Saturday, November 23, 2013


English/French actress Jane Birkin puts a jazz twist to a song written by Englishman Eric Maschwitz who was suffering from his break-up with lover, Anna May Wong, a Chinese/American.

There are concerns being expressed by some members of my family that sending my granddaughter, Fiona, to a French language school may separate her from her culture. The worry is that she may miss out on such important cultural milestones as Shakespeare. Some fear she has been removed from her cultural surroundings, cut loose from her English-culture anchor. They may be right.

Still, I was quite excited on learning Fiona's parents were attempting to enroll the little girl in a French language school. I was proud of my granddaughter when I learned she had been accepted; She had to show a strong aptitude for language and she apparently did. She cleared the big hurdle of a face-to-face interview. Impressive. I was so taken with the possibility of her enriching her life with the addition of a second language, a second culture, I totally forgot time spent on French culture is time not spent on English.

I've thought a lot about this 'problem' and I've decided that today it is a non-issue. Culture today is not what it once was — take my grandfather. He was born in Princeton, Ontario, in 1876. This was a time when it was not uncommon to be born, raised, mature and die all within the same little hamlet.

My grandfather was among those that broke the mold; Well, at least he bent it. He went off to university to become a pharmacist. He took a job in Chicago with the then young Cunningham pharmacy chain, but the draw of his own country, of his small town ambitions, of his Southwestern Ontario culture, drew him to Brantford, Ontario, just a short drive from his hometown.

My grandfather spent most of the remainder of his life in Brantford. He traveled little, not even on vacation. He married and remained married to the same woman until his death in his 90s. He raised four children and two remained close to home. One even became a pharmacist and worked for years for and with granddad.

I compared my grandfather's experience with those of many of the kids with whom I went to school back in the '50s and '60s. My best friend in high school was an Armenian girl born in Cairo. Rose was a rich mix of cultures. She spoke English, Armenian, Egyptian Arabic, French and smattering of Italian. Born in Cairo, Egypt, but raised in Windsor, Ontario, she loved to spend summers in Montreal. The French/Anglo metropolis was simply so cosmopolitan, she said. Today I believe she lives in Los Angeles, California, another cosmopolitan city. Rose has lived a life deeply enmeshed in international culture and benefited from the resulting cultural richness.

Today cultures no longer just collide but they also mesh, they butt up to each other and blend, forced together by the great mixing of people on the move, by movies and other forms of entertainment which span the globe, and by business demands . . . Do I hope Fiona will read Shakespeare and watch a Shakespearean play? Yes, of course.

But I also hope that someday she will watch movies like the little French/English film Daddy Nostalgia. Directed by French film director Bertrand Tavernier and co-written by his English-born ex-wife Colo Tavernier O'Hagan. The film features Dirk Bogarde, born in England but who had his ashes skattered in France, Jane Birkin, another actor with strong British/France connections and the French actress and cabaret singer Odette Laure. Both Bogarde and Birkin were fluent in both English and French and it shows in the movie. What isn't so evident is that Bogarde was gay.

The film was beautifully filmed but not by a man but by a woman: Solange Martin. This is important because Martin, a woman, is not only a cinematographer but also a director as well as a screenwriter. In the culture in which I hope Fiona will live, women will tackle whatever interests them. Being a woman will not be an impediment blocking certain avenues of interest.

Daddy Nostalgia was also released under the title These Foolish Things. Roger Ebert wrote in his review: "That (title) refers to the song that haunts the movie, with some of the most bittersweet lyrics ever written, about how these foolish things remind me of you. Bertrand Tavernier’s whole movie is told in the tone of that song, as a fond, elegiac memory."

That song, These Foolish Things, was written around 1935 by Eric Maschwitz with music by Jack Strachey, both were Englishmen. The lingering tone of loss, of heartache, were said to be inspired by the feelings Maschwitz had for Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. While working in Hollywood, Maschwitz loved Wong but they separated with Maschwitz returning to England. The words to These Foolish Things were a very public expression of his loss. (Adding a little extra to the cultural soup, Maschwitz was the son of a Lithuanian Jew.)

I hope little Fiona grows into big Fiona, culturally rich Fiona, a young woman confident in herself and fully at ease in her world. I do hope she knows a little of Shakespeare, I do, but I also hope she knows a lot more about a lot more.

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