The (Last) Anniversary Waltz


Contemptuously, each gazes into the other’s face. Against an unconvincing grey-green sky, their unconvincing passion will play out in disdain. His greased hair drips black droplets onto his starched collar. “Darling”, she simpers through collagen lips, “you look so-oo handsome in black tie, just like James Bond”. A romantic gesture. To dance on the very spot where they had callously tipped her first husband into the sea. They had not estimated that without a body, she would have to wait five years to claim on the insurance. For five long excruciating years, they’d held their resolve via clichéd love tokens. A cigarette case, a gold watch, an old gramophone player. She lugged the darn thing, in heels, along the pier which was precariously wet. Anyone could slip if one of those rails came loose, as it had five years ago. He had got there early and waited in the rain. The image of her bare back when he’d stood behind her in seedy hotel rooms, winding her scarf through his fingers as he imagined tightening it around her neck, drifted though his mind as the sea gently splashed against the buttress. It was eerily calm now. He’d hung the sizeable umbrella on the railings and had chuckled surreptitiously when she folded her coat and placed it beside the umbrella. When the waltz was over, she’d turn that bony back to him to retrieve it. A single deft thwack with the umbrella would settle the matter and she’d be reunited with the old man. Her foot slid slowly towards the gramophone. A tap with her heel would put Englebert off the beat. He’d slip into that phony man-of-action chivalry and squat down, breathing something about the rarity of a genuine Hump then she’d snatch the gun from her handbag…

The Colour of Kiloran

I-Know-Where-Im-Going-RGA-0023142-copy.jpgWhat is pink? or rather where? Do you come to Scotland for colour? Sunsets are fine and when the clouds clear the scenery is indeed braw, but February is not a good time for colour. It is a good time to come if your knowledge of Scotland derives from old black and white movies. Remember the scene in The 39 Steps when Robert Donat escapes from agents posing as police? The car is held up by a flock of sheep on a stony bridge and in the confusion, Hannay leaps out the car dragging Madeleine Carroll by the handcuff and they hide behind a waterfall in the fog. Hitchcock took great liberties with geography but on the weather, he was if anything a little conservative. The heightened romanticism of Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! is more accurate, where the story weaves through the weather.

The weather shapes Joan’s journey, physically and metaphysically. Stuck in Mull when her crossing to Kiloran Isle is delayed by a storm; the suspension of Joan’s corporeal journey allows a more spiritual journey to unfold. Joan encounters Catriona, Diana of the Western Isles. Catriona emerges from the mist, a sodden force of nature surrounded by howling dogs and Joan becomes acutely aware of the contrast to herself in her prim city suit.

John Laurie, whose early career as an accomplished Shakespearean actor was sublimated (at least in popular culture) by the archetypal Scotsman embodied in Private Frazer, links both films. In The 39 Steps he is on familiar ground as the stereotypically harsh, God-fearing crofter who tyrannises his young wife. In I Know Where I’m Going! he is Dionysus of the ceilidh. “Do you think you could dance the Scottish”, asks Roger Livesey as Torquil “I think so”, Joan clips. She is perhaps unaware that Torquil derives from Thor and therefore ignorant of the thunder in his soul. Laurie’s John Campbell is in uniform, as are many of the characters, magicked from the embers of central Europe to peripheral asylum on the ethereal West Coast. Kiloran is a substitute for Colonsay, though sandy Kiloran Bay on the Island is a tangible place. Kiloran is a psychological location at least as much as a physical one – a cell of song, a cult of dance, a church of poetry. At the dance, the music and song is unearthly, the dancing frenetic. The temporal-geographical world melts into an arcadian romp.

Joan (the fabulous Wendy Hiller) resists the primeval tug until the elements get the better of her and she is drained by the emergence of suppressed emotions. But Joan is a fighter and she braves the storm and conquers it by giving herself over to her own inimitable spirit. On the edge of the world, at the place where civilization meets wilderness and reason meets myth, Joan’s triumph is Nietzschean:

In the rapture ocean’s

billowing roll,

in the fragrance waves’

ringing sound,

in the world breath’s

wafting whole-

to drown, to sink –

unconscious-highest joy!

(Isolde’s swansong from the Birth of Tragedy; trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Ode to Auntie Mary’s Vase (with apologies to Keats)

Quiet keeper of unspent wilderness,

Solitary labour of middle years,

Anglian recorder, heart’s confess,

Conveyor of childish fears:

What promise of modernity etched upon your sides

That yet take primitive form

And lacerate pressed uneven clay?

What crazy dance displayed? What uncanny storm?

What shapes described? What stubborn marks berate?

What spiels and sagas? What dire fantasy?

Enough is known for tears, cover your eyes

You griever; before, the dark clouds, thunder;

Out the utopian past, far, distant cries,

Sad Echo calling lamely to no avail:

So vain, progress to march, where angels shy

Away, your mother fit this clay to share;

False Master, wheeler-dealer without claim,

Fast promise made yet kept not, twas a lie;

See molten stone, expunge your sight with shame,

And blinded then you’ve time, to sit and stare!

Oh, happy, happy years! that bless-ed age

Of loss, when all the senses fade away:

And, second childhood, approaching,

No longer weeping hours no longer day;

T’ward happy end! t’ward happy, happy end!

And blinded cold and ne’r to see again,

And blinded laughing, and blinded from worth;

As sinking slowly happy to expend,

This mortal coil that’s become your bain,

Sans guilty conscience, sans pretentious worth.

What hope of reading opaque palimpsest?

The hands made obscure, you hideous jar,

Rendered your fat body stupidly underdressed,

And your neck shiny with glazing quite bizarre?

What bitter row with Vincent made you thus,

Shun airforce-hero with brazen ugliness,

A mocking crock of rock, with form amok?

A, hateful urn, made for all to cuss

Sit sullenly; and hold a hard heart less

My cracks come manifest, for all to view.

O wretched can! Crass crucible! With pose

Uncanny, fiend, inheritance unsought,

Whose graven carcass hums yesterdays woes

Aye, fateful foe, I leave you out of sort

Yet speak honestly: Blunt Instrument!

When time and place are macerated mush,

Solid I’ll squat, Sisyphus’ handmaid

Mary, moulded me well, like a harsh scrub-brush,

Folly, is all, all folly – ’tis the bent

Of our doings, and life’s reckoning relayed.