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Horsing around with an attitude

When they make the film about the college sector, it will be a western. Not just because westerns are back in fashion - and that's good news in my book - but because it is as plain as a flowering sagebrush that the genre was always a metaphor for FE.

It was just that, as I sat in the one-and-nines on a Saturday morning, I didn't know enough about colleges to understand what the great directors were driving at. I thought that I was looking at black hats and poker games, not proxies for predatory traders and funding methodologies. We're talking range wars. Serious territorial disputes and wholesale rustling are breaking out all over the place. A traditional way of life, rhythmic as the seasons, is being displaced by something brasher, louder and altogether more dangerous. Welcome to the Badlands.

The great director John Ford knew what he was doing when he chose Monument Valley for his best work: those weathered remnants of once fine rocky structures represent, as I now see, the eroded bulks of local education authorities, of great undertakings like the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, the Youth Opportunities Programme, and the Manpower Services Commission, and the bleached bones are of those who couldn't keep up on the great drive towards the distant lands of freedom. Among them are the skeletons of HMI, and out-paced principals.

The FE western will not, however, be one of those simple affairs with goodies and baddies, where it all comes right in the last reel and virtue is rewarded. Life is more complicated, and it will be a western with attitude.

The plot of the film, provisionally titled A Fistful of Units, concerns clashes over conflicting claims, and over the arrival of those who want to drive a railroad through the old ranges and the old ways. Efficiency and a quick return are the new goals, the newcomers are offering bonuses if the job is finished ahead of time. The battle between the hard-driving bounty hunters and the settlers is an epic one, with a strong subplot of raids by the Sioux War Party (SWP) who are against any settlement of any kind.

The symbolism, as it has always been, is simple and direct. The cattle are the key: "Round 'em up! move 'em on!" The quicker they are driven to the stockyards, the better the deal. You get nothing for those that fall out on the way. You need to bring more every time, or you are a loser. So you buy some on the way, picking up a few head here and there. If you can brand them, you can count them as yours. The rules and the going are rough, but then that's supposed to be the thrill of the territory, along with the acrid smell of leather and cow manure.

Rough it may be, but not lawless. Some spreads may be three days' ride from Coventry, but the long arm can reach you. Talk of a forged telegraph message or illegal trading will bring the marshal's men on the next stage, determined to clean up the town.

Most of the action takes place in the saloon, with the usual range of stock characters. There is the college marketing manager, thinly disguised as the pianist in shirtsleeves. His job is to play cheerful tunes, never mind what's going on all around. In fact, the more chaotic the scene, and the wilder the activity, the louder and the more determinedly he tinkles, smile fixed in place. Nobody actually believes in the relentlessly jolly tunes any more, but every saloon has a pianist now.

Hanging round the piano, dressed to kill, are the good-time consultants. No better than they ought to be, they offer instant gratification and guaranteed happiness from a whole range of services. You name it, and they'll sell it. All they want is your money, for which they promise you their full and exclusive attention.

A long list can be provided of clients who've had satisfaction from them before. Spend now, and never mind what you'll feel like in the morning.

Look more closely at the jumpy figure behind the bar. His life is a misery: watching powerful, desperate men run up debts, trying to stop giving any more to those who've already had enough, and trying to keep a balance between respectability and chaos, between caution and enterprise.

It is, of course, the finance manager, sliding pots of money down to gamblers who hurl it around like water. Some bar men are lucky. They come under the protection of a sheriff, aka principal, with the strong, slow-speaking decency of a James Stewart, or the clear-eyed, straight-backed dependability of a Henry Fonda. Pity those, however, whose job depends on keeping in the with Jack Palance or a Lee van Cleef.

The sharp-suited, smooth-talking dude from back East peddling his bottles of snake-oil as a promised cure for all ailments, will, no doubt get his come-uppance in a horse trough. And the card sharps will be run out of town - but they were always peripheral to the great issues about the nature and character of the territory.

Going are the checked gingham dresses and the square dancing under the moon, going are the wistful songs by the fire out on the audit trail, gone are the open, unguarded doors and the friendly howdies to your neighbour. But this is not to be an elegiac western, full of longing for a world that probably never was, this is about the compromising, the divided loyalties and the greying of the issues.

The cattle barons are right, in their way. They are opening up new routes and providing jobs. The homesteaders are also right, in their terms, holding on to their old values, the ones which made them take up the life in the first place. Cue the expansive, high, wide and handsome music, and roll those accumulated credits.

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