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!