Arts and Culture, Film, Literature

The Woman in the Window Book Review: A J Finn’s twisty thriller is a fascinating study of a mind unleashed

It’s perhaps ironic that I ended up buying and writing a book review of The Woman In The Window because I read the recent expose in The New Yorker of its author, A J Finn, Dan Mallory’s alias. Mallory’s life – and his web of lies, it turns out – could give his own characters a run for their money. Yet, it said to something interesting to me about a reader’s, or perhaps even my own, psychology. Finding out about Finn’s duplicity: a fake doctorate from Oxford, his fabrication of life-threatening brain cancer and parental deaths, did not make me want to read The Woman In the Window on its own, but it did spark a sense of intrigue: where did Finn end and his deceptive characters begin? Would reading The Woman In The Window be more than just suspenseful entertainment, in the vein of Gillian Flyn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train? A quick plot synopsis: alcoholic woman, traumatic event, window, and the promise of lots of twists, was all it took for me to be heading over to Amazon’s Kindle store and start downloading the title. I could have waited to buy a physical copy, but who can wait for that when there’s a novel promising the good stuff, and promising it now?

My first impression of the novel was that I liked it. The combination of the old and the new worked well: the modern New York City, bright, bustling, full of almost unbearable sound and sensation. And then Anna Fox’s world: unbearable –unbearably quiet – and utterly alone, her days filled with vials of merlot and old movies. Anna’s love of film noir – she devours everything from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Otto Preminger’s Laura – gives us a taste of what it’s like to be trapped in Anna’s head, as she lives through fantasy – a brief respite from reality. But Anna is no ordinary person – a former child-psychologist, turned agoraphobic, Anna is stuck – not just inside the house, but inside her mind. Her mind is clearly a brilliant one, but one that may also send her over the edge, into a pit of endless despair. It’s only when the Russell’s move in across the road that Anna’s life is injected with some intrigue: a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Anna loves to watch them through her window, and with her zoom camera in hand, drip-feeding her fragments of their life, she soon learns all about them. Mrs Russell, she learns is having an affair. Their son, Ethan, a beautiful and sensitive teenager, spends his time in solitude in his room.

After a merlot-fuelled bonding session with Mrs Russell, Anna begins to undress many of the Russell’s problems – the way Mrs Russell feels trapped, and, like Anna, longs for a friend, her worries about her son, and her husband’s ferocious, unpredictable temper.
Everything changes when, a few days later, she spies the Russell’s arguing through her window. She sees the image of a woman – Mrs Russell – with a knife inside her. Then, almost as though she never existed at all, Mrs Russell disappears. Or, at least, the Mrs Russell that Anna befriended does. In her place is a new Mrs Russell, dark, rather than blond, sleek, refined, and practically hostile towards Anna. Who is this woman? What’s happened to the other Mrs Russell? And is Anna’s vision real, or simply the delusions of an insane mind? This may be where the questions begin, but we have to wait until the end of the novel to find all the answers.

The Woman In The Window is in many ways a sleek and intriguing thriller. The language is so vibrant you can easily get lost in it – ‘The buildings loom impossibly tall, thrusting like fingers into a rinsed-blue sky above’; ‘Beyond the window branches stir, shedding leaves like embers; they spark against the glass, fly away.’ Finn’s style, though sumptuous and dazzling, does feel slightly over-written. There were times I had to resist the urge to shout: ‘Just get on with it!’ as Finn treated us to yet another: ‘long pause’ before the character decided to do or saying something that had a hope of keeping us readers hooked for another chapter. For the most part though, Finn’s setting in Anna’s oldie-worldie vision of New York – complete with spying neighbours, abundant beauty, and seemingly endless reels of black-and-white classics – compliments the ornate style.

The character of Anna Fox is also an interesting one to consider. Being stuck in Anna’s head is actually an enthralling place to be. Not just because of her insight, or intelligence – but because there are times when we see flickers of the woman she used to be. Despite, or perhaps because of, her mental illness, Anna can be razor-sharp and intuitive. It’s the moments that she spends alone, truly contemplating the state of her life, and feeling her pain (sans Merlot) that we start to feel close to her. But these moments are few and far between. Although Anna is, on the one hand, everything we need in a heroine: both strong and fragile, smart, occasionally witty, and tenacious, I never really felt myself pulling for her. My emotional investment in her as a character was limited to these fleeting moments, and I found myself much more interested in how the plot was unravelling and the whodunit element of the story than Anna’s well-being. There are also a few odd plot developments – Anna’s one-night stand with her tenant, who she barely exchanges a word with aside from when she requires him as a handyman, feels unnecessary and almost entirely pointless.

The big ‘twist’ at the heart of The Woman In the Window and the reason behind Anna’s torment, can be guessed by the canny reader within the first few chapters, but its predictability adds a poignancy to the moment of revelation.

Less predictable, at least for me, was the twist involving the crime at the centre of Anna’s new obsession: the apparent murder of Anna’s neighbour, as seen by Anna through her bedroom window: her spyglass to the outside world. Yet it’s during the novel’s final act that the action picks up a pace – we have the unmasking of an unlikely killer, a rooftop chase, and a conclusion that’s both satisfying and haunting. Whether The Woman In The Window will maintain its hype, securing the accolades of its contemporaries, remains to be seen. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on The Train, The Woman In The Window is getting the Hollywood treatment. With a glittering cast that includes Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman, and with the period-piece connoisseur, Joe Wright, sitting in the director’s seat, The Woman In the Window film is sure to generate plenty of buzz, especially given that its release date places it in the prime position for award season. How Hollywood, following its recent public disgraces, will react to adding another controversial figure in the form of AJ Finn to its mix, is yet unknown. But one thing is guaranteed: the name AJ Finn, and his alluring debut, The Woman In The Window, will remain on reader’s lips for a long time to come.

Arts and Culture, Musical Theatre

‘Bobbie Baby’ Sondheim’s gender-bending ‘Company’ is a smash- hit for the new generation

Stephen Sondheim's Company, West End Gielgud Theatre

I first watched Sondheim’s Company when I was sixteen years old and was immediately captivated. The production starred and was directed by Broadway star Daniel Evans, fresh from the success of Sunday In the Park With George, another Sondheim hit. The production was at Sheffield’s Lyceum: not the most obvious location for a Sondheim musical – which typically find their homes on the glittering stages of Broadway or The West End. For Evans, however, the Steel City clearly won him over. He went on to become the Lyceums’ Artistic Director for the next seven years, going on to star in and direct musicals as diverse as My Fair Lady, This My Family and an award-winning adaptation of the Sheffield classic The Full Monty. Evans adaptation of Company began, for me, what will surely be a lifetime obsession with Sondheim and his incomparable imagination.

There are certain cultural moments in our lives that have a lasting impact—for teens of the 1970s, it might have been the release of Jaws or Grease; for those growing-up in the 1990s it might have been the break-up of Take That and that tearful press conference; for us millennials, it was probably the sensation of the Harry Potter series. These were all big moments, but there are also small cultural moments in our lives, that almost slip by imperceptible, yet they change how we see the world and our place in it. For me, this was Evan’s adaptation of Company – I loved the sense of intrigue, the psychological complexity, the unsolvability of the play. The contradictions of Sorry- Grateful and the raw emotion of Being Alive. Its dialogue, wit, and its contrary nature, all made it become my favourite musical. Despite seeing a slew of West End musicals whilst living in London – everything ranging from Wicked, to The Phantom of the Opera, to The Book of Mormon yet Company still holds the top spot.

So, when I heard that Company was to return to the West End, I was eager to see if it could transport me back to what I saw ten years ago. One complaint that critics have levied at traditional productions is that, in modern times, the 35-year-old Bobby’s perpetual singledom wouldn’t be such a hot topic amongst his friends. That is, if Bobby is a man. In the new Gielgud theatre production, Bobbie is actually a single 35-year-old woman, whose friends and casual boyfriends keep pestering her to commit and get married. The only problem is that Bobbie’s quite happy with the way things are—she doesn’t see why she needs another half to make her whole. The dialogue and lyrics of Marianne Elliot’s production of Company are almost identical to the original: the only thing that’s changed is the pronouns. The centrepiece of the story, as in all productions that have proceeded it, is the ‘surprise’ Birthday party being thrown to celebrate Bobbie’s 35th Birthday. Bobbie, not a fan of Birthday parties, especially surprise ones, would just rather not have the fuss.

As director Marianne Elliot pointed out, when talking to the BBC last year, the idea of a commitment-shy 35-year-old is not a big enough, or unusual enough, topic in modern times. But if we make that character a woman, all sorts of questions arise – why would a 35-year-old woman not want to be in a serious relationship or marry? Doesn’t she want to settle down and have a family of her own? How can friends alone be enough ‘Company’ to last a lifetime? A lot is suddenly at stake here. Funnily enough, the exact same questions were asked of the male Bobby nearly forty years ago, showing us that whilst women might be forty years behind men in achieving this form of equality, social expectations can and do change with time.

Stephen Sondheim's Company Rosalie Craig

Elliot’s previous stage credits include National theatre hits, from the hard-hitting and sweet The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to the epic War Horse, directed alongside Tom Morris. It’s clear that she had the theatrical chops – not to mention the passion and dedication – to resurrect Company from its grave. Elliot has made a few other modernisations alongside the gender swap:  two of Bobbie’s friends, originally the couple Amy and Paul, are now Jamie and Paul. In 2019, the inclusion of a gay couple amongst Bobbie’s friends in modern-day Manhattan seems only expected. As well as making the production more socially and politically relevant by including the topic of gay marriage, it also allowed actor Jonathan Bailey, who plays Jamie, to flex his comedic muscles. When Jamie gets cold-feet about his upcoming nuptials to Paul, an increasingly anxious Jamie shouts out: ‘People will think I’m pregnant.’ Cue howls of laughter from the audience.

Gender stereotypes and some of the more misogynistic undertones of the original production were also updated. In earlier productions, Jenny is the timid, uptight one – failing to convince her husband, and the audience, that she’s truly enjoying the spliff they’re smoking. In Elliot’s production, David, her husband, is the uptight one, pretending to be part of the cool crowd, and just embarrassing himself in the process. Jenny tells the audience sardonically: ‘I married a square.’ Likewise, the Andrews Sisters’ style You Could Drive a Person Crazy, which bemoans Robert’s reluctance to commit to any of the women he’s seeing, undergoes a radical transformation. Instead of being a song that merely expresses the love interests’ frustrations with a commitment-phobe, with the gender-switch, it becomes an expression of the men’s incomprehension at a woman’s reluctance to conform to societal expectations (served alongside a cocktail of female-specific jibes: ‘Dirty flirt’ cries one; ‘You feminist’ accuses another; ‘Is it that time of month?’ Nice).

Another change is Elliot’s use of sets and stagecraft – the show’s distinctly Manhattan look has been muted; in its place is a vivid vortex of sliding doors (or backdrops!) that perfectly capture Bobbie’s chaotic, torn and frequently changing mind, as she looks in, and observes, the highs and lows of married life and the baffling complexity of even the best of relationships.

The Saturday afternoon matinee that I saw didn’t star Rosalie Craig, which I was initially disappointed by, but her understudy Anika Noni Rose dazzled in the role, imbuing Bobbie with strength and warmth that made the audience fall immediately in love with her. Two-time Grammy and Tony-winner Patti Lupone also made a return to the stage as the outrageous, yet vulnerable Joanne. Lupone’s character is a pseudo-drunken Aunt, confidante, therapist and all ’round buddy to Bobbie, who, through their conversations, discovers, and begins to overcome, insecurities of her own. At the heart of the production is a haunting question – do we ever feel truly happy? And even if we can – is it worth, or even right, to place all that responsibility on another person? Songs such as Sorry-Grateful and Marry Me a Little are full of comedic touches that make the audience fall about with laughter, but they’re also imbued with a deep, almost agonising pathos. They capture, aloud, the internal conflict that characterises most adult relationships: should I stay, or should I go? These married couples have chosen to stay – and Sondheim makes it very clear that, for his characters at least, love is a choice, not a fantasy. The lyrics’ sentiment is infused with Sondheim’s characteristic contradiction: ‘You’re scared she’s starting/To drift away… and scared she’ll stay’; ‘Everything’s different, nothing’s changed. ‘ Maybe the message that we can take away is that no one really knows what the best way is to experience life, or whether hindsight would make us choose differently, but we sometimes have to see everything: the good, the bad and the ugly, to truly experience life.

Speaking of, the moment in Company that has always intrigued and confused me in equal measure is probably the show’s most famous song: Being Alive. Being Alive is Company’s closing number, a show-stopper of such pure magic and magnitude, that hearing it quite literally makes you happy to be alive. It appears to be Bobbie’s last-minute resolve to commit, to give love a chance, whether the result is worth it or not. But how does all this fit in with a show that proposes to resist societal expectations and champion Bobbie’s choice to go it alone?

Someone to sit in my chair,

And ruin my sleep,

And make me aware,

Of being alive.

These hardly sound like the words of a happy singleton. But as with all things Company, the song is not conclusive, nor does it necessarily resist such a conclusion. Like the rest of the show, Being Alive is deeply ambivalent about the good sides of marriage, as well as the bad. It asks us to ask ourselves the scariest question of all: can we ever really know without experiencing both sides, and more terrifying still, even if we do, will we still not have all the answers? It’s a tough question and one that Sondheim refuses to answer for us.

Perhaps the message that Elliot wants us to take away from this new production is the value of personal freedom. Embracing our quirks and differences, and most importantly choosing our own path. We see that one of the seemingly happy couples – Peter and Susan – have decided to get a divorce, a decision which, surprisingly, saves their relationship, making it stronger than ever. Counterintuitive? Yes. Implausible? Maybe. Impossible? In Sondheim’s world, and the world of complex human beings in which we all reside, absolutely not.

Company is a musical that celebrates the euphoric highs and crushing lows of being human, a recognition of the unspeakable exhilaration of taking risks and letting ourselves experience being alive.

Arts and Culture, History, Literature

The real St. Valentine

Beheadings, Roman brutality and a Parliament of Fowls — doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? The truth is that Februarys’ celebrated holiday — St. Valentine’s Day — has a complex and varied history.

The truth is, little is known about the origins of Valentine’s. Like many of the highlights of history, the titular Saint Valentine is shrouded in mystery. There are at least three contenders for the title — all Christian martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus. Saint Valentine of Rome perhaps has the most attractive story, being both romantic and tragic in equal measure. During the Roman Empire, Claudius ii ordered that young men be forced to become soldiers. He believed that romance and marriage weakened a man — binding him emotionally to his wife and family — and that the best way to equip the army with fitter, more resilient soldiers was to outlaw marriage. Like many things that are outlawed — be it the prohibition of the early 20th century, or novels such as Nabokov’s Lolita — they tend to take on a shiny new allure that makes the ban almost impossible to enact in reality. Thanks to Valentine, young men discovered that they could have the best of both worlds: to become excellent soldiers and marry their sweethearts in secret. For Valentine, performing these secret marriages was not just a means of helping young men, but was an act of restorative justice — he was giving back what should never have been taken away in the first place. Sadly for Valentine (and the young people he performed the ceremonies for) Claudius soon discovered his actions, and ordered that he be beheaded. It’s also thought that Valentine may have been involved in emancipating Christians from the brutal prisons of the Roman Empire — yet another reason for his execution.

If you’ve ever wondered why people send Valentine’s greetings to each other, Valentine’s story might be responsible for that too. Whilst Valentine was imprisoned in the run-up to his execution, rumour has it he feel in love with and began a romantic relationship with his jailor’s daughter. In one of his many notes to her, he signed himself off as ‘Your Valentine’: and therein a centuries-long tradition began. Whether this particular Saint Valentine is truly the inaugurator of Valentine’s Day may never be known, but perhaps this doesn’t matter. What is important is that he embodies a heroic and self-sacrificing figure — someone who fights for what they believe in. Surely far more romantic than any Hallmark Valentine’s card or candle-lit dinner?

Geoffrey Chaucer (C:1343-1400) — best-known for The Canterbury Tales — is probably not the first name that springs to mind when we think of Valentine’s Day. Yet the earliest reference that I’ve heard to Valentine’s Day in literature was found when studying Chaucer’s dream-vision poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Some believe that it is indeed the first Valentine’s poem ever written and the first reference to the day in English literature:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.

Chaucer establishes Valentine’s day as the courting season for his Parliament of Fowls and the poem is full of the kind of picturesque imagery we associate with the modern Valentine’s Day: ‘A garden saw I full of blossoming boughs…Where sweetness evermore bountiful is’ to name but a few. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season — which may have given Chaucer the imaginative spark he required to write The Parliament Of Fowls.

Yet the idea that Chaucer popularised Valentine’s Day is still up for debate — it’s thought that the celebration of spring in the poem means that it is likely set later than mid-February. This corresponds with the theory that Chaucer wrote the poem for King Richard ii (1367–1400) during negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380. This perhaps makes the denouement of the poem — where the birds opt to defer the choosing of their mate — as much of a political statement as a domestic one. One theory proposes that Chaucer is actually referring to May 3 — and this speculation is bolstered by the fact that this was the date that Richard’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia was announced.

We’ll probably never know whether Chaucer’s poem was intended to be set in winter or spring. Perhaps like the festive season, part of the reason we have Valentine’s Day in the middle of February is to give us something to celebrate in the midst of the otherwise bleak mid-winter. The conclusion to Chaucer’s poem may endorse this interpretation:

Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven away the longe nightes blake.

Much like the first glimmers of spring, perhaps Valentine’s Day is a reminder that we too can find solace in the darkness.

Arts and Culture, Irish Authors, Literature

The Best of 2018: Roddy Doyle’s ‘Smile’ 

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Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Rewind back to the spring of 2018 and celebrated Irish author, Roddy Doyle, is being interviewed by Stephanie Merritt as the celebrated Hay Festival enters its 30th year. The topic is Doyle’s latest offering: a harrowing story of childhood trauma, secrets, and self-revelation. The date of Doyle’s interview is significant: the 25th of May 2018, the day of the historic Irish abortion referendum: the people of Ireland voted by a margin of 66.4% to repeal the eighth. For Doyle, the victory was not just political, but deeply personal – as a young teacher, he often landed himself in trouble when leafleting to repeal the eighth. Ireland, for Doyle, is not just his homeland, but the physical and political tapestry onto which many of his best-selling novels are woven.

In Smile one of Ireland’s most troubling associations is cast into the spotlight: the sexual abuse scandals that have, and continue, to plague the Catholic church. Yet Doyle does not attack the Catholic church as a whole, despite his criticism of institutionalised religion. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2017, he said:

There is great comfort in the notion of the few bad apples. There are a few bad Christians, there are a few bad priests who, if you like, made the whole institution seem rotten, and it’s not, it’s fine.

Though Doyle’s novel does possess what he calls an ‘autobiographical spark.’ As a child, he was a student at the authoritarian Christian Brothers’ school. A school where discipline and sickening violence were at the top of the menu.  The novel’s title, Smile, was conceived from an encounter Doyle had as a teenager with one of the Brothers: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile’, he said. Inevitably, ceaseless taunting and torment shadowed Doyle through much of his secondary school life. It was only much later in life that Doyle found out that he had got off lightly – over a discussion with old school friends, he discovered that a significant number of his friends had been sexually abused or assaulted whilst attending the Christian Brothers’ School. And so, the premise of Smile was born.

That’s not to say that the sexual abuse scandal took Doyle by surprise. In his conversation with Merritt he recalled how certain boys would be asked to ‘stay behind’ with the Christian brothers after school. Eventually, the other boys insisted on staying behind collectively to prevent the abuse from happening – safety in numbers proving key to preventing the abuse or at least making it more difficult for the Brothers to continue undetected.

Yet Smile is not just a novel about abuse, in the same way, that Two Pints isn’t a novel that’s just about two Irish blokes in a pub. It could be described as a meditation on memory and its unreliable, labyrinth-like nature. Smile portrays memory as not just a photograph, capturing a moment in time, but as an image with fuzzy, indistinct edges, where figures loom in the background, contorted and unfamiliar. When we first meet the newly single Victor Forde, he seems quite satisfied with what middle-age has handed him. He lives in a tiny apartment in Dublin and frequents his local, Donelly’s pub, where he sinks a pint or two whilst absorbed in his book. It seems like an attempt to bridge the gap between the solitary and the social, by doing an activity that involves a little of both.

Victor feeds us snippets. As a youngster, he was a wannabe music journalist, who enjoyed moderate success. He recalls how he met his wife (now ex)- Rachel, who had an ambition of her own: to become a top celebrity chef and television personality. The middle of the novel provides a departure from much of the chaos and confusion, as the storyline gives way to romance. We watch as Victor and Rachel bond over pints of Guinness, have sex and fall in love. For now, Victor has got the girl, but the reader already has the foreknowledge to know that this is not to last. Yet the Victor and Rachel of the past muddle through their poverty and pain for what they want – Victor, a career as a novelist, Rachel, her burgeoning catering business ‘Heels on Wheels.’ As a reader we can’t see what could possibly have gone so wrong – they struggle from day-to-day, but always hand-in-hand.

Fast-forward back to the present, and Victor’s solitary existence doesn’t last long. A man in shorts and a pink shirt, who calls himself Ed Fitzpatrick, interrupts Victor’s reveries one night in the pub. Fitzpatrick claims that he went to the same Christian Brothers’ school as Victor and vividly remembers the taunting Victor encountered: ‘“What was the name of the brother that used to fancy you? … Would he fancy us now, Victor?’” Fitzpatrick seems uncouth and provocative, but ultimately harmless. But not for Victor. For Victor, the sight of Fitzpatrick triggers an irrational hatred: ‘“I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”’ For Victor, Fitzpatrick embodies the uncanny: that face in the crowd that you can’t quite place, the nightmare that threatens to engulf the quotidian nature of life. Victor has no recollection of the man who claims they were at school together; whose sister apparently had a ‘thing’ for Victor. But isn’t that just the nature of memory? It’s slippery, half-formed and prone to rusting with age. Yet Victor also finds himself drawn to Fitzpatrick in a way that he can’t explain: he is repelled and intrigued in equal measure.

The shocking conclusion of Smile forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything that has come before. We’ve had clues along the way – Victor reveals towards the end of the novel that Rachel was not his wife, after all, but that he found it easier to refer to her as that. In one intense scene, in the middle of their blissful relationship, he awakens in the middle of the night and tells her everything: ‘I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart.’

This ‘bursting apart’ is Victor’s revelation of the sexual abuse he experienced during his time at the Christian Brothers’ school. Victor’s mask is starting to slip – and this is just the beginning. The climax of Smile is sure to divide readers – but since when is that a bad thing? Literature that denies us a tidy ending – think JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – has often been praised for its verisimilitude and experimental nature. Doyle provides the reader with a twist that is surreal, outrageous, perhaps even dissatisfying, yet it also, oddly, feels like the only conclusion Doyle could possibly have written. With Smile, love it or hate it, Roddy Doyle is entering new territory and pushing the boundaries of his own genre. If memory is a tapestry, in Smile, Doyle proves himself a supreme craftsman.

Arts and Culture, Philosophy, Science

Jeremy Bentham: the man behind the auto-icon

Jeremy Bentham UCL exhibition

For those of you who don’t know, Jeremy Bentham is something of a name around the Campus of University College London, in Bloomsbury. The moral philosopher turned-spiritual founding father of the university is perhaps less well known for his moral philosophy and writings on legislative reform than his eccentricity and peculiar perspective on mortality. His auto-icon – otherwise known as his straw-stuffed skeleton – has recently been on display at the Met Breuer Museum in New York. Bentham was featured in an exhibition called ‘Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now.’ But lest UCL students fear that they have lost him forever as he finally achieves his dream of travelling to America, be reassured that Bentham will return in time for UCL graduation selfies in September.

Who was Jeremy Bentham?

Jeremy Bentham was an English Philosopher and social reformer, considered as the founder of Utilitarianism – the principle of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ Born in Spitalfields, London on 15 February 1748, the young Bentham was a child prodigy. By three he was studying Latin, and at twelve he attended Queen’s College, University of Oxford. If you’ve just graduated from university and are feeling like an underachiever, Jeremy Bentham is probably not the man to compare yourself to! Yet despite his prolific intelligence, Bentham was something of an oddball – he fondly referred to his home as ‘the hermitage’ and himself as the ‘hermit,’ he had two walking sticks that he named Dapple and Dobbin and spent many years of his life sharing a bed with his pet pig. As you have probably guessed from this information, Bentham was a fan of his solitude, although he occasionally allowed friends to dine with him, provided that he could create a list of conversation topics beforehand.

Jeremy Bentham’s moral philosophy

‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.’

Prior to the appearance of his auto-icon at UCL, complete with the matching pub, The Jeremy Bentham (now regrettably turned into a branch of the Simmons chain, though they’ve retained his head), Bentham was best-known as a moral philosopher, social reformer, and jurist. His utilitarian principle has spawned a series of fascinating thought experiments, such as this one by Harvard Lecturer Michael Sandel, that bring into question the ethical implications of the principle. Bentham was also the inceptor of the famous Panopticon – the model of a prison where inmates could be seen at all times by a single watchman. Bentham’s panopticon went on to inspire the design of prisons the world over: Presidio Modelo prison in Cuba, is one such example. Commenting on the prison’s design, Bentham said:

The building circular, a cage glazed…By blinds and other contrivances, the inspectors concealed […] from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipotence.

No wonder Bentham’s panopticon inspired Orwell’s dystopian surveillance classic 1984!

Bentham’s special relationship with University College London was born out of their shared principles. Founded in 1826 and the third oldest English university after Oxford and Cambridge, UCL was the first university to accept those traditionally excluded from education – women, non-conformists, Catholics, and Jews. Bentham’s large estate was used to fund the building of University College London: and thereon began London’s global university.

Jeremy Bentham and death

Despite being a well-respected Philosopher and Philanthropist, where Bentham truly gained infamy was regarding his interest in death and bodily preservation. In 1831 he wrote to the London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs in his garden with mummified corpses as they would be ‘more aesthetic than flowers.’ Bentham took his fascination with the dead beyond that of the horticultural when he penned a pamphlet titled Auto-Icon; Or Farther Uses of the Dead to the living, inspired by the preserved heads of the New Zealand Maori. Although Auto-Icons of the dead have not exactly become the norm, Jeremy intended his pamphlet to universalise Corpse-preservation – to make death useful, and, to some extent, to normalise it – perhaps not such a bad idea given that society (in the 19th century and now) tends to treat dying and death as a dirty word, often still reduced to whispered conversations and condolence cards.

In order to put his words into action, Bentham left his body to close friend Doctor Thomas Southwood Smith – the preservation involved removing the flesh from his bones, before placing his internal organs in jars resembling ‘wine decanters.’ Bentham’s skeleton was then pinned together with wire and padded with hay, before donning his favourite suite. The only part of the process that did not go to plan was the preservation of Bentham’s head – a mishap on Southwood Smith’s part resulted in Bentham resembling more of a sunburnt Gollum than the magnificence that Bentham himself had envisaged.

Still, all was not lost. In place of Bentham’s real head was a wax (and much more aesthetically pleasing) replacement head, whilst his real head was relegated to a vault at UCL. A whole host of rumours surround the severed head – a rumour that UCL’s rivals King’s College London stole his head and played football with it as revenge for UCL students stealing their mascot persists around campus today. The head itself recently enjoyed renewed attention when it was brought out of its vault and displayed in UCL’s Octagon Gallery, as part of their ground-breaking exhibition on What does it mean to be human? – which explored a topic that would have fascinated Bentham himself: what relationship do the dead have with the living?

Proving that his Auto-Icon has left a legacy beyond that which even Bentham himself may have anticipated, Bentham’s body is still carefully wheeled out to attend University Council Meetings (though sadly he is not thought to be in the right condition to influence UCL’s political future, so he is recorded as ‘present, but not voting.’) It, therefore, seems fitting to leave the final words of this article with Bentham himself, whose voice and presence still appears as canny and knowing as it did over two-hundred years ago:

Twenty Years, after I am dead, I shall be a despot, sitting in my chair with dapple in my hand, & wearing one of the coats I wear now.

Sources:

QI: Quite Interesting
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Arts and Culture, Film, Horror

Film Review: Hereditary – ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Gone Wrong

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The Following Review Contains Some Spoilers. Avoid if you have not seen Hereditary or wish to avoid spoilers.

This is a controversial opinion: I didn’t like Hereditary. As a big fan of smart and original horror films, the macabre flick that hit cinemas in mid-June has been on my list of must-see Summer films since the buzz surrounding it began. And there has been a lot of buzz. It has a very respectable 89% of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, The Sundance Film Festival called it ‘The Scariest Horror Movie Ever’ and critics queued up to lavish it with praise. The Vulture’s David Edelstein described it as making the viewer ‘see things you can never unsee and feel pain you can never un-feel’, whilst The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it a ‘brilliant fear machine.’ So it was perhaps no wonder that my expectations were sky-high.

The premise is a very solid one. When the stony and mysterious matriarch, 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh passes away, she leaves a chilling legacy behind in the form of an unidentified hereditary illness (I guess the clue is in the title!) Her death leaves her family devastated, but probably not in the way you would expect. You see, Leigh was far from a lovable Betty White figure – we get the impression that her passing is more of a relief than a source of bereavement. She leaves behind her daughter, Annie Graham, played by the ever-sensational Toni Collette, and her troubled grandchildren Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). Shapiro is wonderfully creepy as Grandma’s favourite – when we see her carefully cutting off a pigeon’s head as though she is merely crafting at school and staring statue-like into the camera, it quickly becomes clear that we’ve got a child villain to rival even The Omen’s Damien. It’s a pity, therefore that Shapiro is underused, as is her fiendish accomplice, Grandma Taper Lee, and although director Ari Aster has very good reasons for this, the result is that it shifts Hereditary from spine-chilling extravaganza to occasionally farcical.

That is not to say that Hereditary does not have some good moments – it’s a cleverly crafted film, with everything from Charlie’s creepy decapitation of the pigeon, to the inscription of Paimon’s symbol on the phone post that kills Charlie, all pointing towards Hereditary’s grizzly conclusion. Charlie’s decpitation which occurs less than an hour into the film has become the most talked about scene in the movie and for good reason. It’s director Ari Aster’s favourite and the whole sequence is simultaneously sickening, brutal and unnervingly real. After going to a party with her pot-loving brother, Charlie has an allergic reaction to chocolate cake containing nuts. Whilst her frantic brother attempts to drive her to the hospital, Charlie sticks her head out of the window to try and gasp for air, before being accidentally decapitated by a phone post. Rather than calling the ambulance or his parents, a shell-shocked Peter simply drives home and goes to bed, leaving his parents to discover their daughter’s horrific death the next morning. The sequence switches between close-ups of Peter’s eyes, Collette’s wailing and finally the image of Charlie’s bloodied head surrounded by insects. Hereditary certainly isn’t afraid to be shocking or ugly – and here it works to brilliant effect. But the rest of the film just cannot sustain this. You do not need to be a first-class film critic to know that Hereditary is intended to be artistic, innovative and, much like Darren Aronovsky’s Mother!, sometimes hideously over-the-top. To read it as a metaphor of and a meditation on the pernicious and often insidious impact that mental health conditions can have on entire families is a smart and compelling idea. All these ideas can be appreciated and admired, without necessarily approving of the way they were executed (pardon the pun!)

I’d also venture that disliking or feeling indifferent towards Hereditary is not a sign that mass culture has infected our ability to appreciate a well-made film. Although many modern audiences undoubtedly lap up the likes of the Saw franchise and its butcher-circus, having never been a fan of gore for the sake of gore, I don’t think Hereditary’s rejection of mainstream horror tropes was what made me dislike it. After all, the film contains plenty of bloody-violence – sometimes well done, as in the aforementioned scene, but sometimes it seemed it was playing a little too much on its ability to shock and show macabre images that other films dare not. The problem at the heart of Hereditary, for me, is that whilst it draws heavily on some of the best horror films of all time – Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist have been two popular comparisons – it fails to leave its audience in awe. It ventures towards an exploration of the paranoia and neuroses that is part of everyday living, but unlike Rosemary’s Baby it fails to deliver the final, gut-wrenching pay-off that could have rendered it comparable to such classics.

Arts and Culture, Literature

Charles Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas 🎄

Read ‘Humbug to Hygge’ Savage Online

JESSICA BEASLEY considers ‘hygge’ and the Yuletide legacy of Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.    Unless you have decided to boycott bookshops this winter, almost undoubtedly you will have encountered the nation’s growing fascination with hygge–the art of Danish happiness. For those of us with neither the funds nor inclination to redecorate our houses in wood, candles and Scandi soft furnishings, the closest we get to indulging in hygge is during Christmas–‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ definitely counts. Patrick Kingsley, author of the travel book How To Be Danish, asserts that the idea is ‘rooted in the Danish sense of togetherness, and perhaps even in Denmark’s social democracy’. Possibly, Christmas’s most famous social commentator, Charles Dickens, encapsulated the importance of values such as generosity, warmth and community in his 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. Since its publication, A Christmas Carol has become increasingly ever-present in popular culture, forging a close association…