Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Humble Idea - How my film about Branwell Bronte came into being

My misery was of a darker form
of deadlier deeper dye
these were the various streams that flow
into my deep deep sea of woe
the shrieking blast, the pelting rain
may strike the shattered oak in vain

(Branwell Bronte)

Early in 2012, having lived in the Calder Valley for a matter of days, I am walking - or, rather, being blown by hammering winds - over the lower edges of Norland, along a precipice of sandy stone crumbling beneath my feet like muddy meringue. Earlier, I watched a green woodpecker zigzag along a trickling stream as I trudged up from Sowerby Bridge.  Now, a frosted plateaux of bare roots, iced-up puddles, and hunched, lethargic sheep are all that punctuate the misty moorland stretched before my eyes through a stinging hiss of sleety rain.  Pulling my hood harder over my head, I gaze across the hill to the fringes of Sowerby Bridge, which this Sunday morning looks pencil-sketched by Lowri: dark old factories and chimney stacks, roofs glistening in drizzle, the road slit right through it like a serpentine vein.  A few cars and lorries judder by, but cannot be heard above the whistling din of winds, bashing against hedges and slapping into the pens and fences of farms, hassling the horses huddled in the stables along the deserted tracks of Scar Head, Clough Head, the bumpy roads wrapped around these grassless hills like tinsel clinging to the body of a tired Christmas tree, in the cold, dim days of early January. 

Down the valley, you can see the unloading yards of factories and mechanical plants, the terraced streets climbing to Sowerby, Warley, the outskirts of Halifax.  You can make out the winding old canal, moored boats bobbing beneath a fluffy gauze of frost; the hunched shelters of the train station, and further out, the deserted Tesco car park, bordered by a railway track fenced off by six-foot wire.  When it was first built in the 1840's, the town's train station stood where the car park is today, and it is partly to that station that my thoughts are turned on this January morning. Or, more particularly, to one of its ill-fated former employees, who, I am fairly certain, would have known the ground I'm walking on, and very likely would himself have navigated these same windy paths and stiles, trod these tracks and fields, overlooking this same valley with its towns and bridges, its chimneys, factories and steep, wet streets, when he lived here - more than one hundred and fifty years ago.
Back down there in the town's market, I had stumbled, days ago, on Juliet Barker's The Brontes  - the acclaimed history of the family and their writings - and back in the warmth of my flat had turned instictively to the index to find word of my newly adopted home town. I was to learn that the family's controversial "black sheep" - the beleagured brother, Branwell - lived here in Sowerby Bridge, while working at the station, in the early 1840's.  Opinion of Branwell has long been negative, his legacy largely reduced to the grim pickings of assorted anecdotes, and tales of drunkenness and gambling.  But Juliet Barker's book also details Branwell's forays into poetry and painting, friendships with local artists and writers, and the walks he loved to go on, up and down the wet, wobbly hills of this wonderfully mishapen, craggy valley.  In fact, this jagged landscape seems perfectly suited to the image of a man wracked, as Branwell was, by rigours and drama, by the slings and arrows of self doubt, and by a romantic, at times over-reaching, desire for heroism.  Yes, I am sure, as I traipse through spongey moorland soils and the remnants of reeds, past frozen becks and looming, skeletal trees, that - as they say of the departed - "he would have loved it here." 

Picking up the trail back towards the town, a pathway faintly marked out on the rocky terrain, I begin to wonder about the twists and turns of Branwell's life, and imagine various scenarios that may have brought him here to this then industrial town on the edges of West Yorkshire.  What happened to Branwell at the station, how did his life and aspirations compare with those of his famous, brilliant sisters?  Why have we not seen or heard of his exploits here in more books, or via the magic of the screen? In the film of Branwell's life now playing out in my mind, he is pictured at the station gates, harangued by his superiors and cursing at the ground; now, seeking the crags and vales, wandering across the tops on a frozen morning such as this. In one scene, he is thrown in among a rugged jumble of drunken men, propping up the bar of some tiny moorland inn, or one of the smoky pubs which cater for the town's labouring classes, puffing on tobacco and slurringly singing with the best of them - Branwell as one of the lads, as dissolute decadent, as drunk.  In another, he is pitching up an easel, gazing onto the town and beyond it, to the heathered hills and gorse-brooched clefts which spread from here to Haworth like the jewelled candelabra of a pheasant's plume.  Or he is watching from the platform as a smoke-wraithed steam train chuffers away down the silvery tracks, pushing into the darkened distance of a winter horizon.  Why has no-one ever made this film I wonder?  And could it, I ask myself, as the trundling traffic of an approaching Sunday afternoon comes lumbering into view, and I desend the bumpy slopes which straggle down into the town's grey edges, a concrete maze of warehouse yards and back-streets, could it be something to which I, new to the town as Branwell was, might turn my sights?
Some days later now, and steeling myself into the first of my excursions to work along the railway tracks which will convey me, innumerable times in the ensuing years, to jobs in other towns and cities, I rub my hands and pace the platform, drawn to the inviting huddle of kettles, flasks and paper cups nestling on a table beside the shelter.  Andrew Wright, who along with his brother Chris, runs the pub and tea shop at the station, is in charge of this makeshift coffee stall, and he places in my hands what looks and feels like a piping pint of strong black coffee, I am as grateful for the warmth to my freeing hands from the polystyrene cup as I am for the taste or cafeine kick. I curse my stupidity in not having bothered to wear gloves. This is my first day as a Calder Valley commuter, in the thick of my first Calder Valley winter. I have a lot to learn.

Backward I look upon my life
and see one waste of storm and strife
one wrack of sorrows, hopes and pain,
vanishing to rise again.

(Branwell Bronte)

A cruel wind lashes through the rain.  The platforms glisten under treacherous ice.  My train showing no signs of turning up, I quiz Andrew on the history of the town, and of the station.  It has only been at its present site since 1876; previously it stood where the Tesco supermarket is today.  And I've heard, I say, that Branwell Bronte once worked there.
"He did, yes...he was there when the station opened in 1840."  Unaware of the full historical significance of this fact - which would, in the course of time, become hugely relevant to my life - I ask what capacity he worked in.  Andrew tells me Branwell was a clerk, that he worked at Sowerby Bridge for about a year, before repairing to nearby Luddendenfoot, a station which no longer exists, but at which Branwell was promoted to the post of Clerk-in-Charge, or Stationmaster, in 1841.  "But..." and here Andrew half looks away, frowning, as if remembering the downfall of some ill-fated relative, or a memory too unpleasant to dwell on, "Well, it didn't end too well..."
"Oh." I want him to expand, but at this point another commuter ambles up, ordering a coffee.  As Andrew fixes the drink, and the man hangs about counting money and talking about the weather, I tot up the little I have heard about Branwell in my life so far. That he had been an aspiring poet and painter.  That he was commonly seen as having been in the shadow of his famous sisters.  That he had a drink problem, and had caused his family, in the words of a local girl in Haworth, "no end of trouble."
"I hear he had a bit of a drink problem," I venture, as the other customer shuffles off.
"Yes," says Andrew, with a knowing smile.  "He had all sorts of problems, I'm afraid.  Drink problems.  Gambling problems.  Drug problems, maybe.  We don't really know the details, to be honest, but...there was some mix-up over missing money, and...well, like I say, it didn't end too well."
Itching to know more, my curiosity is thwarted by the lumbering arrival of my train, crawling along the track in a mechanical lethargy, slowly shunting to a halt.  As I board, and we lurch out through the frozen fields, beneath the arching stone viaduct, the abandoned signalman's huts at long-gone stations, past the terraces of Brighouse and the stretching suburbia of Mirfield, the thought of Branwell and the missing money revolves through my mind like a carriage looping over icy tracks, spinning through the dark morning air until we have crossed into Kirklees and the undulating hillsides of the Calder Valley are dimming in the distance.

Amid the world's wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
that says Remember Me

(Branwell Bronte)

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