a dead man's Dickens

adventures, thoughts, encounters, musings.

An excerpt from my reading life

Whether it is sexual, religious or racial, discrimination will occur in one way or another in most societies, and eradicating efforts are futile because the prejudice is born of ignorance.  Bernard Shaw wrote that the only thing to do about ignorance is to enlighten it, and a lot of idealists think that education can achieve that enlightenment. Legislators think that laws can do it, and trendsetters think that fashion can do it. They are wrong because they start from a false premise. They’re like the doctor who once told me that smoking cigarettes would shorten my life; he made the erroneous assumption that I craved longevity.

– Just Williams (Kenneth Williams, 1985), p 51

I find this excerpt from Kenneth Williams autobiography so fascinating. At the same time that he despairs of discrimination as it faces various people in his world, he acknowledges the complexity of how it comes to be perpetuated. At the same time as he promotes various means of how it might be overcome, he simultaneously fears that it never will be owing to the inherent callousness of people. Sometimes when I talk to some teenagers in my daily life (/read the rubbish people post on facebook), I fear this statement to be absolutely true. Fortunately, I talk to many people of all ages that inspire me to think meaningful change in the way people view and treat each other is possible.

I have a lot of time for Kenneth Williams. As an actor, he is easy to dismiss as having appeared in ridiculous, smutty comedies, and for being the person (along with Billy Connolly) to appear on the most episodes of Parkinson. As an individual he is endlessly intriguing to me.

It would appear that Arthur Miller was right.

The other day, I was talking with some of my students about the idea of tragic drama and the traditional notion that a tragedy (in the dramatic sense) had to happen to someone of standing; someone of importance, possibly a nobleman or public figure, who compromised by the meeting between circumstance and the flaw in their character, begins a downward spiral that is essentially of their own making.

There was some outrage with this, the general thought being that really anybody could have a tragic flaw and why must it be the privilege of the noble to experience a downfall? A fairly valid question, and cue discussion of Arthur Miller, my hastily paraphrased summary of  Insert Plot From Arthur Miller Play of Your Choosing, and the scary, scary notion that tragedy can happen to you!

When I remember back to this discussion I delude myself that the class was keenly interested to hear about Arthur Miller and his theory that Tragedy really is within the experience of the Common Man. In reality, I think they were mildly pleased to have hit on an idea that was generally recognized as being Literary and then moved onto other things in their head, like lunch. Nevertheless, it was an above average moment in my recent life as an English teacher.

It’s a powerful idea though, isn’t it? This notion that “the tragic feeling is evoked … when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity” [Miller, Tragedy and the Common Man].

Far be it from any of us to determine what it is that constitutes a “sense of personal dignity” for someone, but I’m sure it will be of moderate comfort to the man I overheard in a bar the other day, pouring out his heart to a friend about his despair at work, that his struggles are valued by a rich literary tradition. The tragic complaint and loss of self at the basis of his grief?

I just feel I belong to the world of men’s suits in a way that just isn’t true of children’s wear.

Will someone, anybody, please dramatise this? Maybe it isn’t quite Death of a Salesman, but still, “attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”

In defence of…well, really quite a few things.

Yesterday (January 6) I read the letters section of the Sydney Morning Herald. One of the subheadings that was used to group letters together was “Gen Y’s selfishness, narcissim, main reason for viciousness.” In this little group were letters that people had written in regarding the latest of many nightclub violence events in Sydney’s recent past. A couple of correspondents wrote in discussing the fact that the value a society attaches to education, and how it goes about encouraging cultural engagement of its citizens will have a huge impact on whether or not its citizens can achieve non violent forms of self realisation, self awareness and self expression. I certainly felt that this was a valid point, and it made me wonder how much as a society we emphasise this. Another wrote in raising a concern about the seeming hypocrisy of a society that bemoans what it calls ‘alcohol fuelled violence’, but sees no concern with having alcohol advertising widely available on all forms of media and at the center of the nations sporting events. Again, a reasonable comment. There was, however, a comment that left me feeling a bit frustrated, from a gentleman in Queensland who indicated that Gen Y’s general behaviour, “the trend towards selfishness, narcissism, breathtaking ignorance and an absence of what we used to call ‘good manners’” were clearly to blame for this kind of violence and that these things, left unchecked, would only make things worse.

Well, I agree with him that those are some pretty negative things that will contribute negatively to any group of people, but I am disappointed in the blanket characterisation of a whole generation of people as being all these evil things. I also must fight the temptation to fight back with the wisecrack that if Gen Y are so awful it must be because of the appalling example set by everyone who came before.

Equally disappointing, I feel, is the editorial published by the Sydney Morning Herald today (January 7), in which Christopher Bantick laments the celebrity culture that Gen Y obsesses over, the loss of high culture and art from our society, which has been replaced by the “moronic introspection” of various celebrities. It would appear that Bantick is also disappointed with the fact that “young people have lost the capacity to actually know when something is art, and worthy. Instead, they hang on every world of their latest celeb mouthing inanities.” Uh oh. Looks like somebody didn’t read Richard Glover’s excellent piece a few days ago about the elite club formed by pronunciation snobs. Here is a summary: it’s fairly similar to the club that is formed by people who believe the only valid form of cultural expression is opera, classical music, and a book written by a Bronte (all texts/forms appealed to in this editorial as being worthy.)

In his column Bantick grieves for this rich, elite cultural history we have but which – tragically – has been all but abandoned in schools; he despairs that light and fluffy Young Adult novels have replaced the classics, that our society is bereft of depth and understanding because we somehow allowed Leonard Cohen to be popular at the expense of Mahler. He seems to suggest that it must be restored to this environment, that curriculum alone can save us from a cultural wasteland.

I’m not really interested in a debate over What is Art? That has been going on since art and culture happened. Depending on what political and sociological perspective you take you could arrive at any sort of conclusion about what ought to be valued by a society.  I think any society has an obligation to encourage thoughtful expression from all of it’s citizens, just has I think that all citizens are obliged to develop critical skills to interpret the meaning rich world around them. Part of what I believe very firmly about art and culture is expressed very well by Amanda Palmer in a brief ukulele reflection on the music industry, which I shall post just below this paragraph. On the issue of swallowing whole any old piece of narcissistic garbage from someone with a pulpit (/column in the Sydney Morning Herald??), yes, I actually agree with Bantick that it is dangerous. A much better move is to instil the value of reflection and interpretation in all and allow them to make up their own mind.

Like Bantick, I am also a teacher, but in a quite different setting (public school, rural NSW). It would not be culturally or morally appropriate to walk into my school and present Jane Eyre and Mahler as some sort of benchmark and say “attain this or else”. When I walk into my English literature classroom with my students, some of whom are very exciting academic prospects, and some of whom struggle to write anything much more complicated than two or three sentences about the weekend football, I am trying to share with them one powerful idea. That everything we encounter says something about the world we live in, or the world that it is created in. That it is our job to think about what this is, and ask questions about it. That it is our job to try and remember this for next time we look at a new text and compare it across time, across history, across cultures. And I guarantee you that I have never been more proud of a student than when one of the girls in my Year 9 class who stuck with Romeo and Juliet long enough to realise that she understood the idea of conflict between two families and forbidden love between two teenagers because she’d seen it in a Home and Away story arc. And did I have a single problem with her engagement with Shakepseare after that? No.

Personally, I don’t watch Home and Away. My itunes has pretty equal measures of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Brahms. I’d visit an art gallery any day over any other form of cultural institution and I have a framed portrait of TS Eliot in my house as a daily reminder of the value I place in his poetry. That said, neither do I believe that popular culture, mainstream contemporary culture is invalidated because of its relative newness to our canon. Bantick seems to be arguing that by replacing Looking for Alibrandi with the classics in our schools we can ensure that children get a proper dose of culture and miraculously they will be cured of this shameless obsession with celebrity.

I think not. All people, children, men, women, young, old…whatever…deserve the opportunity to experience a cultural world that represents something of how they experience life. Every person also deserves and needs the opportunity to experience a world that represents how others apart from themselves experience life. And they need to the opportunity to develop the skills to reconcile that that reality exists. They need the opportunity to develop an interest in exploring the world through cultural artifacts – be they paintings, novels or pieces of music. The key to growing cultural knowledge is not to eradicate the low in order to salvage the high, but to start with the skills that are required to appreciate anything: the gift of being curious and inquisitive. Once that exists, people will follow their own nose into the cultural world out of sheer irrepressible interest to know more about other worlds, and other people.

I’m also willing to bet that the vision of self-realization and self-expression in non violent ways that was spoken of by an astute reader of the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, would be more likely realised by an inclusive approach that values individuals engagement with any form of culture. As a society we should aspire to high aims, but that is anything we do – politics, science, art and culture, but we shouldn’t dismiss anyone starting from somewhere different to us, and we should help them along.

Here’s Amanda Palmer again, making the same point, but with a nicer singing voice.

The Way We Live Now

I have just watched the 2001 BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. I must admit, I haven’t read the book, but I found myself with some time while on holidays and when I went searching my DVD case for something to watch I could not go past something that had been directed by David Yates and screen written by Andrew Davies.

The story focuses on two families – the Melmottes, headed by the wealthy, powerful businessman Augustus; and the Carbury’s, a family who having suffered the death of the husband/father are falling on increasingly hard times, no thanks to the gambling and drinking of the young son, Sir Felix.

Augustus Melmotte is a swarthy European businessmen who has come to England to further his fortune, leaving  behind scandal in Europe. In doing so he embarks on a quest to become an “English gentleman” and later a member of Parliament. He throws parties designed to ingratiate himself with the best of English society. In turn, Sir Felix makes love (which I use in the traditional, literary, not actually sexual, but rather romancing/courtship sense of this phrase which I feel people should know of) theatrically and excessively to the Melmotte daughter, Marie, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the family fortune. While this is going on, all of English society simultaneously resent and criticise the Melmotte’s while readily becoming a part of what ever scheme Melmotte proposes to satisfy their greed for wealth.

Throughout the whole show I felt like I was watching a version of Wall Street, in which everyone wore period costume. I didn’t feel the lack of Charlie Sheen at all, as Matthew Mcfaydens greedy, lustful wreck of Sir Felix was pretty compelling. Incidentally, I don’t love Matthew McFayden, I do think he is rather talented, but there was always something that held me back from his performance as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. It might be unfair, but I found him far more convincing in this role (as total sham lover) than as Darcy. Actually, I love him the most in Death at a Funeral, I thought he was near perfection there, but i digress.

Using Wall Street as a frame of reference was actually quite helpful – there is much of Augustus Melmotte in Gordon Gekko (as it turns out), down to the absolutely dark and fantastic “we have a responsibility to strive for profit” / “greed is good” kind of talk he gives as he stumps for election to Parliament as the Member for Westminster.

I think there is nothing about Melmotte that we are supposed to love really, his downfall is both legally and morally deserved, but there are moments of empathy that you can have for him. The classic for me was his failure to understand Parliamentary procedure, and the embarrassment he experiences when his European customs are not in step with the English: he wears a hat in doors AND fails to refer to an MP by title, for which he is very loudly heckled. Although he is beastly, in this moment his suffering is not because of his arrogance or his greed, it is because of his culture and it is because the English accept him for his money which they want, but they do not accept him per se, and so of course no one will help him avoid this humiliation. You feel very much as though he has been set up.

There are other moments, too, where this is an issue, the banker Mr Breghert suffers this as a Jew. He himself has the fortitude to withstand most glances and comments, but the time it hurts him to be treated poorly for this reason is when he is jilted by the woman he wished to marry. He too will lose money with the downfall of the Melmotte empire and it becomes apparent to him that Georgiana (the young daughter of struggling aristocrats) would have suffered the indignity of marrying him for wealth, but not for just merely average financial security. This is most apparent to us all when she rejects his existing children and blatantly but inadvertently almost calls him a Jew in the most derogatory tone. She changes her words at the last moment, but the damage is done. I cannot speak to Trollope’s intentions here, but I certainly felt that a great deal of what is satirised by Davies and Yates is the hypocrisy of English society in accepting people, but only to the extent they can gain personally from doing so. I’m sure this criticism is legitimate of whichever elite social group at whatever point in history.

Again, almost everything Melmotte gets he deserves; it is a victory for women I think that Marie who has long suffered emotional and physical abuse at the hands of parents refuses to sign over the money they have hidden in her name and is thus able to separate herself from her family and forge her own, new life. She proves herself stronger than almost any other character in the story. Without her strength, it is highly likely that the family fortune can be salvaged in someway and the whole sorry saga repeated again elsewhere. Instead, Melmotte is humiliated, revealed as the fraudster that he is, has a series of theatrically excellent breakdowns and ultimately commits suicide.

I read somewhere an interview with David Suchet who played Melmotte where he stated that he came up with this idea of barking like an hysterical dog in one of his many breakdown scenes, and that it required the abandonment of all self consciousness to be able to bring it into the rehearsal/filming and see how it went. It was superb. I know how affective it was because I watched this with my puppy wingman Clancy asleep next to me. He immediately woke and ran to the television and barked back at Melmotte on the screen. It was such a moment of inhumanity and chaos, which was completely unexpected, but seemed inevitable by the time it was happening. Of course, in another universe David Suchet is the most perfect Hercule Poirot the world has ever seen, and the thought does occur that in that universe Melmotte would be murdered within the first half of the show and then Poirot would investigate it. He is exactly the sort of character that Agatha Christie would have made a deserving victim of, and exactly the sort of character that was made a deserving victim in Midsomer Murders as played by Joss Ackland.


Taking stock

Yet another year has passed, and it is customary in these digital media driven times to make sweeping statements about the year that has been, and the year that is still to come in social media. Someone as verbose as me will never get the hang of Twitter, and Facebook seems a little bit too rushed, so I’m afraid that all my reflections will be here.

The Good
This year my life took a pleasing turn for the enjoyable and manageable. I largely overcame the challenges I had experienced in my job etc the year before, formed and/or cemented some wonderful new friendships and began to feel that I was slowly becoming a part of the community I live and work in. The sense of satisfaction that comes from these things shouldn’t be underestimated, and though I risk sounding like I teach HSC English (which I do), the feelings of warmth, security and belonging that come from such experiences is to be treasured.

Old friends continue to be an important part of my life, and many reunions over glasses of wine, blocks of cheese, board games, interstate meet ups, Christmas and Easter parties remind me how lucky we all when we reach adulthood, form these lasting friendships and then cultivate and tend them. It is most joyful.

Family wise, everyone has their health, which is something to be grateful for, and my own household grows by one with the addition of my main wingman Clancy, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. He is too adorable for words, and cheeky enough for many words, none of which will be printed here.

The Bad

As always, I put on weight. I tried not to. It happened anyway.

Clancy was not my only pet of the year. In February my cat Charlie was killed by a snake bite/infection/mystery illness. It as a sad day on which I also played my hitherto best hand of bridge and was In a prize winning trivia team (even if we to got less than 50% on identifying Shakespeare quotes. Shame on we English teachers for the evening). Additionally I got a fish, named for Derek Jacobi in honour of him being the worst great actor ever. Or is that the greatest worst actor ever? The line between ham and genius is thin and only a fish my pay proper tribute to my love for this chap. Alas I am no fish keeper and he died within 7 weeks, but you can’t blame a girl for trying.

Other achievements

I hope that I achieved more this year, but right now my greatest achievement feels to me to be the 4 and a half novels I read between Christmas Eve and New Years Day. I choose not to be dissuaded by the fact that 4 of them were Agatha Christie Poirot novels. They are everything that I treasure about being on Christmas Holidays. As a teenager I would read them ravenously in quest to solve the crime before that genius M. Poirot. Rarely have I ever achieved this, I am more off your Hastings type, but I find now that I am compelled to read them I to complete my personal character study Hercule Poirot, who is I believe the most moral of the crime fiction canon detectives. Recently I feel that tv Christopher Foyle would go close, however his is a different world.

This leads me to what shall be my trivial goal for 2014, to complete my reading (in order) of all Agatha Christies Poirot novels, just to make sure I did not miss any in my haste as a teenage reader, or in the confusion of erratic and ever changing collection that lived in our holiday house.

I should like to read more in general, exercise more, save money; stock standard goals really, for this time of year. But I suppose without any acknowledgement at all these modest goals might go entirely ignored and un-aspired to (in practical terms) like they usually do.

We shall see what 2014 brings, but I’d be happy if I watched more football, ate less McDonalds and completed some sort of organised sporting event involving more than 30 seconds of sustained activity (sorry volleyball, you just don’t cut it).

Jane Austen writes pop songs now?

I have such a love hate relationship with Jane Austen. Every so often I attempt to resolve my feelings on whether she is a hero of the romance genre, a pioneering feminist pursuing writing and a women’s agenda at a time when very few others would or could, or the author of literature’s most hypocritical character ever: Elizabeth Bennett (more on that in another post.)

The plot and characterisation alone would leave me angry and frustrated in the superficialities of it all – the small minded obsession of Mrs Bennett and some of her daughters on getting everyone nicely married off, Mr Bennett’s aloof resistance of the idiocy of his wife while simultaneously not acting to prevent her from ruining everyone’s life, Elizabeth’s ‘holier than thou’ awareness of the stupidity of everyone else around her is insufferable. Then again, we can all agree that Elizabeth’s actions throughout the book are far more noble than Lydia’s, she really is just selfishness and idealism personified.

The conflict I feel is all knotted up in the irony at the heart of Austen’s voice as story teller. If all this story was was plot and the silly silly characters above I would feel justified in hating it, but I just can’t. It is the power of the irony she employs. She brings you in and makes you feel like you share her secret, that you understand that she is commenting and saying this is not ideal, it is a societal failing that leads these characters to this place. From then on in everyone is a cautionary warning or an allegorical representation of how people in these situations might cope. Like Lydia and Mr Bennett, not everyone has the courage or maturity to act without error. Charlotte Lucas takes what she perceives as the most viable option for her, she marries the odious Mr Collins. Only, I always feel bad for Mr Collins that he is portrayed in such a hyperbole of absurdity – he too is required to take a wife in order to fulfil societies expectations of him, in order to gain the support of his patron. In that sense he and Charlotte are made for each other, because they were happy to make the compromise that Lizzy wasn’t, but I do think that Lizzy could have been more gracious in accepting that Collins was operating under the same imperative that was being applied to her family.

What of Jane? Bingley is such a bland character I have no idea what her marriage to him is supposed to represent except perhaps to prove true the fact that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. And Lizzy? Though questions surrounding her possible hypocrisy will be gone into at a later time, she gets, I think, what she wants – marriage for love to someone who is worthy of her (and vice versa) and what she deserves; she pays for her haughty attitude and the path to glorious happiness is not smooth.

The other day when my humble music group (band seems to imply far more structure and devotion than we have) was testing out new songs someone brought in Lily Allen’s 22. I hadn’t heard the song before, but it was catchy and it reminded me of something, but what? Then the thought dawned on me. The character in this song is pretty much experiencing the same social pressure that led the a Bennett girls to their heightened state of marriage obsession: societies desire to see everyone neatly married off and occupied for ever and ever. I don’t really agree with Allen’s assessment of the society we live in, I think the are real and genuine pressures on women (well, on all people) but I don’t feel that at age mid twenties anyone is being written off at all. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the song, because it made me realise what I think really matters about Elizabeth Bennett: she chooses not to be Lydia, which FYI character in 22, is something that I recommend. Really, if you are so unhappy with part of your life, do something about it. Do anything at all as long as it makes you the active person in the equation. The ambiguity that plagues the song – is it the fact that someone might come and rescue her from her poor life choices that is unlikely, or the fact that someone has? – is enough to torment any soul. Still, choose Elizabeth if you can, she seems to me to be increasingly worthy of admiration.

Who owns the canon?

Maybe it is just my inner English nerd speaking, but for me some of the most fun that can be had is following the travels of your favourite characters through their stories. Be it literature, film or television, once I’m am introduced to character who gets under my skin I obsessively race through anything I can find that will help me learn:

  • what happens to them
  • how and why they are the way they are.

Characters that I have obsessed over in my time include John Jarndyce (Bleak House), Severus Snape (Harry Potter), Henry Scobie (The Heart of the Matter), King Lear, Christopher Foyle (Foyle’s War) the list goes on. And yes, even Tom Barnaby from Midsomer Murders has occupied many of my precious reflective minutes.  And perhaps some other day we’ll figure out why they are all middle/late aged men with mysterious and frustrating personal lives.

I know I’m not the only one who does this, because there are hoards of people all over the world who queue to get the next novel in a fantasy series or download the latest episode of some tv show because they can’t possibly wait for a tv station here to air it; not to mention the hoards of people who obsessively write fan fiction in order to delve deeper into the universe of their favourite stories. Fan fiction is an often-ridiculed past time, but I see no problem with it, in fact, as English teacher I often ask my students to think about issues from a perspective that comes naturally to anyone who writes fic. And yes, among authors and composers of frequently “ficced” works there are mixed feelings, but there are also plenty of well respected authors who write what is essentially fan fiction. Anthony Horowitz, P.D James and Geraldine Brooks spring rapidly to mind.

I mention fan fiction at this point, because it introduces us to the term that is most helpful to the thought currently floating around my mind. I ask in the heading of my post “who owns the canon? and we will get to that, but quickly a tour of what the canon actually is. Broadly and traditionally speaking, the “literary canon” refers to those stories that are consider iconic and representative of the best that literature has to offer within a particular context – perhaps from a certain era, context, culture, or very broadly speaking maybe the best of literature ever. Fanfic writers offer us a different use of the term ‘canon’, however. In FanFic, ‘canon’ refers to the details, boundaries, facts set by the initial story. The canon of Harry Potter is what actually happens in the novels, as written by JK Rowling. Then there is the film universe, then there is the fic universe. It is certainly helpful to have an active knowledge of this if you are getting into the realm of fan fiction, but certainly even fandom. It helps to understand that a film and book are two different things. That they each have qualities to be appreciated, quite independently of the other. It also helps to know that there is always a sort of “reality” (canon) attached to the story, but that part of understanding, coping, coming to terms with it all is wrestling with the what-ifs that any plot point might throw up.

Who owns the canon is an interesting topic, in either sense of the word. The question of with who’s authority a work enters the “Literary Canon” is one of the great political aspects of literary criticism. But who owns the canon as fan-ficcers describe it – the original detail of the story – really sparked in my mind when reading an article about Mad About the Boy, the latest installment of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones series (itself arguably just a piece of AU – alternate universe – Jane Austen fic).

This next bit is a piece of information that has been pushed by Fielding herself in discussing/promoting her new work, but in the interests of fairness I would like to flag that it is also a GIANT DIRTY SPOILER. So, if you don’t want to know…look away pretty much for the rest of this post.

It turns out that Mark Darcy, much loved romantic hero and lover/husband/partner/whatever of Bridget Jones is dead. You heard me correctly. Dead. Deceased. Popped his clogs. An ex-character, as Monty Python would have it.

Not surprisingly, the fan reaction is varied, but the land of the internet reveals some typically hysterical reactions. I’m going to quote a few below, but I would like to acknowledge that they were conveniently gathered for me by BuzzFeed in this tremendously convenient post. If you’re unconvinced, there are equally outraged bits of feedback in any news story you find about this.

I don’t want to live in a world where Mark Darcy and Bridget Jones aren’t living happily ever after. Too far, Helen Fielding. Too far.

If Mark Darcy is dead then I hate Helen Fielding. FOREVER

Why the fuck would you kill Mark Darcy oh my god this is the worst news ever

Or my personal favourite, because this person doesn’t even know there were books before movies:

Finding out Mark Darcy is dead in the third Bridget Jones film has already turned my day into the worst ever.

It is traumatic when a much loved character dies. Honestly, I still haven’t recovered from when Joyce died of perfectly mundane, natural and wholly un-defeatable causes in season 5 of Buffy. Buffy fans know what it means to be bereaved by the death of a fictional character. It’s a tv show that deals with mortality in a very stark way. My point here, is that I understand. Sort of. But only sort of, because what is with the hating on the author? Surely there is some level of authority they they have over the life of their characters?  I don’t think it is fair to hate on Helen Fielding for her authorial choices for a book that most people haven’t read yet because it isn’t officially published for another 8 days. I think it is probably the duty of any informed reader to reflect on these details. I have my own theories, of course, and they’re coming right up, but I’m not going to know until I read the book what my ultimate comment will be.

Narratively speaking, I suspect Fielding has some sound reasoning for killing of Arsy-Darcy. A lot of the intrigue and energy that is generated in Jones’ story comes from her uncertainty and fear about being alone. A lot of what sustains reader interest is their optimism that she will find some way of being herself and very hopefully with someone else. We could all cope with the continuation of her journey after her romance with Daniel Cleaver because we all knew that he was the wrong man. She had to keep looking for the right one. And then she found him, and we all lived happily ever after knowing that once again fiction offered us a comfortable and convenient vision of how the world works.

Could Fielding follow their lives into the land of the “smug marrieds”? I don’t think so, not with any real integrity, after all, such characters had been Bridget’s enemy for two novels. Bridget is an endearing character. She has naivety, bravery, sincerity, uncertainty. She has desperation and self respect in equal but at times hugely conflicting measures. And most of all she has hope and strength and a messed up, dysfunctional life, with weird parents and odd friends and an evolving sense of what she wants from her career and her life.  She might be someone we recognise if not in ourselves, in someone else. Let’s give her a chance to cope with this development.  And not hate on Helen Fielding, without reading her book, for her ‘artisitic’ choices. Like the saying goes, if you have a better story to tell, go tell it. Or at least wait to whinge about this one until you’ve read it.

When reality proves to be inadequate

“What do you do with a BA in English?”, asked those brave composers of the musical Avenue Q. Having given up on the career that I initially felt most qualified for -  international comedy, I am left  with two things to do with my BA in English (and Philosophy *cough*). One is to teach (which I do), and the other is to sit around and think spectacular thoughts and then blog about them.

Politics is the thought on many minds in Australia right now, which is not to say that people are happy about the thoughts. Using Wordle, I’ve made a small word cloud to express my feelings about the current election campaign and my level of satisfaction with current political landscape in Australia right now.

Interpret as you will.

Interpret as you will.

Instead of being weighed down by this negativity, lest it crush my soul and destroy my spirit forever, I am channeling my political thoughts into a reflection on political television shows that have brought me joy over the years. Roughly speaking, they can be broken into three categories. Allow me to take you on a frivolous tour of my television addiciton.

Idealism/Political Fantasy/Escapism

This genre of political drama is embodied for me by The West Wing (1999-2007). When you take a progressive social vision, temper it with some conservative values that (miraculously) usually don’t get in the way of everybody else being allowed to have their opinions, reflect on contemporary events in order to ensure relevance and deal with important issues with an equal measure of seriousness and appropriate comedy then you have Aaron Sorkin’s triumph with The West Wing. And although it does appeal largely to those of a left(ish) political leaning, there is much in the way of dissenting opinion and many characters who are almost expositional in function pop up to give voice to minority and other opinions along the way. Very rarely do they appear to be merely expositional, however, so again – points to Sorkin. And of course, its about politics in kind of the same way that Harry Potter is about magic. It is central, but fundamentally it is the story of human action and human spirit that you’re really connecting with. Sorkin (like Rowling) just shows us what we can achieve in a particular field if we choose to.

One of the things that I respect most about The West Wing is it’s honesty regarding the failure and shortcomings of all people, including those we choose to admire above others, and among those we choose to lead us. From President Bartlet, right down to those in clerical roles mistakes are made. Some of them genuine mistakes, but at times deliberate deceptions. Reasons are explored and justifications given. The West Wing is a show that understands nuance. So no-one is an infallible hero, and no-one is a dastardly villain. Fundamentally it’s a show that encourages us all to battle with the nuance, acknowledge the darkness so that we can take it on, and strive to overcome it. It talks often about “raising the standard of public debate” and certainly models that course of action. I think if some of the values espoused by The West Wing made it into public life in Australia then I wouldn’t, perhaps, feel such despair at our current political landscape. Then again, a government is only as good as its citizens demand it to be, so perhaps we could all lift our game.

The West Wing family, led by President Jed Bartlet

See also – Borgen, a study of the corridors of power in Danish politics. I learned quite a lot from this show, and it explores another increasingly relevant concern for modern audiences – the identity of the women in politics.

Brutally Satirical but Ultimately Affectionate Examinations of Public Life

Although there are many excellent shows in this category, it is almost impossible to go beyond Yes Minister (1980-1984) and it’s later incarnation Yes Prime Minister (1986-1987). The story of ambitious but befuddled Jim Hacker, MP and his ascendency to the Cabinet as Minister for Administrative Affairs through the political minefield, a series of party own goals and right into the Office of the Prime Minister, this series is an absolute delight.

Everyone is ambitious, everyone wants glory, everyone wants a victory. Some, however, are more capable than others, and it usually comes down to the naive optimism and ideals of Hacker vs the cunning of his Department’s long serving Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Usually Appleby is able to outmaneuver Hacker using his expert knowledge of the “creaking old bureacratic machine” that is the civil service.

Perhaps the only person with a shred of integrity is Bernard, Hacker’s Private Secretary, but even he is not immune to entanglements with ‘the system’. His adorable insistence on being literal and policing the use of mixed metaphors makes him somewhat of a hero for me.

As a satire it is critical of the (possibly inevitable) ways and means of the political process, but I think at it’s heart is a sort of respect for the establishment of the civil service and its love/hate relationship with it’s elected masters. Or is it the other way around. Humphrey and the Minister win at different times, and in different ways, but the struggle is always admirable, always amusing.

Bernard Woolley, Jim Hacker MP, Sir Humphrey Appleby

Other shows in this category well worth a look include: Absolute Power, The Thick of It, The Hollowmen (according to my Dad), The Games.

Machiavellian ideals live again and make Shakespearean anti-heroes seem tame.

The most ruthless of politicians and political ambitions can be embodied through no-one but Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip and later Prime Minister. The anti-hero of Michael Dobbs’ House of of Cards novels is brought to life on screen by the incomparable Ian Richardson, and the trilogy is rounded out by To Play the King and the Final Cut (1990 – 1995). Set in an immediately post-Thatcher Conservative government, Urquhart is slighted for promotion to the Cabinet by the Prime Minister – a bland and compromise leader chosen by the party to upset noone, but who according to Urquart has neither “the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule Great Britain.” So the House of Cards trilogy is the story of Urquhart’s quest for revenge and his own ascendency to power.

This is the series that made me realise how brutal Macbeth is. There are strong overlaps between the protagonist of each text (Urquhart has similarities with Richard III also) but the ‘contemporary’ political setting provided a frame of reference for me that medieval Scotland (despite my best empathetic efforts) had failed to conjure up. If someone went to the lengths Urquhart did in contemporary Australian politics, then I would be sick to the core. Rudd and Gillard have nothing on this man – they look like petty squabbling children in comparison. Admittedly they looked like that anyway.

But television, literature, fiction – these are entirely different to reality, and here someone like Francis Urquhart is a compelling, beguiling and uncomfortably appealing character. You are drawn into his schemes and your investment in his success is simultaneously repulsive to you. But you can’t quite look away, because he’s somehow lured you in. After all, that’s how people like Urquhart work.

Francis Urquhart

Despite his evil ways, do I love him anyway? Well, in his own words:

Nostalgia will be awful in the future

One of the memories that I treasure from childhood is that of visiting my great-grandmothers both at home and later in their nursing homes and reliving the poetry and songs they loved ‘back in the day’. As I got a bit older and vaguely competent as a piano player we could add to that hours of recitals or singalongs whereby I would play the piano armed with sheet music from various musicals we enjoyed, or from the Readers Digest Family Songbook. I played atrociously I’m quite sure, but its something we did together and that made it special.

Much can be forgiven, musically speaking, when you stop to consider what it means to someone. My Facebook page and text message history pretty well documents my hatred for Andre Rieu and his massively tacky, tuneless, soulless brand of ‘music’, but the one (and possibly only) thing I will say in his defence is that oldies love him, because he takes them back to the music they loved listening to once, or maybe just offers them an alternative reality of the music they wished they’d listened to once, and it seems comforting to them.

Music does this for all of us, even if it is Andre Rieu. It’s there as we make memories, it’s there to comfort or distract it when we need it. It’s entertainment and comfort and nourishment and joy and despair and everything we ever need. No wonder that it provides such warmth to us all.

This might be all well and good, but I was listening to some “music” with some young people today and a vision of the nursing homes of the future filled me with horror. Toothless, incontinent, dementia suffering oldies singing along to Tyga and Snoop Lion and Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne, teaching the lyrics to the grandchildren who’ve come along for their regular visit. It made me laugh and cry. But mostly cry.

** youtube the above artists at your own risk. My parents and grand parents read this blog, and I can’t bring myself to befoul their ears with such filth.

This clip is of John McCormack singing Oft in the Stilly Night and is an all time favourite of mine, something I learned through nostalgic reminiscences with my grandparents. It seems worlds away from Wiz Khalifa, who was the sort of cleanest, least offensive of the artists I’ve recently learned about that I could think of to share with you.

What’s in a name?

Way, way back in the late 1980s, Woody Allen made a fairly popular, fairly successful comedy-drama film called Hannah and Her Sisters. It made around $40,000,000 at the box office, won a couple of Academy Awards and Roger Ebert liked it, so that’s something,

Hannah. Sisters. Obviously.

Roger Ebert – sadly not a fan of (this) Hannah, or her sisters

Also in the late 1980s, my parents embarked on a project called Hannah and Her Sisters (namely myself, and my two younger siblings, arguably a lower budget affair.) To date this project has not yielded any Academy Awards, has not made any millions of dollars and has garnered absolutely no praise from Roger Ebert. Comedy-Drama, with varying degrees of each over time is probably an apt description.

It would not be strictly accurate to say that I was named after this film. I believe the story runs that this is the film where my parents encountered my name and considered it an option. Thank-god, because to be named after something or someone sort of implies a level of desired association between the inspiration for the name, and the child that shall bear it. I’m glad that my parents didn’t mean for me to be a vaguely successful access with alcoholic parents, a crack-addict sister, a neurotic ex-husband, and a husband that is secretly lusting after my recovering alcoholic other sister.

Seriously, Mum and Dad ???

On the other hand, I like my name, and I like that my name was inspired by a witty, superbly acted film. I like that it was inspired a film that has the Rodgers and Hart classic Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered at the heart of its soundtrack. It also explains why I always like Michael Caine films. So, dear parents, I’m ok with this whole name thing. I’m sort of sad on a daily basis that I didn’t get named after Van Morrison’s Natalia, or Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna (see video below)….but, well, the latter is close enough, and the former? Well, it would never have worked out. I’m just no Natalia.

I wouldn’t have minded being named after this. This would be the MOST perfect song to be named after. Close enough I guess.

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