PARENTS, be careful what cultural biases you give your babies -- you’re probably setting the tone for years to come.
My own mum, like many Canadian parents of her time, fed my siblings and me a steady diet of English authors when we were young, starting with A.A. Milne. It’s surely her that I have to thank for my lifelong Anglophilia. And now I’ve got more company than ever, due to TV’s incredibly popular Downton Abbey.
I relish my Anglo obsession. Between Downton episodes, I’m currently listening to a very English audio book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Salman Rushdie’s compelling account of his life. It reveals how everything changed for the Bombay-born, then-London-based author after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against him for perceived insults to “Islam, the Prophet and the Quran” in his book The Satanic Verses.
Joseph Anton is beautifully read by Mumbai-born, Cambridge-educated actor Sam Dastor. Much of the fun of listening to English books, and watching English shows, is that the actors in charge are so marvellous.
No North American could hold a candle to Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess on Downton. And there’s nothing that enlivens a solitary walk better than a mystery by P.D. James or Ruth Rendell, read by an actor like Michael Jayston or Penelope Keith, whose crisp, clear voices perfectly reflect the authors’ razor-sharp intellects. Wherever you are in the real world, you watch the story play out in your mind’s eye: the high-ceilinged rooms in historic, architecturally distinctive buildings where detectives temporarily set up their on-site investigations; the dark pubs where they repair for a pint and a terse exchange about the case with their colleagues; the cozy cottages where frightened old ladies are served strong tea by tight-lipped investigating officers.
There’s a timelessness about these mystery writers that takes you blessedly out of the hideous nattering of social media and back to a world where people speak face to face and are fully present. That’s true of the BBC-TV series Sherlock, as well. Though the show is enticingly set in modern-day London, technological interruptions are kept to a minimum.
I wouldn’t know a thing about this series if it weren’t for another English treasure, writer Caitlin Moran. I asked for Moran’s two books for Christmas and have been devouring them ever since. Home-schooled, poorly dressed, eccentric and overweight as a child, Moran grew up in poverty in Wolverhampton. The eldest of eight kids, she claims that her former “psychedelic rock” drummer dad shoplifted the suit he wore to her wedding.
At 15, Moran won a young reporter contest at The Observer. The following year she parlayed her interest in music and writing into a role as a stringer for a music magazine. Now in her late 30s, she writes three columns a week for The Times of London. Her two books are How To Be a Woman, which is an amusing feminist rant about everything from high heels to an unwanted pregnancy, and Moranthology, a collection of work that includes a feature about going out on the town in Berlin with Lady Gaga.
Moran’s gift is an earthy, working-class writer’s voice that allows her to come across as a devil-may-care drinking buddy rather than an erudite Oxford-educated “toff.” Her mocking columns about Downton Abbey are hilarious, whether or not you like the show. She’s rude, raunchy, grammatically lackadaisical and completely cavalier about drugs, sex and “alternative lifestyles.” Not for everyone, her approach is nevertheless refreshing. She cuts through a lot of baloney en route to the heart of an issue -- most notably, feminism’s detractors.
According to Moran in How To Be a Woman, for example, here’s the “quick way” to figure out whether you’re a feminist. “Put your hand in your underpants. A. Do you have a vagina? B. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”
If you’re now put off, please don’t read Caitlin Moran; there’s more to offend where that came from. I’ve become a fan, however, so when I read Moran praising the brilliance of TV’s Sherlock, I found it on Netflix and tuned in.
She’s right. Benedict Cumberbatch (!), with his otherworldly face, pale blue eyes and stiff comportment, makes an extraordinary Holmes, and Martin Freeman’s warmer, frequently bemused Dr. Watson – recently returned from an army stint in Afghanistan -- is his perfect complement.
Best of all, the series is set in a complex, multi-cultural London whose ever-changing pageantry includes a Chinese circus with sinister overtones, museums brimming with art and antiquities ripe for the plucking, and a dominatrix servicing the city’s elite. That damnable contrarian Holmes never answers his cell phone, while Watson indiscreetly blogs about their adventures, and all is wonderfully wrong with the world.
Between posh country weekends at Downton, try piping hot tea with Sherlock -- it’s sure to cure what ails ye.