BOY MEETS GIRL AND CARAX

BOY MEETS GIRL AND CARAX

The controversial director Leos Carax, is best known for the 1991 The Lovers of Pont Neuf (see my earlier post), a poignant love story about two derelicts living rough by the Seine. One of them is a gifted artist (Juliette Binoche, born 1964) who is tragically going blind, and the alcoholic vagrant who dotes on her (Denis Lavant) is pathologically terrified he might lose her. Less familiar is Carax’s remarkable debut Boy Meets Girl (1984), where Lavant (born 1961) appears as the lead character Alex, a Parisian drifter and would-be film director, who has just been ditched by his volatile girlfriend in bizarre almost farcical circumstances. His lover had kept secret from him that she was deaf in one ear, so that when he said to her one night in the small hours, I love you, lying on her good ear she misheard him accusing her with, You have a lover! Groggy in the middle of the night, she had asked him, How did you know? whereupon Alex predictably goes ballistic at the deceit. Even worse it turns out her lover is Alex’s best friend, whom he accosts by night on the banks of the Seine, and nearly murders with a flick-knife. His enraged girlfriend, who has an infant child, then abandons him to go and live in the mountains, but in her car she loads what she calls all his shitty paintings and crappy poems, and makes a diversion to fling them victoriously into the Seine.

This subtle and finely crafted film works partly via thematic parallels but also by original and provocative anecdotes from its unusual yet thoroughly convincing characters. Just as Alex is being abandoned, not far away a handsome young woman called Mireille (Mireille Perrier, born 1959) who is prone to suicide attempts and is a passionate dancer, is being dumped by her boyfriend Bernard. Bernard is so highly strung just going down into the metro unnerves him, and likewise he instinctively fantasises a bunch of idling cops might be about to arrest him for an unspecified crime. He walks out on Mireille who is frozen with grief by his departure, and later he rings and bitterly complains that at the start his love was far greater than hers. But once their loves had become equal, so to speak, perversely he had found himself losing interest, and even been revolted by her, to the extent that he had told her that her breath stank, when it didn’t. After a long while Mireille rouses herself from the aftermath of his nastiness and begins to tap dance rhythmically on a tray, almost like an oriental virtuoso, and the haunting black and white camera work of acclaimed cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, turns this into a poignant little wordless tableau, reminiscent of the poetic economy of a Bunuel or a Kurosawa.  

The deafness motif occurs a second time, when Alex turns up at a party full of media folk, artists and foreigners, and plonks down on a sofa between an old man who’s fast asleep, and a shy young woman who is evidently his granddaughter. When the old man wakes it is apparent that he is deaf, and he lectures Alex by sign language that young folk nowadays don’t know how to make conversation and make friends, all of which homily has to be interpreted by the granddaughter. He then tells Alex that long ago he worked as a grip in the silent movies, and when there was any love scene on them, the director would urge the male actors to say something romantic (inaudible of course on silent movies) in order to make the subsequent kiss look more authentic. One of these male actors happened to know lipreading, and he decided instead to mouth bawdy obscenities to his female opposite, which explained the curious anomaly of maybe 2 or 3 people inexplicably laughing in all the packed cinemas, specifically because they also could lipread.

But Mireille is also there at the party, and Alex glimpses her when he looks through the open bathroom door, where she appears to be contemplating cutting herself. He is immediately smitten and when she tells him she is from the Loire Valley and has tried several times to kill herself, he is even more enthralled. They talk about their mutual dumpings, but Mireille stays distant and aloof, so that one tactic penniless Alex adopts is to go shoplifting in order to spoil her with presents. In a very funny scene, he enters a record shop wearing his favourite checked jacket of a kind once sported by the fictional schoolboy Billy Bunter. He manages to secrete one LP inside the jacket, but then growing reckless tries a second, a third and crazily a fourth, until the lining rips, the LPs tip all over the floor, and he flees the shop at breakneck speed.

A few words about the film’s innovative, sometimes daring cinematic techniques. When Alex ascends several floors in an old-fashioned open lift in search of Mireille, he hears a couple talking through the walls, in an amplified acoustic manner that is technically impossible. Their dialogue is definitely not inside Alex’s head, and when you listen closely, you realise it is Mireille and Bernard who are no longer together, reminiscing ghostlike about their past and specifically their lovemaking past. They speak matter of fact about oral sex, anal fingering and the like, and the fact that both of them struggle to give each other what they want, and that they irritate each other as a result. And yet for all the raw and uninhibited detail, there is something oddly ordinary, even touching, about such an obsessive yet sober discussion, if only because almost every couple on the planet will go through their variation of it at some time in their life together.

Parallel with that other worldly debate, at the party there is also an American woman Helen (Carroll Brooks), a widow in her 50s, who when talking to Alex claims she is capable of telepathy. Later he finds her alone in another room, sobbing and beseeching her late husband, for whose death she feels painfully responsible. Whenever he went on business trips abroad, Helen said, she had tenderly monitored his well-being, thanks to her gift of one-way telepathy. But then, once and only once, she had become distracted by something or other when he was away, had forgotten to do the telepathy, and the next thing she knew she had a phone call saying he’d been killed in a car crash in Germany. One crucial omission on her part then, and her husband was dead, and the guilt would surely last for ever…

Leos Carax can get his actors to do a great deal with a minimum of words, partly because some of them are physically extraordinary. Denis Lavant, a trained acrobat, is only 5 foot 3 inches tall and with a face so craggy and a nose so broad, you could spend hours just looking at him and never get bored. Ditto Mireille Perrier who with her wide eyes, jet black hair, and permanently haunted visage cannot fail to be mesmerising. These actors are often statuesque and silent for an extended revelatory scene, and this regularly alternates with wry monologues that are funny and poignant by turn. Farcically the day after meeting and falling for Mireille, Alex has to leave for his army service, and he informs her that he tried to avoid conscription, with the ludicrous excuse that he was unable to sleep in a room full of men. He also confesses that he wants to make a mark in the world, and that he is an ambitious film director, when in fact he has never got beyond planning his movies in his head. It is therefore perhaps relevant that the name Leos Carax is an anagram of the director’s real Christian name Alex, and of the name Oscar, the thing that every film director wants. Given his protagonist is also an Alex, and is also an aspiring director, and that Carax was only 24 when this little masterpiece was made, we can assume that a fertile autobiographical resonance is part of its magnetic power and dramatic authority.

The ending is not a happy one, and it is also where Carax takes most risks. By now thoroughly besotted with Mireille and aware she is not in love with him, Alex goes to her flat where to his horror he has to trail through pools of hallucinatory glistening blood that look like the stains of an oil slick. Mireille has evidently botched yet another wrist slashing, but she doesn’t really want to die, and staggering bravely to her feet she begs him:

“Help me…”

It would be admirable at this point if Alex had jumped to it as deus ex machina, but instead he is so nauseated that he faints, falls flat on his back, and even bounces on the spot like a puppet or doll. With this vaudeville antidimax, we are wondering what to feel next, but just then stony, neurotic Bernard who had abandoned her, walks through the door, and hugs Mireille very hard from behind. Unknowingly he drives the knife she clutches even harder into her breast, and the blood seeps through her clothes and the end is definitely here.

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 25th September

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CELEBRITY CITY

CELEBRITY CITY

If you move down to London, it is often to get out of your own stifling provincial backyard, and one  consequence of that is, there’s a fair chance you might spot a celebrity, for celebrities shine more in the capital than they do in the sticks, where as a rule they seem quaintly mundane and comically misplaced rather than charismatic. At 68 my own metropolitan celebrity quotient amounts to a dizzy 4, and 25% of those were spotted last week when just a few yards from where I live in Hackney, I observed the actor Bill Nighy (born 1949) crossing the road, and looking reasonably enough, just a little self-conscious to be innocently out and about on his own patch . Nighy with his thin, well-worn and subtly versatile face, has been in countless successful films, including Richard Curtis’s comedy Love Actually (2003), as well as playing an impressively evil bureaucrat Sir Bernard Pellegrin in the truly excellent The Constant Gardener (2005), Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter (2010) and on TV as Baron Arthur Bigge in, I would argue, the extremely overrated royalty series, The Lost Prince (2003). I’d also add that just possibly Nighy has not been given enough credit for the fact he effortlessly portrays hilarious, earnest and downright diabolic parts with equal ease. For my money though, one of his finest roles was on the radio of all places, and BBC Radio 4 at that, which as you know I normally avoid lest I turn into a basilisk repository of too many recyclable facts.  But in 2010 he starred as lead part in an adaptation of Simon Brett’s impressively literate and nuanced comic detective novel Charles Paris, Cast in Order of Disappearance…and at lunchtime no less, when normally R4 fans are looking for something nice and easy on the ears…like that Boys Own chummy hysteria known as Just a Minute.

My first metropolitan celebrity in the flesh was the legendary comic genius, the scriptwriter (Round the Horne, At Last the 1948 Show) and actor, Marty Feldman (1934-1982) who I observed standing alone outside Hampstead tube station in late 1972. You would never mistake him for anyone else, as Feldman suffered from extreme exophthalmia, meaning his eyes literally popped out of his head in a kind of displaced batrachian style, so that alongside that other virtuoso comic Gene Wilder (1933-2016) he was tailor-made for Mel Brooks’s barmy ghoulish comedy Young Frankenstein (1974). The important thing to stress, was that Feldman looked even more startlingly pop-eyed in real life than he did on the screen, and so the ontological gulf between Marty the man and Marty the actor, seemed absolutely unbridgeable. Two years later when I was working at the Wellcome Institute, I saw Alan Bennett (born 1934) the country’s best-known playwright, on a bicycle heading sharpish down the Euston Road, and 45 years on I still recall the mundane fact that he stood up and looked behind him briefly. Finally and preceding last week’s Nighy by a mere 4 decades, in late 1979 and queuing to buy a tube ticket in lieu of an Oyster, I noted sharp-jawed Timothy West (also born 1934) a very fine stage actor who cut his teeth on Shakespeare parts, but has since been in soporific, by which I mean pharmalogically tranquillising soaps, like Coronation Street and East Enders. He is married to Prunella Scales aka Sybil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers fame, and sadly, as of 2014, West admitted that they had been living with the early stages of his wife’s Alzheimer’s.

That said, the inevitable ageing process also has its perks, which can sometimes be spectacular. Here in London I get free medicine prescriptions, free transport on tubes, buses and trams, thanks to the munificent and aptly named Freedom Pass, and, incredibly, the well-stacked Hackney libraries are so generous, that you can borrow their DVDs and CDs for free. So it is that in the last 3 weeks I have enjoyed that finely tuned comedy of naïve young love, the 1965 A Blonde in Love by Milos Forman, the Czech best known for his English language One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Not to speak of that little known masterpiece by Akita Kurosawa (1910-1998) the 1970 Dodeska Den, a kind of Japanese Under Milkwood about a motley if extremely poignant collection of Tokyo slum dwellers, which includes an amiable young simpleton who thinks that he’s a roaring goods train, and bawls dodeska den (Japanese for chuff chuff) in imitation of the shunting engine. Most epic and ambitious of all, was Cannes Grand Prix Winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which combines stunning photography of the bare landscape of Eastern Turkey with brilliant laconic dialogue from a squad of cops in charge of a wretched killer who has serious problems in remembering where he buried the corpse.

This Hackneyian generosity when it comes to nourishing food for the heart and mind, extends even further to those like me, who, should you favour hard and fast categories, are what you might call old. I was told when I signed up at the library that DVDs could be had out only for a week, so that after a few days I was puzzled that the computer print off said I didn’t have to return them for a fortnight. When I checked with the library staff, they were equally baffled, until they went away and read the fine print of their manual. It turns out that if you are over 60, not only are the DVDs free, but you get twice as long to read them. Even more impressive, if you take out a clutch of CDs, you have a whole 4 weeks to lie back with your massive glass of pensioner’s bog standard Merlot from Aldi, and blissfully enjoy them.

You could of course read something far from flattering in that double and quadruple provision. To wit, that being old and passing gaga, you clearly need much longer to watch a film, as it might take you an hour or two, or even a decade or two, to bend and switch your DVD player on. Best also to allow a hefty amount of time to stoop down to your CD player, as your woefully shaking hands might take another cosmic aeon to remove the far too small disc from the recalcitrant case.

Recall then the piquant query of the arthritic dotard, bent on his knees to pick something up off the floor, who plaintively enquires of his enviably upright wife:

“Is there anything else I can do while I’m down here?”

The next post will be on or before Friday 20th September

ONCE AGAIN IN LONDON

ONCE AGAIN IN LONDON

Snatches of two far from confidential mobile phone conversations overheard in Hackney, London in the past week.

From an attractive woman with large earrings walking at full speed, and aged about 35:

“So when she got home, she found her husband on top of another woman.”

Two days later, from a lady in her late sixties with a moon-shaped visage, pale faced and with a strong local accent:

“Well she needs to facking well talk to her facking old man, don’t she?”

It only occurs to me as I write this that they might just be both talking about the same woman. Aside from reflecting that pre mobile phones, few blameless sexagenarian women would have said fucking at the top of their voice on a busy street…I can also confirm that you would never overhear conversations like those on the Isle of Kythnos, Greece, where I lived for 6 years before recently returning to the UK. Which is to say that while adultery is as popular a non-spectator sport there, as it is anywhere else in the world (and believe me the whole island, winter population 800, knows all the juicy details, real ones and wondrously baroque fabrications, within minutes rather than days) no one there would share their potent secrets at full volume with the whole world, and for free. Meanwhile I calculated recently that I have spent some 54 out of my 68 years in my native Cumbria, approximately half in my birthplace of the industrial west (think of the Solway Firth and of coastal Maryport, and of the birthplace of the iron and steel Bessemer converter, Workington), and the other half in the beautiful and largely unsung North East Uplands (qv the remote and tenderly exquisite rural hamlets of Roadhead, Bewcastle and Penton). Ditto no one in that sprawling and massive county would broadcast the engaging tale of someone nabbed in flagrante delicto, as if they were some unrestrained BBC Radio 3 Sunday night drama pullulating at full blast for the benefit of those neighbours who have never even heard of BBC Radio 3…

This isn’t the first time I have lived in London. I was here for a year in 1974 which to my astonishment is all of 45 years ago. I lived then in West Hampstead and commuted by tube to Euston Square, and thence to the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, where I was cataloguing their collection of Ayurvedic manuscripts written in Sanskrit. These days everyone over the age of 10 knows about the Ayurveda, but then absolutely no one but myself was studying it outside of India, which if you are 23 as I was in 1974, makes you feel both headily exclusive, and let’s face it, a bit in existential quarantine. By a strange coincidence, the short cut from my flat to the tube station took you past a Zoroastrian aka Parsee fire temple, the only one in the UK, I think I’m right in saying. The Zoroastrian scriptures, including the prophet Zoroaster’s Gathas, are written in a type of Old Iranian called Avestan, and yes, my subsidiary subject at Oxford when I read Sanskrit in the early 70s, just happened to be Avestan (alongside rock cuneiform Old Persian).

In West Hampstead I shared a pleasantly old-fashioned 2 bedroom flat that cost £64 a month, about 3 times what it would have cost in Cumbria. The house of which it was a part, was owned by a very nice old Indian lady who had an elderly Nepali caretaker doing odd jobs around the house. Male Nepalis often wear plant pot shaped hats, and he wore his jaunty version day and night, even though he was a long way from his home town of Himalayan Pokhara. He owned a mangy old dog, a white bellied bitch of about 15, who waddled her way up and downstairs, and would smile at me if I greeted her, but would never approach to be patted. West Hampstead then was conspicuously ungentrified, with no suave wine bars nor pricey coffee houses, and of course not even a sniff of wifi. Nor as now were there phone shops run by exiled Kosovans, for in the 1970s Kosovo was a subdued and impoverished part of Yugoslavian Serbia, where the average income was 40% of the rest of the down at heel province. A friendly young Italian couple ran a dirt-cheap trattoria near the tube station, and their cannelloni was so excellent I never ordered anything else. It cost 35 pence, whereas it might have been 50p or even 60p in far flung Cumbria, but as I only made £1400 a year as a research assistant, I was never able to eat or drink quite as much and as grandly as I would have wished in the sometimes overwhelming metropolis.

Now in 2019 I have discovered lovely Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes, with their winding and dreaming canals, full of romantic as well as less romantic houseboats. The former are painted a heartening sky blue or homely pastel shade, the latter may be up to a mile long and with sumptuous window frames that would cost more than a terraced house in Maryport. Last week, I was warmed to the core to see the copious birdlife on the Walthamstow Reservoirs: mordant little moorhens and flotillas of gliding and plaintive ducks, but there were also flawlessly supersonic cormorants just as you get in the Kythnos port of Merihas, or up in the Outer Hebrides. The first of the reservoirs lies very low and has a brief descent from the grassland above it. Even with the high-rise flats in the background, I could have been on the bare Solway Plain, in that melancholy but handsome land of estuaries and tufted sand dunes. I was inordinately heartened to know that I was in London, and that it was both the metropolis and authentic countryside. For they have Belted Galloway cattle on the Marshes, and yesterday I saw 3 or 4 tractors manned I presume by the Nature Reserve wardens. There were signs up saying what to do if a Galloway approached you aggressively, and they urged you above all not to run. To which I would say, try doing that when they have their young calves about them, and see if you can stay rooted to the spot, to be flattened good and proper by their roaring and bellowing and decidedly lethal mothers…

I love shopping in Hackney as cooking is my passion, and you can get anything here in the way of vegetables, pulses and spices. Most of the shopkeepers are relaxed and friendly Turks, and I love listening to Turkish, even though all I know is bir, iki, uc, meaning 1, 2, 3 and cok tesekurler ederim which means, thank you very much. There is also a charity shop nearby, which boasts world cinema DVDs, including my heroes the Argentinian Ricardo Darin, and the incomparable Javier Bardem. At the same place I acquired a Virago Classic novel, The Holiday (1936) by the poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) the Ministry worker who doted on her beloved aunt, and whose life was turned into the celebrated film Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson. The foreword says Smith was primarily a poet, and that she didn’t like writing prose, and believe you me, it shows. I promise you that I love a tough stylistic challenge as much as the next, but there are a finite number of novelists whose tortuous syntax and impenetrable semantics, I would say, are far more trouble than they are worth. It is heresy to say it, but the elliptical Henry Green (1905-1973, author of Doting and Nothing) is one, and Jack B Yeats (1871-1957), better known as a brilliant artist, is another. With Yeats (brother of WB the poet) and his The Careless Flower, I have to read every sentence 5 times, and I still have no measurable clue of what he is saying, and worse still, if on the 5th reading I do glimpse what he might just be on about, the next clause is sure to make a contrary interpretation and have me reaching half insane for the Montepulciano.

Here is an extract from Chapter 1 of Stevie Smith’s The Holiday

‘I say are you going to Lopez’s party to-night

Ye-es I a-a-am

You are very flip at the parties I suppose?

Yes I am

It is not much good is it, said Caz. ‘Something human’ he said, ‘is dearer to me than the wealth of all the world.’

Oh, yes, that is how it is.

But you remember, Celia, who said that, he was not human at all.

He lived in the black mountains, I said.

No need to cry about it, dear girl

In the black mountains, sang Caz, mimicking and getting rather louder’

Having typed all that with great care down to the very last hyphen, I have just read the whole thing through, but on this occasion only 3 times, before impatiently pushing it aside and calling it a day. I am therefore making a definite personal progress.

The same is true of my falling in love with London, which is certainly far quicker than I had hoped.

The next post will be on or before Thursday, September 12th

THE MAN ON THE WALL – a short story

THE MAN ON THE WALL – a short story

Millie cleared her slim throat, and suddenly said apropos of nothing:

“Here’s a question for you. Who’s the best-looking feller in this room?”

Millie was twenty years old, with long and fine blond hair, and the bright pink cheekbones of a quaintly antique doll. She worked as a secretary typist in the small Cumbrian town, and was friendly, smiling, and guileless, whilst also thoroughly complex. Her boyfriend Wes, 28, was my housemate, and was a garage mechanic, chainsmoking and always perspiring, and he too was friendly and smiling, albeit devious to the core. Millie lived with her parents a couple of miles off on a handy bus route, but she was strictly forbidden to visit Wes spontaneously, meaning without prior notice of 2 or 3 days at least. It was 1978 and there were no mobile phones and we had no house phone, and the reason for the interdiction was that Wes liked to play the field with other attractive women, most of them nearer his age. Wes was a gifted musician and something of a celebrity, as he had cut a record and appeared at important blues festivals all over the north, Maryport included, and was also sited at a respectable point on the publicity posters, once immediately below a veteran Chicago guitarist. His two timing aside, he and Millie got on amiably enough, and did a lot of watching the direst of TV game shows, soaps, sitcoms, and on Sunday mornings, when there was little else to pass the time before a massive and bargain pub roast, would view with frowning concentration Open University programmes about optical physics, or the blameless sex life of monophytic plants. Wes had a degree in geography and had once been a probation officer, which he now referred to as the province of ‘do-gooders’. He was from North Lancashire and had a musical and insinuating accent, and when he blasted the ameliorative professions, including social work and community work, sounded like every righteous saloon bar philosopher from the beginning of time, hanging out his prejudices on a washing line for all to see and applaud. As for his personal ethics, Wes regularly broke the law by drinking three or four pints of Guinness before driving home, and had never yet been caught, for he always took the obscurest country roads to avoid both traffic and police.

So, who was the best-looking man in the sitting room? Little did we guess it was Millie’s innocent notion of a playful riddle…

There were just two men sat beside Millie on the long brown sofa, myself and Ted Higgins. I was 28, thin, long haired and bearded, while Ted, a factory worker, was 31 and equally shaggy and hirsute. Hard and muscular and of Irish parents, his hair was shaped and fringed after the manner of Rod Stewart, appropriately so, as he sang in a band that played in the drinking clubs all over Cumbria and South Scotland. He had a girlfriend some five years older called Cherry, a single parent who worked in a shoe factory, and who both tolerated and chided his raucous banter and regular tomfoolery. Cherry, who had dyed black hair and a pretty but stern face, had been raised by her grandfather with regular application of his leather belt, she once told me dolefully. Ted lived with her in her terraced house a short walk from mine, but on occasion, after some egregious act of fecklessness or negligence, she would turf him out onto the street, and more than once he had turned up weeping late at night on my doorstep.

“I’m the best-looking bastard here,” he said with a coy if salacious smirk. “I bloody am for sure.”

Millie frowned defiantly, rather like a wise little girl in some morality fable. “No, you’re bloody not. And neither is Joe .”

Ted trumpeted his derision and told Millie she was a daft little, mad little bugger.

“So what the hell do you mean? There’s only Joe and me here, unless you’re hallucinating.”

“It’s him,” she declared victoriously, pointing over Ted’s broad shoulder. “It’s him, the feller on the wall. He’s the best-looking man in this room!”

It was true enough, that shrill pronouncement, for she was pointing at Miles Davis, or rather the inside cover of his 1974 double album Big Fun. I had pinned it prominently half way up the wall, it was so infinitely mesmerising, for in his mid-forties Miles was clad in a majestic garment apparently woven of leopard skin and straight out of the humming entrails of the African jungle. His hair was glowing, black, tightly curled, and that cover was obviously a testament to his pride in his blackness, not to mention the pungent and chromatic beauty of ancestral Africa. For comparison, only a couple of years earlier, the front of his incendiary wah-wah album Live Evil, had a beautiful and fecund black woman with a bulging belly, while the reverse portrayed a grotesque white eunuch in the form of some vitiated and repugnant monarch, bearing hideous yellow permed curls, and even a shrivelled and disturbing stub of a protruding belly button.

Ted looked briefly at the wall, “I’m better fucking looking than he is. No kidding. Well yes, alright, sure, he’s OK, the man’s OK, he’s alright to look at. But if you were to see me snazzed-up in my glitter suit and frilled white shirt for a Saturday gig, you’d bloody well wet yourself Millie, I promise you.”

As she chided the lewd suggestion of her fevered secretions, I recalled a startling dialogue between these two, from about a month ago. Millie was here on her own that day, unpartnered and unchaperoned, because then as now, Wes was away down in Colne seeing his parents, a factory fitter and a district nurse respectively. She was looking poignantly appealing with the youthful fineness of her hair, the attractively tailored red blouse, and those tight black jeans across her slim little hips.  After a weekend’s drunken binge, Ted was currently in bad odour with Cherry, and had been banned from her house for the last few days. He was dossing on a factory workmate’s floor, subsisting on mouldy fridge scraps, so he claimed, and was obviously famished for both food and female warmth. His tactic then, with me as neutral witness, was to tell Millie straight, meaning well outside the realm of ambiguity.

“Millie,” he began with a serious face.

“Yes.”

“Would you like to come for a walk with me now, up Stir Fell?”

We lived in a town that was dubbed fringe Lake District, and whose only mountain, Stir Fell, was a small but arduous climb. It was about a mile away, and it being February there was a fair chance, should Millie accept this untoward invitation, there would only be the two of them up there.

“You mean you and me alone together, up Stir Fell?”

“Exactly. We could have a nice walk up there somewhere quiet and secluded. You see, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve always really fancied you Millie, as I think you are ever such a bonny woman. I like your conversation and I really like to have a good laugh with you, as you can be really, really funny too. Then when we are up there, I would really like…well I won’t beat about the bush, I would really like to buck you, Millie…”

There you had it in black and white.  Not only were there a surfeit of ‘really’s, meaning Ted always prized the adverbs of vehement emphasis, but there was also that striking infinitive verb with its undeniable immediacy of effect. I have never heard it used in the human context outside of Cumbria, and in the world at large I imagine it applies only to rabbits and deer. Though no doubt to a sensitive ear, including Millie’s, it sounded less hard and strident than the verb to fuck. I was expecting her to blush and angrily reprove him, instead of which she merely blinked and indicated a stiff incredulity. I stared at the pair of them and said:

“He doesn’t mince his words.”

Ted agreed hotly. “Like fuck I do. No fucking point, Joe.”

Millie sighed sarcastically as she glanced out of the window, “I’m flattered by the beautiful romantic invitation, Ted. Sex in the rhododendron bushes up Stir Fell, when both of us have our partners that we’d have to deceive. But it’s matterless anyway, the weather’s against you and it’s starting to spit …”

She was right and within minutes it had turned to heavy rain, and Ted in his desperation was suggesting the pair of them resort to a disused lurcher shed he knew of next to the river…

A few months passed, and Wes indicated he would be moving home to Colne by the end of the year. By a lucky chance, a friend of a friend owned the lucrative last garage before the M6 motorway, and he was in need of another skilled mechanic. Wes gave no hint of inviting Millie to join him in lifelong harmony in the Colne Valley, and surely anyone but the typist would have abandoned something that had turned into a temporary contract of such a fixed and meagre duration. But Millie was only 20, and knew little of the outside world, while Wes was a roving bluesman with a celebrity reputation, and at his musical events he encouraged a baffling entourage of inscrutable and dreamy looking women admirers. So it was that this fair-haired, pink-cheeked innocent kept clinging on with her steadfast addiction. And with only a few months to go before he exited her life, he still wouldn’t allow her to turn up on his doorstep, meaning she could only take that modest liberty when she knew he was away. She did just that one cold evening in late autumn when there was only myself in the house, and as I opened the door I realised that in all the time I’d lived with Wes, it was the first time this had happened.

One or two stark revelations came out that night, as well as something more predictable. As we sipped our coffee on the sofa, Millie told me that when Wes was 21, he had got a Colne girl pregnant and she had happened to be Millie’s age, just 20. She was called Mina, and her parents insisted that Wes who was living at home and starting work as a probation officer, should marry her. Tom, his Dad, the machine fitter, agreed, as he thought it the decent, obvious, moral thing, but Mary the nurse thought Mina, a supermarket check-out girl, wasn’t nearly good enough for her graduate son. Mary, Millie told me, was a bit of a tight-faced, old-fashioned snob, so that everything she said was double-edged, and Millie felt at bottom she despised old Tom, a shy and sensitive man who liked his working men’s club and his pint and his game of three card brag. Tom had once been hospitalised for severe depression, and Mary was scathing, even crudely mocking when she reminisced about that period. Millie also felt that Mary looked down on her, Millie, for being so young and for coming from a comical little town in comical West Cumbria. Very likely she reminded Mary of Mina, who had almost netted her graduate son, and probably she saw all 20-year olds in humble jobs as gold diggers of a kind. She could of course have asked why her son always liked girls a lot younger, and what perhaps that said about his personality, for at least in Millie’s case he often treated her like a child in the way he gave out orders, rules and vetoes. That aside, 7 years ago Wes had found himself having a kind of nervous breakdown at the terrifying responsibility of Mina’s pregnancy. Onerous fatherhood and obligatory fidelity at the age of 21, with the cradle marks still on Wes’s backside, never mind the baby’s. He went to his mother in the sitting room in a tearful mess, weeping that he just couldn’t face marrying and raising a child. His mother to his surprise, had smiled the smile of victory, and agreed to expedite matters once and for all. Incredibly she put on her coat and walked round to the supermarket, where Mina was on evening shift, and she led her somewhere private to break the news. Wes’s nerves, she said, had completely given way when it came to this crisis, and clearly he had inherited his Dad’s oversensitive temperament. He would be no good to her, Mina, the hopeless panicky mess he was in, he was not a properly functioning man at the moment, the best solution was that Mina stayed at home a single mother, with some regular financial support from Mary, and a bit from Wes once he’d started his new probation officer job.

I frowned my disbelief. “You mean he went and got his mother to tell her he was abandoning her? He didn’t go in person to tell the mother of his child?”

“It’s very strange,” Millie said, with a sudden wistfulness. “But sometimes I think I’d like to get pregnant by Wes, even though I know it’d be a disaster. Without a doubt he’d run for the hills, and it’d be the last I’d ever see of him. But I’d really like to trap him somehow…does that sound mad, Joe? because he spends all his bloody time making sure he’s not trapped by me! I can’t even come down here without advance permission, or if I do it’s only when he’s away. I’m not so bloody stupid, I don’t know what all that privacy he insists on is all about…” She turned upon me swiftly then, seized my left hand, and with a flushed effort demanded, “Tell me the names of all the women that he’s had in his bed, when I’m not here! Go on. Please. He’s fucking off for good to Colne next month, so I’ve absolutely nothing to lose…”

I looked at her distracted, as I felt the extraordinary gentleness of her touch. “Maybe you should ask Wes, straight out. It’s not my place to…”

“OK, OK. I will tell you the names of two or three of my suspects, and just nod your head if I’m wrong.”

She shivered as she named two social workers, both married mothers in their late twenties, and gulped when I did not move my head. In passing I reflected that much as Wes despised the ‘do-gooder’ professions, he did not abhor them when prostrate between his sheets. Millie meanwhile had turned very pale, chastised and uncomprehending. Her bravado was now a hapless shudder as she walked further into the quicksand.

“There are more than those? Oh my God, there are, aren’t there? Are they the tip of the iceberg? Tell me, Joe, please! If they are the tip of the iceberg, then say nothing and just nod your head …”

I hesitated then nodded my head. Millie was set to melt into scalding tears, but was also white with anger. Just then, in a single ferocious movement, she seized both my arms, putting them around her shoulders to burrow deep into my chest, as if she were some tiny fledgling craving protection from an evil predator.

The thing I saw next, and it was little short of a miracle, was that her suffering seemed to transmute into an immeasurable sensitivity, and she felt as delicate and luxurious in my arms as a piece of silk or gossamer. She looked up at me smiling an endless gentleness, and offered those tender, quivering lips. The delicacy apparent was quite beyond belief, it was surely something that was supernatural, as if she were a rare, imaginary bird or a windblown butterfly from another and a wiser world.

Because this was Millie the innocent, and yet she was beyond my understanding…

The next post will be on or before Tuesday September 3rd

FLEABAG AND THE RAPE LAWYER

FLEABAG AND THE RAPE LAWYER

Towards the end of Series 2 of the 2016-2019 hit BBC comedy drama, Fleabag, written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (born 1985), the lead character, a beautiful and mischievous London café owner aged 30, is sat in a shambling community hall where a lunchtime Quaker meeting is taking place. Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) has been invited there by a young Catholic priest, played by Dubliner Andrew Scott (born 1976) famous as Moriarty in the acclaimed Sherlock Holmes TV series. The priest is soon to solemnize the marriage of Fleabag’s widowed Dad to her appalling godmother, and the Man of God is liberal by any standards with his boozing and uninhibited use of four-letter words. Before long Fleabag will declare her love for him and they will sleep together, after which he decides to stick to his vocation, and abruptly ends their affair. For the moment though, he is giving her some spiritual training, for as everyone knows in Quaker meetings you sit in total silence until someone is moved by the Spirit and stands up and says something. There are only about 4 people in the place, and at length one of them, an old hairy, bearded and melancholy man, gets up and with a great effort mournfully declares:

“I think… I will go home …in November.”

A few minutes later Fleabag follows his lead, takes to her feet, and pertly announces: “I think I would be less of a feminist… if I had bigger tits.”

The first declaration is funny because of the old man’s comical hopelessness and because of the severe anti-climax. The second confession is not even half funny (made even less so by the priest restraining an overdone mirth), but not because of the arguable irreverence at a religious meeting. It is not funny, because if you have been watching the series thus far, you will note that the last thing Fleabag is is a feminist in anyone’s broadest terms, unless conceivably they are Waller-Bridge’s, and no one else’s. In short summary, in Series 1 Fleabag bumps into commuting Bus Rodent (Jamie Demetriou) a toothy babbling caricature of a young middle-class chap, and they fix a dinner date where she soon tells him to his face he is an idiot. However later, when lonely, she arranges another date with Mr Teeth, and it is unarguably funny that as he furiously copulates with her, he keeps babbling, I’m nearly done, I’m nearly done, I’m nearly done…as if instead of sex he has been hogging her only toilet. Add to this, that all through the series, Fleabag addresses the camera with a smiling ironical commentary, usually a sort of repetitive rhythmical denial of some hypocritical assertion from her current sexual partner, or antagonistic godmother. This is often very well timed and funny, but her pivotal feminism along with much of the comic potential, flies out of the window, as she also meets up with her peevish and infantile regular boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner, born 1985). Harry keeps breaking it off with her, but always leaves a toy dinosaur that he has to come back for, and he also attempts relationship catharsis by cleaning her house from top to bottom. He whines in a little boy voice, and is in every way an embarrassment, yet Fleabag keeps going back to him, and is genuinely grieved when he finds a permanent partner. Finally, there is the aptly named Arsehole Guy (Ben Aldridge, born 1985) whose good looks, like more than one character in this show, are repetitively overemphasised. He loves anal sex and grows quite moist-eyed about its significance (ditto he symbolically loses his erection when he thinks he is in love with her) whereas Fleabag after the vigorous rear entry experience rhetorically addresses the world with:

“Does that mean I’ve got a huge arsehole?”

As you can see, the series is full of entertaining one-liners, which are unarguably heightened by Fleabag’s remarkably mobile and handsome face. Much of the dramatic force of the show, and I would hazard its massive commercial success, are down to the charisma of Waller-Bridge’s infinitely expressive, teasing, by turns ingenuous and disingenuous face. However, Fleabag’s essential vision of herself as an instinctive feminist (she and her sister Claire attend a lecture on Successful Women early in Series 1) gets even more worryingly lost in the script, when Hot Misogynist comes on the scene. Played by Ray Fearon, who is of West Indian origin, and is best known as a car mechanic in Coronation Street, he too keeps getting repetitively referred to as ‘good looking’, whereas the fact is he has a homely and friendly face and no one apart from Fleabag/Phoebe would make a meal out of his notional sex appeal. Hot Misogynist is a very expensive London lawyer, recommended by sister Claire as Fleabag had violently punched Claire’s American husband, the antique dealer Martin, on the nose at a dinner party, and the litigious Martin is taking her to court. So far so good, but in a couple of worrying lines that might get overlooked, Claire tells Fleabag that this stinking rich lawyer specialises in defending rapists, and he has never lost a case. So let us pull those lines out into the fresh air, and offer the indisputable assertion that Fleabag is turned on by a guy who always gets men accused of raping women,  willy-nilly out of court, and thus out of prison…but who in a Quaker meeting declares herself a feminist, albeit only as long as she has small breasts.

The diagnosis is that both the script writer and her rapacious character Fleabag, and for that matter a sizeable proportion of the rapturous TV audience, are all considerably confused (according to a UK friend of mine the Guardian arts pages for ages now have been talking about little else but brilliant Fleabag and the prodigy Phoebe). It is simply not enough to jokily exculpate the arm and a leg rape lawyer, who boasts that he is great in bed, by Fleabag wisely telling the camera that, if he brags he is so hot, he can’t possibly be so, then shaking her head once in bed with him, and saying, oh yes he is, yes he is, oh yes he is…!

Before I mention some other debatable conflations of character and comic register, and the question of basic inner credibility, let me give Waller-Bridge her deserved credit for those things in Fleabag which are original and at times outstanding.

Part of the programme’s appeal and especially for women, is that it bravely takes on those hitherto taboo subjects that you might say are bawdy and scatological, and which have normally been the province of male scriptwriters and their characters. Fleabag has a good deal of graphic simulated sex, much of it of the anal variety, which I would guess makes its first UK TV appearance here. This is surely also the first time that male viewers have been able to appreciate a woman scriptwriter revealing what is an open secret to many women, namely that a great many men are inordinately and puerilely obsessed by sex via the tradesman’s entrance (in Greece the men who are also obsessed by it, call it ‘storming the castle’). Add to that there is open female masturbation on Fleabag, and that it is very funny when she furtively pleasures herself in bed next to Harry whilst watching gorgeous Barack Obama on her laptop, then instantly denies it. Her language in this context is unambiguous, and not long ago would have been banned on TV. She asks Harry if he ‘wanks’, and later addressing the camera as to the nature of her odious godmother says she is a ‘see you en tee’ (my considered phonetics, not Fleabag’s). Then, turning to the amiable buffoonery of farting, there is a fair bit of that in Fleabag, all of it female. Her unhappy sister Claire at one point bizarrely complains she hasn’t farted for 3 years, while Fleabag has the reverse problem. To Claire’s horror, she drops one that is pungent and malodorous in a lift the two are sharing, and when a nice woman enters and sniffs the air, expects the worst. Instead the woman commends Fleabag on her exquisite scent. That said, it is worth pointing out that other gifted female comics got there first with the fearless farting, and with the controversial subject of women who are capable of being totally outrageous. Two massive comic talents who both cut their teeth on excellent Scottish sketch shows, are Morwenna Banks (born 1961) who appeared on the early 90s Channel 4’s Absolutely and Karen Dunbar (born 1971) who starred in BBC Scotland’s Chewin The Fat approximately a decade later. They both went on to have their own shows, and in one of Banks’s Channel 5 skits, she plays a posh young woman who is rotten drunk, and who hiccups, belches and farts so horribly she effectively poisons her boyfriend played by Absolutely regular, Gordon Kennedy. Even better, Dunbar in her spin off show plays a woman in a medical surgery which the doctor has vacated for a while. Bored, she starts playing with his stethoscope, and by way of finale sticks it down her pants and farts volcanically inside it, just as the doctor is returning. Dunbar (who incidentally is gay) also on Chewin  the Fat invented the mindblowing and taboo-breaking Betty The Auld Slapper, a frail white-haired lady in a wheelchair in a Glasgow care home, who spends her time salivating about all the excellent and furious sex she had in any conveniently empty air raid shelters during WW2, while her husband was away in the army.

Back to Fleabag, which if you look at it in standard compositional terms makes its success a quite baffling phenomenon. It is after all a comic drama, which means it needs to have characters who are strongly and vividly evoked, in order to make us laugh. Fleabag is a strong character, yes, and her sister Claire even more so, for Sian Clifford( born 1985, and also known for her TV appearance in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair) not only has the best lines, she is far and away the finest actor in this series. Claire is a successful businesswoman often working abroad, and makes a fortune in her job, but she is permanently overstressed, direly unhappy and self-doubting, and doesn’t hide it, least of all from her anarchic sister. She invariably stops Fleabag in her tracks before she opens her mouth, then hints that everything that she, Claire, does, is doomed to failure, and can never be any different. Her neurosis and her permanent angry irritation, make for strong comedy and a comedy which has convincing pathos, for she is not only likeable, you can tell that she also loves her appalling sister, though she does everything to hide the fact. Her US husband, antique dealer Martin, played by Brett Gelman (born 1976) is by contrast brash, angry, boozy and says outrageous things, partly one suspects because he finds upper middle class English mores so stultifying. If a woman he knows goes downstairs to the toilet in a restaurant, he improvises some misogynistic riff about fucking her down there, and he is standard slob predatorial inasmuch as he tries to kiss Fleabag on Claire’s birthday and then says that it was she tried to kiss him. He roars and explodes a good deal, and does his best with the lines Waller-Bridge gives him, but in the final event tends to the caricatural.

However, Martin does not spoil the show overall, for that honour is left to Fleabag’s Dad as portrayed by Bill Paterson (born 1945) a gifted veteran actor of film and stage, who is completely and embarrassingly at sea with the empty, vacuous and wholly pointless lines Waller-Bridge has given him. The core of the drama is that Fleabag and Claire loved their late Mum to distraction, and ditto their old Dad, whose fate worries them a great deal, as he is about to marry their obnoxious godmother (Olivia Colman, born 1974), a former student of their artist mother. Godmother has achieved stellar and very lucrative success as an avant-garde London artist, and does radical things like organising a Sexhibition which catalogues her orgasms among other things. She is the last word in preposterous and self-aggrandising New Age vanity and is also infinitely snide and malicious, which is why Fleabag justly summarises her as a see you en tee. Olivia Colman has a phenomenal track record as an actor with awards galore, and she likewise does her best with the waspish and witchish lines she has in her script, but the most obvious thing you note is she is acting on her own, because she is not getting the support she needs from the actor who is playing the man she claims to love to distraction. Bill Paterson waffles and stammers his harmless and forgettable observations about love and life, mostly to Fleabag, then prevaricates about nothing in particular, and makes numerous inconsequential clergyman-style jests, for he is meant to be portraying I’ve no idea what, nor I imagine did Waller-Bridge when she penned his lines. His single memorable character trait is he is tight with money, and not even that gets worked for comic effect.  He is supposed to be an adorable and charismatic father, but he is more like a ghost who has strayed amnesically onto screen. Yet he is there full on, for about 25-30% of the viewing time, and every time he comes on, you wince and wait for him to shut up. The direst scene is where he is reminiscing mistily about his wife, and he states that he loved her, but didn’t actually like her, as she was so much of a fun person and he alas, didn’t ‘do’ fun. At which point, Fleabag jostles him reprovingly and says, But you are fun, Dad! and you can actually hear the studio cat laughing in the deafening silence that follows.

As for inner credibility, which all drama, including comic drama, has to have, you ask yourself why the two sisters would spend so much time with Dad and future stepmum, when she is so odious and he is so paralysingly dull and stingy to boot. Claire is rolling in money and has no need to inherit, but as for Fleabag and her finances, this is where credible inner consistency again rears its awkward head. She runs a spectacularly unsuccessful café, and yet somehow leads a standard comfortable middle-class London existence in a smart flat, which as anyone will tell you needs quite some income. Waller-Bridge gets round this enigma in all-purpose baffling style, by having Fleabag randomly charge £12 or £20 for a sandwich, which unconvincingly all the customers stump up without demur, even when she has the gall to say she has no change. The cafe and its origins, is in fact the clue to the central artistic problem with Fleabag. It was the brainchild of Fleabag plus her friend Boo (played by Jennifer Rainsford) a warm and friendly and principled young woman with a marked local accent, as opposed to the standard grammar school posh of Fleabag and family and her boyfriends. The two of them endowed the cafe with a considerable novelty, by theming all of it with guinea pigs, so that every picture in the place is of the sweet little rodent, plus there is a specimen in a little hut which often gets taken out to be petted by Fleabag and her acquaintances. It’s whimsical enough to imagine a guinea pig café would take off even in anything-goes North London, though it does later clarify why Fleabag’s takings are so scant. However, tragedy intervenes at an early stage, for Boo falls for the nice lad who lives next door, and before long her free-floating amoral partner Fleabag gives into her own unstoppable passion, and sleeps with him, meaning she cheats on her best friend. The next stage you have to gulp at, for Waller-Bridge has Boo grotesquely deciding to stage a traffic accident, but only a little one, a minor scrape that is intended to win the lad’s attention and pity, and thus his fickle love. What we know so far of Boo’s common sense and down to earth caring character, makes this bizarre self-harm proposal whimsical in the extreme, but Waller-Bridge makes the tragedy increase on an exponential and dizzy scale, so that three other innocent people, as well as Boo, are killed in the collision. All this is done as intermittent flashback through the 2 series, so that we have the more or less unworkable scenario of a comedy series with the leadening ballast of Fleabag’s torturing sense of guilt at all that hellish sorrow she has caused. All the best comedies of course (Amarcord, Steptoe and Son, Phoenix Nights) have the authentic balance of convincing pathos, but multiple deaths and torturing guilt are not the stuff of pathos, they are instead Waller-Bridge shooting herself in the foot as a scriptwriter before she starts. Not only is she overloading her canvas with so much tragedy, but that unconvincing tragedy and the sweet little guinea pig café and the £20 sandwiches and the fact Fleabag lives in London on fresh air, and that she dotes lovingly on her terminally dreary Dad, and that she an atheist is deeply in love with a sweet and puckish little Catholic priest, all of it is cumulatively and irreversibly  and artistically incredible. For the problem is, that even the scattiest and most surreal of comic dramas, needs to have a unifying inner consistency, to be credible within its own artistic terms, not just a take it or leave it string of random episodic eccentricities.

To return to the business of Boo and her origins. I don’t know whether Waller-Bridge did this deliberately, but in schematic terms she has a specific clutch of characters who are intended to be comic, namely Fleabag’s dysfunctional family members and her troop of usually witless boyfriends. To a man and woman, they are all comfortably off London professionals, with independent or fee paying school accents to match (aside of course from the American, Martin). On the other hand, there are three Fleabag characters who are basically decent and kind-hearted individuals, and who happen to have markedly ordinary accents (meaning that 2 of them have regional London suburb intonations) and who do not come of a privileged background. They, by contrast, are all capable of warmth and friendliness, for they listen to Fleabag, and take her and her problems seriously. They are the tragic Boo; the kindly Bank Manager who is also the business grant man (played by Hugh Dennis of Punt and Dennis fame, born 1962) and the brotherly Catholic Priest, who being a Dubliner is ipso facto warm and friendly and is an honorary regional provincial.

This schematic dichotomy of kind and human and therefore unlikely to be funny characters, versus selfish and dysfunctional and hence potentially comic types, presents technical problems for any would be comedy writer. It means that Fleabag is a cross between hectic comedy and straight sentimental drama, and inevitably that mixture of registers weakens and dilutes its overall strength. When the decent priest tries to explain to Fleabag what God and goodness mean to him, and she amiably analyses her own atheism, it is all very nice and reasonable, but the comedy coefficient temporarily drops, and we suddenly forget what kind of programme it is we are watching. Also, the message, attractive as it is, that posh and affluent folk are inextricably fucked up and objectionable egotists, whereas ordinary and poorer folk are kind and amiable and unselfish listeners, just isn’t the final truth. As someone from the northern working class provinces myself, I promise you that some of the best and least selfish people in the world are of moneyed and privileged origins, whilst some of the dreariest buggers in the universe are sadly from the working class sticks.

In case this looks like an envious demolition job upon a young and very successful writer, let me hasten to add that I thoroughly applaud Waller-Bridge’s other major TV project, namely the scripting of Series 1 of the drama series, the equally acclaimed Killing Eve (BBC America 2018 onwards). A tongue in cheek fable about the UK secret service pitted against its Russian counterpart, it is strongly plotted, with an impressively sustained tension and an original line in imaginatively quirky twists. In homage to the celebrated Danish crime series The Bridge, it pulls in its main actor, Kim Bodnia (born 1965) and has him as a baddie in the form of an amoral Russian secret service boss. In The Bridge, Bodnia is a decent Copenhagen detective with an effective but also amoral colleague, Saga Noren (played by Sofia Helen) who sleeps with various men, but, as if borderline autistic, has no emotional attachments whatever. The Killing Eve equivalent is a remarkable psychopathic assassin working for the Russians, called Villanelle, played flawlessly by the English actress Jodie Comer (born 1993) and for which she won a British Academy TV Award. I have only seen the first series and can’t wait to see the rest.

The next post will be on or before Saturday, August 31st

JEAN GIONO, A PROPHET FOR OUR TIMES

JEAN GIONO, A PROPHET FOR OUR TIMES

Here is Jean Giono (1895-1970) prolific French novelist, militant pacifist, and native of Manosque, Provence, on the principal underlying reason for the outbreak of WW1:

‘The men, too well fed, had forgotten their powers of procreation; they were uniting with gasoline, phosphates, things without thighs. This gave them a thirst for blood.’

Blue Boy (1931)

Things without thighs? Whether or not you subscribe to his view of shall we say Direly Estranged Early 20th C Pan-European Masculine Fecundity, I would bet a small fortune you have never read anything like it, not even in the most magical of South American Magical Realism, Marquez included. The tone is truculent and didactic, and above all original, forcing us to contemplate things anew, in a radical and paradoxical way. People who fall in love with Giono’s fiction, do so partly because of his anger with the ugliest side of alienated 20th century technology, and our consequent estrangement from the beauty and the poetry of the stabilising natural world. They also fall in love with books like Second Harvest (1930, made into a film by director and novelist Marcel Pagnol in 1937) and his autobiographical childhood novel  Blue Boy, because of his quite phenomenal powers of evoking Nature in its all force, finesse and fury (variously Provence’s wild birds, foraging sheep, wandering goats, woodlands, skies, clouds, rain, drought, thunder and lightning).He is quite simply, and by a long margin, the most gifted of a handful of European writers (see also parts of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and some of his short stories, and one or two of the novels of fellow Provencal author Pagnol, and ditto of the Vaudoise Swiss writer CF Ramuz, 1878-1947) who evokes with uncannily vivid and accurate precision the transcendental power of Nature. He does so with the authority of someone who really knows what they are talking about, in this case the remotest reaches of rural Provence of 120 years ago. For they have seen it, smelt, it, heard it, touched it, noted it in every nuanced detail, effectively photographed it in their memory, then bestowed it on the page for ever more.

The quotes that follow are all from Blue Boy.

‘The ewes slept in the thyme. Sometimes without opening their eyes, they would open their lips, bite a tuft of blossoms, and begin to chew from right to left, dripping a little purple foam.’

Note the unparalleled precision: eyes closed, chewing from right to left, the purple foam. You might vaguely imagine that Thomas Hardy could have written with such touchingly exact detail, but no he couldn’t: his rustic characters are larger than life, but their pastoral milieu is not evoked with such tender exactitude. As for that other English novelist and countryman, Henry Williamson, avid Hitler-admirer (true, incredibly, even after WW2 was over) and author of Salar the Salmon and Tarka the Otter, he wrote all-purpose anthropomorphic lyrical impressionism, which is to say that actually we are reading not about Salar nor Tarka, but about the quaintest refractions of Henry Williamson. Meanwhile 1920s upper crust British writers Mary Webb, Eden Philpotts, TF Powys etc, who as a rule only observed people of the soil from their parlour windows, yet who chose stylised Shropshire and Dorset countryfolk for their idealised bucolic tableaus, went in for overwrought at times hysterical rustic gothic, as roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in her 1932 novel, Cold Comfort Farm.

The very greatest artists in any genre (e.g. in music, Bach, Django Reinhardt, John McLaughlin) are often to be seen moving towards the absolute limits, then heedlessly pushing beyond them. On that basis, here is Giono performing the theoretically impossible as he particularises an elaborate process taking place between a man and a bird. He is describing his Dad, a shoemaker of Piedmont/ Italian extraction, feeding his caged nightingale.

‘The nightingale’s cage had a putrid odour. He had to be fed on earthworms chopped into bits. My father cut the worms with an iron fork whose 5 prongs he had sharpened with his 3-cornered file. He also fed his nightingale flies. He would catch the flies in his hand, then give them to the bird. The nightingale stuck his bill through the bars to pierce the fly’s abdomen. A drop of blood, thick and white like pus, oozed out. When the fly was a big one, or if it was a May beetle, my father would cut the insect in half. First, he gave him the thorax with its blue wings. “The poorer bit first,” he said. Then he would offer the little honey-filled sack of the abdomen.’

Note that the 5 prongs and the 3 corners to the file are not put there like two dogged items of police reportage. Alongside the vividness and astringence of some of the grisly entomological detail, they give a life to the prose that can never fade, which is to say that in their absolute precision they become, as if by sleight of hand, immortal.

Blue Boy is told in the first person, and Jean the narrator starts his story when he is around 5 years old. The initial scene-setting, in a fictionalised Manosque around 1900, is predictably vivid, economical, and infinitely atmospheric.

‘The carts rolled noisily into the jaws of the wayside inns with their loads of corn flour and black wine. The carters said “Porca madona”. They sneezed like mules that have puffed up pipe smoke, and they stayed on this side of hill the with the poplars and the carts. The chief inn was called Au Territoire de Piemont.’

Jean is the only child of the cobbler, a gentle political radical, who regularly gives shelter to Italian anarchists on the run from the Piedmont police. His mother runs a laundry from the same premises and she has 3 playful and flirtatious young women in the house who look after Jean, take him to school, kiss him and pet him, and one of whom knots his tie in such a way she half strangles her little charge. Their characterisation is confidently idiosyncratic, and as always, allusively precise.

‘Antonine was redhaired and abrupt…She laughed as she eyed the boys and then her narrow lips could be seen opening over sparkling teeth, as though they had been split with a knife. At times her glance was gathered in one corner of her eye, as if she had let all that purple viscosity of her ordinary glance run into the corner, in order to spurt it from there into the boys’ eyes as from the spout of an oil cruet.’

As fictional foil to these no-nonsense girls, there are the colourful eccentrics, the quaint in-roaders, best exemplified by two scrawny music teachers, one a violinist and the other a flautist, and they are called Decidement and ‘Madame’ La Reine. Madame is the tallest and thinnest man Jean has ever seen, while Decidement is ferociously anticlerical and always greets the fat abbe at the top of his voice with, ‘Quack! Quack!’  Jean’s father encourages his son to have music lessons with these 2 odd gentlemen, who always politely address him as ‘The little Monsieur’. Though note that eccentricity is not just the province of troubled humans, for the animal and inanimate worlds that surround young Jean, can also be bizarre to the point of being horrific.

‘It was the ancient well that was speaking. Its door had been locked and it had been left to rot within. The well digger had said that down inside were two races of creature: white toads, completely white, without eyes, and as big as plates. They swelled up like bladders in order to float… “Toads yes and snakes too. Skinless snakes, or with a skin as thin as cigarette paper, just enough to hold their heart and vitals together.”’

A major pivot of the novel is infant Jean taking ill one day with an unspecified condition that is probably croup or diphtheria, but in any case, potentially fatal. There is seemingly no trained doctor or nurse involved in what happens next:

‘My throat had been swabbed with a spoon wound with cotton. I clenched my teeth. They pinched my nose. I opened my mouth and they quickly probed down deep with the spoon handle and scraped my throat. Then I vomited pus, skin and blood. Once I discharged from my nose two long candles of greyish membrane, throbbing and endowed with life like little wriggling fish. From that day, they let me alone, save to give me potent herb brews that descended inside me, hot, perfumed with the taste of earth and sun peculiar to irrigation waters in the summer meadows.’

After this brush with death, the father, Pere Jean, decides to send him way up into the hills to Corbiere, with the shepherd Massot, for a lengthy recuperation. As for his paternal advice on departure, one function Pere Jean has in the novel is as a kind of orator of sharp folk wisdom, meaning he allows Jean Giono to expound his singular pantheistic philosophy.

‘Eat Madame Massot’s soup nicely. It is coarse soup, but it is just because it is coarse that it will teach you to see things as a whole. And get some muscle. Big shoulders are useful in life, even if it is only to pull a thorn out of a hand.’

And as classic, and indeed unnerving Giono paradox, the soup maker Madame Massot’s outstanding beauty as a person, is understood as coming from her extraordinary ugliness.

‘She was an agreeable country lady, very ugly; with so much goodness in her blind eye, so much goodness in her good eye, so much goodness in her moustache, in her snuff-taking nose, in her sagging cheeks, in her black-lipped mouth, that she was frightfully ugly. It was an ugliness made of all that sacrifice which constitutes real goodness. In the photograph…all rigged out for the wedding, she was beautiful and fresh and seemingly inflated with an artless loveliness. That creature had to be gradually broken, burned, twisted, kneaded; the eye blinded, the body made ungainly, be cooked in the oven of goodness like a brick or a pot; it had to forget everything but that little red fruit that was the heart. She had fully succeeded.’

After the endless journey in the cart and before he collapses into bed, he is given a rustic supper of fritters, bilberry jam, some warm goat’s milk with a hair in it, and toast rubbed with garlic. In the restorative months that follow, way up in the hills, he does a great deal of reading of the classic epics, including Homer’s Iliad (loaned to his father by another Italian anarchist fleeing the police) as well as the Bible. This is of importance in understanding Giono’s extraordinary originality, because some of his most pantheistic and idealistic novels, The Song of the World (1934) and Joy of Man’s Desiring (1935) depict a Provence where the country characters e.g. the sage and prophetic vagabond Bobi, are more like the epic giants of the Iliad than workaday peasants. Which is to say that he makes his particular Giono Provence, an epic and timeless Provence, not an ordinary one…

However, here in Corbiere things are far from ordinary, as there is a sudden epidemic of suicides, principally because of thwarted and jealous love, a major motif in this novel as a whole. The priest shrewdly takes things in hand, by getting the villagers to attend a special service where they bring the ashes from their fires, which they throw to the winds, and then commence a festival of dancing, as a kind of communal exorcism. None of which would have anticipated the outlandish crisis that happens when the baker’s wife Aurelie, runs off with the handsome shepherd of Les Conches. Unfortunately, this new baker (the previous one committed suicide) possesses no chest to speak of, and Aurelie makes no bones about how she feels about that.

‘“You are a pitiful sight,”’ his wife said to him.

The shepherd, by contrast, arouses her healthy lust.

‘The bread for Les Conches was a 40 pound sack…She did not throw them in, she placed them in the bottom of the sack. She stooped down and straightened up with each loaf, and in that way, she displayed her breasts more than 100 times…and there he stood, dazzled by it all and by the pungent female odour that floated before him in the bright Sunday morning light.’

Aurelie elopes with the shepherd to the marshes and in the fine weather they camp out on an island of reeds. The stunned villagers take quite some time to track them down, and meanwhile the baker gives in to melancholy and alcohol and stops baking the bread.  It has now gone beyond the rather enjoyable comedy of someone else’s cuckolding, to a communal crisis, for as the villager Cesar says:

‘“Love is all very fine. But people have to eat.”’

 If the elopement tale so far seems rather familiar, it might be because you have seen Pagnol’s 1938 masterpiece, The Baker’s Wife. As in the movie, the priest and schoolteacher are sent out to bring Aurelie home, the former entertainingly on the latter’s back as they approach the reed island, the teacher being the only one in the village with a pair of oiled boots. In the novel, the outraged shepherd rides down to retrieve her, and a queasily vicious fight with Cesar ensues, reminiscent of the lethal even bestial violence depicted in Giono’s late novel about 2 homicidal brothers, Two Riders of the Storm (1965).

‘The shepherd’s head flew back, his arms hung limp. Cesar struck with his fist, deliberately and straight at the shepherd’s liver …Cesar struck again at the shepherd’s belt…The shepherd took 2 or 3 steps forward, fell to his knees, bowed his head and lay still on the ground.’

The novel ends with the outbreak of WW1 when Giono was 19, and the imminent death of his beloved father, the Piedmont cobbler.  Giono was conscripted and as depicted in his novel To the Slaughterhouse (1931) saw the indescribable carnage, involving not just frail and compromised men but the harmless animals. Thereafter, he became a militant pacifist, which unfortunately and with the approach of WW2, came at times to be seen as a form of appeasement or even tacit connivance with always thriving if nascent French Fascism. It didn’t help that during the War he contributed to literary journals run by collaborators, though the final judgement was that he did it out of sheer naivety and unworldliness rather than covert ideology. He was briefly jailed, and then released without charge.

There is one obvious and overwhelming proof that Giono was no latent nor clandestine appeaser. Consider that there is no such thing as a Fascist who is not a Nationalist, and Giono not only repudiated Nationalism, he also questioned the very ontological reality of that fiction or illusion called ‘France’.

‘What do you want me to do with this France that you have helped, it seems, to preserve, as I too have done? What shall we do with it, we who have lost all our friends? Ah! If it were a question of defending rivers, hills, mountains, skies, winds, rains, I would say “Willingly. That is our job. Let us fight. All our happiness in life is there.” No, we have defended the sham name of all that. When I see a river, I say ‘river’; when I see a tree, I say ‘tree’; I never say ‘France’. That does not exist.’

At a time in the UK when far from epic heroes like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith and the like, are babbling their infantilised drivel about putting the ‘greatness’ back into Great Britain, we could all learn a thing or two from Jean Giono.

The next post will be on or before Sunday, August 4th

GOLD AMONG THE RUBBISH BINS

GOLD AMONG THE RUBBISH BINS

Back in the early 1960s, when I was aged between 12 and 14, I sometimes used to embarrass my mother a great deal. But before I elaborate, I realise I need to backtrack in the form of fast forwarding, for in terms of intra-familial embarrassment, only 3 years later I was to be observed wearing my very long hair, ostentatiously centre-parted and backcombed bouffant style, the only thing missing being the mascara and the eye shadow. I did this in imitation of the members of the hit band, The Kinks, though it is true to say that thanks to my adolescent beardlessness, I looked rather more like Dusty Springfield (1939-1999) than I did the now Sir Ray Davies (born 1944). My mother (1915-1990) and my father (1915-1992) were both severely mortified by my arselong hair, and my Dad making no bones about it, addressed me much of the time as ‘Gladys’ in the hope that that would shame me into a haircut. It is also of anecdotal interest that one day outside of my bedroom, overhearing the raucous sounds of ‘Hello I Love You’ by The Kinks, he genuinely believed that it was our dustbin men coming 3 days early.

But back to the start of the Sixties. The reason why my mother was regularly horrified when the pair of us walked about in a West Cumbrian town like Workington (where I went to secondary school), or Whitehaven (we had a relative at nearby St Bees), or Maryport (my favourite public library of all time), or bustling Lake District Keswick… was that I would suddenly and without warning go diving into the civic litter bins and start ferreting rapidly for the gold I had noted inside. The unusual treasure I was after had few enthusiasts of any age or background, and I have only ever once met someone else who saved and preserved in an album…cigarette packets, both the 10 and the 20 packs. It was in fact a GS pupil of my own scholastic year, and by an odd coincidence, some 7 years later, he and I were 2 of those Grammar School rarities who went up to study at Oxford, so that you could if you believed in ad hoc deduction, conclude that collecting dusty cigarette packets in early puberty seriously increases cerebral acumen in late adolescence.

It is nearly 55 years since I pursued my singular hobby, but it is only in the last few years, in fact while living here on the Isle of Kythnos, that I realised why my passion was as strong as it was. For a start it had nothing to do with the notional charisma of teenage cigarette smoking, for I did not start on fags/snouts/tabs until I was 16 years old, doing O level exams, and needing some kind of cheap relaxant for the strain and stress (and yes, you’ve guessed, I also stole my mother’s economy tipped Cadets). By that stage I had ceased to save the packets of what I was now happily smoking, for my curious hobby had been wholly neglected since the age of 14. No, the reason why I loved to gaze at those mesmerising fag packets in my album, was not because they made me think of some glamorous addiction, but because a great many of them looked strikingly beautiful. Which is to say, when it came to the lettering, the embossed gold or silver, or azure blue or viridian green, they often evidenced graphic design of a surprisingly high order. And the point worth stressing about being a 12-year-old kid in the lost province of West Cumbria in 1962, is that that really was the only visual art you were ever going to see in the flesh, so to speak, and to hold in your novice hands. Then, all but breathless and speechless, to experience the touching graphic beauty of proportion, balance, the judicious mixing of bold, italic and upright calligraphy, and the occasional daring inversion of the brand name to the bottom of the packet, so that it seemed to soar out at you like a comet rather than staying demurely at the top.

The only other attractive graphic design I ever saw, was in the public library, or less often bookshops, for children’s book covers have long been one of the few repositories of graceful and moving aesthetic impact. By contrast, books for adults in the old days, often had unbelievably appalling covers, with no central image, much less any graphic expertise: instead just the names of the author and the title done in a font apparently intended to induce a clinical depression in the reader. Apropos which, I recently read a book review where someone praised the excellence of the Faber fiction and poetry covers from the 60s and early 70s, a complete misrepresentation of the historical reality. If you doubt me, get hold of the 60s Faber paperback versions of the novels of the great Deep South author, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964): Wise Blood, A Good Man is Hard to Find, etc, and you will note a complete absence of any visual image, and a lettering style that looks as if done by a vindictively antisocial 11-year-old wishing to irritate whoever had forced the pointless commission on them.

As for cigarettes, to juxtapose beautiful graphic design with something that is actually very harmful, sometimes lethal, is of course a heartless act of commercial cynicism. These days that is readily acknowledged, so that contemporary cigarette packets are studded with nauseating pictures of diseased lungs and hideous usually bright pink tumours. The problem was that back in the 60s, even though cardiac specialists, oncologists and the like, knew of the dangers of smoking, at the ground level not just the public but even ill-trained GPs saw cigarettes as quotidian, harmless, even beneficial. GPs in the 50s and 60s would regularly recommend someone with anxiety or depression to take up smoking, and there were even crafty fag brands such as Craven A with its ‘healthy’ cork tip that would subliminally suggest that those caring snouts were tenderly increasing your lifespan not cutting it.

A Few Select and Memorable Works of Graphic Art in the Shape of Beautiful Fag Packets

CONSULATE. Menthol cigarettes with gorgeous green (menthol green that is) and embossed gold lettering on the front. Back in 1966, I would sometimes buy these eucalyptus-flavoured beauties to show off before teenage girls. But hard as you might suck and blow at your pristine white Consulates (we are now in the genteel world of the Diplomatic Service, from which as a rule aitch-dropping West Cumbrians are de facto banned), you could never get any full-throated blast, so to speak, out of them.

ANCHOR. Tipped cigarettes with a jovial marine emblem of a pigtailed sailor and an anchor on the front. Red and yellow lettering as far as I recall (NB. I haven’t smoked a single cigarette since 1970) Though tipped, they were admirably pungent, even pleasingly dog rough, and more to the point, were good and cheap.

PERFECTOS. It’s all in the name of course. Behold the cigarette manufacturer who boldly calls his new snout ‘perfect’, and it rapidly becomes just that by a kind of sympathetic magic allied with mass hypnosis. A beautiful brown gold pack with ornately slim and elongated lettering. Favoured circa 1968 by my Uncle John (1928-2017) and Aunty Jean (1922-2007) of Salterbeck, Workington, who for years had smoked bountiful Kensitas, which offered coupons exchangeable for valuable gifts out of a sumptuous catalogue. They doggedly chainsmoked for about 5 years to get their hands on an imposing Ferguson transistor radio in 1965, which was still playing away in my widowed Uncle John’s council house in 2017, the year that he died.

SENIOR SERVICE. Plain cigarettes, meaning no tip, meaning they were full and richly flavoured, a fine fillip when you are 16 and in need of pungence in the form of all things physical and sensual. Such items are not reliably provided by rote-learning the names of the towns on the US Fall Line, nor even the industrial preparation of phosphoric acid, nor even the drawing and labelling of the broad bean’s cotyledons, nor the exploration of integral calculus with or without your log tables. Proud and pristine white packets with incisive naval motifs and exquisite blue-black lettering. The name says all. Not only are you a brave ocean goer, an explorer of the limits but you alliterate as ‘senior’, hence majestically triumphant in the hallowed service…

The next post will be on or before Sunday 28th July