27 January 2013


The Good, the Bad, and the Gunman.....

Now that you told him my name.....  Henry Fonda, the blue-eyed baddie

Well, there was this movie I seen one time,
About a man riding 'cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck.

Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath.
Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square,
I want him to feel what it's like to every moment face his death...

Catharsis is a difficult term to define, as Aristotle, who used the term in his Poetics did not offer a clear explanation.  It has been variously interpreted as purification, or purgation, intellectual clarification, or release of repressed emotions. When ancient greeks went to the theatre they may have experienced catharsis through witnessing real or fictional sacrifice or execution, suffering, or death.  

The Lone Ranger as I never saw him (no one had colour tv then)

When I was a child, inspired perhaps by glimpses of the world of the Lone Ranger, or perhaps by the legend of Davy Crockett and other all-American heroes of the frontier and Wild West, I played at cowboys, and sometimes Indians.  I still have my Colt Apache cap-gun somewhere in the loft (probably worth something on Ebay?) and have never lost interest in the history and legends of North America, even though the nearest I have ever been is Puerto Rico on a stopover to Peru.

Waiting on a train - Jack Elam and Woody Strode on the railroad to nowhere

The western genre provides us with catharsis through the gunfight.  If Sophocles had had a Colt .45 he would surely have used it as a prop. If the Trojans had had Winchester rifles the Wooden Horse might have been match wood and Troy would still be thriving.  When Gary Cooper's timepiece struck noon, the ritual was about over.  Alan Ladd was too quiet for too long and soda pop was not the correct libation - bloodshed had to follow.  John Wayne's (or Jeff Bridges's) charge at the end of True Grit is a significant move towards cleaning things up..... 

In my outdoor games the adventures involved role play and fighting, and multiple killings, and left me quite calm and ready for lunch or supper (preferably beans round a camp fire.)  We went through hell at weekends in order to be ready for school on Mondays.

The "Western" in my youth was one of the most popular genres in Hollywood.  For the first fifty years of its life (it is now about 100 years old) it accounted for about one fifth of all films produced.  Some seven thousand westerns were made overall.  Many featured "Indians" and some the civil war - but most occupied themselves with the period between the end of the civil war and 1890, when the "frontier" was officially said to have disappeared. 

The plots used bank-robberies, outlaw gangs, hazardous territories, the railroads, gold-mining, ranching, and lawmen.  The best of the films, in the "A" category, featured major stars, directors and producers, and although tastes have changed, some of the finest films ever made belong to this genre.

John Wayne - Defending the right to supremacy on John Ford's Stagecoach with Chill Wills holding the reins

The "West" was not a specific location, though the drive for land, and gold, was essentially from the East coast, with its immigrants from hunger in Europe, towards the west, rather than to the cold of the north or the heat of the south. "Westerns" however range across the whole of the United States and stray down into Mexico (and even as far as Bolivia) and up into the snows of Canada and the Yukon.  Mountains and plains, rivers and canyons, forests and grasslands, all feature as the landscape became a part of the art form.  Unlike the theatre, here you could see real vistas,   hear the drumming of galloping hooves and the lowing of droves of cattle.  

Pain and Punishment - James Stewart is dragged through fire

Towns were shabby, one street places, featuring livery tables, saloons, hardware stores, barber shops, sheriff's offices, banks and sometimes a church. In the environs settlers lived on small holdings in wooden shacks or in expansive ranch houses which sometimes displayed vulgar baronial style.

Vengeance, with the Peacemaker.  A severely aggressive act, though the camera cuts as the pistol fires and you only see James Stewart's reaction.  "You scum!"

It is not surprising that men carried firearms. For those who fought in the civil war it must have been natural (my father kept well into my lifetime a lethal dagger with knuckle guard that somehow he had acquired from an American in Italy in WWII - thankfully he was never inclined to use it); for those who ran the risk of attack by bandits or aggrieved native Americans, it was pragmatic; and for those who lived off the land by hunting it was essential. Samuel Colt had developed his repeating pistol as a necessary development to counter the rapid bow and arrow fire from horseback of the Comanches. Initially the invention was a failure and he went into bankruptcy, but he was rescued by Samuel Walker in 1847 and the resulting Walker Colt was one the deadliest and most effective pieces of technology ever devised. Samuel Walker was killed by a sniper in the autumn of that year, but Sam Colt went on to improve his design, using thirty different calibres overall, and by 1874 16,000 units of the Single Action Army revolver using the .45 Colt cartridge (which was compatible with the Winchester rifle as well) had been produced.

The dying gunfighter -  Joel McCrea: Just like the old times

Gunfighters became a feature of the world. Lonely, embittered, desperate, they lived in a world which for some time had precious little law. The frontier was a land where the fittest, or quickest, survived. Sometimes the individual was cool, admirable, a stylist that others aspired to, who would eventually use his skills for the good.  

No name  The enigmatic man from nowhere

At other times the gunman was an elemental force for the bad, with virtually no redeeming features apart perhaps from a lamentable history and a savage laugh.

Lee Marvin, a real baddie

And there were the enigmatic, weird, maverick guys who populate the fringes of these films, firing almost at random. These were the dangerous ones, the ones who couldn't care. 

Robert E Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) as Destroying Angel - in drag with a Sharps lever action falling block single shot breech loading Creedmoor rifle

Then there were the misfits, the ones who had little hope of finding themselves, or settling down, or ever developing social skills that would make them attractive enough to become family guys.

Confusion - Warren Oates wants to hurt someone in a freezing mining camp

Taken to the extreme, this is where the Wild Bunch, led by Pike Bishop, come in (though the film actually has three wild bunches: the pursued, the pursuers and the Mexicans).  The Gorch brothers and Pike and Dutch, together with young Angel, are a bunch of disreputable, failing bank-robbers. 

But the strength of their bonds and their heroic, though suicidal, final acts rise above the corrupt world they have inhabited.  Like Greek Warriors they go to their deaths with a certitude that empowers the witness.  The catharsis is ours.

The Wild Bunch (Tector, Lyle, Pike and Dutch) - Death Wishes

Sam Peckinpah, the auteur of this supreme film, did not invent screen violence, though his name is often thought to be synonymous with it. In fact the way Holly is shot by Pat Garrett is very similar (and Peckinpah acknowledges this) to the way that Shane (in Shane) dispatches the gunman Wilson. Shane's cool but rapid shot smashes Wilson back across the barroom and into a table and chair.

Slow motion death became characteristic, but only because Sam wanted us to see what would otherwise be almost subliminal. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Peckinpah slows the action down but replicates the crashing fall to death in the corner. 

Artistic Licence - it's not really like this, (a) because the bullets - which leave the gun at approximately 300 metres per second - are not evident and (b) because it was impossible to fire two shots simultaneously with a single action colt.

Although there has always been violence on the silver screen (for example, Sergei Eisentein's Odessa Steps sequence in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin) the turning point came in 1967 with Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde in which rapid fire shootings were displayed with dispassionate exactness. This was so shocking to audiences that it was not uncommon to hear of faintings at the final scene. 

And nothing has ever really been the same since, even though The Wild Bunch came only two years after......

The Undertaker

Though Sam was not in it for the thrill of the bloodshed.  He was really a romanticist, recreating the West because he couldn't live it, and framing beautiful pictures along the way.

Billy the Kid - Reflecting on a lonely existence

One of the strangest scenes in his films has Pat Garrett (James Coburn) resting by a riverside tree when a family of drifters (literally) float past, with the father figure shooting at a bottle in the water. Garrett joins in; the Drifter shoots at Garrett, and Garrett draws a bead on the man, an easy target. But then he relaxes and the family drift on, into an uncertain future. The scene, cut from some versions of the film, illustrates the way guns are so much a part of the way of life, and how easily they may lead to pointless violence.

Pat Garrett casually exchanging Winchester shots with a drifter

Pat Garrett stands for many elements connected with the gunfighter. He is ageing, and so sells himself to secure some stability. This leads to his having to hunt down and kill his friend, but also leads to his being treacherously killed himself by those he trusted. At the time he kills Billy, he also shoots his own image in a mirror, attempting to erase his past and simultaneously to destroy himself as the killer of his friend. 

His insecurity is masked by his nerve. The death of Billy is an event that has been destined by the powerful and Garrett is a pawn in their game. It is that that we will feel most sympathy with, and so his violent defence of Billy's lifeless body from Poe accompanied by the words, What you want, and what you get, are two different things! echo as we understand how we are all trapped between desires and the attainment of those desires.

James Coburn, aka Pat Garrett, shoots himself in the mirror the moment after he kills Billy the Kid.  The good times are all gone

Going back to earlier days, another film that is based on real events, John Ford's My Darling Clementine, depicts the gunman as good guy. Henry Fonda stumbles into Tombstone on the trail and stays as Marshal. As a fundamentally decent chap he civilizes the town, partly by virtually eliminating the Clanton family at the OK Corral. Here the shoot out is a true purification, in Ford's version also finishing off Doc Holliday in the process. Sergio Leone, in Once Upon a Time in the West, employed Fonda as a baddie, manipulating his image as he destroys an innocent child (as in the image at the head of this piece). 

Pardon me?  Henry Fonda trying to get a peaceful shave

On the shores of Sicily, Archimedes steps out of his bath, not noticing that the water level drops. He dries himself, not noticing that his towel weighs more when he is dry. He dresses and then, with his slave Jango, he of the maimed left hand, he drives up to the theatre in Taormina. Etna puffs behind the stage like a man with a cheroot. Aegisthus guns down Agamemnon. The audience applauds. The audience feels better and leaves the theatre discussing the harvest.

At 35 too old for this world

In Delmer Davies's 1958 Cowboy, there is an interesting variant on a bullfight, in which Glenn Ford has to hook a loop over a bull's horn in a corral full of impatient cattle. I remember being at the bullring in Seville, the sun hard on the bleeding bull's shoulders. The toreador leaned forward, his embroidered belly almost touching the vicious horn, then lunged his sword down behind the shoulder, killing the animal instantly. It was primeval. The excited cry of the crowd. The smell of blood, and sweat, and animal. It could have been the Colosseum in Rome. It could have been the Oracle at Delphi. It was light against dark; symbolically good against bad staged in a bright arena.

The Good shoots the Bad (the Ugly's gun is empty)

Quentin Tarantino is the latest director to enter the ring, with his signature extremes. Django Unchained refers back to the Italian Western Django which was banned in the UK from its release in 1966 for twenty-five years. The Director Sergio Corbucci had Franco Nero dragging a coffin around which contained a machine gun. Much blood was shed.

Tarantino, famous for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction does not stint the violence.  As Philip French writes in The Observer the film represents a transformative journey. Jamie Foxx, as the liberated slave Django, is led by an itinerant German, Dr King Schultz, on a search for his lost, humiliated wife. In a wholly unpatronising way, writes French, Schultz gives Django a sense of his own independence, channelling his anger against his exploiters but without tempering it with mercy..... Tarantino takes Schultz and Django on a physical, moral and psychological journey over a variety of evocative terrains, during which the bond between them is forged and the violence proceeds exponentially

Although the western genre is no longer in vogue, it is certainly not dead. The violence may be difficult to stomach,  but catharsis was never supposed to be easy. 

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.

I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound.

All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun and he was shot in the back.

Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.

With grateful thanks to unknown corporations (from an amateur) for the images which are used here to promote these superb films.

Lines from Brownsville Girl written by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard.

And thanks also to the following books:

Wensley Clarkson:  Quentin Tarantino, Shooting from the Hip

Philip French: Westerns

Jim Kitses: Horizons West

Paul Seydor: Peckinpah, the Western Films, A Reconsideration

Charles Portis: True Grit

Cormac McCarthy: The Border Trilogy

Larry McMurtry: Lonesome Dove

18 January 2013


Arnakal - a Journey into the past

The bungalow at Arnakal - built by my Grandfather

Scotch Air

[As used by James Joyce in "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man."]

Oft, in the stilly night,

Ere Slumber's chain has bound me,

Fond Memory brings the light

Of other days around me;

My maternal grandmother, Marjorie McMullin, typed two small booklets of her "Fond Memories" and illustrated them with photographs of her children and the few short years they lived on the Arnakal (Elephant Rock) Tea Plantation just outside Vandiperiyar, high in the Cardomom Hills of the Idukki District of Kerala, Southern India. She prefaced the first with these words (above) from "National Airs" by Thomas Moore.

The First Page of my grandmother's "Fond Memories"

My mother, Anna, was the second of four children born on the plantation in the 1920s, while my grandfather, after service in the army in the First World War, was manager. Robert, the eldest, was about two years older than my mother.  Eve and Geoffrey Peter came a little later.

My grandfather, grandmother, mother (in arms) and Robert, her elder brother

It is a very touching account of a strange, isolated, existence.  She describes walking up a grassy hill from where, "on clear days one could see a great distance right far out over the jungle valleys and hills to a faint line of sea some thirty or forty miles away by the Malabar Coast."

It is from there, by the sea, that I set out to visit the past. 

The Coast at Malabar

The second of the two booklets by my grandmother is prefaced with the following quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Spiritual Laws:

When the act of reflection takes place in the mind, when we look at ourselves in the light of thought, we discover that our life is embosomed in beauty.  Behind us, as we go, all things assume pleasing forms, as clouds do far off.  Not only things familiar and stale, but even the tragic and terrible, are comely, as they take their place in the pictures of memory. . .  

My experience on the Malabar Coast was not quite "embosomed in beauty", though the islands and harbour of Kochi (Cochin) are fascinating and attractive.  I stayed in the Deva Lodge in Ernakulam, a kind of truck drivers' boarding house not far from the Bus Station, and had a miserable night.  Supper consisted of a beer in one sleazy bar and then an omelet in a different joint on the waterfront - it seemed impossible to get beer and food together.  The night then was sweltering and mosquito plagued, and I breakfasted on anti-malarial pills.

Lakshmi - Goddess of Wealth and Beauty

The bus to Vandiperiyar was due to leave at 6.00am but didn't.  Although dubbed an express it took five hours to climb the Ghats, winding through scruffy habitations at low altitude then stopping for half an hour at Khottayam (to replace a tyre) before the 100 kilometre haul up the Cardomom hills through villages and rubber plantations, tropical jungle and endless roadworks, negotiating the road with descending herds of cattle (cows and buffaloes), being driven by vegetarian Hindus in Tamil Nadu to sell to omnivorous Christians in Kerala.

Goats in the market

At about two and a half thousand feet however the country becomes delicious -  a dark green jig saw of tea bushes on rolling hills, peppered with tall shade trees and interspersed with patches of coffee and spices. These hills, a lush part of the Idukki District, include Thekkady and one of the best wildlife sanctuaries in India.  This used to be the Thekkady Tiger Park, but is now the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.  Beyond this, the terrain rises towards the Nilgiri Hills, or slips down towards the southern tip of India, where the oceans meet.

Eventually we roll across a bridge over the wide, almost empty Periyar river, into a crowded shanty town along a dusty main street and we shudder to a halt.  This is Vandiperiyar, where my uncle used to ride to the store; where my aunt was christened.

One of Vanderperiyar's Bars

Unfortunately the Periyar View Hotel says it is full, though how or why is something of a puzzle, but I get a room at the Central Lodge, which is really a hardware shop with a few cribs behind it.  My "room" has no daylight, a rough board ceiling, a concrete floor with a groove through the middle, a wooden bed with no sheets, all of which is infused with the smell of urine.  I guess it'll do?  I need to pay my respects to my mother's birthplace.

After a quick lunch of hot cross bun I set off to walk to the factory.  I have grown up with images of this place in my mind, as pictures in the family albums and reminiscences are all part of growing up.  I barely knew my grandmother as she died when I was little (and grandfather Robert died in 1937) but ours is a warm family and I have been close to my aunt and uncles all my life.  It is, however, with a confused anticipation that I climb the hill out of the village.  The red soil contrasts with the deep green of the tea.  The hills rise and fall into the distance, some forested and others clipped like a box hedge.  On one side there is the muddy river where women slap their washing on rocks, on the other the teams of pickers work through the bushes with the measuring sticks.

The washing of clothes

My companion and I cause considerable interest with everyone we meet.  English is barely spoken (or understood) and it seems that Europeans are a rarity here.  The pickers wave excitedly; the workers on the way down to the village want to pose for pictures. 

Tea plantation workers - bemused by the first European visitor in generations

Eventually we are mobbed by a group of children who want to act as guides.  We are led up to the Arnakal Estate, where the communist flag flies above the great corrugated iron factory.  Cottages crown a rounded hilltop and we see people everywhere.  Strangely I had never thought of it in this way - the community of workers, though several generations on, must have always been here and yet my mother's first few years were spent in relative isolation.  As my grandmother wrote:  It was on Xmas day when Robert was nearly four and Ann nearly two that they went to their first party..... They had had little company but each others, and were not at all used to other children....


Eventually we reach the manager's bungalow. a large low house with a well kept and nicely shaded garden, splashed with Canna lilies. The manager is out, but we peek through the windows.  Cane furniture; servants; it could be the 1920s....  I take a photo. 

My Aunt's account of her childhood in Kerala

My photo turns out to be very like one taken almost ninety years ago now which illustrates the cover of my aunt's book about her childhood.  Only mine does not show a man with two children.  The wheels of time, the juggernaut, have rolled on and yet there is so much here which touches me.  This is the house my grandfather built.  My grandmother wrote of the morning after Eve was born: Looking out into the sunny garden, I saw the grey green leaves of the grevillias with the sun playing on them as they swayed gently in the faint breeze.  I could see the reddish leaves of a tall begonia that grew in a tub on the verandah.  A beautiful large cobweb between one of the pillars and the roof was made to sparkle in the sunlight....

It is still very beautiful here, at least to a visitor.  I can understand the love of place that comes from my grandmother's writing.  I can imagine the microcosm that hung here between world wars.

The wheels of a Juggernaut

But India is a foreign country.  They do things differently there, now.  It is hard to imagine, now, my grandfather having an appendectomy on the verandah with only a bottle of whisky for anesthesia.  It is hard to imagine, now, my mother falling ill with malaria when she was, not quite four.  As Marjorie wrote, At the time that my fourth little baby was born, Ann had a temperature of 103 and was very miserable....I can see her as she was then.  She started with horrible ague, so that her teeth chattered and she could not get warm.  As my mother now shivers in the depth of English winter, it is a different ague; another age.

Within a month both Robert and Ann were taken up to Kodaikanal to board at a convent school.  The kindergarten room where some thirty children are taught and kept amused is provided with all manner of the latest means of instruction.....  A very charming sister does the teaching, and all the children are kept so happy.  I am sure Robert and Ann will love it all before long..... 

Perhaps it is not surprising that it was not quite so easy, after all.  The following morning parents and children met to say their goodbyes.  Little Ann had a pale sad little face, and Robert with such a woe begone expression, and sad wistful eyes.....  They sobbed and clung to me, and it tore at my heart so that I could not help crying too.  Partings are not sweet sorrow - they are often greatly painful.  But all must part, some time, some where.  

We move on.  But before I leave the area I visit a church, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps just by chance.  I am glad I visited Arnakal; I am glad I have seen the place.  I realise how isolated an upbringing it must have been and how desperately my grandmother must have loved her children and missed them when they left.  She did what she thought best - placing my mother at the convent was to avoid malaria - but the separation must have hurt deeply.

My aunt's account continues the story of mother and children, though my mother was brought to boarding school in England in 1930 by her parents who were on leave.  Eve and Peter stayed on in India with their parents until they all came to England in 1934.

Before I leave I visit a church; an Anglican Church.  The graveyard is full of stories of lives that ended far from home, sometimes ending early.  The gravestones here take their place in the pictures of my memory.  It is a different world now.  But the traces remain.  I come away with traces on my heart.  I come away with a different understanding of a certain kind of love and, perhaps, a stronger sense of the world I inhabit.  This could be sentimentality.  But then it could be true fondness.  Fond, though sad, memories.

The Anglican Churchyard at Ootacamund

When I remember all
The friends, so link'd together,
I've seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one,
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

Thomas Moore

Means of Transport

The Tea Planter's Children

by Eve Baker, is published by AuthorHouse,

ISBN 1-4208-9629-6

Now also available is:

Available in paperback and as an e-book from Amazon

Published by: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (4 April 2014)

ISBN-10: 1495971538

ISBN-13: 978-1495971532

Also recommended are:

On a Shoestring to Coorg, by Dervla Murphy 


The God of Small Things, by Arundathi Roy