I am going to begin this week with a poem. It’s called ‘Atlas”: It’s about love, but I think it may actually be about long marriage:
“There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it
Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;
Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists
And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds
The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living; which is Atlas.
There is a final verse of this poem which I’ll quote at the end when I have explored some themes around long and enduring relationships which, for our generation anyway, usually means marriage to another person.
These thoughts have been stimulated by ‘Marriage’, a recent BBC 1 drama by Stefan Golaszewski and the consensus on discussion threads on Super Troopers was that it was slow, tedious, pointless and therefore a waste of time to watch. I felt much the same at first, but ever the contrarian, I decided to watch all four episodes and only then make up my mind. Part of my reasoning was that Nicola Walker is such a brilliant and talented actor that the drama must have serious merit or she wouldn’t have accepted the central role as Emma, a middle-aged woman who has been married to Sean Bean’s Ian for twenty seven years.
Image from Goodto.com - BBC Pictures - See here
By the end of the four hours I decided that the task that Golaszewski had set himself was to show how and why a long marriage might survive and endure despite the fact that it’s obviously going through a bad patch. Did he succeed? Well, yes. I rather think that he did. The couple’s current challenges include a manipulative and demanding older parent, an adopted daughter with relationship issues, redundancy (Ian), an odious young and arrogant boss who frustrates her ambition (Emma), and a profound and long buried grief which still creates a powerful undertow in the relationship. Unlike most TV dramas, Ian and Emma are not glamorous or rich, nor do they live in a huge house with a vast kitchen containing the obligatory central island.
There are no fireworks, no affairs, no tantrums, and no secrets and lies to be unearthed. And no murders. Instead there is the tedious round of daily life, interspersed with some pointless bickering, accompanied by oceans of repressed and unexpressed feelings including anger, jealousy, grief and despair which remain largely unexpressed until finally, in a very satisfactory way, we get the catharsis we all need during the final episode.
In early scenes there were two pivotal speeches about love and marriage. The first was spoken by Jess, Ian and Emma’s beautiful, sensitive, musical adopted daughter who told her controlling boyfriend (who wants to marry her): “Marriage is old-fashioned. It’s like a relic from an age where there were boundaries, whereas now, people can be whoever they decide they are. It’s a whole institution designed to make a woman be with the same man forever and ever.” However, her dad Ian has a very different take on the subject as he and Emma travel home from one of Jess’s pub gigs where she’s sung the songs she’s composed about love: “It’s interesting how young people talk about love. They always talk about the heat of it; the passion; the excitement; the life and death; the all or nothing. Whereas if I wrote a song about you…. When you’ve been together as long as we have…. Twenty-seven years on Tuesday. Everything that’s happened - eh? The good times, the bad times, every time you’ve picked me up off the floor. I guess you couldn’t fit all that in a song.”
Some of you may think that I am the last person who should be writing about the pros and cons of a long marriage. After all I only managed twenty years myself, but maybe that gives me some objectivity, because all around me I have friends in their seventies who have been together throughout their adult lives, and on Super Troopers barely a day goes by without someone celebrating a golden wedding anniversary. And, you may be surprised to hear, I am in awe of all those happy long-lasting relationships and I have often wondered how and why they endured. I think that ‘Marriage’ ultimately supplied many of the answers.
The first is that Emma and Ian still love and care about each other. They bicker over a jacket potato at the airport on their return from holiday and are barely speaking on the plane, but hold hands across the aisle when they are both anxious during take-off. After an upsetting visit to the grave of Nicolas, their stillborn son, they stand locked in a long and mutually comforting embrace before they go home. Emma knows that Ian is lost and bewildered by his redundancy, so when he eventually admits he’s not coping by bursting into tears, she responds with love and compassion: “You need to let me help you”.
The second is that they operate as a team when they are dealing with the challenges in their lives. They close ranks against the dreadful boyfriend who Jess thankfully ditches when she meets a lovely young waiter in a restaurant. Emma refuses to allow her miserable, manipulative and demanding father to undermine Ian, despite the fact that Ian knows that the old man loathes him and goes out of his way to drive a wedge. Initially it looks as though Emma is in thrall to her young and attractive boss Jamie, but when she sees him for what he is, she says to him: “You laugh at Ian but he is a good person. He is. A good, good person.”
Emma also expresses the same fierce loyalty to Ian when she credits him for getting her through the trauma of her baby’s death. When Jess asks her how she survived she replies: “I had your Dad. He was perfect, actually. We looked after each other”. And to buoy him up when he’s in despair about his redundancy she tells Ian: “It was you that got me through Nicolas. You made me shower, you made me eat. I didn’t know someone could be so wonderful. And it was you that got us Jessica - you were amazing. That was all you. You made the good come out of it all”.
Image from Standard.co.uk - BBC Pictures - See here
And finally, Stefan Golaszewski wasn’t afraid to show that long relationships also involve a great deal of routine tedium, including stacking the dishwasher, recycling the junk mail, lounging in (unattractive) pyjamas on the sofa watching television, filling the bird feeder and killing the ants which have returned to invade the rubbish bin. Was ‘Marriage’ worth the four hours I devoted to watching it? Yes it was well worth it for giving me an insight into the glue that has kept Emma and Ian together for twenty-seven years. Ian may not have the capacity his daughter has to pen a love song, but if he (or Emma) were to write a poem it would probably be the one at the top of this, the last stanza of which reads:
‘And maintenance is the sensible side of love
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air
As Atlas did the sky.’*
And if you have your own Atlas who keeps your ‘suspect edifice upright in air’ and he (or she) has been doing that for very many years, then I offer you my heartfelt congratulations and say “lucky you”!
*’Atlas’ is by U,A, Fanthorpe (1928-2009)
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