New Territory

I am delighted to announce I am participating in the ACT Writers Centre’s critics development program, New Territory. Six pieces of criticism will be posted on the Writers Centre’s blog between now and the end of the year. You can read my first one here, which is about Liam Pieper’s approach to historical fiction.

Thank you to the wonderful people at the ACT Writers Centre for their support in this program, and for Sue Terry of Whispering Gums‘ fame who is the program’s mentor.

Weekly Reads- Sunday 16 September

This is a new segment on what I’ve read throughout the week. Some of it is new, some of it is older stuff I have found in my travels on the internet, but all of it is interesting.

There is a bit of a theme to this week’s list. I recently read Do Oysters Get Bored by Rozanna Lilley. While this book is ostensible about how Rozanna’s autistic son experiences the world, she also reflects on the abuse she suffered at the hands of men who frequented her parents’ social circle in the 1970s. Her parents were the writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley. Lilley also details the ways in which Hewett was partly responsible for facilitating the abuse, leading some to reconsider her literary reputation. I would urge everyone to read this compelling, illuminating and beautifully written book.

Drawing Lines: Can we separate the man from the art? By Lucia Osborne-Crowley on the Meanjin blog

Osborne-Crowley has written a searing piece on abuse of power by male artists. She points out that “[t]he idea of separating the man from the art is based on the perplexing logic that we should forgive these men for their transgressions because of their profound artistic merit.” But she also points out this issue is more than a “hypothetical complexity” because everyday women suffer the trauma of the same abuse that Weinstein et al mete out.

Lucia also mentions the book Traumata by Meera Atkinson which I’m angling to get a copy of.

Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books? By Nell Stevens on The Guardian

Nell Stevens discusses the prejudices of authors ranging from Naipaul to Dickens to Gaskell, the last of whom she has written a book about, and comes to the handy conclusion that the “life of the author is never truly irrelevant – but if we accept that, we must also accept the weirdness, discomfort and complexities that follow.”

I look forward to reading her newly released book Mrs Gaskell and Me.

The Riot Club

[contains spoilers]

The Riot Club, directed by Lone Scherfig, is a brutal examination of class and power adapted by Laura Wade from her play Posh. The plot centres around the young male members of an exclusive dining club at Oxford University, believed by many to be based on the Bullingdon Club, which boasts illustrious alumni such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, among others.

The film, released in 2014, didn’t run in Australian cinemas. A pity, as it would have been timely – coinciding with a period when Australian academic institutions were embroiled in numerous sex scandals (the Australian Defence Force Academy, the University of Western Australia, Sydney University’s St John’s College), culminating in the 2017 release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on sexual assault at universities.

The Riot Club is named after a Lord Ryot from the 1800s whose debauchery was “legendary.” It is a society for whom membership depends on an aristocratic lineage via exclusive schools such as Eton and Westminster. Club members constantly refer to themselves as the “best and brightest” and there is an unquestioned expectation that one day they will all be sitting behind some very important desks. But the bonds holding the boys together are thin. They are constantly humiliating each other- you have to withstand a level of degradation to be admitted- and it doesn’t take much for them to turn on each other.

The plot revolves around the recruitment of two new members to the Club (Miles, played by Max Irons, and Alistair, played by Sam Claflin), and their annual dinner, the aim of which is to become as drunk and destructive as possible. The evening culminates in the brutal assault of the owner of the pub where their dinner takes place, leaving the boys scrambling for cover in the wake of the police investigation. The question then becomes which boy will take it for the team; they start to debate who to scapegoat. There is a surprising (albeit superficial) spirit of utilitarianism about this, with the downfall of one and the saviour of nine seen as worth pursuing.

Club members are intent on making their presence felt and constantly mark their territory by leaving traces of themselves wherever they go. A lot of the time this is in the form of bodily fluids, but other times it is through cash- they are constantly able to pay their way out of punishment. They destroy other diners’ evenings through their rowdiness, leaving the pub owner, Michael, worried about his business. While he worries about paying off his daughter’s tuition fees, in his private dining room Riot Club members offer one of the boys’ girlfriends the equivalent of three years’ tuition fees in return for sexual favours. Michael wants to foster a sense of community and maintain goodwill with his customers; the boys are every man for themselves, and resent people such as Michael trying to make a name from themselves when they come from “nothing.”

Ironically, the boys’ habit of leaving their mark becomes their downfall. A few days following the incident, Alistair is arrested after his DNA is found on Michael’s body. But initially they are all arrested, making for one of the most emotive scenes of the film. The devastation in the boys’ faces is palpable as they are swabbed for forensic evidence, but I suspect it is the dawning realisation that they might not be able to pay their way out of the mess that is behind their distress, and the thought of a future life of entitlement and power slipping through their fingers. Ultimately even this possibility is not discounted; Alistair’s uncle, an MP and former Club member, arranges a high-powered lawyer (himself an ex-Member) for Alastair. When the Club members are out on bail, the worst possible consequence they can foresee is that they will be sent down. Never mind that a man nearly died simply for standing his ground against their grotesque behaviour and inflated sense of selves.

I felt very unwell after watching this film. I put my response down to its devastating portrayal of the human cost of unfettered privilege, and the maintenance of power through humiliation. Michael looks after his staff. He supports one of the chefs to spend time with his infant daughter, and tells them to help themselves to a pint after their shift. His life changes the night the Riot Club walks through the door. The pub is called The Bull’s Head; at the end of the night his china bulls and plates are smashed and other diners have left in disgust, leaving him with literally nothing to his name, clinging to life in a hospital bed.

The female characters are strong. Lauren (Holliday Grainger), Max’s girlfriend, doesn’t come from privilege and doesn’t hesitate to push back against the Club’s misogyny. Rachel, the waitress (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is Michael’s daughter, wants to take a more hard-line approach to the boys than her father. And Charlie, (Natalie Dormer) a sex worker who is hired by one of the boys for the whole ten of them refuses to engage and stands up against their insults.

Obviously having strong female characters is positive. However, in this case, I feel slightly conflicted, because the representation of sexism as wholly perpetuated by this bastion of privileged young white men undercuts the complexity of contemporary misogyny. Sure, they have a lot to answer for, but as I have written previously on this blog, the rise of raunch culture means women today are complicit in their own degradation. This side of university life is pervasive, and its absence in the film feels unrealistic to me, as someone who had to negotiate raunch culture as a student in the late 2000s. But then again I did not go to Oxford, and it is the boys’ extreme privilege that precludes a more nuanced exploration of gendered power relations.

Raunch culture aside, I can see the dramatic rationale for leaving female characters out of the picture. The boys’ attitudes towards women are blatantly disgusting, viewing all females as little more than chattel. The reduction of their sexual experiences to just another commodity they can purchase aligns with their broader mentality of buying influence. Ultimately, however, the film doesn’t fall on its sword due to this plot device, because the examination of class conflict is so confrontational and thought-provoking.

One of the stand-out aspects of the film’s aesthetics is its blue hue. Oxford’s stone buildings seem more grey than their famous yellow. The sun rarely shines. It is as though the grubby underside of university life has rather taken the sheen off the town’s renowned architecture and the promise of a hallowed, almost spiritual, experience that admittance to that university is commonly thought to entail.

Perhaps those who view the film will always see Oxford in a different light afterwards.

 

 

On Chesil Beach

They were young, educated, and both virgins, on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible…

So begins both McEwan’s novella and the film adaptation, On Chesil Beach. The premise is that a couple, Edward and Florence, have arrived at a hotel in Dorset to spend their wedding night, and that they are both anxious about the prospect of physical intimacy. What ensues is a complex character and social study which unpicks the silences and repression of early 1960s British society and observes the ramifications of social conventions and decisions that play out in individuals’ lives. Florence is a cellist with dreams of performing at Wigmore Hall with her own quartet; Edward, an aspiring historian, has a first from University College London. They are both waiting for their lives to start, and marriage is the conventional path to make it happen.

The book is beautifully written, moving between the present and flashbacks of the characters’ lives. Every description carries the weight of expectation and the palpable anxiety of Edward and Florence, from the ‘four-poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was stretched startlingly smooth, as by no human hand’ to the waiters, whose ‘comings and goings through what was generally known as the honeymoon suite made the waxed oak boards squeak comically against the silence.’

The film follows the same pattern, alternating between the wedding night and flashbacks of Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward’s (Billy Howle) past experiences which form clues as to how they have arrived at their present impasse. The possibility that Florence has been abused at the hands of her father is more obvious in the film, but remains a subtle implication. It mostly is conveyed through her revulsion, which leaves her as tightly coiled as the rope she winds in the scenes on her father’s boat.

The screenplay embodies everything that I love about quality British cinema: a masterful evocation of a historical period, characters that you care about, witty dialogue that makes biting social comment, and a denouement that packs a heavy emotional punch. The cinematography has a quaintness about it that belies the social critique. The landscapes are of an archetypal English beauty: it includes scenes of Oxford, men playing cricket, country lanes and the eponymous Chesil Beach. Such understatement brings out the restraint that is at the heart of the stultifying social conventions which have damning effects on the lives of Edward and Florence.

Central to the atmosphere and impact of On Chesil Beach is the sense of crossing a threshold. This is evident from early in both the book and the film. In the former, the comings and goings of the waiters are exacerbated by the way they have to carry their trolley over a step between the honeymoon suite and the corridor, ‘a consequence of poor planning when the Elizabethan farmhouse was “georgianised” in the mid-eighteenth century.’ The surrounding environs also seem to have taken on the characteristics of the momentous occasion: outside, there were ‘weeds, giant rhubarb and cabbages they looked like, with swollen stalks more than six feet tall, bending under the weight of dark, thick-veined leaves.’ Waiting to be picked, one imagines.

One of the great pleasures of watching the film is seeing how these familiar descriptions translate visually. While Edward and Florence eat their dinner at the table in their suite, the bed is visible in the background, a poignant site of expectation. Chesil Beach remains visible out the window, and Florence glances out to it longingly, preferring to go out for a walk in the open space than remain suffocated by anxiety in the hotel. There are close ups of nervous feet jiggling under the table, and Florence’s hands clasping her dress or the bedsheet, fighting against both the anticipation of physical pain and the recall of trauma.

Then there is, of course, the ‘infinite shingle’ of Chesil Beach itself. It stretches out, like Edward and Florence’s lives and their ‘giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future.’ It is like a peninsula, where Florence and Edward remain suspended in the moment, poised between adolescence and adulthood, the repression of the post-war era and the coming social revolution of the 1960s. In the film Edward tells Florence that the pebbles are graded in size, having been worn away by the tide over many years. They increase in size as you walk in one direction, meaning that when local fisherman jump out of their boats in the dark they know exactly where they are. The irony is that, when the evening goes awry and Florence flees to the beach, they are lost, unable to find their way back to the hotel and, therefore, to each other. Impasse gives way to defeat; the marriage is annulled, and they are doomed to live out their lives separately.

The unfolding of history and its effect on individual lives is a key preoccupation of Chesil Beach. The wireless is a recurring feature in the film. In both book and film, Florence and Edward can hear the news from their suite as they eat dinner, reminding them that they are possibly living on the brink of nuclear war. It was the bomb, after all, that caused them to meet in the first place, at an Oxford CND meeting. Edward marvels about the way their courtship was ‘so dependent on a hundred minor events and choices.’

Edward himself is a historian and gives credence to the “great man” theory, which supposes that individual figures can change the course of history. It is certainly true in a personal sense for him. One gets the sense that his hot-headedness is his downfall. He enjoys the odd brawl outside pubs, and his inability to work through the impasse with Florence, instead flying off the handle and blaming her for leading him on, results in a lonely future. But at the time, he takes the moral high ground: “In his misfortune, he felt almost noble.”

If one were to attempt a Freudian reading, perhaps his propensity to be a bully is why Florence chose him; by resisting him sexually, perhaps at a psychic level she is putting things right with her father. It could also explain why she is able to later marry and have children with Charles, the cellist in her quartet, who acknowledges both her autonomy and her capacity for leadership.

But Edward did not foresee how his decision at that precise moment on the beach would play out. Florence and Edward’s relationship does not become forgotten, it becomes history. At the end of the film, Edward carves a rather pathetic figure, cooking a microwave dinner at his old family home, which by now he has inherited. He hears a feature on the radio about Florence’s Quartet, and it transpires that Florence married the cellist, and now has three children and five grandchildren. He goes along to see the Quartet’s final performance, sitting in the exact seat in the exact row that he promised he would sit in years before, during their courtship. In the book, conversely, he ‘preferred to preserve her as she was in his memories.’

There have been a few reviews which criticise McEwan’s choice of ending in both the book and the film, which condenses years into a couple of pages, and decades into a few scenes. Some have interpreted it as a hasty afterthought, a last-minute concession to the curious reader, and viewer, who wants to know how it all pans out in the end when the embarrassment of annulment has quelled.

I don’t find this narrative device frustrating (although I was mildly concerned about the success of the aged Edward’s facial prosthesis in the film). Rather, I found it poignant and moving. In an instant we become aware of the momentousness of being on Chesil Beach; poised at a crossroad, unsure of the future, but sure things cannot continue as they are.

McEwan is in good company in making this creative decision. Virginia Woolf, for instance, did amazing things with time. In To The Lighthouse, the first and third chapters span a single day, while the middle chapter of only a few pages spans ten years. Time is portrayed as it is experienced subjectively by her characters.

In that concert at Wigmore Hall, we realise that for Edward, it is not just his marriage that is left unconsummated, but his life’s ambitions. History falls by the wayside, but Florence stuck to her path and plays Mozart at Wigmore Hall, as she said she would.

‘Love and patience- if only he had had them both at once- would surely have seen them both through.’

 

Book published 2007. Film released 2017 starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howell, screenplay by Ian McEwan, directed by Dominic Cooke.

 

 

Breathe

While Breathe is an aesthetically pleasing film with powerful performances, ultimately the portrayal of life for a paralysed person, especially one living in the mid to late twentieth century, is problematic.

Breathe tells the story of how English disability advocate Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife (Claire Foy) influenced attitudes towards disability in the second half of the twentieth century. After being paralysed from polio in 1959, Robin and Diana are determined that Robin should live outside hospital, and take it upon themselves to make this happen in the face of medical and bureaucratic intransigence. With the help of an inventor friend who develops a wheelchair with a respirator, Robin becomes the first person paralysed from the neck down to live outside an institution.

In many ways, it is a lovely film. You care about the characters, you laugh, you cry, the scenery is pretty and the period music and stylings are pleasing. It is both a compelling love story and an uplifting example of overcoming adversity, both of which are all the more powerful because they are based on true events.

Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, the film hits a snag in its representation of disability. The team behind Breathe set out to demonstrate that physical impediments and social prejudice can be overcome. The way this was portrayed, however, downplayed the enormity of the economic, social and bureaucratic challenges that people with disabilities face (and continue to face), resulting in the plot taking on the overtones of a jolly family having round-the-world adventures despite the fact that one of them is dependent on a wheelchair and a respirator.

This is not to say that the film does not tackle some hard issues. Prior to seeing it, I wondered how it would tackle the tough realities of life as a paralysed person- including how one toilets oneself, a consideration that has profound ramifications for human dignity. This aspect was portrayed briefly; while Robin Cavendish was in hospital a nurse is shown attending to this, and Diana assists him with a bottle at home (though I am still confused about how Robin could tell he needed the bottle when he was paralysed from the neck down). I felt it was good that this aspect was at least shown, although it was a sanitised version of what would have been in reality a messy and constantly difficult business. There are also confronting moments, such as when Robin initially wants to die, and towards the end when he experiences bleeding from his tracheotomy and is in danger of drowning in his own blood.

I had many other questions about key aspects of daily life that were left out. How did the Cavendishes make money when his wife cared for him full time (especially, how did they afford to maintain a fairly grand looking house in the country)? How did his wife cope with providing round the clock care for 36 years? How did they manage the end of their sex life at the beginning of their marriage? Did he get bed sores? How did they manage the risk of infection? How was he transferred from the wheelchair to the bed and vice versa?

The focus on the family’s holidays, advocacy and vibrant social life instead of domestic hardship is because the co-producer is the Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, who is also present as a character in the film. He intended the film to be a love letter to his parents and a testament to their pioneering advocacy. It was thus a deeply personal project, and he obviously wanted to portray his parents in a certain light. All of which is fair enough, but deciding to portray a true story on screen, and a personal one at that, is inevitably going to give rise to questions about authenticity. These questions are further complicated when the issue at hand has a strong political dimension, which disability advocacy and the representation of disability in art most certainly do.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jonathan Cavendish tackled questions about his parents’ experiences and their representation in the film: “Some very cynical American critics have a problem with the fact that a disabled person can have an amazing life, which really pisses me off…And some people don’t believe it. I’m going, ‘Hang on, mate, I was f***ing there.’ My mother, who is the most scrupulously honest person on the planet, was also there, and she agrees: this happened and it happened in this spirit.”

The film is a representation of one family’s experiences of a particular disability at a particular time. If those who lived through it agree with the representation of their experiences, is that enough?

Admittedly, I was still bothered.

There were attempts to demonstrate the insidiousness of social prejudice and the hypocrisy of those charged with treating or advocating for disabled people, such as when the Cavendish family attends a conference on disability in Germany and the wheelchair can’t fit though the hotel door and there are no other disabled people attending. In another scene, Diana asks Robin if they are to be “pitiful or plucky” when seeing donations from an aristocrat for the manufacture of the wheelchair they developed with Professor Teddy Hall so that other polio survivors can use them. This scene highlighted one of the contradictions in social advocacy- while advocacy itself is intended to be an expression of agency and a way to reset power imbalances, advocates can also become beholden in compromising ways to those who wield power.

Most concerningly for a film in which the portrayal of advocacy plays an integral part, the script runs the risk of suggesting it is up to an individual to surmount the challenges facing them, or that attitude alone can change one’s situation in life. This discounts decades of advocacy which sought to highlight that society as a whole has to take responsibility to break down barriers. In the film this suggestion is reinforced by the invocation of the stereotypical stiff upper lip, which, although played for comedic effect (the way Robin is released from hospital is comedic but completely unrealistic), again downplays a lot of the obstacles that people with Robin’s level of disability faced and continue to face. The portrayal of polio patients being liberated by the wheelchair also sidesteps many of the sticky issues surrounding deinstutionalisation which continue to resonate today, namely around family and social support, economic independence, adequate housing, and employment opportunities.

One of the scenes that more successfully treads the balance between hardship and humour is when Diana and Robin meet with a bureaucrat to request funding for wheelchairs. The bureaucrat says that it is not worth the government’s money because polio patients don’t live long. At first, it looks as though it is just Diana and the bureaucrat present as Robin’s torso is obscured by a pile of papers on the bureaucrat’s desk- he is literally erased, like so many disabled people, by the insidious logic of bureaucratic policy development. Then the audience hears Robin’s voice and the camera angle changes to reveal his presence. The bureaucrat says, “I feel sympathy for your condition” to which Robin replies, “and I do for yours”- a triumph of the Cavendishes’ passion and persistence over a purveyor of prejudice.

Ultimately, portraying the lives of people with disabilities is very sensitive and difficult to get right.  While Breathe succeeds in some areas, I feel it downplays the daily humiliations that continue to be present for people living with a disability, and could have been improved with a more nuanced script that had a greater acknowledgement of the political dimension of advocacy, and reflection on how far we still have to go in breaking down prejudice.

Directed by Andy Serkis

Screenplay by William Nicholson

Produced by Jonathan Cavendish

Starring Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield

 

Death, denial and red tape: How our society and hospital system fail the elderly

I entered this essay in the 2017 Horne Prize.

We have an abundance of clichés about how to live and die well: approach each day as if it is your last, have no regrets. Yet, for a society that breezily acknowledges death is part of life, we have a profound lack of understanding of our own needs as we age and move towards death.

Moreover, the clichés overlook the great paradox of our existence- that we need to deny death in order to go about our daily lives. Georgia Blain wrote in her memoir The Museum of Words as she was dying from a brain tumour that perhaps we can only live with our mortality by denying it.

As bearable as it may make our existence, denial, unfortunately, does not bode well for negotiating the bureaucratic realities that have embedded themselves in the process of departing this world. Bureaucracy would like us to be organised about death. Get a will. Before you lose your marbles designate a family member to act with power of attorney. Resuscitate or don’t resuscitate? Organ donation? Make sure everything is in writing, please- for your own good and your family’s. Surely you don’t want your children squabbling over when you’d like your oxygen turned off?

Often, events do not unfold with the logic that red tape demands. Time goes before we know it, and the hazy spectre of death becomes a reality that we may still not be prepared to face in our seventies and eighties. A routine check-up, an operation or the onset of a chronic condition can lead to a medical and bureaucratic maze. This was made disturbingly clear to my family in 2016 as we watched my maternal grandfather die a horrible death in a Queensland hospital.

Grandad had gotten old and his body was breaking down, besieged by out of control chronic conditions. Diabetes, a gangrenous ulcer on his heel, and, as we would later find out, cirrhosis of the liver and brain damage. He had lost so much but would continue to keep losing bits of himself in that hospital, most of all his dignity.

As I entered his hospital room for the first time, the smell of pus settled itself in my nostrils, displacing the nauseating hospital olfactory combination of bleach and urine.

I cast my eyes down to his missing heel, which had been hacked away in surgery the previous week. The surgeon had said that Grandad would probably lose his leg, but he would try to save it, which he had. What was left didn’t look dead, exactly, but you couldn’t really say it was alive. It looked like meat, the red giving way to white the way it does on pancetta or bacon. It didn’t seem part of him anymore.

There was no denying that death was in the room. I experienced the realisation of its presence from a point of view outside of myself, like I was in a film and the camera was zooming up to me as it does when a character realises something important.

The thing I had dreaded had started: waiting, powerless, by a relative’s bedside as they slipped away. My family had so far come through relatively unscathed in that department. The deaths we had experienced had been sudden. We had not lost anyone to cancer, had not endured chemotherapy schedules, scans and the stealthily approaching hospice.

My mother, too, realised that his days were numbered. It wasn’t apparent whether Grandad himself had realised; he just looked scared, with his blankets drawn up around his chin.

The surgeon stopped by and gave a run-down of the latest technology they were going to employ on Grandad’s ailing leg. Tubing was plugged into the bandage and suction was applied to keep the wound drained. This would restore the bacon to human flesh, he told us.

We asked the surgeon for advice on Grandad’s cirrhosis but he shook his head. He was a vascular surgeon; we would have to talk to the liver specialist about that.

On our return the next day we discovered Grandad had deteriorated, developing delirium overnight. The staff said this could be due to the after-effects of general anaesthetic, an infection, stress or the build-up of toxins in his system due to his failing liver.

A kind nurse let me into the staff kitchen to make a cup of tea for my mother who was crying in the corridor. After handing it over to her and removing her to the lounge area, I nabbed one of the orderlies outside Grandad’s room, whom I mistook for a nurse.

Is he dying? I asked.

No, the minder replied. Well, not that we know of.

Grandad lived alone in Queensland, my mother lived in Perth, myself in Canberra. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. My mother had seen him three months previously, at which time he had seemed his normal self. Consequently, we felt the rapid deterioration could not herald anything except inexorable decline.

In the lounge we regrouped and discussed how to make the best use of our time, deciding to do the things necessary for Grandad to receive appropriate care: establish what the time frame was for restoration of his dying leg, organise for him to be discharged to a nursing home, pack up his flat.

Such plans were quickly thwarted. The doctor and social worker said it wasn’t possible to even consider a nursing home. He simply didn’t have the right paperwork. No advanced care directive, no power of attorney. We would have to go through a legal process to determine if he still had capacity, which could take months, and at the end of it my mother may not even be appointed as guardian. A third party from the tribunal may have to preside over his fate.

This was confusing as we had been told he was delirious. Didn’t that mean his capacity was affected? Well, yes and no, said the doctor. When he’s delirious, he doesn’t have capacity. When he is not delirious, he has capacity. You’ve got the right to make decisions for him when he’s delirious, but when he comes out of it he could reverse anything that was decided for him.

On a practical level, surely someone would have to make decisions for him, we argued. Given he no longer knew what city he lived in and could not take himself to the toilet, we assumed he could not return home. He also lived high up in an apartment complex and we were worried that in his confused state he may go over the balcony.

No, said the doctor and social worker. He’s not in the right ward, you see. These decisions on his care needs aren’t made in the acute surgical ward; when he goes to the rehab ward, he will be assessed by an occupational therapist, and a decision will be made then what care should made available after his discharge.

We returned to our separate cities, thinking we would not see him alive again.

*

A couple of weeks later I got another phone call directly from the doctor. My grandad had lapsed into a coma, and we should get there right away. I was on a plane the next day and met my mother at the airport.

We returned to the hospital, this time to the rehab ward. It struck me as odd to have a patient in a coma in the rehab ward. I saw patients walking the corridors with walking frames. Others were going through the motions of simulated daily activities with the team of occupational therapists.

Immediately, I felt anger sweep through me. He shouldn’t be here, in this ward designed for people who could build themselves up and return to their normal lives. He was dying, as we had instantly identified in our previous visit.

Shortly after, Grandad appeared in the corridor. We were shocked and confused, having been told he was comatose. The doctor responded that he had been unresponsive to all stimuli for the last twenty-four hours, which technically meant he had been in a coma.

At a meeting with the resident and an experienced general practitioner based in the ward, we asked what the next steps were.

Little had changed. He was still in and out of delirium. But now, having changed wards, the staff we were dealing with had to communicate more fully with us.

They suggested we get the aged care assessment process started. The GP gave a word of warning- it could take more than three months, which was longer than Grandad was now expected to live.

But we knew he was dying before, we protested. We wanted to get this process started nearly two months ago.

Each ward has its own goals, was the reply.

We decided on a go gentle approach. He would keep up his medication and was allowed to sit outside in the sun, which he did- all day. But the doctors would not continue with any invasive treatment. It wasn’t clear if he was technically being palliated as he was still in the rehab ward.

He was allowed to have lunch with us in the downstairs cafeteria where we could procure him roast meat and vegetables instead of sick smelling mush.

Thinking Grandad wouldn’t make it to the first weekend in September, we pretended one day that it was Father’s Day. The staff got in on the act and wished him a happy day.

The go gentle approach was not interpreted the same by all staff. One day a liver specialist turned up and suggested he test the fluid in Grandad’s abdominal cavity for infection.

Oh no, we are not doing that stuff anymore, we said.

‘Well I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think it would help.’

In the face of his expertise we acquiesced, only to receive an incredulous phone call from the resident asking us if we had decided to abandon the go gentle approach.

No, the specialist said it was necessary.

‘It’s not, and he could get an infection from the procedure itself. I’ll cancel it.’

My mother was calling around nursing homes, finding barely any that would consider taking him without the power of attorney paperwork sorted. One promising home with a nice garden warned they would not take him if he was prone to “wandering.”

What does this mean? Will he have to stay in his room because he doesn’t like that. He likes sitting outside in the sun.

‘Well taking yourself off for a bit of a stroll might be tolerated, but “exit-seeking” behaviour is too much of a risk. He could wander out the front door on to the main road in front of a bus.’

We were desperate so we assured the nurse Grandad’s behaviour wasn’t exit-seeking, but of course it bloody was- he didn’t want to be in hospital. He asked us every day when he could leave, and said, gesturing towards the nurses, they won’t let you outside. It’s criminal.

More relatives flew in from Perth and packed up his flat, signed off from his landlord. Grandad was now technically homeless.

*

Grandad spent two nights in a nursing home, then was returned to hospital because he was “highly agitated”. He continued to lapse in and out of consciousness and remained delirious until he fell into his final coma.

But the bureaucratic shemozzle did not end even with Grandad’s death. The gas company would not close Grandad’s account because, according to their records, no one else was authorised to carry out transactions except Grandad. They continued to send my mother his bills.

The day he died, the power of attorney directive came through from the tribunal. The social worker took responsibility for notifying the court. You’re too late, he’s dead.

My mother suffered hugely from this experience. Her physical and mental health endured an enormous assault, as did her bank account, with numerous return trips between Perth and Queensland, taxis, hotel stays, meals, and the fee for a consultant to find a nursing home when my parents could no longer keep looking on their own while dealing with everything else.

Having tried to navigate our way through numerous dead ends, we all came away from the experience with the same questions: why couldn’t the hospital staff just listen to us? Why didn’t they tell us the truth at the beginning? And why was it so hard to get the care that Grandad not only deserved, but required?

What made the whole experience so much more painful was that we knew from the beginning that Grandad was dying and wanted to put measures in place for his care, but the staff on the ward did not see it as their place to acknowledge this reality. They were focussed on doing their job, which was to make a sick person better.

When you have cancer, there is a point at which your specialists level with you: your treatment has become ineffective and you have three months, two years, six weeks.

When you are elderly it is all a bit of a hassle for the white coats. Much better if you shuffle off of your own accord, out of the hospital. In a nursing home, that’s what they are there for.

The doctors on the wards would all say they complied with accepted medical ethics, but my Grandad’s treatment was not really respectful. He only went to palliative care when he lapsed into his final coma. He was never told he was dying; the GP in the rehab ward decided it would be too much of a shock for him to know the truth.

Instead, every morning at about 11, the same doctor would come round and tap him on the shoulder. ‘Hello Jim, have you moved your bowels today?’

What was the point of all this?

No one was overtly ageist- but it is a reflection of the way our society does not know how to relate to elderly people that there were no appropriate care pathways for him.

The medical doctor and writer Karen Hitchcock has argued for our society’s attitude to the elderly to be rethought. In her brilliant Quarterly Essay Dear Life, Dr Hitchcock wrote:

I wonder if the main problem, the first problem, is not that we deny death, but that we deny the entire thing: that we will grow old, that we will be like them…if we saw the elderly as valuable members of society and our future selves- rather than infantilised creatures, leaking from every orifice, their past and their features macerated and blurred- we would not treat them in the ways we do: failing to provide community supports to extend independence, letting them starve in hospitals ill-designed to house them, letting them languish in emergency departments for twenty-four hours while we attend to those we consider more important. Why is it so difficult to look at an 80-year-old and see an individual?

Grandad’s death was not, in one sense, out of the ordinary. An out of control condition led to the discovery of a myriad of other problems, intervention by a disparate group of specialists and a lack of coordination of care leading to a dismal quality of life. All this was complicated by the lack of paperwork. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous that he could not die a dignified death simply because he did not have the right paperwork. A year on I think his “complex medical history” allowed him to be handballed and his age meant he was not a priority.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has done some work on end of life care. In their Australia’s Health 2016 report, they stated:

A wide-ranging, standardised experience of end-of-life care measure for patients and carers, applicable to all death trajectories would also provide insight into whether services are supporting an experience of ‘dying well’, and how Australians feel about their end-of-life care.

I imagine how this aspiration would play out for my Grandad. Instead of being asked about his bowels, a white coat approaches him and says, ‘are you satisfied with the quality of your dying experience?’

If he had been cognisant, my Grandad probably would have said, ‘Actually, I would prefer not to die.’

I can’t help feeling that standardised tests and surveys distract us from what is really at stake. My family desperately needed what Karen Hitchcock wrote about in her Quarterly Essay- understanding on a human level, rather than an approach that was purely medical and bureaucratic. Doctors should have looked at him and thought, if that was my father, would I want him to be treated like this? If it was me would I settle for this?

Because if we had a choice, none of us would.

Jackie

Released (in Australia) 2017; Directed by Pablo Larrain; Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup.

 Jackie is a dramatisation of the private and public battles of Jackie Kennedy between the assassination of her husband, The President John F. Kennedy, and his funeral. I was completely absorbed in this film, partly because it was a sumptuous period piece and also because it delved into two key interests of mine- the nation and the way its myths are made. I would go so far as to say that this is the central preoccupation of Jackie.

When I went looking for a reliable biography of Jackie, I was confronted by a canon of spurious gossip which further obscured the real woman, whoever that may be, with mythology, intrigue, and salacious rumour. Did she have an affair with Bobby? Did she really eat a jacket potato with beluga caviar every day? One reviewer of a particular biography quipped that her sex life was examined so thoroughly within its pages that he felt ‘gynecologically acquainted with her.’

I feel that a serious examination of the lives of the Kennedy women as individuals in their own right is a positive development in our ongoing appraisal of that family’s enduring legacy and mystique. Incidentally, I read a biography of JFK’s sister Kathleen, affectionately known as Kick, during 2016, and it shone a whole new light on the dynamics within the Kennedy family. The film Jackie did a good job of walking the line between portraying Jackie as an individual with her own agency, her own ambitions and her own career, and the way she was disempowered by being part of the Kennedy dynasty and through the institution of the American presidency.

Larrain also achieved a constuctive tension in the representation of Jackie as both knowable and elusive. Being an iconic figure, the general public has felt they have a licence to claim they knew her intimately. This is perhaps demonstrated in the commentary about the film, in which some have canned Natalie Portman’s breathy accent as too camp. I contend that, while verisimilitude is important in biopics, there are more important claims about history at stake here, and we would do well to reinterrogate how much we know about Jackie and the Kennedy era, as I believe the film prompts us to do. Her mystique is stripped away to reveal her many facets: a woman who fell in love with a man from a powerful and ambitious family; a mother who lost two babies; who was cheated on by her husband and who was at times lonely, yet put on a mask and appeared in public faithfully by the President’s side; and who wanted to raise the Presidency to the level of royalty so that Americans could feel proud of their political institutions.

But to the aesthetics. The film was visually sensuous and historically atmospheric. Her personal style and that of the 1960s is recreated brightly but not luridly, and with sophistication. She appears throughout the movie in her iconic pink Chanel suit, but is shown to be greater than the reductive reproduction of this image has suggested over the years. The portrayal of the disorientating atmosphere in the aftermath of the assassination is assisted by Mica Levi’s score. The connotations of the music are of disintegration and of a reality sliding out of reach. This is also complemented by the hand-held camera and extensive use of flashbacks, which meld fact, emotion and myth. Besides the assassination itself, which is analysed from multiple perspectives and in brutal, gory detail, many key events within JFK’s reign are recreated, including the famous concert featuring cellist Pablo Casal, Jackie’s restoration of the White House, and her participation in a 1961 CBS documentary showing the interiors of the White House to the American people. Holding the fragments together is a recreation of her interview with Theodore White of Time Magazine, who went on to write an article that made Camelot synonymous with the Kennedy era. References to Camelot are present throughout the film, which I believe draw attention to how the film is both an un-picking of the Kennedy mythology, but how, as a cultural artefact, it can also produce new mythologies.

Jackie is shown to be concerned with the active construction of public memory about JFK’s presidency, rather than as a passive recipient of public affection and sympathy. Throughout the interview with the journalist Theodore White (Crudup), she asserts control over what he is allowed to reproduce in print. She was once a journalist, she reminds him, and she knows how these things work. She asks whether memory becomes fact merely because it is written down, and later states, astutely, “I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real.” Throughout the interview, which unfolds between flashbacks of the assassination and its aftermath, she retains this critical understanding of the way image and memory can be manipulated. After chain smoking through a series of questions, she informs White, “I don’t smoke,” and after recounting the brutal details of the gunshot wound and the moment she realises her husband was dead, she says, “don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that.” Furthermore, in relation to her renovation of the White House and reacquisition of antique furniture for the Lincoln room, which her husband disapproved of, she astutely observes, “objects and artefacts last for longer than people. And they represent important ideas in history, identity, beauty.”

I also felt compelled to question what it was that Jackie wanted both herself and her husband to be remembered for. She is immediately preoccupied with the memorialisation of his life and death, and, travelling in the hearse with the coffin and Bobby, she questions the drivers about whether they remember assassinated Presidents other than Abraham Lincoln. In her grief it is understandable that she wants to exert control over JFK’s legacy, given the way he was cruelly ripped from her. She says, “it had to be some silly little communist. If he’d been killed for some principle at least it would have meant something.” This is contrasted with Bobby (Sarsgaard) who expresses visceral frustration and regret at how little he perceived his brother achieved by not pulling out of Vietnam, and by manufacturing the missile crisis with Cuba which he was then forced to intervene in.

Jackie admits at the end that the funerary procession through the streets she planned in defiance of the new administration and the intelligence services was as much for herself as for her late husband. While this could be dismissed as self-absorbed, perhaps it is also understandable, as she has many things to mourn about the end of her role as First Lady, and had to struggle to be heard amidst the machinery of state and the pull of Kennedy family tradition. She is immediately redundant upon her husband’s death. Lyndon Johnson is sworn in on the plane as they are travelling back to Washington, heralding the dawn of a new era. This scene is filmed with a sense of claustrophobia, which conveys the sense that there is no longer room for her.  Later, Bobby argues with Johnson’s aid, who wants the oval office to be cleared out before JFK has been buried. Rose Kennedy wants Jack to be buried in Massachusetts, Jackie wants him to rest at Arlington.  On one level Jackie speaks matter-of-factly to Theodore White about the realities of life as a first lady- “a first lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. Its inevitable”-the lived experience is harder to bear. She is shown at her most vulnerable and intensely alone washing her husband’s blood off her suit and body on the plane and in the shower, and packing up her possessions while self-medicating with pills and alcohol and listening to her husband’s favourite record, Camelot. She tries on her dresses as she packs boxes, which serves as a potent symbol of her loss of status and influence.

There is also a sense that Jackie is trying to hold on her to her dignity. With the loss of her husband, she is technically homeless and worries about how she will put her children through school. When disembarking the plane she refuses to hide away and insists on going out “the usual way.” In conversations with a priest (John Hurt), she acknowledges the unpleasant side of her husband’s character, including infidelity. He tells her to take comfort in the good memories; she says “I can’t. They’re mixed in with all the others.” In many ways, these words clinch the film’s message: that history is made up of both the good and the bad, and the glorification of an era or administration, like a nation, is a fiction. Jackie wants to elevate Jack to the status of royalty, but understands that tradition needs time. Throughout the interview, she shares that the stage show Camelot was her husband’s favourite. Reprinted in the article, this claim resulted in the Kennedy era being known as the Camelot era, an association which further works to obfuscate fact with tradition, and provoke nostalgia rather than critical appraisal of JFK’s legacy. As Jackie says, “Maybe that’s what they’ll all believe now. Camelot. We all like to believe in fairytales.”

The film itself is so intensely preoccupied with the examination of memory that every scene is pregnant with meaning. This, combined with the unrelentingly grim subject matter, can make one feel beaten over the head by the end of the film. However, it remains captivating and poignant, with a superb performance by Natalie Portman. At the end I felt my preconceptions about Jackie and JFK’s assassination had been dismantled, but the disorientating nature of the film resulted in me being unsure of what images or “facts” should replace what I had previously thought. In a way, Larrain takes us on a ride through a part of history where everything belongs to mythology. Perhaps, as the journalist Theodore White says at the outset, it is enough to settle for a story that is believable. Or maybe the film, like the Time article with Camelot, will give rise to a new mythology about these iconic figures.

Further reading:

Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism by James Piereson.

Kick by Paula Byrne.