Sunday, 11 December 2011

My Best Cinema Experiences

Maybe it is because I am not experiencing many new things at the moment, with my life very constrained by a severe shortage of money and working away from home 5 days out of 7 that my thoughts turn nostalgically to better times.  This is a nostalgia posting looking back 20 years to when I lived in Norwich which I did for a year.  In my view Norwich is a very much overlooked city, perhaps because it is stuck on the eastern end of Britain and the road and rail services to it have long been poor.  Maybe that is a good thing as it spares the city the influx of literally millions of tourists that Oxford experiences.  I know tourists are important for the local economy, but I guess selfishly none of us wants to struggle to get along the pavement or have to queue for an hour to get into a restaurant.  For me, Norwich was just the right size, big enough to have the facilities I wanted but not so large that it took a 45-minute ride on a bus or train to visit friends who lived in the same city, for me a bicycle was more than sufficient to get me around to see people.

Norwich was a place where I had some of the best socialising of my life.  Maybe that was in part down to my age, I was there between the ages of 23-24 and was fortunate to meet up again with a woman, a teacher, I had known while living in West Germany.  Ironically another woman from the group of Britons I had been with in Köln was just leaving Norwich when I arrived and I was able to borrow her room as a base for looking for accommodation.  Anyway, the teacher connected me into another group of socially active friends and to parties hosted in her house, which simply added to the social activity I am going to outline here.  In addition, we had a kind of close relationship in which we rather behaved like a couple, but only for the domestic things like going to buy crockery and having tea in cafes and watching foreign language movies, that never manifested into a romance partly because I was over-awed by her self-confidence and the fact that she was on the pill.  Looking back it seems ridiculous to feel that way at 23.  Given the knock-backs that I had from other women and I do remember a beautiful Dutch woman called Saskia that everyone was attracted to and another hippie whose name I forget but with whom I would have had a relationship if money and the chance of work had not taken me away from Norwich.

This is turning into a wide-ranging nostalgia festival.  I need to focus back a bit more tightly as I have not even mentioned cinemas yet.  I will fill in the rest of the context.  I am talking about Norwich in the early 1990s and unfortunately I have not been back since.  However, from what I can find online, I do not think that my observations about the city would be terribly out of step with the place as it is now, so as well as reflecting on a bygone era, it may spark interest in the city now; interest I feel it deserves.  Alongside the people I met in the city, the other key contributing factor for my good social life there were simply the number of reasonably-priced places you could go to. 

I see that these days there are more big-name chain coffee shops, which did not exist there in the 1990s, but there seem to be a range of others remaining.  Many of the names are unfamiliar and unfortunately I have forgotten many of them from the past.  The Denmark Cafe selling Danish food, which I remember going to with a German Society, survives.  However, I cannot find Linzer's Viennese Cafe (renowned for its 'traffic light' cheese cake with a strawberry, orange and kiwi fruit on) or the Elm Hill Cafe which had opened at the end of the 14th century, though I imagine it had not served tea or coffee back then.  There was also a restaurant I think on the wonderfully named Tombland near the 'Edith Cavell' pub, with black and white tiles flooring the entrance way. 

Norwich was and still is full of a wonderful range of pubs.  I remember 'The Reindeer' attached to a micro-brewery, 'The Vine' the smallest pub in Norwich and probably much of the country, 'Adam & Eve' near the cathedral, 'The Lawyer' and 'Ribs of Beef' both still open in Wensum Street and nearby the 'Red Lion' where I drank once with a juggler and a Kurdish refugee from Iraq. I also remember the wonderfully named 'The Wildman' and further out from the city centre, the very Victorian style 'Belle Vue' unrelated to the cinema I am going to talk about in a minute.  Nearby was 'The Alexandra' and 'The Mitre' though I see now it has become a Chinese restaurant though keeping the same name.  Possibly favourite of the eateries was the 'The Waffle House' which did the most delicious milk shakes I have ever tasted though my brother, in a heavy metal band at the time, complained the food and drink in there was too healthy!

An important element of my life up until I got into long-term relationships in the mid-2000s was going to the cinema.  I cannot really say it was part of my social life as literally nine times out of ten I would go to the cinema on my own.   I was quite a regular visitor typically going to the cinema about 3-6 times per month.  In Norwich was where I probably had my best cinema experiences.  I am heartened to see that the two cinemas there I enjoyed the most are still functioning. Norwich had and still has a mainstream cinema, one which I would visit occasionally, but it was to Cinema City and to a lesser extent, Belle Vue that I would go. I would not call them 'art house' cinemas, though they did show an eclectic set of movies, but they showed mainstream stuff too.  I remember seeing 'Cry Baby', 'Metropolitan' and 'Das Schreckliche Mädchen' at Cinema City. Both were small, with a single screen and certainly when I went in the 1990s the furnishings were respectively characteristic of the 1970s and 1950s.  The Belle Vue was actually an arts complex with a cinema among a range of facilities offered by the venue.  What was great about these cinemas was that they were on a human level.  You could get to know the staff and they you.  Only at the two independent cinemas in Oxford in 1992-3 did I develop such a relationship with cinema staff. 

The human scale extended to other people in the audience.  I remember on one occasion finding myself sitting behind the author Malcolm Bradbury (1932-2000) in Cinema City and chatting to him about upcoming movies.  At the time he lectured (1970-95) at University of East Anglia on the outskirts of Norwich on the MA creative writing degree programme, the first in the UK and still running very successfully.  You can find a list of the renowned graduates of the programme on Wikipedia.

Not only was it the human scale of these cinemas that made you feel rather that you were going to a club rather than a normal cinema, it was the events they put on.  One I particularly remember was an evening with the historian, cultural commentator and crime author Mike Phillips to discuss the television movie of his novel, 'Blood Rights' (1989) which was shown at Cinema City.  The star of the drama, Brian Bovell was also there to talk about the production.  After the talk and the movie, we all retired to the cafe for a friendly discussion.  Mike had studied at the University of Warwick about a decade before I did, but he never took up my suggestion to write a novel set in Coventry, which the university sits on the outskirts of, and, at the time was infamous for its violence.  Rather he set his novels in London and US cities.  Given that I remember that evening 20 years later suggests it was a good experience.

The Belle Vue cinema being in an art centre was also liable to run events and the one I particularly remember was two evenings in a single week when 'Jour de Fête' (1949) and 'The Lady Vanishes' (1938) were shown at the cost they would have been when the cinema opened, fifty years earlier, 3 shillings, i.e. 15p, though in 1951, 3 shillings was worth a lot more than 15p was in 1991.  It was not the cheap cost of the evening but the fact that you were seeing classics in a cinema that suited what you were seeing, attracting an audience happy to discuss spotting Alfred Hitchcock in the movie and delighting in the simple comedy of Jacques Tati.

I do feel that I am suggesting that I only enjoy movies when among a like-minded audience.  However, I think it is more than that.  It was the context in which the experience occurred.  It was in a city in which I could safely cycle to the cinema of an evening and watch movies that were not in the current top 10 list and that the cinema went to an effort to engage the audience with movies in a different way and the fact that I could stop on the way home for a waffle or a beer in an equally conducive establishment.  Of course, the independent nature of the cinemas could cause issues.  I remember cycling on one cold evening to go to see 'Metropolitan' only to find that the movie reel had not arrived in time and as a consequence, I ended up becoming doorman at a gig, the first time I had done that, but that is another story.

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