Favourite Films: Brief Encounter

I grew up watching old films and I was always aware of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, but it wasn’t until I watched it as a teenager that it became one of my favourite films.

“You’re having a laugh aren’t you?” my sister asked, recalling the clipped accents of the lead characters, especially Laura Jesson, played faultlessly by wide-eyed Celia Johnson. We both loved old films but this one seemed to be an odd choice given our own upbringing. She also asked the question that is often asked, “why don’t they just get on with it and shag?!” More on that later.

If you haven’t seen Brief Encounter it’s the story of a suburban housewife Laura who has a chance meeting at a train station with a doctor called Alec Harvey (played by a young and dashing Trevor Howard). They arrange to see each other the following week without giving it much thought. However, as soon as they admit their true feelings to each other, the relationship is doomed to end. It is a tender love story and was well received upon its release in 1945.

Awfully middle class

Celia Johnson’s portrayal of Laura is remarkable and understated. I’ve always been a fan of films where ostensibly, not a lot happens but, of course, everything happens. However, the combination of Celia Johnson’s accent in particular, and what might be perceived as stuffy, middle-class repression, has made the film subject to mockery over the decades.

Victoria Wood’s parody hasn’t helped Brief Encounter feel relevant either (in this rendition Laura forgets how to eat a minced pie (because, war) and gets some of it stuck in her eye before meeting doctor who is no Trevor Howard…). For a while, I was furious about this sketch but I think it’s a parody made with good intentions.

On its 70th anniversary, journalist, John Patterson described how he went from laughing at the film to laughing (and crying) with it: “I thought I was terribly clever to treat it as a comedy, not realising that tragedy and comedy both depend on good timing, and that a moment like, say, the arrival of the gabby gossip Dolly Messiter, just in time to ruin the last few precious moments of the couple’s near-affair, is amusing and unendurably heart-breaking all at once.”[1] An ending which is replicated in the 2015 film, ‘Carol’ by Todd Haynes and based on the 1952 novel, ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith.

In my twenties, I read an essay on the possible consequences for Laura had she and ‘Alec’ (the doctor, played by a young Trevor Howard) decided to abandon both their partners for each other. Laura’s ability to see her children might have been entirely dependant on her scorned husband’s goodwill as he would likely receive custody, and if he left the children with Laura, she would need to petition for maintenance for their care (Laura herself would not be entitled to financial support) and the details of her affair would be public (i.e. local) knowledge. She would likely depend on Alec for financial support but he wouldn’t be legally obliged to provide it, and should he decide to go back to his wife and children, Laura would potentially find herself in dire straights – possibly with no children, no home (if divorced) and after years of being a housewife, forced into employment (which might be hard to find if her circumstances were known)[2].

With this new context in mind, I urged my sister to watch Brief Encounter again, and she did the thing humans rarely ever do, myself included, which is to re-evaluate and change their position. So much so, that after watching ‘Carol’ with her teenage daughter she immediately alerted me to the similar scene in Brief Encounter influence – the lovers’ discreet goodbye innocently interrupted by an alternative Dolly Messiter (although in the case of Carol, it is more of a hello, again).

There is no getting away from Laura’s posh accent which isn’t unusual for the time but hasn’t aged quite so well as some of the other middle-class accents in the film. In fact, the Jessons also have domestic help which puts a different spin on Laura’s weekly escapades as you can’t help but imagine floors being scrubbed or silverware polished whilst her an Alex laugh at the trio of elderly female musicians who appear to follow them around. Also, Laura’s children have silly accents too, especially the young daughter who has clearly been instructed to look straight ahead and say the bloody lines. Their screen time is, thankfully, limited.

Accents aside, I think Brief Encounter has aged very well and I think that because I think it achieves balance and because it continues to resonate with me.

Sex, sexuality and shame

Of course, in reality, the whole film is about sex. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 blasts through the record player as Laura thinks about Alec and Fred earnestly attempts to complete his crossword. “I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura thinks to herself, “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”

Although they do not consummate their affair, Laura and Alec come close. Alec has a key to his friend Stephen’s flat where he sometimes stays over when working at the local hospital. Knowing that his friend will be out for the evening, the possibility of sex hangs in the air throughout a day spent together. Laura cannot bring herself to go back to the flat but a frustrated Alec, decides to leave Laura at the station and go back there, effectively providing an ultimatum, which Laura eventually acts upon, although upon arrival it is clear that she hasn’t decided she will stay, but her going there is enough to suggest she could be persuaded.

Alec’s friend returns home unexpectedly, forcing Laura to leave via the tradesman stairs (stop it) to avoid detection. Laura wanders the streets in shame and despair. The interruption (one of several) marks the beginning of the end of their affair.

The screenplay for Brief Encounter is written by Noel Coward and based on his play, ‘Still Life’. Both texts can be read as a metaphor for gay love affairs in the same period. According to Andy Medhurst, “Employing the naively biographical paradigm of Gay Authorship, Brief Encounter shows Noel Coward displacing his own fears, anxieties and pessimism about the possibility of a fulfilled sexual relationship within an oppressively homophobic culture by transposing them into a heterosexual context.”[3]

Although it isn’t explicit, I suspect that Stephen, Alec’s bachelor friend is supposed to be gay. He scolds Alec, not so much for having an affair, or even for using his flat, but for not being up-front with him, therefore, betraying his trust. Stephen asks Alec for his key back, but Laura’s shame takes a more pitiful form.

Laura’s humiliation prevents her from going home and so she makes a phone call to her husband, ironically lying as to why she will be home late; all the behaviour of an affair but without the physical betrayal. Laura chooses to walk the streets alone and in the rain until it stops and she takes a seat facing a war memorial – a foreboding monument to self-sacrifice. The path ahead is clear and compounded by a suspicious police officer, the implication being that Laura is conducting herself as a prostitute might – why else is she alone at night, in the cold and smoking a cigarette. The shame for Laura is heightened. You cannot help but think, it is as it always has been – much worse for a woman.

The other side of the train tracks

The relationship of middle-class Laura and Alec takes place alongside the relationships of minor, working-class characters in the same train station where they Laura and Alec mostly meet and part ways. In both Still Life and Brief Encounter, a popular reading is the notion hat the working class love is less complicated. At face value, it is a romantic notion, perhaps based on the idea that the poorer you are, the freer you can be as you have less to lose. I am not sure I buy into the idea, especially when Laura has more at stake than her male counterpart – why would matters of the heart be any fairer to those who are generally worse off than both characters?

The other relationship of note is between café owner, Myrtle Bagot (played by Joyce Carey, one of Noel Coward’s frequent collaborators) and ticket inspector Albert Godby (played by Stanley Holloway who appears in many an Ealing Comedy). These fine actors bring these secondary characters to life and although their screen time is limited and comedic in nature, they hint at so much more, as though they are part of another film being made elsewhere.

In an earlier scene, Myrtle explains to the tea assistant, Beryl, how she came to own the teashop. She left her husband who expected her to be ‘housekeeper and char during the day…and a loving wife in the evening.’ Myrtle had family and friends to support her out of her marriage, but her husband was ‘dead as a doornail within three years’.

Laura describes Myrtle as ‘the one with the refined voice’ and you get the impression that although the café owner has no regrets, she cares a lot for propriety. She scolds Albert for ‘taking liberties’ with her in front of Laura but he implies that on a different occasion she was more receptive. Of course, Albert and Myrtle’s scenes are filled with humour (Albert! Now look at me Banburys

all over the floor) but there is one scene where Myrtle is struggling to handle several youths wanting alcohol outside of licensing hours. In that moment the balance of the relationship between Myrtle and Albert feels right and might be a sign that she will risk her independence again for another man.

Towards the end of the film, Beryl, Myrtle’s assistant is seen with a young man. Although happy, we remember that at the beginning of the flat, Beryl mentioned her landlady with various pets. During working hours, she is often victim to Myrtle’s sharp tongue. Beryl isn’t necessarily free of risk and should she marry poorly, it’s unlikely she’d follow in Myrtle’s footsteps.

Laura

Laura narrates the film and as such, you invest in her as someone who wants to be good but cannot help being human.

There is a moment, at the beginning of their relationship where Laura imagines them in a variety of different romantic settings. In these glamorous fantasies, they are both younger and free. The reality hits her hard when she arrives at her station.

Of course, there is the moment when she almost faints after running outside to see his train leave and the implication is that she might step in front of another train. Laura was never going to kill herself and she was never going to sleep with Alec but she came close.

Dolly Messiter is almost the executioner, leading Laura back home to humdrum Fred, domesticity and a life of wondering ‘what if’.

I’ve always been struck with Laura being so human as Dolly gossips to her on their way home when Laura thinks: “I wish you’d stop talking. I wish you’d stop prying, trying to find things out. I wish she were dead. No, I don’t mean that. That was silly and unkind, but I wish you’d stop talking.”

Finally, I love Laura for this sage advice about misery born from ill-fated love:

 

This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts, really… neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute… always… always to the end of my days.

[1] Brief Encounter: is it still relevant at 70?

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/nov/02/david-lean-brief-encounter-70th-anniversary

 

[2] Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson (eds) Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and British Cinema in the Second World War Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996, pages 99-100

[3] Andy Medhurst; That special thrill: Brief Encounter, homosexuality and authorship, Screen, Volume 32, Issue 2, 1 July 1991, Page 198, https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/32.2.197

 

Author on bench with back to camera

Why I got assessed for dyspraxia as an adult

I was assessed for dyspraxia in 2016, aged 33. I wrote a version of this blog post several months later to reflect on why it mattered to me. I also wanted to share the perspective of an adult diagnosis because it was something I wrestled with – would it be worth finding out and what difference would it make anyway?


It’s something children have, right?

If you are reading this as someone who was assessed as an adult, or as an adult who thinks they might have dyspraxia, then like me you have probably found a lot of the information available is targetted at children. This is something the Dyspraxia Foundation try to address although it does make sense when you think about it; parents and schools mostly clock when important milestones are missed or when a child struggles with some activities much more than they do others.

However, there is a noticeable imbalance of information available for adults with dyspraxia even though it doesn’t go away, you just learn to manage it. Learning to manage it means different things dependant on when you were diagnosed. For example, you may see difficulties as shortcomings or weaknesses. They may be the cause of unkind treatment for which you blame yourself. Having an assessment helps you understand your world and explain it to others. However, the volume of materials targetted at children made me reluctant to pursue a diagnosis at first. I didn’t see the point and I thought it was too late.

I didn’t know what dyspraxia was until my twenties. I certainly hadn’t heard of it when I was at University. I immediately knew this was something that made sense to me but I couldn’t easily see how the NHS would support a diagnosis at my age (they typically don’t) and taking it further almost felt like an indulgence, after all, I had got this far. However, I couldn’t put it to bed. I needed to know more as it was beginning to help me to make sense of my past.

Childhood

Since being assessed, I have spent a long time thinking about my childhood in the context of having dyspraxia, and there is no denying that being a child makes the condition especially tough. As a child, you do not have any agency and you are often forced into situations you struggle with but without being able to explain why. Of course, with dyspraxia, you do not even have agency over your own body.

It is hard to explain how everyday things terrified me as a child. If someone threw a pan at me to catch, I would be terrified of missing it and being ridiculed. I was scared of sports to the point of obsession. For a short while, I tried. I wasn’t overweight then as I am now and couldn’t quite understand, perhaps unkindly, why I was the slowest runner in the class. You notice these things at school, these things matter. I was painfully shy and awkward then, and after time, the mickey-taking from other pupils and teachers alike made P.E. the root cause of twice-weekly dread.

I managed to convince a newly qualified teacher to not force me into taking part in weekly swimming classes at Clapham Pools. Instead, she let me sit beside the pool as she tested herself on Spanish vocabulary. I think that’s why I went on to buck the family trend and enjoy a modern language GCSE;

My next teacher wouldn’t let me get away with this, and although she was probably right, she lacked compassion. To her, I was wet and oversensitive. She was a stickler for neatness in everything and I was scruffy in every possible way.  I looked dirty and I often was. My sloppiness extended to my untidy handwriting and my unwillingness to take part in physical activities was an irritation.

Most other teachers had a different take because, in spite of these shortcomings, I was clearly a very bright child, and for most of my teachers, that was enough. That was plenty. They had other children to worry about. Teachers frequently congratulated my mother, the school cleaner, for having raised a model student – quiet (withdrawn), polite (because I lived in constant fear of being forced to catch something) and curious (slightly obsessive).

My first obsession was history and The Tudors especially. When aged seven, our class was asked to write a few sentences about Henry VIII, I wrote the equivalent of an essay. At Assembly, I had to read some of my work aloud, I was confronted by a sea of crossed legs and bored faces, propped up by one hand. I quietly read my work, all the time looking down and speaking to the page.  I was interrupted by my teacher from the back of the hall. ‘No, no, this isn’t right. Mary – speak up. Mary knows lots about The Tudors. Mary, tell them the names of his wives, in order and what happened to them.’ I obliged and answered more questions, slowly growing in confidence and pride. I didn’t do much for my street cred that day.

I suppose a lot of teachers put my timidity down to being a  bookworm (I actually wasn’t – there was an assumption I read all the time which simply wasn’t true – I am a competent reader but I struggle with reading at length and lose concentration). My handwriting was incoherent, but that was a minor failing and so I was left to my own devices.

At home, things were different; I wasn’t an introvert at all. I talked incessantly. The youngest of four sisters I soaked up knowledge from those around me. Adults didn’t baby me. I watched old films and adult television.

Secondary school was worse. I increasingly lost interest in academia although I still did well. I wanted to fit in more but as a teenage girl with dyspraxia, personal grooming didn’t come naturally to me. I also made my life harder by liking bands and films that others found weird. I was bullied for long time had I didn’t look forward to University where I’d most likely account for more of the same. I barely put any thought into where I would go, choosing the same university as my boyfriend at the time. I didn’t even visit there first.

Hello, Manchester!

 

Everything aligned when I went to university on a social level. I embraced my independence, and I made friends instantly. I spent the next three years living and making my own choices.  I wasn’t shy at all (who knew?!) but I was in the habit of poisoning myself with too much booze, getting obsessed with boys and spending all my student loan on nights out, but I lived those years. And if I fell over a lot, well, I was often tipsy…

I do wonder what difference an assessment would have had during that period of hedonism. I wasn’t present enough for anyone to notice but had I started university with my dyspraxia diagnosis, I think I would have engaged with it a lot more. The concentration difficulties, the struggle for comprehension, reading slowly and short-term memory, were too much for me to confront alone when I was experiencing some form of arrested development.

I barely engaged in academic life. I found lectures hard. I made many notes but couldn’t make sense of them afterwards. My mind wandered, and I soon went in less and less. About half-way through I may as well have been studying my degree remotely. Somehow I scraped a 2:1, despite procrastination and entire spent nights awake doing everything that bit too late. I still have nightmares about having failed after all or having my degree taken away from me. In fact, these nightmares are now so detailed that I often forget I have a degree at all.

The gender myth

I recently read an article about the late diagnosis of women with autism, and in it, the National Autistic Society found that twice as many women as men were undiagnosed. The reason I mention this is that dyspraxia is often thought to be more common in men, but there is no reason to explain why this is. There is one theory, and I subscribe to it, that women are less likely to be diagnosed.

There were so many symptoms in my childhood. The physical ones were evident – my fine and gross motor skills remain very poor. I have no sense of spatial awareness – my inability to judge distances makes crossing the road very stressful, and I don’t understand the physical space I take up (which being a fat adult can be especially problematic). My problem with speech, my memory and my difficulty with sequential thinking should have been apparent as a child. When I was being assessed as an adult, I was told I was ‘textbook’.

Yes, awareness of dyspraxia is an issue, but I cannot help but feel that if a boy had exhibited the same problems with coordination and visible stress when asked to participate in sports, some concern would have been raised and they may have worked out what the problem was. There are gendered expectations and for that reason, girls can get overlooked.

Anxiety

I am not sure it is a ‘chicken or egg’ situation but I can see how dyspraxia exacerbates anxiety. It certainly knocked my self-esteem; being back to front and inside out nine times out of ten is exhausting.

I am 35 years old and I am unable to tie my laces, use cutlery or ride a bike. I mix words and sounds up. I struggle with speech. My short-term memory is poor. I am not always aware of the space I take up. I hear how a word should sound but I cannot say it. I have no spacial awareness and Google Maps doesn’t always help me. I’ve turned up to social occasions in tears because I got lost and then I got angry with myself for being useless. I struggle with personal grooming and so it takes me much longer to get ready than most. I’m that annoying pedestrian in the street who gets shouted at by an angry commuter – you know, the one that suddenly changes direction and causes the world to end as a result. I have a limited sense of distance and space, and will always wait to see my good friend, ‘Green Man’ before attempting to cross roads (that’s just good sense though surely?).

Low self-esteem and high anxiety have made some personal relationships tough and I wouldn’t do my twenties again if you paid me. It took a long time for me to realise there was something more to all of this than being a rubbish person.

Not finding the words

I found myself getting increasingly frustrated as I mixed up words or couldn’t remember them at all. I was worried about how I was being perceived by others – for being judged as inarticulate or possibly ‘thick’. I shied away from public speaking, and I had to work twice as hard to keep on top of things – often taking work home and never feeling able to entirely switch off.

I wanted the assessment to understand myself in the same way that knowing about my anxiety had been a huge relief.

Most importantly, it would give me words to explain all the differences I felt. The way simple tasks just took longer and tired me out. I wanted people to understand I wasn’t intentionally scruffy. My desk is messy for a reason. I fall up the stairs, I spill coffee everywhere and wear my clothes inside out because of something. It isn’t a quirk.

Getting assessed

I thought long and hard about this as it isn’t something you can afford to do with discretion unless you can pay for an assessment privately. I couldn’t. Instead, I looked into it with my HR department, and they referred for evaluation. Not all employers will do this.

I did deliberate about whether this was the right thing to. What if I wasn’t dyspraxic? Maybe I have the symptoms but not the condition. Maybe I have no excuses, and I am just crap after all. Or if I am, will people think less of me? Will they find out about my anxiety disorder? Who will I have to share all of this with?

I didn’t really find peace with all of these worries and concerns. I just knew that I needed to know and that I would work everything else out.

Happy now?

Well, yes. I’ve been very candid about it, and it feels a part of who I am now. I am proud of how I’ve coped with it and how I found strategies for dealing with dyspraxia before I even knew what it was. It has helped my self-esteem and it has given me the confidence to try new things and not care so much about failure.

People’s reactions are interesting. I think some of those close to me realised quickly that it made sense, it explained things. For others, I am not sure it matched the version of me they know, and so it has been more of an eye-opener. A lot of people tend to tell me they’ve suspected themselves or people they are close to as being dyspraxic. And there are others who I suspect don’t know why I even bothered to find out.

Raising awareness

I would like there to be a greater understanding of what dyspraxia means and how it can manifest itself in different ways. How the combination of the many ways it can express itself can drive you to distraction. How it can rob you of your confidence or willingness to move outside of what makes you comfortable. How it can lead someone to spend their life avoiding things that are, without explanation, so much harder than they should be.

I’ve joined the Dyspraxia Foundation, and I started this blog as a way of starting to do something useful with this new information. If you are interested in hearing about the ways in which dyspraxia can impact a person at work, please read their very useful guide, Working with Dyspraxia – a Hidden Asset.