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A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to the read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

Those kinde of people

Staying Power by Peter Fryer is not only an important when it comes to history and identity, but it also dispels the idea that White writers can’t talk about race!

This poem is named for the first chapter of the iconic book Staying Power (1984) by historian and academic Peter Fryer. A book that talks about the history of Black people in Britain, from Roman times up to his modern-day. It’s also inspired by ‘Mathematics’ by British poet and author Hollie McNish.

Hollie McNish recites her poem ‘Mathematics’

Adam said:

those goddamn universities
and their goddamn books
learned people, crippling egos
with nothing but a look
he says those goddamn historians
and their god damn history
I tell them they worked hard
to get there, can’t you see?

I ask him what
he expects British history to be
he says he remembers
the land of Blyton and Christie
coastal wrecks, greenery
and a good wage before those people came
where people went to work, pot-bellied
national pride, stood proud before they came
now no British jobs, their kinde are to blame

Photo Credit: Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

I ask how he knows this to be true
he said he saw it on BBC News
every time a Pole takes a job from us
each time he hears a different language
whilst riding the bus
this divide and conquer, them and us
to me just does not add up
he makes a brew, two sugars in his tea
I say didn’t you know those granules
came from the sugar economy

he grunts, goddamn Blacks came and took our stuff
I tell him about sugar and cotton, you know
how slaves gave us indigo and tobacco – hot air to puff

I show him Brixton Road and Portobello Market
I show him rock n roll, Network Rail and the NHS
I show him the immigrant-built west
I show him straight roads and pictures of my Gran
how the Jamaican ackee comes from the Ghanaian Akan

He’s sick of history and social science
sitting all sad and smug on his island

I spent three years on a degree
did a dissertation on British identity
I geek over John Blanke
renaissance trumpeter who was Black
Oh and Ann Lister, call her Gentleman Jack
and Afro-Romans and The Slave Trade
Black Georgians, Saxons and Viking Raids
and I so want to scream when I hear folks say
goddamn immigrants taking our jobs
but how we teach history – we don’t talk
of Mrs Shah’s shop employing Bill and Bob
where people with money love to spend
employing women and men in tens,
her gift for business is self-taught
all her plans meticulously well-thought

Second Lieutenant, Walter Daniel Tull – one of the first (Black) mixed-race footballers in England and the first (Black) mixed-race officer in the British Army

and all your prejudice talk
forgets the soldiers the colonies pledged
forgets the men left for dead
in Tangiers, Dunkirk and at the Somme
as the world wars went on and on
from Mr Smith to Mr Wong
and I know people love to complain
but England our name
the land of Angles is all that remains
from Saxons to Jutes
stories of migration since before WW2

and often, those kind of people
are more native than the locals.

Justice on Trial

Witness for the Prosecution

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be treated to theatre tickets for Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. The setting – London’s County Hall – was exquisite, the play sublime and the actors fabulous. An afternoon of sheer escapism, even for a die hard Christie fan like myself. Having read the short story/play many times is no replacement for seeing this on the stage. The theatre offers the opportunity to see the action from all perspectives; you can put yourself in the shoes of the defendant, the court actors and of course, the witnesses. Such a perspective vividly demonstrates the immense power of the State, not only through physical violence (although this is also evident) but through verbal dexterity.  To see the defendant – Leonard Vole – on trial; so small and defenceless against the majesty of the courtroom, is thought provoking. Furthermore, this environment is staffed by legal professionals, who unlike him, understand the world in which they operate. The cut and thrust of legalistic argument performed in the play (and in modern day courts daily) conceals the sheer ferocity of authority’s attack on the individual. Remember at the time the play was written, the death penalty was still in force, and Leonard Vole is on trial for the capital crime of murder. In essence, he is openly fighting for his very life, but subjected to the machinations and mediation of professionals who openly profess to be seeking justice. When he tries to speak, to argue, to cajole, he is silenced. There is no place for the defendant’s perspective unless it is expressed via the mandated professional who speaks on his (or her) behalf.

In the twenty-first century (and indeed, for the latter part of the twentieth century), capital punishment in the UK has not been a sentencing option. Whilst defendants may not be faced with a possible date with the hangman, the finality of sentencing and punishment is no laughing matter. Whilst there is no doubt that dramatic denouements have their place in the theatre, in the serious business of the criminal courts such antics seem out of place. If we look at the criminal court as a theatrical scene, we start to observe all manner of incongruity (cf. Carlen, 1976). For starters; the language used and the costumes worn. For anyone that has ever grappled to understand the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë’s, such reading requires patience and perseverance to understand the beauty of such writing.   In 2018, we would not request that our surgeons operate on us without the benefit of anaesthesia, neither would we want to be treated with procedures such as bloodletting or trepanning. Similarly, we don’t expect soldiers to carry muskets or form into schiltrons just because that’s how it used to be. Yet we accept and arguably, expect our courts to run as if they were stuck in time. What chance does the individual defendant have in this archaic, theatrical setting? After all, they are the star of the show, yet they have neither costume, nor the opportunity to learn their lines. It is hard to argue, that such practices are conducive to the pursuit of justice.

On the surface, going to the theatre appears to offer a pleasurable break from academia, yet the reality is it offers the opportunity to consider criminology from a novel perspective. Reading (and you all know how keen I am on reading!!) is only part of Criminology; talking, listening, thinking and exploring away from the classroom are equally important. My advice; get out, explore – the arts; theatre, cinema, literature, museums – and add this experiential knowledge to your academic studies. See things from a different perspective and unleash your Criminological Imagination (Young, 2011).

References:

Carlen, Pat, (1976), ‘The Staging of Magistrates’ Justice,’ The British Journal of Criminology, 16, 1: 48–55

Christie, Agatha, (2018), Witness for the Prosecution, Directed by Lucy Bailey. London County Hall, [11 February 2018]

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity)

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