The Alien Detective

Boy and dragon carvingAs a teenager, I worked my way through several meters of Goldmann Taschenbuch editions of Agatha Christie novels (along with some Edgar Wallace thrillers) which turned me into a committed, if ill-informed, anglophile. However, by the time I came across the Poirot mysteries starring David Suchet, I’d lived in the UK for some time and found their nostalgia sickly and their far-fetched plots boring. But when the BBC showed The ABC Murders, adapted by Sarah Phelps and starring John Malkovich, at Christmas, I wanted to see what they’d done with the book.

Phelps’ adaptation makes interesting choices about settings and characters. Instead of stylish Art Deco interiors we see mostly poverty. Fascist posters calling for an end to the “Alien Tide” point back to the uglier aspects of British politics in the 1930s, but also recall the rhetoric around “Brexit”. Poirot is here not the funny, clever little foreigner whose precise origin doesn’t really seem to matter, but instead a traumatised refugee whose carefully built existence is under threat. Detectives are often marginal figures; their involvement with criminals render them suspect to law-abiding civilians. In Poirot’s case his mannerisms, for example the often used phrase “mes enfants”, serve to make him appear harmlessly eccentric, to allow the (British) public to feel superior to him and thus to gain their acceptance. This familiar version of Poirot is established in Christie’s novels through the use of Poirot’s friend Hastings as narrator. Hastings attitude towards Poirot veers from the good-humouredly patronising to utter amazement when the funny little foreigner yet again proves to be much more perspicacious than expected. For the reader, who is likely to have more faith in Poirot’s abilities, this adds the satisfaction of feeling cleverer than the narrator, as well as facilitating all manner of misdirection and surprises to the resolution of the mystery.

Phelps omits Hastings altogether, instead telling the story from Poirot’s own perspective. We witness him in intimate moments: being humiliated by the police and by complete strangers; accepting a rare, tactful offer of friendship; praying. Moreover, we are given access to his mind: flashbacks to Belgium in 1914, fragmented traumatic memories, suggestive of PTSD, of terror and violence. We initially see these from Poirot’s point of view, only much later does the camera pull back to include Poirot himself in the frame and thus provide us with a coherent backstory. This reveals that Poirot had been a priest, and that he tried but failed to save his congregation from slaughter by German soldiers. It becomes clear that, rather than being overwhelmed by this experience of utter helplessness, terror and failure, Poirot has found a way of using it to motivate him in his work. The phrase “mes enfants” now acquires a deeper meaning: Poirot has taken on responsibility for those in need, particularly of justice. In The ABC Murders, these are are a disabled and confused war veteran, an alcoholic, and several abused and exploited women (the kind of people increasingly found on our streets as social security is dismantled).

This Poirot speaks up for victims of injustice, abuse or exploitation. And that is a powerful intervention, even though he cannot single-handedly rescue those people. Indeed the person who seems most likely to succeed in escaping her miserable circumstances is inspired by the words of her sister, the second murder victim and an independent “New Woman”, as much as by Poirot’s. Phelps’ narrative strategy, as well as Malkovich’s straight, resolutely un-twinkly performance, foreground the human in the “alien”. By insisting on his humanity with all its frailty, they open up a space for compassion and, crucially, for agency. 

 

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Morbid January Musings

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People think they see me, but they don’t see me. I drift through the world but nothing touches me. Sometimes I hurl myself against the walls, smashing my head against the bricks in helpless rage, but I leave no trace. Sometimes I tug at their sleeves, dripping hopeless tears, but I am forgotten before I have quite passed out of view.

If they recognised me, if the darkness, the hatred, the poison inside me were discovered, the blood would drain from their faces and they would run for their lives. I am a crazy bitch, a loose cannon, a suicide bomber, I am out of control, your worst nightmare. I am vengeful, I am cruel, I know no pity, and my victim is me.

I am a ghost, and I am the haunted.

 

Launch of the Staunch Book Prize

Hurrah! No really, I am pleased that someone has come up with the idea of a prize for the best thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Although, reading back over that sentence, I can’t help being appalled that that even makes sense. I also wish the founders had added children to their list, because to me that seems to be another aspect of the same problem: the use of vulnerable but also sexually appealing figures (and unfortunately this does include children) to pull readers into a narrative that then swiftly moves away from those victims and focusses on someone completely different. I am aware that my reluctance to read thrillers means that I’m not in a terribly good position to offer a properly nuanced analysis of a very varied genre. Maybe I’m being unfair?

In an article about this new prize, the Grauniad reported that Val McDermid is opposed to it because “My take on writing about violence against women is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed.” I think she somewhat over-eggs her pudding by protesting against this “blanket ban” – a prize for one type of book is hardly a ban on all other books! But still, I can see that are more interesting, subversive and also more fun things you can do with a cliché than to simply avoid it. Indeed, the website for the Staunch Prize does exactly that: in three short clips it takes familiar thriller clichés and pokes fun at them. They are amusing, but one could argue that this approach falls somewhat short of illustrating the prize’s stated aim of promoting books that show “truly fresh ideas, great imagination and brilliant plotting skills”. Perhaps McDermid has a point, perhaps there is still plenty that can be done within the conventions of the genre?

So I was thinking once again that maybe I’m missing a trick, maybe there are crime novels out there that I could/should read, that would somehow help me use my anger instead of trying to manipulate me (or maybe do something completely different – who knows?). Obviously, I looked to Val McDermid for this. I went to Goodreads to help me find a good starting place. McDermid’s books mainly form series, the Tony Hill and Carol Jones series, the Inspector Karen Pirie series and the PI Kate Brannigan Series. The first book that came up, however, was a stand-alone novel, A Place of Execution. It is described as “a taut psychological thriller that explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multi-layered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know.” The crime(s) seem to concern teenage girls, but with an emphasis on their community. Of McDermid’s books it sounds the least like the kind of novel (and films and TV programmes they often inspire) the Staunch Prize reacts against, where violence, especially sexual violence, against women is what lures the readers in.

Which brings me to my main objection to thrillers: they don’t care about the victim, they’re all about the detective. That detective may be female, as in McDermid’s series, and their story may involve all kinds of troubling, redeeming or otherwise interesting predicaments, but none of this alters the fundamental problem that the victim’s humanity is denied all over again by having her story sidelined in favour of that of the detective or, even worse, that of the perpetrator. Thrillers are often praised for being troubling and uncomfortable, but their very premise is that we are invited to identify with someone who can, and does, act, who is not the victim. And of course it is much better to act than to be a victim, if we have that choice. But I worry that, if we always choose to identify with those who fix problems, who put things right, who get on with life, and at best fleetingly pity the victim before forgetting all about her, we avoid facing up to the fact that we all need others, need help sometimes, that we are all vulnerable. Instead of accepting our shared humanity with all its fragility, we pretend that we can choose to be in charge; we harden our hearts against victims, who need our empathy most but who fatally remind us of our own vulnerability,

I realise that there are shades of grey, that not all crime novels are so cynical in exploiting suffering, and I’ll keep looking out for an exception. I’ll give A Place of Execution a go, and perhaps compare it to the recent Jon McGregor novel Reservoir 13 which, I believe, shares some plot features (and which I have also been too squeamish to read so far). Perhaps I’ll report back here. In the meantime, I wish the Staunch Prize a successful first round, and I really hope to hear much more about it!

 

Summer Break

I look forward to the gentle nightfalls of summer, to warm sunshine on my skin, to the bright colours summer brings to the world. I even like the smells of summer in the city, of tarmac, dust and that hint of decay. In Britain the next cold front is never far away, so even the most exhausting heatwave is precious. These days, though, what I like most about summer is knowing that it will end.

As soon as school finished, we went abroad on holiday. I want my son to approach life as an adventure, enjoying it and owning it, and he seems to do this, which is wonderful. But it makes me wish I too could look forward to travel and new experiences as something exciting and energising, when instead I feel overwhelmed by the excess of impressions, stressed and drained by the effort of coping with it all. The knowledge that I have been wasting so many opportunities in this one, only, life I have, out of fear and failure of imagination, adds yet another turn to the spiral of shame. Then there is the peculiar torture of walking along a beach in a swimming costume, when I would not usually leave the house without several layers of clothes to hide in. But this was a family campsite, and as well as the breathtaking, unselfconscious beauty of the children and the prettyness of artfully displayed young bodies, there were also plenty of people whose beauty was of a different, lived-in kind, and watching them gave me comfort and encouragement: if not actually proud, then they seemed at least comfortable in their bodies.

At home, too, summer brings disruptions to my life that make the season a mixed blessing. There is no school, and so one of my most reliable sources of safely casual social interactions disappears. My Tai Chi class breaks up for nearly two months and although I try to keep the exercises going as much as I can, I miss the people, the space, and quite simply the routine. My lovely colleagues, whose steady presence and sense of humour keeps me grounded even at those times when I am secretly being sucked into the vortex of my personal hell, drift off on holidays. The university where I work feels deserted and inhospitable as the cafés close down and builders move in. It can become difficult to still feel that there is a place for me somewhere.

The hardest disruption to cope with is my therapist’s holiday, and even though this year our holidays overlapped by a week, the prolonged therapy break was painful. For the first time I did not actually feel abandoned, but the fear of loss is always around the corner, waiting to ambush me. Mostly I just felt very sad about the separation from this person on whose attention, acceptance and care I depend so much. I had time to think about how much he helps me by seeming not to help me, and about how the moments that had been most painful and hardest to bear at the time later turned out to be the most revelatory. Episodes of sheer existential terror were opportunities for finding, or maybe creating, meaning where there had been just confusion and shame. This is only made possible by the presence of a patient, unafraid and committed witness. But there is no easy comfort in this, the damage is real and won’t be undone. I can see that, if I struggle with fear and anger as a result of what others did to me, it is not for me to carry the shame for those feelings. And yet, helpless as I am to stop feeling afraid, angry and ashamed, I am not simply a passive victim now: I act to deal with those feelings in whatever way I can, sometimes fighting, and sometimes avoiding them (which is no less of an effort).

There are good reasons for my inability to trust others; but if my mistrust, my holding back, causes hurt to someone who cares about me, am I not responsible?

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Summer Haiku

Child gliding through sea

Carried by waves like a gift

Towards the setting sun.

 

 

Blood roars, thoughts shriek, mind

Straining to fly off, to burst

Like silent fireworks.

 

 

Blushing sky, waking

To knowledge of things done and,

Perhaps worse, undone.

 

Snape Haiku

I’ve just spent a couple of days in Suffolk. I listened to a Hungarian male choir that performed together with sitar player, creating strange and wonderful harmonies and  shifting rhythms in the highly structured beauty of a medieval church. I walked along the Alde estuary and looked out over the vast reed beds around Snape. I watched, mesmerized, as the reeds formed waves, apparently surrendering to the force of the wind, and remembered the story of the supple reed that survives the storm, while the proud tree breaks.

I can’t say that I like that story – it reminds me too much of growing up and endlessly being told to stop complaining about things that were clearly unfair and unjust, to stop antagonizing anyone who had authority over me (or merely power, which they abused), to know my place, which was of course at the bottom – a doormat. But looking at the reeds, I realised that the beauty lies not in their bending before the wind, but in their refusal to stay down, and in the pattern made up of the slight variations in their rhythms.

Reeds bend in the wind

resist and straighten, each one

when it can, and must.

Love and Truth

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The Quaker meeting I usually attend has recently started asking one person every month to choose a passage from Advices and Queries, a little red booklet containing 42 pieces of advice or questions to think about, and to talk about it during meeting. British Quaker meetings are generally silent except when someone present feels led to speak. Anyone may “minister” in this way, we are just asked to think carefully about whether what we may be moved to say really feels like it is meant to be shared in this way (as opposed to being discussed with just a couple of people over coffee after the meeting, say). I’ve been asked to choose a reading for June.

I have never ministered at a meeting before, and I am not even a member – I’m not much of a joiner, and I still have reservations about organised religion. However, Quakers are very open-minded and accepting, and many are uncomfortable with the word “God” and its patriarchal, authoritarian, judgmental associations and prefer to talk about the light or the spirit instead. Some Quakers are interested in Buddhism, and there are also non-theist Quakers. Theologically, Quakers believe that we are all ‘saved’ or ‘redeemed’ already. There is no need to ‘do good deeds’ or to repent for our sins. We need to accept and believe that we are unique and precious, and this will lead us to behave accordingly, that is to say acting in a loving and respectful way to each other and to ourselves – “to see that of God in everyone”. Hence there is no hierarchy, we are all “ministers”; and no doktrine, we are all capable of understanding the “leadings” of our conscience.

I knew immediately which passage I want to speak about:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

I am very nervous of public speaking and I needed to prepare a script, even though I hope that I’ll be able to speak without reading it all out. And as often happens, in the course of writing I found more in the text than I had seen at first. Initially I had focussed on the first sentence and thought that its central point was about the apparent conflict between truth and love. This chimed with what has been preoccupying me for a long time. I have been struggling to make sense of the behaviour of those close to me whose help and support I would have needed at a very traumatic time, but who don’t appear to have been capable of being there for me. Instead, I found myself having to protect my family from my pain, afraid that I would be rejected if I was open about my feelings. As I realised how badly I had been let down, I also became increasingly aware of how angry this had left me. I have spent a long time feeling torn apart by the need to be truthful in my relationships, while at the same time being afraid of losing my family altogether if I upset them. Eventually I began to realise that there was something fundamentally wrong with being put in such a dilemma in the first place by the people I depended on. Instead of caring for me, as they should have done, they used me. This doesn’t make it much easier to walk away.  Family is a relationship that most people take for granted and rely on implicitly, and I still wonder if I shouldn’t have tried harder to make that work somehow. I still feel guilt for not fulfilling expectations and shame for having failed at something as basic as being a daughter. So taking heed to the promptings of love and truth made me think about what “love” means; whether it really can be incompatibel with truth, or whether, on the contrary, for love to be genuine it must be able to withstand the challenge of a difficult truth.

But then something happened that now makes me think about “the light that shows us our darkness and brings us to new life” as something more interesting than the pious exhortation I’d initially taken it for. I am still trying to make sense of what happened, but essentially my therapist did not do something that I had wanted and expected, and this sent me into a tailspin of loss of trust and hope. However hard I struggled, I was unable to hold on to any rational response to his actions and found myself helpless in the face of what seemed like total annihilation. After a while, some very intense dreams, and after trying hard to open myself up to what had happened, I now think that in those hours I had access to the reality of the child I once was, who needed someone to help her in a moment of absolute terror, and who was left all alone. I think I was shown the darkness of that child’s fear, of her boundless and ferocious need to be loved and protected, to be rescued. Those feelings are irrational, they have no place in my normal life, but they are still there, and they hurt. They also interfere with my relationships. They hold me back in all kinds of ways. I need the “promptings of love and truth” to enable me to face that darkness, so that I can move forward with my life.

I  am going to try to say at least some of this to my Quaker Friends, and I hope they’ll understand.

Easter

Lent Haiku

Through the window, sun

glints on hard steel, seductive;

my soft flesh resists.

 

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Watching an Old Movie

We were having a lazy day, and so I suggested to my son that we watch one of my favourite films again: The Thief of Bagdad, directed by Michael Powell and released in 1940. I was a little surprised that my son agreed – on the face of it the film is a love story, which he finds yucky, and the special effects are crude compared to CGI (although they were state-of-the-art then). He did wander off to do other things in between, but he still got drawn in by the exoticism of the setting, by the characters and he actually enjoyed trying to work out how the special effects had been created.

I, too, found myself getting involved in the strange world of this film. I am left cold by the love story, which seems to me pretty unconvincing – although one could argue, I suppose, that it is not surprising for a young woman who is kept in isolation from the outside world and is traded in for an (admittedly flying!) toy horse by her own father to jump at the first opportunity to escape. The ways in which this nameless (!) young woman is desired, controlled and possessed, frequently through either being looked at or hidden from view, are interesting, and also sad. I found myself surprisingly engaged by the figure of Jaffar, the evil Vizier. He is played by Conrad Veidt, who was German but left Germany because he hated the Nazis, and in order to protect his Jewish wife. In Britain and in Hollywood he often played evil Germans, the Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca is one of his most famous roles. I wonder how he felt about this: did it feel terribly unfair to be typecast in this way, or was it satisfying to be able to pour his anger towards the Nazis into his portrayals of hateful characters? I imagine it was a complicated mixture of feelings. In any case, in The Thief of Bagdad Jaffar’s monstrosity is qualified by a moment of heartbreaking insight. He is in love with the beautiful princess, and his magical powers would make it easy for him to force her to obey him. But as he tries to bring her under his spell, he understands that this would not give him what he really wants: her love. In the end the hatred that results from his frustration causes his downfall – literally, as he is shot down trying to escape on the flying horse – but that earlier moment, where he realises that controlling another person will only separate him further from what he desires, is tragic, and the close-up of Veidt’s eyes gives it great intensity.

But what made me want to see the film this Easter was my memory of Abu, the eponymous thief’s, encounter with the old king of the “land of legend”.  The story of Easter, of betrayal, incomprehension, terror, sacrifice, and hope for redemption is so powerfully human, and yet the figure of God as that beardy guy on a cloud who has preordained all this suffering, and the idea that this somehow makes suffering meaningful, seems utterly ridiculous, obscene even. When Abu, having been separated from his friend Ahmad, is suddenly whisked to the ‘land of legend’, up in the clouds, and is greeted by the “father of the beard” as his successor, the scene is obviously borrowing heavily from Christian imagery. But Abu is unimpressed – he appreciates the old king’s kindness, but not the plans he has for his future: Abu has plans of his own. Using the gifts the old King has given him, and stealing his flying carpet (he is a thief, after all, and he needs it more!), Abu defeats the evil Jaffar and unites Ahmad with his princess. His friendship, loyalty and care for Ahmad is a moving contrast to the rather arid “love” between Ahmad and the princess, and it provides a powerful indictment of Jaffar’s coerciveness and the Sultan’s neglect towards her. And then, with everyone cheering him on, Abu flies off to finally have his own adventure. And this is what I love about this film: it celebrates this little thief of Bagdad, with his generosity and resourcefulness, but above all with his cheerful defiance of  other people’s expectations, and his hunger for life, his own life.

 

Ghost Story

heart-shaped leaf on the ground

Actually I don’t believe in ghosts, monsters, anything supernatural. But somehow I have acquired one, a little girl-ghost. At first she appeared in my dreams, in a garden, standing between me and my therapist, wanting to hold hands. Or in a nightmare, in terrible danger, but somehow I just could not get her to understand this, to be as quiet as she could be and to come with me to safety. I couldn’t say what she was like in those dreams; innocent, I suppose, naive, just childlike. I couldn’t even say what she looked like, and I still can’t. She is out of focus, only ever glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. That is also how she came into my waking life, not exactly a ‘presence’, but a manifestation of some kind.

She lost the sweetness and innocence then, and became silent, reproachful, and desperate. I couldn’t work out what she wanted from me, although there was no doubt in my mind that she wanted something. And even though I could never quite see her clearly, there was definitely something ragged about her, something neglected. She’d sneak up on me, while I was at work, or with my family; my husband and my son, that is, I don’t really have much to do with the others anymore. The last time I saw my parents and my brother was last year, when my mother nearly died. They told me she had hours left, a couple of days perhaps. I wasn’t sure I’d get there in time. I wasn’t sure they wanted me there – the messages hadn’t exactly asked me to come, they’d sounded more like accusations: of being uncaring, of not knowing my duty. She looked small, and soft, somehow, like a child, with tousled white hair. And I found myself almost wanting to give her what she had always seemed to demand: that I look after her, take care of her, protect her. That feeling of wanting to be kind, so unfamiliar in that context, entered into battle with my grim determination, in the absence of much kindness on anyone’s part, to at least do The Right Thing, even though I had no idea what that was, was trying to work it out one tiny decision at a time.

I knitted a lot, in the hospital while we were waiting for a doctor to tell us what was happening, or while we were sitting at her bedside, watching her sleep. One of the doctors was fascinated. I think she grasped that the knitting was about keeping me sane, that I was knitting for dear life. But at the same time I kept thinking of Mme Defarge, vengeful, biding her time, knitting and watching the people she considered to be enemies go to their death. My mother didn’t die, although she didn’t completely recover either. It only took a few days after I got there before the first signs of her familiar combativeness returned, and it was dizzying, that mixture of relief that she was not dying after all, not yet, and dread that now everything would be as it had been before. I got the first flight back home I could find.

And she’d be there again, just behind my right elbow where I couldn’t quite see her, or sometimes cowering in a corner, looking up at me, silent and somehow demanding. I felt awful: whoever or whatever she was, her distress was obvious, and I hated my helplessness, hated myself for not being trustworthy enough for her. There was a lot of destructiveness hovering around, not thoughts exactly, but there in my mind; the sensation of blood oozing, warm and slightly sticky; pain that was impossible to locate or define, but very real; and other kinds of pain that wormed their way into my imagination, seeming to promise to erase that other pain. I was horrified at the thought that on some level I might want to harm her, but the destructive impulses just kept coming. Horrible urges to humiliate and degrade, to hurt, and hurt again, and hurt some more; and then to annihilate, for it all to be finally over. Her mistrust of me seemed only too justified.

There were messages from what has not been home for a very long time: more demands for my care and attention, barely articulated accusations that I am a Bad Daughter. I read them but didn’t reply. I sent a card for their anniversary.

And then I got it: It wasn’t me trying to hurt her; I was picking up her feelings about what others had done to her, and failed to do for her, then, in her time. She had been abandoned all alone in hell, frightened, hurt and helplessly raging at the terrible injustice. Despairing that no-one was helping her, that no-one seemed to care, and ashamed of what she could not understand. She didn’t even have words for her experience. All she could do was to share her terror with me, and to hope that I’d be able to figure it out.

I am trying to make peace with my ghost. I try to be there when she reaches out for me, and to honour her need for truthfulness and justice. We have not left Hell behind, and yet the voices are still lying us that it isn’t hell at all, and that by refusing to quietly stay there she is being selfish and unreasonable.

I need to listen carefully to her unspoken pain. I need to really be on her side. I need to find ways to use the energy of her anger. Or I will be nothing more than a ghost.