This novel by David Malouf is a story of belonging and identity, or rather about community and belonging when the limits of identity are imposed by others. Gemmy is a white boy, raised by aboriginal people, who wanders into a white settlement in 1840s Australia. His appearance immediately scares the settlers who presume him to be black and then are suspicious of his ways when they realise he is a white boy ‘gone native’.
For Gemmy the struggle is to fit in when he no longer feels as if he belongs in any community. The white settlers try to feel at ease with him in their midst. Some feel he is a spy or that he must have attacked other communities. Farmer Jock McIvor and his nephew Lachlan are instrumental in reaching out to the young man but, in doing so, they risk their own position in the village.
The novel shows the fragile nature of identity. The settlers are forging a new life in a new land in a place that is at the edge of civilisation. To protect themselves they are fiercely hostile to outsiders, young white men who have lived with the natives being especially suspect. At the base of their concerns is the thought that if this white man could drift away from their way of life, then maybe it could happen to them.
‘Remembering Babylon’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1983 film from Francis Ford Coppola is an adaptation of the book by S E Hinton. I saw the film before I read the book and was glad I did. Set in 1960s Oklahoma, it is about the social divisions experienced by a group of working class boys. The rich kids, called the Socs, who are self- assured and flaunt their wealth and their sense of entitlement. When two of the lower class boys talk to girlfriends of the Socs, it is time to teach them a lesson.
Ponyboy and Johnny are attacked in the park and Ponyboy is dunked in the fountain, fearing he may drown. Johnny pulls a knife and one of the Socs is injured. The rest of the film is the tale of the boys on the run. As a state that has the death penalty, they are scared that they will be accused of murder. As they hide out in an old church, we find out that the boys are anything other than tough. Both have hard lives at home but the exclusion from their home town and their friends is hard for them. They read to each other from ‘Gone with the Wind’ and Ponyboy quotes Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’.
This film has performances by many young actors who went on to high profile Hollywood careers. The story moves to an end where only one of the boys will survive. The film ends with the surviving boy reading the account as a school essay. His missing friend went out in an act of bravery that shows that origins do not dictate character.
‘The Outsiders’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I saw the Ken Loach film before I read the book by Barry Hines. The fact that the book had the title ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ was part of the reason I found it hard to track down but, eventually, I came across a copy in the English department of my secondary school.
Barry Hines was a Barnsley writer who had left school early to work in the mines but who later returned to education, became a teacher and then a writer. This novel was his second but it the one he best known for. The story opens with Billy in the bed he shares with his half brother, Jed, who works down the mines. As he tries to get him up for work, Jed thumps him. When Billy leaves for his paper round he finds his bike has been taken and he completes the round on foot. These are usual tribulations for the boy and the scene is set for a story of life at the bottom of the heap.
The film was faithful to the book so the plot was known to me. The book makes more use of flashbacks within the structure of one day in the life of a boy. I did not realise the importance of the title of the book until I was much older when I found out, in a different context, that a kestrel is the only bird a knave was legally allowed to own in medieval times: “An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave”.
‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Ken Loach is Britain’s most courageous film maker. This 1969 film remains a favourite and, despite the passing of decades, it is still relevant to the world we live in. It starred two actors whose work I followed for many years afterwards- Colin Welland and Brian Glover- but it also starred an unknown as the main character of Billy Caspar. It is typical of Ken Loach, and the equally admirable producer Tony Garnett, that drama school pupils were not approached for the sensitive role of the boy at the bottom of society’s pile.
Billy Caspar does not expect much from life. His single mum doesn’t care much for him and his brother who works down the mine that is sure to claim Billy in its labour force hardly notices him. School is an ordeal but is not exactly the shining beacon of educational aspiration.
Things change when he finds and keeps a kestrel that he names Kes. He is successful at training her and he finds a living thing he can relate to. More than that, he is transported from his immediate surroundings whenever he is with her.
The film has an ending that seems inevitable even as it surprises with only the football scene with the wonderful Brian Glover as the egotistical PE teacher bringing light relief. Yet the film reminds us that there are people who yearn to rise above their situation and that the odds are stacked against them. It is true now, just as it was when the film was made.
‘Kes’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
It has been some time since I have used a Housman poem on this blog but the lines from this one have hung around me for the last few days so it needs to be shared.
Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.
And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say that I
Am quite myself again.
A E Housman
The poetry of A. E. Housman is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This is the third film that, in a pre- home cinema age, sent me back to the ABC Oxford in the same week to see it again. I made it back three times in one week and might have made more visits except the film didn’t go into a second week.
To be honest, it isn’t one of life’s masterpieces but it was the first time I saw a gay relationship on film and it affected me. I had to return to check that I had actually seen two men kiss in a loving way.
The plot is a simplistic one: man is attracted to another man but is married (to a wonderful woman played by the wonderful Kate Jackson) and does not know what to do about these strange feelings. As they grow, he becomes conflicted about his marriage. Things are not helped by the fact that the object of his affections is a well adjusted medical doctor; not every gay person is a psychological wreck!
I have seen some amazing films over the years that illuminate the lives of gay men but in 1982 this was still rare. The idea that it could be a Hollywood film was still new to me and my return visits to the cinema were about checking that these lives were projected onto the big screen as much as they were about anything.
‘Making Love’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Here is another film that sent me back to the cinema to watch it again, within the same week. It is one of the very best of the films of Louis Malle, a director I admire very much. This film from 1987 is his most personal work so it is no surprise that it came towards the end of his career.
Julien is a young boy at a Roman Catholic boarding school during the winter of 1943- 44 who notices everything. He wets the bed and misses his mother, characteristics that do not fit with the tough image he likes to portray. Life at the school is mostly boring but the arrival of some new pupils add interest to Julien’s life. The boys have been enrolled by Pere Jean, the headmaster. One of them, Jean Bonnet, is in the same class as Julien. Although he takes against him at first- he is too good at mathematics for his comfort- he changes his view when he discovers him praying one night and wearing a kippah. This discovery changes the relationship between the two boys and they become closer; the secret of Bonnet’s Jewishness is safe with Julien but events in the wider school cause problems. The black market run by the school’s assistant cook is discovered and he is sacked. As an act of revenge, he denounces the headmaster for giving refuge to Jews.
The ending is inevitable and a voice over by an adult Julien from 40 years later makes clear the fate that awaited the Jewish boys and their headteacher.
‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a moving film which shows the dilemmas faced during wartime as well as the extreme risks some people will take in the name of humanity. The film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?