About Reading

It’s a strange condition of the world we live in that art requires almost constant justification. Especially the humanities.

“Reading doesn’t prevent genocide bro. Reading won’t stop the climate from changing, you know what I’m saying? The humanities are useless mate, they don’t teach you anything important do they? What kind of job are you going to get with a history degree?”

Blah. Blah. Blah.

Film director Steven Soderbergh gives a far more eloquent defence of art in general than I:

Art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone. You’re connected to the arts.

The reason we need the humanities is because we are human. That ought to be enough.

Yet the art of reading is under a seemingly inexhaustible attack, like the Roman Empire it is overwhelmed; fighting a Sisyphean battle against everything electronic. A National Literary Trust study in 2012 surveyed 21,000 children and teenagers and found that they read less of everything. Comics, books, and magazines – all crowded out by the increasing pressure that the voltaic world is putting on the physical reality of young people. 17% said they would be embarrassed if a friend saw them reading a book. Three in every ten said they choose to read every day in their spare time. A third of UK households don’t have any books in them.

There is a magnificent paradox here however. The ‘Millennial’ generation is far from illiterate. In fact it may be the first generation in history that is entirely composed of authors, albeit not particularly skilled ones. For what are Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr if not a form of publication, a forum for micro-fiction, instant information exchange and a kind of personal open wound style storytelling? Every precious thought or observation or opinion (especially opinion) is broadcast for consumption within the infinite milieu. Every email, tweet and post is validation of our existence, we need to be seen and we need to be heard – all the time.

To write well obviously requires literacy. It requires the ability to read and to have read well and yet Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that ‘what is written without effort is in general read without pleasure’ has never been more relevant. Tweets and posts are generally stacked like so many rusting cars in an endless scrapyard because they are instantaneous, utterly ephemeral and often just bursts of emotive flatulence. As the sender of nearly 12,000 tweets in the space of around 18 months I can vouch for how entirely pointless the vast majority of my little leakages are.

Some people refuse to see this. Within the Internet lies a utopian future. They almost always point to the Arab Spring and the ‘Twitter Revolution” in Iran circa 2009 as examples of the first flexing of the teeming sinews of a profound new Net-centric power that is a ‘Good Thing’ for literacy and truth and liberty. Many historians of the printing press strike similar notes. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, the historian who has done the most to trump up the ‘profound’ effects of the advent of printing in the 15th century, often does her utmost to downplay the invention’s use for ignoble purposes.

It goes without saying that the press soon reflected the worst of human nature. Almost as soon as it was invented it was used to publish superstitious nonsense like the Malleus Maleficarum, a text found in the libraries of good 16th century witch hunters everywhere. More often that not radical technological innovation will be used to support the ossifying structures of orthodoxy – not to bring them down. Filippo di Strata wryly observed that whilst the pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore.

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What does that make the Internet? Iran had just twenty thousand Twitter subscribers in 2009 – there was no revolution there. The elite will tolerate limited dissent as long as it remains profitable and limited in its effects – exactly what cyber dissent is. Note that a far larger percentage of all posts on Twitter discuss association football than politics. Marx told us that the philosophers had just interpreted the world; the real purpose of our lives was to change it. This will not happen on the web, a realm of the emotionally incontinent and a place for entertainment not activism. The internet is a province of stupefaction beyond Aldous Huxley’s wildest nightmares. The digital utopians who place their faith in the ‘transformative’ aspects of the web are the new historicists, trying to find a laws and trends and generalizations where only singular and specific events exist.

Within Twitter and Facebook and all the other networked dives and virtual saloons that are beamed around the world a problem is revealed. People can’t actually write anything that will last longer than five minutes.

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It seems like a lingering truism to suggest that one cannot simply put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard and create something worthy of consumption without first reading widely and diligently. In a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books William Giraldi discusses the writer as reader with specific reference to Herman Melville the author of Moby Dick. He quotes Hershel Parker (author of a vast two-volume biography of Melville):

“Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake, his evident purpose in reading the epics of Western Civilization was to learn how to write.”

Melville’s vigorous reading of the epics, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, is according to Giraldi, what injects such compelling potency into Captain Ahab, “the most compelling quester in the American canon”. The tradition of ‘proper’ reading retains its importance across literary culture. Just as there could be no Ahab without Milton’s Satan, without Ahab there could be no Judge Holden (arguably the single greatest evil imagined in 20th century literature) in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy both acknowledges and rejects a comparison between his own creation and Milton’s Satan or Melville’s Ahab within his own work by saying of the Judge:

“Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there a system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go.”

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McCarthy is doffing his cap at readers familiar with both Moby Dick and Paradise Lost; in a rare interview for The New York Times given in 1992, McCarthy baldly acknowledges a truth that is disturbing for both undergraduates and academics who live cowering in fear plagiarism:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of other books.”

Without reading and the conversation that has existed since the first story was told around a fire in some dismal encampment or daubed on a primordial rock face, there is no writing. Reading must happen so that we too may participate in this authorial dialogue. We must struggle against the limits of our life span and perception in order to perceive this ceaseless, ever varying and overlapping emulsion that can carry us to the shores of the past and the future.

There ought to be shame and handwringing about the failure of publishers and educators to inspire the next generation of readers. It is not just a case of the Millennials consuming ‘trash’ entertainment either. We have noted the pitfalls of the Internet but that does not mean that the literary world is an exclusive and privileged ghetto where the best stories reside.

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People increasingly turn to television for the best stories; Game of Thrones (that rare beast that supersedes and improves its source material), Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire have initiated a halcyon era of programming where storytelling and complex characterization is key. The appetite for great stories exists. What are the literary phenomena of the past decade? Unctuous and turgid tales like Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter.

Henry Miller observed that ‘nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours,’ and ‘we are living a million lives in the space of a generation.’ Miller was writing in the 1930’s, before the present era of instant gratification and communication. Somehow in a world where we can live a million lives in a week and nothing that is proposed can last more than an hour before it lies dissected and cold, our l’angoisse de la mort is heightened and amplified. With each added demand on cheapened time it becomes more precious. It is not a question of why we read then, but why should we continue to read?

John Williams gives a lyrical answer in his novel Stoner by evoking the mysterious gestation of a true reader, that magical process shaped by both circumstance and that spark of the imagination each of us holds, in a truly mesmeric way:

“The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape and had no wish to escape.”

That is the transformation that occurs in all who learn to love literature and it is why those that do will always read.

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On Batfleck and Superman

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros)

I can’t have been the only one.

Walking out of the cinema with a huge grin on my face, still reeling from the formidable slice of cinema that is Man of Steel, to say:

“Boy, they could only better that if they had Ben Affleck as Batman in the next one!”

Batman totally breastfeeds now, didn't you hear about it?

Batman totally breastfeeds now, didn’t you hear about it?

I am of course being facetious. Man of Steel was not a terrible film but no one actually walked out of it with anything other than a headache and slight motion sickness, let alone a demand that the star of Gigli should don Batman’s famed cape and cowl.

Indeed the very idea of a Batman/Superman smackdown seemed strange even before Affleck was cast as Bruce Wayne. The presence of two iconic characters in one film demands that the principle question of why they are together is answered with panache.

I fear that this fundamental imperative will be ignored. I fear that it is economic considerations on the part of Warner Brothers that are driving Batman/Superman towards its July 2015 release date, instead of what ought to be the prerequisite of making such a picture: a great idea for a story.

Films have to make money – I get that, but cherished characters like Bats and Supes have to earn that showdown, just as Marvel did with The AvengersMan of Steel certainly did not lay the groundwork for such a clash and director Zack Snyder and studio Warner Bro’s have not yet created a cinematic universe big or interesting enough to explain the presence of these two icons in one movie. This is the equivalent of making The Avengers after the first Iron Man

Marvel’s massive success at universe building has probably disturbed the suits at Warner. It ought not to though. They are after all the studio that gave us Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the only sequence of films in the whole superhero genre that might be called definitive, thematically interesting and perhaps even imperishable.

The reason the announcement of Affleck has been met with such consternation across the internet is because it is very difficult indeed to imagine anyone playing Bruce Wayne other than Christian Bale. The latter was an utterly ferocious Batman imbued with a physical and emotional intelligence that will be hard for Affleck (or any other actor for that matter) to emulate. God help them when they try and cast a new Alfred after what Michael Caine did with the part.

This doesn’t mean casting Affleck was wrong. Or that nobody can ever be cast as Batman again. On the contrary, he may be a good Batman. The decision to put Bats in the next Man of Steel is wrong though, simply because instead of respecting both the work of Nolan and the intelligence/wallets of cinema goers, Warner are content to chase the quick buck that Batman/Superman represents. I guess some men just want to watch the world burn, or they’re really, really impatient. For me the whole thing stinks of desperation.

The aforementioned Mr. Caine has a very wry observation on Batman and Superman:

“Superman is how America views itself. Batman is how the rest of the world views America”

In other words if Superman was an American politician he’d be a bullshitting and mythologised emulsion of various founding fathers and Batman would be Richard Milhous Nixon, a man with a crozzled and blackened heart whose very existence taints the American dream.

Good luck Ben, I think you’re going to need it.

Man of Steel – The Frankly Vulgar Review

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Check out the ol’ stars and stripes in the background – see how they did that! #wellclever

I don’t really like Superman. I never really understood how a character who is totally invulnerable could be involved in stories with real jeopardy, real stakes – something reinforced by the fact that before Man of Steel was even released a sequel to it was already announced.

As a reboot MoS really does suffer against its obvious blueprint, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Just as Nolan tried (and succeeded) in taking Batman away from the kitsch, campy nightmare of the franchise in the late 1990’s, director Zack Snyder  (in conjunction with Nolan) here attempts to give us a raw, almost unrecognisable Supes – away from the smiley, twinkly Christopher Reeve iteration or the moody self-conscious Brandon Routh era.

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Superman, back when primary colours where proper cool.

What they give us in Man of Steel is a film that confronts head on the sheer power of Superman. His initial struggles to hide these abilities as a child and an adolescent, the fears of his step-father (wonderfully played by Kevin Costner) that his adopted son will become a hunted, shunned outcast. Eventually audiences finally get to see Kal-El properly loose it: bowling through buildings like a hijacked airliner, he screams and gnashes and brawls his way through this film a jumped up, jacked up, flying Mike Tyson.

I promise that for about ten minutes you’ll sit there saying shit like “woah” or “shit” or “awesome” or “fucking hell” – but enduring 45 minutes of CGI Kryptonians beating the guts outta each other was more than this correspondent could endure. This is not a film to see with a hangover. I stumbled out of the auditorium feeling as if I had been strapped in one of these for an hour.

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Anyone else remember this badass…

Where MoS falls down is (as is almost inevitable with these big summer tentpole movies) during it’s stodgy last hour. Take away the red capes and this could be any other ‘epic’ action movie. Hans Zimmer’s ubiquitously grandiose score doesn’t help in this regard, although in fairness to him it must have been incredibly difficult to live up to the legacy of this. The Clark Kent/Lois Lane romance is fumbled and feels out of place which is especially unforgivable for a Superman movie. In fact the characters of Lois Lane and Perry White feel as if they have been shoehorned into the piece simply because its a Superman movie.

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More like Lois LAME. (sorry).

Man of Steel is not the film it was sold as. This isn’t a dark, contemplative and rejected Superman, feared and misunderstood by the world. None of the promise of that idea (which is present at the start of the movie in a conversation between Clark and his step-Dad) pays off. Instead by the middle of the film ol’ Supes is, aside from a bit of vague curiosity, essentially accepted by everybody as the flag wavin’ American icon that he is.

But hey, at least it has Russell Crowe in it. No he doesn’t sing unfortunately.

The Great Gatsby – The Frankly Vulgar Review

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There is an idea of Jay Gatsby. An idea: it is scant, brief, but in its fleeting glory it illuminates the nature of lust, obsession and greed. It teaches us that we can’t repeat the past, that we cannot live forever. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of The Great American Novels. Baz Luhrmann’s adaption is a sprawling vulgarity, a blotted tapestry; it is one of the most bathetic films of recent times. 

Sometimes people think they are really funny. They do that thing where they get a reflective object and catch the sun with it and direct the light into your eyes. Ha! Brilliant! Luhrmann spends the vast two hour twenty minute running time of his Gatsby doing this. His film is all lambency and noise: ice smashing, corks popping, glitter falling, engines galloping. It groans under the weight of its gaudy, bacchic deceptions of Gatsby’s great parties. The latter seem to fascinate Luhrmann far more than his characters. Michael Bay could have directed this film. Seriously. The camera is never still, never exhausted; it chops and slices and swoops – “Go home Luhrmann, you’re drunk!”

Towards the end of Fitzgerald’s novel there is a moment of magnificent stillness and sadness, in this film it is replaced with the crack of camera bulbs flashing and Toby Maguire screaming a lot. A few scenes before, one of the novels most poignant lines is here an inadvertent punchline, my acquaintance spent the next five minutes chuckling at the sheer banality of it. The sweet nectar of Fitzgeralds prose is obliterated time and again. Everywhere opportunity is spurned for the obvious. The only moment that isn’t completely fucked up is the introduction of the titular character, the great Gatsby, played adroitly by Leonardo DiCaprio. The other performances are swamped by their scintillant surroundings, Maguire in particular is awful, his portrayal of Nick little more than a trembling lip and a wet brow. 

“Such a shame, the trailer looked great” said a friend when I told them of my disappointment. And that is the entire problem: this film IS a two hour trailer, at a push it might be described as a music video. This Gatsby is a tawdry and indelicate collage of exquisite literary moments that Luhrmann is unable to stitch together into something emotionally and artistically satisfying. His vision breaks apart like glass against the hard brilliance of Fitzgerald’s prose. 

Frankly Vulgar offers to improve the Oscars – free of charge

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It’s February 24th 2013. It is time for the 85th Academy Awards. It is the night where Seth McFarlane tries his utmost not to make a joke about the other Oscar in the news at the moment. If thats not enough to make the academy bosses who run the show nervous then the prospect of ever declining viewing figures which even the introduction of The Official Oscars App™ can’t stop must be truly terrifying. Short of having the indomitable, ego-puncturing Ricky Gervais host the glitzy ceremony I have some suggestions for how the whole five hour process could be improved to the point where it doesn’t feel like waiting in a really well upholstered, exclusively staffed by abnormally beautiful people, GP’s waiting room.

I think the biggest problem is the awards themselves. After 85 years in service they desperately need either some reinforcements in the form of new awards or retirement altogether. There is no jeopardy watching Daniel Day Lewis win yet an another Oscar – just make him ‘Best Actor’ for the rest of his wonderful fucking life. Frankly the awards as they are now are so moribundly American (according to the dictionary I have here this means they are po-faced and un-ironic) that they need changing.

Still this has to be an evolution not a revolution (that would be too un-American), the new awards have to be positive – this isn’t the Razzies. Lets get the more obvious categories out of the way. The award for Best Picture has to change. I propose a Best ‘Best’ Picture category ad well as an award for Best ‘Worst’ Picture. It makes sense, honestly it does. The first category is for films that are genuinely good, of actual artistic merit. They’re usually independent-ish films that cost nothing or studio prestige pictures made to win awards. Whatever. ‘Best ‘Worst’ Picture’ – thats an oxymoron right? To quote Arnie – wrong. This award will go to some shit films, maybe some really shit films that at the same time are utterly brilliant. Best ‘Worst’ Picture caters for the cinematic Big Macs of this world – yes it’s unhealthy, actually it’s really terrible but fuck me it’s tasty and I could have one right now quite easily. This award snatches the initiative back from crowd pleasing award-ceremonies like that MTV thing. In general, and in a way that isn’t dissimilar to some kind of algorithm that I wouldn’t understand anyway (Pythagoras’ theorem?), the shitter a film is the more people who watch it – when these films get nominated these people are more like to watch your show. Thats maths. Poor old John Stuart Mill will be turning in his grave – but who’s going to care when viewing figures increase. Mill’s been dead for ages anyway. 

Best Nicholas Cage Picture – a self-explanatory category. Cage is an actor of such intense, brain-meltingly stupid braggadocio that he deserves his own category. Given that he seemingly always makes more than one film a year it will always be a competitive field. The criteria are as follows: the more fucked up Nic gets in the film, be it through intensive crack cocaine use, genre-defining fear of honey, anger at filing systems – whatever, the more fucked up he gets the more likely your film is to take gallop home with the gong at a speed a findus horse lasagne would find obscene. Cage must accept the award via video-link and he must be accompanied by one of his pet lizards for the duration of his acceptance speech.

Best ‘Zinger’ in a Motion Picture – this award will probably be something of a dud. Despite it being completely against Academy regulations it will probably be one by this zinger every year (at 0.19 in this vid):

Best British Thespian in a Villainous Role – again, Alan Rickman will probably win this every year, but its worth having if anything, just to nullify a common British criticism of the Oscars – ‘why don’t we win as much as we should’, something that is wheeled out every year even though we win boatloads of the little gold statuettes.  Maybe it is just my fecund imagination getting ahead of reality but I’m pretty sure there is always some nonce on BBC Breakfast or The One Show bleating and bemoaning the fact that ‘we Brits’ lost out. Well, Best British Thespian in a Villainous Role award is designed to silence them and to reinforce some time worn American stereotypes that refuses to die like shape-shifting alien in ‘The Thing’ (I didn’t make a horse meat joke here because I’ve already made one, but please note that I could of).

Best ‘that should be my fucking award you ****’ Reaction Face – like any show on television thats been around for far too long (think The Simpsons) the Oscars needs to develop a desperate, knowing and self-reverential parody award. Face it – most people only sit through the four hour dirge that the ceremony actually is hoping to see two of two things – Halle Berry doing a Janet Jackson or those reaction mug shots of the likes of James Cameron dying inside as their former spouse wins an award they would kill battalions of schoolchildren to use as a paperweight. Seeing as I couldn’t think of an award to honour ‘Nipple Slips’ the award for Best ‘that should be my fucking award you ****’ Reaction Face will have to do. The best thing about the award is that all the reactions of the nominee’s when it is given out will be 100% real, as nobody will actually want to win this one.

Finally, The Mel Gibson Career Memorial Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Daily Mail Online Sidebar. This is an award for those stars in the firmament who like crashing cars, snorting suspicious white powders and getting caught having affairs (oh Kristen HOW COULD YOU). Without you guys popping up on the Mail Online sidebar I would probably be a far more productive, happier human being. Sincere and heartfelt thanks for keeping me in my present state – wearing pyjamas, eating shite and not working on my special project proposal. Lohan, Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise – I salute you, you’re the real heroes. God bless them, and God bless America.

Enjoy the show…

Les Miserables – The Frankly Vulgar Review

Russell Crowe. Admit it, you fancy him don't you.

Russell Crowe. Admit it, you fancy him don’t you.

There is plenty not to like about ‘Les Miserables’. It has the campest, most irritating nickname of any cultural ‘brand’ ever. When some numpty screeches ‘Lay Mizz’ I feel as if my head might explode like a watermelon caught in between Beyoncé’s SuperBowl mega thighs. Then there is the film’s dead-eyed a-historicism, which admittedly is a fairly boring criticism but as a nominal ‘historian’ (I study History at university), ground my gears in a way that most films about historical events do (looking at you ‘Pearl Harbour’). Ignoring that, you still have to deal with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter irritatingly wandering in off the set of ‘Sweeny Todd’ to reprise their roles from that film seemingly ad verbatim. Amanda Seyfried does her weird Amanda Seyfried pouty fish thing and sings at a pitch so high that my (now dead) dog started barking. Anne Hathaway mirrors her character Fantine’s desperation with her pleading crowd pleasing give me an Oscar performance. Worst of all, most of the cast speak in a Danny-Dyer-on-his-way-to-watch-West-Ham-whilst-eating-an-eel-pie cockney brogue. Yet the film works; watching it you can almost smell the filthy verdigris and Dickensian grimness that souses every inch of every scene. Hugh Jackman is magisterial. The plot even with all it’s nonsensical contortions brims with a head-banging force that carried me along despite myself. Above this all, striding across the rooftops of 19th century Paris like a massively fucked off Quasimodo is a sombre, confused genius – Russell Crowe as principal bad bloke Javert.

‘Later, I did have a complete breakdown. No, not when Russell Crowe, who stars as evil, intractable Inspector Javert, sings ‘fallen from Go-od, fallen from gra-a-ace’ like a hoarse bulldog.’ – Jan Moir in the Daily Fail 

Clearly Russell performance wasn’t the most popular. Yet the lamentable Jan Moir is about as wrong about this as she is on  homosexuality,  a proclivity which excites an embarrassingly outdated  ‘Ewww gross’ reaction from her. Unlike her feelings about the gay community however, Moir wasn’t alone in disliking Crowe’s performance, most people I’ve spoken to about the film marked Crowe out for criticism. There are some understandable reasons for this – namely that Crowe can’t actually sing, which is something of a problem in a musical (but then the nature of musicals is that actors have to sing and singers have to act). It’s actually pretty odd, for Crowe singing seems to involve barking the words out in a blithely un-melodic manner. It’s scruffy, words are spat and snarled out, there is spluttering and mostly there is a definite sense of pain conveyed by Crowe the whole way through the film.

I didn’t really give a shit though. It made sense. In a film encrusted with realism why should every character sing like a choirboy? I’d actually go further: there is something exceptional about what Crowe does in ‘Lay Mizz’, his performance which is drenched in reluctance is also aflame with courage. He may as well be  performing naked, so stripped back, so close to the core does Crowe bring the audience to his Javert.

“For me, and this is probably an unpopular attitude to have, considering what we’re talking about, but I didn’t like the character in the stage show, I didn’t respond to it at all. I just thought it was overly simplistic and I couldn’t follow why he came to the conclusions he came to, you know?” – Russell Crowe talking about Javert with digital spy

Crowe’s reading of the character above is perfect. Frankly, in the stage show Javert makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. You’re telling me that he chases Jean Valjean across 19 years for stealing a rancid loaf of bread? Bollocks. It’s nonsensical. Crowe understood this and that’s why his performance works so well. By adding depth and above all vulnerability (manifested starkly by the weakness of his singing when compared to Jackman or Hathaway) he makes an overly simplistic and unbelievable character into something as real as the grime director Tom Hooper coats his camera lens in. When Crowe belts out the lines:

“Lord let me find him
That I may see him
Safe behind bars
I will never rest”

The throbbing urgency he imbued it with left me thinking Javert had a bit of a ‘thing’ for Jean. No wonder Jan Moir didn’t like it.