Thursday, 4 January 2018

Theatre Review – The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, Gielgud Theatre, London



Jez Butterworth’s latest play, The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, has received excellent reviews, and articles over the Christmas period saw many selecting it as their favourite play of the year. My experience of the play was more mixed and before going into the criticisms I’ll say that the standing ovation was well earned and I cried at the emotional impact of the stunning conclusion.

I was looking forward to being transported back to Northern Ireland, where I was born and spent my childhood, expecting the play to be full of the turns of phrase and the accent I recognise and love. The first act surprised me as the colloquialisms weren’t there and the accents were a bit of a mixed bag, with some sounding authentic and some sounding a bit too ‘try hard’, while others missed the mark completely much of the time. This could mangle some of the words and I heard other audience members in the interval saying they shared my inability to hear some of the phrases, which was frustrating.

It also felt as if the play lacked the heart and soul of a writer who had actually lived through the Troubles. I have avoided writing about this experience myself as it can feel like exploiting the suffering of others for shock value, and I was only there for a year or two as the violence ignited in 1969 and 1970. Although Butterworth has part-Irish Catholic parents, he grew up in St Albans, as I read after watching the play, which explained to me why it was a Northern Ireland I didn’t recognise. The setting was also historical to him as he was born in 1969, which can be an interesting perspective, and it certainly led to him treating the themes with the objectivity and impartiality of distance.

His focus on the impact on one family of a man being ‘disappeared’ 10 years previously by the IRA opened the play up to the universal theme of the traumas and knock-on effect when someone close to us vanishes without explanation and we have no idea if they’re alive or dead. This has happened in my family so it’s a subject I related to.

The Ferryman opens with a striking prologue. A leading figure in the IRA called Muldoon is standing outside a wall in the city covered in graffiti, including the name Bobby as it’s set at the time the hunger strikers are drawing international attention to Northern Ireland and Margaret Thatcher’s government. Bobby Sands and others are dying and will be named in a kind of repeated chorus by characters throughout the play. Their story alone lends strength to the play.

In the prologue Muldoon stands waiting even before the audience is seated and he bears a striking resemblance to ‘he who must not be named’ in a similar true story about the killing of Jean McConville. Just as Jean McConville vanished and it took years for her body to be found, while rumours were deliberately circulated to suggest she was an informer who had run away with a British soldier, abandoning her family, the ghost of Seamus Carney haunts the living characters in The Ferryman. Just as the McConville family and others knew who was behind the disappearance of Jean but stayed silent for self-protection, Seamus’s brother Quinn and others know it was Muldoon but they have maintained a mafia-like omertà.

The opening works very well, with Muldoon calling the Carneys’ priest to a meeting so that he can get information about the Carney family that will help him blackmail them into silence. The body of Seamus Carney has been found in a peat bog, well preserved and with a bullet through the head, the contents of his pockets showing when he died. The sightings of Seamus after his death are clearly a cover-up and Muldoon wants no bad publicity while the sympathy of the world is with him and the hunger strikers.

The problem with this is that Muldoon has no need to get info from the priest in order to silence the Carneys. He could just threaten them in the same way he threatens the priest, by showing a picture of his sister. Killings are easy for a man with Muldoon’s power and following, so the elaborate emotional blackmail is exciting theatre but unnecessary and over-complicated in a situation where keeping quiet is the norm to protect loved ones.

Apart from the prologue the whole play is set in the main room of the Carney family farm, which works well as it’s the place where everything happens, from cooking to partying, and the preparations are in hand for a big harvest feast after the annual haymaking. This brings cousins from the city to help out, which reminded me of haymaking at farms near my grandparents’ home, and we did all get together including me at only 7, dragging bails across fields for neighbours. I don’t remember harvest feasts but it’s a good ploy to bring all the necessary characters together. The young male cousins from the city are seeing the violence of the Troubles at close quarters and are more easily recruited to help Muldoon in what they see as a war. Women were also involved in both the IRA activities and in the more peaceful activity of haymaking, and this is missing from The Ferryman. The Price sisters, Dolours and Marianne, are an example in the Jean McConville story.

Despite the strong political elements, the main story is more domestic and revolves around Seamus Carney’s widow Caitlin who has moved in with her brother-in-law Quinn and Quinn’s wife Mary while paying off the wedding ring she bought for Seamus: she’s living in a limbo unable to be certain if her husband is alive or dead. Quinn was a committed IRA member but defected, leaving the question of whether or not Seamus was killed for no fault of his own but as a punishment for his brother’s disillusionment.

One of the city cousins, Shane, has been recruited by Muldoon and tells of the punishment of a young Catholic presumably suspected of being an informer. The complexity of wrong and right is a strength of the play, with the audience’s empathy moving in different directions at different points and Muldoon at least as unlikeable as the smug Margaret Thatcher on the radio with no sympathy for the suffering of the hunger strikers. The title The Ferryman refers to the sins that cannot be forgiven and is taken from the description in Virgil’s Aeneid of the souls condemned to wander the world and not cross to the other side because of what they have done or what has happened to them in this life.

Older relatives tell stories of the history of British colonialism in Ireland, and the loss of a brother in the Easter Uprising which has left the fiery Aunt Patricia fiercely anti-English. Aunt Maggie sits in her wheelchair almost completely in her own world and incapable of communication until she suddenly emerges from time to time to tell stories of the old days and answer questions from the children who believe she can predict the future. She hears banshees that predict death, and along with a gun we know Aunt Patricia took from her dying brother, the second half of the play builds up successfully to tragedy we know will happen.

This all gives it an underlying feel similar to a Russian play, although how the gun is going to be used is not quite as predictable. In the 10 years since his brother’s death, Quinn has become close to Seamus’s widow Caitlin (although she doesn’t know for sure she’s a widow). It’s clear to the audience from the start that there’s an attraction and they seem to us to be the couple with all the children until we’re surprised by the appearance of Quinn’s actual wife. It’s very brave having so many children acting in a play and they do an impressive job.

When Quinn’s wife Mary appears occasionally down the rickety staircase, rarely changing out of her plain nightdress and complaining of a never-ending virus, it’s clear that the disappearance of Seamus has led to her losing her husband to Caitlin and she is vanishing metaphorically. She conveys this not just by her lack of interest in her appearance but also in the loss of her voice, which sounds sad and broken. Her daughter criticises her as if she’s a lazy hypochondriac constantly in bed eating biscuits, while Caitlin appears to have replaced her not only in her husband’s affections but also as the wife and mother, cooking and looking after the children.

Empathy could go in various directions in this play, and mine was up the rickety staircase with the almost invisible Mary. Her voice when she did appear, hiding her true feelings and hoping the ‘virus’ had gone once Seamus’s body was found and Caitlin could move on, was mesmerising. Although the unspoken ‘love story’ is between Caitlin and Quinn it wasn’t one I felt made me wish for it to become spoken and requited. The disappearance of Seamus has led to the destruction of the family, which doesn’t happen in one clear cut but in 10 years of uncertainty. For anyone who has a partner who vanishes inexplicably, this kind of lack of closure leads to the wasting of many years.

There are stereotypes which led to a lot of laughter in the audience, but which I didn’t find especially funny, even though this was balanced by some truly laugh-out-loud humour. The constant swearing, especially feck and shite, sounded like an episode of Father Ted, with everyone including the children speaking like Father Jack. Everybody, including the children, drank whisky throughout the play. I’m not sure if this happened in families – the whisky and swearing seemed far more than I’ve ever heard. Some lines, like ‘fuck me blue’ from the mouth of a little girl who has just been told by the soothsaying elderly aunt that she’ll have nine children, sounded like an over-dependence on swearing and adult comments in the mouths of children rather than successful comedy. But people laughed so I could be wrong!

The theme of unrequited, unspoken or lost love is central to the whole play. The priest says his sister is all he has so he’ll risk hell to break the secrecy of what he’s been told in confession. Aunt Patricia lost the brother she loved so much she followed him into ardent freedom fighting. Aunt Maggie never married because she loved a boy so much she couldn’t in all honesty commit to another – England took her first love as he needed to leave Ireland for work. Caitlin has lost Seamus who may have been killed by the IRA for no fault of his own, and her son Oisin takes his teenage anger out on her and is vulnerable to recruitment by Muldoon. Caitlin and Quinn have spent years repressing their love, while upstairs Mary is ill due to the loss of her husband’s love, losing the respect of her children at the same time.

Romantic love is made questionable by this, as are romantic ideals. Certain actions stand out as authentic, such as the sacrifice and suffering of the hunger strikers willing to die in such a horrific way. The damage inflicted by the British has led to ongoing suffering in Ireland, just as the IRA killings of Irish Catholics have led to the suffering and conflict of viewpoints shown in this play. The complexity is there, and there are no clear cut rights and wrongs. One mistake writers can make when addressing Irish themes from an outsider perspective can be to romanticise the subject, and that’s not the case here. Romanticism is all ‘bollocks’ as Quinn says to Caitlin about their own repressed love.

The acting is excellent apart from the questionable accents of some, and this could be overcome with the regular cast changes. The children are remarkable in their ability to immerse themselves in the world of the play. The risk of having so many children and even a baby on stage is great, and it amazed me that the baby was so quiet. I held my breath as one of the older children rushed up and down the rickety open-step stairway, babe in arms, in case of a fall.

There’s also a live goose and live rabbits and I felt sorry for the goose in particular, despite a note on the website that animal trainers and animal welfare experts have been used. The goose looked frightened and angry, but using a live goose  before bringing in a goose that’s strangled and hung upside down has an effect of prefiguring the violence against the powerless later.  I still wasn’t comfortable with living creatures being on stage surrounded by so much noise and fear of the audience.

If I have to pick out the acting that impressed me it was in the roles of Mary the neglected wife, Tom Kettle the gentle giant English farmhand who was found locally as a lost boy and who is at risk due to the anti-English feeling, and cousin Shane who has been recruited by Muldoon, as well as Aunt Patricia and Aunt Maggie. Muldoon also looms large, not saying much but a dominating presence as he walks into the farm and as he waits for the priest at in the prologue. There was no weak acting.

All of this leads to a play with much to admire and the critical acclaim is understandable. However, something was missing for me. The setting has been described as Hardyesque and it did strike me as similar to a setting in a DH Lawrence play rather than a farm in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. The décor, the harvest feast, the dinner with everybody spontaneously bursting into various forms of Irish dancing, and the Irish folk songs sung by Aunt Maggie and Aunt Patricia were all from an imagined Ireland and a mixture of alternative history mixed with historical facts. This didn’t work for me and detracted from the good points of the play, but it all clearly works for many people, has led to it being one of the fastest booking plays of the year and an extended season. Well worth seeing and let me know what you think of it. I haven’t given everything away!



Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Book Review – Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

It was hard to miss all the recommendations for Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends in the end-of-year articles listing the best releases of the year. As I have a liking for Irish writing and a Dublin setting I bought it as part of my Christmas holiday reading. I wasn’t disappointed.

Rooney has a distinctive voice that carries the reader along as if we’re listening to the first person narrator chatting us through her life day-by-day. I was quickly drawn in, as if listening to a friend revealing all, but the simplicity of the style is scattered with striking metaphors and some beautifully worded sentences that made me wonder if Rooney, like her main character Frances, is also a poet.

Frances is 21 and still close to her best female friend from school, the noncomformist Bobbi, who was also her first love and her greatest influence. Bobbi ended their relationship for reasons unknown until the end of the novel, but they still perform poetry together and are fairly inseparable. Frances admires Bobbi and is clearly still in love with her.

When the literary journalist Melissa comes into their life to photograph them and write an article, they get invited to her house and to events where she introduces them to her handsome actor husband Nick and important people in the literary world. This will help Frances get published, but should she, as her new attempt at fiction is clearly autobiographical and characters are recognisable.

If this makes it sound as if it’s a novel about writers, not the most welcome theme, then don’t be misled. Instead Frances takes us through a year of complex relationships, where she and Melissa are
bisexual, Bobbi is lesbian and Nick is heterosexual. As this leads to affairs with all the usual jealousies, self-questioning, judgmental attitudes of others and lowering of self-esteem after the initial ‘falling in love’, the reader is left questioning why marriage survives and whether monogamy is conditioning rather than instinct.

Frances falls in love with a man for the first time while retaining her love for Bobbi, and has to ask herself why she would expect faithfulness from another when she can love and desire two people. Bobbi can’t understand why anyone would get married any more as she sees it as an institution to protect the patriarchy and the lack of doubt over paternity. She no longer wants to be called a girlfriend and prefers to be called a friend. Monogamy isn’t important to her and she feels love can be for more than one person, just as parents can love their children equally. In one of the conversations with friends, their more conventional social circle disagree.

When Frances decides to stop analysing and to experience instead, realising that some things can only be understood by living them, it seems ironic as the whole novel is in a voice that ‘over-thinks’ and analyses every situation. Frances even over-analyses step-by-step through the sex scenes so it’s hard to know whether she really enjoys them as much as she says. She’s an analytical mind, but it’s somehow both enjoyable and stressful being in there with her. She displays all the joy and angst of university-age women. It’s certainly a different way to write about sex.

While all of this is going on, Frances is also managing to spend much of her time in the university library getting on with her degree, and working as an intern in a literary agency, although she has no ambition for any career. A quip about how her course (English literature) will lead to her being able to write in a way that nobody can understand made me chuckle aloud, and Rooney weaves academic English into the novel here and there as that’s how Frances and her friends would be thinking but it’s like a foreign language to most people. Philosophers and literary theorists are named and quoted as part of her stream of consciousness, but there’s no need to look them up.

The visits to Frances’s divorced parents are also well depicted, with her father still going through the mood swings and alcoholism she remembers from her childhood. Her mother is more capable but perhaps an enabler, expecting Frances to carry on humouring her father, while he fails to provide the money she needs and goes out of contact so it’s hard to know if he’s suicidal or even still alive. It’s easy to see why Frances has developed a protective barrier against the outside world and emotion, and why her self-esteem is so low despite her academic and creative talents.

This backstory is contained seamlessly within the narrative, so that the reader can see why Frances is attracted to the beautiful home and the almost parental figures of Melissa and Nick (and has the self-awareness to ponder this herself).

Melissa also questions her right, or lack of it, to be upset if her husband is unfaithful, when she herself has had affairs, while Bobbie would no doubt question terms such as ‘unfaithful’ and ‘affairs’. It all reminds me of an evolved version of the 1970s when we questioned how much our behaviour was due to conditioning and whether we needed to break away from much that we took for granted.

There’s a new earnestness, or maybe that was also there in the 1970s. Bobbie is angry if any emotional blackmail games are played, or if she feels she’s being used to make another jealous, even if it’s only with a smile and whispering in the ear to feign closeness in front of a new lover losing interest. Lack of honesty and openness is also met with anger and temporary ‘unfriending’, because after all, in polyamory honesty is important. Deceit is the trademark of old-fashioned values and ‘cheating’ on spouses. But can Frances manage a new kind of relationship, or set of relationships? The novel leaves us to work that one out for ourselves.



Friday, 15 December 2017

Whatever Happened to Bluechrome? The mystery of the disappearing publisher.

When Bluechrome Publishing closed in 2009 the disappearance of the publisher, Anthony Delgado, was a mystery that baffled those of us involved. It’s a mystery that has remained for years – but it’s now possible to find some answers. Along with a number of authors, I was waiting for my book to be published by them and I was also working as Bluechrome’s fiction editor. Despite this I was given no warning that the company was closing and when all communication stopped I was left in as difficult a position as everyone else.

I tried to trace Anthony for my own sake and the sake of the other authors, as we needed to know our rights regarding our own books on the Bluechrome list. My own poetry collection, Never-Never Land, was the last book published by Bluechrome just as they were vanishing, so it had no launch, no promotion and I received no royalties. I managed to get hold of the remaining copies from the distributors, Central Books, with permission from the book reps Inpress books: none of the people in these companies had heard from Anthony.

He had managed to vanish very effectively. When I saw some online book sales for Bluechrome titles I thought he was still operating, but in fact books continue to sell via distributor, wholesalers and book reps. Apart from wanting to sort out my contract with Bluechrome so that I could republish my book, I was concerned about Anthony and wanted to know he was well – he had MS and I had heard he and his family had received death threats and other harassment from authors when new book launches were delayed in the year before the company closed.

While trying to find Anthony I discovered that he used the pen-name Erik Ryman for his own books. This was a surprise as he had asked me to edit a novel by Erik Ryman without letting me know it was actually his, but I remember how delighted he was that I ‘liked Erik’. I was supposed to receive a small payment for editing Bluechrome books but it never arrived, not even for the Erik Ryman novel. I never cared about the lack of payment as I knew small publishers struggled. Along with the poetry editor and some authors there was a lot of good will and the wish to help Anthony keep Bluechrome going but he wouldn’t talk to us at the end.

A couple of years ago I discovered that an Erik Ryman of Bristol (like Anthony) was active online again but there was no sign of any easy way to contact him. He was involved with the music community, mainly on guitar forums, where he said he had started the Jooky Guitar Emporium. Following various links I found he had tried to set up a small family publishing venture using crowdfunding to bring out a few books, but the amount needed hadn’t been raised.

In recent weeks the Jooky name came to my attention again when a poet told me she had been involved in advising a new publishing company to offer a cash prize for a poetry competition seeing as it had an entry fee. Always interested in new publishing companies I took a look at it – the Hedgehog Poetry Press – and signed up to the e-newsletter. Along with the competition there’s an anthology, a poetry magazine and an opportunity to have an individual collection published. There are good marketing ideas, including the putting together of a limited group of 100 subscribers who will be a kind of ‘literary salon’ to support the press and to spread the word.

On the contact page I found that the press is run by Jooky, which is a publishing company as well as a guitar emporium now, with a few specialist musical magazines on its list. The subscription method of funding is also used by the Jooky Guitar Emporium magazines.

I see some familiar names on the list of contributors to the Hedgehog Poetry Press magazine, including some well-known poets. So it should be easy to find out if the Erik Ryman of Bristol who started Jooky is the same as the Erik Ryman  of Bristol who is the alias of Anthony Delgado. If so, is he still involved with Jooky and if not, does the current owner know what happened to him? If you’re involved with Hedgehog Poetry Press or near them in Somerset I’d be interested to know the answers to these questions.



Sunday, 3 December 2017

TV Review - Howards End Episode 4 BBC1

The fourth and final episode of Howards End came full circle with the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcoxes as obnoxious as they were for me in the first episode. In the third episode it seemed as if Helen had developed some awareness of Leonard Bast as an equal rather than a charity case and a social experiment but this was not to endure.

It was also confusing in some parts in a similar way to episode one, especially regarding what happened between Helen and Leonard, so it seemed as if the BBC were relying on people having read the book before watching the series. Did they have a single encounter or had it continued? I couldn’t quite tell. Either way, she decided she ‘never wants to see him again’ because he would ‘keep worshipping her’.

Being a single mother at a time when it would ruin her reputation is preferable to her than being with Leonard, which can be seen as brave, but the way she has continued to treat him abusively by encouraging him to get close and then distancing him because she ultimately views him as inferior shows that she’s the same Helen who wanted to patronise and help him. Her offer of a cheque for £5,000, which he keeps returning, compounds that insult.

The writer, Kenneth Lonergan, did well to keep us wondering why she decided to go to Germany and avoid her family. I thought it was to avoid Margaret once Helen knew about Henry Wilcox’s affair, as it would be hard to lie to her sister after a lifetime of honesty. Helen doesn’t know that Henry has told Margaret and she has forgiven him. The obvious reason – to hide a pregnancy – doesn’t occur to us.

When it comes to Henry being as accepting about a heavily pregnant and unmarried Helen the hypocrisy and double standards of the time for men and women become clear. He doesn’t even want Helen to spend the night in Howards End, where all the Schlegel furniture is being stored. As the housekeeper sets out the furniture and books, Howards End continues to play a main role in the story, establishing itself even more as the permanent home the sisters crave.

The switch from our focus on Henry’s affair to Helen’s unmarried sexual encounter is effective as we see very different reactions to the people involved. Helen is expected to marry, the man is considered a seducer and the active partner, with the woman as a victim but an embarrassment to be shuffled out of the way. If the man can’t marry her he should be thrashed.

Leonard would no doubt marry Helen and is looking for her, finally travelling to Howards End after getting some news from her brother Tibby. It’s clear that he will never be accepted by the Schlegels or the Wilcoxes as a possible husband because of his class, although Tibby has begun to admire him for returning such large cheques and not giving in to the temptation of money despite his poverty.

I haven’t read the novel, but the damage done to Leonard by the Schlegel sisters’ books and bookshelves makes me think EM Forster intended us to see him as the victim of their culture and philanthropy as much as he’s a victim of the class system and wealthy materialists like the Wilcoxes. The Schlegels want the same things as the Wilcoxes in the end – their comfortable house and the company of people from their own class.

At the end we see Helen and Margaret blissfully happy and Leonard is completely forgotten as they live their idyllic life. Helen tells Margaret that she now likes Henry, and Margaret suggests that it would be impossible for anyone to dislike him. Henry has been broken by the legal punishment of his son, rather than the horrific act he has committed, and the fact that he can’t manage to get him out of trouble by pulling all the strings he can. Even when Margaret hears that her husband hid from her the fact that she inherited Howards End from his late wife she is unperturbed. He asks if he did wrong and she replies that nobody has done anything wrong.

They have all done wrong and the victim at every stage has been Leonard Bast along with Jackie. Their lives would have been much better if Leonard had never met the Schlegels but the damage done to them is wiped aside and forgotten as Helen, Margaret and Henry walk out into the sunny meadow with Helen’s child. They deserve each other and Leonard deserved much better. He will stay in my mind and I must read the novel now to see if it comes across in the same way or if the TV series made significant changes to the plot and themes.


It’s not easy to get a strong reaction from viewers and Howards End managed to annoy me many times and to create some difficult viewing in the worst moments for Leonard, all done in casual ignorance by the philanthropic Helen, her family and their friends. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend catching it on BBC iPlayer.

TV Review – Howards End Episode 3 BBC1

Condensing Howards End into four episodes must have been a challenge for the writer (Kenneth Lonergan), but as we reached the penultimate episode it was all coming together nicely. He has all his plates spinning and he’s keeping them balanced, just as a novelist would be in the large central section of a book. The idea was to concentrate on the Schlegel sisters and the men in their lives and this does allow a wider look at other main themes.

The opening scene was a bit stagey and heavy-handed in showing Margaret Schlegel displaying her interest in the latest car being driven by the Wilcox chauffeur. It served to indicate her feminism, contrasting with the older Wilcox and his old-fashioned view of the roles of men and women, but there is little to reinforce the idea of Margaret as a New Woman apart from this and her decision to take the initiative in giving a passionate kiss later. I am left with the feeling that the Margaret in the novel might be more complex, interesting and likeable than the one in this series.

After the initial car scene the acting and dialogue became more believable, with a convincing marriage proposal that takes place without either person saying it explicitly and both cutting the other’s sentences short and saying they understood. Wilcox became more likeable than before in his modest expectation of rejection and offer to help with housing nonetheless. Margaret’s motives are hard to fathom, especially when she makes it clear to Wilcox that she agrees he should pass his money to his sons and daughters.

It’s hard to see what has drawn her to him and it seems like a genuine attraction, even if his attempt at a kiss is initially looks unwelcome. The Margaret who worried about her sister Helen being led on and abandoned by Wilcox’s son in the first episode, seemingly at his father’s request, has vanished. She has no time for Helen’s objections even if we are suddenly reminded by Helen’s own memories that Wilcox is the stuffy and cold authoritarian who hid behind his newspaper to make her feel unwelcome in his home.

Wilcox had been winning us over with his humble proposal in this episode and his willingness to ‘enjoy’ a meal at the protein café at Margaret’s invitation, despite others saying the reformed food is vile. However, we soon see his other side when he just expects Margaret to do as he says. He is inconsiderate about her Aunt Juley’s need of her company on a seaside break and takes her away, speaking over her objections. He also tells her which of his houses she will live in with him without consulting her, only letting her know when she asks.

Margaret’s first view of the empty Howards End is a striking moment. It’s almost derelict without the family there and she seems to fall in love, which many viewers will understand and identify with. In this episode we discover that Howards End is not the only or the main property Wilcox owns and he doesn’t want to live in it. This makes it unacceptable that he ignored his wife’s dying wish to leave it to Margaret (I would still have liked to see more of their short but deep friendship).

Worst of all he has no conscience when he hears his advice has led to Leonard Bast giving up a safe job as a bank clerk and taking on a lower paid job. He doesn’t even remember Bast or that he said the bank was going to have serious financial difficulty. The bank is in no trouble at all, but Bast’s new employer lays him off, leaving him struggling with serious poverty and his live-in partner Jackie ill and malnourished. When he is unwilling to ask the Schlegel sisters for charity, Jackie calls on Margaret to ask for help.

Helen’s response is as immature and tactless as her behaviour in earlier episodes, making us cringe as she drags Bast and Jackie on a train to confront Wilcox at his daughter’s wedding to insist he takes responsibility for his incorrect advice. When Margaret sees them at the wedding marquee she seems to have turned into an echo of Wilcox, shocking Helen by insisting they should leave. However, she offers to speak to Wilcox in a more conventional way to ask him to find Bast a new job.

Wilcox comes good with an offer to please Margaret, even though he believes Bast’s problems are all of his own making. The bringing together of Bast, Jackie and Wilcox leads to a revelation about Wilcox’s past and I’ll be interested to see in the final episode if Margaret will accept it with so-called Bloomsbury open-mindedness about polyamory or if it’s just a new way of turning a blind eye to the patriarchal behaviour of men like Wilcox.

Bast remains the most interesting character to me, and the subtlety of Joseph Quinn’s acting works superbly in this role. So much has to be suggested by looks, body language and few words: his despair at his poverty and loss of work; his feeling of failure at not looking after Jackie; his humiliation at being pressurised to ask for charity and his polite way of understating it in his letter so that Margaret would have to be an expert at reading between the lines to know how much trouble he’s in. The moment he sees Margaret in his home we feel the shock and humiliation with him and we cringe with him on the train he would certainly never have got onto with Helen without Jackie going along with the plan.

When Margaret asks him to leave and says Helen has misled him in expecting Wilcox to help, Bast is only too eager to apologise and go, but Margaret is charitable enough to put him up in a local hotel where Jackie soon falls asleep and he’s left alone with Helen. This moment feels as if it has been inevitable since his first awareness of her sitting beside him at the classical music concert. Helen finally listens to him, rather than treating him to her philanthropy. In few words he tells of his working class family cutting him off because of his relationship and we find out the back story that has left him in his trapped situation. But he does care for Jackie and when Helen says they can’t have anything in common it’s a poignant moment when he answers, ‘We have companionship in common.’ His acceptance of Jackie with her past, and his greater compassion for her because of it, marks him out as the most appealing and ethical character.

Despite her immature behaviour and tactlessness, Helen has also become more likeable because her motives are laudable. She has also started to see Bast as an equal. It’s a significant moment and Joseph Quinn somehow charges the atmosphere with a type of charisma I admire and don’t quite understand in an actor. How exactly does he do it with so few words and restrained body language? When he crosses the room to help Helen close the window, standing close and reaching across her to do it, there’s more erotic tension than in an explicit scene. He has quickly established himself as an actor I would watch a television series to see.


All three first episodes are on BBC iPlayer for a while and they’re well worth seeing, and the fourth will join them after it’s aired this evening.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Book Review - The Other Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has the ability to put the most complex Buddhist theories into language anybody can understand and that’s certainly true of his book The Other Shore. In it he discusses that most baffling of Buddhist concepts – emptiness. Each chapter is based around a few lines from his translation of the Heart Sutra, otherwise known as The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore. As this sutra contains the line ‘whoever can see this no longer needs anything to attain’, it’s a teaching that anyone interested in Buddhism will want to consider deeply, time after time.

I try to chant the Heart Sutra every morning and I do it along with a recording by TJ Fool on Soundcloud called The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore. It’s not a long sutra but it contains the core Buddhist concepts of emptiness, the transformation of suffering and the path to enlightenment.

By the time I finished the last chapter, I felt a wave of happiness washing over me, which is how the understanding of emptiness affects us, even though we grasp it for a moment then find we’ve lost it again as we move back into our everyday experience of the world. Thich Nhat Hanh gives us that glimpse into the ultimate dimension of how things really are, recognising that nothing is separate and that everything is interconnected with everything else. Then we close the book and move back into the historical dimension of conventional reality where we have to see ourselves and everything around us as separate in order to get through our daily lives.

But touching the emptiness of all phenomena as separate entities gives a sense of calm and a new way to look at whatever is troubling us. I have certainly been trying to resolve difficult issues and The Other Shore helped me see them from a completely different perspective, allowing me to work on fixing problems without being caught up in too much worry.

In the final sections, Thich Nhat Hanh also explains how this fundamental teaching of Buddha has been misinterpreted by various Buddhist traditions, which I found especially helpful as I like to go to dharma talks from other traditions to understand diverse approaches. While I enjoy other traditions, there’s an authenticity and simplicity to Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach that, for me anyway, seems to touch what the Buddha actually taught.

Thich Nhat Hanh had a stroke a few years ago and no longer writes, so the new translation of the Heart Sutra (to replace his previous one) and this book are two of his last publications. In The Other Shore I find he speaks more clearly than ever before about the mistaken directions Buddhism can take, slipping into what he calls spirituality and even magic, or what I would describe as superstition. He also explains how other religions fed into Buddhism historically, with ideas about karma and reincarnation being added in, even thought they weren’t taught by Buddha. Some room for discussion on these points.

The new translation of the Heart Sutra can be found here, and the recording on Soundcloud can be found hereThe Other Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh is available from online retailers in print or on Kindle. To those of you who don’t know Thich Nhat Hanh, he is possibly the most significant living zen master and he started out as a Vietnamese monk trying to work for peace between the US and Vietnam during the war in the 1960s. At that time Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He lives in a monastery called Plum Village in France, where people can go on retreat, and there are many groups around the UK that you can find on the coiuk.org website. I go to the one near Leicester Square on Saturday mornings – details can be found on the Heart of London Sangha website. Maybe I'll see you there!



Tuesday, 21 November 2017

TV Review – Howards End Episode 2 BBC1

After my mixed feelings about the first episode of Howards End, I watched the second episode in the hope it would be less of a curate’s egg and it was. There was only one scene with grown women acting like ‘girls being silly’ – the moment when Leonard Bast arrived at the door and they almost accosted him on the doorstep, both talking over each other in their enthusiasm to get him indoors. There were also fewer scenes with women rushing after people – only one this week as Helen chased after Leonard making a hasty escape from their patronising treatment of him in their drawing room once he gave in and accepted their invitation to tea.

The series is made worthwhile for me by the story of Leonard Bast, by far the most interesting character. Joseph Quinn is a superb actor in the role and completely believable against the sometimes melodramatic lines and acting by the Schlegel sisters. They can also be credible but they slip into odd moments when they become ‘silly girls’, which is disappointing in a story that’s looking at feminism.

In this episode we found out more about Bast and the reasons why his face shows all the woes of the world, mixed with some kind of hope – we wonder what it is he most wants. His life as a clerk is mind-numbingly dreary and he drags his feet home after work to a small flat in a basement, reached by walking along a grimy alley with views onto other basement flats with dirty net curtains. Unlike the Schlegels he has no servants and gets the cooking on, while Mrs Bast arrives home to ask him when she can stop pretending she’s his wife. It’s a scene we can tell has been repeated many times, and he promises he will marry here once he’s 21 as his word is his honour. So much is conveyed by this – his young age and the sense that he’s trapped in a life he hates.

When he visits the Schegel household his greatest desire is to talk about books but the sisters see him as a social project and they want to help him in other ways. His attempts at conversation about literature are rebuffed, and he himself feels rebuffed when Mr Wilcox turns up for a visit with his daughter. Bast feels himself out of his class and unwanted as a conversationalist about the arts. The scene when he leaves is moving, giving him the chance to tell Helen exactly how he feels while the maid tries to find his hat. He knows very well that they see him as a ‘charity case’ and a ‘comedy figure’ and that they have no interest in talking to him about books. As Helen tries to deny this the maid finds his hat and he takes it, swiftly moving his hand to grip it by a particularly threadbare part of the brim. Helen notices and he notices her noticing. It’s understated and all the more poignant for that.

Helen’s casual rudeness to her maid also shows her lack of self-awareness, wanting to help one person from a lower class while mistreating another. Quinn shows by his look towards the maid that he has seen Helen’s class superiority, and she is left on her own to consider these things in the light of his comments. Meanwhile, Mr Wilcox and his daughter are advising Margaret not to mix with people like Bast as ‘they will only take advantage’. If Wilcox sounds like the bad guy in this, the truth is that the Schlegels don’t come off well either. They insist Bast isn’t a ‘social experiment’ and that they invite him because they like him, but Wilcox is quite right that they make assumptions about Bast’s life being ‘grey’ and what he needs from them. They never ask him about his life or notice what it is he really wants from them.

I hoped the Schlegel brother Tibby might befriend Bast and give him the conversation he desires, but when he comes out at the sound of Bast saying they don’t like any of the authors he does and ‘what about Dostoevsky’, Tibby says that nobody likes Dostoevsky. He doesn’t recognise Bast at first then realises who he is and calls him his sisters’ social experiment and quotes what they say about him behind his back when talking to their social peers. Bast’s humiliation as a charity case and a curiosity is complete.

Tibby had some sympathy from me last week as his constant illness and fragility could be a serious condition and not the hypochondria some reviewers suspect. But this week he came across as a spoilt brat, not sure if he’s going to go back to Oxford. When the sisters insist that he must go back to university to get a job, he replies that he should be able to live off his inheritance as they do and why should it be different for him. Margaret replies that he’s a man so he must have a work ethic as it’s in the natural order. Another poor moment for their feminist credentials.

The scene also shows that they may be in poorer circumstances than the Wilcoxes, but the Schlegels come from a wealthy background – ‘old money’ you could say, although they are also looked down on for their German origins by the Wilcox son and daughter, who represent British society. Margaret showed that she doesn’t quite fit in by taking a bunch of red chrysanthemums to the funeral of Mrs Wilcox, completely the wrong colour among the white flowers from everybody else.

Despite this, the Schlegels are in straitened circumstances but on a par with the late Mrs Wilcox, who was the epitome of high class, inherited money, and no need to prove herself by her actions (I’m describing the stereotype rather than my view of class and wonder how she comes across in the novel). Mr Wilcox, on the other hand, seems to have married into money, as Howards End was owned by his late wife. He’s an industrialist who has made money – ‘new money’ – unlike the Schlegels who live on private incomes they have had passed down to them. The study of the class system is well observed and a theme that’s unfolding well. Bast brings into this the question of the arts being the preserve of the wealthy from which the lower middle class and the working class are excluded.

It was a surprise to find Mrs Wilcox had died between the two first episodes and a whole friendship between her and Margaret has been missed out. It’s an important friendship as it led to Mrs Wilcox deciding to leave Howards End to Margaret, knowing the lease on her family house is running out. The Schlegels have no idea about this so the Wilcoxes burn the scrap of paper with the improvised will. The Wilcox son and daughter are annoyingly self-centred, greedy and snobbish, and disliking them is pleasure.

Mr Wilcox is more of a mixture, convincingly articulate about the importance of industry and engineering, which the Schlegel sisters feel ‘lacks poetry’. He asks ‘why not?’ and he has a point. His criticism of their hypocrisy over treating Bast as a charity case also hits home as an unwelcome truth. He can also be kind, pretending to enjoy his ‘reformed food’ at the protein café Margaret takes him to – a place I would love to be able to visit!

Margaret quite clearly feels drawn to him and her responses to Helen’s taunts about marrying him show that she’d consider it. After the close friendship with his late wife, who we’ve just seen buried, this does seem rather opportunistic. Talk about jumping into somebody’s grave…

There’s more than enough to keep me watching – in fact I’d watch just to find out more about Bast’s back story and how he has ended up in a relationship and job that are destroying him. Will he find the company he needs so he can share his love of the arts, or will he continue to sit on his own at music concerts and read books by his fireside, keeping his thoughts to himself? Better still, will the Schlegel sisters give him some authentic conversation as an equal, rather than continuing their constant dissection of people, as Helen describes it – just another way to say ‘gossiping’?


If, unlike me, you’ve read the novel you’ll know this answers to my questions and far more, but the TV series will follow its own track. The selection of scenes to condense it into screenplay makes that inevitable. I believe the Schlegel sisters will become more self-aware and will start mixing empathy with philanthropy. HG Wells often wrote about the Schlegel sisters kind of philanthropist – the type who helped the poor by doing what they felt was best for them without giving them the choice. How he hated them. I haven’t read the novel and don’t know if it stirs up such strong reactions in readers, but the television series certainly does.
 
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