Judy (2019) Dir. Rupert Goold

Judy Poster

The film opens with the young Judy (Darci Shaw) being given a fatherly talking to by Louis B. Meyer (as of Metro Goldwyn Meyer or MGM).  I am not sure which actor took that role as IMDB doesn’t list him.   They are in the middle of filming The Wizard of Oz.

I would just like some time, Judy says.

Time to do what?  he asks.

To do whatever other 15 year old girls do.   She is not sure what that is but not working 18 hour days at the studio and being starved in the process to avoid Dorothy putting on weight.

She is, Meyer tells her,  welcome to go and rejoin the ranks of ‘ordinary’ 15 years olds out there – as he points dramatically beyond the studio gate –  like “a drop of rain falling into the Pacific Ocean” never to be heard of again.   We know she does not take him up on that offer.  Follow this with shots of Judy being denied food by the studio, being given anti-hunger pills, pills to help her sleep when she can’t, being told she can’t swim in a pool (disarranges the hair) or eat her own birthday cake.  It is also implied that she was sexually assaulted by Meyer.

The camera pans out to show a fake yellow brick road surrounded by banks of garish and plastic red roses – if you seek a monument to Hollywood look around you.

Cut to thirty years later.  Adult Judy (Renée Zellweger) sees her career in freefall owing largely to her unreliability caused by alcohol dependency.   And yes it’s a good performance from Zellweger if you enjoy watching people disintegrate, she does it well.

Judy is now a survivor of three marriages and has three children.   Two of them ride in the car with her – it is nearly 1 o’clock in the morning and they have school next day.  At the  usual hotel she is told “Miss Garland we regret your suite has been released”.

Released where? Bring it back, she says.

But the suite is not recalled or recovered because it has not been paid for.

To cut a very, very long story short, Judy is forced to go to London to do a tour.  Why London?  Because they still want her and will pay good money to see her.  Quite reasonably she doesn’t want to go and leave her children but go she does.

One of the greatest mysteries of this film was the role given to Jessie Buckley who starred in Wild Rose (the story of a young working class girl with a yen to be a famous country singer) and was rather fantastic in that I seem to remember,  with a lovely voice of her own.    She has the  unenviable  role here of Rosalyn Wilder –  a minion assigned to Garland while she is on tour in the UK.  Her job is to get Judy onto the stage, on time,  and not in a state of disarray.  There are various agonising scenes of Rosalyn looking agonised.

Toe curlingly embarrassing scene follows upon toe curlingly embarrassing scene   of drunkenness interspersed with the odd successful song and cheering audience and all liberally soaked in pathos and awash with sentimentality – the faithful gay fan in the audience who bursts into song with Judy at the end because she can’t get through Over the Rainbow.  At this point I felt like throwing up.

I have no idea what point this film was trying to make.  That it’s a bad idea to appear in The Wizard of Oz at 15?  That it’s a bad idea to be Judy Garland. That she was a victim and we should all feel sorry?  Why, as Mr. Rune quite rightly asked, would you make a film exclusively focusing on the nadir of someone’s life?

Liza Minnelli apparently wanted nothing whatever to do with this film, and that at last is something I completely understand.

Notes from under the lemon tree

 

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They were olive trees really but I only have a lemon tree picture.   Sometimes you can’t have everything.

Books I read were:

The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (Vintage, 2016)

We are not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas (Fourth Estate, 2014)

In the Light of What we Know, Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014)

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance , Antony Beevor (John Murray, 1991)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage, 2013)

An all guys list but those were the books that were there.   A lady up next.

***

  1. The Noise of Time   Julian Barnes,

This is a book about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer, crafted into life by this most able of authors.  The composer’s music was loved round the world but he had an unhappy relationship with Stalin’s regime (was there any other kind?), was feted and honoured at one moment, hounded and threatened the next.

At a  performance of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ Shostakovich watched white faced and horrified as Stalin shuddered everytime the brass section played too loudly.  This debacle was quickly followed by a tirade in Pravda–thought to be written by Stalin himself –  calling the opera dissonant and muddled.

Stephen Johnson’s excellent little book How Shostakovich Changed my Mind(Notting Hill Editions, 2018) states:

Many composers have experienced key premieres as ‘a matter of life and death’ but in the case of Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that was nothing less than the truth.   Life in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Communist utopia could be very cheap indeed.

As Osip Mandelstam (whose memoir gave rise to Barnes title), Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and  numerous poets, writers and musicians could ably testify.

Shostakovich received a telephone call from Stalin himself asking the composer to attend a prestigious event in America representing the Soviet state.  Shostakovich refused (brave man) firstly because he had no suit to wear and secondly because he didn’t know how to explain in the US why his music was so popular there but banned in his home country.   A suit was found and his music unbanned.  Shostakovich went to the USA, but didn’t give in to the temptation to ‘jump out of the window’ (a euphemism for seeking asylum) and returned to the Soviet Union.

  1. We are not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

Eileen an Irish American born of hard drinking parents finds herself, aged 10,  becoming a carer for her mother after the latter’s slide into alcoholism.  Eileen – like many young people –  wants to avoid the fate of relative poverty and underachievement that has blighted the lives of her parents.  She is bright enough to train as a Doctor – but this being the ‘60s when women were not expected to train much for anything –  she follows instead a nursing career.

She marries Ed,  a scientist,  who appears at first devoted to her and she gives birth to a son.   But, hey, this is life.  And it’s a novel.  Worse, its an epic novel so nothing can go smoothly.  And sure enough it doesn’t.  Eileen’s quietly desperate attempts to move to a ‘better’ neighbourhood, to somehow raise herself and her family up from where they are (Jackson Heights) to where she feels they ought to be (not Jackson Heights) encompass the American Dream writ large, and like all dreams, doomed to fray at the edges.

A tragic illness turns everything Eileen thinks she knows and wants upside down, but this is a credible and empathetic lead character and a highly enjoyable read.

3          In the Light of What We Knowby Zia Haider Rahman

‘All novels are autobiographical’ says the lead character and this one certainly feels as though it is. This is Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel written in 2014 which earned its author the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The book concerns Bangladeshi born Zafar a mathematics prodigy and polymath, graduate of  Oxford, linguist,  who may or may not be part of the British Secret Services.  Part philosophy, part adventure story, part scientific enquiry, part meditation on class –   ranging over the Afghan war and the financial meltdown of 2008,   the story is narrated sometimes by Zafar himself in the first person,  and sometimes in the third person by a Charles-Ryder-of-Brideshead style narrator who is a friend from Oxford.

Interestingly, the full title of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryderwhich is something I didn’t know until I read Rahman’s book.  In memory, what is sacred, what is profane?  There are no disquisitions on Catholicism here – the world has moved on from Sebastian Flyte and his teddy.  But there are some parallels, particularly in the character of  Zafar’s ‘best friend’ from Oxford, whose own career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley (or some such) has fallen victim to the American sub-prime mortgage debacle,  therefore affording him plenty of time to reflect on the emptiness at the heart of his own life.

The book is too complex to attempt a resume of the narrative but I found it compelling and probably will re-read it at some point, as well as look out for other work by this author.

  • Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, Anthony Beevor

Fascinating and extremely readable account of how Hitler’s forces advanced through mainland Greece beating both the Brits and the Greek forces,  and how Crete originally considered to be a bit of a side story in the WW2, became horribly strategic.  Although there were British forces present on Crete during the German occupation, it seems that many advances against the enemy were facilitated by the Cretan resistance, a group  largely composed of shepherds and farmers armed with whatever lay to hand.

One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman,  who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker –  was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels.  Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun.    He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete,  the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Giftsand Between the Woods and the Wateras well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

One of the things that struck me in Beevor’s account of the early years of the war is how all the officers were either from Eton or Winchester (or Harrow) and all seemed to know each other from school and had conversations about who wore what at the Coronation, even while fleeing German bombs and bullets.     It all felt very Boys Own.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthRichard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s Booker prizewinning novel about the Japanese use of POW  slave labour to build the ‘death’ railway in Burma. Narrated by Dorrigo Evans, a young man from a rural and forgotten part of Tasmania who rises through invisible societal ranks to become a surgeon in the Aussie armed forces and who is captured and sent to work on the railway. The story follows him through this hellish horror into a kind of post war survival and fame, married to a woman whose name he can barely remember after he is freed from ‘the line’.   His whole life, he says,  has become a duty.

Interestingly the narrative follows Namakura, the Japanese commander of the Thai railway camp, as he tries to evade capture for war crimes in post holocaust Japan.   Namakura too is a victim of a lethal philosophy too deeply ingrained to question.

The author’s father was a survivor of the death railway, who died the day the book was finished.

 

 

Nature has not given up, nor should we

This is the third book of my 10 books of Summer

A Review of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish. Bob Gilbert (Saraband)

I am as ambivalent as many Londoners about my city, loving it but longing, much of the time, to be out of it; living somewhere overhung with trees or with a sight of the sea or with the shape of hills to look at.  And this is my compromise; this untidy patch of garden with its chickens and its struggling vegetables, this defiant gash in the city’s concrete skin.  It is a wound that I tend with broccoli and potatoes…

Not exactly on a mission to re-wild London, but certainly to examine more closely what is beside, behind, beneath and above us as we all rush about, what has survived and adapted, the author has traced ghost outlines of the wild that once covered the area of East London known as Poplar.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson said:  “The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.”

Gilbert’s book seeks out those memoranda and signatures.  But to focus purely on history, on the lonely open landscape that once existed – a landscape of ‘wide and windswept estuarine marshes’ where now there are tower blocks and urbanisation. That would be a book only about loss.

‘It was possible, on a day of shifting, watery grey cloud to still feel the imprint of the reed beds and the osiers, of lonely cattle grazing on the open marshes, of the cry of a passing curlew…’

I doubt if many curlews cry over East London now.  But this book is not a eulogy. Far from it.   There is much wildlife here to celebrate.    Gilbert charts  new habitats in surprising places, gives us new causes for appreciation of the here and now.  He seeks at the edges of shopping centres, at the side of rail tracks,  the base of lamposts in the  cracks between paving stones, in Churchyards and parks and in allotments for the new urban ecology  As well as a biographer of the ghost outlines of estuarine marshes which once covered Poplar,   Gilbert is a chronicler of our contemporary urban adaptees of the natural world.

Thus in an imaginary conversation the writer has with Richard Adams, (he of Watership Down fame) who apparently was rather grumpy about London and claimed to see nothing inspiring other than a few crocuses in a hotel garden, the author writes:

“I wanted to tell him of the black redstart I had seen feeding in front of the building’s bulldozer, of the pheasant I had found foraging on an urban allotment and of the skylarks I heard singing in a landscape of chemical works and pylons.”

Ghost Trees is the result of what must have been thousands of hours of painstaking research not to say hundreds of miles of walking and hours of looking and note taking.  It traces the outlines of the rural places that have been.   It also charts the history of the mulberry tree, plane tree and other arborial inhabitants cultivated by humans in this our great city of London for one reason or another.  It is a book of plant histories but especially of plant stories

I found the account of the Mulberry’s arrival in the UK  particularly fascinating.  In order to facilitate a supply of raw silk without having to buy the stuff from abroad somewhere because that is (a) too expensive and (b) vulnerable to political interference,  England in the l6th century  needed its own Mulberry trees.   Mulberry leaves are bread and meat and wine to silkworms; they require many of them to sustain their arduous workload.  Under the patronage of King James,  10,000 mulberry plants were ordered, Gilbert tells us, including a plantation at Westminster.  All this is now subsumed beneath concrete, with the poetically termed Mulberry Gardens the sole surviving relic of the project, along with  Mulberry Street; Mulberry House; Mulberry Tree pubs etc etc. Sadly and for various reasons this is a project which failed and England never was able to support its own silk industry.  But next time you go for a pint at the Mulberry Tree pub spare a thought for the little silkworms.

***

Gilbert also gives us an image of the post-human forest, and perhaps given current events that is not such a fantastical idea.  These are the trees and plants that will colonise the land when humans no longer do. The goat willow, buddleia, plants that are happy to colonise neglected areas, abandoned  urban corners, thickets of broom, cherry, aspen and birch, taking their place in the empty streets, decaying buildings, fractured windows and disused doorways of a post apocalyptic world.  I rather like the idea that nature will go on, rather like Celine Dion’s heart, regardless of the worst man can do.

“But there was wildness too, in those individual trees that sprang up outside the confines of cultivation; the seedlings and the saplings that appeared without permission on lawns, in flowerbeds, along pavement edges and in pots in my back garden…. This would be the wilderness returning, and these would be the post human trees.”

Where there are trees can the shades and the Forest of Arden and the magic be far behind?   I found this book awe inspiring in its wisdom and abundant historical and horticultural knowledge,  although perhaps a little impersonal at times.  No doubt the author, like the rest of us, has been inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane and although not quite in the same poetic bracket, this book is an inspiration and a wake up call.  Nature has not given up, nor should we.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Caroline Criado Perez. A review.

 

This is the second review of my 10 books of Summer.

I have related elsewhere Perez’ story of the loos in the Barbican

But loos are the least of the gender data gap problems, a symptom of a much wider malaise.  Structural male bias is everywhere.  Accurate data is vital for research and appropriate solutions.  Yet accurate data is not available if half the human race is excluded from its gathering simply because no-one has thought to consider whether one size really does fit all.   If you base your research on skewed data, you get a skewed result.   This is obvious, perhaps, when it is baldly stated but not at all obvious in the accepted course of knowledge production which has been going on for millennia.  This term ‘gender data gap’ is something I barely understood before reading Perez;  now I understand it, it is frighteningly omniscient, and it is costing female lives.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I have chosen to look at two areas that the author discusses, health and the formulation of GDP.

I start with health – the most important thing for a human being before you get to the wealth or happiness bit.  Go into any bookshop (assuming you can still find one) and look at the medical and anatomy sections, Perez suggests,     you will discover that the human figure is male. The author found that:

‘as recently as 2017, the covers of books labelled ‘Human Anatomy’ ‘were still adorned with be-muscled men’

Because it is assumed that the human body is male and that on a one-size fits all model (ie, apart from the reproductive bits there is not much difference)   what works for the guys will work for the gals.   Horrifically this appears to be current medical thinking!  Women are as a result largely being excluded from medical research. Why?  Because the results of clinical trials are being presented as valid for both men and women, even when women have been excluded from the study and even though as a result of this data on whether a particular drug will be efficacious for a woman is unknown.

This despite the fact that researchers have found sex differences in every tissue and organ system in the human body as well as in the ‘prevalence, course and severity’ of the majority of human diseases.

“Sex differences appear even in our cells:  in blood-serum biomarkers for autism; in proteins, in immune cells used to convey pain signals; in how cells die following a stroke.  A recent study also found a significant sex difference in the ‘experssion of a gene found to be important for drug metabolism’.  Sex differences  in the presentation and outcome of Parkinsons disease, stroke and brain ischaemia … have also been tracked all the way to our cells …”

The inclusion of sex specific information in textbooks is dependent on the availability of sex specific data, but because women have largely been excluded from medical research this data is severely lacking.  And because this data is lacking, it is not being taught in medical schools.

photo of green data matrix
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

For example:

  • Most early research into cardiovascular disease was conducted on men
  • Women represent 55% of HIV positive adults in the developing world … we also know that women experience different clinical symptoms and complications due to HIV.   Yet a 2016 review of the inclusion of women in HIV research found that women made up only 19.2% of participants in antiretroviral studies, 38% in vaccination studies and 11.1% in studies to find a cure.
  • And because of their routine exclusion from clinical trials we lack solid data on how to treat pregnant women for anything.  Perhaps it is understandable that pregnant women would not want to take part in clinical trials,  but that is no reason Perez states to throw our hands up in despair and do nothing.
  • The absence of female representation in clinical trials also means that drugs are not sex specific and drugs that work for men are finding their way into general use without anyone knowing if they work for women.   Conversely, drugs that do not work for men are discarded during the clinical trial process without anyone finding out whether they would have worked for women.

 

The formulation of a country’s GDP is an inherently subjective process,  states Perez.

She quotes Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at Manchester University.

‘A lot of people think GDP is a real thing.  But actually it’s a confection, with lots of judgements that have gone into its definition.  And a lot of uncertainty.

Measuring GDP is, she says, not like measuring how high the mountain is.’

In the 1970s – a period which has always been seen as a ‘golden’ window for productivity GDP rose (in the UK).

But what was actually happening during that period is that women were leaving the domestic sphere and starting to do out to work.    Work in the home had never been counted as part of GDP,  as presumably it still is not.

So the things done in the feminised private sphere which were invisible, suddenly got visible and added to the male-dominated public sphere.

Perez writes:

The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender gap of all. Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries and as much as 80% in low-income countries.  If we factor this work into the equation, the UK’s GDP in 2016 was around $3.9 trillion (official figures $2.6 trillion).  In 2015, unpaid care and domestic work in Mexico was valued at 21% – ‘higher than manufacturing, commerce, real estate, mining, construction and transportation and storage’.

None of this is the result of some dire scheming or deliberate policy, it is because of structuralised, self-perpetuating sex discrimination which has become so natural to us that we no longer see it.   Because women are invisible, it is not deemed to be necessary to collect sex specific data.   Because there is no sex specific data, women are invisible.

“Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this as discrimination.  Or really we don’t see it because we naturalise it – it is too obvious, too commonplace, too much just the way things are to bother commenting on.  It’s the irony of being a woman: at once hyper-visible when it comes to being treated as the subservient sex class, and invisible when it counts – when it comes to being counted.”

“There is an overwhelming need for women to be more involved in research, the author concludes.  “When women are involved in decision making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten.”

This book must have entailed a huge amount of work.  It is thorough researched and detailed.  Thank you Perez for showing us the male bias by which our still achingly patriarchal society is structured.  Sisters, there remains a long road ahead of us.


 

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist and human rights campaigner.  She is best known for getting a woman put on the Bank of England banknotes and for campaigning for a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.

 

 

 

Sheep are having a moment

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Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World

Steinunn Sigurdardóttir.

Heida Asgeirsdóttir

(John Murray, 2019)

Or rather, the people who look after sheep are having a moment.

There was James Rebanks A Shepherd’s life: A Tale of the Lake District about his struggles to take over the family farm in Cumbria which led him from rebellious teenager hanging out at the local chippie,  to adult education to, ultimately, a double first from Cambridge.

Then Amanda Owens A Year in the Life  of the Yorkshire Shepherdess flabbergasted Hay Festival audiences with tales of farming in the remote Yorkshire area of Ravenseat, including how – becoming disgruntled with local midwifery services  who wanted her to give birth in hospital – she gave birth to her 9th child (not a typo) on the kitchen  floor, waking her husband only after the event to tell him she’d had the baby!

There are not quite the same dramas but different ones in Heida the story of our eponymous heroine who farms 500 sheep in the Icelandic highlands. Although Heidais written in the first person, it is in fact a biography translated  from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton.   There is much haymaking, herding, sorting,  pregnancy scanning (of ewes – a big business for those with the appropriate knowledge and equipment apparently) and a great deal of extremely hard work done carried out mainly alone – although Heida admits that her Mum does the cooking!  Here the ground is so unforgiving that when the old dog Glámur dies in winter his body has to be put in a cardboard box and kept in the freezer to await the ground thaw in Spring for burial.

This is a story of shepherding in and on  land beset by fierce icelandic elements; of failing machinery; of battling (sometimes) angry family members and even volcanic eruptions.    Bloggers she says have been known to write of her land that the only thing that can survive there are ravens and foxes.  Strange then she says, that I have had to fight so hard to stay here.   The narrative voice is of a fiercely independent, and yes sometimes fierce woman as I imagine you would need to be to live this life; an ardent feminist who could never understand why you needed to have a husband in order to farm, and a despiser of racial and other inequalities.

Ironically as she lives in such an isolated and barely habitable place Heida’s greatest struggle has been against corporate capitalism.  She has been locked in a battle to stop part of her land being flooded to create the Búland Power Plant.   She describes in detail how developers try to set one community off against another;  how they offer money which someone, somewhere, will invariably accept, leaving others to struggle on in the fight.  How all the so called ‘expert’ opinions, the environmental impact assessments are bought and paid for by the people who want to do the developing;  whereas those in opposition are not allowed to present their own scientific evidence.   Also how can it be right or fair, she asks that it is the developer who finances the research and selects the engineering firms?  Holy guacamole do I recognise THAT scenario!! from a recent battle undertaken against a giant corporate air poisoner.

“We humans are mortal;  the land outlives us.  New people come and go, new sheep, new birds and so on, but the land, with its rivers and lakes, vegetation and resources, remains.  It undergoes changes over the years, but it remains.”

Yes it remains.  Or in the past it could be said that the land has always remained but is that any longer true?  Now there are impredations from which the land cannot recover.  A power plant is one.  Climate science tells us it is no longer enough for us to rely on the courage of people like Heida.  This battle belongs to us all.

A Volatile Summer of Reading

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This Summer I will be taking part in 20 Books of Summer.  A great idea from Cathy@746 Books to review twenty books over the summer period except my 20 will be more like 10.  I realise there are not quite ten books in the photo above!   My other three titles are not yet available to be photographed but will be within the next two days.   A Big Thank You to Sister Rune for trekking to the Hay Festival to make these purchases for me.  The remaining three titles are:

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Siguroardottir

Coleridge, The Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels. Adam Nicholson

River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye by Marsha O’Mahony

 

 

The truth is he was probably looking for a partner…

Mary Oliver Upstream: Selected Essays Penguin Press, (New York 2016)

 

So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear.    This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to,  as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.

In any case, he didn’t come to stir up the Government, or open another café, or- heaven forbid – a fast food restaurant, or mouth off opinions about gay, antigay, or what he thought of the artists, or write endless complaining letters to the town paper.

‘Dear Bear,’ Oliver writes. ‘It’s no use the world is like that.  So stay where you are and live long.  Someday maybe we’ll wise up and remember what you were: hopeless ambassador of a world that returns now only in a poets’ dreams.’

 

Inconvenient truths

monochrome photo of woman sitting on floor
Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Caroline Criado Perez. Invisble Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men(Chatto & Windus, 2019

Women are used to queuing when they go out.  Says Caroline Criado Perez in her book “Invisible Women” Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for men”.  She meant for the loo of course.  Any lady who has been to the theatre or opera or ballet or cinema in London or any city is used to queuing round the block in the interval, while the men pop in and out of their unencumbered spaces and have plenty of time to rock up at the bar for a nice cooling drink.   Gender neutral only makes things worse.  Because guess what.  Women need cubicles and can’t use urinals.  Men don’t – and can.    Sorry if that came as a bit of a shock,  Barbican management.

Apparently the Barbican hadn’t thought of that when they casually announced that all their loos – simply by changing to the sign on the door – were now Gender Neutral.  Tada!! Fabulous.  How many politically correct boxes that must have ticked with no effort or cost whatsoever.

But then, shock horror.  It was discovered that the ‘gender neutral’ urinals were only being used by men who were of course also entitled – should they choose – to use the cubicles.  All the Barbican had succeeded in doing is  increase provision for men and exclude women.   Needless to say, no sanitary bins had been provided in the so called ‘gender neutral’ urinals.   The supposedly equal provision of loos had been done with men in mind.  A male dominated management team, you think?

Another anecdote – if it can be called that – related by Perez is when a senior member of Google Sheryl Sandberg became pregnant and her feet swelled up, it came to her notice that she was having to walk miles across the car park because there was no provision for pregnant women to park nearer the main entrance. When she approached Google’s founder Sergei Brin about reserved parking for pregnant women he said he had never thought of it but that arrangements would be made.   No wonder he had never thought of it.  He is a man and will never be pregnant nor have to consider policy for those that will and are unless it is spelled out to him in words of one syllable.   It had never presumably occurred to Sandberg either until it happened that she found herself unable to struggle across the car park.

And no,  this is not a mere inconvenience if you’ll excuse the pun, easily rectified.  It is part of a cultural and economic exclusion which even in the 21stcentury is still rampant across all cultures.  One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap, says the author is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate.  Quite the opposite it is a way of thinking that has been around for millennia, and is therefore a kind of not thinking.

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

 

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

This is a tough read but beautifully written and poetic if such a thing is possible on dealing with the subject of child rape.  The author was raped at age 9 by a man who is finally brought to justice on the chance of a random DNA sample – more than two decades later.  By this time the author has married and had a son.  But  she painfully charts her mental and physical collapse – and her efforts to recover, the therapies she undergoes,  the Court case. Traumatic memory is such that the part of the brain that deals with autobiographical memory (the prefontal cortex) cannot access the trauma which has been buried away by the amygdala that can only be treated by those with specialist knowledge of PTSD relating to sexual violence,  all too often poorly recognised or understood.

‘How ugly ignorance is when it is concealed under learned airs,’ says the author.  And she has good reason to know.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is the list of names, not unlike a eulogy,  of those women (all victims of this same man)  who could not bring themselves to attend Court. Who risk criminal penalties for failing to answer a subpoena rather than be forced to recount in public over and over again lurid details of what happened to them when they were six, seven, eight or nine.   They are part of what is described as the ‘black number’ of victims of sexual violence. An estimated 90% of the victims of rape do not report it, and this number is even higher for child victims

Van Gogh obscured by his own mythology: At Eternity’s Gate. Dir Julian Schnabel

Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.  This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.

VanGogh

Reading Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, intellect and erudition shine through, certainly financial worries and an inability to find love, but self confidence? No. I wouldn’t say so.

There is more than one reference to Christ in the film, including pictorial ones.  Jesus himself, Van Gogh tells the priest, wasn’t famous until forty years after his death. Well maybe but that’s not a line guaranteed to get you out of the asylum in France in 1890.

The artist himself wrote:

‘’…on no account would I choose the life of a martyr.  For I have always striven for something other than heroism, which I do not have in me…’

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

Has Van Gogh become obscured by his own mythology? And does it matter?    This clearly is a concern to Ronald de Leeuw in his 1990 introduction to the Penguin edition of Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo.   It is worth pointing out here that the Editor of the letters was at the time of the book’s appearance Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – so hardly a slouch in terms of authority.    Both de Leeuw and the translator of the edition are clear that Vincent took his own life.

Yet film makers beg to differ.  He was shot they claim, by a local thug.    In this respect At Eternity’s Gatefollows on from the excellent and exquisitely rendered artists film,  Loving Vincent(2017) which also pushed the shot-by-a-local called René Secrétan angle.  Whereas scholarly thinking is that he committed suicide.

 

VanGogh2

It’s hard not to be fascinated …

by the life stories of artists and this one in particular.  After all,  Van Gogh painted his way from unknown son of a preacher man to incipient global icon in a period of roughly 11 years,  making the decision to become an artist (a late start for a  painter with no particular formal training in 1879) and dying aged 37 from gunshot wounds in 1891.

Possibly no other artist’s life  – or death – seems quite so intriguing to us or quite so surrounded with mysteries. And film loves a mystery.   But there is scholarly theory that these mysteries are not mysteries at all but are add ons to our popular image of the ultimate tortured and impoverished artist.  I do not claim that there is no substance in these ideas – the ear chopping episode (mercifully done off screen in Schnabel’s film) is sufficient evidence of a mind and body in torment.   But to make a shortcut between that and genius, and to claim little else for the man?  That I don’t accept.  Also the fact that the artist had self- harmed so spectacularly makes a greater case for his subsequent suicide, rather than a lesser one.

Van Gogh rarely discusses his illness in his letters to his brother perhaps not wishing to make him anxious but occasionally he does make reference to his illness.

When I came out of hospital with good old Roulin, I fancied there had been nothing wrong with me, it was only afterwards I felt I’d been ill.  Well, that’s only to be expected.  I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod. 

But when I am in a delirium and everything I love so much is in turmoil, then I don’t mistake that for reality and I don’t play the false prophet.

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

One aspect of Schnabel’s film which seems on the surface intriguing, but which is in fact inaccurate,  is the matter of the missing ledger book.  An empty ledger book was given by Madame Ginoux to Van Gogh for him to use as a drawing book and which the film claims was returned to her (although without her knowledge) complete with more than 60 of his drawings.  Heavens!  What would that be worth now?   The ledger, the film says, mysteriously disappeared and was only rediscovered in 2016.

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw this was  why? If the artist was reviled in his lifetime certainly by the local populace of Arles, and if so few of his paintings sold, why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a ledger book to all intents and purposes considered worthless at the time? And where was it all those years? How exciting!  The answer however – as answers often are – is more prosaic.

Martin Bailey, in an article dated 29thMarch 2018 for The Art Newspaper, writes that the book was not authentic.

Schnabel told The Times that it is “irrelevant” whether the drawings are genuine or not. He has seen them and says “they were pretty damn good”. This comes as a surprise from an artist, since the sketches are weakly drawn, derivative works. The Arles Sketchbook is not authentic, as the Van Gogh Museum determined after an exhaustive examination. (And the sketches were not discovered “in 2016”, since I had been shown some of them in 2010.)

Our need for the tortured artist as sacrificial victim should not overtake historical accuracy in biography. For the film maker it seems, it is not enough that Vincent should have taken his own life but that someone needed to do it for him.  Perhaps so that we may be yet more convinced of the rightness of his vision. Perhaps genius can only exist against a backdrop of ignorance, so that it may shine ever more brightly? I don’t know.      But here is the artist’s own voice on the subject:

“… I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make pictures that give rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about art and life.”

 

Last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos

When you’re dead you don’t need to worry about image.  Groaning away in last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos is one and the same thing.  And it doesn’t matter how many likes you get because you don’t have a FB page.  There has not yet been a generation of computer literate ghosts to worry about their image on social media.

common female blue butterfly
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

How will manifestations of ghostliness be dealt with in literary fashion as we move further into the 21st century and is there anyone left to care?

I am fascinated by how and when spirits will modernize. What will happen to the ghost in the machine, given that self development is unlikely in the beyond. Not for these modern ghosts the task of operating as Dickensian warning signs;  no dreary chain rattling or informing the living of their error of their ways.  The new ghosts will surely want to trend on twitter.      Maybe they will copy humanity and become abusive, distributing fake news. Who knows.  Maybe they will just go because humanity will no longer have the element of any spiritual belief that sustains the realm of the other.

I have experienced apparitions of a sort the film industry became bored with decades ago; you know the  watch out, ghost! sort of ghost  with misty bits and drifty bits and stormy bits.    In short, a coughing, banging about, whispering cliché.  Hark!  Is that the sound of paying customers yawning!   We are bored ghost.  Away with thee and thy foleying nonsense.   There are more lethal darknesses upon us.

What is the mystery that brings prose writers and poets back to the hinterlands of dream and being? The hope of standing on the pinafores of giants and creating some Brontë-esque masterpiece for without the realm of the psychological many of our great works could not exist. Jane Eyre to quote the most obvious example.

Yet increasingly the realm of the unknown is being beaten around its metaphorical head by tub thumping 21st century bureaucracies and an educational system that penalises young people; that teaches them not to dream of anything other than being fed into the maw of a capitalist system they increasingly see as irrelevant to their future.   Because the future of our young people is inextricably linked to climate change and its potential disasters.  As usual, politicians are light years behind on this thinking. The children are way ahead as we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

The literary ghost is still a manifestation of spirit rather than a collection of undeleted files left lying around in the ether.   Let us celebrate this.   Despite the cliché of knocking and whispering and sounds of the audience yawning,  I kind of hope he stays that way.     But maybe he or she doesn’t want our hope. Like Greta Thunberg – the young Swedish climate activist –  the ghosts want us to panic.