I remember

May 21, 2015

When a friend showed me Joe Brainard’s book I Remember recently, I thought, This is marvellous, and how come I didn’t know about it already.

I remember how much I cried seeing South Pacific (the movie) three times.

I remember when I went to a “come as your favorite person” party as Marilyn Monroe.

I remember how much I used to stutter.

I remember that for my fifth birthday party all I wanted was an off-one-shoulder black satin evening gown. I got it. And wore it to my birthday party.

I remember a little boy I used to take care of after school while his mother worked. I remember how much fun it was to punish him for being bad.

I remember Liberace.

Perhaps the reader’s thought on browsing I Remember is, I could have written this. It’s not as straightforward as that, of course. On a train a while ago I decided to write a Frank O’Hara poem, and it was so abjectly awful that I was compelled to tear the paper into tiny pieces so that no trace of it remained. But we all have memories and interior lives and we could all produce a piece of writing after Brainard’s template that was personal to us, something like this.

When I started this blog my vague intention was to write about culture. Music, books, theatre. Increasingly, though, I retreat into myself. I can write any number of mini essays about films I like, but the chances of my writing anything original (and what’s the point in writing anything that isn’t) are zero unless I write through the prism of my personal experience, and also I’m only barely cine-literate. So these days I generally forget the films and focus on my life. Could I write my own variation on I Remember?

I remember Ben, the first boy at school to have a digital watch. When you asked him the time he would reply, ‘It’s six minutes past nine o’clock.’ Even at five years old I knew that normal people rounded the time up or down to the nearest five minutes and so I decided he was odd (which he was, his parents were dentists).

I remember when someone would come into the classroom in the middle of a lesson and all the children would turn their heads to see who the new arrival was, but I deliberately never looked, to prove I wasn’t a sheep.

I remember watching the film of The Witches in class as a pre-Christmas treat, and a girl I liked had to be escorted out of the room because she burst into tears when Anjelica Huston took her mask off, and I wanted to go out too so I could comfort her but stayed because I also wanted to keep watching the film.

I remember a teacher washing someone’s mouth out with soap. I wonder if this can actually have happened.

I remember being frustrated at how complicated it was to get my red tights on when I was playing a red robot in the school play.

I remember my English teacher asking for a copy of an A.A. Milne poem from the library and my knowing immediately where to look for it and my friend Richard taking the credit and my not minding because I loved him.

I remember the unremitting tedium of church, my instinctive conviction that the rebranding of Sunday School as ‘Sunday Club’ was phony as hell, the delight of being asked to play the piano for hymns, adding tasteless reharmonisations of my own invention.

I remember never being in a fight, never punching another boy, though when I was twelve I did slap someone and immediately regretted it, but then he called me a slapper and we laughed about it and everything was all right again.

I remember going on the space hopper and deliberately bouncing on the football to make myself fall off, because it was funny.

Space hopper

I could go on, doubtless will go on in future posts, and could probably write a book’s worth of this stuff, but I can’t commit to it because I feel like I live too much in the past as it is, and I fear that the constant dredging up and writing down of long forgotten memories would turn me into a Billy Liar- or Walter Mitty-style fantasist. I’m barely world-trained as it is.

That said, the strong vein of self-indulgent nostalgia that has always been present in these pages will continue ad nauseam. This post is a prelude to another one about reading in childhood, and there’s plenty more where that came from. I suspect I’m writing these maudlin recollections primarily for my own benefit, but if you happen to like them too then so much the better. Onward! ceaselessly into the past.

Expert

May 13, 2015

For Lisa Simpson, the best time of the week came after church on Sunday morning: ‘It’s the longest possible time before more church!’ For me, it was the time when my piano lesson finished. At 5pm on Wednesday 13 May 1998, then, I was in a good mood, talkative in the car home, excited at the prospect of the European Cup Winners’ Cup final that evening. If I’d stopped to observe my father I’d have noticed he was subdued. When we got home I found out that William had died.

I stood in the kitchen, looking into one of the cupboards at nothing in particular for several minutes, not speaking, hiding my face. I’d known he was ill, but hadn’t acknowledged to myself the possibility that he might die. The night before, it had sounded like his condition had improved. I watched the football, and I jumped up and shouted with joy when Gianfranco Zola scored the winner for Chelsea. It had taken my mind off things momentarily. But there were wild thunderstorms in Somerset that night, and we had a powercut, and when I went to bed with a candle I felt alone.

I don’t think I went to school the next day. My friends must have thought me a malingerer as I invariably took a couple of days off each half term, unconvincingly pleading illness, but when I told them my uncle had died they were sympathetic. For fear of offending them I didn’t tell them what I told myself, that I’d lost my best friend. Perhaps self-martyrdom was a way of coping. I don’t think I cried until a couple of weeks after the event. I knew I wanted to die, and I knew I would never be able to bring myself to do anything about it.

Although, living 160 miles apart, we didn’t see each other all that often, we had been close in other ways, even when I was little. I don’t think William found small children particularly interesting, and that was something we had in common. While other relatives talked down to me, William did the opposite. He wrote my seventh birthday card phonetically in Ancient Greek.

William card

When I was not much older he sent me, unsolicited, a copy of a new Latin course he had written to use in his school, for my approval. Occasionally he signed himself ‘Gulielmus’.

I have other letters from him. Two weeks after my eighth birthday I received the following:

Dear Gareth,

Since a criminal, whom justice may eventually press down, or so we shall hope, has basely intercepted a card sent to you by me, I, although incredibly busy, have seen fit to post a letter in its stead.

This was a typical opening gambit.

The following Christmas he initiated me into some of the mysteries of engineering and electronics. The Electronic Project Lab he gave me was a source of constant fascination, with its diodes and transistors and circuits and transformers and something called a piezo buzzer. A step up from Spirograph, anyway. He loved gadgets. Among other presents was the Casio DATA-CAL 50, a calculator with an inbuilt phone number directory and password protection option. He was the only person I knew who wouldn’t have needed my help to programme the video recorder.

Christmas Day 1991

William was probably the first grown-up I heard swear. I’d seen people swearing on TV and in the playground, but my home life was not a profane one. My parents were careful not to swear while my younger brothers were around, and in any case they had both been well brought up, an indignity I happily escaped. But William would gladly say fuck in my presence, at the table or while he was helping with the washing up afterwards, and I would feel agreeably complicit. I try to live up to his example.

We had our private jokes. We called each other ‘expert’. I have somewhere a gift tag with my childish writing on the back, ‘Here is your pack of sample expert sweets, from your fellow expert.’ And each of us used to ask the other if he’d been swimming recently. I don’t know why it was funny, but it was. Possibly because neither of us liked to swim. If he telephoned, wanting to speak to my mother, and I picked up first, we might end up talking for quite some time. I remember talking to him about Louis Malle and (I think) Lindsay Anderson. Once, he said he was contemplating doctoral studies at Oxford. ‘Oh, you mean a DPhil?’ He was surprised a twelve-year-old should know the terminology. I’d picked it up from Adrian Mole, but I didn’t feel able to admit it to him. I wanted him to think I’d known it all my life. I craved his approval more than anyone else’s.

That was probably why I decided, possibly as early as primary school, that Cambridge was where I was headed. Hero worship, dreams of emulation. Because it was where he had gone, I assumed I’d be capable of doing the same, didn’t feel intimidated by it, despite my bog-standard comprehensive education. I wish he’d lived long enough to learn that I’d got in, to know that I was happy there, not much of a joiner-in with things but happy at any rate being independent.

At some point, presumably during the last few months of his life, my family were on our way somewhere and stopped outside the hospital where he was being treated. Did I want to go in and see him? I did, of course, but not like that. I gave my apologies, and said that I had a lot of school work to do, which was true, not that I did any of it in the car. He sent back the message that he understood. In the years that followed, I regretted not taking the opportunity of what would have been our final meeting.

My religion had all but disappeared by the time William died. His getting rid of my uncle didn’t endear God to me greatly. I did sometimes fantasise about the possibility of an afterlife, though, of an eventual reunion with William. I missed being able to talk to him. I had one-way conversations in which I told him that I was OK, that I was in love, conversations we’d never have had if he’d been alive. I thought perhaps he watched over me. I don’t now expect to see him again, but I don’t mind that. The dead live in our memories and in our selves. Even before he died, people used to observe how alike William and I were, in various ways. I feel honoured to think that I might have been the closest to an heir that he had. There are things I do and say, ways I act and talk, that are a tribute to him, and sometimes I’m conscious of them and sometimes I’m not.

I went to his funeral in Leeds, and to a memorial service at his school shortly afterwards. The two occasions have blurred into one. I have a memory of returning home from one of them on the train (can we have travelled by train? but that is my memory) and of listening to ‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five on my personal stereo as the train pulled in and I emerged on to the sunny platform of Frome Station. That sweet, melancholy song has had an association with him ever since, though I’m not sure he’d have liked it himself, nor the Eels and Radiohead whose sympathetic gloom kept me company through my grief.

William was an organist, an organ scholar. He introduced me to music through CDs he gave me. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bruckner’s 7th I discovered through him. After his death, I inherited/claimed some of his own CDs. Mahler’s 5th, Weill’s Die sieben Todsünden, Bartók’s string quartets, Chopin’s études. Organ music too, through his own performances that I found on his MiniDiscs (another gadget). Percy Whitlock, S.S. Wesley. Connections that we didn’t have during his life but became established later on. His PC, which we took home to replace our old one, had programs installed on it that fuelled my passion for composing, wave editing, the compiling of playlists. A bequest.

In about a year I’ll be the age William was when he died. I sometimes reflect, not with sadness, just with honesty, that my life hasn’t amounted to much, but perhaps he had the same thought, and I have a conviction that we affect more people than we can possibly realise, and in all different kinds of ways. More on that here.

By Hook

April 20, 2015

The 2,000+ songs composed by popular English composer James Hook (1746-1827) included:

  • The Beau’s of the year ninety nine
  • Black-ey’d Fanny
  • Come buy my water cresses
  • The celebrated Crying and Laughing song
  • The Dying Negro
  • Fanny of the Hill
  • The Female Cavalier
  • The Female Cryer
  • The Female Hunter
  • Fill fill my friend the foaming bowl
  • The Flitch of Bacon
  • The grand summum bonum’s a bumper of wine
  • Guess if you can which is the man
  • Hark forward! Tantivy huzza!
  • Hoot away ye loon
  • Hymen’s Evening Post
  • I thought it was queer
  • The little waist defended
  • Lowland Willy
  • The Monster!
  • Muirland Willy
  • No waist at all
  • Parliamenteering
  • The Press Gang forc’d my love to go
  • Some wives are good
  • Sweet Nan of Hampton Green
  • There’s nae luck about the house
  • Willy far away
  • Willy’s rare and Willy’s fair
  • Wine and Kisses

200 years later, a descendant:

50 films: #9. Pete’s Dragon (Don Chaffey, 1977)

April 18, 2015

My early relationship with films is hazy. These days, any respectable child has assimilated Frozen by the age of four, having watched their DVD of it a hundred times, but we didn’t own a VCR until I was six so that wasn’t an option. We didn’t go to the cinema often. The first film I remember seeing at the Westway was Disney’s Cinderella, which bored me almost to tears.

Most of my favourite films, then, I discovered on the telly. Some of them now feel like they were always in my consciousness. Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Our Hospitality) and Laurel and Hardy (Swiss Miss, Way Out West), surely I knew these from birth? Likewise the musicals whose soundtracks we had on tape or LP, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! (though I don’t think I saw the film of Oliver! until I was eight or so).

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Some films, though, I remember distinctly watching for the first time. Whistle Down the Wind, for instance, a favourite film of my father. He noticed it was on BBC2 one Friday evening when I was six, suggested I might enjoy it, and I sat there mesmerised. I wasn’t a discriminating watcher of television at that age, and my parents were very good (though they might not have realised it) at guiding my viewing. I know it was their idea that I might like repeats of Dad’s Army and Reggie Perrin, and probably ‘Allo ‘Allo too. My love of ‘Allo ‘Allo predated our having a video recorder. I recorded one or two episodes on my cassette recorder, audio only, with other family members forbidden to speak lest their voices be picked up on the tape.

At the age of seven and a half (3 February 1991), already in the grip of self-obsession, I composed a ‘Factfile’ on myself. Following sections on ‘Birthplace and home’, ‘Language’, ‘Years of living in the house’, ‘Pronunciation’ and, naturally, ‘Aunties’, there is a list of ‘Favourite films (in order)’. I was a maker of lists even then. It reads:

1. My Fair Lady
2. Whistle Down the Wind
3. Pete’s Dragon
4. The Sound of Music
5. West Side Story

I can’t call Pete’s Dragon a favourite film these days, but I remember vividly the first time I saw it. It was on Channel 4 (as I recall) one Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I’d have been six or seven. I missed the beginning, so didn’t know the film’s title, and we didn’t have the TV Times so I couldn’t easily find out what it was. (This was in the period shortly before the deregulation of TV listings in the UK; the Radio Times published BBC listings, but for ITV or Channel 4 you had to buy a separate magazine. How did we live?) Perhaps I used Teletext to identify the film. Being a letter writer, I wrote to Channel 4 to ask them to show it again. A reply directed me to HTV. I wrote to them and was informed that they had the rights to the film until 1993 and would certainly be screening it before then. I couldn’t wait another three years, and Auntie Sue (featured in the ‘Aunties’ section) bought me the video for Christmas.

Pete and Elliott and some apples

Pete and Elliott and some apples

Let’s step back from the dull autobiographical detail and concentrate on the dull film. It’s the story of a boy, Pete (Sean Marshall), on the run from his abusive adoptive family, the Gogans (headed by Shelley Winters), in early twentieth-century Maine. He arrives in a small fishing town, Passamaquoddy, and is taken in by lighthouse-keeper Lampie (Mickey Rooney) and his daughter Nora (Helen Reddy). Pete has one friend, an animated dragon, Elliott, who possesses the power of invisibility and keeps getting them into scrapes. Nora has a fiancé, Paul, presumed lost at sea. Anyway, Elliott helps to find Paul, Pete gets a new family, and somewhere along the line everyone learns the true meaning of home.

Although it’s a film that many people, myself included, have a fondness for, one can’t overlook its shortcomings. The Gogans are obnoxious redneck sterotypes, Nora and Lampie and Pete anodyne bores, Elliott a dullard. (Is it justifiable to object to a cartoon dragon on such grounds? But why not? Remember Principal Skinner on Free Willy: ‘Justice is not a frivolous thing, Simpson. It has little if anything to do with a disobedient whale.’)

'Oh, no. Willy didn't make it. And he crushed our boy!'

‘Oh, no. Willy didn’t make it. And he crushed our boy!’

He’s not much better, but one comes to appreciate the comic diversion provided by travelling quack Doc Terminus (Jim Dale), a pervert who attempts to buy Elliott by bribing Pete with a potion that induces puberty two years prematurely (I mean, what?). His shill Hoagy is played with irritating tremulousness by Red Buttons (real name Aaron Chwatt; it’s sad that Hollywood actors felt obliged to change their names to hide their Jewish or Eastern European roots, but sometimes it was clearly a necessity).

As in real life, I never notice people’s appearance or costume in films unless they seem obviously anachronistic. Jane Kean’s anal schoolmistress at least looks the part. She’s so humourless and starchy that she might almost be a librarian. (I love her.) But Pete with his pageboy haircut and dungarees is inescapably 1970s, and Paul, who turns up five minutes from the end with an improbable story about amnesia and a bang on the head that restored the memory of his engagement to Nora, looks like he’s wandered off the set of a porn film.

'There's a dragon ... in my pants'

‘There’s a dragon … in my pants’

The songs are mostly written in a 1970s pop idiom, and are occasionally slightly sappy. One of the harder-edged lyrics: ‘Life is lollipops and raindrops with the one you love.’ Nonetheless, their saccharine sweetness was an important part of the film’s alchemy for me, and the ballet sequences within songs — the round/square dance in ‘There’s Room for Everyone’, Terminus and Hoagy’s avaricious pantomime in ‘Every Little Piece’, best of all the lighthouse-cleaning sequence from 1:39 here — are the parts where the film really catches fire.

Anyway, it’s not a forgotten masterpiece, which might explain why Disney are remaking it this year (cast to include Robert Redford). How and why, then, 25 years ago, did it affect me so profoundly? I can still feel the mixture of sweetness and sadness it evoked in me. I was an emotional wreck by the end. I couldn’t have explained how I felt to someone else, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. It was like being secretly in love.

Given that I didn’t fancy either Pete or Elliott, I surmise that it was the dynamic of their relationship that spoke to me, and the film now seems to be crying out for a queer interpretation. I have read next to no queer theory, all I know about queerness is innate and instinctual, so this will be crass and unnuanced, but that’s what you get with this blog.

At the start of the film, Pete and Elliott appear to all intents and purposes to be in love. They perform a nauseating duet in which Pete sings, not very cryptically, ‘Remember the night when you first confided … and things went so right that we both decided …’ to which Elliott, not being able to speak, replies in nonsense syllables. In the French dub Pete claims they met only a week ago. They’ve certainly not wasted any time.

But a love affair between a boy and a dragon is not something a small town like Passamaquoddy will accept. To the townspeople, Pete knows, Elliott represents the unknown, the object of fear, and so Pete persuades him to invisibilise himself.

After a sighting of Elliott creates havoc in town, Pete hides him away in a cave by the sea. ‘You did everything wrong in Passamaquoddy,’ he mopes. ‘Now everybody hates us. I don’t know whether you’re good for me … or bad.’ [Side note: I was seven or eight when I had my first crush on a boy. He was in a TV series. One night I had a dream that he and I had a secret friendship in real life, and I hid him in a cupboard to prevent other people from finding him. The symbolism of my subconscious wasn’t all that subtle, and still isn’t. Anyway, closet = cupboard = cave.]

Nora, although she doesn’t believe in Elliott until she meets him herself, appears to understand Pete’s otherness. ‘It’s clear that friends can be different,’ she sings to him. She knows it’s tough being in love when the love is impossible. Pete’s got his dragon, she’s got her missing ’70s moustache man.

At the climax of the film, doing Pete’s bidding, Elliott breathes fire to relight the lighthouse lamp, which has been extinguished in a storm. This helps Paul’s boat get back to shore, and Nora, oblivious to Elliott’s discomfort, kisses him. He’s uncomfortable because he’s shy, of course, but also because he’s gay, and so he vanishes himself once more. The lighthouse is so obviously emblematic of Pete’s phallus that I don’t need to write any more about it here.

In spite of the film’s aggressively sexual imagery, the ending is soft-centred. Elliott tells Pete that he has to go away. He’s found another boy to go out with, and Pete’s need for him has diminished now that Paul has returned. He’s part of a nuclear family. Not that Paul’s a direct replacement for Elliott, but there’s something about the moustache that tells Pete there are new adventures in store. I wonder if it’s too late to get that puberty potion, he may be thinking.

Odd, but not surprising, that the ending still moves me. It’s hard to break those childhood emotional attachments. Pete asking, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ like every boy who’s ever had his heart broken, the recapitulation of ‘It’s Not Easy’ over the farewells (I think Noel Coward wrote something about the potency of cheap music), the wistful mixture of melancholy and optimism as Pete rushes forward, sweetly calling goodbye as Elliott takes off, the sudden sunniness. It didn’t make me cry when I watched it recently, but I know it will in the future.


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