Christ On A Bike

[spoiler alert]

 I have discovered the ITV series Grantchester on dvd. A little late, yes, but in my defence I thought it would be boring like the books.

Reader, it is not. In fact, God has never been so sexy.

James Norton stars as the Reverend Sidney Chambers, a vicar with a past and an attractive set of cheekbones. He is not a natural fit with the life of a clergyman; he has a definite problem with the bottle, a penchant for jazz, and a familiarity with women in the biblical sense.

Despite his unconventional attributes, the show trots out the familiar tropes of the detective genre. Rev. Chambers has a buddy in the form of Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) of the Grantchester Constabulary, and their partnership evolves into a genuinely affecting bromance. Like their archetypal forebears, their sense of right and wrong frequently renders them outcasts at odds with their superiors, both in the force and the Church, and the greatest mystery plaguing them is their existence. Both Keating and Chambers have military pasts that haunt them, meaning solving crimes is a way of ordering psychological chaos and righting past wrongs.

The religious backdrop renders the moral heart of crime-solving more conflict-provoking for our heroes and more dramatic for us, the viewers. As a man of the cloth, Chambers has unique insight because he has to minister to both the perpetrator and the victim, and also try to heal his community when it is divided in the aftermath of a criminal act. While a persuasive heart to heart with a parishioner can convince them to come forward with crucial information or persuade a killer to turn themselves in, Chambers also bears witness to the cruelties and shortcomings of the justice system. Each episode finishes with a sermon, but not of a trite, preachy kind, as Chambers’ awareness of the double-edged nature of both crime and punishment frequently leads him away from absolution. This is heightened in season two when it becomes apparent that Chambers entered the Church to atone for his responsibility for a fellow soldier’s death during the war. As a result, Chambers sometimes sees himself reflected in the face of a murderer, further narrowing the distance between criminal and crime solver.

Another key aspect of the series is the success with which the period setting is carried off. Its not all vintage dresses, picnics and thoughtful walks in open fields (although there is a fair bit of that). The time is the early 1950s. A dalliance with your typist can saddle you with an illegitimate child and a secret that you take to your grave. There is no such thing as no-fault divorce, meaning you need to be named and shamed to legally separate. You cannot marry up or down, or even sideways if your beloved is of a different racial background. Furthermore, homosexuality is out, and the death penalty is in. These circumstances aid the moral dimension of the series, because it means that so much is at stake. You must really want to kill someone if you are prepared to risk the death penalty, and Chambers sees firsthand what it means to take an eye for an eye.

Like all good historical fiction, Grantchester alludes to contemporary problems through the lens of the past. In series two, clerical child sexual abuse is in point. This series revolves around the death of a pregnant teenager. In trying to help her abort her baby, her friend accidentally kills her and is sentenced to hang. But the person responsible for her pregnancy is a vicar, whom Chambers knows well. Chambers is outraged when the Church moves to cover up his colleague’s actions and move him to another parish (Spotlight, anyone?). But unlike the vast majority of incidences of clerical abuse throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ultimately the bishop is held responsible- a comfort that fiction allows. It is also the epitome of why we are drawn to detective fiction: the need to be reassured of order and justice when the meting out of punishment is beyond us.

 

grantchester pic

 

Photo of the Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden supplied by the Armchair Critics’ Mother.

New Post for New Territory

My second post has been put up on Capital Letters. In this piece, I ruminate on our responsibilities vis a vis acknowledging artists’ dark sides in the #metoo era. Itis a response to Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? I was lucky to see Rozanna speak at the recent Canberra Writers Festival.

Weekly Reads

Literary trends and the micro-genre

This week I happened across an article in the Guardian by Sam Leith, literary editor of the Spectator, on trends in book publishing. Specifically, he was bemoaning the micro-genre, and the spawning of waves of similar titles and content as authors try to cash in on momentary fashions.

While Leith acknowledged that “micro-genres have always been with us”, he wailed about the “late-1990s run of biographies of inanimate objects” and the “still barely abated torrent of abuse memoirs that followed A Child Called It” as well as the “flowering of “new nature writing” following the success of Robert MacFarlane. And finally, “the efforts of Henry Marsh, Adam Kay and Paul Kalanithi mean that everyone who has ever donned surgical scrubs now seems to be writing a book about it.” According to Leith, the currently trending micro-genres are “nonfiction books about the future, books about how to change your life, books about what it means to be/how we came to be human, and books about fucking Nazis.”

Leith points out that “amid the torrent, it’s very hard to know which of these are the good ones.” To me, its also an irony of capitalism: an economic system that is supposed to saturate us with choice brings about a deluge of products that are all the same.

The article reminded me of my own conflicted feelings after I attended a recent conference on the publishing industry. This conference was a great initiative which brought together literary agents, published authors and reps from major publishing houses to talk to emerging writers about what they’re in for during the publishing process. It was invaluable, particularly if you would like your book to sell- which most authors do. It was also valuable in case you thought books sold on merit.

Let’s be clear: they do not.  Until this conference I had accepted the cliché that writing was the hard part; that if you slaved away on a high quality manuscript that aimed to be truthful (i.e. possibly depressing) rather than comfortable (chick lit, uplit) and it was good, a publisher would eventually sign you up on the basis that they believed in your project. After all, thinking outside the box and producing something unique is the essence of creativity, is it not? Producing a new take on life underpins the whole enterprise of writing a book, right?

Wrong.

One publisher stood up at the conference and said that a few years ago country romances were in, so if you were writing that, your chances of publishing success at that time were enhanced. Now, however, it is all about rural crime, following on from the success of Jane Harper’s The Dry. Later in the day a literary agent said, at least half-jokingly, that if you had the word “girl” in the title you were a shoo-in, given the recent success of Gone Girl, Girl On A Train, and earlier, The Girl With the Dagon Tattoo. (I pity Susanna Kaysen and Tracy Chevalier for their pre-trend books Girl Interrupted and Girl With A Pearl Earring but they both got film adaptations so they must have done ok).

The works that bring in the most money for publishing houses are the least challenging ones that comfortably pander to our insecurities (The Barefoot Investor, cookbooks about super foods) or our over-blown, empty desires (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?).

So how do we create the space- and by space I mean market- for literature that is challenging and important? It can’t all be about prize winners. For every literary title that wins the Miles Franklin, there are many worthy ones which won’t even get shortlisted, but which are no less valuable. How do these authors get read and survive financially to write another book? How do they justify trying to squeeze another contract out of their publisher when they have a track record of not being best-sellers?

I’m not naïve enough to think that publishers can survive by publishing highbrow literature alone. There is a tension between staying afloat and being able to support a literary author. Ultimately both readers and publishers need to take responsibility. Readers for buying trash, and publishers for cashing in on trash. This was brought home in the wake of the Belle Gibson cancer fraud, in which it was revealed that Penguin did not adequately check the veracity of Gibson’s claim to have cured herself of brain cancer through clean eating. Due diligence is one thing, but would Penguin have fallen over itself to publish a superfood cookbook if there was not an appetite for such garbage among the public? Possibly not.

Let’s finish with Kafka, who had something profound to say about the importance of quality books:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.

Its my belief too, and one worth holding on to.

 

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.