How to mangle, and relish, words

Windsors

For a fruitful way of spending your time under isolation, The Windsors (Channel 4, three series now available) has much to delight in—not least linguistically.

The entire cast is brilliant. Charles (Harry Enfield) and Wills (Hugh Skinner, gormlessly idealistic to follow his cameo as feckless Will in W1A) have great fun with their posh accents and mannerisms; but it’s the personas, and voices, of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Ellie White and Celeste Dring, wonderful) that I find most fascinating (or rather fascinatoring).

Along with their spectacular vapidity, their facial expressions and body language contributing to the effect, they both mangle and relish their vacuous words, constantly finding new ways of distorting vowel sounds—and even lavishing their regal attention upon the last word of a sentence, managing to elongate final consonants.* So just as you think the sentence is fizzling out with its usual innocuous ending, there’s a whole concentration of extra input. It’s like a VAR replay, slowing up even more to show if the ball really crossed the line.

Celeste Dring was inspired by Made in Chelsea—indeed, her very name surely qualifies her for the role. At least they go easy on the whole AQI uptalk thing???, though it is well suited to the Sloaney style (“I’m like, hellooooo?”).

A taster (“I think a job is where you have to go into a building, or something…”):

In their attention to enunciating vowels and consonants I detect a progression from series 1 to series 3. Good start-up words to practise include “now”, “house”, “years”, “money”, “water”.

The princesses deserve an award for elocution, if perhaps not for advancing the cause of women.

 

* BTW, the extensive stammering tag on this blog is worth consulting. One feature of speech impediments is that we (that’s an inclusive “we”—disfluencies of all kinds may afflict royalty and their loyal, servile subjects alike) tend to stammer on initial consonants: it’s getting going that’s the problem. One technique in “prolonged speech” therapy, a means of desensitisation, is to elongate the consonants, smoothly (easier for ssssustainable nasals and fricatives, whereas p-p-p-plosives have to be repeated). Now the fragrant princesses have got me wondering if it might be fair to give the neglected final consonants a chance too.

The struggle against Mussolini

 

Rossellis

Amelia with her sons Carlo r(ight) and Nello Rosselli.

As a necessary reminder that Italy is more than gorgeous paintings and picturesque piazzas, I’ve been reading

Moorehead

  • Caroline Moorehead, A bold and dangerous family: the Rossellis and the fight against Mussolini (2017).

The book is framed by crucial murders: of Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, and of the brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli in 1937.

The rise of fascism in Italy is amply studied by scholars such as Richard Bosworth. Yet the focused, personal angle of biography makes an engaging perspective on the political upheavals of the 20th century—as we find for China (e.g. here; see also under Cultural Revolutions, including my work on the Li family Daoists).

The present physical and mental landscape of Europe is shaped by the events of the past century (for fascism—Italy 1922–45, Portugal 1933–74, Germany 1933–45, Spain 1939–75—see this wiki article). I’ve outlined the rise of fascism in Spain and Portugal in the context of their singing cultures. And as in China, it can be tempting to retreat into nostalgia for early cultural grandeur.

Amelia: the early years
While the fate of the brothers is the main story of the book, their lives shouldn’t overshadow that of their mother, Amelia Pincherle Rosselli (1870­–1954), Jewish feminist, playwright, and translator.

Reminding us that Italy was only unified in 1870, Moorehead evokes Amelia’s early life in Venice; alongside its splendour, she notes its decaying, sinister feel (D.H. Lawrence: “abhorrent, green, slippery”). She was excited by the launch of the first vaporetto in 1881. Her father died when she was 14, whereupon she moved to Rome. She came to share the ideals of Giuseppe Mazzini, a family friend who spent much of his exile in London. His

patriotism, his hatred of xenophobia and imperialism, his honesty and moral clarity, were all crucial to the Rossellis’ view of themselves and the world they lived in.

Amelia young

Amelia at the time of her marriage.

After her wedding in 1892, the couple took a honeymoon of nearly three months, visiting Naples, Nice, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, France, and England. In Vienna Amelia became more politicised, absorbing feminist ideas; becoming multi-lingual, she soon gained a reputation for her challenging plays. After returning to Rome, she gave birth to three sons. But as the couple grew apart, Amelia took them off to live in Florence in 1903, a rather benign separation. There, as Moorehead notes with perspective on modern architectural vandalism, in the last fifteen years alone,

one of the most famous city centres in the world had been stripped down—26 old streets destroyed, along with 40 piazzas—in the name of modernity and hygiene.

Florence (also with a lively expat English community) now made a lively venue for Amelia’s creative talents. Her plays in Venetian dialect were well received. She took part in the evolving feminist movement. Politics played a growing role; as anarchists fostered strikes among the many poor city-dwellers, later battle lines were drawn between reformers and reactionaries. Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), an inspiration for the Rossellis, was among the most long-lived anti-fascist historians.

While thinkers were keen to free Italy from the passatismo cult of the past, some futurists also extolled war, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; it was important, he wrote, to liberate Italy from

its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, Ciceroni and antiquarians. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards. […] We will glorify war, the world’s only hygiene […] and scorn women.

Hmm—just when it was going so well…

Amidst the cataclysm of World War One (Moorhead notes that as many as half of the Italian soldiers were illiterate), the death of Amelia’s oldest son Aldo in the Dolomites was devastating.*

The rise of Mussolini, and the resistance
The unhealed scars of hatred from the war led to the rise of Mussolini. Major strikes of workers from 1920 to 1922 were countered by “punitive expeditions” against “subversives” by fascist squadristi, egged on by the police, army, and judiciary.

Carlo became part of a committed anti-fascist circle that included Filipo Turati, Giacomo Matteotti, and the young Piero Gobetti. Through Salvemini he met the Englishwoman Marion Cave, who would become his wife. In 1923, after a trip to Paris, he got to know the Italian community in London, busy with its own political tensions.

The first Italians, pedlars, organ-grinders, and jugglers had arrived in London early in the 18th century, and settled in Clerkenwell, turning its narrow, modest streets into a little Italy, where few of the women spoke English. England had been welcoming to these exiles, as it was to the artisans, barbers, asphalters, carpenters, tool-makers, cooks, and ice-cream makers who travelled up through France and across the Channel all through the 19th century. Arriving in Clerkenwell, they felt at home among the flowering window boxes and the sheets hanging from the windows. Some sold ice from the back of a cart. Others opened boarding houses. Pasta was made at home, then hung from the washing line to dry.**

Among the more affluent Italian community in London many were sympathetic to the fascist cause, including groups like the splendidly-named Ice Cream and Temperance Refreshment Federation. But others lampooned the fascists.

After taking part in a Fabian gathering in genteel Hindhead, Carlo visited Birmingham and the Midlands, “the real England, smoky, dirty, industrial, ugly, productive”—though he found no redeeming features in English food of whatever social level.

After a brief period of ambivalence towards women’s rights, by 1923 Mussolini went on the attack against feminism. Soon

magazine articles showed pictures of comely peasant women in national dress. And sturdy peasant men “mirthful”, yet “sober in their habits”, enjoying “health” and “praiseworthy” pastimes. Private dance halls were closed “for reasons of morality”. People were urged to become lean, willowy, sinewy. “I have no pity,” declared Mussolini, “for the fat”. The new Italian was to be “Herculean”, potent, granite-like, made of steel.

Italian youth were indoctrinated in the Balilla movement (not to be confused with the Barilla pasta company, latterly unlikely sponsors of the wonderful Coco Gauff). Mussolini sent a mission to England to sudy Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts.

Matteotti

The last photo of Matteotti (centre), shortly before his murder.

The murder of Matteotti in 1924 was a decisive moment, shocking the younger dissidents into political action. It was now clear that Mussolini could not be defeated by legal means.

As repression intensified in Italy, Carlo visited London again to observe guild socialism and the new Labour government. Back in Florence, fascist squadri were ever more active. In Monteleone a sculpture was erected of a Madonna and child brandishing a club, La Madonna del manganello. Salvemini was forced into exile.

Confino
After managing to help Turati flee to Paris, Carlo was thrown into prison. Though the sentencing of the defendants to a mere ten months at the “trial of the professors” in 1927 seemed like some kind of victory against fascism, Mussolini still sent them off for five years’ confino on a succession of remote island penal colonies. Meanwhile Nello married Maria Todesco; but he too was soon sentenced to confino.

Banishment to penal colonies was a common method of dealing with opponents of the fascist regimes in Europe (for Portugal, see here; cf. The first gulag), and had a long history as far back as ancient Rome. As elsewhere, in recent years these islands—Ustica, Favignana, Lipari, Ponza, Pantelleria, Lampedusa, Le Tremiti—have become tourist destinations, their painful histories often ignored. In recent years they have also become staging posts for desperate migrants on the route to Europe.

Though conditions were spartan, the islands had a certain rustic charm, and compared to many other such camps conditions were relatively benign. Those with sufficient funds were able to find their own dwellings; they received basic supplies from relatives, and educated themselves—and the locals. The Rossellis’ wives and children, and Amelia, were permitted to join them. Early in 1928, Nello was released from Ustica, though he remained under surveillance.

Meanwhile Carlo was on Lipari. Again the confinati kept busy, selling doughnuts, organizing deliveries of Parmesan, giving talks on Dante.

Left: Nello’s house on Ustica, with a crowd of confinati.
Right: Carlo, with Nitti and Lussu, escaping from Lipari on their way to freedom.

Fleeing from such islands was considered impossible; yet in 1929, after several attempts, Carlo managed to escape with two other confinati by boat to Tunisia, eventually reaching Paris, where he joined a lively community of anti-facist exiles; soon Marion and their young children arrived. Nello was soon returned to Ustica before being moved on to Ponza, but he was released again by November.

The struggle continues
Though Mussolini’s network of spies was active in Paris, Carlo and his comrades still managed to stage demonstrations in Italy against fascist power, dropping leaflets by plane over Milan. Such resistance may seem largely ineffectual, but it was significant.

In 1930 Nello spent time in England, meeting up with Salvemini and English supporters of the cause. Amelia joined him. Her nephew Alberto Moravia also arrived; though he was now fêted for his novel Gli indifferenti, Amelia and Nello were disturbed by his cool cynicism. Stopping off in Paris on his way back to Italy, Moravia met up with Carlo, who asked him to post a letter in Rome for an anarchist friend, which he did reluctantly.

This passage may sound familiar:

The Italians were fed inconsistencies, falsehoods, contradictions, differing interpretations, all designed to mystify and confuse, many of it [sic] couched in stentorian, martial tones over the radio. It was forbidden to mention failures.

As the indoctrination of youth continued, we can imagine Amelia’s reaction:

As for girls, who had to be protected from the “unnatural desires of English suffragettes” and the frivolity and worldliness of “French coquettes”, they were made to dance, garden, iron, and knit, and given “doll drills”, in which they were taught how to hold babies the correct way. When, in the early summer of 1928, thousands of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 were brought to Rome for the first gymnastic-athletic competition, they were told to discipline their muscles and take part in rifle practice, while at the same time to study “good mothering”, in order to become “neither feeble… nor gloomy”. (Pope Pius XI protested about the rifles: if girls raised their arms, it should “be always and only in prayer and charitable actions”.)

Marinetti continued to propound his wild vision: he

wanted to “fascistise” all culture, do away with classical architecture and fill Italy’s squares with electric trams and overhead wires. He wanted to industrialise Venice and ban everything foreign—films, food, orchestras, and even languages—within “our virile, proud, dynamic pensinula”.

Being antipassatista involved being anti-pasta:

And since the new man had to be futuristic inside as well as out, he launched a campaign against pasta, saying that it had made Italians gross, lazy, complacent, and stupid, and led to pessimism and prostitution. “Until now men have fed themselves like ants, rats, cats, and oxen,” he declared in an article on Futuristic cooking. The new man would do better to eat black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats, and as he ate, stroke sandpaper and velvet, enjoying the contrast in taste and texture, while a waiter sprayed carnation-scented water on to the back of his neck and from the kitchen were relayed the roars of aeroplane motors. At the Holy Palate, his proposed Futuristic restaurant in Turin, diners would be given a boiled chicken accompanied by ball bearings in whipped cream, served by a “woman of the future”, bald and wearing spectacles. Compared to the remorseless severity and humourlessness of most fascist dictators, Marinetti’s crazy fantasies had a certain innocent charm.

Though Marinetti’s vision may have had little long-term impact, Mussolini did indeed wage war on pasta. His remark to Bocchini, head of his secret police, has a more contemporary ring:

We want to create a kind of magical eye which keeps Italians under control and can at any moment provide me with a complete, up-to-date picture of everything being said and done in the whole of Italy. Men … with the craftiness of a fox and the speed of a serpent, they need to learn the difficult art of provocation, how to insinuate themselves into a crowd, how to fit into every situation and every social circle.

In Florence

a “moral cleansing” was launched, with campaigns against swearing, pornography, immoral plays, and indecent fashions. “Eroticism” was done away with, wherever it occurred. Girls were enjoined not to dance the Charleston, and to wear thick stockings and blouses with long sleeves. Dance halls were closed down. There were calls to ostracise “Northern habits”, such as Christmas trees.

Amelia resigned from the Lyceum, once a lively forum for ideas.

The anti-fascists continued their work. In October 1931 leaflets were dropped over Rome. But the secret police were ever-vigilant.

Turati, whom Carlo described as the moral leader of Italy, died in Paris in 1932. With the aid of Sylvia Pankhurst (but not the British government), Carlo attempted to help Matteotti’s widow leave Italy for Paris.

After Hitler came to power in Germany, he came to Venice in 1934 to meet Mussolini for the first time—neither was enamoured.

In 1935 the remaining members of the anti-fascist network in Turin were arrested—including Carlo Levi, whose months of exile in a southern village prompted him to write Christ stopped at Eboli.

Full of bellicose imperial ambitions, Mussolini launched a brutal campaign in Abyssinia. The reproaches of the British government prompted another tirade from the ever-reliable Martinetti, decrying British snobismo, alcoholism, degeneracy, lack of genius, and above all their “sexual abnormalities”.

Carlo was now recognized as leader of the Paris exiles, and, for the spies watching him, the main threat. In Italy, Moravia had just published Le ambizioni sbagliate, but he rebuffed Carlo’s attempt to recruit him to the cause.

Spain, and the assassination
In 1936 the Spanish civil war broke out, with Franco supported by Mussolini. As the anti-fascists sought to redeem their past failures, Carlo set off for the front with a band of volunteers. But with the resistance soon riven by dissent, Carlo returned to Paris in January 1937. That year too, Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, died after eleven years in prison.

In Florence anti-semitism was ever more flagrant. Just as a cell of French Cagoulards, with the blessing of Mussolini, was plotting to have Carlo eliminated, Nello, fatefully, resolved to meet his brother in Normandy. In June 1937, after a happy reunion, they were ambushed and murdered as they drove through the woods—Carlo was the target, Nello an unfortunate collateral victim.

The truth emerged only gradually; Pablo Picasso and André Breton were among a group of intellectuals who wrote that if the death of Matteotti had signalled the death of liberty in Italy, that of the Rosselli brothers has signed its death warrant in the whole of Europe.

From Alberto Moravia, Amelia’s much loved nephew, there was total silence. No telephone calls, no letters, no flowers. She did not take it well.

Amelia, broken, left Italy with Maria to Switzerland; soon Marion joined them. Seeking wider horizons, in 1939 they moved to an English village. In 1940 the Germans invaded France; the family now felt it wise to emigrate again to the USA. In New York too, politics were divisive. They met up with like-minded exiles, including the senior Salvemini, who had taken up a teaching post at Harvard in 1934 after going into exile in Paris in 1925.

In a household of women, the matriarch Amelia was now in her seventies; more than either of her daughters-in-law, she approached the New World with curiosity and openness.

Mussolini was ousted from power in the summer of 1943 before he was executed in April 1945. From afar, the Rossellis learned of the liberation of Florence and Rome. Trials were now held for the murders of Carlo and Nello. The family returned to Italy in June 1946, learning how their friends and acquaintances had collaborated with the fascists. In 1951 the bodies of Carlo and Nello were moved from Père Lachaise cemetery to Florence.

Moravia
In 1945 Alberto Moravia had at last written to his aunt Amelia trying to explain his inability at the time, under surveillance, to express his condolences for the murder of Carlo and Nello; but she considered him to have acted “out of opportunism, or, at its most charitable, out of weakness”.

Moravia (1907–90) comes poorly out of this whole story. His novel The conformist (1951), which Bertolucci made into a wonderful film (see this post), reads as a telling denunciation of fascism, and is based on the lives and deaths of the Rossellis. The story of Marcello, the damaged protagonist falling prey to the fascist cause in his vain search for “normality”, contrasts with the principled, life-affirming exiles in Paris; his betrayal of Professor Quadri leads to the horrifying assassination of him and his wife in the woods. Yet Moravia remained distant from the Rosselli family. Was his novel a plea for absolution? Of course, not everyone could be as brave as the Rossellis: at the time, and for many years to come, people had to make uncomfortable moral choices throughout Europe (e.g. the GDR), Russia, and China.

Conformist

From the film The conformist.

Carlo’s widow Marion died in 1949, and “the Rosselli heroes left sad legacies of depression and troubled minds”. Amelia, ever strong, died at the age of 84 on Boxing Day 1954. Melina, daughter of Carlo and Marion, became a successful poet, but committed suicide in 1996 on the anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, whose work she had translated.

* * *

As this review notes, Moorehead makes use of contrasting sources: not only the family archive of letters, shot through with love and shared political passions, but also the huge stash of documents, inspired by suspicion and hostility, from the network of spies who documented their every move.

Now I look forward to reading her account of the resistance around Turin, A house in the mountains: the women who liberated Italy from fascism (2019). And then onto all the murky politics of later Italian politics, and the continuing threat of fascism.

Why didn’t I know, or care, about all this through my youth? Alas, my interests were so abstruse. It’s also a world away from the concerns of the Burlesque-only generation; yet the scars remain, and as fascism turns out not to have been erased, it seems ever more relevant. Like Neil MacGregor, I also wonder,

What would we have done?

 

* In England such trauma was to be movingly evoked by Vera Brittain, who lost her brother Edward in the same region.

** For a fascinating account of Italian folk musicians in England playing zampogna bagpipes and other folk instruments, see here. The zampogna was still heard in 1960s’ New York. Moorehead might also have mentioned more reputable early Italian migrants to England like performers of WAM.

 

 

 

 

 

For Sama

Sama

Following on from Soviet lives at war, just in case you haven’t yet watched Waad al-Kateab’s moving 2019 documentary For Sama, then you must.

During the siege of Aleppo, Channel 4 regularly featured reports by both Waad and her doctor husband Hamza from the makeshift hospital where he received casualties of the constant bombings. For Waad, filming served as a means of both survival and resistance.

family

Dealing with a vast amount of footage, the editors’ eventual decision to structure the story through baby Sama was a fine discovery, “moving between dark and light, with Sama as their—and our—lifeline”.

Sama, will you remember Aleppo? Will you blame me for staying here? Or blame me for leaving now?

Amidst all the carnage, at their wedding they dance to Crazy. Their friends Afraa and Salem, and their children, are full of resilience and humour. Waad and Hamza question their resolve not only to bring Sama into the world but, after a brief visit to Turkey, to bring her back with them to Aleppo, ever more dangerous as the regime’s grip tightened.

Among all the media coverage, this is good, as well as this Channel 4 interview:

Note also their project Action for Sama.

Amidst such suffering, expressive culture may seem like a dream, but what will become of the fabled musical traditions of Aleppo?

More recently Channel 4 has broadcast a series of reports from beleaguered Idlib—and here’s an article by Waad al-Kateab on the desperate situation there.

See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis.

Soviet lives at war

Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory

in hiding

Continuing my belated education in Soviet lives, always bearing in mind parallels with modern Chinese society, I’ve begun reading the remarkable oral history projects of Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948), winner of the Nobel prize in 2015 (see e.g. this NYT review), starting with

  • The unwomanly face of war (1983, English translation 2017) (review here) and
  • Last witnesses: unchildlike stories (1985, English translation 2019) (review here).

Such memoirs should be read in conjunction with historical accounts such as Timothy Snyder’s The bloodlands. And they are just the kind of memories utilised by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers and documented on his website. For a roundup of posts on life behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

A genuine sense of collective idealism, so difficult for the Soviet state to instil through all the tribulations of forced collectivisation, famine, show trials, and gulags, only came much later with the Great Patriotic War unleashed by the 1941 Nazi invasion. But after the Victory this patriotic pride was soon followed by renewed disillusion. For the People’s Republic of China after 1949, conversely, the national myth fed on the whole process of the revolution, of which the wartime resistance against Japan was but one element. And then, as I observed in Lives in Stalin’s Russia,

Whereas the 1989 Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In The unwomanly face of war Alexeivich focuses on the roles of women, their strivings and sufferings: tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, nurses and doctors, on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories; as well as the “second front”, all those women working backstage—doing laundry, cooking, repairing machinery and vehicles, and so on.

She also comments on the whole issue of representing war; on the process of eliciting such painful memories; and on the difficulties of publishing such material even after perestroika—notably in the lengthy opening section, “A human being is greater than war”.

I am writing a book about war…

I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading of everybody. Of all my peers. And this is not surprising—we were the children of Victory. The children of the victors. What is the first thing I remember about the war? My childhood anguish amid the incomprehensible and frightening words. The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes. Even in children’s conversations. […]

For us everything took its origin from that frightening and mysterious world. In our family my Ukrainian grandfather, my mother’s father, was killed at the front and is buried somewhere in Hungary, and my Belorussian grandmother, my father’s mother, was a partisan and died of typhus; two of her sons served in the army and were reported missing in the first months of the war; of three sons only one came back. My father. The Germans burned alive eleven distant relations with their children—some in a cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family. With everybody. […]

The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. Village women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it has remained for me: stories of the war are told by women. Their songs are like weeping. […]

At school we were taught to love death. We wrote compositions about how we would love to die in the name of … We dreamed.

As a review comments:

The official response to this legacy of suffering was a Soviet history that reduced pain to superlative clichés —heroism, bravery, sacrifice—and replaced the individual with the archetype of the Soviet soldier-hero.

The “Holocaust by bullet” in the bloodlands, which bore the full brunt of Hitler’s invasion, were particularly horrendous—notably in Belarus, [1] where Alexeivich grew up; indeed, many of the accounts that she went on to collect refer to the Minsk region. Vasil Bykau’s novel The dead don’t hurt [aka The dead feel no pain] was published in 1965 but immediately banned: “his characters stubbornly stand outside the Soviet national myth. They are cowardly as often as they are brave; they betray and are betrayed; they are not always sure that victory over fascism or capitalism justifies their deaths” (from this review).

Eventually Alexeivich came across another book about wartime Belarus that struck a chord: I am from a burning village [aka Out of the fire, 1977] by Adamovich, Bryl, and Kolesnik. Impressed by the book’s polyphonic style, Alexeivich found it to be

composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.

After another long struggle with the censors, Elem Klimov was finally able to begin shooting a film based on the book, Come and see (1985; review here). Here’s a trailer:

As Alexeivich read more widely, it became clear to her that the standard literature on war was “men writing about men”:

Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests.

But

No one but me ever questioned my grandmother. My mother. Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the “women’s” war but about the “men’s”. They tune into the canon.

She reflects on the way women portray their wartime selves (memory too is a creative process), noting that educated people are more “infected by secondary knowledge”, by myths. She explains the process of finding the women and interacting with them.

The wartime recollections are disturbing, but the fortunes of the manuscript make another worrying topic. The 1983 manuscript of The unwomanly face of war was criticized for tarnishing the image of the Soviet woman.

The manuscript has been lying on my desk for a long time… For two years now I’ve been getting rejections from publishers.

Then came perestroika, and an edition appeared (albeit heavily censored), soon becoming hugely popular; as she received dozens of letters daily, she soon found herself “doomed to go on writing my books endlessly”.

In the unexpurgated 2017 English edition Alexeivich includes excerpts from her journal from 2002 to 2004:

I think that today I would probably ask different questions and hear different answers. And would write a different book—not entirely different, but still different.

She gives instances of passages that the censors threw out—and even that she herself had censored. Many of these have since been restored, but as she says, they too make a document. She intersperses such passages with her conversations with the censor:

“Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.”

Our heroism is sterile, it leaves no room for physiology or biology. It’s not believable. War tested not only the spirit but the body, too. The material shell.

“Where did you get such thoughts? Alien thoughts. Not Soviet. You laugh at those who lie in communal graves.”

Another exchange:

“Yes, we paid heavily for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples. There are hundreds of them. And you show the filth of the war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible… What is it you’re after?”

The truth.”

“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s such a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!”

Alexeivich laces the brief, distressing individual memoirs with revealing notes on the context of her encounters with their authors: their demeanour, the cramped apartments.

Amidst the frank descriptions of warfare, some of the women she met retained an enthusiasm for Communism, but others were bitterly critical of the society that Stalin had created. Here’s one letter she received:

My husband, a chevalier of the Order of Glory, got ten years in the labour camps after the war… That is how the Motherland met her heroes. The victors! He had written in a letter to a university friend that he had difficulty being proud of our victory—our own and other people’s land was covered with heaps of Russian corpses. Drowned in blood. He was immediately arrested… His epaulettes were torn off…

He came back from Kazakhstan after Stalin’s death… Sick. We have no children. I don’t need to remember the war. I’ve been at war all my life…

Another woman, whose husband had fought, was captured, and then sent to labour camp after Victory, reflects:

I want to ask: who is to blame that in the first months of the war millions of soldiers and officers were captured? I want to know… Who beheaded the army before the war, shooting and slandering the Red commanders—as German spies, as Japanese spies. […] I want… I can ask now… Where is my life? Our life? But I keep silent, and my husband keeps silent. We’re afraid even now. We’re frightened… And so we’ll die scared. Bitter and ashamed…

After one harrowing account from a former medical assistant of a tank battalion, Alexeivich adds a sequel. She received a package containing published praise for the woman’s patriotic educational work, and found the material she had sent heavily censored. Alexeivich reflects on the two truths that live in the same human being:

one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.

On the interviews, she goes on to note:

The more listeners, the more passionless and sterile the account. To make it suit the stereotype.

One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:

Back then we hid, didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. […] I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.

Alexeivich finds them less candid in speaking about love than about death. Indeed, traditional values remained punitive: one woman tells how she got married after Victory, only to find that her husband’s parents were ashamed of this frontline bride.

After the war we got another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us. They didn’t shield us.

* * *

Woman’s history has rightly become a major topic, both in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve addressed women at war in Les Parisiennes and Bearing witness; there have been notable studies for Britain too, also providing a much-needed corrective to our legacy of patriotic war films. For China, the voices of women are an important aspect of Guo Yuhua’s study of a Shaanbei village under Maoism (see also my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here, and China: commemorating trauma). Among many posts under my fieldwork category, I explore issues such as listening to people here.

* * *

Whereas the narrators of The unwomanly face of war were at least in their teens when they joined the Great Patriotic War, in Last witnesses (first published in 1985, and again adapted for the English translation, which bears the dates 1978–2004) they are often recalling their very early years, aged from 3 to 14. Here Alexeivich refrains from comment, leaving the young voices to speak for themselves. “Instead of a Preface”, she cites People’s Friendship magazine to remind us:

In the course of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) millions of Soviet children died: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Latvians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Armenians, Tadjiks…

The accounts make up a relentlessly grisly litany of partisans, atrocities, torched houses, mutilated corpses, transports, camps—an indelible trauma for these young children, often orphaned after witnessing their families and fellow-villagers murdered, hiding in forests and swamps, constantly hungry. However repressed, this trauma would persist throughout the years following the Victory.

 

[1] Belarus is a frequent topic of Snyder’s Bloodlands. As in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, the war was never a simple struggle between the local population and German invaders. The NKVD had already committed terrible atrocities, complicating the partisans’ allegiances: some groups were pro-Soviet, others fighting for independence.

 

The c-word

also starring fatuous asterisks, bendy bananas, and the b-word (bi)

Lee

How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******?

Talking of The end of the f***ing world, the prissy prurience of the tabloids’ use of asterisks is brilliantly demolished by David Marsh in this article from the fine Guardian series Mind your language, prompted by the John Terry trial—citing a reader:

 I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,

and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.

Moreover, reclaiming “the c-word (cunt)” has been a concern of feminists—as discussed in this post (from another useful site), citing authors from Germaine Greer to Laurie Penny. See also this article from Rachel Braier; the wiki article is useful too.

In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of  Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Content provider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.

First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery. See this charming little clip—or, with more context (from around 7.46):

And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*

So here’s the footnote:

* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.

By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:

The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):

In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.

Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.

And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.

And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.

Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in The Times, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.

Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.

In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.

In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:

I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]

Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.

Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.

bendy

Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):

People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.

In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:

Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?

And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.

For more, see numerous posts under the Lee tag—and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! For lying xenophobic misogynistic politicians, see also under Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, with his sinister henchman The Haunted Pencil (e.g. here and here), as well as the Tweety tag. Click here for two erudite literary jokes; and for what in Chinese, charmingly, is “the b-word (bi)”, see Forms of addressInterpreting pinyin, and Changing language.

Staving off old age

I may be nostalgic for 1950s’ comedy, like Beyond the fringe and Tony Hancock, and as to New-Fangled Popular Beat Combos I only make occasional rash forays beyond Bach [sic: see e.g. Bach as bandleader and arranger] and the Beatles (e.g. punk, Country, northern soul, and so on). My tastes in film also often hark back to formative experiences in my youth (see this roundup).

But just now, in my desperate attempt to stave off old age (less harmful than the alchemical elixirs for long life consumed in vain by ancient Chinese emperors), there are two British TV series that I just love among a plethora of Yoof programmes (across the pond, cf. Family guy, Parks and recreation, and Soap).

  • The end of the fxxxing world. The asterisks there are sadly authentic, result of the delicacy of Channel 4, not mine or indeed that of the series’ creators—which inspires me to yet another post on The c-word.

The two seasons are both noir and tender; the surreal style of filming, along with the fabulous playlist, (season 1 here, season 2 here; or complete on Spotify), evokes David Lynch; and the limited vocabulary of the awkward young couple Alyssa and James (Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther) is weirdly expressive. Here’s a trailer for season 1:

* * *

Going back a little further, also on Channel 4,

  • Fresh meat (2011–16), somewhat less surreal than The young ones, remains delightful—all four series are available online. In a strong cast, the priceless character of Vod (Zawe Ashton—notwithstanding her great versality and later celebrity) never fails to hit the spot:

When Josie tells her she’s thinking of switching to pharmacology:

Vod: What is it?

Josie: It’s the study of drugs.

Vod: You can study drugs? Now they tell me.

God has given me a brain. And I’m choosing to do some pretty wicked things to it. Which may or may not result in further hospitalisation.

And here’s how to do a CV:

More in this playlist—but go on, watch the series!

Series 4 ends with her “organising” Vodstock—”a festival that is Burning Man meets Cirque du Soleil meets Countryfile meets hajj“. In the end it’s just a student party.

* * *

So I’m like, YAY! (adjusting my monocle à la The Haunted Pencil). BTW, FFS, WTF is “streaming” anyway? WTF is an “app”? It’s OK, I don’t really want to know. And FYI, a phone is a big heavy Bakelite thingy in the hall (cf. Alexander Graham Bell’s priceless prophesy).

See also Fleabag, and Philomena Cunk.

Right, back to those Daoist ritual manuals.

Gender and class: Awdry and Blyton

Train

Re-assessing the canons of the past is a constant and natural task, from which children’s fiction should not be immune.

In another fine rebuke to the fatuous “PC gone mad” brigade, Guardian writers welcome challenges to the cast of Thomas the tank enginehitherto a sacred bastion of white male privilege, but now to feature female and multi-cultural trains, Shock Horror. Stuart Heritage characterizes the series as

the story of several straight white men who solemnly obey the every passing whim of a white, straight, male dictator in a crude reinforcement of the belief that the working class should know its place.

Following up, Jack Bernhardt observes,

the enemy of comedy isn’t political correctness—it’s nostalgia and lazy characterisation.

And in a related article Tracy Van Slyke furthers the cause:

These trains perform tasks dictated by their imperious, little white boss, Sir Topham Hatt (also known as The Fat Controller), whose attire of a top hat, tuxedo and big round belly is just a little too obvious. Basically, he’s the Monopoly dictator of their funky little island. Hatt orders the trains to do everything from hauling freight to carrying passengers to running whatever random errand he wants done, whenever he wants it done—regardless of their pre-existing schedules.

She cites shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh’s plea for the series to include more female engines to encourage girls to become train drivers—which doubtless prompts much harrumphing from Outraged of Tunbridge Wells and his (sic) Brexit chums.

Already in 1982 the Comic Strip produced the splendid Five go mad in Dorset:

See also Alan Bennett on appeasement in The House at Pooh Corner (for more on Winnie the Pooh, see here).

I too was brought up on such children’s classics—a legacy from which I recovered quite slowly. Perhaps a worthier credential for my discussing all this would be my status as great-nephew of Edith Miles, author of many fine children’s novels of a similar vintage, in which girls play a major role, YAY!

The gender category contains plenty more rebukes of sexism—don’t miss Vera and Doris, and Dressing modestly.