Blessay 41: Folk Songs, Art Songs, Pop Songs and Me

I couldn’t attempt to write a comprehensive essay on the relationship between folk, art and pop songs. I’m sure thousands of PHD theses have already been written on the overlapping influences of such music. And after a careful detailed consideration of musical forms post graduates, of a media studies thrust, might concur that to play high art off against popular culture is unnecessary for there are just well written songs and badly written songs. I don’t want to get into the cultural relativism of matters of taste, fashion and tradition. My aim is to more modestly talk of five folk or folksy sounding songs whose honesty and directedness created for me a personal ‘epiphany.’

Epiphany? That’s a debased term these days with publishers screaming titles at you like 1001 movies, music, paintings etc that I must experience before I die! (I’ve already experienced a large percentage of what you publishers say I ought to consume, and they were discovered on my own, with some suggestions of friends, long before being viewed as marketable items on some culture assembly line.)  So I’ll drop the single inverted commas, hide “epiphany” and insert the word “grace.” I’m taking grace to mean a beauty and form of movement that’s also an unmerited gift, not from God, but from all of us, back to ourselves – acting as a salutary reminder that we can be spiritual beings.

My 1st grace experienced through folk song came with Kathleen Ferrier’s version of Blow the Winds Southerly. She recorded it in London in 1949. Aged 10 in 1959 I heard her singing unaccompanied on the radio. Two things knocked me out.

Apart from a drunk in my street I’d never properly heard singing without an instrument. It was a classical singer (I’d no idea what a classical singer was then) with a unique mezzo soprano tone. I made have heard a nursery tune with the word “wind.” But a wind that blew southerly?  Anything South was then associated with London – so far away from my home in Toxteth, Liverpool. It’s a Northumberland folk song. I remembered being told at school that Hadrian’s Wall was in Northumberland. So did that wind hit the wall after blowing against the coastline?  Yet the line “Blow bonnie breeze my lover to me.” really threw me of kilter. Its three B’s being Scottish at heart! A memory of a Liverpudlian Scottish aunt sweetly calling me, on a winter’s night, a “bonnie” child was now in a song of passionate longing.

I did hear the announcer say the song title but the singer’s name was hit by radio interference. All I knew was that an operatic woman named Kathleen… sang of a mysterious wind and she might, you never know, have corresponded with my aunt for the words. It was such a great breeze of security: warm, bonnie and protective circulating through me. I never got my parents to buy the recording. I didn’t need to. An idea of the South had been firmly planted into a Northern kid.

Grace 2 appeared in the form of Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the melody, as transcribed by Cecil Sharp, of a 17th century Scottish folk song. O Waly, Waly (Wail, Wail). This is one of the most beautiful examples of a folk song becoming an art song due to the alchemic partnership of Britten and Peter Pears, especially in the last two verses.

A ship there is, and she sails the sea.

She’s loaded deep as deep can be,

But no so deep as the love I’m in.

I know not if I sink or swim.

 

O love is handsome and love is fine,

And loves a jewel when it is new,

But when it is old, it growth cold,

And fades away like morning dew.

Their performance is a plangent lament for lost, un-renewable and dying love. I first heard the song on a second hand LP called Folk Songs straight after listening to Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and string orchestra. I was seventeen and exhilarated by Britten’s sensitive ear for poetry. (Just a few years before there’d been the ‘folksy’ single Island of Dreams by the Springfields plus the regular thrill of each new Beatles 45rpm release. Not forgetting my first classical music buy – a ten shilling version of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.)

I left school at sixteen, started work as a shipping clerk and began to have my own money. Yet by seventeen I felt pretty lonely. I’d broken off seeing my school-friends (bar one) and was yet to make new friends at work. So into this vacuum came the song O Waly, Waly. My over-intense adolescent view of things as an emotional either/or was apparent. I was in love with a self-conscious picture of myself as unloved, unlovable and stuck between the world of boyhood and emerging manhood. I was in my own delicate, unseaworthy ship sailing into the adult world where not even a kind word from my dad or hug from my mum could help.

But not so deep as the love I’m in

I know not if I sink or swim.

Peter Pears singing is wonderfully hushed in the last verse and heartbreakingly intense. Yet when I saw a repeat of the BBC TV transmission of the Pears/ Britten folk song recital and observed Pears’s expression I glimpsed, through the pathos of its lyric, an eventual acceptance of things whilst the subtlety of Britten’s arrangement created a sea-like ebb and flow – a barcarolle of emotional intelligence where art and folk song fused absent of creative tension. It both moved me and helped to move me on in, not “the world of work” (I hate that term) but my new life experiences in the world of a young man.

Grace number 3 arrived through Paul McCartney. I could have chosen The Beatles Penny Lane as it’s a genuine folk song that still reverberates in my personal time and space. I knew the real Penny Lane (in neighbouring Wavertree) with its barber shop, fire station, real coffee shop etc as part of my local furniture before it was transformed into a vinyl myth.

However I’d choose Blackbird, from The White Album. When asked about the meaning of Blackbird McCartney has spoken of the watching of TV reports, concerning racial tensions in America, having possibly influenced him.

Yet I feel the song is apolitical and more generally about internal states of mind. Its imagery consists of sunken eyes that want to learn and see as they wait for the right moment for freedom. Despite the very active social life of my late teens I had moments of depression proving unaccountably black for me. I functioned, held down a job, had friends and found my own bed-sit in Liverpool. Yet I could be prone to fall, as the lyric says, “Into the light of the dark black night.” However a way out of such introspection came in the lines, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” For me the broken wings became my hand holding a pen over paper then writing. Through my imagination I wanted insight, from the light, as I went further within.

I’ve often thought that Blackbird is the counter opposite to Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Where that piece soars upwards in flight, Mc Cartney’s song has a metaphorical blackbird wishing to escape yet before it can do so has to descend, at the right moment, to discover a meaning to validate itself: hard to find when things appear so dark, stuck and difficult. A violin and orchestra imitate the soar of a singing lark. Vaughan Williams was inspired by George Meredith’s poem containing the lines,

The better heart of men shall see,

Shall feel celestially as long

As you crave nothing save the song.

I feel McCartney’s blackbird, unlike the lark of Vaughan Williams and Meredith, that craves its song, endures its own singing because it’s all it’s got to get through the dead of night. This composition takes folk song imagery and psychologises it into something not quite a pop song, never an art song but more a therapeutic tune for a therapy session song book. Yet this is McCartney the song smith without the solo John Lennon of the later mind games songs gestating out of his Janov primal therapy sessions. Lennon’s re-birthing agony LP left me cold but Mc Cartney peaked with this deeply compassionate song preferring a troubled sanity to madness. Whether it was my personal sober gloom or bad hangovers, attempting to block out the blackness, Blackbird triumphed.

For my 4th grace I look toward the Basque region of Southern France and Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. And not just any recording of these two songbooks but the Netania Davrath version with orchestra conducted by Pierre De La Roche. The second song of the first series captivated me. Bailero or Shepherd’s Song.

Shepherd across the river,

You don’t seem to be afraid,

Sing the Bailero,

Indeed I’m not, and you too

Sing the Bailero.

Shepherd, the meadow is in bloom,

Come over here to

Sing the Bailero

 

The grass is greener on this side,

You come here, Bailero.

Shepherd, the stream separates us,

And I can’t cross it,

Then I’ll come and get you further down, Bailero.

In the 1970s singers where falling over themselves to record this song. I’m glad I discovered Davrath’s version first. Her purity of diction, artless approach, folk charm, young girl sound, matchless intimacy and tenderness of voice made her, for so many listeners, the benchmark interpreter of Bailero and the other songs in the collection.

The Basque language has no translation for the words “bailero lero.” I’ve never felt the need for an explanation. They become a call to cross the river where the meadow’s grass is greener on the other side: an invitation to Eden, paradise and the ideal. If I were to suddenly switch playing CD tracks then Blackbird would be replaced by Bailero. Into the sunlight, out of Mc Cartney’s black night, come the Auvergne Hills. Hope and assistance to see you over the water. Of course it’s a magical pastoral dream. Yet its idyllic promise always stops me dead in my tracks; as transformative as a Ravel or Schubert song and a wonderful cure for the blues.

My 5th grace arrived roundabout my twenty first birthday. It was at the Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool where I went to my first classical song recital. A singer was going to perform a folk and lieder recital. Lieder sounded very authourative – as if it were some sort of head teacher of song watching over ‘lesser’ pop songs. Yet I needn’t have been afraid for it was merely German for song.

A tall elegant man with wavy dark hair (replete with a silver-grey streak) sang his heart out. He was the Liverpool baritone John Shirley-Quirk. In my mind I can still see him singing The Vagabond, the first song of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of travel (A setting of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson).

Let the blow fall soon or late,

Let what will be o’er me:

Give the face of earth around,

And the road before me,

 

Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,

Nor a friend to know me;

All I ask, the heaven above,

And the road below me.

Perhaps romantically I felt the opening song to be a calling. That it was asking me to leave Liverpool and go it alone. And Vaughan Williams caught the vagabond urge to cast of uncertainty, doubt and despair; overcome adversity and undergo the journey. Of course I could never in a pastoral sense walk the country roads without a care in the world (Though I was friends with a hippy couple heading off to live in a furniture van and an Indian tepee in Hereford.)

Such passionately sung vagabonding unconsciously revealed my wanderlust for foreign travel and higher education. Two years later came travels in Greece followed by Sussex University. Though I did visit the van and tent but the idyll came with too much damp for me! I was more a mod than a rocker in dress: a bit hip, with the kaftans and beads, but never becoming an over-active hippy. Always dropping out and dropping in for inspiring songs at the beginning of my writing career.

Today, folk/art songs still impinge on me but perhaps in a less redemptive and graceful way than when I was growing up. Their healing power is apparent but my imperative to be healed by them has lessened. Yet in poetry the grace factor still operates. I read American, English and other European poets in translation. Here grace comes alongside of ideas, arguments and images. Reading poems out loud returns me back to song. The music of poetry matters like breathing. Yet all kinds of songs can disarm you before you properly take in the words, possessing an Orphic power to transfix you in the moment.

In Monteverdi’s Orfeo (regarded as the first complete opera) the Prologue has a musica ritornello with these words.

Lo la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti

So far tranquillo ogni turbato core,

Ed or di nobil ira ed or d’amore

Poss’ infiammar le piu gelate menti.

 

(Music am I, who with my soft accents

Can bring tranquillity to troubled hearts,

And kindle in the deepest frozen soul

The flames of noble anger or of love.)

I’d go with that last line translation as “The flames of noble anger or love.” For it suggests a powerful and insistent ardour for the rightness of its cause: that music brings solace, justice and peace.

Blessay 40: The Other Coleridge

If a fortnight ago, you’d have asked me who Hartley Coleridge was I would have said he was the baby that his proud father, Samuel Coleridge, eloquently wrote about in his great poem Frost at Midnight.

“My babe so beautiful! It thrills my heart

With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,

And in other scenes!”

If pressed I would have added that Hartley grew up to be a writer to produce work that was now completely forgotten. Yet a chance find of a paperback in an Oxfam shop proved me wrong. Here was Bricks Without Mortar: The Selected Poems of Hartley Coleridge (Picador books) edited by Lisa Gee (2000). Whilst researching work for an anthology the poet Don Paterson was attracted to Coleridge’s poetry, and then showed it to Lisa Gee. Her selection is drawn from the 1833 volume of Hartley’s poetry edited by his brother Derwent.

One of Hartley’s unpublished manuscripts is Bricks Without Mortar from the Tower of Babel. This seductive title sounds like a fiction by Jorge Luis Borges. In fact there’s an indirect link to Borges, for in his fiction Coleridge’s Flower Borges remarks on the “perfect fancy” of a notebook entry by S.T.Coleridge.

“If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Ay! – and what then?”

Borges perceives this as “a final goal.” Correct from a poet who wrote such visionary works as The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. Yet what would this have meant to his eldest son, Hartley? Coleridge Snr. wrote big, expansive poems with a philosophic charge. Coleridge Jnr. wrote small poems with a gentler inner exploration of the self and observations of the natural world that were imbued by a feminised awareness. It’s been said that Hartley Coleridge had more in common with his great friend the poet William Wordsworth (I would also include a similarity with John Clare.)  Hartley was often a quietist who spoke (at his best) of the minutiae of life with acute sensitivity.

“The insect birds that suck nectareous juice

From straightest tubes of curly-petaled flowers,

Or catch the honey-dew that falls profuse

Through the soft air, distill’d in viewless

Whose colours seem the very souls of gems,

Or parting rays of fading diadems:-

S.T.Coleridge may have yearned for some ideal Platonic essence of a flower in Paradise to be realised in material form, whereas for Hartley the ordinary was always extraordinary. The overlooked had to be looked at with a feminine sensibility and wonderful stillness. It’s very apparent in his beautiful poem, Night.

The crackling embers on the hearth are dead;

The indoor note of industry is still;

The small birds wait not for their daily bread;

The voiceless flowers-how quietly they shed

Their nightly odours: – and the household rill,

Murmers continuous dulcet sounds that fill

The vacant expectation, and the dread

Of listening night. And haply now she sleeps:

For all the garrulous noises of the air

Are hush’d in peace; the soft dew silent weeps,

Like hopeless lovers for a maid so fair-

Oh! That I were the happy dream that creeps

To her soft heart, to find my image there.”

Hartley was known to be an egalitarian fellow mixing comfortably with the high and low of society. A great conversationalist who delighted his listeners and wrote a lot of poetry: quite a bit composed within ten minutes and regarded as pretty bad (Though the 19th century yeoman of the dales considered him “A powitt, iviry inch of ‘im.”)  yet when it’s good, it can also be outstanding and sometimes great. According to scholar Andrew Keanie, Hartley very much lived in the moment greatly aided by alcohol – no doubt at the local inn where he was considered a kindly gentleman. His brother Derwent observed that Coleridge was greatly loved.

“Among his friends we must count men, women, and children, of every rank and every age…In the farmhouse or the cottage, not alone at times of rustic festivity at a sheep-shearing, a wedding, or a christening, but by the ingle side, with the grandmother or the ‘bairns’, he was made, and felt himself, at home…He would nurse an infant by the hour. A like overflowing of his affectionate nature was seen in his fondness for animals – for anything that would love him in return – simply, and for its own sake, rather than his.”

Hartley loved cats. And in his poem To a Cat, he brings a ruthless rhyme ending when his consciousness of mortality sharply distinguishes him from an animal.

“Nelly, methinks,’wixt thee and me,

There is a kind of sympathy;

And could we interchange our nature,-

If I were cat, thou human creature,-

I should, like me, no great mouser,

And thou, like me, no great composer;

For, like thy plaintive mews, my muse,

With villainous whine doth fate abuse,

Because it has not made me sleek

As golden down on Cupid’s cheek;

And yet thou canst upon the rug lie,

Stretch’s out like snail, or curl’s up snugly,

As if thou wert not lean or ugly;

And I, who in poetic flights

Sometimes complain of sleepless nights

Regardless of the sun in heaven,

Am apt to dose till past eleven.

The world would just the same go round

If I were hang’d and thou wert drown’d;

There is one difference, tis true,-

Thou dost not know it, and I do.”

Hartley also wrote notebooks, essays and biographical pieces on other poets – Milton, Spenser and Marvell. He tried to earn his living as a teacher but wasn’t any good at it because he constantly felt intimidated by his pupils. Hartley feared they might physically assault him. (This must have fed into Hartley’s own childhood. For he was a dreamy boy who didn’t readily mix with other children; preferring his own company and his imaginary world. He even invented Ejuxira – a kingdom that had its own laws, language and customs.)

Apart from his writing any other means to earn a living seemed not to interest him. Eventually Hartley was given money by his family; his needs were modest and he got by. Despite his many friendships Hartley was lonely and unfulfilled. For Hartley was self-denigrating and considered himself unattractive to women. His childlike vulnerability and over-sensitivity was channelled into a confident poetic talent: whilst Hartley’s great social affability and his need to be a free spirit probably wasn’t grounded enough in realism.

As a poet of the 19th century he remains a major minor voice, with a sensibility that greatly differs from either the Romantic utterances of his father or Shelley. Hartley isn’t a writer of grandiloquence or revelation. Yet his verse shines with a modesty, introspection and insight. Hartley is a democratic poet of great integrity and directedness. Both a poet of his time and yet hinting at a later Victorian period of uncertainty and doubt. Hartley’s haunting poem It Were a State Too Terrible… has an elegiac quality that reminds me of the grief of Tennyson’s In Memoriam  blended with the darkness of a 20th century philosophical despair.

It were a state too terrible for man,

Too terrible and strange, and most unmeet,

To look into himself, his state to scan,

And find no precedent, no chart, or plan,

But think himself an embryo incomplete,

Else a remnant of a world effete,

Some by-blow of the universal Pan,

Great nature’s waif, that must by law escheat

To the liege-lord Corruption. Sad the case

Of man, who knows not wherefore he was made:

But he that knows the limits of his race

Not runs, but flies with prosperous winds to aid;

Or if he limps, he knows his path was trod

By saints of old, who knew their way to God.

Hartley’s great range of moods and skill is impressive. Another of his voices was of the praising kind. In the sonnet form he brilliantly praised Donne, Marvell and Shakespeare. Hartley’s remarkable and moving To Shakespeare ought to be much better known.

The soul of man is larger than the sky,

Deeper than ocean – or the abysmal dark

Of the unfathom’d centre. Like that Ark,

Which in its sacred hold uplifted high,

O’er the drown’d hills, the human family,

And stock reserved of every living kind,

So, in the compass of a single mind,

The seed and pregnant forms in essence lie,

That make all worlds. Great Poet ‘twas thy art,

To know thyself, and in thyself to be

Whate’er love, hate, ambition, destiny,

Or the firm, fatal purpose of the heart,

Can make of Man. Yet thou wert still the same,

Serene of thought, unhurt by thy own flame.

This poem recalls his father Samuel Taylor. The dramatic criticism of STC is probably not as read as much these days as his poetry. But it remains a landmark in the development of modern literary theory. In Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare we have father and son Hartley united in their insights.

“…that in his (Shakespeare’s) very first productions he projected his mind out of his  own particular being, and felt, and made others feel, on subjects no way connected   with himself, except by force of contemplation and that sublime faculty by which a great mind becomes that, on which it meditates.”

Shakespeare also brings my essay full circle via its earlier remarks on Borges’s fiction on STC and Kubla Khan. For Borges also wrote on Shakespeare and that great poet’s awareness of an insubstantial I, or empty sense of self. You’ll find this in the haunting Borges’s fiction Everything and Nothing and the essay A History of the Echoes of a Name. Here Borges mentions Parolles, of All’s Well that Ends Well who announces

“Captain I’ll no more,

But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft

As captain shall. Simply the thing I am

Shall make me live.”

for which Borges’s conclusion is:- “Thus Parolles speaks, and suddenly ceases to be a conventional character in a comic farce and becomes a man and all mankind.”

With Hartley Coleridge, as with Shelley the’ legislator’ the Romantic poet takes on the job of representing humanity.

“Twere surely hard to toil without an aim.

Then shall the toil of an immortal mind

Spending its strength for good of human kind

Have no reward on earth but empty fame?”

Answering his own doleful question, Hartley concludes his poem ‘Twere Surely Hard…with this,

“Tis aught that acts, unconsciously revealing

To mortal man his immortality.

Then think, O Poet, think how bland, how healing.

The beauty though has taught thy fellow man to see.”

Like all good poets Hartley did teach us to see. And in the selection Bricks without Mortar we have his best seeing of humanity and nature. The other, unfairly passed over, Coleridge now deserves our attention and love.

Blessay 39: Donald Trump, Beetroot, Blood and the Great Inauguration of Another Truth.

Three days ago Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Or did he just swear his two-term egotism in whether anyone was ceremoniously watching or not? Either in the same world as Trump, or perhaps some chosen parallel world, I broke my usual routine of listening to the BBC Radio 4 news at 1pm. I wanted to witness this historic event on TV. After carrying in some salad and bread for lunch from the kitchen to the living room, I realised that I’d got the time wrong. It was 8 am in Washington and noon in London. The ceremony wouldn’t kick off here until 4.30pm. As I stood up to switch of the TV I knocked a bowl of beetroot onto the carpet. This immediate stain of beetroot water looked similar to a spurt of blood after someone’s throat had been cut. Only my carpet mark was purple not red. I swore at the stain then looked back at the TV to see a photograph of Donald Trump with his thumb up for victory. I rushed into the kitchen for a sponge and washing-up liquid.

First I attacked the beetroot ‘gash’ with a mug of cold water. Whilst diligently sponging it the stain began to take on the appearance of an omen or portent of bad things to come. Neither I nor the American nation would be able to remove our respective stains.

Hours later after lunch I settled down for Trump’s first Presidential address. It’s January and too cold for Trump’s cheeks to exhibit much colour. Yet not freezing. His old pre-election heat still fired up his words. I’ve never heard a more nationalistic inauguration speech than this. No call for unity but a more forceful promise to his followers to throw out the political elite and their corrupt practices. Trump promised to halt the “carnage” of crime occurring on “our” American streets, bring back jobs to factory workers and help “beautiful” young students to achieve an education. He was not going to forget the forgotten. From day 1 of his Presidency he’d fight for them.

“In conclusion, Trump’s hair growing out of his head, long combed back and dyed the nascent yellow of a baby chick”                                                                                                                                                                              Caroline Mitgang (hairdresser) Quartz Media LLC website.

I glanced down at the carpet. The watery brown spot was hopefully absolved of the purple terror of beetroot stain. Apart from beetroots’ healthy benefits – folic acid, fibre, vitamin C and antioxidants, its juice is regarded as a remedy to fight the itchiness of a flaky scalp.  I stared at Trump’s hair and concluded it wasn’t a toupee. Trump’s genuine billionaire hair, albeit coloured Midas gold (Sometimes it looks carrot stained, smoothed back and displaying a highly confident quiff  that will undoubtedly survive the approaching political storms, proving to be more resilient at sticking around than my transient spillage.) Trump looks after his hair by himself most of the time. It’s rumoured that it’s cut by a member of the family. So is Melania Trump allowed to snip a little at the locks of Samson the great businessman. And does she apply the hair colorants?

Trump’s speech didn’t mention any unification of the people. A carefully worded plea on how you handle the nation was delivered by the only Democrat to speak at the inauguration, Senator Charles E. Schumer – leader of the Senate Democrats.

“Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity: whether we are immigrant or native-born; whether we live with disabilities or do not: in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional in our commonly held yet fierce devotion to our country…every day we stand up for core democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, the rule of law, equal protection for all under the law, the freedom of speech, press and religion – the things that make America, America.”

You can easily see this as a coded attack on Donald Trump and his supporter’s (Hillary Clinton’s ill-chosen word “deplorables” revealed how out of touch she was with the “Rustbelt” electorate). Schumer was unable to use the word “great” for America (or more likely wisely omitted a word so rapidly debased by Trump – does he not want to add this afterthought, “America great for me, me, me!”)

Next morning I was relieved to see the carpet dry and vanished of any purple smear. Trump’s head, with it’s smoothed down, tamed hair, was probably applying itself to the signing of the first of his executive orders to repeal Obama Healthcare. And soon the orange carrot top Donald would be trumping on to meet the hair styles and hair colours (natural and dyed) of lined-up apprehensive leaders. The first being the naturally and legally blonde Theresa May, next week.

Today I heard from the Trump team the term, “alternative facts.” This was defensively employed to dismiss the press accurately reporting the real facts about the number of people who actually attended the inauguration ceremony. Such an Orwellian term for lies has astounded everyone who believes in truth supported by hard evidence. Yet perhaps not even Trump’s most ardent followers on social media. They’re probably not checking bureaucratic facts or “alternative facts” but shrugging their shoulders and saying. “Experts and facts – who cares about them, we saw ourselves at our and his (Trump’s) reality show coronation. Crowd numbers don’t mean a thing!”

In this kind of Trumpian world an “alternative fact” could be that it was blood on my carpet not beetroot water. And that the stain hasn’t gone away. That it’s just festering and will re-appear at the right time. But it doesn’t matter if it’s purple and not red. Besides the colour purple symbolises power and pomp. Anyway don’t worry. Have yourself a Caesar salad (Like Trump does with his relished junk food diet) and leave out the beetroot. It’s messy stuff. “Sure, President Trump likes beetroot, like the best of us, but he’d never spill it, or a drop of blood, on the floor. Here’s to him cleaning out the cesspool of politics. Let’s not concern ourselves with the ethnically woven (mine isn’t) carpets of those precious liberals!”

Blessay 38: The Quintessential Polymath

Last week’s Archive Hour on BBC Radio 4 was devoted to the historian Asa Briggs. Tristram Hunt presented an affectionate portrait of Briggs as a considerable cultural force. Briggs was born in 1921 in Keighley in the West Riding of Yorkshire and came from a lower middle class background. Brigg’s father ran a fruit and veg shop. He was often ill so Asa had to take over. This didn’t prevent him from continuing with his studies, for he obtained one of the few scholarships available in the 1930’s to get to Cambridge. Asa was a clever lad who got on. This will to succeed was inspired by the zeal of Samuel Smiles the Victorian writer whose philosophy was one of positive self-help. What also motivated the post war thinking of Briggs was the idea of a liberal education for the common man. Brigg’s wasn’t a theorist – unlike his illustrious contemporaries E.P.Thompson and Eric Hobsbaum. Briggs was a doer. Dennis Healy was a close friend. Yet despite having socialist principles Briggs didn’t pursue a political career with the other young men, who in 1945 wanted to transform British society after the Labour Party landslide. It was education not politics that fired up young Asa.

What are some of Briggs’s major achievements? As an undergraduate he studied for two degrees (history at Cambridge and Economics at the LSE) at the same time and got a first in both! During WW2 he worked at Bletchley Park as a code breaker in the company of Alan Turing. Between 1961 and 1995 he wrote five volumes of the first authorised history of the BBC from 1922 to 1974. Briggs supported the WEA, was a governer of the BFI and chancellor of the Open University (1978-94).  When he died (aged 94) in 2016 he’d written over forty books. Apart from his history of broadcasting the most important works are probably Victorian Cities, Victorian People and Victorian Things. His research for these books paved the way for the establishment of Victorian Studies on University syllabus of the 1970’s. (This was after decades of an anti-Victorian spirit fuelled by such writers as Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf). And of course he was one of the founding fathers behind the idea of the New Universities set up in the late fifties/early sixties. His own education baby was The University of Sussex, where he re-imagined university as a place for students to have a radically different student experience.

“The quintessential polymath, Professor Asa Briggs was eminently qualified to bring a new idea for a new university. It was organised into schools of studies, each based on a unifying theme, such as geographical area or a cluster of related subjects. Professor Briggs coined the phrase “redrawing the map of learning” to describe this innovatory approach to teaching and research.”

“…he said that he leapt over the frontiers of academic disciplines with as much joy as he crossed national borders.”

Asa Briggs obituary – The University of Sussex website.

Let me re-wind to 1965 when aged 16 I left school (A Secondary Modern in Toxteth) with 5 ULCI’s. Or to give them their full title – Certificates of Education from The Universities of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes. Basically GCSE’s before they were invented – meagre qualifications (I suspected they were not recognised 20 miles outside of Merseyside) and a ‘recompense’ for the bright few who’d failed the Eleven Plus and were stuck in a secondary modern churning out factory workers, labourers and shop assistants. Frustrated by the lack of academic stimulus at school I went to evening classes in order to acquire some O levels and an English A level. My “Night School” studies proved to be exhausting and very badly taught. I managed to get an O level in English Literature, then for a few years forgot about studying. Yet I was always chomping at the bit for Higher Education and discovered that you could get to University without the usual qualifications.

Fast-forward to 1973 when I applied (through the mature students’ entry scheme) to do a combined English / Philosophy degree at Liverpool University. Owing to a misunder -standing, over my examination, I failed to get a place. Yet Professor Kenneth Muir’s letter of rejection altered my academic direction for the better. Some two months later, still heavily disappointed by the failure of Liverpool, I read an article in a Sunday Times magazine supplement about Sussex University. I liked the colour photographs of the campus, their policy statement and what Asa Briggs had to say. I wrote a short letter to him explaining what had happened. Within a week I received a typed letter back (personally signed by Briggs) expressing sympathy for my situation and suggesting I apply to Sussex under their mature student scheme. I did and after filling in their application form I had to write a 3000 word essay on a novel to be chosen from a list of ten English novels in the academic cannon I can’t remember all the titles except the one I chose – Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. I was already a fan of Dickens and this was a Dickens novel I knew nothing about.

Our Mutual Friend is a flawed but great book. Dickens last completed novel contains some of his most powerful writing. Perhaps the narrative of the Podsnaps and the Veneerings contrasted with the brooding story of Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn doesn’t quite convincingly fuse. Yet I was enthralled. My enthusiasm and analysis must have conveyed itself to Sussex as I was asked to come and attend an interview. That meeting with a tutor in English and American Studies went very well. It was an eclectic and enjoyable forty minutes. Our conversation ranged from the paganism of D.H.Lawrence, Nietzsche’s moral philosophy and then (of all things!) the creative role of the film producer as exemplified by Val Lewton (that auteur of low-budget, horror/fantasy cinema). I’ve no idea how we got onto Hollywood but it certainly pleased my interviewer (I discovered much later that he was a passionate cineaste). The other half of the day was a 90 minute sit down exam to critique samples of English poetry and prose. Here I only did fairly well (formal sit down exams intimidate me. I just freeze up.)

Within a week I received a letter to say I’d been awarded an unconditional offer of a place to be a student for a B. A. in English. I was awarded a grant from the local Education Authority in Liverpool. That autumn I moved, with my wife and two children, to Brighton and found a decent flat in Hove. This was 1974. I was then 25 and could just about manage on the money.

I thrived at Sussex. Its structure of small tutorials, extended essays, take-way papers and dissertations was up my street. The sit down exam component was small (about 15%) so I realised that the Briggsian developed learning plan was for me. I studied with such lovely freedom. Indeed the big hard work really only began in my 3rd finals year. Six essays per term were demanded for years 1 and 2 with attendance at least at two thirds of the tutorials. All this I was more than happy to comply with. Indeed at one of my contextual courses called “Modern European Mind” my tutor never got round to marking my essays (I think he was too busy writing a book) and marked me solely on my performances in tutorials alone.

The inter-disciplinarian nature of Sussex began to turn me into a polymath druggie. One autumn term I was asked to read Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, watch a Western on my American Cinema course and explore a little Sartre on the side – all to be done in two weeks with two essays to be handed in. This was a typical Sussex overload. You did as much as you could under the intellectual stress. The courses shook you up to stimulate ideas. And my tutors were very aware of their role to stretch you.

From 1969-71 Penguin Books published The Penguin Companions to Literature in four volumes. A fair number of Sussex academics, who taught me, contributed to the series. Anthony Thorlby, Angus Ross, Gabriel Josipovici, David Daiches, Gamini Salgado, Michael Jamieson, Rodney Hillman, Stephen Medcalf and Sybil Oldfied all passed on their learning and wit.

Three other guys stand out – Ernest Goldstucker who delivered a brilliant series of lectures on Freud, I.Mezaros’s whacky talks on witchcraft and many exciting tutorials with Anthony Nuttal (Philosopher, Professor of English, legendary Shakespearean scholar and brother of the anarchist poet Jeff Nuttall). I will never forget Tony Nuttall giving a hilarious lecture on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy whilst imitating the walk of Uncle Toby.

After listening to the archive hour tribute to Asa Briggs I felt proud and privileged to be part of the Sussex alumni; delighted that such a man as Asa Briggs had encouraged me to study at his special university. Briggs left Sussex in 1976 at the end of my second year. I regret that I never got to meet him and thank him his encouragement. Forty years on since my graduation, it’s not too late. Thanks, Asa! R.I.P. If there’s a heaven then let it have places of polymath learning run on the lines of your Yorkshireman vision.

Blessay 37: Being Vampirish

From a writing point of view vampires only interested me in the 1990’s. I was bitten, not by a vampire, but a mediocre vampire film – Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992. Actually it’s not that bad. It does have Gary Oldman enjoying himself as the Count and its lovely to look at. Yet style alone can’t disguise the fact that the film contains some very wooden performances and slack dramatic pacing. The whole effort felt disengaged. I believe Coppola produced a Dracula film in order to make cash for more personal projects. Anyway I felt angry and cheated by result. In reaction I started to scribble down ideas of my own for vampires in a new guise. Three years later I’d completed a novella and seventeen short stories. My MSS entitled The Other Side of the Mirror was accepted by Citron Press and published in 1999. It received two longish reviews, sold quite well and then disappeared from the shops and libraries. Not simply a case of sales drying up but the theft of 2 copies from Camden libraries. At least it was issued to forty readers over one year. (Well the author took it out three times but hopefully the rest of the borrowers where enthusiastic fans).

I was delighted to get Ramsey Campbell to write me an introduction. We’ve been old friends since the 60s. His words are warm and perceptive. He probably thought this was yet again another book on that ‘worn out’ subject – vampires. I was pleased that he acknowledged The Other Side of the Mirror as an original treatment of the vampire theme.

This week I was sorting through lots of old papers and unworkable manuscripts, that will probably remain buried in a bottom draw, hidden away in the dark, like Nosferatu unable to face the daylight of revision and publication. Amongst them was my own unpublished introduction to this book. It will probably make most sense to those who have actually read The Other Side of the Mirror. Yet when the book is re-printed one day I’d like my thoughts to be included. (If after reading this introduction you’d like to acquire an out of print copy, then go to Amazon books where you can buy  The Other Side of the Mirror in good condition for 1p plus £2. 80p postage).

Apart from tidying up the grammar I’ve made no revisions to this author preface. So, here are my words, from 1998, on all that’s vampirish (though not every story in the book is mentioned).

The vampire has been employed as a description and analysis of human behaviour since the early eighteenth century. Outside of the confines of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula,and its 20th century Hollywood adaptations, the vampire as “a dead person believed to come from the grave at night and suck the blood of sleeping people”(definition c/o Longman’s English Dictionary 1991) can now have a diversity of meaning. Whilst still preying on and exploiting others, it can be vampirific without its old folklore powers (turning into a bat ) or mythic constraints (the crucifix, garlic and returning to your coffin before sunrise). Even sucking real blood is optional. And the transference of power from victim to perpetrator can also be a psychic phenomena (see Algernon Blackwood’s brilliantly atmospheric story, “The Transfer”).

True a great amount of blood is still spilt in vampire literature. But today the real world is bleeding in a horrifically different way. Many blood metaphors can spring up and cluster round the vampire hinting at bigger parasitical forces threatening to drain away our identity and freedom.

What are some of these other guises, forms and new threats?

Marx in Das Kapital refers to the process of capitalism as possessing a “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.” Nietzsche attacked nineteenth century ethics as “…the morality of decadence, or more concretely Christian morality…morality as vampirism.” Ceausescu, The Romanian president is viewed as a bloodthirsty exploiter. A leading trade unionist’s reaction to the appointment of Michael Portillo to the job of Employment Secretary was”…it’s like asking Count Dracula to run a blood bank.” And as for Munchausen’s syndrome (a pretending of illness by young women) one patient’s efforts to remain hospitalised for anemia turned her into a “personal vampire” as she took a syringe to draw her own blood and squirt it down the toilet. That’s the background reality that helped me to chart some alternative vampire identities.

The Other Side of the Mirror can be roughly divided into covert vampire stories and overt vampire stories. Of course both types often overlap with metaphorical and real blood.

My story “A Desperate Perhaps” (a phrase of film critic Robin Wood) was inspired by images in Bergman’s 1966 film Persona with its story of the ‘incommunicable’ relationship between a nurse and her patient. The scene where Alma (the nurse) draws blood from Elizabeth (the patient) and tastes it; their silent vampirish encounter, at dawn in the bedroom; Alma’s frustrated babble as she attempts to converse with and possess (?) the other woman – all prompting my fantasy tale about the terrors of giving birth.

“The Monster in the Shoe Shop” contains all the conscious/unconscious harm we can inflict on children growing up. In this case, during Geraldine’s breakdown she distorts some ‘monstrous facets’ underneath the surface of her parents kindly behaviour.

In “The Forcers In” and “A Bali Tale” I’ve taken the vampire myths of ancient cultures. For the former, a Greek legend of AD245 of the Empusas – the vampire like creatures of the goddess Hecate. In the latter, Balinese mythology with its leyangs (vampirish witches) ruled by the head witch Rangda.

Parody, satire and pastiche are to be found in “At the Edge” (a lyric monologue after Poe), “Hope and Mr.Lugosi” (Lugosi’s dressing up as the count inside his coffin was done for real!) and Deconstructing Dracula (the academy’s possession of Dracula for critical theories).

“Munch’s Vampire” could be thematically added to the previous three stories, but not quite. For I feel that any anxieties that artists have about their work quashes any humour in this tale. “The Re-possessed” is a stark fantasy about the sucking power of property owners affecting a homeless couple during a recession.

Both “Sybilmet and Retreata” and “Blood Libel” are related on the level of children, blood imagery and the camps but that’s all, for it’s the least vampire like story in the collection. My novella “Blood Libel” is the one most eligible to have the subtitle  – A vampire on the other side of the mirror. My reading of Robert Jay Lifton’s masterwork on Nazism and medical ethics guided a great deal of “Blood Libel”. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss represents a banal figure of authority (similar to Adolf Eichmann) who’s not only investigating the ‘vampirism’ of a mysterious child but the blank mystery of his own personality. Höss’s blindness and self-pity are a terrible usurping of morality, a sucking dry of the ability of a human being to show any empathy.

Vampires are not only agents of power and destructive competition. As our shadow side they can suck into us producing moral inertia. However unlike the traditional vampire we can still perceive  our reflection in the mirror. We know who should accept responsibility. Though sometimes, we are on the other side of the glass and unable to catch ourselves looking in.

Blessay 36: Passports to Near Oblivion

The first stamp in my first 10 year British passport was from Police Nationale-Calais and was issued in July 1973. I’d taken the boat, on a rough crossing, from Dover. I was 24, very excited to cross the channel and enthused by a D.H.Lawrence desire to escape the repressions of ‘Little England.’ Foreign travel excitement hadn’t been a part of my childhood (North Wales was the only other land I’d known) nor had there been family holidays (How dare they exist, according to my father’s tightness).

The dictionary definition of a passport is “the authorisation to pass from a port or leave a country or pass through a country” Being a Liverpudlian and living less than 4 miles from the River Mersey it was inevitable that I’d use a seaport, before an airport, to travel. On my first trip, my girlfriend and I employed a combination of train, boat and bus (The fabled “Magic Bus” with its hippy ads in Time Out) in order to reach Venice and then Athens.

The morning I received my passport I imagined sailing effortlessly round the globe.My idealistic voyager-side recalled 19th century seafaring stories where a young sea-charmed adventurer is always granted a letter of safe passage. However instead of the patriotic “And now on to England” it was “Get me out of the UK, before I go bloody crazy!”

The dark blue, navy stiff cardboard passport, with its gold embossed matey lion and unicorn, protectively hugging a crown, and the iconic symbols of its lands, appeared to have unlimited power. Yet my Republican rebuke of royalty was firm. For me The British passport’s authority was a somewhat queasy imperialistic delusion, which still maintained a concept of “safe passage”. Such colonial conditioning had the strong pull of gentlemanly honour. I was absurdly romantic, back then (Blame it on having read too many Arthurian legends of those chivalric “Knights of the Round Table” and imagining that they required passports, even more than Merlin’s magic, to travel over to Brittany in France).

My 1973 passport is a little worn, but still intact and cancelled by its right hand corner having been cut of by the authorities. My stamps are for France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain and Morocco. The most important looking stamp is for the granting of a Polish visa, by Henryk Purowski, Konsul in August 1980. Yet on leaving Warsaw in October 1980 I flashed his name at some official, by the airport’s currency counter, to no effect. My pockets where full of zlotys (£30 pounds worth) that couldn’t be converted back into pounds, dollars or anything! I’d spent £5 worth on airport cakes and drinks but couldn’t shift another zloty – the Communist merchandise in the un-glamorous airport shop looked far too forlorn to purchase. So I bit the bullet and handed over their money to my Polish friend to invigorate his bank account.

My 1983 passport no longer defined me as a British Subject but a British Citizen (that’s either an upgrade or an insult depending on your strain of nationalism). As for details of occupation, I’d gone from the vague label of a student to the more solid – a social worker. By its expiration in 93, I’d visited Spain, Finland, Cyprus, Thailand, France, Spain, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. India provided the largest stamp. A multiple entry visa with a warning that “Change of Purpose Was Not Allowed.” On the right, going down the page it warned me that this visa “Wasn’t Valid for Restricted/Protected Areas.” I understood that to be Kashmir’s volatile border with Pakistan.

Travelling 2nd class on Indian trains the passport elicited an over-emphasised “Sahib” from middle-aged railway guards. I’d only heard “Sahib” said in films. And though it is a polite form of mister, me being English its other meaning “Master” was troubling. “Sahib” was frequently repeated by the clerks at a post-office in Delhi. “The Master” quickly became a frustrated master who wished he’d answered them back. For I constantly had to show my passport when trying to buy a dozen postage stamps. Forms were filled in triplicate, my cards were weighed on scales, and large queues formed as “Sahib” struck again and again. Patience is crucial in India, especially when it takes over an hour to mail postcards. Finally I cautiously handed over the cards to the last clerk – if I’d personally mailed them in a street post box there was always the danger of someone stealing them for the stamps!

My other Asian destinations, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia were not so labour intensive and hardly ever required passport checks. But a pain potentially bigger than India occurred in Morocco in 1977. Two policemen asked for my documentation. As one examined my details the other sneaked behind me trying to plant dope in a pocket of my backpack. I realised what was happening, pushed them both off me and ran down the alley. They didn’t seriously pursue me. Later I was told by another traveller that this was only some ‘entertainment’ for a Friday night when bored cops tried to get money off you by promising to drop the charge of carrying drugs.

By 1993 I’m into the big decorative stamps of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Behind them come the less showy efforts of Norway, Israel, Germany and Romania. China’s visa covers two-thirds of a page, is valid for 30 days and has the longest number – visa 051901. My passport is now a Burgundy wine colour, with a softer cover where the gold lion and unicorn have become mates of The European Community. It and my credit card, displaying a holograph of Shakespeare, hugely impressed a Chinese ticket collector on my Silk Road Route train, to validate my discounted train ticket.

Arrival and departure from Egypt gave me two shiny orange and blue Cairo stamp stickers. acting as reminders of the bright colours of the well-preserved tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Laos was one of the gentlest and most relaxed countries I’ve ever visited. In 1997 I took the train overnight from Bangkok up to Nong Khai. Then a short ferry ride over to Laos. Their immigration stamp bears the border control words – Friend Ship Bridge. A name as invitingly laid-back as their lovely people.

Israel’s Ben Gurion airport proved to be the most intimidating. This was March 1996. A fortnight before travelling a bomb had exploded on bus in Jerusalem. Security was razor-sharp. All my belongings were pulled out and strewn across a metal table. Each item of clothing was minutely examined with such careful callousness to make you imagine they were looking for lice covered in gunpowder! I recall looking up and seeing the violinist Yehudi Menuhin standing a few feet away. He was chatting to an elderly porter holding his baggage. Menuhin asked about the health of the man’s wife. At that point my belongings fell, or were pushed off the table. “You can go!” snapped the security man. I bungled everything back into my backpack. After I’d paid for my tourist visa, the Ben Gurion stamp came heavily down on the page. It was red and shaped like a coffin.

No death symbol from Thailand only the obliquity of a square stamp for entry and a triangle for departure.

In my 2003 – 13 ID years it’s Japan, Turkey, Australia, South Korea (Seoul, a two night stopover), Hungary (no stamp) Sicily (no stamp). The Australian (Sydney airport) stamps are no-nonsense and efficient, placed at the very back of the passport and hovering over my photograph on the following page. I warmly remember them because the customs man sounded genuine when he greeted me with his “Welcome to Australia, Alan!” However a week later, at a local train station, 3 miles from Sydney, two policemen who thought I looked shifty, asked to see ID. My passport partially satisfied them. “Things seem alright.” they grunted to each other. The emphases being on seem as if to keep me anxious.

Japan had the most aesthetically appealing of landing permission stamps -such Narita airport symmetry and poise.

I’m now on my 2013 passport, valid until 2023. Passports bureaucratically document your ‘travelling life.’ Ten year slabs of global movement. This is now the biometric, digital era. Less immigration stamps – no record of holidays in Italy (Rome) Iceland or Spain.

My latest passport photograph appears ghostly under my government’s plastic seal. I look as if I’m about to vanish. On my details and observations pages there are now two images of me. They’re placed against an artist’s impression of the sea round the British Isles. The photograph in the holder’s details zone is the more distinct and lies, near the Bristol Channel, by the bottom half of the country, yet still managing to be right underneath Northern Ireland. On the official observations page I am indistinct. An eerie face, turning into a palimpsest drowning in the North sea. Underneath my neck, and near the spot where you might have found my torso, is a dark blue seagull pursued by a more realistic seagull flying over the Hebrides.

The indistinct Alan will be soon be covered by the pale green paper sea. Whilst the distinct Alan is fading adjacent to his name, nationality and date of birth. It’s a digital dualism or personality split where somehow the biometric strip, underneath its silver decoration, matters more than the image of my physical face, as I stare, body correctly angled, at cameras, waiting to be allowed to come in or go out of their countries.

Five months ago we voted for Brexit. In future I may have to pay £10/20 for European visas. As for my face, what will be the officially drawn background on the next passport? Today it’s bland illustrations of the island I live on. Reedbed, Geological Formation, Coastal Cliff, Fishing Village, Beach, Canal, Village Green, Formal Park (Formal?) Woodland, Lake, River, Moorland and Mountain. It’s a geographical somewhere. It must be better than nowhere?  As Prime Minister Theresa May said “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Don’t I Theresa? Return with me to 1973, please.

I was then emerging from the glorious spin and spirit of the 1960’s.The International Times, the counter culture’s newspaper, spoke of a young person as being, “A Child of the Universe”. This term jostled awkwardly with my passport’s “British Subject”, raising the problematic issue of identity that I am still to this day freely expanding.

I feel comfortably English and British. Yet also gentlemanly Celt (Welsh and Scottish ancestry), instilled with a Liverpool wit, a European shaped by their culture (French grandmother on my mother’s side), Americanized by old Hollywood and Jazz, made Asian-friendly by travelling and hoping to be re-born as a questioning child / citizen of the universe. There are passports and passports.

 

Blessay 35: Now, and not quite forever

In the summer of 1955, my mother, then aged 41, was recovering from an operation in a convalescent home near Windermere in the Lake District. One afternoon she was out walking with a woman friend and they came across a crew shooting a film called Now and Forever. Mum was able to chat to the film’s eighteen year old starlet, Janette Scott. Scott had been a child actor throughout the forties and early fifties and Now and Forever was to be her first adult role. I’ve no idea what my mother and Janette talked about. It must have been a happy encounter for she told me that Janette allowed Mother, between takes, to sit in the actor’s chair. The late summer day grew overcast and chilly. Apparently Janette said, “You’re cold my dear.” and placed her cardigan round mother’s shoulders. Before they left Mother’s friend took some photographs with her Kodak box camera. I’ve hunted high and low for those two tiny black & white pictures but can’t find them. From memory I can see Mother, arm in arm, with the budding film star. I think there was also an older man in the photograph, maybe it was the director?

Now and Forever was released in the winter of 1956. Mother went to see it in a Liverpool cinema. She may have paid more money and gone into town to the ABC Forum. Or waited till Now and Forever did the rounds and came to our local Picture Playhouse in Toxteth. At that time Now and Forever would have been boring romantic slush for a young kid. I was seven and certainly didn’t see it. (My first memory of going with both of my parents to the cinema was to see Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958. There’s an odd connection between Vertigo and Now and Forever. Both films feature scenes with a bell tower. In Vertigo, Kim Novak falls from the tower. Whilst in Now and Forever, Jannete Scott, distraught at the news of her father’s death, is stopped by her headmistress from throwing herself off the tower). Mum often brought up Now and Forever in conversation. The cardigan, of her story, placed on Mother’s cold shoulders became a a royal robe exalting her status. Aged ten her story charmed me. At fourteen I was bored and wanted her to stop. She’d constantly chant, “Now and Forever!” and sigh like some princess passing through a fairy tale.

For many years it was impossible to see the film on TV, VHS or DVD. Now and Forever was dropped down an old well of maternal memories. This Autumn a friend lent me a recently released dvd. Now and Forever was directed by Mario Zampi, an underrated director who made three enduring British comedies, The Naked Truth, Too many Crooks and Laughter in Paradise. Now and Forever is not as good as those films. It’s a slight but a not bad romantic film about a young well to do, 17 year old schoolgirl named Janette (Janette Scott) who meets a motor mechanic named Mike (Vernon Gray). They fall in love – a love made especially desirous for Janette as her father has just died. Their relationship is not approved by Janette’s mother (Pamela Brown). She threatens to take Janette away from school and emigrate to Canada. The couple rebel and elope to Gretna Green to get married. They’re pursued by the police, the press and their parents.

Now and Forever, with its fantasy wish fulfilment of a title, emotionally tugged at mother for more years than I’d realised. From the age of 11, Mother would often talk to me about leaving father and we getting a home together. She’d never mentioned it to her sisters or neighbours, as the shame of doing that would hang over her. In 1960 a divorce wasn’t easy to obtain and my family were poor and intimidated by the law. I acted as her young helper. We plotted how we might do it. Confiding with our sympathetic family doctor caused problems. What are your reasons for separating? asked that Jewish man with his neat moustache. He gives you housekeeping money. He doesn’t beat you. And there isn’t another woman in his life. Your only grounds for a divorce are mental cruelty. If you leave him you wont get a penny from him, nor the State. The thought of being for ever with Dad made her miserable. If videos had existed back then Mother would have played the Zampi film to death.

There are better and more romantic Hollywood films, of the fifties, than the very British Now and Forever. You only have to consider the wrongly termed ‘women’s’ pictures of Douglas Sirk to enjoy a classier, if darker hued, act. Even a movie as mawkish as Jean Negolescu’s Three coins in the Fountain, with its crooning Sinatra title song, could have seduced Mother more. Yet I think she felt an empathy with Now and Forever more deeply than any other romantic movie crush. What captivated Mum was the sincerity of Janette Scott’s performance – today it still retains an innocent, need to be loved quality that’s most affecting. Of course she’s a skilled actress but she doesn’t come across as artificial or manipulative. Janette Scott had an old fashioned, English-rose femininity. Her performance is not a great one. The script of Now and Forever is too undeveloped to make that possible. Yet Janette does her sincere best and a warm romantic feeling shines through. Whilst my mother was probably eager to share the hopes and romantic ideals of her younger self as represented by the young star of a box office hit.

I wonder what my father thought of Now and Forever? Did he wipe away a feel-good tear after the credits rolled up? Or was he bored by this technicolor elopement? He’s dead. Mother’s dead. I’ll never know. But I’ll claim Now and Forever to be her film, not his. Their reality was an unhappy marriage, staying together in a tiring ‘now and forever’ rut. I’ll keep Mother dreaming with Janette, who will be seventy eight next month, and maybe re-visit Lake Windermere, one day soon.