A brace of Bates: thoughts on the countryside in 1942

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Another H E Bates topic, because I’m really pleased with these which arrived yesterday. Through my last post I found out that there’s an official Facebook page for one of my favourite authors (who is much, much more than The Darling Buds of May). There’s lots of interesting stuff there, and I found out that Unicorn Press have recently published these…

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They’re beautifully produced, in a smaller-format style of the great Little Toller books. The woodcuts by C F Tunnicliffe are a revelation, because these are much more fluid, full page compositions than the decorative examples I’ve dumbly associated him with…

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Both titles were published in the early 1940s by Country Life and contemplate the war, changes in rural life and the future. The blurb introduces The Happy Countryman:

Not wishing to return to “a rural life governed by privilege”… he puts his faith in education as the only means towards a vision of a “new countryside”… economically and nutritionally healthy, and free of the indifference rife in country life.

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On another note, some of H E Bates short stories, along with A E Coppard, were adapted for TV in the early 1970s in the series Country Matters. Some of these were released in the US on DVD, including excellent adaptations of The Watercress Girl and The Little Farm. It’s available for those with multi-region DVD players from Amazon.

 

Rediscovered film gem: Dulcima (1971)

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Network DVD have just released the 1971 film of H E Bates’ novella Dulcima (a story from a collection of three called The Nature of Love). It’s a well-deserved and long-awaited release for a film which has had something of a cult status.

It’s an undiscovered gem for several reasons. The cast is excellent: John Mills, who I would guess was fresh from his Oscar-winning performance in Ryan’s Daughter, and Carol White, the acclaimed actress from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow.

It’s also an incredibly beautiful snapshot of an unselfconscious rural Gloucestershire in the early seventies – not the contrived ‘chocolate box’ prettiness of today. The photography revels in the height of full summer down dusty tracks, and the dream-lives of the trapped.

dulcima001The story is H E Bates at his best: natural and earthy, sensitive to a rural reality, fatalistic as Hardy (creating a working-class version of Bathsheba Everdene in the process).

Dulcima Gaskain is a down-trodden ‘daughter at home’, the drudge for a family of ten, who sees a way out keeping house for Mr Parker, a ramshackle widower. Her bank balance creeps up and she begins to access the world she has glimpsed in her magazines, a sunlit, soft-focus world of hairspray, eyelashes and Terence Stamp look-alikes from knitting patterns. (Carol White and Stuart Wilson are indeed the Terry and Julie of the meadows, reminiscent too of 90s Britpop, like a less simian Liam Gallagher teamed with Sarah Cracknell.) The score is by the composer who worked on The Railway Children, and soars and shimmers like the lemonade light through the trees.

Of course, when her dreams are in reach, Dulcima’s gentle wiles can’t support their consequences.

There was a documentary about Carol White some years ago called The Battersea Bardot, and there’s always a tinge of melancholy to her performances. It’s ironic that a fair few blonde, beautiful actresses of the time strived to escape the sexist crap of the era and be judged for their ability alone, whereas Carol White was given unglamorous roles at which she excelled and for which she was respected, but longed to be the typical film star. There’s something great in the fact that she begins Dulcima in a typecast role, scrubbing floors, but emerges later with all the trappings of a Julie Christie romantic lead. So much further potential never realised: not long after her career floundered, and she died young at 48 in Florida.

Network DVD have done a wonderful job producing a great, clean print of the film, which won an award for director Frank Nesbitt at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971.

earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
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There’s also a fantastic cameo role by ‘a polecat with a bit of ferret in him’ (right, Stuart Wilson on left). Uncredited – where was the actor’s union back then?

 

 

Entertaining Josephine Poole

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“Don’t think I disagree with you,” she went on, encouraged by his angry tone. “I’ll even continue the argument, on behalf of all forward-thinking people. It’s the greatest of all luxuries, in our society, for a person to be useless, or ill. If we applied your sense of proportion to this house, you’d be almost the only person left in it. Mother and Evelyn would certainly have to go, and in view of the family history I wouldn’t be a very good bet either. You could keep Monty, and Margriet to bring you your tea.”

“What nonsense you’re making out of a bitch in pup,” he muttered. Some cake fell by his feet; the dog’s nose inched hopefully around the leg of the sofa, without risking the narrow-toed suede.

“We would have a mass execution on the terrace. What a scene!” Philippa exclaimed, tossing the mangled knitting on to a cushion. “Mother and Evelyn supporting me, and the two twittering Aunts Jordan not knowing to the last what was going to happen to them. You might have to do Nick in as well. Or perhaps he would just ride away.”

“Executioners, dressed in black plastic, would patrol Britain by motorbike,” Evelyn agreed.

“Machine guns?”

“Painless injections.”

“Who,” Geoffry asked, frowning, “are the Aunts Jordan?”

“My father’s aunts, who live here.” And at that moment, aptly, something fell overhead.

From Yokeham, Josephine Poole

When I first discovered Josephine Poole, it was through Billy Buck (published as The Visitor in the US) and Moon Eyes which I wrote about here and here. Not long after reading those two ‘books for young adults’ I found Yokeham, which I’d read was her ‘first novel for adults’ (it’s not, that was The Lilywhite Boys, which needs a post of its own). Published in 1970, it’s set around the house of the title, ‘a brave attempt at a Palladian Mansion’, and, in another good sign, the cover illustration is by David Gentleman…

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It’s a couple of years since reading, but I still have the atmosphere it left. This includes shades of Harold Pinter and Accident, and an incidental pair of sisters marooned in a hardly-visited Haversham-esque suite adorned with French sofas and pigeon droppings. The characters, if I attempt to explain the awkwardness of their situation and not the treatment, are akin to players in a rural episode of The Avengers - ones starved of any light from the swinging sixties, and cast by the local amateur dramatic group. Poole’s great skill is in exploring the dread of their predicament.

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Like Billy Buck, this book’s all about a Trojan horse visitor with the power to undo. Except, this time, Poole might be echoing Terence Stamp and Theorem (minus anything racy and Italian). It’s a gradual unravelling, under skies that are leaden, in air that’s damp and peaty.

There’s a bleak and frankly unsympathetic portrait of a portly gay gallery owner, yet in this lies part of Poole’s talent – a grisly dark humour in certain situations, not a million miles from Joe Orton. Maybe she’d enjoyed Entertaining Mr Sloane too:

The door opened and Mrs Horner steered a trolley of coffee and unwontedly elaborate biscuits into the room. When she had negotiated the tapestry pouffe and a nest of tables, she turned to him with moist cheeks, and rolling up her eyes exclaimed: ‘Oh, Mr Dando, you’ve made my Frankie such a happy girl! Mr Dando? Hark at me! Compton, I must call you now; and Compton, call me Mother!’

After this novel, Poole went back to young adult fiction, a part of her talent publishers chose to focus on and perhaps at times pushed her into a particular remit, but she has continued to write until recently. In the late 90s and 2000s there was a string of acclaimed stories alongside Angela Barrett’s beautiful illustrations: non-fiction with Joan of Arc, and Anne Frank, besides a retelling of Snow White.

In 2003 she produced Scorched, a return to her trademark setting deep in the Somerset landscape, rich with folklore, the heat of summer harvest and the cool harbour of ancient houses. She certainly hadn’t lost her touch, for this is a richly atmospheric, unsettling novel for young adults, with the indecipherable haunting effect of M R James and an almost Patricia Highsmith-like exploration of duality.

On the dustwrapper of Yokeham, Josephine Poole was asked to write about herself. Later in Scorched, she explains how the idea for the story came to her ‘as we were planting spring bulbs at the far end of the garden’, a perfect image.

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Anyone searching for Yokeham, which is long out of print, must be warned that the ISBN number seems to have at some point become muddled with something inexplicable but which seems to exist, being the autobiography of Gyles Brandreth. You have been warned. Check carefully first.

Jeremy Deller’s English Magic (some of it)

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These are really just notes – I was thinking about how we try to make sense of exhibitions, how much our own personal reference points guide what we take from them, how we challenge or absorb ideas, or rush to define, interpret or misinterpret, see what we want to see or not… it’s not an opinion of the exhibition, just an attempt to gauge how our own reference points filter information…

‘English Magic’ intrigues me as a title because it taps into my fascination with folklore and slightly arcane takes on history and landscape… I’m getting pictures of Shakespeare’s Prospero, maybe John Masefield’s Box of Delights and Herne the Hunter, paganism and druids. There’s something possibly Tudor, like Dr Doctor Dee, or Derek Jarman’s films touching on similar themes shared by Peter Ackroyd with their dreamy analysis of British art and literature and folklore.

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Leaflets, guides/poster image for the exhibition – the pink image is a detail showing William Morris returning from the dead as a colossus to throw a luxury yacht into the waters. Morris is used as a political revolutionary in the exhibition, drawing on his beliefs that art and design should be accessible to all (though his products were bought by the wealthy)

The design of the promotional material is pastel pink and green… not sure what that says… it could be quite retro-nostalgic bake-off village fete competition styling, but there’s a huge hawk glaring out which I think will have set the context of my initial thoughts – wild England, which makes me think of Richard Jefferies (because of his Victorian after-the-flood apocalypse novel After London: Wild England). I’m quite precise here because it’s a whole cultural/historical area I’m really drawn to. I’m quite excited about what I’m going to find.

Film: Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah

The first room is darkness, a video playing – just about to start again – and various spot-lit taxidermy victims: owls and hawks. I love owls and hawks, but part of me is not reading this as I once would, because of the obnoxious turning of ‘wildness’ into a high-street shopping/interiors experience which seems ubiquitous now. (I say obnoxious, but that’s not true; there is some beautiful wild imagery and it’s wonderful to see deer and owls and foxes and nature influencing design… but then you read something like ‘If you love the wild outdoors trend, want antlers but not keen on hunting, you’ll love these plastic resin antlers!”, a paradoxical statement that has integrity and no integrity at the same time…).

The film opens with amazing footage of owls and hawks, tethered hunting birds in a pastoral landscape – it’s all high-definition detail, breathtaking in the way it captures feather and claw and expanse of wing in slow-downed movements, and that wizard-like power of watchfulness in the eyes… and a barn owl’s legs are indeed a thing to behold. Dust sparkles in the air and I wonder if it’s intentional that the eerie, almost medieval drone of the soundtrack is broken by the noise of families feeding and possibly whelping outside in the cafe. But nothing detracts from the innate power of the birds themselves.

Next up is footage of four-wheel drive range rovers being crushed in a scrapyard, an abandoned Victorian redbrick building (could be a school, a hospital, a factory?) in the background. I enjoy this because I don’t like these four-wheel tanks, don’t see the need for them if you’re not dealing with farming terrain or large equipment on a regular basis. To lazily generalise, they’re a symbol of an aspirational, ersatz country life associated with weekend homes whose value puts housing out of the reach of workers in rural communities.

This dissolves into the inflatable Stonehenge, which appears with the skyline of Canary Wharf’s financial centre in the background, and there’s May Day celebration as everyone cartwheels and does handstands. It’s pagan abandon/freedom. I can’t help, though not sure I want to, but think of Danny Boyle’s opening of the Olympic ceremony, which suggests a refashioning of an idea of ‘old England’, one that’s tied in with pop culture – BracewellI’m off on a tangent thinking about Michael Bracewell’s 1997 book England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie, with its fantastic image of Malcolm McDowell deep in a forest in a sparkling blazer, an image full of Lindsay’s Anderson’s political might from the film If…. Then I’m thinking about the book Electric Eden which explores similar ideas of an ‘old England’ in folk music from the 60s/70s.

The scene clears, Stonehenge deflates and the soundtrack winds down before breaking into footage of the Lord Mayor’s show. Various costumed dignitaries are beaming, seemingly benign, from the horse-drawn carriages. Two wicker giants, Gog and Magog, are paraded – so I’m thinking of The Wicker Man and 1970s ‘folk horror’ momentarily (but who will be sacrificed?) before getting lost in the knowing observation of details of the Lord Mayor’s show flowing thick and fast – there are parades from the military, financial institutions… it’s redolent of the gathering of parents at the school Speech Day in the closing scenes of If… before McDowell and his revolutionaries take over. In my head, I’m somewhere in the early 1970s. I was a baby at the time, so this is really a second-hand experience through film and TV and all sorts of media. I didn’t live it, but the ‘memory’ of this time is made real because I grew up in the landscape it created.

One image is particularly effective to me: a pair of bridled carriage horses are resisting their role, teeth and nostrils flaring, eyes rolling, as a costumed handler attempts to bring them under control, so any footage from any riot is echoing around too, but also the birds from the opening – both the hawk and horses are tethered, but who is ‘tamed’?

As the film closes (amid footage of the recording of the celebratory soundtrack by an English/Trinidadian steel band) it’s back to the hawks and owls, and you realise you’ve been sitting on a crushed range rover.

Lines and lines and lines, as Tubbs would say

Next up is a room which I’m not surprised to find given the time I’ve gone to in my head… here is David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour and the troubles in Northern Ireland (a series of photos line the walls, all taken in the time period of the tour). A vast image on the opposite wall traces lines across the country linking all the places Bowie played. It’s like a map of railway tracks (I think I remember a quote on the wall about Beeching and closing railway lines in the 60s, but can’t confirm that so may be wrong). It’s also like a map of ley lines. So I’m thinking of a map of latent pagan undercurrents, pop music as escape and, at the same time, restrictions on people’s options for travel (particularly those on the fringes).

This all ‘exits via the gift shop’ (pains me to quote Banksy, so why do it…) and here I get my first full view of the key image of the exhibition, unfortunately on a postcard. It’s a flying hen harrier with a range rover in its claws, and I buy two. For me the hawk represents an old, unfettered wild Albion, a latent ancient strength that will see out the excesses symbolised by the range rover. In other eyes it may be ‘We’re coming to get you’ – after all, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is not that far from the museum.

That’s the end of Part One, as the rest of it is upstairs labelled ‘Part Two’: the hen harrier with the range rover is huge on the far wall and explains the shooting of two such birds over the Sandringham Estate on a day Prince Harry was shooting. There were no prosecutions as the carcasses of the birds could not be found.