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Cowboys and Influences

I recently, finally managed to watch The Unforgiven. Yes, I know it’s a bit tardy, but sometimes that’s the way of things. I know this isn’t a typical Western in some ways, but in others, you could argue that it’s absolutely classic. The stranger, the Lone Gunfighter, the powerful cattle-baron/ corrupt businessman / general bad guy holding the small town to ransom. Even the ‘tart with a heart’, albeit in a more sophisticated form and, according to a review I read somewhere, presenting a post modernist, feminist view of women’s roles in the wild west….I’m paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea.
Yes, the women were courageous and interesting and had more in the way of character development than was usual in the genre, but I’m not sure I’d apply that particular iconography. It struck me that they were women just doing whatever they had to, to try and survive and then dealing with the consequences, pretty much as women have done and still do wherever and whenever – men too, for that matter. We all respond to circumstance, regardless of genre, and some make a better job of the whole survival thing than others and some make a better job of showing humanity than others – those two things not being mutually exclusive, by the way.

Be that as it may, it got me thinking. I grew up on a diet of Westerns. Westerns, War Films, Thrillers and Musicals and when I got old enough to stay up and watch TV after my parents had gone to bed – or, at least, old enough to sneak down without them fussing too much – Hammer Horror and the various season’s of World Cinema that BBC2 was so good at putting out way back when. I do seem to recall seeing an awful lot of very long Russian films.

But the Westerns, well they were my father’s favourite. Friday night was Virginian night. He’d get home from work and we’d watch together. If he was late home, then that was about the only time he’d break the rules and have his dinner on a tray in the living room. If he’d missed the start, as sometimes happened when the winter roads slowed his delivery van, we’ll I’d have to relate what he’s missed in fine detail, even recounting snatches of the dialogue, if I thought the exact words might be important. Looking back, I suspect this was my first taste of being a storyteller, even if it was someone else’s story.

Afterwards, we’d pick the episode apart, examine motivation and alternative solutions and even moral questions. Yes, I know, it was just a cowboy series, but it was something we did together and my dad loved his stories. Loved examining them to see what made them tick and studying the characters, discussing the dialogue at length or what a particular actor brought to a role.
Dad was a great storyteller; a spinner of yarns that would grow more elaborate with each retelling. Ironically, it was my mother who was the writer. She had the skill with words and phrasing and structure and wrote poems and children’s stories. She was never published and I think that hurt her a great deal. Though that is a story for another time, perhaps.

Films, of course, allowed even more scope for our discussions and for changing the narrative if we didn’t like it. The films we liked the best were those either the really simplistic, formulaic ones that pitched the good guy – in the white hat – against the evil cattle baron or bank robber or whatever, – wearing the black hat – or, conversely, those which contained within their narrative some crumb of moral ambiguity. That were far from simplistic. I remember that one of our favourites was James Stewart in Broken Arrow. I know whose side my dad was on in that one!

And, of course, we read the Westerns too. My dad was a particular fan of Zane Grey, but he’d devour most things if they had horses and cowboys in them. At some point I introduced him to Alistair MacLean and we read everything we could find by him and compared them to the films made of his books. What had changed, what worked, what we missed. I suppose, looking back, these were valuable first lessons in analysing narrative drive! We didn’t have that many books in the house – not that we owned, anyway. My eldest brother, an enthusiastic scavenger among the second hand book stalls that used to proliferate on Leicester market, had ensured he’d left a store of poetry and literature before he’d left home, and those books became very precious introductions to Shelley and Longfellow and Walt Whitman. I loved the words and the patterns they made long before I understood much of the content. For the rest, our local library was plundered weekly. Dad would never go inside, any more than he’d ever go into a bookshop. These were places for ‘other people’. He’d left school at fourteen and seemed to have created barriers that never really broke down. So, I became his emissary. Sometimes, I’d go to the library with Beverly, who lived next door and we’d take her Nan’s shopping trolley and come back wheeling romances – for her mum- westerns and thrillers – for dad – and whatever we happened to find for ourselves that week.
I grew up, moved away, didn’t watch so many westerns, though I’d still catch the odd one so I could talk about it and I liked the idea that I’d be settling down to watch a film that my dad would be watching too. After he died, they kind of lost their appeal. I watched The Unforgiven with my son, and we discussed it after, the way I used to with my dad and the way my own children have always done with me. I like to think it’s a habit that paid dividends; my son writes too and writes well. My daughter is a natural storyteller and is passing those skills on to her own children who are also enthusiastic tellers and writers of tales.
Cowboys and influences, Dad, lessons in narrative. It’s a bit too early in the day to raise a glass, so I lift my mug of tea in toast to you, teller of tall tales, mischief maker, lifelong spinner of so many yarns. Here’s to you.