Archive for the ‘Selected Articles’ Category
Sunday, June 26th, 2016
Florian Zeller says “I don’t know” a lot. But he might not mean it.
“I pretend I don’t know,” he says.
“So what do you really know?”
“I don’t know.”
We are both drinking darjeeling tea — mine black, his green — in the Royal Monceau hotel, Paris. That brief exchange convinces me I am in one of Zeller’s plays. This is an honour. He is, justifiably, the hottest playwright around, with award-winning productions in the West End and on Broadway, as well as in France, and is mentioned, in London at least, as the successor to not only Pinter, but Stoppard. If I am in one of his plays, that’s OK by me. The reviews will be a joy to read. I might get an Olivier or a Tony.
The Monceau management are in on our little fiction. They have arranged for the lights in our dark corner to go on and off (I am not making this up), and, frankly,I didn’t even know there was such a thing as green darjeeling. Maybe there isn’t — maybe it’s all part of the story, a hidden clue to the fact that this is fiction.
My first question: “Where did your obsession with what is real and what isn’t come from?”
“I really don’t know, but I know that this is what made me love theatre. The fact that you can put the audience in a labrant… Can I say that?”
“Right, labyrinth. And make them play this kind of game. I really love that for the audience and the actors.”
He keeps apologising, saying he’s having a bad day with his English. At one point, I am baffled by his reference to a man called Fogarton, but it turns out he is saying “forgotten”. I apologise in return, explaining that my French has been having a bad decade or two. He speaks English in the way — soft, low, full of delightfully whimsical constructions — that makes British women swoon. And, wouldn’t you know it, he is absurdly good-looking: lightish brown hair, stubble, boyish features, a half-smile, dark eyes made even darker by the kind of dark circles that signal intensity. He is about to be 37 (on Tuesday) and — sorry, ladies — is very well married.
“But you know” — he is continuing the answer to my first question — “I don’t try to understand where it came from or why I try to write. When I write a play, I am not aware of what I am trying to do. It is only when it is done that I realise I was trying to do that… I am the first audience of every play I write.”
Take his play The Father, for which he won the Molière prize. It is, almost everybody agrees, about dementia. An old man’s identity is fragmenting, but — here is where Zeller’s dazzling originality kicks in — we are not so much watching this as experiencing it. We are as baffled as he is about the events on stage and, like him, we have to struggle to make sense of it. But is he demented? Zeller did not sit down to write a play about dementia. He doesn’t start with a subject or a theme,but with a word or an image — in this case, one from Ionesco’s play The Chairs, in which an old man suddenly says: “Where is my mummy?”
“In the production I saw, it was beautifully done. The director decided to do something with that very short moment of regression. I was so moved by it, I thought, ‘I have to do something with this emotion.’”
When he finished the play, he realised it was — or could be — about dementia. But he sticks to the view that it is not ultimately about a particular illness. What it offers is a wider truth: we all suffer something like dementia from time to time. “It’s about becoming lost, and we can all feel lost at any time in our lives.”
The further twist here is the autobiographicalelement. Again, Zeller was unaware of this. Indeed, he rejects the idea of an author putting himself into a play, but in The Father, he breaks his own rule. “In theatre, it is not enough just to tell yourself. I was looking for something else. I was looking for something playful for the actors, not talking about myself. Then suddenly I saw I was in every sentence.”
His parents separated, and he was brought up in Brittany by his grandmother and in Paris by his mother, a fortune-teller. (Some writers have all the luck.) When he was 15, it became clear his grandmother was demented, so he had direct experience of the harrowing symptoms. At the same time, he overdosed on his asthma spray and was hospitalised with tachycardia. “I didn’t realise it was important at the time, but when I left hospital, my world-view was totally changed. I wasn’t absolutely aware of the change, but I didn’t do the same things, I didn’t want to share moments with my friends. I wanted to do something myself.”
He thought, with no possible medical justification, that he was destined to have a short life and had to move quickly. He has said that, at that moment, he started to worry and to write, but he seems to feel now that this is not quite right. He searches for a word to describe this new awareness. “Fragile,” I suggest. “Fragile! Exactly!”
Both The Father and its companion piece, The Mother, deal with fragility — how easily and quickly all that we know, all that we are, can be lost. The Mother seems to involve psychosis, rather than dementia. Accompanied by the bewildered audience, the mother loses herself as her family fragments. This, too, involves an element of concealed autobiography.
The post-tachycardia writing made Zeller famous breathtakingly quickly. He had decided to be a novelist, and his first fiction, Artificial Snow, came out in 2002. He wrote five novels in all, winning prizes and becoming a celebrity — the usual stuff, a TV talking head, the best parties. Was he uncomfortable with this phase?
“I was, a bit, because it is an uncomfortable thing. I knew it was not exactly where I was supposed to be. In life, you can do whatever you want, but you have to know what you want to be. I don’t want to be in the light, I want to be in the dark, which is what I like about theatre. It’s more comfortable for me. You’re moredistanced and you can stay focused on what is really at stake for you.”
At some point, the novelist Françoise Sagan suggested him as a writer for an opera libretto she wanted to get out of. It seems to have been a strange production, because he ended up writing a sort of mini play that was to be inserted into the opera. The star of the show was, incredibly, Gérard Depardieu: “I was really in love with him, that’s not difficult. When you write for him, it’s like being a composer writing for a musical instrument.”
But it was the backstage life that really entranced him. “It was the rehearsals — the magic of being together in an empty space, hoping for something to come without knowing exactly what.” Again, that theme of not knowing, of being free of knowing.
Zeller married Marine Delterme, an actor, artist and model, in 2010. She is nine years older than him and has a boy, Gabriel, 18, from a previous relationship. In 2008, the couple had their own son, Roman, and Zeller was blocked for a year. And here comes the autobiographical theme in The Mother.
“It changed my life. It’s one of the reasons I wrote The Mother. I spent nights taking care of Roman — so many fears, so many everything. I thought that probably somebody did the same for me when I was a baby — and I realised I had forgotten that. I felt I was a little bit ungrateful. The emotion pushed me to write The Mother, because it is about a mother being lost and a son who is leaving his mother. He has to, but still it’s painful.”
After a year, he unblocked and wrote The Mother, which premiered in 2010, followed by The Father in 2012. (In London, both ran at the Tricycle theatre.) Between those two, he wrote The Truth, which, translated by Christopher Hampton, was staged earlier this year by the Menier Chocolate Factory, in London, and now heads for the West End. It owes much to Pinter and to French romantic farce. On the face of it, this was different from his other plays, a full-on comedy. But that is to misunderstand Zeller. Even in his most harrowing scenes, he is a playful writer; and there is a terrible loss at the heart of this comedy — the loss of the truth — and a familiar sense of disintegrating identities. This one, too, is a game the audience must play.
“I want them not only to attend to something, but to try to understand where we are. They may believe they know where they are, but when they try to take hold of the truth, it has already flown away. They are in an active position because they are in a labyrinth, and they are really trying to get out of it. In a way, the audience are in the same position as the actors.”
The play’s London director, Lindsay Posner, came up against the brick wall of Zeller’s ignorance of his own work. Posner kept asking him for some background on the characters, but the writer had none: he didn’t even know the hero’s job. “My answer to directors’ questions,” he says with mild regret, “is usually ‘I don’t know’. I am very ignorant when I write.”
All he knows is on the page and on the stage. And that’s a great deal. He doesn’t write poetic or lyrical dialogue, he writes simply and directly, but with such emotional precision that huge spaces of resonance and implication form around the actors. This space of the unsaid is infinitely larger than that of the said.
Anyway, our show, The Interview, is over. He apologises once again for his English — “I am a little bit ashame [sic] of my accent” — and I mourn my French. The curtain must fall at the Royal Monceau. He has said “I don’t know” for the 30th and last time. We were good, damn good; the audience in my head went totally crazy. Finally, I must let you in on a little secret: this man knows more, a lot more, than he lets on. But you’d probably guessed that.
Sunday, June 19th, 2016
The life of Sir Clement Freud was that of an actor in search of a part. He was a celebrity chef, game show panellist, journalist, advertiser of dog food and politician. Only the last seemed to satisfy his need for significance; when elected he said he finally had “something solid about which to be famous”.
He was a certain type of mid-level celebrity — very British, very local, ubiquitous and familiar but always indefinable. He died in 2009, since when his name had gradually faded from view. Until last week. Once more his face — bearded, and jowly as a bloodhound — was everywhere, as he joined Rolf Harris, Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall in the swelling ranks of show-business paedophiles, another predator whose fame gave him access to his victims.
Three women have come forward to describe his behaviour and to destroy for ever the aura of gentle eccentricity on which his fame had rested. One victim, Vicky Hayes, says he groomed her and then, when she was 17, got her drunk and took her virginity. “His parting words to me were: ‘If you are pregnant, ring me.’ That was it . . . As if he had done this before.”
Sylvia Woosley was just 11 when Freud started abusing her. She was subsequently invited into his bed with his wife, the actress Jill Raymond. When Hayes was 14, he seized on her love of horses — he was a racing fan — to take her from her parents’ house to the racecourse. When she was 17, he even talked the parents into letting her stay overnight when she went with him to Newmarket to see the 1,000 Guineas.
Another victim wants to remain anonymous and has been given the pseudonym Joanne. She too was spotted by Freud at the age of 11 and says her mother “allowed” her to be groomed by him. In 1978, when Freud was a Liberal MP, she was, she says, brutally raped by him.
The pattern is familiar from the other cases. First, the target is spotted and groomed. The predator seizes opportunities and controls his victim, in effect making her complicit in the crime, perhaps through the fear of exposure.
His widow said she was “shocked, deeply saddened and profoundly sorry”. Most chillingly, it emerged that he had befriended the parents of Madeleine McCann in Praia da Luz, Portugal, where he had a villa, in the weeks after their daughter went missing.
Freud died in April 2009. His funeral was attended by Bono, Richard Curtis, Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Nicholas Parsons, Gordon Brown, George Osborne and David Steel. It’s hard to imagine them turning up after this. A predatory paedophile has few friends and no mourners.
Such exposures have become almost routine, but this one is different because of the name — Freud. Over the generations, misbehaviour and misunderstanding have made the family seem cursed.
They are a phenomenally gifted lot. Clement’s brother was the formidable artist Lucian; they were estranged because of some ancient Freud feud. His son, Matthew, is a hugely successful public relations man; his daughter, Emma, is a broadcaster and the partner of the film maker Richard Curtis; his niece Bella is a fashion designer; and her sister Esther is a writer.
But that entire cast of characters shrinks into merely local significance next to the intellectual and moral giant who was Clement’s grandfather. Sigmund Freud looms over our century as he loomed over the previous one. Clement seemed uneasy about the link.
“I suppose,” Clement once wrote, “that if your name is Freud, it is better to be related to Sigmund than not. It must be frustrating to have to keep denying family connection.”
A writer and thinker of genius, Sigmund was the greatest of all investigators of the human psyche. He was a psychologist by profession, but he was more like a great novelist in the intensity with which he watched human behaviour. Nothing was lost on him, especially the way in which the subconscious mind leaked out into the world, undermining our illusions of control.
His legacy is all around us: people talk of “Freudian slips”; they use “anal” to describe anybody who is obsessively neat; the subconscious is evoked daily; and after Sigmund Freud the name of Oedipus is heard when a man’s closeness to his mother is evoked. Above all, thanks to Freud, we are aware of the intense drama of childhood, of its effects in later life and ultimately of the perpetual war in the human mind between the forces of instinct and the demands of society. He would have had much to say about the sins of his grandson.
Sadly, he is for the moment as rejected as he is misunderstood. Psychoanalysis, the technique he invented for treating mental illness, is regarded by many as ineffective. His belief in dreams as “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” is no longer accepted.
That fastidious genius Vladimir Nabokov dismissed his work as the application of Greek myths to the genitals. (He was referring to the Oedipus conflict that Freud said afflicted men and the female equivalent that he thought might afflict women, which was later identified as the Electra complex by Carl Jung.)
He is in fact commonly regarded, if thought about at all, as a failure or simply as the man who thought about nothing but sex, preaching sexual liberation as some kind of cure-all. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Freud was adamant,” says the philosopher John Gray, “that no kind of civilised life is possible without the repression of desire and instinct. It’s true that he believed sexuality had been too much suppressed. But he never imagined that sexual impulses and fantasies could be given unchecked play.”
This used to be well understood, even in less exalted circles. At the end of her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, published in 1925, Anita Loos has Lorelei Lee — the character played in the 1953 film by Marilyn Monroe — go to a “Dr Froyd” in Vienna. He listens to Lee’s dizzy ramblings, concludes she has neither dreams to interpret nor inhibitions to untangle and finally tells her to “cultivate a few inhibitions and get some sleep”. Without inhibitions, Freud well knew, all is chaos.
“Untrammelled self-expression was [for him] the road to anarchy,” says Gray, “both in society and in the lives of individuals. Freud wasn’t a prophet of freedom but a modern Stoic moralist. That’s why he is so useful to us today — if only he is properly understood.”
Freud offered little hope to the world; he said his treatment was only an attempt to turn the suffering of the neurotic into normal unhappiness. But why should he, a man who witnessed the rise of the Nazis, offer hope? The family is Jewish, and four of his five sisters died in concentration camps. Freud himself only just escaped that fate. Thanks to his friend and later biographer, Ernest Jones, with his family he managed to escape Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
He came to London to be honoured as one of the greatest figures of the age and to establish the Freud dynasty. Having endured, with stoic grace, never interrupting his work, cancer of the jaw, he died in London in September 1939, 20 days after Britain entered the Second World War and 19 days after his grandson Clement had become a British citizen. He had been in this country since 1933.
“He is no more a person now,” wrote the poet WH Auden of Sigmund after his death, “but a whole climate of opinion.” In the same poem he wrote: “He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told / the unhappy Present to recite the Past.” If you want to understand a genius, ask a genius.
His grandson Lucian is probably the greatest member of Sigmund’s British family. He was a superb draughtsman, but his mature style involved, among other things, a ruthless examination of the human form and all its fleshy imperfections that seemed to echo the fierceness of his grandfather’s gaze. “I paint people . . . how they happen to be,” Lucian said.
Some have suggested that his reclining and seated figures evoked the postures of Sigmund’s patients during psychoanalysis. Sigmund would certainly have been interested in Lucian’s mother fixation — the artist is said to have spent about 4,000 hours painting portraits of her.
Lucian’s profligate sex life, meanwhile, bears some similarities to Clement’s. Rumour suggests he had 40 children, though in reality the total seems to be 14: two from his first marriage, and the rest from a very long list of mistresses. He was also clearly attracted to younger women and was often coldly ruthless in his conquests. He once perplexed a sitter by breaking off painting to have sex in the bathroom with a female visitor. He returned, naked, to continue the portrait.
The centrality of unfettered sexuality to the lives of at least two Freuds is clear. Perhaps the popular myth that Sigmund was all about sex was true and it found expression in his descendants. Certainly Clement gave the impression that there was no need to hold back one’s impulses.
“If you resolve,” he wrote, “to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don’t actually live longer; it just seems longer.”
Perhaps a case can be made that the promiscuous satisfaction of Lucian’s appetites was the price to be paid for his art. “The paintings that really excite me,” he once said, “have an erotic element or side to them, irrespective of subject matter.” But everybody can agree that Clement should have controlled himself.
These are, however, special cases. The bigger picture of the Freud dynasty is much more interesting. Take Clement’s son, Matthew. He founded in 1985 and is now chairman of the enormously successful PR agency Freud Communications. Even in this there was an echo of his great-grandfather’s work — PR as we know it is based on the idea of a mass subconscious.
Edward Bernays was Sigmund’s nephew — twice over in fact, for his mother, Anna, was Sigmund’s sister and his father, Ely, was the brother of Sigmund’s wife. The Bernays family moved to America, where Edward became the founder of the modern craft of public relations and, more importantly, of political spin. His approach plainly owed everything to his uncle’s conception of the subconscious mind. But Bernays applied it to the masses, not individuals.
“The voice of the people,” he wrote, “expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.”
More noble was the life of another Sigmund grandson, Walter. He left Vienna for Britain in March 1938 with his father, Martin. They ended up being interned as enemy aliens in 1940; he was even deported to Australia, returning the following year, the internment rules having been reformed. He served nobly, ultimately in the Special Operations Executive, a very dangerous job. He parachuted behind enemy lines in Austria in 1945, having declined to change his obviously Jewish name in case of capture. “I want the Germans to know,” he explained, “a Freud is coming back.”
That courageous sentiment, and the brave truth-telling life of the family’s presiding genius Sigmund, is what should define the Freuds, not the jowly actor in search of a part, the predator in search of a victim. And they should certainly not be thought of as a family cursed either by sexual misbehaviour or by the crude view of sexuality mistakenly associated with the thought of Sigmund.
For the truth about Sigmund is that it was love, not sex, that was closest to the heart of his genius. “Psychoanalysis,” he wrote to Jung, “is in essence a cure through love.” And he listed work, love and taking responsibility as the most important things in life. Such honest commitments did not offer hope, or even happiness, but only some small portion of solace, because, as he also said: “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”
Sunday, June 19th, 2016
Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery since last summer, would like to have a collection of Renaissance and 17th-century drawings. Ideally some medieval ones, too, but they are very rare. “I’m fascinated by the intimate process of creation that goes on between the artist’s eye and the artist’s hand,” he explains. “You see a fresh outcome of that in drawing.”
Which is why, out of all the exhibitions he could have put on at the National, he chose Painters’ Paintings, a show about the works artists have bought for themselves. In the collection, they found 80 paintings that had belonged to artists from Lucian Freud back to Anthony van Dyck. Freud had Corot’s Italian Woman, van Dyck owned Titian’s The Vendramin Family, Degas was an early collector of El Greco, Matisse had a Degas, Joshua Reynolds owned Bellini’s glorious Agony in the Garden —though he thought it was by Mantegna. “Their motivation is partly to do with friendship, rivalry plays a role, and they are surrounding themselves with the things they are interested in artistically.”
Finaldi’s predecessor, Nick Penny, spoke of art in a brilliant, scholarly and anecdotal way. Finaldi speaks as if he’s still as wonder-struck as he was when, aged 16 and a pupil at Dulwich College, he saw Girl at a Window, by Rembrandt. From then on, he was lost in art. Penny saw pictures in the world; Finaldi sees the world from within pictures.
He is a child of the suburbs, born in Barnet (in 1965) and raised in Catford — where he still lives — to an Italian father and a half-Polish mother. He has six children, aged between 10 and 28, and comes from a family of eight. He is an observant Catholic, as are all his children.
This is not something you often hear said these days — people are usually embarrassed by religion, either because they are shyly religious or because they’re emphatically not. “It’s interesting because, in Britain, religion is something personal. In a way, it’s very much the way you think of things and the way you relate to the important things in life. That’s often not the case abroad — it’s often more natural and easier to say you’re churchgoing. The other thing I’ve found is that in Spain, for example, religion is quite divisive, whereas in Britain there’s a huge level of tolerance.”
This is, you will gather, not a man who is an obvious fit in the secular, bien-pensant art world of central London. But here he is, presiding over Trafalgar Square; 6ft 2in (or so he claims — to my invariably paranoid gaze, he looks a lot taller); English, though incredibly Italian-looking; and all confidently suited, booted and focused, as opposed to the brilliant confection of digressive whimsy and scholarly intensity of his predecessor.
Actually, “confidently” is a bit strong. He certainly looks confident, but in conversation he is tentative and discreet, maybe a touch anxious. No wonder. He spent 13 years at the Prado, in Madrid, then, at the second attempt, got the NG job, only to arrive in the midst of a horribly damaging strike and a widespread conviction, shared by Penny, that government funding — accounting for 70% of the gallery’s revenues — was due for a sickening drop.
In the event, the strike was settled and government money is to be sustained at current levels for the next four years. Yet the National is still in a tricky position. That 70% state funding compares with 40% at the British Museum. Its exposure to political risk is, therefore, unacceptably high.
Annual visitor numbers, meanwhile, have swollen to 6.5m, way too high for this comparatively small building, with its — by world standards — tiny entrance hall. Look, I say, at the cathedral-sized entrance to the Met, in New York.
“Yes,” he admits, “that’s what the modern museum in a sense requires — a large vestibule, because people mill around and decide what they are going to do there. This gallery is not designed to do that. In a way, what’s wonderful about it is that no sooner are you through the door than, almost in seconds, you are standing in front of a masterpiece.”
There’s a space problem inside, too. It is tiny by international standards; Finaldi reckons the Louvre is five times the size. The 19th-century galleries — Van Gogh, the impressionists — are regularly clogged. “The Poussin galleries are much less visited…” he murmurs pensively. He intends to improve the signage to encourage people to wander more, thereby thinning out the crowds. The long-range solution is to extend the National into St Vincent House, on Orange Street, just behind it.
“That is something we are looking at long-term, because, in the late 1990s, the gallery acquired that building with a view to it being used as part of the gallery. It would sort of complete the block.”
One big issue, for Penny and me at least, is the plaza — the north terrace — created in front of the gallery by closing the road. This is currently home to street artists and a lot of apparently levitating living statues. (Yoda seems a popular choice.) Finaldi appears more relaxed, not least because he often shares his train into work with a Yoda or two.
“I was very much in favour of the pedestrianisation. It’s a prime world site, in a way, and we could do better. We’re talking to Westminster and are hoping to have some involvement. The interesting thing is, it’s still characterised as a highway — the regulations that obtain are actually highway regulations, so that does mean anyone can perform there.”
As we walk round the galleries, one thing is clear: Finaldi genuinely loves this place. He doesn’t so much tell stories, as Penny did, about the works he picks out; rather, he rhapsodises. Peering at the great 14th-century Wilton Diptych, he is plainly entranced. “That theme of the beautifully tooled goldwork carried into the robes of the kings, these beautiful open-winged and then white harts, surrounded by emblems of the Plantagenets in the gold robe of the young Richard II… It’s the whole universe, bringing it all together into this tiny, concentrated image of extraordinary power and beauty.”
He spent a decade here before he went to the Prado, and exudes an air of coming home. He loves it not least because the Prado collection was the gift of a king; the National belongs to the people.
“It’s a significant difference. The Prado is a treasure house of the Spanish monarchy. This is a collection intended from the start to be for the nation. It’s also always been run by directors who have a real interest in art history, and in acquiring choice examples of European art.”
This, curiously, is why it is also “a collection of not very large pictures”. Royal collections tend to consist of paintings made for big palaces; not so a people’s collection. His sense that the NG is unique extends to his enthusiasm — a legacy of the days he spent here when Neil MacGregor was boss — for free entry.
“I think that’s the distinguishing characteristic of the gallery, and it’s what makes it so bound up in national life — the sense of ownership that people feel. I don’t think you find that often, but it’s a tradition here.”
Money looms, however. They would need a large capital programme to get into St Vincent House, and there’s the always tricky problem of chasing the art market for acquisitions.
“It’s become difficult for galleries to acquire important works, because of the rise of the astoundingly rich private collector. We certainly mustn’t lose our hope or ambition. Traditionally, we’ve acquired things that have come up for sale in this country. This country is not only extraordinarily rich in terms of private collections, it’s the centre of the art market, so we are in a strong position. The gallery also nurtures its relationship with individual owners, and we have quite a good number of pictures on loan. We have a tax system that is reasonably generous, but it could be more so.
“Any reduction in grant-in-aid makes you vulnerable, so that’s a ratio we need to look at. We got some good news from the autumn spending review — our grant would remain flat for the next four years. When I arrived, there was a threat of pretty massive cuts.”
The NG has been showing signs of ramping up its fundraising. It has, for example, finally started a “friends” scheme. “The scheme went from zero to about 16,000 in a short space of time. Over 30 years, the Prado succeeded in getting a friends scheme with 30,000 members.”
There’s also a looming turf war with Tate. A deal that expires in 2019 stipulates a cutoff date of 1900 for the NG’s collection; after that, everything is regarded as modern, and therefore Tate territory.
“It’s a kind of fluid divide — we have things that stretch into the 20th century. My concern is that we are able to show a story that has a certain completeness to it. When you look at late Degas and Van Gogh, you are conscious that this is a moment pregnant with possibilities in the 20th century.”
So, is he going to play hardball? After all, it is perfectly logical that the cutoff date should advance with the passage of time. “There will be,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “a certain amount of overlap, and we will be talking to each other.”
Finaldi will necessarily be judged not by visitor numbers — more at this point would make matters worse — but partly aesthetically and mainly by money. The National has to expand and to reduce its dependence on capricious, usually philistine politicians. He neither sparkles like MacGregor nor dazzles like Penny; rather, he exudes quiet passion and respectability.
With luck, this could make him the right man at the right time.
Sunday, June 19th, 2016
On July 7, 2004, Susan Faludi received an email from her 76-year-old father, Steven. They had barely spoken in 25 years; he had been a controlling and occasionally violent father. When she was 16, her parents had separated and Steven had ended up back in his native Hungary. But, before he sent the email, he had been on a trip to Thailand.
“I have decided,” he said in the email, “that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.” A Thai surgeon had turned Steven into Stefánie.
Faludi had also to confront the fact that she, a leading feminist and distinguished, Pulitzer prizewinning journalist who writes about gender identities, had missed the huge story of her own father.
“I didn’t know the first thing about my father,” she tells me. “I didn’t know who he was at all. It was not so much that I had been deluded, it was that I had missed an essential aspect. I knew he’d been uncomfortable in his own skin, that there was something beneath the surface, but as a child you’re involved with your own problems and there was just this weird person in our family.”
Were there any signs? Sort of.
“In my childhood he wore many masks and he was pretty confusing to be around, but it was a sort of general confusion about belonging and he didn’t focus on an agenda per se … mostly he was angry and controlling.”
And so she wrote In the Darkroom. It is her first autobiographical, non-political, non-polemical book. Her previous works include Stiffed, in which she argued that the masculinity of ordinary men in America was being destroyed by economic and social forces, and The Terror Dream, which made the case that 9/11 had led to the rise of a misogynist masculinity. She didn’t know if she even had the tools to write about her father.
“My father drove a Trojan horse into my political and professional domain,” she says. “I didn’t feel I could move forward honestly in my own thinking about gender without admitting to my own experience.”
It soon became clear that “my political analysis was not going to get me very far. It became clear in working on the book that I was not going to arrive at some explanation or diagnosis. This book would require me to live in uncertainty.”
As a result, it took 11 years from receiving her father’s email to the book’s completion.
“I tried to put the book down, to put the project aside and try and do something else … then I’d feel it calling me back. In retrospect I see I couldn’t deal with anything else without dealing with this, it was the big elephant in the room.”
The problem was not just that her father had become Stefánie, but that she remained the multimasked trickster he had always been (like Faludi I am letting the pronouns change gender, he becomes she after the operation). She was proud that her daughter was writing a book about her, but wanted control of what was revealed. What she enthusiastically revealed were intimate details. Stefánie showed Susan a video of the operation and introduced her to the “dilation rods” she had to insert to preserve the opening of her new vagina.
“Sometimes she was desperate to be revealed … but at the same time she was so opaque about what really happened. I’d ask, ‘Why did you hate your mother so much?’ and suddenly she would fall dead silent.”
The book finds Faludi constantly thwarted in her efforts to understand until, finally, father and daughter find a degree of peace with each other. Just in time — 87-year-old Stefánie died, stricken by dementia, in 2014.
She’d been excited about the book. Then Faludi finally told her it was finished, but, strangely, she never asked to see it. Perhaps, she muses, she never intended to read it.
“One way of reading that is that it was a gift to me. She knew I had complicated feelings and maybe she was just giving me permission to write honestly.”
Out of all these complexities, the book becomes a political and cultural history. Stefánie’s story becomes a fourfold identity crisis — being a Jew in prewar but already anti-semitic Hungary, then under the Nazis, then the communists, who wished to extirpate every religious allegiance, and, finally, in 1950s America.
“As both European Jew and American dad,” Faludi writes, “my father’s manhood had been doubted, distorted and besmirched.”
Steven became a shape-shifter, often a heroic one, as when he camouflaged himself as a Christian and wore a fascist armband to rescue his own family and others from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Under the communists he sneaked out of Hungary, pretending to be making a film in Denmark.
In America, most confusingly of all, he became the epitome of the suburban 1950s male, with an obedient wife and a son and a daughter who must obey. As they were also surrounded by Catholics, he also, once again, affected Christianity — until Susan went too far by going to see a priest. He stormed into her room, grabbed her by the neck and banged her head on the floor. He wouldn’t have a Catholic child — “I created you, I can destroy you,” he cried.
“Thus did one daughter come to know that her father was a Jew,” she writes.
America was in the grip of its own national identity crisis. “As I came of age in postwar America,” Faludi writes, “the search for identity was assuming Holy Grail status, particularly for middle-class Americans seeking purchase in the new suburban sprawl.”
The crisis specifically struck at the idea of manhood. In 1958, Look magazine ran an article — it later became a book — headed The Decline of the American Male.
Steven’s response was to become an uber male, an aggressive, if inconsistent, provider for and defender of the family. He was a photographer and a great picture fixer in the darkroom — hence the title of Faludi’s book. He was so good at it, he worked for the best, including Richard Avedon. It was an obvious role for a naturally deceptive man.
His final attempt at the role of familial defender came after his separation from Faludi’s mother. His wife had a lover and, one night, Steven broke into the house and attacked him with a baseball bat and a Swiss army knife. He stabbed the lover but, somehow, he was not prosecuted.
In the ensuing years, Susan Faludi became famous. Her first book, Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women, published in 1991, was the primary text for new-wave feminism. In interviews and publicity she told the world that her parents were separated and her father had returned to Hungary. She could, it seemed, set the agenda at will. But then, with that email in 2004, it became clear that instead the agenda was going to set her.
She rented a flat in Budapest with her husband — Russ Rymer, another writer — to be close to Stefánie. Faludi was scared to see her walking about in her women’s clothes in the streets of a very socially conservative country.
“When I first saw people glowering at her — mostly women — my worry was that she was going to be attacked. This is not a culture that welcomes experimenting with gender expression with open arms. But, as my father got older, she just looked like an indeterminate older women.”
They wandered around Budapest, seeking the physical memorials of Stefánie’s pre-op life and visiting the past in museums. In the process they resolved a problem that has recently been bothering state legislatures in parts of America: should trans women be allowed into women’s lavatories?
“We’d go to the ladies’ bathrooms together, it was no big deal. There were times when I wished she wouldn’t come into the bathrooms with me, because she had a tendency to talk and talk and talk, and I just wanted five minutes alone.”
Stefánie’s first female incarnation presented Faludi with a new challenge. The trans cases she read about, like her father, all involved the adoption of hyper-girly identities — frilly or super-tarty — exactly the styles feminists had been determined to repudiate.
“I don’t like clichéd femininity in biological women any more than I do in trans women. The very conservative depictions often make a lot of modern trans people cringe … I think there’s a real problem embracing conservative stereotypes when you try to launch a movement that is radical and is supposedly devoted to overturning those stereotypes.”
In the event, Stefánie became less girly as time passed, reverting to “tweeds and tennis shoes” and abandoning wigs and make-up.
If that issue was resolved, however, few others were. The heart of the matter was identity. As Stefánie, she insisted that the day of her operation was a new birthday and everything that came before was to be, in some of her moods, disregarded.
“She wanted,” says Faludi, “to turn her past into a series of freeze-frames and I wanted to restore the whole movie. She wanted to say, ‘OK, I became a woman, and by becoming a woman I have shed my history … So much of this struggle between us was over whether identity was something you just declared or whether your identity is made up of a really complicated stew of everything that has come before and that you have inherited, and all the regrets and things that can never be pushed aside. I think, ultimately, my father came to an understanding of that herself in her final years.”
This, as I point out, is a problem for Faludi. She has always believed that gender is fluid, that sexual identity cannot be captured by the simple binary of male and female, that we all live somewhere on a spectrum of possibilities and that, crucially, we can choose where we stand on that spectrum. Biology, in short, is not destiny. This is a potent idea in much feminist thinking and it is now commonly embraced by the young. The normalisation of gay relationships has been accompanied by a relaxed acceptance that gay and straight are not teams you join, but points on a spectrum.
However, neither her father’s story nor the questions Faludi is seeking to answer fit neatly into this theory. The very fact that she is seeking to find out why it all happened indicates that the “complicated stew” had as much — or more — to do with it than a simple matter of Steven’s choice.
“I guess I mean I question the categories of what it means to be a woman. I don’t fit a lot of them myself. I’m not big on labels in general and I’m not big on dualities.”
It’s not an answer, but as she admits, there are no answers in this story. What is clear is that her father has come to represent a challenge, even a threat, to her politics.
The further complication is that there is a mystery about why Steven did it at all. It was not sexual: neither before nor after was he attracted to men, and, by normal criteria, he didn’t qualify for surgery. He went to Thailand because it was easier, but even there he had to use all his trickstering to get the surgeon to agree. He may have been proud of what he had done, this penultimate chameleon transformation, but it doesn’t sound as though it gave him peace.
The final astounding thing about this story is its sudden topicality. In 2014, Time magazine wrote of a “transgender tipping point” and, when the Kardashian spin-off Bruce Jenner became cover-trans Caitlyn, President Obama even tweeted a tribute to her courage. Faludi is more coolly analytical.
“I don’t think Jenner has a lot to tell us about how ordinary people live their lives,” she says. “Most transgender people, like most people, are not living the glitz-and-glam life. It’s hard to make her a representative of the transgender experience — she’s somebody who is like a 1% of a 1% in this Hollywood bubble.
I just don’t link the fact that she is transgender and my father was transgender. I can’t find any connective tissue between these two storylines.”
She is baffled about why the trans issue has suddenly become front-page news.
“It’s a big question. I think there’s a lot roiling about in the culture about gender that is unresolved. Then there’s the general preoccupation with identity. But I don’t think you can reduce it to a simple explanation.”
That is, in fact, the primary message of this book — there is never a simple explanation for anything. Faludi now seems stalled by a message that simply will not translate into political polemics, but remains locked in the baffling details of ordinary lives, ordinary compromises. She is wondering what she will write next or, just as important, how she will write next. Meanwhile, like everybody else, she sits at home in Maine and worries about Trump.
“It’s almost as if he was conjured up as a psychogram or all the culture’s hysteria over having a powerful woman in office. I mean, what’s the likelihood of having the most viable female candidate running against the most retrograde misogynist, who thinks all women are either babes to be schtupped or witches to be tossed into the cauldron?”
She worries he will become president because Bernie Sanders’s young supporters will simply not back Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. “That would be a disaster.”
Who knows what will happen? About politics, life and identity, who knows anything? Even about the simple fact of Stefánie’s death, nobody seemed to know anything. At the hospital where she died, her grieving, confused daughter asked the nurse what was the cause of death.
“Could be anything,” she replied.
Sunday, June 12th, 2016
Death is running away from us. For 50% of children born in the developed world today, it lies 105 years in the future. For all of us it is receding at an astonishing rate. In your fifties you can now expect to live into your nineties.
In this, if in little else, the Queen and Prince Philip are leading the way. She has just turned 90 and he 95. On Friday at St Paul’s, a service of thanksgiving marking the occasion was packed with an inspiring bunch of octo- and nonagenarians.
And with the Queen within a decade of writing herself a card, it is worth noting that 10 years ago one person was in charge of the Queen’s birthday messages to people on their 100th birthday, whereas now it takes a staff of seven. In Japan there are so many centenarians — around 60,000 — that they have given up the tradition of sending them silver dishes. Reaching 100 is no longer a big deal.
This process — a two- to three-year increase in life expectancy every decade — has been going on for 200 years. Demographers often say it is over, a plateau has been reached. Undeterred, we just keep plodding on.
Ignore every other political, social or personal issue that grabs your attention; this is the big one. It will affect every aspect of life, from love and friendship to work. Two basic models of life have already been broken by death’s flight, many more are now being tested to destruction.
The three-part life — education, work and a quiet retirement — is rapidly being replaced by a multiple-part model with more years of education in later life, portfolio careers and increasingly juvenescent behaviour — older people acting younger longer.
The nuclear “Hi, honey, I’m home” family with a husband working to increase tangible assets and a wife at home working on the intangibles — child-rearing, social connection — is all but dead on its feet. Apart from anything else, children take up a much smaller part of longer lives. Perhaps spouses will too. Divorce rates are falling generally, but rising among 60, 70 and 80-year-olds. Marriage in the mid-twenties used to represent a 30- to 50-year commitment; now it could mean 80 years, in which annoying habits become intolerable.
Some regard all this with dismay. “I don’t think it’s a good thing,” Diana Simmonds, an 87-year-old retired civil servant, tells me. “We’ll be too old and decrepit by then. I’m just creeping around with a stick . . . and you become a burden to people. That’s not a nice feeling.”
I tell her about the “compression of morbidity”. Apparently, the number of years of ill-health preceding death are falling as the older get healthier.
“Not that much healthier,” she responds drily.
The young, on the other hand, are doing what the young do, adapting. Dani Bernston is 18, preparing for her A-levels and planning to become a doctor. She had vaguely expected 80 years of life, but now discovers she might have 20 extra years. She is surprised. “There are all these health crises in the headlines. You’d think lives were getting shorter.”
But she is ready. She wants a portfolio career; she wants to move around the world, to change. “Change,” she says, “excites me.”
Politicians know all about this but try to ignore it because the timescales involved — of legislative and economic impact — are much longer than an election cycle. Companies know about it but quietly shuffle it into the “too hard” file. A new book, The 100-Year Life, by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, academics at the London Business School, suggests this means all the significant changes will be made by individuals. (Scott, incidentally, is 51 and expects to live to 90; Gratton is 61 and plans to make it to 100.)
The book is designed, Scott tells me, “to accentuate the positive”. But to get to the positive you have to wade through a thicket of negatives. Inequality being, to me, the most scary.
Take, for example, the age at which you receive your pension. No problem, you may think, if people are living longer, healthier lives: you just increase the retirement age. But not everybody is living longer. Poverty kills and, across the developed world, the life expectancy gaps between rich and poor are shocking. So if you increase the pension age, you also increase the number of poor who will find themselves having to work until they drop dead.
“The 100-year life is not open to everyone,” says Scott. “The 20th century saw the invention of retirement, which is a tremendous social achievement . . . before then people worked until they died. If you just extend the retirement age and the rich live to 100, you’re going to get the end of retirement for those at the bottom of the income distribution, which is brutal . . . It’s not like income redistribution, you can’t take those years away from the rich and give them to the poor.”
The other negatives are more obvious. It is already clear that longevity has created new patterns of disease. Infections used to be the big killer, now cancer and heart disease tend to finish us off. And there may be signs that the Alzheimer’s epidemic is receding, but still we know that 50% of people over 85 will suffer some form of dementia. Medicine compresses morbidity in many areas, but the brain seems to resist our interventions.
But, surely, if life is better than death, celebrations of all these extra years are reasonable. “So much of the attention has been on Alzheimer’s,” says Gratton, “but actually we think we should be focusing on the whole of life.”
“The most likely outcome,” says Scott, “is that we will live healthier for longer.”
One very enthusiastic celebrant is Nigel Southern, a 57-year-old businessman. He can now reasonably expect to sail through his eighties, and is ecstatic about the added years. “My view of life is that it is remarkable, fantastic, and I want to get as much of it as I can for as long as I can.”
Southern says he has seen a few “car crashes” in his fifties — “You see what happens when people smoke, eat and drink too much, take drugs, go to parties” — and is determined to avoid that fate with exercise and dieting. He is also doing it to compress his own morbidity, for he has a visceral aversion to the idea of a nursing home. Meanwhile, he is saving diligently to ensure he can finance his life, however long it turns out to be. He is, in short, a poster boy for the message of Gratton and Scott’s book.
The most important thing, Gratton says, is preparation of precisely the kind Southern is engaged in. Our current ideas of financial planning, for example, are still in the age of the three-part life and the nuclear family. If, for example, you want a decent pension as you decline towards death at 105, you will probably need to work until you are 80. That can be solved by more long-term saving and a more flexible attitude to work — say, a part-time job to defer pension draw-down as you get older.
One positive outcome should be greater equality between the sexes. “Most of these extra years of life are coming after the years of childbirth and raising a family,” says Scott, “which does potentially make gender issues easier to deal with — if more of life is not about children, then that seems to have major implications for the gender structure of society.”
In other words, for most of a very long married life, the sexes will not be divided by the greater proportion of a woman’s time being tied up with child-bearing and raising.
Another huge and interesting positive is the increased importance of friendship. The crucial point about friendship is endurance. True friends are there for you whatever and whenever. Greater longevity means deeper friendships.
“One of my greatest sources of joy,” says Gratton, “is friendship. I celebrated 50 years of friendship with one friend. You cannot buy that. You could be a billionaire, but you couldn’t buy a 50-year friendship.”
The book has high hopes for the sustenance of the next generations by large networks of friends (flesh and blood, not Facebook). These would be gathered during the extra years of exploration they are already embracing — the extension of adolescence up to the age of 30 has already become a new life stage, a sort of post-teen wandering.
On top of that, the extended family may return to overthrow the nuclear. As the old pursue their portfolio careers, they will interact more with the young. Living under the same roof will seem more acceptable. Our present, brutal arrangement in which the young and old seem to regard each other as different species will, happily, come to an end.
Of course, the $64,000 question is: how far will this go? Some think longevity increases will go on until we achieve medical immortality (we could still be shot or hit by a truck). The more sober view comes from Professor Samuel Preston at Pennsylvania University, an expert on mortality trends.
Life expectancy initially increased from 25-30 years to 65-70 years, he tells me, because of public and personal health measures designed to prevent infection, also by increasing affluence and improved diets. The next increase came from improved treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
This will continue, but, as the proportion of deaths from cancer rises, the rise in longevity will slow. Cancer is, Preston says, “a harder nut than cardiovascular disease”.
“Under the present state of knowledge,” he concludes, “and assuming all available methods to prevent and treat diseases were deployed for 100% of the population, life expectancy for a population would probably peak around 100 years. But knowledge will advance. The key will be whether we can find ways to slow the ageing process itself.”
So there you are, we are stuck with lives so long that to our not-so-distant ancestors we would appear to be all but immortal. Death may not be defeated, but he is on the run as never before. We have no choice but to attempt the impossible — make sense of our lives.
The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott is published by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99
Save hard and work past 80
The 100-year lifespan is a time bomb ticking under your pension plan. Twenty or 30 more years of retired life have to be financed — or you could just go on working, if the jobs are there.
Gratton and Scott invent three characters to make the point — Jack, born in 1945, Jimmy, born in 1971 and Jane, born in 1998. They make the assumption that they need to earn 50% of their final salary in their retirement.
Jack does best with a conventional three-stage life — education, work and retirement — and he is lucky enough to die at a mere 70. He also had a generous contribution from his employer. As a result he only had to save 4.3% of his income throughout his working life.
Jimmy has a life expectancy of 85. He also has a three-stage life, retiring at 65, leaving him with 20 years to fund. He has no company pension. He needs to save 17.2% a year.
Jane has a life expectancy of 100. For her the three-stage life with retirement at 65 is no longer viable — she would have to save 25% of all her income. Retirement at 70 and a 10% saving rate would give her 30% of her final salary. To get 50% she’d have to work well into her eighties. She has 30 more years of life than Jack but also 20 more years of work.
Longevity is very expensive.
Sunday, June 5th, 2016
Eddie Izzard and I are stuck in a traffic jam in Bristol. “If,” he says, “Napoleon had met Wellington before the Battle of Waterloo and said, ‘Wellington, in 200 years there’s going to be a French kid doing stuff in English and an English kid doing stuff in French, that’ll be cool’… ‘It will take 200 years, though,’ says Wellington. ‘Yeah, maybe, but that’s the speed of the world, man.’”
Izzard is revelling in the fact that he is a British comedian who is mending European history. He does multilingual gigs around Europe, and tonight, in Bristol, he will be doing a three-part show in German, French and English. He’s planning to add Russian and Arabic to his repertoire. “Me performing in different languages is beautiful, utterly, utterly beautiful. The French are now performing in English, the Germans are performing in English, the Russians are performing in English — never before in the history of the world has that happened.”
Meanwhile, he might have a baby, or not. (It’s a plan, he says, but he’s not actively planning it; also, it might be adopted, depending on his relationship status.) He’ll definitely become a Labour parliamentary candidate in 2020, and may, if elected, become a member of the party’s National Executive Committee in July. “Anti-Corbyn candidate?” I ask, all faux innocence.
“I’ve chatted with Jeremy. He’s voting in, I’m voting in. We’ve got to be a broad church…”
I don’t know if he gets this, but broad church in the present climate translates as at least a bit anti-Corbyn. Though he doesn’t have a constituency yet, and must go through the selection process, he seems confident he will be an MP. He says his comedy career will “hibernate’ while he is in the job, but he’s confident it will be resuscitated.
“When I started stand-up, I worked out I could go on for ever. I heard that Groucho Marx did Carnegie Hall when he was 82. I’m practical and realistic.”
This is all on the assumption that he won’t have total organ failure while running another marathon of marathons (he came close once), or, indeed, while lecturing at 31 universities — and doing a number of comedy gigs — in 31 days on the necessity of voting Remain in the referendum. Oh, and he thinks he’s cracked the acting thing. He’s evidently pleased with his performance as Captain Wagget in a new film version of Whisky Galore, due out later this year. He’s got to keep going because, in Napoleon’s words: “It’s the speed of the world, man.”
And on Wednesday, he will receive the South Bank Sky Arts award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, the first comedian to be so honoured. That means, I say, comedy is now officially an art. “I would agree, and I think that’s beautiful. The alternative comedians helped that forward. The Goons started it — I think Spike Milligan started turning it into an art form — and the Pythons took it further. You’ve got to put content in, as well as the silliness.”
He is, in fact, shyly pleased at the idea that he can call himself an artist. As we part company at his hotel, he turns back to look at me and says: “So I’m an artist now.” There’s also the slight oddity of getting what sounds like a retrospective award when he is only 54 and, total organ failures notwith-standing, in youthful condition. He does something called HIT — high-intensity training — which lasts only 20 minutes, but is evidently effective. He is, in his own terms, just getting going. “I think life begins at 50, and if the Queen is 90, that means we’re all going to live to 100. And I’ve got stuff to do now. I’ve got into the position where the train is on the track and I can start to do some work.
“I’d like to get up and make a speech [when he gets the award], and say, well, it’s great…” He tails off. “I’m actually running too fast in my head. It’s nice of them to give it to me. I think I’ve done some interesting things…”
A crucial way into Izzard’s art is those tailing-off sentences. They appear repeatedly in his act and his conversation and, ultimately, they refer back to one cataclysmic event: the death of his mother when he was six. He doesn’t quite put it like that.
“I do know I’m doing it, and I’ve been trying to stop it. I think it comes from my teenage years, when I was trying to get attention at home. I would try to do comic stories and I wasn’t able to grab anybody’s attention, so I’d just drift off…
“Comedically, you can just go into witterings. If I have a good mike, you can hear the witterings going off into the distance.”
He says he was crying continuously between the ages of six and 11. This may not have been just about his mother. Since he was four, he seems to have known that he was drawn to women’s clothes, and that may have made him more awkward. Or the trans thing and the loss of his mother are related. Who knows? He insists it’s genetic, but we know enough now to understand that almost nothing is that clear cut.
At 11, he switched off the tears and shut down his feelings until he was 19. These were the years when he was trying and failing to get attention, and his sentences tailed off. Then he saw a cat run over by a car. He picked up the cat and found himself wondering why he felt nothing. “I knew I liked animals, why did I not give a damn?” He turned his feelings back on, seemingly by an act of will — “I forced myself to feel something” — and they’ve been flowing fast and free ever since.
The artistic point of those sentences is their openness. He seems to drift off into his own imagination, leaving the audience either wondering where he’s gone or making up their own endings. It’s the opposite of traditional comedy, where the punchline provides closure. He is giving the audience permission to use their imaginations. “That’s the key word!” he cries. “Permission!”
And, of course, he gives himself permission to wander off script, which is why he talks of his “molten material”. “Like the Lord’s Prayer, where people say it and don’t think about what they are saying because they’ve said it so often. The words are set in concrete, there’s no life in it, the concrete locks it in. I want to keep the concrete molten.” That is a definition of stand-up comedy at its best — an art in which no two performances are quite the same. I tell him Mark Rylance says something similar about theatre, and he just about resists the urge to bask.
Izzard is no basker when flattered — he is far too sweet-natured. He can, however, be quite censorious. He is in “girl mode” today, wearing moderately high heels, black leggings, a Remain T-shirt, a black jacket, heavy make-up and a hot pink beret with two badges, one the Union flag, the other the EU flag.
My first comment about this rig goes down well. “Two badges — that’s like Montgomery’s beret.” He reaches out to shake my hand. “You’re the first! You’re the first person to get it was Montgomery!” My second comment — not so much. I ask him if he’ll go into the House of Commons dressed like that.
“Dressed like that! What, you mean wearing clothes? What did you just say there? Girl mode, yeah, but women go in girl mode. Is that wrong? Is that wrong for them? Have they got to be in boy mode? I pick up on that because I am just expressing my genetics. I’ve been honest about it for 31 years, I’m allowed to wear all kinds of clothes. Women are allowed to wear clothes that are considered men’s clothes. Women can wear whatever they want, and so can men.”
There are clear trigger points for Censorious Eddie. Any suggestion of a distinctive national identity is one. I make the obvious observation that the comic tradition that made him is very English and goes back to the Victorian whimsy of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. He agrees with the latter — Alice Through the Looking Glass was his first and favourite book. But he denies that any of this is especially English, and reels off the way the Pythons weren’t entirely English either. He wants to believe that all such divisions of identity will gradually dissolve.
“Look at the German comedian Henning Wehn. Germans are supposed to have no sense of humour. It doesn’t have to be national and…” He gets a bit weird here: “Why not talk about spoons, or say the walls here are weird or the wheels are great here, look at that painting. It doesn’t have to be national.”
He does, however, allow Britain the credit for the modern stand-up wave. “We have the biggest comedy circuit in the world, 60 to 80 clubs! What Hamburg was for the Beatles, London was for me and my contemporaries. We did so many gigs, we just went round and round and became battle-hardened ninjas of comedy.”
This is evidently where the comedy segues into the politics, and the combination of the two turns Izzard into this hyperenergetic guy who wants to improve the world in any way he can — by almost marathoning himself to death for charity, or by exhausting himself to get the young registered and voting for remaining in the EU. He is, he says, “a determined bastard”.
I see his talk at the University of the West of England. It offers few laughs, but a lot of inspiring calls to arms. Sorry, he’d hate that — votes. The audience is drowning in the sincerity of the man, and not one question comes from even a mild Brexiteer. Afterwards, the line for selfies is long, and he talks to every one of them. He is loved.
Talking about this to him, I call him one of the “nice” comedians, Bill Bailey being another. This also turns out to be a bit of a trigger.
“I wouldn’t use that word — I’d say we’re not on the attack side. I say ‘Hitler was a murdering f***head’ in three languages. I don’t think those words are nice.”
Okay, “sweet” is a better word, and the one many apply to him. And yes, of course, he’s an artist, a very good one. How he’ll survive as a politician, I can’t imagine. His politics remind me of that great Jack Nicholson line in Mars Attacks! — “Why can’t we all just get along?” The Martians kill him.
After we part at the hotel, he zooms off to get something to eat from Sainsbury’s to fortify himself for the night’s shows. Through a window, I see him returning with a big orange bag. He’s still in full girl mode, and a man in the street stares at him in disbelief, bordering on disgust. He looks, to me, terribly vulnerable.
Never mind, if those Martian bastards in Westminster try to kill Eddie, our most treasurable asset, we’ve all got his back. Right? Right.
Sunday, June 5th, 2016
Does Your Family Make You Smarter?
Nature, Nurture and Human Autonomy
by James R Flynn
To understand James R Flynn’s enormous — and supremely consoling — transformation of human thought about… well, humans… you need to grasp the significance of just one sentence from this book. “Comparative data,” he writes, “suggest that when a nation goes from premodern to full modernity, it will gain at least 36 IQ points.”
And to understand that sentence you need to meet a man named Arthur Jensen who, you will discover, was, to a rough approximation, wrong about everything. Jensen, who died in 2012, was an educational psychologist in California. He believed in something he called “g”, a level of general IQ that was fixed at birth. Nothing that happened in life — a good family, education, hard work — would ever raise it.
Published in 1969, the core of this theory became a global, supposedly scientific, orthodoxy; indeed, it can still be found in the popular imagination and among some less well-informed members of our elites. I am being kind when I say “less well-informed”; in truth, the whole thing is a barbaric superstition driven by prejudice more than science. Because, especially in America, blacks consistently scored much lower in IQ tests, the concept of “g” seemed to suggest that they were fundamentally inferior and nothing could or should be done for them. Racists, as the Nazis had done before them, wallowed in the realisation of their dream — scientific validation.
Jensen acquired backing for his theory from so-called “twin studies” in which identical twins did similarly well in IQ tests. The level of these correlations suggested “g” was overwhelmingly genetically determined. These studies induced a mood of pessimism among the progressively minded who thought we had escaped the genetic determinism of Nazism. Overwhelmingly, it seemed, nothing could be done.
Then, in the 1980s, Flynn, a New Zealand academic, took the whole thing apart with a beautifully simple experiment. He gave contemporary students old IQ tests from the 1920s and 1930s and, astoundingly, they did incredibly well. Apparently, our grandparents were morons. If Jensen was to survive this discovery, then there must have been an unprecedented and, necessarily, genetic transformation in mental capacity. This was impossible.
Flynn worked out what was really going on. IQ tests are not neutral, cross-cultural measures of some fixed quantity etched for ever in the human mind; they are, more mundanely, just quite accurate measures of the progress of modernity. Blacks scored poorly to the extent that they were excluded from modern societies.
Consider, as Flynn does here, a fish and a crow. A premodern person, say a villager in the midst of the Amazonian jungle, thinks these two creatures have nothing in common, One swims, one flies; one you can eat and one you can’t. That’s it. A modern person, however, will know they are both animals, they both have DNA and so on. Modern people see invisible abstractions, premoderns see what is before their eyes. IQ tests are all about abstractions. The Amazonian will score badly, but this has nothing to do with his intelligence, it is to do with the fact that his life has no need for abstractions. To put it another way: IQ tests measure the likelihood of success solely in the kind of society that sets IQ tests.
The whole genetically fixed “g” thing was a fantasy. Flynn had given us back those most precious human intuitions — that we are all, in some deep sense, equal, that we are all in the same boat or, as the poet John Donne put it, that the bell tolls for thee.
Flynn is now in his eighties and this book reads like a summary of his life’s work. Be warned, it is not “popular science”, much of it is extremely tough going, and if you are allergic to tables of figures, you will need to do some skipping. But it is worth it. In spite of all the technicalities of the writing, the quirks and humanity of the man keep shining through. At one point, for example, he considers the moral superiority of a New Zealand gang leader who happened to have an IQ of 150: “He takes satisfaction in his moral superiority: he has robbed only a few people rather than the millions robbed by merchant bankers.”
He also brings in his own life. All but one of the males in the older generation of his family were alcoholic. “I suspect,” he writes movingly, “that (as they all left school between the ages of 11 and 14) this was due to a mismatch between their promise and the kind of education that might have enhanced their lives. Yet, I can testify that all of them were highly intelligent, perhaps as intelligent as their genes ‘intended’; but that was not enough.”
Throughout you have the sense that Flynn takes pride in the fact that his insights have freed us from the prison of predestination created by bad science. “All of us,” he writes, “both in childhood and maturity, have the capacity to choose to significantly enhance our cognitive performance.”
As for the question in the title — does your family make you smarter? — well, it’s complicated. Genetically gifted parents are likely, though not certain, to bless their children with some intellectual advantage. They will also confer advantage by ensuring their childhood environment is as stimulating as possible.
Parental influence, however, stops at the age of 17. At that age, children have entered new environments which, stimulating or not, take over. This, of course, does not mean all that upbringing has gone to waste; the child that enters these new environments is the one made by genes, the home and, crucially, chance.
Chance seems to account for 20% of IQ variation. In the era dominated by Jensen and kinship studies this tended to be discounted, but, in fact, it is a very large figure that makes it clear that no matter where you start, things can go wrong or right more or less at random. A blow on the head can set you back; a brilliant teacher can send you flying forwards.
I could go on. But the book, finally, is an outline of a theory of intelligence as a complex, multifactoral phenomenon that cannot be used by anybody to justify racism or barbarism — like compulsory sterilisation in prewar America or, indeed, the Holocaust.
This could be Flynn’s last work. You might find it hard going, you might not read it at all, but buy it anyway in tribute to James R Flynn, one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time.
Sunday, May 29th, 2016
A few years back, Tate Modern and its architects, Herzog & de Meuron, dodged a bullet, or, rather, a hail of bullets. They decided to abandon the initial glass-walled plan for their £260m extension. Now Jacques Herzog — Pierre de Meuron does not speak unless subjected to torture — looks back at the scheme with disgust. “I am really ashamed that we could have proposed such a monster,” he has said.
There are two reasons to raise a glass to Jacques: a big one and a really big one. The big one is that, in abandoning glass and embracing brick cladding, they have properly paid homage to the magnificence of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station. Somewhere in the Alpine fastness of their Swiss imaginations, I like to think an epiphany has occurred.
I wrote about H & de M when they were awarded the Tate contract back in the mid-1990s, and I detected a certain unease with Scott’s building. One of the staff told me it was “ugly”, which it most certainly isn’t. For me, this unease was apparent in the finished scheme. I never relax in Tate Modern, and I am probably alone in the world in thinking that the turning of the Turbine Hall into one giant, unpunctuated space was a mistake. It seems to crush the galleries, an effect made worse by overcrowding. Tate Modern was designed for 2m visitors a year; the figure is now more than 5m.
But H & de M’s Tate II is a triumph. Scott’s brickwork is a glory, but it is matched by the brick skin (the bond, for brick geeks, is double Flemish) that has been cast over their new building. This is subtle stuff. At the base, the skin starts as a solid wall, then gradually fades into a gentle rhythm of holes and bricks — the effect is variously described as a “veil”, or “knitwear”, but the most explanatory term is “trellis”. Furthermore, this trellis is extended to form a huge brick plaque on the rear wall of the Turbine Hall. Giles meets Jacques, with Pierre hovering, silent, in the background.
The new tower is a complex form. The brickwork is asymmetrically interrupted by ribbon windows, an effect that, taken in isolation, suggests a 1970s campus building. But the muscular, prismatic shape of the tower evokes something much more aggressive — perhaps the forecastle of some gigantic First World War battleship on its way to Jutland, a Dreadnought.
From the south side, the target of this aggression becomes clear. And here we come to the really big reason to toast Jacques. London is being lacerated by glass, the death of a thousand cuts. Dumb glass blocks — many empty, having been bought by foreign investors — are rising everywhere, imposing a deadly, architecturally illiterate uniformity on a city whose primary virtue is its variety. The river area around Battersea has been ruined, and wherever you live in the capital is next. At least Rafael Viñoly’s grimly awful “Walkie Talkie” tower in the City amuses with its glass-walled, swaggering pomposity, but otherwise it’s just more of the same.
The only idea in any developer’s head is glass: the cheaper, the nastier, the better. Even when it’s expensive, it’s still glass: cold, hard, unyielding, meaningless and impenetrable. Glass is doing what the Luftwaffe failed to do, flattening London. It seems one of the reasons H & de M abandoned glass is that they knew what was coming and, indeed, now, from the south, the brittle armies of glass towers have arrived to besiege Tate Modern. I trust the Dreadnought will give them pause.
Inside, there are two halves to the development: the Switch House and the Tower. The former is a straightforward four-storey rectangular block, constructed behind the Turbine Hall in the space left by the removal of assorted electrical gubbins. It provides most of the new gallery space — there are a few enclaves in the Tower. Each floor is 64 metres by 15 metres and, as a result, the Switch House increases Tate Modern’s exhibition space by 60%. The ceiling height of the floors varies between 3.8 metres and 5.5 metres, so equal attention has been paid to the gigantic and the intimate. The top floor can be daylight-illuminated.
The Tower provides circulation, with gorgeous, broad concrete curves of staircase between each floor, restaurant, cafe, members’ and patrons’ rooms, a roof terrace, offices and so on. All nicely done, but what makes this tower spectacular is, again, that brick skin.
Inside, you realise it is indeed a skin, stretched over the concrete structure. There is, as a result, a gap, a zone of wonders. The first wonder is that you get startling views within the building, chasms of wall space on which the trellis casts geometrical patterns that change as the sun moves, or strangely illuminated lobbies and stairwells. This is architecture at a much higher level than the original Tate conversion; that area is now known as the Boiler House.
In addition, the trellis provides climate control — as a simple brise soleil (sun blocker) or, most satisfyingly, as a provider of airflow. For, wonder of wonders, the Tower is full of windows that can — get this — be opened. One of the many reasons glass towers are so offensive is that they turn a material best suited for windows — objects that connect you to the world beyond — into walls. You never feel more cut off from humanity than behind a solid wall of impenetrable glass, a material that has been made, perversely, opaque. But if there are real, opening windows, all is well.
The opening windows mean the air in the Tower is very breathable. In full air conditioning, I always want to hold my breath; here, I can breathe freely. There is air conditioning within the development, notably beneath, in the Switch House, in the form of a mighty (invisible) dehumidifier known as the digestive biscuit. (It’s round and absorbent.) But the conditioning is non-intrusive. Strikingly, the net effect is that almost every room has a slightly different air quality: there is an air menu. Doubtless, much of this effect will be lost when the warm crowds pour in, but it’s there if you want it.
The floors of the Tower are covered in untreated oak, which will get dirtier and dirtier until, finally, the dirt is transfigured into patina, a satisfying process that may make you want to turn up in muddy boots. But the dominant material is concrete, much of it already slightly weathered, as it was in place well before the cladding. This, again, is a nod to the original building.
The Tower rises above the three giant circular tanks that once stored the oil for the power station. These were, some time ago, turned into performance and installation spaces. Peeling back the interior that joins the Turbine Hall to the tank area exposed a dramatic cavern of concrete columns and walls. The raking concrete supports of the tower have made this space even more complex and pleasingly random. The concrete then rises up through the Tower as if it had sprouted, plant-like, from the tanks, the curling staircases its tendrils.
In a word, it works, first as a rebuke to the march of the glass morons, and second as an opening-out of the previously constricted and, for me, unsatisfying spaces of Tate Modern. The Turbine Hall still gets in the way, but H & de M have at least put a high-level bridge across, joining the main building to the Tower.
In our time, cultural buildings have become our churches and cathedrals. Their problem is, they have nothing as precise or well defined as Christianity to celebrate. This problem has not been solved. With the subtle exuberance and awareness of the past it brings to the task, the Tate Modern extension at least opens up an issue that had always languished — and probably always will — in the “too hard” box.
Sunday, May 22nd, 2016
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
In the early 1870s, Charles Darwin read an obscure paper on plant hybridisation. We know this because he made extensive notes on pages 50, 51, 53 and 54, but not on page 52. Darwin died in 1882, his great theory of natural selection intact, but crucially incomplete. He had not found the mechanism by which genetic information was passed down the generations.
Or he had ignored it. In 1866, a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel had already published the solution to this problem. His experiments on pea plants had established the fundamental mechanism of heredity. Nobody paid any attention, but Mendel’s findings were reported in that paper Darwin read — on page 52. Mendel died in 1884 entirely unnoticed by the world.
Such details, dramatic and precise, litter this thrilling and comprehensive account of what seems certain to be the most radical, controversial and, to borrow from the subtitle, intimate science of our time. Genetics, says Siddhartha Mukherjee, “alters our conception of what it means to be ‘human’ ”. Mukherjee is an academic, cancer doctor and stem-cell biologist. His previous book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the 2011 Pulitzer prize. No wonder, he is a natural storyteller. Although this book has some longueurs, overall it is a page-turner.
For Mukherjee this is plainly personal. He starts with a harrowing history of schizophrenia in his family in India. Schizophrenia is one of the many conditions now known to have a large genetic component. His father developed a form of dementia that runs down the generations and this familial connection was one of Mukherjee’s first glimpses of the potency of the gene.
Mendel’s discovery (it was recognised and resurrected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), when combined with Darwin’s theory, became the modern synthesis, an understanding of life and evolution that now dominates the intellectual and imaginative world of our time.
But it took a while. After Mendel and Darwin’s post-mortem handshake, the first thing that happened was that the modern synthesis was catastrophically simplified — this happened three times.
First, there was the mania for eugenics, born of the idea that, knowing how heredity worked, we could improve society by preventing the poor, criminal and disabled from breeding. This was initially most brutally applied in America. Mukherjee’s storytelling is at its best when he recounts the tale of Carrie Buck, the first case of legalised sterilisation in America. She was classed as a “middle-grade moron” without any supporting evidence whatsoever and, though the case went to the Supreme Court, the sterilisation order was still upheld. The great judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr stained his career with the remark: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In the wake of the case, 62,000 people, mainly women, were sterilised in America.
Next came Nazism, a quasi-scientific attempt (“perverted science”, Winston Churchill called it) to purify European humanity. This was, like compulsory sterilisation, a weaponisation of genetics. The logic was groundless, but the effects were horrific and need no further recounting here.
Finally, with the unravelling of the structure of DNA, the carrier of genes, by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953, there was a widespread belief that the code of life had been cracked and that it was all terribly simple. The four-letter DNA cipher looked a lot like computer code; the assumption was that we were rather like the machines we had just started building.
In fact, as Mukherjee shows with clarity and energy, there is nothing simple about the working of our genes. They cascade, interact, dance and generally refuse to behave anything like your laptops. The recognition of the complexities of gene behaviour accelerated in the 1990s. By the time of the first announcement in 2000 by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton of the mapping of the human genome, it was already clear that this map was only the beginning. It was not simply the existence and location of the genes that mattered, it was their myriad interactions and control systems.
These findings destroyed old eugenical superstitions. For example, kinship studies around the world have repeatedly come up with percentages indicating the “heritability” of certain human traits, notably intelligence. Identical twins reared together have a much more than 50% likelihood of having similar IQs. But with non-identical siblings, the correlation plummets. And with families living apart the number drops even further. The point is that heritability (a genetic cause) isn’t the same as inheritability, the transfer of traits down the generations. Intelligence is clearly based on a vast complex of genes and their interactions that are highly unlikely to be passed on intact from parents to children.
Along with now proven flaws in the whole idea of IQ, these new discoveries utterly discredit all attempts to make crude connections between race and intelligence. With the development of the theory of epigenetics, which argues that genes can be responsive to environmental factors, we now know that events in life can change the genetic destiny of future generations.
Epigenetics and gene interactions were unanticipated complexities, confounding the initial computer-like image of DNA. Complexities have also held back a fourth simplification: gene therapy. This was assumed, from the 1980s onwards, to be just around the corner. In 1999, this premature optimism crashed into the case of Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old who suffered from a rare single-gene defect called OTC that sentences victims to a lifetime of living with a precisely calibrated diet. Ambitious doctors thought they could fix this with a viral infusion that would import a healthy gene. It failed horribly and Jesse died, as, for a decade, did the hopes of gene therapy.
Now, Mukherjee makes clear, we are on the verge of mastering the complexity that has emerged from the human genome. A new eugenics is on the way based not on government fiat but on individual choice, as ever more exact ways are found of testing and then aborting or altering babies in the womb.
Large-scale prenatal removal of unwanted foetuses would plainly alter the human population. We could go even further with genetic changes (enhancements) of children or adults. At some point, it is thought, this would lead to a “post-human future” in which we would, in effect, become a new species. The problem is we have no idea whether this future is desirable, because we have no common view of what constitutes an enhancement. Definitions by the West, the Pope, the Chinese, Putin or Isis would be likely to vary wildly. Meanwhile, western ethical concerns will crumble. The Chinese are conducting experiments on embryos that we would not, for the moment, countenance. The pressure to compete will be overwhelming.
Mukherjee raises all these questions without resolving them. This is understandable. The answers depend on factors that lie far beyond any one person’s competence; we can only wonder. “Can we,” he asks, “make our genomes a ‘little better’ without risking the possibility of making ourselves substantially worse?” The answer is obviously no, but we will risk it, nonetheless. Read this book and steel yourself for what comes next.
Sunday, May 8th, 2016
Lesley Manville just changed a mortice lock. She won the 2014 best actress Olivier for Ibsen’s Ghosts. She is a central figure in Mike Leigh’s film, TV and theatre repertory. She was married to Gary Oldman, and they have a son, Alfie. She is the star of Mum, a superb new BBC sitcom. She turned 60 earlier this year, and is looking forward to her bus pass. Neither a needle nor a scalpel has been anywhere near her face. She is one of our greatest actors and — I love this — she has never employed a publicist. But keep that mortice lock in mind: it matters.
“Nice shiny shoes!” she exclaims as I enter the hipsterishly dark room in the Hospital Club, in London, where she has been seated. I claim no credit for the shoes; they happen to be new. But the observation, like the mortice lock, signals her care for domestic detail.
She is small, slender and deceptively fragile in appearance. She wears black boots, a brown jacket, a cream blouse with puffed sleeves and a lace collar, and what I take to be a long brown skirt, which, when she stands, turns out to be culottes. Her face has a certain sharpness, suggestive of watchfulness, and her voice is clear, bell-like and neutrally accented, except for an overtone of working-class southeastern.
Everything seems finished, worked out. Manville is clearly comfortable in her own skin and what she surrounds it with. Her dressing rooms, I read, are like homes from home. Mum, in which she plays Cathy, a recently widowed mother, is written by Stefan Golaszewski, who wrote the triumphant BBC3 series Him & Her, and directed by Richard Laxton, who also did Him & Her, but who met Manville while directing Abi Morgan’s recent BBC1 series, River.
Mum is a gem, with Mike Leighish overtones in the dialogue and characterisation. “It’s a gentle drama about an epic story,” she says.
“Well, when you have a death, the emotions are epic. Because Richard wanted to shoot it and wanted to observe all the characters in it through Cathy, she had to have a wryness and a spark and an intelligence and a humour, otherwise she’d be observing the madness of the characters around her in a way that would be negative for the story being told. Cathy is centred and calm and good and wholesome and funny.”
“I’m more judgmental than she is.”
Cathy is surrounded by far less intelligent and self-aware characters. There’s a couple, a hapless husband and a coldly aspiring wife. There’s her twittish son and his magnificent dumb-blonde girlfriend, Kelly (Lisa McGrillis). There’s one moment in the first episode that captures the point of the show. Cathy’s son comes into the kitchen to announce that her husband’s hearse has arrived, and Cathy says: “Yes.” It’s the way she says it.
“My instinct was to take that down and look sad, but Richard said — and this became the key to playing Cathy for the whole series — just do it so that it’s all right, she’s making it all right for everyone else. She would do the right thing. To take it down would be the selfish choice, so, in the end, she looks up and goes, ‘Yeah’, and makes it all right for her son. That’s real altruism. I imagine that she deals with her own pain very privately.” This is, as I say, a gem.
Anyway, it is time to go back to a key moment in Manville’s real life. This was when, in the early 1970s, she turned down Arlene Phillips’s invitation to join a raunchy new dance group she was forming called Hot Gossip. Brought up in Brighton by her parents — Jean, who gave up ballet dancing when she married, and Ron, a taxi driver — Manville was exposed to a certain showy chutzpah. Jean and Ron were part of the “groovy gin-and-tonic set”.
“There’s a fantastic bit of footage shot on 8mm of them in a sort of dark basement nightclub, my mum in a fabulous cocktail dress. My father was charismatic — he sang, and he would love to get up and sing a few Frank Sinatra songs.” She got two things from Ron: the urge to perform and the will not to put things off, to seize the day and get things done (like the mortice lock). From her mum, she got the dancing.
Anyway, bright though she obviously was, she dropped out of school around the time of her O-levels to go to Italia Conti. It was there that Phillips spotted her and made the offer. She turned it down because of Ron.“It was going to be raunchy, all stockings and suspenders, and it would be on TV. I just thought my dad would be embarrassed, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. My parents weren’t prudes, they were part of the Swinging Sixties in Brighton. I think it was me. I never did anything naughty at school, I was never in trouble. I always stuck to the rules. I wasn’t an anarchist in any way, and I thought this was going to be saucy and naughty and avant-garde — and it wasn’t me.”
So, at 16, not raunchy and not remotely avant-garde, she found herself working on a Blue Peterish show for Westward TV. This involved living in a cheap hotel in Plymouth and eating on her own in cheap restaurants. “Nobody looked after me, nobody asked if I was all right, nobody asked me round to their house for dinner. I was 16!”
This, I point out, was exactly the kind of early-1970s callousness that Jimmy Savile exploited. She looks shocked. “I never thought of that. I suppose it was.”
One way or another, she found acting jobs, usually playing herself — nice girl-next-door types. Then two things happened to her: Mike Leigh and the Royal Court. Leigh, apparently reluctantly, took her on because there was no money to cast from outside the RSC, where they both then were. It turned out she had a talent for his improvising method.
“He got me playing a character that was really not like me, and that nobody had asked me to play before — this rather tarty, a bit gross, in-your-face girl. I loved it, and I loved the liberation of improvising.” She went on, much later, to play her most heartbreaking role for Leigh as the bag of nerves Mary in 2010’s Another Year, a washed-up woman too needy for her comfortable friends.
When she was 23, she got to the Royal Court and, for the first time, suffered a pang of regret that she had abandoned her education. “I was spending my days with Hanif Kureishi, Max Stafford-Clark and Caryl Churchill, and I thought, ‘F***, I don’t know enough.’”
“If you can do, you don’t have to know,” I say.
“That’s what Max and Caryl taught me. They said what I knew was valid, and they wanted what I knew.”
She was on her way, busy in the big league. In 1987, she married a suitably big-league star, Gary Oldman; in 1988, Alfie was born, and three months later Oldman left her. Loaded with work and, suddenly, single motherhood, she fell back on the wisdom of Ron — just get it done.
“I’ve had to do it, I’ve had to make packed lunches and do the school run and go to swimming lessons, and I did it with minimum help. Minimum help! I never had live-in. I compromised my private life, my social life, hugely when I had a young child. I used to finish the job and not go out for a drink, and just get home.”
She married again — the actor Joe Dixon — in 2000, but four years later they, too, split up. She is matter-of-fact about these two failures and talks enthusiastically, though also mischievously, about her continuing good relationship with Oldman. “He’s been through a few wives since me. He was quite taken aback when I got an OBE. He was lost for words — ‘F****** hell, you got an OBE! F****** hell!’ And I thought, yes!”
Ghosts was the next big change in her life, a blistering performance as a mother whose life is crippled by her philandering husband’s misdemeanours. It showed she could take on the big parts, holding a great play together. She has just been in another classical blockbuster, Long Day’s Journey into Night, with the same director, Richard Eyre, at Bristol Old Vic. Again, rave reviews.
And that part I loved about never having had a publicist? She agrees with me that public relations can do a lot of damage to young actors in particular. “Definitely. I have very good friends among young actors, and they are always coming to me for advice, and I am always saying, ‘You don’t need a publicist, it’s all about the work. You don’t want to be on all these front covers because you are beautiful. What happens when you are not beautiful?’ I’ve never employed a publicist in my life, and I never will.”
She also has strong feelings about growing old and the cult of youth. She makes the good point that the world is getting older, yet show business still pursues youth; and the even better point that the dramas of getting older are much more dramatic than those of youth — the decisions taken tend to be final. And she is positively angry about cosmetic interventions.
“Sticking a needle in my forehead! We know how old people really are, so don’t they feel a bit ridiculous when they’re 55 and nothing in their face is moving? I just can’t get my head round it. What is this clinging on to youth? I like my wisdom and everything that’s coming to me with being my age. Why would I want to look 25? I’ve got good friends like Joan Bakewell and Anna Ford, proper women who have aged and embraced age. I adore spending time with them.”
The mortice lock says it all. She changed it herself, as Ron would have, and it is a feminine symbol, encompassing domesticity and security as well as sexuality. She suggests, ironically, that her epitaph should be “She plumbed the depths of agony”, which, on stage, she does. In life, however, she is all security, composure and getting on with things — not the tortured Helene Alving from Ghosts, but the saintly Cathy from Mum.