Elly McDonald

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Review: You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano 

You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano

Subtitle: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks & Other Manmade Women 

Other editions subtitle: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks & Other Mixed Messages

Other editions subtitle: and Other Vexing Stories That Tell Women Who They Are

Maleficent_Angelina_JolieCarina Chocono was losing her mind as a movie critic:

“I found myself spending hours in the dark, consuming toxic doses of superhero movies, wedding-themed romance comedies, cryptofascist paeans to war, and bromances about unattractive, immature young men and the gorgeous women desperate to marry them. Hardly any movies had female protagonists. Most actresses were cast to play ‘the girl’.”

Chocono credits film actor Isla Fisher with slapping her awake. Asked whether her break-out success in The Wedding Crashers opened opportunities for her, Fisher had reportedly replied, “All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’ in the hot rod.”

Wedding_Crashers_Isla_FisherAs Chocono noted, “Women’s experience in its entirety seemed contained in that remark, not to mention several of the stages of feminist grief: the shock of waking up to the fact that the world does not also belong to you; the shame at having been so naïve as to have thought it did; the indignation, depression, and despair that follow this realization; and, finally, the marshaling of the handy coping mechanisms, compartmentalization, pragmatism, and diminished expectations.”

Before diminishing into being a “movie” critic, Chocono had thought of herself as a “film” critic (her distinction): “I wrote about what interested me and reacted to whatever seemed to be worth reacting to in the moment.” She used film as the springboard to freeform meditations on issues that resonated – as Renata Adler wrote, writing “about an event, about anything”, “putting films idiosyncratically alongside things [writers] cared about in other ways”.

You Play The Girl is a collection of essays Carina Chocono has written utilising Adler’s approach: responses to film as “a way into larger cultural conversations”.

It’s also – which cannot surprise anyone who’s read my previous blogs exploring approaches to writing memoir – a memoir, of sorts.

Elizabeth_Montgomery_BewitchedFinely etched as a filigree narrative spanning these essays is the story of how Carina Chocono figured out how to save her marriage (Chapter 2 Can This Marriage Be Saved?), be a good mother, be a good writer, and find her way back onto the heroine’s path:

“The heroine’s journey starts with the realization that she is trapped inside the illusion of a perfect world where she has no power. She employs coping strategies at first, or tries to deny reality, but eventually she is betrayed, or loses everything, and can no longer lie to herself. She wakes up. She gathers her courage. She finds her willingness to go it alone. She faces her own symbolic death. […] The heroine’s journey is circular. It moves forward in spirals and burrows inward, to understanding. […] The path is treacherous. The territory is hostile. But the heroine is brave. She knows what she wants. She’s determined to get it. Isn’t that how all good stories start?”

Yes but. As Herr Freud asked, “What do women want?”

Virginia_WoolfFor Chocono, it’s autonomy, agency, and authority. Also, equity and self-expression. To love and to be loved.

This book is dedicated to the author’s primary school aged daughter, from “For Kira” on the dedication page to the penultimate thank you in the Acknowledgements: “And to my amazing daughter, Kira, for being ever curious, always insisting on presenting her evidence, and never holding her tongue.”

The ultimate acknowledgement goes to one of Chocono’s heroines: “And to Hillary Clinton, for inspiring us both.”

Hillary_Clinton

The memoir elements tracing Chocono’s marriage are subtle, and tender, but Chocono repeatedly refers back to cultural texts that provide explicit metaphors: Lewis Carroll’s mad worlds, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the folk tales and fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault; and the ways those folkloric tales have been reconfigured by Disney, Pixar and Hollywood more generally.

For me, Chocono is at her best deconstructing the Princess in popular culture, as she does in the chapter ‘All The Bad Guys Are Girls’. Her princesses range widely: encompassing Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty/Aurora, Elsa and Anna, and Maleficent; but also Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, and Betty Draper from Mad Men. She re-presents the Jennifer Beals character in Flashdance and the Julia Roberts character in Pretty Woman as “princesses’, based on their exceptionalism. (She savages both films, hilariously.)

Katharine_Hepburn_The_Philadelphia_Story

She asks her daughter ‘What is a princess, anyway?’

Kira replies, “It’s a very fancy woman who gets her own way.”

What most horrifies Chocono though is what happens after the ‘happy ever after’. As she points out (and as I discuss in previous blogs), a medieval princess knew she was simply a transmitter of bloodlines and a vehicle for political alliances: her role was to get up the aisle with as little fuss as possible, pop out some heirs, and remain ‘invisible’ as an individual, whether alive or dead. Even in more recent times, for girls born into elites within stratified societies (as Chocono’s great-grandmother was, in Peru), ”A woman’s education was designed to coax her to sleep at sixteen and keep her unchanged and unconscious forever. It was an undoing. It wasn’t a start but a ‘finishing’.”

Princess_Diana

Elsewhere, in her synopsis of the film Maleficent, Chicano describes the narrative building from when “King Stefan’s men try to kill Maleficent, and Aurora tries to help her and discovers [Maleficent’s hacked off] wings in a glass case, because everybody is putting girls and their parts in glass cases all the time in these stories…”

These prince “heroes” in Frozen and Maleficent are sociopaths who mutilate and usurp women with extraordinary gifts. They’re Buffalo Bill in The Silence of The Lambs appropriating women’s skin. They’re monsters.

Snow_White

Yet in popular culture, just as often, what women see reflected back is the princess as monster. To quote David Bowie, ‘I looked around / and the monster was me’.

There’s a chapter called ‘Bunnies’ that I thought might be about the Bunny Boilers, but it is in fact about lads’ mags and the Playboy magazine ideal. Bunny Boilers surface instead in the chapter titled ‘The Eternal Allure of the Basket Case’. The Basket Case makes reference to Virginia Woolf (who Chocono cites frequently), and to artists’ muses, including Courtney Love, with a glancing mention of Zelda Fitzgerald but in-depth focus on Isabelle Adjani’s most famous studies in madness, in the films The Story of Adele H and Camille Claudel. Sylvia Plath pops up. Girl, Interrupted and Fatal Attraction are the Hollywood texts, along with an HBO show I haven’t seen, Enlightened, where Laura Dern loses her mind then loses her job. Or, arguably, the other way round.

Courtney_Love

Reading Chocono’s analysis of Adele H, I was reminded of when I first read reviews of this film, when it was released, in 1975, when I was 14. Director Francois Truffaut based his film on a real life story. Adele was the daughter of French literary titan Victor Hugo, writer of the novel Les Miserables. A young English army lieutenant had proposed to Adele, but she turned him down. Later, she regretted doing so, and, uninvited, followed his regiment to Canada, where she stalked him for years, then followed his regiment to Barbados, where eventually one day he confronted her, only for it to be apparent she did not recognise him.

Adele is a princess, daughter of the greatest French literary hero of the nineteenth-century. She is a Romantic: Chocono quotes philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s definition of Romanticism as “the unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals”. She quotes from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s book The Madwoman In The Attic, a study of “madness as feminist protest, subversion, and resistance. The madwoman, they say, serves as ‘the author’s double, and image of her own anxiety and rage’ towards a culture that oppresses her.”

Is Adele’s madness also her own misplaced sense of entitlement? Is she being a “princess”, a “very fancy woman” who thinks she can get her own way by ‘virtue’ of her privilege and passion? Is she on the “heroine’s journey”?

The_Story_of_Adele_H_Isabelle_Adjani

Virtue, as Mae West almost said but didn’t, has nothing to do with it.

Reading again about Adele H reminded me of two vintage Hollywood films that made an impact on me when I was 12, both about mad and bad bunny boilers who selfishly insisted on loving men who did not want to be loved (by them). I was so distressed by these two films that I wrote about them at length in my then-diary. I have long since burnt those diaries. But I think I remember what I had to say.

The first film was Forever Amber (1947), starring Cornel Wilde, the Texan actress Linda Darnell, and George Sanders as King Charles II. Amber is a luscious 16 year old country girl when Wilde, playing randy cavalier (a tautology?) Lord Bruce Carlton, age 29 when our story starts, rapes her as he’s en route to London. Except it isn’t really rape because obviously she was too luscious to remain virgin and was gagging for it anyway, and because she falls Wilde-ly in love with Bruce and hitches a ride with him to the metropolis. Amber remains ardently in love with Bruce Carlton even as she sleeps her way to being the king’s mistress. She nurses Bruce when he collapses with plague. She lances his pustules. She lends him money and advocates on his behalf. In return, he scorns her as a fallen woman, derides her as shallow and selfish, and eventually, once he marries a demure young heiress, he takes the child Amber bore to him away to the colony of Virginia, away from the child’s whore mother, away from the contaminated royal court.

Linda_Darnell_Forever_Amber

I felt that was unfair. Amber didn’t get to experience much love. She loved her son. Bruce was, reductively, a prick. She did not deserve his bad treatment of her.

It did not occur to me at age 12 that Amber might be capable of recognising all this herself and washing her hands of the bastard.

The second film was Leave Her to Heaven (1945), starring Gene Tierney and, again, Cornel Wilde, this time playing a writer who meets a beautiful woman, Ellen, on a train en route to her father’s funeral: the beautiful woman is especially emotionally vulnerable. Or out and out psycho. After their whirlwind marriage her obsessive jealousy and, yes, selfishness emerge. The writer has a disabled younger brother who comes to live with them. Bunny Boiler Ellen can’t bear to share her husband’s love so she watches, cold-bloodedly, as the boy drowns in a boating incident. Then her husband the writer finds solace in his friendship with her half-sister. He even dedicates his new novel to the sister, as “The gal with the hoe”. (She gardens.) Or was that dedication to “The gal with the hole”? Or “the gal with the ho’”?

Whatever. The Bunny Boiler had my sympathies.

Gene_Tierney_Leave_Her_To_Heaven

Ellen flings her pregnant self down the stairs, cruelly murdering the writer’s innocent unborn son. When he walks out on her, she kills herself, setting up her sister and her husband for a murder charge. Knowing what we know about partner violence, it would be more credible if the writer had killed the Bunny Boiler, as Michael Douglas eventually kills Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (but she was asking for it). The screen-writer does kill Gene Tierney’s character. But only after he first assassinates it.

Falta_Attraction_Glenn_CloseTo me, this, too, did not seem fair. Granted, Ellen was intense. She failed to sufficiently empathise with her husband’s needs. But all she asked was to be loved.

Gene Tierney’s problem was that she was a princess. She was a very fancy, over-entitled daddy’s girl who thought the world – or if not the whole world, her husband, at least – should love her unconditionally.

The Gene Tierney character is the Wicked Witch. She failed to play ‘the Girl’ the way ‘the Girl’ should be played – in the passenger seat.

To return to Isla Fisher: “All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’ in the hot rod”:

“Women’s experience in its entirety seemed contained in that remark, not to mention several of the stages of feminist grief: the shock of waking up to the fact that the world does not also belong to you; the shame at having been so naïve as to have thought it did; the indignation, depression, and despair that follow this realization; and, finally, the marshaling of the handy coping mechanisms, compartmentalization, pragmatism, and diminished expectations.”

Or, the alternative coping mechanisms of madness and murder.

“’The girl’ doesn’t act, though – she behaves. She has no cause, but a plight. She doesn’t want anything, she is wanted.” For every princess who transforms into a witch, goes murderously crazy, there’s another – many others – being gaslighted: manipulated into believing, as Carina Chocono did, that she is losing her mind.

From Alice In Wonderland:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Alice's_Adventures_In_Wonderland_Cheshire_Cat


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Woman of Substances: A journey into addiction and treatment – by Jenny Valentish

Jenny ValentishJenny Valentish’s book Woman of Substances is subtitled “A journey into addiction and treatment” and sets out to explore how addiction is triggered and plays out specifically in women, across a range of behaviours: drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive or obsessive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm and self-mutilation, and other compulsive behaviours, including sex and theft. She investigates social and historical factors as well as neuroscience, endocrinology and psychiatric approaches.

Organised in three parts, (Part One: Predictors of a problem; Part Two: Gendered adventures in addiction; Part Three: Woman’s Lib), this book is part sociological research, part memoir. Both aspects resonate with me. Valentish writes as someone who came of age in south-east England’s music scene in the early ‘90s, who published a fanzine, was publicly represented in the tabloids as a music groupie, who was immersed in music and drugs and alcohol, was sexually abused, who relocated to the other side of the planet, has intimate experience of addiction and (arguably) mental illness. She now lives in regional Victoria.

We have common ground. I was a rock music writer from ages 17 to 29, writing for rock music publications, pilloried as a teen by Molly Meldrum on Countdown as a “stupid female”, constantly negotiating the crosslines between sexual experimentation, peer perception and shame, witnessing drug and alcohol abuse, occasionally participating, with intimate experience of other forms of addiction, and mental illness. I crossed the planet, in reverse, to spend my 30s in ’90s London. I now live in regional Victoria.

Like Jenny, I am fascinated by the challenges posed by writing memoir.

Jenny Valentish describes her personal experience woven through her research findings as a “case study”. As it happens, one of my freelance employments is editing the psychiatric case studies required of trainee psychiatrists. It’s all too easy for me to condense and mentally reformat Valentish’s accounts of her personal experiences as third person psychiatric reports. It’s easy, too, for me to follow her accounts of different treatment methods and wellness strategies, as set out in the book’s final section. Truthfully, that section is so lucid I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to learn what works.

She writes wonderfully.

I nearly did not read this book. I’d seen a review that commented on how direct her language was, presenting as an example,”I had a cock in my mouth by the age of seven.” I took that to be the book’s opening line. I was concerned this would be a sensationalist, exhibitionist narrative – the “crazy woman as attention-seeker” trope. A part of me felt I already knew this story. Why revisit it through someone else’s darkness?

To learn, to contextualise, to rethink, to reframe, to empathise, to better understand. Because it’s well-researched. It’s useful reporting. It’s entertaining. It’s encouraging.

I had some predictable responses. I found it impossible not to map her experiences against mine, not to place us in relative positions on a graph mapping “Just how bad was that?”

There are no prizes for being the most out-there addict. That said, as a reader, and as someone who had thought our experiences might be loosely comparable, I was shocked, actually distressed, by much that Valentish recounts. I felt outraged on behalf of her 14 year old self, being inducted into music scene sex; her 18 year old self, raped in an alley; her 26 year old self, fleeing an abusive ex across oceans; her 7 year old self, sexually abused by a neighborhood teen – outraged by the continuum of her experiences. I felt shocked, confused, by the extent of her substance abuse. Why would she subject herself to that? How did she function, build a career?

The “Why would she subject herself to that?” is, obviously, the question the project addresses. How did she function, build a career? Seems to me that side by side with – or within, or fronting, or inextricable from – the identity Valentish presents on the page, the person who stumbles and trips and can’t articulate coherently, there was the person who functioned just fine, thank you ma’am, within her chosen environments, aided by considerable intelligence, her talent, her resilience, her humour, other character traits she doesn’t make explicit, and by her social capital (education, beauty, middleclass background).

In the final section, the section about treatment options and the experience of weaning off addictions, Valentish writes briefly about narrative therapy. This is the process whereby a person articulates their story and then, with an appropriately qualified therapist, they “look at some of the dominant narratives that they are using to give themselves a hard time: ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m a alcoholic’, ‘I’m a bad mother’ or ‘I’m a failure’. […] The therapist and client will then look for the subjugated narratives of resilience, courage and strength, and work on lifting those to the fore.”

My brother-in-law is clinical director of a private psychiatric clinic and is a senior psychiatrist within the public health sector. Narrative therapy is an approach he promotes. I have gleaned a few hints observing him and asking him about his work, and a strategy I do find useful is consciously noting how I am telling my story – to myself, to others – and consciously exploring ways of representing it that are true to those events and yet empowering.

Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.

In the Acknowledgements section Jenny Valentish writes: “I realised afterwards, once I’d signed off on the book, that I skimped on the love, support and good times. Certainly they’re more obvious now (who really basks in those good fortunes in their twenties anyway?), but they were always there from family and friends, keeping me afloat. To this end, Women of Substance is a memoir of addiction, not a memoir of a girl.”

Good point.

She writes: “My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies with marble floors and ceiling fans rotating lazily over potted palms. I should have been thumping hard-oak boardroom tables and powering through airports in my safari suit.”

This is Jenny Valentish being self-deprecating, aware of middleclass privilege. I know I too have benefited immensely from class privilege. In fact, chunks of my life have been a Duran Duran video, especially, but not exclusively, my life in London advertising agencies. I still get to check-in occasionally to glamorous hotels with thriving indoor plants, and though my cashflow is constrained, to say the least, I live very comfortably, in a beautiful upper middleclass environment, and I do not lack.

She writes: “I’m lucky. While Woman of Substances isn’t exactly a beach read, my own experiences only skirt the edges of awful possibility. With my drug use I was just a tourist, albeit the type that overstays their visa. I didn’t get into trouble with the police. I didn’t drive under the influence, or even learn to drive. I didn’t overdose or take drugs with anyone who did. I didn’t get rushed to hospital. Nobody beat me up. I didn’t need to have sex with anyone for drugs, nor for drug debts. I didn’t want kids, so I didn’t accidentally drink through my first trimester, or use through a pregnancy. I had a secure childhood and parents who were able to look after me.”

Me neither. Me too.

Quite apart from the shock of how sordid many of Jenny Valentish’s experiences were (and I say “sordid” as a descriptor, not as a judgement), the shock for me in reading this narrative was realising just how conservative I’ve been. Yes, there were a few months sucking bongs at age 17. But my dope-fiend career was cut short by my complete inability to draw back, a failure I recall one rock musician friend murmuring must be “a terrible handicap for a girl”.

There was the one occasion I attempted to snort cocaine off a mirror; my long hair fell forward and wiped the mirror surface. (That same musician friend laughed and remarked how popular I must have been.) There was the time backstage when I reached for a proffered white powder and a rock musician friend, a famously drug-abusing rock musician friend, slapped my hand sharply, saying “Not that! That’s smack.” There was the life-changing, hideous episode with white powder backstage that led to a blackout and a blow-up my brain never stored in memory. There was the sleazy paparazzo with his date-rape drug.

Thing is, after age 18, I never smoked dope. After 21, I stopped drinking, almost entirely. After the white powder episode, I never touched white powder. After the date rape, I moved back to where my parents lived. As I once told an old friend, I never met a drug that liked me. Every time I tried an illegal substance it blew up in my face (so to speak), and I immediately stopped.

For a so-called groupie (“bandmoll”, we called it), I wasn’t even promiscuous. Over time, in my twenties, I had sex with more men than the girls I grew up with did – I think. But highly discriminately. And rarely.

Eating disorders? Overspending? Compulsive behaviours? Impulsivity? Stalking? I put my hand up. I did those other things that fit within the realm of addiction.

This is not a review; this is a personal response. My personal responses to what Jenny’s written are complex. Foremost, ultimately, they take the form of a chorus of “BRAVA!”, directed with a metaphorical bouquet to Valentish.

Woman of Substances


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Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Final_Girls_Riley_Sager_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Quincy, Lisa and Samantha are each sole survivors of mass murders. But they live with threat.

When Lisa dies in suspicious circumstances, who should Quincy fear? Coop, the protective cop with Daniel Craig eyes? Jeff, the Ryan Reynolds look-alike Public Defender boyfriend? Samantha, her Riot Grrrl alter ego, tattooed SURVIVOR? Jonah, the tabloid scumbag? Her own mother, who taught her to be “Fine”?

Could He (who cannot be named) rise from the dead?

Or is that pesky dissociative amnesia concealing something Quincy’s survival depends on?

It’s 10.30pm. I’m working tomorrow. But I’m hooked.

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So began my relationship with Riley Sager’s Final Girls – undoubtedly soon to be a movie near you, not to be confused with a 2015 teenflick of the same title.

This was a thriller I read through the night, constantly mapping it against its pop culture references, the movies, the books, the actors who might be cast, constantly guessing and second-guessing the whodunnit.

I knew guessing whodunnit was a pointless exercise. The author is such a fan of this genre that I knew s/he’d strew red herrings liberally and would make sure the ending twists back on itself like an angry rattler. (For the record: I’ve since discovered Riley Sager is a man.)

Partway through:

The movies it’s reminding me of most right now, other than Fight Club, are I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Blair Witch Project, and the Sharon Stone pic Sliver, where the script intended the Perfect Boyfriend (Billy Baldwin) to be the killer and Tom Berenger as the brooding cop with icy blue eyes to be the Male Savior. But preview audiences didn’t like that, so the ending was re-shot, making a nonsense of any nuanced characterisation the actors might have attempted.

Icy blue eyes ex-marine = sociopath ordinarily. But hey. Anything can happen.

In fact those icy blue eyes might be more Gary Cooper than Daniel Craig and Tom Berenger. The cop’s name is Franklin Cooper, known as Coop or Frank – Gary Cooper’s real name was Frank Cooper, and he was known to his friends as Coop.

Gary_Cooper_1936_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Then I got precious:

Might be a touch of Donna Tartt (quince) in here too. The Secret History. The girl in the sacrificial virgin’s white dress that turns red with blood. Quincy and Sam are definitely maenads.

Btw Quincy is an Instagram blogging baker. She makes tartts (sic). And sweet muffins. Just desserts.

The Hitchcock Vertigo references kicked in.

vertigo_elly_mcdonald_writerNext day, I couldn’t let it rest:

I’ve been turning this one over in my head this morning. The author really loves genre. This is surprisingly smart plotting and structure and is ultimately a fan homage to the “final girl” trope. It’s also genuinely terrifying in some sequences.

Yup. It is.

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Review: Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

 

Into_The_Water_Paula_HawkinsI’ve just read Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water, and IMO it’s a better and more interesting novel than her bestseller The Girl On The Train.

It doesn’t have the more egregious flaws of GoTT – the drawn-out over-repetition, the ludicrous gothic ending, the central character we wanted to strangle. In all, much more disciplined: more pointed, less hysterical, more affecting. The ending is particularly finely judged.

The point is not really the whodunnit, which I won’t comment on. The point is how we construct and contextualise memories, the lies we tell ourselves and the delusions we accede to.

Hawkins prefaces her tale with two quotes, one from Hallucinations, by neurologist Oliver Sacks:

“We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorised with every act of recollection.”

Jules has been estranged from her sister Nel for decades, despite Nel’s frequent phone messages, to which she will not respond. Jules remembers Nel as callous – even cruel – as an adolescent big sister. She has Nel written off as a narcissistic self-dramatist. Then Nel dies in circumstances that might seem to justify that verdict. Jules returns to the village where the two spent teen summers, the village where Nel died, to care for Nel’s 15 year old mini-Nel, whose name is the near anagram Lena. But Lena is hostile, and her mother’s death is her second recent loss: not so long before, her BFF died the same way Nel apparently died.

The same way another local woman died 30 years earlier.

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There are those who believe they know the truth of what happened in each case, and those who know versions of what happened but cannot quite trust their knowing. There are those who seek a ‘justice’ that validates their version of events. There are those solely interested in self-justification. There are characters who effectively live in parallel universes, their versions of ‘reality’ in contradiction to the universes inhabited by others in their orbit.

Paula Hawkins explores what might happen when contradictory realities, constructed memories, are contested. She’s interested in interpersonal conflict, the shock effects in the wake of tragedy. She’s particularly concerned, as she was in The Girl On The Train, with how misogyny impacts women. There are several plot strands that play out ways men exert power to the detriment of women. Not all of these are presented in the most obvious terms. There are subtleties that are disquieting.

Don’t get too hung up on who did the killings. It’s really not the pay-off with this novel. The pay-off is the deep sigh when the question “Why?” is answered.

Into_The_Water_Hawkins_Elly_McDonald_Writer


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Review: The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne_D'Arc_Elly_McDonald_Writer.pngIvor Indyk at Giramondo Publishing was one of my lecturers at Sydney Uni 30 years ago, and I see he helped birth Ali Alizadeh’s novel The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc, which I read last night.

Declaration: When I read Thomas Keneally’s Joan of Arc novel Blood Red, Sister Rose at age 14 in 1975 it made an indelible impression on me. It was always, perhaps, an uphill task for Alizadeh’s novel to surmount that.

It’s not that the Alizadeh novel isn’t interesting. It’s simply that for me it’s not compelling. And partly it’s not compelling, for me, because of how he’s chosen to expound his narrative, in ways that might be described as unconventional, might be described as experimental, might be described (my description) as pompous.

Alizadeh has chosen to write mostly in very short sentences. Sentences grammatically incomplete. Missing subject pronoun or verb. Repetitive. Yeah, he’s a poet. He wrote his PhD on Jeanne D’Arc in verse. Very clever. Not compelling.

The authorial voice switches between what I think of as Pompous Academic; first person; second person; and Voices. The first person and second person pronouns interchange across much of the novel’s central sequences. Sometimes together within the same paragraph. Sometimes they are linked immediately together, hand in hand. I’ll take that as a metaphor for the lesbian relationship which forms one plot strand. The Voices are Jeanne’s saints, or angels, and they speak in free-form verse, italicized.

Confession: I skipped quite a bit of the italicized sacred voices. I also skipped a lot of the lesbian relationship, but I did go back and read those sections afterwards. I skipped the lesbian relationship not because I have any aversion to lesbian relationships – contemporary, historical, speculative or fictional – but because I was interested (not compelled) by Alizadeh’s recounting of the historical narrative, and initially I chose to follow that more closely. I’ll come back to that lesbian relationship.

Joan of Arc as imagined by John Everett MillaisPreRaphaelite-Joan_of_Arc_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Let’s address the historical record, and that Pompous Academic voice.

In her review for Readings Online, Freya Howarth states “Alizadeh’s authorial interjections in the midst of battle scenes (about what future films will get wrong or debates historians will have) are jarring, in a good way; they remind the reader that what we know of Jeanne D’Arc is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries”.

We are indeed frequently reminded that Jeanne D’Arc – that history – is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries. And those reminders, that frequency, does jar. I agree with Howarth that this is intentional, intended to provoke readers to re-examine their assumptions, their received wisdoms.

Is Henry V of England a hero, as late medieval English people saw him, the very model of a king and warrior? Here’s how Alizadeh introduces Henry:

“Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play [Henry IV Part 1]. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath. Probably a war criminal.”

And later:

“The Treaty of Troyes between the king of England, the Duke of Burgundy and the terrified, bullied queen of France. French Princess Catherine given to the English king. It is agreed that their child will be the joint ruler of the kingdoms of England and France. Celebrations in London. Shame in Paris. King Henry burps, rubs his hands after an ale, then fucks the beautiful Catherine without interest. Without any of the courtship of Shakespeare’s Henry V.”

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How to respond to these passages?

Let’s compare them to Peter Ackroyd’s account in The History of England, Vol I: Foundations:

“There can be no doubt that Henry V was driven by a sense of divine right as well as of duty. He abandoned his youthful pursuits and almost overnight, according to chroniclers, became a grave and serious king. He acquired a reputation for piety and for the solemn observance of ceremonies; until his marriage, seven years later, he remained chaste. He established several monastic foundations of an ascetic nature, where the daily exhalation of prayer was meant to support the Lancastrian dynasty. His devotion also had an aesthetic cast. The annalist, John Stowe, recorded that ‘he delighted in songs, metres and musical instruments, insomuch that in his chapel, among his private prayers, he used our Lord’s prayer, certain psalms of David, with diverse hymns and canticles’. When he went to war in France, he took with him organists and singers.”

Ackroyd summarises Henry as follows:

“No king won such plaudits from his contemporaries as Henry V. The [financial] misgivings about his wars in France were forgotten for the sake of celebrating his martial valour. He was devout as well as magnificent, chaste as well as earnest. He was as generous to his friends as he was stern to his enemies; he was prudent and magnanimous, modest of temperament. He was the very model of a medieval king.”

He continues:

“Yet there are some who have doubted that verdict. Shakespeare’s play Henry V can be interpreted in quite a different spirit as an account of a military tyrant who staked all on vain-glorious conquest of France. What did he finally achieve? Once his French conquests were dissipated, and the dream of a dual monarchy dissolved, very little was left to celebrate. All was done for the pride of princes.”

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Which tells us nothing about Henry’s personal relations with the beautiful Catherine. Or the state of his soul (“soulless”?).

I am inclined to suspect Alizadeh’s descriptions of Henry burping, rubbing his hands after an ale and fucking the French princess without interest are speculative (fictional). And this inclines me to suspect other embellishments where the Pompous Academic voice does not make clear what is on the historical record as against what is speculative, or where the Pompous Academic voice omits details on the historical record, creating a different impression of events.

For example, on Edward III:

“His father, another Edward, murdered in captivity so that the boy could claim the throne. Murdered by having a red-hot blade forced into his anus, apparently. So the towering young ruler has reason to be consumed with shame, self-loathing, brutality, hatred.”

These alleged feelings, are, according to Alizadeh, Edward III’s motive for starting the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Alizadeh is not, to my knowledge, a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. (He’s a poet.) Henry V was probably not, in my opinion, a psychopath (although being a psychopath was a handy requisite for being a successful medieval warlord). Edward III may have had many strong feelings but there is nothing on the historic record, to my awareness, to suggest shame and self-loathing were among them.

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Let’s try the Battle of Crecy:

“The French king’s Genoese [mercenary] crossbowmen advance upon the English longbowmen. The crossbows’ range is very short – no more than seventy metres at the most – compared to the longbows’ 400-metre range. Corpses of Genoese shooters pile up. Haughty French knights, angered by the crossbowmen’s failure, charge the English positions.”

Yes, and no. What Alizadeh fails to mention is that it is raining, raining so that the Genoese crossbows are damp. The crossbows cannot operate when wet. The Genoese mercenaries’ captain explains this to the French commanders, pleads not to be deployed. The French force the Genoese forwards. When the Genoese crossbows misfire, the French heavy cavalry trample over the top of them.

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Henry V is a “psychopath”, “Probably a war criminal”? Well yes. Henry V did order the execution of French prisoners taken for ransom during the Battle of Agincourt (Azincourt). The numbers of French prisoners overwhelmed the numbers of men available to guard them. But the order was stayed and most of the French knights and nobles taken captive survived to be ransomed.

Henry lays siege to Rouen: “the city’s trade routes, food supplies, water conduits, blocked by the English. Hunger forces out the city’s poorest, about twelve thousand. The English open fire: filled with arrows, thousands of civilians fall and fester. The surviving die of starvation and cold during the winter – one of the worst atrocities of the European Middle Ages.”

But hold up. “Hunger” forces out the city’s poorest? I think not. I believe the records show the good burghers of Rouen force out the city’s poor and sick, so the wealthier and healthier can live longer, sharing food and water between many fewer. Should the English army have taken in the outcasts, given them free passage? The English had camp followers enough of their own. Given men in medieval besieging armies die from contagious illnesses as much or more as they die in military assaults, the frail and sick of Rouen were potentially a biological weapon. The refugees might have included assassins, terrorists, fifth columnists. The debate has contemporary resonance.

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Not long after his marriage and the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V of England dies of dysentery, at the siege of Meaux.

Henry presided over a scorched earth policy, where English raiding parties burnt all habitations and all food sources that might provide shelter and sustenance to French troops. Henry didn’t invent that strategy; it was standard modus operandi for the English in France and their allies. Meanwhile, at the French court, the Burgundian and Orleans factions engage in massacres and assassinations. The French king believes he is made of glass. No one here has clean hands, no one is wholly sane.

But I digress. I promised to come back to the lesbian love story. Was Joan of Arc raped in imprisonment, prior to execution? That’s plausible. Was she raped by the Earl of Warwick? Speculative. Highly. Was she lesbian? Who knows. Did she engage in lesbian sexual relations? Speculative. Highly.

I am touched to learn from Ali Alizadeh that after Jeanne/Joan’s capture by Burgundian forces, not a voice in all of France, from all her erstwhile martial and political fellows, spoke up in Jeanne’s defence save one: a novice nun told a University of Paris theologian and judge something along the lines of “She’s not evil, sire. You must believe me. Joan is a good woman.”

Or maybe she said, “Jeanne’s a good woman, sire. All that she’d done has been good and according to God. She’s innocent.”

I wish I knew the precise words this Breton nun actually said, but I don’t, because Ali Alizadeh quotes all those words, yet he also writes, “What is known of Pieronne the Breton and her trial comes from a minor entry, one paragraph, in Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris, an account of events of that time written by an anonymous Parisian.”

One paragraph? Did that one paragraph quote all those words verbatim? Or are they speculative? Or, does this Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris exist at all, or is it a postmodern fictional insertion?

I wish I knew. Because I can’t trust the author, the Pompous Academic, and his “authorial interjections”.

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Lucrezia, Elizabeth and Sansa

Blood & Beauty / In the Name of the Family – Sarah Dunant
The White Princess – Philippa Gregory
Game of Thrones (TV series) – George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

Lucrezia Borgia lived an extraordinary life, but really, who’d swap? Who’d be a Renaissance princess for real?

Born in 1480, the illegitimate daughter of a prince of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia was twice engaged before age 12; married (to a third fiancé) at 13, divorced four years later, allegedly (but implausibly) still virginal; remarried at 18, widowed by age 20 when her brother had her husband garrotted; married once more at 22, to a duke’s syphilitic son; ten children (and multiple miscarriages) later, dead at 39. Libelled through the centuries as an adulteress, an incestuous wanton, a poisoner.

Lucrezia Borgia Elly McDonald Writer

There’s Elizabeth of York, born in 1466, eldest daughter of King Edward IV of England: first engaged at age 3; then engaged to the French Dauphin at age 9; rumoured to be her uncle King Richard III’s intended wife at 18; offered by her malformed uncle to the Portuguese king’s heir; offered by her mother to Henry Tudor, King Henry VII. Six live births, three surviving children (including the future Henry VIII) when she died in childbirth on her 37th birthday.

Elizabeth of York Elly McDonald WriterThen there’s Sansa Stark. Sansa Stark is a fictional character. Arguably, she’s a composite invention, with elements of Elizabeth of York’s life woven through her story, and a few tangential elements of Lucrezia Borgia’s: Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, from her second marriage, was named Sancia. Viewers of the TV series Game of Thrones will recall that Sansa was engaged to King Robert Baratheon’s heir Joffrey, then married to the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, abandoned still virginal to be bigamously married off to the sociopathic rapist Ramsay Bolton. (Readers of the George RR Martin novels A Song of Ice and Fire understand the narrative in the books unfolds somewhat differently.)

Sansa Stark Elly McDonald Writer

What’s interesting about these storylines is agency.

Were Lucrezia and Elizabeth merely marriage pawns? Were they merely bargaining chips in high stakes political alliances? Or did they have some say in their ‘choices’? Once married, what degree of ‘choice’ did they have in how those marriages – and those political alliances – worked out?

Any historical fiction is always a working through of issues that address contemporary readers. As is all science fiction. So fictionalised imaginings of the lives of Lucrezia Borgia and Elizabeth of York, and fictional creations such as Sansa Stark, are vehicles to explore issues affecting women today: self-determination, autonomy and dependence among them.

Sarah Dunant has written five novels now which explore aspects of women’s lives in Renaissance Italian states. The Birth of Venus (2003) tells the tale of a Florentine merchant’s daughter who aspires to be an artist. In the Company of the Courtesan (2006) follows the career of a courtesan who, after the 1527 Sack of Rome by French armies, rebuilds her career in Venice. Sacred Hearts (2008) concerns a young girl unwillingly interned in a convent as a novice nun. Blood & Beauty (2013) and In the Name of the Family (2017) recount the fortunes of Lucrezia Borgia, through to the death of her father and her brother Cesare’s political demise.

Sarah Dunant scrupulously follows historical fact as best it can be ascertained. Where there is no surviving primary evidence, she chooses plausible speculations, from a feminist perspective. Most of the calumnies against Lucrezia Borgia are not plausible. Consequently, the Lucrezia Borgia Dunant presents is much the Lucrezia Borgia presented by Sarah Bradford in her readable biography, Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy (2004) – an exemplary Renaissance princess, a convent-educated patron of the arts well-versed in diplomatic skills.

Lucrezia Borgia 2 Elly McDonald Writer

This Lucrezia Borgia has no say in her first marriage and divorce, no hand in the death of her second husband, no choice in leaving her first-born child, but is actively involved in negotiating her third marriage and committed to ensuring that marriage succeeds. She is not an adulteress, being instead a poet’s muse, in line with poet-patroness conventions of the day. Dunant doesn’t allude to Lucrezia’s alleged affair with her brother-in-law the Duke of Mantua, but the case is well-made for why a canny political operative such as Lucrezia proved to be would reject a sexual liaison. (Besides, Francesco Gonzaga was frequently incapacitated by syphilis, and there were few occasions when the two were in physical proximity; their relationship was mainly a written correspondence.)

Lucrezia Borgia 3 Elly McDonald Writer

Lucrezia couldn’t prevent a husband she apparently loved from being murdered on her brother’s orders and was obliged to collaborate in impregnation after impregnation by a husband with advanced syphilis whose temperament and affinities were poles apart from hers. But their interests coincided: preserving the duchy of Ferrara for d’Este rule in a time of turmoil. As a team, they were a success.

Similarly, Elizabeth of York and Henry VII appear to have made a success of their marital alliance, albeit on very different terms. Elizabeth’s claim to the throne of England, as the eldest surviving child of Edward IV, was better than Henry Tudor’s. (Being female did not disbar her, as the subsequent ascents of Mary I, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I in the Tudor period proved.) It was important to Henry that it be clear he claimed the throne in his own right, by right of conquest, and not as male spouse to a queen regnant, the Yorkist heir. The timing of his coronation, prior to the marriage, reinforced this point. Elizabeth was relegated to queen consort, stripped of political power.

It wasn’t that late medieval English female royals had no formal political influence, as had been argued until relatively recently. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was his foremost political adviser, with private rooms adjoining her son’s and prominence in public ceremonies. Her household papers attest to the degree of power and autonomy she enjoyed.

But Elizabeth, the White Rose of York, was acknowledged as little more than a breeder. Little contemporary testimony as to her character and activities survives, other than that she was a most amiable woman, with a russet gown and one blue, fond of past-times such as cards, music and dancing, who loved her siblings, her mother and her children, and also her greyhounds. She grew plump over time. Her son Henry, who was 11 when she died, remembered her as a very pretty woman. She lived away from the public gaze, mostly at Eltham Palace.

For Elizabeth, this was a good outcome. She had grown up as the marital prize for the would-be kings. Her destiny was to be queen of England, and she fulfilled that destiny. Even if she could not exercise power herself, her son would be king, and her descendants future rulers. She survived the downfall of her house, the House of York, the York Plantagenets, just as Lucrezia survived the fall of the house of Borgia to thrive as duchess of Ferrara, mother of future dukes.

Both were survivors – until they weren’t, until childbirth felled them. But they survived their brothers and fathers, and fared better than many might have wagered at the time.

Elizabeth of York 2 Elly McDonald Writer

The central mystery of Elizabeth’s life however remains what she made of the emergence of the man who claimed he was her brother Richard – a man who claimed he hadn’t been murdered in the Tower of London as believed, had survived his older brother Edward, had been brought up in Burgundy, and was in fact the rightful king of England, King Richard IV. This man was supported by European royalty and enjoyed prolonged hospitality at royal courts, marrying the daughter of one of Scotland’s most powerful nobles.

When this man proclaimed himself king in England, he hoped for a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. Instead he was captured. Henry VII’s agents denounced him as an imposter. They said he was really Perkin Warbeck, a Fleming. But Henry treated the imposter well initially, allowing him to live at court for 18 months, albeit under guard and without his wife, who lived under the protection of the queen, Elizabeth.

It is improbable, but possible, that Perkin was born Richard. Did Elizabeth believe Perkin Warbeck was a pretender? Was she unsure, confused? Or, privately, did she recognise him as her brother? Did she believe his wife Lady Katherine was her sister-in-law, or was Lady Katherine, for her, another young noblewoman married for political purposes? Did Elizabeth ever get to have close contact with Perkin? Did she get to see him, to speak to him, at all?

Perkin Warbeck was recaptured after allegedly trying to escape. He was severely beaten and dragged on a wooden hurdle to execution at Tyburn, alongside Elizabeth’s cousin, her aunt Isabelle’s son Edward, the young Earl of Warwick. How did this impact Elizabeth?

The truth is, Elizabeth the White Rose of York, queen consort of England, had zero agency to affect Perkin Warbeck’s fate. Even if Perkin Warbeck was Richard Plantagenet, rightful king of England, and even had his sister recognised him at first glance, there was not a thing she could have done to avert his end. Any hint of recognition, distress or mourning would have been anathema to her husband and to the dynastic interests of her children, and might have endangered Elizabeth herself. After all, her husband – and, after her death, her son Henry – spent years systematically destroying any kin of Elizabeth’s who could be acclaimed as Plantagenet heirs.

Elizabeth of York 3 Elly McDonald Writer

I’m not a huge fan of Philippa Gregory’s novels, despite their immense popularity. But Elizabeth’s powerlessness is poignant as depicted in The White Princess, just as Lucrezia’s powerlessness to prevent her second husband’s murder is poignant – is shocking – as depicted in Dunant’s Blood & Beauty.

Philippa Gregory represents Elizabeth of York almost as catatonic, as paralysed, in relation to Perkin Warbeck. Dunant shows Lucrezia and her sister-in-law Sancia desperately attempting to save Alfonso of Aragon by appealing to a higher authority, her father, the Pope – only to inadvertently leave him exposed and fatally vulnerable.

On Game of Thrones, as at the time of writing we don’t know where Sansa Stark’s story is headed. She’s developed from being a naïve ingénue through manifold manipulations to her current status as an avenging Amazon, intent on reclaiming what is hers. So far, all but one of her immediate family have been killed (with one resurrected, and one transformed into a three-eyed crow). I don’t know whether Sansa gets to call the shots in her future. But I’m betting she doesn’t die in childbirth.

Sansa, of course, is a fiction.

Sansa Stark 2 Elly McDonald Writer


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Avon and Servalan, Paul and Jacqueline – memoirs

Call me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation [with Nicholas Briggs] Audio CD

You’re him, aren’t you? An autobiography by Paul Darrow

From 1978 till 1981 the British sci-fi series Blake’s 7 was broadcast on TV across four seasons, 52 episodes in all. Blake’s 7 was originated by Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks of Doctor Who fame. He intended Blake’s 7 to be a darker alternative to Doctor Who: Doctor Who for adults. Or a darker Star Wars. It ended badly. I mean that. As a 20 year old fan in 1981, I was so distressed by Blake’s 7’s final scenes that I wrote to the newspapers: Shocked of Kings Cross, Sydney (a neighbourhood where most of us were mostly unshockable).

There were two mainstay characters who did not appear in Episode 1, Series 1, and one of these characters was missing – and greatly missed – in that final episode. The other claims the final shot. These characters are the evil galactic Supreme Commander Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and Avon, first introduced as a cold, self-interested, sociopathic hacker, played by Paul Darrow.

Servalan

The absence of Servalan and Avon might explain why, when I watched a repeat of Episode 1, Series 1 when Blake’s 7 was rescreened in the ‘90s, I could not make out why I’d loved this show so much. Avon and Servalan. They were the drawcards. Tarrant was cute and Cally quite compelling, Vila was amusing and the first Travis had a kind of S&M appeal, but really, for me Blake’s 7 was Avon and Servalan. This I understand was true for many of the series’ 10 million or so (at its peak) viewers.

Servalan, especially, was a kind of perverted role model for me. After a miserable love affair, I cut my hair to a short fuzz, to look like hers. Men wanted to touch the possum fur fuzz on my head. I let them. But I knew I was an alter ego – a lost clone – of the Supreme Commander and that if I chose, those men would be laser blast fragments.

servalan blasts Avon

Having recently re-encountered Blake’s 7, I was curious to learn what happened to the actors in their subsequent lives. I found there is a pop cult industry around the series, a business called B7 and a business called Big Finish, with audio adventures voiced by original cast members and Comic Con appearances. There are autobiographical materials, such as Call Me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation (audio CD) and Paul Darrow’s memoir You’re him, aren’t you? – An autobiography.

What did I learn?

I learned that it’s painful to be an actor, that the odds of achieving any kind of success are stacked against acting aspirants, that success once achieved is seldom enough, and seldom sustained, and that the pain of being a has-been and the pain of being a never-was and the pain of finding hollow “success” can be hard to live with.

I learned that Darrow and Pearce are both deeply ambivalent about Blake’s 7, that the 35 years since have seen both struggle with depression and despair, and struggle in other ways. Pearce talks openly, recklessly, about it. Darrow circles around pain and disappointment over and over, looping through themes of ambition and failure, and feelings of anger and envy, till the cumulative effect is of an old actor, deep in his cups, holding forth in a way he hopes is avuncular but in fact comes across as bitter. Not that I’m saying Paul Darrow drinks. I’m talking about how I read his memoir.

Paul Darrow Avon

There are positives. Jacqueline Pearce is painfully open, recounting a tale of talent blighted by mental illness, but her story testifies to resilience and the value of friendships, including a supportive friendship with the late great actor John Hurt. It’s easy to empathise with Pearce’s observations and experiences, and easy to admire her fortitude. Plus, her voice is beautiful, even if her frequent throaty laugh becomes unsettling.

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and his account of his life attests resilience, too, and enterprise. He writes in short pieces, not necessarily linear chronology, and I wish there’d been a sympathetic editor to hand to help him focus on the interesting questions he raises, and to minimise some of the more indulgent sections, such as his synopses of each episode of every Blake’s 7 series, which could be summarised as “The narratives were crap, the production values trash; if you care about Blake’s 7, the more fool you.”

I don’t think he meant to imply Blake’s 7’s production team, or its viewers, are idiots, but he does imply that, at length. Then he contradicts himself and praises the writers, the directors, the stunt crew, thanks the actors for their friendship and thanks Terry Nation for transforming his life. Like I said, conflicted.

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man. He does raise good questions. Given the plots are ludicrous, the stunts unconvincing, special effects rudimentary and the production values shout low budget, what can account for Blake’s 7’s popularity? This was a show shot on video, not film, shot largely within semi-bare stationary sets (Scene: The interior of a space craft), with quarries and occasional sand drifts for location shoots, and characters who wield what look like hair-dryers standing in for laser guns.

And this: why did audiences relate so strongly to the overt sociopaths, to Avon and Servalan? Why did the sparks of an Avon/Servalan pairing cause salivations? Why, cosmos above, would young women like me imagine Servalan a role model and fantasise about Avon?

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Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and in his autobiography he acknowledges these questions. Then, after a half-hearted stab in response (Avon as “a bit of rough”?), he gloomily gives up, as if it’s all too much. Which it would seem it was.

It must be hard, for Paul Darrow, to start out sharing a house with fellow RADA students John Hurt and Ian McShane, and at the height of one’s fame to be touted as a future James Bond (Timothy Dalton got the Bond gig), then to be relegated to pantomime, touring rep (again), and the continuing audio adventures of a character you played several decades back. A character who logic suggests died.

Darrow writes interestingly about typecasting, and he writes about an actor’s need for an audience, for affirmation. He is savagely funny about how he’ll be remembered. As ever, he’s torn, not sure whether anyone will care at all, or whether there’ll be mangled memories and pop culture fan-hysteric tears, or whether some people might consider his career had value. I’m here to reassure him. Paul, you are loved. How could a reader not love an actor who quotes the review that said “Paul Darrow plays Macbeth like Freddie Mercury giving a farewell concert”, and the review that read “Paul Darrow is an actor worth watching, but not in this play”?

It must be hard, for Jacqueline Pearce, to start out as the RADA ‘girl most likely’, directed by Trevor Nunn, hanging out with John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McShane (no mention of Paul Darrow), then be ‘demoted’ in the final series of Blake’s 7, omitted altogether from the final episode, then spend most of the next decades with little or no acting work, instead dependent on Housing Benefits and the kindness of friends, with stints as an artists’ life-drawing nude model in Cornwall, and volunteering in a monkey sanctuary in Africa. Plus stints in psychiatric care. And two bouts with cancer.

Servalan Jacqueline Pearce

Live well, Jacqueline.

My own best answer for why Blake’s 7 was loved is this:

In the late ‘70s, the Western world began to understand its supremacy could not last. Throughout the ‘70s there were petrol politics, revolutions, the Irish Troubles, labour unrest, increasing disparity between North and South, and rich and poor. During Blake’s 7’s run, the USA voted out Jimmy Carter and voted in Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of Britain.

We weren’t too sure about our heroes – was Thatcher a Servalan? – and we weren’t sure who were the villains (the IRA? Revolutionaries in Iran?).

Paul Darrow points out it isn’t clear whether the crew of the space ship Liberator, the crew who were “Blake’s seven”, were in fact heroes or simply terrorists. He asks, if Blake was trying to lead a popular revolution, why was nobody else rising up? Could it be, possibly, that the Evil Empire was not perceived by its citizens as evil? Could it be that Blake, and his crew, with their talents for destruction, remained criminals even on the Liberator, as they had started out criminals?

In times of change and extreme moral ambivalence the foremost task, possibly, becomes survival. Avon and Blake and the Blake’s 7 crew hurtled through a hostile universe, hunted by omnipresent authorities, unsure of their mission, not knowing who to trust. So you trust the strong man. You trust the sociopath, Avon, because Avon has his eyes on the prize: survival. Or you follow the Supreme Commander, Servalan, because Servalan is also a survivor, and her will to power is second to none.

Pearce and Darrow were good at playing survivors.

Don’t be fooled by that soft velvet fuzz. Servalan will kill rather than be killed, and Avon will, always, be the last man standing.

avon and guards