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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

To be born again, first you have to die. To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly!

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
"It was so, it was not, in a long time long forgot..."

I loved this line - a sort of spinoff of 'once upon a time', but with an air of added mystery.
The Satanic Verses is a complex and nuanced tale of the transformation (human, to supernatural/divine, and back again) of two men, Gibreel Farishta and Salahuddin Chamchawala in modern(ish) day India and England. One man becomes the archangel of the Lord (Gibreel) and the other becomes the devil (Salahuddin, or Chamcha). There is a great deal of uncertainty brewing (why us? why now? what does this mean? are we dead? aren't you loving all these questions?) and we follow the two gentlemen as they muddle their way through what would, I imagine, be a challenging conundrum for anyone. After all, most of us don't wake up and expect to be supernaturalized after falling from an exploded plane in the sky. (I'm sorry, I really shouldn't speak for you, dear readers. To use a Breakthrough norm, I'll speak from the I perspective - I don't wake up with this expectation. You might.)

As with some of the other esoteric entries on this list, I took notes along the way, though it's possible they now make sense only to me. I enjoy the bizarre arc; it seems to mimic the nebulous and, at times, nonsensical quality to the book's various storylines.
My favorite bits from my notes:
- Mom/Dad dies (fish, bus, stroke) - these one word explanations I jotted reminded me of 'my mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)' from Lolita
- Saladin arrested, horns; Gibreel w/Rosa Diamond, halo (one an archangel, one a devil! how better to distinguish the two than by a halo/horns? easy to tell them apart!)
- 'More devilish, then less' - what can I say, the book keeps you on your toes.

I could attempt to outline the various actual 'events' of the book, but (a) I don't think they're essential to a cursory understanding of the book and its overall feel, (2) I don't feel like it, and (d) I'm not entirely sure I would be right about them. This was a doozy, after all. Suffice it to say, the novel is magical and mystical, sometimes morbid, often mysterious, occasionally downright disturbing, and unabashedly and unapologetically abstruse. It is the very definition of a wild ride.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I vacillated between loving and hating this book. There were parts I found to be brilliant, and other parts I found wholly unnecessary. I think that the writers of yore could have used a stronger editing hand, and Rushdie falls into this collection for me, despite his more contemporary status. I am, as with several of the other arcane novels on my list (Gravity's Rainbow, Ulysses) confident that I missed many things upon my reading, and am willing to own that these missing pieces might enrich my understanding of the more extensive unnecessary tangential chapters. BUT, I continue to argue that my goal is to represent a somewhat 'average' reader; I am well-educated and well-read, but I aspire to experience novels as accessible works of fiction, and will not engage in deep research or rely on external sources to inform my understanding of things I believe should be at least 74.32% readable as standalone works. The book is the source; everything else is essentially hogwash, imho.

This post is meaty (in the words of my sarcastic mother, 'oh, so Different from your last few posts? haHa.hahA. THANKS, 'anonymous' fan ;) so settle in, grab a cocoa, a coffee, or a refreshing cocktail, and hold on to your crayons.

Gibreel Farishta, a.k.a. Ismail Najmuddin -- tiffin carrier, actor, and archangel on the side
Delicate balancing of an inordinately large number of tiffins
"Every day, Mumbai's dabbawalas deliver some 200,000 tiffin boxes of freshly made food from homes to offices in the city." Do you know what tiffins are? The word actually means light lunch, but the term also refers to the metal carrier. I was deLighted to find that tiffins featured heavily in Gibreel's backstory, as I recently purchased a tiffin for our family's Yankee swap at Christmas with our neighbors. Isn't this picture insane? I definitely lack the balance and poise to qualify for that job...

A few of my favorite lines from the book's introductory scene, where Gibreel and Chamcha fall out of an exploded plane (terrorist plot, long story, seriously Don't Even Ask):
  • "The clouds were bubbling up towards them, and perhaps it was on account of that great mystification of cumulus and cumulo-nimbus, the mighty rolling thunderheads standing like hammers in the dawn, or perhaps it was the singing (the one busy performing, the other booing the performance), or their blast-delirium that spared them full foreknowledge of the imminent ... but for whatever reason, the two men, Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha, condemned to this endless but also ending angelic devilish fall, did not become aware of the moment at which the processes of their transmutation began." Such a beautiful contrapuntal quality to this.
  • "Gibreel never repudiated the miracle; unlike Chamcha, who tried to reason it out of existence, he never stopped saying that the gazal had been celestial, that without the song the flapping would have been for nothing (HAGH), and without the flapping it was a sure thing that they would have hit the waves like rocks or what and simply burst into pieces on making contact with the taut drum of the sea. Whereas instead they began to slow down. The more emphatically Gibreel flapped and sang, sang and flapped, the more pronounced the deceleration, until finally the two of them were floating down to the Channel like scraps of paper in a breeze." Watch out, Gibreel! Don't let your arms get tired! ;)
  • "Then, however, the pure delight of being surrounded by such a quantity of snow quite overcame his first cynicism - for he was a tropical man - and he started capering about, saturnine and soggy, making snowballs and hurling them at his prone companion, envisioning a snowman, and singing a wild, swooping rendition of the carol 'Jingle Bells.' The first hint of light was in the sky, and on this cosy sea-coast danced Lucifer, the morning's star." I love this image. Probably my favorite line in the whole book.
On failed archangeling - "Even the halo has gone out, like a broken bulb, and I don't know where's the store." This part was hilarious. After Gibreel becomes an archangel and decides he IS going to do his duties as a divine being (and stop getting distracted by his ladylove), he fails miserably, and no one will believe him (and I Can't imagine Why!) Where does one go to find replacement halo bulbs?

Is this divine intervention, or merely madness? I enjoyed the playful/existential exploration of what it would mean to all of a sudden be 'archangeled' in the night. I imagine it would be equal parts exhilarating and terror-inducing, and even the calmest of us would wonder if we had not, in fact, simply lost our marbles (like Tootles).

--"The terror of losing his mind to a paradox, of being unmade by what he no longer believed existed, of turning in his madness into the avatar of a chimerical archangel, was so big in him that it was impossible to look at it for long; yet how else was he to account for the miracles, metamorphoses and apparitions of recent days? 'It's a straight choice,' he trembled silently. 'It's A, I'm off my head, or B, baba, somebody went and changed the rules."
--"This was a man in imminent danger of coming apart at the seams."

Salahuddin Chamchawala, a.k.a. Salad or Chumch -- aristocrat, voice actor, devil on the side
Chamcha's backstory is fascinating - he grows up in a wealthy Indian family, but is possessed  early on with an overwhelming desire to uproot himself and become English. His devilment triggers an intense identity crisis of epic proportions. Here are a few of my favorite exchanges between Chamcha and his mistress, Zeeny Vakil, a deeply country-loving Indian:
  • "'Well, this is what's inside,' he blazed at her. 'An Indian translated into English-medium. When I attempt Hindustani these days, people look polite. This is me.' Caught in the aspic of his adopted language, he had begun to hear, in India's Babel, an ominous warning: don't come back again. When you have stepped through the looking-glass you step back at your peril. The mirror may cut you to shreds." 'caught in the aspic of his adopted language' - brilliant. wacco. wizard. smashing.
  • "'Give up on me,' he begged her. 'I don't like people dropping in to see me without warning, I have forgotten the rules of seventiles and kabaddi, I can't recite my prayers, I don't know what should happen at a nikah ceremony, and in this city where I grew up I get lost if I'm on my own. This isn't home. It makes me giddy because it feels like home and is not. It makes my heart tremble and my head spin." I felt Salad's pain so acutely; he really personifies 'you can't go home again', and he is so completely lost.
What did you dream? I dreamed I tore all the skin off my face and I was someone else underneath...
-- Both Gibreel and Chamcha have pretty intense dreams, but the glass man was my favorite (and the scariest): "He had fallen into a torpid sleep, high above the desert sands of the Persian Gulf, and been visited in a dream by a bizarre stranger, a man with a glass skin, who rapped his knuckles mournfully against the thin, brittle membrane covering his entire body and begged Saladin to help him, to release him from the prison of his skin.

Chamcha is hidden in his new English home, away from white eyes:
  • "Too much," she laughed at him. "They pay you to imitate them, as long as they don't have to look at you. Your voice becomes famous but they hide your face. Got any ideas why? Warts on your nose, cross--eyes, what? Anything come to mind, baby? You goddamn lettuce brain, I swear." Zeeny is pretty hard on Chamcha for becoming a voice actor, pointing out that he may be a celebrity in England, but he is an invisible one, based on the color of his skin. It reminded me of a Chris Rock interview with Terry Gross, where he made this dark joke about voice parts in animated movies: "Oh, if you're white, congratulations, you can be anybody you want in a cartoon film! And if you're black, great news! You can be any animal you choose!" Chamcha seemed lost on many levels, but his racial identity and unwillingness to acknowledge the way it impacted his life in England was perhaps the most interesting (and difficult) to experience with him.
I have the heart of a child. In a jar by my bed. 
  • "I have your soul kept safe, my son, here in this walnut-tree. The devil has only your body. When you are free of him, return and claim your immortal spirit. It flourishes in the garden." I loved this line from Chamcha's father - there is a tree planted in their glorious garden for Chamcha, and the tree is seen as a kind of inheritance, one that is redeemed upon adulthood. 
You can't keep a devil locked up in the attic and expect to keep it to yourself forever. When Chamcha is kicked out by his wife, Pamela, for looking downright devilish (sorry, Couldn't Resist) his friend's family and their daughters take him in and let him stay in their attic (at least until he starts growing).
  • "You're growing out of the attic, anyhow," rejoined Mishal, miffed. "It won't be big enough for you in not too long a while." Obviously this made me think of ever-growing Alice and the lizard, Bill. ;)
  • in the transformation, Chamcha (along with the horns and tail) gets Gibreel's bad breath - what a raw deal! "in the matter of Farishta's halitosis she was not, however, altogether wrong; if anything, she had a little understated the case. Gibreel's exhalations, those ochre clouds of sulphur and brimstone, had always given him -- when taken together with his pronounced widow's peak and crowblack hair -- an air more saturnine than haloed, in spite of his archangelic name. It was said after he disappeared that he ought to have been easy to find, all it took was a halfway decent nose..."
  • Mishal and Anahita, to Chamcha - 'O, excuse me, but Mum says, can you use this, it's mouthwash, for your breath.' hagahgah.
The Devil has many names:
"Satan, being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste or air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is . . . without any fixed place, or space, allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon." Daniel Defoe, The History of the Devil

I think I will always imagine the Devil as the villain in Legend (see left). That's certainly how I imagined poor Chamcha as he was transforming, though a little less red and more human-looking. Here are a few other names used in this book:

- Shaitan
- Satan
- Beelzebub
- Neechayvala, the Man from Underneath (I love this one)
- Lucifer (I knew I knew this name from somewhere. I googled 'lucifer cat' on a whim and There he was, chasing poor GusGus!)
- Azazel (debatable)

Alleluia Cone -- climber of Everest, ice queen, main squeeze of Gibreel
Alleluia (Allie) Cone is Gibreel's lover (well, one of them); they meet just before he dies and revives:
  • "He looked up from his plate to find a woman watching him. Her hair was so fair that it was almost white, and her skin possessed the colour and translucency of mountain ice. She laughed at him and turned away. "Don't you get it?" he shouted after her, spewing sausage fragments from the corners of his mouth. "No thunderbolt. That's the point." She came back to stand in front of him. "You're alive," she told him. "You got your life back. That's the point." I love this exchange - Gibreel has stopped believing in God after a near-death illness, and is stuffing his face with Islam-verboten pork, when he first meets Allie for their meet-cute.
Pearl without price - Alleluia's father calls her his 'pearl without price' - not quite the same as the pearl without price in Elizabeth's case from Baldwin... ;) I'm pretty sure her pearl without price was sold a while ago...whoops!
  • He told her: he fell from the sky and lived. She took a deep breath and believed him, because of her father's faith in the myriad and contradictory possibilities of life, and because, too, of what the mountain had taught her. "Okay," she said, exhaling. "I'll buy it. Just don't tell my mother, all right?" The universe was a place of wonders, and only habituation, the anaesthesia of the everyday, dulled our sight. Allie is one of the only people who just downright believes Gibreel, and I love this -- 'the anaesthesia of the everyday'. So true!
  • Allie, on Gibreel: "It wasn't the only thing about him that drove her crazy. She'd pour glasses of wine; he'd drink his fast and then, when she wasn't looking, grab hers, placating her with an angelic-faced, ultra-innocent "Plenty more, isn't it?" ahgahgahgahgaghahgahgahahga. Oh Gibreel. He's also described as quite a slob of a roommate, being habituated to servants as a famous film star back in India. #archangelscanthaveeverything
Pamela Lovelace -- activist, wife of Chamcha, lover of Jumpy Joshi, non-believer
  • "Pamela's taboos: jokes about her background, mentions of whisky-bottle "dead soldiers", and any suggestion that her late husband, the actor Saladin Chamcha, was still alive, living across town in a bed and breakfast joint, in the shape of a supernatural beast." Unlike Allie and her instantaneous faith, Pamela refuses to accept that her husband, Chamcha, was turned into a devil and did not die from a multi-thousand foot fall from the sky. Pretty sane response, if you ask me! Though amusing, given that the corporeal Chamcha very much wants to be acknowledged by his wife (and allowed to return to his own home and sleep in his bed). 
  • Exchange between Pamela and Chamcha after she inexplicably shaves her head and starts wearing a turban one day: "It just happened," she said. "One must not rule out the possibility that I have been bewitched." He wasn't standing for that. "Or the notion of a reaction, however delayed, to the news of your husband's altered, but extant, state." ahghaghaga - altered, but extant. LOVE.
She swung to face him, halfway up the stairs to the bedroom, and pointed dramatically towards the open sitting-room door. "In that case," she triumphed, "why did it also happen to the dog?" ahghagha

S. S. Sisodia (aka Whiskey) - st-st-stutterer, sh-sh-shyster, s-s-sidekick to angel and devil alike
  • He cheered up as stewardesses approached. 'I will confess to being a mem member of the mile high cluck cluck club,' he said gaily within the attendants' hearing. 'And you? Should I see what I can ficfic fix?' HiLarious. Sisodia popped up in the most random ways, but I found him quite lovable after awhile.
OK, it's probably time you took a break. I took a LOT of breaks when I was reading this book (and writing this blob!) Visit the restroom, pet your koala, stretch your legs, get the mail, make a cup of boozy cocoa. In the meantime, here are a few tiny questions to ponder:
  • How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? any ideas? no? not sure? darn. me neither. 
  • Is birth always a fall? well if we came from the STORK it sure is! ;)
  • Do angels have wings? OBVIOUSLY. that's what ringing bells is for.
  • Can men fly? idk. WOMEN can, because we're Awesome. 
  • What is the opposite of faith? Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief. Doubt. non-faith? bad faith? this one is so Tricksy.
  • What is the meaning of life? I stole this one from Hitchhiker's. You know this! It's 42!
ARE YOU BACK? DID YOU PET YOUR KOALA? I'm So excited to spend more time with you.

Titlipur -- home to Mirza, Mishal, Ayesha, Osman, the banyan-tree, and the butterflies
Titlipur is the setting for one of the various side-stories that just barely abuts Gibreel and Chamcha's main plotline. It reminded me very much of Macondo, the magical town in 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' - "the yellow butterflies would invade the house at dusk."
  • "When you awoke you found the butterflies sleeping on your cheeks." There are butterflies everywhere, particularly in connection to the mysterious Ayesha. I don't think I would enjoy having butterflies sleeping on my cheeks, no matter how pretty it sounds in theory. Don't you think it would be quite ticklish?
    This fan contraption is a punkah, in case you were curious!
  • "On the seventh day after her disappearance Ayesha was sighted walking towards the village, naked again and dressed in golden butterflies, her silver hair streaming behind her in the breeze." from now on, I shall clothe myself ONLY in insects. Today, caterpillars - tomorrow, grasshoppers. If you could only wear insects for clothing, what would you choose?
  • Mirza's impression of the town when he alone returns from a pilgrimage led by Ayesha:"Moths had eaten the punkahs of Peristan and the library had been consumed by a billion hungry worms. When he turned on the taps, snakes oozed out instead of water, and creepers had twined themselves around the four-poseter bed in which Viceroys had once slept. It was as if time had accelerated in his absence, and centuries had somehow elapsed instead of months, so that when he touched the giant Persian carpet rolled up in the ballroom it crumbled under his hand, and the baths were full of frogs with scarlet eyes." Probably my other favorite passage.
Z is for zeugma and that's good enough for me
Have you heard of zeugma? It's widely acclaimed as the Best Literary Device of All Time (#byme #whoelsematters?). If you're not familiar with it, it's "a figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses (e.g., John and his license expired last week ) or to two others of which it semantically suits only one (e.g., with weeping eyes and hearts)". Rushdie seems to be a fan, TOO! (frabjous day!)
  • 'Now, sitting up in bed with a thumb instead of a bottle, his secret and his hangover banging equally painfully inside his head (he had never been a drinking or a secretive man)'
  • "While Hind hurled imprecations into the chicken soup"; 'too immersed in chicken soup and misery to speak for himself"
Isn't it just the MOST fun?! 

Time for a Very Vigorous Vocab Lesson. Rushdie is one of the authors who makes me feel inadequate - his English vocabulary far outpaces mine AND he speaks multiple languages. Le sigh!

gazal - (in Middle Eastern and Indian literature and music) a lyric poem with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love, and normally set to music

sibilance - having, containing, or producing the sound of or a sound resembling that of the s or the sh in sash; speech sound having a hissing effect (i just like to SAY sibilance. Sibilance. Ssssibilance.)

snipe - a wading bird of marshes and wet meadows, with brown camouflaged plumage, a long straight bill, and typically a drumming display flight (if I were a bird, I think I should like to be a snipe.)

manticore - a mythical beast typically depicted as having the body of a lion, the face of a man, and the sting of a scorpion (put simply, TERRIFYING. don't google this if you don't want nightmares)

orotund - (of the voice or phrasing) full, round, and imposing; (of writing, style, or expression) pompous; pretentious (OH OK so Ludo Bagman)

quiddity - the inherent nature or essence of someone or something; a distinctive feature; a peculiarity

zamindar - on the Indian subcontinent, an aristocrat, typically hereditary, who held enormous tracts of land and held control over the peasants, from whom the zamindars reserved the right to collect tax (often for military purposes) (Mirza is the zamindar of Titlipur/Peristan)

banyan-tree - an Indian fig tree whose branches produce aerial roots that later become accessory trunks; a mature tree may cover several acres in this manner (this tree is AMAZING. Titlipur is centered around one huge banyan-tree, and when Mirza dies after the pilgrimage, the tree burns to ash. Epic moment in the book.)

farrago - a confused mixture; a hodgepodge (Meredith's blob entries are always a farrago of ideas!)


Magical moments 
  • "He would blink, and the illusion would fade, but the sense of it never left him. He grew up believing in God, angels, demons, afreets, djinns, as matter-of-factly as if they were bullock-carts or lamp-posts, and it struck him as a failure in his own sight that he had never seen a ghost. He would dream of discovering a magic optometrist from whom he would purchase a pair of greentinged spectacles which would correct his regrettable myopia, and after that he would be able to see through the dense, blinding air to the fabulous world beneath." OK, I lied. These are my favorite lines in the book. I would like to buy those greentinged spectacles, please, too! Anyone else want to place their order?
  • When Gibreel decides to take extreme action as an archangel: "Gibreel Farishta floating on his cloud formed the opinion that the moral fuzziness of the English was meteorologically induced. 'When the day is not warmer than the night,' he reasoned, 'when the light is not brighter than the dark, when the land is not drier than the sea, then clearly a people will lose the power to make distinctions, and commence to see everything -- from political parties to sexual partners to religious beliefs -- as much-the-same, nothing-to-choose, give-or-take. What folly! For truth is extreme, it is so-and-not-thus, it is him-and not-her; a partisan matter, not a spectator sport. It is, in brief, 'heated'. City,' he cried, and his voice rolled over the metropolis like thunder, 'I am going to tropicalize you.'" I found this hilarious.
  • "Cloudy Rekha murmured sour nothings" Rekha Merchant didn't make the blob to this point, which is not really fair, as she plays a pretty major role, even if it is mostly in making Gibreel go Super Crazy after he's archangeled. She has an affair with him (way before the archangeling), and then kills herself and her children when she thinks he has died (but then whoops he comes back to life and she is still dead). So she haunts him! #everyonewins I love the idea of 'sour nothings' as a counterpoint to sweet nothings ;) Makes me think of Wormtongue in LOTR.
  • "He knew that his father had finally run hard enough and long enough to wear down the frontiers between the worlds, he had run clear out of his skin and into the arms of his wife, to whom he had proved, once and for all, the superiority of his love." epically great line.
  • "because the universe of his nightmares had begun to leak into his waking life" -- This reminded me of one of my favorite Proust quotes from YBN, on waking from a nightmare: "a smile of joy, of pious thanksgiving to God who is pleased to grant that life shall be less cruel than our dreams."
If you liked SV (or the idea of it) then allow me to suggest these selections:
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov -- interesting political discourse, also features an incarnation of the devil, hints of magical realism, and cats with gilded whiskers!
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera - both great reads just generally speaking, but interesting pairings to Rushdie -- I mean, Marquez basically inVented magical realism, so why not go to the source? 
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being -- again, some interesting political commentary, and the lyrical quality of Kundera's writing very beautifully echoes that of Rushdie's, imho
Well, congratulations if you made it through this blob entry. Pat yourself (and your hedgehog, and your koala) on the back. I'll leave you with a final paradoxical series of thoughts:

Gibreel and Chamcha are, by design, opposite sides of a very similar coin. Their lives have multiple points of alignment, they are similar in age, and it is not clear at all why one should be be-angeled and the other be-deviled. I am SURE this is one of those big takeaways I'm supposed to have caught on to, but I'm not sure I am supposed to do anything more than wrestle with the concept. Here is the crux of their contradiction:

-- "Gibreel is fast becoming the sum of Saladin's defeats." Gibreel starts out with much of the luck (if you can call being diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic lucky) in the supernatural switcheroo, but as time goes on, Chamcha has his revenge of sorts, and then a genuine change of heart. 

-- "For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other's shadow?" What are angels and devils if not opposites? Does one require the other in order to exist? 

-- "Which is it to be? Annihilation or salvation?" Someone who recognizes Gibreel as the archangel asks this question. Oddly, while Rushdie drops some heavy foreshadowing of 'the end is nigh'-variety, nothing happens in the end but more of the status quo. But I think that's the question anyone asks, regardless of their belief in a higher power. If, all of a sudden, we are sent a supernatural judger, is it because we are to be destroyed, or because we are to be saved?

Because I, like Anne, believe, despite everything, that people are really good at heart, I will leave you with these two tidbits:
-- "Is it possible that evil is never total, that its victory, no matter how overwhelming, is never absolute?"
-- "It seemed that in spite of all his wrong-doing, weakness, guilt - in spite of his humanity - he was getting another chance."

So go forth in the world, and know that evil is never total, and when you can, do good. Think of our other esoteric friend, Mr. Joyce, and one of my favorite lines from Ulysses:
"And thanks be to God, Johnny,' said Mr. Dedalus, that we lived so long and did so little harm.'
'But did so much good, Simon,' said the little old man gravely. 'Thanks be to God we lived so long and did so much good."

I'm off to Southrage Convent with my chunky koala cat. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.

1 comment:

  1. Exquisite! Knowing your Latin, might I add that "Lucifer" means "light-bearer". Your prose is lovely and poetic. I'm thinking you refer to Anne as Anne Frank, though it could just as well be Anne Shirley who believes in the goodness of people . And there's Pollyanna, another of my favorite optimists. Thanks for sort of sorting out this lengthy tome. I read it on my lunch break, and had no one to pet, alas, but the sun is shining on my back and we're not in that wonderful/awful British weather you described..