Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one matter, only one finally worth telling.

But if this is your only story, then it’s the one that you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure . One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse.

This is the start of Julian Barnes’ latest book, ‘The Only Story’, which Joan gave me on Valentine’s Day. I was touched: romance is clearly not dead, but then I read further ……

Paul was only nineteen when he met Susan. She was forty five and had two teenage daughters. They were drawn to partner each other in the mixed doubles tournament at the tennis club in the Surrey village where they both lived. Although they were not the most successful tennis partnership, they made each other laugh. Paul had a car and would take her home after tennis. Their unlikely relationship developed. The found time to meet other than at tennis, they spent weekends away together and Paul would even make love to her in her bedroom at home while her husband, whom she derided as ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, snored in another room. They were both smitten, though it was such a high risk affair.

They put money into an escape fund and ran away together, renting a flat in south east London. At first things went well. They were happy. Paul got into law school and studied to be a solicitor. He felt very responsible and grown up. But then, he began to notice that Susan was drinking rather a lot. She said that she needed it to relax, promised to give up, but after a while made no attempt to hide it from him; she was more obviously drunk when he came home and more irritable. Then Paul found that she was deceiving him by going back to see her husband when he was away at Uni. The drinking became worse and along with it, her mental state, but they were both too dependant on each other to end the relationship.

Eventually after several episodes when the police were called and Susan was admitted to a psychiatric institution for a time, Paul realised that his mental health was also deteriorating. He had to get away. He took a sequence of posts abroad, but not before he wrote to her daughter to ask if she would look after her mother. But he always kept in touch with Susan, coming back to see her whenever he was in London. Susan never stopped drinking, never got better and died prematurely of liver failure. Paul never married. Their’s was his only story.

Julian Barnes never seems to tell a happy story. His plot lines are full of convoluted and tortured relationships that explore the nature of the human condition. ‘The Only Story’ tackles several monumental themes: intergenerational sexual relationships, addictive attachment, and self annihilation.

Separation from one’s parents is a vital rite of passage for a young person. Although Susan is not his real mother and her husband is ignored and emasculated, not murdered, Paul’s relationship with Susan, conducted while he is still living in the parental home, is what Freud would have described as oedipal and does not allow him to develop his own identity. Instead, he forms an intense attachment with Susan, which lasts all his life. Susan, despite bearing two children and established in the community, is also naive, but too anxious to manage alone without the help of alcohol. They are both like children who have never grown up.

Inevitably, their relationship fails. Perhaps it was too intense, too needy; it didn’t allow any personal space But as Susan’s love deteriorates into a tiresome habit and then into a kind of hatred, the alcohol addiction that comes to replace it disintegrates from a prop to become a means of self destruction. To survive, it seems, relationships must be a balance of independence and togetherness. The secret of life, as the child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott once said, is ‘to be alone in the company of others’, but that requires a degree of self reliance and responsibility. We can end up hating a partner either because they are too needy or because we need them too much. The sad thing is that, having risked all for their love, Susan and Paul had to make it work. They had made a trap for themselves.

Why do human beings tend to have this inclination to do the very thing that is likely to damage them the most? Is it that they fear not being able to do the thing they want to do so they pretend they never wanted to do it anyway? Or is it more than that? Do they just want to destroy the whole idea of self control and responsibility? Would they rather live for whatever gives them excitement or pleasure, even if that turns out to be the route to meaninglessness and self hatred?


It was a day like many others, Martin a successful architect, is due to be interviewed on camera by his long term friend, Ross, who works in the media, but he is somewhat distracted. He cannot seem to remember things and is not at all bothered by his recent recognition in the form of a national award. And there is a funny smell about him.

Stevie, his wife of some 20 years, is mildly amused. ‘No’, she commented, ‘I do not think you are losing your mind. It’s probably some mid life crisis. You’re probably having an affair.’

A look of alarm crosses Martin’s face as he flippantly replies, ‘Yeah, I’ve met this wonderful goat.’ Stevie nearly chokes with laughter and says she will call in at the feed store when she’s  in town.

Ross arrives, but soon becomes exasperated with Martin’s vagueness. ‘What’s the matter with you?’, he enquires. ‘You can tell me. I am your best friend. I am always here for you’.

At length, Martin admits that he is having an affair. Ross is concerned and sympathetic. He acknowledges that was the sort of thing that happened to men of their age, talks of the adventures they had had before they were married. He then asked what her name is.
‘Sylvia’, Martin replied.
‘So who is Sylvia? What does she do?’
‘Oh nothing very much, just walks about the field and eats.’
‘So she’s the open air type. But doesn’t she have a job?’
‘No, of course not; she’s a goat!’ He shows him a photograph.
Incredulous and deeply shocked, Ross exclaimed. ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re fucking a goat?’
‘But you don’t understand; it’s not like that. The fact is, I’m in love with her.
‘Jeez, you’re in deep trouble. You need to get some help’. You have to tell Stevie. If you don’t, I will.

The next day, Martin returns home from meeting Sylvia. Stevie is pacing the room looking deeply upset. She is holding a letter. It is from Ross. She reads from it. ‘This is very difficult to write, but I think you should know that Martin is in a lot of trouble. He told me yesterday that he is having an affair. That would be bad enough, but the fact is that his partner is a goat.

Stevie is angry, upset, she can’t understand it. Their son, Billy, who is gay, is also deeply shocked. Suddenly, their whole world has been turned upside down. Everything their marriage stood for has been destroyed. Martin pleads with her to let him explain. He describes how he stopped by the farm at the top of the hill and Sylvia trotted over and sort of nuzzled him.
‘It was her eyes, she had such beautiful eyes. I just fell in love with her. I couldn’t help it.
‘No I have never stopped loving you, but the affection I had for Sylvia was so powerful, I could not resist her.’

Stevie wants all the details and with every new revelation, she destroys another piece of their home, first the ornaments, then the paintings, the furniture until their living room was littered with the wreckage of their marriage. Then she leaves.

Shortly after, Billy appears. He is deeply confused and upset. In between outbursts of anger, he tells his father how much he loves him, they embrace and, overwrought by the emotion of it all, the kiss they exchange on the lips was more than father son affection. At that moment, Ross comes in, takes in the scene and tells  them both they are sick. There is an argument. Martin tells him that he is no sort of friend to write to Stevie like he did.

Then Stevie comes back, her dress is covered in blood and she is dragging the dead body of a goat.

‘How could you?’ Martin cried, ‘she never did anything to you’
‘Yes she did. She loved you.’

Edward Albee’s play is at one level a parody of infidelity; the devastation inflicted on a home, a marriage, a family by an extramarital affair. It takes us through the trajectory, the concealment, the shock of the discovery, the role of the well meaning friend and the attempts to explain, which only seem to make things worse. While documenting the destruction of the family, it questions the identity of each of the participants, the strong, secure husband, the wife who created their home, the son who is coming to terms with his homosexuality and the ‘loyal’ friend. All are blown apart by the revelation. But this is not the sort of affair that can be slowly pieced together by explanation and understanding, what Martin has done is so transgressive, an act so unacceptable it defies repair.


archersSo it’s all over.  Or is it?  Helen is out of prison.  The jury decided that there was not enough certainty to convict her of attempted murder or even wounding with intent.  Instead, the balance of evidence favoured the interpretation that she acted in defence of Henry, her son. Rob’s reputation is in tatters.  He has been branded as a rapist and bully, using manipulation and mind games to systematically undermine his wife’s self confidence. It now looks as if Helen will get custody of her children, though Rob will almost certainly be granted access.

This must be the most disturbing storyline to come out of The Archers; it’s a long way from cake making to domestic abuse.   It could be written as a play or a film though I suspect radio best  facilitates projections from our own experience.  As Sunday’s extended episode demonstrated, the members of the jury had each identified with the protagonists according to their own experience.  One had a friend in the same situation as Helen, another prided herself in surviving a coercive relationship, a third had lost access to his own children.  This story touches us all.  Irrespective of our gender, there can be few of us who have not felt manipulated by our spouse or who, at times of stress, have not sought to coerce or control our partners.  We know the territory. This story shows how risky marriage can be.  We could end up losing everything.

Helen stabbed her husband; her defence was that she was so systematically goaded and undermined by Rob that this was an accident waiting to happen.  Did he not actually put the knife into Helen’s hand?  But how often do things go the other way?  How many women have so provoked a man with threats of abandonment and removing the children that he has lashed out or found solace elsewhere, provoking what they may both most fear?

It is too simplistic to dismiss Rob as a villain.  We need to ask ourselves: what is it that makes someone like Rob behave the way he does?   Why does he need to be so controlling?   Is it insecurity?  Does he have a deep seated fear of abandonment?  Rob, an only child, was sent away to boarding school at a very early age by two ambitious and selfish parents.  We don’t know much about their relationship, but Bruce seems a somewhat tyrannical husband and Ursula the long suffering wife who learnt how to appease her husband while satisfying her attachment needs through Rob.

It is likely that the early experience of abandonment punctuated by spells of over indulgence left Rob him with a deep distrust of relationships, especially with women. The prediction was that they would always let him down, just like his mother. This would particularly apply to romantic or sexual relationships, and more so with marriage and children, where the consequences of failure are so much greater.  So Rob would have an exaggerated sense of ownership. Helen had to belong to him. If she wasn’t part of him, she would have to be rejected.  He was the man; like his father he had entitlement.  He could not tolerate her having a life of her own; it made him feel insecure.

People like Rob just have to get their own way.  They are often very charming.  They know how to make others believe that are special.  This is the entrapment.   They have such a fragile sense of themselves, they need somebody else and are more likely to attract and choose a partner who also has a fragile sense of identity and can be manipulated.   Rob found this first in Jess; she was 16 and had just taken GCSEs when he met her.  He was older and had just left university.  He swept her off her feet, married her quickly and whisked her off to Canada.  It was all very romantic, but Jess never conceived and the relationship cooled.  When they came back, he met Helen and soon seduced her with his charm.  Helen was a willing victim and that made him feel secure, for a while.

Insecure, frightened people like Rob are highly manipulative; they play mind games, set tests, issue veiled threats, make it clear what would please them or displease them and all the while increase the level of coercion and strip away any sense of individuality.   It is a form of mind control; a thought crime.   

Rob fenced Helen in; he distrusted her friends, her family, he disliked her going to work, he didn’t like her wearing anything too revealing and more sinister, he was so desperate to create a copy of himself that he forced her to become pregnant.  And when she was pregnant and they knew it was a boy, the control increased.  He smothered her in cotton wool, got his mother in to make sure she didn’t do anything herself and when she resisted, he persuaded her she was ill and needed antidepressants.  Her only way out was to leave him, but he would never allow that. The possibility that she might leave would feel like death to Robert and lead to desperate measures, like putting the knife in her hands. Such people are dangerous.

Our culture glorifies the romance of falling in love and getting married, but it is probably the most risky thing any of us ever do.   Falling in love is about finding someone who makes us feel good about ourselves.  People write about that ‘oceanic’ feeling of well being.  Everything, even the most mundane situations, is touched with charm.  Every love song that has ever been written is about us.  But do we fall in love with the other person or do we experience the illusion of falling in love with an idealised version of ourselves, as viewed through the eyes of our lover?    Our love object brings out the best in us just our regard brings out the best in them.  It is a heady and for many, once in a lifetime experience.  For a brief moment, we are one mind and one body. In successful and stable couples, it transforms into a kind of mutual interdependence that allows each partner to be themselves and grow independently, secure in the knowledge that they are loved. Trust replaces the need for control.

With couples that are less secure, falling in love possesses a quality of desperation.  Those who have a fragile sense of their own identity crave somebody who will make them whole; their other half.  Such couples cleave together and for a time everything is wonderful.  Rob and Helen were besotted with each other.  Rob was looking for somebody who would help him secure his purpose in live, a true partner, while Helen thought Rob was so wonderful, she was more than willing to be that person to the extent of giving over parental responsibility for her son and letting him take over her business.  Such love is not so much blind as drugged.  It is a wonderful illusion until the mist clears and they realise that their beloved has different set of needs, values and even morals and ethics, and understand that they are a mere mortal and not at all like the image one had created of them.  Then the only way they can hold on to the illusion is through coercion and control.

It can only end in tears.




Don Juan, the ambivalent one, the wild man women love to hate or hate to love, the one they want to tame or not, the libertine who liberates sexuality from the everyday shackles of marriage, the maverick who rejects the mores of society to please himself, the nomad who promises freedom but delivers loneliness.  Don Juan epitomises the essential conflict of masculinity, excitement or commitment; constantly on the move, he comes in through the window late at night but does not stay for breakfast. 

But who is Don Juan?  Is he a melancholic, searching for something he can never find and does not wish to?   Inasmuch as we all model future relationships on our first love with our mother, do we imagine little Juan’s mother as a tease, unavailable, the joy of possession snatched away from him leaving the unremitting quest but no trust.  So is the Don predestined to a perpetual  struggle between life and death; does he yearn for the love that will kill him, yet fear it?  His promiscuity embraces death but flees the pain.  Is he Peter Pan, forever in search the Wendy he must reject in place of Lilith, la femme fatale, who will seduce and kill him?  Or can we imagine him unfulfilled, getting old;  a wine soaked depressive regaling all who will listen with of tales of conquest,  sans teeth, his flirtations rendered impotent by repetition?    

Don Juan is complicated; he disturbs us.  On the one hand he represents excitement, power, liberty, joy, orgasm.  On the other he is a coward; fearful that relationships weaken him.  He will never  commit or belong.  He does not wish to possess.  He needs to explore, seek out, live the adventure, continue the quest. 

So what of Don Juan in the 21st century?   In an age when technology has uncoupled sexual urge from reproduction and given women control of their own sexuality, has he been rendered redundant by a tipping of the scales of sexual power?  Is there less risk in seduction and less meaning?  Disconnected from social responsibility, coupling is ruled by the thrill of the moment, the sensation.  So is everybody Don Juan?  Is it a case of every man and every woman for themselves?   We read that community and family are being eroded, less people are entering the commitment of marriage,  more children are raised by single parents who are less available as role models or guides,  young people are exposed to sex and pornography at a precocious age and are more likely to experiment with variations in sexuality.  There’s no mystery any more.   So has the Don not so much disappeared as become normalised, familiar and tamed and well, boring?  Is he just as likely to be gay these days?   Has our sexualised society become lost in adolescent fantasy?   Psychiatrists tell us that more males are phobic of commitment.  Sociologists report that career women cannot find partners to father their children.  At a time when loneliness and depression are the common ailments among the young, has romantic love lost some of its passion?


At the beginning of a love affair, one might ask oneself either ‘what am I getting into’ or ’what am I getting out of?’  Every entrance is an exit.    The only real question is,  ‘Are we going to go through (with it)?’ 

The pivotal moment in Emma and Jerry’s seven year long affair occurred just two years into it.   Emma was sitting on the bed in the Kilburn flat they had bought together, excited to see him again, when wistfully, nonchalantly but not so, she said.  ‘Are we going to change our lives?’  There was a pause.  Then Jerry replied, ‘we can’t’.  That was it; the start of the illness from which the relationship succumbed.    

They were both in their thirties, married, their children were still young; they had their obligations.   The time was crucial.  For Emma and Jerry, thirty plus represented a loss of freedom, the acquisition of responsibility.  No longer, it seemed, would life hold that frisson of possibility; it now stretched ahead, that slow decline of disillusion.   

In the affairs of men and women, time is of the essence. It both offers the opportunity and then snatches it away. That chance meeting, the inventive creation of space, free afternoons, rendezvous snatched between appointments; at the time, it seems their love could last forever; feeling expands time.  But in real time,  such intensity of passion is ephemeral. 

Falling in love is predicated on hope, and hope cannot be sustained forever.  If the affair goes on too long without a resolution, then hope dies.  The fulcrum of reality is followed by the inevitable winding down of the clock to when time together, like the flat Emma and Jerry rented, becomes empty and meaningless.  If an affair doesn’t go anywhere, if it doesn’t change the lives of the participants, it will die and something in them will die too.

The happily married never need consider these issues.  As the philosopher and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, comments, for them the future is the same as the past.  ‘Outwitting time and change, they construct a monument to continuity among the promiscuous ruins.  Valuing a relationship because it lasts, they live as if time proves something.’  

It was a poignant and clever device for Pinter to write the play backwards; time running in reverse.  The end of an affair is always there right at the start.  They both knew it was impossible that first time they kissed at the party; that’s what made it so risky and exciting.   They couldn’t!   But why not?  They were in love.  And love skews perception, makes the impossible seem plausible.   

Except it’s not.  Life is not make-believe, however much we may try to make it so.  There are incompatibilities; the taken-for-granted and the precarious, the tedious routine and the impossible risk – the thing that couldn’t be done.  There is safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  Of course we want to have our cake and eat it.  Why not, we protest, we are integrated beings. Isn’t our body but a representation of our meaningful soul and isn’t our mind the way we think about it?  Why can’t we be more honest?  

But in the affairs of men and women, honesty and kindness are at odds with each other, Phillips asserts.  ‘We lie because we can’t admit our desire and we don’t wish to hurt or be hurt. We lie in order to keep our options open, but also to find out what our options are.  The successful lie creates a fragile freedom.  It shows us that it is possible for no one to know what we are doing, even ourselves.  The poor lie – the wish to be found out – reveals our fear about what we can do with words.  Fear of infidelity is fear of language.’  

Monogamy is reassurance. It’s like believing in God.  Not everyone believes, but most live as though they do.  Erotic life, Phillips writes, is political, disruptive; ‘it rearranges the world, it makes a difference to the ways we and other people organise their lives.  Every infidelity creates the need for an election; every separation divides the party.  Friends may share, cooperate and be honest.  Lovers have to do something else. Lovers cannot be virtuous.’  

Rules by which we govern our lives are ways of imagining what to do.  ‘Our personal infidelity rituals – the choreography of our affairs – are parallel texts of our marriages’.   Successful affairs reproduce the loneliness of marriage.   Unsuccessful ones intensify it.  Serial monogamy, it could be argued, keeps us moving on, maintaining the hope, restoring meaning and renewing life.     

Adam Phillips would claim that ‘guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want.  It shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life, there is no morality.  Because we are always being sexually faithful to somebody, every preference is a betrayal.’  

He continues, ‘what is coupledom, but a sustained resistance to the intrusion of third parties.  The couple needs to sustain the third parties in order to go on resisting them.  The faithful keep an eye on the enemy, eye them up.  After all, what would they do together if no one else was there.  How would they know what to do?  Two’s company; three’s a couple.  Everyone feels jealous or guilty and suffers the anguish of their choices.  No one has ever been excluded from feeling left out.’ 

Betrayal by Harold Pinter is currently playing at the Comedy Theatre,  London. Kristin Scott Thomas is  wonderful as Emma; she was sexy, playful and very attractive; how could Jerry ever resist her.    The programme included  notes from Adam Phillips Book, Monogamy (Faber and Faber, 1996).

(please don’t read this as a moral statement, more an attempt at analysis)

What is the secret of the enduring popularity of the British monarchy?  What curious alchemy is at work?   I can understand why my father, the venerable Read, God rest his soul, was such a fervent  monarchist.   He was, as he frequently told us, one of Churchill’s few.  He fought for King and country, though I doubt the King was that impressed when he wrote off three Hurricanes without even seeing the enemy.   It’s enough to make a st-st-statesman st-st-stutter.   But sixty years on,  and a sequence of public relations disasters, the institution still has the power to generate a sense of awe and respect.   It’s not so much what the Royals do  – and the chief characters in this enduring soap opera certainly do a lot – it’s what they represent.   The Windsors play an essential symbolic role for our nation.  They create a collective sense of identity and continuity that we would never get from an ephemeral political leader.   They embody consistency and a reaffirmation of traditional values of duty, loyalty, charity, family and community.  The Queen is Commander in Chief of the armed forces and head of the Church of England and she brings a softer more human sense to both of those organisations.  I once met Prince Charles and was impressed by the way he could work a room and how he raised self deprecation to the status of an art form.

Some say the mere existence of the Royal Family is an affront to democracy.  Not a bit of it; they are its upholders.  They curb the power of politicians by subsuming the cult of personality from leadership, providing an alternative focus of respect and idealisation that prevents our elected leaders becoming too big for their political boots.  So the Royal Family prevent the creation of tyrants, just by being there.  The Queen’s in her palace and all’s well with the world. 

Next year, The Queen would have been on the throne for 60 years.  She acceded in a different time; she has overseen the most amazing changes, not just in terms of historical events or our way of life, but more crucially in our attitudes to all the important things,  family, marriage, religion, sexuality.   She has stayed firm and uncompromising through it all. She is the same now as she was in 1952.  She is the moral anchor for a nation, nay half a world, that has been buffeted by the winds of change.  Not only that, but The Queen is latest in a long line that goes back to William the Conqueror;   she embodies continuity, representing a historical notion of nationhood that goes back to the very beginning.  I don’t know ho children understand history now, but when I was a boy, it all hinged around the Kings and Queens.   Like the Observer’s Book of Birds or Ian Allen’s Great Western Railway locomotives (with its 30 Kings, 6000 to 6030),  I knew the images of each King and the dates they ruled;  I still do.  Some knowledge never fades.    Our national anthem is not about the power of the state, the revolution, or even the beauty of the country, it is about the monarch – as if The Queen (or King) is the essential symbol of nation and empire.   ‘God Save The Queen’.   Quite!          

Saturday’s Guardian, an organ that hs never admired inherited privilege and power, was so critical of the whole Royal Wedding extravaganza,  though they did approve of the royal minibus fleet; the need for cuts and all that!  They reminded me of prison vans.  In a sense, I suppose, they were.      

But there is surely nothing like a Royal Wedding to reaffirm that sense of unity and commitment.  In the Church of England, it seems, the beards always have the best words.  It was the bald and bearded Bishop of London who emphasised the commitment of marriage (as opposed to just living together) as a potent symbol of unity and responsibility for family, society and the nation, while it was left up to that aging Welsh hippie, Rowan Williams to remind Kate of her responsibility to have a baby, preferably male.         

The Germans may sneer at the English for their eccentric attachment to the Windsors, but had it not been for the last century’s two great German wars, they might have still been Saxe-Coburg-Gothas and William might have been assigned a German princess.  It was the symbolic significance of the Royal Family, who refused to leave London even though the palace was bombed, as much as Churchill’s indomitable rhetoric that got us through the second war.   The Germans began to recognise the flaws in their Fuhrer quite early on.  Theirs was not a glorious endeavour; they couldn’t prevail.  Our parent’s war had right on its side.  So despite the familial dysfunction and the flurry of  royal divorces,  the Royal Family is nearly as popular now as it was in the 1950s.   80% of the population support it.  Maybe it will be different when the Queen dies; there could be a backlash to King  Charles and Queen Camilla.  Could Kate Middleton will be the one to restore it; she has that quiet sense of dignity, that stability and composure, that regal quality that could capture the nation’s affection and identification.  

Friday’s Royal Wedding is a symbol of hope, hope for William and Kate of course, but also for the rest of us, though the cynics will remind us we’ve been here before.   30 years ago, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer.  A fairy tale wedding, they called it, but it was more like one of Grimm’s.  Charles and Camilla were still exchanging tokens of their affection up until the eve of the wedding.   But apparently Prince Philip had insisted Charles choose a virgin and an aristocrat.   There were not that many around.  So Diana, the nineteen year old insecure daughter of a dysfunctional family, was selected for sacrifice.  They hardly knew each other.  It was less of a romance and more an arrangement to secure the dynasty.   The runes were not good and it ended in tragedy.  Kate and William are so different.  Theirs’ is a love match, they met at university 10 years ago, they are the same age, they were friends before they became lovers, they have lived together.  They are like us, they laugh and joke at the same things and they renew our belief in love and family at a time when cynicism is considered clever.  

May their marriage be strong and happy and may they continue to bring a sense of joy to the lives of the rest of us.


 Lights up. 

Jean and Roy are stark naked on the bed.  Jean is lying on her back. Roy is sitting sideways with his back to her.  Neither moves. 


Roy picks up a packet of cigarettes and takes one out.

Wanna fag?


Roy gives her a cigarette, then lights the cigarettes, his own first

Good that, wannit?


It is a cold December evening in 1978, the winter of discontent.  They are in Jean’s bedsit in Kilburn and have just enjoyed another meaningless fuck before Roy has to shoot off back to his wife and kids.  Jean’s face is bleak, expressionless.  Roy is bored, eager to go.  He leaves her a can of beer.  A few days later, he returns for another go, but Jean isn’t interested.  He gets angry, violent, but Dawn arrives.  Then Val, his wife bursts in.  They fight and leave, breaking the bed.   Jean and Dawn depart  the scene of desolation and go down the pub. 

Later, they return with Mick, Dawn’s Irish husband and Len, a slow, kindly man who was once sweet on Jean.  They get drunk.  Jean sings Danny Boy, wistfully.  She has a lovely voice.  The others thump out bawdy rhymes and laugh.  ‘Oh, dirty, dirty!’  Dawn squeals. They’re having such a wicked time; such good craik!  Mick and Dawn dance, become amorous.  Len and Jean sit apart, merely observers.  Mick and Dawn leave noisily.  Jean breaks down, tells Len he can stay if he wants to.  But Len cares too much to fuck her and at the same time too much to abandon her.  He kisses her goodnight and settles down in the chair in from of the fire and waits for the meter to run out. 

Last year, an estimated 35% of British people were living alone, many in circumstances as squalid as Jean’s.  But living alone is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be good to have our own space, to think our own thoughts.  Solitude can be peace, contemplation, balm for the spirit, as long as you know that somebody is there.  Loneliness is something altogether different;  it’s that painful awareness of being alone in the world, that nobody cares, and life has no meaning. 

That’s what Jean suffers from.  It was better when she was able to go out onto the forecourt and chat to the drivers as she was filling their cars.  Now she is behind a screen, she takes the money they pass through the slit, tells them to type their pin in.  Nobody engages; nobody cares. 

There is no human connection for Jean except for her occasional night visitor.   But the callous devastation of it all shocks us to the core.   An act of love that should carry all the meaning in the world is desecrated, violated, forcibly stripped of any affection.  It might have been better if Jean  had been paid; but she had sunk so low, become so lonely that she puts up with any connection, however brutal and exploitative.  This is the Misrata of the soul.  If love means nothing, then what meaning can be found in any other aspect of life.   Why bother?   

‘Whatever’  has become the most hopeless word of our age.  It conveys a complete lack of care and meaning.  Whatever!  If anything goes, nothing has any meaning.            


It’s 30 years on since Mike Leigh wrote Ecstasy and the first time he has ever revived a play, but the theme is perhaps more relevant, more shocking, now than  it was then.  Loneliness could be seen as the most prevalent illness of our time, only we tend to call it depression or a variety of other medically unexplained illnesses.  If we are not to fail as a species, we need to find society, community, love and meaning and take it three times a day with meals. 

After a successful run at The Hsampstead Theatre, Ecstasy has transferred to the West End and is currently playing at The Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden. 

A darkened flat in a city somewhere in post war England, a strong smell of gas, bangs on the door, the body of a woman lying face down on the carpet in front of an unlit gas fire.  But Hester wasn’t dead, the meter had run out before the gas could asphyxiate her.  There was a suicide note to Freddy behind the clock on the mantlepiece.

Freddy and Hester had met a year ago at a golf club and fallen in love instantly by the ninth green.  Freddy used to fly Spits during the war and had not long been classified unfit to be a test pilot; impaired judgement due to drinking.  Hester was married to Sir William Collyer, the judge, and was bored.  Freddy gave her the excitement she craved.  She gave him, what – the sex, the stability, a safe haven.   They loved each other passionately, desperately – too desperately.  They clung to each other.  There was no meaning in life if they were not together.  Sir William wouldn’t give his wife a divorce, so flaunting public taste, they lived together.  There was so little money.   Freddy spent all his time on the golf course or down at the bookmakers having a flutter on the gee-gees.  Hester painted, but didn’t sell much.  Still they had each other.  So why did she try to commit suicide?  The fact was that Freddy had forgotten her birthday.  Not anything to kill yourself over, you might have thought, but in the context of their relationship, it was devastating. 

When people fall in love, they don’t so much love each other, they love themselves or an idealised version of themselves.   When the one they respect and admire, claims to love them too,  they become a  better person.  They identify with the idealisations and become more clever, witty, bright and  more attractive.  It is such an exhilarating, exciting, joyous state of being.   There’s nothing like it.  Nothing else means anything.  

It’s a wonderful delusion, but it’s still a delusion.  If they lose themselves in it and start to believe it, they can get lost, go mad.  But when they realise it’s a delusion, the disappointment can be devastating.  How can they ever again capture that meaning, that intensity of being?  And without that, what’s the point in living anymore?  

That’s what had happened to Freddy and Hester.  Their passion was so strong, so compulsive, that they had flaunted convention, shocked society and run away together, only to come face to face with the disappointment of reality.  ‘Is that all there is?’ 

So instead of dicing with death among the clouds, Freddy spends his days on the links and drinks himself to a slow death in a bottle of whisky, while Hester sits at home, bored, painting meaningless landscapes of holidays they will never have.  Sex is the only relief, but Freddy,  the flying ace, the high altitude test pilot, can’t get it up any more.  The spark has gone out of their relationship.  They are bored with each other but they cling on unable to face up to the dreadful disappointment; the awful desolation of meaning.  Theirs has become a toxic, deadly relationship.  Suicide is the only way out. 

Doctor Miller, struck off some time ago for some undisclosed misdemeanour, is the only one who understands the situation.   It is he, the embodiment of Sigmund Freud complete with German accent, who coaches Hester to be brave enough to take the option of life. 

‘There’s only one way out of this.  Give up hope and then you will find life.’

It’s only when Hester can accept that their relationship is over forever, that the deadly pain of clinging is far worse than the pain of loneliness,  that she can find the peace and the fulfilment that life can offer.  In the meantime she wanders in purgatory between the devil and deep blue sea.  

Suzy Godson wrote in The Times yesterday that it takes about five years to dismantle a relationship and move on and even then requires considerable courage.  For Hester and Freddy, their anguish lasted a day, before he left to be a test pilot in Brazil, but that’s theatre for you.           

The Deep Blue Sea has been playing at that industrial barn amid the flattened buildings and car parks of Quarry Hill, they call the West Yorkshire Playhouse.  I have never really enjoyed a play there.   Not that they don’t have good stuff;  the building has no style and sophistication, the food is grotty, the musak intrusive, the surrounds look like a bombsite 70 years on, and the plays seem to take on the same air of desolation and hopelessness. 

The Deep Blue Sea is not a great play.  The subject matter is important and difficult, the Freudian interpretation meaningful,  but it’s too long.  I felt it could have stopped at half time when Freddy announces he has accepted a job in South America and leaves; we didn’t need the working through of the last act.  The direction (who is Sarah Esdaile?) was not subtle enough; the actors couldn’t quite create the desperation and passion the situation demanded.   The dramatic scenes were unconvincing, the sex embarrassing, the doctor more weird than wise.  The only character I could believe in was the housekeeper Mrs Elton.  The audience greeted the ending with that wild enthusiasm usually reserved for concerts, but it wasn’t that good (4/10).  Even Maxine Peake was well, underwhelming; she belted it out like an exercise in drama school.   It was the last night.  At least that’s one thing that was good about the performance. 

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.

Every Saturday evening,  sixteen million British people turn on their televisions for two hours to watch Strictly Come Dancing, and turn on again the following night to see the results.  But why?  Why  should a dance competition captivate the nation so much?  It’s not Brucie’s jokes.  And I can’t really  believe that people turn on to see the redoubtable Ann Widdecombe express her desperate need for attention in one more ritual humiliation.    No, I think it’s the romance of it all.  

Dance is the physical expression of romantic love.  Every week, we witness transformation in dance.    Under the guidance of their professional partners,  C list celebrities; rugby players, singers, actors, even politicians, who have never before trod the fantastic light,  develop the confidence and attitude to dance.   And as they improve, the relationship between the couples gets closer until they almost seem to merge and move together as one.  It’s like watching people fall in love.   The women all lose weight and glow with passion; the men perform like Gods.   Urged on by the comperes and the judges, week by week they take more risk.    We fear the crash – but at the same time desire it.  This is compulsive viewing.      

Pamela Stephenson,  psychotherapist and one time comedienne, now one of the contestants,  described it like this.  ‘ Suddenly you’re in this hot bed of emotion,  locking loins, arguing, fighting, making up, hugging.   The professionals are very attractive, very intimate, very attentive, very emotional.  It’s very hard not to fall in love a bit and that for some,  can be very confusing.’ 

Contestants may enjoy the sensation of having their heads in the clouds but they have to keep their feet on the ground.  Nabokov once defined fame as a stranger caught in their own snapshot, but  they mustn’t let themselves believe in it.  Celebrities are commodities for projection.  We, the voyeurs, enjoy the frisson with desire and dread.      

Love is not for the faint hearted.   It’s a dangerous business; full of conflict and ambivalence.   Dance, like courtship displays in birds and mammals,  expresses the desire, the fear, the aggression, the affection.   

If you truly love somebody,  all meaning is invested in that person.  Even the most mundane aspects of life are enhanced by the most intense colours, textures and tones.  But if that love fails, that intensity suddenly evaporates and life loses its meaning.  It’s all or nothing, life or death.  So the dreadful danger of love is the disillusion and devastatation;  the death of the spirit that ensues from a catastrophic loss of meaning.   The professionals understand this;  they never really lose themselves in the dance, they have the technique to act ‘as if’. 

But how precarious for those learning to dance for the first time;  they stand on the edge,  make to go and then hold back, and their body can expresses the ambivalence and spoil the performance.  They lack the technique that experience provides, to make it up.  They have to dance with their heart or not at all.  That’s why the judges, especially the effusive Bruno Tonioli, are all the while exhorting contestants to let go.  Love can make any of us dance perfectly!      

But it can be  so difficult to trust.  If we give ourselves to another person, then we lose our autonomy.  We may crave the freedom of love, but we fear the dependence,  because therein lies self deception and delusion.   People don’t fall in love with another person; they fall in love with themselves or more accurately,  the enhanced image of themselves they see in their lover’s eyes?   

Fear of solitude and nothingness encourages us to take refuge in love, but fear of entrapment  may cause us to flee it.  Dance is the enactment of the ambivalent;  cynicism; the elevated eyebrow of fear? 

But let’s be positive. Love is such wonderful make believe.  Even by proxy,  it has the potential to create such poignant joy.   How dull life would be without that dangerous hope?      

So take care but not that much.  And keeeeeep  dancing!

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