Review: To Walk Invisible

Sally Wainwright is one of Britain’s best TV writers and directors, and her two-hour drama about Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and their brother Branwell, was a sheer joy to watch. It aired on BBC1 on 29 December 2016, but I watched it last night on iPlayer. I just had to double-check that it was in fact two hours, it flew by.

The writing – unsurprisingly – was top-notch, and along with both the beautiful direction and acting, the show brought to life the complex internal worlds of three extraordinary women and the business of writing when novels were novel. I was reminded of some of Kameron Hurley’s writing about publishing today, plus the ‘scandal’ about Elena Ferrante that broke this year… not much has changed, really, in the 175 or so years since when the bulk of the show was set.

You can tell that Wainwright loves Yorkshire and knows it intimately; while some scenes were shot with familiar framing of the moors and Victorian housing, none of it was cliched. Given the various TV and film versions of the most famous of the novels – Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre – it would be easy to keep the landscape bleak and miserable. Wainwright draws out the beauty of the place in all of its seasons. Art and place – inseparable.

It also weaves in their relationship with their brother, Branwell, and their father, as well as the realities of middle class Victorian life in the counties. I was blown away by how fabulously the story I know reasonably well was brought to life. Lived-in life. The extraordinarily fine balance of showing the terrible behaviour of Branwell and yet also drawing out the reasons why. Both Adam Nagaitis and Troy Tipple were superb as the ‘troubled’ Branwell (as adult and child, respectively). Actually, all the main cast shone: the different personalities of the sisters, and their strong love for each other, their father, and brother (despite everything) – all difficult to portray without slipping into caricature. Finn Atkins was wonderful as the business-minded, easy-to-dismiss-as-repressed-but-actually-fiery eldest sister Charlotte. Chloe Pirrie brought an expressiveness to Emily (her ongoing exasperation about Charlotte changing her mind entirely believable, and her reasons to not accompany her sisters to London convincing), and like others watching at the same time I did keep expecting her to actually, physically lash out and twat someone. Charlie Murphy could have just been fragile as Anne, but while her actions could be seen as being swept along by whichever sister held sway, I think she weighed up her options and did the required deed. She clearly saw the need to accompany Charlotte to London to prove the three writers published as Messrs Bell were not one author but three sisters.


Back in 1993 I wrote a short story about a woman’s love for Charlotte Brontë. It was published back then in an Australian magazine called ClitLit. I’m reproducing my story here because it just seems apt. Please note that I retain the copyright for it.

Slice of Life

Faded fragments, paper dreams. I want to forget you, but I can’t. I see an actor’s face looking like you staring from billboards around this hot summer city. Your name, as though a crowd-puller, emblazoned everywhere. And the songs about you, beating out from record shops, pull on my heart the way you did, all those years ago.

*

I’ve just moved into another flat, full of strangers. We’re settled now, listening to Madonna and watching some dancers shimmy-shimmy to her on the small TV screen. Through the sound, Jim asks if I’ve got a boyfriend. It’s a question I’ve expected, been asked a million times before with that same longing I hear in his voice. Please say no because I want you.

With a silly grin, I shake my head, wondering if he gets the hint. Useless shouting intimate details in this noise.

Sean passes me a joint, and I pass it on. Not my scene. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you know there’s no point.

Lull in the video clip. To my left Chris and Angel are arguing about Stein and Toklas: ‘Bull they fucked.’

They did, actually, but I don’t tell them that. The music starts up again making it impossible, anyway.

A woman enters. Miranda. Like the beauty of the classics, she stands haloed by light and her hair. Her Nicole Kidman hair. She is wearing her normal white flowing inner city dress, thinking she looks like one of the girls of Hanging Rock as she drifts her hand down along the door frame. She sees me stare, and smiles, shy.

The talk drifts with the smoke. It’s a good welcoming party and I know I’m going to get on well with these people. They’re nice, easy going, unquestioning but they still involve you in things that are important. Most leave me alone, knowing that I don’t really want to talk, just watch and listen. I’ve already told them I’m tired and don’t want to play. They respect that, which is why I think this place is going to work out.

The couples drift off, the singles slink home. I stay, ensconced in the lounge, thinking about things I’ve done and seen and felt. I am alone, yet accompanied by sweet memories.

Now it’s four thirty. The darkest time of the night. Flick on the TV because I’m feeling bored and sleepless. Ride the remote till I find Doctor Who. I watch the antics of the curly-haired one, wondering how Scott was getting on. I remember I met him back in London when this show first started. Glorious year, back then. Thirty years it must be… Must be.

The announcer’s just said Doctor Who is thirty and I met Scott racing to get home to watch this new sci-fi show amidst all the JFK stuff. He must be in his forties now, even fifty.

Miranda comes out into the room, drawn by the noise of Time Lords killing Time Lords. Oh, to be a lord of time, to control it, make it bend to your will rather than be swept along with it…

She stands at the door again, this time in loose silk pyjamas. She speaks, ‘Charlotte, I know what you are.’ I hear the gentle catch in her low voice. ‘What you want.’ I nod, turn the TV off, and go with her like the virgin Madonna once was, and we all know that’s a lie.

*

Crowds. Christmas crowds making the Pitt Street Mall almost impenetrable. And hot. Sweat pours through my pale Irish skin, dampening my loose clothing as sure as any longed-for downpour. Perspiration drips into my eyes, stinging, and I wipe them just to be able to see where I’m going. Christmas in Australia still frazzles me, that weird feeling of seeing cotton snow in weather that can melt plastic.

I twist and weave through the people, dodging parcels and bags and sticky kids. A gaggle of men, fresh out of uni, charge in a laughing row and part the crowd like Moses and the sea. Girls giggle past, staring at dress shops, wishing for the flares that were dreadful first time round. Rap versions of carols thud out of music shops, and yet it’s still only November. I can smell the smell of sweets drive through the fried food scent so common here at lunch time.

Lunch. My stomach tells me I want food, so I dive into a cafe crowded with sagging grandmothers and their grandchildren on early release from school, all babbling in the pre-Christmas excitement. Some children stare at me as I eat, knowing something different is before them even though I look no different from anything else they’ve seen.

I leave again, and resume my quest. My quest for a present for Miranda, love of my life now. Not a Christmas present (Miranda doesn’t believe) but a present of congratulations. Miranda finishing her university years with her PhD after years of uncertain soul searching. And her mother had written on her sweetly perfumed paper, extolling her praises, and I feel proud too. Maybe a book would be good. One of your books, as I see them stacked in the stores to take advantage of the film. Yet, I wonder if I could bear her touching something so bound up in you.

*

I lie in the half light of the moon’s silver shine casting in from a window. I am naked, warmed by the glow of a woman beside me. Warmed also by the memory of you. They say first love is the one you remember the best. Maybe. I remember the wild moors we both loved — the wind — even the cold driving rain. Impossible to ignore feeling when all around was so sensual, across these ages…

A now familiar hand pushes against my arm, pushing away my memories, bringing me back to now. A voice — soft, husky — speaks. Miranda’s, sweet after the tempest; ‘Where do you come from?’

‘That would be telling,’ I say, aware the joke catches on my tongue as it always does.

‘You seem so English, but I’ve heard you talk to Jim and Sean about other places you’ve lived. Ireland…’

Silence as I try to think. ‘I’ve travelled a lot,’ I finally say, fudging the answer I know I must eventually give. Miranda forgives the evasion, and runs her gentle fingers down my arm, playing. Though tired, I respond.

*

I feel the bite of the wind and rain against my skin as I wait for you. I’ve dressed in man’s clothes: black trousers, white shirt, sleeves rolled up, a waistcoat. I’ve even cut my hair short for you, so no one will know. I look, and see, and smile as you ride your pony to me. So wild, so free, so under the yoke of your family.

We play as we always play. Innocent, wild. Later, people put a name to what we do and call it evil.

And I say I must go, away to London, away from here because people talk and I cannot bear their talk. I remember what you say; ‘Don’t go, please. I love you.’

Be brave, I told you, and both of us cried.

I never told you what I am.

*

Evening, and I enter my home. Miranda is in our room, cleaning, and crying. She hasn’t heard me, doesn’t know I stand watching the scene from the doorway. I wonder, and use her name to question.

She turns, ‘Charlotte. I feel, feel so…’

‘Confused?’ I finish for her.

She moves her arm to point to a sheet of paper on the neatly made bed. A sluggish gesture as though she is completely drained of energy. I move to pick it up, though I already know what it is, what it says. My eyes flick over the spidery cruel words made on the unscented onion paper.

Miranda stands, uncertain, searching for words. ‘I… she was so happy before. All I wanted was to let her know how happy I am.’

‘I know,’ is all I can say.

We look at each other as the moment unfolds, both lost. I have read about this, heard stories, but have never been here before.

‘What about your parents? Do they know? You never talk about them.’

‘My parents died a long time ago.’ I turn, not wanting to talk about that.

‘Oh, Charlotte…’ And I know she has heard the pain of rejection in my voice, and know she has misunderstood my words. But how can I explain?

*

Picture a green land, green as the pictures of tourist leaflets. Impossibly green. A green that counterpoints the grey of the sky and the stone grey of the hovels that are our homes. The colours are still alive to me, as though I only saw them yesterday.

Smell the peat smoke pervading everything and everywhere, and the fresh scent of the rain that falls more times than the sun shines. Hear the sound of cows lowing, dogs barking lazily, and the lolling beat of music made by the men and women who live here. Romantic memories, tinged and altered by the years that separate me from them.

Idyllic scenery hides the pain.

I remember the sound, the awful sound, of soldiers charging the village. The shouts and screams, the clash of metal on metal, and the loud cra-boom of the muskets as they fire death into the people who are my family. Maire and Feargus run, begging me to come, but, panicked, I stay where we’d hidden the day Cromwell’s army exacted revenge.

Night, dark night. Darker than nights are now. Then I ran, not daring to see what I had to leave to live. I was fifteen and had a lot of living to do.

*

‘It wasn’t like that,’ I find myself saying to Miranda, as though my tongue has a mind of its own.

She’s twisting a bit of thumbnail with her fingers. A nervous trait of hers that I find endearing in her, annoying when others do it.

I sigh, and indicate she should sit. She does, beside me. I like the feel of her thigh warmly against mine, but she doesn’t rest her hand on my leg as she normally does. ‘My parents really did die a long time ago. They were killed,’ and my mind stops me from continuing, by Cromwell’s army in Ireland. ‘They never knew about me.’

‘Oh.’

‘There was nothing for them to know. I was only a child.’

‘She says Dad’ll kill me if he ever found out.’

‘Would he?’

‘I don’t know. It’s possible.’ She turns her sweet brown eyes to me, and they dart back and forth, troubled. ‘I don’t know him, not like I thought I knew my mother.’

There are no words to say. We embrace, instead; the hug of friends not lovers.

Miranda breaks the contact, and looks at me. ‘I wasn’t your first, was I?’

‘No.’

‘I knew it.’

Reproachful tone, though not angry. Hurt, and I understand that hurt. ‘She was someone very special,’ I begin, staring at the floor, seeing you there lying on the grass with your skirts all about you, laughing. ‘She died a year after she married.’ Now I see the paper in my hands, accusing me. I burned it, wanting no record of the pain that caused.

‘God, I’m sorry,’ Miranda says in a rush and I know it is the truth.

‘That was a long time ago, too,’ I continue, quietly, and know somehow that I have to go on, and somehow can with Miranda. I need to, for your sake. ‘I worshipped her, and nobody of hers knew me. One glorious summer on the moors and I had to leave her because I couldn’t bear the way she would grow old before me and die, and I…’ I choke off.

Miranda’s hand touches me, and my skin flinches away. ‘You…’ she says, but I shake my head, ashamed that tears are gathering.

I look directly into her eyes and see you stand, accusing. I hear your words; ‘Don’t leave me! Please, don’t…’ But I had to.

We sit in silence for a while. The door to the flat opens. Jim calls out, ‘Miranda? Charlotte? Sean and I are off to see a movie. Want to come?’

‘What?’ calls Miranda, and I hear how glad she is for the distraction.

The Brontës,’ he answers, poking his head around our door. ‘You’re a Brontë fan, aren’t you, Charlotte? You always go on about your namesake. Have you seen the film yet?’

‘No,’ I shake my head. I’ve been avoiding it, trying to avoid the film posters of the Merchant Ivory you. An impossibility.

‘I think we should go,’ says Miranda quietly to me.

I nod, dumbly, and we do go. Maybe it will be all right to see you on the screen like that, to be reminded of you the way others see you. But I cannot stop the stabbing pain in my heart as I remember that last time on the moors, our beloved moors.

When you died, I took your name so you would live forever.

The Pallisers / Brideshead Revisited

img_0165I had never really heard of the Pallisers until a few months ago. I’d not read the books by Anthony Trollope, and had not seen the 1974 BBC-TV series. Two dear friends rectified the latter situation and over the last two weeks I’ve ‘binge-watched’ all 26 episodes.

The TV series first aired throughout 1974, but was disrupted by the politics of that year in the UK. The story is heavily political – the Pallisers centres around Plantagenet Palliser, a Liberal from landed aristocracy and MP, later PM, with a good period of time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is wonderfully played by Philip Latham, who captures his austere and proper manner easily but allows us glimpses of his human warmth.

The heart of the family saga is the Lady Glencora, played brilliantly by Susan Hampshire, who marries Plantagenet against her will, but does her duty. She has a fierce sense of romantic justice, and in another time or place would have been either a Suffragist or perhaps Suffragette, or a feminist.

The political rumble-tumble follows Irish Liberal Phineus Finn (Donal McCann) in and out of favour, and of love with an amazing collection of women of various upper stands of English and European society. I grew to like him, his friendship with the Pallisers.

The last few episodes goes to the next generation, the three Palliser children: Silverbridge (Anthony Andrews), Gerald (Michael Cochrane), and Mary (Kate Nicholls). Silverbridge fails at Oxford, but excels at cricket, and falls in with Frank Tregear (Jeremy Irons) who convinces him that Conservatism is really the party for him. Behind his father’s back, Silverbridge runs as a Tory in the family constituency, and wins, but then gains his father’s semi-approval for his decency and gradually realises that Liberalism is really the better politics. Later, Tregear and Mary fall for each other, but in an echo of the doomed romance of Mary’s mother before she bowed to duty and eventually found a loyal love with Planty, Planty forbids Mary’s betrothal with Tregear.

All in all, I ended up greatly enjoying the series. It is of its time, but then at that time the BBC were making brilliant costume dramas unafraid, really, of making some political hay from the day.

I must confess that the pairing of Andrews as an aristocrat with Irons as his chum found at Oxford University but who ends up influencing Andrews’ character led immediately to a strong desire to re-watch the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I am a fan of the TV series, and I have read the novel on which it is based. I’ve not seen the more recent film version, and so I won’t judge it. One of the appeals of the Granada series is its languid, luxurious, and dreamy meander through the various events of Charles Ryder’s life where it intersects with country pile Brideshead and the Marchmain family.

My re-watch did not disappoint – aside from the extraordinarily dated and annoying anti-IP theft ads on each DVD. I was blown away by how good a pair of actors Irons and Andrews are. Both play remarkably similar (on paper) characters in the Pallisers and Brideshead, but both bring so much difference and nuance to each.

Watching both back-to-back, with the politics of decaying privilege against the backdrop of current world politics has provoked thoughts about all that. More for another time, though.

Nine Worlds Geek Fest 2016

I have been to each and every Nine Worlds to date, and have blogged my thoughts about them previously: 20132014 and 2015.

The big change was the venue. Nine Worlds has shifted from Heathrow to Hammersmith, in part because of the trouble that the last venue caused, but also because of location and the plans the organisers have (as I understand it – apologies if I’ve got that horribly wrong! Happy to amend). This year we were at the Novotel West London, a large convention hotel quite close to the bus, overground and underground hub and near a range of food options. Ironically, perhaps, because the venue put on reasonably priced food and drink, and a decent range (given the usual caveats of convention food). Not a lot of choice, but they did cater as far as they could for diverse diets. Even though it was in the convention handbook,  I think people didn’t realise that the convention had a minimum spend to meet – I don’t know if they did, but I hope they did.

The main bar was fab, and we were lucky with the weather being sunny. It meant we could spill out to the outside areas. The bar staff were such a contrast to the staff last year it’s really not fair to compare them. They actually worked as you would expect bar staff to – actually serve you drinks you want, and then deal with the payment, in a reasonable time. They responded to peak times, and were efficient in clearing away mess. They also replenished the much-needed water supply in a way that I don’t think people really noticed – apart from those of us who had noticed the tardiness at the last hotel over that very matter. The other bars were a not quite as well stocked, but that was to be expected, and all the staff I interacted with during the convention were polite and keen to help. I learned during the convention that Nine Worlds had trained some of them in diversity matters, which showed. I heard and saw a few people say that staff had commented favourably about the convention, too, which is nice.

I had no problems at all with the free wi-fi in any part of the convention space, or my room. That was an astonishing contrast to the last four hotels I’ve stayed at either for Sf conventions or my work where it’s been abysmal.

(Outside of the convention the hotel was a little bit less brilliant; the check in on Thursday was slow even for those of us who had checked in online, and I noticed the difference in breakfast – and reflected how I was more used to better service once the convention deal had stopped. Nothing dramatic, by the way, but noticeable.)

The convention itself featured many cool cosplayers, and I massively rate the tokens method having been at another convention this year where they have a costume event. I have too many to list that were amazing – I did think the Zombie London 2012 Gamesmaker was fab, and I loved the two EU flags.

There was the same sense of learning from errors of the past, but also settling into an expectation of being a safe space for the diversity of sexual orientation and gender, and disabilities (including invisible), and for families and children of all ages. There is still a problem with being overwhelmingly white, but I am aware the organisers are painfully aware of it and trying loads of things to address it. My own personal commitment is to step down from any panel if there is a person of colour who wants to be on it but for whatever reason wasn’t invited.

My interactions with the various volunteers were all positive, and helpful. Clearly they knew what they were doing, and loved it.

I wasn’t involved at all in the organising, but have always been on panels. I knew they experimented with a slightly different approach to the past organisation along tracks. I think it worked quite well, but there were a couple of things that need improving for next time. Timing being one – seemed a bit long at some stages, and then at meal times a little rushed. Not a drama, and I wonder if it was because there was a lot to do with the change of venue, and four years in a row is a substantial commitment for any convention. Words can be hollow, but I would volunteer in a heartbeat (or two) if my job, writing life and health weren’t quite so demanding. I don’t want to volunteer and then not deliver. If things change, then I will reconsider. I love Nine Worlds and its ethos, and enjoy being a part of it.

I was on three panels, all of which were tops. Really good other panellists, and terrific audiences. They were the one on Star Wars and canon, Doctor Who canon (2005+ series, but of course we went back – timey-wimey allows that, nay encourages it!), and Ewoks! I had been a little bit nervous about the Star Wars ones because while I love the movies (in general) I don’t consider myself a fan. My fears allayed very quickly because both panels were about diversity of experience, of course. It’s Nine Worlds. Which meant that the usually fraught with danger discussion of Doctor Who‘s canon was lovely and fun. Little note: we were able to talk about Rogue One for the first Star Wars panel in the light of the new trailer released just before the panel; and in total contrast, we held a minute’s silence for the memory of Kenny Baker, who died over the weekend and we got the news just before the Ewoks! panel. We then celebrated his life, especially his role as an Ewok.

No blanket forts this year (as far as I’m aware), but there was Panel Panel before Bifröst (the disco bit of it). I do hope it returns next year.

But, mostly, for me the three days were full of great conversations about all sorts of things with an incredible range of people. If there’s a mark of how much I enjoyed it, it might be this. I am going to World Con in Helsinki next year. There’s a little bit of uncertainty with my job next year (nothing bad, but I am aware that until I know for certain what I’ll be doing after May next year I can’t really plan beyond my already made commitments) and I had decided to give Nine Worlds a break and just do World Con. But, instead, I’m going to incorporate planning around the potential to do both Nine Worlds and World Con, and have a bit of a holiday in and around Helsinki.

The West Wing

I find politics fascinating in large part because it reveals so much about human nature. Our expression of our political beliefs betray how we view the world. To be clear, I’m not talking about political party allegiances, but actual politics. Meaning the struggle for power, and how it’s used (and abused), and how we acquiesce to those with power and those institutions and systems built to protect us from the worse excesses of it.

I also relish well-written, acted, and delivered drama. Best with a healthy dose of clever humour.

It’s obvious, but I adore the West Wing because it delivers on both.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The White House, September 2013 © Sarah J Groenewegen

I had wanted to re-watch the West Wing a few times since my first visit to Washington DC in September 2013. Other TV shows demanded my attention more, and I had a tonne of work to do in both my day job and writing. Anyway, I promised myself I would watch it on my second – longer – visit to DC last year. Both times I was there was for work, by the way. Usually a rare opportunity so I feel doubly blessed for the experience. I smiled at the familiar sites that I had gotten to know through my visits.

I am always blown away by how fast out of the box the West Wing was – the first episode sets the pace, the style, the characters and situations deftly. No, brilliantly. It really is a masterclass in how to do it. I had to remind myself of when it first went out; the real-world events of Syria that is driving so much world politics now features, woven seamlessly into the fictional narrative of a fiercely intelligent (geeky) yet clumsy (okay, a nerd) President. Oh, referred to as POTUS when only a handful of people knew what that term meant.

I skipped the special episode that they made in commemoration of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. I watched it at the time of first broadcast when it fit in the political zeitgeist; now it interfered with the story arc.

The fifth year of the show dips in quality. Creator Aaron Sorkin’s gift at writing sparkling wit is what’s missing. The characters, situations, and delivery are all still high-class, but the particular type of humour. It recovers a bit in the last two years of the show, which gains a bit of confidence again – hey, we can deliver what Sorkin did.

Real-world politics is the lens through which I watched it over the last few months. Particularly pertinent for the last year when we are now in the throes of what must be one of the most peculiar US Presidential elections in history. I like the world of the West Wing because the Tea Party never made an appearance. The GOP have reasonable, intelligent, gifted people in it and working for it. They are a credible balance, even with its extreme edge (who are centrists when you compare them with almost the entire crop of the real-world ones).

On a far more positive note, I enjoyed the Santos-Obama feel. When talking about it with a friend last weekend, he mentioned that Jimmy Smits (who played Democratic nominee Matthew Santos) had modelled his performance on the young senator from Illinois.

If you’ve not seen it and you like well-written drama, do give it a go.  I was astonished as to how little it had aged, although – thankfully – we have advanced a bit in terms of combatting sexism as sometimes appears when characters interact and aren’t called out for it.

Adam Sisman, John LeCarré: The Biography

A few days ago I finished reading Adam Sisman’s biography of writer John LeCarré, pseudonym of David Cornwell.

I think the first I ever read of LeCarré’s work was The Little Drummer Girl, and I saw the movie at around about the same time, which was I think when it came out on videotape. I was in my late teens and discovering the world and its politics, safe in my family home. My father is an academic, specifically an economist, even more specifically an economic historian. We had a fairly impressive library at home, and both my parents encouraged us (my brother and I) to visit other libraries. I read voraciously and pursued various obsessions. As a young teenager I had discovered Anne Frank’s diary while we visited Amsterdam, and following that read everything I could find on the Holocaust. Politics and current affairs were always discussed at home, and even as a young child I had been picking up on the terrorism of the 1970s as remote to Australia as it was then.

The Little Drummer Girl was an eye-opener for me. Charlie’s idealism spoke to me at exactly the right age, I think, and the tale is cautionary in the way it shows how complex these things are. How difficult – there is no single right or wrong side, but numerous of each. Makes it easy to cower in inactivity, but actually one of the messages I took from the book is that small actions build into more powerful changes.

I am writing this in 2016 with a Cold War between the USSR and the Western democracies having disappeared into a strange narrative, and the Middle Eastern and West Asian wars having fractured and splintered into multiple deadly offshoots that few understand but many worsen through a simplistic narrative. Spy thrillers like the James Bond books, the Bourne books and movies, etc, etc, etc, all play their part in shaping those narratives. As does political discourse, the advantage of hindsight, the stories written by the victors, the victims…

I majored in politics and political history at university, specialising in international affairs. I took multiple units in Soviet politics and history when the USSR still existed, and we were caught by surprise when the break-up happened so quickly. When George Bush Snr was up against Michael Dukakis in 1988 I took a year-long course in US politics. I dove into the safety of theoretical politics and related philosophies during 1989 and 1990, but dipped my toe into the broiling mess of what was then called the Arab-Israeli conflict. I learned to be wary of any simplistic dichotomous explanations, which I have applied to my work during my career. One of the things that appealed to me about LeCarré’s writing is how well he weaved those complexities and contradictions together.

As the biography points out more than once, one of the reasons for LeCarré’s success as a novelist was his apparently uncanny ability to anticipate changes in the world. I don’t think it was uncanny, or particularly prescient, but does illustrate a mind able to see patterns in chaos. I think LeCarré keeps his eyes and ears open, and at some point fairly early on in his life was able to work out that human beings are bundles of contradictions. He is clearly very clever and quick – all great ingredients for an author of books that, for all their adventures and thrills, have people at their heart.

One little scene has remained with me from that first reading of the Little Drummer Girl. When Charlie tells the Mossad recruiters the story of her father returning home from prison, broken, and waiting for someone else to open the doors in her home for him. Then, later, them disabusing her of that tale. The vignette fascinates me because it neatly encapsulates the human capability for self-delusion.

When I read in the biography David Conwell’s description of his father returning home from a stint in prison for fraud it clicked immediately with Charlie’s story as told in a novel written decades later. Self-delusion is a key theme of the biography; the very human way in which we create our narratives about our lives, often without realising it. Sisman’s description of his process in writing a proper biography of a subject who is still alive (at time of writing – 2016 has been a cruel year for celebrities), who has part of his life shrouded in secrecy because of where he worked (MI5 and MI6, variously during the 1940s and 1950s – a very different time and place to now), and who has such a difficult relationship with his constantly scamming father. Then there is the media lens, assumptions made, perspectives filtered through new events and disclosures. Different points of view.

Cornwell strikes me as a principled man who has his flaws, but who doesn’t? I am impressed by the research he does for his books, but also when it’s clear he is writing from his heart. I was interested in what Sisman was able to write about Cornwell’s times with the two British secret services, and also interested in learning more about LeCarré’s writing processes. I am sure that some of my readers will find the tales of book-to-film/TV series to be interesting. For those bits I recommend the book; but if you’re after tales of real-life spying derring-do, then I suggest you stick with the stuff about Ian Fleming… although the notes about the veracity of autobiographical narrative are pertinent.

One last thing – I am amused by the biographer’s name being Sisman. SIS being the initials for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Sadly, though, I know there will be those who will read far more than amusement into that coincidence… (as I write this I have been reading conspiracy theories stating that MI5 or MI6 will be erasing pencil votes in today’s referendum in the UK…).

Wolf Hall / Bring up the Bodies

I read Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies pretty much when they were both released. I’ve always been interested in the history of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Such a turbulent time of England and Scotland’s history, with so many lasting effects. The story of Henry and his wives has often been told in fiction, and just before embarking on reading Mantel’s novels I had watched the most recent TV version of Henry VIII’s life and death – the at times astonishingly good (yes, really!), but mostly wildly entertaining The Tudors.

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Hampton Court Palace: once Wolsey’s home, taken by Henry VIII

Mantel’s novels tell the story of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a lowly born London lad blessed with a head for finance and the law, and an excellent memory. Wolf Hall begins with Cromwell in the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Henry VIII has been on the throne for about 20 years, with a kingdom geographically including England, Ireland, and parts of France . The winds of change in the church are blowing from the continent, and various characters are caught up in spying and intrigue in incredibly dangerous times. Thomas More staunchly opposed the reformation in the church, and the run ins between him and Cromwell are fascinating explorations of the theological debates of the time.

The first parts of the novel detail Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey, and cleverly traces how Cromwell gained favour with the King while Wolsey fell out of favour. The court intrigue centring around Anne Boleyn, who is portrayed as a complex character making what happens incredibly tragic. She’s bright, with a lively mind, and the intellectual attraction between her and Cromwell is one of the key features of the novel, counterpointing with Cromwell’s discussions with Thomas More.

Court intrigue and the jockeying of various families to gain power are the other strands of a complex history where a considerable amount is on the record, but there are gaps. This is the skill of a novelist writing historical fiction based on real people and real events. Choosing the lens through which to view the events, and being careful to bring each to life in a way both believable to a modern audience and yet as true to the feel of the time as is possible. Mantel’s style is clean, crisp, and incredibly efficient as well as evocative.

Wolf Hall takes us up to More’s execution. Bring Up the Bodies traces Anne Boleyn’s fall and Catherine Seymour’s rise in Henry’s favour. There are flashbacks to Cromwell’s childhood and adolescence in London and the continent, which provide a richness to his character.

During 2014 the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a play of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in the Aldwych Theatre in London. I saw them back to back and it was a fascinating experience to see both in that way in the same theatre in the same seats. The adaptation itself was brilliant, and staged in a minimalist way.

With a certain sense of inevitability the BBC also adapted the books, which I just caught up with this week via DVD. Unfortunately they chose to compact down the two novels into one six part series, and it showed. The complexity and nuanced nature of Cromwell’s relationship with Anne Boleyn just wasn’t there, and as a result her execution – incredibly powerful in both the book and play – left me cold. A real shame, because the acting and sets were as lush as you’d expect. I thought Damian Lewis was particularly noteworthy as Henry VIII.

Happy Valley

Happy Valley was one of those TV shows that caught my attention because friends of mine raved about it. Most of those friends are those whose tastes in TV drama tend to be similar to mine, and I am a bit of a fan of Sally Wainwright’s writing. I was not in the UK when the first series aired on BBC1, and then when the second series aired I worked out it would be a good idea to see the first series first. I ended up having to wait for the DVDs to be released, fortunately not too long after the series ended.

The show is a police procedural set in the Yorkshire valleys. It centres on Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), once a detective who returned to uniform duties one assumes in the wake of the suicide of her daughter Becky. Although Becky’s suicide happened eight years before the story begins, its implications and ramifications permeate all through both series. Catherine is raising her grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who Becky gave birth to some weeks before her death; Catherine believes Becky was raped by Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) even though he was never convicted of that.

The first series is concerned with the plot to kidnap Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), daughter of a local business owner, by the accountant of the firm, Kevin Weatherill (Steven Pemberton). Kevin is driven to the plot because he feels unfairly treated by Ann’s father, but through a series of misunderstandings and the wilfulness of those he approaches to put the plot into action the whole thing goes terribly wrong.

The second series picks up some 18 months after the end of the first. Ann has joined the police and is mentored by her friend, Catherine. Tommy Lee Royce is in prison again, but his influence over Catherine and her family continues against the backdrop of a series of murders linked, it seems, to human trafficking.

Both series have an edgy sense of humour; I thought mostly due to my reaction to the casting of Steven Pemberton from League of Gentlemen. I watched many of the interviews on the DVD sets and noted reference to that deliberate humour being integral to the set up. That humour is very much in line with the darker sort of humour many of those who work in criminal justice/emergency services have to cope with the unrelenting darkness of their worlds. It’s just unusual to see it in cop dramas.

Sally Wainwright – the creator, lead writer, director of several episodes – has woven together interesting criminal plots, intersecting with the all-too-believable personal stories and random chaos of everyday lives on the brink of poverty. Funnily enough, Joanne Harris on Twitter yesterday (21 May 2016) was highlighting the over-used tropes of many police/detective procedurals and as I was reading them, and agreeing with them, I thought of how Wainwright so skilfully takes these tropes and manages to twist them through the realities of each person in her stories having their own agency. For one simple example (that won’t spoil the plot of series 2!), Catherine tackles Shirley Henderson’s character once she’s been found out by revealing to her the list of other visitors to Tommy Lee Royce who all had fallen into his trap just as she had. It’s a small scene, totally unexpected in the way it was done, but absolutely believable. And one of numerous little touches that add up to a brilliant two series of television.

There was one thing that grated – the opening and closing theme song and tune. It just didn’t fit in terms of tone.