The planet has 50 years left to live – but hey! It’s Awards season again

In this week when we are told that the planet has about 50 more years to live, a self-congratulatory industry beanfeast doesn’t really seem relevant or appropriate. That said, it’s hard not to get swept along in the tidal miasma that represents awards season at this time of year.

I usually try to see as many of the usual suspects as I can in order to nod sagely or expostulate that yes I agree or no, it was the wrong decision, when an actor glides,  stalks, staggers or stumbles up onto the stage at the BAFTAS or Oscars.  Of course if a decision goes my way, it is the correct decision.  If it doesn’t it was undoubtedly wrong. However all is irrelevant because this year my best intentions have gone awry and I missed most of them.

portugal

 

Despite my existential angst, I was able to nod sagely at a win for best actor Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.   When we came out of seeing the film we got into conversation with a gentleman who had been involved in the music industry and said he had been at Freddie Mercury’s 21st birthday party.  Now that is impressive.   I think Malek is too young to have done anything but watch Freddie on youtube which makes him impressive too.

I saw Roma which I loved although feminist interpretation of this film is not exactly positive, one critic claiming that it ‘glorified servitude’; the implication I suppose being female servitude since there are not really any significant male roles in the film.   Mmm! Not sure about that one.  I think it was just Alfonso Cuaron making a film about his home and childhood in Mexico and the two women who raised him which I imagine he is entitled to do.  Also I regret watching  Roma on Netflix even though they paid for it because this is a film that needs to be watched on a cinema screen.

Staggering on to Mary Queen of Scots.  So much blood and gore.  Yes  I know that it was how they behaved.  And yes Saoirse Ronan is great and woman in a man’s world and the whole nine yards.   And yes I know David Rizzio was stabbed 57 times and yes you can still go to Holyroodhouse and see the plaque in the chamber where it happened.  In fact it claims on the Palace website that you can still see bloodstains on the floor.  But do I really need to?

 

Reading is like life – a work in progress

Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life.   But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine.   No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.     img_0168

Having a week’s holiday recently I took  a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s  My Name is Red.  This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages  just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.

I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it.  But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone.  When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf,  but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page  415!

What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice?   This required in literary terms a surgical examination.    It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed.   Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art?  Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.

I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.

I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .

Ding dong bell.

Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman.   Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice,  even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.

I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in.  I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.   Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.

But then no reading is every wasted.  And reading is like life.   A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty.  Next please.

 

 

 

 

The ground is shaking as the giant stirs

Are we the unreliable narrators of our own lives with our porous memories, shaky realities, versions of our own truth?  If so, where does this leave history or perhaps the question is where does history leave us. These are matters which have concerned Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro since his first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982.

It is fascinating listening to Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture which I highly recommend.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW_5Y6ekUEw&feature=youtu.be

The author speaks of how he pieced together what he termed his fragile ideas of Japan (a country he left with his parents at the age of 5) from his own childhood memory, from books and comics sent by his grandparents, from ancecdotes and stories told to him by his own parents who for years talked of ‘returning to Japan next year’ and who therefore saw themselves as visitors to these shores, rather than immigrants.

It was never a given that Ishiguro would set a book in Japan, a country which had been Britain’s bitter enemy during the second world war. Now, in a time when writers leap to tell their stories of ethnic or linguistical differences to set themselves apart in a crowded field, it is hard to remember how in the 70s and 80s that was not at all the case. Race was a linear thing and in terms of English Lit it was preferably white and British.

Thankfully, as a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter on the far-sighted and, back then, completely innovative University of East Anglia Creative Writing course, Ishiguro was encouraged to write a story about Japan, set in Nagasaki. That story became his first book.

After A Pale View of Hills he went on to write a second ‘Japan’ book An Artist of the Floating World

“Shintaro, I said, why don’t you simply face up to the past?”

A pertinent question which runs through much of the writer’s oeuvre. Answer: because its too difficult and we often don’t either individually or as a nation.

The Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day later made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson, is a story which concerns itself with that acme of Englishness, the butler in a grand house. There is a moment in the book when the main character Stevens, realizes not only that he has lived his professional life to the exclusion of any possibility of a personal one but, shatteringly, that he has faithfully served a master who serves a false, nay evil, ideology.

These books were followed by: The Unconsoled a story about a pianist which I have attempted and failed to read three times, and in which nothing is what it seems to the extent that it drove me mad; Never Let me Go, a dystopian science fiction story also made into a film; When we were Orphans and The Buried Giant, another study of memory and loss set in the deeps of anglo saxon history where giants still lie. The problem of national memory, is examined in this book.

Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.

During the lecture the author talks about a visit that he made to Auschwitz/Birkenau; how his guide showed him the gas chambers which Ishiguro describes in his lecture as ‘neglected’, a choice of word which initially shocked me. Why would you choose to preserve the gas chambers? Let them rot away into the ground. But that which we allow to rot away is not by definition going to be around to inform the future. If we erase the gas chambers – or rather neglect their preservation to the point where they self-erase – don’t we also erase the murderous ideology which produced them?

This is the great dichotomy and it is one which museums of the 21st century will increasingly face. How to remember and what to remember.  Not only Museums but writers too have a responsibility to address the major issues of their time. It is a responsibility that Ishiguro has not failed to shoulder. (https://wordpress.com/post/volatilerune.blog/354).

Since 2016 both Europe and the US are finding out that the tide of liberal humanism which washed over our western democratic societies in the second half of the twentieth century – and which we thought was forever – wasn’t. How will writers of the future address the history that is being made now.

 

 

 

 

Writing through the fear: A review of My Thoughts Exactly, Lily Allen

Lily Allen. My Thoughts Exactly Blink Publishing (London, 2018)

I admit it, my last post  (All Those Toppling Piles of Certainty)  contained the tiniest bit of a rant against what I uncharitably termed ‘sleb’ memoires.  Where did that term come from?  It is a nasty catch all term which denies people’s individuality and I promise not to use it again.    Anyway, at risk of a charge of hypocrisy I have just read and been enthralled by Lily Allen’s My Thoughts Exactly

The writing style is engaging even if for those of us that have led somewhat more ..er.. traditional  lives,  some of the antics are a bit eye watering.  I started off thinking poor Lily, what a family,  and ended by thinking poor family, what a Lily.   The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between and as Allen’s mother is reported to have said ‘this is your truth darling’.  Of course it is, because our truth is the only one we know.

Far too young, like Amy Winehouse, for all the stuff in the bucket a life of fame pours over your head, Allen avoided joining the 27 club by the skin of her teeth.    Her life has ricocheted through family discord, music industry success,  music industry abuse, sex drugs rock n roll, a stillborn son and two healthy daughters; more sex,  more drugs, life lived in the media glare to the extent that her phone rang when she was still in the delivery room and it was  the Daily Mail or some such odious rag;   a psychotic episode, a broken marriage,  and then, at last,  a modicum of hard-earned peace.

Where does that modicum of hard earned peace come from?    It comes from inside.  One of the hardest things human beings face is to accept themselves  and not to allow the judgement of others to infringe on our own ideas about who we are.  That’s a great soundbyte and easy to say especially when I can’t sing a note and don’t have to read acres of rubbish printed in the media about my life.     What I love about Allen’s book is that she has written through her fear and come out the other side fighting.

“I’ve begun by reclaiming my voice, ”  she writes.  You can’t express opinions, the fear said Get back in your fucking box, it said, we’ll decide who you are

Well not any more, she says (actually she puts it a little stronger but you’ll have to read the book).  And I thought, you go girl.

All Those Toppling Piles of Certainty

When I can’t bear the blood, gore and apologist position on sexual violence of modern TV crime dramas – I resort to re-watching endless episodes of Poirot.      There is one episode that comes to mind where a ballet dancer who suffers from her nerves becomes stranded in an avalanche bound Alpine hotel.  For some plot reason that now entirely escapes me, this poor girl  is kept medicated up to her eyeballs by an evil doctor with things to hide and axes to grind.  One evening, she wanders dazedly into the hotel dining room and demands “ a bottle of wine – and food of some description”.

I thought of this scene when just before Christmas I walked into a book store (remember those?) to be faced by mountains of the latest offerings penned by the great and the good, spread across thousands of square feet of floor space.

pile of covered books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Trying to avoid the latest slush pile of sleb memoires in my face at every turn and all the stuff laid out on tables  –  a format I despise – I wandered lonely as a cloud looking for … something.

“Bring me a bottle of wine – and food of some description” I shouted.  No.  I didn’t.  Not really.  Had I done so I would have been carted away and be writing this from a locked room.

But as I stood there with no prospect of being rescued by any fictional detective, another most unlikely hero turned up instead in the form of  Allen Ginsburg whose poetic words addressed to Walt Whitman march purposefully across the  dust jacket  of a new volume of prose poems

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018).

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“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”

The idea of the prose poem is not one that is immediately comfortable to me. I tend not to try and write them because while I vaguely understand what a poem might look like, although in my case very rarely seems to,  a prose poem is an oxymoron.    Neither fish nor fowl, I used to think it was just poetry without line breaks or overly mannered prose.   Well, that was where I was back then, all of two weeks ago.  Now I have had my damascene moment.  My mind has been utterly changed forever by the toenails of a squirrel.

Hear the words of Anne Carson describing how she spent Christmas Day alone reading Hegel:

The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit’ was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation.  I was overjoyed by this notion of a philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another but, at the same time, wretchedly lonely with all my family dead and here it was Christmas Day, so I put on big boots and coat and went out to do some snow standing.  Not since childhood! I had forgotten how astounding it is.  I went to the middle of a woods.  Fir trees, the teachers of this, all around.  Minus twenty degrees in the wind but inside the trees is no wind.  The world subtracts itself in layers.  Outer sounds like traffic and shoveling vanish.  Inner sounds become audible, cracks, sighs, caresses, twigs, birdbreath, toenails of squirrel.

(Merry Christmas from Hegel)

I love that ‘Not since childhood!’

“‘All good poetry’ wrote William Wordsworth in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1802) ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’  Verse serves as a mould to a moment of emotion, shaping it to a rhythmic pattern.  Without line breaks, the prose poem is free like this paragraph to extend across and down the page … and it is in this freedom that we can locate the distinctive feeling to which the prose poem gives form: expansiveness.”

I like this idea of expansiveness as part of the definition of prose poetry. And there it is – the very essence of expansiveness –  in the Anne Carson extract I have used above.  In the middle of this lonely Christmas that the narrator spends reading the work of dead philosopher, there appears a snowy scene of woodland complete with breathing birds and scrabbling squirrels and it is made manifest for us in one short paragraph.

But most of all the difference between Carson and all the toppling piles of ‘expert’ stuff on the bookshop tables is that  poetry is  sufficiently humble not to have all the answers or even some or any of the answers or even the questions.  All those topping piles of certainty.   I am sick of everyone pretending to know bloody everything when the reality is that if anyone knew even 20% of the stuff they claim to the world would be in less of a mess.

Other Things

To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same closet as sleep, along with silence, desire and yesterday’s obsessions.  To read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation erases and erects, words prepare for wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence, and snow undresses for Spring.

 

(Alvin Pang, 2012)

2019

 

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Be like the mountain, stand strong before the eight winds.

I wish for a less volatile 2019 for all humankind.

The poets light but Lamps –

The Poets light but Lamps –

Themselves – go out –

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

 

Inhere as do the Suns –

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Cicumference –

(Emily Dickinson 883)

In Extremis  The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin. Lindsey Hilsum (Chatto & Windus, 2018)

Becoming Michelle Obama (Viking, 2018)

 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Faber and Faber 2016)

I recently heard poet and academic Ruth Padel interviewed on the radio, saying how she was clambering down some steep escarpment somewhere remote and scrabbling for a handhold,  when she had an epiphany about the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s work – as one does.  They are, she said, handholds, breathing points,  between scrambles for meaning.

At least this is what I understood her Emily Dickinson: Complete Poems (Book Center) by [Dickinson, Emily, Center, Book]to be saying, but I loved the idea of it.  This is the idea I’m sticking with now when I read Dickinson.   This inspiring writer of genius whose whole life was a struggle with God, with illness,  with the servitude of domestic life.  She kept struggling.  Although unrecognised during her lifetime – she knew her own worth.

If there is any common thread linking these three volumes (other than that they are all sitting on my bedside table)  it is about women knowing their own worth.  It is about lighting lamps – shining a light for future generations.  In very different ways, this idea epitomises the achievements of three very different female writers.

There is so much about Emily Dickinson that is beyond my comprehension.  I love that I could read her forever and still not understand her;   she who scrabbled for handholds among the ghosts and maelstroms of the soul, who rummaged amongst eternities and  in our concepts of divinity.  Dickinson the writer of genius who, in the later stages of her life, barely left her room.

A woman who conversely rarely stayed home was war correspondant Marie Colvin.  Colvin  was born into a conservative family in small town America in 1956,  there was nothing especially poor or deprived about her upbringing, but being a woman in the l950s was more usually a guarantee of becoming a housewife or a typist,  rather than a famous war correspondent.Marie Colvin.jpg

In 1974  Colvin was among the first few intakes of female to go to Yale and whilst there discovered a passion for both travel and journalism.  But she didn’t travel the way most of us travel, any more than Dickinson wrote poems like most of us write poems.

As a student at Yale, Colvin wrote for a travel piece for a journal based on ‘the real Mexico’ a country she had visited with another female student.

 “Arriving in Chihuahua, our first night in Mexico, we strolled jauntily out for a Mexican meal and a look at the nightlife.  Nervous glances began to get panicky after two blocks; men who passed turned to follow, catcalls came from corners and open doors, cars honked suggestively … there wasn’t another woman on the street … friends who had travelled to Mexico had returned with glowing stories about how warm and open the local people were.  They neglected to tell us all their friends had been male; we’d neglected to notice all the storytellers were male.”

Hilsum notes:  That was typical of Marie it never occurred to her not to do something that it might be unwise or dangerous, nor because as a woman she might face particular dangers.   Such adventures, she realised when she began to write, were rich seams like the silver ore in the rocks of Durango. An eye for detail, the ability to conjure a scene and scant regard for her own safety were to become trademarks of her journalism.

Colvin was killed in 2012 after she had herself smuggled into Homs, Syria, when everyone else was trying to get out.    All her life she had tried to shine a light on people’s suffering.

In her much lauded memoire Becoming Michelle Obama writes of her childhood in the East side of Chicago during the ‘tail end’ of the 1960s; she writes of teenage years spent returning home from outings with her doorkey pointing outward between clenched knuckles.  Growing up in a time and a place when the colour of your skin was enough to make you feel unsafe and certainly second rate.  In many places that is still the case.  In her book she shows a woman who has tried to strike a balance between retaining her own sense of identity and her life in the public sphere which at times has threatened to be overwhelming.

“I’ve been”  she writes  “a working class black student at a fancy mostly white college.  I’ve been the only woman, the only African American in all sorts of rooms.”

She has also been, it will come as no surprise to most people, a lawyer, a Chief Executive of a hospital trust, and First Lady of the United States of America.  This latter was not a position gifted solely as a result of being married to Barack.  She ran a stressful and exhausting, ultimately successful, campaign of her own to support him.

In the book Michelle writes movingly about a visit to the UK that she paid – shortly after becoming First Lady – to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington,  a visit that she has recently repeated on being in London to promote her book. So why this school in particular?

More than 90% of the school’s 900 pupils were black or from an ethnic minority, a fifth of them were the children of immigrants of asylum seekers.  I was drawn to it because it was a diverse school with limited financial resources and yet had been deemed academically outstanding.

Watching them she said was like falling back into her own past.  She knew:

“These girls would need to work hard to be seen.  All the ways they’d be defined before they had a chance to define themselves.  They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female and of colour.”

Grace is a word that occurs quite often in Becoming.  The search for a precious commodity that can never be bought or acquired other than by pure hearted struggle.

The author writes:   ‘If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors I knew it wouldn’t be the same for me.  My grace would need to be earned.’

And so it has been.

Disobedience: the film. As relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich

This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876.  It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell,  which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.

So.  to the plot,  in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.

Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her  presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time.  One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!

But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters.  Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi)  was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit.  Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.

The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.

Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books.    But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.

I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue.    The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film.  She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher.   The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians.  She was being ironic, I think.

I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments,  not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti  (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam)  unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom.  If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.

It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue.   Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.

The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex,  back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing  up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peterloo. Director Mike Leigh Rebellion theme park style

Unlike Mike Leigh, I was taught about the Peterloo massacre in school. This doubtless shows how old I am or how young he is.  Leigh is on record as saying that Peterloo is a story that needs to be told because it is no longer taught in schools.  It is true that all dark episodes in British history – of which there are many –  need to have lights shone on them, but this film feels more like the school lesson Mike Leigh feels he missed out on, rather than a serious piece of dramatic art.

Set in the year 1819 only twenty years (we hesitate to remind you, dear reader) after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette across the channel.  In France Robespierre rose and fell; there were executions, the terror.  It was to be understood the ruling classes in Britain were much on edge.  We constantly see them being very much on edge! No-one (depending where you were in the pecking order)  wanted the same thing to happen in Britain.

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Thus in the film we see that the words ‘parliamentary reform’ or ‘one person, one vote’ are enough to send the already apopleptic constables and magistrates into full hanging mode, liberally encouraged by an irate home secretary and the fat and indolent Prince Regent.

It is fertile ground for rebellion.    But many and varied are the gatherings and lectures that the poor working folk have to attend in order to have these things explained to them in laborious detail; in order that the viewer may also have them explained in equally laborious detail.   At one women’s meeting, one of the characters, a lady at the back of the room who can’t afford to feed her children and who has been forced to listen to what feels like twenty minutes of inflamed rhetoric, stands up to complain that she hasn’t understood a word.  I sympathise.

To add to the difficulties, the corn laws  prohibited the imports of cheap grain from Europe in order to protect prices for British land owners (who were also  self-elected parliamentarians ) and these restrictions operated to push up the price of bread beyond affordability for the northern mill workers.  Thus by the time orator Henry Hunt made his way from London to address a meeting on parliamentary reform – the meeting to be held on St. Peter’s fields just outside Manchester  –  there were a lot of angry people due to attend.    Nevertheless this was to be a peaceful demonstration – a gathering merely, complete with women and children carrying branches of peace, ‘like a day out’ one of the characters says.

Rather as Tiananmen Square was a day out.

Mark Kermode liked this film a lot better than I did.  Every scene I felt was weighed down with exposition.      You may know nothing whatsoever of British history but still get to the mid point of Peterloo and wave a white flag, saying its ok, I get it.  Bring on the cavalry, I understand. Honest.

There is simply too much ‘speechifying’ and shouting about appalling conditions and liberty for the people.  Too many stereotypes.  The worthy young rebel with the light of freedom in his eyes; the evil magistrate who sentences a man to hang for stealing a coat or a woman to be whipped and then imprisoned for drinking a bottle of her employer’s wine.  Yes these things happened,  but as a viewer I didn’t need to spend two and a half hours being beaten round the head with them in order to understand the final scene when the  protesters are run down by militia.

No doubt the costumes were accurate down to the last ripped jerkin but instead of making the characters look authentic they looked like they had just stepped out of a museum.  And the backdrops?  Far too neat, too clean.  This was rebellion theme park style.    As for the northern accents – don’t even get me started.

If Peterloo was intended to be a history lesson in aspic, then so be it.  If it was intended to have contemporary relevance it would have been better to do the thing in modern dress. It’s  worked for Shakespeare.   Why not set it on some deprived northern estate?  In May’s Britain surely there are no lack of them too choose from.

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by [Towles, Amor]

Set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and during the Stalin era, Count Rostov is an aristocrat who more by luck than judgement has managed to survive the revolution, being saved from execution but ordered by a tribunal to permanent house arrest inside the Hotel Metropol.

  “And who knew,” says Rostov’s friend Mishka, a poet who would later be claimed along with millions others by the terror, “that the day you were sentenced to life inside a hotel was the day you became the luckiest man in Russia.”

His daughter is a pianist but inexplicably is reluctant to take up an offer to travel to Paris with the Moscow Youth orchestra.  The Count who has not left the Hotel Metropole (except once for a medical emergency) in over twenty years is at dinner trying to persuade Sofia to take up this wonderful opportunity.  How can she not wish to go?

“I fear I have done you a great disservice, “ he tells his daughter.   “From the time you were a child, I have lured you into a life that is principally circumscribed by the  four walls of this building…. .   But your mother was perfectly right.  One does not fulfil one’s potential by listening to Sheherezade in a gilded hall, or by reading the Odyssey in one’s den.”

And:

…” what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

As a philosophy this can’t be beaten.  Nor, as a literary character,

can the handsome, educated and aristocratic Count Rostov – with a talent for formal seating plans and a worthy but unfulfilled desire to read the essays of Montaigne – be beaten.   In the days when it would be taken for granted that barbers were artists and conversationalists; in the days when the Chassagne Montrachet could not be served at other than the exact temperature, we know that somewhere there would always be a Rostov.

Life in the Metropole – even under its oleaginous party functionary new manager – continues to have pre-revolutionary echoes because its principal character has pre-revolutionary echoes, as to his lifelong friends the maitre d’ of the famous Boyarsky restaurant and Emile the chef, wielding his chopper in order to enforce a particular point in the conversation.

Nevertheless,  a prison is a prison whether gilded or not.   There is a poignant reference to feeling Spring in the air on the one occasion he has to leave to take his daughter to hospital.  What must it be like to spend so many years of your life indoors?   Does a compelling narrative require the characters to be allowed to range far and wide?  Apparently not.      The Count is only able to traverse from bar to dining room to hall to rooms and back again (he does on one occasion make it to the roof)   yet his story  is highly readable.  He becomes resigned but not accepting of his situation – what else is available to him?   To be sure adventures seem to come to him, sometimes in a way that a less forgiving reader might question as likely.

This book is a complete joy.  I hear that Sir Kenneth Branagh is to play the part.   A more perfect piece of casting is hard to imagine.