Snow finally fell last weekend in DC. Not much, but enough to cover the ground in a thin layer of white crystal. On Sunday afternoon I smoked a cigarette and watched a squirrel loop its way down the trunk of a tree, like it was riding a helter-skelter. There’s a stillness to ice that nothing else can imitate. Man’s footprint is hidden in the snow. It’s a great time for contemplating the essentials.
I was fortunate enough over the weekend to catch a screening of The Iron Lady
, the recent biopic of Margaret Thatcher. As I have written before
, I was anxious about watching the movie because I have issues with the Lady’s time in office. But I was pleasantly surprised. Much like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
has little to do with espionage, The Iron Lady
has next to nothing to do with politics. It’s about the tyranny of old age and whilst it might not be an accurate portrayal of Thatcher’s present state of health, it is an incredibly moving one.
Director Phyllida Lloyd made the controversial decision to use senility as a narrative device. The story of Thatcher’s life is told in flashbacks, while the present day plot concerns her battle against hallucinations of her long dead husband. The first time we see her, she is not the fierce vision in shoulder pads that we all knew in the 1980s. She is instead a little old lady buying a pint of milk in the local shop. Her face expresses a mix of fear and defiance. The music is too loud and the other customers too coarse; she is vulnerable. But she is also mightily pissed off that the price of milk has gone up again. We see a flash of resilience in her eyes. One can imagine her demanding more change and, when threatened with security, crying, “No, no, no!”
In some ways, the movie is a lot of fun. There’s plenty of silly departures from the written record (Thatcher did not run towards Airey Neave’s exploded car crying, “Noooo!”), plus we get some splendid impersonations of the cast of little men who dogged Margaret throughout her life. Anthony Head is splendid as Geoffrey Howe, who was the most boring yet most radical chancellor in British history. Also delightful is John Sessions as Ted Heath. He captures Heath’s strangulated Kentish twang perfectly – the flat ugly noise that I use, too. The story of Ted’s premiership has always been a personal inspiration, because he proved that you could be utterly charmless and still go far. I take comfort from that.
Meryl Streep is outstanding. Unlike Leonard Dicaprio’s recent turn as J Edgar Hoover, her performance evolves
. We see Thatcher patiently learning and then owning the verbal and physical tics that are necessary to command a room. And we see her become a prisoner of them. There is one scene in which she gives Howe a dressing down in cabinet. It’s like torture porn. She humiliates him in front of his colleagues and even corrects his spelling. Furious with the incompetence of lesser mortals, she dismisses everyone from the room. Only when they are gone does she realize that she has done something wrong. She shifts uncomfortably in her chair and bites her lip. She realizes that she has taken a step closer to destruction. A good leader must be feared not loved. But while the fear commands respect for a season, it leads inexorably to usurpation – and that is what happened to the Iron Lady.
The deconstruction of Margaret Thatcher is complete by the time she is old. Like the rest of us, she shifts quietly from being hated to being a nuisance. Her daughter mothers her and her son ignores her. “We must draft a statement,” says Margaret when she hears that terrorists have attacked London. “Mummy, you’re not Prime Minister anymore,” her daughter reminds her.
Vulnerability is the great curse of ageing. It comes harder in Britain, where work-life patterns undermine strong families. No one wants to be dependent upon their children, but that is the sad reality of physical decline. Margaret scuttles about, listening through key holes to what the others are saying about her – like an errant toddler. She is trapped in a world of memories, some accurate and others not. What is she to do with these years of physical decrepitude? Write another press release?The Iron Lady
does its eponymous hero a good deed, for it reminds her critics that she is a human being. Her condition is certainly universal. As a child I watched my grandmother grow old and die in a short space of time, the decades catching up with her in a matter of months. The gas was often left on and tea cups got broken. The keys were always in the front door. Thieves took advantage of her kindness and ransacked the apartment. She fell down the stairs and came up purple with bruises. She was terrified: every slip or smash was a shock to her. How did I feel, at eleven-years old? I was annoyed. She walked too slow, her hand drawing my progress along the pavement to a painful crawl. She repeated herself endlessly and confused her own life with bits of soap opera. She slept all the damn time. One Christmas Eve, she rang to say that she felt too tired to stay with us. I berated her on the phone: “You foolish old woman,” I said. “Don’t you know that I need you here? Don’t you know that I love you?” The next day she was dead.
After watching The Iron Lady
, I have revised my opinion. I think Margaret Thatcher should
be given a state funeral. Not because she was special, but because she was an ordinary woman who did remarkable things. She was us and we are she – and we owe this fragile human being a little of the dignity that old age robs from us all.
How did our eponymous hero survive his fall from a tower bloc in Sunday night’s episode of Sherlock? The British media is abuzz with speculation. The scene was a parody of the titanic struggle between Holmes and his archnemesis Moriarty that takes place in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem. In Doyle’s work, the two men take a dive over the edge of the Reichenbach Falls. In the BBC’s contemporary adaptation, Moriarty shoots himself and Holmes then jumps off an office building. All very postmodern – ugly and bathetic.I’m one of about half a dozen people in the world who doesn’t like Sherlock. I started out with an open mind, missed a few episodes, and then returned last night during a period of consciousness between bouts of jet lag. If this were an adaptation of any other character from literature, I probably wouldn’t mind the liberties that have been taken with him. But Holmes is a national treasure – and the BBC has stolen and vandalized him. In their brazen effort to compete with other eccentric exports like Downton Abbey, they have retooled him for the US market. Like much of British TV, the result is an ugly chimera of different styles – melodramatic, camp, gaudy, and inconsequential. The quiet intelligence of the source material is completely lost.Historically, the difference between British and American detective stories has always been this: the British are interested in how someone was murdered, the Americans in why.The average Agatha Christie novel is a mental puzzle. Someone dies improbably, red herrings are introduced, clues are dangled, and the killer is unmasked. There is little emotion involved. In contrast, the great mystery fiction of the USA is motivated by the human drama surrounding the kill rather than the kill itself. Raymond Chandler’s novels were so disinterested in the mechanics of crime that he confessed that he didn’t know who murdered the chauffer in The Big Sleep. His detectives were flawed human beings who often got it wrong. The thrill of Farewell My Lovely – for my money, the greatest noir ever written – is neither the murder (we never see it) nor the unmasking of the culprit (which surprises the hero as much as us). Likewise, the novels of Ed McBain are more violent pornography than they are criminal fiction, while Dashiell Hammett is just as keen to expose the hypocrisies of capitalism as he is a murderer.The differences between these two traditions reflect the differences between our two cultures – or at least they used to. It was once the case that British society was mannered and cerebral, while Americans were more tactile and human. Compare Father Brown with Mike Hammer and you’ll see what I mean.In the last twenty years, British culture has lost a lot of its Anglo-Saxon restraint, which is why I find watching the BBC drama Sherlock painful. Sherlock Holmes is the most intellectual detective of all. In fact, he pretty much set the standard for the English obsession with the nuts and bolts of detection. It’s not true – as the TV series labors – that he guessed everything from a mustard stain on a lapel. Aside from pioneering forensics, he was also a master of disguise and tasty with his fists. He wasn’t excessively rude (I don’t know why Sherlock has turned him into a morose teenager with undiagnosed autism) and he often expressed admiration for feminine pulchritude. He was not gay and he certainly did not have a thing for Moriarty – a character who he met only once in the novels.In the hands of producer Stephen Moffat, however, Sherlock is a very modern young man. His relationship with Watson has been elevated (or lowered) to platonic love affair. He has a past and a complex relationship with his brother. He hates the world – or does he love it, we cannot tell? – and he desires competition above all else. He is young to the point of hip. The “Bohemian” lifestyle alluded to in the books is here a student digs with psychedelic wall paper. This is the BBC, so our hero cannot possibly smoke. Instead, he wears nicotine patches.Ignore the endless references to Holmes’ “genius” played out in the show: Sherlock is not a British puzzle, it is an American soap. The absence of intellectual gameplay is reflected in the fact that Moffat will often crowbar several Holmes stories into one episode. The care and attention that Doyle put into explaining how the “impossible” could be made “plausible” is gone. It is replaced by fast paced camera work and high-tech graphics. A kidnapper is identified by the soles of his feet in ten seconds – Huzzah! – allowing the pre-pubescent Sherlock to move one step closer to unmasking Moriarty, the overacted criminal mastermind who, let us not forget, he only met in one Doyle story!To disguise the lack of plot between each set piece, the director makes his cast run around a great deal and occasionally sends the camera zooming up the actor’s nose. But visual tricks aside, Sherlock is an exercise in character study – and this should come as no surprise. Stephen Moffat is one of the villains who also corrupted Dr. Who. He helped turn a science fiction show aimed at kids into Coronation Street in Space, replete with histrionics, gay kisses, regional accents, brassy women, and special guest stars of the Ken Dodd variety. As with crime fiction, science fiction is technically all about ideas. But Dr. Who’s producers have replaced those ideas with a by-the-numbers drama about human relationships. Will the time travelling doctor ever find love? Do any of us really care? Aside from an admirable taste in bowties, he strikes me as a gurning simpleton.We once did crime so well. The 1980s were a golden age of TV detectives, all loyal to their textual source. For my generation, Sherlock Holmes is Jeremy Brett (yes, I know that some of his later stories weren’t Doyle’s) – a man so obsessed with capturing the character of Holmes accurately that it actually drove him mad. Likewise, Joan Hickson’s Jane Marple was spot on – down to the lady’s cold stillness, her ability to detect evil at a glance over a tea cup. These shows usually took one story and stretched it out over 2 hours, or several weeks of shorter episodes. They were long, languid, and gorgeous. They were also very sad. The joy of English conversation lies in what is unspoken rather than what is said. We scream at each other in silence. It takes time and care to evoke that kind of pain.* The whizz-bang, cinematic rollercoaster of modern television cannot do it.I don’t intend this to be read as a condemnation of American culture. On the contrary, I’m as home in the world of pulp as I am on Baker Street. But rather it’s a lament for the fact that the British seem to have forgotten how to do that which we used to do uniquely and so well.
The English ability to blend complexity with understatement – to say a thousand words with one handshake – is leaving us. We are not the people we once were. Nor, I fear, shall we ever be so again.*Consider how well it was done in the Brett version of The Final Problem.
I have arrived in the United States and am now breathing the sweet air of freedom. It always takes a couple of days to get used to America. People talk to each other here, which is very unnerving. In Britain, if a stranger speaks to you on the subway, it’s a sign of criminal intent. If you reply, it’s a sign of madness.
By way of smoothing the transition, Virgin showed one of the most English movies ever made (produced, of course, by the French). This was the first time that I ever saw Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I was blown away. It’s two and a half hours of solid gold Anglo-Saxon repression. The movie has hardly anything to do with espionage and a lot to do with the British class system. I’d imagine that foreigners watching it would require subtitles for the subtitles, to explain the innuendo and double meaning of every twisted phrase.
Tinker is about a group of men who met at Oxbridge, fought a war together, went their separate ways, and then returned to the fold thirty years later. They are prisoners of the past, chained to each other by nostalgia and bitterness. In place of living, they have seduction and wordplay. One oft-repeated scene is of an office party, the likes of which I have been to many, many times. It features grown men pouring vodka into the punch and dancing to cheesy disco music. Then comes the Lenin-themed drag act and a rousing rendition of the Soviet national anthem. When I heard that on the plane, I nearly leapt to my feet (for reasons that will become obvious later).
Tinker is a family drama, which is what makes the betrayal at the heart of it both pointless and profound. [Spoiler alert.] When we discover that Bill Hayden has been passing on secrets to the Russians, it isn’t England that he has let down – it’s his friends. On the one hand, he seems vain and petty (“Don’t you think the West has become ugly of late?” he says by way of explanation). On the other hand, it is his former lover that has been left to be tortured by the Soviets. King and country aside, what really matters in Tinker is the awful betrayals that occur in everyday life – the insincere kiss, the last goodbye, the unanswered call.
There’s a palpable sense of relief when Hayden is caught, and not just because he doesn’t have to lie anymore. Bill has contempt for England and contempt for his peers. He betrays their superciliousness, their stupidity, by doing something equally childish. He does it because he can. “I am a man who has left his mark,” he says – implying that Smiley’s people are mere shadows that leave no impression on the world around them. Spooks, indeed.
It’s interesting how much the English love their traitors. We have a long heritage of literature and films about the Cambridge Four, much of its hagiographic. How can we express admiration for silly boys who sold us out to the Communists and sent so many men to the firing squad? The answer is partly the English love of eccentricity and bloody-mindedness. But I suspect that we also share their frustration – even disgust - with modern Britain. The feeling that it has become “ugly of late” is widespread. Anyone observing my own lifestyle might conclude that I harbor Bill Hayden’s contempt for England. It’s not entirely true, but my alter egos of Marxist and Catholic probably look like betrayals of my class. Even my love of American conservatism has a hint of subterfuge. I once read a web chat about me in which a liberal asked why I was writing a biography of Right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan. “They met at NBC and Buchanan recruited him,” another liberal replied. “Their relationship is like Blunt and Burgess.” It most certainly is not.
The English personality contains an instinct for treachery – a reflexive urge to betray the mendacity of our race. But we can never quite bring ourselves to leave Britain altogether. We are tied to the thing that we hate the most. Like Bill Hayden, we refuse to do the decent thing and defect. Why should we? England is all we have.
Sadly, I was never a spy. I knew lots of people at Cambridge who were recruited. None of them was a James Bond: the classic profile was a shifty know-it-all with a first in Oriental Studies. I always wondered why they were tapped and I wasn’t. But, in retrospect, I had security risk written all over me. Not only was I an inveterate drunk, but I was also a communist. My first Michaelmas report concluded with “adheres to an outdated, simplistic Marxism that is bound to leave him with a poor third.” My tutor lowered the report and said in an ominous voice, “Are you a socialist?” My grade was much less important than the college’s reputation for producing Conservative cabinet members.
In the last year of my BA, I thought my moment had come. I got a mysterious invite from the college’s recruiter to come to dinner. I went expecting to be ushered into a world of international intrigue and beautiful women, but was disappointed when it turned out to be a dinner in honor of a visiting historian of the American Civil War. I knew nothing about the Civil War, so I guessed this was all a cover. But the hours clocked by while the old duffer rambled on about the Battle of the Bull Run, and still no effort to recruit me was made. I started to hit the table wine, which was, unusually, quite good. By midnight I was several sheets to the wind and dangerously bored. Finally, I found a moment over the port and cheese to sidle up to my host and make my move.
“Is there anything you want to ask me?” I whispered. He was sitting and I was standing, so I leant down and spoke softly into his ear. “Anything playing on your mind?” I gave him a wink that was, in retrospect, obscene. “You can trust me,” I breathed. “I can keep a secret.” The old don gave me a look of pure terror. Several seconds of silence passed until I realised I had a hand resting on his thigh. I stood up straight. “If there’s anything you ever want to ask of me, Professor, you know where I am.” And with that I slunk away to the door. As far as I was concerned, it was a performance worthy of Sean Connery himself.
A couple of days later, another professor told me that the recruiter had been most surprised when I had apparently tried to seduce him after a rather dry seminar on the history of the Civil War. It turned out that he had no intention of recruiting me – I was the only boy in college with an interest in America, which is why I had been invited to bulk out numbers. Humiliated by the horrible misunderstanding – and by the rumor running around that I had a thing for fat old men – I returned once again to drink. A few weeks later, I broke into the don’s shared bathroom and drew a hammer and sickle on the mirror with toothpaste. In my own, small way, I probably contributed to a national security alert.