Enjoying a pre-cinema drink with friends, I confessed that I couldn’t recall when I had first heard of LS Lowry, but that it really wasn’t that long ago, maybe 5 or 10 years ago.
“Do you not know the song ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’?” one of them asked. “That song was about Lowry”.
Well of course I know the song. I spent most of my childhood in South Africa but one year was spent in England, and I remember hearing the song at school in Windermere, and loving it, and learning to play it on the recorder. I remember being so disappointed, on returning to South Africa, to find that nobody had ever heard of it, and this being the 1980s, there was no Google or YouTube, so apart from asking around in record shops, where I always drew a blank, I was completely unable to find any trace of it. I haven’t heard it in years but immediately, at the mention of the title, I could mentally hum the chorus, even if I couldn’t remember all of the words. And looking back, I imagine the teachers at school probably explained at the time, exactly what the song was about, but all I remembered was a cheerful, catchy song and a funny mental image of matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs. Suddenly it all made sense – of course the song was about Lowry; it wasn’t just a silly song about a fictional character, but about a much-loved artist who found beauty in the often grim realities of life in the coal-mining communities around greater Manchester.
Connection made, I sat down to watch the film with renewed anticipation – keen to know more about the life of this solitary man who had so uniquely captured the world around him.
Well, I have only ever walked out of one film in my lifetime – “Summer of Sam”, because the violence in the first 15 minutes of the film set my nerves on edge to such an extent that I just knew I couldn’t bear to sit through the rest of it. But if it wasn’t for the fact that I was hemmed in between friends on either side, I would have happily walked out of “Mrs Lowry and Son”, and for a very similar reason. There may not have been any physical violence in the film, but Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Lowry’s absolutely monstrous mother, and Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Lowry’s endless efforts to win her approval, caused almost every muscle in my body to tense up in anger and frustration. The fact that the film is almost entirely set in Mrs Lowry’s bedroom, and focuses almost entirely on the interaction between the pair of them, simply added a sense of claustrophobia to my already jangled nerves, and I found myself wondering just how much more of this I could bear to sit through.
Thankfully it eventually came to an end – and even then, my friends for some reason seemed sufficiently enraptured by the film that not one of them moved until the very end of the credits, while I sat impatiently in my seat, desperate to get up, to move, to vent my frustration at that AWFUL woman, and that – sorry to say it – PATHETIC man who simply couldn’t accept that he would NEVER get her approval. I had been unable to contain my snort of derision when the postscript to the movie flashed up a line noting that Lowry had turned down an OBE because “without Mother, there didn’t seem much point”. I mean, seriously? I know children naturally seek their parents’ approval but surely at some point, when one’s parent is as monstrous, self-absorbed and cruel as Lowry’s mother clearly was, there comes a time when one must simply accept that to continue to dedicate one’s entire life’s work and efforts to that person is an utter waste of time?
This morning, remembering the talk about “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”, I decided to see if I could find it on YouTube – and of course I found it immediately, here. But sadly, whereas before I had always thought of it as a cheerful, catchy tune that I could hum in my head at the slightest recollection, I now found myself moved to tears by the lyrics and my newly-formed understanding of the misery of Lowry’s life. So thanks to everyone involved in the making of “Mrs Lowry and Son” – you’ve absolutely ruined one of my happiest childhood memories; I may never be able to hear that song again without wanting to cry.