Sunday, 20 September 2020

'Laocoön is the name of the figure'

Like millions of people around the world and across centuries I have always been awed by the Laocoön and his sons marble in the Vatican, attributed to Agesander, Athenodorus and Polydorus of ancient Rhodes. The agony of the two young sons attacked  by the serpent demons is palpable and Laocoön vain attempts to fight the serpents off only magnify his suffering. 

The myth is well known, recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid: Athena conjured up the serpents when Laocoön tried to persuade fellow Trojans to burn the horse left by the Greeks on the seashore. The Trojan priest utters his famous lines: "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" (I fear the Greeks even when they bring presents), a warning not to trust those who are notoriously untrustworthy (such as Odysseus, the most treacherous among the Greeks). In other versions, the serpents are sent off by Poseidon, whom Laocoön had deeply offended. 

Bust of Athena, copy of a bronze by Kresilas

 The myth can also be given a metaphorical meaning. The serpent demons are our own demons coming out and suffocating us. To me, the Laocoön has often been a signifier of my own inner landscape and the sense of choking always felt very real, just as it is so masterly depicted by the Rhodian sculptors.

The Trojan horse. Movieclip from Troy

Recently, I came across a beautiful reprise of the myth in a poem by the American  Marge Piercy , also known as a feminist novelist, as part of the collection Stone, Paper, Knife (1983) which is about the loss of an old love and the beginning of a new one, partly autobiographical (or at least drawing on the intensity of her experiences), articulating the emotional spectrum of a failed relationship in an original poetic voice, rich in imagery. 

The poem, first published in 1981 runs thus:

"That sweet sinewy green nymph /eddying in curves through the grasses: /she must stop and stare at him. Of all the savage secret creatures/ he imagines stealthy in the quivering night/, she must be made to approach, /she must be tamed to love him./ The power of his wanting will turn/ her from hostile dark wandering/ other beyond the circle of his/ campfire into his own, his flesh,/ his other wanting half. To keep her/ she must be filled with his baby/, weighted down./ 

Then suddenly /the horror of it: he awakens, /wrapped in the coils of the mother,/ the great old serpent hag, /the hungry ravening witch/ who gives birth and demands, and the lesser/ mouths of the grinning children /gobbling his substance. He/ must cut free. 

An epic battle /in courts and beds and offices, in barrooms and before the bar /and then free at last, he wanders. There on the grassy hill, how the body moves,/ her, the real one, /green/ as a Mayfly she hovers and he pounces." 

It is a  powerful reworking of Laocoön  as a  metaphor of the feminine and of the relationship between the sexes. 

"I think I pretty much exhaust much of my impulse toward autobiography in my poetry" says Piercy. And , as a piece of advice to would-be poets, she adds "Hold on to your politics and your identity. Don’t take critics seriously. They are always building their aesthetic on what has been done, not on what you want to do".

Even more to the point is what she writes in an article for the Poetry Society of America:
"Sometimes when students call me up or send me emails that ask, what does this poem mean? I despair. I say it means what it says, what it says in words, in sounds, in rhythms, in silences, in images. That's what it means".

This is precisely why a poem such as 'Laocoön is the name of the figure' immediately works. I read it, enjoy its  musicality and am able to superimpose the anguished image of the Vatican Laocoön onto Piercy's words. And I weep, as it resonates and touches me, the reader, to the core.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The myth of Marilyn's size

I had a conversation this morning with R***, an old flame whom I did not realise I had deeply offended (well, conversation via text,  all of us don't seem to use the phone much these days, except my sister and I, who are constantly calling each other).
I have known this guy for so long, since the early 1990s, and have had epic fights with him, some of which have crept up in past blog posts, with me duly changing details (I am mindful of other people's privacy and right not to be recognised).
I take it for granted I can say to him anything that crosses my mind, especially now that we have long gone our separate ways.  To me, he is a friend. But obviously, I must have overdone it,  because for months he gave me the silent treatment and finally responded only today to a birthday wish message saying he had forgiven me after 382 days, which totally miffed me.
I asked for details - what did I do? -  and got no reply, so I sent him a quote from the one and only Marilyn, the one in which she said " I am selfish etc etc. but if you can't handle me at my worst, you do not deserve me at my best".   I am very fond of this quote and I occasionally send it to people, in fact, I sent it to someone else too, also recently -  and if YOU are reading this, do not be so vain, as Carly Simon allegedly sang of Warren Beatty, this post is not about you at all!

Anyway, the Marilyn quote elicited a response and we got involved in the silliest possible argument about her death, which my friend maintains was a murder, and I tend to believe was a suicide, as the official version goes, the desperate act of a troubled woman who took too many barbiturates. In those days doctors would prescribe them like sugar candies to everyone and anyway, a movie star of that calibre would not have trouble in getting them.  Said friend and I could not agree on this, so we ended the conversation (and hopefully I will not be given the silent treatment for another 382 days. I think this explains why we never managed to be together for longer than a few months, infatuation notwithstanding).
As a result, Marilyn was very much on my mind for the rest of the afternoon, so much so that I began to read about her.  Her impact on contemporary popular culture has been phenomenal and my take is that dying when she did and the way she did, magnified her and really turned her into the legend that she is. Much has been written about her, her struggle with depression, her sense of being unloved, her love affairs, her failed marriages, her discontent, her desire to be taken seriously. A recent biography by Charles Casillo puts her in context,  highlighting that she suffered from bipolar disorder, which was unknown as a condition at the time and the miscommunications that led to her tragic death. 
But I also came across a range of articles that discuss her size. These are most bizarre. It was comedian Rosanne Barr who began saying that Marilyn was a size 16 (today's size 16!) . You should not trust a comedian to tell it like it is!  Somehow it has stuck and it did not help that Liz Hurley said she'd rather kill herself if she had been as fat as Marilyn.  Liz Hurley never struck me as capable of saying anything remotely engaging, therefore I will not comment on her pronouncement.  But this idea that Marilyn was big is ludicrous. She was slim and well proportioned. Today's sizes are not those of the 1950s and today's bodies are definitely different. Marilyn had a 22-inch waist, without a girdle, which is incredibly small by today's standard (I am a  size 8 and my waist is 26 inches).  She had the perfect hourglass figure, with 35-inch hips and 35 bust. She had a bosom, definitely, it seems she had a 36 D cup. But she was not a size 16! She was also 5'5.5 in height, which is on the small/medium side by today's standards but was above average in the 1950s.

There are thousands of pictures of Marilyn, some of her naked and one can see she was not at all big.
I wonder why people have started this rumour. My take is that in an attempt to establish being large as normal and counter negative body image and weight-based discrimination, it may have been helpful to reclaim an icon of Marilyn's renown to breathe greater confidence in women (and men) who are trying to overcome the stigma of being chubby and corpulent.
At the end of the day, Marilyn was Marilyn. Immortalised in fashion, in art, in music she will always be as paradigmatic as Helen of Troy was in antiquity. Her size pales into insignificance, what stays is the image of this beautiful and troubled woman, whose wit and intelligence were never sufficiently recognised. It begs the question: would you want to be Marilyn Monroe?

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt

Saturday, 5 September 2020

The mysterious death of Adrienne Lecouvreur

Photo: Royal Opera House.

Today, while looking for something else, I chanced upon the copy of an old programme of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, which I saw in Paris in 2015 at the Opéra National (Opéra Bastille). It was a great performance by the soprano Angela Gheorgiu and I was delighted to have the opportunity to go, as a guest, to the opening night of this international co-production, involving the Royal Opera House, Opéra Bastille,  Gran Teatre Del Liceu and  Wiener Staatsoper.
I mentioned my personal encounter with the music of Adriana  Lecouvreur in a post I wrote at the time but I did not tell the whole story, I simply talked about the DVD which I bought when I returned. How did I end up in Paris on the opening night?
As I recall, I was engaged in some major spring-cleaning and decluttering, in preparation for my going away to  Indonesia a couple of months later, to research my book. I had decided to rent out my place while I was away.  I could not get a tenant without doing that thorough massive cleaning and I had to do it myself rather than hire someone to do it for me.  I have books everywhere and cannot bear other people touching them without due respect - my books are my best friends, I am dead serious when I say so.
While engaged in this less than glamorous activity,  I suddenly got a text message from my then ballet teacher - I used to go to Pineapple Studios for ballet classes, I had only just started sleeking and had not switched to it completely.  He was in Paris at the time to work on the choreography of the opera, which he had once danced himself. I had seen some images of him in Paris with the artistic team and liked them, the way people do on social media. I even said I loved opera (mildly, I should add)  - people say all sorts of things when commenting on social media, they like, love etc sometimes in a very overstated way.
Anyway, in that text, my ballet tutor said he had spare tickets for the opening night and since I liked opera,  would I consider travelling to Paris to attend? It seemed a waste not to use them, as the seats were right at the front.  It was a no brainer,  I said yes, thinking of the wonderful seats which I would not normally be able to afford, and me being me, I immediately started listening to the music on YouTube,while carrying on with my springcleaning,  just to get more familiar with the opera, which I had never seen and of which I knew so little.
I have friends in Paris, which helps, as I could crash out at theirs. I went for the day and spent the morning at Père Lachaise, where I felt the need to pay tribute to the divine Maria Callas, whose ashes are preserved there. Then in the evening, I made my way to the theatre. The seats were as good as could be, I was close to the stage and was able to enjoy the wonderful music and watch the action unfold - and loved the dancing!
At the end of the performance, I lingered on to meet a few people and had a glass of champagne, to celebrate the evening and then went back to my friends' as I would be leaving by Eurostar the following day.

Opéra Bastille
 The details of my personal encounter with the opera (thank you again, Adam, for your gift) now out of the way, let's talk a bit about Adriana Lecouvreur as this is a rather unusual story to set to music, inspired by a real-life person. Adriana (Adrienne) was a French actress of the Comédie Française who lived in the 17th/18th  century. Adored by the audience, praised by Voltaire, who fell in love with her,  and by Diderot, Adrienne had, apparently,  a stormy affair with Count Maurice of Saxony and a tug of war with the Princess de Bouillon for the Count's affection.  She was poisoned by the Princess, so the story goes,  and died very young,  but the murder was never proven and she may have just died of exhaustion.
Francesco Cilea, originally from Palmi, Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy, set his opera to the libretto by Scribe and Legouvé, highlighting the mingling of tragedy and comedy,  the varied action and the passionate love of the protagonist for the Count.  Cilea's work is usually regarded as part of the 'verismo' opera but it has great sophistication and powerful élan. The music is very nuanced, pleasing, and soulful,  duly dramatic in all the right places.
Actresses of the Comédie had an official role to play within an organisation of international renown. They were powerful women, influential public figures, equal to men (and unusually so, in those misogynistic times) whose lives were constantly scrutinised - the most terrible accusation levelled at actresses was that of a loss of virtue, and their moral position constantly oscillated in people's opinion. Their task was to bring the theatre to the people and they were mandated to do so by the King. They did not adhere to the stereotypical views of the time of constrained femininity and they were active participants in public culture. As women, they had unusual agency.

The opera by Cilea is well-loved and it has been performed by great tenors and sopranos, internationally. The romantic twist makes it a favourite of audiences worldwide. It also has a soliloquy by Adriana which is powerfully delivered.
I particularly love the final scene: Adriana forgives her lover for his affair with the Princess, declines to marry him because she is wedded to the theatre and then dies in his arms.
Writing in 1957, Roland Barthes talked of 'la combustion de l'acteur', the actor's combustion, which Adrienne so aptly symbolises: "the actor gives himself over to the demon of the theatre, he sacrifices himself, allows himself to be eaten up from inside by his role".
I prefer seeing Adrienne in this light rather than going along with the story of romantic intrigue: to me, Adrienne is the actor who metaphorically dies for the art.

"Sans aucuns soins, sans étude, sans fard,
des passions vous fûtes l'interprete.
O de l'amour adorable sujette,
n'oubliez  pas le secret de votre art"

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Citizens of the world and the taste of words

Interior of Santa Caterina Church, Galatina

Back from my trip to the Salento region, I am having some time off, before embarking on a new, much shorter trip which this time will take me to the North of Italy, on strict family business.
With time on my hands, I can indulge in reflection, my favourite activity.
I enjoyed revisiting the land of my birth, meeting people I had not seen in decades - now all grown up and shouldering newer responsibilities and yet having retained their youthful charm.  I relished that strange feeling of knowing and yet not knowing, the sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity, which kept on alternating, whenever I met old friends and saw 'old' haunts.
Nothing ever stays the same and I was mesmerised by the changes brought in by the passage of time  and the ubiquitous impact of globalisation. Wherever I went, images from other trips to other lands superimposed themselves on what was before my eyes: I recognised the thrust of tourism, with its network of hotels, bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs, shuttle busses, organised tours and the mushrooming of restaurants and cafés. I saw places that reminded me of other places, because that part of Italy is very ancient and very mixed, with cultural and artistic elements of Greek and Middle Eastern origin, obvious in the architectural details of many of its buildings, in the local dialects and in the local food.
I enjoyed the conversations I had with everyone I met and the overlap of languages in my head and on my tongue. I also experienced a clear sense of belonging to very different places simultaneously,  and it was a joyous feeling.

Leuca, Salento

In this day and age, the idea of being a citizen of the world is occasionally ridiculed, in the wake of an ugly form of nationalism. You may remember former PM Theresa May's contemptuous utterance, at the Tory party conference of 2016,  about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere. I could not disagree more: like the writer Elif Shafak, whom I deeply admire, I see myself as a global soul as well as a world citizen, it is a condition I embrace. It is possible to love and feel part of different communities and different countries, to adopt a diversity of being, to be rooted and also routed, as explained by Paul Gilroy in his discussion of place attachment and mobility in the context of identity. I have never been an either/or person, I see myself as an advocate of  'and...and', in everything I do - well, almost anything.
Thinking of Elif Shafak, whose prize-winning novel 'The Forty Rules of Love' I have downloaded, led me to watch, this morning,  her wonderful TED talk "The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought", a passionate plea for pluralism and diversity - no, I am not going off-topic, among the many marvels I saw in  Salento, I also witnessed, as elsewhere, the ugliness of antagonistic attitudes to migrants and the presence of racism, which revealed itself in small, everyday occurrences.
For example, I was sitting at a café in Lecce, with a friend who, though originally from one of the nearby small towns, actually lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. An older lady with a neurotic little dog sat a few tables away from us. Suddenly, the dog rushed forward and attempted to bite the ankle of a  Pakistani looking man, in traditional dress, who happened to go past the lady's table.  It was one of the waiters who rushed to help the passer-by and apologised, the lady said absolutely nothing. 'What rudeness' commented my friend, loud enough for the lady to hear. We wondered whether her behaviour would have been more solicitous had she not been confronted by 'otherness'.
Elif Shafak opens her talk with a wonderful reference to the taste of words, how some words have a flavour and a smell - some spicy, some sweet and from there she goes on to ask about the taste of the 'motherland', which to her tastes like cinnamon and rose water and yet with a sharp tang. Shafak's motherland is Turkey and to her, it tastes sweet and also bitter. Shafak goes on to remark that many more people around the world share such feelings about their motherland, their culture of provenance, their food,  increasingly frustrated by politics and politicians, who manage to add a bitter, unsavoury taste by manipulating atavistic emotions.

Elif Shafak. Photo reblogged

Inspired by Shafak, I have been thinking about the taste of words in connections with 'my' places - London, my current home, has a complexity of tastes intermingled with delicious smells because London is a truly international hub. When I think of London, I am reminded of the spicy balti of Bricklane or the vivid colours of the Brixton food market. The Salento region has the taste of seafood and olives. But ...xylella has destroyed its olives, metaphorically too.
There are quite a few threads in this post which I would like to explore further, but I shall have to do so in future.
Meanwhile, I have a lot to catch up with and am binge-watching 'A Suitable Boy', the current Mira Nair's drama adaptation of Vikram Seth's long novel, not to mention the several books I have on the go.  'Time keeps on slipping into the future', sang Steve Miller Band.  I shall end on that note.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Nostalgia or the disease of longing for home

We all know instinctively what nostalgia is because we have experienced moments of longing for the past and for specific places which are associated with our past, often what we think as 'home'.  And yet we do not know the first thing about it.
I am about to embark on a short trip which will take me to the land of my birth and a series of circumstances have heightened my expectations and also increased my nostalgia for virtually unknown places which are meant to be 'mine', part of my 'heritage'.  How do you define that? 
After living in London for over forty years, I have a strong attachment to my tiny home (where I have lived for thirty years) and to this amazing city that never fails to excite me.  I really grew up and wisened up, as a person, in London.  I studied in London,  fell in love in London, met (and parted with) my husband in London, I had my son in London. What else? I taught in London, became a model in London, learnt about life's ups and downs in London, became a grandma in London. Of course, I travelled (and extensively too) but always came back 'home' to London. 
One of my fondest memories is of the one time while doing my postdoc,  I went to meet a young  Dutch professor at UCL, for a one on one tutorial, and he suggested we had it at the Globe, which had just opened. 'I am in love with London' he said. 'You know the saying by Dr Samuel Johnson? He who tires of London is tired of life. I have just been posted here and am exploring'. And off we went, the tutorial unfolding on the District Line and then at the Globe. It was a warm spring day and this was one of the best tutorials I ever had. And no, I was not in love with the professor!

The first 19 years of my life were spent in Italy, in Apulia. I will be going there in a couple of days, I suddenly got the urge to see again Leuca, which my mother absolutely adored,  and something quite peculiar is happening. I am most excited to be meeting people I have not seen since I was 18 with whom  I fortuitously reconnected (I dislike Facebook intensely but there are some good things about it). I think I know them well,  but then again I do not, how can I? None of us is as we were at 18!
 I keep on asking my sister, who knows the area I am travelling to much better than me because she only left it for good when she was about 40 in order to move to the North of Italy, where I should go. She even checked out the places where I will be staying and gave me tips on how to get around, saying wistfully that she wished she could accompany me but unfortunately her work duties do not permit her to take time off at present.
I like digging into things. The peculiar emotion sweeping through me at the moment is clearly heightened nostalgia. I decided to read about it, to understand it - I am a very rational person, I have to know what is going on, exactly. I found the book Nostalgia; Sanctuary of Meaning  (2005) by Janelle L. Wilson very helpful. 

Photo: Jasper James

Feeling nostalgic is similar to being in love, apparently; Harper states that in both love and nostalgia "a wave of presence swirls around with a wave of loss". 
But it was the pairing of nostalgia and home that intrigued me.  Quoting Svetlana Boym, Wilson writes: 'To feel at home is to know that things are in their places and so are you; it is a state of mind that does not depend on an actual location. The object of longing, then,  is not really this place called home but this sense of intimacy with the world; it is not the past in general but that imaginary moment when we had the time and did not know the temptation of nostalgia". 
It's all much clearer, is it not?
So here I am, ready to experience, nostalgia, love and belonging all at once. 
I shall further report on my return.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Love letters and love in old age

Do you remember Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City reading out Mr B's letters from a collection entitled Love Letters of Great Men? Well, the book does exist,  there are two volumes of these letters, one edited by  John C. Kirkland and one by Ursula Doyle.  I recently stumbled on the letter by Ludwig van Beethoven mentioned  by Carrie Bradshaw and I felt an intense curiosity to browse the letters written by the other great men, from Napoleon to Goethe and Lev Tolstoy. So I bought the book from Audible.
As I am writing this, I am listening to the audiobook. These men definitely bared their souls to their beloved with page upon page of stirring prose, revealing the depth of their emotions.
Do people write love letters these days? I am not sure...people exchange messages, emojis and memes, and photos, plenty of them, but old fashioned love letters? I do not think so.
Yet, who would not want to be addressed as Beethoven does his beloved? "Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my immortal beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer — To face life I must live altogether with you or never see you…"

Have I ever received a love letter? Now that I think of it, no, I did not, certainly nothing like one of these missives. (Big sigh).
All right, I did receive billets doux from spotty schoolboys when I was an awkward schoolgirl (littered with mispellings and grammatical errors, which never left a good impression and was the object of endless mirth when I shared them with my girlfriends  - note to would-be love letter writers: please make sure your prose is flawless).
Then as an adult, for years I punctually received on my birthday an anonymous card with a (very bad) love poem, often a rehashing of a Shakespearean sonnet, which had the effect of putting me off entirely and again made me laugh.  I knew who was sending it. I finally joked about such poems with the 'anonymous' author who never actually admitted to being the sender and I never again got another one. I later thought that maybe I had been a little cruel, however, I could not bear getting those cards!
But letters such as the ones collected by Kirkland, no, I never got one. I guess I have never been the object of such overwhelming passion (now I do feel somewhat slighted). And no, I have never met a Beethoven or a Napoleon or a Lord Byron... I am definitely not an exalted muse.
Yet as I read (listen to) these letters, I cannot help feeling that yes, they were addressed to their beloved (in Beethoven's case it has been suggested his Immortal Beloved was actually his music, not a woman) but these men were also thinking of people who might come across their letters in the years to come. In other words, they were written for posterity. And there is a strong element of narcissism, in the way these men announce, often with fanfare,  the strength of their passion and how devastated they are, unable to endure separation.
Then, when you read what King Henry VIII writes to Anne Boleyn whom he subsequently did not hesitate to behead, you feel a little queasy as you think of her fate (incidentally do read the magnificent Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, it is definitely worth the effort).
"1528, London. My Mistress and Friend, I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to recommend us to your good grace and not to let absence lessen your affection...For myself the pang of absence is already to (sic) great, and when I think of the increase of what I must needs suffer it would be well nigh intolerable but for my firm hope of your unchangeable affection..."
Thus spake King Henry.

I would like to introduce, as a counterpoint, another set of love letters, the ones written by the octagenarian Mrs Piozzi aka Hesther Lynch Thrale, at one-time a friend of Samuel Johnson with whom she fell out when she married the penniless Italian musician Gabriele Piozzi.  At the age of 80, she fell in love with William Augustus Conway, at least 48 years her junior, and embarked on a one-sided love affair with him, writing him beautiful letters that Conway kept until he died (by committing suicide). Mrs Piozzi was well regarded on the literary scene. When she fell in love with Conway she was always aware of their age difference and wrote poignantly about her feelings. Her letters are wonderful, yet immensely sad. I would recommend reading them.

Even today older women loving younger men are not regarded kindly.  If there is anything to learn from Mrs Piozzi is that love transcends age. Hesther is admirable because she refused to be constrained by social norms. 
Regardless of your own age and that of your lover, it is important to acknowledge that growing old does not imply a loss of feeling. Thank you Hesther Lynch Piozzi, from the 21st century,  for your wonderful lesson.  Love, like beauty, is ageless.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Dior Cruise 2021 runway show: an invitation to see Lecce

Dior Cruise Show 2021: look 1 Vogue

I don't normally get emotional about fashion shows but the one presented yesterday night (22.07.2020) by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior was different and it made me shed a surreptitious tear or two. It took place in Lecce, capital of the Salento region in Southern Italy and a city (relatively small) to which I have a strong attachment because my father hailed from there. When I was a teenager,  we lived in a villa near Monteroni, a mere 12 Km from Lecce. I did not actually live there, I spent my vacations there till I moved to London - my 'liceo' was in a different city, quite far from Lecce - it would have been impossible for me to commute - and during term time I stayed with my godmother in Bari.
But my parents lived there, with my younger sister, who began secondary school in Lecce. The villa is still there, somewhat dilapidated; at some point, it will be sold. Anyway, all this is to say that when I learnt of Chiuri's selection of location for the cruise show I got rather excited and almost booked a flight to be there. I changed my mind when I realised the show was  'phygital' and for a while there were quarantine restrictions when returning to the UK - not anymore.

Villa Saetta circa 1960 Source: Comune di Monteroni

The show took place in Piazza Duomo , by the cathedral, with large 'luminaria' created specially for the occasion. It's a space often used for open -air concerts, I remember going there to see La Traviata on a hot summer night, many years ago, with my mother.
There was no audience, as these are post-Covid19 times - just a few people, family and friends, but none of the usual VIPs, nor were tickets being sold to watch.The show was live-streamed and was accompanied by a series of short films highlighting the location and its breathtaking beauty. The clothes could also be previewed online, to appreciate their fine workmanship.

Cruise shows (or resort wear shows) are usually presented in exotic locations. They are always one brand shows, and before the pandemic, it was usual to invite special guests to sit in the FROW. The special guests would always be put up at some gorgeous hotel and there is plenty of sightseeing trips and lavish dinners, with the fashion show usually held on the last night, the cherry on the cake. If I am not mistaken, the format was more or less decided in 2006 by the late Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.
Chiuri's father was a Salentine, from Tricase. Chiuri loves the region and with this show, which was originally meant to take place in May, but was then postponed due to the pandemic, she wanted to zoom in on the craft offerings of the region, with beautiful embroidery traditions, also rich in music and traditional dancing.  Music and the dancing were an essential part of the show. The dance is known as pizzica or tarantata (not to be confused with the Neapolitan tarantella ) and is century old, a spiritual practice meant to provide healing. The dance is supposedly caused by the bite of an imaginary spider (taranta) and the person bitten, usually a woman, can't stop dancing,  totally possessed, for days. A healer (who sings) comes along and slowly, after hours of incessant rhythmic dancing,  accompanied by a tambourine, the person bitten by the taranta reemerges purified, usually with little recollection of what has occurred.  It was a dance practised in remote villages, a dying tradition researched  in the 1950s by the anthropologist De Martino. I never actually saw it in its rural setting but my father would tell me about it. It was then revived, on a big scale,  in the 1990s and is now choreographed and performed by professional groups - you can even learn it in London with the group Amaraterra! Usually, at the end of August, there is a now famous Night of the Taranta in Melpignano, a festival often involving competing groups. I am not sure it will go on this year, it usually attracts thousands of people and this obviously counters the current Covid19 social distancing regulations.
Notte della Taranta 2018, Melpignano . Photo: Maria Ponticelli

Chiuri's clothes were beautiful, with a country, gypsy feel, long flowing embroidered skirts, kerchiefs to cover pushed back hair, low heeled sandals. The models were as diverse as possible, but young and slim: Chiuri found herself under fire for a previous show in which the majority of the models were caucasian but on this occasion, she tried hard to spotlight models of colour, one of whom, Mati, acted as a hostess in a short film (in English) about the city of Lecce and what to do and see there. She spoke accentless Italian, I believe she was a local girl. 
The inhabitants of Lecce were ecstatic about being spotlighted thus, in a series of short films that are being viewed globally: people in Italy have been badly hit by the pandemic and the Salento needs more tourists, half of its income depends on the hospitality industry. Now everyone around the world has seen beautiful images of Lecce and the Salento and no doubt many people will feel like venturing on a trip. I certainly plan to go there in early September, going to Leuca, which is at the very end of the imaginary heel of Italy, shaped like a boot. I had meant to go there for some time, it's been years, but now I feel even more motivated. I will make sure to have plenty of pictures!

(My break was short but it helped me to see things in perspective: I blog because I enjoy it!)

Friday, 10 July 2020

Taking a break

I have been blogging for ten years. During this time I have seen many blogs appear and disappear as their authors switched to insta-posts. Other bloggers have introduced a subscription, offering a range of services, see for example That's Not My Age.
When I began, blogging was all the rage. But now it has subsided.
I get lots of followers through Bloglovin but the majority of them are simply advertising for sex - I don't see the point of following me but there is nothing I can do to stop them, Bloglovin does not have anything in place to get rid of unwanted followers. 
I have a spam filter for comments, anyway.
Should I continue to blog or should I stop? It's a question I need to ponder. No matter, the blog will continue to be available online even if I do not add more posts.
So all I can say for now is that I wish to take a break. During this time I will decide whether it is goodbye or whether I still think there is a point in blogging.

Alex x

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Costume dramas and sewing at home (spoiler alert)

Costume dramas (or period dramas) are my weakness. I love the clothes: corsets, lace, silk, and in the best productions, you also get authentic hand-stitched gowns to die for.  I also love the melodrama, I admit it, and the endless twists that are given to a cherished storyline.
Recently, I have discovered Russian costume drama. Before I go on to discuss the costumes of my latest binge-watch, Love in Chains (original title Krepostnaya, 2019) I should make a couple of more general observations. Adaptations of great classic novels made in Russia are usually quite spectacular - think of War and Peace by Sergei Bondarchuk. They tend to be in dialogue with the book upon which they are based and costumes and location are a strong focus.  A similar engagement with literature and history was also seen, in Western Europe, in masters such as the late  Luchino Visconti, who maniacally sought to recreate the period in which his stories, often inspired by cherished novels, were set, in the most authentic way (the legendary Piero Tosi was his costumier).

The Ukrainian/Russian production Love in Chains now available with English subtitles on a number of streaming services and acclaimed in Cannes for its lavishness, follows in that film-making tradition I have mentioned.  It is a melodrama but its reference point is the visual and narrative tradition of the  film masters of the 20th century, as well as the great novels of Europe. As Tara Prytsaetska, creative director of the production, said in an interview for Drama Quarterly:
 "we sought to create a layered, multi-character ‘novel,’ not just a telenovela. We wanted the viewer to be immersed in the story in the same way they used to be in novels by Alexandre Dumas, George Sand and Maurice Druon. We were not interested in a predictable tale of love. We wanted to create a real world where passions would rage. And like a novel, the story was supposed to engage completely different audiences".
Love in Chains is about a bondmaid brought up as a noblewoman, but still, legally, a serf and is set in the 1850s, in Ukraine, which at the time was part of Imperial Russia.  For the record, serfs were emancipated in 1861 by the tsar Alexander II but in practice, serfdom continued until the October Revolution of 1917, which, as we know, changed the course of history with the birth of the now-defunct USSR.
Ukraine is not Russia but the cultural bonds between them are extremely tight,  so forgive me if in this post I use the adjective 'Russian' also with reference to Ukraine.

Love in Chains runs for two seasons and the end of season two is so incredibly tragic, one feels somewhat cheated having watched forty-eight episodes in which the heroine is abused and tortured, every time in a novel way. The male lead is killed off in series one, three episodes before the final one, though his death will dominate the story for the whole of season two; his replacement is murdered in episode 48, kicking off a new tragedy just as the episode is about to end, thus leaving the viewer wondering when the next season will be broadcast, because there HAS to be a resolution! We all know that this is what sustains drama series, this hope that it will all be resolved, in a 'just' way, in the next episode and thus new seasons are added, viewing rates soar and everyone is happy (well, almost).
That of the bondmaid seems to be a well-loved subject in Russian TV series and movies. There have been quite a few stories in which the heroine is a highly educated, refined bondmaid, on appearance indistinguishable from a noblewoman (though noblewomen often reveal to be pretty crass in their speech and demeanour) but always only property, a thing with no rights, so she could be punished very harshly, depending on the master's whim. The landlord owned a serf's labour, not the soul, but sometimes this difference was not clear. The dynamics at play in such stories are very interesting and there is definitely a reflection on the contemporary ills of Russian society, where there are now no serfs, but authoritarian rule continues to be the norm and corruption is rampant, as it was in Old Russia.  Tara Prystaetska, reflecting on the global success of Love in Chains says :
"we achieved our goal of creating a story that captivates viewers in the same way the best novels captivate readers. Viewers were immersed in the story and rooting for their favourite characters. The values, traditions and rituals in the show form part of the cultural code of the Eastern European audience, while modern viewers can relate to the problems Love in Chains addresses, such as abuse, difficult family dynamics and post-traumatic stress disorder. The relevance and timelessness of our dramatic elements played a vital role in the success of our project".

Katerina on her wedding day (Drama Quarterly)

 I said my real interest was in the clothes, so let's discuss them. The costumes in Love in Chains are spectacular.  The visual style of the drama is inspired by old paintings and this principle is also applied to the clothing, its texture and colours. According to press releases, "it took kilometres of materials to make the costumes for the characters. More than 200 dresses were tailored, some of them were created in two or three copies. The heaviest dress weighed above 10 kg, and for the most luxurious one, it took over 12 metres of the material to create."
The nobles, both men and women, wear beautifully cut clothes and there is an abundance of crinolined gowns. Noblewomen wrap themselves in silk embroidered shawls over their morning housecoat when breakfasting, then changing into more elaborate stay-at-home dresses or riding clothes if they go horse-riding (most of the characters in this drama are excellent riders). Corsets are all the rage, so we have a few scenes in which the young ladies look like sylphs and are prone to fainting because they cannot breathe.
The serfs also wear, for church and for celebrations, such as their own weddings - they could marry but always only with their owner's permission -  beautifully embroidered skirts (women), pants (men) blouses and tunics, headcovers, ribbons, which are all part of the traditional country wear of Ukrainians.  There is an abundance of beautifully ribboned braids, as the latter symbolised honour in Old Russia;  the noblewomen, however, do wear their long hair in more fancy updos, some copied from magazines full of news about Paris, the capital of fashion since the days of Louis XIV.
Having watched both seasons of Love in Chains totally engrossed in the story, I am now watching select episodes again, going back and forth, just to look at the clothes and see whether I can possibly copy any of them.

The Chervinskys with two of their bondmaids, Katerina and Galya

 I love sewing and during lockdown I started being a bit more creative, joining a couple of Facebook groups about hand sewing and 19th-century sewing as well as one for fashion historians and lovers of fashion history.
I am only able to stitch simple things at the moment but I love looking at this splendid wear and who knows, I might, just might, be able to make myself a housecoat. For now, it's enough to dream of it!
(For those interested in sewing historical costumes as a hobby see these podcasts by Jennifer Rosbrugh)

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Friendships, boundaries and dealbreakers

Raffella and Elena (Lila and Lenu) from My Brilliant Friend . Photo: Eduardo Castaldo / Courtesy of HBO, Vogue

We all have an implicit friendship scale -  for our peace of mind, that is - even though we may not be fully aware of it.  Some friends are closer than others, inevitably so, but we do not reveal to our friends where we put them on that scale, out of politeness and to spare the hurt. No one likes being told 'Oh you are a friend, but on a scale of 1 to 10, you would be a 4'.  We just say 'we are friends'; the rest is implicit. I wonder, however, whether, in fact, we ought to be more explicit about this, to avoid misunderstandings.
Experience has taught me that excessive closeness and familiarity with anyone,  even family, breeds contempt, so I like some emotional distance when dealing with friends - and family too! -, no matter whether they live close by or at the other end of the globe. In any case, with modern technology, long-distance friendships are definitely possible, except that one has to remember time zones when communicating. During lockdown even friends living in the same city or village felt as physically distant as those who lived in another country, all communication was online.
The way we understand friendship evolves as we grow older, in other words, we think of friends in a newer way at different stages in our life.
Boundaries in all personal relationships are essential, with family, colleagues, neighbours, and, of course, friends. I used to be a passive-aggressive sort of person, I would tolerate transgressions and be furious inside until something happened which made me see red and then it was goodbye, but not in a nice way.
It happens less often these days, I try to be more careful, but there are still people who bulldoze themselves into one's life, with the expectation that everything they say or do should be of interest to you because you are "a friend and sharing is what friends do".  No. These 'friends' end up draining so much of my energy I have no choice but throw them out of my life.

Elena and Raffaella from "My brilliant friend" a novel about friendship by Elena Ferrante now a major TV drama series

Someone I know recently had a bad experience with a person whom I also happened to know, and whom they thought was a dear friend of theirs.  It was a messy story, which set me thinking.
It made me look long and hard at friendship, the need for boundaries and the ability to be clear about one's boundaries and somehow finding a way to articulate them. Those people who have been friends since kindergarten are also people who have clear boundaries and respect them, without feeling hurt by the existence of such boundaries. I firmly believe that boundaries actually strengthen a friendship.
Allow me to give you a few examples, drawn from my experience.
Like most of us, I have friends and also a large circle of acquaintances. I have 'friends' on social media but I regard them precisely that, social media friends - likes on their feed, the occasional birthday wish, some witty comment, the occasional share. That's all that is expected from me and I expect from them.
I have a friend whom I have known since my schooldays. We are no longer bosom pals as we used to be when we shared homework, studied together, bitched together about our teachers and passed comments on boys.  All that is irrelevant to our lives today, it is just a  pleasant memory. But we are in touch, we can talk to each other quite easily, though there are firm boundaries in place eg we don't discuss partners and we avoid all kind of gossip. We live in different countries but that is not in itself an obstacle to our friendship. We had a moment a few weeks ago that with someone else could have ended up in a massive row, but not with us. She sent me several videos about the COVID19 pandemic. I told her politely that perhaps she should just put them on social media rather than in private messages, I was not happy about receiving them. She did not take umbrage and my saying so did not signal the end of our friendship. She merely took heed of my preferences and I was not afraid to voice them. I have known her for so long, I knew she would react the right way. More recently,  we spoke on the phone, she is actively helping me to locate some documents I need. There were times in our lives when we did not speak at all, but it never made any difference, we are always able to take it where we left off. Respectfully.

I have friends with whom I share primarily work interests. I have the greatest regard for them professionally and am happy to talk with them, at length, about work-related issues.  With most of them, we are on the same page, we think of each other as a bit more than colleagues and as 'general' friends. However, if they begin to discuss very personal matters,  I begin to squirm - I do not wish to be involved, so I find ways to convey my disinclination to go into such details. Most of the time this is understood, when it is not, that's when problems may begin. And this is when one should clearly articulate one's boundaries,  to avoid major fall-outs.
Personally, I draw a line between friendship and professional counselling or friendship and the role of what, for Catholics, would be that of a confessor. Worse still are those 'friends' who expect legal advice ('oh hear me out, what if I do this or that'), even if you tell them that you are not qualified to dispense such advice - someone I knew, whom I otherwise thought highly of,  did that, incessantly, as she was involved in a lengthy legal battle with her employers and I stopped taking her calls, till she finally got the hint. I no longer hear from her. I miss her, in some ways,  but I do not miss her obsessive behaviour.
No. If a friend attempts to put me in one of those roles, that's the end of our friendship. For me, it is a dealbreaker.
 I also cut off those people who text incessantly, long messages that are more like essays, about the most trivial things. Or those who attempt to psychologise me - I hold a certificate in psychotherapy, only I chose never to set up a practice. Imagine how I relish an amateur doing a bit of armchair psychology on me. Out they go.

Lenu and Lila , My Brilliant Friend, HBO drama adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel

Finally,  I avoid lending money to friends, knowing that in most cases I will never see it back. I never borrow from friends - I may do that with family but never, ever with friends, I did it once and until I returned the whole amount, a paltry sum, in fact,  I was in great turmoil. It's awkward to ask and would not put myself in that position ever again. Thus, I do not take kindly to those 'friends' who don't think twice about it and demand you should oblige  'because we are friends'. 
We are all different. Some people may think my tolerance threshold is rather low. Honestly, I do not care. These are my boundaries and dealbreakers, take it or leave it.
 I am also a firm believer that it is better to be alone than in bad company, as George Washington said.
And you, what are your dealbreakers? 
(I have chosen to illustrate this post with images from 'My brilliant friend' which is Ferrante's  interesting take on female friendship, to be discussed in another post)