Thursday, 12 September 2013

Oh, to be home.

'Oh, we don't want to lose you...'
(Paul Reubens)
 
'I shall go home, alone;
And must try to live life as before,
And hide my grief
For you, my dearest friend,
Who should be with me now,
Not cold, too soon,
And in your grave,
Alone.' (Guy Wilson)
 
O western wind, when wilt thou blow
    That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
    And I in my bed again!
(Anonymous)
 
 
Does home seep beyond the clothing of our mortal flesh, permeating that hidden heart of the everlasting soul? If ghosts retain their human feelings, would those feelings drive them to try to go home? Would they long for it, as those of us who love our homes and yet must venture far from them, so long to return? So much WWI and WWII war propaganda billed the home as that which one must be prepared to sacrifice in order to maintain it when threatened. The homestead itself became a thing of essential essence, the very threads we contribute to the tapestry of our collective, lived landscapes. The sanctity of home to everyday men and women became the lynchpin for duty; the sacred crux of society. It is hardly surprising that home became a central fantasy for those soldiers, sailors, airmen, doctors, nurses, etc., and the haunting presence of such is liberally scattered through the artefacts they created abroad: letters, diary entries, poetry. The consequences of WWI and WWII was that a large portion of men and women, who ventured bravely from their homes to save them, would never return. And, in turn, those gaping absences would change the homes of those left behind forever.
 
These thoughts were compounded by the chance discovery of a small entry concerning the ghost of Rupert Brookes (contributed by Dr A.I. Copeland to Marchioness Townshend & Maude Ffoulkes' True Ghost Stories, first published by Hutchinson & Company in 1936). Copeland's experience occurred in 1919, four years after Brookes had died from blood poisoning following an infected mosquito bite in Greece. The story itself is a simply one: Copeland was renting rooms in the Old Vicarage, in Grantchester, where Brookes had formerly lived. One evening, whilst sitting by the fire, Copeland heard the sound of footsteps making their way around the house toward the French windows of his sitting room. Upon inspection, no one was there, and it seemed impossible that anyone could have made those footsteps and found cover before he looked through the windows. When enquiring of this to his landlord, a Mr Neave, he was promptly told that such an occasion was not unusual, and that, since Brookes had died, his footsteps had often been heard making the same journey. 
 
 
 
 
Brookes seems the ideal candidate for such a haunting. His poetry reveals a deep, romantic affection for England; a sentiment that seems to have resonated in him from early life. While some of Brookes' work has been sucked into nationalist thinking (indeed, a good chunk of his poetry is explicitly patriotic, and compounds the obligation to fight for one's country), I think what he communicates is the tenderness of remembered belonging in a time where place and self have been fractured, of being connected to a sense of home that extends the premise of bricks and mortar and reaches into all the nooks and crannies of the land itself. It is the waiting glue that will fix the wounded traveller when they are able to return, as well as the very beacon that calls them to return. This sense of home becomes an essence, something intangible that is carried in the mind, that stretches a non-corporeal chord to anchor in the familiar. It becomes an icon, to glorify, that gives meaning to the horrendous agonies caused in war. Of course, 'England' and 'home' mean more than their physical manifestations; they mean people, lifestyles, a continuation of history.
 
In The Soldier, Brookes writes
  If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
 
 
Death in war can give rise to a plethora of ghosts, for the dead are not accorded with the burial rites attributed by their society, and so cannot be properly passed over by their living kith and kin. In Brookes' poem, the dead body becomes synonymous with its home, that 'bore [it], shaped [it], made [it] aware'. He recognises the fear and tragedy of dying away from home, of being potentially lost in a 'corner of a foreign field'. Recently, having been attuned to memorials as part of my book's research, I've been touched by the number of beautiful WWI and WWII memorials that exist to commemorate legacy and sacrifice where bodies cannot be lovingly tucked into their native earth. There is a bounty of these memorials, strewn throughout the landscape, each settlement offering up its recognition of all that was given to preserve it. What do we do when we don't have the body to bury? We make memorials, and we encourage our fellows to never forget. Remembrance is the best we can do to give the dead their dues, and to note and reward their sacrifice.  
 
WWI and WWII created mammoth craters of absence, and during a time when the comforting afterlife suggested by Christianity was a crumbling on its platform as that pedestal began to tip away from certainty, its framework coming increasingly into scientific questioning. I'm a fan of the cosy crime genre, and am particularly fond of three series of books involving young female detectives in the early 20th century. Interestingly, now I think about it, that all three echo that absence. From Daisy Dalrymple in the 1920s, to Maisie Dobbs and Kate Shackleton in the 1930s, these three young women have all lost their fiancées/husbands to WWI. The Dalrymple series, which is lighter in tone, finds the heroine resettled with a widower, but Dobbs (in the early books) and Shackleton are cast adrift, unable to really invest in a new relationship as they are unable to let go of that planned future so cruelly shattered. Shackleton's position is more precarious, as her husband is listed as 'missing, presumed dead'. Again, without that certainty a body provides, time slips into a limbo. Instead of love, they turn to their work, and their desire to help those who have similarly been damaged by the aftermath of WWI.
 
These wars punched a hole in our history; they consumed a mass of lineages, leaving countless marriages broken, and hundreds and hundreds of children that would never be born. And those who came back did not meet what they had left behind: they were changed and this could not be undone. JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings demonstrates this, with his idyllic Shire a representation of an innocent, green, settled England. For ghosts, however, perhaps things continue as they were. If the 'stone tape' theory of ghost activity is true, then there is an echo of Brookes making his journey home, again and again, over and over. Imagining that, for a moment... and so, if some corner of a foreign field is forever England, then some corner is elevated to home.  
 
 
 
 
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
(Robert Laurence Binyon)
 
 



Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Up... and away.


Up is a bittersweet animated film from Dreamworks that charters the adventures of elderly Karl, a widower, who is determined to oppose continual efforts to evict him from his home. His final act of rebelling involves a colourful myriad of balloons, spurred on by a revived gusto to relocate to Paradise Falls, the long held fantasy location coveted by his late wife. Unbeknowst to Karl at take off, a young Wilderness Scout - Russell - was hidden under the foundations of the house. The film is principally concerned with this dynamic of elder-child, or rather a heart warming tale about a disenchanted elder whose cynicism is gradually dissolved by an infatiguable child whose morality and optimism pushes them both into a quest to reunite a brightly coloured bird with her chicks.

It is funny and charming, but also rather poignant. Karl is lost without his beloved wife. His attachment to his home concerns his reluctance to let go of that physical anchor with his wife's memory, to the place in which they met, married, and which now houses him in the world of the living with the things that tenderise her aftermath. Initially, his desire to complete his mission to settle his abode above a grand waterfall in South America overrides all other imperatives. Indeed, his actions occur and are talked about beneath the benevolent image of his late wife who had taken charge of his childhood awkwardness with her own determination and dreams. Karl is haunted by a fear that he failed her, that the mundane features of their life together meant that her dreams were never fully realised, and so the noncorporeal accompaniment of his wife - fixed between legacy artefacts and imagining memory - gives added purpose to his flight. 

In the end, when the choice between his house and his comrades is at its most paramount, he lets go of the former and so enters a new phase of reconnecting with the living, and letting go of the dead. Knowing Dreamworks and their ilk, it seems unlikely that any other outcome would be plausible. As chance would have it, just before this split, he finds a new section in his late wife's adventures book. The pages dedicated to adventures, which he had believed empty (and therefore representative of her thwarted ambition) are instead full of pictures of their life together. Adventure is relocated amidst the mundane, and so retextualises the role of dreams and experience in their history. Her book ends with the message:



 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Fear walks abroad

While my partner was busy mixing tracks for his next album, I found (at last) a full length Youtube posting of The Ghoul (1975). I had first seen this film in my early twenties - it was one of those late night distractions for insomniacs on a terrestrial television channel - but had been unable to locate a copy in DVD format to add to the ever growing swell of my vintage horror collection. Directed by Freddie Francis and released by Tyburn, The Ghoul is an unsettling slice of English horror that is, in my humble opinion, not as popular as it should be. It has a distinctly Hammer  aesthetic (unsurprisingly, as many Hammer associates were involved in the picture), with its old country house interior and period (1920s) setting, and a plot not overly dissimilar to Hammer classics like The Reptile. The connection between The Ghoul and The Reptile goes somewhat further than these visual and narrative links, and represents an interesting - albeit troubling - trend concerning the portrayal of non-European cultures (in these cases, societies associated with Hinduism) as sources of the macabre. In these examples such cultures bring evil and destruction into the otherwise civilised English landscape of the upper classes (NB - both films revolve around manor houses).

The Ghoul and The Reptile incorporate several interesting dynamics, and reflect themes concerning the loss of children and the infiltration of occult cult affiliation as a source of infection. Both films involve upper class fathers who are doctors, and the ghoul and reptile of the titles refer to the infected states and hideous metamorphosis of their children, who have been lured into cult membership while both families were abroad. Whilst haunted by the loss of their children, neither father can bring himself to be their ultimate destroyer, to sever the physical bond completely, and so remain benign in maintaining the new incarnations of their offspring. The Reptile's Dr Franklyn is contemptuous toward his daughter, who retains her former mortal form for long periods. The Ghoul's Dr Lawrence is more melancholic, clinging to Christian worship in his private chapel while victims are prepared and left for their murder and subsequent consumption by his son. While neither are exactly complicit, they ultimately allow the actions to take place, and for the cover ups concerning the nature of their children's victims' deaths.

Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman)
Dr Lawrence (Peter Cushing)


In the end, both fathers are ultimately destroyed with their children. Dr Franklyn attempts to kill his daughter, now in reptile form, but is bitten and dies shortly before a fire - which has broken out in the cellar where she rests - consumes the house. Dr Lawrence - who had promised his late wife that he would preserve their child - eventually kills his son, and shortly afterward, himself.

But, as both fathers are not active participants in their children's murderous activities, their safeguard and nurture comes from another source: in The Reptile, it is the Malay servant, whilst in The Ghoul it is the Indian former nursemaid referred to as Ayah, who now acts as housekeeper. These individuals are Asian natives devoid of their names in the English home, and both encourage the destructive actions of their white charges. The Reptile's servant is sinisterly dogmatic, and akin to manipulative master rather than second father figure, but The Ghoul's servant seems more readily surrogate mother, who prays for the appearance of the girl who will feed the ghoul, and tends to his every need.Ayah's religious affiliation (with a Shiva based death cult) is the more obvious of the two, and the incorporation of certain aesthetics, like statues, demonstrate the Hindu influence. The presence of non-European artefacts, and the knowledge and experiences cited by the fathers situates them as melancholic post-anthropologists, and these visuals suggest the quite literal presence of the Other entwined in the tapestry of their native home.

The Malay (Marne Maitland)

Ayah (Gwen Watford)

Rachel Fell McDermott's (2003) chapter in her co-edited volume Encountering Kali (with Jeffrey Kripal) has raised the issue of the misappropriation of Hindu beliefs in Western films, which may has sometimes provided a warped view of such god and goddess worship. She aptly demonstrates the problems with the demonic-esque Kali represented in films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the barbaric nature of her followers. To rely on these interpretations alone is to subscribe to a Westernised whitewash that dilutes the essence of certain religious beliefs to their sinister undertones. Yes, there are dark tones in the pallet of Kali's divinity, but she is so much more than just a destroyer.

In The Ghoul and The Reptile, we should also be critical of the representation of non-Western based religions. The exoticness of other cultures and religious traditions is obviously a great source of fodder for film, and certainly seems more thought-invested than the contemporary repertoires of torture pornography and serial killer thriller (I have to admit a bias here, as I hate the latter kinds of films, and am prone to wax lyrical about how they have slashed the quality of the horror genre). Also, it is interesting to reflect upon the heights of the Western world's developing exoticised love affair with the 'Far East', who found in its cultural distance an unsanctioned playground for exploring new, lived esotericisms untarnished by post Enlightenment scientific rationalism.

***

These films are also melancholic psychodramas about the relationship between fathers and their children, children who have been lost to them by choosing to identify with an Otherness that ultimately supercedes their familial ties and Western identities.  Is there perhaps also an air of revenge against the colonial incorporated by these two servant characters (who, ultimately, have replaced the fathers as their children's guardians)? Considering that both servants are Indian natives, I wonder if it is possible to see the angry ghosts of colonial victims here, working their way through the micro-intimate fabric of English society, reducing the offspring of their oppressors to flesh eating ghouls and malicious reptiles. Of the two servants, I would argue that Ayah is the more complex: fierce mother? angry jailer? devoted nurse? Does she love the ghoulish charge she protects and feeds? This adds another layer to the dynamic, particularly pertinent considering that Dr Lawrence's wife had killed herself upon recognising the horrendous nature of the actions she undertook, and was connected to, when she and her son became part of the cult. With his father unable to truely fulfil his paternal role, perhaps Ayah steps out as a new mother, bonded by the son's new cult identity.

The Ghoul - Don Henderson

Anna Franklyn/The Reptile - Jacqueline Pierce

The loss encapsulated in these films is a loss that lingers in a spectral domain, and the characters exist in this world, and yet not entirely. Dr Lawrence is ultimately a recluse, with only Ayah and a cruel, moronic assitant for company. Dr Franklyn is abrupt, brooding and seemingly uninterested in long term social relationships. They are without their wives, who have perished long before the events of the film. Both are haunted by their secrets, which keep them apart from their English kith and kin, and both lament the people their secrets have corroded them into being. Both children are gone, lost to their fathers... but both fathers are unable, until the end, to acknowledge that loss and sever their paternal ties. And so, before these narratives come to an end, they are inbetwixt, tainted by the past that will ultimately deny their future.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.


As a child, The Last Unicorn was my favourite film. Its sumptuous depiction of magical beasts and a suitably noble quest delighted my growing imagination, adding characters and colours to the mythic landscape of my private fantasy world. As a teenager I discovered (and promptly sped through) the book (by chance, my father had an old paberback copy in his library), falling in love with the story again, albeit for different reasons. It seems right that I nurtured a love of the film first, and the book later, as the book is much more poignant about adult experience. As I got older, leaping into my twenties, I found that I revisited this story many times, recognising new resonances with the characters, and their hopes, and the inevitable tragedy of their fates.

It isn't a ghost story, but at its heart are themes which plant the seeds for ghostly legacies: that things must end although stories may continue. It recognises also the role of characters in the story; that they have their parts to play within a wider narrative, and are not the beginning or the end of that script. There is a sense, particularly as you near the end of Peter Beagle's tale, that the consequences were always inevitable. Despite the crossroad of choice in the Red Bull's lair in which Amalthea, now human, may decide to remain in the cast of her mortal form and marry the prince she has fallen in love with, we know, deep down, that this can't happen. Even though she begs Schmendrick the magician to let her remain as she is, it is ultimately her mortal lover, Prince Lir, who knows that "...things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned... The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story." While Schmendrick remarks that "...there are no happy endings, because nothing ends..." he is refering to the grander scheme of things. Mortals, after all, know above all else that some things must end.

The Last Unicorn is a story about the agony of endings, about the agony of not being able to hold onto that which is beautiful and wonderful and which you wished would last eternally. It is also a story about the agony of finding that you will not have the fate you wanted. This theme is further illustrated by the morose antagonist King Haggard, whose touch corrodes all that is boyant and good. A jealous gaoler, he keeps all the unicorns but Amalthea captive in the sea, so he can watch them at his leisure and feel something other than emptiness.



"I suppose I was young when I first saw them... Now I must be old - at least I have picked many more things up than I had then, and put them all down again. But I always knew that nothing was worth the investment of my heart, because nothing lasts, and I was right, and so I was always old. Yet each time I see my unicorns, it is like that morning in the woods, and I am truly young in spite of myself, and anything can happen in a world that holds such beauty." Haggard knows but loathes the limit of the mortal world. He is quintessentially a tragic figure, for he recognises and knows joy, but is ruined by the knowledege that it is fleeting. Such understanding is all consuming, and his rejection of the world around him sees it manifest as cold and grey and withering. His hunger for a recapturing of that moment of youthful joy is a greedy one, motivated by his misery, for his need to deny the frailty and age that chains him to his mortal life and its subsequent boundaries. In the end, he could not hold it forever. But then, he knew she was the last... and, as the magician Mabruk decreed, the last would bring his doom. There must always be a last. And, as our protagonists notion, unicorns may go unnoticed for a long time, but not forever.

The story also communicates a painful melody about the loss of childhood. A nostalgia for youth is demonstrated by another character, Molly, who joins Schmendrick and Amalthea in their quest to find the other unicorns after their escape from outlaws with whom she was assocaited. As the unicorn steps from behind a copse of trees, Molly's eyes fill with tears: "How dare you! How dare you come to me now... when I am this." For Molly, the unicorn is the visitor of young women, full of hope and their own innocent magic, and she cannot bare for that visitation to find her in the creases of late middle age, when the hope of maidenhood has gone and she is a woman of the world who has accepted her lot.


I found Molly's sadness particularly moving when I was in my late twenties. I remembered that longing for a sight of unicorns, for a recognition from the magical when I believed in all its possibilities. I'm 31 now, and sometimes wonder how I might feel if, after all those years, a unicorn stepped onto my path. A similar sadness perhaps, because my adult eyes would never see a unicorn as my childhood eyes would have done, and I fear I am beyond the rapture of pure, simple magical experience when one has no real concept of what the future will bring them.

At the end of the story, Amalthea is once again a unicorn. While she lamented that she would not be able to love her prince when recast into her immortal form, she watches him from the hill and remembers. It is the beginning of a new life, despite the return to her former immortal body. There is a sense in the story that immortality is something pure and untainted, it is always as the mortal young are so briefly, by the very nature that it is beyond that thing that ruptures mortals so: death. Before returning to her forest, she visit Schmendrick and Molly one last time. While Molly sleeps, Schmendrick regrets that he has done her a harm that he cannot undo. She understands this with a new uncertainty about what will befall her. "...I do not know if I will live contentedly... I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die." And yet... "My people are in the world again. No sorrow will live in me as long as that joy - save one, and I thank you for that too." The quest ended as it was supposed to, although unicorns will be coveted by magic, and may as well have remained in the sea for most mortals in the world. Similar fantasies written by contemporary Western authors have leant toward this order of things. After all, such magical things are banished by science.

The prince will mourn his lost love until he dies, and perhaps some ghostly essence of that will continue when he does not. The unicorn will mourn her lost love always. She has grown older, and cannot entirely reverse that. Once one has bloomed into adulthood you can never be a child again. Both Amalthea and the prince are powerless to be anything other than what they are now, and while there was great joy and love and beauty in their time together, they must go their separate ways. Regret, as something ghostly, weaves between Beagle's lines, just as his story recognises the sorrow of our mortal condition. We will only be young once, and we will not live forever. Somethings, however, deliver us into the wrappings of regret's unhappy bandages that stick to us because it is the nature of what they are, but which we would not free ourselves from even if we could. The unicorn had to seek others of her kind, in the beginning, because she was lonely. Once we have a regret of this kind, it is with us always... and yet, there is a comfort in the memory of what it stems from that makes it worthwhile. This seems relevant for an understanding of the nature of an aspect of our consciousness, and perhaps that is what this story primarily deals with, and what it argues we must carry if we wish to really live. Loneliness is always worse than regret.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

 
 
 
 
 

 
 
Song
 
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me:

Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
 

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain;

And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
 
- Christina Rossetti