OTHER PARADISES: Brandy Cocktail

Jessica Sequeira
Dec 28, 2016 · 14 min read
Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy’s “Scenes of Domestic Bliss” (1934)

Yard upon yard of fabric for elegant costumes, extra upon extra for inclusion in deluxe crowd shots, pound upon pound of gold for the sensuous glide of the opening credits. The impossibly well-funded costume drama The Crown aims to enthrall viewers in the UK and US with its depiction of the royal family, and on the whole it succeeds in doing so. Along with haute couture, 1930s banter is on display. This was a decade in which Hollywood screwball comedies with zippy exchanges gave spice to romance, and even in the highest reaches of UK government, where upper lips were stiff as starch, verbal fireworks were an everyday affair. Such, anyway, is the impression one gleans from the show.

In real life, to supplement whatever natural wit might have been “in the air,” comedy professionals were often invited to Buckingham Palace. One of King George’s favorite groups was the Crazy Gang, a highly choreographed slapstick act. Two members of the Gang, the real-life married couple Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy, also recorded side programs for radio, including a sketch called Scenes of Domestic Bliss. In quick back-and-forth dialogue, they quarrel without humor but with rhythm. Here, perhaps, is what the Queen’s subjects got up to while she reigned.

The recording begins with Hilda singing and Billy accusing her of making a sound like killing a cat. “Shut up,” she says to him. She wants him to eat his breakfast, and tells him to stop drinking. He tells her to go to the doctor, since she’s suffering from chronic complaint. She says she’s cooked eggs. “Eggs again?” he moans. “It’s always Easter in this house.” The marriage jokes begin. “I cook and cook and what do I get for it? Nothing.” “You’re lucky. I get indigestion.” “A few words mumbled over your head and you’re married.” “A few words mumbled in your sleep and you’re divorced.” “Clever men make good husbands.” “Clever men don’t become husbands, they’re too clever.” He makes fun of her mother’s teeth.

She sends him off to work. Later he comes home very drunk. “Where have you been for the last four hours?” “Talking to a barmaid.” “And what did she say?” “No.” “If I were in your condition I’d shoot myself.” “If you were in my condition you’d miss. Let me go to bed you wicked woman, or I’ll apply for Restitution of Congenial Nights.” (An allusion to the Restitution of Conjugal Rights Act valid at the time, abolished in 1970.) “You’re not a naughty boy, you’re an imbecile is what you are. And I’ll tell you something else. You’re a nasty drunken little beast. A beast, I tell you, a beast. I hate men.” “I hate women. And I wish there were more women, so I could hate them too.” “You wicked brute. Where do you expect to go to when you die?” “I don’t care. I’ve got pals in both places.” She gives him back her wedding ring. He leaves, slamming the door.

The recording is from 1934 and very much of its period, the eternal tension of the couple relying on the premise of a man who does whatever he likes and a somewhat shrewish wife who devotes her life to tracking him down. There is a pride in their bickering, a pleasure in the jabbing. Marital chaos becomes material for ostentatious show.

Miner’s hat monument in Oruro, Bolivia © Wikiloc

Scenes of Domestic Bliss is set firmly in 1930s Britain, but it didn’t stay there. Somehow word of Hilda arrived in the town of Oruro in Bolivia, famous not for crowns but for miner’s hats, as one can see from the city’s enormous monument. Located in the west of the country just south of La Paz and Cochabamba, today the city is mostly known for its carnival celebrating the Virgen del Socavón, or Virgin of the Tunnel, a useful deity for the workers underground.

Since Hilda hadn’t made any of her movies yet, it must have been through a recording like “Domestic Bliss,” possibly brought home by her diplomat father after travels through Europe, that Laura Villanueva Rocabado encountered the woman whose name she would assume. Throughout her life Villanueva would use a variety of noms de plume (Raspadilla, Retna Dumila, María [Motia] Daguileff, Madame Adrienne, Jeanette, Laury, Pimpette, Dina Merluza, Michelin, Mademoiselle Touchet, Dora Kolonday, Ana Massina), never signing as her “real” self. That Hilda Mundy is the name under which her major work Pirotecnia is edited suggests a certain priority, however, and it is under this name that contemporary publishers have decided to group her work.

© La Mariposa Mundial

Thanks to La Mariposa Mundial editor Rodolfo Ortiz in La Paz, readers now have access to a splendidly organized new edition of Hilda’s journalistic work called Bambolla bambolla. The text includes a timeline, maps and photographs, and it begins with a series of letters exchanged with another writer, who compliments her on her spark. Hilda began writing and collaborating with contemporaries in Oruro, and continued to write in La Paz. Her column titles consistently have interesting names, such as “Dum Dum”, “Vitamins” or “Brandy Cocktail,” reflecting the chaotic influx of foreign publications from the UK and US on the Bolivian middle and upper-middle class during this period.

Dum Dum was the name of a publication Hilda wrote with her friends, which came out on Sundays. Reading the phrase Dum Dum, I thought immediately of the lollipop, available in all the colors of the rainbow and popular with the kids at my elementary school; the first factory was founded in 1924 in Ohio, so it could have been an influence on Hilda. Ortiz convinced me the name actually probably comes from the British Dum Dum, a kind of exploding bullet produced in a factory in West Bengal, India. There is also a Dum Dum song by Brenda Lee and a contemporary Brazilian rapper with that name, fascinating both but anachronistic as influences on Hilda. Given the roving curiosity and avant-garde aesthetic of Hilda, however, nothing would be surprising.

The real Hilda is a mystery. She plays with absurd arguments under various names for the sheer pleasure of it, and often takes a tone of exaggerated umbrage over some annoyance of daily life. To read Hilda is to discover the small, the fragmented, the specific, the hands-on. (Literally so: Later texts of hers would show up in the Argentine publication Manos maravillosas [Marvelous hands], devoted to artisanal craft.) In an essay about her work for the newspaper Página Siete, Rocío Zavala Virreira writes that “to speak of Hilda Mundy is to leave the path, change direction, try out new things. It is to think not in terms of books, but magazines. Not complete sets, but clippings or incomplete collections. Not fire, but fireworks. Not war, but bullet shards. Not a big picture, but impressions. Not a current, but a short-circuit. Not alcohol, but a brandy cocktail.”

The Bolivian Hilda © El País

Hilda’s work was not collected until in the last few years the efforts of La Mariposa Mundial and Chilean publisher La Mujer Rota began to gather her work into book form. What does the title of Hilda’s book mean? Bambolla means something like show or ostentation, so Bambolla bambolla suggests a comedic “look at me, look at me”. The expression is a phrase from the poet Góngora, which “Laury” paraphrases in a letter. “Bambolla. Bambolla. Ande yo caliente y ríase la gente,” she writes, tongue in cheek. (“Showing off. Showing off. I go about worked up and people laugh.”) The title leads one to think about what the relationship between ostentation and art might have been for Hilda.

In English, “ostentation” has gradually gone from meaning an act of display (in Catholic context, a presentation of being, as with the wounds of Christ’s wounds in the Passion) to an excessive act of display, a transformation of “show” into “show off”. As every Dum Dum-holding third grader too clever for her own good knows, a group of peacocks is called an ostentation too. I don’t know the genealogy of bambolla, but this double idea of show and show off is useful for thinking about how Hilda conceives of display.

Train in contemporary Oruro © Ferroviaria Andina

For all she liked jokes and assuming different social identities, bambolla for Hilda was not necessarily comic. In wartime, for instance, it simply became ridiculous, and war presented new forms of spectacle. Hilda’s “Impresiones de la Guerra del Chaco”, one of the texts in Bambolla Bambolla, is both a historical document and a literary work of what might be called journalistic poetry. Running from 18 June 1932 to 17 June 1935, the impressions follow Hilda’s thoughts as a spectator in Oruro to events in the Chaco, when soldiers from Bolivia and Paraguay set about destroying one another at great economic and moral cost to both nations.

Hilda tracks changes in language: “news-sparks” of developments detonate in the events that follow. The “I” of Hilda and her spirit interact with the disembodied voices of those around her, the craziness of society, the hostility of nature, the mindless brutality of machinery. Her fragmented impressions of the Chaco War, which later commentators would refer to as an “infierno verde” [green hell], are a personal register of events as they occur, in spiky poetic prose.

Despite their on-the-fly character, the impressions are self-conscious of being a text. Hilda had already written the texts that would form part of Pyrotechnics, and her notes display the avant-garde techniques honed in those works, written in bursts like quick clips of machine gun fire. Across the world in Italy, Marinetti’s Futurism was trying out its legs, and in later texts Hilda would discuss futurism directly. Here its forms are prefigured. But this does not mean there was not a romantic element. Hilda wants to outline scenes in disconnected, spontaneous notes, not “sterilize” her style. She says Fra Angelico did the same, painting angels just as they came to him, trusting even their imperfections were meant to emerge as they were. The first words to come forth were the ones that reflected truth and spirit.

Head-in-the-clouds as this may seem, Hilda’s verbal shrapnel is anything but too soft. At the start is a discussion of what the “retinas” that look at her phrases will find. (Scientific terminology is everywhere.) There won’t be “beauties of style, rigid histories or waves of meditative philosophical phrases”, just text from a sensitive spirit that took in war “as easily as ice cream”. The experience of war is no different for Hilda than any other form of experience. In fact, it transmits almost too cleanly as spectacle, with “landscapes of war” just another kind of painting. Hilda says she sees no need to read newspapers and only unfolds them to make paper birds. In reality, from a young age she reads the newspapers and talks about her impressions of events with her uncle and father, although she is very conscious that the pages are fragile, and dubious as vehicles of truth.

Bolivian soldiers headed to war © Portal Guaraní

Rumors of war start to appear two years before war itself, brought by the “shadow of a bewitching and fatal destiny”. Hints of conflict are present in the air, the sun, in life itself. The days leading up to war are drawn out, tortuous. “Abstracted in fixed visions, my fingers stiff with cold, I wrote war stories, morbid fantasies, crucified loves. My imagination marked out exactly what I lived afterward,” she writes. News of the start of official engagement arrives on a winter day during the glamour of the inauguration of the Feria Nacional in La Paz. This festival brings out a “mad enthusiasm” strangely similar to that of the war that follows, and Hilda is attentive to similarities in the preparations and festive atmosphere.

Bolivia and Paraguay go head to head, and people stream over the chessboard of city streets. The city is rational, the people are not. The “monster of the collective” demands blood. “Blood,” shouted loudly and printed in newspapers, is converted from text into violence, as the verbal becomes physical, a terrifying act of transmutation. A single word repeated over and over draws the atavism of crime from thousands of souls in the name of patriotism. Without irony, Hilda refers to her “feminine heart” and “intuition” as being able to perceive the cruelties and absurdities of wartime developments. She looks at the military technology, the trains, the long evacuation convoys of the sick, the hurt, the mad. The military men are pale, afraid, their soldierly mystique has long disappeared.

Hilda’s hometown of Oruro becomes a railway center, and every few hours military convoys come through, full of soldiers “drunk with enthusiasm.” Meanwhile evacuation convoys return in the other direction. Strong men leave; weak and moaning men return. As a spectator one step removed, Hilda sees how futile it is. In a fascinating editorial intervention by Ortiz, two photographs are shown side by side. The first shows soldiers standing in a neat line, the second a column of what Hilda called “infinite caravans” photographed by her brother, a chilling similarity.

Raúl Prada, “Cactú en el Chaco” (1934)

At one point Hilda summarizes three years in a single night, and says the details have fled her recollection. “My spirit sick with neurasthenia and memories relives the past war as if it were a nightmare.” She works as a typist by day, writes by night. War itself always remains just outside the frame, but Oruro is a sensitive register of changes. People get used to living in the “shadow of the Apocalypse,” in constant crisis, and cheer every development.

Real or imaginary, there appear in Hilda’s notebook last messages scrawled by those heading to war: “I leave for the training camp with a secret fear that casts a veil over my horizon, now farther off than ever before. When you read this, remember our schooldays. And if you hear something fatal, send up a prayer for my soul,” one says.

The restlessness of Hilda’s eyes continues. She speaks of her emotions, the petty bourgeoisie and masses, the criminal kings and soldiers, the “tiger race”, the way people make war a business opportunity. In one entry she turns to lyrical poetry, and the wind becomes a symphony of sad motifs. “I wandered far and near,” she writes. “The wind, naughty thing, brought me a slip of paper. My Eve was startled into curiosity. I gave way and looked at the paper.”

She sees a list of expensive food items for purchase, a sign some are living in decadence at a time of frugality. On the same page in the book, there is a picture of her two brothers and three other boys she knows from student days, all soldiers in the Chaco. Speculations in high finance, an operational black market and a leftist opposition all thrive, created by war.

Hilda writes these notes to bring information to life and give it blood. Official history is only for nationalist use, teaching one to cheer or lament in the right places, she says. Sometimes she gets angry and uses capital letters, like a page from a pamphlet. She refers to the “etapa-fárrago de nuestra Historia” [hotch-potch period of our History] and gets frustrated with small-time traders as well as those from her own background. It’s annoying to see how gullible the middle and upper classes are in their “zarabanda loca” [crazy whirling around], an attempt to get involved.

She is also perceptive about the self-serving political positions taken by other nations: “The international ‘camouflage’ of the Argentine nation inspires mistrust in us. Every time it intervened, it was to mediate with damaging clauses. In contrast, hope smiled at us from Brazil.” She talks about candidness and masks, about how the whole war has come to seem a piece of yellow journalism fit for a dramatic image by Dürer. The text ends abruptly with a “Final chime”—no clean summing-up—reflecting her lack of interest in building arguments.

One of the first Bolivian tanks © Warfare History Blog

During the Guerra del Chaco, developments in military technology changed the battlefield in unimaginable ways. Just as the introduction of the tank made an enormous impact during World War I in Europe, tanks now appeared for the first time in South America. A number of smaller new technologies were also tried out for the first time. Hilda was generally enthusiastic about technology. She typed up her pieces on a Royal typewriter, and rhapsodized over the possibilities of the telephone and electric tram in Pyrotechnics. But the technology associated with war was a different matter.

Military tanks, railroads, parades and photography are all forms of ostentation. Amusing in some contexts, in this case display took on a sinister quality, as it was in opposition to traits Hilda referred to as “intuition,” “spirit,” even “God,” a “celestial and Divine” within ourselves not associated with organized religion. The ostentation of the parades sickened her. “In this state of things, nice and prepared for the act, brave young girls and buxom ladies saw and felt enter into action all the machines of war: 75 and 105 tanks; mortars of heavy and regular capacity; machine guns, even hand grenades…” Hilda’s response to this equipment and self-congratulation was a kind of hermeticism, reflected in her notational style. Instead of a comforting lushness of detail, she opted for hard, compact, suggestive prose.

© Página Siete

Ostentation can take many forms, from fancy cocktails to British costume drama coronations, military parades to theatrical 1930s-style humor. Sometimes this excess and display can be a source of pleasure. Other times, stylized presentation can invoke unease and illness in the spectator, making one ask what something is trying to achieve. What lies behind the compulsion to write? To show instead of stay silent? Where is the line between showing and showing too much, between necessity and spectacle? How is surface related to depth?

Maybe Hilda had answers to these questions, maybe she didn’t. Maybe her life turned to other priorities. Maybe she kept writing just as many sharp and witty texts at the end of her life as at the beginning, but didn’t feel the need to send them to the papers. The amount of Hilda’s published writing diminishes massively after her first book Pyrotechnics, around the time she married her husband. But the relationship between Hilda’s staccato imaginative production and her real-life “scenes of domestic bliss” is a kind of tease. It’s quite possible this was her own choice, linked to a Dada aesthetic of choosing life over the “show” of writing. Everything she wrote took the form of sketches, but deliberately so — as if this itself was a challenge to those who would make art into parade or glossy display, an overly technical 1:1 model for life rather than something more allusive.

When the Queen removes her crown, she is an exhausted, uncertain woman. When the vinyl stops spinning, Hilda Mundy and Billy Caryll speak or quarrel off the record. Far from the parades in La Paz and Oruro, war in the Chaco slogs away, unseen. When Laura Villanueva Rocabado closes her book of notes, she goes on beyond reach of her readers, free to live her life.

Decision

Write a poem
to cap this essay?
No, I’ll fix myself
a nightcap.

International, Intersectional, Always Interesting

ANMLY

Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art

Jessica Sequeira

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ANMLY

Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art