Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Andrew Marr on Detective Fiction

This is a review of Andrew Marr's programme about popular fiction on BBC4.

Marr should have learned from his subjects how to do linear narrative. You can say “I talked to living detective story writers” without giving us a clip of their interviews. The programme gets better as it goes on, and the sets and photography are good - a soulless empty office to talk about the Kingsmarkham nick, interviewing Val McDermid across a table with cardboard coffee cups etc.

Agatha Christie cliché bingo: “Characters who are moved around like pieces on a chessboard… that least gritty of authors… not for nothing have these books been dismissed as snobbery with violence… murder was a genteel game as servants not clever enough to be serial killers…” (After the Funeral?)

In Christie novels there is almost no violence - a gentle tap on the back of the head…” An old woman bludgeoned to death with the knob from a brass bedstead? Another struck down with a brass sugar hammer? More than one character despatched with a stiletto under the base of the skull and into the medulla oblongata?

PD James: “There are no great problems of right or wrong.” (Orient Express?)

Marr lists writers’ prior jobs, without mentioning that Christie started her working life as a nurse and pharmacist. But as for structure: “She’s dancing in front of us.”

Talking to Sophie Hannah: “I don’t terribly like Christie - I find the characters too cardboard.”

SH: “The characters are presenting themselves as two-dimensional, everyone is presenting themselves as they want to be seen. They are absolutely not two-dimensional.” (It’s like watching a film - we only see them from outside and hear what they say.)

Marr: But Christie is “cosy - there’s not much blood and guts.”

SH: “There’s a powerful awareness of evil… the danger that any one of us might cross that line.”

He repeats the usual slur that all the loose ends are tied up at the end and life goes on as usual. But if there wasn’t a solution, what would be the point of writing the book? Is there a mystery without a solution? (Marsh’s Black as He’s Painted? Go on, tell me who did the murder.)

Previews also said Marr’s acting was appalling, but it’s not so bad. He’s OK on Scottish characters, and how else would you say “Giant Rat of Sumatra”? His Poirot is no worse than many audio Poirots. But he shouldn’t have tried to do Chandler as an American - Chandler was an Irishman brought up in England, who went to Dulwich College and sounded standard English (per recordings).

We get to social history in the last few seconds. “Historians in 100 years time… will turn to McDiarmid and Rankin. To this cheap, disposable - throwaway entertainment - that will outlast us all.”

Fantasy next time, then spies. 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Cosy English Idyll? Snobbery about Writers and Artists

All laid out by Calamity Brown...

How can The Guardian write about poet John Betjeman, painter Paul Nash and children's author Beatrix Potter? They are so popular, so English (code for “bourgeois”)! Their work forms the backbone of National Trust shops and the Past Times catalogue! (Yes, if you’re looking for raging snobs, the Guardian is the place to find them.)

As with Agatha Christie, the words "cosy English idyll" are never far away.

Reviewers of Over the Hills and Far Away, a life of Beatrix Potter by Matthew Dennison, have seized on his idea that her landscapes are all unreal because she grew up in London and the only countryside she visited was a grand house with grounds laid out by Capability Brown and deliberately old-fashioned dairies, stables etc. “Potter’s deep love of the countryside began with a visit to her Potter grandparents in Hertfordshire. The place was a rich man’s indulgence, a model estate in which olde worlde quaintness was studiously cultivated. Dennison points out that 'Beatrix’s first experience of country life… contained significant elements of sham.' The idyllic illustrations to her stories hark back to a lost paradise that didn’t exist."

How journalists love this idea! To exonerate Potter, you’d need to set pictures of the “artificial” grounds and “quaint” outbuildings next to ALL her work. (Including paradisal, idyllic scenes of sinister foxes and badgers.) Potter did her research when it came to depicting fungi and rabbits - wouldn’t she do the same for the landscape of the Lake District? In The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle the heroine Lucy leaves her village and climbs the mountain behind it - a specific mountain, Cat Bells. The illustration shows snow-covered peaks and a deep glacial valley quite unlike a Capability Brown park. A quick Google reveals that Potter’s father rented properties in Hertfordshire, and that Beatrix sketched and painted the farms and country around. The Potter grandparents’ home, Carnfield Hall, was mainly built in the 16th century and added to in the 19th - old, not “olde-worlde”. (It was later bought by Barbara Cartland.)

A sub editor (if the Guardian still has any) could have raised a query, and a recent graduate interning as a researcher could have found out all this in 20 minutes. But would you trust the biographer of an artist who got it so wrong about the actual art?

Writing about the upcoming Paul Nash retrospective at Tate Britain, the same paper recalls: “Several of the newspaper reviews of the last major Nash exhibition… in 2003 were typical in suggesting that he is best seen as part of an English tradition, that his efforts at surrealism are clunky (a Betjemanesque version of Magritte), and that the cubism he practised was merely a decorative, salon variety).” (Guardian Oct 2016) However, the review goes on to say that Nash was well aware of the modern movement, had an affair with a surrealist and that the forthcoming show refutes this particular accusation.

As for poor old Betjeman, the Guardian really had it in for him at one time.