Tag Archives: Films

Hæc Olim Meminisse Juvabit

In which The Author thanks his lucky stars

One of my all-time favourite films is the 1939 adaptation of James Hilton’s novella Goodbye Mr Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Donat won an Oscar for his portrayal of the lead character (‘hero’ is too strong a word), beating off competition from Clark Gable, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney and Laurence Olivier. It’s an extraordinary performance, requiring him to age over sixty years during the course of the film.
I first watched it with Dad when it was on TV one day – I was probably ten years old, if that – and when we got a VHS player it was one of the first films we bought. I subsequently bought it on DVD, and watch it at least three times a year. If you haven’t seen it, I can thoroughly recommend it. (I don’t rate the 1969 remake, a musical starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark, though. It’s worth watching once, but I wouldn’t rush to see it again.)
Goodbye Mr Chips charts the career of Charles Chipping (known to everyone as ‘Chips’), a Classics teacher at a minor English public school. Aged well into his eighties when the film opens, Chips is introduced to a new master on his first day at the school. Later he meets one of the new boys, tells him a bit about the school, and then goes home for tea. He returns to his rented rooms at a nearby cottage, dozes by the fire, and dreams about his time at Brookfield.
Chips relives his memories across sixty-three years, from his lacklustre first day at the chalkface, his unexpected marriage in early middle-age, his later years as the much-loved ‘legend of Brookfield’, through to his eventual retirement – and beyond.
The sequence set during the Great War is particularly poignant, but it had never really come home to me until I was working on The Men Who Marched Away last summer. The film was released only a few months before the start of World War II, adding extra piquancy to the daily roll-call of Brookfield old boys who’ve made the supreme sacrifice. I never fail to dissolve into tears at the beautifully-played ending. Behind this cynical and bitter façade I’m an incurable romantic at heart.
I know the book and film are somewhat sentimental and extremely dated, but I love the simplicity and innocence of the story. Whenever I hear a junior government minister talk about ‘traditional British values’, I think of the underlying message: it plays up the virtues of honesty, tolerance, decency, fair play, ‘a sense of humour and a sense of proportion’ (in Chips’ own words) which underpin the story. It’s high up in my list of ‘must-see’ films.
One of the last books I bought during my time in the retail trade was a copy of the 1934 novella which made James Hilton’s name as a popular writer, and which has been in print continuously ever since. (I can date my purchase accurately, because the original receipt was still tucked inside it when I took it off the shelf last week.) You can read it in a couple of hours, but the story will live with you for years and years afterwards.
There was a time when I thought I’d like to pursue a career in teaching. Maybe I was inspired by Chips, and also by David Powlett-Jones, the hero of R. F. Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All My Days (which was also on TV when I was in my teens), but I thought it seemed like a noble calling.
In September 1977 I’d been part of the last intake to Aberdare Boys’ Grammar School (see School Reunion), and our teachers obviously had a sense of vocation, together with a deep knowledge and love of their subjects. In my wildest dreams I could almost see myself doing the same thing.
The following year our school became part of the comprehensive system. Our numbers were swollen by hundreds of boys who could barely write their own names. I know I’m going to sound like a terrible snob, but things went rapidly downhill after that. The grand idea of the comprehensive system was that the academic grammar school achievers would set a high water mark for everyone else to aspire to. As I say, it was a grand idea.
Like most grand ideas, it failed to deliver. Instead of playing catch-up, the worst of the meatheads (as we called them) only served to put the brakes on the majority. Those of us who wanted to carry on as we’d started were derided as ‘swots’ – or (in my case) became the victims of relentless bullying – until the O Levels filtered out the scum and we could return to business.
The long-running BBC children’s drama series Grange Hill was frequently cited as a negative influence on schoolkids. In fact, the reverse was true: Phil Redmond and the other writers were simply holding up a mirror to society. In any large inner-city comprehensive school with a diverse social and cultural intake, you’d probably see the same tensions and dilemmas played out on a weekly basis.
Our school, situated in industrial South Wales, and with an all-male, 99.5% White British pupil body, didn’t have the same problems as the fictional Grange Hill. There was hardly any racial tension, and there were no teenage pregnancies (not within the school gates, anyway – although at least one of my contemporaries became a father within weeks of finishing his O Levels). However, there was outrageous homophobia at all levels, and an incredible amount of sexist language and behaviour was directed towards some of the female teachers. I shouldn’t imagine things changed very much after I left.
Grange Hill, for obvious reasons, concentrated almost exclusively on the kids. It took a long time for a popular TV drama to emerge which followed the tribulations of the teachers themselves. Waterloo Road, which recently completed its tenth (and possibly final) season on BBC1, did its best to redress the balance. It depicted the pressure which teachers come under every day, when faced with stroppy teenagers, pettifogging bureaucrats, the ever-changing demands of the National Curriculum, and their own work/life balance.
Even so, it gave a rather rose-tinted view of the profession. Every week one of the teachers would help a wayward pupil to turn his/her life around, and hardly anybody ever went seriously off the rails. The stressful side of the profession was played down, though. Only one of the teachers became an alcoholic over the course of the series. I can think of a fair few, just from my own personal circle. (Mind you, since we only ever saw about half a dozen teachers actually doing any teaching. The rest just appeared as background artists in the staff room. Who can be sure Christine Mulgrew wasn’t the only secret swigger?)
A couple of years ago the BBC also made a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the fortunes of some newly-qualified teachers in Greater London. It was extremely disheartening to watch their high ideals being dashed on the rocks of the real world. If some future Government ever wants to launch an advertising campaign to dissuade graduates from entering the teaching profession, the BBC has already done most of the spadework.
My own life veered far away from my ambition to stand up in a classroom full of barely-civilised teenagers. I thank my lucky stars that it did. I know now that I absolutely wouldn’t be able to do it. Lots of my friends did go down that path, though. Some of them clearly had the vocation that I thought I had over three decades ago. Others, I suspect, simply went down the PGCE route because it was better than working behind a bar (or in a bookshop) and wasting their degrees while slogging away on minimum wage (or slightly above).
My cousin Adam was awarded an MA in archaeology from the University of Exeter a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t many job vacancies for young archaeologists, so he returned home and got a job in one of the many Wetherspoon pubs which clutter up the capital city. Eventually he bit the bullet, went down the teacher training route, and is now working at a school in Kent. As far as I can tell, he’s thoroughly enjoying himself. Adam had a bit of a scare during his first week of classroom practice, though. He’s a very tall good-looking chap, and one of the older girls slipped him a note with her phone number. When I heard about it, my first piece of advice to him was, ‘Join the union ASAP, just so your arse is covered!’
Another friend of mine, a chap I used to work with in the bookshop, was a very gifted mathematician with a PhD in physics. He decided to give teacher training a go as well. After a few days of classroom practice, he decided he wasn’t cut out for it after all and went into insurance instead. What a waste of his (and everyone else’s) time and money!
I know at least one other guy who embarked on the PGCE journey, only to jump ship as soon as he faced a class of unruly teenagers. I don’t blame him. I’d probably have done the same thing. The days of Mr Chips are long gone – it’s Grange Hill and Waterloo Road all the way now.
I caught the tail-end of Any Answers on Radio 4 over the weekend. The callers were discussing the alarming rate at which newly-qualified teachers were abandoning ship once they were faced with the competing demands of the pupils, the parents, the headteacher, the local authority, the governors, the Government…
A couple of former teachers phoned the show. They told disturbing stories of their own decisions to take early retirement, or their mid-life changes of career, or the toll that teaching had taken on their mental and physical well-being. The last caller was a GP who said that in the previous week he’d signed four teachers off sick with stress-related conditions. That’s a pretty scary statistic, isn’t it?
I’ve been pondering this subject for some time now, for a number of reasons. It’s partly because of Adam’s decision to go into teaching, which he seems to have made out of necessity.
It’s partly because I watched that BBC documentary series with a strong sense of relief that my path led me in another direction entirely.
It’s partly because I’ve seen a number of young friends sign up for PGCE simply because there aren’t any decent local jobs for young graduates.
It’s partly because every day a fresh batch of vacancies for teachers appears on Universal Jobmatch and elsewhere. About a month ago I put a status on Facebook, pointing this out, and asking whether teaching was really that bad. I got a number of replies from my friends in the profession, and opinions seemed to be split roughly down the middle.
It’s partly because a lot of my friends think I’d make a good teacher – or (as a couple of them have said) a good lecturer.
Well, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Only last week I heard back from a training provider in Merthyr Tydfil who offer a City & Guilds qualification in adult education. I’d spoken to their rep at a careers fair a few weeks earlier, and told her that I’d been looking into doing PTLSS (the previous qualification) via Janis and Grace, some friends of mine. (Unfortunately, their company folded a few months ago, so the idea had run out of steam.) The Merthyr-based provider is running the course over six weeks, starting next week – and it’s a snip at £450!
I emailed back, saying that £45 would just about break me, and ten times that is utterly beyond me. If you’ve ever wondered why the teaching profession (and the adult education sector) is increasingly populated by nice middle-class boys and girls, that might give you some idea of the reason. As with so many careers these days, it’s increasingly becoming the preserve of the well-heeled, or those with unlimited borrowing facilities from the Bank Of Mum And Dad while they’re studying.
Finally, though, I’m writing this because an old friend of mine has announced that she’s quitting teaching. She’s a few years younger than me, and has taught in primary schools for some years now. After my most recent bout of depression, she told me that she’s been battling the Black Dog for a while too. You can only take so much before you give way under the strain. In her own words, posted on Facebook this morning:
‘I love children and I love teaching. I didn’t want to leave teaching but the workload is unmanageable. My hat’s off to all you teachers that keep going. I know it’s a struggle and an uphill battle. But I’m done x’
I don’t blame her for a minute, now that I’ve explored my own thoughts on the subject. She’ll be a great loss to teaching, especially when I consider how much she’s put into her career over the years. However, I’m sure she’ll find something equally fulfilling and less stressful to occupy her time. I wish her all the best of luck for the future.
Goodbye Ms S. Hæc olim meminisse juvabit. I need not, I hope, translate.

Tears Before Bedtime

In which The Author revisits a classic book

I haven’t read The Hobbit for over thirty years. When I was approaching the end of primary school, I bought a copy from Graham Ewington’s shop in Aberdare. It was an Allen & Unwin paperback, priced at less than a pound. The brown cover featured J. R. R. Tolkien’s own picture of Smaug, lying on his stash of looted treasure, with the silhouette of Bilbo himself at one side.


The book was interspersed with more of Prof. Tolkien’s own pictures, too, in black and white. I read it in a few days, totally absorbed by the stirring adventure which unfolded after Gandalf’s unexpected visit to Bag-End.
I think I re-read it immediately afterwards, and then progressed to The Lord of the Rings. My copies were also Unwin paperbacks, three volumes in matching green, blue and light brown covers, with all the appendices in The Return of the King.
I got hugely into those books, and not just in terms of the story. After a lot of practice, I could write all the Dwarvish runes and the Elvish script. I had two big maps on our bedroom wall, bought from Lear’s in Cardiff, which showed the whole of Middle Earth as visualised by the greatest of all fantasy novelists.
Lear’s was always my first stopping-off point in Cardiff on our occasional trips there. (We always preferred visiting Swansea, as Mother knew her way around and car parking was much easier.) As the years went by I came across more of  Tolkien’s books: The Silmarillion, which I found to be completely impenetrable as a teenager; Farmer Giles of Ham and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil in a single volume, aimed at a younger readership; Tree and Leaf, featuring three of his shorter pieces; and his translation of the Middle English narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, together with two shorter pieces from the same period.
Those represented my first foray into medieval literature, although I didn’t realise at the time that the Gawain poem holds such a key position in our cultural history. I remember watching a film adaptation over the Xmas holidays one year, starring the appropriately named Nigel Green as the mysterious visitor to Camelot. Soon afterwards I bought a Penguin Classics edition of Beowulf in a modern translation. I bet there weren’t many Form 3 pupils in Aberdare Boys Comprehensive School who’d read that!
The only one of Tolkien’s books I was missing was The Father Christmas Letters (hey, look, I’ve actually typed that word out in full again!) Then again, I never bothered going into Lear’s Bookshop For Children, which was on the other side of the Royal Arcade. I dare say I’d probably have found it there. On the other hand, I did read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien when I was in school. I drew the line at buying Christopher Tolkien’s reconstructions of the Lost Tales and so forth, though. They seemed like an unnecessary add-on to an already perfect work of fantasy.
I’ve still got all those books, too, although they’re not necessarily the same editions as I originally bought all those years ago.
Barbara traded in my battered paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings for a set of nice vintage hardbacks a few years ago. I don’t know what became of my original copy of The Silmarillion, but I was able to pick up a cheap one in a charity shop. As for The Hobbit – well, read on …
Dad’s book club provided me with the biggest prize, though – both in terms of price and layout. Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien was a foot square hardback, with a brown cloth cover embossed with Tolkien’s famous monogram in gold. It came in a slipcase, and opened to reveal a series of captivating colour plates with text on the facing pages. (You’ve already seen one of the pictures; it was the cover to my copy of The Hobbit.)
It had been unavailable for years by the time Kathryn H. (my former bookselling colleague known as The Girl With the Ology) saw my copy and tried to order one. We were working in Blackwells at the Polytechnic of Wales. Unsurprisingly, the report from the publishers came back within a few days: Reprint Under Consideration. That meant that it was in the book industry’s equivalent of a persistent vegetative state – neither alive nor dead, but in limbo. The publishers didn’t want to let the rights lapse, so they kept the book in their catalogue without ever producing any more. I already had it. I was happy. Kathryn was jealous.
(Incidentally, I’ve just had a quick look on Amazon, and second-hand copies are changing hands for three figures. Mine isn’t in mint condition, but it definitely won’t be finding its way to Barbara’s place or a charity shop when I die.)
A fellow named Ralph Bakshi had attempted to make a feature film of The Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve. It came to the Rex Cinema in Aberdare, and I went to see it while it was there. It was a decent attempt to make an animated/rotoscope version of a very long and very complex novel. It seemed, however, that Mr Bakshi had run out of steam and/or money just before the Battle of Helm’s Deep, because the film ended abruptly at that point. I felt a bit short-changed. Over the years, I read a couple of times that he’d started work on the second film, but I don’t know whether he actually succeeded. If he did, I never saw it.
I read The Lord of the Rings several times, but I always held back from reading the final chapter in public. I had a good reason for that. The first time I read it right to the end, I burst into tears. I’d become so deeply immersed in the characters and the story that when Frodo, Gandalf and the elves sailed from the Grey Havens into the West, I didn’t want them to go. (See ‘New Year, New Start‘ for a similar experience I had at the end of 2009. Like the Doctor himself, as you can probably tell, I don’t like endings!)
The same thing happened whenever I returned to Tolkien’s masterpiece. It didn’t matter whether I was in school, or just after my O Levels, or halfway through my A Levels, or even when I was at university in Uxbridge. Every time I got to the end of the book, I held off reading the final chapter until I was safely on my own. I knew I’d be a quivering wreck by the last page.
Early in this millennium, Sir Peter Jackson finally gave the trilogy the cinematic treatment it really needed. Leighton L. and I took his daughter Keira, who was aged about ten, to see The Fellowship of the Ring at the Coliseum in Trecynon. He and I had talked about it in the pub a few days earlier, and we’d wondered whether it might be too frightening for her. After all, there are some pretty scary characters and incidents throughout the first book: the Ringwraiths, the Balrog, the Watcher in the Water, and so forth.
As things turned out, the film was absolutely terrifying in places. All the same, Leighton and Keira had the chance to do some father–daughter bonding while she was hiding in his arms.
It was also incredibly well made. Sir Peter made the best of stunning New Zealand locations, conjuring up the Middle Earth which Tolkien had described so beautifully in his books. The CGI was extraordinary, right from the outset, when a very small Frodo leaps onto Gandalf’s cart. With a strong cast, terrific scripts and a real feel for the story, it was the epic adaptation I’d been waiting for for over twenty years.
The biggest revelation, though, was Gimli, the Dwarf representative of the coalition against the evil forces in the east. (By the way, Tolkien always denied that his story, written during the 1940s, was intended to be a political allegory. It must be just one of them coincidences!)
You see, I’d grown up watching Disney films (on their very occasional re-releases) in the Rex Cinema. I saw most of the animated classics, and some of the not-so classics too: The Jungle Book, Pinocchio, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I think Disney’s jolly singing miners must have shaped my mental impression of what a Dwarf would actually look like. While reading The Hobbit for the first time I’d had that same mental picture. After all, Tolkien says only that his characters have beards. He doesn’t give any other descriptions of them, apart from saying that Bombur is fat. As far as I was concerned, therefore, the Disney Dwarfs were the archetypes of Tolkien’s Dwarves. (Note the plurals. Tolkien explains that linguistic oddity in his books, too. In his day job he taught comparative philology at Oxford, and spent much of his time constructing the languages of Middle Earth.)
Thanks to this early cinematic conditioning, throughout my repeated readings of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings my imagined Dwarves owed far more to Disney’s characters than to Tolkien’s own interpretation of these mythical beings.
You can probably imagine my shock, then, when Gimli erupted onto the screen. He looked like a singer from a 1980s Scandinavian Heavy Metal band – squat, red-bearded, long-haired and belligerent, wearing full armour and bearing a fearsome array of weapons. You couldn’t see him singing, ‘Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.’ You could clearly see him quaffing a tankard of foaming ale, and telling tales of heroic dragon-slaying and damsel-rescuing while wiping the blood off his sleeves.
Talk about a reality check! (Or, quite possibly, a fantasy check.)
After the film finished, we all nipped back to my house and I lent Keira my copy of The Hobbit. Leighton and I had both read it when we were about her age, and we thought it might be a good place to introduce her to some decent children’s literature. The Harry Potter phenomenon was in full swing at the time. There’s a frequently-heard argument along the lines of ‘It doesn’t matter if kids read rubbish – it’s better than not reading at all.’ I don’t hold much truck with that. Neither did Leighton. We both felt that Tolkien’s extensive vocabulary, descriptive power, sense of humour, and intelligent writing style would be far more challenging and rewarding than the adventures of a teenage wizard.
[A digression: Rebecca C. and I were looking through the Everyman crossword a couple of Sundays ago. There were a few old-ish (but far from archaic) words dotted throughout the grid, and it was obvious that Rebecca had never come across them before. I teased her that she’d have been far better off reading Tolkien than Rowling, if only to increase her wordpower, as Reader’s Digest used to say.]
Leighton and I took Keira to see The Two Towers when it came out the following year. For some reason, though, the three of us didn’t see The Return of the King together. Maybe I was working when it came to the Coliseum. I can’t remember. I do remember that Keira wasn’t very happy, because it was our film and I wouldn’t be seeing it with them.
I did get to see it, of course – but I got the feeling that something was missing. Laurie (whose son Jack is about Keira’s age) put his finger on it when we were chatting in work. Sir Peter, for reasons best known to himself, had omitted one of the key episodes of the final book: the Scouring of the Shire. The corrupted wizard Saruman, after being thrown from power at the hands of Gandalf, makes his way to the hobbits’ homeland and sets them to slave in his horrific industrial works. Tolkien himself had spoken of the way his childhood home, a semi-rural village on the outskirts of Birmingham, was spoiled by the expansion of the city. There might not have been any intentional political allegory in his books, but the ruin of the Shire must be more than just coincidence.
The hobbits lead a rebellion against Saruman, and emerge victorious. The remaining vestiges of evil are banished from Middle Earth, and peace can return at last. Finally Sam, the unexpectedly brave hobbit who has accompanied Frodo throughout the story, uses soil and seeds from the forest of Lothlórien to return the Shire to its former glory. But it’s not just its former glory – it’s better than it was before. Tolkien’s description of the reborn Shire is wonderfully vivid and incredibly moving. (I’ve got tears in my eyes just typing this, because I’m thinking about the last time I read the book. It caught me completely by surprise, although I’d read it numerous times, because I cried during that part as well.)
In fact, I cried three times while re-reading The Return of the King, after seeing the first film in the cinema. The first time was the part of the book where Aragorn marries Arwen and the heroes are rewarded for their quest. That caught me by surprise, too. It must have been something to do with the fact that I’d fallen in love shortly before. When I was about twelve, I didn’t have that emotional experience to draw on. By my mid-thirties, I’d been there and done it. I’ve always said the same thing about The Beatles: they made the transition from writing jolly teen pop tunes like I Wanna Hold Your Hold to writing perfect adult love songs like Something. One’s feelings change and mature as one grows older.
Last night I started re-reading The Hobbit. I needed a break from quantum theory, so I turned to an old friend instead. I haven’t seen any of the films based on Tolkien’s first book yet, so I thought I’d revisit it before watching them. Oddly enough, I still had Disney’s jolly cartoon creations in mind when the Dwarves all turned up at Bilbo’s house. That idea remains my ‘default setting’, even though I’ve seen pictures of Thorin Oakenshield (as played by Richard Armitage) looking like a Viking Berserker warrior. Maybe Disney will always override Sir Peter Jackson in my mind. I don’t know.
The biggest mystery, though, is what happened to my old brown Allen & Unwin paperback. I caught up with Keira for a sneaky drink a few years ago, and she told me that my book had turned up when Jennifer (her mother) was sorting their shelves out. A couple of days later we met up again, and she presented me with a different edition of The Hobbit.
This one has a wraparound drawing (by Tolkien himself) of Smaug circling the Lonely Mountain. There’s a price in decimal currency on the back, which dates it to the early 1970s. Thror’s map and Tolkien’s explanatory notes are still at the front, but the author’s lovely b/w illustrations aren’t included. I don’t know whether Keira managed to lose my original copy, and replaced it with one from a second-hand shop, or whether Jennifer already had a copy before Keira came to the cinema with us. It’s another one of those mysteries.
What is certain, though, that there’ll be tears before bedtime over the coming weeks. The last chapter is a dead cert. Probably the Scouring, too. If I get through the wedding at Gondor, I’ll be very surprised. There may be other emotional triggers lurking in the dense prose which haven’t affected me before. But I’m older now, and (possibly) wiser. It’ll be interesting to see how I react this time.
Maybe that’s the reason why I’ve always stuck to books. I don’t know how salt water would affect a Kindle.