'Humanity has got to learn its table manners before we can all eat amicably out of the same bowl.'
An awful lot seems to have happened in the world out there since I turned the final page of Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller on November 12th 2016...
And enough happening to keep me ticking along in this small corner of it too...
Life, walking, keeping warm, Christmas, walking, the kayaking student of photography home and writing his dissertation, my ancient old computer shuffling off its mortal coil, taking advantage of the internet sabbatical that ensued, the Tinker's computer breaking out of the cupboard and back into existence,more walking. And then there's the small matter of the umpteen books read since, which is all to say that I'm hoping I don't get them all muddled up.
But that quote from Farewell Leicester Square has been rattling around in my head since the day I read it. There are some books which plunge me into another world with ease and, looking back, I can clearly recall that this has been one of them.
'The lights all over the house began to dim down. Silence settled instantly upon the auditorium; a deep hush of expectation...an immense screen pale and flickering, loomed upon the audience and in the same moment there came the sudden harshness of the soundtrack's musical score...'
Farewell Leicester Square certainly has a filmic feel to it, the details, the oft-unnoticed gestures that complete the scene in the imagination of the reader alongside Betty Miller's astute and deeply perceptive observations about the small fragments that make up the whole and thus does she create credibility. From the outset it is clear that Alexander Berman is a success in the film industry. The book opens with the premiere of one of his films Farewell Leicester Square showing to an audience that included 'the wealthy and the notorious' who are being assailed by the press photographers. The bubble that is the culture of celebrity, with its over-weaning sense of self and public familiarity is pricked and needled from the off...'the subtle deterioration from exposure to the desiccating element of publicity..' leaving little doubt as to Betty Miller's take on all this...and perhaps an indication of the themes that will run through the book.
Netflix and DVDs aside I still love a trip to the cinema.
Despite changing technology and the arrival of the seat more akin to an armchair I am still transported back to those days at the Majestic in Mitcham when my mum forced 6d out of the Church organ fund collection box (on our windowsill...not in the church you understand) so that my brother and I would have enough change to go and see Tom Thumb. It was the first film I had ever seen in a cinema, I'd have been about six, he would have been eight or so and the pair of us walked off sans parents, trusted to get there and back safely. I still get that frisson of excitement before the film begins and jump out of my seat when the sound track starts, and now might as well confess that the last film Bookhound and I saw was Ab Fab The Movie at 11am in the morning with just us (in our pre-booked Seniors VIP De-Luxe seats) and about six other people. We were in need of some decadent frivolling and it was perfect.
Desperate to break away from his Jewish family in Brighton and forge a career in the film industry, Alec Berman has eschewed the family tobacconist business for the precarious world of the bright lights and the film studios as he starts an apprenticeship with Ladywell Films in Lewisham on the outskirts of London. Not quite the hub of the universe but Alec is on his way though his path will be strewn with a remarkable array of themes... anti-semitism, racism, prejudice, ambition, love, marriage and parenthood, ageing and the slow, steady passage of time as he climbs his way to the top, and there will be sadness too.
Alec is acutely self-aware, especially of his failings...
'He was a fish out of water where musical experience was concerned; it seemed that he lacked, somewhere, the necessary gills which made this element habitable.'
Self-effacement and Alec's sense of his own inferiority permeate the book, creating a vehicle for Betty Miller to expound on the rife and insidious nature of the anti-semitism that was building in the 1930s and of which Alec is so acutely aware. This one of the reasons given for Victor Gollancz's unexpected rejection of the book for publication in 1935, and how fascinating that the book's subsequent relevance led to its eventual publication by Robert Hale in 1941.
For context and background information I have been enormously grateful for the internet and Lydia Fellgett's PhD thesis The Writing of Betty Miller 1933-1949. Many of you will know Lydia from the Persephone shop and her thesis is well worth a read. Though I knew that the wartime bombing has destroyed vast warehouses full of books ready for distribution I don't think I had truly appreciated how this became the death-knell for much of the women's writing of the day. It was just never considered worthwhile to bring their work back into print and circulation, those voices went up in flames... and as for Betty Miller, to quote Lydia...
'Miller had got the politics wrong. Or rather, she had got them right; they were just too controversial at the time.'
But nor was Betty Miller shy of introducing other political threads too and I particularly liked Alec's analogy of the revolutionary events in Russia...
'Look at Russia. At the cost of the most immense and admirable efforts she's built herself a fine modern house - and where? - bang on the top of the old insanitary foundations.'
As I am reading Anna Karenina (almost half way) the seeds of the forthcoming revolution are sprouting up everywhere, so I am really looking forward to moving on to Helen Rappaport's new book Caught in the Revolution once I have escorted Anna safely (wrong word) to her fateful denouement.
Betty Miller was a good friend of other writers numbering Rosamund Lehmann, Olivia Manning and Stevie Smith among them. I hesitate to say wife of the 'more famous' psychiatrist Emanuel Miller, and mother of the 'even more famous' film director Jonathan Miller, because Betty Miller is as deserving of recognition in her own right as they are... but anyway, I have joined up the dots for your information. Betty's end was premature and so very sad. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1960 at the age of forty-nine, she died in 1965 incarcerated in Friern Mental Hospital, but her voice most certainly still resonates in her writing and how pleased I am to have read this book.
If you have read Farewell Leicester Square please do share your thoughts, or about Betty Miller's writing in general.
And thinking perhaps about the way we so often remember these women in the context of their men... cheering the current popularity of Tirzah Garwood in her own right (and not as Mrs Ravilious).
And what about seeing films as a child...can you remember the atmosphere...
If I tell you we have watched the following in our family-gatherings-mid-winter-hunker-downs then yes.. better add film-watching to that list of diversions...
Beyond Reasonable Doubt
The Theory of Everything
The Road to Perdition
A Walk in the Woods
And how about you...any good films to recommend...