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An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 1 – Huxley and the Prophetic Utopia: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offers excellent insight into the Cold War, despite the fact it was written in the early thirties. Indeed because of this earlier date of publication Brave New World is neatly positioned to shed light on the competing ideologies that would shape the world we know today. It’s also all the more impressive that many of Huxley’s ideas retain a degree of accuracy, when unlike Orwell (whose 1984 provided the other prophetic twentieth century novel), Huxley was writing before the enormous changes of the Second World War.

HUXLEY’S INFLUENCES

Perhaps the first enlightening principle to take from Brave New World with regard to the Cold War is how the opposing sides have similarities as well as striking differences. The figurehead of Huxley’s society, Henry Ford, is an icon of both capitalism and America. Effectively the God of Brave New World, Ford is worshipped in bizarre and hypnotic community ceremonies. It seems that his legacy of mass production accounts for his importance in a society conditioned to consume with a smile on its face. All of these pillars holding up the Brave New World seem distinctly American. However as Huxley himself wrote in 1928 “To the Bolshevist idealist, Utopia is indistinguishable from a Ford factory[i]. A society grounded in the wonders of mass consumption requires mass production. Factories are the habitats of the workers and therefore a Communist element emerges in the Brave New World. Huxley reminds us all how Communism is a child of capitalism. The aim of happiness for all is also recognisably Communist, albeit through propaganda rather than reality. The true triumph of Brave New World however is not how it incorporates two competing systems into one society but how it exposes their most damaging flaws. The reality of Communism triumphs over the ideal with the caste system reflecting how actual Communist countries turn out. The Alphas of Brave New World are the Party members of Communist Russia; privileged by position and a (relatively) luxurious quality of life. The liberating qualities of capitalism are also smashed by Huxley’s perfect machine of consumption. Through over-organisation the individual freedoms to pursue hobbies such as sport are slashed; everything must contribute to the pot of stability. Perfect capitalism comes to resemble Communism by placing the state above the individual.

Which then, of the two powerful forces destined to grapple for international influence, most compelled Huxley to write his unique novel? The answer is another reason to respect Huxley’s power for prophecy. After the First World War, Huxley predicted that Americawould enter a period of “inevitable acceleration” towards “world domination[ii]. This acceleration was not immediate, as despite Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points forming the backbone of the new League of Nations, America would never be a member. The opposition at home took advantage of anti-Wilson sentiments and soon public opinion resulted in a period of isolationism between the wars. Nevertheless America’s powerful corporations, boosted by their advantageous position in the First World War, continued to spread their wings globally. After the Second World War American isolationism was unthinkable even to most Americans and after forty-five years of Cold War Huxley was proved right that America would be the nation of “world domination” not theSoviet Union.

Brave New World is largely inspired by Huxley’s first visit to America in 1926. The 1920s saw a revival of anti-American feeling amongst the intelligentsia of Europe. Certainly this may have been fuelled by resentment lingering from the First World War, which left Europe ravaged and America bountiful. Men like Huxley may well have been suspicious of American opportunism but regardless of this a spectre of suffering loomed over Huxley’s generation which influenced their attitudes. On May the 5th Huxley’s ship arrived at San Francisco. He was greeted almost immediately by reporters, setting the tone for a whirlwind “celebrity” tour of the country. On board ship, before reaching America, Huxley had been reading My Life and Work by Henry Ford after finding it in the ship’s library. This discovery would prove crucial to the creation of Brave New World and influence the way in which Huxley viewedAmerica as he travelled around it.

            Despite arriving with the typical privileged and English views of American society, Huxley’s view of Americain the midst of the Roaring Twenties was far from clear cut. He found Los Angelesparticularly bewildering as he noted that “thought is barred in the City of Dreadful Joy and conversation is unknown[iii]. He also disapproved generally of the growing culture of materialism, the trash pumped out by Hollywood and the “vulgarity” of the flappers. Huxley’s whole family was more taken by New York and Huxley delighted in excessive socialising. Although Huxley at times seemed wholly negative towards America, claiming that a “radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards” was underway, he still left the country with an overwhelming sense of its split-personality, spotting the “strange co-existence of Puritanism and wild hedonism in America” which arguably is still the case today[iv].

Huxley’s visit to Americaand his political stance on a number of controversial issues has led many to debate whether or not Brave New World is intended as a dystopia or utopia. Of course the literary debate surrounding whether or not it is possible to write a utopia at all plays a crucial role. Huxley was joining a long line of much discussed visions of society, each with its own controversial answer to the question of the human condition that for some fundamental reason the reader tended to resist. But Huxley himself, despite the breadth of ideas in the book, must have decided whether or not he wanted the reader to be left with a mood of negativity or possibilities.

            It is possible to argue that Huxley intended certain aspects of Brave New World to be perfect and even desirable solutions to social problems. Certainly Huxley had the foresight to address underlying flaws in the structure of society that were not discussed in the mainstream, perhaps because the task of tackling these issues seemed insurmountable. Even today some of Huxley’s concerns remain unchallenged, particularly in political circles, as candidates are fully aware that such things divide the electorate. In a recent article in The Times population growth is described as the “great ecological timebomb” that by 2050 will have exploded global population to “9.2 billion”. The premise of the same article however is that ordinary people or “cogs in our messy, glorious, capitalist democracy” (a phrase Huxley might’ve approved of), merely want to live their lives without surrendering anything to deal with such massive problems. The writer concludes that the “Green” fanatics of today would have to seize control in a manner similar to that of the “Reds” in the past in order to impose unpopular solutions from above[v]. Perhaps Huxley saw such a coup as the only viable solution too, as in Brave New World it is clear that at some point a group seized control amidst the chaos of war and economic strife and implemented its own system on society.

One of the features of the new order is a permanent solution to the problem of population control. In the various “hatcheries” not only the number of people but the quality of people can be adjusted and refined. Huxley had a genuine interest not only in the control of population but in any scientific method that might improve the genetic stock of the species. In various 1930s radio interviews he advocated eugenics, now a term dirtied by Nazism, as a way of dealing with Britain’s problems. Statements such as “any form of order is better than chaos”, have led some to reason that Huxley seriously supported the radical solutions proposed in his novel[vi]. However Huxley’s intellectual interest in emerging answers to problems like population growth is understandable given that he is a man of considerable scientific background. As for his fear of chaos, Huxley was not alone. Already haunted by the Great War, his generation were obviously perplexed by a decade of financial collapse, social change and dictatorship. After hearing a Parliamentary debate Huxley, like many others, became disillusioned with politics and scraps of information from experiments like theSoviet Union began to sound appealing. This is by no means an indication that Huxley proposed the schemes within his novel as viable options. The manufacture of babies is a device that highlights the issue of population. A sensible interpretation is that Huxley wished the extreme he described, or anything close to it, to be avoided by prompt action.

Huxley’s biographer Nicholas Murray is certain that Brave New World is a dystopian vision. He says “that the real meaning of Brave New World is that the idea of utopia is toxic”. This suggests that Huxley took a particular view in the literary debate surrounding utopias; they’re a bad idea. Murray goes further by comparing Huxley and Orwell (a common comparison) and pointing out that their attitudes towards utopias are shaped by the visionary projects of the time, namely the intended paradises of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. These examples seem to suggest that any attempt to perfect society will encounter opposition and incur casualties. In Huxley’s case I think it is more relevant to talk about the consequences of an American utopia however. We know that Brave New World was written before the shocking emergence of atrocities following the Second World War. Therefore the expansion of American control, the spread of their culture and the dystopian consequences of this sprawling growth, seems more of an influence on Huxley’s creative process. In Brave New World Revisited Huxley confirms that his intention was always to warn primarily against “government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of the individual”, rather than against the tyranny envisaged by Orwell[vii]. This makes it clear that Huxley’s primary target for criticism in Brave New World was the “American system”; a system that in 1947 President Truman would argue was “the only way to save the world from totalitarianism[viii].

PROGRESS

There are numerous examples throughout Brave New World of aspects of American culture that Huxley exaggerates into dystopian features of his fictional society. In fact the first chapter alone contains several elements that we can see have been influenced by Huxley’s concerns about Americanization. For example the first paragraph of the novel contains the slogan of the World State, “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” Whilst this may sound more like the Communist inspired mottos that Orwell made famous in 1984, it can also be likened to the mind numbing advertising catchphrases emerging as part of the corporation culture that was absorbing power in America. Also present in the first chapter is an American sense of scale. Huxley effectively uses the tour given to new recruits at the Central London Hatchery as a lens through which he introduces the reader to the foundations of his fictional world. At one point the Director, who is leading the tour, instructs a member of staff to “Give them a few figures”. This instruction and the description that follows reflects an aspect of the American ideal that may have particularly worried sceptics such as Huxley; the notion that bigger is better. Huxley’s description of the way the new recruits react to the size of the establishment is extremely revealing;

“Two hundred and twenty metres long, two hundred wide, ten high. He pointed upwards. Like chickens drinking, the students lifted their eyes towards the distant ceiling.[ix]

 

Here we get a clear insight into Huxley’s attitude towards an American ideal of progress. Bigger is not necessarily better, but in Huxley’s description of the awe-struck students he recognises the blinding qualities of grandiose projects.

The theme of size and quantity as the measure of success is continued throughout the first chapter, with continued reference to the output of the hatchery. Huxley was well aware of the importance of scale to the American system and the downsides of its reliance upon it. “The concept of scale is crucial to understanding the American economic model… American monopolists realised after the Civil War that scale above all gave them power: they could pay their suppliers less because the suppliers had nowhere else to go, they could charge their customers more, they could drive smaller competitors out of business[x].” The demand for scale did not have negative impacts inAmerica’s early years, as there was still plenty of sparsely populated land to colonise. The bulk of territorial acquisitions are forgotten because they were smoothly exchanged for dollars rather than the blood of American soldiers. The 1803Louisiana Purchase saw theUnited States double in size for just $15,000,000. The previous owners, the French, were delighted with this sum for what they regarded as land without strategic value. Napoleon would plough the American money into expanding the Channelport ofBoulogne in preparation for an invasion ofEngland. It is easy with hindsight to suggest that he chose the wrong scheme.

As Americagrew however the need for scale would begin to impact upon other nations. The outcome of the Civil War determined the character of America’s elite; the industrialists defeated the landowners. This new elite were responsible for a shift from property and populating, to profit, when it came to expansion. It was these industrialists that Huxley knew could exploit the system. Huxley would have been particularly worried by the influence of big business upon government; indeed in Brave New World he has the two become the same thing. It’s possible to draw parallels between the rapid expansion of America’s navy following the Civil War, so that it went from a force smaller than Sweden’s to only the Royal Navy’s inferior by 1907, and the soma spraying riot police deployed in Brave New World by the world controllers. The navy grew as a direct consequence of American corporations demand for scale, just as the riot police intervene to maintain the social order and stop the disruption caused by the Savage at the hospital, which was threatening the supply of dead bodies which are utilised in Brave New World as a resource.

Huxley’s worry was that the concentration of power would lead to only a small group’s interests being served by government. He would’ve been outraged by America’s policy u-turn on Germanyand Japanfollowing the Second World War. In 1947 Americaabandoned a commitment to purge these nations of undesirable political elements and limit their strength, opting instead to adopt a policy of accelerated development to open up export markets, reduce occupation costs and counter the Soviet threat with the creation of strong allies. This decision was strongly influenced by the desires of Northern industrialists. As a result Americaembraced industrial monopolies such as Mitsubishi in both rogue states, accepting the concentration of power amongst certain political elites to achieve their own ends. Through the Marshall Plan Americaextended this policy to Europe, often choosing to support the status quo in order to open up new markets for profits. At home the USgovernment could satisfy their powerful business allies whilst also appearing humanitarian to the public by saving their beleaguered European friends from the menace of Communism. Huxley was critical of this deception but also of the entire culture of consumption Americaimposed on other nations via the Marshall Plan. He had encountered it on his trip to Americain 1926 and in Brave New World he warned against its dangers.

 

We have seen that part of Huxley’s strong suspicion of the American system is its particular version of progress. ForAmericamaking the leap to inefficient and exploitative economies of scale was progress. It has also decided that it has a global role to play and that other nations should follow their systems of government and finance. It took advantage of the threat of Communism and asked the world to make a choice between their way and the Red way. As a result today’s world is largely dominated by the triumphant American system, with even supposedly Communist China playing the capitalist game. Those not part of the grand plan are judged as failed, ungoverned and terrorist states. I believe Huxley would agree with the modern writer John Gray about what progress ought to be:

There is an ingrained tendency to think of progress in terms of convergence on a global way of life and, up to a point, a global viewpoint is unavoidable. Pollution and climate change do not respect borders, and war or anarchy in any part of the world has spill-over effects on the rest, but we should discard the idea that one sort of regime is best for everybody. Instead of thinking of progress as a movement towards a single, ideal way of life, we could think of it in terms different ways of life developing in their own ways. If some countries wish to opt out of the global market, they should be free to do so. If they want to pick and choose among new technologies, let them try[xi].”

I believe Huxley would share this view because of his passionate defence of individualism both through the satire of Brave New World and the urgent essays of Brave New World Revisited. If he did think along similar lines, as his work suggests, then nothing could be more opposed to progress than one nation attempting to impose its way of life upon others.

            In the context of the Cold War however it may seem foolish to talk negatively about progress. It is generally accepted that the pressurised atmosphere of the Cold War induced one of the most productive periods of advancement in the history of mankind. We have already touched on the staggering economic turnarounds of Germanyand Japan, both of whom are today modern nations in so many ways. Then there was the development of a military-industrial complex that fuelled changes in so many areas. In 1960 defence spending in Americaaccounted for 52 per cent of all federal spending. In total the Defence Department employed over 2.5 million people. Research projects on a whole range of subjects were handed out to countless universities[xii].  Spin-offs from the arms race helped civilian industries like electronics and air travel. Television brought exotic locations into your living room.

           However for Huxley the television brought terrible indications about the dangers of progress for progress’ sake. The 1960 Presidential election is now infamous for its televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Over 60% of the adult population watched the first live televised debate, which was surely a triumph for democracy, making politics truly accessible to voters. However Huxley saw it differently. A decisive factor in the election turned out to be Kennedy’s superior performance on television. An often quoted fact is that those who heard the first debate on radio preferred Nixon, whereas those who watched it on television liked Kennedy. This suggests that, judged purely on the substance of his answers, Nixon was the better candidate for most people. Reading transcripts of the debates reveals that the two candidates’ views on key policy matters were not grossly different and that neither decisively defeated the other in arguments.  This seems to suggest that television offered Kennedy the chance to charm away his inexperience and claim victory. Nixon’s strong record of fighting Communism and experience as a Vice President was overshadowed. In the long run Kennedy’s success at avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nixon’s corruption exposed by the Watergate scandal seems to vindicate the result of the 1960 election. However at the time an election was one primarily because of the candidate’s image. Huxley worried that in this new age anyone could exploit the good will of democracy, “All that is now needed was money and a candidate who could be coached to look sincere.[xiii]” For Huxley it was all too similar to the fervour that swept Hitler to power in Germany and if it wasn’t that bad, it was still degrading politics so that people were voting for symbols rather than policies; “Under the new dispensation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance.[xiv]


[i] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxi

[ii] ibid, page xix

[iii] Murray, N.  Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual, Abacus 2003 page 182

[iv] ibid, page 184

[v] Senior, A. 2009 Blunt warning about greens under the bed. The Times 24 July, No. 69896, page 27.

[vi] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxiii

[vii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 5

[viii] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 80

[ix] Huxley, A. Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page 8

[x] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009, page 353

[xi] Gray, J. Heresies: Against Progress and other Illusions. Granta Books 2004, page 63

[xii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 279

[xiii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 73

[xiv] ibid, page 73

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Adapting good and successful novels: One Day, A Very Private Gentleman (The American) and Room


I’ve discussed the business of adapting books into films before on this blog, and indeed the increasing phenomenon of the adaptation as opposed to original screenplays. I’ve bemoaned the lack of creativity in the film industry, leading to such a focus on both true stories and transformations of already existing fiction dominating this year’s Oscars, for example. But for all my ranting and raving there’s something irresistible about a good adaptation, because if your source material’s good there’s a good chance your interpretation of it will be. It’s like a kind of quality guarantee.

Then again it’s a treacherous tightrope to walk, especially when you’re bringing not only a good novel but a commercially successful one to the screen. Films based on novels with a huge and devoted following will benefit from the diversity and commitment of that fan base at the box office, but perhaps also suffer critically if they don’t capture the brilliance of the book.

After mingling the words in your mind and arranging them on the page, watching their finely tuned order blossom into a bestseller and basking in the praise and revenue, it must be hard for an author to relinquish control of his characters, no matter what the financial compensations. This is presumably why many decide to remain attached to the cinematic versions of their creations as writer or producer or something, even with the risk of their original being tarnished and overshadowed.

David Nicholls did just this for the adaptation of his immensely successful One Day, choosing to write the screenplay himself. There is now a trailer online for the film, which can be seen over at Empire Magazine via this link: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=30843

I was absolutely absorbed in One Day when I read it and funnily enough I think I read it in roughly one day. It’s one of those books that you have to try really hard not to call a “page turner” because of how limp and cliché that sounds. It really is difficult to put down though. It became an ever present feature of the landscape of bookshops for a long, long time and still lurks prominently in the shadows. No doubt it will enjoy a revival with the release of the film. It was not the usual sort of addictive trash either. There was an organic originality to the concept, a humour and truth to the writing. The two main characters, Dexter and Emma, were fabulously realised. It was at once epic and emotional, experimental and accessible.

It did divide critical opinion, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was a cracking read, a verdict echoed at tills across the country. It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet and sleep together one day at the end of their time at Edinburgh University. In bed they discuss the future, their hopes, fears and dreams for it. The novel follows them on the same date of the year, whatever they’re doing, for every year that follows their meeting. It mostly focuses on their relationship as friends but also charts their development as people, journeying through alternative aspects of British history like dodgy 90s TV along the way.

It was quite a few months ago now that I read One Day but I am still excited about seeing its rebirth in cinemas. It will be difficult to bottle up the simultaneously intimate and epic feel of the book for the audience, but as I’ve said before what really matters is capturing the spirit, the essence and sentiment of a story. The trailer certainly seems to strike some of the right emotional chords, as One Day really was enormously touching and moving as well as gripping. It may simply be that my age, one of transition between worlds, allowed me to inhabit Dexter and Emma’s shoes perfectly and marvel at the rollercoaster of their lives, grounded in those student beginnings. But then again, One Day shows snapshots of its key characters at a variety of ages, so anyone should be able to jump right in and live their human journeys. Perhaps that is part of the secret to its appeal.

Three Cs are very important for a good adaptation: cutting, casting and creativity. Nicholls would certainly have had to ruthlessly cut chunks of his already lovingly crafted and edited novel for the screen, as well as find the right leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are the chosen ones, and they seem to fit the bill in the trailer, in spite of wavering accents on occasion, as Empire point out in their commentary on the footage. I’ve also recently seen and reviewed The American, starring George Clooney, which was based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe changed aspects of the story rather dramatically, including its conclusion, for a modern and cinematic update to the book. Despite my gripes about the increasing frequency of adaptations, it is possible to be really creative and bold with them, with the added benefit of a proven base material to work with. Joffe was certainly creative, as was Clooney, who needed to exhibit the right physical mannerisms to convey the book’s character in miniscule brush strokes, compared to Booth’s first person narration.

Having now both read the book and watched the film, Joffe appears to have done a good job in creating The American. And as I’ve said, perhaps what is most admirable is that he has created something, not merely transplanted the book to the screen, which can be the worst mistake when adapting something that’s already celebrated art. The original novel, written in the first person about a gun maker nearing retirement, was impossible to adapt as it was. It needed more drama and would lack the charismatic voice of the page. It needed new sources of charisma.

The film does drop key themes of the novel. Interestingly as a student of history, Booth’s recluse (known as Signor Farfalla or Mr Butterfly, as his cover is painting them) is outwardly repulsed by the idea of history and progress, unless it is the history of ordinary men. And yet his narration repeatedly comes back to the idea through imagery, symbolism and anecdotes. Mr Butterfly claims that he is truly influencing history by providing the weapons for assassination with deft craftsmanship behind the scenes. But what the novel hints at, which a film couldn’t do in the same way, is that the narrator is struggling with the idea that after his retirement no one will remember his life’s work. If he has altered history it is unnoticeably so. He never says as much but the light implications are there and extremely fascinating.

Booth was also a constant traveller, as well as a writer of history, which might explain Mr Butterfly’s anecdotes of the world and some of his eye for detail, along with his warped fascination with the past. One of the ways the film captures the incredibly vivid and visual style of the book is through director Anton Corbijn’s direction. Corbijn used to be a photographer, and in the film this becomes Clooney’s character’s cover and he never gains the nickname Signor Farfalla, only The American. This somewhat spoils Booth’s unassuming character blending into any background, but the essence of him remains the same and the parallels with the striking visuals of the film and the descriptions of the book are appropriate.

The American is a very minimalist and restrained production. You get more from the book in terms of the character, but still not a great deal, so Joffe reflects this with the dialogue. This is still a man in isolation with a unique existence, who forms meagre relationships that are still too much for a man of his profession. He is growing too susceptible to these ties with age. What I liked particularly about The American is that it stands alone from the book and one can be enjoyed without the other, just as well as the two together. They are distinctive and different but enjoyable entities of subtlety.

Of course some books should simply never be adapted. Something about them cannot be replicated and without this something any adaptation becomes a pointless exercise. A bad adaptation of such a book is painful and a great shame. I think that Room by Emma Donghue, shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, is such an un-adaptable book.

It’s been a while since I finished reading Room, and in any case my observations and insights would not compare to fellow blogger Tom Cat’s: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/room-emma-donoghue/

I will briefly say why I think any adaptation would fail however. Room is reliant on the first person narration of Jack, a five year old who has been imprisoned since birth in a small room with his mother. This is the controversial novel inspired by the Fritzl case. I was sceptical about reading it and presumed it to be an exercise in creative writing drawing rather shamefully off of ghastly deeds in the media.

After I read the first pages of Room however I was hooked enough to buy it. And Jack himself is never abused. The novel is bleak and harrowing at times, but usually because of what Jack doesn’t say. The obvious implications, for example when Jack counts the creaks in his mother’s bed from his hiding place of the wardrobe, are the chilling thing for the reader.

What Room is really about is a unique five year old, nurtured with extremely intimate and confined love from his mother. As Tom Cat points out in his review, the philosophical points potentially there to be explored are many. Instead of really delving these depths however Room is more intriguing for its characterisation of Jack and the original voice Donoghue gives him. He makes incredibly perceptive observations about the modern world through both his innocence and ignorance. Occasionally his impressive vocabulary doesn’t quite sit right and convince, despite it mostly being explained away by his intense education from an early age; sometimes Jack obviously uses Donoghue’s word or phrase rather than his own. But the fact that this only happens now and then is a remarkable achievement.

For the most part Room is a heartbreaking, funny and thrilling story that takes a fresh view of modern life and culture. Everything good about this story derives from Jack’s completely original and skilfully executed narrative voice though. Many of the reviews of Room call its concept unique, but it really isn’t that astounding, simply ripped from extensive news coverage. It’s the clever angle from which Donoghue approaches her story that’s so wonderful and this couldn’t be transformed into film, no matter how they attempted to do it. Voiceover would not work; we are witnessing the thoughts tumbling through Jack’s head not a commentary of events. Jack’s innocence wouldn’t transfer to the screen, so neither would the appeal and success of the novel.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.