Monday, February 18, 2013

Killing Crawley: The last, worst episode of Downton Abbey

Dear Reader,

Matthew Crawley is dead. Dead as Marley, deader, we're told, than Dallas, dead so thoroughly that he won't be returning to Downton Abbey for so much as a flashback. I can write this openly on American soil now without the danger of having a brick put through my window because the final episode of what is for me the final season of Downton Abbey aired last night and Matthew Crawley was uncerimoniously murdered by Julian Fellowes by way of a large green lorrie shaped cliche.

Fine. I'm a writer myself and have ended up murdering all kinds of people, animals, ideas, and dreams for the simple reason that the version of the world I'd breathed into existence required it. So be it. There is a grim primeval reality to writing a story and strength, beauty, nor inexplicable patience with weird, willowy and disagreeable women are no guarantors of survival. Truthfully, if I were the one who had scared up Matthew Crawley from the dust of the Edwardian tapestry hanging in my living room (Fellowes, not mine. I neither own nor particularly admire tapestries from that era) I might have killed him sooner - although, truthfully, Cybil would have been the first to go. Her and Branson together. In some absurd anarchic plot involving smallpox in the water supply at parliament.

Anyway, I feel free to think such callous things about the characters of Downton Abbey because apparently Mr. Fellowes doesn't mind murdering them any old way. Now I've defended Downton against smart, cool critics who sneer at the base American thirst for rich people in fancy houses doing things in a really formal way - usually these are educated upper middle class Brits who resent the toffs and don't like to see their pragmatic American cousins falling for the old Lord and Lady soft focus routine. I've said enough about that foolishness, but the point is that I forgave Downton its soap operatic grandeur in part because I don't mind a little moral soap opera, and in part because, in all true fairness, the characters were good enough to support some serious romanticism (up to and including phase 4 romanticism: Amnesia - see Finchfletchley's "A literary taxonomy").

But there are two important things to take from Matthew Crawley's death. Julian Fellowes is, apparently, bad at writing, and secondly every actor should be filled with a quaking terror.

To the first. Matthew Crawley is dead because of something that happened in real life. The actor who plays Matthew Crawley - a man, amazingly who is not named Matthew Crawley - decided that because of Downton Abbey's wild success, he had become a big screamining deal, likely to land movie roles and throb hearts like every other reasonably symmetrical British male to acquire some sight recognition. Well, I think anyone could tell you that Matthew Crawley is going to spend the rest of his life doing guest villain appearances on crime procedurals before rounding out his days with a largely ignored but criticall palatable Lear at the old Vic, but whatever. He's young, and apparently has a wife who encourages him to dream big. The conflict was insoluble. He wanted out so thoroughly, wanted to be done being Matthew Crawley and forced to do Matthew Crawley impressions and suffer through "entail" jokes at bars for the rest of his life. Fine. I get that too. So he and Fellowes agreed and decided to make Matthew so thoroughly dead that he wouldn't be coming back at all. No job in America, no "but I suddently have to spend a year in London" trope, nothing. Matthew Crawley must die.

Now, imagine you're a successful, oscar winning writer. Event beyond your control have conspired such that you must kill Matthew Crawley, a man you invtented and planned to keep alive for who knows how long, just so he could keep stiff upper lipping Mary's incessant bad attitude and causing women with bad attitudes everywhere to swoon and wonder why their man doesn't really, deeply, want them to treat their younger - surviving, and slightly unattractive - sisters with open contempt. How do you kill a man like that? What could possibly kill that kind of bullet proof rare earth chickmagnetism. Answer? Not a bullet.

No, in what now looks like a piece of very dark comedy, Fellowes sends Matthew up to Scotland, to rove the wilds of Duneagle surrounded by hounds, wild animals, guns, fishhooks, vaguely annoyed gillies, mentally unstable Lords, cliffs, sudden bouts of horrible weather, heaths, bogs, crevasses, more guns, more hounds and a light rain. Nothing. The one thing we didn't get, and frankly this would have made the episode better, is Matthew Crawley peering down the barrel of a jammed English double rifle with a devious gillie wringing his hands and admonishing the young master to see if the trigger mechanism doesn't feel a bit light to him.

Matthew Crawley not dying.

Matthew Crawley emerges from this hazardous wasteland unscathed. Now, watching this for the first time, we thought nothing of it because Matthew is immortal. Was immortal. We were not worried about Matthew. Fast forward to the end of the episode. Matthew, lost in paternal bliss drives along a bucolic English road and is hit by a truck, while Maggie Smith reminds us via voiceover that the world is a terrible place and no one should get too happy. Seriously are you seriously serious, Mr. Sir Lord Julian Fellowes would be earl of Khartoum?

Fade to the now dead Matthew Crawley, Adonis cut down in the prime of life, pooling out some very, very dark blood (the kind that lets even the least schooled viewer know this man is seriously very dead indeed) into the green sward of a lovely English country road while a befuddled lorrie driver comes over to apply direct pressure, or whatever quaint equivalent it was they were taught back then.

In short, the death of Matthew, an occasion for mourning among those of us who don't mind a soap opera based on principles and morality, is nothing more than an occasion for contempt. Julian Fellowes managed to navigate a stage littered with pruning shears, germs, guns, wild animals, personal intrigue, political upheaval and astonishing historic possibility so carefully that he was forced to kill one of his main characters with wayward truck. Which forces any reasonable soul to ask questions like, "why not wolves? Or a meteor?" Mr. Fellowes has no answers for such sensible inquiry.

Secondly, and more briefly, actors ought to fear for the lives of their characters, because apparently any old thing will do to kill a character these days. Annoy your dirctor? Whoops, a truck killed your character on the way home. Sorry. It was very sad. Clean out your locker.

If this fills actors with dread (and it should) imagine how it makes a viewer feel. Any expectation you feel towards the kind of pulp serials that constitute much of television should wither away under this. We live in uncertain times. Not even Matthew Crawley is safe.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Dynamo and the Old Man - or Wendell Berry's soft utopianism

"The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring,—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power,—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive." - The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)


Dear Reader,

Perhaps you have known the rebuke of an elderly gentleman, either complaining that you pilot your horseless carriage at unseemly velocities, or that your familiarity with members of the gentler sex is too familiar altogether, or that you ought to wear a hat when going out, or most importantly - that you don't call or write enough and live too far away from Speltsville, that burned over caldera of industrial decline where generations of your progenitors have thrust down their roots and refused to budge.

If you have, then simply be glad that this elderly felow in your life is not Wendell Berry, and has not extrapolated a vast explanatory moral and economic theory to demonstrate why your decision to move to Chicago in order to find work means that you are a soulless robot bent on the destruction of mankind. Incidentally, if you've ever gazed at the stars with wonder, or dreamed of adventure, or experienced curiosity about how to solve any problem from infant mortality to settting a land-speed record you are already up to your waist in greed, piracy, destruction and all the things Wendel Berry sort of quixotically attacks. You are a "boomer", not a "sticker", and you are ruining everything. Surprised?

Those of us fortunate enough to attend Mr. Berry's thoughtful, folksy delivery of this year's Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment of the Humanities received this rebuke of everything that has occured since (but for some reason not before) the introduction of the internal combustion engine with a mixture of agreement, bewilderment, pity and disdain. These are all useful emotions to have when attending lectures on the humanities, which ought to help us wrestle with and master them. So let's try to understand Mr. Berry aright.

It, Mr. Berry proclaims in the title of his lecture, all turns on "affection". All of it. Every last meaningful anything in our world turns on affection. Fair enough. What is affection? To answer this question, Berry turns to two contrasting examples - his father, a simple farmer/lawyer who returned from market empty handed one season because big business had made things too complicated and expensive. The villain in this story is the other example, James B. Duke, founder of Duke University, industrial tobacconist, and the man who killed small tobacco. Supposedly.

Putting aside just for a moment how many people small tobacco killed through heart disease and lung cancer, and the question of whether it's moral to kill in small, wholesome numbers instead of large industrial ones, affection is reflected in the lives of either Boomers or Stickers - those who want to leave, explore, discover, change etc. and those who are tied to and affectionate about a place, want to cultivate, sustain, etc. As Berry has it, the boomer mentality, the impulse of the boomer, the industrialist, is to dehumanize, to reduce to numbers, and distort human lives out of human dimensions. Booming, he argued, is antagonistic to everything from morality to creativity. "The boomer," he says, "is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power." The boomer is not, for instance, motivated by the desire to improve his condition, pursue industry, save lives, better society, discover, solve problems or innovate. No. He is a demon.

Thus simplified, the world begins to make more sense.

Sticking, in contrast is the virtuous life. Berry contrasts it this way: "Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it." Love. Place. Land. Material circumstance and the previous earth between our toes is not just the source of morality, but the source of creativity and our primary purpose as humans.

As someone who thinks small, local produce is better and more desireable, who believes in civic engagement, in community involvement and in caring for precious resources, I found myself rather taken aback. If the only choices are the demon industry on the one hand and the angel of pastoralism on the other, what is left?

Here are the five biggest problems with the calm, institutional ludditism of Wendell Berry:

I'm well enough convinced that the human propensity for possession, destruction, misuse, abuse and predation is mediated only by morality. Morality, whatever Marx wanted us to believe, doesn't rise up from the soil, it is transcendent - meaning that it governs our culture and isn't merely a result of arable land and domesticatable livestock. That's the first problem I have with Wendell Berry's folksy affection doctrine. Morality doesn't come from the land, but how we use the land is rather a reflection of our transcendent values. Is there value in staying put and cultivating? Absolutely. But we do that because we suppose it is good, we don't suppose it is good because we do it. If it all turns on affection then affection has to turn on moral sense first.

Secondly, Berry's soft utopianism is predicated on the very thing he disdains as evil. Every single American is the son of a boomer. His ancestors boomed to America so they could find some soil to stick to. Early American convictions about freedom, individual responsibility, reformation liberty and responsibility coupled with enlightenment rationalism led these supposed boomstickers from crowded old England to the fertile fields of Virginia where they pursued industry and built a sense of place. Their affections, in other words, were not the children of place, but the parent of it.

Third, Berry's sensibility is more than simply reverse engineering a systematic morality from an impulse to tell teenagers to turn their music down. It's intensely spoiled Americanism. America has vast expanses of land, enough for lots of lovely little farms and heck, maybe Berry is right and we could all be little farmers too and have an entirely agriculturally based economy (provided we don't need a military, public diplomacy, etc...this could all be handled by the district ombudsman who rides his horse to town once a month). Japan can't afford this lavish sensibility of deriving morality from the act of farming. So either it isn't a universal principle afterall, or it's insensibly patristic and entitled.

Fourth, what about the good boomers? If Berry is right, and all good creativity is tied to place, all booming is motivated by greed, autocracy and Ghengis Khanism, then what do we make of our military - who must deploy where they are needed. Is this way of life not just a sacrifice, but an immoral lifestyle choice? And what about Nicola Tesla? Tesla, as you'll recall, had cataleptic fits and vision of circuit diagrams. An odd affliction perhaps, but not one tied to the soil of his father's farm. On the contrary, Tesla's vision, coupled with the Westinghouse corporation, set the groundwork for the national alternating current standard that means you can plug your iPhone into an outlet in California, then fly to New York and do the same. Berry (whose turning on affection does not preclude him from travelling across state lines to deliver lectures on the evils of horizon gazing) would evidently prefer small, local inventors to come up with their own local version of providing electricity...if we're to have it at all anyway. Presumably, by the way, we wouldn't need a military if everyone would just be a sticker. But moral systems that begin with the premise that man is perfectable tend to end in slavery and oppression, not soft spoken gentleman at farmer's markets.

Fifth, how small is small? Affection, smallness, quietude, family values - I like all of these things. Berry puts them forward as governing principles, but provides no limiting principle to them. If small is good, big is bad and technology is ugly by its very impulse, then where are meant to stop? Are simple machines even moral? Never mind mechanized farming equipment, is using a hoe moral? If small family farms are the way, then how many children is too many? Should we base it on the amount of land we have? If this all hinges on affection, then we very quickly discover that affection must be informed by something transcendent to avoid becoming either meaningless or totalitarian.

Much as there is to admire in the things Berry thinks are good, its virtually impossible to derive anything from what he maintains is evil - or to put in practice the things he would have us practice. For those of us who desire local produce, who like slow food and local agriculture we can't really look to Berry for anything except a quiet folk song written to folks with similar tastes. Mr. Berry may not have noticed, but market demands for organic produce are increasing. The same for local and fresh food - but it's happening in a better way than his archaic philosophies can envision. Wegman's, for instance, is virtually the high point of all civilization and locally sources much of its produce, eggs, etc. This doesn't just turn on affection but also on profit motive - in short, that demon motive of the boomer responds to market demand.

The libertarian  would have us believe that markets are moral - essentially. Berry would have us believe in a very rough sense that the bigger a market gets the less moral it is. But humans are capable of doing anything immorally. So markets, families, land and any earthly institution can either be used well or abused. What makes the difference isn't affection.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dear Reader

If the women would like to retire now and take up a game of baccarat in the parlor, us menfolk will enjoy a quick draught of irreverent Australian port and a cigar and join you directly.

There. I believe they've gone. Now, lads, put down that copy of Times and incline an ear. Never mind what's doing in the Crimea, because I've a quick word for you single fellows meant to melt the cockles of the most frosted rose of your acquaintance. Consider this the wisdom of a married man and don't let it get lost in that rush of blood around your temples. The more dedicated sojourner here will recall how often I have described the aphrodisiacal philter that women can make of food, but consider this, me happy bachelors - this power belongs to you as well. Cook for her, my man. That's the ticket. I'll be brief.

We're making Vichysoisse. That's Vichy (like the corrupt French government of occupation) and "swaws" just like it's spelled. Or if you're a low class wise guy just call it "viscious swiss" wink and have done with the pronunciation game. Anyway, I make this for R frequently when she's had a difficult day or is uncertain what to cook. By my solemn troth, if it doesn't make a man a hero with virtually no effort at all.

As this fellow so elegantly explores, we men folk appreciate few things more than elegant and utilitarian simplicity coupled with a pocket knife. What I'm about to instruct you in is nothing less - only culinary. I'd never steer you toward a Byzantine feast that left the kitchen in ruins or kept you from your paramour for more than five minutes at a stretch. Timing is critical, lads.

You've been out for a drive in the country, or skimming the riverbanks on velocipede, or perhaps a thirsty match on the squash court, and you've now returned home and now plan to enjoy dinner with this distant and inscrutable beauty before switching on the wireless together. Very well, you've entered - cross immediately to your kitchen and pour a glass of water for the lady. Wedge of lemon, hand it to her. Done. Ask her if she'd like something more stimulating and then direct her to make herself at home while you throw a quick dinner together for you.

Very well. She's gone. Spring into action, my man. Chop up some onions (preferably leeks, but who do I suppose you are? Well...if it's leeks, remember to clean the blighters first, they trap dirt like a wombat's pouch) and then peel and chop an equal measure of potatoes. How many? Well how many do you want to eat? Don't be daft. Just chop and peel, you fool there's no time. Throw the pieces in a pot, cover it with water, salt it and turn it on high.

Throw some parchment on a cookie sheet, turn the over on to 375 farhenheit, lay out a few rashers of bacon and pop that in the oven.

Mix and bring your young lady a gin spritzer, or whatever it is she's drinking. I'm told women enjoy straight whiskey nowadays - oh brave new world that has such creatures in it. Very well, small talk, but notice, if you will how her eyes light up at the sudden aroma of onions, and the indications of industry and competency coming from the kitchen. You're nearly there, fellows.

Break off your conversation to check the water. It should be boiling nicely. Turn it down a tick and let it go for about twenty minutes. Return, this time with a drink of your own, more conversation, eye contact, perhaps another drink for the young lady. At the twenty minute mark, you're back in the kitchen, checking the bacon, switching off the burner and readying your immersion blender. You don't have an immersion blender? Lads, get one this instant. They're easy enough to acquire.

Insert the blender, and make all things smooth. Check it for salt, adjust, throw some pepper in. But this in tiny bowls and throw some crumbled bacon in on top.

You've done it. You're a genius. You've made something exquisitely refined, nice looking and tasty. You've also tricked her into eating carbohydrates, and you're getting bacon. Things are looking up. Now go and watch the fireworks from the veranda. It's all aspect, perfume and profusions of lace from here on out.

Well, the ladies are calling for teams at the baccarat table. Duty calls, gentlemen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The last word on Downton Abbey, or, "Lord Grantham: Man of Honor"

I'm told that in the delicate, narrative deprived and intensely linear lagoon of the internet it is considered polite to warn your readers when "spoilers" (plot details your reader might not have read or seen yet and which might ruin their enjoyment of a work because, as THE HEART OF DARKNESS taught my generation the journey is NOT more important than who killed whom) lie ahead. Very well then, you young moderns who petulantly switch off THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK because the dramatic tension has gone the way of the Hindenburg. There be spoilers here.

I debated making this obliquely about food. It isn't, and I shan't try to make it. Some thing are too important to be left to the critics, and Downton Abbey, obviously, is one of them.

At the outset, Dear Reader, let it be said that I am by my own admission not in a place at the moment where I can accept criticism of Downton Abbey. Give me a couple months at the very least. Nevertheless, I am in a place where criticism of Downton Abbey stirs within my breast a righteous and fourfold fury. This is either because the criticism has been so insipid, so weary, so rank with proto socialist egalitarian London class antagonism, so putrid with the stench of historical hobsnobbery and latent, spoiled, Lytton Strachey lite revisionism about the Victorians and their offspring that it demands repudiation...or, and I'll concede this is a possibility too, Downton Abbey is simply a brilliant television show which deserves no criticism in the first place.

My affection for the second option does not obviate my responsibility to vigorously rebut the first.

First, Columbia University Historian Simon Schama reminded us that Americans are possessed of a particularly thirsty brand of insipidity, obsessed with the mystery of British aristocracy and thusly we like our PBS period dramas without the brutal and depressing realities he insists make up not just the bulk, but the point of historical inquiry. Close on his heels, British poet James Fenton offers a mostly fair minded and far more sophisticated critique which recognizes the dramatic mechanics at work in Downton (the real reason for its success and popularity, mind you) but finds himself skeptical of the curiously absent sneering, drawling, idiotic upper class he thinks right and proper. P.G Wodehouse (KBE) gave us Bertie Wooster and the Drones, after all, and it is very upsetting to Fenton to find himself facing a narrative landscape where the Upper class is not corrupted and the lower class not especially virtuous. It's the underpinning of these two very British critiques that I find interesting and ultimately disagreeable.

Schama admits, finally, "But this unassuageable American craving for the British country house is bound to get on my nerves, having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs. They still knew how to put One in One’s Place."

Likewise, Fenton reminds us, "The creator of the series, the actor and writer Julian Fellowes, aka Julian Kitchener-Fellowes, aka the Conservative peer the Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, Lord of the Manor of Tattershall, aka the romantic novelist Rebecca Greville, is married to someone who—were it not for the anomaly of our laws of primogeniture—would be in line to inherit the title of the present (presumably the last) Earl Kitchener of Khartoum...But we may suspect that when the Kitchener-Felloweses sit down to dinner, this theme of injustice (the couple thwarted of any prospect of the Khartoum title) won’t go away. And if you feel from time to time that the television series is attempting to enlist your sympathy for a cause that, in your own life, might rank as a low priority (the perpetuation of a gigantic nineteenth-century house and estate)—that is indeed the case."

I'll not deny for a moment that we Americans have an interest in British aristocracy that is half interest in cultures and values and half zoological, but Americans are essentially egalitarian folk in way that Englishmen clearly are not. Class consciousness for a Briton still has the sting of inferiority, it seems, and Downton, rather than jumping the narrative shark, as Fenton puts it, appears to have offended and arrested a healing process. Britons have been self deprecating for decades and this sudden humanizing (rather than "humanizing") of the lordly class is very unsettling indeed. Here is a Lord practically crippled by his sense of duty, and a servant practically crippled by his pride in his work.

Middle class British skulls are exploding all over Europe tonight.

But I consider it very telling indeed that both the Schama's plan to set fire to history and push it out into the harbor and Fenton's refined confusion rely on what they were told during the 1960's - that the poor were virtuous and the rich were moth eaten buffoons. That both Schama and Fenton intimate some kind of conflict of interest on the part of Fellowes ends up resulting inevitably in a kind of ad hominem criticism - "well that's just what a Lord WOULD say about lords" - and not an appreciation for the much more likely reality that lords and valets were both humans with hopes, virtues and responsibilities. The kind of prejudice I keep seeing against Fellowes fuels a lot of academic inquiry these days. Shakespeare, we're told, probably didn't exist but was almost certainly gay. Very well.

The problem actually does rest with the Victorians. They brought all this on us, indirectly. When Lytton Strachey set out to write EMINENT VICTORIANS he was, in his petulant way, setting out to slay the heroes of his father's generation. It was an indecent sort of thing to write, but moreover it was unfair. The Victorians held extraordinarily high ideals and fell, inevitably short of them. It's a simple (in all senses of the word) thing to ridicule this as hypocrisy, and indeed that has become the defining narrative of Victorianism in academic and social circles. Ornament and fust, signifying nothing but a brothel and the white man's burden of the British Empire. But a more fair reading of the time period demands a recognition of high ideals and thoughtful moral consideration. These were men who aimed very high and in some places fell very short. But I don't want to dwell on the Victorians, much as I enjoy doing so. Because it is their children which interest me in considering Downton Abbey.

R reminded me during a thoughtful conversation in the HE FEASTS household that if the Victorians had spent more time with their children then a lot of the foment and irresponsibility of the Edwardian era would not have happened. Inevitably, I recalled the "Greatest" generation of the 1940's, who despite their own unequaled achievements in protecting liberty in the world and fighting for their ideals, failed to transmit their values to their children. The Victorians fell similarly short. Except for a few political analysts, war correspondents and intelligence operators in the near East, WWI took everyone in England by surprise. The Edwardian era was a dream, a comfortable playground for incipient feminism, communism, revolution, fabianism, free love, sociliasm, nudism and H.G Wells. All this innocence occured in the relatively safe squash court built by the Victorians, and it all came collapsing down in WWI, when a lot of very lost young people who hardly understood the roots of their inherited morality went and tested in a mechanized world of death and technological terror. Anyway, that's my considered opinion of the era. I'm currently working on a novel set in that time period, so I have a great deal of affection for the tumult of the time period and the uncertainty of its outcome.

I've gotten lost. Forgive me. The point is thus, and let me set it apart in bold font. I consider Downton Abbey to be more accurate than the dim and narrow opinions of bitter young Edwardians and their intellectual offspring. Why? Principally because it portrays virtue and vice equally distributed from the greatest to the least. The dramatic backbone of the series is the question of moral obligation, and not a single character is liberated from it. There's much that I could explore on this, but tempus is fugiting and time, quoth he, is verily a winged chariot.

Two threads in the plot have arrested my attention the most, chiefly because of how my peers (not of the noble variety) reacted to them. I'm talking about girls liking Branson and being disappointed (and in one case totally switching off) in Lord Grantham.

Branson and Sybil, or what kids did before Che posters: The first is Branson, that fiery Irish "revolutionary" scheaffaeaur. Branson's typical day consists of furiously reading the paper and then telling Lady Sybil she wants him. Occasionally his loud mouthed reactions to actual revolutions happening elsewhere are interrupted by work, but in general he's free to think socialist thoughts and demean Sybil for being rich and wanting him so badly. Naturally, as we all learned in high school and college, this makes a well bred and attractive young lady like Sybil want him and think he is a cool and inspiring figure.

I think Branson is a coward and a twit. He's not inspiring, he's not a revolutionary, a thinker or even an inspiring and proud man. He's a petulant and cocky idea jockey who loafs around in relatively spoiled comfort and contemplates, as Carlyle has it, "suicide in the midst of luxury." His ingratitude and unkindness are his defining qualities, and his willingness to use it as weapon to bring Cybil down to his level is annoying and peevish.

Sybil is a mixture of disdain for her birth, disinterest in the responsibilities that her birth requires of her, and a vexing, patristic attitude that working class folks have nothing and so anything she does to help is awesome. In season 1 she helped a girl find more intellectual work, which was actually great of her. In season 2, her patristic impulses led her into an essentially voyeuristic stint as a nurse which made her feel better about having money through suffering, and also positioned her to...sigh...marry that loud mouthed coward Branson.

Lord Grantham a Man of Honor: Every facet of the whole orchestrated world of Downton relies on Lord Grantham. He is the founder of dozens of livelihoods, possesses responsibilities of state, of family, business and household. And yet, Grantham is a man (as M observed nicely) whose responsibilities and labors are not precisely luxuries. In fact, they serve to alienate the man more than anything else. He is alone in his world of ultimate responsibility. During the war he is set up as a regimental figurehead - refused the chance to serve again in combat. It is a devastating blow to him. The war drives his wife into busy hospitaling, sends his children scattering, places his friend and heir in the battlefield and in danger and Lord Grantham is left manning the switchgears of the world alone, obligated and glad to ask and ensure that everyone is doing alright. He is tirelessly interested in the welfare of his world, and he makes this interest personal with each of the people who rely on him.

But... I ask you, when does anyone ask how Lord Grantham is doing? When, for that matter does someome simply say thank you, or express an interest in something Grantham is interested in? Well, once. And her name was Jane Moorsum.

Despite her surprisingly wide mouth, Jane and Grantham form a relatively innocent relationship based on this kind of "how are you doing?", "Your kid likes grammar school? Let me help" and "aren't apples awesome?" conversation that then, not surprisingly, explodes into a torrid kissing scene in the larder, followed by a tense moment in Grantham's dressing room (tastefully appointed with a dressing bed) where Grantham, horrifyingly, breaks off a passionate embrace and says, like the fallen hound he is, "I'm being unfair to you," then laciviously fends off her entreaty that she wants nothing in the world except him, expects nothing, just wants to be with him, and they part ways. He then dismisses her with great references and looks after her financially.

I mention all of this not to excuse Grantham's sin. No indeed, what he did was wrong and violated his principles as well as our hopes and expectations of the man who holds this world on his shoulders. But I have good friends (ahem, mostly women...getting to that) who have written the man off for this episode. My brother's friend refused to finish the series. He is a fallen man to them.

I want to say that no man is perfect, and what is more important than the certainty that men will fall is how they deal with their failures. Edmund in THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE remains my favorite character for this reason. Rather than being known as "king Edmund the traitor" Edmund, who has known the forgiveness of Aslan (you know...the Christ figure in Narnia? No? You just read it as a secular story...ok...cool...carry on), is known forever in Narnia as "King Edmund the just." Consider that. Edmund has known forgiveness, and thus knows justice. Mercy and justice are only magnified in a man who knows his own fallen nature and has received forgiveness. It should not shock, offend or ruin anyone's opinion of Grantham that he stumbled. The circumstances were immensely trying...but moreover, Grantham is a man of honor for how he managed the situation he created. It is unthinkable to some that a man of such evident honor would come so close to ruin. He wouldn't be the first great man to dally with a secretary after a month of late nights in the office, but he might be the first to break off mid smooch in his surprisingly comfortable dressing room and turn the ship back in the right direction without ruining anyone and protecting the reputation of a girl who could have easily ended up like the other cross class dalliance of the series (spoiler: pregnant and alone).

Grantham is a hero. The hero. To all the single ladies who see their knight unhorsed and in the mud, give up the notion that he was anything but human. To the Simon Schama's who won't be satisfied until he has syphilis and she ends up working the docks along the Thames...go...I dunno...write a book about mining conditions or the Chartist movement.

LASTLY - a narrative tribute: Why do we love Downton? Is Schama right, and we like peering at bromide visions of happy servants and benevolent lords instead of rats stealing food from the orphans of suffragettes (which is what the early 20th century was REALLY about, damn your eyes)? Or is Fenton right, and Downton is well made, slightly inaccurate propoganda? Neither, obviously.

We love Downton because it's a good story first, and we love it because it is a fascinating time and culture second. To the first, I need say little about it. Fenton observes skillfully the dramatic tensions at work, and they are linked to the cultural complexities. Observing how the whole interdependent system of Downton works, and how ripples upstairs and down affect lives upstairs and down is a fascinating exercise in seeing an organism at work. But moreover we want Anna and Bates to find happiness, Matthew to wake up and marry Mary (they get engaged at the end of Season 2 and it's lovely. Spoiler! Boom!) and we even want Lord Grantham to get the entail sorted and for Thomas to find a measure of peace in this world and stop being evil.

If critics like Simon Schama find this some vulgar American interest in country houses, then perhaps they should take a look at the last several thousand years of story telling and report back on whether kings and queens are ever featured.

Americans love aristocracy because we love values. The upper classes were meant to represent shared cultural values, and while the concept of a class of national, moral and cultural ambassadors is foreign to a nation where everyone is expected to till the soil and grow their own, the idea holds our imagination. It has nothing to do with some vulgar American obsession with inherited wealth.

To an American, British society dramas are really judged by the same measure we would gauge fantasy fiction - and separate the dross, chaff, wheat, nectar etc. Because society dramas are a much closer what if than an Orc, the fascination is all the more real. But the rules of quality are unchanging. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut.

Anyway, much as the Victorians get made fun of, the Puritans get a worse representaion in the hearts and minds of our merit society. The word "Puritan" has even been turned into "Puritanical" which, if you're just tuning in, does not mean dedicated to hard work and piety. No. It means morally hypocritical and probably interested in finding and immolating a witch.

But Americans are essentially puritans in the real sense. We admire hard work, we admire achievement and we admire virtue. Our great men started from nothing and made a new world from the unyielding rock of a hard but free existence. Walter Chrysler went from sweeping up a rail station to building the Chrysler building at the height of the depression. Our love of class society drama is really powered by the desire to understand the world we come from and to observe the complexities of hard work, duty, responsibility, achievement and immobility in a very different society with very different stakes and complex manners and requirements. In a sense, as De Tocqueville was more free to observe the American Spirit, we're more free than Schama to observe aristocratic culture without the impediment of disdain. Schama is still a culture warrior, we'd just like to know what a runcible spoon is and whether it goes on before or after the soup.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dear Reader,

"Later, Alastair would think of it as a religious experience, that is to say one that confirmed in a single moment, both delicate and rich, the yet unproven certainties of the world and of life. He sat, as men have sat for centuries, caught up in the spell of a woman who was able to prepare fish well; beguiled as surely as Merlin, where minutes swept by like summer thunder. It was a thing which confirmed his humanity, emphasized it, announced him as a being wholly separate from the creature world that had given up this delicate and flaking morsel between his lips. There was something ageless and pure about consuming a fish, more profound than eating a mammal. Fish seemed to him to be nothing more than mobile food, coursing their eager, thoughtless way through the oceans on a quest to either eat or be eaten. Even his moment of rapture encouraged this flight of fancy, that fish were ancient, static and unevolved, changeless in the primordial seas, that his distant ancestors had sat as he sat now, with a fillet of Turbot before them, flaking and browned along the smooth shoreline of its edges. It had been pan fried, in butter, rolled first in olive oil and a light dusting of searing flour, salt and pepper and it lay atop a meek and surrendering bed of leeks and the the robust landsman of a roasted potato alongside like a harbor. Across from him, Daphne smiled expectantly, uncertain of her victory, and in the moment he knew he loved her, felt the certain certainty of the thing. It was linked somehow to this flaking fish, to the innate knowledge that he was an elevated being, that they both were, that they were not part nature in quite the same way as this delicately prepared fish. He leaned forward and kissed her wolfishly."

Excerpted from Harbour Days: A Romance of the Cape, by Lionell Templeton

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dear Reader,

"In part, civilization means the confidence of never being more than a half an hour away from home made scones."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dear Reader,

John Fowles doesn't exactly say, but I think we can safely assume that the French Woman's Lieutenant enjoyed - at one time or another - chicken thighs in a white wine sauce, and green beans sauteed in black pepper and balsamic vinegar.

Anyway, I did. Thank you, R.