FLEABAG AND THE RAPE LAWYER

FLEABAG AND THE RAPE LAWYER

Towards the end of Series 2 of the 2016-2019 hit BBC comedy drama, Fleabag, written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (born 1985), the lead character, a beautiful and mischievous London café owner aged 30, is sat in a shambling community hall where a lunchtime Quaker meeting is taking place. Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) has been invited there by a young Catholic priest, played by Dubliner Andrew Scott (born 1976) famous as Moriarty in the acclaimed Sherlock Holmes TV series. The priest is soon to solemnize the marriage of Fleabag’s widowed Dad to her appalling godmother, and the Man of God is liberal by any standards with his boozing and uninhibited use of four-letter words. Before long Fleabag will declare her love for him and they will sleep together, after which he decides to stick to his vocation, and abruptly ends their affair. For the moment though, he is giving her some spiritual training, for as everyone knows in Quaker meetings you sit in total silence until someone is moved by the Spirit and stands up and says something. There are only about 4 people in the place, and at length one of them, an old hairy, bearded and melancholy man, gets up and with a great effort mournfully declares:

“I think… I will go home …in November.”

A few minutes later Fleabag follows his lead, takes to her feet, and pertly announces: “I think I would be less of a feminist… if I had bigger tits.”

The first declaration is funny because of the old man’s comical hopelessness and because of the severe anti-climax. The second confession is not even half funny (made even less so by the priest restraining an overdone mirth), but not because of the arguable irreverence at a religious meeting. It is not funny, because if you have been watching the series thus far, you will note that the last thing Fleabag is is a feminist in anyone’s broadest terms, unless conceivably they are Waller-Bridge’s, and no one else’s. In short summary, in Series 1 Fleabag bumps into commuting Bus Rodent (Jamie Demetriou) a toothy babbling caricature of a young middle-class chap, and they fix a dinner date where she soon tells him to his face he is an idiot. However later, when lonely, she arranges another date with Mr Teeth, and it is unarguably funny that as he furiously copulates with her, he keeps babbling, I’m nearly done, I’m nearly done, I’m nearly done…as if instead of sex he has been hogging her only toilet. Add to this, that all through the series, Fleabag addresses the camera with a smiling ironical commentary, usually a sort of repetitive rhythmical denial of some hypocritical assertion from her current sexual partner, or antagonistic godmother. This is often very well timed and funny, but her pivotal feminism along with much of the comic potential, flies out of the window, as she also meets up with her peevish and infantile regular boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner, born 1985). Harry keeps breaking it off with her, but always leaves a toy dinosaur that he has to come back for, and he also attempts relationship catharsis by cleaning her house from top to bottom. He whines in a little boy voice, and is in every way an embarrassment, yet Fleabag keeps going back to him, and is genuinely grieved when he finds a permanent partner. Finally, there is the aptly named Arsehole Guy (Ben Aldridge, born 1985) whose good looks, like more than one character in this show, are repetitively overemphasised. He loves anal sex and grows quite moist-eyed about its significance (ditto he symbolically loses his erection when he thinks he is in love with her) whereas Fleabag after the vigorous rear entry experience rhetorically addresses the world with:

“Does that mean I’ve got a huge arsehole?”

As you can see, the series is full of entertaining one-liners, which are unarguably heightened by Fleabag’s remarkably mobile and handsome face. Much of the dramatic force of the show, and I would hazard its massive commercial success, are down to the charisma of Waller-Bridge’s infinitely expressive, teasing, by turns ingenuous and disingenuous face. However, Fleabag’s essential vision of herself as an instinctive feminist (she and her sister Claire attend a lecture on Successful Women early in Series 1) gets even more worryingly lost in the script, when Hot Misogynist comes on the scene. Played by Ray Fearon, who is of West Indian origin, and is best known as a car mechanic in Coronation Street, he too keeps getting repetitively referred to as ‘good looking’, whereas the fact is he has a homely and friendly face and no one apart from Fleabag/Phoebe would make a meal out of his notional sex appeal. Hot Misogynist is a very expensive London lawyer, recommended by sister Claire as Fleabag had violently punched Claire’s American husband, the antique dealer Martin, on the nose at a dinner party, and the litigious Martin is taking her to court. So far so good, but in a couple of worrying lines that might get overlooked, Claire tells Fleabag that this stinking rich lawyer specialises in defending rapists, and he has never lost a case. So let us pull those lines out into the fresh air, and offer the indisputable assertion that Fleabag is turned on by a guy who always gets men accused of raping women,  willy-nilly out of court, and thus out of prison…but who in a Quaker meeting declares herself a feminist, albeit only as long as she has small breasts.

The diagnosis is that both the script writer and her rapacious character Fleabag, and for that matter a sizeable proportion of the rapturous TV audience, are all considerably confused (according to a UK friend of mine the Guardian arts pages for ages now have been talking about little else but brilliant Fleabag and the prodigy Phoebe). It is simply not enough to jokily exculpate the arm and a leg rape lawyer, who boasts that he is great in bed, by Fleabag wisely telling the camera that, if he brags he is so hot, he can’t possibly be so, then shaking her head once in bed with him, and saying, oh yes he is, yes he is, oh yes he is…!

Before I mention some other debatable conflations of character and comic register, and the question of basic inner credibility, let me give Waller-Bridge her deserved credit for those things in Fleabag which are original and at times outstanding.

Part of the programme’s appeal and especially for women, is that it bravely takes on those hitherto taboo subjects that you might say are bawdy and scatological, and which have normally been the province of male scriptwriters and their characters. Fleabag has a good deal of graphic simulated sex, much of it of the anal variety, which I would guess makes its first UK TV appearance here. This is surely also the first time that male viewers have been able to appreciate a woman scriptwriter revealing what is an open secret to many women, namely that a great many men are inordinately and puerilely obsessed by sex via the tradesman’s entrance (in Greece the men who are also obsessed by it, call it ‘storming the castle’). Add to that there is open female masturbation on Fleabag, and that it is very funny when she furtively pleasures herself in bed next to Harry whilst watching gorgeous Barack Obama on her laptop, then instantly denies it. Her language in this context is unambiguous, and not long ago would have been banned on TV. She asks Harry if he ‘wanks’, and later addressing the camera as to the nature of her odious godmother says she is a ‘see you en tee’ (my considered phonetics, not Fleabag’s). Then, turning to the amiable buffoonery of farting, there is a fair bit of that in Fleabag, all of it female. Her unhappy sister Claire at one point bizarrely complains she hasn’t farted for 3 years, while Fleabag has the reverse problem. To Claire’s horror, she drops one that is pungent and malodorous in a lift the two are sharing, and when a nice woman enters and sniffs the air, expects the worst. Instead the woman commends Fleabag on her exquisite scent. That said, it is worth pointing out that other gifted female comics got there first with the fearless farting, and with the controversial subject of women who are capable of being totally outrageous. Two massive comic talents who both cut their teeth on excellent Scottish sketch shows, are Morwenna Banks (born 1961) who appeared on the early 90s Channel 4’s Absolutely and Karen Dunbar (born 1971) who starred in BBC Scotland’s Chewin The Fat approximately a decade later. They both went on to have their own shows, and in one of Banks’s Channel 5 skits, she plays a posh young woman who is rotten drunk, and who hiccups, belches and farts so horribly she effectively poisons her boyfriend played by Absolutely regular, Gordon Kennedy. Even better, Dunbar in her spin off show plays a woman in a medical surgery which the doctor has vacated for a while. Bored, she starts playing with his stethoscope, and by way of finale sticks it down her pants and farts volcanically inside it, just as the doctor is returning. Dunbar (who incidentally is gay) also on Chewin  the Fat invented the mindblowing and taboo-breaking Betty The Auld Slapper, a frail white-haired lady in a wheelchair in a Glasgow care home, who spends her time salivating about all the excellent and furious sex she had in any conveniently empty air raid shelters during WW2, while her husband was away in the army.

Back to Fleabag, which if you look at it in standard compositional terms makes its success a quite baffling phenomenon. It is after all a comic drama, which means it needs to have characters who are strongly and vividly evoked, in order to make us laugh. Fleabag is a strong character, yes, and her sister Claire even more so, for Sian Clifford( born 1985, and also known for her TV appearance in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair) not only has the best lines, she is far and away the finest actor in this series. Claire is a successful businesswoman often working abroad, and makes a fortune in her job, but she is permanently overstressed, direly unhappy and self-doubting, and doesn’t hide it, least of all from her anarchic sister. She invariably stops Fleabag in her tracks before she opens her mouth, then hints that everything that she, Claire, does, is doomed to failure, and can never be any different. Her neurosis and her permanent angry irritation, make for strong comedy and a comedy which has convincing pathos, for she is not only likeable, you can tell that she also loves her appalling sister, though she does everything to hide the fact. Her US husband, antique dealer Martin, played by Brett Gelman (born 1976) is by contrast brash, angry, boozy and says outrageous things, partly one suspects because he finds upper middle class English mores so stultifying. If a woman he knows goes downstairs to the toilet in a restaurant, he improvises some misogynistic riff about fucking her down there, and he is standard slob predatorial inasmuch as he tries to kiss Fleabag on Claire’s birthday and then says that it was she tried to kiss him. He roars and explodes a good deal, and does his best with the lines Waller-Bridge gives him, but in the final event tends to the caricatural.

However, Martin does not spoil the show overall, for that honour is left to Fleabag’s Dad as portrayed by Bill Paterson (born 1945) a gifted veteran actor of film and stage, who is completely and embarrassingly at sea with the empty, vacuous and wholly pointless lines Waller-Bridge has given him. The core of the drama is that Fleabag and Claire loved their late Mum to distraction, and ditto their old Dad, whose fate worries them a great deal, as he is about to marry their obnoxious godmother (Olivia Colman, born 1974), a former student of their artist mother. Godmother has achieved stellar and very lucrative success as an avant-garde London artist, and does radical things like organising a Sexhibition which catalogues her orgasms among other things. She is the last word in preposterous and self-aggrandising New Age vanity and is also infinitely snide and malicious, which is why Fleabag justly summarises her as a see you en tee. Olivia Colman has a phenomenal track record as an actor with awards galore, and she likewise does her best with the waspish and witchish lines she has in her script, but the most obvious thing you note is she is acting on her own, because she is not getting the support she needs from the actor who is playing the man she claims to love to distraction. Bill Paterson waffles and stammers his harmless and forgettable observations about love and life, mostly to Fleabag, then prevaricates about nothing in particular, and makes numerous inconsequential clergyman-style jests, for he is meant to be portraying I’ve no idea what, nor I imagine did Waller-Bridge when she penned his lines. His single memorable character trait is he is tight with money, and not even that gets worked for comic effect.  He is supposed to be an adorable and charismatic father, but he is more like a ghost who has strayed amnesically onto screen. Yet he is there full on, for about 25-30% of the viewing time, and every time he comes on, you wince and wait for him to shut up. The direst scene is where he is reminiscing mistily about his wife, and he states that he loved her, but didn’t actually like her, as she was so much of a fun person and he alas, didn’t ‘do’ fun. At which point, Fleabag jostles him reprovingly and says, But you are fun, Dad! and you can actually hear the studio cat laughing in the deafening silence that follows.

As for inner credibility, which all drama, including comic drama, has to have, you ask yourself why the two sisters would spend so much time with Dad and future stepmum, when she is so odious and he is so paralysingly dull and stingy to boot. Claire is rolling in money and has no need to inherit, but as for Fleabag and her finances, this is where credible inner consistency again rears its awkward head. She runs a spectacularly unsuccessful café, and yet somehow leads a standard comfortable middle-class London existence in a smart flat, which as anyone will tell you needs quite some income. Waller-Bridge gets round this enigma in all-purpose baffling style, by having Fleabag randomly charge £12 or £20 for a sandwich, which unconvincingly all the customers stump up without demur, even when she has the gall to say she has no change. The cafe and its origins, is in fact the clue to the central artistic problem with Fleabag. It was the brainchild of Fleabag plus her friend Boo (played by Jennifer Rainsford) a warm and friendly and principled young woman with a marked local accent, as opposed to the standard grammar school posh of Fleabag and family and her boyfriends. The two of them endowed the cafe with a considerable novelty, by theming all of it with guinea pigs, so that every picture in the place is of the sweet little rodent, plus there is a specimen in a little hut which often gets taken out to be petted by Fleabag and her acquaintances. It’s whimsical enough to imagine a guinea pig café would take off even in anything-goes North London, though it does later clarify why Fleabag’s takings are so scant. However, tragedy intervenes at an early stage, for Boo falls for the nice lad who lives next door, and before long her free-floating amoral partner Fleabag gives into her own unstoppable passion, and sleeps with him, meaning she cheats on her best friend. The next stage you have to gulp at, for Waller-Bridge has Boo grotesquely deciding to stage a traffic accident, but only a little one, a minor scrape that is intended to win the lad’s attention and pity, and thus his fickle love. What we know so far of Boo’s common sense and down to earth caring character, makes this bizarre self-harm proposal whimsical in the extreme, but Waller-Bridge makes the tragedy increase on an exponential and dizzy scale, so that three other innocent people, as well as Boo, are killed in the collision. All this is done as intermittent flashback through the 2 series, so that we have the more or less unworkable scenario of a comedy series with the leadening ballast of Fleabag’s torturing sense of guilt at all that hellish sorrow she has caused. All the best comedies of course (Amarcord, Steptoe and Son, Phoenix Nights) have the authentic balance of convincing pathos, but multiple deaths and torturing guilt are not the stuff of pathos, they are instead Waller-Bridge shooting herself in the foot as a scriptwriter before she starts. Not only is she overloading her canvas with so much tragedy, but that unconvincing tragedy and the sweet little guinea pig café and the £20 sandwiches and the fact Fleabag lives in London on fresh air, and that she dotes lovingly on her terminally dreary Dad, and that she an atheist is deeply in love with a sweet and puckish little Catholic priest, all of it is cumulatively and irreversibly  and artistically incredible. For the problem is, that even the scattiest and most surreal of comic dramas, needs to have a unifying inner consistency, to be credible within its own artistic terms, not just a take it or leave it string of random episodic eccentricities.

To return to the business of Boo and her origins. I don’t know whether Waller-Bridge did this deliberately, but in schematic terms she has a specific clutch of characters who are intended to be comic, namely Fleabag’s dysfunctional family members and her troop of usually witless boyfriends. To a man and woman, they are all comfortably off London professionals, with independent or fee paying school accents to match (aside of course from the American, Martin). On the other hand, there are three Fleabag characters who are basically decent and kind-hearted individuals, and who happen to have markedly ordinary accents (meaning that 2 of them have regional London suburb intonations) and who do not come of a privileged background. They, by contrast, are all capable of warmth and friendliness, for they listen to Fleabag, and take her and her problems seriously. They are the tragic Boo; the kindly Bank Manager who is also the business grant man (played by Hugh Dennis of Punt and Dennis fame, born 1962) and the brotherly Catholic Priest, who being a Dubliner is ipso facto warm and friendly and is an honorary regional provincial.

This schematic dichotomy of kind and human and therefore unlikely to be funny characters, versus selfish and dysfunctional and hence potentially comic types, presents technical problems for any would be comedy writer. It means that Fleabag is a cross between hectic comedy and straight sentimental drama, and inevitably that mixture of registers weakens and dilutes its overall strength. When the decent priest tries to explain to Fleabag what God and goodness mean to him, and she amiably analyses her own atheism, it is all very nice and reasonable, but the comedy coefficient temporarily drops, and we suddenly forget what kind of programme it is we are watching. Also, the message, attractive as it is, that posh and affluent folk are inextricably fucked up and objectionable egotists, whereas ordinary and poorer folk are kind and amiable and unselfish listeners, just isn’t the final truth. As someone from the northern working class provinces myself, I promise you that some of the best and least selfish people in the world are of moneyed and privileged origins, whilst some of the dreariest buggers in the universe are sadly from the working class sticks.

In case this looks like an envious demolition job upon a young and very successful writer, let me hasten to add that I thoroughly applaud Waller-Bridge’s other major TV project, namely the scripting of Series 1 of the drama series, the equally acclaimed Killing Eve (BBC America 2018 onwards). A tongue in cheek fable about the UK secret service pitted against its Russian counterpart, it is strongly plotted, with an impressively sustained tension and an original line in imaginatively quirky twists. In homage to the celebrated Danish crime series The Bridge, it pulls in its main actor, Kim Bodnia (born 1965) and has him as a baddie in the form of an amoral Russian secret service boss. In The Bridge, Bodnia is a decent Copenhagen detective with an effective but also amoral colleague, Saga Noren (played by Sofia Helen) who sleeps with various men, but, as if borderline autistic, has no emotional attachments whatever. The Killing Eve equivalent is a remarkable psychopathic assassin working for the Russians, called Villanelle, played flawlessly by the English actress Jodie Comer (born 1993) and for which she won a British Academy TV Award. I have only seen the first series and can’t wait to see the rest.

The next post will be on or before Saturday, August 31st

JEAN GIONO, A PROPHET FOR OUR TIMES

JEAN GIONO, A PROPHET FOR OUR TIMES

Here is Jean Giono (1895-1970) prolific French novelist, militant pacifist, and native of Manosque, Provence, on the principal underlying reason for the outbreak of WW1:

‘The men, too well fed, had forgotten their powers of procreation; they were uniting with gasoline, phosphates, things without thighs. This gave them a thirst for blood.’

Blue Boy (1931)

Things without thighs? Whether or not you subscribe to his view of shall we say Direly Estranged Early 20th C Pan-European Masculine Fecundity, I would bet a small fortune you have never read anything like it, not even in the most magical of South American Magical Realism, Marquez included. The tone is truculent and didactic, and above all original, forcing us to contemplate things anew, in a radical and paradoxical way. People who fall in love with Giono’s fiction, do so partly because of his anger with the ugliest side of alienated 20th century technology, and our consequent estrangement from the beauty and the poetry of the stabilising natural world. They also fall in love with books like Second Harvest (1930, made into a film by director and novelist Marcel Pagnol in 1937) and his autobiographical childhood novel  Blue Boy, because of his quite phenomenal powers of evoking Nature in its all force, finesse and fury (variously Provence’s wild birds, foraging sheep, wandering goats, woodlands, skies, clouds, rain, drought, thunder and lightning).He is quite simply, and by a long margin, the most gifted of a handful of European writers (see also parts of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and some of his short stories, and one or two of the novels of fellow Provencal author Pagnol, and ditto of the Vaudoise Swiss writer CF Ramuz, 1878-1947) who evokes with uncannily vivid and accurate precision the transcendental power of Nature. He does so with the authority of someone who really knows what they are talking about, in this case the remotest reaches of rural Provence of 120 years ago. For they have seen it, smelt, it, heard it, touched it, noted it in every nuanced detail, effectively photographed it in their memory, then bestowed it on the page for ever more.

The quotes that follow are all from Blue Boy.

‘The ewes slept in the thyme. Sometimes without opening their eyes, they would open their lips, bite a tuft of blossoms, and begin to chew from right to left, dripping a little purple foam.’

Note the unparalleled precision: eyes closed, chewing from right to left, the purple foam. You might vaguely imagine that Thomas Hardy could have written with such touchingly exact detail, but no he couldn’t: his rustic characters are larger than life, but their pastoral milieu is not evoked with such tender exactitude. As for that other English novelist and countryman, Henry Williamson, avid Hitler-admirer (true, incredibly, even after WW2 was over) and author of Salar the Salmon and Tarka the Otter, he wrote all-purpose anthropomorphic lyrical impressionism, which is to say that actually we are reading not about Salar nor Tarka, but about the quaintest refractions of Henry Williamson. Meanwhile 1920s upper crust British writers Mary Webb, Eden Philpotts, TF Powys etc, who as a rule only observed people of the soil from their parlour windows, yet who chose stylised Shropshire and Dorset countryfolk for their idealised bucolic tableaus, went in for overwrought at times hysterical rustic gothic, as roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in her 1932 novel, Cold Comfort Farm.

The very greatest artists in any genre (e.g. in music, Bach, Django Reinhardt, John McLaughlin) are often to be seen moving towards the absolute limits, then heedlessly pushing beyond them. On that basis, here is Giono performing the theoretically impossible as he particularises an elaborate process taking place between a man and a bird. He is describing his Dad, a shoemaker of Piedmont/ Italian extraction, feeding his caged nightingale.

‘The nightingale’s cage had a putrid odour. He had to be fed on earthworms chopped into bits. My father cut the worms with an iron fork whose 5 prongs he had sharpened with his 3-cornered file. He also fed his nightingale flies. He would catch the flies in his hand, then give them to the bird. The nightingale stuck his bill through the bars to pierce the fly’s abdomen. A drop of blood, thick and white like pus, oozed out. When the fly was a big one, or if it was a May beetle, my father would cut the insect in half. First, he gave him the thorax with its blue wings. “The poorer bit first,” he said. Then he would offer the little honey-filled sack of the abdomen.’

Note that the 5 prongs and the 3 corners to the file are not put there like two dogged items of police reportage. Alongside the vividness and astringence of some of the grisly entomological detail, they give a life to the prose that can never fade, which is to say that in their absolute precision they become, as if by sleight of hand, immortal.

Blue Boy is told in the first person, and Jean the narrator starts his story when he is around 5 years old. The initial scene-setting, in a fictionalised Manosque around 1900, is predictably vivid, economical, and infinitely atmospheric.

‘The carts rolled noisily into the jaws of the wayside inns with their loads of corn flour and black wine. The carters said “Porca madona”. They sneezed like mules that have puffed up pipe smoke, and they stayed on this side of hill the with the poplars and the carts. The chief inn was called Au Territoire de Piemont.’

Jean is the only child of the cobbler, a gentle political radical, who regularly gives shelter to Italian anarchists on the run from the Piedmont police. His mother runs a laundry from the same premises and she has 3 playful and flirtatious young women in the house who look after Jean, take him to school, kiss him and pet him, and one of whom knots his tie in such a way she half strangles her little charge. Their characterisation is confidently idiosyncratic, and as always, allusively precise.

‘Antonine was redhaired and abrupt…She laughed as she eyed the boys and then her narrow lips could be seen opening over sparkling teeth, as though they had been split with a knife. At times her glance was gathered in one corner of her eye, as if she had let all that purple viscosity of her ordinary glance run into the corner, in order to spurt it from there into the boys’ eyes as from the spout of an oil cruet.’

As fictional foil to these no-nonsense girls, there are the colourful eccentrics, the quaint in-roaders, best exemplified by two scrawny music teachers, one a violinist and the other a flautist, and they are called Decidement and ‘Madame’ La Reine. Madame is the tallest and thinnest man Jean has ever seen, while Decidement is ferociously anticlerical and always greets the fat abbe at the top of his voice with, ‘Quack! Quack!’  Jean’s father encourages his son to have music lessons with these 2 odd gentlemen, who always politely address him as ‘The little Monsieur’. Though note that eccentricity is not just the province of troubled humans, for the animal and inanimate worlds that surround young Jean, can also be bizarre to the point of being horrific.

‘It was the ancient well that was speaking. Its door had been locked and it had been left to rot within. The well digger had said that down inside were two races of creature: white toads, completely white, without eyes, and as big as plates. They swelled up like bladders in order to float… “Toads yes and snakes too. Skinless snakes, or with a skin as thin as cigarette paper, just enough to hold their heart and vitals together.”’

A major pivot of the novel is infant Jean taking ill one day with an unspecified condition that is probably croup or diphtheria, but in any case, potentially fatal. There is seemingly no trained doctor or nurse involved in what happens next:

‘My throat had been swabbed with a spoon wound with cotton. I clenched my teeth. They pinched my nose. I opened my mouth and they quickly probed down deep with the spoon handle and scraped my throat. Then I vomited pus, skin and blood. Once I discharged from my nose two long candles of greyish membrane, throbbing and endowed with life like little wriggling fish. From that day, they let me alone, save to give me potent herb brews that descended inside me, hot, perfumed with the taste of earth and sun peculiar to irrigation waters in the summer meadows.’

After this brush with death, the father, Pere Jean, decides to send him way up into the hills to Corbiere, with the shepherd Massot, for a lengthy recuperation. As for his paternal advice on departure, one function Pere Jean has in the novel is as a kind of orator of sharp folk wisdom, meaning he allows Jean Giono to expound his singular pantheistic philosophy.

‘Eat Madame Massot’s soup nicely. It is coarse soup, but it is just because it is coarse that it will teach you to see things as a whole. And get some muscle. Big shoulders are useful in life, even if it is only to pull a thorn out of a hand.’

And as classic, and indeed unnerving Giono paradox, the soup maker Madame Massot’s outstanding beauty as a person, is understood as coming from her extraordinary ugliness.

‘She was an agreeable country lady, very ugly; with so much goodness in her blind eye, so much goodness in her good eye, so much goodness in her moustache, in her snuff-taking nose, in her sagging cheeks, in her black-lipped mouth, that she was frightfully ugly. It was an ugliness made of all that sacrifice which constitutes real goodness. In the photograph…all rigged out for the wedding, she was beautiful and fresh and seemingly inflated with an artless loveliness. That creature had to be gradually broken, burned, twisted, kneaded; the eye blinded, the body made ungainly, be cooked in the oven of goodness like a brick or a pot; it had to forget everything but that little red fruit that was the heart. She had fully succeeded.’

After the endless journey in the cart and before he collapses into bed, he is given a rustic supper of fritters, bilberry jam, some warm goat’s milk with a hair in it, and toast rubbed with garlic. In the restorative months that follow, way up in the hills, he does a great deal of reading of the classic epics, including Homer’s Iliad (loaned to his father by another Italian anarchist fleeing the police) as well as the Bible. This is of importance in understanding Giono’s extraordinary originality, because some of his most pantheistic and idealistic novels, The Song of the World (1934) and Joy of Man’s Desiring (1935) depict a Provence where the country characters e.g. the sage and prophetic vagabond Bobi, are more like the epic giants of the Iliad than workaday peasants. Which is to say that he makes his particular Giono Provence, an epic and timeless Provence, not an ordinary one…

However, here in Corbiere things are far from ordinary, as there is a sudden epidemic of suicides, principally because of thwarted and jealous love, a major motif in this novel as a whole. The priest shrewdly takes things in hand, by getting the villagers to attend a special service where they bring the ashes from their fires, which they throw to the winds, and then commence a festival of dancing, as a kind of communal exorcism. None of which would have anticipated the outlandish crisis that happens when the baker’s wife Aurelie, runs off with the handsome shepherd of Les Conches. Unfortunately, this new baker (the previous one committed suicide) possesses no chest to speak of, and Aurelie makes no bones about how she feels about that.

‘“You are a pitiful sight,”’ his wife said to him.

The shepherd, by contrast, arouses her healthy lust.

‘The bread for Les Conches was a 40 pound sack…She did not throw them in, she placed them in the bottom of the sack. She stooped down and straightened up with each loaf, and in that way, she displayed her breasts more than 100 times…and there he stood, dazzled by it all and by the pungent female odour that floated before him in the bright Sunday morning light.’

Aurelie elopes with the shepherd to the marshes and in the fine weather they camp out on an island of reeds. The stunned villagers take quite some time to track them down, and meanwhile the baker gives in to melancholy and alcohol and stops baking the bread.  It has now gone beyond the rather enjoyable comedy of someone else’s cuckolding, to a communal crisis, for as the villager Cesar says:

‘“Love is all very fine. But people have to eat.”’

 If the elopement tale so far seems rather familiar, it might be because you have seen Pagnol’s 1938 masterpiece, The Baker’s Wife. As in the movie, the priest and schoolteacher are sent out to bring Aurelie home, the former entertainingly on the latter’s back as they approach the reed island, the teacher being the only one in the village with a pair of oiled boots. In the novel, the outraged shepherd rides down to retrieve her, and a queasily vicious fight with Cesar ensues, reminiscent of the lethal even bestial violence depicted in Giono’s late novel about 2 homicidal brothers, Two Riders of the Storm (1965).

‘The shepherd’s head flew back, his arms hung limp. Cesar struck with his fist, deliberately and straight at the shepherd’s liver …Cesar struck again at the shepherd’s belt…The shepherd took 2 or 3 steps forward, fell to his knees, bowed his head and lay still on the ground.’

The novel ends with the outbreak of WW1 when Giono was 19, and the imminent death of his beloved father, the Piedmont cobbler.  Giono was conscripted and as depicted in his novel To the Slaughterhouse (1931) saw the indescribable carnage, involving not just frail and compromised men but the harmless animals. Thereafter, he became a militant pacifist, which unfortunately and with the approach of WW2, came at times to be seen as a form of appeasement or even tacit connivance with always thriving if nascent French Fascism. It didn’t help that during the War he contributed to literary journals run by collaborators, though the final judgement was that he did it out of sheer naivety and unworldliness rather than covert ideology. He was briefly jailed, and then released without charge.

There is one obvious and overwhelming proof that Giono was no latent nor clandestine appeaser. Consider that there is no such thing as a Fascist who is not a Nationalist, and Giono not only repudiated Nationalism, he also questioned the very ontological reality of that fiction or illusion called ‘France’.

‘What do you want me to do with this France that you have helped, it seems, to preserve, as I too have done? What shall we do with it, we who have lost all our friends? Ah! If it were a question of defending rivers, hills, mountains, skies, winds, rains, I would say “Willingly. That is our job. Let us fight. All our happiness in life is there.” No, we have defended the sham name of all that. When I see a river, I say ‘river’; when I see a tree, I say ‘tree’; I never say ‘France’. That does not exist.’

At a time in the UK when far from epic heroes like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith and the like, are babbling their infantilised drivel about putting the ‘greatness’ back into Great Britain, we could all learn a thing or two from Jean Giono.

The next post will be on or before Sunday, August 4th

GOLD AMONG THE RUBBISH BINS

GOLD AMONG THE RUBBISH BINS

Back in the early 1960s, when I was aged between 12 and 14, I sometimes used to embarrass my mother a great deal. But before I elaborate, I realise I need to backtrack in the form of fast forwarding, for in terms of intra-familial embarrassment, only 3 years later I was to be observed wearing my very long hair, ostentatiously centre-parted and backcombed bouffant style, the only thing missing being the mascara and the eye shadow. I did this in imitation of the members of the hit band, The Kinks, though it is true to say that thanks to my adolescent beardlessness, I looked rather more like Dusty Springfield (1939-1999) than I did the now Sir Ray Davies (born 1944). My mother (1915-1990) and my father (1915-1992) were both severely mortified by my arselong hair, and my Dad making no bones about it, addressed me much of the time as ‘Gladys’ in the hope that that would shame me into a haircut. It is also of anecdotal interest that one day outside of my bedroom, overhearing the raucous sounds of ‘Hello I Love You’ by The Kinks, he genuinely believed that it was our dustbin men coming 3 days early.

But back to the start of the Sixties. The reason why my mother was regularly horrified when the pair of us walked about in a West Cumbrian town like Workington (where I went to secondary school), or Whitehaven (we had a relative at nearby St Bees), or Maryport (my favourite public library of all time), or bustling Lake District Keswick… was that I would suddenly and without warning go diving into the civic litter bins and start ferreting rapidly for the gold I had noted inside. The unusual treasure I was after had few enthusiasts of any age or background, and I have only ever once met someone else who saved and preserved in an album…cigarette packets, both the 10 and the 20 packs. It was in fact a GS pupil of my own scholastic year, and by an odd coincidence, some 7 years later, he and I were 2 of those Grammar School rarities who went up to study at Oxford, so that you could if you believed in ad hoc deduction, conclude that collecting dusty cigarette packets in early puberty seriously increases cerebral acumen in late adolescence.

It is nearly 55 years since I pursued my singular hobby, but it is only in the last few years, in fact while living here on the Isle of Kythnos, that I realised why my passion was as strong as it was. For a start it had nothing to do with the notional charisma of teenage cigarette smoking, for I did not start on fags/snouts/tabs until I was 16 years old, doing O level exams, and needing some kind of cheap relaxant for the strain and stress (and yes, you’ve guessed, I also stole my mother’s economy tipped Cadets). By that stage I had ceased to save the packets of what I was now happily smoking, for my curious hobby had been wholly neglected since the age of 14. No, the reason why I loved to gaze at those mesmerising fag packets in my album, was not because they made me think of some glamorous addiction, but because a great many of them looked strikingly beautiful. Which is to say, when it came to the lettering, the embossed gold or silver, or azure blue or viridian green, they often evidenced graphic design of a surprisingly high order. And the point worth stressing about being a 12-year-old kid in the lost province of West Cumbria in 1962, is that that really was the only visual art you were ever going to see in the flesh, so to speak, and to hold in your novice hands. Then, all but breathless and speechless, to experience the touching graphic beauty of proportion, balance, the judicious mixing of bold, italic and upright calligraphy, and the occasional daring inversion of the brand name to the bottom of the packet, so that it seemed to soar out at you like a comet rather than staying demurely at the top.

The only other attractive graphic design I ever saw, was in the public library, or less often bookshops, for children’s book covers have long been one of the few repositories of graceful and moving aesthetic impact. By contrast, books for adults in the old days, often had unbelievably appalling covers, with no central image, much less any graphic expertise: instead just the names of the author and the title done in a font apparently intended to induce a clinical depression in the reader. Apropos which, I recently read a book review where someone praised the excellence of the Faber fiction and poetry covers from the 60s and early 70s, a complete misrepresentation of the historical reality. If you doubt me, get hold of the 60s Faber paperback versions of the novels of the great Deep South author, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964): Wise Blood, A Good Man is Hard to Find, etc, and you will note a complete absence of any visual image, and a lettering style that looks as if done by a vindictively antisocial 11-year-old wishing to irritate whoever had forced the pointless commission on them.

As for cigarettes, to juxtapose beautiful graphic design with something that is actually very harmful, sometimes lethal, is of course a heartless act of commercial cynicism. These days that is readily acknowledged, so that contemporary cigarette packets are studded with nauseating pictures of diseased lungs and hideous usually bright pink tumours. The problem was that back in the 60s, even though cardiac specialists, oncologists and the like, knew of the dangers of smoking, at the ground level not just the public but even ill-trained GPs saw cigarettes as quotidian, harmless, even beneficial. GPs in the 50s and 60s would regularly recommend someone with anxiety or depression to take up smoking, and there were even crafty fag brands such as Craven A with its ‘healthy’ cork tip that would subliminally suggest that those caring snouts were tenderly increasing your lifespan not cutting it.

A Few Select and Memorable Works of Graphic Art in the Shape of Beautiful Fag Packets

CONSULATE. Menthol cigarettes with gorgeous green (menthol green that is) and embossed gold lettering on the front. Back in 1966, I would sometimes buy these eucalyptus-flavoured beauties to show off before teenage girls. But hard as you might suck and blow at your pristine white Consulates (we are now in the genteel world of the Diplomatic Service, from which as a rule aitch-dropping West Cumbrians are de facto banned), you could never get any full-throated blast, so to speak, out of them.

ANCHOR. Tipped cigarettes with a jovial marine emblem of a pigtailed sailor and an anchor on the front. Red and yellow lettering as far as I recall (NB. I haven’t smoked a single cigarette since 1970) Though tipped, they were admirably pungent, even pleasingly dog rough, and more to the point, were good and cheap.

PERFECTOS. It’s all in the name of course. Behold the cigarette manufacturer who boldly calls his new snout ‘perfect’, and it rapidly becomes just that by a kind of sympathetic magic allied with mass hypnosis. A beautiful brown gold pack with ornately slim and elongated lettering. Favoured circa 1968 by my Uncle John (1928-2017) and Aunty Jean (1922-2007) of Salterbeck, Workington, who for years had smoked bountiful Kensitas, which offered coupons exchangeable for valuable gifts out of a sumptuous catalogue. They doggedly chainsmoked for about 5 years to get their hands on an imposing Ferguson transistor radio in 1965, which was still playing away in my widowed Uncle John’s council house in 2017, the year that he died.

SENIOR SERVICE. Plain cigarettes, meaning no tip, meaning they were full and richly flavoured, a fine fillip when you are 16 and in need of pungence in the form of all things physical and sensual. Such items are not reliably provided by rote-learning the names of the towns on the US Fall Line, nor even the industrial preparation of phosphoric acid, nor even the drawing and labelling of the broad bean’s cotyledons, nor the exploration of integral calculus with or without your log tables. Proud and pristine white packets with incisive naval motifs and exquisite blue-black lettering. The name says all. Not only are you a brave ocean goer, an explorer of the limits but you alliterate as ‘senior’, hence majestically triumphant in the hallowed service…

The next post will be on or before Sunday 28th July