Shiny, shabby people

The Brits was a mega-show, falling apart at the seams

Who was she? That's what I want to know. The Brits had many lowlights - One Direction, Olly Murs, One Direction - but a particular highlight was the disembodied female voice that boomed across the ferry-like O2 arena. She would say things like, "What a fantastic evening we have planned!" and "Coming up: Rihanna!" before the show cut to ad breaks.

I suppose she was meant to cover the links as James Corden traversed the floor to tell One Direction how beautiful and underage they were. Or the fist-chewingly awkward pause after the blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Whitney Houston. But it felt like being at an airport. Any second now she was going to warn Kylie not to leave her luggage unattended.

The voice provided welcome relief, though, from the images. It was all so shiny. The X Factor has had more than a musical effect on the pop industry: it has changed the aesthetic of the arena spectacle. Of course Rihanna was going to perform with a small-town population of paint- weilding dancers. There is now no other way. Coldplay, in their matching but individually customised khaki boiler suits, were dressed like one of Louis Walsh's boy bands. Even Noel Gallagher had the look of a man who had been primped into a cartoon version of himself.

Thank God for Ed Sheeran and George Michael, who were, respectively, shabby and pissed and ably scuffed the metallic sheen of the event. When ex-Pussycat Doll (the epitaph of epitaphs) Nicole Scherzinger gave Sheeran one of his awards she looked like a woman whose understanding of the world (looks and money win) was being overturned. In Scherzinger-land, Sheeran is the kind of guy you expect to pick up the sweet wrappers from around your chair, not someone who wins an award. The disembodied voice didn't know what to make of Sheeran either, introducing him to the crowd by citing the number of his Twitter followers, Facebook fans and YouTube subscribers. Forget the album, Sheeran, check out those social media stats!

There were other sources of light relief in the form of Rob Brydon and Alex James (unwittingly), but the big prize for the night should go to the blokes who nonchalantly walked in front of the camera as James Corden pattered away into the ether. Never mind the dancers, the lights, the outfits: nothing reveals the true, shoddy heart of a show than the back of a suit jacket obscuring the view.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism