Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On the trail of comets' tails: Mary, Queen of Shops

At one time there was a nameplate on a door in BBC Broadcasting House which said: “Head of the Spoken Word.” Dylan Thomas, apparently, walked past and murmured: “but just think of the power of the Head of the Unspoken Word.”
That’s not just a good gag, it’s a truth, and one worth flagging up while the BBC, and ITV, Channels 4 and 5, Sky and Virgin, behave as if no factual programme passes the quality test unless every piece of information is recycled every fifteen minutes, with each clue or inference signalled several times more and explicitly spelled out.
Which is why Mary, Queen of Shops (BBC 2, Monday’s., 21:00) is probably the best show around – the stories it really tells are the ones it leaves unsaid.
Here’s the pitch: Mary Portas – “I made my life in high end designer retail” – is on a mission, because the local high street is under assault from the big stores, who are “killing” Britain’s small retailers. Five hundred village shops close every year. “We’ll miss our neighbourhood shops when they’re gone, and I don’t want to live in as Britain that bland.” So Portas is going to “work out a survival plan for our local shopkeepers.”
Only, this is not the programme's main subject at all. The establishments to which she brings her retail triage aren’t run by valiant little businessfolk besieged by superstores; they’re owned by extraordinary individuals or couples who seem to have decided, for reasons which have nothing to do with commercial logic or illogic, and everything to do with some substrate of the psyche that MQoS points to but leaves implicit, to commit financial suicide.
What of the couple who have fled the London “rat race” and bought a general store in a Dorset village? Why do they keep the place as a kind of ramshackle museum of cans, packs and perishables, changing nothing, going nowhere, communicating with nobody, spending thousands more every month than they’re taking? Why the haunted sadness on the woman’s face? Why does she freeze into silence when she encounters the villagers? And why does her husband continually disparage his own tastes and abilities?
Or the woman baker in an affluent London borough. Where is the husband who “hung up his dough hooks” eight years ago? What part in her life is performed by her charming, elegant son, who appears just once in the programme, to tell Mary that his mother no longer wants to play the game? Why does she continuously remind everyone that she’s “been in this business for 36 years”? And why does she keep on turning out the same food that she first turned out 36 years ago? The canteen bread, the cakes and fancies smeared with sticky chocolate or coffee or vanilla? The smiley faces with lop-sided cherry-eyes or chocolate smiles which are symbolically, as it were, iced skulls on her ancient counter?
Here, the real stories are all in the questions that are cleverly left in the air and on the air, for us to argue about and speculate upon as the credits fade.
Nietzsche described in Greek tragedy “something incommensurable in every feature and every line, a certain deceptive distinctness and enigmatic depth, indeed an infinitude, in the background. Even the clearest figure always had a comet’s tail attached to it which seemed to suggest the uncertain, that which could never be illuminated.”
And this, in the cameo of each programme, is what we have here in miniature: the hint of a little comet’s tail of tragedy, of the suffering which is the precipitate of piled up experience and sorrow, and which goes, of course, to make up human drama. Praise to the programme makers for acknowledging, in their work, the “power of the unspoken word.”
If you’re out of the UK, or you’ve missed the show so far, catch it here on the BBC iPlayer.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In praise of the Irish National Font

A week in County Clare, thanks to the hospitality of generous friends, beside the majesty and mystery of Lough Derg, the waters of which, every time you glance back from book, or plate, or glass, or the face of lover or friend, have changed their colours.
The herons lift their great bodies off the stones with one or two wing-flaps, and then retract their necks as they soar, rather as a plane retracts its undercarriage. The swans (albeit bigger) need a long, long run, step and frantic flap along the lake before they get airborne. But once aloft, that creaking, calling sound carries from one shore to the other...
“All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter step...”
We’re near enough to visit (again) Yeats’ one-time home, Thor Ballylee, shut this year after a flood, and Coole House and Park, where he memorialised the swans, and to wonder why exactly the mansion there was demolished (one of our friends, who is real Irish, hints darkly at a potential reason: Yeats and his circle at Coole, as Protestants, she says, were regarded in the early days of independence as “not real Irish.” Yet the tower at Ballylee, as potent a symbol, survives and is cherished).
I’m the grandson of a Dublin woman who was one of a family of fourteen children, and who fell in love with and wed an English sergeant major, so I guess I have some of the contradictions of Ireland in my veins, and while we’re in East Clare I think about them a lot.
How do you, after centuries as a colony, retrieve from the shadows a national identity which has been eclipsed and repressed, and overtaken by momentous transformations – industrial, economic, ideological? Won’t what you retrieve and shape inevitably be some kind of artifice, a construct which will, in turn, throw its own shadows and give rise to new anxieties?
But not to face up to – or face down – the anxieties and the task is to risk a cultural paralysis, and one of the things I love about Ireland is, for example, that every city, town, village and hamlet, having first been named in its familiar form, is then named again in Irish, the letters engraved always in the same Gaelic typeface, which I have taken to calling the Irish National Font – a phenomenon which is altogether more pleasurable than a National Front.
Are these names genuine salvages from the past, or themselves reconstructions, or speculations, or a mixture of the three?
Which brings me to an island in the Lough, where there are the remains of three ancient churches or chapels, which once made up a monastery, and a broken bell tower, and a number of tombs; and on which your author was photographed five years ago, wearing a beret, since lost and replaced, and a beard, since ditto and not ditto, and carrying three-and-a-half stone more than he’s carrying now.
The place name in the English tongue is “Holy Island”, which asserts – to me, at least – the sense of the numinous that its landscape and atmosphere impart (this year, for example, picnicking in sunshine by the shore, among masses of ragged robin and wild yellow iris, mottled leaves showing where the orchids had been, with thrushes singing and reed buntings performing acrobatics nearby).
But the name in Irish is Iniscealtra, meaning, they say locally, “Church Island”, which on the one hand seems prosaically unIrish, bearing the same nominative relation to “Holy Island” as London’s “Marble Arch” does to its Parisian equivalent, “L’Arc de Triomphe;” but which on the other, seems to put the ecclesiastical ruins at an arm’s length, as it were, hinting at a very different (pagan?) perspective from which the churches are an addendum to the island, and not its meaning.
And then, rootling around on the Internet when we got home, I found a third possibility, a contraction (deliberate?) from Inisceltchair to Iniscealtra. Celtchair was a Hercules figure in pre-Christian Irish legend, a hero huge and grey, with a fearsome lance that burst into flames if it wasn’t regularly drenched in blood.
At the end of his story Celtchair kills the black hound Doelchu – on the island? – but one drop of its poisoned blood trickles up the lance, infects him, and he dies.
Let me argue then, that it is not in the resolution of such ambiguities (and shadows), but in their coexistence, that the true identity of the island, and perhaps of Ireland, is to be found.
Footnote, June 9: Back in London, walking on Hampstead Heath this morning, I noticed for the first time a flare of ragged robin among yellow irises on the bank of the Highgate No 1. pond. A little way out in the water, a large black dog was swimming. Well, now. Mr Yeats?
"I had not eyes like those enchanted eyes,
Yet dreamed that beings happier than men
Moved round me in the shadows, and at night
My dreams were cloven by voices and by fires..."
(From: I walked among the seven woods of Coole)
Footnote, June 12: I did not know when I wrote this last that something of further relevance - or coincidence - would unfold from my trip to Eire; I tell the story in a footnote to an earlier blog in March this year.