think Bob Dylan’s haunting “Visions of Johanna.”)

The third stanza, which begins “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,” touched Mitchell: it was the "far away, faintly sad sound I wanted."

And so we were given the words that scrolled majestically across the screen to Max Steiner’s superlative score. The film is one of the all-time great realizations of a novel, which for me is rooted in Vivian Leigh’s captivating energy and Clark Gable’s controlled, knowing, beautifully tailored passion.

MM said she wrote the last chapter of GWTW first. It is intriguing that she started with that bone weary, completely burnt-out feeling of her leading man, and then imagined the path and depth of a great love-—of his love—that had been so completely thwarted by a selfish, stunted woman.

I haven't re-read GWTW for quite a while. But in that personal way you have with certain stories, I hold out hope that whenever I do, Mammy will hear Scarlett when she calls out for Rhett after her miscarriage, and the star-crossed lovers can find some happiness. Isn't it pretty to think so.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Breathes There a Man with a Soul So Dead" The Last Certain Day of the UK As We Know It

The UK is on the eve of possibly coming apart at the seams, and so the Twitter feed is filled with all things Scottish. A CNN post declares Sir Walter Scott the first literary superstar, and Wiki agrees, saying he was the first English-language author to be celebrated internationally in his own lifetime. He was born in 1771, after the England/Scotland marriage. He manifested the oral tradition of Scottish lore into sweeping historical novels that gave flesh and blood and Tartans to a war-strewn history of his country in the Waverly novels, Ivanhoe Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermore, and so helped to create a national identity.

The famous canto from The Lay of the Last Minstrel is uniquely fitting for the day, although both sides have claimed the Great Scot for the WWSWD.

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my own, my native land"?
Whose heart hath n’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned...?
If such there be, go mark him well...
The wretch, concentrated all in self,
...Doubly dying shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung. —


No politics here, but the CNN story reminded me of this post I wrote a few years ago when I learned some lovely tidbits about one of my favorite stories from childhood, Scott's Lady of the Lake.

My father bought me used books for many years to build a library of classics for me. One of them was a small book of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). As a child, I thought it was wonderful that the Lady is named, well, L.N (as M.A.’s alter ego is known to her RL friends).

So, I developed a deep attachment to L.N. Douglas and Scott’s work.

Now, jump to almost any Catholic wake or wedding you’ve been to, or the first scene of the film Prizzi’s Honor. There you would have heard someone singing Schubert’s Ave Maria. It’s a beautiful, beautiful melody, which Schubert wrote around 1825, set to the Latin words of the prayer to the Virgin: “Áve María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum. Benedícta tu in muliéribus, et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus. Sáncta María, Máter Déi, óra pro nóbis peccatóribus, nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen."

All of the 3 tenors have recordings of this, and Andrea Bocelli, and Celine Dion, and everyone and their aunts.

(This is not to be confused with the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, which is less often heard.)

Except, that Schubert did not set the words of the Catholic prayer. And if you listen closely, you will hear that the melody and the tune are not tightly in sync. Unlike the Bach/Goudnod, where the music moves perfectly with the words.

Schubert actually wrote his haunting, beautiful melody to a “song” from The Lady of the Lake. At one point in the action, Lady L.N. goes to a cave to pray to the Virgin for protection from being discovered by the enemy clan. Scott calls it a song in his text, and the first words are Ave Maria. The rest are English words that he wrote for his poem. Schubert was a fan of Scott, and so he set one of the songs of his great poem. In German, he called it “Ellens dritter Gesang,” “Ellen’s Third Song.”

It was some time later that an anonymous person, inspired by the opening words Ave Maria, squished the Latin prayer into the haunting melody. It was so successful to generations of listeners, that it became known as Schubert’s Ave Maria. Schubert died in 1828, three years after his “Ellens dritter Gesang,” so he never heard the permutation of his music that became so famous.

Here are the words to Scott’s song, and below is Barbara Bonney singing the German translation of Scott, which is what Shubert actually set to his melody (although from the comments, people don't seem to know it's not the religious text). This wikipedia page is very clear bout this strange twist of fate.

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden's prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish'd, outcast and reviled -
Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem this down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern's heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, list a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! stainless styled!
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled;
Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer,
And for a father hear a child!
Ave Maria!

And,  here’s one more amazing thing about Scott’s Lady of the Lake. It is the origin of the song “Hail to the Chief.” Scott wrote it as the “Boat Song,” for the arrival of the clan’s chieftain.

It was set to music in 1810 by James Sanderson for a stage version of the epic poem. In 1812 the stage version opened in New York. By 1828 the piece was well known as popular music, and the Marine Corps. Band performed it at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was attended by John Quincey Adams. The song was first played to announce the arrival of the president at James K. Polk's inauguration on March 4, 1845. It was Julia Tyler, wife of Polk's predecessor, John Tyler, who suggested that the song be played when a president made an appearance, and in 1954 the Department of Defense made it the official music to announce the president. (All from Wikipedia.)