Notebook: The biggest urban legend of them all

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The Independent Online
THIS IS a London-centric observation, but the longer you live in and do not leave the capital the easier it is to forget how much the rest of Britain has changed.

In London, you behave in old-fashioned ways. You take the bus (Is there any other place in Britain where the middle class still do this in substantial numbers?) or the Tube, you visit department stores with lifts, and single- screen cinemas are still located on main streets.

What Londoners call "the country", which in the London imagination includes country towns and indeed whole cities, is no longer like that. Great straight roads filled with cars push through it. Mutliplexes and shopping parks stand apparently randomly, in the middle of nowhere, but actually near a roundabout or intersection. The traffic seems just as heavy as it was an hour ago on the Westway - heavier maybe.

Obviously nothing can be done here, not even the purchase of a pint of milk, without the doer first getting into a car. You're entering Sussex but it could be New Jersey. And in this American analogy London also fits. Its way of living is coming to be as separate from the rest of the country as New York's is from the rest of the United States.

Or so I think, driving south through the rain on Sunday for a long half- term weekend at a friend's cottage in this place, "the country". We've driven for ninety minutes from home in north London and have still to meet it. We follow the A3 to the A243 and then the A24. Then I see a sign to the village of Mickleham, just below Box Hill, and remember that this was where my great-aunt lived and where she is buried.

I have been here only twice before, the last time 23 years ago for her funeral. There was some later controversy, I remember, about the inscription on her tombstone: "There shall be no more light". Surely that couldn't be right, in a Christian graveyard? And so we turn off to the village to take a look.

Sure enough, one letter in the inscription has been re- chiselled and re-leaded: an "n" has replaced an "l" .

"There shall be no more night": a more optimistic view of the afterlife than that caused by a stonemason's mistake. I'm glad for my Great-Aunt Nellie's sake, and walking back towards the car I remember how I came to this place as a five-year-old.

She was then (so dates on the gravestone tell me) newly widowed. Her husband had served in the army of British India. She lived in a cosy gatekeeper's cottage on what was then the main Dorking road and we were dropped at her front door by Green Line bus. There can't have been much other traffic on the road at that time, because in the afternoon my father took me for a walk down it.

I remember drizzle and huge snails on the verges, and my father explaining that perhaps the chalk in the soil did that: the calcium made their shells grow big.

Other than that, I remember various shades of green: the green of the Green Line bus, the green of the meadows and the trees in the valley, the sudden sight of a green Southern train across the meadows sliding towards Dorking or London with a faint electric sizzle which disturbed the quiet.

Now the valley contains a dual carriageway as well as a railway line, and Dorking is a suburb with suburbs - which have almost reached my great- aunt's old home. When we drove past it on Sunday, I noticed that its neighbour was a large car park.

These facts and memories are commonplace. England has nourished illusions about the countryside and regretted its damage since Ruskin. Writers such as Orwell and Laurie Lee have made whole meals of it. But never before have I felt the force of a remark made by a friend of mine, the writer Tony Gould, a month or so ago. Tony comes from a farming family in Devon and we were having a fairly standard London conversation about the benefits (better schools, cheaper houses) of moving to "the country".

The worst thing about living there, he said, was how you were forced to notice change. Fields minus hedges, moors minus sheep, closed shops, drunk or drugged kids, and bloody awful traffic jams around the nearest supermarket.

London has also changed, but in less depressing ways and in any case change is part of its nature. On Tuesday night, after driving against a long line of headlights stuck motionless across the South Downs, I was glad to be back inside its fierce and illusion-less grip.

IN THE second section of today's Independent there will be, as usual, a handy guide to how critics in general (not just this newspaper's own) have received new plays, films, books, CDs and so on. The critical consensus is marked symbolically by a small silhouette of a woman in states varying between ecstasy and torpor.

Sometimes she stands from her chair and applauds (bravo, excellent!); sometimes she sits forward on her chair and applauds (good, enjoyable); sometimes she sits back on her chair and doesn't applaud (middling to poor); sometimes she's slumped almost flat on her chair and probably asleep (dire, wake me after the credits).

That might seem an adequate scale of response, but I don't think so. The poor woman, this victim of so much botched and painful enterprise in the name of art or entertainment, doesn't get mad enough. There needs to be two more categories, one for the stuff that makes you angry (woman throwing her chair, perhaps) and one for the stuff that makes you want to leave or switch off (an empty chair).

What has brought this on? On Wednesday I went to see Life is Beautiful, the Italian film which has been nominated for seven Oscars, under the impression that it was brave, inventive, moving and (not least) funny.

The Italian comic actor Roberto Benigni wrote and directed the film and stars in it as an Italian Jew, who, when seized and deported to Hitler's death camps, sustains his small son's innocence and will to live by pretending, comically, that the procedures of the Holocaust are a childish game.

That's the "brave" part: the juxtaposition of the two words "comic" and "Holocaust" in any description of the film. But the film itself is not brave at all.

Forget the Holocaust, the terrible non-fiction monster on whose back Life is Beautiful has fictionally, cheekily and sentimentally ridden its claims to fame, and you're left with the plot and characterisation (save excellent performances by our hero's son and uncle) of a Norman Wisdom film: Trouble at Treblinka almost.

The film is technically incompetent, structurally weak, directorially unimaginative. It sounds as though it was recorded in an empty church hall. The death camp looks like an abandoned textile factory set in some lovely Italian countryside, which is quite probably what it is.

As for the ever-present Benigni himself, he gets down on his knees from the first minute and begs the audience to love him. Even Chaplin did not push his endearingness so far and, naturally, it has the opposite effect. By all means save him from the train to Poland in the fiftieth minute, but let him vanish by pantomime hook in the fifteenth.

So the question the idea of the film asks - "Can you make a comedy about the Holocaust?" - can only be answered with "Well, perhaps, but not on the evidence of this one." A more pertinent question may be why I went to see it, and why millions of others will do the same.

You can't blame the critics. Since I saw the film I've caught up (too late) with the reviews. One or two are enthusiastic but an equal number are hostile. Many are sympathetically lukewarm variations of David Denby's verdict in the New Yorker ("I wish I could say it was anything but a mistake").

So why didn't I notice these reviews? Because I'm the victim of brilliant marketing strategies which fill the hungry spaces of newsprint and broadcast time. The film had sneakily and impressionistically recommended itself to me via profiles of Benigni, interviews with his associates, features which put the pros and cons of breaking "the Holocaust taboo" - all prominently and fancily displayed (on the page, a review by contrast is a simple, humble thing) and all before the product itself could be honestly scrutinised by independent men and women whose judgement we might trust.

Certain generations (including mine) often talk nostalgically of the days of the "great critics": Ken Tynan, Harold Hobson, Penelope Gilliatt, Clive James, and other writers who in their day were often the best reason for buying a Sunday newspaper.

I think this may well be unfair to the present lot, whose voices could be equally strong and persuasive if they could be heard from under the blankets of PR-inspired journalism ("Come on set, meet the star!") which surround them. I feel sorry for their fall and promise to pay them more attention.

In the meantime, an empty chair to Life is Beautiful, though the Pope is reported to love it. On the one hand, Roberto Benigni: on the other, General Pinochet. A pontiff of truly catholic taste.