In this edition:
Unforgettable books: The Mermaid of Black Conch, Review by Berendsje Westra
Summer Reads: 16 books that will take you to far-away places, by Elke Maasbommel
Dressed to a ‘T’, by Henk Kaput
Date to save!
Sometime after the summer holidays, we will organize a City Walk & Picknick. However, due to pandemic uncertainties we have not picked a date yet. We will keep you posted!
Have a wonderful summer
Although England did not get to take the cup home in Wembley and the pandemic has taken a new, unexcpected nasty turn, we, Reinou, Marjan, Nienke and Charlotte want to wish you a wonderful summer!
Unforgettable books: The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey
by Berendsje Westra
This book review contains spoilers!
Monique Roffey (Trinidad, 1965) set up a crowd funding page in September 2019 to raise 3,000 pounds for The Mermaid of Black Conch’s publicity campaign. A year later her magical realist novel won the Costa Book of the Year and Costa Novel Award.
The story unfolds on a fictional Caribbean, lizard-shaped island, which is where we meet fisherman David Baptiste in the year 2015. Because he’s old and sick, he decides to pen down his memories about the time he spent with a mermaid named Aycayia (Sweet Voice). Besides David’s diary entries, the story is told through a third person omniscient narrator, and Aycayia’s poems. A Creole English dialect is used in the dialogues.
In 1976, when David is twenty-six years old, a mermaid pops up from under the water when he’s strumming his guitar and singing during a routine fishing trip. David initially thinks he must have smoked too much weed, but when he takes out his boat during the following weeks – without dropping his line in case he hooks her – he sees her near the same spot every day. The mermaid reminds David of the red-skinned indigenous people he saw in history books at school, who inhabited the archipelago centuries ago. Only this one comes with a magnificent tail and he reckons she must weigh four or five hundred pounds.
David manages to win the mermaid’s trust but this backfires when, one day, she mistakes the sound of a boat hired by two Americans who take part in the annual fishing competition for David’s pirogue. The Americans, a father and son who signed up for the competition with the objective to work on their relationship, catch the mermaid. The father sees the mermaid as a fish he now has possession of and immediately thinks of fame and fortune, while his son sees her as a woman and regrets catching her. Mermaid Aycayia is strung up, head down and gagged and bound on the jetty, and mocked by the male bystanders. One of them pisses all over her.
When David finds her, she’s barely alive, but he cuts her down, drops her into a wheelbarrow and then his pick-up truck and takes her home. His plan is to put her back in the sea but as the days progress and she’s recuperating in his bathtub, she loses her fishiness and turns back into the young woman she once was.
The Americans, meanwhile, go to Miss Arcadia Rain, a white woman who speaks Creole like everyone else on the island, to report the theft of their mermaid. Miss Rain owns almost everything in the village and she lives in a mansion that was built by black men – ex-slaves – to dominate (p. 150). Miss Rain has a ten-year-old deaf son and her heart’s been broken by a man named Life, the father of her son, who left her ten years ago because he couldn’t deal with the torment of loving a white woman (p.162).
When Life does eventually reappear, he stays to help Arcadia and David keep the mermaid safe from certain people in the village, and the Americans who have come back after five months to claim her, but Miss Rain’s colonial history remains an issue, a wall between them.
The months go by, and David has fallen deeply in love with Aycayia, and although she returns his feelings, she doesn’t want to get married. Through David and their physical activities she comes to understand why she was cursed by the women of her own tribe. They were jealous of her beauty, her dancing and singing that mesmerised their men. So her legs were sealed up by a fishtail.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is a love story in two ways: Miss Arcadia Rain and Life eventually get back together. She tells him: “History or love. One must win. I cannot fight history […] but we can do better than letting history win out over love” (p.163).
However, for David and Aycayia, fate isn’t that kind. While David remains hopeful of Aycayia blending in with the other islanders, enough to not be seen as an outcast, he is forced to face the reality of her curse: she begins to change back into a mermaid. The women who hated her cursed her forever, and their contemptuous laughter can be heard from the clouds. Aycayia is destined to go back and roam the oceans.
Postscript from the board: This was Berendsje’s last contribution to the Anglophile. Thank you for all the stories you wrote as one of our correspondents. This also means we are looking for someone to take her place and write for us! Who would like to join the team? Please drop us a line if you do!
Summer Reads: 16 books that will take you to far-away places
By Elke Maasbommel
We live in strange times. We haven’t been able to go to restaurants, couldn’t go to concerts, we’ve had to work from home, and we couldn’t even visit our favourite bookstores. But the worst thing, to me anyway, was not being able to travel. It can become quite boring to be in the same room every day, staring at the same walls as the day before. Even now, we don’t even know whether we can travel abroad at all.
Thankfully there’s books. Books help us escape the monotonous days and place us in different places, countries, perhaps even worlds. Over the last year, I’ve visited countless literary places I was unable to visit in real life, and somehow it felt like I was really there. Whether you’re someone who loves cities bursting with life, remote islands, fantasy worlds, or ancient lands – there’s something out there for everyone.
Literary city trips
I love cities. Even though they’re busy, they’re smelly, and there are way too many people, I love the culture and history that is apparent at every street corner. When I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for instance, I heard the Big Ben, I saw St James’s Park, and, for just a moment, I wasn’t in Groningen, but I was in 1920s London.
The same goes for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Right now, it is inconceivable that countless people gather every single night, eating fancy food, drinking cocktails, and getting so drunk that they forget to go home. I’m not sure I would really like living in 1920s New York, but it sure sounds like a great alternative to the solitary world we’re living in right now.
If you want to challenge yourself (I haven’t been able to do so yet, unfortunately), you can also travel to Dublin, reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. He takes you on an adventure through the entire city – and really, finishing this colossus of a novel would take you even longer than visiting Dublin would.
Or finally, if you’d prefer to travel to a non-English speaking city, then Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being might be perfect for you. Taking place during the Prague Spring, this novel is about the invasion of the Soviet Union and the notion of free will, love, and freedom.
If you’re more of a nature person, then those cities might not be the right option for you. Instead, here are some islands which you might like to visit (but do so at your own peril!).
Firstly, of course, there’s the island of Neverland in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It sounds too good to be true, really, this island where you will be a child forever, fighting pirates, visiting mermaid lagoons, and where you can fly. Just make sure to return, however, because only then will you truly appreciate childhood.
If you’d like some more realism, then you could always consider reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It’s about a group of boys who are stranded on an island. Soon, there are two separate groups, the barbarians who only follow their basic needs, and the more rational children. Which group would you join?
You can always travel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, if you’ve always felt like you wanted to be a pirate. Come join Long John Silver and his boys if you want to pillage, steal gold, and travel the seas!
Finally, if you feel like you didn’t mind the entire lockdown – because, to be honest, you are perfectly happy with just your own thoughts to keep you company – you might also like Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News. It takes place on the remote island of Newfoundland, and nothing much happens. Just make sure you pack your warmest clothes, bring a few books, observe the local community, and you’d never want to leave.
Of course, the easiest way to really escape your mundane life is by reading books that take place in an imaginary world. They’re not always safe, they don’t always make sense, but you definitely won’t be bored!
Firstly, you could go down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Even if you haven’t read this book yet, you might have heard of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and, of course, the Queen of Hearts. When I was young, this is the world I desperately wanted to visit.
If you prefer the cold, I would definitely recommend C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. During the Second World War, Lucy and her siblings are evacuated from London, and they find themselves in a strange mansion. In one of the wardrobes, they enter a world even stranger and more dangerous than the one they just left.
You could also join Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, who travels from his safe hole under the ground in the sleepy Shire to the Lonely Mountain, guarded by the dragon Smaug. Come join him and the dwarves on their journey through Middle Earth!
One of my favourite novels of all time are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. They take place in not one, but many different worlds, some similar, and some very different from our own. I still wish I could, somehow, slip through a gap in our world and visit one of those described by Pullman. And oh, how I would love to meet my dæmon!
A blast from the past
Finally, sometimes things were better in the past. You could also decide to travel back in time, to find out what the world was like hundreds of years ago.
Of course, the first book that comes to mind is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Wouldn’t you love to join the pilgrimage to Canterbury, all the while listening to the stories of your companions? There are so many different people, all of whom have their own story to tell, that you’re bound to find a few friends here.
You could also travel to Italy, by reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s a murder mystery set in an ancient monastery in the thirteenth century. It would be so educational to go there, learning about history and religion, and how to solve a murder.
If you’ve got some time on your hands, I would also recommend T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It’s about the boy Wart who would eventually grow up to be the most famous king ever, King Arthur. It also shows you medieval England, and tells you what it is like to be a knight.
Finally, if you really want to go back in time, you might also like reading Madeleine Miller’s Circe, a retelling of part of Homer’s Odyssey, but from the perspective of the sorceress who turned Odysseus’ soldiers into pigs, and took the great man himself prisoner on her little island.
So, all in all, even though you can’t travel physically, there’s still so many books to read. There’s all these cities, islands, and worlds to discover. I wish you a wonderful holiday!
Dressed to a ‘T’
by Henk Kaput
The Muses friend, Tea, doth our fancy aid,
Repress those vapours which the head invade,
And keeps that palace of the soul sereneEdmund Waller – On Tea (1664)
It all started with a double elbow injury really… or rather with the physio-therapeutic exercises I had been given to try and heal them: four sets of ten times for both arms, stretching them down slowly with a weight, knowing it will take months before you will notice any improvement. Anyway, apart from keeping count, the mind tries to keep itself occupied, my eyes wandering around the attic room trying to find something interesting to look at to keep boredom at bay.
And they did. After having scanned once again the familiar old shelves with literature textbooks and poetry collections from my student days, my gaze was drawn by a framed print, long ago gifted by a good friend, which has been hanging in its place for donkey’s years, long enough at least to be hardly consciously registered anymore. Which was a shame really, because little did I realize and appreciate its beauty, or rather the three beauties depicted in it. So I thought they deserved some more TLC…
Even less did I realize the vast wealth of information that would be unlocked once I delved into their history. After having finished my exercises of the day, I decided to have a go(ogle) and make their acquaintance… and I was not disappointed.
The grouping of three beautiful ladies in a highly stylized position is a well-known motif in the history of art. Called the Three Graces, they represent charm, beauty, and human creativity, and are usually depicted naked, originally holding attributes such as vases, musical instruments, fruit, corn, roses, or sprigs of myrtle. The best-known representations of the three Graces include Botticelli’s Primavera, the paintings by Raphael and Rubens, and a sculpted group by Canova.
The ladies in the print however, virtuously hide their modesty but then you know, theirs was the more demure and repressed Victorian Age: prude rather than nude. And besides, it is especially because of what they do wear they are so interesting.
The print is an advertisement for the United Kingdom Tea Company, dating from the 1880s and is found in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. In her article ‘The Empire’s Favourite Drink: Tea, Global Trade, and English National Identity’ The historian Jessica Wright gives us a broader picture and perspective:
The image depicts three women wearing the traditional national dress of Scotland, England, and India, from left to right. However, beyond their attire, there is no visible ethnic variation between them; they all share the same pale complexion and golden curls, thus conforming to the beauty ideals of Victorian England. This takes the projection of English values onto foreign cultures,[…] further, implying that the colonial space has not merely been ‘domesticated’, but that it has also been culturally cleansed. Only then can the women stand together, linking arms, united. However, despite their apparent sense of unity, issues of cultural hierarchy are still subtly at play. Standing in the middle, and slightly in front of her companions, the English woman clearly forms the visual focus of the advertisement. Equally, she is taller than the other figures, and her white and pink clothing stands out against the green and yellow shades of their foreign attire. Together, these visual devices work to characterise the English lady as superior; she appears to assume a position of leadership while her friends tilt their heads to look up at her in admiration. Therefore, in tension with the ‘United’ front that the company promotes, these three women allegorically depict the power of Victorian England in relation to the submissive territories under its control. Thus, the advertisement demonstrates the strength of England’s identity in two key ways. Primarily, it exposes England’s cultural strength as it expands outwards, influencing and redefining the nations under its command; however, it simultaneously suggests that even after this unification has taken place, England still remains hierarchically superior, strong and supreme, maintaining clear control over its Empire.
The Historian Journal May 18, 2017
Apart from the author’s colonial angle of approach, there is certainly some gentler allegory involved here as well. The English lady wears pink roses in her hat and on her neckline which is of some significance since it is part of a pictorial trope. An English Rose is a nostalgic idea of a beautiful young English lady. She is virtuous and possesses a certain type of modest, natural beauty.
Regarding her looks, an English Rose has a set of associated characteristics:
tvtropes.org – English Rose
- Her figure, beauty, dress, and manners are modest and chaste rather than provocative or sexy.
- She is more on the petite side, and slender — an English Rose can sometimes be a bit chubby but is never very tall or of very substantial build.
- She is fair-skinned, has a rosy glow to her cheeks rather than being eerily pale. Her complexion can be described as peachy pale or porcelain-like.
- Her hair can be of any shade as long as it isn’t too exotic — wavy, light brown, soft blonde, or auburn hair is most archetypal, as well as hairstyles more ‘natural’ and less fabricated than of her peers, but any moderate and understated hairstyle fitting the period fits the type.
- She has gentle eyes, that are almond-shaped or drooping rather than cat-like.
The floral emblems are continued in the apparel of her two companions as well. The bonny lass on her left, duly attired in traditional Scottish costume, is wearing an ankle-length tartan skirt with a sash. On her hat and collar, we see the national emblem of Scotland: the prickly thistle.
Very Victorian indeed and also very remindful of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty at the time.
But there is something with the figure on the right that does not add up. Though she does indeed wear a traditionally Indian sari style dress, it is also there the Indian connection breaks down. Unlike in other tea adverts like e.g. the one by Lipton Teas, this lady has no dark Indian complexion as you would expect.
It is the green colour of her garment and the garlands of yellow, (pictorial licence?) shamrocks in her hair and on the seam of her dress which points to her being an Irish ‘brown colleen’. So I would challenge the view that the lady on the right is Indian and that the way she is represented is due to ‘cultural cleansing’ and ‘domestication of colonial space’. The symbol of the shamrock, an important symbol of luck to the ancient Irish druids and later used by St. Patrick as a metaphor for the Christian Holy Trinity is as Irish as it gets. In the 19th century, it became a symbol of Irish nationalism and rebellion against the British Crown, and anyone caught wearing it was executed. I wonder whether our English Rose was aware of that cruel irony though.
Another clue is found in the company’s name itself: the United Kingdom Tea Company. The history of the United Kingdom began in the early eighteenth century with the Treaty of Union and Acts of Union. The core of the United Kingdom as a unified state came into being in 1707 with the political union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland, into a new unitary state called Great Britain. The Act of Union 1801 added the Kingdom of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Considering these two arguments there is a good case to be made that our ladies – arms firmly linked – represent the union of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland.
The ‘domestication’ and ‘cultural cleansing’ of ‘colonial space’ certainly applied, tragically enough, to Ireland as much as it did to colonial India. The notable absence of a ravishing beauty from Wales here is probably due to the fact that Wales never was a kingdom. The Welsh have always been adamant that Wales is a country in its own right.
Never call it the Principality! So, with the picture now being ‘politically correct’ though, still no justice is done to the missing fourth lady in a print which after all is all about culture and identity and the Union. Though an image with a foursome would no doubt break up the nice symmetry of the image and detract from the dominant position of the English Rose in the centre, a redressing of this omission by including a Welsh lady proudly representing her country in the traditional national dress, would only be proper and very much in order:
There are many studies in social history and other sources that sing the praise of the benefits of tea, physically, socially and even morally. A seminal work here was ‘Tea; Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral’ by G. G. Sigmond, Professor of Materia Medica to the Royal Medico-Botanical Society (1839), who pulled all the stops extolling the blessings tea has bestowed on the nation and its people.
‘Amongst the endless variety of the vegetable productions which the bounteous hand of Nature has given to his use is that simple shrub, whose leaf supplies an agreeable beverage for his daily nourishment or for his solace; […] little does he estimate its real importance: he scarcely knows how materially it influences his moral, his physical, and his social condition:–individually and nationally we are deeply indebted to the tea-plant. […] There may be many vegetables, such as wheat, or barley, the potato, or the vine, from which more immediate sustenance may be derived, or they may, during their cultivation, give employment to large masses of people, but do they call into action the energies of nations, or do they give rise to the exertion of so much intellectual power?’
‘A curious […] work might be written upon the singular benefits which have accrued to this country from the preference we have given to the beverage obtained from the tea-plant […]. It would prove that our national importance has been intimately connected with it, and that much of our present greatness, and even the happiness of our social system, springs from this unsuspected source. It would show us that our mighty empire in the East, that our maritime superiority […] have materially depended upon it’.
So in the end it may not even have been coal, steam, the monarchy or military prowess that shaped and cemented the power of the British Empire, fuelled the genius of its finest minds and instilled the nation with that sense of exceptionalism that still endures – albeit to the detriment of the European Continent – to the present day, but just a ‘simple shrub’.
And it was to be the Victorian woman who proved to be instrumental in blending (!) the ritual of the tea-table with the national identity, particularly because tea would be most suitable in preparing her both for her biological role in society as well as providing it with stability:
‘Tea is more particularly adapted for the ordinary beverage of young women; and the individual who, until the day of her marriage, has never tasted wine, or any fermented liquor, is the one who is most likely to preserve her own health, and to fulfil the great end of her existence, the handing down to posterity a strong and well organised offspring, capable of adding to the improvement and to the welfare of the community’. […] ‘The social tea-table is like the fireside of our country, a national delight’
Drinking tea had now evolved to a daily ritual that represents homeliness, security, warmth and cosiness, providing the fairer sex with a coping mechanism to brave the bleak English weather: ’ Rainy with a chance of depression’:
‘Tea! For which we English are famous – tea, which is the beverage of the whole female population of the country, and which alone enables us to resist the depressing effects of our climate.The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, January 1874
From being a powerful and potent infusion on which an Empire was built, drinking tea as a domestic ritual had increasingly become embedded in the Victorian stereotype of ideal femininity: the home was the hub of Victorian life and it was the lady of the house who provided it with homeliness and the proper tea-drinking etiquette.
‘If one is seated at a table, the proper manner to drink tea is to raise the teacup only, placing it back into the saucer in between sips. When standing or sitting in a chair without a table, one holds the tea saucer with the off-hand and the teacup in the dominant hand. When not in use, the teacup is placed back in the tea saucer and held in one’s lap or at waist height. In either event, the teacup should never be held or waved in the air. Fingers should be curled inwards’.All about British Tea’ – Guide to British Tea-time
And by the way, yes…, raising one’s little finger is definitely an affectation. The Americans never got it right, though they deservedly take credit for having invented ice-tea at the Boston Tea Party.
What was initially seen as the nation’s national identity had now, influenced by tea advertisements, Victorian ladies’ magazines and novels, become very much an English identity, as rosy and gentle as the beauty who takes centre stage in our print. This highly contrived image has very successfully continued and endured to our present times adopting the patina of nostalgia and of England – ‘this green and pleasant land’ – as a rural idyll:
Would you care to sit with me
For a cup of English tea
Any sunny morning
What a pleasure it would be
Chatting so delightfully
Every Sunday morning
Miles and miles of English garden
Stretching past the willow tree
Lines of hollyhocks and roses
Listen most attentively
Do you know the game croquet
Peradventure we might play
Any sunny morning
Miles and miles of English garden
Stretching past the willow tree
Lines of hollyhocks and roses
Listen most attentively
As a rule the church bells chime
When it’s almost suppertime
Nanny bakes fairy cakes
On a Sunday morning
Paul McCartney ‘English Tea’
Owing to the adverse effects of globalization and migration, the concepts of culture, identity and the nation state have increasingly become part of the dominant political narrative in modern Europe and the UK is no exception, invoking an idealized past of a Britain that never was in order to take back control by Brexiting the European tea party.
In ‘A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England’ (2008), Julie E. Fromer argues that ‘tea drinking temporarily united all […] categories within the space of the home, offering a unique ritual that crystallizes multiple identities into a single vision of Englishness’.
I wonder what was lost in translation somewhere along the line when – a colonially determined – British diverse multiculturalism merged into an imagined identity which these days for many has now gone far beyond the fact of simply being born in England under the flag of St. George and for whom Englishness is not only about ‘long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs’. (John Major) and ‘Jam and Jerusalem’, – though I’m sure enjoyed with a good ‘cuppa’ – but has rather developed into a more sinister kind of nationalism.
The three graces so firmly linking arms in our advert were still quite oblivious to the centrifugal forces that were to challenge the Union in 1922 when the ‘brown colleen’ finally broke the threesome to follow her own destiny. And, when I try to read the tea leaves, it may seem only a matter of time before our independent minded ‘bonny wee lass’ might decide to part company with her English Rose to ‘take the high road’, while singing the lines from Rabbie Burns’s ‘Scots Wha Hae’:
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
In the end, not content with being just allegorical accessories in a tea advert and being outshone by the lady in the dazzling white and pink dress, our two female sidekicks finally unraveled the weaving error in the myth the United Kingdom Tea Company so ardently wished to promote. They probably decided over a ‘cuppa’ first, after all ‘A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water’. (Eleanor Roosevelt)
For now however, in all their exquisite, innocent Victorian elegance they still keep me company in their beautiful frame during my daily exercises, completely unaware of the sympathetic gaze of their observer whose imagination they sparked.