Monday, November 29, 2010

The Age of Innocence

Image courtesy of Broadway Photographs

Between September 26 and November 7 of this year, more than 30 percent of British households were glued to their TVs every Sunday night. They were watching a series called Downton Abbey, which followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. It was written by Julian Fellowes who is a specialist in depicting the aristocracy of the early 20th century (he won an Oscar in 2002 for his screenplay for the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park) and starred Dame Maggie Smith plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham. It was such a big hit with British viewers that the ITV network has announced that a second series will air in 2011.

Like its venerable predecessors Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsythe Saga, Downton Abbey is set in the period immediately before the First World War. It’s an era for which we in the 21st-century seem to have an insatiable appetite, presumably because we see it as an age of perfection and innocence that was about to be shattered by the “war to end all wars.” Plus of course the clothes are to die for.

But in reality, life in Edwardian Britain was far from idyllic. There was widespread labor unrest, a violent struggle for independence in Ireland, and a struggle within Parliament over social and political reform. Above all, the Suffragettes were smashing windows and setting fire to pillar boxes and burning "Votes for Women" in acid on the golf courses of England. Their goal was the vote, but more generally their actions were a vociferous protest against the confining roles in which all women - whether upstairs or downstairs – were trapped.

In the first volume of my long novel sequence Albion’s Millennium, Lady Celia Maybury is a dutiful daughter shackled to her mother’s side till a suitable man proposes marriage. Her life is one long round of stultifying duties that render her almost comatose with lack of will.  

There was mutton for luncheon. Afterwards Celia wrote the thank you notes that her mother dictated and took delivery of the new flowers and supervised the maids as they put them into Chinese vases around the house. She had no aptitude for flower arranging, she felt, but she twitched a lily here and pulled a delphinium higher at the back of an arrangement simply to have the last word. After changing into the tea gown that Lettie had laid out on her bed, Celia came back into the drawing room as the mantel clock struck a quarter to five.
   Her mother looked up from her embroidery.
   “Will it never stop raining?”
            It wasn’t a question.
   “Maybe no one will come today,” Celia said, interlinking her fingers and stretching her arms behind her.
   She felt shrouded, inert, longing to fling open a window and let a blaze of cold air sweep away the muddle in her head, and yet without the energy to so much as tug at the cord of the blind.
   On a table set up close to the piano stood a kettle and a silver teapot, cream pitcher and sugar bowl. On a glass dish, slices of lemon lay as transparent and anemic as dead fish. Celia ran her eye over the tea caddy, the tea strainer and slop bowl and the stack of little tea plates, each with its linen napkin in a perfectly folded triangle with sharp pointed corners. Nothing seemed to be missing. Holding her skirts flat against her legs, she eased herself into the chair behind the table. Striking a match, she held the flame to the white wick of the spirit lamp. The flame hesitated and wavered until, finally, it flared and then settled. Celia put the kettle on its stand and began the long wait for the water to boil. …
   Visitors drifted into the drawing room, fresh from the damp and foggy street, moving towards the fire, their hands extended to its warmth. The same faces week after week, the same people who saw each other at each others’ houses in town and country with the inevitability of the tide going in and out, making gentle gossip about others whom they all knew. As Celia prepared the tea - one scoop per person and two for the pot - she nodded and smiled at her mother’s guests, at the courtly compliments of elderly men and the gentle murmurings of the dowagers on the eternal subject of the weather, so used to smiling that it no longer required an effort of her facial muscles. Her movements were as instinctive and coordinated as a concert pianist’s. The muscle in her bare forearm tightened as she lifted the heavy pot and poured the stream of dark tea into the cup, tilting the pot upright at the exact moment with the tiniest scooping motion to avoid drips, then handing out the delicate cup and saucer with a steady hand without the slightest tremor of porcelain on porcelain.

We in the US will be able to see Downton Park on PBS Masterpiece in January 2011. I’ll be watching.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Good, better, best

It has always profoundly annoyed me whenever I hear politicians claiming that we live in “the greatest country in the world.” Sarah Palin and her fellow Tea Party are the biggest culprits at the moment, but Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been equally culpable in the past. To American politicians, the United States is never just “great” but always “the greatest.” Apparently, it’s not enough for them to applaud their own country – they have to do so at the expense of others.
It seems that I have finally found a fellow American who also finds this tendency distasteful and graceless. On today’s Washington Post op-ed page, Matt Miller – a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress – wrote,
“Does anyone else think there's something a little insecure about a country that requires its politicians to constantly declare how exceptional it is? ... In Switzerland, do candidates have to proclaim that ‘Switzerland is the greatest nation ever created in human history’? In Brazil, do ambitious pols insist that ‘Brazil is the most special country ever to grace the world’? Isn't ‘great’ or ‘really, really great’ enough? Not in America, dammit.”
Apparently it is only by using the comparative – being first, being top, being the best – can we Americans feel good about ourselves – but only by putting down everyone else.

Imagine how this goes down overseas - in countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK, which have all scored consistently higher than the US on the index of the world’s most stable and prosperous countries compiled by Jane=s Information Group. Or Norway, Australia, and New Zealand, all of whom rank higher than the US on the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which takes into account countries’ life expectancy, health status, educational attainment, and income.

When politicians use pugnacious, boastful language in praise of this country, they are fuelling both the overt and the latent anti-Americanism that exists around the world. Talk about giving yourself a harder row to hoe. Language is powerful, people. Let’s try to use it wisely.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Death in the South Pacific

Tati Salmon
I don’t know how many other writers do this, but I tend to write my books out of sequence. If I get stuck on one chapter, I jump ahead or go back to another part of the story. Obviously, this is only possible if you have planned out the entire narrative in advance – which is another of my deeply ingrained habits.
For Children of Eden, I have a detailed chapter by chapter summary of how the story will unfold, and within the bounds of that blueprint I go back and forwards as I please. Anything to keep my momentum going. At the moment, I am writing the penultimate chapter of the book. It’s a brief and shocking episode in Tahiti’s history. Here’s a taste:  

"Within days of the war in Europe coming to end, an unimaginable tragedy struck Tahiti. On 16th November 1918, a steamer arrived in Papeete harbor carrying several passengers who were gravely ill with the Spanish flu which had already ravaged the United States and Europe. This strain of the flu was very contagious and highly lethal.  A rapidly escalating infection choked the lungs with blood and was usually fatal within 24 to 48 hours.
Three weeks after the steamer’s arrival, 10 percent of the 12,000 Tahitians were dead, and this figure went up to 20 percent by the end of the epidemic – 2,400 people. The deaths came so fast that bodies had to be stacked and burned in funeral pyres on the shore. The dead were wrapped up in the mats on which they’d expired and thrown onto trucks which took them – limbs and hanks of hair hanging over the sides - to the pyres, which burned day and night. Some houses were torched with bodies of whole families still inside. Carried by the wind from the mountains, the acrid smoke from these open-air cemeteries could be smelled by people on ships as far as 50 miles out at sea.
There were only two doctors on the island, and the limited supply of medicine was depleted almost immediately. The island authorities sent repeated urgent cablegrams to the French and American governments and the Red Cross, but the worldwide nature of the epidemic meant that no medicines or doctors could be spared. There were several British and American destroyers in the South Pacific, but they were under orders not to dock for fear of contagion.
The first week of December 1918 was the most lethal, both for the island and for the Salmons. Manihinihi succumbed to the flu on 2nd December, only three short years after her long-awaited wedding to Norman Brander, thus bringing to a tragic end the family’s most unusual love story. And only three days later, the flu claimed both her brother, the genial and gentle patriarch Tati Salmon, and his 40-year-old son, Tauraa."

Monday, November 15, 2010

History in the present tense

Can anybody explain to me why so many people these days use the present tense to describe historical events? I was reminded of this phenomenon today by a particularly egregious example in the Washington Post Style section.  
Staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia was interviewing David and Julie Eisenhower about their book on David’s grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first 11 paragraphs of the article ran along smoothly, but when Roig-Franzia began jumping between historical events, the book’s descriptions of those events, and his present-day encounter with the Eisenhowers, his tenses were soon leaping around all over the place.
Here’s one example. “[In] the first property that Ike owned after decades of living in either Army housing or The White House, the help refer to the 70-year-old former President as 'the General.'” Two different tenses in the same sentence.
Same again later when Roig-Franzia wrote that Mamie Eisenhower “is 64 when her husband leaves office” but “suffered from troubles with a rheumatic heart” and “was known as a vivacious hostess.”
In yet another jarring example, the text read, “David… often gets stuck with Granddad for terrifying car rides,” but the pull quote on the same page said, “David… often got stuck etc.” Make up your minds, people of the Post!
Other than his inability to be consistent, what I don’t understand is why Roig-Franzia felt the need to insert the present tense into his narrative at all when he was writing about events that occurred half a century ago!
This was a particularly badly written feature article, it’s true. But using the present tense to describe past events seems to be ubiquitous these days. Whenever The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer features a panel of eminent historians, they inevitably talk about how George Washington crosses the Delaware or Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. Why? What is wrong with the good old past tense? Is this a worthy but misguided attempt to make history seem more immediate and relevant to the present day? Maybe, but all it leads to – in my opinion – is confusion and the dumbing down of the English language.   
The marvelous children’s writer, Philip Pullman, protested against the over-use of the present tense in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper. Although he was talking about fiction writers, what he said could be applied just as aptly to journalists and historians.
“I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.”
All I can say is hear, hear. Anyone agree?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Books I'm Writing

I am mostly a writer of fiction. Having said that, the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken is a true story – Children of Eden: The Story of the Salmon Family of Tahiti.
Like a gift from the blue, the idea popped into my head as I was getting into bed one night 10 years ago. I had suddenly remembered the Tahitian Princess who was buried in my home town in Scotland – with a long exotic very un-Scottish name on her pink granite tombstone. I thought, “There’s a great subject for a story, but I know nothing about Tahiti – I’ll do some research.” To my amazement, as I surfed the Internet and plunged into dusty books at the Library of Congress, I discovered a remarkable set of characters and a story full of drama, passion and conflict. I discovered that my Scottish-Tahitian Princess was the daughter of Alexander Salmon, an English Jew who grew up in the London of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. This penniless young man sailed to the South Seas to seek his fortune and married the beautiful Princess Ariioehau, the Queen of Tahiti’s sister in 1841. Their marriage produced eight cosmopolitan children (educated in Australia and Britain) who dominated the economic and social life of the French protectorate of Tahiti throughout the 19th century. They also befriended the many European and American visitors to the island, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Adams, and Paul Gauguin, and featured prominently in their writings. But after the death of their mother in 1897, the siblings fell out drastically among themselves and the family fortune seeped away into the hands of lawyers. It’s a classic rise and fall tale. I knew fiction wouldn’t do it justice - I had to write the real story. For pictures of the Salmons, see here.
And yet there are times when I simply have to go back to fiction. At those times, I slip right back into Albion’s Millennium, the story of the Ingham and Brodie families in 20th-century Britain. It starts on the hottest day since records began on August 10, 1911 and will end with a counter-factual State of Emergency in 2001, taking in two world wars, labor unrest, the rise and fall of socialism, the Cambridge spies, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and much domestic turmoil for my characters in between. I plan to tell the story in a series of five novels. Five novels? Am I insane? Probably, but you have to write what you have to write, and this story has been dogging me for years. The first book is edging towards the finish line, but for now Children of Eden must come first as my agent in London is waiting patiently for the manuscript. Now all I need is the gift of time...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Armistice Day

From Virginia Woolf’s diary – Richmond, Monday November 11, 1918
“Twenty five minutes ago the guns went off, announcing peace. A siren hooted on the river. They are hooting still. A few people ran to look out of windows. The rooks wheeled round, & [had] for a moment the symbolic look of creatures performing some ceremony, partly of thanksgiving, partly of valediction over the grave. A very cloudy still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east; & that too wearing for a moment a look of something floating, waving, drooping. We looked out of the window; saw the housepainter give one look at the sky & go on with his job; the old man toddling along the street carrying a bag out of which a large loaf protruded, closely followed by his mongrel dog.  So far neither bells nor flags, but the wailing of sirens & intermittent guns.”  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Being a late starter

I’ve spent years of my life not writing.  In my childhood, I read voraciously and began writing a story based on every novel that captured my imagination – from pony stories to Jane Eyre. But in my teen years, school work and extracurricular activities took up all my time and energy – the Debating Society, the Folk Club, the school magazine. When I went to the University of Edinburgh, I got into student politics and, after some hard campaigning, was elected President of the Student Union. The next eight years I spent in London, working in politics and journalism. My career was demanding and my social life not much less so. As the end of my twenties approached, I reached a crisis point. I quit my job in television, rented out my London flat, and flew to Washington DC with just my US passport and two suitcases. I rented a room in a group house on Capitol Hill and took a job in a bookstore for $6 an hour. And slowly I began to write again. My first short story was published six months after I turned 30.
But I still spent too much time working, traveling, and partying. There were always other calls on my time and attention. When I became a wife and a step-mother, I continued to work full-time, and free time became an even more precious commodity. It wasn’t until I became part of a writing group that I finally buckled down to the real work of my life. Apart from the support of my fellow writers and the inventiveness and incisiveness of their critiques, what helped me most was having a deadline. Everything else had to take a back seat till I had finished my latest chapter and sent it to the group. All the trivia on my to-do list would sink to the bottom and the important stuff got fitted in around the edges. My focus became unwavering. Because I had a deadline, I was finally able to give myself permission to put writing first.
My thanks to those women who put me back on the path of what I can only describe as my vocation - Jan Linley, Beth Millemann, Julia Slavin, Louise Farmer Smith, Wendy Mitman Clarke, and Melanie McDonald. All extremely talented writers themselves who, by making themselves available to read whatever I wrote, helped to bring me back to doing what I love. It’s never too late to start.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why the name?

I’m calling this blog Midatlantic because it’s where I’m always located – in my head, in my writing, in my life.  I’ve spent almost exactly half my life in Great Britain and half in the United States, and there are people I love dearly in both places. When all planes were grounded after 9/11 and when the ash cloud covered northern Europe, my two places were cut off from each other – separated by a very wide ocean.  
I know how wide it is – I crossed it from New York on the Queen Elizabeth I in the summer of 1964. Halfway through the voyage we passed the Queen Mary a good mile away.  Each boat sounded its horn to salute the other across the gray and choppy water, a ceremony that struck my 6-year-old self as the loneliest I could imagine. For the rest of the voyage, we didn’t see another human soul on that expanse of ocean until the cranes of Southampton loomed out of the fog early on the 7th morning. For months afterward, I wouldn’t let my parents out of my sight. I’d seen how vast the world was and knew it was just a matter of chance that we didn’t lose each other in all that infinite space.
But I grew up to embrace that vastness. My life now straddles the ocean. I fly over it twice a year. I’ve watched the dawn break over it, I’ve seen the Hale-Bopp comet high above it, I’ve looked down onto the towers of Manhattan, and followed the S-bend of the Thames as the plane turns over London to approach Heathrow from the east. 
My geographical division began early. I was born in the United States to British parents. I have two birth certificates – the one from the state of New Jersey and the other from the British Consulate in New York. After the Kennedy assassination, my parents decided to move back to the old country.  I grew up and got my education in Scotland, then worked in London for several years. At the age of 29, I came back to the States for a gap year – a time of respite from various troubles – and ended up settling in for the long haul. 
Because of my transatlantic life, there is no single place I call home. Instead there are several. A former boss once told me that I gave the impression of always having “one foot off the island.” What better place for a writer to be?