Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

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The British Library knows how to do its exhibitions. It does them big. The latest, “Writing Britain: Wastelands to wonderlands” (Friday 11 May– Tuesday 25 Sep 2012) explores the literary history of Britain.
The first section “Rural dreams” immerses you in pastoral idealism from pre-Christian times to modern day. There are early symbols and stories from John Barleycorn to Robin hood, poetry inspired by myths, the Mabinoginon, and its progeny The Owl Service. Further on: “earthly paradise” fiction, (Winnie the Pooh) country house literature and protests against urbanization. look out for Tolkien, especially his lovely painting The hill: Hobbiton-across-the-water.

“Dark satanic mills” is a startling contrast after the first sections mix of pastoral idealism and charm. With an soundscape by Mark Peter Wright, you are immersed, not just with accounts of infernos-with the noise too. The literature is reactions to mines, mills and factories. The décor is impressive: black and white prints of industrial life, and mills that would look at home in Dante. Among Trollope and Elliot are surreal surprises; John Dyers The Fleece poeticises the wool industry. Wordsworth’s letter to P.M Gladstone objecting to Windermere Railway-angry sonnet included. Look out for Ernest-Jones’s amazing depiction of an English town-the striking style resembles the set-pieces in Metropolis. Elsewhere there’s George Orwell’s sketch map of his route in The Road to Wigan Pier. The poetry includes Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden (with haunting illustrations by Henry Moore.)

The countryside in “Wild places” is a world away from “Rural dreams”. The best and worst of emotional extremis is showcased, with Wordsworth’s intensely spiritual poetry alongside Gothic romances. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights features. So do the works of  Daphne Du Maurier, and generally any great writer who wrote about passion and peril in countryside. King Lear (look out for the striking illustration) and Dickens’s Magwich are cited as humanity overcome by wildness. Sole blemish on the section: post-apocalyptic novels by Richard Jeffries and J.G. Ballard.

“Beyond the city” explores ideas of the suburbs. Among printed images of the suburbs hung tapestry-style, are surreal, magical, and menacing discoveries. A suspension of disbelief predominates. In a Kafkaesque story The beetle (1897) by Richard Marsh, a shape shifting beetle represents foreign intrusion. Ralph Steadman’s gleeful illustration to Alice in Wonderland depicts the Rabbit as a bowler-hatted commuter. In pride of place was G.K. Chesterton, with  The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who was Thursday. The crowning piece of the section is the striking publicity poster for Notting Hill. There is slight stress on his negative-the notes for  The man who was Thursday, describe the surveillance and paranoia in his books. True, but his books are also wild and funny. J.G. Ballard’s Kingdome Come and Crash are much darker. One unexpected inclusion was Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is more associated with London, surely? He does go to the suburbs, but even so…Is he taking a holiday? If so he chose a nice location.

“Cockney visions” is one of the biggest, best decorated sections; The floor is covered with prints of Victorian and pre-Victorian maps. Others hang from the ceiling.  Showcased work stretches from Chaucer to the handwritten manuscript for Harry Potter. “In different voices” concerns different accents and dialects in London. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Angela Carter’s Wise Children rub shoulders with West Indian and Jamaican writers. In “City of Dreadful night” things get interesting. The dark side of London is explored, with Dore’s haunting engravings for London: a pilgrimage and Thompson and Blake’s poems to the city. The great villains of 19th century literature are displayed: Sweeny Todd, Conrad’s terrorists in The Secret Agent, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are there, plus a graphic novel based on the Ripper murders. Odd, among all these villains, is the absence of Conan Doyle; Surely Moriarty can stalk with the worst?
“Street haunting” is intriguing, because of the central idea: The wanderer who really experiences the city. This is certainly a diverse section, mixing sightseeing manuals with De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Among this collection is a character who would be at home in “City of dreadful night”. Poe’s The Man of The Crowd is presented as a “city wanderer” story. In the beautifully illustrated copy on display, the narrators pursuit of an old man takes him through London’s underbelly. It is eventually revealed that the old man is so evil he cannot be alone with himself: he is “the man of the crowd”. Largely “Cockney visions” resembles this story: Interesting, intelligent, dark-and very colourful.

“Waterlands” is the exhibitions crown. Video installations dominate, with a soundscape by Mark peter Wright and archive footage of the Thames and the seaside.  Below in the display cases are the writers you might expect (Austin, Larkin, Greene, Dickens, Kingsley) and the writers you don’t (Stoker: The original illustration of Dracula biting a white-clad maiden certainly catches the eye.) Highlights include “Sweet Thames” poems: John Leland’s Swan Song, where the poet in no way sucks up to Henry the Eighth; Self dubbed “Water poet” and publicity stuntman extraordinaire John Taylor. Best are Edmund Spenser’s 1596 Prothalamaion and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Both poems are gorgeous, and it is interesting to see them together.
There are darker interpretations; In Du Maurer’s Rebecca the sea holds dark secrets. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the Thames is a link British imperialism. However there are far lighter examples here than elsewhere: the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. The notes tell of  the boat trip that inspired the book;

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Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, a masterpiece of idyllic Englishness; Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows plus some rather unexpected illustrations for a scene in which Pan appears; different takes on the scene are compared, With Arthur Rackham winning out from sheer peculiar genius. To finish off the section is an artwork by Liz Mathews.
This is not an exhibition about Britain. This is an exhibition about writers, and their relationship with Britain. Perhaps there is a little emphasis on the negative, but “Waterlands” makes up for that. Overall, lovely.

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The cabinet of Doctor Caligari

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There seems to be a fashion right now for silent films with a live accompaniment. With a series of rather dull-looking blockbusters lined up for the summer, these silents are possibly your best choice. If you go to the right venue, you can catch some of the most interesting, imaginative films ever made. The picturehouse cinema chain must be one of the best things to happen to London recently. In a dimly lit room, with a real club atmosphere, we watched The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari with a live score from “Minima”.

And it is a twisted jewel of a film. A study in mistrust, paranoia and madness, it is set largely in the tortured mind of the central character. The atmosphere is very Germanic, with a sort of macabre playfulness that calls to mind Tim Burton. There are some genuine chills, and a plot wrong-foots you at every turn-including (apparently) the first twist ending in cinema.

The hero and his friends encounter Caligari (Werner Krauss ), an evil showman, who has enslaved a sleepwalker. As the group get entangled in the mystery surrounding Caligari, a story of madness and murder follows.

The most striking feature is the films astonishing visuals. The scenery is a Burton-esque fantasy of sharp planes and angles. The main setting-a small German town-is a hallucinatory tangle of twisted streets, filled with menacing shadows. The action moves from one fantasy to another, from the bleak countryside to the halls of a mental hospital, but in every scene, the backdrop is a labyrinth. The actors fit right into these twisted surroundings. The exaggerated acting style and Gothic appearances help create a perfect fantasy world that hovers between comedy and menace.

Overall, a truly brilliant experience. The mainstream run of cinema has little to offer right now. Don’t waste your money on a so-so horror flick. Go to your nearest Picturehouse and book something truly brilliant.

The tour dates of “Minima” can be found at www.minimamusic.co.uk

The Phantom in time

A masked Claude Rains; Lavishly staged opera scenes; Two Oscar wins. The 1943 version of “Phantom of the Opera” certainly has a lot to recommend it. Despite veering wildly from the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel, this film is a brilliant reworking of the story. So lavish that one of the opera scenes featured a horse, yes, an actual horse on the stage, this version made the most of then-new Technicolor filming. But more eye-catching to those who know the various versions is the altering of the roles. Now, it is a mistake to object to reworking of a story per se. “Blade runner” would be a very different film had Ridley Scott stuck closely to the source material. But it is fascinating to see how reinterpretation of the characters has altered the films meaning.

At its heart “Phantom of the Opera” is a fairytale. Specifically it is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast”. A man falls into trouble, is cursed with physical ugliness and becomes bestial as a result. His only hope is redemption in the shape of a woman’s love. But in the Phantom’s case, there is no hope of a transformation. Beauty rejects the Beast, and is rescued by the handsome prince, Raoul. The Phantom may be redeemed by his love of Christine, but is denied a happily ever after.

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Gerard Butler as the Phantom

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In the 1940s version Claude Rains portrays a different Phantom to Leroux’s original. Rains’s Phantom is a gentle, humane musician, pining for Susanna Foster’s coquettish Christine. He is treated unfairly by everyone, sacked, berated, insulted and finally driven to murder before having acid thrown in his face. Because of his ordeal he becomes the Phantom, and undergoes a complete character change. From passive, gentle and benevolent he becomes menacing, murderous and crazed. His only link to his former life is his love for Christine. It is fairytale imagery, again, wrapped in the conventions of gothic drama. It is the transformation from prince to beast, with only the hope of having the curse lifted. Christine now takes the part of a would-be rescuing princess.

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Lon Chaney as the Phantom

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The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has a different take on the transformation. Gerard Butler’s Phantom was abused as a child, and kept as an exhibit in a freak show. Like Raine’s Phantom, he is turned into a killer by trauma. Emmy Rossum’s Christine hits the nail on the head with her diagnoses:

Christine: This haunted face/Holds no horror for me now. It’s in your soul/That the true distortion lies.

But while the 1940s film focuses on the contrast between prince and beast, Lloyd Webber’s version is concerned only with the Phantom’s predicament. There is no lingering over the protagonists’ former innocence. As for the 1920s film, there is barely any mention of the Phantom’s past, except to link him to crime and black magic. But what all of the films do is emphasise the redemptive quality of the Phantom’s love.

The 1920s version starring Lon Chaney revolves very tightly around the central relationship. The Phantom and Christine are permanently locked in a power struggle. Christine has to throw off her early illusions, and her quite real love. She makes the decisions which drive the plot, choosing handsome, respectable Raoul over the tortured, murderous Phantom. She later plays the role of damsel in distress, but is still active and central to the plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is similar. In the film of the musical, Christine (Emmy Rossum) even saves the Phantom’s life at one point. Both of these versions stick quite closely to the novel. Here is the deviation of 1940s version: Susanna Foster’s Christine is not in love with the Phantom, nor anyone else. Raoul is replaced by two young men, who she alternately flirts with, and discards at the end (the comic rivalry of her beaux is one of the films highlights). In a way Foster’s Christine is a more feminist portrayal, since she clearly needs none of these men (Christine’s real relationship in this film is with her career). But it does reduce her role in the plot hugely. It also weakens the power of the plot. The gesture of compassion crucial to the Phantom’s redemption comes only after his death-and in a very watered down form:

Christine: He was almost a stranger to me, and yet somehow I always felt drawn to him with…with a kind of pity…understanding…

Very mild indeed compared with this scene from the Lloyd Webber film:

Christine:  Pitiful creature of darkness/What kind of life have you known?/God give me courage to show you/You are not alone…(kisses the Phantom passionately).

In Webber’s version, Christine’s act of kindness comes as close to transforming the Phantom as the plot can allow. He lets her go and escapes, his good side having triumphed. The film even allows him a kind of marriage with Christine, when she gives him her engagement ring. Webber’s version comes closest to the formula of Beauty and the Beast; The lifting of the curse and the union of the characters both have a sort of parallel. There is no scene of retribution for the Phantom’s crimes because redeemed, he can be allowed to escape the mob.

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Claude Rains as the Phantom, with Christine

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The 1940s script gives just enough of a concession to Christine’s role as a rescuer to redeem the Phantom. Otherwise her active role is almost completely cut out. She is the only the object of an obsession. Having changed Christine into a passive figure, the film focuses on Raines’s version of the Phantom. This completely alters the story’s dynamics.  Rather than a passionate power struggle between characters, this is a character study. As the successor to Chaney, Raines is tasked with giving an equal performance in a totally different style. It is fair to say he succeeds. In contrast to Chaney’s grand acting, Rains is all nuance and convincing psychology. His version is a sympathetic anti-hero, who is trying to save himself. He pursues Christine, the passive object, a symbol of redemption. Part of this Phantom’s tragedy is his doomed attempt at self-rescue. This partly expresses itself in his crazed speech to Christine where he sublimates his life in the cellars:

“You’ll love it here, when you get used to the dark, and you’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly, and peaceful. It brings rest, and relief from pain. It’s right under the opera. The music comes down and the darkness distils it-cleanses it of the suffering that made it-then it’s all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection.”

Throughout his madness, Rains’s Phantom is always trying to recover something. Christine is clearly essential to his story, but only as a component. Apart from speaking the lines that grant the Phantom redemption, her only really active role is the unmasking. In the 1920 and Lloyd Webber films, the revelation of the Phantom’s hideousness is the catalyst. It causes the previously submissive Christine to disobey her “master” and choose Raoul over the Phantom. But this version serves a different purpose. In her new role as object and agent in the Phantoms story, she reveals to the audience the Phantoms real condition. The sight frightens her, but is not really a catalyst for anything. It is a revelation, and comes just before the Phantom’s tragic end.

Overall, I would say the Lloyd Webber version is the best, though all three films have their merits. The Webber version, somehow, it’s the only film which has properly looked at all of the issues; The fairytale plot of Leroux’s original. The suffering and transformation of the Phantom. The role of a female rescuer. The 1920s version is slightly truncated, in that it ignores or at least does not linger on the transformation. As for the 1940s version, it seems that female power just could not be acknowledged, even in a film. Why is open to speculation. Instead the film focuses on the male story, almost excessively so, in a depth the other two do not go into. Perhaps now, in a more equal society, all of the issues can be addressed. Lloyd Webber can and does address the story properly, with no need to alter the plot.

Unless you are in love with the original novel, it is possible to enjoy all of these versions for their own merits. And all of them are worth seeking out. Lloyd Webber may have conquered the west end with the musical, but as takes on a gothic fairytale none of these are to be missed. The 1940s take is a character study, not a love triangle, but there is nothing wrong with that. A fine story bears more than one interpretation. And it is nice to see a fairytale in which a woman rescues a man for a change. Just saying.

Bastards Law

This is the first episode of a theoretical nine-part series worked out for a college assignment.  I collaborated with Tina Tamarakar in writing this, so Tina, no need to reach for a copyright lawyer. I dont have the slightest idea how a series like this could end, but if you have any suggestions, do let me know. Images from Bela Tarrs’ “Werkmiester harmnoies” and “Damnation”.

Scene 1.
 
It is a dark night, and rain is pouring down from the sky. There is a solitary street lamp, which illuminates nothing but its own little circle of pavement on the dark little London street.
Maria walks into view. Barely more than twenty, she is dressed in a raincoat rather too big for her, carrying an  A-Z and an umbrella as well as a small scrap of paper. She pauses under the street lamp and tries to examine the A-Z, fumbling with the umbrella.
 
Two hoodies loom out of the shadows behind her. They grab her before she has time to think-only for Max to leap into the scene. He fends them off with some well-choreographed action and a knuckleduster.
 
The thugs run off, as Max stoops to help Maria to her feet.
Max: Well done. Its not even past midnight, and you did a good job of nearly getting killed just now. Who are you, walking around at this hour?
Maria: (Scrambling to the ground and searching desperately) The address…!
Max: Don’t mind me. (Watches in irritable bewilderment as she finds the paper and sighs with relief).
Maria: This could be my only chance of saving him.
Max: (With the air of someone who, having found a beetle in their salad, lifts the rest of the lettuce.)…Oh? (she turns to look at him. A strong-looking man in his mid thirties, Max is very much the policeman, apart from his clothes. Feeling awkward and grateful, she pushes her hair away from her face.)
Maria:…I forgot to thank you.
Max: Don’t worry, I never expect thanks. Now…I think its question time. (Tries to take the paper from her but she moves back.) I don’t mean you any harm. And you’re obviously in trouble. You can let me help you, or you can face this-whatever this is-on your own. (Takes the paper from her now unresisting hand. It has an address written on it in smudged pencil). What is this?
Maria: (On the edge of tears) I think it’s the place where they took him…
 
Scene 2. (Flashback)
 
Maria and her father, Doctor Smith are eating breakfast in their kitchen. He is middle-aged, mild, rather soft-looking, and does not deserve what is about to happen to him. Maria finishes her coffee at the table. He opens today’s post, dismissing the bills, and then stares in distaste at a letter from OMNICORPS. This sinister company-who primarily deal in nuclear weapons-has written AGAIN to offer him work.
 
Smith: (Over his shoulder) Will you look at this? Those disgusting people are really not giving up.
Maria: Another subtly menacing job offer? 
Smith: I think it’s a bit much, actually, if you can’t work in nuclear physics without getting job offers like this. Just listen to this! “Accepting our offer would see you enter an exiting and lucrative business with unlimited hopes for the future-”¬ yes, unlike the people they would drop the bombs on, whose future would be nonexistent! Its an insult, really, for them to expect you to accept jobs like that. The trouble with working in science now is that everywhere you turn you meet people who expect to buy and sell you. You’re young, you don’t know what its like, but being considered a commodity is…its…well, you don’t belong to yourself, that’s all I can say. Not to them. Even your thoughts-no, especially your thoughts-are company property. I went into science because I love it! And I wanted to serve humanity! Do these people give a damn about my reasons? If you have a mind and can be useful they see you as a thing. No rights, no will of your own. Like a computer…(Throws the letter on the table.) Now on top of it they’re making threats. 
Maria: What threats?
Smith: Oh, nothing very explicit. Everything that lot say is coded-its often like that with powerful companies-but basically they say that they could get very nasty if they don’t get what they want, and I should consider you.
Maria: (Alarmed)I don’t like the sound of that! What could they do?
Smith: Nothing! Oh, you mustn’t worry. I’ve got people backing me, there’s  not much they can do to hurt us. (Glances at the clock). You need to get going, go on, or you’ll be late. You’ll be back-when?
Maria: Around six.
Smith: Don’t come through the lab please, I’ll be working all day. (Kisses her cheek.) See you later.
(She leaves. The camera focuses on the discarded letter on the table. As Smith finishes his coffee in the background, the camera pans in on the letter, till first the white page, then the company logo, fill the screen. The logo gets bigger and bigger, a black circle in the centre gets wider, until the screen goes completely black.
 
Scene 3
 
The blackness remains for a moment then lightens. We are in a dark room. Matilda sits at a desk reading a letter from Smith. A ruthless non-human in allrespects, she advertises it in her appearance. A man, mostly hidden in the shadows, stands behind her.)


Matilda: He won’t accept the offer.
(She leans back and sighs.)
Man: Are you sure, Ma’am?
Matilda: Completely. I sent him that final offer purely as a sort of…sop. A last chance. Now I know it was a waste of paper. He’s refused so often, he won’t accept now, he’s not that type. (She lays the letter down carefully, takes out a small hand-mirror, and redoes her lipstick.) You know, I won’t even wait for a reply. Why bother? Just take him. (Pouts in the mirror.) Grab him. I’m tired of playing polite. He was given a chance. Many chances.
Man: What about the girl Ma’am?
Matilda: What about her?
Man: Yes Ma’am. 
 
He moves away. Scene darkens.
 
Scene 4
The camera peeks between some leaves outside a laboratory window. Through the window, Smith is working at a table, feverishly writing notes.
In another part of the house, a window is quietly prised open.
Smith completely fails to hear several pairs of feet on the stairway, and down the hall. He fails to hear a door quietly open behind him. Return to the shot through the window. Dark shapes surround Smith from behind, and one of them throws a hood over his head…
 
Scene darkens.
 
Return to the street with Maria and Max
 
Maria: I went home that night and the house was dark and empty. I searched and searched. The next morning I phoned all his friends. In the end I went to the police.
Max: And? What happened? What did the police do?
Maria: Well you can imagine. There was a search like you get when anyone goes missing-but then …it was just knocked down. No one explained. There were “orders from head office” apparently. But no one explained-why?
Max: Did anyone say who in head office?
Maria: No-one told me anything.
Max: (Shoves his hands deep in his pockets and paces a bit. Stops with his back to her.) You said your father was a scientist.
Maria: Yes?
Max: And someone, a very reticent someone, ordered that a search be dropped. A search for a scientist, and a missing scientist, is always an official worry. If you’ll excuse the term, its valuable national property gone missing. You need to look after it.
Maria: (Annoyed) That’s my father, don’t talk like that about him! Do you even have a point?
Max: My point is, they dropped the case for a reason, and reasons like that are always a lead! It comes back to power, and people-this person in head office. They cut you dead when it came to getting answers. They had something to hide. (Turns on her suddenly) But that wasn’t the end was it? What happened?
 
Scene 5
Flashback 
 
Marias sitting room. She is crying on a sofa, her face hidden in her hands. Her mobile phone is on a table beside her. She glances at it and reaches out but then withdraws her hand. Camera cuts to a shot of the letter box in the front door. A hand enters the shot and pushes a slip of paper through the slot. In the sitting room Maria hears the noise. Looking tearful but now curious she goes to the front door. The piece of paper is lying on the door mat. End flashback.
 
Return to the street
 
Maria: The address was the only clue I have ever had. And I have to find it.
Max: Well good luck there. You are out on your own, in the dead of night, and you haven’t even brought something to defend yourself with. I assume you didn’t tell the police.
Maria: I don’t think they would have helped. I told you about the strange way the case was knocked down. You clearly think I’m silly-but I think I would have gotten no help.
Max: That’s broadly true I think, after what you’ve told me. You wouldn’t be allowed help. Lucky you ran into me. (Holds out his hand). Give me that A-Z. I have nothing better to do tonight.
 
Scene 6
 
The two stand in front of a dark East End warehouse. It seems to be in complete disrepair. The rain is pouring down now and they stand together under her umbrella. A single street light illuminates the open front door.
Max: Are you sure about this? It would be easy now to turn around and go home. I can tell you from experience, things like this are often harder to get out of than you’d like.
Maria: Are you joking? I have to find my father.
Max: Just checking.
 
The two go in, Max leading, Maria following behind. Max produces a torch from somewhere in his coat. the beam illuminates a dark, cavernous room, and broken furniture. Suddenly he turns the torch beam onto something white on the floor.
Max: I don’t think he is here …but someone gave themselves away.
 
He holds up a small business card. The OMNICORPS logo is visible in the torch light.