Jul 122014

It’s over a year since Molly came to live with us, or as I’m sure she likes to think of it, it’s over a year since she enslaved us.


She is now fifteen months old and is pretty much fully grown, I think. She has turned out rather well, even though on many occasions my patience has been stretched as far is as it can possibly go! People who say that Maltese X Shi Tzu dogs are stupid just don’t understand them. Molly is extremely intelligent and picks up things in a flash, but she’s the most stubborn and wilful dog I’ve ever had. There is no such thing as instant obedience with Molly. She just looks at me and does the dog equivalent of rolling her eyes, thinks about it and weighs up the consequences of not doing what I want her to, and then, if she thinks she has no other option, she obeys. It took me a while to figure out that this is just the way she is, and I need to accept it and live with it.

We get along well and she’s my shadow when I’m at home. She likes watching DVDs with me, especially when there are planes and birds, and I’ve only heard her bark a few times so far. She’s the weirdest little dog imaginable and I have no clue how I ended up with a fluffy white dog, but Molly has brought us a lot of joy. She’s so happy all the time and is the best teacher I could have. She and Mr V have a real mutual admiration thing happening: he is so soft and tender with her and I can see now how he might have been with children, which is something I’ve always wondered about. It’s endearing to see a hard man display such soft feelings for something small and cute like Molly. Awww.


Of course, having Molly live with us also means that Molly’s hair lives with us, and oh my, what a lot of work that is. I spend at least 30 minutes every day grooming her, which includes brushing her teeth – most surprisingly she sits still and tolerates it – and then there’s the ongoing process of keeping her hair at a reasonable length. I clip her myself with scissors and it takes HOURS to make a half-decent job of it. I could probably save myself the trouble and get her clipped professionally, but I don’t altogether trust groomers to be kind to her. When she was a pup she used to put up such a fight against even being touched by a comb and I never thought she would get to the stage where she tolerates me handling her all over. As I said, my patience has been stretched on many occasions, but persistence and consistency have paid off. She knows all the usual obedience stuff and is very well-behaved most of the time. She gets along alright with the mean old cat, although he gives her a whack around the ears occasionally if he’s in the mood. She’s much faster than the cat, so although he did want to kill her when she first invaded his territory, he puts up with her now. Molly loves it when he chases her around the house, and I think the cat secretly enjoys himself, too. He has really slowed down over the past few months, and seeing as how he’s nearly sixteen, I guess he’s not going to be around for too many more winters. I don’t know how Molly would go with a little kitten – she’s got a terrier’s instinct to chase and shake things – so I have no plans to get another cat any time soon. Famous last words!

Although it meant several months of waking up every two hours to take Molly outside for a pee, the ghastliness of her having a grass seed stuck up her nose and having to be operated on to retrieve it, the interminable puppy play-biting, the chewing of EVERYTHING, the disciplining and training and ALL the money I’ve spent on her, I think that the decision to exchange a wad of cash for her was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I also credit Molly with keeping me half-sane while I was tapering off the medication, and giving me something to get out of bed for in the mornings. The way I see it, I made a commitment to look after her, and so I do. And, as I said, she’s an excellent teacher: I have learnt a lot from her about living in the moment, accepting people, and spreading the love.

Jul 112014

Hitler’s English Girlfriend: The Story of Unity Mitford, David Rehak, Amberley, 2012.

**Sorry for another negative post. I seem to have encountered some lemons lately.

I found Hitler’s English Girlfriend in the biography section at the library and thought the title was very strange, but being a die-hard Mitford tragic, I decided to borrow the book and give it a whirl. How bad could it be?

The answer to that question turns out to be, ‘VERY, VERY bad.’ It is so bad, in fact, that I laughed myself sick on several occasions. It is SO BAD that I could not tear my eyes away from the page, because, oh dear, the level of badness just kept increasing. It is actually SO VERY BAD that it is almost ‘good’, in a postmodern, farcical kind of way. The sad thing, though, is that I think readers are supposed to take this book seriously and believe that it is a ‘creative non-fiction’ treatment of Unity Mitford’s life. So, as I see it, there is a big problem involved with having this total load of cobblers floating about in the universe and appearing unexpectedly on library shelves. Although I would not usually write anything about a book such as this, I feel that I need to, just in case anyone else reads it and takes it seriously.

Unity Mitford was indeed fascinated by, and obsessed with, Hitler. This does not necessarily make her an evil woman, because a great many English aristocrats were Hitler supporters in the years leading up to World War II. Although casual anti-Semitism become dangerously virulent in Germany, I doubt many British people guessed that Hitler and his crew of psychopaths would actually follow through with their rhetoric and commit wide-spread genocide. I think that Unity Mitford was totally misguided and probably more than a bit stupid, however, I do not think she deserves to be treated in the completely simplistic and superficial way as she is in this fictional account of her life.

The Mitfords had an interesting family dynamic – the sisters were extremely strong personalities and had complex and intense relationships with one another. Unity and Jessica, who formed a clique within the family, ended up holding completely opposite political viewpoints: Jessica became a communist and Unity a fascist – and I cannot help but think that their childhood relationship had a lot to do with the way in which they both adhered so strongly to their chosen positions. In addition to this childhood rivalry, Diana, the most beautiful Mitford sister, ended up chucking over her rich and safe husband and throwing in her lot with Oswald Mosely, so what a coup it would have been for Unity, who was attractive but not startlingly beautiful like Diana, if she could garner the special attention of Hitler himself. I think that Unity was probably fairly naive and had no clue what she was getting herself into. I think she was like a child showing off to her family – look at me, look at me – and although Hitler was taken with Unity’s Aryan good looks and her upper-echelon family connections, she was never his ‘girlfriend’.

Besides the fallacious re-telling of Unity’s story, the writing itself made me laugh out loud:

The Mitfords lived in a huge and imposing stone country mansion called Asthall Manor, next to the church graveyard. There were also a number of farms about the place.

Jessica and unity, two little girls in puberty, strolling, running, and dancing among the churchyard tombs – picture it.

A farmer came around the corner of the church carrying a cute baby lamb folded in his arms.
‘She’s lovely!’ exclaimed Jessica.
The farmer smiled. ‘I’ll let you have her if you like,’ he said.
‘Oh will you? Oh that’s grand! Thank you, thank you!’
‘Her name’s Miranda,’ said the farmer.
Unity stared on with envious eyes. Why should she get it and not me? she thought to herself. Her eyes were normally a sparkling bright blue, but yes, that moment they were tinted green with envy.

The very next day, Unity fell at her father’s feet in the sitting room as he was reading the newspaper, astonishing him with her plea, ‘Oh papa, I want a goat! Please let me have it, oh please do let me have it!’
She promptly got one.
She didn’t want to imitate her sister and get a lamb, so she opted for the goat instead. Perhaps in a way it was a sign of her rebelliousness, since goats are often though of as a symbol of the Devil, while the lamb symbolises Jesus Christ (pp.18-19).

Here is Unity going to a dance, after she has shot herself in the head and, only in Rehak’s imagination, miraculously recovered:

Unity was seen boarding a rowboat to head across to mainland Mull for an evening of dance with Neil the boatman.
‘My, you are a big strapping woman,’ said Neil flirtingly as Unity hopped aboard.
She laughed at his remark. ‘I’m strong too. Would you like me to row?’
Despite being a tall and clumsy and slightly brain-damaged woman, Unity put her mind to it and danced very well that night. She was in a great mood.
‘I think you Scottish people are frightfully lucky for being able to wear the kilt,’ she said to Neil with a wink as they waltzed and reeled together.
The other people there were friendly to her and it turned out to be an exceptionally fun night that she would never forget (p.151).

And here is Unity, fully repentant, of course:

Untiy’s devotion to Hitler had destroyed her life and cost her almost all her friends. Hitlerism fucked her up, and had a destructive influence on her whole life. She lived to regret it – what an error of judgement, what a waste. But by then it was too late. Mankind would not forgive her, but would a loving and forgiving God? (p.153).

OK. Unity Mitford actually incurred significant brain damage when she shot herself in the head upon learning that England and Germany were at war. She never recovered enough to dance and flirt with boatmen. No, Unity Mitford was left confused, childlike, barely able to speak, and given to exhibiting difficult behaviours. Her mother took her to live on a remote Scottish island because she and Unity’s father had separated due to their political differences, and because Lord Redesdale could not stand to see his daughter so sadly diminished.

Apart from the egregious and fanciful writing in this book, there is also stark inaccuracy, as is evidenced by this paragraph:

Lord Redesdale didn’t like his daughters’ support of Nazism and communism, but as a passive and mild-mannered individual, he left it alone. He certainly didn’t dare challenge Unity, fond father that he was (p.38).

In fact, Lord Redesdale was one of the most eccentric, irrascible and belligerent of men. His bad temper was legendary and he was far from indulgent with his children. Before the war he and the girls’ mother were supporters of fascism, and he had extreme right-wing ideas and was openly anti-Semitic. When war broke out he recanted his fascist views, but Lady Redesdale remained a Nazi sympathiser and the couple ended up separating over the issue. It seems to me that the author has taken the bare bones of Unity Mitford’s life and constructed a fantasy that is just so ridiculous that all I could do was wonder why anyone would write such utter nonsense. Perhaps it is intended as a warning to young people about the dangers of anti-Semitism, but really, the entire book is just too ridiculous. There is another book about Unity Mitford, Hitler’s Valkyrie, which is equally as ridiculous and best avoided.

Poor Unity. She was conceived in Swastika, Ontario, and her parents christened her Unity Valkyrie. Sometimes I wonder if there really is something in the notion of destiny, and at other times I think that maybe Lear was on to something when he says, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport’ (King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37). But, in reality, I guess that all people make unhelpful choices, and karma just gets us all in the end.

Jul 072014

I began studying at university again today. I’m still trying to do an MA in literary studies! The assessment requirements for this semester don’t appear to be too onerous (famous last words!), but as always, the poor organisational abilities of some of the academics have come to the fore. Why is it impossible to organise the unit readings in alphabetical order, in ONE file, and to ensure all the links are working? Surely a geeky minion would be happy to sort that out for a tech-shy academic. I would be happy to sort it out, just to save myself from all the clicking and searching and frrrustration that will ensue throughout the next twelve weeks.

What is the first theoretical aspect we’re looking at in this unit on the theory and practice of life writing? Yes, it had to be the concepts of ‘self’ and ‘I’. It looks as though we’re expected to explore those concepts with reference to Freud, Lacan, et al., and yeah, I’ve done that already as an undergrad and no, I don’t want to do it again. Buddhist philosophy has a fair bit to say about the ‘self’, but I shall keep that under my hat and pretend to play nice with the psychoanalysts. However, I can’t seem get away from bloody Freud. He is definitely my bête noire. I quit an entire course last year because of bloody Freud. Oh, Sigi, why do you haunt me thus?


The other unit I’m doing this semester is ‘writing for communication media’, which means that I’m supposed to learn how to write a decent press release, report, persuasive letter and academic essay. I think there might be a bit about writing a review, as well. No doubt I’ll learn plenty I don’t already know. Also, I have to nominate the areas of weakness in my writing – um, where do I start? I think that cutting my prolixity and paying more attention to proper grammar are two of the many areas in which I need to improve. :P

Aaand, there are the usual student archetypes on the course: the old white guys who know EVERYTHING, the teachers who know EVERYTHING, the people with 501 degrees who know EVERYTHING, the people who pretend not to know anything so other people will help them, and people like me who don’t want to interact with any of the above. However, I’m resolved to stick my fingers in my ears and keep my mouth shut this time around. ‘Whatever’ will be my watchword. [Yeah, right, but I do intend to try!] Here is this week’s reading for the life writing unit:


I may be a bit AWOL for a while, on and off. I have quite a lot of reading to get through, but at least I don’t have to read Middlemarch and Jane Eyre and six other novels in about two weeks as I did on that other disastrous course that I quit earlier this year. I’m hoping my brain doesn’t seize, that my spirits stay reasonably high, and that no major family drama happens in the next few weeks. My study mate is raring to go! Onward! :P


*I think this course is my SIXTH attempt to capture an elusive MA in literary studies. I just keep quitting, mostly because my brain tends to go haywire with alarming regularity. This is the first MA course I’ve attempted without being on psychotropic medication, so who knows? Maybe it might work out this time.

Jul 062014

Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney, Granta, 2013.

Valeria Luiselli’s slim volume of personal essays is beautifully and intelligently written, and it made me feel quite envious, really. If I were to be a writer, this is the sort of thing I would like to write. It is obvious Luiselli is not kidding when she says she was a voracious reader in her teens, because she references so many ideas and writers in her essays that it made my head spin a little.

The daughter of a Mexican ambassador, Luiselli’s peripatetic childhood has made her a life-long traveller and observer. She notices things that you and I probably would pass by unremarked, and this is the beauty of her essays. Ostensibly, she does not write about big things or take on large issues, but her oblique approach has the same result in the end: her words still made me think and ponder even though her manner of writing is more sideways and poetic. One thing did bother me a lot about this collection, however. I am left wondering whose words I was actually reading. This is the conundrum I experience every time I read a translated work: how does it differ from the original and am I, in effect, reading the re-written version of the translator which is a whole other thing from the original written by the author? This problem bothers me a great deal and I cannot see any resolution besides learning to read other languages, but I doubt that will ever happen.

The essays in the book focus mostly on places and spaces. These passages are chosen at random; I could just as well quote the entire book because the language is so precise and beautiful:

Cities have often been compared to language: you can read a city, it’s said, as you read a book. But the metaphor can be inverted. The journeys we make during the reading of a book trace out, in some way, the private spaces we inhabit. There are texts that will always be our dead end streets; fragments that will be bridges; words that will be like scaffolding with protects fragile constructions.

One day, after a certain amount of obstinacy on my part, the two guards of the ex-Cervantes library finally allowed me to pass into the ruined interior. Inside, there was not the slightest trace of the volumes that had once resided there – perhaps just a screw clinging to the peeling wall, against which a bookcase had rested. But there was still an air of bookishness: a heavy atmosphere, the stink of squandered ink, of ideas bound in hardback.

Wisdom from Cyril Connolly: ‘Imagination = nostalgia for the past, the absent; it’s the liquid solution in which art develops the snapshot of reality.’

But the nostalgia isn’t always a nostalgia for the past. There are things that produce nostalgia in advance – space that we know to be lost as soon as we find them – place in which we know ourselves to be happier than we will ever be afterwards. In such situations, the soul twists itself round, as if in a voluntary simulacrum of seeing its present in retrospect. Like an eye watching itself look for from the perspective of a later time, it sees that remote present and yearns for it.

The difference between flying in an airplane, walking and riding a bicycle is the same as that between looking through a telescope, a microscope and a movie camera.

I have Luiselli’s other book, Faces in the Crowd, to read but I am not sure when I will finish it. Life seems to have overtaken my reading plans yet again, and spare time is one thing that is in short supply at the moment. It seems to me that ‘never enough time’ is the universal reader’s lament. Anyway, I liked Sidewalks a lot. If only I could write like Valeria Luiselli, or maybe, like Christina MacSweeney.

I read this for Stu and Richard’s Spanish Lit event in July, but after my shame-making stuff-up with my previous post, I think I will just hide over here and not tell them about it. :)