Archive for February, 2016

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

ABHOSK 2As the 1976 general election loomed, crime and violence on the streets of Kingston took on a political dimension. Large areas of the city, controlled by rival gangsters, divided into factions supporting the ruling socialist government of Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) and their conservative opposition, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). The US, fearing another communist republic in the Caribbean, sent in the CIA to infiltrate and influence events. Attacks by the rival factions worsened, and the police cracked down with draconian force. More than 800 people were killed – cops, innocents and those on both sides of the conflict.

Marley agreed to perform a peace concert in December, endorsed by Manley but it was a dangerous time to be identified with either party. On December 3 1976, armed men stormed Bob Marley’s Kingston mansion, and shot the singer, his wife and his manager. Marley escaped with minor wounds; his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor were seriously injured, but survived.

He was half white, he was never really black, and he spoke terribly,” says the author. “He was seen as a disgrace, and people forget it. In 1976, Rastafarians were one of the most violated, persecuted groups in Jamaica. They could be beaten within an inch of their lives, or detained for two years, just for being found in a ‘proper’ neighbourhood. It’s ironic that I have dreadlocks now,” he adds, “ – that my father lived to see it.”

Marlon James’s parents were both in the Jamaican police (“my mother went all the way to detective, my father became a lawyer”). He was only six at the time of the assassination attempt but he remembers the atmosphere of fear that it generated. “Everybody heard about it. Marley was untouchable, so if he could be shot, anybody could be shot. I knew my parents were scared, even if I couldn’t understand why. There was a sense that anything could happen.”

The story is told through the disparate voices of many characters. James introduces us to teenage gunmen, gangland enforcers, ghetto “dons”, politicians, groupies, music journalists, CIA men and even the ghost of a murdered politician lamenting that no one listens to the dead any more. The book moves beyond the attempt on Marley’s life, beyond his death from cancer in 1981. James follows his characters into the cocaine trade and to New York in the Eighties, where Jamaican gangsters enjoyed a reputation for extreme violence.

Papa Lo, James says, is loosely based on real-life gangland don Claude Massop, who was killed by Jamaican police in 1979; his character Josey Wales on Jim Brown – real name Lester Lloyd Coke – who was at least partly responsible for the rise of violent Yardie drug culture in America and Britain. Brown was facing extradition to the US on drug-related charges when he was burned to death in his Kingston jail cell in 1992.“Most of the characters are composites,” says James, “I had somebody write to me who said, I know you’ve said that, but I’m sending you this. And he gave me a two-page list of all the characters, and who they were. But for the most part, the characters really aren’t based on individuals. Jim Brown, for instance, would never have tolerated a gay gang member like Weeper, and he was not tall and Chinese-looking.”

James’s white characters, such as CIA station chief Barry DiFlorio and Rolling Stone journalist Alex Pierce, presented a further challenge – “could I write ‘the other’ without falling into the same exoticism trap that white guys writing about black characters fall into? There was a danger of that, the ignorant, racist white guy, the cultural tourist white guy, the white guy who always says the wrong thing, they’re just as bad as the black stereotypes.

This is the second book I’ve read recently that’s narrated by ghosts.

Some of our group really enjoyed it, some didn’t finish it and some struggled but found it worthwhile to persevere until the end. Many thought that it was like a kaleidoscope that didn’t quite come together.

Did the author have an eye to this being made a film?

The equation of guns and penises is acute – especially the occurrence of erectile dysfunction when there isn’t a gun. To what extent is the swaggering machismo the legacy of feeling emasculated by slavery and neo-colonialism and when does this cease to be an excuse for extreme violence (which happens more in New York than in Jamaica in this book) ? Or are we being racist for asking this question?

The meeting of Weeper with John John K seemed contrived.

One section reads like James Joyce’s Ulysees – no punctuation.

I hadn’t, before, realised what the ‘batty’ meant in ‘battyman’. Nor that ‘bombocloth’ is a used tampon. ‘Pussyhole’ is a guy who does not behave like a man or a backstabber.

The list of characters is a good idea but why aren’t they in alphabetical order? Or, at least, in the order in which they appear? I got confused between the male Kim and the female Kim – the identity of ‘Kimmy’ towards the end of the book is crucial. Some liked this shape-shifting character who appeared under three names: Nina, Kim and Dorca.

Ultimately, these characters are seen, by the powers that be, as dispensable nobodies who tell their story but who are worth nothing.

This book provoked a wider, philosophical discussion about the legacy of slavery, neo-colonialism, individual responsibility and the lessons of social history.

Part of an interview with the author:

“I wanted to give my characters desires, dimension, contradiction. With the CIA, there’s a very global sense that they are the ‘bad guys’. I wanted to write about the inner lives of these men instead.”

James is gay; not a simple thing to admit openly in Jamaica at the time. I ask him if he identifies at all with the gay character in the novel, the murderous, literature-quoting gangster Weeper. “I don’t know if any of me found its way into that,” he says. “But it was very important to me that there were gay characters in the book – to reflect the gayness and hypocrisy in Jamaica.” For a period, when he was still in Jamaica, James tried to have a straight relationship. It gave him a sense of validation, he says. Did he have to leave Jamaica to explore his sexuality? “Not so much explore,” he says. “But simple things – you might want to walk down the street and hold somebody’s hand one day. When you grow up in a homophobic country, you’re sitting on a timebomb.”

The book never refers to Bob Marley by name. He’s just “The Singer.”

Yeah.

Why did you decide to keep him offstage like that?

One, I didn’t want it to overwhelm the story. And also, certainly by 1976, he was already a symbolic figure, even in Jamaica. He was an international icon. When he got shot, most people didn’t even know he was in the country. I wanted to sort of define him by what he symbolizes. It’s just like calling someone The Prophet, I guess. Marley was different in terms of what he meant than what he was.

The multi-vocality of the book is just stunning. How did you choose and formulate all these different voices? I have an image of a spreadsheet.

There was a spreadsheet that went into it, there really was! It was the only way to keep track of everybody. And I have to, because if I don’t I’ll start playing favorites with characters.

I knew from the beginning that it would be a book that was told by its characters, that me as an author had no need to appear at all. The only time I appear in that book is as opinions that Nina Burgess [a sex worker character] has, especially about Jamaican society.

I liked the idea of the multiple viewpoints, which is something I got from Faulkner. And even Orhan Pamuk! It’s something you see sometimes in celebrity biographies, actually, where it’s a group biography of different people, adding in their different things. It’s also something you see in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, the many people hovering around a single event.

I was also inspired by Gay Talese’s famous article “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” which is probably the closest to what I was thinking. Like him, I was hovering around a major subject. But I was more interested in the people around him. By seeing how they saw him.

Were you concerned, in using a lot of dialect, that you might put readers off?

I’ve never had problems with American readers. It doesn’t surprise me that the first reviewers that have criticized the language were British reviews. Which has struck many people as strange because between Jamaica and Britain, there’s still a postcolonial thing. It’s still pretty pronounced, just not with me! http://www.gq.com/story/marlon-james

ABHOSKQuotations:

Preacher says there is a god-shaped void in everybody life but the only thing ghetto people can fill a void with is void.

When a gun come to live in the house the woman you live with treat you different, not cold, but now she weigh word, measure it before talking to you. But a gun talk to the owner too, telling him first that you can never own this, that outside is plenty people who don’t have a gun but know you do, and one night they going come like Nicodemus and take it. Nobody ever own a gun. You don’t know that until you own one. If somebody give it to you, that somebody can take it back. Another man can think is for him even when he seeing that is you control it. And he don’t sleep until he get it ’cause he can’t sleep. Gun hunger worse than woman hunger for at least maybe a woman might hungry for you back. At night me don’t sleep. Me stay up in the dark shadow, looking at it, rubbing it, seeing and waiting.

The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.

And why the fuck you people always assume black people so stupid you need to teach them things?

Click of treat?

If a man call himself Rasta today, by next week that is him speaking prophecy. He don’t have to be too smart either, just know one or two hellfire and brimstone verse from the Bible. Or just claim it come from Leviticus since nobody ever read Le­viticus. This is how you know. Nobody who get to the end of Leviticus can still take that book seriously. Even in a book full of it, that book is mad as shit. Don’t lie with man as with woman, sure I can run with that reasoning. But don’t eat crab? Not even with the nice, soft, sweet roast yam? And why kill a man for that? And trust me, the last thing any man who rape my daugh­ter going get to do is marry her. How, when I slice him up piece by piece, keeping him alive for all of it and have him watch me feed him foot to stray dog?

I remember last year at these peace treaty parties that spring up in West Kingston like head lice, a Rasta trying to give me a reasoning about who is carrying the mark of the beast. Nothing set a Rasta on fire more than talk of “Armagideon.” So the Rasta say,

—Yow me no buy nothing that no fresh, brethren, because everything in package now carry the mark of the beast. You know, them code number in the white box with the black line.

I was trying to watch this man who was checking out my woman, look­ing warm under the streetlight while people dancing around her, some man from the Eight Lanes who didn’t know that this woman’s ring finger marked. No need to worry—she already know how to deal with that kind of man—she deal with them harder than me. But that’s the thing about Rasta reason­ing. Even when you know it’s total fuckery from the start to end, it still have a hook to it.

—Barcode? I say. But barcode have whole heap of different number, and me sure me never see 666 yet.

You saying you look?

—No, but‑

-But is for ram goat, brethren. Check the reasoning. Nobody in Ja­maica have the power of the beast. Them just nyam wha the beast feed. You no notice that all the time the number start with zero zero zero? That be some decimal science. Whole number and natural number and double number. That mean all the number on all the code in all the world add up to 666.

Doesn’t matter if you tell him, doesn’t matter what you tell him, by the next day he forgets. He can’t remember anything since around April 1980. So he remembers his children, he remembers hating my wife because of an argument they had the same day it happened, but every morning the kids are this surprise we sprung on him. And to him Mom died two years ago, not six. He also doesn’t believe it when you explain all this to him and, I mean, why should he? Who wants to be devastated every morning? At least thank God he doesn’t remember that either. I mean, you saw how he walked right past you, somebody he just spent the whole day with. In the fucking Bronx.

Why go to Africa when it would profit you more to work together for a better life in Jamaica?

How do you bury a man? Put him in the ground or stomp out his fire?

return to the home page

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Ideas in Psychoanalysis: Perversion – Claire Pajaczkowska

IIPP(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I am quite familiar with Freud’s views but hadn’t considered before that the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews was a form of the anal stage – eliminating waste. Might it be that the obsession of some Christians with homosexuality, and with anal sex in particular, is a perversion – wanting to cleanse their churches of gays?

Burglary is often described as ‘breaking and entering’ and although I have heard of people saying that they feel ‘violated’, I hadn’t really thought through the sexual overtones of these phrases.

As a boy, I loved Emil and the detectives. Our author suggests that this and Tintin, where boys investigate with magnifying glasses is a quest for mastery overlooking mystery.

Quotations:

“The connotations of the word are unpleasant and have a flavour of morality and therefore of free will that is antiquated in these days of science and determinism.”

Thus begins the introduction to the book “Perversion: the Erotic Form of Hatred” – one of the most illuminating and humane explorations of the concept of perversion. And so, if the word has such troubling and antiquated connotations, why is it still in use? Is perversion a sexual act? Is perversion an aggressive act? Do all sexual acts invoke a moral response? Are all aggressive acts unpleasant? What determines the particular fusion of sexuality and aggression that characterises perversion?

The psychoanalytic concept of perversion understands it as a sexual act, but not necessarily a genital act. Even if genitals are used, as in exhibitionism for instance, the genital is not present in its function as adult sexual organ. To understand the paradoxical nature of sex in perversion we need to explore the development of human sexuality, and how infancy and adulthood are connected in that development. There are also perverse acts, such as burglary or addiction, in which no erotic pleasure is consciously experienced, and yet these acts are understood as having a sexual meaning for the subject. How can one concept describe the intense, compelling erotic pleasure of sexuality and also be used to describe acts of criminality, violence and murder? How can one concept account for the pleasures of ordinary sexuality (if any sexuality can be experienced as anything other than extraordinary) and some of the most strange, bizarre and extreme acts of destructiveness, degradation and torture? How is perversion related to concepts of neurosis and psychosis, and also to the experiences of everyday life?

There is considerable controversy over the definition of perversion. Some say it is a matter of variant forms of human sexuality; others think of it as an ‘aberrant’ form. It is only in psychoanalysis that the concept has a diagnostic and descriptive meaning: it is neither a variant nor an aberration but has specific underlying causes and recurring characteristics.

Contemporary historians of sexuality have interpreted the concept in terms of its origins in nineteenth-century medical discourse. For example, in the first volume of his “History of Sexuality”, French structuralist historian Michel Foucault identifies a number of categories of sexuality that were created in mid-nineteenth century medicine as it demarcated itself from biology. These categories, or discursive ‘objects’, were products of a preoccupation with four kinds of sex which Foucault describes as: the ‘hysterization of women’s bodies’, the ‘pedagogization of children’s sex’, the ‘socialization of procreative behaviour’, and the ‘psychiatrization of perverse pleasures’. Foucault writes:

“Four figures emerged from this preoccupation with sex, which mounted throughout the nineteenth century – four privileged objects of knowledge, which were also targets and anchorage points for the ventures of knowledge: the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple and the perverse adult.”

Tracing the changes that took place as medical science assumed responsibility for the production of knowledge on human sexuality, Foucault useful suggested that concepts within a discourse must be understood as a function of power, linked ultimately to the law and the State. Understandably, such work has been very influential among contemporary social historians. It has been used to underpin much archival and political work documenting the criminalisation of homosexuality or the caricaturing of women as ‘hysterical’.

One thinks of the war against masturbation that was waged within British public schools and how this related to the social production of a particular type of ‘man’ capable of administering the British political apparatus. In questioning the status of psychiatry as a pseudo-science, the history of sexuality implicitly offers a social determinist critique of psychoanalysis.

More recently it has been used to inaugurate Queer Theory, which celebrates the privilege of the perspectives not prescribed by the point of view that ideologies define as normal. According to Queer Theory, the word ‘perversion’ is nothing but an unpleasant and moralising anachronism that should be analysed in terms of its history, or else should be taken up and used ironically as an emblem of the stigma of social disapproval. Thus the contemptuous term ‘pervert’ becomes a badge of pride rather than a stigma, and homosexuality is simply one variant of a range of polymorphous sexualities, which differ from heterosexuality only in terms of social recognition, definition and approval.

Queer Theory also acknowledges the scapegoating of ‘aberrant sexualities’ which enables those ‘nice normal people’ to feel themselves different from (superior to) the nasty ‘perverts’. Scapegoats receive projected and disowned fears of the darker side of ‘normality’, and are made to feel ashamed, dirty and sinful. But a celebration of ‘queerness’ may be (politically and personally) inadequate if it is used to deny the real predicament of a perverse subjectivity – for example, that the ‘solution’ created in perversion for the anxiety of sexuality is the best of all possible worlds, is superior to bland, ‘normal’, ‘vanilla flavoured’ sexuality.

Social determinism suggests that repression is a product of the censorship exercised by juridico-discursive institutions, or society, without psychological involvement. Where Queer Theory celebrates the connotations of unpleasantness, twistedness and severe moral criticism, it does so by implying that these are to be levelled at the accusers. The liberal practice associated with ‘gay’ politics seeks to replace the concept of perversion with the less unpleasant one of ‘neo-sexualities’. Are Queer theorists and liberals right in their goal and in their strategies? What is the difference between aberrations, perversion and sexual variants?

The debates surrounding the part that the State does play, or ought to play, in prescribing, controlling and affecting sexualities continue to rage. The debates on the decriminalisation of homosexuality are well documented. Media fascination with stories of paedophilic pop stars, clergymen and social workers, bestiality, necrophilia, trans-sexuality and sado-masochism are part of an ancient, if not noble, tradition of public fascination with the grotesque.

“The repeated experience of the pleasurable cathexis (‘charge’) of libido to the erotogenic zone leaves neural memory traces that form a mental representation of an object. This mental object is a representation of the self and is also a representation of a relationship to something that was not-self.”

return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Chaos by Edmund White

chaos(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I sympathise with his sciatica.

And I always wondered what ‘420’ and ‘PNP’ meant.

There’s a good description of the ageing process and the idea that old people smile while they are sleeping as a preparation for the endless sleep which is death.

Suddenly we get a lot of unexpected sex and obsession with penis size.

I liked the descriptions of Istanbul but, overall, the book was boring. (The Guardian reviewer suggested descriptive powers are as sharp as they were when he wrote A Boy’s Own Story in 1982, but, like his characters, his tales seem to have lost some of their old energy.)

chaos 2Interview with the author:

Do you see the new stories and novella as autobiographical in nature?
A. The stories really aren’t autobiographical. They are the kind of stories I like to write, where I take a situation that I inhabit and try to imagine someone I know or somebody slightly different in that situation. For instance, in the story “A Good Sport,” I was Greece last summer like the main character, but he was based on a translator I know who is incredibly refined, passive and self satisfied. He’s entirely different from me because I am needy all the time. The story also takes place in Istanbul, where I once lived and liked to imagine the translator living, where he may have had or not had an affair 20 years ago. Maybe it is just the opium that he is smoking.

Q. The stories often satirize elements of your own biography, referring to characters as semi-famous novelists or older gay men mockingly referring to when they were beautiful. Why?

A. I’ve always had this self-satirizing vein. It sits more easily in fiction like “Chaos” than in a memoir. Self-satire makes people uncomfortable in a memoir because you can be seen as too hard on oneself. It’s cringe-making material when you say, “This is Edmund White talking about Edmund White’s problems.” When you are writing in the third person and it is called a novella, even if people suspect it is autobiographical, there is still a formal distance. I see Jack as partially based on me, but not entirely.

Q. In these stories, what interests you about aging in the gay community?

A. I feel that I am very much of a generation which was into owning up to the reality that we inhabited, and even glorifying it in some ways. I belonged to the Violet Quill, which was a writing group. We were one of the first group of gay writers that addressed gay readers. Earlier books like James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” had been apologies for gay life, addressed to straight audiences. We, however, assumed that the readers already were sophisticated about gay life. It wasn’t our job to be sociologists or anthropologists about gay life, but to get on with the story. Now that the three surviving members of our group, myself, Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano, are all getting older, we write about getting older.

Q. At one point in “Chaos,” Jack’s editor attacks him for pitching another gay novel. Is it truly that hard to publish gay fiction?

A. It’s true. It’s impossible. I think that gay fiction is the last thing that any editor wants to see crossing their desk because it doesn’t sell. I’m considered the best-known gay novelist in the United States today. If it’s true that it’s hard for me to get published, then it is much harder for others. True, there are novelists like Michael Cunningham who are post-gay. They might have one gay character, but they have other straight ones. There is David Sedaris, but he’s a comedian. For people who really write about gay people living in a gay world, it’s been an era of diminishing expectations, partially because literary fiction has been tanking. Literary novelists who used to sell 30,000 copies now sell 9,000. Gay writers with smaller fan bases sell less well.

Q. Another line in the novella refers to the dumbing down of American society? What do you mean by this?A. When I teach literature to my students, I’ll make a reference to John Milton and they’ll scratch their heads. They don’t read Milton anymore. That means people read less. To discuss gay life specifically, there was definitely a feeling decades ago that to live in a big city like New York, to be gay, you had to have an opinion about the opera, you had to know something about the ballet. You had to have read a few of the prominent books of the time. A lot of that was social and cocktail party talk. That has all vanished. Gym culture has replaced that. http://dylanmfoley.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/edmund-white-on-his-autobiographical.html

Quotations:

Mykonos is no longer the gay safe house it once was. It’s now mostly taken over by tens of thousands of Italian teens all raising hell and racing past on motorbikes, or curling up against one another like puppies in the morning as they wait for the ferry, or clowning around and getting drunk. The road to Paradise Beach is littered with smashed motorbikes, and the hospital is full of Italians who’ve had accidents. Naxos feels peaceful by contrast.”

return to the home page

Leave a Comment

An Honest Life- G. Hooper

AHL(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I met the author, briefly, many years ago and found him to be a man of depth and integrity.

Like me, he was the son of a shopkeeper and learned to flourish in the more middle-class atmosphere of the Church of England.

After service as a squadron leader he faces up to his sexuality and separates from his wife. He describes access to his daughters as times when ‘we had to spend those cold and wet Saturdays in museums, swimming pools.’

It’s interesting that the only bishops who attempted to limit his ministry were evangelical ones. Now that 17 diocesans and 70% of ordinands are evangelical it seems that things will get worse for LGBT clergy (and laity?)

He was awarded an OBE in 2000 ‘for services to the community in Newham, London.’

Quotations:

One Anglican Archbishop’s contribution was as positive as my bishop’s support had been three decades earlier: There is still much ignorance surrounding the debate on human sexuality, especially the formation of sexual identity and the role it plays in letting people grow up into balanced adults. I do not believe the Church understands the damage it is doing in its handling of issues over sexual identity. The wisdom gained from those involved in counselling and psychotherapy could give excellent insight.

Issues of sexual identity are fundamental to our under­standing of ourselves. Where these issues are unresolved the problems can be immense. For a person of faith this becomes even more an issue, especially if in a Church which gives conflicting messages about God’s love, forgiveness and accep­tance, while at the same time implying that to express sexual nature in any way other than a married heterosexual relationship is sinful and puts you outside the Church and its ministry. Help through counselling and psychotherapy, depending on what is appropriate, is one of the ways in which people can, and indeed have, sought help and I know of situa tions where this has helped enormously.

when you glimpse truth you can only go towards it.

On burning boats Until you leave behind a chapter of your life, with no way of return, you are still hesitating, you can still draw back; conse­quently, your energy will be scattered, not focused. When you do let go, ‘Providence’ also moves, moves towards you with gifts. ‘Events’ begin to happen. Encounters surprise you with what you need.

Material assistance comes to you unexpectedly. None of these things could you have ‘dreamed up’. You can never be aware of what is waiting for you at the right moment. Goethe

return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Jubilate – Michael Arditti

Untitled(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Chaucer observed that pilgrimages bring together people with contrasting motivations and this is certainly true of the main characters in this novel. The charcter Vincent says that he did Chaucer for O’ level English, Actually, it’s on the A’ level syllabus.

And ‘healing’ isn’t necessarily physical.

‘Jubilate” = ‘be joyful’ yet here are the hopeless, the desperate, the bereaved and the sick. In this story, ‘Jubilate’ is the title for the 150th anniversary celebration of Lourdes.

Gillian is a Roman Catholic who takes her husband Richard, who is suffering from brain damage which has left him with the lewd behaviour of a teenager, along with his mother Patricia, a devotee of the Lourdes pilgrimage. Gillian doesn’t really have much faith in Lourdes and goes reluctantly and slightly standoffishly but is drawn into it by the stories of the other pilgrims.

Vincent is a Television producer making a programme about Lourdes with permission to follow this particular group of pilgrims around. He is an atheist and a cynic, with a Roman Catholic childhood behind him. As his story develops you discover that he is as wounded as the pilgrims around him.

It takes a teenager to point out the anti-semitism in the portrayal of the stations of the cross.

I loved the bit where Vincent tries to find a condom – in Lourdes.

The chapters are a bit too long for my taste.

In an interview with the author, he explained that 10 years ago he ate some unpasteurised goats’ cheese which set up an infection and destroyed two discs at the base of his spine.

“It thrust me into middle age,“because the first thing people see when they meet me is a stick. Thankfully I can write. And it may sound pious but there are people so much worse off. Being able to say, ‘Why not me?’ is one of the advantages of having faith.”

Yes, he always has had faith, although it may have wobbled a bit when he was in his 20s. He sees it as an enormous gift because “one is not afraid of so many things”.

He went on his first pilgrimage because of his disability – he wanted the strength to carry on. And he went because of his faith; you have to have faith when you think that in 150 years there have been only 67 accredited medical miracles

Arditti takes on board all the doubters: Vincent, his central character, is the voice of all non-believers when he asks why miracles are not visible – why, for instance, an amputee does not grow a new leg. “There are,” says Arditti, “all sorts of miracles.”

He is very aware of the showbiz aspect of Lourdes – the shops are part of the enormous commercial area – and there are apparently more hotels there than anywhere else in France other than Paris.

The area devoted to St Bernadette’s shrine is even more vast: “acres of Disneyfied churches and chapels, conference centres.”

How does a man of Arditti’s sensitivity find any sort of comfort there, enough to make him go back three times?

“What made it bearable for me was the people,” he explains. “Yes, there is an element of playing on people’s credulity, and I really do not like seeing comatose people on drips being wheeled in processions – but it is still inspirational.

“It has an aura of faith, hope, altruism, physical courage. The real miracle is that it gives people the strength to carry on – as it did for me.

“The generosity of the people who go to help – all volunteers, and a lot of them are very young – is remarkable.” http://www.westendextra.com/reviews/books/2011/jan/books-review-jubilate-michael-arditti

Quotations:

seri­ously, mate, it’s a very special place. Forget the Costa del Sol, this is the Costa del Hope

We edge through the milling crowds, down a narrow side street lined with cheap religious souvenir shops.

`Welcome to the town that taste forgot, I say.

The perfect place for Christmas shopping, Jamie says.

`Sure, if all your friends are nuns, Jewel says.

`I’ve never felt so Protestant in my life, Sophie says.

 

Answers: he replies with unnerving intensity ‘Why? Are ye going to give us some?’

`Answers to what?’

`People come to Lourdes cos they’re good people, right?’

`In the main, yes; I expect so, I reply, taken aback.

“Then God lets them die. Why?’ My studied silence forces him to expand. `This morning, we passed a pile-up on the autoroute. A coach full of Poles … Polish people._ It skidded across three lanes. straight into the opposite traffic. There was blood and guts ever where. You could see the bodies.

`No you couldn’t, Key.’ One of his friends interjects. ‘They we all covered up:

`Well you could see the stretchers, so you knew they were there

And there was this stink of burning flesh:

`Burning tyres, you dork!’

Kevin draws me aside. `But they weren’t ordinary Poles. It were pilgrims who’d been to Lourdes. Yesterday – maybe ti morning even – they were at mass. Some of them were sick. Some them were kids. Some of them were sick kids. Maybe some of thi had been cured. What’s the point of coming here then if God all that to happen? Tell me: what?’ I say nothing, signalling to Jam zoom in on Kevin’s tortured face, confident that it is far more eloquent than any doubts I might express.

Although the Church no longer emasculates its choristers, continues to infantilise its congregations. The thought depresses and I am grateful for the chance to bury it in the formality of Eucharistic prayers, but the respite is cut short when Father D announces the Peace. I am wrenched back to my childhood and dreaded moment each Sunday when I had to shake hands, first Father Damian, whose clammy palm contained the threat of so thing more intimate, and then with Douglas, my fellow altar boy weekly nemesis who, daring me not to squeal, turned the exchange into a Chinese burn.

the Cardinal moves into the congregation and raises the monstrance to bless each section in turn. I feel none of the unease that I felt about attending mass. This is Christ coming to me in pity for my weakness, not me .coming to him in defiance of my sin.

Patricia laughs immoderately at an account of three nuns in a priest’s life (`none yesterday, none today and tomorrow’), that she would have deplored from anyone else. a quip that the favourite hymn in a crematorium is ‘Light Up Fire, Oh Lord!’ falls flat. After a rare non-clerical joke (`horse is what stops horses betting on humans’)…

return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Whistling For The Elephants by Sandi Toksvig

WFE(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I suppose it was quite amusing but I don’t concur with one reviewer who suggested that it provoked belly-laughs.

Her father sounds rather like mine: Coloured shirts on a man are a sure sign of homosexuality and Never trust a man in a ready-made bow tie.

I was amused that she thought that quoting the Bible at a (pet’s) funeral was a bit ‘catholic’.

There’s a majestic description of elephants and an ending to rival George Orwell’s ‘The Shooting of an Elephant.’

I had to look up ‘eland’ = antelope meat.

In an interview, the author said: Whistling for Elephants is about a 10-year-old girl living near New York in 1968. The parents in the book are a ghastly pair, cold and formal: the mother “had made the most of herself and then just carried on, not knowing when to stop” and the father is so reserved that he expresses emotion only by twitching his neck in his too-tight collar.

“They are terrible and my parents were terrific,” says Sandi, who claims that the autobiographical elements extend only to the time and place in which the book are set, and the family’s habit of travelling first class. Sandi’s father, the Richard Dimbleby of Denmark, worked in New York for six years, taking his British wife and three children – “a raucous and jolly family” – with him.

And yet, the child at the heart of the book is both sad and strikingly like the woman sitting opposite: “I caught sight of myself in a mirror,” she writes. “A slightly plump girl in a tie. Too much nearly a boy. A miniature monsieur-dame that no frock could ever feminise, with impossible red hair, for which there was no genetic explanation.”

This poor child is teased, misunderstood and told not to “be so different”. Along with some other “goddamn freaks” – a mixed-race boy and a woman whose face has been half ruined by a tiger – she struggles to save a zoo full of caged animals. Surely Sandi is that child?

“I wasn’t quite so tragic – I had a lot of friends and I wasn’t so socially awkward,” she says, with an attempt at laughter. “But is there anyone in the world who doesn’t see themselves as a shy, awkward person?”

In the book, as in conversation, she skids off the emotional tracks into humour or quirky quiz facts. Page after page is filled with offbeat female role models, from Artemesia, a fifth-century sea captain, to Theoigne de Mericourt, who liberated the Bastille.

There are diverting snippets, too, about animal habits. Did you know that an elephant produces a litre of ejaculate, which is enough to feed an ant-hill for a month? “Stop being funny,” I want to scream, as she says her literary agent wrote in a note.

Disguise it as she might, this is a moving book – one that gives an agonising picture of the child’s isolation. Talking about her own childhood, she adopts an off-hand tone. “I wasn’t a girly girl,” she says, “I wore trousers and a cap. There are pictures of me wearing a tie – but mostly because I wanted to wear a uniform – until I was teased out of it. I preferred Scalextric to dolls.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/cassandra-jardine/9298055/Sandi-Toksvig-I-didnt-want-to-live-in-fear.html

WFE 2Quotations:

I was ten. Almost certainly I was wearing a short tartan kilt (Clan McLadybird), a white shirt, a very neatly tied tie, a blue blazer and a peaked sailor’s cap which hid my long curly ginger hair. No-one made me dress like that. It was a kind of school uniform I had invented for myself. In the photos the combination tie and skirt made me look a strange boy / girl hybrid. My face, born with a frown, was obscured by the peak of my hat. I had spent most of my early childhood shielded from a full view of anything. The cap and I were inseparable. I was, even in my tender years, trying to develop a rakish look. I spent many hours trying to persuade people to call me Cap’n instead of Dorothy. It didn’t work. Not a popular child. Not even with my parents.

`He walked, led entirely by his hips, a loose open walk which advertised all he had to offer.’

`I can’t worry about this, I can’t spend Sunday mornings wondering if the chicken on my table was depressed. How could you tell anyway? Bad posture?

“We shall have a Chinese Garden of Intelligence.” I jumped as a voice spoke behind me. I thought for a second it came from the picture. “A Great Menagerie. Like King George at Windsor or the Duke of Bedford. Tropical princes shall come and bring us barbaric offerings of tigers, leopards and creatures no man has ever seen before. We shall have such a collection that the Emperor of Abyssinia will hear of it and wish to come.”

I turned but couldn’t see anyone. Then, amongst the great drapes which covered the walls, something moved. A giant insect woman. All in brown. Its wings closed about itself. It spoke to me.

“No one, not even in Egypt, China, India or Rome, will be able to boast of such exotica.”

The huge bug shimmered toward me. She was maybe in her late thirties but when you’re a kid everyone just looks old. She was probably as old as Mother, just less set in aspic.

Outside the homeroom you had a long, thin, metal locker with a combination lock. In this you kept everything of value and your lunch. My locker was number 69. I was the last to join class 6A and locker 69 had been empty all year. I didn’t know but it had belonged to a girl who, at the age of eleven, had been kicked out of school for `going down’ on the assistant football coach. There was a general sense that her unnatural precocity was catching and no one had wanted her locker with its sniggering number. I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t know sixty-nine was a funny number. I thought going down was something you did in a lift. I didn’t know why everyone whispered when I approached my locker down the long, dark corridor. I was blinkered. I just liked having a locker with a lock. I thought it was a secret place for secret things.

I learned the pledge of allegiance by the second day and would leap to attention, hand over my heart, once the announcements were over. ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible before God with liberty and justice for all.’ It was like the Our Father in English assemblies only a bit shorter.

`They say the first primitive moths fluttered over giant dinosaurs a hundred and forty million years ago. Imagine that. The butterflies came much later. Forty million years. Really they are the new kids on the block. The moth is beautiful. Here, look.’ From inside her folds of brown clothing she removed a large black-rimmed magnifying glass, which she held up to the moth near my head. ‘Look. See how it has a tiny kind of hook-and‑- bristle thing linking its fore and hind wings? It can fly better than an airplane. Land more accurately than a helicopter. Of course some female moths can’t fly at all.’ She put down the magnifying glass and looked at me.

`Butterflies and moths are unique. Almost every part of their body from their wings to their feet is covered by thousands of delicate scales. That’s what gives them color and pattern, but we don’t see them. Do you like insects?’

`I don’t know. I don’t like spiders.’

`A spider could catch this moth. Some spiders can make a smell like a female moth and attract the male.’ She nodded at me confidentially. ‘Attraction is all about chemicals.’

‘Touch an elephant and you receive enlightenment. Buddha himself was born into the body of an elephant in an elephant trainer’s family. On the night of his birth, an elephant entered the dreams of Buddha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, and Gautama Buddha was thus born patient, strong, meek and unforgetful.’

One bull can produce as much as a liter of ejaculate.

Did you ever see two herons court­ing?’ she asked. ‘They wrap their long necks around each other and reach such a pitch of emotion that I could have wished to be a heron so I might experience it.’

`Camels have very civil breeding methods although otherwise they are rather bad-tempered and I do not recommend them for a pet. If a female in the camel pack . . . sounds like a cigarette . . . anyway, if the female goes into heat then the males won’t fight for her. They just line up single file and in an orderly fashion to “service” her. When they’re done, they get off and go back to the end of the line.’

My country, ’tis of thee
Land of grape juice and tea,
Of thee I sing.
Land where we all have tried
To break the laws and lied!
From every mountainside The bootlegs spring . .

`Oh, we don’t give a damn
For our old Uncle Sam.
Way, oh, whiskey and gin!
Lend us a hand
When we stand in to land.
Just give us time
To run the rum in!

We had talked a lot about size. I mean to do with the elephants. We had probably built the world’s strongest enclosure out of the old train tracks but I still don’t think we were ready. Well, I wasn’t. I stood there watching three men unload the elephants from a large truck. Artemesia came first. The truck had rough slats as a walkway for her to come out of the vehicle so her feet were kind of at my eye level. At least it’s what I noticed first. This massive animal walked almost silently. The only noise came from the creaking wood as she swayed down toward me with incredibly precise footsteps. A silent walk with the track of her hind legs coming to rest precisely in the spoor of the front. Her sole spread out to take weight at each step. It was slow and deliberate. As she lifted her foot I could see the cracks and ridges under­neath. Like the grip on a great pair of sneakers. Then her foot would descend again, its built-in shock absorber of fatty fibrous tissue cushioning the impact. It was so neat.

Her feet had shiny round toenails. A smart lady out for the evening. She could have followed a dance card on the floor, this elegant, shimmying thing. So slow and precise and so silent.

As she got closer I moved up to her legs. They were tall, straight columns which supported her massive bulk, and she was big. I expected the vast expanse of gnarled skin. I knew from Helen’s reading that she was a pachy­dermata. It came from pachys, meaning ‘thick’ and derma, `skin’, but I didn’t know so much of it would be so soft. A great deal of it was like upholstered leather — a patch­work quilt. I reached out, completely unafraid. Her sides were prickly to feel — covered in short, stiff hairs. I moved my hand toward her head. She was mostly coarse and grainy to touch but some places were pliable and spongy, like around the loose baggy pants above her back legs. Endless rivers of wrinkles stretched above my head. A great Ordnance Survey of life across leather skin. The lines almost made grill marks across her sides and flanks, but it was at her head that I fell in love.

Artemesia looked at me. She had a constant, shy smile. There was not a wicked bone in her body. Mother would have said that the hair all round her mouth and chin looked like it needed plucking, but I loved it. It was a full and fearless growth. Her eyes seemed small for the size of her head and they had long lashes Judith would kill for. Soft brown eyes fringed with lashes as long as a hand. Her ears, the shape of Africa, flapped slightly in the warm night air. At the outer margins of her ears you could just see vast rivers of blood vessels surging with her life. Inside her ears and around her mouth, her skin was paper

thin and delicate. I reached up to touch her face and she bent down to help me. I put my hand behind her ears and felt a place as soft and cool and smooth as silk. Something happened in my stomach. I didn’t know, but I suspected it was my first encounter with sheer passion.

The other elephant was smaller. A lot smaller. Maybe three foot tall and just a few months old. I couldn’t tell. I mean, baby or not, she still must have weighed two hundred pounds. She was just as beautiful but maybe a little fatter. The mini-Jumbo was covered in soft baby fuzz and had a hunched, shuffling gait. Her skin was really too big for her body. She looked as though she had been dressed in an oversize gray Babygro. It bagged and sagged around her haunches. The baby was less delicate in her movements. She thumped out of the truck, tread­ing on and tripping over her trunk. Although the two had made the journey together she hurried to greet Artemesia. The baby put down her head as she ran to the larger elephant and they both began to make low rumbles at each other. They gently used the tips of their trunks to snake over each other’s heads, fondling, feeling and smelling tenderly. Then the baby snuggled close to her mother, put her trunk in her mouth and sucked at it like a baby with a thumb. She stood under the protective umbrella of Artemesia’s great body — like a child hiding in Mother’s skirts. I had never seen such open affection.

return to the home page

Leave a Comment