Josna Rege

332. Lost in the Supermarket

In 2010s, Britain, Food, Music, Stories, United States on May 22, 2015 at 10:20 pm
London Calling, 1979

London Calling, 1979

I save coupons from packets of tea
                                    Lost in the Supermarket (The Clash)

It was several days ago already when Migmar told me Lipton’s tea bags were on sale at Stop ’n Shop, but I hadn’t got myself there yet. This evening she said the sale was probably over by now, but I went anyway, found it still going, and picked up two boxes, at a savings of $1.30 per box. Whoop-de-doo.

At the checkout I headed for the “12 items or less” line (yes, I know it ought to be “12 items or fewer,” I’m an English teacher, but who else cares?) and got into one of those automated checkouts by mistake. Normally I avoid them like the plague on account of them putting people out of work, but it was the eve of Memorial Day Weekend and there were impossibly long lines at all the checkout counters staffed by a human bean.

As it was processing my penultimate item, the machine froze up on me. I called for help, but the help couldn’t fix it, so he called for help. She couldn’t fix it either, so she voided the whole thing and I started over, in a new line, another automated one. Why? Why? This second one worked, but the thing rang up only $0.80 savings per box for my Lipton’s Tea, ripping me off to the tune of $0.50 x 2.

Half an hour into my supermarket odyssey, and still no joy. In line again, this time at the Service counter, where hapless souls cast away their hard-earned money on raffle tickets in hopes of winning the lottery. There was a gentle young man behind the counter. I explained, he listened, he commiserated, said Yes, he too steered clear of those automated checkouts and far preferred dealing with human beans, even agreed with (or humored) me when I said that, furthermore, I didn’t want people losing jobs to machines. Though he did venture to add that it rather looked like the wave of the future.

We chatted some more—about English supermarkets and whether their even more advanced state of automation was better or worse—and then, because it was their mistake, and their policy, he gave me the first box of tea absolutely free and the second box at the proper sale price. Triumph! An hour later and about a hundred years older, I could finally bear home my two boxes of Lipton’s Tea at a whopping savings of $2.79 per box.

Here I sit, grading papers again, and I don’t care if I never see another Lipton tea bag as long as I live.

You don’t know
You don’t know my mind.
If you see me laughin’
I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’

You Don’t Know My Mind (Odetta)

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331. No Rush

In 2010s, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States on May 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm


It has been exactly five years since I joined Rise Up Singing in Harmony. In the words of Roger Conant, its founder and coordinator, RUSH is “a group which meets monthly to sing together, largely using the Rise Up Singing book but not exclusively.” That’s a pretty accurate description; in fact, RUSH is not exclusive in any way. Anyone can show up at the local library at 7 pm for the group sing, or an hour earlier with something to contribute to a potluck meal. People stay as long as they can, taking it in turns to choose a song for the group to sing, and as someone bids the group goodnight, the others pull their chairs in to close the gap in the circle. Staying longer means that one’s turn to choose a song comes around faster, but funnily enough, if one thinks of a song but doesn’t have time to request it, it is often the case that other group members will spontaneously choose that very song. Oh, and there are musical instruments. Two or three people always bring guitars, and occasionally someone comes with a fiddle or a banjo. Eventually, after two or three hours of non-stop singing, one of us—usually Roger—says that he really has to go to bed now, and after helping to pack up, we disperse into the country night with a song on our lips. And in our hearts.

For those who aren’t familiar with Rise Up Singing, it’s a compilation of lyrics and chords to 1200 beloved songs, mostly from the United States and the British Isles but with a sprinkling from around Europe and Latin America. The contents are organized into a number of categories, such as Golden Oldies, Gospel, Home & Family, Rich & Poor, Hard Times & Blues, and Hope, and also indexed by first line, genre, and composer.

Most of the songs and most of the RUSH regulars are of the 1960’s and 1970’s-era folk revival and social movements, politically conscious and left of center. Annie Patterson and Peter Blood, the two compilers of Rise Up Singing, live just down the road from the library where we meet and were deeply inspired and influenced by Pete Seeger. (They are also Quakers, as are the founders of RUSH, but don’t wear their religious affiliation on their sleeves.) As such, Peter and Annie believe in singing as a collective activity, and travel the country and, indeed, the world helping to establish and encourage group sings in which there may be a coordinator, but every participant is equal and equally welcome. Our RUSH, one of many, is based on this model.

In the five years that I’ve been going to RUSH more or less every month, it has become something I count on. Contrary to the implications of its name, it is not an adrenaline-induced experience, but brings with it a quieter pleasure, thrilling nonetheless. There’s a certain calm and predictability about it that is deeply comforting. After a while one gets to know the tastes of each of the regulars, and to love them, even if they aren’t necessarily one’s own. (When they are, it’s a double delight.) One of us always requests Danny Boy or Loch Lomond, preferably both. Another loves Home on the Range, another the bleak Four Strong Winds, yet another anything by Phil Ochs. This Land is Your Land is a regular, along with anything by Woody Guthrie. Our fearless leader likes to bring us new songs he has picked up at the People’s Music Network or the Old Songs Festival, and another regular member likes to write new lyrics for old songs; for the most part, though, we sing a whole lot of Oldies. But when we really harmonize—now that‘s a rush.

Because most of us are of a certain age, people often request songs in memory of one of their parents or songs that evoke their own children’s childhoods. Waltzing with Bears is a favorite in this latter category (with a new verse by Joy written from Uncle Walter’s wife’s perspective), and Joni Mitchell’s nostalgic number, The Circle Game. Occasionally, very occasionally, some of our children or grandchildren come along, and the group is super-welcoming and deferential to their tastes. Still, despite the demographics of our group, the next generation is carrying on the tradition. There’s one young man, Matthew Vaughan, who has made it his personal mission to record and upload to YouTube a video of himself singing every single song from Rise Up Singing. You can find his playlist here.

RACoverwtext-resize-border-web_1For me, RUSH is a kind of homecoming. Even though I think I’m the only regular member who is an immigrant, I grew up with these songs, many of which I learned from my mother or from two books of American folksongs—one that I discovered in the summer of 1962 in Greece, another compiled by Peter Seeger and Alan Lomax that my mother gave me in 1969, the Christmas before we came to the United States. Then there were the songs I learned after coming to America, through the anti-war or anti-nuclear movements, or that were simply in the air while I was in high school, university, and in my twenties. There is always a part of me that wishes that we were more open to singing in different languages or that the selection was more international. Perversely, given that we are a group of folkies (of which I count myself one), I find myself wishing for more recent and raucous numbers, for more rock, punk, and Reggae. Some of the songs, like Oklahoma, date from an America before my time, and remind me that I am a bit of an outsider to this society. But in truth I find that I know and like more than 90 percent of all the songs we sing, and by now am as much of an insider as just about anyone in the group. Peter and Annie are now taking advance orders for a sequel, Rise Again, with 1200 new songs that do update and diversify the selection in Rise Up Singing. You can order it here.

Yesterday I took a solo trip to Maine and back to visit dear friends and family, driving nearly 500 miles in all (couldn’t resist rounding up so as to link to the song). I knew that it was a RUSH Saturday and was sorry to have to miss it, especially since I had missed last month’s RUSH as well, but some things can’t be helped. Besides, a road trip always brings a rush of its own, as one not only meets up with loved ones and drives through places that spark a rush of old memories, but encounters new people along the way. I find that even the tollbooth operators are a trip, and the workers and customers at the convenience stores where I stop for a quick cup of tea-to-go.

Mass-festival-signLast night, on my way back, when the Global Positioning System on my cell phone informed me that I would reach home by 9:23 pm, it occurred to me that I might be able to get back in time for the last round of songs at RUSH. If so, I would request Gordon Bok’s Isle au Haut Lullaby, doubly fitting because I would be Maine-returned and because people often choose lullabies as the evening draws to a close. But at the gas station in Leominster where I always stop to tank up on gasoline and caffeine, I was delayed because the kind store clerk refilled the milk dispenser for me (I can’t abide half-and-half in my tea) and because the young man ahead of me in the check-out line was in distress. His knee was all swollen up (he rolled up his sweatpants to show us) and he was awaiting the results of tests that would diagnose him with either Lyme Disease or rheumatoid arthritis. As I rushed out with my tea, I realized that my estimated time of arrival would now be closer to 10 pm and that I would most probably miss RUSH altogether. (To make matters worse, I found that the small amount of half-and-half I had already put in my tea before the clerk filled the dispenser must have been artificially flavored with hazelnut, and it tasted foul.) But I was determined not to speed, not least because I had had a closer encounter with a moose on the same road less than a month earlier. Besides, I wanted to stay in the peaceful mood of my visit to Maine and honor the leisurely pace of RUSH.

As I neared the library, I saw cars leaving and my heart sank. Still, there was a handful of cars in the parking lot, so I drove up anyway. As I walked in, a little breathless, half a dozen of the organizers and diehard members were standing in a loose circle saying their goodbyes. They greeted me with surprise and when I explained that I’d just this moment driven back from Maine, they offered to sing one last song of my choice. Of course I asked for “Isle au Haut Lullaby” and before we all dispersed into the country night, they sweetly obliged. They were in no rush.

Isle au Haut Lullaby (Hay Ledge Song)
by Gordon Bok

If I could give you three things,
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining seas

When you see old Isle au Haut
Rising in the dawn,
You will play in yellow fields
In the morning sun.

Sleep where the moon is warm
And the moon is high.
Give sadness to the stars,
Sorrow to the sea.

Do you hear what the sails are saying
In the wind’s dark song?
Give sadness to the wind,
Blown alee and gone.

Sleep now, the moon is high,
And the wind blows cold;
For you are sad and young
And the sea is old.

If I could give you three things
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining sea.

© Folk-Legacy Records, Inc.

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330. Ruth Rendell: Dead-On

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, reading, Stories, writing on May 9, 2015 at 10:15 am
Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

I’m not a murder-mystery hound like my father-in-law, who has read most of the works of most of the major British practitioners of this genre, some of them several times; because, as he says, he soon conveniently forgets who dunnit and can read them all over again. But on May the second, when I heard of the prolific and highly respected mystery writer Ruth Rendell’s death at age 85, I felt a great disturbance in the Force: Inspector Wexford was no more.

I felt sad, too. Although I never took to Barbara Vine, the alias Ruth Rendell created for her twisted psychological thrillers, I have a special fondness for the domestic common-or-garden mysteries that Inspector Reg Wexford of Kingsmarkham, Sussex and his deputy, Mike Burden, have been solving every other year for the past half-century. Ruth Rendell wrote 24 Inspector Wexford novels between 1964 and 2013 (you can see a list of them here), and I’ve read just about all of them, my father-in-law passing each one on to me as he finishes it.

What draws me to these quintessentially English novels in a quintessentially English genre? Although I enjoyed Miss Marple mysteries in my youth, St. Mary Mead was too twee after a while, and Agatha Christie’s snobbery and social conservatism annoyed me. (Here’s a piece by Lakshmi Kannan on the racism in Christie’s works.) But although the market town of Kingsmarkham is a place I wouldn’t want to live in a million years, I feel very differently about it than I do about St. Mary Mead. Although the middle-aged Chief Inspector Wexford loves his roast and his pint at the Olive and Dove (or did do, before his hated health regimen), is loth to walk when he could drive, and leaves the running of the home entirely to his wife Dora, everything about him is delightful, to women as well as to men, and I’m no exception. Why? It’s because of the quality of Rendell’s writing, her politics, and her broad, humane worldview.

UnknownSpanning 50 years of British life as they do, the Wexford novels document a changing Britain with interest and without nostalgia—or without too much nostalgia, at any rate). From Doon with Death (1964), the first of the series and her debut novel, shows a dreary postwar Britain, with its genteel poverty, the insufferable arrogance of old money, the absence of central heating (except for the daring and the spendthrift), and above all, an obsession with keeping up appearances. But beneath that veneer of respectability seethe suppressed passions that frequently bubble up and over, even—perhaps especially—in the suburbs. Over the years Inspector Wexford and Mike Burden, both happily married family men, deal with youth culture, immigrants and racism, gentrification and class conflict, unemployment, sexism and feminism, homosexuality, and above all, dysfunctional families—as they affect not only Kingsmarkham, but their own personal lives. While his prudish deputy has a horror of change and social aberration, the perennially middle-aged Wexford accepts and engages with it. He remains deeply humane, open-minded and liberal throughout, and at the same time, comfortingly conservative in his personal tastes, though never politically so.

Here’s a character in From Doon with Death speaking, in an interview with Wexford, on the dreams and disillusionments of women in the 1950s and early 1960s:


‘We used to talk about . . .well, about our dreams, what we wanted to do, what we were going to make of our lives’ . . .

She whispered savagely, as if she had forgotten he was there: ‘I wanted to act! They wouldn’t let me, my father and my mother. They made me stay at home and it all went. It sort of dissolved into nothing.‘

‘I met Pete,’ she said, ‘and we got married.’ Her nose wrinkled. ‘The story of my life.’

‘You can’t have everything,’ Wexford said.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I wasn’t the only one. . .’ (109, Black Dagger Crime ed., 1978)

From that very first novel Rendell was both of her time and considerably ahead of it in her choice of subject matter and her approach to it. To say more would be a spoiler, but read it yourself: she doesn’t disappoint. The earliest reviews noted that she was someone to watch but otherwise dismissed her as just another female mystery writer. They soon had to sit up and take notice.

Ruth Rendel 28 July 1986

The novels are literary without being pretentious and without departing from the straightforward conventions of the police procedural. Loved and admired by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeanette Winterson, Ruth Rendell never went to university, but she was tremendously well read, as was her creation, Reg Wexford. The epigraph of every chapter of From Doon with Death is an quote from a 19th-century poet, including, among others, the usual (male) suspects like Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson, and the free-spirited Walt Whitman, the Orientalist Sir Edwin Arnold (author of The Light of Asia and The Song Celestial, a poetic rendering of the Bhagavad-gita), Mary Coleridge (the great grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), the romantic and unconventional Christina Rossetti, the feminist Caroline Norton, and Coventry Patmore, most famously the author of The Angel in the House, the ideal Woman of the Victorian era.

But mere name-dropping doesn’t begin to capture the way Rendell uses her frequent literary quotations and allusions. She weaves them cleverly into the plot so that they lead right into the heart of the mystery. To take just one example in From Doon with Death, a suspect’s characterization of young love as “rather like ‘the expense of spirit in a waste of shame’” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 129). Though the source is not identified in the novel, Wexford recognizes it, and registers a dissonant note, because the sonnet is not speaking of love, but of lust. Why has the suspect, who, we learn, earned distinction in this subject in her Higher School Certificate exams (we still called them HSC in 1960’s India), willfully chosen to misinterpret it?

9780099588542To the last, Ruth Rendell was engaged with a changing Britain. She was a liberal campaigner in the House of Lords (while her fellow mystery-writer, P. D. James, was a political conservative). She was always a spokesperson for the outsider, whether that outsider was a woman, an immigrant, or a member of the increasingly displaced poor and middle classes in a free-market Britain where the benign Welfare State was being dismantled. Even in her very first novel, this perspective comes through loud and clear. When Chief Inspector Wexford goes to interview a couple in which the husband has married into Old Money, he is treated like a tradesman who ought to have come to the back door. In the course of the interview, the wife speaks dismissively of someone she went to school with as,

‘a typist or a clerk or something.’

Just another of the hoi-polloi, Wexford thought, the despised majority, the bottom seventy-five per cent.

The only updating this thought would require today is that the number seventy-five would have to be increased to ninety-nine.

Rest In Peace, Ruth Rendell. You were always dead-on.

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