Essays: Odour situation |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Odour situation

INVESTIGATING some farmland which farmers say is polluted and the Ministry of the Environment says isn’t, a reporter for Nationwide (BBC1) held out a jarful of earth to a Ministry inspector and asked him if he couldn’t smell petrol. No, said the inspector, all he could detect was ‘an environmental odour associated with petroleum.’

Can the English language be saved from a watery death? Not if the BBC2 linkmen can help it. You would think by now that everybody in the Land of the Media had got the message about the word ‘situation’. Even Frank Bough is trying not to use it: when it springs to his lips he chokes it back, or covers it with a cough. But nothing gets through to the BBC2 linkmen. ‘And now here’s Michael Fish with the latest on the weather situation.’

If the language goes, everything goes. But perhaps everything is going anyway. Last week I accidentally-on-purpose never got round to saying anything about Goodbye Longfellow Road (Yorkshire) — it was just too discouraging to see such glaring evidence of the compassionate society failing to deliver the goods. But at least that programme dealt with something going wrong that could conceivably go right: the housing problem isn’t necessarily insuperable, just immensely difficult. This week’s shocker, Spend, Spend, Spend (BBC1), was about the inadequacies of a deprived personality, something impossible to mend. A drama-documentary written by Jack Rosenthal, it told a true story about a silly lady called Vivian, whose even sillier husband, Keith, won £152,319 on the pools. They spent it in short order, hence the title.

One of the many strengths of the programme was that it didn’t rush to judgment on the society which produced and destroyed Vivian and Keith. Certainly everything that happened to them, whether before or after their big win, was very nasty. But it was possible to imagine another couple scoring a comparable hoard and flourishing on it. All they would have had to be was less stupid.

Yet if stupidity is mainly just a lack of capacity to take things in, the blame could be laid squarely on upbringing. Flashbacks to the early home life of the fated lovers showed circumstances guaranteed to turn almost anyone into a shambling zombie. Prominent among these environmental factors was Keith’s grandmother, not enough of whose head was wrapped in a scarf.

In this context, Vivian and Keith were more pitiful than frightening. That they were not more boring than pitiful was a tribute to Rosenthal’s finely judged script, which caught the verbal squalor of Vivian’s interior monologue without being either too perceptive to be true or too monotonous to be bearable. ‘They say tomorrow never comes,’ droned Vivian. ‘They say there’s no place like home.’ Abandoning epigram for hyperbole, she described her early grapplings with Keith as ‘The greatest sexual experience in the history of Castleford.’

Vivian and Keith were played, dead straight without a tinge of contempt, by Susan Littler and John Duttine: two admirable performances. Crowned by a variety of savagely backcombed hair-styles, weighed down by strings of fake pearls as big as ping-pong balls, Vivian lunged about desperately in her affluent dream, which had disappointed her the cruellest way it could — by coming true. It was a fearful show, redolent of the smell of death. Of an environmental odour associated with mortality.

More or less the same theme, but this time fully fictionalised, was treated in the last episode of Headmaster(BBC2), a series which ended more strongly than it began, and ought to return. Not even Frank Windsor’s all-seeing avuncularity was sufficient to halt the precipitous course towards doom of hideous little Stephen. Played by Mark Farmer, Stephen looked like Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and behaved even worse, although more quietly. In time it was revealed that his noxious personality had a lot to do with regular beatings-up from his dad. But once again, just as in 'Spend, Spend, Spend,' there was no sentimentality. You were struck with a mixture of emotions. Your first reaction was ‘little bastard,’ your second was ‘poor kid,’ and the best compromise you could come up with was ‘poor little bastard.’

Not to panic. In sport, Britain is still a world beater. Well, in some sports. For example, Britain always wins the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. There was an Inside Story (BBC2) on the 1976 Oxford eight. Stirring to see the old traditions so diligently upheld. Was at the other place myself, where it was always a thrill to hear that the hearties had celebrated a win on the river by burning their boat and throwing the porter’s cat on the fire.

Salt of the earth, those men, and on this evidence we haven’t run out of them yet. Rowing together makes them friends for life. ‘I find it’s a reasonable way of spending one’s afternoons,’ said one of the Oxford crew, an old Etonian, standing in the middle of his 4,000-acre estate. He had just shot something. Fairly soon he would shoot something else. Men of humbler origins seemed equally convinced that rowing gave you a sense of purpose. For one thing, it gave you a blue blazer to wear. A huge man of humble origins was shown taking delivery of his blazer. Now he would have a blazer to wear, to go with his oar on the wall! In Cambridge I never met a rower who did not have an oar on the wall. Win, draw, lose or sink, everyone got a prize.

Britain is still good at horses, too. I recommend a new series called Horses in our Blood (Yorkshire, some areas), narrated by Robert Hardy, a man of parts. It takes parts to ride a horse while simultaneously talking about ‘the very great delight horses and humans have had for each other for thousands of years.’ The horses’ share of this delight has to be taken on trust, of course. Princess Anne, star of the first episode, was more matter of fact. She had never known a time when horses weren’t part of the furniture. ‘They were just there, and one got on them as one would have got on a bicycle.’

Robert laid much stress on ‘the royal connection with horses,’ and Anne herself let slip something about ‘contact in the stables,’ but to judge by the relevant footage HRH spends less time chumming up with the noble beast than in parting company from it. Ever and anon she crashed to the ground. What a jolly show though, and five more episodes to come. The air will be thick with the smell of horse-dung. With an environmental odour associated with equine bowel-movements.

The Observer, 20th March 1977

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]