Saturday, 13 February 2010

Supermarket creep

I hate supermarkets; they sap my soul.

There is so much stuff – so many varieties of things we don’t need in packages that we will just take home and throw away. We are faced with a plethora of options but no real choice. How many cereals can one person handle? I find myself standing in front of them staring at the multiple versions of maize and my eyes glaze over.

It starts with the vegetables. There are simply too many and they are all evenly spaced and displayed in colourful regimented mounds that seem plastic in their uniformity. And it’s so cold that I lose the circulation in my hands, while my mind loses the will to live.

The music is vile, and the forced jollity of the announcements telling me what’s on special in aisle four makes me want to cry at the thought that the real world is out there somewhere, but it’s not in here. What’s in here is bored-out-of-their mind women pushing trolleys and pandering to their brattish offspring.

It’s one of the domestic chores I like least, right up there with cleaning the toilet. And yet, I love a farmer’s market.

Here there is something seductive about the produce on offer. Even the names are alluring; the pale and fragrant lemon cheese; the still-warm vine-ripened tomatoes; the personally-pressed virgin oil; earthy new potatoes; regal purple aubergines; spiky but soft artichoke hearts. Some people believe that any list can be poetry if the right words are used, but that’s another matter.

I’m currently reading the brilliant Eating for England by Nigel Slater. He writes of the farmer’s market; “I shop there because I want to meet the people who grow what I eat, to experience the joy of seasonal shopping, to be as close as I can to where my food originates without actually getting my hands in the soil. And I suspect that, as I trundle up the hill with my recycled bag of cheap corn on the cob still in its fresh green husks and a swaying bunch of three-foot-high sunflowers, it probably allows me to feel just a wee bit smug about those shoppers with their supermarket packet of identically sized, overpriced, cellophane-wrapped green beans from Mozambique.”

When I was a student, I used to go to different shops to collect my groceries. There was a herbalist, a greengrocer, a fishmonger, a delicatessen (I couldn’t afford anything from there), a butcher, a baker and yes, even a candlestick maker (and I was going through that late teen/early twenties obsession with smelly incense and cinnamon and spiced pumpkin candles).
Things were cheaper, and I could talk to the people who sold them. Sure, it took all day to collect my bits and pieces wrapped in waxed paper but that was okay, because I had all day – I was inevitably procrastinating about writing an essay on eighteenth century English drama.

Now it’s far more convenient to drive to one soulless sterile building with blinding bright lights and no heart. (To be fair, when Big Fresh in Christchurch introduced singing vegetables to the greengrocery section it was truly terrifying).

And yet, some people like it. As I returned a trolley to its berth (is that what they call them? They should) a bloke smiled happily, “I love the supermarket; it’s full of hot women. I’m going to come here every day.” And there you have it; it may not be a bustling bazaar or a social souk, but it can be considered a meat market.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


There was a time when no one believed in the Theory of Evolution. Then there was Darwin and On the Origin of Species and everyone did. Now some people refute evidence that the world wasn’t created in seven days. According to Creation, 150 years ago a nine-year-old child was made to kneel in rock salt for defending the existence of dinosaurs. She was Annie, the favourite, and short-lived, child of Charles Darwin.

Creation tells the story of a man’s personal and familial battle – to confirm what he has proven; he must turn his back on all his wife believes. Paul Bettany embodies Darwin’s inner struggle beautifully with nuances of insanity as he wrestles with the big issues. Science is at war with religion and, as the obnoxiously vituperative Huxley (a splendid Toby Jones) tells him, “You have killed God”.

He does not slash through the framework of society glibly and in fact prevaricates for a couple of decades before finishing his earth-shattering work. He knows that, “Society is bound together with religious beliefs – it’s an improbable form of barque, but it floats.” As he fidgets through grace before meals and leaves a church in a middle of a sermon by his friend Reverend Innes (a firm but gentle Jeremy Northam), we see the gradual eroding of his religion in a tale told through flashbacks and fast forwards. “The loss of faith is a slow process like the raising of continents over thousands of years.”

He questions the rational of a vindictive divinity. Thousands die that only a few may live – what sort of a plan is that? Innes can only answer, “It is not my duty to speculate on the will of God.” Just as there are no atheists in the trenches, Darwin postpones publishing because, although he has proved the triumph of science, he is still afraid to risk his mortal soul. When his daughter’s life hangs in the balance (it is to be supposed that she died from scarlet fever), he is prepared to bargain with God; if you let my child live...

This all sounds rather weighty and cerebral, yet Bettany’s Darwin is warm and vivacious. Whether playing with Jenny the orang-utan, explaining to his daughter in explicit detail how light can make a picture as she fusses in the photographer’s studio, or waiting nervously for his religious wife to finish reading his book and pronounce her verdict, he is eminently human albeit not particularly Victorian.

If there is a heaven and hell, he may be separated from his wife for eternity. And he loves his wife as he loves his children. Jennifer Connelly plays Emma Darwin with unassuming grace and strength. Their chemistry is clear through looks and gestures that belie the oft-portrayed repressed emotions of the era. She says of her husband, “He’s like a barnacle and if you prise him from his rock you’ll kill him.” It appears that she is this rock.

It transpires that Darwin and his wife are first cousins and both of them feel guilt over their daughter, Annie’s death. He worries that they never should have married and that their blood is too close. He thought they were breeding the perfect child but now fears that they endowed her with the weakness that killed her. Amid the current debate about designer babies, it is opportune of him to muse, “Nature selects for survival; humans for appearance.”

There is rather an obvious scene in a pub where two pigeon fanciers explain to him that they are breeding their birds to enhance their attributes, although there are inevitable casualties en route. Is he guilty of treating living things as experiments – even his children? In one of his hallucinations, the dead embryos captured in specimen-jars come horrifically alive in his study. In a fit of fevered rage he releases all the doves from their cote, disgusted by his genetic engineering. His imagination becomes increasingly obsessed with Annie (Martha West) who continues to dominate his thoughts after her death.

Great cinematography abounds from the opening credits (cells; sperm; fish; birds; butterflies; wildebeest) to the sped-up cycle of life and the seasonal changes depicting passage of time. The English countryside is stunning with its woodland mammals and rock pool inhabitants. Nature is instructive and it is also a battlefield. In a scene straight out of a BBC documentary, a fox catches a rabbit much to the dismay of the youngest Darwin girl. The moral is left to Annie to explain, “The fox has to eat the rabbit or its babies will die – that’s the balance of things.”

And above all, this is a story. Darwin regales his children with tales of adventure – how many kids can rely on their father’s personal exploits of climbing the Andes, being on a ship struck by St Elmo’s fire, earthquakes and giant sloths? The backdrop is an achingly beautiful string quartet or the passionate piano playing of Emma. The beautiful descriptions come from a voice over of diaries and letters weaving a rich tapestry of light and dark threads.

Nothing is black and white. Can you maintain a belief in an abstract theory when it threatens you personally? How far can you have a difference of opinion and still be friends? How much should you leave to your children and what do you owe them? The film contends that we are in a constant state of flux – we have been and are being evolved – and that this is not the end. The future (stem-cell research; cloning; religious fundamentalism and the latest God delusion) is as yet unwritten.

It is fitting that the film is based on the book, Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, a great-great-grandson of Darwin himself. As Charles and Emma separate and reunite, their harmony and entropy echoes the opening credits. Side-by-side and hand-and-hand they appear two-by-two in a manner that will satisfy followers of Genesis and genetics alike.