Archive for January, 2016

Wolves of London: Finding The Actual One

January 31, 2016

isysuttiePossibly the best TV comedy of the new century, Peep Show, ended last month. It was a bittersweet experience as a TV fan as I had followed the show from its first episode in 2003 – had grown up with Mark and Jez. In the last series you tend to lose sympathy for the El Dude brothers – as Robert Webb said: ‘It was a show about two young men sharing a flat and it’s become two middle-aged men sharing a flat, which is a different level of sadness. I think it was getting too sad.’ The madcap romantic-stalking schemes and defiant slackerism has a different edge. Always a reactionary outsider, Mark at this point comes off as a toxic individual who messes with people’s lives for personal gain. But at the end of the series his plans come to nothing and he sits in the ruins of another party with Jez on a nearby sofa going ‘I’m so tired’. Turning on the TV, Mark sees a feature about the reintroduction of wolves to Britain – yet another sign that the world is going to hell. ‘What next? Bring back smallpox? We all had fun with the smallpox, didn’t we? Is it time smallpox had a reboot?’ The show ends with an ominous wolf howl.

All this sounds like a roundabout way of talking about Isy Suttie‘s book. Sure, the comedian was in Peep Show and in the book she even repeats one of the show’s classic lines – ‘men with ven’ (plural for ‘man with van’). But it has a similar theme – the difficulty in staying young forever. You stop thinking in academic years and start thinking in financial years. Party shots fall off your newsfeed, and are replaced with endless pictures of misshapen-looking babies. Couples move out of the shared house and buy homes in charmless suburbs that their children will spend an adolescence trying to escape. When Isy Suttie’s best friends decide to get a mortgage and a family, she makes a bet that she will find a life partner – the Actual One – within a month.

That’s the premise, at least – the narrative itself is mainly a bunch of anecdotes loosely strung together, reminding me of Richard Herring’s Warming Up blogs, an exercise where you just start writing to get the creative brain in gear, drill down into any observational material and pummel concepts to death. It’s not a bad way to write, and Suttie makes it work – waiting at a GUM clinic, she sees some rowdy lads in their twenties: ‘It was like a youth club where one of them might have to inconveniently pop off and have his dick looked at in a moment, but soon he’d be back to merrily pelt Minstrels at a leaflet stand.’

In the book, she has just got out of a relationship with a man so insensitive he forgets, within days, about the giant papier-mâché penguin Suttie builds for him. She adds ruefully: ‘As it turns out, if you decide to make a papier-mâché penguin for your partner to try and save your relationship, the raw materials will cost approximately £180, and the reaction will be vague.’ Later she goes out with a man she meets at a party in Dalston who lives on a boat and speaks entirely in rhyme: ‘My name’s Joe, I live on a barge, you guys look like you like it large!’ There’s not a lot of dating and romance in here though – Suttie breaks off mid way through these encounters to tell a long anecdote from her childhood or student days.

More interesting are her memories of struggling to make it as a comedian and musician straight out of drama school. Doing the Edinburgh Festival on no money and no profile, travelling hundreds of miles for a few moments’ exposure, getting wrecked until 5am with squaddies in a Portsmouth drinking basement – these are fantastic passages and the book could have done with more material about making it in a classically male dominated world. The Actual One is funny, wise, discursive, even twee in places, but the howl of the wolf echoes through it none the less.


The Human Junkyard: Making A Murderer

January 17, 2016

Making_A_Murderer_TitleHaving watched all ten episodes of Making a Murderer, I think that Steven Avery is probably guilty. That’s probably not what the filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, wanted me to think, and indeed the series was criticised for a perceived bias towards Avery’s defence. In a debate on the Liz Loves Books blog, which I recommend to anyone wanting to drill down into the rights and wrongs of the Avery case, ex prosecutor Neil White identifies ‘an imbalance in how the evidence was presented, slanted entirely towards the defence case, relying mainly on the insights of the Avery family and of Steven Avery’s lawyers.’ In an email to The Wrap, special prosecutor Kenneth R Kratz echoed this, and said Netflix should ‘either provide an opportunity for rebuttal, or alert the viewers that this series was produced by and FOR the defense of Steven Avery, and contains only the opinion and theory of the defense team.’

Kratz and Avery strike a chord. Avery pretty much owns Making a Murderer. The victim in the case, Teresa Halbach, is just a cipher, a face on the screen. We don’t see the prosecution team or the police apart from when they speak in court (and Kratz in particular comes off as a pompous bore with a silly high voice). However I don’t believe documentary makers have a duty to be completely impartial. A commitment towards some meaningless idea of ‘balance’ can strangle as many truths as it reveals, as many frustrated TV reporters can attest. I personally think Ricciardi and Demos could have widened the scope of the series, following police, prosecution and defence teams as the case unfolded, and leaving it up to the audience to judge Steven Avery guilty of murder or not. But in this case, the trial is done, the verdict reached, the filmmakers have no obligation to present a ‘balanced view’ and there may be practical reasons why they couldn’t do so.

Just as unfair is the condescension of the British viewer. In all the discussions I’ve heard about the show, the big theme has been ‘This is what happens when you’re poor and white with a low IQ in America’. Well, it’s not easy in this country either. There is almost no injustice in the US criminal system that isn’t replicated over here. Wrongful convictions? Ask the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Stefan Kiszko, Tony Stock and countless others railroaded by UK police and courts. On the dodgy confession that convicted Brendan Dassey, Neil White says that ‘Thankfully, the rights of young people are much better protected here and the police would not have conducted themselves in that way in the UK.’ But the recent G4S scandal doesn’t inspire confidence in our criminal justice system’s treatment of children. The obvious exception is the death penalty, but even here, numerous US states have abolished capital punishment in recent years, with executions at a 24-year low. The US never did mass execution on the scale of China and Iran and it seems that America could lose the death penalty altogether within our lifetime. Meanwhile I suspect that if the UK held a referendum on capital punishment today it would pass tomorrow and the gallows would be up and running by the weekend. Can’t happen here? Don’t be so sure.

Making a Murderer may be biased, but it’s not condescending. Steven Avery is depicted as humane and courageous but no martyr. The Avery family’s dignity and resilience, as they lose their son to prison, is heartbreaking and inspiring. The style is forensic, but with a warmth and humanity that stays with you, particularly in its treatment of the truly tragic Brendan Dassey story. I personally have no idea how I would have voted had I been on the Wisconsin jury. As I’ve said, I think Avery is probably guilty, but ‘probably’ is not good enough reason to take away a man’s liberty.

Having said this, it strikes me that, to believe in Steven Avery’s innocence, you also have to believe in one of the following propositions:

1) To avoid a $36m lawsuit, the Manitowoc County PD located and moved Teresa Halbach’s remains to the Avery salvage yard during the 8-day search of the Avery compound. The FBI agreed to perjure itself on behalf of the notorious and compromised small town department. This despite the fact that in all probability the ‘real killer’ would almost certainly turn up somewhere in the prison system bragging about the Halbach murder, and the murder conviction would fall apart as had the Avery rape conviction, leading to more financial penalty and reputational damage for the Manitowoc County PD.

2) The ‘real killer’ either killed Teresa Halbach on the Avery salvage yard or moved her remains to the yard without the knowledge of Avery or any of his relatives, girlfriend or visitors to the yard, and without leaving any forensic traces whatsoever.

I could be wrong – I don’t have a law, law enforcement or forensics background – but it seems to me that, as talented as Avery’s advocates were, they had a choice between police conspiracy or one armed bandit as defence arguments. Both of these are very difficult to get past a jury and because of this they lost the case and Avery was convicted. The 1985 rape conviction was a tragedy and an injustice but it doesn’t axiomatically make Avery innocent of the Halbach murder. Real life isn’t The Shawshank Redemption. It’s more like Oz. Complexity beats innocence, every time.

I don’t think Making a Murderer will spring Avery, if that was the intention of the filmmakers. Its success is in its depiction of the impact of crime – not just on the victim but on the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s family, the cops, the lawyers, the jury and everyone else sucked into the case. All this with excellent wide-sweep cinematography of the Wisconsin landscape – radio towers, endless winding roads, cows in paddocks, and the Avery salvage yard: rows and rows of cars, in various stages of repair, open chassis, crushers and combines and skeletons of machinery, half-buried under snow or glinting in the afternoon sun. It strikes me as a good metaphor for what criminal justice so often is for the innocent and the guilty alike – a human junkyard, full of the innards and remains of problematic mortal existence.

Walk On The Dark Side

January 13, 2016

spy-out-the-landThere’s been recent literary interest in the famous MI6 traitors of the twentieth century – Ben MacIntyre’s classic book on Kim Philby, and more recently Andrew Lownie’s thoughtful, more sympathetic bio of Guy Burgess. The lives of the Cambridge spies follow a familiar arc – Eton, university, WW2, Secret Service, promotion, ardour, travel, booze – then exposure, a last-moment fade to the Soviet Union, and a final act of lonely, alcohol-assisted decline. (All the spies who ended their days in Moscow – Philby, Burgess, Maclean – seem to have missed England terribly. Lownie’s chapters on Burgess’s last days in Russia make you actually feel sorry for the guy).

Jeremy Duns‘s trilogy of spy books broke the curve. His double agent Paul Dark was converted to the Soviet cause by a moment of love and betrayal at the end of the second world war. By the time we meet him, in 1969, Dark has long lost all illusions in the glory of communism, but still plays his parallel masters off each other. He’s a man in blood, and won’t turn back, because exposure could mean a 42-year sentence, George Blake style. Immediately into Free Agent, a Soviet defector wanders into the Nigerian station, and Dark jumps on the next flight to neutralise the potential tattletale, and pronto. The story doesn’t stop until the end of the third book, The Moscow Option, when Dark is deported to Russia and scrambling to prevent a nuclear holocaust. The narration is crisp and first person. Difficulty and attrition is around every corner. Everything that can go wrong does, and Duns does not let you go for a second.

Spy Out the Land is kind of a departure, giving Dark a few years’ break living as a fugitive in Stockholm, where he’s settled down with a wife and child. Duns switches to third person for this, introducing a range of supporting characters and global events centring around a summit in then Rhodesia. Soviet agents, white supremacists and MI6 agents converge on Dark’s own drama hunting down his kidnapped family. This change of pace and scope doesn’t always work and there’s even elements of creaking and clunking as the international vectors of the plot kick into gear.

Still, the results are compelling. This is the moment when Rachel Gold, a young analyst on Dark’s trail, reflects on her intuition into intelligence work. It’s come from a random glance at a family album, when Gold failed to recognise her aunt:

But that fraction of a moment when she had seemed a stranger had troubled her. She had always been very close to Auntie Hannah and previously would have sworn she’d have recognised her anywhere, at once. The moment had taught her that even if you thought you knew something or someone completely, early impressions could shape your perception of them and as a result you could miss things – data – that had been sitting there in front of you all along.

There’s a phrase, the ecstasy of perfect recognition, which is supposed to say it all about our relationship with art. But there is a dark art – pulp, horror, fantasy, cops and robbers, spies – which is all about unrecognition, which lives in the moment where you notice some crucial detail, something off-kilter and misaligned and deeply disturbing… and sometimes we don’t notice this until it’s too late and the lock has clicked in the door and there are ominous shadows pooling up and around you. It seems to me that moments like this are at the heart of the espionage novel, and no one does them better than Jeremy Duns in that para.