“I want to go home, I don’t want to stay”
[Cary Elwes & Helena Bonham-Carter in Lady Jane, Dir. Trevor Nunn, CEL (1986), Lyrics/ Album cover: The Smiths, The Headmaster Ritual, Meat is Murder, (Album: 1985, Single: 1986)]
I had a nose bleed the first time I watched this film. Not the best review, granted, but this is in fact the truth. Cuddled in my mum’s arms at aged 5 in my Grandmothers house, the ‘girls’ and I watched it during the Christmas of 1989. Pissed dads played Trivial Pursuit in adjoining dining room, dripping with multi-coloured foil decorations, and jeered over the brief sex scenes. I was too scared to face the beheading, but instead watched the scene through the secure bars of my fingers. The measured tension between squeamishness and curiosity undoubtedly allowed me to forget that my hands were still wonderfully bloody from my nose bleed, and in forming my shield against the TV gore, my crimson fingers no doubt made it all seem rather worse than it really was.
I thought this film was ace when I was 5. Rather worryingly it said everything to me about my life. I’d probably watch it now if I wanted a good cry. For all its peculiar and terrifying messages, they are made palatable by the uplifting and alluring stability of love and faith which are shown to be sacrificed in glory at the alter of heteronormativity. If you can endure Bonham-Carter’s whining, or manage to plough through the stiff and muddy aesthetic, the oh so formulaic Shakespearian star-crossed narrative still allows for a enough cleenex moments to make all this ‘forgiveable’.
Despite being released in a climate of rising cinema attendance (having dramatically dipped when VHS was released in 1978), it wasn’t much cop at the box office raking £277,646 into the Royal Shakespeare Company’s dusty old cod piece. Released in the same week, The Labyrinth’s David Bowie squeezed in a mighty £12,729,917 into those legendarily tight tights.
Alex Von Tunzelmann amiably sums up the many historic failings of the film in her Guardian article:Grey matter neglected in a simpering makeover. What I also find interesting is the historic context in which the film was made. 1986 saw the life imprisonment of IRA volunteer Patrick Magee for planting the ‘Brighton Bomb’ , inflation reached a 19-year low of 3.4% and Catchphrase pixelated onto our TV screens alongside HM Governments notorious ’Don’t Die of Ignorance’ AIDS campaign. The year also would also be the last in which state-schoolled children would be caned in England and Wales, following a long history of abolishment campaigning. Interestingly enough the film contains a much fetishised-over flogging scene, which brutally conveys the whole message of the film.
In analysing this one area of how Lady Jane has been fetishised over, I do not suggest that all who consumed it did so. Far from it. A cursory glance at IMDB’s message board ‘warnings’ show how concerned viewers were: “We don’t need to see it to know what happened” (LadyKosha (Tue Aug 24 2010) The film is also by no means the only way in which the demise of the historical character has been fictionalised and fetishised throughout history. Delaroche’s 1834 painting is a testament to its longevity, as is the 1982 Novel Five Gold Rings in which 15 year old Jane is fictitiously (and in minute detail) flogged and then raped by her father.
Rather conveniently for me, the ‘collaborative encyclopedic work’ that is ‘The Spanking Art Wiki‘ has both described the scene in a blow-by-blow narrative, and also contributed to this fetishisation. I wont go into any detail of the scene itself, because it has been discussed at length before. But these varied conversations around this film scene are in and of themselves important channels by which to explore why this scene has been remembered so vividly. The format of the ‘Spanking Art’ site is fascinating. Although full of sexually explicit images of corporal punishment, they are hidden behind hyper-links from the detailed narratives. If you take, for example, this section from the analysis of Lady Jane’s birching scene:
The conjecture in this statement is presented (in its own words) within ”the model of Wikipedia” and its use of hyper-links are employed to explicitly illuminate the narrative. The pictures bare no actual relation to the scene itself insofar as they are not from it and that they illustrate an image of conjecture. Pleasure cannot simply be derived from watching the link to the youtube video of the scene itself at the top of the screen, but its layered format allows the viewer to dig beneath the more conformist narrative into an explicit advent-doored spanking treat. What does this community-based site say about how some of us remember and explore film and images of corporal punishment? Does the dislocated format, from ‘reality’ to fiction and conjecture make the pain less visible for the consumer? Or indeed more so? How did the films depiction compare with other contemporary portrayals of corporal punishment? And have they been remembered differently to this?
Released a year before Lady Jane, the much anticipated second Smith album Meat is Murder was released by Rough Trade. The iconic album’s sleeve was drawn from the 1967 photograph of Marine Cpl. Michael Wynn taken during the Vietnam War. The wording on Wynn’s helmet, changed from “Make War Not Love” to “Meat Is Murder” is still profound. The album has obvious associations with vegetarianism – just how many actually did convert after hearing “… it’s sizzling blood and the unholy stench of murder?” Morrissey politicised its release further by courting further controversy in the many interviews conducted during 1985. Among his usual targets were the Thatcherism, Monarchy, and Band Aid. Morrissey famously quipped of the last, “One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England.” In his so finely tuned Wildeian style, he managed to berate both Geldof and Thatchers Government in half a sentence.
Part of this ‘daily torture’ is encapsulated within tracks 1 and 8 of the album. The Headmaster Ritual and Barbarisms Begin at Home address the wide topic of corporal punishment, from the school into the home. Lyrical explorations of both songs have been completed academically and by countless fans. What I am interested in are the questions surrounding authenticity and the songs. Was Morrissey taken in hand and thwacked on his knees? It has been a point of academic interest, and intimidatingly tackled by his fans. But why? Morrissey ‘directly’ addressed this topic in an interview in 1987. When asked:
“…There is a song which is called ‘barbary (sic) begins at home’ Is it a personal souvenir?” Morrissey replied: “Yes.As a little child, I was beaten, a lot. With umbrellas, or anything that looked like umbrellas. Discipline was very strict. The following years were easier. But as a little child, I had no freedom at all.”
The tensions between the above conformation of experience, and the questions of authenticity seems to steam for most from the Making of Meat Is Murder TV documentary.
Morrissey doesn’t deny that he was hit as child, but simply answers that he had:
“…often seen some teachers hit (in) his school” He also adds that “…Popular culture should be used to make serious statements. So many groups make masses and masses of records and don’t raise peoples level of conciousness in any direction, and we find that quite sinful. Especially in these serious times…. Its all done with humour, but I don’t want it to sound trivial.”
It is interesting that despite the clear political intent of producing the song, the authenticity of Morrissey’s experience overrides many of the arguments that form.The Headmaster Ritual and Barbarisms Begin at Home are directly addressing the brutalisation of the corpus (body) or ‘meat’ that is realised within ‘corporal’ punishment. Why is it that we can gain some kind of meaning from what we know to be just a representation of bodily harm from a dreary historical film, but strive for authentication when it comes to Morrissey’s lyrics? Would the songs be less powerful if they had not been written from experience, but as observational statements about how we punish children in schools and in our homes? And what about ‘those’ noises? Morrissey ‘ejaculatory howls’ are often cited as being, in arousal term, amongst the best known to beast. The tensions between this sexual noise and the subject of corporal punishment is addressed by many fans in many formats, as shown in the below comment on the Barbarism Begins at Home page on the ‘Songmeanings’ fansite:“This is such a great funk song. I love the rhythm section jam in the final 3-4 minutes of the song between Rourke and Mike Joyce- that has got to be the greatest music they ever recorded with the Smiths. And Morrissey’s howls just add to the excitement. That being said, I always feel a bit guilty for rocking out to a song about child abuse. BillyBudd on April 27, 2010″
Perhaps it is our shifting attitudes toward how we discuss the hitting of children that is of most importance. Whilst the government can no longer sanction the beating of children in schools, it does not consider it abuse to do so in the home. Did contemporary consumers also feel guilt at enjoying Morrissey’s powerful observations and experiences, or were the topics more comfortably aired when the law upheld them?
Is authenticity also the key to understanding Spanking Art? That the clip of a semi explicit film can be made more authentic by allowing windows into more tangible realisations? Morrissey is well known for mocking interviewers by provocation, a trait that has inflamed intricate discourses as to his sexuality, racism etc. But that fans can accept the word of Morrissey in that he doesn’t eat meat by listening to his lyrics and interviews, but mistrust his testimonies of corporal punishment is a fascinating contradiction. Perhaps we are so intent on finding ‘authenticity’ above meaning that we have overlooked the revision of that which is historicised. How has Sandbrook so recently concluded that corporal punishment ‘had its place’? Whatever meaning that gives us.
One thing is for sure: Spanking Art’s format of advent-doored spanking treats have been plentiful across this piece. Should I be worried that I’ve been corrupted by all those buttocks and skirts? Or does the date which I posted this let me off?