“Summer, summer, summertime.” (Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince)

On Monday this week the weather forecasters seemed fixated on the fact that it was the start of something they called ‘meteorological summer’.  If you live in the UK & looked out of the window at that point, there was only one sane reaction to such news:

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Because frankly, even by British standards, the weather’s been a total washout. (btw, this week’s GIFs are dedicated to fellow book blogger Lady Fancifull :-) )  However, it has brightened up considerably throughout the week and as I write this I can smell my neighbour’s barbeque, so it looks like maybe the weather forecasters’ optimism wasn’t so misplaced after all. I like to imagine the meteorologists are now running round the studio thusly:

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So here is a post to celebrate the start of the meteorological summer. Which in the UK should be good for at least, ooh, another 5 days or so ;-)

Firstly, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972, my edition 2003 Sort Of books trans.Thomas Teal) which I won from a giveaway hosted by the lovely bookarino at Dawn of Books.  Apparently this was Jansson’s favourite of her novels for adults (she is best known for the Moomin series) and it’s a wonderful read.  The premise is simple: a series of vignettes detailing how a grandmother and her granddaughter Sophia spend a summer together on an island in the gulf of Finland.

“When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind.. ..They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy.  It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.”

Nothing hugely dramatic happens, but Jansson evokes real meaning through the layering of small moments to create fully realised portraits of two complex, stubborn, loving, life-embracing women.

““Listen,” Sophia said. “I don’t have time to stay here with you – I’ve only been swimming twice today.  You won’t be sad now, will you?”

“I want to go too,” Grandmother said.

…They helped each other climb out of the canyon, and then they circled around the hill…off to one side of the channel marker, there was a large, deep pool.

“Is this alright?” Sophia sked.

“It’s fine,” Grandmother said.  She bared her legs and stuck them in the pool.  The water was warm and pleasant.”

There is a wonderful gentle humour running through the book, and also sadness  – Sophia’s mother has died, the elderly grandmother is aware her time is short.

““What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered.  “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda.  “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother.  “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.”  They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk, Move over.””

Bookarino’s enthusiasm for Jansson is infectious, as is Kaggsy’s, and I definitely plan on reading all her books for adults (and maybe a Moomin or two too…)

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If, like me, you live in a city, summer may not immediately bring to mind the heady waft of night blooming jasmine and the soothing chirp of crickets.  So I’m eschewing pastoral evocations of summer in favour of a short poem about London in summer, ‘August’ by Tobias Hill (from Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, 2007):

when pigeons like dei ex machina

descend improbably out of the air

 

wobble like airships skimming through the tops

of trees which sink under their tea-pink weights

 

until each grandee bungee-jumps or bellyflops

downwards in great soap-operatic terrifying swoops

 

into the sweet dark shining feather-bedness of the fruits

When the first sunny days appear, those of us used to greyer climes seem to behave with the mania of the pigeons in this poem.  It’s a glorious sight to behold, as city-dwellers sunbathe on patchy grass verges next to dual carriageways, pale blue skin gradually glowing vermilion; lager and sausage rolls sweating in plastic carrier bags beside them. Ah, the summer idyll….

I got my hair cut today (moulting in the warm weather) and the titular song from this post started to play on the radio.  My hairdresser pronounced it a classic but said her favourite summer song was this:

“I wanna be anarchy” (The Sex Pistols)

Do you ever get the feeling you want to kick over the traces and run away?  I’m really fed up with my job and while I daydream about jacking it all in through some dramatic gesture before setting off to backpack round the Greek islands, it’s not going to happen. Not if I want a home to return to – the pesky mortgage will insist on being paid.

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Fundamentally I’m not an anarchist, however much I might like to think I’m a free-wheeling, free-thinking rebel.

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So I’ll just have to compensate by watching Marlon Brando films (any excuse) and reading about anarchy.  The novel and play I’ve chosen suggest anarchy may not be the best way to go anyway.

Firstly, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). I studied this for ‘A’ level and it’s no exaggeration to say it was the bane of my life.  I hated it.  I found it so unbearable I never actually finished reading it and wrote my exam essay based on the chapter summary at the back of the edition we used (not an exam technique I recommend, kids).  Events conspired against me and about ten years later I had to read it again for a course I was doing.  Much to my surprise, I didn’t mind it so much this time and found it quite readable.  A lesson there that I should return things I’ve previously written off – at the very least I can confirm my prejudices, which is always fun.

The Secret Agent was inspired by an actual event in 1894, where a French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, accidently blew himself up in Greenwich Park.  Conrad sets his story two years later, and the opening of the novels sets everything up expertly:

Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.  It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening.  Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business.  And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

The shop was small, and so was the house.  It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London.  The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes.  In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.

The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The TorchThe Gong—rousing titles.  And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.

This basically tells you all you need to know: the grimy sordidness of Verloc’s existence, the fact that he is involved in some sort of subterfuge, and the involvement of his family at the edges, with his wife, Winnie, devoted to her brother Stevie.

Verloc is utterly unlikeable – lazy and self-serving, he is not an anarchist dedicated to a higher cause.  His ‘comrades’ are equally despicable and pathetic, except for The Professor, who is altogether more sinister:

The Professor’s indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition.  To destroy public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct.  He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.  By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige.  That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness.”

Conrad is highly sceptical of the motivation of those proclaiming themselves agents of societal change.  The group of would-be anarchists plot a violent act, and unfortunately, skirting around them is Verloc’s brother-in-law:

“There was no young man of his age in London more willing and docile than Stephen, she affirmed; none more affectionate and ready to please, and even useful, as long as people did not upset his poor head.”

Stevie is an obvious choice, for those who would not want to risk their own lives in carrying out terrorist acts, to manipulate and control.  The Secret Agent is fairly predictable, but the flash-forward/flash-back structure works well at sustaining plot tension, and its utter bleakness, while unrelenting, is effectively ironic in evoking politics where the principle is self-preservation above all else.

The Secret Agent was made into a film in 1996 starring Bob Hoskins as Verloc ,Patricia Arquette as Winnie, and Batman Christian Bale as Stevie:

Secondly, Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Italian theatre legend Dario Fo (1970), which you can read here. Like The Secret Agent,  it is based on actual events. Giuseppe Pinelli was an anarchist accused of bombing a bank who fell (?) to his death from a police station window in Milan in 1969. In Fo’s play version, events become farcical, beginning with the Maniac being interrogated at the police station by Inspector Bertozzo. The Maniac denies being a con artist and impersonator, insisting he is mentally ill:

“I have a thing about dreaming up characters and then acting them out. It’s called ‘histrionomania’ – comes from the Latin histriones, meaning ‘actor’. I’m a sort of amateur performance artist. With the difference that I go for ‘Théatre Verité’ – my fellow performers need to be real people, but people who don’t realise that they’re in my plays. Which is just as well, ‘cos I’ve got no money and couldn’t pay them anyway…”

 This metatheatrical theme runs throughout the play, with Fo using the dramatic form to demonstrate how public life can often involve playing a role.  The Maniac poses as a judge to interrogate the officials on the fourth floor and explore the events that led to the fall of the anarchist:

“MANIAC: We’ll stick with the ‘right at the start’ for the moment… One step at a time. So, at about midnight, the anarchist was ‘seized by a raptus’ – these are still your words – he was seized by a ‘raptus’ and went and threw himself to his death from the window. Now, what is a ‘raptus’? Bandieu says that a ‘raptus’ is a heightened form of suicidal anxiety which can seize even people who are psychologically perfectly normal, if something provokes them to extremes of angst, in other words, to utter desperation. Correct?

 SUPERINTENDENT AND SPORTS JACKET: Correct.

 MANIAC: So we need to find out who or what it was provoked this anxiety, this desperation. I suspect that the best way would be if we do a reconstruction. Superintendent, the stage is yours.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Me?

 MANIAC: Yes, go ahead: would you mind re-enacting your famous entrance?

 SUPERINTENDENT: I’m sorry, what famous…?

 MANIAC: The one that brought about the ‘raptus’.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Your honour, there must be a misunderstanding here. It wasn’t me who did the entrance, it was one of my officers…”

 As the role playing intensifies, so does the satire:

MANIAC: It’s true, I’m afraid: your careers are in tatters! Blame it on politics, friends! At the start you served a useful function: something had to be done to stop all the strikes… So they decided to start a witch-hunt against the Left. But now things have gone a bit too far… People have got very upset about the death of our defenestrated anarchist… they want someone’s head on the block, and the government’s going to give them – yours!

 […]

  SUPERINTENDENT: Your Honour, you’re going to have to advise us. What do we do now?

 MANIAC: How should I know?

 SPORTS JACKET: Yes – what would you advise?

 MANIAC: If I were in your shoes…

 SUPERINTENDENT: Yes?

 MANIAC: I’d throw myself out of the window!

In the second act a journalist turns up, the physical comedy intensifies and it all degenerates into total…well, you know.  Accidental Death of an Anarchist is very silly, but don’t let that fool you. The satire is sharp and the theatricality informed and accomplished. It’s a play with plenty to say and it does it with great energy and verve.

There’s really only one way to finish this post:

“What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” (Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993)

Trigger warning: this post contains strong language and discussion of gruesome violence. Enjoy!

For almost two weeks (count ‘em: TWO WEEKS) I’ve had no computer.  It died 4 days before I had 12,000 words due for my Masters course so stress does not even begin to cover it, dear reader.  Once I’d got my essays done on my mother’s computer (which seems to view formatting as an opportunity to express a whimsical avant-garde approach to functionality  – don’t tell me they’re not sentient) I felt like I was back in the nineties.  Admittedly I had my phone made by a popular fruit-branded organisation so I wasn’t entirely offline, but it severely impacted my digital activity.  Now I have my preferred method of interweb access back, I thought I’d embrace twenty years ago:

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Now, for some people, their memories of the 90s are that it was like this:

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But let me tell you, people were angry in the 90s. My proof for this is the wave of new writing that emerged in British theatre at the time.  Sometime referred to as ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, writers like Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber wrote dark, challenging plays that usually involved protagonists waging psychological warfare on one another. So to start I thought I would look at one of the plays written by this new generation of dramatists; Jez Butterworth would go on to a work of genius in Jerusalem, but back in 1995 he had just written his first solo play, Mojo.

Mojo is set in a Soho nightclub, the Atlantic, in 1958 (unusually, as most new dramatic writing was resolutely contemporary. I remember seeing an interview with Butterworth at the time, where he said he did it to avoid being labelled ‘the voice of the generation’ which I thought staggeringly confident).  The owner of the Atlantic, Ezra, is locked in a power struggle with a fellow gangster, Sam Ross (neither of whom we ever see), over management of a pop ingénue (can you have a male ingénue? There are resolutely no women in this play) Silver Johnny.  Ezra’s employees Sweets, Potts and Skinny, his damaged son Baby, and the older lieutenant Mickey are stuck in the club, antsy with drugs and fear:

MICKEY. He’s out there. (Pause.)

POTTS. Out where? Out the back?

SKINNY. Fucking hell. Now?

SWEETS. Fucking hell.

POTTS. It’s a joke.  It’s Mickey’s joke.  It’s Mickey’s morning joke.

SWEETS. Out where?

SKINNY. Don’t you listen?  By the bins. That’s what they said. ‘You’re finished’ and ‘Look by the bins’.

SWEETS. You said ‘By the bins’. Mickey said ‘In the bins’.

POTTS. By the bins in the bins. Is that the issue here? If it’s ‘by’ are we safe?  If it’s ‘by’ is there a deal?

SKINNY. Mickey. Okay, okay. Indulge me. Please. Are you sure? Are you ten times out of ten sure that he’s passed away?

MICKEY. He’s fucking cut in half. He’s in two bins. (Pause.)

With their leader definitively dealt with, the boys are afraid to leave and stay sweating in the increasingly oppressive environment of the club, trying to hold things together while Baby, the deranged son of Ezra, completely unravels:

MICKEY. They’re going to come here…

BABY (overlapping) I wish I was more like you Mickey. I wish I was less like me, and more like you.

Pause.

MICKEY. Listen to me. They’re going to come here.

BABY. They’re going to come here.

MICKEY. Yes, I think they are.

BABY. Yes, I think they are.

MICKEY. If…Listen.

BABY. If…Listen.

MICKEY. Baby –

BABY. Baby –

Pause.

MICKEY. You think you’re in a book.

BABY. I am. I’m Spiderman.

Needless to say, it all falls spectacularly apart as power struggles intensify, betrayals are realised, and weaknesses exposed.  The feel of it is very reminiscent of Butterworth’s mentor, Harold Pinter’s, ‘comedies of menace’. The fast pace and punchy dialogue sweep the audience along to the violent end, as helpless witnesses to the carnage as the characters themselves.

I saw the revival of Mojo in 2013 (at the Harold Pinter theatre), and while the total absence of women in the play felt even more apparent, generally I felt it had stood the test of time (the 1997 film I found less successful, but it’s still worth a look for some wonderful performances). Butterworth’s avoidance of being the ‘voice of a generation’ seems to have paid off with longevity.

Secondly, another debut, which I chose because it won a prize that began in the 1990s, the IMPAC.  Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain follows James Dyer as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is incapable of feeling any pain.  Born in the first half of the eighteenth century, James is an “unnatural child”, one who never cries, even at the moment of his birth. He disconcerts those around him even if they’re not entirely sure why. While James’ state may seem enviable, while he cannot feel pain he also cannot feel its opposite:

“Pain, pleasure. He has glimpsed their coast, their high cliffs; smelt in dreams the loaded offshore breezes. But still he is surrounded by a calm insensate sea; his ship high-sided, inviolable, its great grey pennants streaming. How could it be otherwise?”

James is oddly remote, unable to relate to his fellow beings, a detached observer that suits the present tense narrative. He is an unlikeable yet tragic figure:  used by conmen and collectors who are interested only in his freakishness. He knows something is missing but he is unsure as to what.

“She sobs, cannot stop herself from asking if he loves her, truly, as she loves him, utterly, for ever, ever and ever.

[…] Agnes is on her knees beside him.  He does not know what she is saying.  Is she happy, afraid?  Frankly she seems drunk.”

He joins the navy where he kills without feeling, and becomes a highly accomplished surgeon, servicing the friends of Lord Byron.  What is said about James could almost definitely have been said about the mad, bad peer himself:

“He appears to have been born without a soul.  What, then, has he to lose?”

Ingenious Pain is clearly based on meticulous research but the novel never falters under the weight of it all.  It is beautifully written, tightly plotted with a strange, compelling anti-hero at its heart.

To end, something that for me just is the 90s:

“There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” (Jeanette Winterson) or “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” (G. K. Chesterton)

Recently I fell subject to one of those viruses that seems never ending.  Basically for about two and half weeks I was behaving like this:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). I wouldn’t bother mentioning it, stoic that I am, except it meant I had to turn down a last-minute ticket to see Zoe Wanamaker in Stevie, Hugh Whitemore’s play about the life of the poet Stevie Smith.  I love Zoe Wanamaker and I’m sure she’d be great as the idiosyncratic Smith, so I did not take this in my stride:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). So to compensate for my loss, I’m going to look at two other instances where the lives of poets have been imagined, in a novel and in a play.

Firstly, John Clare (and to a lesser extend Alfred Lord Tennyson) as imagined by Adam Foulds in The Quickening Maze (Vintage, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009.

NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton  300_tennyson

John Clare suffered with poor mental health for most of his adult life, and for a time was an inpatient at High Beach Asylum in Essex.  The Tennyson brothers move nearby as Septimus is being treated for depression, but thankfully this isn’t an excuse for Foulds to create conversations on the nature of poetry between the two versifiers (can you imagine? ‘What think you Clare, of this long poem of mine?’ ‘Will you permit me Alfred, to suggest In Memoriam is better name than My Friend Hallam What Died?’ Ugh.  OK, so Foulds would never be that bad, but sometimes these things can be so clumsy as to become comical).

Instead Foulds looks at the lives contained within and without the asylum, and the nature of their various freedoms and restraints.  Alongside the patients live the profligate Dr Allen, who has progressive ideas on treatment but lacks the focus to truly push things forward; his daughter Hannah, desperate for freedom but unsure how to get it other than by marrying; the grieving Tennyson yearning for his dead friend and for critical approval; and of course Clare, the ‘peasant poet’, determined to leave the built environment of the asylum for the forest beyond:

“As he worked in the admiral’s garden…being there, given time, the world revealed itself again in silence, coming to him. Gently it breathed around him its atmosphere: vulnerable, benign, full of secrets, his.  A lost thing returning. How it waited for him in eternity and almost knew him. He’d known and sung it all his life.”

Things begin to unravel: Clare becomes progressively more deluded, the doctor veers towards bankruptcy again, Hannah harbours fantasies regarding Tennyson which amount to nothing. But The Quickening Maze is a novel of quiet, closely observed drama of domestic life (despite the asylum and famous poets), rather than enormous, declamatory moments:

“From her window, Hannah could see Charles Seymour prowling outside the grounds, swishing his stick from side to side. Boredom, a sane frustration, a continuous mild anger: Hannah thought he looked like a friend, someone whose life was as empty and miserable as her own…he raised a hand to lift his hat and found he wasn’t wearing one.  He smiled and mimed instead. Hannah gazed for a moment down at his shoes and smiled also.”

Foulds is an accomplished poet himself, and this shows itself in tightly constructed prose full of startling images:

“She liked the pinch of absence, the hollow air, reminiscent of the real absence. She wanted to stay out there, to hang on her branch in the world until the cold had burned down to her bones. She could leave her scattered bones on the snow and depart like light.”

The result is a tightly plotted novel that maintains a contemplative, elegiac quality: perfect for the poets it captures.

Secondly, Oscar Wilde, as imagined by David Hare in The Judas Kiss, which premiered at the Almeida in 1998.

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The story of Oscar Wilde is so well-known, it can be difficult to imagine what more there is to be said on it.  What Hare gives his audience is an Oscar past his prime, bruised and sad, the architect of his own downfall.  The first act sees Wilde staying in London to face the court over allegations he is gay (which was illegal at the time) while his friends urge him to leave:

“Ross. Oscar, I’m afraid it’s out of the question. You simply do not have time.

Wilde. Do I not?

Ross. You are here to say your goodbyes to Bosie.

Wilde. Yes of course.  But a small drink, please, Robbie, you must not deny me.

Ross. Why, no.

Wilde. And then, of course I shall get going. I shall go on the instant.

Arthur. Do you want to taste, sir?

Wilde. Pour away. Hock tastes like hock, and seltzer like seltzer. Taste is not in the bottle. It resides in one’s mood. So today no doubt hock will taste like burnt ashes. Today I will drink to my own death.”

The knowledge we have of the outcome, rather than resigning us to Wilde’s fate, actually adds to the dramatic urgency.  I found myself desperately rooting for Ross, wishing Oscar would listen, that somehow the outcome would be different and he wouldn’t stay long enough to allow the courts to give him a two year sentence. But Wilde is stubborn, proud, defiant, and wonderful, as his selfish, weak lover Bosie testifies:

“You have wanted this thing. In some awful part your being, you love the idea of surrender.  You think there’s some hideous glamour in letting Fate propel you down from the heights!”

But Bosie doesn’t want Wilde to leave, rather stay and fight his battles for him with his father, the Marquess of Queensbury, who is  challenging Wide in court.  Between his own wilfulness and Bosie’s self-interest, Wilde agrees to stay…

In the second act we are in Italy with a Wilde after he has left prison and moved abroad “grown slack and fat and his face is ravaged by deprivation and alcohol”.  Bosie is enjoying himself with the local beauties, while Wilde is isolated and contemplative:

“I am shunned by you all, and my work goes unperformed, not because  of the sin – never because of the sin – but because I refuse to accept the lesson of the sin.”

The Judas Kiss is a tragic play, but not in the usual sense.  No-one dies, there is no physical violence, and yet we witness betrayal, destruction and loss.  It’s heart-breaking, and at the centre of it all is the great genius of Oscar Wilde, who we witness fading away.

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To end, the words of a poet rather than words written about them. Wilde responded to this trauma through his art, and created The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.” (Prince Humperdinck, The Princess Bride)

I have an enduring weakness for swashbucklers, which I think is due to watching Errol Flynn at an impressionable age.

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So of course I have been watching the BBC series The Musketeers, which ended a few weeks ago.  I was very put-out that [SPOILER ALERT] Marc Warren’s dastardly Comte de Rochefort died in the final episode. There wasn’t really any other option for his character, but Marc Warren always creates great baddies and I was sad to see him go (also he looked awesome– I think eyepatches should come back as a thing):

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I thought I’d console myself by looking this week at literary villains.  There are so many great ones to choose from, and villains are often so much more compelling than the heroes.  Of course some of them are just downright despicable:

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But generally the story is a sorrier place when they’re not in it (and therefore usually ends at that point).

Firstly, for obsessive, depraved stab-happy villains, you need never look further than Jacobean tragedy.  I’ve chosen Ferdinand from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1612). Ferdinand is the twin brother of the titular character and he is barking mad (quite literally, as he thinks he is a werewolf and goes round digging up graves after dark).  He doesn’t want the sister he characterises as a ‘lusty widow’ remarrying.  To this end he employs melancholic henchman Bosola:

‘Your inclination to shed blood rides post

 Before my occasion to use you.  I give you that

 To live i’ the court here, and observe the duchess;

 To note all the particulars of her haviour,

 What suitors do solicit her for marriage,

 And whom she best affects.  She’s a young widow:

 I would not have her marry again.’

The poor Duchess, being female, is entirely disempowered against Ferdinand and her other brother, a corrupt Cardinal.  She only wants love:

“Why should only I,

Of all the other princes of the world,

Be cas’d up, like a holy relic?  I have youth

 And a little beauty.”

She finds affection with the pretty steward Antonio, but normal family life never stands a chance in the depraved court where your own brother is sexually obsessed with you “my imagination will carry me/ To see her in the shameful act of sin”  and spends his time, when he’s not pretending to be a wolf, imagining you in flagrante:

Happily with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o’th’woodyard that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar; or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.

Yep, Ferdinand is insane.  Yet he’s part and parcel of a society that is utterly degraded and false.  In the hands of a good actor, he isn’t cartoony evil, twirling his moustache, but almost as much as a victim as the Duchess.  There have been two productions in London in recent years which have seen excellent performances by Harry Lloyd (Old Vic, 2012) and David Dawson (Globe, 2014) as Ferdinand, both of which captured his cruel depravity, and his tragedy.

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This being a Jacobean tragedy, I don’t think it’s a SPOILER to say that everyone dies, yet Webster gives Ferdinand a moment of clarity, and some of the most beautiful lines in drama, as his dying words:

Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.

Amazing. Those final lines make Ferdinand complex and insightful, and a truly great villain.

Secondly, another sure-fire source of colourful villains: Charles Dickens.  I’m not the biggest Dickens fan, but actually the things I don’t like about him (clearly delineated binaries like good/bad and one-dimensional stereotypes instead of fully realised characters) do make for opportunities to enjoy all-out villainy.  You can usually tell the villains in Dickens because he helpfully signposts them through names like Ezekiel Slime or similar.  In this instance, I’m going to look at David Copperfield’s (1849) Uriah Heep (see what I mean?) the obsequious clerk to David’s landlord Mr Wickfield. I chose him over a more obvious villain like Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, because he’s more insidious (although Bill Sykes outdoes every villain in the millinery stakes):

 

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Bill Sykes never tries to present himself as anything other than downright terrifying, whereas Uriah Heep is always trying to convince everyone of his humility:

“”I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite. I stopped at the umble point of my learning […] I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!'”

Of course, he is far from humble.  Instead his fawning manner disguises a vicious class jealousy and powerful ambition to take over the Wickfield business through blackmail, before marrying the virtuous Agnes (as someone who can’t stand Dickens’ pious virgins I think it’s not a bad match, but I realise I may be alone in this). With Victorian beliefs that appearance demonstrated character, it seems improbable that anyone would ever trust the unattractive Heep:

“a youth of fifteen …whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand…”

Yet he still manages to ingratiate himself quite successfully and defraud the Wickfields amongst others.  Of course, this being Dickens, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, so his comeuppance is inevitable.  Heep is a highly effective villain, wholly unlikeable and so oily he just seeps across the page. Uriah Heep : a villain so villainous they named a rock band after him (really).

To end, probably the most single-minded, seductive villain of all time (George Sanders’ voice is a joy):

“My brother Bob doesn’t want to be in government – he promised Dad he’d go straight.” (John F. Kennedy)

Have sympathy for me reader, for it’s started and it won’t stop until 7 May. We are having a national election, which means turning on the news is to hear about how the various parties interpret the same statistics entirely differently, each claiming a victory for themselves; incessant party political broadcasts with production values only slightly above a year seven video project; smug campaigning by politicians desperately trying to disguise their smugness in a series of cringey set pieces to convince us they are in touch with something called ‘the ordinary man’…it goes on, and on, and on…

I’m going to cheer myself up with a picture of Rik Mayall (works every time)as Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, a brilliant piece of satire about Thatcher’s government:

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“We hear an awful lot of leftie whingeing about NHS waiting lists. Well the answer’s simple. Shut down the health service. Result? No more waiting lists. You see, in the good old days, you were poor, you got ill and you died. And yet these days people seem to think they’ve got some sort of God-given right to be cured. And what is the result of this sloppy socialist thinking? More poor people. In contrast, my policies would eradicate poor people, thereby eliminating poverty. And they say that we Conservatives have no heart.”

Resistance is futile, so I’m embracing it this week by looking at writing about politics. Drama seemed to be the way to go, as there is much discussion at the moment about political theatre. James Graham’s play The Vote, is being broadcast live on election night, a real time drama about a polling station, making the link between theatre and politics explicit. It also means there’ll be something to watch other than endless exit poll speculation, for which I am truly grateful (I will be voting by the way, I just hate all the politicking).

Firstly, Stuff Happens by David Hare, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2004.  A ‘recent history’ play, the title comes from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s reaction on being told that there was looting in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s deposition.  Watching a recent history play is a strange business, presenting events that will have had an immediate impact on our lives.  The play considers the run-up to the Iraq War, and Hare does a great job of balancing factual information and dramatic action; public speeches and imagined private conversations.  He looks at the main government players in the US and UK, exploring the political manoeuvring that occurs when no-one’s too sure exactly what the fight is:

“Rumsfeld.  I liked what you said earlier, sir. A war on terror. That’s good. That’s vague.

Cheney.  It’s good.

Rumsfeld. That way we can do anything.”

This obfuscation through meaningless rhetoric seems to be part of the politics of our age.  In this instance, we know what it led to, and Stuff Happens could be a very bleak and cynical play.  However, I think Hare encourages scepticism rather than cynicism when it comes to politics, using our knowledge of how events played out to deepen our understanding of why stuff happens, presenting the person behind the politician. There is heightened dramatic irony running through imagined private dialogue like this:

“Blair. I’ve been thinking. I’ve had this idea. I need…I think it might help if we had some sort of dossier. A kind of dossier.”

The knowledge that this ‘sexed-up’ ‘dodgy dossier’ would haunt Blair’s remaining time in office means the audience/reader witnesses this tentative suggestion with a sense of dread.  It’s a tough job to make politics entertaining when you have a duty to those who have lived it to keep to the facts, but Hare balances it all beautifully, and creates an entertaining and thought-provoking piece that is responsible but not dogmatic.  There are even opportunities for some wry humour, in this instance from the mouth of Secretary of State Colin Powell:

“There’s an element of hypocrisy, George. We were trading with the guy!  Not long ago. People keep asking, how do we know he’s got weapons of mass destruction? How do we know? Because we’ve still got the receipts.”

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Secondly, another (less) recent history play, Democracy by Michael Frayn, which also premiered at the National, in 2003.  Set in West Berlin in 1969, it tells the story of Chancellor Willy Brandt, the first liberal-leaning Chancellor elected in Germany since before World War II, and his personal assistant Gunter Guillaume, who had begun life in East Germany, and was spying on the Chancellor for the Stasi.  The playtext describes the setting as:

“a complex of levels an spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of the action when not actually involved in it, listening or unobtrusively involved in their work”

This captures the bureaucracy and paranoia of Cold War government, the environment in which Willy Brandt tried to effect change whilst being a bit…ineffectual.

“Brandt. Let’s talk about it. See if we can’t find a solution that keeps everyone happy.

Schmidt. You can’t keep everyone happy, Willy! Not if you’re running a government!  We’ve got come to a decision!

Brandt. Thank you, Helmut.  What do the rest of us feel…?”

These days Germany is such a powerful world leader, it can be easy to forget the fragility of its post-war state.  Even in 1969 Brandt was faced with:

“Two Germanies, broken apart like the old shattered masonry. This is the material out of which we have to build the world we’re going to be living in tomorrow. This is the only material we possess – the two Germanies as they actually are. Riddled with doubts and suspicions on both sides.”

As the government tries to navigate a way forward, Brandt and Guillaume’s relationship adds to the complexity of the situation, as Guillaume’s Stasi handler observes:

“You and Willy. You’re like some old couple who’ve been married for forty years.  He goes down so you go down.  He comes up again and….”

Democracy is a subtle, intelligent study of people and politics in a time where nothing is straightforward.  Brandt and Willy distrust each other and rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship that defies easy definition.  It’s a play about politics but Democracy also succeeds on a very human level.

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If the electioneering has left you feeling somewhat jaded about politics, let’s end by looking back to the politics of the past, noble statesmen concerning themselves with issues of great import…

“There shall be no more novels about incest. No, not even ones in very bad taste.” (Julian Barnes)

Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of upsetting sexual subject matter.  Please do not read if you are not an adult or if you will find such discussion traumatic.

I’ve picked a rather disturbing theme for my post this week, as you may have guessed from the title quote. I try and pick a theme based on what’s been happening at the time, and for me this week it’s incest.  I feel I should qualify that statement rather rapidly: I went to see Maxine Peake’s Hamlet – that Oedipal family drama to end all Oedipal family dramas – and then I saw A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong.

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(Images from: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/21/hamlet-maxine-peake-royal-exchange-review-delicate-ferocityhttp://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout9-a-view-from-the-bridge )

Then in my early modern literature class, someone pointed out that Tis Pity She’s a Whore (where a brother and sister are in a relationship) had warped her mind because when we read A King and No King (where a brother & sister struggle with their mutual attraction) she couldn’t see what the problem was & why they didn’t just get on with it.  Don’t get an education kids, it will put your moral compass on permanent fritz.

But if you can cope with the upsetting subject matter, there’s been some wonderful novels written about circumstances where incest occurs, so I hope you’ll stick with me.

Firstly, Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992).  This is the first of the Patrick Melrose quintet, St Aubyn’s series of autobiographical novels (the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was nominated for the Booker in 2006).  In this first novel , Patrick is five years old, living in France for the summer with his alcoholic mother and controlling, cruel father.  As Patrick explores the garden, creating adventures for himself, St Aubyn brilliantly evokes the microscopic view of a child:

“As Patrick approached the house, climbing as usual the right–hand flight of the double staircase because it was luckier, he turned into the garden to see if he could find the frog that lived in the fig tree.  Seeing the tree frog was very lucky indeed.  Its bright green skin was even smoother against the smooth grey skin of the fig tree, and it was hard to find it amongst the fig leaves which were almost the same colour as itself.  In fact, Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes…above all at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewellery, but greedier for breath.”

The third person narrative enables St Aubyn to shift between the various Melroses so that while the parents are reprehensible (the mother) and downright repugnant (the father) you understand why they are the way they are; how damaged they are and how they continue to inflict damage on all who surround them.

What makes it bearable is St Aubyn’s beautiful, intelligent prose; the delicate way he approaches the Melroses to capture this moment in family history.

“’What did you do today?’

‘Nothing,’ said Patrick, looking down at the floor.

‘Did you for a walk with Daddy?’ asked Eleanor bravely.  She felt the inadequacy of her questions, but could not overcome the dread of having them scantily answered.

Patrick shook his head. A branch swayed outside the window, and watched the shadow of its leaves flickering above the curtain pole.  The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like deflated lungs.  Down the corridor a door slammed. Patrick looked at the clutter on his mother’s desk. It was covered in letters, envelopes, paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, and a profusion of different-coloured cheque books.  An empty champagne glass stood beside a full ashtray.”

SPOILER: And now, to quote the vampire Lestat, I’m going to give you the choice I never had. Never Mind is a great novel.  Edward St Aubyn is a hugely talented writer.  He was also repeatedly raped by his father as a small child and his novels are autobiographical.  In Never Mind, there is a scene where Patrick is raped by his father. I didn’t know this when I was reading the novel (I read the scene on a train, and had to get off at the next stop because I genuinely thought I was going to be sick), and I’m telling you so you can decide whether or not to read it. I would urge you to do as it is such a brilliant novel, but go in prepared.

Phew!  Let’s pause for a moment and go to a happy place:

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Secondly, The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville (1997) which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997.  Set in Guyana and spanning most of the twentieth century, Melville uses the lives of generations of an Amerindian family to explore large themes: colonialism, the nature of love, religion and progress.  In contrast to Never Mind, this is a tale told with vivacity, serious but not depressing.

“Where was I? Oh yes. My grandmother.  She still refers with rage to a man called Charles Darwin who wandered through the region with the slow-motion frenzy of a sloth, measuring and collecting.  No one round here likes measurers, collectors and enumerators.  We cannot hoard in the tropics.  Use it or some other creature will eat it.  Sooner or later everything falls to the glorious spirit of rot with its fanfares of colours and nose-twisting stenches.”

The narrator/ventriloquist tells the story of the McKinnon family: Scottish Alexander McKinnon who builds a life in Guyana with 2 wives; his incestuous son and daughter; and the present day Chofy McKinnon, drawn back to Guyana through a love affair.

“It was confusing for McKinnon. He settled into the life well at one level, but every now and then he caught a glimpse of a world he did not understand at all.  He tried to discuss things with his father-in-law who was something of a philosopher and who explained to McKinnon that there was no point in trying to do anything about everyday life.  It was an illusion behind which lay the unchanging reality of dream and myth.”

These themes of The Ventriloquist’s Tale are heightened by the heady environment that challenges what is real:

“It was night and the deer was hiding somewhere in the tall grasses. Danny lay on the side of the sloping hill.  The rough grass under him felt like the pelt of an animal.  He almost imagined he could feel it breathing.”

Reading this novel engages all the senses: you can see, smell and taste all that is happening.  There’s a strong current of humour too; Melville has accomplished a novel that would be astonishing at any point in a writer’s career, but all the more so as a first novel.

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