The Hour: series 2, episode 3

So many storylines, you won't know where to look.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

Thematic unity, that's what this episode lacked. Last week the script so perfectly tied together the personal and the professional, with our characters struggling to cope with the actions and ideas of fascists both at home and at work, that this week's attempt to move on several different storylines all in the space of the hour (geddit?) felt somewhat choppy and unsatisfying.

But then, feeling unsatisfied is really what The Hour is all about - the longing glances, the unspoken rules, the desire for freedoms that don't yet exist. And in this instalment, we discovered that in the case of Randall and Lix, portrayed once again so superbly by Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor, their unsatisfied longing stems from the brief period during the Spanish Civil War when they were in love and had a child.

They have A PAST. Who knew? Photograph: BBC

I always knew Lix was going to turn out to be more than just the older female character who has a ready stash of witty put downs and is never without a bottle of whiskey in her desk. Now, it has been revealed, she has A Past she'd rather forget, but Randall (in what we can only assume is a middle-aged onset of sentimentality and guilt) is going to force her to confront said past by relentlessly hunting down their daughter. I'm not going to lie, a part of me hopes that the missing daughter (implausibly) turns out to be Bel (after all, surely Randall and Lix's child has to be some kind of groundbreaking journalistic wunderkind?) As a coda to the whole plot, Anna Chancellor’s distraught, swallowed sobs in the lift after her confrontation with Randall were beautifully portrayed. Give the woman a Bafta, stat.

Elsewhere in this fragmented episode, Hector made the return journey from the low point he arrived at last week. Sure, his wife now can't bear to be touched by him and he has an embarrassingly drunken altercation with his only powerful government source at a Christmas party, but by the end of the episode he does his first decent on-air interview since the second series began – interrogating his former army colleague-turned-police-chief Commander Stern.

Stern-faced Comander Stern appearing on The Hour. Photograph: BBC

Which leads me to the strangest decision in this episode – the unmasking of Stern, who was the real culprit of the beating that put Hector in a police cell for a night. I was all set for a few episodes of the viewer gleefully knowing whodunit, while Bel and Freddie charged around closing the net around him. Except that Freddie put it together in about fifteen minutes, and five minutes after that had flattered Stern into appearing on The Hour so that Hector could stick the knife into his brother in arms. I sincerely hope that the writers have got a couple more decent plot twists up their sleeves – otherwise, it was absurd to give away so much so soon. I will, however, say that having Stern’s unmasking hinge upon the provenance of the ugliest ornament I’ve ever seen (which he won at random in a BBC raffle) was supremely elegant. I did feel sorry for Stern’s mistress, Kiki, though. Bel got chips and roses from her ITV beau – an ugly ornament and not getting beaten up seems like a poor offering by comparison.

It wouldn’t be The Hour if they hadn’t managed to cover the taboo-breaking social issue of the day – this week, it was the Wolfenden Report and the debate - or lack of it - about decriminalising homosexuality. As Lix put it, voice dripping in sarcasm, "An actual homosexual on The Hour. That would be... novel." In the same discussion, Bel firmly nailed her liberal colours to the mast, saying “Adultery, fornication, lesbianism are all considered sins. But male homosexuality is considered both a sin and a crime... It falls to us to ask why" while Hector the alcoholic curmudgeon weighed in with "no home secretary wants to go down as the man who legalised buggery". Quite. And so they did try and debate it on The Hour, although the attempted discussion about blackmail and private sexual liaisons was rather overshadowed by the aforementioned interrogation of Commander Stern by Hector. I have hopes, though, that this issue will return to be dealt with again in a later episode – perhaps with slimy government apparatchik McCain at the centre of his own scandal, for a change.

Bel and her ITV opposite number got friendly after the Christmas party. Photograph: BBC

To my fury, Freddie’s wife Camille appeared only in her knickers and a large jumper yet again, even after she’d done some excellent detective work of her own in Soho. Sort it out, costume department - we get that she's supposed to be French, gamine and bohemian now. To my utter delight, though, Bel is finally getting some action of her own, snogging her ITV admirer in the stairwell after the BBC Christmas party. Although if he succeeds in stealing away her presenter, their budding relationship might not bloom... One day, I'd like to see Bel have a relationship with someone who isn't intimately involved in her work. One day.

A classic mid-series episode, then. I can only hope that our patience with the criss-crossing storylines and somewhat exposition-heavy dialogue in this episode will be rewarded in weeks to come.

I'll be blogging "The Hour" each week - check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page

Bel Rowley, producer of "The Hour". Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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