Why go abroad? Reading Alain De Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’

the-art-of-travel-alain-de-botton“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,” laments the melodramatic Withnail in the cult film ‘Withnail and I’ as his escape from his filthy London squat for the fresh country air of the English Lake District turns out to be anything but idyllic.

Withnail and his of out-of-work actor chum “I” are enduring what so many have experienced for real on their own travels: when the pictures on the holiday brochure (or in one’s imagination) turns out be nothing like the real experience.

This all too familiar feeling of traveller’s gloom is one of the many aspects of that great human urge to “go on holiday” that the British philosopher and best-selling author Alain De Botton explores in his highly entertaining and insightful book The Art of Travel.

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, [but] we hear little of why and how we should go,” muses De Botton in the first chapter called “On anticipation”.

De Botton recalls his own disappointing experience of a tropical island holiday to Barbados where he went with his partner one year, to escape the London winter.

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Withnail and I: We’ve gone on holiday by mistake

Prior to traveling he imagined only “a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun”, a “bungalow with views through French doors” and an “azure sky”.

What he didn’t imagine was the “large petrol storage facility” near the airport, the long line of people waiting to have their passports stamped, adverts for rum above the luggage carousel and “a confusion of taxi drivers and tour guides outside the terminal building”.

It’s not just that the holiday ‘looks’ nothing like the brochure. Even when the author does find himself in a place which should be restful and calming – the idyllic sandy beach of his imagination – he struggles to relax, his mind is full of worries about “back home” leading De Botton to the depressing realisation that he has taken ‘himself’, with all its anxieties, fears and frustrations, on holiday with him too.

“…the mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.”

This candidness and almost painful honest is one of the great joys of reading De Botton. He is never afraid to draw on his own bitter experiences, failings and annoying habits to illustrate a key point; in this way, he makes himself a very likeable and sincere narrator.

As with the other books of his I have read (The Consolations of PhilosophyThe Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life)  De Botton draws on the wisdom of the great thinkers of the past – philosophers, artists, writers, painters and poets – to provide answers to the questions he has about the paradoxes, ironies and mysteries of the travel experience.  (Surely no other writer has managed to make philosophy so interesting and so practical).

These include the American realist painter Edward Hopper whose evocative scenes of lonely travellers waiting in empty motels rooms, gas stations and automats, De Botton relates to the idea of travel as a journey of reflective introspection. The poetry and power of these melancholic scenes De Botton also says explains why we take pleasure and comfort in ugly highway rest stops, where we find kingship with other fellow travellers amid the harsh lighting and plastic furniture.

I particularly enjoyed De Botton’s description of a lacklustre visit to Madrid, where he could barely muster the strength to get out of bed, despite the great Spanish city with its palaces, museums and art galleries beckoning him from below his hotel room. Only the fear of the hotel maid entering his room for a fourth time and exclaiming “Hola, Perdone!” roused him from his depression.

While one’s first reaction is to be annoyed with De Botton for squandering such a great opportunity to see the sights, who on their own travels has not grown lethargic and bored at the prospect of a visit to yet another ancient ruin, art gallery or museum, which our travel guide tells us we should be enthusiastically visiting and gazing at in wonder.

Here De Botton takes his cues from the great German explorer and naturalist Alexander von HumboldtGerman explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt whose curiosity for all the things strange and unusual he discovered and catalogued on his expeditions reminded De Botton that what we find pleasurable or interesting on our travels should not be determined by the latest edition of the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Humboldt did not suffer such intimidation…He could unselfconsciously decide what interested him. He could create his own categories of value…

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Curious explorer: Alexander von Humboldt

De Botton’s other guides include Vincent Van Gogh, whose vibrant paintings of bright yellow wheatfields and whirling Cypress trees in Arles reveal the hidden beauty and power in seemingly ordinary places and the poetry of William Wordsworth, which celebrated daffodils, sheep and trees – as an explanation for why we yearn to escape the city for the restorative piers of the countryside.

(It’s just a shame my paperback edition of The Art of Travel reproduced all the artworks and photographs in black and white, though its easy enough, albeit a little disruptive to one’s reading, to look up the full colour version on one’s smartphone or tablet.)

There is of course another message that De Botton is so eager to share: that one does not have to jump on a plane and fly 5000 miles to a remote island to undertake an enlightening journey. Just exploring one’s own neighbourhood with a curious eye and alert mind can reveal wonders, as the author does himself with a meditative walk through his London suburb of Hammersmith.

In fact, one does not even have to leave one’s bedroom to “travel” if one subscribes to the wisdom of French writer Xavier de Maistre whose bizarre book Journey Around My Bedroom, published in 1794 De Botton brings back from obscurity.

While De Botton acknowledges there is clearly something rather silly about de Maistre’s suggestion that rather then go travelling we instead admire the elegance of one’s bedroom furniture,  he also recognises a more profound message that “the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps more dependent on the mindset with which we travel then on the destination we travel to”.

It’s one worth remembering the next time we reach for the chunky travel guide wedged in our bookshelf, when the urge to go on holiday hits us again.

(Readers of The Art of Travel, might also enjoy an accompanied documentary Alain De Botton made on the topic, which you can watch for free on YouTube:

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Reading a literary legal classic: Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent

presumed-innocent_lI recently read Presumed Innocent the New York Times best-selling legal thriller written by Chicago lawyer-turned crime novelist Scott Turow.

It was published to both critical and commercial success in 1987 and then, three years later, made into a hugely successful Hollywood movie starring Harrison Ford and directed by Alan J. Pakula, after Sydney Pollack (the film’s producer) bought the movie rights for US$1 million.

Turow, who taught creative writing at Stanford University before obtaining a law degree from Harvard Law School, prosecuted high-profile corruption cases as a Chicago assistant US attorney before penning the tale of Rusty Sabich, a deputy chief prosecutor accused of murdering his co-worker, Carolyn Polhemus, with whom he had a brief, but intense affair.

For some reason I vividly recall watching a CNN profile of Scott Turow after Presumed Innocent became a major Hollywood film, and being fascinated by the fact that he penned most of the book in longhand in a spiral notebook while on the morning train into work.

I also recall seeing the movie at the cinema and enjoying the tale of murder, corruption and court-room battles in what was an above-average thriller elevated by the typically edgy and intense performance of Harrison Ford as the accused Rusty Sabich,  the cool cat-like performance of the late Raul Julia as Sabich’s suave legal defender Sandy Stern and the very spicy sex scenes involving Ford and the utterly gorgeous Greta Sacchi who played the fateful bombshell attorney Carolyn Polhemus.

And so, almost three decades after seeing the movie as a pimply 17- year old, I picked up Scott Turow’s novel on the recommendation of my wife, who had just read and raved about it.

It is a superbly crafted literary novel, certainly heads and shoulders above anything the likes of John Grisham might have penned and has not surprisingly drawn comparisons with the grand masters of crime writing like PD James and Ruth Rendell. In summary: Scott Turow can write!

As the author Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire) puts it so elegantly in her 1987 review of the book for the New York Times , Turow “transcends the murder-mystery genre, combining whodunit suspense with an elegant style and philosophical voice”.

She also remarks of his “immense writing talent” and “impressive legal experience”. These are both of in evidence from the very first page when readers are introduced to Rusty Sabich,  the chief deputy prosecuting attorney of fictional Kindle County, who is also – in a stroke of genius by Turow – the narrator of the story.

Opening statement
This how I always start: “I am the prosecutor. I represent the state. I am here to represent to you the evidence of a crime. Together you will weigh this evidence. You will deliberate upon it. You will decide if it proves the defendant’s guilt…”

The novel begins with Sabich brooding over his affair with the beautiful Polhemus, who jilted him just before she was founded raped and murdered in her apartment.

The violent crime is the talk of Kindle County, casting a dark cloud over the re-election campaign of Sabich’s boss, the veteran chief prosecutor Raymond Horgan.

Sabich, who has kept his affair with Polhemus mostly a secret (he has tearfully confessed to his wife Barbara) is then put in charge of leading the investigation into her violent death, a task he attempts to carry out despite the obvious personal conflict.

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Close encounter: Greta Sacchi as Carolyn Polhemus, Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich

But events take a shocking turn for Sabich (who up until this point has been the reader’s insightful guide into the world of politics, big city crime, police investigations and legal procedure) when he is accused of Polhemus’s murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence and the suspicion of his affair, which gives him a motive.

Sabich hires top defence lawyer Sandy Stern to represent him, while his loyal cop pal, Dan “Lip” Liprazaner helps hunt down information on a secret case file that Polhemus handled and which might explain who killed her and why.

But can we trust Sabich? Yes, he has prosecuted child molesters and violent criminals, but he is also an adulterer and who seems both vulnerable and resentful of women. Did he murder Polhemus in a fit of uncontrollable, jealous rage?

 And then, when I’m by myself, I feel desperate and ashamed. This raging, mad obsession! Where is my world? I am departing. I am gone already.”

This clever plotline – faithfully replicated in the movie – is brought to life on the page by Turow’s carefully delineated characters – from the eloquent and morally ambiguous Sabich to his wounded and bittery resentful wife Barbara to the slippery prosecutor of his case, Nico Della Guardia – and pitch-perfect language to create the sinister undertones at play within the court and district attorney’s offices of Kindle County.

Turow takes his time delving into the biographies of his characters  – Sabich is the son of an unloving and cruel father who escaped the war in Europe – exploring their motivations, so they become living, breathing creations.

At the same time he manages to keep the story and plot moving along so you never feel you’re just turning pages hoping to get to the next important courtroom battle or clue, but immersing yourself in the drama. Everything said and done by Sabich and the cast of lawyers, police officers and members of the court has meaning and relevance to the story.

Turow also makes full-use of his legal experience to create terrifically authentic courtroom exchanges between the defence and prosecuting teams as the scales of justice tip for and against Sabich’s ‘presumed innocence’.

In summary, it’s not hard to understand why Presumed Innocent became a publishing phenomenon in 1987 and why it launched Turow’s writing career (more than 30 million copies of his books have been sold).

time cover turowIn 1990, when the movie of Presumed Innocent came out Time magazine featured Scott Turow on its June 11 cover calling him  ‘the bard of the litigious age’. (It’s also become a popular crossword clue!)

He was then the 92nd writer to make it onto the cover,  joined the ranks of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Alex Haley.

The great thing about Presumed Innocent is that it never descends to the status of an “airport paperback thriller.

While its undoubtedly a page-turner, it is squarely a work of literary fiction, spiced up with a film-noir plot, a femme fatale straight out of a 1930s Raymond Chandler crime novel and writing that some have called “Dickensian”

Even if you have seen the movie (or remember the controversial twist at the end), I highly recommend reading the book, which has rightly retained its much-revered status in the crime fiction genre.

Interviewed by CBS News in 2010 after publishing a sequel called Innocence, Turow said:

“‘Presumed Innocent’ changed my life and I went from being a guy writing on the morning commuter train – and I finished the book in an unfinished basement in my house in Wilmette – I went from that to somebody who was a best-selling author around the world.”

Unbearable and uplifting: The illogical pleasure of reading A Little Life By Hanya Yanagihara

hanya-yanagihara-a-little-lifeIt must say something about the impact Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “A Little Life” has on its readers, that random strangers came up to me, while I was reading it, to offer their praise.

“You should persevere with it, it’s an amazing book,” said one bloke as he got off the train, when I was only about fifty pages in.

Then, a few weeks later: “It’s so good. I’ve only got 20 minutes left to read on my Kindle and I don’t want it to end,” enthused a mother with two children as our train pulled into Melbourne.

After finishing it myself, and being equally affected by its power, I perused the internet for reviews and comments.

Quickly I realised  those random strangers and I were not alone.

Almost anyone who has read Yanagihara’s 720 page epic, about four close male friends – one of whom is a survivor of horrific sexual abuse – making their way in  New York after college has been similarly jolted.

Jon Michaud’s review in the New Yorker gave a succinct summary of its principal effect: “Yanagihara’s novel can drive you mad, consume you and take over your life.”

“I will genuinely never recover from reading A Little Life,” wrote another fan on Twitter.

When I finished reading A Little Life, I felt that sense of nostalgia, sadness and loss that comes with experiencing all great works of art be it a book, movie or piece of music.

I was as if I had been taken on an exhilarating ride – one of pain and suffering, but also of great joy and love – and then it had all come to an end and the characters had exited the stage, leave me and my world view irrevocably altered.

To summarise briefly the plot , four close college friends Jude St Francis, JB, Willem and Malcolm find themselves living in New York and trying to make their way as lawyer, artist, actor and architect respectively. All are bright and brilliant in their own way.

The book chronicles their steps up the professional ladder, the shifting dynamics of their friendship, their on and off romantic relationships, their shifting social circles and the changes they undergo from unsure twenty something’s to fifty-year-old successful men. All set against the backdrop of a modern, but timeless New York.

While this may hardly sound like the plot for a the “Great American Novel” what sets the book apart is Yanagihara’s ability to get inside the head of someone who has survived appalling sexual abuse in their childhood and how they learn to cope with its scars as adults.

This she does through the devastating brilliant character of Jude St Francis, whose childhood as an orphan raised by monks is so unimaginable cruel and painful that it is something of a miracle he survived at all.

Not only that but Jude suffers from a chronic pain and debilitating back spasms – due to an automobile attack he endured aged 15 – that leave him writhing on the floor in agony.

But he has learnt to cope, both with the sense of shame he feels about the past, the memories of these events which haunt him and his pain. This coping mechanism is to cut himself with razors, behaviour which shocks his friends and family, but which he is unable to stop even as he runs out of space on his arms, and finds himself cutting through “tough, webby scar tissue”.

Despite his tragic upbringing (which Yanagihara reveals in long flashbacks) Jude does more than just survive, he becomes a success.

Blessed with a brilliant legal and mathematical mind, he ends up becoming a top litigator at a major Manhattan corporate law firm even as his physical pain worsens and the mental scars refuse to heal. 

Whilst those closest to him – his best friend and later lover Willem and his adopted parents Harold and Julia – try to heal his deep emotional wounds, and his faithful doctor Andy, treats his weeping sores, failing legs and other bodily injuries, it is only Jude himself  who can keep the demons and ghosts of his past a bay, or give in and let them consume him.

And this almost biblical journey of Jude’s-  into and out of the light – is what drives the narrative of Yanagihara’s opus, and gives it is remarkable power.

Ultimately, the message of Yanagihara’s devastating book, I think, is our inability to escape the events that shaped us as children, but also that we can as adults transcend those events, even if those moments remain fleeting.

More fool me: Stephen Fry’s “coke years”

22662908One of the most interesting and surprising things you will learn about Stephen Fry, if you read his third autobiography “More Fool Me” is the extent of his cocaine addiction.

Or perhaps you’d wonder how he managed to snort so much marching powder up his snoz, given how crooked it is.

As you read through the book, which traces some of his most successful and creative years in the late 1980s and early 1990s – working with Hugh Laurie on Jeeves & Wooster, starring in Blackadder,  hosting royal variety shows and writing the novel The Hippopotamus and countless essays, reviews and speeches – you realise that cocaine is Fry’s special friend.

On page 69 of my soft-back edition, Fry lists all the places he has snorted cocaine during his 15 years of addiction. They include Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, The House of Lords,  The House of Commons, Fortnum & Masons and of course, the BBC Television Centre in London.

Fry is forever heading off to the exclusive, members-only Groucho Club in Soho in London’s West End (often on foot as he lived nearby) to meet up with his dealer “Jethro” for a cocaine top-up. He is incredibly candid about some of the stupid and embarrassing stuff he has done whilst consuming or after partaking of the drug.

In one episode, he gets involved in a competition to snort a massive line of coke on a table in a restaurant. He gets to the end and promptly vomits furiously. In other episode, having drunk too much and snorted too much he lurches out the window of the Groucho Club and spews down onto the pavement outside.

It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from Fry, one of England’s great literary and artistic treasures – more the behaviour of a bad boy rock ‘n roll star. But as you read you realise that Fry is quite the contradiction – a mix of erudite, literary brilliance mixed with too much alcohol, aforementioned cocaine and a fondness for wearing leather and riding motorbikes.

In one amusing episode set in the Groucho Club, Fry bumps into an angry, swearing Manchurian who turns up to be Oasis’s Liam Gallagher,  in another he befriends Damon Albarn from Blur at the Club bar, whom he finds most charming.  He seems to know, bump into or meet every single interesting person living in England at the time.

Fry writes about his cocaine use,  with both embarrassment – part of a habit of his of forever apologising for being rich and successful – and with an undercurrent (I am sorry to say) of boastfulness.

And while he professes that the details of his cocaine habit should not be seen as an encouragement to others, when you throw in all the celebrity parties, dinners, film premiers in Leicester Square, hobnobbing with the rich and famous amid all the endless line snorting (and prodigious sums of money spend on it) its hard to see his habit as anything other than part and parcel of being rich, famous and successful. Which no doubt it was back then, and still, I assume is for many in the “it” crowd.

The fascinating thing about this memoir, as with The Fry Chronicles (a lesser work which I reviewed on this blog covering his university years) is the warts-and-all account of a period of his life that despite his wild behaviour, was incredibly creative, productive and successful. Might he have achieved more if sober more often?

More Fool Me book has a strange, uneveness to it – the first part being rambling memoir that spends too much time recapping what happened in the previous book, while the second half is merely a republishing of his diary during a hectic few months when he was finishing his novel, The Hippopotamus – it really gives the reader an over-the-shoulder view of what it was like to be Stephen Fry as he soared towards becoming an English icon.

Indeed his status as a true English national treasure is sealed by a scene in the book where Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana casually pop in for tea at Fry’s country home one autumn evening.

In his customary self-effacing manner, Fry does not believe the visit will actually happen, until the royal carriage is on its way.

Then its a mad scramble to prepare tea, cakes, toast and crumpets, followed by a cozy afternoon chat with the royals which only ends when Lady Di explain that she has to get home to watch the latest episode of her favourite soap opera.

Its in scenes like this and throughout the book that Fry comes across as warm, funny, sincere and  kind – a cuddly bear of a man also capable of ingesting large amounts of coke and alcohol whilst still being able to write a word-perfect article for a major newspaper the following day.

Most impressively, he can look at himself in the mirror and be honest about what he sees.

But among all the excitement of the West End life he led then, there is also a profound sense of loneliness as he returns, home, alone – often drunk.

In that respect, it is reassuring to know that he has found a life partner – his husband Elliott – especially with the latest news that he is battling prostate cancer.

Thankfully too – as he reminds readers often in the book – he no longer has a cocaine habit.

 

 

 

 

City to country: Musings on moving house

It’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this blog. The main reason is that we moved house (packing up is a bitch).

We’ve relocated from the bland northern suburbs of Melbourne to the pretty country town of Gisborne in the Macedon Ranges, between Sunbury and Woodend (for those who know them) and on the way to the gold rush towns of Castlemaine, Bendigo and Ballarat.

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So we have made the proverbial “tree change” swapping the conveniences, but also the congestion of suburbia, for the quieter life and fresh air of the pastoral countryside.

Gisborne, it’s quiet, pretty, country town of about 12,000 people, with lovely tree-line streets, nestled in a green valley – an hour’s commute from the centre of Melbourne.

According to Wikipedia, it is named after Henry Fyshe Gisborne the first Commissioner of the district and began life as a merino sheep grazing station. There is still plenty of farming about: sheep, cows, alpacas and horses, olive groves and vineyards.

Probably the most famous thing nearby is Hanging Rock – for those of you who have read the book ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock‘ (the mysterious novel by Joan Lindsay) or seen the spooky movie, directed by Peter Weir (Witness).

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Hanging Rock in Woodend

Unfortunately we don’t have the funds yet for a grand country estate or even a rural block – we’re renting on a subdivided block – but we’re surrounded by tall trees and mountains and on a clear night the pitch black sky is peppered with an astonishing display of flickering stars.

Also, a two-minute drive in the car and you’re winding your way through a sweeping vista of valleys and green and gold mountains: it’s food for the city-wearied spirit.

On my daily train ride into work the farms and fields fly by and beyond them the undulating hillsides, stone cottages, grand Victorian homesteads, before we re-enter the sprawling ‘McMansions’ of suburbia.

It is good to be “disconnected”.

The last time we moved house was four years ago – swapping one Melbourne suburb for another.

Goodbye to stuff

Over that time we naturally accumulated a lot more things, but as we packed up our house, it did strike me – as we deposited hundreds of CDs, DVDs and books at our local charity shops – how technology had embedded itself even further into our lives.

Armed with a Netflix account, a Kindle and an iPod and/or Smartphone, who needs to hold onto these things?

Just about anything you want to watch or listen to these days can be found, streamed or stored on a device or online. I can’t remember the last time I bought a DVD (I think it was a season of Nurse Jackie or Inspector Morse) or a CD from a shop.

I still like buying actual books (there’s something nice and tactile about holding a book in your hands) but it’s hard to beat the almost instant delivery to your Kindle and the cheaper prices.

I should also remark that over the four years we lived in our Niddrie suburban house, our two local video stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy – closed down (I blogged about this in: In memorium: the suburban video store).

In the end, we only kept a small selection of books, CD and DVDs mostly for sentimental reasons or because we will use or watch them again. Also, to ensure we had something to put on our bookshelf – its still aesthetically pleasing and homely to have a lounge filled with books.

The other physical thing we have less now of is printed out photographs.

I spent a nostalgic Sunday afternoon going through my old photo albums, pulling out only a selection of photos dating back to my early childhood and encompassing my Bar Mitzvah, numerous overseas trips, four years of London life, my year in Brisbane and six years in Sydney. It was a nostalgic and sentimental afternoon: many faces I had long forgotten, or have lost touch with.

In the end a huge stack of bulky photo albums was reduced to a shoe box of photos and a small stack of CDs.

Everything else, especially the record of the last decade or so of my life, is stored on the computer in endless digital files

More recently, I took the prudent step of backing everything up in the digital “Cloud”.

The Lost Son of Philomena Lee

philomena_xlgThe story of Irish woman Philomena Lee’s search to find the long lost son she was forced to give up for American adoption in the 1950s was made into a moving 2013 Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as the journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

I loved the movie (it made me cry) and was intrigued to read Sixsmith’s 2009 book upon which it was based, which I just happened to find on display at our local library one Saturday morning.

I was not disappointed. It is a great piece of journalism and imagination, with Sixsmith piecing the sad story together and retelling it through his conversations with Philomena and all those in America who knew her son, Anthony.

Another good reason to read it, even if you have seen the film, is that it has an entirely different focus.

The movie told the story of Philomena’s search for her lost son. The book, which was orignally called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” is devoted to telling the story of the life of Philomena’s son, Anthony Lee, or as he became known in the US, Michael Hess.

His story begins, when aged just three he gets on a plane bound for Chicago and then St Louis with his ‘sister’ Mary (a young girl in the convent the Hess family adopted at the same time) for a new life in America.

He leaves behind a heartbroken Philomena, whose story Sixsmith (somewhat frustratingly) does not return to until the last 30 pages of the book. By that time almost 50 years have passed since she watched Anthony be driven away from the unwed mothers and babies home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea near Dublin.

Philomena yelled ‘Antony! Look up here! and Margaret (Mary’s mum) banged on the window. But the noise of the engine seemed to blot out their voices and neither child responded. As the car pulled away, Philomena wailed, ‘No! No! Not my baby. Don’t let them take my baby. And at that precise moment Anthony twisted in his seat and climbed up to peer through the rear windscreen.

That was in 1955.

The book begins in 2004 when Martin Sixsmith meets Philomena Lee through a mutual friend. The previous Christmas she had broken down and finally told her grown-up children they had a brother living in America.

Having agreed to help her find her son, Sixsmith plunges the reader back into repressive Ireland of the 1950s and the silence and servitude of Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena gives birth miracously to Anthony, who is a breech baby.

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Michael Hess, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee

We spend nearly four years with Philomena in the cold-hearted confines of the abbey, where she is forced by the nuns to sign away her motherly rights to her son, and where she must work long hours in the intense heat of the laundry awaiting the day when he will be ripped from her, without notice.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Hess family (whose story Sixsmith also tells in great detail) had only planned to adopt Mary, but because Anthony is her protector and because he is such an affectionate child, they decide to adopt him as well.

Sixsmith goes into great detail describing the cruel forced adoption system that existed in Ireland in the 1950s, where the government, under the complete control of the Catholic Church, allowed up to 60,000 illegitimate children to be ripped from their young mothers against their will, and given to American familes in exchange for hefty donations.

Then over the next 300-odd pages Sixsmith combines his talent as an investigative journalist with the imagination of a master novelist to tell the story of how Irish adoptee Anthony Lee became handsome Washington lawyer and powerbroker Michael Anthony Hess, who by his mid-thirties had risen to be chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful legal positions in the country, who hobnobbed with the political elite including the Reagans and the Bushes (Look him up, he has his own Wikipedia page).

Through Sixsmith’s book, we learn that Michael Hess, despite his professional success, could never come to terms with the idea that he had been abandoned by his mother (the truth, that she was forced to give him up against her will was kept from him by his adopted family and by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey).

Despite years of counselling, he suffered what I imagine is the classic abandoned child’s dilemma of believing he never deserved the success, love and happiness that came his way because even his own mother had not wanted to keep him.

Amid the trials and tribulations of his young adult life, Michael Hess decides to visit Ireland in 1977 in the hope of finding out who his mother was and possibly even meeting her. But after what turned out to be a fruitless and frustrating visit, Sixsmith writes that Michael Hess turned to “hopelessness and self-loathing”.

Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan’s rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life’s tempests.

The story of Michael Hess – as told by Sixsmith – is of epic highs and sinking lows. Sixsmith paints a picture of a man who was both brilliant, funny, charming, warm and tender, but who could come spectacularly off the rails and descend into heavy drinking and promiscuity. By day he was involved in shaping the crucial redistricting laws that would change the course of political power in the future, but by night he often cruising gay bars for casual sex.

Sadly for Michael Hess, his bouts of wild sex with strange men would prove his downfall; coinciding with emergence of the AIDS epidemic in America and the reluctance of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan to do anything to address what was then considered a gay man’s disease.

In another ironic twist, Michael Hess’s quest for acceptance and success in America led him to serve a political party, which, delayed the start of medical research, which might have saved his life.

While the book proved controversial (aspects of it have been discounted by those close to Michael Hess) if you take it at face value its a wonderful retelling and re-imagining of Michael Hess’s life by Martin Sixsmith, and a fitting tribute to the son that Philomena Lee so tragically never got to see again.

Philomena-Lee

Philomena Lee

However, it seems an injustice that so few pages of the book were devoted to Philomena’s story, a formidable and brave woman.

I suspect this is partly due to the fact that she lived a mostly unremarkable life after she left the abbey – marriage, children, domesticity – especially in comparison to the amazing life her son Anthony lived in America.

In that sense it is pleasing to think that a Hollywood movie has shined the spotlight so brightly on her again, and it seems, turned her into an important figurehead for all the women in Ireland, who had their children ripped from them so cruelly.

And while Philomena Lee was horribly robbed of the chance to know her son as the brilliant man he became because of a merciless system, there must be some comfort for her in his life coming alive so vividly in the pages of Sixsmith’s enthralling book.

 

 

Reasons to watch ’13 Reason Why’

13 reasons whyLike many people, I watched the Netflix teen suicide drama ‘13 Reasons Why’.

For those who have not seen it, its the story about attractive high school student Hannah Baker who decides to kill herself after series of horrendous personal events convinces her that her life is not worth living.

But before she kills herself, Hannah makes a series of audio tapes detailing all the reasons for her forthcoming suicide and, implicating all the people in her life that drove her there.

The series has garnered a huge amount of controversy and outrage – mostly from parents and teachers – because of its subject matter and graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide, as well as two brutal and graphic rape scenes.

Among the claims made often about the show is that it is a virtual manual for how to top yourself and that it depicts suicide as some kind of triumphant payback.

Television critics though have hailed the show as groundbreaking and one of the best shows yet to come from the Netflix production stable.

But the uproar has seen the TV series banned in some schools in the US and Canada, the book upon which the movie is based also banned, while some schools have banned kids from talking about it with their classmates (as if that is ever going to work).

In Australia, there has also been criticism of the show from mostly older people, including Daily Telegraph write Louise Roberts who thought it was a missed opportunity and should have been a show called ’13 Reasons Why Not’ where Hannah Baker chooses not to die.

“The series feeds kids a one-dimensional view: kindness can fix anyone but there was no kindness for Baker so she “got her own back” from ­­beyond the grave,” Roberts wrote.

Another critic, MammaMia’s Jessie Stephens called it at best “misguided and naive, and at worst, dangerous and irresponsible” with these types of angry responses repeated by others.

Frankly, its all a little bit ridiculous. It reminds me of those conservative people who claim listening to Rock ‘n Roll would warp young minds in the 1950s and 1960s or that violent movies inspired people to commit horrendous acts. Or that watching pornography turned you into a sexual pervert.

If anything, all the adult outrage is only going to encourage more teens to want to watch the show  – and I think they should.

Why?

Well firstly, it’s a show that honestly examines life from the point of view of a modern teenager. Bullying via social media. Drug and alcohol use. Sexual promiscuity. Abusive parents. Homosexuality. And yes suicidal thoughts and depression. If anything watching 13 Reasons Why should be compulsory viewing at high schools and then used as a way to start conversations and explore these difficult, but crucial topics.

“All that drama and craziness we went through during high school seems a lot less important now, but watching 13 Reasons Why, I’m reminded of how enormous every little problem seemed at the time,” wrote Erik Kain, a contributor to Forbes.com

Secondly, 13 Reasons Why does not, in my opinion glorify suicide in any way. In fact, the graphic nature of Hannah’s demise in the final episode is so awful – and so final – it acts more as a deterrent to someone contemplating something so drastic.  Personally, I cannot imagine how anyone could watch that horrible scene and be inspired to copy it. 

Thirdly, the show does not resort to one-dimensional charactors that you might find in other lightweight shows that deal with teenagers (a prime example being the over the top Netflix show Riverdale, based on the Archie comics). The main characters in 13 Reasons Why are complex, emotional people, trying to fathom their identities and make sense of the adult world. Take for instance the sage-like Tony Padilla, the Latino guy in his leather jacket and red Ford Mustang who despite the faux machismo is actually gay.

“In Tony, I saw a familiar struggle to reconcile gayness, machismo, and the Catholicism that is so prevalent in our culture,” wrote writer John Paul Brammer in TeenVogue.

Tony I would suggest is a strong role model. He is insightful, intelligent, kind and nurturing. He is also comfortable with his sexuality. He offers compassion in the often cruel and callous lives of emerging adults.

A fourth good reason to watch 13 Reasons Why is its depiction of adults as flawed and fallible human beings. Adults make mistakes.  They don’t understand young people or misinterpret their behaviour. They miss all the seemingly obvious signs. One of the most unfuriating characters in the show is the school counsellor Kevin Porter, a man completely out of his depth who when Hannah Baker comes to him for help, can’t seem to stop being distracted by his mobile phone.

Fifthly, it is compelling, brilliant television. Difficult to watch at times for sure but also with some sublime and beautiful moments amid all the angst. It’s also superbly acted by its young cast of future Hollywood stars. 13 Reasons Why embraces and explores big themes like friendship, trust, betrayal, and importantly, forgiveness of oneself for mistakes we make in life.

We need more shows that depict life from the point of view of the teenage mind. Growing up is complex, painful and bewildering.