Monday, 31 December 2012

A Lifelong Encounter

One of my favourite films – and that of many people according to Twitter – is ‘Brief Encounter’(1945).  Who wouldn’t love a film set mainly on a shadowy railway station that is littered with graceful old engines punctuating the pent up dialogue – doing just what the protagonists can’t allow themselves to – by letting off copious amounts of steam.  The station and buffet staff offer brilliantly delivered light relief; who wouldn’t want Stanley Holloway checking their ticket or handling the hooligans?  The film seems to lend itself to any mood that you might be in.  You can laugh along with Holloway and Carey; find poetry in Coward’s clipped dialogue; cry for the never-to-be in life or seek comfort in other peoples’ predicaments.  Need to make a life changing decision?  Watch and be guided on the consequences ahead of you.

Is this a film that I can use as a historical resource though?  I’m not sure that we can use the protagonists’ predicament and their reactions as evidence for a change in society.  To be honest, I think that it is all pure romanticism.  The film was made at the close of World War Two when we know for a fact that many thousands of people quite understandably decided to live for the present and not put so much analysis into their actions as these two.  One only has to check the birth rate and divorce statistics for the 1940s for evidence.  And though I love Noel Coward dearly, one thing that you can’t accuse much of his work of is stark realism.  I’m also willing to bet that there were many contemporary female cinema-goers who quite rightly responded with a sniffy “Well, it would be nice to have so much free time on my hands to even consider running off.”  I think that it would be quite wrong of anyone to use ‘Brief Encounter’ as evidence for a slip in society standards.  We all have moral boundaries that differ from other peoples’, and this happens to be a film about two people’s wrestle with their own.

I wonder if even the steam trains are truly indicative of the stock in use at the time, which would have been very run down or ill-maintained by the late 1940s.  I can’t help thinking that all the stops were pulled out for the well- respected director (David Lean). I’m afraid that I must conclude that most of this film is pure fantasy.  But somehow Coward and Lean gauged the fantasy just right, judging by the widespread love for it.  Which probably says much about the British character – we like our heroes and heroines to be miserable in their sin, and our action to take place on a northern railway station.  None of that euphoric rolling around on California beaches for us thank you very much!  Suits me fine.  But there is one thing about the film which tickles the historian in me.  That is Laura’s visit to Boots to change her library books. 

When I first saw the film as a teenager I was agog.  “Boots?  Yer What?” I probably exclaimed.  Now to me, a child of the 1970s/80s, Boots means headache tablets, baby goods, make up and a constant obsessive accumulation of Advantage Points in order to indulge my terrible addiction to screamingly expensive cosmetics and perfume.  Library books meanwhile are only housed in municipal or academic buildings and are a source of most of my knowledge, my school being on the whole a bit rubbish.  One place is a temple to bodily concerns, the other a temple to knowledge and learning.  The two have nothing in common.  So to learn that Boots the chemist once had a lending library arm was a total revelation.  And so I went on to discover that the sort of branch library that we know (and love if we’ve got any sense) is a relatively recent thing.  A transient thing if certain philistines get their way.  (How else are children going to learn stuff that their school isn’t allowed to teach them anymore?  Google can never live up to that discovery on a dusty back shelf.  It doesn’t offer you results alphabetically by author allowing that random discovery that offers you a lifetime of reading pleasure.)  Previously Boots plugged a bit of a gap in the market by making popular novels available to borrow when you joined their library for a fee.  I’ve since learned that you could also borrow books from libraries in Harrods and Selfridges, if you were the right kind of person. 

So, if Brief Encounter is to be a lesson in anything it’s that without branch libraries you may end up stuck with a limited amount of books sandwiched between other more worldly goods.  And what’s more, you have to pay to borrow them.  It’s enough to make you need a doctor.  Where’s Trevor when you want him?  Trev!  I’ve got something in my eye!