Friday, January 16, 2015

The Not Dead

If ‘Drinking for England’ and ‘Feltham Sings’, boiled down to their respective essence, are ‘Alcoholism: The Musical’ and ‘Borstal: The Musical’, then it must have been immediately apparent to Simon Armitage and Brian Hill from the outset that ‘The Not Dead’ would require a different approach. Let’s face it, ‘PTSD: The Musical’ or ‘Survivors’ Guilt: The Musical’ was never going to be an option.

‘The Not Dead’ features three key interview subjects. Cliff served in Malaya in the 1950s, his younger counterparts Eddie and Rob in Bosnia and Iraq respectively. All saw violence, did violence, and had violence done to them. All came back where some of the men they served alongside didn’t. All, more to the point, came back changed men, either physically, mentally or both.

Decades separate their stories but similarities quickly emerge: working class backgrounds; basic training as something easy or even enjoyable; the eventual depersonalisation of the individual so that holding a gun seems the norm, ditto firing it; the experience of killing without enmity; and the difficulty in readjusting to civilian life afterwards. Particularly the latter. The nightmares, the negative effect on relationships, substance abuse as an emotional crutch.

Psychiatry was quick to diagnose Eddie and Rob: post-traumatic stress disorder. Cliff lived longer with the fall out before medical understanding and support networks caught up with him. Years of his GP denying their was any underlying issue. Years of one’s self-worth taking a battering. And when he finally approached the Royal College of Psychiatry and received a referral, the response from his specialist was bleak: he would have to cope with it as best he could. “So that’s what I’m doing,” he concludes with astounding pragmatism: “coping.”

But for all that Eddie and Rob have been able to put a name to their illness more quickly than Cliff did, it’s by no means made things easier for them. Eddie’s saviour is his wife (to whom the most poignant of Armitage’s poems for the film – the deceptively titled ‘Manhunt’ – is gifted); Rob self-anaethetises with drink and drugs. Some days he can’t face going out.

All three men are quietly mesmerising in their interview footage. Cliff, old school in suit and tie, is formal and precise in his diction. He calmly recounts killing a Malayan soldier who had shot one of his comrades. The understated description will leave you reeling. Then, moments later, Cliff reflects “I’ve got him to meet again soon” – the juxtaposition of regret at another’s death and acceptance of his own mortality is shattering. I had to pause the documentary here while I stopped crying.

Eddie, quite softly spoken for such an imposing figure, chooses his words as carefully as Cliff. There is a world of painful experience in the weighing up of every word he uses. Rob’s recollections are a little more freeform, but punctuated by moments of silent reflection. Watching him, you get the feeling that he’s often back there, mind whirling. When he discusses being under fire, or even the waiting for the next attack, the comparison he uses is being mugged or in a car crash – that sense of hyper-realism where the adrenalin of a “fight or flight” response kicks in: “imagine that 24-7,” he concludes; “that’s what it’s like.”

Distilling their individual stories, Armitage created not just a suite of poems and lyrics as per his previous collaborations with Hill, but a book-length sequence. ‘The Not Dead’ is the only Armitage/Hill documentary thus far that has resulted in an accompanying publication. Curiously only two poems from it are reprinted in ‘Paper Aeroplane’, his Selected Poems that was published last year. (Some other pieces reappear in the Bloodaxe anthology ‘The Hundred Years War’.)

Obviously, only a handful of the work Armitage produced could find its way into the film, but the poems which feature are perfectly sculpted to each participant. And their readings are phenomenal. I can’t even begin to imagine what each man went through in not only having his worst moments distilled into short stark lines via the conduit of someone else’s imagination (no matter how sympathetic that imagination) but then reading those lines – reflectively and with gravitas – on camera. Armitage, in interview, has called it bravery. I agree.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Feltham Sings

The poet Simon Armitage used to work as a probation officer. Even if he hadn’t previously worked with Brian Hill on ‘Drinking for England’, this would have made him the perfect collaborator for ‘Feltham Sings’.

Feltham is a Young Offenders Institute (what used in Britain to be called a Borstal) situated near Heathrow airport. From hereon in I’ll be calling it what it is: prison. The various wings of the prison are named after birds; peacocks parade the ground just outside the wires. “They whine all day,” one of the inmates observes; “wake me up at five o’clock. If I could get outside I’d strangle the fucking peacocks.”

The constant backdrop of jetliners heaving themselves into the sky for all manner of holiday destinations must be just as annoying, particularly for the incarcerated New Zealander – a sensitive, well-spoken lad – who took a few pills to a nightclub for a mate, co-operated with the police when arrested and got lumbered with 13 months for possession with intent to supply. He was about to return to New Zealand to begin his studies with the aim of becoming a pilot. He gets Armitage’s only poem, and it’s a sad, poignant, reflective piece that, through careful repetition, builds up a contrast between planes, peacocks and imprisonment.

Elsewhere, Armitage’s contribution is in the form of song lyrics (given a hip-hop aesthetic by composer Dextrous), and it’s hard to imagine any of the other inmates reciting verse as a preference to yawping their stories back in the face of the establishment in gangsta-stylee. Two participants rejected Armitage’s lyrics (crafted, as with ‘Drinking for England’, after extensive interviews) and wrote their own raps. Both created good work, albeit crackling with a certain amount of macho posturing whereas Armitage goes for the emotional truth of his subjects’ states of mind.

As a result, ‘Feltham Sings’ is a different piece of work to ‘Drinking for England’. Music videos have inured us to gangsta imagery; scenes of some hardcase delivering rap lyrics in a dayroom or a cell aren’t as jarring or culturally out of place as some fat-bellied loser cutting loose like a wannabe Roy Orbison in a spit ‘n’ sawdust pub. Even the short-lived karaoke fad doesn’t contextualise ‘Drinking for England’ in the way that music videos do for ‘Feltham Sings’.

Not, however, that your average East Coast “crew” would include Robin, the young man transferred to suicide watch after the death of his father and the news that an aunt has only months to live. Armitage crafts for him a song that counts down from ten various lists juxtaposing prison routine with edited highlights of the fucking lousy hand that life has dealt him. He’s an inexperienced vocalist and his is the only song that Hill provides subtitles to, but that just serves to emphasise the reality.

Likewise McBride: inside for assault and with a family history of institutionalisation (“a boy born in Holloway” as the key line of his song, ‘Boomerang Boy’, bluntly records); his vocal would see him summarily given the elbow on any talent show, but the bitter life experience that Armitage has distilled into the song, and Hill’s staging of it, transforms him into a wounded icon.

The stories that Hill and Armitage uncover are tellingly similar: drugs, booze, parental failings, a yearning for a lifestyle that crime might provide but the kind of shitty minimum wage job that constitutes their only other option certainly won’t. True, these are kids who have done some pretty vicious and anti-social things, but the degree of self-reflection that they bring to their interviews suggests a correlative degree of victimhood. The guy who talks about the babysitters who routinely sexually abused him between the ages of three and five, for example. Inhumanity begets inhumanity.

Ditto the two jive-talking smartarses who suddenly, and apropos of nothing, have a conversation about karma, speculating as to whether the times they got away with it were because they fucked over someone just as dodgy who had it coming and that fact that they’re now doing time is because of what they did to “a good person” who was “just getting on with their life”. Or the guy who writes letter after letter to his mother; he can’t send them – he doesn’t know where she is – so his testimony to her remains in a bundle in his cell. 

The great triumph of ‘Feltham Sings’, in just 48 minutes, is to mine numerous moments like these, revealing the human being beneath the uniform, without ever eliding the reality of life at Feltham and why its “guests” have found themselves behind bars.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Drinking for England

Okay. Imagine Werner Herzog’s doctrine of “ecstatic truth” taken to the extreme in the documentary form. Imagine a documentary where the subjects are interviewed, said interviews are reshaped into poetry and song lyrics by Yorkshire’s favourite probation officer turned versifier, then handed back to the original subjects who either recite the poems or sing the lyrics … while cameras follow them through their own personal hell (or otherwise) in a frank and unsparing look at drinking culture, denial, chauvinism and alcohol dependency.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Brian Hill and Simon Armitage’s ‘Drinking for England’. Made in 1998, the year before Armitage delivered arguably his best work as a poet with ‘Killing Time’, his thousand-line deconstruction of millennial angst, ‘Drinking for Britain’ already shows its age a bit with scenes of smokers chugging away in pubs (was the smoking ban really a post-millennial construct? it seems a lot longer since I walked into a pub and the ceiling was obscured by a fog of nicotine) and the spit ‘n’ sawdust joints that a couple of the interviewees favour and probably owned by Wetherspoons now.

‘Drinking for England’ clocks in at just under an hour and follows twenty-somethings Ami and Kerry, who get sloshed in their flat before heading out to a winebar where they freeload off oiky lads; middle-aged incapacity scrounger Shaun, who treats his wife as a pub-to-house taxi service; single mum Jane, whose decision to enter rehab gives the documentary at least a glimmer of hope; unrepentant booze-hound Duncan, who seems to be the only participant who enjoys being an alkie; and moneyed retiree Denis, whose world-class case of denial is frankly staggering.

As a cross-section, this not-quite-wild bunch range across half a century in terms of their ages and Hill’s immediate achievement with the documentary is to explode the myth that binge drinking, stupid behaviour and the exponential capacity to make an utter fucking prat of oneself is solely the mandate of the young. Ami and Kerry slur their words as they try to recite Armitage’s deliberately simple cadences, they giggle and stumble and fall over, but in their more reflective moments they realise that this is merely a case of something to be got out of their system during their twenties; they see little point to intoxication for its own sake beyond their thirties. The others, however …

Jane has made it to thirty-eight and is bringing up her thirteen-year-old son almost single-handedly. Her tipple of choice is sherry and she talks of it both as a constant companion and a guilty secret. Her account of frequenting different retailers in order to disguise the amount she’s buying is a sad but telling moment. Armitage responds with a lyric that turns sherry into Sherry, an alter ego who is both Jane’s tormentor and dependent. Jane performs the song with what I can only describe as weary gusto. I know that doesn’t make sense as a turn of phrase, but watch the documentary.

The next best song is ‘Thinking and Joking’, in which these two words replace “drinking” and “smoking” in a witty romp through Duncan’s devil-may-care lifestyle. Duncan’s story is the least cautionary of these tales – he’s loquacious, witty and charming in a rough diamond sort of way, and all too easy to like – but what he lacks as a role model, he makes up for in raw honesty. He’s certainly better company than Shaun, who is basically a wanker on a cosmic scale. He neglects his wife for the company of boorish chauvinists, downs lager like he’s not just drinking but trying to swallow the glass, orders his ten pints per night in halfs, and he huffs out tired self-pitying rhetoric as if he were the victim. Shaun is the most odious character, fictional or non-fictional, that I’ve seen onscreen in a long time, and this is coming from someone who’s just sat through two months of venal exploitation movies.

Denis is more companionable than Shaun, but no less boorish albeit that he speaks in a cut-glass accent rather than Shaun’s fags-and-terrace-chants sandpaper rasp. It’s when he comes out with these two particular statements that Denis shows his true colours. The first is in respect to drink-driving legislation, which he thinks should allow for long-term drinkers who can demonstrate tolerance and a low-accident history. His rationale? That he’s unable to drink as much as he’d like down his local because he has to drive there. The second deserves quoting in its full head-in-the-sand glory: “I wouldn’t say I have a drink problem personally, but it does govern the way I live my life.”

Although the film’s title suggests a correlation of drinking culture and geopolitical history, Hill steers clear of obvious or moralistic point-scoring, nor does he try to make some big overarching statement. Armitage’s poetry and lyrics distil (bad word; sorry) the subjects’ experiences and voices into poignant vignettes sculpted to their personalities. It’s a small triumph of director and writing completely shelving their own egos and agendas so that what remains is purely a record, never mind that it’s arrived by the most curious artifice.