The influence of Katherine

 

The name of James Hilton is rather forgotten now, his having died in 1954, but novels like Lost Horizon and Random Harvest were popular enough to be transferred quickly by Hollywood into films which were regularly on TV screens during my youth. The Hilton novel which has held its reputation longer than others is possibly Goodbye Mr Chips. Its 1939 film version, directed by Sam Wood, earned six Oscar nominations and a Best Actor prize for Robert Donat. Stuart Orme’s British television version, first screened in 2002, is still regularly shown, at least partly due to the continuing popularity of its lead actor, Martin Clunes.

Hilton’s novel tells the story of the 60-year long career of a schoolteacher named Chipping at a boys’ boarding school called Brookfield. This is another one of those narratives through which the events of World War One cast a long shadow. A startling scene towards the end has Brookfield attacked by enemy aircraft and describes Chipping’s courage and humour in the face of this. It is sobering to realise that, just a few months after the first screening of Sam Wood’s film, and even before Robert Donat had received his Oscar statuette, its audience was facing, in real life, a second war.

More significant even than the 1914-18 war for the lead character is the period of two years during the 1890s. During this time, Chipping, by now in his mid-40s, meets on holiday a young woman called Katherine Bridges. They marry and enjoy a life together which is happy but tragically short.

While Chipping, or Chips, the nickname given by Katherine, is present throughout the whole narrative, Katherine’s own presence is brief. The allegorical significance of her surname is never openly commented on, but it seems likely that Hilton wants the reader to see Katherine as the force which directs and guides the middle-aged Chips to the second, more rewarding, part of his life.

In the novel Chips is trying to save Katherine from a mountain ledge but he hurts himself in the process: “Thus he found himself the rescued instead the rescuer”. In the 1939 film director Sam Wood shrouds Chips in mists on the mountain and it is Katherine’s voice which guides him to a safe place.

 

A scene from the Lake District photographed in 1996. Chips meets Katherine while on holiday there. “He went up… with Rowden, a colleague; they walked and climbed for a week, until Rowden had to leave suddenly on some family business. Chips stayed alone at Wasdale Head, where he boarded in a small farmhouse. One day, climbing on Great Gable, he noticed a girl … ”

 

Chips has always been shy of women, and Katherine is more intimidating than most. She is an example of “that monstrous creature… the New Woman of the nineties”. She is a political radical who believes women should have the vote, an admirer of Shaw and Ibsen and William Morris, who enjoys cycling and is unafraid to visit a single older man alone in his lodgings. However she also believes that teaching is a noble and important profession and is attracted to Chips’ gentle manner and to his opinions which, although old-fashioned, are held honestly. To the modern reader it still seems an unlikely match. The 2002 TV version felt it necessary to add a scene where she leaves Chips a book by Shaw as a farewell gift, which encourages him to cycle after her in a classically bold romantic gesture. Her fatherly group leader cautions, “I hope you are not going to forget yourself, my dear”, to which she calmly replies “I believe I already have”.

Married and at Brookfield, Katherine is popular with other teachers and all the pupils. Hilton says she is also popular with other teachers’ wives – but both TV and film versions felt it too complicated to introduce such characters. The novel mentions the school concerts and the prize-giving garden party, the TV version shows afternoon tea and picnics. She organises a football match between Brookfield and a mission school in working-class Poplar in east London, which is remembered years later by one of the Poplar boys when an adult. (The TV producers perhaps felt there had been enough scenes of sport already when it was decided to change the latter social inclusion initiative into a dance with a nearby girls’ school).

Hilton says that Katherine often asks Chips to be lenient in dealing with pupil misbehavior – because she understands that the boys had often been sent to boarding school against their will and that living together with others was “an unnatural arrangement” – but she is described as shrewd enough to realise that leniency is not appropriate in every situation. The TV version shows her use the Aesop’s fable of the sun and the north wind in her argument against “uncivilized” bullying to the shocked Brookfield headmaster, which the latter recalls when he compliments her later at the mixed gender dance.

Katherine’s death in childbirth is dealt with briskly by Hilton and in both adaptations. Chips refuses to take any time off after the tragedy and returns immediately to his class. Because it is 1 April, the pupils have already organized an April Fool’s joke which he tolerates. Hilton adds that Chips “nearly” says “ ‘you can go to blazes for all I care. My wife is dead and my child is dead and I wish I were dead myself’ ” –  but he is held back by social formality and professional dedication.

The story is still only half-way through, and Hilton makes clear that Chips’ continuing popularity and status and success within the school is due to the influence of the deceased Katherine. So although one theme of the story could be said to be tradition or service or the English class system, another could certainly be the positive influence which one person can exercise in unlikely circumstances when will and effort are applied.

For me, Hilton’s most insightful description is that Katherine’s “radical-socialist… idealism” has combined with Chips’ more conservative “maturity” to produce “an amalgam gentle and wise”. With the new century, despite the pain of his bereavement, Chips gains “a mellowness (and) harmony” and becomes “supremely and confidently himself”.

 

Reference:  Hilton, James (1980)   Goodbye Mr Chips    London: Coronet

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Missing the message

 

Judee Sill was one of the musicians signed to the David Geffen’s new Asylum record label in the 1970s, alongside Joni MitchellJackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt and the Eagles. That she is less famous than those artistes is largely due to the fact she released only two albums and died prematurely, at least partly from drug use, in 1979.

However, I clearly remember the first single released from her debut album being played regularly on the radio: “Jesus was a Cross-Maker”. This was the golden era of the singer-songwriter and also the time of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, Christian narratives welded to pop/rock music. Equally the gospel influences of black soul artistes like Aretha Franklin were often admired and copied by white musicians from different traditions. The title of “Jesus was a Cross-Maker” certainly made this listener (plus many 1970s music show presenters ) think this song was one of those examples.

Sill’s singing and playing were very attractive, but these distinctive features and the song’s brisk tempo led to another consequence which is familiar to anyone who has listened to and loved pop/rock music any time during the last half-century: you cannot hear every word of the lyrics.

It was many years later, in the internet era, when, finally seeing the lyrics written down, I realised that the title phrase is the only reference to Jesus and that the lyric does not seem to have any particular Christian meaning or relevance.
One interpretation offered by Michael Crumsho in the Dusted music website is that the lyric is about “gaining higher momentum from the lower periods in one’s life, spurred on from the fact that Jesus Christ was in fact (depending upon your views of Jesus as a historical figure) a cross maker.”

Artists from the past who have died young or who are perceived to have become neglected are often the features of TV or radio programmes which blend factual information with the presenter’s autobiography or personal exploration. Judee Sill was the subject of such a programme in 2014 presented by the journalist Ruth Barnes.

This programme provided some new information about “Jesus was a Cross Maker”. John David Souther, another West Coast musician of the period with whom Sill was having a relationship at this point in her life, said that Sill specifically told him that the song was written about their relationship. So that might mean the song’s references to “bandit” are metaphorical references to Souther’s emotional influence over her rather than recalling her own dramatic youthful criminal exploits. It probably means that the reference to “Jesus” does not directly point to the Bible, although another contributor to the programme suggests that Sill had a genuinely wide interest in religion and spirituality which informed many of her lyrics.

The present-day internet allows many free opportunities to remind ourself what Judee Sill sounded like. Unlike Ruth Barnes, I tend not to regard her as a forgotten major figure, certainly not as important as Joni Mitchell. However, it is certainly easy to appreciate her songwriting as better than that being produced by most 21st century artistes, and to wonder whether that decline in quality might be caused partly by the erosion of the literary and cultural foundation once provided by the Bible and other religious texts.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Outsiders

 

Happy New 2019!

You often read or hear journalists or actors or others in the public eye choosing their own favourite hero or heroine from literature or drama. A recent example was the journalist Rebecca Nicholson, who discussed her attachment as a young reader to Roald Dahl’s Matilda. A perfectly reasonable choice. Although I was a bit puzzled and sad that she felt obliged to apologise for not choosing the media’s standard example of Harry Potter. “It may well be a generational thing – I came to Harry Potter too late,” she explained.

J.K. Rowling’s hero is actually not unusual for being an orphan or an outsider. Children’s literature (or, to be specific, literature we often read first when we are children) is full of orphans and other isolated and lonely and bullied and neglected children – even in older and less fashionable books. For instance, David Balfour in Kidnapped, Tom Sawyer, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, Carrie and her brother Nick in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, Billy Casper in Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave. And there are plenty of longer lists elsewhere on the internet.

It is because these characters are alone or neglected that they often display the courage and independence which we as young readers warm to.

Nicholson added, “When books for children are at their very best, they give power to those who feel different and strength to those who might, for reasons they do not know yet, feel like outsiders.” I was struck by her use of the word “might” and the subsequent phrase “for reasons they do not know yet”. In the current public concern about the mental health of young people, there has been a lot of discussion about children who feel neglected or misunderstood or outsiders. This has sometimes even led some adults to encourage such anxious young people that they will be happier if they change the gender which they were born into.

My view is that all people at some time in their childhood feel like outsiders. No matter how happy or comfortable their childhood, no matter how many friends or siblings they have, no matter how wealthy or caring their parents. It’s a natural part of growing up. That feeling may last for weeks or for years, at one particular occasion in your life, or regularly and for some time. But it will happen.

Obviously the more often such feelings of loneliness or isolation or anxiety or confusion occur and the longer they continue the more likely this should be considered a specific problem which a caring adult should do something to solve. But it may be that the adult has only to wait – and encourage the child to develop those qualities of courage and resilience and independence displayed by all of those loved literary characters.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Some Leaf Collecting highlights from 2018

 

Leaf Collecting is now six years old. Many thanks to all its readers.

Here are a few cultural highlights from its writer’s year.

Several fine artistic commemorations of World War One : Colin Matthews’ No Man’s Land, James McMillan’s oratorio All the Hills and Vales Along at the Cumnock Tryst, the exhibition Brushes With War, the art of the serving soldiers of the conflict largely drawn from the collection of Joel Parkinson at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

Other music: a recital of piano music of Edvard Grieg by Rune Alver at the concert hall at the late composer’s house in Troldhaugen, Norway; and Scottish bands the Van T’s and Vegan Leather.

Theatre/TV : the brilliant all-female Shakespeare trilogy of The Tempest, Henry IV and Julius Caesar directed by Phyllida Lloyd; and one of its antecedents, the Peter Hall/John Barton The Wars of the Roses.

Visual art/TV : my first full viewing of two famous TV art documentaries Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing – the reputation of each well deserved – and one of the best modern arts TV presenters, Lachlan Goudie, in Painting the Holy Land.

Radio: as always, BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction – if only more of 6Music was like it!

Journalism: The Tablet and The Messenger of St Anthony, two stimulating publications covering spirituality, world affairs and culture.

Film: the most rewarding have usually been older ones from sources like Talking Pictures TV, but it was certainly good to enjoy Spike Lee back again in the centre of critical and popular attention with BlacKkKlansman. 

Some encouraging news from different sources: the anti-gun protest actions after the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School shooting in the USA; the work done by the Independent Workers of Great Britain trade union; the imaginative alliance between the Church of England and the Government to mount transmitters and aerials on the spires and roofs of historic church buildings.

One very bad thing which got better: the overlong closure of the essential Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow after the Glasgow Art School fire – resolved now, happily.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The crowds arrive

 

St Francis of Assisi is usually credited as the inventor of the crib as a spiritual and devotional object at Christmas.

A few centuries later in another part of Italy, at the palace of the Reggia di Caserta, was built one of the largest cribs and nativity tableaux in Europe.

 

 

Mary and Joseph are hidden among dozens of figures, showing the town of Bethlehem crowded both for the census and then with successive groups wanting to visit the baby Jesus.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

No peace in the Holy Land – or even in talking about it

 

Six years ago, Leaf Collecting began with a post about Bethlehem. After a lifetime’s interest in the town, informed first by Christianity and later by politics, I had finally been able to visit.

Bethlehem is situated in the West Bank, the area of Israel which since 1994 has been administered by a Palestinian executive but under the strict control of the Israeli government. Every year, as we move towards Christmas, the normally secular media remembers this part of the Middle East as the Holy Land, the homeland of Jesus Christ. Life here gets a little more news coverage.

 

Part of the separation wall through the West Bank.

    

 

Manger Square in Bethlehem.

Beit Sahour in the West Bank.

 

Palestine did get some news attention earlier this year, with the protests associated with the anniversary of the Naqba, the expulsion of Palestinians which took place at the time of the founding of Israel in 1948. The media always loves an anniversary.

A separate but connected news story during the summer was about alleged anti-semitism within the UK Labour party. The issue provided endless opportunity for individuals to be rude to each other, which the TV news channels were happy to co-operate with – but nobody seemed to want to explain to the viewers why members of the Labour party might be so interested in the actions of the foreign government of Israel.

I wonder if this might be connected to the education of the generation currently working in the media and party politics and think tanks. For a long time now, Nazism and the Second World War has been a common topic in History classes in Scottish schools. I imagine a similar case applies in England. A History teacher once wryly said to me about that you could study History from S3 to Advanced Higher (ages 13-16), and then through university, learning little more than that single topic. The Holocaust Educational Trust has for many years provided educational materials to schools; they and conventional travel firms organise trips to the former Nazi concentration camps. Cinema films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are still made; documentaries about the 1930s and 1940s are regularly screened on TV.

So a lot of people know something about the Holocaust, and probably more than when I was in school. Possibly they know less about the founding of the state of Israel, including the British involvement, and the history of that country during the past 70 years. In recent times there have been wars in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and younger journalists and politicians may feel the electorate (and maybe they themselves) can only deal with a certain amount of Middle East conflict at any one time. Also the only Labour party which younger people have known is the Labour governments of 1997-2010 for whom this was not a favourite foreign policy issue. So they may tend to see all Palestinians fighting as the actions of malign terrorists because that’s what so many other people say.

Not only is it strange that the impartial news media omits important context but people who appeared on TV supposedly to support Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not explain why the issue of Israel and Palestine has become important for many in the Labour party. About how the Palestinians have been oppressed by the policies of successive Israeli governments, about how Israeli violence is not merely for self-defence, about how the Israeli government is determined that the validity of Palestinian complaints does not get widespread acceptance, about how successive Israeli governments have been condemned by the UN and how their actions have often been compared to the apartheid policies of the white South African governments.

 

Two views of Jerusalem from its upper slopes.

Two views of street life in Jerusalem.

Women praying at the female section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

 

Somehow the idea continues in the UK media that Israel is in danger from the Palestinians. Yet Israel has a successful economy, very powerful armed forces and receives about a billion dollars a year from the USA. Once it was in danger from a unified Arab world, but it has long ago made peace with former enemies Egypt and Jordan. It would not be in danger from any single Palestinian if it ended its blockade, made an effort to make peace with them and help them to rebuild their government and economy.

Following the South Africa parallel, Nelson Mandela was jailed in 1964 because he encouraged the use of violence to achieve his political ends. Yet, while he was still in jail during the 1980s and criticised by many world leaders like Margaret Thatcher, the mainstream UK media still felt able to analyse and criticise the apartheid policies and actions of the South Africa government. Equally, they felt comfortable in reporting the actions of the African National Congress, which sometimes used violence, without automatically condemning them as terrorists or belittling their cause.

Of course, the anti-apartheid movement was strongly united inside South Africa and outside. In addition to the imprisoned Mandela, it had a number of major spokespeople like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In contrast, the Palestinian cause has always been divided, especially, in the last ten years, between the Fatah party which governs the West Bank under approval by the Israeli government and the more militant and controversial Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas’ continually aggressive language (in response to continued aggression from Israel) has allowed their opponents to caricature them as terrorists who would never accept peace. We in the UK might remember that it was only twenty years ago when a long period of political violence in Northern Ireland was ended relatively quickly because all partners showed the will and the effort. Militants from the republican and unionist sides were still publicly holding positions of intransigence while taking part in negotiations behind the scene.

Regardless of our increased education about World War Two, it does seem that the further we move from 1945, the more difficulty we seem to have in understanding or sympathising with other people elsewhere in the world who feel so oppressed or in such danger that they feel it legitimate to use violence in their protests. Such people are often blithely dismissed as terrorists and their sufferings and grievances ignored.

Six years after that first Leaf Collecting post, life for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has seen little improvement and certainly less attention from the UK media. Al Jazheera News is one notable media exception so it was a disappointment for many of us to have it removed from our Freeview TV channels choice in 2016.

As Michael Beer has observed in his Wild Olive website, the Christian churches are always strong and forthright in condemning the oppression of the Palestinians and in calling for peace initiatives. The World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme provides valuable support in situ.

When Christmas has passed and the media has reset to its usual secular position, the churches may be among the few public bodies who continue to give the lives of the Palestinians the appropriate attention.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Alpha at different times

 

 

     

 

In art wolves may be dangerous predators to be feared or symbols of personal strength and power. Angela Carter employs both motifs in three stories in The Bloody Chamber.

In “The Company of Wolves”, the wolves are terrifying. They have eyes “like wraiths”, their howl is “an aria of fear made audible”. They are “grey as famine, as unkind as plague”. Children have to carry sharp knives to defend themselves. A confident young girl sets out like Red Riding Hood to visit her grandmother. Later, she undresses in front of the handsome young werewolf, and, unconcerned about the gory death her grandmother has just endured, ends the story happily being in bed with him.

In “The Werewolf”, another child is visiting her sick grandmother through a dangerous neighbourhood. She too carries a knife, and, when a wolf attacks, she retaliates and cuts off the animal’s right forepaw. This time the grandmother is not innocent. The wolf’s paw has changed into a human hand and her grandmother is ill with fever because her hand has been cut off. She is a witch and the child unsentimentally leads her execution by the villagers.

“Wolf-Alice” is different: the main character is a girl who was adopted by a wolf as a baby and later rescued by humans. She has responded to human kindness but her wolf qualities are seen as signs of strength: she has “spiky canines” and “bold nakedness”, she is “wild, impatient of restraint “ and “sleeps in the soft warm ashes of the hearth”. The story describes her growing up and developing a maturity which is still animal as much as human. She lives in the castle of a duke who is an actual werewolf whom she tries to help when he is shot.

The idea of humans adopted by wolves possibly originates from the legend of Romulus and Remus and spread through later fictional inventions like The Jungle Book. Caitlin Moran clearly saw it as a heroic and exciting image when she chose Raised by Wolves as the title of the TV series based on her own unconventional childhood, part of a large family sharing infrequent school attendance.

Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves places a similar unusual childhood within a spartan American habitat. Her teenage lead character, Linda, lives in rural Minnesota, in a landscape not dissimilar from “The Company of Wolves”; sparsely populated, full of lakes and forests and a few cabins, many hours’ drive from the nearest big town of Duluth, short of material comfort and entertainment, enduring a harsh winter. She feels isolated from her parents who once lived as part of a commune and spends a lot of time baby-sitting for (and with) a young mother whose older husband is often away from home. A brief but significant meeting is with a teacher Mr Grierson. He encourages her to take part in an inter-school History Odyssey at which she chooses the topic of a History of Wolves. Linda’s story is not a Carter-esque fantasy but is certainly presented as taking place in an isolated and eerie and unusual world.

 

   

 

Lupine characters of a less ferocious kind featured in the early work of two other Scottish arts practitioners. The Wolves in the Walls was one of the first shows staged by the National Theatre of Scotland which also toured to England and the USA. These wolves, created by Neil Gaiman, are hidden within the house walls of the ordinary (if usually preoccupied) suburban family of Lucy.

Wolves was the title of the first album of the band My Latest Novel which featured a song called “When We Were Wolves”. Its lines both hint at a conventional domestic setting, and also detail an escape from it : “When we were wolves… we ran…and we hide in lightless rooms and we banged on our pianos”.

A final wolf in this artistic pack is Company of Wolves, a small Glasgow-based theatre group. Their work certainly tends to be physical and non-verbal. “Raw” and “uncivilised” are two other qualities which they say they aim to create. However I was somewhat disappointed to be told directly by the group’s co-founder Ewan Downie at a post-performance discussion that the name of the group is unconnected to Angela Carter and is simply a phrase which suggests strength and mystery.

Wolves. Although extinct in most countries over recent centuries, still a powerful motif. Often protective rather than savage and aggressive and predatory. As Angela Carter writes in “Wolf- Alice”, “ (they inhabit) only the present tense…a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair”. As Linda says in her History of Wolves project, “alpha only at certain times and for a specific reason.” And she adds, “Those words” – which are taken from a real-life book called Of Wolves and Men by one Barry Lopez – “always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.”
.

References : Carter, Angela (1984)  The Bloody Chamber    Harmondsworth: Penguin
Fridlund, Emily (2017)  History of Wolves    London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The art in history

 

For the past four years the organisation 14-18 NOW  has been commissioning arts projects around the UK to mark the centenary of World War One. Certainly not all have been afforded equal attention – the national media have given most publicity to the ceramic poppies installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Tom Piper and Paul Cummins and the film They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson – but many of us tend to see any increased public and private funding of the arts as, in general, a good thing.

It was therefore quite stimulating to hear one serious dissenting voice, that of journalist and author Simon Jenkins. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron allocated £50 million to the work of 14-18 NOW to commemorate World War One, he observed acerbically, while at the same time as he was encouraging the country to join a present-day war in Syria. “125 artists rallied to the cause,” he said – his use of the vocabulary of military recruitment almost certainly not accidental. Jenkins’ main argument on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze was that large government-sanctioned arts and cultural events to mark historical anniversaries were becoming too common and were “synthetic” and even “slightly obscene”. Historians rather than artistes were more skilled in the delicate tasks of remembering and forgetting which constituted the true process of recording history. Of course, Jenkins’ position is a generalisation: not all writers of history books are equally rigorous and incisive and analytical, while many creative artistes certainly display those qualities. Governments are usually most comfortable with artistes who seem to fit a familiar stereotype.

Danny Boyle is certainly a well-known and successful film director, and already establishment-approved for his 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony show. He was the leader of the most recent 14-18 NOW project, Pages of the Sea, in which faces of war veterans were drawn on the sand of many UK beaches.

One of the beaches selected was at Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. Here are some photographs of the Ayr event, co-directed by the National Theatre of Scotland. The principal “official” sand drawing was of one Walter Tull, but members of the public were encouraged to draw and identify their own family members.

 

 

 

The incoming tide eventually erased the pictures as people gathered to read in unison a new Carol Ann Duffy poem “The Wound in Time”.

 

As the Poet Laureate during the past nine years, Carol Ann Duffy is also an establishment figure but one who has displayed a wide range of literary and other skills. “The Wound in Time” is her second World War One commemoration poem, after “Last Post” in 2009.

Both borrow gently from Wilfred Owen in creating powerful new ideas. “Last Post”, which has the more straightforward structure and so reads more crisply and clearly, yearns for the power to erase the gas attack which Owen described so vividly in “Dulce et Decorum Est”, and to return its soldiers to the pre-war life of health, home, work and happiness. In the denser “The Wound in Time”, the repetition of the sounds of the present participle “-ing” and the sibilant “s” simulate waves on the beach: not only do they fail to clean the horrible bloody events from history, they serve as a reminder that human beings’ violent warlike behaviour continues incessantly.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The best book about World War One?

 

 

Some graves of unidentified British soldiers on the Western Front.

Visitors to the British trenches near Ypres.

 

It was many years ago, possibly as many as 30, when I heard Paul Fussell’s 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory praised on a radio programme as the best book ever written about World War One. If I had been older then, I perhaps would have been more sceptical about the grandiose claim. Instead, it fixed an ambition to read it which I finally achieved within the last year.

Fussell’s book still held plenty of delights for this jaundiced older reader. It is not a conventional history in that it does not provide a summary of battles and does not deal with military strategy. It concentrates more on the writings of those who took part, whether published and famous, or informal and unknown. His original preface said the book was about “the British experience on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalised and mythologised”.

As in any good work of non-fiction, different information and arguments will appeal to different readers. For me one of the most remarkable is that the trenches in Flanders were only 70 miles from the safety and comfort of middle-class London – a “ridiculous” and “farcical” proximity. People on the south coast could hear the sound of shells yet they were totally separate from the horrible experiences of their soldier menfolk. London vehicles were used in the trenches and letters and parcels from home took only four days to arrive at the front line. That journey from home to front was a vastly different experience depending on whether you were a senior (upper-class) officer or of a lower rank and Fussell suggests this difference could be seen as an early sign of the divisions of the 1926 General Strike and the 1945 General Election.

The authorities set up an exhibition trench in Kensington Gardens to educate the civilians, but it of course bore no resemblance to the real ones – which were always wet, smelly, full of lice and rats. But not all trenches were the same : German trenches were apparently better built and even comfortable.

Another startling Fussell insight is that all the soldiers of World War One period had an “unparalleled literariness” – since the war took place at a time when people believed strongly in the enriching and educational powers of literature and working people were becoming more educated especially through reading. 18th century literature was particularly popular because “it offered an oasis of reasonableness and normality”.

 

The chapel in the British army club of Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium.

View of street in Poperinge from Talbot House.

 

Fussell deals in detail with the famous World War One soldier writers Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Wilfred Owen, but equally with other unknown letter writers and diarists. He also refers to later wars and later literature such as Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Many writers who served in World War Two or grew up after it were profoundly influenced by World War One and the writings about it – “the paradigm of that contempt for life, individuality and privacy, and that facile recourse to violence that have characterised experience in the twentieth century.”

 

The grave of Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler, one of the very few women to be buried on the Western Front.

Sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz in German cemetery.

 

Sculpture by Frederick Chapman Clemesha in cemetery to the Canadian war dead.

 

One small but important way in which the World War One has continued to influence daily life in the 21st century is the abundance of unexploded bombs and shells which litter the former battlefields.

 

Reference :  Fussell, Paul (2013 revised ed)  The Great War and Modern Memory  New York: Oxford University Press

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Supporting film history

 

My most valuable new cultural resource in the past year has definitely been the television channel Talking Pictures TV.

Free throughout the UK, it has been an unceasing supplier at all times of the day of fascinating and rewarding films and television programmes from the past.

Some of its schedule are celebrated films which I have known about and would have sought out at any time. For instance, Joseph Losey’s The Servant with its still transgressive story and cinematography of the manipulative manservant and his supposed sister, or Seven Days to Noon, an early nuclear terror drama with an authentic newsreel tone, or Chance of a Lifetime with its attractive political narrative, in keeping with the mood of the times, about how the workers of an agricultural machinery firm take over its management, or The Swimmer, the simultaneously bizarre but convincing allegory of 1960s US middle-class society.

Many more are titles which I knew slightly or had never heard of.

Almost all, even during a few minutes’ viewing, provide wonderful insight into the customs, behaviour, fashions and landscapes of previous generations, plus the earlier performances of dozens of actors you know from later films and TV.
As well as conventional movies from the 1930s to the 1970s, the channel provides short informational films of the type which would have once been a regular part of cinema programmes, plus TV drama from both Britain and the USA.

The channel was launched by Noel Cronin who runs it with his daughter Sarah. An interview with Cronin with BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme gave rather too little information for an aficionado like me about how you might go about setting up such a TV channel – although I did work out it was helped by libraries of old films which could be bought cheaply because they were deemed to have no commercial value and also by available television bandwidth.

“Thank you for supporting film history by watching Talking Pictures TV”, is its regular on-screen announcement. I’m not sure how much practical support I am actually providing, Noel and Sarah, but “appreciating”? Certainly yes.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized