Silken Girls and Refractory Camels

Was it in The Italian Job that a feckless bunch of crooks accidentally blow a car up?  Michael Caine says, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”  You can hear him say it in that much-mimicked East London accent.  I suppose it’s an oblique way of stating that, in the movie industry, especially in close-up, less is more.  Hence the title of Sir Michael’s memoir, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018).  Bloody good, actually.  I was prompted to get it by hearing The Great Man Himself on the radio reading an extract, and I found it quite gripping.  I bought the book and I wasn’t disappointed.  It was the ideal book to read at the end of the festive season, prior to the resumption of normal service.  (And may I say, the resumption of normal service fills me with dread.  Westminster is about to reconvene, and the carping and sniping will doubtless start up from where it left off.  It left off, as I recall, with Mr Corbyn allegedly calling Mrs May a stupid woman, prompting Mrs Leadsom to remind Mr Speaker that he had not apologised for calling her a stupid woman, prompting Mr Speaker to inform the House in a protracted roaring bellow that all of that had already been dealt with.  I think it was at that point that I thought, they’ve all taken leave of their senses!)  All the more reason for reading Blowing the Bloody Doors off.  I highly recommend it.  Despite the fact that a lot of it is set in Tinsel Town, it belongs to the real world.  It is grounded.  It is life-affirming, optimistic, encouraging, inspirational, humane, and very well written.

The book is full of technical advice for the young actor, much of it widely applicable to any and every walk of life.  Know your stuff, be prepared, turn up on time, keep your temper, and treat everybody with respect.  I know that will work for a doctor as much as for an actor.  The more prepared you are, the more relaxed you will be, and the more in control of your nerves.  How true.  And believe in yourself.  Michael Caine’s path to professional success was not an easy one; he took many knocks and suffered many set-backs.  But he never ceased to believe in himself, and he never gave up, despite the fact that powerful and influential mentors advised him to do just that: pack it in.  Didn’t John Lennon receive the same advice?  You’ll never make anything of your life!  What a dreadful thing to say to anybody.  Fortunately, Michael Caine didn’t take any notice.  So, if perchance you are feeling despondent about the world, and if the death-watch beetle of cynicism is encroaching, read Blowing the Bloody Doors Off.

And yet…

I’m not casting aspersions when I say I’m not going to read it again.  Sir Michael Caine is not Sir Walter Scott.  I’m going to pass it on.  The thing about inspirational texts of this nature is that they are only useful up to a point.  We are all unique individuals with unique lives to lead.  Neither I, nor you (I dare say), are Michael Caine.  Therefore our destinies lie elsewhere.  You need to extract those elements of the inspirational text that are useful to you, and forget the rest.  Of course it is perfectly possible that you encounter something that blows you off your feet (it’s these bloody doors again), you have a Damascene moment, and an epiphany, that changes your life.  But it is more likely that in the cold light of day you will find that somebody else’s epiphany is not your epiphany.

I’m actually writing this on Epiphany – January 6th.  Epiphany is the church festival commemoration of the manifestation of Christ to the wise men of the East.  On January 6th I like to reread T. S. Eliot’s 1927 poem of the Epiphany, Journey of the Magi.  It is an extremely evocative description, recounted retrospectively and from a long distance, of a difficult winter’s journey, by camel, over snow-covered mountains, culminating in a descent into a valley.  The magi can find no information; the information is all there, but it is symbolic, and they can’t see it.  Yet they eventually reach their destination, and indeed they experience their epiphany.

Sometimes you hear this poem read in church, and I often wonder whether people, perhaps expecting the sweetness and childlike simplicity of a nativity play, really apprehend what is being said.  For the magi, the Christ child represented the end of “the old dispensation”.  They looked at a birth, and saw death, their own death.  They went back to their kingdoms, but nothing would ever be the same again.  For them, Epiphany was an absolute agony.

That rings true to me.  You sometimes hear “successful” people recalling the moment that changed their lives.  “It was such a small thing, yet it turned my life around, I flew, and I never looked back.”  I doubt it.  Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.  In Rep, Michael Caine kept a bucket off stage because he was liable to throw up through sheer nerves.  Inextricably bound up with the exultation of epiphany is the realisation that to embark on a journey is going to cause you considerable loss, and profound discomfort.

But if it’s what you have to do, go for it.  Sometimes sixth formers tell me they are thinking of going into Medicine.  What do I think?  I talk it up.  God knows we need young people of imagination and aspiration in Medicine.  I would never say, as I hear some of my colleagues say, “Don’t!  Bloody nightmare!  What’s your Plan B?  Go into banking!”  I tell them, quite truthfully, “It’s fabulous.  It changed my life.  It took me all over the world, and I never looked back.”  But I don’t gild the lily.  It’s challenging, yes.  Roller coaster ride.  (I stop short of telling them about the bucket sitting off-stage.)  I quote the magus: “I would do it again.”  But not the poem’s enigmatic final line.  When it comes to last lines, I prefer Michael Caine’s:

Go and blow the bloody doors off!      

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