Dara Healy writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
“Hercules Poirot is dead.”
Incredibly, in 1975, the New York Times published on its front page, an obituary for Hercules Poirot, the “famed Belgian detective.” The publication of such a memorial was incredible, not just because the mention took up a sizeable space on the front of a renowned newspaper, but because Poirot only ever existed in the mind of his equally famous creator, author Agatha Christie. The latest film featuring the larger than life Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express, is a lavish romp through time, starring, produced and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Interestingly, more than 40 years after that front-page obituary, a reviewer in the New Yorker magazine appeared rather underwhelmed by Branagh’s effort.
The writer, Anthony Lane, seemed immune to the charms of Poirot, or the star-studded cast led by Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dame Judi Dench. After commenting on the size of Branagh’s moustache, the lavishness of the costumes and the apparent excess of movies stars, Lane compared Agatha Christie to Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret. “If you have just started a Christie, and somebody tells you the murderer’s name, there is no reason to go on reading. With a Simenon, there is no reason to stop.”
Whatever your view, for me a movie like this allows us to marvel anew at the power of the mind of a writer. As we get lost in their world, we are often forced to confront our opinions, human interactions and world view. From Sherlock Holmes to Harry Potter, from Hannibal Lecter to Scrooge, compelling characters permeate our lives and our consciousness. At home, Mohun Biswas from House for Mr Biswas, Aldrick from Dragon Can’t Dance or Shel from Green Days by the River all help us to uncover something about ourselves through their own struggles.
As we left the cinema energised by the film, we talked about the fact that we had read Poirot, Ms Marple and countless other works for pleasure, lamenting that this practice appears almost non-existent in recent generations. And even if people are in fact reading, does the literature go beyond prescribed study materials? In the 1990s, UNESCO statistics showed a growth in literacy in our population. Conversely, data collected around the same time from national literacy surveys conducted by the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) and UWI, confirmed that almost 25 per cent of citizens over the age of 15 have difficulty reading. Given apparent challenges with the way the international data was collected, the local analysis seemed to present a more accurate picture.
Decades later, these concerns remain. In 2016, at the launch of a literacy programme for schools, the Minister of Education stated that “too often in our school system, we hear complaints from our teachers of the paucity of the reading skills of our students … Too often, many of our secondary students cannot read properly.” And as ALTA’s constant search for “reading guides and tutors” demonstrates, the literacy gap is equally disturbing amongst our adult population.
Reading is one of the best ways to improve vocabulary and critical thinking, skills frequently absent in our society. Research has also shown that it strengthens the health and longevity of the brain. As one commentator pointed out, people generally don’t ask, “Why am I learning to read? I won’t need it in the future.” Sadly, in a technology driven world, reading a physical book is a hard sell.
So, the challenge becomes how to make reading sexy, how to compete with images on screens that jump, swivel, flip and explode all the time?
I watched the students of a school in Marabella listen attentively to local author Michael Anthony talk about his process in writing Green Days by the River. Afterwards, they swamped him with questions, requests for autographs and, most importantly, to sign their books. We promised that we would come back to do theatre-in-education sessions with them, to help the literature live. Who would have thought that students from Marabella, a notoriously troubled area, could sit so patiently and respectfully for an elder, and show interest in reading?
If we could inspire our young people to read and write their own stories, we would change the narrative of our developing nation. As Agatha Christie herself once said, the “secret of getting ahead, is getting started.” It seems to me a simple solution, and one that does not require the talents of a Poirot to decipher.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN