Patrick Melrose on TV

I hadn’t been sure if I’d wanted to see the Patrick Melrose TV adaptation. There is a permanent place in my heart for the Edward St Aubyn novels, but the marketing around the series suggested a kind of glitzy “Crazy Rich Britons”, playing up Benedict Cumberbatch as a kind of hard-partying squirearchy playboy. Certainly something must be very wrong with anyone who can read these books – which are first and foremost profound studies of cruelty and kindness – and see primarily glamour. But I ended up watching the show on a flight anyway.

I suppose the whole “playboy” tack must have been a bait-and-switch marketing ploy, as was, I imagine, the decision to swap the order of ‘Bad News’ and ‘Never Mind’, thereby maximising Cumberbatch (and drug use) screen time in the first episode. But it turned out overall a competent and faithful retelling, with for me some surprising (in a good way) portrayals of David and Eleanor Melrose, as well as a delightfully horrible Nicholas Pratt, played to utter perfection, particularly in ‘At Last’. And – okay, yes, it’s true – Cumberbatch does Patrick Melrose well.

Ultimately I don’t know that it adds anything to put it on screen rather than on the page, where some of the startling beauty of St Aubyn’s language is naturally lost; and no doubt the impact of some of the best lines of dialogue were lost on me from having pored over the books (especially the ‘Some Hope’ three) far too many times. The nature of the cruelties inflicted by the Melroses senior was also, perhaps unavoidably, slightly flattened by the need for television-friendly storytelling. But the fundamentals of this series are of such power that I have to be glad it exists in another format, to reach a wider audience.

AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar

Over the course of several weeks, I read AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar to the kiddo. It follows the adventures of Anjali, a ten-year-old girl in 1940s India. When Anjali’s mother joins Gandhi’s freedom movement, her entire family’s lives are changed.

The plot is enormously satisfying, and roams over complex social territory – not just colonialism, but class and caste injustice, and Hindu-Muslim communal tensions – in a very accessible, organic and humane way, through the ordinary interactions between family members, neighbours, classmates and other members of the community. It is idealistic but not (I think) pat.

The characters are immediate and alive. Even the least sympathetic figures, whom one might be tempted to caricature – the racist British colonial officer, the crotchety and prejudiced old uncle, the Pretty Mean Girl rival – have the opportunity to surprise the reader. I particularly enjoyed Mohan, the Dalit boy who combines hard-bitten cynicism with a sort of impossible romantic streak; who is both (justly) exasperated and yet not unmoved by Anjali’s sometimes-clueless upper-caste idealism.

Kelkar, a screenwriter by background, produces fine dialogue and often has very vivid and lively visual staging for each scene (though this occasionally expresses itself in what feels to me like a slightly workmanlike excess of long gerund phrases).

Would especially recommend for kids, but it’s a pretty good read for adults too.

A confusion in proportion

I finally saw the Wrinkle in Time movie. Like everyone else and their dog, I’m disappointed, of course. But I find it particularly frustrating that it wasn’t just a straightforward failure. The dramatisation (rather than communication by internal monologue) of Meg’s social conflicts and frustrations, as well as of Charles Wallace’s precocious oddness, actually raised my hopes.

I wish they’d taken the same approach with the rest of the story. It seems to me as though they thought it was now too old hat – that nobody would be wowed any longer by a centaur angel, so we had to have Reese Witherspoon as a giant flying lettuce; or that the psychological and social terror of a pulsing brain on a dais would seem visually pathetic, so we had to have monster neurons instead (…except that looks just as or even more ridiculous).

Likewise, it shows a lack of faith in the story, that they thought they had to raise the stakes by making Camazotz and IT galactic centres of evil, rather than simply a specific instance of a wider conflict. I think it’s ultimately misguided to think that we can only care about Meg’s story if she is battling some singular ultimate ill, if Camazotz is the start and end of evil. Their move makes the universe seem smaller, not bigger.

I think of some of the iconic moments that have always stayed with me: Mrs Whatsit as a dumpy bag lady falling over her chair with sandwich in hand; Calvin dropping to his knees before the centaur and being told “Not to me, never to me”; Charles Wallace succumbing to arrogance in Camazotz; Mr Murray succumbing to despair; Aunt Beast’s food! Aunt Beast!; Meg’s sobbing heroism in agreeing to return for Charles Wallace. These were cut out, and with them went so much: the wiser heart beneath odd appearances (I mean, Mrs Whatsit just became Reese Witherspoon); the ideas of appropriate reverence, humility, moral reserve; love as nourishment; not just that Meg’s faults have value but how… and they weren’t replaced.

I’m not generally concerned about slavish faithfulness to source material, if changes enhance rather than detract, but all of this did raise the question in me: why adapt a story you don’t trust? The resulting film was colourful and reasonably entertaining in an undemanding way, but I think it ultimately failed because it kept wildly overcompensating out of a lack of confidence in itself. (Ironic, given its themes.)

In a way, I think this dynamic is exemplified by how they handled the role of Calvin O’Keefe. Calvin is in many ways a wish fulfilment fantasy for angry weird self-hating-but-also-arrogant preteen girls-who-are-into-dudes (I think he may have been my first literary crush). The film duly plays this up, quite successfully at first. But it also misses that part of his appeal is that he’s his own person, into his own things, and that he relates to the amazing worlds that they travel to in his own way. Without this relation to everything else, his attraction to Meg becomes less meaningful, and less flattering. Yet in this adaptation, as time goes on, his role becomes more and more simply to direct absurdly moony gazes at Meg, follow her lead and compliment her hair. The reality is that his affections are worth more when they aren’t all that he is. (The storyline about his father is pretty cursorily tacked on.)

It’s this sense of proportion – a recognition that the humbling largeness of the world enhances rather than diminishes us – that the film ultimately lacks.

Reader (colour pencil)

Reader (colour pencil)

I realise the lamp leaves something (…quite a lot) to be desired. But I’m happy with this because: (i) it is one of the most faithfully executed pictures I’ve tried to draw solely from imagination; (ii) I’ve been attempting some variant or another of this scene for a year; and (iii) my initial thinking about geometry and light played out as I intended it to do.

The Last Jedi


(This post is probably of no interest unless you are a Star Wars fan, and possibly not even then. It also draws a lot on analysis I’ve read elsewhere, so I’m making no claims to original thought here, just putting together various observations that I agree with.)

The first time I watched TLJ, I was mightily confused, and not entirely sure whether I was disappointed. Partly it had to do with pacing. There is a hell of a lot going on in the movie; there are, I think, slightly more frequent jump-cuts than in its predecessors, and no contemplative sequences similar to the beautiful introduction to Rey’s scavenging in TFA.

Another point that bothered me was the shift in tonality, and in particular, the daft humour. Star Wars has never been sophisticated (I mean, lol), but this film takes the goofiness to new levels. See also: everybody shitting on Hux; Luke tickling Rey with the leaf; and the First Order laundry room. (Hilarious though that admittedly is, it seems straight out of Eddie Izzard’s Death Star canteen or that SNL sketch about Matt the Radar Technician. I don’t generally really like overtly self-conscious movies and it seems a departure from Star Wars.)

Relatedly, the dialogue doesn’t always feel as natural in the mouths of the characters as it did in TFA (where I think the sheer wonderfulness of the characters and the new emotional and thematic questions more than make up for the reuse of original trilogy plot devices). There are also some “out of galaxy” language moments. Instead of bantha fodder and scruffy-looking nerf-herders strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark, we have references to “rabid curs”, “murderous snakes” and “cops”, all of which really ought to have been easily corrected to appropriately dorky alt-galaxy mood music. Even that great move from Hux where he spits out “Long live the Supreme Leader” is tonally somewhat out of place in a galaxy which is not supposed to share our culture.

But the biggest issues for me were those of theme and plot. Many people have pointed out that the Canto Bight side plot seems entirely superfluous because the mission fails and it seems, at first glance, to change nothing about what has happened. And while I think Kylo Ren emerges as a superbly realised character, simultaneously drawing the viewer in and endlessly disappointing us in equal measure, I had Feelings about the apparent unavoidable conclusion that he is a simple asshole who will only ever really be overcome through simple violence. Of course it would be hard on any serious moral analysis to ever properly redeem him (hello, genocide), but I feel for Han and Leia, damn it, and I didn’t want Han’s death to be in vain. TLJ seems to snuff out any last hope for even facile Vader-style “redemption”. I found it painful and discordant and on some level unacceptable that even Luke and Leia, at the end, are willing to write him off.

On re-watching, I’ve come round to really liking the film. One analysis I read of the business with Canto Bight is that it was about the danger of impulsiveness and individual heroism instead of collaborative trust. This seemed merely half-convincing at first, when the mission seemed to be “only” a failure, I became much more convinced when I saw it pointed out that it was only Poe blabbing to Finn and Rose that enabled DJ to sell information about the transports to the First Order – thus significantly changing the course of the battle. The mission did, after all, have stakes. They just weren’t the ones I was looking for (ahem).

I also realised that much of my impatience and failure to understand the plot with Poe and Holdo stemmed from my own (wait for it) sexism. Holdo, and I think this may be intentional, pushed a lot of prejudices for Star Wars fan. The perfectly coiffed hair and elegant robes activated suspicion in me; I found myself wondering from the start if she would be a “traitor”, and because Poe is set up as a straightforward hero, Poe’s own suspicions seem to validate the viewer’s. It was actually a great set piece about interrogating our notions of heroism, which of course, the whole film is about.

Likewise, I realised that my own investment in Kylo Ren’s “redemption arc” was something that Rey shared, and which impelled her to go running off to “save” him to begin with – despite the flimsiness of the “evidence” that he was going to come! back! to! the! Light! To appreciate the film’s moves in this respect, I had to be willing to critically distance myself from that investment. And if I laud the move to make Rey’s parents “nobody”, because I didn’t want heroism to come from bloodlines, why should I keep the original trilogy’s insistence that if all is put right in the royal Skywalker family, all is put right in the galaxy? Why does the “fall to the Dark Side” of Ben Solo need any more special explanation than Jabba the Hutt’s villainy? Why should this one asshole’s redemption take up three films when Finn conscientiously objects from day one of TFA?

In all, I think that TLJ has done something pretty cool in terms of taking viewers’ expectations about heroism and critiquing and subverting them. I think those of us who love Star Wars ought to come out doubting, because the film questions some of the sources and forms of that attachment, but in an intelligent way, in the cunning construction of story, and without losing the overall celebration of true heroism – with lessons learned by Rey, and Poe, and Luke alike. One moral of the story is, per Kylo Ren, LET THE PAST DIE. KILL IT IF YOU MUST. I don’t know if the world needed more Star Wars movies (probably not), but I accept that if it’s going to have them anyway, they may as well do cool new things. And I think TLJ did.

PS: I accept that there are serious logical inconsistencies in the warfare tactics etc. but I don’t really care. In TESB they appear to be able to walk around in the mouth of an asteroid-dwelling space slug without pressurised suits. Light craft have their own gravity fields (and the bombers can “drop” bombs in space?!). It’s Star Wars. It’s not supposed to make sense – in fact, the “explaining” in TLJ was one of the things I didn’t like so much about it, and which I felt set up unnecessary expectations of sense-making.

Also, given that new Force powers have been added in just about every single movie (Vader throws shit around in TESB, Palpatine Force lightning in ROTJ, Kylo stops blaster bolts in TFA), I’m just not wedded to any fixed canonical concept of what the Force can do. (Though I’ll accept Han’s insistence that Finn is probably wrong on the subject.)

PPS: I’ve also come round on the subject of the villains, which I had initially been lukewarm about, for fear that they just wouldn’t be very imposing in IX. The First Order is scary shit even without a figurehead. Kylo Ren may have been a fool in the moment but it may be a very different story with the triggers in his personal history- Luke, Han and Leia – out of the way. It’s true Hux is subject to a lot of physical comedy and made to seem a bit ridiculous, but I don’t think we should underestimate him – the infinite flexibility of his toadying is actually quite formidable; as I saw pointed out somewhere, there’s something pretty impressive about how smoothly he drops the next “Supreme Leader” on Crait. And I’m looking forward to the inter-villain conflict which has now been telegraphed for IX.

The Underground Railroad / The Hate U Give

I’ve recently finished reading two novels about anti-black racism in the US context: alternate-historical THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead and best-selling YA volume THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. I’d highly recommend both.

They are very different in tone – where Whitehead is formal or even majestic (though without being fussy), Thomas is all sarcastic first-person teenager, replete with sweary onomatopoeia, Harry Potter references and characters arguing about Tumblr. But they both offer important windows into a still-ongoing history of hellish violence and the extraordinary experiences of people who have been brought down by or else forged on through it. These are worth understanding both for their own sake, and because of what they can tell us about the country that continues to hold the power of violence over all of us on this planet. And they are also just cracking good reads.

A new orbit: Lessons from parenthood on trust

Note: This essay was first published as a chapter in The Birthday Book 2017: What should we never forget?, edited by Sheila Pakir and Malminderjit Singh.


A new orbit: Lessons from parenthood on trust

The story goes that independent Singapore began, needfully, in paternalism.  Lee Kuan Yew is cast as the family patriarch – “Ah Kong”, reverently or derisively, depending on who speaks – declaring his government’s benevolent dominion over “who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use”.

This, it is said, kept the body of our young nation alive.  Some regret that it left our hearts and minds less developed, but no matter – now we are growing up and making space for different ways, secure in the foundation that the firm hand of authority laid for us.  Admirers praise the stern father figure who famously preferred fear to love; critics mourn the “infantile” citizenry.  

For me, as a feminist and a parent, this pat tale is illuminating for what it omits.  It takes for granted a certain vision of relating to children.  But there are other ways of parenting, just as there are other ways of governing.  

Many parents are consciously striving toward what we describe as respectful parenting.  We seek to shed the view that children are lesser or incomplete people, whose conduct should be managed purely to produce outcomes unilaterally predefined by adults as desirable.

The child is a whole person, whose individual perspective must be respected.  Children do not enjoy developed adult brains or the benefits of experience, but this gives adults no inherent right to deference.  Child feelings can seem outsized and uninformed, but it does not follow that they merit dismissal.  

We cannot control who children are; we can only choose what kind of relationship we offer them.  Their values are shaped through that relationship if we earn their trust, not by fiat.  Do everything “right”, and they will still surprise us with who they become.  

This can be frightening.  It is reassuring to cling to the illusion of control.  But only embracing this risk gives children the chance to be themselves, and therefore to truly connect with us.

A key insight of this form of parenting is that labelling has power.  Call children “naughty” or “lazy”, and they see themselves through that lens.  More subtly, they respond to the model of their personalities that our parenting projects, expressly or implicitly.  Imagine them as manipulative, as seeking domination, and this perception bleeds through in our actions and communications.  They pick it up.  If we parent by reference to worst-case spectres conjured by our fears, instead of responding attentively to the specific child in front of us, we sow distrust in the relationship.

Citizens are not the children of public institutions, and some use of coercion is inherent to the nation-state in a way that it is not to families.  But it is nevertheless instructive to apply the insights of parenting to governance, because both involve the use of powers with unusually deep abilities to shape self-image and relations with others.  

In discussing social needs with policy decision-makers, I meet a remarkably consistent projection of the citizenry.  Authorities are highly exercised by the idea of abusive system gaming by the sly fox who has learned all the rules just to cheat.  Often, confronted with how policies can cause hardship, they are sceptical about the accounts of ordinary people: “There’s something they aren’t telling you” is a popular refrain.  Clear harms raised – families torn apart by migration regulations, people struggling with poverty – are rarely as real as the spectre of this liar.

One group of decision-makers were amused at my observation that the citizenry might be harmed by a restrictive policy because many earnestly play by the rules, instead of pushing to squeeze every last advantage they can.  At another moment, a different decision-maker suggested that if foreign spouses faced marginally fewer barriers to employment, citizens might marry foreigners en masse at the behest of their employers.  What does it imply when this absurd proposition is taken seriously, but the very idea of rule-abiding citizens is laughable?  

Why would a people honour rules that are designed around the belief that to do so is naive?  What is the impact on citizen confidence in institutions, when decision-makers pervasively communicate distrust, including through opacity?  One clue may be found in the work of political scientist Eric Plutzer, who found a strong connection across different US states between more inclusive food stamp programmes – which communicated less distrust of the public – and greater political participation in the form of voter turnout.  People cannot become invested in a national enterprise that has little faith in them.

Sometimes our institutions seem to disclaim the idea that relationships have any power at all.  Like the parent who does not take time to transmit their values via positive connection, we instead pursue compliance only through surveillance and punishment.  For instance, students in universities have long engaged in organised sexual harassment in orientation activities, such as being pressured to perform push-ups over one another.  When a particularly dramatic example emerged in 2016, with participants being quizzed about their “sluttiness” and whose bodily fluids they would like to consume or facing forfeits such as enacting scenes of incestuous rape, there was widespread talk of investigation, expulsion, blacklisting, policing.  But there was much less appetite – even from institutions whose mission is to educate – for engaging the cultural roots of the behaviour.  Instead of merely suppressing one manifestation of mob misogyny, we need to understand how and why it has become commonplace among young people, and invest in nurturing better values, which can counter it head-on.

Just as in the parent-child space, the relationship of power and labelling between public institutions and the people operates with profound consequences, whether we wish to see it or not.  When those with power orbit psychologically around notional figures that they distrust, at the expense of engagement with people before them, there is a deep impact on our collective images of social relations, which cannot straightforwardly be undone by other incentives or blandishments.  We urgently need to pay attention to this, because ultimately – and most visibly in times of crisis – the nation itself, no less than any family, is only the sum of the relationships that create it.

Frogs, toads and despots

Some months ago we were gifted a book of FROG AND TOAD stories, pitched as helping emergent readers. I had never encountered this series before. I was very struck by how the author, Arnold Lobel, working within the constraints of very simple vocabulary, short sentences and sentence repetition, and using simple but evocative illustrations, created a surprising depth of characterisation and feeling. His stories are brief but highly memorable portraits of two distinctive individuals with differing outlooks but a deeply complementary friendship. (I am, for the record, Toad.)

Recently I looked Lobel up and discovered that he was a gay USAmerican man who had lived most of his life in the closet, coming out to his wife and children after a long time, eventually dying of AIDS. The beautiful snapshots of connection found in his fiction were, it’s been speculated, testimonials to his experiences of homosexual tenderness. His feelings were denied ordinary expression and sublimated into extraordinary work.


Lately I’ve been absorbed in Peter Pomerantsev’s NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, an account of the contortions and confusions of media and political thought under Putin. It is both horribly, fascinatingly weird and also (for Singapore’s liberals and democrats) a little familiar.

It feels good to be reading again. I’ve done exceptionally poorly on the books front this year so far, largely because I find it hard to have more than one book going at a time, and for ages I’d been stuck on Marlon James’ A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS. I finally gave up somewhere around 150 pages in. I can sort of see why it’s reckoned good, but I just didn’t want to deal any longer with the reptition, the lack of forward momentum and the numbing brutality – which kept putting me in mind, perhaps unfairly, of the ‘wot u starin at’ send-up Edward St Aubyn created in LOST FOR WORDS. I’m sure some unflattering inferences can be drawn from the fact that I went from struggling with James’ mode of violence to finding delicious relief in revisiting the sterile bitchiness of the world of Patrick Melrose, but it is what it is.