Patrick Who?

Oh. My. God. Sometimes you come across an author and think, why the hell haven’t I read this person before? I’d heard of Edward St Aubyn but, whether from reverse snobbery or whether because there are just too many people to read, I hadn’t delved into him until I came across a TV series called Patrick Melrose. Even then I might have scrolled on, had it not starred the incandescent Benedict Cumberbatch. I am always stunned by the power of that guy’s acting and it’s pleasing to learn that both he and the series won Baftas last week.

OH and I were utterly destroyed by Patrick Melrose. We emerged from a two-day binge as exhausted as the protagonist himself after a weekend on coke, shattered and begging for more. Once we’d finished all five episodes I had to go straight to my dealer (Alibris) and get the books.

If I tell you it’s a series of novels about an abused child, economically and socially privileged but neglected by one parent and cruelly used by the other, a boy who as an adult goes on drug-fuelled binges and considers himself abstemious if he takes coke instead of heroin, a man who ends up like all junkies calling his dealer at one in the morning and finding him unavailable takes a taxi to the badlands of New York to score in a back alleyway – if I told you all this you’d likely yawn and scroll down. Patrick Melrose is all these things, but how can I begin to convey how compelling it is?

For a start the social milieu – the bored and boring wealthy – ought to be a total turn-off. Patrick’s mother-in-law, inexplicably nicknamed Kettle, takes the biscuit with her selfishness and snobbery, but Kettle’s crimes are as nothing to Nicholas Pratt, Patrick’s father’s oldest friend, and Patrick’s father himself.

David Melrose is a monster. His idea of parenting is to give a child the worst possible experience, a childhood of which they can say ‘if I made it through that I can make it through anything.’ Having been abused by his own father, the young David sabotages his talent for music and neglects his gifts as a doctor; whether without these experiences he would have been a sadistic rapist is debatable but that is what he becomes. The first novel opens with David holding forth from an upper window of their holiday home in France and keeping the housekeeper in conversation ‘long enough for her arms to ache but not long enough for her to drop the tray.’ After his wife complains about the figs going to waste he forces her in front of guests to eat the fruit where it lies. He is a ruthless bully and serial rapist who attacks both his wife and his five-year-old son. No Childline in those days.

All this is enough to make any adult turn to drugs. Having an independent income, Patrick gets to shoot up in hotels and bathrooms instead of piss-stained stairwells, though he resorts to the back streets when other sources fail him. But after a few years of this his inheritance has dwindled and to support his wife and child he is forced to take up a profession. Sadly his practice of the law is more honoured in the breach and he dedicates far more energy to his career as an alcoholic, inevitably leading to the breakdown of his marriage.

The cast of over-privileged characters behave so badly that it’s hard to believe we’re not back in the 19th century: they could easily have come out of Proust. Why doesn’t the housekeeper tell David to eff off? Why doesn’t Eleanor throw David out? It’s her house, after all, and her money – but from the start he has dominated her by sheer force of character. Rather than confront her problems she becomes a drunk and then, continuing the theme of displacement, she gives generously to Save the Children instead of saving her own son. Nobody challenges the right of these people to behave exactly as they wish, but why not? It’s the 1970’s, after all, not the 1870’s, the world outside has cast off deference. The answer lies in the mana they have; the absolute belief that they have the right to rule. They live in an ultra-privileged bubble as they move from taxi to hotel to beach to country house in a merry-go-round of splendid isolation. Most people refer to the survival statistics on the Titanic with horror; here they are recited with approbation (‘no-one from steerage survived’ – and quite right, too.) Debating with them is pointless because they are already the victors: ‘She always felt that her high cards were being displaced by a small trump’ – like Blackadder’s Elizabeth saying ‘Who’s Queen?’ Who’s rich? Whose house is this?

These tendencies reach their apotheosis at a dinner party where the guest of honour is Princess Margaret. Referred to by all as ‘PM’ as though elected leader of the nation, she is abominably rude and subjects the French ambassador to the humiliation of kneeling and wiping her dress after he splashes soup on it. Afterwards when someone suggests to PM that people are privileged by ‘accident of birth’, she snaps back, ‘birth is no accident.’

Horribly fascinating though this is, what keeps you reading is the journey of Patrick himself. Will he make it as a human being? After so much neglect and abuse, after so many drugs and failed relationships, will he finally attain the humble position of husband and father? His main support – and the only real human being in the series – is Johnny, himself a recovering alcoholic who through the process has learned humility. This is the key, we seem to think; the ability to think of oneself as merely human, no better and no worse than anyone. It’s Johnny to whom Patrick confesses that he was raped as a child; it’s Johnny who persuades him to attend therapy.

As a series, Patrick Melrose begins stonkingly. Five novels is a lot to sustain (an unusual number for a book sequence) but it sags a little during the second half of novel four and tails off towards the end. In spite of this it has passages of coruscating brilliance such as Patrick’s manic, drug-fuelled stream-of-consciousness and later his son Robert’s thoughts as a baby. It’s a tough gig to describe the thoughts of a pre-verbal child but he brings it off well:

‘He could see everything through the transparent walls of his fish-tank cot. He was looked over by the sticky eye of a splayed lily. Sometimes the breeze blew the peppery smell of freesias over him and he wanted to sneeze it away. On his mother’s nightgown spots of blood mingled with streaks of dark orange pollen.’ This is all great stuff, but by the time his other son Thomas is born I became wearied by the children’s precocity. It’s hard to believe that a three-year-old would talk in the way Thomas does; in any case, you should only have one genius in any family – look what happened to the Holmes’s.

A propos of which, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Benedict Cumberbatch doing justice to this role. Imagine Sherlock without Watson but with loads of sex and drugs and you’ll get an idea. But don’t just settle for having an idea – go watch the series and when you have, get the books. You’ll thank me.

Kirk out

I Blame the Swedes

Well my dears I am happy to report that I am typing this on a newly-refurbished laptop.  It’s a great feeling when refurbishment comes together and you can continue using something rather than recycling it.  In any case the time had come when I could no longer juggle my old laptop plus a USB keyboard: having ingested a small amount of water, the laptop keyboard was incapable of producing words other than ‘t;hf5co.vfp- 1;f!g9gc;b.’  Not exactly what I had in mind.  But lo!  The son’s old laptop lay languishing under the sofa, needing only a new connection to make it as serviceable as ever.  So off went OH to the computer shop while I searched for the mains lead.  I found a bunch of phone chargers and a snake-pit of unnameable wires with bizarre plugs on the end, none of which remotely resembled the charger I wanted.  Ah well.  We bought a new one, the computer wizard worked his magic and so here I am fully-toggled and ready to go.

Not so fast, Lizardyoga!  For the new laptop does not have Word on it.  Instead it has Open Office.  Well that’s fine, it’s Word-compatible as most things are nowadays (I use Word not because I like it but because publishers usually insist on it.  That’s my excuse anyway.)  So I plugged in my shiny new pen drive (joy) and fired up the word-processor.  What?  What the actual – ?  Oh.  My.  God.  I’d forgotten that before buying a new and utterly righteous machine *, OH was using this.  And guess what?  The user interface was all in Swedish.

Swedish!  I ask you, what good is that?  Instead of friendly helpful headings it had inexplicable words like nyark and verdstrom.  What the hell?  I went downstairs to berate OH and insist on an English-language version.

‘Why don’t you just learn Swedish?’ was the reply.  I was not amused.  An hour of fruitless fumbling ensued during which OH frequently expressed the view that it would be easier for me just to learn Swedish (love that ‘just’) whereupon I retorted that I wanted to actually do some work not try to figure out what some digital Swedish chef was trying to tell me.  Finally we got it working in English and the Swedes have gone home.


Swedes going home might be a by-product of Brexit – a propos of which, did you see the excellent Channel 4 drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War‘?  I wasn’t sure about it at first as there was a lot of shouting and power-struggling between men which was reminiscent of The Thick of It (I don’t like TTOI because it’s too shouty and sweary and lacking in subtlety) but it got much better.  Rory Kinnear (that man seems to be everywhere) played Craig Oliver, the hapless leader of the Remain camp and Benedict Cumberbatch played Dominic Cummings, a man so eccentric as to seem at times completely unhinged.

It is recommended.  A word-processor in Swedish is not.

*OH never stops boasting about this machine, whose battery lasts for weeks without being recharged and which is so light you can balance it on your thumb.

Kirk out

Is Benedict Cumberbatch Really God?

I think Benedict Cumberbatch is actually God.  There is nothing the man cannot do: from a whiz-bang slap-up Sherlock to a slithering Richard III who out-Voldemorts Voldemort, the man is a total genius.  I’ve never actually seen his Hamlet but I watched the latest in the Hollow Crown series on the beeb last night and I was totally gripped.  At first I thought he was playing it a bit over the top, but he sustained the level of evil and upped it at key moments to a character that could rival his alter ego’s nemesis, Moriarty.

I had wondered whether they might, in the light of recent discoveries, update it a little: put in a hint or two that Richard wasn’t as bad as he’s painted – but as OH pointed out, the text doesn’t leave you too much scope for that.  It’s a shame he’s been given this undeserved reputation by a playwright who was merely sucking up to the Tudors: even so I thought they might add a little reference at the end to him being buried in the choir of the old church, but the film ended with a shot of the battlefield, pulling back and back so that in the end it looked like a grotesque Breughel:

Sophie Okonedo is also brilliant as Margaret of Anjou, a performance sustained through several plays.

Richard III is far more interesting than the other history plays as it’s basically a psychological drama, the battle coming only at the very end and providing a satisfactory catharsis.  There’s not too much catharsis around at the moment, so let’s make the most of it…

Kirk out

A Rap Near the Knuckles…

I feel compelled, in light of the reaction to the previous post (which, sadly, took place mainly on facebook) to try to deconstruct this question of language and ‘political correctness’.  Graeme has posted a very interesting comment below on Jeremy Clarkson; however I want to leave Clarkson, as it were, revving up in the pits, and broaden out the discussion.

First, about taboo language.  There has always been taboo language; it’s just the nature of it which changes.  To the best of my knowledge, all cultures have taboo words; and a hundred (or even fifty) years ago ours were to do with sex and religion.  Before that, they also related to monarchs: only three hundred years ago the poet William Blake was arrested and tried for allegedly having said ‘Damn the King.’

When I was growing up nobody could say more than the odd ‘bloody’ in public without risking grave censure, and the f-word was hardly ever heard; whereas people freely used what we now call the ‘n-word’ and felt comfortable calling women ‘birds’ or ‘bits of stuff’.

On the whole I think it’s an improvement; but to begin with if people are going to complain that there are things you ‘can’t say’ nowadays first we need to acknowledge that there always were.  They just aren’t the same things.

And maybe that’s the point.  Maybe those who complain the loudest are the ones who most miss the old days, when you could call a gay bloke a poof, a woman a tart and a West Indian a w*g.
It’s no defence either to object that these words are innocent because of where they came from.  That isn’t the point.  For example, to call someone a berk is a very mild insult; and yet it comes from the rhyming slang ‘Berkhamstead Hunt’.  But to call someone a w*g is always offensive even though it’s an anagram of ‘Western Oriental Gentleman’.  The point is not where the words came from, but how they are used and how they are regarded
And yet – and yet.  There’s something not quite right here after all.  Because where there is self-censorship it means first of all that people are not convinced of the rightness of the taboo.  Which means they aren’t convinced about, say, gay rights or racial and sexual equality.  And that’s a problem, because if we’re only relying on the taboo, should the taboo be removed we will have a backlash.  And that worries me.
But there is also self-censorship among basically well-meaning Guardian readers such as myself, because we are afraid of being misunderstood.  Viz; the ridiculous fracas over Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the word ‘coloured’.  It’s an old-fashioned word, sure – but offensive?
I don’t think so.
In a similar vein, I often hold off giving my opinion on rap music/poetry.  This is partly to void giving offence to those who practise it but also because I’m afraid of someone equating that view with racism.  It is, however, the truth.  I think rapping is very clever, sometimes even brilliant – but I can’t listen to it.  It’s a question of taste.  I just can’t stand it.  The same holds true, incidentally, for opera, which I also detest.
I think we police each other far too much.  But then, we always did…
The safest policy is, to use Steve’s words, to ‘love all, hurt none and walk in soft shoes.’
Kirk out