One of the few things I had in common with my mother was a love of film. They say if a pregnant woman listens to Mozart it will encourage the unborn child to be musical and good at maths (the structure of classical music helps the brain to develop). In my case I was exposed to the stories of Hollywood while still in my mother’s womb. Cinema tickets were cheap and the local Essoldo was a five minute walk from home so my mother went to the movies several times a week clutching a bag of oranges for which she had a craving during pregnancy. Those were the days of glamorous stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and strong silent heroes like John Wayne, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. My mother had plans to name me Victor after the Italian American actor Victor Mature if I turned out to be a boy.
When I reached adolescence we would stay up, just the two of us watching late night films on the black and white television set. My father went to bed early as he was up at six for his foundry job but on Sunday afternoons he and I watched classic Westerns such as The Searchers, True Grit, High Noon, Stagecoach and The Magnificent Seven. The image of the loner cowboy, a gun-toting misfit with a mysterious past riding into town out of the wilderness was common to most of these films. In reality American cowboys worked in groups riding along with the herds. Gunfights were rare events.
In his final book, Fractured Times Eric Hobsbawm examines the cowboy myth and its role in Western Culture. The idea of solitude, being set apart from society and holding alternative, idealistic values is crucial to the fantasy appeal of the cowboy hero. Hobsbawm writes:-
‘Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can’t, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man’s right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don’t think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: “I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn’t my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it’s all ironed out, I never get any money reward.”
My favourite old Western as a child was Shane. Alan Ladd’s portrayal of a charismatic yet sensitive loner who saves a family but then departs alone into the misty blue mountains seemed very romantic. The tear jerker ending got to me every time.
There’s something dreamlike and special about losing oneself in a film. Sitting in the darkness of the cinema or alone on the sofa at home, reality and fantasy become indistinguishable. Sometimes, when the film is over images replay in my mind for days and seem more real than my own routine life. I think the stories we are told, like fairy tales in childhood have a powerful hold over us, influence our hopes and dreams, the way we think.
Parts of the Far North of Scotland remind me of the Wild West; the long, straight, empty roads, wide horizons with distant snow-capped mountains, the huge skies, the freedom from the restrictions of the city. Like the old Frontiers this is a place where a person feels she can re-invent herself, a blank canvas to create a new identity. It’s a land that attracts those who have problems fitting in with mainstream society for various reasons. Those who want to start afresh. The locals call people like me, ‘White Settlers’ and it’s not meant kindly. They narrate sinister stories of criminals on the run and ex-secret service agents hiding out incognito, just like the mythical bandits and outcasts of the Wild West.
And like the Wild West there was, strangely enough, a gold rush in Sutherland at the Strath of Kildonan in 1869. Even today tourists are able to hire equipment and go panning for gold in the river but you’re much more likely to catch a chill then get rich quick!
My local village has a long, wide Main Street, wide enough for five lanes of traffic which seems incongruous in such a tiny place. It always looks deserted but you know that you’re being watched. Behind the twitching net curtains there is always a nosey-parker. Just like the small communities of the Western prairies everything you do here is noticed and probably held against you at a later date. It’s a place with traditional values frozen in a time warp back in the fifties. Feminism and equal rights are alien concepts. The wind blows cold from the East and you can almost see the tumbleweed rolling along. You can imagine a big shoot-out, just like in High Noon with Gary Cooper swaggering out of the Post Office to fight off the bad guy about the sins of double parking or a misplaced wheelybin!