Carol, a good film, a great read

Incredible. Don’t you feel a bit silly when you sort of half see a film between shifts in the kitchen and think I must read that book? I know I do, because it seems as if you are being led by advertisers to the slaughter but because of Christmas preparations I missed half of Carol on the TV and I couldn’t work out whether or not it had a happy ending as it was all a bit vague. I saw enough to be interested, so I ordered the book. Was I in for a treat! I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like the Georgian style of writing, that is very quaint and too long-winded for me, but my taste usually lands somewhere between Steinbeck and Hemingway. What makes Patricia Highsmith’s writing so special is that amongst her overt simplicity a beautifully descriptive phrase will come out of nowhere. I am thinking of phrases like “her short fair hair that made Therese think of perfume held to a light”. The writing style is so simple that this book can speak to anyone; it is beautiful at times, stark and brutal at others, but always evocative.

I wish I had found this book when I was nineteen. That was an age at which the world had not changed so much as to make it seem an old fashioned story. Today everything goes and yet people are still unhappy. There are those who will never understand this level of repression and for them I am glad; there are others who still suffer under it and I never want them to be forgotten. The past interests me because our lives are not long enough to learn from experience and still know everything good that love has to offer. Two quotes hit my Twitter feed this morning:

“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” – Hellen Keller and “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.” – Marcus Aurelius

Both of those sum it up beautifully. Today young people are often (but not always) out and proud and it is probably hard to empathise with the level of restrained passion and yearning in this novel but Patricia Highsmith’s characterisation is so good you can’t but feel every nuance along with them, every last bit of yearning, every pang of disappointment. It is a beautiful story and a terrifying one therefore when their happiness so quickly turns into an ordeal of persecution. In the book, you see Therese is less of an innocent, Carol is less of a seducer and both are tormented by circumstances they cannot hope to control. Carol’s sacrifice and bravery is so much clearer than in the film too, Therese’s pain and coming to terms with the loss of her first true love is still there but she hurts others as much as she is hurt by them. Richard is a brute. We don’t see much of this in the film and the ending is far less optimistic. I often prefer the book to the film, but I was grateful for the film because it led me to an unforgettable read that had me up all night.

This is not just a book for those interested in LGBT rights or lesbian romance because it has a very clear truth at its heart. One that all adults know. There is nothing quite like falling in love. It overwhelms you totally and the rush of endorphins is unbelievable. That is probably why so many people are addicted to love of course and continually searching for “The One”. They never find “The One” because harsh reality and even sexual satisfaction itself can take the shine right off that first rush of overwhelming tenderness and desire and yet sometimes, just sometimes, if you can live through the pain and the sheer ordinariness of life, a deeper and stronger affection is born. That is the happiest ending of all and in Carol you live through these characters and feel every emotion they do which makes the ending just perfect in its optimism.

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I wrote last week about the pigeon holes we assign to ourselves as readers and as writers and how these make it difficult to assign genre at times. Since then, I put out a new LGBT story I had been working on for some time. Coming Home for Christmas is a sweet lesbian romance on the surface but it is also story about wasted years, old attitudes and a time that is probably better consigned to history. Its heroine, Rebel, is ironically far from being a rebel in real life. I can see young women getting quite angry about her behaviour towards Laura and I am not sure how sympathetic she will be to anyone under a certain age. I thought the best thing to do is let Rebel speak for herself:

“Hi Rebel, or shall I call you Jill?”
“Jill is a pseudonym, only Laura calls me Rebel. Perhaps it might be better to call me Eleanor. It feels more relaxing.”
“Well, I am not sure I want you to relax too much, Eleanor. I have a few difficult questions to ask you.”
“I’ll survive!” She laughs. “Fire away!”
“OK! I’ll start with a tough one then. Why didn’t you pull the trigger?”
“What? I can’t believe you’d ask me that right off the bat.” She looks shocked.
“Well? Why didn’t you? You were obviously suicidal.”
“Because the gun only fired blanks of course. What would be the point, Lisa?”
“Sorry, Rebel, but I have to ask. I was told only yesterday by somebody in the know that Bruce Lee’s son was killed with a gun that fired blanks.”
“Really? Wow! You really do believe in putting a girl at ease, don’t you?”
“I’m a writer, it’s my job to get to the point quickly.”
“That’s not just quick. That’s brutal.” She is visibly shaking. “I always knew I was lucky to get through my teenage years but I didn’t know just how close I actually came…”
“Well, I am sure your readers will be glad you didn’t shoot yourself. What they would probably like to know is why you very nearly did.”
“That’s not hard. It was tough in the 1970s. Tougher than you might think. People always go on about the 1960s and the permissive society and all the new freedoms young people had but for people like me it wasn’t so rosy. Folks always talk about rock stars – glam rock, Queen and Bowie – being gay, lesbian or bisexual was a fashion with celebrities. There was a lot of parody on TV too, some of it quite cruel, but in ordinary life there was gay bashing, name calling, inequality under the law, you name it and then there was this whole thing of coming from a religious background.”
“Did you have many gay and lesbian friends back then?”
“Not that I knew of. It wasn’t something you shouted about. When I went to College I met a few students who were “out”. I thought they were incredibly brave at the time.There was discrimination going on in so many fields; the armed forces, teaching, anything with responsibility it seemed. It was tough to get a job. Despite the outrageous show biz stuff we were just ordinary kids.”
“Any element of being provincial in that?”
“Oh, I am sure you’re right. The more insignificant your hometown, the more likely these things are to be driven underground. It’s different if you live in a big city; sheer volume of numbers I suppose and with that comes bravery. I was never brave.”
“But you got through what was in effect a nervous breakdown…”
“Yes, and without treatment. I was in denial of course and I went through a phase where I would go with men just to convince myself I was straight.”
“I got that. You were married twice I see. But no kids?”
“It never happened although we did try. It’s just one of those things I suppose. I’m not too worried about being child-free though. I don’t think children should be compulsory you know.” She laughs again.
“So what brought you to tell your story now?”
“Meeting Laura again. The way I behaved towards her was cowardly and unforgivable. I am not proud of myself. I don’t know how she forgave me to be honest and all that is largely personal but I look around and see Christians, many of whom are otherwise lovely people, calling us every name under the sun and trying to take away our freedom. I wasn’t brave enough to fight for it but so many were. If I was sixteen now I don’t think anyone other than my parents would bat an eyelid. They loved me and I am sure they would have accepted me in time but the fact is that so many kids still need to be brave. They shouldn’t have to be. There are too many to this day who are thrown out or forced to conform and there are countries where love still carries the death penalty. To me, that is the real abomination in the sight of God.”
“Thank you for your time, Rebel, and thank you for your honesty.”
“No, thank you for giving me the chance to explain how it was for me back then and how it still is for some young people today.”
“So we might say you are now a Rebel with a cause?”
“Yes, I think I probably am,” she laughs.

In my novel The Wings to Fly there is a scene in which heroine Midge is hauled over the coals by her Commanding Officer for reading “an obscene book”. He is furious that she should be reading The Well of Loneliness in full view of other young female pilots where they might be corrupted. His anger is something hard to understand in a modern context. It borders on extreme over-reaction, but is representative of the public attitude towards homosexuality before the long, slow ride to acceptability began – a journey that still continues in some societies. Midge is given the book by Rose the Land Girl after their “brief encounter” and I included it in my story as a historical artifact. The Well of Loneliness plays a role in my novel – almost that of a character – because in the past it was handed to female friends as a hint that there could be something more than friendship on offer. I also thought it was about time I reviewed the book. I read it about ten years ago and found it profoundly upsetting. It is a book that, like Marmite, is either loved or despised by modern readers. Here is my take on it:

It is quite a while since I read this book and I am still trying to understand why it was banned and why the ending left me so very angry. Angry, desolate and gutted to be honest. This book is a classic of LGBT literature and, once banned, I gather it was passed from woman to woman as a clue to sexual identity rather than a simple book loan but if you are looking for erotic content you will be disappointed. It is totally devoid of explicit content and the sentence “and that night, they were not divided” was cited as the reason for the ban. Wow! How much society has changed! On the level of literature, the heightened language is full of romantic yearning and tragedic musings that will not speak to many born after, say, 1985. That is an arbitrary date of course but I think it was not until the mid 90s that the stigma went out of being LGBT for young people. For those who are older, some will still be conflicted about sexuality and gender identity issues and that is something recent reviews about this book fail to take into account. In some communities it will never be acceptable and those who escape those communities will always seem quaint to young people today.

Firstly, I didn’t mind the flowery, old-fashioned language. Just as I enjoy Shakespeare and the good old King James version rather than Eastenders and the Good News Bible, I enjoy heightened and poetic language and this book is full of it. So, spoiler number one, if you don’t like poetry, cryptic language or romanticism you are not going to like this book at all.

Secondly, if you despise anyone struggling with a gender binary you consider no longer relevant, you are going to dislike Stephen intensely. I am not sure whether Stephen is trans or butch but in all honesty I don’t think that matters. She could never be happy as a woman at a time when being female had such particular expectations of dress, manners, behaviour and so few opportunities other than marriage, spinsterhood or teaching girls. When you get angry with Stephen, remember she does not live in this modern world where, it seems, any expression of gender is valid and when the restrictions on women no longer apply.

Thirdly, the ending is sad beyond belief and if you are looking for a lesbian happy ever after you should avoid this book. Seriously. There is little point in reading a book you are unlikely to understand with an ending that is depressing beyond belief. In its defence, the ending is sadly believable. People actually DID think that way. Some sick individuals still think that is the way it should really be for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people and that is where The Well of Loneliness STILL has a voice and a role to play even in our permissive world. It has a role because not everyone is inclusive, even those who say they are open-minded often fail when it comes to the crunch and it is not that long since the mere mention of homosexual love would have made most people’s hackles rise.

Bearing that in mind, you SHOULD read this book, if only to understand how the mildest allusion to sexuality could instigate a ban. You should read this book and wonder how the author could bear to live at a time when this discrimination was completely normal. You should read this book to remind yourself that in places the battle for acceptance has not yet been won and that nobody should ever be complacent about the changes that have taken place since the book ban was lifted.

One of the things that always impressed me about the greatest novels of the past is how they crossed genres. They are not based on set characters or stereotypical behaviour but avoid genre tropes in favour of writing that is true to life. This is done whatever the nature of the story. They may be difficult books for the reader. Books like this are sometimes hard to get into but well worth the effort. They do not focus on one aspect which is easy to market to a particular type of reader. They are hard to classify.

When my English teacher assigned me to a group read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover back in the 1970s, I can remember my mother being quite horrified that he asked us to read what she considered to be porn. This was because the book had once been labelled obscene and was banned until the 1960s. I asked my mother if she would please read the book and then, if she felt I shouldn’t, tell my teacher why. My mother’s curiosity was aroused and she went on an enthusiastic search for “the rude bits”. Soon she was engrossed in the novel itself and found it gripping because of the social commentary, the history, the moving story line and D.H.Lawrence’s great writing. Yes, Mum found that the sex scenes were explicit and used what she considered crude words, but she loved the story, descriptions and settings and told me to go ahead and read the book with her blessing. This ignited my love for books that do not conform; a love for historical novels that contain explicit love scenes, for science fiction or horror with elements of philosophy or poetry, for adventure books with lyrical descriptions and for literary fiction with a humorous slant.

Whatever we read affects our writing. There is no way around this as writers. We are all affected in unconscious as well as conscious ways by the authors we read and they affect our own writing in direct proportion to the emotional impact they have on us. We are not just affected by books, but also by plays and films we have seen as well as our own life experiences. This is something I find in my own work. I am influenced by all this including the cross-genre writing of the past that I have enjoyed but I am also influenced as a musician and poet. To throw all of this off in an attempt to write commercially is something I find difficult. I plead guilty as charged, Your Honour, I write the sort of stories I would like to read.

One opinion I hear all the time is that writers should self-censor and conform to genre and tropes in order to succeed. From a sales point of view this might make sense. Authors should not cross genres, they should use different pen names if they do and they should definitely not upset people who buy their books. In life though, just as in the best fiction, good people have bad things happen to them and they cope with those bad things in many ways. As a writer I am guilty of being more interested in how my character is moulded and changed by experience than how I can water things down. For example, I may have a lesbian character who enjoys her first experience of sex with a boy but then goes on to realise it was purely physical and that her true romantic feelings are for a woman. There will be those straight readers who are upset by having a lesbian leading lady and there will be those lesbian readers who wish the straight sex just hadn’t happened. This sort of thing is a very real dilemma for a writer.

Another character might experience rough sex and be turned on by the experience whereas for the sensitive reader, or a victim of rape, this can be a horrible trigger. I know there is no way these things are going to pass a “sensitivity reader” without a deep edit and, quite possibly, a brutal emasculation. To be truthful, I don’t feel this is the main criteria for good writing though. Brutal honesty might upset some readers but it is more realistic and respectful of individual differences in the long term. In my opinion, and I admit it is only my opinion, characters should not always be cardboard cut-outs who experience love and emotions in safe ways or speak in acceptable language at times of crisis. This is why I would not attempt the traditional publishing route and why I will never be mainstream in my reading choice either.

I was deliberately leaving this post for a week, post election, to allow for some clarity and time to think. In the course of that time things have changed and not for the better. A week is a long time in politics, and in that week I have come to terms rationally with my own disappointing result. It could have been worse of course but it wasn’t great. I will start there because emails and phone calls I received after showed that voters were more upset by the result than I was. You don’t fight an election to lose although you might fight it to “fly the flag” in a seat where you see little chance of success.

Bearing that in mind, when things go to plan there is always the chance of a political upset. Not so in the recent General Election. A few seats swung by a small margin between the first and second placed political parties last time round. One or two targeted seats were won by huge effort, others were lost despite it. On the wider front, analysis showed both main parties increased their share of the vote dramatically and squeezed third party, smaller parties and independents out –
resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of lost deposits nationwide.

“Good,” say some (usually left-wing) activists. “They should shut up, or grow up and join one of the main two parties.”

“Good,” say some journalists. “It shows they are irrelevant.”

I say “Bad!” because democracy suffers the more we polarise party politics. There is no room for the Middle Way or for rational discussion. There is only “What can we do to win Murdoch’s readership?”

In Britain we have been brought up to believe consensus politics is bad and certainly coalitions have always been bad for one of the partners but many other countries cope really admirably with their hung parliaments. It filters out extreme policies and wild swings one way and then the other. It better represents democracy.

The trouble is that the system we have and the influence of hard-hitting political journalism on the results is actually polarising our nation at a time when it badly needs to be united. This takes many forms, but the most extreme example for me this time round was the treatment of Tim Farron on television. This man, a decent and honest working class liberal Christian, has effectively now been bullied out of his leadership position simply because he is decent and honest. He did not lie about his Christianity, nor did he allow his Christian beliefs to define him but he was castigated for those beliefs. Those of us within the Liberal Democrats who identify as LGBT or allies had no issue with Tim’s Christianity but the media did.

A defining moment of journalistic nastiness was Andrew Neil’s so-called “interview”. On the proposed referendum on BREXIT terms, Farron was constantly shouted down mid answer and then blamed for running out of time. That way, the party policies were kept under wraps and a whole political party made irrelevant to those who did not know the policies. It is easy to suggest after the event that he might actually have done better to walk out saying “I thought this was an interview, not a speech by you.” It might have got him press coverage for what he wasn’t allowed to say.

I would have been disgusted by Andrew Neil’s arrogant and rude interview technique whichever leader he had turned his venom on. His approach is often boorish and I have to say extremely narcissistic. I am really so sorry that Mr Farron feels he has to leave the political stage because of this bully. I am even more sorry that there will be political activists out there in the main two parties who think it is fair game to be intolerant of religious differences. Now the same blinkered journalists are trying to make out that the election was about BREXIT; it wasn’t, for vast swathes of people it was about social justice and the Labour Party were not the only proponents of that. They just cashed in on a lot of tactical votes.

Finally, I honestly believe it is time for the BBC to move away from pretty graphics, endlessly looping sound bytes and egotistical, bullying presenters and move back towards what the licence fee we all have to pay was intended for – public SERVICE and public INFORMATION. There should be no place for the cult of “The Great I Am” in an organisation that claims to be politically neutral and every place for informed comparison of policy differences. This is happening on the internet through new apps which will, in time, make main stream journalists superfluous unless they grow up and stop showing off. Democracy is not about THEM. It is about the people.