Saturday, 19 February 2011

Faulks on Fiction: Sebastian Faulk's Shirt

I was sitting in the lounge, taking tentative sips of the nasty Beaujolais Nouveau I shall thank you for charitably assuming that I got it as a Christmas gift. I had opened the bottle and kept it near the log fire for half an hour (OK, I don’t actually have a log fire; I have an electric fire that cleverly simulates the flames) to make it slightly warm. (That’s obvious, I hear you saying, the wine will get warm when you keep it next to the fireplace. The question, I hear you asking, is why do I do it? I do it because experience has taught me that if I warm Beaujolais Nouveau before drinking, not till it begins to bubble but a tad above the room temperature, I am less likely to gag when I drink it.) And then, as recommended by some wine pundits, I was dipping a small lump of sugar, couple of cloves and a thin stick of cinnamon, sewn in muslin, into my wine glass, telling myself that this little trick went a long way towards enhancing the (limited) pleasure you can get out of a Beaujolais Nouveau. (Perhaps I am too hard on the gamy wine. For its multitudes of faults Beaujolais Nouveau is still more drinkable than the vinegar that passes off for wine in California. If I wanted instant peptic ulcers, I’d drink sulphuric acid, thank you very much; give a Californian wine as a present to someone you really dislike).

The television was on. The programme I was watching was the second of the four-part series Faulks on Fiction, presented by the novelist Sebastian Faulks.

The room was nicely warm. I had helped myself to one of Jamie’s 30 minutes meals (cassoulet with chipolatas) although it had taken me just under an hour to prepare it, but it did not matter, as I am not exactly pressed for time. (I used to think he was a total waste of time, a talentless piece of shit, a retard with a verbal repertoire of 200 words who talked rubbish all the time. But he has gone several notches up in my estimate thanks to his book of 30 minutes meals. I must review it one of these days. I am not surprised that it sold 750,000 copies in the first six weeks of its release, and is on its way to becoming the biggest selling cookery book of all times, in the UK. It’s a sensational book.) I had finished 1/3rd of the bottle of Beaujolais and was looking forward to (after Faulks on Fiction) snuggling up with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The memoir had reached what I considered to be the pivotal point in its narration. Gilbert was in Bali, the last leg of her year-long travels during which—this was repeated every fifty pages—she was celibate, having put behind a bitter and rancorous divorce followed by a torrid love affair. But now, in Bali, she had met this Brazilian cheesecake, a total bullshitter, who, in the balsy manner of all bullshitters, readily admitted that he was a bullshitter (labouring under the belief that the admission would make him irresistible to women), and was trying to lure Gilbert into his bed mouthing calculatedly droll lines last heard in Pulp Fiction. Gilbert had declined his offer. She had retired to her bed alone, with only her hand to provide her comfort. She had marshalled forth several reasons why it would not be a good idea to get involved with a man old enough to be her father, whose idea of a gourmet meal was heaps of pork in black bean sauce and whose biggest skill lay in making Brazilian cocktails. But—this was an indication that the lady was wavering—she had also accepted his invitation to have a dinner at his place the next day. She told herself that it would just be dinner and nothing else. But would it? Be just dinner? I thought not. For a Yoga-practitioner supposedly inhabiting a higher plane of existence, the lady, I thought grimly, was easily swayed by sagging pectorals. She had agreed to enter what Alcohol Counsellors call a very risky situation. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what was going to happen. The Brazilian grandfather would not be interested in discussing Goethe with Gilbert over his cocktails. It was clear to me that Gilbert, having spent the previous four months in an ashram in India (trying out extraordinarily tortuous Hath-Yoga positions), was getting in the mood, despite her protestations, for some bedroom gymnastics. My money was on Gilbert sleeping with the Brazilian (although, strictly speaking, she wouldn’t be sleeping), and I was keen to find out whether my guess was correct. But I had a programme to watch first: Faulks on Fiction.

The theme of the second episode was love and romance. And Faulks started off, predictably, with Pride and Prejudice. That pissed me off (figuratively speaking). I have struggled to understand the sway this early nineteenth century  novel continues to hold over the British public. Some years ago, if I am not mistaken, it was voted as the most loved novel in England. It is not the worst novel I have read, but I remain unconvinced that it is the best British novel ever written. I do not find the story—a silly old woman trying to marry off her daughters—that proceeds (at a pace which, if it were any slower would bring the narrative to a halt) via endless tea-parties (which are so bloody boring, I would pay to watch geriatrics playing bingo than be there) and interminable ball-room dances particularly riveting. The main characters, Elizabeth and Darcy, have the genius for jumping to the wrong conclusions, and change their views about each other faster than a veteran of Folies Bergere gets out of her clothes. Elizabeth is alternatingly a mean tongued bitch and a Shakespearean tragedy queen. Darcy is pretentious, petulant, speechyfying, sour, grumpy, cranky, judgmental, quick to take offence, and, above all, insufferably dull, the sort of chap you would be thinking of making redundant if he were employed by the council. The humour, which comes in the form of Mrs. Bennet, has the subtlety of an industrial blast furnace. That said, there is this theory—put forth by a character in a Martin Amis novel I read recently—that the novel is incredibly sexual, if only you break the code. (Jane Austen’s novel, that is, not Amis’s novel, although it—the Amis novel—is also incredibly sexual, tell as it does the story of a handful of adolescents in a fort in Italy, who have got enough hormones raging in them to keep a whorehouse in Texas in business for a year. And Amis does not speak in codes.) This character, from Amis’s novel, who is studying English literature in Oxford, hypothesizes that Pride and Prejudice is all about tits and bums. For example, Lydia, the youngest (and silliest, even sillier than the silly mother, who is pretty stupid) of the Bennet sisters, is described as ‘stout’. ‘Stout’, posits, Keith (the character in the Amis Novel), is Austen’s codeword for big arse. When Catherine is growing up, she gets plumper and her figure gains, as a result, ‘consequence’. That is big tits. ‘Consequence’ is Austen’s code for big breasts. When I came across this hypothesis in the Amis novel, I thought that it, although put forth by a fictional character that does not actually exist, had what the researchers describe as face validity. It was worth exploring further. I read the novel further to see whether Keith would make it easier for me by expounding more on this hypothesis; but he didn’t, busying himself, instead, with a woman character Jane Austen would have had no hesitation in describing as ‘very stout’ (assuming of course his hypothesis about Austen’s code was correct). Should I read Pride and Prejudice again, I wondered briefly (very briefly), to see whether I could find out more sexual codes, but then decided that this wasn’t a big enough incentive for me to go through three hundred pages of drudgery.

I shall never comprehend quite why this novel, remarkable only for its quirky use of punctuation marks, is considered the best, the most loved, novel in English, just as I shall struggle to comprehend why those dreadful Carry On films are considered classics. (Carry On films are not classics; they are just smutty, and full of actors who couldn’t act.) I suspect that many amongst those who profess to admire Pride and Prejudice do it for no reason other than that they think it would make them look learned, sophisticated, and possessing good taste and discretion.

Faulks, of course, said none of the above. He is a wily character and he knows what will earn him brownie points with the viewers. (I considered the possibility that he might actually have liked the novel, but discarded it immediately; he looks too intelligent to go into faux rapture over some tawdry love story written two centuries ago by an idle woman with more time on her hands than she knew what to do with.) The narration was interspersed with the so called cult BBC adaptation of the novel, starring that incredibly bland actress (whose name escapes me, but I derive satisfaction from the knowledge that she has since sunk into well deserved obscurity) who simpered moronically, and the overrated Colin Firth, walking as if suffering from a virulent relapse of haemorrhoids, his facial expressions suggesting he was a couple of hundred bowel motions behind the game.

As I sat there, feeling cosy, and drowsy on wine, listening to Faulks talking some nonsense (a ‘colonial’ word if you believe Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. ‘Nonsense’, according to Gilbert, is a colonial word, like ‘splendid’; and the Indians are very fond of it (a few weeks’ stay at an Indian ashram where more than two thirds of residents were non-Indians and during which she spoke to a total of three Indians, has obviously made Gilbert an authority on the linguistic legacy of the British Raj); they use it all the time, apparently, although I have never heard any Indians I know say them) about how Darcy is not so much depressed as repressed, when I noticed something about Faulks. Or, to be precise, his clothes. Or to be even more precise, his shirt. Or, to be absolutely pinpoint, the colour of his shirt.

Faulks was wearing a red T-shirt. As red as the Beaujolais I was drinking. I immediately clicked opened the first part of the series I had saved on the hard drive of the free-view box. I fast-forwarded the programme. All the way till the end. My suspicions were confirmed.

Throughout the one hour programme Faulks wore a red shirt.

Now I may not be a man of what is known as broad culture, but I am not stupid. I have read three fourth of the WikiPedia entry on Karl Marx; I am thinking of ordering Lisa Jardine’s book on Renaissance from Amazon; and I have heard that Quick Ratio is a reliable indicator of a company’s liquidity. These are but three examples of my wide-ranging interests and knowledge base. I straightaway figured out that even though the programme was of one hour duration, it must have been shot over a period of weeks, if not months. Faulks could have worn different shirts when he met with his interviewees at different times and went to different locations. But he didn’t. Why? Let’s look at it methodically, shall we?

Here are the possibilities.

(1)   Faulks has only one shirt, which happens to be of red colour, and he is forced to wear it all the time if he does not want to go about semi-naked. I reject this possibility. While there are many poor people in the world (like the Indian boy Elizabeth Gilbert saw in the ashram in India, but she didn’t speak to him, so we don’t know whether he is inordinately fond of ‘nonsense’) who have only one shirt. But Faulks is not one of them. He is a very successful novelist and I can’t believe that he has only one shirt.  
(2)   Faulks has more than one shirt, possibly of different colours, one of which is red. He has only one red shirt which he wore for the entire duration of the shooting of his series.
(3)   Faulks has different shirts of the same colour. This is possible. I have three white shirts myself. Although personally I wouldn’t go for the colour red, maybe Faulks does.
(4)   Faulks does not own a red shirt; he borrowed it from his neighbour. (As unlikely as the first possibility.)

So, we are left with two probabilities: either Faulks wore the same red shirt or different red shirts. I am unable to narrow it down further at this stage.

What is ineluctable is that Faulks wore a red shirt. Why? (why red shirt, that is; we accept that it is not unreasonable of him to wear a shirt.) Again we have to consider more than one possibility.

(1)   Faulks wore a shirt of the same colour for the sake of continuity, that is to give his viewers an illusion of continuity, because, as I have cleverly deducted, the programme couldn’t have been shot in one go. And he happened to wear a red colour shirt the first time round, and persisted with it. It could have been a yellow or an orange shirt. The colour is unimportant.
(2)   Faulks wanted to create an illusion of continuity for reasons described above and chose to wear a different red shirt because he happens to have more than one red shirt. Why does he have several shirts of red colour in his wardrobe? We don’t know. Maybe he likes red colour.
(3)   Faulks wore one shirt throughout the shooting because that happens to be his favourite shirt. Perhaps it is his lucky shirt. Maybe he was wearing that shirt when he got the news that his first novel was accepted for publication, and ever since it has become his lucky charm. In this scenario the shirt that is lucky. The colour is unimportant. It could have been a green or blue shirt.
(4)   It’s not the shirt but the colour that is important for Faulks. Maybe red is his lucky colour, or his favourite colour.

Finally, there is one more possibility. I mention it, not only for the sake of covering all angles, but I believe this theory is on the money Hear me out, please..

The possibility is this: Faulks wore the same red shirt throughout the shooting because his standards of personal hygiene leave a lot to be desired. In other words, he is too posh to wash.

This theory may not be as farfetched as it may appear. It is supported by empirical evidence. 

Last month I read a novel by David Nicholls, entitled Starters for Ten. The protagonist of this novel is a working class boy, brought up by a single mother (the twist being the father dies and does not walk out on the family). The boy goes to University where he meets an upper middle class bird, who takes an interest in him in the same way BBC’s Human Planet researchers take interest in the bushmen of Kalahari. She invites the boy to her home for Christmas. There he meets her parents. Her parents are posh and totally lacking in inhibitions. Both the father and mother walk about bollocks naked (to be exact, father bollocks naked; mother c**t naked) in front of their daughter and the protagonist. The house is cold. And dirty. There are dogs’ hair, dirty books and muddy boots everywhere; the fridge is reeking of sour milk, rancid cheese, and decaying vegetables; and the sink is overflowing with dishes that probably haven’t been washed for weeks. The definition of true, authentic, British upper-middle class, the boy concludes, is to be cold and filthy with complete self-confidence.

Here is more evidence, though not as compelling as the first. Some years ago I read a silly book, entitled Watching the English in which there is an entire chapter called 'Home Rule'. In the chapter the writer goes on about the differences between lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle classes. I shall spare you the details which are about as exciting as a cricket match between Leicestershire and Glamorgan, but the conclusion is: the higher you go up the ladder of British classes the lower the standards of hygiene.

Finally, I present you with my own experience. I once worked with a Scottish (male) colleague. This guy, as far as I was aware, was not rich. But he was posh. For a start he did not speak in Scottish accent; he spoke in a posh accent. (Am I suggesting that Scottish accent is not posh? Yes, I am, and no, it isn't.) And he had inherited the title Baron. The Baron wore the most crumpled pair of trousers and a shirt last seen when a trunk full of clothes was recovered from Titanic. He stank to high heavens but went about completely oblivious of the bad odour he was spreading. One secretary (who was working-class, and didn’t know any better) finally asked him directly when was the last time he washed his clothes. With a straight face the Baron replied that he couldn't remember and in any case he viewed concerns with such fribbles as clothes and hygiene as bourgeois affectations. This secretary was quite a motormouth, and the only reason she kept quiet (I think) was that she wasn’t sure what bourgeois meant.

Sebastian Faulks is posh. He looks posh, he speaks in a posh accent, and he writes high-brow novels. I won’t be surprised if he lives in a (cold) Victorian house. I don’t know if he is in the habit of appearing naked in front of his guests, but is it beyond the realms of possibility that he is one of those who are too posh to wash? I think not. Once you accept this premise then everything else follows. The conclusion is inescapable that Faulks wore the same red shirt during the entire shooting of the series showing his solidarity with the class to which he belongs or (if you look at it the other way) betraying his class snobbishness.

If we assume that Faulks wore the same red shirt throughout, would he have washed it? If you subscribe to the ‘too posh to wash’ theory, then they you’d say he didn’t. I looked at the facial expressions of all the interviewees of Faulks to see whether I could get any clues. But I was none the wiser. (Martin Amis, if anything, looked like he had just woken up in the boot of his car). That is, though, neither here nor there. The interviewees could simply have been polite, or, some of them being posh, like Faulks, probably were wearing themselves the same clothes for the past six months. (Simon Armitage looked quite scruffy. But he is a poet and lives in Huddersfield, so he might just be poor.)

In a nutshell here are my final thoughts on the subject. Sebastian Faulks is posh. Ergo he doesn’t wash. Ergo the red shirt he wore throughout the first and possibly the second episode (I didn’t get round to watch the whole of it, as I was busy solving this conundrum) was the same shirt. It was a deliberate decision by him; he thought about it, planned it, and in cold blood executed his plan. Faulks probably has several shirts; he may even have more than one red shirt; however, I think he wore the same shirt and not different shirts of red colour during the shooting. He did not wash the red shirt he wore because he is too posh to wash. He is probably also tightfisted.

I had finished the whole bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau and was feeling nicely high, but I thought this called for a minor celebration, so I poured myself a generous thimble of Tawny Port. There was only one more thing I needed to check before I turned in. I opened Eat, Pray, Love and began reading it. My hunch was right. The Brazilian shagged Gilbert senseless.