Monday, December 31, 2012

Now and In England

Extract from Four Quartets (Quartet No. 4: Little Gidding) by T.S. Eliot

Last season's fruit is eaten
And the full-fed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice. ....

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Hear the whole poem read by Eliot himself here.

Happy New Year and New Beginnings to all readers of Midatlantic!  

Monday, December 24, 2012

It snowed and it snowed

Illustration by Edward Ardizzone

"A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas is one of the most evocative accounts of the magic of a childhood Christmas. Here is one of my favorite passages:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.
But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."
"But that was not the same snow," I say. "Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."
"Were there postmen then, too?"
"With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells."
"You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?"
"I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them."
"I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells."
"There were church bells, too."
"Inside them?"
"No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence."

Here is Dylan Thomas reading the whole short book in his inimitably mellifluous - and surprisingly unWelsh - voice.

Wishing all the readers of Midatlantic a peaceful and joyous Christmas!


Monday, December 17, 2012

Versed in Sorrow

Prince Sigismund of Prussia (1864-1866)

Letter from Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia to her mother Queen Victoria on the death of her 18-month old son Sigismund from meningitis, June 19 1866

"Your suffering child turns to you in her grief, sure to find sympathy from so tender a heart - so versed in sorrow. The Hand of Providence is heavy upon me....

My little darling, graciously lent to me for a short time to be my pride, my joy, my hope is gone - gone where I can not recall him! Oh spare me the details - spare me telling you how -and when - and where my heart was rent and broken; let me only say that I do not murmur or repine. God's will be done.

What I suffer no one can know - few knew how I loved! It was my own happy secret-the long cry of agony which rises from the inmost depth of my soul reaches Heaven alone.

I wish you to know all - you are so kind, darling Mama - that you will wish to know all about the last terrible days - I cannot describe them.

I am calm now - for Fritz's sake [her husband] and my little ones' - but oh! How bitter is the cross.

I kiss your dear hands and wish I could be in your dear arms.

Your broken-hearted child, Victoria."

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Bones Beneath

Hoar Frost, Andrew Wyeth

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape - the loneliness of it - the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it - the whole story doesn't show." Andrew Wyeth

This is how fiction should be – hinting at what lies beneath the story rather than making all of its glories visible to the naked eye. Let the reader use her imagination to see what else might be there. There will always be readers whose minds will jib at the first sign of uncertainty and say, “Wait, how old is this character? What year is this happening? Where exactly are we?” but that’s an occupational hazard. If they have confidence in the writer, they'll read on and trust that meaning will seep up slowly from the bare bones of the prose.
This means that it's also incumbent on the writer to trust her readers to reach that understanding all by themselves and thus refrain from over-explaining. It’s a fine line but a crucial one. Too much information can be deadly for art.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Sea Inside

"Doesn't it seem to you," asked Madame Bovary, "that the mind moves more freely in the presence of that boundless expanse, that the sight of it elevates the soul and gives rise to thoughts of the infinite and the ideal?”
Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1856)  

Mike and I spent the week before Thanksgiving with friends in the Southern Outer Banks of North Carolina. The resort town of Emerald Isle is on a 30-mile-long pencil of low-lying land attached to the mainland only by a bridge at either end. The island has a sound on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, and the towns along the island are known as the Crystal Coast. There are no high-rises along the beach, just unbroken rows of vacation houses just feet from the dunes, almost all of them empty in November – except ours.
So we woke up in the mornings and fell asleep at night to the sounds of the sea through the open windows. Like many people, I’ve never been good at stilling my mind, but somehow it becomes much easier to do when sitting on a strand of wet sand just watching the waves. There can be no more soothing sensation in the world. Every muscle in my body relaxes from its habitual semi-clench. I’m sure it’s partly because wave sounds are what all humans remember from being inside our mothers’ bellies. But in my case, it’s also because the North Sea provided the everlasting soundtrack of my childhood so, wherever I am in the world – the Carolinas, the English Channel, Tahiti - the sea is always home.

Our first two days in Emerald Isle were so hot it was impossible to sit for long in the direct sun. We wore shorts and tee-shirts, and I even waded in the Atlantic. But then the weather turned grey and cold. Mike and I tried to play tennis on the town’s courts and had to battle the icy wind that whipped the ball around. Then on the last full day of our week, the wind died down and the sky cleared, and we walked on the beach in sweaters and jackets, feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces. From blazing sun to cloud-curdled skies to chilly brilliance all in the space of a week.  
I spent the days reading and writing, gazing out at the shrimp boats with their masts akimbo, balanced on the horizon like bathtub toys. Lines of pelicans – still an exotic wonder to my European eyes – flew low over the water in perfect formation. And several times a day we would spot a pod of dolphins cresting through the silver shimmer on the grey Atlantic water.

On my beach walks, I was fascinated by how the tiny sanderlings would skitter across the wet sand with the ebb and flow of waves, always just ahead of the foam. And on several days I saw huge congregations of sea birds holding a vigil on the flat wet sand, all tightly packed and facing the same way – herring gulls,  black-backed gulls, willets, terns, and every kind of sandpiper. They seemed impervious to the proximity of a human, but at the approach of a dog, however docile, they would rise en masse only to settle down again a few yards further down the beach. Once Mike and I came across a dead cormorant on its back in the wet sand, as black as an oil slick and perfect except for a slight pink perforation on its breast.
Now we’re back in wintry Washington, with the rush and hustle of the holiday season upon us, and I’m already losing that unclenched tranquil feeling I had as I sat at the water’s edge. The sea is no longer just outside my window, but I know I must learn to listen to the inner ocean that is always there in my memory and imagination.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Great Man Gone


R.I.P. John F. Kennedy, Assassinated 49 years ago tomorrow, November 22, 1963

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hallowe'en, 1963

President John F. Kennedy with his children
Caroline (l) and John (r) in the Oval Office
of The White House on October 31, 1963

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Apocalypse Now

The 1938 New England hurricane

I know I harp on a lot about weather in this blog, but where I live, not far inland from the Eastern Seaboard of the Atlantic coast of the United States, it’s a constant looming presence in everyone’s life. Washington D.C. is still recovering from the freak derecho storm that knocked out power across a huge swathe of the Midatlantic earlier this year. The area was rendered post-apocalyptic for several days – no gas stations, no cell phone or internet coverage, no emergency 911 service, and – of course – no means of escape from the 105 degree heat.
Now, a mere four months later to the day, we’re awaiting the arrival of what we’re told will be the most destructive storm of the century, Hurricane Sandy. The region has been under the most stringent of weather alerts for several days and the storm is due to hit us with its full force tomorrow (Monday) night and throughout most of Tuesday. Schools are closed, thousands of flights cancelled, stocks of bread, water, batteries and flashlights are depleted – we’ve even been warned to have plenty of cash on hand in case the ATMs are knocked out. It sounds like the derecho was just a rehearsal for Armageddon.   

But these are all tedious adult concerns. Our neighborhood children are looking forward to the excitement of living by flashlight and having to wear all their clothes at once to stay warm. For them, this will be an adventure, pure and simple, something to look back on as a milestone of childhood.

This perspective was beautifully captured by Sylvia Plath in a 1962 essay called “Ocean 1212-W” that appears in her posthumous collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. In the essay, Plath wonderfully described the devastating New England hurricane of 1938 through the eyes of her childhood self:  

"The sulfurous afternoon went black unnaturally early, as if what was to come could not be star-lit, torch-lit, looked at. The rain set in, one huge Noah douche. Then the wind. The world had become a drum. Beaten, it shrieked and shook. Pale and elated in our beds, my brother and I sipped our nightly hot drink. We would, of course, not sleep. We crept to a blind and hefted it a notch. On a mirror of rivery black our faces wavered like moths, trying to pry their way in. Nothing could be seen. The only sound was a howl, jazzed up by the bangs, slams, groans and splinterings of objects tossed like crockery in a giants’ quarrel. The house rocked on its root. It rocked and rocked and rocked its two small watchers to sleep."
Isn’t that wonderful? I leave it with you until I re-emerge - après le déluge.

Postscript (Tuesday, October 30, 2012) - We in the Washington DC area emerged largely unscathed from this one. Sandy gave us a good battering but saved its worst for elsewhere. We feel for those in NYC, my home state of New Jersey, and all along the Atlantic seaboard who weren't so lucky.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Queen of the South

Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti by Charles Giraud

In May 1842, when Ariitaimai married her young Englishman, her beloved adopted sister Queen Pomare IV was at her side. It was a difficult time for the young Queen who was coming under great pressure from two directions – from the French to cede her country to their protection and from the resident British consul to resist those pressures.
The American author Hermann Melville who encountered the Queen at about that time:

“She wore a loose gown of blue silk, with two rich shawls, one red and the other yellow, tied about her neck. Her royal majesty was bare-footed. She was about the ordinary size, rather matronly; her features not very handsome; her mouth, voluptuous; but there was a care-worn expression in her face, probably attributable to her late misfortunes.  From her appearance, one would judge her about forty; but she is not so old.” 
In fact she was only 29, but she had already been Queen of Tahiti for 15 years.

When she came to the throne in 1827 after the deaths in quick succession of her father and young brother, she’d been only 14 - too young to assume the mantel of responsibility for her people. In those early days, young Aimata (her given name) was a wild child –  always surounded by a horde of drunken followers, swimming out with her ladies to ships in the lagoon to flirt with the sailors. In defiance of the English missionaries who had been a strong moral force on the island during the reign of her father, she sanctioned the traditional dances that the missionaries had banned, including one in which young girls would be untwirled from their long cloth wraps until they were dancing completely naked. (It is unlikely that Ariitaimai was present during these debauches because, being eight years younger than Aimata, she was still living among the children of the court.)
But gradually Aimata began to mature and settle. In 1833 the missionaries succeeded in enrolling her in a temperance society. The following year they reluctantly agreed to allow her to divorce the husband to whom she’d been married at the age of only 9 and marry Ariifaite, a handsome young chief from a neighboring island. In 1833, both Pomare and her new consort asked to join the Church as communicants, and from then on the Queen was a faithful and devout believer for the rest of her long reign.  
Her second marriage was to be a success, but the early days could be turbulent. In his book Omoo, Melville gleefully recounted tales that he’d been told that dated back to that time:

Six or seven years ago...the town was thrown into the greatest commotion by a conjugal assault and battery, made upon the sacred person of Pomare by her intoxicated Tanee [consort].” Ariifaite, who had been “dismissed contemptuously” from his wife’s presence, had been drinking and, egged on by his companions, he decided he’d had enough.
“Near the outskirts of the town, a cavalcade of women came cantering toward him in the center of which was the object of his fury. Smiting his beast right and left, he dashed in among them; completely overturning one of the party, leaving her on the field, and dispersing everybody else except Pomare.  Backing her horse dexterously, the incensed queen heaped upon him every scandalous epithet she could think of; until, at last, the enraged Tanee leaped out of his saddle, caught Pomare by her dress, and dragging her down to the earth, struck her repeatedly in the face, holding on meanwhile by the hair of her head. He was proceeding to strangle her on the spot, when the cries of the frightened attendants brought a crowd of natives to the rescue who bore the nearly insensible queen away.”
Before one can feel too sorry for the queen, Melville describes another occasion on which Pomare was “giving audience to a deputation from the captains of the vessels lying in Papeete, he [Ariifaite] ventured to make a suggestion which was very displeasing to her. She turned around, and, boxing his ears, told him to go over to his beggarly island....if he wanted to give himself airs.” 

This was the Wars of the Roses Tahitian-style. Fortunately, both parties mellowed as the years went on and Ariifaite became the most loyal of husbands, though he still had a tendency to indulge in intoxicating spirits rather more often than was good for him.

After several years of struggle, the French took over Tahiti as a “protectorate” and thereafter there was peace on the island for the rest of the Queen’s 50-year reign. Under her sister Ariitaimai’s influence, Pomare became more devout as she grew older. She had to endure much sadness over the years – the early deaths of two of her sons and the alcoholism of two others, one of whom became a violent madman, not to mention the death of her beloved 6-year-old granddaughter, Maona, of tuberculosis.

In 1872, the French writer Pierre Loti described Pomare “in the massive ugliness of her old age” but with a “bright frank smile” and a motherly warmth. When she died of a heart attack in 1877, Ariitaimai walked at the head of the cortege and the representatives from all the clans of the island gathered en masse behind their funereal drums in a procession that stretched for almost four miles. The Queen’s coffin lay on a gun carriage that was pulled by 30 sturdy Tahitians. An observer noted, ”The sea breaking on the reef provided a muted accompaniment to the wailing of an entire people.”  

Queen Pomare IV in 1869

After the death of Queen Pomare IV, she was succeeded – after a few days of negotiation and consultation – by her dissolute eldest son, who from then on was known as King Pomare V. In return, the new King had to promise the Tahitian Legislative Assembly and the French governor that he would reconcile with his 17-year-old wife Marau Salmon who had fled home to her mother when she discovered the full extent of her husband’s dissipation. The consequence of this rapprochement was that the granddaughter of a penniless London Jew became the last Queen of Tahiti.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Showing the Way

Tati Salmon in later life

The world is divided between those who believe in an afterlife and those who don’t. And even those who are believers are divided about whether the dead reach out to us from beyond the grave. I used to be a skeptic on that point but I am no longer. The older I get, the more I recognize those signs when I see them. Here’s an example…

When my husband Mike and I were in Tahiti in December 2007, I was very eager to find the site of the Salmons’ famous house in their ancestral village of Papara. The house itself had been swept away in a flood in 1926, complete with its priceless contents – artifacts dating back to ancient Tahiti as well as many family letters and other important papers. The thought of those lost letters is enough to make a biographer turn pale.

I had gathered some clues about the house’s location from the many accounts written by visitors to the house in the 19th and early 20th century. The fullest descriptions were left by the American painter John La Farge and the American historian Henry Adams on their world tour in 1891. During their four-month stay in Tahiti, they came to know and love 38-year-old Tati Salmon, the genial oldest son of the family, a man whom Henry Adams described as being big and handsome with “an overflow of life.” Ever hospitable, Tati twice hosted the two Americans at the Papara house, with its wooden frame covered with lime and with a roof of thatched pandanus leaves and shady verandahs on the front and back.
Here’s how the visitors described the house’s location: “The house stands flat on the seashore… a sea that came close up to the grass, and had three lines of surf rolling in through an opening in the reef, and rolling close up till they sent small waves into the entrance of the little river that flows close by the house” (Adams). “The little river runs rapidly a few yards off, hidden in part by trees; at which women go down to wash, and which men and boys cross to bathe, and in which splash the horses when they are washed in the morning. It is all delightfully rustic” (La Farge).  

La Farge also wrote this lovely description of the local children swimming in the river. “I looked this morning at the children playing in the water of the little river, or in the surf that rolls into it or along the shore… It was a pretty sight, the brown limbs and bodies all red in the sun and wet, coming out of the blue and white water like red flowers.”
But neither man divulged the name of the river. Tahiti has many rivers (there are at least four in Papara alone), and each one can have several different names. So it was going to be tall order for us to find the exact site of the Salmon house.

Mike and I arrived in Papara and quickly found the church and the chapel where manyof the Salmons are buried. At the town hall, we were lucky enough to meet a great-great granddaughter of Tati Salmon, but because my French was bad and her English non-existent, I could not find out if she knew where her ancestors’ house in Papara used to stand. So we said our au revoirs and headed back to the rental car. I decided we’d better continue on our way round the island as we still had a lot more ground to cover that day. So Mike pointed the car southwards and I sat beside him, nursing my disappointment.
But as we left the outskirts of the town and passed over a small bridge over the Taharuu River, I happened to glance to my right and to my astonishment saw the very scene La Farge had described 116 years earlier. Sun-splashed children were frolicking in the river’s mouth where it opened out into the lagoon.  


“Stop the car,” I yelled. Startled, Mike pulled over. I leapt out of the car and ran back along the bridge, and headed down a dirt track in the direction of the sea. For a second my attention was diverted by a pair of puppies shambling through the mud. But as I paused to watch them, wondering if I was trespassing on private property, I felt a pressure at my back pushing me forward. I swear it felt like exactly a pair of hands in the small of my back pressing me on, keeping me on track. I could almost lean back against the force of it. Propelled by the invisible hands, I kept going all the way down the dirt track to the very edge of a wide black sand beach where a deserted sandwich bar looked out over the bay.
It wasn’t a very prepossessing building, but this was the view it commanded (see photo below). It was the very view described by Henry Adams as he sat on the Salmons’ verandah and looked up at “velvet-green mountains, streaked by long white threads of waterfalls.”  

Almost five years later, I still have no absolute definitive proof that the Salmon house was located on the banks of the Taharuu River, though I have accumulated a few more bits of evidence that suggest as much. But for myself, I have no doubts at all that on that day in December 2007 Tati Salmon gently but firmly steered me to the spot he loved better than anywhere else in the world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Golden Loads of Autumn

Two poems on the bounty of Fall by the English poets William Blake (1757-1827) and John Keats (1795-1821)


To Autumn    William Blake   (Written in 1783)

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain'd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.
The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.'
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.


To Autumn     John Keats    (Written in 1820)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Great World Beyond

Arrival of the steamship Marama at Papeete, 1915

“In Tahiti the sea was very near and meant much. One felt towards it as must the mountaineer who lives in the shadow of the Matterhorn. It was always part of one’s thoughts, for all men and things came and went by it,
and the great world lay beyond it.”

Frederick O’Brien “Mystic Isles of the South Seas.” 1921

It is almost impossible for us in the 21st century to imagine the utter isolation of a South Sea island a century or more ago. Until a telegraph station was established in Papeete at the start of World War I, Tahiti’s only contact with the rest of the world was by sea. There were no planes, no phones, no Skype, no emails, no cable, no wireless. All communication with the outside world came and went by ship – the monthly mail steamer from San Francisco and Wellington or passing naval ships, commercial schooners, or private yachts.
So the arrival of a ship of any kind was a huge event in Tahiti. The whole population of Papeete would flock to the quay, and the girls wore their best peignoirs and put on shoes and stockings to greet the new arrivals. Foreign visitors and returning locals alike were cheered and garlanded as they came down the gangplank. And as the crowd gradually dispersed from the quay, many hurried to the Post Office to await the opening of the great sacks of mail that the ship had carried to Tahiti from across the seas.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the most important job on the island was that of the keeper of the semaphore.

On a hill a few hundred feet behind the town there was a small house surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. From this viewpoint could be seen the tops of the masts of the ships in the harbour, the gray and red roofs of houses masked by the foliage below, the red spire of the Catholic Cathedral, and further out beyond the reef miles of the Pacific Ocean to the horizon.

View of Papeete harbor and the reef from the semaphore station, 1906
This house was known as the semaphore station. Whenever the keeper of the semaphore, often a retired sailor, spied a ship on the horizon, he would hoist various objects on the tall white pole to let the townsfolk know that a ship was approaching and from which direction. As the vessel came closer, he would hoist other objects to indicate its type (for example, a great white ball for the mail steamers and other symbols for men-of-war, barks, and schooners) and a flag to inform the population of its nationality. All stores and clubs and most private houses on the island had a copy of a guidebook that interpreted these elaborate signals.  

The information conveyed by the semaphore was crucial to every person in the town for the ships that came to Tahiti carried letters from loved ones and money from business partners and all kinds of exotic goods from as far away as London and Paris. The sea was the island’s one and only lifeline, and the semaphore keeper was its messenger, the first herald of the arrival of tidings from the other side of the ocean.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Across the Great Divide

Art Malik as Hari Kumar, Susan Wooldridge as Daphne Manners,
and Tim Pigott-Smith as Ronald Merrick
Granada TV, 1984
I have recently finished reading The Jewel in the Crown quartet of novels by Paul Scott, which was turned into a magnificent television series in the 1980s by Granada TV. The books are a powerful portrait of the Brits in India becoming ever more British even as their white-knuckled hold on the sub-continent is slowly weakened by war and inevitability.
The core story is set in 1942 in the fictional Indian city of Mayapore and involves a relationship between an English girl, Daphne, and an Anglo-Indian boy, Hari. Daphne is also courted by the local police inspector, Ronald Merrick, whose unassailable belief in the superiority of the white race runs like a toxic stream through the whole story. One evening he tries to warn Daphne about Hari and she gets indignant.
I said... I personally didn’t care what colour people were, and it was obviously only Hari’s colour, the fact he was an Indian that got people’s goat. Ronald said, “That’s the oldest trick in the game, to say colour doesn’t matter. It does matter. It’s basic. It matters like hell.” I started getting out of the car. He tried to stop me, and took my hand. He said, “I’ve put it badly. I can’t help it. The whole idea revolts me.”
This was a reminder to me of how long the fear of miscegenation continued in Western society. Obviously segregation continued in the US South until the 1960s, but I had imagined the British as having moved beyond that earlier. But while black GIs were being welcomed in Great Britain during the World War II, at the same time in India many Brits continued to treat Indians – even those who were their social and intellectual equals – as literally untouchable.

This fear of contact between the races was also at play in the Pacific theater during the war years if James Michener is to be believed. His stories were the basis for the musical South Pacific in which good old Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas loves the French settler Emile de Becque but rejects his marriage proposal because he’d had a relationship with a Polynesian woman. According to the beliefs with which she’d been raised, this had tainted him and had put him beyond the pale (as it were) as a potential husband. Rodgers and Hammerstein included in the musical a song called You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught that addressed this learned racism.

You've got to be taught
To be Afraid
Of people whose eyes
Are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught.
When the show was on tour in the Deep South in the early 1950s, some Georgia legislators reacted by introducing a censorship bill. One of them claimed that “a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”

Yet this was an entire century after Alexander Salmon, a white Englishman, fell in love with and married a pure-bred Tahitian woman without a qualm. It made me realize anew just how remarkable that marriage was in its era. Of course Alexander understood discrimination very well himself, having been raised a Jew in London in the years when Charles Dickens was writing the grotesque character of Fagin in Oliver Twist. And he had to take some abuse in Tahiti from visiting Brits like Captain Henry Byam Martin, commander of the HMS Grampus, who called Salmon “a low swindling bankrupt Jew.”
John Brander too was familiar with discrimination because of his illegitimate origins, yet both he and Salmon were both proud to be seen strolling arm in arm with their Polynesian wives not only in Papeete but even in Sydney, San Francisco, and Paris. There were many ways in which these men were remarkable, but this absence of what we would now call racism was one of the most striking. As Paul Scott showed so well in The Jewel in the Crown, even 100 years later the same could not be said of many of their fellow countrymen living in the far flung corners of the world. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Circle of Existence

In Loving Memory of Pauline Winifred Ward
October 7, 1933 - August 21, 2012

In my youthful ignorance, I used to wonder why so many writers - John Updike and Philip Roth spring to mind - became so obsessed with mortality in their middle age. Well, now I know. After you turn 50, the awareness of your inevitable decay and death becomes inescapable. It’s no longer possible to ignore the fact that life is short and goes by at the speed of a runaway train.  
This undeniable fact is borne in on us middle-aged people by the deterioration and deaths of our elders. They are our forerunners in life – the people who have nurtured us and relished our joys and successes and commiserated with us in our disasters, both large and small. As they vanish, it’s as if a protective ceiling is gone and we’re now exposed to the elements in all their bleakness.
Having lost a very dear aunt last week, I am acutely aware of this phenomenon and have found it echoed in the reactions of my friends and contemporaries. It seems like only yesterday that we were in our 20s while our elders were the age we are now – still vibrant, fully engaged in life, and seemingly indestructible. And yet the 30 or so years since then have gone by almost without us noticing. A decade went by before I got used to writing a new century on the dateline on my checks. Now I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic at the thought that my 60s are only five years away. I want to plant my feet against the dashboard of time and shout Slow down for god’s sake!
What can we do in the face of this daunting reality but seize the day. Smell the roses, take the leap, work through that bucket list. And do whatever makes life worth living – playing golf, making ships in bottles, bungee jumping, or, for those of us so inclined, writing.
For me writing is the only activity I know that has the potential to transcend losses and impermanence and aging. Not only does it give me solace and satisfaction to form an elegant sentence, a flowing paragraph, and a coherent chapter, but it gives me a sense that I am doing what I was designed to do.
Michel Foucault has described Scheherazade’s nightly telling of tales to the Sultan as “the effort... to exclude death from the circle of existence.” So even as I mourn the loss of my incomparable aunt, I am continuing to make up stories – from memory, research, or just my imagination – in the hope of keeping the darkness at bay just a little while longer.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

An Isle Full of Noises

So the London Olympics are over. Never again in my lifetime will the Olympic rings hang from Tower Bridge, and the knowledge makes me sad. I’d become used to turning on my TV every day to live pictures of my country – the Thames at Eton Dorney for the rowing, Horse Guards Parade for the beach volleyball,  glorious Greenwich Park for the equestrian events. And those crazy Opening and Closing Ceremonies – random, episodic, tongue-in-cheek, iconoclastic, and yet with moments of grandeur and dignity that took my breath away. The forging of the ring in the Industrial Revolution segment, the lighting of that amazing many-petalled Olympic flame, and its even more astounding extinction as a Phoenix rose from its ashes. And the moment above all others for me – understated and weirdly pantomime-y as it was – when Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel spoke the words of Caliban, the misunderstood monster of Shakespeare’s imaginary island in The Tempest:

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again.

I hadn’t thought much about this year’s Games in advance except to make a mental note not to fly home while it was all going on. But as I saw the images of the city and its environs unfold on my TV screen, I regretted not being there. Not necessarily in the stadium or at any of the other venues, but anywhere in the United Kingdom just to share in that amazing 17-day nationwide celebration. 
I’m sure that my friends in the US have thought me obsessed (if not possessed) as I cheered on Team GB and gloried in its remarkable medal haul. How do you explain to a country that wins everything almost all the time what it’s like to succeed after years and years of disappointment? No men’s champion at Wimbledon since 1936, no football World Cup winner since 1966, only 1 gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics... This is what we’re used to. The expectation of disaster and disillusion. The eternal morning after of the also ran. (Check out this interesting article in Tina Brown’s online magazine, The Daily Beast, on this very aspect of the British character.)
It’s a pattern that writers know well – the long apprenticeship, the recurring failures, the bursts of hope, and the subsequent false dawns. It makes some cynical and bitter and others more determined to succeed against all the odds. Although I have the occasional wobble, I count myself among those who refuse to give up, who think that it’ll all come right in the end. That’s the American in me coming out.  But just for this moment, I stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Brits and celebrate a very satisfying and most unusual triumph.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Emerald Ghost

It’s the season of summer storms on the eastern seaboard. Every day the weather forecast includes a thunderstorm warning for our area, and it’s anyone’s guess if one will materialize over our particular neighborhood. Almost every day at some point the clouds gather and distant rumbles slowly get louder. Then it’s time to disconnect my laptop, make sure the windows are closed, and bring my hanging petunia plants inside. Sometimes it’s a false alarm. After little more than a brief shower, the sun comes out again and steams the faint moisture from the tarmac. But often we find we’re in for preview of Armageddon, with sheets of lightning, deafening explosions of thunder, and rain so torrential it turns our street into a river.

When these storms are accompanied by damaging gusts of wind as in the recent derecho or last year’s Hurricane Irene, it is best to stay away from the top floor of the house. After one freakishly sudden storm a couple of years ago, the entire giant oak tree at the corner of our road had fallen, barely missing our neighbors’ house. As with many urban trees, its root ball had been too small, so the violent wind was able to knock down that 60-foot tree like a skittle. And of course in the wake of these storms with painful regularity we lose power, often for several days, leaving us with no phone, no internet, no fridge, and, worst of all in the heat of a Washington summer, no air conditioning or even a fan. It’s at those times when it becomes completely clear why Washington DC used to be considered a hardship posting in the diplomatic world.

This poem by Emily Dickinson expresses the end-of-the world quality that these storms can have and how extraordinary it can feel to look around after it’s all over and see how much has survived.
There came a Wind like a Bugle

There came a Wind like a Bugle-
It quivered through the Grass
And a Green Chill upon the Heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the Windows and the Doors
As from an Emerald Ghost-

The Doom's electric Moccasin
That very instant passed-
On a strange Mob of panting Trees
And Fences fled away
And Rivers where the Houses ran
Those looked that lived-that Day-
The Bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told-
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the World!

Friday, July 27, 2012

On the Dock of the Bay

I’ve just returned home after a long weekend at a house on the Chesapeake Bay. This is the fourth or fifth time that my friend Jan and I have had the opportunity to borrow this house for a writing retreat, and every time we amaze ourselves with how much work we get done. 

The house sits on a bluff overlooking the place where the Susquehanna River enters the head of the Chesapeake Bay. It has been in the same family for over 70 years. Two generations were raised here – a son and daughter who each in turn had a daughter and a son ‒ and pictures of them are in every room. I am a fortunate friend of this generous family and have met many of its members, including the patriarch and matriarch, both now sadly gone to their maker. Two years ago, Mike and I were privileged to be present when their granddaughter got married under the holly trees overlooking the water. 

There’s a plaque embedded on the lawn that is engraved with this quote from the Rudyard Kipling poem, Sussex:

“God gave all men all earth to love, But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove, Beloved over all.”

The views across the tidal Chesapeake are both grand and profoundly restful. At low tide kayakers negotiate the shallow channels, and long lines of seagulls stand along sand bars far out in the bay. Closer to shore, great egrets stalk the barely submerged mudflats on their long black legs, looking like they’re walking on water. High tide brings out the jet skiers from the nearby marina who zip and roar across the water, which is fun to watch.

When I look up from the sunroom where I work, I can see geese stalking the steep hill that dips down to the water, grazing on grass and fallen apples. And just beyond the water’s edge, an osprey nest sits on a platform. On our various visits over the last few years, Jan and I have seen the ospreys in mating season, as they tended their eggs, and as they nurtured their chicks. This time we watched as they squabbled over a fish with their adolescent offspring who seemed to be on the verge of leaving home to create his own family next spring. Ah, the cycle of life. A telescope in the sunroom is trained on the nest, so we were able to watch every move the ospreys made. Sometimes one of the powerful-looking birds would turn its head and look straight at the telescope with its yellow-hazel eyes as if to say, “I know you’re there.”

There is no Internet access at the house on the water. So my days at the computer were disturbed only by the clink of ropes against fiberglass masts in the marina and the occasional mysterious boom from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to the south. When I looked up from my laptop, the weather had often changed so completely that I could no longer see the far shore of the bay. 

The peace and lack of distractions meant that my mind was free to bury itself in the siege of the town of Kimberley in South Africa during the Boer War or in the rhythms of the English city of Nottingham in 1923, the settings of the two chapters of Albion’s Millennium I was writing. Daily life being what it is, I rarely get the chance to immerse myself so completely in the world I’m creating, but the house on the bay gives me that opportunity every time and I relish it.

In the evenings Jan and I relaxed, had dinner and some wine, and talked about what we'd each worked on that day. This time we were only able to get away for 3½ days, but it was balm to our souls, particularly for me as I’d had no time to write anything other than blog posts for a very long time. So those days in the house on the bay were a gift beyond price, and my gratitude to the givers is profound. All writers should be lucky enough to have such friends.