A Sea Change

The second novel about a sea voyage I read this year is ‘A Sea Change’ by Michael Arditti.  This author was new to me but, as I really enjoyed this novel, I shall be looking out for more by him.

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In 1939, the SS St Louis carried Jewish passengers seeking refuge from Nazi Germany in Havana, where they were to await entry visas to the USA.  Their relief on leaving Hamburg turns to fear as it becomes clear that there is no safe haven awaiting them.  Instead, turned away, they head back to Europe and a search for asylum in any European country other than Germany that will take them.

Experiencing this is Karl Frankel.  The novel is structured as a memoir written for the benefit of his grandchildren.  This, at least, means that the story can be read with the knowledge that he survived.  What isn’t clear for much of the novel is the fate of the rest of his family and those he encounters on the voyage.

Karl grows up on this voyage.  His behaviour and motives are not, as the older Karl recognises, always worthy.  The struggle of a young man trying to be taken seriously by his elders is cleverly written.  He also struggles with his identity, especially his Jewishness which, as he writes, was the only aspect of him his former school friends noticed once the Nazis came to power.  On this voyage, Karl finally has his bar mitzvah, a rite of passage he rejected at the appropriate age.  Realising that all adults are complex is not the least of the lessons he learns in this rite of passage novel.

‘A Sea Change’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Cat’s Table

This novel by Michael Ondaatje tells the story of the voyage of an 11 year old boy travelling from Colombo to England and from childhood to adolescence.  The word ‘journey’ is overused these days by just about every celebrity or talking head on television who wants to appear profound but the ‘journey’ here really is an apt metaphor.  The boy is on a voyage of self- discovery.  It is the 1950s and, like many other boys of his time and class, he is travelling from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to school in England.

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The cat’s table is the least desirable seating allocation for dining on board the ship ‘Oronsay’, the opposite of the captain’s table.   Here, our hero shares the table and adventures with two other boys also heading to English schools.  The three week journey, via the Suez Canal, gives them plenty of time to discover other on board characters and speculate on their activities and motives.

Travelling from East to West affects our hero is less obvious ways and we get a glimpse, through our narrator’s reminiscences of how lives in England and onwards have affected the three boys.  Whatever class distinctions existed on a 1950s ocean liner were of little interest to a young Michael.  Instead, the divide he notices is between the worlds of children and adults.

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I read this book earlier in the year.  I also downloaded an audio book narrated by Michael Ondaatje himself.  Rather than read along while listening I would play a sort of game of tag; first listening to a section and then reading it for myself and vice versa.  It was a hugely satisfying way to ‘read’ a book.

‘The Cat’s Table’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Song of Achilles

I have always had a soft spot for the unassuming character in novels who thinks he is not worthy of love or who believes everyone else is brighter, more talented and more important than he is.  Step forward Patroclus, the awkward prince who is exiled to the court of King Peleus when he injures a boy who has been bullying him.  Shamed and serving penance, he does not expect much from life but Achilles, the son of the King, befriends him and, together, they learn the military skills expected of young princes in Ancient Greece.

The friendship grows into something deeper and the two become lovers; love is where it falls.  When the distant war in Troy intrudes, Patroclus follows Achilles and the fate that awaits them both is played out.  Madeline Miller’s novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is a beautiful love story with plausible historical detail to add to the myth like narrative.

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I loved this novel for the way the gay storyline is central but not problematic.  Achilles is a proud of his lover and Patroclus is both astonished to be worthy of his love and a loyal partner.  The ending is always clear.  There is no escaping their fates but the humanity that leads to acts of bravery and foolishness is made clear through Madeline Miller’s writing.

‘The Song of Achilles’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

…In short measures life may perfect be!

This poem, by Ben Johnson, is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk doth make Man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night—
It was the plant and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.    

Ben Johnson   

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Japanese Tights for Boys: Mountain Style

Japanese boys and men continue to expand the fashion boundaries.  A few years ago, girls and young women in Tokyo adopted mountain wear as fashion items to wear around town.  This often included tights and leggings under shorts.  Not to be outdone, this ‘Yama’ trend spread to boys, as can be seen from these two pictures advertising brands.

Sato Shori is part of the Japanese boy band, Sexy Zone.  He can be seen in the middle of the picture below sporting the Yama style leggings.  Fellow group member Marius Yo seems to stick to tights.

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In any case, Japanese boys seem more liberated than their British counterparts when it comes to fashion.

Cultural differences are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

Love Locked Out

This 1889 painting by Anna Lea Merritt is in the Tate Collection but has not been on display for some time.  This is a shame as it is a favourite of mine.  There is a story behind it which adds to the poignancy of the image. The artist was an American who lived and worked in Britain for most of her life.  She intended to stop working as an artist on her marriage but, after her husband’s death, she returned to painting.  They were married for just three months.

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Her original intention was to produce a bronze sculpture for her husband’s grave but this was too expensive.  Instead, she returned to what she knew best and painted a picture of Cupid locked out of the mausoleum, trying to get in.  The love that is ‘locked out’ is that of Merritt herself, a widow at 33 and robbed of a life she hoped to have with the love of her life.  Yet, due to the moral code of the times, it wasn’t prudent for a woman to paint herself as naked, outside the tomb.  Neither would it have been prudent to paint a naked male so, instead, she personifies herself as a teenage boy.

The burnt-out lantern on the floor and the discarded arrow suggest despair.  The position of the head and arms suggest defeat.  The autumn leaves on the ground suggest passing seasons while a rose survives just over Cupid’s head.

‘Love Locked Out’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Rosetti’s Black Boy

In Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s painting, ‘The Beloved’, sometimes known as ‘The Bride’ there is a black child in the bottom left hand corner.  The picture is one of a series of paintings of women by Rosetti completed in the 1860s.  The beauty of women was a central theme of his.  They were painted, often in an idealised way, with luxurious clothing, jewellery and accessories to reference their femininity.

This painting is different, though, because it features several figures, not one, and it includes the black boy in the corner of the image.  He is the only black figure in a Rosetti painting.

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Rossetti wrote to the banker George Rae who commissioned the picture to tell him of his wish to include a little black girl carrying a cup before the Bride.  However, the artist spotted a slave boy travelling with his American master on the steps of a London hotel.  He came to Rossetti’s studio in Chelsea to pose.  The Birmingham City Art Gallery has two studies for this painting which are worth considering.

In the first, the model is clearly the slave boy met at the hotel.  Although in the final painting, he is covered in his mistress’s jewels, this is the same child from the study. In the second study, though, we see a young black girl.  There is a striking resemblance to the young boy and it is possible that it is the same model. The artist has feminised the boy in the drawing.

The painting was completed in 1866 but repainted in 1873, when the young girl was replaced with the young boy.  When the original was being painted, the American Civil War was being fought and abolition of slavery was in the news.  Rosetti’s sister, the poet Christina, was a vocal opponent of slavery.  The views of her brother are not known.

‘The Beloved’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?