For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.
“Do you do any writing?’ my daughter asked.
“Yes,” I said, “I write for my blog, probably about six times a month.”
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. She meant, I think, did I write for publication, did I think about writing a book. I pointed out that my blog was a publication and it brought responses, giving me some sense of who was reading my short essays and how they felt about them. Books? I pointed out that I had self-published four books about American silver. Somehow that didn’t satisfy her. Well, did I ever want to write fiction – a novel? Perhaps at one time, but not now. Again she was puzzled. Why had I lost the desire to be creative? I had majored in English in college, so I must have wanted to be involved with literature.
This entire conversation had taken me by surprise and left me unsettled. There are no short answers to my daughter’s questions. I am 83, soon to be 84. While my inner core is the same inner core I had at 16, my understanding of the world I live in and my attitude toward it have changed a great deal. At 16 I had intellectual aspirations and a very fuzzy focus. I loved to read and my response to literature was strong. By majoring in English I could read, learn of the world of books and also explore other interests – history, philosophy, psychology, art. Growing up in a financially-secure family in a conventional community, I had no career ambitions. I would, I assumed, make a middle class marriage and my husband would support me. Teaching? My family was full of teachers and I was sure that was the last thing I wanted to do.
I wrote poetry, much of it imitative, but with an occasional good phrase. When required, I wrote a story or two. Characters came, dialog was fun, but plotting was difficult. Yet I fancied that someday I would be a writer. Recently, reading Stephen King’s account of his boyhood I saw the striking difference in our attitudes. He always wanted to write, to tell stories, and he darned well needed to make a living at it. I was lah-de-dah about making a living and wrote on assignment – or in an occasional poem when strong emotions overcame me.
One of the things I learned in college was that I did not want to continue with academic literary criticism. It was the time of the New Criticism. One must study the text, and only the text, carefully analyzing every word and ignoring the time, the place, the writer and the public. I learned close and critical reading from this, but I wanted something much broader. I loved the text, but I loved it even more when I looked into where it came from and why. I decided to pursue graduate studies in history because historians can investigate everything, including literature.
Then, in my mid twenties, life got in the way, and in a very big way. I married (too young) and had two children (also too young, but they turned out well just the same) and a constant need to bail a leaky financial boat with any job that came to hand. We had no time or resources for academics or for writing, creative or otherwise. During those hard years I had a concept for a novel. I knew how it started and how it ended; I just had to figure out the middle. But again, I had no time or resources, much less the emotional energy for such a project.
I wrote, however, for my work. I wrote letters, memos, reports, proposals, marketing schemes, and procedures for administrative tasks. I learned to respect the need to be clear, to be not misunderstood. Then, when I became a teacher, I wrote course materials, first for myself and increasingly for others to use. A day of training must have an orderly progression with basic concepts, illustrations, exercises, and then a step up to the next level of complexity. Teaching critiques you in the best way possible. You write it, you use it with live students, you find out what works and what does not work. Then you rewrite and go around again.
Skipping over some years best forgotten, I found myself in my fifties with a secure job, a new husband, a comfortable amount of money, and a little free time. Did I go back to that novel? Not at all. Having moved to Connecticut I began collecting silverplate. It was a major industry in the State at one time and now in a rapid decline. As a would-be historian I was fascinated to be able to acquire and study its artifacts, and so cheaply too. You can learn from objects as well as from words. By the time I retired I was eager to write articles for antiques publications and to assemble my research results into self-published books. This is not creative in the way that a novel or poetry is creative, but the effort to conceive, research, write and publish satisfied my need to create something that no one else had ever made.
We learn by doing. As I became successful at writing articles on subjects as varied as hand-painted china, Shaker chairs, and Arthur Rackham illustrations, I began to feel that I could write something more personal, to slay those demon hard years. I took a series of memoir – or “creative non fiction” – courses. The creative writing courses I had taken in college were very loosely organized – it was up to us to find what we had to say. The courses I now took were more directive. For example, a typical assignment would be to write about an important decision you have made. We read our drafts in class. Since we were all in this together, class members were invariably supportive, but also acute at spotting weaknesses. I did indeed write about conflicts, troubles and decisions. My writings did not conform to any grand plan but they created a distance from past painful events. I put them on the page so that I could let them go.
My final project during those early retirement years was to write an account of my husband’s experiences. Born in a prosperous Hungarian Jewish family, he lost his mother and brother during the Holocaust and barely survived himself to come to this country after the war. Because I had traveled to Hungary with him and met many members of his extended family, I felt I could tell his story as a demonstration of survival. The family has appreciated it, and posting it on the Internet has brought us into contact with several additional relatives.
Then, several years ago, I became a blogger. I started by listing the books I was reading at a book discussion site. The reactions were stimulating and I increasingly added comments about my reading. At that time I was also maintaining a website devoted to my silver books and research. Six years ago I decided to combine my book lists and silver posts into one blog, which became Silver Season/Silver Threads. My business name was Silver Season because we once had an age of gold, but this is the silver season. Silver Season thus became my user name but, when I came to title my blog, I thought Silver Threads was more appropriate for the variety of subjects there. The resulting confusion continues. Later I added a second blog, Greider Clan, as a place to publish family documents, pictures and stories.
My daughter, not surprisingly, wants to write. My advice: you have to figure out what you want to say and who you want to say it to. What I myself want to say is something you may not know or may not have noticed. You don’t know what a spreadsheet is? Wonderful. That makes it possible for me to tell you and to show you. You never heard of Sarasatak? Real people lived there. You are reluctant to read that book? This is what I found in it. I have told it to my students, to my fellow collectors, to my classmates, to my family and, now through the blog, to anyone who will listen. It scratches my own creative itch. I hope that my daughter will find as good a way to scratch hers.
April 14, 2015
This novel appears to be about a team of girls who play baseball in 1947, but it is not. It is about the sheer joy of life and language and how things look when you are 19 years old and see neither an available future nor an available (and attractive) husband. It was so much fun to read that I am tempted to go back and start over but will instead immediately seek out another of Karen Joy Fowler’s novels.
I was inching my way through a much-praised novel by one of those Latin American magic realism authors in which young men are sitting around in cafes and having endless conversations and drinking and talking about politics and drinking some more and planning to do whatever it is that their fathers do not want them to do and ogling women and speculating about sex. I realized on page 47 (of 601) that I could not continue. They annoyed me and, what’s worse, they bored me. My own liberation theology tells me that my time is valuable and life is short and I should have some fun. So I took The Sweetheart Season off the shelf and had a wonderful time.
The narrator is telling the story of her mother, Irini, who was a member of the team. It’s not quite a biography because the narrator is not committed to telling us the truth. What she doesn’t know, she will make up. Of her mother,
She was a good parent for the kind of kid I was. Another mother might have believed, and might even have convinced me, that I was untrustworthy, tricky, or evasive. In fact, I was all these things. But was driven primarily by a love of drama. My mother always made it seem like a gift.
We are in small town Minnesota. The War is over, but the men have not come back. A generation of young women work in the cereal mill – and in the Good Housekeeping type kitchen where recipes are developed – and wonder what will become of them. The mill owner forms them into all-girls team to play in neighboring towns as good publicity. They eat a bowl of his cereal before every game and will have an ape as a mascot just as soon as he can sign one up. They usually lose, but that’s not the point. They will wear uniforms and they will travel and these attributes are known to be very attractive to men.
Fowler gives us a wide range of characters, quietly understated. Since Irini’s mother had died years before, she is being brought up by her optimistic but alcoholic father. He takes certain responsibilities seriously and finds it easier to meet them when playing catch.
“…This is the big story, the story of humanity. Throw in a few wars and a few diseases and a few acts of God and you have the history of the world.”
“I just can’t believe that everyone would do that. I don’t believe it. I can’t believe that you believe it.”
“So the man makes a lot of sperm and he makes it in his penis. You took your eye off the ball again.”
“Did you say peanuts?”
“Oh. I thought you did. Throw me another high one.”
“The woman makes an egg inside her body, but she needs sperm from the man. When the sperm reaches the egg, the egg can begin to grow into a baby. Every baby starts with sperm and an egg. No other way. No exceptions. On a high fly, you have to move to the right like that, but it’s a good idea to practice catching on the right so you learn to catch across your body. On a line drive you won’t have the time to move.”
As previously stated, this is not a novel about baseball. It is about growing up and a small town where all the people who know each other, and what they know is sometimes more than they really want to know, but they have to deal with it or ignore it, usually the latter. Yes, many of them are eccentric but they are seen straight on. It’s up to the reader to do the labeling.
The small problems of their lives are much more interesting than all that muddle in the café. For example, Irini and her friend have their hair done by the local expert.
Margo always looked pretty and Irini’s hair would be all right when she’d had the chance to comb it out for herself. Mrs. Tarken favored hair that didn’t move from one appointment to the next. She used repeated applications of hair spray to achieve the effect, letting each dry before the next coat, as if she were shellacking a table. It would take a boar bristle bush and plenty of muscle to loosen thing up.
Irini has the necessary muscle, developed while playing catch with her father.
My printer jammed. It was a Canon all-in-one and about six months old. I bought it to go with my new laptop and it gave me no aggravation until I tried to print a sheet of old labels which may have been beyond their safe-to-print date. Nothing worked after that. Sheet after sheet of regular paper crumpled and had to be extracted from the back. A variety of error messages advised me to reload the paper, turn the printer off and on again and, most ominously, take the printer to a repair center.
I called the local computer experts. Do you repair printers? No. Do you know anyone who does? No.
Perhaps a new printer was the solution. My printer was a recently discontinued model and had been heavily discounted. I paid about $60. Similar printers now ranged from $60 to $100. For $80 I could buy a comparable model which used the same ink tanks. That was an important consideration because I had a $50 inventory of ink tanks, my management strategy being to never be without backup ink. The $80 printer even came in white, a pleasant change from the glossy black favored by all electronic designers. My DVD player is so black, with black labels on a black background, that I keep a flashlight on the shelf next to it so that I can read the controls.
The Internet offered me Canon printer repair in Texas. An email to another prospect resulted in an offer to come to my printer and fix it for $165-$185, depending on location. Then I did what I should have done first and tried the Canon web site. Canon does know that printers sometimes need repair and provides a form so that they can recommend a service center. The form asked me for information I could not provide. I saw then that they also had a video on the subject, so I watched that and learned how to fill out the form. (Could not the form itself include the necessary explanations so that the video is not required?) When I didn’t know the answer I made something up.
Success. Canon recommended a “business systems” place in Milford, 30 minutes away. I called and reached the owner, who answered his own phone. Do you repair Canon printers? Yes. The business systems establishment was in a store front on the highway and full of injured equipment. It reminded me of those typewriter-repair shops that were common back when we all used typewriters. The owner required $25 up front to see whether the printer was fixable. I handed him two $40 bills and he handed one back. “I’ll do it for $20.”
When the call came a couple of days later, I learned that the printer had been “full of stuff” – labels and bits of paper – but was now fully operational. The labor charge was $79 with a credit of $20, so for $59 I could retrieve my printer. I did. It works just fine, and I have sworn never to feed it anything again but standard paper.
For the same money I could have had a new white printer, but I do have the moral satisfaction of avoiding a premature contribution to the electronic landfill. Also, wherever I go on the Internet now, popup ads appear offering me printers, both black and white.
Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. A Michael Lewis book is always a good read, even if you don’t entirely understand all the fine points of how the financial markets screwed their customers and, ultimately, themselves. Yes, it could happen again — and probably will, since none of the rewards for gambling have been taken away.
During the stress of moving from one apartment to another, I solaced myself with the remaining two academic novels of David Lodges Campus Trilogy. In Small World, we meet the characters from Changing Places 10 years later, as they surf the globe, from one literary conference to another. In Nice Work, a lecturer skilled in the deconstruction of the industrial novel comes to terms with her experience of the very down and dirty constructions of manufacturing today. Lodge is very funny, but these are real people so it’s not all comedy; we get a tinge of sadness also.
David Kynaston, A World to Build: Austerity Britain 1945-48. Yes, the English were the winners after six long years of war, but there is little sense of triumph in the novels written during the period. Kynaston presents the history of the immediate post-war period, as contemporaries saw it, based on the letters, diaries and mass-observation reports of the time.
Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History. In this history Armstrong describes the beliefs and practices of Islam and how the Muslims’ concept of themselves and their society has developed from the time of Muhammad until today.
Anatol Rybakov, Heavy Sand. This novel by the author of Children of the Arbat was suppressed for 20 years. Rybakov tells the story of four generations of a family in the Ukraine — mostly, but not entirely, Jewish. Beginning before World War I, we experience the changes in Soviet life as the family lived them. The final chapters about the German occupation of the village and the fate of its inhabitants are very painful to read.
Winston Graham, Ross Poldark. This is the first of the Poldark books, a series of historical novels set in the Cornwall in the late 18th century. I was alerted to them by another blogger, so thought I would begin at the beginning. Now I am hooked. Expect to hear more about the series in the future.
Dorothy Sheridan, editor, Wartime Women: A Mass-Observation Anthology. These writings by English women during the war have been selected from the Mass-Observation archives. The women speak as reporters and diary-keepers during all the stress and change of World War II.
Philip K. Dick, A Maze of Death. A dozen or so people transfer to a new colony on an unexplored planet. Their purpose is unknown and unknowable. They try to be guided by The Book: A. J. Specktowsky’s How I Rose From the Dead in My Spare Time and So Can You. Entertaining and at times bewildering.
When I learned of the existence of the English organization Mass-Observation from David Kynaston’s A World to Build, I was immediately interested in the concept and its results. As Wikipedia explains,
Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.
The name suggests observation by a “mass,” but its aim was more observation of a mass. During its active period prior to the mid 1960’s the organization published several reports and books based on its observations. Since that time, its archives have been available to those doing research. This anthology of women’s writing during World War II in England has been edited by Dorothy Sheridan, Archivist at the University of Sussex Library. As she explains,
The central tenet of their approach was to ‘observe’; to watch and to record people’s behaviour and conversations.
This collection offers diaries and reports. A typical diary recorded not only personal events and opinions, but also observations of others. In the early months of the war in 1939, bombing was expected and many women and children were evacuated to the countryside. Some of them did not like it.
Other women said that they found much difficulty in the country shops. Food was much dearer at the village grocer’s. Nothing can be bought ready cooked and they did not understand the coal cooking ranges of the country. They all grumbled at the inconveniences of travel, now only one bus each way every two hours, and about 3 trains a day. They were not used to living three miles from a station and bus stop. Some said there was no cinema and one wanted to know where she could get her hair permed….
A diarist on the coast during that first winter of the war adjusted to the situation.
This morning we were laying in bed and Mother called out what’s that noise. I listened and heard machine-gun fire, lay in bed and listened and heard burst after burst of guns. This was about eight o’clock. Mother called out, ‘Do you think they are landing on the beach?’ She then said, ‘If they come I shall get under the bed and lie low.’ Jenny said, ‘I think I shall be more of a success with them if I stay in bed!’ We all laughed and after a time it stopped and I went to sleep again.
Reports were written by Mass-Observation staff members, drawing on the many reports coming in, usually in response to questionnaires of directives. Social issues important to women were favored topics, for example, the availability of child care for working mothers and the feelings for or against the presence of unaccompanied women in local pubs. Most of the diarists and reporters were middle class and educated – not surprising since they had the time and inclination to write – but the organization made a conscious effort to include the views of working women. I enjoy the immediacy of reading reactions recorded at the time, with no fore-knowledge of what might happen tomorrow.
I have enjoyed several of Karen Armstrong’s books about religion, especially The History of God, in which she shows how the concept of God developed in several religious traditions, and The Battle for God, in which she attempts to explain the rise of various fundamentalisms in modern times. Armstrong has her own interpretation of events, but she is not trying to persuade us to see one religion as more advanced or worthy than the others.
In Islam, she teases out much of what had appeared in the other books and embeds her interpretations in an outline of the history of Islam from the time of Muhammad until today. The history is important because Islam is less a religion of belief and more a set of righteous practices which flow from and lead to a righteous community.
The life and achievements of Muhammad would affect the spiritual, political and ethical vision of Muslims forever. They expressed the Islamic experience of “salvation,” which does not consist in the redemption of an “original sin” committed by Adam and the admittance to eternal life, but in the achievement of a society which puts into practice God’s desires for the human race.
I found the history of the various Islamic empires and dynasties – Umayyads, Abbasids, Ismailis, Seljuks and more – to be confusing without a strong background in the history of the region. The most rewarding parts of Islam are Armstrong’s description of Muhammad’s life and teachings and the final sections on the interaction of Islamic countries with modernism, as embodied by the increasing powers of the West. She ascribes the threat which Muslims clearly feel less to religious differences than to different stages of development. The Ottoman Empire recognized this and used it as basis for military reform. It was not enough.
When the Ottomans had tried to reorganize their army along Western lines in the hope of containing the threat from Europe, their efforts were doomed because they were too superficial. To beat Europe at its own game, a conventional agrarian society had to transform itself from top to bottom, and re-create its entire social, economic, educational, religious, spiritual, political and intellectual structures. And it would have to do this very quickly, an impossible task, since it had taken the West almost three hundred years to achieve this development.
As Armstrong tells the history the colonization of Islamic countries, one sees the loss of dominance from the Muslims’ point of view, and it is a most discouraging story. That the reaction, the counterattack to speak, has been phrased in religious terms is not surprising. That some turn to violence we have all been aware, but others react with a clear statement of identity. Speaking of Islamic dress,
When this is forced upon people against their will (as by the Taliban) it is coercive and as likely to create a backlash as the aggressive techniques of Reza Shah Pahlavi. But many Muslim women feel that veiling is a symbolic return to the pre-colonial period, before their society was disrupted and deflected from its true course.
Amstrong ends this edition of Islam with a brief Epilogue about the attacks of 9/11. She may help us to understand how they came to be, as well as later developments such as the upheavals following on the Arab Spring, but leave me discouraged as to our ability to find a way out of the conflict.
The subtitle of A World to Build – Austerity Britain 1945-48 – explains why I wanted to read this book. I have read many novels set in wartime and immediate post war Britain, as well as memoirs of that period. Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day gave a sense of the strain in civilian life caused not just by the war, but also by a sense that social arrangements were no longer stable.
Two recently-read novels caused me to think of that period again. In Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 novel, Someone at a Distance, the war is over and respectable middle-class families are trying put it behind them. It isn’t easy. The only servant is a “Daily” so wife and mother Ellen does her own cooking and gardening.
After the anxiety, the separations and dangers of the war, it was wonderful to have them safe and all together, except for mild interruptions in the form of school terms and military service.
‘I’m very glad to have the house to look after,’ she said. ‘And the garden too.’
‘Well, I hate housework,’ said Anne. ‘What I have to do at school is far too much for me. We’re so short of maids we have to wait at table some days and take turns to do our classrooms and our bedrooms. Everybody simply hates it….”
Ellen struggles on, maintaining standards.
Margery Sharp’s 1948 novel, The Foolish Gentlewoman, is set in the immediate postwar period. Isabel has her own house with a live-in caretaker, a comfortable income, and various guests. She too maintains standards, but the food is awful.
The meal served in the mahogany dining-room consisted of tinned soup, corned beef and salad, and for sweet a concoction of macaroni inadequately laced with treacle.
Observation of rationing and related regulations can be a moral issue.
After a moment of reflection, Mr. Brocken acknowledged this also: the atmosphere of Chipping Lodge was pleasant.
“Or perhaps I should say morally,” added Humphrey.
“You may say so, certainly,” agreed Mr. Brocken, “if you know what you mean.”
“Well, there’s no fiddling. Aunt Isabel doesn’t pop off to buy eggs under the counter, and Jacky doesn’t buy clothing coupons, and under their virtuous influence I have ceased to buy Black Market gin. It makes a nice change.”
A young man and a young woman, just demobilized from their wartime service, are unsure what to do with their lives. They are happy to stay for now with the “foolish gentlewoman.”
In the first place, they desired no change of any kind in the life at Chipping Lodge. As a rule it is the old who fear changes, but the circumstances of Jacqueline and Humphrey were peculiar – or peculiar to their generation. Both got through the war years well enough. Warfare, even civilized warfare, is not, to a thoroughly healthy young male, unmitigated purgatory; Jacqueline had suffered chiefly from the curtailment of her liberty and the enforced company of too many women, and on the other hand had been glad to escape from a dull home.
Whipple and Sharp show us a world in which middle-class pre-occupations and standards have been changed very little by six years of war and some years of privation afterwards. They still have inherited incomes, they live in comfortable houses, belong to clubs, and have servants – or the memory of them. How about the rest of the British, I wondered, and looked to David Kynaston to show me a broader picture.
A World to Build is the most readable kind of history because it is, as he says in his Preface,
…a story of ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the seismic, of the mute and inarticulate as well as the all too fluent opinion-formers, of the Singing Postman as well as John Lennon.
The people of those years 1945-48 speak in their own voices from letters, diaries, memoirs, contemporary publications and Mass-Observation’s recorded statements. (See the note below about Mass-Observation.) They speak at that time, with no knowledge of what is to come. Social class still matters, even when celebrating the victory in Europe.
‘Half our road where all my friends lived had semi-detached houses and detached bungalows while at the bottom of it the houses were small and terraced,’ Michael Burns later recalled about growing up in Tolworth just off the Kingston bypass. ‘We had a street party that our parents were insistent should not include the terraced houses, so there were two parties in Southwood Drive divided by about two hundred yards.’
Kynaston reminds us that it was a different world from the one we know.
Britain in 1945. No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no mobiles, no duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks…. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash day every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle, hung out to dry….
Churchill was out and Labor and Atlee were in, although you wouldn’t know it from the novels, only a vague distrust of official arrangements. The distrust was real, according to Kynaston. Enough traditional Tory voters had no confidence in Churchill to solve postwar problems to give control of the government to Labor; yet they were not confident about Labor either. From a diary in July, 1945:
The election result is still creating talk – I wonder what this Labour Government will lead us to. I heard that Ladies shoes are going to 9 coupons on the new books. I expect it is true.
As much as possible, Kynaston lets the working man speak. It appears the he is not too keen on some other changes either. Many wanted to return to Britain as it had been – but with full employment and better housing. The planners’ vision of blocks of flats was not shared by the workers for whom they were intended. A working woman declared,
I’d like a sitting-room-kitchen so you could have meals in it, and a nice garden in the back for vegetables and chickens, and a flower garden in front.
When the mines were nationalized, few miners related the change in management or the actions of the union to any improvement in their own lives.
Bob Crockett ‘never took it into [his] head’ to go to union meetings, and ‘once I came out of the pit I came home and never thought about the pit…until I had to back there’; Cliff Price frankly conceded that he was ‘only interested in things appertaining to myself, my own work’; and according to Eddie Bevan, the men were solely interested in union affairs ‘when it hit their pockets, when something within the pits happens.’
I have quoted extensively from A World to Build because, by giving us the voices of ordinary people, Kynaston brings those difficult postwar years to us with an immediacy that held me. That is what novelists do also: they make a situation live by the characters they create and by what those characters do and say. Kynaston did not have to create his diarists and letter writers. We are fortunate that that he found them for us.
Note: A word about Mass-Observation. It was a social research organization founded in 1937 which “aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires” [Wikipedia].