TOWERS OF STRENGTH

Nowadays it is not that easy to connect with the sense of geopolitical tension that pervaded the early 80s. The threat of war —and here we are talking about nuclear conflict, not yer pussy tanks, napalm and barking M16 stuff— was seriously canvassed across the northern hemisphere. Sabres were rattled, bugles blown, hands were wrung in high places. Zeroing in on the catastrophic zeitgeist, Roger Waters’ Pink Floyd produced a response of sorts via the bellowing misery of The Final Cut in 1983. On film, the US gave us The Day After, a nihilistic enough narrative to have made President Reagan “depressed”, while the British contribution, Threads was so unremittingly bleak that it was shown on commercial television without advertisements. No-one, it seems, wanted to sponsor the apocalypse. But I was largely unaffected by these big-canvas theatrics. I’d had my gut well and truly wrenched by a 1982 comic book.

As Drama students, we were supportive of any and all productions mounted in the College’s excellent theatre, The Open Stage. Actually, as attendance at a substantial number of shows was an assessment requirement, you could argue that it was conscripted participation, but we mostly went because we wanted to see what each production was like. One that stood out in my first year was a chaotic but beguiling adaptation of the Raymond Briggs 1977 children’s/adult comic novella, Fungus the Bogeyman. The set designers had an absolute ball, creating a world of filth and grunge so evocative you could almost smell the mildew when you entered the space. Entranced and transported by this gently satiric exploration of meaning and purpose, I acquired the book soon after. Have to say, it still reads well; you just can’t beat existential themes for longevity and relevance.

A couple of years later, in my final year, I heard about Briggs’ new book and knew this was one I wanted to get hot off the press. So, after scraping together the necessary shekels I rushed down to Space Age books in the city to make the purchase.

Briggs When the Wind Blows cover

I took it home and read it after dinner. Then sat in silence for several hours.

*

For those unfamiliar with either Raymond Briggs or his everyday ‘hero’ Jim Bloggs, here is a brief introduction.

Briggs When the Wind Blows Page 1

Having retired from his job as a lavatory attendant, Jim lives a quiet life with his wife Hilda. Though middle-aged, they have a childlike innocence and an unbreakable faith in “The Powers That Be” who, Jim is certain, will look after them come what may. But what comes is not conflict of a kind that the Bloggs, veterans of an earlier war, can comprehend. Discussing the building of a Fall Out Shelter according to the Council brochure, Jim is anxious about getting the angle of the leaning doors correct. But not too concerned, “After all,” he says, giving a thumbs up, “It’ll all be over in a flash.” And it is.

nuclear blast

The arc of a missile falling to earth describes the latter half of the story, only in agonising slow motion. There are a number of moving moments as Jim and Hilda navigate the re-ordered world; moments both funny and tragic.

The leaves have all gone off the apple tree, ducks

Oh yes. What a shame

Still, it will be lovely in the Spring

It is Spring, dear.

Some might become irritated by the simplicity of Jim and Hilda, critical of their trusting naivety and passivity. But that would be missing the point of this story, which is both allegorical and factual. We do rely on our leaders to make big decisions; outcomes are felt both individually and globally.

As the ravages of radiation sickness take hold and the sweet old couple start to disintegrate before their own (and our) eyes, it is a hard heart indeed that doesn’t swell with sadness and a strong hand that doesn’t reach for the tissues.

Back in 1982, so moved and affected was I by When The Wind Blows that I decided it should be shared. Given there are only two characters, it would translate very easily to the stage, I thought. And what a powerful piece of theatre it would make. Breaking out the ancient typewriter, I set to and over the course of the next few days typed out the entire book as a script.

Imperial typewriter

I showed the manuscript to a couple of Drama mates and we had some lively conversations about how it might be staged using the versatility of the college theatre space. One idea I particularly liked was to design a set that made the entire theatre the Bloggs’ house so that blocks of the audience were in different rooms of the home looking down into the central living room. We all got quite excited about how to create a suitably startling flash while someone suggested showering the patrons with stage glass when the bomb went off.

But somehow the idea never quite got off the ground. Perhaps it was because we were deep into our fourth and final year; for Psych students the thesis was looming while the Drama majors had their own tasks: producing a short play was their equivalent of our thesis and I’d been asked to perform a Beckett play for a mate. Other projects were simply put on hold.

The script languished in a filing cabinet for years until I discovered that there had been a stage adaptation soon after the book’s release. The bundle of pages was consigned to the recycling bin.

*

As well as a stage play, there was an animated film released in 1986, voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft and with incidental music by Roger Waters. The title song, however, was by David Bowie. It was a co-composition with Erdal Kizilcay, who also worked with Bowie on The Buddha of Suburbia. “When the wind blows” is a solid song despite having a rather perfunctory lyric, yet deserves to be better known. Perhaps the relative rarity relates to it only having appeared on a couple of compilations. (Listed here.)

When the Wind Blows OST

As soundtrack albums go, this one is generally strong. After Bowie’s title song there are a series of pieces by a range of artists, including Hugh Cornwell’s almost jaunty “Facts and figures”, the menacing (in this context) Genesis instrumental “The Brazilian” and a mid-paced groove by Paul Hardcastle simply called “The Shuffle”. The main reason the When The Wind Blows OST is sought after by record collectors, however, is side two which comprises twenty-four minutes of original music by Roger Waters and the Bleeding Heart Band. Suffused with sadness rather than bile and delivered via entreaty rather than brow-beating, this is Waters at his reflective best. On the CD (I cast off the LP when I bought the compact disc. Yes, I know.) the whole thing is an un-subdivided suite of music. Yet it flows together well, with background snatches of dialogue between Jim and Hilda underscoring the sometimes melancholy sometimes stomach churning journey.

Particularly strong is a classic moody Waters song “Towers of Faith” that includes a lyric more uncomfortable now than when it was written thirty years ago.

And in New York City

The business man in his mohair suit

In the world trade centre

Puffs on his cheroot

And he said,

Well I don’t care who owns the desert sands

My brief

Is with the hydrocarbons underneath

And the sea of battle rages

Around the ancient tombs

And mother nature licks her wounds

And the lonely boys locked in their towers of faith

Given that the Bleeding Heart Band includes Mel Collins on sax (heard brilliantly on this song) and Claire Torry on vocals (remember “The Great Gig in the Sky”? That’s her) and neat guitar work (both acoustic and electric) from Jay Stapley, it is a satisfying neo-Floydian experience that finishes really strongly with “Folded Flags”, as good a song as any Waters penned in the 80s.

At the end, even Jim’s relentless optimism fails as he glimpses the valley of the shadow of death, conflating the Psalm with the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade. After the closing credits, a morse code signal beeps out M A D… Mutually Assured Destruction.

If even Ronald Reagan was impacted by stories of nuclear apocalypse, it is likely that immersing himself in the comi-tragic world of When The Wind Blows was powerful for Roger Waters too. Certainly it produced music of more enduring appeal than his last effort with Pink Floyd. Indeed, this long-term Floyd fan would consider offers to exchange his pristine copy of the bellicose Final Cut for the vinyl of the When The Wind Blows soundtrack. And I cannot help reflecting upon where Roger went next. His 1987 album was Radio K.A.O.S. with its apocalyptic themes and closing anthem of hope “The tide is turning”*. Interestingly, Waters also deployed “The tide is turning” as the finale to his Berlin Wall concert in 1990, bringing down the curtain on the Cold War with a grand gesture of unity. That’s the trick, isn’t it? To transmute despair into hope.

IMG_6251

* There is a bootleg Radio K.A.O.S. re-issue that successfully integrates the When the Wind Blows material but I’ve never seen it in the wild.

23 comments

  1. What a splendid post, Bruce. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michael. Do you know the book/film?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, no, I’m sorry to say. Wonderful to learn of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a new story to me – I would have enjoyed seeing your production, had it happened, and had I been in the southern hemisphere…!
    I admire your work ethic, typing out the full script like that – and I quite enjoyed this tale of Jim & Hilda, thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, it was a labour of love (or similar), that typing. Especially on an antique typewriter using only a few fingers!
      Glad you enjoyed it, Geoff.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember seeing this movie in the 80’s, it was very moving then and now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. Took me a while to get into writing the story as the book grasped me so firmly once again.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I too enjoyed your tale and that of Jim and Hilda. A moving story within a moving story. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks DD. Seems the Bloggs are less well known than imagined. I’ve enjoyed (re-)introducing them and their cautionary tale.

      Like

  5. Nice. The book made me cry, but then again less than The Snowman and (my fave) Ethel & Ernest – hell, even his Father Christmas books make me sad. Needless to say, I love Raymond Briggs.

    I used to have a taped copy of the soundtrack, hundreds of years ago too and this was a nice, timely reminder.

    My folks were big wheels in CND, I spent chunks of my childhood marching, these are the nightmares that stalked my dreams. Good job the world is so much safer and saner now isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And here’s me having you pegged as a lifetime supporter of Ronnie Raygun.
      You didn’t mention Gentleman Jim, which I always found unutterably sad. Too. Ah, there’s nowt so cleansing as a good cry.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Just had another look at Ethel and Earnest. Phew.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, I know – reminds me of my granddad too much.

        Like

  6. Great piece and a weird coincidence, I literally picked up my battered copy of ‘When The Wind Blows’ yesterday. Still packs an incredible punch. And agree with you about the Bowie theme, underrated and musically very rich. I always liked that line in it, too: ‘It’s awful dark’. Dickensian dread.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do enjoy these instances of trans-global blogchronicity. Dickensian dread is spot on. Cheers Matt.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post Bruce. I’ve not read the Briggs story in a looooong time. Might be time to visit the library and pick it up again. Also worth plugging the Iron Maiden version of this book in the form of “When The Wild WInd Blows” from the Final Frontier album. Always been on of my fav tracks from the album. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHg9PJc1Nds

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks John. Your link has resulted in my first ever Iron Maiden experience. It’s an interesting take on the same theme, with a twist at the end, like they backed away from an actual apocalypse. (Which is kind of funny, given their penchant for undead/dead cover imagery).

      Like

  8. Feeling culturally illiterate as I’d never known this one, book or soundtrack. “The Snowman,” with its magic melancholy, has been a favorite since my kids were little. I’ll definitely seek this out, although I’m a little wary as I find myself tearing up much more easily as I age.

    Even before getting to know James and Hilda however, I wonder how foreign this tale might seem to younger generations who didn’t experience fallout shelters, metal shutters on school windows, and matter-of-fact expectations of preemptive strikes and nuclear winters like we did growing up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. … and I’ll note that I own ‘The Final Frontier’ but was clueless about the literary forebear of When the Wild Wind Blows” until reading John Sturm’s comment above.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Possibly two frontiers to cross with this one. Firstly, the deeply – perhaps quintessentially – English nature of Raymond Briggs art. I’ve wondered a few times how well it travelled. Even Fungus the Bogeyman was an entirely English working Bogey. But as you remind us, Victim, The Snowman has a melancholic universality. Maybe it’s the underlying humanity that allows Briggs to connect across cultures.
      The second gulf is, as you observe, time. I recall being at home alone when the news came through of the ‘Russians’ moving into Afghanistan. “This is it, ducks!” I’d have said if there had been a Hilda to talk to. And to think I was safely tucked away in the south-east corner of Australia. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like having these themes part of the everyday school curriculum. “Today, children, we will look at radiation sickness”.
      PS. I know you won’t avoid. Just buy a box of tissues.
      And thanks for commenting on Bowie too, Victim. A appreciate your words very much. It was an exercise in personal reflection that his death called out of me. That’s part of why I decided to let the comments of others simply stand. Bit like flowers at a curb-side memorial.

      Like

  9. Great post. Love Raymond Briggs. And I’ve always thought Bowie’s title song to be vastly underrated. Nice guitar riff. Great vocal. Definitely deserves to be better known!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Adam. Responses to the Bowie song have been very positive, haven’t they? Guess there is a lot of affection for the man at present. That’s as it should be too. And always nice to hear of another Raymond Briggs fan!

      Like

  10. […] hybrids, variants or even uncategorizable offerings demanding individual attention. An example is When The Wind Blows, featured a while back at Vinyl Connection, where new and pre-existing material are combined […]

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