“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens (1865)

12 Mar

Crime thriller, love story, comedy, social analysis; Charles Dickens’s final completed novel crosses all these different genres. A colourful, multi-character-ed story in which various story-lines inter-weave and the characters’ paths cross in a variety of situations that induce a variety of emotions in the reader.  In a way, the structure is like that of a soap opera.  I realise that some Dickens aficionados may baulk at making such a comparison, but hear me out.  Soap operas often endure for years, captivating the viewers’ interest with their inter-woven plots and characters’ lives.  A particular plot can resurface after lying dormant for a while, with the viewer excited to know how it’s going to turn out.  Dickens’s style is similar in this respect, and indeed the book was published in serial form initially, released over the course of 19 months.

(SPOILER ALERT: this post contains some details of the story, though there are still many more details left unsaid.)
(And on the subject of spoiler alerts, some editions have a list of characters at the beginning, before the text of the story. This can give away some details of a significant part of the plot so I would recommend not reading the character list until you’re about half-way through the book.)
(OK, that’s sorted; now on with the post.)

The central event, to which nearly all the other story-lines are in some way related, is news of the untimely death of John Harmon. This event is the basis for the crime thriller genre: the mystery of who murdered him. This event also brings together various characters, creating the love stories of John Rokesmith and Bella, Eugene and Lizzie.  In turn, the examination of how this universal human emotional need – the reciprocated love for another – plays out in the paradigm of a society in which money and social class are highly visible and important, creates a fascinating social analysis.  A social analysis made more memorable by Charles Dickens’s biting satirical wit.

In general, fiction is often about conflict and quest, anything that leads the reader to wonder “Will they or won’t they?”; or “How will it be resolved?”  In “Our Mutual Friend”, a central form of conflict and quest is this analysis of relationships within and against the social constraints of 1860s England.  Dickens uses vivid scenes, emotive characters and satire to draw the reader’s attention to the shallow superficiality of a society in which retaining full membership of a particular social class is perceived as more important than loving someone for whom they really are.
Bella’s brave rejection of the wealth and potential social status of the newly rich, social-climbing Boffins in favour of the (relatively) poor John Rokesmith; Eugene’s marriage to the poor and working class Lizzie, ignoring the criticism by society of such a marriage.  Dickens shows these to be sincere, worthy relationships, based on real love and sacrifice (particularly in the case of Bella).  Bella is delighted by her own ability to overcome her former mercenary nature. Eugene and Lizzie’s marriage is praised by Mr Twemlow as a marriage of “the greater gentleman” and “the greater lady” on account of the marriage being based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection.  Similarly, many of the less rich characters are shown to be wholesome and decent people in general, e.g. proud Betty Higden, Jenny Wren, Lizzie and the Boffins when they forgo their newly-found fortune.

By contrast, the Veneerings and their dinner party guests (except Mortimer and Mr Twemlow) are shown to be callous and superficial, a feature further highlighted by the very name of Veneering.  This is particularly the case in the final dinner party at which Twemlow makes his above remark in praise of Eugene and Lizzie.  In some ways, it feels as though the story was building up to this: the veneer of respectability (in the form of ‘excellent dinners’ in the opulent home) now fully stripped away, to reveal the callous, pompous attitudes beneath.

It is true that some of the poorer characters are portrayed negatively too, e.g. Rogue Riderhood and Silas Wegg; but the unpleasantness of the rich characters is hidden under a veneer which Dickens removes to expose them.  Yes, we know Rogue Riderhood is a scheming villain and so would anyone; but the Veneerings and their dinner party guests hide their callousness under a veneer of respectability.  Dickens’s biting satire strips this away and Twemlow is shown to be the better person.
In reality, the need for belonging to a group is an important need for anyone; but Dickens shows that the belonging to such a shallow society as that of the Veneerings is rather vacuous.  However, that sense of fully belonging may be difficult to forgo, in a time when social class played such a greater part in people’s lives and in society, however vacuous that may be.  Also the need for financial security is entirely understandable, particularly in the times of far less (if any) social security.  Therefore, it is perhaps excessively romantic to consider someone choosing their love over financial security.
But then this was perhaps Dickens’s aspiration: a change in society to one in which relationships based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection COULD thrive above those based on desire for money and/or class.

Improving Democracy: Lessons from Australia

18 Feb

OK, before I begin, I’d like to say that I am not one of those annoying expatriates who think everything about their new adopted country is superior to the country they left.  When I lived in Britain (where I’m from originally), I knew some expats who – on trips back home – would witter on about how everything in Britain was shit and everything in their new country was wonderful (I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea).  I am not like that.  I have lived in Australia as an expat for a few years now and there are positive and negative aspects of each country, of Britain and of Australia.

OK, now that’s clear, on with the post.  One aspect of Australia that I think is better than Britain (in my opinion and I’m open to other views) is the system of parliament and government; a system which (minus a couple of negative aspects which I’ll detail at the end) I think should be adopted in the UK.

There are two key aspects of the Australian system that I think improve democracy: firstly preference voting; and secondly, the existence of two different forms of voting (although each one is a form of preference voting) for the the two House of Parliament.

Preference Voting would take away the situation in the UK whereby if a party has a very low share of the vote in a particular constituency, that party’s chances remain low partly because of their initial low share of the vote.  In democracy, people should vote for the party and/or candidate whose policies they personally approve of; they should not be discouraged from voting for a particular party because that party appears to have little hope in their constituency.  But the simple UK voting system (just one cross for one chosen candidate) makes it pragmatic to avoid voting for someone with no chance.

When I lived in Sutton in southern England, just before the 2010 election, I researched the share of votes from the previous election in my constituency: the share among the 3 main parties was roughly 47%, 46%, 7% to Liberal Democrats, Conservative and Labour respectively. One reason I didn’t vote Labour, I must admit, was that Labour didn’t have a chance.  In a democracy, that shouldn’t be an influencing factor but it is, because without a huge shift in public opinion away from one of those two leading parties, there would be very little chance that a vote for Labour would have any meaningful impact.  It also meant that the Labour Party probably had little concern about the issues that concerned me: when I wrote to a Labour Government minister about such an issue, my letter was ignored.

In Australia, voting for the House of Representatives (equates to the UK House of Commons and determines the Government) works as follows: if no candidate has more than 50% of votes, then the candidate with the fewest is excluded and this candidate’s votes are transferred to the other candidates according to the second preferences of voters on the ballot papers for the excluded candidate. And so on, until a candidate has more than 50% of votes. So if that had been applied in the UK in 2010, if I had wanted to vote Labour I could have done so, knowing that if that candidate lost, my second choice would still count. So plenty more people might vote for the candidate who was least popular previously and therefore it wouldn’t take a massive shift in public opinion to win an ‘unwinnable’ seat. There would be more fluid changes in seats; more fluid responses to the policies and actions of political parties and candidates.

The Australian Senate system is another form of preference voting, based on multi-member voting areas (the states). So each state has 12 Senators who ‘share’ the state (rather than each person representing one division as in the House of Representatives).  To be elected to the Senate, a candidate needs a quota of votes; then anything above that is a surplus which is then distributed among the next preferences on the ballot papers.  And so the process continues until all 12 Senate seats are filled for that state. 


This difference of voting systems is another benefit.  Any voting system is likely to have some disadvantages, but as both Australian Houses of Parliament have nearly equal power, any disadvantages of each voting system are, to some extent, balanced out by the other system.

Finally, just a few negative aspects I would change about the system.  Firstly, as each state has 12 Senators, why does each territory (Northern Territory and the ACT) have only 2?  This seems a major inequality.  (For that matter, why is the Northern Territory only a territory and not a state?).

Secondly, I would scrap the compulsory voting that we have here in Australia.  While I personally think voting is important, I don’t want the result distorted by people who really don’t care and are only voting to avoid a fine.  Yes, I have spoken to such people; as disappointing as it is that they feel imposed upon by having to do something that many people in other countries would only wish they could do, I still would prefer that such people don’t vote if they haven’t even thought about the issues.  I’d say to such people: “Fine, don’t vote, but then don’t complain about the Government and Parliament you’ve got”.

As always, feel free to disagree or express another opinion. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon (2003)

19 Feb

“Show, don’t tell”; this is one of the pieces of fiction writing advice I’ve read or heard (probably more than once).  And this wonderful novel ignores it – to great effect!

The novel is written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Christopher Boone, a 15-year old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome.  And his narrative is very much “Tell; just tell them what happened; don’t bother with those rules”.  The result is starkly different to many novels as the narrative is a staccato ‘I said-he said-I said-he said-I did-he did’ rather than the more fluid prose that you may be used to.  But the benefit is that this gives a clear insight into Christopher’s logical mind.  A mind that is led by precise, ‘digital’ (rather than ‘analogue’) thinking, without shades of meaning or vagaries.  The mind of someone fascinated by mathematics and by the way the world and universe work.

I should stress that I’m not criticising ‘analogue’ thinking and vagaries at all; I’m merely saying that the author uses the aforementioned narrative style as a very effective indicator of the main character’s mindset and personality. There is a place for each type of thinking in this world.

Spoiler Alert: this post contains some details of the story; however, there is still plenty of the story left unrevealed.

Christopher clearly has an acute case of Asperger’s Syndrome and while the reader is shown the positives of this, such as his brilliant intellect, the story does not shy away from the more difficult aspects of his condition, but it does so in a manner that is sympathetic without being patronising.  The reader is shown Christopher’s immense difficulties in navigating situations that are everyday situations to most of us, as well as his difficulties in physical navigation, e.g. the streets of his town.  Also, there are the difficulties his parents face in trying to protect and take care of him.  The result of all these difficulties is a sometimes heart-breaking story (but one that ends well).  It is also quite endearing and could very well help society understand Asperger’s Syndrome much better.

This story takes a fairly simple plot – investigation into who killed the neighbour’s dog – and turns it into a fascinating and engaging story.  The real story is Christopher’s mind; the events that occur seem almost ancillary.

Oh, and the numbering of chapters with prime numbers is a nice touch!

“Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn (2009)

20 Oct

I remember a letter to a satirical magazine I read once; the gist of it was basically this:

Why is it that whenever someone is a victim of a tragic accident or crime, they’re described as having been the ‘life and soul of the party’ with loads of friends?  As a dull and boring person with no friends, I feel remarkably safe!

The letter writer clearly intended it as humour, but I think it also raises a couple of important points:

  1. Is it really true?  Is it really only the popular, wonderful people who become victims of accidents or crime? Seriously?!
  2. More importantly, does the value of a person’s life really depend on their sociability and gregariousness?

The letter writer highlighted the media’s habit of applying a rose tint to anyone who happens to be a victim of tragedy.  This apparently indiscriminately applied rose tint is not only unrealistic but also suggests that if a person is a quiet loner, their untimely death would be somehow less important.
In reality, everybody is a mix of good and bad, nice and nasty.  So why should we need to have a person’s negative aspects hidden from view in order to recognise the importance of their life?

So how does this relate to Gillian Flynn’s second novel “Dark Places”?

Well, this novel opens with the narrator Libby Day saying:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ…. It’s the Day blood.”

24 years prior, the then 7 year old Libby escaped an attack on her family that left her mother and two sisters dead: one shot, one strangled and one chopped with an axe.

Spoiler Alert: this post contains some details of the story; however, there is still plenty of the story left unrevealed.

Libby’s brother Ben, aged 15 at the time of the murders, is convicted and jailed, yet he is innocent. And much of the story is focussed on the search for the truth and the eventual success of that search.  So how is Ben Day portrayed?  A gentle, nice guy, poor victim of a horrific injustice? Not entirely, no. OK, there are some elements of that in his character, but he is far from perfect either.

Conversely, some positive sides of one of the actual killers are shown too.

And of course, Libby is deserving of sympathy for her ordeal, however much of a ‘meanness’ she may have inside her – as we all have some degree of meanness within us, don’t we?

This is one of the strengths of this story.  It shows people as they are really are: nobody is entirely good or entirely evil. An obvious point perhaps, but one that often seems suppressed in media accounts.

On top of this strength is one of Gillian Flynn’s other strengths: to write an incredibly captivating (there could be a pun there) story.  The reader becomes intimately acquainted with the characters and their lives:

  • Libby Day as a traumatised, embittered young woman, struggling to maintain some form of emotional stability.
  • Ben Day as an under-confident young man, desperate to find some identity for himself, and thus prone to being manipulated and bullied.
  • Patty Day as an exhausted mother, dealing with poverty and a crisis affecting her son Ben.  The emotional intensity of Flynn’s writing is amazing!

Gillian Flynn also has an amazing ability to create a 3-dimensional moving image in the reader’s mind: as vivid as any film I’ve seen.  And the flipping between 1985 and 2009 invokes some nostalgia, which takes the edge off the dark and bleak subject of the story.

This is no happy story, but it is an engaging and captivating one.

Finally, to return to the subject of rose-tinting in the media, you may be interested in a post on my friend’s blog (external content for which I’m not responsible):

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” – 2012 Film

9 Sep

Job security, pension, relationships, sugar, fat salt, alcohol etc.  All those stresses of life… that just wouldn’t matter if the world were about to end!  As the hero of the film says at one point: “I couldn’t possibly give a shit!”

The end of the World, howsoever it will be caused, will be, quite literally, an entirely unprecedented event.  And as such, we can have no certain idea how society will react when it happens (which I’m sure will be millions or billions of years from now, in case anyone is worried!).

But this movie makes a pretty good attempt at predicting society’s varied reactions: rioting, suicides, denial, ceasing to care about anything, a mass baptism, finding peace in someone’s arms at the very end.  And as such, it is a chaotic mix of genres: action movie, romance, tragedy, comedy.  The fundamental nature of this film vividly reflects a human society falling apart at the seams, dazed and unsure, as though asking simply: “What the f**k?!”

The film follows Dodge and Penny in the last few weeks of the World before the arrival of an enormous, all-destroying meteor.

OK, at this point, I need to insert my usual Spoiler Alert:

This post reveals some aspects of the plot, although there is still plenty of the plot left unrevealed.  Or something like that – as Dodge says, I couldn’t possibly give a shit! 🙂

In reality, the end of the world may well be harrowing and full of suffering for many, maybe most, people.  And the film briefly alludes to this at some points, but on the whole it is an escapist story, concentrating as it does on Dodge and Penny’s sugar-coated story in those last three weeks: Dodge, weary and jaded; and Penny, fearful, but covering her fear with a romantic and hedonistic outlook.  They are each recently separated from their respective partners and together, their new relationship is wonderfully symbiotic and mutually comforting.  The soundtrack perfectly conveys this warmth and comfort towards the end:

“Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you!”

Exactly! Nothing else matters to them at that point. Work, job security, alcohol, sugar, salt etc etc….

Sugar-coated, I know.  And that sugar coating is reinforced by the suspension of certain other likely realities: Dodge and Penny have a last cooked meal together, ignoring the fact that the electricity supply would quite likely stop as nobody would bother going to work at the power stations (or anywhere)!  

But in spite of these unrealistic aspects, the film pretty well captures many believable aspects of a world on the brink of ending: a chaotic mix of despair, fear, pent-up emotion release and aversion hedonism.

“To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee

11 Jan

In Harper Lee’s classic novel, she succeeds in creating an accessible story despite the harsh subject matter of visceral prejudice and its brutal impacts.  The narration through a child’s eye view, including her conversations with her gentle and loving father, is largely what gives the story its accessibility while still effectively raising awareness of the important issues it addresses.

While the particular subject matter of the novel is prejudice held by some white people against African Americans in 1930s Alabama, the details of such prejudice could be equally applicable in many other types of prejudice and discrimination.  Lee raises awareness of the finer details of prejudice and its impacts, beyond those details that may seem obvious to many.

Ultimately, Harper Lee raises awareness of the need to question everything, particularly entrenched attitudes and views.

While I’ve never intended this blog to be a particularly political forum, it can be interesting, and important, to discuss issues like prejudices and I welcome any comments on this post – even constructive disagreements with my views 🙂

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not revealed here).  

The story begins with the disarmingly ordinary accounts of the day-to-day life of the 6-to-8-year old Jean-Louise (“Scout”) Finch, told through her narration.  The games she gets up to with her slightly older brother Jem and their friend Dill, and the interactions with their widowed father Atticus, their Aunt Alexandra and the cook Calpurnia, area narrated in the manner of a typical “What-did-you-get-up-to-at-school-today?” conversation.

But Atticus is also a lawyer and the story eventually turns to the case he has been appointed to defend: that of a young Negro man accused of raping a white woman.  Atticus is determined to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, to have his side of the case heard.  Yet in spite of considerable evidence that Mayella Ewell was in fact the victim of her abusive father who coerced her to frame Tom for rape after she merely hugged and kissed him, the jury still find Tom guilty of this capital crime.

As I say above, a quality of the novel is that it looks at some of the finer details of prejudice and its impacts, beyond the obvious; these include the power of entrenched, underlying attitudes even when a society appears to have a fair system on the surface.  By this I mean that the Alabama judiciary required that Tom Robinson be given a defence lawyer and therefore apparently a fair trial.  Young Scout Finch overhears a conversation about her father and reflects on it:

” ‘Lemme tell you somethin’ now Billy,’ a third said, ‘you know the court appointed him to defend this n****r.’

   ‘Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That’s what I don’t like about it.’

    This was news, news that put a different light on things: Atticus had to, whether he wanted to or not. I thought it odd that he hadn’t said anything to us about it – we could have used it many times in defending him and ourselves.” (Page 178 in Vintage Classics paperback).

Atticus wants to give Tom a fair trial, to give his side of the case; but this draws criticism from the town’s people.  And in view of this criticism, it is probable that some other lawyers would have ‘defended’ him just because they had to.  A perfunctory process, fulfilling a judicial requirement, but giving the superficial appearance of a fair trial.

Another detail that the story raises awareness of is the debilitating effect of living under ever-present discrimination and prejudice.  When Tom Robinson is convicted, despite significant evidence in his favour, he is sent to jail while Atticus prepares to appeal against the conviction. But despite the appeal, Tom tries to flee from the prison in the exercise period and is shot dead by the guards.  It is hard to believe that a prisoner would really believe he’d have a chance of escape in broad daylight in the exercise period: clearly Tom’s flight was deliberate suicide. A resignation to his fate, a total lack of hope, brought on by a lifetime under the wearying burden of negative assumptions and blame.

Finally, a harsh irony is that Tom got himself into his predicament by trying to help Mayella Ewell, his alleged ‘victim’.  He tried to help this lonely, poor woman with tasks around the house.  What a bitter irony that he would have been safer if he had ignored her in her time of need.

I hope this novel serves as a wake-up call to us all, to understand that opinions we may assume to be valid should be questioned – people are capable of shocking mistakes, sometimes with dreadful consequences.

“About Time” – 2013 Film

9 Dec

The lovely Rachel McAdams reprises the role of a time-traveller’s wife in this rom-com (having previously played the titular role in “THE Time-Traveller’s Wife”.

But there’s far more appeal to this feel-good film than just that. It’s a good example of how a much-used idea can still make a good film, as it’s the execution, not just the idea itself.

The story is basically this: Tim (appropriate name) discovers from his father that he has the ability to travel back in time.  So he uses this ability to be more successful with women as well as to help friends in difficult situations, such as remedying the disastrous performance of a play written by his playwright friend.

In so doing, he discovers that if you change the past, you affect the present in other unintended ways also.  So as I said, a much-used idea.

But the much-used idea is very well used in this film.  The like-able, and in some cases amusing, personalities of most of the characters, together with the settings in London and rural, coastal Cornwall give it a nice, warm feel.  If you’re tired of films about violence and bitterness, this is the antidote. But it’s not so sugary an antidote as to induce vomiting! The balance seems just right.

I must just mention again the settings of London and Cornwall: when I live away from my own country, I tend to feel more patriotic. Absence makes the heart grow fonder (or in my case: fond). It’s nice to see these two contrasting parts of England, including the “Dans le Noir” restaurant in London (which I HIGHLY recommend, by the way).

The idea of time-travel to the past affecting the present may be much used, but it’s a versatile idea. That’s the beauty of it!  It allows for so many variations in plot, so that this film still feels unique (at least by my experience).

Finally it ends with a rather nice message about life, which could make you roll your eyes and sneer, or could make you think (as it did to me): “That’s a pretty good piece of advice!”