This film from director Peter Weir dates back to 1989 and remains in my hinterland as it was the perfect reflection of creativity as a means of forging an identity. In a superior and self- regarding school in Vermont, USA in the 50s, a new English teacher is appointed. He, too, is a former pupil of the school so knows the expectations and the code of such an institution. Yet, he sees English Literature as the perfect model for teenage boys to learn about life. His teaching methods are unusual but they inspire one group of boys in particular.
Enamoured of their teacher, the boys research his time at the school to discover that he was part of a club- the ‘Dead Poets Society’ of the title. Without telling him, they re-form the club and use it to celebrate poetry and the idea of living life to the full.
I saw this film on the day of its release in UK and loved it. Over the many years since then, I have seen it from time to time and. while understanding that the conventions (and clichés) of Hollywood can be clearly seen, it is still a heartwarming film.
The idea that teachers can change lives is a key theme and so is the idea that enthusiasts can ignite interest in people who thought they might not be interested. So, too, is the idea that breaking out from conformity brings risks to all involved. The film caught Robin Williams, so good as the inspirational teacher, at the cusp of his career from comedian to more sentimental roles. His performance here is more restrained than some of the later crowd pleasing turns. The performances of the younger actors, Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke in particular, were also strong.
‘Dead Poets Society’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I first read this book in 1988 when it read more as reportage than history. Now, reading it again I am struck by how some things have changed but also by how much the issues remain relevant thirty years later.
I read Dervla Murphy’s book about Northern Ireland before I moved on to this, her account of living in Bradford and then Birmingham in 1985. These were significant years in race relations in Britain. In Bradford, the Ray Honeyford affair was causing rifts in the city between older white people and the growing population of Asians. Honeyford was a headteacher with strong views about Bradford Council’s anti- racist policies. His use of a right wing journal to express these views was unwise in the least and campaigns that I remember were set up to oust him from his post. This made him something of a martyr figure for the right wing; Margaret Thatcher invited him to Downing Street to participate in an Educational forum! Dervla Murphy found herself living in the very area where Honeyford was headmaster when it all blew up. Her account of life there is reasoned and does not take sides; she is at pains to say she knows and likes both Honeyford and the leader of the campaign to oust him. Here she records what she sees, knowing that as an observer she is also a participant.
This dual role has more impact when she moves on to Birmingham arriving in Handsworth just before the riots there. Her time here is more dramatic. She is both threatened and intimidated by groups who decide she can be nothing other than a police informer. Her frequent use of her notebook to record what is happening around her leads only to further suspicion.
Dervla Murphy is a thoughtful observer. She meets as many people as she can to gather their life stories as well as their insights into life in (what was then) modern Britain. What emerges seems obvious now: there is no black point of view but many views. The prejudices held by both sides are formed because of the lack of understanding and unwillingness to cross a divide.
Re-reading the book is fascinating: the mid- 80s came back to me. I was clearer when I was younger about where I stood on all these issues. Having re-read it, I can see that I have changed and, although my general political philosophy has not changed, I can see that life is more complicated than it can be painted by politicians.
Murphy uses the terms ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ to make distinctions between the Afro- Caribbean and the Asians. Mixed race children are discussed only in terms of problems; how will they cope in a world where they don’t fit in. I suppose it is a victory that we have better umbrella terms for races and that children of mixed race are celebrated rather than seen as problems.
‘Tales from Two Cities’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This Spanish film from director Alberto Rodriguez is set as the country emerges from the Franco regime. The significance of this is seen through the background of one of the police officers investigating a murder in the marshlands of the title. A journalist following the story remembers his actions from the time of Franco and warns the officer’s partner about him. Both police officers have stories from their past that follow them around and they make every effort to keep them hidden as they follow the case.
The film itself follows the usual pattern of police officers sent to a backwater to solve a crime. The closed community, while distressed at the murders and abduction of young women, is not ready to welcome or trust outsiders. What emerges as the case is investigated is the unhappiness of families trying to make a living in the poor region of the Spanish south. Any chance to get away is seized upon, making young women, in particular, easy targets for preying men.
The strength of the film, apart from his moody quality, is its exploration of the moral ambiguity of police enforcers continuing in work having been on the payroll of oppressive regimes. The fact that it is a Franco enforcer who makes a breakthrough in the case poses difficult questions. The resolution of the case does not bring about a resolution between the two officers with the final scene leaving things open to viewer interpretation.
‘Marshland’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The recent radio dramatisation of Salman Rusdie’s 1981 novel was fantastic. Not having (yet) read the book, I was ambivalent about listening to the drama as it was broadcast over one day in August by BBC Radio. However, once I started I had to see it through to the end.
The drama was split into episodes of varying lengths, a creative touch that made the broadcasting special. The first episode was broadcast before midnight on the day before the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. The rest were broadcast throughout the next day.
The story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight with the creation of two new countries is a brilliant one. Nikesh Patel played the adult Saleem who narrates the story of his life as well as the background story of his grandparents and parents. It is a story that follows the history of the new countries as well as the young man. His life weaves in and out of important moments in the life of India and Pakistan.
There is something satisfying about a radio adaptation, especially as voices coming through the air is a significant idea in the novel. The term magical realism is often applied to this story and this may be a reason why I haven’t read it; or the 600 page length may have put me off. However, when brought to you across the airwaves, the concept of magical realism is less off- putting and in fact works very well.
Themes of identity, belonging, national pride, cultural differences and honour all play a part. As Saleem grows up, so does India.
‘Midnight’s Children’ dramatised by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Emma Harding is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
There were many television programmes in my childhood that I took for granted and only appreciated once they were gone. ‘This is Your Life’ was one example of a show that was simple on format but very enjoyable when the surprised guest was right. Throughout the seventies, I was aware of this programme, presented by Eamonn Andrews. He had actually presented it in its initial British version from the 50s to 1964 and then again from 1969 until he died in 1987. Michael Aspel took over for a time in the late 80s until it finished in 2003. Although I saw some of the Aspel programmes it is Eamonn Andrews I remember well, along with the music of Thames Television’s audio ‘ident’.
Back in the 70s, with a limited number of television channels, each programme was guaranteed a very large audience so television series as this were known to most of the country. Watching a famous person being surprised by Eamonn Andrews was part of the fun; the ‘victims’ were never in the know but they knew what seeing Eamonn Andrews meant, especially when he had a red book in his hands.
The episodes I remember best of all were Frankie Howerd’s when he cried, made especially poignant when it later turned out that his partner in life was discretely placed across the stage; heterosexual couples sat side by side! I also remember Reg Varney from the phenomenally successful sit-com ‘On the Buses’ looking alarmed when his rehearsed spot was interrupted by the red book.
It was classed as popular entertainment but, like much of television from that era, it treated the audience’s intelligence with respect.
This children’s novel by Jill Paton Walsh from 1988 is a wonderful evocation of what it is like to be dislocated as a child. James is new to the Fens, having moved with his parents because of their jobs. He finds himself as the outsider in a village where the children divide themselves neatly into ‘estate’ and ‘village’. As he belongs to neither group, James feels even more alone. It is a good job, then, that the old man next door is so interesting.
Mr Samson, the ‘gaffer’ of the title, is a widower who befriends the young boy providing him with someone to talk to. Such inter-generational friendships may now be threatened but in times past the wisdom of an older person could be passed on. Jill Paton Walsh captures well this friendship across the age gap.
James gets thrown together with Angey, another school outsider. The situation doesn’t help his case for being accepted but, when he goes on a mission for the gaffer, she is a useful ally.
Things come to a head when the gang mentality threatens James and Angey and he finds himself trying to help an ailing Mr Samson while standing up to bullies.
The novel explores themes of belonging, bullying, age and facing death all within a story of a boy in a village in the East of England. The book won the prestigious Smarties Prize and should, by now, qualify for classic status. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I first read Nigel Barley’s account of his early anthropology field work in the 80s, not long after it was published in paperback. I read it again recently; my new regime of picking books by random cards threw up ‘re-read a book from the shelf’ and this was the one I chose.
The strangest thing was that I remembered it as a very funny book but, on this re-reading, I could not find the comedy at all. It was still a worthwhile reading since most of the substance I had completely forgotten.
Nigel Barley entered field work among the Dowayo people of Cameroon in Africa. The book shows the reality of life in the field and the extent to which the very cultural differences being studied can, themselves, cause problems with conducting the research. He spent a year among the people learning about their culture, something which was built around the concept of becoming a man through circumcision. He also shows how hard it is to complete a study without affecting the community by his very presence. He writes well on the contradictions of ‘them watching me while me watching them’!
I was amused at the way Barley decided on the Duwayo people for his study. It owed more to the idea that other parts of the world were ‘already taken’ or tied up in war or strife. His ‘choice’ was a good one, though, since the differences were suitably remarkable from the tonal language to the extreme style of circumcision. His study of the people is less frustrating that his dealing with the state bureaucracy; he needs to stay on the right side of the law to obtain the permits and visas necessary to stay. After 18 months, leaving is also a bureaucratic process!
I was glad to re-read the book and was amazed that I remembered so little of the detail, remembering instead the theme and tone of the book. It made me wonder how many other books on my shelf would also stand a second go at reading them.