The morality of George Smiley: Part 1

I am so tired. Oh, the hard life of a student. I am currently in the process of finishing off my dissertation, revising, and writing an essay on John le Carré, master of the dark spy novel, which has fuelled my inspiration for this post. I like John le Carré, and really like his work (even it is majorly depressing). Le Carré is, at least for me, a lot more entertaining than Ian Fleming, and I’ll take his George Smiley over James Bond any day (unless Bond really does look like Daniel Craig, or Idris Elba even). Fleming’s novels are so flashy, and Bond always triumphs against the multi-millionaire, evil genius who owns killer sharks, or whatever. Bond is smooth and the books detailing his escapades have a glossy appeal, but George Smiley and his adventures – if you can even call them that – will stay with me for far longer than Bond ever will.

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SPOILERS ahead for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Looking Glass War.

George Smiley has a long-lasting  appeal because of the moral ambiguity in le Carré’s novels, and the strange, unknowable mind of his protagonist. Even when Smiley isn’t the main player he shines through, captivating the attention of the reader. This is because, throughout the moral murkiness surrounding him, George Smiley stands tall as perhaps the only half-moral character, and the moral compass for the books as a whole. In The Spy Who Came in, he stays out of the Leamas affair, with Control remarking he finds the operation “distasteful”. By the end of the book we know why. After all the nastiness (there is no other word for it) that happens in The Spy Who Came in, Smiley, who had in this book been only a supporting character, comes out of the mess, the only one on the British side who is vaguely clean.

However, there is a dark side to Smiley too. For however “distasteful” he finds the work surrounding the Leamas affair, he still participates in the process, and is there when Leamas throws himself onto the other side of the Berlin Wall. He allows his feelings about his wife’s affair with Bill Haydon to cloud his judgement in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He calls for, and achieves, the abandoning of Leiser in The Looking Glass War. He’s human and he is flawed, he is not morally pure. He does not always act impeccably. But in comparison to those around him, both in the opposition and on his side, he is as morally sound as is likely to be come by.

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I like that in le Carré’s writing there is no absolute clarity of good and bad, but rather each side is as bad as the other, and no one comes out on top morally. Each side has their demons. Smiley is a constant anti-demon throughout(I won’t say angel): highly intelligent, seemingly gentle and trying to do the right thing, though sometimes circumstances conspire against him and he cannot. He is constantly underestimated, but there is a steeliness to him that is undeniable. Avery in The Looking Glass War remarks that a few hours after meeting Smiley, he begins to realises he fears him, and there is a dangerous quality to Smiley that lurks within his character, a ruthlessness that is occasionally revealed. There is also a bitterness in Smiley’s People (and, to a lesser extent The Honourable Schoolboy) that follows Smiley, but that is for a Part 2, a.k.a. when I have finished reading those books and not just skimming them for my course. 

Smiley is not perfect, but, he is appealing, and the strained situation with his wife always, if it does not make him relatable, then confirms that he is human. Smiley isn’t perfect, but  under the circumstances, and considering he is a le Carré character, he is as close as we’re going to see.

And, because I couldn’t resist, here is a picture of Daniel Craig:

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Damn. Also, Oscar Issac in the new Star Wars film?! So excited.

Marrakech in Pictures

I visited both Amsterdam and Marrakech last year, and loved them both (but for different reasons). While I loved the cool, laid-back atmosphere in the Netherlands’ capital city, the touristy Marrakech had more to offer in the way of the exploration of a different culture.

Here are some snaps of mine from Marrakech (with a couple thrown in from the surrounding areas).

Click on the pictures to enlarge.

As I said in my last post, if you’re looking for a cheap holiday this summer at somewhere a little different, I would definitely recommend Marrakech, it’s such a cool little city.

The story behind my ‘cover photo’

After a pretty heavy post last Wednesday I thought I’d do something a bit lighter and explain my ‘cover photo’ (what has Facebook done to me? I literally cannot think of anything else to call it).

Almost a year ago my sister and I travelled to Marrakech, Morocco for a week long holiday. Due to work commitments, and the little money available to students, one week was all that was available to us. The majority of the other travellers we met were on world exploration journeys, or passing through on their way to other exotic destinations. On a sidenote, many of those on long-term travels were Americans and Australians who were taking a ‘once in a lifetime journey’ as Europe and North Africa is quite a distance to travel for them. I have never appreciated the proximity to other countries offered by living in Europe more.

We went to Essaouira for a day trip to escape the heat. At 28ºC it was a welcome relief from the temperatures of Marrakech.

This was not an expensive holiday. We flew with EasyJet. We stayed in a hostel (albeit the awesome Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge). Overall, including flights, accommodation, food, two day trips and spending money we spent under £250 each. You can’t argue with that. If anyone is looking for an inexpensive break this summer to somewhere a little bit different, I recommend Marrakech. Just keep in mind the inescapable heat, with temperatures reaching 50ºC when we were there, and Ramadan in July, though we were told tourists aren’t expected to fast.

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So, the picture. It was in our room at the hostel, hanging over my sister’s bed. She wasn’t a fan, but I really liked it, which might seem odd as there’s nothing that remarkable about it. What I really liked was the facial expressions of the two kids: he looks so impressed with himself and happy about his clothes as they’re both dressed up for something fancy. She on the other hand just looks so unimpressed with him, judging him a slightly sarcastic way. I just thought it was funny and sweet, and took a picture as a memory. It has now ended up on the top of this blog.

It wasn’t my first choice as my header but it just looked better than every other photo I tried. I first went with scenic shots, but this just seemed to frame nicer and fit better, at least for me. Like the little boy I’m feeling good about the layout: feel free to sarcastically judge!

1001 Movies You Must See (Before You Die) Video

This is amazing. I just had to post this, this video is that good.

You may have seen it making the rounds of the internet recently. I was introduced to it from Roger Ebert’s website (to anyone who read my last post, you may realise that I like that website. A lot), and have been watching it over and over again. I’d recommend watching it straight. Away.

 

What I love about it is how neat and perfect it is by itself: it is so well edited, the music is suited to each scene and with only one exception the transitions are flawless (I’m thinking between Ceasers’ ‘Jerk It Out’ and Skrillex‘s ‘Bangarang’). It is a piece of art in its own right and the movies it uses – while brilliant – are not what make it so good. That is quite an achievement.

My favourite part? The Monty Python clip at the end. It would have been the perfect end clip if the perfect end clip didn’t already exist in the final scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This 10 minute movie mash-up may be the best film I have seen all month. What did you think?

Women in The Silence of the Lambs

This last week has resulted in me re-watching The Silence of the Lambs not once, but twice. I also saw a comment made that has prompted a lot of discussion amongst those who watch Hannibal and have seen The Silence of the Lambs, which states that Clarice Starling, the main character and awesome FBI-agent from TSOTL, is a ‘generic female character’.

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The double viewing and, frankly, strange comment started me thinking on a topic that is discussed quite often with regards to this film, and that is how women are portrayed in TSOTL.

Warning: Spoilers ahead, as well as some generalisations. I want to make clear now that I don’t think all men are evil, nor do I think all women’s experiences are the same; I am making generalisations. Please don’t hit me with really mean comments.

Like Alien, TSOTL is often used as an example of a film that has a strong leading female character. However, I think TSOTL is actually a better portrayal of how women live day-to-day. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and the characteristics of that role, arguably could have played a man or a woman. I like that as there are many situations where there are no differences between men and women, but Clarice Starling could only have been played by a woman, not because of what she does, but because of how others treat her.

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I will start by claiming that every time I watch TSOTL I dislike Jack Crawford a little more (which conflicts with how much I like the character in Hannibal, but I digress), because upon each viewing I notice new ways in which he underestimates Starling. When he first sends Starling to see Hannibal Lecter he doesn’t tell her his true objective of trying to get Lecter to help with the investigation, later justifying this by claiming that had she known the real purpose, Lecter would have guessed straight away. The problem here is that, firstly, he assumes that Starling would be unable to trick Lecter, that he would see right through her. Secondly, Starling already guessed. He underestimated her ability to, you know, think. When Miggs dies, Crawford says that Hannibal got him to commit suicide for his own amusement, that Lecter couldn’t have been punishing Miggs for his “rudeness” towards Starling. Towards the end of the film Crawford says he won’t forget her help and then hangs up straight away. He undermines Starling too, when he tells a Sheriff of the small town that there are matters that shouldn’t be discussed in front of a woman. It might not be that she is a woman, of course, that causes him to do these things: she isn’t a full agent when he sends her to meet Hannibal, so he may have a right to be wary of what she can do. We don’t know if Starling mentioned in her report about Hannibal’s threat on Miggs. And he might have just been busy on the plane as they were heading to the suspects house. However, his utilisation of Starling being a woman to get the trust of the police makes me wary about his motivations. Yes, he did win their trust, but it didn’t seem to bother him that she was made to look inferior just so he could.

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Other men treat Starling differently because she’s a woman. Surrounded by police in the funeral parlour after being left out of the conversation ‘unsuitable’ for women, there is an officer leering at her. She goes to get the insect checked out and is asked on a date. When she visits Lecter, Dr. Chilton hits on her (in the creepiest way. Gah, I hate him). Were she a man it is unlikely that the constant sexual attention would be so obvious, or that it would be so common. It is also an accurate portrayal: how many women could say they have never had someone staring at them in a creepy, sexual way that has made them uncomfortable.

Roger Ebert says of Clarice that she has “less self-confidence than she pretends”. As much as I don’t want to disagree with an industry great and someone so well respected, and whom I respect, I actually believe it is the opposite. There are moments with Hannibal Lecter where we see her confidence as she becomes comfortable with him, and with her friend Ardelia. Starling in fact has self-confidence, but hides it in order to appear unassuming and non-threatening. The film also demonstrates how women can use their gender to strengthen their position. After having Dr. Chilton walk her down to Lecter’s cell, to try and calm his anger at being asked not to go in, she flirts with him: “I would have been deprived the pleasure of your company Doctor”. When The Dark Knight Rises was released I remember reading some comments that Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman was essentially a bad person for screaming and pretending to be scared when she wasn’t in order to avert suspicion from herself. I don’t think this manipulation makes her a bad person necessarily; she just knows how most men think and is playing up to assumptions about women in order to get away. Starling manipulates men’s assumptions too, so do many women, and it is refreshing to see that on screen as it is not often shown.

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Finally, I would be wrong to talk about TSOTL and women, and not mention the victims of Buffalo Bill. All are women, all kidnapped and killed (bar one). The film demonstrates, maybe, the weak and vulnerable position of women – maybe a man would have been able to fight back in the van, unlike Catherine. However, even these women aren’t demonstrated as purely weak, and they are more than simply plot devices. The victims try to climb the wall, tearing off fingernails. Catherine tries to orchestrate an escape by kidnapping Bill’s dog, quite impressive when all you have to work with is a rope, a bucket and a bone. Even more impressive when you’re stuck down a hole. Bill is also drawn to his crimes because he “covets” the first victim and her sewing. Catherine’s mother, the senator, is not weak. She is strong and works hard to try and free her child, ignoring comments from Lecter about her breastfeeding. The film doesn’t even allow its victims to be worthless.

I don’t believe any of this is coincidental. I think the director, Jonathan Demme, wanted to show what it is like to be a woman as a part of the story. I think he wanted to make Jack Crawford a bit unlikeable. In his 1991 review of the film Ebert says that “rarely in a movie have I been made more aware of the subtle sexual pressures men put upon women with their eyes”. I would agree and I appreciate this about TSOTL. Alien does not have these pressures, and in that film they are not needed as Ripley is an equal to the rest of the crew. The makers of TSOTL could have decided not put in these touches as well, but it would have been a lesser film as a result. The film’s main character is a woman. It is nice to actually see some of the every day things that actually happen to women appear on screen.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

Claustrophobia and travel in Jane Eyre

“I desired more practical experience than I possessed … I shall be called discontented. I could not help it … [human beings] need action”.

Jane Eyre, Chapter 12

I have to admit that when I first read Jane Eyre I didn’t really ‘get it’ (though I didn’t realise that at the time). I really enjoyed it, but Jane would sometimes irritate me when she would say how discontent she was, how she felt so restless. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t simply happy with her situation – after a few years (and actually thinking about it) I now understand: of course she’s restless, how could she not be!

Thinking back, I should have realised straight away why Jane felt so claustrophobic. Before reading Jane Eyre, I had felt similarly trapped in my surroundings, wanting to travel. When I did read it I had travelled across the globe to Nepal, and was halfway through spending a month there, feeling a sense of freedom from being able to travel freely and explore the beautiful country. I now see this is what Jane wished for, though on a smaller scale – this was, of course an era where travelling by plane wasn’t exactly a reality. Travelling and freedom of movement was denied to her by her status, limited wealth and gender. I understand how ironic it was now – there I was, relaxing and enjoying my time exploring and yet I was unable to adequately comprehend the situation of a woman who longed for this but was unable to realise her dreams.

What caused me to finally see the light? Well, for a start I reread the book. While I enjoyed it the first time I read it, I found that revisiting the story really helped me to appreciate Jane and her situation. It may have also helped that I had returned from the wonders that were Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara and had landed straight back into my day to day life, comfortable and fun but with the claustrophobia always drawing closer. Away from the idyllic setting where I had first visited the book I was able to sympathise with Jane’s troubles. I also did a lot of growing up, and discussed the book with friends who helped me to explore her world more deeply and to think about it further.

Jane Eyre is now a book that reminds me how lucky I am. I have grown up in a world where I can travel freely, comparatively cheaply and with relative ease. My gender is not a barrier to travel – though it does still hold some restrictions on what I can do I am not stopped from journeying in my own society. Unlike Jane I am not limited by the gates of the grounds. I did not have to contemplate marrying someone when I travelled to the African continent.

I would recommend Jane Eyre as a novel: it has a strong storyline, interesting characters and is eloquently written. While Rochester irritates me sometimes the love story between him and Jane is different to most and intriguing for that. I’m not sure what else people would see in it but for me it also serves as a reminder about how the world has changed and how lucky I am. Jane is a strong person, trapped by the circumstances of the day and unable to experience freedom alone. I admire and feel pity for her. It must be suffocating to be so trapped.

Buses in Nepal

Please, don’t get too excited by the title of this post. I know, Nepali buses, thrilling stuff. Try to control yourselves.

I’ve been trying to write a different post for about three weeks now and it is just not working so I thought I’d talk about something a little bit different. And I chose buses in Nepal. Only really makes sense to me to be honest.

Two things need to be made clear at the beginning so that you can fully understand how I feel about buses in Nepal. Number one is that the first long distance bus I travelled on in this beautiful country (approx. 8 hours, Kathmandu to Chitwan) I was extremely hungover. Having gone out the night before to enjoy my last evening in the capital, I drank far too much tequila (Tequila Sunrises, tequila shots, a tequila blend drink called Yak Attack), I was feeling more than a bit fragile. The second is this: I hate heights.

If you are thinking of heading to Nepal and are planning on doing a bit of inter-city travelling while there, keep this in mind. In a country made of mountains there are terrifying drops everywhere.

The Man in Seat 61 tells me there is one train in Nepal, a small line that leads to India. Other than that there are no trains. It just isn’t possible; there are too many mountains. The roads are small and windy – again, it’s in the middle of the Himalayas. I would also recommend to anyone thinking of driving through Nepal to already be a very confident driver in what are frankly chaotic driving conditions.

Nepal - I think the only place I have been thus far that has a pool exclusively for monkeys.
Nepal – I think the only place I have been thus far that has a pool exclusively for monkeys.

These are not critiques of Nepal, just facts (the driving is crazy, that is the truth). While I do prefer to travel by train, there is something quite amazing about the inability to have a railway system because a mountain is in the way. And I love the craziness of the driving, here and in other countries I’ve visited where it’s a mad game, but I don’t think I would be brave enough to drive in Nepal, especially with those sheer drops I mentioned earlier.

So, I need to get from Kathmandu to Chitwan. I have limited options. The bus it is.

Now, imagine being severely ill (read: hanging) and terrified of heights, travelling in a bus and there is a sheer drop down your right hand side. You’re on the left hand side of the road so you’re coping just fine even if you are a bit groggy. There is an oil tanker ahead of you painted a lovely bright colour as all lorries are in Nepal. This is still good. Then your bus driver decides to overtake the oil tanker. On a blind corner. Remember that sheer drop on your right? It’s suddenly a lot closer. And then there’s a car coming the other way.

Of all the things I remember about travelling by bus in Nepal, this is one of two moments that stands out. The confidence with which everyone drives usually reassures me, but in this instant I was not happy. I can’t really remember what happened next apart from the bus driver emergency stopping and me closing my eyes. In my defence I usually don’t get scared that easily, but I really, really hate heights, and I thought we were about to plunge off the side of a mountain.  I can’t say it was my favourite part of my trip.

However, this experience didn’t put me off travelling by bus in Nepal, partly because there is no other way to travel from city to city, and I still had to go to Pokhara before heading back to Kathmandu (lovely long journeys there too).

I didn't take any pictures of the view from the bus. This is Lakeside in Pokhara. It too was extremely beautiful and this photo does not do it justice.
I didn’t take any pictures of the view from the bus. This is Lakeside in Pokhara. It was extremely beautiful and this photo does not do it justice.

I said before that I best remember two things about travelling by bus in Nepal. The first was my near-death experience (while that is written sarcastically it didn’t make it any less scary at the time). The second is also the main reason I wasn’t put off travelling by bus in Nepal despite almost falling off a mountain. Quite simply, Nepal is absolutely stunning. I have never seen views that even come close to rivalling those I saw in Nepal. As you sit on the bus, travelling through the tallest mountain range in the world, it doesn’t matter that the driving is erratic. It is so peaceful to sit and watch the beauty unfold. The views are awe-inspiring, even when hungover having been defeated by that most evil of all liquors.

I loved Nepal and am desperate to go back. I loved the people and trying to navigate the traffic. I have some great memories, and I would like to try Yak Attack again (though not the day before a 8 hour drive). But what I really need to return to see are those views again. It was breath taking.