Not great?

Jan 23rd, 2012 | By | Category: International

Sitting in a Rathmines pub, we discuss last night’s BBC dramatisation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. Favourable newspaper reviews are cited; two of us express doubt about the opinions of the television critics.

‘Faulks is a good writer’, a friend interjects, ‘but he is not a great writer’.

Having all of the work published under his own name, confessing a liking for his writing was the honest reaction. Reviewing texts from his novels prompts a pondering.

Faulks’ describes the moral reality of of our economic situation in A Week In December. In a few lines he captures the monstrous injustice of a world where the poor must pay to bail out the rich

‘What happened,’ said Roger, ‘is that investment banks and hedge funds created ever more arcane instruments which they could flog to one another in a completely false market. Because it was over the counter, in private, the regulator couldn’t see it. Then they could sell an inverted iceberg of bets on the likelihood of the original instruments defaulting. They were able to account a notional profit on the balance sheet on all this Alice-in­-Wonderland crap and so pay themselves gargantuan bonuses.’

Other conversations along the table were dying out as people began to sense drama or blood.

Veals smiled thinly. ‘I’m afraid it’s rather more complicated than that.’

‘Do you know what?’ said Roger. ‘It really isn’t. It’s a fraud as old as markets themselves. The only difference is that it’s been done on a titanic scale. At the invitation of the politicians. Behind the backs of the regulators and with the dumb connivance of the auditors. And with the fatal misunderstanding of the ratings agencies.’

‘That’s a cute story,’ said Veals. ‘But financial life is more-‘

‘No, it isn’t,’ said Roger, his voice growing louder. ‘Do you know how high a million dollars in $100 bills would come up off the table, tightly packed? I’ll tell you. Four and a half inches. And do you know how far a trillion reaches?’

‘Yes. I can work it out.’ John Veals paused only for a moment.

The whole table was now watching and listening as his fabled mental arithmetic went to work. ‘Seventy-one miles.’

‘Correct,’ said Roger. ‘That’s how much has been misappro­priated or mislaid. And all of it will have to be paid back before the world can move on. Every inch of the tightly packed seventy ­one miles. Over a period of – how long would you say? Five years? Ten? And it won’t be paid back by people like you, John, you or the bankers, because I don’t suppose you pay tax, do you?’

‘I pay what I’m legally required to pay.’

‘I think we can take that as a no,’ said Roger. ‘And the mis­demeanours of the bankers will be paid for by millions of people in the real economy losing their jobs. And in paper money, the trillion will be repaid in higher tax on people who have no responsibility for its disappearance. And the little tossers in the investment banks who’ve put away their two and three and four million in bonuses each year over ten years … They’ll hang on to it all. And they of course will be the only ones who won’t pay back a coin. which is bloody odd when you come to think of it. Because really they ought to be in prison.’

”That’s enough, Roger,’ said Amanda.

‘Why, darling?’ said Roger, sitting back in his chair, rather red in the face. ‘Is there something fundamentally wrong with that analysis?’

A good piece of populism? But it is as an incisive description of the the origins of the financial crisis as one will find anywhere.

Having spent most of my life in parish pastoral ministry, Faulks, in the space of a page, teaches more about dementia than I was taught in whole of theological training. In Human Traces a character describes the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease:

He looked up and forced himself to regroup. ‘Yes. Yes. I just have to say, while I am still able, a sort of goodbye, or at least an au revoir. Some weeks ago I … Er, I suffered a peculiar experience. I do not wish to go into it except to say that I appeared to lose my memory. I was in a police station with no recollection of how I had got there. I was not unhappy, I just did not know what was going on. I was like King Lear. “Methinks I should know you, and know this man;/ Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant/What place this is; and all the skill I have/Remembers not these garments; nor I know not/Where I did lodge last night.” Anyway, to … To cut a long story short, I have been to see various distinguished gentlemen¬at the hospital in Queen Square and it appears that I am in her early stages of some kind of senile or pre-senile dementia.

‘Rather interestingly, it has been named after Alois Alzheimer . . .

. . . He looked back to his postcard. It said: ‘Age.’

‘Yes. Age. I am rather young to have this sort of thing, though perhaps sixty does not seem so young to the children at the far end of the table. The truth is that we know very little about this illness. We know very little about anything, as a matter of fact. Never mind. It is really not important. It is just that one day I may no longer know your name, and I ask you to forgive me if I pass you in the street or on the stairs and my face does not light up with love or recognition. Please forgive me. I shall no longer be myself. I am going into a dark country and I very much wanted to say goodbye to those that I have loved before I go. . .

. . . He gazed once more down through the mist of faces until he saw the features of the woman he had loved – no longer young, but red and twisted with grief, shining with tears.

‘I have been blessed beyond what any man could hope or wish for,’ said Thomas. ‘All I ask now is somewhere safe to live. I must pull in sail and lower my sights from the horizon. I am quite content to do so because I have been so fortunate in my life. I always felt that if I had to make a speech like this I should find some Shakespearean eloquence. But it is too late and the plain words will have to do. As a doctor, I have achieved absolutely nothing. Nothing at all, though God knows I tried. But in love I have been rich. Once long ago I finished a lecture in another place by saying we should try to make our lives a hymn of thanks – or some such phrase. I do not think it was a very memorable phrase, even to someone without my difficulties. I shall do my best to follow my own advice. All I ask is for your forgiveness.’

He looked one last time down the table of anxious faces. ‘My mind may not know you,’ he said, ‘but in my heart you are remembered.’

It is a passage that can bring tears to those who have watched loved ones drift into that land of unremembering; it is an assertion of the dignity of those whose mental faculties are no more than a memory.

A profound belief in human dignity reappears in Charlotte Gray,  Faulks’ novel of the Second World War. Levade, a Catholic Jew living in Vichy France in 1942, writes in his diary:

“No child born knows the world he is entering, and at the moment of his birth he is a stranger to his parents. When he dies, many years later, there may be regrets among those left behind that they never knew him better, but he is forgotten almost as soon as he dies because there is no time for others to puzzle out his life. After a few years he will be referred to once or twice by a grandchild, then by no one at all. Unknown at the moment of birth, unknown after death. This weight of solitude! A being unknown.

And yet, if I believe in God, I am known. On the tombs of the English soldiers, the ones too fragmented to have a name, I remember that they wrote ‘Known unto God’. By this they meant that here was a man, who did once have arms and legs and a father and a mother, but they could not find all the parts of him – least of all his name.

God will know me, even as I cannot know myself. If He created me, then He has lived with me. He knows the nature of my temptations and the manner of my failing. So I am not alone. I have for my companion the creator of the world.

At the hour of my death I would wish to be ‘known unto God’.”

Maybe Faulks is not great writer, whatever that means, but there are few writers with a deeper insight into the human condition.




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  1. Ian, I’ve never read any Faulks, despite your regular references to his work. But reading this I realise I really must! Thank you.

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