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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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Coming home

 

It was instructive to read the report by the great journalist Hugh McIlvanney of England’s World Cup victory in July 1966. Especially because it is written in the classic journalism style of the past of clear facts expressed concisely in stylish language – which we took for granted then and see rather less often now. “Moore took the ball coolly out of defence and lifted it upfield to Hurst 10 yards inside the German half. The referee was already looking at his watch and three England supporters had prematurely invaded the pitch as Hurst took the ball on his chest.”

In 1966 I was ten years old. The World Cup was one of my first big television experiences as well as one of my first big sports experiences. I knew then that live football on television was rare – although not that it would remain that way for 20 years more, well into my adulthood.

Of the competition, one match I clearly remember was North Korea scoring three goals against Portugal in the first 25 minutes of the quarter-final before being beaten 5-3. I recall one of Hungary’s wins (most likely, based on retrospective research, the 3-1 victory against Brazil) for the impressively alliterative Daily Express headline of “Magical Magyars” ). And yes, I do remember the final, with Geoff Hurst’s dramatic concluding goal – never guessing that Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary would become one of the most endlessly replayed and repeated phrases. Even as a Scottish child, I was supporting England, because this was a year before Celtic’s European Cup win, and many more years before we were presented regularly with a choice of preferring Scotland as a World Cup country over England.

So, 1974. Scotland had qualified and England hadn’t. I had just left school. The older men I worked beside were equally fascinated by the World Cup, as it was Scotland’s first qualification in 16 years and easily watchable because it was being played in Europe. So too the Scottish press. As mentioned above and elsewhere, I often find I can remember big news stories by the newspaper headlines which followed them. The Sunday Post came into our house at that time in common with the majority of Scottish households. The day after Scotland’s elimination at the group stages, its back page sports headline was the sober and irrefutable “Scotland go out without losing a game”, but the front page was filled with the inclusive and cheerleading “Out – but weren’t they all champions”.

So, 1978? The Argentina adventure is a popular exercise in media nostalgia due to the famous optimism then of Scotland’s manager and fans, especially in this its 40th anniversary year.

It has created other cultural connections. In the 1980s TV drama The Justice Game, Scottish solicitor Dominic Rossi is familiar with the political situation in central America, because he visited there after travelling to the World Cup in Argentina. (In other words, showing that he understands the ordinary person’s values as well as international affairs.) William McIlvanney, brother of the aforementioned Hugh and a novelist-journalist with a great interest in football, centred one of the stories in his Walking Wounded collection around a young man who tries to borrow money from his employer to travel to Argentina.

I do actually have definite memories of that unexpected 3-2 win against Holland and of Archie Gemmill’s confident goal which seemed to suggest Scotland might yet qualify for the later stages. Of course, I have a more vivid one of the way Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle in Trainspotting  presented Gemmill’s goal as one of orgasmic intensity.

The 1998 championships coincided with a holiday to Switzerland. The hotel in Wengen buzzed with several nationalities sharing an interest in the results. A pub near the hotel in Lucerne was a base for Holland fans cheering their team’s journey to the semi-finals. The first finals to have used the Golden Goals rule, I recall.

 

Two alternative sites of the 1998 World Cup. Wengen, and, below, Lucerne, in Switzerland.

 

Another multi-national experience in 2006. Throughout July I was doing a CELTA course in Glasgow to teach English as a second language. The adults who were our student guinea pigs were of various nationalities, so loyalties conflicted but interest was widely shared. My strongest memory of the matches: Zinedine Zidane’s scene-stealing headbutt in the last minutes of the final.

To this year. I was attracted to the unfeted and self-restrained England manager Gareth Southgate and his young squad, while still wondering whether the latter really was more genuinely emblematic of a new inclusive modern England. As the team progressed there must have been a few pro-Brexit journalists and politicians who suggested that their success beyond most expectations was built on a rediscovered strength in the national psyche. Fortunately that theory did not have to be put to the most advanced testing.

The team’s longer residence in the tournament gave further prominence to the song “Three Lions”. I’ve never been entirely sure about the phrase “football’s coming home” – surely the explicit and implicit meaning of the song is that it is the World Cup which is coming back to its rightful home? Despite the Cup having been also won by a number of other countries? However it is one of the best football songs of the pop/rock era with a strong melody by Ian Broudie so it is hard to grudge Broudie his success.

Nobody can yet be sure which of the UK football nations will qualify for the next World Cup finals during Christmas shopping and carol-singing time in Qatar in 2022, or whether Gareth Southgate will still be around to exert his quiet charisma on fans and media – but probably “Three Lions” will still get some airplay.

 

Reference:  McIlvanney, William (1992)  Walking Wounded   London : Sceptre

 

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Simple but effective

 

Although feminism has been a continuing powerful cultural theme in the 21st century, Hollywood’s earlier treatments of its ideas and values are often seen to be dated, and therefore nowadays rarely seen. Films such as those from the late 1970s and early 1980s such as An Unmarried Woman, Julia, The Turning Point, Norma Rae, Coalminer’s Daughter, Gloria, Places in the Heart, Country. Although Nine to Five is still popular…

One of those neglected films is The Rose, set in the world of rock music. The lead character – a confident and assertive woman on and off stage, a white performer of black R&B influenced music, vulnerable to drink and drugs – was already something of a stereotype at the time of its release in 1979. However, she would probably still be a recognised type today, in the light of the death of Amy Winehouse. She was always presumed to be based specifically on Janis Joplin, who died in 1970.

The lead role was one of the first for singer Bette Midler. In some ways, she was an unusual choice for the character as her own music experience had been at the jazz/cabaret/Broadway end of the spectrum, such as with covers of  “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Big Noise from Winnetka”.

The most enduring part of the film is certainly its theme song. Written by someone who was and has remained relatively obscure, Amanda McBroom, it is in many ways a mainstream romantic ballad, played on piano and using familiar lyrical imagery. However, for me, it does its job with particular force and with a significant simplicity.

The first stanza offers four metaphors of love. Three of these suggest pain and difficulty and hardship: deep water, a sharp razor blade, the lack of food. The fourth, of a flower, offers potential and growth.

The second stanza is still using abstract nouns but is also clearly addressing individuals, and how people are often too shy and cautious and unambitious, and so will never exploit their full potential. Lack of effort and lack of courage, it bluntly states, will lead to failure.

The third and final stanza begins with more metaphors of physical suffering and difficulty – the long journey, the lonely night, the winter snow – to summarise life’s challenges, but then becomes more sympathetic and more encouraging that these difficulties can be overcome. It ends by repeating the first stanza’s metaphor of hope and potential, a flower, and now makes it more particular, a rose.

As the song progresses, the piano is supplemented , inevitably if not really necessarily, by other instruments and other voices. But it is a strong melody and in the last couplet it is again allowed to be on its own with solo piano and quieter vocals.

The song was a big hit in the USA but not at all in Britain, and my acquaintance and fondness for it was built solely on my then regular listens to the US Charts programme on BBC Radio 1 presented by Paul Gambaccini.

The song has been covered by many artistes, and I can well imagine some performances may have used primary colours rather than subtlety. Its lyrical ideas are not entirely radical or adventurous, but I found (and still find) the song powerful because of how the writer applies those ideas sparingly and simply and clearly. About happiness gained, preferably through intimate and compassionate partnership, but certainly through individual effort, resilience and courage. Many more famous songwriters have done less well.

 

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Out of the ashes

 

The old town of Ålesund, in Norway, was substantially destroyed in a fire in 1904. The earlier wooden-framed houses were replaced within a few years by many new buildings in the Jugendstil style, the regional variation of Art Nouveau. This lends its modern town centre a particularly consistent and attractive look.

 

 

The above photograph shows the Jugendstil Senteret, the Art Nouveau Museum, a former pharmacy. The others following show a range of residential and commercial buildings.

 

 

 

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