Story Telling

The British Working Class Social Comedy

There is a film genre that I enjoy quite a bit from the time I felPride_posterl in love with The Full Monty. For want of a better term, it’s the British working class social comedy. It’s best defined by examples: Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and one I found at the library the other day, the 2014 film Pride.

They focus on episodes in the lives of communities that are losing their cohesion and identity as a result of steel mills or mines closing.  (One of my favorite moments in Billy Elliot is when young Billy walks down the street running a stick along what seems to be a wall, youthfully unaware that it is a line of riot gear clad police called in to deal with a labor strike.)

The films are populated with every day men and women dealing with social change as a community and they are uplifting and funny, even when their small victories are set against a bleak background.

Mark Herman, the writer of Brassed Off, explained his inspiration on a site called Den of Geek:

Following his previous film, the Dudley Moore-headlined Blame It On The Bellboy (that was savaged by critics, and didn’t find much salvation with audiences), Mark Herman told me back in 2008 that “I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy, nobody would touch me with a bargepole”.

Eventually, “the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about”. Which is what he duly did.

A chance traffic jam was what led him to the north-eastern English town of Grimethorpe, a place he used to visit back in the 1970s when he sold bacon for a living. He recalled that “the miners’ strike [of the 1980s] was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media. Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it”.

It strikes me that while we’ve heard a lot about these sort of failing industrial communities here in the U.S. in the news in recent years, I can’t really think of a good example of an American “Brassed Off” or “Full Monty.” If you know of one, please let me know. The only movie that jumps to mind is Nebraska from 2013, which is shot in black and white and focuses on a man in a rural midwest town who is convinced by one of those “You may already have won” sweepstakes letters that he has a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska. He goes on a road trip with his son, with a stop in a fictional small Nebraska town being the highlight of the journey.

What is different in Nebraska is that it is more dark (its black and white cinematography may be part of what creates that mood). There is no small victory in Nebraska. It is also not really connected to the community it features. The travelers pass through and witness the place, but are not really part of it. It is an individual journey not a community journey.

Somehow this genre “feels” particularly British. I have posted before a clip of Stephen Fry discussing the differences between American and British humor and he puts forward the theory that American comedy is based on being the smartest guy in the room, a clever commentator on the surroundings, whereas the classic British comedy character is life’s loser. This clip quotes that segment of the Stephen Fry clip and challenges the notion.


One of the theories that the creator of this clip posits is that perhaps the American sense of optimism is eroding and that our sense of opportunity is becoming more like that of our British counterparts.

I have also found a number of recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic lamenting the “death” of the working class television sit com.

Wesley Morris, writing in The Australian, said:

In 2007, TV underwent a great expansion — beyond the major broadcast networks, beyond TVs and into all kinds of genres — just at the moment the economy shrank, and a fantasy emerged. As real people became poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more besides the point. All that space to tell new stories ended up dedicated to a limited set of jobs and an increasingly homogeneous notion of what work means.

These days, there are only a handful of workplace taxonomies in scripted TV. We’ve got police precincts, crime-and-forensics teams and legal-medical-beltway dramas. NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are a virtual sexy-calendar night. These shows might know what a blue collar is, but they’re class-unconscious: their characters don’t usually work for the explicit maintenance of their livelihoods. They work for comedy, for suspense, for sport. For the most part, TV cops, lawyers, bureaucrats and doctors inhabit the same kinds of toothsome residences and wear the same exquisitely tailored clothes, all showing off how fabulously art directors and costume designers earn a pay cheque. Sometimes we see more of their work than that done by the people who inhabit it. Now on TV, no matter what your actual job, almost everybody belongs to the same generic, vaguely upper-class class.

So where are the Roseanne’s and the Archie Bunkers? Is their absence to blame for some of the resentment of “rust belt” and rural voters who feel no one hears them? Has our comedy as well as our politics made them invisible?

The British writer and broadcaster Caitlin Moran has a theory that “a deliberate, systematic attack on the working classes” has made it harder to write mainstream comedy about those communities.  “Comedy needs your characters’ lives to stay static,” she said. “They have to be trapped in a frustrating box they can never get out of. But there was such a terrible decline in the lives of the working classes – which continues now – that there was no stable box to write from.”

I will have to give some more thought to whether the basis of comedy is, indeed, being trapped in a static situation. (This seems to go back to the question of British vs. American comedy and whether comedy is found in being the smartest person in the room, or in failure.)

Anyway, if you can recommend a good movie “for people who liked The Full Monty” let me know.



Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

Puzzle of Identity

Collage by Claire Pestaille

In the book Lewis & Lewis, John Juxon describes the solicitor Sir George Lewis’s approach to legal cases. He saw them as a puzzle, Juxon writes, but unlike a jigsaw puzzle they are puzzles in which the pieces can form different images.

This is equally true of writing a biography. The events of a person’s life can be arranged and contextualized in a way that makes her a hero or a villain, selfish or caring, powerful or powerless. In fact, we all have moments that could be used to tell the story of a saint or a sinner, a wise person or an idiot. We play all of these roles at different times.

It is not just lawsuits or biographies but our identities themselves that are puzzles with pieces that can be arranged to create different faces.

Living up to Specifications

“Life imitates Art fare more than Art imitates Life.”-Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

When my father passed away, a little more than a decade ago now, I went through his papers– articles, correspondence, drafts– and compiled a book of quotations for friends and family. I had cause to revisit that collection again recently, and I came across this observation from a letter he wrote in 1990:

You know, for all my book learnin’, I have to say I’ve learned more about life from ordinary folks trying to muddle through. From a guy who specializes in military procurement, that means he develops tanks and airplanes and such to Army specifications, comes what I think is a truly insightful thought.  He said, “an old rule of thumb is if a weapon can’t do its job, find out what it can do and make that its job.”

In other words, let the thing — or the person — define what its job is. As simplistic as this sounds, it rarely happens. The norm is for “them” to define what’s important, and for the individual to attempt to live up to those mandated “specifications.”

This is certainly true. Rather than allow people’s talents and skills to present themselves and making use of them, we go looking for people to match job descriptions we create in advance.

But I would go further and say that it is not only in employment but in life that this is so. We start with stories about what life is supposed to be like, what goals we ought to have, what love is and friendship. There are stories about how you’re supposed to feel when you get an award of suffer a loss. We go along always comparing ourselves to these stories and seeing how we match up. Very few of us start with what we are and make that our life.

Namechecking Monica Lewinsky

My novel, Identity Theft, namechecks Monica Lewinsky.

In that I have a lot of company. As Lewinsky pointed out in her popular TED Talk her name has been a fixture in rap songs. When I read the article referenced in this link, and saw the uses to which her name has been put I am a bit mortified. Try reading the article and slotting in your own name every time it references hers. Try to imagine how that would feel.

The fact that Monica Lewinsky did not change her name (to something that doesn’t rhyme with whiskey) demonstrates, I think, just how important our identities are to us. Even at a young age, with a short resume– one that was tied up with a scandal– she wasn’t willing to surrender her tainted name. There is something laudable in that and I would like nothing better than to see her rise like a phoenix from the ashes and do something so spectacular that the salacious meanings of her name vanish into distant history.

I am pleased to say that my Lewinsky reference does not fit the pattern of the rap list. Lewinsky’s name makes its appearance in a chapter where the protagonist, Candi, weighs the consequences of pursuing a real-world romance with (someone she believes to be) a well-known public figure. On the one hand she believes she has the opportunity to experience something exciting and maybe life-changing. On the other hand, she is afraid of the uneven consequences she could face if anything goes wrong.

One of the best lines from Lewinsky’s TED talk was “It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.”

In fact, the public was not interested in Lewinsky as a dimensional being but as a symbol of moral self-expression.

I have an interest in books about people who were wrongly convicted of crimes. One of the Catch-22s the wrongly accused often face is that they do not show contrition. (They are not remorseful because they didn’t do it.) Judges and juries often view this lack of remorse as proof that the person is a hardened criminal with no conscience. In order to be welcomed back into society, the public demands the accused behave as a penitent, express regret and give a sincere apology.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Lewinsky scandal was that Bill Clinton’s approval rating rocketed to an all-time high.  A life-long politician with a team of advisers, Clinton knew exactly what the public needed to hear. He knew how to express remorse:

“I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned… But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required – at least two more things. First, genuine repentance – a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented. Second, what my bible calls a broken spirit; an understanding that I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be; a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek; a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.”

It is hard to pile on the blame after a statement like that. Was that his sincere feeling about what had transpired? Who knows. It may be, although the timing of his confession, immediately after being caught, makes you wonder. The only right thing to say after an affair if you want any hope of things returning to the way they were is to express unmitigated remorse.

Lewinsky made the mistake (from a PR point of view) of  not expressing the remorse the public wanted. As CNN wrote in 1999 on the release of her biography:

Other publishers wanted her to be more contrite, to acknowledge more forthrightly that she shouldn’t have had the affair. But Morton, who developed a chummy rapport with Lewinsky within a few minutes of meeting her last year, was happy to oblige her wish to make the central theme not contrition but invasion of privacy. When British publisher Michael O’Mara was shopping for a U.S. firm to buy the North American rights, he pitched Morton’s book this way, according to publisher Judith Regan, who says she turned down the proposal: “Andrew Morton can say that she’s the Princess Diana of America, but Monica can’t say that about herself.”

As you can see if you watch her TED talk, Lewinsky has learned this lesson now. Before she asks for your sympathy for the invasions of her privacy, she makes it clear that “falling in love with her boss” was a huge mistake. Enough time has passed that she can persuasively chalk it up to the folly of youth.

With the long shadow the episode has cast over her life, her regret is probably sincere. If I were her, I would probably regret making that choice. But I think I would regret even more that I had befriended Linda Tripp. Coming to the realization that an affair you had when you were young was a mistake is something best done in private.

But Clinton had another thing in his favor. He is a man. Sexual sin is generally forgiven in men, as long as it is of the adult, heterosexual variety. Men, after all, are supposed to be sexual. Sometimes they just can’t resist temptation. The very fact that women want to sleep with him increases the perception of his virility. Boys will be boys.

For women it becomes a bit more complicated. We have still not shed the notion that women give sex and men are the happy recipients of it. One reason I think this stereotype persists, by the way, is that women maintain it. It turns a mutual sexual experience into one in which the male, theoretically, is in debt to the woman. This is why a lot of slut shaming comes not from men but from women. In spite of our great social strides, there is still a tendency to divide women into two broad categories–Madonna and whore. The respectable woman only wants sex in the context of a committed relationship. A woman who acts outside those boundaries, who has sex for the pleasure of it, threatens that construct and is a slut.

Bill Clinton “sinned” because he gave into temptation. Monica Lewinsky had sinned by being sexual in the first place.

Her behavior, devoid of context, fit all kinds of potential existing narratives: gold digger, slut or– the only one that would preserve her status as a “good girl”– victim. (Andrew Morton, to some extent, ran with that one in his Lewinsky biography. He tried to present her as a girl whose weight problems gave her low self-esteem and made her vulnerable to unhealthy relationships. A made for Oprah construct.)

Until it became clear there was evidence of the affair, it seems the White House was prepared to allow another narrative to stand. The hysterical woman. There had been no affair. Lewinsky was delusional.

Clinton’s apology had what I assume was the unintended consequence of placing Lewinsky in the role of the temptress. If Clinton was a hapless Adam, she was Eve with the apple.

These narratives say much more about us than about the people we’re supposedly discussing.

All of this was the subtext of that one little allusion in the novel.

The Wrong Carlos

I have always had a great interest in stories of wrongful convictions. The judicial system presents one of the starkest examples of the power of narrative. In court two opposing sides use a handful of verifiable details to craft their own narratives explaining events. The more persuasive story wins and it becomes the officially sanctioned truth. The consequences of story-telling are never more pronounced, they can literally be a matter of life and death.

I recently read a book called The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution by James S. Liebman. It is the story of Carlos Deluna, whose “Some other guy named Carlos did it” murder defense seemed so absurd on its face that he was easily convicted and sent to his death for a crime… committed by some other guy named Carlos.

There was one particular detail in the story that stood out to me. The book quotes the Christian minister who accompanied DeLuna to the death chamber.

“My responsibility, according to the warden, was to be there in the Death House… when [the condemned prisoner] walked in. I was to be the face that he saw outside of the guards… [The warden’s] charge to me was, and these are his words, ‘to seduce their emotions so they won’t fight getting out of the cell or getting up on the table.'”

Novels and the Ancient History of Five Years Ago

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420I recently went through the process of approving a set of edits on an already published novel, which is going to be re-released in a second edition. This is the first time I’ve ever been called on, or given an opportunity, to revise a work that has already been published. It doesn’t happen often.

One of the interesting dilemmas I faced in the touch up of Angel was whether or not to try to update some references that are now obsolete. The novel deals with a protestant minister (of an undefined denomination but a kind of Methodist-Presbyteriny one) who finds himself at odds with his congregation when he falls in love with another man. At the time I wrote the book Presbyterians did not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers. This changed between the time the book was purchased and first released. (The Methodists, for a number of political reasons that I will not go into here, as far as I know, have not changed their stance.)

So the culture has changed rapidly.

Back in June, before I knew the publisher wanted to re-issue Angel, I wrote about a particular passage in the novel that was out of date:

A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Most pundits now expect that the Supreme Court will soon legalize same sex marriage across the country.

So I had to decide whether to cut the reference to Iowa and Massachusetts, indeed to traveling anywhere to get legally married, in order to bring the book up to date.

In the end, I decided to leave it as it was because the culture has changed and continues to change so rapidly, keeping the novel up to date strikes me as being a bit like constantly upgrading your software. There is always a newer version.

Yesterday I quoted George Bernard Shaw who wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.” He went on to say, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.”

I agree with that, and that is why I think I have to leave Ian and Paul where I left them, in the recent past. Angel is set not in the present day but some time around the year 2007. I didn’t know that at the time I was writing, but I do now.