The Alienist 2018–2020

I was asked to write three hundred words on a scripted TV show. This is what I wrote.

The Alienist is a thriller set in New York at the close of the nineteenth century. A time when sexism, racism, and corruption are endemic. Where poverty chafes against wealth, and someone is preying on the boys that work the streets and brothels of midtown.

The Alienist

When the mutilated corpse of a boy is found on the scaffolds of the Williamsburg Bridge, psychologist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) enlists the help of friend and illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to make drawings of the murder. Convinced it’s linked to the murder of a former patient, Kreizler uses his connection with the newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), to involve himself in the investigation, where he is joined by the first woman to work for the NYPD, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).

Using Kreizler’s psychological insights, and the latest pathology techniques, employed by detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson (Matthew Shear and Douglas Smith), the group slowly builds a profile of the killer, and set out to stop him. 

The production does a good job of recreating the squalor of the time, but does nothing to contextualise that poverty. It’s hinted at. Marcus meets single-mother Ester (Daisy Bevan) handing out leaflets for a socialist rally. But their brief affair is dealt with on a personal level, missing the chance to explore the upheavals that are intrinsic to the social changes they’re part of.

The main characters are complicated, with traumatic histories, that unfortunately rub too gently against their environment. Howard is perhaps the best example. It’s as if she’s going through the motions of being independent, a trailblazer, without the sternness of a woman battling the expectations of her class and sex.

Overall it’s a familiar set-up, in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, and while it gently challenges the morays of the time, they’re merely the backdrop to the mystery, rather than an integral part of the story.

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A thought on surviving

When I started writing this, I was thinking about “not feeling safe”. I don’t feel safe. I’ve never felt safe. There’s always been a cloud. A foreboding. A feeling something bad is about to happen. It’s a tightness in the chest. A pang in the gut. An elusive breath. Safe is a fiction. An illusion of privilege. The confidence of knowing “it’s all gonna work out”. Safe is an adjective, the rich-people adjective, for the poor-person’s verb, survive.

If we met in the wild and you were inclined to ask “how are you?” I’d instinctively reply surviving. It sounds innocuous enough, even jovial, but surviving is a contraction of the weather-beaten “surviving but not thriving”. A glib aphorism about life. A short statement of truth, that sits somewhere between drinking my own piss, and cutting off my foreskin with a pair of scissors. Life on a spectrum of discomfort. A rainbow of unease. Stepping stones that leap from mildly nauseating disgust, to agonising self-destruction.

I’ve tried pinning it down, finding that moment when my surviving began. The blue sky before the rain. But I can’t! I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t raining. When I wasn’t getting soaked. When the ground beneath my feet wasn’t a quagmire. When I didn’t have to heave through the mud. When that mud wasn’t sucking at my shoes like some non-Newtonian goop. 

I try dealing with this goop by staying busy. Develop an idea. Start a project. Learn a skill. Research a screenplay. Glue a collage. Pontificate a confession. Each new task is a brick, another sandbag against the impending floods. But the rain keeps falling. It’s always pouring. The river keeps rising against the dam. The storms that came with redundancy didn’t help. Neither did the monsoons of lockdown. And the bilging drains of unemployment, have done nothing but soil the rising floodwaters.

When you stack sandbags to protect against the flood, you pack ’em tight, and build ‘em high. If you do that for long enough, you construct a well. A pit to keep the water on the outside. It should be a place of safety. Instead it’s a place to drown. Imagine, you’re at the bottom of that well, rain beating down. Each new drop is a splash closer to the crown, a drop nearer to breaching that wall. Before you know it, you’re up to your chin in water, wishing you had gills, wondering how you’ll survive this time?

Surviving is a handicap. A way to exist in spite of the hardships. A way to keep going despite the ordeals. You survive the days. Decades of days. Hoping it will all work out. Experience tells you it won’t. How could it? All the jobs I’ve ever know are temporary, short-term, insecure. Plans for the future are a joke. When the places you’ve lived are the same. Temporary. Short-term. Insecure. Look forward. Take action. Be a man! Take a chance. It’s easy. Make a plan. But you’re trapped by the deficits that forever loom large, when every penny is temporary, short-term, insecure.

I can hear the safe proclaim “hardship is a privilege for everyone”. Struggle may be a universal, part of the human condition, but the safe misunderstand the survivor’s hardships. So much of what happens is beyond individual control. If you doubt me, think back, to the who and the how, to the time when you were taught to stand. Now take a beat, tell me, how did that prime your mind? If you listen again to the rains coming down. Do you feel it, can you hear, the showers softer sounds? Those suffering in safety, have their hardships kissed clean. Make the bold choice. Be heroic. Know that you’re seen. Life’s less traumatic when you have safety at hand. Metaphorical winches. Figurative hoists. How hard is it to escape harm’s reach? Stand up. Take your time. Get back on your feet. Now imagine again, wind back and think, remember the hole. Was it easy? Did you stack the wall high? Did water reach up to your chin? Now think about surviving with a cup not a winch. How does eight fluid ounces compare? Do you remember the feel of water flooding in, the disasters, the panic, the hardship it brings? Now tell me, I dare you, go on and try, how safe and surviving compare?

The world consumes. Everything competes. Consider the toll of surviving. The first thing you’ll notice is crippling fatigue. You’re tired, worse than tired, flat out, empty. Can you recall when cassettes were the thing, the batteries would always run out? The motor would struggle, scrape tape across metal, dragging voices to a drawl. Now imagine that drawl as a constant refrain. The effort, physical effort, it takes too exist, is that voice dragged, taxed to the hilt. This fatigue ferments doubt, self-doubt, loathing makes you think, is it possible, to do the impossible, and succeed? So you bob and you jump, doing whatever you must, to stand bipedal like a human. But it’s hard to know hope, when the lifeline’s a rope, wrapped and tangled, tight round your neck. No doubt the hemping would ease the unease, hurrying your premature fade out. But when there’s no sleep til… you’re angry, thunder angry, rain on molten rocks. A thug, scared and screaming. Scum, apoplectic with rage. Forgotten bomb, primed, left decaying. Surviving ain’t noble, it’s a life, not a lifestyle, a hardship you’re forced to endure. If survive is the action, and “not feeling safe” is the message, it’s received loud and clear on repeat.

Is any of that true? Should I reconsider? Is surviving all my own fiction? How would I know, it’s impossible to prove, it’s all just conjecture? I’m willing to try, reorder the lies, those I tell myself, me, and others. Let’s start with a truth, I think it’s a truth, I don’t know if I’m lying. Despite giving everything, the opposite of not trying, I’ve struggled to realise my ambitions. They slide out of view, only ever seen, done by other people. Is that by chance? Was I always this doomed? Shit, could this be deliberate? Does life have a plan, to convince me there’s no plan, so there’s no point in even trying? If that’s the idea, that would make safe, a massive problem? If you read that and bristle, spitting “it’s all self-pity”, skewed with “the politics of envy!” I’m sure you can see, the irony of putting, efforts and luck on the same footing? As if “strive” and “desire” aren’t what’s required, just to join the party? Does all that happen, has it been done, to obscure another lesson? Those things unsaid, the thoughts implicit, poor people “know your position!” Let that sink in, like the rains pouring in, no hoist to make a difference. Wealth cheats the odds. Softens the angles. Makes it harder for those just surviving. Cities are structured, organised to make certain, the safe are never just surviving.

Can you thrive, when the odds are stacked, actively pitched against you? You could try conforming, believing the hype, that gets spun out as normal? Work hard. Play by the rules. Take heroic actions. Get just enough money. It’s a simple idea that forces, pressures, coerces, people into a life of surviving. We end up chasing, never quite getting, the product of our efforts. Hidden in the hype, lost in small print, is the clause “it will never happen”. The idea you could win, exceed your station, would reverse the “natural order”. What if it happened, you achieved your ambitions, beating all the others. Then how could you be, the rule that proves the exception? You’re poor. Weathered the storms. Bailed yourself out. Triumphed by not drowning. Despite what the safe would have you believe, that makes you pretty effective. Multiply action, by the strings to your bow, and you should be thought of as dangerous. So why does it feel, as if you’ve been hobbled, beat before you even got started. Has your future been stolen, wasted, leveraged, so the safe can keep on winning?

Whoever builds the walls, owns the stage, writes the rules. There’s no place for nature. All culture is nurtured. Every institution. The thoughts in your head. The feelings in charge of your future. They’re all pre-owned, second-hand, passed-down, taught, by those with an interest. The story they tell is younger than the hills, but no older than the cities. People started flocking, murmuring together, to escape nature’s predators. In return for protection, cities offered people, a better way of surviving. The city spread like a virus, multiplying, mutating, dripping down the generations. They banished the night, electrified the light, until they changed what it means to be human. These days we’re running, never quite getting, how this life was crafted. As long as we need, have ambitions to feed, we’ll live out our days in their service. 

Culture’s a lie, routinely told. Somehow this is the only way of living? There’s this idea the safe toss about, as a threat, a backhanded promise? They do as they will, take as they want, else starve us of their presence? As an act of persuasion, it’s viciously glib, up there with blaming the victims. They behave like ministers, ancient mystics, magician’s pushing a mark to “want this”. All magic is a lie, a con, sleight of hand, soaked in the art of misdirection. You’re offered a focus. Pick a target, any target, one of the millions, those despicable others, you hate. And while you’re raging, protesting, attacking, the safe set about robbing you blind, corrupting your soul, remaking you in their image. It’s their life we’re living, life in their fast lane, surviving without their means. While they’re living the high life, we’re living our only life, drowning in safe waters.

The most pernicious disease survivors ever caught, is the endless treadmill of working. Ducking and diving, grafting and chasing, for the junkiest junk, money. I don’t think I’m poor because I lack ambition, not even a lack of effort. I’m poor for only one reason, I don’t have any money! How can I, can any of we, escape drowning in safe waters. What if survivors said enough is enough, took to a life beyond safe-racing? Okay, here’s a thought, a radicle idea, what if we chose a life without cities? Capitalism or communism, can take a back seat, they’re the bitterness of a past epoch. We need better ways of seeing, of surviving the dark, without parasites, leeching us poor with their cravings. If we go there, anywhere but here, perhaps we can build a better existence? I know I can’t, won’t keep going, suffering this cycle of drowning. Like it or not, I think we’re all done, I’m out. Let the safe survive without us.

This isn’t finished. I don’t suppose it’ll ever finish. But it’s all there is for now.

Against an emergency response to poverty

I agree with Adanna Shallowe that we need radical solutions to the problems of poverty in the United Kingdom, but I don’t think an “emergency response” is the answer.

The RSA

I would argue an “emergency response” allows wealth to abdicate responsibility for poverty, as if they have no part in the cause of hardship. We also need to recognise, a government engaged in hostile actions against the poorest among us, cannot be trusted to respond urgently or adequately?

The grim reality is we’re born into a very specific set of economic circumstances. A family, community, society, country, and world, with conditions that govern our progress from day one. In fact I think it goes back beyond that, nine months, minus several generations, as far as can be remembered. Those conditions, that history, define how we think and our ability to prosper.

That said, we need to remember, current levels of poverty in this country are a direct result of Tory attempts to dismantle the welfare state, while also making the poorest pay for the sins of the richest. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are paying for the greed of a banking industry that crashed the economy in 2008.

Wealth treats poor as “other”, as something to be feared and demonised, a burden to be survived. They think of us as feckless beggars. That’s why I don’t like the idea of an “emergency response”. We risk falling into a hole dug by the Tories, a bear-trap, that lets them treat the poorest as lesser citizens.

We are not victims of a natural disaster that destroyed a costal village, or flooded a delta, or swept away everything in a tidal wave. We are the product of an economic system that puts the accumulation of wealth above everything else. One that seeks to fatigue “you in every way – physically, mentally, (and) financially”.

Framing poverty as if it were some kind of natural disaster, and using an emergency response to sort it out, asks us to give cash so those who have lost everything can be helped. Charity is a short term solution, for an acute problem, and allows wealth a choice, they can choose not to give.

We need solutions that are mandatory.

I agree with Ms Shallowe, we need a universal basic income, and legislative recognition of social rights. To achieve this we have to unpick everything, repurpose trousers into a skirt while trying not to flash our arse. It’s possible but not easy. The poor of this country are not charity cases deserving of handouts. We are full citizens who should be afforded all the privileges one of the richest countries in the world has to offer.

This is a clumsy example but is the clearest way to explain. A child born into wealth gets a private education. That child will do better than someone born into a family with no money. The former has a better chance of getting a well paying job, and living a longer life, than the child who lives without the instruction manual.

I use the term instruction manual to make the point, wealth get to navigate the world they live in. The poor get no such chance. We must learn for ourselves how to survive, while all the time being told, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, as if it’s the natural way of things. It is not.

The narrative of “emergency response” should be replaced with one of equal rights. Frame poverty, not as an an economic issue, but as an abuse of our human rights. As citizens of the fifth largest economy in the world we have the right to a fulfilling life. And in this world, the right to a life means having money.

We are not poor through choice, we are poor though circumstance. Poverty is not a lack of character, it’s a lack of money. Give it to those who have none and they will use it. They will be happier, and more productive, and the world will be better for it.

Tories are deaf to anything but their own voices

Robert Booth reports in The Guardian, “United Nations poverty expert has compared Conservative welfare policies to the creation of 19th-century workhouses”.

I wanted to write something angry about this government, at the way they have so wilfully and aggressively attacked the poor, but I don’t have the strength to list all of their many failings. I know this, their attacks on the poor are an attack on us all.

For as long as I can remember they’ve promoted an agenda of individualism, while absolutely refusing to see how we individuals interact with all of the other individuals around us.

They can’t see and don’t care, not everyone was created in their image.

Take social care. When you reduce spending on social care, old people who end up in hospital will stay longer. They can’t go home if they don’t have the right kind, any kind, of care waiting when they get there. Most people don’t have the privilege of a private nurse to look after them. Longer stays in hospital are one of the many reasons waiting times in accident and emergency are so long.

Consider the recent rise in knife crime. I have no problem saying it’s a direct result of Tory cuts to youth services. At risk individuals who would’ve been helped by a youth club or a social worker, have been abandoned to the care of gangs. When individuals with little or no self-respect start demanding respect on the streets, challenges are met with violence.

These youngsters aren’t getting the kind of care and support most of Tory politicians enjoyed growing up. They’re being sent the message you’re on your own, you have to survive by any means necessary, but without the wealth and self-belief you need to survive in a world of individuals, fighting other individuals for a slice of the pie.

It’s easy for the Tories to blame bad seed individuals for young people dead on the streets. They point blank refuse to see their part in the problem.

As wealth inequality rises, crime will rise, and the Tories will blame the criminals, not considering their crimes in creating a society in their image.

I know they’re deaf to anything but their own voice.

How else could they behave the way they do?

The power of the divergent species

I recently submitted one of my screenplays to a writing competition. The competition came with this statement of intent.

This initiative is aimed at reflecting the diversity of all of the UK and we encourage talent currently under-represented in TV Drama to apply – including women, disabled talent, BAME talent, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. With this in mind, please tell us about your unique voice and the diversity of thought that you will bring to the competition.

The application asked for my “diversity perspective”. I enjoy writing most when I am at the edge of my understanding, when I discover something, when a vague idea finds a form. I think that happened while writing this. I started with nothing but a cluster of notions, and writing gave that cluster a form. To be honest I’m not even sure if I answered the question. They probably only wanted a short paragraph. I ended up writing two pages of single spaced text. I submitted the following.

The question of unique voice and diversity of thought are really hard questions to answer. The pressures at play are dynamic and constantly shifting. When pitched against women, disabled, or black, Asian and ethnic minority talent, I am part of the over-represented demographic. I am white, British and heterosexual. I certainly haven’t felt the prejudices experienced by a black man, the sexism suffered by women, or the difficulties encountered by a person with disability. The thing is, I don’t feel privileged. I understand this feeling is relative. If I were forced to walk the path of a woman or a black man I would feel differently. I just don’t see myself reflected in the demographic of white heterosexual men. They have an education I never had. They have wealth I have never known. They have a sense of entitlement I have never enjoyed. In many ways they seem to me like a completely divergent species. If you pushed me to describe my background, I’d have to say it was, disadvantaged. I was born in the North East of England. My family tree is populated with a succession of miners who were poor. According to family lore, my paternal great-grandfather pushed a cart, loaded with his family and possessions, eastward across the Northumberland moors, looking for work. To escape the pits and the poverty my father joined the army. He uprooted his family, took us away from the North East, and moved us around the world for more than a decade. Despite this, and having lived in London since the late 1980’s, I still feel the weight of my North Eastern heritage. As the adage goes, you can move the boy out of the council estate, but you can’t get the council estate out of the boy. As flippant as that might sound, it holds kernel of truth. At the core of that kernel is a feeling that can only be described as doubt. The kind of doubt the divergent species seems untroubled by. He approaches the world with a confidence that comes from knowing his mistakes are temporary. Family wealth insulates him from his failures. This is perhaps one of the many reasons why those from disadvantaged backgrounds moderate their aspirations. They have no choice but to mitigate their failures or risk suffering the full consequences of their temerity. But family wealth is not just financial. In his book “Outlieres”, Malcolm Gladwell notes that wealthy parents adopt the active strategy of parenting that “foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills”. While poorer parents adopt the more passive strategy of “accomplishment by natural growth”. The key point is that wealthy parents teach their children to negotiate a world in a way poor parents don’t. The advantages of wealth, in all its forms, give the divergent species a head start. The most pressing example I can give, from my own experience, is writing. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in my early-thirties. It grew naturally from a frustration. I had worked myself into a cul-de-sac, and writing was a chance to take my career in a different direction. My family has suffered because of my temerity. We survive but do not prosper because I made the choice to risk everything and write. I have the feeling that if I were born to a wealthy family my aspiration would have been found, and nurtured. I would not have had to discover it for myself as part of “accomplishment by natural growth”. But my commitment to the craft of screenwriting is still no guarantee of success. The stories I tell still have to negotiate the institutions that favour a very specific worldview. The problem is, no matter how good my writing becomes, I do not share the divergent species worldview. In 1996 Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky about power and the media. The key exchange happens when Marr tries to push his view that the news media in this country has a “wide range of opinion” and speaks “truth to power”. Chomsky refutes the claim, instead arguing that through a programme of selection that starts in nursery school, individuals are selected for compliance, and dissenting voices are weeded out. The exchange ends with Chomsky telling Marr that if he didn’t share a very specific worldview he would never have been allowed to become a journalist at the top of his profession. “CARR-10-N” describes a worldview that is at odds with divergent species view on drugs. Drug users are routinely scapegoated as the cause of all the ills of society. Drugs are a threat to the social order. It can be stopped if we unite against this common enemy. We may have to exceed a few individual freedoms but this is a small price to pay to rid society of this scourge. I see the war on drugs as a war on a country’s population. Drugs are not about public health, it’s about public control. My unique voice, my worldview, is born from a disadvantaged background. My diversity of thought is deconstructive at its core. I have a way of thinking that is critical of, and hostile to, the power of the divergent species.

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