Thursday, February 21, 2008

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent

Last night we saw the offspring in a mini-Shakespearean production, one of four productions put on by her school. One of them was Richard III. I know in reading the play that the phrase "Now is the winter of our discontent" was meant to mean "the time of unhappiness is past". But that ain't what I mean when I use it here.

Ah, but I think this winter has broken me. This is one of the few times that I have said out loud that I really don't want to be in Toronto sometimes. This has precipitated an ongoing argument with the SO. I am adamant that I want to be somwhere warm when we reach our not so golden years ... he is insistent that we stay in Toronto.

I'm getting sick of this cold, this freezing rain, the snow ... I can't see living here when we are in our 60s,
I say.

The look of alarm and dismay on R's face! He loves the snow, hockey, skating, the Leafs, tobogganing with J, even winter storms and shovelling snow ... ai yi yi. This will be a hard sell.

I don't want to live anywhere else in the world,
he says. Or any other city in Canada.

That's what I love about R, he's always so ... flexible.

Okay world traveller, you have been to sooo many places in the world that you have no desire to live anywhere else, or see anything else, right?
I see his mind racing.

Yes! And at the top of the list of places that I don't want to live is ...

Miami?? Oh yes I see what this is ... two of our favourite television shows, Dexter and CSI Miami, are set in that hotbed of serial murders, crime and malfeanse. Lately, I have been extolling the virtues of that city - it's so beautiful, it's warm, the Latin culture, music and food! Art Deco architecture. Sounds wonderful to me. So R thinks that's what I've been edging toward with my increasingly anti-winter diatribes.

Silence. Stewing. Frustration on both ends over the lunch table.

l, where DO you want to live? he asks slightly exasperated.

I don't know, somewhere warm, maybe Venice or Tuscany. Not the U.S.

My secret wish is to live amongst my own kind, to speak my mother's language. R is my kind, I want him there with me. This thought has been formulating for sometime. It is likely part and parcel of the whole Italian lessons and such. But it's a long term plan, when J is grown and settled ...

Well I'm not living anywhere where there's no ice rink!
he exclaims vehemently.

I would say that that narrows it down some.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Londonstani Calling

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani (Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2006) 342 pp.

Londonstani intrigued me ... the South Asian experience in London amongst a bunch of rude boys written in a sort of semi-literate cockney English/South Asian/gangsta patois: thick, profane, sexist and rude. You stumble along at first trying to decipher the language and cultural references but eventually fall into the rhythm of it.

It promised to be totally different and it got a great deal of hype here and abroad. And it is interesting but in reading it I sometimes had the uneasy feeling that the publisher said "Great premise! Love it! Can you make it a bit longer?" It would have been just as effective at two thirds the length.

I admit I put the book down once in frustration and then tried a few months later. If you can master the lingo: blud (kin/blood), bredren (brother), goras (whites), coconuts (brown on the outside, white on the inside), pendhus (fools) and the ever popular innit (isn't it?) ... you can navigate it fairly well.

The book opens with Hardjit, a particularly obtuse bodybuilder and the erstwhile ringleader of the hapless four which includes Amit, Ravi, and our narrator Jas, surrounding a white boy whom Hardjit is pounding to the ground because the boy supposedly called him a Paki (not true it appears - Hardjit just likes to beat people up).

His friends are desis (Hindi for "local, regional" or "indigenous"), a term which applies to a wide variety of South Asians. Jas is the sensitive, dreamy lad amongst a number of yobs obsessed with girls, bling, status and petty thievery which includes stealing cellphones ("fones") which they unlock and sell to the upscale Sanjay, a former resident of the downscale London Borough of Hounslow near Heathrow Airport where the lads live.

Sanjay, who studied economics at Cambridge, is wealthy, sophisticated, has an impressively posh pad and will happily exploit the boys to achieve his own criminal ends. Sadly, it is Mr. Ashwood, a former school teacher who hooks the four boys up with Sanjay in order to break them free of their vagabond activities. Instead Sanjay merely harnesses their energies and redirects them for his own nefarious purposes.

A rather astute book review at talks about the murky middle world where these boys live and the "fractured reading experience" of this book (look at any page and you'll see what the reviewer meant).

They are neither British (as in, part of the white establishment) nor are they the black gangstas of the criminal underworld they aspire to become part of because of the strong cultural influences of their lives: living at home comfortably with mom, dad and sibs, somewhat adequate educations, their middle class affluence comprised of cars, cellphones and bling jewelery, attractive, educated girlfriends ... they can quite get it up to be the badasses they want to be.

The book's progress is uneventful but very believable: fighting with white or Muslim boys; partying at trendy clubs; trying on flash clothes; lifting weights; dreaming about girls; bitching about their overbearing, interfering parents and the old school rules of respect between the castes, listening to Sanjay's endless sermons about how fly he is compared to the boys ... but then you see flashes of Jas' rebellion against the conventions of their lives.

Just when you start getting annoyed with the sexist remarks and observations, Jas' inner voice pops up, ashamed about the homophobic crap, the denigration of women and rules that the boys feel compelled to follow. Insecure and bottom-of-the-heap Jas will counsel Amit's brother Arun to abandon the old conventions surrounding traditional marriage much to his later shock and detriment. Arun, hen-pecked mercilessly is reduced to tears by his mother over his wedding plans. The mother insists that Arun's fiancee must seek her approval for all aspects of the wedding.

Jas' emotional outburst to Arun about Arun's mother's meddling in his marriage plans is probably the summation of Jas' discomfort in his world regarding caste, women and the heavy handed influence of parents in this generation's lives. It stands for all that Jas hates about desi culture.

More significantly, Jas is in love with Samira, a beautiful young Muslim girl whose brothers will dispprove of the match (i.e read kill Jas) if they find out. Nor will his friends approve of his dating a Muslim girl. The scene where Jas and Samira fight and break up near the cemetery is particularly well done with Jas wandering the cemetery and reading the tombstones and concluding morosely, "Here lies Jas. My surname too fuckin long and too fuckin shameful to fit on my own fuckin gravestone."

Jas' problems worsen precipitated by his perceived interference in Arun's decision to challenge his mother about the wedding. Amit, Ravi and Hardjit turn against him as does Sanjay for jeopardizing their business arrangement regarding the stolen phones.

I was warned by a couple of book reviews that the ending would be surprising so I will leave it at that. The end did shock me I must say ... leaving me muttering "What? What?" as I reached its conclusion. My feelings are mixed as I found it uneventful until the final fifty pages or so. I liked it, I didn't like it and then I raced through the last 50 pages!

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I can't remember which of my wacky relations coined the term Valentimes ... could it be the goofy Japanese side or the prone to malapropisms Italian side? It might even have been my offspring J who gets her comic goofiness from her Dad's side and her melancholy from her mom's ... Everyday she reminds me more and more of my dearly departed mother-in-law (sometimes in a very good way) who had an endearingly wacky side. My partner R insists that all children call it Valentimes.

In any event, I love the holiday. Come on ... chocolates, dressing up for dinner or a special lunch, hearts, flowers, special cards? What's not to love? I know some hate it or resent it but I don't. I am a believer. I look forward to the ingenious gifts J brings home from daycare and school. This morning for breakfast, it was an exquisite red paper airplane with a bar of chocolate strapped into it like a pilot and a long green alligator with a gaping mouth which revealed a chocolate bar in his colorful torso for Daddy. This would explain why I was asked (while I was making the breakfast oatmeal) if I preferred airplanes or alligators ...

A CD of retro 80s music from the significant other and a promise of a lunch for two today. I just want give a shout out to my two beloveds R and J on Valentimes Day.

And here is my romantic/melancholy contribution from Edna St. Vincent Millay whose candle burnt brighter than most and which I read every so often, perched on a bulletin board in front of my computer:

Paris April 1, 1922
A mile of clean sand I will write my name here, and the trouble that is in my heart.
I will write the date and place of my birth,
What I was to be, And who I am.
I will write my forty sins, my thousand follies,
My four unspeakable acts ...
I will write the names of the cities I have fled from,
The names of the men and women I have wronged.
I will write the holy name of her I serve,
And how I serve her ill. And I will sit on the beach and let the tide come in.
I will watch with peace the great calm tongue of the tide
Licking from the sand the unclean story of my heart.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Signora Aquilone

In a quest to improve my Italian, this song/poem is imperfectly translated by A Lit Chick with the assistance of NB who sent me the poem. You can see Francesco De Gregori sing this song at this link. I knew nothing of De Gregori before this was sent to me but it seems that he was a bit of a Dylanese figure in Italy in the 1970s. He is still about, singing and performing. I love the groovy hair and soulful singing in this short video.

Signora Aquilone
(1972) by Francesco De Gregori

C'era una donna, l'unica che ho avuto,
There was a lady, the only one I ever had,
aveva i seni piccoli e il cuore muto,
she had a small bosom and a unspoken heart,
nè in cielo, nè in terra, una casa possedeva,
she had no house, neither in the sky nor on earth,
sotto un albero verde dolcemente viveva,
under a green tree, she sweetly lived,
sotto un albero verde dolcemente viveva.
under a green tree, she sweetly lived.

Legato ai suoi fianchi con un filo d'argento,
Attached to her sides with a thread of silver,
un vecchio aquilone la portava nel vento
an old kite brought her into the wind
e lei lo seguiva senza fare domande
and she followed it without question
perchè il vento era amico e il cielo era grande,
because the wind was a friend and the sky was great,
perchè il vento era amico ed il cielo era grande.
because the wind was a friend and the sky was great.

Io le dissi ridendo "Ma Signora Aquilone
I told her laughing “But Signora Kite
non le sembra un pò idiota questa sua occupazione?"
does it not seem a bit silly this occupation of yours?”
Lei mi prese la mano e mi disse "Chissà,
She took my hand and said to me “Who knows,
forse in fondo a quel filo c'è la mia libertà,
perhaps at the bottom of that thread is my liberty,
forse in fondo a quel filo c'è la mia libertà".
perhaps at the bottom of that thread is my liberty.

E così me ne andai che ero un poco più saggio
And so I went a little wiser
con tre soldi di dubbio e due di coraggio
with three dollars of doubt and two of courage
e incontrai un ubriacone travestito da santo
and met a drunkard dressed as a saint
che ogni sera si ubriacava bevendo il proprio pianto,
that every night got drunk weeping,
che ogni sera si ubriacava bevendo il proprio pianto.
that every night got drunk weeping.

E mi feci vicino e gli chiesi perdono
And I got myself closer and lost asked
ma volevo sapere se il suo pianto era buono.
but I wanted to know if his lament was good.
Lui mi disse "Fratello, è antico come Dio,
He told me “Brother, it is as old as God,
ma è più dolce del vino perchè l'ho fatto io,
but it is sweeter than wine because I made it myself,
ma è più dolce del vino perchè l'ho fatto io".
but it is sweeter than wine because I made it myself.”

E prima che le stelle diventassero lacrime
And before the stars become tears
e prima che le lacrime diventassero stelle
and before the tears become stars
ho scritto canzoni per tutti i dolori
I have written songs for all sorrows
e forse questa qui non è delle migliori, e forse
and maybe this one is not the best, and maybe
questa qui non è delle migliori.
this one is not the best.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Infinite Sadness of Fulfilled Desire

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 (2007) by Katie Roiphe (344 pp.)

The naivete of this newest book by Katie Roiphe painfully reminds me of a sad, and slightly humorous, episode from my largely unsuccessful period of dating while at university (pre R - that is my husband), a place where you try out new theories of living, of life, mostly resulting in embarrassing and/or humiliating scenarios.

When I was a young hedonist and had more freedom than brains (now that's slightly reversed but only slightly) I would loudly assert to all and sundry that we men and women required more flexibility in our personal relationships, that we should have multiple partners if we so chose, of whatever gender suited us at the time, inside or outside of marriage. That I did not live that way, nor could I emotionally sustain that sort of artificial construction was immaterial. It seemed an ideal to strive for and pontificate about.

As you might imagine I held this view for a short time, approximately the length of one brief somewhat platonic relationship. B, was a fair bit older, very funny and attentive, generous hearted and seemed more interested in me than I was in him. He would pass by my part-time workplace and chat with me; we would have coffee and hang out, that was about it. He was one of the first people I had shared my theory with, in a sort of sophomoric, isn't-that-a-great- idea?, bright eyed, bushy tailed sort of way which must have been extremely amusing at the time.

We were not boyfriend/girlfriend but he wanted this to be the case, I think, and invited me to his sister's wedding as his date. She was a TV reporter with one of the major networks here in Toronto. I didn't have suitable clothes for such a formal affair and B offered to buy me an outfit (and he did so very kindly).

From my young and probably slightly mercenary perspective, I did not have a problem accepting this gift which cost more than I would spend even today on an outfit, considering I didn't have any real, substantial relationship with this person. I guess he was waiting for a return on his investment which I, ultimately, had no intention of delivering to him (annually, quarterly or otherwise).

B's sister's wedding was rather elegant with a lovely reception at the Great Hall at the St. Lawrence. Young waiters, a little older than I was at the time, served cocktails, champagne and tasteful hor' oeuvres. Very sophisticated, I thought, for a little girl from Hamilton who had only been in Toronto for two years or so. It was utterly different than any wedding I had been to (hey lady where's the proscuitt' and melon appetizer?). I had a great time at the wedding, mingling comfortably, I thought, considering I was only about 20 at the time, and with a much older crowd.

After the reception, a smaller group suggested we move to a cozy new restaurant on Avenue Rd. north of Bloor St. for a light dinner (the name eludes me now). It felt very chic to me. I was, as they say, fighting out of my weight class with this crowd but it was fun and the company was very friendly. I didn't feel self-conscious in their midst. An "older" woman (she was likely only thirty at the time but seemed very much older to me) took a liking to me and was engaging me in conversation for a good portion of the night.

B didn't seem to appreciate my conviviality because he kept signaling for more drinks and slowly got drunker and drunker as the night progressed, which then evolved into an icy, silent fury which was incomprehensible to me. I had appreciated his invitation and thought all was going well.

He finally exploded during the latter part of the dinner about my (mis)perceived friendliness. The gist of it was that he could see that this other female guest I had been talking to liked me. It was obvious and that I liked her too so why didn't I just go off with her and blankety blank blank because that's what I really want to do ... I could only quietly deny it because it wasn't true. Just because I wasn't sleeping with him didn't mean I wanted to sleep with her. I wasn't inclined that way and I didn't really think she was either.

He was so loud and so vicious that he reduced me to a quiet, bewildered crying in the middle of the dinner in front of the other guests at the table. Then he stormily, and abruptly, left me sitting there at the table, stranded without a car or a convenient means of getting home, and a fair distance from home to boot. One of the male guests, all of whom were completely mortified but equally silent perhaps because B was the bride's brother, took pity on me and drove me home and tactfully never spoke of it on the drive home despite my teary countenance.

Sometime after this, I was relating this story to an older, wiser female friend and I was horrified when she started berating me. She said I was a fool for expounding on such a theory and then doubly foolish for saying it out loud to a man who obviously took it as some kind of cue as to how I wanted to live, a sort of design for living. She basically told me that I was an idiot and to stop talking such nonsense out loud.

Point taken, and though I never gave B the tongue lashing he deserved for that incident when I next saw him (he continued to cheerfully haunt my workplace and never referred to that incident again as if it had never happened), I never went out with him again nor expounded on my theory out loud to anyone which as you can imagine I have since thankfully abandoned.

Okay, here's my long-winded point about this book:

Katie, you're an fool, stop talking such nonsense out loud. In her introduction it seems clear that Ms. Roiphe is searching for a sort of ideal about relationships and marriage among the literati of Edwardian England. They may have been literary geniuses or politically progressive and represented the cream of the cultural and intellectual elite in Britain at the time but that doesn't mean they had any better idea than the average bear about how to live and love and how to harness their sexual energies. Roiphe seems in search of an ideal paradigm amongst people that perhaps she feels she most resembles: literate, educated, sophisticated in their ideas.

I can't agree with Tina Brown's assessment in her New York Times review: "The way the alpha women of Bloomsbury wrestled with their need for love while producing work of the highest quality should be an inspiration to a modern generation of women who, we keep being told, are more and more inclined to give up the struggle and abandon their aspirations." More clearsightedly she notes that "Often these unorthodox unions endured only because someone was willing to knuckle under. "

And, like me on that awful night with B, when you engage in these experiments, someone always ends up crying at the dinner table ...

Sure enough, just as I was finishing this section of the blog I started poking around into what Katie was up to. According to that virulent website, which I admit I peruse occasionally, and which follows the doings of the glitterati, it seems that Roiphe is recently divorced; hence, all this hand wringing in the introduction of the book, this wondering about viable marriages. You can almost read her mind: how do interesting people like me do it? How do they survive marriage? infidelity? How do they live together? Share responsibilities for children? Apparently, very badly Katie dear, very badly.

She talks about the tensions between the "exquisite restraint" of the Victorians which is at odds with the new hedonism of the Edwardians' modern age with regards to love and sex. Katie, do your research ... Discuss: The Victorians were neither restrained nor exquisite. Many affluent men in high society had two families, one legitimate, one "illegitimate" which they sustained equally and kept apart. In the early and mid 19th c. in London, I have read that possibly 1 in 3 women were prostitutes. The Victorians were merely exceptionally hypocritical about concealing their "errant" desires.

My first impulse is to say the book is bad, it's not. It's mostly well written and extremely entertaining. But I think that the premise, the original intention of the book, is flawed and a little childish. While I love the gossip and history about these seven literary types and their assorted sexual menageries I find her innocence touching, if not irritating, in researching this group of people "searching for a new etiquette" for extramarital affairs and relationships as she says.

When you delve into the history of these notable figures (H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, Katherine Mansfield, Vanessa Bell, Ottoline Morrell, Radclyffe Hall, among others) is it so hard to prophesy that, for example, the married, successful H.G. Wells, serial philanderer and sometimes science fiction writer, taking up with a 19 year old firebrand Rebecca West will end in tears? And with the ill prepared and embittered Rebecca raising (badly it would seem) a neglected son, the writer Anthony West, on her own?

Wells never changed his ways but flitted from one young girl to the next. Oh yes and he also impregnated and abandoned the well known Fabian Amber Reeves and shtupped a whole lot of women as wife Jane Wells, whom he described as an angel, a paragon of virtue, silently looked on until her death. Their agreement was that he could do as he pleased but with full disclosure. Oh lucky Jane ...

And what of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield slowly dying of tuberculosis in various exotic if impoverished locations trying to write while her husband, the less talented writer John Middleton Murry, traverses the globe seeking literary fame and fortune and floating like a bee from one exquisite female flower to the next? In her letters and private papers Mansfield fluctuates between a burning bitterness and an explicit avowal that he can do as he pleases because she doesn't want to inhibit him. Mansfield is sometimes consoled by lover/nursemaid/ doormat Ida who always gets the boot into the spare room whenever Murry pops back into her life.

The writer Elizabeth Von Armin, who some might argue was a sort of Martha Stewart of the Edwardian era and coincidentally was a first cousin of Katherine Mansfield, struggles to free herself from a tyrannical second husband, Earl Frank Russell (older brother of Bertrand Russell), once charged with bigamy.

Russell has a violent temper, is abusive and incapable of fidelity. She must literally run away from his home on Telegraph Hill to escape him and his conniving, destructive ways. Elizabeth turns the other cheek when witnessing his infidelities but when he has an affair with two secretaries (one in his family home and one at his office) simultaneously she draws the line. and beats a hasty retreat after years of subjugation.

The life of Von Armin, a best selling author of tomes detailing domestic bliss, the care of beautiful gardens, menageries of much loved dogs, single women caravaning in the U.K. creating a craze of sorts for this adventure amongst English women, much younger men who fell in love with widows, is in sharp contrast to the brutality of her life with Russell.

Next up: Clive loves Vanessa, then covets Virginia (in a pristine sort of way); Vanessa loves Duncan; Duncan loves David better known as Bunny (repeatedly); Bunny seduces then marries Angelica, love child of Vanessa and Duncan in the spare bedroom of that scallawag H.G. Wells no less. P.S. Angelica has no idea that Bunny has slept with her father when she marries. If you don't know who these people are, read the chapter on the Bloomsbury love triangle between painter Vanessa Bell, art critic Clive Bell and artist Duncan Grant (immediately please).

Ottoline Morrell led many literary salons at her home Garsington Manor which included the usual Bloomsbury suspects and many other artists, politicians and celebrities of the day. She was alternately adored and mocked for her eccentric, remarkable demenour (see previous blog Maybe we should be afraid of Virginia Woolf).

Despite her own ongoing affair with philosopher Bertrand Russell, Ottoline was shocked to learn that husband Philip Morrell had impregnated one of the maids and his own secretary (what's with this two at a time thing? - see Earl Russell above). Philip begged Ottoline to preserve his privacy as it would undermine his work in parliament as a pacifist during WWI. Ottoline quietly complied and supported an increasingly fragile Philip who seemed unhinged by the events.

But her own extra-marital affairs, even though the married couple remained together, persisted most notably with a much young gardener named Lionel. Their love affair was possibly the inspiration for Lady Chatterley's Lover. D.H. Lawrence was also one of Ottoline's admirers/ detractors. It is to Ottoline's credit that those who loved her, remained her friend for years to come. But still there was this yearning for a closeness with her husband that she never achieved although they never separated.

But lest you think that all the men cited here are selfish beasts with raging libidos, Roiphe offers up to us the inimitable Radclyffe Hall who treated her long time companion Una Troubridge and her sometime "plaything" Evguenia Souline as badly as any man could have, controlling Evguenia with money, favours and her sheer rage and possessiveness. But although forced to co-habit with Evguenia and share Radclyffe's love and life, Una, as the wronged "wife" has the last laugh. Evguenia is written out of Radclyffe's will and must beg for a pitiful allowance to live even as she dies of cancer despite (or becasue of) the nine years of passion Radclyffe felt for her.

It is eloquent, wicked Radclyffe who spoke of the "infinite sadness of fulfilled desire" in her famous book The Well of Loneliness. She spoke possibly of Una who had become more a wife than a lover much to Radclyffe's chagrin.

The book ends with the triangle of Vera Brittain, her friend Winifred Holtby and Vera's husband George Gordon Catlin. It's an odd configuration as Vera lives at times with Winifred, platonically, and then Gordon. Winifred is the chaste handmaiden to Vera's successes as an author most notably as the author of Testament of Youth, her WWI memoir. Although a successful writer in her own right, Winifred devotes herself to Vera, caring for her children, filling in domestically, serving as her chief confidante until she dies prematurely of a kidney ailment at 37. In a way, she became the wife without the sexual obligations. Throughout her life Vera mourns two great loves; that of Roland Leighton, her solider/fiance killed in WWI and then the loss of Winifred's friendship.

Gordon expressed only bitterness about the arrangment although he often used the opportunity to avail himself of the charms of other women. The children seemed displeased with the scenario as well. It seemed to suit only Vera and not even Winifred who never fully established intimacy with another apart from Vera.

Roiphe's writings always reminds me of that other media-genic lightweight with a Ph.D. Naomi Wolf, Whatever pops into Naomi's pretty head becomes the burning issue of the day for her. Obsessed with your looks Naomi? Hey, let's write a book about The Beauty Myth using dodgy research and massive generalizations.

Angry about the way people treat you and your child as a new mother? Write a book called Misconceptions in which she describes "how hormones eroded her sense of independence, ultrasounds tested her commitment to abortion rights ..." I remember an interview when Misconceptions was released where Wolf was practically weeping with rage because there were no diaper tables in a public space she frequented with her child. Oh, the outrage. Listen sister, I have been in that uncomfortable scenario; it ain't pretty but if that is one of your biggest worries as a mother ...

What we sometimes forget as feminists, nay as sentient beings with a supposed interest in the outside world and important issues, is that the most pressing issues of the day are not necessarily your own personal issues. Some might argue a blog of this type would fit into that category, into that schemata of self-absorption. But my philosophy is write what you like but have a sense of perspective about the relevance of your personal experiences and views in a wider world.