The year 2018 was a notable one for goldfish. Their attention span, as they continued their laps of the tank, remained constant at about nine seconds. But – four years ago – ours was found to have fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to a puny eight; for the first time, behind our freshwater pets.
Neuroscientists are learning more and more about the ways in which the digital revolution has rewired our brains. What is already certain is that the shape and character of human memory – individual and collective – are mutating at the most fundamental level.
For this, and other reasons, I am unimpressed by the charge that This England (Sky Atlantic, Now), the new six-part dramatisation of the pandemic’s first wave, directed by Michael Winterbottom and Julian Jarrold, is tastelessly premature. On the contrary: it’s about time.
For a start, the notion that creativity should be governed by such arbitrary criteria – that pearl-clutching decorum has a power of veto in art – is patently absurd. In any case, where coronavirus is concerned, the work of producing the first draft of cultural recollection began some time ago. I remember vividly sitting at the Bridge Theatre, way back in August 2020; masked, in a socially-distanced audience, watching Ralph Fiennes’ bravura performance in David Hare’s monologue Beat the Devil: A Covid Monologue.
Jack Thorne’s powerful drama Help (All 4), set in a Liverpool care home during the first wave of the virus, starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham, was first televised in September 2021. And there has already been a crop of Covid fiction: Ali Smith’s Summer, the final instalment in her stunning Seasonal Quartet; Roddy Doyle’s short story collection, Life Without Children; and, in its vision of the future, Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (see Creative Sensemaker, 6 January, 2022).
What This England adds to the mix is a vivid portrayal of what was going on – and not going on – in Downing Street as the virus first struck these shores in January 2020. We see Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh) ambling about Number 10 like an amiable silverback; a mess of pleasantries, mutterings and grumblings about his dog, Dilyn.
The sense of lethal unpreparedness is appallingly palpable. This is a gang still high on their recent election victory: “Hey, hey, hey! We did it!” bellows the prime minister. “We smashed the road block!” Truly, they are favoured by the gods – aren’t they?
Branagh’s performance is astonishing. He nails not only Johnson’s distinctive gait and body language, but his voice (check out, for example, the uncanny precision of the “oo” phoneme in “you” or “true”). A great shame, then, that the heavy prosthetics he wears are such a distraction – more like a Halloween mask, or the basis of a comedy skit on The Elephant Boris. In this case, less would have been more.
Ophelia Lovibond is excellent as Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s then fiancée, and Andrew Buchan perfectly captures Matt Hancock, desperately trying to meet Covid test targets at the Department of Health and all too aware that he is in permanent danger of being the fall guy when it all goes wrong. Admirers of The Thick of It may be initially confused to see Justin Edwards, who played the hapless minister Ben Swain, as the altogether more competent cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill.
Simon Paisley Day’s take on Dominic Cummings is very different to Benedict Cumberbatch’s in Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019): more sinuous, more menacing, as digitised and soulless as his plans for the nation. “We need to think about the climate, not the weather,” he says, with the air of a man who knows he is powerful enough to get away with inscrutable aphorisms.
Spliced into this are frequently traumatic scenes from hospital wards and care homes, as the government’s response strategy unravels and those on the front line – and those they care for – are left to pay the price for gross incompetence at the centre. It is hard to watch these sequences, hard to revisit the suffering of our fellow Britons at a time of crisis. All the more reason to do so. We have no right to avert our gaze.
In which context, it will be objected that Johnson is depicted too sympathetically. But this, again, is to confuse creativity with scholarly history or journalism. Millions of words have already been written and countless hours of factual broadcasting produced on the UK’s performance during the pandemic (check out Tortoise’s own Covid Inquiry here). The audit will continue for many years to come; meanwhile, the first, preliminary hearings of the government’s official investigation, chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, begin on Tuesday, 4 October.
What drama adds to our understanding – if it succeeds – is humanity, nuance and meaning. Johnson is indeed portrayed as a tragic figure, but only in the formal sense: a man doomed by his fatal flaws to a terrible reckoning. Accordingly, This England, which takes its title from John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II, makes abundant use of literature and classical culture.
Johnson, worried about his unwritten book on Shakespeare, quotes constantly from the plays, almost as a nervous tic. He frets that, like Lear, he is becoming a “poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man”. No less than Hamlet, he senses a convergence with fate: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.” Likewise, his nightmares are black and white scenes from the banks of the river Styx, images from antiquity, in which members of his estranged family take him to task for his sins.
As it happens, this is more naturalistic than you might suppose. Johnson is indeed given to quoting poetry, almost reflexively (remember when, as foreign secretary, he was urged by the UK’s ambassador to Myanmar to stop reciting Kipling’s The Road to Mandalay during an official visit in 2017?). It is also true that the former PM loves few books more than Jasper Griffin’s Homer on Life and Death (1980).
But the stylised immersion of the key protagonist in a world of myth and canonical art also allows This England to explore the weakness of those who seek power at all costs. Charles Dance appears as Max Hastings at the start of the drama: “I have a hunch that Johnson will come to regret securing the prize for which he struggled so long.”
Again, I rather doubt that he has reached that point, or will ever do so. But This England poses the question: how much, if any guilt, does this now-departed crew of narcissists feel over their chronic mishandling of the greatest challenge to face their generation?
“Have we failed?” Johnson asks Cummings. “I think we failed.” Whether the former PM is capable of such self-knowledge is open to question. But – in a dramatic setting – it works as a moment of necessary self-reproach. This, at least, is what the two men should have been feeling, and still be feeling to this day.
Remembrance, art and plague are intimately entangled. The Black Death left an indelible cultural footprint, from The Decameron to the allegories of La Danse Macabre. In contrast, the 1918 flu pandemic was almost eradicated from memory and conspicuously overlooked by most artists; as Laura Spinney writes in her definitive history, Pale Rider, the millions of deaths from Spanish flu, so soon after the horrors of the First World War, became the “dark matter of the universe, so intimate and familiar as not to be spoken about.”
Yet such repression is bad for the collective psyche of the species. It weakens us, in every sense. As Milan Kundera teaches us, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. This was instantly understood in the early years of the Aids crisis by gay writers, who grasped that the epidemic needed to be portrayed in creative form as soon as possible, not only to raise contemporary awareness but to commemorate the dead in years to come and warn future generations of the ways in which they had been betrayed: in this respect, there is a direct line that connects Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) to Tony Kushner’s monumental Angels in America (1991-1992).
The sheer scale of what happened in this country during the pandemic has yet, I think, to sink in fully. Or, to put it another way, we were so busy at the time putting one foot in front of the other – worrying about our children, about our elderly friends and relatives, about the mental health and physical safety of those locked down in cramped conditions for weeks, about what one Cabinet minister described to me at the time as the “abattoirs” of care homes – that we could not wait, once Covid restrictions were lifted fully (at least in England) in February, to say “goodbye all that”.
Yet that is not really an option, if we are honest. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than 200,000 people in the UK have had Covid cited on their death certificates. To put this figure in perspective, 454,000 British soldiers and civilians were killed in the Second World War: more than twice as many as fell victim to Covid, but over a period of nearly six years. No, the pandemic was not a military conflict; but its human cost was colossal. We have to keep reminding ourselves of this, as painful as it is. And art and creativity have a central role to play in that enduring process of memorialisation.
Why? To honour the dead, of course. But also to prepare ourselves better for the next time that the mighty let us down so prodigiously. John of Gaunt’s speech has a sting in its tail: “That England, that was wont to conquer others,” he declares, “Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” Yes, it did. And, incredibly, it is, already, all happening again. For further details, just turn on the news.
Tortoise Lates: History
In partnership with the Uncommon Wines
Tune in for an evening of conversation, ideas and entertainment, exclusively for Tortoise members. We’ll be joined by guests including Gyles Bandreth, Otto English and Kate Mosse.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Jungle (Prime Video, 30 September)
When I say that Jungle is unlike anything you have seen before, I choose my words with care. Set in the world of grime music and London gangland, this six-episode drama – directed by Chas Appeti and Junior Okoli (the creative duo also known as NOTHING LOST) – eschews all the standard tropes and formats of the gangsta rap genre. It is something new, truly artistic and deeply compelling.
At the heart of Jungle is the dilemma faced by Gogo (Ezra Elliott, superb) as he tries to extricate himself from the aftermath of a robbery gone horribly wrong, to placate his pregnant girlfriend Jessica (Nadia A’Rubea), and to smooth things over with his partner Slim (played by the rapper RA). But such a summary does not even begin to convey the strangeness, beauty and audacity of this drama.
The characters shift from conversation to rap and back again as they drive through a neon city that owes more to Blade Runner (1982) and graphic novels than to, say, Bullet Boy (2004) or Kidulthood (2006). At times, the aesthetic is so unworldly and sepia-tinged that it verges on the Lynchian. In crepuscular, dreamlike rooms, we witness a lethal oscillation between money and poverty, life and death, friendship and betrayal.
The series oozes talent: Tinie Tempah, M24, Jaykae and Unknown T all add their considerable performing powers to the enterprise, and you can see why. This is an extraordinary work of creativity – rooted in hard reality – that defines its own terms with majestic results.
A prequel to a prequel? Bear with me. If you have followed the fate of the Star Wars franchise since it was bought by Disney a decade ago, you might well agree that the best film in the series to have been spawned since the exit of George Lucas is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), set directly before the very first movie of the lot: now known, cumbersomely, as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).
The latest small-screen offering from Disney+ is a 12-part series tracing the backstory of the Rogue One character, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his transformation from criminal to anti-imperial rebel. In The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, showrunner Jon Favreau reimagined the Star Wars world through the prism of a spaghetti Western. In Andor, Tony Gilroy (screenwriter on Rogue One) takes the viewer into a gritty world of crime and espionage.
Unlike the most operatic Star Wars series to date, Obi-Wan Kenobi (see Creative Sensemaker, 26 May 2022), Andor does not depend – so far, at least – upon dramatic appearances by familiar characters from the movies, or unfiltered fan nostalgia. Instead, the anti-hero Cassian is introduced to us selling contraband in the Preox-Morlana Corporate Zone, pursued by the fabulously officious Syril Karn (Kyle Soller). Fretted over by his adoptive mother Maarva (Fiona Shaw) and their stuttering droid B2EMO (Dave Chapman), he has the unkempt look of a man who is inexorably headed for even more trouble.
The fourth episode involves a major shift of location which it would be wrong to reveal, and a deepening of the plot from underworld chase scenes to the highest of high politics. Very promising.
Karen Pirie (ITV Hub)
What makes a great police procedural? It helps if you are drawing upon top-quality source material – as director Gareth Bryn (who worked on season six of Line of Duty) undoubtedly is with Val McDermid’s The Distant Echo.
You need a terrific lead actor: in this case, Lauren Lyle as DS Karen Pirie, recently promoted to Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit in Fife. There has to be an occasionally baffled but deeply reliable sidekick, in the form of DC Jason Murray AKA “The Mint” (Chris Jenks). And – if possible – you need room to breathe: which is why it makes such a difference that each of the three episodes of this excellent drama are two hours long.
Pirie is tasked with a 25-year-old unsolved murder case, in which a young barmaid, Rosie Duff (Anna Russell-Martin) was discovered dead in a cathedral graveyard by three students. What do they remember, a quarter century on? The action moves back and forth from the time of the murder to the present day – a familiar device in cop shows that often feels forced but works well in the dramatic space afforded by longer episodes.
There are plenty of twists along the way, and the mini-series undoubtedly establishes Lauren Lyle as a lead worthy of further series. Since there are already six Karen Pirie novels, this is not an idle hope.
Terry Pratchett, A Life with Footnotes: The Official Biography (Doubleday)
The late Sir Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015, wrote more than 50 books – 41 of them set in the fantasy universe of Discworld – which have sold more than 100 million copies. One that he did not get around to writing was his autobiography; and it is by using the author’s notes for that book as well as drawing upon years of experience as his personal assistant, that Rob Wilkins has delivered this highly entertaining and often moving account of a remarkable life.
Fans be warned: this is not an in-depth exploration of Discworld arcana or a traditional literary biography, delving into the multi-layered mythologies of Pratchett’s work. In truth, however, this is a strength, especially as there are many such guides already, mostly but not solely online. Instead, Wilkins plays Boswell to his boss’s Johnson, taking us to the very heart of Pratchettworld: the foibles, habits and personality traits that were the engine of his comic genius.
The author himself often said that what he wrote was “closer to hallucinations than imaginings” and this meant that he wrote feverishly, in a mixture of fonts and without chapters, scornful of plans, post-it notes and other standard tools of the novelist’s trade. He was, though, obsessed with stationery supplies: “I could have bought a Scottish island. But where do you go when your printer runs out of toner?”
Generally, he embarked upon one of his fictions by deciding how it would end. So when, in December 2007, he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease, he lost no time in confronting the reality of a foreshortened life; and – more to the point – trying to understand what constituted a good death. Famously, he made the case for assisted dying in his 2010 Richard Dimbleby Lecture (delivered on his behalf by Tony Robinson, and available to watch here). He called his illness “an embuggerance”, and, for all the sadness of its final act, this book is far from depressing: demonstrating as it does the magic of writing and the power of laughter, love and the imagination to defy death itself.
Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe – Ian Kershaw (Allen Lane)
In an era of strongman leadership, right-wing populism and imperilled democracy, it is natural that the role of individual character, as opposed to impersonal forces, is once again in the intellectual spotlight. Henry Kissinger took a run at this very question in his recent book Leadership (see Creative Sensemaker, 30 June) and now it is the turn of Ian Kershaw, author of the definitive biography of Hitler and many other works of European history.
In addition to the Nazi dictator, he takes as his case studies Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin. Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Franco, Tito, Thatcher, Gorbachev and Kohl. Did Thomas Carlyle get it right when he wrote that history is essentially the “practical realisation and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world”?
Not surprisingly, Kershaw won’t settle for such a reductionist view. Yes, he concludes, the dominant individual can be decisive in the unfolding of human affairs, sometimes to monstrous effect: “no Hitler, no Holocaust.” As for Churchill: “The role of the individual in history has never been more clearly demonstrated than in the critical events of 1940. Without him history would have taken a different course”.
On the other hand: Lenin was the beneficiary of a revolutionary movement as well as one of its prime architects, just as Mussolini’s rise would have been unthinkable without the collapse in Italian parliamentary politics. Kershaw is especially interesting on the importance of what Max Weber calls the “charismatic community”: the group around a leader that acts as a “power-cartel”, propagates the myth of the Chosen One and maintains the stranglehold on power.
In the end, as the great historian of Rome Ronald Syme concluded, all regimes are oligarchies. But the character of the person at the top will always be a subject of profound fascination, especially in these precarious times: in which respect, the most intriguing of Kershaw’s chapters is his study of Gorbachev, neither despot nor a born democrat, but a transitional and profoundly consequential figure all the same. Where are the Gorbachevs of 2022?
What Just Happened?!: Dispatches from Turbulent Times – Marina Hyde (Guardian Faber, 4 October)
At a ThinkIn in June to mark the release of the sequel to Top Gun, I introduced Marina Hyde – who, like me and many others, is obsessed by the original movie – as the Maverick of columnists, alongside whom all the rest of us were just competing to be Goose.
My confidence that, like Tom Cruise, she is the best of the best has only been strengthened by reading this marvellous collection of Guardian pieces from 2016 to 2022. The words “laugh out loud” have been debased into meaninglessness, but I really did find myself wiping away tears of mirth as I read (or rather re-read) gem after gem of observation upon the politics of the past six years.
As Hyde remarks in the introduction, her background in showbusiness and sports journalism turned out to be a perfect preparation for what has happened to public life in the past decade, as the pursuit and exercise of power have become a branch of the entertainment industry and the world of Westminster has been transformed into the national screen on which we watch “reality politics.”
As is the case with all the greatest satirists, her genius as a writer is that she is deadly serious, driven by Juvenal’s saeva indignatio – fierce indignation.
Try this, from June 2016: “Farage was playing dog-whistle politics. Forgive me: he was playing whistle politics. Understanding the import of the words ‘BREAKING POINT’ across a snaking queue of stricken brown-skinned people does not require ultra-sonic capabilities. You can stand down, Lassie. You’re not needed today, girl.” Or this, from January 2022: “Johnson’s turn as ‘prime minister’ seems to have moved past the sarcastic air quotes phase. This feels a lot like government by the crazy-face emoji, tongue lolling out and one eye boggling bigger than the other.”
Rarely does a commentator come along who is absolutely equal to her times; but Marina Hyde is one of them. I’d call her a national treasure, but she’d only write a ferociously funny piece of satire, tearing that very notion and her own public image to pieces. And we need her too much.
Here’s What You Could Have Won – Kid Kapichi
“You’re such a fool Britannia/ Britannia fooled again/ Britannia, you’re so vain/ You’ve gone insane”: the lyrics of ‘New England’, opening track on Kid Kapichi’s second album, seem all too close to the bone in this tumultuous week – and the song also features terrific grime-punk duo Bob Vylan.
At a cultural moment when so much pop music is introspective and confessional, the Hastings quartet – Jack Wilson, Ben Beetham, Eddie Lewis and George Macdonald – offer a bracing and brilliant alternative, diving into the mosh pit of political and social crisis with a sharp punk sound and unapologetic lyrical snark. For instance: “Don’t get excited/ You’re not invited/ To the party at Number 10/ Cause it’s one rule for you/ And another for them.”
After so many achingly personal pandemic albums, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear angry songs about law and order (‘Cops & Robbers’), social media (‘I.N.V.U.’) and mind-numbing work (‘5 Days On (2 Days Off)’). And in case you were wondering: the group’s oddball name was supposedly inspired not by an anime character or an Italian thrash song but a weird vocal loop they heard while mixing a track – “kid-kapeh, kid-kapeh”. I bet that’s not true, by the way. But it’s just the sort of nonsense that a great punk band tells the press.
Tippett: The Midsummer Marriage (Live) – Edward Gardner, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, English National Opera Chorus
I was lucky enough to be at the glorious opening performance on Saturday of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s new season – Edward Gardner conducting more than 300 people in a dazzling interpretation of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (you can catch it here on Radio 3 playback).
And now here is the same orchestra’s recording of Michael Tippett’s weird and wonderful three-act opera: a work that was composed at a dark time in Tippett’s life, during which he was jailed for conscientious objection. The Midsummer Marriage is a homage to The Magic Flute, but it also imports Jungian symbolism, the poetry of Yeats and Eliot’s The Waste Land (which turns 100 in October).
As Gardner wrote last year of the work that he chose for his first concert as principal conductor of the LPO, the composer “made music that is otherworldly, luminous and elemental, which strikes right from his inspiration to a listener’s heart.” Featuring strong performances by Robert Murray, Rachel Nicholls, Jennifer France, Toby Spence, Ashley Riches, and Claire Barnett-Jones, this is a wonderful recording from an orchestra that is presently one of the jewels in the British cultural crown.
Hold the Girl – Rina Sawayama
Perfect pop is rare enough – but how many albums that scale such heights also have an opening track that takes its title (“Minor Feelings”) from a collection of essays by Cathy Park Hong? Two years after her acclaimed debut, Rina Sawayama returns with 13 tracks that should propel her towards true stardom.
With a voice that seems, at different moments, to channel Shania Twain, Karen Carpenter and Lady Gaga, the Japanese-British singer explores isolation, the price exacted by religious pressure (“Found my peace when I lost my religion/All these years, I wished I was different”) and feminist rage (“Fuck what they did to Britney/To Lady Di and Whitney”).
The stand-out number is ‘Send My Love to John,’ a gentle country ballad sung from the perspective of conservative mother who now accepts her gay son and his partner (“And I’m sorry for the things I’ve done/ I misguided love, to my only son/ Trying to protect you, but I guess I was wrong/ So send my love, send my love to John”). The whole album exudes talent, intelligence and stadium-ready catchiness. Tour details can be found here.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Sky UK Ltd, Manuel Harlan/Bridge Theatre, Channel 4, Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, Helen Maybanks/National Theatre, Prime Video, Lucasfilm Ltd/Disney+, ITV, Mark Allan/LPO