"Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
On February 11th, 1963 at thirty years of age, Sylvia Plath killed herself in a London flat.
She remains a complex, controversial literary figure but there is no doubt about the technical flair she shows in her poetry and her unsettling ability to project her insecurities into her work.
Mirror is an example of a popular writing class exercise: write from the point of view of an object in the room. But few could inject such an ominous feel in the mundane like Plath does here, "In me she has drowned a young girl,and in me an old woman/Rises toward her day after day," And her final simile, "like a terrible fish." is truly unsettling.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful-
The eye of the little god, four cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Directed by Ben Lewin
So this is the premise: a polio victim in his thirties, who spends most of his time in an iron lung, engages a sex surrogate to enable him to lose his virginity. The situation therefore is ripe for prurience, smuttiness and downright voyeurism. Except that this film doesn’t stray anywhere near those areas. Is it a sexy film then? No, it is not. It deals with sex in an adult and honest fashion: it is charming, funny and, if the woman behind me in the cinema is anything to go by, a tear-jerker.
Within seconds of appearing on screen, Helen Hunt as Cheryl, the sex surrogate, is completely convincing. The difference between sex surrogacy and prostitution is quickly established and she goes about her work with professional efficiency and care. The role calls for numerous nude scenes and her character has to be completely at home with her own body; a point made quite clearly by the scene in which she prepares for the ritual of conversion to the Jewish faith, itself a neat parallel to the process through which she led the disabled Mark. Using a mirror she enables him to see, and delight in, his own body for the first time in years.
It’s a process which the audience too must undergo. Liberal attitudes aside, the expectation must be that lying prone with a misshapen body, Mark can have little chance of physical or emotional fulfilment. Yet by the end of the film he has loved and been loved by three beautiful women. But that is not to belittle the complex interactions between characters which take place.
Cheryl’s husband is completely at ease with her profession; it does after all allow him to stay at home as house husband, and it is not until he opens a letter containing a poem from Mark to Cheryl that he feels threatened. Against all of the rules, the relationship between Mark and Cheryl has become personal; a state of affairs which Hunt demonstrates with a brilliantly understated performance. Consequently, the relationship between Cheryl and her husband becomes ambiguous: is she happy as she says or is there some truth in her confession that she has allowed things to become complicated?
Equally brilliant is the performance of William H Macy as Father Brendan. Constantly defying stereotypes (we are a long way from Bing Crosby and Richard Chamberlain playing fanciable priests here) he ranges from prayer leader, counsellor, friend and regular guy drinking beer. That he sanctions, even applauds, the act of sex outside of marriage must have great implications for his own celibacy but this is only hinted at with the merest of facial expressions and this is not the focus of the film. Rather it is his engaging interplay with John Hawkes playing Mark.
Two thirds of the way through the film I did wonder how it was all going to end. It actually ends as a celebration of love rather than sex, but there are no spoilers in this review. The ending is achieved without over-sentimentality or any trace of glibness. It is thought-provoking and heart-warming in the best sense. But how this is achieved is for you to go and see for yourself.
All I would say is that this is the best film I’ve seen for ages.
We live in the electronic age. The white heat of Harold Wilson’s technological revolution has been realised and writers, painters and musicians can publicise their work to the world with the click of a mouse button. Those wishing to propagate their view can release their texts, music and images into the ether and let the world take note: the masses have been enfranchised and their choice of artistic medium is a rich one. Given these options, Jimmy Andrex has chosen the arcane route of publishing a slim volume of verse. (Jimmy Andrex, Gormless, Currock Press ISBN 978 954 337 352 9) and it begs the question, why?
With its layers of self-deprecation and irony, the title Gormless suggests that there is something very modern, if not post-modern, taking place here; Jimmy Andrex is laying down a false trail and at the crossroads we might well ask about which way we should turn.
Everyone might write it, but few people buy it. What is the current standing of poetry? Beware those who take themselves seriously in their poetic output with their seedy insinuations: “do you want to read some of my stuff?” And beware in particular those who consciously seek the aura of poet. As Blackadder so pithily explained to Mrs Miggins, “…there’s nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt trying to get laid.”
Wordsworth turned the whole world of English poetry on its head and announced in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads in 1802, “Poetry is…the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Plenty argue that Wordsworth’s view still holds sway, aren’t we all, after all, still Romantics?” But over a hundred years later, T.S. Eliot, writer of the most influential poem of the twentieth century (The Waste Land) said, “poetry…is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor without distortion of meaning, tranquillity.” He goes on to say that poetry is an escape from emotion and personality.
This makes for a tricky template for poets looking for guiding principles. They could be forgiven for expressing confusion about how to go about their chosen craft particularly as almost another hundred years have passed since Eliot’s edict. What is certain is that the world, in MacNeice’s memorable phrase, is “suddener than we fancy it…crazier and more of it than we think.”
What now of poets and poetry? Does Shelley’s claim that poets are unacknowledged legislators have any sway? Can anyone argue against Auden’s claim that “my poetry didn’t save one Jew from the gas chambers?” What is Jimmy Andrex’s take on this sudden and crazy world, and how does he go about his response? Is he a recollector of emotion or a cool, detached observer? Crap Town provides some clues:
“…whining like a bitten, beaten bull
terrier in a pit,
studded choke chain a comfortable
slavering, alert right down to the white
eyes down for Oxfam thrills on Friday night.”
Evidence here of poetry continuing to evolve, and in order to chart the human condition, a poet continuing to harness powerful emotion but stay aloof in expression, allowing readers their chosen response to the individual and urban decay of the twenty-first century.
“while your frailties blossom like a field of sunset spires,
While some kid hooplas a lamppost with an old bike tyre.”
A Dog Called Tyson
This is Jimmy Andrex, the urban warrior with a notebook taking on and capturing the vicissitudes of late night taxi ranks and housing estates that are more than frayed around the edges. Here is the voice of an individual amongst the anonymous masses who have grasped the possibilities of the technological revolution and reveal themselves only by mobile phone conversations on trains:
“How you started with texts
met two Saturdays for sex,
you both said you were working.
Now you’re left dreaming
of dress down Friday, clutching
cardboard cups on a train.”
On a Train
How tempting to jump at a convenient peg or pigeon hole! Yet this image I’ve suggested is not anywhere near half the story. This collection has plenty of grit and it relentlessly reveals a grisly way of life for many, but there is also delight in the delicate, the beauty for instance inherent in a Leeds Station Winter Sunset:
“Satsuma reflected on a sun’s breath moisture,
ripped apart cotton wool,
in a quandary whether to remain
or give in to black.”
Or the inspiration to be found in the work of others:
“A small moored boat like a blank page
invites us to take up the oars.
Blood and lungs pumping while angel words
echo as bottomless ink ripples.”
There is a range in this collection which shames those who make easy assumptions, there’s a depth of expression which defies a neat summary in a review as brief as this, and there is a voice revealed which encompasses powerful feelings and tranquil reflections, a voice which can engage and disengage the personality. Furthermore, the words are chosen with care, the poems, for all their raw energy, are finely crafted and the collection repays second, third and subsequent readings. Heaney spoke of poets as being “artful” voyeurs and Wordsworth and Eliot would both approve particularly when the place of poetry, that most ancient of art forms, is affirmed. And affirmation is necessary as poetry has been shaped and remodelled to suit notions of what is appropriate for our electronic age; always flexible, it has borne with patience image consultants asking it to try out rap, performance and slam as credible alter egos. It has even been asked for an embarrassing period to pose as the new rock and roll.
But poetry can shrug off modishness, it has survived canonisation in the school curriculum and it is still the turn-to art form when we are confronted by tragedy, personal crisis or love. It is hard-wired into our psyches as fundamentally as our mothers’ heartbeats. For it is words on the page, their rhythms and resonances, which allow both writer and reader to reflect, it is poetry which acts as that most compelling touchstone on experience. How else to approach the stored cask of infertility or the agony of grief:
“The chance to swap still life
for risking every bump
on a bike with no brakes,
gone like the perfect day out,
paper memories in a box.”
I Wasn’t Sure But I Could Tell
Poetry, as Gormless demonstrates is also the perfect medium for Andrex and his ability to capture shifts in relationships, ruptures and reconciliations, the nuances of ordinary talk which illuminate the big picture as in Runner Beans:
“When Summer’s temper cools, we can both walk
down whispering gravel paths, pick runners, talk
of plans for next year’s garden and savour
the harvest moment, the fresh beans flavour,”
And it is the words on the pages of Gormless which render redundant the question, why a slender volume of verse? Poetry has braved the ebb and flow of critical approaches, poetry is both arcane and cutting edge, but the age of an elite determining poetic taste has passed. Emancipated by the technological revolution and the ways and means at our disposal we can approach the signpost which is Gormless, be guided by it, but choose our own direction.
The first story from the collection, I Was Ready to Fall in Love. Available from www.currockpress.com or as a kindle ebook.
A tortured pile of metal, graphic skid marks and the broken bits of brick wall scattered along the roadside, all of it captured in sharp focus detail. The Evening Press had a cracking headline to go with it too: “Carnage On Our Roads.” They included an inset picture of Richard with his school tie askew smiling cockily. “Tragedy of Young Driver.” And the callous bastards could sit back and listen to the ringing of cash tills as their circulation grew.
In the following days people were very kind. They couldn’t do enough for me. “Was I alright?” “Did I need anything?” They wanted to share my pain. Concern was writ large and care and compassion were the key words. Bloody ghouls.
And the whispers, oh God, the whispers, “That’s her, that’s Vicky, the one whose boyfriend was killed in a car crash.” Sympathy and scandal in one indulgent scoop. “Do you know, she hasn’t been seen to weep one little tear. Not even at the funeral.”
Yes, how awful. But how they envied me. How they would have loved to try on the mourning black and affect the grief-strained face.
The funeral? Yes, I remember the funeral alright. All the talk was of tragedy and the loss of so much promise. Richard’s mum was there, what a cow, loaded with the grief of losing her only son, the football captain with the gleaming school reports. She didn’t speak to me.
At school, the Head, no less, called me into her office. Photographs of three smiling kids stood behind her as she ladled out more care and compassion. She oozed concern, “Victoria, we must try and carry on…my office is always open, if you need to, do come and talk.” A kind offer from the old vulture. After four years in school it was the first time I’d been in her office, the first time she’d called me by name, I preferred Vicky by the way, and the first chance she’d had to pick at the scraps and clean the bones of tragedy.
I wanted to be left alone and soon I had my way. Snarl and scowl and they’ll soon get the message, they’ll soon sniff out another source of gossip and get their snouts in the trough. And I could carry on attending lessons, compiling notes and completing homework. I could let the days blur into one meaningless treadmill.
“Right, stop!” The bell had gone, everyone was collecting stuff from their lockers and it was time to go home. Now I had that dummy Pete Howarth standing in front of me.
“because I want to talk to you, that’s what for?” With his chin jutting out, he was a man on a mission. “Why haven’t you returned any of my texts?”
There was no point in messing about, “Because I only text friends,” I told him.
“You won’t do much texting then.” Wow. Sharp as a knife and twice as cutting. He had hold of my elbow now and he was half guiding, half dragging me towards a chair. “I wanna show you something.” He took a folder out of his bag and produced a fistful of photographs. “Here, look at these.”
I took them from him and began to sift through the pile. Nearly every one featured Richard: Richard putting up a tent, Richard showing off, clowning about and pulling faces. And then, on the very bottom of the pile there’s one of Richard and me together. He’s in his football kit, he’s muddy and sweaty and he’s holding the City Schools’ Football Cup. His other arm is draped around me and I’m trying to avoid the worst of the mud and sweat, trying and failing to raise a smile of triumph, but it’s me and Richard together and it’s perfect.
“Take it, it’s yours.” Pete was talking to me but I couldn’t focus. Everything was dissolving into a moist blur. And in the middle of that Year area, where everyone was fussing about with bags and books, I couldn’t stop myself; I let out a tortured howl of pain and the dam burst. The tears flowed, the snot ran down my nose and no doubt everyone was staring but I didn’t care, I didn’t care at all, the black weight had to shift.
* * * * *
“How do I look?”
Pete gazed at me critically from across the table. I almost felt self-conscious as his observation swept over me and he considered his reply.
“A right mess.”
Somehow he’d got me out of that ruin they call a school and he’d sat me down in Luigi’s, the favoured haunt of those who think a cup of frothed up milk with a sprinkling of chocolate is the height of sophistication. And we’d drunk the stuff and talked and talked and talked. I told him that Richard and I had argued that last time we’d met. He’d wanted me to go to the coast with him and his mates on that bloody Sunday. And I told him I couldn’t; I had a lot of homework to do. Not everyone was
Like Richard, not everyone could sail through school and get good marks without seeming to try. I remember shouting at him as he stormed out of the door, “Some of us have to work.” And then I never saw him again.
I looked at Pete and braced myself for the sympathy but he only said, “Richard was a good mate, but he still owes me five quid.”
Pete was the first person who didn’t bathe Richard in a golden glow of sainthood. Richard was one of us, that’s all, a good footballer, a good mate and a dishy boyfriend. None of that changed because of the mangled wreck of a red saloon. Nor did it make him Mother Theresa. He’s just left a big hole that’s all, a gaping hole I still expected to see him fill every day: at school, in town and on the football pitch. And Pete too, must have felt that yawning chasm, the gap that opened up with depressing regularity each morning. Now he sat before me sipping luke warm cappuccino, waiting patiently between my bouts of wailing incoherence and looking at what must have been a mish-mash of mascara. He wanted to help bridge that gap and maybe the tears, the unsightly weeping mess, had been the first step.
Pete was talking about carrying on, “We can’t forget Richard, but we have to carry on.”
“And you,” I said, “Are you sniffing round his girlfriend? Is that how you plan to carry on?”
I could still plunge the knife in deep, but I didn’t twist it, and that, I suppose, was progress.
An extract from the title story of I Was Ready to Fall in Love. Book available from www.currockpress.com or as a kindle ebook.
Dir. David Morris and Jacqui Morris
The sixties and seventies were a good time to go to war says Don McCullin in this documentary film: Vietnam, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, and the Congo spring immediately to mind but it is when he recounts his second visit to Lebanon that viewers might finally feel that they have supped too full with horror.
What raises this film above a cataloguing of human misery is the quality of the photographs shown and Harold Evans’ finely judged commentary; but most of all it is McCullin’s own contribution which is measured and restrained throughout.
Although he is shown sifting through some of his archive, for the most part he is simply shot speaking from the corner of a room by a window. He remains calm even though he tells of unimaginable human depravity, retaining a dignity and integrity despite what he had witnessed first-hand.
Nor does he ever hide behind the excuse of a photographer just doing his job; there are countless examples of McCullin going to work with his human conscience very much to the fore. He refused to photograph a public execution in Vietnam describing it as murder, and he put down his camera in order to help an elderly Turkish woman in Cyprus as she struggled to escape from the oncoming Greek soldiers. His sympathy for the victims of warfare and his attitude is immovable: “it is the poor people in warfare who suffer the most.”
How saddening it is then to learn that McCullin was excluded from the group of photographers authorised to go to the Falklands Conflict. It seems that his brand of honesty was not required, the media messages from the Falklands would be carefully controlled and there would no place for his kind of truth.
Equally saddening was to watch how a change of ownership effectively brought to an end the fine reputation for photo-journalism held by the Sunday Times. Evans pulls no punches: this was a direct result of the Print Unions’ actions, and passing into the hands of the Murdoch empire meant the end for Evans’ editorship as well as McCullin’s association with the newspaper.
At the time of writing this review Syrians are killing Syrians, a terrorist kidnap in Algeria has reached a bloody resolution and tensions are rising on the Indo-Pakistan border. Look on my works ye mighty and despair. The world desperately needs images of the pity of war.
The final few minutes show McCullin wandering through a snow covered English countryside taking landscape photographs. That he has seen unspeakable horrors is not in dispute at this stage of the film but his reputation as a photographer and his status as a humane practitioner are confirmed. He looks like a man at peace and no one deserves such peace more than he.
My favourite Beatle was John. I’m not applying any kind of retrospective wisdom here in an attempt to garner some cool in much the same way that some people take smug pride in saying that they always preferred the Stones, or God help us, the Kinks to the Beatles. No, I’m eschewing cooldom, I’m a fifty-four year old teacher who has been put out to grass, and I have no choice in the matter. The cool choice now may well be George anyway; the silent good looking one who emerged from the madness of Beatlemania to write some great songs and remain grounded enough to found Hand Made Films. No, my choice was John for more prosaic reasons. When the Beatles were dominating the charts with a series of number one hits in the early sixties, I was yet to reach my teenage years. I was six in 1962 and I chose John as my favourite Beatle because we shared the same name. Simple.
Ours wasn’t a house which was geared to take on board the full impact of the rock and roll revolution. As far as playing music was concerned, we had a gramophone, a stately piece of furniture which sat in the room we called the parlour and would later become the sitting room. I don’t recall the radio function of the gramophone ever being used as it had been superseded by a transistor placed in the kitchen, and the record playing facility was only occasionally employed to give long playing recordings of South Pacific and the Sound of Music an airing. There was a collection of 78s; discs which had the solidity of dinner plates and which dropped from the spindle to the turntable with the sound of a tree being felled. There were no rock and roll gems amidst this collection unless you count Eddie Calvert and his Golden Trumpet or Bing Crosby crooning about a white Christmas. So, musically, the Beatles were, in George Harrison’s words, about to save Britain from boredom, but as far as our house was concerned the ruling passion was still ennui and musical tastes were governed by Sing Something Simple played over the kitchen transistor on a Sunday evening.
In fact, in our northern outpost city, the whole sixties revolution seemed to pass us by. It was like a giant party taking place in next door’s house and we could only witness it by wiping away condensation and then peering through the window. Philip Larkin famously said that sexual intercourse didn’t exist until the Beatles first LP. From a personal point of view, my thanks are extended to Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story in 1971. Shit! I can see you counting on your fingers, doing your sums and looking doubtful. Okay, what about Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in 1974?
Not that the Beatles could be ignored of course. News of the Fab Four phenomenon (try saying that when you’re pissed) was brought to us by the Daily Mirror. The Beatle hits were included in the Junior Choice play list on a Saturday morning sitting snugly alongside the Laughing Policeman and the Ugly Duckling , and we were allowed to stay up late to watch them on the Royal Variety Performance. Or rather we weren’t allowed to watch because as the evening wore on, it was deemed to be too late and we were duly packed off to bed. Our daily newspaper didn’t let us down though, the inestimable red-topped organ (another image with which to play) told of the Beatles’ performance the next day and particular mention was made of the quip about rattling your jewellery in the posh seats; John Lennon’s quip.
And then they changed, the Beatles I mean. Their hair grew even longer, they stopped writing songs about wanting to hold girls’ hands and they made films which were surrealistic to the point of being incomprehensible. The Daily Mirror could no longer portray them as cheeky chappies from next door: their involvement in the drug culture, their anti-establishment comments, their weirdness meant that they were now exploited by the press for their shock value. And I didn’t get them any more. To my regret, Hymns Ancient and Modern retained a stronger influence than Sergeant Pepper.
I stayed with John though, retaining an affinity with the rebellious vocalist on Twist and Shout. I didn’t like his new wife or his publicity-seeking-staying-in-bed-for-a-week-antics, but there did seem to be a vulnerable figure there somewhere, still shouting for help.
We need to fast forward to December 1980. In an entirely predictable career move, (working class grammar school boy demonstrates vocational need to “put something back”) I had completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Education and I had taken up a post to teach English in a boys’ school in the south of England. The training had been ineffectual at best, although a drama lecturer who insisted on a practical rather than a theoretical approach was an honourable exception, and most of our lectures and seminars took place in the pedagogical safety of an ivory tower unencumbered by pragmatic experience of the real world of education. This was years before computers would be commonplace in schools, interactive whiteboards were a fantasy of Dan Dare proportions and although VHS was beginning to poke its nose through the door, it was still engaged in a life or death struggle with Betamax. No, in order for technology to provide a variety of experience in the classroom, the teacher would have to march in carrying a record player. We did have a tutorial where such an approach was suggested and this in itself was sufficient to convince me that I would never teach a lesson where I encouraged pupils to look at the interesting word play in She’s Leaving Home (“What did she hope the note would say?”) or the ambiguities in The Sound of Silence (How can silence have a sound?”) This was five years after Anarchy in the U.K. for God’s sake.
But on the morning of 9th December 1980, I altered my lesson plans. In the time honoured tradition of giving the fresh-faced probationary teacher the sink groups I taught the bottom set in the third year. I also taught some of these boys for “Extra English”, a timetabling brainwave to deal with the fact that they didn’t study a second foreign language, and some of these lads turned up a third time because they didn’t study French. The most benighted of the boys suffered me for seven lessons a week others had me for five lessons whilst the lucky minority had only three lessons but the overall effect was mutual fear and loathing in the cause of English; the civilising subject. Most of my lessons were a disaster and I could see my worthily chosen new career disappearing down the exit marked pan.
Kenneth, Kevin and Devon weren’t interested in simple, compound and complex sentences; they were more interested in “reccing.”
“Yes sir, reccing.” The activities they got up to at night on the recreation ground, the Rec. Cheung was more interested in how loud he could fart in class and it was left to Simon to show that some of the pupils were amenable and would make their best effort. It was Simon I asked to read James Reeves’ poem, Slowly aloud to the class.
Slowly the tide creeps up the sand,
Slowly the shadows cross the land,
Slowly the cart-horse pulls his mile,
Slowly the old man mounts the stile.
Slowly the hand moves round the clock,
Slowly the dew dries on the dock.
Slow is the snail – but slowest of all
The green moss spreads on the old brick wall.
And gamely he set off to read in the face of mounting derision as I suddenly remembered that Simon was the boy in the class with a pronounced lisp.
I was once confronted by the considerable arms folded presence of Kenneth’s mum at Parents’ Evening. Mustering all of my new professionalism I mentally blanked out images of the housemaid with the sweeping brush in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.
“Kenneth needs to work on aspects of grammar,” I told her, “verb endings and the use of the definite article.” She listened politely until I, suddenly aware of my own monumental pomposity, stopped speaking. There was a moment’s further pause before Kenneth’s mum spoke,
“If dat boy give you any trouble, you hit dat boy.”
Corporal punishment had not yet finished its miserable life-cycle in English schools but the thought of adding to the general mayhem of most of these classes with the added excitement of physical beatings was not one I was prepared to entertain. Progress, if it was to be made, lay in a different direction.
It wasn’t until it dawned on me that I wasn’t actually expected to teach these lads anything but simply keep them quiet that the breakthrough occurred. There was no point in banging on about sentence construction until there was a desire or a need to actually construct a sentence. That’s when we started to discuss Caribbean backgrounds and Sikh traditions, that’s when we had a weekly kickabout with a football in what was a traditional rugby and hockey playing school. And that’s when I felt confident enough to change my lesson plans on the morning of December 9th, 1980.
On that morning I did march into the classroom with a record player and I played some Beatles music and we talked about how, on the previous evening on a New York street the writer of All You Need is Love, Give Peace a Chance and Imagine had been murdered. And after that lesson and the ones that followed, the boys in that class knew that their English teacher had had a life before teaching, and in fact, he had once been a teenager himself when he’d allayed some of the doubts and insecurities of those years by using a by turns witty and caustic, cruel and sympathetic, Liverpudlian as a touchstone in an increasingly perplexing world.
Why, thirty years on, this meditation on the influence of John Lennon? Simply because art can do that, art can jerk you out of the ordinariness of life and catapult you back to significant times, times when the world looked a lot different. It can also cast a light up to the present time, a mirror held up to nature and all that.
Thirty years on the fire in this English teacher’s belly has been well and truly dampened. A tribute this to the whole edifice of educational progress: the national curriculum, the countless government strategies, league tables, target-setting, the relentless push for accountability and the reduction of English into a single, measurable entity; the whole stultifying bundle. And ultimately, the flames of passion died in the face of mental illness.
I moved to Yorkshire in 1990; twenty miles south east of Bradford. My brother in law lived a similar distance to the north west of Bradford and he suggested meeting up for a curry at the Kashmir restaurant and a film at what was then the National Museum of Film, Television and Photography. I forget the first film we saw, it was possibly The Mission, but the outing must have been a success as it became a regular fixture, so much so that it is now a monthly event, and one of our most easily kept New Year’s resolutions is to watch at least twelve films during the course of the year at what is now snappily re-branded as the National Media Museum.
January saw us get off to a cracking start with Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, featuring the early life of John Lennon and the formation of a group which would eventually become the Beatles. Owing to our idiosyncratic planning methods, not all of our film choices can be described as good. Some of them fall a long way short of good and we plod our weary way home with only the consolation of a top notch curry as consolation. The evening of Nowhere Boy though was one of those evenings when all of the elements fall together into a very satisfactory whole.
The film opens with the highly recognisable chord from the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night and holds the attention from thereon. Aaron Johnson captures the cheek and the rebelliousness of the young Lennon as well as his cruelty, vulnerability and latent musical genius. Equally compelling are the performances of Kristin Scott Thomas as the tightly buttoned Aunt Mimi and Ann Marie Duff as Julia, Lennon’s real mother. The former excellently presents the frigid woman bound by duty finding difficulty in responding with any warmth to her wayward charge, whereas frigid would be the last adjective to apply to Duff’s performance. Watching the oedipal relationship between John and his mother is often a queasy task as she smothers him in kisses, dances lasciviously in a coffee bar and informs him candidly that rock and roll really means sex. But the audience’s unease at these scenes will only replicate similar feelings from earlier in the film where John and his Uncle George are seen lying on a bed and sharing the contents of a hip flask. “He was more than an uncle to me,” says the young John after the death of Uncle George and we are left to ponder the full implications of this cry.
The tragic death of Julia follows that of George and we see Lennon caught in a Freudian nightmare. No wonder music offers a way out.
And it was music which played in my head as I made my way out and drove gingerly on the ice-bound M62. Two things bothered me on the way home apart from the treacherous conditions. Firstly, there was the song, Woman. Not one used in the film but one of the songs I had played in those lessons in the classroom. As part of the Double Fantasy album it reached the top of the charts in the U.K undeniably assisted by an outpouring of grief by the record buying public. But as an expression of love which is “written in the stars” it is flabby; floundering around in confessions of thoughtlessness and regret for causing sorrow or pain, and whilst Lennon’s references to the “little child inside the man” are particularly pertinent in relation to Nowhere Boy, retrospectively, the song does not really stand comparison with McCartney’s, Maybe I’m Amazed released by the oft-derided Wings. Here, being left inarticulate when faced with trying to express the extent of love reaches a paradoxical zenith: fast, powerful and compulsive, the song, for me, is redolent of a seventies student bed-sit and a love affair which despite its pitiful outcome left me amazed.
What profit is there after all in measuring the Beatles against the Stones, or indeed Lennon against McCartney? But as the signs for the M621, Beeston and Leeds slipped slowly by in the dark I couldn’t help realising that here, in comparing these two songs, my favourite Beatle came off second best.
And the second things which concerned me, returning as a flickering image in the memory, was the thought of whatever became of those boys in the classroom of the upstairs corridor of Hitchin Boys’ School: Kenneth, Kevin and Devon, nowhere boys who would now be in their mid-forties?
A visit to the Media Museum in Bradford and a damn good curry at the Kashmir. What greater pleasure can life afford? Writing a film review afterwards seems only fair. The routine began many years ago and the first review: Sam Taylor Wood's, Nowhere Boy is included here. But there will also be space for books and anything else that takes John Irving Clarke's fancy.