He Sees Wings

Source: Cathleen McCarthy (‘Jeanette’), ‘He Sees Wings’, Peterborough Examiner, 28 February 1928, p. 3

Text: He was a little boy, not more than seven years of age. He was watching along with his brother and another small lad, the picture of ‘Wings’ at the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Opera House. Half the time he was on his feet, that is, in the air scenes. The sentimental episodes left him cold. He sat quietly through them, evincing little interest. “There’s the girl” was his only comment when the lady appeared. And he clung steadfastly to the belief that David and Jack were brothers. That’s why they were such pals, in his opinion.

He knew instantly what would come later on. “Watch the girl,” he said. “She’s going to climb under the car.” She did. “Now they’ll hit the car.” They did, with one of their bombs.

The Germans were “bad guys” and the two heroes of the picture were “good guys.” They were also Canadians, instead of Americans, as the producers intended. “Watch the Canadians win,” he said, every time that the camera depicted a triumphant advance.

“There’s one of the good guys in the wee, white car,” he announced triumphantly. “He’s going to get the bad guy’s balloon. Watch him get it – oh, lady, lady!” (as the flames consumed the big gas bag). He read the sub-titles rapidly. “Weeks pass.” His brother: “What passed?” Little boy (impatiently): “Any weeks.” They all subside, to brighten up again when the planes ‘strafe’ the German trenches.

“Oh boy, look at ’em run! Look at the good guys smash the bad guys. Hurray!” (as the tanks rumble over an energetic machine gun nest). “They’re all Canadians in that tank. It goes that way because they’re all drunk inside. Look at the rest of the Canadians coming along behind the tank so they won’t get killed.”

Later: “Gee, he killed his brother. Look at him yellin’ at the good guy and he can’t hear. Gosh, he killed him. Look at the lady cryin’. That’s their mother. She liked the dead one best.” They quiet down. The killing is all finished and the “good guy” is dead. As far as they care concerned, the picture is over.

Comments: Cathleen McCarthy (1889-198?) was a Canadian journalist and film reviewer who wrote from the Ontario newspaper Peterborough Examiner under the name of Jeanette. Peterborough cinema historian Robert G. Clarke writes about this delightful record of children watching the 1927 First World War movie Wings at Peterborough’s Grand Opera House on his website www.peterboroughmoviehistory.com. I am grateful to him for providing me with a copy of the full article and his OK to reproduce it here.

Links: ‘Watching a Movie at the Grand Opera House, 1928’ (from Robert G. Clarke’s site)

Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait

Source: Gilbert Frankau, Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait: A Novel of His Own Life (London: Hutchinson, 1940), pp. 143-146

Text: In the fullness of time Chambers departed, leaving me and Wilson in dual glory at the Grand Hotel, Rome. My main mission was to convince the Italians that we had several men fighting in France and Flanders – the Hun propaganda machine denying this daily, through a secretly subsidised press. “No War Here”, said a Welsh miners’ leader addressing a home audience – and the headline appeared in a Naples paper next day.

The battle films with which I had been supplied might have proved convincing. But Chambers hadn’t been able to sell them; and I could hardly persuade invited audiences to sit through them in free seats.

After some four fruitless weeks of travel I again took counsel with our ambassador; and dashed back to London.

There, I looted every scrap of official film I could find, including several priceless feet of General Cadorna, then generalissimo of the Italian armies, Lord Kitchener, and a sausage balloon taking the air at Queen’s Club.

With these, Muirhead Bone’s etching of a tank in action and complete orchestra scores for “The British Grenadiers”, “Tipperary” and other martial music, I returned to Italy, and took up my headquarters at the Hotal Cavour, Milan.

What Luca Comerio, the Italian cinema man, and I did to the official British war films in the solitude of his studio is nobody’s business but our own.

The very first caption thrown on the screen over the facsimile signature of “Capitano Gilbert Frankau, Stato Maggiore Inglese” (English General Staff) guaranteed the story of “La Battaglia dei Tanks” completely authentic.

And what a story! We printed twelve copies. Within ten minutes of the private preview we sold them all – my instructions were to make the thing pay if I could – to five renters whose theatres covered the whole of Italy.

Tears blinded even those hardboiled renters when a shell burst obscured the entire screen, and the film seemed to break, and that most telling of all our captains [captions] read, “Alas – alas, for the too-intrepid cameraman”. With muted music the effect on large audiences had to be seen to be believed.

Among the believers in the death of that mythical cameraman – for I never had the heart to disillusion Her Excellency – was Lady Rodd …

…That night in 1917 I took Rudyard Kipling – and two charming American women whose names escape the memory – to the theatre where my film had been showing since noon. Gerald Tyrrwhit, unpaid attaché at the Embassy, now Lord Berners, had trained the orchestra for me. They struck up “Rule, Britannia” – by pure coincidence – as we seated ourselves in the box.

Kipling watched the screen. I watched Kipling.

The tunes and that first captional guarantee of authenticity surprised him a little. But he did not even blink when he saw Marconi inventing the tank, or General Cadorna arriving for a conference with Lord Kitchener at which it was decided that the English army should attack on the Somme.

“Good work”, whispered my master. “How did you come to think of that fiction?”

Modesty kept silence. Our troops, tinted blue and brown, massed by night. The London Scottish appeared complete with band to “Auld lang syne” and “A wee doch and doris”. Then “Came the dawn of battle”; and my Queen’s Club sausage balloon rose to survey the German trenches.

Promptly the enemy planes – ours from Salisbury Plain – swooped to the attack, their machine guns chattering. (Tyrrwhit managed that rather well with his drums.) Down fell the balloon (tinted red, and two out of every three pictures excised, to say nothing of the men on the ropes, giving the effect of speed) in real flames.

“Gorgeous”, whispered Kipling. “Cost you a truss of hay, I expect.”

Our plans counter-attacked. A German Fokker, which looked a little like one of our own B.E.2C’s to Kingscote’s pupil in anti-aircraft gunnery, also fell in flames.

The crashed plane, I think, was a real picture. Then, it had no British circles under its wings. If anyone faked the Iron Crosses there, it was not done in Milan.

“But where are the tanks?” whispered Kipling. “We must live up to our titles.”

Again his fan kept silence while superimposed shell-bursts – the damn things never looked quite real, they waggled about too much – rained on our advancing infantry.

“Meanwhile…” read the next caption; and suddenly Kipling chuckled.

“Tanks to the rescue. The Devastating Blinders, eh! Grand”.

They were my own words, my very own dictionary-dredged Italian words; and I could not refrain from displaying my erudition.

“Blindati Devastatori means armoured devastators”, I corrected, as the tank-noses reared high to crush walls I could have sworn built in England, and swept on to the apocryphal attack.

But Kipling preferred his own translation, repeating to himself “devastating blinders”, till that thrilling moment when the mine blew, and spotless Highlanders stormed forward, bayonets flashing, at no double ever seen in France or Flanders to victory or death. We faded out on coloured flags and “Long Live the Allies” to a complete symphony of national anthems.

“What do you think of it?” I asked, as we walked the undarkened streets. (Even the Huns of 1914-1918 never dared to bomb the Eternal City.)

“Superb”, chuckled Kipling, “But you will be slain for this, my friend. Most indubitably you will be slain.”

Comments: Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952) was a British novelist and poet. His book Self-Portrait describes itself as a novel, but it is effectively an autobiography. Like many of the British literary intellgensia during World War I, he was recruited by the covert War Propaganda Bureau to promote British interests during the First World War. Frankau was sent to Italy to oversee the presentation of British official war films, starting in 1916 with the documentary feature Britain Prepared (1915). Behind the comic detail lies some useful and occasionally convincing detail about the presentation of war films. He may be referring to the British documentary feature The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917), though that film in its original state had no fakery. Luca Comerio was a prominent Italian film producer. Rudyard Kipling, another War Propaganda Bureau recruit, was in Italy around May 1917 in preparation for writing an account of the Italian campaign, The War in the Mountains. Lady Rodd was the wife of the British ambassador to Italy.

Diaries

Source: George Orwell (ed. Peter Davison), Diaries (New York/London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2009), p. 150

Text: Ship gives out a cyclostyled sheet of news every day. Movies ocasionally (have not seen them yet).

In Casablanca went to the pictures, & saw films making virtually certain that the French Gov.t expects war. The first a film on the life of a soldier, following up all the different branches & with some very good shots of the inner arrangements of the Maginot line. This film had evidently been hurriedly constructed & went into much greater detail than is normal in films of this kind. The other was the Pathe news gazette, in which the announcer gave what was practically a political speech denouncing Germany. The more shots of British & French troops etc. The significant point was the attitude of the audience – utterly unenthusiastic, hardly a clap, & a few hostile comments.

Comments: George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950), British novelist and essayist. He had been convalescing in French Morocco, and was on board a ship in Casablanca dock on the morning of 30 March 1939, preparing to return to Britain, when he wrote this diary note.

A Japanese Cinema

Source: ‘A Japanese Cinema’, New Zealand Herald, 25 March 1933, supplement p. 10

Text: A JAPANESE CINEMA

ENTHUSIASM OF AUDIENCE

NO KISSES IN FILMS

An interesting description of a visit to a Japanese cinema theatre is given by an English traveller in a recent issue of “Film Weekly.” Flaming banners and photographs of Japanese film stars denoted that this was the place I sought, (he wrote). I paid my money and entered, my progress to the seat being accompanied by deep bows from the daintily clad and elaborately coiffured usherettes. Next came a coy little lady bearing an ash tray and matches and a cushion for my greater comfort. By my side were two giggling little dolls, who every now and again cast surreptitious and demure glances in my direction.

The programme was nearing the end of the “comic,” in which two Oriental prototypes of Laurel and Hardy were competing for the affections of a lovely geisha. The audience literally screamed with merriment as, while they were indulging in mirthful altercation, another competitor stole her away under their very noses.

Let, no one talk to me of inscrutable, unsmiling Japanese. They form the most responsive and vocal audiences in the world. If they are amused they laugh – and they are easily amused – and their laugh is not just a refined gurgle, but a whole-hearted roar. If they are thrilled, an audible shiver runs through the audience.

A newsreel with a Japanese commentary showed the exploits of the representatives of the Land of the Rising Sun in the Olympic Games. This was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. The whole aim of Japanese pictures seems to be the glorification of Japan and things Japanese. Never was there a country so intensely nationalistic.

The feature picture was the synchronised version of Ben-Hut, from which, as the kiss in Japan is looked upon as a most disgusting affair, most of the love scenes had been eliminated. Ben-Hur’s caresses were left to the imagination. Every time the lovers showed signs of offending the Japanese moral code by coming to gags, the referee. in the form of a quick fade-out, would order them to break away, whilst the two coy maidens on my left would cover their faces with opened fingers and give a shocked “chi-chi.”

I soon tired of transatlantic Romans, and wandered forth into the gaily bannered streets in search of more film fare. I entered a second “shinema” for the modest sum of 10 sen, about 11⁄2d. All the seats being full, I stood at the back and watched a thrilling drama of the Shanghai conflict. Japan is passing through a period of intense chauvinism, and it is perhaps natural that such a proud and self-reliant nation should mirror its military prowess upon the screen. An elocutionist who commented on the story was much in evidence, in spite of lengthy Japanese captions. The story, if indeed it can be dignified by that, name, was of the slightest. The main theme was the heroism of the soldiers of Nippon.

We then went back to the days of sho-guns and samurai in an historical drama. Our worthy elocutionist, had obviously exhausted himself in his previous effort, and the complicated story slowly unfolded itself to a rapidly dwindling audience. With no English captions to guide me, the picture was almost totally incomprehensible, but I gathered that it dealt with the adventures of a lovely “Broken Blossom,” whose heart still retained its snow-white purity in spite of her sinister environment, a theme very dear to the Japanese mind.

Her handsome lover, sword in hand, after encountering incredible opposition, effects her escape, but dies in her arms. Then the story goes off at another angle with an entirely different set of characters.

Comments: This article was originally published in the British film journal Film Weekly. The silent film Ben-Hur (USA 1925) was reissued in 1931 with a music score and sound effects.

Links: Copy at Papers Past

Some Unpublished Letters of Lafcadio Hearn

Source: Osman Edwards, ‘Some Unpublished Letters of Lafcadio Hearn’, Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, vol. 16 (1918), pp. 16-32

Text: We know how he loved to mingle unobtrusively with the joys and sorrows of his unsophisticated neighbours. He gives the following account of a visit to a Tokyo cinema:

“Here I, too, have been looking at scenes of the Boer War – shadowed by the cinematograph. The representation was managed so as to create only sympathy for the Boers: and I acknowledge that it made my heart jump several times. The Boer girls and wives were displayed as shooting and being shot. What you would have enjoyed were the little discourses in Japanese, uttered between each exhibition. They were simple and appealed to Japanese sympathy, – to the sense of patriotism, and the duty of dying to the last man, woman, and child for one’s country.

Also I saw the Paris Exhibition (1900) in the Kinematograph – and – a can-can! Before the shadows began to dance, their dancing was properly apologised for to the Japanese audience. ‘It is rather queer dancing,’ said the man, ‘but the French think that it is very fine!’ The dancers kept white veils or something before them when they kicked, – police injunction, perhaps! You can imagine how the audience felt – and how I felt with them! And I was glad when it was over.”

Comments: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was an Irish-Greek journalist and travel writer best known for books on Japan, where he lived from 1890, taking on Japanese nationality with the name Koizumi Yakumo. The films of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) may have been the fictions produced by the Edison company. My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this reference to my attention.

Diary of Frances Stevenson

Diary of Frances Stevenson, 4 August 1916, Parliamentary Archives, FLS/4

Source: Frances Stevenson, diary entry for 4 August 1916, Parliamentary Archives, FLS/4

Text: Friday, 4 August 1916

We went on Wednesday night to a private view of the “Somme Films” i.e. the pictures taken during the recent fighting. To say that one enjoyed them would be untrue; but I am glad I went. I am glad I have seen the sort of thing our men have to go through, even to the sortie from the trench, and the falling in the barbed wire. There were picture too of the battlefield after the fight, & of our gallant men lying all crumpled up & helpless. There were pictures of men mortally wounded being carried out of the communication trenches, with the look of agony o their faces. It reminded me of what Paul’s last hours were: I have often tried to imagine to myself what he went through, but now I know: and I shall never forget. It was like going through a tragedy. I felt something of what the Greeks must have felt when they went in their crowds to witness those grand old plays – to be purged in their minds through pity and terror.

Comments: Frances Stevenson (1888-1972), later Frances Lloyd George, Countess Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, was at this time private secretary to the Secretary of State for War David Lloyd George, and his mistress. They married in 1943. Lloyd George, who is “D” in the full diary entry, became prime minister in December 1916. The film they saw The Battle of the Somme, a documentary feature made by the British Topical Committee for War Films, which had a huge impact on audiences when it was released commercially in August 1916. My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for having alerted me to the diary’s entry publication online.

Links: Copy at the Parliamentary Archives

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.

Is it right to let us see men dying?

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.

The Log of a Noncombatant

Source: Horace Green, The Log of a Noncombatant (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), pp. 127-129

Text: I was conscious of a distinct break between the crisp, official atmosphere of Berlin — where the war hurts least and the mechanical appearance of success is strong — and the sentiment of the rank and file of people whose suffering, as the war continued, became a more and more important factor.

On the night of my second arrival in the capital I sat in the rear of a motion-picture theater, just off the Friedrichstrasse. It was a long, dark hallway, such as one may see in any of the cheaper “movies” on Washington Street or Broadway, where the audience sits in silence broken by the whirr of the cinematograph and in darkness pierced by the flickering light upon the screen. The woman in the seat beside mine was the typical Hausfrau of the middle class. She was, of course, dressed in mourning: the heavy veil, which was thrown back, revealed the expression so common to the German widow of to-day — that set, defiant look which begs no pity, and seems to say: “We’ve lost them once; we’d endure the same torture again if we had to.” It was a sad enough story that the reel clicked off, and about as melodramatic as “movies” usually are. But the woman kept herself well in hand, since the public display of grief is forbidden and they who sorrow must sorrow alone.

A Bavarian boy, as I recall it, — the youngest son, — runs away from home to join his father’s regiment in Poland. When his captain calls for volunteers for a dangerous mission, the boy steps forward. For hours they trudge over the snow until surrounded by a Cossack patrol. The Bavarian boy, although having a chance to escape, goes back under fire to succor his wounded comrade. Just as he is about to drag the comrade into the zone of safety, a bullet pierces his lung. For two days he suffers torture on the snow. The body is found and brought home to his mother.

Now and then the widow next me bit her lip and clenched her fist, but she gave no other sign of emotion. Another film was thrown on the screen, humorous, I believe. Suddenly the woman began to laugh. She did not stop laughing. It was a long, mirthless, dry, uncanny sort of cackle. People stared. She laughed still louder. An usher came down the aisle, and stood there, uncertain what to do. Hysterics had given way to weeping: the tears were now streaming down the woman’s face. She tried to control herself, but could not, and then arose and between choking sobs and laughter fled from the darkened room out into the Friedrichstrasse.

Comments: Horace Green (1885-?) was an American journalist with the New York Evening Post, who visited Belgium and Germany during first few months of the First World War.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Germs

Source: Richard Wollheim, Germs: A Memoir of Childhood (London: The Waywiser Press, 2004), pp. 40-46

Text: At about the time when I came of an age to notice novelty, and no longer assumed that the world as I now looked out on it had witnessed all the events recounted in the history books which I was just beginning to devour, the first new thing to break in on my vision was the cinema. At one moment the cinema did not exist, and, the next moment, these generally square buildings were all over. Made of the thin, dark red bricks of the period, they were faced with white stucco grooved to look like stone, which, with great artificiality, introduced the bright look of the seaside into land-locked suburbia. Behind the cinema was the car-park reserved for the patrons – cinema, car-park, patron, all being new words – but soon there were few more familiar, more welcome, sights than the string of small coloured lights looped over the entrance to the car-park, or the two chromium-plated boxes that were screwed to the brickwork of the cinema, through the glass fronts of which, when they were not too dirtied by the rain, passers-by could make out from the sepia-tinted stills, the high points in the movie that was currently showing: when one of these shots came up in the course of the movie, a low gasp of recognition was involuntarily released into the crowded darkness of the hall. If the film was a western, or a war film, another form of preview, which I loved, was a sand table that would be set out in the foyer of the cinema, re-creating the high sierras and canyons of some unknown land, or the battlefields of Flanders with their water-filled trenches and blasted trees, or the skies above them where fearless aviators were locked in single combat.

In every cinema, a patrons’ book was placed next to the kiosk where tickets were sold, and those who signed their names in the book would then receive free a monthly programme, printed in violet ink on shiny paper so that the lettering was always slightly blurred. Each double bill had a page devoted to it, and it was a rule of our family, originating probably from my mother, who liked rules without reason, that only on a Thursday morning, and then with her permission, and under her direct supervision, could the programme be picked up, and the page turned, turned and then very precisely folded back onto itself. When my mother turned the page of the programme, she let out a low hiss. Ordinarily the programme lay on my father’s bedside table, along with the miscellaneous books he brought back from his travels: some Tauchnitz volumes, a work of Freud’s in German, a novel by Joseph Kessel in French. My mother had no need for a bedside table.

Half turning the page, or looking round the corner into the future, was, without some very special excuse, forbidden, and not until I was 14 or 15, by which time I was grappling in my mind with the ideas of Raskolnikov, did it seriously occur to me to breach this rule.

For each film, the programme gave the title, listed the characters and the actors who played them, said whether the film was a U certificate or A certificate, and provided a brief synopsis of the plot. I loved the words “character”, “cast”, “plot”, “synopsis”, and I wanted to learn the precise distinctions that they embodied. I did well with some of these words, but with the last of them I made the least headway. The word itself was obscure, and so were many of the synopses themselves, particularly so when the film was “A” certificate, or was judged unsuitable for children to see, for the management went on the assumption that the synopsis, though it had to be fair, must be suitable for all to read, with a result that was very far from that intended. Even as I began to read the three or four lines, I fell into a state of dread that I had read, or was just about to read, something that, innocuous enough in itself, would nevertheless inform me, particularly if I allowed my mind to wander, of something that I was not supposed to know about, and, though I had no desire to preserve my innocence, what I did not want was to lose it through someone else, and least of all through someone else’s carelessness or oversight, for then I would inadvertently be tied for ever to the shame from which I desired to escape.

The regime under which I grew up reserved the cinema for two sorts of occasion: winter, and rainy afternoons.

Winter came round with its own relentlessness […] Rain, by contrast, was unpredictable, and it remained all my childhood the object of a deep conflict.

On the one hand, there was the knowledge that only the sight of rain spitting against the windows, or battling with the wipers as they raced across the windscreen, could convert what was a shadowy promise written in violet ink into the warm reality of the cinema. Entry into this reality was gradual, and it was the richer, the darker, the more deliciously oppressive, for the three or four stages into which it was broken up. First, the car had to be parked. My mother, like many drivers of that period, had some difficulty in “backing-back”, as it was called, and often I could feel my bladder fill in response to her slowness. Then there was the run across the car park in Wellingtons and a stiff mac, crunching the cinders underfoot as I went, and already feeling that the world in which anything might happen was taking me over. Jumping the puddles, I was a horse leaping a swollen stream as we, the cavalry, moved up into the attack, or I was a steeplechaser taking in its stride a particularly vicious hurdle, or, cut out the horse, and now I was my own awkward self who hadn’t seen the puddle, and waded straight through it, or who had seen it but hadn’t noticed how deep it was, and slammed down, first one foot, then the other, to make the water splash up over the top of my boots. For a minute or so, I became the rough boy I never wanted to be. Next there was the delay as the tickets had to be bought, and the small violet or cherry-coloured pieces of paper curled up through the carefully etched slab of steel that lay just the other side of the ornamental grille, and were torn off and handed to us. Certainty descended, and we progressed through the foyer, up the steps, into the cinema itself, unless there was a necessary detour through the long curtains into the chamber grandiosely marked ‘Gentlemen’. My prayer was always the same: it was that we should arrive just before the lights went down, and the torches of the usherettes, flickering like fireflies in the night, were needed to direct us to our seats. For, once darkness fell, couples who had nowhere else to meet started to find comfort in the warm smell of each other, and, for me to be certain that I could withstand the excitement with which the cinema began to creak, it was best to have looked on the faces of the audience while they were still distinct under the ceiling lights. Indeed I could see no reason why my mother should not imitate the punctuality that my governess showed every Sunday when she took me to church, and why we should not time our entry to perfection so that we would walk down the aisle at the very moment when the organ, which always gave me a headache if I had to listen to it for any period of time, had stopped, and the organist had taken his bow, and organ and organist had descended into some uncertain depths. If only my mother would co-operate with my wishes, then no sooner would I have been got into my seat, and my mac folded on a neighbouring chair, than the great miraculous event, half sunset, half sunrise, with the intervening night displaced, would start to unfold. The lights dimmed, a hush, like the end of the day, fell on the audience, and the first titles came up on the screen, and they could, just for a moment, be seen on the far side of the gauze curtains, as clear as pebbles through still water. Then, as the curtains slid open, and the gauze was gathered up into pleats, it was as though a light wind had started up before dawn, and made ripples on the surface of the stream, and now, from one second to the next, as fast as that, the lettering became blurred, until the curtains passed across it, and then, one by one, the words again became legible, and the screen took on the unbounded promise of a book first opened.

All this I longed for, but, against this, there was another sight, and the deep-seated dread I had of it. It was that when, at the end of the film, still blinking at the light, still trying to resolve the loyalties that the film had stirred up in me, who was good, who was bad, and, as a separate issue, which side was I on, I would find myself standing by the heavy glass doors that led back to reality, and not only would the rain have stopped, but the sun would have come out. By now the water that had clung to the trees, or that had collected on the lampposts and on the tiled roofs and on the undersides of the gutters, would, at first slowly, but with gathering momentum, have dripped down, and now lay on the road, where the first rays of pale sunlight hit it, so that, looking out, I could see the tarred surface glint and sparkle in the late, departing glory of the evening. To many a natural cause of joy, this sight stirred in me the deepest, darkest melancholy […]

Someone might ask why could I not have wanted the rain to come down enough that I could go to the cinema, but to clear up enough that, the film over, I would look out on dry streets? I convey nothing about my childhood if it is not clear that I could never have formed such a desire, for I always found one thing worse than having too little, and that was having too much. To a superstitious child, which I was, it was like being God. To a young boy unruly with socialism, which I was soon to be, it was like being rich. It handed life over to boredom.

Comments: Richard Wollheim (1923-2003) was a British philosopher whose posthumously published memoir Germs is a considered to be modern classic. At the time of this memory (early 1930s), his family was living in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. ‘U’ and ‘A’ certificates were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors from its inception in 1912.