The Red Dirt Road as a dark Wizard of Oz: Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

The first novel from Kent-based American author, Peggy Riley, Amity and Sorrow is a mesmerising exploration of the tension between the familiar and the unknown, of extremes of faith and the lengths to which people can be caught up in the fantasies of others.

The central figure, Amaranth, escapes with her two daughters from a cult, a fiercely isolated community led by her husband and his forty-nine other wives, and literally crashes into a world where they are confronted by an unfamiliar modernity. One daughter, Amity, embraces the flight, tentatively grasping the new-found opportunities offered by Bradley, the farmer who offers them refuge; the other, Sorrow, wants to return to her father, for reasons that slowly become clear as the book unfolds.

There are many good things about the novel, which is couched in a beautifully-wrought prose that seems to chime and dance with the same care for language manifest in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood or the novels of Joanne Harris. The beguiling triple-metre of the opening – ‘Amity watches what looks like the sun’ – typically sets the tone for the way it unfolds, part poem, part prose, part vision. Indeed, the prose so often treads the boundary of poetry that it’s easy to forget that it’s still a novel; ‘…to check that her daughters are safe in their blankets, all flung limbs and linen.’ Or the almost-musical cadences of ‘the white horse and red horse, the black horse and pale horse, the martyrs and saints and the stars crashing down.’

Sometimes, with its evocation of the arid dustscape of Oklahoma, the prose speaks in the voice of Joni Mitchell blowing in across the desert, a literary Hejira. ‘The land was hard and the people harder, but the sounds of the night were of sand switchbacking beneath snake-bellies, the cries of coyotes, the lonesome who-who-who of a horned owl from a Joshua tree.’ The atmosphere is painted in short, deft strokes that say much with little and hint at further darkness, with assonance, alliteration and rhythm all busily working together beneath the surface of the prose, yet in a way that never becomes intrusive.

At other times, it is not what’s said, but what is left missing that gives so much of the prose its gentle yet unbearable weight. ‘He hums his way into the kitchen with a tune she can almost remember, from long ago, something about love and dancing.’

Riley never lets the reader forget about the essential human fable unfolding against the scenery, though. The way the focus pulls from a panoramic sweep across dusty crop-fields to reflections framed in a window makes the reader aware, all the time, of context, of the human saga unfolding against the wider landscape. ‘Let us remember that every child can change the world,’ a glimpse of a Universal Truth beneath the horror.

At one point, the book becomes delightfully Hitchcockian. ‘Amaranth carries a bowl of plain cooked rice up the stairs. She does not know what she will find behind the locked door. She can almost picture Bradley’s wife there, imprisoned for threatening to leave, now deranged and knocking, wasting away.’

For all the bleakness, there are occasional moments of real humour, which provide wonderful moments of contrast.

“Ain’t you hot with that thing on your head? It’s makin’ me hot.”
She leans on the threshold. “It’s for Saint Paul.”
“Patron saint of hats? ”

Elsewhere, passages dip and lilt with the half-memory of nursery-rhyme: ‘She isn’t in the bathroom, isn’t splashing at the sink. She runs past the pump to the red dirt road but there is no Sorrow, no dust cloud of her running.’  And some passages hiss with sibilance, pop with consonants: ‘Her clogs totter over furrows between bristle-topped grasses, yellowing, crisp and whispery on her skirts as she brushes past.’

The further the reader is drawn into the book, the more it becomes less a novel than an extended incantation. Often, a real sense of menace hovers above the rhythmic step of the prose:

‘Amaranth holds a paring knife, bone-handled and sharp from a kitchen drawer.’…

a sensation which Riley draws out over much of the book; in fact, it  takes just over three hundred pages for the latent menace which hangs over the novel to manifest itself – and when it does, the effect is utterly terrifying.

At the novel’s conclusion, the reader is left somehow with the sense that this has been a darker Wizard of Oz; sepia-tinged grasslands, the Red Dirt Road instead of the Yellow Brick one leading to a more menacing place than the Emerald City, although ultmately there is hope. It is a riveting tale, woven in a way that dances and spins across the page, part-prose, part-poetry, hovering like a nursery-rhyme, panoramic in scope and delivered almost cinematically but with the fragility of fraught human relationships at its heart. Riley fords the Red Dirt Road; readers who follow are in for a memorable experience.

Amity and Sorrow was published by Tinder Press in 2013.

Breaking bread with monsters: a dark Immorality Play from Lisa Cutts

The world is, alas, not straightforward – choices are hard, mistakes are made, doubts are cast and events in the past shape and often warp the future; all elements captured in Mercy Killing, by crime writer and real-life detective, Lisa Cutts. Centred around the murder of a known paedophile, Cutts deliberately muddies the waters throughout the novel, crafting a story that makes the reader’s reactions to characters less than straightforward, playing on our unease.

What Cutts is exploring in the novel, a gritty, urban police procedural informed by her own experiences as an investigating detective, is the idea that bad things can come from good intentions, a concept which affects all the characters involved in the drama, and which sees each of them grappling with their own conflicts and making uncomfortable liaisons. At the head of the case, DI Powell is fully aware that, to solve the case, he must ‘break bread with a monster,’ and knows precisely the moment when he crosses the line.  His personal dance with the devil involves a meeting with the less than wholesome Martha, who leads the Volunteer Army,  a group of local people which at first seems to have a positive mandate –  those involved are ‘trying to make it as safe for people as they can about living with sex offenders around them and we want to work with the police. We’re trying to do our bit to help.’ Yet urban vigilantes taking the law into their own hands is never a good idea, and later in the book the reason for the creation of the group is revealed, arising as it does from yet another evil beginning.

DC Sophia Ireland’s own stance on pursuing criminals neatly outlines the whole moral dilemma of the book: ‘we can’t live in a society that thinks it’s ok to kill them off without so much as a trial.’ She has a firm grasp of the the crux of the book right there – the battle between justice and righteousness. But she in turn has an internal conflict: she is not convinced that DC Gabrielle Royston is suited to investigating the case, but does not want to betray a colleague – and Royston’s own situation is not clear-cut, either…

Writing from experience: Lisa Cutts

For all the grim issues the novel confronts, they are balanced by touches of humour throughout the story. One of the threads running through the plot is Powell’s slowly unravelling marriage – a situation arising, it becomes clear, again out of the best of intentions; in one scene, he returns late from work yet again, and undresses next to his wife in the hope that there might be an amorous encounter. ‘ ‘Don’t roll your bloody socks into a ball.’ Her words were accompanied by the sound of her turning over, and the click of the light switch…Sex was certainly off.’

From the outset, Cutts creates a series of characters, none of whom has a clear-cut status that is morally right or wrong. The reader is left unsure where to place their sympathies, and is thereby drawn into the depths of a web of moral ambiguity. Each suspect – and some of the police, too – has a stain on their character, which only becomes clear as the novel unfolds, but each has some element of their background, some aspect to their story, that means a straight and outright condemnation by the reader is not possible. It’s an effective device that pulls the reader onwards, leading them through what might be called an ‘immorality play,’ a darkly intricate tale where, as one of the characters observes early in the novel, even though the case may be solved and justice brought, there can be no winners.

Mercy Killing is the first in Cutts’ East Rise Incident Room series,  published by Simon and Schuster in 2016

Crabbed Age and Youth: a slow maturing of style in Murder on the Pilgrims Way

The fourth book in the developing Whitstable Pearl series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer, Murder on the Pilgrims Way, is a meditation on age, as perhaps is fitting for an evolving canon that, in this its fourth instalment, reaches a new level of maturity and literary accomplishment.

Taking her heroine out of both her seaside town of Whitstable and her usual haunt of Canterbury, Wassmer instead opts to place her in an idyllic rural retreat near Chartham, setting the scene for that classic of the crime genre, the Country House Murder. It is a bold move, placing the book directly in the lineage of a British literay tradition reaching from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and J Jefferson Farjeon to later luminaries such as PD James and Reginald Hill. This affords plenty of opportunities for vivid description of rural scenes and lakeside trysts which perfectly capture the lazy haze of an English countryside lulled by summer’s warmth, as well as giving Wassmer the opportunity to explore a more focused arena.

The preoccupation with age and the impact of growing older is an element which operates beneath the novel’s surface, but underpins the narrative, in particular the gradual evolution of the character of its heroine, private detective-cum-restaurant owner, Pearl Nolan. This time, we see her struggling to come to terms with her own growing redundancy both to her restaurant, which is increasingly able to manage without her, and to her son, Charlie, who is living an independent life studying at university, but who returns occasionally to work at the restaurant, thereby bringing together and magnifying those two elements which are the focus of Pearl’s life, but which are able to function without her involvement. Pearl is acutely aware of this herself, at one point reflecting that ‘having turned forty she felt as if she was entering a new era, the second act of a play in which she was the main character, but unsure of her role.’ Elsewhere, other characters reflect that ‘that’s the nature of growing older, isn’t it ? Somehow our roles are always reversed.’ The central playboy character, Nico Caruso, is a celebrity chef who trades on his youthful good looks, contrasting with Marshall, the godfather to the lady who owns the country house at which the story unfolds, who is elderly and walks with a cane. The mill at Chartham, visible from the gardens of the estate, is ‘old enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book;’ later in the novel, Old Harry, ‘the oldest bell in the Cathedral,’ is heard to ring. Excavations at a local field connected with medieval shipping unearth ‘an ancient boat…but apparently it disintegrated on contact with the air.’ The fragility of age, and of history, lies like the buried boat not far below the prose’s summer-hued surface as the world ‘old’ tolls like the cathedral bell throughout the novel.

Pearls of wisdom: author Julie Wassmer

The character who could provide meaningful focus for an increasingly isolated Pearl, but with whom she cannot quite make things happen, is DCI McGuire, with whom she has been fencing romantically since the first novel. McGuire is still wrestling with his status as an outsider, as a Down From Londoner, since his relocation to Canterbury, although for him this is ‘something behind which he could hide.’ The constant conflict between the local and the outsider is a recurrent theme throughout the books, and a useful means of generating tension both on the larger, social, scale, as well as between Pearl and McGuire themselves. McGuire, too, cannot escape the issue of aging, as he nostalgically reflects on ‘the lyrics to an old pop song’ and his floundering relationship with Pearl.

The classic plot device of assembling all the suspects together in one place for the final denouement, arising in a pleasingly organic manner from the nature of the novel’s central theme of a week-long cookery course, builds the tension nicely  towards the end and allows Pearl a dramatic moment to examine the motives, means and opportunity of all the suspects before solving the case, in a fashion reminiscent of Poirot wrapping things up on the Nile or the Orient Express.

Overall, this is a deeply satisfying novel that boldly positions itself in a classic crime fiction sub-genre, and which works all the better for it, giving it a unified concept and identity away from the hymnody in praise of Whitstable and its environs, a strong feature of the preceding books. Wassmer can’t quite resist celebrating her home-town, though (and why not); ‘one of the town’s greatest successes was its ability to adapt without sacrificing its inherently quirky nature,’ an observation which can also apply to Wassmer’s series of novels itself and which highlights what is proving to be one of its greatest strengths.

Murder on the Pilgrims Way is published by Constable / Little Brown Books.

The art of crime-writing: Murder Most Female at the Beaney

There was a series of horrendous murders in the Beaney last night. Not, thankfully, in real life, but in the minds and the words of crime writers Lisa Cutts and Julie Wassmer, in a wide-ranging and fascinating panel discussion entitled Murder Most Female. Women in crime fiction – both as characters and as authors – is a topic currently en vogue in the lead up to the Staunch Book Prize, launched back in January and for which the inaugural prize in November “will be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Created in response to what Cutts recognised last night as the progressive darkening in tone of the genre, the prize has caused some controversy in its desire to combat what it sees as ‘an overload of violence towards women in modern fiction.’

Pearls of wisdom: Julie Wassmer

Cutts and Wassmer write in contrasting styles; the former in the Police Procedurals genre, the latter in what has been called ‘Cosy Crime,’ a sub-genre which avoids graphic violent or sexual content; interestingly, last night both writers declared that they had not set out specifically to write in these styles, it was only after publication that they each found they had been labelled as such, in order to position their novels in the huge sea of fiction for the ease both of marketing departments and readers alike. Cutts, who also works as a full-time police detective, observed that “it is men who are more likely to meet a violent end,” and that the progressively darker tone of recent crime fiction will  appeal to some but not all readers. Wassmer replied by that perhaps this reflects readers exploring more gruesome aspects of society from the security of their own home: “they feel safe reading about horrendous crimes sat in bed with a cup of hot cocoa!”

Prize Cutts: Lisa Cutts

As for the labels under which each writer works, Wassmer revealed that she had to look up precisely what ‘Cosy Crime’ meant after seeing it applied to her books on Amazon, but in fact it challenges her to push her writing beyond the bounds such a label imposes. In contrast, Cutts is comfortable working within hers – for now, at least – as it is useful for marketing and helping readers, but not necessarily a priority for writers themselves.

Both women stressed the importance of research to their writing. Cutts attended an autopsy in order to inform part of one of her novels; she came away, she says, awed by the amount of work and commitment which goes in to them. “They’re not as clean and quick as they are on TV; they take hours!” she declared, whilst ruefully admitting to having worn the ‘wrong sort of shoes’ as she hadn’t anticipated standing for so long. For her Whitstable-based series featuring private detective-cum–restaurant-owner, Pearl Nolan, Wassmer spent last summer exploring locations including Reculver, Sheppey and Oare in order to widen the scope of her character’s travels. “Details are important,” Wassmer stated: “you don’t want a sackful of mail criticising a point in your book!” Although she balanced this by admitting that, for her, it is important to remember that, after all, it is the writer’s own world, one that they have created, and that on one level they can do what they like. Wassmer has had reviews where readers take issue with the geography of Whitstable as it appears in her books, with particular roads not leading to exactly the right road. Cutts says she often ends up shouting at television programmes; “No, no, no; you didn’t caution him!” before adding reflectively “it’s why I don’t really watch much crime drama on TV…”

Both writers also emphasised the hard graft required in writing, the need for self-discipline in order to see a work through to its conclusion. Cutts sits at the laptop each day, even when not enthused about the prospect. “Sometimes it feels like housework, and nobody wants to do housework!” Wassmer in turn referred to her experience writing for television’s Eastenders for twenty years, which has stood her in good stead in its relentless expectation that she would deliver to a regular deadline.

The work of both writers is unified by the idea of familiarity; “We both write what we know” Wassmer observed incisively, with her work projecting a strong love for the community of Whitstable, where she has lived for twenty years, and Cutts’ series starring Nina Foster informed by her work as a real-life detective, drawing on her experiences investigating murder and the protocols that are a part of the investigative process. Cutts made it clear, though, that her books do not simply draw on genuine cases, transplanting them into her work with the odd change of name and geographical details – “Not only would it be incredibly disrespectful,” she acknowledged, “it would also drag families through something horrendous that happened in their lives. And that’s what people perhaps don’t realise – the far-reaching effects on people and families that murder has.”

As the event drew to a close, what was clear was the passion, enthusiasm and the dedication both writers have for writing crime fiction, underpinned by the sheer hard graft of getting the words down on the page. There was a clear friendship between them – both live and work in the local area – which was extended to embrace a fascinated audience, and both were happy to chat afterwards about their work.

Crime writing aficionados can catch both women in action again at Murderous Medway, part of the Rochester Literary Festival, with panel discussions and writing workshops on the weekends of the 6th and 13th of October.

My summer with Caitlin Moran

I spent my summer with Caitlin Moran. Two heady weeks in a cottage in Sussex, in which she talked – she talked a lot – and I simply listened. I didn’t have to say anything, just had to sit there and listen as she poured out her heart. We bonded over a shared incredulity at Downton Abbey, a passion for libraries, and a mistrust of David Cameron. I found myself careening between emotional extremes, of asthma-inducing laughter and heart-stopping sorrow.

Wolverhampton wanderer

As we sat there, Caitlin and I, time seemed to pass us by. My two young children were busy exploring new and exciting ways to injure themselves on the garden play-equipment; the cats were expiring through the suspension of their customary feeding ritual; phones were left unanswered; my wife took to her bed with a digital version of Scrabble in a desperate call for attention. None of it mattered; Caitlin and I had only each other, her needing to talk, my needing simply to listen.

Because that’s what reading the collection of articles that makes up her recent book, Moranthology, is like; it’s like chatting to a newly-discovered best friend. And not just that; a friend who’s funny, honest, brazen, unafraid of candid revelations, open about their moments of life-lunacy, and who writes from the hip.

Given its heart-on-sleeve admission of love for Sherlock, I have no qualms as an asthma-sufferer in declaring the book a Three-Inhaler Problem. The dispensary at the local Asda couldn’t issue me with new ones fast enough; I had my own parking-space, and was on first-name terms with the guy who sits in the entrance, watching the CCTV footage of people entering and leaving the store. It’s no understatement to describe the book as something of a roller-coaster; one minute, you’re giggling with sheer delight at the fearlessly inventive wit – the ‘And My Nanny Agress With Me Too’ put-down of George Osborne is going to become my default reaction to posh idiots – the next minute, you’re gasping as she devastatingly breaks your heart. Whether lamenting the cross-country closure of libraries, regaling you with the multitudinous ways in which she has Let Herself Down In Front of Celebrities, or campaigning for the rights of society’s down-trodden, her vigorous, no-holds-barred, attitude-busting prose is merciless in its scrutiny. Even, commendably, when that object of scrutiny is the writer herself. It’s like a very English incarnation of Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism, with its wry attack on television soap-opera plotlines or the Welsh-o-centric nature of the latest incarnation of the Dr Who franchise, or its staunch championing of the Welfare State. And it’s the type of book that throws your assumptions back at you and makes you consider them anew; you come out a better person for reading it.

So forgive the cheap sensationalism of my title; under its same conditions, I’ve just spent several similar weeks with Tony Hawks (A Piano in the Pyrenees), Peter F Hamilton (Pandora’s Star), and am furthering my literary bigamy in being heavily involved with Humphrey Carpenter (Benjamin Britten). As Martin Amis said of Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full (that’s just the sort of ghastly, navel-contemplating literary referencing that, after our weeks of companionship, I feel confident in declaring she would hate); this book will be a good friend to you. In fact, it won’t: Moranthology will be your best friend. Read it. Soon.

Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. He writes about music on the blog Music Matters. Follow Dan on Twitter.

Dealing with a dilemma: focus and concision in art

I have a dilemma. I find that Downton Abbey gets on my nerves, yet I love The Paradise. The operas of Wagner drive me mad, yet Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande is one of my favourite pieces. Mahler drives me mad, but Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians remains the sole piece I would pluck from a blazing conflagration of classical music.

Image credit: BBC

As I assess my lists of likes and can’t-stands, trying to work out why I both love and loathe examples of period drama, opera and music, I have come to realise that, for me, it’s a question of scale, of concision in utterance and narrative focus.

The overblown hyperbole that is opera, where it can take anywhere between two and five tiresome hours for consumptive maidens to expire, giants and demons to fight over treasure or someone’s soul, and for jealous lovers to work their revenge, means that generally, the genre has few recordings in my listening library. But Pelléas, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges are present in more than one recorded incarnation and appear on my Recently Played lists quite often. How can this be, when normally opera sends me screaming into the comfort of John Adams or Nico Muhly ? Similarly, how can the yawn-inducing tedium of Downton Abbey be equated with my sheer and utter delight in the story of the evolution of England’s first department store that is The Paradise ? How can I rationalise both standpoints ?

As I said before, it’s a question of scope, of scale. Titanic myth-making in Wagner calls for similarly titanic music, and grand time-scale, the sort where the opera is so long that you have to have dinner in between acts simply to fortify yourself for what is still to come. But Pelléas concentrates instead on the dynamic between three characters wrapped in a love-triangle – Goloud, Pelléas and the object of their affections, Melisande – and is set often in small-scale situations: a room, a secluded garden, a cave, settings which are a geographical manifestation of the claustrophobic romantic tangle in which the three characters are entwined. Likewise, Ravel’s one-act opera is concerned with a single character, the mischievous child, whose wayward misbehaviour sparks off the magical episodes which follow, and which is similarly set in a room in the first half and a garden in the second.

And while Mahler’s view of the symphony was that it should ’embrace the world,’ (his first symphonic outing is called ‘The Titan,’ which should give you some idea of its lofty ambitions), this also requires musical gestures built on a grand scale, sustained by a musical architecture that needs to be epic in size. The music of someone like Reich, for instance, and to a certain extent the early works of John Adams and recent pieces by Nico Muhly, is much more about concise musical gestures, small-scale motivic thinking that may yield a piece lasting near to an hour (in the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians), but sustains its large-scale forms through the gradual unfolding of initially small ideas, into which can be condensed a range of harmonic and rhythmic expression.

Image credit: BBC

The epic narrative sweep in Downton takes on such themes as social hierarchy and the re-defining of class divisions in the wake of the First World War, the troubles in Ireland, and the minutiae of upstairs/downstairs relationships in the Grantham household with plodding tedium and lashings of cliche, painted in great swathes of block colour that don’t require the viewer to have to think too much for themselves about what’s going on, or what’s coming next. In contrast, The Paradise concentrates on a particular stretch of street, on one store in particular, and the characters within both; the focus is on a smaller scale, and as such it doesn’t need to make glib, sweeping gestures to allow large themes to be depicted in a small amount of on-screen time.

In his second volume of autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles,’ Stephen Fry recognises his own penchant for verbosity, for taking one hundred words to write what could be said in ten. But the book reads like an effortless conversation with Fry, and pages turn almost of themselves before you realise that many hours have gone by and you’ve read more than you intended, your wife and children have moved out and the dog is starving. Whilst the object of Fry’s book may be the re-telling of thirty year’s worth of life, the focus is again small-scale; himself, and what makes him tick.

So I have no compunction about dismissing endless hours of operatic bilge whilst secretly loving some examples of it, of casually being scathing about the tedium of Downton Abbey whilst revelling in the puff-pastry delight of The Paradise, and no sense of self-contradiction in writing off epic symphonic yawnathons whilst delighting in works of Minimalism that may last just as long as a piece by Mahler or Beethoven. It’s simply a question of focus.

Keeping the Balance: art, narrative and the state of moral equilibrium.

(Or, more succinctly: who has to die ?)

Art is about form, structure and balance: the Golden Section, proportion, a sense of integrity that unifies a work’s formal elements, supporting an understanding of the work as a whole. Music uses sonata-form, and structural principles of harmonic motion through related keys: painting uses the Golden Section (as does music, admittedly) and ideas of proportion; some are often underpinned by a triangular shape holding them together (Picasso’s Guernica being a prime example). A fourteen-line sonnet is divided into two sections of eight and six lines, the octet and the sestet, with a ‘turn’ between the two sections leading the tone of the poem from one section to the other.

But balance can also operate in a moral sense too, particularly in literature and especially in film. There is a unifying thread of fairness which governs the way elements relate to each other, and that drives the narrative towards a conclusion that reflects this idea. Moral equilibrium is the balance between right and wrong being asserted as part of a work which maintains not only structural proportions but moral ones as well. The success of the whole depends not only on the unfolding narrative and its resolution but also the moral relationships operating across the work and an effective culmination that links and balances them.

Is there a case for arguing that in fact it is the establishing of the moral balance that is the governing factor behind a narrative’s architecture? Actions need reactions, choices need justification, wrongs need to be righted, evil needs punishing and virtue needs rewarding: all these elements need to be aligned for a work to feel complete in the resolution of its inherent conflicts.

Ocean's Eleven
Good guys ?

In stories, characters are obliged to die because they have transgressed, committed some act which ordains their end in order to balance the moral state of the narrative; whatever steps they may take to redeem themselves will not be sufficient to allow them to survive. The queen in Snow White is irredeemable because she is jealous of the beauty of another, and condems herself by attempting to murder the object of her jealousy with a poisoned apple.

The more interesting works, though, are often those where the state of moral equilibrium is not established: the killer gets away with it, the monster is not vanquished by the hero but may still be alive somewhere; the wronged hero takes bloody vengeance and is not penalized for doing so.

Open-ended films are often more rewarding. Consider the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner; there is no tidy finale where the ends are all sewn up, all the issues resolved. Deckard flees with Rachel into the wilderness – will they be caught ? How long has Rachel left to live ? And is Deckard himself a replicant ?

At the conclusion of Thomas Harris’ novel, Hannibal, serial killer Lecter has seduced and won FBI agent Clarice Starling, and they sit together in a box at the opera. The film re-writes this ending – shamefully so – to allow Starling to attain a state of grace and redemption after leading the disastrous sting operation at the start of the film that results in the death of another agent. Perhaps the producers felt audiences would feel betrayed by the original ending in the novel.

Audiences often prefer these endings: stories that have a different resolution other than that which the moral imperative would ordain. They are more like real life, where problems often have no glib solution, where moral justice is often not attained.

American Psycho
All in the mind ?

In the controversial film American Psycho, if the film is not, as some readings of the end suggest it is, entirely in Patrick Bateman’s imagination, then there is no justice imparted in the film; the balance is not established, his villainy goes un-punished. Perhaps that’s why we don’t condemn the crooks in Ocean’s Eleven: Danny Ocean and his crew are villains, after all: but they are an amiable bunch who are breaking the law for what, from a moral perspective, seem to be the ‘right’ reasons: for the artistry of the challenge, for the re-dressing of former wrongs (Reuben Tishkoff’s casino was torn down by slickly villainous Terry Benedict  to make way for, unforgivably,  “some gaudy monstrosity,” thereby proving Benedict’s charlatanism by offending our aesthetic sensibilities as well. And not only that: Benedict has stolen Ocean’s girl.)

Perhaps that is why a series like The Sopranos has been so successful; secretly, the audience yearns for moral equilibrium not to be maintained, because life is like that…

Do you ?

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

Not like that!

I’ve just read a very good book called On Humour by Simon Critchley. It came out in 2002, and it’s been reprinted numerous times, so it doesn’t need any help from me. It’s an erudite account of the philosophical questions raised by humour, and if that sounds a bit dull, it isn’t. It’s engagingly written and even witty in places.

But the book does have a problem which lurks under the facade of erudition and wit – it has much more to say about theories of humour than about humour itself. Perhaps that’s forgivable given that it’s a philosophy book, but as Critchley himself argues, ‘Any study of humour…requires fieldwork and detailed contextualization. Finally, it is only as good as its examples.’[i]

So what examples does Critchley draw on?

The truth is they’re all rather highbrow. The comic literature of the past gets a fair amount of attention, with Sterne and Swift getting a fair few mentions. As for more recent examples, he seems to be a big fan of that well-known contemporary comic novelist, er, Will Self. To be fair, I’ve only read one of Self’s novels, but although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I don’t remember laughing much. I reckon if you asked pretty much anyone for their top ten examples of contemporary laughtermakers, they’d be pretty unlikely to mention Will Self, except at a stretch possibly in the context of his former role as a panellist on Vic and Bob’s Shooting Stars.

I might also add that the examples – which the study is only as good as after all – seem to be outnumbered by the references to theory. Hobbes, Freud, and Mary Douglas are much bigger characters than Sterne, Swift or, er, Will Self.

What slightly annoys me is that the theory and the highbrow sources get treated with respect, whereas the few examples of popular comedy are treated fairly shoddily. On p.21, for example, Critchley cites seven gags. Whereas Freud’s and Sterne’s work are worthy of a proper citation, with full publication details being given in an endnote, here the only information we’re given is that the gags are ‘From various Marx Brothers’ scripts, Peter Chelsom’s wonderful 1994 film Funny Bones, and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (Faber, London, 1958).’

So apparently, Beckett’s worthy of full publication details (although oddly, not a page reference), Chelsom’s film at least gets named, but the poor old Marx Brothers aren’t worth bothering with – in spite of being some of the few professional comedians mentioned in the book. Tommy Cooper fares worse than this later in the book, where a gag of his described as ‘great’ is quoted without so much as an endnote.

I don’t want to single Simon Critchley out for particular criticism here, because it seems to me that these choices are fairly typical in an academic context. Theory and accepted canonical works are treated with respect, but popular culture is treated casually or often simply ignored. I have found that criticism of my own work is often along the lines of, ‘This is all very well, but how can you possibly write about this without mentioning Barthes/ Schechner/ semiotics/ whoever/ whatever?’

It’s as if the theory – which only exists to help us understand things – is more important than the subject it’s applied to. Of course, the opposite will almost always be true. Shakespeare will always be more significant and brilliant than Shakespearean scholars. By the same token, I’m quite proud of the books and papers I’ve written about comic performance, but I won’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re more important than the performers whose work I analyse. I’ll never be more significant and brilliant than Richard Pryor, Ross Noble, or Gracie Fields.

If you pay close attention to the examples you’re looking at, you’d be surprised what comes out. For example, one of the jokes cited on p.19 goes like this:

‘Have you lived in Blackpool all your life?’, ‘Not yet.’

It’s a great gag, and my guess is that it’s the one he took from Funny Bones. However, it’s actually a much older gag than that. It often cropped up in the variety theatres of the early 20th Century, in sketches and routines by the likes of Albert Burdon, Collinson and Dean, and Sandy Powell.[ii]

You’ll notice that these three comedy acts are given a proper endnote, giving full publication details.


[i] Simon Critchley, On Humour, Abingdon: Routledge, 2002, p.66

[ii] See sketches and routines cited in Roger Wilmut, Kindly Leave the Stage! The Story of Variety 1919-1960, London: Methuen, 1985, p.41 (Albert Burdon), p.56 (Collinson and Dean), and p.103 (Sandy Powell)

Playing with time: Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

Published only after her death in 1886, Because I Could Not Stop for Death is a tiny masterpiece by the American poet Emily Dickinson. Its effect is completely disproportionate to the scale and manner of the poem itself, as is the concept with which an apparently disarming rhyming-scheme is dealing.  

The poem plays with time, or the perception of it: the narrator is far too busy for her activities to be halted even by Death, although it appears Death stops to collect her.  

Because I could not stop for Death,/ He kindly stopped for me;/ The carriage held but just ourselves/ And Immortality.  

The second verse then settles and creates a sense of calm, as the narrator escapes from the hectic passage of everyday time :  

We slowly drove, he knew no haste, / And I had put away / My labour, and my leisure too, / For his civility.  

The next verse continues the idea of time slowing and stretching, as well as portraying different times of the day: the morning of school, the lazy haze of a field of wheat as the afternoon and the setting sun of the evening creating a warm, pastoral image  

We passed the school where children played,/ Their lessons scarcely done;/ We passed the fields of gazing grain,/ We passed the setting sun.  

 The carriage stops beside her grave, which she calmly seems not to recognise:  

 We paused before a house that seemed/ A swelling of the ground;/ The roof was scarcely visible,/ The cornice but a mound.  

But it’s the final verse that really takes your breath away. Time suddenly contracts: there’s almost a sense of pausing, of suddenly becoming still as the narrator realises that she is dead, and the journey in the carriage is without end.  

Since then ’tis centuries; but each/ Feels shorter than the day / I first surmised the horses’ heads/ Were toward eternity.  

The same sense of dawning realisation which is striking the narrator is also striking you as the reader. It really is like being dashed in the face by cold water. The first time I read the poem, I felt slapped in the face: the implications of that last verse absolutely brought me up short.  

For me, this is akin to walking through a room and out onto a balcony: suddenly the view before you unfolds across a wider plane, and you realise the context in which you had been reading before is operating at a much larger scale than you could have previously imagined. As great poetry can, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Larkin’s musings on misery, the focus of the poem shifts in a flash from the specific to the universal in a way that pulls you up short and makes you reconsider.  

(There’s a setting by composer John Adams of the poem, as part of his piece Harmonium, which you can preview on his MySpace page here: click to open in pop-out player).  

Short, deft but astonishing: Dickinson’s poetic strengths in a nutshell. 

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Culture of the Critic: is criticism making us lazy ?

Write-onIs the culture of criticism making us lazy when it comes to experiencing art for ourselves ?

We are happy to read reviews about the latest film, the most recent production of an opera, or an author’s recently-published novel: reviews telling us if that film, opera or book is good, or ‘worth’ visiting. The passive consumption of critical opinion often absolves us from the need to undergo the artistic experience for ourselves and subsequently, to make up our own minds. If reviews are indifferent or worse, we readily write the work off as not worth our attention even before we’ve seen or heard it.

As consumers of art, we need to be more diligent in our consumption: we need to be eager to visit an exhibition, go to an opera or see a film for ourselves, irrespective (or in spite) of what critics have written. Instead of slavishly trooping out to the cinema or concert-hall if critics exhort us to, or docilely staying at home if they tell us it’s not worth it, we need to be more active in seeing these things for ourselves and forming our own conclusions. Otherwise, we become mindless drones functioning at the behest of a reviewer’s opinions: they are pushing our buttons, controlling what we consume.

Donald Mitchell’s article ‘A State of Emergency’ on critical opinion in the 1960’s, which appears in the anthology of his writings, Cradles of the New, represents a call to arms in reaction to critical opinion: the call still resonates today.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.