Dilettante's Diary

May 14/18

Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
SEPTEMBER 9, 2018
Aug 9/18
July 19/18
June 2/18
May 14/18
Apr 23/18
Feb 22/18
Jan15/18
Dec 13/17
Nov 22/17
Nov 3/17
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: You Were Never Really Here (Movie); Theft by Finding (Diaries); The Boarder (Short Fiction); Deep Down Dark (Real Life Trauma); Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times (Biography)

You Were Never Really Here (Movie) written and directed by Lynne Ramsay; based on the book by Jonthan Ames; starring Joaquin Phoenix with Judith Roberts, Frank Pando, John Doman, Alex Manette, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Dante Pereira-Olson.

That title seems to be hinting at something elusive, something evasive. Is it trying to tell you that, if you come out of the theatre in a state of complete and utter confusion, that’s because you didn’t really get the movie, you didn’t see it as it was meant to be seen? You, then, were not really "here" as far as the movie-makers are concerned.

That let’s you off the hook, sort of.

Which means that a critic can’t be faulted for not providing a clear explanation of the proceedings. So I won’t attempt to say – not definitely at least – what this movie is supposed to be about and what conclusions we’re meant to draw from it.

Roughly, the goings-on appear to be somewhat like this: A guy named Joe, an elemental brute force, has a knack for rescuing under-age girls who have been abducted into sex slavery. Parents who are desperate to find their stolen daughters employ him. This is all done outside any legal system. Joe’s modus operandi consists of cunning and violence. No clever sleuthing. Not much happens in the movie: a plot outline wouldn’t take more than fifty words. In sum: we see Joe execute one rescue, but then things go sideways, with some dire consequences which reveal – I think – corruption in high places.

It’s hard to catch much of what Joaquin Phoenix mumbles as Joe, but that doesn’t matter because he says little. What matters is the feral intensity he conveys: the glare of his pale grey eyes and the determined set of his heavy eyebrows. This is clearly a guy who has a serious mad-on towards the world. It would not be quite accurate to say that Joe is endowed with a surplus of the milk of human kindness but he does deal with a rescued girl gently. To make him seem a little bit more human, we see that he has a jokey relationship with his elderly mother. Oh yeah, there’s that bit where Joe holds the hand of a dying man – whom Joe has just murdered (I think).

In flashbacks, we get glimpses of a vulnerable-looking boy. He appears to be threatened or in danger. Presumably this was the young Joe. Something terrible must have happened to him. Is this why we sometimes see him with a plasic bag over his head, trying to suffocate himself? Is this, in another mode, what’s motivating him in his pursuit of vigilante justice?

If so, that would be one of the more likely answers to the many questions that the movie raises. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t go in for a lot of explaining. We see bloody bodies crawling on floors and we don’t know who they are. We get closeups of grimacing faces, grappling hands, scrunched up eyes. Whose? We don’t know. The body count keeps mounting. Are these all Joe’s jobs? Who knows? Every now and then we hear the whisper of a voice counting: who? why?

Instead of dialogue which might help to clarify matters, we get long stretches of psychedelic visuals: city lights as seen at night from speeding cars; the flickering of trains seen through the super-structure of bridges; the blurry outdoors seen through rain-spattered windows. All of this is accompanied, most of the time, by horrendous noise. Over and above the relentless pounding of the musical score, there’s the exaggeration of everyday sounds. Ordinary rainfall is made to sound like a freight train rushing through. A coffee percolator sounds like a ticking bomb. Somebody’s slurping through a straw is aggressive enough to make you jump. I suppose it’s too much to think that any movie can succeed now, in this era of the mega-blockbuster, without cacophony raining down on the viewer like a fusillade. (But it does make a person long for one of those genteel movies of old from the Ealing Studios.)

Ultimately, what I think this movie may be about is not a story, not one that we can recognize as such, but a character study of a man trapped in a noir-ish existence. We might look at it as the flip side of the life of the Marvel hero who’s out to right the world’s wrongs. Instead of glory and acclaim, it’s endless trouble. The writer/director is trying to convey this impression in arty photography and sound rather than in story. One of the most impressive scenes, in this respect, is one where a person disposes of a dead body in a lake. This isn’t a matter of simply loading the body with rocks and giving it a toss. No, the person carries the body into the deep water, down, down, and we’re watching from under the water as the body is gradually released from the carrier’s arms. It’s got to be the most remarkable funeral ever filmed.

So much for artistic effect. But do you have to abandon narrative coherence to achieve your artistic goals? When a movie-maker does that, I have to wonder whether it’s a matter of loyalty to a vision or simple pretension. But maybe filmmakers these days figure that they don’t have to bother about clarity. Probably the assumption is that everybody will be talking about the piece on social media. By mutual agreement, everybody will have figured out what it’s all about long before they see it. No need, then, for the movie-makers to provide any clues that might make the movie understandable. They can just wallow in their impressionistic images. That’s supposed to be enough to satisfy the sophisticated, hip movie-goer.

Which description leaves out a lot of us.

 

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 (Diaries) by David Sedaris, 2017

David Sedaris says, in the introduction to this collection of excerpts from his diaries, that he doesn’t expect anybody to read through them in a continuous way. He assumes readers will dip in to sample passages here and there.

That’s the way I approached the book at first: skimming through, stopping when something particularly interesting caught my attention. About a third of the way through, however, I got hooked, and started reading continuously. After finishing the book, I went back and read the skipped bits.

How did that happen, contrary even to the author’s expectations?

I think it’s because there is actually a kind of plot developing. You begin to watch how Mr. Sedaris gradually eeks his way out of extreme poverty where he’s living in flimsy apartments and is always in trouble for not paying his phone bill. He starts having a bit of success with wacky theatre pieces by himself and his sister Amy, then does readings for National Public Radio, then has pieces published in The New Yorker, then a book deal, then jetting around the country doing readings, hobnobbing with celebrities. Along the way, you see the first contacts with Hugh Hemrick, the man who is going to become Mr. Sedaris’ life partner. You watch how their relationship develops to the point where they become like any married couple, affectionately putting up with each other’s foibles.

In the introduction to the collection, Mr. Sedaris notes that the entries culled here from eight million words in his diaries inevitably convey an edited picture of a certain kind of person. "An entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive." The overall impression conveyed in this book is of a man who is preternaturally alert to the weirdness of life, especially as represented in the people he encounters at random. The book’s title catches something of the random nature of life as it occurs to him. He finds some money on the sidewalk and a friend tells him that, if he keeps it, that’s known as "theft by finding." That’s more or less the way his life evolves: he keeps stumbling on amazing things and he takes possession of them through his writing.

Strange characters are constantly crossing his path. In restaurants, on the street, on public transit, they bum cigarettes from him, they inundate him with off-the-wall chatter, they insult him, they spit at him, they try to rob him, they try to pick fights with him. He seems to be accustomed to being called "faggot" by complete strangers; it amazes him when a prostitute mistakes him for a strait man. Through it all, Mr. Sedaris seems like a bemused observer of life’s absurdities. Despite all the hassles, there’s his underlying fascination with humanity.

But you don’t find much introspection or soul-searching here. No angst to speak of – apart from the succinct references to the disadvantages of an impecunious state or a frustrated ambition. You have to search the pages to find the incidences of Mr. Sedaris’s disgruntlement: a bit of seething about some annoying jerk sitting next to him; regret that he hasn’t learned how to fight bullies. Nor is there much in the way of intellectualizing or analysis. If Mr. Sedaris ever goes in for that kind of thing, maybe it comes in the omitted parts of the diary.

In so far as a collection of diary excerpts is a study of character, it can be a little disappointing, for a straight-laced reader who has long admired Mr. Sedaris’s writing to find that he was fuelled, in his early years, by so much booze and so many recreational drugs. He talks about these indulgences so glibly that it makes you wonder if this was supposed to be the normal way of life for a creative person. At one point, he notes that he was more or less drunk every night for eighteen years. Maybe it was that realization that eventually motivated him to quit both habits.

The character sketch of Mr. Sedaris that I find most endearing is the one where he takes his first stab at teaching a writing class in Chicago when he was still a struggling, unknown artist. You get the humour, the humility and the self-deprecation and the awareness of his own pretentiousness. He says that he actually begins to feel like a teacher when he realizes that he can open or close the classroom door for his own comfort: " Students can’t open and close the door whenever they feel like it." He tells us that he wears a tie because, as a student, he’d always felt better when the teacher dressed up. And he puts his students’ work in a briefcase because it makes them feel that their stories are valuable.

But, on the way home, he passes a woman on the street who, he says, looks like W.C. Fields wearing a red wig. She’s cursing at passing cars.

As I passed the woman in front of the L. Station, she said, "Oh, look at him. The little man. Thinks he’s a big fucking deal because he’s carrying an attach case." I crossed the street with my head down, shattered because she could see right through me.

One of the interesting things about the book is discovering the germs of ideas that eventually become well known pieces of writing. For instance, there’s the journal note on the "Stadium Pal" – the external catheter, attached to a bag that is strapped to a man’s leg so that he can urinate without having to leave the stands at a game. The humour in the diary entry is relatively mild, compared to the hilarious piece that evolved eventually. (I watched Mr. Sedaris read it on a tv talk show.) And there are the French lessons in Paris that became the basis for the delightful book Me Talk Pretty One Day.

And, of course, there are those amazing characters who comprise Mr. Sedaris’ family of origin. There’s his mother who can regale her son with a verbatim replay of an obscene phone call that she received. (A recent New Yorker piece about the mother’s drinking struck a more sombre note.) The dad tells the young son that he needs to find somewhere else to live, presumably because he’s gay. And when the son finds his own apartment, the dad arrives at the door, walks in without knocking, flops down on the bed and starts talking. The standout among the siblings is Amy (now a famous comedian in her own right) who has a knack for the outrageous. When a reporter for the New York Times phones her for input on an article about her brother, she says: "I’m not telling you shit about that son of a bitch until he pays for that abortion he made me have." There’s also the rambunctious brother, Paul, whose practical jokes would make him intolerable, except that he seems to have a heart of gold. In spite of his ups and downs with this gang, the lasting image of Mr. Sedaris’ relationship with his sibs is the time when, as young adults, they’re sitting on the bed that belongs to one of them, laughing uproariously long into the night after the parents have gone to bed.

Over and above the enjoyable content of the diaries, the most striking thing – for me – is the quality of the writing. Mr. Sedaris’ prose is as clear and unfussy as any writing can be. It’s entirely free of any literary artifice or posing. You get the impression that he’s relaying life exactly as it happens. He’s never trying to impress you with his literary prowess. Of course, this apparent lack of writerly effort must be the result of long and careful development of a style – it’s not easy to shed the stilted phrasing that comes from one’s expectations of how good writing should sound – but I suspect that it may have something to do with Mr. Sedaris’ natural voice. Maybe this pruned and honed writing style is, to a large extent, a consequence of Mr. Sedaris’s way of presenting himself to people. In other words, it may be an outgrowth of his conversational style. To use an expression that became popular in the 1960s, you could say that he "tells it just like it is." And that’s plenty interesting on its own.

Only once in the book could I detect anything that sounded a little bit like a writer trying to make a point. But the tactic is well deserved and it lands beautifully. At the end of the introduction, he finds himself wondering why he spent so much time writing his diaries:

In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.

 

The Boarder (Short Fiction) by Isaac Bashevis Singer; The New Yorker, May 7, 2018

Do we have to go rummaging through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s filing cabinets looking for unpublished material twenty-seven years after his death? Well, yes, if the search can turn up a piece like this one. What’s most remarkable about it – at just three pages in length – is that there’s no plot, no story, at least not in the obvious sense. And no conclusion, no resolution. Essentially, it’s a discussion between two men: one a devout Jew and the other a cynic (both have lost their wives and families). The devout man keeps insisting that God is good and the other man ridicules any such belief, given the persecution Jews have suffered. It’s as complete an examination of the subject as there could be. And yet, the piece is not simply a treatise. It’s saturated with character. The pious man has invited the other man to board with him and, horrified as he is by the boarder’s antagonism to religion, you can feel his exasperated attempts to show kindness to him. In a somewhat more subtle vein, you even feel the anguish of the disbeliever. It’s not often that such a short piece of writing conveys so much.

 

Deep Down Dark (Real Life Trauma) by Hctor Tobar, 2014

When I had read the New Yorker’s excerpt from this work (reviewed on the Dilettante’s Diary page dated Aug 8/14), I had to ask: what could be left for the author to tell in book-length form? Given that the article struck me as more decorous than expected, I wondered if the book would go into more of the gritty details of the conflict among the thirty-three men trapped in the Chilean mine for sixty-nine days. Would the author talk more about the drama among them?

He certainly does.

But first he gives a full description of the location – an arid desert near Copiap, Chile, where even Charles Darwin commented on the scarcity of avian life – and the condition of the San Jos mine. Its production, mostly of copper and gold, was borderline profitable, as a result of which, safety measures were less than ideal. Various technologies had been ordered – seismic monitors, for instance, and motion detectors – but they’d either be too expensive to buy or they’d break down and the mine’s management couldn’t afford to replace them. It wasn’t unusual for the miners to hear what they called the "thunder" of falling rock in the abandoned sections of the mine but, on the afternoon shift of August 5th, 2010, it seemed to many of the men that there was more of that ominous noise than usual. However, their supervisors didn’t think it warranted calling off work and sending the men home.

Describing the moment of the disaster as it was experienced from several vantage points, Mr. Tobar gives an excellent sense of the catastrophe that trapped the miners. Essentially, a huge portion of the moutain over the mine collapsed. The blast of air through the mine knocked men off their feet. One man said his body felt like it was being squeezed and then unsqueezed, as if he were inside the cylinder of a hand pump. Another said the pressure in his head felt as if his skull were a balloon being inflated.

What the men discovered was that the exit ramp from the mine was blocked by a wall of solid rock as tall as a forty-five storey building and estimated to weigh more than twice the weight of the Empire State Building. There was no way through it. Rescuers on the surface had to launch three different methods of trying to drill holes into the area where the trapped miners were waiting.

For the most part, they spent their time in a place known as The Refuge: a cavern about the size of a large classroom that was meant for such an emergency as this. However, it only contained enough food for a few days: bottles of water, cans of tuna and cookies. One of the first conflicts that flared up among the men occurred when some of them raided the food supply to satisfy their immediate hunger without heeding the opinions of those who advised that the food should be rationed more carefully.

It took seventeen days before the first drill bit crashed through to the Refuge. In that time, the men had got thinner and weaker. Some were on the point of starvation. They had been drinking dirty water that was meant for use in the machines and equipment. At times they thought they could hear the faint and distant sound of drilling. At times, they couldn’t. Was it just an hallucination? Given that their location, 2,000 feet into the ground, was that much closer to the earth’s thermal core, the heat was often near 100 degrees farenheit. One can only imagine the smell. They slept on bits of cardboard or anything they could find. The tremendous humidity caused fungus to grow on their skin.

One of the older miners, a member of an Evangelical sect, took to giving little sermons. Group prayer became a daily routine, as did hymn singing. There were even those scenes that you see in parodies of these situations: guys apologizing to each other for past offences, trying to make peace with their fellow man at the thought of meeting their Maker. The guy who’d led the raid on the food supply that first day confessed and received forgiveness. But it wasn’t always such a solemn atmosphere. When one guy was complaining that he thought he was dying, the guy next to him faked a death scene, just to pull the other guy out of his self-pity. Then the two of them indulged in a more elaborate and operatic enactment of a death scenario.

When the drill finally broke through, predictable elation greeted the arrival of phone lines, video cameras, food and other supplies. But – surprisingly – then came the worst of the ordeal: the miners were informed that it could take two or three more months to bore a hole wide enough to rescue them. And there was no guarantee that it could be done successfully. Then the bickering, the depression and the anger flared up in earnest. However, the mission was accomplished and the men were being hauled up to the surface, one by one, sixty-nine days after the collapse of the mine.

Mr. Tobar, a winner of the Pulitzer prize for journalism, creates a work that’s worthy of comparison to one of the great rescue books of all time: Alive, the account by Piers Paul Reid of the survivors of the crash in the Andes mountains in 1972. (In fact, Mr. Tobar refers to this book at one point.) The rather considerable technical detail about mining and about the rescue operation is handled adroitly. More importantly, from my point of view, the characters of the miners come through vividly. (I found myself thinking about them at other points of the day when I wasn’t reading: how would those guys react to this or that little crisis that was facing me? That’s surely a sign of good writing.

Mr. Tobar manages to give each of the men at least a cameo role in the telling of the story, but among the thirty-three men, ten or twelve of them emerged for me as distinctive characters. Among them were Mario Sevlpeda, whom the media came to know as "Super Mario" because of his ebullient leadership style; Yonni Barrios, whose wife and mistress were in contention about who would welcome him when he was brought to the surface (the mistress won); Edison Pea, who seemed mentally unstable; Carlos Mamani, an indigenous man from Bolivia who was first looked upon as a foreigner from a lower class but who was later accepted fully by the men; Alex Vega, the small, young man with movie star good looks; Luis Urza the quiet supervisor who tended to exert his authority in an under-stated way.

If there’s something that I found slightly less than pleasing about the writing, it would be an occasional leaning towards melodrama. It’s hard to say, though, whether that’s something added by the writer or whether it was inherent in the situation. Let’s face it, the culture these men belong to has a penchant for the spooky and the numinous. For instance, there was their awe over the fact that they numbered thirty-three. What’s the meaning of that? Why, Jesus Christ was thirty-three years old when he was crucified! When one of the miners notices a breeze deep in the mind, he’s told that it’s the soul of every man who has worked in the mine and "the spirit of God that protects them." Some of the worried relatives above ground were reporting paranormal experiences supposedly related to the miners’ plight. Regarding those details, Mr. Tobar may be simply reporting what he was told. However, I do note a few instances of his pumping things up a little beyond the facts. For example, this sentence about one man’s speech to the effect that they should keep their promise to deal with the publicity awaiting them according to agreements they have made:

Illanes loses his composure as he reaches the end of this speech, because he’s asking the men to believe in a promise expressed in words, a weighty and sacred idea that is also as fleeting and passing as the breath with which those words are spoken.

You might think the story would be over when the men were pulled from the mine. Not at all. Mr. Tobar provides several more gripping chapters about the aftermath. Inevitable problems with: family life, depression, drinking, media, celebrity, money, legalities, nightmares and psychotherapy. The men were subjected to an inhuman amount of attention. One of the wives commented that the worst thing that happened to the men was that they were hailed as heroes. Inevitably, it screwed up most of their lives, at least in the short term.

One miner who shows that it could be otherwise is Florencio Avalos. The youngest and healthiest of the group, he was the first one extracted from the mine because it was thought that his fit condition would make him best able to cope with any emergency that might arise in the thirty-minute process of being pulled to the surface in a custom-designed capsule. After three or four of the public events feting the miners, he’d had enough of it. He quietly returned to everyday life and an above-surface mining job. Mr. Tobar visits him at his home and watches Signor Avalos’ teenage son kiss his mom and dad before leaving for school. It’s an expression of familial affection that North Americans don’t often see, Mr. Tobar notes. Even though such a gesture is more common in South America, he says, "it’s taken on a deeper and richer meaning in the months and years since Florencio was resurrected from the mine."

 

Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times (Biography) by Sarah Bradford, 2012

Some people are fascinated with royalty. They’re intrigued by the idea of someone’s being important and special just by virtue of being born into a certain family. It seems like a charmed life: being hailed as the most significant human in your society merely because of your lineage. Royal watchers long to catch glimpses of what such a life is like in the private realm, the one that isn’t displayed on official occasions.

Other people think the very notion of royalty is nonsense. Why should anybody, they argue, be accorded such lavish respect and attention? It doesn’t fit with any coherent sense of human dignity. For such people, yet another royal biography is of no interest whatsover.

It’s for the first group of readers, then, that the library posts this biography on the "recommended" shelf. And those of us who are afflicted with the royal fascination take it up eagerly. There’s never enough written material to satisfy our craving for insight into those magical lives.

However, this book isn’t one of those gossipy ones that tries to capitalize on every bit of salacious rumour circulating around the royals. Nor is it one of the fawning biographies that describes its royal subjects in awe-struck terms. Author Sarah Bradford strikes an admirable balance between the two. She does deal with the unsavoury facts that have to be acknowledged. After all, you can’t hide them, now that the media no longer practise the loyal discretion that used to cloak royal privacy. But her emphasis is more on the role of the Queen in our society and culture and how that role has changed gradually.

In fact, Ms. Bradford treats the Queen with such respect and sympathy that, at times, I couldn’t help wondering if this is one of those authorized biographies that a royal personage allows without publicly admitting to doing so. The copious quotations from surprisingly intimate letters written by the royals also made me wonder if this book had special royal approval. It turns out, though, that these letters have been published. In any case, I don’t think the Queen would have endorsed this biography; there’s the odd thing in it that she probably would rather not see in print.

One of the aspects of the book that I find most interesting is Ms. Bradford’s description of the change in the monarchical role as the Empire gave way to the sense of the Commonwealth. Not everybody understood the change or appreciated it. But it seems that the Queen was personally one of the strongest advocates of the new arrangement. She did her darndest to put the concept across. That sense of the monarch working hard comes through strongly in other respects. It’s somewhat astonishing, in fact, to see how governments leaned on her to try to bring about desired political goals. Among many such instances, she was obliged to wine and dine Charles de Gaulle in the hopes that he would abandon his objection to Britain’s joining an early version of the Common Market. (In spite of his lapping up her majesty’s lavish hospitality, he would not relent.)

On some historical and constitutional points, the book makes statements contrary to what I’d long understood, but who am I to argue with an expert such as Ms. Bradford? I’d thought that Princess Margaret was warned that, if she married Peter Townsend, she would be cut off without a penny. Ms. Bradford says that’s not true. The only penalty would have been that Margaret and her heirs would no longer be in the line of succession to the throne. Ms. Bradford also dismisses the claim that Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, would not become queen if and when Prince Charles becomes king. This, says, Ms. Bradford is "clearly nonsense, as constitutionally the wife of a King is Queen Consort."

It puzzles me somewhat when Ms. Bradford says that, although the Queen is fascinated by politics and well-informed on matters of State, she is "politically, the first passive sovereign." Does this mean that her immediate predecessors meddled in politics? I hadn’t thought so. Ms. Bradford also says that the Queen has been criticized for "giving up her constitutional prerogative of appointing her Prime Minister in favour of the easier alternative of one name being suggested to her..." Hasn’t that been the standard procedure since long before her reign?

Now and then, Ms. Bradford’s prose reflects the fact that she is an historian, not a creative writer. Her writing style tends to cram too much information into one sentence. For example, this sentence about Sir Anthony Blunt, the art expert who was discovered to be a Soviet spy:

He had been sent by the King early in 1945 as an assistant to Owen Morshead, the Royal Librarian, on a mission to retrieve the Kronberg Papers, correspondence between Queen Victoria and her daughter, the Empress Frederick of Germany, at the Friedrichshof, recently captured by General George Patton’s Third Army in April 1945.

Also:

Just as the wedding of the Prince of Wales’s parents in 1947 had been greeted by Winston Churchill in austerity times as a ‘flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel’, so the wedding of Charles and Diana in July 1981 lit up the economic gloom after the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan had collapsed following the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’, when a series of public sector strikes had left dustbins unemptied, accompanied in the press by graphic photographs of rats feeding on rubbish and bodies unburied in mortuaries.

Further on Ms. Bradford’s writing, there’s a problem with syntax in this statement about the funeral of Queen Mary:

Erect and dignified, always seen in her old-fashioned long frocks, toque hats and strings of pearls, most of the people lining the streets as her coffin passed could not remember a time when she had not been an essential part of the royal scene.

Ms. Bradford does not ever fall into the sycophantic attitude that many writers take towards royalty, even though the word ‘adulation’ does creep in rather often with regard to the public’s response to the monarchy. I did find the author’s emphasis on the tremendous reverence towards the Queen’s father, as expressed on his death in 1952, somewhat exaggerated. But what do I know? Maybe the Brits really did love him as much as she claims. A Canadian who was a kid in grade two when the event happened is hardly in a position to say whether or not Ms. Bradford’s take on the situation is true to the facts.

Ms. Bradford shows how it was a difficult balancing act for the royal family to maintain its dignity when the press dropped its traditional reverence and began to subject them to ridicule and criticism. The change was notable around 1963 when the BBC program That Was the Week That Was began satirizing royal life. As we all know, media animosity reached fever pitch with the scandals that erupted in the married lives of the Queen’s children.

The constant theme through it all is the Queen’s unruffled composure. We’re reminded that the Queen, like her father, appreciated that the royal mystique had to be preserved. As one courtier had told him: "We must not let in the daylight upon magic." The book doesn’t pretend, then, that it’s offering an unprecedented breach of the royals’ privacy. We do, however, get some insights into the Queen’s character. Surprisingly, though, there’s no mention of horses until about half way through; the corgis come much later. How can you understand this woman without appreciating how largely these animals figure in her affections? Ms. Bradford does say, at one point, that the Queen has a calmness and reserve like that of her grandmother, Queen Mary "whose slightly canine looks and quiet dignity she had inherited." Canine? It’s not loyalty to the crown that makes me question that description!

We get a glimpse of the Queen’s sly wisdom in a reported conversation between her and Jackie Kennedy. While Jackie had been complaining about being constantantly on public view during a visit to Canada, the Queen took on a conspiratorial air and said: "One gets crafty after a while and learns how to save oneself." A sample of the Queen’s sense of humour surfaces in her attitude to the fact that Cherie Blair, the wife of PM Tony Blair, refused to curtsey to her. "I can almost feel Mrs. Blair’s knees stiffening when I come in," the Queen is reported to have said. Ms. Bradford states, uncategorically that, the Queen is not intellectually curious, whereas Prince Philip is. (It came as a surprise to me that Prince Philip is a talented watercolourist, but apparently this information has been out there for some time.)

One of the most admiring and authentic-sounding tributes to the Queen came from John Grigg, who had been Lord Altrincham until he gave up the title: "She looks a queen and obviously believes in her right to be one. Her bearing is simple and majestic – no actress could possible match it." Mr. Grigg cited her "exceptionally steady character" as her most important quality. "She has lived up to her own high standards," he said. "She behaves decently because she is decent."

The picture of the Queen that stays longest with me is the one given by David Owen, who was Foreign Secretary at one time. When the last guest departs after a party on Britannia, the royal yacht, he says

"...the Queen kicks off her shoes and tucks her feet under her skirt on the sofa and talks about the people who’ve been there that evening in a vivacious way – the face lights up and she becomes really attractive – so you realize how much is kept under control. She gets confidentiality from people because they are treated in such a welcoming and considerate way."

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com