Saintly Passions

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Saintly Passions

They say she biked in her ballgown
possibly in a brace, and her with just
one kidney and a ciggie dangling from
the corner of her marvellous mouth

The black sheep of the family, we
thought, a scandal for daring to dance
but then it turned out, her quiet older
sister had a baby out of wedlock

The lock on wed is worth scrutiny in
retrospect, possibly related to the
Death do us part people mentioned
when marrying back then

Another sibling, a younger brother
managed to impregnate a married
woman twice, before she died in
childbirth and he married another

Thank God for adoption everyone
thought back then, and the locals
conspired to contain the secrets
known as the fabric of society

We think of weaving, stitching and
the spinning of yarns, and that’s
just what they did, they hid knots
it was all more warp than weft

And we were left to unpick the
pieces, years later when grown
men arrived in the image of once
unknown fathers to surprise us

Including the girl whose family
won the Golden Kiwi and who
grew to look remarkably like
the Parish Priest who relocated

Where documentation fails, we
have our own imaginations, on-line
DNA matching and curiosity to
rewrite our family histories

Saintly mothers with secrets
that speak of wild passions to
inspire their granddaughters

‘The Wonder’ (and growing up Catholic in New Zealand in the sixties)

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My No.1 Book Group chose ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue for our November read. I hadn’t read ‘Room’ and I was wary of all the hype. But, very quickly, I was immersed in 1860’s Ireland, and astonishingly, recognising so much of my own childhood as a 1960’s Catholic girl. It was confronting. I was wearing my new-age, non-Catholic, 21st century sensibility, but I was also recognising and understanding so much of what was happening. I knew that when book group convened, I would need the one other Catholic in our group to offload to.  Because truly, so much of the crazy cult-like thinking of the times, can only be understood, if you have lived it. What was so shocking for me, was that I understood so clearly what was driving the characters in the story.  I wasn’t surprised by the prayers, by the fatalism, by the unravelling narrative and denouement.  It made perfect sense, in all it’s weird and shocking ramifications and revelations. Most shocking was, that my memories were of 1950’s 1960’s New Zealand and this novel was set in 19th century Ireland.

Emma Donoghue got right under my skin.  She lifted off my skin, and she burrowed right there into my once Catholic soul, the guilt, fear, the superstition. And of course, I thought I’d tossed it all into the bin of yesteryear. But listening to my friends at book group and trying to explain why certain things happened and hearing that they had no understanding, not in the way that these things rang so true for me – I realised that you never truly lose this thinking, this darkly embedded (skewed) world view.  We’ve often said at book group, that you can tell the way an ex Catholic will respond to a narrative.  Indeed, as our book group has been together now for twenty years, we can often guess how all of us will respond to different narratives, our likes and dislikes.  But, ‘The Wonder’ took the lid off my carefully construed and civilised self. I knew how to beat my breast and recite ‘though my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’, recognising how faulty this really is. I knew the prayer to my guardian angel.  How lovely… I once had one.  What a treat.  I believed. She kept me safe. I’d forgotten all about her. I’ve learned to live on my own without her now, but when fatalism is your creed, back then a guardian angel was a lovely prop.

And then, my non-Catholic friends wanted to know what the holy picture cards were all about. I promised next time, to bring some along. I have cards printed for my mother’s death, my brother’s death, three aunts, and a few extras, such as St Theresa the Little Flower, whose name I took at my confirmation, along with Our Lady of Perpetual Succour… the name of the church we attended. Virginal women reigned supreme.

I understood unequivocally, the need to suffer, so Anna’s brother could be released from purgatory. Of course, I knew how crazy it was, but I understood too. Suffering the road to redemption. I remember my confessions and the need to say penance.   Bless me Father for I have sinned.  It’s four weeks (maybe three weeks), since my last confession. Since then I have:  disobeyed my mother and father, sworn and had impure thoughts… I think this was the extent of my sinning, the impure thoughts consistently pervading my growing pains. Guilt was ever present and of course, you had to have sins to confess.  Possibly I admitted envy now and then, for surely that’s the beast of sins, but usually one we outgrow, or age diminishes the sting of. As for the impure thoughts, I grew to like them.

I was from an ordinary working-class family. I didn’t attend a Catholic school because my parents couldn’t afford the uniform and bus fare into the city. The story goes, we got a Papal dispensation. As part of that dispensation, I was shipped on a bus, in the August school holidays to the convent to be indoctrinated in Catholicism.  The nuns at the convent we attended, told us terrifying stories.

The story that has lingered the longest and never left me, goes like this and bears some resemblance to a tale in ‘The Wonder’… I’m guessing there are many more stories of a similar ilk out there.

A young girl dies.  As per the custom of the Church, she is buried in a white coffin, the sign of purity for a child. During her funeral service, there is a knocking sound heard coming from the coffin at the front of the church. The knocking continues. There is nothing else for it, but the priest must open the coffin to see who is knocking. Inside the coffin is the young girl and her tongue is sticking out. Her tongue is black and upon this black tongue lies the host.  As the story goes, this young girl, while still living, had dared to receive Holy Communion while in a state of sin.  The Priest removes the host, the child’s tongue returns to it’s normal colour and the coffin lid is shut again.

Can you imagine how terrifying this story must have been?  Add to this, the dilemma of distinguishing between a venial and mortal sin.  Dying with the stain of a mortal sin on your soul, meant going direct to hell.  I can’t recall, but I’m guessing that receiving Holy Communion while not in a ‘state of grace’ as the saying went, would be borderline mortal… anyway, we never found out if the poor child went to heaven, but the story as you can tell, has never left me.

I read a short bio on Emma Donoghue and almost relieved to know she attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin… for where else would she have gained this incredible insight and understanding of the motivation of her characters, her empathy for them in all their blind faith.

This is not a book review. If anyone is confused about the lack of detail and reference to the plot, the parts that the characters play, I apologise.   I am simply moved, to respond to the impact this novel had upon me.

But also, this novel is more than just the things I have responded to. To quote Justine Jordan of The Guardian “Her new book is based on the many cases of “fasting girls” reported across the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries: women and girls, often prepubescent, who claimed to live without food for months or even years.”

And too the desire by the Church for worldly proof that there is another world leading to fabrication and blind faith in the search for such perceived blessings.

Love as a Stranger

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Love as a Stranger

9781775538578

This is vintage Owen Marshall. A contemporary novel about a baby boomer ménage à trois (although that might actually be an exaggeration and perhaps affaire is more accurate). It begins in a cemetery in Auckland where we met Sarah and Hartley, total strangers, who engage in a conversation about a fascinating inscription on a small headstone for a grave that has collapsed in on itself. Emily Mary has been shot on her way to bible class.

Sarah, is a woman in her late 50’s, who hails from Hamilton but who is temporarily domiciled in Auckland in an apartment with her husband Robert while he is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Sarah has time on her hands and as a result, she bumps into Hartley again… and again.All three key characters, Sarah, Hartley and Robert are very ordinary, leading fairly un-extraordinary lives and this is where Marshall shines. He knows how to unwrap the ordinary and show the reader the interiority of what could otherwise be quite banal lives.

The story unfolds gently, the circumstances of how Hartley and Sarah begin a sexual relationship. It seems quite natural and unspectacular. Robert is sick, Sarah has time on her hands, Hartley is widowed and looking for company. It’s not the be all and end all take your breath-away sex, it’s companionship with sexual benefits. But here is where Marshall takes risks. He writes of the whole messy business, details that writers often skip over, and it’s not sordid or prurient, it’s quite charming instead. Or does that mean it is believable?

As always, Marshall’s keen observation of the human condition and people shines through. My first laugh out loud moment came early in the book when we are introduced to Hartley’s ex mother-in-law:

‘Her mother kept the conversation going by listing the features that made Devonport unique, and then the superiority of her own part of Auckland. It was an indication of the sort of woman she was – preoccupied with the instruction of other and the emphasis of her own significance.’

And this
‘Irene was thin and always well dressed, but age ravaged her and although she kept out of the sun her skin darkened and loosened until it seemed as if she wore stockings over her limbs. Towards the end there was so little of her that she appeared in the process of mummification, with only her dark, jewelled eyes glinting from the wrappings.’

My next chuckle came when the author builds a picture of the lovers as they might be observed by an outsider.

‘To others they could pass as husband and wife, except perhaps to the more insightful observer of the close attention they paid each other. A tall, slightly heavy woman in what might tactfully be termed late middle age, well and casually dressed, the colour of her thick brown hair salon reinforced.’

And so an affair begins with Hartley and Sarah that seems to some extent benign in its simplicity and almost inevitability. Sarah’s husband Robert is in the shadows at this stage, as a vague figure who is being treated for cancer. Hilariously, as Hartley becomes more besotted with Sarah, he wants to buy her a frivolous gift and says:

‘I’ll buy you French undies.’ But Sarah is having none of this. ‘Like hell you will. You can buy me slippers. I need a pair. All grandmothers do.’
Hartley becomes curious and wants to meet his ‘rival’ Robert. ‘Robert was a large, intelligent, self-centred man who had run down into needy dependence.’ They do meet, and Sarah doesn’t know they have and Robert doesn’t know who Hartley is either.

As the story progresses, Sarah has to balance the joy of this new affair against her responsibilities as a wife, mother and grandmother. In contrast, Hartley recently widowed with a son living in London, has no such constraints and he begins to imagine a future with Sarah. Hartley begins texting Sarah when she is at home in the apartment with Robert. Sarah is disturbed by this new insistence and it amplifies the deceit as she has to rush to another room to read the text and then to lie about who is texting.

Marshall very cleverly deconstructs the mechanics of a love affair. The various components ‘there’s always an element of vanity in love’, the competing personal imperatives as to why and how an affair might happen and then, the other lives that will be impacted.

It’s a terrific story and builds to an ending that is both gripping and in some strange way on reflection probably inevitable, but I doubt many readers see it coming. I certainly didn’t and I think it is a masterstroke and takes the novel into the literary thriller genre.

Highly recommended.

Mainlining Mansfield

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(And a link to my report on the recent conference in Wellington on Beatties Book Blog).
mans_portrait

I overdosed recently. A strange drug set me reeling into literary dismorphia. I was mainlining Mansfield at the time, being drip-fed abstracts over a period of three days. I began to hallucinate, imagine myself tubercular, talented, a genius with a Dad who had enough dosh to keep me afloat – something like a yearly stipend. It felt lovely for a while and I scribbled feverishly in my computer notebook, aware that if the National Library did suddenly want my feverish jottings, that I should spell check now and then. But too, I knew, my odd use of commas and ellipsis would be found exquisite, rather than extravagant and that whole new abstracts would be written, eventually, years after my demise, so I didn’t worry… well, I did a little – but not enough to stop me.

I knew too from listening to more erudite and analytical writers than myself (before the dismorphia and hallucinating) that words like ‘little’ had no place in the literary canon. I used Google and an on-line thesaurus to find alternatives… and ‘not big’ seemed highly original and after all I could embed the link to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary and thereby avoid any plagiarism charges.

Mind you, (replace with an expression of ‘so what’), I’ll swear I heard scholars insisting that plagiarism was a writer’s right, that ‘The child who was tired’ by Katherine Mansfield, was merely a flattering reframing of Chekhov, perhaps even an improvement on. There was no proof they said that KM had even read the English version of this short story, as if somehow, the Russian rendition would render her English version authentic. Aha, I imagined momentarily channeling Anna Akhmatova ‘s poetry for my blog, claiming never to have read the English translations. But I was distracted as two eminent scholars began arguing over whether or not KM (and therefore me at the time), had contracted Gonorrhea. Someone very clearly wanted proof one way or the other. It was suggested this was impossible without an exhumation, and I didn’t want to offer up myself, my own medical records… for scrutiny…

Someone took me to task too for living through the Russian Revolution, the First World War and the very first General strike in the United Kingdom – as if these things mattered to my literary efforts. Hadn’t I achieved enough with ‘Bliss’, this one story, an almost manifesto for the liberated woman’s libido. Some bright spark even mentioned a fabulous pun running through the story, the pear/pair tree and the various flowerings/pairings, and I have to say I was delighted to claim this subliminal reading as my very own intention. This is the wondrous thing about my fans re-reading me – yes, I know, I know, I’m not KM. But you see, I was mainlining, and the effect was the same.
Me, kayaking almost in front of the Days Bay holiday home of KM

I grew tired though, after three days, and on the fourth, I witnessed the staging of a small play about my short story ‘At the bay’ – just a stone’s throw from the beach – writers leaping up from their flat whites to appropriate my words. Two grown men pretended to swim in the Pavilion, as if it were the sea and Linda, Granny and Beryl muffed their final lines, the great moment when Stanley is finally GONE. I saw one of the writers viciously punch the other to prompt her… it was that punch I think that bought me to my senses, and made me realise, I was just another wannabe, hanging on the coat-tails of the Colonial Shop Girl of literature and I realised I didn’t want to swap lives after all. I like being me, here ‘at the bay’, alive, able to swim in the sea without Jonathan Trout… I wasn’t prepared after all for a Faustian pact, to be famous and dead and remembered, instead of here, today, alive and aspiring.
Days_Bay,_Eastbourne_1920s

I’m doing the twelve steps now… having had a literary awakening, recognising that I am powerless in the face of KM, and I’ve asked for forgiveness for my own literary shortcomings, admitted that the critics at times have been right about my failings, and I’m trying to remove all defective characters from my stories…
I’ve abandoned the excess, found the limit of myself, but I continue to write… and I always will…

Emmylou Harris and a guava lipstick

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Emmylou Harris and a guava lipstick

Last weekend, I went to see Emmylou Harris and Her Red Dirt Boys play at Vector Arena.   My girlfriend and I met each other in Auckland for this special event.   I listen to Emmylou when I drive my car.   She is my driving music, the background to my many journeys from the bay to the city and home again.  I sing and hit the steering wheel in time to her music.   I try to hit the high notes and imitate the soft throaty whisper.    I’m a fan.   When she sings ‘From Boulder to Birmingham’ I feel her loss, I love the man she mourns, even though I didn’t know Gram Parsons.   She’s seen me through a broken heart, my own.

So, because we live in different cities, we took this weekend out to be ‘girls’, to do the girly weekend away thing and to go to the Emmylou Harris Concert.    We shopped.   We’re older girls now, so we shop differently.   And too, we noticed that not only do we shop differently, but the shop assistants treat us differently.   One of our rituals is to buy a lipstick when we shop together.   It means that if we buy nothing else, we have the fun of knowing that yes, we bought a lipstick on holiday.   Sometimes we’ve been known to buy the same colour lipstick.    The last time that happened it was the colour Raisin.    Raisin has served me well now for several years.  It’s my fall-back lipstick, my almost match my lips lipstick.   But my friend deserted Raisin years ago.

We started at one counter which I won’t name.   This is not a name and shame sort of story.   But any slightly older woman will recognise the story.  Gorgeous young things were seated having their eyes done.   Beautiful young things, who didn’t need eye shadow and certainly not the amount being applied.   We vacillated, trying lipstick colours on our hands.   My friend has a lovely tan and I have pale freckly Irish skin.   The same lipstick turns a different colour on our different hands.   We wiped, swiped and rubbed off the test stripes.   We waited patiently for the assistant on the beauty counter to notice us.   We wiped, swiped and rubbed our hands with tissues.   And then in desperation, we moved to another counter.

And it was here we met the kind of young girl that every older woman buying a lipstick needs to meet.   She joined our fun.   She coaxed and encouraged us.   We took risks with pale and deep and dark and we talked of tones and we spoke of blue-pinks and pinks that are not blue, the true pinks.

“You don’t think it’s too blue and wrong do you?”

“No, it suits you.  I know what you mean, but it’s not too blue.”

Guava is the colour I chose.   Guava, like a split fruit with the ripe pink bleeding.

“Oh, I like it.”

And I do, I really do, although I probably really should have stuck with Raisin – except it sounds shrivelled, and Guava sounds delicious.

Years ago, we might have purchased a dress each.   A rash, exciting, and expensive dress, encouraged by one another, the sense of beauty, the sense of yes, this dress, this dress…   But now we’re older.   We have grandchildren.    We run into bookshops and toy shops the way we used to run into dress shops.    I bought an educational word game for my granddaughter – a German version of scrabble for a five-year old.   We shopped for Christmas decorations for our grandchildren. We shopped for our husbands, looked for boxer shorts that didn’t grip, or weren’t too tight in the legs, and not too shiny, silky and silly.   Neither of us was sure exactly of what size to buy – we took the boxers from the hangers and we stretched them outwards asking one another – will this fit?   We still weren’t sure.  We know each other’s husbands, but we still weren’t sure.   How big is comfortable?    Will they really want boxers or should we be rash and buy the stretch jockeys that look so good in the picture?

And then, en route to find a restaurant, we found a shop selling new, but old fashion.    We stumbled into fabrics that spoke to us.   I found mustard corduroy and it swamped me in something visceral like hot bread, or brewing coffee, but stronger more emotional.    I fondled the mustard corduroy, and I knew the feel of it, the look of it and the colour I could taste if you can taste colour.

We spoke of crêpe Georgette as we fondled a dusky pink frock remembering Vogue, Butterick and Simplicity (especially Simplicity).   The fabrics were not imitations, but copies, identical copies of fabrics we knew.   I saw my mother’s wedding suit – the one she wore to my brother’s wedding and a year later to his funeral.   We both recognised frocks we’d worn to the ‘dance’.     We wanted to wear them again, to go to those dances, but we agreed to settle for Emmylou Harris, the concert, that night.

                Before the concert, we went looking for somewhere special to eat.   The waterfront beckoned, but the tapa bar we chose was closed on Sundays.  Our hearts were set on tapas, but we’re older now and flexible.   We found a bar with a view of the harbour and seating upstairs.  We watched in delight as gorgeous young things in tight-fitting frocks knocked back cocktails.   Nowadays we have to consider what food we order and what drinks we drink, not just how much and how many.   But we were up for bubbles.     And bubbles we had… one glass each and then we eyed the menu for food that wouldn’t be too acid, too fatty or just too…

We walked from the café to the Vector Arena, joining the swarms of baby boomers.    How fascinating to be entirely in your own genre.   It was extraordinary.    The ‘once were sexy brigade’.   The pretty girls crumble the first.    Once pretty faces are now pretty lined.   The handsome girls come into their own.   A handsome face on a woman is a very fine thing when you’re over sixty.    Tall is good, because everyone has shrunk a centimetre or so, except for the very tall men and the very tall women, or perhaps even they have.

It’s a wonderful thing to be sitting among so many ‘contemporaries’ – people who were there during the sixties and seventies and who love Emmylou Harris and her music.    There is something quite reverent about a crowd who remembers.   How lucky are we?   To be there, and to share, and to enjoy the atmosphere – all those pacemakers, titanium hips, the enamel (backed in heavy metal) smiles, and barely a Botox babe in sight.   Well, the lights were dim, but you know when you rock up to watch a girl like Emmylou with her unabashed grey hair (it looked white to me) – my friend thought she might have highlights.

She was the highlight.   She sang I think for two hours, barely stopping to breathe – every song you wanted to hear and she kept the best till last – my favourite – ‘From Boulder to Birmingham’ – after two standing ovations and a stomping encore call – this amazing woman rewarded us.   My heart broke when she sang ‘My Name is Emmet Till’ from her new album.  I cried when she sang ‘Darlin Kate’.  She spoke about being a girl from Alabama who never imagined seeing a Black President.    I think she spoke for all of us.

AWESOME Emmylou and awesome too, the ageing baby-boomers who came out in their droves to listen to her.

Ursula LeGuin, High Tea and the Menopause

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Ursula K LeGuin, High Tea and the Menopause

Recently, I attended a high tea for a friend’s 70th birthday.   We were all girls and we dined on dainty sandwiches, sipped tea in china cups and ate pretty cakes.

My friend is a writer and she asked if her friends would bring a poem they could read at her birthday.   She especially wanted something that spoke of age and being a woman.   I took my ‘Menopause’ poem and read it.    It seemed to strike a chord.

I’m in that genre now, the one made famous by Ursula Le Guin in her essay on ‘The Space Crone’.  In fact I think I’ve passed through the planet Altair already.  My poem is a response to Ursula’s essay.     It had its debut in New Zealand Books, Volume 17, Number 2, Issue 78 in the Winter of 2007.     I see that New Zealand Books will soon be celebrating the launch of their 100th issue at Unity Books in late November.

Menopause

(Inspired by an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin “The

Space Crone” 1976).

Ursula urges me to

become a Crone

to not bemoan

my declining hormones

to wear grey hair

catch a space ship

somewhere out there

so I can share

my wit, my wisdom

my years of fertility

raising children

(ensuring my humility)

so the fourth planet Altair

can learn about the human race

from a woman (once a virgin)

and now a Crone  (on loan)

But I’m all for my inner space

and I won’t go grey

well, not yet, not today

there’s plenty of time

because I still want to play

to flaunt in the twilight

my age now my highlight

on the cusp of something

almost a Crone – not quite

ready for Ursula’s throne

but not afraid either

thumb out – hitching a ride

not looking back, nor

particularly forward

pausing as they say – oh,

but not for men

for me.

©  Maggie Rainey-Smith

Brother of the More Famous Jack

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Brother of the more famous Jack

by Barbara Trapido


This book was winner of a Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction way back in the very early 80’s.   I’ve only just read it, and yet the catchy unforgettable title, has been with me since the mid 90’s.  My first book group read ‘The Travelling Hornplayer’ by Barbara Trapido and everyone kept saying, you really should read ‘Brother of the more famous Jack’.   Well, now I have.

It is the story of Katherine who is interviewed by Jacob Goldman ‘a powerful left-wing philosopher up from the east end’ for a place at a London university in his Philosophy course – and how she becomes involved with his family.  Indeed, how Jacob really takes Katherine under his wing so to speak.    My book group agreed, as we talked about this book, that this sort of special relationship between a professor and his student, is probably nowadays less likely (e.g. would face more scrutiny).   And yet, even though you sense Jacob’s infatuation with Katherine, indeed his whole family’s infatuation with her and her with them, it feels very normal.   The idea that another family other than your own can change the course of your life is very appealing.

Katherine and the Goldman family are the stuff of fiction, of course they are.    Does anybody in the antipodes really know a family like the Goldmans and the very fecund Jane, wife to Jonathan, not to mention their precocious off-spring?  Perhaps…   it doesn’t matter.   I loved them.    I’d forgotten how satisfying a novel can be, and how delicious it is to be lost in another family, and to not want a book to end.    Perhaps I’ve been reading to review too frequently recently, and this has spoiled my enjoyment.   Reading ‘Brother of the more Famous Jack’ was for pure pleasure and for the fun of discussion with one of my book groups.  I imagined they would all love it like I did.   And for the most part this was true, but one of my book group friends prefers non-fiction, and she usually gives novels about the first chapter to grab her, or she abandons them.    She is English, she is discerning, and she is well read.  Ah, I imagined, she will love this novel.   Not so, she only got to page 50 and hated all of the characters, especially, as far as she was concerned the unbelievable Katherine, and too, the ghastly Goldmans – she didn’t believe in them and she certainly didn’t like them.

Ah, but I really loved them, even if I didn’t always like them. This is what a good writer does.   She (or he) persuades you to believe in their characters, even if only for the 200 or so pages of their existence.    Somehow, with her first novel Barbara Trapido does this remarkably.   Mostly I found the characters hugely endearing (even when annoying) and the conversations and insights, at times, acutely funny.    You sense that Trapido knows the world she is writing of, extremely well.   The whole shambolic academic snobbery, layers within layers; the English class system.   Trapido, it says, was born and educated in South Africa but now (1982) lives in Oxford.   I sense she is in this regard, both an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’ making her observations so acutely funny.

Laugh out loud examples (for me) as Katherine negotiates her new world and new perspectives, aware of the differences between herself and the Goldman’s are:

Katherine is being seduced by an old friend of the Goldman’s, John Millet.    “I had cried into my pillow the night my mother called John Millet queer, but I perceived a world of difference between that and Jacob’s calling his house guest an old faggot.”

Katherine in a relationship with Jacob Goldman’s son, Roger…

“I painted disloyal portraits for him of my mother in her emerald crimplene trouser-suit, reclining in her fringed garden seat with the latest Nevil Shute.  I told him that my uncle collected George Formby records.”

“You wouldn’t know he was Jewish,’ my mother said, ‘would you?’  She said this by way of complimenting me on the quality of male I had at last reassured her by pulling in.

And, when Roger heads to Africa to teach in a country high school, and Katherine’s mother says this:

“I’ve got nothing against Jews,’ she said. “It’s such a pity he has to be in Africa when you could do with his company.  Aren’t there enough blacks for him in England?’

And then too there is the very sad stuff when Katherine leaves the Goldman family to live in Europe and meets the handsome feckless, Italian, Michele – “Michele didn’t drive a Fiat.  He drove an open-topped MG.   This was not because he was an Anglophile – far from it – but because he was an oddball who liked to be different.  It was a piece of understated showing-off which I found most appealing.”     Michele offers her a Mink coat in exchange for an abortion.    Katherine becomes a mother, briefly.

And then she returns to the Goldman family, altered, grown-up, sad, and they too have changed or has just her perspective of them altered?

We find out nearer the end, why Jane the lovely fecund Jane, keeps having babies.    We see Roger in a new light and we see Katherine emerging as a new sort of women, one who wants to work (hand-knitting garments) to help support her novelist husband.      Trapido in this novel explores the role of the modern women; Jane and all her babies (because she can afford it!); Katherine who plans to run her own business, and Rosie, the almost overlooked daughter of Jane who marries right outside the family ‘genre’ so to speak, because she recognises she doesn’t have the brains or intellect which her family (snobbishly) venerate.

And in the end, it’s just such a jolly good read, which is what a good book should be.

Good Morning

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Here is a link to my brief career on TV… one more to go … talking books with Sarah Bradley on the Good Morning Show.

 

 

 

The Comfort Women

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The title is of course an oxymoron of the cruelest kind.   Comfort for whom?  It reminds me of the title of Julian Barne’s book ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’, it all depends entirely where you put the emphasis. Until recently, I had not realised the number, the territory, the vast canvas of this henious crime.   It was on a recent visit to Seoul to be with family, that I came face to face with the history of sexual slavery during the Second World War.  According to Wikipedia a majority of the women were from Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines, although women from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for the Japanese military “comfort stations.” Many of these women have gone to the grave carrying their secret.     And now, a few, very old, very brave, live on as long as they can, hoping that by holding out, at some point, the Japanese Government will hear them, will see them, will give them all that they want… recognition, by way of an ‘official’ apology.

It is with pride that I write of my encounter with some of the still living sexual slave survivors at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, about a two-hour bus ride from the centre of Seoul.   Pride because they are resilient old women with dignity, courage, and often a surprising sense of humour.   Many of them survived the horrors of sexual slavery and because of the shame, married, raised families and did not ‘come out’ until later in life.    Even now, in this quiet rural setting, they are not entirely welcome.   Some of their neighbours would prefer them to be elsewhere, and believe they bring shame upon the district.   So, instead of the overdue compassion, they still carry both inwardly and outwardly, the stigma imposed brutally upon them, their dignity so tragically stolen by a Japanese Government at war.     Simply put, many people, the Japanese Government included, would like that these women would just die quietly, their secrets buried with them.

We were taken on a tour of the House of Sharing by my son and his Korean wife who actively campaign for and support the cause of the Comfort Women. On this particular day, they were the tour guides for a group of around sixty international tourists from Japan, America, China as well as local Koreans, and my husband and I, from New Zealand.   The tour is advertised in the Lonely Planet Guide for the socially conscious tourist who wants to know more about Korea than just the LCD screens, amazing restaurants and famous palaces.

Every Wednesday, a protest is held outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (near Insadong) and whenever they can, my son and his wife, join the protestors, and too, some of these elderly women (in their late eighties now and failing) will travel the two hours or more by van from their rural home at the House of Sharing to join the protest.   Why?   Because, the one thing they still demand from the Japanese government is a formal apology.    The Japanese have admitted that these events took place, have even given funds to support the women, but the most important step they seem unable to take, to offer the women the one thing money cannot buy, an official apology.   An apology will mean that this barbarous act against these women will finally be acknowledged as a a war crime, and not just some collateral damage to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.                 Alas, these women are dying now, one by one, every few months, another survivor dies without the dignity of an official apology.

                  Take a look at the photograph of the map I have posted and see for yourself the shocking geography of it, scan the map, look at the colour, trace for yourself the transportation of young Korean women, some as young as sixteen, as mere bodies to satisfy the Japanese invading troops.   Imagine yourself as one of those women, taken from your family, to serve as a sexual object for not just one, but hundreds of soldier’s gratification.   Imagine that now in your last years, all you long for is recognition, a piece of your dignity restored and all that it requires is a public apology, so that it is known officially, noted in the history books, a dark stain on the maps of Asia, that you and hundreds of other women were sexual slaves of the Japanese Government.   And although you have great dignity as a survivor, maybe something else, maybe but a piece, a small shining piece of something will be yours, before you die.   That small piece of something will be a light that shines on this crime, so that it may never be repeated.

And yet, as I write, and as you read, we all know that around the world in scenes of conflict both within and between national borders, women are still, often, the first victims of violence in acts of aggression by the state, or the soldier.

I am posting some of the poignant and eloquently tragic paintings by some of the women from the House of Sharing.  Unable to put into words the dramatic degradation they experienced as young  girls and women, they have taken to painting to express their pain.   Words are not necessary.

I met some of these women.  I sat with them in the afternoon, after a tour of the House of Sharing that unveiled the history and horrific details of their experiences.   What a contrast.   From the museum part of the settlement, we moved with a swarm of delightful young tourists, to the home where these elderly women are feted like famous movie stars.     These young people come regularly on the bus and the women, to be their friends, to love and to show support for them.   There is much laughter, affection and ordinary conversation.

It might have been any small residential home for the elderly – under-floor heating, spacious rooms, quite luxurious toilets with heated seats, and smiling older women, some more stylish than others, one knitting herself a pair of woollen trousers, one holding my hand with humorous affection and telling me what a wonderful son I have.   My son laughing and teasing her because he said that normally, when he visits, she tells him he is not good enough to be married to our beautiful daughter in law.   The humour is good-natured and the women can be just as cantankerous and difficult as any elderly people might be.   Except they are not ordinary elderly women – they are extraordinary and their story ought to be told, over and over, that it may never happen again.

The systematic rounding up of young women, their transportation to the battle fronts, moved like livestock from camp to camp from Korea to Japan and as far south as Indonesia across vast areas of Asia, to serve as sexual slaves for soldiers – some young women servicing up to sixty men in a day.  Records were kept to ensure the sexual health of the soldiers; prophylactics provided but with no concern for the health of the women….waiting in the small room……listening for the footsteps….   We entered a small wooden hut at the museum restored to the dimensions of the huts used, where the young women lay like objects, listening for the footsteps…   the dark, repetitive, footsteps.

I met two dedicated women volunteers from Japan, living in at the House of Sharing and caring for the elderly women.  Indeed it is common for Japanese volunteers to come and stay for weeks at a time, and through their caring to do what their government refuses to do – acknowledge what has happened. I found meeting these Japanese women a very emotional experience as it highlighted the common decency of the average person and how most of us at any level abhor what war brings, especially to women.  I was very moved by their dedication, generosity and obvious loving affection for the women they cared for.   But too, even this, a small house in the middle of almost nowhere, is not without cultural politics, disagreements, and differing ideals within the groups of people who care and support the women at the House of Sharing.   The Korean’s demand an apology from the Japanese and I hear whispers from the Japanese as to why the Korean Government has not looked after its own women better, with the money given to them by the Japanese.   And so, seventy years on, politics still blur the lines of compassion.

If no-one listens, (and you almost feel this is what the Japanese Government is hoping for), these women will go to their graves, all of them, without ever having had their dignity upheld, their story acknowledged, officially, that they were brutally and repeatedly raped, as part of an official Japanese government programme.   No amount of money or reparation is as important as this official apology.     An official apology will not take away the past, but it will highlight the stain, focus the forensic eye, so that this crime enters the history books and so that it can never be repeated.

I’m adding to this blog from 2011, and including a link to a newly released short film (sub-titles in English) about the recent agreement between the Japanese and Korean Governments which includes a commitment to removing the beautiful and most poignant bronze statue across the road from the Japanese Embassy. http://newstapa.org/31980

The ‘P’ word and the play ‘Oleanna’

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The P. Word and the play ‘Oleanna’.

I have to say that my life has been lightened with laughter this week due to the scandalous “P” word being one of the lead items on the six o’clock news.   I’m a girl from the sixties who pre-dates the Tampon practically, and I haven’t enjoyed such a good joke in years.   You see, I raised two men to adulthood and I’m a grandmother, and I don’t ever recall talking openly about my monthly cycle to my lads.  It wasn’t until my first daughter-in-law arrived at our dinner table, that we kind of tacitly agreed that I too might have had cycles that affected my monthly well-being (mood-swings even).

Of course I had hormonal mood swings and possibly even more dramatic as my monthly cycle declined.   I was emotional, probably a bit frightened, and mournful too, of the ending of the joyous fertility that the monthly cycle heralds.   All of those things and more; because each cycle is a time of extraordinary potential.   Ah, but did I burden my employer, or my family?  Well, hubby was in on the secret and we both knew what pre and post monthly tension was and we both enjoyed too, the added benefits of the fertility cycle – it is of course, not without its benefits.   But too, may I add, I count myself one of those fortunate women whose life was not seriously affected, so I’m speaking from you might say, a vantage point.

But, the hue and cry this week all around New Zealand over the anachronistic remark of Alasdair Thompson, of the Employers Association, has lifted my laughter levels and reminded me that laughter is surely the very best medicine.   Mr Thompson it seems has gathered his scientific evidence from a female member of staff in his human resource team who was monitoring the sick leave of his own staff.  Is the human resource manager who monitors the leave, a menopausal granny with an axe to grind who wishes she was still menstruating, or is she one of those fortunate women who barely bleeds and who can’t believe that others do?   And here I must confess that perhaps I was once one of those; although not the granny with an axe to grind.   Ah, but isn’t it the case so often, that we girls are sometimes in on upholding these entrenched views – you know how it is, I get on with it, so you should too.

I worked in recruitment for almost twenty years and so I know the attitudes of employers, the make-up of groups like such as the Chamber of Commerce back in the eighties, and many male Chief Executives of small to medium-sized your average-run-of-the-mill home-grown Kiwi companies.  It is not that long ago (the mid to late seventies) when to send six CV’s to the National Bank for graduate intake, that we knew if someone had a Maori sounding surname, that only five candidates would be interviewed and the gender balance would tip in favour of men, whichever way it went.   I stand by this assertion but I recognise it’s untrue in this the 21st century.    I recall a time when an employer was able to ask upfront, if a woman newly married was planning a family, and if so… when!    As a recruiter, I was expected to pre-screen candidates about this.   My boss at that time, a wonderful woman I worked for in the recruitment industry used to say, and…  you could just as easily get hit by a bus.

I’ve read the outrage over Mr Thompson’s remarks and the hilarious tweets.   This from Hilary Barry “Feeling hormonal. Might go home. #alasdairthompson” and a tweet or two later she tells us she is planning sex education to her sons using Mr Thompson as an example.    A few people who are equally outraged also point out that he’s not a bad bloke.   I quote in this morning’s Dompost, Mai Chen “I’ve known Alasdair for a long time and I like him, but frankly, he’s wrong.”   And from Australia, Deborah Bush, a member of Pelvic Pain Steering Committee Australia evidently said ‘although she agreed his comments were discriminatory, he had a point.”

I for one thank the man from the bottom of my granny heart, that finally, periods have made the six o’clock news.

Awesome.

How come it took so jolly long?

And the truth is that everyone is laughing at Mr Thompson, men and women alike, all around New Zealand, laughter… surely?

And here I must shamelessly alert you to my début in 2001 into  Sport, the prestigious Victoria University Press literary magazine.   It is my only publication in Sport titled ‘Saturday Night Shopping‘ a story about the purchase of the productivity-stopping monthly supplies.

And this allows me to segue nicely to a play I saw last evening ‘Oleanna’ by David Mamet.   This is a terrific performance by the Butterfly Creek Theatre Troupe.    They describe the play in the promotional flyer thus ‘this play about political correctness gone wrong or maybe it’s about the misuse of power has divided audiences around the world’.   Well, I don’t think Mr Thompson has quite managed that, I think he has united audiences in New Zealand who think his ideas dated, unscientific and well, as mentioned before, laughable.

David Mamet’s play is not so funny, more compelling, and thought-provoking.   The acting is outstanding and all the more impressive  because one of the actors, Damian Reid, was stranded in Melbourne due to the ash-cloud from the Chilean volcano, and John Marwick, Director of the play, stepped in and read the lines (to perfection) of the Professor.  The student, Carol, is mesmerizingly played by Sarah-Rose Burke who has to develop the character of Carol over eighty minutes in a stunning yet subtly splendid performance.   It is the first time I have seen the play and cannot compare this production with any other, but it was brilliantly rendered so that your sympathies are constantly moving (well mine, anyway) from one character to another.   The wardrobe too, played a fascinating role in the development of the character of Carol, the student, who starts the play as a confused almost hapless student in her ankle-length little black socks and slipper-style shoes, and in the next act she is wearing fabulously hot shiny red shoes and the final act wearing lace-up boots, in the powerful position of being able to threaten the Professor’s tenure, and finally, much worse, for both of them.

Oh, the ending is superb, and having looked up the play, I see that the ending is often changed sometimes, depending on the Director...

“The danger with the play is that it can easily seem a partial, loaded, one-sided attack on the student and on female solidarity in general .But Pinter’s production scrupulously avoids that trap by giving equal weight to both sides of the argument.”

And so too, does John Marwick’s production.

I was reminded of ‘Disgrace’ (J.M. Coetzee), both the book and movie, which explore the sexual power relationships both within a university and in a compelling story of forgiveness in a rural apartheid setting.

If you live in the Wellington region, it’s worth booking a seat in the intimate theatre up on stage at Muritai School, to be at the very least disturbed at the very best, spellbound and provoked.