Victoria and Abdul: on the eve of destruction

As Queen Victoria lay dying, her friend and Munshi (teacher) Abdul Karim had a few minutes alone with her. Abdul was a Muslim from Agra, India, a prison clerk, who had been selected to present a medal to Victoria, Empress of India, primarily because he was tall. Victoria subsequently became fond of him, made him an important part of her household and announced she would knight him. Meanwhile, he taught her Urdo and some of the wisdom of the East.

As he leaned over her death bed, she whispered that she was afraid. He replied, “Let go, Little Drop, you will join the great ocean.” These, he added, are the words of Rumi, but it is Allah who is the teacher, implying that neither he nor Rumi deserve such credit.

As they talked, Bertie, her son and the future king and her grandson, Germany’s Kaiser, waited outside along with the other high-ranking members of the royal household.They were not best-pleased. They had tried to stop her from making Abdul a knight by threatening to have her declared insane. She replied by listing her manifold shortcomings – rheumatism, greediness, morbid obesity, dullness, etc., but declared she was not insane. She had ruled the British Empire 61 years and 234 days and she was not about to step aside. (In fact she ruled, in the end, 63 years, 7 months and 2 days, surpassing even George III. Since then, of course, another queen has beat her record.) Judi Dench portrayed Victoria’s repudiation of her court’s rebellion by announcing she would dub no knights that year, but she would make Abdul a member of the Victorian Order of Merit.

The story is based on fact – mostly – including Abdul’s journal, which managed to escape Edward VII’s (Bertie’s) pillaging of Abdul’s effects once his mother was dead.

Judi Dench is old enough to depict the physical decline of Victoria in her 80s. There is a scene where she sits in her night clothes at her dressing table, her long, straight hair hanging down, her ravaged face registering her disappointment that Abdul has misled her about the Muslim role in the Indian Mutiny. (It was the Muslim, not the Hindu, soldiers in the British army that threw down their arms: they had heard their guns were greased with pig fat. Wholesale slaughter ensued.) Watching that scene is particularly affecting for an older woman like me even though “she doesn’t look her age”. It set me up nicely for the death scene. I had to keep hitting pause in order to wipe my glasses.

Rumi’s poetry, translated by Coleman Barks, has been a great comfort to me, especially his Book of Love. I read Blake his poem called The Gazing House just before he passed. Blake was apparently unconscious but I knew he could hear.

On the night when you cross the street
from your shop and your house to the cemetery,

you’ll hear me hailing you from inside
the open grave, and you’ll realize
how we’ve always been together.

I am the clear consciousness core
of your being, the same in ecstasy
as in self-hating fatigue

And don’t look for me in human shape!
I am inside your looking. No room for form
with love this strong.

Rumi the Book of Love trans. Coleman Barks p.178

Victoria and Abdul had that kind of love despite the 60 years and class and race that lay between them. His last words to her are “You are going to a safer place.”

Meanwhile, we must be patient.


Dreams: Ian, Mae and Harold Arlen

I woke up to Ian Tyson singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Siri had slipped her leash and shuffled from White Noise on repeat.

I don’t need to tell you, dear constant reader, that that song is from a famous movie

The first real movie I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz. I was probably 8-years-old. That was 1944. In the province of Quebec, children were not permitted to go to movies, ostensibly because of a terrible fire in a theatre that had killed children, but, more likely, the Catholic Church deemed movies corrupting. The Catholic Church ruled in the mostly French province.

I had seen films, made by the National Film Board of Canada in class, quite a few of them. I think the projectionist made a circuit of the schools, English schools in my case, and we got to see whatever he brought whether it related to the curriculum or not. So I was already enraptured by flickering motion pictures in a darkened room, but the moment when Oz burst into colour sealed my fate.

Quite simply I had to go there.

True my life did not include tornadoes, but it did contain World War II, which I initially thought was right next door. Uncles were overseas, German prisoners kept escaping from the POW camp in Sherbrook and my friend’s uncle got shot down and died. Plus there was the on-going war at home, not just the struggle to live on little money and rationing, but the very real possibility that my father would eventually succeed in killing one of us.

So I dreamed.

Eventually, I realized Oz didn’t exist and I would have to make do with Hollywood. My Aunt Mae could tell the future and she said that yes, I would go there. I wasn’t clear why she was laughing as she hugged me close.

I kept scrap books of movie stars and pursued an acting career. I had a few gigs at Christmas concerts and variety shows. I did Burlington Bertie from Bow, like I saw once in a movie. I got the lead roles in half a dozen high school and university plays. The only movie role I was ever offered got cancelled before shooting started. But I did go to Hollywood. Over seventy times and I plan to return in a few weeks.

Spoiler alert: I produced a daughter who went there to live and she produced two sons. I starred as grandma. Daddy #2 introduced me to a movie star at whose Malibu beach house I stayed. Her present husband took me to Warner Bros and we ate in the commissary. I didn’t get to go to the Emmys with him, but who can complain.

So thank you Aunt Mae. You kept hope alive and you didn’t exactly lie.

I woke up thinking about dreams, the kind of dreams you have about your future and which I am informed are essential to a happy life.

Shall we count them up?

I dreamed I would have 5 children and live in a ranch house. I had 2 and lived in split levels. I dreamed I would go to university. I went to McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario and lived for 2 years in a beautiful residence called Wallingford Hall. (I won’t mention the Quoncet hut  I lived in in first year.) I learned a great deal about English literature and philosophy, and continued to do so at the University of Toronto, almost dreaming spires. So check and check.

I dreamed of going to Europe and seeing Paris and the Greek ruins and the remains of ancient Rome. It helped than my younger brother escaped there and stayed, so I was able to spend long summers there and to return several times.

As it turned out, I got caught up in someone else’s dreams that included a swimming pool and a sail boat. Okay, that seems like fun. I can only say I survived.

I dreamed of a summer home in the low mountains and hills of the Eastern Townships where I was born. Not happening. No one was going to sell to my father’s daughter. But as second prize, I found a vacation home in the much higher mountains of Kern County, California where the wooded slopes breathed pine resin and sighed in the wind.

I am not the sort who dreams of having successful children. Mine succeeded by existing, but, in spite of that, they and my grandsons have achieved excellence in diverse ways.

So what are my dreams now in the winter light of my 83rd year?

Well, I dream that I will someday wrap up the executor work for the estate of that other dreamer (of sail boats and swimming pools), and I am pleased to report that I have only 3 tasks left to complete. One of them, the release of a modest bank account, which money has to be paid to a group of people I have never met, is typical of the frustratingly slow process of executing an estate. (Come back here, Boy, and I’ll give you such a slap upside the head.)

Where would he come back from? Hummm. Well, his after-life seems to be some heavenly school room where he is studying advanced physics with a side of human relations. (Can I refrain from saying ‘which he could use’?)

I’m not sure what mine will be. It will probably be a few millennia before I can stop myself from leaning back toward incarnation to make sure things are going well, not that they ever do. But, I suppose, that’s the whole point. We long and hope, yet the real lesson comes from the unfulfilled dreams, the suffering that polishes us up and fills us with light.

And those little blue birds that flew over the rainbow. My father used to see them as a child. Then they vanished. I found them again one morning as I walked along the golf course fence in Pine Mountain Club. They were singing.




A Series of Unfortunate Events

whole foodsIt started with tow trucks. We could see their lights flashing sideways above the cabs as we drove north towards Queen’s Park on University Ave.

“It’s somebody important,” said Rob, who is used to Obama shutting down Brussels.

“Funny vehicles,” I observed, but no, it was about a hundred tow trucks protesting, by driving very slowly around Queen’s Park Circle. Protesting what, I wondered, too few accidents?

We inched along. Even my loquacious brother fell silent. I named the buildings on our right. The one on the left, pinkly Victorian, was the provincial legislature. Oddly, the members were not outside being impressed by the tow truck parade.

Finally, I was able to get into the right lane and speed by the circling trucks. (Why do they have tinted windows, anyway?)

I parked in the Whole Foods underground parking at Hazelton Lanes. All the stores except it were under construction, indeed half of Hazelton Lanes. The city is getting ready for the Pan Am games next summer. It is unlivable now and will be unlivable then.

We decided to eat at the Whole Foods deli, choosing food from the steam tables. Rob joked his way through the line for the cash register, managing to choose the only clerk with a sense of humour, Chun. We found a table and Rob wolfed down his “Layered” meal – salad on top, hot food on the bottom. I was much slower.

I was in the restroom when the fire bell started ringing. We all ignored it and went on with what we were doing. Then the alarm got hysterical and there were shouts of “Evacuate.” As I returned to our table, I saw Rob dump my half finished lunch in a trash bin.

We walked in single file through a corridor under construction for a long time. Then we walked up stopped escalators and emerged into cold air.

“We’ll just walk to the theatre,” I said to Rob.

“What about your car?” Rob asked.

“You think it’s going to burn?” I saw Chun and went over to ask him if he knew anything.

“Probably false alarm,” he shrugged. “Don’t know.”

As we headed for the street, the alarm stopped ringing and people began streaming back inside.

I was a bit turned around when I found we were spewed out up a north/south street instead of on east/west Yorkville, but I got us turned south and then east past the park with the enormous dome of rock from the Canadian Shield, carefully cut up like jigsaw pieces and reassembled a hundred miles south in the city’s centre for our viewing pleasure.

It was only a few blocks to the Varsity Theatre in the Manulife Centre, but I had forgotten about Rob’s knees, well about his right one anyway. His left knee joint was plastic, worked well and didn’t pain him. The right one was still bone on bone. He limped on that side and it hurt so much that it encompassed both legs in his mind. At Bay St. we caught the diagonal walk signal. That felt too exposed to him and my worldly European brother protested. Eager cars confronted us on four sides as we two lone figures crossed to the diagonally opposite corner.

Rob rested his knees at a coffee shop while I hurried through Indigo book store buying calenders for Christmas. I was carrying my fur hat in my hand, it being too hot to wear.

Inside the movie theatre I waited at the bar while he bought popcorn, resting my things on it.

We were on time, which meant we watched  half an hour of commercials before we even got to the previews. Finally, Interstellar started at ear numbing volume. Immediately I saw that it seems to have been filmed near Bakersfield, CA, my summer stomping ground. Where else would they have found vast corn fields, dust and mountains?

We were there because a guy who worked for Rob as an electrician had done the lighting. I decided privately than despite Matthew McConaughey, it was a dog of a movie. About 1 1/4 hours in, McConaughey and two other members of his space crew were trying to decide whether to go down to Miller, a planet that might save the human race by providing a home now that earth was done for. It was about then that I missed my fur hat.

“Let’s go find it,” Rob whispered.

“It’s okay. I’ll wait,” I whispered back.

Various terrible things happened on Miller in the 3 1/2 hours they spent there. When they arrived back at their space ship, the guy they had left in charge was 23 years older. Rob and I turned and looked at each other, picked up our things and rose as one to leave.

It reminded me of a news item I had heard about Japan sending a space ship zooming toward an asteroid six years away. My immediate response was, “How could they have so little respect for human life?” Then of course I realized the ship was unmanned. The old Kamikazi prejudice had reared its head.

In this case, I couldn’t stay and contemplate the poor guy’s wasted life, waiting 23 years for his ship-mates to return.

I was sure I had left my hat at the book store check-out, but I stopped at the bar to ask if it was there. One young woman disappeared behind the bar, while three others stood looking after her. About five minutes later, the watching tableau unchanged, the first one emerged with my hat.

We hobbled back to Whole Foods, which was back in business. I bought a few things, which came to $68, thus reinforcing the Whole Paycheck idea. But, hey, I got $2.50 off my parking bill.

At the  machine, Rob started pouring coins into the slot. I tried to stop him because I was pretty sure he didn’t have $22.50 in coin, despite Canada’s strange coin system. I had to get cross, inviting him to stop by using an emphatic short word followed by a preposition. I put in a $20 and invited him to top it up.

Since we had forgotten our cloth bags, we loaded the items into a bag in the car and got the cart out of the way of traffic, more or less. I went to start the car. Where was that expensive paid parking stub. I searched my purse, my pockets, the car floor.

Oh, God, another $25 or more,” I moaned

“Get out of the car,” Rob ordered. And I did.

I stood beside the door. There lying at my feet was the parking stub.

Now I could blame Rob’s hyperactive, discombobulating energy, but a few days before when he wasn’t around, I had gone through the car wash at my local gas station. I pulled over into a bay to wipe the car, creating a bigger and bigger pile of wet paper towel. I opened the trunk, got out the windshield washer and topped it up. I carried the towels to the garbage can, got into the car and found I did not have the car keys. What to do? I searched my purse, my pockets, the car floor, the trunk, under the hood, under the car. I dumped all the nice garbage out and pawed through every last bit. No keys. I did it all again. I was the only one on the lot. It had been half an hour. Finally I walked over to the shop.

“I’ve lost my car keys,” I said.

The clerk raised his hand. From his index finger hung the keys.

When I left for California in early June, I was a well organized person. I always read several reviews before I wasted money on a movie. I always knew when some moron or other had organized a slowdown protest. I always put my keys in the same pocket of my purse. The parking stub went beside the credit card until it was paid and then it joined the keys. Both got taken out once I was at the car. If I took my hat off, I always stuffed it in the sleeve of my coat. Now after 5 months high on a mountain, I can’t organize myself out a door.

No point in talking to Rob about it. That was a normal way of life for him. I decided to tell Blake, my ex-husband, as we drove back from his 80th birthday party. Too late I realized how wrong that was. Blake has spent a small fortune on taxis after shutting his keys in his car, yet again.

“People says it’s age,” he said, “but I’ve always been like that. Well you know.”

Ah yes, the time he packed our passports in a suitcase and had to climb on top of a Moroccan bus to get them, the time he ran the family car out of gas miles from nowhere on a throughway…..

I’ve always been like that too, I guess, but I wound myself so tight it didn’t show. Darn those relaxing mountains!

Guess What Came Up at Dinner: update on Koch’s The Dinner

dinner still #3During the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last week, Menno Meyjes’ movie adaptation of Herman Koch’s The Dinner was shown. Here is a link to the TIFF site describing the film:

Meyjes was the screenwriter for Spielberg’s The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun as well as Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

Reviews appear to be mixed –, but I want to see it to sort out my feelings about the story.

For the original post see

Blue Jasmine: too deep for tears

Imagine Shakespeare’s King Lear as satire or more aptly Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. If that works for you, you will love Woody Allan’s Blue Jasmine. You can readily embrace its tragic comedy.

Who am I to complain, prone to black humour as I am? I confessed in an earlier post (
that Samuel Beckett’s advice – Despair young and never look back- was an article of faith for me.

And yet I do complain.

The movie opens with Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), in the first class cabin of a flight from NYC to San Francisco (a seat she can ill-afford, we later learn) regaling her seatmate with the story of how she met her husband. The band was playing Blue Moon. As it turns out the seatmate can’t wait to be quit of her: “She never stops talking.”

She arrives laden with Louis Vuitton luggage at her sister (Sally Hawkins), Ginger’s, modest flat where she proposes to stay while she finds herself. She blissfully ignores the fact that by doing so, she is preventing GInger’s boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), Chili, from moving in as planned. Gradually flashbacks reveal how Jasmine fell from her Park Avenue/Hamptons height of wealth and privilege to this nadir.

The script is a riff on the tragic Streetcar with Jasmine, Ginger and Chili modeled on Blanche, Stella and Stanley, but it is also a satire. It takes aim at the self-indulgent, spoiled and narcissistic Jasmine, at the shallowness of the wealthy, philanthropic set, and in an equal opportunity way, at the beer-drinking, sports-loving lower class. It is worth noting that both have deplorable taste in art.

Now for the spoilers.

I stumbled out of the theatre traumatized by the last shot of Jasmine’s face. I was half way through a cup of tea before I began denouncing the logical holes in the script.

How believable is it that a woman who signed whatever her husband put in front of her without a glance was able to call up the FBI and cause him to be arrested. (Have you tried turning in anybody? It’s a long and complicated process during which you are questioned like a criminal yourself.) Let’s assume that her impulsive decision was the result of a psychotic break brought on by the sudden discovery of her husband’s (Hal French, played by Alec Baldwin) serial infidelity, not to mention his announcement that he is in love with a teenaged au pair and wants a divorce. Otherwise, nobody could possibly make a decision to turn in the family breadwinner without securing a portion of the ill-gotten gains first.

And is it possible for Jasmine to be quite so reprehensible as to let her sister invest her once-in-a-lifetime lottery windfall of $200,000 in Hal’s Ponzi scheme if she truly understands that’s what it is? Unconscious, willfully blind perhaps but genuinely evil?

Then there is the question of the stepson. He is so humiliated by the revelation of his father’s fraud that he quits Harvard in his final year and disappears. Of course he too turns out to be in San Francisco, selling second-hand musical instruments while his stepmother tries her hand at computer night school and a day job as a lecherous dentist’s receptionist. When Jasmine hunts him down, he tells her he never wants to see her again. How believable is it that such an apparently ethical person would turn so totally against the woman who blew the whistle?

But all of this is mere nitpicking.

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine had got in under my defenses. I identified with her profound loss – and very possibly her narcissism. She had lost her role, the elegant settings, the Manhattan apartment, the beach house, that propped her up. She retained some of her couture costumes that might have made the proffered second chance possible if she were not, at heart, so self-destructive.

At the end of Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois is led away by people in “white coats” as she declares that she has always relied on the “kindness of strangers”. Jasmine has no such comfort. That last shot of her sitting on a street bench, homeless, without a purse, her hair wet,her elegant beauty gone and totally absorbed in a conversation with no one, is heartbreaking.

Some things are “too deep for tears”. Maybe this loss, which is being repeated around the world as jobs are lost, homes are foreclosed on and people plummet into the abyss, (sometimes literally) is such a tragedy. Woody Allan realized such downfalls can be borne only by comedy.

The Great Gatsby: a personal response

Jay Gatsby and I go back a long way. No not to that hot summer of 1922, but to the hot summer of 1952. Having cycled to Burlington beach by myself, I lay in the sun reading Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the first time. The 18 year-old boy I had given my heart to had, apparently, thrown me over, so I fell for Jay Gatsby instead. And got sunstroke. Next day, I was invalided home from my summer job on the ladies’ blouse counter and spent 3 days hallucinating lightshows, green and otherwise, and longing for a cool, blue pool.

That was just the beginning. Even after the boy came back into my life, became my husband and the father of my two children, Gatsby and I carried on and not clandestinely. I taught the novel to my grade 12 classes throughout most of my 35 year career as a high school English teacher. My husband and I began by believing Fitzgerald’s dictim that “living well was the best revenge” and ended by revising it to “eating well is the best revenge”. That was after the energy crisis and subsequent recession in the 70’s.

Meanwhile we lived in a house under a hill, where springs bubbled to the surface and pheasants called. We built rock gardens and planted bushes and trees for the birds. We planted a cedar hedge and built fences and dry stone walls. We sunk a pool beside the house. We bought a sailboat. We lived in a cul de sac and walked to work. We holidayed in Europe en famille.

Then Robert Redford’s Great Gatsby came out on film just in time for me to show it to my classes as my dream came apart.

It is many years later now, so many that I wasn’t sure I even had a copy of the novel. Not that I really need it since after so many repetitions I have virtually memorized it. But there it was beside Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz and Scott’s This Side of Paradise. I searched it out when I came home from watching Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby.

In his Los Angeles Times review, Charles McNulty begins by remarking that from reading some reviews of Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, “you’d think that the Australian… would be facing extradition for his crime against an American classic”. McNulty begins by calling the movie “relentlessly bouncy” and the CGI-enhanced opulence eye-tiring, but very soon, he concludes that it is a “diverting pop-culture riff that has as much to say about Fitzgerald’s novel as it does about the connection between two decadent eras, the Jazz Age and our own”. He goes on to illustrate how our perception of a classic, such as Hamlet, changes as we age and as the times we live in change.

I found myself an audience of one in a huge auditorium and absentmindedly wandered back out to pick up my 3D glasses. But no, this theatre was not equipped for 3D. Just as well, I got dizzy anyway. Yes, it was dazzling; yes, the party scenes were fantastic and overdone; yes, their effect was shallow and empty. (Wasn’t that the point?) True some of the music was Twenties -Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’- but much of it showed Jay Z’s hiphop influence, startlingly vital. For a brief moment I caught Beyonce singing Amy Winehouse’s ‘Black to Black’. And frankly, the window sequence at Myrtle’s Manhattan apartment was worth the price of admission.

Robert Redford in the 1974 movie was never my idea of Jay Gatsby. Too cool. Of course, Gatsby played cool but locked inside was James Gatz, the desperate poor boy and the bootlegger, the fellow rumoured to have killed a man. Di Caprio has more of that inner tension, so that when he strikes out at Tom Buchanan, it is not entirely unexpected. Daisy is hard to get wrong. Be beautiful and vulnerable and Carey Mulligan can do that. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s characters are not deep. Gatsby is mysterious, but not complex.

Christopher HItchens said that The Great Gatsby “remains great because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face it unflinchingly”.

Nick Carroway, the narrator, strengthened by his father’s midwestern upbringing, goes back to Chicago to work in finance, sobered but unbowed, Mr Luhrmann. He does not end up writing out his pain in a rehab centre. Just sayin’.

Spoiler alert: Gatsby and his creator died young. As indeed did Zelda Fitzgerald, Daisy’s prototype. At least Gatsby did not fall victim to alcohol, madness or fire. Having outlived his dream, that was probably for the best. But even to the last, Gatsby lived in hope, waiting for Daisy’s call. It was that hopefulness that made NIck call out, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

Much to my surprise, I survived into old age in spite of opportunities not to. I survived loss and grief and illness that, each in its turn, felt unbearable. Gatsby has gone with me through the years, the real one in the book. Screen Gatsby’s are just for an afternoon.

Zero Dark Thirty: lessons in self-love

“If you lie to me, I will hurt you,” so says Dan, the CIA interrogator.

There has been much debate about whether Zero Dark Thirty was right to depict torture as the way that the U.S. got the initial information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Either it wasn’t or the powers that be want us to believe it wasn’t, but that is not what I want to talk about.

The early scenes of the torture of detainee, Ammar, in a black op detention centre got me thinking about the nature of abuse. Jason Clarke portrays Dan, the torturer brilliantly. His Dan is bearded, exudes vitality and, of course, incites terror. The viewer readily understands his determination to uncover bin Laden’s hideout. Then the torture starts. It is, as ever, deeply personal, an intimate experience. Hands on. Ammar is naked, utterly exposed, totally isolated.  He is kept awake for 96 hours. (Is that even possible?) Or he is left in total darkness, his ears bombarded with loud rock and roll. His handlers wear black ski masks – except for Dan. He presents himself as Ammar’s friend. If Ammar tells the truth. If not, he will string him up by his arms, waterboard him, or stuff him into a box much too small and leave him there for hours. It is all up to Ammar. Eventually, Dan moves on to a friendlier phase with a cleaned up Ammar sitting down to a delicious meal and convinces him that he has already given Dan most of the information he asked for, so he might as well fill in the details.

Presumably, Dan learned these techniques in torture class and may well have practised them and been practised on. Others come by them without such training. Growing up with one presents challenges both then and afterwards.

Abusers tell you that they don’t want to hurt you. They have to because you deserve it. It is in your nature. It is punishment for what you have done. It’s because you think bad thoughts. It’s because of what you won’t do. If you stand up to the abuser, if the pain inflicted on you doesn’t bend you to his (could be her, but I’m going with his) will, others may be drawn in, smaller, perhaps, or just more vulnerable. But the abuser insists, he is really your friend, your best friend, your only friend. How could anyone else like you since you are —— (fill in the blank).

While this may be character building in the short run, it has some long term negative results. Your abuser may have fallen silent years ago. It may, in fact, be the 25th anniversary of his death and yet, he has taught you so well that you can now run the script yourself, even though you are not aware of it. So whatever happens, you find that you have not quite measured up. You’re just a bit slimy, not very nice, socially undesirable. You have, in point of fact, failed many times and in important ways.

Not only that, you are permanently pissed off. It was all grossly unfair. It was unjust. Nobody should be treated that way. Years later, you watch a movie called Death of the Maiden and identify deeply with the rage of the torture victim.

What is the answer to this self-perpetuating abuse?

Perhaps it can start simply with the idea that you have always been well-intentioned, no matter how things turned out. Perhaps it can go on to note that you have done your best and that effort needs to be respected. You have respected and even cherished others for these virtues. Why not yourself? Your love has flowed out to others, why not let it flow through you as well? There may be a hiccup of grief at the beginning, but once the furnace of self-love is stoked, it will begin to heat and heal the body so that it lets go of pain, so that it relaxes and unfolds.

The Life of Pi and Spoilers

As I said in my post on Downton Abbey, I never mind spoilers. Knowing how a story ends doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. Rather the opposite. But I know not everyone shares that point of view and, whereas, I didn’t actually say how season 3 of Downton Abbey is going to end (, I am going to tell how The Life of Pi ends. Here be spoilers!

I read Yann Martell’s novel, The Life of Pi, shortly after it was published, probably  in 2002, the year it won the Man Booker prize. It wasn’t an easy book for me. I found the suspense hard to take: 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger! And the long sojourn on the island that turned carnivorous at night tired me out. But it was the ending that left me gobsmacked.

I was lured into seeing the movie by the main ad image – a young man in white at one end of a boat facing a huge tiger at the other ( – and the fact that it was directed by Ang Lee who had made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And, I suppose, some chauvinism. Yann Martel is Canadian like me.

Pi of the title is Piscine Molitar Patel, a boy living in Pondicherry, a city in French India, who was named bizarrely after a swimming pool in France, and who was, naturally enough, known as Pissing by the other boys until he took matters into his own hands. He memorized pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, 3.14159 – , to many of its infinite digits and demonstrated his mastery while explaining to one class after another that henceforward, he was to be called Pi.

He spends his childhood, which apart from the teasing, seems idyllic, hanging around in his father’s small zoo and exploring the major religions, Hindu, Christian and Muslim. By the time political and economic changes uproot his family, he has practised all three. His family is en route to Canada on a Japanese ship, some of their animals in the hold, when the ship hits a vicious storm and sinks. Pi finds himself in a life boat with a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan and a hyena. The hyena soon dispatches the zebra and the orangutan and has set its sights on Pi, when suddenly, a Bengal tiger rushes out from under the tarp and kills it.

What made me think that I was up to watching that action in 3D?

Of course it was very beautiful, even the underwater scenes when the storm was in full fury were beautiful. The more peaceful zoo scenes at the beginning were exquisite. The flowers practically tickled my nose. The tiger was just amazing, huge and vivid, but very loud and scarey. I felt a little like I had when I saw my first movie, The Wizard of Oz, when I was 6. I had to be taken to the restroom and assured it was just pretend.

In fact, we know from the beginning that Pi survives because middle-aged Pi is telling his story to a writer. Pi assures him that his story will make him (the writer) believe in God. Now this in one of those devices that doesn’t work well with me. It reminds me of Marlowe in Heart of Darkness saying that he is going to tell a story that will change the listeners. Just hearing about Kurtz and the evil he did up the Congo River will do the job. What the heck? I was a little more convinced when I read the critics who talked about cannibalism (the king must die sort) and after I saw it visually in Apocalypse Now. Mostly, I just say, “Okay, I believe you or I’ll suspend my disbelief.”

So Pi recounts how he conditioned the tiger- Richard Parker is his name- using a whistle and seasickness. Eventually, Richard Parker puts up with having Pi on the lifeboat and is glad of what Pi catches and feeds him. Pi, himself, eats canned biscuits from the well-stocked larder. The stay on the flesh-eating island seemed mercifully shortened in the film and eventually after 227 days, Pi and Richard Parker wash up on a beach in Mexico. Richard Parker walks off into the jungle without a parting glance, to Pi’s dismay.

While he is recovering in hospital, two investigators from the Japanese shipping company come to interview him to try to find out why the ship sank. He tells them his story. When they seem disbelieving, he tells them another story.

In this story, the ship’s nasty cook is on the lifeboat with Pi as well as a Japanese sailor with a broken leg and eventually Pi’s mother, Gita. The cook kills the wounded sailor and uses his flesh as bait and food. Then he kills Gita. Clearly, Pi is next and so Pi attacks the cook while he is sleeping and finishes him off.

The Japanese interpret the animal story as follows: the zebra is the sailor, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the hyena is the cook, and the tiger? why of course, Pi himself or the savage part of him that made it possible to survive.

Pi asks which story they prefer and they reply the animal one.

My sister had asked me the same question a few weeks earlier, although she asked which one I believed. I made the same answer. But really, I meant only that I liked it better. In fact, it is much more likely that the other story was true.

Pi believed that in extremis, God answered his prayers and sent visions, schools of flying fish and edible islands, with nasty side-effects, to save him. It is a beautiful way to see things. And it may be true. It may be that an exterior divine force gets us through what the world throws at us. And/or it may be that we each have our inner Bengal tiger that roars fiercely to life when we are in dire straits.

Skyfall: M and Ulysses

Of course I saw Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, as soon as I could, just as I had the other 22. So far as you no doubt know, it has been a 50 year project. The one that stands out in my memory is Thunderball and that has more to do with the way I got there than the movie itself. We set out in our new racing green 1965 MGB with the top down on a pleasant evening. We were cruising along the freeway, happily anticipating the film. As we drove under an overpass, the driver of the semi next to us pulled on his air horn, elevating us out of our seats -no seat belts back then- and setting our hearts racing. I could see him laughing madly as he passed us. Thunderball could only be an anti-climax.

Skyfall I liked much better than Quantum of Solace although  I’ve never met a Bond movie that I didn’t like. As the usher assured me, Skyfall is old-fashioned Bond.

The movie begins with Bond’s death and when that proves, unsurprisingly, greatly exaggerated, we see a battered, unshaven Bond wearing jeans and drinking —- beer. Back in harness, he is expected to re-qualify as an agent and is assured by one and all that he is past it, that, in fact, the concept of agents going out into the field is itself passé. Computer nerds can do all that work now without getting out of their pyjamas.

M, Bond’s boss, played by Judy Dench, is of course, even older and appears to have lost control of MI 6. Eventually, she is called before a parliamentary committee to face the music. In answering the badgering chair of the committee, she quotes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”.

The poet imagines the great adventurer Ulysses, the ancient Greek commander who defeated Troy by using a wooden horse. In the poem, Ulysses old and bored with his home island of Ithaca, exhorts his men to join him on one last great adventure from which they will not return. The poem ends with the lines which M quotes:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.