Carry On’s lavatorial masterpiece

Comedy, Escapism, Film, Gnosis, Visionary

Well, it’s been a quiet August on the blogging front, partially because work’s been very hectic (in particular, some fascinating drug legalisation crusading – more details here), partially because my tech time has gone on other projects (which should lead to major changes to the blog this autumn – watch this space, as they say), and partially because I just felt like a bit of a break.

But now, I’m back. And I’m back because of late Carry On masterpiece, ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’, one of the last films the team made before they descended into the horrors of dubious sex comedies like ‘Carry on Emmanuelle’.

On the surface, it’s not an immediate contender for masterpiece status. It’s set in a toilet factory; it’s a profoundly partial anti-union rant; and, climaxing as it does with the humiliation, and then spanking, of Vic, the lead trade unionist by his fearsome mother, it’s in part a kind of right wing media spell for invoking the coming reign of the arch-matron, Margaret Thatcher. Here she is in action:

But there’s much in it that’s just magnificent. For starters, there’s the relationship between Sid James and Hattie Jacques. It’s a precise portrait of a certain kind of suburban tedium; a ‘happy’ marriage that’s at once a source of routine comfort and quiet desperation. Played a little differently, it would fit easily into any one of the period’s ostensibly more serious and socially realistic classics. Here’s their first scene together:

Then, there’s the relationship that offsets that, between Sid and Joan Sims. Often cast as the shrew, Sims shines here in a far more positive way. Her cheerful, bawdy wit and gleefully sexual presence effortlessly deflate pomposity throughout the film. But there’s a deep emotional core to her performance. She and Sid spend most of the film in very public comic flirting; but, once they’re alone, the tone changes.

They’re next door neighbours; and, after the works outing to Brighton, they’re dropped off together, late at night, outside their respective front doors. Divided by a garden fence, they debate whether or not to share a cup of tea before bed. Deciding in the end that the neighbours would talk, they sadly separate, and the scene ends. Alas, I can’t find any clips of it online.

There’s a depth to this moment that’s unique in Carry On; played entirely straight, it’s a direct and very touching presentation of the reality behind the endlessly flirtatious, endlessly unconsummated relationships that drive the humour of so much of the films.

And it’s a nod to a reality the audience would know very well, too. In fact, few – if any – contemporary films managed to present the complex reality of long term relationships, caught on the cusp of major social change, in such a concise and affecting way.

But, being a Carry On movie, ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’ of course has hilarity at its core. Throughout, hilarity deflates pomposity, acting as a wonderful and powerful leveller. Nowhere is that more evident – and developed in a more interesting way – than in the works trip to Brighton itself.

About three quarters of the way through the movie, all the characters take off for Brighton – the management included, despite the ongoing strike that’s threatening to close (you’ve guessed it) Boggs & co. – and enjoy a riotously wonderful (and in some cases life changing) day together.

In plot terms, the whole jaunt is completely unjustifiable. Management and workers are at each others’ throats; and yet factory owner Kenneth Williams treats his staff to round after round of drinks, and all sing and play merrily together. But then, part of the point of the sequence is that joy trumps all disagreements, all hierarchies.

That sense of joyous misrule also upends various character relationships. Bernard Bresslaw’s character meets the stunning love of his life; the factory owner’s son ends up winning and marrying his true love; and even Kenneth Williams might have consummated his relationship with his love-lorn secretary, after an educational encounter with some cockles:

That’s a joyous little gag – and joy, the film tells us, is at the heart of true love, whether that love is consummated or unconsummated. For all its conservatism – and for all the tragedies that dogged these films – that’s a wonderfully heartening response to, and way of understanding, the bawdiness that drove and was celebrated by the Carry On films.

Breaking the past, escaping the past

Escapism, Fantasy, Modernity

What to say, what to say? The perennial problem of blogging – but sometimes, an entry writes itself, and tonight is one of those nights, because I’ve been reading Steve Cockayne’s marvellous, green-haunted novel, ‘The Good People’.

It’s about a boy called Kenneth Storey, who – it seems – either has a rich fantasy life, or is living in a very traditional kind of children’s book, one that might have been written by a less talented disciple of Rudyard Kipling sometime in the 50s.

For the most part, it’s set in the 40s. In the distance, there is World War II and the Blitz; and so Kenny and his brother retreat into a faerie dream of rural life. The land of Arboria opens itself up, first to them, and to young evacuees Janny and Nadia.

But, in fiction, nowhere can be Paradise; drama needs conflict, and that conflict comes as first Robert, and then Janny and Nadia begin to grow up. As ever, maturity brings complexity; Kenny sees Arboria change to accommodate that complexity, but also slowly begins to realise that, beyond a certain point, such accommodation is impossible.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot – to find out the rest, you’ll have to read the book yourself. Brutally honest in its evocation of the rot attendant on curdled innocence, and the ways in which growth can become an existential threat to such willed ignorance, ‘The Good People’ dissects such escapism with a relentless, surgical determination.

But it would be wrong just to say that the book is just a condemnation of fantasy. It’s also an elegy, for a certain kind of England; a place where there was in fact no such thing as fantasy, but rather a living, breathing folklore, passed on from generation to generation and springing from a very specific kind of relationship with place.

The decline of Kenny’s grandmother becomes a way of thinking about the end of that kind of deep-rooted identity. She can be seen as a keeper of ancient wisdom; but, as the book progresses, she falls into decay, senility and at last a slow and gentle death.

Kenny is unable to receive more than a few scraps of knowledge from her, and that which he does receive – misunderstood, largely contextless – poisons him. Modernity demands movement. The kind of deep-rooted, entirely place-specific maturity that she represents, and that he aspires to, is no longer viable.

Robert exemplifies this need for mobility. He can only grow up by disappearing first to a job in a neighbouring town, and then – through call up – to fight battles in foreign lands. Kenny – who refuses to leave his ancestral home, his ancestral place, and who understands Robert’s departure as a kind of enslavement – is left without a viable path to adulthood.

Kenny’s curdled innocence isn’t just a function of an unhealthy relationship with fantasy; it’s also rooted in the modern world’s rootlessness. In the end, that insecurity claims Robert too, as the family business that he has inherited collapses in the face of international competition. His version of the local is just as fragile as Kenny’s, although its fall is far less destructive.

More than just a story about a willed refusal to mature, ‘The Good People’ can be read as a criticism of the conditions which make a refusal to change beyond a certain, personally defined point dangerous.

Climaxing with senility and decay, containing murder and loss, the book uses a final, backwards view of an entirely fractured Faerie to condemn a modernity that makes deeply rooted investment in the past a killing impediment rather than a source of joy and security.

Of course, that’s only one, partial reading of the book. It’s too complex, too subtle to resist easy, reductive definition. So, there’s only one thing to do – go and check it out yourself!

Becoming Norma Desmond

Escapism, Fantasy, Film, Literary, Religion

Out and about on Wednesday night (at an event run by the estimable Poet in the City, which everyone should know about – they do fantastic poetry events round the City of London), and, as it does in pubs, the conversation turned to fantasy and sf.

As it also does when you’re around people-whose-genre-is-literary, someone came up with the question – ‘why do you write genre fiction when it has nothing to do with reality, and therefore has no point to it?’

Of course this is a red rag to a bull for me; my answering rant went on for about half an hour. In fact, it only ended when I paused for breath and noticed that the bar staff were putting the stools upside down on the tables and everyone else had left.

One of the points I made was that modern literary fiction is a pretty late arrival on the literary scene, really only beginning in the 19th Century. Fantasy has been around forever, from Homer on.

But thinking about it, that’s not such a good point after all. Much of the writing that foreshadows or powers the modern fantastic – archaic Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse and other myth cycles, Christian narratives from ‘Paradise Lost’ to ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, Renaissance magical tracts, and so on – were written as fact.

For their original creators and consumers, they weren’t fantasies at all; they were factual components of a coherent and internally consistent worldview. We use them as source material for fictions that know they’re fiction, but that’s absolutely not what they originally were.

The modern Western European worldview is a profoundly scientific one. So, it favours narratives that engage with reality in a way that’s based on quasi-scientific observation. Seen in this light, fantastic narratives can be seen as a hangover from an earlier, discredited way of understanding the world.

From this point of view, Fantasy writing becomes Norma Desmond; a glamorous, pointless relic. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’, she’s a leftover from the great days of silent movies, eking out a ghostly living in the LA of the 50s.

And if we look at Fantasy like this, then Norma Desmond becomes a very relevant figure. She’s a useful index of how less conscientious critics can perceive the genre; and her personal trajectory is an incredibly potent warning against both bombast in general (‘I AM big. It’s the movies that got small’) and the specific genre sin of letting fantasising become an end in itself, rather than a mirror with which to confront the world.

And so, to conclude, here’s Norma herself in the final moments of the film, in all her deluded, tragic magnificence. Broken, maddened and desperately alone, a murderess about to be arrested, a haunted and futile relic of a forgotten world, she steps in front of the cameras and stops the show, one last, unforgettable time.

Dreaming nations

Escapism, Fantasy

Well, a fascinating couple of days at the conference, not least for some very interesting insights into the sometimes wildly fantasised views that the American and British political classes have about their respective countries, and their place in the world.

First of all, the US. Advertising maven Keith Reinhardt works in various ways with the US business community to improve America’s standing in the world. He’s very aware of the issues that American foreign policy has created for people’s perception of the US; but his response to those issues was oddly schizophrenic.

His awareness that the US could only regain its popularity by finding a more humble, co-operative and role to play in world politics was laudable. But the genuine constructiveness of this approach was undermined by a very strong sense that America is the natural world leading culture.

Reinhardt seemed to be incapable of seeing the US as just another country, neither morally inferior, nor morally superior, to anywhere else. Rather, the issue as he implicitly framed it was how America could use its undoubted and impregnable superiority to keep on leading the world, but in a humbler way – something of an oxymoron, but there you go.

The muted (but very real) triumphalism of his presentation was clearly tailored for an American audience; the mostly European gathering he spoke to was, as far as I could make out, more than a little underwhelmed. I found his fantasies of moral leadership disturbing. Living at one remove from reality can only be destructive, as several hundred thousand dead and several million displaced Iraqis would seem to demonstrate.

And then, there was British fantasising. Various backbench MPs pontificated about the UK, describing a country I’ve never visited. In their homeland, cycling old maids would represent the cutting edge of radical activity; its single finest cultural achievement would no doubt be Prince Charles’ Duchy Originals brand.

America’s cultural fantasising at least has the virtue of great expansiveness. Our ruling class, by contrast, would seem to harbour an entirely inwards looking, retrospective world view – one that makes an existential threat of any sort of contact with modernity.

Thinking about it, I suppose these two attitudes represent two opposing ways by which excessive fantasising can trap you. One externalises an unreal world that exists only to be changed by the heroic, imagined self; the other dreams up an embodiment of stasis, and then heroically battles change to protect it. In both cases, there’s a retreat from reality, and thus from the possibility of real achievement, real learning and real, constructive evolution.

Going out in the summer

Escapism

Well, holidays are beginning to kick in – I’ve got today and Friday off, and then the whole of next week. Today’s an editing-short-stories day; next week is Green-Man-then-editing-novel-week. So, this week and next week, I’m going to be posting intermittently, rather than every day.

Happy Holidays all! Hope you have a good rest of August…

Our needs, character needs

Escapism, Fantasy, My fiction, Science Fiction

Well, a slightly distracted post today, as I’m at home, working on a re-draft of the novel. It’s coming together nicely; so far I’ve chopped out about 10,000 words. Key changes so far are to get rid of the very slow moving opening chapters, and sharpen up the ghostly hermaphrodite from another dimension that’s a key player in the action.

One of the key features of the book is the way that Tramaziel – the fantasised secondary world that various characters have been to, come from or just read about – is presented. As far as possible, you only see it diffracted through people; through their memories or dreams of it.

This was very interesting to write, as it gave me access to (in effect) a variety of different, albeit related, fantasy worlds. A child’s eye view of magical city is very different from an adult’s one – something that’s very interesting to play with in a book that spend a lot of time thinking about how and why we create fantasies from the realities that surround us.

And that process of fantasy creation is very interesting. Fantasy and sf often present the wondrous in a very unmediated way, showing it having the same ‘wow’ impact on story characters as it is meant to have on us as readers.

But people don’t work like that. Quite apart from the problem of familiarisation (what’s defamiliarising for us is normal world for characters), there’s the way that humans tend to build interpretations of the worlds around them according to their own emotional needs.

And our needs as f&sf readers will often be very different from the needs of characters living in the worlds we go to for escapism, excitement and awe. That’s a gap that’s not always acknowledged; but it should be, because it makes for more honest and ultimately far more textured and engaging fiction.

Slaying Bob from HR

Escapism, Fantasy, Metafiction, Narrative

Was still pondering yesterday’s post about weakness / achievement gaps in genre fiction when I went to read SF Diplomat, where Jonathan McCalmont is fascinating on the content of fantasy:

‘Why does fantasy prefer to dwell on saving a morally simple world instead of making the best one can in a more realistic one?’

He’s looking for a greater sense of the cut and thrust of the commercial, for narratives that may be fantastic in setting but that acknowledge and riff off the source of most day to day drama in this world – business life, as many of us live it.

One effect of this is to create a more credible weakness / achievement gap – but it also raises a very interesting question – if you’re writing this kind of fantasy, then what’s the fantasy for?

Something very positive, I would say; rather than facilitating muscle bound escapism (‘I pulled out my battleaxe and slew – SLEW!!! – Bob from HR! And all those other fools who do not appreciate my world saving genius!!!’) it enables (amongst other things) a metafictional exploration of why dealing with Bob from HR can feel so much like a deep betrayal of the self in the first place, motivating the desire to hew.

It also takes a far saner view of resolution. Rather than amassing a monstrous pile of treasure / saving the world from imminent oblivion / restoring the balance between Law and Chaos, etc, heroes in this kind of narrative resolve through infinitely more credible, less compensatory achievement sets.

And come to think of it, that kind of understanding of fantasy leads directly to M. John Harrison – but I’m not going to talk about that until I’ve had some breakfast…