film review


In 1968, Donald Crowhurst, an electronic engineer and inventor in his mid thirties, living in Teignmouth with his wife and young family, decided to take part in the Daily Mail Golden Globe challenge: to sail round the world single handed without stopping. He had even mortgaged his house and business up as security on a loan to pursue his dream and collect the prize. The problem was that Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, had only ever sailed as far as Falmouth before. Nevertheless, he managed to convince his sponsors that his trimaran design would be faster than other boats. Moreover his bid would publicise his inventions: The Navicator, a hand held navigation device, and a unique buoyancy aid for trimarans consisting of a self inflating balloon fitted at the top of the mast that uprighted the boat if it capsized.

Starting nearly three months after the other eight competitors, Crowhurst had decided to finish off the refitting of his boat while at sea. Just a week out, he encountered a fierce Atlantic storm and realised that he and his vessel, the Teignmouth Electron would never survive the seas he would encounter in the southern ocean. The gaskets leaked and the hulls were filling with water, the buoyancy device had come apart and the plywood construction could not withstand the buffeting of the waves. But with the hopes of the people of Teignmouth, not to mention the support of his sponsors and the enormous publicity he had attracted as a plucky amateur, he carried on down the Atlantic through the horse latitudes, much too slowly to have any chance of winning.

50 years ago, we didn’t have global positioning satellites; the only way people knew the speed and position of The Teignmouth Electron were the reports he sent back by radio telephone. At some stage, Crowhurst must have decided that, in order to maintain the interest of the public and potential sponsorship, he would need to fabricate his position, making out that he had speeded up, even breaking the record for the greatest number of miles sailed by a single handed yacht during a single day. But somewhere in the South Atlantic, he punctured one of the hulls and had to put into the coast of South America for repairs. He could not face the reality of failure, so he went out of radio contact, leaving others to assume he was now in the southern ocean, but in fact he was drifting around somewhere off Argentina. Seven weeks later, about the time a fast boat would have made it round Cape Horn and back into the Atlantic, he came back in radio contact. There was great excitement. There were only two other yachts in the race. Robin Knox Johnston was already home and claimed the prize for the first back. There seemed a good chance Crowhurst would overhaul Nigel Tetley and win the prize for the fastest circumnavigation, but that would mean his records would be inspected and found to be false, so he mooched along slowly in the Sargasso Sea waiting for Tetley to get back. Coming in a plucky third after eight months by himself at sea would still mean he would get a lot of publicity. Then disaster struck: 1000 miles from home, Tetley pushed his boat so hard to stay ahead of Crowhurst that his boat broke up and sank and he had to be rescued. Crowhurst just had to return to win the prize, but if he did that, his deception would have been discovered and he would be branded a cheat.

He went out of radio contact again for the last time. The Teignmouth Electron was discovered by the RMS Picardy drifting in mid Atlantic like the Marie Celeste. Crowhurst had gone; his body was never found. Had he committed suicide? Had he just fallen overboard? Or had he lost his mind because of the months of loneliness and intolerable stress? Examination of the boat showed that he had thrown his navigation gear and cut the trail line that he might have grabbed hold of if he went overboard. His log books revealed a confusion of philosophical ramblings on Einstein’s theory of Relativity, and a last enigmatic entry: ‘It is finished, it is finished; it is the mercy.’

His family were devastated and were only saved from total destitution by the winner and sole remaining competitor, Robin Knox Johnston, who donated his prize money to Crowhurst’s widow. Clare Crowhurst did not marry again and is still alive in her eighties. She has never believed that her husband had committed suicide.

So was Donald Crowhurst a fantasist, carried away by a dream of adventure and glory? Was he so lacking in self esteem that he needed to do something that he and his family could feel proud of? Did he feel stuck in the rut of his life? Probably all of those are correct, but his decisions were all about Donald; he never seemed to consider the impact of his actions on his young wife and family. He put his personal shame of concealment and loss of face above the devastation of his family. Yes, he was courageous to set out on such an adventure, but the braver thing to do would have been to admit he couldn’t do it after just surviving that first storm, or perhaps put the challenge off until the next year when he might have been ready, but that was clearly not an option. He was already in too deep water to pull out.

From a psychotherapist’s perspective, Crowhurst showed quite driven narcissistic behaviour; he put his own self aggrandisement and idealisation above any empathy for his family and friends and could not face up to the reality of his situation.  There are some indications from Donald’s early life that offer insight into possible mental instability. After he was born in India in 1932, his mother had so desperately wanted a girl that she dressed Donald in girl’s clothes for the first seven years of his life. Perhaps he never felt he could be loved for the boy he was. His father worked for the Indian railways, but when India gained independence, the family returned to England, leaving their savings invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which burned down in the riots. Crowhurst’s father never settled back in England and died of a heart attack the following year. Donald was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1953 he received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave in 1954 for reasons that remain unclear. He was subsequently commissioned in to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1956. but he left the same year owing to a disciplinary incident. All of this suggests some confusion of identity when he was very young, and some degree of impulsive behaviour as a young man. So perhaps Donald always had a tendency to get into deep water, which might have contributed to feelings of inadequacy and an intense need to prove himself even if it meant taking extreme risks and hiding the truth.

A new film about Donald Crowhurst, ‘The Mercy’ starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, has just been released. I enjoyed it.

Darkest HourThe continued vacillation among those who would rule us is so depressing. It feels like a capitulation, a retreat from a position of power and influence to a place of deep insecurity. David Cameron need not have called the referendum. It was more about political survival of the Tory government than what was in the best interests of the country. He was the man in charge and he bottled out. And now Mrs May, our self proclaimed ‘strong and stable’ leader, is being held to ransom by a European Union, who are no doubt fed up with Britain’s prolonged ambivalence over the whole European project. Many on both sides of the political divide complain and threaten to undermine the process. Their hearts may not be in it, but the people have voted. Britain is alone, cast adrift from Europe. So do we wring our hands and go back to Europe cap in hand and plead for a good deal or do we strike out alone and make the best of it?

It is not the first time, our little island has been alone. In May of 1940, Hitler’s panzers had raced through Holland, Belgium and into France. The total British Army, 300,000 men, were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. The House had lost confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had tried to appease the Nazis, and somewhat reluctantly appointed Winston Churchill to lead a coalition government.

Joe Wright’s film, ‘Darkest Hour, covers three weeks during the month of May 1940 from the time Winston Churchill was appointed prime minister to the evacuation from Dunkirk. Much of it was shot in the gothic gloom of The Houses of Parliament or in the underground war rooms in Whitehall. Gary Oldman was a surprising choice to play Churchill. He needed a lot of prosthetic work to transform his face and body. Nevertheless, his manner was convincing, though was Churchill really such a clown? Was he so volatile? Kirsten Scott Thomas, playing Clemmie, was a wonderful foil for his excesses. As she remarked, ‘he is just a man‘.

The action centred around the arguments within the War Cabinet.   Lord Halifax favoured contacting the Italians to broker a negotiation with Hitler. Churchill was having none of it: ‘You do not negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its jaws!‘. But he felt worn down by the reality of the situation and the sheer burden of responsibility. The most moving part of the film, totally fictitious and heavily criticised, was when Churchill hopped out of his car and took the tube for the last bit of his journey to Westminster. He got into conversation with the people in his carriage and asked them what they thought of the idea of negotiating with Hitler. They had no doubt. ‘Never‘, they all cried. Churchill then quickly drafted his famous speech to parliament and delivered it to resounding acclaim. ‘We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Within the next few days, the British Army was evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. And a few months later, the RAF delivered their own riposte to Hitler’s invasion plans. ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few‘. Such stirring stuff. I was born in 1945, just after the war. My father had served in the RAF. It was in my DNA.

Churchill’s genius was the way in which he sent words into battle to inspire a nation. Politicians since then have aspired to do the same thing, but, with few exceptions, they have lacked courage and conviction. And so, we have arrived at our current depressing state. For a current generation, ‘now’ might be seen as their darkest hour. Only this time, the threat has been self inflicted and there seems no plan and little sign of redemption

John McEnroe

But they were. It was like life and death to each of them. They were remarkably alike, both in history and temperament. Both were tennis prodigies. Bjorn Borg was just 15 when he played in Sweden’s Davis Cup team and beat the number 20 in the world. He was 19 when he won Wimbledon for the first time. John McEnroe was only two years older when they met on Centre Court. But how did they become so determined to be the best in the world? Was it all to do with their parents? While their mothers gave them the love and self belief, it was probably their strict fathers who forged that backbone of steel that meant that neither could ever give up. Confident of the stability of the family and the sole focus of their parents’ ambition, they had to be the best. It was unacceptable to be mediocre. Good enough was no good at all!  If they were not the best, they were nothing.

Tennis is a gladiatorial contest, in which you live or die by your own skill and will to succeed.  Perhaps it is only teenagers have that obsessional drive and dedication to satisfy the ambitious love of a demanding parent.

The young Bjorn Borg had a volatile temperament and could lose it when he was not winning and had unfair line call. He was trouble. It was only when his coach, Lennart Bergelin, who had also represented Sweden in the Davis Cup and ws once number 9 in the world,  told him to channel his fury into the next shot and not waste it by ranting at the umpire, that he began to change. He became the ice man, turning the air conditioning in his hotel room down to zero to keep himself totally cool, totally focussed. McEnroe called him the machine, but his psychological mechanism had a tightly coiled spring, that was only be released when he got on court. McEnroe probably had the same degree of aggression; his rants at the umpire released the pent up tension, allowing him to gather himself and stay in control.  The 1980 Wimbledon final was the perfect match: ‘the ice man’ versus ‘superbrat’.

McEnroe had the upper hand to begin with and won the first set. The commentators were already writing Borg off. But in second, Borg served an ace and announced his recovery with a vengeance. He won the third as well. McEnroe looked flustered and confused before the beginning of the fourth, but Borg said, ‘C’mon. It’s a great match’. That set was so evenly matched, it went to a tie break. Borg had six match points, but McEnroe came back each time, gaining two match points which Borg nullified. McEnroe eventually won the tie break by a phenomenal eighteen points to sixteen. They had to play a fifth, but that also went to a tie break, which Borg won. it was an amazing match, the like of which has never been bettered on Centre Court. McEnroe won the respect of the British crowd on that day and although he never stopped ranting, he was great entertainment and had many supporters.

Psychoanalysts might say that the McEnroe’s rants and Borgs tightly controlled narcissistic rage were Oedipal expressions of aggression at the harsh parent who had first call on their mother’s love. But if so, how did they grow out of it?

Borg played McEnroe the next year but lost and retired from tennis. He said at the time he didn’t mind losing. Something had changed. Perhaps he had nothing more to prove. He was persuaded to come back on the tour some years later but was never good enough. The fire had gone out. Perhaps getting married, living abroad and starting his own business distanced him from the influence of his parents. McEnroe is still playing tennis, competing in veterans tournaments and commentating on radio and television. For a time he tried to be a rock star, but it didn’t work. He has mellowed, become more thoughtful and developed an engaging, self deprecating humour. He doesn’t have to win any more. It is like they have both grown up. Tennis is no longer life and death. There is more to life. Their narcissism had been tempered by the realisation that they have to work with others to be at peace with themselves and successful in life. They have been socialised. Borg is a successful businessman with a big fashion company in Sweden. He is happily married and has three children. McEnroe, as far as we know, is also contentedly married with five children. Borg was his best man.

The Swedish biopic Borg/McEnroe has been released this and is in cinemas now ,

PROD-The-Child-In-TimeBBC 1 have recently broadcast a production of the play based on Ian McEwen’s ‘The Child in Time’ with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role. It was not an easy viewing. There can be few people, who could not identify with the panic of losing a toddler in the supermarket. One minute, Kate is there and playing happily, then she just disappears. Stephen runs round the store calling her name, he asks everybody, ‘have you seen a little girl in a yellow coat’. Nobody has. Then he has to go home and tell his wife, Julie, what has happened. She is angry, distraught. She blames him. They are incapable of comforting each other.

How can a marriage survive something like this? She moves out and lives by herself in Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast. He carries on; always looking for his daughter, never giving up hope. On one occasion, he visits Julie and on the way home calls at The Bell Inn. Looking through a window, he sees a young woman he recognises and smiles at him. She smiles back. When he tells his mother about it, she says, ‘Yes, I was there thirty years ago and so were you. I had just discovered I was pregnant with you’.

Stephen writes childrens’ books and, sponsored by his publisher and close friend, Charles, he sits on government committees discussing childrens’ literacy.  In a strange, somewhat disjointed development, Charles goes mad. He gives up his job, moves to the country and reverts to being a little boy, playing in the woods, climbing trees, building dens, only returning home when his wife rings the bell for mealtimes. Stephen tries to understand him, but ultimately loses patience. Confronted with the inanity of his behaviour, Charles cannot hold it all together and hangs himself in the woods.

Later, after Charles’ funeral, Stephen is at home asleep. He has unwrapped an intercom system and left one phone on Kate’s bed and taken the other to bed with him. He is awakened by Kate’s voice telling him that she is with mummy. The the phone rings to say that Julie is in labour.  He arrives in the hospital just in time for the birth of his baby boy. it feels as if this will heal all their pain.

McEwen writes harrowing psychological novels. At one level, we identify with the plight of this young couple. The book came out twenty years before Madeleine McCann went missing in Spain. Unless the author is a psychic, he could not known how much that   very public abduction gripped the nation for many weeks and months.  Madeleine McCann is still frozen in time.  She has never been found.

How heartbreaking to lose a child. Even if you find them years later, they are no longer the same person. A missing child never grows up.  Such extreme grief is a form of madness. Stephen catches glimpses of Kate; he hears her voice. Once, he is so convinced that he has seen his daughter that he goes into a school and kneels by the desk of a little girl who looks like her, only to be kindly convinced that there is no way she is Kate.

Maybe McEwen is playing with the idea of reality and madness. Did the child ever exist except in Stephen’s imagination? Did he and Julie both want a baby so much that his mind hallucinated Kate and her devastating disappearance?   Is that why the police were not more involved and why nobody in the store remembered seeing Kate?  Did Stephen really have a flashback of seeing his mother through the window of The Bell Inn?

Was Charles’ attempt to recapture his lost childhood in the woods a literary device, a metaphor for recapturing a lost or absent childhood. Stephen is, after all, a writer of children’s fiction. It’s his stock in trade? But why was the prime minister involved and the Child Education Committee? Was that also a device to underscore the emotional significance of childhood, so often ignored by tests and grades devised by educationalists?

We might suspect all of those, but the author cannot possibly comment.  McEwen’s skill as a writer lies in stimulating his readers’ imagination, not in providing the right answers.

isis-flag They are described as mad, mentally disturbed, confused, radicalised by fanatics, escapists from domestic trauma. This may not be necessarily so. The State, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last weekend, shows the Brits who travel to Syria to fight for the self styled Islamic State to be highly committed young men and women looking for a sense of meaning and adventure in their lives. Peter Kosminski’s documentary pulls no punches. The men, called the brothers, are told they are not expected to live for more than a year and they will die martyrs to the cause and live forever in heaven. Some are suicide bombers, but if it is Allah’s will, they go willingly to their death.

There is such a strange logic to their fight. As one instructor explains, they are not expected to win, but their actions will bring about the involvement and ultimate destruction of America and all it stands for and ensure that the purity of Islam will prevail. The brutality and violence are a means to an end. It is not always clear who is fighting who and for what. Shia commit atrocities on the Sunni, the Sunni retaliate. Meanwhile Assad’s forces and the Russians are bombing the cities, and terrorist attacks occur every week in the name of Isis throughout the western world. The women are not really expected to do anything except become brides to the brothers and support their fight. In essence, they succumb to state approved rape and prostitution. It is brutal, violent and chaotic.

But what is it that would make a middle class young person living a safe life in Britain want to risk their lives to fight for a cause they don’t understand. Do they crave adventure and glory? Do they want to become heroes? Is it a reaction to what they see as the meaninglessness and decadence of our western way of life? Do they feel victimised by their family or community and seek revenge? Is this the vanguard of a global revolution not unlike past insurrections in France and Russia, but mirroring other anti-establishment movements like Brexit or Trump? Or are they fighting their own internal psychological battle to self discovery? Does identification with Islamic State provides a fixed reference point in a confusing and insecure world, where little seems to matter? Kosminski leaves us with a lot of possibilities but no certainty.

A hundred years ago, millions of young men went cheerfully to France to fight another confusing war under appalling conditions. And even when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered on the Somme, at Ypres. Mons, Amiens and Passchendale, they still kept going back. Maybe they were too traumatised and fearful to do otherwise. I remember my father telling me that when he was training to be a fighter pilot, only 1 in 9 would survive. Nobody pulled out. Some twenty five years later, when the Cuba missile cruise brought the threat of global conflict to our consciousness, I and most of my friends said that if war broke out, we would volunteer to fight. It was only Tim who said he would buy a gun and shoot himself and his family. We were appalled, but with the benefit of hindsight, he demonstrated a grim sense of maturity and wisdom that the rest of us had yet to attain.

There is a difference between the global conflicts of the last century and the confused mission of Isis. Our parents and grandparents were fighting for their country. Lord Kitchener bristled his moustache and pointed his finger, ‘Your country needs you!’ and most obeyed without question. Later it became something more. As a fighting unit, facing imminent death every day, they could not let their mates down. Exhausted and traumatised, they needed certainties; orders they could not question. Tennyson captured the mood when writing about another war: ‘Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’ But when survivors talked or wrote about their experience, they often declared that it was the time of their lives. They had never felt more alive as when they were near death.

Fifty years on, an unprecedented period of peace and stability is being threatened again by conflict. It seems like a ‘lost generation’ of young people with diminishing prospects, brought up on adventure films and virtual war games, are looking for a sense of mission. The Islamic State might fill the gap. The danger and rigid discipline are all part of the attraction. They are a band of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ united by a collective delusion, not unlike the crusades of old or the jingoism of the Great War when the enemy was the embodiment of decadence and evil and their martyrdom would change the world. They are going for glory. They do not think of dying, only surviving; if not on earth, in heaven.

It is not my intention or wish to condone what is happening in Syria. I am writing this to try to understand the mindset of those who are fighting. We have to try to make sense of the unthinkable if we are ever to resolve it. Kosminski’s powerful documentary portrays a state which was once fuelled by idealism, but is now controlled for fear. The torture, summary executions, rapes and murders are as bad as the worst excesses of the Nazis or the Russian occupation of Berlin. Have the perpetrators have become so conditioned by what they have witnessed that they have no conscience? Have they become so traumatised, they have dissociated emotionally from the reality of what they are doing. Are they so fearful, that they have to be brutal to survive? Or is it just that they see the enemy as inhuman, an object that must be destroyed? Perhaps, all are correct, but who is the enemy and who isn’t?

War traumatises and dehumanises all those caught up in it. And British soldiers are not excluded. During the worst atrocities of the Peninsular Campaign, which Wellington was powerless to prevent, he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what the enemy think of them, but by God, they terrify me!’ And we are still only just learning of what went on in the detention centres in Iraq or in Northern Ireland.

One of the most chilling sequences of Kosminski’s documentary was when Shakira, the young doctor, sees 10 year olds being taught to stab a fresh corpse, hung up for their instruction, while her son, Isaac, and his friends play football with the severed head. Even the Hitler youth was not as brutal. When, Shakira tries to remonstrate, Isaac  accuses her of embarrassing him and goes back to his mates. It is only too easy to lose all sense of decency while those around you have lost theirs.

At that moment, she decides to escape. It seems surprisingly easy, but when she arrives back in UK, the choice was either being separated from her son and going to prison for years or agreeing to spy on her her own community.

While most reviewers praised the film, Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail penned a hard hitting attack on as portraying his film as a pure poison, a work of fiction and like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s, and 61 year old film maker, Kosminski, as a Oxbridge educated media luvvie, who was neither a veteran of Syria, nor had conducted a research mission to Raqqa or Aleppo. Stevens is also hardly a reliable witness, being best known for his biography of Kenneth Williams and his book on comedy scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Stevens. Jihadist recruits would have known what they were letting themselves in for. Not so, they were attracted by the idea and would not necessarily believe the evidence until they saw it for themselves, by which time, they were either dead or too far in to return. Stevens would dismiss jihadists as incomprehensibly evil or mad. This happens in every conflict, but it doesn’t get us anywhere except more slaughter and more terror.

Kosminski has made a brave attempt to get into the minds of the jihadists to understand their mission, their rejection of liberal democracy, and ultimately their fear and emotional dissociation. Violence breeds more violence. If we cannot try to understand it, we can only retaliate and escalate the cycle of retribution, as would be revolutionaries are driven underground to launch ever more frequent attacks on the complacent and decadent. To my mind, this documentary was so much more terrifying because the atrocities were conducted by recognisable human beings.

The state was screened on Channel 4. It was punctuated every ten minutes by advertisements that were so crass, they underscored what is deplorable about western consumerism and why people might want out.

The craft of David Hare is how he blends the political and personal in a mutual metaphor that illustrates a theme.  Plenty is a play about freedom,  the personal freedom of a woman to live a life of adventure in an environment where this was frowned on.  It’s also about boredom.   The political backdrop is the erosion of empire, the debacle of Suez and the realisation having won the war, Britain was no longer a great power in the world. 

Susan is a young woman with yearning for adventure.  During the latter years of the second world war, she served with the French Resistance; dangerous, exciting work, risking her life and snatching love whenever she could.   Back in England after the war, she could not recapture that same  excitement and adventure she needed working in an shipping office, organising events,  creating television advertisements.   She was bored.  Only Alice, who didn’t give a damn about what people thought,  provided the sense of fun she desperately needed.  But after a failed relationship with a street trader, Mick (played by  Sting),  she was admitted to a mental institution, and rescued by Raymond, a minor diplomat.  She marries Raymond,  but is almost driven mad by the boredom of it all.  She escapes and meets again the love of her life, a young airman with the codename of Lazare, whom she met and loved for a single night, but never forgot.   Their second encounter was a disappointment; they got drunk, made love, and he left …. again. 

For me, the play hinged around two vignettes:  Susan on a radio panel was asked why she fought in The Resistance,  she said she was fighting for freedom, but from her confusion, you guessed  it was not freedom for the French, it was her own personal freedom to do something that meant something for her.  In the other scenario, Sir Andrew, the Foreign Minister, told Susan that in the diplomatic service, it wasn’t conviction that mattered,  it was behaviour and conformity, being able to strike deals with people even when you didn’t believe what they were doing was right.  The British, he said, led the world in diplomacy.    

But Susan was such a liability as a diplomat’s wife.  Deprived of adventure, she became bored and dangerous and could easily spin out of control.  She hated being pinned down, controlled.  She needed the adrenaline rush, the excitement of a one night stand, the joy of shocking people, the risk of flouting convention.  She could not live in the rigid society she found herself in.  She never wanted to be married but was quite willing to invite a stranger to be father her child, but when he became possessive, she loaded her pistol and fired at him.  Raymond  was devoted to her, but she set about destroying his carefully ordered life. 

Was she mad?   Well, she was impulsive,  incompletely socialised and at times out of control.  She  didn’t fit in, she needed the freedom to express herself.  But she wasn’t deluded;  she appeared more aware of what was going on than those around her, only they didn’t dare to speak their minds.  Her analysis of the Suez fiasco was penetrating and accurate and had the power to shock and embarrass.  Her assertion that the foreign office was sidelining Raymond was absolutely correct.   Even her assessment of their marriage was devastating in its truth.  But Susan dared to say what others only thought and therefore she had to be suppressed.   Her behaviour could not be tolerated. 

We are not told why Susan had such a desperate need for thrills and excitement, why normal conventions bored her to destruction, why she said what she thought.  Was her psychic development forged by a parent, probably her father, who excited her with thrills and indulged her sense of adventure, but never wished to rein her in?   Did she spend her life seeking for that father; what he represented?  Was that her blessing  ….. and her tragedy?   

‘Plenty’  (1985) by David Hare, starred Meryl Streep, Charles Dance, Tracey Ullman, Ian McKellen,Sam Neill, Sting and John Geilgud.   The play was part of the recent David Hare season at the Crucible but I had missed it. 

Friar Barnadine: “Thou hast committed–”
Barabas: “Fornication– but that was in another country / And besides, the wench is dead.”

                                                                                          Christopher Marlow (The Jew of Malta)

What made people like Guy  Burgess or Anthony Blunt rebel against their society, betray their  country and spy for the soviet union?  Was it a reaction against the seemingly inexorable rise of Fascism, or was it the rejection of a brutal class system?   Did their experience of having to hide their homosexuality from a bigoted society cause them to turn against the very establishment they were supposed to be members of?   I blame the father.  ‘Another Country’  highlights the projection of the strict father to be found in the hypocrisy and snobbery of the English public school.  Guy Burgess was at Eton.  The school was run not by the Masters, but by the Gods, the only boys who were allowed to wear coloured waistcoats.  And Guy, the aesthete, aspired to be elected to the Pantheon (if only to display the waistcoat).   

Miranda Carter, in her biography of Anthony Blunt, claims that his miserable time at public school, fostered a subversive but also superior attitude toward British society. This potent combination – insecurity and moral superiority – fed into a belief that this chosen elite had the right to be exempt from mere conventional morality for the good of the masses.

The regime of the Gods was repressive, militaristic and essentially corrupt, a system designed to create the rulers of Empire.  Guy was beautiful, louche, artistic and openly homosexual. He was confident enough to love whom he wanted;  after all several of the Gods had been his lovers.  And he was clever enough to be feared.  But when Martineau is discovered in flagrante in the boiler room and hangs himself in shame, the Gods clamp down on homosexuality in order to contain the threat of scandal.  Guy at first escapes public humiliation by threatening to expose his lovers.  But as desperate as he is to become a God, he is also desperately in love with James.  And this love leads him to indiscretion and exposure.  So he shields James him from possible expulsion, accepts the blame and the punishment and is customarily debarred from elevation to the Pantheon. 

So, was it his humiliation at school that that made Guy Burgess turn against the English class system and betray state secrets to the Russians?   Was it rejection by a system he secretly admired and aspired to?  Was it envy, revenge, the feeling of the outsider?   Was it then, on the verge of his adult life,  that he realized how much the British class system relied on outward appearance and how devastating being openly gay was for a diplomatic career?  Was that the point that he allowed himself to become radicalised by his best friend Tommy Judd – an intellectually committed Communist?

Or was it in part his betrayal by his adored mother?   In a tender moment with James at night in a punt on the river, he discloses how he had to release his mother, trapped in bed after his father collapsed and died while making love to her.  Quite soon afterwards, she married an army officer. 

Another Country portrays the road to betrayal as a personal, emotional crisis, rather than an intellectual identification.  As a young man, Guy was portrayed as mischievous, sensitive, intelligent, in love, but tragically crushed by the juggernaut of the English class system? He was being bred to inflict rule and punishment in the real world by playing at Gods at school. And against this inhumanity he rebelled.

The theme was composed, as with all of us, early in Burgess’s life, and had to be worked through.  Always an outsider, he ended his life, a broken, isolated, embittered man, living in a seedy apartment in Moscow with only the faded sepia prints of Eton hanging on his walls to remind him of the turning point.     

‘Another Country’ made me think of my time at Taunton School.  In the early sixties, the ancien regime of the English public schools still held sway; Taunton was still attempting to produce young men to run the Empire, even though that institution was all but dismantled.   They still had a combined cadet force; they still do, I think.   Sport, an essential component of the school curriculum,  encouraged teamwork, loyalty and identification with the system.  The establishment still didn’t foster original thinking and expression; it indoctrinated.  At the time, I had a strong sense of duty.  My parents admired that system and I felt bound by obligation to uphold it, but I never felt that emotional sense of belonging that many of my friends of that time still do.  My life has been patterned by ambivalence.   

For one of my school friends, Maurice, Taunton school fostered a deep sense of entitlement and rebellion.  What he did at school could be contained. Now, fifty years on, he is pitted against the Justice system, the General Medical Council and the House of Lords all at the same time.  But for every one damaged by the system, there were nine created by it.  Sir Peter Westmacott, one time our ambassador in Paris, was one of our contemporaries at school. 

‘Another Country’, starred Rupert Everett as Guy and a younger Colin Firth as Tommy Judd.  It was  directed by Marek Kanievska in 1984.

Nigel Slater was brought up in the fifties as a shy single boy in a middle class family.  His father was the manager of a small factory and constantly irritable.  His mother was seriously ill with a lung complaint.  Nigel was lonely; his interest in food developed because he was hungry for some variety in his diet;  hungry for affection.  His mother couldn’t cook.  When in doubt, as was frequent, she made toast.    

On the night, she died, his father couldn’t tell him.  Later Mrs Potter (Joan) entered their lives as a cleaner.  She was brassy, canny and efficient, seduced Nigel’s father by the way she looked at him as she polished the brasses and how she wiggled her bottom as she dusted under the dresser.  She made housework irresistibly erotic.  And she was a wonderful cook.  Her steak and kidney pudding  was a work of art; her lemon meringue pie sheer sensuous delight.   

She caused quite a stir when Mr Slater took her to the Masonic Lodge dinner.  The ladies looked askance with grudging admiration.  ‘She may be as common as muck but she certainly knows her cleaning fluids.’   Smitten, Mr Slater proposes and buys a house for them all in the country.  Nigel is very unhappy and competes with Joan for his father’s attention by learning how to cook,  but Joan undermines him by forgetting the afternoons he returned home with a meal.   One afternoon, Nigel returns to find that his father had died mowing the lawn.  Joan announces, ‘it’s just us now, kid,’  but Nigel has other ideas.  He walks out of her life into the kitchen of the Savoy.  

This film emphasised the traumas that could befall teenagers when parents transgress family taboos.   Nigel, traumatised by grief for his mother, could not tolerate his father’s new found sexual interest in Mrs Potter and resented her intrusion into his father’s life.   He felt excluded, rejected from my own family,  betrayed by the one he should be able to trust.  He was a prisoner in his own home, yet he could not leave while his father was alive.  Home life not only has to be boring enough to want to leave it but stable enough to be able to.  To leave home, teenagers must neither need nor care for their parents.  Nigel could only do that after they had both died.   He became a wonderful chef and food writer,  but kept the idealised view of home alive in his writing and cooking. 

The film made me think about Stephen, my stepbrother.  His father, Ron, fought a successful campaign for custody after divorcing Margaret, only to put him his the care of first his own parents and then my mother, Doris, who had divorced Wallace to be with Ron.  But Doris resented his presence; ‘I’ve got one chance of happiness and I’m not having it spoilt by that little brat.’  Stephen and I  weren’t close; we never really lived together.  Mum had already left me in Taunton to board at school and then I got a sequence of live in jobs before going to university.  I didn’t really see Ron’s house as home; we’d already left home two years previously.  But Stephen must have been very unhappy.  He wrote me an letter after Ron died, disappointed and angry that he was never mentioned in the will.  Stephen came out in his late teens, about the same time Nigel acknowledged he was gay.    

Lee Hall’s rewriting of Nigel Slater’s book, Toast, the story of a hungry teenager, was screened on BBC1 on December 30th.   Helena Bonham Carter was so sexy as Mrs Potter and yet last week she was also perfect as the dutiful consort  in the King’s Speech.   Nigel’s stepsisters were upset by the portrayal of their mother, which they considered inaccurate.  This week, Agnatha von Trapp, the last surviving von Trapp sister, died.  She had reputedly never got over the fact that her father, Captain von Trapp, was depicted as a strict martinet in The Sound of Music.       

Bertie was never expected to become King.  David, his elder brother, appeared a far more charismatic leader.  People turned a blind eye to his dalliances with actresses and socialites as they had with his grandfather and nobody thought he would give up the throne for Mrs Simpson.  But he did.  So  with war with Germany looming and the country needing strong and effective symbols of leadership, Bertie was reluctantly propelled into the spotlight.   But Bertie had a speech impediment; he stammered.  His voice became paralysed with fear whenever he had to speak in public. 

The King’s Speech, which was released on Saturday and stars Colin Firth as King George and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, is a moving and humorous account of Bertie’s relationship with his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who helps him overcome his fears and deliver wartime speeches that rally the nation. 

The Royal Family have always been conscious of their role and their distance from the rest of society.   Some of the best bits of the film show how the King struggles to deal with Lionel Logue’s down to earth familiarity.  He is propelled to an apoplectic eloquence by the sight of Lionel lounging in the Coronation chair in the Abbey. 

Bertie is stuck between his instinctive desire for human affection and contact and his overwhelming sense of duty and obligation.  He is a fully paid up member of the firm, but he is also a loving father and husband and  needs Lionel as a friend as well as a therapist.  During the war, he had a close and understanding relationship with Churchill, who had also suffered with a speech impediment when he was younger and was also frightened of his father. 

Bertie, like many Royals, was brought up, not by his parents, who were always on duty, but by a nurse.  But the nurse preferred his older brother and was callous and cruel to Bertie, pinching him and depriving him of food so he lost weight.  David also used to tease him and his father,  King George V, had no patience with his stammering.  Queen Mary, his mother was stiff and distant, embarrassed by expressions of intimacy.  So Bertie, despite being second in line to the throne, had a lonely and abusive childhood.   

Bertie was also naturally left handed, but compelled to use his right hand.  This experience is not uncommon in people who stammer.    He had knock knees and suffered the pain of splints for years. 

The film revealed how stammering is not so much a fixed mechanical defect of speech but more an emotional disorder; the overwhelming effect of fear, fear of humiliation and with the loss of an effective means of communication with other human beings, of loneliness.

Bertie did not stammer if he sang the words, or when music was played into his ears at the same time.  When Lionel encouraged him to swear, utter the rudest words he could think of,  it threw Bertie into conflict; he was brought up to repress any expression that was improper.  But once he had permission,  he swore with gusto and no hesitation.  All these techniques facilitated emotional expression and eliminated his self consciousness.  He could communicate with his wife and daughters quite confidently,  but his brother, David and his father could readily reduce him to a state of paralysis.       

Lionel and Bertie remained friends for the rest of the latter’s life.  He was there to inspire confidence during all the King’s wartime speeches.  This was the Royal Family’s finest hour.  The audible and visible presence of the King and Queen in London during the blitz, their refusal to emigrate to Canada, the  bombing of Buckingham Palace, the young Princess Elizabeth driving ambulances endeared them to the British people.   But the King’s nervousness caught up with him.  Always needing cigarettes to relax him, the King died of bronchial carcinoma in 1952.

She didn’t believe in anything very much.  Communism, fascism, altruism, capitalism, collectivism; they were all the same to her; forms of subjugation and oppression.  No, what Ayn Rand believed in was objectivism, “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”   Rand argued for rational egoism (rational self-interest), as the only proper guiding moral principle. The individual “must exist for his own sake,” she wrote in 1962, “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”   

The difficulty is that she used her philosophy and the attention it attracted to justify her excesses of self aggrandisment and selfish behaviour.  Her’s was the philosophy of the narcissist.  Rand opposed every grouping that was not hers.  There had only ever been three great philosophers; the three A’s, Aristotle, Aquinas and Ayn Rand.  Her followers were disciples of a personality cult. 

Ayn was a formidable personality.  The film of the same name focussed on her love affair with the young Nathaniel Brandon, who together with his wife Barbara, had fallen under Ayn’s spell while callow psychology students.  Nathan was in thrall with Ayn and she soon exploited his infatuation to seduce him, but she insisted that they inform their partners and limit their relationship to a year, a strategy Ayn justified philosophically.  Of course,  it went wrong.  Barbara, not long married to Nathan, was deeply unhappy and found somebody else.  Nathan tired of Ayn’s demands and in turn exploited one of his own students.  When Ayn discovered this ‘infidelity’, she was furious.  How dare anybody betray her?   She slapped him across the face and excommunicated him from the Ayn Rand foundation;  assuring him that he could be nothing without her.

Ayn was so fascinating because she was so dangerous and forthright.  She demanded absolute devotion and control.  Hyperbolic and emotional, she possessed the passion of the hysteric.  She held her disciples in a vice-like grip of life and death; such was the unyielding power of her personality.  She could be effusive and kind to those who worshipped her, but woe betide anybody who ignored or betrayed her.   And her disregard for society was ruthless and uncompromising.  “What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?”  

 Ayn, was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in St Petersburg  and grew up during the revolution,  escaping to America in 1931.   The alienation of the Russian jew,  the insecurity and danger of the civil war, the mobile allegiances, escape to a foreign culture; all of these had implanted a backbone of steel;  the single-minded self-centered determination of a remarkable survivor.  Her philosophy emanated from a unique and unusual experience.  It is worth studying as an idiosyncratic social commentary, but so dangerous to adopt as a template for western society. 

But I wonder how much influence she has had.  Doesn’t her attitude justify the narcissistic culture and the decline in community and society over the last 50 years.   Hasn’t ‘because you’re worth it’ has become the catch phrase for the material meaninglessness of a generation?

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