I Enjoy being a Girl - Nancy Kwan
One of my fellow students at Awali School told me the sad story of his parents' break-up and how, when his father left his mother for one of the BAPCO "stenographers", he was sacked from the company. When I expressed a doubt that this could have happened, he said "Well that was it, it was the wives - they told the men he had to go, he'd broken the rules." The rules being, I suppose, that you could have affairs, but you didn't leave your wife or you'd had it.
When I saw the Bryan Forbes' film "The Stepford Wives", the final view of the wives happily tootling up and down the supermarket aisles filling their trollies to the sound of gentle canned music, strongly reminded me of the artifical environment of early 1960's Awali, with its tidy aisles of frozen food. The one big shop in the town was the supermarket, known as "the commissary" which was in fact an early supermarket, a phenomenon that wasn't widespread in the UK till much later. It's easy to see the film as a pastiche of the model middle class American family unit of the fifties, but my friend gave me food for thought. If the women could put up with their sometimes (or possibly often) boorish men for the evenings and holidays, then they had a pretty good life. Maybe they were really the ones in charge. The kids were picked up and dropped off by the school bus outside their houses, and could safely play unattended for hours from a very early age due to the fact that the town was fenced off. My mother was able to indulge in any number of activities, playing sports such as tennis or tenpin bowling, swimming in one of the two Olympic size pools (one in Upper Camp and one in Lower Camp) or going to the beach, making costumes for the lavish Awali amateur dramatic productions and in my holidays teach me and my sisters how to play bridge, snooker and table tennis at "the Club". So the question is, if the men had to work each day from 7.30 in the morning through the sweltering sun - with the temperature often in the high 30's in the shade - to 4 pm, did the Awali women have the better deal? Or were they bored out of their minds? And who has the real power? The women who could get together or pick up the phone (all phone calls to others in the town were free) and discuss goings on all day or the men sweating it out at the refinery? I know which I (idle bugger that I am) would prefer. Now that the question occurs to me, most of those of that generation that I knew are gone, but one who is still with us, and, incidentally, returns whenever she can, told me that life for the women there was like a kind of paradise.
So here is another song from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song" and I remember it because my father used to play the film soundtrack album. My mother never listened to any music as she was completely tone deaf, but this song reminds me of her, chiefly because of the line:
I talk on the telephone for hours
with a pound and a half of cream upon my face
which she quite literally did, in every respect: talk, hours, cream, face. Also fags, one after another.
"Flower Drum Song" was based on a novel "Grant Avenue" by one Chin Yang Lee. It was sent by the eventual publishers to a reader, who two days later was found dead of heart seizure, with the book beside him and a note that said "read this". They did, it was published and Lee never looked back. The book is a story about Chinese American immigrants who learn to embrace the culture of their new country while retaining their own. Which, it dawned on me when we returned to Bahrain, our parents never made too much of an effort to do . Different times you may say, but we will always be judged by the people of the future by their moral standards, not ours.
For instance, you may object to the dated tacit acceptance of the male as superior in the lyrics ("a filly who is ready for the race" etc) but this is undercut by the wonderful pauses Nancy Kwan inserts to emphasise words like "hairdo" "funny", honey" and the syllables in "female" in the lines
"I'm strictly a female female"
which are simmering with attitude. Her whole delivery speaks of an independence of mind that is absent from all the versions that have been recorded since, including those by Peggy Lee, Doris Day and even the much lauded Sutton Foster just a couple of years ago. So then, just as now, either you've got it or you haven't. Go it, Mum.