Tag Archives: History

“You men and the war”

 

Some photographs of Newcastle and Durham – the approximate settings of “When the Boat Comes In” – including a few buildings which would have been recognised by its 1920s characters.

 

I was a great fan of the drama series When the Boat Comes In, written mostly by James Mitchell, when it was first screened on BBC television in 1976 and 1977. While my initial viewing was random and perfunctory – it was scheduled after the essential Top of the Pops and I was already a fan of its lead actor James Bolam through Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – I was soon engrossed in its dramatization of working-class life in the north-east of England in the years directly after World War One.  In particular by the exploits of Jack Ford, played by Bolam, the handsome, clean-featured ex-sergeant who appears to have survived unscathed four years of trench warfare in France and Flanders , plus a period of unspecified “intelligence” work with the British forces supporting the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Ford is simultaneously presented as ambitious, charming, generous, resourceful and ruthless, whose leadership qualities are variously used in becoming the local head of his trade union and in challenging local employers, making money as an independent capitalist and promoting the careers and employment of those he regards as friends.

That historical period was a popular setting for drama then,  as it still is. It was a time of great social upheaval as people moved out of domestic service and farms into factories and as women gained a more independent and public role. The battles of the Great War were fought over small geographical areas by soldiers who knew similar small geographical areas, serving alongside men from the same locality as themselves. The scale of its casualties was horrendous and notorious so those who returned home without serious injury must have been regarded with some awe.

Watching the series again provides a striking reminder of how many ways and on how many occasions it is that recently fought war which specifically influences the present behaviour and ideas of the characters. This begins in the very first episode, pointedly entitled “A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots”, with Jack Ford’s overt cynicism at inaccurate newsreel footage of the war and his organised political protest of throwing down campaign medals in scorn at the victorious Liberal parliamentary election candidate. 40 episodes later, in the story “High Life and Hunger”, Ford scornfully refers back to that Lloyd George “Land Fit for Heroes” promise as he watches hunger marchers .

In between those two episodes, James Mitchell and the other scriptwriters contrived many other convincing devices to show the dark shadow of war experience stretching into every area of post-war existence. For example, the way in which Ford plans a sheep-stealing expedition like “a trench raid” and how he publicly identifies the former regiments of Fitters Union members to show the union official from London that his members are professionally trained to “deal with” strike-breakers; how the unpleasant Channon knows as much about explosives as Ford or any of the more heroic characters from his own war service with the engineers and so is unpersuaded by their explanation of the destruction of the priceless Vanburgh-designed house Mandrake Place; the plight of the widow Elsie Carter who gets no war pension because her husband though killed in France was not on active duty; the reason why “Ten Bob” Tiverton the artist who had lost an arm took to forging bank notes. The war is also the source of one of the longest narrative threads: Ford’s business association and rivalry with Sir Horatio Manners, the nouveau-riche father of his former company commander. Small wonder that female characters of different social classes, whether Sarah Headley or Lady Caroline Summers, often make at different times comments like “You men and the war” at yet another memory or anecdote.

The programme’s fourth and final series, broadcast originally in 1981, stretched the story into more specific events, beyond the Wall Street Crash and into the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. These did allow some variation of the Ford character, presenting him as prone to excessive drinking, a little less impressive and a little more jaundiced, still ambivalent about how to balance and blend his competing individualist and collectivist instincts. He angrily lists at one point the only true friends he ever had: army comrades who are now dead.

Living now in London, he criticises a beggar who is exaggerating his war experience to encourage more generous donations. By this time we have heard Ford himself repeat on several occasions one particular war experience about watching the death of the young officer, Captain Manners (“What am I doing here, sergeant? I should be at the Savile Club” ) – always to impress the listener, usually female. From the very start of the series we know that he had had saved the life of Matt Headley, his later union colleague and Labour councillor, but only much later that his own life was once saved by a Sergeant Major Fred Randall. His parting advice to the beggar is “Get your story straight”. Perhaps we wonder by this time how many of Ford’s past exploits are true, how often we the audience might have been taken in by his charming loquaciousness, but nobody is now around to provide an alternative version.

Like all TV drama series from the 1970s and 1980s, When the Boat Comes In is true to its own period, showing its debt in construction and presentation to theatre plays such as by Shaw or Priestley. This means that it includes one or two comic-dramatic set-pieces which tend to slow down the excitement of the narrative, like the party turns at the Seaton family’s New Year party and the storyline of digging for coal under the Seaton front room. However, most of those first three series contained richly written and convincingly acted stories of poverty, unemployment, industrial conflict, political activism, slum living, hand-to-mouth subsistence and the slow struggle to comfort and (sometimes even) prosperity. And even the weaker episodes still show a craftmanship which is missing from 21st century TV standards.

 

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The diggers

 

Orkney has been a famous location of prehistoric archaeology at least since the Skara Brae village was excavated in the 1930s. The fact that the four sites of Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness are all located within one small geographical area was marked in 1999 by UNESCO when it created the World Heritage Site of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Since 2003 a new archaeology site has been excavated at the Ness of Brodgar nearby. It comprises a collection of large prehistoric stone buildings. Years of TV archaeology programmes like Time Team  encourage the opportunity to observe the professionals at work, although you do feel frustrated at how little is available to see compared to the more famous long-established locations.

 

 

Seeing teams of modern day archaeologists at work certainly emphasises how much more slow, painstaking and labour-intensive must have been the work by the earlier generations who brought to our knowledge all those famous historical sites from all over the world.

 

Part of the ancient site of Pompeii, Italy, first excavated in the 18th century. Photographed in 1999.

 

Part of the site of Knossos, Crete, excavated in the first half of the 20th century. Photographed in 2016.

 

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One version of the 20th century

 

 

The drawing of Anthony Burgess by David Levine on the cover of Burgess’ journalism anthology “Homage to QWERTYUIOP“.

 

So finally, after owning a copy of the novel since 1983, I got around to reading Anthony Burgess’  Earthly Powers.

650 pages is a long volume for me nowadays, although it is certainly a readable 650 pages since its structure is largely chronological, as octogenarian writer Kenneth Toomey recounts his life, friendships and travels between World War One and the 1970s.

In many ways the novel is especially characteristic of Burgess both as writer and man, which perhaps explains its celebrity and its Booker Prize nomination. The narrative moves through many locations, and locations which Burgess knew well: Malaysia, North Africa, London; Italy including the Vatican, the USA including Hollywood, France including the Cannes Film Festival. The lead character name-drops many famous artists: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Havelock Ellis, Peter Warlock, JB Priestley, George Orwell. Literature and music are widely discussed. There are many detailed descriptions of food and drink, of fashions and furnishings.

Many characters and incidents are based on real-life examples which even the less informed reader enjoys identifying. Toomey is related through marriage to Carlo Campanati, the Catholic priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII at the exact same time as did John XXIII, although his international fame also hints at the Pope at the time of the novel’s publication, John Paul II. The fictitious Nobel laureate Austrian writer Jakob Strehler whom Toomey greatly admires has written a novel sequence Vatertag which seems rather reminiscent of Earthly Powers itself in some ways – and certainly also of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, both rediscovered and fashionable at the time of Earthly Powers. The exploits of religious cult leader God Manning are clearly modelled on those of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. The Poet Laureate Dawson Wignall seems very similar to John Betjeman with his “themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence…” A musical The Blooms of Dublin based on Ulysses is almost identical to a play by Burgess himself.

Although, as mentioned, Earthly Powers’ chronological structure makes it easy to follow and to stay with, it does include a few modernist flourishes which show off Toomey’s and Burgess’ Joycean influences. Vocabulary which is unfamiliar and demanding, some which may well be invented, omissions of punctuation, invented onomatopoeia like “at the card table, flicking a new pack of cards skrirr skrirr with powerful gambler’s fingers”, selections of Toomey’s own writing in different genres.

 

Waiting for Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome on Easter Sunday 2002. “Carlo…told the crowd briefly why he had chosen the name Gregory. It was primarily because of Gregory the Great, who had reformed the Church and spread the gospel.”

 

The entrance to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollwood, USA in 2010. “My situation in Hollywood was a comfortable one. I was glad to get money out of the industry but I did not really need it. I did not have to bow or yes or cringe…I was Kenneth M. Toomey, distinguished British novelist in distinguished early middle age…”

 

For me, one especially absorbing part of the narrative is the section about the Vatican as Carlo Campanati moves towards the Papacy. Campanati’s plans for the Catholic Church as revealed to Toomey could be seen as similar to John XXIII’s ideas: “the unification of the churches. The vernacularization of the liturgy” and the awareness of “capitalistic enemies, but … Marxist enemies too”. Around the time of the writing of Earthly Powers in 1978 came the drama of the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and John Paul I and the accession of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, a period which prompted regular discussion in the Catholic Church about the pontifical legacy of John XXIII. The vivid African image on the cover of my Penguin paperback edition seems out of place at first since it seems to give undue prominence to a tiny incident from a novel which takes place more often in Europe and the USA, until you notice that the figure in the wooden statue is undergoing a Christ-like crucifixion.

 

 

The night-time exterior of Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2006.”I… telephoned La Scala to ensure that a ticket for the gallery was available for me and would be waiting at the box office.”

 

Barcelona in 2002 with Gaudi’s building La Pedrera on the left. “Ralph and I were at this time more or less domiciled in Barcelona… Why Spain, or rather Catalonia, which is not quite Spain? Because mild fascism seemed to me at the time to be better than confiscatory socialism. Because of the architecture of Gaudi…”

 

Another favourite strand throughout the novel is the descriptions of food and drink which showcase Burgess the bon viveur as well as the descriptive writer. For example, the expensive Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where its restaurant serves “Saumon Fumé de Hollande, Velouté de Homard au Paprika, Tourte de Ris-de-Veau Brillat-Savarin, Selle d’Agneau de Lait Polignac…”, or “the crowded smoky (Paris) restaurant (with) potted shrimps, lobster Mornay, a carafe of house Chablis” followed by all brands of cigarettes such as “Gold Flake, Black Cat, Three Castles, Crumbs of Comfort” or Moneta in Italy with its “thick bean soup, tripe stew with gnocchi, fat sausages from the grill, the black wine that is Moneta’s pride”.

Although I did enjoy the belated company in a writer of whom I used to be such a fervent fan, I did feel just a little sense of anti-climax at the novel’s ending. Perhaps because it is the sort of novel which impresses an eager younger reader rather more than a jaundiced older one, and perhaps because of another stronger sense, that this reader and the world in which he was reading were so very different from what they would have been at the time of the book’s original publication.

Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1982)  Earthly Powers  Harmondsworth: Penguin

 

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Our changing perspective of World War One

 

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Gravestones at a World War One battlefield, probably Verdun.

 

An earlier Leaf Collecting post recalled a speaker on a long-past edition of BBC’s Newsnight who suggested that a major reason why World War One was being still remembered after a century was the number of its soldier-poets who were still studied at school.

A more recent piece on the BBC website by poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan wondered whether our common view of the World War One experience as one of horror and disgust is actually false, and whether it has been skewed by one single poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Part of McMillan’s argument is that it was two poetry anthologies published independently in the 1960s, by Brian Gardner and Ian Parsons, which established and emphasised this bleak pessimistic view of the war. This was in line with the anti-war views shared at that time by many liberal writers, academics and broadcasters. This was an era of fear of nuclear war prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first wave of popularity of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and protests against the Vietnam War. The social and political climate also boosted the popularity of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

McMillan’s view is shared by Tim Kendall, who has edited a recent collection of World War One poetry. Kendall suggests that Brian Gardner actually provided false information about Owen, for example that the latter was prone to share “horror photographs” with contemporaries who had less combat experience. He adds that the Latin epithet which is part of Owen’s title was used 20 years earlier in a newspaper report by the rather more bellicose Winston Churchill and therefore its application here was not quite as “original” or “revolutionary” as Owen fans have suggested.

 My own collection of the poetry is a later one, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, in a revised edition from 1996. As well as the familiar names, it includes female poets and combatants from Austria, Germany, France and Italy. 

Whose poetic experience is the more authentic? When I was young, my impressions were in line with McMillan’s: it was Owen who was the orthodoxy, the accepted spokesperson, with Isaac Rosenberg acquiring some status as the only significant poet who was not an officer. Recently it appears that David Jones and In Parenthesis have been pushed further towards the top of the pantheon.

The one weakness in an argument that earlier readers of Owen inherited the flawed critical perspectives of the 1960s, in my opinion, is that many more of those readers had direct experience of war. Men and women alike might have served in the forces or in reserved occupations at home during World War Two, and others had done National Service. School-age readers had fathers or older relatives who had served – although admittedly, if they were like my Dad or David Hepworth’s, they never spoke about it.

I was really struck when I saw Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set film Vera Drake by that pub scene where men discuss briefly their different war experiences:  such moments must have been a powerful and intimate bond between many of those more introvert individuals.

The status of particular works of art keeps changing, because the ways audiences respond keep changing. Except for that one crucial fact, that far fewer readers or viewers of war stories today have had personal experience of the hardship and danger and sacrifice which are being described and presented to them.  

 

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A notice-board somewhere on the Western Front commemorates the vast numbers who died.

 

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The influence of Grunwick

 

Grunwick Changed Me was the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast earlier this year. “Me” was Maya Amin-Smith, a young Asian-English woman who found out only recently that her family members had been participants in the strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London during 1976-1978.  

The title of the programme could have applied, in a lesser way, to me also. All of us are affected at different times in our life by particular national and international news events. Grunwick was certainly one of mine. At university in the mid-1970s I was acquiring a knowledge and interest in politics and current affairs, but my principles and loyalties were still not fully formed.

Trade unionism, while very visible, was often presented very negatively. Since nobody in my family were either trade union members or overt supporters, my own attitudes were heavily formed by fictional representation. In Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront , the leadership of a dockland union branch are a gang of criminals who terrorise the local community and incur the opposition of the local Catholic priest but who are eventually beaten by Terry Molloy’s single-handed violent resistance. In one episode of the post-World War One TV drama When the Boat Comes In, the sympathetic character Tom Seaton returns to work during a strike because of his family’s poverty and illness and is attacked by a group of fellow miners, and has to be helped by the resourcefulness of hero Jack Ford. In both cases individualism is presented as more noble and admirable, and more correct, than collectivism.

In the UK in the 1970s, trade unions had a large membership and were highly active in both workplace and civic space. This was due to, as expressed by Selina Todd in her brilliant political history The People, “the chasm between their high expectations of life in an affluent society, and the reality they experienced on the factory floor”. The employees of the Grunwick factory, mostly female immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies, went on strike in protest about low wages, poor conditions and the right to join a trade union.

The Grunwick dispute was my first clear awareness of secondary picketing. What I remember were the TV pictures and reports of large crowds of aggressive trade unionists, not directly involved in the dispute, being held back by squads of policemen.  One useful nugget from Grunwick Changed Me was that it was the Grunwick strikers who contacted other unions and who were very gratified by the support they received.

In fact, that support from the leadership of the TUC and other unions in the summer of 1977 lasted a short time only. The Grunwick strike finally ended the following year. Contrary to the recommendation of the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry, the management did not agree to union representation and did not reinstate most sacked workers. 

The radio programme definitely came across as, primarily, a family history story, secondly, a story of female and ethnic empowerment, and only, as a distant third, the recollection of a significant event of trade union protest. In that second category, it certainly accorded appropriate prominence to the strike leader Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010 and who I don’t remember reading about at the time.

However, the programme completely omitted one aspect that was widely covered at the time: when three politically moderate Ministers from the Labour government, who were sponsored by the union APEX, were ridiculed for their public support of a violent dispute. The incident was often used against Shirley Williams when she was leaving the Labour party to co-found the Social Democratic Party. The Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was always nervous of supporting trade unions in any disputes with employers: the social changes which would lead to the 18 years of the Conservative government were already in process.

In Grunwick Changed Me, writer/activist Amrit Wilson said that young people now tend to be unaware of radical political history. In fact, said Maya Amin-Smith, people today are perhaps more likely to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs than of a group of low-paid workers, especially if the battle they fought had been lost. Around the time of the Grunwick strike I was certainly someone who had not yet learned the truth that every right possessed by men and women was one which had been fought for, often literally, from a previous powerful group. Or, if I understood this fact rationally, I certainly did not appreciate exactly what such struggles involved. By the time the miners’ strike came round about six years later, I was more informed and more attuned.

Selina Todd gives due status to the influence of the Grunwick episode in The People. “The Grunwick strikers challenged the assumption that married women, immigrants and young workers were naïve or apathetic… (It) was the first major dispute to involve Asian and white workers and men and women, working alongside each other on equal terms…It marked a radical and hopeful departure in the history of labour protest.”   

 

 Reference:  Todd, Selina (2015)    The People : The Rise and Fall of the Working Class    London: John Murray

 

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No fixed points

 

During the 20th century and into the 21st,  culture in the UK became wider and more democratic, but not necessarily deeper. When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, their audiences consisted of people who had far less formal education than any of us   yet those plays are today still considered mostly too inaccessible to read or to watch. Few people today feel shy at making fun of contemporary art and architecture. My own generation certainly played our part in this decline through our dismissal of classical music and exaltation of pop and rock music from the 1970s onwards. 

Such a gloomy perspective probably springs automatically from ageing. Whatever, Radio 3’s programmes to mark the 70th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme provided several opportunities to reflect back on some of the country’s (and my) steps in the cultural journey. 

One of many intriguing facts which emerged both from the documentary The Envy of the World, first produced for the 50th anniversary in 1996, and the discussion Who Cares if You Listen?, was that William Haley, BBC Director General of the time, imagined that each of the new post-war radio stations would overlap in their content and that people could be coached into listening to the most intellectually demanding material on the Third Programme. Of course, that would have seemed a reasonable ambition then since the mainstream listening of the Home Service and the Light Programme would be regarded today as specialised and not always easy!

Haley’s vision of the Third Programme may now seem grandiose and pompous, but, as pointed out by Jenny Doctor and A.C. Grayling on Who Cares if You Listen?, it was formed from a widely-shared post-war ideal of renewal, building on generations of individual auto-didacticism.  “The war had made a lot of people more serious,” said Etienne Amyot, the Third Programme’s first head of planning. Similarly, Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of the Arts in the new Labour government, believed, as Philip Dodd observed on People Power, that Britain could become “a Third Programme nation”.  

The Envy of the World was able to bring forward several distinguished cultural figures  – playwright Harold Pinter, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, philosopher Bernard Williams –  to reminisce eagerly about the exhilarating education in music, poetry, drama and ideas which they received as regular listeners to the early Third Programme, but they of course were all young at the time, and, when you are young, adventure and experimentation of all kinds comes naturally. As mentioned earlier,  my own Radio 3 listening in the pre-internet age was always erratic, but one programme which I did hear regularly was Critics’ Forum. Acquiring a radio of my own at the age of 17 or 18 in the mid-1970s,  I came across this arts review magazine by accident one Saturday tea-time and was quickly lured by its elevated conversation on books, theatre, cinema, music and broadcasting. Its time slot was inconvenient but I was always happy to catch some part of it regularly even as my activities and priorities changed during its broadcasts of the next 15 years.

Critics’ Forum was produced by Philip French, also a long-time film critic with The Observer. The engrossing Philip French and the Critical Ear  included the snippet that the programme might have continued longer than 1990 but for disagreement between French and the new Controller of Radio 3, John Drummond.  Critics’ Forum was based on a Home Service programme from the 1950s and 1960s called The Critics, and so, as the documentary pointed out, it is apposite that its closest modern equivalent is back on Radio 4, Saturday Review

(Although the premature termination of  Critics’ Forum reflects badly on Drummond, I always associate his tenure as Controller with that great early 1990s initiative of weekends of programmes from cities abroad – Berlin, Minneapolis/St Paul and Prague    which must have been the inspiration for the themed or residency weekends and seasons which have continued on Radio 3 to this day.)

The Third Programme ran for six hours every evening, although that was cut to just three hours in 1957, due to a combination of low audience figures and the then widespread fear in broadcasting circles that the popularity of television was dooming all radio to extinction. Amazing in many ways that the concept of a radio channel dedicated to high culture remained sufficiently strong in the BBC management mind for a full decade more until the more confident days of 1967 and the new stations of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. 

One of William Haley’s ideas for the Third Programme was that it should have “no fixed points”, no mandatory programme or timing such as for a news bulletin. Each evening was a blank page for whatever the planners imagined, no matter how different to what had been broadcast the night before, and occupying the full six hours with one event or theme if appropriate.

It seems natural now to compare the Third Programme story to that of those later TV channels which were created with smaller and specialised audiences in mind: BBC2, Channel 4, BBC4. Each of these gradually shifted into something blander and less innovative. A neglect of foreign-language and small-budget films and of the famous plays from the theatre canon; a neglect of opera and classical music outside the Proms; a tendency to repeat and recycle the safe rather than the challenging from the archives; factual programmes which adopted a sensational tone and style and which were dominated by the personality of the presenter rather than the richness of the topic; an over-fondness for the history of popular music and TV; a serious over-fondness for the format of the game show.  It has happened to BBC2 and Channel 4 since the millennium, in my opinion, and most disappointingly, to BBC4 within only a few years of its launch.

In contrast, the present-day Radio 3 still bears a good deal of similarity, in the best way, to that original template for the Third Programme. On a few random glances through early Third Programme schedules via BBC Genome, you can find Bach music alongside a Bernard Shaw play Jacobean drama and discussions about contemporary Africa and literature and the visual arts alongside world musicAny evening on Radio 3 this year could have provided an equally invigorating mix.

 

 

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The widespread influence of La Serenissima

 

Would it be fair to say that most people think of Venice in the Middle Ages as a powerful and successful republic but not as an imperial power? The mercantile background of The Merchant of Venice rather than the military one of Othello, in other words. In fact, Venice had a number of colonies around the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean Seas. One of these, for more than 400 years, from 1204 to 1669, was Crete. On a recent trip, I was struck to hear our guide describe Rethymno in Crete as the most Venetian town outside Venice.

 

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The Fortezza (fortress) in Rethymno, built in the 16th century.

 

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The former Venetian Harbour, with its later lighthouse.

 

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The Rimondo Fountain, built in the 1620s.

 

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The Archaeological Museum is located in the former church of a Franciscan monastery.

 

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The Loggia was built around 1600 as a meeting place for the nobility of the period.

 

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The former Nerantzes Mosque was first built as a Catholic church.

 

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Porta Goura was built in the 16th century.

 

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The Catholic Church of St Anthony of Padua. Although built only at the end of the 19th century, the building shares some of the proportions of the grander Baroque churches of Venice.

 

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The Arsenale in Venice, part of its complex of former shipyards and armouries.

 

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A canal view in Venice.

 

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A church exterior in Venice. These three photographs of Venice were taken in 1994.

 

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The elements which made this war highly effective if not lovely

 

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One of the dozens of cemeteries of named and unnamed casualties from World War One in northern France and Belgium.

 

The great World War One commemoration machine is never far from view. Recently the Battle of Jutland, imminently the Battle of the Somme. So my very first viewing of Richard Attenborough’s film of Oh! What a Lovely War has been of particular interest.

Joan Littlewood’s original production in 1962 has passed into theatre mythology, a huge influence on a generation of political theatre.

However, it has been suggested that, by the time Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969, the show and its style were already a little out of date. The success of The Great War, the 26-part BBC TV documentary with its detailed use of archive photographs and film, plus the less hierarchical social habits which were developing, had spread a more balanced and more critical, less imperialistic and less jingoistic account of the War.

At that time, too, film producers were often employing black and white film to add authenticity to war stories. For instance, in the heroic epic The Longest Day, the small-scale anti-war King and Country and more conventional masculine dramas like The Hill and Guns at Batasi. Did Attenborough ever consider that treatment, one wonders? 30 years later Steven Spielberg talked about how the decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white relieved him of pressure to make such very serious material too commercial. The Angry Silence, the working-class factory drama which Attenborough produced, had certainly benefitted from the use of black and white. But Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first big directing project and he and his co-producers probably felt that colour went hand in hand with the big budget, big stars and a long running time.

It is also interesting to compare Attenborough’s all-star cast with a similar ensemble (including literally many of the same people: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Robert Flemyng, Edward Fox, Susannah York) at exactly the same time in Battle of Britain, a film with a more familiar heroic tone. When people first went to see Oh! What a Lovely War, did they know how different in content and tone was its source material?

 

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Brighton Pavilion, undergoing refurbishment in 2006. “Oh! What a Lovely War” was mostly filmed in and around Brighton.

 

I think the film today still comes across as a notable piece of work. The more realistic trench locations blend satisfactorily with the metaphorical one of the seaside pier, which is particularly effective in the interior scenes where the hazy white light backdrops the elite power politics at the start and end of the war. That scene near the end where the solitary infantryman is led along the blood-red tape past the armistice partners and is seen by them as a distraction in their important business is no less powerful for being theatrical. In fact, it actually seems more effective to me than the famous finale of the hundreds of white crosses on the green country hillside. Olivier’s unflattering characterisation of Sir John French neatly foreshadows his last film role as the wheelchair-bound veteran in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem.

The use of period songs as ironic commentary was of course the major part of Oh! What a Lovely War. Songs with simple and sweet arrangements like “Bombed last Night”, “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang” and “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum” came across now as especially effective. Another “what if?” muse: might a jagged, dissonant Kurt Weill-esqe arrangement have been more powerful and more in tune (pun partly intended) with Joan Littlewood’s didactic sardonic staging style?

What I actually didn’t know until very recently was that the whole structure of Littlewood’s show derived from a BBC radio programme by Charles Chilton called The Long Long Trail, which also used period songs to tell the story of the war experience from the perspective of the ordinary soldier.

Oh! What a Lovely War has been revived again in this period of World War One commemoration, apparently still to considerable effect. This demonstrates not just how those Brechtian theatrical devices can still work, but also the astonishing staying power of those popular songs from so long ago.

 

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A multi-lingual sign at one of the World War One cemeteries.

 

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A period poster at a former Edwardian music-hall: the Panopticon in Glasgow

 

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Remembering the Rising

 

Nobody now sees Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising entirely in the romantic and heroic light in which it was once presented, even if they respect the great writers associated with it, such as W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. Plenty of information is now available about such features as the fatal and avoidable flaws in its organisation and the number of civilian casualties which resulted.

Heather Jones’ two programmes for BBC Radio 4, The Easter Rising 1916 ,were informative and fair about the actual events of April 1916, but, for me, especially enlightening on the different ways the Rising has been remembered since.

A key role in this has been played by the controversial and divisive but intriguing figure of Eamon de Valera. The one leader of the Rising who was not executed, possibly because he was a US citizen or possibly just due to his good luck; who later undermined the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated by his friend and comrade Michael Collins which led to the Civil War; and who then led Ireland over 40 years as Taioseach and President during a period which is generally felt now to have been one of unhealthy social, religious and cultural conservatism.  

It was de Valera’s anti-Treaty Republicans, the losing side in the Civil War, who “appropriated ” the first commemorations of the Rising, said one contributor, Mary Daly, and it was they  who “claimed the spirit of 1916”.  Over the next decades, as Jones expressed it, de Valera “sacralised the Rising as a way of unifying the Irish people”. Gradually, however, perspectives did shift.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, said Fearghal McGarry, it was the violence of the Rising which was emphasised and criticised, while, in the 21st century, its socialist and feminist elements have been given greater attention.

 

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The Four Courts in Dublin, one of the combat zones during the Rising.

 

In general, the established commemoration of the Rising over the decades meant that the Irish fighting alongside the British during World War One became overshadowed, said John Horne. With subsequent Irish neutrality in World War Two and the later Troubles in Northern Ireland, it became “almost a taboo” to mention it, “a frozen memory” which, he suggested, has only recently become “unfrozen”. Furthermore, the British casualties of the Rising are rarely remembered, with the small memorial in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin regularly overlooked.

The 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising in 1966 was on a large scale and envisioned by President de Valera as a way to “rejuvenate a nation”. It included what sounds like a fascinating television programme by the national broadcaster RTE called Insurrection, a drama documentary which presented the events over eight nights in the format of news bulletins. An artistic device which was employed around the same time by the Peter Watkins film The War Game and has been recycled in the UK in more recent times, I seem to recall, in commemorating anniversaries in the two World Wars.

 

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The Parnell Monument in Dublin to an earlier Irish nationalist leader had only recently been opened at the time of the 1916 Rising.

 

Several contributors analysed perceived connections between the ostentatious commemorations of 1966 in both Ireland and Northern Ireland with the rise of republican violence in the province from 1968. Terence O’Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was said to have commented that large numbers of nationalists on the streets brandishing Irish tricolours provided unfortunate inspiration for both the nationalist and unionist communities. Margaret O’Callaghan dubbed this period “a pre-Troubles Troubles.” One particular outdoor event of Easter 1966, the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin by an IRA group, can be readily seen now as highly shocking and inflammatory.

No surprise, perhaps, that the present Irish government was nervous at first at how the centenary of the Rising might be marked. The initial publicity imagined a programme which emphasised aims which were inclusive and scholarly, so as not to undermine the political progress of the recent past. However, it was felt that the radical national origins of the Rising could not be ignored and the exhumation and state funeral of 1916 veteran Thomas Kent took place with an oration by Taioseach Enda Kenny which recalled Padraig Pearse’s oration for O’Donovan Rossa.  Jones also highlighted the reconciliatory initiative of a commemoration wall at Glasnevin cemetery which names the dead people of the Rising from all sides.

 

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Kilmainham Jail, where the leaders of the Rising were imprisoned and executed, was closed as a prison in 1924 and in later years became a museum and art gallery.

 

A tangential reference to one of the better-known films set during the 1916 period, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It was a film I liked much more the second time when I saw it as a lively thriller with some basis in fact rather than an authentic historical biography. I have often wondered if, instead of Liam Neeson, its producers ever considered casting as Collins a younger actor who bears a striking physical similarity to him, who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, who would in 1995 have also been a reasonably bankable choice, and who would certainly have the acting range to convey fully the complexity and charisma of Collins: Kenneth Branagh. Until I find out the answer to that question, I can acknowledge that their choice of Alan Rickman as Eamon de Valera was definitely a good one.

 

  

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Over the border

 

 

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Dundrennan Abbey, near Kirkudbright, was built in the 12th century.

 

For centuries the border areas around Scotland and England were places of tension, rivalry, crime, and organised military conflict. They were also the scenes of dramatic romantic stories, poems and songs.  The first album I heard by Dick Gaughan, No More Forever, originally released in 1972, included powerful versions of two such songs.

“The Fair Flower of Northumberland” is a traditional song where the daughter of an English nobleman helps his Scottish prisoner to escape from captivity. Each verse repeats a line that the young woman’s love has been “easy won” and, indeed, the Scotsman turns treacherous after they safely cross the border. He is already married and he sends her back home to Northumberland with the ugly epithet that she is a “brazen-faced whore”. Her parents are surprisingly sympathetic: she has been “beguiled” by the romantic foreign prisoner and the correct solution is that they now provide a dowry to find her a more suitable husband.

 

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Threave Castle, near Castle Douglas, was built in the 14th century. It stands on an island in the River Dee.

 

In “Jock o’ Hazeldean”, written by Walter Scott although based on an earlier traditional ballad, the dowry and engagement have already been set. Three of the stanzas are spoken by the future father-in-law of the young English woman and Scott includes some great images of medieval wealth and status. The young woman has already been promised a “coat o’ gowd” and the ostentatious outdoor pleasures of “hound…hawk (and) palfrey”; for her wedding the (presumably pre-Reformation) church is “deckt at mornintide (and) the tapers glimmert fair”. We are given no information about whether this Scotsman is more deserving of devotion than the last; regardless, “she’s owre the border and awa’ wi’ Jock o’ Hazeldean”.

 

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Part of the ruins of Sweetheart Abbey, near Dumfries. It is so called because it was founded by Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway in the 13th century in memory of her late husband, John Balliol.

 

A later song of border romance from a different musical style is “Moonlighting” , co-written and recorded by Leo Sayer in 1975. Here both lovers are English, living perhaps somewhere in the north of England.

 

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Part of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman division between England and Scotland, photographed on a drizzly day in 2003.

 

In apparent homage to earlier border traditions, the song has a relatively spare instrumentation in which a xylophone or glockenspiel seems to play a part. The rhythm, gentle but still urgent, evokes  surreptitious plans and nervous excitement.

The narrative is set in happier times when young adults who were not university graduates might have stable secure employment. He works in a printers, she in “the water department” of the local council, presumably in a secretarial or clerical role; he owns a blue Morris van. We know her surname and that he has a friend called Eddie, but neither Christian name.

There does not appear to be any serious tensions between their two families; only desire and adventure fuel the elopement to the border to be married in Scotland. The place name identification in the final lines, “We’re only ten miles to Gretna, they’re three hundred behind” has always struck me as having as much poignancy as in many a more famous song.

 

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The old blacksmiths shop in Gretna Green, as photographed in 1990. The tradition of English couples rushing here to marry began when Scotland had lower ages of consent than England.

 

 

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