Friday, June 22, 2007

This Is Not A Food Blog

We all know about those beautifully illustrated food blogs written by relaxed Californians who live around Napa Valley and spend their luxuriously unlimited free time buying organic produce at the farmer's market and dreaming up new and artistic ways to prepare it. This is not one of those blogs.

Here's how my Brooklyn kitchen typically looks:

Get off the kitchen table, Donna. Donna, get down!

Once again, the dishes need washing up, especially the big dirty pot from last night's dinner, and I haven't swept the floor yet. I saw a cockroach this morning. Again.

This is just one example of how I'm always falling behind in life. Also left undone are the overdue phone call to my moms, the unanswered emails, friends unseen, books unread, writing projects postponed. Plus, I'm always running about ten minutes late for my day job. It's enough to make you mental.

There was a time in the summer of 2000 when I spent several months living in the Cevennes Mountains of France. I keep trying to get back to that time, only do it here in Brooklyn. A time of silence, hours to write, leisurely morning coffee while reading a novel, an hour of stretching and breathing, no computer, no phone, no television. Most of the time, I only had two other people for company, and we ate home-cooked dinners every night.I taught myself how to make chocolate mousse with just three ingredients: bittersweet dark chocolate, cream and egg whites.

That's my ideal. Having said that, I was practically celibate that summer, and now I'm having loads of sex, so there's something to be said for a fast-paced life.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 4: Victorians vs Ludacris in TKO!

In Liverpool in days gone by,
For ha’pence and her wittles,
A little girl, by no means shy,
Was settin’ up the skittles.

If you could hear the words above, set to music, you’d know that’s the way they used to sing back in those old-timey days. Our bad girl Skittles’ time. Huh. Those suggestive words were meant to shock people. Are you shocked? I’m trying to imagine the modern-day equivalent.

How about Ludacris' “One Minute Man:”
A hard head make a soft ass, but a hard d**k make the sex last
I jump in pools and make a big splash
Water overflowin, so get your head right
Enough with tips and advice and thangs
I`m big dog, havin women seein stripes and thangs
They go to sleep, start snorin, countin sheep and s**t
They so wet, that they body start to leak and sh**t

The old-timey song was written in tribute to how Skittles got her name because when she was a teenager, Catherine Walters apparently had a job setting up nine-pins in the back alley of a pub near the Mersey River docks of Liverpool. The customers were men only, so Skittles was a very popular girl. So popular that she earned extra money on the side turning tricks. Well, that’s what I imagine, anyway. I couldn’t find anything about the mechanics of her sex life in the few biographies I found on Skittles. Nothing about how her body started to leak and s**t.

And isn’t that a shame? Here I am, a serious student of history’s bad girls, and yet I can tell you it was dismayingly hard if not impossible to find any smut or porn related to them. And trust me, I’ve spent hours looking for the dirty parts in old books. As a result of my fruitless labor, I find that I’ve had to make stuff up just to keep the stories entertaining.

For example, let’s talk about Skittles’ sex life. Sometime in her teen years, Skittles lost her virginity for the right price. Why do I know this? Because Liverpool at the time had “beer brothels” with private rooms for prostitutes and their customers. And Skittles was a poor serving wench. And she had a drunk party animal for a dad who didn’t care about her chastity. And a weak mother. And Skittles was very, very sassy and bold, liked men better than women, etc. It says in one of those old books that Skittles earned the devotion of a gang of drunken soldiers when she warned them: “If you don’t hold your bloody row, I’ll knock you down like a row of skittles.”

So here’s the story: Skittles was a modern girl who didn’t value her virginity, and she forgot her first time easily because she just wanted to get it over with. Who was her first? One of the drunk soldiers, let’s say, and he was a terrible lover. Like a fermented frat boy on spring break. But Skittles did like sex, oh yes she did. How do I know this? Because she had other income to support herself, i.e., serving beer and setting up skittles. Clearly, she chose when to prostitute herself, and this allowed her to choose only men she was attracted to--good training for a proper courtesan. Sometimes, I’ve decided, if she liked a chap who had no money, she gave it away for free, and the ones she was most drawn to were her opposite, gentle and shy. Skittles may have been tough, but she was a genuinely feeling girl, and the gentle lovers brought out her sympathetic understanding. With the sensitive poets, unlike with the drunk soldiers, she could let down her guard and be girlish.

As a lover, Skittles was not easily forgotten. She was no innocent, but her simple sweetness shone from her dark-lashed eyes. As much as men might tease her and talk dirty about her fine figure and delicate features, they were powerfully attracted to her and thus protective. And considering the degree to which she was comfortable in her father’s company, each one of her men got the feeling that he was the special one. Naturally, this would provoke jealous scenes (good for business), and around the same time she lost her virginity, Skittles learned about men’s vulnerability.

Versions of Skittles’ young life vary because few people really knew where she came from, and with her steely core of dignity, Catherine Walters preferred it that way. Nobody really knows how she got her nickname, for example. The stories about the nine-pins and the drunk soldiers were made up by now-dead "biographers." My favorite story comes from A Biography of a Fascinating Woman, attributed to William Stephen Hayward, London: George Vickers, 1864.

In this version of events, a dandified London aristocrat named Trevellian walks into the “Merseyside pothouse” where Kitty is setting up skittles. Trevellian is enchanted by the girl's clever impudence, and she is equally taken with his foppish sophistication.

“Ah! My little Skittles,” he says, upon hearing her speak. “I wasn’t aware that you could talk decent English.”

“My name’s not Skittles; and I daresay I can talk as well as you any day in the year,” she responds.

Trevellian invites Skittles to run off with him to London, and she accepts. Taking on the role of mentor, he warns her: “Publichouse ways, my child, are not my ways, nor should they be yours; and your allusion to mixing it rather stiff is evidently more calculated to please a tap-room audience than myself, or those in whose society you ought to, and will most probably move [and s**t].”

So how did Skittles really get to London? Considering her tough self-confidence, chances are that she left Liverpool on her own strength and refined her publichouse ways on her own terms. She would have come across many Trevellians in the early days. And she was never in such desperate straits that she would have been forced to be a common prostitute. More likely, she was set up as the mistress of some kindly yet forgettable gentleman, who provided her with comfortable room and board while she learned to navigate London society.

If you really want to know the mechanics of sex in Victorian England, you must read The Pearl, a filthy, smutty book if ever there was one. I found it on somebody's bookshelf one day years ago, and oh boy, was I shocked! (And titillated.) Here’s a taste, from a poem titled "A PROLOGUE. Spoke by Miss Bella de Lancy, on her retiring from the Stage
to open a Fashionable Bawdy House. (Written by S. Johnson, LL.D.)"

When c**t first triumphed (as the learned suppose)
O'er failing pr**ks, Immortal Dildo rose,
From f**ks unnumbered, still erect he drew,
Exhausted c**ts, and then demanded new;

Dame Nature saw him spurn her bounded reign,
And panting pr**ks toiled after him in vain;
The laxest folds, the deepest depths he filled;
The juiciest drained; the toughest hymens drilled.

Our story has only just begun. Find out in the next episode just how Skittles became the most fashionable whore to ride a horse on Hyde Park's Rotten Row.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 3: Living with Drunks

In our story thus far, we've met Catherine Walters, or "Skittles," Victorian London's favourite courtesan, and we've learned that she liked to outrage the bourgeoisie at their fox hunts and that her finest accomplishments were the men who loved her. These included at least one nobleman, a politician and a poet. We also learned that I have a big crush on Skittles, even though she probably would have hated me. She preferred men; women just got in the way. Here, in Part 3, we learn about drunk fathers, drunk husbands and just what it was in Skittles' formative years that made her become a bad girl.

Born in Liverpool on June 13, 1839, two years after Queen Victoria claimed the throne, Catherine Walters actually managed to live through her early childhood years. This was a good sign that she was tough enough to survive Victoria's England, whose city slums suffered shamelessly high rates of disease and infant mortality.

I know this because I read a book on the subject: Blyth, Henry. Skittles: The Last Victorian Courtesan. The Life and Times of Catherine Walters. London: Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, 1970. I mention Blyth's biography because I'm going to quote him now. I love quoting other people's books! I often feel they have an authority that I don't have. Take, for example, Blyth's description of the circumstances of Skittles' early years: “Beauty does not flower readily amidst squalid surroundings, and a young girl does not long retain a good figure, a clear eye, a fresh complexion and pearly teeth ...where malnutrition, inadequate ventilation, lack of even the most elementary medical attention, dirt, disease, ignorance...combine together to drag her down. If she escaped a disfiguring or crippling disease, and if she avoided at least one unwanted pregnancy she was lucky indeed; and luckier still if she could retain whatever prettiness and gaiety that she had enjoyed in youth after she had reached womanhood.”

See? I would never talk about pearly teeth and gaiety.

The point is, Catherine Walters, who also went by the nicknames Kitty, Skittles and Skitsie, was indeed a lucky girl. Part of her good fortune came from having a relatively intact family. Her father, Edward, was a customs officer who became a captain in the merchant navy, and he earned a reliable living, even if he was a drunk. He was a functioning alcoholic, as they say in AA.

Not much is known about Skittles’ mother, Mary Ann. Though again, if you read the AA literature on living with an alcoholic, you can probably guess what she was all about: "In the years of active drinking, the wives of compulsive drinkers have to take on many extra responsibilities. They have to provide for the care of the children, take care of the home and get the meals. Wives of compulsive drinkers often have to work to supplement the skimpy budget or do without many necessities, as well as doing the man's chores around the house."

I imagine that Edward Walters also had an eye for the ladies, and that he and his wife had a non-existent sex life.

My guess is that Skittles watched all this going on at home, and she learned that: 1) men have more fun than women; 2) women are doomed if they get married and have kids; and 3) a woman's best bet is to retain her financial independence and shun alcohol personally but to hang around with men, drunk or sober, because they're fun.

We know that Skittles' mother was not buried next to Skittles’ father, and one biographer conjectures that she died in childbirth. Another suggests that the couple eventually separated because the marriage was an unhappy one and that Mary Ann died by the time Skittles was a teenager. Regardless, when Catherine was young the Roman Catholic family of five children were clothed, fed and educated to some degree.

Edward Walters is believed to have eventually left the merchant navy to keep an inn in Cheshire, where young Kitty took up an interest in hounds, hunting and horses. She loved to follow the hounds as they chased after foxes in the English countryside, and when the day’s excitement was finished, she served the huntsmen and their grooms in the inn parlor and heard their tales of the hunt. It was the perfect training for a courtesan.

Catherine’s relationship with her father also provided excellent training. Both had steady and direct personalities. They didn’t shock easily and in fact liked a good joke—the dirtier the better—and getting jostled in pub brawls. Seeing her father drunk as often as she did, Skittles didn't fear outrageous behavior. If she’d had enough of his rough flamboyance, she’d slap him down with some coarse talk of her own. And the next morning all would be sunny. Life was better when it was uncomplicated.

I don't think I've mentioned it on this blog before, but my first husband was an out-of-control drunk, not a fun drunk, but a classic dysfunctional AA grade drunk. An out-of-control drunk with anger issues. Now, I grew up as a child of divorce, so my home life wasn't perfect, but I didn't grow up around drunks, so living with one as his wife really freaked me out. I never learned to see the fun in it, so eventually I ran away forever.

Plus, the drunk in my life wasn't like Skittles' dad, I'm sure. And we weren't living in Liverpool in the 19th century, either, and my frame of reference as a nice, educated late-20th century girl from the suburbs of Chicago didn't help. My idea of "fun" is going for bicycle rides in the park, petting my cats, reading and enjoying a civilized gin and tonic with lime at sunset before sitting down to a home-cooked meal.

That previous statement doesn't do much to establish my own Bad Girl credentials, but the point is that I'm trying to enjoy life more, as Skittles did. I'm a work in progress.

Next time, in Reviving Skittles, Part 4, we'll learn the lyrics of a street ballad from Skittles’ heyday and what her initial forays into prostitution were like.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

I Invent the World

Did you know that you can take a picture with your new digital camera, download it immediately to your laptop computer and then post it on your blog in a matter of seconds? Here's a sample of my new invention, showing a nearly real-time picture of my desk:

Dave spotted the desk in the basement of our building after a neighbor had thrown it away, and we scavenged it. The Peters World Map above my laptop represents countries accurately according to their surface areas. My coffee has gone lukewarm. I'm reading Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman and listening to You Are Here, a Banco de Gaia CD. The poster in the top left corner is a picture of Christo's wrapped bridge in Paris, and the picture taped to the wall is of me, Dave and our cat Henrik. Scattered about is all the stuff I haven't done yet: ideas for blog posts, articles, people I want to contact, more photos for posting.

What a mind-blowing new invention! I have even more work to do now.