Film No 22 (2015) : Amazing Grace

Amazing GraceDue to the vagaries of the English education system, I actually didn’t study History beyond the age of 14. Up until that point, we had ‘done’ Mesopotamia, Iron Age man, Henry VIII, The Industrial Revolution and WW2. As you can see, there are some fairly significant gaps in my historical insight: I’m not sure if I should really admit in public that I do attempt to shore up my pitiful knowledge by watching films such as ‘Amazing Grace‘.

This 2006 production, directed by Michael Apted, tells the story of William Wilberforce, the 18th Century parliamentarian who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. ‘Wilber’ is played by Ioan Gruffudd, supported by an impressive British cast including Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney  and Rufus Sewell. Romola Garai plays Wilberforce’s wife – you may recognise her as ‘Sugar’ from the TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White.

The passage of Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade was not a smooth one, as the interests of merchants were not best served by the prevention of slave trading, particularly in coastal port towns. Despite first-hand accounts of the cruelty of the trade, from both former slaves and sailors, together with petitions and the input of anti-slavery activists, there was still opposition to the Bill. It was not until 1792 that Parliament passed a Bill calling for ‘gradual abolition’.

Incidentally, the film takes its name from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ which was penned by John Newton and published in 1779. Newton was himself the captain of a slave ship and although he continued to invest in the trade after his retirement, he did eventually denounce the inhumanity of slave trading. Wilberforce looked to Newton for spiritual guidance and also used Newton’s accounts of the slave trade to support his political campaign.

With its combination of classical actors, the great oratory and period setting, this film felt to me more like an elaborate stage production. As with most period dramas, I am always impressed by the attention to detail that goes into depicting the clothes, decor and customs of a bygone era and ‘Amazing Grace‘ was no exception.  Maybe not a stunning film, but definitely interesting and worth watching. Added to which, I also supplemented my meagre historical background, which can’t be a bad thing.

Book No 44 (2014) : The Crimson Petal and the White

Tcrimson petalackling Michel Faber’s 800-page doorstop as the 44th book out of 50 in a year, was not my wisest move. It was a bit like stopping at the 23rd mile of the London Marathon to fill my pockets with rocks.

Set in mid 1870’s London, the novel seems Dickensian but, unlike Dickens, Faber’s novel has a comparatively small cast of characters. ‘The Crimson Petal and the White‘ tells the tale of, Sugar, a prostitute. Sugar is initially hampered by her lowly upbringing and harsh beginnings, pimped by her mother. However, her fortunes appear to change when she is taken from ‘Mrs Castaway’s’ backstreet brothel by a client who adopts her as his mistress. But that is not to say that Sugar is ‘saved’ by William Rackham; she is just enslaved to him in a different way; one which, she comes to realise, compromises her freedom and her choices just as much as when she was a common street-walker. Installed in a beautiful flat with a proper bath, Sugar has to keep her wits about her in order to guarantee her place in William’s affections. As well as being Sugar’s patron, William is also juggling a flourishing perfumery business, a sick wife, a gaggle of female servants and a withdrawn child. As Mrs Rackham’s health deteriorates, Sugar makes an attempt to save her from incarceration.

The skill of the book is in the detail (the devil is always in the detail). Faber is unsentimental; his depiction of bodily functions – be they fornication, contraception, defecation, mastication or ejaculation, are stark and almost factual. It is clear that he has thoroughly researched the practicalities of life in Victorian London, which were harsh and filthy, despite the rapid advance of improvements in sanitation and technology. Whilst the outline of the novel’s plot would fit on a postcard, the intricacies of the characters’ daily lives and dilemmas form the basis of the book’s readability.

To return to my opening analogy, my experience of long-distance running is quite limited (well, non-existent actually) but there were times during the reading of this novel when I really, really wanted to give up. It was only the thought of how much time I had already invested that kept me pushing on to the tape and then I would get a second wind and feel spurred on to read a bit more. I’d say this is a winter, curl-up-by-the-fire-with-a-hot-chocolate book rather than a beach read, as it does require some concentration to really explore and appreciate the nuance and detail.

If you start it now, you might get it finished by the time the clocks go forward again! (But if you are really short of time, you could watch the adaptation on DVD, starring Romola Garai as Sugar)