I Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier – Violence and Morality in Doctor Who

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor's Daughter

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor’s Daughter

Many years ago (well, it wasn’t really, but it feels that way) I toyed with the idea of writing a Doctor Who fanfic called The Moral High Ground, centred around the Doctor’s discomfort when a reformed Dalek rocks up and asks for asylum in the TARDIS. It never get written, which is rather a shame.

Primarily it would have been a response to a theme that was clumsily raised and inadequately explored in David Tennant’s last (2008) series – his extreme repudiation of all kinds of violence, accompanied by a visceral disgust towards anyone in military clothing, when in fact he was steeped in sufficient blood to make Macbeth look like a dolls’ tea party. Beginning with his self-promotion as “the man who never would” in The Doctor’s Daughter, it reached a typically RTD melodramatic full expression in Journey’s End, when Davros taunted him with a roll-call of the many people who had sacrificed their lives while he maintained his illusion of moral purity:

Davros: The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.

It’s always the people from way back who know how to deliver the killer blow. It’s a melodramatic and simplistic moment, and it generates a simplistic solution; the Doctor transfers all his shadow self onto his doppelgänger and locks him away in a parallel world. Even before what happened with Donna, that was the moment I started despising Ten, and I don’t think I was alone.

Daleks are a constant of Doctor Who, the stuff of a whole generation’s childhood memories, which they (we?) transfer onto their own children. Daleks are a nostalgic throwback to the binary moral judgements of our early years. If the Daleks go, then with them goes the charming illusion that Doctor Who is a kids’ show, the stuff of playground battles (it’s a truth beautifully realised in Mark Gatiss’s Adventure in Space and Time, when Verity Lambert is overjoyed to hear kids yelling “Exterminate!” on a bus). But it’s more complicated than simply recalling the certainties of childhood. There’s a part of every adult, even the most liberal, that craves an unredeemable, totally merciless enemy that deserves nothing short of our guiltless annihilation. Because life is so bloody complicated, and sometimes we just want a break from reading The Guardian and agonising over the least worst solution.

So the Daleks persist in the DW universe, while the Doctor develops, matures and nudges towards moral accountability. The Time War, originally conceived as remaining entirely offscreen and unimaginable, pushes its way up the agenda and is eventually realised, at least in part, in the 50th Anniversary special. Moffatt openly articulates his uneasiness at the Doctor committing genocide and, being Moffatt, retcons it – because he can. The Doctor is reborn, with a second set of regenerations, grey hairs, a frowny face and the ability to confront at least some of his past.

"Am I a good man?"

“Am I a good man?”

Can anyone seriously imagine the Tenth, or even the Eleventh, Doctor, looking his companion in the eye and asking her to tell him, honestly, if he is a good man? Heck, Ten spent an entire series not looking Rose in the eye, and she was meant to be the love of his life. He turned lack of meaningful eye contact into an art form. But Twelve is made of sterner stuff. Clara’s final rejoinder that he is a man that tries to be good – or at least one that recognises the necessity of trying, and can accept the need to up his game, is a sign of Doctor Who‘s new moral sensibility. Morality is too important to be presented as melodrama, which is what RTD’s Who largely was, even if Tennant had the skill to spin it into Shakespearian tragedy. The shades of grey are not only visible in Capaldi’s curly hair; they are the foundation of a grown-up moral consciousness. And very welcome they are.

The moral sucker-punch delivered by Into The Dalek – that the Doctor is capable of mindless, prejudiced and irrational hatred –  is familiar enough to followers of the show. But what is refreshing is that it is restrained and low-key, and nevertheless powerful. It makes a welcome contrast, perhaps even a kind of companion piece, to The Waters of Mars, the last Phil Ford-authored DW episode, which showed the Doctor at his most dangerous, deluded and narcissistic. And there are intriguing signs that we’re building up to a meaningful interrogation of the Doctor’s inconsistent posturing on the subject of violence. Danny Pink is presented to us as a soldier, bruised by his experience in battle but still prepared to drill the school cadet force (just as the Tenth Doctor was as John Smith, in a story that revealed him at his cruellest and most vengeful). It seems more than likely that there will be some grown-up discussion of the ethics of putting boots on ground within the TARDIS before too long. More than that, it seems that some malign intelligence is plucking the Doctor’s victims (or collateral damage) from their deaths and saving them to put the Timelord on Trial at some future date – the taunts of Davros made flesh.

And I, for one, welcome our new morally nuanced overlords. It’s about time.

The Lives of Others, by Neel Muckherjee

Ten days ago I received a surprise email from a review digest called The Omnivore – I had won the entire 2014 Booker Prize long list. My plan is to read through the lot of them, including the ones that don’t immediately appeal, and report back with my impressions.

134.Neel Mukherjee-The Lives Of Others  cover

“Boro-babu, the world does not change, you destroy yourself trying to change it, but it remains as it is. The world is very big and we are very small. Why cause people who love you to go through such misery because of it?”

An idealistic young man deserts his wealthy family to join an extreme political movement intent on direct action. In the process, he breaks his mother’s heart. The scene is West Bengal in the 1960s, but the situation has a contemporary resonance in these days of much-feared British Jihadists. To his credit, Neel Muckherjee gives us both sides of the divide. His narrative, for the first 80% of this sprawling, colourful novel, is divided between the Marxist guerilla’s diary and the slow but steady implosion of the complex, upper middle-class family he leaves behind.

Towards the end of the book, two very different people challenge the young man’s simple idealism. The first, quoted above, is the much-loved, yet separately existing servant who has lived with the family for decades and virtually raised their children. The second is a police interrogator, who asks with genuine interest what motivates these privileged, well-educated boys to join the terrorists, and contrasts their readiness to sacrifice the individual to their perceived needs of the masses. In both cases, the question is valid and unsettling.

Muckherjee’s narrative is rescued from theoretical sloganeering by his ability to immerse the reader in a richly peopled and sensually detailed world. This is a book with the expansiveness and sweep of a Victorian “Condition of England” novel, such as Gaskell’s “Mary Barton” and “North and South.” The setting is exotic to Western readers, yet the themes seem universally familiar. How can we live well in a corrupt society? Does paternalism have its place? Do those who have sacrificed everything to build a business deserve our sympathy when their mistakes deprive workers of their livelihood and they protest?

The gilded cage of the Ghosh family, a multi-storied house where they live together, not always amicably, is surrounded by the most abject human misery. Yet their existence is far from straightforward; as their certainties crumble, eroded by a mixture of political and social change post-independence and their own numerous character flaws, we feel their pain as they turn to various crutches to help them navigate a frightening new social landscape. There’s enough rivalry, back-stabbing and drama to fill a whole series of Dallas, and the internal landscape of every character is thoroughly explored.

I didn’t expect to find so much that was familiar in a family saga set in modern India. The contrast of societies is fascinating, but perhaps what stays in the mind longest are the difficult questions and elusive solutions that are the same the world over.

Another review

Gutenburg’s Apprentice, by Alex Christie

Publicity material

Publicity material

Four hundred and fifty years ago, a dishevelled entrepreneur called Johann Gensfleisch arrived at the huge Frankfurt trade fair to launch a project he had been working on with a team of skilled craftsmen for four years. Some thought it blasphemous; many marvelled and a lucky few put down a deposit for their own copy. The exhibit was the monumental Gutenburg Bible, the first to be set in moveable type. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that the world would never be the same again.

The basic technique Gutenburg developed, that of making castings of each individual letter in metal, arranging them in rows, then in frames, inking them and pressing the letters against vellum or paper, remained in use with various technical modifications until the 1960s. Even now, well into the digital age, we use terms derived from the process. We talk about upper case and lower case letters, referring to the way that the hundreds of metal casts were stored; we talk about going to press, print runs and inking contracts. It is hard for us to imagine, as we tap away at our keyboards, how filthy, noisy, exhausting and technically demanding printing used to be. Many years ago, I joined a tour of a newspaper works and still recall the excitement as midnight approached, the enormous presses roared into life and the first edition was pulled from the rollers, little knowing that I was witnessing the end of an era.

Gutenburg would have known all about ending an era. Both the Catholic Church and the powerful trade guilds in his native city of Mainz were prepared to play dirty to get their hands on his revolutionary printing press; secrecy and subterfuge gave way to hard bargaining and deals on the side; the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest bureaucracy, knew that their power rested on the mass production of indulgences as much as illuminated religious texts. At first, the fledgeling enterprise bought off the local trade associations to prevent rumours circulating. The end of the world as we know it is always going to upset somebody. And this technology was definitely in that league. Within 50 years of the Bible being shown, a mass of small printers had sprung up throughout Germany and the authority of Catholicism was being challenged. Information revolutions, and the debates they lead to, are not confined to the digital age.

How apt it seems, therefore, that the writer of the wonderful novel I’ve just finished, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, was born in Silicon Valley. She has worked as a journalist and as a printer, on her own 1910 letterpress. Her account of Gutenberg’s Bible, seen through the eyes of the three real people at the eye of the storm, is masterly. At its heart is Peter Schoeffer, plucked from his promising career as a scribe by his hard-nosed adoptive father, Johann Fust, and ordered to join Gutenberg’s workshop.

At first Peter hates it and plots his escape by sneaking out to beg work from his old contacts in the scriptorium. No wonder – he has gone from a highly skilled and refined job to a Stygian hellhole of filth and fire where his boss’s idea of discipline is to lose his temper and burn his arm with boiling metal. Gradually, however, Peter forms bonds with his fellow workers and a grudging, if guarded, respect for his near-impossible boss. Ultimately he sees the production of the Bible as his life’s calling, and part of the tragedy of the novel is that eventually betrayal and disagreement break the fellowship of labourers, even as their finished project ignites the Western world.

One of the best things about Alex Christie’s book, and this sets it apart from most historical novels, is that at its heart it’s about the joy and brotherhood connected with finding truly meaningful work. Not that it lacks in drama, romance and political manoeuvring; it has all those spades, but the beating heart of the story, and of Peter’s life, is the crucible of innovation and the bond forged by the intensity of work on a project that pushes them to the limit in every imaginable way. Nothing is romanticised; this is emphatically not the glib story of some lone genius having a lightbulb moment. We see this revolution through the eyes of Peter, whose skill and commitment see it through against almost impossible odds and Fust, the financial backer whose wheeling and dealing make everything happen, rather than Gutenburg himself. Far from being presented as a hero, Gutenburg comes over as a medieval Steve Jobs whose abrasive personality threatens the success of the great Bible as much as facilitates it, and Peter’s developing role as his fixer and executive director becomes utterly draining as the challenges escalate. Christie’s marvellous story will transport you to medieval Europe, and a characteristically German story of craftsmanship, engineering brilliance, and innovation. It joins Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as part of a new wave of realistic historical fiction, casting great figures of the past in a refreshingly modern mould.

A Tale of Two Monsters – Dracula and Frankenstein compared

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Do women write better horror stories than men? Any conclusion based on a sample of two is hardly scientific, but a comparison of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Bram Stoker’s Dracula is very revealing.

I never intended to read Dracula. Then we spent a weekend in a holiday cottage near Whitby, and I happened to find a copy on the bookshelf. The first few chapters were gripping and atmospheric, describing the terrifying few weeks spent by the young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, as a prisoner in the Count’s Transylvanian stronghold. Particularly unexpected and intriguing was the blatant eroticism of the scene where he is approached by three female vampires, having disregarded Dracula’s instruction not to go wandering about (The Doctor would have understood the Count’s frustration very well).

Then the action moves to contemporary England. The word “contemporary” is not used lightly, because if ever a novel abounded in descriptions of the wonders of technology, it is this one. Characters constantly record their journals on phonographs, send telegrams and discuss the latest developments in science and technology. Yet Stoker seems curiously ambivalent, or perhaps just inconsistent, in his views. His famous Dutch vampire hunter, Van Helsing, constantly asserts the importance of maintaining a belief in the apparently irrational, whether it be the existence of vampires or the efficacy of Christian symbolism. The text articulates a deep anxiety that the speed of scientific progress will lead to a pervasive rationalism that will leave us vulnerable against the things that go bump in the night.

Anxiety is the defining feature of Stoker’s narrative. That’s not unreasonable in a book that is, after all, intended to scare us stiff. But the particular anxieties implied in Stoker’s account are clustered around the vexed question of gender politics and sexuality. His world-view is a patriarchal as the Book of Genesis. Women have only one acceptable aspiration – to exist as icons of purity. The world is repeated constantly. They are vessels to be filled or emptied by others – quite literally in the case of the passive Lucy Westera, whose very name embodies Stoker’s racial prejudice. In a frantic and ultimately futile attempt to save her life, she undergoes no fewer than four blood transfusions (all from different men!) in four consecutive days, all without her awareness or consent, and done in the name of their devotion to her. It is significant that, while the blood-letting of a vampire is the underlying cause of Lucy’s malaise, we are told that such a creature can only enter a house by the victim’s invitation. Inviting the vampire into her bedroom is Lucy’s only really autonomous action in the whole narrative, and all her sufferings flow from it.

Female independence was a cause of considerable anxiety in the late 19th century, with its defining feature of the rise of the “New Woman” demanding access to university education and suffrage. Closely linked to this concern was a reductive and conventional understanding of masculinity. In Julian Barnes’ novel, Arthur and George, set in the Edwardian era, an innocent Indian man is suspected of murder, partly because he hasn’t learned to play “our great manly games.” It is possibly coincidental that Dracula, with his nocturnal habits, his shameful addiction, sunken eyes and feminine features, superficially resembles Oscar Wilde, but some commentators think otherwise. The vampire can only be defeated by a united fraternity of men, whose virility is frequently and glowingly praised. They lock themselves away in smoke-filled rooms, excluding the clearly intelligent and capable Mina on the grounds that the fairer sex could not bear the horrors that they are discussing.

Blind faith has its dark side – irrational prejudice.  Dracula abounds in what we would now call “Isms” – sexism, racism, even class-ism. Stoker’s attempt to produce Cockney or Yorkshire dialect, combined with frequent veiled demands for beer money, make it clear that in his universe the lower classes exist primarily to be patronised by their betters and provide comic relief.

Does Dracula still have the power to terrify? In a well-directed movie, perhaps, but the original is by turns infuriating and hilarious. It says far more about the sexual anxieties of late Victorian males than the habits of the undead. There is no attempt to explain, empathise with or pity the Count. And in this respect, particularly, it differs markedly from Shelly’s Frankenstein, which in my view has lost none of its haunting power.

Shelley, too, had concerns about the growing power of technology. Frankenstein is rooted in the Romantic sensibility, and its reaction to the prospect that mankind might be on the brink of using electricity to reanimate the dead, and create new life. Should humanity have such a power? How could male vanity – such a feature of Stoker’s narrative – be limited by ethics and responsibility?

These issues have, if anything, become more significant rather than less. That is partly why Frankenstein has retained its appeal. But Mary Shelley was also a parent, one who had stoically dragged a growing brood of toddlers around Europe in thrall to her husband’s grand ideas (only one of their five children survived the experience). Frankenstein is filled with this sensibility, with her conviction that humanity owes a debt of moral responsibility to any sentient being it has created. Her Creature does not fit easily into the good/evil binary. He is the innocent victim of his creator’s revulsion and neglect; it is this that looses horror upon the world, and leads to the death of everyone that Frankenstein holds dear.

The Creature is a complex character – we are privy to his aspirations, his anguish and his growing desperation. Much of the story is told from his viewpoint. Through his account of his social isolation, he comes to represent the social and political prejudices that divide us, and that the Shelley’s would have clearly witnessed in their travel around a war-scarred Europe. We can’t condone his behaviour, but we understand why he feels he has no alternative. He is human, and seeks only the connection and acceptance that all human beings are entitled to. Ultimately, we pity him, probably more than we pity his hubristic creator, who spills so much ink bemoaning his own fate and so little on that of his creation.

In Shelley’s moral universe, the monsters are more than simple projections of society’s repressed anxieties. They are like us; in a sense, they are us. They exist on the fringes of society, feared, shunned but ultimately no more evil than those who brought them into being. We make our own monsters, and the way forward is not to band together in vigilante groups intent on their destruction, but by extending a hand of mercy and acknowledgement to the apparently hideous and unknown.

Dracula is a melodrama. Frankenstein, though every bit as much of its time as Stoker’s classic, remains contemporary, haunting and disturbing. It terrifies because we know, in our hearts, that we are capable of creating our own monsters, and sealing our fate as well as theirs by our reluctance to acknowledge the monstrous in ourselves.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” (National Theatre)

My heart aches for Cornwall and Devon right now

Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)

Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)

It breaks my heart to see the horrendous storm damage to the South West of England this week. Of all the regions of my native country, it’s the one I love most, and crossing over the Saltash Bridge from Devon into Cornwall gives me a thrill that never abates. The line at Dawlish that has just been swept away holds particularly special memories for me. The first holiday that my husband of 26 years and I took together was a trip to Penwith and the Isles of Scilly in 1984. We took the night train from Manchester to Penzance – an adventure in itself at the time – and I remember waking at 4.00 am to look out of the window and discover, with a thrill of joy and anticipation, that we were literally travelling along the Devon coast. That line, built by Brunel in the 1840s has always been a marvel of engineering, defying the elements, linking the far west of England with London. Now it has gone.

The South West in general, and Cornwall in particular, is a world apart. That is what draws so many people there for relaxation and adventure, but it is also a vulnerability that leaves them economically fragile. I was concerned on our last trip to the region to discover that the Isles of Scilly no longer has a direct air link with Penzance. Beautiful though it is, the tiny population of Scilly is one of the most economically deprived in Britain, and having to travel the 32 miles to a halfway-decent shopping centre via Newquay puts an unfair burden on them. Such cuts in infrastructure are increasing the impoverishment of an isolated region where many local people can already barely find a decent place to live and secure year-round work.

For the last five years DH and I have been walking the entire South West Peninsula Coast Path; a monumental trek of 630 miles, including a combined ascent three times the height of Everest. We are just over halfway through, with our ninth campaign planned for early summer. During that time we have always travelled down from our home in Manchester by train and used local transport to get around. We have stayed in a variety of hotels and B&Bs, most of them delightful and memorable. I wonder if all of them will survive to welcome guests into the 2014 season.

Ultimately our goal has always been to retire to the region. Like many others, no doubt, recent events may cause us to rethink those plans. With ageing and decreasing mobility to consider, finding the right property has been a balance between the delights of living right on the sea coast and the relative safety of an inland home, which in most cases will be up a hill steep enough to isolate an elderly person. Much as I love the high street at Lyme Regis, I shudder to think of the practicalities of getting down it and back on a frosty winter morning without falling and breaking an oseteoporotic bone or two. So the attractions of a coastal home are not simply aesthetic.

About two years ago, on a glorious September evening, we walked into Kingsand, the first village west of Plymouth, and fell hopelessly in love. We made enquiries about the local community and felt that this could be the right place for us, regardless of our earlier decision that Cornwall was too remote and isolated. Now the lovely little village hall with its iconic clock tower is on the verge of collapse. And if we’d been able or willing to find the £750,000 for our dream house, we’d probably now be pumping out the cellar. With the present weather, even your own private smugglers passage direct to the beach is a mixed blessing.

Our Enid Blyton vision may be faced with the cold winds of reality and common sense, but our problems are nothing to those faced by those who live and work in the beautiful South West counties. When we return – hopefully by train – next Whitsuntide, I can only hope that the path, and the hotels we have booked, will still be there to welcome us. I have a Cornish ancestry that stretches back to the early 19th Century. I’m taking this personally. My thoughts are with you all.

A Tale of Three Movies: Abuse, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase

Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase

We saw The Railway Man last night, completing our recent hat-trick of “abuse movies.” The other two were Philomena and Twelve Years A Slave.

It was my partner who pointed out the interesting parallels and contrasts between these three stories. Each concerns a person who was dreadfully abused, caught up in an evil system without their knowledge or consent, but simply as an unfortunate accident. Philomena bears an illegitimate child in 1950s Ireland, which leads to the removal of her baby and its forced adoption, sanctioned by the state (in contemporary terminology, outsourced to the Catholic Church).

In 12 Years A Slave Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1840s Saratoga, is duped into being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Finally, The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, appallingly tortured by the Japanese in Burma as a young man in World War II. For the rest of the life he is emotionally crippled by this trauma, and eventually has the opportunity to meet one of his tormentors face to face and decide whether to murder or forgive him.

All three are based on true stories. All continue to have contemporary resonance. We still struggle, as a species with the questions of torture, war, trauma, slavery, racism and what to do about people who don’t follow the socially sanctioned rules for reproduction within marriage.

And all three ask a vital question – is it possible to recover from severe abuse, and is forgiveness an essential, or even desirable, aspect of that process?

Such forgiveness takes two forms – forgiveness of one’s individual abuser(s), and forgiveness of the ideological system in which the abuse takes place. You can have one without the other. It may be too difficult and dangerous on a practical level to return to the scene of the crime, even assuming you would want to do so. This was clearly Solomon Northup’s situation. The evil of slavery was so entrenched in society at the time that his only option was to continue to fight on outside the South as an abolitionist, which was what he did.

Eric Lomax, however, was offered the opportunity to return and offer reconciliation. It is interesting that, according to his second wife Patti (who features prominently in the film, played by Nicole Kidman), he returned to Thailand with every intention of killing his torturer, expecting that to bring him closure, if not inner peace. It was only when they met, and he discovered the reality of Takashi Nagase’s commitment to reconciliation through his work of historical education that Lomax concluded, “Sometimes, the hating has to stop.” This is the most complete reconciliation of the three stories under discussion, and the film depicts it movingly and convincingly.

Philomena’s case is rather more complex. She remains a Catholic and is, in that sense, reconciled with the institution that was the author of her pain. In fact, the film strongly implies that only the Church gives her the moral framework to cope with the very pain it has caused her. She is not reconciled with the individual nun who sanctioned her child’s adoption, and we see that her attitude has, if anything, hardened in old age. And the film does not touch on Philomena’s views towards the Irish government for allowing her child, and many others, to be sold rather than creating a society where illegitimate children were valued and included. So this is a partial, and rather problematic and incomplete, reconciliation.

However, the parallels between these stories are instructive, and it is interesting that they have all been made into successful films at roundabout the same time. The questions they ask have a timeless relevance and are arguably the stuff of compelling drama. In each case, though certain accommodations with the original source material have inevitably been reached, the movie treatment is broadly faithful to the original.

Undoubtedly all are worth seeing. Of the three I found Philomena the most entertaining, 12 Years A Slave the most shocking and The Railway Man the most emotionally satisfying. In addition, The Railway Man gave me a far more powerful insight into the reality of being consistently and repeatedly tortured than the far more morally problematic Zero Dark Thirty I saw about a year ago. At the time I concluded that Zero Dark Thirty was morally justifiable because it showed that torture brutalises the perpetrator as well as the victim. Now that attitude has shifted. Torture is wrong, period. There are no attenuating circumstances and justifications whatsoever.

Twelve Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in Twelve years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in Twelve years a Slave

Twelve Years A Slave, which I saw yesterday, is a harrowing and shocking film. I expected that. I was rather less prepared for what shocked me the most.

I was primed for scenes of sickening violence and they will stay in my mind for a long time. I also thought I was a decent, liberal person who understood racism and what it must feel like to experience it.

In fact, I was wrong.

Yes, the n-word was used, repeatedly and casually, to such an extent that I felt that, for the first time, I could imagine what life would be like in a community habituated to such things and the attitudes that accompany them. It was the absolute commoditisation of human beings that shocked me the most. That sounds like a no-brainer – slavery is about owning people, well, d’uh. We think we understand it, that we can imagine it. I think we’re wrong. At least, I was.

The scene where the new batch of kidnapped slaves are put on the market was as shocking, in its own way, as the vicious beatings and lynchings that followed. Here were human beings being sold as possessions, regardless of any dignity or feelings involved. A little boy forced to demonstrate his physical fitness. A mother screaming as her children are sold away from her before her eyes (later, when she arrives at her new home without them, the mistress says, ‘Poor creature. Give her rest and food, she will forget them in a few days.’) Human beings tagged, abused, robbed of all dignity and self-determination. And hope.

Keep your head down. Don’t let anybody find out you can read and write – they’ll single you out as an uppity n-r. You are now, officially, someone else’s property, to do what they think best with. If you are a woman, you may be raped regularly by the master and, as if that isn’t bad enough, savagely beaten by him because he loathes himself for being attracted to you and takes out that loathing on your body and soul and, for good measure, his wife will hate you for reasons of her own and find her own ways of making you wretched.

If you are a man, your destiny is to work until you drop dead in the field and then be thrown into an unmarked grave with scant ceremony.

A system so evil is horrendous for everyone to live in. For the slaves, that’s obvious. But equally disturbing is the brutalisation of the entire society, the acceptance of extreme violence as part of the texture of everyday life, the well-dressed little white children playing while lynched bodies swing or vicious beatings occur in the background of their world.

We may congratulate ourselves on the wickedness of times past and feel a sense of false worthiness because people don’t keep slaves now (an argument that it, as it happens, untrue). But we continue to live in a society that singles out particular kinds of people – poor people on welfare, for example – as being less worthy of the description “human” and the privileges that go with it. And that is an attitude that impoverishes us all.

I can only watch and reflect, in humble horror, and feel glad that at least Solomon Northup escaped, returned to his family and did not forget his sufferings – that, quite literally, he lived to tell the tale.