26 April 2009

Gaudi resurfaces

I came across these photos by accident today on http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2008/07/architectural-genius-of-antoni-gaudi.html. They capture so well the magic of Gaudi--with entertaining commentary--that I'm posting them immediately.

Melting Cathedrals & Fairytale Houses

Article by our guest writer M. Christian (from "Meine kleine fabrik"). M. Christian writes about odd, weird, and wonderful things - most of them are, just like life itself, as unexpected as possible

I thought I was on drugs.

Not that I knew what being on drugs was like, you understand. I was, after all, a pretty clean-cut, mostly-normal, teenager spending a fairly-uneventful summer bumming around Europe: London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Athens, and so on in no particular order.

Then I turned a corner in Barcelona -- and was sure someone at the hostel the night before had slipped me something.

What other explanation was there? A building was melting for God's sake!

(image credit: Vincenzo)

The rest of the street was Spanish normal: warm brick facings, black toothed iron railings, arched windows, bursts of flowers on balconies, but right in the middle of average, of ordinary, of common, of commonplace was a building that sagged, that drooped, that arched, that ... well, that looked like it had been designed with vines and leaves in an orchard instead of with a T-square in a boxy office, planted from a seed and cultivated instead of having been mathematically assembled brick by stone cold brick.

(image credit: Tato Grasso)

(images credit: Daniele, Ruth Weal)

I'd heard of Antoni Gaudí, of course, but for some strange reason I either hadn't made the connection between the eccentric architect and his hometown, or, more than likely, hadn't a clue how brain-throbbingly amazing his work was. But, drugs or no drugs, standing slack-jawed in front of the flowing glory of Casa Batlló on 43 Passeig de Gràcia, I decided I'd spend the next few days seeing as much Gaudí genius as I could.

"A Nut, or a Genius?"

Barcelona has become Gaudí's city, which is ironic since Gaudí didn’t start out as the city’s cultural icon. Far from it: for a long time his only real supporter was the very-rich Eusebi Güell. It was only much later that the city, and Gaudí's critics, finally began to understand what he was doing.

Park Güell -
Just look at his Park Güell (named after you know who), just a short walk from Casa Batlló, up on el Carmel hill: everything in the park … flows -- like the concrete he used had been trapped, mid-liquid, as it cascaded down toward the city. Benches are part of fountains which are part of walls which are part of stairs which are part of terraces which are part of columns -- Güell created a run-on architectural dream, an organically shaped wonderland for the city.

(image credit: Santi)

(image credit: Angelo Cesare)

(image credit: moosoid9)

(image credit: Mikael Adolfsson)

Before continuing in my footsteps, here’s a bit more about Gaudí: an average student at the Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura in Barcelona, supposedly his instructor signed his architecture diploma saying "Who knows if we have given this diploma to a nut or to a genius. Time will tell."

While time certainly did tell, Gaudí at first didn’t have an easy time of it. Fortunately for the world, Güell took those early risks with the eccentric architect and gave Gaudí a chance to put into reality the brilliance growing in his mind.

Casa Milà -
Just look at his Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera): nothing about it looks assembled, or built. Instead it looks like Gaudí plopped it there as a huge mountain of slippery clay then dug his thumbs and fingers into it to make windows, doors, balconies, and even chimneys.

(image credit: Eugene Zhukovsky)

(image credit: Claude)

The Unfinished Cathedral

These days green is the buzzword and organic is the phrase-of-the-moment: designers and builders from Berlin to Saudi Arabia are putting down their angles and degrees for sea shells and bird’s wings, but all of them owe their biological inspiration to Gaudí. Here’s the man himself on the subject: “The architect of the future will build imitating Nature, for it is the most rational, long-lasting and economical of all methods.”

There’s one very important detail I left out of my very short bio of Gaudí. To fill that in let’s go back in time to when his Park Güell was finished: the men are dapper in their black suits and high waistcoats, the women are splendid in their flowing skirts and elaborate hats, and the streets flow with horses (because automobile hasn’t been invented yet).

(image credit: Arutha)

Sure, green is on everyone’s lips today, but Gaudí was creating mad masterpieces of organic shapes, living forms, and natural contours starting in 1883; Park Güell was finished in 1907.

One more stop, one more building -- even though Gaudí has grown lots more in Barcelona. Believe me, though, this one is worth the wait.

By the time he began working on the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, Gaudí was a legend but by his 40th year of working on it, both Barcelona and Gaudí had fallen on hard times. According to some, Gaudí had grown so eccentric, so raggedy, that cabs refused to pick him up, assuming he was a tramp.

(image credit: Santiago Cer)

Gaudí never saw the Sagrada Família finished. In fact no one has because, to this day, it’s still a work in progress. When Gaudí died in 1926, after being hit by a streetcar no less, the Sagrada Família had only just begun to show its potential.

There’s only one way to describe the Sagrada Família, what was to be -- and one day will be -- Gaudí’s masterpiece: it’s a cathedral.

(image credit: Stjepan Felber)

(image credit: Truus Stotteler, new sculptures designed after Gaudi's death by Josep Subirachs)

Sitting in the center of Barcelona, the Sagrada Família is a drip-sand castle, a towering bone-ribbed, seashell-vaulted, tower 170 meters tall (about 500 feet for us Americans). An ardent Catholic, Gaudí envisioned his cathedral to be his final statement, a perfect combination of natural shapes with inorganic materials, a crowing celebration of the beauty of living things.

(image credit: Rüdiger Marmulla)

Here is a great photo set, showing how the Sagrada Familia looks inside.

(image credit: Jeroen van Wijngaarden)

And a rather impressive manipulated rendition:

(image credit: J. Salmoral)

It’s amazing to realize Gaudí did what he did at the turn of the last century, but it’s absolutely stunning when you realize that this architect’s masterpiece, if all goes as planned, will be finished in 2026.

25 April 2009


With all the talk of swine flu/bird flu/SARS, there are inevitably references to the Spanish influenza epidemic that followed the first world war. Here's a short paragraph from a 2004 TIME article (on the avian variant) that contains some remarkable statistics. I had never seen the life expectancy figures before. Even without factoring in the flu effect, we've come to take for granted a good many more years than our grandparents and great-grandparents would have.

When the Spanish flu struck the world in 1918, one leading physician, a former president of the American Medical Association, thought he was seeing the end of civilization. It was a reasonable conclusion. The virus rampaged throughout the world, leaving morgues overstuffed with bodies. In 1917, the year before the flu hit, life expectancy in the U.S. was 51 years. In 1918, it was 39 years—a drop that was due almost entirely to the flu. Worldwide, 100 million or more may have died from the Spanish flu, including 20 million in India alone.


To put this in the proper perspective, I'll also post (a few days later) a paragraph from
The New York Times. Note lower estimate of 1918 deaths as well as progress in treatment.

Even in 1918, according to the C.D.C. [US Center for Disease Control], the virus infected at least 500 million of the world’s 1.5 billion people to kill 50 million. Many would have been saved if antiflu drugs, antibiotics and mechanical ventilators had existed.


The Sampler

While Jo and Kieron are widening my eyes with their househunting posts from Lusaka (http://www.zambiaexpress.blogspot.com/), we've just had a stark-contrast immersion in the sybaritic delights of London. Last night we managed not to think about the Oxford University Press Sand index for a few hours and met our good friends Geoff and Nora at The Sampler on Islington's Upper Street. The Sampler is a wine shop, but a wine shop with a difference. You actually get to taste the wines that you'll be tempted to buy via the sleek dispenser system shown above. Eighty wines are "on tap."

The procedure works like this: you put credit via Visa or cash onto a Sampler card, grab a wineglass, and then insert the card into the slot at the center top of the unit. See the red LED print above each bottle? This shows the price for a sample, ranging from about 50p to £20. Under that are three buttons that allow you to choose the size of sample you want. We all stuck with the smallest and therefore cheapest, which was plenty to share a few sips.

While waiting for Geoff (Nora came straight from work), we started on whites, where the unanimous favorite was a Chardonnay that cost, of course, £85 a bottle. That's never likely to come home with us, but this is the point. You get to try wines of a price and--possibly--quality you'd never be able to afford otherwise. The ever-decreasing remaining credit is displayed each time you insert your card; top-ups, needless to say, are immediately available at the cash register.

Unsurprisingly, the reds detained us the longest. Michael concentrated on Pinot Noir and one of those, from New Zealand, is now in our wine rack, to be opened with Kate if she gets here in June or on our 40th anniversary later in the month if she doesn't. We also bought a more reasonably priced 100% Languedoc cinsault for some less significant celebration.

The tasting finished with Geoff and Michael each paying ~£18 to sample a £375 bottle of Pomerol, from a domaine near the one Geoff and Nora's friend owns. A rare treat--but Michael would have chosen the Felton Road Pinot Noir even if the Pomerol had been a tenth of the price.

We then headed next door for dinner at a Kurdish restaurant. Cuisine was very similar to that at Turkish places near us in Southwark, but the flatbread--produced on an iron griddle installed near the front window--was exceptional, especially when stuffed with soft cheese or spinach and onion.

How lucky we are that Angel station is a straight shot on the Northern Line from Borough--in particular me, since the Islington Waitrose and Sainsbury are the best-stocked supermarkets I can get to & from with the least lugging of heavy bags up and down steps.

The Sampler:

Felton Road Winery/Cornish Point 2007:

23 April 2009

"The Joy of Brief Encounters" (title stolen from Tim Adams's Guardian article)

I never intend to wade into the creative fiction morass, but I do save writing tips that I happen upon. I'll use this post as a dumping ground for short story commentary, for both readers (me) and writers, adding to it as I come across other examples.

Raymond Carver: "Get in. Get out. Don't linger."

Richard Ford:

Short stories by nature are daring little instruments and almost always represent commensurate daring in their makers. For one thing, short stories want to give us something big but want to do it in precious little time and space. For another, they succeed by willfully falsifying many of the observable qualities of the lived life they draw upon. They also leave out a lot of life and try to make us not worry about it. They often do funny things with time - things we know can't be done, really - but then make us go along with that. They persuade us that the human-being-like characters they show us can be significantly known on the strength of rather slight exposure; and they make us believe that entire lives can change (turn on a dime) on account of one little manufactured moment of clear-sightedness. You could say, based on this evidence, that the most fundamental character trait of short stories, other than their shortness, would seem to be audacity. More than even the sestina, short stories are the highwire act of literature, the man keeping all those pretty plates up and spinning on skinny sticks.

Guardian article that led to post, with glowing reviews of three new collections:

Extract from Richard Ford's preface to The New Granta Book of American Short Stories:

21 April 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- redux

I can't find the New York Times piece that appeared in this Sunday's Observer, but another earlier article will do the trick. Oddly, neither mentions the Michel Gondry film that hinges on the same possibility of erasing troubling memories.

The research summary that isn't online begins by quoting an amusing "old adage" that I hadn't come across: "The man with a clear conscience probably has a poor memory." In reality, as we get older, we apparently become better at filtering out disturbing memories, not so much as a result of forgetfulness as because

MRI scans indicate that as people age, the part of the brain devoted to negative memories shifts. In young people, these memories are processed in a clump of brain tissue devoted to feelings, but in older people they arise from a center of rational thought.

Florin Dolcos, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta in Canada, told The Times's Nicholas Bakalar that as a result older people are "better able to control these emotions, and this control influences their memory for negative information."

Below is a longer NYT article dealing with recent neuroscience developments in brain manipulation. I was startled to see that the term "engrams" was first used by a German scholar in 1904; I only associate it with L. Ron Hubbard's nutty ramblings in Dianetics, as he sets out the basis for Scientology.

April 6, 2009
Brain Power

Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory

Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.

The discovery of such an apparently critical memory molecule, and its many potential uses, are part of the buzz surrounding a field that, in just the past few years, has made the seemingly impossible suddenly probable: neuroscience, the study of the brain.

“If this molecule is as important as it appears to be, you can see the possible implications,” said Dr. Todd C. Sacktor, a 52-year-old neuroscientist who leads the team at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, which demonstrated its effect on memory. “For trauma. For addiction, which is a learned behavior. Ultimately for improving memory and learning.”

Artists and writers have led the exploration of identity, consciousness and memory for centuries. Yet even as scientists sent men to the moon and spacecraft to Saturn and submarines to the ocean floor, the instrument responsible for such feats, the human mind, remained almost entirely dark, a vast and mostly uncharted universe as mysterious as the New World was to explorers of the past.

Now neuroscience, a field that barely existed a generation ago, is racing ahead, attracting billions of dollars in new financing and throngs of researchers. The National Institutes of Health last year spent $5.2 billion, nearly 20 percent of its total budget, on brain-related projects, according to the Society for Neuroscience.

Endowments like the Wellcome Trust and the Kavli Foundation have poured in hundreds of millions of dollars more, establishing institutes at universities around the world, including Columbia and Yale.

The influx of money, talent and technology means that scientists are at last finding real answers about the brain — and raising questions, both scientific and ethical, more quickly than anyone can answer them.

Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance — but what if, in the process, they lost other, personally important memories that were somehow related? Would a treatment that “cleared” the learned habits of addiction only tempt people to experiment more widely?

And perhaps even more important, when scientists find a drug to strengthen memory, will everyone feel compelled to use it?

The stakes, and the wide-open opportunities possible in brain science, will only accelerate the pace of discovery.

“In this field we are merely at the foothills of an enormous mountain range,” said Dr. Eric R. Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia, “and unlike in other areas of science, it is still possible for an individual or small group to make important contributions, without any great expenditure or some enormous lab.”

Dr. Sacktor is one of hundreds of researchers trying to answer a question that has dumbfounded thinkers since the beginning of modern inquiry: How on earth can a clump of tissue possibly capture and store everything — poems, emotional reactions, locations of favorite bars, distant childhood scenes? The idea that experience leaves some trace in the brain goes back at least to Plato’s Theaetetus metaphor of a stamp on wax, and in 1904 the German scholar Richard Semon gave that ghostly trace a name: the engram.

What could that engram actually be?

The answer, previous research suggests, is that brain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell. The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.

The billion-dollar question is how?

In the decades since this process was described in the 1960s and 1970s, scientists have found scores of molecules that play some role in the process. But for years the field struggled to pinpoint the purpose each one serves. The problem was not that such substances were so hard to find — on the contrary.

In a 1999 paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience, two of the most prominent researchers in brain science, Dr. Jeff W. Lichtman and Joshua R. Sanes of Harvard, listed 117 molecules that were somehow involved when one cell creates a lasting speed-dial connection with a neighbor, a process known as “long-term potentiation.”

They did not see that these findings were necessarily clarifying the picture of how memories are formed. But an oddball substance right there on their own list, it turned out, had unusual properties.

A Helpful Nudge

“You know, my dad was the one who told me to look at this molecule — he was a scientist too, my dad, he’s dead now but he had these instincts — so anyway that’s how it all started,” Dr. Sacktor was saying. He was driving from his home in Yonkers to his laboratory in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, with three quiches and bag of bagels bouncing in the back seat. Lunch for the lab.

The father’s advice led the son, eventually, to a substance called PKMzeta. In a series of studies, Dr. Sacktor’s lab found that this molecule was present and activated in cells precisely when they were put on speed-dial by a neighboring neuron.

In fact, the PKMzeta molecules appeared to herd themselves, like Army Rangers occupying a small peninsula, into precisely the fingerlike connections among brain cells that were strengthened. And they stayed there, indefinitely, like biological sentries.

In short: PKMzeta, a wallflower in the great swimming party of chemicals that erupts when one cell stimulates another, looked as if it might be the one that kept the speed-dial function turned on.

“After that,” Dr. Sacktor said, “we began to focus solely on PKMzeta to see how critical it really was to behavior.”

Running a lab is something like fielding a weekend soccer team. Players come and go, from Europe, India, Asia, Grand Rapids. You move players around, depending on their skills. And you bring lunch, because doctoral students logging 12-hour days in a yellowing shotgun lab in East Flatbush need to eat.

“People think that state schools like ours are low-key, laid back, and they’re right, we are,” said Robert K. S. Wong, chairman of the physiology and pharmacology department at SUNY Downstate, who brought Dr. Sacktor with him from Columbia. “You have less pressure to apply for grants, and you can take more time, I think, to work out your ideas.”

To find out what, if anything, PKMzeta meant for living, breathing animals, Dr. Sacktor walked a flight downstairs to the lab of André A. Fenton, also of SUNY Downstate, who studies spatial memory in mice and rats.

Dr. Fenton had already devised a clever way to teach animals strong memories for where things are located. He teaches them to move around a small chamber to avoid a mild electric shock to their feet. Once the animals learn, they do not forget. Placed back in the chamber a day later, even a month later, they quickly remember how to avoid the shock and do so.

But when injected — directly into their brain — with a drug called ZIP that interferes with PKMzeta, they are back to square one, almost immediately. “When we first saw this happen, I had grad students throwing their hands up in the air, yelling,” Dr. Fenton said. “Well, we needed a lot more than that” one study.

They now have it. Dr. Fenton’s lab repeated the experiment, in various ways; so has a consortium of memory researchers, each using a different method. Researchers led by Yadin Dudai at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that one dose of ZIP even made rats forget a strong disgust they had developed for a taste that had made them sick — three months earlier.

A Conscience Blocker?

“This possibility of memory editing has enormous possibilities and raises huge ethical issues,” said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard. “On the one hand, you can imagine a scenario in which a person enters a setting which elicits traumatic memories, but now has a drug that weakens those memories as they come up. Or, in the case of addiction, a drug that weakens the associations that stir craving.”

Researchers have already tried to blunt painful memories and addictive urges using existing drugs; blocking PKMzeta could potentially be far more effective.

Yet any such drug, Dr. Hyman and others argue, could be misused to erase or block memories of bad behavior, even of crimes. If traumatic memories are like malicious stalkers, then troubling memories — and a healthy dread of them — form the foundation of a moral conscience.

For those studying the biology of memory, the properties of PKMzeta promise something grander still: the prospect of retooling the engram factory itself. By 2050 more than 100 million people worldwide will have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, scientists estimate, and far more will struggle with age-related memory decline.

“This is really the biggest target, and we have some ideas of how you might try to do it, for instance to get cells to make more PKMzeta,” Dr. Sacktor said. “But these are only ideas at this stage.”

A substance that improved memory would immediately raise larger social concerns, as well. “We know that people already use smart drugs and performance enhancers of all kinds, so a substance that actually improved memory could lead to an arms race,” Dr. Hyman said.

Many questions in the science remain. For instance, can PKMzeta really link a network of neurons for a lifetime? If so, how? Most molecules live for no more than weeks at a time.

And how does it work with the many other substances that appear to be important in creating a memory?

“There is not going to be one, single memory molecule, the system is just not that simple,” said Thomas J. Carew, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, and president of the Society for Neuroscience. “There are going to be many molecules involved, in different kinds of memories, all along the process of learning, storage and retrieval.”

Yet as scientists begin to climb out of the dark foothills and into the dim light, they are now poised to alter the understanding of human nature in ways artists and writers have not.

20 April 2009

Macawmom? Mynahmom?? Maroonbelliedconuremom???

Perhaps I should have done a little more research before choosing my moniker.

Whatever. Here's the rhyme referred to in the title of the article below:

In the spring, large numbers of Magpies often gather to resolve territorial conflicts and social standing. These gatherings, called parliaments, probably gave rise to the many nursery rhymes and poems about Magpies, such as:

One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil's own sel'.

Or more commonly:

One for sorrow, two for joy;
Three for a girl, four for a boy;
Five for silver, six for gold;
Seven for a secret, never to be told;
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss;
Ten for a bird that's best to miss.

From http://www.garden-birds.co.uk/birds/magpie.htm

And from today's Guardian G2 section:

One for sorrow, two for joy ... why we must protect magpies

Two Black-billed magpies

Two Black-billed magpies. Photograph: Kim Taylor/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

If you see a single magpie this week, consider yourself the lucky one. Because the Songbird Survival Trust has called all bird lovers to arms. They want a magpie cull and they are not just asking farmers or gamekeepers to lock and load; they want everyone with a garden to use their legal right to kill these birds now, in their breeding season, leaving their chicks to starve in the nest. Well, as a lifelong and passionate birder, I'm not going to be signing up for the slaughter.

The trust's reasoning comes down to the same old misinformed chestnut - that evil magpies are causing the decline in smaller songbirds. It's kneejerk ornithological racism, ignorant and counterproductive. It's true that some magpies prey on the nests of smaller birds during the breeding season, but this is for perhaps three or four months of the year and only affects young birds that are easily replaced. The magpies never kill the more valuable breeding adults (unlike cats, which do so 365 days a year). No predator would thrive by dramatically reducing its own food supply; indeed, in areas where there are more magpies, there are typically more smaller species too. So how could the trust get it so wrong? I can only assume that this fringe group is still clinging to outdated views built on a foundation of medieval superstition.

Magpies have long been Britain's most hated bird. They are big, brightly marked and bark like Bren guns. Despite their brash appearance, they are a native species, but an in-your-face one, with a wealth of folklore to subconsciously seed such hateful reactions. Many people still tip their hats to a lonesome specimen and say, "Hello Mr Magpie, how is your wife today?", in a bid to appease the harbinger of misfortune.

The truth is that no scapegoats are required to explain the horrific reduction of songbird numbers. It all our fault. We have levelled and poisoned the landscape in our drive for cheap food and when the refugees fled to the cities we decked and concreted over our gardens to park our cars and save cutting the lawn. So rather than killing anything I'm going to continue to support creative conservation and fill up my bird feeders, and when I see a magpie I'll smile.

19 April 2009

JFK revisited--and re-examined in more ways than one

I'll never read American Adulterer, but some of the facts in this review were pretty damned interesting, especially those in bold. The author of the book is a medical doctor and well-qualified to comment on various of his subject's problems, physical and behavioral: a post mortem by someone trained for the job.

All the president's women

Chris Petit is intrigued by a clinical take on JFK that connects twin pathologies of disease and scandal

It seems so obvious that one wonders why no one has done it before - to take a novel, clinical approach to John F Kennedy as a case study in philandering and psychosexual pathology, conditioned by a history of medical illness that required a plethora of drugs to maintain the illusion of vigour and rude health necessary to his image of political dynamism and change when in fact he could barely walk and was incapable of putting on socks and shoes without help.

  1. American Adulterer
  2. by Jed Mercurio
  3. 354pp ,
  4. Jonathan Cape,
  5. £12.99

Kennedy was nothing if not a chemical man, at little more than 40 already treated variously for Addison's disease, thyroid deficiency, gastric and urinary ailments, venereal disease, high cholesterol, allergies, asthma, lumbar vertebral collapse, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, which resulted in his being forced to wear a back brace (and which contributed to his death because it held him rigid and left him incapable of ducking the second shot, to his head). Cortisone puffed his jowls, and Addison's was evident in a permanent tan with a yellow tinge. Kennedy swallowed pills until "his blood simmered with chemicals", and was shot up with enough drugs, including testosterone, for Mercurio to speculate (unlike Kennedy's official doctors) on whether the severe hormonal dysfunction was responsible for his extraordinary libido and satyriasis.

He famously told Harold Macmillan that if he went without a woman for three days he got terrible headaches. He therefore learned early in life to read women's availability. As president, a hectic political schedule and back spasm excused him the "drag of foreplay". Sexual agility was not on offer; possession and dismissal being uppermost in his mind, a call to a legion of women to perform their patriotic duty. Mercurio speculates only briefly about what it might have been like to be on the receiving end of such attention. Sex was the subject's golf, he notes drily: "a couple of quick holes, getting around as quickly as possible".

Treating his subject in diagnostic terms, Mercurio - a doctor and author of the hospital drama Bodies, one of the best British TV shows of recent years - suggests that the sexual career, instead of being a sidebar, was the key, and that the fate of the free world was determined by a maverick rather than "the juggernaut of conventional morality" that he publicly espoused. Mercurio presents JFK as a liberal hero, rather than a hypocrite, just the man for those times, a fascinating synthesis of surrogate motive and political vision, driven by the double standards now evident in TV shows such as Mad Men and even The Sopranos (whose central marriage was always very Kennedy-like in terms of what the wife chose not to know and the husband not to tell).

JFK has been fictionalised by James Ellroy and DM Thomas, among others, but not with material that hovers on the edge of straight-faced farce. Cross-cut with major public events, and somewhat lazily illustrated with long quotes from Kennedy's political speeches, the book's parallel track shows life and career as controlled exercises in stage-management. Failure threatened exposure, which would have led to the shameless being shamed. With hindsight, there were plenty of clues to the real state of things: Kennedy's explosive bowel, which interfered with his duties, and ensuing embarrassing toilet sessions; his serial womanising matched by his wife's compensatory, uncontrolled spending; the two of them being shot up with speedball cocktails by a quack known as Dr Feelgood, who accompanied them unofficially on their state visit to France and whose regimen helps to explain why in photographs they look, well, so out of it, while managing, just, to appear focused for the camera.

Kennedy's marriage and his wife's instability, plus relations with Frank Sinatra and his affair with Marilyn Monroe, are treated with clinical insight, but notables are missing, particularly his brother Robert (which is a surprise, given that he took on Monroe after Jack had dumped her). Mercurio knows that any obsession, however fascinating, risks becoming tedious; and despite his best efforts to present Kennedy in a forgiving light, the man remains less than the sum of his parts - smart enough to know there was a void in the centre of his life but incapable of transcending the monomaniacal intensity that gripped him. Seen through his predatory, telescoped eye, all women were reduced to the sum of his prescriptions. Mary Meyer, especially, here relegated to a cameo, deserves more, being more interesting than her lover - a woman of independent spirit who smoked dope (noted) and took LSD with Timothy Leary (not noted), and came closest to destabilising the philanderer's equilibrium. She was later murdered under bizarre circumstances, and her diary, detailing their affair, threatened briefly, until it was confiscated, to become a political hot potato.

Mercurio's thesis includes the interesting speculation that Kennedy was saved by his assassination, being already a doubly marked man. According to his doctors, he didn't have long to live, and if disease hadn't finished him scandal would: the FBI had an extensive dossier on his sexual peccadilloes and, following the Profumo affair in England, he was no longer safe from the press. Scandal had become a new and powerful market force, and Kennedy knew he was next.

17 April 2009

"Because you can't have depth without surfaces...."

One last post in this fashion series, an extract printed in The Guardian from Linda Grant's book The Thoughtful Dresser. For more on this delightful journalist/novelist/memoirist:

http://thethoughtfuldresser.blogspot.com/ (one of her two blogs)

http://www.jewishbookweek.com/2009/260209f.php (panel discussion--fascinating!)

Balm for the soul

For many shopping is an act of naked greed, a panic-inducing chore or a bewildering waste of time. But for Linda Grant, as for her mother before her, it means something else entirely: pure pleasure

Linda Grant Thoughtful Dresser

Illustration: Petra Borner

My mother, who died at the age of 81 from a condition called vascular dementia, could not remember the beginning of a short sentence by the time she was approaching its conclusion, which more or less eliminated from her diminishing world the pleasures of conversation. In the last weeks of her life, the part of her brain that controlled language began to malfunction and she started to speak in weird phrases which, if you listened to them carefully enough, were made up of words and syllables from both English and Yiddish, her first language, which during the long years of her illness she appeared to have completely forgotten.

Her last full, coherent, grammatically intact message to the world was uttered to my sister: "I like your earrings." Her last words to me as mother to daughter, the person she knew to be her daughter and not merely someone she knew she knew, had been stated a few months earlier: "I don't like your hair."

But before she became immobilised by incontinence and other terrible afflictions, the one activity in which my mother was still capable of participating, heart and soul, with a fully functioning mind, was shopping for clothes. She would wander along the street crying and moaning, with me gripping her arm for fear she would fall into the traffic. Her own fate was terrible to her, and she knew it. Then we would get to the small clothing section of the Upper Street [Islington] branch of Marks & Spencer and her identity re-formed; she was a human being once again, capable of assessing the quality of knits and whether this season's hemlines were flattering on her small frame. The shopper's soul-shout, "I want!", raced through her bloodstream. Once, I pointed out that M&S had introduced a delivery service for certain postcodes. "Oh, yeah?" she said. "And you'll pay through the nose for it." But a second or two later she was grasping my arm and asking had I seen the sign that announced that M&S now delivered to certain postcodes.

I took her to buy an outfit for my sister's wedding. As soon as she had ascended the escalator she seized on a Ralph Lauren skirt and Jaeger blouse. She scurried around the store holding fabrics together, "because I've got to match the navy". She cried and stamped her foot when the blouse was too big in the collar, revealing her ruined neck. I understood for the first time that she always wore a little scarf not because her old bones were cold, but because she understood the feminine arts of concealment, how to cover and flatter. She had no intention of being mutton dressed as lamb.

The outfit, which I paid for, cost a bomb. In the taxi back to the home where my sister and I had incarcerated her against her will when she was considered no longer able to function alone, she held her shopping bags with a radiant face, looked at me, eyes milky with innocence and bewilderment. "How are we related?" she asked.

My mother shopped because shopping was what she did and what she was good at. She had an unerring capacity to enter any store and pick out the most expensive item in it; she had a fantastic eye. Even though she almost never had the money to buy the best thing in the shop, she knew what the best thing was, and following on from that, the calculations you needed to make in order to get as close to it as possible: such as when the sales started, or where you could get really good copies, or which secondhand shops had the kind of stock she was looking for.

She had, in other words, taste. And she learned her taste from a variety of sources, such as reading magazines and listening to friends' recommendations, but above all, she spent a great deal of time actually in the shops, looking at things and learning how to discern the good, the bad and the very best. Friends queued up to go shopping with her, for they knew she would take them to the right places and make them try on the things that she knew would suit them.

Poor her, running headlong into the 1960s and a daughter who deliberately frayed the hems of her jeans and wore a handbag made out of a bit of old carpet, instead of Young Jaeger. But, of course, all daughters eventually turn into their mothers, and she had encoded herself inside me already.

Most hostile responses to shopping see it as an act of acquisition, of avarice and greed for things that we do not need but advertising and marketing have made us think we want, a condition that Marx called "false consciousness". We are dupes, and only the strong individualist can hold out against mass consumption. And there are others, of course, who truthfully say that they have no political objection to shopping but they just can't stand it as an activity and regard it as a waste of time.

Against whom I would set those of us who regard it as a pleasure. What does this pleasure consist of, and why do others not experience it; why do they feel, instead, a sense of panic, overwhelmed by what they describe as "too much choice"? Why do I like looking at other people's gardens, while content to allow my own to degenerate into a badly designed, overgrown jungle of strangled plants and rapacious weeds? Because I can't be bothered going out there to do the work of making it bloom. I watch the flowers wither and die from lack of water, and mourn them. But if I wake up and know, at the moment of the mind streaming back from dark into light and consciousness, that what a new navy linen jacket needs is a scarf with a bit of red in it, then I will have ants in my pants until I can get to the shops to find that scarf.

Shopping. A gerund that did not exist before the middle of the 18th century because it did not exist in the way we understand it now. It involved the single revolutionary and emancipatory act of middle-class women with disposable income being able to leave the house. Before this, the goods, or the people who made them, came to the house, either the tailors and seamstresses or the pedlars who sold door-to-door to the poor.

The first known use of the word shopping is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary: "Ladies are said to go a Shoping, when, in the Forenoon, sick of themselves, they order the Coach, and driving from Shop to Shop." In Fanny Burney's novel, Evelina, published in 1778, the eponymous heroine, newly arrived in London, writes a letter home: "We have been a-shopping, as Mrs Mirvan calls it", which indicates that the term is new to Evelina, a girl from the provinces. The earliest example of "shopping" without the preceding "a-" is recorded in Burney's journals, from 1782: "They spent at one shopping £20 in Gauzes two or three years ago!"

The shopping that Burney's female characters did was at small drapers' shops, in London, Bath or market towns. The history of shopping as a modern activity begins in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution, mass manufacture, and the development of the department store or grand magasin. Shopping was attacked not because of consumerist materialism, but because it emancipated both the shopper and the sales girls, releasing them from the physical drudgery of domestic service and placing them into close proximity with nice things: perfumes and scarves instead of coal scuttles and chamber pots. Inside the store was a world that husbands and fathers found themselves powerless to control or organise; a place with the first Japanese tea-room (Macy's in 1878), then a restaurant that took over a whole floor (Selfridges in 1902).

Men's public spaces were bars, restaurants, billiard rooms and brothels. Women's public spaces were shops and beauty salons. Placing the restaurant and beauty salon inside the shop gave women a public arena of their own, one that men did not come into and weren't interested in coming into. And although there were no brothels inside the department stores, women found in them a new sensual seduction.

Shops, like cinemas, are dream factories. They sell glamour and illusions and unfulfillable desires. We see the goods, but most of them we can't have, yet it is usually enough to be among them, for a few hours. When I enter Selfridges on Oxford Street, I am hit in the face like a hammer with a throb of music. To walk along its vast ground floor, through cosmetics, jewellery and handbags, is to take part in a great street party, one in which strangers offer to remake your face. If I jump into a cab and make my way to Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, I walk into a more quiet and discreet zone where an edited selection of fashion is available to examine, closely.

The point, for me, is to be in proximity to clothes. To see the things that are in the magazines. To gain some understanding of fabric, texture and colour. To hold a navy coat up against my chest to see if the shade of blue drains me, or brings some warmth to the skin. To try on a Donna Karan jersey dress I have no intention of buying because I want to understand why people rave about the cut of her clothes and how she does draping.

To shop with no intention of buying anything is to immerse yourself, for a few hours, in fashion. We civilians don't go to the shows, we have no access to the ateliers. We will never own a Hermès Birkin, but we can look, feel, experience. This is an actual Balenciaga dress. You come close to the source, the origin of what fashion is, the mutable mysteries of time and pleasure, the whole crazy changing world of style with all its moods and excesses and sudden surprises. For shopping is not necessarily the point of going to the shops. It's a meditation, a frame of mind, a therapy, a balm for the troubled soul.

I think of shopping methodology as the difference between hunting and gathering. To be in the shops is nothing to do with shopping, it's just going to take a look, and this is the true pleasure of what appears on the surface to be shopping, but is more akin to spending an hour or so in the National Gallery, wandering from room to room and educating one's eye. And it is different for men and women.

A man walks purposefully into a shop and wants to find, as quickly as possible, where they keep the shirts (preferably on the ground floor, as close as possible to the door so he doesn't get lost). He sees shirts. He sees a shirt in his size. Initially bewildered by the vexing choice on offer, dizzied and blinded by excess, he panics slightly, until, stabbing a finger, he says, "That one." The shirt is taken to the cash till; he hands over money. He expects the price of a shirt to be stable across ranges, across designers, across quality of fabric. A shirt is a shirt. How much can a shirt cost? The shirt is placed in a bag. The transaction has ceased. He leaves the shop hurriedly. Shopping is over. Possibly he will return home with the shirt, his wife will take one look and then return it the following day for a shirt that she will spend 40 minutes selecting.

Of course, this is a gross and sexist generalisation. Many men I know take as much pleasure in shopping as women do (and there are women who hate to shop), but it is women who have finely honed the gathering instinct which locks on at the moment of entering a shop.

There are two ways of shopping. One is a mission expedition, the search for the scarf with a bit of red in it to go with the linen jacket. Or a dress for a party. Or a new winter coat. Or that most exasperating of searches, shoes you can actually walk in. The second is, as I have outlined above, not actually shopping at all, but an exercise in pleasure and self-education, just to see what is in the shops.

The mission shop is a military exercise. Suppose one has, as an aim, the purchase of a winter coat, which, one has decided, will not be black but a colour. The expedition involves a survey of the winter coats and their styles this season, the length, the arrangement of the buttons (double- or single-breasted), vent at the sides or at the back. So that's one whole shopping trip, just to look at coats in general and get an idea of what's going on with coats, and what colours are around this year. Then having arrived at the colour you're looking for, say a deep, chocolate brown, you start to try on coats.

It is axiomatic that the coat that is the right chocolate brown and the right style and the right length and that fits like a glove will be by Armani and cost £1,500. Everything now descends in increasingly depressing order from that utopian perfection that you cannot afford. It has established itself as the platonic ideal of coats for which you will spend the rest of the week (or perhaps your life) searching.

Shopping to buy is hard on the feet and hard on the nerves. Whatever you want, they haven't got it in your size, or it's the wrong colour, or it makes your hips look like two ships' prows, nosing out from harbour. Sometimes one is doomed to disappointment. You don't find anything you like. You wind up with second best. You take it home, and think, "What have I just done?"

But why should shopping for clothes be any different from the rest of life, with all its sorrows and its occasional joys? This is life, not a scene from a Vogue fashion shoot, with all its airbrushed, photoshopped, sample-size perfections.

Ultimately, you will find a chocolate-brown coat. And in the years to come, photographed standing on a cold day in early February beneath the Eiffel Tower, or stepping on to the Venetian vaporetto, or just posed outside your new house, you will puzzle over the strangers in the background, the man raising his hand, the crying child, the unfamiliar colour of a front door you opened and closed for 15 years, and you will say: "I remember that coat. It took me a week to find it but it was perfect. I'll never have another as nice."

The other form of "shopping", just going to have a look at what's in the shops, which forms a major part of my recreational or work-avoiding instore activity, usually does not result in a purchase, unless it is of the order of general household maintenance: a replacement mascara, or two cosmetic products bought because if you do, you will receive, absolutely free for nothing, a makeup bag containing samples of other products, half of which you'll give to a friend's teenage daughter.

Looking, studying, thinking. Possibly trying on. Can I wear red? Possibly, but which shade of red? Picking up an armful of red tops, dresses, coats, jackets, and holding them up against you, or better still, taking them to the changing room, will give you a significant advantage when you next think that you're actually going to buy something. A new season brings new shapes, and you can't know if they'll suit you until you actually try them on.

And the shops are free. Inside them, those glittering cathedrals of beauty, as long as you're properly attired, you are welcome.

© Linda Grant 2009. Extracted from The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant, published by Virago, 5 March (£11.99). To order a copy for £10.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

16 April 2009

"L'exception française" encore

In contrast to the last two posts, here is the Gallic (as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon) take on "les dames de la maturité." First I'll paste in a link to the website of a young French designer who works with her grandmother in mind, then the Observer article that alerted me to her existence, and, third, a discussion of this "mini révolution" from a French online newsletter.

Fanny Karst's website:


[ To discover the inspiration for the title of the following article, take a look at (and a listen to) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh_bh77hK0 ]

Granny takes a trip

For a youthful French designer, elegance is wasted on the young. Her target buyers, says Susannah Clapp, have bus passes, not a Top Shop account

Fanny Karst is bringing grey power to the catwalk. For five years, the 24-year-old Frenchwoman has been dreaming of making clothes for 70-year-old women. First at St Martin's, from which she graduated in fashion print two years ago; then in Paris, at the Galerie Crèvecoeur; now at Chittleborough & Morgan, the Savile Row tailor where, for the past 12 months, she has been learning to cut.

The oldest model in the Old Ladies' Rebellion is 80, the youngest 60. They all have white hair, variously chignoned, bobbed or bunned. One of them strolls with a silver-topped walking stick; they all look tremendous. Karst's clothes are so good that you are drawn not to the fabric but to the woman.

These femmes - few of them professional models, most of them friends of the designer - appear completely at ease, never commandeered by their garments. In a cramped W1 basement, they suggest that they've just slipped on something lovely in order to saunter out on to a Mediterranean terrace.

Karst works in washed silk, which she splashes with digital prints. There is one dark green dress, tied at the waist; the rest are in a subdued French palette of dove grey, silver, white, navy, black - shades of moon and mercury.

Her shapes are beguilingly simple. There's one fringed miniskirt, one pair of cropped trousers. The others are silken shifts which seem to drop straight from the shoulder. They whisper over hips and breasts without a flounce or a flair; they flow without ever billowing.

But they're deceptive. You can't tell whether an outfit is a two piece or a dress. Karst deals in trompe l'oeil, not least because her clothes reshape the human form.

All these women look lean - not emaciated, but willowy. Actually, none is tiny. Karst's dresses are cut with a forgiving panel at the side. They tend to be bigger at the top with a smaller skirt, sometimes with a concealing shadow running down one side.

Karst often runs a print down the middle of a garment so that the eye is drawn away from the edge. She does everything to make things easy and practical. None of these women totters, because none wears high heels: "If you want to run you need flat shoes."

Karst leaves them to their own devices on the catwalk: one smiles, one twirls, one puts a hand on her hip. They all have a good-humoured nonchalance, though Karst says they are occasionally "a bit too disobedient". None of them ever becomes what Karst dreads in a model: "Just a hanger."

There are jokes in here: cheeky, colourful epaulettes which alight like birds of paradise on monochrome shoulders; one T-shirt (worn underneath a silver bomber jacket) that says: "Not at your age"; another that proclaims: "Let's begin at the end". The jokes are part of the passion.

Karst's interest in the elderly started when she was a teenager. She looked at her grandmother and decided that she looked better every year. It has been fuelled by a series of muses. She'd love to design for the 83-year-old Andrée Putnam. She'd thought she might create for the Duchess of Devonshire, but the dear old thing turns out not to be interested in clothes.

When Karst is designing, she'll cut out images off the faces of women who move her and pin them on to her drawings, to keep her company, because fashion for her doesn't have a point without a face. And fashion after her will have to change its face.

From www.seniorscopie.com It's not just the clothes, of course. Look at that bone structure. . . .

Fanny Karst, styliste de 24 ans, habille les seniors

Mis en ligne le 02/09/2008

Fanny crée des vêtements modernes pour les dames de la maturité

Bien avant d'entrer à la grande école de stylisme, la St Martins à Londres, Fanny Karst, une jeune fille sensible à l'univers des seniors, éprouvait déjà le désir d'habiller des vieilles dames. Les seniors se sentent encore jeunes dans leur esprit et dans leur peau. Malgré cela, le marché leur propose encore des vêtements qui ne sont plus d'actualité. Justement, Fanny crée des vêtements modernes pour les dames de la maturité.

Fanny a terminé ses études il y a un an. Elle travaille au Royaume-Uni et fabrique des vêtements de grande qualité : "Je trouve que la qualité se perd aujourd'hui, j'aime les vêtements indémodables, qui se transmettent de père en fils, ou de mère en fille" La jeune styliste s'est perfectionnée en travaillant pendant une année à l'atelier Chittleborough & Morgan qui se situe à Londres dans la Savile Row. Cette rue est reconnue pour ses tailleurs hommes de haute gamme, travaillant pour les aristocrates ou les chanteurs de rock.

Son premier défilé à Paris a eu lieu en mai 2008 dans une galerie d'art, la galerie Crèvecœur, située au 30 rue de Malte, dans le 11ème arrondissement de Paris. Des mannequins seniors portaient ses vêtements. L'agence Masters* qui est la première agence française de mannequins seniors, soutient beaucoup Fanny Karst et lui a prêté ses mannequins pour le défilé.
Si Fanny Karst a décidé de réaliser des vêtements dédiés aux femmes seniors ce n'est pas pour un coup de marketing mais par une envie très personnelle. Elle éprouve une réelle fascination pour les personnes âgées : "J'espère un jour pouvoir fabriquer une robe pour Andrée Putman". Le visage ridé de la célèbre styliste (83 ans) renforce son charisme. Il exprime l'expérience et le vécu. Pas question de se renier pour s'habiller, mais de trouver dans le vêtement une expression de sa personnalité. Fanny pense que l'esprit de jeunesse qui anime les seniors a envie de se déployer à travers des vêtements confortables et actuels.

Pour la styliste qui habille des clientes d'une moyenne d'âge de 70 ans, une femme senior a mille et une occupations. Elle doit se sentir à l'aise dans ses vêtements mais ils doivent aussi la mettre en valeur. "Il faut réadapter la mode de la maturité, trop de vêtements ringards s'offrent aux personnes âgées" affirme Fanny qui a 24 ans. En effet, la mode s'adresse en grande partie aux jeunes filles et à leur tour de taille...

Certaines marques ciblent spécifiquement les personnes âgées et les personnes à mobilité réduite mais "elles ne mettent pas toujours la femme en valeur, ces vêtements ont un caractère essentiellement fonctionnel."

Fanny est la nièce de Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, une célébrité du milieu de la haute couture. Elle offre un univers moins exubérant que son oncle. Ses maîtres mots qui qualifient ses robes sont la liberté et la désinvolture. Mlle Karst va ouvrir prochainement un atelier à Londres. Elle y réalisera des vêtements uniques et sur mesure, en adéquation avec la personnalité de chaque cliente.

Fanny Karst espère créer une "mini révolution" et que les marketeurs vont évoluer en son sens pour proposer plus de choix de vêtements pour les seniors. Un marché a développer car les seniors de demain ne sont pas prêts à s'habiller comme les seniors d'hier.

Voted the UK's "favourite post-war poem"


When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Jenny Joseph

15 April 2009

I shall wear purple....Alison Lurie-style

I've loved Alison Lurie novels in the past and now I love this article. I finished reading it about two minutes ago and rushed to the computer to post it. Tomorrow I'll paste in the Jenny Joseph poem she mentions.

Paola--this one's for you!! You just need to wait a decade or so to come of age.

The day I threw away fashion

When she hit 60 Alison Lurie realised that fashion no longer spoke to her. So she got rid of half her wardrobe, stopped colouring her hair, gave up wearing makeup - and felt euphoric

To be used only with G2 story dated 15 April 2009: Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie sits in her Key West, Florida house in a straw hat she embellished with bougainvillea from her garden. Photograph: Phyllis Rose

Soon after I reached 60 I was abandoned by Vogue magazine and all its clones. Like former lovers who drop you slowly and politely because they once cared for you, they gradually stopped speaking to me. Without intending it I had permanently alienated them, simply by becoming old. From their point of view, I was now a hopeless case. They were not going to show me any more pictures of clothes I might look good in, or give me useful advice about makeup or hair.

At first my feelings were hurt. Hadn't I loved fashion and been faithful to her all these years? Just as one avoids the songs that recall a lost lover, I stopped reading her magazines, even in a doctor's office. As a result, I felt first panic and then a rush of euphoria. I was abandoned and alone, yes, but I was also free: after more than 60 years, nobody was telling me what to wear.

Since fashion no longer pursued and flattered and scolded me, I realised that I did not have to pursue her. I could go through my closet and get rid of all the stylish clothes I really didn't like: the fitted jackets, the cropped pants that left six inches of pale stubbled leg hanging out, the silk dress-for-success blouses with floppy bows and padded shoulders. I also gave away everything too obviously "sexy" - that is, shiny and low-cut and tight and uncomfortable. I hadn't worn these outfits for years, essentially because I didn't want to look as if I were hopelessly trying to inflame passion in members of the opposite sex.

What was even better was that I could revive clothes I had loved in the past and hadn't been able to bear to throw away, though they had become completely out of date. The long patchwork hippie skirts and vests, the filmy scarves and big soft shawls, the loose cowl-neck sweaters, the floppy straw hats, some with feathers or artificial flowers. Some of these things were so far out of date that they looked new, and if they didn't, I didn't care.

Next I got rid of all my high-heeled shoes. I hadn't worn them very often since I slipped on an outdoor stairway covered with wet leaves and broke my leg. I had already understood that if I had been wearing flat shoes that day I would have avoided a miserable week in the hospital and three months on crutches. Some of these shoes were beautiful in themselves, and giving them away was hard. But it was also a relief, because although fashion magazines don't admit it, high heels always slow you down and hurt your feet. Whenever you are in a restaurant you can see that under the partial cover of the tablecloths at least half the women have taken off their painful spike-heeled pumps and sandals, just as my friends and I used to do. Fashion pretends to be a feminist, but still makes it almost impossible for anyone under her spell to negotiate a subway grating or a rough gravel path, or run for a bus without turning her ankle.

After a while, since fashion was no longer nagging me to colour my hair, I stopped, and in a few weeks it was almost white. This led to a wonderful discovery. For more than 60 years I had been a brownish blonde, first naturally and then artificially, and half the spectrum had been out of bounds. Yellow and orange and coral and pink made my hair seem dirty as well as dirty-blonde; purple and lavender made me look like a basket full of dried straw. Now all this was over. White and grey hair go with every colour, including white and grey. It is no coincidence that some feminists have adopted as a slogan the first line of a poem by Jenny Joseph: "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple."

Already I had saved the two hours a month I had spent trying to turn my hair into a dull imitation of its original colour and then cleaning up the mess in the sink afterwards. Next, with my husband's encouragement, I saved more time by throwing away my makeup. Powder and foundation and eye shadow tend to cake in wrinkles, and an ageing woman with bright-red lipstick, especially when it has leaked into the little, otherwise invisible lines around her lips, can look like an elderly vampire, or worse. She can become the sort of terrifying figure that the Ancient Mariner saw on the death-ship:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold ...
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

My friends made similar changes, all individual and all in defiance of fashion. One gave away all her skirts and went into trousers and jeans; another disobeyed the rule that dresses are now for formal occasions only and began sewing herself loose-cut casual smocks and muumuus in an unfashionable mid-calf length: she is a serious gardener, and points out that it is much easier to wash your knees than to wash a pair of slacks. Another friend decided that she would simplify her basic wardrobe to basic black, with accents of purple or green or scarlet.

All of us realised with joy that we could now wear the clothes we liked best. There was only one rule: we had to be reasonably neat. It may be true that "A sweet disorder in the dress/Kindles in clothes a wantonness" but in old age what it kindles is the suspicion that you are starting to lose your mind. Spiky, confused-looking hair of the sort that goes to fashionable clubs, ragged hems, and unravelling sweaters no longer look charming.

Realising this, even the most charmingly untidy of my friends have now reformed. We do still see some unfortunate contemporaries who haven't learned this rule - and also, alas, some who are still worshipping at the altar of Fashion, who has for ever turned her back on them.

14 April 2009



A nation of jailbirds

Apr 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition

Far too many Americans are behind bars

Illustration by KAL

THE world’s tallest building is now in Dubai rather than New York. Its largest shopping mall is in Beijing, and its biggest Ferris wheel in Singapore. Once-mighty General Motors is suspended in a limbo between bail-out and bankruptcy; and the “war on terror” has demonstrated the limits of American military might.

But in one area America is going from strength to strength—the incarceration of its population. America has less than 5% of the world’s people but almost 25% of its prisoners. It imprisons 756 people per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world average. About one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on parole. Black men have a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at some point in their lives. “A Leviathan unmatched in human history”, is how Glenn Loury, professor of social studies at Brown University, characterises America’s prison system.

Conditions in the Leviathan’s belly can be brutal. More than 20% of inmates report that they have been sexually assaulted by guards or fellow inmates. Federal prisons are operating at more than 130% of capacity. A sixth of prisoners suffer from mental illness of one sort or another. There are four times as many mentally ill people in prison as in mental hospitals.

As well as being brutal, prisons are ineffective. They may keep offenders off the streets, but they fail to discourage them from offending. Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested within three years of being released. The punishment extends to prisoners’ families, too. America’s 1.7m “prison orphans” are six times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. The punishment also sometimes continues after prisoners are released. America is one of only a handful of countries that bar prisoners from voting, and in some states that ban is lifelong: 2% of American adults and 14% of black men are disfranchised because of criminal convictions.

It is possible to pick holes in these figures. Some of the world’s most repressive regimes do not own up to their addiction to imprisonment (does anyone really believe that Cuba imprisons only five in every 1,000 of its citizens?). No sane person would rather be locked up in Russia or China than in America. A country as large and diverse as America boasts plenty of model prisons and exemplary training programmes. But all that said, the conclusion remains stark: America’s incarceration habit is a disgrace, wasting resources at home and damaging the country abroad.

Few mainstream politicians have had the courage to denounce any of this. People who embrace prison reform usually end up in the political graveyard. There is no organised lobby for prison reform. The press ignores the subject. And those who have first-hand experience of the system’s failures—prisoners and ex-prisoners—may have no right to vote.

Which makes Jim Webb all the more remarkable. Mr Webb is far from being a lion of the Senate, roaring from the comfort of a safe seat. He is a first-term senator for Virginia who barely squeaked into Congress. The state he represents also has a long history of being tough on crime: Virginia abolished parole in 1994 and is second only to Texas in the number of people it executes.

But Mr Webb is now America’s leading advocate of prison reform. He has co-sponsored a bill to create a blue-ribbon commission to report on America’s prisons. And he has spoken out in every possible venue, from the Senate to local political meetings. Mr Webb is not content with incremental reform. He is willing to tackle what he calls “the elephant in the bedroom”—America’s willingness to imprison people for drug offences.

Does Mr Webb have any chance of diminishing America’s addiction to incarceration? History is hardly on his side. For most of the 20th century America imprisoned roughly the same proportion of its population as many other countries—a hundred people for every 100,000 citizens. But while other countries stayed where they were, the American incarceration rate then took off—to 313 per 100,000 in 1985 and 648 in 1997.

Mr Webb also has some powerful forces ranged against him. The prison-industrial complex (which includes private prisons as well as public ones) employs thousands of people and armies of lobbyists. Twenty-six states plus the federal government have passed “three strikes and you’re out” laws which put repeat offenders in prison for life without parole. And the war on drugs has pushed the incarceration business into overdrive. The number of people serving time for drugs has increased from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today, or 55% of the population of federal prisons and 21% of those in state prisons. An astonishing three-quarters of prisoners locked up on drug-related charges are black.

Up for a fight

But Mr Webb is no ordinary politician. He packed several distinguished careers into his life before becoming a senator—as a marine in Vietnam, a lawyer, a much-published author and secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration. And he is not a man to back down from a fight: one of his best books, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America”, celebrates the martial virtues of the clan to which he is proud to belong.

Some signs suggest that the tide is turning in Mr Webb’s direction. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Barack Obama’s Justice Department has hinted that it wants to do something about the disparity in sentencing between blacks and whites for drug crimes. Support for both the death penalty and the war on drugs is softening: a dozen states have legalised the use of marijuana for medical purposes. If Mr Webb can transform these glimmers of discontent with America’s prison-industrial complex into a fully fledged reform movement, then he will go down in history as a great senator.