A Spot Of Bother
By Mark Haddon
Abridged by Carolanne Lyme
BBC Radio 4

Papa Ante Portas

Our anti-hero George Hall, is a 57-year-old man grappling with anxiety attacks brought on by what he suspects might be skin cancer. But is that really all that tips him over the edge? As we will get to learn, there's more to his worrying than that - unfortunately his ego is so self-centred that he realizes almost too late that life's a funny thing - before you know how to use it it's gone… You might even get the idea that George is in a typical post-working-life crisis. He has recently retired and is having difficulty dealing with an identity that doesn't involve work.

All characters are much like members of the average family, and are as irritating in the same way that average people usually are. The emotional incompetence of your typically numb middle-class family is displayed for fun's sake, but not just only that. This novel is also about portraying emotional vulnerability in all this seemingly dull and stereotypic world. Maybe it could also be read as a memorial to what a curious and mysterious gift human relationships are, even sometimes when they seem to become a spot of bother.

Take for example George. He is in many ways your average, middle-class dad and his mental limits aren't that - well let's say - flexible. When he learns that Jamie, God forbid his only son, is gay, he thinks about what it is that really bothers him.

"He didn't have a problem with homosexuality per se... It was the thought of men purchasing furniture together which disturbed him. Men snuggling. More disconcerting, somehow, than shenanigans in public toilets."

The sad thing about George's thoughts is that he doesn't even see that Jamie is deeply in love. Having to stand up for his lover is one of the hardest trials Jamie's have ever been through - so he is currently going through hell… But make no mistakes, Jamie - is no exhibit for emotional honesty or tolerance himself just because he's gay.

Father of the Bride

But who says that life is easy? The ideal manly man according to George's average mind does not seem to be much of a comfort either. Katie, his divorced daughter with a toddler at her feet is struggling to make a decent life for herself. Being tired of fighting day in day out she's about to flee in marrying Ray who is not her intellectual or social equal, but an adequate father for her five-year-old son. All of the family are equally disturbed by Katie's boyfriend. Ray is a beefy, working-class dream-come-true:

"He looked like an ordinary person who had been magnified. He moved more slowly than other people, the way the larger animals in zoos did. Giraffes. Buffalo. He lowered his head to go through doorways and had what Jamie unkindly but accurately described as 'strangler's hands.'" Katie on the other hand is quick-witted and speaks French. Her parents and her brother suspect she could do better, but that she's too stubborn to admit she's marrying a man simply because he has "a good salary and a thick skin.""

Katie does not like anyone meddling with her life and unwanted advice makes her - to say it politely - angry, well aggressive would be more fitting. She's intelligent, but also unfortunately too comfortable in expressing her often-selfish opinions. Despite the difficulties in her life recently, she doesn't seem to have learned much from her failed relationship. She's more spoilt than ever, increasingly neurotic and needs a man with especially good nerves and a lot of love for her. Frankly speaking: the only sane person in the book is Ray!

To make things worse and even more complicated George, who in all his paranoia about melanoma has failed to notice Jean is having an affair with an ex-working mate. After having realized his wife's infidelity everything appears to be in the process of a mental breakdown. Preparations for his daughter's wedding in the adaptation's second half run parallel with George's ongoing deterioration, and we are well attuned for the wedding reception to be the centre-stage for his crowning disgrace - almost like his own family is prepared for a final countdown.

By the end of this story, all Halls do seem, having hit bottom, to be piecing their lives back into a hopeful future. The only way is up! They seem to have realized that living together is about making compromises and accepting one another - but not blindly by ignoring one another and hoping that everyone is acting in their usual and expected ways at all costs. Their individual journeys have been anguished and a complete recovery is not an assurance and certainly not the goal. Knowing that life together is a precious and frail thing can be a perspective that heals and teaches everyone.

Something funny happened on the way… to the Cuckoo's Nest?

The wonder of this radio instalment is that despite all this turmoil, confusion and distress among its characters, the experience of listening to it is not one of misery but one of sympathy, compassion and mostly recognition. The accuracy of this portrayal of each of the characters and of their reactions is real and hits the nail straight on the head. It's almost ghostly how at times I was eerily forced to acknowledge a truth I have seen or experienced or heard somewhere in my life.

But don't get me wrong - there's no angst in this. Like a good piece of music this text has its counterpoints. There are truly funny descriptions of George's breakdowns and the odd scenes in which they happen. But it isn't about simply scoffing at George's ways. Couple the realistic pain of a nervous breakdown caused by a once-in-a-lifetime crisis and the helplessness of a human being in that situation with a beautifully understated humour. This is far from being a heavy, difficult deep-dwelling psychological piece.

Nat's Reading

Oh, yes, juicy parts and all of them brilliantly spoken by Nat. I'm especially fond of George, his middle-aged man who's afraid of dying actually tries to go insane in a polite way and in such manner that nobody is bothered. Here comes Katie and her strange attitude towards Ray. Katie's soon-to-be-husband Ray actually sounds like a tall, broad-shouldered man - whatever Nat does to make him sound like that - he's convincing. Lest not forget our gay couple. And the evangelical kinship that comes to realize that the Halls are in deep trouble. Ohhh and there's Jacob, a small five-year-old who's constantly (and rightfully) completely not-understanding of the adults problems - thank God for that! Dozens of tiny character driven cliff-hangers - what a panorama to move and act in and what delights to listen to all those trials and perplexities. A lovely piece of work that I thoroughly enjoyed - the adaptation as well as Nat's performance in this one.


Radio broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from September 18 - 29, 2006 in the "Book at Bedtime" series.
Running time 2 hours approx.
Not issued on CD or cassette.

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