Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my British peers who had never left the country.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

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492. Notting Hill Bedsitter, 1950s

In Britain, Family, history, Immigration, Music, Stories, Words & phrases on February 13, 2021 at 10:30 pm

Notting Hill Gate, 1956 (Dave Walker, The Library Time Machine)

One day in the last year or so of his life, Dad told me about digs he’d shared in Notting Hill while he was living in London. I was surprised, because although Notting Hill, a district of West London, was known for its bedsitters, I hadn’t realized until then that Dad had ever lived there. This would have been before the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and well before the start of the Notting Hill Carnivalsound stages, masquerades, revelry—held on the streets defiantly, joyfully, triumphantly, every year since 1966, on August bank holiday weekend.

Notting Hill Carnival: Our History (nhcarnival.org/nhcs)

I knew that the district had been home to many West Indian immigrants after the War, but was not aware that Irish, Asian Indians, and Africans new to England had also found lodgings there. As for my father, I had thought that when he was in England as a young man he had always lived in North London, in and around Belsize Park, near Hampstead, the favorite haunt of my mother and her siblings, and Kentish Town, where Mum was born and lived until she and Dad got married.   

Anyway, Dad’s Notting Hill flatmate was a nice enough fellow, but not someone Dad knew well, not a personal friend and neither a fellow-architect nor a fellow-Indian. He was, however, a heavy drinker. Apparently, no sooner had he finished off one bottle of booze than he would open another, and the empties were all stacked along the walls of the bachelor pad.

One day, Dad invited a friend from work over. As soon as his workmate stepped into the flat, his eyes fell on the enormous pile of empty liquor bottles. He couldn’t help but burst out, in utter astonishment,

“Cor blimey, stone the crows!”

Since Mum was a Londoner, of course I knew the origin of cor blimey, but I had to look up stone the crows. I’m sorry for the eponymous crows, but I think he was just terribly surprised. Sixty years later, and Dad had never forgotten his words. 

I should have asked Dad more about his life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. He was making history, a history which I now study with a more than scholarly passion.

                                     Stone the Crows (phrases.org.uk)

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485. Our Old Kitchen Knife

In 1970s, Britain, Family, Stories, Words & phrases on September 27, 2020 at 5:22 am

Just about every day for the past 49 years Andrew and I have been using a sharp, sturdy German steel kitchen knife that Andrew bought in London in 1971 on my first return trip after our family had immigrated to the U.S., and our first trip to England together. It’s also possible that he acquired it on our second trip, in 1973, when I spent my junior year of college in London and Andrew joined me there for the first term; even so, that would make it 47 years old. It’s no oil painting—the handle is getting worn and the blade has seen better days—but it still performs yeoman service. The oldest of all our knives, it’s my favorite by far.

                                    Foyles in the early 70s (Debbie Reid)

Back in the 1970s Tottenham Court Road between the Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road tube stations was full of shops that sold radio, hi-fi, camera and other electronic equipment and components, army surplus, furniture, and commercial supplies of every imaginable kind. This video, shot in the late seventies, gives you a good idea of what it was like. Further on, going down toward Leicester Square, it turns into Charing Cross Road, which was lined with bookshops of every kind, small specialist and second-hand ones as well as Foyles, a veritable department store for books. The one end was heaven to Andrew, the other heaven to me. (So many small independent bookshops have closed since then, it’s heartbreaking. Foyles is still there, in name at least, although it moved from its original flagship building to premises next-door in 2014 and was bought by Waterstones in 2018.)

Berkeley cinema building, Tottenham Court Road. Note the radio and camera shops. The UFO club where Pink Floyd played was in the basement in the 1960s for a while. (Fitzrovian News)

It was in one of those shops on Tottenham Court Road that Andrew bought two large steel knives. One of them was a regular household kitchen knife, while the other was an outsize implement, something that a master chef or even a butcher might wield and certainly too large for me to handle comfortably. We had the bigger one for years, but it remained pristine because we hardly ever had occasion to use it. Then at some point quite recently we lost track of it altogether, but we didn’t fret about it. It was the smaller one that was our mainstay.

You must understand that this purchase was a rare one for Andrew. He doesn’t like to spend money unnecessarily, but he does know a good thing when he sees it. Something about the quality of these knives must have impressed him, because he made the investment and carried them home with great satisfaction. I wouldn’t have dreamt of asking how much he paid for them.

Another thing you need to understand, especially if you have done all your flying since September 11th, 2001, is what air travel was like back in the 1970s, before the days of hijackings and suicide attacks. Heading back to the U.S. with our suitcases packed to the gills, me with my books, vintage clothing from Petticoat Lane, English sweets, Marmite, and Sainsbury’s best  sausages (for Mum from Auntie Bette), Andrew with Colman’s mustard and his precious kitchen knives, the train to Heathrow Airport was late and by the time we arrived we had missed the last boarding call. I remember literally running through check-in and the security station, holding out our boarding passes and passports as we raced by and explaining, between gasps for air. that we were in danger of missing our flight. No one stopped us, they just waved us through. And at least one of those seriously sharp German steel kitchen knives was in our carry-on luggage.

I’m not a knife expert or aficionado, but I believe our old knife is made of carbon steel, because its sharp blade holds its edge and rusts if it’s not cleaned and dried immediately after use. I checked once when the logo stamped into the metal was already worn but not as worn as it is now, and think that it was made by J.A. Henckels, a company founded in 1731 and still in business, based in Solingen, Germany.

One can just see a faint impression of the brand.

Some 35 years ago when we were living on the farm in Winchendon, Maureen’s dear mother Eleanor was visiting and, as was her hard-working nature, giving our kitchen a vigorous and much-needed cleaning and then moving out into the yard. While using the knife to pry up dandelions from our lawn, she accidentally snapped off the end of it. However, Andrew filed it smooth and I’ve forgotten what it looked like before, because now it looks like a small cleaver and has gained an even better balance.

Cleave is one of those words that can mean itself and its opposite (also known as an autoantonym— see TMA #183). It means to split or to cut apart (as with a cleaver, a large hatchet-like knife) and it also means to stick together, as when two people cleave to each other in marriage. Cleaving something with the grain, as one does to a log, can split it just right so that it falls cleanly in two. Cleaving to a dear one means sticking to that person through thick and thin. Somehow our old kitchen knife welds both meanings into one.

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475. XR — Extinction Rebellion US

In 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, India, Inter/Transnational, Nature, Politics, Stories, United States on April 30, 2020 at 5:02 am

This is the twenty-fourth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

It is heartening that young people have taken the lead in confronting government denial of climate change and are making it clear that we are already in a state of climate emergency.  Extinction Rebellion is committed to non-violent mass action, including civil disobedience, to forcibly draw attention to the crisis. The group launched itself in Britain in 2018 with a series of high-profile actions, and chapters sprung up the world over as millions of young people prepared to take to the streets in September 2019 for a Global Climate Strike. An April 2020 article in Rolling Stone proclaims Extinction Rebellion the new eco-radicals, rejecting a politics of petitions for one of disruption. They will not be swept aside.

Andrew and I attended a rally in support of the climate Strike at UMass and were delighted to see and hear from students ranging from grade school to grad school, informed, passionate, and committed to global environmental justice. XR was there, as was the Sunrise Movement, and several other local organizations. Despite the global situation looking impossibly dire and the United States closing its eyes to the problem, the students were clear-eyed about the challenges ahead but resolute, with faith in their own resilience.

           Logo, Extinction Rebellion US

May 3, 2020: When I began to research this piece, I had no knowledge whatsoever of the internal workings of XR. However, I began to suspect an internal schism when I discovered that there were two different XR websites, one called Extinction Rebellion US and the other called Extinction Rebellion America. I performed a search on the issue but found nothing. Now, three days later, I have found what I was looking for. Apparently there is a split; however, it’s not just a question of the natural tendency of organizations to split (think of the warring factions, the Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian) but something much more serious, the question of whether a group resisting the climate emergency is willing to stand up for those most affected by climate change: Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities (Demands, XR US). Here is the text of XR US’s fourth demand in full: ‘

We demand a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a livable, just planet for all.

In an April 28, 2020 article  by Geoff Dembicki, A Debate Over Racism Has Split One of the World’s Most Famous Climate Groups, a faction within the newly formed US organization objected  to making environmental justice one of the group’s demands, fearful that it would drive people (read: white people) away from the cause. The group has split off to form XR America, whose statement of demands and principles do not include XR US’s fourth demand that prioritizes those most vulnerable to climate change. Instead, the splinter group argues that they are a decentralized single-issue group that doesn’t endorse any particular ideology but works “alongside other essential movements and organizations which focus on, among many things, racial, social, and economic justice; political reform; positive legislation, and sustainable alternative energies, lifestyles, and systems.”

In the article, published by VICE, Dembicki interviews Jonathan Logan, one of the founders of the new splinter group, who argues that those fighting the climate emergency cannot afford to waste time making social justice a priority:

“Let me put it this way, and please get me right on this. . .If we don’t solve climate change, Black lives don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change now, LGBTQ [people] don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change right now, all of us together in one big group, the #MeToo movement doesn’t matter… I can’t say it hard enough. We don’t have time to argue about social justice.”

Had I known about this split, I might not have chosen to feature XR in my A-to-Z series. But on the whole I’m glad I have, because it highlights an important weakness of single-issue political movements. By focusing on one overriding issue they hope to include as many people as possible; but in so doing they fail to draw attention to structural inequities and as such, they lose the ability to make transformative social change. As Dembicki points out, it is not only poor people and people of color who are most heavily affected by climate change, but it is they who have the greatest stake in the fight against it. To say that the needs of the most vulnerable people on the front lines of the climate crisis worldwide should not be given a priority in the movement against climate change is like diminishing the struggles of black people in the Black Lives Matter movement with the inane counter-slogan, All Lives Matter.

Be warned: Even XR US is still not firmly committed to environmental justice; the internal debate continues. A disclaimer on top of their list of demands reads: These demands only represent XR US. They are still in the process of development.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency rages on. Under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the price of oil dips down below zero at times, the current US administration has loosened a number of important pollution control regulations. In the effusive April 1, 2020 article in Rolling Stone, which makes no mention of a split, author Josh Eels says that XR deems the politics of older environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club as being “insufficiently confrontational.” Sadly, this new group that prides itself on disruption doesn’t seem to be sufficiently committed to disrupting race and class privilege. We may have to look elsewhere and to other organizations for positive change in the fight for environmental justice.

A disclaimer of my own: Having only just learned of this split in XR, I recognize that I may not fully understand the ongoing internal debate. Nevertheless, I have enough experience in environmental organizations myself to recognize a familiar pattern here. I hope that XR US will stick to its firm position; if not, it may find itself becoming irrelevant.

Here are some images from the Fall 2019 climate strike in New York City and worldwide. Note that Extinction Rebellion is only one of the many groups taking action here.

Young demonstrators flooded the streets of New York City as fellow youth climate strikers rallied in thousands of other locations around the world [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

London–Fashion Week September, 2019

NEW YORK CITY: Hundreds of environmental activists with the group Extinction Rebellion descended on New York City ‘s Financial District to protest against climate change.


Kenya Environmental activists march carrying placards as they take part in a protest calling for action on climate change, in Nairobi [Simon Maina/ AFP]

Extinction Rebellion, India (Facebook)

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473. Violence

In 2000s, 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Britain, culture, Family, Immigration, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 27, 2020 at 2:11 am

This is the twenty-second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The United States is characterized by violence. After 50 years in this country, I am still not inured to it. Is it more violent than other countries? Certainly more violent than other wealthy countries. And the violence is not only measured in firepower, although there is plenty of that, but in the less visible structural violence of a dog-eat-dog society, and the epistemic violence that creates and marginalizes people whose lives are expendable.

I could write a long, mind-numbing piece documenting the violence at every level: the permawar, the mightiest military by far on the planet by just about every metric, a military presence in the most countries–of military bases, combat troops, and counter-terrorism forces–the preemptive strikes, the drone bombings, the U.S. as simultaneously the world’s foremost arms exporter and the world’s policeman. I could write all that; but you already know it, don’t you?

What about the culture of violence at home, the militarization of our society that goes so deep we no longer even notice it? Take the top-grossing movie in the U.S. in 2019: Avengers: Endgame. It had been one of the most expensive to make, but soon paid off and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. I haven’t seen it, but watched the trailer (which, like the succession of trailers one is forced to watch whenever one goes to the movies, was absolutely draining, and robbed me of any desire I might have had to watch the whole film). Take a look and see what you think of both the violence and the militarization. I read the plot summary, then went to the parents’ guide to the movie to see what they had to say. By the way, it is rated PG-13, and according to Commonsense Media, not only have films got much more violent over the past few decades, but the rating have changed accordingly as viewers have become desensitized to the violence. Most films rated PG-13 today would have been R-rated in the 1970s. The parents’ guide described the scenes that might be experienced as disturbing, of which here are just two:

At the very beginning, Thanos is decapitated by Thor. We briefly see it fly off. This is somewhat graphic, but later on in the film we see a flashback through Nebula’s eyes showing it up close. This is extremely graphic and gruesome. However the disturbing aspect of this scene is lessened by the fact that the character deserved it.  

As long as we label the recipient of the violence the bad guy, it seems that we need not be disturbed by the gruesomeness of the violence inflicted on him. Interesting too, that beheadings are supposed to be the province of the barbarians. But when the good guys decapitate the enemy, it is something to revel in.

During the battle at the Avengers’ headquarters, the final battle between the Avengers and their now restored allies against Thanos, numerous filler characters / minions die, including getting blown up, tossed about, stepped on, impaled, blasted or shot, etc. None of it is bloody or dwelt on, less so than the climactic battle of Wakanda in “Infinity War”, but it’s still rather brutal and it has an even higher body count.

I flinched when I read the term “filler characters”, since the deaths of these characters were clearly not expected to be as disturbing because those killed weren’t the main characters with whom the viewers identified. In a battle with say, ISIL forces in Iraq, would ISIL and Iraqi casualties alike be in that same category of “filler characters” to an American TV audience, even though the Iraqis were U.S. allies and would be on the ground taking the direct hits, while the U.S military personnel provided the supporting firepower from a place of safety on high?

SWAT team prepared (Wikipedia)

It has been increasingly evident over the past decade—actually, since the beginning of the never-ending War on Terror in September, 2001—that U.S. society itself has been becoming more militarized, as has the police force and policing in general. A recent study has demonstrated that the police use of SWAT teams more often deployed on communities of color, is counter-productive: they do not reduce crime or protect the police but they do hurt the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public. Whether studies like this one will affect policy remains to be seen.

The violence at home has also been amply documented and, I have already prevailed upon your forbearance too long. Suffice it to say that the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world bar none, that there were more mass shootings than days in the year in 2019. The Gun Violence Archive documents them, and the Giffords Law Center both document and seeks to prevent gun violence in general, pointing out in its informational brochures that Americans are 25 times more likely to die of gun violence than residents of peer nations—France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K. , and Japan.

But there is yet another pervasive violence that is less visible but no less deadly. It’s the jungle of unregulated U.S. capitalism, a structural violence that creates ever-deepening economic inequalities in American society. The more than half-a-million Americans homeless on any given night attest to it, as do the 8.5% or 27.9 million Americans uninsured against medical expenses as of 2018; of the people who were insured, 29% were underinsured. The uninsured and underinsured people are disproportionately poor and people of color; and for those whose health insurance coverage came with their jobs, the massive job loss that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions more Americans without health insurance in a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made American society’s structural violence starkly visible in the shockingly high percentages of the coronavirus fatalities who are African American and Latino who are dying at two to three times the rate of white Americans. On the Navajo Reservation during COVID-19, where the death rate is nearly 10 times higher than in the State of Arizona, many people are unable to take the basic preventive measure of hand-washing because 30% of homes do not have running water. Similarly, in the hard-hit hotspot of Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80% of the population is African American, the city shut off water to 11,000 homes in 2019, and many have still not had it restored.

This is the daily violence of pervasive inequality in the richest and most powerful country in the world, which shows in poor health, high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and death. Poverty is violence; and so is our political system with its roots in slavery and dispossession. The very language we use is structured in violence, epistemic violence that dehumanizes whole groups of people and makes their lives cheap.

The English side of my family always thought we were fabulously wealthy because we had moved to America. Little did they know that even the poorest among them, at least before the recent cuts to the National Health Service, were more at peace than my immigrant parents were in their old age, despite their house and car and bank account. The Welfare State that was put in place after the Second World War was a safety net for elderly and vulnerable Britons, providing a sense of security that my parents, who had both worked hard to enable us to attain a comfortable middle-class life in the States, just didn’t have.

It’s a jungle out there.

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

This is the twelfth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.

 

Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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447. Christmas is Coming

In Aging, Britain, Family, Music, seasons, Stories on December 11, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Please to put a penny in an old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.

Whether or not one celebrates Christmas, the season comes around every year without asking for permission and there ain’t nothing anyone can do to fend it off. It doesn’t come quietly, but bold as brass, with all the attendant noise and paraphernalia of a traveling circus. And all over again one sighs, acquiesces, and gets with the program.

For academics in my field it’s the worst time of year bar none, with end-of-term grading followed in short order by back-to-back conferences as often as not in a distant city (for me Seattle, Washington this year), followed immediately by the start of the Spring semester which is always much more hectic than the one before. Such are my gloomy and self-involved thoughts in the fall semester’s last week of classes with the holiday season knock-knock-knocking at the door.

2019 Christmas Lights, Regent Street, London’s West End (photo: Jeff Moore)

In England, or at least in the England I know, which is, admittedly, a Ghost of Christmas Past, one can’t help but get into the spirit this time of year. The Christmas lights have come on in London’s West End (in my time the magic date was December the 6th; now, ridiculously, earlier and earlier in November), the children have written their lists and sent them off to Father Christmas, the parties at work ensure that no work gets done, Auntie Bette’s Dundee cake  has been made weeks ago and is richly beckoning in its special tin. But most of all, no matter where we are in the world, Mum is in Christmas mode.

Whether we were children in India or teenagers in the United States. as Christmas approached that magical feeling would descend upon our home. Cards would arrive from our far-flung friends and family, each one lovingly opened, pored over, and displayed to best advantage, family cards given pride of place. Mum was not much of a baker the rest of the year, but now delicious aromas would waft through the house as she made her legendary chicken pies with the flakiest of crusts, mince pies (in later years made with hard-to-find vegetarian mincemeat tracked down especially for Andrew), and for Christmas Eve, shortbread and sausage rolls. Most thrilling of all, the house would fill with whispers and secret places and rustlings of wrapping papers, as Mum would come home late, laden with bags and boxes from after-work shopping, and slip into her bedroom. She would shop for every single child in our lives, no matter how far away, painstakingly picking out something she knew that they would delight in (never anything merely useful), wrap, package, and rush to get it to the post office before the last safe mailing date for Christmas delivery. For picky people like me, who highmindedly pooh-poohed commercialism but in actual fact had rather expensive tastes, she would fret over getting just the right thing, often driving to the mall more than once to take it back and exchange it for something closer to perfect.

Teenagers are the hardest people to shop for. Not that they don’t want things—they absolutely do, no matter how much they may sneer and turn their noses up at the efforts of the clueless oldsters—but they want exactly what they want and will take no substitutes. Mum knew this, and was determined that no child of hers (and this was very broadly defined) would open a Christmas present and be disappointed; so she annoyed the rest of us to no end as she dashed back and forth to the shops, fussing and fretting over whether a particular pair of jeans, say, was the right brand and model and size and cut, to be sure that the Landlubber low-rise corduroys or Levi 501s or shrink-to-fits would fulfill our hearts’ desires on Christmas Morning.

All Mum’s racing about as Christmas approached had at its core what it had meant to her as a child who grew up in poverty but with the riches of a big family, and as someone who had left her childhood home and family after marriage, never returning to live there again for any length of time. She was determined to recreate that spirit for us in our home, and went on doing so as long as she possibly could. It could be infuriating for us as adults to have to try to live up to her impossibly high standards for the season. But the externals, though they seemed to be desperately important to her, didn’t in fact mean a damn thing. It was the Christmas Spirit she was rekindling, it was the loving connections with distant family and friends she was maintaining, it was everything she held dear that she was honoring, and, to her mind, it was what would keep our family strong in a strange land.

Now that Mum is no longer with us in person, it’s down to me whether or how I choose to celebrate the season, which will surely come and go whether I enter into it or not. All the rest of life’s commitments—student papers and recommendations, committee work, application deadlines, taxes taxes taxes—are of course there as always, however much I may try to clear them away in time. But so are they for everyone else. Hono(u)ring the season is not about duty, or religious observance (for Mum was secular to the core), or keeping up with the Joneses; it is about opening up your heart and your home and making room for who and what matters most to you. Dare I say it: Christmas is about love and hope springing eternal. At the darkest time of the year comes a shift, invisible but no less real, and we, in the northern hemisphere at least, begin moving toward the light again. So all over the world around this time of year we humans celebrate new life, the hope for redemption, even in the mess we’ve made of this beautiful planet we’re privileged to inhabit for a time.

For Dad, Christmas wasn’t Christmas until we had all watched Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. No matter how many times he’d seen it before he would get misty-eyed at Scrooge’s awakening in the proper spirit on Christmas Morning. He especially approved of the moment when Scrooge instructed (and liberally tipped) the street urchin to buy the biggest goose hanging in the butcher’s window and deliver it to Bob Cratchit’s. Because for Dad, besides indulging Mum in celebrating it as she saw fit, the Christmas spirit meant Giving. Spend as much as you want, Darling, was his silent message to Mum as she raced about, perennially unsatisfied, because perfection is not something that clicks its heels on command; one can only do one’s best to prepare for it, and hope that it will come.

So here I am. Now I need only please myself. I don’t believe in wallowing in nostalgia, but certain things mean what they mean to me. Probably the carol that best embodied both Mum and Dad’s idea of Christmas was Good King Wenceslas (sung here by The Irish Rovers). When we sang it on Christmas Eve, we women would sing the page’s part and the men the King’s. Dad the inveterate meat-eater always delighted in booming out, “Bring me flesh and bring me wine,” as the King commanded his page to prepare a feast for the poor man. Mum’s favorite part was the moral at the end, although she disregarded the religious part of it:

Therefore Christian men be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

One year, when Mum’s Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to prepare for Christmas as she had done all her life, we went to the Pelham Library for their annual holiday tea, English Mummers’ play (complete with fighting the Saracen, which always makes me wince), and Christmas caroling. She could still read then, albeit with difficulty, and joined in, clutching the song sheet in her hands. When we got to “Good King Wenceslas,” she welcomed it like an old friend and sang along heartily.

After those closing lines she turned and looked at me, as if for affirmation: “That’s good, isn’t it?” My heart melted. “Yes Mum, it certainly is.”

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441. Mere Customers

In Britain, Politics, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases, Work on September 21, 2019 at 6:49 pm

My first-year students have been reading and writing about citizenship, considering definitions that broaden the notion beyond a strictly legal one. I’ve been pleased that even when students have not previously encountered the idea of being a citizen of communities both smaller and larger than the nation, they have welcomed it. Recognizing that many residents of a given community are not voting members, most of them feel that they should nonetheless be considered citizens if they are active participants in it. They particularly like definitions that include working for the common good or for equal access to amenities for all the residents of a community, whether it is a college campus, a city, or a nation. And they love the definition of citizenship as a sense of belonging. But one thing almost all of them have reacted against is the narrowing of the definition of citizenship to the bottom line, reducing citizens with hard-won, inalienable rights to mere consumers or cash cows, where shopping (famously advocated by President Bush Jr. as national service after the September 11th attacks) and paying taxes mark the extent to which they can exercise those precious rights.

Toronto Transit Commission

Of all the articles and videoclips I posted on the course website, the students have cited two in particular. They were both Tedx talks, the first, Redefining Citizenship (2011) by David Miller, former mayor of Toronto, and the second, Modern Citizenship (2012), delivered in Sydney by Tim Soutphommasane, who was to serve as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2013-2018. I haven’t looked closely at their record of service when they held their respective offices and neither had my students, but they were taken with what Mayor Miller said about why he chose to emigrate from the United States to live and work in Canada: “because of our shared values. . . we judge our society by how well we treat those with the least, not by how many millionnaires we create.” Torontonians, he said, “wanted to live in a city that was marked by social justice…where no one was left behind.” To illustrate this he talked about the rapid-transit network collectively fought for and built by the citizens that served all the city’s neighborhoods, not just the wealthy ones.

Commissioner Soutphommasane, who immigrated to Australia as a toddler with his Laotian parents, sought to define citizenship by including all Australia’s ethnicities in its cultural identity, and not just superficially. Having grown up in Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney that is home to its Southeast Asian community, Soutphommasane asserts that promoting it as a food and holiday destination, as amply illustrated in this Destination NSW site, is not meaningful inclusion. The site presents Cabramatta as a “delicious day trip” with a market “revered for Vietnamese food and other Asian cuisines,” but this is Soutphommasane’s case in point. The community remains an “enticing,” “exotic” destination where the (white) Australian visitor might want to do something daring like signing up for a food tour, but it is not described as an integral part of the country, whose citizens bring to the table cultural, moral, and philosophical perspectives that could transform Australian society for the better.

Forgive me, I have digressed; aging academics often forget that they are not in the classroom and get locked tediously into lecture mode. Where was I? Oh yes; what I really wanted to say was something that I noticed for the first time (albeit belatedly) when I was traveling to a conference in England last week: whether I was on British Airways, which was in the midst of a pilots’ strike (or “industrial action” as BA quaintly called it) or British Rail, which I used to travel up north from London and back, there were no longer any passengers, only “customers.”

I know why, of course: over the past 20 years these modes of transportation in the U.K. have become thoroughly privatized, and their services are no longer to be seen as a public good, but rather as products that the user “chooses” to purchase. No longer did I have that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging, that of a returning citizen whose well-being is the country’s raison d’être, but rather, as one of my students put it in her critical reading response, a mere product of commodification.

I see that the British Airways pilots have called off their next projected strike day, citing a period of reflection before the dispute “escalates further and irreparable damage is done to the brand.” On the day I traveled to England, British Airways apologized profusely for any inconvenience to their customers. Because I tend to support striking workers on principle and in any case, think it’s generally unwise to have disgruntled pilots bearing your life aloft, I tried hard not to be a disgruntled customer. But I’m sorry, for me, “customer” just doesn’t have a ring to it. As a customer, you get what you pay for, if you’re lucky; and you only have the right to demand decent service if you’ve paid top dollar—or pound.

I stubbornly persist in demanding more of citizenship, more than being a mere customer demanding services in return for payment. At its core, citizenship is membership in a community, as I see it, one that is collectively created and maintained by all its members. Like my students, I want to have a real sense of belonging, not just a responsibility to shop.

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423. P is for Passport

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Family, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2019 at 7:02 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter P is for Passport.

Although my family had been on the move since I was six months old, it was not until I was nearly seventeen, little more than a year after we had immigrated to the United States, that I needed to apply for a passport, since I was taking my first international trip alone. Before then, as a minor, I had travelled on my mother’s British passport. Because I had not yet lived in the U.S. for the five years required to apply for naturalized citizenship, my first passport was a British one. (I learned too late that I would have been eligible to apply for both a British and an Indian passport at that point, and have always regretted that I didn’t.)

my first passport

My father became a naturalized U.S. citizen as soon as he possibly could, because the security of his job depended on it, but my mother kept renewing her British passport for the rest of her life. First she swore that she wouldn’t become a citizen while there was a Republican President in office, then, while there was a Democrat in the White House, she kept missing the window of opportunity to apply—accidentally or on purpose, I never quite knew.

Although for centuries, depending on whose domain they wished to enter, world travelers have had to obtain letters granting them safe passage, the passport as we know it is barely a hundred years old. None of those millions of immigrants from various parts of Europe who travelled by ship across the Atlantic in the late 19th Century had a passport. They were simply held for a time while they were processed and then let loose in the new land. According to the American Immigration Council,

Until the late 19th century, there was very little federal regulation of immigration—there were virtually no laws to break. A growing, increasingly industrialized nation needed workers, and immigration was “encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry (such as Ellis Island) where they were inspected and allowed into the country …The vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter; the Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I.

Of course, there were categories of people who were excluded from the U.S. even then, because they had contagious diseases, were insane, illiterate, criminal, or political radicals. But many people simply lied about their status and were allowed in. Racially based exclusion was much more rigidly enforced, starting with the exclusion of Chinese immigrants after 1882 and extending to almost all Asians after 1924.

(Courtesy Library of Congress)

As Guilia Pines tells us in The Contentious History of the Passport, it was not until 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War that the League of Nations began talking about the idea of an international passport system. From the outset, it was designed to give freedom of movement to some people, and to control and restrict the free movement of others. Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others. Pines further reveals that critics of the 1920 League of Nations  resolution argued that the purpose of the proposed passport system was “less about creating a more democratic society of world travelers than it was about control, even within a country’s own borders.” And so it proved to be.

Even today, most people in the world have never held a passport. Either they do not have the wherewithal to travel abroad, or they lack the motivation to do so. If one’s family has never moved out of the country in which one was born, unless there are powerful “push” factors at work, such as unemployment, starvation, persecution, or war, it is unlikely that one will attempt to do so either. In the United States very few people held passports until very recently; most Americans didn’t feel the need or the desire to do so. In 1990, only 4% of Americans held passports—an astonishingly low figure; in 2007, only 27%; but by 2017, that percentage had risen to 42 percent. The principal reason for the increase was the change in U.S. law, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, requiring a passport for travel to Mexico, Canada, South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. In Britain, 76% of the population holds a passport. Perhaps this is partly because Britain is such a small island that the British would get stir-crazy without going abroad.

You never miss your water till your well runs dry. You take it for granted if you have never had any trouble obtaining or renewing a passport. But in this world of heavily policed borders, if you have no travel documents at all, you are a refugee or a stateless person; and that is a terrifying condition. The Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Stateless Convention of 1954 gave refugees and stateless persons the right to a Convention Travel Document (named after the Conventions that granted this right) in their State of lawful stay. Nevertheless, it is estimated that only 20% of refugees worldwide have access to Convention Travel Documents. And although stateless people have the same right to such documents as do refugees, while 73 States now issue ICAO-compliant Convention Travel Documents to refugees, only 30 States issue such documents to stateless persons. If a person has no such documentation, they cannot travel outside their country for any reason, even temporarily, whether for work, reuniting with their family, education, or even life-saving medical treatment. This forces them to attempt to do so illegally and puts them at the mercy of human traffickers and smugglers.

Guilia Pines closes her article on the history and politics of the passport by bringing us to the present moment: “As other nations join the new U.S. administration in toying with the idea of closed borders, it is worth meditating once again on the passport’s essential arbitrariness.” We can do so by reminding ourselves how relatively new the concept of the passport is, and how restrictive. The value of Free Trade—free movement of goods and services, free passage across international borders for corporate entities—is continually being touted; but the same people who promote it refuse to consider the free movement of human beings in this world of ours.

Imagine there’s no countriesTo end on a Utopian note, the World Government of World Citizens issues a World Passport. Citing Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs,” they argue that the passport and visa system violates this clause:

Being exclusive political units, all nations collude in the frontier system, i.e., the division of the planet into separate political units. At the same time, they all agree through the United Nations Charter to “observe and respect fundamental human rights.” Through the national passport and visa system imposed on the world citizenry they deny and thus violate their pledged confirmation of human rights.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, tells us that there are 25.4 million refugees, 3.1 million asylum seekers, and 10 million stateless people in the world today. But if you are eligible for a passport and can afford to apply for one, you are a fortunate person indeed, and I strongly recommend doing so and renewing it promptly before it expires. Why restrict your mobility if you can help it?

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