The wisdom of 50 Cent

Prince Charles and rapper 50 Cent offer us valuable insights, while confused audiences spurn Sweeney

A notable controversy has emerged this week after BAFTA pulled out of a screening of a documentary about disability, financed and directed by disabled British filmmaker Richard Butchins. The film was due to be shown at BAFTA’s Piccadilly headquarters as part of a joint event with X’08, Europe’s largest disability festival. Mr Butchins shot the documentary one-handed and the film features disabled people touring the US as a carnival or burlesque. The director of X’08, Peter Kincaid, said that the film “illustrates how disabled artists are claiming their identity in a more assertive way that can be uncomfortable for some people in the nondisabled world.” BAFTA’s Head of Events, Corinna Downing, is said to have told Mr Butchins that the film was “too demanding” for audiences and “created too many questions.” As an alternative, BAFTA is said to have suggested a screening of Hollywood comedy Lars and the Real Girl, a film with an able-bodied cast about a delusional man who falls in love with a blow-up doll.

Woolworths has withdrawn its “Lolita” bed range for girls, which had been on sale through its website. The decision comes after parents expressed concern about the appropriateness of a children’s bed named after the 20th century’s most famous sexually precocious heroine. The Lolita bed was aimed at girls around 6 years old. A spokesman from Woolworths said: “What seems to have happened is the staff who run the website had never heard of Lolita, and to be honest no one else here had either. We had to look it up on Wikipedia. But we certainly know who she is now.”

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd debuted at Number 1 on its opening weekend in UK box offices, a surprising and exciting result for a musical. But how many of the punters stayed to watch the whole thing? There have been widespread reports of audience members walking out of screenings, having bought their tickets not realising that the film was, in fact, a musical.

Nearly 25 years after his famous “carbuncle” speech, Prince Charles has again decried modern skyscrapers – but this time to less seismic effect. “The general public has become far more design-savvy, which means people are better placed to judge what he is saying”, said Sundand Prasad, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. “I don't think he will get the same reflexive obedience this time." The more muted reaction this time around might also be a measure of the changing status of the Royal Family, and changing tastes in architecture.

From cityscapes to soundscapes: Uncut magazine have produced a musical “map” of Britain, using music sales figures to work out who is listening to what, and where. A pdf of the map is available here. According to the study, music gets faster the further north you go; and while jazz dominates in the West Country, heavy metal rules in the North East. There were also some eclectic regional mixtures: in the South Coast, Eurodisco and world pop are combined through the influence of the area’s international residents and visitors. In Northern Ireland, in contrast, country music and handbag house are combined: no explanation was given for this.

With all these shifting cultural markers and areas of contention, it is good to know that guidance is at hand. The platinum-selling rapper Kanye West has authored a self-help book and released a preview of it on his blog. Kanye recently overtook hiphop star 50 Cent in a highly-publicised rivalry. Extracts from Kanye’s book, entitled Thank You and You’re Welcome!, include aphorisms such as: “When you’re so focussed on what you don’t have …You won’t have!” and “Get use to getting used … To use is necessary. And if you can’t be used, you’re useless.” One can only look forward to 50’s response.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder