Following a twisted logic of my own devising I had managed to maintain an immunity to Les Misérables the musical over the years such that once I was comfortably seated in the cinema – a place I seldom visit – and had endured trailers for films I was never going to be interested in, I was i). surprised to find it started in 1815, a quarter century after the French Revolution I’d always thought it was set in, and ii). deafened by the brutal opening shipyard scene. Fortunately either my ears acclimatised or it quietened down a bit and I was almost completely won over; it could have been a bit shorter – a few longeurs over some of the slower songs, a bit less prolonged suffering maybe – but, no, I concur: it’s a great movie. My eyes moistened for I dreamed a dream and I fell in love with Anne Hathaway but it was Russel Crowe, as the baddy Javert, who got the old lower lip quivering mightily – who’d’ve thought that? – not at his finale, which was moving enough, but in the aftermath of the street fighting. I had no problems with his singing either.
At the heart of the film is the stirring song One more day, which, as it is delivered in a stunning sequence from locations across Paris and behind the barricades, by pretty much all the major characters and chorus, on the eve of the revolutionary action, crystalises all the ideals, the big ideas of social justice and the costs of implementing them in counterpoint to the simple joys of being in love and the pains of unrequited love, the personal and the political. There is so much going on in that song, which asks in essence what is it all for, what is worth what sacrifice? The actual day of reckoning is devastating, shocking and incredibly moving in its epic enactment. So I was disappointed, felt a bit let down by surviving comrade Marius (the excellent Eddie Redmayne) going along with that big high society wedding near the end. Those who know Les Mis will know only too well that I’ve only scratched the surface; I’ve not mentioned Hugh Jackman playing a blinder and an unsavoury running (and nevertheless) comic sideshow. It’s a broad canvas indeed.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
I suppose the first clue you get about Rachel Joyce‘s word of mouth success The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday, 2012) is that the physical object is not (the hardback at least) the usual size – it’s wider in proportion – for a novel. It sets itself apart. My mother always used to quote from Bambi at me, his mother’s advice to Thumper at me: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” But what the hell, at the end of the day, although it has undoubted qualities – the delights of the countryside on the open road, his celebration of the people he meets, the compassion, the self discovery at the heart of being a (thankfully non-religious) pilgrim – I ended up resenting this book, even more so because despite the misgivings I had about specific details, I had felt compelled to read it through to the end … only to feel, by the time I got there, badly cheated by the tempting slow reveal of how and why Harold had embarked on his long walk.
OK. I’m 64; Harold is 65 and he’s an old man from an earlier time. He’s closer to my dad than me. “John Lennon lay in a bed once,” he says, trying to explain his pilgrimage (though world peace is not his objective), “My son had a picture on his wall.” No mate. If anyone would have had that picture on his wall it would have been you, because you met your wife at a dance where you were dancing extravagantly with yourself, which would put said social occasion in the early to mid-’60s. “Harold had done the same job as a sales rep for forty-five years. Keeping himself apart, he worked modestly and efficiently, without seeking promotion or attention […] He made neither friends nor enemies.” Does that sound like a successful sales rep to you, capable of staying in the job for decades? I could go on. In fact I will. He walks 627 miles getting from Kingsbridge in Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed in what are variously called boat or yachting shoes (presumably deck shoes), albeit they are re-soled twice on the journey. Can you re-sole yachting shoes? – just in case, I just checked Google and seemingly yes, but those are the top of the range models that Harold is unlikely to buy, I would suggest. Obviously he gets blisters, pretty much from the first day: “Blisters swelled from his toes, heels and instep; some bleeding, some inflamed sacs of pus.” Now I’ve had a septic finger within the last year and that was agony; unless they go bad – which is where the pus comes in – under blisters you get a clear fluid or blood, not pus, which really does need medical attention. What I’m saying, really, is that I doubt the realism of his completing his journey. There are various other circumstantial details that annoy along the way: like drilling holes for nails, a fellow pilgrim (an interesting sub-plot I’ll not enter into here) casually going off to buy spare blades for his Swiss Army Knife (try Googling that) and of Sheffield being “far behind them … a sulphuric glow on the horizon” (sulphuric a few decades ago, maybe).
Anyway, Harold and his wife have been in a sterile marriage for the last 20 years. Something happened 20 years ago involving Queenie, a friend from work, and, it is slowly revealed, their only son David, who, it is suggested, they no longer see. He gets a goodbye letter – she’s dying – from Queenie and writes a quick reply, goes off to post it, has a conversation in a garage shop and decides there and then to deliver it himself, thinking if she knows he’s coming it will keep her alive, and just keeps on walking. The narrative is two-fold: the actual walk and the slow trickle of information to us, the readers, morsel by morsel, of what Queenie meant to him and what went wrong with David. The problem is that when it finally comes the full revelation on the one hand is actually quite mundane (no affair!) and the other so shocking (and to an unsuspecting, vulnerable reader, quite likely to be distressing) that, given the revelations are coming from Harold and his wife, Maureen, we have been conned, the narrative suspense has been artificially maintained. And as for the state of Queenie when he gets there … I just dunno why the author did that. Unnecessary is one word. It’s a very English novel and one is pleased for Harold and Maureen to achieve some sort of resolution, closure even, I suppose; and relieved not to have been reminded that although Berwick is an English town, its football team plays in the Scottish leagues.
The thing is, much to its detriment, The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry reminded me of a mostly forgotten television drama of real quality from nearly a quarter of a century ago which did bring tears to my eyes. In First and last the character played by the great Joss Ackland sets out on his own, on his retirement at age 65, to walk from Lands End to John O’Groats because he’s always wanted to do it. As you can see from the picture, he’s properly kitted out, and this in no way hinders his incredibly moving voyage of self-discovery, the good and bad experiences he has or the exploration the repercussions this decision has on his extended family. Made in 1989 it has a fine cast – as well as Ackland there’s Patricia Routledge and Tom Wilkinson, just for starters – and a Michael Frayn script. It is great television – one of the best – and yet, in these times of endless repeats and cheap DVDs of the same old stuff it is nowhere to be seen or found except – in not great picture quality but nevertheless in its full 2 hours plus – on YouTube (here’s a link for the address, while it’s there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clS7Z-8dins). You have to wonder what the BBC is playing at, why they have chosen not to make it widely available.
There was cake! ‘Brilliant’ seems to be the word most people have used to describe the evening’s fun and entertainment for Scribal Gathering‘s third anniversary session on Tuesday. And indeed it was. From the opening chords of The Box Ticked‘s sound check to the triumphant final chorus of The Further Adventures of Vodka Boy‘s Drunk poet blues three hours later there was a wealth of creative talent and fellowship on display among the mirrors and antique lamps of the upstairs room at The Crown. No open mic this month; genial majordomo Richard Frost reprised the top hat and tartan skirt (with trousers as back-up) and actually kept the more or less regular performers’ featured spots pretty much to schedule. The Antipoet were The Antipoet just before the interval, and among others of note there was a tornado of wordery from Justin Thyme that took the breath away (and your humble blogger didn’t disgrace himself either). Great night!
For your delectation here’s a link to an early version of Dead poet blues: