Tweets and terfwars

I haven’t read the Harry Potter novels or seen any of the films, and never will. I am bemused by the size, commitment, and complexity of what I am probably supposed to call the “on-line Harry Potter community”. I was just about as puzzled by the folks who identified Luca Rocco Magnotta through Facebook as I was shocked and disgusted by his crimes. Well, not really. Making a real snuff-movie wins that contest hands-down. But I felt I was watching the rituals of an unfamiliar tribe, who worship the gods of instant communication with people whom they’ve never met and never would have, if it weren’t for the producers of Don’t Fuck with Cats engineering an encounter between the two protagonists of the show who weren’t psychopaths. You know: people who not only check FB as soon as they wake up, but leave their phones by their beds in case something really important happens, so they can wake up in the middle of the night instead. Half the time I don’t know where my phone is. I have joined Twitter, but it’s more to get interesting headlines to follow. There’s no real prospect of having a discussion on Twitter. You might as well try to do a Kabuki version of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft. What you have are people reinforcing their own opinions, lightened by cute pictures of people’s cats and babies and craft work.

Now, I’m not a Luddite. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad, and, as noted, an iPhone. In fact I have used a personal computer since my first, a Macintosh Classic, in 1986. I keep up with friends and family by email and Whatsapp and Facetime as well as simple phone calls. I listen to podcasts and I watch movies and music videos on Youtube, mostly embarrassing ones I don’t like to admit to. We subscribe to several streaming services. But I don’t want to know what even my relations and closest friends are doing all the time. If something important happens, we contact one another through the usual channels.

It’s not just that I don’t need minute-to-minute updates. I don’t want my private life out there for all time. I use Adblocker and Privacy Badger as well as Ghostery. I have a Google account, but with everything switched off that could possibly allow them to collect any data on me, although they probably will anyway. I have an email account that encrypts end-to-end. And I’m nobody; I have a couple of followers on Twitter and that’s it. But now J.K. Rowling is a “transphobe” for all eternity because she expressed her support for a woman who lost her job for questioning the assumption that gender isn’t all in the mind or in social constructs.

I suppose I’ll be labelled a “TERF” for my views, even though I deplore the violence and discrimination to which many transgender people have been and continue to be subjected. For I think this is not a matter of questioning whether transgender people are victims. It’s a matter of questioning what they are the victims of.

Growing up as someone whom everyone around you believes to be male, even if you don’t believe it yourself, even if you are absolutely sure they’re wrong, is not the same as growing up as someone whom everyone around you believes to be female and believing it yourself, even if you aren’t sure what it means and don’t like a lot of what it brings with it. People who were labelled male at birth, but reject this label, aren’t persecuted because they’re women: they’re persecuted because, for those around them, they’re not women, yet behave or want to behave as if they were. All of this holds, mutatis mutandis—which, appropriately enough, is Italian for “a change of underwear”—for those who are labelled female at birth but identify as male.

Moreover, there are facts of experience transgender women haven’t shared and could not have done. Birth-certificate-males don’t get periods or go through menopause or have babies. They don’t get ogled and whistled at and propositioned and insulted in the street from the age of 14 on just because they are perceived as female and regarded as passive objects of male desire by most definitely born-as-males men. They don’t suffer discrimination at work and earn less than men on the grounds that they are women (although openly transgender people are certainly discriminated against just for being transgender).

We are who we are in part because of what we did and what happened to us in the past, which we cannot escape just by wanting to. Transgender people must know this. They are who they are in part because of what they suffered, and learned, growing up, acting a part for which they were not born. Lots of birth-certificate women who identify as female have go through a comparable experience, as they are expected to behave as traditional females in a male-dominated society, while simply wanting to be scientists, business executives, vicars, academics, engineers, doctors, teachers, or politicians who just happen to have two X chromosomes. Or perhaps they feel that being a woman brings something to their work they could get no other way. The thing is, it’s just not clear, to many birth-certificate-women, what being a woman means; that’s why some of us are puzzled about what it feels like to be sure you’re a woman when everyone around you is sure you’re not. Not indignant. Just puzzled. And one thing we know is that you don’t lose all that baggage just by saying, over and over again, I’m not who you think I am.

So it’s deeply sad that, rather than birth-certificate-women and transgender women sharing experiences of degrading or humiliating or merely irritating treatment by those with the wrong expectations, or starting a conversation about what it is to be a woman, a war has broken out amongst us. And it’s tempting to say that that is, in part, because transgender women want to stick yet another label on other people. And themselves.

Naples 1982-1983 (1)

I first went to Naples for three months in the spring of 1982. I was 23, and this was my second year as a graduate student. It was the Biblioteca Nazionale that drew me there—more precisely, the unique collection of papyrus rolls that was discovered by accident in the middle of the 18th century in the ruins of ancient Herculaneum and that—after several moves, including one in 1805 to Palermo to keep them out of Napoleon’s greedy hands—is now housed there. I’ll talk about them in another post. This is more about Naples as a city and what it was like for me then.

OK. What it was like for me then was like landing on another planet where you don’t speak the language and you find the air hard to breathe. Where there don’t seem to be any rules, except really obscure ones that you don’t know you’ve broken until someone tells you, pitying your ignorance. Where no-one even notices traffic lights (where they exist, which is rare), let alone observes them. Where “No Stopping” and “One Way” signs are purely for decorative purposes and speed limits a joke. Where smoking isn’t allowed on buses, but people smoke in the Library, in lifts, in churches, and even in hospitals. Where it’s impossible to buy pure fruit juice or plain yoghurt or muesli, but fresh fruit and vegetables are astonishingly cheap and delicious. Where all the shops close on Saturday afternoons so everyone can go to the beach (these are still the summer opening hours for many stores; in winter they stay open on Saturdays and close on Monday mornings instead). Where churches (I had never seen so many churches!) have a Mass early on Saturday evenings so that—you’ve guessed it—everyone can go to the beach on Sunday. I was brought up Catholic and for me this phenomenon came to sum up Naples, and maybe Italy too. ‘Yes’, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church says, ‘You have to go to Mass on Sundays, only we’ll pretend Saturday is Sunday and everyone will be happy. We’re sure God won’t mind.’ If God is Italian, I expect He doesn’t. He probably goes to the beach on Sundays Himself.

This is also a world in which there are no cash machines. If you want money you have to go to a bank and wait in the line (if there is one: usually there’s a scrum and then one of those invisible rules is applied to select the winner) for a bored clerk to fill in lots of unnecessary forms and apply stamps to them in about fourteen places. (There’ll be another story about one bank in particular later. I am looking at you, Banca Commerciale d’Italia.) It’s a world where young people of my age are attending university yet still living at home with their parents, with no place to make out—except for the long row of cars that begins parking up on Via Posillipo around 7pm on Saturday evenings, newspaper plastered over the windows on the inside, which are usually so steamed up you can’t see anything anyway. I had in effect been living away from home since I was 17, and I think the friends I made found me enviable and rather sad at the same time. Which, all things considered, I was.

It’s also a dirty, rubbish-strewn, uncared for world—though people’s houses are spotless—and washing is hung out in the streets to dry in the often filthy air. The women who live in the bassi, tiny homes before there were such things, squeezed into the façades of older palazzi next to the large entrance-gates, have it worst. Unless they’re lucky enough to have an upper floor crammed into the same space, with a tiny balcony uptop, washing has to be arranged on stende right out in the street, with cars and motorini zipping by no more than a foot or two away. Life must be one long cycle of cleaning and washing for these housewives. And all around rubbish accumulates at terrifying speed, especially near the many small street-markets. Every night the dustbin men, as I once called them, or garbage trucks, as I call them now, come round to collect the munnezza (Neapolitan for immondizia), and I came to think of them as King Canute, trying ever and again to stem the rising tide of refuse. They still are. At least the towering chimney in eastern Naples rising out of the facility that once burned some of the rubbish no longer spews God knows what into the air. It made me think of of the giant 312’ chimney known as the “Audley Destructor” which towered over my home town between 1888, when it was built (the year of Jack the Ripper) and 1959, when it was demolished, and which also belched incinerated refuse into air already thick with smoke and soot from coal fires and factory chimneys. At the time it was the tallest chimney in the UK.

Naples, and indeed the whole of Italy, is still working out what to do with it all that munnezza. The camorra doesn’t like the new termovalorizzatori (waste-to-energy plants) because it doesn’t control them, and there are reports of sabotage and of orchestrated strikes amongst garbage workers. Organized crime is also happy to make money off the wealthier north of Italy by importing refuse from Milan and Turin and dumping it illegally in disused mines and quarries around Naples, or just spreading it on fields right next to growing crops. The worst stuff percolates into the ground water. Not so many years ago an entire tanker-lorry full of toxic waste was discovered buried in what is now called the “Triangle of Death” for its abnormally high rate of cancers, especially in children, and of pulmonary and coronary disease.

And yet you can see this sort of thing (photos taken in January 2015, but the scene hasn’t changed much in the intervening 36 years). A storm is moving from north to south across the Bay; on the left of the second picture, Capri is completely hidden from view by the dense but shifting cloud.

Naples: street shrines

Wayside shrines are everywhere in Naples: on every street-corner, in the smallest alley and on the busiest piazza. I grew up Catholic, but England isn’t peppered with wayside shrines the way Italy is, let alone Naples. Many of these shrines are not well-maintained, however. The protective glass or plastic is often dirty, scratched, or cracked; the statues and crucifixes within may be dusty or broken; photos and ex votos placed inside may be sun-bleached, like the plastic flowers often arranged in vases or jars. This neglect isn’t recent; I remember it already back in the 1980s. But some people still take care of shrines, hard as it is in such a dusty, filthy city, and they cross themselves as they pass by. Religious processions for saints’ days and festivals are frequent, with young people in marching bands or carrying banners. We saw fresh flowers too, and recent offerings.

Recently we walked up via Salvatore Tommasi, where the Carabinieri have their regional HQ, but is otherwise an ordinary, not very prosperous residential street, and saw that ceramic plaques had been put up commemorating the appearance of the Virgin Mary to St Bernadette at Lourdes. Here are the ones we found, starting from the eastern end of the street.

In the first is set out the second and third speeches by the Virgin to Bernadette: she asked her to come here for 15 days, and promised to make her happy not in this world, but the next.

‘Volete venire qui per quindici giorni? Non vi prometto de farvi felici in questo mondo, ma nell altro.’
‘Are you willing to come here for a fortnight? I promise to make you happy, not in this world, but in the other.’
‘Voglio che si venga qui da ogni parte del mondo.
‘I want people to come here from every part of the world…
Pregate per i peccatori.’
‘Pray for sinners.’
‘Penitenza, penitenza, penitenza.’
‘Repentance, repentance, repentance.’
Erigetemi qui una cappella.’ ‘Build a chapel for me here.’
[Well, not here, obviously.]
V’oglio che si venga qui in processione.’
‘I want people to come here in procession.’

Apparently the next words were said during the ninth apparition of the Virgin:

‘Andate a bere alla fontana e a lavarvi.’
‘Go to the spring and drink, and wash yourself.’

I think the next words refer to the bitter herbs the Virgin told Bernadette to eat as a sign of repentance and suffering, rather than to the Eucharist:

Prendete e mangiate.’
‘Take and eat.’

We also walked down part of one street, via Francesco Saverio Correra, and these are the shrines we saw on the way.

The writing on the garage door to the right says ‘No parking, day or night.’ Some hope.

At this point we saw a war memorial, which I thought I’d include for its historical interest:

Fante means infantryman; ‘Mar.’ stands for marinaio, sailor; Geniere means he belonged to the equivalent of the “sappers”, the military engineers; ‘Av.’ is short for ‘Aviatore’, that is, airman, and ‘Art.’ for ‘artigliere’, artilleryman or gunner.

Note that in Italy WWI ran from 1915 to 1918, and WW2 from 1940 to 1943. In September of that year Italy went over to the Allies, and immediately found itself with a hostile occupying force on its hands. The memorial we found nearby on another street has to be understood in that context:

War Memorial and Memorial to the Dead of Vico Bagnara

This Memorial is different. It does list two sailors and a soldier who fell in the War, but more striking is the list of people who are obviously civilians: three from one family, three from another, a child (little Pasquale Marino) and one other person, ‘all made brothers and sisters by the holiness of sacrifice’.

So many civilians could have been killed only during the “Four Days of Naples”, Le quattre giornate di Napoli, when the Germans, the Nazifascisti, were being chased from the city—perhaps, some say, unnecessarily, as they were already leaving of their own accord. I found a web-page that lists them all (or all but one) as victims of the random cannon-fire from the big gun placed by the German commander, Colonel Walter Scholl, in the Castel Sant’ Elmo on top of the hill overlooking the city, which was allowed to fire at random at any target. As a result the Reale family lost a man, perhaps father of the two sisters. Annamaria Finale was only two; Salvatore may have been her father; Francesca, née Dorso, her mother. The Finale family lived at no 18 Vico Bagnara, the Reale family at no. 12, and no. 16 was also hit, perhaps by the big gun, perhaps by machine-gun fire, and someone else died there—Giuseppa D’Ambrosio according to the memorial, Giuseppe according to the website, which doesn’t mention little Pasquale.

The Quattro Giornate are a controversial topic, and I won’t go into it here. But this memorial is a reminder of how good it is to live in a country that hasn’t been invaded since 1066. Or hasn’t had a civil war since the 13th c. (looking at you, Switzerland).

‘Founded by the girls, 1945. Restored by the women, 1963.
Padre Pio

Padre Pio, in case you’ve never heard of him, is everywhere in Italy. (My husband and I refer to him as ‘Padre Prezzemolo’, ‘Father Parsley’, because Italians say of something ubiquitous that it is ‘come prezzemolo’, ‘like parsley’.) He was a priest and Franciscan friar, who lived a life of great holiness and self-denial. He reputedly suffered the stigmata on many occasions, beginning in 1918, and claims were made that he had other supernatural gifts associated with saints, such as bilocation. Interestingly, Pope John XXIII (like several other Popes) was not convinced by Padre Pio, and in 2007 it was revealed he had been kept secretly informed of Pio’s activities, especially with regard to the women who formed an almost unbreakable circle of protection around him. Nonetheless, he was made a saint in 2002 by Pope John Paul II (“Pope Ringo” to readers of Private Eye, as in ‘John, Paul, George, and…’).

The underlying conflict may be between two ever-present currents in the Roman Catholic church, one—which tends to be especially strong amongst the less educated—towards mysticism and miracles; the other towards doctrine and the authority of the Church hierarchy, which may either exploit or be threatened by the populist fervour of the other current, especially when major changes are under way, as with the Second Lateran Council. Padre Pio lived in Italy for the duration of the Fascist regime, and seems not to have had one bad word to say about it, not even about the racial laws.

Who is the young man and how did he die? Car accident? The Camorra?
(Apologies for quality of this image, but I wanted to show it anyway.)
Padre Prezzemolo again
Notice the fresh flowers and plants
‘O lovely mother, amid the storm you are a star;
your name creates harmony, murmuring Ave Maria.

There follows a list of the men who put up or restored the shrine. The lower inscription says: ‘Passing by this cross, you will make the sign of the Holy Cross, and then ask the Lord to save your soul.’ And people doing just that are still a common sight in Naples.

Naples: degrado

I have to confess that Naples depressed me more on my last visit (2018-2019) and more and more as time went on. It seems more squalid, less cared for, and perhaps a bit less friendly than I remember. It was certainly squalid when I came in 1982, when the Piazza del Plebiscito was one huge car park, pedestrian zones were unheard of, buses trundled all the way down via Toledo to Piazza Trieste e Trento and struggled to turn left onto the street in front of the San Carlo. It was a much more provincial city then; there were few foreigners (on buses, people would form a half-circle and simply stare at me); but, at the same time, the Neapolitan dialect was something to be hidden—it was not part of a glorious heritage stretching back hundreds of years, but a tatty and above all working-class remnant of Spanish subjugation, best forgotten in favour of the language of Petrarch and Dante.

Part of the outside of the church of Sant’Anna dei Lombardi, Piazza Monteoliveto
(The Church itself is beautiful inside, and well worth a visit.)

Today Naples seems meaner now, more “degraded”, than it did then, perhaps precisely because the contrast with the ideals of a “normal” city has been made more vivid by the many improvements. Yes, there are pedestrian zones… but motorini still zip across them at break-neck speed (your neck, not theirs), especially coming out of or going into the Quartieri. People do on the whole carry out the differenziata, the separation of paper, plastics, metals, and glass for recycling… but the recycling industry is in the hands of the camorra. Moreover, heaps of rubbish appear almost everywhere you go. There are innumerable splendid buildings in Naples, churches and chapels, libraries, universities, private palazzi… but the neglect of them is deeply saddening, and a bit worrying, as with the fall of chunks of cornice from the Galleria Umberto (recently repaired) and of bits of cornice and plaster from many other buildings around the city (everywhere netting is attached to buildings to catch these missiles before they hit an unsuspecting passer-by). And there are more serious problems too. Here’s just one example.

Rubbish on the road up to the Incurabili

Recently the 16th-century Ospedale di Santa Maria del Popolo degli Incurabili had to be closed in a hurry because of concerns about its safety. Legend has it that the sea-nymph Parthenope, who gave her name to the original settlement that would one day become Naples, is buried under the hill on which it stands; unfortunately, this hospital complex, which originally had male and female wards for syphilitics, the insane, and the dying, as well as a (male) military ward and a ward for pregnant women, and which has five (I think) churches and a stunning 18th-century pharmacy, is slowing sinking down to join her. There had been warning cracks in floors, and part of the pavement behind a main altar in one of the churches had already given way, threatening the resting-place of the hospital’s foundress. In April 2019 the whole complex was cleared of patients and staff. I fear it will now stand desolate and empty for decades—except, probably, for illegal immigrants and other homeless people with nowhere else to go.

There are also several museums of art with important collections and exhibitions dotted around the centre of the city… but the rest of the city seems to be covered, up to the height of 7 or 8 feet, with graffiti at once lurid, threatening, and banal. There are some who consider graffiti, or at any rate some graffiti, art, and it’s true Banksy became a draughtsman at some point before he adopted his fashionably working-class nom de guerre. It’s true, too, that here and there, especially in the University district of the centro storico, the graffiti are far more imaginative, with a fine sense of how colours work on each other, although shading and perspective are non-existent, as no-one knows how to actually draw. But the rest is just gang symbols, names and initials, and professions of love, plus, of course, pornography, which, whether written or figured, unites the intensity of adolescence with all of its subtlety.

Piazza Monteoliveto, just down from Sant’Anna dei Lombardi

I do not know why some people have the patience to stand on a box for however long it takes to draw or write this stuff, and maybe others burst into song spontaneously on seeing the results. But it seems to me that if the graffitisti stood on a box and shouted—at the tops of their voices, for hours at a time, in front of small children and old ladies—their names, their tags, their political views, their sexual achievements and desires, or their ownership of some few square metres of squalid housing and unhealthy backstreets, then even Neapolitans would sooner rather than later deck them or at any rate put them in a straightjacket. Or else they’d have to be rescued by the police from a lynch-mob. Given, however, that they constantly invade, not our aural space, but our visual one, with lurid characters several feet high, everybody seems just fine with it. Why?

No, I don’t know what it means either.

The exasperation of citizens in face of the degrado of the city is evident in this sign:

Take your dogs home for a crap and a piss!’

And when I say central Naples is full of graffiti, I mean it is full of graffiti. Every surface of every public building, save police stations and carabinieri barracks, has that solid band well over two metres high; even the rusticated stone of the most prestigious institutions isn’t spared. The same is true of most private palazzi if the aren’t cut off from the street by walls and gardens. The steel gates and shutters that protect every shop after hours (many with no distinguishing marks, presumably so you won’t know if you’re breaking into a jeweller’s or a coffee-shop) are covered with it; so are street lights, bollards, traffic signs. You name it, it’s covered in graffiti. No-one tries any more. The Central Post Office on Piazza Matteotti, a magnificent building even if the Fascists did put it up (1928-36), has been trashed by a combination of graffiti, the rubbish left by careless, indifferent slobs, and homeless people sleeping in the alcoves—a wonderful original feature by the architects Vaccaro and Franzi—along via Monteoliveto. The other Fascist-era buildings nearby, built when one of the worst slums was done away with, and which in any other city would be treasures, cooed over by lovers of modernism, are adorned with weeds, broken windows, and, of course, graffiti.

Or take this wonderful building, the Galleria Principe di Napoli.

The Galleria Principe di Napoli, seen from via Bellini

Being so close to the Archaeological Museum (the “MAN” as it’s now fashionably called), it ought to be full of cafés and shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, and books to tourists. Instead, it houses offices of the Comune, plus a few artists’ and designers’ workshops, and fashion shows are held there every so often (or were, anyway).

It has an interesting history, showing how difficult change has been in Naples. It was built as part of the massive changes to this area after the demolition of the state grain depositories dating from the late 16th and early 17th centuries (they were called the “Fosse”, literally “ditches”, from their origin as natural cavities in the ground, although the later versions, which I believe stood more or less where the Galleria stands now, was just a normal warehouse). Via Toledo was extended towards the then new Museum, along what would eventually become via Pessara. Via Bellini was constructed too, while one of the gates in the City wall, the Porta di Costantinopoli, was demolished. But actually creating something new out of the area seemed to be beyond the power of the city. A portico was built along via Pessara, or whatever it was called then, and eventually—very eventually—there came to be a real galleria, or “mall” as the Americans call them. Building it took almost 15 years, on and (mostly) off, between 1869 and 1883. The architects were Nicola Breglia and Giovanni De Novellis, and they must be congratulated for their tenacity as well as for the gracefulness of their design, with its wrought-iron and glass roof, and the clever way in which the building was adapted to the rising ground here.

Keep out.

The Galleria survived World War Two, but almost a hundred years after its inception the north frontage, which also has a portico, collapsed all by itself in 1965. Fortunately, plans to replace it with some dreary 1960s sub-modernist block of offices and flats were foiled, and the frontage was replaced. It then became basically an indoor football field for local youth, who systematically took it apart, breaking everything that could be broken. So it was closed again. Finally, in 2007, a full restauro began, and I saw it soon afterwards. Sadly, as I said, it is not usuallly open to the public now, and it looks derelict and mournful; the facade towards via Pessara has turned into an informal dosshouse for the homeless. Its wonderful location for exploiting the tourists who come to the Museum is of no interest to the powers that be, although, apparently, yet more restoration work is underway. At any rate there are the usual bits of scaffolding and those metal structures that look as if they are closing off a work-in-progress area, but that instead hang around for years while nothing happens. I expect the ghosts of Breglia and De Novellis, are, somewhere or other, doing face palms.

Finally, another example, from the Piazza del Mercato down near the Port, which at the time of our visit was basically a huge open-air bomb-site. I hope the pandemic hasn’t stopped the restoration of this area. These sphinxes made the walk there worthwhile, though.

Naples: introduction and bassi

I’ve been coming to Naples, on and off, since 1982. I’m neither an ex-pat nor a local (I’m not even Italian), and I have never lived here for more than ten months together. But I’ve lived in different parts of the city, and I have seen Naples change so much; so I think—I hope—this may give me a unique perspective. In a way, I have seen, not one, but several different cities.

There are still many, so very many things I do not understand about Naples. Not speaking Neapolitan is a real drawback. (Incidentally, a friend of ours recently visited Barcelona, and found he could understand Catalan perfectly. That’s how little has changed in four hundred years.) So the point of this blog is, really, to try to get some explanations, from people who know more about Naples, of certain sights and sounds and experiences that have left us baffled. Some of them concern Italy generally; but most are strictly Neapolitan. If you have answers, please, pass them on. Thank you in advance.

COVID-19 and ME

When in California the COVID-19 virus first brought the economy to a halt and forced social distancing on us in March 2020, the playbook went something like this:

University of California: All libraries and non-essential offices are closed; all sporting events, public lectures and meetings are cancelled; and wherever possible all instruction for Spring and Summer Quarters in 2020 (and now, as we know, Fall, Winter, and Spring Quarters of 2020-2021 too) will be conducted on-line unless absolutely essential.
Governor of California: A state of emergency is hereby declared; all Californians must work from home whenever possible, and leave home only for essential food shopping and medical appointments, to pick up take-away food ordered in advance, or to take exercise in the open while maintaining social distancing.

Rest of California: Oh fuck.

Me: So no change there then.

Yeah, OK, that’s selfish, I know. For millions of people this pandemic has meant and continues to mean lost earnings, lost businesses, lost jobs, lost homes, and a new, hard world of federal aid, food pantries, and constant anxiety; at the very least, it has meant being cooped up inside for long hours, attempting to care for children and keeping them entertained while finding time to work on-line as well. I don’t have those worries. I have no kids and no work-for-pay, while I do have a husband in stable employment. Like him, I’m an academic by training, and I have continued to do my own research at home even after giving up all teaching. We have a very nice flat with a deck, and we can take walks in a pleasant neighbourhood close to home.

Sunset from our deck

What I do have is the experience of being cut off from the world, by my own illness. I do know what it is like to be confined to my home or even to one room for long periods. I know what it is like to have my career, family, social life, and hobbies taken away from me, leaving me feeling sidelined and deeply resentful, and always in danger of sliding into reclusive agoraphobia. Without my husband’s constant care and support—and I don’t mean to be melodramatic here—I have little doubt I would be dead by now. I would simply have given up.

I wrote a couple of poems about this experience. Don’t worry: I am not going to inflect them on anyone. They’re not very good, and not very good poetry is deeply embarrassing for everyone concerned. But they helped me see how I felt about the life I had been given. No consultation; just: here it is. It’s now yours.

And I also see that my experience isn’t of any use to the millions who are now living in isolation or have been damaged by long months of it. I had sixteen years wrestling with my ME to try to keep my career, and then fifteen more to adjust to a life without it, with no prospect of recovery, and obviously no way to get back all that I’ve lost. This is nothing like the sudden infliction of isolation from friends, co-workers, and family; of all the damage that children have suffered mentally and emotionally; of the terrible fear you might lose someone you love, or the unbearable pain of actually doing so. There are those, the sufferers from “long Covid” who may be in a situation more like my own. I hope that they, too, get to leave the Kingdom of the Sick, after a few months at most, and are able to take up their old lives once more—maybe with adjustments here and there.

The difference is simple: I can never leave. My own new life is built on the certainty that all the things I lost are gone forever. At first I was actually unhappy that the pandemic was coming to an end and that I would be left alone, washed up on the beach at the high-tide mark, another wreck on the shoreline while everyone else sailed off into the sunset. But now I see how foolish and wrong that is. I hope everyone who can will soon get back to normality, or the new normal anyway, and can come out of this more or less undiminshed, maybe even with a fresh and stronger appreciation of all the good things in life.

Goodbye to all that

Goodbye to being one of millions who, just like me, are confined to home by an illness; who can’t socialize freely; can’t go out to eat or to shop; can’t go to work. Soon the vaccine will release millions from their prison. And I will still be here; I have a life-sentence, with no time off for good behaviour.

That paragraph oozes self-pity, and I’m ashamed of it. But I need to put it out there to let people know what it is like to have ME. And because it has taken me 15 years to achieve even a modicum of acceptance of the life I’ve been dealt, I do understand why so many—even those who are surviving financially—are feeling desperate, frustrated, and isolated after nine months of restraints, and even why some have begun to rebel. Maybe they may know they’re behaving irresponsibly and selfishly; maybe they don’t care; more likely they’re doing what human beings do best, which is hiding the bit of them that knows stuff from the bit of them that goes out and does the opposite anyway. (Some clearly think the whole thing’s a hoax, and I do not pretend to understand them.)

So this may be hard to believe, but my life has changed for the better because of COVID-19. I must say straight off that no-one I know has died of it, with one exception—an old boyfriend I hadn’t seen for 40 years; which was a shock, but because of what had once been, not of what was at the time. Certainly no-one dear to me has even contracted it. So, against that background, I can list these improvements: my husband is working from home, meaning he is around a lot more, even if usually we are working in different rooms (we are both academics, so we are always happy to do our own research); I am able to join meetings, talks, and happy hours by Zoom, when previously I had been excluded from all of these because one had to be present in person; and contact with family and friends has increased because, generally speaking, they are at home more and have more time on their hands.

I love the new quiet around my home, too. There is far less of the dull, distant roar that marks rush-hour (which lasts for four hours hereabouts), and fewer gunning engines from the rats using residential streets as their own private mazes—although the local gilded youth, if that’s the word, with their Ferraris and Teslas and what have you, do race on a road a couple of miles away whenever they get the chance, and I can hear that display of arrogance and contempt for others loud and clear. But, taking our evening constitutional, we often don’t see a soul on foot, and not many in cars either, even on the main road that is the final stretch home. It’s blissful.

So I had to remind myself that this quiet, limited life is not what other people consider desirable, and that it was forced on them… if behaving rationally and sensibly in face of a killer disease can be considered coerced; at any rate, chosen as better than the alternative (cf. Sweden). I have to remind myself that millions of people have had not been able to make such a choice at all, because they had to work, COVID or no COVID, and that millions more have lost work and exhausted their savings and are relying on food parcels. Children and students have been deprived of an education and of the close social contact young people need and can only get in school or on campus. This is not a dream, but a nightmare, and people desperately want to wake up from it.

Sometime in 2021, they will wake up, and then we’ll see how much remains of the 2020 COVID world. Will people try to conserve energy and save the environment by working from home, avoiding in-person get-togethers and conferences as expensive time-wasters, or will they go back to enjoying the boondoggles and snoozing through dull committee meetings? Will they continue to order most goods on-line, or go back to standing in line? Will they wear jogging pants rather than jeans, let alone suits? Will they use whatever extra time they have more wisely, learning French or eliminating the junk from their homes, or will they just carry on scrolling through Facetime or bingeing on real-crime shows?

I think we know the answer to the one.

And there’s no doubt I shall go back to the same life as I had before COVID arrived. The difference is, I don’t have a choice. But I can accept that. So then I think of those “long COVID” sufferers who are only just beginning to face the fact that their lives may never be the same again. The uncertainty (how long is this going to last? what can I do about it, if anything?) is its own form of torture, on top of all the other physical and psychological problems, but there is not much to do but wait, learn, read, experiment, fail, learn some more, experiment, fail, try again… And so on. They must be prepared to be patient. They should remember that finally there’ll be money pumped into ME research now that experts can see, in real time, that the virus is devastating people’s bodies in unforeseen ways—that post-viral syndrome is real. They will need strength, courage, imagination and lots of support from others, so they should get in touch with whatever ME/CFS/CFIDS self-help groups there are in their city or country. It’s probably too late for me, but not for them, to leave the Kingdom of the Sick.

Anna Garlin Spencer

Today Anna Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) is remembered as a fighter for women’s rights—especially the right to vote and the right to receive an education—and for world peace.

Recently, however, I came across a quotation that throws a different and less flattering light on her life and work. Its source is a book by David Starr Jordan (also 1851-1931), an ichthyologist by trade, and also founding President of Stanford between 1891 and 1916. Jordan was a skeptic in some areas about what he called “sciosophy” (roughly equivalent to today’s “pseudoscience”), and wrote an influential book criticizing it called The Higher Foolishness. But he was not skeptical about eugenics. Jordan was also a pacifist, and a pacifist because he was a eugenicist: he thought that wars consistently kill off “the flower of youth”—the best young men in every generation—while leaving the morally and intellectually less gifted, in short the more unfit, to survive, to father children, and so to allow their genes to be passed down to future generations. The inevitable result of war, he argued, is that “the race” becomes weaker in every way.

Jordan served on the board of “The Human Betterment Foundation” which advocated forced sterilization of “the unfit”, and he also wrote several essays and books promoting his eugenicist ideas, perhaps the most famous being The Blood of the Nation: A study of the decay of races through the survival of the unfit (1902). In 1915 Starr wrote a book to popularize his ideas, called War and the Breed: the relation of war to the downfall of nations. It is in this book, on p121, that he quotes Garlin Spencer approvingly, as follows:

“Women bear the chief burden of personal care of the young, the undeveloped, the frail and sick, the aged, the feeble-minded, the socially incompetent. They have had to bear that burden ever since social sympathy forbade the strong to kill the weak by fiat of the state. This process of social protection of the incompetent has unquestionably lowered the average standard in human quality where it has worked unmodified by some science and art of race culture. War — and all that makes for war — is the worst hindrance to the attempt to relieve women of this overmastering burden of administering philanthropy, and to give her time and opportunity for her organic function of teaching and developing the normal and super-excellent specimens of the race. Not only does it destroy uselessly all the common wealth of humanity so terribly needed for projecting and realizing the social control that can truly advance individual life, but it deliberately and monstrously aids that ‘breeding downward’ which is the bane of civilization. . . . It is because of women’s peculiar functional relation to the social demand for race integrity and race culture that enlightened women must hate war and all that makes for war. It sinks under waves of bestiality and passion those ideals on which respect for womanhood and tender regard for the child have fibered the later progress of the race.”

This quotation is sourced (in a footnote) to a publication called The Independent, which so far I have not been able to locate. More information, and even the complete article from which the quotation is taken, may perhaps be found amongst Spencer’s collected papers, now housed at Swarthmore College. The pamphlet from which I got this information (published by Scholarly Resources Inc., 2005) also states that these are available only on microfiche. The pamphlet describes Garlin Spencer and her life like this:

“Anna Carpenter Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) was a minister, feminist, educator, pacifist, and writer on ethics and social problems. Perhaps inspired by the examples of her abolitionist mother, Nancy Carpenter Garlin, and her aunt, Sarah Carpenter, a missionary who worked with homeless women, Spencer dedicated her life to social reform. She was the first woman minister in Rhode Island, serving in Providence from 1819 to 1902 at the Bell Street Chapel, a liberal, nondenominational ethical church.

“Anna Garlin was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in 1851 and spent her youth in that state and in Rhode Island. In 1869 she began writing for the Providence Journal, as well as teaching in the public schools. She remained a journalist until 1878 when she married the Rev. William H. Spencer, a Unitarian minister. From 1902 until her death, Spencer held a series of teaching posts at such institutions as the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago, and Teacher s College at Columbia University. She taught on issues of religion, marriage and family, the role of women, sexuality, and philanthropy.

“Spencer was active in the cause of women s rights for more than forty years. She was a friend of well-known feminists, including Susan B. Anthony, Ednah Cheney, Lucy Stone, and Valeria H. Parker. In the 1890s she served as president of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. An early participant in the National Council of Women, Spencer was also president of that organization in 1920.

“Her interest in pacifism led Spencer to prominent positions in the cause for peace. She was on the Executive Committee of the National Peace and Arbitration Congress in 1907 and was a founding member of the Woman s Peace Party in 1915, serving as vice chairman. In 1919 she also became the first chairman of the national board of the Women s International League for Peace and Freedom.

“Spencer died at her home in New York in 1931.”

Only those phrases ‘writer on ethics and social problems’ and ‘the role of women’ might conceal Spencer’s eugenicist past. I would like to be able to pursue this point, but COVID-19 and my own unfitness make it impossible. Perhaps Garlin Spencer is as well known as a eugenicist as, say, Marie Stopes, who expressed similar opinions not only about the burden placed on women by unwanted children, but also about the burden placed on society by allowing the ‘degenerate, feeble-minded and unbalanced’, ‘the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased’, to have children. If an expert on Garlin Spencer reads this, I would welcome more information.

“Dark”: not an appreciation

I think my husband and I belong to a very select band. We are two of the very few people on the planet who aren’t in ecstasies over the German Netflix series Dark. Admittedly, we enjoyed seasons 1 and 2 quite a bit; we even watched them twice. But season 3 was, to put it mildly, a slog, and not at all what we were expecting, which was something like a serious version of Peggy Sue Got Married or Back to the Future, or a less soggy version of It’s a Wonderful World. In other words, a meditation on the “road not traveled”—an exploration of what it is to look back both at the decisions you made and at events out of your control, and imagine the other worlds you could have made. Or not. Thomas Hardy talks in one of his poems of being, as an old man, the ‘strange continuator’ of his younger self, whom he imagines looking at him in wonder. That is what we wanted: to see the “strange continuators” confront their younger or other selves.

Instead what we got was, basically, a video game. There are two sides: Light and Shadow, White and Black. One side wants total annihilation; the other, for the cycle of birth and death, killing and saving, to go on for ever and ever, rinsing and repeating for all eternity—or until the Sun turns into a Red Giant, anyway. The leaders of the two sides explicitly describe their team members as “pieces” or “counters”, who/which are dispatched to certain times and places (how this precision is achieved is never explained) to do something or other that will advance their side’s plan or impede their opponents’. So rather than the impact of three terrible events—two boys going missing in successive generations; a man hanging himself—on a few key characters—Jonas, Martha, Ulrich, Hannah, Claudia—who each make, say, one key return journey, everyone has three selves of different ages in different worlds who jump back and forth with the ease of a neighbour who has just popped round to return the sugar they borrowed last week. Or next week, I suppose.

As we got to the last two episodes in particular, there were lightning-fast, rather corny warp-speed style shifts between past and present and between the two (or three) worlds, leaving us quite confused, which is fine—but also indifferent, which isn’t. And that was the real problem: we no longer cared about what was happening (or going to happen or had happened) to anyone. Instead of watching characters slowly change and adapt, change their minds, realize their mistakes, while somehow continuing to be faithful to their own selves (e.g. Ulrich’s philandering; Hannah’s ruthless pursuit of him), what we see are pawns being moved around an invisible, vastly complex board. Inner lives and motivations remain invisible. The “counters” have labels attached putting them in a family tree—or a family copse, I should say, as there are several family trees here—as X’s son or daughter, wife or husband; or they are slotted into positions as best friend, girlfriend, boyfriend. But in the final season we learned next to nothing about how it feels to be them, to have become the person they are, to have suffered or caused suffering, to have achieved something or failed at it. There is just a game being played by other people, whose motives are as much black boxes as the various time machines they invent: their inner workings are almost wholly mysterious. After a while we began hoping for the end of the world just so we could go off and watch something else instead.

There are also last-minute “reveals”, as they say (what’s wrong with ‘revelations’? too biblical?) that come far too late for us to understand characters’ motivations. One especially striking example is that the watchmaker turns out to be driven to construct his time machine not merely by grief, but by guilt, which actually makes much better sense. His last conversation with his son had been more of an argument, in which his son furiously denounced him as unloving, cerebrally distant, and uninterested in his (the son’s) life. We also find out that Charlotte was given to the watchmaker by two unknown women to take care of, and we see him break the news to her with all the gentleness of a sumo wrestler—another sign of his emotional immaturity and coldness, perhaps, but that sign should have been given a lot earlier and with much more context. (In any case, who takes in a baby from two unidentified women, with no explanation, and without going to the authorities, even if they have lost a granddaughter? And: how did Hannah manage to make a life for herself in the 1950s without any ID?)

Now, writers and filmmakers often use love as a key explanatory factor precisely because it seems so mysterious. It takes a genius to fathom the enigma of why one person falls in love with another. The same holds for a parent’s love for a child, a bond so strong they will do anything to get their dead child back, including building a time machine or killing another child (as Ulrich tries to do)—except when they won’t do anything of the sort. Which brings us to the revelations that Katerina was abused by her alcoholic mother, thus explaining why she was such a bully herself; and that her mother was herself sexually abused as a child and had to have an abortion as a result. That kind of multi-generational damage is the stuff of which serious drama is made; here, like Katerina’s brutal murder at her mother’s hands, it was almost an afterthought—merely a device to get the St Christopher’s medal into the sand at the edge of the lake.

The constant switching between one- or two-minute long events was also off-putting. Maybe it was meant to keep our attention. If so, it failed. We found boredom creeping up on us like the tide of dirt that crept higher and higher up the faces of most of the characters (clearly combs and the secret of hot water had been lost at the Apocalypse). This ennui was varied only by mounting irritation with Adam’s and Eve’s sententiousness. Those bits of the higher gibberish meant to sound deep reminded me of a fridge magnet game I once had, consisting of about a hundred philosophical nouns and verbs and adjectives, mainly from metaphysics, that could be arranged in any order to produce loftily abstract, mysterious, but meaningless sentences. What’s more, Adam brazenly borrowed Lemmy Caution’s gravelly voice from a real sci-fi classic, Alphaville. Talk about cheap.

There was one scene, in the final episode, that almost made the wait worthwhile: when Adam/Jonas persuades Eve/Martha that they have to make one final journey back in time, to before that fateful car accident, and in turn persuade the watchmaker’s son to return to his father’s house instead of trying to drive home in a storm. When that happens a very moving version of ‘What a wonderful world’ begins, and so does their annihilation and the annihilation of all the other characters who came into being only because of that time machine. It is not that they simply choose not to be—they choose not to have ever been. It’s a real and demanding sacrifice, because they do love one another. Jonas ‘s final words to Martha are, of course, ‘We’re a perfect match. Never think anything else’—just before she disappears into nothingness. The only hint of something that survives is Hannah’s choice of the name ‘Jonas’ for her unborn child when she notices a yellow raincoat just like the one Jonas used to wear before everything went to hell in a handcart.

But the narrow confines of the series, which I take it were meant to make it manageable, actually made it more unconvincing. First, there seem to be only three or four families in Winden, who never see anyone else, never go anywhere else, never watch TV, never tell each other jokes, and never go on holiday. If a character arrives from some other place, their life elsewhere remains virtually unexplored and serves only as a signal that There is Something Mysterious About Them. Second, there is the almost complete absence of politics. The only political or politicized decision is to build (or not) the power-plant. In fact, Winden must be the only town in Germany where nothing—absolutely nothing—happened between 1933 and 1945. I suppose the writers didn’t want to get into the whole weird-Nazi-science scene, but I expect there will soon be a spin-off computer game called Winden: Die Zeitwunderwaffen.