The Great Depression and the rise of Fascism aside, the 1930’s was a golden era in many respects. For example, the literary output was first rate: Orwell’s talent was in full bloom, Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” flew off the bookstore shelves. Indeed, according to the New York Times, “The Grapes of Wrath” was the best selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies were printed by February 1940. That same year, it was adapted into a powerful and memorable film starring Henry Fonda: this movie won two Academy Awards in 1941.
More than 70 years on, and trapped in a pernicious recession which resonates with disturbing echoes of Steinbeck’s time, we seem unable to produce cultural riches that possess the same lustre. I look on Twitter, I see discussions online and overhear them elsewhere: the literary work being discussed most of all these days is “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James.
For those who have heard of this book but are unfamiliar with the plot, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a tale of sexual obsession and sado-masochism. The main character is a deranged billionaire named Christian Grey who proceeds to deflower and debase a 21 year old virgin and “total babe” named Ana Steele. In other words, it’s cheap, tawdry pornography which the average bookstore in 1939 would not have deigned to put on its shelves. Indeed, the concept is riddled with clichés: the scandalous man of means is hardly new, the dewy eyed young woman who has her innocence robbed from her is an idea that goes back to Hogarth’s “A Harlot’s Progress”. Yet, this is the work that is being bought in such vast quantities that it makes the Grapes of Wrath’s once impressive figures seem a mere pittance by comparison.
Why? My other half pointed out that its popularity could be rooted in the attractions of simple escapism: we need a break from the humdrum and exotic and salacious tales help release us from the mundane and often painful realities of living in a diminished era. She also suggested that it could have something to do with an absence of Thirties’ stoicism: in the past, people were more willing to accept fate and look it in the eye. Thanks to consumerism and marketing, we now all believe “because you’re worth it” that we should live the lives of celebrities. We are all geniuses too, why aren’t we recognised for it? Face the grimy realities of living in a 2 up, 2 down semi in Basildon or Trenton, New Jersey? Unlikely: much better to see oneself as a “total babe” or a billionaire who can get away with anything. After all, this better suits the self-image we have been promised, sold and for which we are trapped into a terrible repayment.
But look back at “The Grapes of Wrath”: it is sublime precisely because it holds up a mirror to ordinary human beings and shows their real virtues and faults, both their kindness and propensity to violence, their ignorance and enduring wisdom. Fifty Shades does none of this; furthermore, it brings the spectre of social decline to the fore. Shock entertainment and its need to resort to ever greater stimuli can signify that a society is cracking. The spectacles at the Roman Colosseum grew ever more shocking as the public grew inured and the polity creaked. Two gladiators fighting each other to death wasn’t sufficient: the Emperor Trajan apparently celebrated his Dacian victories in 108 AD by employing 10,000 gladiators. Wild beasts tore each other and people to shreds merely to amuse; Trajan utilised 11,000 animals to supplement the gladiators. The Victorian author Charlotte Mary Yonge captured the spirit of this accumulative degeneration in her “Book of Golden Deeds”, published in 1864:
Sacred vestals, tender mothers, fat, good-humored senators, all thought it fair play, and were equally pitiless in the strange frenzy for exciting scenes to which they gave themselves up, when they mounted the stone stairs of the Coliseum.
Considering this history, a young girl being beaten by a sadistic billionaire to achieve perverted ends may seem mild, yet it is not tame in comparison to what we previously considered art.
It’s also not particularly exciting. The true thrill and beauty of sexual relations need not be solely contained in its culmination, but in the promise of it, the point at which all outcomes are possible. Furthermore, it need not be considered the sole preserve of the supremely rich or particularly alluring. It’s plausible to have a potentially erotic scenario that occurs between people who are not necessarily attractive in a setting that is normally considered dull.
Picture a firm of accountants somewhere in a Northern English city: the building is from the 1970’s, it’s box-shaped, with dark grey concrete and perfectly rectangular windows. The panes haven’t been replaced for some time, and many years of being pelted by city rainwater prevent them from ever glistening again. The grey skies which prevail mean that shadows dominate the narrow street on which the edifice stands. There is a hint of diesel exhaust in the air; pools from early morning rainfall have accumulated on the pavement. Inside, the offices are open plan: the desks are made of chipboard, fronted by peeling brown veneer. There is an aroma of instant coffee and milky tea. Focus, if you will, on two accountants, one male, one female, sitting with their desks facing each other. The man is in his late 40’s and wearing an ill-fitting dark grey suit from Marks and Spencer, his shoulders stooped and slumped from many years of leaning over his computer. He is negotating his surrender to baldness; his blonde and grey hair is cropped closely and rings a growing bare patch on the top of his head. His complexion is pasty; his brown eyes are a stark contrast to his pale visage. His gold wire frame glasses slide down his nose as he dips his head to look at a set of figures. He has a tendency to stroke his thick moustache with the length of his right index finger as he examines the numbers. He has lost weight recently: he also twirls his wedding ring around and around in endless loops. A pity that his wife didn’t live to see him make such progress, if consuming only packages of Super Noodles as an evening repast can be called that. He doesn’t see that his gold and red patterned tie, the only spot of colour in his wardrobe, has a slight oil stain from some chips he consumed for lunch.
However, his colleague at the desk opposite notices. She too is in her late 40’s. She has dyed her hair repeatedly with products bought in the beauty aisle at Tesco, going for blonde highlights in her auburn hair which are never quite ash enough. She too wears grey, a smart, better fitting suit, which covers her somewhat plump and ample figure. She wears glasses as well, her blue eyes having diminished in sight due to many long hours spent bent over ledgers, both electronic and paper. Her glasses however, have a thick black frame. She presses Page Down repeatedly on her keyboard trying to get to the pertinent information. Her thick lips pucker slightly as she finds an incorrect figure. She looks across to her colleague; she sees he is locked in concentration. The chips at lunch left a mark, however. She has a packet of wipes in her drawer, they say they’re good for spills and stains on their bright green wrapper: perhaps she ought to offer one?
Now envisage a boss coming up to them; he is completely bald, and his head shines as brightly as his smile. His shirt is white with a thin red pinstripe. He is jolly and has the girth to go with it, a victim of too many sandwiches consumed at his desk.
“Nigel, Nora,” he says in a jovial tone. Both Nigel and Nora look up.
“Come into my office,” he beckons. They cast a quick glance at each other and stand up. This is not unfamiliar to them as they’ve often been tasked with working together on some tricky assignment. Nigel adjusts his shoulders back and thinks of the time when they had to wind up a company whose director absconded with a substantial amount of money. Nora had traced where the money had gone. The police had done the rest. He recalls how she dressed when she had to go to court: was it the same grey suit she’s wearing now? No, it was with a faint pinstripe, and the skirt was a bit higher, stopping at just below the knee. Grey stockings, yes. She wore grey stockings which clung to the curve of her calves, the seam forming a perfect outline.
Nigel’s breath catches slightly.
Nora thinks of another case when Nigel was working late into the night. She had to get home to Geoff and the kids who all had runny noses and fevers and so he stayed behind long after the sun set and the main office lights had been turned off. As she wiped small faces and made chicken soup, she thought of him sitting there, desk lamp switched on, computer screen glowing, that same grey suit jacket still slumped on his shoulders. He wears that suit rather a lot, she muses. Or does he have multiples of the same one? She doesn’t know how to ask.
They go into the boss’ office and sit at the two blue fabric and aluminium office chairs positioned in front of their superior’s desk. The boss has a red cricket ball sitting next to the computer monitor and a small statuette of a cricketer in what looks like bronze, swinging a bat. A faded picture of a county cricket side, lovingly cut out of a local newspaper is Sellotaped to wall behind him. The boss sits in a black leather chair which is set quite low, so the desk seems bigger than what it actually is.
“N squared,” the boss says, smiling. His little joke. Nigel and Nora working together: “N squared,” the boss thinks. Nigel and Nora both suppress the urge to shrug.
“I’ve got a big job for you to do,” the boss continues. He then speaks about another company going into liquidation due to the recession and that its affairs need to be wound up. Nigel tries to suppress a bitter taste in his mouth; he wonders if butchers feel something similar in an abattoir when they see the next animal that is to be killed and cut up. Nora hangs on every word waiting for the name of the company; Geoff says that his job is in trouble and that she is probably going to have to pick up the slack for him. It doesn’t matter that much, he was earning minimum wage anyway and barely able to help with the grocery bills. The big blue ceramic jar they keep on top of the refrigerator to hold spare change has long been empty anyway. Nevertheless, the thought of Geoff sitting around all day wearing that tired taupe cotton bathrobe and watching morning television causes her stomach to tighten. She looks at Nigel; he seems calm.
“You probably want to know the name of the firm,” the boss continues.
Nigel nods. “It’s Rothglen Limited.”
Nora exhales quietly. Not this time.
“Is she OK,” Nigel wonders. Nora bears a lot of signs of worry: he sees the bags under her eyes, the way her hands shake slightly whenever she takes a cup of tea or coffee into her hand. There’s a slight smudge of pale peach face makeup on her starched white collar. She’s got a bit of a cold. Nevertheless, the perfume she’s wearing is as pleasant as ever: citrus, somewhat sharp, it doesn’t smell expensive, perhaps something picked up on sale at Boots around the corner, but it mixes well with her body chemistry.
“No, no,” he thinks, “don’t think about that.”
He studied chemistry while at university and thinks of elements interacting in a test tube, bubbling and fizzing. He tries not to, but looks out of the corner of his eye at her profile. The curve of her neck is really quite beautiful, her hair rather delicately frames it.
No, no, don’t think about that.
Nora wonders, “Is he looking at me?” The boss is nattering on, his jowls quivering as he speaks, his words trying to carry an elegance that they cannot bear. Nigel could be elegant however. What was it that he said in her last birthday card? Something about familarity breeding contempt most of the time, but when it came to working with her, the direct opposite was the truth. The handwriting was slanted, shaky, not the same confident swoops and curves he used to sign off official letters.
She turns her eyes to cast a glance at him. Nigel switches his gaze back to the boss.
Hmm, he was looking, she thinks. The possibility that he cares for her has turned over in her mind a few times. No, he’s not conventionally attractive. For God’s sake would he sit up straight and stop bending over his computer. But she guesses that since his wife died there has been no one to tell him that.
Nigel swallows hard. Damn, the boss is impressed by the sound of his own voice. The brief has been explained; the boss is trying to just make his own superiority and brilliance clear. Nigel twists slightly in his seat and sighs. When Mary died, the bed became quite cold. He awoke in the morning to only his own warmth and the sound of Radio 4 echoing “Farming Today” in the darkness. The air in the house is musty. He hasn’t bothered to take down the textured wallpaper. The television in the bedroom was broken; he hasn’t replaced it. The last time he recalled watching it was after he and Mary had made love and they watched a film as her head lay on his chest, her breathing first in gasps and then slowly calming down. The film was forgettable; their scents combined, heat rising from their embrace, her shut eyes, shaven head and smile touching her coral pink lips were not. Oh God.
Nigel chokes. Nora notices. His hands are in tight fists on his knees. She’s seen him like this before: it happens generally when work’s pace diminishes. He must be remembering. His eyes are glassy. Can’t the boss stop now?
“I have every confidence in your ability to do this,” the boss continues, “N squared, you’re the best team for the job.”
No, he’s not done. Should she? As she looks, she can see a slight tear forming at the corner of his eye. She looks at the boss. No, he won’t see; he’s too busy talking about himself.
Yes. She reaches out her hand and places it on top of Nigel’s.
The gesture is a shock. But Nigel has touched Nora before; they’ve got a little habit of giving each other a handshake after a job well done. “Well done, Nigel,” she says, a bright smile on her face. “Well done, Nora,” he replies, smiling in kind. He thinks he hugged her once at the office Christmas party, he was very drunk on cheap ASDA Cava; he recalls her body locking into his, the momentary warmth, the feeling of comfort, an awkward pause, then the turn away.
How does she know what I’m thinking, he wonders. Her grip tightens.
“Should I?”, he wonders. What about Geoff and the kids and her life and all the permutations and promises? Is this crossing some sort of boundary?
Thought slips. He turns his hand over and claps hers.
She first wonders if it’s a gentle admonition. He then spreads his fingers open, hers interlocking with his, the palms touching.
No, it’s not a rebuke. They both tighten their grip.
If one pulls back from this scene, the larger picture is as follows: two accountants, one a widower, one in a marriage that is stumbling but not terribly unhappy, care about each other and possess all the vital ingredients for a passion. In a conventional sense, they are not attractive, but they are attracted to each other and potentially this makes their passion work. I suggest this is how most romances develop, and thus is much more relatable than dreams of some hopelessly glamorous or rich partner. Furthermore, by making this more realistic, themes of our era have a chance to seep in: for example, in response to the mention of a firm being liquidated, Nigel’s thought is that he is a mere butcher in the abattoir of the economy. But this isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey; we don’t want to talk about this. We want to be seen to be dazzling, not ordinary, rather than see the dazzling in the ordinary. I dare say, we can do better, if only our thoughts can run to the wonderful that can be found even the humblest of settings.