Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hosing down a Princess

Lena Kara, Rex Features

In case anyone had any doubt, I’ll be getting up at 4am on Friday to watch William and Kate’s wedding. I’m sure it will be a very joyous occasion with all the glorious trappings that the Brits do so well - horses and carriages and soldiers in crested helmets and breastplates and miles and miles of flags and bunting and the bells of Westminster Abbey pealing. But like millions of other people, I’ll be thinking how very sad it is that William’s mother will not be there in person to watch her son get married.   
As we all know, Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a high-speed car accident in the Pont de l’Alma Tunnel in Paris on August 31, 1997. While it is now pretty well indisputable that the main cause of that terrible accident was the extreme inebriation of the driver, Henri Paul, I for one have never felt able to absolve the paparazzi from blame.
I have never forgotten an article I read in the British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, the day after Diana’s funeral on Saturday September 6.  Among the acres of tributes and analyses of her impact on the monarchy, there was a short piece by a journalist by Marianne MacDonald which described in brutal detail what Diana had gone through at the hands of the “paps.” Three months earlier, MacDonald had gone on a ride-along with one of the most persistent of the “snappers”, Mark Saunders, and had come away completely sickened by what she had seen.
“I hadn’t cared that much about Diana before. After I spoke to Saunders – and read his book about stalking her – I felt so angry, appalled by what she was left to endure by the rest of the world… It wasn’t a civilised business being at the end of those long lenses. Diana, a woman very often on her own, was constantly followed by a swarm of ruthless, hostile strangers. They surrounded her car, jostled her in the street and insulted her to her face, even though she had paid for the shirts on their back and the beers in their fridge… Once she was held at bay in a taxi. She hid her head. A photographer shouted at her, ‘Put your fucking head up and start acting like a fucking Princess!’” 
According to MacDonald, the predominantly male paps used to describe what they did to Diana as “hosing her down” or “banging her” or even “whacking her” - language that is overtly violent,   sexual, and utterly violating. As MacDonald said, “They couldn’t seem to think of her as a human being. In the adrenaline of the chase she simply became prey to be hunted down.”
This is why so many celebrities came out and blamed the paparazzi immediately after she died in that tunnel in Paris. These were other people who knew what it was like to be the quarry in a desperate manhunt that was all about money.
In an interview with the New York Times after the Princess’s death, Mark Saunders and the co-author of his book, Glenn Harvey argued that Diana had no right to expect privacy when the public had such an appetite for her pictures. The paps also tried to argue that Diana really liked the attention and was a master manipulator of the media, thus resorting to the age-old excuse of the sexual predator – the woman was asking for it.

Kate Middleton has faced her share of over-eager, intrusive paparazzi during her long romance with Prince William, and in agreeing to become his wife, she knew that she would never have a truly private life again. But one can only hope like crazy that the snappers will treat Princess Catherine with a lot more respect than they ever gave her late mother-in-law-to-be.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Who do we think we are?

Recently my husband and I have been trying not to miss “Who Do You Think You Are” on our local NBC station on Friday nights. It’s an import from Britain (like many good things – ha!). The premise of the show is that we the viewers join celebrities as they trace back their family trees and search for the stories behind the bare bones of their ancestors’ lives. Because each search invariably leads through libraries and record offices, the show is able to highlight the essential work done by archivists across the land, from the smallest town hall all the way up to the Library of Congress. It also makes it clear just how much raw historical material is now available online, particularly through, with a few clicks of a mouse.
Above all, what the program shows vividly every week is that there are millions of stories to be discovered in the past and that every apparently simple family has had its monumental dramas and startling secrets. Some of the programs go back far back into the celebrity’s family tree whereas and others are more recent, but all are equally affecting, not just to the celebrity in question but vicariously to us – the viewers - as well. Sarah Jessica Parker  learned that her 10th great-grandmother was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. Steve Buscemi found out that his great-great grandfather, as an impoverished young man, had contemplated suicide but thought better of it and went on to marry and have children. Kim Cattrall set out to find out what had become of her grandfather after he had walked out on his family and was able to tell her mother and aunts that she’d discovered that they had several half-siblings alive and well in Australia.
Each celebrity to one degree or another seems to feel like they’ve discovered something not only about themselves in the course of the search but also about the currents of history. Events that may have seemed impersonal and distant to them came through their search to have an immediacy and a relevance for them that they had never had before.
This capacity to bring history into focus is why I have always been a huge fan of genealogy – that and the fact that it is as addictive as any other kind of puzzle-solving can be. As you gradually gather together the clues – the birth certificates and parish records and newspaper cuttings – the person’s story starts to reveal itself in the interstices of the material.
I have done a certain amount of work on my own family tree, building on the work of others before me for whom it was a much more arduous and time-consuming task in those pre-Internet days. But the most intensive genealogical sleuthing I’ve done has been for Children of Eden.
I made two big discoveries. Quite by accident, I found that Alexander Salmon was not in fact descended from a family of prosperous Jewish bankers as his children had believed. After consulting the English censuses online at, the birth, marriage and death records at the National Archives in London , and the business advertisements in the London Gazette, I found that Alexander’s origins were rather more humble than those he had claimed. His father was a perfectly respectable “fruiterer” or greengrocer with a shop on Piccadilly. Although the family lived check by jowl with the nobility, they were firmly consigned to the merchant class, and their Jewishness put them further beyond the pale of the English middle class of the time.
So who could blame Alexander for gussying up his background a little once he got to Tahiti, especially given the way he was treated by some of the established European settlers and visiting naval captains. To give one example, Captain Henry Byam Martin, commander of HMS Grampus, which called in at Tahiti in 1847, described Salmon in his ship’s log as, “... a low swindling bankrupt Jew from London.” It’s gratifying to imagine how galling it must have been for such people when the upstart Jew married the sister of the Queen of Tahiti.
My second discovery was that, on his mother’s side, Alexander was a grandson of a renowned Jewish miniaturist artist, Solomon Polack, who was a friend of William Thackeray (the author of Vanity Fair) and was famous for having been one of the few people considered devout enough to be admitted to the prison cell of the Jewish convert, Lord Gordon, and allowed to sketch his likeness.
Polack’s daughter Catherine was Alexander’s mother, but I also discovered that Polack had one son who was sent as a convict to Australia but was freed and became one of the biggest landowners in the Sydney area and another son who was one of the earliest settlers in New Zealand and wrote two books on his experiences working with the Maoris. Talk about unearthing a totally unexpected set of larger-than-life characters! So I’m thinking, after I finish Children of Eden, maybe writing the story of the Polack family may just have to be next on my list… till the next great story comes along.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back to basics

“What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in and found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could happily live here and read forever.” Virginia Woolf, August 24th, 1933

There have been times in my life when I couldn’t read. I’m in one now. Too much anxiety and work and required reading and not enough time or concentration. It’s not a good feeling. It’s like I imagine it would be to have to navigate the world with only one eye or ear – making everything seem slightly off-kilter. It saps my energy just as the lack of sleep or losing my appetite would do. My soul cannot consume what it needs to survive. 
When I say I can’t read, it doesn’t mean I don’t try. I pick up books and start reading a chapter only to find my mind slipping off the page. I start fretting about what work I need to get done tomorrow or what medicine to give my sick cat. My imagination refuses to latch onto the story and let itself be pulled under. 
The last time I went through a patch like this, my friend Page, who is at least as voracious a reader as I am, gave me some good advice. She said, “Go back to basics, to most comforting books you know.” For her, that is anything by Dickens or Jane Austen. It seemed like good advice, but I wasn’t sure what my equivalent would be, a book worn smooth with familiarity like a childhood teddy bear or blankey. And then I remembered how in my early 20s I had devoured the Diaries of Virginia Woolf as I crossed London every morning on the top deck of the No. 6 bus. Mired in the problems inherent in my first grown-up job, I was encouraged by the struggles that the great novelist herself had gone through – with depression and lack of confidence – even as she devoted herself to the steady, disciplined writing of her ground-breaking novels.  
So I plunged back into the diaries and found myself similarly inspired and soothed 30 years after I first read them. Problem solved. As Page had predicted, my reading drought was over and I went back to consuming books of all kinds at my usual breakneck pace. Not one to mess with success, this time around I’m thinking of turning to Woolf’s Collected Letters, which sit in a neat row of pastel spines on my shelf waiting for my middle-aged self to take them down again. What books would you turn to in a drought?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011



My second published short story.....


            Picture the dream I had last night. You and I are sitting at an outdoor café table in a city somewhere in Europe. Cars and trucks rush by our table, which is close to the curb. Somehow it is clear that we live in this city, that we aren’t here as tourists.
            I am pregnant, and I have met you in this café to tell you the news. I am crying at the thought of what I will have to go through if I decide to keep this child, of having to give birth alone, of the lies we will have to tell. Worst of all, the fact that you will never, ever be able to be a proper father to the child (which is a boy – somehow we already know that).
            Then, I realize that this is what I have always wanted, and it is within my grasp, lying close and real and irrefutable within my belly. Something that I long ago gave up hoping for, except on some nights, late, after drinking too many glasses of wine. How can it be described to someone who has never felt it, the need that defies all logic, all pragmatism? Your mind is possessed, all your quiet pleasures turned sour. You become half-mad, giddy with craving and absence, and your body feels as hollow and arid as an old bone.
            Yet now, in the dream, my mind begins to grasp that this craving has been answered, that I have taken on an extra dimension, like when you stand between two mirrors and can see your image replicated into the farthest reaches of infinity. And it occurs to me, perhaps the three of us can raise him together. Maybe she will agree, knowing how much you want children. Seeing in this event a release, freeing her from the pressure you have been putting on her to have a baby herself.
            But my surge of hope collapses as quickly as it rose, and I see with desperate clarity that this child can never be born.
            I haven’t said any of this to you. After telling you the news, I am crying too hard to speak. You are sitting opposite me, watching me cry, looking beaten and sad and saying nothing. Does it hurt you, my reaction? Do you wish I could be happy about this, if only for now? Or are you regretting how messy and sordid and human our grand passion has become?
            Then you do something that takes my breath away.  Without saying a word, you lean down and lay your head against my stomach. I cannot tell if you are listening for the sound of your baby’s heartbeat or asking to be comforted. But as I wake, I can still feel the warmth of your face against my belly.
            I am still moved by this tonight as I sit at your dining table, twisting spaghetti around my fork. The candles are reflected in the facets of our wineglasses. I am ravenous as I always am when I’m unhappy. She keeps her glass and mine topped up, but she makes you fetch your own beer from the kitchen. She is talking, animated, laughing at something I’ve said. Her long hair hangs down her back as elemental as a fox’s tail. She and I are friends. We understand each other.
            The three of us are suspended, enclosed, at our own feast. This ritual joins us, three different needs, each met two ways. At once a miracle of equilibrium and a terrible risk.



Friday, April 8, 2011

Dancing Classes

My first published short story appeared in the Washington Review in 1988.

                                               DANCING CLASSES

There was a time when my parents went to dancing classes. Lord knows whose idea it was. I don't remember them actually going or what night of the week they went. But I do remember them practicing in our living room with a manual open on the dining table and a sheet spread out on the floor which showed them where to put their feet. And I remember my Dad holding my mother in the crook of his arm and the shy, self-conscious looks on their faces.

At my brother's wedding I stood on the sidelines and watched as the photographs were taken. Gusts of wind swept between the gravestones and made the bride's dress billow. Women clutched at their hats but I took mine off and let the breeze cool my head. The summer outfits were a kaleidoscope against the grass and the silver flint of the church.

I was already finding it hard to stand. I had driven up from London early and had a couple of stiff drinks in the pub by the river before turning up at my mother's house. Before I got out of the car, I sprayed so much Listermint down my throat that my eyes started to water and I had to wipe the tears of mascara away with spit on my hankie.

My mother looked magnificent. I don't know if she had slept much the night before but she looked poised and relaxed, like Grace Kelly in early middle age. We kissed, our mouths not touching each other's cheeks with the age old caution of made-up women.

"You look lovely. You'll be quite the most glamorous woman in church," she said, straightening my shoulder pads.

In the background, coming in and out of doors into the corridor, aunts and uncles carried shoe cleaning brushes and tiepins and hair curlers. My mother went off to put on her hat and I went to sit down in the living room. The old retriever came and put his head on my knees. Across the room by the big open fireplace sat my father's wing chair. The table beside it, usually stacked with newspapers and boxes of Jamaican cigars, was empty. I got up and went to the drinks cabinet and sneaked half a tumbler of gin. On top of the breath freshener it tasted like urine.

As the clock tolled the quarter hour, we trooped across the road to the church, watched by Saturday afternoon shoppers and teenage girls pushing prams. It was stone cold inside after the sunshine. I pulled at the fingers of my gloves in the front pew and kept my head down. I could see my brother's hands which he was holding behind his back as he talked to his best man, the knuckles white.

The service flowed around us and we bobbed up and down for the hymns. I sang as loud as I could to the back of my brother's neck. He looked happier now, holding his bride's hand. They were led off to the vestry to sign the register. My mother moved away from me, edging down the pew to join the bride's father. And behind them out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bride's mother turn up her face to greet my father.

The photographs seemed to take forever. The photographer had placed my parents side by side and they stood stiffly together, an island of tension in a sea of bonhomie. I raked through my clutch bag searching for the twist of silver paper I kept in case of emergencies and stuffed it inside my glove. As soon as we got to the hotel, I ran into the Ladies. I realized as I peered in the mirror that I hadn't done a terrific job with the mascara. I managed to get the pills down while I was in the cubicle, pretending to wee. I emerged into a flutter of middle-aged ladies adjusting their hats and spraying themselves with Tweed.

"It went very well, don't you think?"
"She looks so lovely in that dress."
"Isn't it nice that the weather's held?"
"You're looking well, dear." To me. "Will it be your turn next?"

In the receiving line, my brother's eyes were as blank as stones as he leaned forward to kiss me. I retaliated by kissing the best man full on the mouth. Behind me, I heard my brother croon and beam at a stream of people I didn't know. I drained one champagne glass quickly and went in search of another.

So many people to avoid. I ducked and dived among the crush, fetching up against relatives from time to time but mostly surrounded by strangers. This was the bride's mother's domain. She moved among the throng, choreographing the scene. We met by the cutlery end of the buffet table and she forced a cold smile in my direction. I raised my empty glass to her and bowed.

I watched my mother in animated conversation with someone. She looked as if she were the happiest, the most carefree person in the room. By the picture window, my father looked up and caught my eye. He smiled, the sort of smile a small boy tries when he is caught red-handed, using charm as a last resort. A palms-up sort of smile, intended to disarm. I turned away and the alcohol in my stomach began to burn like a slow fuse.

By the time it began to get dark outside, my feet seemed to have cushions of air between them and the floor, and my head felt like it had gone into orbit. It had been several hours since I had had a lucid conversation with anyone. My teeth were coated with the syrupy aftermath of champagne. The last time I had staggered to the Ladies, all I could see in the mirror were two huge eyes as if the rest of my face had shriveled like a dead leaf and dropped away.

Then the dancing started. This was no disco but the local dance band trying to be eclectic. I felt the need to sweat some poison from my system and headed for the floor. But the music was stately and couples moved to and fro with serious precision. I was about to back off but the best man caught my hand and launched us off.

It was a bad idea. A wave of sickness threatened to break over me as the faces whirled by. I wasn't sure what my feet were doing but they seemed to spend more time on my partner's shoes than on the floor. He was a tall young man, not at all handsome, and my eyes were on a level with his prominent Adam's apple.

The music slowed. I recognized the tune and attempted to hum it. I gave up worrying about standing on my partner's feet and let myself lean heavily against his chest. His very posture was puzzled. My nausea started to recede. Slowly it began to feel pleasant, drifting to a sad song, my cheek against the rough shoulder of his jacket. I began to feel comforted somewhere deep down as I used to when I was a child and my father would sit by my bed pushing my hair back from my forehead while I hovered between the sleeping and waking of fever. As we turned on the floor, I saw the bride sitting with her parents. Her father had his arm along the back of her chair and her mother held her hand and, together for one quiet moment, they watched the dancing. The song finished. The best man let me go to applaud the band and I dropped like a stone.

These days I too go to dancing classes. They are held in a gym not far from my office. I try to go twice a week if I can, in the evening after work. The instructor has a great technique for dealing with trouble.

"Sweat it out," she shouts at us over the throb of the music. "Work it off. One-two-three-four. Feel that power, feel those muscles build. Five-six-seven-eight. Feel those problems going. You're taking control."

A room full of women kicks, swings, bends and stretches, determination on every face. There is rhythm in the room but each body keeps its own beat. How much easier it is to dance in step when you dance alone.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Window on the world

One of the aspects of writing Children of Eden that I’ve enjoyed the most has been corresponding with people all around the world. On any given day, I never know who will pop up in my e-mail inbox. This has especially been the case since I’ve been posting episodes from the book here on Midatlantic. Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve heard from Celeste in Perth, Western Australia, who is descended from the Polacks (Alexander Salmon’s mother’s family), Itaka in Paris, who is descended from Titaua and John Brander, and Alex Frame in New Zealand who grew up in Tahiti and remembers his parents’ good friend, Turia Salmon (Tati’s granddaughter). It was very gratifying to hear from all of them, a pleasure that never gets old.
I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed corresponding with museums, archives, and libraries all around the world – it never ceases to amaze me how quick and efficient and helpful librarians are. How biographers gathered their material before the Internet I do not know. All I have to do is fire off an e-mail to Sydney or Honolulu or Hamburg, and within hours I get a reply back from across the world telling me what I needed to know. Very often there are documents or pictures attached to the e-mail and it is always a thrill to click on the link and see what emerges. A new face, a new clue, a new part of the story. It’s all part of my quest to get as close to the truth of the lives of the Salmon family as I possibly can. Which of course is no more than they deserve.