23 April 2009

The History Boys

I watched 'The History Boys' and whilst waiting for Dead Close to Nature 3 to be completed thought I’d better comment. It’s a film from a play by Alan Bennett about some post-A’ Level students cramming for Oxbridge and the three teachers who coach them. Richard Griffiths (very hard not to see shades of Uncle Monty) is brilliant and flawed as the from-the-heart old-fashioned master who fondles the boys’ balls on the ‘lift home’ on the back of his motorbike. He encourages the boys to think for themselves, challenge the truth, sing old songs, re-enact classic films and dissect the throbbing, romantic heart of learning. The more cerebral and antagonistic young teacher encourages them to craft snide but brilliant treatises on history with the emphasis on challenging norms and manipulating the politics of academia. Frances de la Tour is the ballsy lady teacher who keeps it all together and emanates solid, motherly and eccentric power.

Eccentricity is Bennett’s calling card, and the quirkiness is delightful, witty and weird. However, the underlying acceptance of ball-fondling and its very theatrical treatment of young school boys is pretty shameless. The gay relations are all tortured and the teachers, both homosexual, struggle with their sexy feelings for the boys. The one gay student is in love with the school hunk. There are several hunky boys in the film, and they all exist with a jolly ribaldry that is unrealistic but pleasingly idealistic – ‘if only all school boys were so enlightened’ is the message here, but they are not. The romance was heart-warming and coy, but I’d rather see a realistic treatment of adults vs. children – especially in a school environment. Griffiths is taking advantage of the boys, which is clearly not damaging for them within the pretty scope of the film. But the teachers are damaged humans who make bad choices and do not respect their responsibility for the boys social and sexual education. Thus homosexuality is something they must brush under the carpet (they could just not perve over school boys and go to the local gay bar) and the only homosexual child character perpetuates the ‘sins’ of his gay role-models. Let's bring it back to the law of the jungle.

Hot stuff, savannah life. Takes
your head off sometimes.

(head off, blown slow-mo off
with a smoking rifle – its bang-

bang a bathetic
sunny mini-boom muffled and

murmuring in its sleep).
Rules of the herd: keep your

horns to yourself and if you’re
lucky you’ll get a shag followed

by grass and a dust bath. Nice.
However, some antelopes

have morbid tendencies: “Going
to wet my whistle, Bob” one brays

before heading to the waterhole
and face to face with old-

school retribution. Tonight,
Graham (not his real name)

you will meet your pretty bloody
destiny in the gob of a croc.

I’m just tearing some leaves
off a low bush, thinking

of beetles and grass and the
whispering of the grass with

all the beetles beetling, when
a spasmodic blush spreads

down the inside of my hind leg
and along my long back

muddling the thought somewhat.
I get a hard-on about my

best friend, a shiny-coated
buck with an excellent record in

surviving where the waterhole is
concerned and

also knows the best grass, beetles etc
– cool.

I’m following in a long line of repressed
Beta-antelopes who get kinky

down time grazing it up
with the macho, grazing it

up before they make their
way to separate spots in the

shade. I am the gay antelope who
muzzles up to his pal, horny,

mounts on his back for a
second with a lustful glint, before
sliding off,

ambling away grunting, head
down to grass with that oryx look in my eye.
Antelope - AFG

Bennett seems to imply that even in this idealistic school scenario he has created, repression must exist. His romance is tainted by a foolish subscription to social stereotypes that he so stylishly avoids when speaking of learning itself, with the marvellous classes and the boys deep desire to learn, improve, flourish. But this education is stunted by Bennett’s acceptance of ball-fondling.

The young teacher who falls for top dog Dakin is better – he is drawn in to Dakin’s flirting but as he realises that he could be barking up the wrong tree and immediately withdraws, realising what he imagines is not really what is happening. But later he organises a blowjob date with the boy when school is finished. Pretty horny stuff but fizzles out at the end and never happens. Surely his duty was to say – “well, there is nothing wrong with boys giving each other blowjobs – in fact, it’s the shit – but we aren’t going to do it as I am your teacher and you are my student”, and then in the words of Erykah Badu, “see you next lifetime”. And perhaps a bit of sexual education, a pat on the shoulder and home to your perfectly functional relationship or your dog or your life – which is separate from forming the mind of the young.
Maybe I sound like a reactionary bore but there is a line.

The sexual politics are ultimately quite poignant; that homosexual and straight men usually experience some kind of frisson, sometimes it is acted upon and sometimes not. Young men are brimming with hormones, and are ambiguous. Bennett makes them erudite but rather than honest they are rather too adult. It is only frustrating afterwards as during the film you are entertained enough for it not to matter.

The gay boy is shy and retiring and hopelessly romantic. His idol is sexually active, the coolest boy and effortlessly confident. Here the case is of a shy person falling in love with confidence, physical and social brilliance, which I find a key feature of gay-straight obsessions. Gay men are always going to have flirtations, even sexual experiences with straight men. Indeed married men love it. However, just as women are rejected by men and gay men reject women – so gay men in turn are rejected by straight men. It’s life, Jim. So I don’t think that we can excuse the paedophilia-lite that is expressed in Richard Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore mooning around after teenagers. But the keening desire? Well, that still exists.
And I guess that the tightness in the throat
and the tiny cascading sensation
somewhere inside us are both part of that
sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.
From It Aint What You Do It’s What It Does To You – Simon Armitage

Being quite unaware, I mean dead-
asleep to it, I didn’t keep to it that
promise I made you when it was all
moony out and my heart was racing.
I couldn’t have meant it, that
moony night you were bracing your
feet either side of my head as I lay
back against a rock facing you and
you were up for it, out on the moor
with no-one around to see it. That was
a dark night, that night you had
read that your bones would crumble
the same as mine and it made you
hurt just to wait for it. Like the man
said, fate’s at work out here and
anyway I want to jump your bones, lucky
there’s no-one around to see it.
I make myself dead-asleep to it, eyes
shutting out stars and you getting up
and dancing to it and pulling me up and
you don’t swing me round like I’d
hoped but hold me tight, like you need it,
which is better but I ease my way out,
smiling. We were nearly there. Not
the sound of tomorrow, the sound of
the morning that hawks up the garbled
throat and the two-ring warning of an
alarm calling us back to the city,
we are suckers for that, you and I.
We’re dead-asleep to it, put it away in
a minute and we’ll sleep on it, I’ll
sleep on it and fuck tomorrow, I promise.

Shut up and Dance - AFG

13 April 2009

Dead Close to Nature 2: Rabbit Capital of Scotland

I invited you to bucolic Scotland, and so bring you to the ancient royal burgh of Stirling, the “'brooch' which held Scotland together”. We have been enjoying some pretty special Springs days of late, and the flying things have been up and soaring.

Blue haze. Bees hanging in air at hive-mouth.
Crawling in prone stupor of sun
On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards,
Still wings, each
Magnetised to the other,
Float orbits.

From March morning unlike others – Ted Hughes

Stirling is historically crucial to Scotland as a nation for obvious reasons, but whereas five hundred years ago Stirling and Edinburgh were equal in stature, Stirling has since developed very differently from the capital. “I prefer Stirling now, I preferred Edinburgh then” is hardly world-class critical comparison, and also presumes on having a Highlander-type of immortality, but it is mine; you all ought to make your own and tell me about it. Stirling’s mistreatment in the twentieth century in terms of architecture is quite severe. The city lying on the volcanic ridge, the old town, has character – a key player is the Darnley Coffee House, devoted to syphilitic buccaneer Henry Darnley, everyone’s favourite bisexual Catholic and Mary, Queen of Scots, second husband; the castle is breathtaking, more so than Edinburgh, as when it appears amongst the mist when I’m getting the number 12 up the Carse (snigger) the whole vista is gloriously dark and its soundtrack would be Tina Turner’s ‘Better be Good to Me’ accompanied with warmongering whoops and the clashing of swords.

However, Stirling seems to suffer from being rather disjointed – the Thistle Centre may be a glittering mall palace inside, but it is an incomprehensible concrete mass out. The bridge over the railway is sweeping and new-looking enough to be quirky. It also has character and Stirling has surprising niches just like any town you begin to love with the passing of time, despite its defects and because of them. Two places I recommend in Stirling are Eurasia, a good if small Asian halal supermarket on Barnton Street, and Europa Music with its quirky staff and old-fashioned front. Note there are no nightclubs in this list – the only time I visited ‘Dusk’ I ended up in a break-dancing dance-off and slid the length of the floor roaring like a bear.

If you spelt it with an ‘a’
It would improve immeasurably
You know -
Like the bird sans pareil
That flickers rainbow
Bright from its nest,
But is seen as a commonplace
Pest understandably.

My experience of Stirling is centred around its University. Stirling University campus was built in the sixties and lies at the foot of the Ochil Hills. The layout is only inspiring in its natural beauty, a great deal of effort not having been put into the architecture nor indeed the parkland’s basic landscaping. The central loch is a stunning and effecting prospect with the hills rearing behind it, the gardens are kept in perfect order and there are an abundance of loch-side walks and views to Ben Nevis along the Carse from the nearby Wallace Monument. It’s real genius lies in its sheltered silence, its misty mornings, and its micro-climate in the Spring (and, one imagines, the summer – unless some terrible reverse effect takes place) which I, the swans, the ducks, the crows, and the monumental rabbit population (who sunbathe and nibble grass in profusion), enjoy immensely.

The vixen springs
The sparrow sings
The mole grins in his trap
The eagle swings
Her brazen wings
The bunny has a crap
Another Attempt at a Nature Poem, But Don’t Worry, Ted – Adrian Mitchell

In fact, the more I think of it, the more Stirling University resembles a lost world cradled in the crater of a volcano, except instead of lava the irritating and ultimately lethal rumble you hear from time to time is the carousing youths vomiting in the lake and barbecuing in a frenzied, bestial kind of way that leaves chunks of raw meat and glass shards like teeth for the ground staff in the morning. Here lies, dear readers, one reactionary’s prime example of the problem with the jeunes of today. They should perform a litter-pick, it’s the civil thing to do. I am the last person to naysay madcap booze-induced flytipping, but part of the hangover’s curse is the tidying-up and it may not be rock & roll, but a black plastic sack sets off head-to-toe leather from the night before admirably. Gobsmackingly, it is illegal for students to litter-pick for Health and Safety reasons! I insert here a pained grunt of disbelief coupled with a sickening sense of foreboding. However, look on the bright side, rock-stars! Throwing rubbish is an accepted side effect of rebellion! Fuck the rabbits and their wide-eyed brethren! Eat glass and die bunny!

The horrors of modern life. Hopefully they will all develop into recycling adults who in turn feel strangely guilty and panic-stricken when the recycling mountains are seen on the news – we can but wonder why we didn’t just throw it on the pavement in the first place. But NO! Think of the rabbits. And their wide-eyed brethren.
Photographs by Katie Evamy

06 April 2009

Dead Close to Nature 1: Portrack House, Dumfries

This begins a series of blogs about Scotland and its evolving landscapes and history. If you believe (although I hardly see how you could) that the Borders and Central Scotland are in fact the fiery gates to a nauseatingly folkloric hell-world, then you should turn away now. This is the Dead Close to Nature Blog. I know! So catchy and hardly funny at all – a perfect tone to match my seriously gingham all-in-one country smock and killer farm boots a juego.

You’ve never heard of me, I dare
Say. Well, I’m here.
Voice from the Tomb (5) – Stevie Smith

Blogging is a morbid format for anyone wanting people to read what they write – it is a license to bombard a virtual audience with whatever the blogger wants, and the complaint stands that this destroys the ‘proper’ writing process and its dissemination. It does, however, democratise a literary world rife with nepotism, greed and snobbery. I’m all for the latter – as I said to my old friend Cybill Shepherd the other day: “Cybill”, I said, “Vive la Democracie, don't you think?” And she of course agreed, with tears in her eyes. Blogging gives a pathetic sense of community to its wide-eyed slave the blogger, however fantastical, and the billboard slickness of the computer screen renders everything in a finished glow, ready to post off into cyber space. 'Dead Close to Nature' is a rural blog so that should neutralise some of the high-falutin’ ideals and get down to what is important in life: hares, hills and hip flasks. It should be read whilst wearing a good country coat, sturdy boots and listening to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ on full blast. A blog with a dress-code! But I digress:

‘Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten –
That’s an unbeatable hand!
But this is football.’
Adrian Mitchell

The Scottish lowlands have for many centuries been a highly cultivated area. Even the moors with their sweeping heather and dark squares of pine forest have represented an industrial landscape for hundreds of years. Think Easter Island but with slightly less disastrous consequences, that is if you don’t regard the demise of the Scots pine a disastrous consequence. However, by means of reparation, you can make a pretty fair pact with the countryside by carving a garden out of it.

The gardens at Portrack in Dumfriesshire, designed by Maggie Keswick and Charles Jencks, continued by Charles, John and Lily Jencks, and executed by the head gardener Alistair and his team, is a constantly evolving dynamic project that marries reverence of the history of the existing garden with a flight of science and fantasy. Since my last visit five years ago the garden has been much added to; a bridge that is a comet shooting into a copse, with ground that actually gently moves when you walk on it; a triangle of black-and-white painted poles (a primitive clock? a black hole? a pagan dance-floor?) looking back over the house with moss-covered mushroom-shaped wide-arching steps leading back to it; the old railway bridge turned into a sculpture hanging over the River Nith and the railway re-sited to flow past a record of the Age of Scottish Enlightenment by serpentine green hills; a row of trees recording the history of Scotland, no less; Fishhenge, a man-made stone circle – stone spiral - that is the start and beginning of universes by the riverside.

Portrack is so obviously committed to the continuing genesis of the garden in its theoretical and physical entirety that the sensation of walking the garden has an almost hypnotic effect – it is a benign place, and a humbling experience. It is also a learning experience which is accessible even for strangers to the theory and work behind the garden. Portrack’s sheer majesty, contrariness and precision, its utterly ballsy and barmy exuberance, are exciting and infectious. I fully recommend a visit; this year’s single open day is on May 3rd.

Many snapshots stand out: a heron landing on the top of a spiralling hill at the base of the uphill waterfall 'The Universe Cascade'; the carefully careless log sculptures that dot the hinterlands of the garden; the drip-drip of water under the railway bridge, one of the many irregularities the garden threw up that were received with glee by the Jencks; two yellow wagtails dipping and playing across the causeway on the lake by 'The Snail'; a gigantic swan flying low and loud along the river past 'Fishhenge' as we dragged driftwood from the stone skeleton; covering up plants with muslin for the night under the warning of frost; listening to Gram Parsons whilst nestled in the trees looking out over the valley; standing on the old railway bridge and waving madly at the passing trains; examining purple-sprouting plants that grow in profusion in the greenhouses like something out of C.S Lewis’ ‘Out of the Silent Planet’; waking up to all this in the morning, rolling a cigarette and stepping out into the garden.

Anyway. Everyone will have a different opinion about it, but mine is keenly favourable. However, to give a sense of balance read Stevie Smith’s unlikely assault on Iberian art – just goes to prove beauty is in the eye of the beholder:

Dr Peral
In a coat of gray
Has a way
With his mouth which seems to say
A lot
But nothing good to hear
And as for Dona Ysabel Corbos de Porcel
What a bitch
This seems to me a portrait which
Might have been left unhung
Or at anyrate slung
A little higher up.

The Spanish School - Stevie Smith

Finally: Portrack also boasts one of the few remaining successful red squirrel populations, which added to my list of key fauna to see this spring, my healthy obsession with hares aside, of which more (as always) later.

Photographs by Nicole Eldredge