Big bumbler is watching you

 

© Jersey Evening Post

 

Last week I was doing a job in southern Colombo, which entailed making a journey by taxi for 45 minutes either way in the city’s dense, slow-moving morning and evening traffic.  Having to spend an hour and a half in the back of a taxi each day meant I had time to do some reading.  I finished reading one book on Thursday and on Friday morning I started a new one, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1936).  It began:

 

It was a cold grey day in late November.  The weather had changed overnight, when a hacking wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.  It would be dark by four.”

 

If you changed ‘late November’ to ‘mid-December’, the above paragraph would serve as a good metaphor for the state of my soul that Friday morning.  It too was cold, grey, hacking, mizzling, pallid, wintry and dark.  For I had peeked at the BBC’s news website just before leaving my apartment and seen that the exit polls for the British general election, held the day before, were predicting a massive victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party,

 

However, as the final results came through and confirmed the predictions of the polls, I found myself thinking not of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn but of a novel published 13 years later: George Orwell’s 1984.

 

I recalled the lies, lies and more lies that’d poured, lyingly, from the lying mouth of lying liar Boris Johnson – lies about ‘getting Brexit done’ in a matter of weeks when the negotiations were likely to last for years, lies about his Brexit deal not necessitating a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom when it very obviously would, lies about providing 50,000 more nurses, 6000 more doctors and 20,000 more police officers without raising any taxes.  And yet a great swathe of the British voting public had swallowed his baloney.  I was reminded of the line in 1984 that went: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four?  Or that the force of gravity works?  Or that the past is unchangeable?  If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?

 

Then there’s the whole contradiction of having a creature like Johnson as prime minister – an office you’d think would require some minimum thresholds of wisdom, gravitas and decency.  There’s nothing in Johnson’s life story that suggests he crosses any of those thresholds.  Not his Droog-like behaviour with the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.  Not his promise to supply his old school chum (and future convict) Darius Guppy with the home address of journalist Stuart Collier so that Guppy could have Collier beaten up.  Not his journalistic career at the Times, which ended when he was discovered to have fabricated a quote.  Not the abuse he’s heaped on blacks, Muslims, homosexuals and unmarried mothers in the opinion pieces he’s written for the Spectator and Daily Telegraph – insulting single mothers is a bit rich of him, considering he may have left a few single mums behind in his own gallivanting, shag-happy wake.  Not his uselessness as Foreign Secretary, which resulted in the continued incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff in Iran.  Not his chumminess with the far-right American master-strategist and horror-show Steve Bannon.

 

Yet despite the mass of evidence to the contrary, Johnson managed to convince a sufficient number of British people that he was prime ministerial material.  As 1984 muses:  “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting them.”  Or more bluntly: “Ignorance is strength.”

 

Needless to say, it did Johnson’s cause no harm that his main opponent in this election was the somnolent Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.  I didn’t have any beef with Corbyn’s social policies but he promoted them with as much passion and charisma as a plank of wood.  He also came hideously unstuck with the main issue of the election, Brexit.  His party’s Brexit policies were nebulous and obviously designed to let Labour fence-sit and avoid tough questions, so that they wouldn’t alienate potential voters on either side of the argument.  As it turned out, Brexiteers voted for the Tories and Remainers voted for the Liberal Democrats (who were then crucified by Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system), leaving Labour with the worst of both worlds.  Corbyn’s crapness at addressing serious charges of antisemitism made against members and sections of his party worsened the situation even more.

 

When the scale of their defeat dawned on them, Corbyn and his lieutenants were quick to blame the unremittingly hostile coverage they’d received in Britain’s mainstream media.  There’s no doubt that the majority of the newspapers – owned largely by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and the 4th Viscount Rothermere, men whose ambition in life is to pay as little tax as possible or no tax at all – are excretable right-wing rags that were never going to give Corbyn a fair hearing.  Actually, if Corbyn was responsible for a tenth of the misdemeanours that Johnson’s responsible for, you would have heard the outraged screams of the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express from the moon.  But that’s still not an excuse.  After all, the Scottish National Party have next to zero support among the newspapers on sale in Scotland, yet that didn’t stop them getting excellent results on Friday.

 

It says something about Corbyn’s inadequacy that he failed to score against Johnson even though Johnson ran an election campaign so terrible it made that of his predecessor in 2017, Theresa May, look accomplished.  He chickened out of being interviewed by the BBC’s bear-like inquisitor-in-chief Andrew Neil, although all the other party leaders submitted themselves to grillings from Neil.  He actually hid in a giant refrigerator to avoid questions from Piers Morgan.  (Admittedly, if Piers Morgan tried to talk to me, I’d probably run away and hide in a fridge too, but then I’m not campaigning to become prime minister.)  He grabbed a mobile phone from a journalist and pocketed it so that the journalist couldn’t show him a photo of a four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital floor.  And whenever he did muster the courage to do interviews, he just rambled incoherently and incontinently.  His performance was dire.

 

Predictably, a few days before the vote, with the polls suggesting that his lead over Labour might be shrinking, Johnson went into panic mode and started bleating about EU nationals living in Britain who treated it “as though it’s basically part of their own country” – unashamed anti-immigrant dog-whistling, intended to get the racist low-life among the population out voting for him on the day.  And it’s no surprise either that far-right midget Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, or ‘Tommy Robinson’ as he likes to call himself, announced after the election that he’d joined the Conservatives.

 

So that’s it.  A man who’s crafted an image of himself as a harmless, bumbling idiot but, underneath the slapstick, is as devoid of moral character and as nasty a piece of work as Donald Trump, now has the power to do whatever he wants with Britain for the next five years.  Brexit is definitely happening.  The framework of EU regulations that once ensured things like wage-levels, health and safety and the environment got some consideration will soon be swept away.  Boris Johnson and his right-wing cadre will proceed with their disaster-capitalism project, which is to turn Britain into a deregulated, lowest-common-denominator Airstrip One – and Sweatshop Two, and Tax Haven Three.

 

To return to 1984 and paraphrase George Orwell: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a clown-shoe stamping on a human face – forever.”

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Du Maurier, du merrier

 

© Penguin

 

One nice thing that’s happened to me in the past year or so has been my discovery of how good a writer Daphne du Maurier was.  I’d long been aware of her novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971), but before 2018 The Birds had been the only thing by her that I’d read.

 

Then, two Christmases ago, my partner gave me a collection of her short fiction that had Don’t Look Now as its title story and I really enjoyed it.  Admittedly, I didn’t think the fictional Don’t Look Now was quite as good as the famous film that it inspired in 1973 – by a sad coincidence, the film’s director, the brilliant Nicolas Roeg, died soon after I finished the story – but I thought some of the other things in the collection, like A Border Line Case and The Way of the Cross, were crackers.  Now I’ve just completed another book of her short stories called The Blue Lenses and Other Stories, which was originally published in 1959 as The Breaking Point.  I’m happy to report that the tales in it are every bit as satisfying.

 

Much of the Don’t Look Now collection had a common theme, that of English people travelling abroad and having problems – by turns humorous, serious and horrible – as they leave their comfort zones and encounter the new and the strange.  This theme reappears in a couple of stories in The Blue LensesGanymede even uses the basic scenario of Don’t Look Now itself, i.e. an English visitor coming unstuck in Venice.  However, the tale isn’t a macabre one but a painful comedy of errors.  An older gay Englishman lusts after a teenage Venetian waiter and gets his comeuppance from the lad’s shady relatives, who happily lead him on whilst milking him of his money.  Ganymede has a few uncomfortable moments where you wonder if it’s being anti-gay or, alternatively, anti-Italian.  But du Maurier – herself believed to have had a lesbian relationship with Gertrude Lawrence – gets away with it, balancing our sympathy for the pathetically naïve Englishman with our satisfaction at him getting his just deserts from the Italians.  (For all his pitifulness, he is still a predator.)

 

The Chamois has an English couple travelling to some far-flung Greek mountains because the man, obsessed with hunting the goat-antelopes of the title, has been tipped off about the sighting of a notable and shootable specimen there.  To get to the peaks that are its territory, they entrust themselves to the care of a goatherd-cum-mountain-guide with a primordial appearance.  The woman, narrating the story, describes him as “wrapped in his hooded burnous, leaning upon his crook…” with “the strangest eyes…  Golden brown in colour…”  There follows a series of psychological revelations about the couple – the man hunts to make up for inadequacies in his psyche and the woman, shall we say, is simultaneously turned off and turned on by his hobby.  And a weird, almost mythical narrative unfolds wherein they find it harder and harder to distinguish between the beast they’re seeking and the man-beast who’s escorting them.

 

Similar weirdness occurs in the stories The Pool and The Lordly Ones – the former about a pubescent girl staying at her grandparents’ country house and experiencing strange dreams involving a pond in the woods beyond the garden, the latter about a misunderstood mute child who runs off with some unidentified ‘beings’ who come in the night while he and his family are holidaying on a remote moor.  Both contain dashes of W.B Yeats-style mysticism and Arthur Machen-style folk horror and are among the best stories in the book, even if in The Lordly Ones I saw the ending coming a mile away.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

The remaining stories are admirably varied.  The Menace is a comedy with a slight science-fictional element, about a movie star called Barry Jeans who sets hearts aflutter by communicating as few words and expressing as little emotion as possible onscreen.  Offscreen he’s not much more vocal or expressive and listlessly leaves all decisions to his bossy wife and his sizeable entourage of hangers-on.  Then some new technology ushers in ‘the feelies’, which promise to be as game-changing for the film industry as the arrival of ‘the talkies’.  In the feelies, film stars are wired to a machine that transmits their sexual energy – what Austen Powers would call their ‘mojo’ – to the audiences watching them in the cinemas.  Barry’s entourage are horrified when preliminary tests suggest that the inscrutable star’s mojo is almost non-existent and so they embark on a drastic campaign to pep that mojo up.  The Menace sees du Maurier taking the mickey out of Hollywood and I suspect it might have been inspired by some less-than-edifying experiences with the place – for example, she was sued for breach of copyright after Rebecca was made into a film in 1939.

 

The Alibi is the collection’s most twisted tale, about a well-to-do and respectable man who one day seemingly flips: “He was aware of a sense of power within.  He was in control.  He was the master-hand that set the puppets jiggling.”  He walks away from the routines, conventions and obligations of his upper-middle-class existence, invents a new identity for himself and secretly rents a room in a seedy part of London.  Initially, he plans to commit murder – but his Nietzschean madness subsides somewhat and instead he starts living a parallel life as an aspiring artist, using the room as his studio.  But his project gets knocked for six when the story reaches an unexpected and nasty conclusion.

 

Different again is The Archduchess, an exercise in magical realism.  It describes the final days of a ruling dynasty in a Ruritanian microstate called Ronda, somewhere in southern Europe, which has discovered the secret of immortality.  It’s difficult to know where du Maurier’s sympathies lie here.  Is she writing in favour of the dynasty and, by extension, of aristocracies and the status quo everywhere?  Or is she satirising it?  One thing I will say – her account of a devious revolutionary named Markoi, who edits Ronda’s main newspaper and uses it to seed the minds of the population with doubts, suspicions and eventual paranoia, so as to engineer the downfall of the ruling order, strikes a chord today.  Markoi seems all too familiar in a modern world of fake news, where Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News helped propel Donald Trump into the American presidency and, in Britain, the Barclay Brothers’ Daily Telegraph has just achieved a similar feat with Boris Johnson.

 

Finally there’s the title story, The Blue Lenses, which I found rather terrifying.  Its set-up is a familiar one, about a woman in a hospital recovering from an eye operation who discovers that things suddenly aren’t as they’re supposed to be.  But unlike the hero in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951), who removes the bandages from his eyes and finds that the world really has gone to hell, the nightmare experienced by the heroine of The Blue Lenses is ambiguous.  The surreal, if not grotesque things that she sees have a subjective quality and you wonder about her sanity.  What makes the story more effective is her decision to pretend to the hospital staff around her that nothing is amiss, while she tries to figure out what’s happening.  Her desperate efforts to stay composed heighten the horror of the situation.

 

As a collection, The Blue Lenses and Other Stories ticks off the checklist of things I want to find in a book of short fiction: clear, lucid prose; plenty of incident; a variety of tones and genres; and an obvious commitment at all times to telling an entertaining yarn.  It’s another package of du Maurier marvelousness.

 

Carry on abroad

 

© Penguin Books

 

I have a tiny sliver of a connection with Daphne du Maurier, the popular 20th century English writer responsible for novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971).  When I was at college in the 1980s, I knew her great-nephew very slightly.  I was better acquainted with her great-nephew’s flatmate, though, and a few times I visited their apartment.  Its walls were slathered with pictures of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely from Wham, cut out of popular teen magazines of the time like Smash Hits and No 1.  I assume the young du Maurier and his flatmate had stuck up these pictures in an attempt to appear ironic.  Unfortunately, it meant that thereafter when I saw his great-aunt’s name on the cover of a book, I couldn’t help but hear, by way of association, the irritatingly bouncy strains of such 1980s pop-dance numbers as Club Tropicana or Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.

 

Until recently the only thing by Daphne du Maurier I’d read was The Birds, a story that because of its remote Cornish setting feels even more claustrophobic and desperate than the North America-set film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.  However, over the festive season, my partner gave me a copy of du Maurier’s 1971 collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories as a present.  I’ve just finished reading it.

 

A novella about a grieving English couple who’re taking a break in Venice when they’re approached by two strange women – one of whom claims to be a medium – and told that their dead daughter’s spirit is trying to warn them against danger, Don’t Look Now has been filmed too.  Nicholas Roeg directed a movie version in 1973 and it’s now regarded as a classic, both as a horror film and as an example of Roeg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, which combined fragmented and elliptical narratives, haunting and recurrent images and scenes of both violent and sexual intensity to unforgettable effect.  Having seen the film several times over the years, I was keen to read the piece of fiction that’d inspired it.

 

My first impression when I started reading Don’t Look Now was that film and story felt like they belonged to different eras.  The couple, John and Laura, seem more modern, liberated and chic in the film, though that may be because they were played by 1970s icons Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.  On the page, John and Laura have an old-fashioned English starchiness and they try to get over their loss with stiff upper lips and a strained Keep Calm and Carry On cheerfulness.  The literary John and Laura are also in Venice as tourists, so they seem less confident and more vulnerable.  Their cinematic equivalents are there for work reasons – John is helping to restore a Venetian church – and thus know their way around better.

 

Then there’s the presentation of the story.  Du Maurier’s novella is a briefer and more economical account of the events I was familiar with from the film.  As it stands, it could easily have been made into a 45-minute TV play.  (The film clocks in at 110 minutes.)  It begins in Venice with John and Laura encountering the medium.  The death of their daughter, by meningitis, is mentioned retrospectively.  And the suggestion that the dead girl’s spirit is urging them to leave the city before something terrible happens feels like a simple device to kick-start the main story – wherein John doesn’t leave Venice, through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and further supernatural shenanigans; and then, when he tries to intervene in what he believes is the mistreatment of a child, something terrible does happen.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

The movie opens with a harrowing sequence showing the death of John and Laura’s daughter – not by meningitis but by drowning in a pond in the English countryside.  Roeg and his scriptwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant create a sense of a cosmic, all-encompassing evil at work.  Even as the girl dies, everything that’s still to happen in Venice seems to be prefigured.  We see John studying pictures of the Venetian church where he’ll be working and discovering a mysterious figure wearing a red coat in one of the slides.  When he spills water onto the figure, its redness spreads across the slide like a bloodstain.  John’s daughter is also wearing a red coat when she drowns and, later, so too is the child-figure John sees scarpering alongside the night-time Venetian waterways.

 

Indeed, in the film, John seems to make a connection between the two characters thanks to the coat – is the red-clad figure by the canals the ghost of his daughter?  But this association doesn’t appear in the original novella.

 

Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now is efficiently gripping.  But I think Nicholas Roeg’s brooding cinematic version, spinning a web of portents, visions and uncanny coincidences in which John’s doom seems pre-ordained from the start, is better – a work of art.  That’s despite the fact that, by changing the girl’s death from meningitis to drowning, the film can be accused of illogicality.  As the website British Horror Films observes pithily: “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

Actually, with Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, I preferred a couple of those ‘other stories’ to the title one.  And interestingly, nearly all of them share a similar theme, in that they deal with English people going abroad and coming unstuck as they pass out of their cultural comfort zones.

 

Not After Midnight is about an amateur artist taking a holiday in Crete in order to do some landscape painting.  In a manner reminiscent of the hero of John Fowles’ novel The Magus (1966), he encounters a strange man and becomes embroiled in some equally-strange activities touching upon ancient Greek myths.  However, while Fowles’ novel is an airy and exuberant affair where a Prospero-like figure orchestrates spectacular and elaborate ‘masques’, Not After Midnight is altogether grungier and more low-fi.  The man putting the events in motion is a drunken, debauched brute and, accordingly, the myths invoked concern “Silenos, earth-born satyr, half-horse, half-man, who, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, reared Dionysus, god of intoxication, as a girl in a Cretan cave, then became his drunken tutor and companion.”  Du Maurier doesn’t say explicitly what bacchanalian depravities her hero finally succumbs to; but as he’s a teacher at a posh English boys’ school, we can guess.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

In A Border Line Case, a young woman who works as a theatre actress tries to honour the dying wish of her father.  She goes in search of her father’s long-lost best friend, to tell him that her father had wanted to “shake the old boy by the hand once more and wish him luck.”  She finds the missing friend in the Republic of Ireland, living as a recluse on an island, mysteriously lording it over a cohort of local men and engaged in activities that are probably illegal and possibly bizarre.  Unlike the hapless protagonists in the other stories, the heroine here is a resourceful type.  She uses her skills as an actress to improvise, hide her identity and talk her way out of tight spots.  However, when at one point she suspects she’s stumbled across a group of closeted homosexuals (“They were all homos…  It was the end.  She couldn’t bear it…”), you feel surprised that a London theatre actress should be so wary and intolerant of gay men.  Still, A Border Line Case is well-paced and balanced nicely between an adventure story and a mystery one.  It builds impressively to a nasty, if slightly predictable ending.

 

The book’s most humorous story is The Way of the Cross, about a group of disparate English tourists making their way to and then around Jerusalem.  The characters and plot seem slightly contrived at times – it’s unlikely that a progressive left-wing lady who’s worried about the plight of the Palestinians should be married to a materialistic right-wing businessman, and a climax where two characters are stricken by unconnected illnesses and a third one suffers a serious accident stretches credibility – but nonetheless it’s an enjoyably satirical account of English folk abroad.

 

The final story, The Breakthrough, is the exception to the rule.  Its engineer hero doesn’t leave England for another country, although he is posted to the desolate flatlands and beaches of East Anglia.  There, an ambitious experiment is underway in a scientific / military laboratory, ostensibly involving computers, but really about capturing a psychic energy that surrounds people when they’re alive and escapes when they die.  The Breakthrough’s blending of the scientific and the supernatural calls to mind the famously frightening TV play The Stone Tape (1973), written by Nigel Kneale.  Bravely, du Maurier opts for a non-sensational ending that prioritises character over action or horror.  Admittedly, some readers might find the ending a bit of a let-down.

 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, because of the author’s precise and no-nonsense prose, her ability to pack a lot of incident into her narratives without letting them get too convoluted, and her determination at all times to tell a rattling good yarn.

 

Indeed, on the strength of this, I’m now starting to think of Daphne du Maurier as being in the mould of Stephen King – and not so much in connection with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  Yes, better the author of The Running Man than the authors of I’m your Man.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films