Monday, 17 January 2011

"down here, you can almost hear the heart of the city beating" : shelagh delaney & the white bus

In the mid-80s, when Derrida's ideas about hauntology were still the preserve of academia and nostalgia for a utopian future still had a big mushroom cloud hanging over it, Morrissey was expressing a reimagined past, not just in the music of the Smiths, but in the visual imagery. I can't even think of their music, an echoey jangle filling my ears, without thinking of those singles sleeves - Pat Phoenix on Shakespeare's Sister, or Yootha Joyce on Ask, or Truman Capote leaping in the air for The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, each image graphically designed and renewed for modern poster material in faded pastels.

Most of all I think of the one that seemed to sum up the Smiths for me, even though it came out almost at the end of their career - Shelagh Delaney, the front cover star of Girlfriend In A Coma. I'd read A Taste Of Honey, Delaney's 1958 playwriting debut, somewhere in that time, while soaking up anything late 50s or 60s by the yard, and it stood out a mile. It's still one of my favourite pieces of writing, play or otherwise, smart and daring and strident and earthy - much, as I'd discover, like Delaney herself. A clip on TV of her walking along a canal and talking about feeling like a tethered horse, waiting to be set free, plays back in my memory from time to time, on some kind of endless loop.

I had to wait years to see more than that loop, and then two happened almost at the same time - an episode of the pioneering 60s arts and culture programme Monitor, all about Delaney and her Salford, and Lindsay Anderson's The White Bus, a collaboration with Delaney based on a story from her 1963 collection Sweetly Sings The Donkey.

Delaney's original story had been a response to the vitriol poured on A Taste Of Honey by her home town. Salford-born and raised, Delaney's forthright approach to language and taboos were too much for some, but Lindsay Anderson, an early champion of A Taste Of Honey, would take things a step further with The White Bus. Satire was joined by surrealist and Brechtian experimentation as, together, Delaney and Anderson poked fun at pompous dignitaries, ignorant town planners and the facelessness of modern society.

The narrative, or what there is of it, follows a northern girl (Patricia Healey) from her suicidal secretarial job in anonymous, confusing London back via a train journey to Salford, where she takes a city tour led by the Lord Mayor (a magnificently pompous, and creepy, Arthur Lowe).

The modern utopia is readily lampooned - the tour is meant to show off the beauty and heritage of Salford, but instead shows them mammoth, noisy factories, abandoned buildings and empty council estates. The library is grand but "full of dirty books" says the Mayor, the schoolchildren are being educated for the future by rhymes and songs by rote, the performance at the centre built for the community is of a German workers song and Salford's population only feature when the girl leaves the tour group (turned into faceless mannequins by a civil defense demonstration) and goes into a traditional neighbourhood to buy some fish and chips. 

The result is like equal parts Jean-Luc Godard at his mid-60s most playful, Jacques Tati wryness (not least in the tiddley-di-dee-pom soundtrack), Bed Sitting Room-subversiveness and, with its sly digs at bureaucracy and cut ups of fantasy and reality, as well as colour and black and white, a big influence on The Monkees Head.

But The White Bus works best seen in a double bill with the Monitor documentary. In this short 15-minute film from 1960 Delaney talks about the vitality of teeming Salford, down to the "virile" language of the market and streets, but also about how the city is restless, with the docks.  It's a place where "so much seems to be old, and crumbling, and neglected", and yet when they replace the old, it's with sterile places where the people have no connection to one another. It's the same with the people, she says, including herself, but especially with young people, who leave Salford to find opportunity and end up just as lost in London or any other big city. As in the last scenes in The White Bus, where the streets of old Salford are filled with the sounds and smoke of a community, and the owners of the chip shop sing and their conversation dances around the girl while they tidy up around her, so it's true for Delaney in the Monitor film, in the cramped streets and cobbled alleys of the decaying town, that, "down here you can almost feel the heart of the city beating."

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