Shuggie Bain was the surprise Booker Prize winner last year. I was intending to read it so when I was lent a copy at the weekend I got stuck in. I’ve finished it now and I think I need therapy.
This has to be the most depressing book ever. Shuggie is the youngest child of a large family in post-industrial Glasgow. His mother is a drunk and his father is a serial adulterer and abuser who moves his family to Pithead, a hopeless dead town outside a closed-down pit, before shogging off to live with his new woman. This story starts miserably, carries on hopelessly and ends in a slough of despond. Shuggie is gay and everyone knows it; he gets it in the neck from everyone at school and all the neighbours. The family are poor enough without the drink but if his mother gets hold of the benefits book it all goes on booze and Shuggie goes hungry. Even so, the hopelessness might be bearable if there was some sort of community but the neighbours are awful to each other; the women stand around gossiping maliciously and slagging each other off and the men only come by when they want something – usually sex. Even the one or two decent men in this seem doomed to impotence. The two older children get out as soon as they can – the daughter marries and moves to South Africa and the other son decamps to a bedsit in Glasgow, leaving Shuggie alone to try and save his mother from herself. He fails of course; she dies, and Shuggie ends up hanging out with a lesbian girl who is his only friend as they both try to save her mother who is now on the game.
I couldn’t find one thing to like about this book. It was a story of unrelieved grimness, of dirt and grime, of skidmarks on pants and snot on armchairs; a story of mouldy bread and damp carpets; in short, an endless litany of disgust. It reminded me a little of We Need to Talk About Kevin, though without the murders; it also put me in mind of Orwell’s description of the shifts that poverty puts you to and how hard it is to look decent when you live in a shithole. I’m not saying it was a bad book but it depressed me so much I really do think I’m going to need therapy.
After all that! After all the expectation, after all the hype and the trailers and the podcasts, after all that had gone before, the twists and turns, the misdirection – I was expecting a huge, multiply-orgasmic explosion of revelations, gasp after gasp, plot twist after plot twist, from the final episode of Line of Duty. Instead what we got was a damp squib. To find out, after all this time, H – or the fourth man – wasn’t some criminal mastermind posing as a respectable senior officer, wasn’t the Chief Superintendent or the smug woman who took over from Hastings – wasn’t, in fact, Hastings himself (Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey, but that woulda been a twist!) but was in fact sad incompetent little Ian Buckles who was being used as the fall guy, was a bit of a let-down. His interview was a series of shrugs and ‘no comments’ – there were no major reveals, no car-chases or shoot-outs, nothing in fact resembling a climax. It was as if the curtain rose on a pile of charred embers and at the end of it all we were told that systematic corruption within the force was never pursued and hence never discovered. I was disappointed; I’d looked forward to it for so long and after all the build-up it was a real anticlimax.
Ah well. Onwards and upwards… life without Line of Duty was always going to be that little bit harder and I suppose the ending made it easier to bear. But that doesn’t prevent it from having been one of the best TV dramas in – well, probably ever; in this day and age, a programme that makes you concentrate every second in case you miss something vital is a rare gem. There’s too much ‘wallpaper TV’ – and I’m not talking about the Prime Minister’s apartment. What I particularly hate are the programmes which give you two minutes of clips showing you what the programme’s about when a single sentence would do; not to mention those which tell you what’s going to happen next time which thankfully Line of Duty never did. It had too much respect for itself.
When that landmark was passed, I watched the rest of Philomena, a great film based on the scandal of the Irish church selling the babies of ‘fallen’ women. Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan and introduced by Philomena everywhere as ‘Martin Sixsmith, News at Ten’, helps Philomena (Judi Dench) to find her lost son who was taken from her by the nuns and sold to American parents. It’s a shocking story, most of all because of the cruelty and hypocrisy of the nuns who could have reunited mother and son but lied and covered up the truth until it was too late. And after that I sat through a harrowing play about child abuse during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and even though I put on an episode of Motherland afterwards to take the taste away (this series has grown on me and now I love it) but the trauma stayed with me when I went to bed.
I’d had plans to go for a walk yesterday – the day before I discovered a beautiful bluebell wood – but those plans were scuppered by the weather so in the end I just went to Sainsbury’s and stocked up. In the rain.
I haven’t seen the last episode of Line of Duty yet so I’m spending the day trying to avoid spoilers. I feel like The Likely Lads spending all day trying to avoid finding out the football results and being told just at the last minute. No spoilers please!
David Bowie knew a thing or two about life. I was never a great fan; never painted my face with a lightning bolt or donned the outlandish gear (I was nowhere slim enough to carry it off anyway) but I do respect him as an artist. He knew that the only constant in life is change. Everywhere you look things are changing – growing, dying, being born, getting lost.
Leonard Cohen knew a thing or two about life as well, and loss is one of his major themes. Losing hope, losing love, losing your voice (when he went into the Zen monastery near Los Angeles he was known as the silent one; nobody knew who he was.) At Mount Baldy the monks meditated for up to eighteen hours a day and walked through the snow at 2 am to get to the meditation hall. I’m lucky if I manage eighteen minutes; I suppose walking through the snow at 2 am must have had its attractions for someone who’d spent the last thirty years in hotels, but it’s not for me.
Turn and face the strange is Bowie’s line. Greet it, welcome it, invite it in. Make it a really hot cup of tea – because there’s nothing certain in life but change. You think you’ve got it all set up, everything’s in place and you know where you’re headed – and in a heartbeat it can all go. ‘Gone, gone, utterly gone,’ as Richard Rohr puts it.
I used to be prone to nostalgia. Ah, those were the days… but nostalgia can be quite dangerous. It can keep you trapped in a past that probably never even was what it was. There are times when I yearn for the politics of the seventies, but then I remind myself that the seventies were also a time when sexism, racism and homophobia were normal, everyday occurrences. We can only live now and remember that now may be a time we look back on with nostalgia. What will I remember fondly about this time in my life? Impossible to say, but I’m sure there’ll be something. Meanwhile I fondly remember Bowie – and Leonard Cohen.
Every parent knows that at around three or four years old your child will go through a ‘why?’ phase. Doesn’t matter what you say, they just keep on asking why. Why is the playground? Well, it’s so children can play. Why? Because children like playing. Why? Because play is how children learn? Why? Because that’s the way children are made. Why? And so on. OH is the only parent I have ever known who has exhausted a child’s ‘why’ phase, delighting in these questions and giving the fullest possible answers until the child gets fed up and decides it’s just not worth it. I tried various tactics such as ‘why do you think it is?’ but the child was wise to that and just kept on pumping out whys until I asked myself why I’d ever thought being a mother was such a great idea. But I also think OH came up with the best explanation of the ‘why?’ phase, which is that the child just wants you to keep on talking and has fixed on the word ‘why?’ as the best way to achieve this.
But whether or not children want to know why, adults certainly do. I’ve noticed that no matter what problems I’m going through, they always ease mightily when I know why. If I can see a reason for something happening, the clouds part and the weight is lifted; even though the problem remains, it doesn’t oppress me nearly as much. And so it was last night. I went to bed later than usual feeling properly tired, closed my book and laid my head on the pillow, wishing I could do what I did when I was younger and read lying down with the book propped up beside me. I closed my eyes. Instantly my brain started jumping like a hyperactive child. I tried all the usual tricks; whole-body relaxation, mental exercises and slow breathing – nothing worked. I lay awake for ages and finally fell into an unsatisfactory doze from which I awoke around six. I was very perplexed by this. Normally as long as I’m tired enough I’ll fall asleep without too much hassle, even if I do wake early. I lay awake wondering what could be happening. Was it a delayed reaction to the jab? And then it hit me: it was the tea! Yesterday morning I had a strong pot of tea, my first for ages, and this was the result. Immediately I felt lighter and even though I didn’t go back to sleep, I wasn’t worried about it.
No matter what’s going on in your life, it’s important to know why. And that’s why philosophy matters: science can give us the how but only philosophy can give us the why. Though I must say it’s bloody annoying not to be able to have the occasional post of hot, strong tea without suffering the consequences.
I had the impression that sociology wasn’t much studied nowadays, but a cursory google search found more than a hundred courses, most of them sociology combined with other subjects but still. It was very much in vogue when I was at uni and I’m sure it’s a very interesting subject but sadly for my projected blog post, it’s still alive and well: I was going to have a rant about how, now that there’s no such thing as society, we’re not encouraged to study it either so there’s no such thing as sociology. But there you go. One thing I know is out of vogue is the study of philosophy – or so I thought, but a trawl of the nation’s universities brings up a hundred places you can study it. So what is really going on here and why do we never seem to hear about these subjects?
I’m fairly certain that in society as a whole philosophy is not much valued. I mean, when you work in the money markets what use are the novels of Plato? – to paraphrase the boring guy in Four Weddings and a Funeral. What use is it to spend three years of your life questioning the meaning of existence? I actually did some philosophy, though more or less by accident, when I studied French literature; Sartre and Camus straddle the boundary between literature and philosophy so you can’t do one without the other.
There’s a story told about the famous philosopher Socrates. He was walking one day with a pupil when a man came up to him and said, ‘What’s the point of philosophy?’ Without answering the man, Socrates immediately turned to his pupil and said, This man wishes to profit from learning. Give him a penny.’ Socrates had instantly divined that when the guy said ‘what’s the point?’ he was really asking, ‘Can I make money from it?’ and answered him accordingly. So what is the point of philosophy? Is there any point? Does it have to have a point? What’s the point of a new-born baby or a cloud that sheds no rain or a flower in the middle of a concrete slab? When it comes down to it, what’s the point of anything? And what do we mean when we say ‘What’s the point?’ What are we really asking?
On the whole I think we’re asking, what does it contribute to the world, by which we mean to society. What use is a flower growing in the middle of a patch of concrete? You could argue that it gives us hope in the midst of despair but what if nobody sees it? What’s the point of it then? What’s the point of a new-born baby? Yes, it gives the parents joy but you can’t eat joy, can you? And yes, it will grow up to be a useful and productive member of society and take care of its parents in their old age, but that’s way in the future. What’s the point of it now?
Some parents seem to take that attitude to their babies, farming them out to nannies and packing them off to school until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. Some societies take that approach to women, that all we’re good for is to provide children and do all the messy jobs men don’t want to do. The point of a woman is her function; the point of a baby is as a potential adult.
Balls. The point of everything is itself. And the point of philosophy is to study that.
There’s only so much you can do as a writer to make things happen. Some days all you can do is sit with pen and paper and wait for the Muse to show up. You write a sentence or two, sigh, gaze out of the window, look back at the paper, try not to feel completely useless and rack your brains for something that will bring inspiration. Should you read something? Go for a walk? That sometimes helps…but in the end all you do is check your phone for the zillionth time and give a deep sigh at the absence of anything helpful.
Still, I can take some comfort from the news that Johnson is in deep trouble. For all his allies try to smooth it over, it’s not going away; the BBC are sticking by their story about the bodies, presumably because they believe their source is more reliable than Downing Street. It’s reassuring to know that the BBC can still hold the government to account and have not been entirely weakened by the revolving-door system of journalists taking positions as government advisers. John Humphrys must be doing his nut; the rottweiler of the Today programme must be blenching at this cosy relationship.
Speaking of Humphrys, he did his last stint on Mastermind last night, a job he’s held for an astonishing 18 years. It must be difficult to read the questions fluently and quickly without tripping over your words, and I often wonder who writes them; I guess they must have specialist writers for each subject. Last night was the final, in which we got to find out about the contestants’ backgrounds; two of them admitted to being highly competitive including one woman who had been voted off The Weakest Link a few years ago and wanted to expunge that shameful memory; she regularly cycles 100 miles a day and never lets her children win at games. The other was a company directer who runs marathons in the Arctic. Now I may be the idlest of couch potatoes but such competitiveness ain’t healthy – if only because you suffer so much when you lose. Neither of these people won, and the woman looked utterly devastated. The best attitude is to look on it as a fun challenge and not mind so much if someone else wins.
So farewell then, John Humphrys, and thank you for reading the questions so fluently and presiding so benevolently over the Black Chair. Not so Jeremy Paxman; though I enjoy his slightly waspish avuncularity and occasional bursts of admiration for contestants’ cleverness, it wasn’t so clever of him to say, as he did the other day, that any fool can read the news. It just caused me to think that if that’s the case, any fool can read out University Challenge questions.
I think that, the way things are going right now, Boris is on his way out. So far he’s been Mr Teflon; mud has been thrown – mainly by himself – but it hasn’t stuck. But I predict that pretty soon he will make one gaffe too many and that will be that. It may even be something small that undoes him, but so was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. The day of reckoning is coming, and soon; the question is, who will we be landed with instead?
There’s an unappetising line-up here. Worst-case scenario would be Priti (‘bring back hanging for all refugees and protestors’) Patel. Next on the scale of awfulness is Gove. I can’t see Gavin Williamson making much of an impact on the race to No 10 but Hancock and several other front-runners would all be equally dire. And then we have Sunak. What to say about him? There was a moment back in 2020 when he almost looked personable and in a dim light almost appeared to have socialist leanings; but once you turned the light on and there were revelations about his wife’s massive wealth which he concealed, thus probably breaking the Ministerial Code (but who cares? Ministers break that every day) he looks just as corrupt and sleazy as the rest of them. But whoever eventually wins this race I think it’s only a matter of time before Johnson is done for. It’s not only everything he’s done so far; it’s the latest accusations by his former favourite Dominic Cummings (blimey! Don’t ever get on the wrong side of that guy) including the allegations about renovations to his flat and now even the Daily Mail has turned against him: today’s headline reads ‘Let the Bodies Pile up in their Thousands’, something Johnson is reported to have said as a scenario he’d prefer to a third lockdown. Whether true or not, what’s interesting is that the Daily Mail has had enough; and when the Mail deserts a far-right leader you know they’re in trouble.
So whether it’s days or weeks I think it’s inevitable now. The Tories always get rid of their leaders smartish and without any compunction at all – as soon as they become a liability, that’s it. Off they go.
In other news, I’m happy to report that I had the first dose of the vaccine yesterday. I was unreasonably anxious about it but it went fine in the end. Today I’m experiencing fatigue and joint pain but no other side-effects.
Responses to yesterday’s post were very kind and basically said, carry on doing what you’re doing. So I shall.
I’d like to begin by considering George Floyd’s murderer. We can call him that now because he has been convicted of murder, as indeed he should. But what struck me all along apart from the sheer wanton brutality, was the man’s name, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin is French for prejudiced, as in male chauvinist, and I can never help wondering in these cases if there’s a connection between the name and the character.
Does a name make any difference to who you are? Would I be the same person if I were called Rosemary or Petra or Delilah? I can’t imagine being called anything but Liz (if this puzzles you check out the page Why Sarada?) But while Sarada was a name I chose, I only partly chose Liz, cutting it down from my birth name Elizabeth as soon as I hit puberty. Nobody calls me Elizabeth nowadays, on pain of – well, a pretty stern ticking off.
Last night I was watching a film about my namesake Liz Taylor. Burton and Taylor is an interesting biopic, focusing on the time after their second marriage and divorce when they collaborated on Noel Coward’s Private Lives. The film points up the difference between Richard Burton, who was a consummate actor, and Taylor, who was a star. Men seem to have found her endlessly fascinating but I think I’d have had no patience with her at all, always turning up late with armfuls of shopping and a gaggle of pointless yapping dogs. On the whole I think I prefer actors to stars.
So my question to you today is, who are the greatest actors around at the moment, whether on film, stage or TV? Pick one male and one female. I’m going to go with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keeley Hawes .
I’m in the process of rethinking this blog and asking myself some damned searching questions. What is it all for? Why do I do it? Where is it going? And most importantly of all, what do readers want?
I’m not expecting to get a flood of responses to this but I’m going to ask you anyway: what do you want to read about? What do you like about this blog? What annoys you? (This is not McDonald’s so I can’t promise to increase one and get rid of the other but it’s interesting to find out.) Are you engaged with the political posts or do you prefer a nice TV review? Would you like to know more about my writing processes? (me too; wish I could understand them.) Do book reviews float your boat? Or reminiscences about my past life? Or maybe you’d like me to challenge myself by writing about something completely different.
You may not have any thoughts at all about this. Your mind may be a complete blank. But even so just drop me a like or an emoji or an ‘it’s all fine.’ I’ll appreciate it.