Last week I watched a film that was made in 1958 in World’s End in Chelsea. I had never seen it before but chose to watch it to check a memory I had from that year when I was 12. The film company had come to our school nearby to get extras.
They wanted a group of ruffians breaking up boats on the River Thames that runs past Chelsea. The main character lived in one of the boats and sure enough there was a gaggle of scruffs playing at being vandals.
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I was not chosen. One of the boys chosen was possibly one of the most obnoxious people I have ever known. I befriended a boy who was often beaten by this boy who’d been chosen as an extra. This stopped the beatings. The protected boy went into prison at 20 and came out a mountain of muscle. Suddenly no longer the butt of all, he became the leader of a group of heavy-drinking, hard-working, well-paid drivers. I, because of my Marxism, was excluded for not being proletarian enough.
The erstwhile film extra though, toadied up to the muscle mountain. All was forgiven and forgotten. No memories of the humiliations meted out to the former weak boy. And I, having witnessed the before and after of it all, was never invited (I was discouraged in fact) to attend The Black Bull pub on a Friday night and be loudly proletarian, racist, homophobic and chauvinistic towards women.
Also they didn’t want to ram my attempts at correcting their reactionary behaviour down my throat. I was, after all, an original proletarian. So I stayed away, though on odd occasions I would roll up to try and convert them to progressive politics.
All of that has gone. Those men are dead, or comatose grandads. The only one I miss though was the originator of the group, the weak boy made muscle. But a car crash ended his life in his late 30s, drink having unravelled him.
All of this flooded back as I watched the very poorly made film about a Chelsea artist and his destructive life. Played by Alec Guinness and called The Horse’s Mouth, it must be one of the worst films he ever made. What dross we were often served in those days as entertainment. Now we have carefully made, characterful episodes where acting seems to be of the highest level.
Let’s hope we don’t clean up our language and our attitudes towards people who formerly were ridiculed and humiliated, yet leave the pressing issues of carbon emission and the death of the planet.
At least if we have nothing new in the world we have our actors and directors and their superior works. We may not have a safer world but we have a world full of movies and videos to watch that show a very high level of artistry.
What is progress, you may ask. What’s changed for the better? Certainly our awareness. Now to compensate for former wrongs, we have struggled to remove all signs of cumbersome reaction. We have started to re-educate ourselves as to what was so poorly thought and made in our past. The rejection of the past is nearing completion. But it might mean we have to dump lots more stuff from the past and clean up everything from Carry On films to Shakespeare in the process.
And as well as doing all that cleaning up of the past and making our current values sound, we also have to save the planet from extinction. And we can’t leave that to a bunch of activists stopping traffic and commerce. No, we’ve got a lot of work to do and we will have to do a tough balancing act.
Let’s hope we don’t clean up our language and our attitudes towards people who formerly were ridiculed and humiliated, yet leave the pressing issues of carbon emission and the death of the planet. It would be a great shame if we did one without the other. Imagine a human paradise of corrected and progressive attitudes, yet a paucity of drinkable water and breathable air.
That’s my nightmare. Not long after The Horse’s Mouth, in 1961, I saw Victim in a cinema on the King’s Road, Chelsea. It was a major film starring Dirk Bogarde, who played a bisexual solicitor who struggled with his attachment to a young man who committed suicide.
Even this supposedly progressive film looks reactionary now with Farr, the solicitor, going to a psychologist to sort out his ‘abnormality’. But it was a step on the road to ending prejudice and legal action for those practising homosexuality. Six years later the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which had recommended the legalisation of homosexuality over the age of 21, was enacted.
Leaving the Victim film that night my mate and I were shouted at as “poofs”. An argument was avoided by the arrival of the cinema manager.
Progress, if it is to be made, should be made hand in hand with a progress towards planetary health and survival. Although all the evidence so far is that the ‘progressives’ are not being pulled into the fight for the world. It seems to be you’re either in one church or the other – you need to be in both.
John Bird is founder of The Big Issue.