Wednesday, 18 December 2013

beach scenes

The Martello Tower and Golf  Links
Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat Martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynes, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe. He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynes which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet. One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened
"Burnstow" with "Aldsey" in the distance
days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people's fancy at some time of their childhood. "Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him." "What should I do now," he thought, "if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it. Luckily, the gentleman behind is not of that kind, and he seems to be about as far off now as when I saw him first. . .
(M. R. James, Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad. 1904)

I live in the seaside town that James fictionalised as "Burnstow". The northern part of the town his protagonist stays in is just past the Golf Links that the Martello Tower sits on, it's the tiny hamlet where I buy fish. The Martello Tower is still guarding the encroaching coast but nowadays people live in them as "unusual" houses. I presume the inn that Parkins stays in is the Victoria, which has been closed for several years. In the distance, the lights of "Aldsey village" is none other than the tiny village of Bawdsey which itself is watched over by Bawdsey Manor where essential radar work of WWII was undertaken.

Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You is a genuinely unsettling ghost story - many of the stories by M. R. James are - and it's nice to live somewhere that has, at least, one decent work of fiction based there. It's also one of those rare ghost stories that (partly) take place in daylight on a beach. Having spent a lot of time recently looking into the Gothic for Film Studies, I wonder how many other tales use daylight and beaches for their settings? Most seem to use obvious tropes - the lists that students reel off when asked what the imagery of the genre are.

Richard Adams set the creepiest and most shocking part of his novel The Girl in a Swing (1980) on a beach in full daylight. Alan and Karin are enjoying the afterglow of their lovemaking on a beach:

The level, still sea was moving, rippling unnaturally. Something was disturbing it, something was approaching the surface, though with difficulty, as it seemed; something close at hand, not twenty feet from where we were lying. A higher wave, softly turbulent, flowed forward and round us, soaking my clothes and very cold upon my naked loins. The shock brought me to myself and I knew once more that I was lying on the beach, holding Karin in my arms. She had turned her head and was staring, wide-eyed and unbreathing, at the water. Following her gaze, I saw the surface break and saw what came out of the sea.

What came out of the sea, groping blindly with arms and stumbling on legs to which grey, sodden flesh still clung, had once been a little girl.

I'm pretty sure that wherever Adams set his novel, it wasn't "Burnstow". I don't think a lot of idle lovemaking goes on on these beaches. Too bloody cold, for a start. Even in the summer. The thought of it is scarier than the ghosts.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

there's no way back

Beneath the stars there are the bars
That serve the bitter drink...
The barman smiles at me,
His wife she gives a secret wink...
They listen patiently to me,
My story I unfold...
I see their faces change,
The lights grow dim I'm losing hold...

I used to be a boy,
My heart was young and supple then
But now it's stoney cold,
I'm old and I could use a friend...
My world is not like yours,
I come from somewhere long ago...
But now there's no way back,
I'm lost and I feel so alone...

You can leave me in the air age if you like
But I'd dearly love to go back to my own time....

Life in the air age, isn't all the brochures say...
Life in the air age, it's too dangerous to stay...
Life in the air age, airships crashing every day into the bay...

Life in the air age, it's all highways in the sky...
Life in the air age, all the oceans have run dry...
Life in the air age, it's grim enough to make a robot cry...

A tracking shot of Ipswich harbour looks remarkably familiar. Despite the monochrome and the fact that the few ancient fishing boats are rusted where there now sit brand spanking new gleaming white yachts, there really is a familiarity to it. The film cuts to an old pub in the distance viewed from an approaching car. But it looks timeless - it could be now, fifty years ago or even back to Edwardian times. The soundtrack features the start of an old drinking song, Here's the Health to the Barley Mow. We cut to the inside of the pub, the Ship Inn at Blaxhall near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The whole film lasts about seventeen minutes and shows the locals singing their songs, soloists being joined in the choruses by the assembled crowd, and a few step dances. The Barley Mow song builds in a litany of different sized drinking vessels. At the end, one of the soloists leads the crowd into the traditional song of closing such meetings. The National Anthem is sung with a jaunty melodeon accompaniment. 

Apropos of nothing, the Ship Inn at Blaxhall is mentioned in a brief story in today's East Anglian Daily Times ("Suffolk and Proud") but it just reports of modernity taking its toll.

In Lark Rise, chapter four: At the Wagon and Horses, Flora Thompson describes a typical night's entertainment:

But this dolorous singing was not allowed to continue long. 'Now, then, all together, boys,' some one would shout, and the company would revert to old favourites. Of these, one was 'The Barleymow'. Trolled out in chorus, the first verse went:

Oh, when we drink out of our noggins, my boys.
We'll drink to the barleymow.
We'll drink to the barleymow, my boys,
We'll drink to the barleymow.
So knock your pint on the settle's back;
Fill again, in again, Hannah Brown,
We'll drink to the barleymow, my boys,
We'll drink now the barley's mown.

So they went on, increasing the measure in each stanza, from noggins to half-pints, pints, quarts, gallons, barrels, hogsheads, brooks, ponds, rivers, seas, and oceans. That song could be made to last a whole evening, or it could be dropped as soon as they got tired of it.

The scene from Here's the Health to the Barley Mow (1952, EFDSS) could just have easily been from Lark Rise - Flora Thompson's book not the humdrum TV series that got pulled probably due to inauthentic continuity. The National Theatre's plays were so much better - possibly due to the fact that they used more authentic music for a start. During the short film a version of The Nutting Girl is performed. It's probably my favourite moment in the film and it was performed to exactly the same tune and words that John Kirkpatrick used in the 1972 Morris On album. There are even asides and whoops from other members of the band in Kirkpatrick's version that are similar to the asides the pub regulars offer during the filmed performance. 

What we have here are unique documents, windows on to other worlds. These are, of course, pre-digital worlds where tradition and culture continued without being questioned or intellectualised. Laura in Lark Rise is a thinly disguised Flora Thompson in what is really her autobiography and she tells us in this most musical of books, of the passing of a more rural way of life of the nineteenth century. By the end of the book she talks of her small village changing as it is about to become engulfed by an encroaching town. Modernity raises its ugly head. The Barley Mow film is an attempt to show a rare glimpse of a disappearing way of life even as it is being filmed. Other films on the BFI dvd of which this is the title film, explore other such moments over the years from 1912 to the early eighties. The last of these, The Burry Man of South Queensferry is so bizarre that it looks like a sketch for The Wicker Man. Watching the young volunteer dressed up in Burdock burrs, paraded around the town (he's not allowed to speak) and fed whisky all day is certainly a strange experience. It could even be a lost episode from the very early days of Dr Who

Interestingly, all of these images from the past seem to involve pubs. Even the old guys standing around the Ship Inn performing ancient songs reminds me of the scenes in the Green Man on Summerisle. There are several excellent short films on the disc set of how Mummers' Plays continued into the twentieth century. Derby Tup is the tale of how generations of young lads continue the tradition of presenting a two minute play that had long-since disappeared from Derby. The film follows the new lads around 1972 carrying on taking their traditional play passed down through generations into the local pubs. The boys had to learn the play, plan their routes and perform them all without adult supervision. The rite also introduces the lads to the ways of the adult world of the pub. Some of the older men in the pubs turn their backs on the little eldritch play being performed and ignore them. The putting away of childish things or the embarrassment that seems to come with adulthood? 

This leads on to another set of BFI films, Roll Out The Barrel: The British Pub On Film. This series of films takes us on a tour of hostelries from 1944 up to 1982. It's a rich seam of stories from yet another world. Of the twenty films, the one that stands out is the last one, Local Life (1982) which was sponsored by the Brewer's Society. It was little more than a promotional enterprise but now stands as a record of another rapidly disappearing world. Cleverly filmed, it uses filmic techniques that are probably familiar to most of us but conjures up a Lost World that may have been familiar to some of us more than others. The exaggerated sounds that build up the tension of waiting for opening time may seem strange to a modern audience. Cutting to images of a clock face, the barman testing the pumps, laying out mats, a cat idly licking itself, a rushing lorry with the legend "beer" in big red letters on its side, all lead to the moment that the doors are opened dead on eleven o'clock. I had, on occasion in the 1970s, stood at the door of the Marquis of Lorne or wherever waiting for it to open (I was never alone). The image of a punter handing over a wrinkled £1 note brought back memories. The food on offer looks little different to much of the general pub fare on offer today - pie, peas, chips etc. The film follows the structure of what were then the opening times of the day including the familiar barman's calls of, "Time Gentleman, please!"

There is a moment in the film where it cuts from one pub to another around the country allowing us access to the many groups of punters. In one we see a group of older people signing to each other, presumably deaf-mute people (not sure about current PC term). This reminded me of an old joke - definitely un-PC - of a group of such travellers. The coach driver explains to the barman what each sign means for half pint, pint, shorts and others. When the coach driver comes back in he finds the barman in total panic and getting totally stressed out because he doesn't understand what they're all requesting: all the party are standing at the bar opening and shutting their mouths. "Oh no!" the driver cries, "they've started singing, we'll never get them out!"

Anyway, ahem, the film follows various activities of pub life including the raising of £20 million a year (1980s) for various "good causes", other community activities and many pub sports. Also the amount of entertainment in the form of music is explored. One of which is a Mummers' Play performed outside in a darkened car park. Even that far into the century those ceremonies seemed to continue to hang on in there somehow. 

Everywhere in these films exist links to the Lost Worlds. Lost ways of life. I guess they are of little interest to many, especially youngsters in the digital age for which all this exists as boring history. However, one thing I am grateful for is the fact that it is precisely the existence of the digital age that allows us glimpses into these other worlds. The digital world has allowed such records to be kept, restored, catalogued and available in the public domain.

a pub with no beer?
Personally, I am genuinely grateful for that. Even if the students I teach have no interest in context - more fool them - I am able to draw on them for a deeper understanding of times past. Having a good contextual understanding of the times when books, poetry, films, songs were written or made adds to the pleasure of them. Perhaps just accepting what is in front of us can be as pleasurable but I can't help feeling that there's something missing.