February 27, 2012

Jumping the Abbey

“Jumping the shark” is an idiom used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery. It is synonymous with the phrase, “the beginning of the end.”  —Wikipedia

It is puzzling that there should be no close equivalent in other European cultures for the English country house drama, as known through novel, film, television series, and the stage.
English it is—not, for once, more correctly British. A Scottish country house would imply a very different kind of story, while a Welsh country house (on any great scale) is a rarity. The French and Germans have their  country houses in plenty, but are too discreet to prompt such universal fiction. Steam trains do not draw up at local Spanish or Italian stations, bringing the weekend guests. There are few manservants laying out the clothes before dinner in Belgium. One wonders really how Europe managed at all.
The greatest rival to the English country house tradition is the Russian, with its rich suggestions of a feudal system in decline, and with its great questions hanging in the air: How shall I live to some purpose? How can I reform the world I know? Those who ask such questions may be querulous and ineffectual, but the questions themselves are intelligent and profound, whereas the great questions that hang over the English country house come, for the most part, from the far side of stupid: Can I score a personal triumph at the flower show while forgoing first prize for my roses? Can I secure my lord’s affection by pretending to go rescue his dog? (The answer Downto(w)n Abbey offers is yes in both cases.)
Among the by-products of the series, one book stands out, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs, which in its latest incarnation bears the subtitle “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.”
Powell was born in 1907, and what she describes in this memoir is an early life in service in the years after World War I, in London and on the south coast of England (nothing nearly as glamorous as Downto(w)n Abbey). First published in 1968, this appears to be a very honorable example of the editor’s art (the copyright line is shared with the dedicatee, Leigh Crutchley).
Powell had as a child won a scholarship that her parents’ poverty prevented her taking up. Work as a kitchen maid came as a prelude to marriage and motherhood. The impulse to resume her education came from the desire to keep up with the conversations of her children, simply to understand what they were discussing when they talked about history, astronomy, or French. Clearly Powell had narrowly missed, in early life, the chance to become a teacher. So this is a book about class. Clearly, too, wherever her education had taken her, she would have been forced to choose between marriage and a job. Married women simply didn’t go out to work, then, she reminds us:  “Working-class husbands bitterly resented the very thought that their wives should have to work outside the home. It seemed to cast a slur on the husband and implied that he wasn’t capable of keeping you.”
A tribute then to the achievements of adult education.

February 24, 2012

Emerson in Italy

In 1832 a melancholy young man with weak lungs set sail from Boston on Christmas Day, en route to Malta and points beyond. He was Ralph Waldo Emerson.
A rough crossing invigorated him, and his first sight of Europe overwhelmed him with its beauty. He filled his hands and hat with flowers in Sicily, rejoiced in Rome's "wilderness of marble" (and was scathing about his compatriots who found the Colosseum "a very nice place").
The "millinery & imbecility" of Catholicism at first aroused his scorn, but he was soon moved by the beauty of the churches. In Florence he reflected, "And all is Italian; not a house, not a shed, not a field that the eye can for a moment imagine being American."   Heights he loved, and scrambled up all that he encountered-Taormina, Monreale, Vesuvius, the cupola of St. Peter's, Giotto's tower, the campanile in Venice, the cathedral in Milan, best of all a colossal statue near Florence ("I got up into his neck and looked out of his ear").
But it was the moral heights he sought most avidly. "I thought," he wrote, "how always we are beginning to live, & how perfectly practicable at all times is the sublime part of life, the high hours, for which all the rest are given."  For him, Italy was the awakening of true vision.

That true vision is a mark of the late Evelyn Hofer's luminous photographs. The distant hills, the gardens and courtyards, pavements and bridges, cloisters and statues, all are invested with a sense of time arrested and intensified, of a raptly listening silence. Text and photographs of Emerson in Italy, by Evelyn Hofer and the scholar Evelyn Barish, are beautifully married.

February 4, 2012

A year for dragons

It is an auspicious year.  Dragons partake of the five elements: water, earth, metal, fire, and wood.   Like poet Walt Whitman, they are vast, they contain multitudes. After a Green Dragon or two, you too will be able to breathe fire.
The Green Dragon Cocktail is a simple, sweet drink whose most unusual ingredient is kummel liquor (a blend of caraway and other spices).  While its origins are unclear, the classic version appeared in The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock in 1930.  The following recipe makes one Green Dragon cocktail.

1/2 oz. kummel, 1/2 oz. green creme de menthe, 1 & 1/2 oz. gin, juice of half a lemon, 4 dashes of orange bitters.
Fill a cocktail shaker half full with shaved ice.
Add the other ingredients and shake gently for 10-15 seconds, being careful not the bruise the gin (!)
Strain the liquid into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon. Drink!

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich