White-Out on Kinder Scout


Imagine this under heavy snow

A discussion at work about the weather conditions today has brought back another snow memory that I’d forgotten for quite some time.

This one goes back to 1983, when I was going out, for several months, in a desultory, going nowhere manner, with a young lady who I initially met at work, and who I continued dating after I changed firms.

I’d not long since connected with Linda, an old friend from childhood, who was now married, to an ex-Army PTI turned Sports Centre Personal Trainer. All of us enjoyed fell-walking (well, you know that about me anyway), so we agreed to go down to Edale as a foursome one Sunday morning.

It had snowed overnight, and conditions on the ridges didn’t look propitious, but we decided to change into our boots and set off. First up was a stop at the Visitor Centre, where Ray filled in a route card, setting out where we were going and when we expected to be back.

This surprised and amused me, having never done anything like this, before or since in the Lakes. It became a minor bone of friendly contention between Linda and I over the years as she thought I was being derelict in never leaving any information behind about where I was going, and me pointing out that there were no such Visitor centres in the Lakes, there were so many different places from which my walks started, and that I was not prepared to leave a note on the windscreen of my car, saying, in effect, that I wasn’t going to be back for six hours, during which time you can rob this vehicle with impunity.

We were ascending by Grindsbrook Clough, which was then the official start to the Pennine Way at the Edale end, but which was closed to walkers some years later, on safety grounds I presume: I do not know if it has ever been re-opened.

Grindsbrook Clough is a narrow, curving channel into the bulk of Kinder Scout, initially relatively level but soon winding upwards in quite a steep fashion. I have an image of approaching the ascending section, the sides of the Clough closing in, the snow clouds down on the higher section, a dark roof.

We scrambled up to the edge of the plateau and stopped for a consultation. It was truly white-out conditions, visibility limited to at most ten yards, and less for me because I’d had to take off my glasses and stick them in an anorak pocket because they were filling with snow. There was nothing to be seen except snow: all arund, all underfoot.

I say a consultation, but it was mainly Ray and Linda. It was agreed that we would walk on to some prominent landmark on Kinder’s wide top, the name of which I have long since forgotten. Personally, I would not even have gone as far as the edge of the plateau in those conditions, even though Grindsbrook Clough was an unerring route and we’d got that far with no difficulty, but everyone else seemed enthusiastic so, trusting in Ray’s Army training, I raised no objections.

So we set off in single file, Ray in the lead, Linda behind, then Nicola, and me bringing up the rear in the traditional gallant male role. The path wound here and there. I lost all sense of distance travelled. There was nothing to see but the cage of snow, blowing through us.

After I’d gotten thoroughly fed up with where I was, we got to where we were going, whatever it was. There were some taller rocks, in a kind of outcrop that might have been interesting if it was actually visible, but it wasn’t. Linda and Ray agreed that we wouldn’t hang around, and would immediately turn round and go back. As we were still lined up in march order, Ray turned to me and said, “Ok, Martin, you lead us back.”

“You what?” I said, in a rather loud voice. “I have no idea where we are. You get up here now!”

So we went back to the edge of the plateau in the same order, Ray at the front, me at the back and the ladies between. Once more, we twisted and turned in the white-out conditions, and once more Ray led us to the top of Grindsbrook Clough with dead reckoning, and we started down.

I’ve been caught in storms and thick cloud on Lakeland tops, I’ve climbed up through underfoot snow and given up on Pavey Ark because of it, within about a hundred yards of the summit as I learned when I came back, but that blind walk across a part of the Kinder plateau is the most extreme weather conditions I’ve found myself in.

And people wonder why I usually went out on my own, and took my own decisions!

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In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘The Gates of Bannerdale’


Malcolm Saville gradually aged the Lone Piners, over the last half dozen books, until the series ended with Peter’s coming of age, at eighteen. The last Bannerdale book, The Gates of Bannerdale, takes a leap forward over its first quarter, which disguises the fact that, by the time Bill Melbury and Penny Morchard embark on the story that will, subtly, between the lines, determine their future, our friends will no longer be children, but adults: young adults, responsible for themselves.
And though it might be seen as a retrograde step for the series to end as it began, with the discovery of treasure hidden centuries ago, I agree entirely with Jim MacKenzie’s argument that it is not the silver and plate that is the treasure, but the truth and the honesty that it brings to both Bill and his unlikely partner, the initially unscrupulous Snaith.
The Gates of Bannerdale is the fulfilment of Bill’s ambition to go to Oxford University (Geoffrey Trease’s alma mater) for which he will need to qualify for the Scholarship without which the cost will be way beyond him. Tim has joined the Police Cadets, Sue is engaged to Johnny Nelson, but Penny arrives at the station when Bill leaves for Oxford and his examination, with a sprig of white heather for luck. She claims to be collecting a parcel for her father, and it’s all a coincidence, and Bill is still so obtuse that he believes this.
The first section of the book deals with Bill’s first visit to Oxford, to sit for the Scholarship (in Classics). He finds himself opposite Gardiner (later to be named Paul), an amiable young man whose background couldn’t be grander, a family steeped in theatre and diplomacy, a major Public School, but who couldn’t be more straightforward, unlike other representatives of such class.
Bill does have to go through things like examinations, and an awkward interview with the Warden et al of Hereford College, his choice of destination, but apart from that, this part of the story is just a love letter to Oxford, so much so that even someone like me, with a lifelong inexplicable preference for Cambridge, drinks in everything of which Trease delights with a sense of the devotion he feels. How this would have gone down with me as a youngster, I have no idea: I suspect I would have been bored to death!
It’s a Schol. or nothing (Bill could not afford Oxford on any kind of fee-paying basis). Bill expects it to be nothing, but the glad tidings are announced to him by Mr Kingsford, in Assembly, before the whole school, and with the whole school’s cheers (and these are not only for the half-day holiday Bill has won for them!).
Relief follows, though Oxford is as yet a long way off, with the rest of the year to go through, and then two years of National Service (this last book was still only published in 1956). But first, there’s an unusual scene, one of those few ones that Bill is not privy to, between Penny and Miss Florey. On the surface, it’s a conversation between a Head and her pupil who has declared an ambition as to her academic future: Penny wants to try for Oxford herself, and is ready to put in whatever effort is required.
The subtlety is that Bill is not present, and the larger context of the book makes it plain to us that Penny has not revealed all this to him at the time, nor has Miss Florey spoken of it then, for it is entirely private. Only when we start to ask ourselves just when, and why, Miss Florey would have related this to Bill, do we begin to see an underlying structure to the book that Trease never brings to the surface.
This is where that National Service plays a valuable role. Bill and Penny are of different ages – seventeen months separate them – and in different years. The era in which young British males had to go through National Service slows Bill down enough for he and Penny to go up together. In the meantime, throughout his posting overseas, he and Penny trade regular letters and his fellow servicemen refer to her as his girlfriend, but even then Bill can’t see it. In fact, he can’t see it as being anything but ridiculous that the free-spirited and independent Penny would be a ‘girl-friend’. Sometimes, you do rather want to slap him around the head!
Once Bill and Penny are both in Oxford, they’re immediately separated: Penny’s College is in North Oxford, well away from Bill at Hereford, and the press of settling in and getting to grips with their respective courses allows them little time to get together. Bill is delighted to discover himself opposite Gardiner again (though he doesn’t learn his new friend’s first name until Penny uses it), and his first renewed contact with Penny is via a fortuitous encounter with her new friend, Carolyn Staveley, a robust and attractive blonde with those really old-style glasses with little horn-wings that can’t help but conjure up an appearance both neutral and silly.
Bill spends a surprising amount of time with Carolyn for the duration of the book whilst, being Bill to the hilt, never once thinking of her as a girlfriend or in any romantic light whatsoever. And he barely sees anything of Penny, who sees rather more of Paul than Bill. Of course, the theatrical connection to Gardiner’s family underpins Bill’s response to that, but his description of their relationship does sound like boyfriend and girlfriend. Then, so would Bill and Carolyn’s if we weren’t seeing that through Bill’s eyes.
It does make you wonder just how Carolyn feels about the friendship, but Bill’s reticence on such subjects means that that book will remain forever firmly shut!
However, there is a significant exchange that those who are used to reading between Bill’s lines will seize upon. With the traditional First of May looming, Bill proposes hiring a punt and making up a foursome with the girls. Casually, he leaves it to Paul to speak to the girls, but, much as he likes the idea, he’s oddly reluctant to do so. Indeed, without explaining why, he’s insistent that the suggestion would come better from Bill, at least, so far as Penny is concerned… It seems that Paul is aware of something that Bill isn’t, something to do with Penny.
Indeed, Carolyn is Bill’s ‘partner-in-crime’, so to speak. Whilst Trease continues to be thoroughly lyrical about Oxford at every turn, in a way that he has never extended to his fictional version of West Cumberland, he does introduce a mystery for Bill, on behalf of the old gang, to resolve.
Surprisingly, and disappointingly for some, it’s a reversion, or maybe a regression, to the first book: a lost Treasure, to be discovered. Trease approaches it as a different tack, making it a mystery to be solved, with the slow uncovering of clues that eventually point to the hiding place from which the silver and plate of Hereford Collage is re-found after three hundred years.
The impetus for this is a book. Through Paul Gardiner, Bill meets Snaith (whose first name, Roland, is not revealed until the penultimate chapter). Snaith is the epitome of a whiz-kid, a self-promoting, witty, intelligent but cynical man on campus, an instinctive controversialist. Snaith plans to write a book, to coincide with his graduation, a biography, of Richard Talbot, former Master of Hereford, Master during the Civil War when the College silver went missing, presumably captured by the Roundheads and melted down.
Snaith sees Talbot as a rogue, trying to play both sides off to his own advantage, and plans a cynical, debunking biography. Bill disagrees, partly out of College loyalty, but largely because he cannot see anything but intelligence and integrity in the former Master’s portrait. The two enter into a rivalry over their respective interpretations.
What makes the book succeed over its mundane notion is that the evidence Bill first uncovers supports Snaith’s theory but that, after an initial prompting from Carolyn, he accepts that integrity, and a loyalty to the truth, demand he make it available to Snaith.
And whilst Snaith initially doesn’t seem to be the sort to reciprocate, he too is a man of integrity, and when the evidence begins to swing in Bill’s favour, he’s unhesitating in bringing it forward. From rivalry, the pair become effectively research partners, leading to the astonishing realisation that the silver may still be hidden, and the discovery of clues that suggest its hiding place.
This is where both strands merge. The presumed hiding place is behind the panelling in the current Warden’s rooms, but the Warden, Mr Withers (based on an actual Don Trease had to work under in his days at Oxford), is obstructive and dry.
As well as his studies and his detections, Bill has joined the Dramatic Society, and is to play Ariel in an open-air production of The Tempest, whose finale ingeniously uses the College Lake to create the effect of a galleon, ‘sailing’ away with Prospero et al on board, whilst Bill as Arial, runs out across the water (boards placed a couple of inches under the surface) to make a mute, unavailing appeal for his master’s return. Trease makes it sound wonderful, and the effect on the audience is exactly as you’d expect, but its point for the story is that Paul has arranged a small but significant role for Penny, of all people, as a living figurehead to the ‘galleon’. It calls for no acting, merely maintaining a fixed position, but when Bill expresses his surprise, Paul has to remind him, with justifiable tartness, that ‘Penny is one of the most striking girls in Oxford’.
It’s a reminder that Bill needs, and during the first performance, he admits that the sight of Penny is so astonishing that he is grateful not to have to speak the next line, because it would have been driven out of his head.
It’s about time that he realised what the rest of us have already worked out, but being Bill, it has to be virtually rubbed in his face, and acknowledged without acknowledging it openly.
Penny’s appearance brings Bill to something of his senses about her. Typically, his approach is almost accusatory, asking why she’s been avoiding him all year. It’s a stupid, short-sighted and hurtful thing to say, and Penny is nearly in tears explaining that she has been obeying what he wanted.
Penny came to Oxford to be with Bill, yet on their first proper social meeting, she and Carolyn invited to tea with Bill and Paul, the latter expounds on treating University as an opportunity to grow, to meet new friends, have new experiences, and Bill takes this up, enthusiastically, and naively, going to the lengths of saying that, no matter how important they may once have been, you can grow out of friends.
Poor Penny, hit by that, has kept her distance in obedience to Bill’s wishes. Only when she is forced to explain this to the dear old fathead, and he hears how close it comes to bringing her – Penny! – to tears, does he finally realise everything. And though he isn’t going to put it into words, it is, finally, everything.
But there’s a resolution to be reached, and for it the old gang and the new gang (with the sad exception of Cadet PC Darren, T.) have to band together. Bill invites his mother and Susan, plus the Drakes down to Oxford, to see the city, to see the final performance of the play. Bill takes his family punting, feeling good and relaxed and happy, and not only because he has finished his exams, and they are there…
Tea for all, with Paul and Carolyn, is interrupted by Snaith with the final evidence that the missing silver is walled up in Withers’ rooms. How to get at it? It’s the girls who plot, relying on Withers’ one known human interest/weakness: he is a fan of dowsing.
So he’s eager to admit a professional dowser (Mr Drake, playing his role superbly) to his rooms, where the hazel wand finds more than the gold watch planted for the demonstration. Of course, Withers is too smart not to realise there’s been a deception involved, but the rediscovery of the long lost silver prompts him to forget that side of the matter.
The treasure is found, but most importantly, so is the truth about Talbot.
The title of the book comes from a new geographic feature Trease has never previously mentioned, which he openly admits has been pinched from real-life. The famous Jaws of Borrowdale refers to a point just south of the head of Derwentwater, where the valley narrows, between Castle Crag and King’s How, until there is almost no room to get through. Trease imports this to the mouth of Bannerdale, where it stands as a symbol. Gates open to let people in, and they close to keep them there, but gates also open to let people out, and it is time for Bill and Penny to go out into the world. Just as, in the closing chapter, it is Sue and Johnny Nelson’s exit from their old lives, when they marry.
And the old quartet are there at the end, as they should be. Bill to give his sister away, in the place of their forever absent father, Penny to be her bridesmaid and Tim to be Johnny’s best man, for the symmetry of it (Johnny’s elder brother, who didn’t return to Black Banner Tarn Farm, doesn’t get a look in). The most overt moment of the book comes when Tim complains about the obligation to kiss the bridesmaid, and Bill smoothly offers to take his place… We assume, from the look he gives Miss Morchard as the story and the series ends, that it wouldn’t be their first.
A wonderfully naturalistic series, that leaves readers wanting there to have been more books, rather than wishing that not quite so many had been written.

When it Snows…


Though the current, Siberian-influenced weather has been predicted to be devastating along the east side of the country, we on the west side of the kingdom (or at least the Pennines) have not escaped.

I woke today to white roofs, coated cars and foot-marked pavements in my side-street off the main road, and twelve hours or so later returned to the same thing, only thicker and darker.

In between, the snow has flurried, thin and thick, in short bursts of only a few minutes each time, but not beginning to stick until after dark, when temperatures fell further.

Snow always casts me back to two memories, a few days apart, neither of which have anything to do with my childhood in Openshaw and Droylsden, when it seemed to snow more often, more deeply, more regularly than at any time since, when my only concern was the thrill of rushing around in the snow, woolen mittens quickly turning wet as I bundled up and weakly threw snowballs, wondering how soon I could get Dad to haul me or push me or send me flying on my little wooden sledge.

No, the snows of childhood are always the deepest and the best of your life, before you learn of any doubts or risks they bring.

But my twin moments of recollection were much later than that, though still decades ago. This was January, 1979, the infamous Winter of Discontent that brought down Jim Callaghan’s Government according to legend, the first winter I spent in Nottingham.

I had already been put out by the weather. I’d got ten days off over Xmas and gone home, my hi-fi and stuff collected and driven to Manchester, on the pretext that it shouldn’t be left for burglars, but really because I wanted my music. But snow had descended before New Year’s Eve, there was no way it would be safe to drive back, so on New Year’s Day, I packed up all the clothes I could carry and set off by train, Manchester to Sheffield to Nottingham.

Though it’s not one of these automatic memories, I remember trekking across Nottingham City Centre, from the railway station to where I could catch my bus, following the shortest route, still and quiet, on thin but packed snow, and no-one else about in a darkness that seemed only half-lit. Though the rest of my clothes arrived in a brown-paper parcel half a week later, my hi-fi and my evening entertainment took nearly three weeks before my mother deemed it safe to drive.

And then there was this Wednesday. The snow already lay thick in the City Centre streets, black and slutchy in the middle of pedestrian ways, piled and dirty against walls and under shop windows. There was a blizzard that day, the air thick and blurred with heavy, swirling flakes, the skies drawn together as if what light there was came up from the ground until it could climb no higher.

On the tannoy, at 12.45pm, there was an announcement that, in the current conditions, the office would close at 3.30pm, not the usual 5.0pm, but that any member of staff concerned that they would need longer to get home safely should  leave when they thought necessary. Hardly had the last echo faded away than one woman was in her coat and belting off, but in her defence, she did live some distance outside Nottingham, in the country.

There were two of us, me and my fellow Articled Clerk, who lived virtually opposite each other, on Woodborough Road. We walked in and back together, five days a week, and it took us only twenty-five minutes, so we had no chance of slipping out early.

By three-thirty, there had been no let up in the snow, and everywhere was full of fallen white, with more descending every second. There was a bus that passed both our homes, that we sometimes took, and though we’d have had to queue, we might have taken refuge there. But we lived up the only hill in Nottingham, and after a brief consultation, we agreed that neither of us fancied being on a bus trying to get up Woodborough Road, so we’d walk it.

Up Mansfield Road to begin with, right at the lights opposite the Newcastle Arms, a little dip to that first long, sustained climb. And now we were walking into the wind, the snow blowing directly upon us, and I remember, oh how I remember, doing the decent thing, the noble thing even, and telling her to move behind me, a couple of paces back, and I  took the brunt of the blizzard and sheltered her, Wenceslas-like, all the way up the hill, not able to talk, not able to turn around, like Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld.

At the top of this hill, the gradient eased, a long section that rose quietly, but still I sheltered my friend, until we were opposite her bedsit, and mine was a hundred yards further on, at the foot of another, steeper rise towards Mapperley Plains. Appreciative, she invited me in for a coffee, and of course I accepted, because I never turned down a chance to sit and talk with her.

So, Wednesday. On Saturday, United were playing away at Nottingham Forest, and a mate of mine, coming over from Manchester, had got me a ticket. We would meet up somewhere before the match, he’d hand it over, I’d give him the money for it. Except that so much snow had already fallen that, at 10.00am on the Thursday – over 50 hours before kick-off – it was called off.

(Glyn posted me the ticket so I could still go, though the re-arranged game was further postponed when United had to fit in a Cup Replay, and was finally played the Tuesday after Easter Monday, when I was back in Manchester for the week. Our friendship broke down round about the same point, and I did not see him again for four years, by when he’d completely forgotten I still owed him for the unused ticket.)

So on Saturday, instead of worries about Glyn finding whatever meeting place we would have chosen, and fretting about the likelihood of the Police marching all the United contingent straight to the station and forcing us onto the trains, over my desperate protests that I lived here, I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, and indulged myself with a long lie-in. When I drew the curtains, the world was white.

It had fallen, long, until everything I could see was indeed deep and crisp and even. No footmarks in the courtyards behind Alexandra Court. No movement, no sound. Just big, fat, full snowflakes, drifting down through the breezeless air, still, silent, unhurried, filling the air and covering the ground and the heavy, white-headed trees. It was beautiful, and curiously unreal, and I stood at the window and just watched it fall, as if it could do this until Eternity got bored and changed to the other channel.

An hour later, I went out in it, down the road for my newspaper. Nothing was different. There were few footmarks even on a decently busy road, for the snow slid into these and filled them unhesitatingly. These were indeed the snows of childhood, of memory and imagination, pure white, clean and tidy. I remember to this instant the crunch of my shoes in the pavement snow, pressing and compacting it, and the dry whisper of the flakes, brushing against the umbrella held over my head, as they slid past me. I collected my paper, tramped back, went inside, but if the walk out had been five times as long, I wouldn’t have cared or begrudged the extra time spent out there, in time suspended and not really real.

That long transport into the heart of the snow our childish hearts respond to, oblivious of the harm and the threat, and my Wenceslas ascent, keeping the worst of the snow off someone I would have made far greater sacrifices for, Wednesday and Saturday of a long ago winter when our world, our country was not as it is now: when snow falls, I am always transported there when snow comes down. Old times are always still alive in some part of us, though probably not so easy of access.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e10 – The Magnificent Ferengi


The man’s a star

Lads, it’s Quark.

Only it’s not just Quark, it’s Rom and Nog, and Moogie, and ex-Liquidator Brunt, and two semi-new ones in Leck and Gaila, with one previous appearance behind them each. In short, it’s Ferengi after Ferengi after Ferengi, as far as the eye can see, and you know what that means to me. I do try to approach each new episode with an open mind, but this one has been shut so long, the hinges have rusted in place.

Basically, the Dominion capture Moogie and Grand Nagus Zek wants Quark to get her back. It was going to be Zek himself but Wallace Shawn wasn’t available. In compensation for that, we do have Iggy Pop playing the part of the Vorta Yelgrun, and stealing the show with his crooked grin and the unavoidable aura of dementia underlining the character’s physical stillness. He was brilliant, the test of it was crap.

It’s difficult to watch a ‘comedy’ episode when you don’t find the characters funny at all. Basically, Quark assembles a team of Ferengi to rescue Moogie. They’re useless at the rough stuff, so instead Quark negotiates a prisoner-trade for the Vorta Keevan (see s06 e02), to take place on Empok Nor, the lop-sided DS9 look-alike station (the name of which is curiously never mentioned in the episode).

They do a deal over the handover, which is jeopardised when Rom accidentally reveals that Quark is cheating everybody else, claiming Zek’s reward to be twenty bars of latinum when it’s really fifty. In the resulting uproar, Gaila tries to shoot Quark but kills Keevan. However, Nog manages to Frankenstein him long enough for the trade to take place, the two Jem’Hadar guards to be killed and Yelgrun taken prisoner.

And for Quark and Rom to feel good about themselves, since it is now obligatory for any episode in which Quark appears in any degree of substance for him to behave in a more un-Ferengi-like manner, to show he has depths. I won’t comment further.

No, sorry to anyone who loved this, or loves Quark, for me it was just a waste of bloody time, amplified by such things as padding out the exposition by having Quark and Rom crawling along ducts, or engaging in endless running down corridors on Empok Nor, presumably to keep the episode from running short. This was the worst episode since the last Quark-centric one and it’ll be the worst episode until the next Quark-centric one, and can I go now, please?

New Novel: Final Cover


I’d like to express my thanks to my work colleague Lee Thompson for designing such a fantastic cover for my new novel, Love Goes to Building on Sand.

A revised version of the book has been created incorporating this superb work, which incorporates a lot of subtleties about the contents that Lee was unaware of when creating this piece.

And as none of you have yet got out and bought it from Lulu.com (hint, hint), you can now get the final version.

Thank you, Lee

Film 2018: Picnic at Hanging Rock


I’ve been thinking about this film for several weeks now, but the conditions never seemed to be propitious. It’s not so much the frame of mind to be in before sitting down to watch this classic film, but rather the state of mind it induces, and which then persists past the end of the film.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was directed by Peter Weir, only his second full-length film. It catapulted him, the film and Australian cinema in general into the international spotlight, and remains Australia’s most popular film ever.

The film is, should you wish to try to pin it down to genre, an historical mystery. It’s based on Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel, which blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction (the story is not a real-life event). On Valentine’s Day, 1900, the pupil’s of a private school, Mrs Appleyard’s College, go on a Valentine’s Day picnic to Hanging Rock, near Mount Macedon, Victoria. Three girls, and their Maths teacher, go missing. Extensive searching, both organised and private, finds no trace of the missing women, though one is later found, and rescued, though without any memory. The College attracts a negative reputation, and ends up closing. Another girl ends up dying, as does Mrs Appleyard.

That’s all there is in terms of plot. Ms Lindsey originally wrote a chapter ‘solving’ the mystery, albeit in somewhat abstract terms, but was sensibly persuaded against including it in the original novel: twenty years later, it was published separately, but still remains excluded, and rightly so.

But Picnic at Hanging Rock is not about story, though in its depiction of the after-events of the disappearance there is a cold inevitability about what follows. It’s about time, and place, and atmosphere, and in the film’s first half, about a sense, palpable from the opening scenes, of young, pretty girls, opening Valentine’s Day cards and gifts to one another, a pervading, unexpressed sexuality that flows from the screen. Unexpressed, not repressed, I say: though the girls’ natural exuberance for their age is repressed, as would be the case in a school devoted to turning out young ladies (on the picnic, the girls are given permission, in light of how hot the day is, to remove their gloves, but only after passing through the town of Woodend), but their sexuality is completely unconscious.

Anne Lambert plays the leading girl, Miranda, a fair-haired, open-faced, beautiful young woman, a school favourite, and the object of a serious crush by the dark-haired, thin, orphan girl, Sara. Just before she disappears, she is described by Mam’selle as a Botticelli Angel, and Lambert is glowing and beautiful enough to justify her role as the Golden Girl, to suggest someone too ethereal and lovely to live on Earth, a girl who might be snatched by the Gods of old.

Sara (Margaret Nelson) is excluded from the picnic because she is in trouble with Mrs Appleyard. We’re not told of the reasons but later we learn that Sara, an orphan separated for some years now from her brother Bertie, is six months in arrear with her fees, and that her Guardian has not responded to correspondence in all that period, so we assume she was cut because of this financial liability.

Weir recreates the time immaculately – the place itself is naturally unchanged – and there is never a moment when we do not believe it is 1900. Hanging Rock is still, serene, yet somehow foreboding. The Director keeps returning to rock formations that suggest facial features, and to rock towers that are definitely penile-shapes. The heat is soporific, and it is a credit to the actresses that, clad in long, white, high-necked, long-sleeved cambric dresses, over corsets and black stockings, they look cool and only marginally troubled. But no-one moves fast, in fact most of them sit, or lie, elegantly, in recumbent poses. Heads lie in other girls’ laps,tendrils of hair are gently stroked, or flowers drawn across brows.

In the midst of this, Miranda wants to go for a walk with Irma (Karen Robson) and Marion (Jane Vallis). Edith, a dumpy, whiny girl, (Christine Schuler) asks to go with them. Though they have been ordered not to explore the Rock, not even its lower slopes, due to the danger, they make their way through the forest and higher, through rock formations, and passages and level gullies that turn the Rock into a maze (throughout the film, Weir sites shots from inside crevices, or in narrow side-gulleys, showing people pass, creating the sense that someone, or some thing, is watching).

In the forest below, they pass, unaware, before the eyes of young Englishman Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), visiting his Aunt and uncle, whose upper-class and decidedly English world is stultifyingly inert, mentally and physically. Mike is talking to his Uncle’s decidedly working-class Australian valet, Albert Crundell (John Jarratt), himself an orphan, with a kid sister he hasn’t seen in years. There’s a definite homoerotic undertone to their friendship, equally unconscious but based in repression, that parallels the atmosphere created about the girls.

Miranda and Co. climb higher. They are overcome at one level, perhaps by the heat but we have now become absorbed into the film and the sweeping abruptness of it suggests something more than mere physical intensity. Even the awful Edith is affected. They sleep and then, led by Miranda, who is becoming more unworldly by the moment, they all wake up together. The three beautiful girls remove their shoes and stockings (there is a particularly individual close-up shot on one girl, in which the camera pans with the stocking and the accumulating folds as it is drawn down, rather than the bare leg being exposed).

And there is a final moment when Miranda, seeming almost to be in a trance, leads Marion and Irma upwards through another crack in the rock, in which they disappear, leaving Edith to scream and scream in hysteria and run away, and Miranda softly and wonderingly says, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”

Weir then cuts to the College at night, the overdue return of the carriage, Mrs Appleyard’s stern disapproval, Mam’selle’s disheveled panic, Sara’s silent misery, and the news that, unseen by all, the veteran Maths teacher, Miss McCraw has also disappeared.

The film changes, the sexuality is dissipated. The disappearance is a rock dropped into a still pond: the second half of the pool the ripple, spreading until it reaches the banks.

There is a major manhunt, beating the brush, calling ‘Coo-ee’, dragging ponds. An abo tracker is called in, bloodhounds. Nothing is found. Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) confides in her senior assistant, Miss Lumley, that the College is suffering financially: three girls vanished, three whose parents are withdrawing them, six sets of fees vanished, in addition to the mounting arrears in the case of the Weybourne Girl (Sara).

Mike Fitzhubert becomes obsessed with the missing girls, unable to bear the thought of them being out there. Why does it matter so much to him? Why can’t he put it out of his head, like Albert? He followed them, at first, for a short way, or so he told the Police, though not at first. His obsessions might fit a man who knows more than he lets on, a man affected by guilt, seeking expatiation.

He talks Albert into coming with him for another hunt on the Rock. At day’s end, he insists on staying. Early the next morning he sets out again, hatless. An increasingly desperate Albert finds him, overcome, and brings help in the form of a Doctor. But Mike has a torn scrap of white cambric in his hand, and when Albert retraces the Engishman’s steps, he finds Irma, dehydrated, exposed, but still alive, just.

Irma recuperates at the Fitzhugh estate. Mam’selle rejoices but Mrs Appleyard is contemptuous of her. For only one to be found is a disaster. The College has become international news and this will only further ensure their infamy. She comes to a decision: the Weybourne Girl must go, back to the Orphanage. Sara, who has taken to her bed, and erected a love-shrine to Miranda, says nothing. There follows a series of night shots, entirely still and peaceful, and Sara’s empty bed. In the morning, Mrs Appleyard tells Mam’selle that Sara has left in the early hours, before breakfast: her Guardian, in a hurry, collected her, mrs Appleyard supervised the packing of her bags.

Albert relates to Mike that he has had a dream of his kid sister, a dream full of light in which she came to him, saying she had come along way to visit him but had to go now. She called him Bertie: do I have to add that one up for you? He’s going to head north, look for her.

Term is over, the girls have left. The gardener unlocks the greenhouse. There is broken glass everywhere, and a hole in the roof, through which he can see the turrets of the upper floor. Parting the plants, he finds Sara’s blood-stained body. Running to tell Mrs Appleyard, he finds her at her desk, in full travelling outfit. She simply stares at him.

A voiceover, seemingly as an afterthought, by the Police Sergeant, relates that despite further sporadic searching, no-news found. The body of Mrs Appleyard was found at the base of the rocks: presumably she had been attempting to climb them.

The ripple reaches the banks, and dies out.

Joan Lindsey wrote an explanation. You can read about it in the Wikipedia entry on the novel if you so choose: even knowing that the original author wrote this, I cannot mentally or emotionally attach it to the story. Something happened, something outside our ken, and no answer can ever stand up to the numinous mystery. Some things are better left unexplained, unreduced to the flat and banal and concrete. Without that, we can imagine, and Weir gives us plenty to imagine. Where, and how, did they go? What more did Mike know? It appears that Sara committed suicide, but did she really jump?

Wherever we turn, there are shadows, even under the glare of the sun. Thefilm is slow, measured, careful. There are no fast movements, save for those of animals. Irma cannot remember what happened to her: when she is reintroduced to the girls, before going home to Europe, she is an alien creature, a woman, not a girl, dressed richly. All she causes is hysteria, accusation, horror.

Though there is also conventional music on the sountrack, Weir makes extensive use of the pan-pipes of Romanian musician Gheorge Zhamfir (whose ‘Doina de Jale’ unexpectedly became a no. 4 hit in Britain in 1976, the year after this film) creating a mournful, unearthly atmosphere, as well as silence. People say little, do nothing. They are still, they look, they think and the camera waits for them. It’s like being in a dream.

The version I watched today is the Director’s Cut, part of the 2008 3xDVD Deluxe Edition. it’s approximately eight minutes shorter than the original Theatrical release, which appears on a bonus disc, and which I take to be the version I first saw on TV, somewhere in the Eighties. At some point, I will watch that version, and if I have anything further to say, I’ll append a postscript.

It isn’t in the Film 2018 repertoire, but one of these days, I’ll write something about Weir’s major Hollywood success, Witness. I have a story or two about that film.

Emma Chambers R.I.P.


I used to watch The Vicar of Dibley regularly, though I can’t for the life of me think why now. Emma Chambers was a regular on the programme, playing the gormless Alice Tinker, with the kind of careful care that told you she was nothing like that in real life. She wasn’t conventionally attractive, but I’d have sat down to talk with her at any time, no matter how patient I’d have had to be with Alice’s dimwittery.

Her family has announced that she’s died at the age of 53, of natural causes. That usually means cancer, though very few people nowadays feel the need to keep that quiet. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that age, which is so wrong and unfair, to her and those who she loved and who loved her. She played someone sweet in nature, and looked as if that was a side of the character she didn’t need acting skills to bring out.

Such a shame.