David Mitchell and Robert Webb in Ambassadors.
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Beheadings and Eccles cakes: David Mitchell and Robert Webb reunite in Ambassadors

Ambassadors reserves at least as much of its firepower for naive human rights workers, heritage fetishists in mob caps and those dreary dumbos who believe it’s no more difficult to export culture than it is to crate up a few bottles of HP Sauce.

Ambassadors
BBC2

I’m demented with love for Ambassadors, a new drama series (Wednesdays, 9pm) with funny bits, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb. But I do wonder: how on earth did it get commissioned? It’s so hard to imagine the programme meeting. Jokes about central Asia? Jokes about human rights abuse in central Asia? And who cares about diplomats, anyway, with their entitled publicschool backgrounds, their special car number plates and their insulating imported supplies of Marmite and McVitie’s Digestives? My God, how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that one, each relevant bottom shifting uncomfortably in its seat at the horrible conjunction of the words “beheading”, “vodka” and “Eccles cakes”.

Somewhere along the way, though, the writers, James Wood (Rev) and Rupert Walters (Spooks), obviously managed to penetrate the BBC’s Dome of Nervousness – a wobbly structure that was built by committee over a period of several decades – because their Kingsley Amis/Craig Murray mash-up is now a reality and going out in three hour-long episodes. Hooray!

Filmed on location in Turkey, it looks extremely convincing, all minarets, boulders and roads to nowhere. But it sounds even better – weird, black, learned and quite fiercely satirical (I can’t see Jack Straw putting it on his Sky Plus any time soon). The performances are slick and rather wonderful, particularly that of Webb, who is so superbly lizard-like in his role that you half expect a long green tail to emerge from his trousers and wrap itself around the nearest flagpole. That it sometimes made me laugh out loud was just the icing on the plov.

They eat a lot of plov, an Uzbek rice dish, in Tazbekistan, a country so remote and inhospitable that no member of HM Government is willing to visit it, not even when a $2bn helicopter contract is in the offing. In episode one, our man over there, Ambassador Keith Davies (Mitchell), had to try to bag the deal through his own efforts, something that was always going to be tricky, given that: a) he’s a bit of a plonker and b) the country’s president is a psychopathic dictator with a taste for butchery (animals and humans).

First, there was a hunting trip with His Excellency, a snow-bound fiasco that began with Davies accidentally shooting an ibex, the revered national animal of Tazbekistan, and which ended with him suffering from alcohol poisoning.

Then there was a calamitous “Best of British” reception at the ambassador’s residence: many chutneys were displayed, a group of Gloucestershire hippies played Englishe folke songes and a luvvie called Stephen Pembridge (Elliot Cowan), who’d arrived courtesy of the British Council, performed his one-man Frankenstein. (“Oh, not him,” said the American ambassador when she heard about the evening’s entertainment. “They put me through his Martin Chuzzlewit in Ankara last year, and it was longer than sorrow.”) Davies took one look at the gathering – “Hey, nonny nonny”, went the folkies, recorders tootling frantically – and said to his deputy, Neil Tilly (played by Webb): “It’s hardly the Great Exhibition, is it?” Hee.

The whole thing was essentially the madrigal scene from Lucky Jim, minus the knitted ties and sexual frustration (Tazbekistan is a conservative Muslim country but these rules, as ever, do not apply in Embassy Land). Neil, by the way, is the Murrayish figure (Craig Murray, you will recall, is a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and the author of the book Murder in Samarkand, which Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan once hoped to make into a film). In other words, he is a diplomatic cynic with a local girlfriend. He is also possibly about to go rogue; the Tazbekistanis are in possession of some dodgy photographs of him and will use them unless he spies for them.

There’s much to admire in Ambassadors. What marks it out, though, is its even-handedness. Of course it was always going to take aim at the Foreign Office, an organisation that somehow manages to be both sleazy and ludicrously superior (“Sniff the armpit, but no embarrassing Blair/Gaddafi handshakes,” says Davies’s boss from London, urging him to get closer to the president).

Yet happily Ambassadors reserves at least as much of its firepower for naive human rights workers, heritage fetishists in mob caps and those dreary dumbos who believe it’s no more difficult to export culture than it is to crate up a few bottles of HP Sauce. It’s a drama that is quietly attentive to reality, or at least to realpolitik, and this, for those of us growing weary of certain liberal doctrines, will come as something of a relief. To be enjoyed, without or without the Ferrero Rocher.

Rachel Cooke’s book “Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties” will be published by Virago on 31 October Books, page 73

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad