Saturday, September 24, 2022

One Thing That I Learned From Her - Hilary Mantel

Something I learned from Hilary Mantel – how to fix the single biggest challenge that any writer of historical fiction ever faces, anytime, anywhere. 

Let me explain – if you’re writing about any time earlier than, let us say, the French revolution, certainly if you’re brave enough to make the imaginative leap into the early modern world, the medieval world or even – pray for me – antiquity then you have, and sooner not later, to confront the fundamental problem when creating credible worlds and characters – how to deal with religion, and religious experience.  Bluntly, the vast majority of your potential readers – whether educated or not, irrespective of class – have grown up in a society where religion is at best a marginal, possibly weirdly aberrant interest or activity.  Many may be actively hostile to the idea of any religion at all.  So the problem you face as a writer is how to (i) create convincing characters for whom religious belief is an important and sympathetic part of their consciousness, and (ii) depict societies where culture, language, education and social relations all have religion as a central part of their construction. 

And Mantel solved this seemingly impossible conundrum in a single scene of breath-taking brilliance early on in ‘Wolf Hall’. 

Not long after his wife and children all fall ill and die of ‘the sweating sickness’ in the course of a single day, Thomas Cromwell goes to a church on All Souls Day, the traditional autumn festival of dead souls that in the 21st Century is almost completely elided from our awareness by Hallowe'en and the national cult of remembrance of the war dead.  In brief, in the course of worship, Thomas remembers and mourns his dead, and is comforted: he walks out of the church psychologically healed in so far as he is able to tolerate his grief and live a bearable life. 

And this is done with the brilliance of prose, precision of expression, acuity of psychological insight and authenticity of emotion and intellect that Mantel’s fiction achieves with such astonishing effortlessness.  As a reader, you are impressed by the human weakness of Thomas Cromwell, and at the same time you now understand why religion and its communal expression was so important to people that they were prepared to instigate bloody revolution and to kill and die for it.   

For this one scene, I and all contemporary writers of historical fiction owe her a debt that is now unrepayable.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

How Religion Evolved (again) - the Wide Open Air Podcast

Back in June I blogged a review here of Robin Dunbar’s excellent book ‘How Religion Evolved And Why It Endures’.  This led to my being asked to contribute some material to an online seminar with the author produced by Christine Gallagher of Wide Open Air Exchange.

The podcast of the seminar has just been released and you can find it here:

The whole thing is an excellent, wide-ranging discussion on religion, social groupings, friendship, families, celebrity and artificial intelligence.  The questions I asked of Professor Dunbar can be found between approximately 1:06:30 and 1:20:00, but I strongly recommend listening from start to finish.

The topics I specifically asked him about were –

1:  The book mentions Extinction Rebellion & the fact we live in an age preoccupied by the likely end of human society.  And you point out that religion has evolved as a means of managing profound social and economic change, and its expression is constrained by the size of social groups.  So my question is – in an age of a globalised economy, where technology has made social groupings effectively boundless, what sort of religious experience is going to develop as a response to the human condition in an age of climate change and mass extinction?

2:  In John Geiger’s book ‘The Third Man’, the author documents the phenomenon of the phantom ‘other’, a presence experienced by mountaineers and polar explorers in extreme privation.  This seems analogous to the experience of the spirit world you identify among hunter-gatherers. I wondered if you were aware of this or had considered it as another expression of the ‘mystical stance’.

3:  Another question about the future – if the human neurology that underlies the mystical stance could be mimicked in an artificial neural network, do you think it would be possible for AIs to experience religion – and what would it mean for the test to distinguish humans from machines originally proposed by Alan Turing?

I’m grateful to Robin Dunbar for giving them his time and consideration – and to Christine Gallagher for the chance to participate.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Two Or Three Things I Knew About Him

It was Philip Jenkinson’s fault. Some time in 1973 the BBC’s film reviewer wrote a brief notice in Radio Times about that week’s TV films that spoke of making a black and white sci-fi movie in conditions so dark the director had no idea if the scenes would even be visible.  That was it: I made an excuse to my friends, stayed home to watch World Cinema’s screening of Alphaville and the world was never the same again.  Gorgeous style, hyper-intelligent ideas, sexual allure and comically laconic masculinity.  Maybe not a new sort of Friday night in sophisticated Paris but it certainly was in teenage West Cumbria.

Not so many years later, on weekends away in Paris, we played the psychogeographer’s game of identifying locations from our favourite new wave films.  This was where Belmondo and Seberg walked together; that must be the bar where Anna Karina and Sady Rebbot spoke in Vivre Sa Vie

When I started to write fiction, I self-consciously wrote of road-journeys through Europe by men and women on the run from political and romantic pasts that would destroy them, that owed far too much to Pierrot Le Fou and Weekend to be readable.

And in 2002 I finally met my cinema god.  The BFI were doing their Godard retrospective and I jumped at the chance to finally see rare screenings of Ici Et Ailleurs, Un Film Comme Les Autres and Le Vent d’Est.  At one of these, knowing I had to leave promptly to meet a friend, I slipped out of NFT1 by the side-doors as the credits rolled – and found myself face to face with the man himself.  We shook hands, I muttered incoherent words of admiration, and he was whisked past me into the auditorium to do his interview.  I’ve always liked to think he imagined I must be a disgruntled walk-out, heading for the riverside pavement where he’d once organised wildcat showings of his own films in protest at the official screenings of them in the NFT itself.

Prophetically, Pasolini summed up the time of his death: 

-          like in a film by Godard – romanticism

rediscovered in a time

of neo-capitalist cynicism and cruelty

Je Vous Salue, Jean-Luc.  RIP, cher maitre.  Fin de cinema. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Review - 'The Pukur' by DK Powell

First, an important fact:  ‘pukur’ is the Bengali word for a pool or pond, and the dark, brooding body of water, and the meanings that it bears for the individuals and the community that surround it, is at the centre of Ken Powell’s extremely fine coming-of-age novel set in rural Bangladesh; a position it shares with 12 year old Sophie Shepherd, the bereaved, vulnerable, abandoned, physically and emotionally wounded hero of the book, whose healing and growth the narrative charts with immense understanding, tenderness and intuitive sympathy.

Sophie’s story begins with the loss of her parents, and the disintegration of her life in the early chapters of the book makes for sometimes harrowing reading in a forbidding start to what is essentially a novel of joyful if hard-won self-realisation.  Powell’s great coup here, and what lifts ‘The Pukur’ into a different league from your typical YA dilemmas-of-teenage-life, is that Sophie’s recovery and development take place in the to her utterly alien society of rural Bangladesh, where she learns life as a ’third-culture kid’, in a deeply personal amalgamation of British and Asian experience mediated by the loving wisdom of women.  What shines through here is Powell’s self-evident love for and understanding of Bangladesh (where he lived for a number of years), and his descriptions of the country make enticingly fine writing.  There’s also real subtlety here – Sophie’s persistently difficult relationship with her prickly Uncle Joshua (for whom Powell is careful to show deep sympathy) enters a new dimension when they briefly travel to Dhaka and re-encounter British culture in the excruciating form of the local ex-patriates’ club.  

And Powell saves the best for last – the novel comes to a near-apocalyptic climax in the waters of the pukur when Sophie is faced with a challenge that will define her and her life.  I won’t say more about the denouement – but urge you to read this richly imagined and beautifully executed coming-of-age story. 

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