My Eighty Years

Source: Robert Batchford, My Eighty Years (London: Cassell, 1931), pp. 253-254

Text: After tea we realized that we were both tired and went into a kinema to rest.
Oh, that theatre! Oh, that whirling, scurrying, unmeaning show, that surely was the weirdest part of the weird day-dream. What it was all about I cannot attempt to say. It was like a fevered and breathless nightmare. Squadrons of Mexicans and cow-boys chased each other on wild horses over wild prairies and wilder hills. Riders raced, guns fired, men fell, girls were abducted and rescued; a person in a slouch hat and decorated trousers, who might have been Ragtime Cowboy Joe, rode on horseback into a saloon and wrecked the chandeliers and mirrors with his “forty-four,” and when we came away was in the act of eloping with the general’s daughter, and would probably be pursued along roads and over mountains and across rivers by police and sheriffs in motor-cars, and there would be more climbing and leaping and shooting, and then the show would begin all over again.

Comments: Robert Blatchford (1851-1943) was a British journalist and socialist. This passage from his memoirs comes from a section describing a shopping trip in London in December 1917. My thanks to Lucie Dutton for bringing this text to my attention.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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Triumphant March into Port Arthur

Source: Hyakken Uchida (trans. Rachel DiNitto), ‘Triumphant March into Port Arthur’, in Realm of the Dead (Dalkey Archive Press, 2006 – orig. pub. in Ryojun Nyujōshiki, 1934)

Text: I went to a film festival of old moving pictures at Hosei University on Sunday, May 10, the day of the Imperial Silver Wedding Anniversary Celebration.

The windows in the lecture hall were covered with black cloth, throwing the room into darkness. Thin shafts of afternoon light snuck in with an eerie blue glow.

Random, confusing landscapes and faces flashed before me. The shootouts from the Ministry of War advanced with an exciting and relentless pace. Thick smoke enveloped the picture, obscuring clarity. I thought I could see the screen growing brighter through the dissipating smoke, but the images disappeared and the lecture hall suddenly lit up.

American comedies and newsreels alternately lit up the screen, and next up was the surrender of Port Arthur. An officer from the Ministry of War got up to introduce the feature. The film was originally shot by a German military observer and had only recently come into the hands of the Japanese Ministry. There were scenes not only of the famous meeting at the naval base of General Nogi and General Stessel, but also of the bombing of the fort at Niryuzan. A cinematic treasure, the officer explained, then he disappeared into blackness as the room went dark. But before his khaki-uniformed image faded from my eye, another was projected in its place – a soldier leading a parade of men headed for the front. Troops marched through Yokohama’s Isezakicho behind their bearded platoon leader. The dress braids of his uniform stretched like ribs across his chest, and he swaggered with his sword held high. The soldiers wore solemn expressions. That scene alone was enough to remind me of a twenty-year old military tune I’d long since forgotten.

I couldn’t understand why I was so moved by the bluish images of the mountains surrounding Port Arthur, but it was like seeing my own memories up on the screen. What a terribly somber mountain it was. A dim glow emanated from behind the hills, but the sky blanketing the peaks was devoid of light. I knew that the port lay under the darkest spot in the sky.

Soldiers hauled a cannon up the mountainside. The outline of the group blurred as they panted up the dark path. An older enlisted man, standing to the side, waved his hands back and forth, calling out orders. He howled like a beast.

I turned to the person next to me. “Poor bastards,” I said.

“Yeah,” someone responded.

Heads hanging, eyes fixed on the dark landscape, they advanced slowly against the weight of the heavy rope. The headless soldiers moved as an undifferentiated mass. Then one unexpectedly lifted his face. The sky was as black as the road. Cutting through the darkness like a dog with its head hung low. I saw a towering peak jut up before us as I too climbed the mountain.

“What mountain is that?” I asked.

“Beats me,” answered a nearby student.

Cannons shot into the mountainside. In a hollow under the cliff, a group of five or six soldiers furiously fired and reloaded artillery, the machinery rolling back and forth with the force of the recoil. White smoke rose and soon disappeared from the mouth of the cannon. The sound, too, was sucked into the belly of the dark mountain, the echo dying there as well. I felt uneasy not knowing where the shells were landing. Yet there was no choice but to fire. Not firing I would be more terrifying. Facing each other across the dark mountain, both sides let loose a deafening barrage of firepower day and night. The fighting changed the shape of the mountain itself. Those soldiers in the hollow acted out of fear. When smoke cleared from the cannon, I grew nervous. If only they’d fire again. Who cares where it landed!

An ominous cloud of smoke rose from a distant ridge. Tens, maybe hundreds of sparkling objects formed lines in the smoke. This was soon followed by another dark cloud. My eyes welled with tears when I learned this was the bombing of the mountain fort of Niruyzan. I cried for the men on both sides.

Next came the long-awaited encounter at the naval base. Amidst the bleak scenery I could make out the faint image of a cottage with stone walls. From off in the distance indistinguishable figures on horseback grew in size as they approached, but the blurry image never came into focus. It just faded away.

A formation of Russian soldiers on horseback rode unsteadily past a row of storehouses. The ceremony at the base was over. Nogi’s and Stessel’s expressionless faces passed quickly before my eyes like a bank of fog.

The title of the film, The Long-Fought 200-Day Battle, faded from the screen. Troops with neither packs nor guns marched by wearing long overcoats with sleeves hanging down over their hands. Houses lined the roadside, but it was hard to get any perspective on them – how far away they were, whether they had windows or roofs. There was something eerie about these lifeless men. Weren’t they in fact the war dead risen from their graves on the shadowy mountain for one final march? No one averted his gaze. They marched with their eyes on the men in front of them.

“The Triumphant March into Port Arthur!” boomed the voice of the officer on the stage.

The audience, crammed into that dark room, broke out in loud applause.

Tears streamed down my face. The row of soldiers marched on and on. My eyes clouded with tears, obscuring the people in front of me. I lost my bearings and was set adrift in an unfamiliar place.

“Quit crying,” said a man walking next to me.

Someone behind us was weeping.

The crowd kept clapping. My cheeks wet from crying, I fell into formation and was led out into the quiet of the city streets, out into nowhere.

Comments: Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971) was a Japanese novelist, short story writer and academic. He taught at Hosei University, which is in Tokyo. The films he describes seeing were of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which included the siege of Port Arthur, a Russian naval base in Manchuria, which ended in its capture by the Japanese forces. The Long-Fought 200-Day Battle, if such a film actually existed (the passage is meant to be a work of fiction), would have been a compilation of archive film of the war. The silver wedding anniversary of Emperor Taishō and Empress Teimei was in 1925. My thanks to Dawid Glownia from bringing this text to my attention.

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Old Humphrey’s Walks in London and its Neighbourhood

Source: [George Mogridge (‘Old Humphrey’)], Old Humphrey’s Walks in London and its Neighbourhood (New York, R. Carter & Brothers, 1851, 5th ed., orig. pub. c.1843), pp. 218-226

Text: This, then, is the Cosmorama. The little book put into my hand tells me that I have eight different views to gaze on. The Rope Bridge of Penipe, in South America; the Palace of Zenobia, at Palmyra; Constantinople during the conflagration in 1839; the Palace of Versailles; General View of Rome; the Park of Versailles; the Lake of Thun, in Switzerland; and the Village of Baden.

Often and often have I reflected on the varied and almost endless gratifications which await us, both in the natural and artificial creation! Truly, if our harps are not on the willows, if our hearts are in tune, a song of thanksgiving should be ever in our mouths.

The crowded city and the rural scene,
Alike are teeming with almighty lore!
Here the great Maker of this wondrous world
Sets forth his power and goodness infinite,
In mountain, vale, and wood; and there displays
The gifted properties on man bestow’d.

Though supplied with a book, giving some account of the different paintings, and furnished with paper on which to note down any suggestion that may occur to me, this passage is so dark, that I can neither read nor write legibly, without approaching the little windows, through which I must look to see the views.

THE ROPE BRIDGE OF PENIPE is the first painting. and a striking one it is. The bridge of twisted rushes, with sticks laid across, covered with branches of trees for a flooring, is represented as stretching over the river Chambo, near the village of Penipe, from rock to rock, a distance of one hundred and twenty feet. To cross such a bridge, a strong head, a bold heart, and a steady foot must be necessary. I can fancy a timid person, following his Indian guide, while the violent oscillation of the bridge hanging in air blanches his cheek, and makes his limbs tremble. Some say, and many things are more improbable, that the notion of suspension bridges arose from the rope bridges of South America. We need not, however, have travelled so far to make the discovery, as any spider would have furnished us with a model both scientific and secure.

THE PALACE OF ZENOBIA is one of the principal remains of the city of Palmyra. The Corinthian style of architecture, with the vastness that characterized the Egyptian buildings, are both sufficiently apparent. Palmyra was the Tadmor of king Solomon, a magnificent city of Syria, the stupendous ruins of which are situated in the midst of a sandy and sterile desert, around which, on three sides, mountains rise of considerable eminence. Zenobia was queen of Palmyra. Beautiful in person, and of extraordinary intellect, she united the refinement of the Grecian with the hardihood of the Roman character: this was her palace. In the pride of her power, she thought lightly of Rome; but Aurelian came as a conqueror, and her city was swept with the besom of destruction. Palmyra was a splendid city, afterwards a towm of little note; at a still later date it was an unimportant fortress, and now it is a mere miserable village. The costly ruins of its former greatness form a strange contrast to its present humiliation; for mud cottages now stand in the spacious court of the once splendid temple.

The owlet builds her nest in princely halls;
The lizard’s slime bestreaks the palace walls;
No trace of man, save that the embers spent,
Show where the wandering Arab pitch’d his tent,
The ruin tells us that the despot’s hand
Spreads desolation o’er the wretched land;
And tombs o’erthrown, and plunder’d fanes declare
Too plain — the royal robber has been there.

As I gaze on the painting, it wonderfully improves in appearance: what was a mere picture is now a real ruin, and in fancy I am standing in the midst of its mouldering magnificence. Mark the square blocks of stone through the principal portal, and the beautiful pillars, in the distance to the left, contrasted with the strength of the foreground.

Palmyra tells a tale of other times,
War and the whirlwind have alike despoil’d her.

CONSTANTINOPLE, DURING THE CONFLAGRATION OF 1839, must have been an awful spectacle. The little device of introducing an apparent flame that bursts forth, flinging a frightful red glare on the city, and then as suddenly subsides, involving the place in portentious gloom, is very effective. It gives a reality to the representation.

What a dreadful calamity is an extensive fire! Three thousand seven hundred houses were destroyed. Despairing fathers, frantic mothers, shrieking children, bedridden and helpless old age, all at their wit’s end. Alarm visited every house! Terror strided through the streets, and destruction in all directions raged abroad.

The shout of fire! a dreadful cry,
Inpress’d each heart with deep dismay,
While the fierce blaze and redd’ning sky,
Made midnight wear the face of day.

The building at the entrance of the Bosphorous there, is the seraglio, or palace of the sultan. To the right is the dome of Santa Sophia, the most celebrated mosque of the Moslems; and yonder is Pera, where the foreign ambassadors, the dragomans, and Frank merchants reside. Visit Constantinople as you will, by the Dardanelles and sea of Marmora, by the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, by the plains of Thrace or the hills of Asia, she will always be seen to advantage.

At present, the inhabitants of Constantinople follow the false Prophet; but the Christian humbly believes that the Mohammedan crescent will yet wane before the Star of Bethlehem. In vain shall the enemies of the cross contend against almighty power; at the appointed time, “the Lamb shall overcome them; for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful,” Rev. xvii. 14.

THE PALACE OF VERSAILLES is an admirable view. The building, trees, gardens, flowers, hedges, grass, and water, are all excellent. Years have passed since I looked on the real palace; but this representation of it brings it back to my gaze, as though it were just before me. The façade of one thousand nine hundred feet, the projections, Ionic columns, and statues of marble and bronze, are truly magnificent.

The centre statue, in the distance, represents Marcus Curtius leaping into the abyss, as a sacrifice for the good of his country; and the fountain on the left is the Fontaine de Pyramide, formed of four basins, one rising above another. Every spectator will be interested by this view of the palace of Versailles. Such as have seen the original will admire it for its correctness; and those who have not will be spell-bound by its beauty and magnificence.

A group of children has entered the place, to witness the wonders of the Cosmorama. They are peeping through the little windows at the different views, full of joyous exclamation. With children, pictures are always perfect.

In happy ignorance of art, they see
Beauty in every plant and spreading tree ;
Gaze on the woods and waves, with glad surprise,
And speak their pleasure with their sparkling eyes.

Let there be red, and blue, and green, and yellow enough in his brush, and a painter may calculate on the youthful world for his admirers.

This GENERAL VIEW OF ROME takes not my fancy, though it will be full of interest to those who never saw a better. St. Peter’s and the Vatican, with its colonnade, and obelisk, and fountain: the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and the Antonine and Trajan pillars, are objects which associations render attractive; but on so miniature a scale, they can scarcely be expected to be very effective. The road between the trees there would be accurately traced by the eye of a Roman Catholic, for it leads to that mother of churches, St. Giovanni Laterana, the oldest in Europe, wherein the pope is consecrated. The scene before me takes back the thought

To that proud capital, where Cesars found a home,
When Rome was all the world, and all the world was Rome.

The temple of Jupiter Stator, the ruins of the palace of the emperors, and the Fontana Paolina, the finest fountain in Rome, may all be clearly distinguished by those who have a knowledge of the once imperial city. The Corso, the finest street in Rome, may also be traced, with the Quirinal Palace, the towers of St. Maria Maggiore, and the receding waters of the river Tiber.

Though the imperial city of Rome had not, like Athens, an altar inscribed “To the unknown God,” yet did its citizens ignorantly worship stocks and stones, as the people of Athens. They were wholly given up to idolatry.

THE PARK OF VERSAILLES, like the palace, is an object which at once arrests the attention; and the longer you gaze, the more are you disposed to linger on the scene before you. The foreground, fountains, with their margins of white marble, and groups of bronze figures, are very fine; and still more magnificent is the Fountain of Latona, with the white marble figures on the red marble steps, surrounded by seventy-four gigantic frogs spouting out crystal streams. The spectator, unacquainted with the fable of Jupiter, metamorphosing the peasants of Lybia into frogs, for refusing refreshments to Latona, will be at a loss to make out what is signified by the scene.

The canal there, more than four thousand feet long, crossed by one whose length is three thousand, forms a prominent feature in the representation. I could dwell on the particular points that afford me satisfaction; but ll appear beautiful. The sky is bright, and the park is delightful. The palace and park of Versailles, most certainly, form one of the most attractive scenes in the world.

THE VILLAGE OF BADEN, though presenting to the eye of the spectator a view of one of the most picturesque spots in all Syria, is to me one of the least impressive scenes in the exhibition.

When the fierce and fiery beams of the summer sun drive away the inhabitants of Scanderoon from the marshy and unhealthy situation of their dwellings, they find an agreeable retreat in the village of Baden, where excellent fruits and good water await them. The aqueduct arches, the Santon’s tomb, the minaret and dome of the mosque, the gulf of Ajazza, and the distant mountains of Lebanon, are not without interest; but so much are they eclipsed by several of the other scenes, that I will not dwell upon them.

THE LAKE OF THUN, in Switzerland, is to me by far the most attractive representation of the Cosmorama. It is enough to make the common-place spectator imaginative, and to inspire the poetic visitant with high-wrought visions of romantic beauty. To decide whether the mountains, the trees, or the skies are the most lovely, would be an arduous undertaking. If the sublime and beautiful were ever closely connected, they are so in these smiling valleys, these cultivated hills, and mighty mountains, whose cloud-capped, icy pinnacles are lost amid the skies.

Well may such scenes be valued by the Switzer peasant! Well may they afford pleasure to him by day, and mingle with his dreams by night!

Dear is that shed to which his soul conforms,
And dear that hill that lifts him to the storms;
And as a babe, when scaring sounds molest,
Clings close arid closer to his mother’s breast.
So the loud torrent, and the whirlwind’s roar,
But bind him to his native mountains more.

The lake of Thun is more than seventeen hundred feet above the level of the sea, while the Niesen, Moine, Riger, and Jungfrau mountains lift their snowy heads thirteen thousand feet and more amid the clouds. All that is picturesque and fair in Alpine scenery seems here embodied. The river Aar, which runs below the spot whence this view is taken, descending from the Finster-Aarhorn, rolls along the base of the glaciers, collecting all their tributary waters, and distributing them among the lakes of Thun and Brienta. It afterwards pursues a course somewhat circuitous to the Rhine on the German frontier. I must now bid adieu to the Cosmorama.

In perambulating from one exhibition to another, of panoramas, dioramas, and cosmoramas; of architecture, statuary, painting, science, and literature — the thought intrudes itself. Oh that all who have talent, all who excel among mankind, would bear in mind whence their powers were derived, and would humbly adore the Giver of all good for the endowments with which he has favoured them in this world, and the revelation of his mercy through the Redeemer!

It was a desire of this kind that moved the spirit of Kirke White to fling upon his paper the following beautiful, though somewhat florid thoughts:

“Oh! I would walk
A weary journey to the farthest verge
Of the big world, to kiss that good man’s hand,
Who, in the blaze of wisdom and of art,
Preserves a lowly mind, and to his God,
Feeling the sense of his own littleness,
Is as a child in meek simplicity!
What is the pomp of learning? the parade
Of letters and of tongues? Even as the mists
Of the grey morn before the rising sun,
That pass away and perish. Earthly things
Are but the transient pageants of an hour;
And earthly pride is like the passing flower
That springs to fall, and blossoms but to die

Comments: George Mogridge (1787-1854) was a British author of travel writing, children’s books and religious tracts, frequently using the pseudonym ‘Old Humphrey’. The Cosmorama was a peepshow entertainment. Visitors entered a darkened room and peered at panoramic translucent views through a series of windows (convex lenses). The first Cosmorama opened in Paris in 1808, and the Cosmorama Room in London opened in St James’s Street in 1821, moving to 207-209 Regent’s Street in 1823. Other Cosmoramas were located across London, but Old Humphrey presumably visited the Regent Street rooms (just before this passage there is a description of the Diorama in Regent’s Park).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The Charm of Ireland

Source: Burton E. Stevenson, The Charm of Ireland (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1915), pp. 396-397

Text: We went to a picture-show at Sligo, that night, and I have never seen a livelier audience. There was, of course, a cowboy film which was received with the keenest pleasure; and there was a lurid melodrama, which culminated in the hero flinging the villain over a high cliff, at which those present rose to their feet and stamped and cheered; and then King George was shown reviewing the Life Guards, and the crowd watched in moody silence — a silence that was painful and threatening. As the troops marched past, gallant and glittering, a sight to stir the blood, there was not the suspicion of a cheer or hand-clap — just a strange, breathless silence. We were to witness the same thing thereafter in “loyal” Derry — the most convincing evidence imaginable of the feeling toward England which every Irishman, Protestant or Catholic, carries deep in his heart.

Comments: Burton Egbert Stevenson (1872-1962) was an American author, journalist and librarian.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Is it right to let us see men dying?

The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Source: James Douglas, extracts from article in The Star, 25 September 1916, p. 2, quoted in Nicholas Reeves, Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War (London: Croom Helm, 1986), pp. 244-245

Text: Is it right to let us see men dying? Yes. Is it a sacrilege? No. If our spirit be purged of curiosity and purified with awe the sight is hallowed. There is no sacrilege if we are fit for the seeing. And I think the seeing ennobled and exalted us. There was a religious reverence in the silence closing over the sobs … I say it is regenerative and resurrective for us to see war stripped bare. Heaven knows that we need the supreme katharsis, the ultimate cleansing. We grow indifferent too quickly … These are dreadful sights but their dreadfulness is as wholesome as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. It shakes the kaleidoscope of war into human reality. Now I know why soldiers are nobler than civilians in their tenderness and their chivalry and their charity … I say that these pictures are good for us.

Comments: James Douglas (1867-1940) was a British journalist, editor of The Star newspaper from 1908 to 1920. The above is an extract from a longer commentary on The Battle of the Somme (UK 1916), a documentary produced by the British Topical Committee for War Films, which was seen by millions in the UK and beyond, bringing home to many something of the reality of war. A scene in which British soldiers appeared to go ‘over the top’, some of them falling dead, illustrated above (and now known to have been simulated), had a particularly powerful effect on audiences and is probably the sequence Douglas refers to.

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Kiddar’s Luck

Source: Jack Common, Kiddar’s Luck (Glasgow/London: Blackie & Son, 1974 – originally published by Turnstile Press, 1951), pp. 104-107

Text: Our enthusiasms were kindled or quenched often enough by the accident of possession. It was the devil’s own job for us to get hold of any equipment that cost more than a few coppers. We were likely to hunger a very long time for anything we needed before chance threw something like it our way. For instance, we were regular cinema-goers and also ex-magic-lantern manipulators; each of us had spent long periods at shop windows looking at home cinematographs so impossibly expensive you could only dream of ever owning one. Well, long-continued desire is apt to produce not its true object, but an approximation of it. One day I found myself embarked on a mighty feat of barter which in the end denuded me of my best cigarette-card sets and a ball-bearing skate, but enthroned me in the possession of a workable cinematograph projector of a sort. It wasn’t any great shakes, really: a tin cabinet bearing a curved chimney and holding an oil-lamp and its glass; then a gate and handle standing separate, which carried a barely-adjustable lens. With this illumination, the throw was limited to five feet. All the same, it was pretty terrific, we thought; and it would have been very much better if we’d had more films to show. The machine could take ordinary 35-mm. stuff, and what we had were mainly bits and snippets from news-reels. One of the big lads from our corner, actually, he was smaller than me by a lump all round, but as he was working, he rated as ‘big,’ had a job with Pathé, delivering news-reels on a tricycle, I think. Tich didn’t get the sort of salary later current in the world of films, in fact he was often hard put to it to keep himself in Woodbines. He was one of that great tribe of Briton who considered life a fair thing as long as the supply of Woods didn’t run out, and when it did would have parted with his grandmother and his only shirt so as to see once again the lovely white cylinder alight in his lips. When we were able to knock off some Woods, we used to waylay him as he came home from work to get lengths of film in exchange.

Thus we built up a collection of snippets. The best was a sequence from an Italian film showing a fire at sea. What made it so good was that it was in colour – not Technicolor, then still a belly-ache in the womb of time, but some kind of dye. It showed a bluish, moonlit sea, across which crept a two-masted schooner (probably a model, but the loyalty to the Battle-axe still latent in me continues to protest that it was genuine). The ship looked so ghostly against the ambience of blue as it bore upon the dark waves you felt that it was doomed, it and the crew we never saw since we were without benefit of close-up still, and sure enough the sign of calamity came upon it. There was a sudden puff of smoke amidships. ‘Fire!’ said a caption on a blue background, as I turned the handle faster because we all knew that. ‘Fire at Sea!’ said a caption on a red background, and I slowed down ready for the reappearance of the ship now being licked by red flames and a pretty lurid sight, I can tell you. ‘Ooh,’ said my audience. I turned more and more slowly in order to make it last, which it wouldn’t do for long, because that was all we had of that. There was no proper end to it. When last seen that ghost ship still bore its blossom of flame across the hopeless empty seas and left us with that slight after-yearning which is the sign of perfect pleasure.

Well, that was our best piece. Now for our worst. One tremendously wet night I was out buying that week’s Gem on the windy corner where Geeling, the newsagent’s, was. Lord, it was wet. There was such a wind about, too, that you could see the rain coming at you, flung in whole sheets all the way across the Junction, shawls of it, ropes of it, lashing round your legs, clapping down like a watery cloche over your bent head, and flattening in liquid running veils on the lit shop windows. There were few about, you bet. The shops stayed undisturbed behind the wet gaslight they showed outside. Even the fish-and-chip was so blinded and sealed up in this flat rain, you couldn’t taste a smell from it. But in the dark doorway next to it, there stood a small figure who gave me a hail. I swung the peak of my dripping cap around. It was Tich, the big lad from Pathés. He was broke and hungry; he wanted some chips. What’s more, he had on him the biggest roll of film I’d yet encountered – oh, there must have been two hundred feet of it. Of course, I’d only the penny for my Gem, but there wasn’t going to be anybody else about on such a night – Tich reckoned it would have to be a deal.

So it was, indeed, but what a disappointment. The whole film showed nothing but a visit of the King and Queen to a Tyneside shipyard. At least that is what a caption said. You see, it is a well-known fact that whenever any distinguished visitors are due on the Tyne, you reach for your mack; if they are going to a shipyard, reach for two macks because if there is any place wetter than a shipyard on a rainy day, it must be in Davy Jones’s province. Not that you could see any rain in this picture; all you could see was a soup-plate, Queen Mary, stalking a saucer, King George. Sometimes other pieces of china strolled across or retreated into the murk, but they were just flashes of pans, you might safely say. Just at the end, a ghostly motor-car wrapped itself round the crockery, and a line of washing waved to it. That was all this immense footage gave one. Whenever I showed it to younger audiences they yelled that my lamp was going out; and they never asked to have it run through again.

One night we got an idea for the salvaging of this wasted footage. Why not scrape the roll free of film and draw cartoons on it. You can imagine what we’d let ourselves in for. It isn’t easy to draw on celluloid, less so if you are rationed to the 35-mm. frame for space, and only two of us were any good at drawing anyway. After many hopeless attempts, we hit on a formula. Our characters would be match-stick men, so that any one of us could follow the master-drawing; and their adventures would be limited to what could be done with the simplest of props, a lamp-post, say, or a chamber-pot. This worked, you know. It enabled us to set up a sort of poor boy’s Hollywood of doorstep Disneys. We had script and production conferences properly controlled by the general awareness that anybody who thought he had a good idea would presently have to make it. A wearisome labour it was, too. Amazing what a perseverance boys will put into a task if nobody has told them to do it. Night after night with homework shelved and forgotten we struggled with spluttering pens over the celluloid coils. The result was a great success with our public. We hit Broadway to some extent when we were invited to put on a show at a rather posh girls’ party. After that we dreamed of greater ventures and performed none.

Comments: Jack Common (1903-1968) based his novel on his own working-class childhood in Heaton, an inner suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, covering the years 1903-1917. Common gained little recognition as a writer in his lifetime (George Orwell was a friend and admirer), but has more recently enjoyed critical acclaim. This passage from the book takes place during First World War period.

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Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 152-153

Text: Not only did we shout on the roads, but we also sometimes made a noise in the cinema, too, and in the theatre – not, of course, in the Playhouse, which we rightly regarded with reverential awe, but in the old New Theatre, where the number one touring companies brought London’s big musical comedy successes. Here were gaiety and pretty girls, and lively dancing, and catchy tunes, and loudly did we cheer artists like the enchanting Cora Goffin (now Lady Littler) and the comedian Arthur Riscoe. There were then three cinemas in Oxford (perhaps there still are) – the Super near the top of Beaumont Street, the Electra in Queen Street, and the Scala at the wrong end of Walton Street. At the Electra we saw the first and most memorable Beau Geste with Ronald Colman; at the Scala Lubitsch’s Foolish Wives, then looked upon as the last word in daring sophistication: and I recall one evening at the Super when we seem constantly to have interrupted the opening film of the programme with cries of ‘We want Laura! We want Laura!’, Laura being the then much esteemed, but now totally forgotten, Laura La Plante. Strangely enough no one in the rest of the audience seems to have objected to our behaviour: perhaps, without knowing it, we were the voice of the people. Frequently as we went to the cinema we did nor go half as often as Henry Yorke, who is said to have gone to the films six times a week all his years in Oxford. It seems to have done him little harm, either in practical or aesthetic terms. For he became a highly successful businessman in Birmingham, and as a sideline to his main activities a celebrated novelist under the name of Henry Green: the only novelist of our age, said Evelyn Waugh, to possess undoubted genius.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned theatre critic. This part of his memoirs refers to his time at Oxford University. Foolish Wives (1922) was directed by Erich von Stroheim, not Lubitsch.

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When the Viewing had to Stop

Source: Peter Ackroyd, ‘When the Viewing had to Stop’, in Peter Ackroyd (ed. Thomas Wright), The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), pp. 140-142 [orig. pub. The Spectator, 7 March 1987]

Text: There comes a time when Mr Pickwick, bewildered by the horrors of the Fleet Prison, announces that ‘I have seen enough … My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room.’ These are very much the sentiments of your film critic on abandonning his generally undistinguished and no doubt ineffective career; enough is enough. No more films set in what journalists call ‘Thatcher’s England’; no more tearful tributes to the elderly starring Katharine Hepburn; no more masterpieces with the subtitles in Americanese. And no more questions from the only mildly curious, on the lines of ‘What film is worth seeing?’ I never really knew. Yesterday I turned back to the pages of the Spectator in 1979 when I began to write film criticism, and I could recall nothing of the films I then either praised or damned. They had gone, vanished, disappeared. I usually find it difficult to recall even the film I saw in the previous week, so effortlessly to the images slip or slide away.

[…]

Perhaps more memorable than the films have been the cinemas themselves. There were ghastly places in north London, where health food was sold over the counter; there were dank crypts off the Tottenham Court Road which people used as refuges rather than as places of entertainment. But there were also some agreeable little spots, somehow removed from this world: the Minema is generally billed as the smallest cinema in London but it is also one of the most comfortable, and those who have a taste for macabre interiors should visit one of the auditoria of the Cannon Haymarket. And I regret the passing of the Academy, Oxford Street, which curiously resembled a toy theatre blown up out of all proportion.

And of course the cinema itself was always as important as any of the films being shown in it. The queuing, the buying of undrinkable coffee, the harridans bearing trays of ice-cream, the advertisements for Levi’s jeans and the Electricity Board, the warnings about one’s handbag, all furnished the slow and cosy passage into the filmic world. And yet even as I enjoyed these simple pleasures I was aware of the fact that they were essentially of an old-fashioned and even anachronistic sort – not ones, perhaps, which will survive the end of the century in their present form. I seemed to be participating in a social activity that was already past; I was still part of the audience that first went to the silent cinema in the twenties and I was certainly not part of that unimaginable future populace to whom the cinema will mean no more than the penny gaff or the diorama do to us.

Comments: Peter Ackroyd (1949 – ) is a British novelist, biographer and critic. He was film critic for the Spectator magazine from 1979 to 1987. The essay from which the above extracts are taken was written upon his giving up being a film critic.

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Les Choses

Source: Georges Perec (trans. David Bellos), Things: A Story of the Sixties (London: Vintage, 2011) [orig. Les Choses, 1965], pp. 55-57

Text: Above all they had the cinema. And this was probably the only area where they had learned everything from their own sensibilities. They owed nothing to models. Their age and education made them members of that first generation for which the cinema was not so much an art as simply a given fact; they had always known the cinema not as a fledgling art form but, from their earliest acquaintance, as a domain having its own masterworks and its own mythology. Sometimes it seemed as if they had grown up with it, and that they understood it better than anyone before them had ever been able to understand it.

They were cinema buffs. Film was their primordial passion; they indulged it every evening. or nearly. They loved the pictures as long as they were beautiful, entrancing, charming, fascinating. They loved the mastery of space, time and movement, they loved the whirl of New York streets, the torpor of the Tropics, fights in saloon bars. They were not excessively sectarian, like those dull minds which swear only by a single Eisenstein, Buñuel or Antonioni, or even – as there’s no accounting for tastes – by Carné, Vidor, Aldrich or Hitchcock; nor were they too eclectic, like those infantile people who throw all critical sense to the winds and acclaim a director as a genius if he makes a blue sky look blue or if the pale red of Cyd Charisse’s dress is made to clash with the darker red of Robert Taylor’s sofa. They did not lack taste. They were highly suspicious of so-called art movies, with the result that when this term was not enough to spoil a film for them, they would find it even more beautiful (but they would say – quite rightly – that Marienbad was “all the same just a load of crap!”); they had an almost exaggerated feeling for Westerns, for thrillers, for American comedies and for those astonishing adventures full of lyrical flights, sumptuous images and dazzling, almost inexplicable beauties such as (the titles were imprinted on their minds for ever) Lola, Bhowani Junction, The Bad and the Beautiful, Written on the Wind.

They did not go to concerts at all often, and even less often to the theatre. But they would meet, by chance, at the Film Theatre, at the Passy Cinema, or the Napoleon, or in little local flea-pits – the Kursaal at Gobelins, the Texas at Montparnasse. the Bikini, the Mexico at Place Clichy, the Alcazar at Belleville, and others besides, around Bastille or in the XVth arrondissement, graceless, ill-equipped cinemas frequented by the unemployed, Algerians, ageing bachelors, and film buffs, where they would see, in atrociously dubbed French versions, those unknown masterpieces they remembered from when they were fifteen, or those reputed works of genius (they had memorised the entire list) which they had been trying in vain for years to see. They would always remember with wonderment the blessed evening when they had discovered, or rediscovered, almost by chance, The Crimson Pirate, The World in His Arms, Night and the City, My Sister Eileen, or The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T. Alas, quite often, to tell the truth, they were horribly let down. Films they had waited so long for, as they had thumbed almost feverishly through the new issues of the Entertainment Guide every Wednesday, films they had been told by almost everyone were magnificent, sometimes did finally turn out to be showing somewhere. They would turn up, every one of them, on the opening night. The screen would light up, they would feel a thrill of satisfaction. But the colours had faded with age, the picture wobbled on the screen, the women were of another age; they would come out; they would be sad. It was not the film they had dreamt of. It was not the total film each of them had inside himself, the perfect film they could have enjoyed for ever and ever. The film they would have liked to make. Or, more secretly, no doubt, the film they would have liked to live.

Comments: Georges Perec (1936-1982) was a French experimental novelist and essayist. Les Choses, his first novel, is a portrait of French life in the 1960s, seen more through things (choses) the characters own than the characters themselves.

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Diaries and Letters 1930-39

Source: Harold Nicolson (ed. Nigel Nicolson), Diaries and Letters 1930-39 (London: Collins, 1971), p. 390

Text: 4th February, 1939
V. and I go round to the Beales where there is a Television Set lent by the local radio-merchant. We see a Mickey Mouse, a play, and a Gaumont British film. I had always been told that the television could not be received above 25 miles from Alexandra Palace. But the reception was every bit as good as at Selfridge’s. Compared with a film, it is a bleary, flickering, dim, unfocused, interruptible thing, the size of a quarto sheet of paper as this on which I am typing. But as an invention it is tremendous and may alter the whole basis of democracy.

Comments: Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a British diplomat, politician and diarist. V is his wife, the poet Vita Sackville-West. The Beales were tenant farmers of their farm at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. The Nicolsons acquired their own television set later in February 1939. The Mickey Mouse film was Pied Piper; the play was a one-act piece (repeated live from January 31st) entitled A Marriage Has Been Arranged, written by Alfred Sutro and starring Margaretta Scott. There were no BBC television news programmes at this date: instead it showed Gaumont British News and British Movietone News newsreels. BBC programmes were broadcast via a transmitter at Alexandra Palace in north London. Demonstrations of television had featured at Selfridge’s department store in London.

Links: Radio Times listing for 4 February 1939, from the Genome database

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