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A well-remembered film about a forgotten campaign


The World War One commemoration reached its apex last year , but perhaps there is time for a few thoughts about a film about one of the neglected campaigns of the war. Whose main character, was, ironically, one of the most well-known military individuals from that war. The campaign was the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and the character was former archaeologist T.E.Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, has always been a popular and celebrated film. Winner of seven Oscars when first released in 1962, and one of the most financially successful of its year.  Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, each popular and acclaimed directors over many years, have publicly spoken about how much they admire the film and its director, and it still enjoys a high status among ordinary fans, on the IMDB list of best movies ever.

I must confess that when got my first belated look at the film on television about ten years ago, I was unmoved. It ran too long, there were too many men in uniform and no women, there was too much focus on scenery and its narrative about that part of World War One was not for me clearly told. I was already tending towards a view that the best films of Lean’s career were the shorter earlier ones, and Lawrence of Arabia seemed to provide further evidence.

I certainly gained more from my recent second viewing, both due to having since visited Palestine and reading about Lawrence in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2011 book Jerusalem. The narrative became clearer, and, also, I was struck by the film’s use of biblical motifs and in the way it deals with Lawrence’s sexuality.

In a video for the American Film Institute, Martin Scorsese marvelled that Lawrence of Arabia is a heroic cinematic epic which is centred not on a saint or a figure from the Bible but on a “difficult” character who shows and feels “self-destruction and self-loathing”. Yet it was made during the last great era of Hollywood big-budget bible epics like The Ten Commandments and King of Kings, and Lean deployed many of the tropes of cinematography from that genre. Lawrence strides and flounces around in flowing white robes, always markedly different to those around him but especially noticeable when he visits the British HQ in Cairo. He strides on top of railway carriages, outlined against the sun, to the loud cheers of his Arab followers and Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning music. Arabs riding on camels, especially the famous arrival of Omar Sharif’s character Sherif Ali out of the shimmering horizon, recall the arrival of the Magi. Everywhere there are large crowds of people. The scene of Lawrence’s capture by the Turkish forces in Deraa and his being stripped, prodded and beaten directly evokes Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate and his subsequent scourging.


Jerusalem. Lawrence described it as “a squalid town” of “characterless” people.


The real Lawrence’s sexuality was “mysterious”, says Sebag Montefiore. He “was not a misogynist” but certainly fairly indifferent towards women. His friend Ronald Storrs, on whom the character of the diplomat Dryden in the film is probably based, is quoted as saying, dryly, “He’d have kept his composure if he’d suddenly been informed he’d never see a woman again.”

Lawrence of Arabia was made when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK and Lean used some familiar cinematic devices to suggest homoeroticism. The camera focusses continually on Peter O’Toole’s strong body shape, bleached hair and blue eyes. Lawrence is shown to be very emotionally attached to two young men who become his servants.

“Vanity competed with masochism” in Lawrence, says Sebag Montefiore. His first appearance in the film shows him placing his finger in a match flame, saying to his fascinated observers, “The trick…is not minding that it hurts”. The viewer is reminded of this later when we see Lawrence apparently unintimidated by the beating from his Turkish captors. “The slaughter and grit of war both horrified and excited him”, says Sebag Montefiore, and Lean includes scenes which show him revolted by killing and attracted to it.

The scene with the match flame which introduces the viewer, variously, to Lawrence’s interest in the Middle East, his eccentricity and his fondness for attention as well as his tolerance of pain is the only one which makes reference to the British fighting another horrible war elsewhere in the world.

“This is a nasty dark little room,” says Lawrence, to which his junior colleague replies, “It’s better than a nasty dark little trench”.


Reference :  Sebag Montefiore, Simon (2012)   Jerusalem    London: Phoenix


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The heart of Saturday night


One of my favourite parts of Trevor Griffths’ brilliant 1976 TV drama Bill Brand  is at the very end: a social gathering at the house of Labour MP Brand with his friends from a left-wing theatre group. It’s a Saturday night, which is commented on twice. Friend Jamie remarks that sharing alcohol and singing with friends on a Saturday night will compensate for the disappointing audience reception at that evening’s performance. When Brand apologises for the noise to his visiting neighbour, she brushes it aside: “I’m not bothered…it’s Saturday night.” The collective singing of songs of comradeship, added to an envelope of letters of support which he has just received, encourage Brand to look forward optimistically to the political struggles ahead.

Saturday night was regularly the big night out in the days of the reliable 5-day working week. Perhaps, even within our very different 21st century conditions of employment, it still is. The news media certainly refer to “the weekend” and “the working week” as if we hadn’t years ago invented shift work, 24-hour shop openings and home deliveries.

Saturday night is celebrated in many popular songs by such as Tom Waits (“The Heart of Saturday Night” and “Jersey Girl”), Sam Cooke (“Another Saturday Night”), Elton John (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”) and Whigfield (“Saturday Night”). Saturday night is a time for relief and excitement from drudgery and routine, involving cinemas, dancing, pubs and clubs, and, perhaps, also, romance and sex.

Saturday was also a big night for television programmes in the 1970s – variety shows, comedy, sports highlights, drama both light and more serious, produced in Britain or imported from the USA. The special status of Saturday night television is an idea which the present day media is still attracted to, despite the evidence of much lower audiences. Perhaps it makes them feel that those days of large profits and cultural impact have not entirely vanished. Not so long ago I heard a particular TV performer described as “the king of Saturday night” – possibly it was the late Bruce Forsyth – as if their programmes appeared at no other time in the week.

If Saturday night as a time of relaxation and entertainment has changed less than we might have expected, certainly the political improvement which Bill Brand and his comrades were working for, and expecting, seems like a more ridiculous and more old-fashioned goal.


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Their many finest hours


As dozens of new films appear on television, DVD and streaming sites every year, yet the chance to see the work of the great directors of the past becomes more restricted. People such as Robert Bresson or Federico Fellini or Robert Altman or Derek Jarman. Happily, though, we have had a decent chance in recent times to see on British television the distinctive films of Powell and Pressburger.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, produced and directed about 20 films together, usually under the banner of their production company The Archers, in Britain during the 1940s and 1950s.

Seen now, these films do resemble others of that long ago period. Actors speak and dress in the same old-fashioned way. The pace and tone of the narratives seem similar. Some technical features do stand out, notably the rich colours, although occasionally also the camera work.

The scripts also make the films individual – in a number of ways. They often seek to connect the present day to the historic past; they often blend film genres within a single work. Then there is the attention they give to women and people from countries other than Britain, and the characterisations which are in general more subtle and full than in other films of the time.

Two early films, 49th Parallel and One of our Aircraft is Missing, are clearly propaganda productions to encourage the war effort and to build an international anti-Nazi alliance. However, the former, set in Canada, has as its protagonists a German U-boat crew who are not all stereotypical Nazis and who are opposed by a motley army of fur trappers, Eskimos, Hutterite farmers, mounted police, rural adventurers and railway officers. The latter has a 15 minutes-long depiction of a bombing raid with a backing track of aircraft engines rather than soaring orchestral music which must surely have seemed as grimly realistic to the original war-time audiences as the opening of Saving Private Ryan 50 years later, plus a Dutch setting and vivid civilian characters who include two female resistance leaders.


Banff, Alberta. One of the German U-boat fugitives is captured here in “49th Parallel”.


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, their first truly idiosyncratic film, has a long and rather rambling narrative about a British officer and his friendship with a German over forty years, but is brilliant in the sections set during World War One  and especially the contemporary World War Two. Deborah Kerr plays three different characters in the film but she is especially striking as the perky modern young military driver.

Colonel Blimp has a brief use of two US soldiers in one scene, and A Canterbury Tale employs another US soldier as one of the stars in a story about the tensions between army and civilians living cheek by jowl in Kent and of three modern pilgrims going to Canterbury on their own modern quests. Sheila Sim is the leading female character, a “land girl ” who helps two soldiers investigate a local crime.


Canterbury Cathedral. At the end of “A Canterbury Tale”, each of the three leading characters receive different kinds of blessings at or near here.


The cinematography of A Matter of Life and Death is the team’s most striking in its mix of colour and black and white to reflect heaven and earth in the fantasy story of the airman who miraculously escapes death after his Lancaster bomber is hit. June, the American girlfriend of the airman, played by Kim Hunter, is another distinctive female character.

I Know Where I’m Going is filmed in black and white, but it has other considerable virtues of a female-centred story, influenced by the Hollywood screwball comedies, about an independent modern woman who falls in love with a Scottish laird who believes strongly in both community values and Celtic legends, and which romantically compares Pamela Brown’s flamboyant Highland Catriona with Wendy Hiller’s ambitious metropolitan Joan.


Duart Castle, Mull. It becomes Sorne Castle, visited by Joan, in “I Know Where I’m Going”.


Black Narcissus has another female-centred narrative, which pits sensuality and romance against religious devotion and duty, within a convent of nuns in the Himalayas. Deborah Kerr’s self-controlled Sister Superior is contrasted dramatically with Kathleen Byron’s intense, disturbed Sister Ruth.

The Red Shoes, featuring ballet dancer Moira Shearer, could be seen as an apotheosis of the Archers production style of full-colour theatricality and romance with a female-centred narrative which is actually set in the world of performing arts and includes the performance of a ballet.

Gone to Earth has many of the familiar features of brilliant colour, a female-centred narrative and human behaviour influenced by landscape, although the usual Powell and Pressburger subtleties were somewhat coarsened within the commercial Hollywood partnership with David Selznick.

Famously, the 1940s was the decade in Britain which saw the highest ever numbers of visits to the cinema, and Powell and Pressburger films enjoyed their share of popularity. But their qualities came to be appreciated still more in later decades.

Emeric Pressburger might be the model for the Hungarian émigré producer Gabriel Baker in Their Finest, the recent film about the wartime British film industry – whose title is rather less witty and suitable than the source novel’s Their Finest Hour and a Half! The Dunkirk film which is being made by its characters has Archers-like colour visuals.

In one scene of Their Finest, Baker promises the Ministry of Information that he will give the government “a picture to win the war” with its “authenticity and optimism”. I’m not sure how many cinema-goers during the 1940s realised that Powell and Pressburger were filming many of the finest hours of British cinema – but it’s surely vividly clear to us all now.

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Seeing the whale before it dives


The credits of the film Venus Peter, directed by Ian Sellar in 1989, say that it was based on Christopher Rush’s book A Twelvemonth and a Day, which was published in 1985. I haven’t read that book, but it must be heavily drawn from Rush’s own experience, because his memoir Hellfire and Herring, published in 2007, bears many similarities to the events and characters of the film of eighteen years earlier. However, whereas the tone of the film is gentle, lyrical, dream-like, much of the memoir has a mood of exorcism, reliving pain and unhappiness in order to assuage it.

Venus Peter depicts episodes in the childhood of a boy named Peter in an unidentified fishing village in Scotland at some time during the 1950s or 1960s. Its credits say that it was “shot entirely on location on the Orkney Islands” and that many of its extras are the adults and children of Stromness. In fact Rush actually grew up in St Monans in Fife. One of the film’s key settings is a church which is situated beside the sea and which has a large sailing ship hanging from its nave and I believe this location is not in Orkney but is the medieval parish church of St Monans.


The exterior and interior of the parish church of St Monans, photographed in 1992.


The narrative surrounds Peter with many colourful characters, and Rush’s memoir allows you to identify their real-life equivalents. Epp, the forbidding grandmother figure, was actually his mother’s great-aunt and their landlady. Leebie seems like an aunt, but, as Rush writes in his book, “nobody had ever worked out who exactly Leebie was (and even) Leebie herself didn’t know, or pretended not to.” His young mother, Christina, was certainly close in age to her sisters Jenny and Georgina but Uncle Billy was actually still at school rather than a young adult sailing on the fishing boat Venus.

Scenes of sadism by teachers and parents are often de rigeur in films of childhood as adults expel their long-ago nightmares. Hellfire and Herring does spend a number of pages on the middle-aged and fiendish teacher Miss Sangster and a few about the beautiful and lovable Miss Balsilbie. Sellar’s film gives more prominence to Miss Balsilbie, and places her as a later consolation in Peter’s schooldays rather than in her real-life earlier place. This presents the two teachers as uncannily similar to Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in the film of Matilda – even though this is a total coincidence, since Dahl only published his novel in the late 1980s and Danny De Vito’s film was made nearly ten years after that. But Miss Balsilbie’s similarity in looks and manner to Jean Brodie in Ronald Neame’s film is probably a direct borrow.

The St Monans of his childhood was “like growing up in a Bosch boneyard, ” says Rush, because, partly due to decades of inbreeding, it was full of people whose looks and behaviour were strange and frightening. Bowfter Sandy went around on all fours trying to bite people’s legs and Kate the Kist visited the boat-builders’ every day to ask to be measured for a coffin. Three others are included in the film. The Blind Man is a classic child’s fear figure out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, especially as he reacted aggressively to the boys’ teasing. The sailor Gowans who recited meaningless rhyming phrases is made much younger. The genteel but lost Honeybunch, who made outlines of ships with stones on the beach and who had to be washed by the sexton on his workbench because she never bothered to wash herself, becomes Princess Paloma.

Rush’s real-life father was a young Royal Navy sailor from Middlesborough who was briefly posted to Fife during the war, met and married Christina and then returned two years later in 1945, to meet his infant son Christopher. Rush’s memoir recalls him as drunk, disturbed, violent and cruel, and he feels it necessary to describe several horrible scenes, even as he is brave enough to recount how he came to understand his father later when an adult. In Venus Peter, the father is not horrific but certainly flawed, who left his home town to go to sea because he was fearful of responsibility and whose attempts to make amends later are seen as insincere and materialistic.

The fisherman grandfather, master of the Venus, is the prominent adult in the film. In the book he is a little more mysterious, hidden within the larger cast of characters, but in both he is kind, protective, physically impressive and wise.

Religion is presented as an oppressive and threatening and reactionary force in both film and book. St Monans and the adjacent towns in the East Neuk of Fife were called “The Holy City”, says Rush, because of their diverse groups of Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, Pilgrims, Baptists and Evangelists. The Presbyterian church stands for all religion in the film, and the one authority figure who is more intimidating in the film than in the book is the Reverend Kinnear, although David Hayman is allowed to show him as also sympathetic and supportive.

Nevertheless, religious faith is part of the grandfather’s allegory of creation which ends both book and film. As is the sea. In Venus Peter, Peter says, “the sea is everything”. In Hellfire and Herring, Rush says the sea “(was) my first language, my first university, my alma mater”. Grandfather’s maritime story goes like this: once there was a whale which gave birth to the ship which was the earth…and the whale swam up to heaven…leaving us all alone on the ship. And sometimes, when you look carefully, you can still see the whale… there, before it dives.


Reference :   Rush, Christopher (2007)   Hellfire and Herring: a Childhood Remembered   London:Profile


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Did the counter-culture end?


“There was just a moment in time …when that counter-cultural thing could have happened,” said Shaun Keaveny on his BBC Radio 6 Music programme, reflecting on the Woodstock music festival, “and then it all sort of disappeared again.”

Alternatively, one might argue that a great deal of the counter-culture ethos of the late 1960s did take root in private and public life in the USA and Europe, and spread further in the decades afterwards.

A few examples?

The US presidency of Jimmy Carter, a great fan of Bob Dylan and other popular music of the day, whose government style appeared to be strongly shaped by the counter-culture ethos.

The US presidency of Bill Clinton, who, as Johnnie Walker on BBC Radio 1 pointed out in 1992, was “younger than any of the Rolling Stones and who (played) a mean saxophone.”

The ubiquity of denim as a material of casual clothes, never out of fashion for one second since Woodstock.

Long hair and facial hair for men became totally acceptable throughout the 1970s for older members of the middle-class professions, not merely idling drug-taking students, to the extent that the young rebels of the later 1970s had to revert back to short hair to demonstrate their subversion! Long hair and beards have enjoyed other periods of trendiness since.

The fact that many men in the highest elected government positions and in the most esteemed positions in public life have been self-confessed users of illegal drugs. (You know their names.)

The fact that couples living together and producing children together without being married has been commonplace and unremarkable for many years.

The continuation of mass political protest, most visibly perhaps the protests against nuclear weapons in the 1980s, the anti-war protests of the 2000s and the “green” protests of the 1990s and the present day – even when they are seen to be not very effective.

Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, which perhaps says less about Dylan’s achievements than about the changed knowledge and tastes of the Swedish Academy which made the selection.

Most especially, the constant cultural status of pop and rock music. Shown in the way that most people’s understanding of the word “music” is the pop and rock music produced since 1955 ; that the BBC, one of the most respected broadcasting companies in the world, has four 24-hour radio stations devoted to pop and rock music and only one which regularly covers the other genres; that every summer there are many weekends of large outdoor pop/rock music concerts which are often also broadcast on national radio and TV stations; that the pop/rock music of the past is continually replayed in the soundtracks to films, in TV documentaries and in the performances of “tribute bands” both famous and local.

But one example where the values of the counter-culture have certainly not taken root? That during the last fifty years, in practically every country in the world, material wealth has become more unevenly shared,  and that poverty and deprivation remains visibly widespread.


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Your most important job?


The media of my youth was full of (male) polymaths, I reflected, when I read about the recent death of another. Bryan Magee was a philosophy academic who was also a Labour MP and a television presenter. Two TV series which he presented for the BBC about philosophy now seem astonishingly old-fashioned in their intellectual earnestness; at the time they were screened, I’m afraid, any such discussion programmes I would have been watching would be on the less demanding subjects of cinema, theatre, books and music.

Also on TV in the later 1980s was Pat Kane. He was the lead vocalist and co-songwriter of Hue and Cry, one of several British bands of the period who took their musical cues from US soul and jazz music. From the start, he was a confident interviewee on both musical and political topics, and at one point, I remember, he was writing two Saturday columns for The Herald newspaper, one interacting with theories of arts and culture and the other dealing with day-to-day political issues. As time passed, Kane participated more in the media and less in music. His two current websites The Play Ethic and Thoughtland show a variety of intellectual interests and suggest an impressive capacity for hard work and learning new skills.

Kane’s singing style famously recalled Frank Sinatra as much as Marvin Gaye or John Lennon, and he and his keyboardist brother Greg were an ambitious pair who liked to set themselves apart from contemporaries who sounded similar. For instance, they worked with acclaimed young Scottish jazz and classical saxophonist Tommy Smith, and, on the Big Day concert in June 1990 as part of Glasgow’s City of Culture events, I recall they appeared on the international stage at Glasgow Green with Nanci Griffiths and Les Négresses Vertes rather than the UK pop stage at George Square with Wet Wet Wet.

The Kane brothers’ latest musical work in Hue and Cry shows they have both retained much of their original expertise even if the passage of time makes it sound rather repetitive and familiar. Pat Kane has built a decent career on transferable skills, but I wonder if he wishes his musical career had been more like David Byrne’s or even Damon Albarn’s: more records, bigger venues, more chances to develop musically, a higher reputation among his peers as an artistic innovator.

Jonathan Miller was already a qualified doctor when he became a comedy writer and performer with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in the stage revue Beyond the Fringe. That success led him to more serious work as a theatre and television director. I discovered him as an engaging conversationalist and raconteur on such TV shows as Michael Parkinson’s in the 1970s , where he regularly protested that he was a serious medical person first and that all these stage and TV performances were distractions which he would soon pull himself away from. These different strands in his professional life did seem to come together with his TV series on medicine The Body in Question, although I personally was more interested in his stint as producer of the BBC’s project (during 1978-1984) to televise all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Michael Parkinson’s first period of BBC shows ended in 1982 but revived successfully in 1998 – by which time the original “chat show” description was being replaced more often by the more grandiose American “talk show”, probably because the format was becoming ever more ubiquitous in the TV schedules. I remember noting that similar groups of celebrities whom Parkinson interviewed in the olden days returned in the new period: established Hollywood actors, TV comedians, and sometimes the same people, like Michael Caine or Billy Connelly. But I never saw again Jonathan Miller. He was now in his mid-60s, and he probably felt that the format of the TV interview and the interests of TV audiences had changed too much.

George Thomson was also a Labour MP,  a few years before Bryan Magee, who later became one of the UK’s representatives on the European Commission when the country first joined what was then called the EEC . However he started his adult life as a journalist with DC Thomson, the Dundee-based publisher famous for children’s comics as well as adult newspapers and magazines. “I sometimes wonder,” I heard him say once on TV, “whether I added more to the sum total of human happiness during the years when I was editor of the Dandy.”


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Family loss and international literature


I heard Seamus Heaney give a public reading at the Third Eye Centre  in Glasgow in 1984. He described how he had treated the subject of the Ulster Troubles during the first years of his writing. He tended to use symbolism and allegory, such as in “Punishment”, where a medieval woman crushed to death for adultery is compared to girls tarred and feathered by the IRA for similar “betrayal”. That changed, he said, when his relation Colum McCartney was killed. Then he chose to deal with the subject directly, in a poem called “The Strand at Lough Beg”.

“The Strand at Lough Beg” begins with a quote from Dante and mentions “a high bare pilgrim’s track” and the medieval Sweeney, but does quickly add modern images of “a faked road block”, “sudden brakes” and “the cold-nosed gun”.
Its initial focus is on the landscape and its history and then moves to a farming family and to this deceased individual. Its closing image appears to link the present-day death back to the Christianity of the past: “I plait green scapulars to wear over your shroud”.

Another Heaney poem about the contemporary violence in Northern Ireland is “Casualty”, from the same collection, Field Work, in 1979. According to US based writer Sean Lynch, the unnamed victim personified in this poem was another relation of Heaney, Louis O’ Neill.

I was first drawn to “Casualty” for its distinctive rhythm and shape, with its short lines and stanzas of 10 lines or so; the same trimeter structure as Yeats’ “Easter 1916” and Auden’s “September 1 1939”   used to evoke a serious reflective tone. And to the way that the soft rhythm and the sympathetic observation of village life and of this one individual man shifts dramatically at the end of the first section to “a curfew…after they shot dead the thirteen men in Derry. PARAS THIRTEEN…BOGSIDE NIL.” I was fascinated by serious artists addressing present-day political issues and this was a striking example.

In its second and third sections, “Casualty” regains its gentle rhythm and sounds, feminine endings and assonance, and presents a series of vivid images: of a funeral, of a small local pub, of a boat out fishing. “Wind-blown surplice and soutane”, “like blossoms on slow water”, “swimming towards the lure of warm lit-up places”, “quiet walkers and sideways talkers shoaling out of the lane”, “the respectable purring of the hearse”, “the screw purling, turning”, “dawn-sniffing revenant”.

The title of “Casualty” gives prominence to the victim of an act of violence, but the narrator’s closing emotion is puzzlement rather than anger. The title of “The Strand at Lough Beg” suggests that the quiet landscape remains untarnished. While both poems describe modern violence intervening suddenly and brutally into the settled community, Heaney’s classic poetic eloquence seems to show that long-established cultural values have held fast.


Some of the Northern Ireland landscapes written about by Seamus Heaney as his fame grew in the 1970s and 1980s. The Bogside area of Derry as seen from the old walled city, and the Derry Guildhall , both photographed in 1995, and a village street in County Armagh, photographed in 2008.


Heaney was already being celebrated as a great poet in a great tradition when I first came across his name in the mid- 1970s. His Nobel Prize for Literature was forecast long before he actually received it in 1995. His readings and media appearances were enjoyed and admired up to his death in 2013. However, some, like his fellow Ulster poet and academic Kevin Kiely and the younger Irish writer Mary O’Regan feel that he has been praised too effusively for work which is artistically conservative.

Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace since the Good Friday agreement in 1998 but its future relationship within the UK is being discussed with a new scrutiny due to the latter’s departure from the European Union. Perhaps that will mean too that Seamus Heaney and his writing will not be seen in future in the same old-fashioned way.


References :
Heaney, Seamus (1979)   Field Work    London: Faber
Heaney, Seamus (1980)    Selected Poems 1965-1975    London: Faber


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And after the “one small step”?


I’m old enough to have been watching television at the time of the Apollo space programme. I do remember watching part of the Apollo 11 moon landing on television – although I have a clearer memory of a newspaper headline  : the Daily Express’ straightforwardly factual, and therefore dramatic, “Man on the Moon.”

As has often been repeated, there was a widely shared opinion in that era that this would be the first stage in a continuous journey of space exploration, which would have benefits in commerce and culture as well as in science.

Although never much drawn to science fiction in print or on screen, I did once read a novel called 2001 (which may have been Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 book or a post-film cash-in)) and I have kept a strong memory of the particular tone of this section.  “No matter how many times you left Earth, Dr. Heywood Floyd told himself, the excitement never really palled. He had been to Mars once, to the moon three times and to the various space stations more often than he could remember…”

The world of the early 21st century as imagined forty years earlier. Confident and optimistic certainly, but perhaps even presumptious?


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Odd one out


When you are travelling, it’s often particularly satisfying to see very individual buildings alongside more generic designs. For example, the art nouveau buildings of Palma in Mallorca and the art deco Bacardi building alongside the local baroque in Havana in Cuba.

In Vancouver, Canada, a similar moment is experienced when you see the Marine building, its 1930 art deco features in marked contrast to the steel and glass towers of the present-day harbourfront business district.



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On the iron road


The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific companies jointly built in the 1860s the first railway to cross most of the USA. The Canadian Pacific joined the two coasts of that country in 1887. Amtrak now covers long distances linking many of the towns and cities in both the USA and Canada.

The Rocky Mountaineer was a later rail arrival, but has now run several tourist services on the west coast for 30 years. I joined in a journey from Jasper, Alberta to Kamloops, British Columbia and then down to Vancouver, about 500 miles over two days.

As well as dramatic scenery and the occasional native animal, we passed huge freight trains which carry such cargoes of potash, grain and cars in convoys of dozens of carriages.



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