Saturday, 29 October 2016
Wetherby is a town in north Yorkshire, population around 11,000 (Wiki). There’s a nearby services on the A1(M), where I hitch-hiked from, long ago, when people did hitch-hike. The town itself is a little separate, and has a one-way system I was regularly bemused by, in later days when I drove from Bramhope, near Otley (where my mother lived) to York (my brother). The weather in Wetherby: ‘Cloudy weather tends to predominate, but settled, sunny spells occur at times, as well.’ It really does say that, in the Wiki entry.
Wetherby is where my father ran a farm. He wanted to be a farmer but was diverted by his own father’s involvement in starting an iron foundry in Leeds, making cast-iron drainpipes (this was before plastic) and manhole covers, so he – my father – was duty bound to go into that, leaving school at 14, but when he became managing director of that company, and had some cash to play with, he bought a farm at Wetherby and ran it through a manager. We – him, my mum, my brother, me – drove there on Saturdays. My father’s car, the one I remember, was a Riley. I sat in the front. To join the main road from Otley we drove down a thrillingly twisty, narrow, steep, blind-cornered lane: he’d ask me to pass his driving gloves from the glove compartment, and take his hands off the wheel to put them on, and my mum in the back seat would despair of these stupid games boys played.
Wetherby is where the bit of the British Library is located to which I have to send a copy of every book that CBe publishes.
My father died when I was five, sixty years ago, and my mother sold the farm, I think not to another farmer – maybe for motorway expansion, maybe for a trading estate. Invisible, now, when I drive past. Among the not many things of my father’s that my mother kept – a Longines watch; a wallet, in an inside pocket of which I found a decaying condom, a generation past its use-by date – was the farm ledger book: wages, transport, hay, things in, things out, all in that handsome handwriting that everyone seemed to have, then. I lost it. The CBe accounting system – which is conducted in pencil on paper in ruled columns, I have never made a spreadsheet – maybe the whole of CBe – is a daft attempt to reconstruct that ledger.
Wetherby is a 1985 David Hare film, with Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm (I’ve always liked him; he plays a semi-alcoholic solicitor, ‘the town’s official sanctifier of greed’) and Judi Dench (herself from north Yorkshire). I watched it long ago, and then again the other night. A student arrives, uninvited, at a dinner party, then comes round again next day and kills himself in the kitchen. That gunshot reverberates through everything else (a standard trope, as is the uninvited guest). It’s fiercely intelligent, as I’d expect of David Hare (though his acceptance of a knighthood in 1998 I did not expect). It’s about the particular people but it’s also, in a non-pushy way, a state-of-the-nation film – to take the temperature of England, stick the thermometer into a small town adjacent to a motorway – six years into Thatcher’s premiership. ‘Revenge. That’s what she does, something, some deep damage, something inside, god knows what, some crimes behind the privet hedge. She’s taking some terrible revenge, and the whole country’s suffering.’
‘It’s funny how so many people forget.’ ‘It wasn’t that long ago’ – from the dialogue played over the opening credits.
It got to me when I first saw it, in the 1980s. The Vanessa Redgrave character is a teacher in a secondary school. Early in the film, a girl asks her why she should even think about going into the 6th form, even if she goes to college and gets a degree she’ll at best get a job as a secretary. Redgrave waffles: ‘fulfilling your potential’, ‘ways of fulfilling your life’. ‘What ways?’ says the girl. I’d been briefly an English teacher myself in Yorkshire, I’d been asked that question (Tanya, where now?), and I’d got out of teaching precisely because I wasn’t mature enough, knowing enough, to answer that question with any degree of honesty. I had no idea what I was doing.
Thirty years later, Wetherby still gets to me. It is deeply, uncomfortably English. It’s middle-class white, books on the shelves, me. (There’s no reason why that in itself should disqualify it from attention – subject for discussion, announced by Redgrave going into her classroom: ‘Is Shakespeare worth reading, or is it all about kings?’) I suspect that not much has changed in Wetherby since the 1980s (except the house prices: properties of the kind that school-teacher Redgrave lives in now cost around a million). The boyfriend of the young Redgrave (the latter played by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely) joins the air force and is killed in Malaya; my mother had a boyfriend, an RAF pilot, who was killed in WW2; the solitariness of the Redgrave character echoes that of my mother, who was widowed when young and lived alone for nearly 50 years a few miles from Wetherby.
John Morgan, the 25-year-old who kills himself, is a PhD student at the University of Essex, very 1980s; he’s come to Wetherby to research at the British Library outpost. The girl who asks Redgrave what’s the point of education runs off to London. (London is to Wetherby what Moscow is to Olga, Maria and Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.) Wetherby is a pessimistic film, but there are some fun moments. ‘Do you like murder?’ asks a reader of the Judi Dench character, who works at the British Library outpost. ‘Not much. But I prefer it to romance.’