Saturday 17 September 2011

Watching the History Train by Penny Dolan

I am just back from a short Field Studies Council Course: “Steaming Through The Lakes.” It was a very last minute decision, inspired by a friends who had been on a similar course a couple of weeks just before and a wish for some kind of break that would get Us Indoors out there into the landscape. My interest was very general. and I saw the trip as a vague research opportunity, probably about trains in the Victorian era.

We travelled by steam and diesel engines on standard and small gauge track, crossed lakes by various boats, both beautiful – the Gondola – and boat less so. We watched slides and short videos in the evenings.

This is where I came across a short black and white documentary film. “Terminus” was made in 1961, and directed by a young John Schlesinger, keen to impress with his sense of the dramatic. Maybe Terminus doesn’t sound historical enough to mention on History Girls? Having seen it, I’m sure it is.

Waterloo station is the "terminus" of the film. There are shots of steaming trains and essential station activity but essentially this is a film about the people using the station way back then. Schlesinger fills the screen with sharply selected images, often stylishly angled and knowingly intercrossing. He teases the viewer with fragments of stories, each with details and emotions that - as a writer - you’d want to notice or learn more about. And over and over again, I found myself thinking, “That’s not like that now.” Here's the opening.

Of course, I'd left my notebook was up in my room but here are some moments I recall from the full thity minute showing:

The lingering journey over the panorama of long engine sheds, now mostly gone under real estate.

The shots of hurrying feet. So many well-polished masculine lace-up shoes, indicating gleaming moral character and employment. So many neat trit-trotty ladylike heels, tapping along like type-writer keys, trying to keep up among all the men.

The lack of litter. Stations then were serious, places for travel and work, not grazing. There's an urge to keep everything respectably tidy, to show life must be orderly, on time, running on rails. These crowds are not the “me” generation and nor are they glamorous, other than a single limousine. This was not The Hour.

At one point, a heavy folding platform gate is slung shut in an annoyed city man’s face. The railwayman behind shrugs, a cockney underdog with rules and the union behind him. Now crowds are fed through electronic barriers with pale shining arms, while the corporate staff stand aloof in carefully designed uniforms, carrying clipboards, more business-like than most travellers.We are distanced.

The stories offer other, older contexts. A fluttering of Sisters of Charity, faces almost obscured by the white wings of their headdresses, see a Sister off to a mother house in France or Belgium. The pattern of faith does not look like that now. 

Some are still similar. A loud, tipsy party gather to set off to the races, as annoying then as they can be today. A coffin is escorted down a platform though the crowds, undertaker clutching his top hat and people pause out of respect.
Elsewhere, a group of women huddle together, one doubling up with grief and lamentation as her sister or daughter boards the train. Down another platform come the people of the Windrush generation, dazed at the end of their journe, arriving tono greeting at all. 

Distances were so much longer in those days, borders less friendly. Who wails now, when they could hop on a plane and meet in a couple of hours.  Who travels such journeys by train now anyway? How can the writer convey this sense, especially to children and young people who travel so swiftly and globally?

In one controversial sequence, a little boy waits on a case before bursting into tears because he has lost his mummy.:

The child is carried by one of the station staff off into his small secluded office, lifted over the counter and left to play on the typewriter while his mother is called over the loudspeaker.  This was a time before there was Child Protection or Health and Safety. (The Youtube comments about how this was filmed are interesting) Sad though the child's anguish is, this - along with several other moments in the film - did remind the writer in me why the past is so roomy and attractive to write about.

The film shows a phalanx of policemen pass, escorting a gang of handcuffed prisoners briskly on or off a train. Justice being seen to be done, and no darkened glass windows in an anonymous van to hide shame. .   

There are no casual photographers or i-phones busily capturing potential images of fame either, other than the camera crew. Now it must be hard to film a documentary without people reacting, slipping into "observed" poses or grimacing boldly into camera. Now, in the cosnatnt screen age, we are conscious of being "in our own film". In Terminus, the ordinary people seem to be themselves doing what is important in their lives. They do not seem to be driven to offer responses learned from the tv screen. Their eyes slip swiftly away from the camera. Is this a desire for privacy or a national lack of confidence?

Times are different now for film-makers. Maybe Schlesinger’s beautiful artwork would now be a compilation of the wierdest images from the station’s CCTV footage?

Even the haunting musical score tells the time, using a bluesy “modern jazz” style that speaks, reminding the viewer that this 1961 Waterloo is being observed by a sharp witty eye, by the coming of the new cool generation. Now long gone.
Was it history? I think so.

A Boy Called MOUSE by Peny Dolan (Bloomsbury)


Linda B-A said...

Waterloo has been my link to London and all that the city represents for 30 years, so I found these clips mesmerising. Yes, it mostly certainly IS history, and all the more precious for evoking a time before our every step is captured digitally. My most powerful impression was how certain elements have died and others have lived on. The trains still serve the same towns, I've a photograph of my husband looking like the little boy in the film, my father, in his eighties, polishes shoes so you can see your face in them. It's why history is so compelling; it helps bind us to our present. Thanks, Penny.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Penny I LOVED this post and the clips! I'm going to watch it first chance I get. And yes, doesn't 1961 feel like ancient history?

P.S. Would love to hear more about your experiences on the steam train, too!

adele said...

This is brilliant, Penny! LOVED the clips. 1961 is history, eh? Gosh that makes me feel so old! But I know it is. I was quite startled to realize that 1991, which seems like YESTERDAY is actually 20 years ago...I am going to lie down in a darkened room, I think.

Stroppy Author said...

Adele, I hate to say this.... but 1961 is SO history that it is little after the mid-point of the GCSE history syllabus Small Bint did: 1914-1990. History ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Which, of course, was built in 1961.

Stroppy Author said...

The big difference is that there are no wheelie suitcases. I HATE wheelie suitcases... roll on 1961

J.T. Webster said...

it's amazing how much has changed in a relatively short time span. Technology has come along in leaps and bounds and our dress has become so casual.
Thanks for the clips, they are fascinating.

Joan Lennon said...

Loved the links from one section of the film to the next - and the cat in the signal box! Thanks!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, everyone. Jtwebster, at one point I did think about asking HG readers to watch the film and tick every time they saw something that is "different" now. :-)

Theresa Breslin said...

Mesmerising post Penny. Had to fwd it to train mad husband who 'recognised' various items. I loved and will treasure your phrase "...the past is so roomy and attractive to write about"

Caroline Lawrence said...

Penny et al.

I just saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the director – Tomas (Let the Right One In) Alfredson – and cinematographer – Hoyte Van Hoytema – have made 1973 feel like history. In a recent interview, Gary Oldman said this: "The look of the movie is just gorgeous... those brown, orange, smoke-filled rooms. It's dandruff & Brylcream & damp tweed suits. They've captured the period perfectly..."

History is catching up with us!

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