Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vincent Starrett

Brexit pursued by a bear

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Paddington 2, which can accurately be described as the best live-action children’s movie since Paddington. These are charming films, and the worst that can be said of them is that they’re clearly trying hard to be better than they have any right to be. Unlike an artist like Hayao Miyazaki, who constructs stories according to his own secret logic and ends up seizing the imagination of adults and children across the world, director Paul King and his collaborators are more in the tradition of Pixar, which does amazing work and never lets you forget it for a second. (If you want to reach back even further, you could say that these movies split the difference between Babe, a technically phenomenal film that somehow managed to seem effortless, and Babe: Pig in the City, an unquestioned masterpiece that often felt on the verge of flying apart under the pressure of George Miller’s ambitions.) Paddington 2, in particular, is so indebted to the work of Wes Anderson, especially The Grand Budapest Hotel, that it seems less like a pastiche than an unauthorized knockoff. Is it really an act of homage to painstakingly recreate the look of a movie that came out less than four years ago? But it also doesn’t matter. It’s as if King and his collaborators realized that Anderson’s work amounted to an industrial process that was being wasted if it wasn’t being used to make a children’s movie, so they decided to copy it before the patent expired. The result isn’t quite on the level of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a major work of art that also seems to have been made by and for twelve-year-old kids. But it’s more than enough until Anderson finally makes the Encyclopedia Brown adaptation of my dreams.

Paddington 2 also doubles as the best advertisement for Britain in film since the heyday of the Ministry of Information, with a roster of such ringers as Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Joanna Lumley, as well as a wonderfully diverse supporting cast. (It also gives Hugh Grant—the quintessential British export of the last quarter of a century—his best role in a long time.) It’s the most loving portrait of London that any movie has provided in years, with a plot driven by an implausible treasure hunt that serves as an excuse to tour such landmarks as Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Watching it is almost enough to make you forget the fact that just a few months before production began, the United Kingdom narrowly voted to effectively withdraw from its role as a global power. It might seem like a stretch to see a children’s movie through the lens of Brexit, but nearly every British film of the postwar period can be read as a commentary on the nation’s sometimes painful efforts to redefine itself in a changing world order. Nostalgia is often a strategy for dealing with harsher realities, and escapism can be more revealing than it knows, with even the James Bond series serving as a form of wishful thinking. And America should be paying close attention. A nation on the decline no longer has the luxury of having its movies stand for nothing but themselves, and Britain provides a striking case study for what happens to a culture after its period of ascendancy is over. The United States, like its nearest relation, threw away much of its credibility a year and a half ago in a fit of absentmindedness.

This partially accounts for our sudden fascination with Britain and its royal family, which seems to have risen to levels unseen since the death of Princess Diana. Part of it amounts to an accident of timing—the flurry of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday and sapphire jubilee generated a flood of content that was more available to American viewers than ever before, and we were unusually primed to receive it. Over the last year or so, my wife and I have watched something like three different documentaries about the Windsors, along with The Crown and The Great British Baking Show, the soothing rhythms of which make Top Chef seem frantic by comparison. Above all else, we’ve followed the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which has often been mined for clues as to its possible social and political significance. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

This may be because [the engagement is] legit the only bit of non-terrible news that’s happened in the last year. But there’s more to it than that. This is a royal wedding for non-royalists, even for anti-royalists…There is another important way in which Markle’s arrival reconfigures what Prince Philip reportedly calls “the Firm.” Not only is she American, she is also of mixed race: Markle’s mother is African-American, and her father is white…Whatever else Markle brings to the gilded royal table in terms of glamour, intelligence, and charm, her experience of racial prejudice is unprecedented among members of the royal family. At a time when racial bigotry and nativism is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, the coming to prominence at the heart of Britain’s First Family of an American woman whose ancestors were enslaved could not be more welcome, or more salutary.

The unstated point is that even as the United Kingdom goes through convulsions of its own, at least it gets to have this. And we can’t be blamed for wanting to clutch some of it to ourselves. After quoting Princess Diana’s wish that she become “a queen of people’s hearts,” Mead adds:

For those of us horrified by the President’s imperial, autocratic instincts—by his apparent wish to reinstate a feudal system with himself at its apex, attended by a small court of plutocrats who, like him, have been even further enriched by Republican tax reform—might we not claim Harry and Meghan as the monarchs of our hearts? Might they not serve as paradoxical avatars of our own hopes for a more open, more international, more unified, and fairer world?

It’s hard to quarrel with this basically harmless desire to comfort ourselves with the images of the monarchy, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. The building blocks of so much of my inner life—from the Sherlock Holmes stories to the movies of Powell and Pressburger—reflect a nostalgia for an England, as Vincent Starrett put it, “where it is always 1895.” It’s an impulse as old as Walt Disney, a Chicago child whose studio turned into a propaganda mill in the early sixties for the values of the Edwardian era. (As much as I love Mary Poppins, it’s hard to overlook the fact that it premiered just a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and against a backdrop of race riots in Philadelphia.) America has nostalgic myths of its own, but it tends to fall back on its British forebears when it feels particularly insecure about its own legacy. When it becomes too difficult to look at ourselves, we close our eyes and think of England.

“Knowledge of Politics—Feeble”

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Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Five Orange Pips"

In A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, there’s a celebrated passage in which Watson tries to figure out his mystifying roommate. At this point in their relationship, he doesn’t even know what Holmes does for a living, and he’s bewildered by the gaps in his new friend’s knowledge, such as his ignorance of the Copernican model of the solar system. When Watson informs him that the earth goes around the sun, Holmes says: “Now that I do know it, I shall do my best to forget it.” He tells Watson that the human brain is like “a little empty attic,” and that it’s a mistake to assume that the room has elastic walls, concluding: “If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” In fact, it’s clear that he’s gently pulling Watson’s leg: Holmes certainly shows plenty of practical astronomical knowledge in stories like “The Musgrave Ritual,” and he later refers casually to making “allowance for the personal equation, as the astronomers put it.” At the time, Watson wasn’t in on the joke, and he took it all at face value when he made his famous list of Holmes’s limitations. Knowledge of literature, philosophy, and astronomy was estimated as “nil,” while botany was “variable,” geology was “practical, but limited,” chemistry was “profound,” and anatomy—in an expression that I’ve always loved—was “accurate, but unsystematic.”

But the evaluation that has probably inspired the most commentary is “Knowledge of Politics—Feeble.” Ever since, commentators have striven mightily to reconcile this with their conception of Holmes, which usually means forcing him into the image of their own politics. In Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?, T.S. Blakeney observes that Holmes takes no interest, in “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” in “the news of a revolution, of a possible war, and of an impending change of government,” and he concludes:

It is hard to believe that Holmes, who had so close a grip on realities, could ever have taken much interest in the pettiness of party politics, nor could so strong an individualist have anything but contempt for the equalitarian ideals of much modern sociological theory.

S.C. Roberts, in “The Personality of Sherlock Holmes,” objected to the latter point, arguing that Holmes’s speech in “The Naval Treaty” on English boarding schools—“Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future”—is an expression of Victorian liberalism at its finest. Roberts writes:

It is perfectly true that the clash of political opinions and of political parties does not seem to have aroused great interest in Holmes’s mind. But, fundamentally, there can be no doubt that Holmes believed in democracy and progress.

Sidney Paget illustration of Mycroft Holmes

In reality, Holmes’s politics are far from a mystery. As the descendant of “country squires,” he rarely displayed anything less than a High Tory respect for the rights of landed gentry, and he remained loyal to the end to Queen Victoria, the “certain gracious lady in whose interests he had once been fortunate enough to carry out a small commission.” He was obviously an individualist in his personal habits, in the venerable tradition of British eccentrics, which doesn’t mean that his political views—as some have contended—were essentially libertarian. Holmes had a very low regard for the freedom of action of the average human being, and with good reason. The entire series was predicated on the notion that men and women are totally predictable, moving within their established courses so reliably that a trained detective can see into the past and forecast the future. As someone once noted, Holmes’s deductions are based on a chain of perfectly logical inferences that would have been spoiled by a single mistake on the part of the murderer. Holmes didn’t particularly want the world to change, because it was the familiar canvas on which he practiced his art. (His brother Mycroft, after all, was the British government.) The only individuals who break out of the pattern are criminals, and even then, it’s a temporary disruption. You could say that the entire mystery genre is inherently conservative: it’s all about the restoration of order, and in the case of Holmes, it means the order of a world, in Vincent Starrett’s words, “where it is always 1895.”

I love Sherlock Holmes, and in a large part, it’s the nostalgia for that era—especially by those who never had to live with it or its consequences—that makes the stories so appealing. But it’s worth remembering what life was really like at the end of the nineteenth century for those who weren’t as fortunate. (Arthur Conan Doyle identified, incidentally, as a Liberal Unionist, a forgotten political party that was so muddled in its views that it inspired a joke in The Importance of Being Earnest: “What are your politics?” “Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.” And there’s no question that Conan Doyle believed wholeheartedly in the British Empire and all it represented.) Over the last few months, there have been times when I’ve thought approvingly of what Whitfield J. Bell says in “Holmes and History”:

Holmes’s knowledge of politics was anything but weak or partial. Of the hurly-burly of the machines, the petty trade for office and advantage, it is perhaps true that Holmes knew little. But of politics on the highest level, in the grand manner, particularly international politics, no one was better informed.

I can barely stand to look at a newspaper these days, so it’s tempting to take a page from Holmes and ignore “the petty trade for office and advantage.” And I often do. But deep down, it implies an acceptance of the way things are now. And it seems a little feeble.

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