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Joan Bakewell: She's Leaving Home, 2011


She's Leaving Home, 2011 Cover

Chapter One

They had agreed to meet in the foyer; funny word, 'foyer'. Sounded to Martha a bit French. Like that film star Charles Boyer. She didn't know how to pronounce him either.

Martha loved these forbidden visits. She stood on the gaudy threshold, the night dark with fog behind her, and drank it all in. The Grande was the town's prime cinema. Its owner - the dilapidated Mr Vernon - had insisted on the final 'e' to add tone to the place. It had given Staveley, a drab little town on the outskirts of one of the north's most imperial cities, to which it played second fiddle in so many ways, a bit of glamour. About thirty years ago, Mr Vernon had rounded up the necessary finance from his Masonic Lodge colleagues and, through the same business contacts, acquired a corner site where the through-roads travelling north and south converged into Staveley's main square, the hub of the town's activities. The result had surprised even him. The Grande's gleaming white tiles towered storeys high over the bus station and the beetling rows of shops that edged past it and up the hill. In front, the broad space of pavement accommodated a clump of dusty trees, trees that thinned out around the square's perimeter pavements. It was the trees that had once given Staveley some sense of gentility, but by the late 1950s industrial decline had blighted that claim.

Martha had arrived in her school gaberdine: a faded and crumpled navy coat that scarcely covered her wrists and was embarrassingly short about her knees. She had left school the previous term but her mother insisted there was a good deal of wear in it, even though they both knew she had grown out of it and looked ridiculous. Underneath her coat she wore a fawn tweed skirt and a favourite knitted sweater she loved for its poppy-red colour and cable-stitched pattern. It was just a pity that her aunt's arthritic fingers had let slip a stitch or two when she knitted it. What had promised to be a show-off garment among her friends had become an embarrassment. She ached to break free and make her own choices. But it wasn't easy. On the last day of school she had cut off her plaits with the kitchen scissors and now her coarse black hair was all over the place. She stood by the changing pink and green lights of the Grande's floodlit alcove hoping their peachy bloom would cast its spell.

A queue was forming at the box office, held back by a crimson rope slung between two brass poles. It was early evening and women with aching legs and shopping baskets huddled close, pointedly ignoring a cluster of lads in draped jackets and narrowing trousers. The film was proving popular with all classes. 'An electrifying adult experience' the poster promised. Sex in films was getting bolder and bolder. A nervous excitement seemed to flutter along the queue.

Martha had come to know the staff of the Grande ever since her father had first brought her to the cinema and she'd been ushered into the plush seats, proudly knowing that it was her dad behind the sprockety sound and smoky white light showing the picture. And then, just over a year ago when she had had her fifteenth birthday and was still in knee-high white socks, he smuggled her into his projection box. She was his only and adored child and she knew he wanted her to share his passion for film. He had sat her on the high stool by the porthole that looked out over the auditorium where, spellbound, she watched the worlds of gunmen and hoodlums, cowboys riding the big country and glamorous women in slinky gowns sipping drinks from wide glasses. But the films were changing. The times were changing. And so was she.

As she waited to be collected she looked around her with the keen attention that went with growing up. There was the cheerful bulk of Josie fitting tightly inside the crisp little box office booth, her red nails chattering on the chrome keys that delivered the tickets. Across the once elegantly patterned carpet, now washed out with frequent efforts to remove the mud from wet shoes, was the sweet counter, where a lad called Frankie doled out viciously bright sweets from tall jars, pausing from time to time to run a comb through his quiff of black hair. Martha was on smiling terms with all the thirty or so who worked there. All of them loved the Grande, worshipping at its temple, as though just being within its golden walls bestowed glamour and status on their own meagre lives. They arrived from the plain terraced houses and the little semi-detacheds ribboning their way towards the countryside to be daily astonished at working within the embrace of the fabulous building. Gilding was everywhere. The walls glistened with pink paint suffused with gold that swirled into plaster cascades. Inside the high, arching auditorium, plush velvet seating glowed within a magical array of soft lights drifting from peacock to jade, from rose to aquamarine. It was fitting it should be so: film was, after all, the greatest story-telling venture there had ever been. Theirs was a calling worthy of the times. Her father Eddie was one of them.

At six thirty the newsreel was running; it showed people queuing outside bookshops for Lady Chatterley's Lover, that scandalous book that had just won the right to be published. The book had been a shock for the nation; there was a sense it wouldn't be the last. The usherettes, Florrie and Ethel, smoothed their black satin dresses and exchanged meaningful looks, neither quite sure what meaning the other meant to convey. Florrie had already bought a copy for herself, but Ethel had declared that no copy would ever enter her home - she had the morals of teenage daughters to safeguard. Or, as she called them, 'mortals'.

Eddie left Bert in charge of the projection box and came to fetch his daughter.

'Had your tea, have you?' A formality: he knew she had.

'Yes, bit of a rush ... told Mum I was going round to Marjory's.'

Eddie grinned. He enjoyed a sense of conspiracy behind his wife's back. They both did. Whenever they were alone together there was a third presence: Beattie. They made a tight threesome.

They grinned together, his warmth and approval cancelling her worries about gaberdines and flying hair. He was a striking man to look at and it made her proud. Tall and thin, and ungainly in a louche sort of way, he walked with a limp from a war injury but managed to turn it to attractive effect. His hair was thinning, still dark and elegantly slicked back. His eyebrows, arched and mobile, determined the mood of his face: at work they could be quizzical or open-hearted; away from the Grande they were still, inclining to a frown. When cinema colleagues called him Gary Cooper he was quietly pleased. Nowadays he got no such attention at home. He glanced at the queue extending outside under the floodlit canopy. The fog was in retreat, the brittle lights of the square winking feebly through the dark of a late November afternoon.

'They seem to like it, don't they, this film? The fuss in the papers'll have helped.' He wanted her to share his favourites: cowboys, girls dancing, couples being witty and funny men falling over. But this film was different and perhaps not quite suitable for a young girl. Was he making a mistake? Martha was at that age when girls became a mystery to their fathers, a mystery and an alarm. They shared secrets to do with blood and pain with their mothers, and shut bathroom doors with a new defiance. Like all the men of his generation he had never wanted to understand about women's bodies. It was enough to respond to their shape, and the strange muskiness of their allure. Martha was moving towards that destiny and he wanted to be kept ignorant of it.

This latest film was said to be outspoken and daring. He knew what that meant. Ethel, he had heard, wouldn't let even her eldest daughter see it. Well, it was too late now. He offered an explanation Martha was too excited to heed. 'It's not my sort of thing at all, you know that ... and an X too. I'm not sure you should be here.' He felt suddenly uneasy. She gave him a wry smile, 'Oh, Dad!', and hugged his sleeve disbelievingly. It released the pungent smell that lingered in his clothes from the pipe he smoked. She loved that smell: she had known it since her early years when he would throw her into the air and catch her, laughing, back into his arms.

'Hello there, young Martha.'

Bert, Eddie's colleague on the current shift, was shuffling around getting the big picture ready to follow the advertising slides. He was a gentle man in a long drooping cardigan of tan-shaded wool. He continued to treat Martha as a little girl, digging deep into the cardigan pockets for a silver-wrapped sweet. Sometimes the sweets were fluffy and only appetising once Martha had picked the woollen shreds away. But Martha was getting older and they no longer seemed appetising at all. Bert, like the Grande itself, was slow to adapt.

'I hear more rumours, eh?' Eddie was tapping tobacco into his pipe while Bert fetched the next can of film. 'Something's brewing and it isn't tea.'

The two men kept themselves apart from the cheekier scandals and tiffs that occupied the staff who worked below. In their eyrie at the top of the building they breathed a purer air, figuratively speaking that is, for in truth the little room was often dense with smoke and saucers of old stubs stowed on what little table space there was, set away from the machinery. Daisy came once a week to clean: it was a men's place, after all. Daisy wasn't in on the secret of Martha' s illegal visits.

Bert was not alarmed. 'I'll worry when the films stop arriving. Till then we're in work, you and me.'

'Or if the punters stop coming. What if they give up on us? They like the sort of stuff the television's dishing up for them, don't they? And you don't get wet waiting in the queue.'

Bert was not to be unsettled. 'Well, there you are, you said it. They're queuing out into the square right now, aren't they? If you get the right film, they'll always come. I've always said that. Look at Spartacus, they loved that.'

'You say the right film, but I don't know what that is any more. They're going more and more for this kitchen-sink stuff, aren't they? All about lives of people like us. Well, some of them - it's not what I want to see. And I can't believe many do. People want glamour,' said Eddie, adding quietly, 'I know I do.'

'Yes, but look at young Martha there ... eyes glued. Her generation'll go for this kind of thing.'

Eddie and Bert were lighting up at the back of the room, glancing across at Martha on her special seat.

Martha had come to side with her father. He at least talked to her. Not about his feelings at all; even she knew that a man couldn't do that and retain his self-respect. But they both loved to talk about the daily routines and domestic trivia, and always about the cinema.

Martha was utterly at home in the projection box. She was impressed by her father's place in the world and delighted when he explained how things worked. She saw him take the reels of film from the big shiny cans and mount them on one of two huge projectors. With the two thousand feet of film running out every twenty minutes it needed six projectionists in all, working two at a time, to keep the film running smoothly. Eddie had shown her how you could insert a penny within an inch of the reel's end - not something you were supposed to do - and when the penny was released and pinged on the aluminium lid you knew the reel would soon need to be changed. From her seat by one of the two portholes she could look down over the broad spread of the dress circle and beyond it to the even wider expanse of the stalls. When the film was a popular one, the place was seething with people, humming with pleasure and jokes. And she felt privileged and above it all, special. She could even see, tucked away behind the illuminated parapet that separated it from the front rows of the audience, the mighty Compton organ, stowed away in all its glory for the rare occasions when it was still featured as part of the programme. From her perch high up, its surface looked pristine: the pink-tinted mirror-glass etched with sun and clouds enclosing the entire bulk of the instrument. And when the moment came for it to rise the music would roll out in great swelling crescendos, and Derek the organist would slowly come into view, sitting like a spider within his glistening web, waving his red silk scarf towards the audience. For Martha, the tingle of actual performance could carry as much thrill as the most lavish film extravaganza. But she knew that most people didn't think that any more.

Martha was engrossed in today's film. She had cast off the gaberdine, fingering the poppy-coloured cable stitching with a twinge of vanity, and taken her perch on her usual stool. She did so with easy confidence, thanking Bert, who helped her there. But what was to follow would shift that confidence. She would become self-conscious and embarrassed in a way she had never known. It would change the way she felt about the world, and about herself. Years later when she was asked how the 1960s got going, she would remember this moment.

What was happening on the screen was something she hadn't ever seen before: a young man, dressed like a manager type in a suit and tie, was leaning a girl against a wall and putting his hand up her skirt. She was wriggling half in protest, half laughing at the fun of it. Soon he was pulling her knickers down over her suspenders. Then she scrambled to take off her blouse. The camera angle was very close to them, making them both look awkward and ungainly. In romantic films there were gentle caresses and sweeping music, not this brutal, unlovely clawing. But that was what gripped the attention - the rawness of it, and how the actors were really at it. The tension was conveying itself to her, to Martha. She felt a heat in her body and her hands began to sweat. She wanted to wriggle, to release the tension, to be outside the film experience, not drawn into it. She struggled to stay motionless so her father wouldn't notice her embarrassment. She dreaded catching his eye, so she kept her gaze fixed, her eyes bulging, as she focused on the bodies tumbling over each other on to an awkward, narrow sofa. Now the man grabbed at the girl, pulling her to him and reaching to undo the fastening of her bra. They weren't speaking, just making breathy exclamations.

Ping! The penny flew from its place. Eddie put down his pipe and went to fetch the next reel. He noticed that the film dialogue had stopped and that there was a lot of rustling on the soundtrack. He dipped his head to look through the second of the projection box portholes, aware of Martha's stillness. As Bert had said, this stuff engrossed young people. For a moment he caught the sight of flesh and struggle. The scene was in the shadows but light coming from a window framed the whiteness of thighs in close-up. He glanced across at Martha in her engrossment. He felt a sort of guilt watching his daughter watch sex, but he didn't turn away. And as he watched he had a sense too of her moving away from him, in the way a reverse zoom of the camera put people at a distance. She was still the same, still in focus, but realigned.

The reel would run out soon so he had to move briskly to heft the next one into its place on the other projector. It was a moment for effective professional action. No time for thought or sensation. Anyway it wasn't Eddie's style. But later that night he was seized by a mysterious sense of apprehension.

On the news, Harold Macmillan was allowing American nuclear submarines to use Holy Loch.


Virago Press

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