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An eerily accurate vision of the future

By Frances Burscough

Published 23/07/2016

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

A new tv drama started last week. It tells the story of a terrorist cell operating in London, bent on bringing about the downfall of the government and unleashing  chaos in society at large. They meet in the back room of a shady porn shop in Soho where they compose and print anarchistic leaflets while planning future attacks in and around the capital.

One of them has contacts in a Eastern European Embassy, another has covert connections to the Metropolitan Police, while another is a explosives expert who wears a suicide vest at all times which he will detonate if he is ever detained. Their current plot is to blow up a prominent and iconic public building during one of its peak visiting times for maximum impact and to send shockwaves across the entire world.

You would think this storyline had been inspired by any one of a number terrorist atrocities that have blighted the news and spread fear across the world in recent weeks. But incredibly, this is the TV adaptation of a novel written over a hundred years ago by the very brilliant author Joseph Conrad.

The Secret Agent, which has been dramatised by the BBC for its Sunday evening peak-viewing drama slot, is possibly more relevant today than it ever was in Victorian or Edwardian England. Its spookily prophetic plot would not sound anachronistic or out of place if it had been set in any 21st century capital city from East to West.

It certainly rings more of a bell with me now than it did when I studied it for A-level in 1982. I was only 17 at the time and I was quite disappointed at first to be told our main study novel for two whole years was going to be a Victorian political thriller written in English as a second language by a Polish novelist. What the hell?

At the time I was in love with the Romantic and Gothic novelists. Books like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had fired my imagination at O-level and piqued my curiosity for the macabre and the extraordinary. I was hoping for something mystical and mysterious, and/or passionate and poetic to take me through into adulthood. My fingers were crossed for anything by Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Robert Louis Stevenson’s sick and even twisted Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, at a push. But Joseph Conrad? I hadn’t even heard of him. So I read the cover notes first. 

“Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3 1857 in Ukraine, and was raised and educated in Poland. After a career in the merchant marines, he finally settled in England where he wrote short stories and novels. Although he was fluent in several languages including German, French, Greek and Latin, he wrote most of his works in English. The Secret Agent is considered his greatest masterpiece. He died in England on August 3, 1924.” 

It still didn’t appeal to me, but  I got stuck in ... and very soon I was hooked. He was so articulate that every detail of every inch of every scene became as vivid in my mind as a photograph. The complex characters were as clear as if I had met and known them all individually. Their mannerisms and foibles, quirks and idiosyncrasies made each character come to life as though it was being acted out there and then, in real time before my eyes. I could visualise them all. How anyone could manage to bring to life such a mish-mash of miscreants and such a complex plot was extraordinary, but to do it so fluently in a foreign language was utter genius. So yes, you could say I was converted from then onwards and Conrad became one of my favourite writers. There was just one thing that didn’t ring true to me at the time and that was the idea that people would be willing to kill themselves for their own political or religious reasons. As a naïve teenager at the time, I found that concept just too far-fetched  to be true.

Sadly, that is no longer the case.   

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