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View PointMemories that stay, and get tangled

Memories that stay, and get tangled

Published: 5th Oct 2021 12:32 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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A film set in High Royds Hospital, Yorkshire, gives us three repeated motifs: visuals of confetti/snowflakes, music/poetry cut into by grating sounds, and visuals of doors. The film poem, Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), by Tony Harrison, made waves when it was published, and the film, directed by Peter Symes, brings the poem to life in a setting where life is wailing its last notes. Writes Harrison:

Though the music keeps on playing

the notes won’t stop decaying

The lines refer to the remnants of musical notes in the minds of the inmates of Whernside Ward at High Royds: all persons with Alzheimer’s Disease, with its loss of cognition and language. It is an exercise at capturing in language, the very loss of language. It is an attempt to defy genres.


One of the inmates, a former opera singer, Maria Tobin, can remember only one note of the Madame Butterfly song – and this she sings through the film. At one point, there is the song of the bride – Maria, the therapist and other staff members who morph into brides – playing, as Maria wanders the corridors. What is striking is that music energises the inmates who, with considerable difficulty, get up and tap their feet and even try a twirl or two, when the entertainer, Richard Muttonchops, plays for them at Christmas.  The staff hope:

          When the kids sing carols, though I could be wrong,

          I bet a few of ours’ll sing along.

Harrison tells us that a patient, Kathleen Dickenson’s, ‘stream of untranscribable consonants and vowels’ still has ‘much of the intention, rhythm and ghostly structure of communication’. In the therapist’s song, the lines for Muriel Allen (who was once a therapist):

          The music in her still lingers

          in twisting, twitching fingers,

          and in the beat of sneakered feet

          that she drums in the ward all day.

Then the camera shows old feet tapping.

The soundtrack does something special. To open doors, the staff punch in the access code, 6288, and the numbers are synced to the first four notes of the song, ‘Daisy, Daisy’. This 1892 song was the first song sung through computerised speech synthesis in 1951. Harrison’s use of the song, with the visual of the tapping of the access code, connotes the loss of language in the humans and, tragically, human music rendered into passwords, codes and numerics that, in sharp contrast to the freedom of singing, are devices for shutting people in. Maria loses her song, is locked in, and the song is inthe machine that has shut her in.

The horror of the disease is effectively communicated when these songs and poems with their own rhythm, are cut through with the grating, squeaking sound of a tug trundling along, and the stormy weather outside. These other sounds jar, and are as distant from the music or poetry as one can imagine. The language in their heads, Harrison-Symes suggest, is noisy, interrupted.

‘Blizzard of Confetti’

          All life’s brightest moments filling hearts and heads,

          Alzheimer’s, like a blizzard, rips up into shreds.

The film opens with the camera panning over rocks – remarkably similar to the plaques that gather in an Alzheimer’s brain – and then shows us the hospital. The confetti image, which recurs, blurs windscreens and views.

Images of fir trees – through which, like in a horror film, one can glimpse a white, gleaming bridal gown – also symbolise deteriorating dendrites and the brain.  In an evocative scene, the confetti/petals fall thick and fast, and the windshield wiper comes on. Which memories stay, and which get tangled, is a moot point, as the blizzard overwhelms the mind. 

Harrison-Symes capture the horror of the disease in these images, all of which gesture at clouding, drifting and fragmentation. There is no order in the drift, nor is there any discernible pattern, like the language lost.

Closed Doors

The final set of motifs has to do with doors. On numerous occasions, we are shown shots of the sticker: ‘Fire Door/keep shut’. The inmates seek to open the doors, and are unsuccessful.  A bride walks through the door, and as it shuts, her train is caught in it. Maria Tobin, an inmate, peers through the glass pane of the door. The final shots, from Maria’s point of view, shows a tug carrying ‘general waste’ going away from her (she is watching from the door). Some bits and pieces fall off from the garbage bags, like her memories, and the film closes with the shot of the hospital floor, with black daisies painted on it. The door slams shut, and the aria of the song Maria sings is abruptly, brutally, cut off.

The doors signal not only spatial incarceration but also the closed-off aspects of memory, language and cognition in the incarcerated. ‘Keep shut’ is the order, the indictment and the state of the mind. Harrison writes in a powerful use of the door image:

          Mem’ry ! Mem’ry! There’s no access code or key

          into memories old Muriel shared with me…

Black Daisies for the Bride captures the humanness remaining in the ‘deeply forgetful’ as commentators now call persons with Alzheimer’s. As an experiment in merging the written word with music and film, it creates startling, poignant and disturbing effects. Genre-defying, Harrison’s work implies that the notes are in their heads: what is lost is a way of enunciating them.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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