EM Forster by Dora Carrington.
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The producer vowing to film E M Forster’s “unfilmable” novel

After spending three weeks in hospital with a suspected heart condition, Adrian Munsey decided to tackle The Longest Journey — the last unfilmed Forster novel.

When Adrian Munsey was an undergraduate student at King’s College, Cambridge in the mid-1960s, there was a strange wooden panel on the wall of his bedroom. “The novelist E M Forster lived here in 1897,” the panel read, which was odd, because E M Forster still lived in the building, in a room on the floor beneath Munsey.

Forster was by then 88 years old, living on support from King’s and doing very little. It was over 40 years since the author of Howards End and A Room with a View had published any fiction.

“Every morning he would walk across the front court,” Munsey told me recently over a hefty winter lunch at a café on the Farringdon Road, London. “I’m pretty sure most people thought he was dead.”

Munsey himself is now 67: a bright, charming and open individual whose career has taken him from teaching in art schools to directing, composing and producing for TV and film.

“Forster had written about India and his father died when he was very young; I’m half Indian and my father died when I was ten. I don’t want to get too psychological about it but there was something that drew me to his work,” he says.

After switching from history to English, Munsey tore through the Forster canon, avoiding A Passage to India, “because of my father”, which eventually led him to The Longest Journey, probably Forster’s least popular novel. It’s a difficult, allusive coming-of-age tale about a lame-footed boy named Frederick Elliot, known as “Ricky” or “Rickety”.

“I wanted to learn about other people’s inner lives,” Munsey says. “It sounds a little corny but I just couldn’t put it down. Here was this person struggling with ideas of how they should be, but feeling, quite literally, crippled. I saw Forster every day on the way to breakfast, so one morning I plucked up the courage to speak to him. I told him The Longest Journey was the best book I’d ever read and asked if I could buy him a drink.”

“I’m so pleased you’ve said this,” Forster replied. “It’s my favourite of my books. It’s so much based on myself.” The pair went for a glass of white wine. “You know, you’re the first person to ask me to go for a drink in 30 years,” Forster said.

The Longest Journey begins in Cambridge, in rooms which, by further coincidence, Munsey would occupy during his third year of study. Its protagonist fails to realise his artistic ambitions. He moves to rural Wiltshire and becomes a harsh schoolmaster, while his wife mourns for a previous love. Ricky fails to have the “truthful relationships” he so desperately wants – until, that is, he saves his alcoholic half-brother’s life shortly before his own death.

Last year, Munsey spent three weeks in hospital with a suspected heart condition. When he was given the all-clear, he became determined to see the only Forster novel that had never been adapted appear on the big screen.

“James Ivory told me it was too depressing to be made into a film, but I disagree . . . It doesn’t matter if you’re 20, 50 or 70 – the question of redemption is always contemporary.

“The book has been a warning to me against diffidence, dishonesty, being ‘rickety’ in my relationships with others,” Munsey says. “I think I’m the only producer who can make the film.”

He is now in pre-production for an adaptation of Forster’s unloved, unfilmable book. “He was so keen to show how personal it was,” Munsey recalls, “he just blurted it out. It felt to me like a moment of . . . well, connection, I suppose.” 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.