Mother, She Wrote

“There’s no family uniting instinct, anyhow; it’s habit and sentiment and material convenience hold families together after adolescence. There’s always friction, conflict, unwilling concessions. Always!” Growing up in a familial household whose microclimate was marked by the extremes of hot-temperedness and bone-chilling calculation, I amassed enough empirical evidence to convince me that this observation—made by one of the characters in Ann Veronica (1909), H. G. Wells’s assault on Victorian conventions—is worth reconsidering. It is not enough to say that there is no “family uniting instinct.” What is likely the case during adolescence, rather than afterwards, is that the drive designed to keep us from destroying ourselves becomes the one that drives us away from each other. Depending on the test to which habit, sentiment and convenience are put, this might well constitute a family disuniting instinct.

Not even a mother’s inherent disposition toward her child—to which no analogous response exists in the offspring, particularly once the expediencies that appear to increase its chances of survival are being called into question—is equal to the impulse of self-preservation. I was twenty when I made that discovery; the discovery that there was no love lost between my mother and myself, or, rather, that whatever love or nurturing instinct, on her part, there had been was lost irretrievably.

Years ago, I tried to capture and let go of that moment in a work of fiction:

An early evening in late October. She stands in the dimly lit hallway, a dinner fork in her right hand, blocking the door, the path back inside. The memory of what caused the fight is erased forever by its emotional impact, its lasting consequences. The implement, picked up from the dining table during an argument (some trifle, no doubt, of a nettlesome disagreement), has not yet touched any food today.

In one variant of this recollection, she simply stands there, defending herself. She wants to end the discussion on her terms. In another version (which is the more comforting, thus probably the more distorted one) she keeps attacking with fierce stabs, brandishing the fork as if it were a sword. Was it self-control that kept her from taking the knife instead? She is right-handed, after all. 

Though never hitting its target, the fork, brandished or not, becomes indeed an effective weapon in this fight. It’s an immediate symbol, a sudden and unmistakable reminder that it is in her hands to refuse nourishment, to withhold the care she has been expected to provide for so many years, and to drive the overgrown child from the parental table—and out of the house. 

“Get out. Now!”

She is in control and knows it. She will win this, too, even though the length of the skirmish and the vehemence of the resistance are taxing her mettle. It has been taxed plenty. In this house, coexistence has always been subject to contest, as if decisions about a game of cards, a piece of furniture moved from its usual spot, or even the distribution of a single piece of pie were fundamental matters of survival. In this house, anything could be weaponized. In this house, which since the day of its conception has been a challenge to the ideals of domesticity and concord, has slowly worn down the respect and dignity of its inhabitants, and forced its dwellers into corners of seclusion, scheming and shame, it is only plaster and mortar that keeps those walled within from hurling bricks at each other. 

“I want you out of here. Now. Get out. Out.” Her terse words—intelligent missiles launched in quick succession at the climactic stage of a traumatizing blitz—penetrate instantly, successfully obliterating any doubt as to the severity of her anguish, and, second thoughts thus laid waste to, even the remotest possibility of reconciliation.

This time she really means it. She screams, screeches, and hisses, her words barely escaping her clenched teeth. It is frightening and pathetic at once, this sudden theatrical turn, an over-the-top rendition of the old generation gap standard. Yet somewhere underneath the brilliant colors of this textbook illustration of parent-child conflict and adolescent rebellion is a murky layer of something far more disquieting and unseemly—something downright oedipal.

Words, exquisitely vile, surface and come within reach but remain untransmitted, untransmissible. Addressing her in that way is a taboo too strong to be broken even in a moment of desperate savagery. Instead, the longing for revenge, for a reciprocal demonstration of the pain she, too, is capable of inflicting, will feed a thousand dreams.

Ultimately, it is fear that becomes overpowering. There is more than rage in her expression. It is manifest loathing. Two decades of motherhood have taken their toll.

At last, she slams the door. A frantic attempt to climb back inside, through the open bathroom window, fails when she, with a quick turn at the handle, erects a barrier of glass and metal.

The slippery steps leading to the front door—now away from it—feel like blocks of ice, a bitterness stinging through thin polyester dress socks. There was no time to put on shoes. This is a time to evacuate. Humiliated, cold, and terrified. Thrown out of the house.

Now, contrary to what these fictionalized recollections suggest, I’m not one to cry over spilt mother’s milk; besides, I did return home—through that door—and stayed at my parents’ house for another excruciating two years. It would have been far smarter and far more dignified to let go and move on. I had clearly outstayed my welcome. The realization came to me again the other night when I went to see the A Daughter’s a Daughter, a cool examination of what may happen to close family ties once both mother and child reach maturity. The playwright, who resorted to the pseudonymous disguise of Mary Westmacott, was none other than mystery novelist Agatha Christie.

So, I oughtn’t to have been surprised by the lack of sentiment in the portrayal of a parent-child relationship that goes sour once the expiration date has passed. Think Grey Gardens without the cats. After all, in guessing games like And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders, Christie reduced human suffering to a countdown. And when she went back to the nursery, it was mainly to borrow rhymes that provided titles for some of her most memorable imaginary murders, the ruthless precision of which was a kind of voodoo doll to me during my troubled adolescence.

Still, I was surprised by the chill of the unassuming yet memorable drama acted out by Jenny Seagrove and Honeysuckle Weeks in London’s Trafalgar Studios that December evening. I was surprised by a play—staged for the first time since its weeklong run in 1956—that was not merely unsentimental but unfolded without the apparently requisite hysterics that characterize Hollywood’s traditional approaches to the subject.

To be sure, A Daughter’s a Daughter is hardly unconventional. It is not A Daughter’s a Daughter’s a Daughter. Modest rather than modernist, controlled more than contrived, it is assured and unselfconscious, a confidence to which the apparent tautology of the title attests. Yes, a daughter’s a daughter—and just what acts of filial devotion or maternal sacrifice does that entail? How far can the umbilical bond be stretched into adulthood until someone’s going to snap?

The central characters in Christie’s play reassure anyone who got away from mother or let go of a child that, whatever anyone tells you—least of all arch conservatives who urge you to trust in family because it’s cheaper than social reform—survival must mean an embrace of change and a change of embraces.

Related writings
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople); or, There’s No Boat ‘Sailing to Byzantium’”
“Caught At Last: Some Personal Notes on The Mousetrap”
“Earwitness for the Prosecution”
“On This Day in 1890 and 1934: Agatha Christie and Mutual Are Born, Ill-conceived Partnership and Issue to Follow”

Caught At Last: Some Personal Notes on The Mousetrap

Well, we ended the year in a jam. None too comfortable in a tight squeeze, I nonetheless joined the throng on Waterloo Bridge for the customary year-end countdown and fireworks. We had just gotten out of The Mousetrap, which snapped shut for the 22957th time last night. Opening in 1952, Agatha Christie’s thriller—which started out as a radio play titled “Three Blind Mice” back in 1947—is still packing them in like red herrings in a jar at the St. Martin’s Theatre (pictured below). So, what’s the attraction?

Like most readers, I discovered Christie’s mysteries in my early teens; as a gay male, I did not feel myself represented by the average juvenile fare and was too puzzled and scared to seek out works that might hold a mirror to my androgynous if pimply visage. The impersonal killings perpetrated and neatly solved in the quaint whodunits of the late “Queen of Crime” were just the kind of rest cure my troubled mind seemed to demand.

There was something reassuring in the curlings of Hercule Poirot’s mustachios, the armchair as an intellectual retreat, the assorted young ne’er-do-goods among Christie’s long lists of suspects, as well as the less-than-physically fit busibody of that little old lady who could. It inspired me to try my brains at composing a whodunit, even though, despite numerous attempts, I only managed a revenge comedy whose German title loosely translates as “And All the Worst for the New Year.”

Nowadays, the Christie puzzlers with their lazy prose and perfunctory characterizations do no longer seem quite so satisfying to me; but, as if in gratitude for seeing me through those terrible years, I still catch up with Christie and her works from time to time, whether on television, in the theater, or on my travels. A few years ago, quite by chance, I found myself in the author’s quarters at the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul—on the anniversary of her birth, no less.

Back in December 2005, I took in a stage adaptation of And Then There Were None (briefly discussed here). And Then is one of the few works in the Christie canon that is not merely clever but genuinely unnerving.

While well oiled, The Mousetrap is rather less snappy and gripping, despite its opening in the dark to the strains of “Three Blind Mice” and a woman’s piercing scream. The rather superior Gay Lambert (as the troublesome Mrs. Boyle) aside, the current cast of The Mousetrap, which originally starred Sir Richard Attenborough (pictured here on the poster for the play), is as capable as a group of figures in a game of Clue. Little more is expected of Christie’s characters, which fall flat when they are meant to be round.

There is, of course, that queer young fellow named Christopher Wren, just the kind of chap whose welcome presence in the generally impersonal board game tableaux of Agatha Christie, told me, all those years ago, that there was a place for the likes of me in a world filled with hazards, traps, and processed cheese.

Earwitness for the Prosecution

Being that this is the anniversary of the birth of Guglielmo Marconi, a scientist widely, however mistakenly, regarded as the inventor of the wireless, I am once again lending an ear to the medium with whose plays and personalities this journal was meant to be chiefly concerned. Not that I ever abandoned the subject of audio drama or so-called old-time radio; but efforts to reflect more closely my life and experiences at home or abroad have induced me of late to turn a prominent role into what amounts at times to little more than mere cameos. Besides, “Writing for the Ear” is a course I am offering this fall at the local university; so I had better prick ’em up (my auditory organs, I mean) and come at last to that certain one of my senses.

The English lexicon amply documents the western bias against listening, generally “seen” as being secondary to sight. Compared to the commonly used “eyewitness,” for instance, the expression “earwitness” sounds rather unusual. What’s more, it is rejected by my electronic dictionary and, when typed in defiance, promptly marked as a spelling error. That is perhaps the victorious eye thumping its nose at the once superior ear, which, prior to the invention of the printing press, played a greater or at any rate more respected role in the sharing and absorption of information than it does in this our age of gossip and hearsay. If the always favored ocular proof cannot be discovered, it is the eyewitness report that carries more weight than the overheard.

I am going to refrain from channeling McLuhan, however, and concentrate instead on a notable fictional witness whose testimony was brought before an audience in the strictest sense of the word. I am referring to Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom melodrama initially conceived as a short story and subsequently adapted, albeit not by Dame Agatha herself, for US radio, whose early experiments in courtroom dramatics have been previously discussed here.

According to the Wikipedia, the “very first performance of Witness for the Prosecution was in the form of a live telecast which aired on CBS’s Lux Video Theatre on 17 September 1953. Now, this is accurate only if Witness is meant to denote Christie’s stage play, rather than her story. The latter had already been dramatized nearly four and a half years earlier. Produced by NBC’s Radio City Playhouse, it was broadcast on this day, 25 April, in 1949.

Such a hold has visual storytelling on our imagination today that it is difficult to approach this audio performance of Witness without seeing before one’s mind’s eyes the features and the legs of the legendary Marlene Dietrich (of whom I have seen quite a bit this year [see my movie lineup on the right] and to whose voice I intend to devote my next podcast). Then there is that prominent scar in the face of the titular character, more prominent still than Ms. Dietrich’s invaluable German accent. Can a sound-only adaptation without access to Dietrich’s features or voice succeed in rendering Christie’s cheeky deception?

Unlike the character of Leonard Vole, the accused, whose innocence is laid on rather too thickly by David Gothard in the Radio City Playhouse production to escape the listener’s suspicion, the mysterious woman who comes to his aid (ably portrayed by theater actress Lotte Stavisky) might just manage to pull the wool over your ears. The radio dramatization handles the challenges of duping the audience, both the listeners at home and in the fictional courtroom, remarkably well, the scar being made audible in the gasp of its beholder. Like the members of a jury, when called upon to examine accusations and protestations of innocence, the listener deals with interpretations of reality, on someone’s word taken for an otherwise unknowable “it.”

I confess, though, that, as much as I value my hearing, I frequently feel compelled to see for myself; which is why, on the anniversary of Dame Agatha’s birthday, I went up to her room at the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul last fall and had a look. There wasn’t much to see, really; not so much as an air of her presence. And, after paying the concierge who escorted us up to room 411, which the enterprising management has shrouded in a mystery of its own, I felt as if I were getting a box on the ear for not having had more sense.

Istanbul (Not Constantinople); or, There’s No Boat "Sailing to Byzantium"

Well, I have returned from a weeklong trip to Istanbul, Turkey. I did not bother to go in search of the aforementioned Rocky Jordan or look for his Café Tambourine in the Grand Bazaar, a shopping maze I, being slightly claustrophobic and averse to haggling, was glad to escape. A man like Jordan bey would probably be lost as well in present-day Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis whose population continues to grow at an environment and infrastructure challenging rate and may well have surpassed twelve million. And yet, you are not likely to encounter the populace in Sultanahmet, the old part of town, which, despite its ancient buildings and monuments, comes across as spurious—and thoroughly commercial—as an American pulp serial like A Man Named Jordan—a western reconception of Istanbul as a Disney theme park.

Walking from the Blue Mosque to the Haghia Sophia, the erstwhile site of the Byzantine Hippodrome, you will find yourself amid hordes of British, American, Australian, and German tourists. I rarely got an opportunity to pull out the Turkish phrase book I had purchased for the occasion. Nor did the dishes served at restaurants just off the Hippodrome strike me as authentic; then again, many of the menus were written in English or German, however ill spelled. You will have to cross the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu better to appreciate that foreign influences other than commercial tourism have been shaping the city for centuries.

Tourism might have been somewhat more discreet and less detrimental when the Orient Express first stopped in Istanbul, but the tracks for the seasonal invaders, many of whom flock to the cinematically commodified Topkapi (it having been on worldwide display since the 1964 movie of the same name), were already being laid during the late-19th century. One of the oldest hotels catering to western visitors is the Pera Palas, where, among other well-known personages including Mata Hari and her Hollywood impersonatrix Greta Garbo, the previously discussed whodunit writer Agatha Christie stayed during the journey that inspired her Murder on the Orient Express. On the anniversary of her birth (15 September 1890), an enterprising concierge took us up into her room, now itself shrouded in a mystery contrived, no doubt, by the operators of said establishment; but more about that another time.

I grew up among Turks who were lured to Germany by the thousands during the post-World War II economic boom known as the Wirtschaftswunder and stayed there despite much hostility and humiliation. I lived among Turks, but rarely got to interact with them. I cannot say from experience how the situation is nowadays; but until I left Germany in 1990, Turks were still regarded as little more than servants who cleaned our streets and tidied our houses, a cleanliness ascribed to German efficiency but actually owning to foreign guest workers desperate enough get their empty hands dirty for a people known for its ethnic cleansing, a supposedly reformed nation enjoying the US support that ought to have gone to Blitzkrieg-devastated ally Britain.

Apparently, Germans have not reformed altogether. After strolling around remnants of glorious Constantinople and Byzantine ruins such as the Medusa head that, lying upside down, adorns the cavernous 6th century Basilica Cistern (pictured above) or taking a ferryboat across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul, where we enjoyed lunch talking culture and politics with a descendant of the Ottoman rulers, CNN kept us up-to-date about the return of the Nazis in Germany’s local elections and gave us the jitters when the German Pope, who is supposed to visit Turkey in November, made some inflammable remarks about Islamic faith. To avoid having to explain that I spent most of my adult life in the United States and just where my present home, Wales, is on the map and in relation to England, I often found myself replying “Germany” to the often voiced query “Where are you from?”—but I could not say it either with pride or a sense of veracity.

To be sure, as today’s news reminded me, Turkey faces its own struggle to match the ideals of Western democracy, ideals rarely met anywhere but most conveniently found wanting elsewhere. Apparently, it is still deemed a criminal offence for any Turkish citizen openly to criticize the state, past or present, so that even a fictional character’s voicing of controversial remarks may get its author-creator into serious legal trouble. Turkey might be a more dangerous place than Agatha Christie or the creators of A Man Named Jordan could have dared to imagine, lest they were prepared to divest this gateway to the Orient of its fabled and profitable enchantments.

As I have always insisted writing this journal, I am not one to be carried away by bouts of nostalgia. When poet William Butler Yeats imagined “Sailing to Byzantium,” one year before Constantinople’s name was officially changed to Istanbul, he talked of visiting antiquity by reading about an illustrious golden age so that he might dwell in the “artifice of eternity.” Arriving by plane and walking in present-day Istanbul, such reveries seem out of place. What kind of place is Istanbul now? What is its place in the West as Turkey strives to join the European Union but rejects or refuses to embrace much of what strikes us as Western (money and consumerism aside)? Having caught a couple of fragmentary chapters of the country’s history, I, for one, will stay tuned . . .

Agatha Christie and Mutual: The Case of the Airlifted Detective

Well, my gray cells had little to do with it, mes amis. Once again, coming up with the facts merely required some amateur sleuthing inside the ever-widening web. Both Agatha Christie (the Dame who gave birth to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) and the Mutual Broadcasting System (the network that delivered The Lone Ranger and The Shadow) came into being on 15 September, albeit decades apart. It was in the stars that the two would team up some day, but the meeting itself proved a not altogether fortuitous one.

Christie, whose Mousetrap opened in 1952 and just won’t shut, is still the most widely known exponent of the British whodunit. Her novels, particularly those involving her two most celebrated detectives—Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot—are frequently adapted for television. Such page-to-screen transfers rarely turn out to my satisfaction. A cleverly convoluted whodunit is best enjoyed at one’s own leisure, allowing ample time for the careful consideration of clues and an occasional consultation of one’s own roster of likely suspects.

Dramatizations dictate the duration of this experience, turning the reader-detective into a mere observer of the fictional one at work. Sure, there are pause and rewind buttons to be touched if one is not pressed for time or pressured by fellow viewers; but technological gadgetry gets in the way of the pleasures derived from being absorbed in the chase for the culprit. This was hardly the only problem mystery lovers faced when Hercule Poirot was airlifted to America back in 1945.

Listeners tuning in to the premier broadcast (22 February 1945) were greeted with the following promise:

From the thrill-packed pages of Agatha Christie’s unforgettable stories of corpses, clues and crime, Mutual now brings you, complete with bowler hat and brave mustache, your favorite detective, Hercule Poirot, starring Harold Huber, in “The Case of the Careless Victim.”

The Poirot impersonated by Huber, a character actor who had screen-tested his affected French accent in Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, was far removed from the “unforgettable”—and very British—stories conceived by Christie. Indeed, this Poirot, sent overseas for a series of “American adventures,” was nothing but an impostor. And the very authority who was called upon to offer her endorsement, the famed authoress herself, acknowledged as much in her peculiar shortwaved message from London:

I feel that this is an occasion that would have appealed to Hercule Poirot. He would have done justice to the inauguration of this radio program, and he might even have made it seem something of an international event. However, as he’s heavily engaged on an investigation, about which you will hear in due course, I must, as one of his oldest friends, deputize for him. The great man has his little foibles, but really, I have the greatest affection for him. And it is a source of continuing satisfaction to me that there has been such a generous response to his appearance on my books, and I hope that his new career on the radio will make many new friends for him among a wider public.

So, who then was being washed onto America’s shores if the great detective was engaged elsewhere? As I put it in Etherized Victorians, Christie’s preface attempted at once to sanction the broadcast fraud and to distinguish such ersatz from the authentic portrait only the artist friend of the “great man” himself could render. It was a case of careless writing—but listeners to the spurious, anonymously penned misadventures that followed refused to be victimised.

Suffice it to say that the series died quickly, quietly, and largely unlamented, whereas the happily separated partners in crime—Mutual and Christie—continued their respective careers for decades to come.