GETTING HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT

I will shortly be having some excellent visitors here from the UK, and there will be no new post until on or before Sunday 23rd September

GETTING HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT

A few Christmases ago here on Kythnos, I received a massive festive parcel from my generous Norfolk girlfriend of the time, Vivian, a brilliant fabric designer. It contained a couple of classy designer shirts, 2 cosmopolitan novels, 2 DVDs one of which had subtitles, a boxed CD set of the Alan Parsons Project, a quarter bottle of gourmet malt whisky (most acceptable), some posh dark chocolate in a fancy gilded box, and as a joke, a double CD of The Complete Christmas Hits of Barry Manilow (very funny, darling, and I even sang along to Rudolph when half way through the malt, when conceivably my own nose might have been not a little rubescent itself). As stocking filler there was again something comical in the form of a Kinder Egg, which you probably know are little chocolate eggs intended for small children, and they invariably have a miniature toy inside of them. When I opened up my Kinder, wrapped in cellophane was a tiny plastic racing car in four parts, each with holes and protrusions for constructing the vehicle. As I say, these kits are intended for the capacities of 4-year-old infants, and a full hour later I was still trying hot faced and sweating to construct the little racing car…and getting nowhere fast.

I have always been hopeless when it comes to what adults call DIY, and the only practical skill I have is my cooking which if you think about it isn’t really a manual skill, but rather, if you are good at it, more like advanced virtuoso botching and improvising to get wherever you want to be. As the youngest of 4 brothers I always found it easy to get others to make or mend things for me, and whenever anyone joked with me that I was the baby of the family, I felt nil embarrassment whatever, but rather was bloody glad that it was so. I was 6 years younger than my next brother, a bank clerk, who was out every night looking for women from 1960 onwards, and my 2 oldest brothers had left home by the time I was in my last year at junior school. Thus it was by the age of 11 I was effectively an only child, and looking round for someone handy to help build a construction kit that I had got for my birthday, my eyes fell upon my legendary mother…

My mother was born in 1915 and so was about 45 when I solicited her good offices to build for me a Woolworth’s plastic model of that far sighted yet no nonsense monarch, Henry VIII. Earlier I had been beguiled by Airfix WW2 aeroplane models but sadly they all had at least 100 parts to glue together and the instructions were a nightmare (holding carefully the top lip of the lower flange B17, attach it by the nipple of the upper lug D94 to the rear of the near-front undercarriage…). However, I have always been good at crafty lateral moves to avoid depressing dead ends, and eventually I discovered an imported American analogue of British Airfix where the parts of the khaki coloured submarine only numbered six and the instructions comprised only 2 sentences. But even then, to my amazed chagrin, I buggered it up by irreversibly gluing one part on upside down so that it was not so much a nifty submarine as a humiliatingly beached narwhal whale…

To my surprise my mother who ran a busy guesthouse and had little free time, graciously accepted the task, and one Saturday afternoon I stood impatiently watching while she glued together Henry VIII. All I wanted was the handsome finished object as depicted on the box, and the quicker she could do that the better, for I wasn’t really interested in the route by which she achieved it, no more than you are in how your car works when you sit down and drive it off. As the smileless monarch was only in about 8 pieces, and the instructions a model of lucidity (glue A to B and then B to C) it was hearteningly child’s play for her, and before long Henry was magically there materialised before our eyes, stern and upright and uncompromising, and aside from his subsequently being painted the right colours (all sanguinary ones right enough) all he needed was his regal staff or distaff or mace or whatever they called it to complete the handsome little model. And it was at this point that my mother made the kind of tragic mistake I would have done, for there was a little hole in the sovereign’s right hand through which one poked the thin staff, and of course one was supposed to make the lower and upper halves of the clasped sign of sovereignty approximately equal. Instead of that, having applied the glue, my mother stuck fast the staff at the very top of Henry’s regal mitt, so that effectively he was balancing a javelin on his closed fist and he did not look so much like a fearless monarch as a Saturday night juggler on a glittering BBC variety show. The 2 of us looked at the juggler and simultaneously realised the implications, and she gulped and swore at herself but I assured her it was fine and we’d soon get used to Henry as a versatile jester, just like Roy ‘Mr TV’ Castle on the BBC. And then I took my beautiful mongrel dog, also called Roy, out on the recreation ground, and threw a stick for him, and was aware that I gave my best friend immense and unfettered joy simply by my act of throwing, which of course dogs cannot do, and which thank God involved no byzantine rigmarole of baffling instructions, you just drew back your arm and let fly…

Soon after I was at the local Grammar School, and in the first few years the teachers there loved nothing more than landing you with a Project, meaning a sustained piece of work on a given theme, nicely illustrated and tidily written, as preparation for independent study no doubt, and who knows, the weighty and world-shaking PhD you might embark on in a decade’s time (Henry VIII – Model Sovereign or Clownish Mountebank?). My first project was in English and we were supposed to write about an author of our choice. I went one better and wrote about two authors, who as it turned out had little in common other than they evidenced variations on my own first name: namely Jonathan Swift and John Buchan. I have no idea now why I chose Swift as aside from watching a cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels I had studied none of his works. However, in the school library I unearthed a scholarly pamphlet on the great man and copied large chunks of it, the abiding memory being that I there first learned the word ‘eleemosynary’ (it means ‘charitable’ and he was, you remember, a clergyman) and that somewhere in his writings he talks about someone pissing on a fire to put it out. I’d have loved to have quoted the gleeful urinary vandalism but didn’t dare, though I did slap down the eleemosynary and got an A off the friendly English teacher who happened to know someone who knew my bank clerk brother who as I said was always chasing after West Cumbrian women. Far more comprehensible was my infatuation with John Buchan (1875-1940) author of The Thirty Nine Steps, Mr Standfast and Prester John. Buchan was a typical staid conservative administrator of his day, as well as Governor General for Canada at one stage, but he knew how to tell a good story and have a 12-year-old gripped by his ingenious narratives, albeit his prose was sometimes wonderfully dreadful. For example, in one of his novels, when he writes about the business of schoolboy banter, he talks about ‘the occult chaff of fresh-faced boys’…

That same year I was assigned a project by the science teacher on Astronomy and we could tackle it any way we liked. From my parents’ bookshelves I duly ferreted out a dated encyclopaedia series called Practical Knowledge For All, which I can thoroughly recommend if you see its familiar black spines in the junk baskets in any second hand bookshop, as it has excellent sections on teaching yourself German, French, Spanish and Portuguese. I turned to the astronomy section and copied out vast learned chunks about Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and the memorably named Tycho Brahe. It was all wise and admirable stuff, but I blew it as usual by illustrating a full eclipse not with harmless crayons, but with a leaking fountain pen so it looked as if someone had shit a mass of demented black blue on my otherwise pristine pages. The teacher gave me a B and said other than the terrifying eclipse it was flawless.

By now you are wondering what has happened to the scheming little schoolboy weaselling any necessary help motif, but be patient for at last we have arrived. That same year some other teacher assigned a project for which I chose my own rather virtuous theme of ‘The History of The Police’. Over half a century later, I am currently tormented by the fact I cannot decide which teacher accepted that as a suitable topic. The Police? We did no General Studies until the 6th form, nor can police have come under the aegis of Geography or History, so I am left with the only option of English, on the remote though feasible grounds that writing about anything will demonstrate linguistic expertise and the essay skills of organisation, development of an argument etc. Bear in mind that I was a favourite of the same young English teacher who had a lisp and blushed a lot and that he knew someone who knew my brother who was still chasing West Cumbrian women, especially walkers and climbers, as much as he could. What I mean is I could have chosen Akkadian Cuneiform or The History of Theosophy or Bare Arse Naturism as my project and the teacher would have enthusiastically given it the go ahead and given me an A without even reading it.

I set to with my project once I found a little illustrated book in the school library about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, The Mounties. Much of it was about a notorious recent detection case involving an RCMP team pursuing a violent robber through the snow laden Yukon in the late 1950s. The story was gripping but went on over about 5000 words and I had no editing skills aged 12, so just doggedly transcribed the whole bloody lot. I was sat there till 10pm many a night and my mother started to worry and thought perhaps I might sprain or strain something in the shape of my pre-adolescent brain. Worse still, once the Mounties were out of the way, I still had to tackle the history of the British police and the project might have ended up mythologically immense and unachievable, had it not been for the fact that we had our boarding house guest Claude, who came in such a timely fashion to my aid. Claude was a striking man in his early 50s, meaning born around 1910, and he was from Burnley, Lancashire and like many Lancastrians who have had hard and sometimes impoverished lives, was surpassingly kind, friendly and viscerally warm to all and sundry. He was tall, had a rugged forceful face with a very red complexion, hair slicked back and he always wore a tidy dark blue suit. He had some managerial job at a new factory being built near Workington, and he loved his lodgings with us as my mother’s cooking delighted him beyond words, both the flavour and the copiousness of it, for she provided homemade soups and sweets as well as the generous entrees. He carried his plates back after both dinner and breakfast, and made a speech every time about how excellent the cuisine was, and by way of testimonial he gave her a sizeable box of Cadbury’s Milk chocolates every Friday evening before he drove back home to Burnley for the weekend.

One evening Claude saw me doing my arduous homework and asked what it was about. I explained rather shyly that it was all about the police and law enforcement, and that I had finished with the Mounties and now had to tackle the history of the British constabulary. Claude then looked at me with a poignant wonderment and said:

“I used to be a policeman you know. I was a copper myself…”

I stared at our Lancastrian lodger and tried to control my excitement. “A policeman?”

“For ten years down in Preston. Meaning I pounded the beat from ‘47 to ‘57. The things I’ve seen, son. The good and the bad. And of course the truly bloody monstrous.”

Before long he was explaining his daily routine and I was scribbling it zealously down. Traffic control, lost property, drunken fights, cat burglary, one or two ugly murders (Preston is a biggish town, you see) standard crime like theft and GBH and committing a public nuisance, street pissing, but also caring pastoral duties that the police and no one else are obliged to deal with as no one else would voluntarily take them on.

I paused from my scribbling. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean clattering on a door like a messenger from hell, and telling a woman that her husband has just been killed in a car crash. Or even worse a small child. Or the nightmare of the husband and the child, no once it was two children, all killed together in the same drink driving crash.  I’ve done those bloody awful jobs more times than I can remember.”

I gaped at his fog screen memory of informing someone of the truly unbearable. As a kid of twelve, none of it would have occurred to me of course, but I suspect there are adults in 2018 to whom none of it has occurred either. Then I pulled a face and said that I had to provide some illustrations for my project, strictly hand drawings that is, as photos and newspaper clippings were not permitted.

I scowled and added, “The trouble is I can’t bloody draw to save myself.”

Claude’s purple visage smiled so expansively it actually filled the room. “But I can. I mean I can have a bloody go.”

He asked me what I wanted him to sketch and immediately I said a policeman in a uniform exactly like himself when he was in Preston five years ago. I handed him my pencil case and a packet of crayons and in about twenty minutes he had what looked like a Michelangelo to me. Claude had taken great care over the uniform, the number and size of the buttons, the braiding, the elaborate stitching on the cap. The policeman was very burly and looked touchingly like a caricature or twin of Claude himself with his body tapering strangely outwards as you looked from the waist up to the head and the hat.

“That’s brilliant,” I said with absolute sincerity. “That’s really great.”

And then I asked him to dictate the labelling, meaning the explanation of his drawing, and I realised I was getting it from the horse’s mouth, and that his expertise was impregnable as his memories were only five years old. I told him with absolute confidence that I would get an A and I would also add a note giving him as one of the sources, so that he would have his share in my success.

“Shake on it. That’s very big of you to share your hard-won marks with a duffer like me…”

I snorted. “Hardly. It’s your drawing will get me the A, Claude. Otherwise it might well be a B plus, cos my Mountie sketch looks like a cartoon, like Top Cat’s Policeman Dibble, not a man.” I paused then realised something important. “I need to know your surname to put you down as my source. I’ve no idea. What is it, Claude?”

He lit up a Capstan Full Strength and I noted that he almost proffered me one, then realised that twelve was a bit young for a proper man’s fag and I might well cough my youthful guts out.

“Leadbitter,” he said as he exhaled. “First the Lead and then the Bitter. It’s as common as muck in my bit of Burnley.”

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BEST FRIENDS AND DO WE NEED THEM?

The next post will be on or before Sunday 2nd September

BEST FRIENDS AND DO WE NEED THEM?

Life without friends is a sad affair and the poker-faced gag where you look around for a non-existent dance partner and call yourself Billy No Mates is not so much tongue in cheek as none of us want to be him or her on even a temporary basis, do we? Facebook to which the whole world is addicted (me included since May of this year when my daughter Ione put me on it) partly sells itself on the strength of all the Friends and Followers that anyone on fb has, though of course no one, not even relentless fb addicts, believes that those 300 or 3000 or 30,000 Friends are friends in the sense of really knowing, caring about, and understanding you the fresh-faced hero with this awesome social media charisma. I’m not being sarcastic when I say that I have a lot of time for Facebook as it is the only place in the world where you can get 217 likes for telling people the yolk of your breakfast egg this morning was a bit runny, and if you can supply a photo of the runny egg you might even get 500 likes. In the old days if you lived a boring and tiresome existence and had nothing to brag about you might well end up a genuine Billy No Mates, whereas these days, tedious and frustrating as your life might be, you can regularly be a minor celebrity for being just like everyone else…namely tickled by the sight of an unsavoury fried egg or a kitten playing with a bit of string, and the latter might even go viral and make you a pile of money.

When you are a kid, friends come and go in a sequence where you love them to the point of no return and are inseparable, then a few months later you barely recognise them in the street, and they seem more like a remote figure from history that a one-time doppelganger. If adults behaved like that they would be accused of being cold blooded sociopaths, but kids on the whole aren’t moralists, they just do what suits them, which is why kids on the whole aren’t neurotic, and a great many adults are. I had a lot of come and go friends inside and outside of school between the ages of 4 and 17, and then all of a sudden, a Best Friend came into my life, and in retrospect I have never had a better one since, even though at this point in time I haven’t seen him for 30 years. I fictionalised him in these pages in my online novel, Passion for Beginners (see the May 2016 archive) where I called him Marty, and the true history of the Best Friendship there must be one of the oddest ever told.

In 1968, Marty arrived in my Grammar School 6th Form from a nearby Technical School where he had achieved good O level grades but where they didn’t do A levels, hence the transfer. He looked wholly original and quite extraordinary which was part of his attraction, as he had a rampant bunch of tight curls and a moderately outsize nose which made him seem like a good-looking version of Gene Wilder crossed with Harpo Marx. Marty’s prime purpose in life was to be funny, to be a comedian, but he wasn’t a one-liner man as most of that sedately conformist Grammar School were, should they consider themselves comics. Marty was a flawless mimic with a perfect sense of timing and also an expert at anti-climax, of saying the infinitely banal with a deadly solemn and pious face. Both he and I were the offspring of working class West Cumbrians and out of forgotten prehistory he would come out with irreverent imitations of our grandparents, great uncles and great aunts, who when running out of conversation would suddenly gravely draw in their breath and exhale as magisterial commentary:

“Fffffff. Aye! Aaaaygh!”.

When Marty did that first parody, I hadn’t heard it for about a decade and I broke into ecstatic merriment and wondered why the whole of the universe wasn’t engaged in the same sidesplitting mimicry, the funniest thing in the world. Marty like me was an instinctive socialist, but also being an instinctive anarchist he wasn’t concerned to praise our old relatives and their frequently hard lives, though neither for that matter was he mocking them, he was simply representing them exactly and mercilessly as they were, for all of posterity.

Within the school the two of us were urgent reference points for each other, disdainful as we were of most of our peers who had their heads down for their A levels, and that was as far as their minds and ambitions progressed. Marty wasn’t an intellectual but he was interested that I was reading Lawrence Durrell and when aged 18 I told him about the troubled femme fatale Justine and exotic Egyptian Alexandria and Pursewarden the aphoristic author and his blind sister and their incestuous relationship, he was all attention. He went on to read Sociology at a northern polytechnic and he duly lectured me on all he knew concerning Max Weber and Emile Durkheim about whom I knew nothing but who had thoroughly seized his imagination. Turned 20, I had broken up with my teenage sweetheart, who Marty had no time for (and indeed he was borderline rude in her presence) and for the next couple of years we both flailed around looking for someone to settle down with and recoup some notional forgotten emotional paradise. A year later, in 1971, he met and eventually married a remote relative of mine, meaning if he had never known me he would never have met his wife, and they were together for about a decade before she went off with someone else.  It was to be another few years, 1978, before I met my wife Annie, who Marty definitely did respect, and some 7 years after that he was settled permanently with a Polish woman Basha and living in London. From a previous marriage she had a daughter called Pavla aged 12, and the three of them visited us up in West Cumbria and Pavla was the epitome of pubertal innocence, the sweetest possible kid you could ever meet. But then of course nothing is ever assured in this alarming world, and only two years later aged 14, Pavla was hanging around with Islington junkies and was shooting up and stealing money and driving her mother to despair. Basha’s panicky all-purpose solution was to move house within London and to tell no one in the world her new address and to instruct Marty to do the same.

I didn’t know any of this until years later, and so it was that when I rang my best friend’s London home in 1989 the phone was cut off, and I had no way of contacting him as far as I could see, meaning that it was down to him to contact me if we were to stay in touch. I kept waiting for Marty to ring me but he never did, which is to be sure unheard of behaviour from your closest friend. Then about 15 years after I had last seen him in the flesh, I bumped into an elderly woman in Carlisle who I immediately recognised as Marty’s stepmum and at once she gave me her husband’s number and advised me he was regularly in touch with Marty. That evening after chatting to his always friendly Dad, I successfully rang my best friend who incredibly had the gall to announce:

“I did wonder when you’d get in touch…”

Only then did I learn about Pavla’s drug addiction and Basha’s all purpose and arguably crazy solution of going underground to become incognito. We talked rapidly and happily enough for I had plenty to tell him, including the fact I had a daughter Ione now aged 14, that Annie had thankfully survived primary breast cancer, that both my folks had died in the early 90s. Marty by now had retired from his civil service job and with his severance money had bought a second house and was a rentier living off his rents and doing nothing more exhausting than going to the gym every day. Just before we rang off, he promised he would contact me very soon, but no, although he had our number he never did, and when I rang him a few weeks later the phone was dead and they must have moved yet again. So it is that I haven’t seen my closest ever friend for a full 30 years, and no I am not writing this to try and prove that best friends are a petty bourgeois and spurious illusion, but simply to share with you the sheer bizarreness whereby a great friend can just evaporate into thin air while still alive and kicking (as far as I know that is, for he was always a heavy smoker). What outstandingly defined our closeness for the 20 years we were in touch (1968-1988) was an instinctive and wordless sympathy for each other’s emotional states, particularly relevant in my case pre-Annie, meaning the mid and early 1970s. Once when I was suffering over an elusive and tormenting woman called Maria, Marty said shrewdly to me, she really isn’t worth it, not for what you are going through, because, though he barely knew her, he knew the lineaments of Maria’s soul which were indeed openly on display for anyone to know. He elaborated that she was cold and selfish and indifferent at her worst, which was true, but besotted as I was I didn’t wish to pay heed to the obvious, as I wanted primitive magic to rule the waves for me and Maria. As final rider and as binding proof of the extraordinary friendship we had, Marty and I hitchhiked twice through Europe together with a tent and a tight budget in the boiling summers of 1970 and 1971, and not once did we have the slightest friction or disagreement about anything, not even when Marty had a stomach bug and was vomiting musically outside a motorway café near Naples with two little nosy Italian boys gawping mercilessly at his display. That can only be termed miraculous and is something that even the most doting of couples might find impossible to emulate.

I have three other close friends who overlap to some extent with Marty, all male, and all of those friendships were made in our first year at university, for in those days Oxford college were in any case single sex. I am still friends with all three, though decades can go by where we never meet up, and the same was true before I opted to move to Greece. One is a musician, one is a photographer, and the third is a retired teacher. I met up with the teacher in Yorkshire in January of this year and we hadn’t seen each other since 1994, almost 24 years. In 1994 we were both in our early forties and the next time we met we were supposedly elderly men, fucking old pensioners as we put it to each other, both in our late sixties. Within minutes we were back to where we were and always had been regardless of geographical separation, fluent and hilarious with mad anecdotes, laughing and guffawing as easily as we did in college back in 1970, as two 20-year-old idiots, almost half a century ago…which emphatically proves that the passage of time is even more of a baseless ontological illusion than any difference in longitude and latitude.

With that trio of Oxford friends and from 1969 onwards, I could always speak my mind and vice versa, though I doubt whether we ever gave prescriptive advice when any of us were in a mess or a hole, despite the fact that possibly we fervently hoped for it and were disappointed when it did not arrive. Sometimes when I talk to women friends my age these days, they mention e.g. the awful time when their husband vanished with another woman, and their kids turned to drugs and worse, and they tell me about how their best friend, always female never male, came and helped them in terms of morale and in basic practical ways, so that they did not flail and sink and go under. They had them round for meals, babysat their younger kids or tried to, took them out to the boozer, tried to get them fixed up with a new man and so on. Best women friends might do those sane, pragmatic services for each other, but best male friends do not as a rule, other perhaps than successfully getting you drunk and watching you laugh volcanically, then sob hysterically when you are in a genuine abyss as opposed to a bit of a hole.

From my late forties onwards, and while living in rural North East Cumbria, aside from my wife Annie, my best friends were all women. There were 3 such women, only one married but her husband worked away half of the time, and the other two were single and with a history of problematic partners. Two of them were my age, both visual artists of a kind, and the third was nearly a decade younger and a musician, but what they all had in common was they talked about their private lives and inner lives, not in any overwrought, overdramatised, and glibly confessional way, but simply, clearly, understatedly and honestly. Any men my age in that same rural area, whether professionals, highly educated, self-declared writers or artists or not, were like evasive children in comparison, inasmuch as you could have talked to any or all of them for a thousand years and you would have never have got anywhere near them, much less understood their inner worlds, assuming that they felt themselves to have any. By the time Annie died in late 2009 of secondary breast cancer, one of my artist women friends had also died of cancer, and the other two were caught up in severe dramas of their own and to put it simply they just weren’t available to counsel or support anyone else, they had more than enough on their own plates. So it was, that in many ways I had to cope with my bereavement on my own when it came to my closest friends, though my daughter Ione living variously in Leeds and Poland did all she could to support me in our awful loss for the next few years.

The net result is that when I emigrated to Kythnos, Greece in September 2013, I left behind any and all close friends, and instead opted to have a great many very friendly very likeable Greek island acquaintances. As the only full-time foreigner on the island and as one of the few foreigners on Kythnos to have visited Albania, I am well liked by both Greeks and the numerous Shiptars here. Like some sort of mascot, the Brit who has spent all 5 Christmases on Kythnos and shows no signs of cabin fever, I can walk down the street and be greeted a dozen times by a dozen friendly folk. None of them are close nor best friends, obviously enough, but in the first and last analysis it really doesn’t matter a damn. I am still looking for a loving partner, needless to add, but that aside, ordinary Kythnos folk and the nearly always warm weather, are enough to nourish me with what I need, and best friends are optionally and for the time being a thing of the past. The world is a lot more complicated than people like to think, and you can do all sorts if you have to, and sometimes what you have to do is better than what you would wish to be your heartfelt choice.

MANDY’S SECRET WORLD – a short story

The next post will be on or before Sunday 2nd September

MANDY’S SECRET WORLD – a short story

My wife Rona said of Mandy Brown and the men in her life, that she was a bad picker, which you might say was an altogether homely, anecdotal way of putting things. Rona was a gifted therapist who had practised for over twenty years, so was used to more subtle formulations (projection, introjection, splitting and so on) which arguably saw the person concerned as a victim of protracted psychological process. But to suggest that Mandy often made bad choices in her love life, inevitably put the responsibility squarely on her shoulders, not on inscrutable biographical accident. She did not say it to her face sure enough, but she went further in her no-nonsense approach and said to me and another friend as we ate dinner together, that she would have done well to go after Sam Anderson, a friendly and amusing neighbour of ours long without a partner. For, added Rona, Sam was not all that bad looking, and as bonus, and alliteratively, was sane and sound and solvent…in fact damn near rich with his massive barn conversion and his salary as a factory manager. At the time Mandy was pining painfully over the faithless Hamish after a recent debacle they had experienced together, in India of all places, and everyone wished to help her but of course everyone was too polite to tell her that Hamish really wasn’t worth the candle.

“What the hell does she see in him?” was the general restless murmur, as everyone for some reason felt instinctively protective towards Mandy Brown. “With all her talents and with all her commonsense when it comes to everything but him?”

I first met Mandy in the early 1990s on market day in a small town close to both the Scottish and Northumbrian borders. I had lived in the area for 4 years and she for longer, but this was the first time I had set eyes upon her. We were introduced by Patty, a friend of Rona’s who talked more than anyone I have ever heard in my life, as if even a moment’s silence would have made her ill or caused the world to fall apart. I was struck by Mandy as she was one of those people who look like absolutely no one else in the world, not even remotely. She had small eyes, small features, a small face and was thin and shy looking. But her eyes had some quaint oriental cast, and her cheekbones were assertive and finely expressive. Her hair impressed me too for it was shaped like theatre wings at either end and was neatly fringed. I thought she was beautiful in her own unique way, and it was only years later I realised that possibly I was the only person who thought as much. Others termed her plain and she herself thought nothing of her looks. The other thing I have to stress is she gave off the subtle aura of some small and delicate animal such as a timid squirrel or a careful dormouse (I put that gingerly at the end of this cameo, so that you aren’t led off on false trails with the like of Beatrix Potter, who was after all of the same geographical region we are talking).

Mandy was then in her early thirties and had been divorced from a Frenchman called Tom Pasquier for three years. Tom was a lecturer in French language and literature at a university near Newcastle and his English was so flawless several people assumed he was a well-spoken native until Mandy informed them otherwise. Tom was tall and handsome, but often looked impenetrable and aloof, though he was a conscientious father to their two small children, and drove the fifty miles to Mandy’s cottage every weekend to pick them up and then return them on the Sunday night. After the divorce she and he rubbed together after a fashion, though he was finicky about petty amounts of money and also had a Gallic fastidiousness and fussiness about all sorts of improbable things (the ideal salad dressing, the ideal paper clip, handy tips re remote recordings done by video machine) which irritated Mandy despite her best efforts. She had had no partner since Tom, but had a busy job as manager of a Resource Centre which provided subsidised printing, photocopying and computer lessons to the rural community. She was also a keen and accomplished amateur artist specialising in rugged often melancholy North Pennine landscape, and at weekends she tended the gently rambling garden of her tiny rustic cottage, or went in for strenuous cycling and hiking with various women friends. During the week I saw a good deal of her for I discovered it was cheaper to print off at the Resource Centre what I had written the day before, than it was to empty my ink jet every week or so. I arrived as the Centre opened and after I had done the printing would usually stop and chat with Mandy and can say with sincerity and wonderment they were some of the most significant conversations I have ever had in my life.

It is hard to say exactly why this was so, but the thing to stress is that despite her shyness Mandy held up almost nil barriers nor strategic defences when it came to genuine as opposed to token communication. She was one of those people you could tell your remotest thoughts to, and if you were to indulge in colourful metaphor or far flown comparisons or impossible comically exaggerated fantasy, or if you attempted to express the inexpressible which I often did in her company, she did not bat an eyelid, neither outwardly nor inwardly. Indeed, I have only ever known two people like this in all my life, my wife Rona and Mandy Brown, and a further reflection is that I have always had far more sensitive women friends to whom I can open my heart, than I have any male counterparts. Up in the remote northern provinces the case with men gets far worse than it would in say London or Cambridge, and though there are to be sure likeable individuals up there I have as friends of a kind, if I spent a hundred years in closed conversation with them, I would still have not the faintest inkling of their inner world. Mandy and I were both addicted to cinema, and as she had travelled widely in South America and India and the Far East in her early twenties, we shared a passion for foreign movies. Many a time we would agree in advance to watch the same subtitled film on TV (necessarily remotely recorded in 1993, if only because Channel 4 always chose to put them on at 3am) and then the next day discuss what we thought about it. Mandy had a literature degree and a sharp analytic mind, whose only fault was it was never quite assertive enough. When she passed an opinion, no matter how acute it was, it was also somehow tentative and I could see she was mesmerised when I became eloquent about a complex character or an ambiguous plotline or a bit of unusual camerawork. I was no cineaste, but I was full of my unlearnt opinions and my own ideas and talking to Mandy I felt drawn on to push and dissect and formulate more than I would if I had been talking to anyone else. It was as if Mandy vicariously wanted me to go right to the end of the road and beyond, when it came to making any bold hypotheses or stating my own combative dogmas, and whenever the pair of us were talking movies there was a kind of rapture of support and confirmation, as we discovered our minds to be cooperatively together rather than in the competitive way usually favoured by two men arguing the toss about Bunuel or Fellini or the Coen Brothers.

Two or three years went by and Mandy Brown stayed patiently single, then to everyone’s surprise broke with polite precedent by suddenly stealing her best friend’s husband….

Which is of course to distort and sensationalise the truth, for Hamish McKay was not married to Georgina Wright though he did have a fetchingly bright-eyed little son by her called Billy, who at five was a best playmate of Mandy’s children Jenny and Des. It is far from probable that Mandy Brown did any guileful stealing i.e. that she was the wicked agent and the doer of the bad deed, and much more likely that Hamish with his track record of blatant if corny seduction techniques was the one to take the initiative. Georgina and he lived in another idyllic cottage about twenty minutes’ drive from Mandy, and Hamish had come and gone from the family home over Billy’s five years, unable to settle or commit as he preferred to put it. He had moreover a good excuse to be away a lot, as most of his jobs were short term contracts for community work projects involving those with learning difficulties or the physically disabled or the very old, and often these projects were a hundred miles away or even further flung. Georgina Wright came of moneyed family, had been privately educated and was a very gentle and hesitant woman wholly incapable of asserting herself or showing any mood or temper, much less rage. Doubtless she would have liked to scream her lungs out and pull Mandy’s hair from its roots when Hamish moved in with her, but she was one of those people, warmly encouraged by Hamish, who believed that anger of any kind was negative and destructive and to be avoided at all costs. She and Hamish both went in for regular meditation weekends which of course help to dissipate more than anger, and Georgina made some income as a jobbing gardener, a profession that allowed her perhaps not to meditate, but to daydream as much as she liked. Her customers occasionally compared notes and saw to their concerted surprise that she took an entire day to weed one square yard of border. It was immaculately weeded right enough, but at that rate would take at least six months to clean the garden entire.

Georgina was very handsome and Hamish was the opposite. The first thing to strike you was the size of his nose which was considerable, and then after that the quantity of freckles, the shock of boyish fair hair, and the ever present and seemingly innocent grin which was also excessively boyish. Chronology confirmed this, as he was twenty-nine to Georgina’s thirty-six and Mandy’s thirty-seven, scarcely a toy boy perhaps, had he not looked quite so much like a cross between a caulflower-nosed boxer and Just William as once portrayed long ago on BBC TV by a young Dennis Waterman. Hamish’s parents were Glaswegian but lived in exile in London so that Hamish had a strong Bermondsey accent and inevitably the metropolitan cadences, the carpet of freckles and the hefty snout made you think of a dubious car salesman rather than a principled community worker. Mandy told me he was very good at his various projects, for which he was usually badly paid, and I believed her, but assumed like several other compromised community workers I had known, he was split down the middle, selfless with the old and the weak and the vulnerable, but selfish and calculating, indeed merciless, with the sentient and sensitive, particularly those who were female and desirable to boot. His winning point for Mandy was that he was an outdoor fanatic like she was, and loved rough camping, cycling, hiking and arduous fellwalking. At weekends when Tom the Frenchman had Jenny and Des in Newcastle, the two of them would take a tent to the furthest reaches of the North Pennines, way beyond Nenthead and Garrigill, to the very end of the universe in fact, and both of them being on a budget would spoil themselves with nothing more glamorous than cheap red wine and handmade crisps.

After about a year, exhausted by running a sheltered housing scheme for the elderly demented, Hamish applied for and was offered the management of a project working with street kids in India, in Patna the capital of Bihar. Bihar is one of India’s poorest provinces, and the project was six months long and would be a challenge by any standards, as the street kids were mostly outcastes and Bihar has had more caste strife than most of the northern states. It worried Mandy that Hamish was far more excited about seeing India for the first time, than evidencing any anguish about leaving her for a full half year, but she swallowed her burgeoning unease and put on a brave face. They arranged that she should go out and stay with him in Patna for a fortnight half way through the project, and she packed up all her painting gear and took her expensive camera too. It was August when she went out, all fresh excitement and shy but intense passion, and Hamish had agreed to pick her up from the airport then take her to his Patna apartment. When they met, he and his freckles and his vast nose smirked as amiably as ever, but he seemed worryingly preoccupied and immediately she felt that she was getting in the way of something, and was thus superfluous, even an irritation. A cold fear gripped her in the stomach, for here she was possibly painfully on her own in Patna for the next two weeks, and indeed things did not improve once they reached his flat. He explained he was up to his eyes with the street kids project and so had called in Vinnie aka Vinita his thirty-year-old deputy who had some holiday and had volunteered to show Mandy round the city: all the Hindu temples as well as the Sikh gurudwara, the Golghara dome, the Bihar Museum, the botanical gardens, and the best rural landscapes for her painting. Vinnie was generous enough company and she took Mandy to some fine vegetarian restaurants where the food was delicious if stingingly hot, and that astringence somehow made her think of Hamish and his present behaviour.

“Hamish is a marvellous man,” exclaimed Vinnie with her shiningly excited eyes, as she offered Mandy succulent and novel vegetables such as lauki and tinda. “He gets on brilliantly with the street kids. They absolutely love him, Mandy. They see him as just like one of them, as a kind of grown up street kid if you know what I mean.”

At that point, Mandy told me, she had spluttered at the heat of the dhal, and was reminded not just of Hamish’s perennial youthfulness, but that of Georgina Wright’s newly acquired partner, Lester Perry. Lester aged thirty was a strikingly handsome friend or rather confederate of Hamish’s who was a self- employed sculptor and metalworker, and was the shyest and quietest man I have ever met. In fifteen years, I doubt I had heard him speak more than two sentences, and his blushing childlike timidity was such that my own daughter Dora aged six once asked me in all seriousness was Lester Perry really a man or just a little boy.

“Yes,” answered Mandy with a struggle. “Hamish was a playleader once in a very run-down part of Leeds, in the north of England. He was a legend, Vinnie, as all the kids there really loved him. He has a special knack. He has something that others don’t have, I suppose.”

And what exactly was that? Mandy usually only saw Hamish late at night when he was exhausted from a day on the Patna streets followed perhaps by a team meeting with the local workers. He was seemingly attentive and asked conscientiously about her adventures with Vinnie, but when she related them his eyes were busy elsewhere. Mandy was in any case getting tired of Vinnie’s repetitive table talk, for the Indian woman was crazy about HE Bates and over coffee or lunch liked to relate the plot of every single short story, every whoopsadaisy hilarity involving Pop Larkin she had read, so that Mandy found her coffee getting cold as she aped attention. In the end she was almost glad to go home, though on the plane back to Manchester she chastised herself wretchedly for her total incapacity to ask Hamish what on earth was wrong and what was going on inside his always smiling head and his elusive heart.

As it happened she never found out, for about a month after the project had finished and he was back in their cottage, the pair of them drank more wine than they usually did and before they knew it were both proposing marriage to each other…

Subsequently neither could remember who first suggested it, and Mandy reasonably enough assumed Hamish might well shudder and retract his offer the next day. But no, he didn’t, he stayed firm in an odd and frowning conscientious stickler way, saying oh yes they should marry, but just to make sure of it Mandy arranged things as quickly as possible and they were wed in the tiny village church with Hamish in a smart grey suit and Mandy as a divorcee in modified bridal regalia. In attendance were ex-husband Tom Pasquier who had his arms folded as if preparing himself for a no holds barred Gallic debate, the giggling children Jenny and Des, Hamish’s son Billy, myself and Rona, and another dozen friends and the only one conspicuous by her absence was Georgina Wright who pleaded illness in the form of severe hay fever. The reception was in Mandy’s beautiful cottage and prominent there were Hamish’s parents knocking back the wine and the quiche and the smoked salmon sandwiches. They were hectic working class Glaswegians with a raw patter and a great enveloping warmth, and needless to say there was a stark existential disparity between their boozing spontaneity and Hamish’s watchful and always considered approach to this baffling puzzle called social intercourse.

The marriage took place in September when the bride was forty and the groom thirty-four, and, bar the technicalities, it had ended by the following January, just as Mandy Brown turned forty-one. Precisely four and a half months their nuptial state lasted, and afterwards Mandy said how embarrassed she was by that humiliating statistic. In retrospect it can only have been that she wedded the always elusive one so impulsively, because she was so wounded by his bland indifference when she visited him in India. It is a common enough fallacy applicable to all ages and cultures, that one can make an unfaithful partner faithful by marrying them, and in some ways it is a kind of sympathetic magic, or even a child’s logic and perhaps the two amount to the same thing. Worse still, in those four and a half months Hamish rapidly demonstrated his sense of marital claustrophobia by going all out to find other potential liaisons, having done a hasty mental checklist of the likeliest candidates. One of Mandy’s colleagues in the Resource Centre was darkly handsome forty-year-old Hazel Bone, a single mother with a small son Dennis who was a friend of Billy, and she was later to inform me (though not of course Mandy) what had happened. One afternoon about a month after the wedding, Hamish took Billy round to play with Dennis and while they were outside on the swings, walked up and promptly threw his beefy arms around Hazel’s shapely shoulders. In a great rush he blurted out that he had just done a weekend’s training course in Body Massage in a South Scottish mansion, and that he was required to do a certain number of hours of practice before he returned for part two of the course.

Hazel who had very black hair and knowing, often baleful eyes, looked at him with raised eyebrows. “So why don’t you go and massage your wife’s?”

“Eh?”

“Mandy’s. She’s there on tap. She’s your wife, Hamish, remember? You can massage her for the twenty or thirty or hundred hours practice you have to do, and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your fireside.”

On autopilot, Hamish was absently rubbing away at Hazel’s shoulders as he mumbled, “We’ve been told we have to practice with someone not a partner.”

After she had given me the seedy account, Hazel added, “Give the old dog his due. He can lie on demand better than anyone I know. It’s a kind of expert skill I suppose. But not one I’d want to marry, if I were called Mandy. I will give them a year together at most.”

She was wrong by all of eight months. In the meantime, at a party I attended where Mandy was in one room and Hamish in another, I saw him paying zealous attention to a good-looking recent arrival to the area, an actuary called Anthea Parker who was beautifully dressed, amusingly incredulous about everything under discussion, and in her energetic mid-thirties. I saw him bombarding her furiously with questions about her job and showing phenomenal interest in its technicalities, and also noted her incredulity as she decided this pushy gent would never remember a word of it past the present feverish interview. He ended by shoving his business card into her stiffening hand and grinningly demanding hers in return. I noted on her face a frank wonderment as to why she might believe that Gene Wilder/Just William here would ever need an actuary, or that she would suddenly need the assistance of a project coordinator, given that she commuted by train to Preston every day anyway.

So it was that Hamish eventually moved out and rented a flat on the Scots side in a fetching little Roxburgh border town, and then made things final by taking a year-long project working with political refugees down in Wiltshire. That meant he only came home alternate weekends to see his son and otherwise stalked around both sides of the Border foraging for whatever was going on in terms of short-term passion and long-term non-commitment. He and Mandy had almost nothing to do with each other from then onwards, though she would doubtless have dropped all if he had waved his hand either inside of outside of Scotland, in that area known very aptly in their marital context as the Debatable Lands. It was ad hoc law had always ruled in their emotional entanglement, just as it had in the sixteenth century in the No Man’s land that was neither one country nor another, one devastated and incendiarised reiver-stricken wasteland or another. The word bereaved comes from the reivers who were murderous Border bandits, and though Hamish would never have murdered anyone nor done them the mildest physical injury, he spread grief around him very ably as both Georgina Wright and Mandy Brown would separately attest.

Then the strangest thing ever, and something I still do not understand and probably never will. It was a September weekend in the millennial year 2000, and Hamish was still in Wiltshire and Rona my wife was attending a conference of international psychotherapists in Bucharest, Rumania. That weekend there was a long-awaited musical event in the capital of the North Pennines, a small and infinitely beautiful township that reclines at a vertiginous angle very high up in market town terms, and which might explain what happened there. The concert was a performance of Cajun and Zydeco music, not performed by some black bean and pecan pie virtuosos from New Orleans but from Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, and when the musicians talked between songs they had beguilingly Geordie accents. The bulk of the audience had migrated up from London and elsewhere to North Pennine seclusion some thirty years earlier, and were you might say venerable hippies in their late fifties. They had bought remote ramshackle farmhouses for £1000 or less in 1970, and those places were now worth £300,000, so they were hippies or rather hippy plutocrats with admirable, nay quite miraculous assets in the year 2000.

I went along with Mandy and her friend Hazel Bone, and another woman friend called Deirdre Morton who chainsmoked, and was a mental health nurse. Mandy barely drank these days, so was happy to do the driving and she had to stop twice on the twenty mile drive to let Deirdre have an urgent fag. The venue was the town hall with a special bar and the band were sufficiently high profile to lure a capacity audience, much of it bearded, long haired and/or white haired, and looking as if marinated in patchouli for at least a decade or so. The lights were dimmed and had a gentle pink radiance and of course being Cajun most of the songs were fast and zestful, so that we four decided to dance together to the tunes en masse. But then towards the end of the evening, they chose to do a nostalgic and openly mournful number at which Hazel Bone looked sullen and sat down heavily, and Deirdre said she was fucking off as she put it for a fucking snout. Mandy and I looked carefully at each other and decided yes we  wanted to dance to this slow number and we stood perhaps a yard apart and gave ourselves up to its hypnotic rhythm.

What happened next is almost impossible to describe. I looked at Mandy under the serene pink light and saw that she was looking surprisingly happy, the happiest I had seen her since her four month marriage had humiliatingly ended. But no, it wasn’t something as fragile as happiness that I saw, but more of a profound and limitless tranquillity that stemmed from somewhere far beyond the dimensions of this quaint old town hall upstairs room. It was all there in her small and subtle eyes that seemed to be moving in response to an indescribable inner music, emphatically not the music that was coming from the band, though that slow and mordant song they played may well have stirred up the strange and mesmerising chords that were inside and orchestrating the human being that was Mandy. Mandy was my partner on the dance floor though she was wasn’t looking at me at all, but gazing fearlessly and with a serene and poignant joy into what must surely be the infinite and the beyond. She was communing with herself that is, in touch with some unsung and immeasurable depths which had likely nourished and even cherished her for her entire life. It was also obvious that in such a frank state of rapture she was inviolable, and no one could seriously hurt nor harm her, for somehow she had learnt the trick of returning to this remarkable starting point of infinite inner gravity. At that point I reflected that her farce of a marriage with Hamish might well have wrecked another woman, but raw as she had felt after his desertion, Mandy had battled on and had brought up her young children and had held down her tough job, and had kept on painting and had walked and cycled and gone camping in a July heatwave with Hazel Bone and their hectic and demanding offspring on the Galloway coast.

What I saw in her was surely something of the indescribable and sublime, but of course Mandy Brown was not religious, more of a standard liberal agnostic with token leanings, encouraged by Hamish McKay, towards various oriental gnoses as well as meditation and Hatha Yoga. What that meant was that though she was currently entranced and protected and beyond any possible hurt or harm from any man or any phantom, she was wholly unaware of it, as unselfconscious as an infant child who takes their natural birthright of innocent euphoria unthinkingly for granted. This vision that I saw in my friend and occasional confidante Mandy, went on for the length of the dance, and then the band promptly changed tempo and started a fast and furious Cajun tune. Hazel Bone instantly stopped sulking and even smiled, Deirdre relinquished the urge to dart outside for yet another B and H, and Mandy suddenly went from a depthless mystery of innocent rapture into an attractive and heartening and altogether comical little smile.

All of this happened nearly twenty years ago. I have never mentioned it to Mandy Brown nor have I told any of it to anyone else. But it seems to me the world should know of things like this, for it is very rare that they happen, and rarer still do we dare to think about what they might mean.

AKI’S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The next post will be on before Monday 20th August

AKI’S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (born 1957) is one of the world’s most acclaimed and original cinema talents, who has reaped numerous Cannes accolades and also controversially refused various US Academy Awards on political grounds (in 2002 when George W Bush was in power he said he did not wish to receive an award from a country that was waging an unjust war). He says he has been influenced by Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville and the Japanese director Ozu, though others have detected possibly Fassbinder and Jim Jarmusch. He is described as minimalistic, a mixture of drollery and deadpan, and there is a small but detectable amount of the deadpan comic in this his solemn and disturbing debut feature, his 1983 version of Dostoievksy’s Crime and Punishment. I would say it is a subtle miniature masterpiece, and that it is absolutely remarkable that Kaurismaki was only 26 when he made it. Note also that apropos literary classics, he was to go on to make his own black and baleful version of Hamlet as in Hamlet Goes Business (1987) and by contrast a wonderfully comic and poignant update of Henri Murger’s 1850s novel La Vie de Boheme (1992)

The original 1866 novel had an impoverished St Petersburg student Raskolnikov who murdered an old pawnbroker lady in order to steal her money. The 80s Finnish version has a loner of a young man with an ironically angelic and beautiful face called Antti Rahikainen, played brilliantly if chillingly by the stand-up comedian and actor, Markku Toikka (born 1955). Antti works appropriately in a Helsinki meat processing factory and the film starts with his sawing and chopping massive flanks of beef where the din is appalling and the men work in necessary silence. That extended dialogue-free scene finishes with the focus on a slaughtered pig on a hook, its nose pathetically dripping blood on the floor. Antti then leaves his work and we see him on a busy city thoroughfare watching a middle-aged man exiting an expensive car and entering a smart block of flats. He follows him inside, knocks on the door and pretends to be delivering a telegram. He then informs the baffled puffy-eyed tenant that he needs it signed, and hesitantly follows him inside where he has gone to find a pen. The man looks suspicious whereupon Antti pulls out a gun, his victim quails and offers him any amount of money, and asks him why he wants to shoot him.

“Wouldn’t you love to know!” the meat factory worker taunts him.

After he has shot him, he stoops down and without expression rubs his fingers in the blood, then pulls out a bit of cloth and wipes his fingers clean. He stuffs the cloth in a bag and is about to leave when suddenly an attractive young woman Eiva (played by Finnish TV star Aini Seppo, born 1958) walks through the door and stares in wonder at the scene. It turns out she works for a catering firm and today is the dead businessman’s 50th birthday, and her firm was providing the party food. Antti stares at her unafraid and she tells him to get out before she rings the police, and already you detect a vestigial attraction as well as revulsion that she has towards the killer. Before long the police are on the scene and they are 2 unglamorous middle-aged detectives in shabby suits, the senior Inspector Pennanen, being the mordant and moustachioed Kaurismaki veteran, Esko Nikkari (1938-2006). They soon unearth the fact that the dead man had once been tried for drunken driving where a young woman had been killed, and that the woman was the fiancée of Antti Rahikainen. After that they rapidly pull in Eiva who can only give the vaguest description of the killer, other than the singular detail that he had a kind of lunatic look about him. Pennanen then remarks with infinite dryness that that leaves the net even wider as there are so many loonies abroad in Helsinki these days.

Back at work, in the presence of her boss, a manipulative man in an immaculate suit who is jealously watching her all the time (played very ably by Hannu Lauri, born 1945) Eiva is startled when Antti boldly walks into the catering business and inquires about the police interrogation. He then asks her to meet him that evening when she has finished work. She agrees to a five minute talk, and once he’s gone her boss interrogates her about the oddball, then immediately invites her to the theatre that night. She accepts and even has Lauri waiting for her in the car while she has a brief and grudging interview with Antti. It is odd she sees no serious danger in third parties observing the two of them together, and even odder the next day when she is summoned to the police station to identify Antti as the man she saw at the scene of the murder. After a long silence she says no, Rahikainen is not the man and Antti affectlessly smirks his satisfaction at Pennanen. He has already told Eiva he feels no guilt whatever about what he has done, and moreover he and his fiancée were well over their relationship before she was killed in the hit and run. However, pathologically calm and fearless as he seems, he is keen to escape justice and sets about acquiring a false passport thanks to a barman friend with criminal connections. That involves him taking passport photos at the train station, and here he does the unspeakable by trying to shift the blame onto an innocent man. Immediately after the murder he had stuffed the incriminating bloody cloth and the victim’s wallet in a railway station locker, and he now drops the key to it onto a cloth which a homeless man has spread in front of him outside the station. The man who is an alcoholic is puzzled but scents possible riches and Antti mocks him haughtily apropos the taxing business of choosing alternatives, and says that he will take the key back if he likes.  Eventually the beggar decides to chance his luck with the key, whereupon he is nabbed by the police for Rahikainen had immediately gone and rung them from a callbox to tell them the locker was about to be opened by the businessman’s murderer. The mentally ill alcoholic is carted off and grilled for hours and sure enough confesses to anything and everything even though Pennanen knows well enough who is the likely culprit.

There are surprise twists all the way along this cleverly paced film and one of them is when Eiva visits Antti in his drab hostel room, unaware she is being trailed by her jealous boss. Lauri has enough money and casual influence to hire an adjacent room for a few hours, and he hides in there and eavesdrops on the pair of them, so that he learns soon enough that Antti is a murderer and Eiva is more or less abetting him. Rahikainen by the way is such an inept killer his notion of security is shoving the incriminating gun and various other things under his sofa’s cushion, and Eiva at one point unearths the weapon and puts it in her handbag as possible future precaution. After she has gone home she is soon telephoned by her boss ordering her to meet him in a posh Helsinki hotel, but he refuses to say why. She turns up warily and once inside he locks the door on them and tells her he knows all. He is however prepared to generously help them both, by getting Antti a passport if he needs one, and getting him safely out of the country. He will do that and not ring the police about them, but on one condition only.

“What’s that?” asks Eiva defiantly.

“You must give me what I want.”

“And what is that?”

“You…”

Eiva stonily refuses and he walks towards her threatening violence, whereupon she pulls out Antti’s gun. He mocks her bravado but as he approaches she pulls the trigger and it stalls. At that she looks the picture of pathetic helplessness and her boss soon relents and gives her the hotel room key to let her go. As it happens she had thrown down and abandoned the gun, and Lauri is chastened to see it was loaded after all, but now decides to take it with him as he leaves the hotel himself. By a fluke he bumps into Antti of all people in the street, and tells him he knows all about the murder and taunts him with his knowledge. The basilisk murderer looks at him with a bored expression, walks away calmly and then Lauri realises he is on a tram line and a tram is shooting towards him at unstoppable speed. Eiva’s boss is killed instantly and the gun goes flying, soon to be picked up by the police where eventually it ends up in the hands of Inspector Pennanen. The film then parallels the Russian novel when the detective hauls in Antti and tells him that though he cannot prove it yet he knows Rahikainen is the murderer, and that before long unable to bear it he will walk in and surrender himself to justice. Antti true to form mocks this morose arm of the law, and goes to see his friend and co-worker Nikander, the only light relief you might say in this unsettling and mesmerising film. Nikander is played by one of my favourite actors, the late great Matti Pellonpaa (1951-1995) who was also a successful rock musician. Pellonpaa is the last word in dour lugubriousness combined with a kind of anarchic comic resentment as witnessed in numerous Kaurismaki classics. Here he has a crazy haircut, short all round but with a huge fringe, and he is also studying English lessons on cassettes and keeps repeating the banal sentences in a deadly solemn echo. He knows Antti did the murder and that the gun was stolen from the meat factory nightwatchman, who had no license for it anyway. Antti is his friend though, and he suggest they take a ferry and go abroad together, now that Antti has his passport. The murderer agrees provisionally and they agree to rendezvous the next evening, but in the meantime he meets again with Eiva who urges him to give himself up and that she will wait for him while he does his time in jail. Antti makes no response to this, and the next day drives past the customs with his phony passport and meets up with Nikander at the docks. While Nikander goes inside the terminal, Antti then changes his mind and drives all the way back to town and parks opposite the police station. He enters and goes to the desk and is about to confess all when suddenly he changes his mind yet again.

“What do you want?” asks the duty policeman sourly.

“Nothing. Precisely nothing.”

Antti leaves the station looking very businesslike, but about a minute later turns tail and goes inside, and in a rapid rush confesses all. Pennanen’s deputy happens to be standing nearby and perhaps influenced by all the scorn he has had from Rahikainen, he karate chops him across the back and fells him to the floor. The scene then changes to a very desolate Helsinki prison where Antti has been put away for 8 years and where Eiva visits him one day. Again, she repeats her promise to wait till he is released but he stares at her bleakly and indicates that her faith and commitment are meaningless in his case. Cue the end of the movie which as ever with Kaurismaki tends to conclude with raunchy and defiant rock music with English rather than Finnish lyrics, as played in a smoky downtown Helsinki club.

Last year, 2017, Kaurismaki went public that from now on he intended to make no more movies. I’ve no idea why he made this decision, but I really hope he changes his mind. To quote the Dublin writer Flann O’ Brien (1910-1965) who was another master of deadpan and drollery, Aki Kaurismaki’s like will not be seen again.

DENNIS POTTER’S ONLY DUD

The next post will be on or before 12th August

DENNIS POTTER’S ONLY DUD

It is now 40 years since Dennis Potter’s 6-part series Pennies from Heaven was broadcast on BBC TV in the spring of 1978. On the strength of his epic 1986 and partly autobiographical series The Singing Detective and the poignant childhood saga Blue Remembered Hills (1979) not to speak of his 1978 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Potter (1935-1994) is generally recognised as TV’s most radical, innovative and accomplished playwright. He was also a fearless controversialist who once famously described BBC TV executives as ‘croak-voiced Daleks’ and said that the erstwhile Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s attempt to make comically saccharine election films with the hope of gaining power had made him, Dennis Potter, want to throw up. However, his courting of controversy went far further in artistic terms, when his explosive TV drama Brimstone and Treacle about a young woman paralysed in a hit and run accident and then raped by a diabolic young man called Martin, was withdrawn from its Wednesday Play slot in 1976. The BBC executive of the time Alasdair Milne described it as ‘nauseating if brilliant’, though it did eventually appear on TV in 1987 and was also made into a film starring Sting as Martin.

As a paid-up admirer of much if not all of Potter’s work, by some anomaly I missed out on Pennies from Heaven four decades ago, and have only just watched all 7 and a half hours of it. Back in 1978 it made Bob Hoskins (1942-2014) who played the central character, an overnight star, and it also received a BAFTA award, and in a golden list of the best 100 of all BBC programmes it came 21st. With such a dizzy pedigree I naturally expected great things, but to adapt Potter’s contrarian independence of mind, I would argue that it is one of the worst of his creations. My response as I watched it, was not a simple one, however. I couldn’t stop watching it, but I also couldn’t stop being irritated by numerous things as I did, and I also kept reflecting how dated it seemed in most of its artistic means, unlike Blue Remembered Hills which was broadcast only a year later. In a nutshell, it has a central character, Arthur Parker the sheet music salesman, who is all over the place when it comes to convincing characterisation, and his wife Joan (played by Gemma Craven, born 1950) is one of the worst examples of stereotypical caricature I have ever seen. Re the latter it can hardly be Craven’s fault, given that she convincingly played Minna Wagner in the 1983 film Wagner about the notorious composer, and thus the fault if anyone’s has to be laid at the door of the director Piers Haggard, the producer Kenith Trodd, and the author himself Dennis Potter. The central dramatic hinge, Parker being wrongly convicted and hung for the murder of a young girl in a Forest of Dean wood, entails not one but two highly symbolic and overcharged figures, for the girl is blind and thus the epitome of innocence, and her murderer is an accordion-playing pathetically nervous simpleton, who by definition is not fully responsible for his actions. Apropos which, the vagabond accordion man (Kenneth Colley, born 1937, here looking haunted and desolate and best known from his Star Wars appearances) rapes as well as murders the blind girl, and there is the problem of basic credibility here.  This vagabond is also a severe epileptic, and one of the most powerful things in the drama is Colley at one point alone in the countryside taking a terrifying volcanic fit. At which point we need to ask, is it the case that the rape and murder of a young woman is ever committed by a nervous and jabbering epileptic? It might fit Potter’s plot specifics but often enough murderous rapists are things like taxi drivers and peripatetic van delivery men, who by definition can get away swiftly from the scene of the crime. Needless to say, the penniless accordion man has no car, whereas the innocent man Arthur conveniently has (and parenthetically given that Arthur is an unsuccessful salesman and that his wife at first will not share her inheritance, it is also unlikely that he would have owned his own vehicle back in 1935).

To start at the beginning. Somewhere in the mid-1930s Arthur Parker/Hoskins is an unsuccessful salesman of sheet music who drives from the London suburbs where he lives with his wife Joan up as far as the west country and beyond. Arthur is an unrefined product of the London working class, while Joan is genteel and prudish middle class, and has been left a sizeable inheritance by her hard-working father. It is never explained why prissy and frigid Joan would have fallen for Arthur in the first place, as she is appalled by his blasphemous swearing, his eating habits and his frank sexual appetite. She calls him a dirty beast when he makes bedroom advances and generally comes across as a grown-up version of a simpering teenager from a girls’ comic of the time. Arthur’s response is to lie awake mad with sexual frustration and to angrily accuse her, and grovellingly plead with her by turn. His dialogue is predictable and repetitive rather than original, and Joan’s delivery is reminiscent of squawking village hall melodrama, meaning as if it is some kind of stylised parody. The result is that Joan does not come across as real in any way, but a kind of ready-made mouthpiece of cosseted and alienated inhibition. Potter the playwright needed to make her anxious prudery come convincingly from the heart, and have genuine dramatic implications, instead of which is it just plonked on the screen and we are to take it as a given, albeit it is at times embarrassing caricature. If any more confirmation were needed, with over-sexed Arthur away on the road, when she is not sat at home Joan often dallies with two girlfriends in a posh teashop, and these two chums are likewise shallow stereotypes, the only character inflection being that one of them gossips maliciously about the other when she is absent, and says that she is shamelessly flirting with Arthur whenever she gets the chance.

Out on the road, instinctive, unreflective and in many ways childlike Arthur, is naturally looking for sexual opportunities. Early on he has sex in the back of his car with an abusive prostitute who he meets in a Gloucester pub (Gloucester is Potter’s home town, for he was raised in the nearby Forest of Dean where once the principal industry was coal mining). After giving a lift to the accordion man who is walking by the side of the road, then buying him a hearty breakfast, Arthur gives up impatiently on this gibbering and anxious wreck, but later observes a beautiful young woman giving him a few coppers for his accordion rendition of some old-fashioned Methodist hymns. Smitten at once, he goes into a Gloucester music shop and manages to sell some sheet music to the reluctant proprietor, but takes no payment and crucially tears up the receipt in exchange for information about the name and address of that beautiful woman out there. The young woman is Eileen Everson and she is a village schoolteacher in the Forest of Dean, and she also very poetically lives right in the forest itself, where she looks after her widowed Dad and her 2 squabbling brothers, all of them colliers. Eileen is played very capably by Cheryl Campbell (born 1949) memorable as Vera Brittain in the TV adaptation of Testament of Youth as well as in the contrasting Chariots of Fire. However Campbell has a difficult and uneasy part to play. Her school is run by a Dickensian tyrant of a headmaster played by the ubiquitous Freddie Jones (born 1927 and father of Toby Jones) who never fails as an actor, but who also is split down the middle here in terms of inner consistency. In assembly he knocks a young lad almost senseless for talking to a friend, then threatens to cane every single boy if any one of them continues the practice of singing irreverent versions of the National Anthem. Later when he realises Eileen is leaving her job as she has got pregnant by Arthur, he corners her in the deserted classroom and very tenderly and understatedly declares his love, and tries to press money on her for her frightening future. That display of deep sensitivity is weirdly at odds with his autopilot sadism and in the same way when Arthur is not being an impatient East End Jack the Lad, he is the last word in romantic idealism. In one set piece, head over heels with his first encounter with Eileen he bumps into some salesmen cronies in a pub where he berates them for their lack of Romance and even gets tearful as he talks about the ineffable magic and the wonderful miracles that are out there if one is prepared to take risks and seek them. This dovetails all too conveniently with his choice of profession, for as well as being a dance band addict, he believes the lyrics of those hit songs are spelling out a freedom and perfection that is painfully at odds with the grim reality of things like a frigid wife and a dead-end job.

It is at this point one might take issue with Arthur and also his creator Potter for conflating things that quite simply cannot be easily merged for artistic effect. The point about 1930s hit songs was that the chirpy and/or melancholy and nostalgic dreams they extolled, were not sung with any passion from the heart, but in a stylised rendition that someone like the UK comic Harry Enfield would easily be able to parody for humorous effect. Because the feelings in the songs are rendered in a stylised anaesthetic mould, then Arthur’s identification is ipso facto an identification with something that does not exist. This also helps us to understand why his wife Joan is rendered as caricature when it comes to sexual inhibition, and why her squeaky head girl protests about Arthur and all he stands for, are about as convincing as the set-in-aspic lyrics of the 1930s pop stars. One thing worth noting here is that Dennis Potter was 5 years old when the 30s ended, so that unlike in The Singing Detective, set in the 1940s and 1980s, he is not identifying with something he knows directly, but at second hand. Doubtless those 30s songs were played on the wireless when he was a boy in the wartime 40s, but his characterisation of Arthur born around 1900, feels remote and unfelt if only because Arthur with his whims and lies and explosive romantic impulses, comes across as having no centre of gravity but is more like a half-felt concoction of a troubled romantic. In the same way Potter’s examples of feminine prudery of the time which are crucial to the murder plot, come across as contrived and conveniently overstated. Arthur at one point asks Joan to go around with no knickers on and as well as Joan being reflex horrified, much is made of this later by a detective investigating the blind girl’s murder. The fact is that even in the 1930s sex was alive and well albeit at times strategically underground, and no detective in his right mind would be as comically shocked by the no knickers request as the one played by Dave King (1929-2002, singer, comedian and 1950s pop star). Thus it is that we have caricature piled upon caricature, and hence we finally discern the point of the numerous original 1930s songs that the characters keep breaking into, miming those originals for all they are worth and in most cases doing wonderfully good dancing and gesticulatory vamping. Potter’s much-admired musical interludes in this case (though not in The Singing Detective nor in the excellent 1993 series, Lipstick on Your Collar) work here to bridge the gap left by the fact that many of his characters are melodramatic and crudely overstated. When the stereotyping and the caricature start to creak at the seams, then Potter seemingly pulls in a diversionary song and dance, and the mood and the dramatic power of the ensemble on display somehow seem to be magically rescued and resolved.

Meanwhile Eileen the Forest of Dean schoolteacher is symbolic foil to the brutal headmaster, for instead of terrorising her pupils she literally enchants them with her storytelling. Several times we have set pieces of her mesmerising the open-mouthed children in the classroom with the tale of Rapunzel and other classic fables. Moreover she is an enchantress who actually lives in a fairytale wood, and unwittingly she also lures Arthur Parker there, for thanks to the music shop owner he tracks her down, declares his absolute love, and eventually is taken into her cottage and introduced to her Dad and 2 fractious brothers. As humble miners they are instantly impressed by his suit and motor car and politely go to bed early to leave the sitting room free for them to court. The 2 of them promptly have sex and Eileen eventually gets pregnant but Arthur doesn’t know this until he later encounters her fortuitously in London.  In the meantime he has already declared his love or at least enormous infatuation with the blind girl who he’d bumped into after getting out of his salesman’s car to take a pee, once he’d seen her progressing in a weirdly straight line into the forest. He had pursued and frightened her as he offered to lead the girl home, and she had rushed off only for him to shout that he would never ever forget this encounter and she was the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. Later more prosaically in a Gloucester pub he had described the encounter to another salesman pal and blokeishly said he would like to have had the same girl’s knickers off. This later rebounds on him when he comes to trial as did his earlier request to Joan to walk around minus hers. Once the blind girl’s body is found she is also without her underwear which is where Potter’s plotting, outwardly ingenious, is more ratcheted towards convergent effect, based as I said on an overstated and exaggerated account of 1930s prudery. The local police investigate and soon bring in Arthur for questioning, but he has the watertight alibi of the music shop man, who he was busy grilling about Eileen’s name and whereabouts when the blind girl was murdered (shortly afterwards the same shopkeeper has a fatal heart attack so crucially cannot confirm the undocumented alibi at Arthur’s murder trial).

However the enchantress schoolteacher is no longer in a fairy tale, for she is single and pregnant, and she therefore moves to a cheap part of London to hide her shame and find some work. Rapidly penniless she wanders into a rough pub one evening where the kindly barman warns her what kind of place this is, as it is full of prostitutes as well as a confident and winning chap called Tom who immediately discerns Eileen’s problem and proceeds to get her drunk on port and lemon. Tom is played by Hywel Bennett (1944-2017) best known from the TV series Shelley and I promise you his acting here is by far the best thing in the whole of Pennies from Heaven. He manages to make vaunting, wisecracking Tom both obnoxious and faintly likeable at the same time, and it takes real talent and effortless timing to do that. Tom leads her off to his luxuriously appointed flat, plies her with more drink, has sex with her and then hearing her story gets in a doctor to abort her for the sum of £25 he claims. He does this not out of charity but because he is a successful pimp and he promptly arranges that she go on the game to pay him back the £25 and sundry other fictional and massive expenses. By another very unlikely fluke, one night Arthur happens to go into the same pub, where Eileen is by now fearfully trying to solicit a man, they joyfully recognise each other, and he sweeps her off into his latest acquisition, an actual music shop selling gramophone records just down the road. He had acquired it by wheedling money out of Joan from her inheritance, but like everything else in his life it is a flop and he is getting ever more in debt. The two of them now turn into a kind of West London Bonnie and Clyde duo, as he smashes up his unsaleable records and they decide to elope together as romantic adventurers. This only lasts so long of course and they soon end up in an appalling bedsit where Arthur’s notion of initiative is to try and solve a jigsaw puzzle, whereupon angry Eileen insists in going out on the street again. There is reflex accusation from Arthur now, of her being a dirty slut, in much the same way that Joan had accused him in bed of being a dirty little beast, but by this stage neither the characters nor we the viewers seem to believe in this autopilot and factitious wrangling. It is much more convincing that Eileen becomes ever more assertive and amoral, for she declares she doesn’t mind the casual sex with strangers which means nothing to her anyway, but that she does like money and what it can buy. Eventually she gets involved with a powerful Tory MP played very ably by a wheezing and obese Ronald Fraser (1930-1997) best known from the 1970s TV series The Misfit. Pooh-poohing Arthur’s anxious protests, she decides she will blackmail the MP, for the quantity of money she is making by now has allowed them to rent a luxury flat and to dine in the best London restaurants where a bottle of good wine costs all of 7/6d. Her actual attempt at blackmail is stumblingly half-hearted and she soon scoots when the MP pretends to ring the police, so that the dramatic power gets lost in the wings somehow, and you ask yourself whether Dennis Potter, Kenith Trodd and Piers Haggard ever reflected as much when they later watched the show themselves on TV.

Finally a terrifying Nemesis looms, for the detective/ Dave King has decided he has enough evidence to convict Arthur and has had a mugshot of the man suspected of murdering the blind girl splashed all over the newspapers. The pair of them go on the road in earnest now, and end up sleeping in the barn of a mad farmer who comes across them with a shotgun as they are having carefree sex to console themselves as the hideous net closes. Eileen is inspired to taunt the crazy old man that they will perform for him if he doesn’t hurt them, and after he has put down the gun, she lifts it up and blasts him dead, in a fit of surreal hubris which indicates she is becoming more and more amoral and less and a less a fairytale princess. Improbable coincidence then looms all too conveniently,  for the mad farmer turns out to be Arthur’s regimental commander during WW1, who injured during battle had had a metal plate inserted in his head and had obviously turned crazy since. Arthur eloquently laments his kindly commander but that doesn’t stop the pair of them emptying the house of valuables, including the commanders’s VC medal, which they reckon together will net them about £50.

Soon after the car breaks down and Bonnie and Clyde are nabbed by the Gloucestershire police, whereafter Arthur alone is transferred to London and eventual trial in the high court (parenthetically, why Eileen was not arrested for the mad farmer’s murder is never explained). In rapid order the prosecution barrister played by Peter Bowles (born 1936 qv the comedy series To The Manor Born) builds up a damning picture, for aside from the murder of the girl, this monster has been living a life of luxury thanks to his girlfriend’s immoral earnings. Arthur is speedily found guilty by the jury and transferred to a condemned cell where 2 kindly prison officers try and distract him with card games and later with tender reminiscences of childhood including schoolboy games of who can pee the highest. It is at this point and earlier in the court proceedings that the business of conflicting emotional registers to a considerable extent makes a complete nonsense of the entire drama, for just as Arthur as a character is all over the place, so those registers are all over the place and often making nil authentic imaginative sense. Thus in the court Peter Bowles when calling for the ultimate punishment for this monster suddenly obviates and effectively cancels all dramatic power by bursting into vaudeville song and sticking a straw boater on top of his wig. Even worse when the prison officers start guffawing about boyhood peeing competitions with the condemned man, they too along with Arthur suddenly burst into cheery 30s lyrics and a coloured rainbow forms above them, presumably the rainbow arcs mimicking the arcs of the pissing schoolboys of yesteryear. This chronic mismatch and effective destruction of aesthetic registers goes the whole way through the drama, so that when for example Joan, Arthur’s wife is telling the inspector about her husband’s perversions and his monstrous request that she rouge her nipples for his delectation, she goes from melodramatic censuring to sudden sprightly vaudeville and starts to pirouette around her sitting room with Dave King behind her doing a Strictly Come Dancing sequence three decades before anyone had heard of it.

Finally of course and you’ve guessed it, as principal fudge, after he has been hung and buried inside the prison, and Eileen is standing over the Thames planning possible suicide (reprising the Accordion Man who unable to bear his guilt as a murderer had finally drowned himself) Arthur the revenant springs out of nowhere, alive and well somehow, perkily informing Cheryl Campbell that their drama couldn’t possibly finish without a happy ending! So there you go, folks, and we might add, take it or leave it. But the important point worth stressing is that the overall feebleness in dramatic terms induced by excessive easy symbolism and the ad hoc clashing of emotional registers so that we go from e.g. sadness to vaudeville and then back again with no clear logic…that this was what Potter had to do by way of apprentice work before he could achieve the masterpieces (also laden with song and dance but integrally, subtly, and with imaginative consistency) of The Singing Detective and Lipstick On Your Collar. To stand back and put things in perspective, uneven, dated and at times quite ridiculous, Pennies from Heaven served its crucial constructive purpose, and to that extent we should be grateful that it took Potter along the path  that would lead him to his greatest and remarkable achievements.

 

 

THE MIRACLE OF THE UNHAPPY GIRL

 I am on holiday for 2 weeks and the next post will be on or before Sunday 5th August

THE MIRACLE OF THE UNHAPPY GIRL

A couple of summers ago I was eating in a pub garden in a cathedral town in the UK, when a very striking family group arrived and sat at the far end of the garden. As I was facing them and we were the only customers, I had no other distraction, and I could not be but surprised, touched and even shocked by the young girl among them, who I would say was about 13 or 14 years old, and was wearing a pretty floral dress. She was with a thin moustachioed man about 50, most likely her Dad, and 2 attractive and composed looking women also fiftyish, both with intensely jet-black hair, one of whom might have been her mother and the other her aunt. The girl was frighteningly thin and very tall for her age, so thin I should say she was technically emaciated. My Dad (1915-1992) would have said she looked like a pipe cleaner and he would have been right, and she also looked like a handsome version of that legend of stringy spaghetti dimensions, Olive Oyl, cartoon girlfriend of cartoon Popeye, for as well as being impossibly skinny the girl had fine cheekbones and very delicate and expressive features. The reason why I was moved was that she looked patently and irremediably unhappy. At 13 she was only just leaving childhood and so had many of the touching transparencies of being a child, one of which is not to dissimulate for the comfort of adults. She had a look of itching discomfort, perpetual unease, gnawing inner disruption, and all that seemed of a piece with her startling height and incredible emaciation. She sank her chin on her fists and looked restless and direly melancholy, as if to say why be here as it offers no remedy to my disease, and I was surprised that both women, possible mother and possible aunt, more or less ignored her and chatted desultorily to each other, as if, so to speak, that was the way the girl was and little could be done about it. The thin man was seated next to her and whether her Dad or not, he made only perfunctory conversation and one evident joke which the girl did not even smile at… and otherwise he spent most of the time laughing with the two women.

Deductions come thick and fast in such a stark situation. In a trice I had decided the girl could only be chronically anorexic, and as is well known, anorexia or severe lack of appetite is a serious psychological condition that can reduce someone to a hazardous bag of bones and can even in extremis, prove fatal. After a deduction comes a prediction, and my prediction as I sat there eating my not at all bad vegetable curry and nan, was that the waitress would bring 3 substantial pub meals for the adults and a baby portion of something solid for the girl, or more likely a bowl of soup that she would play with, make soldiers out of the bread accompanying , and then leave the whole lot as a testament to the fact that she would not put the world outside of her, as represented by that garish fetish called food, inside of her pristine and garrisoned self, if only because the alien aliment would rapidly spoil and soil her should she permit it to enter her fastidiously purified world.

Far from it. The waitress arrived with 4 equally whopping meals, all of them pasta dishes, 2 of them with meat, spaghetti bolognaise, and 2 with a tomato sauce aromatic with fresh basil even from this distance. There was also a massive bowl of grated parmesan sited in the middle for all 4 diners. I was confidently expecting her to push her plate away with a baleful even angry revulsion, but was immediately dumbfounded when the tall and skinny girl went from her permafrost of frozen unease to a very animated and youthful smile of innocent rapture. Like any spontaneous adolescent she grinned as she sank her skinny hand deep into the cheese, took a colossal fistful and scattered it vigorously all over the heaping plate of pomodoro pasta. In a trice she had the fork taut in her hand, and as a practised expert, she had the spaghetti’s sauce and parmesan wrapped about it and was shovelling it down as fast as she could go. She went on and on like this, like some ravenous farm labourer from impoverished Sicily circa 1932, bolting down fork after fork of it and scarcely drawing breath. When she did at last permit herself a brief pause, her face showed every sign of genuine happiness, for she had a full and tender smile upon her handsome face, as if somehow the only remedy she knew for the grief of the world was as simple as to enjoy her food, the one inexplicable consolation that never fails even the forgotten and the lost and the frequently speechless amongst us.

TAKE TWO WITH ALAN BATES

The next post will be on before Thursday 19th July

TAKE TWO WITH ALAN BATES

A friend of mine recently expressed amazement after I told her I went straight from watching the 2003 ITV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, to the 1978 BBC version of the same novel, as scripted by the celebrated television playwright Dennis Potter (1935-1994). I mean this literally, for there weren’t even 10 minutes, much less an hour’s grace, between the 2 boxed sets of DVDs. Immediately the first one finished with Michael Henchard’s famous and terrible death note, that he wished to be buried in unconsecrated ground and he wanted everyone to forget about him and never to speak of him, literally as the credits rolled, I walked through to get the Potter DVD, stopped in the kitchen to fill up with wine, then sat down and dived straight into Alan Bates selling his wife and baby at the fair.

You probably remember the plot of Casterbridge from the revision notes for your GCSE, GCE or School Certificate English Literature, depending on your venerability. I will try to precis it for you as briefly as possible, but be aware at the start that like true vintage Hardy it is all about unremitting fate, dismally thwarted hopes and hopelessly tragic dead ends, for it is about a man (it is always a man) who is the bound and trussed victim of his uncontrollable moods and temper. Michael Henchard happens to be a trusser himself, a jobbing hay trusser who to earn his bread walks with his wife Susan and babe in arms Elizabeth Jane from farm to farm in a fictionalised Dorset, somewhere around the 1830s. One day they come to a country fair just above Casterbridge and a remarkably rough old woman, who in her thronging tent sells furmity, a kind of sweet porridge concoction, advises Henchard he can always have a pennorth of rum added to it if he wishes. Despite Susan’s protests he has more and more rum until he is very drunk, and in such an evil mood that he offers to auction his wife and baby to anyone will have them. All the rustics around him laugh at his nonsense but he persists in his obnoxious project and eventually and with Susan’s sad agreement, a kindhearted sailor called Newson buys them off him for 5 guineas.

In the original version it is the veteran Alan Bates (1934-2003) plays Henchard, and in the remake it is the gifted Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds (born 1953) who you might have seen in In Bruges as the priest. Both of them are excellent in the part, Bates with his barking, snapping cadences so that every speech he makes is a kind of rat-a-tat attack, even when he is being that rare thing, an amiable individual. Hinds by contrast has more of a stiff and saturnine aggression and he can also do wonderful things with his facial muscles, show a gloom and epic despondency that are beyond words. Bates’s long-suffering Susan is played by Anne Stallybrass (born 1938) best known from The Onedin Line TV series of the early 70s. She is a capable actress but not a brilliant one, and the same is true of Juliet Aubrey (born 1966) who plays Susan in the remake, and who made her name as Dorothea in the 1994 TV version of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. We see Elizabeth Jane as a baby in the furmity scene, and then we fast forward 21 years when mother and daughter are virtually penniless and Susan is trying to track down Henchard. She meets the old furmity woman who is now two decades older at the same fair and learns that Henchard came back to the tent the day after he had sold her, and told her that if ever Susan should turn up at the fair again, to inform her he had moved to Casterbridge.

Meanwhile Henchard has prospered beyond belief since he did his shameful deed. He is the leading grain merchant in Casterbridge and is also the worshipful mayor, notable for the fact he is a teetotaller, for after selling his wife and child he had gone into a church and vowed 21 years of abstinence for his crime. However, he has his trials, for despite his advancement he has suffered recent criticism because of some bad grain he has unwittingly sold. He is as he puts it, a rule of thumb man, not a scientist, which is why the arrival in Casterbridge of the young Scotsman Donald Farfrae is such a godsend as he has enough science to retrieve the bad grain to saleable seconds. Like many a moody and unstable man Henchard finds that he admires his opposite,  the modest and gentle Farfrae, to distraction, and offers him the post of manager and says he can name his price. It is at this point, once we have listened to several dialogue exchanges between this pair, that we realise that the two Farfraes are the weakest thing in both adaptations. In the Potter version we have Jack Galloway who once did jobbing work in TV series like Bergerac and Maigret and here seems well out of his depth. With the surname he has, I’m assuming he is a Scot but his acting is wooden, nervous and without any range or inflection. He is so bad at times, as when Susan craftily arranges a bogus liaison in a barn between Farfrae and her grown daughter Elizabeth Jane, that you feel embarrassed for him, and want to get in there and act instead of him. The Englishman James Purefoy (born 1964) who you might have seen in the cult movie Solomon Kane, is Farfrae to Ciaran Hinds in the remake, and the kindest thing you can say is he is the less bad of the two. His face is more mobile to be sure, but in the scene where he first meets Henchard’s other guilty secret in the form of his rejected lover from the Channel Isles, Lucetta, Purefoy’s mannered flirting and immediate enamourment are done to unconvincing formula.

To elaborate and briskly backtrack. Susan soon makes contact with Henchard in Casterbridge, and at his behest, she tells Elizabeth Jane nothing about his being her father, nor about the time he auctioned his wife and child, but that he is instead a remote relative. As such he discreetly courts Susan and eventually marries her a second time, for the kindly sailor Newson had been lost at sea and hence his wife and daughter’s recent destitution. However, in the intervening 20 bachelor years, on holiday in Jersey, Henchard had met the handsome and respectable Lucetta, she had nursed him  through a sudden and unexpected illness, they had become intimate, and he had promised her eventual marriage. Of course, once Susan turns up, without any scruple he writes to her and says that promise cannot now be fulfilled, just as Henchard throughout the film does everything impulsively, often brutally and with seemingly nil capacity for remorse. As a further wind in the coil and typical of Hardy’s ruthlessly pessimistic plotting, Susan is in poor health and shortly after their marriage she dies. Henchard then takes a deep breath and tells Elizabeth Jane that she is his child after all, and not the child of Mr Newson. In the Potter original Elizabeth Jane is played by Janet Maw (born 1954) principally a radio actor, and capable enough, though not particularly distinguished, for she has a kind of Sunday school virtue about her that weakens her dramatic power. Far superior in the remake is Jodie May (born 1975) who really can act, for at the age of 13 no less, in 1988, she won Best Actress at Cannes for her appearance in A World Apart. When Ciaran Hinds bluffly informs her that he is her real father and Newson a phantom, her grief and absolute desolation are infinitely moving. The next Hardy twist is typically cruel, for in fact Susan had left a sealed note for Henchard which disclosed that the original Elizabeth Jane died shortly after they had parted and that the current one named in her memory, is indeed the child of Newson. At once brittle Henchard loses all affection and is supremely irritable, even downright nasty to this maddening girl who is not after all of his blood. Hinds is particularly impressive when he faces Jodie May after reading her mother’s confession, exhibiting a sort of leaden deadness and sullen absence of feeling after his initial excitement at telling her she was his child.

Meanwhile, having heard of Susan’s death, Lucetta thinks it is fine to turn up anonymously in Casterbridge and have the wrong put right. She is crafty enough to befriend Elizabeth Jane and take her into the house she has rented as her housekeeper and companion, so that that will give Henchard an excuse for visiting her, and thus courting and eventually marrying her. As yet another twist, hitherto Farfrae has shown a romantic interest in Elizabeth Jane, even after Henchard had fallen out with him, had sacked him and forbidden their courtship. But once the Scotsman meets Lucetta the pair of them are immediately smitten and before long they marry in secret, so that this is the third grave injury the man of science has done his erstwhile employer. First, he had shamed Henchard in front of his workmen by upbraiding him for humiliating a gormless labourer called Abel Whittle by sending him off to work minus any trousers as punishment for being late to work. Then he had chosen to organise a party to celebrate a royal anniversary whereupon envious and childish Henchard decided that he would organise a better one. It rained a monsoon on the day, but Farfrae had wisely constructed huge tarpaulin tents to keep his guests dry, whereas Henchard’s festivity was a dismal wash out and everyone was soaked. At that point he vauntingly sacks Farfrae in front of his party guests, forbids his courting Elizabeth Jane, then true to volatile form, once he discovers that she is not his daughter and that he cannot now abide her, he curtly informs the Scotsman he may resume the courtship. But soon after Henchard angrily observes Farfrae through a window, flirting with Lucetta when he is supposed to be looking for Elizabeth Jane, and so is witness of this third and massive affront, the imminent stealing of his hoped-for wife. Aside from all else, without the Scotsman’s guiding hand, Henchard’s business is in chronic disarray and he is counting on selling hay at a huge profit but on a severe miscalculation. He promptly loses a fortune, and as it happens Lucetta has just come into a large inheritance, so that he has lost both her and her fortune to his mortal enemy. Henchard in his desperation tries by crude blackmail to force Lucetta into promising marriage and even requests that Elizabeth Jane be there beside them to witness the promise. But Lucetta gets her young companion to tell her father she must go away for a couple of days restorative holiday and instead in secret she marries Farfrae and the two of them return separately to Casterbridge.

Lucetta in the original version was played by Anna Massey (1937-2011) an actor of great distinction who depicted the Jersey woman’s vulnerability and relative innocence with depth and effortless nuance. In the remake she is portrayed by Polly Walker (born 1966 and best known for her role in the 2002 movie Savage Messiah) who is simply nowhere in the same league. This is true not just when it comes to the extremity of Lucetta’s ultimate and terrible public humiliation, but also when she is chatting about ordinary matters with her companion Jodie May, if only because Walker’s cadences are nothing like 1840s cadences and she could be acting in a contemporary chic drama set in central London. I needed to suspend disbelief and see Lucetta as a frail Hardyesque gentlewoman instead of which I kept seeing Polly Walker rehearsing her lines in a Belsize Park flat, with her phone about to beep half way through. That aside, Michael Henchard is incensed to madness by Lucetta’s betrayal and threatens to expose her with all the love letters he has preserved, for of course Farfrae has no idea that she is the Jersey woman his old boss had once talked about in a moment of confidence. Farfrae by now has set up in the grain business himself, and unlike his volatile former boss only ever speculates with infinite caution. Now that Henchard is a shamed bankrupt and has had his property sold off, Farfrae unwillingly inflicts a fourth major injury when he becomes unanimously voted the new mayor. Lucetta in the meanime becomes pregnant and is morbidly anxious that Henchard will disgrace her and begs him to return her compromising love letters. At length even stony Henchard finds he is able to relent and show pity, but foolishly he entrusts the letters to a third party, a devious individual with a grudge called Jopp, the same resentful man who had originally been promised the manager’s job that Henchard had instead given to Farfrae. Though even wily Jopp (played brilliantly by sinister Ronald Lacey in the Potter original) can see that Henchard by now can sink no lower with all the woes that have befallen him. He has lost office as the mayor not only because he was a bankrupt, but because as a magistrate he had been trying an old lady for committing a public nuisance in the town and that old lady turned out to be the furmity seller of 21 years ago. She had named Henchard before all in the court as the same drunken countryman who had once sold his wife and child in her tent, and his disgrace by now is total.

Jopp seeks his ultimate vengeance by bringing out Lucetta’s love letters in the local tavern and reading then aloud to the guffawing and pitiless old men and women. The mob frenzy is merciless at this point and it is a spectacularly vicious old lady who suggests they subject Farfrae’s wife with her shameful past to a skimmity ride, meaning they make caricature effigies of Lucetta and Henchard and drag them along on poles past the Jersey lady’s house, beating pans and shouting and making a terrifying ruckus. When they do this awful pantomime, Lucetta is of course seized with horror and takes an epileptic seizure and eventually loses her baby and dies. In the remake with Polly Walker this kernel and appalling scene is done relatively quickly even cursorily, meaning that the pathos of her needless death and the horror of collective cruelty is more muted than it should be. In the Potter version the skimmity ride is given extended treatment and Anna Massey’s delicate hysterical persona is well suited to emphasise her complete dissolution when the atavistic instincts of cruel rustics decide they wish to utterly destroy her.

This mob cruelty is also paralleled with the individual cruelty or rather heedless selfishness of the ruined Henchard. Rather than starve he is now obliged to take employment from Casterbridge’s leading merchant Farfrae, and he ends up in rough lodgings where the sole blessing in his life is the faithful attendance of Elizabeth Jane, who still believes him to be her father. One day when he is alone in his hovel he is visited by a stranger who introduces himself as a sailor by the name of Richard Newson, who had not after all drowned at sea, but had survived and made his way back to England. He is come looking for his wife Susan and their beloved daughter, and Henchard in a state of shock is able to truthfully tell him of Susan’s death, but horrifyingly he lies and says that Elizabeth Jane is dead too. Newson, not doubting his earnest voice, leaves grief stricken, and Henchard has so to speak bought himself a breathing space in what now feels like his arctic isolation amongst his fellow men. The inevitable progression is that widower Farfrae resumes his courtship with Elizabeth Jane and Henchard realising his approaching Nemesis vanishes from Casterbridge. Newson meanwhile has made further shrewd enquiries and realised that Farfrae’s intended wife was indeed his own daughter and that Henchard had told him a cruel lie. On the day of the wedding Henchard turns up to make some sort of shameful amends and is faced by Elizabeth Jane with the wickedness of his deceit. He retreats stricken to his ultimate death bed where he leaves the famous note saying he wishes that the world will forget all about him and never speak of him again.

These 2 very enjoyable adaptations have one thing in common. They both have a virtuoso lead in the shape of Alan Bates and Ciaran Hinds, both of whose acting and imaginative range are off the scale, but who receive inadequate support from sundry others in the cast. They both have extremely inadequate foils in the humdrum and stumbling actors playing Farfrae, and while the remake has a virtuoso Elizabeth Jane in the form of Jodhi May, it has an unconvincing tragic heroine in Polly Walker, who stays resolutely in the 21st century, and is no match at all for the original Anna Massey. It is in fact possible to have serious literary adaptations where everyone in the cast is excellent and no one is dragging their feet. Witness the peerless 1981 Charles Sturridge version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where everyone was on top form (Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier) and because of which the adaptation will surely endure for ever. But this business of casting a brilliant lead and then hoping for the best with everyone else, has for long been the default mode in British TV drama, and it is a crying shame, it really is.