Hot tubs selling like hot cakes. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice
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Flatcap handbags, folding wellies, and Derek: The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 8

The teams are let loose in Somerset to explore the "rural market".

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read the episode 7 blog here.

It’s taken eight whole smog-addled weeks for the candidates to be hoisted out of the urban sprawl and onto virgin countryside terrain, but we got there eventually. Granted, they’ve meandered to Kent and had a little canal trip through Oxford in recent weeks, but we haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing our sad suited automatons looking incongruous in the real English wilderness. A glaring oversight, considering the importance of the “rural market”, which is what this week is all about.

“You’ll be selling – products,” Lord Sugar informs the candidates, by way of explaining what exactly the “rural market” is. Weighing then heartily slaughtering pigs and selling bloated marrows sporting comedy rosettes is what comes to mind, and it turns out this isn’t actually that far from the truth, as the teams are sent to get their burnished winklepickers grubby at an agricultural show.

The Royal Bath and West Show is quite different from the eaves of steel spires the bored camera so often grazes as we are wafted over the City and Canary Wharf seven times per episode. Instead of the Shard slicing London’s charcoal skies, Somerset has a small sheep pushing its head through a gap in a clammy marquee. Rather than swarms of commuters clicking across Millennium Bridge, here we have some ruddy Morris dancers, skipping around a meaty herd of tug-of-warriors, all wiry fur and cricket-ball knees. When they arrive, the candidates look like they’ve each swallowed a gallon of Octi-Kleen.

Faces of fury. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

But before they're let loose at the fair to be watched scornfully by parading heifers, the teams have to choose the products they will sell to the people of Somerset. Felipe – reciting, “logistics, tactics, organisation” – takes Tenacity’s reins, and James – “I fancy it; I’ll put my balls on the line” – is in the saddle for Summit.

Then a few from each team go to a showroom of pointless rural accoutrements and pretend to understand the value of the products. “It’s so quirky, I absolutely love it, it’s so different,” gushes Felipe about a tweed “flatcap handbag”, which sounds like the tabloid label for some sort of class-defying tax George Osborne would accidentally introduce. Felipe and Mark buy a batch without negotiating. In the sales world, we call this “shopping”.

On the other team, Solomon and Sanjay decide upon bicycle trailer attachments for carrying children, and pet finders for, well, finding pets. Ignoring his teammates’ advice, James overrules them and goes for foldable wellies (useful when packing a suitcase for a swamp holiday) and hanging garden chairs (useful for the 1970s) instead. “To me, that’s really bad,” is Solomon’s enraged battlecry.

They also have to choose some “big ticket items” (ie. “expensive stuff”) to go with the tat from the showroom. This is one of the tensest moments of the whole series, as each team battles to win the right to sell hot tubs to those raunchy country folk who have a spare £4000 to fork out at a moment's notice for a steamy outdoor group experience.

But first, Daniel barrels through trying to convince a bemused barbeque seller that “we’re infected by it; we feel the passion” and after being warned by Katie that he was “a bit intense”, tones it down for the hot tub man. “We’ll be making sure people leave with a smile,” he grimaces.

James then has a try for the hot tubs, shaking hands with the retailer, Anthony, assuring him that he likes the product: “Derek, Derek I do”, he cries, like a doomed bride.

Needless to say, Anthony doesn’t like being called Derek, so he jilts James and goes for Team Tenacity instead.

Cross country candidates. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

There follows a scene of such abhorrent childish obstinacy from James that you almost drop your already-wavering wry disdain for the Apprentice for pure, all-out hatred of the bloody thing.

James wants to lie to the rest of his team and tell them he decided against selling hot tubs in favour of lawnmowers (I know, a mad decision at a rural fair where none of the punters star in MTV). “My advice would be to tell the truth,” says Roisin in measured, if incredulous, tones. “It’s what I want,” James sneers, mowing her down with his lawn of lies.

But if James appears a little tetchy this week, he is nothing in comparison to Daniel. Felipe innocently blinks that he and Daniel will attempt to shift the handbags. Predictably, the latter is furious – he wore his best shiny aubergine shirt for the uniquely sleazy opportunity to sell hot tubs, which would now be Katie and Mark’s responsibility. “It’s whoever got into his brain first,” he seethes, his neck pulsating with bile, when Felipe's beleagured brain makes the controversial decision.

Once the selling begins, we see Sanjay, in vain, telling kindly country biddies they look “fabulous” in foldable wellies, Roisin softly-softly selling lawnmowers while James scowls on, Solomon stroking “about 10 dogs”, and Mark’s breathtaking whoop-swallowing pokerface when a customer casually suggests he’ll buy seven hot tubs.

Customers going cold on the hot tub. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

The boardroom, or “bearpit of sexism” as I think we can safely label it this series, sees Lord Sugar mocking the men of Team Tenacity for taking instruction from Katie. “You called up mum and asked her what to do?” he taunts. “Mummy calmed you down a little bit?” Let’s hope the business plan Katie submits to Sugar is for opening a crèche, otherwise he might be really confused.

There is also yet another male genitalia innuendo, which I really can’t be bothered to report here, because it was a real flop (eh? EH BOYS?), followed by Felipe asserting “I am not going to change from being a nice man”, Nick Hewer unaccountably calling Sanjay “nameless” in chilling tones, and James still insisting, as he has done for weeks, “I’m hungry for this.” For God’s sake, someone take the man to Bridge Café and buy him a sandwich.

And of course, that is where he ends up, as Team Summit loses to Mark’s mass-trade of hot tubs. “I called the guy Derek twice instead of Anthony,” is James’ mea culpa, as the boardroom’s straight-faced artifice dissolves completely into giggles. He is, inevitably, fired. Still, at least he can get something to eat now.

James is really starving. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Candidates to watch

Sanjay

“You’ve worked in banking all your life. You only sold three pairs of foldable wellies,” may be his epitaph.

Daniel

His clenched jaw won’t survive much longer without actually locking.

Roisin

Calm, professional, and super-smoothly Irish, is she too similar to the last series’ winner Dr Leah to last the process?

 

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here to follow it. Read my blog on the previous episode here. The show will air weekly on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on BBC One. Check back for the next instalments every Thursday morning.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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