Heatwave 1971: Naughtie's novel The Madness of July is set over an airless 1970s London summer. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Highland flings: on two new novels by the “Tartan Beebists”, James Naughtie and Kirsty Wark

The debut novels of two Tartan Beebists, whose hearts clearly belong in Scotland despite years of working in Westminster.

The Madness of July
James Naughtie
Head of Zeus, 352pp, £12.99

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle
Kirsty Wark
Two Roads, 437pp, £14.99

One of the less-discussed consequences of Scottish independence would be if the newly liberated country were kicked out of the EU and Scots no longer had the right to work in the rump of the UK. Just think of all the plum media jobs that would be up for grabs. Adios, Andrew Marr! Adieu, Andrew Neil! Zài jiàn, Nicky Campbell!

What led me to measure up the curtains of the BBC’s current affairs programming in my head? Oh yes, reading the debut novels of two more Tartan Beebists, Jim Naughtie and Kirsty Wark. Both of these journalists have come late to fiction – Wark is 59, Naughtie 62 – and clearly their hearts belong to Scotland despite many years of working in Westminster.

Naughtie’s novel, The Madness of July, is mostly set in an airless 1970s London summer following the discovery of a body in a cupboard in the House of Commons. Yet it only comes alive when the protagonist, an anxious halibut of a man called Will Flemyng, returns to his childhood home in the Highlands. There are misty peaks, herds of deer and even a huge gillie called Tiny. Dark secrets are found in a strongbox. Meaningful looks are exchanged between granite-like men. It’s great.

Naughtie has kept his thriller taut by condensing the action over a single long weekend and layering several disparate plotlines. In England, there is Flemyng, a junior minister at the Foreign Office with a background in the intelligence services. In Scotland, there is his brother Mungo, piecing together the family history (their mother was apparently a bit of a goer in her day), along with their faithful manservant Babble.

In America, there is Abel, who – spoiler alert – turns out also to be Flemyng’s brother. Something untoward happened on a mission behind the Iron Curtain, it is intimated, and he decided to reinvent himself in America, working for the intelligence services there. Abel has a female boss who is revealed to be a lesbian. The book is studiously casual about both of these facts, but you get the sense Naughtie is quite pleased with his own progressive panache in having included a female character who sleeps with other women.

Not that she does so on the page, as it were. This is a novel that ruthlessly eschews all the frippery normally associated with thrillers: femmes fatales, helicopter gunships, people being sent body parts in the post, creepy sex basements, villains with monocles, silver thumbs or other improbable distinguishing features, pitched battles on the roof of iconic buildings, et cetera. It proceeds mainly by middle-aged men having repressed, tense conversations in anonymous Whitehall rooms. (It’s hard to convey drama when all you’ve got is men in an anonymous enclosed space, which leads to such sentences as: “Paul stood up to join in Flemyng’s stately progress round the table. They speeded up gently as they went, getting energy from each other.” I’m sorry, people are talking about state secrets and sleeper agents while chasing each other round a desk? Come back, implausible weaponry, all is forgiven.)

The sections set in Scotland are by far the best: Naughtie evidently feels a deep affinity with the country’s exhilarating scenery, where the mist curdles over the loch “like the guilty secrets of a multitude of hidden smokers”. Perhaps the same sense of nostalgia for his birthplace drove the writing of this book and his decision to leave the Today studios to cover the independence referendum for the BBC?

Kirsty Wark, who recently wrote in this magazine about the many hours she has spent on the Caledonian sleeper train, is also animated by Scotland’s landscape. Her setting is the Isle of Arran and, most particularly, a little house overlooking the sea across to Holy Isle. It is owned at the start of the novel by the elderly Elizabeth Pringle, who decides to leave the property to a young woman she saw pushing a buggy many years ago, and who left her a note asking to buy the place if it ever came on the market. By the time Elizabeth is ready to vacate her house – for a nursing home and, shortly after that, a grave – the young woman has grown up and has an adult daughter of her own, called Martha.

The book interweaves Elizabeth’s story of thwarted love, and loss, and loneliness, with Martha’s attempt to reunite her family even as her mother, Anna, succumbs to dementia. It is happy to dwell on domestic life, and better for it – I found it easier to care about Elizabeth’s lost lover than the imminent downfall of western civilisation against which Will Flemyng is fighting. Sometimes a smaller canvas allows for finer brushwork.

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 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era