My taste in books, films and art is fairly eclectic, and that’s no bad thing. But I have always liked to think that there’s some common theme, and at long last I may have twigged what it is: The Commonplace.
The banal isn’t always boring in the art of film: I like the gritty ordinariness of Ken Loach’s Kes, and the Dardenne brothers make my kind of film, too – naturalistic in style, filmed in places like industrial Liège. I’m impressed by the way they usually get straight down to business – no fancy opening credit sequence, or music.
An involving play I saw recently at the National Theatre was A Small Family Business: the scenes are the interiors of standard British family homes of three decades ago, while the most interesting props are the 1980s clunky phones and some Fairy Liquid in its now obsolete white bottle. Similarly, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads programmes for television, and his short radio plays, draw their strength from a provincial world of seaside hotels and afternoon tea.
Commonplace occurrences, unglamorous locations – I can identify with them. A play or novel, in the right hands, illuminates the familiar. It doesn’t need to say anything new. It can simply state what we already know: the writer expresses in words, ideally as few as possible, what we could never quite put our finger on, let alone articulate to others.
This is the particular talent of Elizabeth Taylor – not the actress, but the novelist and short story writer whose centenary was marked in 2012. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, about elderly people seeing out their days as long-term residents of a hotel, conjures up a world of melancholy drizzly Sunday evenings and commonplace disappointments. No character is magnetic or larger-than-life. They are just impeccably realised, developed from the writer’s perceptive watching of the world around her. True, England circa 1970 is not my world, but characters and places are quite recognisable.
I’m most attracted to pictures I can imagine hanging on my living room wall, which rather rules out grand biblical scenes. Instead, it’s the more modest subject matter: a wintry English townscape, a dimly lit peasant’s cottage or a Dutch landscape painting such as Van Ruysdael’s River Scene (you can see it in London’s National Gallery), or perhaps Edward Hopper’s 1942 oil on canvas Nighthawks, depicting a solitary man and a couple in a downtown diner.
In music, I’ve begun to appreciate the stripped-down earthiness of folk. I wouldn’t say I identify with the subject matter of the songs; but the genre does, now I consider it, have a real link to The Commonplace.
The Dardenne brothers’ ‘Rosetta’ (1999)