Viral echoes from history

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Bella with her daughter, Susan

So surreal is the current Corona virus pandemic that I’ve found it almost impossible to write about it, even privately.  Even if I could formulate some thoughts on it, I doubt that there’s anything new I could say.  Being in quarantine seems to enhance the feeling of emotional distance from the experience. A privileged position to be in, I realise.

It’s a strange paradox. Ten years ago, however,  without having any first-hand experience of it, I was writing about a time of plague.

The eponymous heroine of my 2013 novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press),  the sister of the playwright Sean O’Casey,  had the ill-luck of becoming an early Irish victim of the Spanish ‘flu, over a hundred years ago.

The ‘flu epidemic swept through Europe and the US at the end of the First World War, and at its lowest estimate, claimed 21 million victims world-wide, a figure far higher than the war’s death-toll. (By comparison, the COVID-19 virus has, at time of writing, claimed 25,410 lives with over 565,000 cases registered world-wide.)

The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year.  It was known as the Spanish ‘flu because it was only in neutral Spain that newspapers were free to publish accounts of the spread of the disease. (Compare with Donald Trump’s odious “Chinese Virus” name-calling.)

However, it is now understood that the 1918 epidemic may have originated as early as 1916 in a British infantry depot in Etaples, 20 miles south of Boulogne. All newly-arrived British troops were sent for training at the northern French camp so that at any given time over 100,000 men were in residence.  Most lived in tents or temporary wooden barracks and conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary – a recipe for the spread of the respiratory virus.

In December 1916, dozens of soldiers at the camp began complaining of aches and pains, coughs and shortness of breath. As many as 40 % of these first victims died of what was described as “purulent  bronchitis”. It was a horrible death, where patients literally drowned in their own blood, their faces turning a peculiar lavender colour – indicating cyanosis (where the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the blood)  – a tell-tale trademark of the killer ‘flu.

Other early outbreaks are placed in the US (Camp Funston, Kansas) and, ironically,  in China, both in 1917.

In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “When the 1914 War ceased, pneumonia swept through the country – every country ─ and took families away. . . The Black Flu came in 1918.  I was still a child.  It was a horrible old thing.  Well, my mother had the Black Flu and we only got her back from Heaven. Praying. And I remember sitting at her bedside and she was very, very sick. . . Oh, a dispensary doctor came up, but he had hundreds,” May Hanaphy told the author Kevin Kearns in Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums.

Bella Casey was not so lucky.  Her health was already compromised.  She had an underlying condition.

She had developed erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Known alternatively as “holy fire” or St Anthony’s Fire, the condition can cause high fever, shaking, chills, fevers, headaches and vomiting. The skin lesions enlarge rapidly and are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it has the consistency of orange peel. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but these were not available until 1928.

In Bella’s case, the skin rash may have been caused by an allergy to cleaning products of the time.  Although an educated woman, she spent the latter days of her life in poverty working as a charwoman. In The Early Life of Sean O’Casey, Martin Marguiles notes that “incongruously she always wore a pair of spotless white gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s husband’s name.)

“She suffered from headaches which became progressively more frequent and severe, until she had to stop scrubbing floors.  The headaches ─ symptoms of erysipelas – became so painful that she took to wearing a shawl, which made her white gloves appear more incongruous still.”

Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had died in his early forties suffering from GPI, general paralysis of the insane, an accompanying condition of tertiary syphilis.

In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey in 1918.  Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52.

And now for the fiction from those facts.

Babsie, coming in at noon, found her mother still abed.  That in itself was strange for her mother was an early riser, but since Christmas she’d been poorly, laid low with a purulence of the lungs and a wild fever that had made her overheated one minute and perished the next. Babsie had put her husband’s dinner on – oh how she loved to say that, her husband; Babsie was a new bride – and leaving the door on Clarence Street on the latch she’d run around the corner to check on her mother.  She was relieved to find a peaceful scene and not the wracking sounds of coughing that had been going on for days. There was some kind of infection going round.  Some people blamed the soldiers for it; others said it was a kind of swine fever.  But that couldn’t be what Mam had, Babsie thought, for when would her mother have been mixing with either of those? She had urged her mother to call in the doctor but Mam had set her face against it.

“It’s just my old trouble,” she’d said to Babsie. “It goes quiet, you see, for a long time and then. . . it emerges again.”

The erysipelas was her mother’s old trouble.  Soon after she’d taken up charring, her mother’s skin had broken out in a rash. She’d had to wear gloves up to the elbow to hide her contagion.  A dress pair with a pearl detail for these were the only gloves her mother owned. But the rash had spread anyway.  It found its way to her face and washed up in a high tide close to her hairline.  She had to wrap a turban of fabric round her head when going out to keep the condition a secret.

“People will think it a want of hygiene,” her mother had said.  “But it’s a surfeit of cleanliness I’m suffering from, up to my oxters in suds all day.”

If you passed her on the street, you’d have given her a penny, Babsie thought, or be calling the clutchers what with the strange headgear and the dress gloves. The neighbours mistook it for another of her mother’s eccentric affectations.  My, my, the airs and graces, they would say, look at the Protestant wan, all tricked up as if going to a ball, and only off to do her charring.

Babsie’s brother John was sitting at the scored table reading a book.  Just like Uncle Jack he was, always stuck in a book. She poured tea from the cooling pot.  The milk when she added it curdled.

“How’s she been?” she asked him.

He shrugged, barely lifting his head from the pages.

“You’ve let the fire go out,” she said.  She tried to raise a flame from the embers in the grate.  The poker made a grinding sound as she hit the firebricks.

“Shh,” John said, “you’ll only wake her.”

“I wouldn’t have to do it at all, if you kept the place warm for her.  Is it too much to ask?”

Babsie was peppering for a fight so sick with worry was she about her mother.  But she seemed to be the only one.  She wanted only to be immersed in the newly-minted world of her marriage.  Everything about this house, like every other house they’d lived in, spoke of struggle.

“Has she eaten anything?” Babsie persisted.

John shook his head.  “She hasn’t moved since I got up.”

Only then did Babsie get up to investigate.  She tiptoed into the back room and over to the bed.  Drawing back the covers she placed a hand on her mother’s forehead.  She shook her gently by the shoulder.

“Mam,” she said gently, “wake up.”

She shook again, this time more roughly.

“Mam,” she repeated, panicked.

A tiny smart of irritation came over Babsie; she was forever trying to shake Mam  into action. She reached for her mother’s scabbed wrist – peeled back one of the gloves; yes, she even wore them in bed for fear of scratching herself unbeknownst in her sleep –  but Babsie knew even before she tried for a pulse.

“John,” she said evenly, “go and get Reverend Brabazon.”

“Ah Babs, I’m in the middle of me book,” he wailed.

Books, she thought, bloody books.

“Go,” she ordered, “this very minute.”

 

When he was gone, Babsie drew the curtains and stopped the clock.  She put the kettle to boil, for whom she did not know.  It was just something to do so she would not have to approach the bed again and look on her mother’s closed-in face.  She could not take it in; that the end would come like this, so quietly, as if her mother had just suddenly upped and surrendered.   Typical, Babsie thought, and inexplicably she felt her ire rising again.  It was something she had never understood. It wasn’t that her mother had lacked spirit – hadn’t she raised up five of them as a widow? – but her striving seemed always directed at appearances, the look of things as opposed to how they were. Well, Babsie thought, looking around, something would have to be done here. The scene looked peaceful, though hardly dignified.  Her mother’s face had a par-boiled look where previous bouts of the erysipelas had left angry blotches. The gloves and the makeshift turban seemed foolish and pathetic, and Babsie set to, unwinding the scarf from her mother’s head and peeling off the gloves, so that when the clergyman saw her, she would not look like something out of a harlequinade.

She unwound her mother’s hair from the matted mound the scarf had made of it.  Babsie lifted her head then while she combed the tangles out of it.  When she laid her mother’s head back on the pillow, her hair settled like a tortoiseshell fan.  Babsie laid her mottled arms by her side.  Then she straightened the bed.  Something tinny fell off as she turned down the counterpane. She had to go down on all fours to retrieve it.   It was her mother’s little birdcage. It was a useless little thing, she thought, not even brass but brightly painted metal made up to look like silver.  No pawn shop in town would look twice at it and so it had survived, a priceless treasure.  She weighed it in her hand and then lifted her mother’s and folded the stiffening fingers around it in a fist.  Tears came then, but nothing operatic – that was not in Babsie’s nature.  She wiped her eyes and steeled herself.   She went into the other room to fetch the two-pair  candlesticks.  There was a large dent in the stem of one, from what Babsie couldn’t recall. A domestic skirmish with her father, no doubt.  One of the many.  She lit them with a taper from the reawakened fire and set one down on each side of the bed. She bent and kissed her mother on the brow.   Then Babsie passed her fingers in swift benediction over her mother’s eyelids and closed them, her lips moving to some silent prayer.

 

 

 

Una Watters’ name in lights

 

GPO original

This is the face of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918-1965).

Who, you might ask?

It’s a face you may well see if you’re passing the GPO this weekend in the hours of darkness.  It will be illuminated across the facade of the post office as part of the Herstory Illuminations Festival 2020 to mark St Brigid’s Day.

Her image – created for projection by NCAD art student Rebecca Sodegrad –  is there thanks to an  RTÉ Junior initiative, Who’s Your Heroine, in which schoolchildren across Ireland were invited to discover lost women’s stories.

The response was so overwhelming that in addition to commissioning a series of six original animations, RTE partnered with NCAD to create additional illustrations showcasing some of the many incredible women nominated by the children.

Alexa Bauer (10)  of Dublin 7 Educate Together school, nominated Una Watters for the project and wrote an accompanying essay explaining her choice.

My great aunty Rosie (still alive) and my great-grandmother Molly were both good friends with . . . Una. In our living room, we have a painting by her called “The Ladies Committee” and my great-grandmother is apparently in it, as well as a catalogue of all her [Una’s] paintings. . .

Una Watters should be one of Ireland’s most famous painters, but has sadly faded away.

The Ladies Committee - Laura Carrigan
The Ladies Committee – image courtesy of Laura Carrigan

So why has Una Watters been forgotten?

Partly because she died suddenly, aged 47, when she was at the height of her artistic powers.

After training at the National College of Art under the guidance of Maurice McGonigal, Una had become a versatile and prolific artist.  She worked in oils and watercolours, painted portraits and landscapes, and in her latter career developed an angular, almost cubist style.  Saturated with colour, her work is social, witty and observant. She sketched, was involved in magazine and book illustration, was an expert calligrapher and had a flair for design. (She won an Irish Arts Council commission to design a symbol to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.)

She was a member of the influential Society of Dublin Painters which featured a strong female membership, among them May Guinness, Grace Henry, Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellet and Evie Hone, with whom she also showed.

One of her paintings, The Four Masters (1959), still hangs in the small suburban branch library in Phibsboro where she worked as a librarian. Another, The People’s Gardens (1963), is in the collection of the Dublin City Gallery (Hugh Lane).

Yet Una’s reputation has remained in the shadows.

The reason is, perhaps, related to her premature death. In 1966, a year after her untimely death, Una’s grieving husband, Eugene Watters, the Irish language novelist and poet, organized a memorial exhibition of 37 of her oil paintings, after which, heartbroken by her loss, he distributed her work widely among friends and family. This has meant that although she is loved and admired by those who are lucky enough to own an original Watters, her work has not reached a wider public.

For the past two years,  I have been trying to change that. With the help of Una’s family and friends, we have managed to track down 23 of the 37 works in her posthumous 1966 show,  and are on the lookout for more with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition.

Slowly but surely, we hope to bring Una’s name into the light. Alexa Bauer has lit the first fuse. See Herstory 2020 for Alexa’s full essay: https://www.rte.ie/culture/herstory/2020/0128/1111507-herstory-illuminated-una-watters/

 

 

Driven potty by tourism

lello 3When is a bookshop not a bookshop?

On a recent visit to Porto – luckily, a winter visit; you’ll see why later – we made our way to Livraria Lello, ranked as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. And so it is.  Built in 1906, the shop presents an exquisite art deco, Moorish style exterior and an arabesque interior of mock-gothic shelving, a ceiling with high-church stained glass panels and a Gaudi-esque staircase curling its way up through the store’s three floors like the demented manifestation of a Dali nightmare.

Not only was the shop beautiful, it was thronged.

What’s not to like when a bookshop attracts hordes of customers? Particularly when many of them were making a pilgrimage to honour an author? As a native of Dublin, this is a concept I’m familiar with;  after all, Joyce’s imagined characters from Ulysses, and the places they inhabit, get a special day of celebration devoted to them every year on June 16 for Bloomsday.

So what’s the problem? Tourism is what.

Livraria Lello started charging its customer a fee to enter (set against book purchases) in 2015 when it was swamped by so many visitors the shop couldn’t function as a business any longer.  The business of selling books, that is. Now when you arrive on Rua des Carmencitas, you’re steered to a shopfront two doors away to buy a ticket. Then you queue on the street outside to gain entry.  Since it was December, there were only about five people ahead of us so we got in without a wait.  But in summer, the queue stretches for several blocks and people wait for hours on end.

lello outside

Nevertheless, despite the short queue, the long, high, narrow premises seemed very crowded indeed. There were clusters of stationary people stuck behind displays and frozen in the narrow alleyways arms aloft taking photos with their phones.  That staircase, in particular, was jammed with people taking selfies.  On the display tables in the middle of the shop-floor, there were beautiful gift editions of English language classics for sale, Dickens, Flaubert, Wilde (Livraria Lello is also a book publisher with a long tradition) but no one was looking at them. Likewise the shelves were packed with fabulous books on the arts, the sciences, along with celebrated Portuguese authors like Pessoia and Saramago, three floors high.  But the crowds were not here for any of those either; they were here because of Harry Potter.

The Livraria Lello bookshop is supposedly the inspiration for the Flourish and Blotts bookshop for wizards in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling spent two years in Porto in the early nineties as an English language teacher and she wrote much of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while in the city.

Look, I’ve nothing against Harry Potter or the deserved success of J.K. Rowling. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read Harry Potter nor seen any of the films.)  Far from it, I see that Rowling managed to enthuse thousands of  reluctant child readers to tackle the long narrative, in the same way Enid Blyton did for child readers of my generation.  In fact, I’ve often thought that the Potter books are like Blyton’s boarding school series, just with wizards.

I understand completely why the Lello has monetized its premises.  It was, apparently, a failing bookshop, which it isn’t anymore. It’s a thriving example of cultural tourism, the same kind of tourism that fuels Bloomsday. But being a crushed sardine in a beautiful cathedral devoted to literature, to be unable to access, let alone browse through the books, because of the ever-pressing, onward urgent movement of the transitory visitors intent on the next photo op, was utterly dispiriting.

This was no longer a bookshop experience; this was closer to a bad airport trip.

The Potter brigade was not interested in the literary history, the architectural flourishes or the function of the shop. They were moved by the merchandising of a tiny, atomized sliver of J K Rowling’s fictional imagination. (I wondered how many of the Potter fans in the Lello shop that day had ever read the books, but just seen the films.)

“Livraria Lello is still a meeting place for thinkers, artists and writers,” the promotional pamphlet for the bookshop that we got with our E5 entry fee, declared, but it was hard to imagine it that rainy December Thursday.

Instead, the shop represented a depressing microcosm of viral tourism, in which volume distorts the very experience it seeks to promote.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing up the bodies

nora b

T’is the season for exhumations. First it was Franco, now it’s Joyce.

Dublin city councillors agreed last week to approach the Government with a view to repatriating the remains of  James Joyce, buried with his wife Nora Barnacle in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich. Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who proposed the motion, said it would be “honouring someone’s last wishes” – a delightfully vague locution. Does he mean Joyce?  Does he know something we don’t?

However, unwittingly, Cllr Lacey is right.  Seventy years ago, it was Nora Barnacle’s hope that Joyce’s remains be returned to Ireland. It was a matter of honour for her, perhaps tinged by a touch of funeral envy.

In 1948, still living in Zurich because she wanted to be close to her husband’s grave, Nora observed the official pomp and ceremony with which the body of the poet W. B. Yeats was repatriated to Ireland from the south of France where he’d died in 1939. (Yeats had long expressed a wish to be buried in Drumcliff  churchyard in Sligo.)

“The coffin was taken from France to Galway bay by a ship of the Irish navy; there the widow, her children and the poet’s brother were piped aboard.  Then a funeral procession escorted them from Galway to Sligo where Yeats was buried with a military guard of honour and representation from the Irish government,” writes Brenda Maddox in her biography of Nora. “Why not the same for Joyce?”

The answer at the time, of course, was that Yeats was in much higher standing in Ireland than Joyce was; he had served as a Free State senator, a “smiling, public man”, whereas Joyce remained in the Irish imagination of the time as “shocking, blasphemous and arrogant”, as Maddox puts it, whose books if not outrightly banned were seized at the borders.

However, unofficial approaches were made. Joyce’s American patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver asked Count Gerald O’Kelly, a former diplomat and art critic and Georgian afficionado, Constantine Curran, a boyhood friend of Joyce’s, to inquire if the Irish Government or the Royal Irish Academy would consider requesting the return of the body.

Miss Weaver believed that if Joyce’s remains were repatriated, then Nora and Joyce’s son, Giorgio, might consider returning themselves.  (Nora had told American interviewer, Sandy Campbell, that she’d like to have a “cottage in Ireland, but the Irish don’t like Joyce so there you are”.)

Maria Jolas, another lifelong campaigner for the Joyces, added her support saying that Joyce ‘s body should be be brought back because his widow wished it and because he was a towering figure of Irish literature.  With a view to her audience, she also declared that Joyce remained a good Catholic.

But this view was not shared in Dublin.  Count O’Kelly’s back-channel inquiries revealed there was little support for Joyce’s repatriation.  Ireland had apparently not forgiven him for his scandalous work and the plan came to nothing.

Unlike the 1948 campaign, the present move by Dublin city councillers seems motivated more by gain than honour.  The James Joyce “industry” has long been a tourist goldmine for the city.

The Bloomsday celebrations – memorialising June 16, 1904, the day Joyce had his first date with Nora, and the date he chose to set his novel Ulysses on – is a fixture on the tourist calendar, although it started as a spontaneous tribute to the writer by a small group of literati in Dublin.

Comic writer Brian O’Nolan (otherwise known as Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen), poet Paddy Kavanagh, writer Anthony Cronin, registrar of Trinity College, A J Leventhal, publican John Ryan and dentist Tom Joyce, a cousin of Joyce’s, made the first Bloomsday pilgrimage on June 16, 1954.

The shambolic expedition, complete with two horse-drawn cabs – echoing the one taken by Bloom and his friends to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses – was cut short before all the sites in the novel could be visited, due to the amount of alcohol that was consumed and the fractious mood of the participants. (Fisticuffs threatened between O’Nolan and Kavanagh)

Since then, Bloomsday  – still observed and enjoyed by Joyce’s literary admirers – has been all but hijacked for its tourist potential by the Dublin authorities.  It’s those same authorities who’ve been leading the charge to dig up Joyce from his burial place in Zurich and bring him home.

The Swiss authorities are thinking the same way. Director of the Joyce Foundation in Zurich, Fritz Senn said there would be “resistance” in Switzerland as Joyce’s  grave has become a major tourist attraction there. After all, Senn pointed out, Joyce never accepted Irish citizenship and the Irish Government of the time neglected to send an envoy to his funeral.

The Swiss provided much-needed sanctuary for the Joyces at the the outbreak of World War 2 and Nora continued to live there till her death in 1951.

Both cities clearly have their eye on the next big Joyce anniversary which comes in 2022, marking 100 years since the publication of Ulysses. 

In the meantime, is it a case of bring up your bodies? If so, who’s next – Samuel Beckett?  Look out, Montparnasse!

 

 

Disputing light and shade

sorolla sad inheritance 1899

Why would anyone today want to spend time and money visiting a retrospective of such an oddity, asked Jonathan Jones in The Guardian earlier this year, decrying “Sorolla: Spanish Painter of Light”, an exhibition which has now travelled to the National Gallery Dublin.

Well, me for one, Jonathan!

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863 – 1923) was in his time a prodigious and prosperous painter whose work was literally drenched in light, as the subtitle of the show suggests.  Luminosity was his by-word, the effects of sun-dazzle on water, the lilac hues of evening on land, and its warm glow playing on skin and fabric. None of which is evident in the painting above, entitled Sad  Inheritance, painted in 1899, a prize-winner at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, where it caused a sensation.

The “sad inheritance” of the title refers to the disabled children featured who are the victims of hereditary syphilis.  It’s a far cry from Sorolla’s usual impressionist landscape of sun-drenched beaches, parasols and picnics.  In this very large canvas (three metres  wide)  a black-robed priest tends to a crowd of naked boys, deathly pallid, blind and physically disabled, as they plunge into the sea for a therapeutic swim.

For 21st century eyes, it’s impossible to look at this image with any degree of innocence.  Everything about it screams abuse. It seems abusive even to look at it, something makes us want to look away – the nakedness and vulnerability of the children, the menacing presence of the grim-faced priest, the way his hand manacles the arm of the struggling boy on crutches.  The ghosts of Magdalene laundries and industrial schools and orphanages intrude and can’t be ignored.

But it raises the perils of retrospective criticism, dismissing a piece of art because the artist was ignorant of its associations for the generations who come after him. As John Berger asked in his seminal work, The Art of Seeing: “To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong?”

Unusually, Sorolla painted this piece in the studio although most of his sea and beach scenes were done en plein air in his home town of Valencia, and later in San Sebastien, and Biarritz.

Although this painting built his international reputation, Sorolla abandoned an overt social realist strain in his work after 1900. But it didn’t disappear; instead, it was backgrounded.  When he depicted the luxuriant, fun-filled world of the Mediterranean seaside, children frolicking in the waves, boys running naked on the shore, white-clad and bonnetted women paddling with toddlers in the shallows, it was often accompanied by the working world of the beach.  Hawkers, fishermen, the drivers of oxen who pulled the fishing boats into shore populate the margins of these idyllic scenes.

The world of work and play sit side by side; we may be, as Sorolla was, intoxicated by the nostalgic light he steeps both his subjects and us in. This glow is pure emotion, imbuing his beach scenes with the sun-blown, sand-dusted, unfettered memories of childhood.  But he never lets us forget the reverse side of this world, propped up by a working class who are darkly omnipresent. (In another painting of this period, Raisin Pickers (1901), Sorolla shows a group of women bent over their work in a gloomy interior, lit only by a wedge of forked light that slices the canvas in two, hinting at the bright, sunlit freedom of outside.)

sewing - sorollaIt is true Sorolla’s primary interest was painterly rather than social. Hardly a hanging offence for a visual artist. “Sorolla understood light not as an object but as spectacle, like energy that, in certain circumstances, converts nature and figures into overwhelming instances of vitality,”  writes Jose Maria Faerna Garcia-Bermejo in Sorolla: Modern Masters (Poligrafa).

But Jonathan Jones of The Guardian doesn’t agree. “Today Sorolla is doubly archaic.  Not only do his paintings capture the claustrophobia of traditional Spain before surrealism, anarchism and civil war shook its pieties, but his flamboyant academic style, touched by French innovations in painting yet wedded to much older ideals of figurative art, is blatantly pre-modern.”

Which is like blaming the painter for being born too soon.

Sorolla may well have been a conservative genre painter and may not have matched the sweep and riskiness of the Impressionists, but his treatment of light is both revolutionary and transformative, a gift that can only be appreciated by seeing his luminescent work in  – and on – the flesh.  All of the images here can be seen at the National Gallery where the show continues till November 3.

el pescador - Sorolla

 

 

The surreality show

diane lockhart

Almost everyone I know is either watching, or denying they watch Love Island.  I belong to the deniers because I’ve been following instead what I think is the most interesting reality (or should that be surreality?) show around at the moment – the American legal drama, The Good Fight.  

Just finished its third season, The Good Fight is a spin-off from a successful parent show,  a notoriously risky venture in the world of TV.  (Remember Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc which followed the actor character from the mega-successful Friends to a new life in LA.  No? I rest my case.)

The Good Fight sprang from The Good Wife,  a long-running, traditional legal procedural,  a celebrity vehicle for Julianna Marguilies (Nurse Carol Hathaway in ER), who played Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother forced to return to the workplace when her Chicago state’s attorney husband Peter (Chris Noth) is jailed over a sex and corruption scandal. 

Christine Baranski was a stalwart in that series.  She played seasoned lawyer Diane Lockhart, a partner in the firm Alicia Florrick joins as a 40-something legal newbie.  But it was essentially a sidekick role, despite the oomph Baranski brought to it.

The Good Wife was solid, dependable drama. Plenty of courtroom action, a rather cloying unrequited love sub-plot, a smattering of dirty politics, and lots of legal horse-trading. So far, so predictable. It ran for seven seasons before dying of exhaustion and the news that there was going to be a spin-off was greeted with some trepidation. Especially by Marguilies’ fans.

That it would be built around the character of Diane Lockhart was encouraging. This was a bold move. Not that Baranski doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a series – she’s an Emmy and Tony-awarded performer (she sings and dances, as well as acts – starring in both Mamma Mias, for example). No, the risk was founding an entire series on a female character in her late 60s.  (Baranski is 67).

Furthermore, Diane Lockhart is a conservative feminist, in a strangely loose marriage with a right-wing Republican (played by Gary Cole) who does not share her political views, and she works at a predominantly African-American law firm where her white privilege is constantly being challenged.

But in its three seasons The Good Fight has grown away from its middle-brow TV roots, and morphed into something else entirely.  I’m not even sure what genre it is now. Quasi-fictional?  Auto-fictional?  Semi-documentary?

The Good Fight has inherited its predecessor’s template of riffing on the headlines for its storylines, featuring #MeToo type sexual predation charges, a Bernie Madoff-style  financial scam and Internet privacy challenges among its cases, along with a good dose of office politics. But that’s where the similarity ends.  The clue’s in the title.  Fighting the good fight is about trying very hard to do the right thing in trying circumstances.

That’s Diane Lockhart’s goal.  And the trying circumstances?  Being a good citizen in the middle of a Trump presidency. Trump is constantly name-checked in this series.  Barely a scene goes by where he’s not present, if only by implication.  One episode suggests First Lady Melania Trump has approached the firm via a proxy looking for a divorce. Another concerns possession of an incriminating video involving Russian prostitutes and urination. Often the president’s name doesn’t even have to be invoked for the viewer to get the drift.

The creators have all but jettisoned the romantic entanglements of their key characters  – is this a reflection on the late middle age of the show’s heroine? – and scaled down much of the courtroom action.  Instead they show us Diane and her colleagues battling the contradictions of living in the Trump era as committed liberals and/or Democrats (these are Chicago lawyers, after all.)

So, for example, in the third season, Diane’s frustration with Trump sees her joining a radical women’s resistance group which sets out, by fair means or foul, to undermine POTUS electoral dominance by filing false SWAT call-outs (one of which gets a White House aide killed) hacking electronic voting machines and engaging in the black arts of false news.

“The difficulty doesn’t come from weaving real life politics in, it comes from not weaving it in,” series creator Michelle King told Variety magazine last month. “Every day the writers’ room gets together and talks about what they’ve been reading and seeing in the news the day before and frankly what they find the most shocking and can’t turn their eyes away from. Given that it’s a group obsession, it’s a very natural flow from that to the show.”

As a result, The Good Fight has dropped all pretence of being a fiction. So closely does it stick to its political inspiration that the viewer is constantly playing who’s who with the cast.  Is Diane’s on-again/off-again marriage with right-wing ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh (now working for the Trump administration) based on White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s relationship with her husband, George T Conway? ( Mr Conway is a distinguished lawyer who was once in the running to be US solicitor general, but is now an outspoken critic of the Trump administration which he has likened to “a shitshow in a dumpster fire”.)  Swap the gender roles and the similarities with Kurt and Diane are inescapable.

Another innovation the show has adopted is the insertion of animated musical shorts into the narrative to underline episode themes.  There have been skits on non-disclosure agreements, Russian troll farms and Chinese media censorship (more of this later).

These memes function as visual thought bubbles. The action and the characters are paused mid-scene while the viewers are given a short dose of agit-prop.  Trouble is, they are often not as witty as the satirical live action scripts. That said, it is refreshing to see a middle-aged, middle-brow TV drama dropping the fourth wall, stretching the visual vernacular and being really playful with form.

Ironically, the shorts have turned out to be more than mere technical gimmickry. One of them recently became a news story itself. Entitled “Banned in China”, the segment  was due to be inserted into an episode about the human cost of Chinese government censors until CBS pulled the plug.  Where the meme should have run, a placard appeared reading ‘CBS Has Censored This Content’. Initially, viewers thought this was part of an in-show  joke until the New Yorker broke the story. 

Responding, show runners, Robert and Michelle King threatened to pull out of the series, then insisted that the placard would have to air for the full 90 seconds that the segment would have taken. In the end they compromised on eight and half seconds.

It’s just one more example of the blurred lines between fact and fiction that the show has engendered. The closer its storylines get to “reality”, the more, it seems, reality bites.

In fact, the “reality” component of The Good Fight is so persuasive that it’s the fictional conceits that seem outlandish. British actor Michael Sheen has been chewing the scenery of late as fantasist attorney Roland Blum who cites Roy Cohn, political fixer and Trump influencer as a role model.  Maverick oddball Blum creates havoc in the plush, politically correct environs of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart.  But the drama seemed over-egged and Sheen too over-the-top. In its willed eccentricity, his performance seemed to belong to another show altogether – the ridiculous antics of Ally McBeal, the 90s manifestation of the TV legal drama.

It’s as if the producers were trying to distract us from the “reality” The Good Fight is desperately trying to immerse us in  – with some really camp fiction.

Or maybe it’s all of a piece and I just can’t tell the difference anymore?

Or maybe that’s the whole the point?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where are my companions?

20 Cappagh Road 1960

It’s clearly an Irish scene, a Dublin scene, but a “disappeared” Dublin.

“Cappagh Road” is by the Dublin painter Una Watters (1918 – 1965)  and depicts one of the new corporation estates in Finglas in 1960, where she lived and worked.  It appears on the cover of a new memoir, Down by the Liffeyside (Somerville Press) by Colbert Kearney (who knew Una personally) and is the perfect embodiment of the world Colbert describes in his book – the migration experience of thousands of  inner-city dwellers to the outer suburbs in the 1950s, at a time when the government of the day was at least willing to tackle Dublin’s accommodation crisis head-on.

Una’s Finglas is a microcosm of  the “new” suburb in its brave infancy, when much of life was still lived out on the street, rather than behind closed doors. Look at the two burly women on the right in their heavy coats, gossiping, as one pushes a go-car (what we used to call buggies in the 1950s) in which a toddler sleeps, skewed to one side.  We know they’re gossiping from their physical gestures. The blue-scarved woman is saying something to her companion, but the tilt of her head tells us that it’s a secret or a sly aside that’s being shared. On the left of the scene, another young mother – or an older sister, perhaps? – cradles a bottle of milk while trying to restrain a child in a blue bonnet who’s on the brink of a tantrum.  You can see the “I want” refrain in the operatic yawn of the child’s mouth.

A boy in short trousers grabs another by the sleeve as they chase after a ball in the middle of the street.  Is he trying to hold his companion back, or pass him out? Three more take up the rear in hot pursuit of the runaway ball.  In the mid-ground of the painting, another boy is stepping off the kerb heedlessly and about to collide with a hatted man on a bicycle who is swerving to avoid him. The moment of avoided impact is rendered by a circular compass-like brush stroke.

A young blade – a university student or a clerk? – is waiting for the bus.  He stands, debonair, slightly louche-looking, one hand around the pole of the bus stop, the other hand thrust into his pocket. The bus is coming though he doesn’t see it. There it is at the vanishing point of the painting, as green and solid-looking as the trees it emerges from.

It is a winter’s afternoon – a weak sun braves the chilly sky; the street lights are already on, the shop (the local chipper) is warmly aglow, the people are rugged up. Only the eerily precise black dog, padding softly across the foreground, sniffing out his territory, tail alert, seems intent on his own business.

The 1950s policy of forcing people out en masse to housing schemes in what was essentially the countryside, without adequate social supports, may have been questionable but what Una Watters depicts very clearly here is the vibrant communities that ensued, at least at first.  Here is a group of people of all ages interacting with one another.  The rectangular, grid-like arrangement of the canvas may hint at the conformity folk singer Pete Seeger warned of in his song about the little boxes “all made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same”. But the individual houses here are proud, solid homes, their span-new TV aerials visible,  their hedges carefully tended.

I have written here before about Una Watters (see blog September 30, 2018), a painter I feel has been criminally overlooked – particularly in the current climate of  revisiting the reputations of mid 20th century female painters like Mary Swanzy, who would certainly have known Una, since they both exhibited in Dublin in the 40s and 50s.

Sword of Light

Before Una’s untimely death at the age of 47, she had won an Arts Council award for her design of an emblem (see image) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

Her “Sword of Light” was ubiquitous in the 1966 golden jubilee year, appearing on  badges, brooches and tie pins, stamped on all official publications, and showing up in hallmark form on special silverware struck by the Assay Office.

My hope, with the aid of Una’s family and friends, is to organize a retrospective of Una’s paintings based on the catalogue of a posthumous show of  37 works that her grieving husband, the Irish language novelist and poet, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (Eugene Watters) organised after her death. Devoted to their art, they made a striking couple, honeymooning in a horse-drawn caravan which Eoghan had built himself, and summering in Ballinasloe (Ó Tuairisc’s home town) where Una painted and fished in the river Suck.

“Cappagh Road” was one of three paintings Una made of Finglas in the early 1960s.  We still have not traced the other two – “Schoolbreak” (1960) and “Building Scheme” (1961).  Perhaps, on the evidence of this painting, someone out there might recognize its companion pieces, either from the subject matter or the style.

If you do, or think you may have in your possession any Una Watters painting, please contact me via this blog.

We want the world to know about her!