Melody Of Peace: The Electric By Tim Murgatroyd
How often do we give any thought to the effect a film’s musical score has on an audience? Music has a vital role to play. I recently heard it referred to as a leading character. It reflects the mood of the scene and helps the audience to anticipate what is about to happen; repeated motifs are used to highlight the ascendancy of a character: think Bond or Ethan Hunt when the hero once more gets the upper hand. I always think of a particular episode of Columbo
– the one with Billy Connolly as a conductor-turned-murderer. The audience is treated to a sequence in which he is fitting the musical score to the visual image and for some reason, it has stayed with me. So, to the point, this novel centres around David Young, damaged both physically and mentally by his wartime experiences as a flight navigator; he also happens to be a gifted musician. He is rootless and restless, in need of a job and somewhere to live. He finds himself working for Mr Laverelli, owner of The Electric Cinema in York. The year is 1919 and the films are silent movies which required the musical backing of a cinema orchestra – or in this case, a trio.
Opening in 1969, we are treated to familiar images of the period but quickly the scene moves into flashback – 1919. 'A young man without a home, violin in hand, face burned and blistered, needing the approval of strangers.' Here begins our journey with David Young as he auditions for the ‘orchestra’ at The Electric
. The novel is gentle in tone and meandering in style; the descriptions of York are comforting and although definitely character driven, the narrative develops at an easy pace.
We are introduced to a disparate group, a cast of oddments - although who honestly has the right to cast such a judgement? Each has a story which contributes to the whole narrative. Louisa, a ‘fallen woman’, worth so much more than the pitiful place she calls home, is desperate to keep her job as pianist at the cinema. Maurice, the cellist and percussionist, is proud, stubborn and ultimately, decent; Ambrose is a somewhat comical character with a good heart, thwarted in love but determined to keep trying. Esther is a bud waiting to re-open while Gladys, the usherette whose hemlines are 'a little too far above the ankle', has a dubious reputation and a 'conchi' brother. That leaves Victor, the projectionist with ambition and little integrity – and of course Clifton, the ubiquitous cat. This ‘family’ interact; they argue, they support, they listen and they become familiar to the reader.
We are introduced to a disparate group, a cast of oddments - although who honestly has the right to cast such a judgement?
David Young experiences nightmares of the flights he took part in. In his nightly journeys, he sees over and over again, the death of German airmen and naval forces, deaths for which he feels responsible as navigator of the plane which 'took them down'. He doesn’t see them as the enemy now but as young men just like him: fathers, husbands, brothers, sons. The worst of these dreams is the one which resulted in his own disfigurement, the life-changing injuries to his pilot and the deaths of the two crew flying with them. He blames the pilot’s arrogant ambition and his own failure – his error - which left them no place to land safely.
The descriptions of the air battles are vivid and it is clear why so many young men were consigned to mental institutions after the war. PTSD was a thing of the future and many were left to simply 'get over it, there’s a good chap'.
'Those keenest to send us young men out there for England’s glory, were often the least welcoming when the mangled spare parts come home.' One sentence expresses his bitterness and reminded me so much of the poetry of Wilfred Owen who wrote of 'the Old Lie' in Dulce et Decorum Est
, penned Anthem for Doomed Youth
, described the dashing idol left shivering in his 'ghastly suit of grey' in Disabled
, and most of all, of The Send Off
, which pictures young men creeping home – no celebration for their return, just a sense of shame. The pity of war.
I’m not sure how other people read but when I sink into a book, I visualise the scenes, the characters; I hear the voices and the soundtrack and immerse myself in the different world. It’s a powerful sensation.
Don’t get me wrong, this novel is not all doom and gloom, far from it. It could be subtitled 'From Hell, Hull and Halifax' – a young man’s return to existence following the horrors of World War One, and return he does.
Along with rehabilitation and a recognition that the war affected everyone, not just the 'brave lads who went off to fight', there is romance and a dip into family life where understanding is not always evident. Facing reality can be hard. By chance, David meets his old pilot, Fitz, medal-laden, maybe, but now a sorry state of a man. Never particularly fond of each other, they resolve some of their previously unspoken conflict and help one another.
Then there is a sub plot, competition from the newly opened Grand Picture House. Laverelli and his rival, Ernie Precious, have a history and Precious now means business; he is prepared to play dirty, if necessary, to settle a score.
I’m not sure how other people read but when I sink into a book, I visualise the scenes, the characters; I hear the voices and the soundtrack and immerse myself in the different world. It’s a powerful sensation. And it's not often I say so, but this novel is ripe for television – 'Life is very like a film with its cast of misfits.' It offers visual images of life and death, characters with whom to identify, and interludes of drama. It is a document of social history, not saccharine-sweet nostalgia but expressing attitudes which were damaging then, shaped events and thankfully now have been consigned to the annals of history. 'Love is love, no matter who it’s for – there’s no condemnation here.' The setting is one we rarely consider since it was relatively short-lived – the arrival of the talkies changed everything. There is a mixture of emotions: humour, poignancy, heartache and remorse – all part of life’s rich tapestry which deserves to be given some glorious technicolour.
The Electric is published by Stairwell