The Odds are On God
The Spectator (UK)
A new version of Creationism in America
Darwinism is being questioned in America, says Elizabeth Nickson, and some scientists are turning towards a version of Creationism
IN America, the culture wars are so hard-fought that there is always a great deal of sartorial signalling going on. ‘I am a slacker geek, with closet literary ambitions’; ‘I am an upper-middle-class golf-club member who lives in a gated community and can wear diamonds during the day with impunity’, ‘I am a fierce lesbian activist’; ‘I am an aesthete who wears only Yamamoto’. And so on, one can note, all the tedious day long.
So it is with some relief that I find myself in the nave of a Methodist church at Seattle Pacific University, way over on the utopian edge of the continent, among people making no sartorial effort whatsoever except to be pleasant and not in my face. In fact, I could have slipped back in time. The young men beside me in the pew are fresh-faced and wearing ‘Canoe’, a simple scent popular among East and West Coast preppies in the mid-1960’s. They are polite, they make affable jokes, and the sexual-frisson level – despite a church full of 22-year olds – is remarkably low.
It is also probably safe to say that practically the only public place in the United States where you can leave, with confidence, a laptop on the back seat of a fairly new car is on the campus of a Christian university. Doors remain unlocked, 23-year-olds smilingly give way in traffic, and pasted to dorm windows are saying such as ‘Don’t make out in front of our window. It makes us ill.’
There are 2,000 or so such private universities across America: devout, orthodox, on the small side, some with respected academic programmes, some not. Seattle Pacific is respected most particularly for its liberal arts programme and its C.S. Lewis Institute. This, in tandem with the Discovery Institute, is on the night I am there, kicking off a conference called ‘Cosmos and Creator: God of Physics, God of Astronomy’. Speaking is the Revd Dr. John Polkinghorne, past president of Queen’s College, Cambridge, physicist and Anglican priest. If you think you’ve slipped through a colonial time-warp as well as a linear one, you would be right.
This slippage is exactly what its critics most hate about the parallel universe of devout American Christians. This world has, in the last decade or so, developed an increasingly respected intellectual culture which thrives most particularly in what are beginning to be called the red states, the states that voted for Bush, located in the great fat middle of the country. The science that the Revd Dr. Polkinghorne, Oxford’s Dr. Peter Hodgson, the youthful Dr. Steven Meyer and Father Robert Spitzer, cosmologist and president of the local Jesuit University, are discussing is considered by official culture (read the blue states) to be the intellectual Trojan Horse of religious conservatives. This science, they believe, aims to rejig the culture in a major way, along (naturally enough) more spiritual, conservative lines, and, most sinisterly, plans in some indeterminate way to link religion and old-fashioned morality to government.
It is hard to say, however, who is rejigging whom. While 90 per cent of the members of the National Academy of Science consider themselves atheists, 90 percent of Americans believe that God created life directly or by guiding a gradual process. Nevertheless, “government” or publicly funded schools cannot teach Creationism. That battle has been won. But there is now a science – backed by dozens of respected mainstream academics trained at Oxbridge or Yale – that posits a reasonable theory, using logic and argument, that the weight of evidence is that there just might be an overarching intelligent hand at work in our universe. That science is demonized, and some teachers who attempt to outline its most general parameters have been fired, demoted or fined. They, in turn, are made martyrs by the Discovery Institute, which is funded in large measure by a family foundation that is decidedly Christian in scope, set up by a couple of Ronald Reagan’s former aides.
‘Intelligent Design’, said the border guard, when I crossed from Canada into the United States. ‘That’s Creationism, right?” I nodded, just to get through the line-up, but it is not, or not precisely. And just in case anyone in the church that night was in error, Dr. Polkinghorne puts us straight.”The world is NOT,” Dr. Polkinghorne emphasizes, “6,000 years old.” Polkinghorne’s talk is about the friendship between religion and science, and how Christianity was, in 17th-century Europe, midwife to modern science, and that it is only in the last 100 years that the two have been separate. He teases us with poetry and myth: “The universe is rationally transparent and God has written two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. We are creatures made in the image of the creation, made up, literally, of bits of carbon from far away stars.”
He then puts forward one of the central theses of intelligent design, that the complex laws of physics, especially the physical constants such as the speed of light and the attractive force of gravity, are finely tuned to support intelligent beings like us — so finely tuned that the notion all these factors could have happened by accident is preposterous for us not to consider that it might have been designed. This is known as the anthropic principle. The odds against such a life-form as humankind developing are virtual infinity to one, or, as Dr. Guillero Gonzales later tells us, a billion raised to the power of a billion, raised to the power of a billion, raised to the power of a billion.
Put another way, these are the same kind of odds you’d take were you to lock a monkey in a room with a typewriter and expect him to be able, within five years, to type the collected works of Shakespeare. In other words, intelligent design proponents say our very existence is far more conducive to a theistic view of the world than to the chance materialist view of Darwinists.
This argument also includes what is known as the Galactic Habitable Zone. Once we discovered, through the Hubble telescope, what was really out there, says geophysicist Dr Stephen Myer, we began to overthrow Darwinism. In the first place, there seemed to be a need for an Unmoved Mover. It was in the 1920s, when astronomer Edwin Hubble showed us that the Milky Way was not the only galaxy and that the universe was expanding (thus proving some of Einstein’s theories), that Einstein himself, then a fierce materialist, looking through Hubble’s telescope on Mount Wilson said, “I now see there is a need for a beginning.”
A similar Earth-focused fine-tuning discussion is being developed by scientists like Dr. Guillermo Gonzales at the University of Washington. Dr. Gonzales explains that any habitable planet must not only be fine-tuned to support life, but also stable enough to allow scientists to make measurements. The relative transparency of our atmosphere, for instance, in our universe or any other, is a rare thing indeed. Without it we could not make observations about our place. Therefore, if I understand the argument correctly, there is a meaning in the fact that this planet is not swimming in uninhabitable opaque sulphuric acid. It means God is free and rational, and wants us to know Him.
Once we discovered what was really out there, says Dr. Meyer, it “challenged the idea that the universe was self-existent and self-creating, which are key propositions of a materialistic world view.” Well, erm, fine, but what about Darwin, I hear you asking. Well, Darwinian logic is Intelligent Design’s favourite target. According to natural selection, species are gradually transformed by random genetic changes that are preserved through natural selection. As changes accumulate over many generations, they may produce new limbs, tissues and organs. Given enough time, organisms may change so radically that they bear almost no resemblance to their original ancestor.
If the theory were true, the fossil evidence should show lots of gradual change, with one species slowly grading into the next. In fact, it should be hard to tell where one species ends and another begins. But that’s not what we find. This is what’s known, in ID circles, as the Cambrian fallacy. As Darwin himself noted, “The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, [must] be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graded organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.”
That problem remains with us today. Most fossil species appear all at once, fully formed, and change very little throughout their stay in the fossil evidence. Several years ago, this situation led noted paleontologist Niles Eldredge to remark, “Either you stick to conventional theory despite the rather poor fit of the fossils, or you focus on the [data] and say that [evolution through large leaps] looks like a reasonable model of the evolutionary process — in which case you must embrace a set of rather dubious biological propositions.”
Dubious science and massaging the evidence is precisely the charge levelled by Intelligent Design scientists against textbook writers and generations of scholars, including Einstein himself. This problem reaches dramatic proportions with the Cambrian explosion, which began about 530 million years ago. Over a period of only five to 10 million years, a flash of geological time, virtually every major animal group (or phylum) appears in the fossil evidence. This is precisely the opposite of what conventional theory would lead us to expect and something which makes ID proponents rub their hands with glee.
Furthermore, one of the most striking discoveries of recent genome research is the extent to which organisms differ from each other. While the human genome has about 30,000 genes, it has up to 300,000 proteins. As the genomes of more species are deciphered, researchers are finding that about 30 to 40 percent of the proteins in each gene are unique to that species. For humans that figure is a little above that.
These differences are so profound that microbiologists may have to adopt new methods for their research. Until recently, microbiologists have assumed that by studying one or two “model” organisms, such as E. coli (the most studied bacterium) and S. cerevisiae (yeast), they could learn about many other organisms. But that assumption may be about to topple.
According to biologist and philosopher of science Paul Nelson, “This is a remarkable, remarkable result.” If it turns out that these unique proteins have important functions and can’t be altered without harming the organism, this would be a major blow to Darwinism. “If that’s the case,” Nelson said, “then these genes have no evolutionary predecessors, and naturalistic evolution is in deep, deep trouble — and not because somebody wants the Bible to be true.”
Darwinian evolution works by accumulating small genetic changes. Large jumps are anathema because they are too improbable and look too much like miracles. Each gene, then, had to be crafted one small step at a time. But if a gene can tolerate little or no change, there can be no line of evolutionary predecessors. Hence, Intelligent Design.
That this theory could be immensely appealing to many people, there can be no doubt. Which is why, given the Bush presidency, and the fact that members of the Bush team were, last spring, extensively briefed on intelligent design, the battle has been joined in the popular press. Make no mistake, despite that East coast sheep’s clothing, Bush is a big middle, red-state robust Methodist with evangelical leanings, who knows that any group with authority to tell a culture’s creation story functions as a kind of priesthood. Intelligent design, because it travels light, is a big tent theory, which has begun to collect around itself such disparate groups as young earth creationists, Hare Krishna, Muslims and Jewish intellectual editors who write for Commentary.
Just how big the tent, is not hidden by Dr. Meyer and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute. Intelligent Design is nestled in that branch of the Discovery Institute called the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture, which claims that the materialism of the last 100 years has denied objective moral standards, claiming that right and wrong evolved to suit societal needs and personal preferences, that materialism undermined belief in personal responsibility, devised utopian political schemes, and advocated coercive government programs that promised heaven on earth, but produced oppression and genocide.
The battle is joined.
Behold the Bible Belles
Sunday Times Magazine
Also published in Sunday Herald (Scotland) World Press Review (U.S.) The Globe and Mail (Canada)
There are about 65 million born-again Christians in the United States, and 62 per cent of them are women. Any politician who discovers how to marshal them could lead America into a profoundly different future.
As she describes it, the fight against liberal values begins in the classroom. The OCA believes that homosexuals have infiltrated the schools and are recruiting children with the assistance of a federally financed bureaucracy. [Patricia Smith]’s files are filled with complaints from parents who disagree with Oregon school-board policy of non-discrimination on a sexual basis. In sex-education classes, the OCA claims, anal, oral and genital sex are taught as equal expressions of love.
Behold, the Bible belles
Eugene, Oregon — The girls come in drifts to this big modern house surrounded by 60-metre-high fir trees, arriving in expensive Jeeps or old bangers, late because this house is far from the university that most of them attend. Most are in their early 20s. They are fresh-faced, hip, pretty, wearing leather jackets, jeans and boots, uniformly clean-cut. Even the one black girl looks like a Gap ad. A few wear good jewellery. A couple sport significant diamonds on their ring fingers.
Shannon Kearney, their leader, chides them for their lateness, but teasingly, and they collect their Starbucks decaff and wander down the hall to her television room. Shannon, a tall thin 45-year-old blonde with cropped hair, is wearing jeans and a little eye makeup under her Armani frames. Settled, they join hands, bow their heads and pray.
When the prayer — long, intimate and punctuated by soft agreeable hmmms and thank-yous — is over, Kelly, a blonde with a bob, lifts her head. “I just want to say that what Casey said last week about the joy she found in submission to her husband was very inspirational.” Cries of agreement bounce around the room. Maggie, a thin dark girl wearing an impressive diamond, breaks in. “You have no idea how rich and how deep the relationship gets when you submit and let your husband assume his proper position. For you unmarrieds, I won’t go on, it’s too mean, but the surprises and joy are endless.” Eyes shine as they look at her. “Juan and I just go from healing to healing,” interjects Casey. “Thank you, Lord,” someone whispers.
This is the Monday evening Bible study group for young women with leadership potential, a near-perfect sampling of a new social group, dubbed “Bible Belles” by The Village Voice last year for their quasi-Southern, extravagantly feminine take on a steely biblical morality. Belles are born-again Christian women. They do not belong to the traditional Catholic, Presbyterian or Episcopalian churches, but to the booming evangelical and charismatic movement. There are tens of millions of fundamentalists across the United States, and their beliefs transcend all barriers of age, class, race and profession. To a woman, they are social conservatives. They believe in the submission of wives to their husbands, and that abortion and homosexuality are sins.
Tonight’s women have been chosen from the 3,000-strong Faith Four Square Centre in Eugene, one of 30,000 Four Square churches in the United States. Eugene, in central Oregon, is a university town, decorated with houses built in the antebellum style, with testosterone-rich frat houses, a stellar football team and old-fashioned American prosperity.
Casey is married to a former football star, a black man with whom she has two children, aged 3 and 2. The star of the Bible study group, she is a dark blonde, with a pretty face. There is a rightness, a certainty and a fineness about her that everyone wants to be part of. “There’s a lot of reconciliation in my marriage,” she says a few days later as she tells of her battle with the devil to save Juan.
Recent research reveals there are 65 million born-again Christians in the United States, representing one-third of the electorate. Of these, an estimated 62 per cent are women, mostly college educated; their average age is 40 and they have a median family income of $40,000 a year. They believe in “sacred motherhood” (raising children for Christ), “correct passion” (submission to husband as practice for submission to Christ) and, increasingly, in “kitchen table politics” — the recreation of intimate communities centred on a vibrant church whose literal interpretation of the Bible informs all aspects of social and political life. The belles have co-opted the gains of feminism and given them a new spin. They want an end to abortion and easy divorce, and they want a reduction of taxes to allow mothers to stay home with their children.
Though they are often painted with the same brush as Christian white supremacists, very few of the younger belles are racist; many of them work to integrate as many blacks, Hispanics and Asians into their communities as possible. Some of them are married to Promise Keepers, one of the many evangelical men’s groups.
When their children start to edge out of the nest, they often discover they have a “call.” They pray over it, then ask their husbands to “release them,” which means asking permission to serve God in the world. Sometimes, this call is to work in the church; increasingly, it is to work in politics, supporting the Christian Coalition, a powerful lobby group that has been key in moving the American political discussion far to the right.
Their role model is Elizabeth Dole, who resigned as head of the American Red Cross in January to consider making a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Any politician who discovers how to inspire and marshal these women could lead the United States into a radically different future. They are ready.
The morning after Bible study, I am in Shannon Kearny’s office at the Faith Center, a sprawling building that houses a large auditorium, offices, a school, a day-care centre and meeting rooms. Shannon’s husband is a corporate lawyer, her father was a federal judge and she studied art at university. She is Pastor of Family Services — her husband has “released” her to the ministry — and her main function is counselling.
Shannon is the troubleshooter for those in deep distress, most often in their marriages. This is what I am most curious about, the foundation of a Christian marriage: the submission and subjection of the wife and the authority of the husband.
“Scripturally,” she says, “the Bible talks about the husband being the head of the household; he is held accountable. That does not mean that he gets to be tyrannical or dictatorial; it means he is ultimately the man before God on behalf of our family. So my husband Mike one day is going to stand before Jesus and there is going to be a conversation between him and the Lord that I won’t have.”
Conservative Christian women believe that marriage is sacrosanct, made by God, and that the Bible’s instructions for a happy marriage guarantee happiness. Chief among the prescriptions is the submission of the wife to the husband, who then treats his wife “as Christ treated the Church.” Since Christ loved the Church and gave his life for it, belles expect their husbands to give them precedence, to treat them as queens. But, first, they must give their husbands final authority on all matters in family life. Shannon acknowledges this authority is often abused, but she says the solution to strife is prayer and the intervention of Christ as ultimate therapist. Shannon believes that, when she counsels, the Holy Spirit often speaks through her.
Shannon’s own marriage had its problems. Her husband was addicted to marijuana and subject to violent rages. Rather than get angry or nag him, she sat a prayer vigil for three years. Apparently, it worked. One evening, their little son followed him out to the garage, where he had gone to smoke. He came back into the house, with the dope in his hands, and asked her to get rid of it, saying he had decided to ask Jesus to come live in his heart. “Mike didn’t have to go through treatment. God talks in Scripture about having a renewed mind and a renewed heart and he changed [she snaps her fingers] like that.” Belle husbands, I note, have a sleek, happy, well-taken-care-of look, a bit like pampered pets.
Not surprisingly, there are many who view such groups with alarm, believing they create a climate of intolerance and hatred. Across Oregon’s Willamette River, Linda Kinst, associate professor of English at the University of Oregon and author of Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America , is a leading critic of the religious right.
“The question these women ask is not ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Whose am I?’ And whose they are is the adored child of a sheltering and loving God who seems to be the opposite of the forbidding father deconstructed by cultural theorists. He is the attentive father we wish ours had been, the perfect father there to comfort and care for us.”
What worries Prof. Kinst is that “this solace is located in precisely the same place as in the dangerous certainty of self-righteousness.”
This certainty has already been harnessed by the Republican radical religious right under the aegis of such organizations as the Christian Coalition, which has about a million members. Founded by evangelist presidential candidate Pat Robertson in 1989, it is an advocacy organization with a sophisticated training program to teach the faithful how to enter and then dominate local politics. The coalition trains 50,000 people a year through church-based seminars.
Because of this committed activism, Christian conservatives have become disproportionately powerful. In Oregon, one of the most liberal states in the Union, Christian conservatives dominate the State House, Senate, many school boards, the judiciary and sheriffs’ offices.
Christian conservatives want a complete revision of America, to make it a loose association of federated states with a strong national defence. They want the U.S. Congress defunded and disempowered. They want to devolve power to the states and, even further, to municipalities and counties, so that decisions are made at the local level.
A hundred kilometres north of Eugene in the state capital of Salem, the dingy offices of the far right Oregon Citizens Alliance overlook a desolate road. Some of the windows are boarded up, and iron grills cover the rest. The group’s 60-year-old research director, Patricia Smith, says she was shot at in her car; the bullet dinged off a tire rim. That affirms her importance. Almost every Christian activist in Oregon has been inspired by her call to arms.
“We are in a mighty war,” she says almost before I sit down. A statuesque woman amidst filing cabinets labelled “Homo” and “HomoPromo,” Patricia is the brains behind the organization’s initiatives to restrict abortion, ban euthanasia and sex education, create a school voucher system, and deny civil rights to homosexuals. “We could literally lose America in the next 10 years. People who don’t understand the factual information think I’m a loon, I’m flipping out.”
As she describes it, the fight against liberal values begins in the classroom. The OCA believes that homosexuals have infiltrated the schools and are recruiting children with the assistance of a federally financed bureaucracy. Patricia’s files are filled with complaints from parents who disagree with Oregon school-board policy of non-discrimination on a sexual basis. In sex-education classes, the OCA claims, anal, oral and genital sex are taught as equal expressions of love. Teachers in Portland-area schools have been ordered to refrain from using the words “marriage,” “husband” or “wife” because they are discriminatory, and to use the words “partner” and “partnership” instead. Three-year-olds come home from school talking about “sex” and “my body,” with picture books such as Daddy’s New Roommate or Gloria Goes to Gay Pride .
Christians such as Patricia believe that homosexual practices are an abomination to the Lord. They regard the fight against homosexuality as the most pressing political issue. They want, if not home schooling, then Bible schools, where creationism is given equal or greater weight than evolution, which they would like to see treated as a theory. They favour a system where abstinence and practical methods for resisting premarital sex are the only sex education, and a strong set of Christian values is taught along with English, geometry and geography.
Another 80 kilometres up the freeway, in Portland, Oregon’s biggest city, I stay with Lou and Marianne Beres, members of the Baptist Church, who style themselves as “prayer warriors.” Though they are more moderate than Patricia Smith, they are important political players in the battle. Lou, 62, is executive director of the Christian Coalition. He regularly fasts and prays for 40 days, is a passionate defender of Israel and an ardent political street fighter.
When I arrive at their Hobbit-like cottage in a prosperous old neighbourhood of Portland, I find that Marianne has been baking. Apple pies, cinnamon bread, cookies and chicken soup line the kitchen counters. She makes tea, then sits me down and asks whether I think I’m going to Heaven.
“Prayer,” she tells me after I nod halfheartedly, “is key. The activists wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if their beliefs didn’t come from prayer.” Every morning, Marianne gets up at five and spends two hours on her knees in her prayer room, running through a prayer list almost 100 names long.
Lou, who develops commercial real estate, owned a chain of pizza franchises, and Marianne has been proud to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. She counsels young married women from her church, chiefly in the ways of submission. “I say to them, ‘I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’ll like yourself when you do it.’ I know that this is an offence to some women, it’s so pervasive this thinking that we’re just as powerful as our husbands, but I look at it differently. I am just as powerful as Lou but in different ways. There is just one head of our household, otherwise there will be conflict. . . . Even if I don’t like it sometimes, I submit. And I don’t think I’m being a doormat, either.”
That evening, at what seems an interminable praise service, Marianne introduces me to Gail, an attractive bouncy woman of 38 who grew up in a Catholic family as one of five children. She whispers her story into my ear. “I learned how to get things for myself. I put myself through college, got a good job, I was very rational. But I frightened my husband because I could think so clearly. Parts of my marriage were so dark and despairing, no hope. Marianne taught me the Word: ‘Wives, submit unto your husband.’ She’d call to check and I learned to let him lead, to submit. We assumed the positions that the Lord wanted us to have and my marriage grew so rich and deep. I know that it will only get richer and the blessings will continue to flow in ways I can’t even imagine.”
Out of the next 16 waking hours, I spend 7½ in church and more time than I’d like to admit smoking in my car. I seem to have entered a parallel universe where up is down and Jesus has an almost palpable presence. Marianne is a gentle and sweet hostess; she waits hand and foot on Lou, who treats her with an off-handed jokiness, though it is clear that, without her, he’d be lost. Three of their four daughters call and drop in often, as do sons-in-law and grandchildren. We pray before every meal, and laugh often. There is an old-fashioned sweetness about this life, with Marianne as the anchor. I am both charmed and unnerved.
Lou and Marianne have me flying up and down the freeways of Portland meeting one Christian woman activist after another. Most are thoroughly middle class; they live in big houses in nice neighbourhoods, and most of their children are in college. Some are well-educated, though most of the houses are curiously bereft of books, magazines and art that isn’t religious. Their husbands are accountants, lawyers, doctors, or they own small businesses or software companies. They travel. They dress well. They are articulate.
They are also spurred by the fact that, to a woman, they believe we are in the end times of biblical prophesy: When tribulation falls, the holy are raptured up to Heaven, and on Earth, the Antichrist takes over, mobilizing the world under a malignant one-world government. They believe the millennium bug will enable President Bill Clinton to declare martial law, the first step to one-world government. It is one of the many indicators of the end times, along with the return of Russian Jews to Israel, the massing of Arabs to the north of the Jewish homeland, and the fires, floods, mudslides and earthquakes that have plagued the United States during the past few years.
We return, as everything in this story must, to the church. New Beginnings in inner-city Portland is an independent church. Its membership is expanding as attendance at the mainline churches declines. New Beginnings was started by self-confessed former drug dealer Larry Huch. Now he specializes in treating drug addiction, violence, obesity, anorexia and poverty. The congregation, which has grown from 10 to 5,000 in four years, is an extraordinary group. All races and classes, including ex-cons and street people, as well as the old, the young and the dying, mix it up with wealthy Republican Party stalwarts. The choir is uproarious, and a full rock band with horn section backs it up. Everyone sings in tongues, arms outstretched to welcome the Holy Spirit, a thousand unknown languages shouted out around me, everyone immersed in a sheer unashamed ecstatic trance.
Larry Huch’s wife, Tiz, is preaching today.
Lou Beres and I are sitting in the front row and before we know it Tiz has Lou stand up. “This is the fine man from the Christian Coalition who has those Voter Guides outside. Now we’re not telling y’all who to vote for [in last November’s midterm elections],” she says with a smile, “but take a look at them. This is a fine Christian man and it is your Christian duty to vote. It’s time the church took the love of God outside the walls,” she shouts. “We are taking dominion in as many areas as we can.” The congregation explodes in shouts, applause, praise and song.
The Bible belles, without question, are in ascendance.
In the past five years, they have developed a group of female legislators, activists, radicals, administrators, wordsmiths and politicians to get them what they want. And they have a growing youthful female charismatic ministry to fuel their passion. In Elizabeth Dole, they have a popular Christian woman who is skilled enough to woo the far right without alienating her moderate base, and to galvanize the apolitical — and their husbands — into supporting her.
After Ms. Dole introduced her presidential candidate husband at the 1996 Republican convention, many watching turned to their neighbour and said: “Why isn’t she running, instead?” Now she is.
For America’s Bible belles, the crusades are just beginning.
Married, With Clothing
What Happens when a Fashion Svengali Meets a Real Live Dress-Up Doll?
In 1993, Esquire Magazine nominated my husband as one of The 25 Best-Dressed Men (Living or Dead). His full-page photo (mismatched glasses frames, beret, silk cravats and vest made from different scraps of striped hunting silks) faced the Duke of Windsor’s quarter of a page. The Esquire editors were quite right; in the netherworld of the visually literate, he was a savant. Stylist, collector, designer, and sometime shop-keeper, he was a magnet for odd types who crawled out of the woodwork from everywhere to talk to him about …. shirts. And every English band that every appeared in The Face shopped in our closet when visiting New York.
We met in Toronto in our early twenties. He was on one of his lightning shopping trips to the city. I was finishing a graduate degree in arts administration at York University. He was enchanting, a mixture of Pee-wee Herman and Nicholas Cage, sputtering with enthusiasm, a Catherine Wheel of non-stop fun. I never had to think a coherent thought with him, which I loved, no doubt unwisely. For him I was a dress-up doll with an empty closet and an imagination tripped by a lifetime of Vogue subscriptions. I’d wear pretty much anything.
He always arrived with presents, an ecstasy beyond my wildest imaginings: suitcases full of vintage leopard print or Parisian samples from Mugler or Gaultier, Walter Steiger orange pumps, leather palazzo pants, couture Comme from Tokyo, a Liberty paisley wool challis dressing gown, silk capris in every colour of the rainbow, a 1950’s pony handbag. I remember crossing Balmuto Street one day in the rain a few months after I’d met him, looking down at my Maud Frizon leopard-print pony oxfords and thinking, “I will never be this happy again.”
He waited for me to graduate and we moved to a TriBeCa loft, where he insisted on a lot of dressing up and going to nightclubs. I had a job, and I’d crawl out of bed mornings to find that before he’d gone to sleep, he’d curated an outfit for me. Jacket, tie, pocket handkerchief, shirt, trousers, stockings were all carefully aligned on a hanger. Earrings clipped onto a pocket. Him still in bed, sleeping the sleep of the beautiful.
He taught me how to look at things. That’s right, that’s wrong, that’s so wrong. I learned that meaning had absolutely nothing to do with whether something looked good. Okay, not okay. Those were the key words. Meaning scurried to catch up – my discovery of which was greeted with his sigh of harried bemusement.
Our first years in New York we shopped together, though clothing continued to appear every evening as if by magic. On Saturday mornings he’d drag me uptown to the sixth floor of Bloomingdale’s, where we’d stalk the right bathroom cabinet, the right pots and pans, the right mirror, the right end table. It took hours and hours and I learned to pack a book and slide off into a corner till he’d root me out and drag me into a new fascinated contemplation. We looked at a Terence Conran sofa for eight months before we actually bought it. I began to understand the heretofore unforeseen pleasure of excruciating delay, a critical element in the gratification of the aesthete.
When I started to sneak off to Bergdorf’s and buy simple black dresses, our marriage was shaky. I wanted to look normal. I wanted to be normal. I was sick of being defined by my clothes. I guess I had started to grow up.
I moved to London and became a journalist. Even though the marriage was over, he used to come and stay and poke fun at my antics in the real world. For the first while he’d suggest what to wear, but finally he threw up his hands. I was his best student, he said. I had learned to use clothing a weapon, tool of seduction and protective covering. He could retire to the country and sell antiques out of his barn in upstate New York. His work was done.
In the Skin of an Elephant
In the skin of an elephant: literary daredevil Barbara Gowdy has a reputation for making the bazarre seem perfectly normal. Now she’s written a novel about the extradordinary adventures of ordinary African elephants [The White Bones]Nickson, Elizabeth. Saturday Night. Toronto: Sep 1998. Vol. 113, Iss. 7; pg. 56
Not exactly fully formed out of Zeus’s forehead. Her first novel, the “atrociously titled” (as Gowdy herself puts it) Through the Green Valley, published in 1988, was a capable historical romance written with the financial support of her second husband, Mark Howell, who was then the editor of the Mack Bolan Action Adventure line at Harlequin Books. The book is still a sticking point for Gowdy. “I didn’t think I could write a real novel, so I depended on the research. It’s very serious, earnest, Irish. I wish I’d written it ten years later when all things Irish came into being.” (Careful, there’s that sardonic Gowdy humour.)
Around the same time Falling Angels was published, Gowdy was broke, her marriage to Howell was breaking up, they were selling their farmhouse in the country, and while she had met and fallen in love “at first sight” with [Chris Dewdney, Gowdy]–her partner of almost nine years now–he too was in a relationship and had a very young son to consider and a much older daughter. Gowdy left Mark Howell for Dewdney. The relationship with Dewdney has been personally and creatively sustaining — he was the one who encouraged her to go ahead with The White Bone, despite her own doubts. “He makes me think in broader and more daring ways than I ever would, and he’s not frightened. He says, ‘If you want to write about elephants, what would stop you?'”
Gowdy serves tea with a practised air. Shortbread cookies sit on the table, but she eats almost none. She is very, almost painfully, nervous. She perches on the edge of her chair and leaps for almost any distraction: her bird (Mujibar, a New Zealand parrot that Gowdy is trying to teach to sing “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbing along” in the key of A major); the phone; the carpenter who’s banging away nearby (“She’s a writer too,” Gowdy says, as if hoping I’ll become more interested in the carpenter than in her); the sound of the hammer (“Michael Snow sound poetry,” she exclaims). Anything to distract her from the business at hand-herself. Again and again she brings the conversation back to Dewdney, almost as if saying his name and talking about him relaxes her. “He’s taught me how to respect every little bug and insect. I’ve seen Chris dangling a piece of string down the sink trying to save an ant.”»Jump to indexing (document details)
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Copyright Saturday Night Sep 1998
This is who you are: you’re a tall thin pretty blonde in a city that’s full of them. You’re one of the multitudinous “1950s club,” born at the half-century in the midst of what would become known as the most intemperate generation in history. You grew up in the uber-suburb of Don Mills, Ontario, “the first planned community in North America,” as you quickly learned to quip before anyone had a chance to jeer. There was nothing more, well…ordinary, than Don Mills — a place where all families had the same income and were housed in bungalows built on streets grouped around schools and a shopping centre. And nothing could be more normal than your childhood: every family had four kids and the neighbourhood was safe, a paradise of bookmobiles, back-yard sprinklers, and boisterous fifties fun.
Where to go? What to do? The same choices faced millions of young women all over the continent. University? Boring. You last a year. But you’re curious, a natural student even, and sit down to methodically read your way from Austen through to Zola. You move a lot, looking for a sanctuary, the perfect place where you can be yourself. You need to make a living, but you’re a little arty and you flounder: stockbroker, actor, editor, wife? It seems you have a voice — all Gowdys are musical, it’s part of being a Gowdy — so you decide you want to be a singer, then a pianist, well, maybe musical theatre, in any case a professional musician of some sort. You have this drive, this force inside that propels you to do something with yourself, but what?
Well, not what you might expect, which is become one of the best literary novelists in Canada (a country where there is no little competition for such a title), poised to break out into a much wider readership. With The White Bone, to be published this September, Barbara Gowdy could very well end up among the pantheon of modern literary stars, not only at home but internationally. Her story of the imperilled African elephant, told rigorously from the point of view of the animals themselves, follows a family of elephants as they quest for “The Safe Place” of legend, “a place of tranquillity and permanent green browse,” a refuge far from the killing fields of the ivory hunters and the ravages of the worst drought in elephant history.
Their search parallels that of their restless creator. “I’ve spent a lot of years of my adult life looking for a quiet place,” says Gowdy, who has moved twenty times around the Toronto area since leaving her childhood home, almost always renting until now. We’re sitting in the kitchen of her new house, a nest on an obscure side street, backing onto a park in Toronto’s leafy Cabbagetown. Bits of green tissue paper float in drifts over the pale yellow walls, marking the places where bumps and imperfections need to be replastered, sanded, and repainted. The four-storey house, with a single long room on each floor, is furnished as a poem to convention and designed for the sole comfort of someone who intends to spend much of her time at home. Sunlight floods each floor, and the sound of children playing in the park makes her wince several times during our conversation.
Gowdy is a perfectionist, fastidious to a fault, and the first to call herself neurotic. She has an almost inhuman sensitivity to sound. Beside her bed there’s an appliance the size of a Kleenex box from which emanates white noise — the sound of the ocean (“regular or irregular surf”), waterfalls, steady rain — to block out unpleasant sounds. (There’s another sound conditioner in her home office.) Still, she has to sleep with earplugs.
She received good advances for The White Bone and she’s spent a lot of the money on this house, including installing a gas fireplace in the basement in expectation of some kind of environmental catastrophe. “I was just horrified by the ice storm last year. I thought I could not survive in a community centre, because I’m a really light sleeper and I’m afraid of crowds, and I’ve been thinking,” she adds, “I look out at these trees and think, ‘Which will fall on the house in the ice storm?’ And I wonder whether we’re on a fault, and will it open? I don’t even mind dying, I just mind long suffering.”
This is a more sober-minded Barbara Gowdy, an entire evolutionary cycle from the writer/provocateur of years gone by, who specialized in saying scandalous things in public. She shocked a Liberal bigwig at a 1989 Writers’ Development Trust fundraiser, inviting him to eat her mother’s gallstones, which sat in a bottle of clear liquid she’d brought to the table. (They turned out to be peas.) She joked to the Montreal Gazette that she’d considered faking Tourette’s syndrome, saying it might work as a publicity ploy. She told The Toronto Star that she had worked at a securities firm to make enough money to drop acid, and informed both the same Star reporter and Peter Gzowski that, like one of her characters, she had affairs as a teenager with her married bosses so she wouldn’t have to work Saturdays.
Val Ross, an arts reporter for The Globe and Mail, muses that Gowdy’s acting out is a kind of calculated pre-emption. “She’s just poking you off balance to see how you react. She surprises you before you can surprise her.” In a 1992 article, Ross labelled it being “Gowdied. Hit in the face with a custard pie of the bizarre, served with a silken sauce.”
Gowdy, irritated that she keeps being called on her pranks, says she was young, cocky, and claims she has grown out of them. Novelist Susan Swan, a close friend of hers, says, “This is a bugaboo for Barbara. While she’s still an irreverent, daring being, she has grown more conservative in the last few years and she wants to be known for her work, not her stunts.”
Edgy on the eve of departure for a much needed summer vacation at a remote Ontario lake with her boyfriend, poet and essayist Chris Dewdney, Gowdy says, “I feel more responsible now. My concerns are more weighty, the things I’m thinking about are not the things I was thinking about then.” She feels burned by the press and is consequently wary. Her voice is precise and mannered, and she speaks almost as if she’s talking to a particularly slow child, carefully pointing out that she doesn’t write autobiographical fiction that is a thinly veiled look at her own life.
The White Bone took three years, the last of which entailed an almost nun-like seclusion, and Gowdy thought the novel might end up her “middle-aged folly.” Her last three books, including the Giller and Governor General’s Award-nominated 1995 novel Mister Sandman, entranced the critics with their hilarious, urbane, and ironic perspective on everything from nymphomania to necrophilia, and expanded the definition of what it is to be normal. The White Bone is a dramatic departure and therefore a huge risk. But it’s paying off. According to her editor, Iris Tupholme of HarperCollins, which is publishing the novel under its new HarperFlamingo Canada imprint, pre-sales to bookstores here and abroad have been “extraordinary.” And foreign rights have sold for six figures, in both the U.S. and the U.K.
“The themes are really, really big,” says Sara Bershtel, her U.S. editor at Metropolitan Holt, which will publish The White Bone as its lead fiction title in the spring of 1999. “I was amazed that she tried to do it and even more amazed that she pulled it off. It’s an effort to take in the whole world and she finds heroism in the ordinary, which is the most poignant thing about the novel. This time, Gowdy’s trademark weirdness is in the service of something comprehensible [for the average reader].”
The idea that a tale told from the point of view of African elephants could be more accessible than stories about human beings is subversively ironic — vintage Gowdy. The author says that she was not intending to comment on human behaviour through her elephants, but her titanic matriarchs operating under massive environmental stress remind me of nothing less than suburban stay-at-home moms using all of their intelligence, strength, and heroism to save their young. If we humans were under similar threat, I’d be the first one hiking to Don Mills, because I’d trust they’d be the ones we’d be depending on to find us food and shelter — to get us to a safe place.
Gowdy has always worked on the margins of literary fashion, pushing the envelope of what seemed possible. In sharp contrast to the extravagant literary lyricism that often leads Canadian bestseller lists, she writes a kind of hyper-realism, using a shorn, deceptively simple language to scrutinize extraordinary situations until they seem commonplace.
Mister Sandman and her 1989 novel, Falling Angels, describe families who, while outwardly normal, harbour bizarre secrets that marginalize them. In Falling Angels the mother is a drunk who neglects her children — she has thrown her first baby over the cliffs at Niagara Falls, then loses her will to live. The father is a philandering disciplinarian who makes a pass at the fat, sweet eldest daughter. Then there’s the youngest, Sandy, who as a teenager has a series of sterile affairs with older, married men. In Mister Sandman, the family is filled with secrets they have kept from one another: both parents are latent homosexuals, one daughter is the other’s secret mother, while a third is a nymphomaniac. Joan, the artist and linchpin of the novel, is a tiny, beautiful, and silent autistic who lives in a closet; her secretive family confide in her and she eventually finds a way to tell all the truths to the assembled clan. And as a sweetener, almost every page delivers a belly laugh, and, often, a benign, compassionate perspective that can only be called redemptive.
Her 1992 short-story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, sailed into the nether reaches of those living on the sexual margins of society. In the now infamous title story, a woman has sex with the cadavers in the funeral home where she works. (The movie version, Kissed, by Vancouver filmmaker Lynne Stopkewich, was the darling of the festival circuit two years ago and is now in theatrical release in Europe.) “Ninety-three Million Miles Away” describes an exhibitionist who spends a good part of the day posing in a window for a neighbour. Another story details the dilemma of a four-legged woman with two sets of sexual organs.
Throughout the publication of the stories and Mister Sandman, journalists commented on the almost prim, delicate Miss Gowdy living in her neat, tiny, white, and conventional Annex apartment. (Never mind that this wasn’t always the same apartment; the author lived in five different places around the University of Toronto neighbourhood during this period.) The combination of flagrant talent, outrageous subject matter, and surface conformity leavened with occasional reckless behaviour electrified the Toronto literary gang, and Gowdy became the subject of a great deal of conjecture.
Not without reason. Questions have been raised about how much of her own family life jibes with the dislocated families in her novels — she too was one of three sisters living with their parents in the suburbs, as in Mister Sandman and Falling Angels (although Gowdy also has a brother). However, her dedication in Falling Angels reads: “To my parents for not being the parents in this book,” and she says she is an appropriator, using elements of other people’s lives, not her own. Still, as Val Ross has pointed out (while not drawing any conclusions), there are recurring themes: difficult parents; “out of bounds” sexuality; children clamouring for attention, competing furiously among themselves. Houses or “home” loom large in her work; in her novels, each house has a distinct character. No reader will ever forget mute Joan’s closet, her refuge in Mister Sandman, or the back-yard bomb shelter and the roof of the house the mother frequents in Falling Angels. And in The White Bone, the search for home is what drives the story.
From the time she left home, the real Barbara Gowdy was slow to emerge. “Barbara growing up was always a weirdo,” says her long-time friend, author and critic Brian Fawcett. “She was one of those kids who didn’t mature until she was nineteen or twenty, and I think she came through the first part of her life thinking she was a space alien and her only way of dealing with the world was to feign normality. So she has this part of her that’s always been sub rosa, she looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”
At twenty-one, Gowdy married her high-school sweetheart, a marriage that lasted three and a half years, and began casting around for something to do. (She has lived with five men, including two husbands, and has in almost every case been the one to call it off.) After a year of theatre at York University, she got a job at a securities company and studied for the Canadian Securities Course, ranking near the top of her class. Nevertheless, it didn’t work. “No-one would have traded with me, I was twenty-two and I looked about fourteen.” Then, to finance her music studies, she joined Lester and Orpen publishers (later Lester and Orpen Dennys) as a three-day-a-week administrative assistant. “I never wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be in musicals and sing and dance, and then I wanted to be a pianist, but I’m not talented enough to be anything more than an enthusiastic amateur–it’s sort of my heartbreak.”
She was made an editor, then managing editor at the now defunct firm, and during this period, she started to write. “I had an urge to introduce fictional elements into other people’s work and I thought, well, maybe this is what I’m supposed to be, a writer, so I started writing and that came easily to me. It was what worked. I’ve always been passionate about the word and the sound and the meaning of it, but it didn’t occur to me that I could make a living at it. Still doesn’t, though I am.”
Music has informed her writing, however. It was what grabbed the attention of Patrick Crean, editor of her last three books at Somerville House, when the manuscript for Falling Angels fell on his desk. “It was amazing. I read five pages and I thought, ‘Good Lord.’ The voice was so strong and true and there was that musicality of the line. Add to that the way she pulls you unselfconsciously into the book. She’s a writer born.”
But not exactly fully formed out of Zeus’s forehead. Her first novel, the “atrociously titled” (as Gowdy herself puts it) Through the Green Valley, published in 1988, was a capable historical romance written with the financial support of her second husband, Mark Howell, who was then the editor of the Mack Bolan Action Adventure line at Harlequin Books. The book is still a sticking point for Gowdy. “I didn’t think I could write a real novel, so I depended on the research. It’s very serious, earnest, Irish. I wish I’d written it ten years later when all things Irish came into being.” (Careful, there’s that sardonic Gowdy humour.)
“She had very little confidence,” says Fawcett. “The novel was competent, but without any of her stuff — her wicked sense of humour and her determination to see normality where everyone else was just hiving off and boiling it down and making the world smaller.”
Through the Green Valley was published in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. to general indifference. In the meantime, her short story “Disneyland,” published in the U.S. journal North American Review that same year, was chosen blind by Margaret Atwood from a field of 2,000 for The Best American Stories, 1989. “Disneyland” is the story of a father who, after promising to take his three daughters to the theme park, makes them spend their holiday with him in a back-yard bomb shelter. Hilarious and provocative, it formed the nucleus of Falling Angels, and the real Barbara Gowdy finally stood up.
“She was on a self-directed journey for a long time, developing and hiding her secret talent–leading an inauthentic life which didn’t connect with who she was or who she could be,” says writer David Young, who’s known Gowdy for a decade and Chris Dewdney for twenty years. “She’s travelled an enormous distance from who she was in her early thirties.”
Around the same time Falling Angels was published, Gowdy was broke, her marriage to Howell was breaking up, they were selling their farmhouse in the country, and while she had met and fallen in love “at first sight” with Dewdney–her partner of almost nine years now–he too was in a relationship and had a very young son to consider and a much older daughter. Gowdy left Mark Howell for Dewdney. The relationship with Dewdney has been personally and creatively sustaining — he was the one who encouraged her to go ahead with The White Bone, despite her own doubts. “He makes me think in broader and more daring ways than I ever would, and he’s not frightened. He says, ‘If you want to write about elephants, what would stop you?'”
Well, perhaps the marketing department of your average publishing house. No matter, she forged ahead and created an extraordinary work of imagination and craftsmanship. Written in the elephants’ own language, with their distinct cosmology — complete with creation myths, spiritual beliefs, hymns, and superstitions — The White Bone first enchants, then seduces. Gowdy has stripped her writing of any metaphor that could be construed as human in order to show the internal world of the elephant: sexual, rampant, sophisticated, philosophical, hilariously funny, mystical, knowledge-hungry, sweet-hearted, and exquisitely mannered. She meticulously details the physical world they swim in: their weeping in deep gurgles, their celebratory group defecations, sperm so hot it splats on the ground and steams, the brutality of the threat they face from the environment, as well as their social, political, intellectual, and spiritual lives.
“Certain scientists are now admitting that animals have emotions, and consciousness, and if animals have emotions, then they have stories,” Gowdy says. “Watership Down, Animal Farm, those adult stories were told for the sake of illuminating human behaviour, whereas I just wanted to imagine elephants. I really had to watch my vocabulary. I couldn’t use words of human experience, words like fine-tune, mechanically, personality. Often the right word, the word I needed, couldn’t be used. It wasn’t an elephant word.”
Elephants are matrilineal, and travel in families led by the matriarch. In The White Bone, they are guided by the visionaries among them, by prescient dreams, and by symbols found in ordinary dreams over which they argue like Jungians in a snarl. There’s also a “mind-talker” in each clan, who can communicate with other species and who can listen to what the others think (with the exception of the matriarch, which is forbidden). The book opens with an amusing scene about a cow elephant losing her birth name, Mud, now that she is with calf. All mature females have a name that’s some variation on “She.” (She-Spurns is what the other cows decide on for Mud, much to her distress.)
Sexuality is handled brilliantly. This is how Tall Time falls in love with the young Mud: “… the earth tilted, the sun flashed, his sense of smell bristled, assaulting him with a thousand queer scents. He was no longer aware of where he was…. Then he caught a sliver of her nascent cow odour and his penis shot out under his stomach, and Mud squealed and ducked beneath She-Scares…. There was a silence, broken finally by She-Sees, who said, ‘My dear, you are a marvellous length. A shame really that none of us is in our delirium.’
“‘But thank you, nevertheless,’ She-Snorts called.”
The males roam solitary or in small bachelor herds, meeting at the annual Long Rains Massive Gathering to “dig calf tunnels” (mate), battle, and celebrate, but they are not marginal or delinquent, just purely, gloriously male. It is we humans who are evil. We show up as “hindleggers”–stunted, venal, pitiable, fallen she-ones, who viciously murder elephants and saw off their tusks and feet. Some of us are redeemed, however, in the Safe Place, where we are said to moon over the elephants (like tourists), entranced.
In the summer of 1996, Barbara Gowdy travelled to Kenya with her sister and closest friend, Beth Kirkwood, along with Kirkwood’s two boys. “I couldn’t write sensuously, organically, unless I could smell the air, see the sky, the landscape,” she says. “I had to see them in their world. When I see elephants, I get the feeling other people get when they enter a cathedral. I’m in awe.”
Older by a year and a day, and a stock-market genius by all accounts, Kirkwood, who runs her own junior exploration company that searches for diamond and gold mines in Botswana, funded the trip. “We were our own matriarchal elephant herd,” she jokes, “with the two boys still young enough to be with the women.”
On safari, an adolescent bull charged their jeep, trumpeting toward them, ears raised, churning up a dust cloud. The tour guide stepped on the gas, the children screamed. But Gowdy yelled at the guide to stop. “I spoke with great authority, saying that this was a mock charge. His trunk was up and I knew the trunk would be down if it was real. We were really close to the herd, I couldn’t leave. I’d travelled so far to see them.” Gowdy mocks herself as she tells this story, but her passion and strong will are clear.
The White Bone is partially a long meditation on memory and the supposition that the elephants are the sum of all their memories. When they start to lose them (the memories “leak,” becoming shadow memories), the elephants themselves start to wane. “Your life, as you experience it, is the She recollecting what She has already imagined,” She-Demands tells young Mud and Date Bed. “We are memory. We are living memory.”
“Elephants, we think, have a perfect memory,” Gowdy says. “Daphne Sheldrick [who runs an animal orphanage in Kenya] says that calves whose mothers were murdered wake up screaming in terror for the rest of their lives.”
The capacity of elephants to remember — and to mourn — was Gowdy’s inspiration for the novel. One evening five years ago, she was watching a TV documentary, riveted. “There was a part where the elephants came across the bones of not only their own kind but the bones of a close family member. They got real quiet and picked up the bones. Cynthia Moss [the narrator of the documentary, who has studied African elephants for years and worked to save them] believes that they recognize their own because they spend much more time fondling the bones of a close family member — they touch each other so often, they’re constantly putting their trunks in each other’s mouths, that they know the shape of the bones. Then they turned their backs to the bones and lifted one hind foot and passed the foot over the bones. Moss said she’d been watching this for twenty-five years and you’d almost think that there was some sort of emanation coming from them. And I just got shivers down my back.”
Death features prominently in The White Bone and the manner in which the elephants die is one of the most salient and telling parts of their characters. The loss of memory is almost another death, though in Gowdy’s case, perhaps, the loss of some memories would be a blessing. Her father’s death of lung cancer in September, 1996, also fuelled her story. “I can’t live life so lightly any more, tread the earth so lightly. Things that were funny to me are no longer funny. His death was seminal, because I thought about memory a lot. I wish I didn’t remember so much, because I wouldn’t regret his passing so much. I wish I didn’t have such an intimate memory of his cough, for instance, then I wouldn’t be so burdened with the pain of remembering him so sharply when he left.
“I have a dream once a week where my father is still alive. In one version he’s sitting at the end of my bed, smoking a cigarette of course, saying he had to come back to finish a fence, that they let you do that in heaven, and when he leaves — well, I lose him all over again.”
But despite the mysticism, visions, telepathy, and the elephants’ belief in the She and a kind of afterlife, Gowdy herself does not believe in a life after death. “There’s no empirical evidence of it, it feels more like a wish or a hope. When my father died, I knew he was walking through that door into nothingness. More than anything, I wanted to save him, accompany him.”
Gowdy’s family is close, and has become even closer in the two years since her father’s death. And, in fact, says Gowdy, in a rare confidence about her work jibing with her life, she and Beth are like the passionate friends Mud and Date Bed in The White Bone. Kirkwood’s two teenaged sons, vegetarians like their aunt, often bike down to Gowdy’s place for tea. She’s also devoted to her two young nieces, the daughters of her younger sister, Mary.
There is this matter of having children, or rather not having them. “I always thought I’d have children and in my later thirties and early forties, I had a crisis where I’d weep a lot, particularly at diaper commercials. I love children and I’m very close to my nieces and nephews. I love how their minds work, their stunning beauty, their skin and teeth. But when I met Chris, I was thirty-nine and he had two kids, and it would have been complicated.”
But it wasn’t until the chance was slipping away in the late eighties that her writing voice became increasingly clear and strong, almost as if she were waking from a dream. “I feel no regret. I couldn’t have written and been a mother-one child would equal five books for me, since it takes me three to four years to write a book,” Gowdy says, adding that she can’t compartmentalize like the prolific Fay Weldon who does have children. “In fact, I find my hackles being raised when I see people with three kids. I mean, what is this? There’s too many of us, there’s no room for any other creatures, we’re the planet’s AIDS virus, we’ve got to control ourselves. It’s not like go forth and multiply is an edict that makes any sense right now.”
In another one of Gowdy’s fiercely personal choices, she and Dewdney do not live together, even though they are so highly compatible she can see them being with each other forever. “We did live together for a year, but with circumstances regarding my divorce and his break-up, it required us to be separate. Now we do talk about living together in our waning years and we imagine building a place in the country with separate wings. What shared rooms would we have? A shared kitchen? No. A shared living room? No. Then we end up with just a tunnel that our animals would go through –” Gowdy laughs.
“Half our friends ask, ‘When are you guys going to move in together?’ and the other fifty per cent envy us,” Dewdney tells me over the phone later, his speaking style as measured as Gowdy’s. “We are each other’s optimal conversational partner, which is great, because outside of physical intimacy, conversation is what makes a relationship work.”
“What we share is a love of natural history,” Gowdy says. “He’s been teaching me how to look. His gaze is a very animal gaze, in that it’s outwards. If Chris is going along the highway at a hundred and twenty, he’ll stop for a beautiful tree or flower.”
Gowdy serves tea with a practised air. Shortbread cookies sit on the table, but she eats almost none. She is very, almost painfully, nervous. She perches on the edge of her chair and leaps for almost any distraction: her bird (Mujibar, a New Zealand parrot that Gowdy is trying to teach to sing “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbing along” in the key of A major); the phone; the carpenter who’s banging away nearby (“She’s a writer too,” Gowdy says, as if hoping I’ll become more interested in the carpenter than in her); the sound of the hammer (“Michael Snow sound poetry,” she exclaims). Anything to distract her from the business at hand-herself. Again and again she brings the conversation back to Dewdney, almost as if saying his name and talking about him relaxes her. “He’s taught me how to respect every little bug and insect. I’ve seen Chris dangling a piece of string down the sink trying to save an ant.”
Finally Gowdy blurts, “I do this, buying a house and renovating so I don’t have to think about my book and how it’s being received. Writing’s not a safe thing. You’re only as good as your last book, you’re constantly thinking about what else you can do if no-one wants it.” She launches into a story about how in the early stages of The White Bone, while she was feeling worried about the book–one of those bad patches during which she envied everyone who had a normal job — she sometimes watched her letter carrier through the window. “She was a woman of about my age and she had her dog following her around, and I love dogs. I found myself wistfully thinking, ‘Look at you, look at your real life.'”
Scrupulously polite, Gowdy shrugs, and gets up to put more water on to boil — reluctantly, for she badly wants me to go. “It seemed so much more noble than what I do. Writing can feel like an indulgence in vanity, whereas it’s necessary to give people what they get through the mail.”
How I Got Real in 80’s Soho
The National Post
How I got real in ’80s SoHo:; [National Edition]
When We Were 20
Elizabeth Nickson. National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: Nov 15, 2003.
It was a distinctly non-verbal culture. Jay McInerny and Tama Janowitz were late arrivals, and arguably never found another subject. It was all about how you looked, and what you made: music and art, design and fashion that threw the culture back in its face. Everything had to subvert. Andy Warhol, the Prince of Subversion, ruled. His photography, as it should be, is salted throughout [Patrick McMullan]’s book, his tongue rolled out lasciviously in the downtown salute, and he policed every party, every opening, endlessly searching. The desired reaction to elicit from Andy, whether because of your work or beauty or dress, was a sharp intake of breath through his teeth. Everyone wanted that. It was the ultimate accolade, albeit mysterious and usually not cashable.
South of 14th Street, when every night was an South of 14th Street, when every night was an event
There are a few indelible incidents from my first weeks in SoHo in 1980. One is this: I am walking up Greene Street, approaching two college girls who are sitting on a loading dock, rating everyone who comes by. “Real,” they pronounce, as a scruffy paint-spattered boy walks by in front of me. “Not Real,” they assert, as a gaggle of self-conscious tourists comes along. When it is time for my brief scrutiny, I am judged, loudly, “Not Real.” Then, muffled laughter.
My skin crawls remembering that embarrassment when I look at Detail’s photographer Patrick McMullan’s record of that time, so80s: A Photographic Diary of a Decade. Of course I was not real, despite my carefully chosen vintage flecked-tweed coat, and National Health clear plastic glasses frames. I was a thoroughly suburban Canadian girl, a year out of college, and everyone in the world was hip but me.
The other incident had me ending up at St. Vincent’s, the famous Greenwich Village hospital, provoked by too much excitement to gastroenteritis, and marvelling — despite my agony — at the catastrophic messiness, the extraordinary parade of people and the evident lack of funds,
Four years later, I belonged. A friend looking at a photograph of me in those days, said, “You look like you’d been hijacked.” If so, it was entirely voluntary. With my husband, I owned a echt hip vintage clothing shop in SoHo called New Republic. Staggering as it was to us, not only were we real, people wanted to be us.
When we dragged our bickering selves to the Odeon for dinner at 11 every night, after throwing all the workers and wannabes and customers out of our warehouse and store, we got the best table. Harvey Keitel would come over to continue his endless negotiations over the purchase of a full-length black-leather storm-trooper trenchcoat, a product so expensive and so rare and so apparently disgustingly desirable that a single sale of one would take care of our payroll for a month.
By then, St. Vincent’s was the AIDS hospital, sex had turned deadly and people we knew were starting to sicken. Uptown was beginning to encroach. Lofts that had rented for $500 a month were suddenly selling for a million. Dentists and stockbrokers were forcing the artists to move to Williamsburg and Hoboken, and chains were opening shops around the corner, causing a great deal of noisy despair. The boom was starting.
But in the meantime, it had been four years of the most extraordinary party. The SoHo Weekly News chronicled every performance and opening, and Danceteria and the Mudd Club (the latter across the street from our freezing un-insulated loft) were the top clubs for those who were “Real.”
Debbie Harry rained her incandescent beauty down on every party, the Ramones still played at CBGB’s, Chrissie Hynde slugged Ray Davies on the dance floor of the Peppermint Lounge one night, and dropped him with one blow. Madonna was everywhere, a virtual unknown, one of 5,000 club girls wearing lace and leather.
The Wednesday night Bowling Club was started by friends, representing the apogee of achievement to our minds, and Details launched itself on thick greige stock, shaped like a book, directed exclusively to culture south of 14th Street. Like the social world it covered, it was jokey, conceptual, unabashedly nonconformist.
Calvin Klein and Bianca Jagger and Halston ruled uptown, and Patrick McMullan shot them, too. But they were secondary, big ponderous stars who slowly rotated in their narrow spheres, eliciting endless homage from bridge and tunnel punters. Downtown, we didn’t care, we found them ridiculous and old. Downtown, celebrity was being created anew and it had nothing to do with commerce or Studio 54.
Even the punk stars were secondary to our chosen personalities, even David Byrne gave way to people of whom you have never heard: dominatrix and fur designer Larissa, the pneumatic Diane Brill, club impresario Rudolf, (Canadian) photographer Marcus Leatherdale, It- girls Terri Toye, Chi Chi Valenti, Cookie Mueller, the Bat Girls.
It was a distinctly non-verbal culture. Jay McInerny and Tama Janowitz were late arrivals, and arguably never found another subject. It was all about how you looked, and what you made: music and art, design and fashion that threw the culture back in its face. Everything had to subvert. Andy Warhol, the Prince of Subversion, ruled. His photograph, as it should be, is salted throughout McMullan’s book, his tongue rolled out lasciviously in the downtown salute, and he policed every party, every opening, endlessly searching. The desired reaction to elicit from Andy, whether because of your work or beauty or dress, was a sharp intake of breath through his teeth. Everyone wanted that. It was the ultimate accolade, albeit mysterious and usually not cashable.
We were all so young! Look at the photos. Even Andy was young in 1980. Patrick McMullan was a baby, Robert Mapplethorpe was an impish innocent. John Michele Basquiat looked like the wholesome middle- class black kid he was — it took him seven years to morph into the mad, semi-starved, smack-addled fashion freak whose brain was eaten by AIDS.
And that was the secret. This was a party thrown by and for the outcasts and freaks, the art-school classes of every suburban high school across America, Europe and, finally, Japan. If you were rich, you hid it or moved uptown. A good family counted against you. Talent, beauty and style, in descending order of value, were currency. And beauty had to be odd, multi-racial if possible, and always with a kink.
The early ’80s south of 14th Street birthed the beginning of design culture for the masses, the celebration of an aesthetic that did not depend on patrician values. And that alone was cause for a party. Every single night someone opened something, usually at a club, sometimes at a gallery, followed by a big dinner, followed by dancing. Most people went to bed at dawn and got up to work the next day. And there were a lot of drugs.
Heady. You had to be 20. If you were not 20 you would not survive, and many didn’t. On every fourth page of this book is a photograph of a fresh-faced creature from a solid family in Illinois who died 15 years later, at 35, in a walk-up tenement on the Lower East Side, grateful for his Time-Warner cable feed and the food truck from Gods Love We Deliver.
In the meantime, these kids remade the world. In her new book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, economist Virginia Postrel traces how in this expressive age we are in the midst of creating a society of aesthetic plenitude and pluralism. The gradual transformation of the dull monoculture of ’70s suburbia was begun by the kids who lived and died in the pages of Patrick McMullan’s so80s.
[Illustration] Black & White Photo: Billy Idol, Perri Lister, and Ron and Jo Wood at Lister’s birthday party at the Cat Club (1984),…; Black & White Photo: …Grace Jones at a dinner party in her honour (1984).; Black & White Photo: Madonna, Lisa Robinson and Steven Meisel at David Lee Roth’s birthday party at Area (1984),…; Black & White Photo: …Drew Barrymore, almost 11, at Pia Zadora’s party at the Palladium (1986),…; Black & White Photo: …Corey Haim and Corey Feldman at the Tunnel (1987).; Black & White Photo: Carmille Johnson, Cookie Mueller, Andy Warhol and Dianne Brill at Brill’s birthday party at the Tunnel (1984),…; Black & White Photo: …Chris Makos and Debbie Harry at Studio 54, (1980).
Diana: Saint or Slut?
The Globe and Mail
Diana: saint or slut? A year after her death, ghouls of various stripe keep digging at the grave of the late, and moistly lamented, Princess of Wales. For some, like Lady Colin Campbell, she was a deceitful nymphomaniac; for others, like Julie Burchill, she exposed the hypocrisy of the upper class.
Elizabeth Nickson. The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.
Lady [Colin Campbell] then launches into her main thesis, concerning [Diana, Princess of Wales]’s gluttonous sexual appetite. The first shibboleth she goes after is Diana’s much-reported virginity at the time of her marriage. Rubbish, says Campbell, and she serves up some whooshy reporting to “prove” her point, though how a 19-year-old in 1989 could manage to stay virginal and hold up her head in Sloane Ranger society in Central London is beyond me.
A year after her death, ghouls of various stripe keep digging at the grave of the late, and moistly lamented, Princess of Wales. For some, like Lady Colin Campbell, she was a deceitful nymphomaniac; for others, like Julie Burchill, she exposed the hypocrisy of the upper class.
IF there is anything more craven and grotesque than these two dismal crows — Julie Burchill and Lady Colin Campbell — feasting on the corpse of Diana Windsor, I pray you not to show it to me.
Julie Burchill, a youngish tabloid columnist, trashy novelist and major mouth with permanent dyspepsia, who formerly spent much of her career hurling insults at Diana in her column in The Mail on Sunday, has now, upon Diana’s canonization by “the people,” climbed on the anti-monarchist bandwagon with slavering unctuous prose wrapped in the form of a coffee-table book, filled with lush photos, and called, unimaginatively enough, Diana .
Lady Colin Campbell, in direct contrast, is almost certainly in the pockets of Prince Charles’s cronies and if you want to read the Windsor version of what Diana did to them, then The Real Diana is for you. Neither work serves up a pretty picture. Furthermore, it is certain that neither book has the faintest relation to any truth but the one that will best serve the author’s own advancement. Burchill is after the hip young readerette who is secretly fascinated by Diana; Campbell is after the one who wants the dirt. Both admit they have big central-London mortgages to pay and school fees that would blanch the face of any Forest Hill or Westmount resident.
Another late-summer book, Dressing Diana , by one of her long-time tabloid photographer-pursuers, Tim Graham, and a fashion reporter for the Independent, Tamsin Blanchard, is all about her clothes — engagement to grave, as it were. A fourth, After Diana ,is a collection of essays by British left-wing academics and essayists attempting to grapple with a phenomenon who (as most of them thought throughout her life), if she had had an IQ five points lower, would have had to be watered. This perhaps is the most amusing of the four summer Diana books: its sub-text being the outright flummoxing of much of the British left, who had dedicated their lives to protecting “the people” and were pretty much horrified by “the people’s” dedication to Diana.
Reassuringly, sense of a sort prevails in the keynote essay, by Oxford modern-history don Ross McKibben, who soothes us with “a democracy which admired her with such intensity is both incomplete and immature and will always exclude those who apparently made up her ‘constituency.’ ” Phew! Glad we’ve got that straight, Ross.
All kinds of people were bouleversé by the Diana phenomenon, not just left-wing academics and right-wing pundits furious about emotion leaking into their tidy worlds. Diana managed to insinuate herself into just about everyone’s world, as these books make clear, and no analysis could make her go away.
Her appeal was largely visual, not textual, nor even contextual. She was eye candy of the first water: It took $7,500 a week in beauty treatments (her hairdresser, Sam McKnight, charges $5,000 a day, though presumably she only used an hour of his time each morning) to maintain her by the end of her life, according to a story leaked to the tabloids in 1994 by Prince Charles, and picked up by Burchill. She needed colonics, acupuncture, aromatherapy, astrologists, manicures, pedicures, hypnotherapy, holistic massages and one of the top make-up artists in the world to make her glow the way she did. And by the end of her marriage, it was a necessity, her job, and the only way we would allow her to be.
She was also a black hole of attention. No matter who you were, if you were within her orbit eventually you had to pay homage. Her lust for admiration and love was unquenchable and it did eventually kill her.
In the meantime, she feathered a lot of pockets, inspired the shifting of a lot of tax dollars from education to couture clothes, and sucked press ink like smack. What it says for our own capacity for self-delusion is quite another thing. Diana was a spoiled aristocrat who lived among other spoiled aristocrats who did just about anything for public money, corporate money, newspaper money, foreign money, Arab money, mob money, just as long as they didn’t actually have to do anything boring like work. Lunch? In those lives, it’s huge. But she was our real-life Truman. We knew so much about her and in such amazing amounts of detail, that she was more than a sister, daughter, best friend, and when we lost her, we lost a member of our own family.
Let us, for fun, turn the tables on Lady Colin Campbell, match her, as they say, stroke for stroke. Everyone in London society says that Colin Campbell is a sex change. She is famous for it; however, no one will go on record saying such a thing, because everyone is far too well bred. Besides, she has powerful former in-laws and is rather powerful herself, having written three books trashing the reputation of the late Princess of Wales. However, I can tell you personally that she has a suspiciously deep voice. In fact, my former social secretary, Anne Hodson-Pressinger, whose mother, Lady Torphycan, is the best friend of the Queen Mother, says “Lady Colin has always had something very peculiar about her,” while demurring that she doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. But hypothetically speaking, Anne continues, everyone knows that all sex changes are deeply jealous of successful real women. So therefore her biography is bound to be poisonous.
Lady Colin writes 308 pages of just such slander, in precisely the same manner, with almost no attributed sources for the worst of her accusations; many fancy attributed sources on other points, all of whom say completely anodyne things; and lots of flat-out fantasy writing, much of which could only have been fed to her by the self-libelling dead princess (channelled no doubt), the Queen or the Prince, detailing Diana’s pre-marital lovers, her sexual voracity, her dozens of postmarital lovers, her psychosis, her clinical depression, her vengefulness, her self-centredness, her competitive streak, her luxury-loving, her crying jags, her constant screaming at the Prince of Wales, her wild mood swings, her calculation and manipulation of the press and public, her lying, deceit and her “if not fully fledged paranoid-schizophrenia, then her borderline personality disorder.”
If you can stand such flagrant character assassination of someone not even dead a year, then this book will ring your bell.
The first victims of Campbell’s venom (and one suspects Prince Charles’s revenge) are the Spencers. Diana’s father, Earl Spencer, is established as being stupid and venal (based on nothing but unattributed gossip): He beat Diana’s mother, which is why she left him, and then proceeded to steal her children using the courts. Diana, apparently, in one of her many irrational opinions, never forgave her for leaving, even though she knew that her mother Frances was being hit and humiliated regularly.
Lady Colin then launches into her main thesis, concerning Diana’s gluttonous sexual appetite. The first shibboleth she goes after is Diana’s much-reported virginity at the time of her marriage. Rubbish, says Campbell, and she serves up some whooshy reporting to “prove” her point, though how a 19-year-old in 1989 could manage to stay virginal and hold up her head in Sloane Ranger society in Central London is beyond me. She then launches into descriptions of Diana’s extramarital lovers, who include the King of Spain, men-about-London Phillip Dunne and David Waterhouse, along with the usual suspects, James Hewit and James Gilbey. The 17th Earl of Pembroke, claims Campbell, was her first lover — older, sophisticated and virtually chosen by the court in 1983 to tame Diana’s lustful needs. Campbell has no one reputable on the record to bolster this particular strand of her story.
After her separation, according to Campbell, Diana bedded everyone not nailed down, and quite a few who were (by virtue of marriage). She liked them “hunky and chunky” and loved to compete against other women, though she pretty much always lost. She was desperate for love, or attention, and when she didn’t get it, she hurled herself into mental illness, which was almost always triggered by bulimia and solved by more holidays, more therapists, more shopping and another dive into on-site, first-hand charity, where she was admired and loved just about the way she wanted to be, as a saint, goddess and supermodel combined.
Campbell asserts that Diana was mentally ill, to the point of psychosis, and the court was pretty much under her control, because essentially no one knew what she would do next and therefore tiptoed around her like she was the time-bomb she turned out to be. Campbell’s prose and world view owes a great debt to Jackie Collins.
Burchill’s Diana , in sharp contrast, is occasionally well-written, often witty and only periodically scum-like. She errs only in idealizing the late Princess, for the seeming purpose of advancing the anti-monarchist cause. For Burchill, the Royal Family is a “dirty great con,” Charles is a “Graeco-German brigand,” the Queen “cruel and hypocritical.” She wants them gone, and eulogizing Diana, and bolstering her story of being a victim of a cold and uncaring courtier class, is the way she has chosen to fight. It is probably safe to say that Burchill reflects the opinion of many educated Brits under the age of 35.
Her main thesis is that the society surrounding Diana was and is corrupt, and that Diana, by being honest and emotional and vulnerable, exposed them for what they are and sent them barking for the hills. She writes, as few have convincingly, about the unique oppression of upper-class women, who are used as brood mares then, knee-hobbled, put out to pasture, while their husbands frolic. These women, claims Burchill, are punished with the full weight and power of their class if they step out of line and she admires Diana’s bravery for so doing.
Burchill, however, does not admire what perhaps “the people” found most attractive about Diana (aside from her beauty), which was her addiction to psychics and caring and confessing and all the blandishments of the New Age. To Burchill, once Diana found God, she “became an adulterous spiritualist with a nice line in wasting public money.”
It is the left’s argument that millions of disappointed women have always taken refuge in the idea that there is some other world better than this, that they have always been prey to fortune tellers. It comes with the territory of “Is that all there is?”
However, without the bolstering of university, newsroom, laboratory or, alternatively, wealth or privilege, it is pretty much impossible for the average powerless soul to bear the world’s cruelty and unreason without some sort of faith. Faith is rarely found through reason or privilege.
It is certain that those Diana helped, the maimed and dying, pinned their hopes on a Reason for All This, and a benevolent Great Spirit overseeing all us little sparrows. It was Diana’s gift to them that she acknowledged this in public and often.
Dressing Diana is the least offensive of these four summer books on the late Princess and a relief after the performance of the grave robbers. A detailed description in back-of-the-cereal box prose and recycled photographs of her dresses, suits and ball gowns, shoes, handbags and jewelry, it’s glossy, comprehensive and one closes it thinking, how in God’s holy name did she manage to force herself to wear all those dreadful colours? It does raise a question however: If Diana had packed on a comfortable 20 extra pounds, let her hair revert to its original mouse-brown colour and worn dumpy tweedy suits, would she still be alive? And would we have wanted that?
Elizabeth Nickson is a writer who lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.
FULL DISCLOSURE: DI AND I
In my first year at the London bureau of Time Inc., I ducked, dodged and weasled my way out of Royal stories with the best of them. I even was given to hiding under my desk when one was going around. But 18 months later, when the mantle of European bureau chief of Life magazine was laid about my shoulders, I was truly stuck. Saddled with a clothing allowance for Ascot and the lunches that made up Diana’s days, a social secretary to introduce me into Royal circles and an expense account that included a dining room and chef, I was put on the scent of the fabled quarry of nineties journalism: the exclusive interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.
Needless to say, we were all aware we were throwing money away, but it had to be done, everyone else was doing it and it would be a sad, sad editor-in-chief who had to explain to his boss why we’d missed it if someone else nailed her.
Being Life magazine, we would take the high road (the low road being stalking her, bugging her, paying palace staff for info), trying to prove to her and the court that a) Life was the ideal forum for her, and b) I was a sympathetic and impartial listener.
That meant that on far too many nights, I would go home, take a bath and wearily climb into another (borrowed) ballgown to be steered around the dance floor at some Royal’s patronage thrash by aging bankers in search of trophy females and plastered lords whining that their wives refused to come to London to drink themselves into an early grave. All of them, it was promised, had some crucial Royal connection.
I dozed through a lunch in the House of Lords with the 80-year-old Earl of Bessborough (his wife was Diana’s favourite aunt), only to wake up in a private elevator when he plunged his hand down my dress. I agitated to give parties for Diana and did. I donated to her charities, I ate endless lunches in her Presence, I courted her grandmother’s and the Queen Mother’s best friend, Lady Torphycan.
I lined up to shake her hand, I took her ladies-in-waiting, hairdressers, make-up artists, decorators and boyfriends to lunch, and every month I’d hie myself down to Buck House to fend off the advances of the press secretary to the Prince of Wales (Diana did not have her own at the time), and listen to him slander the Princess. Remember the touching photo where she threw out her arms to welcome her boys on Britannia in Canada? “Staged!” hissed Dickie Arbiter across the lunch table giving my knee a squeeze. Then he’d offer me the Prince of Wales if I could get HRH the cover of Time.
I was truly truly all the way through the looking glass. For a few very long years, many of the people I spoke to were titled and most of them (not all) made me feel as if I’d scraped my fingernails against a wall in an underpass on King’s Cross.
Prince Albert and the Lionesses
Crisis looms in sun-kissed Monaco. With the Monegasques crying out for a Grace Kelly figurehead, Crown Prince Albert is still having difficulties with girls – like Elizabeth Nickson.
The warmth emanating from the phone was palpable. After all, Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre Grimaldi, the Marquis des Baux, Crown Prince of Monaco has been overshadowed, public relations-wise, by the torments and triumphs of their Serene Altesses Caroline and Stephanie. Nadia LaCoste, the acid-breathing dragon who has guarded the public honour of the royal family of Monaco since the coming of Princess Grace, speaks in affectionate capitals. “We will be in the middle of the Television Festival so you will be able to see the Prince Really At Work, Doing What He Does. You will be able to see him at all his Duties, Get to Know Him. Call the palace if there anything you need.”
Monaco is a fabled place, by turns romantic (home of the Ballet Russe and watering hole of the crowned heads of the nineteenth century) and seedy (gamblers, tax evaders and women of dubious morals). Even now the town evokes all the elements of easy glamour, full of beautiful, rich, young, bronzed Europeans having enormous amounts of fun, decorative royal family, sun, sea, glorious belle epoque architecture. Well, yes and no. Take my hotel. It costs a fortune (69 percent of the profit goes to the state, read royal family). My room, though it overlooks the sea, is separated from the waves by an elevated highway. I get up, eat breakfast, read, watch television and sleep to the relentless drone of speeding cars.
The first meeting with the Prince is to take place at the Convention Centre, a huge concrete block built out over the sea. The ocean exists only in theory in Monaco, you can see it, but it is more of a painting than a presence. What is real is the concrete and bricks, money on the hoof, the buildings jammed up all higgeldy-piggeldy against each other. The Monegasques proudly claim that Monaco is the Manhattan of the Med. Why they should want that seems never to have been asked.
We stand in the concrete bunker waiting. The Press are the courtiers of today, and we exhibit all the extreme deference mixed with rabid greed of medieval courtiers. Prince Albert sweeps in from a big black Mercedes, smiles, is drenched in camera flashes and swept off by curtsying organizers in another blaze of camera flashes.
The opening ceremony follows. The Prince gives a long speech, not a hint of his famous stammer in evidence. He listens politely and intently to the incredibly long speeches of the other organizers while the 50 or so spectators doze in their seats, their eyes glazed with boredom. He is swept off to see the booths. This scene is to be repeated in several variations over the next week. I repair to the cafe and listen to Nadia LaCoste tell me why I can’t photograph Albert at a night club or anywhere else the slightest bit controversial, amusing or interesting. This is a Prince receiving the big whitewash treatment. All interviews must be submitted beforehand for approval. I prevaricate.
We get back to night clubs. “Well, you see he hardly ever goes to them any more. He is so busy, so busy. And he is a serious man, he takes his job seriously, even his sports suffer. The night club sequence would not be true. Besides I thought you were doing the Working Prince.” I get shot a look both reproachful and Marie Antoinettish. She repeats herself. “He works very, very hard.” This refrain will be driven home repeatedly over the next few days. Albert, when not travelling 60,000 miles or so every year on state visits, Olympic business and pleasure, leads a life chock-a-block with duties.
“So what do you do all day?” I ask when I am finally allowed to exchange more than three words with him, two days later. I have cooled my heels in his town, watching piranhas with the frosted long blonde hair that all these women have, shop in Chanel, Hermes, Bulgari, eat lunch and dinner and walk around with mink jackets slung over their shoulders. I am bored and slightly repelled. What he has to say does not help.
I get up around eight. I do 45 minutes of exercise. I have breakfast with my father. Then I have meetings about the Red Cross or the Yacht Club or the Olympic Committee or public works or building projects. I have a lunch with someone, then I may have an appearance. I sit in on Cabinet meetings. I try to do 45 minutes of sport every day. Last year it was three hours because I had the Olympics.” He looks wistful. ‘Then in the evening I may have another appearance.’
Is he bored? ‘Very!’ he explodes. ‘I don’t hide it.’ Then his face lapses back into his habitual cautious placidity.
Albert is called Albert the Good. He is 31, blondish, balding and bears a remarkable resemblance to his late mother, the former Grace Kelly. He dresses in strictly tailored, anonymous International Businessman suits or equally anonymous Riviera sports rig. He drives either a new BMW 3251 or a Toyota jeep with ‘I LOVE BOB’ on the back window. He has a sweet face, which is apparently mirrored in his nature. Georges, the director of security for the palace, who has watched Albert grow up and is a man made of old grenade casings, tells me that he is ‘a petit amour, do you have this expression in English?’ Everyone smiles around Albert.
This may be because he behaves so well. I press. Why do it, if you’re bored? The diffidence hides a hint of steel. ‘Well, I guess it means a lot to those people, I kind of look at it that way.” No wonder they all love him. They know he’s bored, because he tells them, but he pays for his privilege with unswerving devotion to duty. When his sisters have been bored, they have shown it.
We trot dutifully through his training and education. I’m in a geographical warp. He comes across as an American college boy from a good middle-class suburb. He uses a combination of Harvard Business School buzzwords and jocktalk. He went to Amherst, a minor Ivy League school, where he studied political science. He joined the much maligned Eurotrash in New York for the requisite five-month stint at Morgan Stanley, then worked as briefly with Rogers and Wells (international law) and Well, Rich and Greene (advertising). He moved to Paris for a few months with Moet-Hennessy (International luxury business). He fitted in a seven-month officer’s training course to the French navy and finally moved back to Monaco to pick up the reins. He recites statistics about the number of industries the family is attracting to the principality. He talks about the Red Cross (the prime vehicle for social events) of which he is president. He talks about the Yacht Club of which he is president. (“It is more than a yacht club, it has a major social funation for us.’ He doesn’t say what that function might be, but I assume it has something to do with the family business of attracting business.)
Albert stammers, trying desperately to be entertaining and informative. His shyness and sympathy are infectious. We are both relieved when another dragon calls time.
Suddenly there’s another Albert. He bends low over my hand, kisses it and, stammer gone, softly inquires how I am enjoying Monaco. I blush. He expresses the hope that we will see each other again soon, and I stumble off down the back stairs, thoroughly bewildered and undeniably flattered.
Speculation is rife on Albert’s ability to handle his future job. Since Caroline’s public reformation from disco queen to mother and wife incarnate, people gossip about her chances of succeeding but although the constitution does not proscribe such a succession, historically the Monegasques like their rulers male. Albert’s amenability and dutiful behaviour have won him many devoted friends in Monaco, yet the rumours persist. A friend who grew up with him says, ‘He has not made his petit rebellion. He has not really matured, nothing has matured him except his mother’s death. He is a petit chou, a creamy boy. He is nice, normal, he doesn’t fit in with what is waiting for him in Monaco. He should be captain of a football team, he likes that.’
Certainly sports are Albert’s abiding passion. He seems to binge sports, playing by turns and in competition, tennis, running, rowing, cross country, football, handball, judo, swimming and tennis. He is an Olympic bobsleigher. He skis, sails, fences. He plays with his own soccer team in Monaco. In 1985 he finished thirty-eighth in the Paris-Dakar rally, trailing his personal phsician, spare parts, mechanics, secuirty guards and aides in separate trucks. His car carried a radio transmitter with a direct satellite link to the palace. In fact port is the only thing on which he waxes enthusiastic. While the Prince’s schedule is being discusses, a barely suppressed sigh or a resigned nod greets every arrangement, but when crossing into training time is mentioned, the languid air disappears, the lips compress and everyone looks cowed.
His aide and bodyguards accompany him to the stadium. A couple of them constitute his bobsleigh team. Albert runs, stretches and does varioius never-seen-before probably bobsleigh training moves. His bodyguards mimic his movements.
The atmosphere is steamy. After 30 minutes of watching Albert and his bodyguards chug half-dressed around the track, I wander up to say good-bye. ‘Was I too bored? he inquires. Everyone gathers around, poses and smirks. ‘Not really,’ I say, trying to join in the game. ‘Hmmm.’ Everyone pretends not to look at my legs. ‘Well,’ I say, sidling towards the door. He stops me. ‘Do you like sports?’ he inquires. Silence hangs over the stadium. The double meaning is obvious. ‘Well, yes, I guess so.’ Which sports? Ummm, swimming, riding….I run out. ‘How about dancing?’ ‘Yes, lovely,’ I say and bolt.
Prince Albert is an expert in the 30-second public pick up – which I have just experienced.A quick flick through the gossip columns reveals Albert photographed with a dizzying array of beauties. He is said to arrive with one girl, dance with a few others and leave with yet another. The obligatory photographs have been taken with local beauties, Brooke Shields, various princesses, models and beauty queens, Lady Helen Windsor and other minor royalty. In all these photographs, he is smiling. He was linked with Donna Rice. A Munich-based good time girl, Bea Fiedler, talks of suing him for paternity after what she alleges was a one-night stand. In Monaco, the occasionally floated charge that Albert is gay is greeted by a chorus of chortles, snorts and general hilarity. He likes girls, lots of them.
Yet not a whiff of scandal is attached to this polite priapism. Perhaps it has to do more with endless availability than green. A long succession of well-bred girls is trotted in front of Albert. It is a coveted role. Royalty, fun sisters-in-law, a bit of charity work, couture clothes and nice weather. Albert himself says he is beginning to think this inability to have a steady girlfriend is a problem. A friend says the succession is hanging on his marriage and his father must ask him twice a month if he’s met The One.
Finding a princess to fill the shoes of his mother will be no mean feat. The image of the sublime Princess Grace is everywhere in Monaco. Photographs of her take precedence in every shop, hotel and restaurant. She looks out, doe eyed, serene, perfect, a living dove. The latest biography which claims she slept with every actor not nailed down during her time in Hollywood was banned from the principality. Albert’s eyes mist up at the mention of her death. He quickly moves the conversation off his reaction to her death to Stephanie’s, which is, he claims, the most extreme and just winding down. Albert is said to have been her favourite child, the one most like her.
Over the next few days Albert has not a moment to himself, surrounded always by a hundred people. He is invariably deferential and interested and does exactly what he is asked to do.
When I meet him on Sunday for his tennis game he is exhausted. I have avoided the inevitable invitation to go dancing at Jimmy’z mostly because it was for 1:30 a.m. I negotiated instead for lunch and more talk.
The girl of last night is bustled in, settles herself on the fence and watches the game until, completely ignored, she flounces off. Albert plays badly. He has worked by my calculation, from nine to midnight every night but one all week. He struggles through the interview, trying to explain what he does. ‘The thing is that a lot of events would be minor events in other countries, but the fact they’re happening here and it’s a small place, we need to show our support. It’s difficult not to appear. It’s very tiring.
The royal family of Monaco is the basis of the economy of Monaco. ‘They are worth millions to the people here,’ says one Swiss impresario. The gambling and hotel businesses are thriving, sales of large expensive apartments are booming. There are 2,000 small and medium-sized manufacturing companies in the 0.7 square miles principality. Thirty-three banks provide a safe haven for money. The 27,000 inhabitants are protected by a 370-man police forces with 85 plainclothes men and 12-man intervention force. Video camera are mounted at strategic points in the town. You can wear jewels on the street.
I say good-bye to Albert on the steps of the Monaco Country Club. The Mediterranean twinkles beneath us and Karl Lagerfeld’s newly restored palace gleams from the nearby cliff. Behind us a few Italian girls, chaperoned by their parents, do their Latin homework, eye us and hope for an invitation to dance. ‘You know,” he says, ‘maybe my worst quality is my lack of confidence. I like to make people feel good. I’m probably excessively sensitive.’ I am overcome by a wave of sympathy or pity or both and extract myself before I suggest we go dancing. I drive out of Monaco as if the lapdogs of torpor are pursuing me.
Where The Bee Sucks
A Northwestern island doth suffer a sea change
Just off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, twenty sea miles and an entire dimensional journey from Seattle, lies an island known as Salt Spring. It is the largest of an archipelago of several dozen such islands that reaches from Seattle toward Alaska. In the United States these islands are called the San Juans; in Canada they are called the Gulf Islands. The archipelago travels up through the fabled Inside Passage between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, where Captain Cook marked the first Anglo landfall in 1778.
The climate is northern Mediterranean, and nature, far from being red in tooth and claw, is titanic, breathtaking, inviting worship. Salt Spring, the largest of these islands, is seventy-four square miles. Three mountains mark natural boundaries between farmland and forest reserve. Mt. Baker hangs in the sky to the south, buttressed by clouds. All around is navy-blue sea.
Today, 10,000 residents call Salt Spring their home. Some of them are farmers, loggers, and fishermen, beleaguered resource workers all. Other, more recent, arrivals are retired professors and bureaucrats, of which Canada has an unconscionable number. Although the true proportion has never been determined, we might say that half want to preserve the “rural character” of the island, while the other half are the rural character and would like, therefore, to cash in on it. The dilemma was not always so easily described.
In the dark backward and abysm of time that was, to be precise, the early 1970s, storm-tossed escapees arrived on the island, looking at first for an escape from the war, and then from the perfidy of a world that poured down stinking pitch on the offerings of the counterculture. They wanted, at peril of their souls, an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, anything they could tend, a place bereft of any normal society, a place where they could read, tend their secret gardens, get high.
And so the island’s beneficence grew in reputation. Broken and running, women were heaved there all through the eighties and into the nineties, children in arms, without men usually or, if with, the males generally shucked in a year or so as the women acclimatized and grew strong. By the early nineties, Salt Spring was considered a female island: eight women to each single man, went the rumored stats. Many were victims of cocaine binges in the cities; cheated of their lives by drunkards; wrecked by yuppie greed, or by foul play, or by infidelity, or by that catchall malaise: stress. Here on this island they arrived, looking for a safe place to bring up their children. Myths were unearthed that the natives had fished, collected psilocybin mushrooms, clams, and oysters, but had not wintered on the island, because their women became too powerful and the men less warlike. In fact, said a popular local book, Daughters of Copper Woman, pre-con tact natives in me area were matriarchal and matrilineal and, furthermore, believed that menstrual blood connected Woman to the divine.
These were just a few of the mythic verities that grew up around what swiftly became known as a sacred island. It was even discovered, and whispered about to the elect, that the Lion, Mary, and Michael lines, the three major ley lines of the world, passed through, lines of sacred energy that identified the island as having the same distinct pull and weight as the ancient city of Lhasa, the North Island of New Zealand, Machu Picchu. Women in the middle of the prairie were woken in the night by disembodied voices and told to come here. Women said that they were dropped here on their backs, arms and legs waving in the air, turtles dropped by a careless child, a tale suspiciously like a First Nations myth of origin. On these ley lines, vortices were discovered, and some were said to be portals to other worlds. Labyrinths were built on these portals. Self-identified as neopagans, and dedicated to reviving the ancient nature religions, the women agreed to agree on almost nothing but that the first witch was black, bisexual, a warrior, a wise and strong woman, a midwife, and a leader of the tribe. Standing on its head, therefore, the notion of the original evil witch Sycorax, or Morgaine, or the Wicked Witch of the West, it also was found that the original settlers in the 1850s were freed African-American slaves and Hawaiians, and this history gave resonance, depth, meaning, and power to this matrilineal island of outcasts.
The women, jealous of their place, commanded the elements to silence, wrapped the island in a fog, like Avalon, so that very few people, unbidden by the convergences, would come, and so that those who came, stayed, and did not fit in would be spit out by the goddess, as the island Wizard and limousine driver would have it. Even those whom the island loved were wrapped in sleepy clouds, their spirits bound up, lulled by the beauty of the trees, the ocean, the mountains, the birds, the rivers, and the nature spirits. The women studied the deep and abstruse texts of witchcraft and early tribal religions. Their states grew strange. They were transported, rapt in secret studies. And neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated themselves to closeness and the bettering of their minds, with that which, but by being so retired, o’er prized all popular rate; they lived on the social assistance. They developed their own rituals and calendars, held celebrations at the solstices and cross-quarters, and raised beautiful pagan children who believed in environmentally sound principles of living and who actively promoted a way of life that would not damage the Great Mother or any of her spirit or fleshly children.
There were many white middle-class people on the island as well, descendants of the original farming families. Among these was our Ariel, who in the spirit of deliberate confusion and for the sake of standing all patriarchal archetypes on their heads, shall be a short, squat, ecofeminist, celibate lesbian in late middle age, retired early from the education business. Brigid, we shall call her, ran the Tir Nan Og Light Centre on the south end of the island and communed in solitary splendor in her strawbale house with a host of nature spirits, including fairies, gnomes, sprites, zephyrs, salamanders, and the Green Man, Pan. She worked with the spirits, healing the earth and teaching people how to live without money. Brigid knew the island, knew the spirits and what they wanted from us. If she could be accused of an excess of imagination, equally she accused others of a too rich fantasy life. Neopagans, as we have established, agree on nothing.
Other members of the old farming families watched in some amazement as their land values rose and their forests were protected by those who did not own them. Many of the families saw the island as a future resort destination, a Carmel-By-The-Sea, a waterskiing, hiking, kayaking, yachting kind of place. And they were angered by the notion that a bunch of hippie mothers living on the social welfare, dressing in long skirts, their children in dreadlocks and grime, did not want this. The old families had been kind. They had been generous. When the mothers first arrived, they showed them where the best places were, where to fish, where and what to plant, where to buy honey, what goats to keep, and the mothers had been grateful, full of praise. The mothers had joined the farmers’ institute, lauded the school, undertaken to improve it, and taken booths at the Fall Fair. Now, as honeyman Dave Harris put it, the families felt that there were “far too many people on Salt Spring who have no intention of ever making a living.”
The mothers met in a circle under the waxing moon, best for the banishing of evil forces. Ariel was called, and the request was made to the gnomes and the trolls:
Run upon the sharp wind of the north
To do me business in the veins o’ th’
When it is baked with frost.
The convergences were drawing others, less worthy others. The world was intruding. The magic island needed some magic.
There are many candidates for Prospero on Salt Spring. Self-described warlock Bristol Foster, a former director of the Royal British Columbia Museum, for instance, a wolfish man with multiple Ph.D.’s, or Maureen Milburn, former president of the Island Conservancy, who holds her doctorate in art history, their libraries (and activism) duke-dom (or tenured professorship) enough for them. Or Nina Raginsky, coordinator of the Waterbird Watch Collective, a self-described minor-league heiress, former Time magazine photographer, and lecturer in metaphysics. They are merely representatives, behind them a flock of a few dozen highly educated, committed environmental activists, what our Caliban, a craggy, handsome former forestry CEO named Tom Toynbee, owner of much of the commercial real estate in the main village of Ganges, calls (in public) the most educated, articulate, formidable, and committed opposition around.
Many island people cross the street when they see Tom Toynbee; he is a villain they do not love to look on. But Toynbee makes the hardware store, the galleries, the restaurants, and the shops possible. Even the most pagan mother accepts that the island cannot do without him. Does Toynbee think he’s a slave? Indeed he does, for the island is so beautiful that no one wants to work, except, he thinks, him. And they will not let him develop the property so that he can stop working. If he does not say in private, “All the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him by inch-meal a disease,” then he is a saint, and despite the spiritual nature of all on the island, well, it is unlikely.
Along with the witches who arrived in the late eighties and early nineties came a more successful sort. Gonzalos to a woman or man, they came with professions that required floatplanes and high-speed telephone cables, and they conceived of the island as a boomer utopia and rejoiced:
… no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate
Letters should not be known; riches,
And use of service, none; contract,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard,
No use of metal, corn, wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and
The Gonzalos announced that they would with such perfection govern t’excel the Golden Age. They threw their collective weight behind the Islands Trust, a government agency designed to preserve and protect, and proceeded to strike committees to consider zoning bylaws that restricted development.
Noble creatures, thought the witches and single mothers, and they joined the rich boomers with the Pathfinders and off-island incomes in ignoring the meeting at the Harbour House of gentlemen of such brave mettle that would lift the moon out of her sphere if she would continue in it five weeks without changing, who contrariwise cried that they’d rather
… sow’t with nettle-seed.
Or docks, or mallows.
And were the king on’t what would I
Scape being drunk for want of wine.
For developers from Asia and the States had been drawn by the beauty of the place and the wasted space. Fishermen from Norway who had fished out the North Sea lusted after the Pacific salmon, and loggers who had exhausted the New Zealand forests arrived eager to exploit the last, biggest, cheapest forest in the world.
Making common cause, they laughed at the mothers. Here, they said, is everything to life, save means to live, and began to plot.
Spiritual earth mother into yoga, wheatgrass, fasting, cleansing, herbal masks, soy-milk douches, and simple life. Seeking to share her yurt with Island nature boy. Dreadlocks, didgeridoo, drum, multi-patched jeans, various dogs, ’71 purple VW van. Maximum 8-word vocabulary and deep far-away look a necessity.
Salt Spring Island Thyme
In 1989, in a fit of despair at city life, I bought thirty acres in the country my paternal family had settled a hundred years before. Over the years spent in London and New York, I had heard rumors about Salt Spring. The witches danced naked under the full moon, rowed out into the sea to cast flower petals on the water to honor the Great Mother. There were women on the island whom it behooved you not to cross. I would have laughed at these warnings, except that when I was in my first year of college I had persuaded a gypsy friend, who boasted that she was from a family of Bohemian witches, to cast a love spell on my philosophy professor. Jovita protested that her family couldn’t cast spells anymore because a curse had been laid on them: when they practiced witchcraft their houses would burn down. I teased, challenged, and dared her until, on the night of the full moon, she drew a pentacle on her kitchen floor. Five days later my professor called, professing eternal passion, and ten days later Jovita’s apartment building burned to the ground.
I am cleaning up the remains of a hash-oil factory on my land and the detritus of a party house run by hippie settlers. I collect dozens of old beer bottles, car parts, hunks of an old refrigerator, slabs of roofing, and add them to my slash pile. I, like Ferdinand, and all new residents, carry logs, back and forth, for years.
While I plod, I puzzle. Who are these witches? What do they want? They are not casting love spells, for romance on the island is considered best left to the very young. Many women are gay, or committed to the pursuit of cronedom, making middleage, heterosexual love sporadic in incidence at best. Besides, given pagan morality, just about every combination has been tried, and the combatants have retired early from the field, with bruised hearts and exhausted bodies, leaving the joust to their children. Pagan teenage girls are perfect and peerless, created of every creature’s best, clean and healthy, nature girls all, usually ambitionless, since ambition is violence to the Great Mother. Young pagan island men, says Maureen Milburn’s husband, Sam, travel from woman to woman, with gardening tools in the back of their pickup trucks, often leaving a child behind in each camp. Mainland boys pour onto the island, leaving the world (and cross parents) behind, attracted by the hippie chicks of Salt Spring, who are not, shall we say, overburdened by the desire for material possessions or even the knowledge that Dolce & Gabbana exists.
Loggers, fishermen, and developers, perhaps piqued by the fact that none of their blandishments had any effect on these gorgeous young creatures, who saw them as abhorred monsters, which any print of goodness would not take, capable of all ill, savage, brutish, and so forth, methodically sent the word of the is/and abroad. With the help and moral support of some members of the old families, the Trust was besieged by applications for casinos, resort-destination hotels, and walled retirement complexes. The Trust planner had appointments lined up for months on end with developers from Asia and the States. Men walked about the island as if in a trance, marveling at their future,
… and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open
and show riches
Ready to drop on me; that, when I
I cried to dream again.
Gunslinging developers hired high-priced lawyers to inspect the island bylaws. Legal challenges to the zoning restrictions were mounted. Secret allies were found, Gonzalos interested in selling their land for five or ten times what they had paid for it. The developers and loggers proclaimed their victory over
… this Sir Prudence, who
Should not upbraid our course. For all
They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps
They’ll tell the clock to any business
We say befits the hour.
Clear-cuts appeared on the pristine and sacred South End. A communal farm, one of the last hippie utopias, blew up, and the survivors put their few hundred acres of the last old-growth Garry Oak meadow on the island up for sale. A consortium of loggers from Washington State made an offer of $800,000. Three condominium developments sprouted in the town. A strip mall appeared, as if by magic, overnight, and two more were planned.
For despite the island’s beauty, the loggers, fishermen, and developers were right: there was no local economy to support the pagan women and their children, and the social welfare was becoming suspicious and impatient.
Circles were held under the full moon, and Prospero consulted his books.
In addition to studying the White Goddess, the Welsh Mabinogion, the collected works of Starhawk, Lady Gregory’s Fairy Book, and various ecological texts, Prospero had been reading Machiavelli, The Art of War, and Tony Robbins. This effort was delivered of an Official Community Plan that expanded the original eight-page document to more than 300 pages, providing the island of 10,000 souls with more bylaws than the nearby provincial capital of Victoria. Accusations of sin were made against men deemed not fit to live. Suggestions were made that the developers, loggers, and fishermen should hang and drown their proper selves and take up garlic farming.
War broke out. Ecoterrorists filled the gas tanks of logging trucks with sand. A witch struck a member of Parliament. The loggers burned down the Community Centre on a neighboring island that the witches had declared to be the gateway to the elven kingdom.
Stephano, who slid under the wire a sleazy time-share complex on a fragile water table, announced with foolish bravado, “Who cares about the local residents–they’re just a bunch of goofers.” Next door to the time share, Goofer’s Pig Farm raised a giant sign, and the island sprouted GOOFER’S PIG FARM T-shirts and bumper stickers.
“The plan makes 1984 look like laissez-faire capitalism,” argued Trinculo, local poet and pig farmer. People here, he said, “are always figuring out what to do with other people’s property.”
But no matter how Caliban declared the island full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not, many developers gave up, for it appeared that every river, stream, marsh, and wetland had its protectors. There were 200 pagans on the Waterbird Watch alone. No tree was to be felled without a permit or an arborist in attendance. View corridors were to be protected. Farmers were not to cut down their trees for fences or barns without a permit. The water table was deemed sacrosanct. No streams were to be dammed. No lakes were to be drained for the watering of packaged tourists dressed in un-environmentally sound polyester. No hotels or golf courses or gated communities were to be built by those who would doubtless spend their profits in the sinkholes of the off-island world.
And still people flowed onto the island, though now it seemed that each new arrival came with a disorder: chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, multiple allergies. The island mothers, recognizing that the social welfare was impatient and that abundance (if not ambition) was desirable, proceeded to start many businesses to feed and heal the newcomers. Bounty descended in floods of organic produce, un-bioengineered vegetables, unfarmed fish, free-range chicken. The witch mothers hung out shingles, and every conceivable kind of treatment became available. Infusions were struck on the eve of the new moon, and people spoke of the sacred geometric grid of abundance: when properly lit up, there would be money enough for all without the degradations of commerce.
The island’s enemies were all knit up in their distraction. They skulked in the bar at the Harbour House and swore, O, it is monstrous! Monstrous But one fiend at a time, I’ll fight their legions o’er.
All were desperate. Their great guilt like poison bit the spirit.
This is the charge of the goddess: sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and Mine also is joy on earth.
The battle joined, Patricia Brown, Maureen Milburn, and Marcia Craig, members of the coven called the Gaia Collective, summoned leading ecofeminist witches Starhawk and Tisch from the Reclaiming Collective in San Francisco, and rituals and circles were held all over Salt Spring to raise the cone of power and bring it down to heal the earth. They embarked on such tasks as “moving energy around corners,” singing, “Take off your head/Put it on the ground/That’s how you enter the house of love.”
The elements were called in, and praised, creating sacred space. Celebrating the body, food, love, song, wine, dance, drumming, the witches felt their years of abuse fade into insignificance. They went adventuring in the astral world. Their chakras opened, and going into trance and moving energy became easy and plausible, as if they were Celtic priestesses. They called in healthy male energy, power with rather than power over, an energy the world had never experienced. They performed the spiral dance, and by the end of it they had created their own private world, filled with mummers, fairies, elves, gnomes, and powerful spirits, called from their confines to enact the witches’ present fancies.
Dr. Bristol Foster ascended and declared that each acre of forest held billions of microorganisms whose usefulness had not yet been identified; we must therefore protect as much forest as we can for
Earth’s increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty:
Vines, with clust’ring bunches
Spring come to you at the farthest
In the very end of harvest!
Scarcity and want shall shun you;
Ceres’ blessing so is on you.
Dr. Marilyn Walker, ethnobotanist, former director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, and author of Harvesting the Northern Wild, ascended and declared that whereas Westerners talk about owning property, traditional cultures talk about stewardship. Walker spoke of the need to go beyond that, to cultures that have never lost the harmony among emotional and mental and spiritual. Traditional cultures, she said, all hold that plants have their own sound, their own song, and that they each have a lesson to teach and that therefore
… the queen o’ the sky
Whose watery arch and
messenger am I,
Bids thee leave these; and
with her sovereign
Here on this grass-plot, in
this very place,
To come and sport; her
peacocks fly amain:
Approach, rich Ceres, her to entertain.
Ceres had woken Angelique and Christianna in Saskatchewan and recommended that Christianna, a new fully realized being, move to Salt Spring and invite Amaterasu, a Japanese goddess buried in the earth for millennia, to the surface so that she might bring with her the devic kingdom, the spirits that weave energy into matter, and teach the people how to care for the land as sacred space. In the garden of their new house, Angelique and Christianna built a labyrinth on a ley-line vortex, and Amaterasu emerged through this portal and scattered many jewels of Vitality and Energy and Aliveness across the island, and she called out:
You nymphs call’d Naiades of the
With your sedg’d crowns, and ever harmless
Leave your crisp channels, and on this
Answer your summons: Juno does
The goddesses had ascended (that goddesses descend is a patriarchal construction), and the healing of the land had begun. Prospero bid Ariel fetch the rabble to commence the referendum on the Official Community Plan, and before you can say, “come” and “go,” and breathe twice and cry, “so, so,” each one, tripping on his toe, was here with mop and mow–and video camera, torch, and plan in hand to hurl at the island trustees, then (retrieved) to burn on bonfires in village riots in Centennial Park. Fights began in the bar at Harbour House:
… red-hot with drinking;
So full of valour they
smote the air…
For kissing of their feet;
yet always bending
Towards their project.
A witch spoke up and claimed that the island had prosperity enough. Had not a shopping mall of religious practices arisen: wicca, tarot, dream analysis, transformational massage, astrology, astral projection, precognition, psychic and homeopathic healing, meditation and yoga? Some of the resource-industry workers themselves had left their professions and opened shops to sell spiritual tat. In vain did Caliban decry the products of the forest:
The dropsy drown this fool! What do
To dote thus on such luggage? Let’s
And do the murder first…
Regulations hunted the developers,
loggers, and fishermen like hungry, angry dogs.
Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey,
Goes upright with his carriage.
All business on the island was spell-stopped, confined until the referendum. All the developers were distracted, and those with large properties they wished to subdivide were mourning, brimful of sorrow and dismay. Tears ran down their beards like winter’s drops from eaves of reeds.
But Prospero’s affections had grown tender. He decided that the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance and rewrote the Official Community Plan in order to allow some development but not that much. Pace and proportion were to be the guidelines. Policies were written that deliberately excluded outside investors in situations where economic benefits went only to absentee landlords. If developers were to come to the Islands Trust with plans that gave back Green Space, then some growth was possible. The marketplace would be delinked from the land. Collective rules would be held higher than individual values. The Official Community Plan was culled and simplified. Then Prospero called out:
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing
lakes, and groves;
And ye, that on the sands with
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and
do fly him
When he comes back;
By moonshine do the
green sour ringlets
Whereof the ewe not
bites; and you, whose
Is to make midnight
To hear the solemn curfew;
by whose aid–Weak
masters though ye
be–I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun…
Out of the forest, streaming toward the voting booth, emerged three or four thousands (the numbers are hotly contested) of squatters with no stake in the land, who lived off the grid in school buses, tents, yurts, tepees, and shacks. Some were shamans, who could transform both the seen and the unseen, who could journey to other realms, who experienced trances and visions and could predict the future, and who could move between this world and a less substantial–though ultimately more real–world for the benefit of others as well as the self. Inside sweat lodges they had contacted other worlds and made their requests, and the spirits said that Salt Spring was to be held sacred. And so the tribe who worshipped the Magic Mushroom came out of the forest, along with their Fane, and all the people marveled at Prospero’s magic, for this tribe had not been seen for years.
And out of their houses, streaming for the voting booth, came the newest arrivals, too, with autoimmune diseases that only a clean, pure island with food products that were not bioengineeered or farmed with multiple pesticides could cure. And from these illnesses had come forth Tofu Debbie, Barb’s Buns, Dan Jason’s Organic Seed and Garlic Farm, David Wood’s Salt Spring Island Sheep and Goat Cheese, Green’s Plus–an entire economy of wellness, just as the witches had said. It was not for nothing that the principal mountain was called Mt. Maxwell.
All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement inhabit here, cried the developers as they watched the island saved for the nature spirits. Gonzalo himself saved the Mill Farm from a consortium of Washington State loggers by purchasing the land. Seven covenants were put in place to protect this plot in perpetuity, and Ariel, representing all those who weave the ether into matter, sang:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I crouch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily:
Merrily… under the blossom that
hangs on the bough.
Entire matrices of vortices opened after the new Official Community Plan was accepted and the developers restrained. Trees began to talk, and all the plants were discovered to have an opinion as to where they should be planted. Radishes in magic gardens grew to the size of grapefruits, and raspberry plants reached ten feet tall. Ariel suggested that Salt Spring should become like the old mystery schools of Egypt and teach people how to heal, how to find and manifest visions, how to become elders, how to lead the Shift of Ages.
Unsuspecting tourists came and marveled and spent money. And it was discovered after all that displaying and marketing the products of a magic island indeed produced profits–not large profits, but profits nonetheless. And the businessmen finally agreed,
… do entreat
Thou pardon me my wrongs.
This is as strange a maze as e’er men
And there is in this business more
Was ever conduct of…
And they threw in their lot with Prospero, deciding not to infest their minds with beating on the strangeness of this business.
And still the convergences pulled others–not just tourists but artists and musicians and movie stars, all wandering the island with eyes full of beauty, blind with wonder. It was not for nothing, therefore, that the many Mirandas exclaimed,
How many goodly creatures are there
How beauteous mankind is! O brave
That has such people in’t!
Epilogue But this is the twenty-first century, or almost so, and in this world we have Karl Lagerfeld, whose pet in the eighties was a young woman named Gloria, the Princess von Thurn und Taxis, a one-time Dusseldorf nightclub punk introduced by Karl, after her marriage to an antique cousin, to the thrills of the very rich, such thrills including couture, gambling, over-the-top decorating, and the pleasures of Area, Les Bains, and the Palace. A few years after her ancient husband’s death, Gloria realized that her debts were insurmountable but that she had an old-fashioned forest estate way the hell and gone in Western Canada. She promptly sold it to a couple of development fiends.
Greenbaiting and greenmail are honorable businesses in the Northwest; for there is money in them. While waiting for their opposition to organize, the fiends made loud plans to strip the Princess’s erstwhile forest estate of “every scrap of merchantable timber.”
The witches had withdrawn, buried their books, and were growing gardens filled with not-magic indigenous plants that jibed with the tenets of bio-regionalism. They had stopped going to community meetings, because they did not like being shouted at. They had started a new circle of elders, called the Transformation Group, that would work toward a civil community, without the violence and polarization of the past. They begged leave to retire:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own;
Which is most faint…
But on the magic island lived others now, and a new Prospero, Andrea Collins, the former wife of the crushingly famous rock star Phil Collins, made sure that people the world over knew of the magic island and its dilemma. The witches took off their clothes and posed on their treasured island, and the calendar was blessed with many sales. Money was raised, pots of it, first in the amount of $800,000 from the community itself, more from a consortium of anonymous donors, NGOs, and government agencies. Thousands helped this time. There were blockades, and street people came from all over the world to live in the Peace Camp. People were arrested. People were slapped with nuisance suits. Community newspapers were sued for libel, as were columnists and editors. Dossiers and writs flooded the courts, until the government grew weary and pled for mercy, too.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails
Then people with doctorates and bureaucratic expertise raised $3.9 million and placed it on the table. They then raised $7.7 million and placed it on the table. And finally they raised $20 million and placed that on the table. Then Prospero amazed the greenmailers by demanding that the land be frozen in time, left to its true owners, the fairies.
The witches rejoiced, for there had been parties, and dances, and fairs, and barbecues, and TV shows, and documentaries, and poems, and more parties, just as the Goddess required. And at one of the last, David Suzuki, who some saw as the greatest warlock of all, came to the island, and everyone who had been arrested or slapped or sued was his guest of honor.
The Princess’s lands were proposed as a national park. And Prospero, by your indulgence, was set free.
Fly Fishing with Billionaires
Four years ago, Sammy Morita, the son of the founder of Sony, bought a traditional fishing lodge on a big, old barge, which every summer was towed out of the harbour at Prince Rupert to Barnard Bay, a couple of hundred kilometres south. Then Sammy proceeded to spend money, US$5-million to be more or less exact. And he turned the old fishing lodge into a staff lodge and built another, much more luxurious, up-to-date place, with 20-odd bedrooms and suites, an enormous great room with distressed leather furniture and wrought- iron chandeliers and a mile-high river-stone fireplace, and slate everywhere. Peeled logs act as banisters, rafters, ledges and furniture. And our days are as regimented as if we were 11-year- olds going to lake country without their parents for the very first time.
Day Two: I catch and release 20 fish and laugh with [Gerry] and his son, Matt, 34, who runs his own PI firm in the southeastern States, all day long. Our Aussie helicopter pilot tells incredibly bad dirty jokes. The guide, Ken — if we (I) cannot — will hook the fish, then hand us (me) the rod to reel it in. Matt and Gerry fish off their boat, Surveillance, in southern Florida, every second or third day, so they have no trouble. Matt especially is a demon. This, I decide, after my 15th pink, is serious fun.
Day Four: I go fly fishing again. I catch 40 fish, up to my butt in freezing river water. Fishing, especially fly fishing, is way culty. It is a cult, I decide, for billionaires. A radiologist from Las Vegas tells us at dinner he filled in for Dick Cheney steelhead fishing in Smithers last year and it was so incredibly arduous he will never go again. British Columbian sport fishing is among the best in the world. Matt and Gerry are exultant: They have never had such luck, except for when they opened up Midway. There are so many fish that, in four casts one time, I, a total novice, caught four fish. Everyone tells me it will never be like this again.»Jump to indexing (document details)
Full Text (1594 words)
(Copyright National Post 2003)
Imagine summer camp, but with four-star meals, friendly, attentive staff and spectacular scenery
Let’s start with this: It’s the most expensive four-day vacation I’ve ever been on — $7,000 and counting, for four days. Premium wine, spa treatments, glacier picnics and helicopter fly fishing extra. Add fare to Vancouver for another thousand or so.
Yet it was as close to a traditional Canadian summer camp as possible, albeit one that includes four-star meals and lashings of wilderness luxury. Most of the guests are American. What kind of Americans? Well, it is the kind of place to which Kevin Costner would (and did) bring his 20-something fiancee, the one about whom he claims, “We are like wolves running. She’s so much my equal that if I stumble, she’s right on top of me.”
Here, at King Pacific Lodge, there weren’t (thankfully) too many visible wolves, but there was, as head guide, Johnny G., says, plenty of “short-order adventure. You ask for it, we’ll find you a way to do it. Fast.” It is, I assure you, a formula that works.
About 1,500 kilometres north of Vancouver, on the part of the coast tucked just under Alaska, sits Princess Royal Island, home of the white kermode, or spirit bear. Princess Royal is a massive island, cut through with rivers and pocked with lakes. A two- kilometre channel separates it from the mainland. This is Tsimshian Territory, home of the GitGa’at people, part of the Great Bear Rainforest, spectacularly beautiful, all inlets, hills and deep ocean, endless swaths of deep green forest, grizzlies, eagles, wolves and black bears. So many bears, in fact, that off the lodge barge, you are advised to take a careful look around every two minutes.
Four years ago, Sammy Morita, the son of the founder of Sony, bought a traditional fishing lodge on a big, old barge, which every summer was towed out of the harbour at Prince Rupert to Barnard Bay, a couple of hundred kilometres south. Then Sammy proceeded to spend money, US$5-million to be more or less exact. And he turned the old fishing lodge into a staff lodge and built another, much more luxurious, up-to-date place, with 20-odd bedrooms and suites, an enormous great room with distressed leather furniture and wrought- iron chandeliers and a mile-high river-stone fireplace, and slate everywhere. Peeled logs act as banisters, rafters, ledges and furniture. And our days are as regimented as if we were 11-year- olds going to lake country without their parents for the very first time.
Day Zero: We check into the Vancouver Airport Fairmont Hotel. This is the best airport hotel in the world, I think, because it a) does not stink of aviation fuel and b) is visually literate and c) does not patronize. It is famous in our family, since the time my 80- year-old mother arrived back from the Third World at midnight. The Fairmont night staff were so kind to her and the place, especially the vast, luxurious bathroom, was so comfortable that she thought she’d died and gone to Heaven.
Day One: We all meet at 5:45 a.m. at breakfast (just like camp). We are greeted, handed tickets, meal and airport tax vouchers, hovered over and solicited for our happiness and gladness, then ushered into a group through ticketing and security, and into the plane for Prince Rupert. This is an almost divine experience because, from the time you zip up your bag, you do not have to think for yourself. I like this a great deal.
I look around at the other guests. They are a confident lot, about 20 of them, ranging in age from four to 75, but mostly in their forties, one family, several couples, an older man and a younger one, who stand to the side and evaluate everyone through narrowed eyes. They do not smile once. Everyone else is grinning like a fool, including me.
We fly up to Prince Rupert, are ushered with many expressions of care for our comfort through the airport into a bus, driven the five minutes to the ocean. A flotilla of float planes collect us from the dock. We fly for an hour down the coast, one spectacular vista after another, rounding the last corner, into the lodge. On the dock, dressed in matching wilderness gear, stand 34 staff members waiting to greet us. Our bags vanish, Champagne is passed around and everyone flops down, already in various attitudes of complaisance.
Everyone is coupled up cozily, except the odd pair who haven’t yet cracked a smile, but by 8 p.m., I have made friends with the older one. Gerry tells me within five minutes that he is a) Cajun and one-sixteenth black and b) sold his insurance company four years ago, for US$2.6-billion and c) put himself through business school playing saxophone in titty bars in New Orleans. I think I am in love. He asks me fly fishing in a helicopter the next day and we all go outside to the dock after dinner to practise casting with the guides. I’m not very good, but I don’t take anyone’s eye out.
Day Two: I catch and release 20 fish and laugh with Gerry and his son, Matt, 34, who runs his own PI firm in the southeastern States, all day long. Our Aussie helicopter pilot tells incredibly bad dirty jokes. The guide, Ken — if we (I) cannot — will hook the fish, then hand us (me) the rod to reel it in. Matt and Gerry fish off their boat, Surveillance, in southern Florida, every second or third day, so they have no trouble. Matt especially is a demon. This, I decide, after my 15th pink, is serious fun.
Day Three: I sulk. There are too many people around and too many activities, and I am overstimulated. I have to hide in my room for a day. I can’t drink at every meal, and I can’t have any more conversations. I ask for half rations, no wine, no sugar, to be brought to my room. The incredibly wealthy, I decide (not for the first time) are never alone, because they hire too many people to take care of them.
I don’t care how much I’m missing, I have to be alone. This is why I never went to camp. The most upsetting thing is the jar of cookies that sits in a corner of the dining room, 24 hours a day, singing a siren song of Belgian chocolate. It is so unfair.
Day Four: I go fly fishing again. I catch 40 fish, up to my butt in freezing river water. Fishing, especially fly fishing, is way culty. It is a cult, I decide, for billionaires. A radiologist from Las Vegas tells us at dinner he filled in for Dick Cheney steelhead fishing in Smithers last year and it was so incredibly arduous he will never go again. British Columbian sport fishing is among the best in the world. Matt and Gerry are exultant: They have never had such luck, except for when they opened up Midway. There are so many fish that, in four casts one time, I, a total novice, caught four fish. Everyone tells me it will never be like this again.
At nights, we eat at long tables, communally, so except for the young families who keep to themselves, everyone gets to know each other well. Not everyone, by any means, is very wealthy. There is an electrician and his wife from the Midwest, here for their 10th wedding anniversary, and a thirtyish couple from D.C., he still in graduate school, on their honeymoon. There is some talk about houses, and I listen to a fascinating conversation about $10,000 watches and installing a light in a safe, so a 40-year-old buyout CEO can choose which watch to wear every morning. But mostly the talk is about the wilderness, and how stunning it is, and how much everyone is helplessly in love with the lodge, the island, the forest, the ocean and the fish, and fascinated by what they are learning about native culture, whales, bears and Canada.
On our last evening, we muse about the staff. There are 34 of them, most young Canadians, a few old wilderness hands, and some Indians. Each and every one of them is scrupulously fun, jokey, businesslike and dedicated. They live on the barge for five months, with few breaks. And twice a week, they receive another 30 people to acclimatize, entertain, soothe, caretake and, not so surreptitiously, teach. They are all passionate about conservation and obviously chosen for their cheerful extroversion. We hear a bit of gossip about romance in the staff lodge, but regrettably nothing too steamy. The food is uniformly delicious, urban four-star and innovative, despite being a thousand miles from a reasonable market. King Pacific, we decide, is a marvel of organization.
Kids run around shouting on the dock, as an 11-year-old brings back a 50-pound halibut. The conversation in the great room rises and falls in waves. Fishing boats arrive back at the end of the afternoon, one after another. Guests tromp in, dressed head to toe in wet wear, cheeks flushed, eyes clear and happy. Canadian summer – – merchandised, yes, but no less real and no less perfect.
The Level Headed Old Pheasant Strangler
Will she ever abdicate in favour of [Charles Stuart]? In 1990, before the publication of Andrew Morton’s infamous book, [Diana Spencer], Her True Story, she was said to be thinking of it. At the time, researching a profile of the Queen for Chatelaine, I called around various courtiers and friends of the Queen to ask just that question. They avoided me, or hung up on me, until one finally said, thoroughly exasperated, “Don’t you see? She rules by the grace of God. She believes this is her sacred duty. She will not abdicate. She will die first.”
“Diana could touch and feel,” wrote Martin Amis, “perhaps she believed she could heal.” Diana, at least for a while, demonstrated the ancient powers of royalty. As Ben Pimlott points out in The Queen, by the time of Diana’s death, the royal touch, the healing touch of the divine, the mythic power of royalty, was operating full- blown in thePrincess. She was beautiful, and mad, but what gave her most of her power was her connection to royalty. That which is royal is religious, sacred, familial, dynastic and traditional and receives reverence and commands authority because of a combination of these features.
Which meant, in 1998, that it was time to hire a modern public relations firm. In the disaster left by the mad Princess’s death in 1997, faced with catastrophically dropping public-approval ratings, the firm finally woke up to the fact that they needed some help. A committee to examine their collective future was struck. Repositioning took place. The Queen, they said, and it was true enough, was not cold and remote: She was iron-willed, disciplined and orderly, and stoically resistant to expressions of emotion. We were reminded of her youthful speech, dedicating her life to the service of her people. Devotion, dedication, self-sacrifice, duty: That was Elizabeth and would be Charles and William. The model family was cast once again as the recuperating, post-traumatic family, in which the Queen and Duke could be seen as “joint pillars” in a royal sea of discord. Family relationships improved — again, in a way that represented ourselves and demonstrated qualities of character that overcome all disaster.»Jump to indexing (document details)
Full Text (1503 words)
(Copyright National Post 2002)
The level-headed old pheasant-strangler is amongst us again, leaving us to marvel at her staying power, and the cultural elite to decry her popularity among “the people.”
“Will we ever be clear of this, this … this … ATAVISM,” one can imagine them saying. “We need a bureaucrat, er, a real Canadian, to be so venerated. Will no one rid us of this troublesome … ” and so on.
Yet, Elizabeth II stays on. Three years ago, Australian republicans made a stab at ending the monarchy in their country, only to realize, once people were aroused enough to ponder the debate, that actually, people wanted it, thanks. They weren’t quite sure why, couldn’t be bothered to think about it, frankly, but somehow, instinctively, they realized that compared to the alternatives, the monarchy, stripped of most of its power, but none of its myth, is a very good thing.
An enormous part of this esteem is due to Elizabeth Windsor’s character. The woman has lived, has she not? Lived enough for us to see exactly how she behaves under enormous pressure, which is to say, with enormous dignity. And she has lived to bring the circle all the way round to the starting point on Bruton Street, in Mayfair, where she was born to a loving couple who only wanted a peaceable, simple domestic life.
Elizabeth is happiest, says a friend, when she’s “rushing around in tatty clothes, laughing, joking, joining in, singing dirty songs.” She is a chatterbox, whose painters and dressmakers despair of ever making her shut up long enough so that they can do their work.
She is a private person who is devoted to her duty, and in that, she is entirely ordinary. She is the best of us, who we would like to be, behaving as we would like to behave were we in her shoes facing what she faces every day.
It seems almost redundant to say this, but when Elizabeth was born, most people were devoted to family. The family was sacrosanct and precious and even when troubled, was still considered the bedrock, the cornerstone and fundament of society.
The Duke and Duchess of York, he stuttering and painfully shy, she a smiling round soul, were thoroughly ordinary and not in the slightest way ambitious.
For the first few years of Elizabeth’s life, before she became the heiress presumptive, she, her sister and her parents modelled for the Commonwealth and the world a perfectly happy family life. Every morning, she and her sister would bounce for an hour on their parents’ bed and roughhouse, and every evening, the family would stay together by the fire and read.
Her parents did not like society, and they certainly did not enjoy cafe society, leaving it to the then Prince of Wales, Edward. Yes, they were grand, but with every action they seemed to say that even though we can have anything or go anywhere and meet anyone, we choose to be here, tucked up with our children, at home. Just like you.
And in that one simplicity, we find the truth of Victorian constitutional historian Walter Bagehot’s much-cited dictum about not letting in daylight on the monarchy’s magic. In the 1980s and 1990s, the institution teetered because cafe society had become so big, and the great maw of the celebrity-creating machine needed new fodder.
Sarah Ferguson and Diana Spencer, two genuinely silly women, provided it, and the sacred task of monarchy — to quietly represent ourselves to ourselves — was drowned in fluff and personal-growth therapy noise. The crack created by the abdication of the Duke of Windsor to marry another genuinely silly woman, Wallis Simpson, widened, tragedy ensued, and by 1997, most people thought it was time for a change.
No longer. Elizabeth II is almost more loved today, in far less innocent times, than when she was born in 1926. If at 50 you have the face you deserve, then at 75, the respect you have earned is your own as well. A great part of that earned respect is due to the fact that despite her wealth and glamour, her life has mirrored the most difficult of many of her middle-class subjects.
Her husband, Philip, has been, by most reports, a difficult husband, with a temper. Duty often keeps them apart. She has lived through the divorces of three of her four children and endured a biography of her son wherein he cites her as a neglectful and cold mother. Her friends are dying; her mother and her sister are dead. Despite her money and power, she is often alone, eating by herself off a tray in front of the television. Her best and closest companions? Her dogs.
Will she ever abdicate in favour of Charles? In 1990, before the publication of Andrew Morton’s infamous book, Diana, Her True Story, she was said to be thinking of it. At the time, researching a profile of the Queen for Chatelaine, I called around various courtiers and friends of the Queen to ask just that question. They avoided me, or hung up on me, until one finally said, thoroughly exasperated, “Don’t you see? She rules by the grace of God. She believes this is her sacred duty. She will not abdicate. She will die first.”
In his classic book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot said, “If you ask the immense majority of the Queen’s subjects by what right she rules, they would never tell you that she rules by Parliamentary right, by virtue of 6 Anne c.7. They will say she rules by ‘God’s grace,’ they believe that they have a mystic obligation to obey her.”
This still prevails, much as other ancient forms of power, such as Parliament itself and the law courts. There is an element of “unalienable right” that can only be explained in terms of antiquity and tradition. And as British constitutional historian John Neville Figgis once put it, any believer in natural rights is an inheritor of the doctrine of “divine right.”
“Diana could touch and feel,” wrote Martin Amis, “perhaps she believed she could heal.” Diana, at least for a while, demonstrated the ancient powers of royalty. As Ben Pimlott points out in The Queen, by the time of Diana’s death, the royal touch, the healing touch of the divine, the mythic power of royalty, was operating full- blown in the Princess. She was beautiful, and mad, but what gave her most of her power was her connection to royalty. That which is royal is religious, sacred, familial, dynastic and traditional and receives reverence and commands authority because of a combination of these features.
The royal touch has been invoked by kings and queens since pre- history. This power was believed to have come from their own anointing with holy oil at their coronations. For centuries, the belief that the monarch could perform a miraculous cure was so universal and persistent that it was almost a defining quality of monarchy itself. The last member of royalty to practise it outright was Charles Stuart in Italy in 1786.
Therein lies the power of the Windsor family. They represent the ancient springs of humankind, the battle and triumph over the animal in us. They reach back to the Woden-sprung monarchs of the Anglo- Saxon kingdoms, their selection determined exclusively from members of the royal race, who alone possessed the key quality of hereditary mana, or semi-divine luck, providing a vital link between the tribe and the divine, on which the tribe’s well-being depended. Thus they represent our history of successes, triumphs and breakthroughs that connect us to our past, to the vast legacy of freedom and prosperity wrung from the primitive. Very powerful stuff.
Which meant, in 1998, that it was time to hire a modern public relations firm. In the disaster left by the mad Princess’s death in 1997, faced with catastrophically dropping public-approval ratings, the firm finally woke up to the fact that they needed some help. A committee to examine their collective future was struck. Repositioning took place. The Queen, they said, and it was true enough, was not cold and remote: She was iron-willed, disciplined and orderly, and stoically resistant to expressions of emotion. We were reminded of her youthful speech, dedicating her life to the service of her people. Devotion, dedication, self-sacrifice, duty: That was Elizabeth and would be Charles and William. The model family was cast once again as the recuperating, post-traumatic family, in which the Queen and Duke could be seen as “joint pillars” in a royal sea of discord. Family relationships improved — again, in a way that represented ourselves and demonstrated qualities of character that overcome all disaster.
For four generations, royal watchers had believed and widely quoted the Walter Bagehot dictum that daylight should never be let in upon magic. Yet the press in the 1980s and ’90s had done just that, yet somehow, the magic prevailed.
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