The first time I saw Terence Davies’s 1992 film The Long Day Closes, I was upended by a recurring image of the sensitive Liverpool lad at its heart, his arms folded across a worn window ledge as he gazes out onto an inner cityscape he finds scary, alienating, and marvelous in equal measure. Affectionately nicknamed Bud by his family, Davies’s boyhood self, played by a bonny, open-faced Leigh McCormack, contemplates a grey world that often excludes him but in which he also finds beauty, joy, and the kind of working-class community that brings a whole street together to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
“I have a photographic emotional memory,” Davies said in a lively television interview that you can find on the Criterion Channel. “Emotional” is key here: All memory is selective, winnowing out pedestrian routine in favor of the hurts and joys of the felt past. Few of us, though, have the artistic chops to weave together word, image, and music as Davies does, turning autobiography into magic. For me, The Long Day Closes triggered a tidal wave of memories—by turns bleak, wistful, and comic—of arriving in England as a seven-year-old immigrant in the mid-1950s.
The film opens on sheets of rain falling on a dismal tenement alley in a Northern England city. On the soundtrack, in significant contrast, we hear the honeyed tones of Nat King Cole, a sign that this sublimely expressionist filmmaker is about to rescue comfort and solace from the same hard lives he explored in his far more somber Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Each film shines a different light on Davies’s boyhood as the youngest of ten children in an impoverished Catholic family in Liverpool. But where the first mostly chronicles the miseries of living with a violently abusive father, the second invites us to engage with the family’s warm happiness following the father’s death. Not that they’re better off financially, and their release from suffering is still framed by the dank greyness of life in post–World War II England.
On paper Davies’s youth could hardly be more different from my own as one of two children in a North-West London suburban Jewish family. But his two semiautobiographical films, especially The Long Day Closes, revive my experience of landing in a war-wounded England struggling for rebirth. We had lived a financially strapped but—for us kids at least—idyllic life on the Mediterranean shore. But my parents, both Britons who had emigrated to an Israeli kibbutz as young Zionist-socialist idealists, couldn’t make ends meet in the rickety fledgling state. Reluctantly, they decided to return to England.
My father broke the news to us kids on a walk by the ocean shortly before we boarded ship for, he told us, a shining city with a big blue river running through it. It would take my dad many moons and uproarious ribbings to live down that well-meant whopper. The Thames, which I would later—with ample help from Charles Dickens—learn to love for its murky, smelly self, was never blue and likely never will be. And “shining” hardly described London as it limped through postwar rationing and rebuilding the ruins of a city decimated by the Blitz.
Arriving in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record, we moved into a flat my mother’s three sisters had found for us on Margery Park Road in Forest Gate, at that time one of East London’s poorer neighborhoods. We would stay there only a few months before moving to a small house in the suburbs to live with my widowed Uncle Ruby, and from there to a modest home of our own. In my mind, though, those months in Forest Gate stretch into a dreary lifetime at once echoed and redeemed by a film that, scene by scene, frames my own ambivalence about the fogbound land the Evil Elders had dragged me to.
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