Sunday 31 March 2013

Book Review - That Woman by Anne Sebba

This was a book that I'd wanted to read for a while, a biography of one of the most notorious women of the 20th century: Wallis Simpson.  When I thought about it, what did I really know about Mrs Simpson?  Only that she was the twice divorced woman Edward VIII couldn't live without and gave up his throne to marry.  For that matter, what did I know about the King apart from that he was known as "David" to his friends and family? 

Sebba does a good job at filling in the gaps in my knowledge of both lives.  David is an insecure womaniser,  a man of obsessions, a spoilt brat to whom only his parents ever said "no".  His world revolved around him and his pleasures; while his parents world revolved around "doing your duty" and "putting the country first".  He spent the 1920's deeply in love with one married woman, Freda Dudley Ward, before dropping her for another, Thelma, Lady Furness.

Wallis grew up as the poor relation of a wealthy family and Sebba demonstrates that the insecurity that caused never left her.  She marries early, selling herself in marriage to a man she barely knows but one who offers glamour and some level of financial security.  Win Spencer was a pilot, in the US's fledgeling Naval Air Service.  He was also a cad and a drunkard, who set about boosting his own ego but undermining his wife's.  The marriage fails and Wallis goes looking for a new man upon which to hang her dreams, eventually meeting and marrying Ernest Simpson.  The rest of her story is fairly well known and is the focus for the majority of the book.

This is a book that is well written and well researched.  Where Sebba loses me is her argument that Wallis' flirtatiousness and childlessness was driven by a totally unfounded claim - that Wallis suffered from a Disorder of Sexual Development ("DSD"), possibly pseudo-hermaphroditism, where the sufferer is genetically male but grows up female because her body is insensitive to androgen  By advancing this argument, Sebba totally ignores the social mores of the time and the subsequent effects on all Wallis's girlfriends.  Wallis belonged to a class in which, during the early 20th century,  the only way to obtain security/wealth/position was to marry well. Having a career and creating your own financial independence was out of the question. Forget about marrying for love - those girls were bought up to consider a man's fortune and his prospects before they considered his personality.  It is, therefore, no surprise to discover that few of her contemporaries/friends had successful first marriages. 

How did you win and keep your man?  You had to impress upon him that he was the most important person in your world, strong, handsome, the focus of all your attention.  If you ever watch a flirt in action, that is what they do.  They bewitch you with their charm by making you feel wonderful.  As the poor relation in an upper-class world, Wallis had to master the art of flirtation because all she had to offer was herself.  The flip side was that flirting gave her a sense of worth; as long as men fancied her, she had value.  The only time in her life that Wallis felt fulfilled by things she did - as opposed to the attention she was paid - was during World War 2, when she volunteered for the Red Cross in France.

What about her childlessness?  Sebba contends that birth control was unreliable so there must have been something physically wrong with Wallis.  Rather than DSD, it is statistically more probable that either Win Spencer or one of her subsequent lovers gave her chlamydia or gonorrhoea, diseases which cause physical damage to the fallopian tubes and lead to abdominal adhesions, which may explain her later gastric problems as well as her inability to conceive.  In addition, by the mid-1920's, Wallis would have been able to obtain reliable birth control in the form of a diaphragm either from one of Marie Stopes' clinics or from a sympathetic gynaecologist.

Sebba's final argument in support of DSD, that Wallis is rather masculine in appearance ignores something she argues later:  that both Wallis and David suffered from anorexia nervosa.  Through most of her adult life, Wallis kept her weight below 7.5 stone (100lb).  If a woman has insufficient body weight, her ovaries will cease to function, causing infertility.  Additionally, how can your body lay down "womanly" fatty deposits (i.e. to soften the face) when there is no fat to spare?

I wish that, rather than waste her time finding arguments to support her flimsy theory of DSD, Sebba had spent the time and word count focussing on Wallis's life after the War.  Compared to the inter-war years, this period is glossed over completely.  I doubt that it is less well documented.

On the whole, I give this book 7 out of 10.

- Pam

Saturday 30 March 2013

On Sleep

My internal alarm clock is screwing with me again and not letting me sleep in.  Yesterday, Good Friday, I was awake at 5.30am.  Today, I made it through to 6.15.  Wow! A whole 30 minutes more than my usual, scheduled week day alarm.  You can tell, I'm not best pleased to wake up early on two days when I don't have to go to work and could actually sleep in.  Even on work days, I'm routinely awake half an hour before the alarm goes off.

What is it, body?  What are you trying to tell me?  Thursday, last week, I had to go to Manchester by train.  The only unusual thing about this trip is that, instead of travelling solo, I was travelling with a colleague and he was picking me up at 5.45am, on the way to the station.  So why did I wake up at 4am, instead of with my alarm at 4.30?  I'd gone to bed late-ish so couldn't have had more than 5 hours sleep.  Of course, you had to top that on Friday morning when, having gone to bed at 3am, you woke me abruptly in a panic 10 minutes before my alarm was due to go off at 7am, telling me I'd slept in.  I felt absolutely shattered all morning.   (Nothing whatsoever to do with the wine/whisky I'd drunk the night before or the fact that we only went up to bed because they closed the bar on us at 2.30am.*)  Ten minutes!  Couldn't you at least have let me enjoy those ten minutes in sleep?


- Pam

*  While the focus of the Manchester trip was to deal with some serious work issues, it was also the opportunity for the "Three Amigos" to get together afterwards, switch off and be sociable.  The "Three Amigos" are me, my current Commercial Director (who is being shunted into Sales by management) and his chosen successor, our Head of Project Controls, who currently looks after my two major projects.  We are good friends and would probably have talked all night, if the bar closing hadn't reminded us about the passage of time.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Musical memories

One of the things that set humans apart from the other animals is that we make music.  There is evidence that we made music long before the Neanderthals died out - I think Howard Goodall's History of Music series on the BBC cites a 28,000 year old bone flute!  Possibly, it's something we discovered early on, not long after the first ape decided it was better to live on the plains and sprint across them on two legs with your arms pumping hard.

However it came about, music can be evocative, triggering memories of people, events and emotions almost - but not quite - forgotten.  How many of us tuck away the memory of a boyfriend together with the music you heard on the radio all that summer, so that when you hear a certain song again years later, all the memories of him come flooding back?  How many couples have "their song"?

On the flip side to that, how many times do you find yourself remembering a particular song, after certain events have occured?  I grew up by the beach, so a hot summer's day accompanied by the smell of the sea will always make me think of "Beach Baby" by First Class, and going down the beach with my mates during the long summer days of high school.

When the gloom and cold get to me and work seems to be one long day after another, there  is a particular song that plays in my head.  It's the words of Banjo Paterson's Clancy of the Overflow set to music by some Australian country singer.  While I have vague memories of a single being released around 1980 (possibly this one), the version in my head is one which was played live to me and some classmates on our year 12 camp.  We were high up in the snowy mountains near Gelantipy and the guy who performed it belonged to the campsite.  I don't know how many times during a long and frustrating day at work, I've heard him singing in my head:-

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
    Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
   Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.
And I somehow fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
   Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal -
   But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of "The Overflow".*
It's my escapist fantasy poem.  The music is little more than the hook upon which the poetry was reeled into my mind. I've lost count of how many offices I've sat in and recalled those words, wishing like the Banjo that I could replace the endless grind of "the cashbook and the journal" with wide open fields and the bush.
And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
   In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
  And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.*
I don't get homesick often.  But I was chatting with a colleague about Australia, trying to put into words how I feel about my homeland, and ended up quoting poetry to him, starting with Dorothea Mackellar's My Country  (still under copyright so read it via the link) followed by Clancy of the Overflow.  (Yes, I did find myself wondering whether I must be crazy to quote poetry to one of the guys at work, but it didn't seem to go down too badly.) 

Anyway, the above is all a longwinded way to explain why I've just wasted an hour trying to find a recording that matches - even vaguely - the recording of Clancy of the Overflow that plays in my head. There are dozens of recordings on Amazon: some performances that just made me cringe; others that reminded me of the Australian country dances craze that surfaced in the 1980's on the eve of the Bicentenary.  I want the one that will evoke the smell of eucalyptus trees on a summer's evening mingling with the smell of wood-smoke from a fire that's just been lit because the temperature is dropping rapidly after sunset.  I ended up with this version by "The Colonial Boys".  It's not bad, but I can't smell the wood-smoke.  I think I am going to have to keep looking.

- Pam

* Extracts from Clancy of the Overflow by Andrew Barton ("Banjo") Paterson, first published in "The Bulletin, 21 December 1889.