Wednesday, 25 March 2020

#2 Life in the time of Coronavirus

Albert Camus  (source Wikipedia)

It started with a friend posting on Facebook that she had found a battered copy of her French A level  text, La Peste (1947), or The Plague, by Nobel prize winner Albert Camus. Was it not uncanny and was this not the right book to read in our current predicament, she wrote?
On the same day (only a couple of hours later, I swear), my sister whatsapped me to say she had joined the Biblioteca Civica in Turin, now opening its virtual doors to everyone, and guess what, she had downloaded a copy of La Peste because she had never had a chance to read it. Now that I am home for an indefinite period,  it's the time to do it, she said. And so I thought, why not, I will also read it (again), then we can compare notes - I had read it many years ago, in my twenties. Or should I say I misread it many years ago?
 I searched for it among my books and found it,  then decided to download the audio-book version because I love listening to someone reading out to me.  And while googling the audiobook (you can get it from either Audible or Scrbd), I discovered that sales of  The Plague had been soaring.

It has always been a well-known and widely read book, a classic, a must-read text for students of French literature, ideally in the original French.  But it has now become a best-seller once again, as it seems that people who are self-isolating find some solace in reading it (or re-reading it).  As the Coronavirus sweeps through the planet, killing humans by the thousands, a tale about a sudden pestilence and a city in complete lockdown clearly resonates. At the end of this post, you'll find links to different articles/posts written, in recent weeks,  about The Plague and its relevance to  Coronavirus times - mine is definitely not the only post discussing this book, nor is it an attempt at engaging in serious literary criticism. I just want to bring a personal angle, as I too am reading the book at this point in time.
This being a re-reading (well, I am in fact listening to an actor reading it), not only do I know the plot but every time a new paragraph begins I get a déja vu feeling - I have not memorised the book, but every time the actor reads out a sentence, it sounds very familiar, the words echo in my head, my brain recognises them.

When I first encountered The Plague I could not relate to it, not really. I was more attuned to  Camus' other great book,  L'Etranger (The Outsider) which I also enjoyed in its 1967 film rendition by Luchino Visconti, with a listless Marcello Mastroianni, father of Chiara.
That The Plague was a meditation on man's existence and touched on fundamental philosophical questions was something I immediately grasped, even at my first reading. But the notion of pestilence was too fanciful for me,  the plague being something that has been consigned to history. I could only understand it as a metaphor, and indeed that's the way Camus' plague has tended to be interpreted, as an allegory of fascism, the plague that afflicted Europe in his lifetime.
 Writing in 2003, two years after 9/11, Marina Warner, who was also engaged in a re-reading of the book, declared it to be about terrorism and redemption, in a very nuanced critique. She also pointed out, as an aside, that women and native Algerians are oddly absent from Camus' narration.

Reading The Plague now, in Coronavirus times, feels totally different. It's suddenly very, very real. We are living in quarantine, we are living with this terrible threat to our lives; every day the death toll rises and we do feel numbed by the figures. Camus is able to convey the dread of contagion, giving a minute description of its mechanism and the way the plague moves from the dying rats that suddenly appear in the streets of Oran, the ordinarily rather sleepy town on the coast of Algeria where the narrative is set, to humans, detailing the effects on the human body, with buboes and inflamed ganglia vividly conjured up. He also outlines the different responses to the pestilence, from the authorities attempting to play down the threat (we have seen that with the Coronavirus in the UK and elsewhere) to people trying to resist it and getting themselves organised in volunteer groups ( only today over 405,000 people in the UK have responded to an NHS call for help), to people trying to profit from it (where shall I start? it began with loo rolls being sold on eBay for three times their regular price, now with face masks at £30 each, and we are only seeing the beginning of it) to the scientifically- minded keen to develop a vaccine (that too is happening now). As  Oran begins to be ravaged by the plague, Camus describes its people as doing their best to forget all about it, pretending to be living a normal life,  strolling around in their finery and wining and dining at the best restaurants, while the corpses multiply.
 Liesl Schillinger pointedly writes in the Literary Hub:
 "The townspeople of Oran did not have the recourse that today’s global citizens have, in whatever town: to seek community in virtual reality. As the present pandemic settles in and lingers in this digital age, it applies a vivid new filter to Camus’s acute vision of the emotional backdrop of contagion.  Today, the exile and isolation of Plague 2.0 are acquiring their own shadings, their own characteristics, recolouring Camus’s portrait".
But it is a filter that does not fundamentally change the original portrait. I know many people who would rather not hear about the Coronavirus anymore, it is something 'just out there'. They are trying to recreate the world-as-we-know it virtually, through whatever means.
I am not among them, not really. I am also not one of those who regard the pandemic as a way for our planet to cleanse itself, finding a messianic sense in it.
I am uncertain, lost perhaps; I need time to chew it over, absorb, digest. Camus' The Plague is giving me an opportunity to reflect, in my own time and in earnest. I welcome that.
As we all ponder on the enormous implications of our present-day pandemic,  Camus' book is a mandatory read.  It ends on a note of "complex" hope, as Warner calls it, with an epic caveat:
“there have been as many plagues as wars in history,” he writes. “Yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
 It is in our power that they should never happen again. We would like to believe so. But despite all good purposes, there is no guarantee they will not reoccur.

Links to articles about The Plague in Coronavirus times

Friday, 20 March 2020

#1 Life in the time of coronavirus

LFW 2017, wearing Joanne Hynes

(I originally only wanted to write one post - the one I published last week - about the coronavirus but it is something that has, in some cases literally so, taken (over) our lives wherever we are on this planet, so there is more to say. Our daily lives have changed.  Therefore I am numbering the posts that talk, one way or another, about living with the virus.)

Having to be at home all the time is a novelty for most people and not always a welcome one. In some places it is mandatory to be indoors, in others eg in the UK, it is left very much to the individual, even though there are stringent measures for those who break their quarantine  (if they have been asked to be in quarantine )  - someone was arrested on the Isle of Man for this reason. But most (rational) people do understand that being at home is a necessity and try to comply. And now pubs, gyms and restaurants will be closing, we are waiting for the official announcement.
Personally, I enjoy being at home, I am a homebody.  I write, do online research, I read (my personal library is well stocked and so is my Kindle), exercise doing Sleek ( taught online; I have been a Sleek member since 2014), I knit and crochet.
I had a real scare thanks to some beautiful lilies I was given last weekend. I am allergic to their pollen and started coughing and sneezing the moment the buds opened up. I had completely forgotten about their nefarious effect on my respiratory system and I thought I had caught the virus. But once I realised mine was an allergy, I moved the lilies to another room and removed all the pollen;  now I am well again.

Lilies still with pollen

As I am not ill,  I go food-shopping,  though not every day. I do not venture out of my area and avoid supermarkets - what's the point of being in a queue if you are social-distancing? I have always favoured local shops, anyway, and continue to do so.
I am totally bewildered by the panic-buying phenomenon that has taken hold throughout the country,  it is a very despicable practice, which demonstrates selfishness, and shows little regard for the community. Is this what ten years of Tory government have done to people? Turned them into contemptible hoarders?
The major change in my life is not doing any modelling, absolutely nicht, zilch. Bookings have been cancelled, my agency has closed for a month (for now),  there are no castings to attend. My last shoot was last Thursday for  Knit with Attitude who is bringing out a book to celebrate their tenth anniversary. I am one of two models appearing in it and can't wait for the book to be out. Representing Knit with Attitude was perfect for me, given my interest in knitting.
A friend from Italy, where they have been so badly hit by the virus and people have been ordered to stay at home, sent a message saying that this is a time of sacrifices and time to engage in reflection, while waiting for things to be normal again.  Normal, yes, but never 'as they were', that is wishful thinking.
Whether I will be able to go back to modelling and if so, when, remains a question mark and it has financial implications.  At this point in time, we are waiting to hear about measures taken by our government to protect small businesses and self-employed people. Will models, who are self-employed,  be able to avail of any subsidy?

International travel is not likely to resume soon, therefore even if things go back to some kind of normality next month - which I seriously doubt -  jobs will only be in the UK for local brands and for local talent and likely to be paid a pittance. Modelling is entwined with the fashion industry, models are necessary, yet models are by and large, and with exceptions, treated as disposable.
Meanwhile, I am looking at alternatives. This is indeed a time of reflection...
Another thing that has changed for me is that I am not going to my favourite galleries - they are all closed. I did not even realise how much gallery visiting I usually do, not to mention going to the theatre - you would often find me at Sadler's Wells, which is relatively local to where I live. On a lovely day, I would probably be at Kew Gardens. The Gardens are still open to visitors but most of the glasshouses are not open to the public, nor are its restaurants and galleries. The Gardens also would require me using the tube or the overground train to get there, since I live in a different area, and I do not feel confident enough to travel around London.
Yet being at home has had some positive outcomes. It has helped me to reconnect with friends, some of whom live very far away.  I talk to my sister even more regularly than I did before - she is in Italy and I want to know what is going on there and how they are coping.  She is one of the few people allowed to go out to work, because of her job at the Justice of the Peace office. Only the other day, I spoke with an Indonesian friend for nearly four hours - yes four hours. I put her on speakers and while talking, I also puttered around. It was great, we discussed so many different things, it felt as if I were visiting.  I plan to catch up with people online, beyond the trite WhatsApp message 'how are you' and 'stay safe'.
In the midst of it all, I miss my gorgeous granddaughter, even though she is in the same city. But visiting is out of the question, for now. We will have to arrange video-calls. I am terrified she might forget me altogether, she is only three months old! One of my last shoots was actually with her, for Rixo. She was really good in front of the camera and I love looking at her photos.

I do not plan to write regular accounts of life in the time of coronavirus, but when I do they will be numbered, as they will all have the same title. We cannot focus 24/7 on what the virus is doing to us, though keeping informed is crucial. But there are sites for that, such as BBC News and NHS UK. As for posts like the ones that are regularly appearing on social media or even emails from various companies beginning with 'In these troubled times' I do not propose to be writing yet another one. I will go back to writing and commenting about other things, perhaps because, perversely I believe that life does go on and there is going to be an end to the pandemic. And no, I do not believe that people will rediscover kindness and togetherness, that Covid-19 will allow people to reconsider and reimagine a more just society - I wish! After a while, people will get tired, as they do of their New Year's resolutions and we will see more blatant selfishness...shall we bet?
A bientôt!

Saturday, 14 March 2020

The dangerous virus that knows no borders

Ciuri Ciuri flashmob Agrigento

If you have not yet guessed, the dangerous virus is the Coronavirus (COVID-19). It has already claimed thousands of lives globally since it began in Wuhan, China, in January, rapidly spreading to Europe, declared by WHO as its epicentre.  It is now in the US, where it has been nicknamed the 'foreign virus' - I did not know the COVID-19 had a nationality!
When not killing people, the Coronavirus has turned them into racists eg Christian Jessen on British TV claiming that Italy's lockdown is just an excuse for a prolonged siesta since Italians are lazy by nature (it seems Prince William has also made coronavirus jokes in Ireland), or the French showing a mock ad for  'corona pizza',  another joke at the expense of Italians as if to say that Italian pizzaioli are so unclean, it's no wonder Italians got  the virus.  Now, however, the French death toll from the virus has risen rapidly and forced Macron to take action, so the French have no reason, if they ever had one,  to make corona pizza jokes.
The catalogue of ugliness does not end here. Coronavirus has triggered aggression and violence directed at people of Chinese origin or who could be mistaken for Chinese, and whereas earlier the Coronavirus was being dismissed by both  Boris Johnson in the UK  and Trump in the US,  it is now giving them an opportunity to implement their authoritarian, anti-immigration policies.  
 I am very worried by the proposals to be approved by the British cabinet this coming week which will give the police special powers to detain anyone suspected to have coronavirus. According to the Times,  "ministers believe that the virus will infect the majority of the population, and the laws will stay in place for two years. The government will be given the power to halt “any vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft”. Ministers will be able to close ports if there are “insufficient resources” to retain border security through customs and immigration officers falling sick".  Quite an undertaking.

Guardian compilation
My intention when I began this post, was not to talk about all this ugliness, it came about incidentally. I wanted instead to highlight something I found quite moving. I hear from my sister in Turin all the time about the difficulty of living more or less as if under house arrest, not being able to go out, with access to supermarkets restricted and so on. Yet people are complying and everywhere on social media you will find the hashtag #iorestoacasa #iostoacasa (I am staying home).  People are working from home (working Dr Jenssen, not having a siesta!).  They cannot socialise and Italians find it hard, being very gregarious. So they have found new ways of entertaining themselves and of being together, even though physically distanced,  building up community spirit: they sing from their balconies. On Friday 13th they all came out at 6 pm to sing together, everywhere. The flashmob had been organized through social media. Another flashmob was on Saturday 14th.
This morning (Sat 14th) a rendering of the Sicilian  'Ciuri Ciuri' was trending, a video clip of a singalong in an apartment block in Agrigento.  A friend sent me a clip of another singalong in Rome, this time the sixties hit by Adriano Celentano 'Azzurro' and other such events can be found, you just have to search youtube and Twitter and they will pop up. The songs are always well known by all and range from the national anthem (Mameli's hymn) to traditional regional songs - many from Naples and Sicily. There have also been impromptu concerts, musicians playing their violin or flute or any other instrument.  
I have listened to some of the recordings and retweeted them.

More videoclips
It's just a small thing,  but it's nice to see people coming together, united by the power of music.  
The Coronavirus kills, it is not just a cough or a cold. Only this morning it was reported that a UK newborn has the virus and we are not sure whether the baby got it while still in his mother's womb or at birth when the baby took the very first breath.
We still have so much to learn about how this virus works, its long term effects, will it come back, will it become endemic, can a vaccine be found? 
But we must not lose hope. If we work together, we will manage to defeat its pernicious effects. Only let us not allow it to bring out the worst in us.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The Crown, Megxit and Io Donna

There are no tabloids as such in Italy and other non-English speaking countries. The phone-hacking shenanigans of the likes of  News of the World (now defunct) and the vicious personal attacks on the Royal family by The Daily Mail are a peculiarly British phenomenon. Charlie Beckett wrote, a few years ago,  an excellent piece about the tabloids (or gutter press), which he believes are, regardless, a vital part of British life. I will not go into it now, but I find Beckett's analysis very compelling and would recommend reading it.
(I had a very close friend, a historian by training and a professional journalist who used to write for the tabloids; from him, I learnt much about word mongering and sensational copy but that is another story).
Of course, the absence of tabloids only means that the tabloid discourse is relayed through other media, such as television. That's where you find the trash, at least in Italy.  There are also weeklies (Gente, Chi, Oggi) devoted to celebrity gossip, pretty similar to Hello magazine, whose blueprint is the Spanish Hola!).
Italian newspapers, set apart by their political allegiances, and by and large carrying serious analyses and news -  obviously - also have a weekly magazine supplement, usually addressing their female readership.  Surprise surprise, these magazines have gossip columns.
  Io Donna, (lit. I Woman) for example, is the supplement of the Corriere della Sera. It usually has a mixed bag of articles on a number of topics, mostly lifestyle, some good,  some bad, and two sections, 'People ' and 'Royals' in which celebrities and royal families, especially British Royals, are discussed in a "light-hearted way". 
The British Royals have always enjoyed popularity abroad. When I was growing up in Italy it was Princess Margaret, her love life, and her alleged tense relationship with her sister the Queen that would be discussed at some length.  I moved to Britain in the late 1970s, so from then on, I became more acquainted with the Royals through the British press, both broadsheets, which tend to provide analysis and tabloids. The latter are everywhere, some are even distributed free of charge, You can't live in the UK and not see the bold headlines of the tabloids.
 I am not a royalist. I am fully aware of the enormous costs to taxpayers that are involved in enabling the Royals - the British monarchy, far from being a fairy tale,  is an archaic institution with major economic implications.
The whole Meghan Markle affair, the Megxit (after Brexit, a name given to it by the tabloids), leaves me quite indifferent to any speculation on the future of the monarchy. To be totally honest, I would not be saddened by its demise. The number of people who share my views is increasing. Great Britain is certainly not a country of republicans, god forbid, but questions on whether the monarchy should continue are being asked.
As I recall, I would not say that Italians particularly care about the British Royal family (whom they do not have to support financially, anyway), but they enjoy a good gossip. The Netflix series The Crown has created a huge, quite unprecedented appetite, globally,  for Royal family gossip and has coloured the perception of British Royals, with people now believing that the British Royals are characters in a big soap opera.
Thus, and unsurprisingly, in Italy at the moment there is much curiosity about the dramas of the Royal family  - quite a few, actually; apart from Megxit there is the great embarrassment of Prince Andrew and his friendship with Epstein. The Sun called him Prince Endy, in a recent headline, when he was apparently "stripped of his Royal duties".

 I was curious about the  Io Donna coverage, with podcasts widely advertised on social media. The magazine purports to address women of today, discussing a number of relevant issues. I thought that the writing about the British Royal family would provide some fresh analysis, from a different perspective - Italy is quite far from Britain geographically and also culturally; the only recent history the two countries have shared is membership of the EU but that has now ended.  
I perused the articles and found them rather bland and gossipy, rehashing what I already knew, with a complete lack of insightful comments - for example, what does it mean to have a member of the Royal family who is entangled in a scandal involving the sexual exploitation of young women? Hello,  have you not heard of the #metoo movement?
I listened to the podcasts, hoping to find something there, and was extremely disturbed by what I heard. The podcasts, discussing the Duchess of Sussex, were infused with News of the World-like venom and veiled racism. The Duchess of Sussex was described as a social climber, hungry for money, duplicitous, an American (the word heavily stressed as to convey some 'special' meaning), a woman who would not hesitate to get rid of her own family to advance her career and so on. Even though I am not personally an enthusiastic supporter of the Duchess, this kind of personal attack is unacceptable, on any woman.
It was extremely sad to be listening to this knowing that the author of the articles and curator of the podcasts is, in fact, a woman, a journalist whom I used to hold in high esteem, as she has written extensively about ageing and ageism.
But people change and women can sometimes be extremely vicious when discussing other women, they can, in fact, be the worst misogynists, having internalised misogyny as a behaviour.
Most of all, it was very irritating for me to see a magazine supposedly aimed at educated and professional women carrying such trash under the guise of "light-hearted gossip".
It's 2020.  Are sexism, misogyny and racism what Corriere della Sera and Io Donna can offer to their female readership? Surely, we deserve better.

*** I am writing this on International Women's Day, so I feel particularly incensed ***

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Should we really bash skinny models?

Reblogged from www.globalist. it

I thought long and hard about writing this. Being skinny these days is regarded as sinful.  That one can be naturally skinny is inconceivable, apparently, and skinny women are now regarded as monsters.
However, the news that a petition was started a few days ago because Gucci used a very skinny model in a show at Milan Fashion Week, in which her small frame was exaggerated through dramatic makeup, prompted this post. The model in question was size 34 (UK 6).
I do not think Gucci was trying to say that being skinny is or should be the norm. They included a skinny model or two, perhaps for effect or perhaps to show diversity, just like they included older models. Everyone says that this model in particular, is anorexic but these are just allegations.  Starting a petition with,  as reported, seems to be  a bit over the top.
Many young girls are naturally thin, they fill up later. In this day and age, we are ready to applaud if a model UK size 24  and barely  5'5 tall walks the runway (and no one says she is encouraging women to put on weight). So why are reactions to thinness so extreme and vitriolic?

Barzini for Gucci. Source:

I know that for a long time being skinny was praised as highly desirable. Kate Moss, who used to be very thin, was condemned for saying "nothing tastes better than skinny". Her words, it transpires, were taken out of context, she was referring to a time when she shared a flat with other girls and they were all eating biscuits and crisps, so this was a reminder not to indulge in snacking on unhealthy food.
 With the growth of the body positivity movement over the past fifteen years, we have become more open to diversity and accept that beauty comes in all sizes and shapes, as well as ages and ethnicities. All sizes: this should include a more tolerant attitude to thinness. You can't have your cake and eat it, claim that size 24 is fine but size 6 is unhealthy.
It also begs the question of what we really expect from brands. We know that fashion shows are performances. Clothes do come in different sizes and there is a much greater choice than there once was.

Tess Holliday at NYFW

If I see a very large, fleshy woman,  I do not feel I have to rush and fatten up, no more than I feel I have to go on an extreme diet if I see a very small-framed woman.
What I am trying to say is that the most important thing is to feel confident in one's own skin and we should teach our daughters and granddaughters to have that confidence.
Anorexia is an illness and so is obesity. But not everyone who is very thin is anorexic, just as not everyone who is very fleshy is morbidly obese.
Emma Woolf wrote an article about being disciplined in her eating - disciplined means not giving in to excesses -  back in 2013 and it' worth reading it again, as well as the comments (some by the usual trolls).  It still rings true. Fat-shaming is not OK, she says, so why should skinny-shaming be OK?
"It seems we can't have a rational debate about the reasons for, and the experience of, obesity – fat is still a feminist issue and a fraught one at that. But I'm fed up with being judged for being physically disciplined, for watching what I eat, and for exercising five times a week. Other things a thin woman is not allowed to say: "it takes willpower to stay slim"; "of course it would be easier just to eat anything I wanted but I don't"; "yes, I'm often hungry mid-morning but I wait until lunchtime". Above all, a slim woman must never say: "I prefer being slim.""
And that is the crux of the matter. 
Please let's stop irrational reactions over body size. Let's think instead of how we can promote a healthier relationship to eating and to our body.