Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The pure and clear dynasty

The wonderful National Gallery of Victoria has an exhibition of Chinese imperial costumes from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). On show are a magnificent selection of clothing worn by the Chinese Emperors and the court. There are hats, fans, purses and, sadly, lotus shoes but it is the intricacy of the embroidered robes that will make you catch your breath.

The robes are adorned with what are called Mandarin squares, which were esentially your badge of rank. And they are stunning, though they make me feel a little sad about my library badge. Animals, flowers and geometric symbols indicate your standing in society: 9th military rank gets the sea horse, a 5th level civilian gets a silver pheasant. Higher up the scale and your place is indicated by the direction your dragon faces and the number of claws on its foot. You'll find chrysanthemums and peonies, butterflies and praying mantis, flying monkeys, sacred waves, bells, cranes and snow geese. It's a little like a high class 'where's Wally?' but it's a lovely, lovely game.

And yes, we did our imitation of Chinese opera. Discretely.

A day at the gallery

Some weeks ago my mother came up from rusticating on her country estate, to do some shopping and pay some calls in The City. I have been terribly neglectful, a dreadful daughter, for not posting about it earlier - and I have been called to task for it! So, suitably chastened, I now share with you one of the highlights of her visit - a trip to the gallery.

I'd been tipped off by Miss Circa, there was to be an exhibition of regency clothing at the National Gallery of Victoria - Persuasion: fashion in the age of Jane Austen. As was tradition, Mum and I rendezvoused outside the gallery at 10am. It was a beautiful, clear winter's day - crisp, sunny and brisk. Mum had just come from a hearty turn around the gardens and rosy cheeked we deposited our coats at the hat check counter, did a quick powder of the nose and sauntered upstairs. We used to visit the gallery once a fortnight. It's such an amazing place with free exhibitions, talks and movie screenings. It's definitely a treat to get in there and turn your back on the big blockbuster exhibition and explore the many other things the gallery has to offer. We've sung along to World War II tunes with a Welsh choir, seen a documentary on the World Fair and made a mockery of an ancient and noble culture in the Aztec collection. Such is our familiarity with the place that we have almost a proprietorial air about it and, as such, do tend to swank around just a little bit.
These are mameluke sleeves. We do not like them.
The Regency clothing exhibition is a tiny, gem of a show. Some context: the Regency Era in England occured during the years 1811 - 1820, when potty King George III was deemed unfit to rule. His son, the rather wayward George IV was installed as Prince Regent, to rule in his father's stead. According to the grand tome Wikipedia, the Regency Era is often thought to extend 1837 as the distinctive fashions and character of the time lingered until that date. It's best thought of as the transition between Georgian and Victorian times. Napoleon is terrorising Europe, Frankenstein is written, the Prince Regent spends money by the bucket load, Beau Brummel escapes his creditors by fleeing to France, entrance to Almacks Assembly Rooms is covetted. Tattersalls is THE place to buy a matching pair of sweet greys to pull your phaeton, circulating libraries and the popular novel come into vogue, Brooks is the gentleman's club of choice, where you can fritter away large sums at whist and hazard in the gaming rooms (if you're a member), taking the water at Bath is de rigeur and Turnbridge Wells is the resort town of choice. Oh, and there was the little matter of the Industrial Revolution. And of course, it was in the Regency Era that our dear Jane publishes Pride and prejudice.

The exhibition looks at the clothing and fashion of this era and is informed by Austen's writings. She didn't include references to many contemporary events, apart from the inevitable appearance of the red coated soldier, but she did write about domestic details such as trimming hats and sewing shirts for her brother. History-wise it's all very interesting, but mum and I tend to take a shopping approach to such things: 'I'll take that one - and that one - and that to match'. Mum chose a rather daring white muslin gown, almost transparent so fine was the material, and a charming mixture of innocent austerity and seductiveness. (Rather dashing ladies used to damp down their gowns so that they would cling in all the right places!) She also chose what I think was a pelisse trimmed with goose down and with fine gold embroidery. I rather hankered after a rust coloured walking gown with Spanish leather slippers and a poke bonnet to match. The gowns are all teeny weeny and the craftsmanship remarkable - such tiny stitches! And of course, there is the costume worn by the handsome Mr Colin Firth in THAT swimming scene from P&P.

Art and culture is all very well, but these girls have baser needs. The BEST thing about the gallery is the tea room. Leave the family cafe downstairs to the hoi polloi! Trot upstairs to what used to be the frightfully expensive, noisy, fashionable cafe. It's now a tea room and my, what a haven it has become. Think what it's like to sip on the perfect cup of tea - ah! relaxing! all cares slipping away! Drop into a comfy chair in the tea room and this sensation immediately comes over you. Be served by a beaming and gracious African waiter. Resist the temptation to come over all Colonial when he brings your tea pot on a silver platter, with tea strainer and sugar cubes. (I don't know, maybe it was the exhibition, but I was starting to feel the proper lady!) And joy of joys! A three cup tea pot to your self. With a little something on the side. Of course, we went for the big something - a Dev tea with scones and jam and cream. Hurrah! somewhere in the city that serves a decent cup of tea. A heavenly, restful space. Most civilized. We also visited an exhibition on Chinese Imperial robes, but I'm not entirely sure how to work that bit in with Regency so stay tuned for the next red silken blog entry.

I miss my mum.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Opening Skinner's box

Opening Skinner's box: great psychological experiments of the 20th century by Lauren Slater is an attempt to 'celebrate as story' significant moments in recent psychological research. We meet the characters who dreamt up these experiments, those who reject or question the results and those who actually took part.

For years psychology has struggled to assert itself as a 'true' science one whose tests could prove robust and repeatable proofs in a supposedly neutral environment. But we're dealing here with the human mind, with complex and mystifying human behaviour. The results of these experiments are intriguing, as much as the methodology can be nauseating. Outcomes are never clear, always debatable, even horrifying but yet... something in them strikes a chord. And so the book becomes as much about philosophy as about science.

One thing to mention, Slater is quite the literary stylist. She gets all a bit woo woo and sometimes seems to work very hard, with an all too self conscious love of drama. She can appear needlessly provocative and you find yourself thinking aaahhh don't go there! But go there she invariably goes.

This is also a book with its own amount of controversy. You see, some things are just not quite right. It starts with a misplaced comma, then a misspelled name, an incorrectly used term, some sloppy research, a dubious fact. Slater, it seems, has 'embelished' certain parts of her research. Yep, apparently there's a fair amount of pure fabrication. Claims have been made, articles written, lawyers marshalled. Which is a shame, because there really is a story to be told here (and it's not just about Slater's relationship to the truth. Did you know she's written a memoir about how she was once a compulsive liar?)

But still... The bulk of this book is true. Uncomfortably so. There are experiments here that will turn your stomach and then make you seriously question your behaviour.

Take this:

In 1964 there occurred a bizarre crime in a working class suburb of New York. Kitty Genovese was about to enter her apartment in the early hours of the morning when she was stabbed. She cried out and said, specifically, Oh my god! He stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me! Lights flicked on in the apartment block. Somone yelled, Leave that girl alone. And then the lights flicked off. So the attacker came back to stab her again. Again she screamed. And screamed. Again, the lights came on. Again, the attacker retreated. But still, no one came to help. And for a third and final time, he attacked. Finally killing her, then attempting to rape her.

This all took place in 35 minute period between 3.15 and 3.50am. Thirty eight people heard her cries. Thirty eight people saw what was happening. Thirty eight people were witness to a horrible, brutal murder. And not one of those thirty eight people did anything. Not even call the police.

The experiment that was inspired by this event is just as shocking. Actually, I feel a bit yuck just writing about it. So the book: dubious, yes. But not half as much as our own behaviour.

On the nature of queueing

Once, on Carlisle Street, I saw an elderly Russian man and woman square off in the street, both refusing to step to one side and move around the other. I swear they stood their for five minutes, feet squarely planted, heads thrust forward and down. Just like the North-going Zax on the Prairie of Prax!

Recent reading about post-war British rationing spoke about women spending three hours in the 'tripe queue' or the 'kidney and heart queue'. Ak ak, cgh, hk euuurk...

The other day, I popped into Glicks to pick up some bagels for the lovely Sailor Lily. Glicks is always a bit of an ordeal. They have a take-a-ticket queueing system. Which works by everyone taking a number and then barging the the front, trying to get served first and giving the death stare to anyone pushing in ahead of them, protesting loudly that 'I'm next' and daring anyone to say otherwise.

There was I standing demurely at the back, when out comes Mr Glick(s?) - a decrepit, Dickensian figure who terrifies one with the notion that he's surely going to drop dead while tottering over to get your 'everything' bagel. He crooks a finger at me. I'm alarmingly conscious of fifteen death stares turned in my direction. Oh no, I stammer, these people are next. No, emphatically, with a shake of the head, and points again - you, here. Two blueberry bagels please. Mr Glick/s dodders about behind the counter, clearly confused to find himself in a bagel store. I hold my breath, uttering a quick prayer: please don't let him die getting the shiksa's bagels please don't let him die getting the shiksa's bagels. He makes it back to the counter alive. What the heck, I'll risk it: a medium sweet challa please. And off he careens, hands and lips trembling. Fifteen pairs of eyes bore holes in the back of my neck. We get through the transaction, both alive, and he charges me two dollars with a wink, a twinkle and another decided nod of the head. Ta da! Today I am the chosen one! and I scuttle from the store before I get crucified.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A shocker

Ok, more spy stuff. This time by one of England's chief propaganda ministers of the First World War.

In 1914, unable to join the army due to his age and ill health, John Buchan decided to write what he called a 'shocker' - what, in its introduction, he described as 'acromance where the incidents defy the probablities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.' What he wrote was The thirty-nine steps.

Richard Hannay, expatriate Scot, recently returned from the South African Dominion (ah, Rhodesia!) back in London to start a new life. He soon comes to the rescue of Scudder, a British spy who has uncovered a German plot to wreak havoc in Europe and things move along at a rapid pace. It's not long before we have our first body and a clue hidden in a tobacco jar. Scudder is murdered in Hannay's flat. If Hannay goes to the police, he'll be charged with murder; but if he doesn't act, the Germans' dastardly plot will come to fruition. Hannay escapes from his flat, pursued by both the police and German spies, and so begins a race through Scotland and England to reach sactuary.

This was no straight detective or adventure story, here was a new thing. An espionage thriller of the man-on-the-run.

These are tales of solitary agents and lonely escapes. The hero is a stranger in a strange land, being hunted by an unknown enemy. Buchan liked to explore the paradox of danger in a peaceful land and how thin the veneer between civilised behaviour and barbarism. Graeme Greene wrote that Buchan was the first to appreciate "the enormous dramatic value of adventure in familiar surroundings happening to unadventurous men ... the death that may come to us by the railings of the Park."

Here we have what has been dubbed the 'clubland hero', the gentleman of good looks and breeding who turns his spare time to counter-espionage and thwarting international conspiracies to preserve King and Country (as you do). He is a moral soldier spurred on by a sense of decency and devotion to country. Conservative and pro-British, he fights to maintain the world lest anarchy prevail.

Buchan's writing reflects the concerns and fears of his generation. He wrote with a sense of the craziness induced by the experience of the First World War. He saw a world gone mad. The world he knew was fracturing. He foresaw the rise of the radical fanatic, Islam inflamed by foreign powers to their own end, a capitalist explosion, the rising influence of America. And of course, you can't write about Buchan without mentioning the problem of 'dagos', 'niggers' and 'fat Jews'. (The debate has raged and I think I have to take the 'product of his time' stance. In later life Buchan moved to excise much of the anti-Semitism from his writing and was actually on Hitler's pro-Jewish hit list.)

Buchan conveys a wonderful sense of place. His description of Hannay's flight across the Scottish moors is beautifully immediate. (Though Hitchcock changed much of the book, you can see why he kept these bits in.) More significantly, he writes with a astonishing sense of the 'here and now'. I kept looking at the publishing dates - he includes what would have been very current events at the time.

The writing is crisp and extremely brisk - the action never stops. Hannay has brief moments of reflection while hidden in a spinney, holed up in a cave, disguised in a railway carriage or sheltering in a shepherd's cottage, but the novel is one of constant movement, thinking on the run and making plans on the fly. It's all very exciting and stops you from thinking of the implausibility of the plot. The coincidence count is incredible and Hannay has a bewildering tendency to confess his mission to anyone who looks like a decent or 'white man'. You'll keep looking for plot twists, the Fifth Columnist, the rat in the ranks. And there won't be one. But who cares?Somehow this all just adds to the pleasure, the guilty enjoyment of the absurd and ridiculousn. Until...

I spent the night watching Valkyrie (not as bad as I thought it would be but, my god, I loathe Tom Cruise). And after that, it was very hard to go back to stories that depicted war and espionage as a sort of boys' own adventure. So, The complete Richard Hannay went back on the reading pile, uncompleted.

Having written this I think I'm all inspired again about the espionage genre. Next up, what is considered the first spy novel, Riddle of the sands by Erskine Childers (1903) and something by Eric Ambler, heir to Buchan, who ditched the aristocratic lead for more radical heroes.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Samson and Delilah

Dear me, not a happy afternoon viewing. It's about two kids in a remote Aboriginal community. And it is TOUGH. I don't really feel that I can adequately describe the experience. It's a particularly short film but every single moment counts. There's extremely little dialogue. I found this a bit of a puzzle. In some ways it made the feel seem a tad ethnographic - witness the lives of these people. But maybe I was meant to realise how far outside my experience of life these people were. Though I'm struggling to describe it I was moved to outrage by this film - what a waste of lives. We witness people who live 'in between': living on traditional land but, with the introduction of Western ways, no longer a part of it; linked to a community that threatens to destroy them as much as it holds them together. Though I'm a bit dubious about the ending (apart from the welcome relief it provided) it was extraordinarily emotional and challenging cinematic experience