The most violent – and most frustrating – episode ever. Why are the creators destroying the world they once carefully depicted?
Spoiler alert: this recap is published after Game of Thrones airs on HBO in the US on Sunday night and on Foxtel in Australia on Monday. Do not read unless you have watched episode five of season eight, which airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 2am and 9pm, and is repeated in Australia on Showcase on Monday at 7.30pm AEST.
‘They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath’
I don’t think I have ever been more frustrated by an episode of Game of Thrones.
There was so much that could have worked here, so many emotional pay-offs and beautifully shot scenes – and it was all let down by how little work was put into earning those moments.
In part I’d argue that this is not entirely the fault of this series. Indeed, I have enjoyed many of the individual episodes while hoping that they would somehow coalesce into a coherent whole. Instead, the seeds of destruction were sown in series seven, a meandering mess in which too much time was spent circling various plot points. This in turn created a pacing issue that has ensured that now, with the end in sight, everything feels breathless and rushed.
That was certainly the case with The Bells, which was largely (though not entirely) a triumph of spectacle over depth. Dany embraced her dark side, took note of the Targaryen motto ‘Fire and blood’ and razed King’s Landing to the ground even as the bells for surrender rang out. As a series of images it was undeniably powerful, without ever ringing entirely true.
There are many things about Dany’s transformation into the Queen of Ashes that I can buy: that she’s lost and out of her depth in Westeros, that she’s grieving and desperate and alone without the counsel of those she trusted most, that the razing of one city could be seen as a small price to pay to end the tyranny she so abhors.
The problem is that the writing has given us none of this. Instead, a series of men (Tyrion, Varys, even Jon) have pontificated about whether or not Dany is as mad as her father while the Dragon Queen herself remains silent. It’s as though coming to Westeros has stripped Dany of both agency and character development, just at the time she (and we) needed it most.
Would it have killed the writers, David Benioff and DB Weiss, to give us one scene where the girl raised on the stories of her noble older brother and mad father, who saw in the shape of her younger brother Viserys how ambition could curdle and who has faced down slave owners and raised dragons from a funeral pyre, actually considered what her raw grief and desire for destruction might give birth to?Advertisement
I don’t object to the idea that Dany – who has always had something of a messianic streak – could be more tyrant than saviour. But if that is your endpoint you have to sell it more than one small scene in which the future destroyer of a city offers her loyal general the one thing the love of his life owned, only for him to throw it in the fire.
‘Look at me … do you want to be like me?’
Game of Thrones has always prided itself on the brutal reality of its war scenes and, whatever the issues with this episode – and increasingly it felt as though Benioff and Weiss were doing little more than gleefully destroying the world they once carefully depicted – there’s no denying it worked as a visceral display.
From the early incineration of Varys to the final haunting shot of a dust-covered and bleeding Arya riding out through the charred remnants of what was once the finest city in Westeros, this episode was steeped in blood, guts and gore and determined to remind us that all the ice zombies in the world are nothing next to man’s inhumanity to man.
Yet while that was a powerful point (I particularly loved that the Golden Company turned out to be an irrelevance) there were still problems. A long time ago, Jorah told Dany that the Unsullied were incapable of behaving like the brutal men she so despised. Yet Grey Worm broke the fragile truce between the city watch, murdering a man who had surrendered, and by the end Jon’s Northern army, the Dothraki and the Unsullied were all complicit in the murder and rape that accompanied the sacking of King’s Landing.
Again, it is possible that this is part of a wider point the show’s creators are trying to make – how there is no such thing as a noble cause, how war brutalises all and how a ‘liberating’ army might commit the very atrocities it claims to hate. The trouble is it doesn’t feel as though the recent writing has earned so devastating a moment.
‘Nothing else matters, only us’
Just when I was about to despair entirely, we were treated to a scene of true power as Jaime and Cersei reconciled even as the Red Keep fell around them.
Again, the writing that got them to this point hasn’t been without issue – the decision to have Jaime and Brienne sleep together last week smacks of the worst kind of fan service, in addition to suggesting that Benioff and Weiss have no concept of the notion that men and women might be friends – but the final scene between the Lannister twins was a small masterpiece, tightly scripted and beautifully acted.
And while I might not agree with the idea that Jaime would throw his hard-earned redemption away for a woman who ordered his death, his statement that “nothing else matters, only us” rang bitterly true as did Cersei’s desperate plea to her brother to save both her and their unborn child.
It also reiterated one of the major themes of this final series: the importance of families, those you make yourself and those you are born with.
Thus Jon’s greatest strength has come from the Stark pack, even if he is seemingly doomed to become the last Targaryen, while Tyrion’s greatest weakness is the love he still bears for his – a love that means he can never walk away no matter how much he should.
Meanwhile, Arya was saved by the father/daughter bond she forged with The Hound, a bond that meant not only could he offer her a way out but that, crucially, she would listen, while Dany was undone by the destruction of her own makeshift family, the deaths of Jorah and Missandei leaving her finally, fatally unmoored.
I never tire of watching Jon Snow’s patented ‘War is hell and why am I caught up in it?’ face of great astonishment.
• Those who have yearned for Cleganebowl got their wish. I’m not one of them, but I did like Sandor’s ‘just die’ line as well as his sardonic aside about “That’s you, that’s what you’ve always been.”
• Interesting choice to double down on the ‘incest equals true love’ subplot. Not only were Jaime and Cersei positioned as the show’s great romance but it was also suggested that if only Jon had overcome his Northern queasiness and ignored the whole ‘she’s my aunt’ thing then Dany wouldn’t have had to immolate an entire city. Women eh? One minute you’re denying them a kiss, the next they’re instigating the end of the world.
• Nice to have confirmation that some of the Dothraki survived their Charge of the Light Brigade moment.
• In case anyone doubted it, The Bells gave us the proof: even one dragon is too much of an advantage if you’re prepared to wield it without remorse.
• I hope the military tacticians were pleased that the whole ‘Scorpions can’t turn around’ issue was addressed. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that makes last week’s ambush anything more than another piece of plot manipulation.
• I would quite like it if next week’s episode simply consisted of the Iron Bank of Braavos turning up to collect their debt. There must be a killing to be made in fire insurance claims.
• If anything sums up the later seasons of Game of Thrones it’s the failure to develop Euron properly. Not even his gleefully delivered final line could redeem him.
• I loved Arya’s failure to save the little girl – it was a small moment but a clever one.
• Unless they pull something very special out of the bag next week, the failure to show the scene between Arya, Sansa, Jon and Bran when they discussed Jon’s true parentage feels a huge misstep.
• We said goodbye to many old friends this week, from Qyburn and Sandor to (almost certainly) Jaime and Cersei. However it’s Varys the Spider I’ll miss most of all. Sadly underused in these last seasons, Conleth Hill’s delivery meant that even his briefest scenes were a delight.
Arguably the most violent episode of Game of Thrones yet saw the execution of Varys, the burning of an entire city to the ground including the brutal deaths of several thousand innocent citizens, the destruction of the Iron Fleet, the Golden Company and what remained of Cersei’s army, Qyburn’s casual dispatch by the Mountain who subsequently plunged to his doom with Sandor, the gory death of Euron and the probable ends of Jaime and Cersei, reunited once more at the end of the world.
Random Brit of the week
You might think that the penultimate episode of a long-running series wouldn’t be the time to introduce new characters but hello to Laura Elphinstone aka Line of Duty’s corner-cutting DI Brandyce, who popped up to give a human face to the devastation around.
So what do you think? Did you buy Dany’s transformation from breaker of chains to mad queen? How many times can Jon refuse the Iron Throne before they crown him anyway? And with one episode left, how do you think it will end? As always, all speculation and no spoilers welcome below …
Using a fat person as a punchline is cheap and lazy. So why was everyone in the cinema audience laughing except me?
WARNING: contains spoilers!
At 30 years of age I really should be used seeing how fat bodies are depicted in the media. I should be used to fat bodies being the easy go-to for depicting sad, angry characters. I should be used to the introduction of a fat body to provide some comedic relief. But here I am, the morning after seeing Avengers: Endgame, and I am still shocked, angry and hurt. I am an avid Marvel nerd and while the movie itself was brilliant in many ways, I had seriously conflicted emotions about the physical appearance of Thor.
When we see Thor at the beginning of the film he is his svelte Asgardian god self on the outside but is clearly battling some pretty heavy stuff on the inside. This is a man who has been to war. He is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his brother, to comprehend his inability to defeat Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and is losing the battle to conquer his demons. Thor has seen war, death and destruction and as a result he has PTSD. I applaud Marvel for highlighting mental illness, particularly as it relates to veterans, but it could have been treated more sensitively.
My issue lies not with Thor’s alcohol consumption or his turning to food for comfort – both are common coping mechanisms; my issue lies with his physical appearance. I thought we were finally past the days of the fat suit. I had hoped that we were past the point in history where we are allowed to poke fun at fat people. I was wrong. Because here we are in Avengers: Endgame and Thor is 30kg heavier and it seems as though everyone in the audience is laughing except me.
While you might laugh, others are sitting around you feeling like they’ve been punched in the gut
I wouldn’t be upset if he had put on weight as a result of his trauma and this was taken more seriously. Fluctuations in weight are normal, particularly when you aren’t taking care of yourself. My problem with Thor’s appearance is that he was clearly a strategic joke placed by Marvel to provide some comedic relief from the overall seriousness of the film.
Thor’s first appearance as a fat person sees him walking into the room shirtless with an extreme focus on his belly and everyone laughs. Look! Thor is fat! Fat, but still jolly, because how could a fat person not be jolly? Sitting in that movie theatre, watching the fatphobic jokes roll through at the expense of a veteran with mental health issues and listening to the subsequent laughter broke my heart.
The jokes made at the expense of the fat person were lazy stereotypes and cheap laughs that really weren’t necessary and while you might sit there and think they’re funny punchlines, others are sitting around you feeling like they’ve been punched in the gut.
The one redeeming quality is that there is no workout montage that shows Thor getting his life back together. The audience goes on a journey with Thor as he battles his inner demons and comes through the other side and I greatly appreciate the fact that this does not include him losing his weight, shaving off his beard and cutting his hair. Thor sits in his misery, grows, works through the darkest depths of his mind and comes out the other end a changed man. He is not the Prince of Asgard that we were originally introduced to, which is only right. One cannot stare death in the face, lose everyone that you love and suddenly bounce back to being the sprightly Adonis that you once were. For this I am grateful.
While I have many issues with the way Thor’s struggles were depicted, he was struggling nonetheless and this needs to be acknowledged. Avengers: Endgame highlights the emotional toll and psychological effects of war, which can be seen in all of the characters not only the one in the fat suit. So while I fully support people going to see Avengers: Endgame, I feel it’s necessary to make a trigger warning: strong themes of fat shaming and PTSD as it relates to war. So make sure to check in with each other and remember to be kind to yourself.
Lacey-Jade Christie is a freelance writer and host of the Australian body positivity podcast The Fat Collective
It mesmerised Proust, terrified Homer Simpson and gave us the Hunchback – Guardian critics celebrate Paris’s gothic masterpiece at the heart of the modern imagination. cathedral
By: Oliver Wainwright, Stuart Jeffries, Peter Bradshaw, Jonathan Jones, Fiona Maddocks, Michael Coveney and Keza MacDonald
Architecture: ‘Pugin fainted when he saw its beauty’
As Notre Dame Cathedral’s majestic spire tumbled into the inferno on Monday night, live newsreaders around the world decried the tragic loss of this 12th-century marvel. The great timber roof – nicknamed “the forest” for the thousands of trees used in its beams – was gone, the rose windows feared melted, the heart of Paris destroyed forever. What few realised in the heat of the shocking footage was that much of what was ablaze was a 19th-century fantasy. Like most buildings of this age, Notre Dame is the sum of centuries of restorations and reinventions, a muddled patchwork of myth and speculation.
Standing as a sturdy hulk on the banks of the Seine, the great stone pile has never been the most elegant or commanding of the ancient cathedrals, but it became the most famous. Begun in 1163, it was larger than any gothic church before it, employing some of the first flying buttresses to allow taller, thinner walls and larger expanses of glazing – including the spectacular rose windows that projected great cosmic wheels of colour into the luminous interior. “Where would [one] find … such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments?” asked John of Jandun, in his 1323 Treatise on the Praises of Paris. Five hundred years later, the gothic revivalist architect Augustus Puginfainted when he first encountered Notre Dame, so overwhelmed was he by its beauty.
The only solace one might take from the horrific fire is that it is merely the latest chapter in a long and violent history of destruction and repair. The cathedral was heavily damaged by rioting Huguenots in the 16th century, remodelled by successive kings and roundly plundered during the French Revolution, when the 28 statues of biblical figures on the west façade, mistaken for French kings, were ritually beheaded.
It was Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) that brought the cathedral’s plight to widespread attention, raising alarm about the “mutilations, amputations [and] dislocations” of the structure, and making gothic architecture touch the popular imagination in a way it never had before. His writing spurred on calls for a full restoration, eventually undertaken by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was just 30 when he won the commission with Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus in 1845. Over the next 25 years, he would mould Notre Dame according to his own romantic vision, adding elaborate layers of ornament and decorative statues of entirely his own invention.
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His enormous spire, made of 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of lead, was a far cry from the previous tower (removed in 1786 due to instability), modelled instead on a 19th-century spire in Orléans. Around this great flèche, he concocted a fantastical menagerie of apostles and mythical creatures – most of which appear to have been saved from the flames, having already been removed for restoration.
History hasn’t been kind to Viollet-le-Duc’s work. Victorian architect William Burges called him a “disastrous restorationist”, while Charles Hiatt’s 1902 account of the cathedral’s redecorated interior bemoaned that “the colour confuses our appreciation of the fine lines of the architecture, and it is frequently restless and irritating where it should be most reposeful”. Critic Ian Nairn passed a damning judgment on Notre Dame in the 1960s, calling it “one of the most pessimistic buildings in the world [with] no hope of change, and no glimmer of ultimate purpose,” adding that “Viollet-le-Duc’s musty and self-righteous cackle can be heard all over the building”.
Yet the echoes of this gleeful, overripe cackle are exactly what made Notre Dame so seductive to the imagination of the millions of tourists who flocked here each year – and who will no doubt continue to do so when it is rebuilt, with yet another layer of creative interpretation added to the rich historical collage. Oliver Wainwright
Literature: ‘Proust gazed at it for two hours’
In 1904, Marcel Proust wrote an article for Le Figaro whose title, The Death of Cathedrals, now takes on painful resonance. Proust, who so loved gothic ecclesiastical architecture he would inveigle his beloved chauffeur-lover Alfredo Agostinelli to light up church facades with headlamps so he could study their stones, one evening threw a fur-lined coat over his nightdress so he could spend two hours gazing at Notre Dame’s portal of Saint Anne.
The death Proust was lamenting was not so much sacrifice to flames as the insufferable consequence he inferred from a contemporary governmental plan that allowed cathedrals like Notre Dame to be converted into “museum, concert hall, or casino.” As his biographer Jean-Yves Tadié points out, though agnostic and Jewish, Proust was so fired by the passion inculcated in him for gothic architecture by John Ruskin that he couldn’t bear the thought of Catholic churches being thus repurposed. His great novel, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, revels in lapidary descriptions of churches, great and small.
Sigmund Freud, another secular Jew and contemporary of Proust’s, was similarly entranced by Notre Dame. The first time he saw it, in 1885, Freud said he had “a sensation I never had before.” Thereafter, between studying with neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at Salpêtrière Hospital, he returned to Notre Dame “every free afternoon” to be in its presence. “I have never seen anything so movingly serious and sombre,” Freud said.
But Notre Dame has an even more sombre incarnation, one that reeks of death and damnation. In 1866, Baudelaire published Les Épaves (Scraps), a collection of incidental verse including six censored poems from the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du mal, one of whose poems, Le Joueur généreux, includes the line: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Its frontispiece includes a hideous skeleton, described by British Library curator Chris Michaelides as “symbolising the tree of good and evil, in whose feet grow flowers representing the seven deadly sins. Angels and cherubs are flying high above around a medallion of the poet carried away by a chimera.”
The artist of that frontispiece, Félicien Rops, perhaps inspired by Baudelaire, made that devil’s existence sickeningly plain in his 1882 image Satan semant l’ivraie(‘Satan sowing seeds among the wheat’). In it, Michaelides relates, a gigantic Satan is crossing Paris, casting seeds of discord from his right hand. The seeds, misogynistically enough, are women. Worse, his right foot rests on – perhaps even crushes – the twin towers of Notre Dame.
But it is Hugo’s Hunchback through which literature bends the knee most eloquently to the cathedral. Hugo wrote it in part to catalyse interest in the gothic building, which had fallen out of fashion in Paris. At one point in the vast novel, the villain, Judge Claude Frollo, directs his visitors to look away from a book on his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame Cathedral. “This will kill that,” he remarks. The idea is that the printing press will destroy the cathedral, that the renaissance will murder religion, silence the eloquence of churches. “Small things overcome great ones,” Frollo says, “the book will kill the building.” For Hugo, Stonehenge, the Parthenon and indeed Notre Dame are “books of stone” pregnant with meaning.
Not that all Notre Dame is as venerable as we might suppose. Eric Hazan, the city’s great historian, wrote in his recent book A Walk Through Paris a passage that seems to have been composed for tourists arriving on the Eurostar. “It is a shame that no one stops to contemplate [the facade of the Gare du Nord],” he writes, “whereas crowds throng in front of the facade of Notre Dame, whose statuary is no older than that of the railway station.” The station’s facade is, Hazan argues, a masterpiece. While the world awaits the rebuilding of Notre Dame then, there are consolations. Stuart Jeffries
Film: ‘Gene Kelly danced in its shadow’
There are numberless postwar movies set in Paris that use Notre Dame as an establishing shot, embedded as part of the city’s legendary fabric and its furniture, the camera sometimes noticing it just subliminally. Paris is habitually a signifier for the secular world of romance and adventure, so using the cathedral more explicitly is not an obvious choice. Jean-Paul Belmondo reads the paper with Notre Dame in the background in Godard’s Breathless; Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly dance in Notre Dame’s shadow in An American In Paris; Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn walk past it as they talk about murder in Charade.
The most stunning – and now eerily prescient – “movie tourist” use of Notre Dame is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset in which the reunited lovers Jesse and Céline ponder the cathedral and Céline says: “But you have to think that Notre Dame will be gone one day …”
But of course the most sensational use of Notre Dame is in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame in 1939, based on the Victor Hugo novel (there were two earlier silent versions and many remakes since, including a Disney animation). Charles Laughton is the poignantly lonely and lovelorn Quasimodo, the cathedral’s bellringer who rescues Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) from public hanging for witchcraft by swinging down Tarzan-like from one of his bell-ropes and bringing her back to the bell tower for sanctuary. That is: the North Tower, whose ancient oak frame has now been destroyed, and the fate of its four immense bells still uncertain.
The film breathtakingly reverses the usual movie grammar of Notre Dame; instead of incuriously glimpsing the cathedral on the skyline, we are around and inside it, getting a stunning reverse view of Paris from the tower – that is, the fake medieval Paris built in the San Fernando Valley – as the agonised Quasimodo looks out over the teeming city with all its drama and compares himself to the gargoyles he stands next to. The movie was instantly felt to be a symbol of anti-Nazi defiance.
Later, Paul WS Anderson’s version of Three Musketeers staged a swordfight on the cathedral’s roof, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical romance Amélie had the heroine’s mother bizarrely killed by a suicide jumping from Notre Dame. During their ominous conversation about Notre Dame in Before Sunset, Jesse and Céline talk about Nazi plans to destroy the city before the Allied advance. In René Clément’s Is Paris Burning?, Orson Welles plays the Swedish consul who dissuades the Nazi governor from anything of the sort — because Notre Dame has to be saved. Peter Bradshaw
TV: ‘Its function has been to scare the crap out of you’
In The Muppet Show in 1981, the show’s opening number featured a blue headed, green haired chap called Mulch performing the role of Quasimodo. He climbed to the bell tower of Notre Dame to sing a love song. “The bells are ringing,” he began gamely, “for me and gargoyle / The birds are singing for
And then, in unexpected application of the Pygmalion myth, the love of his life, though no looker, unpeeled herself from the parapet and mutated from stone into a singing puppet. “Everybody’s been knowing to a wedding they’re going,” she sang. “And for weeks they’ve been stowing days of labour and toil.” And then some other hideous troll-like figures, sculpted into the parapet below, came to life and sang the chorus.
Though the episode’s special guest was Debbie Harry, her performance of Blondie’s One Way or Another was no match for this reworking of the 1917 standard For Me and My Gal, best known from its outing in the Gene Kelly 1942 film of the same name. Its gag worked through the same hilarious principle of the Rodgers and Hart song Manhattan, with its couplet: “The city’s clamour can never spoil / The dreams of a boy and goil.” Though why French gargoyles sing in New York accents is beyond me.
Television’s relationship with the Parisian landmark has switched vertiginously from comedy to gothic horror. The 2016 Simpsons episode To Courier With Love has the family flying to Paris because Homer has to work as a courier transporting an endangered Amazon blue constrictor snake into the country for reasons too bizarre to get into. One night in Paris, while Bart is fishing in the Seine, and Lisa, you’d suspect, debating philosophy at Les Deux Magots, Homer dons the proverbial existentialist turtleneck and with Marge strolls past the cathedral. Admiring the gargoyles, Homer remarks: “That’s from back when religion knew how to scare the crap out of you”, clearly not knowing that the Muppets had taught us those stones could come to life and sing of love like native New Yorkers.\
And yet, Homer had a point. Notre Dame’s function on television has often been to scare the crap out of its audience or, what is the same thing, provide backdrop for gothic hokum. In Jo, the English language, Paris-set police procedural seriesstarring Jean Reno as the eponymous Joachim Saint-Clair, for instance, one episode starts with a body found beaten and strangled under the Last Judgment portal of Notre Dame. The victim’s ears have been pierced and his face tilted so that his dead eyes are aimed at a figure of an angel blowing his trumpet to wake the dead for the final judgment. Jo’s theory is that the killer has made the the victim symbolically deaf to the angels’ trumpet, suggesting the victim wasn’t worth God’s mercy.
But the future for Notre Dame on television is uncertain. Last year, actor Tom Hollander’s production company enlisted screenwriter Andrew Davies to develop an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel. Hollander himself told Radio Times he wanted to play Quasimodo, though he’d equally be good as Esmeralda. I’ve a hunch (so very sorry) that this adaptation, if it goes ahead, will take on a very different resonance now. Stuart Jeffries
Art: ‘A synthesis of medieval faith and modern fantasy’
To understand the artistic wonder that is Notre Dame you have to accept it as a synthesis of medieval faith and modern fantasy. Viollet-le-Duc crowded the real Notre Dame with grinning, devilish gargoyles just as Hugo populated his fictional one with a deaf bell ringer and his tormentors. This intermixing of a genuine gothic cathedral with the 19th-century dream of what gothic should be has put Notre Dame at the heart of the modern imagination. It’s the artistic embodiment of Paris, the centre of medieval European thought and culture which in the 1800s became the birthplace of modern art.
For at least 300 years before Viollet-le-Duc saved Notre Dame, medieval cathedrals had been shunned. When London’s gothic cathedral St Paul’s was destroyed in the Great Fire of London it was replaced with a trendy new domed edifice by Christopher Wren. No-one this morning is calling for a new Notre Dame to be built by France’s contemporary architectural star Jean Nouvel. That’s because Viollet-le-Duc, who also restored churches across France and the lovely walled city Carcassonne, taught us what makes medieval architecture so magical.
Almost a thousand years after its original creation Notre Dame still speaks to us
It is the human plenitude, the sense of hundreds of anonymous masons working in humble collectivism, and thousands of people across time sharing our awe for what they built, that gives Notre Dame its mystique. A great cathedral is a vast living organism. It’s like being inside a whale, the vaulting a sublime rib cage above you. Unlike a symmetrical classical building a gothic cathedral is not an image of order but living disorder where flying buttresses sprout, mighty columns soar, lofty galleries conceal prayers and plotters.
Viollet-le-Duc loved the monsters at the edge of medieval Christianity, basing the gargoyles and chimeras that cover his restored stonework on works in French museums. His macabre Notre Dame is the birthplace of French modern culture from Baudelaire’s poetry and Rodin’s Gates of Hell to Matisse’s painting of its unmistakable facade in pink morning light. Yet under all its accretions, the heart of Notre Dame is truly medieval. Gothic architecture was born in Paris. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, on the French capital’s outskirts, invented this art style in the early 1100s to glorify God in a spectacular new way. To let in sacred light, gothic builders created stained glass windows – and to make space for those, they raised buildings higher than ever before. Flying buttresses and the pointed arch redistributed the structure’s weight so cunningly that huge areas of wall could be replaced with glass. If Notre Dame survives it will be because the flying buttresses did their job.
It was hard to resist the sense of miracle when a photograph of the interior showed Notre Dame’s cross shining through smoke. Another image shows holes in the stone vaulting – but the interior is still the sculpted space the medieval masons made. As it seemed Notre Dame was perishing last night, I was heartbroken. But unless there’s fatal structural damage yet to be revealed, it seems the stones of Paris are holding up. And everything else can be replaced. A cathedral can endure the loss of its stained glass and other fineries, as has happened in Britain where all our cathedrals were vandalised in the Reformation and civil war.
It’s precisely this endurance that makes medieval architecture so special. Almost a thousand years after its original creation Notre Dame still speaks to us. Like cave paintings, it connects us with some primal aesthetic urge. Now our time faces a challenge. Do we still have in us the love, idealism and skill that enabled Viollet-le-Duc and his workers to recreate a gothic masterpiece? If we can reawaken the creativity this building embodies it will be a great moment of artistic renewal for today’s Europe. Jonathan Jones
Music: ‘Vierne died at the famous organ’
Music has been part of Notre Dame’s history since its foundation. Some of the earliest known European composers, working in Paris around 1160 to 1250, wrote music for the liturgy each week even as the great cathedral was being built around them. Collectively these composers are known as the Notre Dame School. Their names are mostly forgotten. Through a 13th-century English scholar, known as Anonymous IV, we know of the two most important: Léonin and Pérotin.
Their lasting significance was to write down and develop western musical techniques which had previously only been extemporised. Their polyphonic motets (written for more than once voice) replaced the single line of Gregorian chant, common up to that point. The Magnus Liber Organi (“great organum book”), a collection of Notre Dame works, is one of the greatest single achievements in medieval art, a cornerstone of European music for the next three centuries. Léonin, according to Anonymous IV, made the collection, Pérotin later revised it. The American minimalist Steve Reich paid tribute to Pérotin in his vocal and electronics work Proverb.Advertisement
Another globally important strand of musical life for Notre Dame is the historic organ, central to the flowering of French organ music. The current instrument, spectacular in size and symphonic sound, was originally built by the leading French organ maker Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1868. It has survived two world wars and was substantially improved in 1963 and again in 1990. Played on five keyboards and pedals, it has nearly 8,000 stops and an advanced computer system.
Several French composers have held the position of organist at Notre Dame including Louis Vierne who collapsed and died at the organ console after a recital to 3,000 people. The most idiosyncratic, quirky and brilliant in modern times was Pierre Cochereau, improviser, composer, pedagogue and one of the greatest organists of the 20th century. Fiona Maddocks
Stage: ‘Provided a hit for Celine Dion’
All great cathedrals are spectacular and dramatic, but the specific theatricality of Notre Dame is bound up in the mythology of Victor Hugo’s great novel. Hugo himself was thinking of the opera house soon after publication in 1831 and duly cooperated with composer Louise Bertin on a grand opera in four acts, La Esmeralda.
This flopped, but five more romantic operas soon followed. Apart from the films and television series, there have been countless theatre versions, too, in recent years ranging from Ken Hill’s sparky adaptation for the National Theatre in 1977, through Strathcona Theatre Company’s small-scale touring edition in 2001. One forgotten musical was based on the Disney film, and several ballets have included Roland Petit’s for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1965.
But the main theatrical stab at the story in recent years was the 1998 Notre Dame de Paris, a French Europop concert that provided a hit soundtrack for Céline Dion after it was premiered at the Palais des Congres, a building conceived in an alternative plane to the cathedral’s scale and sublimity.
Our Francophile producer, the late Michael White, presented the show at the Dominion in London in 2000, with Tina Arena and blocks of concrete misrepresenting the cathedral. And it’s this powerfully ingratiating score – by Richard Cocciante – with gloriously banal book and lyrics by Luc Plamondon, that ripped up the Coliseum only a few weeks ago with an acrobatic chorus of Parisian low-life decked out in primary colour satin trews and boleros.
Most critics in 2000 panned the show, no doubt hoping to be right after being, mostly, wrong when Les Misérables (1980 in Paris) opened here in 1985. It was, they said “a load of old bells”, “all bats and no belfry”. Sheridan Morley decried Quasimodo’s disabled backing group who scuttled up and down the cathedral bell tower “in a futile attempt to escape the show”. Frankly, it gave him the hump.
Notre Dame itself really needs no dramatising. It has David’s paintings, stained glass, the magnificent organ and an impasto of ceremonies and coronations that should, God and the restoration willing, run for ever. Michael Coveney
Video games: ‘You can shimmy up its majestic exterior’
In video games, architecture is more than set-dressing. When a player can move through a piece of art, examine it through touch, movement and interaction as well as visually, the composition of virtual spaces and buildings becomes as vital to the experience as code, sound and visual design. Game designers’ art, like architects’, is that of expressing something through a space.\
A great many video game creatives show a weakness for the imposing beauty of gothic architecture in their work. Echoes of Notre Dame can be seen in games from eldritch horror Bloodborne to the arch-fantasy World of Warcraft. For Assassin’s Creed Unity, a historical game set during the French Revolution, an environmental artist named Caroline Miousse spent the best part of two years recreating Notre Dame Cathedral in a virtual 18th-century Paris, working from old maps of the city, sketches and photographs. Notre Dame didn’t have its spires at that time, but in the game they are there, a concession to the modern player’s mental image of the iconic building. You can climb right to the top of the cathedral and survey the city below; inside, you can see the paintings that were hanging on the walls 250 years ago. Experiencing the cathedral in-game having seen it in the flesh evokes a powerful, intimate sense of deja vu. You can’t touch its ancient stone in a game, of course – though in real life, you can’t shimmy up the majestic exterior like an 18th-century Spider-Man and view the Paris skyline from its peak.
Few would have foreseen it, but the work that Ubisoft Montréal did in building a virtual Notre Dame may now be of use in rebuilding the real one. It is a reminder that video games, in recreating architectural wonders, now play an important role in their cultural preservation. Keza MacDonald
SOURCE: This article was first published on The Guardian, UK
Jenny Tillyard addresses the issue of unwanted pregnancy and a ‘demographic disaster’ in Africa, while Judith A Daniels says the church needs to legitimise women’s much-needed accession to leadership roles
Cherie Blair was right to mention the problem of forced pregnancy among young schoolgirls in Africa (Cherie Blair accused of reinforcing stereotypes about African women, 27 March). She was speaking at a Catholic school, and Catholics are currently struggling with the whole problem of unwanted pregnancy and women’s (and men’s) rights.
In traditional societies in Africa, a girl’s reproductive capacity was “owned” by her birth family, and there were recognised customs to enforce damages for “seduction”, which to some extent protected young girls. These protections have vanished with modernity, and organisations such as Cafod can provide in-depth information about the attrition of girls in school past puberty, which puts a question mark over every attempt at social development (we are talking about girls as young as 11). Of course African leaders, including bishops, would rather not talk about this. But a demographic disaster is unfolding in southern Africa, and silencing talk about it will not make it go away.
(Lived 30 years in Zimbabwe), Seaford, East Sussex
• As a Catholic, I agree entirely with Tina Beattie (Opinion, 27 March) about the disenfranchisement of women in our church. We are still waiting on the “contentious” possibility of women deacons and, although I abhor that expression “not in my lifetime”, I am beginning to see the reasoning behind it and feel its negative and depressing weight on my shoulders.
I am pleased that Pope Francis acknowledged Lucetta Scaraffia’s dedicated work in the church in regard to our enfranchisement. Now he and the hierarchy need to reach out to women and legitimise their much-needed accession to leadership roles. Until that happens the church will fall behind and below what many Catholic men, women and children justifiably expect from what should be a modern, all-embracing organisation and one that Christ would want as well.
The self-described ‘alpha chick’ has weathered addiction, dodgy managers and the death of Prince to remain as funky as ever. She describes how she went from gun-toting activist to teetotal vegan.
Chaka Khan has a question. “What’s that TV show, where it’s just families sitting down and looking at the TV? Chat Box?” Gogglebox? She claps her hands delightedly. “Gogglebox – oh, I love that! And that quiz programme where the enforcer comes on and it’s like a big black guy, or a big woman.”
Erm, The Chase? With Bradley Walsh? She nods. “So good. I like funny shit.”
It goes without saying that I didn’t expect to end up discussing Bradley Walsh when I arrived to interview Khan, a woman who could call herself the Queen of Funk without much fear of starting an argument. A minute ago, we were talking about her vast influence over modern music, something that is evident from her new album, Hello Happiness, a collaboration with the producers Sarah Ruba and Switch, the latter best known for his work with MIA and Major Lazer. It is audibly the work of people who, as Khan puts it, “made it abundantly clear that they didn’t have to Google me”. Its sound is based on an intricate knowledge of her back catalogue – the vivid funk she recorded with Rufus 40 years ago, the effervescent disco of her early solo albums, the electronic dance-pop of her biggest hits – and given a subtle 21st-century makeover.
Khan was telling me that she was less aware of her influence than she might be, because she doesn’t really listen to music at home, preferring to relax in front of the telly. And now here we are, talking about Gogglebox and The Chase.
It is certainly an unexpected turn of events, but nothing about Khan’s life or career seems straightforward. She was born Yvette Stevens 65 years ago in Hyde Park, a progressive, bohemian, racially mixed “island amid the madness” of 50s and 60s Chicago: “A great city, very rich in terms of the arts, but it’s so racist it’s hard get to the friggin’ arts if you’re black. You have to grow up in a specialised community, which mine was.” Her mother was a strict Catholic, but her father was a beatnik: “My sister and I used to go on his nocturnal excursions by the lake in the park. The weed was thick in the air, the wine bottles were flowing, music was playing – as tight as it was, I had a pretty magical life.”Advertisement
Her father remarried, to a civil rights activist who encouraged Khan to speak at rallies; by the age of 14, she had been recruited by the Black Panthers. “I was a kid, so they really just had me selling the Panther paper on the corner, barefoot in jeans. I was totally against all the sock hops and shit my school had to offer to keep the natives quiet. We used to call them ‘slave gatherings’. So, I had my combat boots on, my green khaki pants. I didn’t feel in danger – it wasn’t like that. We were doing the right thing. However, when a gun came into my hands, a .38 that I hid in my room … I’m telling you, every moment I had that gun it changed me. I felt physically sick. I threw it away into Botany’s Pond by Chicago University, then I felt better. That finished me with the Panthers.”
Instead, she concentrated on her musical career, singing jingles, performing with a succession of bands in the clubs around Chicago’s Rush Street before landing a gig with a racially mixed funk band called Rufus. “The thing back then was to have a white band with a black chick out front – that was major money, made the club owners interested.” She laughs mordantly. “Another racist phase that passed through Chicago.”
With Khan on vocals, Rufus were an immediate sensation: she had both a hell of a voice and a precocious, raw stage presence. She was 17 years old when they were offered her a record deal, still legally a child. When her mother refused to sign the contract on her behalf, she got married to her boyfriend, lying to her parents that she was pregnant. By the time of their first hit, 1974’s Stevie Wonder-penned Tell Me Something Good, she actually was. “Yeah, everything happened to me like that: bam. And, yeah, it left some scars, created some bad habits. Why wouldn’t it?”
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Despite their success – six gold or platinum albums in five years, 25 hit singles on the US R&B chart – Rufus were a highly combustible band. There were endless line-up changes. There were fistfights in the studio, issues with managers. “I had nothing but rip-off artists, until just lately,” she sighs. The atmosphere wasn’t much helped when the record label started billing the band as Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, or by tension between the band members and Khan’s second husband, Richard Holland. “They didn’t want me to have a husband,” she shrugs. “When the band first went on tour, every night, after a gig, they would all do a walk-through of my room to make sure I was by myself. They didn’t care who it was – no one could come and visit me. They were just very possessive of their little diamond.”
Eventually, Khan struck out on her own, scoring an immediate hit with the Ashford & Simpson-penned I’m Every Woman. She kept making albums with Rufus out of “guilt”, although the results were often spectacular, not least 1979’s superlative Masterjam; ironically, their biggest hit together – 1983’s Ain’t Nobody – came after Khan had left for good. Her solo career was soaring. With the producer Arif Mardin, she made a succession of wonderful albums, on which, as she characteristically puts it, “every song’s a motherfucker”. She was prodigiously, intuitively talented – unable to read music, she would nevertheless arrange her own songs, singing the notes she wanted to the horn and string sections – and remarkably adaptable, throwing out albums of jazz standards alongside collaborations with Rick James. Just as Rufus had transitioned seamlessly from funk to disco, so Khan survived the disco backlash with barely a scratch.
But behind the scenes, Khan’s life was going haywire. She ended up locked in battles with her record label. “Assholes,” she says, flatly. “They didn’t know how to work me, what category to put me in. Hell, they didn’t have a clue. I get it – no category. That means do everything – let’s do it all! But, see, that’s too much work for them. I went in one time, they’d hired another A&R, who told me: ‘We need you to sound like Mary J Blige.’ I said: ‘You motherfuckers need to get Mary J Blige then, and leave me alone.’ That’s when I really decided, ‘I’m done.’”
She struggled with addiction – to cocaine, heroin and alcohol – for most of her adult life. Remarkably, it did not seem to interfere with her career: by her own admission, she was “getting fucked up” throughout her commercial peak. “Very good at compartmentalising,” she nods. “All through the 80s, I knew when to abstain, I really did. I had lines of demarcation in my life, and I practised them. And, also, I was very aware of my health; that was important to me. When I was with the Panthers, my girlfriends and I were all into breaking our own bread, taking our herbs, fasting one week out of every month. So there were certain other habits I got that I never did stop. It was the healthy living that brought me through drugs alive, I’m sure of it. I would get massively fucked-up for a couple of weeks and then I’d take, like, a herbal shut-down where I’d stop and just go on plants. So that helped me a lot.”
It was the healthy living that brought me through drugs alive, I’m sure of itChaka Khan
She says her last bout in rehab – for an addiction to opiate painkillers prescribed after a knee replacement operation – was provoked by the death of Prince in 2016. They were close friends – he wrote her 1984 UK No 1 I Feel For You, and they regularly collaborated. She signed to his NPG label in the late 90s, resulting in the brilliant overlooked album Come 2 My House – although her interactions with him seem to have been as bizarre as everyone else’s. They met when he rang her hotel room in San Francisco, pretending, for reasons best known to himself, to be Sly Stone. “I could have sworn it was Sly; Sly and I were very close. He said: ‘I’m at a studio in Marin County doing this album, do you want to come?’ So I drove for 100 years and get in there and it’s like dark and sterile and very eerie. There’s this little guy with a guitar. I said: ‘Excuse me, where’s Sly?’ and he put his guitar down and said: ‘I’m sorry, that was me.’ ‘Well, who the fuck are you?’ I was truly pissed about this. He told me who he was, I said: ‘OK, nice meeting you, but I’m really pissed now, so goodbye’, and I left.”
She says she had no idea of the extent of the Prince’s own issues with painkillers. “I never, ever got any indication that he was on pills. I knew he was doing certain things, I knew he had a couple of bouts with acid and all that. That’s OK. A one-off here and there, you got the money, you ain’t working. You like acid – go do it. But he was totally against drinking; he’d drink red wine occasionally, not a lot. He starved himself – he wouldn’t eat unless it was this or that; he was very particular. What comes to mind is someone who was very health conscious as opposed to …” Her voice trails off and she shakes her head. “Secrets kill. Secrets kill, and if he hid from me for so many years where he was really at, and I was like his confidante in many ways, you know … It’s hard to keep a secret like that from me. So I learned a lot, you know. I just said: ‘I better go check myself.’ And I’m alive maybe because he’s dead. I went to a doctor and I said, ‘Here’s the deal’, and he told me there are certain pains you’ve just got to live with, that’s part of life.”
These days, she is a teetotal vegan, her only vice the packet of cigarettes on the table in front of her. In recent years she has spent much of her time raising her granddaughter – she won permanent custody after reporting her son and his partner as incapable due to drug addiction – whom she describes as “my best investment”, and whose own lack of musical ambition seems to delight her. “I love it – she’s not interested in my fucking shit. I can’t get her to come to a concert and see me sing all about her – she wouldn’t give a damn. She doesn’t care. She wants to be a doctor. She’s so in the right place.”
And so, Khan says, is she; despite the turbulence of her past, “at 65, I’m still looking forward to shit”, she laughs. Hello Happiness “has put a new spark in my career”. There’s a forthcoming collection of Joni Mitchell covers to think about, as well as her charitable foundation, which works with autistic children and is currently engaged in trying to re-establish the after-school music programme in Minnesota “that Prince went to when he was a kid, where he got a chance to play with older cats all the time. We’re just trying to play forward Prince’s dream – the shit that saved him may save others.”
And she is currently engaged in a battle with the aforementioned assholes at her old label over the rights to her back catalogue. “After 30 years, your shit should automatically return to you, but they’re trying to fight me on that. But not to worry, darling. I’ll be all right. I will be. I’ll be fine.” She lets out a throaty laugh. “You know,” she says, “I’m kind of an alpha chick.”
Prince Charles has spoken about the ongoing dispute over whose Jollof rice is best, only to side step the issue of revealing his own preference.
Speaking in Nigeria at the end of his West Africa tour, he said:
Quote Message: Having also visited The Gambia and Ghana over the past week, our visit to Nigeria may perhaps provide an invaluable opportunity to compare – if one ever dares do such a thing! – the relative merits of each country’s Jollof rice… however, for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident, I suspect I shall have to let you draw your own conclusions about which country’s Jollof we found to be the most delicious!”
Having also visited The Gambia and Ghana over the past week, our visit to Nigeria may perhaps provide an invaluable opportunity to compare – if one ever dares do such a thing! – the relative merits of each country’s Jollof rice… however, for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident, I suspect I shall have to let you draw your own conclusions about which country’s Jollof we found to be the most delicious!”
The last high-profile British person to dare to talk about Jollof rice was the chef, Jamie Oliver, who at least seemed to unite West Africans in condemnation of his own recipe.
We suspect that Prince Charles was briefed about the ongoing rivalry over the traditional dish made with rice, tomatoes and spices because he was so careful not to reveal his favourite.
‘After a delicious lunch of brain, liver and lung stew, we drove around – and spotted these guys just hanging out in a car’
Iwent to South Africa with my girlfriend in the autumn of 2016 for a friend’s wedding. We had a six-hour layover in Johannesburg airport before flying back to New York, so we decided to take one last trip before we boarded the plane.
Some friends who lived in Johannesburg said it wasn’t the safest of cities – they told us to do some shopping to kill time. Five hours in a mall sounded awful, so we got chatting to one of the tour guides that hang around the airport and he agreed to take us to Soweto, the township south of the city.
Soweto is vast: more than a million people live there, around a third of the population of Johannesburg. Like most townships in South Africa, the vast majority of residents are black and many are extremely poor. Most homes are assembled from salvaged materials: bricks, scrap metal, that kind of thing. And there’s very little infrastructure connecting it to the city.
Our tour guide was probably in his 40s, a kind, trustworthy and down-to-earth guy. He had grown up in Soweto and was extremely proud of his roots. He navigated the old beaten-up roads expertly, pointing out local landmarks and telling us histories we knew very little about.
Soweto occupies a special place in South African history. Mandela lived there for around 15 years, and it’s where he returned to when he was released from prison on Robben Island. It played an important role in the struggle to end apartheid. We visited Mandela’s house, a tiny ramshackle building with old family heirlooms and artefacts of the struggle. It was an incredible piece of history at the heart of the colourful chaos of the township.
Our guide showed us more than just the tourist sites, though. We insisted he take us for lunch at his favourite local restaurant. We drove to a tiny hole in the wall you’d never see if you weren’t looking for it, almost like a garage. We ate this enormous offal stew – all brains and liver and lung – served with a kind of pureed corn that was a little bit like polenta. It was so delicious.
Just after lunch, I took this. Because we only had a short stint in Soweto, I took most of the series out of the window of the guide’s car. It wasn’t hard to get a great photo, though: the streets are so uneven you can’t pick up any speed. The blue car wasn’t moving – I’m not even sure it worked. These two guys were sitting in it, almost pretending to be driving, or perhaps just hanging out. I thought it was funny, so I took the shot. That’s how I like to do most of my street photography: on gut instinct.
There was something about the colour of the car against the beige houses in the background that summed up the spirit of the place. Soweto residents aren’t rich, but the whole place overflows with colour and life. It’s one of the few places I’ve been that is really creating its own culture: new customs, new fashion, new art. It’s not trying to be anywhere else – it’s its own town, with its own history and its own future.
Soweto is a proud place, and its residents are proud to live there. Driving through the township, you occasionally see flashy sports cars, or beautiful villas. It seems like people stay there even when they’ve made it big. It might not have the amenities of Johannesburg, but its sense of community is pretty unique. People stay because they want to, not because they’re trapped.
This photo was received really well, and it’s now the album cover for a great jazz band. It feels like the world is starting to pay attention to Soweto. It’s starting to inspire musicians and cultures way beyond South Africa.
But this photo wasn’t the only reason that trip was so special to me. A day before this photo was taken, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She said yes. Travelling around with my new fiancee made Soweto a place I’ll always hold dear.
The rest of the Soweto series can be found on Michele Palazzo’s site.
Michele Palazzo’s CV
Born: Ravenna, Italy, 1968.
Studied: Architecture at the Università Iuav di Venezia, Italy.
New evidence suggests a drop-off in results after the age of 17.
THOSE who want to learn a foreign language, or want their children to, often feel they are racing against the clock. People seem to get worse at languages as they age. Children often learn their first without any instruction, and can easily become multilingual with the right exposure. But the older people get, the harder it seems to be. Witness the rough edges on the grammar of many immigrants even after many years in their new countries.
Scientists mostly agree that children are better language learners, but do not know why. Some posit biological factors. Is it because young brains have an extreme kind of plasticity? Or, as Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, argues, an instinct for language-learning specifically, which fades as the brain ages and (in evolutionary terms) is no longer needed? Others think children have special environments and incentives, not more conducive brains. They have a strong motivation to communicate with caregivers and imitate peers, and are not afraid of making mistakes in the way adults are.
Some believe any “critical period” may only apply to the sounds of a foreign tongue. Adults struggle with accents: eight decades after immigrating to America and four after serving as secretary of state, Henry Kissinger still sounds fresh off the boat from Fürth—in what is nevertheless elaborately accurate English. (An alternative explanation, runs a joke about Mr Kissinger, is that he never listens.)
But grammar is different, and some researchers have reckoned that adults, with their greater reasoning powers, are not really at a disadvantage relative to children. One study found that when adults and children are exposed to the same teaching materials for a new language for several months, the adults actually do better. Most such research has had to rely on small numbers of subjects, given the difficulty of recruiting them; it is hard to know how meaningful the results are.
Now a large new study led by Joshua Hartshorne of Boston College (with Mr Pinker and Joshua Tenenbaum as co-authors) has buttressed the critical-period hypothesis. The study ingeniously recruited 670,000 online test-takers by framing the exercise as a quiz that would guess the participants’ native language or dialect. This made it a viral hit. The real point was to test English-learners’ knowledge of tricky bits of grammar, and to see how this correlates with the age at which their studies began.
Do younger beginners do better because their earlier start gave them more learning time, or because they learned faster in early years? It can be hard to tease apart these two questions. But testing a huge amount of data against a number of possible learning curves allowed Mr Hartshorne to do precisely that. Many previous researchers had posited a drop-off at around puberty. The new study found it to be rather later, just after 17.
Despite that later cut-off, learners must begin at around ten if they are to get to near-native fluency. If they start at, say, 14, they cannot accumulate enough expertise in the critical period. Unfortunately, 14 or so is precisely when many students, especially in America, are first introduced to a new language. (Even worse, this is an age when children are acutely sensitive to embarrassment in front of peers.)
Children who start at five don’t do noticeably better than those who start at ten over their lifetimes. But there is still reason to begin in the first years of school, as in Denmark and Sweden. Because mastery takes a long time—perhaps 30 years until improvement ceases—those who begin at five and are obliged to read and write English at university will by then have made much more progress than those who took the plunge at ten, even if their level is roughly the same by 40.
The existence of the critical period is not a reason for anyone 11 or older to give up. Some people remain excellent language students into adulthood. And Mr Hartshorne tested some truly subtle features of grammar that take years to master. A language learned even to a lower level can still be extraordinarily useful at work or enjoyable while travelling.
But for policymakers, the implication is clear. Earlier is better. Students outside the English-speaking world will eventually face English in the classroom or at work: they’ll have a better shot if they start younger. As for the Anglophone countries, getting foreign languages into the tender years is a hard sell. Many bureaucrats can hardly see past reading and maths. That is a mistake for many reasons. This study demonstrates one of them.
The actor’s latest role is in The Little Stranger, a film that twitches with tension about class – which resonates with his own upbringing.
No one needs to teach Will Poulter anything about checking his privilege. The career choices of this 25-year-old show an actor drawn to films with a social conscience. In scarcely more than a decade, he has left behind CGI blockbusters (one Narnia and two Maze Runners) and broad comedy (We’re the Millers, in which he snogged Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts, and briefly sported a swollen prosthetic testicle). Instead, he has moved on to more serious, searching projects: the below-the-breadline chamber-piece Glassland, Kathryn Bigelow’s race riots drama Detroit and now The Little Stranger, a ghost story that twitches with class tension.
In person, too, Poulter is constantly checking, unpicking, interrogating and rechecking himself. Five times during the course of our two conversations – first in a Dublin hotel bar a few hours before the premiere of The Little Stranger, then the following day on the phone – he describes himself with an air of contrition as a “white, straight, middle-class male”, careful to the point of fastidiousness that nothing should be omitted or misunderstood.
So cards on the table: he was a pupil at the Harrodian School in west London (current fees: upwards of £6,000 per term), whose alumni also include Robert Pattinson, Jack Whitehall, Tom Sturridge and George Mackay. “What my privilege has meant is that I haven’t experienced the same levels of exclusion and inaccessibility that might come with being working class,” says Poulter, who is tall and trim, with a serious expression, narrowed eyes and a courteous, meet-the-parents air.
“I’ve certainly felt guilty about that. But guilt for those less privileged and those who experience the prejudice from which I’m protected isn’t enough. Acknowledgement is the first step in hopefully using your privilege to realise a more equitable society. I’m trying to find ways to deconstruct that hierarchy as opposed to just enjoying the privilege and acknowledging the guilt.”
Such as? “I’m keen to develop as an activist and involve myself in charities and organisations. And with my acting, it’s important that the projects I do have a sociopolitical impact. I try to be conscious about the message. As a white, straight, middle-class male, I’m aware of things I take for granted.”
I wonder how it felt to hear Daniel Mays observe, in 2016, that the industry was “awash” with privately educated actors, or to read the Sutton report’s findings that the same group takes a disproportionately high share of awards (42% of British Bafta winners and 67% of British Oscar winners). Is it like being under attack? “No, no. Not at all. I’ve undoubtedly benefited from my middle-class environment. I hold my hands up to that. And I know that unless we try to make pathways into the industry more open and accessible, then we can’t expect it to reflect society.”
This is all pertinent to The Little Stranger, in which a doctor (played by Domhnall Gleeson) in late-1940s Warwickshire is summoned to the country pile he has coveted since childhood. There he finds Roderick, played by Poulter, who suffered severe burns to his face and leg during the war and has grown old prematurely.
“He’s this boy whose youth has been cut short by his injuries so that he’s almost jumped forward in time to become an old man. He’s confined to the house, he’s hitting the bottle, living with all these regrets. There’s this emotional decay, which is a strange reflection of what’s happening to the house. He feels intrinsically tied to the state of the home and he is trying, like a lot of the landed gentry, to take pride in its status, just as he does in his own. But there are these parallels of degradation.”
Poulter’s distinctive facial features serve the part well. Though he is clearly young, there’s an agelessness to him, an ability to seem both juvenile and jaded. Partly it’s those windscreen-wiper eyebrows, which sit at a permanent 30-degree angle and are capable of lending devious or calculating inflections to his soft face. In Detroit, where he played the ringleader of a group of racist cops torturing and murdering African Americans with impunity, it was disturbing to see so much savagery emanating from someone barely out of the playpen. His was a performance in the tradition of cinema’s great baby-faced monsters: Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock, David Bennent in The Tin Drum, Cagney in everything.
Small wonder he was first choice to play Pennywise the Clown in It before that project lost its original director, Cary Fukunaga. Or that in his mid-teens, he was the standout star of the Edinburgh fringe hit School of Comedy, later adapted into an E4 series, in which child performers delivered blatantly adult material dressed as grownups. It was a kind of Bugsy Malone of sketch shows. Poulter’s most memorable character was a cocky white van man hollering incomprehensible remarks at passing women.
By that point he had already made his film debut at the age of 13 – as a soft-centred hard-nut in Son of Rambow, the coming-of-age comedy about a pair of schoolboys who make their own camcorder version of First Blood. “That was mad, man,” he says. “I don’t know if I would be so in love with what I do if I hadn’t had such an amazing first experience.”
He was already passionate about acting, which provided an alternative to the sort of academic demands made difficult by his dyslexia and dyspraxia, as well as a reprieve from some unkindness among his peers. “I had experiences of bullying. I used drama as an antidote to some of the less enjoyable aspects of social life at school.”
Garth Jennings, the writer and director of Son of Rambow, remembers Poulter as a precocious talent. “I never did more than a couple of takes for anything,” he says. “It wasn’t just that Will got it – he also understood what the rhythm of the line was, and that it would be funnier if you paused first. His instincts were ridiculously good. I spent most of my days shaking my head in disbelief, just going, ‘Yep. That was it, sunshine. That was it.’”
Poulter’s career since then has not been without its taxing moments. Was it true, as rumour has it, that eight months playing a trapper on The Revenantnearly broke him? He gives a rueful laugh. “Um. I’m always hesitant to complain too much as an actor, but I’ll say it was physically and emotionally probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I just can’t imagine a tougher shoot. The conditions were so inhospitable. We were up the side of a mountain in temperatures I didn’t know existed. I find acting enough of a challenge at room temperature.”
Jennings met up with Poulter when the actor was on a break from that movie. “Will was staying in the accent so he didn’t lose it when he went back. He was really locked in. Watching him in the film, you think, ‘Oh yeah, there you go – DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will.’ He just fits right in.”
Lenny Abrahamson, the director of The Little Stranger, thinks Poulter has even bigger things ahead. “He’s viewed in the industry as this incredibly exciting talent,” he says. “You look at him and think, ‘Is there a Bond in Will at some point? Maybe in 10 years?’ I could see that. I could imagine him being a very dark Bond indeed.”
• The Little Stranger is out now.
Cover photo: Privileged background … Will Poulter. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Deadline/Rex/Shutterstock