when Norma Major and I ran out of the ladies’ room
February 2, 2014
… was an LBD from the Gap and a pair of pumps. The latter’s distinct in my mind because of the clickety-clack noise the heels made as Dame Norma and I sprinted down the hall.
We were trying to get back to our seats before the opera restarted.
This wasn’t part of what you’d call a prearranged date, two gal-pals out on the town. I did not call the wife of our former prime minister and say, “I’m off to the opera. Wanna come with?”
That would have been crazy.
First of all, I was there because my friend Sarah had an extra ticket. Second, Dame Norma Major and I travel in different circles, even if she and (Sir) John reside in Huntingdon, practically next door to where I live in Cambridge. Finally, I wouldn’t have rung her no matter how pally we were because the opera in question was called Norma and I would have had to say something like, “Well Norma, do you want to go see Norma,” and I know I wouldn’t have made it through that conversation without a certain amount of immature snickering. But then she probably gets that a lot, goofy operatic jokes, because as it happens the circle she travels in is the high-end music circle.
Apparently, she’s considered very knowledgeable on the subject. She produced a biography of the soprano Joan Sutherland, rated four-and-a-half stars out of five on Amazon and for all I know she’s also written about the opera we were seeing that night. If she has, I hope she called it Norma Does Norma, because I think that would be a fabulous title.
I try not to overuse the word fabulous, but it’s almost mandatory when you’re in opera country. For example, the opera Norma is fabulously camp. It’s the story of a tormented Druid priestess (Tormented. Druid. Priestess. Hello! Three words into the description and we’re already reaching for the smelling salts). There are lashings of love, jealousy, rage and anguished motherhood. Maria Callas performed the role 89 times, which is pretty much the sine qua non of fabulousness, not to mention a very camp fact to have at your fingertips.
Camp and fabulous are not adjectives you’d normally associate with Norma Major who, while her husband was prime minister, more or less hid herself away in their Huntingdon house. When she did appear for the odd state occasion she always looked uncomfortable, standing a little behind her husband, her shoulders hunched over in a suit one size too big for her –the hallmarks of an individual who does not want to be noticed. The media were endlessly unkind about her, calling her dull and unforthcoming, and making little digs about her taste in clothes and hair-do’s. After it came out her husband had had a torrid affair with a particularly noisy and self-regarding female MP, people said things like, “Well of course, what would you expect,” as if, had Mrs M shown more oomph, her husband would not have felt compelled to stray. (Not that John Major was perceived as much of a dynamo; the affair, as detailed by the female MP – and I mean detailed, down to the color of his underpants – staggered everyone. John Major, Tory stud?)
So there I was at Norma, second to last on line for the ladies’ room, the minutes ticking away, the second act of the opera about to start and the line was not moving. The woman behind me, commiserating, the two of us in the same boat, said, “Unbelievable isn’t it?” and as I turned around to agree, I realized it was Norma Major, Dame Norma Major, as she’d become. Her features were delicate, her hair gamine. She was wearing something chic and feminine. In the flesh and under compromised conditions (glary white tiles, severe bathroom lighting) she was, to my surprise, wonderfully pretty.
Inevitably, by the time we both emerged, the final bell had finished ringing. Which is why we ended up hoofing it, side by side, down the corridor. When we reached the auditorium door, we nodded in mutual approval – Job done –adjusted our clothing, and took our seats.
The only reason I mention this fey little vignette, is because I’ve been thinking about first ladies. Is Michele Obama still furious over that funeral selfie? Will she dump the president when he stops being president? And if Hilary Clinton becomes the next president does she plan to implement a secret service detail whose only task is to peel Bill off White House interns? Of course, foremost in my thoughts, the first lady du jour, is Valerie Trierweiler of France, recently turfed out of the Palace Elysee for a younger model. (Who, by the way, looks so much like Trierweiler she could be her baby sister.) One of the many aftermath articles about the affair, this one titled, “Jilted First Lady Seeks Solace in the Slums of Mumbai,” shows Trierweiler cuddling various orphans. The funny thing is, the woman known throughout France as the Rottweiler looks good. As first lady or, rather, first partner, she always photographed tense and driven, her eyes narrowed and her mouth open as if in mid-snarl. Some of that could be attributed to the sheer hell of living with Francois Hollande, who was probably a really terrible boyfriend, always sneaking around and doing tacky things like bringing his secret squeeze to public events and seating her in the row behind Trierweiler.
But now, papped on the world stage as the classic wronged woman, Mme T looks softer, the eyes wide and attentive, the worry lines smoothed out. Once characterised as pushy and vicious, she has morphed, seemingly overnight, into a sympathetic creature, accessible and simpatico. I call this phenomenon the humiliation factor.
The humiliation factor is not about being a victim, or the shame of being brought down a peg or two. True, it involves hitting rock bottom, being left wounded and winded, but the real point, what it’s actually about, is the resulting alteration.
The thing you dreaded most has happened: you have been dumped. At first, you lay there where you fell. You assess the damage. Eventually — because there’s no other option — you wrap yourself in the tattered remnants of your dignity (often far more flattering to the wearer than the garments of triumph and victory), and you pull yourself up. Maybe you throw back your shoulders and apply liberal coats of lipstick (a la Liberty Ross); to each her own survival technique. What happened to you is something you thought you couldn’t bear …and guess what, you’re bearing it. Even more, and here’s the interesting part of the humiliation factor, you’ve acquired valuable information, some life facts to digest — the kind of self-knowledge that, however bruising in the first instance, ultimately adds lustre and depth. It’s akin to the sheen on a pair of no longer new but highly polished leather boots. You’ve become a person who knows a lot, who’s seen a lot and who has learned how to wear it. Like Dame Norma Major looking fabulous and not at all defeated in the ladies room of the West Road Concert Hall, you have become a woman of experience.