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Monthly Archives: May 2014

I am a Camera

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I was an advisor to the British Board of Film Classification for ten years, bridging the twentieth and twenty first centuries, a member of a lay panel that debated public concerns regarding children’s viewing habits, trying to establish guidelines that might help parents. Everyone’s life has threads that only become apparent in retrospect. This one began when my parents brought me to England from India where I was born. Apart from losing half of my bilingual skill on the boat trip and having the undoubted trauma of leaving my personal Ayah behind, the equivalent of half a mother, we arrived in a very cold Leeds to stay with my grandmother. The winter was so severe and rationing so limited our ability to heat the house, that I was taken every day to an Odeon cinema to be put next to the hot projector. What did I see, a short-sighted four year old not yet in spectacles? What did I hear? I can’t remember but can only imagine the coloured flickerings and loud, echoing voices and thrilling music. Hot celluloid, occasionally bursting into flame. Oily whirrings. The laying down of a lava bed of dimly-discernible, melding worlds.

Where the thread went next is more clearly caught on the hook of remembrance. My father bought a Rover. It was his pride and joy. It smelled of leather and the scents of the landscape we trundled through. By now we lived near Durham in the north east of England, in a village recorded in these scribblings; Shadforth. Around us were the pit villages above their coalfields. Within twenty miles, a half dozen of these linear developments each boasted a cinema. My father was typical of the ex-military. Austere and unable to show too much emotion except when closeted in the darkness of a Gaumont or an Essoldo where none could see his face. He took us to musicals with Grace Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and religious epics such as The Robe.

Later again, as a seventeen year old, living six miles from Newcastle now, I took the bus to watch foreign films at The Tatler News Cinema on Northumberland Street. None of my footballing and fishing friends did. I was a Martian to them, a weird otherworldy fellow. I had to walk home along Scotswood Road at 11.00 at night past the yellow-lit, piano sound-tracked, boisterous pubs, disgorging their drunken revelers, my head full of the Nouvelle Vague.

Since then I have gone to cinema to watch everything and anything with any pretension of quality, from the popular to the esoteric. Film has competed with literature all this time. Its encoded realities have taken me into weird and wonderful worlds, into the psyches of strangers, into near-death experiences, into heroism and cowardice, into sentimentality and tragedy. It has always encouraged me to think and go beyond. I am still ready to be as spell-bound as a four year old as the lights go down and the Pearl and Dean jingle swells. 

When I became a research professor, it was little wonder that I directed an early British project about video and computer games in the home. This successful study of the ways families related to each other around their televisions and the cheaply available images, was a tying of knots. It took me to the advisory role at the BBFC.


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The Day Trip

Sunday, May 18, 2014

“Oh where are we going,” asked the children, staring wide-eyed at the driver.
“Far, far away,” came his wicked-smiling response.
“Will there be sweeties?” they asked as one.
“Everything you always wanted. Just settle down and don’t ask questions.” With that he turned to the steering wheel and the doors closed with a metallic clang. The vehicle grunted into life and left the village empty of its young, silent save for the call of birds and the bleating and snorting of farmyard beasts. It was the one day in the year that tranquility eddied around their mothers while far below the rumbling tyres their fathers hacked away at black rock, helmet lamps barely piercing the gloom, a life-saving canary warbling dismally in a swinging cage.

The shiny red tube bounced along; out through the meadows and small, golden, cereal-waving fields, under the green gloom of interlaced branches and past the short ribbons of back to back housing. There was a swelling chorus of “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountains” with screeches of laughter and a gasping red-faced halt at the verse, “She’ll be wearing smelly knickers.” Notes were passed among the cargo, not one of whom was under five or over ten. “Will you be my boyfriend?” “Bruce wants to go out with you.” “Jenny says you stink.”

Then, after hillocks and mounds, gorse and broom, the conveyance topped a final rise to screams of, “I can see the sea.” There was a lurching halt in a potholed car park and everyone was made to sit still for a moment. “Make sure you have got everything with you.” Four adults, who seemed to have materialised suddenly at the front, and the driver, dismounted and watched beadily as boys and girls jostled down the aisle, lovingly prepared carrier bags of picnic food, towels and costumes clutched to bosoms. A straggly, jigging line made its way down and on to the sand.

I had no idea who the driver was and had only the barest inkling of the grown-ups. If you had asked me about where we were I would have stared at you in puzzlement. It was immaterial. This was the Miners’ Mystery Trip and its details remain just that, even today. My main memory was padding back from the water’s edge and finding I was lost. I had left my spectacles on my pile of clothes. There were blurred faces all round. A geyser of tears erupted from my eyes. I sobbed wildly, “I want my Mummy” and someone whose face I never saw took my hand and led me across the sand before passing my subsiding form to a life-guard who guided me to the lost children’s hut. Inside there were several children, becalmed. The only sound was the noise of placatory toffees being worked into fudgy balls. The silence, the gravity and the sense of being lost rushed through me again and I burst into more tears. The hut erupted as all the seated occupants started bawling in sympathy and it remained like that until one of the four grown-ups came to claim me and pluck me away from the purgatory.


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Looking for Eric

Friday, May 9, 2014

I cannot be compared to Eric Cantona, either as a boy or a man. I would never have progressed beyond the school football team and I never did karate. But I like to think I am a better philosopher. I might even be a better actor. Anyway, bridging to the last blog-post and the search for my former self, it is football and our dissimilarity that concerns me here.

Even in the early nineteen fifties most boys loved football, although few probably had aspirations of playing for their local professional team, in my case Newcastle United. I learned a big lesson from my father, a Captain in the army’s PT corps; practice makes you better at everything and can give a shine even to the most lacklustre of performers. So it was that I practised for hours, days and weeks with balls of all sizes and eventually developed a modicum of trickery. Being tall and liable to be toppled by low-gravity, thickset tanks of miner’s sons was a perennial problem but the plus was that I was never in the last batch to be chosen for the two teams in class games. And being in the middle ground of competence also meant no ridicule and no bullying. Basic acceptance. I could breathe easily.

The culmination of my football talent occurred one day on the sloping field at Blaydon Grammar School in my fifth year. I was playing on the right wing and up against the school’s left back. I received the ball midway in his half, lifted it over his despairing tackle with sumptuous ease and hit it on the half-volley goalwards. It was a screamer. Top corner. Goalkeeper in the mud. The whistle sounded and I turned for plaudits only to see the teacher pointing for a free kick somewhere behind me. He hadn’t seen the goal. He was separating two boys, red in tooth and claw. Nor had anyone else seen it except the goalkeeper and the left back. And they weren’t going to say anything, were they?

Whether that was the source of my recurring, unrequited, fruitless dreams with their unwanted denouements, I don’t know. But when I wake up these dreams often contain the same element; myself as would-be hero, about to wallow in success and approbation but losing it all in a terrible twist of fortune that only a Stephen King or a Maupassant might devise.

This idée fixe now percolates my writing. Everything I do has to have a twist ending, bringing the reader up short with a gasp at a story’s culmination. But not necessarily, I hasten to comfort the prospective follower among you, a twist for the worse.


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Autobiography: to have been or not to have been

Thursday, May 1, 2014

I tweeted recently (@profjacksanger) that “The past is but a blank page on which the historian writes fiction.” In many ways, the business of autobiography follows suit. We re-write our histories incrementally as our lives progress so that they fit and augment our circumstances at the time of writing. Whether we recognise it or not, we are the lead players in our histories and everything is refracted through the prism of our reminiscences. If you are an avid reader of people’s reflections on their lives, it is worth remembering that they are always more fiction than fact. The project of trying to reduce their histories and contain them in nutshells is such a preposterous violation of reality that they cannot be claimed to be anything other than some vague after-taste of what might have transpired. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a great piece about the accuracy of maps when representing reality:

On Exactitude in Science

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map
of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

In other words, unless we were mad enough to write everything down as it happens – which means we wouldn’t have time to experience anything and our lives would be stuffed with writing and little else, a diarrhea of words about nothing – we must accept the evils of selection and reductionism.

Here’s a tale. In an early blog I, Jack Sanger, described the change that took place in my psyche at the age of eighteen at college when I decided to take my middle name, Jack, in preference to my name of the previous seventeen plus years, Eric. As in some drama of film or stage, the change was from an introverted, shy individual to an outgoing socialite, actor, scriptwriter, stand-up comic and serial lover of women. I include the latter, not as an attempt to inflate my sexual standing (which, you will have gathered from above, might well be the case) but to reminisce on the effects of this change of name upon my behavior with the said young women.

For some months as I settled uneasily into this new persona, I vacillated between these two characters; the introvert and the extrovert. When I kissed and fondled and was touched in turn, I had the distinct impression that it was not Eric who was enjoying life so royally but the new outer person, Jack. Jack was having all the fun and Eric was a mere onlooker – or, to be more accurate an outlooker.

As time went on it became easier. I was Jack. In the psychic battle between my two selves, Jack subsumed Eric. Where is he now, the old Eric? He is called up by the magic lamp of my keyboard for he is the object of all my autobiographical blogs up to the age of eighteen.

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