Leafy living: the Sun Inn pub in Richmond, south-west London. Photo: Flickr/© Jim Linwood
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Sun-In and John Lewis: growing up in 1980s British suburbia

The setting is suburban posh – we are in Richmond – and the teenagers that stroll and sometimes strut across its pages are privileged types who attend smart private schools.

The House Is Full of Yogis: the Story of a Childhood Turned Upside Down
Will Hodgkinson
Blue Door, 336pp, £12.99 

 

This is a memoir of the Eighties but open it in search of Arthur Scargill and the Wag club and you’ll be disappointed. The setting is suburban posh – we are in Richmond, in south-west London – and the teenagers that stroll and sometimes strut across its pages are privileged types who attend smart private schools. Their idea of rebellion is to go completely mad with a bottle of Sun-In, assuming that the joint they’ve just smoked has not already reduced them to a queasy heap on the bathroom floor. (Sun-In, for those who weren’t there, was the cheap spray-in bleach of choice for wannabe David Sylvians.) Yes, shoulder pads abound. But these come courtesy of the author’s mother, who regards Margaret Thatcher as a feminist role model and has a mania for beige carpets and John Lewis kitchens.

In one sense, then, what befalls the Hodgkinson family in 1984 or thereabouts – the chronology is slightly hazy, this being a book that rather wants for dates – is strikingly out of kilter both with the times and with their sensibility. The yogis of the title, who fill up the house like so many skittles, surely belong to the gentle Sixties rather than to the rapacious Eighties. And the Hodgkinson parents seem at first to be the last people who would fall in love with meditation and white pyjama suits.

Liz Hodgkinson is a tabloid journalist (she is working on the Sunday People as the book opens) who specialises in lifestyle features with titles such as “How to turn your tubby hubby into a slim Jim”. Her husband, Neville, is a medical writer on the Daily Mail, which, then as now, has a reputation for being a somewhat brutal workplace. However, the beady-eyed reader will notice early on that there is perhaps more to Nev than meets the eye. After all, isn’t his favourite album Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens?

The drama begins when Neville falls ill and is sent to Florida to recuperate. On his return, he gives up his job and becomes – who knows why, exactly? – a devotee of the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual movement established in India in 1937 by a diamond dealer that is now run by women, whose job it is to lead the world away from violence using meditation. For his sons, Will and Tom, this is awkward. It’s embarrassing watching their father gently proselytising to family friends while wearing white pyjamas and it’s miserable always to be given dhal when what you long for is a fun-sized Mars bar. Neither of them understands why Neville spends so much time staring at his “red yogi egg of light”. Tom, at least, would rather stare at his ZX Spectrum computer.

Amazingly, the change in Neville rather suits Liz. When he moves into the basement, in effect putting an end to their physical relationship (celibacy is an important element of Brahma Kumari teaching), she simply churns out yet another feisty self-help book: Sex Is Not Compulsory.

What to make of The House Is Full of Yogis? Hodgkinson, a rock critic at the Times, has a lovely, light style and some of his set pieces are very funny (it’s impossible not to love his account of a family holiday on a boat on the Thames that ends in disaster as Liz, wearing her special captain’s hat, cheerily runs their vessel aground).

He is attentive to the minute social divisions that define the British middle classes – in this world, the posher you are, the more likely it is that your parents will be in possession of a crumbling and unwashed estate car – and he’s good at teenage embarrassment, whether induced by girls or by one’s mother’s bouffant hairdo and deranged gender politics.

Yet there are also moments when his story lags – he tells us, for instance, a good deal more than he needs to about his alternative boarding school – and it’s clear that while he is happy to send up his baffling, contrarian mother, his fondness for his wispy, mild-mannered father precludes a proper examination of his own feelings (or, for that matter, of Neville’s).

There are too many questions he leaves unanswered, not only about the Brahma Kumaris (Neville now lives with them at an Oxfordshire retreat) but about something I regard as far weirder and certainly more disturbing: his father’s role in driving the Sunday Times’s denialist reporting of Aids under its then editor, Andrew Neil. When he finally returned to work as a journalist, Hodgkinson repeatedly questioned the link between HIV and Aids.

I’m not saying that I longed to hear that Hodgkinson Jr had to spend his later life in psychotherapy. In a way, it’s a relief to read a memoir that is so affectionate, so moan-free, so reluctant to apportion blame. But its sweetness – and at times this book is very sweet indeed – needs cutting, if not with the vinegar of disappointment, then at least with the acid of doubt.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

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 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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