Diary of an Interesting Year by Helen Simpson

Peter Graham - The Grass Crown Headland of a Rocky Shore

Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson is a science fiction short story and the final story in her collection In-flight Entertainment. This story is written in diary format and is a critique of the apocalyptic dystopian genre.

“Interesting” of the title is classic understatement. The comedy achieved by the irony and satire in this story is dark.

FEATURES OF THE APOCALYPTIC STORY

Apocalyptic stories tend to focus on the experience of a small group of characters, perhaps on one. This makes use of a particular cognitive bias — we are more saddened by the story of an individual than by the story of a population. When we are unable to feel empathy because the magnitude of disaster is too great, this is called psychic numbing.

THE MYTH OF THE SELF-RELIANT INDIVIDUAL

“Diary of an Interesting Year” critiques the idea that individuals are capable of looking after ourselves, given sufficient willpower, hard work and grit.

  • One reason that isolated characters seem appealing is that, ironically, they are reassuring. They give the comforting impression that anyone could thrive in isolation as they do.
  • The great loners embody an idea of freedom from the vagaries and stresses of social life (e.g. Robinson Crusoe and similar survival stories, often set on islands)
  • Famous hermits, both in real life and in fiction, are always male. They tend to be young, fit and healthy with no family responsibilities to speak of.
  • But even in stories, they are not wholly self-reliant.
  • These stories are often set in the wild. The wild is a source not only of sensory stimulation, but also of interspecies sociality. (Robinson Crusoe had a dog, two cats, some goats and a parrot, and later a human companion.)
  • Real, relentless isolation is not at all romantic. Indeed, it is far worse than the stress of social life.
  • A growing body of psychological evidence indicates that supportive social contact, interaction and inclusion are fundamentally important to a minimally decent human life.

Aeon

How does Helen Simpson subvert and invert the reassuring modern Romanticism we’ve come to expect of apocalyptic tales, even those tales full of death and destruction?

  • The narrator is a woman rather than your typical able-bodied Magyver archetype. This woman is not a shell-like fantasy of a woman but a real woman with real woman problems. She is terrified of pregnancy and cleaning her menstrual rags is one of her tasks. A few writers such as Meg Elison (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife) have put women front and centre in apocalyptic tales, but this is still rare enough to feel like an inversion. (This Reddit thread of comments really highlights the issues writers have writing female main characters in an apocalyptic setting. Many commenters think the main character is overly concerned with women’s issues and generally unlikeable — two accusations rarely if ever levelled at male characters in desperate situations.)
  • In straight apocalyptic tales, members of a group often come together in times of crisis. They do have their own in-group conflicts but those arguments tend to be focused on the here and now of the story, because everything that happened before this terrible moment is rendered insignificant. But in this story, the narrator has a long-standing issue with her older, academic husband — he is always going on about the apocalypse. This continues to irritate her. The same old rift won’t just die because of an apocalypse. Simpson juxtaposes and combines massive, life-and-death problems with the same workaday, run-of-the-mill problems within the same diary entry, ultimately showing that humans find it very difficult to rise above our immediate situations. “Oh, shut up,” says the narrator to her husband. She tells her diary they should put ‘I Was Right’ on his tombstone. Ironically, he does end up dead and death indeed shuts him up, forever. Though “See Saw” by Katherine Mansfield is a very different kind of short story, the characters in Mansfield’s story show the same petty aspect of human nature. But Mansfield achieves this by putting her characters into a utopian setting rather than into a dystopian one.
  • Apocalyptic stories are mythic in structure, either Robinsonnades (mentioned above) or Odyssean (characters go on a journey). In “Diary of an Interesting Year” the characters have no luck staying put. There are very unromantic reasons for this — sewerage overflow is one. So they set out on a journey. In a classic myth narrative, characters will meet stock characters along the way — some will be enemies, others helpers. But in this story there are no helpers. Moreover, enemies aren’t your classic villains, rather, enemies are other desperate people competing for the same scarce resources.

G held me in his shaky arms and talked about Russia, how it’s the new land of milk and honey since the Big Melt. ‘Some really good farming opportunities opening up in Siberia,’ he said through chattering teeth.

  • Although the narrator’s husband has been proven correct about the apocalypse — which is terrible — the diarist narrator wife paints a picture in which he is pleased he is at least correct. This is all he’s got to cling to. In this story, neither the happily deluded nor the Cassandras ‘win’.
  • The husband reminds me of every single character I’ve ever seen on Doomsday Preppers. The assumption behind those shows is that it’s possible to survive with adequate preparation and self-defence. This is a comforting idea for those with the resources. But in “Diary of an Interesting Year” the husband’s vague fantasies of self-sufficiency don’t pan out, because self-sufficiency is very, very difficult.

We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G said ‘Quick! We’ve got to kill it.’
‘Why?’ I said. ‘How?’
‘With a knife,’ he said. “Bacon. Sausages.’
I pointed out that even if we managed to stab it to death with our old kitchen knife, which looked unlikely, we wouldn’t be able just to open it up and find bacon and sausages inside.
‘Milk, then!’ said G wildly. ‘It’s a mammal, isn’t it?’
Meanwhile the pig walked off.

  • In apocalyptic stories the main character usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules. But these characters are low on Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes. At first they seem hapless, until we step back and realise that in the same situation we’d be no better. This is, in fact, the point.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DIARY OF AN INTERESTING YEAR”

Unlike straight narratives, the satire does not invite reader identification with a ‘hero’ or ‘main character

SHORTCOMING

Everyone’s in a pickle, though women are even more vulnerable than men.

DESIRE

The narrator has no long term desire other than to survive each day. Anything more would turn her into a more noble hero, and she is not that. She is an ordinary person, plucked out of comfortable urban/surburban life in a rich country with no survival skills.

OPPONENT

Everyone is an opponent, though her husband G is not the sort of opponent we’ve come to expect — the long-running issues of their marriage haven’t simply evaporated.

Everyone along the path is an opponent.

She is eventually abducted by M after M kills G.

PLAN

Throughout most of the story, plans don’t turn out. Even the things stories have taught us should be simple turn out to be nigh on impossible. For instance, throwing oneself about to induce termination:

Can’t sleep. Very bruised and scratched after today. They used to throw themselves downstairs to get rid of it. The trouble is the gravel pit just wasn’t deep enough, plus the bramble bushes kept breaking my fall.

Amy Robsart exhibited 1877 William Frederick Yeames 1835-1918
Amy Robsart exhibited 1877 William Frederick Yeames 1835-1918

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle where the narrator defeats her main enemy is left off the page, presumably because the narrator can’t bear to write about it.

November 7th. It’s all over. I’m still here. Too tired to

ANAGNORISIS

After many abuses, the narrator realises she has the strength to defeat her abductor. This plan works, showing she has experienced a character arc. Using trickery, she is able to kill M. She also arranges things that he kills the baby inside her via another beating.

NEW SITUATION

The story ends with the narrator buries the diary with her dead baby. She continues on her journey. We extrapolate things won’t improve for her. She now has nothing and no one.

John Everett Millais - Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind
John Everett Millais – Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind
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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Header painting: Peter Graham – The Grass Crown Headland of a Rocky Shore

Up At A Villa by Helen Simpson

Henrietta Rae - The Sirens 1903

“Up At A Villa” is a short story by Helen Simpson, opening her 2011 collection In-flight Entertainment. This is a lyrical short story full of symbolism.

Cover copy tells us to expect work a la Alice Munro. Of all the stories here, the images in “Up At A Villa” are most reminiscent of Munro — young and old are juxtaposed, reminding the reader that we are all young and old at some point, and therefore young and old at once.

As for the style and storytelling techniques, this story is far more similar to the work of Katherine Mansfield than to Alice Munro.

CHARACTERS OF “UP AT A VILLA”

This is a story of two groups of people. The first group comprises two heterosexual pairs of young people in their late teens or early twenties. The characters named Nick and Tina are romantic and flirtatious with each other. The other pair, Joe and Charlotte, do not feel that way about each other, or Charlotte does not feel that way about Joe. Helen Simpson paints this picture in extremely succinct fashion and we know it by the end of the third paragraph, observing these young people waking up from the forest after a drunken night of frolicking. We know this about them from the way they behave around the pool and in the water. We’d know it if we were seated nearby. And that’s where Simpson puts the reader. We’ve been given an invisible pool-side seat.

These two young couples juxtapose against another couple — older. This older couple has a new baby. This could of course be either of the young couples in another ten years’ time.

SETTING OF “UP AT A VILLA”

Herbert Draper - A Young Girl by a Pool
Herbert Draper – A Young Girl by a Pool. Angelic girls sitting prettily by contained bodies of water are far more dominant in the cultural imagination than Tina of this story.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - The Baths of Caracalla
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – The Baths of Caracalla

There’s a fairytale vibe to this short story, which is probably set in Southern France. Local food provides this detail —pissaladière — cuisine of Nice. It’s Monday morning and everything is closed down in the village (fermé le lundi). The young couples have snuck onto this holiday villa to use the pool as they’ve run out of money, which reminds me of the opening of Brokedown Palace, the 1999 film about two young American women who eventually find themselves imprisoned for drug trafficking.

It’s mid afternoon and these kids have their morning sleeping in the forest, redolent with fairytale spookiness. Their hair is ‘stuck with pine needles’. They’ve become one with the forest, but could the story be making use of the double English meaning of ‘pine’, much as Robin Black did in her short story “Pine“?

In stories the forest can function as all kinds of things, most notably the subconscious. When they wake up in the forest, have they really woken up? What follows around the pool could easily be part of a dreamscape.

Helen Simpson inverts the general utopian beachspace of our imaginations by describing the Mediterranean this way:

Anyway they had fallen out of love over the last week with the warm soup of the Mediterranean, its filmy surface bobbing with polystyrene shards and other unsavoury orts.

‘Ort’ is an archaic word, linking this contemporary setting to an archaic world and means ‘a scrap or remainder of food from a meal’. Alongside breastmilk, this word choice links something which shouldn’t be eaten with food. (Of course breastmilk is food — the best human food that exists — but that’s not how the young observers see it.)

Three bodies of water are mentioned in this story: first the sea, then the pool, then the baby’s bath when Harvey asks the woman what’s so special about bath-time anyway? This creates a very subtle mise-en-abyme effect, from large down to small — the grievances are likewise becoming more petty, while at the same time carrying the magnitude of a sea for this couple.

‘Space’ and ‘Place’ are not the same thing. Drawing on spatial theory by Lawrence Buell and E. V. Walter, a place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided. In contrast, the Space is the subjective dimension of located experience. Because certain Spaces exist in the shared cultural imagination, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without having visited a ‘place’. For instance, if you live in Australia or have seen tourist advertising, you’ll be familiar with beachspace even if you haven’t ever visited (the place of) an actual beach. Likewise, we are all familiar with images of the Mediterranean even if we haven’t visited the Mediterranean:

Villefranche Beach, France
This picture of Villefranche Beach, France, is how I imagine the Mediterranean though I’ve never been there. It’s a beautiful blue edged and dappled in turquoise, and always a long distance view.

In other words, we know a Space of even if we don’t know the Place. This applies to the tourists in Helen Simpson’s story, whose knowledge of the Space has been replaced by unwelcome knowledge of the Place. Evoking the story of Adam and Eve — these kids were happier before they saw the polystyrene. Now their imaginative Space will be forever tainted.

What about the symbolism of the pool? In a few deft strokes, Simpson evokes a scene of ancient mythology — modernised, of course — but this pool could easily be a lake or a pond in a forest. The naked young people, the youthful bodies… well, they could be sirens, of course.

What do you imagine when you think ‘siren’? Probably of beautiful femme fatales fresh out of Romanticism…

Screenshot from Sirens, the 1994 movie
Screenshot from Sirens, the 1994 movie

… or perhaps something more like this…

Lord Frederic Leighton - The Fisherman and the Syren
Lord Frederic Leighton – The Fisherman and the Syren

… not the sirens of Ancient Greece, where winged and clawed bird-women lured sailors to destruction through the power of their song.

Sirens Are Actually Bird-Bodied Messengers of Death, Not Sexy Mermaids.

Audiences didn’t exactly appreciate John William Waterhouse harking back to the earlier era of sirens. I mean, these women are terrifying. And no one wants to go to an art gallery and look at terrifying women, do they? Women are supposed to be warm and sexy and alluring and welcoming.

[A woman’s] value [is] contingent on her giving moral goods to them: life, love, pleasure, nurture, sustenance, and comfort, being some

Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and the Sirens
John William Waterhouse – Ulysses and the Sirens

The same thing has happened to witches, female vampires and basically any femme/androgynous mythical creature (including gothic male vampires). We love to sexualise anyone who’s not overtly manly.

Anyway, this story is perhaps Helen Simpson’s reclamation. Because of the varied history of siren mythology, these hybrid creatures are useful to storytellers when weaving an imagistic pattern. (Double-duty symbols always are.)

Though Simpson has left the siren mythology off the page, I think it’s there in her imagery. An important thing to understand about metaphorical chimera (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the characters. In common with a siren, these kids (especially Tina) are two things at once — their current youthful selves and the older selves they are forced to imagine.

If we read the young women of Helen Simpson’s short story as contemporary sirens, they are both of these creatures at once — tempting and terrifying.

What else is tempting and terrifying? All of us: tempting when young; terrifying when old.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “UP AT A VILLA”

SHORTCOMING

Age has always terrified the young. When we are young it’s difficult to even imagine ourselves as older. If younger selves imagine older selves at all, we see them as separate identities. When Tina whispers “Oh, gross!” at the sight of the mother breastfeeding, what exactly disgusts her? The narrator describes breasts with ‘huge brown nipples on breasts like wheels of Camembert’. Cheese is nice. But anything that’s not cheese, when compared to cheese, is not nice. Weird how that works, but there we have it. We love cheese despite itself, I guess.

Using free indirect style, Helen Simpson encourages the reader to react with disgust to the spectacle of a woman breastfeeding her newborn. This is a modern reaction. Scroll through classic art from the Victorian era and you’ll find many beautiful breastfeeding images, clearly romanticising the act of breastfeeding as beautiful, natural, life-giving and good. Simpson’s story is an inversion — contemporary life has inverted this aspect of motherhood.

So the Shortcoming of Tina is that she is disgusted by what she herself may one day become.

“She’s hideous,” whispered Tina. “Look at that gross stomach, it’s all in folds.” She glanced down superstitiously at her own body, the high breasts like halved apples, the handspan waist.

Joe and Nick have a different reaction — they are fascinated by it.

At this point Helen Simpson makes an astute feminist observation on why people don’t listen to women:

At some subliminal level each of the eavesdropping quartet recognised their own mother’s voice in hers, and glazed over.

DESIRE

Everyone at the pool wants to have a fun time.

More deeply, the woman wants to reconnect with her husband, who has retreated into himself since the birth of their baby. The young people want to live in the moment.

OPPONENT

Harvey and the unnamed mother are in marital conflict. It’s difficult to read without sympathy for them, especially the mother, who is in a very vulnerable position.

The complete lack of sympathy from the young people is striking.

The young couples came to France on a shoestring budget, buoyed by new love that didn’t last, because they’ve been let down by their surroundings. France is traditionally the country of love, but even France can’t help them. They’re each too self-absorbed to be in an adult partnership of equals (in common with Harvey, in fact).

Since the young couples want to live in the moment, the sight of older versions of themselves pull them out of that. (All are from England, cementing their more general similarity when in a foreign country.)

PLAN

We can deduce why the new parents are here — perhaps the woman suggested it, as an attempt at a brief respite from new parenthood, hoping to rekindle something from their pre-baby days.

“I thought the idea was to get away from it all.”
“I thought we’d have a chance to talk on holiday.”

BIG STRUGGLE

The married couple are failing at communication, clear from their conversation. The woman wants to talk; the man does not. The climax of their big struggle is when the woman howls in anger and grief.

ANAGNORISIS

The character of Charlotte has been kept silent for most of the story but after introducing her briefly as someone who has it together (aligning her with the mother), she brings her back in at the end.

Charlotte remembers a framed picture, and what follows is an ekphrastic description, cementing for the reader the subverted fairytale nature of this story:

As for Charlotte, she was remembering another unwitting act of voyeurism, a metaphorical framed picture from a childhood camping holiday.

It had been early morning, she’d gone off on her own to the village for their breakfast baguettes, and the village had been on a hills like in a fairy-tale, full of steep little flights of steps which she was climbing for fun. The light was sweet and glittering and as she looked down over the rooftops she saw very clearly one particular open window, so near that she could have lobbed in a ten-franc piece, and through the window she could see a woman dropping kisses onto a man’s face and neck and chest. He was lying naked in bed and she was kissing him lovingly and gracefully, her breasts dipping down over him like silvery peonies. Charlotte had never mentioned this to anyone, keeping the picture to herself, a secret snapshot protected from outside sniggerings.

Once again we have a description of breasts — symbolic, in this particular story, and metonyms for women at various life stages:

  1. The half-apple breasts of youth
  2. The sagging wheels of Camembert of nursing motherhood
  3. The full, womanly, pleasure-giving breasts of sexual womanhood

Charlotte is the character who experiences the Anagnorisis in this story, and it’s interesting that Simpson kept her quiet. She needed to be quiet to be afforded time to reflect. Unlike Tina, Charlotte realises that growing into a woman’s body is not a disgusting, terrifying thing at all. She’s had the benefit of witnessing this other image, which counteracts Tina’s commentary of this scene before them, a few years later.

The Anagnorisis in “Up at a Villa” is a great example of how a character can have an epiphany/understanding after connecting two experiences, even if the previous experience happened some time ago. In this case, the Anagnorisis phase will probably comprise a flashback or dream.

NEW SITUATION

High up on the swimming-pool terrace the little family, frozen together for a photographic instant, watched their flight open-mouthed, like the ghosts of summers past; or, indeed, of summers yet to come.

The final sentence links present time with future time, pulling that whole thread of the story together (the young are simultaneously old — that is why they fear it).

Why does Helen Simpson frame the little family statically, in a ‘photographic instant’? When the young couples run like deer, they’re not only running from the scene of the ‘crime’ — they’re running from the inevitability of youth.

So long as they’re running, by comparison that other, ‘gross’ family looks static, and behind that ‘frame’, completely separate. For this moment of running away, they can pretend they’ll never be older themselves.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Header painting: Henrietta Rae – The Sirens 1903

In-flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson

In-flight entertainment

“In-flight Entertainment” is a short story by Helen Simpson, published in her 2010 collection of the same name.

Thanks in large part to Greta Thunberg (not pronounced how I thought it was pronounced), 2019 seems to have been a turning point in general attitudes towards climate change. The phrase started off as ‘global warming’ (too benign), became ‘climate change’ and is now ‘climate crisis’. My own country’s online newspaper now has its own ‘climate’ tab, prioritising its importance.

But even in 2019, those of us who think a lot about the climate crisis are still living in a bubble. Helen Simpson said in 2011 that if you suggest we might cut back on unnecessary air travel, reception is cold. While some people have indeed cut back on unnecessary trips, it’s business-as-usual.

1917 illustration by Heath Robinson planes
1917 illustration by Heath Robinson

With the climate crisis as focus, “In-flight Entertainment” is a short story about difficult conversations in the face of unwelcome yet inevitable change, and our ability to ignore what we don’t want to hear and go on with our lives. In the past, and on an individual level, this is a wonderful adaptation. Sometimes I wish I was a climate crisis denier. I think I’d be more content.

Which cognitive biases are we talking about exactly? Infuriatingly, it’s a raft of the things, all working together:

  • Hyperbolic discounting: We are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes, paying attention to immediate threats.
  • We overestimate threats that are less likely but memorable, such as terrorism. Stories of terrorism are memorable because they are stories of individuals (sometimes en masse, but individuals all the same). The Environment appears to have no face to it, precisely because it involves every face. When too many people are affected we lose compassion. This is known as psychic numbing.
  • Too much information confuses us, leading to inaction or poor choices.
  • We  remember immediate threats, so that they could be avoided in the future, but we’re constantly on the look out for opportunities (e.g. for pleasure — holidays and air travel).
  • Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene aside, we only really care about the two generations on either side of us (we can’t care further back than our great-grandparents or further forward than our great-grandchildren).
  • The sunk-cost fallacyWe are biased towards staying the course even in the face of negative outcomes. When the world is full of aeroplanes and the economy has been built around aeroplanes, well, we already have them so why not use them?
  • Justification. If we all quit holidaying in tourist destinations, entire communities would collapse. We justify our behaviours by focusing on certain details and avoiding others.
  • The bystander effect. Most of us are inclined to believe someone else will deal with a crisis. We may expect others to stop traveling on planes, but we ourselves have to. Our travel is necessary; others’ travel is not.

This is infuriating for the relatively few Cassandras out there, trying to persuade others that there is no government conspiracy, and that it is far cheaper to avoid a climate crisis than to try to eke out an existence after ecological collapse.

Eric Sloane (1910 – 1985) Night Flight Scene

SETTING OF “IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT”

“In-flight Entertainment” feels like it’s set in a near future when the world is divided into climate deniers and those who are resigned to it. Alan is accused of having grown up in a gadget-ridden childhood, referring to Gen Z (roughly between the ages of 7 and 22″ in 2019, so younger again at time of publication). Alan is of an age now when he has a wife (Penny) and kids.

Part of me thinks it could easily have been set in 2019, but I don’t think we’re quite at this point yet. Currently the world is divided into four groups:

  1. Climate crisis deniers
  2. Those who haven’t given it much thought
  3. Very worried people e.g. activists
  4. The tired and resigned

At some point surely categories 2 and 3 will disappear as the realities of climate change make everyone aware of it, and as even the most ardent activists realise the big struggle has been lost. This flight comprises climate crisis deniers and the tired and resigned. In this view of the near future, air travel doesn’t abate one iota.

The story veers backwards into Alan’s on-the-ground life — we learn that there have been apocalyptic protests at Heathrow, that Alan drives a luxury vehicle, that his parents oppose his carbon intensive lifestyle. Alan’s mother has a view on recycling that is stuck in the 1990s — that if we all pull together and make small economies then our collective efforts will save us. This worked for England during the war. The attitude carried us through the 90s, and can be seen in children’s literature designed to encourage recycling, e.g. Just A Dream by Chris Van Allsburg.

Zenas Winsor McCay (1867 - 1934) planes
Zenas Winsor McCay (1867 – 1934)
FLIGHT SYMBOLISM

Flight can symbolise various things but most notably it stands for freedom. Air travel is the ultimate luxury, though many of us living in rich countries would no longer call it that — we consider the freedom of flight a birthright. The plane is therefore a perfect setting for this story.

The story opens with description of the different classes of people herded onto a plane — there’s no better reminder than planes of economic hierarchy — First Class at the top (significantly, in Helen Simpson’s story, it’s made up of men), followed by Club Class, Business Class and Economy.

The climate crisis is likewise mostly a class issue, with those at the top using more than their fair share of the environment, symbolised in this story as an extra eight inches of space which ‘makes all the difference’. Difference between what? Is the freedom to fly the difference between a life vs a life worth living?

Helen Simpson inverts the freedom aspect of flight with the intertextual reference to an iconic scene from North by Northwest, in which a man cannot hide from a horrifying crop duster, swooping him like a very big, very dangerous magpie during breeding season. This is the scene Alan watches on the plane when he doesn’t want to hear anything more about climate change.

Within the story there also exists implicit critique of a life lived through screens — we criticise Alan for wanting to watch his old film instead of hearing about the realities of climate change. Soon it is revealed that everything he knows about dying comes via fictional TV shows such as Casualty. This is a guy living in a fantasy world, borne of mindful denial.

GOOSE BAY

The flight is from Heathrow to Chicago. There is a diversion to Goose Bay. Significantly this is close to Greenland, where some of the most obvious impacts of climate change are currently seen. It’s also in the middle of nowhere, like the North by Northwest scene above. The landscape is huge; people are rendered tiny and helpless and all alone. No one is coming to save us from the climate crisis.

So how do the Climate Change Cassandras persuade the deniers? According to this story, it may in fact be impossible.

1950s, Aer Lingus, Irish Airline, artist- Hayes
1950s, Aer Lingus, Irish Airline, artist- Hayes

STORY STRUCTURE OF “IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT”

Here is the underlying structure of stories with this sort of theme:

  • A character encounters another character who tells them something they don’t want to hear.
  • Eventually this unwelcome new knowledge becomes too much, so the character hearing the unpleasant thing has some sort of dream/escape sequence.
  • When they wake up, they’ve pretty much forgotten the entire interaction.
  • Except things will never be quite the same, because they haven’t completely forgotten.

Another outstanding example of a story structured in this way is “Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield. In Mansfield’s story, an old man reminds young Leila, fresh to the ball scene, that she will be an old lady soon. This is pretty much the last thing you want to hear at your first ball, so Leila mindfully forgets about the interaction.

Popular Aviation woman on plane opens window
Popular Aviation woman on plane opens window

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of a community, so no single character stands out as the main one. “In-flight Entertainment” is designed to expose a general human shortcoming — our ability to see the terrible truth then to ignore it.

The cast of characters requires:

  1. The person who is forced to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (for this story it is Alan Barr);
  2. The person who forces the other to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (Jeremy Lees).

Also in this story we have the thread of the old man who dies in his seat. Clearly, someone who dies in our presence is confronting. We are forced to acknowledge the inevitability of death, and we’re reminded that we, too, shall die.

Imperial Airways - British Travel Poster - art by Charles C Dickson - c 1928 plane interior
Imperial Airways – British Travel Poster – art by Charles C Dickson – c 1928 plane interior

DESIRE

Alan wants to ignore the facts of the climate crisis. He has come up with a reasonable argument which works to this end:

…the science behind these new reports could be quite shaky. There were two sides to every coin, and anyway Planet Earth has a self-regulating mechanism, rather like the economy, and we should leave it to right itself. Mother Nature knows a thing or two…

In this particular story, Alan wants to enjoy his First Class flight to Chicago to give a presentation. The presentation will be delivered in 13 hours’ time — a ticking clock device which plays on the ‘bad luck’ aspect of the number 13.

OPPONENT

Alan, who wants to go on as usual, is in direct opposition to Jeremy, who would have liked the world to change. The ultimate opponent for a climate crisis denier: a climate scientist.

But Helen Simpson then has to explain what the Jeremy is doing aboard an aircraft. This character has reached a point where he has given up trying to change things.

The other opponent is the dead man. His death means they have to stop over and Alan is now in danger of missing his presentation.

PLAN

Everybody’s plan on this flight is to go on as usual. Even while knowing that our behaviours are wrecking the environment, if anything this makes us do more of that exact thing.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is the part where Alan imagines becoming a Doomsday Prepper, with the gun, the barbed wire, the works.

ANAGNORISIS

The tragedy for Alan is that he has no Anagnorisis. He wakes himself up with a snort.

All that alarmist crap that old creep Jeremy had been coming out with, it just seemed like a fairy story now.

To extend the fairy tale connection, Helen Simpson turns Alan into a childlike figure:

In quite a childish way he liked the tiny brightly wrapped bonbons, he liked yawning to pop his ears. Yes, his spirits usually lifted during the descent [HIGHLY SYMBOLIC, OF COURSE], and he would have expected to feel extra-jubilant towards the close of this particular protracted crossing.

NEW SITUATION

Despite trying his best to suppress the information conveyed by Jeremy, Alan doesn’t fully succeed. He is forever changed.

…he had a weight around his heart, a nasty sinking feeling; which was not like him at all.

FURTHER

Interview with Helen Simpson at BBC4 (at about 8:50) and also Margaret Atwood.

The film Melancholia is about depression, but feels to me like it could be about the division between climate crisis deniers and those who know it is coming.

Header photo by Aaron Barnaby