For the UK, America, Canada and Australia
Spoilers below for TV dramas Apple Tree Yard and Unforgotten, if you’ve not watched them yet.
Both dramas involved complicated plots about those who have been abused turning the tables on their abusers and getting away with it.
While in real life, we might abhor vigilanteeism and we have a judicial system that is intended to be fair and impartial and not based on vengeance, we do accept that there’s a difference between fiction and reality.
Some people can’t tell the difference. I vaguely remember stories about an actor who played a rapist on East Enders coming in for personal abuse on the street. There’s theories that violent games inspire real life violence. Much is made of Norwegian Anders Breivik training by playing Call of Duty – whilst ignoring all the many people who have played the same game without ever planning and carrying out a terrorist attack – and ignoring the logical point that to use it to train meant that he’d formulated a plan rather than been pushed into action by the game itself. Perhaps most worrying is the idea that Jack Bauer of 24 provided the inspiration for real life torture, post 9/11
To what degree are the writers of fiction responsible if some reader or viewer confuses the boundary? Let’s ignore Trump, whose comprehension of the difference between lies and truth is doubtful. And consider the possibility that intelligence operatives used torture because it worked for Jack Bauer.
Would that be the fault of the producers and writers of the show? Of the actors?
Or would it be the responsibility of those whose job it was to train them, to teach them about the law, to remind them of human rights. And most of all, perhaps, that torture doesn’t actually work. Not even in those faked up storylines where the stakes are high and there’s only so many hours to save the world.
Did 24 ever have a plot line when the torture failed? That would be good story telling. I did watch the first few series but I can’t say it stuck in my mind – and in spite of the helter skelter pace, it got boring.
But I do love revenge stories. Way back at Liverpool Uni in the late 70s one of my lecturers specialised in Revenge Tragedies and forced me to write an essay on Titus Andronicus. Now that’s torture for you.
The issue some have with these current dramas is that they aren’t tragedies. Vengeance is rewarded. There’s no requirement to dig two – or six – graves.
Here come the spoilers.
In Unforgotten (the second series), a body is discovered and the investigating team gradually uncover the truth about the long-dead man. It was a variant on the Strangers on a Train story. All the suspects had met in a psychiatric unit and recognised each other as abuse victims. And between them they hatched a plan to revenge themselves on each other’s abusers – creating perfect alibis. It would have been difficult to prove, apart from the fact that the detective followed one of them and discovered them all chatting together in a pub… The ending, which has disappointed some, has the investigating police colluding to ignore the evidence and let it go, out of sympathy for what they’d each endured, and because they had spent the previous twenty years as productive members of society and were no longer a danger to anyone.
While this was emotionally satisfying in the drama, it’s not how we’d see it in real life. Most of us would, I assume, prefer to see the courts deal with the evidence and then allow for mitigation. Maybe in a real life situation a jury would decide they were not guilty of murder, only of manslaughter. Perhaps a short prison sentence or a suspended sentence would be deemed appropriate. Or maybe a judge would decide they needed to be made an example of to deter vigilanteeism.
Apple Tree Yard is also a revenge story, with a twist or two along the way. The heroine, Dr Yvonne Carmichael, is a scientist who falls for a dodgy guy who leads her to believe he’s a spook. Clearly she must be punished for the sin of having a fling while she has a good job, a nice house and an acceptable husband (even if he might be playing away himself, I mean, he’s a bloke, so that’s allowed, right?). And so one of her colleagues clearly senses that she’s an immoral woman and is therefore fair game, and rapes her. It’s a truly shocking scene – brutal and violent. Perhaps more shocking is the way she becomes meek and plaible and goes along with his suggestion that they share a taxi. Shocking, that is, if you believe all the myths about rape, and how victims behave – and it seems many people still do.
So we know from the outset that Yvonne is on trial, along with her lover, Mark Costley, for George’s murder.
In various twists and turns we find out that Costley was not a spook – he failed to qualify because of suspicions that he has a personality disorder – his defence against the charge of murder. He’s married, with children. Yvonne finds out she really hardly knew him at all. There are shades of the Prisoner’s Dilemma throughout – will they stay loyal to each other? It seems not. And then, in a final twist, it is revealed that he was the more romantic – not her. That she asked him to deal with George. And so she gets away with her revenge as he is convicted and she walks free.
As a viewer I couldn’t help but feel glad that Yvonne got away with her revenge. I felt sad for Costley – not for George, who was violently murdered after all. I suppose that’s because we saw the brutality of the rape. And we saw that he continued to stalk her. That even though she didn’t report him and she altered her life to avoid him, that she’d allowed him to get away with it – still he wouldn’t leave her be.
In real life, would it be acceptable to incite murder, even of someone who has violently raped you and is a determined stalker? Of course not. Even though we know perfectly well how dangerous male aggressors of this kind are. Even though we know restraining orders are of limited use, that the police often fail to take stalking seriously, even though we know how low convictions for rape are… We still wouldn’t condone that kind of violence.
But this is fiction. I’m not sure that we really expect fiction to be realistic. At least, not all forms of fiction. We criticise dramas where we think they fail to be realistic, but we accept a certain amount of deviation from reality too. No one wants to see policemen doing paperwork, or on long observations when nothing happens. It’s a story.
Where would we start criticising Apple Tree Yard for its deviation from reality? The willingness of a respectable female scientist to have sex in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament with a guy she knows nothing about? Her spectacular agility in leaping to the conclusion that he’s a spook, because he makes some random observation about how CCTV cameras work?
Me, I’d rather pick holes in reality. I suppose we could write a fiction in which justice prevails – the police act correctly, there’s evidence to be had and not just he said, she said situations, the jury are educated about the myths about rape and abuse, the court system always reaches a just conclusion. And we could all it, I dunno, Utopia. It wouldn’t be very emotionally satisfying for all the people who have been let down by the justice system. See the recent Guardian article about British rape trials. Nor would it be a very good story.
I have my own dog in this race. My own addiction to revenge stories to declare. My novel, A Savage Art, is also a revenge story. I’m sure there are lots of areas where it fails the realism test.
Revenge stories are wish fulfilment for the powerless. I suppose I believe like comedy, they’re about punching up, rather than punching down. If they make the reader or the view think about issues of morality that’s a good thing. But if we expect a story to make our minds up for us, in this brave new world of FAKE NEWS, then we’ve already lost.
For another day, perhaps. Is it wrong to punch a Nazi?
The Goodreads giveaway is for UK readers only. If anyone else would like a copy please go and like my Facebook page and comment on my share of this blog post, and at the end of the giveaway on the 18th December, there’ll be another signed copy for a random commenter.
I was just reading this interesting article about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book “Anger and Forgiveness” about the dangers of anger – and inevitably given the current zeitgeist, most of the discussion centres on the role anger has played in the American election. Being a political junkie, this is of coruse endlessly fascinating. I am altogether unconvinced that a strategy of meeting anger with calm reason can actually change political discourse, given that we humans are generally very emotional animals, although some of us are especially talented in the use of reason to create convincing intellectual arguments that justify our beliefs and ideologies. We seem to be less capable of using our reason to understand our own or anyone else’s emotions, though.
Surely anger has been the fuel that has brought much needed political change – even if right now it’s fuelling a backlash against the liberal quest to eradicate inequality in all its guises? Her whole argument that anger is not socially useful seems to me to boil to the “Calm down, dear” approach to injustice.
On a personal level though, I cannot quite get my head around the idea that Nussbaum claims to have never been angry. To my mind, that makes her analysis suspect. Either she is being honest, or she is unaware of her own anger – and either makes her less capable of understanding the impossibility of what she’s asking of us ‘lesser’ beings.
Of course, I am fascinated by the impulse to revenge – I’ve just published a thriller exploring the question of whether it can ever be justified. There’s a reason why we have a long tradition of revenge stories ending in tragedy. And we know the quotation from Confucious, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” In the case of my heroine Kate, perhaps it might be wise to dig more… we shall see. Culturally we are aware of the risks of anger. We are brought up to hide and disguise our anger – this is especially true of women, of course. And I sometimes thing squelching down on angry feelings, bottling them up, can make them more dangerous.
I suppose the difficulty is deciding where it is appropriate to draw the line. Someone who has never been angry probably isn’t best placed to decide that, any more than someone who is always angry.
In this context, I am reminded of the parable of the snake who refused to hiss.
Once upon a time, a holy man went from village to village visiting the people and giving assistance wherever he could. One day he came to a town and entered the market place. The people were all looking so unhappy. “What is the matter, good people?” the old man asked. “We are so frightened,” they said. “We can barely do our work for fear of the snake. It bites us all the time. We don’t know when it will appear. We are afraid to go to work in our fields, to let our children play in the streets, to even be here in the market place.” The old man wandered on and soon came upon the snake. “I hear you have been biting the people,” he said, “and I would like you to stop. They are frightened of you and don’t get a moment’s rest.” The snake realizing how much the holy man loved it agreed not to bite anyone again.
The old man continued on his journey and a few months later came back to the same village. When he got to the market place he found the people were laughing and shouting. Everyone was so happy. “What has happened?” he asked. The villagers told him that the snake had stopped biting them, that it came out each day from its hiding place but no longer attacked them. The old man wandered about the village and soon came upon the snake lying in the gutter. It was bleeding, and badly cut and bruised. The old man could see that the snake was dying. He gently picked it up and took it into the forest and laid it down out of the hot sun. “What has happened to you?” he asked the snake. The snake on its last few breaths said to the holy man, “ I did what you told me. I stopped biting the people, but they started attacking me. Wherever I went they would throw stones at me and kick me, and thrash me with sticks.”
The holy man held the snake with great love and tenderness and stroking the snake said to it ever so tenderly, “I told you not to bite, but I never told you not to hiss.”
My favourite quotation on anger and revenge comes from Charlotte Bronte.
Jane Eyre is talking to Helen Burns (a girl who shares Nussbaum’s views on morality, as I recall) who has just been punished by the cruel teacher Miss Scatcherd
“… you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people whould have it all their own way; they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should – so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”
The best revenge, they say, is living well. But living well must also include taking action to prevent further harm. Sometimes that might require no more than hissing. Sometimes it might require more drastic action. Or so my protagonist, Kate Savage, would argue…
Article on Nussbaum’s book in The Nation – here
The parable of the snake who forgot to hiss – here
Jane Eyre Chapter Six – here
It all happened yesterday – and I meant to finish this post then but I was too excited to sit still for long enough. And in an odd way I also didn’t really believe it until I woke up this morning – late even with the extra hour – and discovered that yes, my novel was still there on Amazon, and that people were still talking about it on Twitter and on Facebook. It wasn’t just a dream.
One of the stories my family tell about me is that I was thrown out of the first class in infant school after two weeks for non-co-operation. I refused to play with the educational games and simply demanded to be taught how to read.
By the time I was ten I’d read every Enid Blyton adventure story I could get my hands on, and then discovered the Lone Pine adventures written by Malcolm Saville. In the back of the library books was an address to join the Lone Pine Club. I wrote my own Lone Pine mystery story and sent it off. A few weeks later I receieved a letter from Malcolm Saville, apologising that the club was no longer in existence, but encouraging me to carry on writing my own stories. I wish I still had the letter, but sadly, it’s long gone.
In the years in between I wrote several short stories, some of which were near misses, but it wasn’t until I did the Open University creative writing courses a few years ago that I started taking writing seriously. Again, I started with short stories – but my final assignment turned out to the very beginning of this novel, A Savage Art.
I’ve had support and encouragement from lots of people along the way, and I’d just like to throw out a general thank you to them all here and now. And yesterday was no exception – I am very grateful to all the people who shared links on Twitter and on Facebook and to everyone who bought a copy of the novel.
And thank you as well to the fabulous Chris McVeigh, the founder of Fahrenheit Press, who made my dream come true. I am starting to read my way through the rest of the Farenheit authors, and I am in very good company. If you love crime fiction, you really should check out the Fahrenheit book club – here!
Thank you all. And I promise not to go on about it too much…
P.S. My value of “too much” may not be universal.