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The Mystery of Love

The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death

Back from Latitude Festival.

My highlights were:

“The Jewel IS India”

I’m working my way through a recently acquired box-set of The Jewel in the Crown. For those unfamiliar with the famous 1984 Granada TV series, I say – go and buy this now. It is quite simply the greatest TV drama ever made – a ‘last days of the empire’ epic set in 1940s British India, and based on Paul Scott’s very excellent Raj Quartet. Every single one of its fourteen 50-minute episodes is a masterpiece of small-screen cinematics. Some of our finest screen (and stage) actors cut their teeth on Jewel, including Geraldine James, Art Malik and Charles Dance. The late Dame Peggy Ashcroft puts in a hugely affecting performance as a neurotic retired missionary. And Tim Pigott-Smith’s police superintendent Ronald Merrick is one of the most moving character portrayals I think I’ve ever seen, in any medium.

It’s a story of power, loss and claustrophobia. In its observations on British rule over an increasingly politically active Indian population it’s spot-on, and of course reminiscent of EM Forster’s A Passage to India (also adapted for the screen in 1984, by David Lean). For the most part the narrative follows the rulers rather than the ruled, but the servants, sepoys and rickshaw-wallahs of the ‘native’ population – as well as the looming menace of the ‘black town over the bridge’ – are a constant shadowy force in the background of the British Raj’s splendidly maniquered bungalows, cottages, parade grounds and stone churches. Incongruity, the sense of things that are not meant to mix, is palpable, and often blackly comic.

Unlike Forster, whose work relies on suggestion and sometimes oblique metaphor, The Jewel in the Crown seems to be quite open in its discussion of ideas around race, culture, power and sex, as well as employing larger-scale allegories. Often characters will come out with clear statements of their own identity or wider observations on society. But they are not just cyphers for ideas; we believe in them as individuals trapped in circumstance. And often these transparent articulations come as a relief after the immense claustrophobia and social awkwardness – the saying nothing – that the drama portrays as a social norm. Perhaps the most moving constant in the series is the silence of Hari Kumar, the pukka, English-raised Indian who falls in love with a white girl, is wrongly accused of her rape, and incarcerated without trial. From the moment he’s imprisoned, he refuses to answer any of his jailers’ questions in a kind of perverse but courageous act of defiance, as well as loyalty to his English lover.

Kumar’s principal tormentor is Pigott’s-Smith’s Superintendent (and later, Captain/Major/Lt.) Merrick – for my money the highlight of the series.

Merrick, like Kumar, is an odd-one-out. Whilst Kumar describes himself as ‘English and Black’, at home neither in India nor public school England, Merrick strides confidently around the Raj in splendid khakis… this is his place, and his time. On the face of it, Pigott-Smith creates a terrifying, sinister and brutal character – a sadist and loner, possessed with the conviction of the superiority of the white races, and perfectly ready to take things into his own hands.

But as the story unfolds, he becomes – if not exactly likeable – strangely sympathetic. As much a victim of circumstance as Hari Kumar, he’s a painfully self-conscious grammar school boy in the class-obsessed, pukka-sahib society of the British Raj. Whilst all the upper-upper-middle-classes and minor aristocrats gossip, snear, sip tea and so on, the business of ruling – or in this case, oppressing – is left to men bitingly dismissed ‘not exactly top draw’. The slow-release realisation that Merrick is homosexual adds another level of alienation to this incredibly complex and grippingly-portrayed character.

The Jewel in the Crown has its heroes too, of course.. in the mould of Forster’s Richard Fielding, Susan Wooldridge (who plays Daphne Manners), Geraldine James and Charles Dance all portray liberal English at turns confused and curious about the inequality of British India. And, of course, powerless to do anything significant about it.

There are dashes too of understated humour – Zohra Seghal plays the aristocratic Indian Lili Chatterjee with great comic timing and turn of phrase. If she’s not ‘bashing awwf’ to play bridge, then she’s ‘bashing awwf’ somewhere else.

I’ll stop there, before this elaborate act of worship turns into a proper essay. This is, I guess, my fourth time of watching Jewel and it certainly won’t be my last. Seriously, I cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s 14 episodes so you need stamina and the pace is sometimes slow and philosophical (no special effects I’m afraid, and not much swearing – I was almost shocked when I heard Geraldine James mutter ‘bloody bitch’ under her breath), but if you can manage The West Wing or The Wire, then you can manage this. It’s simply the best TV drama ever made, and a subtle, deeply moving examination of imperialism.

Ephemera of the month

Recent cultural consumption has included –

Generation Kill – 7-part mini-series from the makers of The Wire which follows a company of US marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Brutal and very funny. See clip below.

In the Loop – biting political satire with creative swearing and the best cameo ever by Steve Coogan. “Fuckety-bye!”

Re-read A Martian Sends a Postcard Home by Craig Raine, which I enjoyed a thousands times more than when I first read it. I don’t get why the bad rep.

Third Wish Wasted by Roddy Lumsden – recommended.

Wolf by MacGillivray. Haunting, uncomfortable, beautiful folk by Kirsten Norrie.

Cultural Review of 2008

Based on my limited intake, here are my top cultural victuals of 2008. Immediate thoughts: (a) I don’t read enough fiction; (b) I have no idea what’s hip in music anymore (although to be fair the wondrous Lykke Li is quite hip, I think). Oh, and with this post, a change of theme for this is yogic.

B O O K S

Fiction
Will Self Liver
Joe Dunthorne Submarine

Poetry
D.S. Marriott Voodoo Hoodoo
Jen Hadfield Nigh-No-Place
Iain Sinclair The Firewall

M U S I C

Albums
Lykke Li Youth Novels

MySpaces
Orphans & Vandals
Jeremy Warmsley

Concerts
Saul Williams @ Cargo
Lykke Li @ Latitude
The Renaissance Singers @ Temple Church

A R T

Barbican Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art

F I L M

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

T E L E V I S I O N

BBC Spooks
BBC God on Trial
BBC Wallander

T H E A T R E

The Shoemaker’s Holiday @ The Rose
1927, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea @ BAC

Indy returns!

 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hit our shores this week, and last night I trooped to the Barbican with my girlfriend and cousin to see it. I am a massive Indy fan. Palpable excitement outside Screen One. As the film certificate screen appeared, someone started whistling (badly) the famous John Williams theme tune, to universal chuckling from the capacity audience. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is set mainly in South America in the 1950s, was hugely enjoyable – in fact, it was a joy just to see the Indy franchise renewed after so many years. Here are some of my observations, critical and complimentary.

Warning: the following may include spoilers.

1. The dialogue, particularly in the first fifteen minutes, is very hammy indeed. Slow, too.

2. The film is full of in-jokes and references (even a few borrowed lines, such as ‘I’ve heard this bedroom story before’, from The Last Crusade). Whether there are too many is a matter of opinion.

3. Much-loved Indiana Jones tropes return. Examples: Indy in bespectacled college lecturer mode is interrupted by Dean (played by Jim Broadbent); Indy escapes from impending capture using diversion techniques (in this case, he starts a ruckus in a cafe between greasers and jocks to evade KGB agents); familiar map shot and thick red line is employed to indicate air travel; scorpions are added to the list of previous creepy-crawlies (snakes, rats, insects).

4. Cate Blanchett plays Indy’s nemesis, Soviet agent Irina Spalko, rather weakly.

5. Harrison Ford is not as young as he used to be, true. He’s still a convincing action hero, but he delivers many of his lines with none of the spark he used to.

6. This is a wonderfully produced film; visually engaging with some great set-pieces. But it doesn’t feel overly CGI, even at the end. You wouldn’t expect anything less from Spielberg and Lucas.

7. In the first three films, any fantastical or paranormal elements are restricted to the big set-pieces. The main action narrative keeps (just) on the right side of believable. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull veers from this course, a mistake in my opinion. Two examples from the same scene: (1) Indy’s young sidekick, Mutt, swings through the jungle on vines with a troupe of monkeys; (2) Marianne Ravenwood drives an amphibious vehicle off a huge cliff, landing on a giant palm tree which bends slowly to deposit the vehicle into a river. By limited the amount of paranormality, the third three films allowed us to believe for a while, with Indy, that strange occurrences might have a perfectly mundane – and scientific – explanation.

8. The introduction of Indy’s son, Mutt (Shia Laboeuf, above), as his sidekick worked brilliantly. The film hints frequently at the possibility of Laboeuf taking over the action hero role – most explicitly, and wittily, at the end, when he picks up Indy’s trademark hat. Mutt is a greaser, continually combs his hair, and carries a knife (his skill with this weapon mirrors Indy’s whip-play).

9. The reintroduction of Marianne Ravenwood (Karen Allen, also above) is a stroke of genius. She is by far the best female lead of all the previous films – the most beautiful and the most capable in a fist-fight.

10. As my cousin Alex remarked, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull manages to combine Spielberg’s obsession with aliens (ET, War of the Worlds, Taken, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) with George Lucas’s junglephilia. Watch the film, and you’ll see what I mean.

Horse logic

 

    

What is it about horses? They’re everywhere, it seems.

What set it off for me was Paul Muldoon’s latest poetry collection Horse Latitudes. Then came Bat for Lashes’ haunting song ‘Horse and I’, from her Mercury Prize nominated album Fur and Gold. Next, I was hosting a reading in Whitechapel and introduced two young poets, Abigail Oborne and Ross Sutherland. Ross delivers an extraordinary piece, ‘Horse at midnight’, which comprises over sixty consecutive adjectives to describe a horse. Then came Abi’s ‘Portraits of a seaside town’, a poem ostensibly about Whitstable, Kent – but really about…. Yes, you guessed it.

After work I drink beer and talk about how I think everything is a conspiracy, ‘I mean,’ I say, ‘I mean, take horses for an example, if you look closely you notice that all horses have exactly the same face.’

Another time, the title track from Patti Smith’s seminal album Horses came on the radio, whilst I was reading the late Bill Griffiths’ Durham & other sequences. And there they are again.

There is the clipping, trotting, and pony and trap
draw up.
James and Lisa come to applaud
and the horse shakes a bit at the childer hands.

See? Horses are everywhere!

HORSEWISDOM

Assuming I still have my sanity, let’s consider why the humble horse might be so popular amongst writers and musicians – of any age.

According to Wikipedia, which, alarmingly, is fast becoming my sole source of wisdom, the horse (or Equus caballus) is a large, odd-toed ungulate mammal. The horse has played a vital role in the development of human societies – as pack animal, in agriculture and in war. And it’s widely believed that contact with horses can benefit people with disabilities.

Okay, so we’ve established that horses are indispensable to us humans, whether we’re trading, growing stuff or killing each other. But that last point – that horses can benefit those with disabilities – points to a deeper, more psychological and symbolic understanding of the horse.

The horse, it is supposed, is a noble creature, blessed with intelligence and unusual sensitivity. Under human control, they can be tools and companions – from Black Beauty and My Little Pony to Mister Ed. Eating the flesh of the horse (hippophagy) is considered taboo in many cultures. It’s makruh in Islam and treif in Judaism. There is a rich tradition of horse worship throughout the world, particularly in Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. In the sprawling world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the land of Rohan is home to a horse cult. Its leaders are ‘horse-lords’, its warriors skilled riders with armour decorated with horse symbols. (Also, see this short video on ‘horse eroticism’ in the Peter Jackson film of LOTR.) Like much of Tolkien’s writing, this is fantasy fiction based loosely on historical fact. Rohirrim culture is Tolkien’s reimagining of an idealised Anglo-Saxon world. Remember that the first Germanic warriors to come to Britain, at the behest of Vortigern, were a pair of Jutes named Hengest (‘stallion’) and Horsa. Well, that’s what the Venerable Bede says anyway.

And what about the giant horse symbols carved into the very landscape by our ancestors, like the one at Uffington?

HORSEPLAY

Strangely, considering the long-established convention of the horse as noble and intelligent, an alternative tradition casts our long-faced friend as a symbol of lust, the animal metaphor for sexuality. Just think of the common phrase ‘unbridled passion’. The bridle controls the horse and ensures the dick remains safely within the trouser.

Chaucer, as you might imagine, loved this kind of stuff and would never have passed up the opportunity for a spot of comic word-play. In the Reeve’s Tale, the ‘swyving’ of the Miller’s wife and daughter by ‘yonge povre scolers two’ is provoked by the following episode, in which the Miller unbridles the students’ horse.

The clerkes hors, ther as it stood ybounde
Bihynde the mille, under a levesel;
And to the hors he goth hym faire and wel;
He strepeth of the brydel right anon.
And whan the hors was laus, he gynneth gon
Toward the fen, ther wilde mares renne,
And forth with “wehee,” thurgh thikke and thurgh thenne.

Thus perfectly setting the tone for the subsequent cuckolding of the Miller.

Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,
And on this goode wyf he Leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.

In a similar vein, Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête (1975) opens with explicit images of horse copulation – simultaneously setting the film’s uncomfortably erotic tone and prefiguring various human amorous encounters. Then of course there’s Peter Shaffer’s play Equus (1973), which counts that Potter boy amongst its recent leading men.

Study the English language (and no doubt others too) and you’ll notice that the horse features widely in its idiomatic expressions. Dark horse, high horse, horsing around, flogging a dead horse, from the horse’s mouth, even horseradish. I could go on…

Perhaps this is the best evidence of the way in which the horse has entirely pervaded human culture and society – as a tool, a slave, as animal companion and as symbol, a metaphoric screen onto which we project hopes, anxieties and desires. From contemporary music right back to the very first images daubed on cave walls. It’s a tradition with a future, that’s for sure.