McEwan Hall

I was recently asked to complete one of those ice-breaker questionnaires.

Stroke Bloke takes his delict exam in McEwan Hall, 1992 — dissertation to follow
  1. What was the title of your dissertation?
  2. What are you reading at the moment?

[We live in interesting times, so leaven that with some boring old tat —
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The answer to the first question was

“A Less Than Super Priority? Blah something blah Tort Creditors in Insolvency”

It was one of a number of papers I wrote at a number of law schools that applied the theories of blog favourite, Critical Legal Studies, to whatever was the topic at hand. An admirably consistent stance that had the added benefit of allowing for the frequent replication of a few of pages’ worth of work.

“Contrary to the common perception, legal materials do not completely determine the outcome of legal disputes”

Then, for the first time in more years than I care to remember, the answer to the second question wasn’t: The same thing that’s been languishing by the side of the bed for the past four months.

I replied with something like, I’ve just finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan(1) and cracked open Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?(2) I’m enjoying Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku collection of works by three masters of the form is glaring at me from across the desk.

knowledge spills across/
the small square table, sunlight/
glistening in its pools

That’s enough to be getting on with, right? And Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness is giving me the scary Liberian Dan mask face, too. A pretty rotten time to be confronted by a fusillade of newspaper articles getting all excited about The Children Act by Ian McEwan. I’m not a McEwan expert, at all, but I enjoyed Black Dogs twenty years ago, 1997’s Enduring Love, and 2007’s On Chesil Beach. His most recent, Sweet Tooth, was described as a minor McEwan, but its twist was very satisfying.

Knock knock.
Who’s there?

Fortunately, The Children Act is BBC Radio 4’s current Book At Bedtime. At the time of writing, I’m about half way through. Even (especially?) listening to it, the prose is brilliant as always:

As one begins an Ian McEwan… one feels an immediate pleasure in returning to prose of uncommon clarity, unshowiness and control.

That’s never an issue with McEwan, of course. It’s when, as this review puts it, the scenery clanks and bumps as the author’s heavy engineering grinds the moral climax into place.

Enduring Love: I’ve got yer moral climax right here

But none of this is what concerns me here. What I’m interested in, is McEwan trying on another uniform. His recent protagonists have included a medical professional, a research scientist, an MI5 agent, and now, a high court judge specialising in family law. Now, as a former law student who may even have read as many of Lord Scarman’s opinions as McEwan has…

Only kidding: that pie and a pint special at The Advocate wasn’t going to eat itself

…it’s easy to tell from the subtle legalese of McEwan’s prose that his research goes far beyond dinners with appeals court judge Sir Alan Ward. Is he, thirteen novels in, keen to try on the robes another profession? Maybe telling stories seems frivolous, and crafting words to a more material end, like Judge Fiona Maye in The Children Act seems more…. What, exactly?

The act of legal story-telling resembles the novelist’s craft, as McEwan himself notes in his recollection of the genesis of the novel:

[The judges] quoted well-turned phrases and fondly remembered ingenious conclusions. Clearly, they read each other closely….. How easily, I thought at the time, this bench could be mistaken for a group of novelists discussing each other’s work….

“But to what end are these technical skills employed?”, this lapsed lawyer wonders. McEwan cites a judgment of his friend, the appeals court judge: This court is a court of law, not of morals, and our task has been to find, and our duty is then to apply, the relevant principles of law to the situation before us.

And there we have it — the law is a dispassionate machine, its precision laser beam turned onto a conundrum. Except that’s bollocks, isn’t it?


“Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges [of obscenity].”

As The Children Act opens, Fiona Maye is lying on a chaise longue, surrounded by an unlit fireplace, a round walnut table, a blue vase and a tiny (“possibly fake”) Renoir lithograph.

I’m reminded of the court room I recently attended in New York; the first time I’d been in one since I collected them as a young law student — supreme courts in Edinburgh, Canberra, Prague, and the District of Columbia. On the back wall, behind the judge, a quote from Sir Edward Coke:

“Reason is the life of the law”

The passage of The Institutes Of The Laws Of England continues, Reason is the life of the law; nay, the common law itself is nothing else but reason… The law, which is perfection of reason.

Well, that was me told by setting. I wonder whether Ian McEwan will address the use of legal prose and narrative to justify the exercise of power in the name of the status quo? I’m guessing not, unless his narrator has a breakdown. Which is possible, I suppose.

And that’s the funny thing. Maybe writing fiction isn’t a frivolous step down from legal writing. Sweet Tooth may have been a minor McEwan, but <SPOILER ALERT> when the heavy machinery had done its job, the narrative resolved itself to reveal a narrator who has taken a deception on the part of his lover and spun it into a novel written from her point of view, to understand her motivations. It ends with Thomas Haley asking Serena Frome to marry him, in a letter.

Romantic, Tommy. But have you got a pretty ring?

This is a character using his talents to investigate the extremes of his capacity for empathy in the name of love (or if you prefer, human connection). Something worth aspiring to, I think. This week of all weeks, isn’t that a better ambition than preserving the status quo?

Status Quo: reasonably well preserved

(1)  Hi! Friendoftheblogpaul and Instigatoroftheblogneal
(2)  Hi! Friendofthebloggreg and Friendoftheblogmarcus

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10 thoughts on “McEwan Hall

  1. 2. Have you seen

    4. Tortoise and Bonny ‘prince’ whatzizface doing a cover of Springsteen thunder road

    Right now I am reading through booker long lists talking of mcewan. Powers “Oreo” was amazing and I’m well into Mitchell’s “the bone clocks” which is a world of fun. That 24 hour bookstore is just a hoot though if you want book candy

    And happy birthday!

    1. 2. Ha! I have now. Hope I get to do “Teenagers are literally just tryna be trendy and follow historical patterns of language change, but prescriptivists think they’re dumb and don’t want to give them jobs”. LULZ!!!
      Has someone been plagiarising you, btw? The rate that young star systems lose matter can be inferred from squiggly lines collected by expensive telescopes
      4. I have now. Image-tracked by aurora borealis, too. It’s “Billy”, of course. Good stuff, and none of that arena rubbish, either. Leave that to them chickens.

      Just met someone who met Mitchell at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Nice to hear that he’s a lovely chap, by this account.

      And thanks!

  2. 3. A favorite adaptation – not sure. The only one that comes to mind is Apocalypse Now. But favorite critique? Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa” deriding Heart of Darkness as horribly racist.

    1. (Yes, number 3 and then 1 – because screw linear thinking.) The most ridiculous ice breaker? Again not sure. But the best one I can imagine would be literally breaking ice. You get a hammer and a block of ice and you get to smash it up – or take turns doing so. I guess that pretty much sums up how I feel about ice breakers.

    1. 3. We’ve just seen Filth with Wee Jimmy McAvoy. After our experience with Irv at #BookFest, I’ve gotta assume that’s better than the original. I’ll check “An Image….” Thanks! But after Heart itself. I’m just here for the sentences, Juneau? Have you seen Coppola’s wife’s “making of” documentary, “Hearts Of Darkness” (natch)?
      1. Take one Ron, one block of ice, one HR cheerleader, and one hammer. Put in a room and simmer. There’s a cocktail.

    1. Why, thank you! I’ve decided to spend each birthday in the company of charming youth eating reasonably-priced, butter-drenched French cuisine. Assuming I make it to 41.

  3. Pardon my recent absence. I am an awful person.
    1). I always make my students list their favorite sandwich. I then end with an extended argument about why the burrito should be classified as a sandwich
    2). I once presented a paper called “Quantifying Penetration” There was more after a power colon, but that is irrelevant.
    3). I have nothing that hasn’t been mentioned, though a lot of video games rip it (or maybe Apocalypse Now) off pretty terribly.
    4). Just for driving with an expired registration. It took three minutes.
    5). Nothing really, just that I often leave things half finis

    1. You are awful, but I like you.

      1. This is the perfect ice (pick through the eyeball) breaker. I’m a historical connoisseur of the sandwich myself. Something involving Quorn, French mustard and mature cheddar would hit the spot right now. But my new favourite snack is Primal Strips’ meatless vegan teriyaki jerky. Though, like burrito, it’s not a sandwich.
      2. Clearly, one would need a power colon to cope with a quantifying penetration.
      3. Oh. I’m not specifically looking for H.o.D. adaptations. Though that would save a bunch of time. “So, I liked the bit where the fat, bald bloke muttered a bunch about whatever was on his mind….”
      4. You’re clearly the beneficiary of the quantity theory of driving infactions. Whereby, if someone in the immediate vicinity (or, say, apartment) commits an incalculable number of traffic violations, you get out of court in less time than it takes for a clumsy fumble.

  4. Hello to my anthropomorphized-representation-of-the-Merkin-govt pal, Uncle Sam, who asked on the “Contact” link for my views on #indyref. Well, he asked….

    …You can click on the “Referendum” category on the right-hand side (down the bottom on mobile devices) for a flavour of my opinion. But in these last hours of self-doubt, when the number of variables and the mountain of stats and predictions can justify any stance, I think one has to fall back on one’s own principal principles.

    In your case, a more perfect democracy, right? Once a body politic reaches a size, or finds itself in possession of assets, such that it can economically sustain its population, it’s healthy for its political leaders to be close to and answerable to the population. And for its population to feel engaged in its political process. #indyref has the potential to bring us closer to these ideals, notwithstanding the failure of Scottish and UK journalism.

    For a swinging indictment of this faiure, see George Monbiot’s article I posted on twitter today:

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