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)

‘It should be easy, you know.  The actual facts are so simple.  I love you.  You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto.  Otto loves you.  Otto loves me.’

Oh My God!   Or as Mrs ‘Odge might say,  ‘Well, ‘eres a pretty pickle.’     

So why isn’t it easy?    Why shouldn’t people be free to love whom they like when they like?  Why do people get hurt?   Why do they feel guilty?  Why does it always turn bad?

Gilda is one of those delightful women, beautiful, intelligent, impulsive; a loving and free spirit with a real zest for life.  Otto and Leo are two sensitive and sensuous young men, who are both enjoying the  exhilaration of success.   Otto is a painter;  Leo an up and coming playwright.   They are young, and in love.   Gilda first chooses Otto and they live in a romantic garret in Paris.  Then Leo returns after a successful run in New York and she abandons Otto to live with Leo in London.  Then a year or so later, Otto returns and after a steamy night, she leaves them both and the next we know she has married the older, safer and rather tedious Ernest and become established as a New York socialite and art dealer.  Meanwhile, Otto and Leo get drunk, realise how much they love each other and go off round the world on a sequence of slow boats.  Two years later, they turn up in Ernest and Gilda’s apartment in New York, whereupon Gilda decides to leave Ernest and live with Otto and Leo in a ménage a trois.  

It is all so wonderfully romantic and amusing – so Noel Coward!   But is this so much a design for living as a strategy for loving?   And will it ever work?   One feels that it’s alright for Gilda.  She has the attentions of two handsome, successful young men who both adore her, but how will she cope with their love for each other?   It may be so exciting for the moment, but what will she do when they both get a bit fed up with her attention seeking and want a bit of basic male bonding?   Go off to Ernest again?   And can you imagine all three of them in bed together; the competitiveness, the jealousies?    Which of the men will go first and where?  How will she hold them together?  How will she satisfy two enormous egos?   For this to work, it would mean them all being terribly responsible and level headed.  When has Gilda ever been level headed?    

It’s not so much that it’s morally wrong.   It is, of course, but morality is a social construct;  there to protect us, not just an edict to be ignored.   Any one of us can love more than one person deeply,  but it is impossible to maintain an intimate relationship with two people for very long without resorting to a whole complicated web of secrecy and deception.  

When people fall in love, they expose the most vulnerable aspects of themselves.  It’s a courageous act of absolute trust and it risks nothing less than devastation of the personality through destruction of meaning.   Gilda and Leo and Otto may think they may have acquired sufficient experience and wisdom to maintain a stable triangle, but it takes enough time for any of us to sort out a relationship with one other person; how much more effort would it take to sort out a three-way intimacy?  And how long would it last without resorting to the rot of deception.    And finally, would it be worth it?  Some of the recent literature to come out of the middle east, illustrates the complex  jealousies of polygamy.  I can’t see polyandry being any better.    

Still, it’s wonderful entertainment and any good art; it makes you think. 

Design for Living by Noel Coward is currently playing at The Old Vic.  Lisa Dillon is delicious and delightful as Gilda (and that dress!),  though it was clear who was in charge.  The actors who played Otto and Leo were less credible.  And one had to feel some sympathy for Ernest, though his marriage to Gilda seemed less a meeting of minds and souls than a business arrangement, a mutual exploitation.  It was originally banned from performance on the London Stage.    

I thought it was going to be too clever by half, a criticism so often levelled at Stoppard and parodied in the character of Henry, the playwright.  Was his writing the real thing or just or just the defensive manipulations of an expert wordsmith, obfuscating, confusing, keeping everything ambivalent? 

Henry compares the writer to a sprung cricket bat.  Words fly of the bat and can go for miles.  They deserve respect, but is that the real thing or just the craft of make believe?  

And in love, what is the real thing?   Stoppard is a much greater teacher on the mysteries of love than any of the psychoanalysts; he shows us what it is like.  Henry is Stoppard,  defended, cynical, witty, prompting Annie’s comment  ‘You want to wait until it all goes wrong and then you will decide you were right all along.’

The script fizzes with insight and emotion.  Hannah Morahan as Annie captures the barely contained lust, a dangerous impulsiveness, as she goads Henry to take the risk that will prove he truly loves her.   ‘Touch me!  Anywhere!  I dare you to.  Do it now on the floor. Let them find us.’  And when she returns with the dips and gives him her finger to suck, the look on Henry’s face reveals just where that finger has been.  It’s raw stuff.  The shift from the thrill, the excitement to the most dreadful pain is expressed so well.   So is there something about the thrill that captivated Henry?   ‘Once you have loved, can you ever do without it?’

There is a dreadful compulsion about an affair, the awful conflict,  the compulsive danger of playing with fire;  ‘All that lying.’ ‘Happiness expressed in banality and lust’. ‘Passion fuelled by the fear and jealousy’.  ‘Why aren’t you jealous?’ It bothers me that you are never bothered’  Annie complains.  Of course, if Henry were jealous, it would demonstrate the power she has over him.  And isn’t power the source of the excitement, the thrill of it all?   Annie wants Henry to prove she is loved, is loveable; she is so insecure,  she can only exist in her lover’s gaze.  She exhibits ‘The exclusive voracity of love.’ 

Henry eloquently compares being in love to colonisation, I write just for you.  I write just to be worth your love.  It has taken him over, subsumed all of the meaning in his life.  He lives with Annie in their own bubble of happiness.  ‘Love is knowing and being known’  So is being in love an enhanced image of self, air brushed and in soft focus.  Aren’t  lovers really in love with themselves, as seen through the gaze of the other?   ‘When it’s there, you are happy and nice to know, but when its gone, you count for nothing and all you have is pain.   So Henry is dependant, even though he fights it.  They both are.  They have given each other power over their lives, the power to destroy each other. Anything you think is right; what you want is right. This is the extent of the dependency.    But human relationships cannot be so confined as Annie explains when she admits her infidelity – ‘this is not a commitment,  just a bargain’ – a deal and it gets complicated when you have an affair and enter into a deal with two people.  As  Annie says, ‘I have to chose whom I hurt more’  You are stronger, you can take it.  

Maybe being in love becomes a performance, an obligation that you have to act out, because the threat of loss is so great.  It’s better to destroy the hope than to live a love that gives false joy. 

 Henry finds it demeaning to be suspicious and jealous; he struggles to respond in what Stoppard calls ‘dignified cuckoldry’.   The unwritten rule of a relationship seems to be to respect the other’s privacy.  You must not trespass behind the make believe.  You must not try to discover the real thing; the ambivalent attachment of most human relationships. ‘What free love is free of is love!’   


The Real Thing was written in 1985 and has been playing at The Old Vic with Toby Stephens and Hannah Morahan as Henry and Annie.  Stoppard tackles an intense and important topic with consummate insight, wit and style.     

The seventeenth century was a bad time for women.  They had no autonomy, no rights.  They were treated as the property of men; they had to obey their husbands and fathers.  Fathers would promise their daughters to men they didn’t love for political advantage. Husbands would keep their wives locked away from temptation. Lords and wealthy landowners could seize anybody they fancied whether they were married or not. Rape was commonplace; men were rarely punished for it, but for women, it was disastrous; they were ruined.  Adultery and lust were just about the worst  sins a woman could commit; the penalties could be dreadful, whereas it was taken for granted that boys would be boys.

 A woman had to be sharp to survive,  she had to be adaptable, use all her feminine wiles to exploit the susceptibilities of men.  There was a lot of pretence.  Men feared this.  Seductive women were often accused of witchcraft.  In 1620, King James issued instruction to his clergy to ‘inveigh vehemently against the insolence of our women’.   

Thomas Middleton was a contemporary of Shakespeare.  His play ‘Women Beware Women’ explored this fear of women.  So when Bianca is raped by the Duke, she quickly sees advantage in this and abandons Leantia, who allows himself to be Livia’s toy boy and is richly rewarded for it.  And Isabella quickly learns to pander to the lusts of the fool she is betrothed to while all the time continuing her passion for her uncle, Hippolyta.  And Livia pulls the strings.  It is she who convinces Isabella that she is not really related to her uncle and removes the restrictions on her passion.  It is she who invites, she invites Leantia’s mother and her daughter in law, the newly-wed Bianca to her house, where she is taken by Guardino and shown erotic sculptures before being locked in and raped by the Duke.  It is not for nothing that Leantio’s mother, playing chess,  observes that Livia is cunning at the game. She finds it exciting and is favoured by the Duke.     

Accused of lust by his brother, the Cardinal, the Duke tells Hippolyta that his sister has been dishonoured by Leantia, who must be killed, freeing Bianca for marriage.  In her grief, Livia reveals Isabella and Hippolyta’s incest.  In a grotesque masked ball to celebrate the Duke’s marriage, Isabella is raped and dies, Hippolyta is murdered.  The Duke drinks the poison meant for his brother, the Cardinal.  Bianca drains the cup and dies.   The Cardinal is the only one left standing.  Good prevails in the end and the Cardinal inherits the throne. 

 Sexual politics in the seventeenth century is more about lust and greed, compromise and corruption.  Love doesn’t come into it, but fear does; the fear of condemnation by the people and excommunication from the church.  The moral of the play is simple.  Greed and lust never work, even if you are a Duke.   Even today, those with power and money, cannot get away with everything they want.  John Terry found this out.  So did Tiger Woods. 

‘I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply.  I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted.  I felt I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me.  I felt I was entitled.  Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them’. 

Linda Davies, a former investment banker, draws parallels with the financial crisis.  The Bankers were able to exploit their investors’ greed and lust for power to create an illusory wealth and politicians, reluctant to kill the golden goose, turned a blind eye.  The result; disaster on a global scale.

Women Beware Women is currently playing at The National Theatre.  Not a must-see!   

The U boats lay in wait for us as soon as we rounded North Cape.  There was only a narrow passage between the tundra and the ice, and as they closed in on the convoy underwater,  Stukas from their Norwegian bases, dive bombed us from above.  It was hell!   The sea was always rough and water washed over the guns froze immediately.  If anybody fell overboard, they didn’t last more than 3 minutes.’

I listened but couldn’t identify with Ron’s experience. It felt disloyal to do so. Hadn’t Dad been sent up to Orkney to risk his life protecting the Arctic convoys?  Hadn’t he crashed and nearly died up there?  Did he deserve to have his wife stolen, his family disrupted by one of the sailors he protected?   So I suppressed my curiosity. 

Many years later, I grew to love Northern Finland.   So when I spotted  ‘Running with Reindeer’, that described an exploration of the Kola Peninsula,  the destinations of the Russian convoys, over 10 years in the nineteen nineties, I had to find out more.  

But it was the author, Roger Took, who intrigued me.  Why on earth would a sensitive, rich middle -aged man, an art historian and museum curator, an establishment figure, want to spend so long in  what he described as one of the most unfriendly and inhospitable places on earth? 

But Took was a man obsessed.  In just one month, he learnt to speak Russian well enough to get by and arrived alone in the derelict port and abandoned goods yards of Murmansk with its grim government buildings and decrepit five story apartment blocks.   His stated purpose was to find the remnants of the Saami, the Lappish peoples, still living in the far north of Russia, and to discover how much of their culture still survived.  

But there was more to it than that.  Took went out of his way to court suspicion, discomfort and danger.  There was little that was uplifting in his book.   He trudges across the tundra in freezing rain with inadequate shelter and food, he falls up to chest into bogs, he spends a night in a filthy cabin where he witnesses a drunken homosexual gang rape,  he visits restricted inlets where decommissioned  submarines rot, their reactors disintegrating and turning the sea radioactive, he sees mountains devastated by open cast mines and  he records a landscape blasted and polluted by nickel smelting.   He does finds isolated pockets of Saami, but realises that their traditional way livelihood of reindeer herding, hunting and salmon fishing was ruined collectivisation, their culture corrupted by alcohol and prostitution. 

His is a grim tale with no redemption.   So why wasTook so attracted to this, the most devastated and corrupt aspects of civilisation that he returned again and again.  That question bothered me increasingly as I persevered with the turgid academic prose of his punishing narrative.  What was it about this guy?  There was an unrelenting darkness about him.  But why?  I had to consult Google.  

I was shocked to discover that Roger Took is in prison.  There is a long article, written for The Spectator in 2008 by Carol Metcalfe.   He had bragged in his blog about being part of a group of men, who raped and murdered a 5 year old girl in Cambodia.  Although Took dismissed this as fantasy, there were scores of incriminating images on his computer and he had been paying his step grand-daughter to have sex with him.  Wikipedia lists difficulties in his marriage, another woman he could not forget, sexual frustration and a fragile, sensitive personality.  Any review of his book, which was nominated for an international prize for travel writing, has been removed.           

 So were Took’s expeditions deliberately punitive or just an escape from the perversity of his privileged lifestyle?   Was his book an attempt to purge himself of some dreadful shame? 

What made Took a paedophile?  Did an unduly close and controlling relationship with his mother make committed  mature relationships with women seem too threatening.   Did the difficulties he had in his two marriages instigate the need for the kind of controlling sexual relationships, he could procure only  with emotionally needy and vulnerable children?  Did his celebrity and privilege create a sense of entitlement; the feeling that he could indulge his perversions?  

His book fails to provide any answers to these questions, but the final chapter does allude to encounters with teenage prostitutes in Murmansk in 1998.  Ron had also mentioned picking up Russian women in Murmansk; the Winston Churchill House of Friendships catered for the needs of foreigners,  but few sailors ever realised the terrible price the women would pay for friendship.

0thereader (Large)


Show! Don’t tell!  Let the reader decide why the characters behave as they do.  Keep them guessing. It’s what can turn a good book into a great one.  But, to be honest, I didn’t think The Reader was a great book when I first read it about three months ago.  The plot, I thought, was barely credible and the characters far too sketchy.  That was before I saw the film.

You’ll know the story.  It is 1958 in Berlin. Michael, just 15, meets Hannah in the porch of her apartment.  It is raining, he is ill.  She is kind to him.  When he recovers some weeks later, he returns to thank her.  They have an affair.  Hannah, much older,  is in control; she demands he read to her, then they make love, but their trysts end abruptly when she leaves suddenly without telling him.   

Michael next encounters Hannah when he is a law student attending the war trials. He is shocked to recognize her as one of the prisoners.  She was in the SS and was responsible with 7 other officers for transporting 300 Jewish prisoners. There was an air raid, the church in which their captives were locked, burnt down and all except one of them died.  The guards could have opened the church doors but they didn’t.  The other women accuse Hannah as the ringleader.  They say that it was her who wrote the false report of the incident.  To validate their claims, Hannah is asked by the presiding judge to provide a sample of her handwriting.  Instead, she admits she wrote the report and is sentenced to life imprisonment. 

But Michael guesses the truth.  He realizes that Hannah is illiterate.  That’s why she was so keen he read to her.  She couldn’t have written the report.  He could have saved her. 

Some twenty years later, after his marriage has failed and he is living alone, Michael again reads to Hannah via a Dictaphone and sends the tapes to the prison.  Hannah devours them eagerly and uses them to teach herself to read.  It is her purpose and a kind of redemption.  She has no family.  When her time for release comes up, Michael is contacted to take care of arrangements for her, but he is reluctant.  The night before he is due to pick her up, she hangs herself.   

Stripped down to its essentials, this is a raw disturbing story.  The plot is roughly sketched in broad brush strokes. The film, directed by Anthony Minghella, captures it brilliantly.  Kate Winslet conveys the nuances of Hannah’s defensive secrecy to perfection. David Kross, who plays the young Michael, convinces as the callow youth ridden by guilt.  The love scenes are tentative and caring without being salacious.  But the greatness of this film and indeed the book resides in how it raises questions, days, weeks after the credits have wound down.    

What was Hannah’s background?  Where was she from? She had no family. What had happened to her parents?  Why was she illiterate?  Did she have no education?  We suspect a deeply disturbed background, perhaps abuse. 

And why did she join the SS as a guard?  Was she afraid her illiteracy would be discovered.  Was it this fear of exposure that caused her to run away from Michael. She had just been promoted from being a conductor on the trams to work in the office. Her shame would be discovered.   

And why was her illiteracy such a deep source of shame that she would rather die than admit it.  Did it represent another shame?  Or was it more a fear that if she exposed her illiteracy, her vulnerability could be exploited? 

Hannah is an enigma. Her secrecy is her protection and power. Those who are so fearful of being exploited themselves, tend to exploit other people.  Hannah undoubtedly exploited the innocence of Michael for both sexual and intellectual gratification. She  devastated his life.  He could not love again.  But darker still, there were hints from the trial that she would target the weaker of her captives, get them to read to her, perhaps gratify her lust and then select them for the gas chambers. 

But could she have done that?  We are sympathetic to Hannah. We see her through Michael’s eyes, a kind woman caught up in an awful situation. She is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. 

We all need to know that the one we love is good and will care for us. We cling to the romance of it all, the make believe.  The reality can be impossible to bear.  So why didn’t Michael rescue her?  Why did he say nothing?  Did the trial strip away the illusion,  expose Hannah as a human being who could perform the most evil deeds if the risk of not doing so demanded it.  Michael had glimpsed her dark side. Did he fear her liberty?  Or was it the shame of exposure that he feared?  How could he admit that he had consorted, not only with a much older woman, but he had loved a war criminal and mass murderer?    

The only way Michael could reconcile his obsessive and enduring love for Hannah with the awful truth was to conduct their relationship at a distance by reading to her and sending her the tapes.  She was safe in prison. He could express his love with no risk to himself.  But then, the stark reality of her release fractured the cover. He had to look after her. His ambivalence was obvious. How could Hannah commit herself to a dependant relationship with anybody, let alone a man who could no longer care for her unequivocally. It was impossible. How could she manage outside prison. She had to kill herself.        


The Reader was released late last year.  Kate Winslet was successfully nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars.  

IMG_0002 (Large)Arcadia is perhaps Tom Stoppard’s best play.  Its eclectic blend of literary history and science bubbles and fizzes with ideas and wit.  Stoppard not only explores the shifting mindscapes between between science and literature, he tackles the divisions between classicism and romanticism, and deterministic and unpredictable theories of the universe.  

The play spans two centuries and is set in Sidley Park in Derbyshire, the large country home of the Coverleys.  What makes the play intriguing is that while one group of characters seeks to determine the future,  the other tries to reconstruct the past. But as the play builds to its tragic conclusion and a kind of truth is revealed, past and present converge and the quest for knowledge itself becomes the essence. 

The play opens in April 1809.  Thomasina Coverley, aged 13, is in the midst of a lesson with her tutor, a Mr Septimus Hodge.  Thomasina is precociously clever; she is not taken in by Septimus’ ‘literal’ evasion of her enquiry about carnal embrace.  But Septimus has his reasons to be evasive since it is he who has been observed in carnal embrace with Mrs Chater.  And now Mr Chater demands satisfaction.  To Septimus, this is tiresome.  

‘Good God, Man!  First your wife wants satisfaction; now you!.  I can’t be spending all my days satisfying the Chater family.’ 

To evade unnecessary bloodshed, he flatters Chater by praising his latest book of poetry, ‘The Couch of Eros’, even though he has previously written a damning anonymous review of his previous work.  Septimus knows about poetry.  He is a contemporary, a friend even, of  Byron.  Byron’s home, Newstead Abbey, is close by and Byron has been a shooting guest at Sidley. 

Fast forward two centuries.  Hannah Jarvis, a successful author is researching her book on the Coverleys.  Bernard Nightingale is interested in the possible reasons why Byron fled to Portugal shortly after his stay in Sidley Park.  Finding the letters from the Chaters, he assumes that Byron has killed Chater in a duel.  He is wrong.  There is no duel.  Chater and his wife go plant hunting with Captain Brice.  Chater discovers a new kind of dahlia but dies abroad after being bitten by a monkey.  Brice marries Mrs Chater.  Byron has his own reasons for his dash to Lisbon; probably fear of exposure of his ‘illegal’ homosexual liaisons.  

There is a tangible sexual chemistry between  Bernard and Hannah that manifests itself in  a lacerating repartee, so wonderfully created by Neil Pearson and Samantha Bond.  In fact the whole play seems to sizzle with sexual opportunity.  Septimus is clearly a red blooded romantic.  Not only is he susceptible to Mrs Chater’s rural charms, but he is infatuated by Lady Croom and, by the end of the play, is clearly not averse to his pupil’s budding attractions. In a clever interweaving of plot and time, Thomasina persuades Septimus to teach her to waltz on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, as Gus, in period costume, also invites Hannah to waltz,  but we already know that on that same night, Thomasina is consumed by a conflagration in her bedroom.   Septimus becomes the mad hermit in the park.  Byron prowls in park and gazebo.  Valentine conducts a futile wooing of Hannah.  Even his autistic brother, Gus, is entralled by Hannah and presents her with an apple to go with her computer.

The plot is set against a back drop of change.   The Enlightenment and the Millennium are  exciting times to be alive.  The intellectual landscape was changing along with the physical.  In many country houses in England, the formal continental gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries had been ploughed and planted with grass and trees, streams had been dammed up to create lakes, sweeping vistas have been opened up. The aristocracy were no longer hemmed in by the continental confines, of hedge and flower bed, they were  now masters of all they surveyed.   Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has created an environment that represented the freedom and confidence of an expanding empire.  But hard on the heels of empire, something different is taking place.  The sweeping vistas are being turned into something romantic, picturesque, clandestine even.    Rocky hillsides are being planted with trees, grottos are being created, ruins are preserved,  waterfalls constructed.  This is an environment of privacy, secrecy where assignations can take place and the feminine principles of sex and romance can prevail. The formal appearance of the great house is preserved, but in the garden, there are more exciting opportunities. Nancy Carroll’s Lady Croom simmers; she doesn’t approve of the changes, her new landscape architect, Mr ‘Culpability’ Noakes is wreaking on the estate.   

A similar change is occurring in the mental landscape of ideas.  Newton had created the formulae for a new order.  Thomasina is precociously aware of Newtonian calculus and philosophy.  ‘You cannot stir things apart.’  Two centuries before computers will do the job for her, she conceives the iterative algorithm, an algebraic equation the describes the nature of natural phenomena by encapsulating the forces acting on them, and then putting the solution ‘y’ back into the equation as ‘x’, to create a three dimensional model.  She uses it to build a model of an apple leaf, but two centuries later, the intense Valentine uses the same approach to describe fluctuations in the populations of grouse on the estate.    Everything, it seemed, could be described by mathematical rules.  If we knew the rules we could predict the future; the weather, politics, financial markets, illness, the natural world – everything.  The solutions may be complex, but a confident, emerging Empire understood these and could control them.  Since the outcomes were predictable, the future could be controlled.     

Two centuries later, it is so different.  We cannot predict the weather accurately, any more than Valentine can predict the populations of grouse on the estate because as Valentine expresses in his frustration, there is too much fucking noise. The new mathematics is the mathematics of unpredictability, chaos; how a seemingly disconnected event occurring a long way off can set in train events that make a fundamental change in whatever we are studying.  A butterfly flaps in wings in China and a hurricane occurs in North America.  A building society goes bust in America and creates a world wide credit crisis.  A junior minister has a meaningless sexual liaison with a call girl and brings down a government.  We are beginning to understand the how minor, seemingly disconnected chance events, can have profound effects.   

The greatest sounce of perturbation and noise confounding the outcome of human endeavour, is love.  And in Arcadia, the very air sizzles with sexual energy.  Bernard bounces with it, Septimus, his friend Byron, and Mrs Chater, Hannah fears being overwhelmed by it and defends herself strenuously,  but the innocents, Mr Chater and the tragic clever Thomasina are destroyed by it. 

Love can confound the most robust equations, generating chaos out of order,  threatening to disrupt the most ordered lives, but at the same time, making what seems remote and impossible, a frightening, risky possibility that could lead to destruction but also, if one keeps one’s nerve,  re-creation. 

Stoppard is one of most exciting living playwrites because he, like Septimus, Thomasina, Hannah and Valentine, has the sheer balls to expose the destructive forces within our society while at seeking to harness them to discover a kind of truth.




The breeze softens and fades down

where the Blackbird’s beguiling flute

stirs the heavy scent that lingers

 across the trance of summer’s eve.


April has lain her fragrant quilt

over the moss that clothes

the limbs and secret belly

of the darkening wood.


Nodes of eager bracken thicken, uncurl

and thrust through cobalt covers.  

Subversive tubers reach into damp hollows

that reek with the sex of garlic. 


An owl hoots!  Leaves burst from swollen buds    

And the dark roebuck, his mission complete,

withdraws silently across the blue shades

whose canopies stretch out to hide his shame.

In Fire, set in Agra and Delhi, a beautiful young wife reacts against her selfish, womanising husband by having an affair with her sister-in-law. Earth takes place in New Delhi where the tragic events surrounding the 1947 Partition are seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old Parsee girl whose beautiful Hindu nanny is in love with a Muslim.  Water, is the concluding film of Deep Mehta’s courageous trilogy that attacks patriarchal oppression and religious bigotry in India.  It is set in 1938 in the religious city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh and focuses on the plight of widows, who either have to die on their husband’s funeral pyre or marry their husband’s brother or live a live of poverty and seclusion in a widows ashram.       

Chuyia’s husband dies when she is just 8 years old.  Her father has no choice but send her to the ashram.  All of the inmates are older than her, some quite elderly. They have their hair shaven and are obliged to beg in order to eat.  Only one woman is allowed to keep her hair, the beautiful Kalyani, who is forced to prostitute herself to make extra money for the ashram.  Although religion is used to justify the terrible treatment of widows, the decision to expel them from their families is more about economics.  ‘One less mouth to feed, and the cost of four saris, one bed and a corner in the family home saved.’  

Narayan, a young lawyer and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, falls in love with Kolyani, but when he takes her across the lake to meet his family, Kolyani realises that Narayan’s  father is the elderly Brahmin she has been prostituted to.  She insists that the boat is turned around.  That night while Narayan goes to confront his father she walks into the water and drowns herself. 

Chuyia, who has angered the elderly woman who runs the ashram by her rebelliousness, is then sent across the lake to be raped by Narayan’s father.  To escape the same fate as Kolyani, one of the other women in the ashram gives her to Narayan so she can be brought up in freedom as a follower of Gandhi.  

Although the British abolished suttee, they could not intervene to end this barbaric institutional incarceration, but it is a time of change.  Gandhi’s intervention has brought about a law allowing widows to remarry, but traditionalists do not accept it. 

Water is an exquisite piece of film-making.  The scenes of water are beautiful; misty  lakes with rafts of lotus flows, the distant islands and mountains,  early morning ablutions of the faithful, the torrential rain.  But although the water looks beautiful, it is polluted and dangerous. Beneath the surface is sexual abuse and death.  “Learn to live like a lotus untouched by the filthy water it grows in,” one of the widows is told in the film.   


Water was made at the start of a new millennium.  Nevertheless, some sixty years on, the film raised such a storm of protest in India that there was a riot on the set and it had to be shot in secret in Sri Lanka.   

It was the 22nd  of February 1782. The war was not going well.  General Cornwallis had surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown the previous October.  King George III had been determined to fight on, but now parliament was clamouring for an immediate withdrawal.  The Whigs, sensing how vulnerable the government was, tabled a motion ‘that the war on the continent of North America may no longer be pursued for the impractical purpose of reducing the inhabitants of that country to obedience by force’. 


The Tory prime minister,  Lord North, who felt obliged to support the King, was in trouble.  The motion was essentially a vote of no confidence in him.  Many of his own party had crossed the floor to vote with the Whigs.  The outcome was going to be close.  If he lost, the government would fall and America would be abandoned.  He looked around desperately for the few members he knew he could count on to garner support.  Prominent among these was Sir Richard Worsley bt,  privy counsellor and accountant to the government.  But Sir Richard was absent. He was hiding.


The previous day, Lord Justice Mansfield, presiding on the King’s Bench in Westminster Hall, had delivered his verdict on the lawsuit for criminal conversation that Worsley had brought against his erstwhile friend and fellow officer, Captain Maurice Bisset of the Royal Hampshire Militia.  The reason for Sir Richard’s grievance was that Bisset had eloped with his wife and they were now living together as man and wife in London.  Not only had Captain Bisset committed adultery with his wife, but he had most flagrantly breached his gentleman’s code of honour.  Sir Richard wanted satisfaction and claimed damages of £20,000,  a huge sum that would be worth £25 million today and would have condemned Bisset to debtor’s prison for the rest of his life. 


The circumstances of the case were unusual.  Lady Worsley was the lively and attractive stepdaughter of the Edwin Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, and had brought a dowry of £70,000 into the marriage.  Sir Richard was a member of the government. While many titled ladies enjoyed adulterous liaisons with other gentlemen, there was a tacit agreement that these affairs should be conducted with discretion. Bisset and Lady Worsley had not only flouted these conventions, but Bisset had also abused his friendship with Worsley.  The wounded baronet was out for revenge.   


The facts of the elopement were clear. The couple had been living in the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall. Servants had been interviewed, the bed linen examined and witnesses had contrived to see them in bed together. There was no doubt of culpability. Seymour, Lady Worsley was Sir Richard’s chattel and Captain Bisset had made off with her. How was the aggrieved husband to be compensated?  What value could be placed on a privy councillor’s matrimonial honour? 


The defence adopted a unique strategy.  They attempted, with Lady Worsley’s assistance, to prove that she had not only behaved in a manner that was inappropriate for the wife of a nobleman, but she had done this with the active collusion of her husband.  A procession of aristocratic lovers were brought before the bench to testify that Sir Richard had contrived to display his unclothed wife before them and encouraged sexual liaisons which he had  observed from the concealment of her dressing room.  


Sir Richard, it would appear, was inhibited with the practical aspects of sex.  The lampoonists of the time certainly believed so. Perhaps witnessing the murder of a client in the Parisian brothel opposite his hotel window when he was just 18 had impressed him with the dangers of sex.  Perhaps he was homosexual.  Whatever, his interest in Seymour was more a possession than a wife.  He admired her beauty and he liked his well connected acquaintances to admire her as well.  Sir Richard was a collector of fine art and Seymour was the chief exhibit.  He even had a darkened cabinet constructed so she could be displayed.


Bisset had lodged with the Worsley’s when the militia were on manoeuvres at Coxheath in Kent.  He had free access to Seymour and they had fallen in love. She had even borne his child, which Sir Richard accepted as his own.  Sir Richard was fond of Bisset and seemed to enjoy their open triangular relationship his wife. But it was the events at the Maidstone Bathhouse that had clinched the case for the defence and the downfall of the baronet.


The day was unusually hot.  Sir Richard suggested that the three of them go to the bathhouse on the edge of the town.  This consisted of two private rooms, one for men and the other for women each equipped with a simple pool that they could wash in and a dressing area.  Worsley and Bisset finished their ablutions before Seymour when Sir Richard proposed they go round to the ladies side and take a peek at her while she was dressing.  According to the testimony of he attendant,  Sir Richard knocked at the door and cried, ‘Seymour, Seymour, Bisset is going to look at you.’ He then hoisted Bisset onto his shoulders so he could look through the window above the door. Bisset remained there for a full five minutes while Seymour exhibited her charms. 


The jury awarded damages of one shilling, the price of a pound of soap, a muslin neckcloth or a roast beef dinner.  Sir Richard had been totally humiliated.  He had been complicit in his wife’s degredation.  She was spoiled goods.  This was a public hearing and the next day pamphlets containing the more lurid details of the case were available on the streets.  Subject to such public humiliation, how could he take his seat in the House?


In the event that didn’t matter.  The motion was defeated by a single vote and the government limped on for just five more days until a further division on February 27th., when not even Sir Richard’s presence could have saved the prime minister. North tendered his resignation, but the King refused it.  He finally left office on March 20th  and the British came to recognise the United States of America, signing the first Anglo-American trade agreement the following year. 



The material for this blog was taken from Hallie Rubenhold’s fascinating new book,  ‘Lady Worsley’s Whim; an eighteenth century tale of sex, scandal and divorce.’    

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