Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I can't make up my mind about Flanagan's Man Booker winner. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but on another, grumpier, day I might have awarded it three or even two. 
The overall effect of the story is undeniably 'powerful', yet I think this, coupled with flashes of brilliant writing, disguises the deeper flaws. The structure is patchy and seems to conform to no particular logic or set perspective. This was a doubt I picked up early on and dragged with me through the compelling mid-section and beyond. None of the characters really amount to very much either. The whole young officer's affair with married woman detour reeks of Birdsong, a comparison that ends up flattering the Faulks novel more. 

The two late chapters that specifically sketch the post-war psychologies of the Korean camp guard and Nakamura, the Japanese commandant, come across as artificial set pieces - and the novel has plenty of these, including a forest fire in Tasmania that is just a bit too Michael Bay for my taste. (And thus a blatant piece of Tinseltown bait.) 

I've read that Flanagan was attempting to retell his own father's experiences on 'the line'. My suspicion is that one of the ordinary soldiers (the bugler perhaps) is the real cipher for his father's story and that the figure of Dorrigo Evans is the more contrived and conflicted protagonist that the author presumably thought such a tale would require.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Ched Evans Saga

Another day another unreconstructed British male has been forced to apologise for opining that Ched Evans was 'probably innocent'. Expressing an opinion on this issue is clearly a potentially hazardous business, but I can't resist the temptation, because the case is so revealing about contemporary British attitudes to things like sex and celebrity, justice and forgiveness. 

As the victim had no memories of what transpired at the Premier Inn, it's clear that unless subsequently assisted by a hypnotist, it must have been her who first started this game of assessing the probabilities. This leaves Evans and his co-defendant Clayton McDonald as the only witnesses to the sexual encounter they had rather naively fessed up to the day after. How anyone else is able to make any authoritative judgments regarding the probability of what happened is beyond me. It was a straightforward case of their word against her silence. As far as the facts go, nobody else can have an opinion that gets much beyond speculation. 

Anyway, someone must have failed to brief the jury on the standard legal nicety of 'beyond reasonable doubt', as set aside any obvious doubts they did, concluding that while a nineteen-year-old girl who has consumed four vodkas and a sambuca would NOT be too drunk to consent to sex with one footballer, she would however be too drunk to consent to have sex with a second footballer who showed up a bit later and joined in. The level of drunkenness had presumably not changed, just the number of simultaneous sexual partners. 

In the absence of facts character had to be judged here - the jury had to decide whether - according to modern British sexual mores - which member of the threesome was the person of bad(dest) character. 

If both footballers had been found innocent as charged, the implication would have been that the victim was the sort of girl who was generally up for it. Conversely, if both footballers had been found guilty as charged, all possible suggestion that she was anything other than a chaste young woman waiting for Mr Right - until that last little shot of Italian fire water ruined everything - would have been dispelled. 

But the jury would have understood that under normal circumstances people who do stupid things when drunk tend to appear up in the dock not beside the QC for the prosecution, and so probably figured out quite quickly that the solution to this moral dilemma might just be to find only one of the two lascivious footballers guilty. Which is what they did. 

And the problem for Ched Evans is that he had left himself open to character judgments whatever the jury thought about the behaviour of his victim, or indeed his co-shagger.  At the time he had a long-term girlfriend and yet there he was cruising around a small town in Wales unable to resist the temptation of a spontaneous threesome in a cheap hotel. An obvious toe-rag if ever there was one. 

And thus, as the only way to ascertain the facts of the situation was the assess the moral worth of each of the three participants, Evans would come under this scrutiny pre-compromised, not only because his behaviour was unethical regardless of the facts - which could only be surmised - but because as a minor celebrity of the sort we all have a love-hate relationship with, it was always going to be easy to present him with the bill for that particular pact with the devil. 

Was Ched Evans guilty of rape? Only he knows, really. He clearly thinks otherwise. Is he a chap of low character? The British vocal majority thinks so, and in spite of the underlying prudishness of the verdict that put him in jail - Britain's vocal majority is almost certainly right on this one. And unfortunately for Evans he sits close to a tipping point: not quite talented enough to be forgiven by default and not quite un-famous enough for nobody to care. 

Is this sufficient reason for him to be denied a lucrative new contract with the devil? It's a tricky one. As he has been so sure he is not a rapist, he has failed to apologise for being a scumbag - the real reason he was convicted, dressed up for the benefit of legal precedent as an evaluation of intoxication levels vs capacity for consent that seems the more nebulous the more you think about it. This failure to fess up to being a bit of a degenerate, coupled with Wednesday's cack-handed non-apology, only compounds the problem. 

The diabolical contract of celebrity involves a certain degree of hypocritical pretense that the ball-kickers we pay an extraordinary amount of money have to be admirable to children. Ched Evans 'the convicted rapist' is going to be hard to repackage as an idol. And even if his conviction for rape were one day overturned, we'd still have no real reason to re-assess his character would we? The comparatively blokey north of England might not care too much about this, but finds itself joined up to the same media and communications network as the rest of the country. 

The case has certain echoes of the Oscar Pistorius trial. There we saw a judge rather than a jury tackle a similar dilemma. Clearly the principle of 'reasonable doubt' was not lost on her, so as far as the facts as known were concerned, she could do nothing else but find Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder, while leaving herself with just enough leeway for jailing him for his obvious character faults anyway. He won't be a sponsor's dream when he gets out either...