You Were Never Really Here (Movie) written and directed by Lynne Ramsay; based on the book by Jonthan Ames;
starring Joaquin Phoenix with Judith Roberts, Frank Pando, John Doman, Alex Manette, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola,
That title seems to be hinting at something elusive, something evasive. Is it trying to tell you that, if you come out
of the theatre in a state of complete and utter confusion, that’s because you didn’t really get the movie, you
didn’t see it as it was meant to be seen? You, then, were not really "here" as far as the movie-makers are concerned.
That let’s you off the hook, sort of.
Which means that a critic can’t be faulted for not providing a clear explanation of the proceedings. So I won’t
attempt to say – not definitely at least – what this movie is supposed to be about and what conclusions we’re
meant to draw from it.
Roughly, the goings-on appear to be somewhat like this: A guy named Joe, an elemental brute force, has a knack for rescuing
under-age girls who have been abducted into sex slavery. Parents who are desperate to find their stolen daughters employ him.
This is all done outside any legal system. Joe’s modus operandi consists of cunning and violence. No clever sleuthing.
Not much happens in the movie: a plot outline wouldn’t take more than fifty words. In sum: we see Joe execute one rescue,
but then things go sideways, with some dire consequences which reveal – I think – corruption in high places.
It’s hard to catch much of what Joaquin Phoenix mumbles as Joe, but that doesn’t matter because he says little.
What matters is the feral intensity he conveys: the glare of his pale grey eyes and the determined set of his heavy eyebrows.
This is clearly a guy who has a serious mad-on towards the world. It would not be quite accurate to say that Joe is endowed
with a surplus of the milk of human kindness but he does deal with a rescued girl gently. To make him seem a little bit more
human, we see that he has a jokey relationship with his elderly mother. Oh yeah, there’s that bit where Joe holds the
hand of a dying man – whom Joe has just murdered (I think).
In flashbacks, we get glimpses of a vulnerable-looking boy. He appears to be threatened or in danger. Presumably this was
the young Joe. Something terrible must have happened to him. Is this why we sometimes see him with a plasic bag over his head,
trying to suffocate himself? Is this, in another mode, what’s motivating him in his pursuit of vigilante justice?
If so, that would be one of the more likely answers to the many questions that the movie raises. Writer-director Lynne
Ramsay doesn’t go in for a lot of explaining. We see bloody bodies crawling on floors and we don’t know who they
are. We get closeups of grimacing faces, grappling hands, scrunched up eyes. Whose? We don’t know. The body count keeps
mounting. Are these all Joe’s jobs? Who knows? Every now and then we hear the whisper of a voice counting: who? why?
Instead of dialogue which might help to clarify matters, we get long stretches of psychedelic visuals: city lights as seen
at night from speeding cars; the flickering of trains seen through the super-structure of bridges; the blurry outdoors seen
through rain-spattered windows. All of this is accompanied, most of the time, by horrendous noise. Over and above the relentless
pounding of the musical score, there’s the exaggeration of everyday sounds. Ordinary rainfall is made to sound like
a freight train rushing through. A coffee percolator sounds like a ticking bomb. Somebody’s slurping through a straw
is aggressive enough to make you jump. I suppose it’s too much to think that any movie can succeed now, in this era
of the mega-blockbuster, without cacophony raining down on the viewer like a fusillade. (But it does make a person long for
one of those genteel movies of old from the Ealing Studios.)
Ultimately, what I think this movie may be about is not a story, not one that we can recognize as such, but a character
study of a man trapped in a noir-ish existence. We might look at it as the flip side of the life of the Marvel hero who’s
out to right the world’s wrongs. Instead of glory and acclaim, it’s endless trouble. The writer/director is trying
to convey this impression in arty photography and sound rather than in story. One of the most impressive scenes, in this respect,
is one where a person disposes of a dead body in a lake. This isn’t a matter of simply loading the body with rocks and
giving it a toss. No, the person carries the body into the deep water, down, down, and we’re watching from under the
water as the body is gradually released from the carrier’s arms. It’s got to be the most remarkable funeral ever
So much for artistic effect. But do you have to abandon narrative coherence to achieve your artistic goals? When a movie-maker
does that, I have to wonder whether it’s a matter of loyalty to a vision or simple pretension. But maybe filmmakers
these days figure that they don’t have to bother about clarity. Probably the assumption is that everybody will be talking
about the piece on social media. By mutual agreement, everybody will have figured out what it’s all about long before
they see it. No need, then, for the movie-makers to provide any clues that might make the movie understandable. They can just
wallow in their impressionistic images. That’s supposed to be enough to satisfy the sophisticated, hip movie-goer.
Which description leaves out a lot of us.
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 (Diaries) by David Sedaris, 2017
David Sedaris says, in the introduction to this collection of excerpts from his diaries, that he doesn’t expect anybody
to read through them in a continuous way. He assumes readers will dip in to sample passages here and there.
That’s the way I approached the book at first: skimming through, stopping when something particularly interesting
caught my attention. About a third of the way through, however, I got hooked, and started reading continuously. After finishing
the book, I went back and read the skipped bits.
How did that happen, contrary even to the author’s expectations?
I think it’s because there is actually a kind of plot developing. You begin to watch how Mr. Sedaris gradually eeks
his way out of extreme poverty where he’s living in flimsy apartments and is always in trouble for not paying his phone
bill. He starts having a bit of success with wacky theatre pieces by himself and his sister Amy, then does readings for National
Public Radio, then has pieces published in The New Yorker, then a book deal, then jetting around the country doing
readings, hobnobbing with celebrities. Along the way, you see the first contacts with Hugh Hemrick, the man who is going to
become Mr. Sedaris’ life partner. You watch how their relationship develops to the point where they become like any
married couple, affectionately putting up with each other’s foibles.
In the introduction to the collection, Mr. Sedaris notes that the entries culled here from eight million words in his diaries
inevitably convey an edited picture of a certain kind of person. "An entirely different book from the same source material
could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive." The overall impression conveyed
in this book is of a man who is preternaturally alert to the weirdness of life, especially as represented in the people he
encounters at random. The book’s title catches something of the random nature of life as it occurs to him. He finds
some money on the sidewalk and a friend tells him that, if he keeps it, that’s known as "theft by finding." That’s
more or less the way his life evolves: he keeps stumbling on amazing things and he takes possession of them through his writing.
Strange characters are constantly crossing his path. In restaurants, on the street, on public transit, they bum cigarettes
from him, they inundate him with off-the-wall chatter, they insult him, they spit at him, they try to rob him, they try to
pick fights with him. He seems to be accustomed to being called "faggot" by complete strangers; it amazes him when a prostitute
mistakes him for a strait man. Through it all, Mr. Sedaris seems like a bemused observer of life’s absurdities. Despite
all the hassles, there’s his underlying fascination with humanity.
But you don’t find much introspection or soul-searching here. No angst to speak of – apart from the succinct
references to the disadvantages of an impecunious state or a frustrated ambition. You have to search the pages to find the
incidences of Mr. Sedaris’s disgruntlement: a bit of seething about some annoying jerk sitting next to him; regret that
he hasn’t learned how to fight bullies. Nor is there much in the way of intellectualizing or analysis. If Mr. Sedaris
ever goes in for that kind of thing, maybe it comes in the omitted parts of the diary.
In so far as a collection of diary excerpts is a study of character, it can be a little disappointing, for a straight-laced
reader who has long admired Mr. Sedaris’s writing to find that he was fuelled, in his early years, by so much booze
and so many recreational drugs. He talks about these indulgences so glibly that it makes you wonder if this was supposed to
be the normal way of life for a creative person. At one point, he notes that he was more or less drunk every night for eighteen
years. Maybe it was that realization that eventually motivated him to quit both habits.
The character sketch of Mr. Sedaris that I find most endearing is the one where he takes his first stab at teaching a writing
class in Chicago when he was still a struggling, unknown artist. You get the humour, the humility and the self-deprecation
and the awareness of his own pretentiousness. He says that he actually begins to feel like a teacher when he realizes that
he can open or close the classroom door for his own comfort: " Students can’t open and close the door whenever they
feel like it." He tells us that he wears a tie because, as a student, he’d always felt better when the teacher dressed
up. And he puts his students’ work in a briefcase because it makes them feel that their stories are valuable.
But, on the way home, he passes a woman on the street who, he says, looks like W.C. Fields wearing a red wig. She’s
cursing at passing cars.
As I passed the woman in front of the L. Station, she said, "Oh, look at him. The little man. Thinks he’s a big fucking
deal because he’s carrying an attaché case." I crossed the street with my head down,
shattered because she could see right through me.
One of the interesting things about the book is discovering the germs of ideas that eventually become well known pieces
of writing. For instance, there’s the journal note on the "Stadium Pal" – the external catheter, attached to a
bag that is strapped to a man’s leg so that he can urinate without having to leave the stands at a game. The humour
in the diary entry is relatively mild, compared to the hilarious piece that evolved eventually. (I watched Mr. Sedaris read
it on a tv talk show.) And there are the French lessons in Paris that became the basis for the delightful book Me Talk
Pretty One Day.
And, of course, there are those amazing characters who comprise Mr. Sedaris’ family of origin. There’s his
mother who can regale her son with a verbatim replay of an obscene phone call that she received. (A recent New Yorker
piece about the mother’s drinking struck a more sombre note.) The dad tells the young son that he needs to find somewhere
else to live, presumably because he’s gay. And when the son finds his own apartment, the dad arrives at the door, walks
in without knocking, flops down on the bed and starts talking. The standout among the siblings is Amy (now a famous comedian
in her own right) who has a knack for the outrageous. When a reporter for the New York Times phones her for input on
an article about her brother, she says: "I’m not telling you shit about that son of a bitch until he pays for that abortion
he made me have." There’s also the rambunctious brother, Paul, whose practical jokes would make him intolerable, except
that he seems to have a heart of gold. In spite of his ups and downs with this gang, the lasting image of Mr. Sedaris’
relationship with his sibs is the time when, as young adults, they’re sitting on the bed that belongs to one of them,
laughing uproariously long into the night after the parents have gone to bed.
Over and above the enjoyable content of the diaries, the most striking thing – for me – is the quality of the
writing. Mr. Sedaris’ prose is as clear and unfussy as any writing can be. It’s entirely free of any literary
artifice or posing. You get the impression that he’s relaying life exactly as it happens. He’s never trying to
impress you with his literary prowess. Of course, this apparent lack of writerly effort must be the result of long and careful
development of a style – it’s not easy to shed the stilted phrasing that comes from one’s expectations of
how good writing should sound – but I suspect that it may have something to do with Mr. Sedaris’ natural voice.
Maybe this pruned and honed writing style is, to a large extent, a consequence of Mr. Sedaris’s way of presenting himself
to people. In other words, it may be an outgrowth of his conversational style. To use an expression that became popular in
the 1960s, you could say that he "tells it just like it is." And that’s plenty interesting on its own.
Only once in the book could I detect anything that sounded a little bit like a writer trying to make a point. But the tactic
is well deserved and it lands beautifully. At the end of the introduction, he finds himself wondering why he spent so much
time writing his diaries:
In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s
so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.
The Boarder (Short Fiction) by Isaac Bashevis Singer; The New Yorker, May 7, 2018
Do we have to go rummaging through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s filing cabinets looking for unpublished material twenty-seven
years after his death? Well, yes, if the search can turn up a piece like this one. What’s most remarkable
about it – at just three pages in length – is that there’s no plot, no story, at least not in the obvious
sense. And no conclusion, no resolution. Essentially, it’s a discussion between two men: one a devout Jew and the other
a cynic (both have lost their wives and families). The devout man keeps insisting that God is good and the other man ridicules
any such belief, given the persecution Jews have suffered. It’s as complete an examination of the subject as there could
be. And yet, the piece is not simply a treatise. It’s saturated with character. The pious man has invited the other
man to board with him and, horrified as he is by the boarder’s antagonism to religion, you can feel his exasperated
attempts to show kindness to him. In a somewhat more subtle vein, you even feel the anguish of the disbeliever. It’s
not often that such a short piece of writing conveys so much.
Deep Down Dark (Real Life Trauma) by Héctor Tobar, 2014
When I had read the New Yorker’s excerpt from this work (reviewed on the Dilettante’s Diary page
dated Aug 8/14), I had to ask: what could be left for the author to tell in book-length form? Given that the article struck
me as more decorous than expected, I wondered if the book would go into more of the gritty details of the conflict among the
thirty-three men trapped in the Chilean mine for sixty-nine days. Would the author talk more about the drama among them?
He certainly does.
But first he gives a full description of the location – an arid desert near Copiapó,
Chile, where even Charles Darwin commented on the scarcity of avian life – and the condition of the San José mine. Its production, mostly of copper and gold, was borderline profitable, as a result of which, safety
measures were less than ideal. Various technologies had been ordered – seismic monitors, for instance, and motion detectors
– but they’d either be too expensive to buy or they’d break down and the mine’s management couldn’t
afford to replace them. It wasn’t unusual for the miners to hear what they called the "thunder" of falling rock in the
abandoned sections of the mine but, on the afternoon shift of August 5th, 2010, it seemed to many of the men that
there was more of that ominous noise than usual. However, their supervisors didn’t think it warranted calling off work
and sending the men home.
Describing the moment of the disaster as it was experienced from several vantage points, Mr. Tobar gives an excellent sense
of the catastrophe that trapped the miners. Essentially, a huge portion of the moutain over the mine collapsed. The blast
of air through the mine knocked men off their feet. One man said his body felt like it was being squeezed and then unsqueezed,
as if he were inside the cylinder of a hand pump. Another said the pressure in his head felt as if his skull were a balloon
What the men discovered was that the exit ramp from the mine was blocked by a wall of solid rock as tall as a forty-five
storey building and estimated to weigh more than twice the weight of the Empire State Building. There was no way through it.
Rescuers on the surface had to launch three different methods of trying to drill holes into the area where the trapped miners
For the most part, they spent their time in a place known as The Refuge: a cavern about the size of a large classroom that
was meant for such an emergency as this. However, it only contained enough food for a few days: bottles of water, cans of
tuna and cookies. One of the first conflicts that flared up among the men occurred when some of them raided the food supply
to satisfy their immediate hunger without heeding the opinions of those who advised that the food should be rationed more
It took seventeen days before the first drill bit crashed through to the Refuge. In that time, the men had got thinner
and weaker. Some were on the point of starvation. They had been drinking dirty water that was meant for use in the machines
and equipment. At times they thought they could hear the faint and distant sound of drilling. At times, they couldn’t.
Was it just an hallucination? Given that their location, 2,000 feet into the ground, was that much closer to the earth’s
thermal core, the heat was often near 100 degrees farenheit. One can only imagine the smell. They slept on bits of cardboard
or anything they could find. The tremendous humidity caused fungus to grow on their skin.
One of the older miners, a member of an Evangelical sect, took to giving little sermons. Group prayer became a daily routine,
as did hymn singing. There were even those scenes that you see in parodies of these situations: guys apologizing to each other
for past offences, trying to make peace with their fellow man at the thought of meeting their Maker. The guy who’d led
the raid on the food supply that first day confessed and received forgiveness. But it wasn’t always such a solemn atmosphere.
When one guy was complaining that he thought he was dying, the guy next to him faked a death scene, just to pull the other
guy out of his self-pity. Then the two of them indulged in a more elaborate and operatic enactment of a death scenario.
When the drill finally broke through, predictable elation greeted the arrival of phone lines, video cameras, food and other
supplies. But – surprisingly – then came the worst of the ordeal: the miners were informed that it could take
two or three more months to bore a hole wide enough to rescue them. And there was no guarantee that it could be done successfully.
Then the bickering, the depression and the anger flared up in earnest. However, the mission was accomplished and the men were
being hauled up to the surface, one by one, sixty-nine days after the collapse of the mine.
Mr. Tobar, a winner of the Pulitzer prize for journalism, creates a work that’s worthy of comparison to one of the
great rescue books of all time: Alive, the account by Piers Paul Reid of the survivors of the crash in the Andes mountains
in 1972. (In fact, Mr. Tobar refers to this book at one point.) The rather considerable technical detail about mining and
about the rescue operation is handled adroitly. More importantly, from my point of view, the characters of the miners come
through vividly. (I found myself thinking about them at other points of the day when I wasn’t reading: how would
those guys react to this or that little crisis that was facing me? That’s surely a sign of good writing.
Mr. Tobar manages to give each of the men at least a cameo role in the telling of the story, but among the thirty-three
men, ten or twelve of them emerged for me as distinctive characters. Among them were Mario Sevúlpeda,
whom the media came to know as "Super Mario" because of his ebullient leadership style; Yonni Barrios, whose wife and mistress
were in contention about who would welcome him when he was brought to the surface (the mistress won); Edison Peña, who seemed mentally unstable; Carlos Mamani, an indigenous man from Bolivia who was first looked upon
as a foreigner from a lower class but who was later accepted fully by the men; Alex Vega, the small, young man with movie
star good looks; Luis Urzúa the quiet supervisor who tended to exert his authority in
an under-stated way.
If there’s something that I found slightly less than pleasing about the writing, it would be an occasional leaning
towards melodrama. It’s hard to say, though, whether that’s something added by the writer or whether it was inherent
in the situation. Let’s face it, the culture these men belong to has a penchant for the spooky and the numinous. For
instance, there was their awe over the fact that they numbered thirty-three. What’s the meaning of that? Why, Jesus
Christ was thirty-three years old when he was crucified! When one of the miners notices a breeze deep in the mind, he’s
told that it’s the soul of every man who has worked in the mine and "the spirit of God that protects them." Some of
the worried relatives above ground were reporting paranormal experiences supposedly related to the miners’ plight. Regarding
those details, Mr. Tobar may be simply reporting what he was told. However, I do note a few instances of his pumping things
up a little beyond the facts. For example, this sentence about one man’s speech to the effect that they should keep
their promise to deal with the publicity awaiting them according to agreements they have made:
Illanes loses his composure as he reaches the end of this speech, because he’s asking the men to believe in a promise
expressed in words, a weighty and sacred idea that is also as fleeting and passing as the breath with which those words are
You might think the story would be over when the men were pulled from the mine. Not at all. Mr. Tobar provides several
more gripping chapters about the aftermath. Inevitable problems with: family life, depression, drinking, media, celebrity,
money, legalities, nightmares and psychotherapy. The men were subjected to an inhuman amount of attention. One of the wives
commented that the worst thing that happened to the men was that they were hailed as heroes. Inevitably, it screwed up most
of their lives, at least in the short term.
One miner who shows that it could be otherwise is Florencio Avalos. The youngest and healthiest of the group, he was the
first one extracted from the mine because it was thought that his fit condition would make him best able to cope with any
emergency that might arise in the thirty-minute process of being pulled to the surface in a custom-designed capsule. After
three or four of the public events feting the miners, he’d had enough of it. He quietly returned to everyday life and
an above-surface mining job. Mr. Tobar visits him at his home and watches Signor Avalos’ teenage son kiss his mom and
dad before leaving for school. It’s an expression of familial affection that North Americans don’t often see,
Mr. Tobar notes. Even though such a gesture is more common in South America, he says, "it’s taken on a deeper and richer
meaning in the months and years since Florencio was resurrected from the mine."
Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times (Biography) by Sarah Bradford, 2012
Some people are fascinated with royalty. They’re intrigued by the idea of someone’s being important and special
just by virtue of being born into a certain family. It seems like a charmed life: being hailed as the most significant human
in your society merely because of your lineage. Royal watchers long to catch glimpses of what such a life is like in the private
realm, the one that isn’t displayed on official occasions.
Other people think the very notion of royalty is nonsense. Why should anybody, they argue, be accorded such lavish respect
and attention? It doesn’t fit with any coherent sense of human dignity. For such people, yet another royal biography
is of no interest whatsover.
It’s for the first group of readers, then, that the library posts this biography on the "recommended" shelf. And
those of us who are afflicted with the royal fascination take it up eagerly. There’s never enough written material to
satisfy our craving for insight into those magical lives.
However, this book isn’t one of those gossipy ones that tries to capitalize on every bit of salacious rumour circulating
around the royals. Nor is it one of the fawning biographies that describes its royal subjects in awe-struck terms. Author
Sarah Bradford strikes an admirable balance between the two. She does deal with the unsavoury facts that have to be acknowledged.
After all, you can’t hide them, now that the media no longer practise the loyal discretion that used to cloak royal
privacy. But her emphasis is more on the role of the Queen in our society and culture and how that role has changed gradually.
In fact, Ms. Bradford treats the Queen with such respect and sympathy that, at times, I couldn’t help wondering if
this is one of those authorized biographies that a royal personage allows without publicly admitting to doing so. The copious
quotations from surprisingly intimate letters written by the royals also made me wonder if this book had special royal approval.
It turns out, though, that these letters have been published. In any case, I don’t think the Queen would have endorsed
this biography; there’s the odd thing in it that she probably would rather not see in print.
One of the aspects of the book that I find most interesting is Ms. Bradford’s description of the change in the monarchical
role as the Empire gave way to the sense of the Commonwealth. Not everybody understood the change or appreciated it. But it
seems that the Queen was personally one of the strongest advocates of the new arrangement. She did her darndest to put the
concept across. That sense of the monarch working hard comes through strongly in other respects. It’s somewhat astonishing,
in fact, to see how governments leaned on her to try to bring about desired political goals. Among many such instances, she
was obliged to wine and dine Charles de Gaulle in the hopes that he would abandon his objection to Britain’s joining
an early version of the Common Market. (In spite of his lapping up her majesty’s lavish hospitality, he would not relent.)
On some historical and constitutional points, the book makes statements contrary to what I’d long understood, but
who am I to argue with an expert such as Ms. Bradford? I’d thought that Princess Margaret was warned that, if she married
Peter Townsend, she would be cut off without a penny. Ms. Bradford says that’s not true. The only penalty would have
been that Margaret and her heirs would no longer be in the line of succession to the throne. Ms. Bradford also dismisses the
claim that Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, would not become queen if and when Prince Charles becomes king. This, says, Ms.
Bradford is "clearly nonsense, as constitutionally the wife of a King is Queen Consort."
It puzzles me somewhat when Ms. Bradford says that, although the Queen is fascinated by politics and well-informed on matters
of State, she is "politically, the first passive sovereign." Does this mean that her immediate predecessors meddled in politics?
I hadn’t thought so. Ms. Bradford also says that the Queen has been criticized for "giving up her constitutional prerogative
of appointing her Prime Minister in favour of the easier alternative of one name being suggested to her..." Hasn’t that
been the standard procedure since long before her reign?
Now and then, Ms. Bradford’s prose reflects the fact that she is an historian, not a creative writer. Her writing
style tends to cram too much information into one sentence. For example, this sentence about Sir Anthony Blunt, the art expert
who was discovered to be a Soviet spy:
He had been sent by the King early in 1945 as an assistant to Owen Morshead, the Royal Librarian, on a mission to retrieve
the Kronberg Papers, correspondence between Queen Victoria and her daughter, the Empress Frederick of Germany, at the Friedrichshof,
recently captured by General George Patton’s Third Army in April 1945.
Just as the wedding of the Prince of Wales’s parents in 1947 had been greeted by Winston Churchill in austerity times
as a ‘flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel’, so the wedding of Charles and Diana in July 1981 lit
up the economic gloom after the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan had collapsed following the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’,
when a series of public sector strikes had left dustbins unemptied, accompanied in the press by graphic photographs of rats
feeding on rubbish and bodies unburied in mortuaries.
Further on Ms. Bradford’s writing, there’s a problem with syntax in this statement about the funeral of Queen
Erect and dignified, always seen in her old-fashioned long frocks, toque hats and strings of pearls, most of the people
lining the streets as her coffin passed could not remember a time when she had not been an essential part of the royal scene.
Ms. Bradford does not ever fall into the sycophantic attitude that many writers take towards royalty, even though the word
‘adulation’ does creep in rather often with regard to the public’s response to the monarchy. I did find
the author’s emphasis on the tremendous reverence towards the Queen’s father, as expressed on his death in 1952,
somewhat exaggerated. But what do I know? Maybe the Brits really did love him as much as she claims. A Canadian who was a
kid in grade two when the event happened is hardly in a position to say whether or not Ms. Bradford’s take on the situation
is true to the facts.
Ms. Bradford shows how it was a difficult balancing act for the royal family to maintain its dignity when the press dropped
its traditional reverence and began to subject them to ridicule and criticism. The change was notable around 1963 when the
BBC program That Was the Week That Was began satirizing royal life. As we all know, media animosity reached fever pitch
with the scandals that erupted in the married lives of the Queen’s children.
The constant theme through it all is the Queen’s unruffled composure. We’re reminded that the Queen, like her
father, appreciated that the royal mystique had to be preserved. As one courtier had told him: "We must not let in the daylight
upon magic." The book doesn’t pretend, then, that it’s offering an unprecedented breach of the royals’ privacy.
We do, however, get some insights into the Queen’s character. Surprisingly, though, there’s no mention of horses
until about half way through; the corgis come much later. How can you understand this woman without appreciating how largely
these animals figure in her affections? Ms. Bradford does say, at one point, that the Queen has a calmness and reserve like
that of her grandmother, Queen Mary "whose slightly canine looks and quiet dignity she had inherited." Canine? It’s
not loyalty to the crown that makes me question that description!
We get a glimpse of the Queen’s sly wisdom in a reported conversation between her and Jackie Kennedy. While Jackie
had been complaining about being constantantly on public view during a visit to Canada, the Queen took on a conspiratorial
air and said: "One gets crafty after a while and learns how to save oneself." A sample of the Queen’s sense of humour
surfaces in her attitude to the fact that Cherie Blair, the wife of PM Tony Blair, refused to curtsey to her. "I can almost
feel Mrs. Blair’s knees stiffening when I come in," the Queen is reported to have said. Ms. Bradford states, uncategorically
that, the Queen is not intellectually curious, whereas Prince Philip is. (It came as a surprise to me that Prince Philip is
a talented watercolourist, but apparently this information has been out there for some time.)
One of the most admiring and authentic-sounding tributes to the Queen came from John Grigg, who had been Lord Altrincham
until he gave up the title: "She looks a queen and obviously believes in her right to be one. Her bearing is simple and majestic
– no actress could possible match it." Mr. Grigg cited her "exceptionally steady character" as her most important quality.
"She has lived up to her own high standards," he said. "She behaves decently because she is decent."
The picture of the Queen that stays longest with me is the one given by David Owen, who was Foreign Secretary at one time.
When the last guest departs after a party on Britannia, the royal yacht, he says
"...the Queen kicks off her shoes and tucks her feet under her skirt on the sofa and talks about the people who’ve
been there that evening in a vivacious way – the face lights up and she becomes really attractive – so you realize
how much is kept under control. She gets confidentiality from people because they are treated in such a welcoming and considerate