Friday, 25 January 2008

Ghosts Of Winter Past

At our last club meeting over the Xmas break, conversation turned to how today Xmas is so materialistic that the year-end holiday has become such a stressful time. A time when the emergency wards, mental hospitals, and the morgues fill up, with a waiting list even to have your relatives buried. Everyone had personal news or anecdotes of their own regarding this, but after a while the conversation turned to seasonal themes. Not merely the indulgence or distraction of Xmas festivities but their underlying origins in symbolic rituals and of death and resurrection – the death of the old and then rebirth in the new, as recorded in Sir James Frazer’s massive study in comparative anthropology The Golden Bough, which documented customs from around the world.
It came up that every culture had a penchant for winter-evening ghost stories or other such supernatural tales, told traditionally around the fire on those long dark midwinter nights. (When I once produced and presented an “Armchair Storytime” series for local TV to promote literacy, I insisted we shoot it with a fireside setting to make it work.) The modern counterpart for many years was that BBC TV would put on an annual Xmas-holidays ‘ghost’ story. These were usually from the stories of MR James, and the tradition continued this year with a series of MRJ stories dramatised for Radio 4.
Although Dickens authored the best-known such Xmas ghost story with his anti-materialistic parable of Scrooge haunted by the ghost of Xmas past etc., MR James was the recognised Father of the English Ghost Story. His stories usually tell of visiting scholars or 'antiquaries' who inadvertently stir up some ancient presence in a haunted locality by digging up a Templar tomb, reading aloud an invocation from an ancient Gnostic manuscript, etc. It was his use of a story-within-a-story framework, often in a club setting, that gave the stories their verisimilitude, a setup since copied by others. Typically, one of the club members sitting around the table is reminded by some snippet of gossip of a strange tale regarding an acquaintance. Over brandy and cigars, he tells the story, then caps it off with a report of how the unfortunate man had disappeared, died mysteriously, or been found stark raving mad the next morning, clutching a piece of paper on which were written only the enigmatic words … well, you get the idea.
I’ve written elsewhere about MRJ and his work, including a possible influence on the
Holy Blood Holy Grail mystery. Here, I’d suggest, as a suitable winter‘s-eve supernatural tale, a mystery revolving around a real-life place named after Diogenes – Mt Diogenes in Australia. Why it was thus named is obscure – all we know is the colonial map-maker was keen on the ancient Greeks, and we don’t know if it was named after Diogenes the Cynic or Diogenes the explorer whose work Ptolemy used in his maps of Africa. The story is known worldwide via a cult 1967 novel and a 1975 film version, which use in its title the local name for Mt Diogenes, Hanging Rock.
Mt Diogenes, alias Hanging Rock, NE of Melbourne
Hitchcock once disavowed night-time and dark alleys as a clichéd sinister screen setting and said that what was more frightening was to have terror descend out of the blue in broad daylight, as he demonstrated in his colourful thriller North By Northwest (the title is from Hamlet, a reference to madness). The setting of Picnic At Hanging Rock is similarly sunlit and eerie. (Down under, our traditional European seasonal calendar is of course turned upside down, with Dec-Feb the hottest months.) A party of girls from an upper-crust boarding school nearby go on an educational excursion to Mt Diogenes, here called Hanging Rock for its doom-laden overtone. In reality it is a hill covered in a jumble of giant volcanic boulders and bushes, a site sacred to local aboriginal people, once used as a hideout by the bushranger Mad Dog Morgan.
Through Hanging Rock winds a labyrinth of pathways, and one group enters the rock labyrinth and vanishes. Some of the missing school party are found days later, but cannot account for the missing time when their watches stopped, and we never discover what happened to the trio who were never found. No Hollywood producer would have left the story dangling thus, but this was an Australian film, the country’s first major hit, which launched the country’s independent cinema of the 1970s. Despite there being no conventional ending, people watch it over and over, basking in the film’s overwhelming sense of a mysterious, primitive landscape.
The only suggested explanation is in the fact the story is set on February 14th 1900 - Valentine’s Day at the turn of the century. Valentine’s Day was originally a Roman festival, but here evokes the repressed sexuality that will lead some of the women, both young and older, to remove their corsets and disappear into the labyrinth. The use of Pan pipes for the music score also suggests this is also a situation where modern ‘civilised’ types inadvertently stir up some ancient presence akin to the Greek nature God Pan. Here, the implication is they stir up an ancient aboriginal genius loci, and are undone by their own unhealthy sexually repressed culture, with its fears of ‘going native’ as the civilised façade melts away in the heat. The novel’s author, Joan Lindsay, was coy about whether it was based on a real-life incident. A search of newspaper records has since shown this to be groundless, though she has implied in interviews something like this happened during her own time at a nearby boarding school, which affected her deeply. Interestingly many people prefer to think the incident really did happen, and some travel from all over the world to see Hanging Rock, and experience for themselves the presence of an ancient and primitive nature.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Dreams Of English Country Living

As England returns to work amidst the usual transport failures and the start of the first real winter cold, while recovering from the gluttony used to stave off Xmas depression, thoughts inevitably turn to dreams of escape from the rat race. Every year, millions eagerly await the bumper issues of the Xmas-holiday TV guide, thumbing through it and marking up favoured viewing, which leans heavily towards nostalgia and escapism.
However, as fellow club-member Zeno was saying, Xmas TV, which used to be a showcase of the best British TV had to offer, has become a ‘desolate wasteland’. (I blame the dilution of content into digital pay TV myself.) The most promoted highlight was a BBC1 To The Manor Born Xmas special, revisiting the dream of genteel country living a quarter-century since the still-syndicated sitcom ended. Inevitably, the BBC tried to make the special ‘topical’ by using the current issue that Tesco et al are bullies driving farmers to the wall. In the event, this was all conveniently sorted out in a manner as convincing as Marjorie healing a badger Richard had run over by keeping it at home for a few days.
What turned out to BBC’s Xmas-holidays real hit was BBC-TV’s new Jane Austen, Sense And Sensibility, which began on New Year’s Day. Although the tale has been filmed before along with a plethora of recent TV Austens, the papers report the main setting has made the BBC1 serial a hit. (The DVD, officially released January 21st, is already available for ‘pre-order.’) This is the cottage where the Dashwood family retreat after they are dispossessed from their estate. Instead of using a South Devon cottage (as in the novel and the 1995 film version), the location scouts looked for a more remote ‘Barton Cottage’ that would emphasize the family’s social isolation. They found it on the windswept north Devon coast.
Southwest of Exmoor’s “Lorna Doone Country,” the Hartland Peninsula was said by early guidebooks to be as remote as you can get in England from civilisation, in the form of a railway line. The website of the Hartland Abbey Estate which lets the cottage advertises the locality’s attractions – “…a remote Atlantic cove … approached by a private track through woodland …. no telephone or television! … huge open fireplace… (Even to get a mobile phone signal, you need to climb to the top of the cliff.) “The only two lights to be seen are from the lighthouses on Hartland point and Lundy Island.” The Estate has now been inundated by enquiries from people wanting to stay there. As a circulation booster, the Telegraph has set up a competition to win a week's holiday at the cottage. (Of course all this may have the same effect as the David Lean film Ryan’s Daughter, where the film drew visitors and investment to the setting, again a remote windswept peninsula, leading to modernisation.) Though the estate had replaced the cottage’s original 15th-century mud floor, and electricity was installed in 2007, the BBC filmed interiors at Pinewood Studios since inside the actual cottage was too small and “scruffy.” "The art director said although Mrs Dashwood had fallen on hard times, she hadn't fallen on such hard times," explained the estate owner Lady Stucley.
What the location has “value-added” is something people have complained was lacking in Austen, a sense of England outside the Home Counties village and great estate – what has been called Austen’s ‘doll’s house world’. It is also a sense of the land as a dramatic setting, found in the Gothic school of romantic novel, as in the work of the Brontë sisters. This was a genre Austen openly derided, and Charlotte Brontë reciprocated the antipathy, calling Austen’s work “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck … ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.” But now we have the blue hill, the bonny beck or stream, the bleak moorland, the cliffs or bluffs as dramatic as those of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Though apparently it’s not true the Brontes walked everywhere over the moors in all weathers, as Mrs Gaskell’s early biography of Charlotte claimed, there are certainly opportunities for long ‘bracing’ walks here, as the series showed.
There are two dreams of English country living, the genteel (on the great estate) and the rustic (in the country cottage). This is the latter as a more realistic modern vision. A few diehard romantics may entertain the fantasy of ending up like Austen’s heroines on a country estate with servants, but for the rest, the vision must be more modest to be convincing even as a daydream. In fact the growing reaction against the urban lifestyle as stressful and unrewarding makes the primitive living conditions appealing – at least for a weekend break.
View South from Hartland QuayThe weather on the Hartland Peninsula can itself be dramatic as in any Gothic novel, at any time of year. Where the cottage stands actually faces west, with nothing between it and the Newfoundland coast but the vast Atlantic rollers, from where storms can sweep in at any time. (The BBC crew spent 3 weeks in May filming there, amidst almost incessant rain.) I can attest to this, having spent a rainy and windswept week exploring this vicinity at Midsummer. I’ve posted a pair of souvenir photos from this trip here for anyone else who dreams of English country living in such a rustic setting.

View North from Hartland Quay