Elizabeth Strout (2021) Oh William!

I’m not a great fan of Elizabeth Strout. Yet I’ve read most of the books in this series (My Name is Lucy Barton, Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again, and Anything is Possible).William Gerhardt who Lucy was married to for twenty years, and had two daughters with, before they separated and she married David ( the cellist, and love of her life, who died last year) would explain it in terms of compulsion.

William admitted he had affairs when he was married to Lucy. That was connected to his sense of wealth and entitlement. His affair with Pam Carlson, for example was more of an afterthought. Lucy was friendly with her, but didn’t know they had an affair until he admitted it on their road trip. But the affairs didn’t mean much. Pam didn’t mean much. But he’d loved Lucy.  He questioned the notion of free will as beyond banal.

Lucy, as a successful writer, questioned everything, including whether writing is a vocation (the answer was Yes, in My Name is Lucy Barton, even for the 99% that made no money from the albatross of their gift) the same as being a priest or nun, or whether you could really know yourself. William had been her ‘rock’ (clichéd, I know) when they were married. But now she wondered if she created that myth to sustain herself. The questions Lucy asks herself are the questions we ask ourselves (plural) and the engine of their road trip to find out more about William having a sister. What I mean by that is he found out about her indirectly from a present he didn’t want from a wife that had left him about tracing his ancestors.  

Stylistically, Lucy traces out an idea, and qualifies it by frequent, ‘what I mean by that’ as if she is having a conversation with the reader.

Unlike William, and the majority of her readers (who tend to be women and therefore more empathetic) she doesn’t come from money and tends to be insecure in ways many would recognise, and this spills over into panic attacks and depression (which are big business for the pharmaceutical industry).

There have been a few time—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet so vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave the house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)…There was no escape.  

Authority as a writer, Lucy suggests comes from somewhere without and within. Somehow we’d recognise it. And she echoes other writers such as Robert M. Pirsig search for quality in the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In a nudge to the reader of the absurdity of this she suggests William may have lost his sense of authority when he shaved off his moustache. Their two daughters had wondered—perhaps hoped— Lucy and William might somehow get back together again. But his mystique, with his moustache, is gone. Oh William! Is already sniffing around other women and it’s like old times with him asking her to vet them via Google.

They’ve been on a journey and they’re back to where they started. It’s not T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, but the end-of-life secret of Elisabeth Strout/Lucy Barton isn’t what she thinks, but what she feels…What I mean by that…

Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure, BBC 2, 9pm, BBC IPlayer, producer and director Simon Draper.


Miriam Margoyles is elderly (78-years old), she’s fat, she’s Jewish, she’s gay-ish and she used to be an actress. I remember her painted green as Grotbags in a witch’s cap. She’s invisibility squared. But she’s BBC’s documentary crew’s go-to-pensioner. The female equivalent of Louis Theroux, but rounder and without the cocked eyebrow. Miriam Margoyles is the Olive Kitteridge of BBC.

I’m old enough to remember there not being an obesity epidemic. One third of British adults being morbidly obese.  In St Stephen’s Primary School in the sixties there were no fat kids. Apart from Meta Bell (*I’ve changed her name not to protect her privacy but because I can’t remember her name, which is a better reason than anything Google or Facebook will offer you).

I’m also cynical. When I hear government health warming I listen for money talk. Torsten Bell (no relation to *Meta Bell) suggest Tory cuts since 2010—taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich—has led to social insecurity. A rise in child poverty in the last four of five years and an estimated five million children below the poverty line by 2024. Fling into the equation, cut of around a billion pounds from local authority budgets have wiped out Sure Start, one of the projects that was proven to work and the mass closure of youth services. In England and Wales, for example, with an average cut of seventy percent, 750 youth clubs axed and 104 closed in London  since 2011.

Paradoxically, kids are getting fatter as they get poorer. Before we get into fat shaming and the Victorian  equivalent of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Cookery and Household Management,  with advice about how to keep your socks up, we should keep in mind the five million kids that are written off every year, economical casualties. The best examples, of course, come from this cohort. The Monty-Pythonish we were poor, but now we’re thin and rich, exception to the rule, rule. This paradigm is frequently highlighted to show the system is working and if you’re failing, if you’re fat, it’s your fault—being poor is no excuse (buy the latest Mrs Beeton’s podcast).

Shaming and blaming, is nothing new. If Jeremy Kyle was a virus it takes more than frequent hand-washing to shake him off.  Here we have Miriam going to a fat boot camp to talk to survivors. £600 gets you a spot in the tent in the garden. £1400 per week, gets you a room. It’s all-inclusive. Eat green leaves. Exercise. Weight drops off quicker than your pay packet after an agency takes its cut.

Will, for example, went to Eton or Harrow and then University, piled on the pounds, but lost four stone after a week in boot camp. He was 28 stone. Losing the first few stone is the easiest part. Miriam asks about his sex life. She can be blunt that way and sometimes it’s funny.

Georgia is less funny. She’s a food addict. We follow the she’s-doing-really-well film mantra. She lives semi-permanently in boot camp. Her parents support her.

As we know most folk that lose weight, over time, put it back on. I don’t have any answers that don’t involve structural rather that personal change.

Here we are in fat is a feminist issue with Miriam attending a plus-size dance class with twenty-five plus size dancers, whopping it up. I wasn’t convinced. I’m not sure what this programme is meant to teach us, teach me. Miriam is watchable. But it’s empty viewing calories. Middle-class twaddle.