By Barbara Amiel - Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 0 Comments
Barbara Amiel on literary greats and everyday heroes
There’s nothing original I can tell you about the events in Boston apart from a few heart-stopping hours before my former husband, author George Jonas, heard that his blind wife, Maya, who was running in the marathon, was alive and uninjured. “I didn’t run my best time,” she said when she telephoned, which was just as well, since she was about eight minutes behind the explosion. Maya’s no-nonsense approach to adversity has been a standard to which I have tried to adhere but fall terribly short. She lost her only brother to suicide in her 20s, all her sight in her 30s, followed by breast cancer in her 40s and emerged to become a formidable marathon runner looking more beautiful than at any other point in her life. Surely such a vale of tears would be an excuse for full-scale alcoholism or fatty-foods addiction. One can’t envy her afflictions but I do envy the sang-froid and style with which she translates them into opportunities.
Maya would rank high on my list of “who do you admire?”—a type of question beloved by interviewers. Last Sunday’s New York Times grilled accomplished Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlen. “What are the best books you’ve read by female journalists?” she was asked, and “Who are your favourite journalists writing today?” She named four, including Laura Lippman and Julia Keller. Very respectable and very alive, although I don’t really think of Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, Clare Boothe Luce or even Simone de Beauvoir as dead white females, if you know what I mean. Quindlen’s favourite books included estrogen’s national anthem, Pride and Prejudice, and her favourite heroine was Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen is very high-quality early-19th-century chick lit and I turn to it unfailingly whenever I need a hit of elegant prose and easy pleasure. Actually, I also turn to Edith Wharton, who was herself a journalist during the First World War, although her Fighting France and A Son at the Front are not on Quindlen’s radar.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 10:39 AM - 0 Comments
Barbara Amiel on a barrier-breaking outsider
On Nov. 22, 1990, three-term prime minister Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. She had been knifed by a cabal of elites in her own party while attending a meeting in Paris. Finally, the Oxbridge-educated, upper-middle-class males, led by Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe, had got rid of “that bloody woman” and after all their conspiring persuaded her she hadn’t enough support to win the annual leadership vote. Later that day in Parliament, the Labour Party called for a vote of no confidence and Thatcher, who naturally was staying as PM until the party chose a new leader, rose to reply. She wore one of her bright Tory blue suits with the two rows of pearls in place. Nothing in her voice indicated the heartbreak—of which she later spoke. Her speech was vintage Thatcher, calling down the seven plagues on the policies of the Labour Party. At the height of her speech, feisty Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s voice boomed from the Opposition benches with the mad integrity of a genuine working-class chap who couldn’t bear to see what the toffs had done to her: “You could wipe the floor with the lot of them, Margaret.” And the house erupted in applause.
She left politics in 1990 after 11 years as prime minister, and an entire generation has grown up since who probably cannot understand what all the fuss is about or how the rights they now enjoy are due to her. She inherited a country in 1979 that was known as the sick man of Europe suffering from “the British disease.” Strikes every day, streets lined with weeks of garbage and the dead left unburied. Income tax topped out at 98 per cent for unearned income, 86 per cent for top earners. (Do I hear sighs of envy from the NDP?) British tourists lucky enough to go on holidays abroad couldn’t take more than a few hundred dollars with them since the country had currency controls and was on audit by the International Monetary Fund. In all respects—except climate and size—Britain was the 1979 version of 2013’s Greece. Thatcher brought a semi-comatose country back to life by employing free-market economics together with her unshakable belief that people could do better for themselves than the government could do for them. She gave the world a template for economic success, and her daily encomiums on the virtue of liberty and refusal to knuckle in to dictatorships—whether Argentine or Soviet—was a textbook lesson on peace through strength.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 11:25 AM - 0 Comments
A cautionary tale for those who move in the world of fashionable ideas—with Syria as its setting.
This is a cautionary tale for those who move in the world of fashionable ideas. They speak out and raise funds for their causes. Though they tend to work under the spotlight, especially the flashbulb, their little mistakes are generally overlooked. But on very rare occasions they pay the price of adhering to the fickle winds of fashion’s politically correct currents and get splattered. I give you Joan Juliet Buck.
If you have seen the film Julie & Julia, you will remember Madame Brassart, the horrid little Parisian in her constipated 1950s suit and pillbox hat who tries to prevent Meryl Streep’s Julia Child from taking Cordon Bleu courses. That role was played very competently by Joan Juliet Buck in her incarnation as an actress. She was also editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue magazine from 1994 to 2001, wrote a couple of books and had a long association with Condé Nast. In December 2010 she got a telephone call from a features editor at U.S. Vogue asking her to go to Damascus to interview Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad.
“Absolutely not,” replied Joan Juliet Buck, or JJB because space is limited. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.” Besides, she felt unqualified for the job. “Send a political journalist,” she said. But she went anyway and wrote a 3,600-word article about Mrs. Assad published in the March 2011 Vogue. The writing was glossy mag prose, so predictable it was practically prefabricated: “Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies” is the beginning and you can pretty much guess the rest.
By Barbara Amiel - Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at 2:58 PM - 0 Comments
Today, science and technology reign supreme; humanities were for the good old days.
At some point, usually when humans turn 60, we lament the decline of our culture. No one speaks or thinks with the same clarity as 30 or 40 years ago. Is the pinnacle of mankind’s creative spirit to be reality television and accidental billionaires in dot-com ventures? The conversation is utterly predictable, incredibly tedious, but, be honest, haven’t you had it? Even Steven Spielberg lamented the decline of his milieu—filmmaking—in a recent interview.
Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris was a play on this. Allen’s present-day hero longs for the golden Paris of the ’20s and its “lost generation” of writers and artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. Having stumbled back into the period via a time machine in the form of an antique car, he falls for a girlfriend of Picasso’s who in turn longs for the Paris of the belle époque, the 1890s world of Toulouse-Lautrec. The handy time machine takes them there, only to find that M. Lautrec and friends long for the golden world of the Renaissance.
But no matter how clever this film nostalgique, it doesn’t quite reassure us about our own times that seem so threadbare, culturally speaking. I mean, rap music versus Lerner and Loewe or chick lit versus Edith Wharton. We played chess and bridge, not Sniper Elite on a PlayStation. Downhill all the way.
By Barbara Amiel - Monday, April 2, 2012 at 10:56 AM - 0 Comments
The tale is as tragic as any in literature—and even more tragically, true
Victoria “Tori” Stafford was murdered in 2009. Terri-Lynne McClintic, the young woman in the Honda Civic driven by her boyfriend, confessed to the murder. Now the sometime boyfriend Michael Rafferty is on trial. The details of Terri-Lynne’s confession, sealed for over two years in order to avoid prejudicing Rafferty’s court proceedings, are now in the public domain.
As the story comes out in court, wretched detail upon detail, the dead girl seems like a butterfly on a dung heap. Her innocence shimmers but she came from the seamy side of town.
Tori Stafford was eight years old when her life was ended with kicks and hammer blows wielded by a girl who was only 18 years old herself. Both Tori and her murderer, Terri-Lynne McClintic, have mothers who have been druggies: the murderer’s mother uses and sells and the victim’s mother bought from her. So much of this is like a stagnant pool of water, the filmy surface hiding giardia multiplying in filth at the bottom.
By Barbara Amiel - Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 10:30 AM - 0 Comments
Barbara Amiel on catching glimpses of changing cultural attitudes from a magazine
You have to be as rich as Giorgio Armani to house a stuffed polar bear a good 10 feet tall in your living room and proudly display it in the March issue of Architectural Digest. A beautiful, white, once-alive polar bear behind the chocolate leather cube chair. Clearly this is not in the same league as Jeffrey Dahmer and his longed-for altar of human heads, but it is unusual these days. The bear is explained as a gift “from someone I am very fond of.” Seven pages on is a photo of his bedroom where, the caption notes, “a fur coverlet is draped over the designer’s Armani/Casa bed.”
Look, I’m not going to howl animal rights just before I slip into my Manolos and eat my roast biff, but that “coverlet” appears to be made of lots of little skinned furry animals with their tails hanging as trim on the coverlet’s edges. Clearly Brigitte Bardot is not coming to visit Chalet Armani unless of course Armani’s animal interests extend to a private pool swimming with baby seals.
AD magazine has had a symbiotic relationship with movie stars and celebrities for more than seven decades, giving telling glimpses of changing cultural attitudes: a real leopard-skin rug complete with head in 1950s photo shoots compared with the leopard-print rug on Diane von Furstenberg’s 2012 feature. At-home photos are offered up with excruciating little quotes about the inner person behind the public facade. This is a perfectly acceptable fantasy, an extension of the star’s movie persona structured to fit the roles they act and the self-image they or yesteryear’s studio think will please their public best. I’m obviously a bitch of a reader because I find most of the images utterly cloying.
By Barbara Amiel - Monday, January 9, 2012 at 11:40 AM - 0 Comments
‘The Iron Lady’ succeeds despite the acknowledged political gap between its star and its subject
When a left-wing Hollywood star deigns to play a right-wing heroine, odds are the result will irritate everyone. Surprisingly, The Iron Lady is far better than expected, particularly given that virtually the entire entertainment community from Hollywood to the eastern seaboard is liberal, a bias gaily acknowledged by Meryl Streep, who gives us the anticipated brilliant performance as three-term British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. “I’m an actor,” she said, talking about the film, “and, you know, politically we’re all on the other side.”
Fashion mags are doing kip-ups on this Thatcher resurrection, or rather the Streep reincarnation. January’s Vogue has Ms. Streep on the cover with a caption tying her to Thatcher. I suppose there is no reason why Mrs. Thatcher herself should ever have been on the cover of Vogue, though it’s nice to see her there, even if in someone else’s body. She was occasionally in its inside pages and actually made it to the world’s best-dressed list after Aquascutum created a knockout wardrobe for her 1987 trip to Moscow to counter the über-dressed Raisa Gorbachev, who favoured YSL. A friend of mine who visited Lady Thatcher a couple of weeks ago said a coat from that trip, camel-coloured with a sable collar, was hanging 25 years later in the hallway.
Harper’s Bazaar couldn’t get Meryl Streep, so their big September issue came up with Mick Jagger’s daughter as Lady T in blond helmet-hair, and a seven-page fashion spread with quotes from Thatcher’s speeches matched to the clothes. Sadly, they didn’t have my favourite quote on consensus, which Thatcher defined as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects . . . what great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus’?” Difficult to feature the matching blah outfit.
By Barbara Amiel - Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 8:40 AM - 0 Comments
Murray Frum could be defined by many aspects of his life, unfortunately all of them very good
The most difficult task a columnist can have is to write about a universally Good Thing. Santa Claus comes to mind. Well, no, it’s not Santa Claus I am about to discuss, topical though that would be in this December cheer, but rather Murray Frum.
Mr. Frum could be defined by many aspects of his life, unfortunately all of them very good. He was born poor, sleeping on the living-room sofa behind his father’s tiny grocery shop (good). He became a dentist, married a nice Jewish girl from Niagara Falls, Barbara Rosberg (triple good), and happily played Dennis Thatcher to super-broadcaster Barbara Frum while making lots of money in real estate and giving lots away. His gift for attracting the best women was confirmed when, after Barbara died, he married the enchanting, high-achieving business executive Nancy Lockhart. Now he has written a book about an aspect of himself (dodgy) but it is sadly not for sale, thus modest and good.
Published this month, the book is titled Collecting: A Work in Progress. Frum is a very important collector of African and Oceanic art as well as fine things in general. The Art Gallery of Ontario has the Frum gallery built with his own money and choice of architects. Frum sensed that superb as Frank Gehry’s new AGO addition would be, he was not the person to design the setting for Frum’s donation of African tribal art. This in itself is an excellent lesson: great name architects often build lousy museums. The best example is Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, an evocative, even brilliant building but a disaster as far as creating display space and best viewed empty.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 8:40 AM - 12 Comments
Should we punish Joe Paterno in the 21st century for his retrospective cultural attitudes?
A virus hits American commanders-in-chief when on aircraft carriers. Think George W. Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln declaring we “have prevailed” in front of the Mission Accomplished banner. Or the sombre Richard Nixon doing a mini jig of excitement on board the Hornet at the Apollo 11 splashdown. Hard not to compare them unfavourably with Cher on the USS Missouri in thigh-high stockings and biker jacket, utter fabulosity, even though her lyrics, “If I could turn back time,” were nearly as banal as Dubya’s.
For new lows the ribbon goes to President Obama’s Veterans Day remarks on the USS Carl Vinson. The Penn State scandal, said the American President, should lead to “soul- searching” by Americans. “Our first priority,” he said, “is protecting our kids.” As opposed to what: protecting senior citizens, the economy or perhaps the endangered Kretschmarr cave mould beetle? A bit rich, anyway, in a country where over a million of its potential kids per year get deliberately aborted.
Briefly, in case you have been in a coma: legendary (junior grade) Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, 67 (there are many “legendary” figures in this story, but as I can’t tell legend from long snapper in American football, I can’t vouch for the designation), has been indicted on 40 charges, all relating to sexual assault on minors. The indictment came via a grand jury convened over years in the absence of the citizen under investigation or proper rules of evidence.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 11:00 AM - 5 Comments
Email allows inmates who have never written much more than a bad cheque or dodgy prescription to keep in touch with the outside world
The very moment Dr. Conrad Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson, an eager bailiff with an eye for camera angles and posterity handcuffed him while sitting down, in a move that required almost Busby Berkeley choreography to pull off gracefully. There was no reason to handcuff him, but this is a Barnum & Bailey world.
Dr. Murray has had some difficulty with child support payments, but this could be explained by the high cost of wives, seven children (I think) by six mums and the price of a defence team. Television shows him to be a handsome Afro-American man with sombre bearing. His new address will be a local jail and then probably a state prison, which is definitely not a happy address. State prisons are the stepchildren of the American carceral state and rarely have the benefit of extras such as email as in the federal correctional institutions.
Email allows inmates who have never written much more than a bad cheque or dodgy prescription to keep in touch with the outside world, thus maintaining the great tradition of prison belles lettres—and not so belle letters. The current system has dedicated email with no Web access or attachments and limited computer time. Lengthy communications are written on lined paper from the commissary and then typed in frantically. Pulling off The Gulag Archipelago would require a 20-years-to-life sentence.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 6:00 AM - 2 Comments
A decent society that wastes money on programs of no discernible use shouldn’t balk at giving the disabled the small benefit of free parking
Heaven knows this column ought to be soaking wet in your hands. Between the severe drainage problems around our place, the endless rain and my guilt at leaving the dogs alone to go to the opera to watch Rigoletto humpback himself around the stage, I’ve been in bad weather purgatory. Hours on end spent standing in Wellington boots so the kuvaszok could splash around chasing skunks at two a.m. Then back to the computer, wet hair splashing all over it. I expect everyone in the land knew that while an iPhone can be dropped innumerable times, provided it’s in one of those lurid plastic see-through covers, one hit of rain and the whole bloody thing goes dead. Well I didn’t, and that happy bit of techno news was brightly conveyed to me by a child-assistant at an Apple store who performed an autopsy on my dead phone and showed me perfectly formed raindrops still inside.
My dogs can get anything out of me. Just that look when I come in the door from stealing an evening out, I feel like a heel. I can’t imagine the human being who actually stole a dog’s wheelchair off a Toronto porch a short while ago and left Roscoe, a five-year-old pug with paralyzed back legs, to drag himself around. That’s a contemporary version of stealing from the little match girl. Luckily for Roscoe a donated wheelchair had him back on the streets after two weeks, looking very jolly in the video clip.
Less jolly was my evening with the deformed Rigoletto dragging himself around on the stage sans wheelchair in the Canadian Opera Co. production I abandoned my dogs to see. Verdi’s opera plot revolves around the eponymous hunchback court jester Rigoletto, whose innocent daughter Gilda is seduced by the Lothario duke and then kidnapped by courtiers. When father sets out to get his vengeance, a plot twist has his daughter mistakenly murdered and delivered into his hands in a sack. Cheery stuff, though I must say, sans a few shortcomings, I loved the production and the soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova was as close to a perfect Gilda as I’ve heard.
By Barbara Amiel - Monday, October 17, 2011 at 8:00 AM - 19 Comments
Barbara Amiel on the death of her cousin, Dr. Robert Buckman
At university in the early sixties, films told who you were. There were guy films like The Guns of Navarone and high-class chick flicks starring Audrey Hepburn, doing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. On date nights I went to see Hollywood movies, on going-out-with-friends nights it was anything nouvelle vague and absolutely everything by Ingmar Bergman. His masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, gave me my notion of death.
Your age colours how you see death, and during university years it was black and white, melodramatic and terribly romantic. Death was La Dame aux Camélias, or Mimì coughing her lungs out in La Bohème. Death was heroic and sacrificial. We were Anna Kareninas dying over wrong choices and lost loves. Death was racing in fast cars like our pin-ups for fatal auto crashes—heartthrob James Dean or Nobel winner and French Resistance hero, author Albert Camus. Death was never chemotherapy and bedpans or a descent into senility. Death was a state to flirt with and reject, preferably in Givenchy like Audrey Hepburn. If death was to be drawn out it required intellectual style, like Max Von Sydow’s knight in Bergman’s film who plays a game of chess with death for 96 minutes. He loses, as we all must, and the film closes with a memorable scene in which fool and knight dance behind the Grim Reaper in a stark silhouette.
Death toyed with Steve Jobs and arrived last week, ending his life prematurely. Coincidentally, this past weekend death struck nearer to home when on Thanksgiving my cousin, Dr. Robert Buckman, died unexpectedly on the plane home after a trip to London. He died in his seat, fast asleep we hope. He was 63 years old.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 10:10 AM - 6 Comments
Noël Coward truly knew how to live
As well as being an opera star, great writer and dressage champion—preferably all three at once—I have prayed that in my next life I will be able to carry on a conversation with Noël Coward and his friends. What a circle: snobby Bright Young Things from Oxbridge, campy men in espadrilles and pale linen trousers on the Riviera, the violently talented and viciously bitchy homosexuals he palled around with—Somerset Maugham, Beverley Nichols, Iris Tree, Tallulah Bankhead—all of this razor-tongued bisexual society of the 1920s and ’30s, madly experimenting with anything on offer. This was a pudding rich in Continentals, British aristocrats and intelligentsia including aesthetes and one-offs like Coward who had perfected the cut-glass accent and Savile Row suit necessary to transport himself from the ordinariness of south London to international society.
Going to see Coward’s 1930 play Private Lives at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto (now playing, and an absolutely fabulous production; never tell me Kim Cattrall is just a sex symbol. She is a superb actress and comedian) brought home to me once again how stuck in wet concrete my tongue is. When I say “carry on a conversation” with Coward, I mean to engage him by having at one’s tongue-tip le mot juste, just as his leading characters always do. I have never ever had a mot juste at the right moment in my life, and in my next I want to have paragraphs of them plus fabulous one-liners.
Imagine being at ease in a country-house party at Coward’s home Goldenhurst or at Edward Molyneux’s spread in Cap d’Ail, with Somerset Maugham’s wife, Syrie, spitting mad at her husband for his dalliance with Gerald Haxton, who tried to shock at dinner with a singular tale of seducing a 12-year-old girl in Siam for a tin of condensed milk. What a witches’ brew of hissing serpents and spewing talent. In these times, you mixed the trivial and decadent pursuits of the wealthy with genuine artists and artistic achievement—before war and tax policies broke the whole edifice down, exiling the wealthy to St. Barts and the artists back to their studios.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 12:00 PM - 3 Comments
You’d think, given the prices, “Book of Mormon” audiences would be more finicky
There’s a bit of a Mormon moment right now. Think me crazy, but I rather like the sound of a life in which men address each other as “elder” and the womenfolk call each other “sister”—or, when circumstances warrant, “sisterwives.” There’s a respect lost when complete strangers who obtain your credit card take to addressing you by your first name. When the HBO series Big Love brought Mormons into our living rooms, I also rather warmed to the idea of receiving testimony. Though Big Love never quite made the notion clear, I think receiving testimony is a moment when what you want to do gets heavenly sanction.
This line of thought accelerated last week on seeing The Book of Mormon, the most sought-after ticket on Broadway. The plot line is an account set to song and dance of some Mormon missionaries taking their message to Uganda. Doesn’t take a high IQ to predict whose side the writers (credits include the animated series South Park) and audience are on. Let’s just say it isn’t God’s. The play is a musical with superb performances, bad music and largely adolescent lyrics. It’s guiltily watchable, rather like the sloth of reading a bad book at the beach on a hot day. Given the sky-high prices of the tickets (don’t ask, but scalpers are getting nearly four-digit prices for back-of-theatre seats), you’d think the audience would be a tad more finicky over the song Hasa Diga Eebowai, loosely translated as “F–k you God,” rather than screaming with joy over the endless repetition of that banal scatology.
Making fun of Mormons is easy stuff. Mainstream Christians and Jews have the mists of time to cushion any inspection of their peculiar stories.We’ve got accustomed to the Red Sea parting, Lazarus rising. It was all so long ago. The patina of antiquity, backed up by great religious institutions reaching back a thousand years or more, bequeaths respectability. Christian congregations don’t sneer when their minister reads, “Behold there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” That’s the Gospel according to Matthew. But when your prophet is not named Matthew but Joseph Smith and his revelation takes place in the upstate New York of 1823 during a visit from the angel Moroni, who tells him of religious writings buried on gold plates along with two stones called the Urim and the Thummim, the message sounds rather Lord of the Rings.
By Barbara Amiel - Friday, July 22, 2011 at 9:10 AM - 12 Comments
Barbara Amiel on the Sun King’s alternate universe
What’s your favourite tabloid headline? How about “Kill an Argie and win a mini Metro” at the time of the 1982 Falklands War? That was a spoof of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid Sun by Private Eye and can’t be outdone. But the Sun’s front-page “Bloody frogs scuttle our hols” at the time of a French workers’ ferry strike before the Chunnel train was built was legit. Horrid but brilliant.
I’ve been having a few tabloid moments, in the name of research of course. “Years of crash diets left me infertile, says reality TV star Chantelle Houghton,” photographed in this week’s Daily Mail. Name doesn’t ring bells? She’s 27. She drank up to eight 1.5-litre bottles of water a day to fill her stomach, and her periods once stopped for a year, in case you’re interested. At age 27 I never had more than one period a year and that didn’t interest even me, but then I wasn’t Channel 4’s ﬁrst non-celebrity ex-reality-show star who was ﬁnding life after stardom “difﬁcult.” Chantelle wants to help other women who may be drinking too much water, like gorgeous but aquaholic TV chef Nigella Lawson. See, you read that entire paragraph. It’s junk, but mesmerizing.
Since everyone is dissing tabloids in the wake of the great phone-hacking scandal, I might as well. After all, I have edited a tabloid (Toronto Sun), written for a tabloid (the National Enquirer), been the subject of tabloids ad nauseam, and worked for two of Mr. Murdoch’s London newspapers including the Sunday Times, now drawn into the scandal. This is more qualification than any hackette needs for an instant book.
By Barbara Amiel - Friday, July 8, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 37 Comments
Lotsa luck Kate. Enjoy those bandage dresses while you can.
Unlike some observers of the duke and duchess of Cambridge, I am not, to borrow the easy grammar of a Globe and Mail columnist, “conflicted” by royalty. I’m often ambivalent about eating another chocolate biscuit and I certainly have conﬂicting feelings about whether to get another dog since my husband has said one more and he’s building a house for people, but a constitutional monarchy isn’t something that bothers me. As an organizing principle of society compared to religion or tribal rule it looks harmless.
Royalty may irritate some female columnists given the infernally good-looking crop of princesses these days, all of them young, size four and about six feet tall. As if it were not enough to be sporting about the stunning former Miss Kate Middleton, now we have the wincingly gorgeous South African champion swimmer Charlene Wittstock beaming next to new husband Prince Albert II of Monaco. I saw their wedding announcement in last Sunday’s New York Times.
The Monaco royal marriage did not get the featured spot in the Times’ wedding section, which is called “Vows” and is ever a gold mine of joyous moments in courtship. This week’s “Vows” was given over to Laura Hwang, a classical viola player and former cashier at Blue Apron Foods in Brooklyn who married Steve Rosenbush, a business writer. Steve had to spend up to $100 a visit getting to know Laura because obviously it’s tricky to chat up a cashier with an impatient lineup behind you. They were married by a Universal Life minister, an unfamiliar denomination but apparently used by almost every American Jewish person who marries a non-Jewish person.
By Barbara Amiel - Friday, June 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM - 6 Comments
Stoic about most things, Arpad and Maya were pulled up short by the Great Dane in a smoke grey tutu
Sniff, sniff, not a reference to me noisily crying, but the theme last Saturday at Toronto’s annual Woofstock gathering at St. Lawrence Market. Arpad and Maya were fairly indifferent about going but they climbed into the minivan with an air of cynical resignation, the specialty of Hungarians of any species. “It’s Woofstock’s ninth year,” I told them, “and there will be more dogs there than anywhere else in North America.” (I’m not certain that was true but the lady on the Weather Network had pronounced it with the same certainty she announced thunderstorms that afternoon, which fortunately was also wrong.) Actually, neither of my dogs is particularly interested in socializing with anyone but each other and me—a characteristic of kuvasz that makes even my intact male welcome at dog parks—but I wanted to go so they took me.
The atmosphere was a little cheesy, a bit like the Easter fun fair on Hampstead Heath, with lots of foul-smelling fast food. I dragged them into a Kijiji booth to be photographed for the Internet. “Would you fill out this release form?” the chirpy young lady asked, flourishing a clipboard. This immediately registered her as a non-dog person. I have two hands. One had Maya (42 kilos and underweight) and the other had Arpad (50 kilos and growing). If I could have put them in a handbag, which I was not carrying, her request would have made sense.
You can see how the ordinary becomes extraordinary through the eyes of a master filmmaker like Fellini or an artist like Brueghel. Lots of two-legged people of varying shapes and sizes gathered to talk while their four-legged companions made their own commentary. A tiny manicured toy poodle quietly lifted its leg and urinated on the hind leg—well, ankle, really—of a Great Dane as their owners chatted unaware. The harlequin Great Dane, being a gentle giant, simply looked around, sniffed and turned away. If only nations could react so wisely to such provocation, I thought. Well, no, I didn’t think that. I watched enviously and wished I had the bloody nerve to lift a leg and do the same thing on a long list of humans.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 4:20 PM - 1 Comment
It’s true: ‘what I want back is what I was’
There is nothing wrong with aging except what it does to you physically and mentally. The only solution, as far as I can tell, is alcohol, dope or oblivion. I usually put the issue out of mind until backed into a corner. Which happened last week when we had a helicopter overhead and an armada of police cars outside our house in Palm Beach.
The dogs were crazy with delight. Overhead searchlights are so much more fun than the usual bore of eating night beetles. The currents of the Atlantic merge together in a pattern that makes our location the Alexandrian lighthouse for travellers from Cuba and Haiti who come to America by less orthodox means than an Expedia.com ticket. Rather ironic, all these people aching to get into the United States and landing on our doorstep while my husband is aching to get out of this country and can’t.
I went inside and switched on Malt Shop Oldies to counteract the noise and my unhappiness at people risking their lives on makeshift boats only to be greeted by police dogs. The Malt Shop channel on satellite TV is my latest preoccupation, and it is using up a disastrous amount of time evoking bushels of nostalgia. It’s not just the Platters, though whenever they sing Twilight Time or Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I am plunged into the desperate despair that accompanied dancing with my first real love in Grade 12. The first cut is the deepest, but, at the time, I found it slightly morbid, some 43 years before HBO made it positively glamorous with Six Feet Under, that his father was the proprietor of the local funeral home.
I had a very early horror of growing old. Around 12 years of age, I began worrying about turning 16, which in my mind meant the dreaded 21 was not far off. Adulthood looked like a lot of weeping and worrying about bills. You can probably have a happy childhood or else be a bit ahead in discovering what most people do in retrospect, that getting old and then dying is definitely the wrong direction. But just in case you missed that point, the hills are alive with people reminding us of time’s gallop.
Few things infuriate more than the battalions of perky people discussing the “greying” of our population. They themselves aren’t a bit grey, in fact they tend to be blonds or healthy black males banging on about unfunded liabilities, leisure time and Pilates. (I exempt Canadian actor Donald Harron, who shilled marvellously on TV for funeral insurance when in his seventies.) Almost every week there is another article on Canada’s “demographic time bomb.” The only decent conclusion is that we elderly should all swallow hemlock for the sake of the generations behind us burdened with our care. In the absence of such altruism we must work till we drop while refraining from everything we like, especially gluttony. Apparently as we age we make less stomach acids, uptake less vitamin B, lose muscle mass (plus teeth), and go for raves of carbohydrates. Personally, I think one of the few pleasures of aging is that none of your dear ones are left to tell you no more macaroni and cheese.
The horrors of aging provide excellent material for writers and artists who thrive on lamentation; without it, at least half of mankind’s greatest literature and art would be gone. Fortunately there is also war, sickness and poverty. And let’s be candid, which means let me tell you why you fall short in every conceivable way, the whole aging thing is more difficult for intelligent people who tend to brood on existential questions. We may not be able to experience uninhibited joy but we can explore the wretchedness of the human condition with incredible zest.
The curse of aging, besides losing your looks and the ability to do up a back zipper, is nostalgia. Lots of people write about what nostalgia is, but as far as I can see, nostalgia is remembering something you like. I haven’t ever heard someone remark that they are nostalgic for the time they were hit by a bus. Nostalgia can be evoked by smell, as with Marcel Proust’s fresh baked madeleines (popularized when The Sopranos’ Dr. Melfi mentioned them to an uncomprehending Tony Soprano), or on a more banal level by the Platters.
Nostalgia focuses on youthful times when everything was possible. The imagination had no limits—a particularly joyous feeling for an artist. In later life, short-term memory fades first, leaving us plonked more and more in the past—bad news if English was not your native language. Robert Louis Stevenson is childhood schmaltz’s pin-up: in To Any Reader, which is the last poem in his mesmerizing A Child’s Garden of Verses, an adult sees himself through a window playing as a child:
“But do not think you can at all / By knocking on the window, call / that child to hear…he does not hear; he will not look…/ for, long ago, the truth to say / he has grown up and gone away / and it is but a child of air / that lingers in the garden there.” Proust took six volumes and 4,300 pages to come to the same conclusion in his back-breaking masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.
Premature death solves aging, as with JFK, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and lesser luminaries. Sylvia Plath said it all when she wrote “What I want back is what I was,” and put her head in a gas oven at age 30. This solution seems something of an overreaction. Though perhaps not. One wonders, on hearing yet one more doomsday scenario about the rising costs of health care and the difficult “choices” to be faced, if the greying society may yet be corrected by a kinder form of PlathCare: free hemlock on prescription, courtesy of the caring state.
By Barbara Amiel - Friday, April 1, 2011 at 10:00 AM - 3 Comments
Barbara Amiel on the incandescence of the late, great Elizabeth Taylor
I have six lace-trimmed polyester slips because of Elizabeth Taylor after seeing her wearing them in Butterfield 8 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That look is now sold as outer party wear, but today’s Dolce & Gabbana leopard numbers don’t come close to Taylor’s 1960s creamy satin trimmed with cognac lace. A doctor in Toronto removed the raised black mole I had above my upper lip “just to be safe” when I was in my twenties, and I all but cried because even if it was not in quite the same place on my face as the one on Elizabeth Taylor, I felt it was a shared beauty mark.
Each challenge in my life, and there have been a few, Taylor’s “You can do it, Pie” in her 1944 film National Velvet has been my call to arms. If you haven’t watched 12-year old Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown winning the Grand National on the Pie, the unwanted horse she won in a raffle, your parents have given you a stunted childhood and should be reported now, this very minute, to the nearest child protection agency. The film is compulsory viewing for all kids: showing the need of competition and the thrill of winning, as well as an Academy Award performance by Anne Revere (later blacklisted in the McCarthy era) as her mother who, unlike browbeaten Canadian parents of today brainwashed into the value of letting their offspring never lose or fail, believed in going for gold and having “a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly.”
By Barbara Amiel - Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 10:58 AM - 1 Comment
Canadian readers would be absolutely venomous if i wrote that i was purchasing a horse…
Every time a man tells me he doesn’t want to marry me after all I buy a horse. That’s not my thought, actually, because as diligent readers know, I am happily married. Anyway, buying horses while my husband is on bail, and all sorts of Nosy Parkers in Ontario have to be told about every little investment we make until his contretemps ends, puts a bit of a crimp on things. No, the sentence belongs to Melissa Kite, who used it once as the opening of her Real Life column in The Spectator, and I liked it so much I was determined to use it at the first opportunity. Canadian readers would be absolutely venomous if I wrote that I was purchasing a horse and would inform me that since most people couldn’t possibly afford such a purchase, mentioning it shows how callous and uncaring I am about real life in downtrodden Canada.
I was reading Melissa Kite because whenever I contemplate my underachievement, I read people I admire—Orwell, Camus, Melissa Kite, Dorothy Parker. And Fran Lebowitz—who is actually the point of this column and appears in a must-see HBO documentary called Public Speaking, available on DVD in May. Lebowitz is pea-green enviously literate and very funny. Even if she is not writing books anymore.
Meanwhile, absolutely everyone I know, except me and Lebowitz, whom I do not know, alas, is publishing a book even if sans words. Like Wagner’s Eternal Ring, published by Rizzoli, whose “author” told me all about it at the last dinner party I went to. The book arrived from her today and it is huge, 240 pages of photos each 34 cm x 22 cm. Even my sister co-authors books every new moon when not in the kitchen updating recipes in her husband’s The G.I. Diet books.
By Barbara Amiel - Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 12:44 PM - 6 Comments
Best Actor Colin Firth didn’t disappoint. He gave an amusing, literate acceptance speech.
“And now an icon of our profession, the man who has been my idol… ” goes the sentence. Heart-stopping. You absolutely know what’s coming. A very, very old person is about to appear: there will be difficulty opening the Oscar envelope, hesitant speech will stop the teleprompter and we will all feel guiltily creepy about old age. Not to single out any of the elderly Oscar participants from last weekend’s ceremony, but entre nous, do you think Kirk Douglas was actually alive? Embalmed? And before you accuse me of ageism for heaven’s sake, I’m old too, and those moments scared the merde out of me.
I would have turned the TV set off but like Vladimir and Estragon I was waiting for… Him. (Note the casual Samuel Beckett reference. The reason will be revealed later in this column.) Hands up girls, how many of you are in love with Colin Firth? Our numbers are legion, ever since he appeared, the perfect Regency dandy, at the Meryton Assembly dance in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice 16 years ago. Till then, my monthly reread of Jane Austen’s novel had Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy in my mind’s eye.
Was the waiting worth it? All through those cringingly awful hours with Anne Hathaway doing her self-deprecating eye thing, opening them very wide, rolling them with a head tilt that was sort of cute in her first film The Princess Diaries 10 years ago but now comes over as self-confident narcissism, and co-host James Crisco, sorry Franco, smirking and loitering next to her, I waited. (Bitch-off, I just said to myself, you’d have hosted the Oscars with all the skill of a waxwork mummy.)
By Barbara Amiel - Monday, February 21, 2011 at 10:38 AM - 14 Comments
The Egyptian military clearly wanted a putsch and riddance of Hosni Mubarak
Being a wet blanket is not my choice of roles. Sunny people are far more popular than Lucy van Pelt with a cloud over her head, but I just don’t get it. All this cheering and deskfuls of anchor persons beaming about people power in Egypt and congratulating one another on their good fortune and courage in being “there,” at this turning point in history. (And yes, I’m afraid this is the mandatory Egyptian column.)
I know it is a subject we must approach with tremendous respect, even though as far as I can see not much happened. The ailing 82-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak (alleged to be very ill), and backed by the Egyptian military, packed his suitcases and was replaced by exactly the same government backed by the same military. Nufi Mubarak, just like Sadat and Nasser before him, was a dictator with powers delegated to him by the military, except Mubarak wore civilian clothes—a civvy suit being more becoming for a modern dictator than the outfits of Greek colonels and Argentine juntas, decked out in opaque sunglasses and army uniforms.
The Egyptian military clearly wanted a putsch and riddance of the old man, and the people gave them—unwittingly, no doubt—the smokescreen of a popular uprising, which everyone, protesters included, seems to have swallowed hook, line and sinker. Now we have Egypt with a suspended parliament, a continuation of the 30-year state of emergency, and lots of promises about reform that have been made routinely since 1952 when King Farouk abdicated, packed up his Ginori china, left his gold furniture and took his second wife to Monaco, much closer to the European shopping sprees he loved—the only compelling reason I should think to be a dictator.
By Barbara Amiel - Wednesday, February 9, 2011 at 11:05 AM - 5 Comments
Barbara Amiel on how Jack LaLanne exhorted us all to stop being slaves to our aging bodies
On the way to this column, I got distracted by Jack LaLanne videos on YouTube. Shameful, I know, but I must have spent nearly two hours watching them. I had intended to put in a note referencing his death just last week at the age of 96 and thought that perhaps I could view a few old shows from the sixties when he had his morning half-hour TV exercise show and wax nostalgic. Turns out there are hundreds of LaLanne videos online, including a hypnotic interview with Groucho Marx.
Jack wore a jumpsuit before Donna Karan got us in them and, something I had never noticed before, he wore black ballet shoes with black socks for his TV workouts, probably because Air Nikes hadn’t reached conception. He opened his fitness gym in 1936 in Oakland, Calif. (California is the only cliché about Jack), and the obits named him father of the American fitness movement, which is a triumph for the short man who started out truly fat and poxy, unlike the faux acne complexions and cellulite thighs universally recalled by gorgeous movie stars. I defy anyone not to like Jack after watching him, or to resist—behind the privacy of their computer screens—sucking in their waists and resolving to exercise more and eat better.
Jack was something else: he came from the tradition of the muscleman of the 19th century, the stunt guy at circuses who could lift improbable weights. Jack’s stunts included celebrating the U.S. bicentennial by swimming one mile, shackled and handcuffed while towing 13 boats symbolizing the 13 colonies with 76 people on board—and he was 62 years of age. His enthusiasm was so contagious you’d almost think you should do it yourself, perhaps starting off with the trussed part in the shallow end of the swimming pool.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 2:00 PM - 23 Comments
Barbara Amiel on why mental illness can’t be treated with legalities
Back in the 1960s I had “Charlie.” Charlie was a derelict living in Toronto flophouses. I was a CBC researcher living in a highrise studio apartment. My assignment was a documentary on skid row lives, and Charlie was one of the three winos I had selected. All of them had mental disorders of varying degrees. They heard voices or suffered from paranoia. The day before shooting, Charlie went AWOL, ending up in the drunk tank. I bailed him out on CBC expense money.
Charlie didn’t have a golden voice, but he heard lots of voices and had conversations with them all. He wanted a regular job, he told me. After filming, I bought him a clean T-shirt and took him to a centre hiring hourly labourers. When I came home, an inebriated Charlie was waiting. He preferred working on camera and thought that was his true calling. I took him into my apartment for coffee and a talking-to. Afterwards he left—taking some small sterling silver items of mine.
My excuse was plain stupidity and youth. I’m not sure what excuses the enthusiasts behind the golden-voiced, down-and-out Ted Williams who, in a predictable arc after discovery by a journalist, gained worldwide fame, was arrested for an altercation, took part in an intervention on television’s Dr. Phil show, and disappeared into rehab. His sob story was watched by millions, when they weren’t watching people with utterly no connection to victims of the Tucson killings (except nearby zip codes) sobbing their eyes out. Heaven knows, Americans can go on “healing” and “counselling” and “intervening” until every last person is in therapy. But the problem when a popular culture goes barking mad is that complicated problems get reduced to cartoons.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 9:40 AM - 7 Comments
Headline murders tend to have a moral message as well as a sexual component
The first murderer in my life was John George Haigh, also known as the acid bath murderer. While in prison for some lesser crime, he dreamed up the idea of dissolving bodies in sulphuric acid until they were sludge. Which he did during the late 1940s in Britain, pouring loads of it down manholes. His last victim was a 69-year-old widow living at a hotel in Kensington. Haigh liked the Persian lamb coat she wore and it was the cleaning ticket for it that helped track him down.
The British papers were rapturous about Haigh. There are no subjects that people read about more eagerly and deny reading about more readily than murder and sex—preferably in combination. When someone speaks of reading such a story, they proffer the waiting-room defence. Perhaps you are reading this very column while waiting for your dental checkup.