Tag Archives: History

Into the Twenties


Six months ago, we moved into the 2020s. It will at least be a decade which will be easier to name and identify than the last two (the noughties? the twenty-tens?) have been.

Fear and anxiety have been common national and international moods during many of the previous decades.

In the 1960s we had the Cuban missile crisis and the fear of impending nuclear war. There were public protests for civil rights and against government injustice which became violent on the streets of the USA and Europe. Although these were also the “Swinging Sixties” of fashion, pop music, a new generation of actors and film-makers and an increase in youthful self-confidence.

In the 1980s, there was further widespread fear about nuclear war which inspired much protest. A new generation of nuclear weapons emerged at the same time as the US and UK governments were led by people who were perceived to be bellicose. The Thatcher government sparked intense political polarisation in an era of high unemployment and the closures of whole industries. Although the period also provided a continued rich variety of arts and culture which included a rediscovery of some great names of the past.

The 1990s was the first period of sustained fear about the environment and climate, about global over-heating caused by greenhouse gases and how damage to the Amazon rainforest and other tropical regions caused repercussions around the world.

Those first two decades of the 21st century whose names nobody could agree upon saw changes in science and behaviour which were mostly welcomed rather than feared. However, our continual attachment to digital technology is seen to have created unhappy consequences in such diverse areas of our lives as town planning and architecture, newspapers and television, the pop music industry, our interest in politics and government and the way our children grow up.

By the start of 2020 several of these earlier fears had reignited and amplified, especially those about the environment. We had unstable employment and continual house price rises; the latter in particular never seems to get the political and media attention it might when we are discussing the decline in our mental health.

Will the 2020s be defined by the state of our public health or will other events take precedence? Will it continue to be a period of anxiety and fear or will we really become more kind to others and appreciative of the wealth and comfort which previously we took for granted?

When you are older, I have found, you may become impatient that the same problems have been here before and neglected before. You may be less trusting about your elected representatives’ abilities and willingness to provide solutions.

Having said that, I certainly agree with Anne McElvoy and Steven Pinker that optimism is more appropriate and energising than pessimism. And I draw comfort from the reports that prayer and religious practice are regaining some popularity.


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Past and present pandemics


Reading Pale Rider, Laura Spinney’s 2017 book about the 1918 flu pandemic, during the weeks of the UK government-imposed coronavirus lockdown has drawn my attention to several historical parallels.

For many decades after World War One, the influenza pandemic which came in its final year was a missing part of the narrative. In 1975, Paul Fussell’s widely-praised work of history The Great War and Modern Memory gave it one single mention. It was never included in any of those many World War One dramas until Downtown Abbey in 2011. Spinney points out that the subject as a whole has attracted sustained academic interest only since the 1990s.

There were actually three waves of the pandemic. The first in spring 1918 was generally mild, the second in the latter half of the year was mostly severe and the third in the first part of 1919 was moderate, somewhere in between. However not all countries experienced three waves. The global number of deaths has always been undercalculated: in the 1920s it was thought that figure was 21 million, more than had been killed on the battlefields, but, by the turn of the millennium 80 years later, that had been revised to, at minimum, 50 million.

“There is only one thing we can say with something close to certainty: the Spanish flu did not start in Spain,” says Spinney. Spain was granted that dubious accolade by the victorious powers of Britain, France and the USA because it was neutral during the war and therefore did not censor press reports. This was not the sole example of blaming, however. Persia called it British Flu, Brazil called it German Flu, Senegal called it Brazilian Flu – and Japan called it “Sumo Flu” because it first broke out at a sumo wrestling tournament.

The disease may have originated on the Western Front battlefields. Equally it may have begun in an army camp in Kansas, USA, and travelled to Europe, or in China among the Chinese Labour Corps who went to serve in Europe. Only if the first scenario is correct, then, might the pandemic properly be described as a true product of  World War One. However, it was certainly more international than the war as well as more deadly, killing more people on every continent except Europe. Spinney provides detailed synopses about the outbreaks in such disparate locations as Brazil, China, Spain, New York, Persia, Russia, Alaska, South Africa and India.

There are several places in the book where Spinney’s words prefigure eerily those of 2020’s politicians, medical advisers and journalists. For example, “We’re all in this together”, that popular government rallying-call, is a phrase used by Spinney to summarise the human tendency of “collective resilience”,  joining a group in times of individual danger and seeing that group as part of him or herself. One reason for the development of “collective resilience”, she suggests, was the earlier centuries of  preaching and practice about the importance of charity and family and community by the three major monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So it is interesting, and maybe ironic, then, to recall the comment of the Conservative politician Nigel Lawson thirty years ago that the National Health Service was now the nearest thing which secular Britain had to a national religion. Evidence of this “religious” practice in 2020 has been widespread celebration of the work of doctors and nurses and, equally, widespread criticism that their governments have failed to provide appropriate equipment and protective clothing.

“Social distancing” is a phrase most of us had never heard until this year. Spinney credits the British scientist Ronald Ross as one whose research encouraged the idea as a measure to quell the spread of Spanish flu. This included closure of schools and  churches and places of entertainment and the banning of large gatherings. “This was a time before civil rights movements,” she reminds us, “when authorities had more licence to intervene in private citizens’ lives, and measures that would be perceived as invasive or intrusive today were more acceptable”. I share her perspective, so I was astonished that the UK government introduced such restrictions so quickly – and that they were so willingly and widely accepted.

In 1918-1919, “the vast majority… experienced nothing more than symptoms of ordinary flu.” Death tended to follow when Spanish flu was aggravated by bacterial pneumonia. However, the spread was invariably facilitated by prevailing conditions of overcrowding, poor hygiene, and poor health, whether in the tenements of New York or the mines of South Africa or the ships and trains carrying the Chinese Labour Corps across the Pacific Ocean and Canada towards Europe. The UK has seen many improvements in public health and housing within the last century, but it was striking that the government’s Office for National Statistics felt it could not ignore the evidence that coronavirus has had a worse impact within the black and minority ethnic communities, who tend to live in areas of greater social deprivation and to earn lower wages.

Evidence has also been published that a high percentage of the current deaths have been of people who already suffered from weaknesses caused by obesity and poor diet,  even though the media are often more attracted to the dramatic exceptions where the cause of death is harder to find.

With Spanish flu, such factors as your country, your underlying health and your living conditions explained to a great extent why you became a casualty, but there did seem also a large element of tragic accident. After all, in some parts of Asia you were 30 times more likely to die than in some parts of Europe. Within the last twenty years, says Spinney, scientists have found evidence that some people have a genetic weakness to the flu virus, for example in the way they are unable to naturally produce interferon, the protein which defends the body against viruses. Other areas of similar genetics research have been reported recently about coronavirus.

Spinney describes the Spanish flu pandemic as something “thoroughly ancient” which undid centuries of progress and took us back to the Middle Ages. “It was if the entire population of the globe…had been transported back several millennia.” No surprise that our own further advanced world has been traumatised even more thoroughly by coronavirus.

However, back then, people were more accepting of life’s trials. opines Spinney. Perhaps, too, they were a bit braver, because death was usually closer and more frequent, and maybe, too, because religious faith was stronger.

At time of writing, most people in Britain seem to prefer that the state-imposed quarantine, despite all its stresses and restrictions, be extended, and this seems to be emboldening each of the UK and Scottish governments, both now nervous rather than cautious, to follow them.


Reference :   Spinney, Laura (2017)   Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World                                    London: Jonathan Cape


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The media adores an anniversary, but I was still surprised by the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road.
Coverage of the 50th anniversary of their split was more expected.

I think of myself as growing up in the immediate “post-Beatles” period. As a primary school child attracted to the new “pop music”, I was certainly familiar with all those famous hit singles, sung by the handsome young boys in their distinctive hairstyles, whose every television appearance seemed to be accompanied by crowds of screaming young women. I recognised that the key elements of the new pop music were guitars and drums and singing which was closer to shouting. However, I was too immature to appreciate that the development through Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road involved more than longer hair and beards and more varied clothes.

As you move from primary school childhood to secondary school adolescence, your interests change. If the Beatles had continued recording together, perhaps I would have caught up with them. But we were now in the “post-Beatles” period. What I was hearing on the essential Radio 1 and reading about in the music press, and what my contemporaries were talking about, were more often the later 1960s rock artistes like Led Zeppelin, the Who, Cream and the late Jimi Hendrix or the new “glam” rock artistes like David Bowie, Roxy Music, T.Rex and Alice Cooper or the outliers like Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa and Neil Young.

Records continued to be released by John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. They remained in the news, such as with Lennon’s “Power to the People” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and McCartney’s “ Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. They did collaborate with newer artistes like David Bowie and Elton John.

The music business wanted to keep in touch with them. There were the two compilation albums released in 1973 with the similar cover photos, and then in the spring of 1976 all of the singles were re-released, with several reaching the Top 40. Lennon’s “Imagine” was released as a single for the first time at the Christmas of 1975 to considerable success. As punk music became popular in 1977, a live album of the Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg in the early 1960s was released to demonstrate that the group once played live with a punkish intensity fuelled by amphetamines and without reliance on clever studio techniques.

Their solo records seemed to draw solidly on the songwriting and arranging skills which had been such a successful element of the Beatles, but there seemed to be little musical experimentation. For example, Lennon’s new music at the time of his death in 1980 was to my ears very similar to what he had been doing on Imagine nine years earlier. Compare how David Bowie had developed during that time – or Joni Mitchell. Even the Rolling Stones’ sound had shown some variation.

During the 1980s, McCartney seemed still to enjoy making albums and touring. That he was respected as a Grand Old Man was shown by his appearance at the end of the Live Aid concert, which featured a whole tranche of newer bands. He later worked with Elvis Costello, one of the late 1970s punk arrivals who had a wide taste in music and a keen appetite for musical adventure.

Does our enduring fondness for the Beatles stem from a belief that those years of their existence were part of a better, happier time, I wonder?

In a Radio 1 profile of the Beatles in 1981, Paul Gambaccini  argued that that the group’s split in 1970 was inevitable because they were part of the optimistic decade of the 1960s and not of the bleaker, more angry decade of the 1970s.

Possibly that statement is an exaggeration. However, their eight years of prodigious output and popularity certainly coincided with a distinctive period in UK history – one of comparable creativity in fashion and design and cinema, in the increased availability of consumer goods, in social confidence, in sexual freedom, in youthful rebellion and in the political change of a Labour government and the final end of the British Empire.


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The long shadow


The continuation of food rationing into the 1950s must have been the most significant way in which World War Two influenced UK life well after the Allied victory.

Another might have been the number of war films at the cinema. At least 46 war films were released during the 1950s, notes David Kynaston in Family Britain 1951-57, with their “tried and trusted… formula” of “plenty of action and plenty of insouciant (British) heroism in a noble cause”.

By the 1960s, the new World War Two films may have been fewer but they were now international co-productions with bigger budgets, and all those 1950s favourites were now on television.

Now that I am much older than any of the returning servicemen and women of 1945 or 1946, I often reflect on how they must have learned much about their capacities for courage and fear from being participants in and victims of the war’s violence. These are common subtexts in those films which are set in the immediate post-war period.

In Bad Day at Black Rock,  McCreedy, although physically disabled from his war service, is still able to uncover on his own the criminal secret of a tiny rural town where everyone appears to have stayed at home. The narrative’s clear undertone is that service and suffering has given him a moral strength and insight from which no dirty secret can remain hidden.

In Rear Window, Jeffries, a former member of a bomber aircraft crew, has become a successful news photographer, and so has developed an intense curiosity in those around him. His uses his wartime acquaintance with the police officer Doyle perhaps a little deviously to get confidential information about his neighbours.

Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, still a young man ten years after the war has ended, remembers longingly the camaraderie of his army experience and contrasts it with the frustration he and his wife feel about their apparently comfortable civilian life.

Men who have enjoyed glory and status during the war often seem less perfect afterwards. The title character of Carrington VC is an officer whose war-time Victoria Cross overshadows the other soldiers in his peace-time regiment, including his commanding officer, and his colourful history now divides opinions about his personal integrity. Peace-time has also diluted the allure of Bill, the RAF officer in Cage of Gold. Now his charisma and energy and risk-taking tendencies seem less attractive to his wife Judy and she realises their relationship will not last.

In The League of Gentlemen, a number of former army officers use the skills of planning, organisation and engineering which they learned while in uniform to plan a bank robbery. Since we are now in 1960, there is a little doubt just how much active service any of these officers have seen – which might suggest that their values have been corrupted due to idleness and enervation.

In those films of the 1950s, the men always look hard, old, tough and mature – even though you know they wouldn’t always have been. More recent films emphasise the youth of many of those who served in the war, which is especially startling to a modern audience which may still think of itself as young! This is particularly well depicted in Memphis Belle where most of the bomber aircraft crew have an adolescent energy and impetuosity and fearlessness and even their older and more serious captain is still fresh-faced.  Equally, the aforementioned Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, partly because he is played by star Leonardo Di Caprio, looks impossibly good-looking and untarnished.

An unlikely film to reflect the influence of war experiences is the school-based drama Spare the Rod.  It contrasts Saunders, an  idealistic young teacher who has been matured by his orphanage childhood and his navy service, with Gregory, an older senior teacher who did not serve and who has become embittered by losing his joinery business during the Depression and being forced into teaching and then losing out to younger staff-room arrivals after the war. Influenced by both is Harkness, a pupil at their deprived London school, who is searching for role models since he lost his father who was traumatised by experiences as a prisoner of war in Japan and died young.


Reference:   Kynaston, David (2009)    Family Britain 1951-57  London: Bloomsbury


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Shifting points


Three photos of lower Manhattan taken in 1982. Elizabeth Street and the surrounding streets, which were considered then to be part of Little Italy, appear now to be within the neighbourhood of Nolita.


The areas of lower Manhattan in New York – where the streets have names rather than numbers – have always been an important part of the city’s history and culture. These are the oldest parts of the city where the first inhabitants lived. They were often places of overcrowding and bad housing and poverty, and have been depicted as such in many films. This is the area of the Italian families of The Godfather Part Two  and the Jewish families of Hester Street. The earlier Dead End  imagines the tenement housing of the working-class next door to a modern residential development for the nouveau-riche.

In the mid-19th century, the Five Points district, so named as it was the intersection of several streets, was notorious for its poor living conditions and commensurate crime and violence, especially between rival gangs.

This period was dramatized by Martin Scorsese in the film Gangs of New York. The first section of the narrative imagines an intense rivalry in the 1840s between gangs of recent Irish immigrants led by the Dead Rabbits and one of former immigrants, now more established, who describe themselves as “natives”. The two armies fight a battle on Paradise Square in the Five Points which the Natives win. The main part takes place 15 years later by which time some order has settled into the neighbourhood and some former gang enemies are now living together for their mutual benefit.



New York history is covered in rather a broad, simplistic, action-packed, masculine way throughout the whole film, but I always felt that the depiction of the earlier period is particularly unconvincing. We are invited to imagine that several levels of subterranean tunnels have been built below the shabby wooden houses in order to provide accommodation for the Dead Rabbits’ army and its equipment, despite the poverty of the individuals and their families. The idea seemed to have been drawn from the battle scenes of the recent fantasy success Lord of the Rings rather than as a serious attempt to convey period New York. Furthermore, a battle where hundreds of combatants use axes and cleavers and other fearsome metal objects apparently dismembered no limbs and left only the smallest amount of shed blood on the snow.

Five Points is also mentioned in George Roy Hill’s The Sting, which is set seventy years later in the 1930s. Gangster Doyle Lonnegan who is the target of a Chicago group of con-men is said to come originally from Five Points and we are advised that he would feel some kinship with the young conman Johnny Hooker who pretends that he also comes from that area. But new development and population increases had changed street shapes and names in the area and in the 1920s the County Courthouse was being constructed. Although the middle-aged Lonnegan himself might have nursed a fondness for the old Five Points, might the suspicious nature of a successful gangster not make him wonder about a younger man’s use of the old name and make him question him more closely about streets and memories?



Of course all of these old immigrant areas in lower Manhattan have undergone considerable social change (aka “gentrification”) in recent decades.


Reference : Bayor, Ronald H. and Meagher, Timothy J. (eds) (1997)   The New York Irish    Baltimore/London Johns Hopkins University Press


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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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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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The influence of Katherine


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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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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