Archive for the ‘French history’ Category

Vive La France en Angleterre

On Sunday I went to a charming French bistro in Brick Lane (No. 45), Chez Elles, run by two charming French women who have been in Londres for 18 months. The Normandy cider is cloudy and strong – it frappes l’endroit. Round the corner is Princelet Street where a former wave of French immigrants settled in the 17th century, the Huguenots. The other end of Brick Lane has two bagel shops, one now just making up the numbers, the other the real thing. Round another corner (Hanbury St) is the clothes factory where my grandfather used to work and take me as a boy (now All Saints). Round yet another corner is the market where my step-dad had a shop (Wentworth Street, where the bagel places (Mossy Marks’s and Kossoff’s) are now gone or a shadow of its former self respectively). Such are the waves of the human tide… As Sartre said: “You’ve got to be philosophical about it.”

london_calling

London is now the 6th biggest French city with a population of 400,000+

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Labour of Lovechild – 4 reasons to see Inglourious Basterds

Mélanie Laurent putting on the war paint (see #4)

Mélanie Laurent putting on the war paint (see #4)

1 Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France

A bravura opening sequence of some 25 minutes in near real-time a la Once Upon a Time in the West, part of the linkage of Westerns and War Films explored in Inglourious Basterds. Christoph Waltz rachets up the tension with his stand-out performance as the insidiously suave SS ‘Jew Hunter’ Colonel – as scene stealing as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goetz in Schindler’s List. The interrogation through chat is as good a dialogue as Tarantino has ever written.

2 Performances

As well as Austrian Waltz’s excellent performance which bagged him Best Actor at Cannes, Brad Pitt does a great – slightly cartoonish/Cormanesque yet highly compelling – turn as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a no-nonsense Tennessee kickass (fellow native of Tarantino’s home state) playing the equivalent of the Lee Marvin role in The Dirty Dozen, pulling together the dirty Basterds to go kick some Kraut ass behind the lines in the run up to D-Day. He squeezes plenty of comedy out of the part, not least in his undercover I-talian.

Mélanie Laurent is also very charismatic as heroine Shoshanna, last survivor of a massacred Jewish family who takes refuge in Paris running a back-street cinema, resonant of wartime films like Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. Inglourious Basterds is very much the lovechild of Sam Peckinpah and the French section of the International shelves of QT’s legendary video store. Laurent has a perfect deadened steeliness about her, an angel of death set to visit the Nazi basterds.

3 Bar room brawl

The second bravura talkie set-piece is a long sequence in a cellar bar culminating in a Mexican stand-off (worthy of John Woo). Like the opening scene, it is driven by interrogation through chat, the tension tautened to breaking point as a Gestapo uniform gets his terrier teeth into an undercover Englishman (played by Michael Fassbender, brought to prominence in FilmFour’s Hunger). The ebb and flow of tension is reminiscent of the Joe Pesci restaurant scene in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, with echoes of Hitch.

4 Putting out fire

As ever, Tarantino’s use of music is palpitating. The scene where the scarlet woman puts on her war paint to Bowie’s Cat People theme is a good reason in itself for the invention of Dolby. I’m going back to see Inglourious Basterds again just for that moment.

It’s a film which keeps you thinking after your initial somewhat bewildered exit from the movie theatre. It was good to see a bunch of Northern Irish teens having an animated discussion about the film as they sparked up outside the multiplex in Newry. I suspect this one will bear multiple viewing (probably more scene by scene than end to end, which says much about QT’s style of film-making) and like a blood red Burgundy get better with age.

Terminated

Notes for a movie by Albert Camus & James Cameron

terminator

We are biological machines programmed only to survive.

We are born condemned to death.

To survive we must not take that ludicrous condition lying down.

We must rebel against it with kindness (as in ‘mankind’).

We need to learn to live in the present to maximise our own happiness.

That happiness must be available to the whole of our kind as a context for our individual happiness.

albert camus

Marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27th January 1945

We got the Jazz

Lafayette Flying Corps

The other afternoon I had a fabulous chat over tea with director/writer Peter Kosminsky (Britz, The Government Inspector, Warriors) about a forthcoming scriptwriting project of his. It was refreshing for me because the conversation centred on stories which is not usually the focus of much of my work in the Factual arena. Stories are so fundamental to human culture and I came across the beginnings of a fascinating one today.

Like my earlier post Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness, it’s a story involving France and Africa (in this case, indirectly through Afro-America) and racism (in this case, the prejudice of America not of France).

The protagonist is Eugene Bullard. The entry point is the Paris jazz scene between the wars.

The scene was based in the seedy quarter of Montmartre. Bullard, a black American born in Georgia or Mississippi [depending on what you read] in 1894, was programming Zelli’s Club, one of the key clubs in the area (set up in 1919 or 1922 [depending on what you read] by Joe Zelli, a London restauranteur or an Italian-American [depending on what you read] – guess he could have been both, a restaurant and club which dominated the scene til the 30s. The walls were decorated with movie star caricatures which were later emulated at Sardi’s in New York which is where I’m writing this post [in the city not the restaurant, that is]. I came across this story whilst reading about purposeless wandering around cities and today in my purposeless wandering around Gotham I found myself under the red awning of the Village Vanguard where, for example, John Coltrane played in 1961 – the year Bullard died in this same city. So all the skeins of this narrative have been weaving themselves together all day.) Bullard went on to own another hot jazz club, Le Grand Duc. Zelli’s, with its underground dance hall, was less upmarket than the Duc and regularly raided by les flics.

Back as a child in the deep South, Bullard had had explained to him by his father: “in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards”. His mother was a Creek Indian which makes the decoration of the biplane, above, all the more resonant.

When he was ten, Bullard stowed away on a ship and made first for Berlin or Scotland [depending on what you read], then London (where he was a boxer and music hall performer), reaching Paris in 1913. When the Great War erupted the following year, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He won the Croix de Guerre for his role at the crucial battle of Verdun. He went on to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a volunteer squadron who fought for France before America entered the war (the outfit to which the plane above belonged). He flew 20 missions and downed two enemy planes. So he was the very first African-American military pilot. His nickname was Black Swallow of Death. When the USA did enter the conflict in 1917, Bullard was transferred to the US Air Force and immediately grounded. He ended up back in the French infantry. He’d literally been “uppity”, thousands of feet uppity in the French skies.

Our hero died in poverty and obscurity in New York in 1961, having had a series of non-uppity jobs from perfume salesman to interpreter (for Louis Armstrong) to security guard, ending up as lift operator at the Rockefeller Centre (which I wandered past last night aimlessly).

Despite decades of obscure wandering in the aftermath of his Parisian heyday, Bullard was buried with military honours …by French Officers in the French section of the military cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Two years before, the French had made him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. By contrast, the Americans waited 33 years after his death and 77 years after his pioneering heroism to eventually make him a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Not the ending the story deserved.

eugene bullard

Two Sevens Clash

bob marley

Exodus: Movement of Jah people

1977
Bob Marley recorded Exodus in punk London (he referred to London as his “second home”). He took refuge in the city after having been hit by a bullet the previous year in a politically motivated assassination attempt. The record was released on 3rd June 1977.

1947
The ship Exodus 1947 sailed from the small port of Site near Marseilles on 11th July 1947. On board were 4,515 immigrants from post-war Europe, including 655 children. It was heading to British Mandate Palestine.

As soon as it left French territorial waters British destroyers shadowed it. In the wake of the Second World War, the British had severely restricted immigration to Palestine and eventually decided to stop illegal immigration by sending ships running the gauntlet of the British patrols back to their port of embarkation in Europe. The first ship to which this policy was applied was the Exodus 1947.

We know where we’re going
We know where we’re from
We’re leaving Babylon
We’re going to our Father’s land

On 18th July 1947, nearing the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and illegally boarded it. Two immigrants and a member of the crew were killed defending the vessel, bludgeoned to death, and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to Haifa and the immigrants were deported on prison ships back to France at the suggestion of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (better known for his role in establishing the NHS).

Men and people will fight you down

1977
The Exodus recording sessions, produced by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, took place in two west London studios: a converted Victorian laundry at the back of Island’s headquarters in St Peter’s Square, Chiswick, and the Basing Street studio, a former church in Notting Hill.

The nightly recording sessions were attended by a sizable rotating posse including the young members of Aswad and their manager, Mikey Dread (who I saw perform with The Clash at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town); Delroy Washington; and Lucky Gordon (of Profumo Scandal notoriety). Journalist Vivien Goldman remembers the sessions as being recorded “in a mood of exuberant creativity”.

1947
At Port-de-Bouc in southern France the Exodus passengers refused to disembark and remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heatwave – this despite a shortage of food, the overcrowding and dreadful sanitary conditions. The French government refused to co-operate with British attempts at forced disembarkation. Eventually, the British decided to return the would-be immigrants to Germany. These people were mostly survivors of the concentration camps and Nazi German persecution.

So we gonna walk – all right! – through the roads of creation
We the generation
Trod through great tribulation

They were shipped to Hamburg, then forcibly disembarked and transported to two camps near the German port of Lubeck on the Baltic Sea.

World public opinion was outraged by the callousness of the British behaviour and the British were forced to change their policy. Illegal immigrants were no longer sent back to Europe, but instead transported to detention camps in Cyprus.

Open your eyes and look within…
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?

The escorting British soldiers never returned to their units in Palestine. The ordeal had such an impact on them that a near mutiny erupted among them. The British army decided not to press charges and closed the matter quietly.

The events convinced the US government that the British mandate of Palestine was incapable of handling the issue of post-war Jewish refugees and that a United Nations-brokered solution needed to be found. The US government intensified pressure on the British government to return its mandate to the UN.

1977
Throughout the recording sessions, Bob continued writing songs – Exodus itself emerged quite late and, as Vivien Goldman recounts, “there was a fizzing excitement around that track from the moment it was first laid down.”

Many of the musicians were exiles. Beyond their Jamaican roots was the urge to return to Africa, a desire central to Rastafarian belief. Bob and the Twelve Tribes (a Rasta organisation to which he belonged) were actively exploring the possibilities of land made available by Haile Selassie in Shashamane, Ethiopia.

Goldman recalls: “When the night came to finish the Exodus track, the Basing Street studio was alive with excitement. From the start, the song had its own impetus … at four o’clock in the morning a moment hit when the whole room knew that this one was it.”

1947
Within a year, over half of the original Exodus 1947 passengers had made another attempt at emigrating to Palestine – most found themselves detained in camps in Cyprus. One witness describes the DP (Displaced Persons) Camps on Cyprus thus: “a hot hell of desert sand and wind blowing against tents and tin Nissen huts, a hell circumscribed by two walls of barbed wire whose architecture had come out of Dachau and Treblinka”.

Eventually, after the events around May 1948, the majority of the Exodus exiles made it back to Israel.

Exodus, all right! Movement of Jah people!

2007

Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness

Kurtz

Senegal, West Africa – two years before the turn of the 20th Century. A French military expedition sets out from Dakar for Lake Chad in November 1898 with a view of unifying all French territories in the region. The mission involves 50 Senegalese infantrymen, 20 cavalry, 30 interpreters, 400 auxiliaries and 800 porters – well over a thousand men led by nine French officers.

In command was 32 year old Captain Paul Voulet and his adjutant Lieutenant Julien Chanoine. Voulet was the son of a doctor and Chanoine the son of a general and future Minister of War.

Their orders were on the vague side: to explore the territory between the river Niger and lake Chad, and put the area “under French protection”. The Minister of Colonies said: “I don’t pretend to be able to give you any instructions on which route to choose or how you are to behave towards the native chieftains”.

When the expedition reached Koulikoro on the Niger, it split in two. Chanoine led most of the column overland across the 600-mile meander of the river, while Voulet travelled downriver with the rest of the men to Timbuktu.

As Chanoine progressed overland he found it increasingly difficult to find provisions for his large column in the arid landscape so he started raiding the villages along the way. He ordered that anyone trying to escape was to be shot. Adding to these troubles, a dysentery epidemic broke out – by the end of the first two months the mission had lost 148 porters to the disease.

Voulet and Chanoine were reunited in January 1899 at Say, the easternmost post in French Sudan (now in Niger). The column by then was 2,000 men strong – far more than their supplies could sustain. The pillaging and killing grew to match.

On 8th January 1899 the village of Sansanné-Haoussa was sacked. 101 people were killed. 30 women and children were taken prisoner in retaliation for the wounding of two soldiers.

At the end of January the mission left the river Niger for the semi-desert territory to the East.

Around this time, one of the officers, Lieutenant Peteau, told Voulet that he had had enough and was leaving. Voulet dismissed him for “lack of discipline and enthusiasm.” Peteau wrote a letter to his fiancée detailing the atrocities that he had witnessed. His fiancée contacted her local Deputy, who sent her letter on to the Minister of Colonies, Antoine Guillain. On 20th April 1899 orders were issued from Paris to arrest Voulet and Chanoine and have them replaced by the governor of Timbuktu, Lieutenant-Colonel Klobb. (Of particular concern to the French government was that Voulet was operating in Sokoto, an unconquered territory which under the Anglo-French agreement of June 1898 had been assigned to Britain). Klobb immediately set out from Timbuktu with a force of 50 fifty men.

Back in Africa, Voulet was meeting considerable resistance from the local queen, Sarraounia. At Lougou on 16th April his column suffered its biggest set-back to date – a battle in which 4 men were killed and 6 wounded. Voulet took his revenge. On 8th May, in one of the worst massacres in French colonial history, Voulet-Chanoine slaughtered all the inhabitants of the village of Birni-N’Konni, killing hundreds of men, women and children.

Klobb followed the trail of destruction left by the mission – an infernal path of burned villages and charred corpses. Trees where women had been hanged. Cooking fires where children had been roasted. Severed heads on stakes. The remains of those expedition guides who had displeased Voulet – strung up alive in such a position that the feet went to the hyenas and the rest of the body to the vultures.

After a pursuit of over 2,000 kilometres, Klobb caught up with the Voulet-Chanoine expedition just beyond Damangara near Zinder (in present day Niger). On 14th July – French Independence Day – Klobb confronted Voulet at Dankori. In full dress uniform and with his Légion d’Honneur medal pinned to his chest, Klobb approached the renegade Voulet alone. Voulet kept telling him to go back and ordered two salvos to be fired in the air. When Klobb addressed Voulet’s men, reminding them of their duties, Voulet threatened them with a pistol and ordered them to open fire. Klobb fell, wounded, but still ordering his men not to return fire. This final order was cut short by a second burst of fire which killed him.

That evening Voulet informed his officers of the clash. He stripped off the decorations on his uniform and proclaimed: “Je ne suis plus français. Je suis un chef noir. Avec vous, je vais fonder un empire” [“I’m no longer French. I’m a black chief. With you, I shall found an empire.”]

The officers were less than enthusiastic. Their negative reaction spread to the troops. Two days later an informer told Voulet that the men were about to mutiny. Voulet and Chanoine assembled the troops. They shot the informer in front of them all for informing too late. Voulet harangued the soldiers about their duty to obey their leaders, at the same time shooting at them. The Senegalese returned fire, killing Chanoine, but Voulet escaped into the darkness.

The following morning Voulet tried to re-enter the camp, but was blocked by a sentry who refused to let him pass. Voulet shot at him but missed. The sentry returned fire and ended the story of the Voulet-Chanoine mission.

An enquiry initiated by the Ministry of Colonies back in the mother country closed in December 1902, concluding that Voulet and Chanoine had been driven mad by the dreadful heat of Africa.

[This story was first brought to my attention some years ago by my good friend Marcelino Truong in Paris.]

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