family, midlife, screen, words

Unfinished Business

What did you do in the war granddad? Bombs, souvenirs and family legends…

FOR MANY YEARS this was a charmed life – the world at his feet, there for his enjoyment. Looking back with such a long view, it’s hard to discern any great drama through his twenties. As the usual array of collective pressures were absorbed, the multitudes within took shape forming an adult self that was rarely out of phase – some parts autonomous, some parts connected. But you don’t know yourself as well as you think. Or as Thomas Paine revealed in 1796: ‘It may rationally be said that every person is mad once in every 24 hours.’

His confident persona continued unperturbed well into his thirties. When vulnerability arrived, it came at him sideways. On a humid mid-summer day, as he prepared to give a speech to a real live audience about a book he’d written, his protective bubble popped.

The speech was the debut promotional event for publicising his book. The evening was to feature a reading from the masterpiece much toiled over, then interview, plus an audience Q&A. Through the day, a bundle of nerves all morning as the sun rose over the gassometer, continuing the whole afternoon, as the shadows lengthened across the cut grass, inevitably his thoughts turned to avoidance – I’m not here, this isn’t happening. But avoidance wouldn’t fly. A bookseller on the Charing Cross Road awaited with rows of the book displayed in the shop window and a large printed card with his name on saying event starts seven thirty tonight. 

He remembers his bare ankles felt cold as he struggled to remember any of his book’s core arguments. He was an imposter with a scattered brain lighting one cigarette and then the next cigarette. No matter the support from his partner, the looming book event was all on him. He considered both scenarios plausible: He meets tonight’s public challenge and thrives; or he collapses pathetically in a wordless heap. But that was not the thing of it. The thing of it was that he faced the challenge singularly. Existence shifted momentously as he realised that contained with the stage nerves was a portentous advance warning: That tonight he will do his book event, alone; and one day he will die, alone. Because we do. It was his first grown-up death anxiety.

Apart from coming so late into adulthood, this abrupt awakening to the long distance loneliness of non-existence was otherwise unexceptional, and immediately sat on. Yes, park your bum on that. Later, in other words – displaying a defiant resistance to the mean side of being alive.

deathward with Adam Driver

‘All plots move deathward’ asserts Jack Gladney in Don Delillo’s White Noise, advising that the best we can do is dwell on the smaller moments and embrace the ‘aimless days’. 

As he copies down these words, his thoughts turn towards his mum sat in her bungalow down south. Past ninety and watching daytime TV, another apparently ‘aimless day’ drifts past in her hot living room. But while the body may be idling, eyes glued to the wall-mounted screen, the brain’s very switched on, scrolling through events from a long time ago, curating not only her past, but the past of almost everyone she has known. In a benign cross-generational haunting, his mum is continually retrieving a sprawling and often unconscious family archive to revise and re-shape as catchy anecdotes, rehearsed and passed along to the next generation, and the generation after that.

Bringing the past to the surface can keep worry away. Then again, Adam Phillips, writer and therapist, suggests that worry might also feature as an ‘ironic form of hope’. Gazing forwards in a state of worry represents a commitment to the future, no matter how delimited. His mum doesn’t appear hope-less. But how much does she still expect from things to come? Are there many puzzles concerning what’s already been that she longs to resolve? And how much of the past will she keep back – locked behind a door marked PRIVATE?

What Did You Do in the War, Granddad?

The Annoying Son’s last birthday, his grandmother sent him a cheque and a letter telling the story of some vintage china cups. The next time he and the Annoying Son got together, over the Christmas break, they carefully read through this unique event. Deciphering the handwriting was a joint effort. As a young man in Germany in the early nineteen twenties, your great grandfather was studying meteorology at the University of Heidelberg and for leisure he joined a walking club. In those days, being in a walking club was a popular past time. At weekends and holidays, the students would go away on long walking trips, staying overnight at student hostels. Each place he stayed, your great grand-father bought an ornamental china cup as a memento. I have held on to these cups for many years but now have passed them along for you to keep. The cups with gold inlay, from Leipzig and Dresden, Kiel, Bad Salzuflen, and other locations, all bearing their city coat of arms, are more than a hundred years old and a souvenir of your great grand-father’s life as a bachelor before he married your great grand-mother, my mother.

The letter continues… Your great grand-father qualified as a meteorologist and went to work for Lufthansa at Nuremberg airport. In time, after Hitler came to power, he was conscripted and leaving Lufthansa was transferred to the Luftwaffe, where part of his duties involved preparing flight plans for pilots

As they finish the letter, he returns to that sentence and reads it back again, preparing flight plans for pilots. How ordinary it sounds. He looks up. What kind of flight plans? 

In the thick of World War Two, fleets of Luftwaffe bombers seek a safe route with plenty of cloud cover to help pass into enemy airspace undetected. Up above a British city, the dangerous sky rumbles as the bombers reach the target destination, preparing their payloads for release. Bombs rain down, starting a firestorm of death and destruction. Those kind of flight plans?

Coventry

Late June 1941, in the staff cafeteria at Nuremberg Airport, the Annoying Son’s great grand-father is drinking a mid-morning coffee and carelessly speaking his mind. It’s a day or two since Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union. The brief interlude of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact is over as German forces surge eastward changing the course of the war. The Annoying Son’s great grand-father is gripped by the news but not impressed. If Napoleon couldn’t make it work, he tells work colleagues, then why on earth would He succeed? (‘He’, of course, meaning Hitler.)

As the social reach of the Third Reich extended through the nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties, the more powerful grew its regime of spies (spitzel) ‘keeping watch over the ‘enthusiasm’ of the citizen’, as Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher wrote at the time. Any workplace chit chat that’s vaguely political is high risk and inevitably the Annoying Son’s great grand-father is reported for his outspokenness. Although summarily denounced, he is not put in jail, or sacked, or even demoted. The Annoying Son’s great grandfather is too valuable in his day job. As some kind of punishment his workmates are instructed to ignore their loose-lipped colleague. To freeze him out completely. The Annoying Son’s great grandfather is sent to Coventry.

Moonlight Sonata 

Coventry Cathedral

But did the Annoying Son’s great grandfather ever prepare flight plans for Coventry? Plot a secure route from southern Germany to the West Midlands, to the city where, until recently, one of his great grand-daughters lived and worked. But she never got on well with the city centre, disliking the post-war redevelopment and its brutalist buildings encircled by too many fast roads. 

Coventry was one of the UK’s worst hit cities during the Blitz. The city’s industry was vital to the British war effort, with armaments factories and munitions plants, as well as assembly lines rolling out new aircraft at speed. On the night of November 14,1940, five hundred Luftwaffe planes firebombed Coventry in Operation Moonlight Sonata. The attack lasted ten hours as around three quarters of the city’s industrial plants were destroyed with 4000 residential properties also flattened. Approximately five hundred people died and thousands were injured or left homeless. Broad swathes of the city’s medieval centre, once the historic jewel of the Midlands, lay in ruins.

Bomb Map of the London Blitz

He reminds the Annoying Son about the house in south east London where they lived for five years when he was growing up. The house backed onto a large park, where in early 1941 a German bomb landed just over the other side of their garden. At the Smithsonian website a scrollable map of the Blitz identifies all confirmed hits with a small picture for every single bomb. 

Not all of the Luftwaffe’s missiles exploded on impact. Many plunged to earth and lodged deep in the ground, silent and unexploded for decades – a blatant metaphor never to be used. In March 2008, a live German missile was discovered during construction work in Coventry city centre. The area had to be shut down while the device was disarmed. This included cancelling that evening’s theatre performance of ‘One Night in November’ – a play about the Blitz.

His mind hovers just to the side of this irony. Looking out the window at the winter daylight, his gaze lands on a dark stain in the road that wasn’t there earlier. It starts to rain heavily while at the edge of his thoughts another Coventry artefact keeps blinking. He can’t decide. Celebrated for Basil Spence’s modernist cathedral, Two Tone Records and George Eliot, Coventry is famous too for the legend of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom. Can he bring Godiva and Tom into this blogpiece? With what reason? He finishes the paragraph accepting their inclusion is unlikely, but tempting.

He stands up, stretches, and sits back down more heavily than he expected. Then writes a new sentence, yet feels the comma’s in the wrong place, and takes it out. But then puts it back in again, only to remove it, for certain, straight after breakfast the next day, and then reintroduce over lunchtime. In Finland they’d call him ‘comma fucker’. 

He starts a new paragraph then removes the line space to run on, only to re-insert the break. This makes him a paragraphenreiter in Germany – ’member of the paragraph cavalry’.

Lady Godiva

In Delillo’s White Noise, Jack has more advice for writers: ‘Do not advance the action according to a plan!’ He replays Jack’s instruction in his head as he realises that whatever he already decided, he will discuss Lady Godiva and Tom, as their story actually fits. 

Once upon a time (it was and it was not), not so long after 1066, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman called Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry sat on a horse. Covered somewhat by her long silver hair, Godiva paraded in protest at an oppressive tax regime imposed by her nobleman husband Leofric. Residents of the city gathered to bear witness, but were instructed to look away as Godiva passed. But one man in the crowd didn’t obey orders – he took a peek and was struck blind. (Or so claims the legend.) This was Tom. Peeping Tom. 

In Coventry’s city centre, there is a public clock where on the hour the Godiva story is replayed. Gone through again and again as a miniature pale Godiva rides out, looked down on by crimson Tom. 

In an essay titled Coventry from 2021, the writer Rachel Cusk explores her parents’ recurring habit of not speaking to their daughter. On and off, all her life, Cusk’s mum and dad have sent her to Coventry. The parental silence descends for a stretch of time, often for offences the author struggles to identify. Cusk compares the experience to a broken boiler and a ‘growing feeling of discomfort that comes with the gradual drop in temperature… Like coldness the silence advances, making itself known not by presence but by absence.’

The repeat trips to Coventry are, Cusk concludes, ‘a test of an individual’s capacity for survival [and] psychological strength.’ In writing and publicly shaming her parents as being unreasonably punitive, Cusk prepares for a clean break, to snap the chain of repetition. However, deep underground family conflict like an unexploded device lies buried but still alive.

Unfinished Business

It’s a familiar conundrum though, what to do about recurring patterns of behaviour, persistent memories turning round and round, thoughts on repeat. Looped thinking keeps the future from getting started.

The clock stopped long ago for Martin Knight, broken hero of Unfinished Business – Michael Bracewell’s first novel in twenty years. A younger Martin Knight featured in Bracewell’s earlier novel The Conclave from 1992. A dreamer with the world at his feet, back then the twentysomething Martin became caught up in a spiral of over consumption, losing himself through confusing ‘luxury for beauty’. In Unfinished Business, Martin’s become caught up once again, this time detained in a melancholy midlife limbo, repeatedly narrating his own story over and over. 

Prufrock’s Day

Through the short morning journey to work, on the train from east London’s Cambridge Heath to Liverpool Street, Martin’s interior world expands inside a ‘stilled floating moment’ as he re-examines what brought him here: ‘So many summers and sunsets; fleeting epiphanies, a marriage, working weeks, familiar streets, resentments, sudden panics, regrets, nurtured desires… recently, he fancied, he had become aware of an overview – a symptom of age, no doubt; his life presented to him… with an unnerving and unexpected shrug – ‘There you go, then.’’

Gestalt theory specifically uses the term ‘unfinished business’ for past situations where the subject feels they haven’t achieved a satisfactory resolution. Gestalt reminiscence therapy urges the exploration of the unfinished to help with moving on. And while self-narration is encouraged as a therapeutic tool, it’s not doing much for Martin: ‘However hard he looked, he could never really see himself.’

A lone figure cloaked in concentration –  ‘Nowhere existed, save his thoughts’ – Martin crosses Liverpool Street Station concourse. (The birthplace of the modern novel, wrote Walter Benjamin, is ‘the individual in his isolation.’) Slow on his feet these days, negotiating the hustling commuter crowd, Martin mentally revisits a suburban childhood and his first cigarette before dissolving to the dismal years at a provincial uni in the role of misunderstood aesthete. Retracing the winding pathways leading from a promising youth to a fiftysomething semi-alcoholic, serpentine as the working of memory itself, Martin’s thoughts zigzag between the first encounter with his future wife Marilyn (it was snowing across London) and the morning of the catastrophe – several years later, now married with a daughter – as Martin confesses to Marilyn that he’s been unfaithful, precipitating a painful and ‘messy’ divorce.

An old stager of office life, at last Martin arrives to his City job for another day of only half attending to a role he no longer properly understands, surrounded by young colleagues speaking a language increasingly beyond his grasp. A long solitary lunch at a mediocre Italian restaurant sloshing back large glasses of red, sets-up another interior wander inside a personal past that won’t stop spinning in his brain. ‘Memory. His actual job was remembering… That’s right. These days.’ You’re stuck, says a close friend with necessary bluntness. Gives it to him over drinks after work.

‘To live,’ wrote Borges, ‘it is necessary to forget’. And though it’s still not certifiably proven what precisely is the purpose of dream-sleep, a leading assumption is that the brain passes the dormant hours ditching superfluous memories. In this way, suggests geneticist Francis Crick, ‘We dream in order to forget’. Without this nightly clear out, the brain gets clogged and the senses mangled. Martin Knight’s so overloaded with memory he’s incapable of staying live in the moment. Further along in Unfinished Business, stashed away in a private clinic after heart surgery, he has a rare encounter with his ex-wife, who announces she’s getting married. Typically, Marilyn’s talk of the future derails Martin’s fragile focus, sending him back in time to his late teens, off to London to see Joy Division live. 

Bracewell has a way with characters with the interior space to explore what it is to be conscious in time. He follows his distrait leads through cities and culture, money and spending with a lyrical scrutiny that is both oblique and direct. Restaurants and clothes:  ‘the pink buttonhole, the cinnamon-brown suit, the silk tie flecked pale blue’. Martin’s shimmering inner landscape of circular trajectories, dreamlike and fragmented, is high risk reading last thing at bedtime (as the Clonazepam pulls you under). Tomorrow evening you will barely recognise the page you just read.

The Souvenirs

On first arriving as a published writer in the late nineteen eighties, Bracewell was greeted enthusiastically and charged by some hopeful book critics with reviving the English novel. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Bracewell quickly misplaced his quill, drifting over to cultural criticism instead. But lately, he has returned to the imaginary. As a trailer for Unfinished Business, Bracewell published Souvenir, an impressionistic memoir of London at the turn of the eighties – the reimagining of a long-gone city by the Thames, the ‘counter-cultural diaspora of King’s Cross and Hackney, Brixton, Camden Town and Notting Hill Gate’, suede ankle boots and art school coats, crimped hair, Metal Box, the Lloyds building and midtown’s Sicilian Avenue. 

Bracewell’s Souvenir was published in 2021. In what turned out to be a bumper year for eighties souvenirs with souvenir in the title, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II also came out at the cinema. 

Hogg’s movie diptych, The Souvenir Part I and The Souvenir Part II, combine as a partially-fictionalised memoir of the director’s difficult years at film school in the mid eighties. The two Souvenirs follow Julie, an onscreen version of the younger Hogg, as she struggles to get her graduation film made while caught up in a tragic love affair. 

After the long years of career obscurity, the two Souvenir movies have given Hogg lift-off – transported into arthouse cinema’s lofty heights. With Martin Scorsese on board as executive producer, the Souvenirs are a gear change from the director’s earlier films. While the detached, off-centre delivery remains, the thinned-out stories of Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition, largely dependent on mood and setting, are replaced by a richer narrative that makes the two Souvenirs easier to love perhaps.

Hogg’s experimental approach to auto-biography blends improvisation with rigorous long-takes and sudden edits. The unusual blending begins with an extended pre-production spent compiling a detailed master ‘document’ as the nascent movie’s draft outline. The ‘document’ for the Souvenirs included photographs of Hogg as a student, extracts from her love letters, college scrapbooks and journals, as well as recordings taken from therapy sessions Hogg attended, and audio clips of her long-gone lover’s voice. 

In pre-production the Souvenirs’ cast consulted the elaborate ‘document’, only to put it aside as filming approached – with Hogg choosing improvisation over a shooting script, ‘Shaping a story whilst actually… living the story… with the cast and the crew’

The idea of the Souvenirs as a re-creation of what happened to a younger Hogg is complicated therefore by the knowledge that what the viewer’s ‘deceived gaze’ looks upon isn’t simply a version of events from a long time ago, but also a record of ‘what really happened’ on set. 

The Eighties backdrop for The Souvenir Part I mixes student parties and synth pop with coal not dole and IRA bombs going off around central London. As incendiary devices rattle the windows, blowback from the conflict in Afghanistan has started a heroin epidemic across the UK. While she procrastinates over her college movie, Julie’s new lover, the posh mysterious Anthony, has needle tracks on his arm. When Julie comments on a skin puncture, Anthony shrugs a non-answer and asks what he should do. Julie says, ‘I think you should just leave it, and let it go away’ – in what seems an unspoken agreement between new lovers, negotiated evasively, not to engage with an awkward reality.

Both in love and at the cinema there are varying levels of awareness and un-awareness. Julie seems to understand what she is looking at while preferring to leave its meaning unrecognised. Meanwhile, Anthony grandiosely claims to work at the Foreign Office, doing something pretty hush-hush, and family, friends and Julie nod dubiously.

Being films that know themselves as films, the Souvenirs slip inbetween the real, the known and the not quite known. Inside this opacity, Anthony seems in touch with his complicated reality. Somehow, quite miraculously, the actor Tom Burke is wholly believable in the role of ‘Anthony the fraud’ conveying simultaneously an awareness that that’s all he is, really, a bent protagonist in a movie, a fictive version of himself contrived many years after his death – a confabulated ‘Anthony’ who at one stage, in bed with Julie, directly interrogates both his character and his ‘creator’ asking: ‘Am I more real than you?’

Do the last few sentences constitute a successful act of interpretation, or a mind of confusion? He presses on…

There should be a name, but there isn’t, for a style of storytelling where the character has part turned their back on the viewer, pointedly concealing some of what is known. Through both the Souvenirs, Hogg’s predilection for ellipses results in vital information remaining unshared. Not privy, for instance, to both ends of a phone conversation, the viewer is left in the shade, alone with their thoughts

The climax to The Souvenir Part I leaves Julie desolate with Anthony lost to heroin. Typically, Anthony’s demise occurs off screen. Veiled in mystery and speculation, his departure might almost be just a rumour. 

The Souvenir Part II opens with Julie utterly desolate, recuperating at her parents’ rural home. (In Bracewell’s Unfinished Business, a college friend of Martin’s believes that whenever things go wrong ‘… if he could just get home, back to his mother’s house, then he’d be alright.’) Both of Julie’s anxious parents cluck and fuss over the bereaved daughter. They encourage rest, and cake, and long breeze-whipped rambles through ploughed fields with dogs and wellies. Julie’s mother – played by Tilda Swinton with an English upper-middle-classness so ‘exquisite’ it’s almost camp –  looks on in pain at her daughter’s anguish, bites her lip, half sighs, takes up secret smoking, starts sentences left unfinished, looks away, pours the tea.

Eventually Julie leaves home again and starts to dig around in Anthony’s back story looking for clues. She also returns to film school with a new idea for her graduation movie, but her course leaders are carelessly dismissive of Julie’s ‘script’. White middle-aged lefty blokes with scraggy beards, they simply do not appreciate a young woman seeking to do film-making not by the book. Well, not their book.

Not only in open disagreement with college, Julie’s also out of sorts with her film crew as they head into production. Her commitment to an improvisational search for ‘truth’ in film, is openly, mutinously disparaged. Tentatively, Julie films and films again, mixing and remixing- live and on the hoof – a glittering post-traumatic version of a tragic love affair, a miniature souvenir in celluloid.

The Souvenir movies share their title with the celebrated painting at London’s Wallace Collection. In the early bloom of their love affair, Anthony shows Julie The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1776-8). The narrative painting depicts a young woman in a pink satin dress scratching her lover’s initials into the bark of a tree. The young woman is called Julie, named after the short novel by Rousseau, whose marking of the tree is witnessed by her pet dog – confirming the theme of devotion. The tree carving is a recording, or committing to memory. But it’s the film the Souvenir itself – not the Fragonard painting, nor the hazy enigmatic memories, not even the conscious act of commemoration – that represents the actual process of recovery, the artefact of something Julie’s working through where recovery means both retrieval but also recovery as in getting better. 

Julie’s pursuit of an explanation for Anthony’s death winds down as she transfers her truth-seeking and passion away from the dead lover and across to film, filmmaking, and her graduation movie. At a successful first screening, Julie takes a bow, the trouble gone from her eyes.

This productive rerouting of the past appears out of reach for Bracewell’s Martin Knight in Unfinished Business, as the novel’s title denotes. No matter the immersive pleasures of interior drama, Martin urgently needs a reset. There has to be some way out of here.

And then a sudden tragic event, so sudden, so tragic, and so unexpected that it lands on the reader like a blow, belatedly brings Martin to a different understanding. Finally, perhaps, a psychic clear-out can begin: ‘The former things had passed away.’

Nit Picker

On a family camping holiday in Wales, he is seven years old and it’s raining again. Most of the week it’s been raining with all the family, plus dog, banged up inside the tent for long afternoons passing the time playing parlour games. They’re doing What’s My Line? But no one can guess Dad’s job, or get anywhere close to guessing it right. The twenty questions are used up and Dad wins. Mass frustration. What are you then, his eldest sister cries?

His dad smiles. Nit picker, he says.

In a rare family photo taken around this time, there’s his parents, standing up, then him and his three siblings all kneeling in a group. But also there is a fifth child, Tina, who is only partly in the frame, stood off to the side as if purposefully posed to characterise isolation. Tina was fostered. Eventually, she was sent away. Years later, his dad claimed Tina was violent, but no one remembers this. Not that it was ever much discussed. Every family has its unsolved mysteries ranging in weight of impact. He also still doesn’t fully understand the mysterious birthday and Christmas gifts he didn’t want. The girls’ bike for his eighth birthday. The shiny beige shoulder bag his classmates at secondary ridiculed as strictly for ladies. 

He looks at his mum from side on and wonders which do I ask about – bike, handbag, Tina, Coventry flight plans? He can ask anything (or say nothing). In a curious way, probing about flight plans feels the least controversial.

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