Why I don't care that it's a sad week for Downton Abbey and Poirot

Let's hope that that ITV grasps just how bad a writer Julian Fellowes is soon, and locks him in a room for a month with only Chris Morris and some classic Coronation Street on DVD for company.

Downton Abbey;
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain
ITV

A sad week, should your tastes extend to dotty costume dramas. (If they don’t, you’ll want to crack open the prosecco and pork scratchings.) At Downton Abbey, the big house of ridiculousness and anachronisms where this column begins, Julian Fellowes’s cheap little rape plot line reached a feeble denouement in the final episode of the series (10 November, 9pm) when Bates (Brendan Coyle) pushed the valet who’d attacked Mrs Bates in front of a bus and killed him – an excellent use of his precious day off, one has to admit.

Meanwhile, Violet, the dowager duchess (Maggie Smith), having somehow intuited that her unwed grand-daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is up the duff by her bounder of a newspaper editor boyfriend, decided that the best solution all round –pass the smelling salts! –would be an all-expensespaid, five-month-long trip to Switzerland. At least there, she’ll be able to blame her swollen belly on too much Toblerone.

Most unexcitingly of all, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) now has two hot-ish chaps dancing her attendance: Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake, both of whom must first have appeared in an episode I missed (that is, all of them) and both of whom look like Thunderbirds puppets, only with fob watches instead of strings. Dullards, the pair of them; Lord “Tony” Gillingham’s only claim to fame is that it was his valet whom Bates so swiftly despatched.

Some viewers will perhaps be hoping for a threesome in series five, though how Dockery’s acting skills would cope with such a scenario, one can only imagine. Would a sex troika in the king-size she once shared with the ineffably boring Matthew Crawley render her any the less plank-like? I fear not. I’ve seen walnut commodes more animated than Lady Mary.

What is to be done about Downton Abbey? I don’t know! ITV will, I fear, keep flogging this particular dead horse – “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Lord Grantham, but your favourite hunter was knocked down early this morning by Tom Branson, who was in a particular rush to get to a political meeting where he hoped to meet Miss Bunting, who had promised to show him her red bloomers; yes, I’m afraid these socialist girls are terribly easy, m’lord” – until such a time as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (one of the groups that hand out the Emmys) begins to ignore it.

So let us hope that is soon. Or that ITV grasps just how bad a writer Julian Fellowes is and locks him in a room for a month with only Chris Morris and some classic Coronation Street on DVD for company. Or that Maggie Smith storms off (I don’t believe the show could survive without her). Or that Fellowes is made the new presenter of Daybreak, which would leave him too knackered to worry about butlers at a Time of Great Social Upheaval.

As for all of you people who still watch it, what is wrong with you? Seriously. Are you gripped in an ironic, postmodern, sneery, let’s-count-the-extras-at-Lady-Cora’svillage- bazaar, tee-hee kind of a way? (On this point, I spotted two: one in a sack race, the other manning the test-your-strength attraction.) Or are you simply waiting to see if Lady Mary’s expression is ever going to change?

In other news, ITV also screened – after 25 years and 70 such films – Poirot’s last case: Curtain (13 November, 8pm). It started off well enough. David Suchet’s turn as the Belgian detective is, I have to admit, a remarkable thing: his beady brown eyes, his yellow, egg-shaped head and his slug-like ’tache combining to make him resemble a caricature by Max Beerbohm.

When he yelped, “Eet’s not a wheelbarrow!” at poor old Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), who was loyally pushing his wheelchair around the grounds of the castle-cumboarding house where they were unaccountably marooned with the usual cast of jealous, thieving, poison-hoarding social climbers, a weirdly Proustian feeling washed over me. I must have been a student when the first Poirotwas screened. Ah, those were the days.

But after this, it was downhill all the way. So very boring. In Agatha Christie Land, one knot of vipers is much like another. The bully. The hen-pecked husband. The cad. The invalid. The adulterers. By way of atmosphere, ITV gives us little cardigans and wide-legged trousers, rustling trees and arguments heard from the other side of a closed door. Scratchy strings signify the approach of the murderer, the click of Poirot’s pince-nez as he removes it from his sallow beak that the mystery is about to be solved.

The murderer inevitably suffers from a very English kind of madness: thwarted but mild mannered, his or her malady is most commonly born of covetousness. It’s comforting to watch, if you have flu, or your boyfriend’s left you. Yet even its greatest fans must know that it’s possible to go off to make tea and a cheese toastie – chutney on the side and maybe a salad, too – and not miss any vital piece of “evidence”.

Still, never mind. This is it now, for Poirot. No one can follow Suchet, who accomplished the detective’s penguin-like waddle by imagining he had to carry a coin between his buttocks. Au revoir, mon amis – at least until the repeats.

Flogging a dead horse: the cast of Downton Abbey

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 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era