Malcolm and Barbara, Linebaugh, Fallen Angel (OP)

13th August 2007

Last week we watched Paul Watkins’ remarkable documentary ‘Malcolm and Barbara’, which recorded how Malcolm fell ill with and eventually died of dementia. Filmed over a number of years the documentary was at times almost unwatchable in its unsparing presentation of the reality of dementia. Sadly, the programme’s message was obscured by an absurd media storm about whether the promotional material for the programme had misled viewers by asserting that the actual moment of death was filmed (which it was not). This was utterly irrelevant. We saw how Malcolm, a talented musician, gradually lost control of his mind, moving from what might have appeared as absent-minded crankiness, to a skeletal wreck of a man incapable of carrying out any functions whatever; but the programme centred on his wife’s Barbara’s extraordinary devotion as she nursed him through this ever worsening illness, trying desperately to cling to the fact that this man was still the ‘Malcolm’ whom she had loved. The programme thus became a tragic musing on the nature of identity. But it also had a political message, which has been rammed home in recent days by the decision that a drug which helps victims of dementia in their early days should not be available on the NHS, and a report pointing up the ever growing of prevalence of dementia and other mental illnesses amongst the elderly, and the fact that this sector of medicine has been systematically under-resourced for many years. Incredibly there has apparently been some criticism of the documentary for being too campaigning! In Blawn’s Britain campaigning is highly suspect. Reports today on a protest camp which has been established at Heathrow to campaign against the third runway there have been unbelievably biased in favour of the airport authorities (a multi-national corporation), with the suggestion that the protesters are somehow jeopardising security. Once again the absurd spectre of security is being used to attack fundamental civil liberties.

 I have been reading, and should have mentioned this before, Peter Linebaugh’s quite brilliant account of class-struggle in 18thC London. He shows in the closing chapters how the threat of French invasion was used in the 1790’s to fundamentally attack liberty and the nascent worker’s associations. It is an old, old story. The excuse of ‘danger’, ‘threat to security’ is used to assist the ruling class in the suppression of liberty. Linebaugh’s is one of those books which throws everything one has thought about a period before into turmoil and makes one re-think all one’s assumptions. I am re-reading the book on a chapter by chapter basis now and trying to make notes for ECW.

 Moving backwards and with no connection to the above I must mention the excellent television adaptation of Andrew Taylor’s Roth Trilogy, entitled Fallen Angel, shown on ITV in March. The series worked backwards like the books, so that the first episode was also the latest in time. I have never managed to read the Roth trilogy but this adaptation was spine-chilling television, with brilliant performances by Emilia Fox and Charles Dance. I am not wholly sure whether in the last resort it stands up to the weight of the nature v nurture debate with which it is framed, but as television it was both original and compelling.

 This is an extremely pedestrian blog. Miriam in Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which continues to delight and entrance me, has a character declare…

‘I do not write,’ said Jan slowly, ‘because I am perfectly convinced that anything I write would be mediocre.’ 

 I do not accept this philosophy since if writing is therapeutic then it is worth doing as I have argued before. And Richardson has the good grace and humour to undercut herself a little while later; Miriam asks…

‘Do you think it would be wrong to write mediocre stuff?’

‘It would be worse than wrong, child — it would be foolish; it wouldn’t sell.’

As I have no intention of ever selling anything the objection does not therefore apply. Nonetheless when I know that what I am writing is mediocre, even by my own standards, it feels a little like wading through treacle. The problem with spending time in the company of great writers is that those feelings are heightened.

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