THE TRIP, Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon

Year: 2010 (as TV series in Britain); 2011 (edited & released as film).

Director: Michael Winterbottom

[There is now The Trip To Italy (2014), with Coogan sporting a shorter, younger-looking haircut, but I haven't seen it.]

Before and after watching this film, I was curious about other people's responses to it. It's the sort of film that highly divides viewers, not because it's extreme, but because it's anti-extreme: about relatively normal people (these particular British entertainers) doing relatively normal things (driving, dining, singing, arguing, paying a visit to parents, and being half of a couple, to say nothing of shagging strangers in the hotel*). I found the various reviews, scattered around the Internet, interesting -- mainly because I disagreed with the critical ones (and even a few of the others).

To start with, we are told by one positive reviewer that Brydon's and Coogan's are 'clashing personalities'. Well, no, not exactly. I kept remarking (it's a DVD for home consumption, after all, and Mr Brenchley and I do comment at times) on how each character was a mirror held up to each other. They didn't so much clash as be candid; they didn't abrade irritatingly so much as egg each other on, irresistably. The very friction between them was a stimulant -- to them as characters and to us as viewers.

Other Trip reviewers complained, mildly, about 'repetition'. I didn't see it. The film has themes and memorable elements, as does every relationship and the sorts of conversations one has in those relationships: again, to the extent that there was any repetitiveness, it was mirroring real life. (Ever noticed that when you get ready in the morning, you have to search among your clothes, swish water about your person, and confront the tedium of cleaning your teeth?) The film made me laugh and, when I wasn't laughing, it made me feel happily engaged. I did not for one moment think: 'allo 'allo, ain't we seen this before? Why are they in the car again?  Doing impersonations? And chatting to each other?

One professional reviewer, quite oddly, mentioned the parent-visit scene as being 'over-long' and 'awkward'. It was a short scene, a small segment of the movie. Just how short does this reviewer think it should be?  And what exactly was 'awkward' about it?  --Aside from the fact that sometimes visiting people you don't know (Brydon, as he was just a hanger-on) or have little in common with (as might be surmised in the Coogan character's case) can be slightly awkward? Strange to construe an observation of the film as a failing of the film itself.  

To me, the visiting scene conveys the fact that, nice as one's parents may be, they have fulfilled their parental function, and really experienced grown-ups don't need Mummy & Daddy any more. And Mummy & Daddy are quite happy in any case to get on with their own lives. The very fulfillment of a parent's ambition -- to raise a child to adulthood and independence -- is a kind of anti-climax and negative reward. And on the child's side, gratitude is both hard to feel ('My life is for me./As well ignore gravity.' -- Philip Larkin) and a burden to live with. Does the middle-aged man care that his (fictional) mum had to have an hour's worth of episiotomy stitches after she gave birth to him, or that he broke her favourite figurine when he was ten and clumsy, or that his father always suspected that he was really the butcher's son? Doubt it. The suffering of the parents is not negligible, and sometimes never really goes away -- but the next generation always feels 'Hey, I was worth it'. Easy for them to say. Little scenes can tell you a lot, if you're willing to pay attention. The theme of what parents are willing to give up for the sake of the child is taken up again in the question of 'What if', discussed over a meal: Would Coogan accept an Oscar if his child were a bit sick (but able to recover) in exchange for it, or would he turn down all accolades as payment for his child's constant good health? The question is raised again, in a different form, at the very end of the film. Again, this is return, not repetition.

This is a strong unHollywood and even anti-Hollywood film. It's unHollywood first and foremost because there are no Big American Names (e.g. Julia Roberts), or Big Transatlantic Names (e.g. Helena Bonham Carter, who seems to have made a career out of being deathly pale and unsmiling, with dark hair), to draw in all & sundry and to interest American viewers. It's a resolutely culturally English film -- despite the fact that Brydon is Welsh and sounds it -- and despite the American girlfriend who is more absent than present in the action. (Unless Americans are very up on English comedy shows, they will not twig many of the references, and thus they will lose out on the laughs.) It's unHollywood because it has a premise rather than a plot, and does not tell you how to feel by the end of the movie, or what exactly you should make of the whole thing. And last but not least, it's unHollywood because it is set in winter, and all the beauty of the landscapes is a wintry beauty. Which makes, for this reviewer, such a lovely and refreshing change.

P. S. As mimics, both actors were astounding, but I did think that Coogan's Woody Allen impression was the one that really nailed it.

My rating:  VERY GOOD

*Listening to the Saxondale voice-over commentary (as a DVD bonus), it's quite clear that Steve Coogan wants us all to know that despite what Tommy Saxondale looks like (fake hair, false teeth, false belly, etc.), Steve himself does actually have sex appeal. Showing him 'out of costume' and, as it were, in his own character, we are given the further suggestion that a Coogan can be a woman-magnet, while also being spared graphic detail. (Saxondale is a television comedy series that post-dates Coogan's various 'Alan Partridge' programs.)



Glitches in Stitches In Time

One of the great things about being an expert is that you don't have to look things up in the manual or the recipe book every time you want to thread the sewing machine or cook a tasty meal. Another example, shared by most people, is the ability to drive: you do it more or less automatically: you don't have to think every movement through. On the other hand, the drawback of being an expert is that you're not necessarily thinking it all through. How many of us would pass a driving test tomorrow if we didn't brush up on the protocols and standards of correct driving? The problem also for experts is that a) they sometimes don't remember or grasp what the non-expert won't understand, and b) they rely a lot on memory, and sometimes their encyclopaedic memory lets them down.

I mention all this because I've been enjoying Stitches In Time, the 2015 book by Lucy Adlington about costume history. It is a brisk read, and the author has a good succinct style that whisks you from one 'data point' to another in a remarkably smooth fashion (so to speak). It should be noted that 'costume' isn't just 'fancy dress': costume is any clothing worn at any period. What you are wearing right now is a form of costume of the early 21st century. Yes, dear reader, you are a historical actor even though you are living right now! A few times in this enjoyable survey of various parts of dress -- underwear of all kinds, dresses, suits, trousers, and so forth -- I've been brought up short by a questionable presentation that I feel only an expert such as Ms Adlington would give us. 

For instance, in the first chapter we are told: 'Children might even be sewn into their underwear over winter, purportedly to protect them from chest infections' (p. 12). One wonders what that could possibly mean. It raises a gruesome image of needles weaving in and out of flesh. Probably it simply means that underwear was sewn on tightly once the child was dressed in it, so that he or she couldn't remove it without a pair of scissors or seam-rippers. For readers unfamiliar with such a practice, it might have been helpful to state this. To an expert: an obvious fact; to a non-expert, something that had to be thought about. 

Then there is the explanation of the origin of the word 'crinoline'. Because experts know things, they sometimes don't realize what they forget and what needs checking on (this is where the editor ought to be doing his or her job). Every source I have checked, including my various dictionaries, agree that the word has two parts which both derive ultimately from Latin -- via French and Italian: 'crino' (Latin 'crinis') meaning horsehair, and 'lino' meaning flax and therefore linen. Adlington, by contrast, tells us that 'crinoline' is a 'distortion'* of French words, the second part coming from 'laine', which is French for 'wool' (p. 124). It's a completely plausible explanation, as crinoline was often made with wool in the weave, and horsehair was eventually dropped -- but plausible as it is, no one else mentions wool. The 'line' part refers to flax. So the question now is whether Adlington knows this etymology and disagrees with it, as a scholar of the subject, or whether (as seems more likely), she is such an expert that she declined to look it up, and has therefore passed on an error.

We are also told that crinoline steel cages -- the understorey infrastructure of a bell-shaped skirt -- could be collapsed by the wearer even while she was wearing it. This again is hard to imagine unless you've actually seen one. Apparently it could be removed and hung up on hooks while a lady took public transport: again, hard to imagine. For one thing, were there private crinoline-quashing booths where her under-supports could be removed? It all sounds so impractical. This is why more illustrations would have been useful, even though the book has many of them (mainly line drawings, with some black-and-white photos sprinkled throughout, and a central section of colour plates). Some things need to be seen to be really understood.

Returning to underwear, and in particular, women's knickers: we remain in the dark after reading this chapter about what women's 'split drawers' were actually meant to do. After much mention of 'prudery', we never do come to learn how women with gussetless and indeed wide-open underpants actually dealt with the facts of a woman's existence. Presumably -- though this is not suggested by the author -- women used disposable wads or even something resembling a gusseted thong, which they wore between the drawers and replaced on a daily basis. But that's just supposition to account for the obvious fact that drawers without a contact point in the middle don't actually seem to protect anything. Perhaps the drawers were meant to be a further barrier to the basic central fabric that really did the business -- to hide in yet more layers the brutish facts of human biology. But then you would expect that the drawers, in performing this function, if they did it at all well, would sometimes have caught stains themselves. Which, apart from their basic and intimate nature, explains why so few drawers have come down to us. 

Onward with my reading!

*'Distortion' is a word that Adlington uses often for terms that I would instead call an anglicization, as with Spanish 'veruga' transformed into 'farthingale', an Elizabeth hooped skirt.  

Summer reading... about arsenic

The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel (W. W. Norton, 2014)

This is a fascinating, unusual and original sort of book, poking as it does into little-searched corners of British social and scientific history, in a suspenseful exploration of an 1833 real-life poison murder mystery. Sandra Hempel has chosen to present both the story of that particular case and the more general tale of forensic toxicology in its infancy, beginning the book with the former and then pulling back into a survey of the state of science and of social mores from the mid-1700s into the Victorian era. (Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, and occasionally Hempel looks beyond the 1833 case to give us a sense of where science was going, and to put the science of the time in context.) Hempel shifts often, chapter by chapter, between the dramatic events at the house of the richest man in Plumstead, Kent, and the lives and scientific concerns — and frustrations — of the men obliged to investigate those events and to bring, if they could, a murderer to justice. 

There are many benefits to giving the material this sort of treatment, which is a bit like looking at a bird through binoculars and then putting them down to scan the tree it’s in and the forest beyond. The reader gets a strong sense of place and time, the limitations that scientists were labouring under, the sometimes irrational assumptions of the period, the frightening prevalence of disease and the ignorance of doctors about it, and the character of life in this largely pre-industrial world. Players that would otherwise be simply names come alive as people — who, unlike us, did not have the advantage of hindsight. 

The downside of this shifting, back-and-forth focus is that it risks derailing the narrative drive: instead of finding out more about what the inquest found, we have to hold our horses while we learn about diseases that mimicked arsenic poisoning, methods of testing for arsenic in large quantities (arsenic is naturally present in the ground, in spring water, in food, and in our own bodies), and the careers of the various medical men and chemists involved one way or another in toxicology. Perhaps certain details could have been omitted — do we really need to know the names of a chemist’s two daughters, who don’t figure in the story at all? — and perhaps some of the scene-setting could, ever so slightly, have been streamlined. It only takes a little bout of impatience for a reader to be tempted to criticize the approach to the whole project, which is what many reviewers on Goodreads have done. But I think the approach is a sound one, and the book overall is certainly worth the time of anyone even remotely interested in the subject of toxins, criminal law, and advances in early science. In the end, the right proportion of energy spent looking at the broader scene instead of directly through the binos is a matter of personal preference. I might have done one or two things differently, but I highly recommend the book.

[A quibble: At location 1833 in my Kindle edition, we are told that one of the women had detachable pockets — that a pocket was a small cloth bag used by those that couldn’t afford a leather purse. Hempel comments that a leather bag had ‘probably’ been seen as ‘an unnecessary extravagance’ by the woman in question. But my understanding of costume of this era makes me doubt this. Pockets initially were not sewn into clothes but were worn around the waist with a tie-string. This had nothing to do with one’s wealth: it was just how pockets were made. Even if pockets were being sewn into dresses by 1833 — and I’m not sure that they were and can’t look it up just now — it may be that an elderly lady, used to making her own clothes or having them made for her before the era of mass-production, would have kept to tie-on pockets in any case. She evidently appreciated the ability to remove them and hide them and their contents under her pillow. I suspect that a lack of extravagance had little or nothing to do with it, especially considering that they were the richest people in the village.]