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John Banville Q&A: “I’ve reached the age where I can be a cross old geezer”

The writer talks Nietzsche, Just William, and never taking advice from anyone.

John Banville, 71, is an Irish writer who won the Man Booker Prize for “The Sea” in 2005. Under the name Benjamin Black he writes crime fiction: a television adaptation, “Quirke”, was broadcast in 2014. He once said of his books: “I hate them all.”

What’s your earliest memory?

As a baby, lying on my back in my pram – I can still see the lace surround of the hood – being tickled under the chin by my cousin Josie. Very strange, to be able to reach back that far, even to so trivial a primal scene.

Who are your heroes?

When I was a little boy I thought Richmal Crompton’s William Brown was the epitome of enviable, heartless nous and a master of the game of one-upmanship. My hero (one of a very few) as an adult is dead: the philosopher William James. Who else would have tackled the question of free will by the example of our getting ourselves out of bed on a frosty morning?

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, despite the unfortunate English title. This is the most poetically intense of his works, and one of the wisest.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

I suppose I must say Barack Obama. His trouble was, he just didn’t care all that much about being president. A healthy attitude, but a drawback in the job.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Concord, Massachusetts in the time of Emerson and Thoreau, then moving to Cambridge, Mass., to be a member of the short-lived Metaphysical Club, with William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, and that most odd and endearing figure, Chauncey Wright. What high-flown larks they must have had.

What TV show could you not live without?

Bloodline. In the second series there is a family set-piece, loured over by Sissy Spacek, which is as good as anything the Greek dramatists ever did.

Who would paint your portrait?

Pierre Bonnard. I once asked Henri Cartier-Bresson – there’s name-dropping for you – which of the painters he had met did he consider the greatest, and without hesitation he answered, Bonnard.

What’s your theme tune?

The opening movement of Bach’s Actus Tragicus. Or “Bye Bye Blackbird”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The advice I gave myself early on: never take anyone’s advice.

What’s currently bugging you?

It might be better to ask, what is not bugging me. I’ve reached the age where I can be unapologetically a cross old geezer whom everything annoys.

What single thing would make your life better?

A great deal of money, enough to keep me in the luxury to which I am decidedly unaccustomed, until I die, and leave my heirs rolling in it.

When were you happiest?

When I was a toddler, and still thought my mother was God the Father, with my father as the paraclete.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?

A composer. Music seems to me an entirely unearthly art form, a kind of alchemy, or white magic.

Are we all doomed?

I’m afraid so, unless they can find an antidote to death. Increasingly I wish they would hurry up about it.

John Banville’s latest novel “Mrs Osmond” is published by Viking

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”