Friday, 17 July 2015

The Outcast

This is a truly excellent adaptation of Sadie Jones' dark and brooding novel about a troubled teenager. The book apparently started out as a screenplay and Jones has had a major hand in the book's transformation back into a film. And it shows. Highly evocative scenes you remember from the story have such resonance on the screen. The childhood innocence of play and bicycles. The cosy familiarity between mother Elizabeth and son Lewis. The awful, shocking moment of the boy watching his mother drown. The father Gilbert unable to express his grief, announcing his wife's death to an empty room over and over. The bullying and abusive Dickie Carmichael, beating his spirited daughter. The troubled new stepmother Alice, unable to cope with her very disturbed charge, and desperate for a baby of her own. The gin-sodden Soho jazz clubs, a wild blur for the growing teenager searching for freedom and release. The painful rawness of self-harm. The self-destruction and self-loathing. The unspoken blame. The stifling repression of post-war 1950s society, the inability to communicate, and the sheer dullness of living in a narrow-minded village community in commuter-belt Surrey.

It's not an easy watch, by any means. At the end of the first half, Lewis burns down the village church in anger and, despite his youth, is sent to prison. And nothing will have changed or be any better for him upon his release.

This is not the world I grew up in, but it is the world my parents grew up in. Not in Surrey for them, but it was the 1940s and '50s, a time of absent fathers returning home to children grown and estranged, a time of loss, hardship, rationing and failing to come to terms with what has been witnessed at war. My mother went on to study Psychology at university - perhaps a reflection of the needs of the time, as a nation began to want to talk, and delve into its innermost thoughts and feelings. Or perhaps just her own ability to see people for what they were, to understand them completely, in her infinite wisdom.

I have lived on the Surrey borders, for a time, in Earlsfield in Southwest London. My now husband was employed by the county council as a political assistant. From Earlsfield we went on country walks in Surrey most weekends, taking the train from Clapham Junction. There was always cake, and beer and chips at the end. The Devil's Punchbowl, the vineyards of Boxhill, the woods of Liphook and Haslemere. the donkeys at Witney, the golf courses near Godalming, the pub at Chiddingfold, the race course at Esher. Surrey hardly struck us as repressed in 2003, just as wealthy as you might expect, and rather full of itself. Perhaps the types like Lewis are still kept behind closed doors. But there will still be gin. On the lawns in summer. A mother's ruin.

And yet I failed to take my camera on a single one of them.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A Song For Jenny

This was a poignant, unbearably sad portrayal of one family trying to come to terms with the devastating consequences of the London bombings on July 7th 2005. Jenny Nicholson was murdered by Mohammad Sidique Khan as he exploded a device in his backpack on a Circle Line Tube train just outside Edgware Road station. Jenny would not normally have been on that train, but a problem on her usual line meant that she had had to find an alternative route to work.

Her mother Julie was a parish priest. She had to not only come to terms with the worst loss possible, that of her own child, but also somehow reconcile her feelings of anger and hatred towards the bomber, and understand the consequences for her belief in God, the God who allowed this evil to happen in a world that He had supposedly created.

You see the family in their happy innocence at the start of the film, then the half attention to the news, the dawning realisation that something awful has happened, the panicked search for the missing Jenny, the confusion in the hospitals, the initially clinical visits by family liaison officers needing DNA and photographs, and then the terrible moment of truth when Jenny's body is finally identified. Julie does not flinch from seeking the reality, from visiting the site of the bomb, from holding the hand of her daughter's decimated corpse, and looking at photographs of the carriage with Jenny's remains inside. Julie explodes with rage at stupid questions, repressed emotions, and the photographs of Khan on the television. She has to distance herself from some of her family, and fill herself with love and strength for her surviving children, and her daughter's partner. She has to grieve for the grandchildren Jenny will never now be able to give her. She also experiences astonishing moments of tenderness and kindness from the police officers working with them, and a cabbie who takes her all the way from London to Reading free of charge after she tells him her story. He says it is so that she knows that there are still good people in the world.

The film ends at Jenny's funeral, with a very long journey of grief still left to travel. Of course nobody could ever really properly get over such a tragedy. The film makes it clear that some things are just too horrendous for words.

52 Londoners lost their lives on that terrible day. My own split-second decision that morning meant I was not among them, as I left for my Piccadilly Line commute through Russell Square half an hour later than usual. All of us who avoided being caught up in the carnage by the narrowest of margins or a momentary intervention of fate realised just how lucky we were, and how it could so easily have gone the other way. As easily as four suicide bombers manage to board London's public transport system entirely undetected in the height of the morning rush hour.

I wrote something for Guardian Witness this week, which was published yesterday, on the tenth anniversary of the bombings. That day, and the ones that followed, are ones I will never forget. I was humbled by my city's grace and resilience and how we all, somehow, managed to carry on. In many ways, we had no choice. Yet we did. We had been granted that choice. We had been spared. This time.

Unable to get to work I returned home to the sanctuary of our lounge,
 where I switched on the television and realised what I had avoided by sleeping in that morning.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Wimbledon 2day

I wrote about Wimbledon last year. In fact most of what I have been watching recently has felt a bit Groundhog Day - Episodes, Child Genius, W1A... They've already been covered by this blog. Nothing more to add.

Anyway, in last year's blog post I complained about the inanity of John Inverdale's highlights programme Today At Wimbledon. But now it has been replaced (nothing to do with me, I hasten to add) and I have seen Wimbledon 2day, I retract my criticism wholeheartedly. Because I hadn't seen nothing yet, it turns out.

Clare Balding is always bright and enthusiastic and keen to sound the expert, even if she does tend to shove her hands in people's faces. But she has been placed in an oversized Pimms tent covered with fake grass from a market stall and given a malfunctioning iPad that constantly distracts her with tweets. And she has been surrounded by a Top Gear meets Antiques Roadshow style audience on their feet. An audience who contribute NOTHING other than a bland, nervous "I am on camera, don't sneeze, it's hot, don't faint" smile and the odd stagestruck murmur of agreement. There are still the former player commentators (McEnroe, Navratilova, Bartoli, Henman etc) invited in for a chat, but even they seem diminished by this dumbing down and the distracting people in the background. The spotlight is no longer shining upon them as it would have done in a purpose built TV studio. And they have to sit clutching giant microphones. They are also being asked ridiculous questions about jokes and beards.

What there isn't a whole lot of is tennis, unless a British player happens to have won a match that day. Instead there is YouTube footage of toddlers having a meltdown by their paddling pool while being forced to wield a racquet in their back garden to fend off flying objects. I am not making this up. Now, Wimbledon has always made children play tennis in our back garden, and this is to be heartily encouraged, but we don't need to upload a video of it on to the Internet. Our kids might not be as cute as we think, for one thing.

Like many people, an evening highlights programme is the only tennis I get to see during Wimbledon. I may not be in an office all day, but I have my daughter with me all afternoon. (Last year her three hours of pre-school were in the afternoon so that gave me a bit of tennis time. Now they are in the morning.) As the weather is lovely (it's SUMMER, people  - stop moaning about the heatwave), I am not going to sit indoors and even begin to attempt to persuade her to watch a match on Centre Court. So I don't care what people are tweeting about the day to Clare Balding (especially if they aren't tennis experts). Lucky them, they've seen it already. Now it's my turn. Show me what I've missed. That's all I want.

The whole style of the programme just feels so wrong, so misjudged. Wimbledon is meant to be slightly stuffy, I think. Stuffiness is at the soul of the All England Club, like the be-blazered stewards and the strawberries and cream. There shouldn't be high fives or bad spelling. I don't care if the 2 is for BBC2, it doesn't belong in the word TODAY. Next they'll be shoving Sue Barker in a gin joint and changing the theme tune to a Kayne West** rap.

(** I only know who Kayne West is thanks to the subtitlers currently going viral for attempting to cover his Glastonbury set for a hard-of-hearing audience not allowed to see bad words. Please always feel free to tweet good things about subtitlers! But not inane nonsense about a tennis player's beard.)