Friday 29 January 2016

Grace and Mary, Melvin Bragg

Bragg’s Grace and Mary is a touching portrayal of a son desperately holding on to his mother as Alzheimer’s takes away her memories and sense of self. The ageing John makes the long drive from London to Cumbria as regularly as he can but always with a sense of guilt that he is not there more often. His visits are clearly painful to him as he ponders the impact of the loss of personal history. His love for his mother, however, is unceasingly apparent as he attempts to recreate her memories of the past.

In her distress Mary calls out for Grace, her mother. Initially this feels a statement of longing for parental comfort that never leaves us, a desire for the innocence of times past. As the novel progresses, however, and the story of Grace is revealed to us by John, we come to realise that perhaps it is a distress at a life unlived, now forever out of reach.

Grace’s story is a sad one from the moment of her birth, her mother not surviving the ordeal. She grows in to a beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed young woman but is faced with numerous tragedies. The past is clearly evoked in the descriptions of her experiences and the frustrations of a judgemental society. John’s narrative is so detailed, so evocative, that the reader forgets that we have an unreliable narrator. He is reconstructing the past from tales his mother told him, fabricating where necessary.

He questions Mary, attempting to nudge her memories, to bring her back to herself. At some moments he is successful, at others he pushes too hard. Although clearly painful for him, when asked about his father, deceased over a decade previous, he constructs an account of his day as though he were no further than down the road, at their home. John delights in the effect this has on his mother and allows himself to indulge in the fantasy.

A touching novel that deals with very real issues. The distress of coping with losing a loved one to Alzheimers is accompanied by the pressing struggle of an ageing society to support its elders. John’s grief and guilt are very relatable and the palpable love he has for his mother makes this an emotional read.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

The Crime Museum Uncovered, Museum of London

The Metropolitan Police crime museum was founded in the mid-1870s, the objects coming mainly from unclaimed items at the Prisoners’ Property Store. Until now it has not been open to the general public. Predominantly for the training of new officers, the visitors’ book reveals journalists and writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have also mined its treasures. Bizarrely so have a previous Australian cricket team.

The first few rooms set the tone of the exhibition – death masks surround the room, nooses line one wall. Prepare yourself for a dark exhibition. The rooms will likely be bustling with other visitors. The museum seems to have pre-empted its popularity and have created a guide for the first few rooms, making it unnecessary to have lengthy labels next to the objects. Unfortunately, this fails to keep the traffic moving as people try and work out what text relates to the item, or for those who didn’t pick up a guide confusion ensues.

The penultimate room, largest of them all, has a long series of tales recounting murders through the decades and the innovations in policing that led to their resolution. Personally, I found it a bit much reading one after another of these grisly tales. ‘Light’ relief comes in the form of cabinets of murder weapons, both obvious and disguised and a discussion of police procedure, including identification techniques – earprints as opposed fingerprints was a new one to me! There is also consideration of how crime itself has changed, how the major threat is now terrorism, and how policing must continue to push forward if it is to stand a chance against the constant evolution of crime.

Feeling thoroughly depressed and wondering why it is that people are so fascinated by crime, the final room’s discussion of just such a question was timely. A curator from the museum argues that just because it is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. Professor Leif Wenar claims the fascination goes beyond mere desire for high drama but that it sets out the rules we all have to live by. The final video was valuable in setting the exhibition and its importance in a wider context.

An interesting exhibition, albeit not one for the faint of heart. The focus is very much on murder and you’ll likely leave in gloomier spirits than you arrived in. Worth a visit for those interested in criminal history – seeing murder weapons up close is a disturbing and powerful experience.

The Crime Museum Uncovered runs at the Museum of London until 10th April 2016. Advanced booking is recommended.  

Saturday 2 January 2016

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy’s epic has a huge array of characters and deals with a vast span of human experience and psychology. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars he focuses in on the lives of Russians both away from the battlefield and in the throes of the action. The host of characters may be numerous but we get to know some more intimately, seeing Natasha, for example, grow from childhood to mature woman with all the heartache and pleasure along the way. Even the more minor characters are relatable, revealing a different facet of human experience.

The writing style is easy to read and there are some quite wonderful descriptive sections – comparing war-torn Moscow to a beehive without its queen is one passage whose imagery certainly stuck with me. Tolstoy seems also to have a talent at writing character, making experiences that can be alien to the reader about more than the mere moment they are in but rather an examination of universal feelings and concerns.

He does have a tendency toward slight tangents – his disdain for Napoleon apparent. He also displays strong feelings on the methods and value of historians. For the most part these are short passages that don’t detract from the readability of the novel. Indeed, these brief treatises on history, philosophy, and war are interesting and thought provoking, adding depth to the overall experience. The epilogue feels a little messy due to the large chunks of these type of ponderings mixed with brief encounters with the characters, allowing us to see how they have developed over the years. I don’t question the value of his ideas, merely that they may have been better placed elsewhere.

One is left with the feeling that they have had an encounter with the whole of humanity on reaching the end of this well respected novel. All of life is contained within its pages, full of the imperfections of the protagonists, the momentous occasions and the everyday. It covers the nature of relationships both familial and marital and touches on debates that have yet to be resolved. Well worth the time commitment to read, no adaptation can ever express all the treasures contained within.

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