I Can’t Help But Be Baffled When My Husband’s Novel Comes to Life on Film | Rachel Cooke


I often feel that other human beings are essentially unknowable; don’t even our loved ones do such strange and unjustified things? But the feeling has surely never been stronger than when, at the beginning of this month, I went to the scene of The critica film based on my husband’s novel, Recall. Taking it all in – the ashes on the road, the vintage cars, the extras in their furs and brogues – an intense pride mixed with something less easily identified. One day, many years ago, the man I live with was sitting in his office, staring off into space, and now… all this?

The year is 1934. Ian McKellen plays Jimmy Erskine, veteran theater critic and sacred Fleet Street monster. Gemma Arterton is Nina Land, an actress who yearns for her approval. Watching them together was wonderful and oddly intimate; after a while, they completely dislodged from my mind the characters I had been imagining for almost a decade. But what does T think? On the train home, I tried – unsuccessfully – to interrogate him. Just as he once couldn’t tell me where these characters came from, now he couldn’t express precisely what it felt like to see them come to life. As we pulled into Finsbury Park station (it’s not all glamorous), I thought once again that I’ll never really know what’s going through his head. All I can do is be patient, encourage and, in this case, cling tightly to his sides.

Appearances deceive

Lucian Freud’s son, Alex Boyt, in front of his father’s Lucie Freud painting at the Freud Museum. Photography: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

At the Freud Museum, deep in Hampstead, a solid red-brick villa where the great psychoanalyst spent the last year of his life, I stand puzzled for a few moments in front of his famous sofa. Until January, the museum presents a small exhibition of the work of his grandson, Lucian Freud, and thanks to this, a portrait of the artist’s mother, apparently sound asleep, currently hangs above.

Like any self-respecting feminist, I have my doubts about these two men, and this depiction of Lucie Freud looking so completely at peace, her eyes closed, her hands small and floating, seems to me to be a sort of evasion on the part of the curator. A better, more honest juxtaposition would have been a meaner, more down-to-earth piece than this. But too bad. Elsewhere, it’s fun to see some of Lucian’s childhood drawings. At eight years old, his eye, later so rigorously brutal, was like yours or mine at the same age. In one, a red horse and a purple goat wander through a field of lush green tulips. Even the goat looks sweetly benign, and we all know what it symbolizes.

A woman to the end

Cardiff archaeologists piece together a skeleton found in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery during work on the HS2 rail link in Buckinghamshire.
Cardiff archaeologists piece together a skeleton found in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery during work on the HS2 rail link in Buckinghamshire. Photography: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Archaeological activists, I have read, are campaign for scientists to “rethink” the attribution of gender to human remains, a process involving careful observation of their bones. From now on, they must accept that they do not know how an individual identifies themselves, and therefore that if they opt for one gender or another, they may end up misunderstanding the ancient body in front of them.

Such thinking is completely crazy, of course, and has its basis only in ideology. Leaving aside the fact that sexing skeletal remains is a vital forensic skill – you saw silent witness, is not it ? – analyzes based on transgender are, for obvious reasons, often ahistorical. Either way, I’m changing my will. Bury me in a frilly shroud (the gender police have firm, not to say old-fashioned ideas about how women are supposed to dress) with a (non-biodegradable) tag that says “female” attached to my toe.

Rachel Cooke is an Observer reporter

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, please email it to us at [email protected]


Comments are closed.