Such grand ideas! To bear witness, to sweat and work, and then to return home to confront the blank page, to fill it with words, and in so doing, to save the world. Did I just utter those words? Temper it a little then and simply say, to change the world a little bit. Just push it to the left and make it a weeny bit better. Never mind that those who have been spied upon, eyed upon and lied upon should not know what it is there in that text, that one in front of you now, yes, the one that you are staring at right at this very moment . . . should not know, as I was saying (or writing, let’s at least try to be honest about that), what has been written about them. You revolting voyeur! You think you are aiding us there in your hidey hole there, doing your bit to make things not quite so bad. And yet you know that each tap of that finger on to the plastic will not buy me more plantain or wheat or water. You have not forgotten that, surely? Because we know, and you know that we know, that what you really wanted was to be the revolutionary, the leader of the change, the one who did save us all. But because of circumstances and time (Ha! Time, of all things!) and because of those you left behind, you were unable to stay and fight. To Act, let us be frank here. You were unable to act. For us, it is clear to see that that is your greatest difficulty. You are not an actor. Nor can you be. You were born in the wrong place! So we, my friends, we shall have the final laugh here! We laugh at you, our dear friend! And sometimes will ask you, what exactly do you do?
The Buddhists meditate by sitting and looking to the stars, watching the sun rise and set, the rain fall and the clouds pass. And by watching their breath, it is said. And here – in this pocket of the world that is filled with diamonds, and people who do not eat enough, and women who are raped by lines of the same men or other men who have eaten more than their fill, and visitors who come with briefcases – the old men, the grandfathers and great uncles, the chieftains and their cousins sit in lines or loose circles and they do not speak for many hours. They sit in silence and breath out the heat of the day. They do not drink beneath the sun, or eat. They simply sit in simple plastic chairs and observe the passing of the day. The visitors and others say they are doing nothing, that people in this part of the world are inherently lazy which is why, say the same people, it is so backward. But this is to misunderstand what it is to be backwards or forwards. They sit and observe, breathing in and breathing out, in and out, in and out etc.. Until a particular point in the day. Then, one by one, they rise up and walk very slowly, watching each step, feeling each placing of each toe inside the soul of each long shoe, up the concrete path. Step by step, foot by foot, toe by toe by toe by toe by toe, and then the other five toes, lifting each heel and pushing forward up the concrete path to a long cool room. At the doorway, each knocks his fist on a heavy bookshelf to raise the attention of the young visitor sitting at the desk against the far wall who looks up straight away into the eyes of whichever old man it is who is standing in the entrance. And the old man announces, as slowly as his footsteps fell and his toes curled, The hour has already come. The old man waits but the visitor says nothing for he does not know what this could mean and he is sure there is a meaning. So the old man says again, even more slowly than before, the same words – The Hour Has Already Come – then turns and walks back down the path as steady and slow as the sun. He sits back down in his simple plastic chair, whereupon another old man stands up and steps to the concrete path. And so on and so on until all the old men have visited the visitor in the long narrow room and uttered the same words. Whereupon they rise from their chairs in a synchronized lift and as slowly as the caged eagle blinks at the governor’s palace, they disappear from view. The visitor gazes at the desk, flips the pages in the book, stands up, moves to the light, to the doorway, utters something to himself about the empty chairs, then returns to the desk, opens another book, looks up, looks back down, looks up, flicks the flies off, utters something else to himself, and closes the book, agitation in his fingers and his face. What on earth to do?
We were a grand group. An anti-string-theorist theorist, a shrink, a teacher, an SF writer, a couple of journalists, a mother and a sculptor gathered beneath Waterloo Bridge to see one (of the two or possibly three) best films ever made:
Once Upon a Time in the West. One hundred and seventy five minutes of bliss. Less a straight-forward Western than a precisely crafted work of art. What it has in common with my other all-time favourite film, Heremakono (better known as Waiting for Happiness), is minimal dialogue and slow slow slow long shots. It is, as someone close by said, the opera of Westerns. Oh my, yes!
(I think here I am supposed to say something about spoilers. So . . . SPOILERS abound.)
I won’t however talk about the music here. Others can do that better than me. All I will say is that a composer friend told me that it is one of the only films (the only film?) that was created around the music.* Many scenes are no more (no less?) than a marvellous excuse to show vast wild West country whilst listening to deliciously intestinally exciting music. You want desperately to be there, alive and shootin’, ridin’ your goddam stallion in a hackamore, across that countryside. Every cell of your body, every ounce of flesh, fat and blood, wants a gun and to be galloping alongside that train. Oh God Yes.
Less appreciated, I think, is the politics, which is so artistically delicately subtly sewn in that most people don’t even notice it. The coolest goody you’ll ever see, Harmonica, is probably a native American (or indigenous Mexican). He is the hero of this film, the hero of this tale, and the hero of history. And he shoots dead the biggest baddest baddie in the film, Frank. What interests me about this is that Sergio Leone originally offered the role of Harmonica to Clint Eastwood, but Clint turned it down. So Leone hired Charles beautifully-rugged Bronson (who had also originally been offered the lead role in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) who turned out to be a grand success. Now, if Clint had accepted the role, would Leone have altered the storyline? Would he, in other words, have skipped the native American coming out in the end as the eventual hero? Because with all the make-up in the world, it would be hard to make Clint look anything other than the English, Irish, Dutch, Scot (and Protestant, and, er, Republican while we’re at it, to boot) he is.
Bronson may not have much native American in him, but he does have a heavy dose of Mongolian. A descendent of the Lipka-Tatars, he is certainly more than convincing (for me, anyway):
So did Leone change the plot because he couldn’t get Clint? Or did he always plan the narrative around the tale that the native American Harmonica will get his revenge on the evilest white man around, Henry Fonda? Which is another interesting point: the shots on Frank (Fonda) are often very very close up with his oh so blue eyes more piercing than you might ever have noticed before. Surely Leone would have thought about this, and the extent to which he sought to push a point about the brutal and brutally racist history of the USA? Just look at those eyes my friends:
Indeed, Leone purposefully shocked audiences – it was 1968 – by putting one of their favourites, Fonda, in the role as the Really Bad Guy. So Leone, in tune with the civil rights movement at the time perhaps, was in his own way, threading a tale that was pertinent to the times. And yet, even today, viewers don’t seem to notice this. It isn’t even a patronising plot either: Harmonica (who hardly utters a word throughout the entire film, preferring to play – of course – his, yes that’s right, harmonica) lures foolish Frank in slowly but surely, humiliating him, enticing him and eventually killing him with one beautiful clean shot.
Pure MDMA, indeed.
There’s more I could say, too, about the role of women (more accurately, woman), but I’m not a fan of long blogs so that’ll have to wait. Perhaps I could include it in a future blog about the other great western in my flife (though not quite in the same league as Once Upon a . . .), The Magnificent Seven, which, I am convinced, is really a film about feminism.
*McK says: “apparently Sergio Leone had the music played loud during the filming so that the actors knew what they were meant to be aiming for”. A thought which floods me with envy for those actors.
The church – its big black crows and magpies – was one of the reasons I came here. That, and the old asylum out the back. I couldn’t take my eyes off the huge pillars, From Rome I thought, and the blue neon sign across the top saying Everything’s going to be alright. I believed it right away. I felt better. So I said I’ll buy it and moved in two months later. You can’t go wrong, said a friend, that bit of London’s on the up, you can only win. As it turned out, they were right. Doubled in price. I thought I was delighted. But looking back, things started to go wrong very quickly. The neon sign was taken down within a year. My guarantee gone, I wondered who it was that didn’t want everything to be alright. Then the fishmonger closed down and transformed a week later into a fastfood takeaway. I tried to persuade others to sign a petition but noone could imagine how it might work. Then the barber’s disappeared, its easy chat twenty-four-seven packed up and parcelled away for ever. It was replaced by a pale bookshop stocking the same books as Borders and Waterstones and hosting Alain de Botton on a Wednesday evening. (He’ll be talking about work, a bit of a sore point in this part of the country.) When I asked what happened to the barber’s she said, They were given first offer you know, it’s not like I pushed them out. And now Trevor. He’s going too. And with him, Tapper Zukie and the islands of the Caribbean will quickly fade from the minds of residents. It’s the rates and the rent and the red lines, he told me. They want to fill it with restaurants, like Church Street, so it’s time for us to leave. He takes my poster to Save the NHS from corporate cash and sticks it to his smashed shop window front. All we can do, he advises, is remind our children that it’s the government telling us that postcodes matter, and it’s the government getting them all into gangs and wotnot. He holds a hand out over the top of his high yellow desk, Why haven’t we met before? Gently rhetorical, neither of us can utter another word because we’ve only just recognised our nostalgia for the present and for each other. Not each other as individuals but for the miserable geographical space we know, that is in our memory already and which is going to be destroyed.
I couldn’t agree more. Ditto on the urge to violence, the urge to get pissed, the urge to insult the toff who’s taking up so much space by the sliding door on the tube. All this is true – which is why we have to get a grip. Especially when it comes to kids. I am surrounded by friends and family who believe they have a right to have children. Not just one or two, but three or four . . . or five.
It’s an awfully democratic desire, the child-rearing thing, I’ll give it that. You can be as rich as hell, an aristocratic breeder if you like, or living in a shell of a council flat hardly surviving off income support, and the desires to reproduce for a whole host of reasons (“I had four brothers and sisters and it didn’t hurt me”, “They can all look after each other”, “I’m contributing to the economy – this is the future workforce – what are you doing?”) or excuses, depending on which way you want to look at it, slink nicely across the class divide.
And yet . . .
A hell of a lot of people these days also believe it is their right to own a car. Whether it is good for them or the environment at large doesn’t seem to enter into the equation. It’s the same with kids. And yes, IT, there are so many other children who need looking after. Were I the dictator of the land (as I plan to be soon), I would make a ruling of one child per couple only (and one cat per acre while we’re on the topic but that’s for another day). If you’re a single mother, then one child for you. If you’re a man who sleeps about, one for you too unless a childless woman begs you for semen and can prove that you really are the only man in town. One each for crying out loud. And adopt or foster others if you want more.
The world is overpopulated and we should take reproduction as seriously as climate change. Here in the West, parents often insist that there isn’t a problem of overpopulation here. “It’s in the developing world that there’s a population problem,” they cry. Well actually that’s not quite the case. In total, the average American consumes five times more energy than the average global citizen, 10 times more than the average Chinese, and nearly 20 times more than the average Indian. Hell knows what the average global citizen is supposed to be, but you get my point. Each child produced here swallows up buckets of oil in the form of central heating, fancy lighting devices for their bedroom, better food, transport networks (daddy’s Volvo?), hot water, television etc etc etc..
Being the female of the species, I think I do understand the various statements about why you (think you) just have to have a baby. I’ve also been pregnant and miscarried. I think I understand the difficulties around loss, the strangeness of the hormonal thang as it kicks in and you suddenly become ‘mother’ and strange men start to treat you with respect in a way you’ve not witnessed before. But I’ve also felt the desire to kill someone and the desire to attack, and I’ve felt the desire to drown all sorrows in buckets of class As and alcohol and possibly a bullet. What I detest is the way so many pro-kid, pro-life, pro-parent people go hurtling back to the state of nature arguments when it comes to childbirth despite being well aware that we live in an increasingly unnatural world. ‘Levi jeans,’ as someone said to me recently, ‘are already three layers away from what you might call real.’
Indeed. Which is why bringing children into the world should cease to be understood as a ‘right’ of all women.
(And apparently it doesn’t even make you happy!)
‘You cannot distinguish development from the clothes. That’s why they all wear jeans and Nike trainers. You’ve seen that on the television, surely? Long hair, jeans and those trainers. That’s the revolution. That’s Freedom. That’s all they know.’
‘So I came back here, after thirty odd years of defending my nation, and gave up the passport. I didn’t recognise my people any more. That was not my country. All that humiliation.’
‘It is so difficult to discuss this here. People do not understand. If you say this, they think you are that, oh, that, what is the word? fundamental, yes, or is it another? But you see me! No veil, no long dress. But why the jeans? Why the myopia of our young? The lack of imagination.’
‘She makes so much noise, we’ve worked out that if you just give her a bit more food she shuts up.’
‘You’re feeding her here and next door?’
‘Well. Only her. Not the others. She’s so noisy, so demanding. Just a little bit.’
‘And is that your shed out there? That shed?’
‘That’s for the white one, yes. Got nowhere to go so we made it. The other one doesn’t need a shed. She just sits under the bush.’
I was so sure it was the post office. They even had the weighing scales. People were queuing as normal, that really long queue all the way back to the birthday banners and cards. There were three young mothers and a baby in a push-chair. All the sorts of things you’d expect to see. But there was something not quite right. So when it got to my turn, I took my parcel out ready to be weighed to help speed the process up, and I went to the counter, and the man looked up at me, and . . . well . . . he asked me when I wanted to go. When do you want to go? he said. What? I said. You know, he said, the date for, you know, the final date. Have you chosen the date? Well, I didn’t know what to think so I said, I’d like it to arrive before Friday if possible. And he turned to the woman next to him and laughed. Then he turned back to me and said, You dear: we want to know your final date. I felt terrible, like everyone was looking at me. I was melting, hot and sticky like everyone knew I didn’t know what he was talking about – even the people at the end of the queue. I had tears in my eyes. And still he said, Look it’s often hard for people. They don’t all know if they’re doing the right thing. It’s ok. It’s normal. But if you’ve got this far it normally means you’re serious. Why not pick you favourite day of the week? Well, that seemed like a good idea. So I said, Monday please. I’ll take Monday.
You were standing in a room about 10 foot by 11 foot. The walls were made of polymethyl methacrylate. Some of your friends were standing outside looking in, their noses squashed up against the plastic to form a horizon of dark holes around you. I was there, in charge of the juke box. We watched you struggling to pull your knickers on over your green laceless Doc Martens, which you had slipped on to the wrong feet. Your knickers were red with white spots. They kept on twisting. You were bent over and people were pointing at your anus. I was surprised at how hairless it was. You did not fall over and you did not manage to untwist your knickers. The first track was some hammond organ from the 1950s. Good stuff, I thought, to get you in the mood. There was a philosopher in the corner of the room. He was seated at a table which had several bottles of mineral water on it. Green bottles. He asked you, Would you like a bottle of Badiou? And you looked confused. Badiou? I saw you ask, Badiou? That doesn’t sound right. He stood up and walked out of the room, straight through the plastic wall. I turned the sound up as loud as possible just as you had instructed me to when you were telling me it was going to be a piece of performance art and I’d told you how indulgent I thought you were.