A GRAND HISTORY AND AN ELEGIAC NEW FILM EXPLORE BRITAIN’S RECENT, AND IRRECOVERABLE, PAST.
WITH FAMILY BRITAIN, David Kynaston has finished the second volume of his multipart chronicle of the British people from 1945 to 1979, called Tales of a New Jerusalem. I’ve already reviewed the first volume, Austerity Britain , so I’ll just say: Kynaston has again written a masterpiece. More vividly and profoundly than any other historical work I’ve read, Tales of a New Jerusalem captures the rhythms and texture of everyday life and the collective experience of a nation. At once fine-grained and panoramic, witty and plangent, the books masterfully shift focus from deliberations in Whitehall to gossip in the back garden, from sweeping social changes to the hilarious but sad routine—the misguided attempts to please, the self-effacing apologies, the miscues—of a Cheshire family’s teatime. Anyone with a historical or sociological imagination and anyone attuned to the interplay of public and domestic life should read these books (this includes those many women, devoted readers of, say, Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson, who tend to leave the history and public-affairs tomes to the men).
And anyone with even the slightest interest in Britain or in film should see Terence Davies’s documentary Of Time and the City, whose coincidental release makes the publication of Kynaston’s new volume all the more miraculous. The movie, a tour de force that probes the same historical period and many of the same themes, and takes a comparably nuanced view of the past, was probably the most warmly received premiere at Cannes last year; it has won Best Non-Fiction Film of 2009 from the New York Film Critics Circle and is included on a host of the year’s 10-best lists, including those of Time, New York, and The New York Times’s A. O. Scott.
Davies, along with Mike Leigh, is probably Britain’s most celebrated auteur. He is certainly the most uncompromising: in 34 years, he has made only eight movies. In a trilogy of short films (Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration) made in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and in the ravishingly filmed features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988; it won the International Critics Prize at Cannes that year) and The Long Day Closes (1992), he wove a fictional tapestry based on his boyhood and youth in a tightly bound working-class Liverpool neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s. He depicted a version of his scarred but curiously often blissful family life: nine siblings (three of whom died in infancy), a drained and loving mother, and a tortured, violent-tempered father who died when Davies was 6; his burgeoning homosexuality and struggle with his Catholic faith; the solace and rapture that the cinema bestowed on him. The Long Day Closes brilliantly captures both the communal joy of picture-going (see also Davies’s reminiscences quoted in Family Britain) and its romantic, fecund solitude. “In the darkness at the movies,” as Pauline Kael put it, “where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses.”
After a detour into literary adaptation (The Neon Bible in 1995 and The House of Mirth in 2000), Davies has returned to Liverpool with this documentary about the city from 1945 to the early 1970s, the period from his birth to his departure. As that time span indicates, Of Time and the City is less about the city than about the filmmaker’s memory of it; in this way, it resembles another mesmerizing quasi-documentary of a great provincial metropolis by another artistically eccentric director—Guy Maddin’s hallucinatory, lurid, wistful My Winnipeg. (It resembles as well Annie Dillard’s homage to Pittsburgh, the book An American Childhood.) Like Maddin’s, this is a layered work. Davies punctuates his collage of exquisitely selected archival footage and a few contemporary scenes shot in crisp digital photography with a sound track of extraordinary aptness and variety: Handel, Benny Goodman, Brahms, Salvador Bacarisse, the Spinners, Mahler, Peggy Lee. He overlays all with his lyrical, sardonic narration, delivered in a voice that ranges from plummy to clipped to bombastic to hushed-urgent.
The narration itself marries Davies’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness reminiscences and observations with quotations, mostly unattributed and largely from English poetry: Housman, Shelley, Walter Raleigh, and, foremost, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Unusually, Davies combines a keen cinematic intelligence with an equally refined musical and literary fluency. “What truly indicates excellent knowledge,” Walter Bagehot understood, “is the habit of constant, sudden, and almost unconscious allusion, which implies familiarity, for it can arise from that alone.”
NEVER HAVE SLUMS looked more beautiful than in Of Time and the City. In dreamy footage from the 1950s of the laboring classes’ shabby 19th-century back-to-backs—two rooms down and two up, kitchen papered in newsprint—on severe, narrow, treeless streets, the squalor is plain. But joyous children (and their dogs) are everywhere: tearing through the maze of alleys, clomping through puddles, singing with delight in their cheap, tidy school clothes in their cement (again treeless) schoolyards, and playing in grimy streets under the watchful eyes of worn-out mothers who sit on their well-scrubbed front steps in their threadbare frocks. Though tatty, these neighborhoods were what would now be called, somewhat patronizingly, “intact communities.”
Davies’s movie is a proudly class-conscious paean to working-class grit. Scenes of brawny laborers young and old working as one as they heave steel cables, and women scrubbing the week’s wash in giant public outdoor tubs (conditions that look more Third World than 1950s England) are accompanied by liturgical music that all but sanctifies the toil. It’s also a tribute to working-class respectability: “queuing modestly for modest entertainment”; the sports heroes and heroines who, Davies notes in a tone progressing from the admiring to the acidic, “knew how to win and lose with grace and never to punch the air in victory.” Concomitantly, the film is a rhapsody to working-class domesticity. Davies summons up memories of toast and cocoa after a long day’s blissful outing to the seashore, and,
on Christmas Eve, pork roasting in the oven, the parlor cleaned, with fruit along the sideboard: a pound of apples, tangerines in tissue paper, a bowl of nuts, and our annual, exotic pomegranate.
He is defiantly class-proud and republican—he accompanies footage of Elizabeth II’s coronation and her marriage (“the Betty Windsor Show,” he notes, was played while the stars’ subjects occupied “some of the worst slums in Europe”) with Willem de Kooning’s observation that “the trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time,” to which Davies mordantly adds: “The trouble with being rich is that it takes up everyone else’s.” And this gay, stridently atheist art-house director is just as defiantly conservative. Repeatedly he reveals a lost world that was, by his lights, better. The contrast between footage of the neatly dressed, well-mannered proletariat of his youth and the pasty, slatternly, slack-jawed, pub-crawling consumers who throng present-day Liverpool’s outdoor malls on Saturday nights couldn’t be plainer. As a lover of mid-20th-century popular culture, Davies knows that the rise of Liverpool’s most famous sons, the Beatles, meant the death of the “witty lyric and the well-crafted love song” and signaled the eventual triumph of a mindless mass culture (his scorn of the Fab Four matches that which he heaps on the royals).
Although no contradiction really exists between a class-based political radicalism and a cultural conservatism (Davies seems securely in the Tory radical tradition of William Cobbett and Orwell—and also part of the anti-counterculture socialism of Eric Hobsbawm, for that matter), Davies’s aching for the past nonetheless engenders an irreconcilable tension in this film. His “whole world,” Davies has said in an interview, was his neighborhood, the Church, his family, and the movies. But not only can he not summon back that world, it would spurn him if he could—which may be part of the reason why Davies, who says he is celibate, acknowledges his sexuality even as he resents it. Brilliant and driven, Davies left school at 15 and taught himself film and theater history while working as a clerk in a Liverpool shipping office, before enrolling in drama school at age 27. He has benefited from a new world—consumer-oriented, anarchic in its manners and morals, stratified more by ability and education than by class—that he largely despises. Of Time and the City is frequently described as “nostalgic,” and while that word fits the filmmaker’s yearning for an irrecoverable past, it doesn’t convey his profound ambivalence toward that past, his appreciation that “we love the place we hate, then we hate the place we love. We leave the place we love, then spend a lifetime trying to regain it.” In this way, Davies shares Kynaston’s insight, unsettling to both progressives and reactionaries, that, as I pointed out in reviewing Austerity Britain, the past was a better place for being a worse place: that the better grew out of the worse, the worse out of the better.
Kynaston, who has a genius for the deadpan anecdote, offhandedly captures the plight of the deracinated beneficiaries of the planners’ largesse and the obliviousness of their tribunes: Lena Jeger, a Labour candidate for MP,
was canvassing in a block of flats when she met a woman in the lift and addressed her on the issue of German rearmament. “People have been pissing in this lift,” replied the woman. “What are you going to do about it?” To which Jeger said that, if elected, she could not promise to be able to stop this. “Well,” riposted the woman, “if you can’t stop people pissing in lifts, how are you going to stop Germans rearming?”
INTERNATIONAL CRITICS—a hardened bunch, most of whom had no doubt never seen Liverpool—wept at Of Time and the City’s premiere at Cannes. The extraordinary acclaim for the film, I think, has less to do with its rendering of the loss of an external world, the city of Davies’s childhood, than with its rendering of the loss of an internal one: the security and happiness of childhood itself and the family life that engenders and sustains it—a loss that is as universal as it is inevitable. (What parent isn’t acutely—painfully—aware of how fleeting is the episode of a family’s life with young children?) Throughout his oeuvre, Davies dwells lovingly on the smallest detail of his “land of lost content” (to quote him quoting A Shropshire Lad). This fixation never lapses into the sentimental, because it’s so obviously despairing. His is perhaps the most romantic sensibility in cinema today, but all his vibrant romantic hope looks backward and is therefore sterile—which makes it all the more affecting.
In this, a movie filled with lyrical scenes of the past, the only lyrical scenes of contemporary Liverpool are clips Davies shot of children with their mothers, from the point of view of one banished from the kingdom. (Historically minded viewers will notice that the accompanying music—the berceuse from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite—was used as the opening theme to the long-running radio series from Davies’s youth, the sweet, literate Listen With Mother, a show of stories and songs for the under-5 set and their mothers. Kynaston assessed the program’s impact on a generation of children in his first volume.) One of very few romantic passages in all of Orwell’s work—and one that takes a similar perspective of the outsider looking in on a blissful world—is a vision that the lower-upper-middle-class author who was separated from his parents as a young boy invoked of working-class family life:
I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat.
Davies’s work is replete with similar moments, though the difference is that Orwell, romanticizing what he didn’t know, put the father at the center of the picture, and failed to bring any agency into the scene. Davies, on the other hand, leaves no doubt as to the figure creating his happiness, preparing that toast and cocoa after the day at New Brighton and arranging those tangerines in tissue paper: his mother. Which isn’t to suggest an oedipal preoccupation, only that Davies grasps that family life and childhood contentment are orchestrated by a presiding intelligence, almost always female, and nourished by a thousand domestic details, meaningless in themselves. Davies has said that Humphrey Jennings’s classic Listen to Britain, a 19-minute wartime documentary, was the inspiration for Of Time and the City; I’d bet that his deepest inspiration was Jennings’s loveliest scene, in which a woman with a son in the army looks out from an upper-story window on small children at play in a schoolyard across the street. (Davies, uncannily, has found several pieces of archival footage that echo that scene.)
Of course, the fleetingness, and the awareness of the fleetingness, of childhood and family happiness is hardly a novel artistic theme. It lies at the heart of, say, Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” (a poem conspicuously absent in Davies’s narration) and Little Women—and, for that matter, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” Meet Me in St. Louis (one of Davies’s favorite movies, which he has discerned “tapped into something primal, almost like a fairy tale”), and, well, that famous Kodak Carousel scene in Mad Men. But usually the accompanying emotion is merely rue, and the intended effect cathartic—the acceptance of loss. This film insists that the loss is absolute and all-consuming. Davies has often said of his childhood, with a conviction as though freshly wounded, that he will never again be so happy. At first that remark seems naive or perverse or, at the very least, immature. But Davies’s genius—and no doubt much of his chronic discontent, a psychological state to which he readily attests—lies in his inability to reconcile himself to that passing. Davies’s nostalgia, I think it’s fair to say, isn’t exactly that of an integrated adult, as the mental-hygiene professionals would put it. But owing to his immaturity and his solipsism, that land of lost content has rarely been recalled so insistently and its loss raged against so defiantly. In averring that his wound will not heal—I will never be so protected and I will never be so loved, he seems to mourn—Davies forces his audience to recognize that they are similarly afflicted.