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“Love in a Cold Climate” (1949) is a novel by Nancy Mitford, one of the Mitford sisters. Set in England in 1929, just before the Crash, Polly Hampton, a beauty of the age, is the daughter of one of the richest families in England. But no man wants to marry her – nor she them. She has a secret which will blow a hole into the story halfway through. It does have a gay character, but it is not Polly. It is a satire of the decadent rich of England and of romance novels themselves.

It is part of a trilogy:

  • The Pursuit of Love (1945)
  • Love in a Cold Climate (1949)
  • Don’t Tell Alfred (1960)

I have not read the other two, so it can certainly be read independently of them. Goodreads rates “Pursuit” highest, but Nancy Mitford herself preferred “Cold Climate”.

Miniseries: British television has made it into a miniseries twice – in 1980 (with Judi Dench) and in 2001 (by the BBC).

Like Jane Austen it is set in the world of large English landowners, of parties, suitors, gossip, drawing rooms, romance – and being cut out of the will. It takes place barely a hundred years after Austen, yet the rich are markedly more:

Decadent: too decadent for the Ladies’ Home Journal to serialize in 1949. Everyone sleeps with everyone, married or not. If you are rich enough, people let you get away with almost anything. The Victorian moral certainties, at least among the rich, are gone.

Being rich in Mitford is like being on a cruise ship: you do not have to go to work or school or cook or clean. The rich and powerful all know each other, so for them England is like a small town – supported by a quarter of the world, starting with their servants and tenants and extending all the way to Africa and Asia. Not because the rich are more moral (hardly) or more intelligent (if only) – but because they had the singular talent of being born into the right family.

She cuts down romance novels themselves, at least the Jane Austen sort. Lovesick suitors do not hang about the edges of great English estates. Nor do their beaux write them secret love letters – they are too busy gossiping with their cousin or arguing with their mother.

The best line:

“Love indeed! Whoever invented love ought to be shot.”

My favourite passage:

“They, in their turns, all became notable breeders, so that the Boreley tentacles had spread by now over a great part of the West of England and there seemed to be absolutely no end of Boreley cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters and their respective in-laws. There was very little variety about them; they all had the same cross, white guinea-pig look, thought alike, and led the same sort of lives […] In short they were the backbone of England. […] However, like Gandhi, Bernard Shaw and Labby the Labrador, they continued to flourish and no terrible Boreley holocaust ever took place.”

– Abagond, 2019.

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Chester Pierce

Pierce in 1972 (Photo By David Cupp/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Dr Chester M. Pierce (1927-2016) is the Black American psychiatrist who came up with the term “microaggression” and helped design the children’s television show “Sesame Street” (1969- ). He even worked with NASA to help bring American and Russian cultures together on the Space Station. He was a Harvard professor.

In October 1947 he made Time magazine when he was a student at Harvard: he became the first Black college football player to go down South to play against a White college – when Harvard played the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Pierce did not think it was a big deal:

“I don’t recall a hint of anything racial on the field. I remember nothing different in that game from any other I played for Harvard … It was no big deal and took no courage by me.”

The 22,000 fans were shouting racial slurs and obscenities, waving Confederate flags and singing “Dixie”. The hotel would not let him stay in the main building and would not let him go through the main entrance of the dining room.

One of his teammates: Robert Kennedy.

In the 1960s White psychiatrists over and over again had failed to take racism seriously and were in fact enabling it. Then:

In 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead and cities across the US burned. Pierce said he and fellow Black psychiatrists “anguished in our grief for a great moderate leader” and:

“As we listened to radio reports and called to various sections of the country for the on-the spot reports in inner cities, our moderation weakened and our alarm hardened.”

And so they founded Black Psychiatrists of America, making Pierce its first president.

He was not just a psychiatrist by then but also a professor of early childhood education.

In 1970 he told them:

“Many of you know that for years I have been convinced that our ultimate enemies and deliverers are the education system and the mass media. We must without theoretical squeamishness over correctness of our expertise, offer what fractions of truth we can to make education and mass media serve rather than to oppress the black people of this country.”

To that end Pierce worked with PBS to create a new television show for children. The show was designed to help poor children, especially Black and Brown children, to learn their numbers and letters. But he wanted them to learn something more: that people of all races could live together and be equal. So the puppets and people on the show came in all colours – a White shopkeeper, a Black schoolteacher, etc. He wanted an anti-racist message to counteract the racist messages being pumped out by much of the rest of US television.

That show became “Sesame Street”.

 

Hidden curriculum: As Loretta Long, who plays Susan on the show, put it:

“‘Sesame Street’ has incorporated a hidden curriculum … that seeks to bolster the Black and minority child’s self-respect and to portray the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world into which both majority and minority child are growing.”

Pierce Peak in Antarctica is named after him.

– Abagond, 2019.

Sources: mainly UNDARK and The Undefeated.

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Karli

Karli (2019- ) is a green girl monster with yellow hair on Sesame Street, friend of Elmo and Abby Cadabby. She is the first Muppet whose parent suffers from addiction to drugs or drink.

In May 2019 she first appeared, not on the television show, but online at Sesame Street in Communities. When Elmo met her parents they said they were her “for-now parents” (foster parents) – for now because Karli’s mother was having “a hard time”.

In October 2019 we found out why Karli’s mother was having a hard time: she has an addiction. As Karli put it:

“[addiction is] a sickness that makes a person feel like they have to take drugs or drink alcohol to feel okay. Yeah, my mom was having a hard time with addiction and I felt like my family was the only one going through it. But now I’ve met so many other kids like us, Salia. Makes me feel like we’re not alone.”

Salia and Karli

Salia is Salia Woodbury, a real girl human whose parents were both hooked on opioids.

Karli informed Abby:

“Remember Abby? My mom was away for awhile because she had a grown-up problem […] My mommy explained that she needed grown-up help. She told me it wasn’t my fault.”

Elmo notes:

“Well, when Elmo talks about a problem that Elmo is having, it helps Elmo feel better.”

In the US:

  • Someone dies of an opioid overdose every 7.5 minutes – some 70,000 a year.
  • 5.7 million children under the age of 11 live with a parent suffering from substance abuse. A third of them will wind up in foster care.

Elmo, Kama Einhorn, Abby

Kama Einhorn, a senior content manager with Sesame Workshop that produces Sesame Street:

“There’s nothing else out there that addresses substance abuse for young, young kids from their perspective. Even a parent at their most vulnerable – at the worst of their struggle – can take one thing away when they watch it with their kids, then that serves the purpose.”

Karli’s message:

  • You are not alone.
  • You will be taken care of.
  • Addiction is a sickness and sick people need help to get better.
  • It is not your fault.

All of this was designed with the help of Jerry Moe, a licensed children’s therapist and national director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Children’s Program. He says it is sorely needed.

It is wonderful and beautiful – and profoundly racist.

Sesame Street turns 50 next month. The opioid epidemic is hardly the first drug epidemic it has seen. It is based in New York, which saw a heroin epidemic in the 1970s and a crack epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the children of those epidemics were mainly Black and Brown, while those of the opioid epidemic are mainly White.

Hidden message: It is not just Sesame Street, of course. Government and the White press were and are little different: opioid addicts receive empathy and help, heroin and crack addicts prison and demonization.

Sad to see, given Sesame Street’s anti-racist roots.

– Abagond, 2019.

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Beauty and the Beast

“Beauty and the Beast” (1991) is a Disney film loosely based on the French fairy tale of the same name written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756. It is a classic monster boyfriend story in the West. And a classic Disney princess film.

Disney had tried but failed to make the film before – in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s, dying each time on the storyboard.

Toni Braxton as Belle on Broadway.

Our Story: Belle lives in a quiet French village. Her name means Beauty and she looks like a hyperfeminine Disney beauty – but she also reads books. That makes her Not Like Other Villagers and makes her dream of life beyond the village. Her dreams come true, kind of, when she finds herself well beyond the village – imprisoned in a castle in the middle of a dark woods by a werebuffalo, the Beast himself.

The castle is under a witch’s curse. That is why he looks like a beast instead of a prince. And why the servants have been turned into talking candlesticks, clocks, teapots and so on (added by Disney to make the story less gloomy).

To break the curse the Beast must love and be loved in return. And he must do it before the last petal falls from a magic rose.

The servants see their chance with Belle – but the two do not warm to each other till after he saves her from wolves and she cares for his wounds. He starts to act more princely, even dances with her in his empty ballroom (pictured at top). Better still, when he understands she is unhappy because she is his prisoner, he sets her free without any hope of ever seeing her again. (Beaumont’s Beast gave her only a week).

He loves her – but she does not love him.

Gaston, a jealous suitor and “the real monster” (another Disney addition), leads a band of marauding villagers to kill the Beast. Belle gets there too late.

But by crying over him as he lay dying – just before the last rose petal falls – she breaks the curse and he turns into a handsome prince.

And they lived happily ever after.

The moral of the story: You cannot judge a book by its cover. Or: a woman’s love can change a man for the better. Beaumont’s target demographic was destined for arranged marriages.

A historically accurate Belle on the left (according to Glamour) and Disney’s Belle on the right.

The big yellow dress that Belle wore during the dance scene is off by about a hundred years. The bright yellow colour alone places it after 1856 (when aniline dyes were invented). The shape too is more 1850s (crinoline dresses) than 1750s (pannier dresses).

In the 2017 live-action remake the castle looks way cooler and more realistic, but the love story itself is less believable. There is no chemistry between the romantic leads (Emma Watson and Dan Stevens). At least none that I could discern. That did not stop it from bringing in over a billion dollars.

In the 1756 story we find out about the curse only after Beauty falls in love with the Beast.

– Abagond, 2019.

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Remarks:

Tale as old as time…

This is from the 1991 Disney film of the same name where Angela Lansbury played Mrs Potts, an enchanted teapot. In the video above the song starts at the one-minute mark, the most memorable scene in the movie, historically inaccurate dress and all.

The radio version was sung by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. It sounds dated to me now, unlike the film version. Dion was a good singer but she was so unknown at the time that they made the song into a duet and brought in Peabo Bryson.

In the 2017 live-action remake of the film Ariana Grande and John Legend sing the song.

The song was written by Broadway songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Menken has appeared in this space twice before: “Part of Your World” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “Colors of the Wind”, from “Pocahontas” (1995), another Disney film. Menken wrote “Part of Your World” with Ashman.

See also:

Lyrics:

[Mrs. Potts]
Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Unexpectedly

Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared
Beauty and the Beast

Ever just the same
Ever a surprise
Ever as before
Ever just as sure
As the sun will rise

Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bittersweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong

Certain as the sun
Rising in the east
Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

(spoken)
Off to the cupboard with you now, Chip
It’s past your bedtime. Goodnight, love

Source: Genius Lyrics.

Norah Vincent: Self-Made Man

“Self-Made Man” (2006) by Norah Vincent is a book where she tells the tale of passing as a man named Ned for 18 months. She joined a men’s bowling league, went to strip clubs, lived at a monastery for three weeks on a spiritual retreat, dated women, worked as a door-to-door salesman and, most frightening of all, joined a men’s group where they talked about their feelings – you know, stuff like wanting to chop up your wife.

Norah Vincent, a New York journalist, is a lesbian who grew up as a tomboy and became a feminist.

Passing physically was, it turned out, the easy part. She had the help of a voice coach, a make-up artist, a sports bra that was too small, weight training to build up her muscles, and glasses that made her face seem more square.

Passing psychologically mostly came down to having the right mindset. In the end it counted for more than her appearance. But it was playing with something deep in her being, and after 18 months she started cutting herself. She checked herself into a mental hospital for four days. It took two solid months to get back to her old Norah self.

Almost no one suspected she was a woman. As a lesbian she seemed like a masculine woman, but as a straight man she seemed effeminate.

Masculinity: at least the White American sort:

“Boys have the sensitivity routinely mocked and shamed and beaten out of them, and the treatment leaves scars for life.”

“You’re not allowed to be a complete human being. Instead you get to be a coached jumble of stoic poses. You get to be what’s expected of you.”

“I passed in a man’s world not because my mask was so real, but because the world of men was a masked ball.”

Homophobia: This denatured masculinity is driven in part by homophobia:

“it felt to me as if most men were genuinely afraid, almost desperately afraid sometimes of the spectral fag in their midst. It’s hard to explain it otherwise. Only fear could make them spy that much on another man’s signals, especially when so much else in masculine interaction goes unremarked”

“women […] too, wanted me to be more manly and buff, and sometimes they made their fag assumptions too, even while they were dating me.”

Guy talk: Men live in a desert of guy talk. They talk about sports instead of their feelings. But it gets worse:

“The dialogue was ugly and as a woman in the middle of it I felt soiled and frightened just hearing it. … so much worse than I thought it would be, so foreign and relentless were the obsessions with fucking and competing and hazing the weak guy.”

Feelings:

“As a guy you get about a three-note emotional range. That’s it, at least as far as the outside world is concerned. Women get octaves, chromatic scales of tears and joys and anxieties and despairs and erotic flamboyance”

She is glad to be a woman.

– Abagond, 2019.

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minstrelese

Minstrelese (fl. 1843-1950s), also known as “Negro dialect”, is that strange sort of English often used by minstrel shows, blackface characters, Uncle Remus, Amos & Andy, and Black actors in Hollywood films of the early 1900s. It was the Mock Ebonics of its day, used to make Black people seem like they had limited intelligence.

For example, James here speaks in minstrelese, Mr Cleveland in Standard English:

JAMES: Mr. Cleveland, a fellow was trying to stuff me dat when it am day here it am night in China.

MR CLEVELAND: Well, James, that is true.

JAMES: What makes it true?

MR CLEVELAND: It is caused by the earth rotating on its axis, but –

JAMES: What am an axis?

“What am an axis”? Really? Who talks like that?

I am not alone on that one:

Zora Neale Hurston in 1934:

“If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing, full of ‘ams’ and ‘Ises.’ … Nowhere can be found the Negro who asks ‘am it?’ nor yet his brother who announces ‘Ise uh gwinter'”

She remembers both the minstrel shows and how Black people talked back then.

But the truth is messier than that:

Ex-slaves in the 1930s and 1940s said stuff like this with a straight face in recorded interviews:

“The truth am, I can’t ‘member like I used to.”

“And people says now dat Aunt Harriet am de bes’ cook in Madisonville.”

“Dey brung massa in and I’s jus’ as white as he am den.”

“Him am kind to everybody.”

“Charcoal and honey and onions for de li’l baby am good.”

Notice the am’s. And the “I’s”.

So while the minstrelese use of “am” may be overdone, it was not made up out of thin air either. You see the same thing today in how Mock Ebonics overuses and misuses “be”, as in “I be yo teacha fo today”, which is not grammatical Black English.

Dumbo: Likewise, when the crow in “Dumbo” (1941) sings:

“But I be don’ seen ‘bout ev’rythang, when I see a elephant fly”

is incorrect – it should be “I’ll be don’ seen” – but clearly it was not completely made up.

Langston Hughes: Minstrelese sounded enough like the Black English of Harlem of the 1920s, Langston Hughes’s preferred medium, that one reviewer said that his book of poetry, “Fine Clothes to the Jew” (1927), was:

“a disgrace to the race, a return to the dialect tradition, and a parading of all our racial defects before the public.”

Not from Mars: For minstrelese to get any laughs it had to sound something like the Black English that White people heard, not like something from Mars. Even if it was overdone for laughs.

Like blackface: It is like the relation between blackface and Black faces: Black people do in fact, on average, have darker skin and bigger lips than White people. That part is not made up. But those differences are played up to make Black people into a laughingstock.

– Abagond, 2019.

Sources: mainly “Spoken Soul” (2000) by Rickford & Rickford; “Talking Back, Talking Black” (2017) by John McWhorter.

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