Yesterday I watched the movie Educating Rita.
It’s written by Willy Russell who also wrote Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers. I love his work – it’s rare to see a man who can write so well for women.
I last saw the movie around 1984 or ‘85. I remember it because I watched it with my mum.
As the movie unfolded before us we became uncomfortable to a certain extent. While I wasn’t married like Rita in the movie, I was attempting to move from having no qualifications to speak of to studying first some O levels and Highers and then gain entry to a degree course in Communications. (I’d been taken out of school as soon as my parents could do so after I’d turned 16 in Australia to return with them to Scotland).
I’d been successful in that, despite the intake for my chosen course’s year being only 18 places and only two places in the UK offering the course – Liverpool University and my own uni, now grandly called Glasgow Caledonian University – back then it was just Glesga Tech.
So, there’s me and mum sitting and watching the movie, the irony of it all not escaping us (she had also had her ambitions thwarted as a young woman, denied the chance of study and steered towards tailoring as it would bring in money).
There’s a scene where Rita has joined her husband and family in the pub. It’s at a moment where she feels she belongs in neither world – not that of her working class roots nor that of her new world at University. Everyone in the pub is having a sing-along, including her family, about how content they are and how they have everything they need. Rita feels she can’t join in. She turns and sees her mum who also seems unhappy, and has also stopped singing.
Her mum says one line. “There must be better songs to sing than this.”
At that point both my mum and I looked at each other, and both of us were in tears.
How true that had been for both of us. We were each in our own way spending our lives looking for better songs to sing than those we’d already become familiar with. I was still in that stage of studies where it was easy to be made to feel I was getting ‘above myself’. Apart from my cousin Kathleen, no one in our family had gone to higher studies or chased academia in any way. My dad would ask why I couldn’t just be like everyone else and get a job in a factory.
I was the daughter of trades people – my dad a baker and mum a tailoress. They in turn had been the children of unskilled labourers and I’ve traced my ancestors back far enough to know that my grandparents were the first in their own families to be able to read and write. In gaining that ability they were able to begin to exert choices, and tracing that skill all the way down the generations to tertiary education it was still all about the same thing – choice and the right to exercise it.
At 17 I’d been coerced into a hairdressing apprenticeship for four years by my parents. They thought it was for the best but it was never what I really wanted to do. However in doing it I’d got mum off my back to a certain extent. It was something ‘to fall back on’ but the day my apprenticeship finished was the day my hairdressing career finished, and after a brief stint in retail and a bout of depression it was academia that saved my sanity.
Watching the movie again reminded me of that pivotal point in my life, where a seemingly mad choice (the first of many) had been the right choice, where the courage had been supplied from somewhere to take a step outside of the known into the unknown.
I have a picture in my office of Frank Zappa with his hair in bunches. There’s a quote attributed to him on the bottom that says “Without deviation from the norm progress is not possible.”
There’s a little bit of Rita in all of us who want something better than we have been dealt. When was the last time you gave her a bit of attention? Maybe it’s time to let her free and have her way.
Here’s to all of us to continue to have the courage to deviate from the norm, to discover new worlds and to continue to progress throughout our lives.