Thursday, 28 June 2012

One Foot in The Grave: some thoughts on a masterpiece




One Foot in the Grave is one of the least suburban, least traditional sitcoms ever made. It's worth stressing this, because the Daily Mail tends to print Victor Meldrew's picture whenever there's a piece warning that old-style BBC 1 sitcoms are on the way out. However often you may have heard people say "I don't belieeeeve it," there's nothing safe, cozy, conservative or reactionary about One Foot in the Grave, and nothing grumpy about Victor Meldrew.

Victor Meldrew's greatness as a character lies in his iconic rather than realistic nature: he is at once a blue-collar man of the people and a voice for middle-class frustrations of his creator. The two jobs we are told he's had in his pre-retirement days - a security guard, a milkman- and the considerable array he takes on during the series - a lollipop man, a window cleaner, a doorman, a chauffeur, a gardener - are blue-collar. He's splendidly articulate, clearly intelligent and contemptuous of bad television, but when there's nothing on the television or the radio he's clearly restless in his own house: unlike his wife Margaret he can't pick up a book, except when he's fretting over medical encylopaedias.

At other times, Victor is a champion of the people. The remarkable episode Hearts of Darkness sees this moving beyond locking locksmiths in their porches and standing up to litterbugs. Victor stumbles across a care home in which the residents are being abused by the staff. His outburst to the monstrous woman in charge of all this carries the same humour and signature style ("What language are you speaking -  oh, that's right, bollocks!") as his outbursts about anything else, rendering its dignity and moral force all the more moving. The episode closes with the image of the abusive care workers, tied up with their feet encased in cement, disguised as scarecrows, while Social Services arrive.

Something extraordinary is also achieved in the episode The Worst Horror of All, in which Victor takes a job as a hotel doorman. He's subjected to a nasty bout of snobbery by a toff who demands that he fetch his wife's fur coat from the taxi. Victor catches sight of a wheelchair-bound man getting out of his car into his chair unaided. Enough is enough. Victor rips the toupee from the toff's head and hurls it down the drain.

I'm sorry neither of you have managed to master the mechanics of a doorhandle yet, it must be very complicated for you with your limited brainpower. Oh, and do forgive me for not getting the fur coat out. Of course if you hadn't chopped all its legs off it could have climbed on its own, but there we are. You ask me whether I want to go on working here, well if it means sucking up to odious bastards like you two every day then I think I'd rather remain unemployed thank you very much.

Richard Wilson's power as an actor really sells this: we genuinely feel that Victor is standing up for the people, for workers at the mercy of those with money, connections or power, even though elsewhere he articulates the frustrations of a middle-class TV writer.

Few writers have shared David Renwick's gift for imagery, or his mastery of the setpiece.. Each episode delivers big thrills and unforgettable visual moments: Victor's head under a bucket, a car in the skip, a cat in a freezer, a machine gun massacre of garden gnomes, a tortoise buried alive, a audio tape full of abuse from rebellious car mechanics. As with Seinfeld, these are carefully built up to, and Renwick too has a flair for planting seemingly innocuous details that will take their part in the payoff. This allows the show to bring joy and genuine laughter to a wide audience, but Renwick's technique is anything but easy. He uses each setpiece in careful alignment with the script's take on life in general, in much the same way that good science fiction or fantasy uses the fantastic as metaphors as well as things that are cool in themselves. We sense that Renwick has captured the misery, cruelty, random stupidity and occasional miracles of life itself. This monologue from The Beast in the Cage is a sublime example:

Mirror image of your life really, isn't it? Car Journey on a bank holiday. First 50-odd miles, on the go, all they way, a sense of direction, bowling along. Get past sixty everything slows down to a sudden crawl...and you realised you're not going anywhere anymore. All the things you thought you were going to do that never came to anything. And you can't turn the clock back. One way traffic just gradually grinding to a complete halt.

It's extraordinary - and yet hardly noticeable - that this speech occurs after Victor has put some music on only to find the car mechanics he's been quarrelling with have stuck a piece of chewing-gum in the record protect hole and performed a song of mutiny ("Victor Meldrew, Victor Meldrew, he can stick it up his bum" to the tune of Bread of Heaven), yet Victor, Margaret and Mrs Warboys act as this is just the kind of thing life throws at you, and Renwick and the cast sell this so well that the viewers don't find it jarring: it's part of a unified worldview.

Similarly, the episode The Man Who Blew Away ends with Victor inheriting a collection of antique dentures from Mr Foskett, who, on hearing by phone that his wife had left him, committed suicide after Victor and Margaret had just suffered his company for a day, and whose last thoughts were gratitude towards them for their kindness and hospitality. Victor looks at the teeth. "You can see why they do it," he says, "Those people next door, laughing and playing music all day long. I mean, if we couldn't laugh at this, we'd be committing suicide." There's a mirthless pause, while Victor and Margaret gaze at the teeth. "Where are the sleeping tablets?", Victor asks. Like the transformation of Kafka's Gregor Samsa, each bizarre concept never strikes the viewer/reader as anything other than part of the author's world. Kafka convinces you that a man turning into an insect is a summation of the misery, fear and struggle caused by life in general, David Renwick convinces you with a cat in the freezer, a head under a bucket and a very large collection of false teeth.

The show is also genuinely moving. Amidst all the overpraise for the merely good Peep Show, we'd do well to remind ourselves of such One Foot in the Grave  masterpieces as Timeless Time and Rearranging the Dust. The former episode takes place entirely in the Meldrews' bedroom and sees Victor and Margaret unable to sleep for a variety of reasons, culminating in Victor returning from deactivating the car alarm with his foot lodged in a rotting hedgehog he mistook for a misplaced slipper. Amidst these splendid setpieces, we get this moment, after Victor has been mocking tabloid headlines and used the phrase "no British babies believed to have been killed" and promptly apologised for saying "the first thing that came into my head...I wasn't thinking":

Margaret:
"I was thinking about him just this morning, funnily enough, running into Glynis outside the post office with Michael. She had him just a few days before, if you remember: she was coming out of the hospital just as I was going in. He's still working for that insurance company. They're talking about moving him to his own branch up north somewhere. She'll miss him. She never had any others. He'd just bought his mum an ice cream and then he was going to run her up to the doctors. It doesn't seem like five minutes since it was the other way round. I always think of Stewart when I see him. God, he's enormous now. His eldest girl's just starting at the secondary. I wonder what he'd have gone into? I wonder if he'd have gone into insurance?
Victor:
Not if I'd had my way
Margaret:
You make so many plans for your life when you're young. I don't know what I imagined I'd be doing when I was 55. Seemed like so far in the future it would never happen. A year seems like an eternity when you were a child. The time between one Christmas and the next:
Victor:
Yes, it's about two months now. The'll be draping tinsel over the Easter eggs before long. Why can't they let you live your life at your own speed?



In Rearranging the Dust, Victor and Margaret are stuck in a solicitor's waiting room for the whole episode. Margaret recollects the days of their courtship, and talks about the handsomest boy at the dance, and how they finally ended up kissing, ending with the inevitable punchline: Margaret had got the wrong one. "You were always my first choice," says Victor. Margaret is stunned: "You never told me that." There's a pause. "But then you never say much, do you?" She then gazes at him with a brief look of thrilled adoration (a brilliant bit of non-verbal acting from Annette Crosbie), and then the solicitor arrives.

My main purpose in citing those scenes is to show that It's absurd to suggest Peep Show has ever been that good. Genuine emotion, rather than angst, takes centre stage here. Rather than Peep Show's increasingly artificial "hah, he didn't do anything again! That's so true to life" brand of characterisation which appeals to Guardian TV critics, the series balances an unflinching look at the darker side of life with hope, wonder and humour. I can't resist one final example of how Renwick's writing dwarfs Peep Show: in the episode Warm Champagne, Margaret seems to be on the verge of beginning an affair with the ghastly Ben, who charms her and takes her out to a swanky restaurant. He asks the waiter to ensure that the champagne is chilled: "there's nothing worse than warm champagne."

Margaret: You talk about being sensitive - I'm afraid that's Victor's trouble. He's one of the most sensitive people I've ever met, and that's why I love him, and why I constantly run to ram his head through a television screen [...] do you know what's actually worse than warm champagne.
Ben: no...?
Margaret: No, I really don't think you do.



What a brilliantly subtle bit of writing those last two lines are, and how much insight into snobbery and insularity are compressed into them. If there's one thing that Victor Meldrew stands for, it's that there are indeed much worse things than warm champagne.

From the last episode of series one to the fifth Christmas Special, almost every episode is flawless. It's a shame, though, that the magnificent fourth Christmas special, The Wisdom of the Witch, was not allowed to remain the final episode, as it was clearly intended to be. In series 6, the magic's faded a little. For the first 5 episodes at least, it's still funny, but now Mrs Warboys's tall tales and the bizarre stories Victor reads out from newspapers sound like gags for the first time, just as the plot about a critic giving stinking reviews to everything from Victor's window-cleaning to someone's suicide comes across a writer's in-joke rather than the invigorating metaphors for the unfairness of life itself that Renwick's vintage set-pieces gave us. There's also a worrying sense of awareness of its own success: the episode in which Victor and Margaret's life is turned into a play - with a punchline in which someone else criticises the play with "I don't beleeeive it" - brings to mind a rare miss-step made by Seinfeld in its fourth season with its similar "show-within-a-show" plot.

The final episode, Things Aren't Simple Any More,  is an artistic disaster I haven't been able to watch since its first broadcast. The problem is that it comes with a built-in smug response to criticism: "ah, but people die," "Ah, but all good things have to come to an end" "ah, of course you didn't want Victor to die: but we don't mollycuddle the viewer". The flaw with this argument is that fiction has a tremendous advantage over life: it can end in ways other than death, and the ending shouldn't just be a way of ensuing the writer isn't tempted or badgered into writing any more, it should be in keeping with the tone of the overall work, and it should do justice to the characters. To let a character live doesn't change the fact that they will die, it just allows us to keep them alive in our minds: who they are, what they mean to us and what they represent. Frustratingly, the ending that would had achieved this was filmed and broadcast: it's the ending of The Wisdom of the Witch, which teases us with Victor's death, before revealing him in front of the tv with his arm in a sling, angry as ever. That said, killing off a character in a comedy series can work - as Blackadder Goes Forth and series 7 of Seinfeld testify - but instead of a thematically appropriate death, Renwick cobbles together something of a Midsummer Murders storyline, with Hannah Gordon playing it straight as the hit-and-run driver responsible for Victor's death, and Annette Crosbie forced to ignore the fine work she's put into Margaret and play the role of a vengeful widow who may or may not have have killed Gordon in retaliation by the end, and who will presumably be alone for the rest of her life. What this has to do with One Foot in the Grave is anyone's guess.

The real blasphemy in this episode -  far more than the decision to kill off Victor - is that Mrs Warboys (Doreen Mantle) Mr Swainey (Owen Brenman) and Patrick and Pippa (Angus Deayton and Janine Duvitski) don't appear and aren't even mentioned. Appreciating the work this fine troupe of actors do (Deayton is a revelation here) is yet another reason to buy the DVD boxset and watch from the start rather than catch the odd repeat.

Stumbling upon a showing of the episode The Pit and the Pendulum while channel-surfing, for example, one might laugh at Patrick removing a bucket and finding the head of a buried Victor underneath it, but then wonder why Renwick has to put the laughs on hold when Margaret comes and tells him she's just had a phone call telling him of her mother's death. Watched properly, one appreciates the juxtaposition of Margaret's news with Victor's predicament. It's often a mistake when sitcoms with studio audiences have "no laughter" moments, but here it works due to Renwick's delicate interplay of imagery, his control of each episode's themes and the tremendously strong performances of Wilson and Crosbie. The DVD set reveals a show that stand alongside The Singing Detective and I Claudius as one of British television's finest moments. It used the sitcom form to explore depression, death, cruelty, wonder, hope, misery, love, friendship and morality, all through the imagination of a writer with a gift for surreal imagery and performed by outstanding actors, and yet for more casual viewers delivering slapstick and setpieces of such unsurpassed quality that they often become
iconic in their own right. Was there really a time when something like this was allowed to go out on BBC1? I don't believe it.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Ian McEwan Reconsidered








Ian McEwan is often mistaken for a major novelist. I've made this mistake in my time. After reading his early, taut yet graceful novel The Cement Garden in the Sixth Form, I sought out a later book, Enduring Love. It is a seductive book for a teenager with a love of reading and budding realisation of the potential of the modern novel to discover. Its opening chapter - among the greatest in all of fiction - describes a hot air balloon accident which the protagonist Joe and four other men - a doctor, a young man, a farmer and his labourer - attempt to prevent. Joe is enjoying a picnic in the Chilterns with his girlfriend. He turns and sees a stray hot-air balloon: its pilot has fallen out, but his child is still trapped in the basket. The five of them run towards and then cling to the balloon; they shout to the child to jump out, but he's paralysed with fear. As the balloon rises, the men let go, but after hitting the ground, the they look up and see one of the five was braver than the other four: the doctor held on. The balloon soars, and the doctor falls to his death. This is a brilliant piece of writing, generating imagery that works both as an exciting piece of action and as a metaphor for thematic concerns and philosophical questions. It is up there with Magwitch accosting Pip in the graveyard. Atonement - which I read that summer as a delayed post-A-level treat to myself - is also an exciting book to start one's acquaintance with contemporary fiction, with its marvellous evocation of summer heat, childhood innocence, sexual tension and the eerie images generated when the one misinterprets the others. It differs from Enduring Love in sustaining its high quality to the end of the book, and left this reader eager to read anything McEwan published the minute it hit bookshelves.


Things that were overrated tend to end up being underrated, and vice versa. It's not unfashionable to deride McEwan these days, but it tends to be for the wrong reasons. A piece in the New Statesman by Ziauddin Sardar lamented the rise of "Blitcon", by which he meant the supposedly conservative politics of the three leading British novelists, McEwan, Amis and Rushdie (which amounted to their opposition to the invasion of Iraq being accompanied by reservations). Like the (admittedly not unfounded) attacks on Amis by Ronan Bennett and Terry Eagleton following some revolting remarks he made about Muslims, and the attacks on McEwan for not boycotting Israel, they invite one's sympathy for the beseiged novelist to a tiny extent, if only because one can't help suspecting that they seem to demand a rigid, orthodox political and social outlook which is anathema to literature. Would Evelyn Waugh, had he lived in this age, be established as one of the greatest craftsmen of English prose, or would we pretend otherwise because as a person he said nasty things? The extraordinary writer and prose stylist James Ellroy is on record as saying he loves Bill O'Reilly, believes the Rodney King incident was blown out of proportion by the liberal media and that he shook Kenneth Starr by the hand to congratulate him on his role in exposing Clinton; while Ben Elton describes himself as a believer in the politics of Clement Attlee. Obviously Elton's politics are preferable, while Ellroy's comments make one's teeth grind, but whose novels have we truly benefited from? Do we really require nice, calm, sensible orthodox beliefs from novelists? The reactionary nature of McEwan's politics (mirrored in many ways by the often downright repugnant politics of Amis,  and friends such as Dawkins, Rushdie, Howard Jacobson and Hitchens) requires a more literary riposte.


On the other hand, the literary world's objections to McEwan aren't much use either. John Banville's excoriating review of Saturday for The New York Review of Books failed to burst McEwan's bubble because it revealed a viewpoint far more impoverished than McEwan's. Banville genuinely finds it unconvincing that a neurosurgeon should know so little about Matthew Arnold. And there we'll leave him.


There's also often a laziness in the way supposedly refined prose is deprecated. John Crace described McEwan's prose as "forensic and cold" while Rick Gekosi dismissed Saturday as a book containing too much "studiedly fine writing". This is sloppy, unfinished criticism. If there's something wrong with a piece of writing, we should identify why it isn't actually fine even if it sometimes gives that impression, or why the forensic detail isn't enough. After all, Evelyn Waugh's prose is cold and Updike's is studiedly fine, but those writers could (and rightly are) just as easily be praised for those qualities. As anyone who reads the anonymous critics in Private Eye’s dreary “Literary Review” section knows, "It's all a bit too neat", "if only he'd stop showing off" and "the writing draws too much attention to itself" are the familiar cries of the critic who doesn't want to agree with the praise for the author, but can't be bothered to properly reassess the writing and offer grounds for disagreement.

What, then, is the real flaw with McEwan's work, which makes his books so unimpressive on rereading? I think the main problem is that unlike, say, Anita Brookner or John Banville, McEwan is often seen - and clearly sees himself - as a visceral writer, someone whose writing packs that extra punch and that extra illicit thrill that makes him appeal to more than just Frank Kermode. This leads, inevitably, to the "Ian Macabre" label that accompanied McEwan's more overtly horrific first four books (two collections of stories, First Love Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, and the novels The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers). Since The Child in Time, McEwan's fiction has tended to favour more redemptive characters and denounements, but the moment of visceral horror has remained his most prominent motif. In every one of his books, something frightening happens (the twist on this occurs in On Chesil Beach, when the thing that goes wrong is actually just marital premature ejaculation, but becomes violently horrible by being shown from a sexually uneducated bride's point of view). He possesses an admirable desire to thrill the reader, but is thwarted by the curse of his generation: in contrast to that of Graham Greene (whose novels McEwan admits to not greatly admiring in his Paris Review interview because "the prose is too flat for my taste") the plotting muscles have atrophied. Raymond Chandler used to say that when he got blocked he brought in a man with a gun. McEwan prefers a man with a knife. The latter tactic is used to heat things up in Saturday, while Enduring Love opts for both that and Chandler's option. The scene where two hitmen working for the antagonist make an attempt on Joe's life in a restaurant certainly jolts the reader, but it also renders the plot nonsensical (why do the hitmen shoot the wrong man when their employer can give a description of Joe? Why do it in a high-class crowded restaurant when he has Joe's address? Why does he attend himself but pay others to do the shooting? Is it just a dumb coincidence that the man they kill by accident is a more credible assassination victim?). By the time of McEwan's most recent novel Solar, the reader can see the thriller moment coming: when the protagonist is arguing with the eager young physicist next to the polar bear rug that's been present as a symbol of Man's feeble effort against global warming all along, who doesn't expect the latter to trip over it and break his neck? It's the feeblest moment in fiction since EM Forster tipped a bookcase upon Leonard Bast, and certainly a long way from Miss Havisham's wedding dress catching fire.

Unfortunately, adding dead bodies isn't the only way McEwan has tried to sugar the pill: in Solar he tries to be funny. The scene in which McEwan tries out the old "he kept taking my cigarettes/biscuits/crisps/KitKat then I lifted my newspaper/looked in my bag and there were my cigarettes/biscuits/crisps/KitKat"' routine without realising this had been made famous by Douglas Adams and widely circulated as both a gag and an urban legend is one of his most notorious mistakes (after being appraised of this during a reading  from the work-in-progress at a literary festival, he clumsily inserted it into the book itself, with someone telling Beard later on that crispgate is a common experience that Douglas Adams and others have written about. Yeah, that makes it a lot less embarrassing.) This and the inexplicable scene in which Beard attempts to make his wife jealous by turning up the radio to give the impression he has female company (a scene that violates the laws of logic and physics almost as much as it does the laws of comedy) see McEwan actually straying into the area of incompetence.

When one looks past these "and then a shot rang out" moments and the embarrassing (and hopefully one-off) attempt at humour, all one finds on the page is the voice of a polite, bookish, liberal writer, the voice of a man happy to discuss Darwin, religious fundamentalism, the war with Iraq and nuclear weapons over a nice dinner. and for whom literature and classical music are factors in his reactions to anything. The trouble is, many other people aren't like this, and McEwan's novels are about other people (in contrast, say, to Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels, where it doesn't matter that the protagonist sounds like a novelist because he is one). In The Child in Time, this is McEwan's idea of how a couple whose child has been abducted cope with the crisis:










She was reading mystical or sacred texts - St John of the Cross, Blake's longer poems, Lao-tzu. Her pencilled annotations crowded the margins. She worked hours each day at a Bach partita. The rasp of double-stopped notes, the spiralling frenzy of semiquavers warned him away. For his part he made the most approaches to a serious drinking habit and indulged the books of his adolescence, reading of unencumbered, solitary men whose troubles were the world's. Hemingway, Chandler, Kerouac.









Not only does he find it impossible to imagine characters who don’t rely on literature to help them get through tough times - even one as hideous as this - but he divides the reading preferences according to gender. Similarly, in Enduring Love Joe's girlfriend Clarissa, after witnessing the horrific sight of the man falling from the balloon, is instantly reminded of Milton's line "Hurl'd headlong flaming from th'Ethereal sky". One is reminded of Orwell’s criticism of Graham Greene, in his review of The Heart of the Matter, that too many of his characters were starting to write poetry.

McEwan relies on extensively researching the occupations of his characters. He shadowed a neurosurgeon for the writing of Saturday, while Joe's job as a science writer and his girlfriend's as a Keats scholar in Enduring Love clearly also led their creator to do his homework, but constant details of singed bone and bloodclots or digessions on evolution and Wordsworth's snubbing of Keats - both often occurring right in the thick of the action - do not create the illusion that these are different people to the author; only good writing can do that.

Other McEwan characters are blatant avatars. In The Child in Time, McEwan dares to let his imagination loose upon the most macabre nightmare of all: suppose Ian had ended up as a mere successful children's author? Sadly, this dystopia was explored further in McEwan's worst novel, The Daydreamer, a hideously twee children's book with a preface in which its author - no longer pretending to be a fictional character - argues that children's literature has no literary value ("when did you last curl up with The Swiss Family Robinson?"), but since it provides an opportunity to bond with one's children, here's his own contribution, which was certainly good enough for his own children ( to which he dutifully read each finished chapter). This insufferable, patronising tone - after a few sentences of which, the reader feels like they've been stuck in the interval of a school play hearing parents use the phrases "he plays at the fourth grade level" "already reading Harry Potter" and "hoping to get into Bennett Memorial: his sister's there already" - is rarely absent in a McEwan novel, and strips his work of a great deal of imaginative power. It renders it incapable of empathy. McEwan tries to compensate for this by adding winsomely self-deprecating vignettes on the hubris of the novelist. Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Saturday, is proudly displayed before us us an example of McEwan's magnanamosity: he can actually write about someone who doesn't like novels. "It seemed almost blasphemous to write about someone who doesn't think Anna Karenina is much cop," sighed McEwan in an interview. It should seem second-nature. Reasons for why somone doesn't like novels are no more interesting than an account of why I never took up gardening, but McEwan offers reasons for Henry's lack of interest which sound less like the opinions of someone who isn't McEwan than inverted claims for the novelist's supremacy, as do the comments on science's superiority to literature from Thelma Darke in The Child In Time and Joe in Enduring Love (it's interesting, too, that while Henry has no time for novels, he's able to devise a sickly pun about his daughter based on a Henry James title: "What Daisy knows!"). It builds up to a painfully cute moment where the plot details of books Henry disliked are listed, and one of them is unmistakably The Child in Time.

Even when the sentiments are reasonable, they often strike one as the words of a well-researched novelist at his computer screen rather than the thoughts of someone in the outside world. When Perowne drives past the anti-Iraq war rally, he notices a placard for The British Association of Muslims, and McEwan writes: "Henry remembers that outfit well. It explained in its newspaper recently that apostasy from Islam was an offence punishable by death." A perfectly good point, an important one in fact, but is it really feasible that someone on their way to a squash game would think this while glancing out of the car window and seeing one of their placards go by? Henry has extraordinary powers of lightning-fast visual recognition if so. Here Natasha Walter, in an otherwise favourable review of On Chesil Beach, was perceptive:










[The characters’] innocence is seen as political as well as sexual. They meet at a CND meeting in Oxford, and McEwan seems to suggest that anyone who was active in the peace movement then was naive - as he suggested about those who protest against war in our time in Saturday. "Florence knew in her heart that the Soviet Union, for all its mistakes - clumsiness, inefficiency, defensiveness surely, rather than evil design - was essentially a beneficial force in the world." This characterisation of peace activists as hopeless naifs stuck in my throat, but you cannot judge a novelist for his political views.





It would indeed stick in most intelligent readers' throats because it sounds more like a novelist's assumption than the passing thought of someone at the time: to use DH Lawrence's indispensable term, McEwan's thumb is in the scale. Nevertheless, McEwan was irked by this fine point and insisted in a subsequent letter to the Guardian that











Historically, such a position was perfectly possible; I knew of people who thought this even in the 1980s.






He unconsciously validated Natasha Walter's argument, however, with the following:












When she was still at her primary school I was campaigning, writing and speaking against nuclear weapons. I was a member of European Nuclear Disarmament and travelled to the Soviet Union with Mary Kaldor and Jonathan Steele of the Guardian to make contact and common cause with the unofficial and harassed peace movement there. With the composer Michael Berkeley I wrote an oratorio against the nuclear arms race. I am proud to have appeared in public with EP Thompson.






It's hard to see how anyone can deny a patronising attitude while using the phrase "when she was still at her primary school"; this airy, assumptive quality in McEwan's writing, in his novels as well as his letters, often has a whiff of "I tell you, these kids today..." about it. A key scene in Saturday dramatises arguments for and against invading Iraq in the form of a quarrel between Henry and his daughter Daisy. This doesn't for a second read like a conversation between two human beings. Although Daisy is wearisomely gifted (she's studied English at Oxford, won the Newdigate Prize and just published her first collection of poetry, with the revolting title My Saucy Bark and the quotes offered to the reader taken from the real-world source of Craig Raine), McEwan makes every argument of Daisy's fatuous. and every one of Henry's considered. Many people of Daisy's age would have rather more stimulating arguments against the invasion, including those without the prodigious literary talent. The result reads like one middle-aged person arguing with whatever he imagines the impetuous youngsters of today are saying.

In Solar the problem has exacerbated. The protagonist, a lauded scientist named Michael Beard, is at the ICA. A caricature of a pretentious left-wing academic speaks on the topic of science as a mere social construct, and is followed by a nervous female academic from Tel Aviv, who struggles with her contribution because the audience, according to McEwan, are resentful of her Israeli background and equate her with oppression of the Palestinians. Again, the problem is not the reactionary sentiments - the offensive equation of criticism of Israel's foreign policy with antisemitism, the portrayal of the next generation of leftists as hateful - that makes this bad writing, but the way they are panel-beaten into the shape of fiction.

When McEwan attempts to introduce characters with none of his viewpoints, the results are often embarrassing. There's a dreadful scene in The Child in Time in which the protagonist, Stephen, is involved in a car accident and rescues a chirpy comedy cockney lorry driver named Joe trapped in his vehicle. Addressing Stephen as "mate", he asks him to take down several messages for him in case he doesn't make it out of the wreck. The first one is a message of love to his girlfriend, insisting he would have come back to her and the kids eventually, another is to a friend apologising for not being able to make the Snooker tournament on Saturday or to pay back the 100 quid he owed him and another is a riposte addressed to a teacher who never thought he'd make anything of his life. Stephen helps him out of the lorry, the two share a drink and a round of "for he's a jolly good fellow", and both decide to live life to the full, in Joe's case means "I'm going back to Jane and the kids and bugger Wendy McGuire." It's a middle-class writer's twee, folksy idea of what working-class life is like. Instead of verisimilitude we get sentimentality.

Hari Kunzru, appearing on BBC4's documentary In Their Own Words, and to some extent Will Self, in a profile collected in his book Junk Mail, both noted that in Martin Amis's novels, there's a curious sense of class anxiety manifested in scenes in which a tougher working-class guy threatens the middle-class protagonist. This is also strongly present in McEwan's work, particularly in Saturday and Enduring Love. Baxter (he has no first name) in the former novel is first encountered by Perowne running from a Spearmint Rhino with his cronies (no doubt having indulged in distinctly unMcEwanesque behaviour) whereupon they attack our mild-mannered hero. It's oddly like the confrontations that Clark Kent, Bruce Banner and Peter Parker often endure, only without the superpowers (in much the same way that the squash game where Perowne and his friend clash resembles something a neutered Ian Fleming would have written). Having said that, Henry has a superpower of a kind: he can use his superior intelligence to talk the lower classes into laying down arms. He diagnoses Baxter's Huntingdon's disease there and then, and talks him out of violence with a promise of a diagnosis. And did I mention that the two cronies are called Nigel and Nark? McEwan really should have had the guts to call them Bebop and Rocksteady.

The novel climaxes with one of the iconically ghastly moments in modern fiction, in which Henry's daughter's recital of Matthew Arnold's ”Dover Beach” moves Baxter into holding off his attack, demonstrating that some superpowers are hereditary, as well as providing the most stirringly idiotic argument for the power of literature since Joseph Brodsky's declaration in his Nobel Prize speech that "for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens."

Jed Parry, the antagonist of Enduring Love, might seem to be exempt from this criticism due to hints of wealth, but it's striking that from his first appearance his accent is described as having a touch of cockney, and he speaks with the Australian question intonation, or as McEwan puts it:












his generation's habit of making a statement on the raising inflection of a question - in humble imitation of Americans, or Australians, or, as I heard one linguist explain, too mired in relative judgements, too hesitant and apologetic to say how things were in the world. Of course I didn't think any of this at the time. All I heard was a whine of powerlessness, and I relaxed.






The hasty insertion of the penultimate sentence and the clause about the linguist can't disguise the snobbery here (and given that Jed is a murderous stalker, and that the letters from him that form some of the chapters are full of psychotic delusion and nothing else, one can hardly play the unreliable narrator card and plead that McEwan is implying that there's more to Jed than his narrator Joe tells us).

Tom Aldous in Solar is a mixture of McEwan's prejudices. Like Parry, he has a pony-tail, and just as Parry retained a cockney accent despite a hint of a posh background, here we are asked to believe that, despite attending Imperial College, Cambridge and Caltech at Pasadena, he still retains a Norfolk accent "suggestive to Beard of hedgerows and hayricks" which "seemed to mock what he was trying to to say". McEwan ensures we don't forget this last point by nearly repeating the sentence two pages later with a reference to: "the Norfolk lad's bucolic tone, so at odds with what he was trying to say". As with the references to the Australian Question Intonation in Enduring Love, the idea that the youth of today - particuarly those without Received Pronounciation accents - can not truly articulate themselves is a given. His eagerness to save the planet makes him yet another of McEwan's "these kids today" caricatures.

Rodney Tarpin in the same book - Beard has to face off again each of them within pages of each other - is a more straightforward, Baxteresque bogeyman. With all four characters, there's a tangible sense of McEwan struggling to keep snobbery in check, as in this dubious passage:












Beard was disappointed not to see a tattoo, a snake or motorbike or hymn to his mum. But the physicist, as he fleetingly acknowledged, was an ageing bourgeois in the grip of stereotypical thinking




What's striking about the second sentence, rushing in to chide its predecessor just like the the ones in the passage from Enduring Love, is the sense of damage limitation: it hardly sounds like the thoughts of a man in the middle of an intimidating and potentially violent confrontation with his wife's lover (who would ever have time to rebuke themselves for bourgeois stereotyping when caught up in such a predicament?) , but it does sound like the afterthought of a novelist aware of the snobbery in his previous sentence.


The threats posed by Baxter, Parry, and Tarpin are both violent and sexual. Baxter holds a knife to Perownes's wife's throat and attempts to rape Daisy, Tarpin cuckolds Beard (as does Aldous) and beats both him and his wife, Parry (suffering an entirely fictional psychological condition) is convinced that Joe shares his love for him, and threatens his heterosexuality as well as his beautiful girlfriend (again with a knife). Near the climax of the book, Joe is reduced to visiting a bunch of drug dealers literarily too stoned to know what day it is to buy a gun. There's a real sense of entering the heart of darkness, at least for McEwan. Consider this passage:












It was impossible not to look at his moustache [...] It was dyed a fierce burnt orange, and ramrod-straight, waxed to prissy Prussian points. I brought a hand to my face to conceal a smile. I felt weightless and shivery. The shock of yesterday's shooting, this plan of reckless acquisition, the background fear - all combined to make me feel I wasn't really here, and I worried that I might do or say something stupid. [...] I could not stop the similes accumulating round Steve's moustache. Two rusty nails hammered outwards from his gums. The pointy masts of a schooner I built as a kid. Something to hang tea towels on.



Has any author been more frightened by a moustache? (and note again that those last sentences read like similes that a novelist would create but that no person in that situation would think) Like Perowne, Joe finds himself relying on language to counter brutality. When two of them have a hideous fight he tells the ringleader - a guy whose "mighty forearms"' are emphasised - "You're going to kill him. Is that what you want? [...] If he dies you'll be inside for the rest of your life." When one of them offers some vaguely hippyish advice on the cause of allergies, Joe tells us "When I said this was unfalsifiable, he looked pleased. I began to think he might not detest me after all." It's impossible not to think of Kunzru's take on Amis when reading these scenes: a sense of fear that the natives might get restless, and that the rungs on the ladders of literature, science or education may give way when one tries to make one's escape, seems to prevail.




It's not just his male characters that embarrass, though: McEwan is sporadically the worst writer of female characters since Dickens. The three offenders here are The Child In Time, Enduring Love and Saturday (Atonement, The Innocent and The Cement Garden are exempt). The Child In Time subscribes to a winsome kind of gender-essentialism: the vague, half-assed implication that women know things that men don't. While Stephen responds to the abduction of his daughter by drinking, reading Hemingway and Chandler and generally going to pieces, his wife Julie cuts her hair short, plays the piano, reads mystical texts, and spends some time at a monastery. It's Stephen's lot, as a man, to spend the novel on his own, trying and failing to find a way of dealing with his loss, while Julie has the mystical feminine wisdom that allows her to cope. The idea that when your child has been abducted leaving your husband on his own to go and find yourself in a monastery might be cruel or even dangerous (wouldn't he be a suicide risk?) is never raised. Her appearance at the end is like the appearance of a Guru at the culmination of a spiritual quest: after holding forth to an unquestioning Stephen about why she had to deal with this by herself, she performs the most feminine miracle of all and gives birth, which McEwan seems to think will heal them both. In McEwan's universe, men really are from Mars and women really are from Venus.

Enduring Love has the same flaw. The book is sold to us as an unreliable narrator novel: McEwan constantly implies that Joe is missing the point, responding to his crisis in the same misguided masculine way that Stephen did, while his girlfriend Clarissa deals with it in the wise feminine way; yet it's hard to see exactly what Joe did wrong. He tells Clarissa that Jed is stalking him, but in scenes oddly reminiscent of those unconvincing "there's someone outside with an axe/ Well, there's no-one there now" moments in horror movies, Clarissa is sceptical, even though the idea that she wouldn't be frightened by this is nonsensical, and her reasons for not believing the threat are hard to fathom. At one point, her only response when Joe shows her Jed's letters is to comment that that two men's handwriting is very similar, but this ludicrous implication of hers (who would say such a thing in those circumstances?) is forgotten about by the time it becomes clear that Joe is not suffering from a Fight Club syndrome. At the end of the book, a chapter consists of a letter from her to Joe. Although Joe tells us he dislikes its wounded, self-righteous tone, McEwan clearly wishes us to see the story from both angles. Unfortunately it's impossible to disagree with Joe. An earlier chapter tells the story from Clarissa's point-of-view to demonstrate why she doesn't believe Joe, but the details McEwan piles on - she's got a touch of glandular fever, her seminar was a failure because her students (these kids today!) didn't do the required reading - don't change the fact that any sane person whose partner tells them that a madman is stalking them in person, by phone and by letter would react with concern rather than scepticism.

In Saturday, McEwan continues his unattractive habit of idealising his female characters. Daisy Perowne is perhaps the worst character in his whole oeuvre: it's quite chilling to see how utterly unable McEwan is to evoke either genuine love or warmth between father and daughter, or a love of literature. The texts that Daisy loves, studies at university or recites feel like a standard reading list, and the opinions she offers hardly lend any more verisimilitude:









You ninny! [...] You Gradgrind! It's literature, not physics! [...] Look at your Mme Bovary again [...] he was warning the world against people just like you"






Does that really sound like a human being? Even Dead Poet’s Society wasn’t that cloying. We're also told that she can recite a page of The Golden Bowl, that she thinks "people can't live without stories" (a hideous sentiment in a world where so many people are deprived of the things they actually can’t live without, and McEwan's patronising acknowledgement that Henry is "living proof this isn't true” is scarcely better: he puts forth the proposal that people who don't like fiction aren't dead as if it were something that's only occurred to him lately), that she was upset that poor Gregor Samsa was treated so badly when she first read Metamorphoses, and that she has told Henry that a Jane Austen novel is a microcosm that gives you the whole world. McEwan is oddly conflicted towards her: he uses her as his poster girl for literature and as the antithesis of Baxter, and yet he mocks her as an emblem of the naivety of her generation (during her second year of Oxford, she comes under the sway of a charismatic teacher and announces that madness is a social construct to keep the rich in power, only to be deflated when Henry offers to show her a mental hospital. What kind of moron is she?). Towards the end, of course, she turns out to be pregnant, and as with Julie this has a mystical quality, almost as useful as “Dover Beach” for repelling rapists.

Henry's wife, like Stephen‘s, is blandly perfect to the point of non-existence (despite being a newspaper lawyer: the sharp moral judgement Henry displayed when seeing the British Association of Muslims from his car window doesn't seem to extend to his wife's job, and McEwan seems no more interested in it than he is. Oh for the days of Dickens when novelists set out to grab lawyers by the throat).

It’s not just McEwan’s characters that are impoverished due to his bookish liberalism: something sleazier is needed for satire, a genre he often attempts. The feeble anti-Thatcher satire which feels like an after-thought in The Child in Time and the attempt to write a poisonous black moral fable in the Evelyn Waugh/Muriel Spark mode that led to the lightweight Booker winner Amsterdam are topped only by McEwan's excruciatingly bad screenplay for The Ploughman's Lunch, a best-forgotten Richard Eyre film. It runs through the motions of an angry anti-Thatcher satire, and yet ends up just as prissy, sheltered and smug as any government. There's a deeply patronising scene in which the protagonist (played by Jonathan Pryce) returns home to his working-class parents, and some quite unbearable scenes of him and a friend (Tim Curry) sniggering their way through the Q and A at a mutual friend's poetry reading as numerous members of the public are foolish enough to hazard comments on the poem.. One of tbe most fatuous scenes in the film sees the same two playing squash (always a bad sign in McEwan's work), and then sitting down in the Court and smoking, and then giggling when the Squash Court Attendants rebuke them. By the end, the best McEwan can manage as a symbol for Thatcherite ruthlessness and corruption of the idealistic is the revelation that Curry was sleeping with Pryce's would-be girlfriend all along. McEwan has often said that working with Eyre on The Ploughman's Lunch was so enjoyable that it spoiled him for future screenwriting, as he didn't realise that it wasn't normally such a cozy experience. It's hard not to picture McEwan and Eyre smirking at their own wit, much like Pryce and Curry in the Squash Court and at the poetry reading, while they go to lunch, scout out locations, meet the cast, compare notes with literary friends, and bask in the warmth of knowing that they've helped bring down the Government, all thanks to a film that only their friends will see. McEwan, as we saw in his letter, is someone who fought the nuclear arms race by writing an oratorio about it.

Satire requires an acknowledgement that some horrors are irreducible. What's ultimately nauseating about The Child In Time is that McEwan creates a believable and horrifying situation (the abduction of a young child when a parent is distracted during a visit to a supermarket), but instead of honestly following through this terrible event and its implications, attempts to slap a happy ending and his own brand of cozy warm rationalism onto it. The book seems to confuse abduction with bereavement. At the book's denounement, Stephen finally says to Julie "she was a lovely daughter, a lovely girl", and the two cry, finally grieving: but McEwan seems to forget that no parent could talk of their child in the past tense until they knew she was dead. During the couple's affirmation of their love as Julie prepares to give birth, we encounter this odd passage:












while they could never redeem the loss of their daughter, they would live her through their new child, and never close their minds to the possibility of her return






So they will continue searching for her? One hopes so, but until she's found, dead or alive, the couple can't regenerate and focus on their new child in the way McEwan seems to envisage. It feels like an afterthought of the author's: does he mean they will attempt to get the investigation and public interest going - as any parent would have to - or does he just mean they won't forget?

By contrast, a great novel like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five triumphs due to its open acknowledgement that the traumatic event it describes - the Dresden fire-bombing - cannot be made more palatable by a novel, or reduced to something noble or majestic in its tragedy. Vonnegut and the reader cannot make sense of the horror of it at the start of the novel, and they still can't by the end. ("this book will be a failure", he warns us at the start). Paradoxically, Vonnegut's refusal to console and his acknowledgement of the inadequacy of fiction to do justice to such horror results in a far greater tribute to the victims of war and a far more affecting portrayal of trauma and suffering. One thinks also of Atom Egoyan's magnificent film The Sweet Hereafter, about a schoolbus crash that deprives a town of its children. It conveys the searing agony of a town that has been visited by a Pied Piper, and unlike The Child In Time, it has the courage to follow this through without flinching: there's no sense that this pain will pass once a new child is born.

Because McEwan's focus tends to be towards the "novel-of-ideas", his characters often suffer because they are at the mercy of whatever intellectual concept he wants them to enact. The short story "Psychopolis", the novels The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs and On Chesil Beach and the previously mentioned Iraq war discussion in Saturday all focus on couples so that McEwan can explore dualistic ideas. The first three take whatever for-and-against debates McEwan is interested in at the time and once again hammer them into the shape of dialogue between two people. In Black Dogs, we are told that Bernard and June represent rationality and superstition respectively before we even meet them, whilst On Chesil Beach is marred on re-reading by the patronising way that Edward and Florence are set up to illustrate McEwan's assumption that sex began in 1963 (and while reviewers were quick to suggest those words of Larkin's as an epigraph for the novel, they missed the point that Larkin was simplifying for comic effect. It wasn't one of his more complex poems). The effect is too schematic for these characters to convince us as complicated human beings: McEwan seems too complacent in his assumptions regarding gender or social history to allow them to breath, and then develop in surprising ways.

An attempt to fuse his interest in couples and the state of the nation is naked in this line, again from that same passage (In fact, the same sentence) at the climax of The Child In Time:









In the wild expansiveness of their sorrow they undertook to heal everyone and everything, the Government, the county, the planet, but they would start with themselves.






Unlike in an oddly similar moment with Christopher Banks, the protagonist in Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, whose bizarre fantasy of being a great detective extends to a belief he can stop the Second World War, (one is reminded also of McEwan's proud list of all the things he's done to stop nuclear proliferation while Natasha Walter was still at her primary school) there's little sense of madness, surrealism or delusion in this line. Instead, some attempt is made to wring some meaning out of the pointless scenes featuring Thatcher that have appeared throughout the book. It's tempting to see it as an emblem for McEwan and many other writers of his generation: earnestly vowing to heal the whole world, just as soon as they've sorted out their own problems. Could Stephen and Julie be planning an oratorio?

McEwan has produced good work: Atonement, The Cement Garden, The Innocent. The overpraise he has attracted, and his attempts to write both state-of-the-nation novels and those with plots gripping enough for a popular readership, have shown up the limits of his talent: his clumsy thriller plotting, his fruitless attempts to write convincingly about anyone other than himself, his fear of the working classes, his lack of patience with the younger generation, his inability to see through or subvert his more reactionary opinions and his tendency to take whatever ideas or research are interesting him at the moment and jam them into a fiction-shaped hole all rule him out from greatness, sometimes even from competence.