In our occasional feature we invite guests to select the six cultural links that might sustain them if, by some mischance, they were forced to spend eternity in a succession of airport departure lounges with only an iPad or similar device for company.
Today’s voyager is John Halliwell, denizen of Cheshire, retired HR manager and much-prized Dabbler commenter.
I’m not keen on this eternity lark if it means hanging about airports all day, every day. Twitchy fingered, gun-toting coppers ask me: “What’s your game, Sunshine? You’re always here. Are you lost?”. My answer seems to satisfy their enquiry: “I’m not lost. It’s the voices in my head saying: ‘Fly, fly, let your wings take you above the nonsense of this world; laugh at the failure of Mother Earth to clasp you to her bosom’”. They seem convinced I’m the genuine article. They move off. I hear one say to the other: “A fruitcake, but harmless. Is it break time yet? I could murder a Mongolian muffin”. His mate looks suspiciously at two bearded characters wearing unusual headdress and long robes. I notice his trigger finger tighten. He then relaxes as he realises they’re Carmelite nuns with funny habits, and says: “Do Mongolian muffins pose a terrorist threat?” Their laughter booms out, forcing a group of touchy Lib Dems, heading to Lourdes looking for a miracle, to dive for cover .
I decide on a period of clicking:
Fred Astaire never really did it for me. Perhaps I’ve always been a little envious of all that swirling and swooping, twisting and jumping, with gorgeous girls like Ginger and Rita and Cyd and Eleanor. Eleanor? Who? Well, Eleanor Powell. In ‘Broadway Melody of 1940’ she seems to relegate Fred to the role of assistant in the great tap masterpiece danced to Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’. Sinatra said of it: “Take a good look folks. As long as you live you’ll never see the like of this again.” In ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Film’, David Thomson writes: ‘You are in solitary confinement for the rest of your life. There is a screen built into the cell wall, and it is a condition of your sentence that you may have just one sequence from a movie to play on that screen. This is my choice.’ I know why, David. Each time I watch it, I’m mesmerised by Powell’s apparent ease and certainty.
2. Night Mail
The steam engine has been one of the great loves of my life, along with my wife, three daughters, cricket, and football, and not necessarily in that order. As a boy, like most of my generation, I played cricket in the street, which was about 200 yards from the Manchester to Chester railway line. If, when batting, I heard the whistle of the 5 O’Clock express at two miles distant, I would throw down the bat and run like the wind to the railway embankment to catch sight of the engine as it moved towards me at high speed. The rest was a blur. If I’d had a movie camera, I would have tried to record the moment as well as this.
The marriage of film, poetry and music, when produced by great artists, is so rare that when it occurs it has to be treasured, and the GPO film unit, working with Britten with Auden produced in Night Mail one of the truly great short films. Everything seems to fit together perfectly.
The most glorious music this side of paradise, and possibly the other side as well: Rachmaninov’s Vespers, and particularly the second section: ‘Praise the Lord, O My Soul’. I attended a performance of the work in Worcester Cathedral a few years ago, and it was wonderful, but it missed a certain depth. English choirs are so often magnificent in a wide range of repertoire, but that Worcester performance cried out for those Russian basses who reach right down to their bowels for that astonishing growl.
This recording from 1965 by Aleksandr Sveshnikov and the State Russian Choir with Klara Korkan (mezzo-soprano) is wonderful. The depth in the basses seems to make all other choirs sound consumptive, allowing Korkan to seemingly float above them.
Michael Powell’s ‘Black Narcissus’ has been described variously as a ‘Mountain top melodrama – with all the tension found in a drooping penis’ to Powell’s own description: “It is the most erotic film that I have ever made. It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.” I’m not aware of the precise chronology of Powell’s affair with Kathleen Byron who played Sister Ruth, the depraved nun sent mad by sexual repression and the tantalising opportunity for release presented by David Farrer’s brooding Mr Dean, but if I had to guess I would say it all kicked off when Powell shot the scene involving Sister Ruth donning her red dress and lipstick. I wonder if he shouted “cut” far more often than was necessary just to watch Byron play havoc with Jack Cardiff’s focal length?
Thank God for the two workmen who were carrying out demolition work on Mercers, a shop in Northgate, Blackburn, in 1994, when they came across three metal drums containing hundreds of small spools of film, and realised they might just be worth saving from the skip. Mitchell and Kenyon’s restored films give an astonishing insight into working class Edwardian life. Perhaps the advertising blurb for the restored films should have read: “They will astound you with their clarity; those long dead people will wave at you, scowl at you, smile at you, laugh in your face, and you will look back and wonder: how many of you were blown to bits on the Somme or at Passchendaele? How many of you died of consumption? How many of you laboured in cotton mills until you dropped dead from exhaustion? How many of you lived happily into your 80s and witnessed most of a turbulent century?”
This is a fragment of those films, accompanied by a musical sound track by ‘In The Nursery’ that fits perfectly.
One of the benefits of exile in an airport is the opportunity to spend hours observing those passing through. A short time ago the Manchester United squad rolled up on their way to play in Spain, led by a grumpy old bloke who kicked an old lady’s bag out of his way and across the departure lounge, then swore blind it was the air traffic controller’s fault. His players looked shocked, but took it as a message to seek out other old ladies’ bags and boot them a hundred yards onto Runway 2. What a poor example set by the old bloke.
It all took me back to what seemed a more civilised time, and the United team of 53 years ago, the Busby Babes, who had walked into this airport to board a flight to Belgrade, seven of whom would perish in the snow of Munich a few days later, and one in hospital 15 days after the crash. Whatever the meagre contents of my mother’s purse, she ensured I would attend United’s home games for three seasons as Busby’s team progressed to the edge of greatness. My hero was Duncan Edwards. I have had to choose between Duncan and Ralph Vaughan Williams for my 6th click. As RVW was hopeless at football, it has to be the lad from Dudley.