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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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

 

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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.

 

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From the Arts Guild to the National Theatre and Hollywood

 

Bill Bryden has had a distinguished career as a theatre and film director. He was born and brought up in my own home town of Greenock, down the river from Glasgow. As I developed an interest in theatre during the 1970s and 1980s, one significant prompt was that a fellow Greenockian was one of its leading lights, first the artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh and then one of the directors of the glamorous new National Theatre in London.

Over the years, I read a fair amount about Bryden’s career in the media and saw some of his work. However much more rich detail has come from the unexpected source of the website of the British Library.  An interview between Bryden and Harriett Devine, recorded in 2009, is designated as part of a series on “The Legacy of the Royal Court” – Bryden worked at the famous London theatre of new writing in the 1960s before going to the Royal Lyceum – but in fact it covers all parts of his life and career over six hours’ conversation.

For me the interview is most illuminating in explaining how Bryden got started in his career as a theatre director, and it certainly sounds like one of those stories which seemed to happen quite often in that post-war period but couldn’t really happen now.

I always knew that Bryden, born in 1942, had discovered his initial interest in theatre through amateur drama, which was still strong in Greenock during my own youth. He started acting at school and performed at the town’s Arts Guild Theatre, which, twenty years later, I regularly visited myself. In one part of the conversation, he specifically identifies the value of early access to a proper well-equipped theatre like the Arts Guild, providing opportunities to develop skills in direction and stage management which served him well later.

 

The view of the River Clyde and Greenock, looking east from the Lyle Hill above the town.

 

The façade of the Arts Guild Theatre in Greenock which closed in 2012, to be replaced by the new Beacon Arts Centre.

 

After leaving school he actually worked briefly in a non-arts job, with the local council as a public health inspector, but the next important career step came soon afterwards, when he went to a theatre masterclass at the Edinburgh Festival  run by the new Royal Shakespeare Company director Peter Hall. Hall invited him to come to Stratford to observe and help (only in a small way – but he was paid at least some living expenses, it seems!) the production of the Shakespeare history plays which became the famous Wars of the Roses. Bryden suggests that his case was strengthened because the maverick left-wing Joan Littlewood  was originally scheduled to direct at Stratford at this time and it was felt she would tolerate a Scottish working-class boy to assist her in preference to any Oxbridge graduates.

Bryden, now about 20, returned to Scotland and got a job with Scottish Television, the new company which was part of the emerging commercial television network. He had devised the idea for an arts programme and this seems to have led to him writing and producing arts items which were successfully broadcast in daily news programmes. He also worked with the veteran documentary film-maker John Grierson (the man who is credited with inventing the term “documentary” and who had worked on the great film Night Mail ) on his series This Wonderful World.

Although primarily interested in the theatre, Bryden had not actually staged a play since his youthful amateur days. Now, helped by Scottish TV, he applied for one of the director apprenticeships which the TV companies were funding at that time. He was accepted by the Belgrade Theatre Coventry for a year and then moved to the Royal Court Theatre in London. A few years further on, he travelled back to Scotland to the Royal Lyceum Theatre, which is when I first read about him.

The Bryden productions I have seen in the theatre come from different stages of his career. First was his own play Civilians set in Greenock during World War Two for the forgotten Scottish Theatre Company. Then his brilliant National Theatre  production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which came to Glasgow in 1983: it included many of his illustrious company of that period like Jack Shepherd, James Grant and Karl Johnson, plus Paul Scofield as Oberon and Susan Fleetwood as Titania. In 1990, as part of Glasgow’s European Capital of Culture programme, he staged his own play The Ship in what he once described as “an industrial cathedral”, a former ship-building shed, employing a big ensemble cast as he had done at the National Theatre, and telling another story of the past days of Clydeside shipbuilding. Ten years later he brought to Glasgow a National Theatre production which had a similar maritime background, a Dutch play from the early 20th century called The Good Hope.

Bryden describes himself as “a director who writes a bit”. His first play, Willie Rough, set on Clydeside during World War One was performed in the early 1970s at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, during one of those times, as he puts it, when there was talk about a national Scottish theatre. He suggests the play might be revived by the new National Theatre of Scotland. This hasn’t happened yet. Even more unfortunate, the TV version of the play seems to have been lost or neglected by the BBC. After Willie Rough, Bryden wrote Benny Lynch, about the 1930s Scottish boxer. In the 2009 interview, he says he is currently working on a screenplay because he hopes that it will soon be filmed due to the interest of the actor James McAvoy, fresh from the success of Atonement. That also has failed to take place, and, as the internet records, it is not the first false dawn for the play.

Bryden loved the cinema from an early age, especially Westerns. Later, he wrote a film script about the James-Younger outlaw gang called The Long Riders. That this was successfully made and released has usually been attributed to the fact that Stacy Keach (who co-produced and plays Frank James) had worked earlier at the National Theatre with Bryden. The film was directed by Walter Hill and with music by Ry Cooder and gained further media attention at the time through its device of casting three sets of acting brothers to play three sets of historical outlaw brothers. It was one of the last films screened in Greenock’s Gaumont cinema before it closed in 1980: the early showing of such a commercially risky film was unusual for the venue and I often wondered whether either Bryden was directly involved in that decision or that a member of the cinema staff was paying discreet tribute to its successful Greenockian writer.

The six hours of Bryden’s reminiscences are fascinating if occasionally rambling and showed me that his career has been even more extensive than I thought. A long cultural “who’s who” is included. “Bill” Gaskill and “Tony” Richardson and “Lindsay” Anderson and “Anthony” Page at the Royal Court; Trevor Nunn and Laurence Olivier and Richard Eyre; Tennessee Williams    (“the poet of the American theatre”) and the iconoclastic Edward Bond; Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave; the composer Leonard Bernstein. However Bryden is always modest about his achievements. Several times he mentions how working at the Royal Court during the 1960s was the epitome of a Swinging London lifestyle, and he praises actors uniformly as co-operative and supportive – “if you are honest, if you are yourself, (the actors) will help you, and the great ones are the easiest to work with”.

None of Bryden’s productions enjoyed the international success of Peter Hall’s staging of Amadeus or Trevor Nunn’s Cats or Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia or Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys. However his imaginative and inspiring reworking of medieval Bible stories into The Mysteries at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe studio did earn regular stagings, a TV screening and a Olivier award for best director in 1985.

Bryden described The Mysteries as his Cottesloe company’s “signature” work but he staged other notable large ensemble folk music-driven shows about the lives of ordinary people of the past in Lark Rise and The World Turned Upside Down . He also specialised in staging US texts, including several Eugene O’Neill plays and the world premiere of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, later staged on Broadway and filmed.

One illuminating quote he repeats came from Tony Richardson, mostly a film director rather than a stage director and responsible for famous films like Look Back in Anger, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones. Every director, said Richardson, should understand “the politics of show business and the mechanics of success” – meaning, I presume, the way that an individual director’s artistic vision must often be compromised by what financiers expect or audiences will accept. Bryden wryly adds that this definitely applies to Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, two directors from the generation after his who have succeeded both in the commercial theatre and in the cinema, and we might think about one or two high-profile names from today which could be added to such a list.

Overall, as stimulating and informative about British theatre in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as anything in my halcyon youthful days with the BBC or Channel 4.

 

 

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Next year’s Capital of Culture is…

 

The idea of an annual European Capital of Culture was initiated with some aplomb by what was then still called the European Economic Community in the 1980s.

Those of us who were fond of the arts and lived in central Scotland remember well the excitement when the title was awarded to Glasgow for the year 1990 – when more obvious names like Florence, Berlin and Paris had been selected in previous years. Peter Brook  brought his large-scale theatre productions of The Mahabharata and Carmen to the city in 1988 and 1989. During 1990 itself, there was an abundance of high-quality productions and exhibitions.

The profile of the European Capital of Culture has declined somewhat since. Around the time Liverpool became the next UK city to be accorded the status in 2008, two cities rather than one were selected each year, perhaps diluting the accolade. Not all places chosen have been equally well known to the UK arts lover, although one hopes that they all benefitted in all possible ways from their moments in the cultural spotlight.

My interest in the programme was revived by the discovery that one of next year’s European Capitals of Culture is Matera in the south of Italy, following the country’s more northern and more famous compatriots Florence, Bologna and Genoa. Having greatly enjoyed my first visit to Matera with its distinctive houses carved out of rock caves, I will watch with interest what attention it receives from the international media.

 

This and the next six photographs show views of the Sassi Barisano district of cave dwellings in Matera.

 

This and the next photograph show part of the interior of a reconstructed cave house in Matera. At first it appears to have quite generous space in comparison with the housing for poor people in Britain in past centuries – but there would also have been poor lighting, heating and sanitation.

 

The exterior of the cave church of of Santa Lucia alle Malve. During part of its history it was also used as ordinary housing. Its interior contains some impressive medieval frescoes.

 

A more conventional Italian church in Matera is the 18th century Church of the Purgatory with skeleton carvings above the entrance and on the front door.

 

The baroque interior of the Church of the Purgatory.

 

 

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Men, fathers and grandfathers

 

It is not unusual that writers share similar biographies and write about similar topics. Nevertheless, Andrew O’Hagan and William McIlvanney  are two particularly interesting examples.

They both grew up in Ayrshire although 30 years apart, and each has written fiction which draws heavily on their national and regional backgrounds and which also deals with families and politics.

McIlvanney began his career as a teacher until early book successes allowed him to write full-time. He appeared regularly in newspapers and on TV but through most of his life he might fairly have been regarded as a big fish in the small cultural pool of Scotland. In contrast, O’Hagan became a full-time writer soon after university and established himself promptly within the London literati. His brief biography to my paperback edition of his novel Our Fathers (published in 1999 when he was 31) says, “He is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books and is a contributing editor to Granta”. While his name appears on the website of neither publication now, he still enjoys sufficient prestige to have been allocated a full issue of the LRB for a long article about the Grenfell Tower fire.

O’Hagan’s Our Fathers and McIlvanney’s 1975 novel Docherty each share at their centre an older powerful male character who exerts strong influence on the younger members of his family.

In Our Fathers, he is Hugh Bawn, a long-serving Labour councillor in Glasgow with a personal devotion to housing, influenced explicitly by two great real-life socialists John McLean and John Wheatley and by one fictional one, his mother Effie Bawn, supposedly a comrade activist of Mary Barbour.

 

The centre of Ayr where the New Bridge crosses the River Ayr. “Hugh (Bawn) was born in Ayr in the winter of 1913…”

 

O’Hagan seems to have based Bawn at least partly on Robert Bruce of Glasgow Corporation who produced the Bruce Report of 1945, with its wartime fondness for grand plans, tower blocks and architectural brutalism. Hugh’s powerful personality and political dedication alienates his son Robert, who shares none of his father’s ideas, suffers from alcoholism and moves away to England. However Hugh and his wife Margaret have positively influenced their grandson James who goes to live with them when his parents’ marriage break up. Much of Our Fathers deals with the adult James’ return to Ayrshire to his grandparents and to his family roots.

 

Govan Old Parish Church in 2013, looking north towards the River Clyde. “(The Bawns) moved to Govan with a bundle of blankets and the map of Cork…(They) were only in Govan a month when Britain went to war.”

 

Similar to the relationship between Hugh and Robert Bawn is the stormy relationship which William McIlvanney portrays between Tam Docherty and his three sons, especially with Angus, who believes much less than his father in community and much more on self-improvement and financial independence.

Reading Our Fathers brought back memories not just of Docherty but also of Just a Boy’s Game, the TV film written by Peter McDougall and screened by the BBC in 1979. Where O’Hagan and McIlvanney come from Ayrshire, McDougall grew up in Greenock and Just a Boy’s Game is set in the town. Here the patriarch is McQuillan: like Hugh Bawn at the end of his life, but, unlike him, a veteran gangland street fighter. McQuillan also has an adult grandson who is influenced by him. Jake McQuillan, a restless surly taciturn young man with a taste for street violence, seems to have grown up with his grandparents, estranged from his mother and with his father dead when young apparently in a street brawl. The relationship between the McQuillans is much less close than that between the Bawns: Jake’s grandfather’s dying message to him is that he has never liked him and considers himself a better fighter than Jake is.

All three of these older men are portrayed as physically strong and brave and tough. Tam Docherty and Hugh Bawn have had respectable working lives, and Hugh Bawn has often been loved, we are told, by those who have benefitted from his reforming zeal. But all three are also selfish and frightening, of fixed beliefs, men who have become addicted to the power they exert over others and who have resisted disagreement and challenge.

 

The ruined Alloway Kirk outside Ayr. ”Hugh wanted to see Auld Alloway Kirk before the light went out…The stones of the kirkyard looked bent and grey…”

 

The short road leading to the old Brig o’Doon in Alloway. The hotel on the right of the picture, formerly the Burns Monument Hotel, now the Brig O’Doon Hotel, is named the Cottars’ Arms in “Our Fathers”. “We got off near the Brig o’Doon. Hugh wanted to pee. We went into a hotel, the Cottars’ Arms, and I stood at the bar whilst the old man disappeared…”

 

McIlvanney was always regarded as a major Scottish writer from the 1970s until his death in 2015. O’Hagan, although successful, does not perhaps exert the wider cultural influence within Scotland as did McIlvanney – although that is quite probably O’Hagan’s preference, since he has usually lived and worked outside Scotland. Despite similarities between the two writers, it is intriguing to note the differences in their writing styles. As already mentioned in an earlier post, McIlvanney’s writing is heavy with description and imagery and a didactic narrative voice; O’Hagan is more light and deft, more nuanced, more musical – showing more readily associations with Joyce or Lawrence or Philip Larkin. To complete the trio, McDougall is closer in age to McIlvanney and is also much more similar to him, and, as a TV writer, aims for quotable epithets and one-liners and for imagery and scenes which draw from Hollywood western and crime genres.

I am sure my characterisations of these three Scottish writers is not fanciful. When James Bawn defends his grandfather’s political record against the angry reporter in the Ayrshire pub, O’Hagan has the latter insult James as “English” and “middle-class”. In the same pub on the same evening, he describes James’ mother’s second husband as being “civilised” and showing “a feminine manner of patience”. O’Hagan seems to have a strong awareness of the way masculinity and masculine values have changed in Scotland during his lifetime and that he may be quite different from McIlvanney and his characters and his style of writing.

But, despite growing up in a later period and having absorbed many social changes, O’Hagan is clearly still fascinated by some of the classic elements of west of Scotland life. Our Fathers draws its title from the well-known Christian prayer and also deals with Catholicism and the writing of Robert Burns. The subject and style of Our Fathers shows O’Hagan as writer and man being pulled simultaneously in two different directions, back to the past and forwards to the future. As we all always are.

 

Reference:  O’Hagan, Andrew (2000) Our Fathers   London: Faber and Faber

 

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Exotic blooms

 

The most interesting thing in Vanessa Thorpe’s report in The Observer about the growth of independent magazines was her conclusion, “ Since many readers of these niche titles are young, the boom must be fed by a feel for the exotic nature of print, rather than by nostalgia.”

I recognise the term “exotic”. My own purchase of many magazine titles during the 1980s was prompted by new adventures both intellectual and physical. An increasing interest in all the arts, in liberal/left wing political ideas and campaigns, plus the discovery of alluring shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh, like the Third Eye Centre  and the Fifth of May Bookshop, different to those available in my home town of Greenock.

A large part of my reading during that time was of Granta. The literary quarterly was a paperback book 250 pages long – as I reminded myself when seeking an excuse for the fact that another year had passed and certain essential classic writers remained unread. Granta gave me an acquaintance of many of the fashionable contemporary writers like Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Nadine Gordimer, Primo Levi, Raymond Carver and Hanif Kureishi. It was also playing a key role in the coverage of the shifting boundaries of central Europe in those years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

A couple of “Granta” issues from the distant past.

 

The now-defunct Scottish publications Cencrastus and Radical Scotland drew my attention to the idea that (left-wing) internationalism might be compatible with Scottish nationalism, a programme being offered from a different direction by the musician Dick Gaughan.

There were regular magazines of the two political organisations of which I was then an active member, Amnesty International’s Amnesty and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Sanity. In addition, New Statesman, New Internationalist and Marxism Today were other recommended reading for a lefty and arty type at that time.

Many of those 1980s titles have disappeared but it would wrong to feel that such sources of education and culture no longer exist. Reporting and analysis of the wilfully ignored Israel/Palestine conflict is provided by +972 magazine and Mondoweiss. Commonspace covers some of the ground once covered by Radical Scotland. The Quietus and The Skinny both cover music and culture and Gal-Dem writes from a black feminist viewpoint.

The Al-Jazeera website gives detailed news and analysis on the Middle East and other under-reported places. Dissent is a long-established American magazine. And New Statesman and New Internationalist continue to publish.

So sources are still available, which provide alternative and particular views of the modern world and apply old-fashioned values of independent thinking and decent quality journalism. The only possible cause for regret is that they are now accessed usually only via a computer screen rather than by a stapled collection of A4 pages. A bit inconvenient for an old man on a train although not really a convincing argument for doom and gloom.

You might also get around to reading some more of those essential books.

 

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