As a teenager, I worked my way through several meters of Goldmann Taschenbuch editions of Agatha Christie novels (along with a number of Edgar Wallace thrillers, which, together, 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 plots boring. But when the BBC showed The ABC Murders, adapted by Sarah Phelps and starring John Malkovich, at Christmas, I was curious.

Phelps’ adaptation makes some very 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” line the streets. Poirot is here not the vain, funny little man who plays up his foreignness to hide a formidable intellect, but a traumatised refugee, mocked and abandoned.

Detectives are often marginal figures, their ability to understand the minds of criminals, their involvement with them, rendering them suspicious. In Poirot’s case his foreign mannerisms, such as the phrase “mes enfants”, are a tool to appear harmless, to endear himself to the British public and to defuse their suspicion of him as both a detective and a foreigner. This is the familiar version of Poirot, 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 an enjoyable twist to the resolution of the mystery. Phelps’s adaptation omits Hastings altogether and tells the story from Poirot’s perspective. We witness Poirot in intimate moments: being humiliated, accepting an offer of friendship, praying. We are given access to his mind: flashbacks to Belgium in 1914, fragmented traumatic memories of terror and violence which we initially see 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 his backstory. This reveals that Poirot was a priest, and that he was unable to save his congregation from slaughter by German soldiers. Rather than being overwhelmed by this experience of utter helplessness, terror and failure, Poirot uses it as motivation. The phrase “mes enfants” now acquires a deeper meaning: it expresses Poirot’s powerful sense of responsibility for the weak and helpless. In The ABC Murders, these are are the disabled and confused war veteran set up as the main suspect, a young woman forced into prostitution by her own mother, another woman trapped in a life of drudgery, an alcoholic. And these are exactly the kinds of people we can (if we choose to) increasingly see on our streets. Poirot cannot rescue them, but he acknowledges their humanity and affirms their right to respect and dignity. Poirot’s single act of violence, tearing down the fascist poster that has been haunting him (and us) through the series, is a similarly ambiguous gesture, at once powerless and powerful.

As so often, the murder mystery as such was for me the least interesting aspect of this story. What gripped me was the subversion of the clichéd figure of the foreigner as a figure trapped between suspicion and condescension. Phelps’ narrative strategy and Malkovich’s straight, resolutely un-twinkly performance restore Poirot’s dignity and make him the agent of challenging the contempt for, and exploitation of, “aliens”, the poor, disabled and marginalised.

Things I wish people knew about me (but that I am too frightened to tell them)

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I am not sure I should be. I feel like I have to earn the right just to be here by being useful, by being good. If I have to refuse someone else’s demands or fight for something I want for myself, I’m afraid of smiles disappearing off faces and doors being slammed shut.

I still carry with me the feeling of being hated and despised. It’s a visceral memory of someone deliberately hurting me, ignoring my pleas to stop, getting satisfaction from my pain and my fear.

I know now that that incident did not mean that I deserved that hatred and contempt, but I didn’t know it then. I will never know who that man was and why he hurt me, and that makes it harder for me to believe that it was nothing to do with me.

I still wish that there could be a trial, even though I often feel like I am the accused. I want someone to look at the evidence and then to pass judgement, publicly and officially, that I did nothing wrong, that it was not wrong to be frightened and confused, and to want to be reassured and protected. And neither was it wrong to be angry that nobody seemed to care about how I felt. But I might still not be able to believe that judge.

The world feels like an indifferent, and sometimes downright hostile place to me. I want my son to live his life like an adventure, with curiosity, courage and kindness, but I can’t manage to do that myself and I feel terrible for not being able to be a good example to him.

Especially at work, where decisions are made far away and with little regard for individuals, for me, fear sometimes overwhelms me and I feel like I’m trapped again, like the powerless child I was, having to do things I don’t want to do, don’t really understand and can’t quite manage, but if I don’t do it, something unthinkably bad will happen.

Not being able to cope on my own with the fear does not mean that I am a failure. I’ve come a long way. But sometimes the fear is so bad that I want to hurt myself, and sometimes I do. I am afraid:

  1. that somehow I did deserve to be hurt, that I really am worthless, too difficult, a problem;
  2. that no-one cares;
  3. that no-one understands;
  4. that I am alone;
  5. that he will win.

 

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. 

 

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.