Friday, March 18, 2016


The rental house is a deathtrap of wires in a cramped space. If the clothes dryer is on in the back room, the vent has to go out the window and it quickly becomes too cold for me to work. My days are a too-fast anxiety-ridden blur of tile choices, writing projects, parenting. I am rich, I know that, I am rich in life, there is much to it, I am enriched by it. I feel like I paid the true cost of my success in effort, but the older I get and the more I think about it, I don't even trust my feelings in the matter, as deeply shaped as they were by the culture of the times. I do feel like I worked for what I got in life. Honestly, though, I think everyone feels like that, even people who are completely wrong about feeling like that, like David Cameron. I am sure George Osborne and Chris Grayling think they worked bloody hard. And in their own way, they did. But I find world inequality increasingly suspect, and increasingly a burden on my ethical load - which is something that sadly, in a very good U.S. education ethics, moral philosophy and jurisprudence rarely came up. Understanding the history of privilege is understanding a better future. Not to say we don't go with money and capitalism in the end. I don't think there is a better means of distributing goods and developing innovations. But capitalism has captured democracy instead of being its handmaiden, and our legal fictions have become our Skynet. We don't even see the seconds of our lives drawn away by it.

Every day I watch the rule of law being stolen from democracies by corporations. Every day I see democracies being weakened inexorably by the theft.  What is really my fair share of land and water and food and electricity? I cannot condone the measure given to me by the consumerist culture enslaved to shareholder return. I cannot condone that measure. Which is perfect, because somehow my stasis is being at war with myself.  And I can beat myself up for the guestroom even as I delight in the vision of the thick, soft carpet samples. Plus a whole new area of self-criticism has opened up in this process - my taste! Very early on when forcing myself to adapt to the idea of that PhD level of British culture - hiring builders - I noticed that I spurned almost everyone else's aesthetic choices with a vitriol that surprised even me. I mean, I almost couldn't wait until I got out of the house - where the residents had offered us coffee- to excoriate the tiles. Instant, near-violent judgment. That's my style. So I have to live with this shrieking harridan if I make a bad tile choice and she has to see it every day. That's what I'm up against. Plus a million anxiety-inducing problems: the roof is rotting, the pipes are lead and must be replaced, the electrical wiring makes this place a deathtrap (I'll tell you what I told the electrician: every electrician I have ever hired, in every place in the UK I've lived, has told me it was a deathtrap that should immediately be rewired).

But you know they are making a beautiful house.

It's all the choices that are death by a thousand paper cuts. It's like writing and this is why a very wise person told me if I could do anything else instead of being a writer I should certainly do that instead. Second guessing of every word, idea, choice, tile. A writer is someone who has developed a tolerance of this exhausting process. Thomas Mann was right. A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. And maybe someone for whom life is more difficult than other people. If only that came with a huge economic return. And if only I could get some confidence in my tile choices.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh (spoilers)

The last time I saw a new play by Martin McDonagh I was pregnant with my son. He turned 12 last month. The play I'd seen sober and needing to pee more than a decade ago was Pillowman, starring David Tenant at the National. In a lifetime of attending plays, Pillowman remains in the top three greatest nights of theater.

McDonagh plays are ferocious. (So are his movies, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) I remember going to see Lieutenant of Inishmore when I first arrived in London and then going back to see it the next week. That's the only time I have done that with a play and that's because the casual violence, the trueness of the characters, the wit of the dialogue, the rollicking pace of the plot - this elated me. Wide-eyed, joyful and jealous. That's me after a McDonagh play. Witty, violent, true, perfectly plotted -  these are the hallmarks, I think, of McDonagh's writing. McDonagh himself calls theatre "the worst of all the art forms". I sure that this is why his plays are so good.

So last night I caught his new play Hangmen at the Wyndham.  It starts with a scene of a hanging in 1963, a man protesting his innocence of the crime - something to do with messing with girls in Norfolk - and also wishing he could get the best hangman, Pierrepont, instead of his second-rate executioner, Harry Wade. Two years later, hanging has been abolished,  Harry Wade is a publican in the north of England. His wife Alice drinks gin in the background and his 15-year-old daughter Shirley mopes. He gives a vain, revisionist interview about his hanging career - trying to prove his superiority to Pierrepont. During the interview, the real guilty party from 1963, a sort of Guy Ritchie-esque Mooney convinces the hangman's 15-year-old daughter to go on a drive.

When McDonagh was writing his earlier plays about the Troubles in Ireland I definitely sensed more love in the writing than I do now. The Greek Chorus of alcoholics at the pub - the police inspector, an old geezer, a self-confessed drunk - are sad, shiftless, misshapen people. They are hollow. Harry Wade is a tragic wasted life, and his delusional vanity seems drawn from the one thing he had - the power to kill people for the state. I wonder if McDonagh thinks they are related - that the neurotically masked self-loathing of Wade comes from his license to kill. Or whether, maybe, the job hardly attracts healthy people. Not that anyone was healthy in the 60's up north. It was all pints and peanuts and cigarettes apparently.

How Wade handles Mooney, gets back his daughter and takes the backlash from Pierrepont who arrives having read the interview is hugely entertaining, but I certainly didn't love any of the characters. Nor did they really love each other. What I loved was seeing the parallels, the shadows, the connections between them. The depiction of the strange half-life women lived then. I also loved that the fiery monologue of an angrily defensive Shirley was so genuinely vibrant against a stage full of beige middle-aged men. I could almost love her abductor, Mooney (a scene with him in a cafe is just about perfect: "Don’t worry. I may have my quirks but I’m not an animal. Or am I? One for the courts to discuss"). What I loved the most was the exhiliration of seeing a play - oh no - I have to say it - perfectly executed.