Murder, Blackmail and Other Stuff

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“Mum,” said Henry the other day, giving me an odd look, “Is everything alright?” “Yes fine,” I said, briskly. “Why?” “It’s just that I was in the kitchen and happened to look at your list. It said, Clean bathroom—Hang out washing—Buy anti-snoring device—Get fence mended—Murder!”

By the latter part of this week, I’d done all of those things and had a new list: Take parcels to post office—Contact dentist—Ring Barbara—Buy vitamin tablets—Blackmail.

Blackmail

This week in amongst various other activities, I’ve completed Treat Number 41: watching Alfred Hitchcock’s films. A couple are lost but fifty-two have survived and I’ve now seen them all. There’s a wide range: from 1925 to 1976; silent to talkie; black and white to technicolour; horror to musical; British to American; outstanding to relatively forgettable, and Blackmail to Murder! The exclamation mark is Hitchcock’s not mine.

I watched most of these films on my own, often in moments when I should have been doing something else. They felt like stolen treasure. And as so often with treats, this one spread its wings beyond the original idea. I read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Hitchcock, and went to the cinema to see the recent documentary about the Truffaut interviews. There’s the enjoyment, too, that comes from sharing the enthusiasm with friends. Alan, if you’re reading this, I look forward to continuing the conversation we started last year. I’m now better informed so will have more to say.

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The highs and the lows? Those that made the least impact were Jamaica Inn, Secret Agent, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, Juno and the Paycock, and Family Plot. But there were plenty of pleasures amongst the rest. Favourites include The Lady Vanishes (the true star is a steam train which puffs its way through pre-Second World War Europe), The Wrong Man (based on the true story of a decent man who is wrongly convicted of armed robbery and is played impeccably by a dazed Henry Fonda), Shadow of a Doubt (a strong plot and possibly Hitchcock’s own favourite), The Manxman (a powerful silent film about a love triangle) and Sabotage (engaging scenes of pre-war London and a moment that leaves you reeling. Even Hitchcock wondered whether he’d gone too far). But it’s Vertigo that I love best. I went to see it at our local Picturehouse cinema recently and the images, music and plot haunted me for days afterwards.

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One of the intriguing things about Hitchcock is that he didn’t always provide audiences with feel-good endings. Some of his films have shocking final scenes. Another is his use of suspense. Psycho and The Birds make audiences scream, but in many of his works the hooks are more subtle. In the silent film Easy Virtue, adapted from a Noel Coward play, there’s a scene where the audience knows that a man is phoning his girlfriend in order to propose. Hitchcock chose not to show these characters at this point, but instead filmed a telephonist who listens in on the phone call. Her expression reveals what’s happening and builds suspense while both she and the man wait for the girlfriend to make her mind up.

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Like most creative geniuses, Hitchcock had some unusual habits. One of the oddest was that every day on set he would drink his tea and then throw the cup and saucer over his shoulder. He had complex attitudes towards his leading ladies and he almost certainly had crushes on a number of them including, famously, Tippi Hedren. But in spite of that he was devoted to his wife Alma Reville who was just one day younger than him. He trusted her judgement implicitly and she worked on many of his projects as a screenwriter and editor.  They got engaged after he proposed to her during a terrible storm at sea. She was prostrate with seasickness and told their daughter years later that ‘I was too sick to lift my head off the pillow. I groaned, nodded my head, and burped.’ They were married for fifty-three years and she was lost when he died, as he would have been had she gone first.

A number of themes crop up again and again in Hitchcock’s films: trains, dominant mothers, secret lives, likeable criminals, obsession, murder, and blonde women. He also loved dogs so if one of his characters owns a dog it’s a strong clue that they’re of sound character.

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And just like Hitchcock, all writers have themes that preoccupy them. Hemingway’s include fear, guilt, betrayal and loss. For Hardy, it’s the damage caused by social constraints, and the role of chance in people’s lives. And JK Rowling’s writing centres around themes of mortality and morality.

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Within the next fortnight, I shall become a published author too, so I’ve had a think about what my preoccupations might be. At the moment I’d say they are individual differences, coping and the unexpected twists and turns of life. Lists crop up a lot too. 31 Treats And A Marriage will be available through Amazon and other booksellers by the end of the first week in May. My previous post has a link to an audio recording of the prologue. If you’d like some more you can listen to Chapter One. Just click here. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The Politeness of Treats

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Last week I reached the end of a long walk. The North Downs Way stretches 153 miles from commuter-belt Surrey to the English Channel and I’ve been walking it in stages for over four years. Put like that, I seem a slow walker. But a lot has happened along the way. I’ve not only walked from Farnham to Dover; I’ve walked into a new life.

It was one of the first treats that I started, chosen because it was the nearest of the UK’s fifteen National Trails. I love the mystery of a long walk; you never quite know what’s going to unfold beyond that bend in the distance.  There are plenty of other pleasures, too: the landscape changes constantly; you have to watch out for the direction markers so it’s a bit like a puzzle, and it’s a perfect opportunity to think. Much of the North Downs Way coincides with the ancient Pilgrims’ Way: the route from Winchester to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. And at times, in the ancient broadleaf woodlands I felt so far removed from modern life that it would have been no surprise to bump into a silent, brown-robed monk.

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I shared some stages with family and friends. These were chatty and companionable. But other stages were solitary and helped me to think my way round some tangled issues. Wordsworth is well-known as a contemplative walker and is estimated to have walked about 180,000 miles. In The Art of Walking, Christopher Morley says that ‘cross-country walks for the pure delight of rhythmically placing one foot before the other were rare before Wordsworth. I always think of him as one of the first to employ his legs as an instrument of philosophy.’ The South West Coastal Footpath is also on my list and providing my knees hold out, I’m hoping for some stunning days of walking around the very edges of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. There’s much more to be said about walking, but this isn’t the point of today’s post, so I’ll save it for another day. Instead I want to think about the difference between treats and goals.

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When I made my list, all the stages of the North Downs Way were quite accessible as day trips. But then I moved to another part of the country and it became more of a challenge. I managed some stages last summer, and eventually, there was just the final stretch left. The excuses of the winter came and went and then I got an image in my head of walking through fields with Henry, my younger son, and the English Channel coming into sight. He was happy to join me but finding a day we could both do was the first hurdle, and we postponed several times. When the agreed day finally came, we set off from home at 7.30am and with dire traffic it was midday before we were at the starting point. It was all quite an effort and I began to feel that I was doing it because it was on a list and needed to be ticked off.

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But later as I sat high on the headland with my son, I had a moment of clarity. The Spring sunshine scattered diamonds on the water; the chalky cliffs of Dover were to our left and the transport hub of Folkestone bustled to our right. We ate sandwiches made from Henry’s homemade bread, drank lukewarm coffee, and chatted easily. I realised in that moment exactly what it is about a treat that makes it so different from a goal.dover

Goals are in your face. They’re the kind of guys that spout management jargon and make you feel bad about yourself because you’re never quite up to scratch; qualifications—deadlines—efficiency—success. Goals are necessary to some extent, but they’re voracious feeders. Tick one off to keep it quiet and there’s another one screaming at you. Treats are quite different. They hang back politely in the shadows and defer to the goals. They wait to be granted permission to step forward, and often get neglected. Sometimes they’re just the germ of an idea or desire but give them a chance and they’ll blossom. They’re the things that allow us to express our individuality and to grow into our real selves.

I’ve got many memories from my day of walking with Henry. There was the moment when we stood high on the cliffs above Folkestone and looked down as a train disappeared into the earth at the start of the Channel Tunnel.  It was strangely thrilling to think that it would emerge in a different country. Another moment was realising, when stuck in traffic, that I had my son’s company and so the time was not wasted. And when we arrived in Dover we needed to make our way back to the car. ‘When’s the next train to Folkestone?’ I asked the ticket clerk at the station. ‘September or October,’ she said. We hadn’t heard that the line got swept away in the Christmas storms. So we got a bus instead.

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I’ve many impressions, too, of other stages of the walk. Dappled woodlands, quiet lanes, steep climbs, streams, lakes, brick viaducts, Neolithic burial chambers, sheep, bulls, thatched cottages, ugly developments, quarries, vineyards, fly tipping, primroses, bluebells, barns, chapels, the noise of the Medway Bridge traffic, cake, being elated, being sad…  On one of my walks I forgot to take any money. Solving that problem gave me confidence, as did walking alone. There were obvious pleasures and benefits but there were subtle, unexpected ones too. It was a multi-layered experience. And a true treat.

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Photo: Del Malcolm

A final word – it’s now less than a month until the publication of 31 Treats And A Marriage. You can have a taster if you want—click here for an audio file of the prologue. I hope you enjoy it and that you like the music too. It was specially composed and performed by Henry.