Imagine if you were locked down with a recalcitrant alcoholic who belligerently passed scorn upon anyone who came into his orbit. A man who bullied and cajoled the only other person locked in with him, gaining sadistic pleasure from psychological torture.
Well, this is who I am spending my pandemic with. Luckily, he is on the other side of the screen. His name is Bernard Black.
Running for three seasons from 2000 to 2004, the television series Black Books starred Dylan Moran as the perpetually drunk and surly bookseller Black, Bill Bailey as his innocent and naïve offsider Manny Bianco and Tamsin Greig as fellow red wine connoisseur and best friend, Fran Katzenjammer.
The main plot revolves around the misadventures of the three main characters, mostly instigated by Bernard’s misanthropic distaste for anyone who dares enter his bookstore or, indeed, the public at large. This includes any loose associations with people he refers to as “friends”.
Bernard spends most of his time in a bookshop he doesn’t want anyone to come into, with an assistant who annoys him with his constant desire to please. Fran is continually trying to improve Black’s attitude and behaviour to the outside world — and always failing dismally.
Come to think of it, Bernard would probably relish being in lockdown.
Running a second-hand bookshop is a guaranteed commercial failure. It’s a whole philosophy. There were bookshops that I frequented and I was always struck by the loneliness and doggedness of these men who piloted this death ship.
Bernard loathes going into the outside world. On the rare occasion when he does, things always turn out bad for him. He is the epitome of the stereotyped drunken Irish rogue who sees his bookshop as his castle of misery. Inside it, he subjugates anyone foolish enough to enter with belittling and insults.
In the hands of a lesser talent this would come across to an audience as boorish and puerile. But in the hands of Moran, with his clever word play and childlike antics, the character is almost charming and witty.
The fact that Bernard’s tantrums and bad behaviour always end up backfiring on him is central to the show’s success. He’s the one who suffers the most from his churlishness.
Still, Moran doesn’t get to steal every scene. He plays off against the seasoned performers Bailey and Greig, each with comedy chops as finely honed as Moran.
Usually, television comedies get better the longer they run, as the characters are fleshed out more and the actors get more comfortable with the material. Think how much better the later episodes of Friends or Seinfeld were compared to the earlier ones.
But Black Books doesn’t suffer from this slow start. The earlier episodes are as great as the later ones. And there are cameos from some of the best of British comedians: Martin Freeman, Simon Pegg, David Walliams from Little Britain and Academy Award winner Olivia Colman.
A comedy booster
It is a very British comedy, often leaning into the abstract and surreal in the tradition of The Young Ones, Father Ted and Monty Python.
Who can forget Bernard’s couch, which swallows children whole? Or when Manny is trapped in the bookstore overnight and roasts dead bees found on the window sill on a campfire spit?
In one episode, when Manny asks “Is space hot?”, Bernard replies,
Of course it is, where else do you think we get pineapples from.
It’s a shame Black Books didn’t run longer. It certainly wasn’t stale by the end of its third season. But British TV comedy shows are renowned for not wearing out their welcome.
Other major sitcoms of the same era like Spaced, Extras, The Mighty Boosh and even the immensely popular Little Britain and The Office only ran for two or three seasons.
Perhaps Black Books isn’t enough to see you through all of lockdown. But it is a much needed comedy booster shot (pardon the pun). At the very least, it will make you thankful you’re not locked up with Bernard Black.
Black Books is available on Netflix, Britbox and Apple TV.
Freud and Nietzsche may not be what you have in mind when thinking of pool-side reads, but they are among the books flipped through in The White Lotus — the tense, new TV drama about the lives of the rich and privileged as they overlap at a Hawaiian resort.
Are Paula and Olivia truly delving into the mind of the anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon, or indeed, into Camille Paglia’s deconstruction of the Western literary canon? Or are they just books for show: an intellectual performance to hide secret glances and gossip?
Either way, frequent book covers speak loudly in the show. So here, then, is what the experts think you should know about these props and the stories they tell.
Maybe you will find one to pick up the next time you fly off for your island holiday. Just try to avoid the White Lotus resort.
The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud
“If I cannot bend the heavens above, I will move Hell.” Sigmund Freud quotes the poet Virgil to describe his aim in this book of explaining the meaning of dreams — by recourse to his theory of the unconscious mind.
Freud always considered Interpretation of Dreams his masterpiece, and ensured it would be published in 1900 to mark its significance.
Dreams had traditionally been viewed as either senseless or vehicles of communication with the divine. Freud instead contended all dreams involve the fulfilment of a wish.
In adults, he wrote, many of the wishes we have are of such an “edgy” nature their fulfilment would wake us up if staged too directly.
So, in order to at once fulfil these unconscious wishes and stay asleep, the “dream work” of the sleeping mind distorts the wish, using mechanisms of displacement (making insignificant things seem important, and the other way around), condensation (bringing together multiple ideas in single images), and transforming words into the seemingly random images.
Packed with striking dream analyses, and containing perhaps the best systematic statement of Freud’s theory of the mind, this book is an influential classic.
—Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy
Psychiatrist and anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 in the French colony of Martinique. After the second world war, he studied in France. Later, in 1953, he moved to Algeria, joining the Algerian National Liberation Front.
The Wretched of the Earth (originally published as Les damnés de la terre in 1961) was written at the height of the Algerian War of Independence. Based on Fanon’s first-hand experience of working in colonial Algeria, it is a classic text of postcolonial studies, examining the physical and psychological violence colonised people experience.
Fanon’s book is a lucid and damning account of the impact of colonialism: the ways it irrevocably changes people, their societies and their culture.
A passionate call to resist colonisation and oppression, The Wretched of the Earth was seen as dangerous by colonial powers at the time of its publication. It is still an important anti-colonial work today.
Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) is a provocative survey of Western canonical art and culture.
On its publication, Sexual Personae was considered iconoclastic, groundbreaking and subversive for, as Paglia wrote, its focus on “amorality, aggression, sadism, voyeurism and pornography in great art”.
The book was both lauded for its insights into sex, violence and power; and labelled anti-feminist and sinister in its views about gender and sexuality.
Named after Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Paglia’s book charts recurrent types in the Western imagination, such as the “beautiful boy”, the “femme fatale” and the “female vampire”. Through these personae, she discusses works such as the Mona Lisa, Wuthering Heights and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Particularly famous is the chapter on Emily Dickinson and Paglia’s analysis of the brutal and sadistic metaphors in Dickinson’s poetry.
Paglia’s Sexual Personae is both electrifying and divisive; still one of the most important texts in 1990s sexual politics.
—Cassandra Atherton, Professor of Writing and Literature
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2011), the first volume of her Neapolitan Series, is a feminist coming-of-age story that begins with a mystery.
In the first few pages, a distinguished writer, Elena (known as Lenù), learns an old friend, Raffaella (or Lila), has disappeared without a trace. Lila’s disappearance prompts Lenù to begin writing the story of her life, focusing particularly on the pair’s complicated friendship.
Focusing on their childhood in 1950s Naples, she writes unsentimentally of poverty, violence, familial conflicts and organised crime.
The novel is densely plotted and written with unsparing accuracy about the characters of Naples, but Lenù’s candid narration makes for an utterly engrossing reading experience. In plain, fast-paced prose she describes a grim childhood full of misogyny and domestic violence, but enlivened by her friendship with Lila.
Ferrante gives us a moving portrait of friendship. Over the course of the novel, both girls begin to see glimpses of how they might move beyond the limitations of the world they have inherited.
The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann
For Nietzsche, to write philosophy was to render one’s experience into life-affirming art — even if that art rocked the very foundations of culture itself.
Walter Kaufmann’s translations in The Portable Nietzsche (1954) showcase much of the power and beauty of one of the finest minds in Western culture.
Here is Nietzsche’s devastating psychological portrait of St Paul; here is the infamous announcement of the death of God. They sit together with his complex notion of cheerfulness practised in the face of the terrifying collapse of certainties.
Despite his reputation in some quarters as a malevolent destroyer, Nietzsche’s actual aim of avoiding nihilism is well-captured here.
Kaufmann’s translations are now dated and his selection of Nietzsche’s works is occasionally eccentric, but The Portable Nietzsche goes an admirable way to presenting Nietzsche’s many aspects: the shy recluse, the loather of anti-Semites, the brilliant transfigurer of pain into texts of depth and beauty, and the lover of life, come what may.
Malcolm Galdwell’s Blink (2005) opens with an anecdote about a kouros: an ancient Greek statue bought by the Getty Museum in 1985 for just under $10 million. Despite months of due diligence to check the authenticity of the statue, the Getty was duped – the statue had been made in the 1980s.
The discovery of the fake was attributed to an art historian who, according to Gladwell, knew as soon as he clapped eyes on it that it was not the real deal.
This instant of recognition (a “blink”) is what Gladwell describes as the “power of thinking without thinking”. Gladwell argues going with your gut can often lead to far superior decisions than thinking things over.
Blink is an entertaining collection of anecdotes, from art-historians to “marriage-whisperers” who can tell if a relationship is going to last from watching split-second videos of partners interacting. But, as the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.
—Ben Newell, Professor of Cognitive Psychology
None of these strike your fancy? The characters also pick up Judith Butler, Aimé Césaire and Jacques Lacan — just more light reads on feminism, colonialism and psychoanalysis.