Camberly Reconsidered

14 November 2013

-a new variant of a text that first appeared in Slashseconds 12

Hi wait for me I cant hardly move with all these creeper things Piggy dixit

Piggy: asthmatic.

Piggy: short-sighted, sceptical, coughing.

Piggy: fat boy, stooge, liability.

I must have been about thirteen or fourteen years of age when I first saw The Lord of the Flies, Peter Brooks film adaptation of William Goldings 1954 novel, unless of course this is a case of false memory syndrome? Blurred recall thats for sure, and with hindsight a degree of puzzlement that such a subversive film was then considered suitable fare for a class of hormonally challenged grammar schoolboys, when other trips to the massive dreary Odeon in the middle of town had been to see matinee performances of Cromwell and A Man for All Seasons; didactic experiences in other words about stirring historical figures from English history. Perhaps Flies was regarded as a literary sub-genre: the cautionary tale, and definitely one that slipped through the net of normalcy?

Piggy: owlish, bespectacled from age three.

Piggy: odd boy out, a freak.

Piggy: the perfect victim.

The image of Piggy in his strange little Churchillian battle tunic, Coke-bottle spectacles and Oliver Twist pleading has always been there, if only buried at the very back of my mind. Through cinematic association it recalls the extraordinary portrait by the actor Richard Attenborough of the serial necrophile Reg Christie in the 1971 film 10 Rillington Place, with his soft voice, specs, strangling rope and lethal inhaler; recalls too that iconic image of vulnerability rather than Himmleresque power, the old woman caught up in the mayhem of the Odessa steps sequence in Eisensteins 1925 masterpiece of montage Battleship Potemkin, her pince-nez shattered and covered in blood. Clearly in the context of a cataclysmic revolution myopia is not to be recommended, and yet is a condition that in Piggys sorry case causes the gaze of the audience to be refocused too. We try to see through those shattered NHS specs of a stoic philosopher in the making, but it is not a pleasant experience.

The two most important things in a picture, said Peter Brook at his press conference are realism and rhythm. Lord of the Flies has got both.

Films that Caused a Flutter at the Cannes Festival, The Times, May 15 1963

Perhaps the bomb has bitten into our dreams. Even England, which is infamous now among foreigners for producing sociological films, has sent instead two films that are like violent primal legends: Lindsay Andersons This Sporting Life and Peter Brooks The Lord of the Flies.

The Funfair under a Volcano, The Observer, May 19 1963

Filmed in Puerto Rico, Flies begins with what is in effect a school slideshow of chilling Cold War images: bunkers, warheads, plane wings, that provide a contrast to the setting of the action itself: a jungle paradise of palm trees, surf and rough crags. Peter Brook is no pastoralist though, for he has constructed a tropical path lab to show human behaviour in extremis, counterpointing the difference between an imagined home and this new alien environment through nostalgic recall of Brookean teatime, of village names, ie Harcourt St Anthony, and the soothing routines of ordinary life in the Home Counties. Unfortunately for Piggy though, his accent and grammatical solecisms mark him out as working-class and vulnerable in the clan war that soon erupts on the island, his oddball attitude adding to a belief that the boy is in for it. Meantime this sense of gathering tragedy is underlined by the scene in which he holds a philological beach seminar with some of the littluns, explaining the origin of the name Camberley, his home town, and how the place was forced to rebrand itself from Cambridgetown in 1877. His account is dubious but for a moment it casts a spell, and puts Piggy in the long tradition of English antiquarians such as Sir Thomas Browne, Daniel Defoe (in Letter 2 part 3 of In a Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1724-1726, Defoe described the surrounding Bagshot Heath, a haven for highwaymen and footpads, as "a mark of the just resentment shewd by Heaven upon the Englishmens pride, horrid and frightful to look on, not only good for little, but good for nothing"), M R James, Tom Lethbridge and latterly the rock druid Julian Cope: independent thinkers, alternative readers indeed inventors of landscape physical and psychic. Ironically this moment of recollection signals the beginning of the end for Piggy, indicating there is no demand for such tit-bits of arcane knowledge (which will of course become a key part of a new Aquarian episteme in the decade to come) on a deserted island where meat and fire are the sole currencies of survival, for most of the other boys have by now turned feral, painted with chalky white streaks that unconsciously reference the aboriginal X-ray drawings of Arnhem Land, Australia, and which in turn became the inspiration for a bizarre skeleton jump-suit worn by the legendary bassist of The Who, John thunderfingers Entwistle.

Piggy: Lord Prescott.

Piggy: suckling flesh.

Piggy: scared witless.

My own childhood memories of Camberley are transitory ones, as it was an exurban town my father used to drive the whole family through en route to London from the West country: a pleasant trek along the old A303, past Stonehenge, then onto the A30 at Basingstoke, continuing via Camberley, Bagshot, Virginia Water (with its dark green roadside clumps of rhododendrons and ornamental waterfalls) and Egham. These place names conjure up a vanished past too. Nowadays Camberley, besides being home to Sandhurst military academy is UK HQ of Siemens, and Krispy Kreme Ltd., and still in the siren test area of Broadmoor Hospital, while Camberley Primary School attended by Hugh Edwards, the child actor who played Piggy has long since been demolished. In many ways Beelzebub, aka. the Lord of the Flies has become a tabloid banality in 21st century England post the James Bulger abduction and murder, post the Edlington village child torture case, described by judge Mr. Justice Keith as an instance of extreme violence and sexual degradation. Its almost as if the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a child reared by wolves in 18th century France, or the case of the Russian dog urchin Ivan Mishukov, is a regressive bestial norm waiting for any boy or group of boys who happen to find themselves exiled and forced to adapt to a hostile situation; choirboy vestments thrown off, home made spears sharpened against that pulp enemy lurking beneath the crashing waves.

..most people will be ready to do all they can to avoid it

Everything Short of Being a Good Film, The Times, Jul 30 1964

Michael Hampton 2010-13