Very Very Late August Miscellany

I have not written about the big D., my mood or what has been happening in my life for some months now. I was just preparing to do so at the very end of August and was ready to comment on how excellent July and August had been – the best August since my ‘mood records’ began in 2005 indeed – when I was struck down with a bout which is only now (late September) slowly passing. I suppose this could be described as hubris; or less classically as the tendency and capability my Depression has of sneaking up and knocking me down whenever life has been going too well. I should know better but, as I have no doubt discussed previously, optimism is, however unrealistic and irrational, both a natural inclination and a necessary part of making living with the condition bearable. I suppose that I can trace some trigger factors for this particular attack – I had attended St Hildas Mystery Conference (which I thoroughly enjoyed and will be writing about separately at some point) the weekend before, then I had a very difficult MH meeting from which I suppose I did not fully recover. Whatever the reason another 3 weeks have passed in which most normal activities have been completely suspended. This has of course included any writing or consideration of this blog, which is why this particular entry is making such a belated appearance, although the majority of it was written well before the attack began.

I did want to write something about the changing direction which my life is taking however. This blog is a personal record as well as an opportunity for me to air my views on any subject which takes my interest. Those uninterested in this diary aspect should skip the following and move down to where I start discussing Caryl Churchill’s work. Over the past three years I have been getting more and more involved with campaigning around Mental Health (MH) issues. One thing has led to another and one group to another. Over the past year these activities have started to concentrate on the Birmingham LINk Mental Health Group. LINks (Local Improvement Networks) are the new mechanism which the Government has established with the stated task of monitoring the provision of health and social care. There is a LINk for every Council area so naturally I am involved with the Birmingham LINk. Anyone can become involved on a voluntary basis: as details of how each LINk should be organised were, for commendable reasons, left vague it has taken a considerable amount of time for a structure and framework to become established. In Birmingham it was decided at an early stage, partly because of the intervention of MH activists, that there should be a number of themed working groups. The MH Group has probably been the quickest to develop and, as I am possibly the most active member, already demands a considerable amount of work. However the Core Group, or LINk’s managing committee, has not really developed at all. Recently elections were held for a new Core Group and I was persuaded to stand; I was elected which could involve yet further work – indeed should involve further work if it develops as it ought to. There are two aspects to all this; the political – in terms of what I observe to be the role of a LINk and similar bodies, and the personal-  in terms of what all this means for my life. It is on the latter which I wish to dwell here.

This movement into MH – and now general health – activism is something which has been more or less completely unplanned. As I look back at my life I realise that this is true is of every single of its many (and very disparate) phases. In a way of course this period harks back to my days of union activism in the 1980’s – meetings, negotiations, publicity, propagandising and so on. Certainly I get a strange feeling of deja vu at times. There are of course very significant differences. The people whom I am dealing with do not share the common ideological purpose or vision which were so uplifting in my union days. Not to say that all the activists, let alone members, with whom I dealt were lefties like me, but there was a solid core of people who shared roughly similar values. The linking factor in the MH groups is one of experience. This is undoubtedly a strong bond but not I think as strong a bond as ideology. In the general ‘health monitoring’ community there is not even the bond of common experience and I have yet to understand the full range of motivations which drives people to become involved. In any case my point is that I have more or less drifted into this new position where MH activism, or now more accurately LINks activism, occupies much of my time and effort. I am not even sure that this is really what I want to do. I am probably happiest – when well of course and options are available to me – involved in what I can describe (pretension be damned!) as intellectual pursuits. Reading and writing – the latter both here, on the lists, for ReviewingtheEvidence and so on. A quiet and fairly solitary (certainly in RL terms) life of the mind. This solaces and satisfies me. Yet I have drifted as I say into a position where I am spending my time in meetings, dealing with confrontations and personality clashes – precisely the things which I find most difficult. Not that everyone is difficult of course; as is my way I generally like people and I have met some really delightful people, including Caron who is the Facilitator of the LINk MH group. It is quite possible that I will have more bouts of Depression as a result of this change. Of course if this becomes overwhelmingly evident then I will have to give it up. So why do it? Well in the first place I do think it is worthwhile. This belief is a little tenuous and may also be altered by experience. I am still new to the area. Secondly I think that, much to my amazement really, I am still interested enough by new and different areas of life to want to give another one a try. This genuinely surprises me. Third because I am a passive personality and allow myself to drift or be manoeuvred into doing things which are not the result of active choices or self-determination. Some combination of these – not very flattering or persuasive – factors has led to this new situation. The practical result is that I will not have enough time to continue with my intellectual pursuits in the way that I used to. Inevitably this means something will have to give and I very much fear that it will have to be the lists. I do want to continue with my blogging and my personal projects (like Crabbe) and my mystery reading. The lists will be a big loss to me however. Well we shall see as time passes. And now back to a more regular service! 

Continuing my slow progress through Caryl Churchill I read Shorts (1990), a collection of her short plays from Lovesick (1966) to Hot Fudge (1989). Some of these are radio plays, some TV plays and some are for the theatre. They cover a wide range of subjects and are in a wide variety of styles and tones, admirably illustrating Churchill’s versatility. Naturally I was more taken by some than others. Schreber’s Nervous Illness I admit to finding unreadable; both it, Lovesick and The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution are heavily concerned with psychiatric matters and influenced by Churchill’s reading of R.D Laing. Much the most successful is Hospital which is so influenced by Fanon that it is set in Algeria (that is the revolution) and actually makes him a major character; it is a powerful piece. Lovesick and Three More Sleepless Nights are both plays about relationships with an intense, claustrophobic feeling even though the former is for radio and the latter for theatre. Seagulls is a very strange play about a woman with telekinetic powers and Churchill says in her introduction that it felt too much like a play about her inability to write for her to want it to be performed at the time. Hot Fudge is a kind of brilliant exercise of Churchill’s developed technique in which everyone is some kind of liar or braggart or criminal; the dialogue and rhythms here are reminiscent of Serious Money. This is also true of my favourite play in the collection, The After-Dinner Joke, which is an examination of the world of charities and aid; it is very political, very funny and remains just as true in 2009 as it was in 1978 when it was written (which is depressing); it was a PlayforToday in the days when the BBC was producing terrific one-off drama on a regular basis. Not Enough Oxygen is a dystopic view of the future – 2010 actually so it would be a good play to revive next year!  The Judge’s Wife is another television play, this time from 1972; it is a trick play which is gradually revealed as a very black comedy. Taken together the plays make a fascinating collection and emphasise Churchill’s versatility, her brilliance with dialogue, her political acuity and the fact, which I have probably failed to emphasise enough in my discussion of her work, that she can be very funny. 

I have now read Karen O’Brien’s Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth Century Britain (2009) – I wrote about the talk we heard which she gave to promote the book at ). It is an absolutely fascinating account of the development of thinking about women’s role in society and, most especially, in history during the long 18th century. The book can best be described as, and sets out to be, intellectual history, which is a particular fascination of mine. O’Brien gives much prominence to neglected women writers, as well as discussing the positions taken by major British Enlightenment thinkers on the subjects with which she is concerned. It would be absurd to try and summarise briefly the dense and complex thought which O’Brien brings to the subject, but I hope at some point in the future to return to the subject and devote one or more separate blogs to this excellent book.

I snuck off on my own to watch Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – Tarantino being of course one of the very few living directors whom it is really worth making an effort to go and see at the cinema. Is it up there with the best of Tarantino? (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown) No. Does it contain moments of complete cinematic genius like Kill Bill? Undoubtedly. In fact Tarantino makes spectacularly little effort to provide any sort of narrative cohesion or, at times, sense. Everything is sacrificed to the production of various episodes which vary widely in their quality. Of course he emphasises this with his use of chapter titles. So one goes from the brilliant to the comparatively ordinary with almost bewildering rapidity. Tarantino is still the kid in the sweet shop and I suppose that he always will be; he has said that this is the kind of film he wants to make and nothing is going to change him. One can’t help but regret that this enormous talent is in a way wasted given what he might be capable of if harnessed to a moral or political sensibility. But on the other hand any kind of shackles might prevent some of the moments of sheer audacity which still have the power to shock, startle and, of course, induce hilarity. I think one of the sadnesses about Tarantino is that people fail to get the jokes. There were a lot in this film. As his dramatic climax approaches and the whole of the Nazi high-command including Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann and Goering are assembling at a Paris cinema to watch the premiere of a new Nazi propaganda film Tarantino uses comic strip letters with an arrow pointing out Bormann and others! At another point discussing the flammability of film stock he suddenly splits screen and has an absurd pastiche of a Ministry of Information Public Information film. Both Hitler and Churchill are pure caricature. Yet along with the absurdity there are moments of pure cinematic power. The entire opening sequence – very Sergio Leone including the music – is one such. Indeed Tarantino himself has called it his ‘spaghetti western’ and Leone’s influence is very obvious. The Paris cafe and cinema sequences have a different quality. Tarantino is of course such a cine-phile that it would be impossible for any but the most knowledgeable to spot even a substantial majority, let alone all, of his references. His setting the climax of the film in a cinema allows for all kinds of play along those lines but the final climactic scenes are another high-point of brilliant inspiration. The use of a David Bowie song is another Tarantinoesque (what other word is there?) moment which works brilliantly and is followed by an extraordinary overhead tracking shot. But for all these moments of inspiration and indeed genius the fact is that there are also moments which are mundane. Because of the lack of real emotional involvement with the story, everything always depends on Tarantino relying again and again and again on his visual (and auditory) powers. Now those powers are enormous. Probably greater than any currently active Western director (certainly any I know of). But they are not unlimited. And when they run out there is nothing to fall back on. Still I am very glad I went to see it on the big screen because that is where Tarantino, even at his worst, always belongs; and that alone means that he is a major director.

In complete contrast to the Tarantino my Fassbinder voyage continued with his wonderful adaptation of  Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest. Fassbinder put all his vast talent at the service of producing a film which he thought would do justice to his source material. Everything is reined back in and muted. It is shot in BandW and both cinematography and performances are extremely restrained. This is not to say that it lacks extraordinary visual care. Shots are framed with great precision and often beauty. The use of mirrors is perhaps among the most brilliant one can ever imagine; in shot after shot characters appear in mirrors, sometimes in such a complex way that it takes the viewer a little time to puzzle out exactly who is being shot directly and who is being shot in a mirror. Characters talk to each other through the medium of mirrors.

Effi and Her Mother in typically bravura mirror shot
Effi and her mother in a typically bravura 'mirror shot'


Of course this is a metaphor for one of the central themes of the film which is a society dominated by appearances. To stress his source-material, and the fact of adaptation, Fassbinder not only uses voice-over (which Fassbinder himself provided) but also sentences or paragraphs from the text to introduce narrative developments. This also functions as a distancing device, emphasising the fact that this is a construction. In terms of what kind of adaptation this is I would judge (though my memory of the novel is far from complete) that it is very faithful in narrative terms, yet it also emphasises and comments on certain aspects of the book. The text which Fassbinder selects to be shown right at the start of the film is absolutely central to the entire project: ‘Many people who are aware of their own capabilities and needs yet acquiesce to the prevailing system in their thoughts and deeds thereby confirm and reinforce it’. The film is all about the way in which human beings are distorted by ‘acquiescence’ to the system (in this case a particularly rigid, stratified, class and gender based, patriarchal one). It is both tragedy and social comment. Fassbinder does not want us to get too wrapped up with the former, with the individual narrative, in case we ignore the latter. Thus the extraordinary muting to which I have referred. After all this is a film which features ghosts, an affair, a duel, great cruelty, yet it has a U certificate. Effi’s affair with Crampas occurs almost entirely off-camera; the closest we get to seeing any physical contact is a long-shot of them embracing on a beach.  All the performances are brilliant; Fassbinder’s muse Hanna Schygulla is amazing as Effi herself, but the whole cast (no doubt many of them members of the Fassbinder ‘family’; in the case of Frau Briest very literally so as he cast his own mother Lilo Pempeit!). There is an absolutely brilliant essay on and analysis of the film at (from which I have taken some of the details here) which notes how Fassbinder was influenced by both Godard and Sirk (the latter I had not thought of at all but makes perfect sense once I start to think about it ). Centrally though this is about a great director putting his talents completely in the service of an adaptation; even the briefest of comparisons with Fassbinder’s ability to use colour demonstrates this. Effi Briest is unquestionably one of his masterpieces and shows how necessary an intellectual, political, emotional project and involvement are to really great, as opposed to merely diverting, cinema.

Making yet another complete contrast was Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974). I saw this at about the time it was released when I was around 18 and it made a big impression; the lesson of revisiting it is that by and large one should avoid returning to one’s teenage enthusiasms. In a way one has to admire Russell; the film is obviously extremely low-budget, with the Lake District standing in for Austria and the budget being unable to even stand mounting a concert performance. It is was clearly a labour of love. But that does not detract from the fact that it is completely loopy and more damning not nearly as good as it thinks it is. The sad ultimate truth about Russell is that he just does not have the cinematic talent or vision to pull off the kind of film which he wanted to make. I know that I should defend his refusal to have any truck with realism, his insistence on his personal vision, and I do admire those qualities, but the fact is that all too often the film reduces one to laughter rather than the intended emotion. Or perhaps it is all intended as a joke? Could the famous Cosima Wagneras dominatrix ‘conversion scene’ really be intended in any other way? The acting is poor, the cinematography wholly average at best and the story, such as it is, functions mainly at the level of cliche and leave one only with the impression that Mahler was a rather unpleasant individual. The scenes of his Jewish childhood trade in stereotypes to such an extent that they can only be described as anti-Semitic. The only thing which endures, and makes the film at all bearable (other than laughing at its excesses) is, of course, the glorious music. And it is with that which I will be sticking from now on!

In an appalling month for television I do need to note one shining gem. This was the performance of Timothy Spall in the last episode of Series Three of the The Street. I wrote about The Street as a series, and the problems I have with it in my July Miscellany and none of the episodes shown in August changed my opinion. None that is except the last one, which was lifted into a different class by a performance of magnetising and surpassing power by Spall as a man of the most fundamental decency and kindness who has a disastrous one-night stand. Anyone who was not moved to tears by Spall here would have – and no excuses for the cliche –  a heart of stone. Strangely his performance was of such brilliance that although wholly rooted in realism, almost hyper-realism, it in fact lifted that particular episode out of realism; I think the reason for this is that his performance was transcendant, and transcendence and realism cannot sit together. Whatever it was a total joy – while also heart-rending – to watch. 

Bon Mots of the Month

A new occasional feature highlighting some particularly good or insightful writing which I have happened upon. Here is A.L.Kennedy in The Times of 15th August writing about her career….

>>I’ve spent the past 25 years telling teachers, social workers, readers, writers and whoever else would listen, about words — about defending them, freeing them and using them. It makes sense to me that this month I launched a book and a show on the same day — the stories I tell to private minds in my absence and the ones that I tell face-to-face. Telling stories has given me more than a way of earning a living. And words are more than material. Without us, they fade and are lost. Without them, we are other peoples lies, or we are silence. It isn’t always obvious, but one way or another, we speak and write to save our lives. Although remembering that should probably be a duty, it is also nothing less than wonderful.<<


4 thoughts on “Very Very Late August Miscellany

  1. ellenandjim

    This is just to let you know I read your blog. I’d like to see the Effie Brest 🙂 I had a very hard day today, broke down slightly in the first class, rallied and carried it alone for a full hour.


  2. nick2209

    Very sorry to hear that Ellen – I have been spending some time catching up with your wonderful blogs which I have missed recently.

  3. Not that I’m qualified to give an opinion, but it strikes me that your new activism is a very positive thing, for both yourself and for all those who can be helped by working with someone with such a fine mind and understanding. You’ll never give up “intellectual activities,” either, I know, and I hope you’ll find it possible to at least keep tuned into the lists, even if in a minimal way. My very best wishes to you in all your endeavors.


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