Tuesday 8 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #10: Penda's Fen (1974)

Before I start, I'm bound to remind you that I'm still funding The Age of Miracles, a collection of essays, and if you like my writing, please support me.

You're going to have to excuse me.

Sometimes, I find it impossible to untangle the personal impact of a piece of media. I tie myself up in it. This is going to be a pretty personal post. Sorry.

(Not really.)

Penda's Fen then.

Let's start with the impersonal. Penda's Fen was part of the Play for Today strand in 1974. It was produced in the Pebble Mill studio in Birmingham, where, outside of the capitol and well over a hundred miles from oversight, it was one of a succession of powerful, strange plays that haunted and challenged in equal measure. It was written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, who is best known now for gritty, bleak social realist pieces like Scum. The play was repeated once in 1975, and then in 1990 (which I missed). It only got a legitimate release on DVD and Blu Ray this year.
Pagan landscapes.
Most serious lists that attempt a taxonomy of folk horror, or "pagan film" as I'm starting to think of it, include Penda's Fen (arguably the most authoritative of these being the one hosted at the BFI site, which matters because it's the BFI that released Penda's Fen on DVD/Blu Ray in the first place).

It isn't folk horror.

Listen. Yes, it's cheaply made. Yes, it deals with the lure of the ancient, and pits Christian orthodoxy against older, stranger beliefs. Yes, it plays with the iconography of demons and angels and witchcraft. It has a heavy psychogeographical element.

Yes, all of those things are tropes of folk horror. Penda's Fen still isn't folk horror though. Now, while the writer himself has disavowed its connection with the genre, we all know that this could just be the Margaret Atwood Fallacy: that is, just because a text's writer says it's not genre, that doesn't mean it isn't, and anyone who's tried to argue that The Handmaid's Tale isn't science fiction will know that.

But that's not it. No, it's not part of the genre because it comes to completely different conclusions about what all these things mean.

I watched this film through twice through before writing this post.

Part of that was because I fell in love with it. Of all the things I've discovered since embarking on this project, this is my favourite. I'll approach that later. 

Part of it was because I needed to figure out why it's different, and why, even though it's included in the folk horror canon and it has all the outward appearance of something like Stigma or Robin Redbreast, it's of an entirely different order. 

So let's look at the thread I've pulled at that gave me my series title: we don't go back.

And folk horror takes a pretty bleak line. Go back, become complicit with horror. Ignore the warnings, become its victim. Face it head on, become a villain. That's why in so many folk horrors, the objective reality of the phenomena in the story is a question. Because if it's in your head, you can't escape it. And if you can't run away, what's left? You need to embrace it. In folk horror, the land is hostile, the past is hostile, the subsconscious is hostile. You can't escape.

But that's exactly in opposition to where Penda's Fen stands. Its central point, I think, is that your identity is what you make it. It's more humane, more hopeful. Recognise the old ways, but understand that you haven't inherited them by blood. Appreciate the tyranny of authority, reject technocracy but grasp that there are no easy answers. Yes, the supernatural may be in your imagination but you need to listen.
"But you believe in God?" "I believe in truth."
Stephen: Father, do you think dreams come true?
Rev. Franklin: They don't come true. They are true.
Stephen: What do you mean?
Rev. Franklin: Your dream tells you a truth about yourself. A truth you hide from when you're awake. A truth you need to know about yourself, for your wellbeing.
Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is about to turn 18. He's at a boys' grammar school. At the start of the film he's basically a prick. He's uptight, religious (significantly more conservative than his dad, who's the local minister), patriotic, homophobic and – it's implied – a bit racist. If he was 17 today, he'd probably be a UKIPper. 
The single most terrifying image I will ever post.
Spoilers: he's not really George Shepley.

But Stephen speaks in a school debate in support of a couple (stand ins for Mary Whitehouse) who got a documentary about the historical Jesus banned. He is outraged early on when Arne (Ian Hogg), a left-wing writer new to the area, waxes lyrical about the land in a Q&A session at the parish hall.
Arne: Look. Not far from here's an expanse of country. You all know it well! Brummies drive out of a Sunday to leave their litter there. Poets have hymned the spirit of this landscape. Our greatest composer has enshrined it. Farmland and pasture now, an ancient fen. The earth beneath your feet feels solid there. It is not. Somewhere there the land is hollow. Somewhere beneath is being constructed something we are not supposed to know. A top secret. We locals are not supposed to know it's even there. And you accept it? What is it, then? An air raid shelter to shift the population of Birmingham to, in all of four minutes? What is it, hidden beneath this shell of lovely earth? Some hideous angel of technocratic death? An alternative city for government from beneath? Motoways there? Offices, control suites, silent, empty, waiting for the day? Telephones, computers, signalling equipment? Ministry pencils in every grade of H and B, ready, sharpened against the minute? Oh, you say, it must be something to protect us. Us? When for all we know, the likelihood is our entire civilian population is marked down on some top secret memo somewhere as strategically expendable. When you talk of holding populations to ransom, please consider possibilities like that.
Panellist: The British working man will never let a dictatorship happen!
Man in audience: Hear, hear!
Panellist: He's far too bloody-minded.
Arne: I damn well hope so.
Arne is right. Later that night, a car full of youths stops on the fen. A young man gets out to relieve himself. He comes back minutes later, horribly burned. His mother, refused entry to the hospital ward, gets in anyway and finds the boy surrounded by an army officer, a senior policeman and an ominous gentleman in a grey suit. The following day, a newspaper headline tells of an accident with a "weather balloon". What happened there, the play doesn't explain. But it's a critical point. The road that goes across the fen to Pinvin closes.
No explanation for this is ever given.
Stephen sees a man painting a sign. He's writing it with an F, Pinfin. Stephen angrily corrects him because he is the sort of boy who does that sort of thing, and the workman shrugs. Pinfin is an old spelling; older still Pendefen, and oldest of all, Penda's Fen. Penda, last pagan king of England.
It's a real place, by the way.
Stephen doesn't see the connection. The reason that Stephen is worth watching as a character is that right from the beginning, it doesn't work for him.

I haven't seen a character like him. He starts out wanting to conform, keenly participating in his school cadet force, enthusiastically engaging with RE lessons, writing erudite essays about Elgar, and standing up angrily for patriotism and correct spelling.

It doesn't work. He is bullied by his peers – and the bullying gets worse as the story progresses – and he is discounted by teachers who, despite his intelligence, despite his keenness to fit in, despite his every intention to present as a "good" pupil, he doesn't.
At one point, he dreams of making love to the class bully...
He's queer. He doesn't know it yet, but he isn't straight, and his parents – and his dad's the parson, remember, and this is 1974 – worked it out ages ago, and they are OK with it, more OK with it than he is. He appreciates Elgar with a little too much passion. He talks about Manichaeism in his RE class with just a little too much approval, a little too much enthusiasm. He has never been quite right; he hasn't grasped it.

I have never seen a fictional character who so reflects my younger self. Or whose journey is so like mine. I mean, look, some of Stephen's values would have appalled me even as a teenager, but his priggish intensity, his pedantry, his desire to work hard and gain acceptance from the establishment of the school, the way that the staff of the school simply can't see any more value in him than the kids who bully him? That was me.

On TV, when conformity is a field of conflict, you have conformists and you have nonconformists. You have people who start out as nonconformists and get over it. You have characters who begin as conformists who learn to strike out. You have characters who are one or the other and stay that way.

But you don't have the ones who try, and can't, who experience a kind of aconformity. And people like that suffer, because they haven't grasped the fundamental lesson of their lives: you will never be one of them. 

You will never be one of them.

It's not that the person is a jigsaw piece, or that they're broken, or ill-fitted for the puzzle. It's that they're a piece of an entirely different puzzle. The solution – there is a solution. Later, OK.

So as for me, here I was, the working class kid with the scholarship to the second-rate private school whose parents never quite got that just because the tuition fees are waived, it doesn't mean it's free and who consequently received a second-class education, unable to afford the extra-curriculars you had to pay for and unable to do the ones you didn't because I had to get a job.

Bullied by peers and discounted by the staff – I remember the sixth-form class teacher who told me I shouldn't be sad I wasn't accepted to Cambridge because I didn't deserve to go there anyway, the college he went to, for which he wrote the reference, and I remember the growing feeling in my stomach that I had been stitched up by someone who was supposed to have my back.

I effaced my accent.

I tried. But I couldn't. And the class barrier was part of it – and anyone who says that you can change your class has never tried; you can change the class of your children, but not your own – but there was something more elemental there. Because I couldn't do it. I didn't have it in me. And the people around me knew that better than I did, so they didn't want me. And, only partly because I couldn't sit comfortably with the establishment I was in, because I was unable to, I was a colossal prick.

You will never be one of them. 
...but then the bully becomes a demon.
In Penda's Fen, Stephen is also a colossal prick, the sort of boy who angrily shouts at signwriters that they're spelling it wrong. But his project of conformity is doomed, long before it even began.

Over the course of the story he experiences a series of terrifying visions. He becomes haunted by pagan images. A homoerotic dream begins with an angel, continues with boys rutting in a rugby scrum and ends with a devil squatting on his bed.

The angel follows him around.
This is the one part of the movie where its objectivity is questionable.
The couple who function as Mary Whitehouse substitutes participate in a ritual where someone chops the hands off smiling women and children, one by one. They approach Stephen, beckon him to join them.
The most unsettling part of this is how no one stops smiling.
And he meets Elgar. And Elgar's a bit of a prick too, but he and Stephen get on just fine, and they talk a little about visions. Elgar tells Stephen the secret of the Enigma Variations.
"Has anyone solved the Enigma?"
Stephen talks about things with Arne and his wife, and with his dad, who he discovers has views on Christianity in particular and life in general that are decidedly not conservative.
(Stephen reads his father's manuscript): To the reader who shouts blasphemy, I say, blasphemy worse, that the name of this revolutionary, life-enhancing Jesus should now be dangled like a halo above a sick culture centred on authority and death.
He discovers he's adopted, that his parents weren't even from Britain ("Even Elgar had some Welsh blood," says Stephen's adopted dad the parson, a legendarily crap attempt at offering comfort, and one of the funniest lines in the play).
He plays Elgar, and the church floor gapes open.
An old religion follows Stephen everywhere he goes, but a new way of seeing things imposes itself on him. Different to the establishment that he initially wants to be part of – but that establishment itself is, it's pretty clear, not as Christian as it thinks it is. Cracks appear in the church floor. Christ says, "Unbury me." He has a moment of epiphany when his school sings Jerusalem.1
In his final vision, Stephen meets the morality campaigners/Mary Whitehouse stand-ins again, and their evangelicalism presents itself as a sort of Manichaean paganism, as witchcraft. They take him to a high place and tempt him, as Satan tempted Christ.2
The Woman: You have to come with us. You are a child of light. You have to be born in us. Then you'll become pure light.  
Stephen: No. No! I am nothing pure! Nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness. Mixed! Mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!
He denies them and he calls on King Penda and he is transfigured. Penda tells him to be "secret, strange, dark, impure and dissonant." Penda blesses him. The king's hand is burned; the land is in danger. The land, Penda says depends on Stephen's recognition that he isn't racially pure, whatever that means, he isn't straight, he isn't a child of a militaristic establishment. He can't be. And that's OK. 
Be secret and strange.
It's crucial to realise that he is still a bit of a prick. He hasn't sorted out his sexuality, or who he is. He's given a whole lot of stuff up and he's disavowed the ways in which he was wrong. But he's yet to become the new person. He's yet to get there. But he will, and he's going to make difficult decisions and have a tough life, but he's going to be OK.
"Discover thyself."
Penda's Fen affected me deeply. He's closer to me than any other character in any film I've ever seen. I started on the road to being OK a little later than him, and it was a wrong road, but I've seen few films that as closely mesh with my own philosophy. I wonder how it would have affected me if I'd seen it on its 1990 broadcast, with me aged 15. I suspect it wouldn't have made any difference to me, that I would have been able to see. When you reach any point of enlightenment, of change, you do it yourself, and I had to do it myself. I had to realise.

This is, I might add, the precise opposite of the "geek" experience. The whole nerd thing is in fact a solid owning of societal norms, a reification of them. I believe quite strongly that if more bullied young men had chosen, like Stephen, to grow up into a responsibility for their communities and lands, stupid crap like Gamergate would never have happened.


You will never be one of them. And that is how it should be. 

1Just like the school that Stephen goes to, my school sang Jerusalem3 after the school song on special occasions. And just like him, I had a moment where I thought, hang on, this is not the song these people think it is. This is about smashing everything this place stands for. Why can't they see?

The song the headmaster says it's subordinate to, the school anthem, although it's not heard in Penda's Fen, gives some sort of an answer. If you've seen Lindsay Anderson's film If.... you might have an idea of how bad school songs can be. In that film, it goes, "Stand up, stand up for College," stealing the words of a popular English battle hymn and replacing "Jesus" with "College".

The school song for the establishment I attended (never "my school", oh no) was in Latin, and it's basically shit. It's a crime against poetry in both sentiment and form and a crime against Latin. Here it is. It hurts me that I can't remember more than a couple of lines of Virgil, but I can recall every doggerel-laden syllable of the bloody thing, can hear it in my head as I write.
Quid si fasti sunt breves? Spes est grandiorum.
Ni fiemus nos leves, mox est splendidorum. 
Praebeamus fortiter studiam, virtutem
Consequamur acritur gloriam, salutem
Gloriemur nomine nos Plymothiorum
Exultemus omine urbis et locorum. 

So what if the holidays are short? Our hope is for grander things;
If WE don't become frivolous, soon it is for shinier things.
We will strongly follow schoolwork and good behaviour.
We will keenly pursue glory and clean living.
WE will glory in the name of Plymouths [sic]
We will exult in the sign of the city and the places.
In translation, you can see how repetitive and terrible it is. Presumably the writer meant only one Plymouth and couldn't get it to scan, and thought that the plural OH-rrrum! sound at the end of the line made for a nice marchy flourish (it's one of the cringiest parts, the part where you're supposed to pump your elbow). Also the capitalised "we" in a couple of places isn't an accident, it is there because the clumsy use of the personal pronoun denotes uncommon emphasis. Note the use of "glory" in consecutive lines. Don't do that. "Glory" and "clean living" as a dyad is pretty bathetic. Splendidus doesn't mean splendid, it means "shiny", the way that gold is shiny. Omen for "sign" only means "sign" in the way that the English word "omen" does.

Also, it breaks the first rule of Latin poetry: if you make it rhyme, you're doing it wrong.

This song is terrible in both Latin and English.

Weird thing, I haven't ever consciously translated it before. Even when I was doing Latin A-Level I kept well enough away.

In short, it's a shorthand for everything that's wrong with establishment tradition: its braying repetition of meaningless saws of obedience and conformity, its absolute disregard for art as a thing any idiot can do. Its proud banality.

And you thought the Tories trampling all over the arts was a new thing? This is how it's always been. Establishments either do their best to crush art entirely, or they domesticate it and use it for ends to which it is ill suited, as they have done with the visionary works of Elgar or Blake, realising without really knowing why that their own attempts at making things that stir the human heart are empty and false.

The school wrote to me in 2015 to apologise for having failed me as profoundly as it did. In any real terms, it was a mealy-mouthed we-don't-do-that-now non-apology, I mean, of course it was, it had to be, and I don't begrudge that, but – but – they didn't have to apologise at all. The only sense they owed me any kind of apology was moral.

I don't reckon there's a single teacher left there that I remember, and I don't doubt for a second that it's probably a perfectly serviceable school now (because the school I remember would never have written a letter to former pupils apologising for failing them), but I was deeply affected by the letter nonetheless. (back)

2More than one theologian has suggested that conservative evangelicalism, particularly the American variety, but to a lesser extent parts of the British and Australian movement, left behind historical expressions of Christianity long ago, and that it's basically, well, Manichaean witchcraft. I'm not going to comment on that other than to leave this here:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Matthew 4: 8-9
...and observe that a) to cop to this deal is exactly witchcraft; b) Donald Trump has basically made this offer to America's evangelical right; and c) in large part they've said, "Sure, Mr. Devil, we'll do that."

It pleases me a great deal that David Rudkin is saying that Mary Whitehouse is basically the Devil, though. (back)

3Before the pedants that are out there4 go, "Actually, it's Blake's Prelude to Milton", no, it isn't. The poem is called that, or it is when it's divorced from the batshit insane prototype graphic novel that Milton actually is, but those words, lifted from that context and assigned to music, become the gestalt final form that is and always has been Jerusalem. (back)

4By "out there" I mean "in my imagination".(back)