Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Problem with Medieval Medicine - Gillian Polack



This last month I’ve been ill. Not seriously ill. Just a virus that goes on and on and on. A debilitating virus with nasty symptoms, but just a virus. The reason I can say this with such resigned aplomb is because of the wonder that is antibiotics. Without them, I wouldn’t be breathing now. This is the side of medicine we hear about a lot. The glory side.

We also hear (we the general public) quite a bit about the evil that is Medicine Past. I seem to spend a portion of my classes each year explaining that just because a system of medicine is not the one we’re used to, doesn’t mean it’s automatically just a series of placebos. 



Scientific method is a wonderful thing. It allows us to take an idea and test it. Does this medical compound reduce the symptoms of a disease? Yes! Does it harm humans? Not in a worrying way. Good! We have a potential medicine. If the answers are not so good, then we count it as a dead end, learn from it (“We don’t need to try this again.”) and move on. 

Modern medicines have mostly been created using scientific method. I have some problems with the assumptions of how medicine should be tested and used and how we perceive illness, but that doesn’t detract from lab testing and field testing and the wonder of the double-blind study. Modern medicine may not be everything we mostly think it is, but it’s not half bad. My vile chest infection is cured, after all, and without antibiotics I would not be breathing right now. Prior to clever scientists sorting them out, many people did die. The common cold was potentially fatal.

We don’t know about medieval medicine. Really, we don’t. It hasn’t been tested in the same way.
Every now and again I find medical people (often quite senior in their profession) who have an interest in the Middle Ages who do my workshops and attend my lectures. Every time, we discover something new. My favourite discoveries all came from the one course: the Western European test for leprosy in the Middle Ages would work (it entails blood and a silver bowl) and so does the test for diabetes (the scent of someone’s urine) and so does the treatment for kidney stones (sequential warm baths filled with relaxing herbs).

What this alerted me to was that we don’t know the whole of medieval medicine. We don’t even know the half of it. We haven’t tested it. We’ve just assumed that it wasn’t modern, therefore it was garbage.

Some medieval medicine certainly doesn’t meet modern medical needs. In daily life in countries such as Australia and the UK, for instance, we tend to separate religion from medicine in a way that was inconceivable in the Middle Ages. Our whole world view is different. The spheres move in both universes, but they don’t move in the same way nor, indeed, do they have they same forces propelling their movement. This means that the prayer element and what we see as the magic element of medieval medicine simply do not work for us.



Until very recently, this meant that scientists didn’t even bother checking medieval cures. “They won’t be useful,” was the vague consensus, “because they’re medieval and wrong.” 

This was a failure of scientific method. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater because of preconceived assumptions. No-one took a statistically significant selection of cures and tested them. And yet, in my classes, doctors were still pointing out that some of the principles for balancing the humours would work as modern recommendations for leading a healthy life. Balanced intake of food (not too much, not too little, the right types of food) and gentle exercise are really not that alien to modern thought.

The interesting thing is why our wonderful scientific method failed us in not being applied earlier to medieval medicine. Pharmaceutical firms look for more medicines and more ways of turning those medicines into money. Scientists question the universe and discover fabulous new things about our world every day. Why was it – until very recently- just assumed that the Middle Ages were an area where nothing good was to be found, medically? 

We carry around deep inside us cultural pictures of various periods. Every time someone says “Don’t get all Medieval on me” or “Go back to the Middle Ages!” they’re drawing on a set of pictures, and those pictures say “A time of filth and superstition.” They say a lot more, too. Romance. Adventure. Early deaths. Crusades. It all adds up. It adds up to a sense of period so very strong that when scientists were looking for ways of expanding their understanding of medicine, they turned to Ancient Egypt rather than to Medieval Europe. They often assume that medieval doctors were simply fakes, and that medieval diagnosis and treatment wasn’t worth investigating.

We live with assumptions. We create them in order to live, really. If we didn’t assume that there was air to breathe, we’d be in a spot of bother, so we don’t test air and gravity every single day just to feel safe about them. Some assumptions (like there being air) are very sensible. Science fiction writers test these things and explore what it would be like if… and this is why all fiction is important. It allows us to test assumptions safely and to explore the universe, with or without gravity and air.

Historical fiction enables us to explore history safely. It tells us stories of the past couched within safe parameters. It can also (unintentionally, for the most part) reinforce some of the less sensible assumptions. We know that people breathed in the Middle Ages. This is a sensible assumption. We do not know that people died from the prescriptions of their regular doctors. We certainly don’t know that all doctors were quacks. And no-one has yet tested a complete set of medieval medical cures to find out just what the standards were for the doctors who used them. I know from my students that some diagnoses were accurate and some cures useful and that others were less so. That’s not a proper inquiry, however, it’s random sampling by a non-scientist. 

My answer to general questions about medieval medicine right now is “I need more parameters for your question. What types of practitioners are you talking about? University-educated doctors or apprenticed doctors, apothecaries, midwives, something else entirely? What sort of illnesses? What region?”

 Even then, my answer will be a bit hazy, for I need to read more studies by modern scientists, analysing the usefulness of the work of all these people, cure by cure. Until I get those answers, I don’t know. None of us do. 

The one thing we do know is the assumptions about bad medicine in the Middle Ages are just that. 

I usually offer a pacifier, however. I point out that just after the Middle Ages, Nostradamus was very famous for his medicine (despite not being licensed to practise as a doctor) and that I have his recipe book and I offer his recipe for quince jelly. My mother made it recently, in the spirit of scientific inquiry. She says it’s very nice, but that she should have cooked it a bit longer.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

It's Wolf hall - again!

I know it's been over for some time and we've probably all watched Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell since then. But I wanted to consider what a TV series does differently from a play, from a book. It doesn't have to be historical fiction but perhaps it illustrates the point best when it comes to visualising the scene.

I've read both Hilary Mantel's books about Thomas Cromwell twice, seen both the plays twice and seen the TV series twice (the last two episodes three times). I can't get enough of Hilary Mantel's creation but it does make me ponder on what the different media do for it.


First on TV the setting, costumes and props - these were all utterly convincing: the interior lighting by candles or fires, mullioned windows, all goods in chests, an illuminated prayer book dazzling in its colours because new. There was great attention to detail. (But see Liz Fremantle's February post for more on that and some reservations).

It's obvious that TV can do some things the stage plays couldn't do, giving us flashbacks to the boy Thomas Cromwell's brutal beating  by his thug of a blacksmith father - the motive to run away to the continent, with which the first book opens.

The TV series opened with the splendidly cast Bernard Hill as the Duke of Norfolk telling Cardinal Wolsey he is done for. The trouble with this excellent start was that we then had to go back to a period when Wolsey was still in the ascendant and could order Harry Percy and Thomas Boleyn around and tell them that Anne Boleyn had to go and marry someone in Ireland.

There was a bit too much of this "non-linear" narrative going on: the captions would have been more useful if they'd had actual dates rather than 'Four years before Wolsey's fall" and suchlike. No such problems with the books or the stage plays.

Wolsey himself was superb. Jonathan Pryce was not an obvious piece of casting: one thinks of him as tall and cadaverous rather than fat and jowly like a cleric who indulged too much in earthly pleasures. But he was very good indeed.

Then so was Paul Jesson on stage. But this is not an argument about who gives the better representation, pitting Mark Rylance against Ben Miles or Damien Lewis against Nathaniel Parker (the last another example of successful casting against type).

What interests me is what the different media can do with the same story. To take just one example - the masque pillorying Wolsey after his death. Hilary Mantel has taken "Cardinal Wolsey Going down to Hell," performed at the house of Thomas Boleyn (Anne's father) and transposed it to Hampton Court. The farce, presumably commissioned by Boleyn, was put on as an entertainment in January 1531, for the new French Ambassador, Claude de la Guiche. "The Duke," whom Mantel reasonably takes to be Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, called for it to be printed.



The Ambassador was evidently not amused and according to Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, "much blamed the earl, and still more the Duke for ordering this fare to be printed." (quoted in Greg Walker's Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry Vlll (Cambridge University Press 1991)). Not surprisingly, since it portrayed a Cardinal tormented by devils and burning in hell.

Hilary Mantel takes this reasonably well known fact and makes of it something crucial to the plot of both her novels and one that offers an explanation for Cromwell's implacable persecution of the five men executed with Anne Boleyn. Each of the four "devils" is a nobleman (somewhat unlikely as actors in a farce, perhaps, but no matter). Cromwell watches them unmask and reveal themselves to be George Boleyn (Anne's brother), Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton.

In the novel of Wolf Hall this scene comes less than halfway through and the person taking the part of Wolsey himself is Master Patch, the jester whom the Cardinal gave to the king. In the play it's Mark Smeaton, neatly linking all five executed men to the farce.  Here in the novel  Mantel describes the reactions of the audience to the farce:

"Anne sits laughing, pointing, applauding. He has never seen her like this before: lit up, glowing. Henry sits frozen by her side. Sometimes he laughs, but he thinks if you could get close you would see that his eyes are afraid."

Crucially there is one dissenting voice at the "entertainment" - "Someone calls out 'Shame on you, Thomas Howard, you'd have sold your own soul to see Wolsey down.' Heads turn, and his head turns, and nobody knows who had spoken; but he thinks it might be, could it be, Thomas Wyatt?"

In Mike Poulton's playscript it is definitively Wyatt, who cries, "Shame! Shame on you, Norfolk! Shame!" But Wyatt is a major linking character in the plays and gets a more prominent role than in the books.

In the TV version, no-one cries "Shame!" at all. And that's a shame. It seems no-one at court is brave enough to stand up for the Cardinal, to whom Cromwell's intense loyalty is a constant motif, explanation and motive. In fact it turns into a bit of a Revenge drama, with Cromwell avenging his father-figure Wolsey, who was more benevolent to him than his own flesh and blood parent.

There is a scene where Cromwell watches the four "devils" take off their masks but it is somewhat wasted because of the casting. George Boleyn looks too like Brereton - or is it Weston? The point gets lost and has to be brought out in a later episode where Cromwell is interrogating the accused men in the Tower. If you hadn't read the books, I don't know if you would have "got" it. The whole scene is very brief on TV and there is no sign of Mark Smeaton.



But now we have three ways of "knowing" that at least four of the five men executed before Anne Boleyn took part in the Wolsey farce, does it matter that Hilary Mantel made this up? Surely, only if we come to believe this really is what happened?

Which brings us to the question of how we know our history; is it thorough reading historians or historical fiction. Do we believe that Elizabeth Woodville saved her son from Richard the Third, as Philippa Gregory tells us she did?

As Hilary Mantel says in the Author's Note to Bring up the Bodies, " I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer."

As you may have gathered, although I enjoyed it, I liked the TV version less than the other two manifestations of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell stories. It may not be surprising that for me the books come first. There were a couple of show-offy moments on Tv which I positively disliked: Thomas stroking Anne Boleyn's breasts in a scene it took a moment or two to realise was in his imagination and the ridiculous dragging of her body along his dining-table with him about to stick the knife in. It was evidently too much of a temptation to make a metaphor literal.

And it lost a lot of the humour of the books and the plays; in the theatre everyone laughed when Leah Brotherhead said, "Oh, I'm nobody. I'm only Jane Seymour." There were many such touches, replaced on TV by Cromwell's sardonic remarks and occasional swearing.

Still, there was much to enjoy in the minor performances, such as Charity Wakefield's spirited and saucy Mary Boleyn - though it was hard to believe this one would have let Henry walk over her so. And one of my favourite characters, Eustache Chapuys was perfectly rendered by Matthieu Almaric. There was even an effort at his "startling hat" with which Hilary Mantel had such fun in Bring up the Bodies. Sadly, I could not find a picture of him wearing it.


I can't wait for the third book, The Mirror and the Light; the third play, with, please, Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker, the third TV series, with Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis. I like Hilary Mantel's "offer" very much, in whatever form it comes. But best of all in the books.

What do you all think?






Tuesday, 30 June 2015

June Competition

We have five copies of Rebecca Mascull's new novel, Song of the Sea Maid, to give away to five UK residents with the most interesting and persuasive answers to this question: 

"What is the best novel you've ever read about science or scientists and why was it so good?"





Please leave your answers in the comments below, but also send them to readers@maryhoffman.co.uk so that winners can be contacted. 


Closing date 7th July. Sorry, but our competitions are open to UK residents only.  

Monday, 29 June 2015

Interview with Rebecca Mascull by Lydia Syson

It's a great pleasure to welcome Rebecca Mascull to the blog today. Her new novel, SONG OF THE SEA MAID, is out this month and tells the haunting story of Dawnay Price, an eighteenth-century anomaly. Dawnay is an educated foundling who overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher, setting sail for Portugal to develop her scientific theories.  She discovers rather more than she anticipated, not least about herself. Tomorrow, if you're lucky, you can win a copy of the book. This interview should whet your appetite. 


Rebecca Mascull (photo by Lisa Warrener)


Like her heroine, Rebecca lives by the sea, but in the east of England, with her partner Simon and their daughter Poppy. She has worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Her first novel THE VISITORS tells the story of a deaf-blind child in Victorian Kent and was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2014. She is currently working on her third novel for Hodder.






You weave into a single, compelling narrative a vast and fascinating array of different material: naval battles, foundling hospitals, scurvy, scientific voyages, religion, publishing, early theories of evolution and one huge and memorably described eighteenth-century event which I don’t want to give away here. I wonder where this all started for you.  Was there was a single image, or moment, or historical character that set you off?  And why did you choose that exact year?  (Dawnay Price is born in about 1732.)

The idea for this novel has been with me for years and in all that time I would just call it Science Novel! It all started with the What If scenario: what if someone in ages past had a brilliant scientific idea, but because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, nobody ever heard about it. As my character’s idea was linked to the theory of evolution, I thought it might be interesting to set it a good hundred years or so before Darwin, in order to explore how some groundbreaking ideas are present in the history of thought before they are brought to fruition by one seemingly isolated genius. It was just a hunch, but when I started to research the history of 17th and 18th-century science, I discovered this to be absolutely true.
Then I had to decide when in the 18th-century I wanted Dawnay to live. I knew there was going to be a naval battle, so I looked into wars in that period and it turns out that Europe were at war for almost the entire century! I also knew that the Napoleonic wars have been done quite extensively in novels, so I fancied finding an aspect of 18th-century war that was less widely known. By watching Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, (which I sought out to experience his beautiful authentic lighting – the “huddle and glow” of the 18th-century), I stumbled across the Seven Years’ War, which I then realised was also satirised in Voltaire’s Candide, which I’d also just read for research. 

Once I’d chosen that period, and started to read about science and society at that time, the rest of the ingredients just fell into place.


Research photo: rigging from the age of sail
seen on the Cutty Sark at Greenwich


The few women who did manage to engage in scientific activity during the Enlightenment – and they are hardly household names -  generally seem to have come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, but Dawnay starts the story a nobody with nothing, entirely alone in the world.  Why was that important?

We all know money talks. It’s easier to be heard when you’ve got a bit of capital and position behind you. Being heard and recorded by history often requires a certain set of fortunate circumstances for the speaker. Those who are disenfranchised at any point in history usually don’t get heard. In Dawnay’s era, that list would include the poor and women, particularly poor women. In my 20s, it occurred to me that there were very few women in the history of great endeavours and I knew instinctively that this could not be because of their capabilities. I assumed it was because of their lack of education and that such ambitions would have been discouraged for females. What I’ve realised now is that there were women doing and thinking extraordinary things, it’s just that no one bothered to record them. Even wealthy female scientists were not taken seriously by many, were banned from attending and certainly speaking at scientific events, and some even had their work attributed to male colleagues or relations. If you were poor and had no position in society, those problems were compounded hugely. Thinking this through, I’ve come to believe that many great ideas may have been lost in the history of thought because the thinkers did not have the right credentials.

And from a narrative point of view, I like my protagonists to have something to fight against! How dull it would be if everything came easily to Dawnay…

Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749),
French mathematician & physicist
You’ve written a first person present tense narrative, which takes Dawnay from very early childhood to her mid-twenties. . .was this structure and point of view a very obvious choice for you, and how did you go about establishing Dawnay’s distinctive voice?  Did you find it a struggle to get the right balance between readability, authenticity and pastiche? (It certainly doesn’t read as a struggle, I hasten to add.)

I did experiment with different voices when I started writing the first draft. I tried third person and past tense, but I just had this image of the little girl in the street with her brother stealing pies, and it felt like an urgent situation, in which the past tense third person didn’t seem to fit. Once I changed it to first person present tense, it just took on a life of its own and then I was off.  Also, that idea of hidden histories and silenced voices being heard meant that it felt imperative that Dawnay tell her own story.

I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction written in the C18th and made notes on the conventions of prose in that era. I decided that to include them all would probably alienate a modern reader; for example, some of them are very distracting, such as the use of capitalising the initial letter e.g. Thus my Pride, not my Principle, my Money, not my Virtue, kept me Honest. In the end, I chose to give a flavour of 18th-century prose through Dawnay’s choice of vocabulary and sentence structure, rather than bash the reader over the head too much authenticity.



Why the title?  Was it your first choice?  (I wondered afterwards if you’d considered calling it ‘The Orphan Myth’, the title of Dawnay’s unpublishable paper on her theories of the origins of humankind, an idea before its time.)

The history of this novel’s title is quite a chequered one! Whilst writing, it was called The Edge of the Map and was submitted to the publisher with that title. It’s mentioned in the novel a couple of times and sums up many of the themes. But it was felt that it didn’t have the right appeal for the audience, so then we had to think up another. The Orphan Myth was indeed an early possibility – well spotted! But again it was generally felt that it had a mournful sound to it and therefore didn’t really suit the narrative – and had those awkward ph/th sounds! We went through many ideas, with just about everyone in the know chipping in different suggestions, mostly revolving around mermaids and caves. Then I corresponded with Dr Jane McKay – who lectured on mermaids – and she suggested I look at T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, which includes ‘”sea-girls” and the “mermaids singing each to each”. I also consulted my trusty Dictionary of Quotations and Proverbs and found a line from Shakespeare: the “sea-maid’s music” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It was such an evocative and archaic word for mermaids and avoided, I felt, the negative connotations of them i.e. luring men to their death, yet also being rather girly and, of course, fairy tale-like. So, sea maid it was – and then I realized that it would fit rather beautifully if the cave painting could be seen as a song about our past, and that Dawnay too was a kind of sea maid (swimming and discovering) and that the whole novel was her song. Lastly, I think it just sounds lovely too!


How did the process of writing and research affect your understanding of the role played by imagination in scientific discovery?

That’s a tremendously interesting question! I don’t have a scientific mind myself, though I have always been fascinated by science and wished I had the brain to understand it! Yes, I do wonder if scientists and artists have that one thing in common - that they have to imagine truths before they necessarily find the evidence to support them. My brother David (who has that scientific brain I lack) has always told me a lot about theoretical physics and such things, and it’s caught my imagination many times, with the part played by theories and ideas, for which the finding of evidence is incredibly difficult. So, I do think some areas of science require a creative way of thinking to come up with the ideas in the first place.

The same is true of palaeontology - the evidence is so scant and hard to find, that many theories have come into being over the years based on little evidence other than our own imagination of what these bones may represent. What I discovered in my research, is that this reliance on imagination can sometimes lead to a terrible bias towards the discoverer e.g. in researching early humans and, in particular, cave paintings, I found a distinct bias towards males as artists, and males in general as the leaders of evolution. This really pissed me off!!

 Very recent studies have suggested that females may have been responsible for much cave art that we see – one very sensible suggestion is that, even if males may have been responsible for much of the animal hunting, it is likely that females may have been responsible for butchery, and therefore had an intimate knowledge of animal physiology that would make them the ideal artists of the animals we see in cave paintings. This is all theoretical, of course, but then much of what we know about early humans is based on assumptions and theory, rather than hard fact. I just think we need to redress the bias a little bit… For example, you may have noticed I don’t use the term early Man and instead refer to early humans – don’t even get me started on THAT one…

Hand print at Pech Merle


Were you able to travel to the settings of the book yourself, and how did you come up with the idea of Dawnay’s cave (which has intriguing echoes of King Solomon’s Mines…)?

In terms of London, I did visit the Coram orphanage Museum and also Dr Johnson’s house, to get a feel for 18th-century London. Further afield, I have spent time in both Spain and Portugal - I travelled to both countries as an 18-year-old and again spent time in Spain when I studied Spanish as part of my degree. I am a total Hispanophile - I love Spanish literature, film, music and art, as well as its history (and I know we share a love of the Spanish Civil War, Lydia!), so it was a delight to set parts of the novel in this region.
Dawnay’s cave itself is a product of my imagination. However, I did visit ancient cave art in northern Spain as a student and saw the handprints of early humans in red paint on the cave walls and was so moved. It has always stayed with me. I researched the many forms of cave art and found examples of mermaids from different cultures on the walls of caves, as well as examples of seals and fish from cultures living close to the sea. So, it is my own invention but it is grounded in existing cave art. And new caves are being discovered, so who knows what else is out there waiting for us to find…?

Berlenga Island
Your debut novel was set in the late nineteenth century, this a century earlier.  Can we expect a seventeenth-century setting for your next book?


Ah, well, I have to say I’m not as organised as that! My brain doesn’t work very chronologically - I’d say I have a butterfly mind that flits from subject to subject. I’m currently working on Book 3 and it’s actually set in the early 20th century, beginning in 1909 and I plan to end it in 1919. I have a title, setting and an idea in mind for Book 4, but I’m really not sure when that one is going to be set - possibly 19th-century, possibly World War II… who knows! It’ll all come out in the wash.


Don't forget the competition tomorrow.  You can find out more about Rebecca and her work, and read interviews with other authors about the craft of novel writing, at her website: http://rebeccamascull.tumblr.com/ 




Sunday, 28 June 2015

Fighting Cocks and Showcased Skeletons, or Respect in Retrospect, by Clare Mulley



The record of history is a living thing, not just connecting people across time but ever-evolving, reflecting the changing sensibilities of those looking back. Each generation considers the past with fresh eyes, re-selecting the people, events and themes of importance and re-evaluating the motivations, implications and lessons to be learned. Sometimes it is wonderfully surprising how controversial the past can turn out to be.

One of my favourite pubs in my old stomping ground of St Albans has recently been targeted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which claims to be the oldest pub in the UK, dating from the eighth century, has drawn criticism for its historic name. PETA spokesperson Dawn Carr has suggested the pub be re-named to Ye Olde Clever Cocks to reflect a change in society’s attitudes.


Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans


The St Albans pub does indeed sit on the site of an old cock-pit. The round, sunken arena was still evident in the floor when I use to drink there. But although this brutal sport is occasionally still secretly organised in England, it was made illegal here in the 1830s. Today the Fighting Cocks does not celebrate or encourage cock-fighting any more than The Flying Pig in Cambridge promotes porcine parachutists, or London’s The Hung, Drawn and Quartered advocates a return to capital punishment. In fact the landlord, Christo Tofalli, claims that the Fighting Cocks is particularly animal friendly, being near the park and welcoming dogs.

Signpost to the historic cockpit inside
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans

PETA may be a well-motivated organization, but their suggestion completely disregards the value of social history. Sanitizing our past exploitation of animals will do nothing to prevent future abuses; possibly the reverse. Beyond that, such heritage has inherent value, worthy of respect and protection, as landlord Tofalli appreciates. ‘This is an historic building with a remarkable story behind it’ he commented. It is a story that wants to share with locals and tourists and so, I am pleased to report, he is not planning a pub name-change soon.

Sometimes however the clash of interests and perspectives can be more difficult to negotiate. Last month the remains of a German soldier, believed to be those of Private Friedrich Brandt, were put on display in a Belgian museum. Private Brandt was not a soldier of the Second World War, nor even of the Great War before it, but of the Battle of Waterloo two hundred years ago. His skeleton, less skull but with the telling discovery of a French musket-ball between his ribs, was found, traditionally enough, under a car park near the battle-site. It was the curvature of the spine that led to his unofficial identification as Private Brandt, a twenty-three year old, known to have kyphosis, from Hanover. The skeleton was subsequently put on show at the ‘Waterloo Memorial 1815’ display in a Belgian museum.

Skeleton of the Waterloo soldier,
believed to be Private Friedrich Brandt, Belgium


Within days the respected military historian, Rob Schäfer, had launched a petition, Peace for Friedrich Brandt, asking to have the bones removed from display and respectfully reburied. Schäfer is able to picture the young Brandt in the early 1800s, feeling ‘as though he were on the adventure of a lifetime’ as he left his Hanover home to make his way to the ports of the German North Sea. He would have then ventured across the channel and completed his training in the - to him very alien - environment of East Sussex, before fighting alongside his English counterparts at Waterloo. ‘Friedrich’s compatriots would have buried him with honour’, Schäfer argues compellingly, before asking whether it is no less our duty to do the same.

Yet Françoise Scheepers, director of the Belgian Tourist Office for Brussels and Wallonia, has stated that the purpose of the memorial display was ‘not to shock but to pay tribute’. The museum is non-profit making, so there is no commercial exploitation. By humanizing the story of the Battle of Waterloo, their display hopes to engage young people with their history, helping them to appreciate that the soldiers were not just statistics but the ‘people made of flesh and bones’ with whom Schäfer can already empathise so well.

The Battle of Waterloo
(Image courtesy of Rob Schaefer)

Voltaire famously argued that ‘we owe respect to the living. To the dead we owe only the truth’. Do we teach disrespect to the living by displaying the bones of the dead, or do we teach history? Private Brandt signed up to fight the French under Napoleon, not to champion the teaching of history or the humanity of his fellow-fallen. However, in life he also sought adventure rather than peace. If he has no traceable descendents, who is to say whether a quiet burial would be a mark of greater respect than his redeployment to promote an understanding of the cause for which he gave his life? I would certainly prefer to be useful post-mortem, but I doubt that such a role was something Private Brandt envisaged or would have aspired to.

More broadly, what is it that makes the display of Private Brandt’s remains so much more provocative than those of the Ancient Egyptians, or other human reliquary? At what point, if ever, and under what terms, do bones become historic artifact rather than human remains? Is it the relatively young age of Private Brandt's skeleton, or is it something else that makes this display seem so disrespectful, such as the familiarity of his name? Or is it the fact that we have marked so many military anniversaries recently and honoured so many dead, and because we have developed such a culture of respect for fallen military heroes?

Both animal rights and respect for human remains are important issues that comment on people’s capacity for empathy, altruism, and the value of respect. Engagement with history demands similar qualities. While we must be careful not to impose modern sensibilities on our appreciation of the past, without a degree of respect and an attempt at empathy, any engagement loses meaning. The only thing that is absolutely clear is that sometimes it is the dialogue we have with history itself that is as important as the facts and artifacts of the past. Unless we ask the questions, unless we consider, criticise and debate not just the facts and stories, but the interpretations placed upon them and the uses made of them, history will itself become dead and meaningless.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Jami Attenberg's Saint Mazie, by Louisa Young


This is Jami Attenberg, a young Brooklyn novelist who is as good as they all wish they were. You may have seen her earlier novel The Middlesteins, which dismembers a 'typical' American Jewish family and their entanglement in food and love and fear and greed and insecurity and their mother, who is, perhaps, or perhaps not, eating herself to death. I liked this book so much I did that sneaky thing a novelist can do in this miraculous century - I located the author, and met her, and got to be her friend. 

When I did so, Jami was in the middle of the novel which has just come out: Saint Mazie. She talked about this woman, Mazie Gordon, who was angelic and diabolical and may have written a memoir of her extraordinary life, only probably not, and how she, Jami, had realised that if it didn't exist she wanted to write it - and I would prod her, transatlantically, willing her to get on with it, so that I could get on and read it. 

Mazie Phillips Gordon was a 'well-known figure', as they say, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 20s and 30s. She was a fallen-saintly cinema-keeper, owning and operating a seedy movie house called the Venice, at 209 Park Row, where after 13-hour stints selling tickets, perusing the neighbourhood and talking to all comers, she would go out and help the ruined men of the Depression who gathered in that area. 

Mazie has survived into the modern imagination really only because in 1940 Joseph Mitchell published an essay about her in the New Yorker. 'Mazie has a genuine fondness for bums,' says the intro to the article, 'and undoubtedly knows more bums than any other person in the city. This tells about her movie house to which bums are admitted free; about her Samaritan tours of the Bowery and environs distributing change to the bums; dragging the drunk ones to flop houses, calling an ambulance, when one has been injured. Fanny Hurst (a novelist) visits Mazie frequently, and admires her greatly. "She's the most compassionate person I've ever known. No matter how filthy, or drunk or evil-smelling a bum may be, she treats him as an equal," she said.

Mazie with her bums: 'She's a drinker, a smoker, a fighter, and a caregiver'

'She seemed like she’d be a real hoot,' Jami says. 'I don’t know how to write without humor. I’m of the school of thought that if you wait long enough everything eventually gets funny. And it was Mazie’s sense of humor that I originally connected to in the original article. I imagine in part it was that sense of humor that helped her to deal with these men. It felt necessary to me to write her that way. But I did set out with the intention of writing some heartbreak in this book. I wanted to kill characters off! I think after the last book, where you spend 300 pages wondering whether the protagonist [Edie, the intensely fat mother in The Middlesteins] will live or die by the end, I wanted to make some life and death things happen throughout. I approached the book with the intention of expressing the ideas of compassion and empathy and hopefully that filters through.' 


Given that Maizie was real, I ask, and that the way you tell her story rings so true - how much did you need to invent?

'I invented everything!' Jami says. 'I mean I knew where she worked and that she had two sisters and a brother-in-law and that she was known as The Queen of the Bowery and helped homeless men for decades. But the book is really her origin story, how she got to what little bit I did know about her. I’m glad you think it rings true though.' 

The New York Observer quotes Jami as saying that Mazie felt like a piece of New York she didn't want people to forget about, and if Mazie is a compelling heroine so too is New York, equally flawed and equally heartbreaking. 'It’s a rough and tumble place, full of people from all over the world,' Jami says. 'It scales high and low and everything in between. An excellent place to drink gin.' And she has peopled it with some glorious characters - an on/off lover, The Captain, who sends the postcards Mazie pastes inside her kiosk; George the neighbour, her heartbreaking brother-in-law and impossible sisters.  They come to life through Mazie's diaries and letters, and in interviews conducted by Nadine, a young modern film-maker who is conducting what is turning into a kind of oral history project, and the hipster who found the mythological 'memoirs'. It could be a mess but it is extremely readable, a full-on page turner, with the mood of one of those tender-hearted madcap wise-cracking 1930s comedies. If they made a film of this you'd want Myrna Loy, Buster Keaton and Louise Brooks to be in it, and Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien, and Gloria Grahame and Mae West - all the grand old sassy dames and poignant over-coated guys. 

'Most of the minor characters just showed up and hung around for a while,' Jami says, 'offering me up a tidbit of information here and there about Mazie, until, maybe 100 pages later, I knew exactly what I was going to do with them. The only person who was mostly fully formed from the outset was George Flicker, Mazie’s neighbor. Because I needed someone from the same streets as her to talk to me.'

She does really take you to those streets. I ask her how she gets there: 'For Mazie, I read a lot of books! Lots of non-fiction books and some photo books and also I watched films from the era and little clips of things on Youtube. I found a great website that had audio recordings from the era. Basically anything that put me in the room. 

'My best ideas occur to me when I’m away from the computer, away from reading, away from consuming information, people, culture. It’s the quiet time, the downtime, when my brain is allowed to process everything, that I find the ideas rising to the surface. But I need all the consumption of everything else first in order to get to the place where an idea might exist. So the ideas come from the noise and the silence working together.'





Extract from Saint Mazie

Mazie’s Diary, September 12, 1916
On the way home from work who did I see but our little
Jeanie twirling around on a street corner. I stood off to the
side and watched her for a while in her candy-colored tutu.
Our little sweetheart. Her cheeks were flushed pink from the
sun. Our father loved to dance, is what I was thinking. You
can’t dance on the street forever, is also what I was thinking.
But I want her to anyway.


Mazie’s Diary, September 23, 1916
Tonight I met two sailors from California. San Francisco
seems so far away, how can it even be real? One was tall and
one was short and that’s all I can remember. Names, I don’t
know. I got so many names in my head all the time.
They said New York reminded them of home, it being so
close to the water. But in San Francisco the mist and the fog
come off the ocean so thick you can’t see one foot in front of
you, that’s what they told me.
I said they were lying, and they laughed.
I said: What’s so funny?
But then they never answered.
I danced with the tall one while the short one watched
us, smiling hard. He looked like he was burning up. When
the tall one dipped me, the tie from his uniform tickled
my face. I love a man in uniform. Any kind. I think they
walk taller when they got something formal to wear. When
they got a place to go. The tall one asked me how old I
was.
I said: Old enough.
He said: Old enough for what?
Then they both laughed at me some more. But I’m old
enough for anything. They don’t know but I know.
The tall one tasted salty when I kissed him but later I saw
him holding hands with the short one. They were so slim and
pretty in their uniforms. Sometimes I just want a uniform of
my own.



George Flicker
She was unapologetic about who she was and haughty to
those who questioned her, even if they didn’t say anything out
loud. Like my mother for example. The two of them did not
like each other at all. People sometimes think “chutzpah” is
a compliment but not the way my mother said it. Sometimes
she would cross to the other side of the street when she saw
Mazie coming, and she did not do it quietly. She coughed
and she stomped. My mother was a tremendous noisemaker.
If Mazie cared she didn’t show it. Once I heard her shout,
“More room for me,” after my mother had sashayed her way
across the street.



Mazie’s Diary, November 1, 1916
Jeanie bought me a birthday present, a pretty dark purple
bow, nearly the color of the night sky. I asked her where she
got the money, and she told me she saved every penny from
dancing next to Bella.
She said: She lets me keep a penny for every ten we make.
I said: That doesn’t seem fair.
She said: It was her idea to have the show in the first place.
Bella says people with the brains make the money.
I said: You got brains.
She said: I just love to dance.
I asked her how much change she had and she told me it
was a lot. I told her I’d show her where I hid you if she’d
show me where she hid her change.
I said: We could trade secrets.
Jeanie showed me all the change she had, a few bills at least.
Hidden in her suitcase in the closet, the same suitcase we used
when we came to town from Boston. I asked her if she was
saving for anything. She didn’t say anything. I told her she
could tell me anything, that she was my sweetheart, my little
girl. Finally she got very close to my ear.
She said: I wouldn’t want to go forever, but I’d like to join
the circus.
I told her I’d come with. I’d ride on top of a horse with a
crown on my head and she’d be an acrobat and fly high up
above me. The Phillips Sisters, the stars of the show. All the
men would swoon at our feet. That part I liked the best but I
didn’t tell her that.
Jeanie said: But what would Rosie say?
I said: She wouldn’t say anything. She’d just be in the audience
clapping like everyone else.
Jeanie said: Do you think that’s true? Wouldn’t she miss us?
I said: We’re just daydreaming here, Jeanie. Don’t ruin it.
Jeanie said: All right. I guess she’d be in the front row then.
I said: She’d be our biggest fan.
Mazie’s Diary, November 7, 1916
I have to work in the candy shop again today. Boring. Only
little kids coming in there all day long, dirty change, sticky
paws. The bell rings on the front door and I look up and it’s
the same thing over and over. I feel like a dog when that bell
rings. Waiting for someone to feed me with something interesting
to look at.
I’d rather be running errands for Louis at the track. I like
the track. There’s grass and trees, blue sky cracking above
us, but then everyone’s smoking cigars, too. I like the way it
smells clean and dirty at the same time. Plus everyone’s having
a nip of something. The flasks those men have, jewels crusted
in them. Whatever it takes to hide the money. But they’re
generous though with sharing what they got. Makes it so I
don’t even mind the horseshit.
But Louis doesn’t like it when I come. The track’s no place
for a woman, that’s what Louis says. Of course he says that.
He doesn’t like the way the men there look at me. I thought
he wanted me to get married, but Louis doesn’t trust any of
those men, at least not with me. But he’s one of those men. I
like to kid him.
I said: Rosie found you at the track. How’d she find you?
I poke him with my finger.
I said: Is it cause you’re so tall, Louis?
He doesn’t answer me.
I said: Cause you stick out like a giraffe?
Nothing. Louis keeps his cards so close it’s like there’s no
deck at all.
I think I’ll eat all the chocolates in the shop today. All the
chocolate kisses, all the chocolate bars. I’m going to tear off
their wrapper with my teeth. And I’ll eat all the Squirrel Nut
Zippers and Tootsie Rolls. Chew till my jaw hurts. And all
the caramel creams and butterscotch twists and peanut butter
nuggets and those sweetie almond treats. I’ll suck on all the
the lollies till they’re gone.
I’ll eat and I’ll eat and I’ll eat just so I never have to look at
any of those stinking candies ever again.


Mazie’s Diary, January 3, 1917
Last night Rosie and I split a bottle of whiskey. This was after
I came home, on time for once. I came in to say good night
and the bottle was next to her in bed. I couldn’t tell how long
she’d been drinking. All I knew was she was already knee-deep
in it. She was mourning something, I didn’t know what. Louis
was nowhere. Jeanie was sleeping. I got under the covers with
Rosie, and she handed me the bottle.
I said: What are you thinking about?
She said: Our parents.
I said: Well that’ll do it.
She said: Do you remember what happened in Topsfield?
That story again. She and I had talked about it before,
when Jeanie wasn’t around. Topsfield, that was right before
she left us behind.
We were all out together, a real, happy family for the day.
Papa holding me with one hand, Jeanie in his other arm,
Rosie wedged between him and Mama. Papa was not handsome.
His eyes drooped, and his skin was the color of cold,
watery soup. And those lines around his mouth and eyes
made him always look furious, which he was. Lines don’t lie.
But he was tall and young and had so much hair, and I remember
him as strong. That day, out in the world, he was
our father.
We walked together like that. A ruddy-cheeked barker
and his wife, the world’s fattest woman. There was the darkskinned
rubber man, skinny as stretched taffy. His face was so
calm, like turning himself inside and out was nothing to him.
He was born to bend. I remember the sun was bright, and it
was nearly fall, but it was still warm. I was squinting, seeing
the world between tiny slits in my eyes. Men with low-slung
hats waved hello to Papa. Everyone knew Horvath Phillips, for
better or for worse.
But to Rosie I said: I remember that he left us that day.
Because I knew that she wanted that to be my only memory.
He told us to stay put, said he’d be back, sliding that flask
from his pocket as he walked away. There were men in white
face paint pretending to tug on an imaginary rope. The sun
began to set. Jeanie was tired and we found a bench and
Mama took her in her lap. My skin stung from the sun, my
stomach was sick from sweets.
Mama said: Should we try to find him? I don’t know.
She was talking to Rosie, who was the only one of us old
enough to understand that the question was not a simple one.
But I can’t remember her saying anything. She was just simmering.
Mama said: Yes, we’ll wait.
Then it was dark and the mimes were gone, most of the
families too. Just young people floating around, also some
lonely-looking men. Mama still kept turning her head around,
thinking he’d come back.
Rosie said: If you don’t go find him, I will.
They argued about Rosie wandering around at night by
herself. Rosie started fighting for us to just go home already.
Mama didn’t want to walk the roads by herself. She was
here. Found the most terrifying man in town to marry, that
couldn’t have helped much either.
Mama finally gave in to Rosie, and agreed we should try
to find him. I remember this sigh of her shoulder, and then
Jeanie nearly rolled off her lap.
She wasn’t pretty anymore then, Mama. Her hair was thin.
She pulled clumps of it out, and so did he, when he was mad.
She still had the knockout hips though. I walked behind her
as we went to find him and I remember those hips, because
I have those hips too. A little girl with her arms around her
mama, her face sunk in her hips.
Rosie had known where he was all night. Mama did, too.
Those two had just been playing a game with each other for
hours. Because back behind the big top was an open field
lit up with lanterns and white candles, and filled with people
dancing in a frenzy. There was a small stage in the middle of
it, packed with men playing all kinds of instruments, accordians,
fiddles, guitars, a washboard and spoons. A man sang in
a deep growl, French, now I know, but I didn’t then. There
was a sign at the front of the stage, the Cajun Dancers is what
they were called.
The audience was so caught up in the moment, moving
faster and faster, laughing and grinning, they were almost hysterical.
I could feel the heat coming off their bodies, and then
I was nearly hysterical too. The lust of those people is a lust
that I hold in my heart. They were gorgeous and free.
Mama put Jeanie down next to me, and we held hands, and
then we looked at each other. While Rosie and Mama scanned
the crowd, we began to dance our own dance. We were never
going to sit still, Jeanie and me. Not like good girls did. I
The grass tickled the backs of my legs.
I looked up and there was Rosie, pulling away from
Mama, and working her way through the crowd. She had
found Papa. He looked happy, is what I remember thinking.
His eyes were closed, bliss, and his face was relaxed, the
lines erased for the moment. He embraced a young, plump,
black-haired woman in a long green gown. The dress rose
and crashed while they danced. I don’t know if he knew the
woman or not, if she was the reason why he was so content,
or if it was just the dancing. Maybe he just loved the
freedom. More than once I have wondered if it would have
been easier to forgive him for all that he did if he had just
up and left our home, rather than stayed put and laid his
cruelty upon us.
I said: I remember you grabbing his arm, and I remember
you pointing to us. You shamed him. You were so bold.
Papa bowed to the woman he had been dancing with, and
then walked with Rosie back through the crowd, which somehow
managed to keep moving and part for them at the same
time. Or at least that’s how I remember it: Everything faded
into the background except for Rosie and Papa.
I said: It was a long ride home.
Rosie said: I felt like I aged ten years in that time.
I said: She tucked us in so quietly that night. She kissed every
part of our face.
Rosie said: I didn’t get to go to sleep. He took me out
back.
I said: I know.
Rosie said: Until I passed out from the pain.
I said: Oh, Rosie.
She was too drunk. She sounded confused.
I said: You were right, and he was wrong.
Rosie said: I’m sorry I left you there.
I said: We didn’t blame you for leaving us. I didn’t, anyway.
Jeanie didn’t even know what was happening.
Rosie said: And I came back for you didn’t I?
I said: You did.
Rosie said: I was always trying to do the right thing by us
even if she wouldn’t.
I said: You did.
She said: I take care of you, right?
I said: Rosie, we love you. You know we love you.
Rosie said: I’m not bad, am I?
I said: You’re not. You’re a good girl.
We drank until we slept. Rosie more than me. When I
woke, there was Jeanie, sleeping between us. I don’t know if
she heard us. I wouldn’t want her to hear it. I wouldn’t want
her to remember any of it.



Mazie’s Diary, March 1, 1917
The sun was rising when I took off my shoes this morning.
Rosie stood at the door and stared me down. I turned my
back on her and wrapped the covers around me, put my head
on the pillow, and prayed for peace. God heard me.
I don’t know much about praying. It feels like you could be
trading on one thing for another, and maybe the thing you’re
trading isn’t really yours in the first place.
Rosie just crawled into bed with me. No yelling. We started
whispering to each other.
I remember when Jeanie and I were little we used to crawl
into bed with her and Louis and rub her blue-tinted fingers
and toes, breathing on them with our hot breath. All I wanted
was to be warm and close like that forever.
She said: What if you get a baby in there?
She rubbed my stomach. When she touched it I felt ill. The
last thing I wanted was a baby to lug around all day. And I’d
never fit into my pretty dresses again.
She said: Then no respectable man will ever want to marry
you.
I didn’t want nothing to do with marriage with a respectable
man or any other kind of man. Not once in my life
did I ever dream of my wedding day, no white dresses, no
goddamn diamond rings. I only ever dreamed of freedom.
The love I have is with the streets of this city.


Mazie’s Diary, March 20, 1917
Oh, Rosie. My poor, dear Rosie.
This morning she took us girls to a dusty little gypsy parlor
on Essex, empty except for a few plants and a folding table
and chairs and a vase with a peacock feather in it. I didn’t want
to be there, and neither did Jeanie. Golly, Jeanie’s so pretty
now, skinny and pretty, with her pale skin and puffy lips and
moony eyes. I swear she floats when she walks. Still she had a
sour face, just like I did. After being sweet for so long, turns
out she’s a Phillips girl, after all.
The gypsy pushed aside some curtains and came in from
the back room. She was wearing a chain of thick gold coins
around her neck, and the coins clinked together as she moved.
find that glamorous. To me it’s just another gypsy, but
Rosie has always had a thing for them.
At first she acted like we weren’t there. We could have been
ghosts. She lit some incense on the table in front of us, watered
some plants in the front window. Then I noticed the
plants were dead, gray leaves, stems tipped over. I felt like I
was nowhere all of a sudden.
The gypsy sat down at the table with us, told us her
name was Gabriela. She smiled at Rosie, and Rosie smiled
at her. There was a love there. She looked into my eyes
and held them there. The long stare. Searching for something,
but I didn’t give her a damn thing. Then she looked
at Jeanie’s eyes, and then back into Rosie’s eyes. We were
just sitting there waiting, all of us. All right already, is
what I was thinking. We get it. You know how to hold a
room.
She told us we were there for our sister, like I needed to be
reminded Rosie existed. How can I forget?
She didn’t have an accent, like other Roma I’d met. She
had thick eyebrows, and they made her look serious. She
could have been old, she could have been young, I couldn’t
tell.
She said: I needed to meet you in order to help your sister.
You are all in the same home. You are living one life together.
You are family. You are sisters. You are connected in this life,
and the last one, and the next one, too.
A scam if I ever saw one, I thought. I couldn’t wait to tell
Louis when I got home. I looked at Jeanie, thinking she’d be
on my side. But she was drooling over everything the gypsy
said. What a sucker.
and I groused, but finally I put my hand in hers. With her index
finger, she traced a few lines on my hand.
She said: Life, money, good.
She was nodding her head.
She said: Well, money will come and go. Mostly come
though.
Her hands were cool and soft. Her nails were clean. I admire
a well-kept hand. She rubbed a thumb along a line across
the top of my hand, and then a line beneath that.
She said: But this is no good.
She squeezed my hand tightly and released it.
She said: No love for you. You will spend your life alone.
I pulled my hands back.
I said: I got company whenever I like.
Rosie shushed me. I don’t care, I don’t need anyone telling
me about my life.
Jeanie said: Now me.
She shoved her hands in the gypsy’s. Gabriela smiled at
Jeanie like she loved her. The warm glow of a con artist. She
told her she had a strong love line, and she pointed to something
on her head. She told her she will marry well. A rich
man. She asked if she liked rich men. As if she wouldn’t want
a rich man! I watched Jeanie’s face. She was considering it,
though she didn’t answer. But she smiled. Maybe she smiled
like it was funny. I would have said, Who cares? But nobody
was asking me. Nobody was telling me I was going to marry
someone special.
Gabriela turned to Rosie, and Rosie slid her hand in hers so
easily it was like they were husband and wife.
Rosie said: You already know what it says.
didn’t know why it was so serious.
Rosie said: Now that you’ve met them, look again.
Gabriela said: They are strong these two, as you said, but
who they are will not change what will happen to you. They
love you. I don’t need to look at their palms to see that.
They’re going to be who they’re going to be.
Then she brought Rosie’s hand to her lips and kissed it. It
was a sweet vision.
She said: I still think it can happen, Rosie.
Rosie started crying and then Gabriela swept herself up into
the back room, and came back with a handful of bottles. She
smacked each bottle down in front of Rosie.
She said: I’ve asked everyone I know, and they’ve asked everyone
they know too. I went uptown, I went downtown, I
went across the river, and I gathered these for you.
She handed Rosie a piece of paper.
She said: I wrote down instructions. How much, how often.
And there’s an address on there, a Chinaman. He sticks
needles in you and they say it lights a fire within your womb.
She held Rosie’s hand again.
She said: I lit candles for you, my friend.
Now Rosie was sobbing, and then we held her. So our poor
Rosie can’t have babies. I never knew, but how could I? We
were her babies all along, I thought we were enough for her.
I didn’t know she wanted anyone but us. She watched over
us better than our own mother ever did. She’s our sister and
our mother. Oh, all this time her heart was breaking and we
didn’t even know.

George Flicker
Oh you want to know about the gypsies? What do you think
you know about the gypsies? That they’re a bunch of criminals,
probably. That’s what people always thought about
them. My mother swore they spoke the truth. My friends
from Little Italy, they wouldn’t go anywhere near them.
They’re superstitious, and they were afraid of the curses. I
have only ever been afraid of what I could see right in front of
my face. Because I have seen enough. I don’t need to imagine
anything worse.
But the gypsies were just the same as you and me. They lived
here just like everyone else. They walked the same streets. It’s
true that some of them were criminals. But you can’t judge a
whole people by the actions of just a few. But that’s what we do
here in this country. We do it in this world. I’ve lived such a long
life. I thought things would be better by now. Every day I still
watch the news. I listen to people talk. Things are not as bad as
they once were, but not as good as I had hoped they would be
someday. It’s the year 2000 already, and there’s still all kinds of
messes in this country. I had higher hopes for this world. Eh, but
what are you going to do about it anyway?



Mazie’s Diary, June 16, 1917
Rosie’s sick on the couch again. Hands on her belly. She
swings from happy to sad in a heartbeat. We wrapped her up
in blankets. I told her to stop taking whatever the gypsy gave
her. Rosie, please stop, I was begging her.
She told me I was a fool and didn’t know what I was talking
about, that things take time, life takes time. But it doesn’t
seem right, this much pain.
longer? Gypsy con or not, it doesn’t change Rosie’s dream.
I can’t blame her for having one, though. I would never
blame anyone for wishing for something more from this
life.


George Flicker
Then I was old enough to go to war, or at least I told them
I was. I was a few months shy of legal but they didn’t check
too hard. I would have said anything though to get out
of that cramped apartment! The taller I got, the smaller it
seemed. And I wanted to see the world. That I would be
fighting in a war didn’t scare me for some reason. Maybe
I wasn’t so brave, maybe I was just stupid instead. I won’t
talk about what happened though, what I saw there. You
know, we’re not like your generation where we need to talk
about every little thing. Sometimes a bad thing happens and
then you’re done with it.
But anyway I didn’t see Mazie again for five years, so I can’t
help you out during that particular time period. Because I
went to France and then I stayed there when the war was over
and lived there and worked there and had a life there. I lived
with a French girl for a year even. And she was really something,
I’ll tell you. Ooh-la-la, I know. [Laughs.] I’ve had my
fun, I’ve had my fun. Eventually I had to come back though.
My mother got sick, and of course, there was all that trouble
with Uncle Al.


Twenty years old. I’m sure I should be having more fun.
What is this pull in me that makes me want trouble? Months
I’ve been quiet and good, even though the heat on the streets
was making me feel sexy, wanting to dance and drink. To kiss
someone. Passing by alleys at night and seeing girls and boys
playing. Fingers on lips, fingers on tits, I miss it. It’s been so
long since I’ve lain down with someone. Most nights are with
Rosie now. I lost this summer to her belly.

Mazie’s Diary, December 13, 1917
Rosie lost another baby. This time it felt like she was pregnant
for only a minute.
Now she’s flat on her back again in the living room. Weeks
and weeks of it, and there’s a dent in the couch now, I can see
the mattress sagging beneath her. I swear the springs will sink
straight through the floor.
She grabs my hand but squeezes too hard and it hurts but
I try not to make a noise. She asks me to stroke her head but
shifts her head, squirms beneath my fingers. Rub my feet, she
tells me.
But then she says: No, you’re doing it wrong. No, don’t
touch me.
Watches me with her eagle eye, thinking I’ll leave her.
Louis sits in the kitchen, head down, in the food. He closed
the theater for a few days this week. Jeanie’s nowhere I can
see, smart girl.
I take nips in the bedroom. I can’t go to the whiskey, but
Something’s going to break soon. I got no control over myself
and I like it.


Mazie’s Diary, January 4, 1918
I wasn’t ready to go home yet but there was nobody left in the
bar worth talking to. Talked to a bum on the street instead,
an old fella. We split whatever was in his bottle and I gave him
a smoke. I was feeling tough. I asked him how long he’d been
on the streets.
He said: Longer than you’ve been alive, girlie. You gotta be
tough to last that long.
He beat his chest.
I said: I could survive out here.
He said: You don’t want to try.
I said: I could do it. You wanna see me?
He said: You got a home, you’re lucky.
I said: Why don’t I feel that way?
Then he got gentle with me.
He said: If someone loves you, go home to them.
A bad wind blew in and I grew suddenly, terribly cold. I
couldn’t bear the night for another minute. I handed him the
rest of my smokes and wandered home.


Mazie’s Diary, January 5, 1918
Rosie was trying to sweet-talk me early this morning. A nice
change from yelling I guess.
She said: Don’t you want a sweetheart?
I said: The whole world’s my sweetheart.



read more here:
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1940/12/21/mazie
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/books/review/saint-mazie-by-jami-attenberg.html?_r=0
Saint Mazie is published by Serpent’s Tail, £12.99