Style and the Middle-Aged Shopper

Blavinge tunic from the latest Gudrun Soden collection


The decline and fall of British Home Stores will come as no surprise to anyone who’s visited one of their provincial stores lately and noticed the worrying absence of customers, staff and stuff one would be seen dead in. It also speaks volumes about how the landscape of clothes retailing has changed.

The people who will probably mourn BHS most are a certain sort of older lady, the kind of person my mother-in-law was, looking for affordable basics that don’t change much from year to year. A swimsuit that fits, a pair of comfy slippers. Someone who, crucially, isn’t comfortable doing their shopping on the Internet. The kind of person who regards clothes as equipment rather than a statement of lifestyle.

But the show has moved on, often somewhat more quickly than the retailers. John Lewis stocks very little interesting stuff above a UK size 18. Marks and Spencer patronises the older woman with its hideous Classic range, dominated by swathes of what used to be called man-made fibres in inoffensive pastel shades. Laura Ashley hangs on in tourist hotspots where its iconic Englishness attracts well-heeled overseas tourists.

I hear that Austin Reed is in trouble as well. The last time I bought a Country Casuals outfit – the kind where everything matches – the bag, the shoes, the silly little hat, was for my son’s first graduation ceremony, and I felt embarrassingly overdressed. The ladies I meet for lunch – when they aren’t out at work – show up at quite nice places in sweatshirts and are as likely to carry rucksacks as handbags. People just don’t do formalities any more.

It embarrasses me to admit this, but when I recall doing my MA in Shakespeare Studies in Stratford-upon-Avon, I have almost as many fond memories of clothes shopping as I do of seminal theatre productions. That’s a mere five years ago, but when I went back there recently several of the places I used to mooch happily around had closed and others were under threat. Now if I want the luxury of a flagship store, my best bet is probably Covent Garden.

The need to “kick tyres”, as my husband puts it, hasn’t entirely vanished from clothes shopping. I find that the Internet is great for anything above the waist, but trousers are a much riskier business, often involving several trips to the Post Office with returns. Brand loyalty becomes more significant – if you know that Dash trousers are always comfortable, you are much more likely to stick with them, at least for the basics.

Capturing the boomer market is the key to survival in today’s retail landscape. Outlets for the younger woman proliferate and expire like mayflies, as they always have. But by the time I turned 50, I already had the distinct sense that I was being put in a beige box. Then – on the Internet, naturally – I discovered Gudrun Sjoden and fell in love. At last, a retailer that happily put plus-size and grey-haired mature models on its website, and sold clothes for them in the kind of colours that made my daughter roll her eyes and say, “You’re not going out looking like that, are you, Mum?” If I want to age colourfully, then I damn well will (though I admit the loud cerise leggings were probably a step too far, and they languish in the wardrobe). The message is as loud and clear as a Gudrun tunic – if you pigeonhole us, we’ll go somewhere else, and who cares what damn country they come from. It will take more than fond memories of the first set of bedding we bought when we got married, or BHS lunch in-store as a childhood treat, to get us through your revolving doors. Retail giants ignore the sixty-something woman at their peril.

How not to run a railway


(Tweeted image of the interior of the Good Friday Paddington to Penzance train)

Last August we had a very enjoyable holiday in Bavaria. On our final day, we turned up at Fussen station for the train to Munich airport and found there had been a mechanical problem and it was cancelled.

What happened next was revealing. Within half an hour, a coach had arrived to take us to an intervening station. Despite our limited German, we were kept well informed of the situation. The coach was admittedly a little crowded but everyone was good humoured, particularly the guys enjoying a few beers on the back seat.

On our replacement train, there was air conditioning, which we appreciated as it was 37C outside. There were plenty of seats and the staff were pleasant, even telling us that an alternative coach would be cooler and more comfortable. We caught our flight in plenty of time.

By contrast, last Friday (the first day of a four-day bank holiday Easter weekend), the inappropriately named Great Western Railway saw fit to put a two-coach train to Penzance on the 10.00am run from Paddington, London. People who had reserved seats – exactly what they had been advised to do – were physically unable to reach and claim them because the train was so overcrowded that people were standing, or even lying, on every square inch of floor space. A pregnant woman was unable to get to the toilet. The staff were apparently nowhere to be seen, although I do remember reading a few months ago that GWR staff were threatening strike action to protest against trains being run without guards and ticket inspectors. Looks as if they lost that argument.

For those unfamiliar with British geography, this is a journey that takes five and a half hours. By the time the train reached Plymouth, somebody had figured out that it might be a good idea to lay on a bigger alternative train. Unfortunately, they hadn’t told the passengers. The station platforms became dangerously overcrowded and the British Transport Police had to be called to escort people off the train, where they waited an hour for a replacement.

Just as well there aren’t any international airports in Cornwall. If you were planning to fly from Newquay to the Isles of Scilly for Easter, tough luck.

The worst thing about this story is that it’s not at all surprising. My hubby and I are walking the South West Peninsula Coast Path, all 630 miles of it, as a ten-year project. We have always made the journey down from Manchester and back by public transport. (Cornwall, by the way, doesn’t have a single mile of motorway, and many of its coastal beauty spots are down single track roads, for those smugly asking why these people didn’t just drive there).

We’ve never had an experience quite as unpleasant as that experienced by the unfortunate travellers on Good Friday, but it always seems to baffle GWR that people going to one of the most remote and beautiful parts of England for a holiday might have small children and luggage. Provisions for either consist of squatting in the disabled space and hoping nobody with a wheelchair tries to get on (good luck with that), or sitting on your suitcase in the corridor for hours, or putting a dangerously large piece of luggage on an overhead rack and praying nobody gets killed if it falls off. We have also learned to travel with ample food and water because if there is a refreshment trolley, it will probably be confined to a single carriage and you’ll only be able to reach it by getting off at a station and sprinting to wherever that happens to be.

Neo-liberals would say that if so many people want to go from London to Cornwall on a Bank Holiday weekend, it makes sense just to charge a lot for it. Well, for the journey described above you’ll pay around £125.00 minimum return per person. That’s hardly cheap. You’ll be charged extra to reserve a seat, and if someone is sitting in it when you board the train there will be nobody around to tell them to move, so expect some dirty looks or guilt tripping if they already have two toddlers on their lap.

If train companies really can’t increase capacity on popular routes, then for heavens’ sake, can’t they behave more like airlines? By all means charge people a lot of money, but for that, at the very least, they deserve a guaranteed seat, somewhere to put their luggage, and access to refreshments and a toilet on a lengthy journey.

I’m addicted to Cornwall and I work in a school so I probably have a few more crowded journeys ahead of me. (By the way, parents in England can be prosecuted and fined £60 a day per child if they take them out of school to go on holiday). But I can see why people might go for Germany instead.

As for the Germans, and anyone else from overseas, one look at this picture and we probably won’t need to have a Euro-referendum in June. They’ll be happy to leave us well alone. Particularly if you reflect on the possibility of a terrorist managing to leave a bag in such a situation.


Starting Sentences with “And”, and other unforgivable sins



Imagine, for a moment, that you are six years old and your family has just moved to a country where you barely speak a word of the native language. You are sent to school, itself a challenging experience as you struggle to interact with your new teachers and peers, who have never used any language other than their own.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, you are told that you have to take some very important exams in a few weeks’ time. Your parents, anxious to do everything in their power to maximise your chance of succeeding in your new home, have already bought the crammers and text books, although they don’t really understand what they are about and your teachers seem a bit hazy on them as well. You aren’t even quite sure what an examination is, but every couple of days your teacher takes a few of you out of the classroom – thickies like you who can’t write fluent, grammatical sentences – and makes you work through twenty questions in about half an hour. She tries to be nice but you can’t understand why she helps you the first time and then the second time she makes you do them all on your own, even though you don’t understand and there are lots of things you need to ask someone about.

You know the teacher is trying really hard not to be cross with you but you still get the feeling that she’s worried about you doing badly, and you’re really frightened that one day she will be cross, really cross, because you are so stupid for being six and not able to speak this language and understand what modal verbs and conjunctions are.

On top of all this, she’s taking the class in the school reception area. It’s really noisy and full of interesting things happening and you are trying hard not to turn round and look because then you get told off for not listening.

That’s what our political masters are asking Key Stage One children and their teachers to do. I’m learning Italian at the moment and it’s really hard. Even if I was in a quiet, very dull room, I would struggle to take an exam in Italian grammar. And I am a motivated, fairly bright grown-up.

Should primary school children be learning grammar at all? I can see two sides of this question. As a child of the 60s, and a school librarian, my emotions come down in favour of kids learning to enjoy the English language and feel confident using it in creative ways before we worry too much about the nuts and bolts of sentence-building. However, I’m also aware that my daughter, who is a gifted linguist, really struggled to take her German beyond GCSE level because she hadn’t really been taught English grammar, let alone German grammar, in a structured way. She pulled through and has recently finished six very rewarding months at the University of Vienna. But that experience gave me some sympathy with my Italian friends who are rather horrified by the lack of grammatical grounding in English schools.

Beginning a foreign language myself in middle age has been a real eye-opener. I’ve realised that you can reach a level of basic competency within a few months, mainly on the basis of rote learning and guided repetition in a very limited selection of scenarios. That will get you through the holiday basics, if anyone abroad has the time and patience to listen to your struggles rather than switch to English. If you are really determined, you may be able to reach this stage of competence on the Internet alone.

But to go deeper, to reach the point when you can really engage with a language and culture, does require some knowledge of grammar. In some languages word order is everything; in others you need to make sure that noun (male/female, singular/plural), adjective and personal pronoun all agree – and learn all the exceptions that have crept in because they sound so much better (yes, Italian, I’m looking at you). This sounds incredibly dull, and few of us could claim that grammar drills are our favourite way of spending a spare hour, but it leads to windows opening on a completely different view of the world.

There is also a more abstract pleasure in discovering how different nations have tackled the challenge of forming words into a logical structure that enables people to navigate reality with clarity. So I came rather late to the belief that grammar is important, and can be interesting and even enjoyable to study. Grammar is right at the interface of the controversy over whether we allow language to evolve, or try to impose order upon it. I’ve realised that Italians codified and organised their language in a very precise way into what is, basically, a simplified and evolved form of Latin. English, by contrast, has been far more promiscuous in its borrowings and bodged solutions. That is probably what makes it such a difficult language to learn.

What worries me about the testing regime being imposed on children in schools by our present government is precisely what bothers me about the proposals to turn every school into an academy. I say this as someone who now works for an academy trust and has so far found it to be a liberating experience. It’s not a bad idea in principle. But it’s not right for everyone.

It seems to me that by insisting that young children master English grammar at such a sophisticated level, we are pandering to people who want to cling to a fantasy that the whole concept of Englishness is an easily defined and codified matter. We are telling them that there is only one way to tell a story, think a thought and construct their own view of reality. It’s particularly ironic and sad that in these times of multi-culturalism, we’re being so incredibly prescriptive about how six year olds should express themselves, and putting teachers under so much pressure to make them conform.

What would I like to see happening in primary schools? I’d like teachers to be trusted to know what works best for their pupils, and if they were paid a bit better and respected more, that wouldn’t hurt. I’d like them to have more time, so that if a child comes out with a sentence like, “I goodly hided it,” they can explain that although it follows some grammatical rules, and sounds rather charming, it’s not what English people usually say, and that such a disconnect is not another reason to groan and put your head in your hands, but the kind of interesting, human oddity that makes language learning so intriguing. I’d like children to realise that if they make a mistake people will correct them, but it’s not an examination, and if they keep on trying they will get it right. Anyone who’s learned a language will know how easy it is to be rendered mute by fear of making a mistake, even after hours of practice, when faced with a real live foreigner, and yet we’re asking children to overcome this fear of sounding silly in an artificially high-pressure and high-stakes environment.

If children must be drilled in examination conditions, I would like schools buildings to be less crowded and chaotic. You can’t concentrate if you are learning in a reception area, or the end of a corridor. It’s like giving people German lessons in the middle of Waterloo station and shouting at them for being distracted by the loudspeaker announcements. I’d like every school to have a fully staffed library and for children to have time to browse the stock and talk to the librarian about what they might enjoy. That means far more relaxed timetables. You will not get a seven-year-old Star Wars fan to try something else in five minutes a week.

And yes, I would like to see children taught grammar – there’s no harm in telling them what a noun and a verb are, but let’s get the basics in place first, so that when they do find themselves needing to know about subordinate clauses they are already writing complex enough sentences for the device to make sense. We learn by doing things, not by cramming theoretical questions under pressure. I hated every minute I spent learning French at secondary school. Now, over thirty years later, I’m revelling in discovering another European language. Education isn’t all fun, of course – our kids need to learn self-discipline and realise that. But there is a time and a place for everything and the best people to judge when that is are not politicians, but teachers.

And I can still remember having to write numerous times in an exercise book, at the age of seven, “I must never start a sentence with ‘and’.” And you know what? I just did. And the sky did’t fall in. If it was good enough for William Blake to do it when he wrote “Jerusalem,” it is hardly going to lead to the downfall of England’s green and pleasant land.



Wir schaffen das

As I write, news is coming in of a series of explosions in Brussels. First the airport, now the metro. It looks as if the Euro-capital could well be facing its own 7/7. We don’t know yet how many people have been killed or injured. But in a way, that’s not the issue. Every fatality is devastating to the people affected, but even if nobody died the mission would be accomplished.

These people are called terrorists for a reason. What counts, even more than the carnage, is the chaos – cities in lockdown, major transport hubs evacuated, countless business arrangements thrown into chaos, yet more intrusive security checks, leading to more people deciding that overseas holidays just aren’t worth the hassle any more. Not just overseas, either. Even as someone normally fairly sanguine about the statistical probability of being caught in a terrorist incident, I’d rather not be in London on 23 April this year, when St George’s Day coincides with a huge celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary.

Our plans and aspirations are constrained by fear. And that affects more than our diaries. It affects the way we feel about other people, particularly those who don’t look like us or share our religious views. Do we batten down the hatches? Do we talk about swarms, waves and invasions, rather than human beings? Do we build fences or reach out in solidarity?

There are no easy answers to these questions. We have to control migration somehow. And what we are seeing unfold in the chaos of Lesbos and Idomeni today is the direct result of the EU’s inability to confront that question head-on and make decent, effective and humane arrangements for processing asylum seekers and economic migrants a long time ago.

I’ll be honest, and risk the trolls – sometimes I’ve breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of fences going up across the Balkans, and sighed in irritation at Amnesty International and the UN going on about people’s human rights under international law. How much easier it would be to say they are all potential terrorists, don’t believe a word they say, dismiss every picture of anguished women and bewildered children as bleeding heart liberal propaganda. Say that we’re in a different world now and the rules put in place after the Second World War don’t apply, maybe don’t even matter any more.

Say Merkel was an idiot. Say Trump is a monster but you can see where he’s coming from. Say it’s all very well being worthy but your sister’s kids are in a school where most of their classmates don’t speak a word of English. Say we’re being overwhelmed. Say it’s not our problem.

Except you can’t look at Paris and Brussels and get away with saying that any more.

We can’t change what is happening in Brussels right now, but we can change our attitudes. We can say the EU is under siege and we have to keep pulling up the drawbridge, even as we know the smugglers will find another route and more people will die. Tough shit. Or we can look at the values that we hope still define us as Europeans, values that even now are potent enough to attract untold numbers of hopeful  migrants to our shores. That some human beings, regardless of their faith or appearance are decent people, and others are liars and ideologues. That we mustn’t let our prejudices govern our actions, but hear them out and give them the opportunity to put their case in a court of law before we condemn them. That desperate people still have some dignity. That we can find a way through this, or at least we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to try.

And then we can, as a European community, pour everything we have into Greece to finance the armies of lawyers, border patrols, interpreters and humanitarian aid workers that will be needed to treat refugees decently and humanely. The deal with Turkey is anything but perfect, but right now it’s a start and it’s the best we have.

If we put up more walls, within ourselves and also across our continent, the terrorists have won. They have reduced us to their values – their nihilism, their lack of empathy, their irrationality, their inhumanity.

Brexit  matters; it is nothing less than a fight for the very soul of Europe and our identity as world citizens. Sometimes I wish I could turn away, say the EU is going to the dogs and we are better out of it, that a bright future of non-engagement and independence awaits England – and it will be England, not Britain – elsewhere.

And other times, I don’t want to say anything. Not in public at least. Because someone will troll me, accuse me of being a hypocrite, a champagne socialist, or whatever hateful term is in vogue right now. I’ll be patronised, accused of being naive to have any ideals left.

So be it. A friend of mine was lamenting recently that she couldn’t source any Europhile posters to put in her window. Where are the slogans of the pro-Europeans? Is it all too complicated to boil down to a few powerful words?

I think we already have our slogan, but because it isn’t in English, we didn’t recognise it. And like all the best slogans, it’s very simple.

Wir schaffen das.

We can do this. We can make it. Together.

Or at the very least, we can try.



I Am Thomas

Ian Johnstone

Composer/performer Iain Johnstone in “I Am Thomas”

Thomas Aikenhead, a student at Edinburgh University,  was the last person in Britain to be executed on a charge of blasphemy, at the tender age of 20, when a lot of young man say things they will live to regret. The historical record doesn’t specify whether he was drunk, attention-seeking, or an icon of atheist integrity when he announced in an Edinburgh pub that the Bible was a load of nonsense, and got himself arrested. The sentence of hanging passed on him by the Lord Advocate James Stewart seemed to come as a shock to his contemporaries even at the time. Aikenhead’s last recorded utterance was:

“it is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure… “

Fighting talk. But one man’s blasphemy is another man’s credo, and vice versa. In these days of religious intolerance, when an offensive cartoon can lead to an extra-judicial death sentence, it’s rather surprising that it’s taken so long for someone to make a play about Aikenhead. Now a small revue/drama company with a growing reputation and the brilliant name of, “Told by An Idiot” have put together just such a show, with lyrics by Simon Armitage. Last night we went to see it at the Lowry Centre, Salford Quays.

We begin with a haunting and shocking incident, the full significance of which doesn’t become apparent until about halfway through the play. A devout elderly couple are judicially drowned, clutching their Bibles, for refusing on grounds of conscience to sing, “God Save the King.” It’s the time of the Glorious Revolution, with Jacobite insurgency as much of a threat to the peace of the realm as Islamist extremism is today. It later transpires that the unfortunate pair are none other than the parents of Lord James Stewart, the man who condemns Thomas Aikenhead to death.

As far as I can gather (and I’m no expert on this complicated period of Scottish history) this isn’t based on historical fact, although the custom of such executions comes as no surprise. But it serves a useful purpose in the narrative. It makes it clear that the condemned dissident doesn’t necessarily have the monopoly on truth. The man who passes sentence may have equal grounds for uncompromising morality, seasoned with the fear that if you don’t clamp down hard you risk the social order unravelling. Or, as Javert puts it in Les Miserables:

He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
Those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall as Lucifer fell
The flames
The sword

I’d be doing the show a disservice, however, if I presented it as a straightforward narrative arc, with Aikenhead as hero and Stewart as traumatised orphan hell-bent on revenge. It’s more like a Brechtian meditation on the the nature of blasphemy, and if it comes to any clear conclusion it is probably that nobody’s truth, however sincerely held, is worth killing another human being for. If that sounds too heavy, I should add that everybody in the eight-strong company takes it in turns to play Thomas and that (for reasons I don’t altogether understand) there’s a lot of 1970s pop culture on display, including a very funny interpolation from the Bay City Rollers. I’m not sure all the jokes come off, but there’s is a wonderful spiky number set in the kirk which runs through all the hideous tortures awaiting those who deny the Almighty, followed by the refrain, “For the God above is a God of love.” Another high point for me is the ballad Roll Up, expressing wonder at the universe seen through a telescope, beautifully performed with a simple piano accompaniment by composer Iain Johnstone, reminiscent of a Tim Machin cabaret number without the snark.

There’s no real attempt a realistic, chronological narrative. In fact, the clue is probably in the name, Told By An Idiot – the ambiguity lies in the details, the apparently trivial signifiers that turn out to be unexpectedly significant. Aikenhead was condemned to death on Christmas Eve 1696: the appearance of the Magi is genuinely touching, but also serves as a comment on the mythic nature of faith and the way it interweaves with culture in a way that provokes deep feeling and defies rational analysis. One thing I liked very much about this approach is that it doesn’t take the easy route of hammering home Significant Contemporary Parallels. Yes, they are there – but a “Je Suis” T-shirt doesn’t make its appearance until the last scene.

My partner came away frustrated, wanting more background and verifiable historical detail. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be very much of that to go on, although Aikenhead’s inditement can easily be tracked down on Google and alleges with unintended irony that, among his other crimes, “….he preferred Muhammad to Christ.” I think the show is best appreciated as a poem rather than a story. You might get more out of Yeats’ Second Coming if you know about the 1916 Easter Rising, but his observation on political demagogues that, “the best lack all conviction and the worst/Are filled with passionate intensity,” has a timeless resonance.

Do look out for I Am Thomas. It’s touring Britain until the end of April and makes a bracing, much more economical, alternative to overhyped West End blockbusters.

The 100 books “every child should read”

Here is a list, recently published by the TES, of the 100 fiction books that every child should read before leaving primary school:–

The first interesting thing about this list is that it’s in an educational journal rather than a parenting magazine. That in itself speaks volumes about what we expect of teachers today. When I was a child, if a child never read a decent book it wasn’t automatically considered to be a failure on the part of the teaching profession. But let’s pass over the causal link between impoverished reading choices and the wholesale closure of local authority libraries for the moment. That’s a whole separate post.

I’ve been running a primary school library for over 15 years. It’s an affluent area, the school is continually oversubscribed and the local population statistically one of the most highly educated in the country. So we are not talking about cultural deserts here.

Nevertheless, I read this list with slack-jawed astonishment. I have dealt with many very able kids who read voraciously, but never encountered one who willingly made their way through the entirety of Black Beauty or Treasure Island. I didn’t even get around to Treasure Island myself until my late 40s.

Culturally, the list is contradictory enough to give you vertigo. Treasure Island and Kipling sit cheek by jowl with a token contribution from Benjamin Zephaniah. Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, set in a 1940s independent girls’ boarding school, rubs shoulders with the admirable gender-neutrality of Tyke Tyler. Unbelievably, there isn’t a single mention of Harry Potter, yet the entire Skulduggery Pleasant and Artemis Fowl series are in there.

I’ve had parents complain that Skulduggery Pleasant really isn’t suitable for primary school age children (It’s about a dead detective, by the way. A skeleton, since you ask). I’ve also had teachers politely turn down Mr Men anthologies (the entire Roger Hargreaves canon makes the cut), on the grounds that they are stereotypical and reductive. Now all these decisions are to some extent controversial. Nevertheless, the fact that the list bristles with books that could be deemed offensive for all kinds of reasons, by different people, illustrates the difficulty of ever producing a definitive list of this kind.

Does it really matter? After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And that’s all this list is – the opinion of the unspecified teachers consulted. We aren’t told anything about the way that the question was phrased – were exhausted teachers at the end of another long day put on the spot and asked to remember a book they adored as children? Were they working in the independent or the state sector, were they retired, were they gay, straight, Muslim, evangelical Christian, etc? Before we take pronouncements like this seriously, we should bear that in mind.

So I repeat, does it matter? Yes, I would argue. It matters because anxious parents and educational professionals will take it seriously. Some will use it as yet another stick to beat teachers over the head with, demanding to know why children haven’t yet encountered the complete range of unmissable classics (or protesting strongly about the casual racism and cultural appropriation of some of its most cherished inclusions). There are a lot of worried parents out there, and they share their worries very readily with teachers, a profession where morale is already pretty much at rock bottom.

And meanwhile, the kids most in need of a varied, accessible range of books, and quality reading time with carers, will muddle through as best they can, increasingly under-resourced because the public libraries and Sure Start centres that provided such a valuable starting point for a love of learning are closing left, right and centre.

I’m not even sure that teachers are the best people to ask about the books children ought to be reading. Shouldn’t that be librarians? I know some brilliant teachers but they value my role because they freely admit that they haven’t time to keep up with children’s literature. They’re too busy ticking boxes.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15-plus years as a librarian, it’s that there is no point whatsoever in trying to force Kidnapped down the neck of a kid who’d rather be reading Beast Quest, or The Railway Children on a seven-year-old devoted to Tom Gates. How many adults would read widely and happily if they were continually being berated for not tackling War and Peace?




The Doctor’s Precious Creature – “Hell Bent” reviewed

capaldiOne of the pleasures of fan fiction is the opportunity to rework the conclusions of story arcs that we find deeply unsatisfactory. Stephen Moffat gets to do this in canon, and very publicly. He’s particularly fond of re-imagining some of Russell T Davies’s most enraging storylines, and does so with audacity and style. The most memorable example of this was retconning the destruction of Gallifrey two years ago in The Day of the Doctor. And in last night’s finale he turned his hand to the other great tragic narrative of the RTD years – what happens when the Doctor loves one of his companions too much to let them go without a fight.

In The Winter’s Tale, faced with a dangerously paranoid king convinced that he’s being cuckolded, Polixenes remarks,

This jealousy
Is for a precious creature: as she’s rare,
Must it be great, and as his person’s mighty,
Must it be violent

So ’tis with the Doctor, but for jealously read grief. This spectre always hung over the love story of the Doctor and Rose – what on earth would he do when he lost her? In Hell Bent, Moffatt follows that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion; we see a vengeful Doctor teeter on the abyss of madness, shoot one of his own people in cold blood and effectively stage a coup on Gallifrey. Those expecting Star Wars space opera were to be disappointed, however. In the second act, with the reappearance of Clara, the epic became a chamber piece. To the Doctor, the destruction of the universe was merely the means to an end; he wanted Clara back from the dead.

The change of tactic was probably the biggest weakness of the finale, and the cynic in me suspects that budget constraints also played their part (the Matrix set had a very reused look). With a bit more build up, filling in the situation on Gallifrey that gave the Doctor such confidence in his supremacy, the switch might have been less jarring. But ultimately, the Doctor tends to check his altruism at the door when he hits home turf. He might like the trappings of guerilla resistance in the badlands, but consolidating regime change isn’t really his thing.

So Clara is snatched from the jaws of death. The Doctor is going through something of an “it’s all about me” phase – that’s natural, if you’ve been banging your head on a very hard wall for billions of years on your own. He’s extremely scary, and Jenna Coleman’s acting conveys her fear overcoming relief, combined with a certain anger at the violation of her parting wishes and the Doctor’s habit of objectifying lesser species. Clara is not the type to become a player in the Doctor’s personal drama. She demonstrates compassion, but demands self-determination.

It’s impossible to view what follows without recalling the fate of Donna Noble, the point at which many of us, even his most ardent fans, turned against the Tenth Doctor. Indeed, the way that Clara turns the Doctor’s planned mind wipe back on him was one of the most strongly feminist scenesI’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Physician, heal thyself. The world is full of men objectifying women and wearing blinkers, and probably almost as full of women enabling them to do just that. Clara’s having none of that shit, and shows how far Moffat has come since creating the wish-fulfilment fantasy of River Song.

I understand the charges of misogyny levelled against Moffat, but I don’t endorse them. I think he might well be the first to admit that he struggles to write nuanced, compelling characters, particularly female ones, which isn’t the same thing. We live in lazy and strident times when people tend to confuse the inability to convey all the complexities of human diversity with the personal endorsement of prejudice. Moffat under pressure falls back on lazy stereotypes and well-worn tropes – he’s not alone in that. There were times in the 2009 Specials when RTD seemed to be capable of little in the way of dramatic development other than showing David Tennant looking sorry for himself.

Moffat has the ability to recognise his weak points and surround himself with talented people who can do a better job. Series Nine has been particularly strong in female participation, both on and off the screen. Many show-runners would have balked at giving the plum job of a major character exit to another writer; not only did he do that, but he then gave Rachel Talalay a free hand directing the finale.

He also places enormous trust in his actors. Moffat’s scripts sketch in character, so their role in fleshing out is particularly crucial. In Series 9 I think he’s been well-served in having a leading man of Capaldi’s experience and stature. Not every Doctor could have carried so much on his shoulders as silently as Capaldi did in the opening scenes of Hell Bent. (Loved the Morricone callback in the line-in-the-sand scene, by the way). This should go down in legend as the Heinz-Tomato-Soup Western of Doctor Who.

For all his warmth and moments of utter brilliance, Matt Smith never quite nailed it for me. I know he has his fans and I can see why, but I wonder, in hindsight, if he was a little too lightweight to wrest character and presence from Moffat’s sometimes formulaic scripts. Peter Capaldi has become a towering presence, inhabiting the role and showing a deep vulnerability without mawkishness and sentimentality. He also pulled a stellar performance out of Jenna Coleman – it got better and better as the series went on, and I’m sure she will remember her time with him as a career-defining masterclass in the craft of acting.

Ultimately finales are about style as much as substance, and this one delivered. Ironically, for a man accused of misogyny, it was strongest on the traditionally feminine virtues of grounded compassion, comfort and the kind of intimacy that makes it possible to say what must be said without fear or favour (a quality demonstrated by Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, particularly when played by Judi Dench). Plus a subversive little dash of girl power. The universe is filling up with powerful women willing to take the Doctor on, and some of them have their own TARDIS.