Memories of people, times and places, responses to books, to films, to scenes of everyday life.

I would love to hear from readers—from old friends, from anyone who stumbles on these pages.


Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Jessica Jones

Picasso, Dora Maar, 1938

Picasso, Dora Maar, 1938

We are watching, as it happens, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the television series Jessica Jones, which is based on a Marvel Comics original. A contemporary morality play with a feminist inflection. Sex, drugs, mental illness. An edgy air. A noirish tale in a chiaroscuro New York City. Jessica herself a wise-cracking, heavy-drinking gumshoe with superhuman strength and a tendency to crippling introspection.

Behind this scaffolding something besides. Something enabled by the long form of the television series and, in a curious way, by the comic-book exaggerations and inventions—the special powers, super-heroes, super-villains and all the rest of it. Something like the preoccupations of other long tales with an element of the fantastic, from the Bible to Lord of the Rings by way of Pilgrim’s Progress. That is, an extended debate on the nature of radical evil, or, more precisely, on what to do about it.

Jessica Jones characters talk a lot. Among other things, about the social and psychological roots of bad behaviour, the role of bad parenting, of misfortune, of inequalities in life chances. Much is made of post-traumatic stress disorder and of the paralysing effects of guilt. Characters encourage one another to talk over their troubles, to seek help.

The tale finally, however, pushes against this grain of earnest rationalisation, these reasoned explanations for evil, these therapeutic evasions of responsibility for action. Before Jessica can bring down the dark other, the evil Kilgrave, she must learn that her own guilty feelings are a self-indulgence. That her powers entail a unique responsibility for moral action. That the power of Kilgrave—mind control at the service of a plausible, charming, self-justifying psychopath—only grows the more she dithers. The moment Jessica achieves this moral clarity she is free from Kilgrave’s power. She discovers love, she recovers purpose. She breaks his neck.

Northrop Frye long ago argued for the necessity of popular romance, with its sex and violence, as periodically invigorating genres of high narrative art grown too precious and remote, too rarified or courtly, too self-regarding and convoluted. Could it be that popular romance—rude, untidy, shocking—also opens up from time to time to our gaze moral horizons we are in danger of forgetting? Responsibility, courage, truth.

Tent meeting


We have a photo hanging in our entranceway, a large panoramic group picture posed by a professional photographer, a religious meeting under a tent. The camera is stationed at the rear looking forward, at an elevation, so that the preacher or minister and other platform worthies, including a number of choristers and musicians, are in the distance, while the congregation sitting in the benches turn to face us. A summer tent meeting.

The place is a vacant lot in Sunset Park, in Brooklyn. The year is 1939, the year I was born. I am not in the picture, nor are my parents, but I recognise most of the people, and indeed I remember some of these tent meetings, which continued through the 1940s. When they ceased we somehow acquired one of the benches, and it sat in our back garden, up against the dining room windows, for many years.

These are austere non-conformists, chapel-folk, Pentecostals, and they are under a tent, and so there are no religious objects, no statues or pictures. But there are printed banners at the front, just below the platform, words that dominate and define the scene. Bible verses, from Acts of the Apostles, in an archaic Dano-Norwegian with much the flavour of the King James Bible in English. Acts 1:8, But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you. Acts 2:39, For the promise is unto you, and to your children.

Power and promise. Thus neatly bracketing the paradox of all apocalyptic sects. For the power invoked is the power to dissolve all preceding particularities of race and culture—the Holy Ghost, after all, has no features, no history, no stories or sayings. Power to speed the end of history and precipitate the final destruction of all things. While at the same time promising perseverence, a tribal inheritance, a gift for generations to come. A circle never to be squared, but fertile ground for unbearable psychic tension, violence or apostasy the only strictly logical outcome.

But this was Brooklyn. The war came and went. People died, their children moved away. Very different powers. Very different promises.