Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber

February 2019

The Ledger

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 airs his gripes about the imperfection of the natural world, so fickle, he claims, by comparison with his beloved: ‘Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, / And often is his gold complexion dimmed; / And every fair from fair sometime declines, / By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed’. Though he’d have us believe the love he addresses in these hallowed lines is perfect in perpetuity, we know how it really works; romance doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is instead shaped and battered by the winds of change. An early-days text message that goes unanswered for minutes or hours can cause a dangerous drop in dopamine, but as the months go by, we’re spoiled with text messages, and lazier. The magic of being snowbound with one’s new flame might, two years hence, feel stiflingly claustrophobic. It seems wise in the month of Saint Valentine to draw attention not only to the joys of love but also to ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous romance’ (to borrow from Joni Mitchell’s riff on Hamlet)—how love sustains us and depletes us, makes us whole and breaks us open. Cécile McLorin Salvant’s latest album is a tribute to the mercurial nature of love, while the geologist-poet Forrest Gander’s Be With is a grief-stricken book that reminds us not to take relationships for granted. A wholly different journey of the heart can be found in the story of Tatsuko Takaoka, a geisha whose life followed a most unusual trajectory. And an earthy language of love may be found in the lost dialect of Polari, the rich slang of British gay subculture prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality. February is short, but with luck, life is long and love is nothing if not surprising.

Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber


The sensual pleasures, and sustainability, of honest food  

In 1986, Carlo Petrini believed Italy, his beloved homeland, was on the brink of gastronomical crisis. McDonald’s had just set up in central Rome; and 20 people had died (with many more hospitalised) after drinking cheap wine cut with methanol. In response, he launched the Slow Food movement, with a manifesto exhorting the world to take pride and pleasure in the art of sustenance: ‘Against the universal madness of the Fast Life, we need to choose the defence of tranquil material pleasure. Against those... who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure….’ With a colleague, he published the first comprehensive guide to Italian wine, which by criticising the quality of ubiquitous cheap table wines ushered in a new crop of affordable yet excellent Italian vintages. He also drew attention to presidii, a catalogue of foods and animals heading for extinction, and launched the Salone del Gusto, an event celebrating global culinary excellence. In 2004, Slow Food added the Terra Madre event in Turin, convening 5000 small-scale farmers and fishermen from 130 countries to discuss the finer points of their livelihoods. Petrini asserts the current challenge ‘is to return to the small scale, the hand made, to local distribution… Faced with the excesses of modernisation, we should no longer seek to change the world, but to save it.’ The movement’s Food For Change campaign notes that ‘Food is both cause and victim of climate change, but also a possible solution. Our food choices have a direct impact on the future of the planet.’ Its initiatives include hundreds of food gardens planted around the world, support for indigenous communities and efforts to curtail the use of the insecticide neonicotinoid and the herbicide glyphosate. 

Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber


Luscious, beguiling strains of romance

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s last two albums won the Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy. Her voice is sensational and her taste is unerring: on her most recent album, The Window, she keeps things thrillingly simple. Most of the tracks employ minimal accompaniment, in the form of the pianist and organist Sullivan Fortner. Many are love songs, but this isn’t a syrupy LP. Salvant’s rendition of Buddy Johnson’s ‘Ever Since the One I Love’s Been Gone’ hears her move boldly between high and low registers, scraping into a near-growl—the pining of the song made visceral. ‘Somewhere’ (from West Side Story) showcases Fortner’s chops, from dreamy understatement to luscious instrumental climax. Jazzy standards like ‘I’ve Got Your Number’, Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You’ and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Gentleman Is a Dope’ reveal Salvant’s frisky side, but the album’s tone is mostly solemn, rich and complex, interested in love’s pangs as much as its pleasures. The Window’s last song, ‘The Peacocks’, features the brilliant tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana.


Poems of sorrow and transcendent love

Forrest Gander’s elegiac book of poems, Be With , inherited its title from his late wife, the poet C. D. Wright, who died in 2016. A posthumous collection by Wright, ShallCross, was published later that year with the dedication ‘for Forrest / line, lank and long, / be with’. Gander’s Be With is an eloquent howl of pain—or ‘grief-sounds’, as he calls them—that sometimes echoes Thomas Hardy, who wrote a series of poems in 1912 mourning the death of his wife, Emma. Gander and Hardy are both ruminatively attuned to quotidian moments during which they took their happiness for granted. Be With traces the ways Gander and Wright’s careers and interests unfurled in tandem; how wrenching it feels to him now that one of the strands is cut short. He fixates on objects, vistas and daily routines that suddenly feel bereft of meaning. ‘I outlived my life,’ he writes. The two-part ‘Deadout’ takes 14 sentence fragments and places them first into linear couplets, then rearranges them into dreamy near-nonsensicality, as if to suggest the distorting power of grief on his rational consciousness. Gander, the author of 11 poetry collections and two novels, has a degree in geology and wrote, with John Kinsella, a book of ecopoetics that looks at ‘the economy of interrelationship between human and non-human realms.’ In Be With, the natural world offers him some degree of solace. It is a place without discrete beginnings and endings, a place of ‘layers, duration, and transitions.’ The last section is called ‘Littoral Zone’, referencing a body of water near enough to the shore to allow some light to filter through, sustaining the plantlife beneath—an apt metaphor for Gander’s psyche in the wake of loss.


A fine place for trysting 

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and the Fundació Joan Miró are well known to art lovers visiting Barcelona. On your way from one to the other, consider spending time in Jardines de Laribal located in the hilly district of Montjuïc. Designed by Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier and Nicolau María Rubió i Tudurí for the Barcelona World’s Fair of 1929, the park is on a slope, made up of interlinked terraces connected by delicate paths and stairways. Abundant trees and flowing fountains are redolent of the Alhambra of Granada, but the Laribal has considerably less foot traffic. Locals are especially fond of Joan Antoni Homs’ 1918 Font del Gat (the Fountain of the Cat), which used to be a popular meeting spot for young lovers, and is still a lovely place to stop for lunch. Picnic provisions are wisely sourced at the Santa Caterina Market (you’ll be spoiled for choice with the market’s more than 100 stalls, and dazzled by the structure’s undulating roof of 325,000 bright ceramic tiles). Another purveyor worth a visit is Formatgeria La Seu, a serious cheese shop opened by the Scotswoman Katherine McLaughlin after she moved to Barcelona and fell in love with Spanish queso.


Subversive languages of desire

Members of the LGBTQI community have historically had to express their ardour somewhat or entirely in secret, and some enduring communities consequently developed special languages to communicate. Polari  was the name of one English sociolect (a dialect particular to a social group) that dates to the era of Oscar Wilde, though layers of it originated in medieval times. For gay men (some lesbians and certain non-gay groups also shared the slang), Polari was a way of speaking in code—allowing those in the know to avoid exposing themselves to anyone who might report or arrest them, and to revel in the richness of their subculture, with its jokes and flirtation. The argot fell into sharp decline following the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in 1967. Some of the terms—naff, butch, camp, mince, zhoosh, queen and camp among them—have migrated into wider usage, while others have fallen out of fashion (you can unearth many obscure and fascinating terms in Paul Baker’s comprehensive glossary Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang). Polari is just one of various sexual minority sociolects: there’s also the Greek Kaliarda, the Brazilian Bajubá or Pajubá, the Philippine Swardspeak, the Indonesian Bahasa Binan, the South African IsiNgqumo and Gayle or Gail and the Turkish Lubunca. In 50 years, perhaps a present-day queer vernacular that mixes words like slay and yaaas with emojis and memes will find its way into print, as residue of an antique zone of intimacy.


A famed geisha of indomitable passions

Tatsuko Takaoka’s story, though steeped in sepia and deeply romantic, is also the story of a woman in charge of her own destiny in a milieu where such independence was rare. Born in Osaka in 1896, she made her way to Tokyo and at the age of 13 became a Shimbashi Tokyo Geisha, taking the name Teruha (Shining Leaf). Heartbroken at 16, she cut off one of her little fingers, at which point she was nicknamed ‘The Nine-Fingered Geisha’. She recovered from her heartbreak, marrying a stock broker and moving to New York City in her early twenties. The cabaret scene welcomed her warmly—the Broadway choreographer Michio Ito hosted a party for her, and she took to Western dance moves like a duck to water. Takaoka then decided to further her education at a ‘Domestic Science School’ in the city’s suburbs, where she fell in love with a woman named Hildegard. Her marriage subsequently ended and she returned to Japan, hoping to become a geisha again. However, the divorce was a mark against her, so she went back to New York to study dance; then travelled to London and later to Paris, where she gave birth to a baby girl (whose father’s identity was a mystery). At 28, Takaoka returned to Japan again and began teaching dance to other geisha. After a second marriage to a professor of medicine also fell apart, she was shunned by the geisha community, so she worked as an actress, model and the madam of a bar; and had a series of love affairs (calling this period ‘a chequered life’). When she was 39—in a sharp if not entirely surprising turn—she became a Buddhist nun, changing her name to Chishō (Clever Sunshine). Fittingly, she found her spiritual home at Kyoto’s Gio-ji Temple, which is also known as the Temple of the Brokenhearted because its namesake, a dancer, took spiritual vows after being spurned by her powerful lover. Takaoka died there in 1995 at the age of 99, bequeathing the temple a treasure trove of postcards (a series of her younger self as Teruha) collected over the years.


Lasting affection, cultivated one letter at a time

‘Reading the correspondence between [Ken] Millar and [Eudora] Welty, you almost begin thinking of them as your friends’, Margaret Eby writes in The Paris Review Daily, about a literary friendship for the ages, ‘—friends who should get together, already.’ Millar was a successful crime writer (under the pen name Ross MacDonald), and Welty, whose own novels and stories channelled the rhythms and mores of Mississippi, was a passionate fan of the genre. When her novel Losing Battles was published, Millar wrote her a note of congratulation: ‘This is my first fan letter. If you write another book like Losing Battles, it will not be my last.’ The tone of that opening gambit—warmth with a note of flirtation—bloomed into something closer to love over the course of their long correspondence, which tallied at 345 letters (compiled by the authors’ respective biographers in the 2015 book Meanwhile There Are Letters). They exchanged thoughts on literature, politics and birds, keeping each other abreast of how many pigeons and golden eagles they’d each seen in their gardens. Welty sent Millar a little limerick: ‘A condor who couldn’t call quits / was giving the bird-watchers fits—simply besotted / with being spotted / he booked himself in at the Ritz.’ When Millar succumbed to Alzheimer’s, Welty kept writing to him. These letters are marked by the yearning and tenderness of a mutual soft spot: ‘Our friendship blesses my life, and I wish life could be longer for it,’ Welty wrote. When Millar asked if he could dedicate a book to Welty and she said yes, he was overjoyed, writing, ‘I abandoned myself to indulgence and simply sat and read your letter over several times with tears in my eyes. It was one of the great moments of my life.’


A swell couple of sports

‘Honey’, rakish Mike (Spencer Tracy) tells his protegée Pat (Katharine Hepburn) in Pat and Mike (1952), ‘say no more…. I’m going to promote you into the king of the world. Queen, I mean. Let’s go!’ The film reunited Hepburn and Tracy—longtime real-life lovers who never made it official—with the screenwriting couple Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and the director George Cukor: the Adam’s Rib dream team, back with a flick about fun and games and performance anxiety. Hepburn plays a nervy widow, a college athletics coach who is a strong athlete in her own right, but whose gifts abandon her in the presence of an overbearing, undermining, totally-wrong-for-her new beau (William Ching). Tracy is the slick sports promoter who thinks she’s good enough to go professional. He recommends a new regimen (no smoking!); she protects him from an ill-wishing gangster with well-executed judo chops; their banter has the brisk spin of table tennis. Pat and Mike’s cast of athletes—including the tennis star Pancho Gonzales and the golfers Betty Hicks, Helen Dettweiler and Babe Didrikson Zaharias—played themselves, with the exception of the former basketball and baseball star Chuck Connors, making his acting debut as a highway patrolman. ‘The reason this comedy worked,’ said Cukor, ‘was that none of us took ourselves very seriously during the writing and preparation. We batted ideas around like tennis balls, we all felt the lines and situations without any ghastly solemnity. If we all laughed, a line went in.’



Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber 

‘No constellation is as steadfast… as a connection between human beings...’

Rainer Maria Rilke