AKI’S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The next post will be on before Monday 20th August

AKI’S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (born 1957) is one of the world’s most acclaimed and original cinema talents, who has reaped numerous Cannes accolades and also controversially refused various US Academy Awards on political grounds (in 2002 when George W Bush was in power he said he did not wish to receive an award from a country that was waging an unjust war). He says he has been influenced by Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville and the Japanese director Ozu, though others have detected possibly Fassbinder and Jim Jarmusch. He is described as minimalistic, a mixture of drollery and deadpan, and there is a small but detectable amount of the deadpan comic in this his solemn and disturbing debut feature, his 1983 version of Dostoievksy’s Crime and Punishment. I would say it is a subtle miniature masterpiece, and that it is absolutely remarkable that Kaurismaki was only 26 when he made it. Note also that apropos literary classics, he was to go on to make his own black and baleful version of Hamlet as in Hamlet Goes Business (1987) and by contrast a wonderfully comic and poignant update of Henri Murger’s 1850s novel La Vie de Boheme (1992)

The original 1866 novel had an impoverished St Petersburg student Raskolnikov who murdered an old pawnbroker lady in order to steal her money. The 80s Finnish version has a loner of a young man with an ironically angelic and beautiful face called Antti Rahikainen, played brilliantly if chillingly by the stand-up comedian and actor, Markku Toikka (born 1955). Antti works appropriately in a Helsinki meat processing factory and the film starts with his sawing and chopping massive flanks of beef where the din is appalling and the men work in necessary silence. That extended dialogue-free scene finishes with the focus on a slaughtered pig on a hook, its nose pathetically dripping blood on the floor. Antti then leaves his work and we see him on a busy city thoroughfare watching a middle-aged man exiting an expensive car and entering a smart block of flats. He follows him inside, knocks on the door and pretends to be delivering a telegram. He then informs the baffled puffy-eyed tenant that he needs it signed, and hesitantly follows him inside where he has gone to find a pen. The man looks suspicious whereupon Antti pulls out a gun, his victim quails and offers him any amount of money, and asks him why he wants to shoot him.

“Wouldn’t you love to know!” the meat factory worker taunts him.

After he has shot him, he stoops down and without expression rubs his fingers in the blood, then pulls out a bit of cloth and wipes his fingers clean. He stuffs the cloth in a bag and is about to leave when suddenly an attractive young woman Eiva (played by Finnish TV star Aini Seppo, born 1958) walks through the door and stares in wonder at the scene. It turns out she works for a catering firm and today is the dead businessman’s 50th birthday, and her firm was providing the party food. Antti stares at her unafraid and she tells him to get out before she rings the police, and already you detect a vestigial attraction as well as revulsion that she has towards the killer. Before long the police are on the scene and they are 2 unglamorous middle-aged detectives in shabby suits, the senior Inspector Pennanen, being the mordant and moustachioed Kaurismaki veteran, Esko Nikkari (1938-2006). They soon unearth the fact that the dead man had once been tried for drunken driving where a young woman had been killed, and that the woman was the fiancée of Antti Rahikainen. After that they rapidly pull in Eiva who can only give the vaguest description of the killer, other than the singular detail that he had a kind of lunatic look about him. Pennanen then remarks with infinite dryness that that leaves the net even wider as there are so many loonies abroad in Helsinki these days.

Back at work, in the presence of her boss, a manipulative man in an immaculate suit who is jealously watching her all the time (played very ably by Hannu Lauri, born 1945) Eiva is startled when Antti boldly walks into the catering business and inquires about the police interrogation. He then asks her to meet him that evening when she has finished work. She agrees to a five minute talk, and once he’s gone her boss interrogates her about the oddball, then immediately invites her to the theatre that night. She accepts and even has Lauri waiting for her in the car while she has a brief and grudging interview with Antti. It is odd she sees no serious danger in third parties observing the two of them together, and even odder the next day when she is summoned to the police station to identify Antti as the man she saw at the scene of the murder. After a long silence she says no, Rahikainen is not the man and Antti affectlessly smirks his satisfaction at Pennanen. He has already told Eiva he feels no guilt whatever about what he has done, and moreover he and his fiancée were well over their relationship before she was killed in the hit and run. However, pathologically calm and fearless as he seems, he is keen to escape justice and sets about acquiring a false passport thanks to a barman friend with criminal connections. That involves him taking passport photos at the train station, and here he does the unspeakable by trying to shift the blame onto an innocent man. Immediately after the murder he had stuffed the incriminating bloody cloth and the victim’s wallet in a railway station locker, and he now drops the key to it onto a cloth which a homeless man has spread in front of him outside the station. The man who is an alcoholic is puzzled but scents possible riches and Antti mocks him haughtily apropos the taxing business of choosing alternatives, and says that he will take the key back if he likes.  Eventually the beggar decides to chance his luck with the key, whereupon he is nabbed by the police for Rahikainen had immediately gone and rung them from a callbox to tell them the locker was about to be opened by the businessman’s murderer. The mentally ill alcoholic is carted off and grilled for hours and sure enough confesses to anything and everything even though Pennanen knows well enough who is the likely culprit.

There are surprise twists all the way along this cleverly paced film and one of them is when Eiva visits Antti in his drab hostel room, unaware she is being trailed by her jealous boss. Lauri has enough money and casual influence to hire an adjacent room for a few hours, and he hides in there and eavesdrops on the pair of them, so that he learns soon enough that Antti is a murderer and Eiva is more or less abetting him. Rahikainen by the way is such an inept killer his notion of security is shoving the incriminating gun and various other things under his sofa’s cushion, and Eiva at one point unearths the weapon and puts it in her handbag as possible future precaution. After she has gone home she is soon telephoned by her boss ordering her to meet him in a posh Helsinki hotel, but he refuses to say why. She turns up warily and once inside he locks the door on them and tells her he knows all. He is however prepared to generously help them both, by getting Antti a passport if he needs one, and getting him safely out of the country. He will do that and not ring the police about them, but on one condition only.

“What’s that?” asks Eiva defiantly.

“You must give me what I want.”

“And what is that?”

“You…”

Eiva stonily refuses and he walks towards her threatening violence, whereupon she pulls out Antti’s gun. He mocks her bravado but as he approaches she pulls the trigger and it stalls. At that she looks the picture of pathetic helplessness and her boss soon relents and gives her the hotel room key to let her go. As it happens she had thrown down and abandoned the gun, and Lauri is chastened to see it was loaded after all, but now decides to take it with him as he leaves the hotel himself. By a fluke he bumps into Antti of all people in the street, and tells him he knows all about the murder and taunts him with his knowledge. The basilisk murderer looks at him with a bored expression, walks away calmly and then Lauri realises he is on a tram line and a tram is shooting towards him at unstoppable speed. Eiva’s boss is killed instantly and the gun goes flying, soon to be picked up by the police where eventually it ends up in the hands of Inspector Pennanen. The film then parallels the Russian novel when the detective hauls in Antti and tells him that though he cannot prove it yet he knows Rahikainen is the murderer, and that before long unable to bear it he will walk in and surrender himself to justice. Antti true to form mocks this morose arm of the law, and goes to see his friend and co-worker Nikander, the only light relief you might say in this unsettling and mesmerising film. Nikander is played by one of my favourite actors, the late great Matti Pellonpaa (1951-1995) who was also a successful rock musician. Pellonpaa is the last word in dour lugubriousness combined with a kind of anarchic comic resentment as witnessed in numerous Kaurismaki classics. Here he has a crazy haircut, short all round but with a huge fringe, and he is also studying English lessons on cassettes and keeps repeating the banal sentences in a deadly solemn echo. He knows Antti did the murder and that the gun was stolen from the meat factory nightwatchman, who had no license for it anyway. Antti is his friend though, and he suggest they take a ferry and go abroad together, now that Antti has his passport. The murderer agrees provisionally and they agree to rendezvous the next evening, but in the meantime he meets again with Eiva who urges him to give himself up and that she will wait for him while he does his time in jail. Antti makes no response to this, and the next day drives past the customs with his phony passport and meets up with Nikander at the docks. While Nikander goes inside the terminal, Antti then changes his mind and drives all the way back to town and parks opposite the police station. He enters and goes to the desk and is about to confess all when suddenly he changes his mind yet again.

“What do you want?” asks the duty policeman sourly.

“Nothing. Precisely nothing.”

Antti leaves the station looking very businesslike, but about a minute later turns tail and goes inside, and in a rapid rush confesses all. Pennanen’s deputy happens to be standing nearby and perhaps influenced by all the scorn he has had from Rahikainen, he karate chops him across the back and fells him to the floor. The scene then changes to a very desolate Helsinki prison where Antti has been put away for 8 years and where Eiva visits him one day. Again, she repeats her promise to wait till he is released but he stares at her bleakly and indicates that her faith and commitment are meaningless in his case. Cue the end of the movie which as ever with Kaurismaki tends to conclude with raunchy and defiant rock music with English rather than Finnish lyrics, as played in a smoky downtown Helsinki club.

Last year, 2017, Kaurismaki went public that from now on he intended to make no more movies. I’ve no idea why he made this decision, but I really hope he changes his mind. To quote the Dublin writer Flann O’ Brien (1910-1965) who was another master of deadpan and drollery, Aki Kaurismaki’s like will not be seen again.

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DENNIS POTTER’S ONLY DUD

The next post will be on or before 12th August

DENNIS POTTER’S ONLY DUD

It is now 40 years since Dennis Potter’s 6-part series Pennies from Heaven was broadcast on BBC TV in the spring of 1978. On the strength of his epic 1986 and partly autobiographical series The Singing Detective and the poignant childhood saga Blue Remembered Hills (1979) not to speak of his 1978 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Potter (1935-1994) is generally recognised as TV’s most radical, innovative and accomplished playwright. He was also a fearless controversialist who once famously described BBC TV executives as ‘croak-voiced Daleks’ and said that the erstwhile Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s attempt to make comically saccharine election films with the hope of gaining power had made him, Dennis Potter, want to throw up. However, his courting of controversy went far further in artistic terms, when his explosive TV drama Brimstone and Treacle about a young woman paralysed in a hit and run accident and then raped by a diabolic young man called Martin, was withdrawn from its Wednesday Play slot in 1976. The BBC executive of the time Alasdair Milne described it as ‘nauseating if brilliant’, though it did eventually appear on TV in 1987 and was also made into a film starring Sting as Martin.

As a paid-up admirer of much if not all of Potter’s work, by some anomaly I missed out on Pennies from Heaven four decades ago, and have only just watched all 7 and a half hours of it. Back in 1978 it made Bob Hoskins (1942-2014) who played the central character, an overnight star, and it also received a BAFTA award, and in a golden list of the best 100 of all BBC programmes it came 21st. With such a dizzy pedigree I naturally expected great things, but to adapt Potter’s contrarian independence of mind, I would argue that it is one of the worst of his creations. My response as I watched it, was not a simple one, however. I couldn’t stop watching it, but I also couldn’t stop being irritated by numerous things as I did, and I also kept reflecting how dated it seemed in most of its artistic means, unlike Blue Remembered Hills which was broadcast only a year later. In a nutshell, it has a central character, Arthur Parker the sheet music salesman, who is all over the place when it comes to convincing characterisation, and his wife Joan (played by Gemma Craven, born 1950) is one of the worst examples of stereotypical caricature I have ever seen. Re the latter it can hardly be Craven’s fault, given that she convincingly played Minna Wagner in the 1983 film Wagner about the notorious composer, and thus the fault if anyone’s has to be laid at the door of the director Piers Haggard, the producer Kenith Trodd, and the author himself Dennis Potter. The central dramatic hinge, Parker being wrongly convicted and hung for the murder of a young girl in a Forest of Dean wood, entails not one but two highly symbolic and overcharged figures, for the girl is blind and thus the epitome of innocence, and her murderer is an accordion-playing pathetically nervous simpleton, who by definition is not fully responsible for his actions. Apropos which, the vagabond accordion man (Kenneth Colley, born 1937, here looking haunted and desolate and best known from his Star Wars appearances) rapes as well as murders the blind girl, and there is the problem of basic credibility here.  This vagabond is also a severe epileptic, and one of the most powerful things in the drama is Colley at one point alone in the countryside taking a terrifying volcanic fit. At which point we need to ask, is it the case that the rape and murder of a young woman is ever committed by a nervous and jabbering epileptic? It might fit Potter’s plot specifics but often enough murderous rapists are things like taxi drivers and peripatetic van delivery men, who by definition can get away swiftly from the scene of the crime. Needless to say, the penniless accordion man has no car, whereas the innocent man Arthur conveniently has (and parenthetically given that Arthur is an unsuccessful salesman and that his wife at first will not share her inheritance, it is also unlikely that he would have owned his own vehicle back in 1935).

To start at the beginning. Somewhere in the mid-1930s Arthur Parker/Hoskins is an unsuccessful salesman of sheet music who drives from the London suburbs where he lives with his wife Joan up as far as the west country and beyond. Arthur is an unrefined product of the London working class, while Joan is genteel and prudish middle class, and has been left a sizeable inheritance by her hard-working father. It is never explained why prissy and frigid Joan would have fallen for Arthur in the first place, as she is appalled by his blasphemous swearing, his eating habits and his frank sexual appetite. She calls him a dirty beast when he makes bedroom advances and generally comes across as a grown-up version of a simpering teenager from a girls’ comic of the time. Arthur’s response is to lie awake mad with sexual frustration and to angrily accuse her, and grovellingly plead with her by turn. His dialogue is predictable and repetitive rather than original, and Joan’s delivery is reminiscent of squawking village hall melodrama, meaning as if it is some kind of stylised parody. The result is that Joan does not come across as real in any way, but a kind of ready-made mouthpiece of cosseted and alienated inhibition. Potter the playwright needed to make her anxious prudery come convincingly from the heart, and have genuine dramatic implications, instead of which is it just plonked on the screen and we are to take it as a given, albeit it is at times embarrassing caricature. If any more confirmation were needed, with over-sexed Arthur away on the road, when she is not sat at home Joan often dallies with two girlfriends in a posh teashop, and these two chums are likewise shallow stereotypes, the only character inflection being that one of them gossips maliciously about the other when she is absent, and says that she is shamelessly flirting with Arthur whenever she gets the chance.

Out on the road, instinctive, unreflective and in many ways childlike Arthur, is naturally looking for sexual opportunities. Early on he has sex in the back of his car with an abusive prostitute who he meets in a Gloucester pub (Gloucester is Potter’s home town, for he was raised in the nearby Forest of Dean where once the principal industry was coal mining). After giving a lift to the accordion man who is walking by the side of the road, then buying him a hearty breakfast, Arthur gives up impatiently on this gibbering and anxious wreck, but later observes a beautiful young woman giving him a few coppers for his accordion rendition of some old-fashioned Methodist hymns. Smitten at once, he goes into a Gloucester music shop and manages to sell some sheet music to the reluctant proprietor, but takes no payment and crucially tears up the receipt in exchange for information about the name and address of that beautiful woman out there. The young woman is Eileen Everson and she is a village schoolteacher in the Forest of Dean, and she also very poetically lives right in the forest itself, where she looks after her widowed Dad and her 2 squabbling brothers, all of them colliers. Eileen is played very capably by Cheryl Campbell (born 1949) memorable as Vera Brittain in the TV adaptation of Testament of Youth as well as in the contrasting Chariots of Fire. However Campbell has a difficult and uneasy part to play. Her school is run by a Dickensian tyrant of a headmaster played by the ubiquitous Freddie Jones (born 1927 and father of Toby Jones) who never fails as an actor, but who also is split down the middle here in terms of inner consistency. In assembly he knocks a young lad almost senseless for talking to a friend, then threatens to cane every single boy if any one of them continues the practice of singing irreverent versions of the National Anthem. Later when he realises Eileen is leaving her job as she has got pregnant by Arthur, he corners her in the deserted classroom and very tenderly and understatedly declares his love, and tries to press money on her for her frightening future. That display of deep sensitivity is weirdly at odds with his autopilot sadism and in the same way when Arthur is not being an impatient East End Jack the Lad, he is the last word in romantic idealism. In one set piece, head over heels with his first encounter with Eileen he bumps into some salesmen cronies in a pub where he berates them for their lack of Romance and even gets tearful as he talks about the ineffable magic and the wonderful miracles that are out there if one is prepared to take risks and seek them. This dovetails all too conveniently with his choice of profession, for as well as being a dance band addict, he believes the lyrics of those hit songs are spelling out a freedom and perfection that is painfully at odds with the grim reality of things like a frigid wife and a dead-end job.

It is at this point one might take issue with Arthur and also his creator Potter for conflating things that quite simply cannot be easily merged for artistic effect. The point about 1930s hit songs was that the chirpy and/or melancholy and nostalgic dreams they extolled, were not sung with any passion from the heart, but in a stylised rendition that someone like the UK comic Harry Enfield would easily be able to parody for humorous effect. Because the feelings in the songs are rendered in a stylised anaesthetic mould, then Arthur’s identification is ipso facto an identification with something that does not exist. This also helps us to understand why his wife Joan is rendered as caricature when it comes to sexual inhibition, and why her squeaky head girl protests about Arthur and all he stands for, are about as convincing as the set-in-aspic lyrics of the 1930s pop stars. One thing worth noting here is that Dennis Potter was 5 years old when the 30s ended, so that unlike in The Singing Detective, set in the 1940s and 1980s, he is not identifying with something he knows directly, but at second hand. Doubtless those 30s songs were played on the wireless when he was a boy in the wartime 40s, but his characterisation of Arthur born around 1900, feels remote and unfelt if only because Arthur with his whims and lies and explosive romantic impulses, comes across as having no centre of gravity but is more like a half-felt concoction of a troubled romantic. In the same way Potter’s examples of feminine prudery of the time which are crucial to the murder plot, come across as contrived and conveniently overstated. Arthur at one point asks Joan to go around with no knickers on and as well as Joan being reflex horrified, much is made of this later by a detective investigating the blind girl’s murder. The fact is that even in the 1930s sex was alive and well albeit at times strategically underground, and no detective in his right mind would be as comically shocked by the no knickers request as the one played by Dave King (1929-2002, singer, comedian and 1950s pop star). Thus it is that we have caricature piled upon caricature, and hence we finally discern the point of the numerous original 1930s songs that the characters keep breaking into, miming those originals for all they are worth and in most cases doing wonderfully good dancing and gesticulatory vamping. Potter’s much-admired musical interludes in this case (though not in The Singing Detective nor in the excellent 1993 series, Lipstick on Your Collar) work here to bridge the gap left by the fact that many of his characters are melodramatic and crudely overstated. When the stereotyping and the caricature start to creak at the seams, then Potter seemingly pulls in a diversionary song and dance, and the mood and the dramatic power of the ensemble on display somehow seem to be magically rescued and resolved.

Meanwhile Eileen the Forest of Dean schoolteacher is symbolic foil to the brutal headmaster, for instead of terrorising her pupils she literally enchants them with her storytelling. Several times we have set pieces of her mesmerising the open-mouthed children in the classroom with the tale of Rapunzel and other classic fables. Moreover she is an enchantress who actually lives in a fairytale wood, and unwittingly she also lures Arthur Parker there, for thanks to the music shop owner he tracks her down, declares his absolute love, and eventually is taken into her cottage and introduced to her Dad and 2 fractious brothers. As humble miners they are instantly impressed by his suit and motor car and politely go to bed early to leave the sitting room free for them to court. The 2 of them promptly have sex and Eileen eventually gets pregnant but Arthur doesn’t know this until he later encounters her fortuitously in London.  In the meantime he has already declared his love or at least enormous infatuation with the blind girl who he’d bumped into after getting out of his salesman’s car to take a pee, once he’d seen her progressing in a weirdly straight line into the forest. He had pursued and frightened her as he offered to lead the girl home, and she had rushed off only for him to shout that he would never ever forget this encounter and she was the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. Later more prosaically in a Gloucester pub he had described the encounter to another salesman pal and blokeishly said he would like to have had the same girl’s knickers off. This later rebounds on him when he comes to trial as did his earlier request to Joan to walk around minus hers. Once the blind girl’s body is found she is also without her underwear which is where Potter’s plotting, outwardly ingenious, is more ratcheted towards convergent effect, based as I said on an overstated and exaggerated account of 1930s prudery. The local police investigate and soon bring in Arthur for questioning, but he has the watertight alibi of the music shop man, who he was busy grilling about Eileen’s name and whereabouts when the blind girl was murdered (shortly afterwards the same shopkeeper has a fatal heart attack so crucially cannot confirm the undocumented alibi at Arthur’s murder trial).

However the enchantress schoolteacher is no longer in a fairy tale, for she is single and pregnant, and she therefore moves to a cheap part of London to hide her shame and find some work. Rapidly penniless she wanders into a rough pub one evening where the kindly barman warns her what kind of place this is, as it is full of prostitutes as well as a confident and winning chap called Tom who immediately discerns Eileen’s problem and proceeds to get her drunk on port and lemon. Tom is played by Hywel Bennett (1944-2017) best known from the TV series Shelley and I promise you his acting here is by far the best thing in the whole of Pennies from Heaven. He manages to make vaunting, wisecracking Tom both obnoxious and faintly likeable at the same time, and it takes real talent and effortless timing to do that. Tom leads her off to his luxuriously appointed flat, plies her with more drink, has sex with her and then hearing her story gets in a doctor to abort her for the sum of £25 he claims. He does this not out of charity but because he is a successful pimp and he promptly arranges that she go on the game to pay him back the £25 and sundry other fictional and massive expenses. By another very unlikely fluke, one night Arthur happens to go into the same pub, where Eileen is by now fearfully trying to solicit a man, they joyfully recognise each other, and he sweeps her off into his latest acquisition, an actual music shop selling gramophone records just down the road. He had acquired it by wheedling money out of Joan from her inheritance, but like everything else in his life it is a flop and he is getting ever more in debt. The two of them now turn into a kind of West London Bonnie and Clyde duo, as he smashes up his unsaleable records and they decide to elope together as romantic adventurers. This only lasts so long of course and they soon end up in an appalling bedsit where Arthur’s notion of initiative is to try and solve a jigsaw puzzle, whereupon angry Eileen insists in going out on the street again. There is reflex accusation from Arthur now, of her being a dirty slut, in much the same way that Joan had accused him in bed of being a dirty little beast, but by this stage neither the characters nor we the viewers seem to believe in this autopilot and factitious wrangling. It is much more convincing that Eileen becomes ever more assertive and amoral, for she declares she doesn’t mind the casual sex with strangers which means nothing to her anyway, but that she does like money and what it can buy. Eventually she gets involved with a powerful Tory MP played very ably by a wheezing and obese Ronald Fraser (1930-1997) best known from the 1970s TV series The Misfit. Pooh-poohing Arthur’s anxious protests, she decides she will blackmail the MP, for the quantity of money she is making by now has allowed them to rent a luxury flat and to dine in the best London restaurants where a bottle of good wine costs all of 7/6d. Her actual attempt at blackmail is stumblingly half-hearted and she soon scoots when the MP pretends to ring the police, so that the dramatic power gets lost in the wings somehow, and you ask yourself whether Dennis Potter, Kenith Trodd and Piers Haggard ever reflected as much when they later watched the show themselves on TV.

Finally a terrifying Nemesis looms, for the detective/ Dave King has decided he has enough evidence to convict Arthur and has had a mugshot of the man suspected of murdering the blind girl splashed all over the newspapers. The pair of them go on the road in earnest now, and end up sleeping in the barn of a mad farmer who comes across them with a shotgun as they are having carefree sex to console themselves as the hideous net closes. Eileen is inspired to taunt the crazy old man that they will perform for him if he doesn’t hurt them, and after he has put down the gun, she lifts it up and blasts him dead, in a fit of surreal hubris which indicates she is becoming more and more amoral and less and a less a fairytale princess. Improbable coincidence then looms all too conveniently,  for the mad farmer turns out to be Arthur’s regimental commander during WW1, who injured during battle had had a metal plate inserted in his head and had obviously turned crazy since. Arthur eloquently laments his kindly commander but that doesn’t stop the pair of them emptying the house of valuables, including the commanders’s VC medal, which they reckon together will net them about £50.

Soon after the car breaks down and Bonnie and Clyde are nabbed by the Gloucestershire police, whereafter Arthur alone is transferred to London and eventual trial in the high court (parenthetically, why Eileen was not arrested for the mad farmer’s murder is never explained). In rapid order the prosecution barrister played by Peter Bowles (born 1936 qv the comedy series To The Manor Born) builds up a damning picture, for aside from the murder of the girl, this monster has been living a life of luxury thanks to his girlfriend’s immoral earnings. Arthur is speedily found guilty by the jury and transferred to a condemned cell where 2 kindly prison officers try and distract him with card games and later with tender reminiscences of childhood including schoolboy games of who can pee the highest. It is at this point and earlier in the court proceedings that the business of conflicting emotional registers to a considerable extent makes a complete nonsense of the entire drama, for just as Arthur as a character is all over the place, so those registers are all over the place and often making nil authentic imaginative sense. Thus in the court Peter Bowles when calling for the ultimate punishment for this monster suddenly obviates and effectively cancels all dramatic power by bursting into vaudeville song and sticking a straw boater on top of his wig. Even worse when the prison officers start guffawing about boyhood peeing competitions with the condemned man, they too along with Arthur suddenly burst into cheery 30s lyrics and a coloured rainbow forms above them, presumably the rainbow arcs mimicking the arcs of the pissing schoolboys of yesteryear. This chronic mismatch and effective destruction of aesthetic registers goes the whole way through the drama, so that when for example Joan, Arthur’s wife is telling the inspector about her husband’s perversions and his monstrous request that she rouge her nipples for his delectation, she goes from melodramatic censuring to sudden sprightly vaudeville and starts to pirouette around her sitting room with Dave King behind her doing a Strictly Come Dancing sequence three decades before anyone had heard of it.

Finally of course and you’ve guessed it, as principal fudge, after he has been hung and buried inside the prison, and Eileen is standing over the Thames planning possible suicide (reprising the Accordion Man who unable to bear his guilt as a murderer had finally drowned himself) Arthur the revenant springs out of nowhere, alive and well somehow, perkily informing Cheryl Campbell that their drama couldn’t possibly finish without a happy ending! So there you go, folks, and we might add, take it or leave it. But the important point worth stressing is that the overall feebleness in dramatic terms induced by excessive easy symbolism and the ad hoc clashing of emotional registers so that we go from e.g. sadness to vaudeville and then back again with no clear logic…that this was what Potter had to do by way of apprentice work before he could achieve the masterpieces (also laden with song and dance but integrally, subtly, and with imaginative consistency) of The Singing Detective and Lipstick On Your Collar. To stand back and put things in perspective, uneven, dated and at times quite ridiculous, Pennies from Heaven served its crucial constructive purpose, and to that extent we should be grateful that it took Potter along the path  that would lead him to his greatest and remarkable achievements.

 

 

THE MIRACLE OF THE UNHAPPY GIRL

 I am on holiday for 2 weeks and the next post will be on or before Sunday 5th August

THE MIRACLE OF THE UNHAPPY GIRL

A couple of summers ago I was eating in a pub garden in a cathedral town in the UK, when a very striking family group arrived and sat at the far end of the garden. As I was facing them and we were the only customers, I had no other distraction, and I could not be but surprised, touched and even shocked by the young girl among them, who I would say was about 13 or 14 years old, and was wearing a pretty floral dress. She was with a thin moustachioed man about 50, most likely her Dad, and 2 attractive and composed looking women also fiftyish, both with intensely jet-black hair, one of whom might have been her mother and the other her aunt. The girl was frighteningly thin and very tall for her age, so thin I should say she was technically emaciated. My Dad (1915-1992) would have said she looked like a pipe cleaner and he would have been right, and she also looked like a handsome version of that legend of stringy spaghetti dimensions, Olive Oyl, cartoon girlfriend of cartoon Popeye, for as well as being impossibly skinny the girl had fine cheekbones and very delicate and expressive features. The reason why I was moved was that she looked patently and irremediably unhappy. At 13 she was only just leaving childhood and so had many of the touching transparencies of being a child, one of which is not to dissimulate for the comfort of adults. She had a look of itching discomfort, perpetual unease, gnawing inner disruption, and all that seemed of a piece with her startling height and incredible emaciation. She sank her chin on her fists and looked restless and direly melancholy, as if to say why be here as it offers no remedy to my disease, and I was surprised that both women, possible mother and possible aunt, more or less ignored her and chatted desultorily to each other, as if, so to speak, that was the way the girl was and little could be done about it. The thin man was seated next to her and whether her Dad or not, he made only perfunctory conversation and one evident joke which the girl did not even smile at… and otherwise he spent most of the time laughing with the two women.

Deductions come thick and fast in such a stark situation. In a trice I had decided the girl could only be chronically anorexic, and as is well known, anorexia or severe lack of appetite is a serious psychological condition that can reduce someone to a hazardous bag of bones and can even in extremis, prove fatal. After a deduction comes a prediction, and my prediction as I sat there eating my not at all bad vegetable curry and nan, was that the waitress would bring 3 substantial pub meals for the adults and a baby portion of something solid for the girl, or more likely a bowl of soup that she would play with, make soldiers out of the bread accompanying , and then leave the whole lot as a testament to the fact that she would not put the world outside of her, as represented by that garish fetish called food, inside of her pristine and garrisoned self, if only because the alien aliment would rapidly spoil and soil her should she permit it to enter her fastidiously purified world.

Far from it. The waitress arrived with 4 equally whopping meals, all of them pasta dishes, 2 of them with meat, spaghetti bolognaise, and 2 with a tomato sauce aromatic with fresh basil even from this distance. There was also a massive bowl of grated parmesan sited in the middle for all 4 diners. I was confidently expecting her to push her plate away with a baleful even angry revulsion, but was immediately dumbfounded when the tall and skinny girl went from her permafrost of frozen unease to a very animated and youthful smile of innocent rapture. Like any spontaneous adolescent she grinned as she sank her skinny hand deep into the cheese, took a colossal fistful and scattered it vigorously all over the heaping plate of pomodoro pasta. In a trice she had the fork taut in her hand, and as a practised expert, she had the spaghetti’s sauce and parmesan wrapped about it and was shovelling it down as fast as she could go. She went on and on like this, like some ravenous farm labourer from impoverished Sicily circa 1932, bolting down fork after fork of it and scarcely drawing breath. When she did at last permit herself a brief pause, her face showed every sign of genuine happiness, for she had a full and tender smile upon her handsome face, as if somehow the only remedy she knew for the grief of the world was as simple as to enjoy her food, the one inexplicable consolation that never fails even the forgotten and the lost and the frequently speechless amongst us.

TAKE TWO WITH ALAN BATES

The next post will be on before Thursday 19th July

TAKE TWO WITH ALAN BATES

A friend of mine recently expressed amazement after I told her I went straight from watching the 2003 ITV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, to the 1978 BBC version of the same novel, as scripted by the celebrated television playwright Dennis Potter (1935-1994). I mean this literally, for there weren’t even 10 minutes, much less an hour’s grace, between the 2 boxed sets of DVDs. Immediately the first one finished with Michael Henchard’s famous and terrible death note, that he wished to be buried in unconsecrated ground and he wanted everyone to forget about him and never to speak of him, literally as the credits rolled, I walked through to get the Potter DVD, stopped in the kitchen to fill up with wine, then sat down and dived straight into Alan Bates selling his wife and baby at the fair.

You probably remember the plot of Casterbridge from the revision notes for your GCSE, GCE or School Certificate English Literature, depending on your venerability. I will try to precis it for you as briefly as possible, but be aware at the start that like true vintage Hardy it is all about unremitting fate, dismally thwarted hopes and hopelessly tragic dead ends, for it is about a man (it is always a man) who is the bound and trussed victim of his uncontrollable moods and temper. Michael Henchard happens to be a trusser himself, a jobbing hay trusser who to earn his bread walks with his wife Susan and babe in arms Elizabeth Jane from farm to farm in a fictionalised Dorset, somewhere around the 1830s. One day they come to a country fair just above Casterbridge and a remarkably rough old woman, who in her thronging tent sells furmity, a kind of sweet porridge concoction, advises Henchard he can always have a pennorth of rum added to it if he wishes. Despite Susan’s protests he has more and more rum until he is very drunk, and in such an evil mood that he offers to auction his wife and baby to anyone will have them. All the rustics around him laugh at his nonsense but he persists in his obnoxious project and eventually and with Susan’s sad agreement, a kindhearted sailor called Newson buys them off him for 5 guineas.

In the original version it is the veteran Alan Bates (1934-2003) plays Henchard, and in the remake it is the gifted Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds (born 1953) who you might have seen in In Bruges as the priest. Both of them are excellent in the part, Bates with his barking, snapping cadences so that every speech he makes is a kind of rat-a-tat attack, even when he is being that rare thing, an amiable individual. Hinds by contrast has more of a stiff and saturnine aggression and he can also do wonderful things with his facial muscles, show a gloom and epic despondency that are beyond words. Bates’s long-suffering Susan is played by Anne Stallybrass (born 1938) best known from The Onedin Line TV series of the early 70s. She is a capable actress but not a brilliant one, and the same is true of Juliet Aubrey (born 1966) who plays Susan in the remake, and who made her name as Dorothea in the 1994 TV version of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. We see Elizabeth Jane as a baby in the furmity scene, and then we fast forward 21 years when mother and daughter are virtually penniless and Susan is trying to track down Henchard. She meets the old furmity woman who is now two decades older at the same fair and learns that Henchard came back to the tent the day after he had sold her, and told her that if ever Susan should turn up at the fair again, to inform her he had moved to Casterbridge.

Meanwhile Henchard has prospered beyond belief since he did his shameful deed. He is the leading grain merchant in Casterbridge and is also the worshipful mayor, notable for the fact he is a teetotaller, for after selling his wife and child he had gone into a church and vowed 21 years of abstinence for his crime. However, he has his trials, for despite his advancement he has suffered recent criticism because of some bad grain he has unwittingly sold. He is as he puts it, a rule of thumb man, not a scientist, which is why the arrival in Casterbridge of the young Scotsman Donald Farfrae is such a godsend as he has enough science to retrieve the bad grain to saleable seconds. Like many a moody and unstable man Henchard finds that he admires his opposite,  the modest and gentle Farfrae, to distraction, and offers him the post of manager and says he can name his price. It is at this point, once we have listened to several dialogue exchanges between this pair, that we realise that the two Farfraes are the weakest thing in both adaptations. In the Potter version we have Jack Galloway who once did jobbing work in TV series like Bergerac and Maigret and here seems well out of his depth. With the surname he has, I’m assuming he is a Scot but his acting is wooden, nervous and without any range or inflection. He is so bad at times, as when Susan craftily arranges a bogus liaison in a barn between Farfrae and her grown daughter Elizabeth Jane, that you feel embarrassed for him, and want to get in there and act instead of him. The Englishman James Purefoy (born 1964) who you might have seen in the cult movie Solomon Kane, is Farfrae to Ciaran Hinds in the remake, and the kindest thing you can say is he is the less bad of the two. His face is more mobile to be sure, but in the scene where he first meets Henchard’s other guilty secret in the form of his rejected lover from the Channel Isles, Lucetta, Purefoy’s mannered flirting and immediate enamourment are done to unconvincing formula.

To elaborate and briskly backtrack. Susan soon makes contact with Henchard in Casterbridge, and at his behest, she tells Elizabeth Jane nothing about his being her father, nor about the time he auctioned his wife and child, but that he is instead a remote relative. As such he discreetly courts Susan and eventually marries her a second time, for the kindly sailor Newson had been lost at sea and hence his wife and daughter’s recent destitution. However, in the intervening 20 bachelor years, on holiday in Jersey, Henchard had met the handsome and respectable Lucetta, she had nursed him  through a sudden and unexpected illness, they had become intimate, and he had promised her eventual marriage. Of course, once Susan turns up, without any scruple he writes to her and says that promise cannot now be fulfilled, just as Henchard throughout the film does everything impulsively, often brutally and with seemingly nil capacity for remorse. As a further wind in the coil and typical of Hardy’s ruthlessly pessimistic plotting, Susan is in poor health and shortly after their marriage she dies. Henchard then takes a deep breath and tells Elizabeth Jane that she is his child after all, and not the child of Mr Newson. In the Potter original Elizabeth Jane is played by Janet Maw (born 1954) principally a radio actor, and capable enough, though not particularly distinguished, for she has a kind of Sunday school virtue about her that weakens her dramatic power. Far superior in the remake is Jodie May (born 1975) who really can act, for at the age of 13 no less, in 1988, she won Best Actress at Cannes for her appearance in A World Apart. When Ciaran Hinds bluffly informs her that he is her real father and Newson a phantom, her grief and absolute desolation are infinitely moving. The next Hardy twist is typically cruel, for in fact Susan had left a sealed note for Henchard which disclosed that the original Elizabeth Jane died shortly after they had parted and that the current one named in her memory, is indeed the child of Newson. At once brittle Henchard loses all affection and is supremely irritable, even downright nasty to this maddening girl who is not after all of his blood. Hinds is particularly impressive when he faces Jodie May after reading her mother’s confession, exhibiting a sort of leaden deadness and sullen absence of feeling after his initial excitement at telling her she was his child.

Meanwhile, having heard of Susan’s death, Lucetta thinks it is fine to turn up anonymously in Casterbridge and have the wrong put right. She is crafty enough to befriend Elizabeth Jane and take her into the house she has rented as her housekeeper and companion, so that that will give Henchard an excuse for visiting her, and thus courting and eventually marrying her. As yet another twist, hitherto Farfrae has shown a romantic interest in Elizabeth Jane, even after Henchard had fallen out with him, had sacked him and forbidden their courtship. But once the Scotsman meets Lucetta the pair of them are immediately smitten and before long they marry in secret, so that this is the third grave injury the man of science has done his erstwhile employer. First, he had shamed Henchard in front of his workmen by upbraiding him for humiliating a gormless labourer called Abel Whittle by sending him off to work minus any trousers as punishment for being late to work. Then he had chosen to organise a party to celebrate a royal anniversary whereupon envious and childish Henchard decided that he would organise a better one. It rained a monsoon on the day, but Farfrae had wisely constructed huge tarpaulin tents to keep his guests dry, whereas Henchard’s festivity was a dismal wash out and everyone was soaked. At that point he vauntingly sacks Farfrae in front of his party guests, forbids his courting Elizabeth Jane, then true to volatile form, once he discovers that she is not his daughter and that he cannot now abide her, he curtly informs the Scotsman he may resume the courtship. But soon after Henchard angrily observes Farfrae through a window, flirting with Lucetta when he is supposed to be looking for Elizabeth Jane, and so is witness of this third and massive affront, the imminent stealing of his hoped-for wife. Aside from all else, without the Scotsman’s guiding hand, Henchard’s business is in chronic disarray and he is counting on selling hay at a huge profit but on a severe miscalculation. He promptly loses a fortune, and as it happens Lucetta has just come into a large inheritance, so that he has lost both her and her fortune to his mortal enemy. Henchard in his desperation tries by crude blackmail to force Lucetta into promising marriage and even requests that Elizabeth Jane be there beside them to witness the promise. But Lucetta gets her young companion to tell her father she must go away for a couple of days restorative holiday and instead in secret she marries Farfrae and the two of them return separately to Casterbridge.

Lucetta in the original version was played by Anna Massey (1937-2011) an actor of great distinction who depicted the Jersey woman’s vulnerability and relative innocence with depth and effortless nuance. In the remake she is portrayed by Polly Walker (born 1966 and best known for her role in the 2002 movie Savage Messiah) who is simply nowhere in the same league. This is true not just when it comes to the extremity of Lucetta’s ultimate and terrible public humiliation, but also when she is chatting about ordinary matters with her companion Jodie May, if only because Walker’s cadences are nothing like 1840s cadences and she could be acting in a contemporary chic drama set in central London. I needed to suspend disbelief and see Lucetta as a frail Hardyesque gentlewoman instead of which I kept seeing Polly Walker rehearsing her lines in a Belsize Park flat, with her phone about to beep half way through. That aside, Michael Henchard is incensed to madness by Lucetta’s betrayal and threatens to expose her with all the love letters he has preserved, for of course Farfrae has no idea that she is the Jersey woman his old boss had once talked about in a moment of confidence. Farfrae by now has set up in the grain business himself, and unlike his volatile former boss only ever speculates with infinite caution. Now that Henchard is a shamed bankrupt and has had his property sold off, Farfrae unwillingly inflicts a fourth major injury when he becomes unanimously voted the new mayor. Lucetta in the meanime becomes pregnant and is morbidly anxious that Henchard will disgrace her and begs him to return her compromising love letters. At length even stony Henchard finds he is able to relent and show pity, but foolishly he entrusts the letters to a third party, a devious individual with a grudge called Jopp, the same resentful man who had originally been promised the manager’s job that Henchard had instead given to Farfrae. Though even wily Jopp (played brilliantly by sinister Ronald Lacey in the Potter original) can see that Henchard by now can sink no lower with all the woes that have befallen him. He has lost office as the mayor not only because he was a bankrupt, but because as a magistrate he had been trying an old lady for committing a public nuisance in the town and that old lady turned out to be the furmity seller of 21 years ago. She had named Henchard before all in the court as the same drunken countryman who had once sold his wife and child in her tent, and his disgrace by now is total.

Jopp seeks his ultimate vengeance by bringing out Lucetta’s love letters in the local tavern and reading then aloud to the guffawing and pitiless old men and women. The mob frenzy is merciless at this point and it is a spectacularly vicious old lady who suggests they subject Farfrae’s wife with her shameful past to a skimmity ride, meaning they make caricature effigies of Lucetta and Henchard and drag them along on poles past the Jersey lady’s house, beating pans and shouting and making a terrifying ruckus. When they do this awful pantomime, Lucetta is of course seized with horror and takes an epileptic seizure and eventually loses her baby and dies. In the remake with Polly Walker this kernel and appalling scene is done relatively quickly even cursorily, meaning that the pathos of her needless death and the horror of collective cruelty is more muted than it should be. In the Potter version the skimmity ride is given extended treatment and Anna Massey’s delicate hysterical persona is well suited to emphasise her complete dissolution when the atavistic instincts of cruel rustics decide they wish to utterly destroy her.

This mob cruelty is also paralleled with the individual cruelty or rather heedless selfishness of the ruined Henchard. Rather than starve he is now obliged to take employment from Casterbridge’s leading merchant Farfrae, and he ends up in rough lodgings where the sole blessing in his life is the faithful attendance of Elizabeth Jane, who still believes him to be her father. One day when he is alone in his hovel he is visited by a stranger who introduces himself as a sailor by the name of Richard Newson, who had not after all drowned at sea, but had survived and made his way back to England. He is come looking for his wife Susan and their beloved daughter, and Henchard in a state of shock is able to truthfully tell him of Susan’s death, but horrifyingly he lies and says that Elizabeth Jane is dead too. Newson, not doubting his earnest voice, leaves grief stricken, and Henchard has so to speak bought himself a breathing space in what now feels like his arctic isolation amongst his fellow men. The inevitable progression is that widower Farfrae resumes his courtship with Elizabeth Jane and Henchard realising his approaching Nemesis vanishes from Casterbridge. Newson meanwhile has made further shrewd enquiries and realised that Farfrae’s intended wife was indeed his own daughter and that Henchard had told him a cruel lie. On the day of the wedding Henchard turns up to make some sort of shameful amends and is faced by Elizabeth Jane with the wickedness of his deceit. He retreats stricken to his ultimate death bed where he leaves the famous note saying he wishes that the world will forget all about him and never speak of him again.

These 2 very enjoyable adaptations have one thing in common. They both have a virtuoso lead in the shape of Alan Bates and Ciaran Hinds, both of whose acting and imaginative range are off the scale, but who receive inadequate support from sundry others in the cast. They both have extremely inadequate foils in the humdrum and stumbling actors playing Farfrae, and while the remake has a virtuoso Elizabeth Jane in the form of Jodhi May, it has an unconvincing tragic heroine in Polly Walker, who stays resolutely in the 21st century, and is no match at all for the original Anna Massey. It is in fact possible to have serious literary adaptations where everyone in the cast is excellent and no one is dragging their feet. Witness the peerless 1981 Charles Sturridge version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where everyone was on top form (Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier) and because of which the adaptation will surely endure for ever. But this business of casting a brilliant lead and then hoping for the best with everyone else, has for long been the default mode in British TV drama, and it is a crying shame, it really is.

THE PIRATE AND DONALD SUTHERLAND

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 18th July

THE PIRATE AND DONALD SUTHERLAND

I can usually tell Canadians from Americans but failed to do so recently. There was a large extended family of transatlantic tourists arrived in the Paradisos Café in the port yesterday, and they ordered huge and pricey breakfasts of omelettes, crepes and chocolate and cream covered waffles, thus keeping the staff feverishly on their toes as they raced up and down, to and from the balcony. Most prominently, there was the couple in their late 50s, she strikingly handsome and fair haired, he with a pirate’s kerchief on his head and a likeably comic provocative manner. They were accompanied by 3 friendly girls aged between 11 and 14, and a bulky and earnest man of about 30. He was impossibly young to be the Dad of all 3, but on the other hand if they were the children of the couple, they were all conceived in the woman’s forties.  The only feasible arithmetic allowed the young man to be their son, so Lord knows where the lovely kids came from. The girls were all crazy about the café cats and petted and took photos of them on their 3 splendid smartphones. Less explicable was the behaviour of the pirate husband who wandered into the cafe interior and approached the counter as if he wanted something badly. I was inside drinking coffee, and as there was no one around I walked into the kitchen to tell Maria she was needed. When she asked the quirky buccaneer what she could do for him he smiled a quizzical challenge and denied any need at all. He was just looking, he said, and then repeated the mysterious phrase. Just looking? Where did he think he was, John Lewis’s New Year Sales or the Hellenic equivalent?

Far odder than that, was that he disappeared from the café altogether for about 20 minutes, leaving the others on the balcony. When he arrived back and stood at the bottom of the balcony steps, he grinned paradoxically at his wife, then lifted up the kerchief to disclose a dramatically shaved head. The wife and the three girls all laughed and clapped their hands at this surprise tonsure, for evidently he had gone into the nearby hairdresser and had an impromptu makeover. I had no idea what his head looked like previously, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d had a thick and dense mop of curls, and had capriciously decided to shock the world today, or at least one of his worlds. Replacing his kerchief, he then strolled restlessly across to me and pointing said, ‘This guy is having his fix!’ the reason being I was currently enjoying a bottle of prizewinning Fix Beer, as manufactured here in Greece. His tone was friendly and not at all confrontational, and I smiled at both him and his wife. She walked over to where I sat and looking at the cat on my lap asked me about Asproula or Little Whitey, the beautiful snow-white stray who has adopted me as her favourite handy seat as of 4 and a half years ago. She used a strange expression and asked me was she a ‘communal’ cat. It is an amiable enough phrase, but implies the whole community might have affectionately adopted Asproula which is far from being the case. The Greeks tolerate but on the whole dislike stray cats and do nothing to encourage them. So street cats or stray cats is by far the more accurate representation of Asproula and her colleagues’ existential reality.

“Where are you  from?” I asked the handsome woman, expecting to hear Oregon or Philadelphia or Chattanooga.

“We’re from Toronto.”

I stared at the pirate’s beautiful wife, surprised, even abashed. “I always thought I could tell Canadians apart from Americans. I think it must be the first time ever that I got it wrong.”

At which she smiled with a most natural and expansive kindness, as if to say what did it really matter. But then I went on hurriedly, “I wouldn’t care, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about Donald Sutherland lately, and he’s a Canadian.”

Again she glanced at me with an infinite tolerance, as unabashed by my bizarre and random comment, as she had been by her husband’s all or nothing and I now decided confrontational haircut (take it or leave it cos it’s me and it’s a fact). She didn’t bother to ask me why I’d been thinking so much about Sutherland, as if indeed it was the most natural thing in the world for everyone in creation to be ruminating about the remarkable actor.

I could have told her it was because I had been watching Sutherland for the umpteenth time as Casanova in the eponymous Fellini masterpiece from 1976. The range of the man’s acting there is quite simply beyond belief, for he goes from tender to quizzical, to arrogant, to humiliated, to grief stricken, to farcical, to narcissistic, to besotted, to suicidal desperation, to a calm and very final tranquillity, and to all else in between. And yet, naïve as it might sound, he is after all just the one man representing just the other one man of history.

I didn’t tell her any of that, but instead said doggedly:

“Joni Mitchell is Canadian too. Isn’t she?”

She chuckled uncritically at that, and said yes indeed Joni was. And then she shouted up for the kids and for the bulky, smileless man, and she and her jaunty pirate of a husband set off at the front in the direction of their yacht.

MEN WHO DON’T LISTEN TO WOMEN

The next post will be on or before Sunday 15th July

MEN WHO DON’T LISTEN TO WOMEN

What follows you will probably find barely credible, but I am repeating it verbatim, exactly as it happened. Almost exactly 20 years ago I happened to be on the phone to a literary editor of a UK national newspaper for which I wrote regular fiction reviews. She was a very busy woman of course, but I was nonetheless shocked when the conversation went as follows:

SHE. Hi there. How are you?

ME (after some hesitation). Well, my wife’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

SHE (nil pause) Oh really? That’s great! That’s great!

I didn’t, as it happened, challenge her by repeating what I had said, though for both our sakes in retrospect I wish I had. Had I made the same appalling auditory error as she had, I would certainly have wanted her to tell me of it immediately. And no, before you anticipate, I wasn’t mumbling into my beard that morning and for some reason my strong Cumbrian accent tended to all but disappear when I talked to any metropolitan literati.  Nor of course, was it that this particular woman was an unthinking psychopath, it was just that her job was such a classic pressured blue-arsed fly one, that unless the topic were strictly about book reviews and final deadlines, she just didn’t listen to what people were saying.

Nonetheless, it is both an anecdotal and a provable statistical fact, that women on the whole listen to men a great deal more than men do to women.  A friend of mine recently confided to me what I would already have guessed, that the bulk of UK men she met via an online dating agency for professional people, simply talked about themselves all the time, and asked either nothing or a few token questions about herself and her career. Whenever she answered the latter as best she could (she had been a successful teacher and then a kind of university pastoral worker) she assumed they couldn’t possibly be listening to her, for they both talked over her, and, as rapidly as they could, resumed their monologues about their endearing masculine selves. This woman also happened to have a fascinating and highly refined artistic talent which any right-thinking person would have wished to ask her about till the cows come home, but no Milord The Civil (good joke) Engineer and Des the breezily Monologuing Upmarket Gym Manager never asked her squit.

We can all guess the historical reasons for this monomania on the part of numerous males, for although it is almost 50 years since Germaine Greer published her ground-breaking  The Female Eunuch, unreformed sexism is alive and kicking in places you would think it might have died a death. There is most recently the brutal coercive abuse revealed in the supposedly liberal media world, of men like Harvey Weinstein demanding masturbatory sex in exchange for career advancement, or even worse if it was withheld the woman actor would be blacklisted within the film industry. Rather like the institutionalised sexual abuse of children within the extended spheres of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, it was both the tip of the iceberg and an open secret. Everybody knew about it, and knew it was no doubt disgusting and doubtless caused endless torment to its victims, but nobody did anything about it, because everyone was afraid of those who held an inordinate amount of power and almost all of these powerful  folk happened to be men. Probably the aptest way of defining these predatory males is that they are severely infantilised individuals who do not understand adult boundaries, so think to themselves on the lines of, your body is self-evidently mine to do with as I want, if I so wish. Any truly functioning adult would be appalled by that demented equation,  but there is a whole structurally related spectrum that leads back to the starting line so speak of  those charming men we all know who think they are a hero if they make their wife a cup of tea, and would throw up their arms in merriment if expected to cook a three course meal. It is not as bad as it was in DH Lawrence’s day no doubt, where in Sons and Lovers, a sulking collier would sweep everything off the mantelpiece if it wasn’t as pristine clean as he expected it. But fast-forwarding a full century to 1990 (meaning 20 years after Greer’s remarkable book) when I was looking after my baby daughter Ione in rural NE Cumbria and Annie was working full time as a busy social work training officer, I asked the friendly health visitor who made occasional visits how many people she knew like me, a Dad doing full time child care. This infinitely capable woman was it turned out responsible not only for NE Cumbria but also rural E Cumbria around far-flung Alston and Nenthead and Garrigill. Both areas had about 900 infants each, and until recently no less than 2 anomalous infants out of the 1800 had been looked after by their Dads. But the other bloke had gradually got unbearably fed up with his job, so now I was the sole bearded carer out of 1800 ‘Mums’.

You would think, would you not, that the sophisticated literary world meaning the world of nuance and ineffable rumination and scrutiny, that it would be ipso facto educated, liberal and aware, and the last place where the sweet little doting woman would be treated as a handy attachment to her heroic chap, forever in the throes of his capricious artistic genius. As it happens the majority of writers do not have writer partners, and my wife Annie from the mid 80s onwards had high flying careers as first a social work trainer, then a private consultant trainer, and ultimately a national expert in Organisational Transactional Analysis, meaning she was a highly regarded specialist who was brilliant at helping groups of people to work together cooperatively in their jobs. Yet almost every time we found ourselves in among a bunch of poets, playwrights and novelists at a party, it was always me was asked the interesting and flattering questions about what precisely I was up to and without exception the arty-farty men there would ask my incredibly talented wife precisely nothing about what she might be busy with.

And yet, even more startling, was that it wasn’t always the arty-farty men who saw all male creative artists per se as a kind of minor which is to say a major and truly worshipful domestic deity. At one of these crowded literary dos we attended, a commercially successful woman writer on discovering that both Annie and I worked much of the time at home, turned with a worried expression to her, and more or less accused her of potentially getting in the way of the great man, by disturbing his oh so necessary pristine solitude, without which the necessary inspirational lightning would surely never strike. Annie being a wise and always gentle woman, instead of swearing at her, pointed out that we had separate offices and nobody ever got in anyone’s way, unless it were our 2 daft dogs always tripping us up en route to the kitchen and coffee. I would also have said what Annie didn’t bother to say, that her work was arguably more valuable than mine would ever be, both intrinsically in her helping people to be so much happier in their jobs…but also because it was Annie who made most of our income, and thus kept  the show, meaning me, her, and our child Ione, on the road that we travelled…

 

 

HAPPINESS FOR EVER MORE

The next post will be on or before Sunday July 8th

HAPPINESS FOR EVERMORE

I don’t know about you, but New Year’s Eve is my least favourite festive celebration. There is something about the spectacle of worldwide and flatteringly televised urban partying, washed down with booze and uproarious cheering and endless fireworks, that at best seems innocent wishful thinking and at worst a feckless and alienated denial of unflinching human realities. At the sobering national level, they whoop it up in totalitarian China where you can get jailed or even shot for protesting about flagrant civic corruption, and they also whoop it up in harmless places like Finland where no one gets shot for doing anything and where the prospect of a Happy New Year for any of it citizens is almost, and I stress almost, a working reality. But it is the unconvincing timescale that is the real issue here. The time axis for the hackneyed benediction Happy New Year! is a bloody long one, 12 long months, and in reality, neither you nor me nor all those hooraying kids in NY, Paris and London pie-eyed at the prospect of the coming Shangri La, that mystical and sentimental entity which is the pristine and unsullied year to come, can expect a whole year to be entirely without its hitches, worries, griefs and even tragedies. I am not a pessimist by any means, quite the opposite, but even the best year one has in one’s life, and I have had some great ones, is inevitably marred by the fact that others all over the world are living in a timeless which is to say eternal hell of either poverty or wholesale oppression, in part structurally linked to the fact that you and I are not. So, if you are going to believe in the cheery authenticity of Happy New Year! you might as well believe in Happy New Decade! so that at midnight on 31.12.2009 you should have been bawling in your partying pal’s lughole to that effect, 10 whole years of fun my best beloved! and here’s to you! But why after all stop there? On 31.12.1999 had you thought seriously about your luxurious options, you could have had a 2 in 1, a buy 1 get 1 free wishy-wish-wish, because you could have carolled in the same lughole, Happy New Century! my dear old bosom chum! and while we are it, and at the same time permit me to felicitate you with, A Happy New One Thousand Years ! you hoary old bastard, you!

Which is where we come to Greece and their idea of benedictions, which are both complex and simple and innately intelligent, because, I would argue, of the learned wisdom of mostly oppressive centuries. They celebrate New Year as much as anyone else, and being Greek, their fireworks are louder and more frightening than anywhere else in the universe, and go on for what seems several millennia. The official New Year partying on Kythnos is in the Hora capital, but in 2014 daughter Ione and I stayed in the port here and dined late at the excellent Kandouni grill, the only place open as it stole to midnight, and with about a dozen other quietly chatting customers. When it turned 2015, the shy and affable owner switched the electric light off for one second, and then switched it on again, and that was it. There followed subdued clapping and handshakes and numerous kisses. A man after my heart, I thought, as I knocked back his bakalarios cod fritters with skordalia bread and garlic sauce and his fried courgettes in their eggwhite batter that are surely not made by a man nor woman but by an angel. So yes, the Greeks do like everyone else wish each other a one-year long felicitation, but acknowledging the brevity and sometimes painful uncertainty of life, they also pragmatically work backwards in time, and at the start of every month wish you Kalo Minas! or Happy New Month! Better still every Monday morning (yes you are right a week starts on a Sunday but try telling a Greek that) they wish you Kali vdhomadha! Happy New Week, 7 days of innocent fun and always joyful surprises, let us pray!

But best of all, and I would say it is a truly transcendent and infinitely instructive concept, plus I believe they are probably the only nation in the world to do so, Greeks very often say as they leave you and go on their way, Kali synekhia! There is no straightforward English equivalent of this, as it means literally Happy Continuity! and to give it more logical sense we need to parse it at some length: May Your Day Continue To Go Seamlessly Well!  The nearest UK or more likely US version of this, would be Have a Nice Day! which quite rightly has been laughed into touch by those repelled by autopilot fawning from shop assistants, bank managers and all others required to grovel in order to earn their sales and/or commissions. But the reality is the Greeks are only blessing you for the rest of the 24 hours the pair of you are sharing together on this earth….and having spent centuries under the no nonsense Ottomans, plus the various brutal army juntas starting with Metaxas, continuing with the post war Royalist right supported by napalm-flinging Americans and the phlegmatic arms-folded Brits as their Greek allies pursued the leftists into Albania, and carrying on doggedly siga siga 1967-1974 with the mad Athens generals and their  heartfelt blessing by heroic Richard Nixon…having suffered all of that and getting no credit for it, internationally speaking, the Greeks know that to get through just today itself is enough of an ambition for starters.