Category Archives: Terence Davies

Living in the past

I asked for, and got, Porcupines by Echo & the Bunnymen and Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, both of which first appeared in my life about 1983; the first via Radio 1, the second thanks to Stephen Sharkey, who had heard it on the radio and was never the same again. Should I have got over all this by now?

The Liverpool links are that I was there at the time, that’s where the Bunnymen are from, and Terence Davies made what was for me particularly apt use of the Mahler in Of Time and the City.

From Davies to Dracula

To begin with, the tale of Our Lady of the Flowers lulls present time, for the very words the murderer uses are the magic words that equally handsome hoodlums spat out like so many stars, like those extraordinary hoodlums who pronounce the word “dollar” with the right accent. But what is to be said of one of the strangest of poetic phenomena: that the whole world – and the most terribly dismal part of it, the blackest, most charred, dry to the point of Jansenism, the severe, naked world of factory workers – is entwined with marvels, the popular songs lost in the wind, by profoundly rich voices, gilded and set with diamonds, spangled or silky; and these songs have phrases which I cannot think of without shame if I know they are sung by the grave mouths of workers which utter such words as: succumb … tenderness … ravishing … garden of roses … cottage … marble steps … sweethearts … dear … love … jewels … crown … oh my queen … dear stranger … gilded room … lovely lady … flowered basket … treasure of flesh … golden waning … my heart adores you … laden with flowers … colour of the evening … exquisite and pink … in short, those fiercely luxurious words, words which must slash their flesh like a ruby-crested dagger.


There is no point in going into the details of her arrest. A simple policeman was enough to throw her into a state of terror worthy of a condemned man, the kind of terror every man has been through, just as every man has also known in his life the exaltation of a royal coronation.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Panther, 1966, pages 192–194.

Popular songs, operatic intensity of emotion and aesthetics, veneration of the common man and ignoble lives, but this time it’s not Terence Davies but Jean Genet‘s first novel, first published in 1943, two years before Davies was born. You could say Genet was patronising the working class unforgiveably, if he hadn’t been a delinquent orphan queer petty criminal writing in prison.

You could say, that would be a good first paragraph. Seduce the reader with poetry. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the story soon. But the memory of this indulgence will be like MSG for the rest of the text. Instead, he gives us this:

Weidmann appeared before you in a five o’clock edition, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wounded pilot fallen into the rye one September day like the day when the world came to know the name of Our Lady of the Flowers. His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon Paris and all of France, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way villages, in castles and cabins, revealing to the mirthless bourgeois that their daily lives are grazed by enchanting murderers, cunningly elevated to their sleep, which they will cross by some back stairway that has abetted them by not creaking. Beneath his picture burst the dawn of his crimes: murder one, murder two, murder three, up to six, bespeaking his secret glory and preparing his future glory.

A little earlier, the Negro Angel Sun had killed his mistress.

A little later, the soldier Maurice Pilorge killed his lover, Escudero, to rob him of something under a thousand francs, then, for his twentieth birthday, they cut off his head while, you will recall, he thumbed his nose at the enraged executioner.

Finally, a young ensign, still a child, committed treason for treason’s sake: he was shot. And it is in honour of their crimes that I am writing my book.

But what about the victims, Jean? What about their families? What about the children? Aren’t you glorifying crime? Do you really think you should? Yes, this is not going to be a nice book.

By the way, Weidmann was the last person to be publicly executed in France. It was in 1939, and was watched by Christopher Lee, who was 17.

Of Time and the City

Went to see Of Time and the City by Terence Davies on Sunday. I never know quite what to make of his films. The first one I saw, Distant Voices, Still Lives, in 1988, I reviewed for the university newspaper. “This is how to make films,” I wrote. “Cinematic concentrate. It’s an autobiographical picture of the lives of a Liverpool family in the forties and fifties; as remembered at the funeral of the violent and tyrannical father, then as the family ages and the children get married. If this sounds unpromising matter for a yarn, then you have in fact struck on the film’s weak spot. Its considerable strength, on the other hand, comes from Davies’ direction; the scenes succeed in the chronological disorder of memory; user-friendly features such as introductory and explanatory bits and references to other scenes are scornfully eschewed. The effect is exposure to the dramatic, emotional and aesthetic content of each scene in undiluted essence. The brew is not so strong and bitter as in Davies’ previous black-and-white Trilogy; but what does it profit him to distil it to such a purity if he will not add a tinge of soul?”

I think I have become less pompous in the past two decades. Not much, though. Continue reading Of Time and the City