Josna Rege

Archive for 2022|Yearly archive page

516. Stamped by the Empire

In Britain, Childhood, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, postcolonial, Stories on September 20, 2022 at 2:24 am

As a child, first in Greece and then in India, I maintained a stamp collection. I ought to add that I maintained it only after a fashion, since I have never been a particularly well-organized or patient person, so I frequently cut corners on the finer details of systematization, such as putting stamps from different countries on different pages. From 1960 to 1963 I had a steady supply of them thanks to my father’s international set of colleagues at Doxiadis Associates in Athens and our other expatriate friends from all around the world. After we returned to India in 1964 my parents bought me a new album and I continued to build my collection for a few years, waiting almost as avidly for letters from overseas as my mother did for news from her family in England. My zeal waned as I entered my teens and eventually petered out altogether in the 1970s, after we had been in the United States for a couple of years. I still kept the collection, carrying it around with me wherever we moved, but mislaid it for a decade or two and almost gave it up for lost until just recently, when it resurfaced in a box of old papers. Looking at it today, when the body of Queen Elizabeth II has just been laid to rest, I realize what a time capsule it is, since many of the countries represented in it were still colonized by Britain or other European countries or had only recently won their independence. It also reminds me how recently large swaths of the world were under British colonial rule, and brings home to me yet again the historical significance of this moment.

It is indeed the end of an era, as the pundits have been proclaiming ever since the Queen passed away just ten days ago. For her reign coincided with decolonization and she identified herself with that process through her particular interest in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations, over which she presided as the British Head of State. (“British” was removed from its name in the aftermath of India’s independence in 1949, as a gesture toward the idea of free and equal membership.) Those 15 member-states who, as Commonwealth realms, still recognize the British monarch as their head of state will have to replace Queen Elizabeth’s silhouette on their stamps with that of King Charles III, who is already the head of the Commonwealth following a 2018 vote to that effect. Additionally, there are five member-states ruled by other monarchs and 36 more that are republics for whom King Charles’ leadership, like that of his late mother, is merely symbolic. Going forward, it seems likely that other Commonwealth realms will follow the example of Barbados, which became a republic in November, 2021, thereby removing the Queen as their head of state.

Unsurprisingly, the death of the Queen has become an occasion for debate over the function and future of the Commonwealth, and as a scholar of postcolonial literature  I have plenty of opinions on this issue. Though billed as a voluntary association of free and equal nations, the Commonwealth has always been led by Britain. As its direct political control of country after country was lost, the Commonwealth became an instrument of soft power for Britain, uniting former colonies under its cultural mantle to uphold shared humane and democratic principles. English itself has been an important element of that benign leadership, much as, back in the 19th century,  English language and literature were employed in the colonies as Masks of Conquest (discussed brilliantly in Gauri Viswanathan’s 1989 book of the same name). But I will defer further postcolonial critique for the time being, in favor of a selection from my stamp collection of the early 1960s, to commemorate the end of the second Elizabethan era and also to remind us that the colonial era and everything associated with it is still very much in living memory, and in many cases still very raw.

The island of Mauritius, colonized by France in 1715, was taken over by Britain in 1810 and became a plantation-based Crown Colony. Unlike the dodo, which went extinct in 1690, its colonial past ended only recently, in 1968, when independent Mauritius joined the Commonwealth as a republic. 

New Zealand is a Commonwealth realm and a founding member of the Commonwealth. It became a British colony in 1840, gained Dominion status like many of the predominantly white settler colonies in 1907, and remains a constitutional monarchy to this day.

The British took over Hong Kong in 1842 after the first Opium War and gained further ground in 1860, after the second. In 1898 Britain signed a 99-year lease with China for control of the highly lucrative port and surrounding islands, a term that ended in 1997 as Britain relinquished its last economically significant colony. You might be interested in watching these two short videos in which writer Amitav Ghosh talks about about the Opium Wars, waged to force so-called “free trade” on China, and offers some historical background to his gripping Ibis Trilogy.

Australia, a British penal colony that became a federation of British settler colonies, gained independence in 1901 and, further, in the Australia Act of 1986, “formally severed all legal ties with the United Kingdom except for the monarchy”. In 1999 a republic referendum was defeated, maintaining Australia as a Commonwealth realm, at least for the time being.

This page, labelled “Africa,” is not a shining example of my grasp of geography, since the four triangular stamps glued firmly into the bottom row are from Croatia. Furthermore, there is no system of organization of stamps from the various African countries, several of which were not colonized by Britain, and, in the case of Ethiopia, not colonized at all. I see stamps from Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a short-lived British colonial federation of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Nyasaland (now Malawi).  Zambia and Nyasaland joined the British Commonwealth in 1964. Southern Rhodesia had a rocky road. Originally controlled by the Matabele tribe under Chief Lobengula, it was fought over by the Boers and the British, especially with the discovery of gold in the 1880s, and named Southern Rhodesia after the British imperial adventurer Cecil Rhodes. By 1899 it was governed by the British South Africa Company and was to be incorporated into the Republic of South Africa, but the white settlers of Rhodesia rejected that move and broke off from Britain in 1923. In 1965, Ian Smith’s white racist government issued its Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI), but was not recognized by the Commonwealth. Amidst international disapproval, black Rhodesians organized to fight for independence and won majority rule in 1980 with the formation of Zimbabwe. The country was a Commonwealth member until 2002, when it was first suspended and, a year later, withdrew. A 2018 application to rejoin is currently under review. 

Other former British colonies on my Africa page are Nigeria (independent since October 1, 1960), Uganda (independent since October 9, 1962), and Kenya (independent since December 12, 1963). All three are still members of the Commonwealth, despite the widespread detentions, torture, and killings perpetrated by Britain in Kenya from 1952-1960 during the state of emergency imposed to crush the Mau Mau rebellion. However, in 2013 a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 survivors managed to wrest some monetary compensation and an expression of regret from the British government.

South Africa also had a long and bloody struggle for independence from colonial rule, starting with Dutch (Boer) settlers and British colonizers fighting each other for control, the Afrikaner government gaining first independence from the Britain and establishing a white-ruled apartheid state violently segregated by race, and then in 1994, a long and hard popular struggle winning independence for the new Republic of South Africa in a free, democratic election participated in by all its citizens. South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 after its membership was opposed by several member states due to its policy of apartheid and rejoined by invitation in 1994, after apartheid had been dismantled.

While most of my stamps feature the image of Queen Elizabeth II, I have a handful from the reign of King George VI and even one from that of King George V. Here’s my messy half-page from Canada, which was officially declared a Dominion in 1926 and remains one of the Commonwealth realms. I’m not sure, but I think that the image on the second row, second from left, is George V. The three to its right feature George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father.

George VI also appears on my only stamp from Aden, which became a British Protectorate in 1839 and was a Crown Colony from 1937-1963. South Yemen was under British rule until 1967, when the British finally withdrew after a bloody struggle. Aden was the only Arab territory to have been a British colony. I remember docking there as a child when traveling by ship to and from India. It was the location of the port on this important shipping route that gave it such strategic importance for Britain.

My last stamp featuring King George VI is a rare one from the Indian princely state of Gwalior during the British colonial period. Since India was a republic, the 16 princely states were abolished in 1947, with the holdouts removed  by the Indian army. (But the erstwhile rajas and ranis were provided with princely pensions that put quite a strain on the newly independent nation.)

By now you will have recognized the outsize power and presence of the British Empire as recently as the 1960s. I will leave you with stamps from four countries that are dear to my heart, all of which are members of the Commonwealth but only one of which features a British monarch’s image: India, Ghana, Jamaica, and Britain itself.

India (an independent dominion since August 15th, 1947 and a republic since January 26, 1950):

Ghana (independent since March 6th, 1957):

Jamaica (independent since August 6th, 1962 and one of the 15 Commonwealth realms):

The United Kingdom (itself a Commonwealth realm and not yet free of its colonial complex):



In closing, here is Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of Independent India (from 1947 until his death in 1964), and founder of the non-aligned nations which refused to be stamped by either superpower in the Cold War.

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136. The Shame of Self-Censorship

In Stories on August 15, 2022 at 9:07 pm

In this piece I remember the Spring of 1989, when Salman Rushdie was targeted for his novel, The Satanic Verses, and reflecting on the complicity of self-censorship in a climate of intolerance. It’s all the more relevant today as Rushdie lies in a hospital bed recovering from a violent attack at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State. He had been about to engage in a conversation about home–“when it is asylum, when people are seeking a place where they can find safety and, in this case, safety to pursue their voice in an environment that supports free speech” Chautauqua’s Emily Morris on NPR).

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from Annie Mole’s london-underground.blogspot.com

On my periodic visits to England, I’m always impressed by the highbrow stuff Londoners read on the Underground—besides the ubiquitous newspapers, more often than not open at the crosswords, they can regularly be seen deeply absorbed in literary classics, fiction by Nobel Prize-winning writers from around the world, and dense works of politics and philosophy. I enjoy looking over people’s shoulders to see what they’re reading—surreptitiously, since the British seem to find it intrusive. If they’re reading a newspaper and sense that someone is reading over their shoulder they will bury their faces in the centerfold and draw the pages tightly on either side, like curtains.

Visiting England on the way home from a trip to India in the summer of 1998, I was intrigued to see adults on the Tube hunched over hefty hardcovers in discreet brown-paper wrappers similar to those we used to cover…

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128. The Kurta Joke

In Stories on July 31, 2022 at 9:43 am

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At family gatherings, after a big meal, we would all cluster round my dad and beg him to tell us the kurta joke. If he was feeling expansive he would comply, although as the years went by he would wonder aloud whether he still remembered it, heightening our suspense with periodic hesitations as he meandered toward the punchline. Dad isn’t generally given to telling jokes, but this one—more of a story than a joke, really—somehow became his party piece.

And so he would begin:

“Common Man,” R. K. Laxman

“The headman, or sarpanch, of a certain village was setting out to a meeting of the heads of  a group of neighboring villages. He had only just started on his way—on foot, of course—when the village simpleton called out from behind asking him to wait. When he caught up, the simpleton asked where he was going and whether he…

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515. Old Papers

In Aging, Books, Britain, Family, reading, Stories, Teaching, writing on July 28, 2022 at 3:50 am

I spent most of the day going through old papers in my office, filling two massive recycling bins. It wasn’t physically taxing, but I’m emotionally exhausted tonight. I didn’t rack up many steps on my phone’s Health app, but covered a tremendous amount of ground nonetheless. The contents of folder after folder from courses all the way back to the 1990s went into the bins, half of them notes and handouts, the other half student essays and reading responses. I could have simply tossed them in lock, stock, and barrel, but knew it was necessary to look at everything, just in case; so glad that I did.

There were final papers that I had graded but never returned, and that the authors never stopped by to pick up the following semester, or that they had asked me for but for some reason or another I had failed to deliver. Every one of them gave me a little pang as I binned it (as they say in the U.K. nowadays), but I set my teeth and pressed on. I did save a handful of them, though, by outstanding students I will never forget and with whom I might possibly re-connect in the future. Or so I told myself.

I have always been bewildered by students’ lack of interest in getting their papers back as long as they are satisfied with their final grades. Of course, unlike in my day, they have the papers on their computers, but I was ever-eager to read my professors’ comments. Although it’s embarrassing to admit this, I have actually kept most of my own essays, going all the way back to my undergraduate days in the early 1970s. (There, I’ve said it; and no, I don’t think it means that I have a hoarding disorder, although it may mean that I care inordinately about what people think of my writing.) Today I hit the jackpot. In amongst the teaching notes for a course on British literature from World War II to the present, I found the original, the only copy, of my personal favorite among all my undergraduate essays.

The essay was on Pincher Martin (1956), a novel by the late William Golding, Nobel laureate and most remembered for his first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954). I’ve always loved the former as much as I’ve disliked the latter. Golding’s pretty pessimistic opinion of most human beings, especially nasty little boys, is evident in both of them. But even as it demonstrates in excruciating detail how determined we seem to be to make ourselves and each other miserable, Pincher Martin‘s deep compassion overrides the nastiness.

I was bowled over by Pincher Martin back in 1974 when I read it for the first time, so much so that in writing about it I did something I had never done before: actually revised my first draft. Until then I had written all my essays at the eleventh hour and then run to class, proofreading as I went. Most of my professors’ comments went something to the effect of, “Quite interesting overall, albeit seemingly written in some haste. A fascinating idea was emerging toward the end; if only you had developed it further.” But I wanted desperately to communicate what I understood about this book. So I worked, re-worked, and finally typed it up painstakingly—on corrasable paper, of course, given the amount of erasing that always had to be done—on the trusty Smith-Corona electric typewriter that my parents had presented me as I went off to university.

My junior year tutor—a hard-working graduate student who conscientiously slogged through everything I wanted to read, even when he didn’t care much for it himself—rewarded me with more than a page and a half of dense hand-written feedback (addressed, I now notice, to “Miss Rege”). My favorite sentence from his comments: “Your style is in large part lucid and ingratiating, avoiding skillfully the twin snares of pomposity and colloquialism.” I was proud of it, and still am, 48 years later.

Also among all those papers I found a number of email messages that I had printed out from students, friends, and family members. I saved a little pile of them as well. One was from my Uncle Ted, written back in February, 2001. He was replying to a letter in which I had listed the novels I was teaching in my contemporary British literature class, among them Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Of Lucky Jim, he commented on the early post-war atmosphere in which young men like him, recently demobilized, read it. “We all wanted to be Jim,” he wrote, “and put our fingers up to petty authority all over the shop while still being the life and soul.” That was how dear Uncle Ted wrote: I miss him so much.

He remembered Doris Lessing in connection with the campaign against the colour bar in Southern Africa and recalled wryly, “All of our crowd felt that we were more upset about apartheid than anyone else. . .Think she wrote regularly when she first got here for the left-wing Statesman journal. Had a terrific back half for literary and drama critics. First half all self-opinionated political writing, Used to say best writers worst opinions.”

But Uncle Ted’s comment on White Teeth made me laugh out loud. “White Teeth you’ll enjoy. Found it hard to credit that a girl so young could have grasped so much. Hope you don’t mind the swearing.”

Next week I will order two more outsize bins and dive into the old papers again. Wonder what I will find this time?  

 

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514. Moominsummer Madness

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, reading, Stories on July 20, 2022 at 2:49 am

Moominmamma: Where are we? 

I have just re-read a book that was one of my favorites as a girl, Moominsummer Madness, first published in English in 1955 by Ernest Benn. It was every bit as quirky, delightful, and gently disturbing as it was to me then. Moominsummer Madness has everything in it that one could possibly want: portents, climate catastrophe, high drama, a righteous crime, and joyful homecomings. Tove Jansson (1914-2001), creator of the Moomins, wrote and illustrated the book. I have introduced her and her world in Finn Family Moomintroll, but this novel demands dedicated attention, starting as it does in the summer with a flood that crashes into Moomin Valley and forces the whole family to leave their home. Fortunately they are able to board a strange-looking house that has been swept away by the flood wave, a house that appears at first to be empty; but nothing is what it seems.

   First encounter of the refugees with the reclusive inhabitant

The whole cast of characters is here, and more: Moominmamma and Moominpappa, their son Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden, the Mymble’s daughter and Little My, Misabel and Whomper, and Moomintroll’s beloved friend Snufkin, who can never be tied down. Along the way we also encounter Hemulens and Fillyjonks, Hattifatteners and woodies. The dreaded Groke is invoked, but fortunately does not actually show up.

      Moonmintroll before the flood, feeling a vague disquiet

I will not spoil the story by recounting it here, but instead will show you just a little of what it has to offer through Jansson’s illustrations. My old hardcover copy is the original 1955 edition, bought in the student bookstore on the Hijli campus of I.I.T. Kharagpur in perhaps 1964 or 1965, when I was nine or ten. It is a darker story than Finn Family Moomintroll, but perhaps more suited to our times, since it shows us a family that can weather a crisis and still maintain loving bonds and a spirit of adventure.

             The flood wave crashes through Moomin Valley

                    Moonmintroll rescues some essentials

Hemulen and Hattifatteners

There are characters who know not why they are so sad, characters who are bitter and distrustful. Some are more thoughtful than others, some gleefully wicked, others bumbling and hidebound, still others timid and fearful. All of them have a place in the Moomin family even when the world is turned upside down. Their example is all the more important today, when disaster and displacement seem to be making people close ranks against those they perceive as outsiders.

The Snork Maiden and the Fillyjonk

Snufkin and the woodies

 

 

 

 

 

 

                      Heading home at last, with no regrets

                                                 Reunion

Adults who like this book will also want to read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, set on an island in the Gulf of Finland where she herself lived for many years, and centering on a relationship between a very old woman and her six-year-old granddaughter. I read it for the first time while sheltering at home during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to inhabit the island myself for days afterwards.

I am certain that the world of the Moomins helped to shape my own worldview. Tove Jansson’s depictions are never sentimental. She presents us with idiosyncratic characters who are not always endearing and sometimes pokes gentle fun at them, but is always kind. Returning to Moominsummer Madness after nearly 60 years, I do not find it at all dated and think that readers young and old will still be enchanted by it.

                                 Little My, always in the moment

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37. Grandpa Victor and the Story of the Tomatoes

In Stories on July 15, 2022 at 5:27 pm

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Black Krim tomatoes from the Ukraine © Dana Velden (thekitchn.com)

As soon as Andrew’s Grandpa Victor arrived on one of his visits, he would start repairing everything in the house that needed attention: a wobbly chair leg, a loose doorknob, a shaky newel post at the bottom of the stairs. He would enlist Andrew as his assistant and get right down to work. Andrew, with his infinite patience, was the perfect helper, passing him the tools that he needed, lifting things that were too heavy for him, allowing him to work in his own slow and methodical manner. I particularly loved Grandpa Victor’s visits because I never had the opportunity to get to know either of my own grandfathers, and he told us so many stories from his long and eventful life.

In 1905, as a boy of nine, Grandpa Victor had immigrated to New York with his family from…

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115. An Immigrant’s Reflections on Independence Day

In Stories on July 4, 2022 at 12:14 pm

Sharing these reflections from eleven years ago. Happy Anniversary, Mum and Dad!

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Since I immigrated to the United States with my family back in 1970, forty Fourths of July have come and gone, and the forty-first is almost upon us, with its attendant parades, barbecues, watermelons, and fireworks. We are making the usual preparations for a family get-together, and as I think back on other Fourths I wonder if I will ever be able to muster up the requisite emotions. Now that I am finally a U.S. citizen—and it was 39 years before I took the leap—perhaps feelings of patriotism will arise spontaneously, but I will have to keep you posted on that.

As someone who was already almost an adult by the time I arrived in this country, I had already celebrated national independence many times—Indian Independence. India finally won its freedom from British colonial rule on August 15th, 1947, and so the anniversary had been marked only six…

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513. Blank Slate

In Aging, Education, Media, reflections, Stories, writing on July 3, 2022 at 10:50 pm

I suppose I had thought that a person accumulated her experiences over the years and then, when retirement afforded her the leisure to go through her diaries, miscellaneous writings, and correspondence, she would have all that she needed to write her memoirs. I, that is, not she. All those boxes of papers I haven’t organized going back to the year dot, they could all wait until I had the time to go through them. Once I had the time, I had supposed, the floodgates of memory would simply open, and all the flotsam and jetsam of life would more-or-less fall into place. I realize now that I was counting on it. But as it turns out, events are conspiring to present a wholly different picture. 

For one thing, my mind seems to have gone completely blank. After all, over twelve-plus years Tell Me Another has accumulated more than 500 stories in its archives. That’s more than seven stories for every year of my life. What more can there be possibly left to tell? The more I wrack my brains, the more I come up empty. Perhaps there are no more ‘nothers. Likelihood is that I’ve wrung myself dry. 

It’s not only my own memory banks that are failing to deliver, but also those of my trusty MacBook Pro, which has secreted in its ill-organized layers of files and folders my entire life since I first started using a computer—since graduate school in the late 1980s. After years of service, it seems to have chosen this moment of my impending retirement to completely die on me—locking all my data away with it. Even the man at the so-called Genius Bar at the Apple Store had nothing to offer me except for the business card of a data retrieval service that he assured me would withhold charges if it was unable to recover my materials. I was not reassured.

Coming at this time of transition in my life, this massive loss would be daunting enough, but there is more. For along with the data in the documents and photo library on my laptop, all the emails in my personal email account dating back to the mid-1990s—thousands of them–have disappeared as well, trapped in the dead computer and failing to transfer onto any other device. The loss of my emails is perhaps the biggest blow of all, since it means that decades of correspondence with my closest friends are simply gone. 

As a result, standing on the brink of retirement, looking into the abyss, I find myself a blank slate. It’s all over, and I have nothing to show for it. It strikes me that I might have been feeling this way even if I had not lost my data and emails; but now what was the expected angst accompanying a rite of passage has become literal. Everything I have is gone, and I cannot retrieve it. (Before you offer me technical advice on how to recover the emails and (rightly) admonish me for not having properly backed up my data—I do need that advice, but what I’m facing here is something different, something existential.)

I suppose the question now is, when you take away my words, the written proof that I was here, and there, and everywhere, that I wrote, and said, and did, thus and so, what else is left? Who am I and what does my life mean? Without the documentation, the details, what has my life been worth? And then there’s the terror—what if I wake up one morning and the memories themselves are gone, irretrievable? Without my words, will I still be me? 

Many people didn’t think so when my mother began losing her words. Without them, many of her highly verbal friends didn’t know if there was anyone left to engage with. As old friends began to look through her and to talk about her, even in her presence, Mum would cry out, “I’m here!” Here was the infuriating invisibility of the ageing woman raised to a factor of ten. It took me some time to realize that my mother was still very much with me and always would be. She might have lost her cognitive powers, but she never lost her emotional intelligence, or the way she carried herself in the world, or her love. She never lost herself. 

What would happen if I sat with and worked through the panic? If I imagined that the data are indeed irrecoverable? Accepted that I can’t provide hard evidence to support the facts of my existence; can’t call to mind any new stories to justify my existence by re-narrating it. What then? What if I faced the terror of being nothing but a blank slate, stepping forward with nothing but myself, no footnotes, no documentation? After all, I can’t take it all with me, can I? Am I really going to be spending the rest of my days sorting through the detritus of my working life? Or am I going to step forward into a new stage of my life unencumbered? 

As an immigrant, I suppose I’ve been a bit of a hoarder. My brave and peripatetic parents would give everything away each time they moved and start over. In contrast, I have saved every shred of evidence of my former lives, terrified of losing anything lest I lose an irreplaceable part of myself. What if I simply let it all go and decided to travel light for the first time in my adult life? 

Of course I still hope to recover my data and my old emails. But if I cannot do so, I might actually be liberated. Like a child who finds that they do not need their special blanket in order to get to sleep; like Ernie who finds that when he can put down the ducky he can finally get creative. It’s not something I must drag around with me for all eternity like Marley’s chain in A Christmas Carol. What I have really drawn from my experiences has become part of me, part of who I am. And whether or not I lose my cognitive powers, which I suppose we all must do sooner or later, I will never be a blank slate.

What am I afraid of? 

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512. My Champion

In clothing, culture, Family, Immigration, Music, parenting, places, Stories, United States, women & gender on June 5, 2022 at 12:44 pm

I.

During our sojourn in England in the late 1960s, many of the girls in my school would hike up their mini-skirts still further by folding over the waistbands as soon as they left home in the mornings. Of course, once they got to school they would have to fold them back down again because there were rules governing how many inches above the knee your skirt could be (see Exposing Whose Perversity?). But when we immigrated to the United States in 1970, we found that what was acceptable in Boston was very different from the prevailing London fashions. Mum had to take down the hems of several of my skirts and dresses before I could wear them to Brookline High, despite the fact that in every other respect it was more permissive than any school I had ever attended. We were struck by American prudishness, not only in fashions but also in the media, where nudity and swearing were routinely censored, even as violence seemed to be entirely permissible, even early in the evening, when children were still awake. In Britain it was just the opposite: sex on television was perfectly acceptable, while violence was a no-no. But over time I have come to appreciate more and more my mother’s open-mindedness.

As a teenager, I thought of Mum as prudish. I suppose it was a necessary stage I had to go through, of defining myself in opposition to her. As I grew older, I realized more and more how forward-thinking she was. That’s probably why most of her female friends in the States were so much younger than she was; the women her age were stuffy by comparison. In the early 1970s, as I was discovering youth culture in the U.S., I must have felt the need to shock the older generation, and my parents were the closest old fogeys at hand. But although Mum played the role that she had been socially assigned, and set ethical standards for me, I think she disapproved of American morality, which she considered backward and hypocritical. She generally presented herself as stereotypically British, prim and proper, and a stickler for good manners and “correct” diction and pronunciation. But in fact she was a rebel who had broken with tradition time and again and who stood up courageously for what she considered to be right action even when she was standing alone. There was one time in particular that I remember Mum springing into action publicly in my defense, just a few months after we had arrived in the States.

It was our first summer in America and I had just turned sixteen. Perhaps for my birthday, Mum had made me an outfit of her own design: a tiny gathered skirt, so short that it was more like a tutu, with a matching short-sleeved crop-top like a sari-blouse. The cloth was a cotton print from a little fabric shop in Coolidge Corner that carried a line of beautiful African batik prints. The day I wore my new outfit in public for the first time, Mum and I were riding a trolley on the Green Line, that runs from downtown Boston out to the Western suburbs. Out of the corner of my eyes and ears I became aware of two old ladies commenting disapprovingly on my appearance, quite loudly enough for me and the entire trolley car to hear, casting aspersions on “girls these days” but also on my own morality. I don’t remember how I felt when I heard them, but Mum certainly knew how she felt, and she made it abundantly clear to them.

Raising her voice and speaking clearly and directly to the two old gossips in her Queen’s English, she told them that there was nothing wrong with a young woman wearing pretty clothes. It was not my morality that was in question, but theirs. Her exact words escape me, but she made it abundantly clear that it was their own minds that were smutty; her daughter was entirely innocent.

Wow. That silenced them. Without a word to each other about what had just transpired, Mum and I continued on our morning’s errands. But thinking back on this episode more than half a century later, I marvel at her courage to speak out as fiercely as she had done in public and how unquestioningly she had stood up for me. My champion!   

II.

Lest you think that mini-skirts were the only things in fashion in 1970, long, flowing skirts were equally in vogue. There is another story about Mum and me and the African cotton prints at that fabric store in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. It must have been our first Christmas in the U.S., when I was wracking my brains for a present for Mum that I hit upon the idea of making her a skirt out of the material she liked so much. The only problem was that I was useless at sewing; the only time I had ever been the recipient of corporal punishment in school was in needlework class. Still, I got down to work and eventually produced something approximating what I had had in mind, wrapped it up, and waited impatiently for Christmas Day.

Now Mum was Father Christmas in our household. She loved Christmas more than any other holiday and started preparing for it months in advance, tiptoeing into the house with mysterious-looking parcels that she would bundle into her and Dad’s bedroom and hide away in a secret stash. On Christmas Day there were always more presents for my sister Sally and me than for anyone else, and certainly many more for us than there ever were for her, so Sally and I had to start opening first, otherwise Mum and Dad would have nothing to open later in the day. I had already opened a couple of presents—can’t remember what, though I’m pretty sure that my presents that year included George Harrison’s single, My Sweet Lord, and The Who’s album, Tommy—when I spotted an interesting-looking package from “Santa”; certainly not a record, but almost certainly an article of clothing, what we called a “softie” in our family. Until quite recently softies had been boring presents for us, but now they were getting more and desirable, even for Sally, who had hated them when she was younger. Anyway, I opened mine with great anticipation, and did a double-take, thinking at first that I had somehow mislabeled one of my own presents.

It was a full-length, African-cotton skirt, of identical design to the one I had made for Mum.

My champion, my role model, my twin!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

202. Tennessee Stud

In Stories on May 29, 2022 at 10:43 am

Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson passed away ten years ago, on May 29, 2012. Sharing this appreciation from the TMA archives.

Tell Me Another

docandmerle

For years my love of country music was a bit of a guilty secret in a group of friends who listened mostly to rock-n-roll, punk, blues, and reggae. I remember once in my twenties, while I was playing Hank Williams in our group house in Somerville, my housemate Charlie going up into his room and playing his saxophone at full blast to register his displeasure. I listened to real country, country blues, folk, and bluegrass. Besides Hank Williams (whom I had loved ever since 1970, when I had heard a nameless musician sing Jambalaya at the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square), my favorites were Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs; and my all-time favorite, Doc Watson.

In December 1970, when I was sixteen and had been in the States for less than a year, Andrew took me to the Boston Tea Party on Lansdowne Street near…

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