Back to the screen scene

Having just got back from a preview showing of The Personal History of David Copperfield, which will be hitting mass viewing screens this week, i felt that I would share my personal opinion.

Armando Iannucci, a self confessed imigrant, has captured the Dickensian spirit of the times (the 1800s) with an astonishing ensemble of diversity in action. Dev Patel plays David Copperfield, and in a subtle sense Charles Dickens himself. The novel is more autobiographical than almost any other of Dickens’ novels, except possibly for Little Dorrit. David Copperfield is sent to work in Murdstone’s bottling factory, as did Charles Dickens when a young boy.

Mr Micawber, played by Peter Capaldi, is a Marshalsea debtor (as was Dickens’ father) and eventually ends up on the street; the sense of the wealthy and the destitute living cheek by jowl is as relevant today as it was then and Iannucci has made a conscious effort to create a film that is contemporary, even though the costumes and modes of transport are entirely Victorian. This is most definitely not a bonnets and bustle piece. The point being that at the time of writing, these characters were contemporary, not historical, so without making it a modern dress offering, how do you manage to make it feel contemporary to the present audience: by acting normally, that is to say, not acting but inhabiting the characters as if they were modern, even though dressed in high collars, waistcoats and tails.

Apart from that, this is a humorous film, in places laugh out loud funny, in other scenes simply amusing, but by creating a more nuanced group of people, the scenes cohere in a very satisfying way. James Steerforth is not irredeemably wicked and Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw) is not oleaginously ‘humble’ and both are all the better for being more identifiably human. Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie) is portrayed sympathetically as muddled rather than rampantly mad, and even Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) is less rabid than usual. The mellowing of the more grotesque aspects of the novel’s cast of misfits and eccentrics makes for a much more realistic narrative, and Ianucci even thinks of a more kindly way of disposing with Dora.

Do go to see this film, if you can.

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In Pursuit of Marian Evans

Or George Eliot, as she is more famously known. The bicentenary of her birth was on 22 November (2019), Marion was born in Nuneaton in 1819 and so expect more on her and her writings throughout the year.

My copies of George Eliot’s novels are a Library Edition belonging to my grandmother. Each volume is small, bound in green buckram with a green leather binding, with India paper leaves, many of them uncut until I came along with my paper-knife. The paper-knife also belonged to my grandmother and was made of mother-of-pearl.

But to start with a year of reading about GE and re-reading her novels, I read a new novel called In Love with George Eliot by Kate O’Shaughnessy.

The novel tells us about a researcher, Katie Boyd who is to give a paper at a George Eliot conference, and is writing a book about GE at the same time. The novel is divided into years, and switches between the present day: tensions in the literature department between Anna and Hans, with Katie stumbling along behind the curve and Marian Evans’ life: social disgrace and then lionising fame, living with George Lewes who was married and had children by another woman, then by an extraordinary twist of fate, social contempt when after George’s death she marries a man some thirty years younger than herself.

Along the way, she loses contact with her brother Isaac, who is morally disgusted with her behaviour, and then some twenty-five years later breaks his silence and writes to congratulate her on her marriage to John Cross.

Kate O’Shaughnessy brings a fresh and perceptive eye to the inherent problems that faced Marian Evans when she chose to flout convention and live openly with a married man, and then launched herself into the public sphere with her brilliant and well received novels, written under her famous pseudonym, George Eliot. Ms O’Shaughnessy is the daughter of a well-known and highly respected Kleinian psychoanalyst which might explain her deep and sympathetic understanding of the complex character she is dealing with.

This was less a case of writing by a woman being impossible to publish, as with Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – the Brontë sisters, but writing by a woman shunned by society for immoral behaviour. Only a few people knew the truth: George Lewes obviously, John Blackwood, her publisher and one other friend, Herbert Spencer who had been sworn to secrecy.

Adam Bede came out and was well received, by the time Mill on the Floss was published the literate world was abuzz with gossip about the author, and a man called John Liggins of Nuneaton was claiming to be the author. Meanwhile, Marion’s own friends were clamouring to know why she had stopped writing.

But the truth will out, and eventually Marion let her closest friends know that she was in fact, George Eliot.

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Chinese Whispers

A friend reminded me that I had not posted anything for a bit, it is the knitting season! Three grandchildren and Christmas, so the knitting needles are flashing.

Interesting Brexit tip here: it is taking up to 14 days for parcels from the States (knitting wool, nothing more) to pass through Customs, if this process then redoubles with parcels coming through from Europe there will be problems all round, I surmise. If I was in business, rather than just knitting for the family, I would be seriously behind on my Christmas orders already!!!

Back to the books. I do read quite a lot of detective and police procedural novels, both the new genre of historical detectives, which was more or less kicked off by Umberto Eco with The Name of the Rose (also a film and now a TV series on BBC) and lavishly continued by others and foreign detectives and police crime novels, of which the Chinese detective Inspector Chen Cao has been an abiding favorite for about nineteen years. Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaoling was first published in around 2001, this introduced us to post-Maoist China, still Communist but with Chinese characteristics.

Inspector Chen is based in Shanghai, a city being transformed throughout the whole series. By the later novels, Chen Cao has become Chief Inspector, still ably abetted by his colleague Inspector Yu, and Yu’s father, Old Hunter.

Inspector Chen has made, along his illustrious and judicious career, many friends and not a few enemies. In Enigma of China published in 2013, Chen is investigating a serious fraud scandal involving an official of the Party. This is a straightforward crime case, but in revealing the crime the novel introduces the reader to the netizens – Chinese people who post information on websites, often drawing attention to anomalies from photographs of special characters whose life style seems out of kilter to their status. In this case, a pack of exceedingly expensive cigarettes, several photographs of a range of expensive watches and cars that in a normal setting this individual would not be able to afford.

The Party, in order to avoid a scandal that would damage their reputation, “shuanggui” the individual. That is to say, he (or she) is confined to private arrest, not in their home but in a hotel, guarded and questioned but away from prying eyes; from there anything may happen and the person may disappear for long periods or vanish or “commit suicide”. Whatever happens, the family will be under a lot of pressure, house searches, workplace searches and confiscation of computers, goods and so on…it can be drawn out over months.

The novel is dedicated to netizens:

To the Chinese netizens who fight for their citizenship in the cyberspace -unimaginable elsewhere – in the face of authoritarian control.

In the next book Shanghai Redemption, there has been a startling change in Chen’s fortunes. He has been “promoted” sideways to a new position and is no longer Chief Inspector, this position has gone, for the time being, to Yu.

Furthermore, he has become the victim of an attempt to blacken his name and discredit his reputation for probity and integrity. Naturally, because this is a novel, the first attempt is foiled by chance, but it does not end there and several deaths later he is still trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

I think the best aspect of these novels, and there are nine so far, is the way in which while the characters develop so does the city, in the early novels there are still areas of Shanghai where the old buildings, busy streets of noodle bars and street sellers coexisit with the modern, but towards the end of these two novels, the reader can feel the city encroaching even on parks and gardens, old streets disappear and new housing areas grow up – vistas of tall buildings of glass and steel tower over quiet gardens where plants and water offer the elderly residents places for tai chi exercises, tea houses and quiet contemplation, so necessary to the Buddhist ideals. All fast vanishing under commercialism with Chinese characteristics.

The themes in these two novels are an expose of corruption and fraud on a grand scale, and the work of the netizens who hide and expose the most egregious examples of this comes across as heroic.

Another thread that runs through all the novels is the black shadow of the Cultural Revolution, nearly all the people in the novel that we are interested in have a damaged history: of their parents “re-education” or of their own thwarted desires. Indeed, Chen himself has a degree in English and fancied a literary/academic career, but ends up as a policeman, not by choice or inclination, but by persuasion.

I love these books, they are a window on to a world that is so different from our own and yet Chen himself and Yu are characters that arouse sympathy and interest and the reader longs to hear more.

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Another Australian novel!

Yes, for me this novel ticks all the boxes, in a good way. It is set in Sydney, mostly and the Riverina area also. It is a family saga, mainly about the five Dunbar boys, though mostly it is about the fourth boy, Clayton and written by the eldest, Matthew on his grandmother’s Remington typewriter.

It is also a deeply moving love story, with a restrained but steady relationship between Clayton and Carey, and a more slow burning one between Matthew and Claudia, however, underpinning all that is the emotional and deathly sad relationship between Michael and Penelope, the five boys’ parents.

Along the way, we get a glimpse into the world of horse racing, a national sport that exceeds that of the UK. Every Australian child knows the names of the great racing legend Phar Lap, there is even a film about him. Racing in Australia is a much more democratic event; there are of course, the racing hierarchy, but they are there because they have got there, not because they are born to it – it does make a difference.

We get gorgeous glimpses of Sydney in a very understated way, and become familiar with the streets of the racing quarter, which until even quite recently was pretty unspoilt; no longer though, much of it is now torn down and redeveloped.

There is a wonderful theme running through this whole novel about a fictional book called The Quarryman, a study of Michelangelo. It does not exist, but if you wanted to pursue the line that is suggested in Bridge of Clay, then you might try this book

Then the writing, it flows along carrying the reader on a great adventure and then breaking our hearts, I think I did not stop crying for the last one hundred pages. Not sobbing, but leaking tears at the tenderness of it all and the sadness.

Markus Zusak came to prominence with his fourth novel, The Book Thief which was almost instantly made into a film. But this is a much more interesting book about ordinary people making a life for themselves under some hardship and personal strain, and coming good in spite of all that.

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Go Bento!

No, this has not suddenly changed into a cookery site. This book could change your life.

I do not say that lightly, and far be it for me to suggest that your life needs changing anyway. But if you think that you are bogged down in debt, or family crisis or personal doldrums, then I do recommend having a look.

Yancey Strickler has come upon a whole different way of planning our lives and futures, and it makes perfect sense to me. The Bento reference is his own, he suggests that we look at our lives as if it is a Bento Box, and compartmentalise the different sections into “NOW ME” and “FUTURE ME” on a timeline axis and “NOW ME” and “NOW US” on a self interest axis, which leads on to “FUTURE US” in the final box.

Yancey says:

Many of us can’t say what our values are. We’re too busy trying to achieve financial security (hoping it turns into becoming very well off financially) to search for a meaningful philosophy of life. Who has time for that?

This is where the Bento Box comes in: draw a square and divide it into quarters. Following the guide above, fill up the squares with your own aspirations for now and the future…you will be amazed at how simple this is. The difficult part is putting it into practice. Try not to overthink it – just write down a list of the things you want and need now and the values that you want to uphold in the future, then look at the ‘now us’ sector – who is us? what do they want and need, and finally what does the ‘future us’ want and need?

We have forgotten the difference between “value” which is the monetary signifier and “values” which is the moral signifier, but once you get a handle on that emphasis you can change your life and the lives of your whole circle of family and friends.

For a guided experience to help create your own Bento look up:

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63rd London Film Festival 2019 – Final Day

Later on there will be the premiere of The Irishman, meanwhile I was on the Southbank watching an independent, crowdfunded film called Us Among the Stones.

This was a lovely mosaic of a film, sweeping Dartmoor landscapes, sudden focussed views of interior with marmalade cat, a stream over stones and a lonely, ancient farm house. Dropped randomly amongst the moving images are photographs of the ‘family’ doing stuff: having picnics, at Stonehenge, walking, playing and generally living.

Dictynna Hood‘s second film arose from a conversation with several female friends but took a long time before coming to gestation. In fact she waited until after her first film was completed, The Wreckers.

The family are gathering for the mother’s birthday party, she is ill, probably from cancer and there is some debate about whether or not she is dying. There are three elderly men, her husband and his two brothers. Two sons have turned up, one lives there reluctantly, his girlfriend arrives later; and later still their daughter with a child. One of the uncles has with him his children and their stepmother. The children are frankly horrible to her, and she seems from time to time to be something of a fantasist.

The party starts in a barn, decorated for the event and as the drink flows so do the revelations…

I chose this film because the title chimes with something I feel quite deeply, and this film is about that. Stones have been here longer than us, and will be here long after we have gone.

My second foray was into an old, remastered film from East Germany. Star-Crossed Lovers is a Romeo and Juliet fable of two young people, a Communist boyfriend, Michael and his German girlfriend Magdalena and his Nazi friend, Jürgen. But the Nazis arrive and round-up and imprison the Communists and they are sent to a concentration camp, then the war starts and they are sent to the front in the 999th Penal Brigade.

In black and white in every sense, this was rather a lovely tale, with obviously an unhappy ending. The Penal Brigade actually existed and eventually was sent to the Russian Front, they defected by throwing down their weapons and giving themselves up to the Russians. This although, only some of them were actually Communists.

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63rd London Film Festival 2019 – 20 & 21

To start a Chinese film of eloquent beauty and strangeness. So Long, My Son comes from the director Wang Xiaoshuai. Covering modern Chinese history from the Cultural Revolution to the Chinese version of a market economy, we follow closely the lives of a couple Liyun (Yong Mai) and Yoajun (Wang Jingchun) and their friends and colleagues, whose lives are deeply and adversely affected by the “one child” policy.

For a European, this was both an eye-opening film and also quite stretching as the narrative went backwards and forwards, and it was hard to keep abreast of what was happening. [Paying close attention to what people are wearing is an invaluable clue.] To say that the consequences of the “one Child” policy were devastating is to understate the case, even as this film shows and I personally know of even more ghastly ramifications of what this led to.

The film covers a long period, it is hauntingly beautiful is a very foreign way. As the story unfolds it becomes easier to follow and it is worth the effort. Whether it has (or will have) UK distribution is not clear.

The second film was an animé from India. Even the title is a political statement. Bombay Rose is made by a native of Bombay, many of whom simply refuse its new name. There are several strands of a love story, with reference to an Indian fairy story or myth in which a prince falls in love with a shepherdess and hides her away in a tower.

Bombay Rose, written and drawn in the studio of Gitanjali Rao, has many modern themes that are contained in the single narrative of love. The people in this story are ordinary: the paan seller, the old grandfather and his two grandchildren, the handsome but thieving Muslim and the Hindi dancing girl. Of the older generation there is Ms da Souza who teaches English, but has a hidden life, only revealed towards the end.

Beautifully constructed, with nuanced colour changes when we switch from the day to day to the Indian myth, or from today to Ms da Souza’s life in early twentieth century Bombay, with trams and horse drawn carts, her heyday in the music halls.

This is not Bollywood, but it is lovely.

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