Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A bastardized haiku for men of imperial Japan

Face Slap ape

Right hand to left cheek

Left hand to right cheek

Binta hints of

Nothing

auschwitz_birkenau

4 reasons to go see Selma – and they’re all English

Screenwriter Colin Welland famously proclaimed “The British are coming!” when he picked up the original screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1981. Then the drought followed. Then Film4 (the movie-making bit of Channel 4) helped correct that with prestigious Oscars for The Last King of Scotland [Best Actor], Slumdog Millionaire [Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and 5 others] and last year 12 Years a Slave [Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and 6 nominations] and for the first time a black hand clutching that Best Picture statuette. Which brings us neatly to Selma, the powerful new movie about Martin Luther King and the break-through protests he led at Selma, Alabama which ultimately secured the vote for African-Americans. So an American icon (the only modern American with a public holiday named after them – this coming month you can join in on the 19th [January]) and a very American subject yet the 4 lead roles are filled by Brits.

I went to a BAFTA viewing last week attended by the film’s main lead, David Oyelowo. I didn’t know anything about him, not having been a Spooks fan – that’s a UK drama on BBC about spies (= spooks) for any American cousins reading this, I’m pointing that out because spooks means something else that side of the water (= derogatory term for African-Americans). They changed the title to MI-5 in the US for just that reason. So I almost fell off my perch when he started talking in a South London accent. Much like when I first heard Eton-educated Dominic West speaking after watching The Wire - BTW McNulty’s partner The Bunk (Detective Moreland) shows up as a token American actor in Selma, Wendell Pierce plays the Reverend Hosea Williams who leads the first Selma to Montgomery march in MLK’s place.

Actor David Oyelowo speaking about his role as Martin Luther King in the movie Selma

David Oyelowo on playing MLK at Vue West End, Leicester Square – 17th December 2014

1. David Oyelowo plays the big man himself, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

Actor David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr in Selma

David was born in Oxford and trained at LAMDA in London. His portrayal of MLK certainly makes him a Best Actor contender in the forthcoming awards season – I thought Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking was way out ahead of the pack before I saw Selma. He’s done the whole African-American story at this point with roles in Lincoln, The Butler and The Help. He also appeared in the aforementioned The Last King of Scotland as well as a small part in fellow Brit Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

He puts the success of British actors down to their training which he characterises as focusing on building the character from the inside out, diametrically opposite The Method. His accent in the movie is flawless, King having a very particular mix of accents with an equally distinctive preacher’s inflection.

He felt fated to play this role (it took eight years to get the movie made and he was cast early on). Shooting on location in Selma and Montgomery, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge which was the frontline of the protest (the bridge being named after an Alabama senator and general who also led the Alabama Ku Klux Klan – surprisingly (to a Brit at least) it retains its name to this day), shooting on location in the places where the civil rights history played out made for some very powerful experiences for the actor. One Twilight Zoney story he told was how when they came to shoot the final speech in front of the Capitol building in Montgomery the Production Designer was unhappy with the rostrum and podium. He went over to the nearby church, where MLK had preached, and asked to borrow a lectern. The pastor went down into the basement to look for anything suitable and found one covered in dust. When the Production Designer got it cleaned up and onto the set he checked back against contemporary photos and found it was the actual one used in 1965.

2. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, MLK’s wife

Actress Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott king in the movie selma

Carmen was born in Kensington (London, England) of a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. She’d already played Coretta in the HBO TV movie Boycott thirteen years earlier. She met her current husband, actor Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig era Bond films), on the set of that movie but was previously married briefly to British trip-hop artist Tricky. She met Coretta King when making Boycott. She captures the dignity of CSK well and has a good scene with Malcolm X as well as a key one confronting her husband about his infidelity.

3. Tom Wilkinson plays LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson)

tom wilkinson as lyndon johnson in selma

Tom lives up the road from me in Muswell Hill. He’s great as Mr President, a touch crude and ultimately concerned with his legacy. He was born in Leeds and trained at RADA. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing US Presidents including Anthony Hopkins as Nixon and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln.

4. Tim Roth plays Governor George Wallace

actor tim roth as governor george wallace in the movie selma

Tim is from Dulwich, South London and studied at Camberwell Art School. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing evil baddies. Wallace qualifies as indicated by the assassination attempt which left him in a wheelchair from 1972. Roth set out to play him as a despicable monster and pulled it off pretty well, you really want to hiss every time he appears. Roth came from a left-wing/Communist household and the Selma-Montgomery Marches were well known to him from it.

It’s a really striking movie and very well acted by the Brit Pack. What makes it particularly resonant though is that recent times have made it abundantly clear that the race issues that dog America (not least because it’s a nation founded on a genocide) are still here #ICantBreathe

History Boy

the dawn of time universe sun big bang

I’ve been coming to DocFest (formerly the Sheffield International Documentary Festival) since the dawn of time. I’m sitting cross-legged on the hill of Howard Street, on a black marble seaty-thing, as I write this, buddha-like. The hill runs up from the station towards the city centre and is one of the best bits of urban regeneration I’ve seen in this country. Overlooking this spot is an Andrew Motion poem written on the side of a Sheffield Hallam University tower block addressing travellers arriving in the city (Andrew Motion in part inspired Simple Pleasures part 4). After my many years coming to the festival I came up with a good strategy involving this hill yesterday. Instead of relentless regular blocks of formalised meetings crowding out the day I arranged no meetings – just sat on one of these black marble blocks and waited for people I knew and wanted to see pass by me. It worked very well – I got to chat with more people and the chats were the lengths they needed to be.

howard street sheffield docfest 2014

I am now on the train pulling out of Sheffield. I leave behind a very satisfying couple of days’ experience. It began as I got off the other train the other way on Sunday evening. I dumped my stuff at the hotel and went out for dinner just out of town with Colm O’Callaghan, a colleague from RTE in Dublin. We chatted about all manner of stuff, centred on Ireland and music, and most excitingly discussed the possibility of doing a collaborative historical project next year. We headed back to town to meet  at a bar the speakers in the session I was to chair the next day. We did a judicious amount of preparation (mainly a quick chat to reassure them we’d be talking about stuff they know well and don’t have to think much about and ascertaining what video material they’d brought with) then oiled the getting-to-know-you wheels with alcohol.

robert capa d-day landings

The session the next morning entitled ‘Interacting with the Past’ focused on interactive and multiplatform TV in the History genre. Joe Myerscough, Producer/Director from the excellent Windfall Films, represented the superb D-Day: As It Happens project from Channel 4 in 2013. The delightful Elizabeth Klinck, a super-expert Canadian visual/archive researcher, added an interesting perspective. And my Channel 4 colleague, Online Producer Marie James, focused on The Mill, a historically accurate drama set in 1831. We managed to range across a lot of territory around what interactivity brings to History TV and from a lot of perspectives (indy producer, broadcaster, support services, commissioner), driven by questions from the audience, so it felt free-flowing, flexible and practically useful. Went down well, felt good.

Andre Singer

Andre Singer

At the other end of the day I went to see a new history documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by Andre Singer. I can’t write about it yet beyond what’s already in the public domain but suffice it to say it’s a very impactful film about the filming of the Holocaust. It will be showing on Channel 4 in January coming. One unexpected aspect of the story is that Alfred Hitchcock was involved in this filmic recording of the Holocaust by Allied troops. I chatted with Andre and his wife Lynette, who wrote the commentary for the film, on the way out. Also the producer Sally Angel, who I first met last year through an online project via my friend Steve Moore. We had a lively discussion about what age is best to first introduce young people to the imagery of the Holocaust. I believe it should be 16+. The person from the BFI thought younger was OK on the basis that kids get to see horror films (not an argument I buy – the documentary footage in Night Will Fall is another world from scripted drama).  I first crossed paths with Andre and Lynette when I was starting out on my career and they ran an outfit in Covent Garden called Cafe Productions (that name’s just come back to me after all these years). I went on a bus ride with Andre last May (2013) to Yad Vashem when he first told me about the film. It’s been nestling in the back of my mind since then.

So a day steeped in History.

Brilliant creatures rebels of oz documentary howard jacobson germaine greer

And today started out in similar vein. I went to see Brilliant Creatures: Rebels of Oz, a 2-part BBC/ABC documentary about 4 Australians who made good in London in the 60s, bringing a fresh perspective to a country only just emerging from the War. The Creatures in question are Germaine Greer, writer Clive James, art critic Robert Hughes and comedian Barry Humphreys. Jacobson considers Germaine Greer the most rebellious and radical of these. It’s a fabulous story – woven together by novelist Howard Jacobson (who himself wrote startlingly about the Holocaust in the brilliant Kalooki Nights, which sits on my Shelf of Honour).  I had a brief chat with him after, mainly congratulating him on pulling together such an illuminating story. He said he was in search of the secret to the Oz “zest for life”.

Howard Jacobson, Greg Sanderson (BBC), Germaine Greer

Howard Jacobson, Greg Sanderson (BBC), Germaine Greer

I got close to having a chat with Germaine Greer but it didn’t quite happen. I wanted to talk Frank Zappa with her as the BBC recently released a wonderful radio documentary she made about him. There was a great clip in the film of her hanging with Robert Plant and Led Zep.

germaine_greer 60s

Over breakfast this morning I had a great plan-hatching session with a couple of documentary makers (one from Leipzig where my dad was born) which was also a kick.

So it’s been a couple of days with a heartbeat of History. I had to give it up as a subject in formal education after O Level (apart from a small burst of it as part of my German/Modern Languages degree) but at heart I’m still a History Boy.

evolution denied ape to man

 

Blue and Brassy

Edison plaque

American overstatement

On a hunt for NFL gear in NYC this morning for one of the Enfants Terribles, I walked past Macy’s and noticed this brass plaque. The exact wording it turns out is crucial. You leave with the impression that this is where the first movie was projected – “Here the motion picture began” is what misleads. But the truth is actually precisely (and narrowly) what it says below: it’s where Edison first projected a movie. It was put up by “The American Motion Picture Industry” where truth is not always at a premium.

Movies were first publicly projected 8 months earlier in Chicago at the Model Variety Theater. And they were first projected to a paying audience 5 months before in Paris at the Grand Café. In fact they’d already been publicly projected in New York before this date. I haven’t done much research but I dare say there are some other European claims to challenge these dates.

Edison had already charged members of the public to watch movies prior to this date but on peephole machines, not projected. On the date marked by this bold and brassy plaque the film was part of a vaudeville show and was simply three of his peephole films spliced together. So over-stated, over-charged and over here.

Meanwhile back at home in London, I was thinking the other day about blue plaques because a newspaper story has been doing the rounds about how English Heritage, who now administer the blue plaque scheme, established in 1866 and believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world, are about to kill the blue plaque. The scheme was set up under the auspices of the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of the Arts, of which at one time I was a Fellow). The baton then passed to the London County Council and in due course to the Greater London Council. In 1986, English Heritage took up the responsibility. So the press stories recently suggested that the scheme was about to end but I suspect this was actually cack-handed PR on the part of English Heritage, crying wolf in the face of tight times and cuts. They have subsequently said they are just pausing the scheme to deal with a back-log and slow things down in these cash-starved times. What they have done in the process is drawn attention to the cost of what should at heart be a simple operation with expenditure limited to making a robust piece of blue ceramic, but no doubt there is some immense bureaucracy accreted around a simple idea designed to make a plain link between notable characters from the past and the buildings in which they lived, worked and died. As English Heritage summarises the 147 year old scheme with which it has been entrusted: “It is a uniquely successful means of connecting people and place.” I suspect if EH did pull the plug, we the public could do it for ourselves at a fraction of the cost and bring back a long tradition of public subscription in our country with the help of some open, sharing digital technology.

Any way, enough kvetching as they say around here (I’m writing this at 3rd Avenue and 24th Street), I’d like to draw attention to my favourite blue plaque. It’s high up on the wall of 22 Frith Street in London, above the Bar Italia, directly opposite Ronnie Scott’s jazz club – and it’s a model of British understatement:

British understatement

British understatement

So basically “Here Television began”.

If you go to Bletchley Park, or certainly this was the case about five to ten years ago, you could see the concrete base of the hut where the world’s first programmable computer was created by Alan Turing. The hut was knocked down some years ago. The spot is (or was) not specifically marked. I remember standing there and thinking if this was in the USA there would be something pretty significant to mark this stupendous happening. “Here Computing began.” Or at least “Here programmable Computing began.”

It was minus 13 the night I arrived here. As an Englishman in New York I might have said: “It’s a bit nippy”. But there’s a time for sang froid and a time for being big, bold and brassy…

Leipzigzag

I look down at my feet of red clay
The stone threshold is a vale
Worn by hundreds of residents
On thousands of journeys
Behind which lies the story of Nathan
And his married sister Else
In which seventy-two years later I stand
And cross my path with theirs.
What mathematics zigzagging
Across the great gentle curve
Along the angles of history
Brings their heirs to this square
Where I feel they were happy?

The code is broken
By a facsimile map
On the back shelf
Of a dusty museum shop

Promenadenstrasse
Blown to high heaven
By a home-grown bomb
Ironically Angle or Saxon
Or written out of existence
By Soviet canonisation
Comes into alignment
In the palimpsest of charts
Etched back into history
As Käthe Kollwitz

As the lines and angles align
Our trajectory bounces off the city museum
Across the top of the central square
Towards Nat and Dora’s quarter
I fire off a text to a vestige of their family
Dead loss
And shoot off a volley
To the other half in the other Old Country
Prompting tears

Then the rectangle is spotted

Simple concrete
With invisible walls
And bronze chairs
For the invisible congregation
It’s Saturday morning, about eleven
Just the right time
And Nat’s three off-spring zag off onto the rectangle
Sit in the cold back row
Where I wonder what strange geometry
Brings us back here
And what the old man and his sister make of this
I’m sure he’s pleased we got him back home

On Kristallnacht
They melted the angles
And Moorish curves and arches
In their chaotic flames
Then charged the Israelites
To demolish the remains

A hundred and forty haunted seats
Seventy-nine people per seat
Plus interest for 1933 to 1938
By the time the 69th arrived
The maths of dark bureaucracy
Calculated zero squared

We spun off to the first point of the triangle
Twenty-two twenty eighteen
Sixteen

A space

A car park
Emptiness
Covered by a blue cloudless sky
Tranquil leaves swaying

Two years on plus two days
I zig back into town
To complete some symmetry
And get these last lines down
In the fatherland
Land of my fathers
May the old language endure

Emptiness
A car park
A space
By the corner, the first corner
We piece together the crystal shards
Of our past
By reflection
As eighteen so sixteen
Then translated to Carmel Court NW11
And rotated to that opening scene
Of burgerlich Krakow apartments abandoned
In haste
What fearful symmetry

A sweep round the circular by-pass
Brings us to the stone threshold
Number one on the Northern square
Is point two

The address on the birth certificate
With its eagle and perverted cross
What fearful geometry converted that cross
From auspicious object
Turning right and rotated
Night on blood in emptiness
To helpless subject with broken limbs
Nailed to the intersection

Father don’t forgive them
They knew what they were doing
They typed it all out
Signed and sealed it with the eagle
They had staplers and ink pads
That’s how mundane they were

The address after all these years
Turned out not to be home but hospital
The red pin dropped
On the point of birth
The last point of the triangle
Where the sons of the son of the son
Played on the black posts
Rising and falling
Lifting the feet of red clay
In the triumph of fearless play

A vestigial homeland triangle
Superimposed on the triangle of father . son . son .
Is a star
Look up
Burning across time
And space
Ad infinitum…

 Leipzig, 27th October 2012

Brave Beyond Belief (what Felix Baumgartner actually said)

Yesterday evening (14 Oct 2012 UK time) Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner become the first human to go faster than the speed of sound without a vehicle, reaching a maximum velocity of 833.9 mph (1,342 kmph). In jumping out of a balloon 128,100 feet / 24 miles /39 km above New Mexico, the 43-year-old also smashed the record for the highest ever freefall.

VIDEO: Here’s him making the jump:

The moment skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped

For me the magic moment is when he gains control around 3’30”.

VIDEO: And here’s him landing, with his reflections on the jump as the audio (from a press conference):

Felix Baumgartner lands on his feet

Here’s the accurate quote of what he said just before stepping out of his capsule – it’s been misreported as he repeated it roughly at that press conference afterwards.

Felix Baumgartner's actual words

My Olympics: Isle see you (and raise you one)

The Moment

When I got to work this (Monday) morning and everyone was talking about the Opening Ceremony I was struck by how long ago it seems – it was only on Friday night and yet a lot of water seems to have passed under the proverbial. It was exactly a week ago that I sped down to Stratford after work to watch the first full Technical Dress rehearsal of the ceremony thanks to a last minute ticket courtesy of London 2012 digital boss Alex Balfour. I was bowled over by what I saw and heard. It was clearly designed as a television event – you could sense many of the camera angles to come – so I was more than happy to experience the real thing via that medium five days later. I found the structure very interesting too – it seemed to revolve around an iconic moment right in the middle – the coming together of the five Olympic rings in a shower of steel mill sparks. We did not see the other iconic moment at the end – the lighting of Thomas Heatherwick’s 204 petal fire flower – which shifts the structure to something more balanced across the whole event. Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder proved to be a panoramic vision of what and who this country is, was and will be. It had a natural diversity and balance – ethnically, generationally, geographically, culturally – which reflect the greatness of Britain.

I’ve thought for a long time that Englishness (I’ll switch perspective for a moment) is characterised by these four things in particular:

  • Eccentricity – we always have been an odd, outlandish bunch: the world will think so all the more now (no bad thing), with the striking contrast with Beijing 2008’s bombastic opening ceremony which I wrote about back in July 2012 in this very blog here
  • Humour – we have a sense of humour that undermines authority, sometimes in a self-deprecating way (but different from New York humor in that regard)
  • Tolerance – basically these isles have tended to absorb other peoples in a constructive way
  • Creativity of a particular hard-edged brutal sort – I’ve written about this elsewhere in this blog, Creativity being one of the two the main themes, but to reiterate I believe the combination of Norman refinedness and Saxon warrior tendencies has brought about the kind of culture where a beautiful feminine dress is finished with a pair of DMs, that constant undermining of the conventional.

Danny Boyle’s ceremony was infused with all of these: Eccentricity in turning a sports stadium into a bucolic world from the past complete with farm animals and rugby players, that very eccentric game created when some maverick picked up the ball and ran with it; Humour well captured in that modern day Chaplin, mute and recognised the world over, Mr Bean, dreaming of Chariots of Fire (yes, it pains me to bracket him with Chaplin but there is that common universality) and in getting the reigning monarch to be shoved out of a helicopter to make her entrance (I loved the quotation in The Telegraph the next day: “With the words ‘Good evening, Mr Bond’ the Queen secured the monarchy for the next thousand years.”); Tolerance in the easy racial mix of the whole cast and story-telling, like the modern phone-centric romance of the Digital Revolution sequence, as well as the inclusion of the choir of blind, deaf and other children; and of course Creativity in every fibre of its being. I’m not a huge fan of Boyle’s films but I can’t really fault anything in his conception or direction on this occasion – real vision and insight.

Whilst writing this I had a quick look back at that blog post from the time of the Beijing Opening Ceremony and it read as surprisingly precient:

In 2012 to follow these people making a spectacle of themselves, partying to the tune of the Party, London must be itself, tune in to its idiosyncratic, eccentric, spirited creativity (one thing that cannot be manufactured); its rich mix of cultures and peoples; its unique, particular, genuine handmade in Britain talent; its individual dreams which thread the tapestry of its Jerusalem spirit.

I even got the opening song right – that beautiful rendition of Jerusalem which really should be our national anthem (or the English one at least). That child’s voice, and children throughout the event, were included with a genuine warmth and respect.

What was brilliant about the whole thing was how, despite the regime under which it was created, it raised an almighty finger to the Tory establishment and other right-wingers (including the US of A) by showcasing the NHS, the workers who built this country (and the Olympic Park itself, forming the honour guard when the torch finally entered the stadium), Johnny Rotten and the Pistols, Tim Berners-Lee who gave everything away in a very non-Capitalist way, ravers, lesbian kissing, volunteers, the works – all this, without aggression and in good spirit, plugging in to the energy of creative ideas and imagination.

It also captured the intergenerational aspect of the Olympics perfectly, no more so then when transferring that flame from the elder statesman of sport that is now five-time Gold Medal winner Steve Redgrave, via a generation of highly accomplished British Olympians who mentored and selected them, to the 7 emerging talents who carried those distinctive perforated metallic torches (one of which I’d seen from a few feet away two days before as it jogged across my manor by Victoria Park London N3) to light the petals of the cauldron which rose and were united in a single flame in a perfectly judged moment of symbolism.

On the Friday of the Opening ceremony I did my first shift at the Main Press Centre as a Gamesmaker (London 2012 volunteer). That I was working there is testimony to the narrowness of my skills – you didn’t apply for any particular job, you told them what you could do and they assigned you to a role, so I got the website and related social media. I woke up that Friday morning, in another well judged moment of symbolism, at dawn – excited like a child. And like a child I got on my bike (after first having driven it in the back of the car to Stamford Hill, site of my own raving in my 20s at Watermint Quay by the canal) and cycled along the self-same canal in the deserted early morning to the Hackney Wick corner of the Olympic Park. I clocked on at the MPC in good time, joined in the bell ringing at 8:12 (All the Bells by Martin Creed) and then got to it. Seb Coe wandered in during the morning to watch the Jacques Rogge press conference on our telly. He wandered in again exactly 24 hours later  the morning after the Ceremony. He looked tired but content. (I’d had only 4 hours sleep myself, and I’m a basket case without at least 16.) I took the opportunity to congratulate him (his speech alone must have been nerve-wracking to a global TV audience of that magnitude) and talk about the reaction so far. He was delighted with the UK press reaction and felt that international coverage was equally positive. We then talked for a bit about what the approach signified for the future of the country, how it was emblematic of the edge our unique British creativity can give in a world dominated by huge populations and their cheap labour. What a telling comparison between the conscripted soldiers making up the serried ranks of the Beijing ceremony and the volunteer health workers and the like who populated the Isles of Wonder.

Irish Stew in the Name of the Law

I’ve just come across something I wrote for a website called Lost Generation which I commissioned here at Channel 4 in 2005 in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum/National Inventory of War Memorials. I’d just read Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way and felt inspired to dig a bit deeper into that neglected and murky area of WWI history. I’m bunging it here for my archives (i.e. so I don’t lose it again).

Lost Generation masthead

Design for one of revolving mastheads from Lost Generation (2005)

Irish Stew in the Name of the Law

20.ix.05

Ninety years on and the chickens are coming home to roost. Except they weren’t chickens. They were shell-shocked. They were mentally ill. They were country lads completely out of their depth. At the end of 2004 a report commissioned by the Irish government was handed over to its British counterpart.  In it was revealed damning evidence of the anti-Irish racism and fundamental injustice of British ‘field general courts martial’ during the First World War. These were military courts in the proximity of the front line speedily dispensing exemplary ‘justice’ including death sentences.

The report contains a close examination of the cases of 26 Irish soldiers executed by firing squad. It asserts that, based on the evidence in the surviving files (the team had access to all but one), all the cases could have been successfully appealed had a normal set of legal standards been applied, including the need for sufficient proof and the proper consideration of medical evidence. The courts martial files were kept secret for 75 years by the British authorities, only being released in 1990.

If you were Irish, whether Protestant or Catholic, Ulsterman or Dubliner, whether fighting out of loyalty to the Union or for the promise of Home Rule, you were five times more likely to be shot by firing squad. In the rest of the British army one in every 3,000 troops was sentenced to execution in this way. Among the Irish soldiers the figure is one in less than 600.

Making an Example

The report makes a revealing comparison between the Irish and the New Zealand regiments, which were known for their harsh discipline. The recruitment figures for both countries were similar and yet there were ten times as many death sentences in the Irish regiments.

The indications of the 26 cases of execution – 23 for desertion, one for disobedience, one for quitting his post and one for striking an officer –  are that death sentences were imposed as a form of exemplary discipline. The report describes the behaviour towards the Irish involved in these cases as “capricious”, “inconsistent” and “shocking”. It also condemns subsequent attempts by the British Ministry of Defence to justify this military justice in the field as “fundamentally flawed”.

In eleven of the cases the death sentence was clearly linked to bad discipline in the units and a perceived need to set an example. The report concludes:  “Soldiers were effectively condemned to be shot because of both the behaviour of others and the opinion of others as to their fighting potential. …  Executing a soldier simply to deter their colleagues from contemplating a similar crime, or because their attitude in the face of the gravest of dangers was not what was expected – in some cases after only a matter of weeks of basic training – must be seen as unjust, and not deserving of the ultimate penalty.”

Not the whole truth

Of the 26 cases, the legal papers showed that presiding officers failed to consider medical evidence in almost half of them. Four cases involved significant extenuating circumstances. The report says: “In a number of cases there is clear evidence of ignoring medical conditions and personal circumstances that may have accounted for the actions of the accused and could have been interpreted as mitigating factors.”

Private Joseph Carey from Dublin served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers (who fought at the Somme) until his execution in September 1916. He was charged with desertion after going missing for a day. Clemency was recommended on the grounds of defective intelligence. It was drawn to the attention of the court that he had mental health issues in the wake of his father’s and brother’s suicides. The report singles this out as “a particularly shocking case” as Private Carey had been on the receiving end of an extremely heavy bombardment which added shellshock to his burden of mental illness. The clemency recommendation was ignored and he was shot evidently as a disciplinary example.

Private George Hanna served in the same regiment as Carey but hailed from Belfast. He was executed in November 1917. At his court martial for desertion it came to light he had not been home on leave for three years. During that time he had lost three brothers in the war. He was trying to get back to Belfast after having received news of his sister’s illness. The report concludes grimly that there was nothing to indicate that the military authorities “thought twice about taking a fourth son from the family”.

The report also highlighted a distinct class bias which it sees as “incompatible with an impartial system of justice”.

The Fighting Irish

The upshot of the report is a call for full pardons for the men to “grant them the dignity in death they were denied in life”. There is no demand for compensation payment attached to this call.

“We continue to press the British government to restore the good names of these men,” said Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister. “Nothing less will do the Irish government and their families.” He summed up the report as “very tragic reading” and confirmed “no-one could not be moved by the simple stories of brave, often poorly educated young men who were shot after perfunctory courts martial. The Irish government believes this was wrong. These Irish people died needlessly.”

There is now a campaign for the pardons co-ordinated by Peter Mulvany – the Shot at Dawn Campaign. It was launched in 2002 in Dublin and has support from various TDs (Teachta Dála – members of the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann), MPs and politicians across the spectrum from Rev. Ian Paisley to John Hume, as well as church leaders both Catholic and Protestant. You can find out more about the campaign here <link to Shot at Dawn Campaign http://www.irishseamensrelativesassociation.org/SADIRL.htm  >

The tragic experiences of Irish soldiers in the British army during the First World War have been brought to the attention of the British public recently by the short-listing of Sebastian Barry’s moving novel ‘A Long Long Way’ for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. It tells the story of a Dubliner who volunteers but finds himself, as the war goes on, in an increasingly incomprehensible position, ultimately belonging nowhere. At one point, just weeks before the Somme, he finds himself in his British uniform firing on his fellow Dubliners as the Easter Rising erupts and the Republic of Ireland is born.

Design for World of Mud from Lost Generation (2005)

Get Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way  <link>

Further Reading

Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers – Terence Denman (Irish Academic Press, 1992)

A Lonely Grave – Terence Denman (Irish Academic Press, 1995)

Irish Men or English Soldiers – Thomas Dooley (Liverpool University Press, 1995)

Irish Voices from the Great War – Miles Dungan (Irish Academic Press, 1995)

They Shall Grow Not Old – Miles Dungan (Four Courts Press, 1997)

Far from the Short Grass – James Durney (publisher James Durney, 1999)

Ireland and the Great War – ed. Adrian Gregory & Senia Paseta (Manchester University Press, 2002)

Dividing Ireland – Thomas Hennessey (Routledge, 1998)

Ireland and the Great War – Keith Jeffrey (Cambridge, 2000)

Orange, Green and Khaki – Tom Johnstone(Gill & Macmillan, 1992)

A & M

I’ve been spending the weekend at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland. While I was in the hood I thought I’d have a go at finding my great-grandparents’ house which is somewhere in a town about 50km East of Krakow. My grand-mother died a few years ago in London and with her went the address. So all I had to go on, beside the name of the town, was a description, based on memories of 75 years ago, of how my distant cousin (of my father’s generation) used to get to the house from the train station with all the timings in horse and cart terms; a rough memory of a street name from the Communist era incorporating the glorious name of papa Stalin; and A&M – the letters of my great-grandparents’ first names which (the one concrete fact) were on a shield or crest high on the house.

So I set off, with my older son, at 10 this morning in some wheels organised by Adam, one of the friendly admins of the Dragonforum documentary workshop. You’re into rural Poland within minutes of leaving the city centre. I was nervous for some reason – I knew we had very little to go on and my phone research of the previous day had drawn blanks and stonewalling, I didn’t want to disappoint or be disappointed or lose the link with the family home where eggs were kept in sinks in the basement and from which my grandmother set off on rides on the first bicycle in the town. Scraps of stories, not quite accurate, Chinese whispered through the family, filtered by old age and post-war reticence.

I started with my Hamburg cousin’s three quarters of a century old description of the 15 minute cart ride from the nearest station (which bore another name than the town). We got out where my best guess was, combining the description (sent via Facebook, fairplay to Anni for being so wired at her age) and Googlemaps. I’d been told the crest was near a balcony and the building on a corner. The first corner looked promising but no initials. The diagonally opposite corner looked equally possible. More or less every balconied building felt warm – the right age of building, crying out for a crest. After 40 minutes of searching the confidence was ebbing. I rang my dad’s cousin who had found and visited the house in the mid 80s but didn’t know the address. Nor whether the house was in fact on a corner. And doubted there was a balcony as the owner had spotted him and called down from a window. So all I had left was the initialed crest. And the owner in the 80s’ name – which was not in the phonebook. And the Stalin street scrap.

We trawled every main street (three) of the sleepy Sunday town whilst the inhabitants stood around the church listening to the amplified service playing I imagine to a packed house of God-fearing Catholics inside. I know my great-grandmother was killed in this town in the view of others and I pictured it in the under-reconstruction main square with its piles of cobbles, mass drifting over and my strapping half Irish-Catholic son standing with unconscious strength on its new stones in his Leinster top, blue as the sky.

No joy. So we hit the back streets. Not a crest, shield or initialled plaque in the place. It was getting hotter. 26 degrees the day we arrived, 12 the next day, back over 20 today, fluctuating like my confidence in finding this link. We passed a corner shop. Junior needed a Coke (why do they mainly sell Pepsi in this country being one of his preoccupations of the weekend). My other half had given one piece of advice at the outset of the day by text – talk to people. I talked to the middle-aged female shop keeper, she had a bit of English (unlike the old lady on the corner I’d just tried). Do you know where there used to be a video sklep? (I’d heard that sometime in or after the 80s the ground floor had been turned into a video store). Or do you know where Stalingradska was in the Commiedays? She asked a local fella hanging out by her doorway. A contrary barman from the opposite corner approached. The shopkeeper urged them to help. They went off into Andrej’s bar to find an old map. We waited expectantly. A break? They failed to reappear, the shopkeeper chased, they reluctantly got their shit together, had a quick somewhat heated debate and eventually, again at the helpful shopkeeper’s urging, the hanging-in-the-shop fella started to lead us off to where they’d concluded the Stalin street used to be. We followed in silence, he spoke little English, we spoke less Polish (like not a single word except Sklep, Alkohole and Computery – this last and first turned out to be on the money). Down one of the three bigger streets we’d already tried then off to the left, pulling up on a three way junction, he indicated a not particularly old corner house. I asked him which of the three joining streets was the Stalin one, gave him a few zloty which he was reluctant to take, then walked the length of that street as well as exploring the junction. Nada. We found ourselves back behind the now deserted church. Mission failed. I’d sent some vibes to my grandmother looking for help (I was her favourite first-born after all) but to no avail. So, cut along the side of the church back to the rendez-vous with Machek our taxiguy? Or one last look at that Stalin junction? I dragged us back to the junction, then retraced our steps earlier with the shop-hanger guide… Then out the corner of my eye I spot the only crest in town. A. M. A swirly L for Laub conjoining them. What a moment of pure soaring joy. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a prayer answered” says A and L’s great-great-grandson.

We contemplate the letters. Look at the door (beside the Computery Sklep) but there’s no bell and it looks pretty unihabited. I spot something in the red brick beside the door – some scratched graffti dated June 1922. My grandmother’s childhood era. Any more? No, but high up, not easily noticed, a bell. I ring. Nothing. Then some movement. A boy the age of my son comes to the door. After a bit of explanation (and he had heard tell of the strange Englishman Marcel’s 1980s visit) he cautiously let us in, his parents weren’t around, and allowed us to get a feel for the place with its high but shallow rooms. I didn’t push to see the egg basement.

We headed back up the hill to the square. I now knew for sure Dora’s feet had pounded this trail. And I felt she’d be pleased we’d made the effort to see the place she spoke of with affection til her last days despite what had happened there. I was glad to have brought their great-great-grandson to be seen by A & M and to have joined that link.

Back to the Fatherland 2

…so I headed down to the city museum – nothing from the 20th century covered, they pointed me to the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig (Forum of Contemporary History) – that covers from 1945 onwards focusing on the GDR. So by any standards a big gap in their city history, the 30s and 40s an official blank. But I had a break through. In the back of the museum shop I found a facsimile map of the city from 1938 – the year my grand-parents got the helloutta here and arrived in London. Promenadenstrasse wasn’t renamed after a Soviet leader but after an artist socialist by nature, Käthe Kollwitz, her inherent empathy for the less fortunate evident throughout her life’s work. As soon as I’d figured out how the old map mapped onto the new I headed over. The route took me from the old town hall past the famous Thomaskirche, last resting place of JS Bach, and then past the site of the Community Synagogue of Leipzig, burnt down on Kristallnacht in November 1938. They burnt the place down and then charged the Jews for the demolition costs. The lost 14,000 (not including never-to-be descendants) are commemorated by the empty chairs of the congregation in dull bronze set out on a flat blank concrete base. When I got to 16 Promenadenstrasse where my paternal grandparents lived from (I think) 1935 to 1938 that too was flat, blank, empty. A carpark, albeit a tranquil one shaded by trees and bathed in dappled autumnal light on my special visit. I can see from no. 14 the kind of building it probably was, a typically elegant Leipziger apartment in a tasteful neighbourhood. My grandfather was always a snappy dresser – like my youngest brother and my older son (that gene skipped me for better or worse) – so I can picture him easily in these streets.

The view from No. 1 Nordplatz

Next stop was Nordplatz, slightly further out from the centre, where he lived as a bachelor with his older sister’s family. No. 1 proved to be all present and correct, with a beautiful view over St. Michaelis church, a Gothicky affair built between 1901 and 1905, and the green beside it. Another smart apartment building where I stood on the threshold trodden by Nat Gewurtz (later Gee, 1938 was a good year for dumping German surnames) and his sister Else Wolf, peering in to the interior which has evidently been revamped in recent times. I was glad to see he’d enjoyed such a beautiful and calm home. From there to Promenadenstrasse – then next stop 5 Highbury Grove.

My next stop was the address on the Nazi birth certificate, 84 Biedermannstrasse, Sankt Elisabeth Krankenhaus, the Catholic hospital where my father was born. It was only a few blocks south of MDR (Mittel Deutsch Rundfunk), the main broadcaster in the region where I spoke yesterday on Crossmedia and Broadcaster Online Strategy to an audience primarily of factual film-makers which also included a State Minister of Saxony and the President of German/French broadcaster Arte. I spoke among other things about Surgery Live, which I reckon many of them thought had come from another planet. Seven Days was from another galaxy. From the feedback I received afterward it seems my passion for the possibilities of interactive, networked media and the boldness of our ambition at the very least landed home even if the out-thereness of Channel 4’s approach and the freedoms of British culture were somewhat alien to some of the Euros. I should have mentioned another of my projects which I also spoke about in my presentation, One Born Every Minute, because that would have given me an easier segue back to the maternity unit at Sankt Elisabeth Hospital. On arrival it was clear it has been recently refurbished so fear of disappearance returned. I found the maternity unit now in a clean modern block. A chat with the receptionist soon established that the original maternity block still stood and as I roamed the corridors of the art deco building I stumbled across the original foundation stone dated 1930. That meant when my father was born there it was an equally state of the art set-up. An irony of course was that he never got to see the place himself again after his blurry-eyed first days. He died a few years after the uprising that started in Leipzig and ended with the Fall of the Wall, never getting/taking the opportunity to come back.

I’ve enjoyed a couple of days with the presence of my grand-father and father around me. I see a tiny sticker on the wall of the hospital saying “I will wait for you” (in English). I spot a sparrow (my favourite bird, rather thin on the ground these days in England) hanging around. A warm autumn sunshine shines down from a perfect azure sky the whole weekend, contrary to the usually reliable information on my WeatherPro iPhone app, created by German-based MeteoGroup with a Teutonic regard for precision.

{2nd photo courtesy of Leipzigpost}

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