Archive for the ‘Jews’ Category

Great Girton Girls No.16 – Sarah Marks / Herta Ayrton

After a recent reunion at Girton I decided to get a proper grasp on the history of the institution and read the standard text on the subject of which I had heard much, ‘That Infidel Place’ by Muriel Bradbrook. It’s particularly interesting because it was written in 1969 while revolution was in the air on campuses across the world. (The other name that used to come up a lot was Rosamond Lehmann, for her memoirs I suppose.) It was in ‘That Infidel Place’ I came across Sarah Marks.

Phoebe Sarah Marks Hertha Ayrton 1854 – 1923 British engineer, mathematician, physicist inventor

On that same visit I noticed a portrait on a wall of a woman named Louisa Goldsmid. The name rang a bell and she turned out to be a forebear of mine, closing the circle. A founder of the college, she will be the subject of No.17. She supported Sarah financially during her career.

Phoebe Sarah Marks was born on 28th April 1854 in Portsea, Hampshire (England) and died on 26th August 1923 (at the age of 69). She was a mathematician, engineer, physicist and inventor. As a teenager she changed her name to Hertha and in due course married physicist and electrical engineer William Ayrton, so she ended up with the name Herta Ayrton and that’s what’s on her two relatively recent blue plaques. She got the name Hertha from the eponymous heroine of Swinburne’s poem.

sarah marks hertha-marks-ayrton scientist

Phoebe Sarah Marks (known as Sarah) was the third child of Levi Marks, a Jewish watchmaker who fled Tsarist Poland, and Alice Theresa Moss, a seamstress. Sarah’s mother was the daughter of Joseph Moss, a glass merchant in Portsea. Levi Marks died in 1861, leaving Sarah’s mother with seven children and an eighth on the way.

Two years later Sarah went to live with her aunts in London and be educated alongside her cousins. The aunts ran a school in NW London. She quickly developed a reputation for having a fiery personality.

By 1870 she was working as a governess, a profession closely connected with Girton and the rise of women’s university education.

Sarah got involved in the women’s suffrage movement while still a teenager. That’s how she met Barbara Bodichon, who went on to become co-founder of Girton. They came into contact while Sarah was a governess and she came to regard Sarah almost as a daughter. Bodichon paid Sarah’s fees and maintenance at Girton and supported her financially throughout her education and career. She ended up bequeathing her considerable estate to Sarah and Sarah marked her gratitude by calling her first child Barbara Bodichon Ayrton. Barbie as she came to be known was born in 1886. She became a Labour MP and died in 1950. Her own son was the artist, Michael Ayrton (1921-1975).

The Captive Seven (1949-50) by Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) Tate Gallery

The Captive Seven (1949-50) by Michael Ayrton – Tate Gallery

Sarah/Herta went up to Girton College, Cambridge, in one of the early cohorts of undergraduates there. She studied Mathematics.

Her application to Cambridge was supported by the novelist George Eliot. Eliot used her as the model for Mirah Lapidoth in ‘Daniel Deronda’.

Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth george eliot daniel deronda tv drama

Jodhi May as the Jewess Mirah Lapidoth in Andrew Davies’ 2002 TV adaptation of ‘Daniel Deronda’

At Girton she set up the Mathematics club, led the choral society, and, ironically for the fiery personality that she was, founded the College Fire Brigade in 1879 (which persisted until the 1930s).

Girton Girls Fire Brigade formed in 1878

The Girton College Fire Brigade formed in 1879 to protect the the isolated buildings which were located 2 miles from the city centre

While still an undergraduate Sarah built a sphygmomanometer (blood pressure meter). She was taught by physicist Richard Glazebrook. In 1880 Sarah passed the Mathematics Tripos but was not granted an academic degree because the University awarded only certificates, not full degrees, to women at that time. Indeed until 1948! [See ‘The Steamboat Ladies’ post]

The following year Sarah/Herta passed an exam at the University of London, which awarded her a Bachelor of Science degree.  This links back to my relative Louisa Goldsmid whose forebears had helped found University College London, a constituent college of the federal University of London. Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778–1859) was a Founder and Benefactor of UCL alongside the likes of Jeremy Bentham and George Birkbeck (my father, a scientist, from the other side of my family than the Goldsmids, in due course went to Birkbeck College to do his PhD in Organic Chemistry).

Back in London Herta made her living by teaching, as well as embroidery. She taught maths at Notting Hill and Ealing High School. She also ran a club for working girls. In addition, she devised mathematical problems for the Educational Times ‘Mathematical Questions and Their Solutions’ page.

In 1884 she patented a line-divider, an instrument for engineering drawing used for dividing a line into any number of equal parts and for enlarging and reducing figures. This was her first major invention and was of use not only to engineers but also to artists and architects. Her patent application was financially supported by that same Louisa Goldsmid and Barbara Bodichon. The line-divider was displayed at the Exhibition of Women’s Industries and received a good deal of press attention. Between 1884 and 1923 Hertha registered 26 patents: 5 for mathematical dividers, 13 for arc lamps and electrodes, 8 for the propulsion of air.

In 1884 Herta began attending evening classes on Electricity at Finsbury Technical College. These were delivered by Professor William Edward Ayrton, a pioneer in electrical engineering and physics education, and a fellow of the Royal Society. They ended up getting married the following year (6th May 1885). After their marriage she assisted him with physics/electricity experiments. She also began her own experimentation into the characteristics of the electric arc.

Electric arc lighting was in wide use in late 19th Century Britain for public lighting. Its tendency to flicker and hiss was a significant problem. In 1895/6 Hertha wrote a series of articles for ‘The Electrician’ linking these defects to oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods used to create the arc. In 1899 she was the first woman to read her own paper (‘The Hissing of the Electric Arc’) to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. (Early in my career at Channel 4 I collaborated with the IEE on a long-running creative industries talent development project called IdeasFactory which I ran from 2003 to 2005.) Herta was elected the first female member of the IEE (alone in that status until long after her death – the second woman to be admitted was in 1958). In 1902 Herta published ‘The Electric Arc’, a summary of her research on the electric arc.

Helena_Arsène_Darmesteter_-_Portrait_of_Hertha_Ayrton

Portrait of Hertha by Helena Arsène Darmesteter who also died in 1923 and whose mother was the editor of the first Jewish women’s periodical, Marion Hartog Moss, presumably related to Alice Moss. She exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

She petitioned to present a paper to the Royal Society but was refused on the grounds of gender – in 1901 her paper ‘The Mechanism of the Electric Arc’ was read on her behalf by renowned electrical engineer John Perry. He proposed her as a Fellow of the Royal Society the following year but this was rejected by the Council of the Royal Society, who decreed that married women were not eligible to be Fellows. Two years on, however, she became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society (1904) when she was permitted to read ‘The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks’ (which was published in due course in the Proceedings of the Royal Society). Herta presented six papers to the Royal Society between 1901 and her death, a final one in 1926 being delivered posthumously.

Herta was the first woman to win a prize from the Royal Society, the prestigious Hughes Medal for original discovery in the Physical Sciences (especially the applications of  electricity/magnetism). It was awarded to her in 1906 for her work on the electric arc, as well as on the motion of ripples in sand and water. She was the fifth recipient of this annual prize. It took until 2008 for the second woman to be awarded the medal.

In 1899 Herta was put in charge of the Physical Science section at the International Congress of Women which took place in London. The following year she delivered an address at the International Electrical Congress in Paris. In the wake of that success the British Association for the Advancement of Science allowed women to serve on general and sectional committees.

Herta’s work on vortices in water and air gave rise to the ‘Ayrton fan’/’Ayrton flapper’ which was used in the trenches of the First World War to dispel poison gas. She fought for its adoption and even organised its production, over 100,000 being used on the Western Front.

Ayrton anti-gas fan [Imperial War Museum]

Ayrton anti-gas fan – waterproof canvas with cane handle. The back has a hinge so it can fit the varying shapes of the backs of parapets, corners of traverses etc. The fan is 89cm long, with a blade 47cm square, and weighs less than 0.5kg.

After the Great War, Herta helped found the International Federation of University Women (in 1919) and the National Union of Scientific Workers (1920).

Her death highlights the wonders of natural science – she died from the bite of an insect (and subsequent blood poisoning) at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex. She has a blue plaque at her London home at 41 Norfolk Square in Paddington, placed there in 2007, 84 years after her fatal sting.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? [1 Corinthians]

In February this year a second blue plaque was unveiled at the site of her birthplace at 6 Queen Street, Portsea.

Phoebe Sarah Marks Hertha Ayrton 1854 – 1923 British engineer, mathematician, physicist inventor

In 2015 the British Society for the History of Science established the Ayrton Prize for web projects and digital engagement in the history of science. Which brings us nicely up to the present.

 

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Sydney Cohen vs 4,300 Italian Fascist troops: Syd won

sydney cohen syd king of lampedusa

Sydney Cohen

On this day in 1946 a plane went missing without trace over the English Channel. On board was Sydney Cohen, an RAF pilot and the ‘King of Lampedusa’. He was flying home to be demobbed but his aircraft crashed in the Straits of Dover. The wreckage was never found.

Lampedusa is a small island 175 miles (280 kilometres) south of Sicily. (These days it is most often referred to in relation to the European migration crisis, receiving migrants from North Africa.)

map lampedusa sicily tunisia

Syd Cohen was a tailor’s cutter from the East End of London. He was an orphan (born 1921) who before the Second World War lived with his sister Lily in a block of flats in Stoke Newington.

How he became Italian royalty is one of the great little stories of World War Two.

20 year-old Sydney Cohen joined the Royal Airforce in 1941 and was based at North Weald near Epping. He was subsequently stationed on Malta. On 12th June 1943 Sergeant Cohen took off from the island with his two-man crew in their Swordfish biplane. With him was Sergeant Peter Tait, navigator, and Sergeant Les Wright, wireless operator and gunner. They were on a search-and-rescue mission after reports of a German plane crashing into the Mediterranean. Returning from the mission their compass started malfunctioning and they found themselves off course (actually heading away from Malta) and low on fuel so had to make an emergency landing on the Island of Lampedusa.

fairey swordfish plane

Fairey Swordfish

“The plane had a fit of gremlins so we had to make for the nearest land. As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us.”

The Allies had been bombing the island. As Sydney prepared to submit to the inevitable fate of being captured…

“a crowd of Italians came out to meet us and we put our hands up to surrender, but then we saw they were all waving white sheets shouting: “No, no – We surrender!” The whole island was surrendering to us!”

“It was a bit of a shake-up but I put on a bold heart and asked to see the commandant. I was taken to the commandant’s villa but an air raid started and everybody suddenly dashed from the room. I concluded that the nerves of my hosts were a bit jagged. They asked me to return to Malta and inform the authorities of their offer to surrender. They gave me a scrap of paper with a signature on it.”

Sydney accepted the surrender of the commandant of the demoralised garrison, refuelled, flew the scribbled surrender on to headquarters in Tunis, and in effect single-handedly captured Lampedusa and 4,300 Italian troops. It was arguably the first step in the retaking of Europe by the Allies.

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison Lampedusa

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison

king cohen of lampedusa newspaper headline

The British press picked up on the story to help boost morale. ‘Lampedusa Gives In to Sgt. Cohen!’ was the front-page headline on the Sunday Pictorial the very next day. The News Chronicle gave it the headline: ‘London Tailor’s Cutter is now King of Lampedusa’ establishing the monicker which went on to provide the title for a highly successful Yiddish musical play by S.J. Charendorf.

grand palais yiddish theatre programme king of lampedusa sj charendorf

Programme from Grand Palais, East London

Charendorf was a Czech-American journalist, London correspondent for the Jewish Morning Journal of New York. He was on his way to the Ministry of Information to file his story about Sgt Syd Cohen when it occurred to him that it had the makings of a brilliant play. He turned back home to write it. He changed the hero’s name to Sam Kagan and created parents and a fiancee for him but Sam was clearly Syd.

poster king of lampedusa grand palais london

Poster from Grand Palais

In November 1943 Charendorf took his script to Meier Tzelniker, the actor-producer-director who ran the Grand Palais Yiddish theatre on the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Tzelniker commissioned some music and wrote the lyrics himself. He also cast himself in the lead role alongside his daughter Anna. The show premiered on New Year’s Eve 1943/4. It was a slow burner but Charendorf got the newspapers interested in the story again and it took off.

King of Lampedusa 2nd act newspaper cutting

The King in Act 2

King of Lampedusa yiddish play

‘The King of Lampedusa’ was a huge hit at the Grand Palais with 200 consecutive performances.

play scene the king of lampedusa

Naturalistic East End cheek-pinching from The King of Lampedusa

The BBC went on to broadcast an English version with Sydney Tafler playing the title role.

In time it came to the treacherous attention of William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw. In one of his nightly propaganda broadcasts from Berlin he threatened:

“The Yids at the Grand Palais should not be laughing for much longer at the ridiculous play ‘The King of Lampedusa’ because they are earmarked for a visit from the Luftwaffe.”

Although Cohen went missing in 1946, he did get to see the play while on leave in Haifa in 1944. It was a performance in Hebrew at the Hamatae Theatre. But he never saw the London production.

A final weird twist of a bizarre story – In the wake of Sydney meeting his end on a plane, so did the would-be producer of a movie of the story. After the war the film rights to the play were sold, however the film was never produced because the producer who acquired them, Walter Sistrom, suffered a burst appendix on the plane taking him to Columbia Studios in LA and he died.

 

Thank Adolf for the Paralympics

Starting with a Big Bang

Little known fact – we’ve got Herr Hitler to thank for the Paralympics. The founding father of the Paralympic Games was a Jewish doctor on the run from the Nazis who took refuge in the UK. Ludwig Guttmann was born in Silesia in Germany in 1899 and got the hell outta there just before the war in March 1939 (a year after my dad who arrived in London in 1938 at the age of 1). He qualified in 1924 and by 1933 was considered the top Neurosurgeon in the country. Adolf’s arrival meant he couldn’t practice professionally other than in a Jewish-only hospital in Breslau. Once he made it to England he settled down to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. He became a British citizen in 1945. Two years earlier he set up a spinal injuries unit based at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. He was a strong advocate of sport as a therapy for spinal injury, building up strength and re-establishing self-belief.

In July 1948, timed to coincide with the opening of the London Olympics, he established the Stoke Mandeville Games which focused on wheelchair sports like archery and involved just over a dozen patients. By the time of the next Olympics (1952) 130 international competitors took part in the Stoke Mandeville Games. In 1960 (in Rome) they transformed into the Paralympic Games (a term which actually came into usage in 1984 [four years after the good doctor passed away] but is retrospectively applied to Rome). At Rome Margaret Maughan, one of Guttmann’s patients in the wake of a 1959 car accident, won Great Britain’s first ever Paralympic gold medal, in the archery competition. The 84 year old lit the flame in Thomas Hetherwick’s Olympic cauldron at last night’s marvellous Opening Ceremony.

Meanwhile back in the Athletes’ Village across the Olympic Park Guttmann’s daughter Eva Loeffler has been acting as the mayor of the village. “I think he would be immensely proud of what has happened. … For future Paralympic Games it shows they are in no way second class games, they’re parallel games.”

The opening ceremonies, Danny Boyle’s and last night’s by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, were very much in parallel and complementary – seated giants of Science Tim Berners-Lee and Stephen Hawking, The Tempest, Shaky thesps Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen, umbrellas, that beautifully designed cauldron, patiently swaying volunteers, and crucially punk attitude in John Lydon and Ian Dury to give the whole thing real British bite. Add to that some gold medal worthy signing alongside the singers, the rapturous welcome of the GB Team in their Major Tom-style white & gold suits, DV8’s incredible David Toole (star of the brilliant Cost of Living) and a rousing climax to the soul sounds of Beverley Knight in I Am What I Am and I am fired up for a very special occasion born of a very special man.

Lapping it up

Maragaret Maughan at London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony

Enlightened & Fired up (Margaret Maughan)

founder of Paralympic Games

A Good Man who outlived Adolf in every way

 

Post-script 2.ix.12:

Another Olympic thing we have to thank Adolf’s merry men for is the torch relay, made much of in both the Olympics and Paralympics in London 2012 – not an ancient Greek tradition but introduced by Carl Diem, organiser of the Berlin 1936 Games for some fake Classical dignity for the inglourious basterds.

The free range broadcaster

With all the speculation, misinformation, politicking and general bullshit flying around today with the release of TV regulator Ofcom’s blueprint “for sustaining and strengthening public service broadcasting (PSB) for the next decade” I’d like to take a moment here to highlight Ofcom’s recommendation for Channel 4:

Create a strong, alternative public service voice to the BBC, with Channel 4 at the heart

And pick up an article by Roy Greenslade, widely respected Professor of Journalism at London’s City University, writer for The Guardian and Evening Standard, and man about Donegal (believe he’s been spotted in The Bridge Bar, Ramelton where my wedding reached a satisfying, musical conclusion on Day 3). In tonight’s issue of the Standard (which I picked from the bin in East Finchley station – does Alexander Lebedev have any idea how few people part with actual cash money for it?) Prof G wrote the following insightful article:

Ofcom risks making a pig’s ear of C4 if we lose gourmet selection of quality TV
Roy Greenslade
21.01.09

Pig Business - a Channel 4 documentary

Pig Business - a Channel 4 documentary

On Monday evening I attended the preview of a Channel 4 documentary called Pig Business. It was a fine piece of work, a mixture of passion and compassion that raised all sorts of disturbing questions about factory farming, agri-business and globalisation, not to mention airing concerns about public health and the environment.

You can make up your own mind on 3 February, when it is screened on More4, but — even if you disagree with the polemic — it has to be seen as an extraordinary project because it was filmed over the course of four years by Tracy Worcester. After the showing there was loud applause for her and tributes from several speakers, including Zac Goldsmith and Chrissie Hynde. There was acclaim too from Tim Sparke, managing director of the path-breaking broadband TV documentary company Mercury Media, but he broadened his praise and struck a particularly topical note.

“If ever we need a demonstration of Channel 4’s commitment to public service broadcasting,” he said. “Then this is it.”

As C4’s chairman, Luke Johnson, and chief executive, Andy Duncan, peruse the Ofcom report released this morning that outlines how the channel will be funded in future, it is important to keep in mind the value of its output.

I know this is the channel of Big Brother, and that we are currently being assaulted by another instalment of a Celebrity Big Brother, a title that — given the crop of inmates — surely breaches the Trades Descriptions Act. But they are programmes that ramp up viewing figures, thereby attracting essential advertising revenue and enabling the broadcasting of serious public service broadcasting (PSB) content.

There is so much to appreciate about C4, not least its contribution to film, arts, drama and documentaries. There is a Channel 4 ethos, a distinctiveness, that sets it apart from both its commercial rivals and the publicly-funded BBC. I happen to be an avid viewer of Channel 4 News because it deals in some depth with the most important news stories of the day. It treats viewers as grown-ups and, significantly, attracts a young audience that clearly appreciates that fact. It’s a sort of early Newsnight.

Consider also the very different documentary and factual strands such as Dispatches, Cutting Edge and Unreported World. The latter, screened 20 times a year in peak time, takes viewers to stories in parts of Africa, South America and south-east Asia that never appear elsewhere.

Sure, the audiences are small. But the whole point of PSB, and of C4’s remit, is to widen the TV horizon. There is no point in sticking to a safe mainstream, agenda. Other broadcasters do that. There is a mix, with populist factual programming running alongside more esoteric stuff, but it works. C4 also commissions programmes that take risks or challenge our preconceptions.

Take the eight-part series now showing on Sunday evenings, Christianity: A History. It started off two weeks ago with a superb and counter-intuitive presentation from Howard Jacobson on Jesus the Jew. It was some of the most watchable TV I have seen in a long time, intelligent without being in the least bit pompous, provocative without any hint of bombast.

Turning to C4’s contribution to film, who can deny the virtues of a company that backed movie-makers such as Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and Shallow Grave); Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Six Shooter)?

But let’s stop the tour here. The point of the exercise is to illustrate what we stand to lose if C4 is not adequately funded in the coming years. It is also to underline the point made by BBC executives, even if through gritted teeth, that rival PSB output is healthy for our society.

I realise the over-riding importance of C4 every time I call up the list of documentary channels on Sky and discover the endless loop-tape of what has rightly been dubbed a choice of sharks or Nazis.

What distinguishes C4’s factual output is that it rarely, if ever, stoops to the formulaic TV that populates the digital depths. That is one reason why I have been opposed to the notion of a merger with Five, a commercial channel that would erase the individuality of C4.

I have never seen the point of Five since its launch in 1997 and, going on the viewing figures, neither can most of the nation’s viewers. It is remarkable that a populist channel that screens wall-to-wall entertainment attracts only 4.6% of the total audience. Yet C4, with so much of its PSB programming specifically aimed at minority audiences, manages to get a 6.3% share.

I can well understand why the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, has advocated a C4-Five merger. He wants to protect the BBC’s licence fee and preserve the income from its own commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

While I was thinking about C4’s dilemma I realised that the Pig Business documentary offered several relevant metaphors. In its current state C4 is a free range broadcaster, offering good meat that satisfies the appetites of its customers. If it is overly constrained, whether by tighter budgets or by an uncomfortable accommodation with a rival, there will be a reduction in both the quantity and quality of its meat.

Factory-farmed TV is junk food for the masses. C4’s programmes, by contrast, are a gourmet selection for niche audiences. We lose them at our peril.”

Update 22.i.09:
Last night while I was writing this post Channel 4 was winning the Broadcaster of the Year Award at the Broadcast Awards.

It also picked up awards for:
Best Documentary: My Street [a wonderful film]
Best Documentary Series: The Genius of Charles Darwin
Best Single Drama: Boy A
Best New Programme: Gordon Ramsay Cookalong Live
Best International Sales: Come Dine With Me

Update 22.i.09:

To ram the point home, this lunchtime (GMT) this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced and Channel 4’s Film4 have received 12 (yes, 12!) nominations:

Slumdog Millionaire

· Cinematography

· Directing

· Film editing

· Original score

· Original song – “Jai Ho”

· Original song – “O Saya”

· Best picture

· Sound editing

· Sound mixing

· Adapted screenplay

In Bruges

· Original screenplay

Happy-Go-Lucky

· Original screenplay

What is it worth?

Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills

Holding Hands: Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills & Neil Young

We parked up by Goldhawk Road tube (always echoes of Jimmy the Mod for me) and walked back past the Pie, Mash, Liquor and Eel shop to my most unloved venue in London, the Empire in Shepherd’s Bush. Stephen Still’s blast from the past included his underground classic ‘51.5076 0.134352’ and concluded with ‘For What It’s Worth’ which resonated in a particular way after another week of global economic disintegration. What is it worth?

There’s something happening here
[the day before yesterday rounds off a 20% FTSE fall]

What it is ain’t exactly clear
[although I think we’ve all got a good sense of broadly what territory we’re in – how we got there is a bit more confounding]

There’s a man with a gun over there
[currently a cold-hearted woman, life-long member of the NRA: “our leaders, our national leaders, are sending soldiers out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”]

Telling me I got to beware
[are they really going to elect a man who keeps calling the electorate “my friends” in a manner devoid of warmth or friendship?]

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
[there’s a real opportunity here, with the merry-go-round ground to a halt, to get off the ride that goes nowhere]

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep
[anxiety is seeping out of every opening crack]

It starts when you’re always afraid

[yet fear is what holds us back individually and collectively]

You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

Stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

What’s that sound? It’s mud falling on a coffin lid. It’s ancient song shot through with deepest pain. It’s the sound of a single man burying 20,000 bodies one by one. On Tuesday Rev. Leslie Hardman MBE died. He featured as a key character  in a docudrama, The Relief of Belsen, commissioned by Channel 4 which was shown almost a year ago to the day (15.X.07).  He was one of the first Allied soldiers (an army chaplain) in to the Bergen-Belsen death camp in North-West Germany when it was liberated in May 1945. Auschwitz had been liberated by the Russians a couple of months of months earlier but it was Belsen that gave us in Britain our first terrifying view of what was going down. This was Richard Dimbleby’s report from the camp…

“Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which … The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”

Leslie Hardman was a man who knew what’s worth what. He insisted on burying each of the 20,000 corpses that confronted him as an individual with an individual ceremony (no question of mass burial). He restored in death the dignity they had been denied in life.

In a tribute to him on Radio 4 this morning, a resonant phrase from Kierkegaard (via psychiatrist Viktor Frankl) was cited to capture the man he was : The door to happiness opens outwards. 

Leslie Hardman dealt with the chaos he experienced in the front-line by dedicating himself to the well-being of others.

As Jonathan Sacks (the Chief Rabbi of the UK) put it on the same radio programme: He Chose Life. Now I always thought  – and this was reinforced by the Glasgow office of Channel 4 which has the words engraved on the glass of the entrance – that “Choose Life” comes from FilmFour’s Trainspotting. But apparently it comes from Moses in the Old Testament: ” I place before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. … Choose life that you and your descendants shall live”

  (which echoes what his predecessor and my namesake was told:  “You may choose for yourself, for it is given to you.”)

Now Jim (the God, not the Mod), much though I respect him, summarised his approach as being to “get his kicks before the whole shithouse goes up”. As things fall apart, I’d say the rock-striking prophet is a better bet than the pose-striking rock god: Choose Life. Choose sustainable living. Choose actually creating something instead of gambling nothing. Choose holding hands not holding hostages. Choose what’s going up. Choose what’s of real worth.

Frock-coats and drama kings

Jason Isaacs

Sitting here in Carlingford, County Louth on a quiet evening in charge of sleeping children above, with my other half out with some of her dozens of cousins on the other side of Carlingford Lough in Rostrevor, County Down, with some godawful pseudo-american chatshow on RTE1 (Tubirdy Tonight – the name captures the height of shite it represents – a charmless, dull host behind a reproduction antique desk on the other side of which sits a fake nobody guest (the renowned Deirdre O’Kane?) with a D4 tango tan behind which are wooden window panes giving on to a fake cityscape unlike any part of Dublin I’ve ever seen, a lifeless photo devoid of dynamism or truth) and some two-bit boxing match on RTE2 with a ringside commentator with huge arched eyebrows and a forehead like the Mekon – jaysis, we’re blessed with our public service broadcasting back in Blighty, Ireland has much to offer the world but telly isn’t among its riches – I flick to a movie on Ulster TV, Joe Wright’s recent iteration of Pride and Prejudice with Ikea Knightley, as Mark Kermode (who popped up earlier this evening on the Culture Show) calls her on his weekly movie review show on Radio 5 with Simon Mayo. (How’s that, heavenly muse, for a Miltonian sentence?)

From this movie, which has somehow lost its appeal on a second, small-screen viewing, I drift off to an altogether more engaging gathering than the one before me with the dreadful Mr Collins showing off his lightness of foot. The other night I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Darcy himself, Matthew Macfadyen, and his charming wife Keeley Hawes (Cock and Bull Story, Ashes to Ashes, Spooks, The Bank Job) at the RTS Production Awards where he very deservingly won the best actor award for the excellent Secret Life in which he portrays a recently released paedophile striving for rehabilitation. This Channel 4 commission, written and (first-time) directed by Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later, Gas Attack), culminates in an astonishing scene in a fairground where the struggling ex-con brings his handsome Darcy-like features and non-Darcy-like charm to bear on an underage girl. Will he or won’t he? It’s painfully impossible to call.

I watched the drama as one of the twenty hours I went through as a judge in the Scriptwriter – Drama category in the company of the likes of Simon Cellan Jones (Cracker, The Trial of Tony Blair) and Kudos’ Derek Wax (Sex Traffic). For me it was the best film, alongside Mark O’Rowe’s Boy A, but the BBC’s adapted screenplay for Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford eventually won the category. Brilliantly crafted of course and a wonderful cast to deliver the lines with the greatest of expertise – but not brave in the Channel 4 way of Secret Life and Boy A. Too much Pride and Prejudice, too little Shameless for me.

I’d been introduced to the self-effacing (for such a tall man) Matthew Macfadyen by Jason Isaacs, who I hadn’t seen for some twenty years. On occasion we traveled together to school on the bus when he was a big boy and I an insignificant underling. I remember him being warm and open – most bigger boys just ignored you at best. He remembered himself as being unpleasant at that age and “driven by fear”. Mark Kermode – who says hallo to Jason Isaacs and David Morrissey every week on the aforementioned review programme – recalls Jason (who was in the same year as him) as very cool and collected. Jason recalls Mark as the cool one to be looked up to with his quiff and rockabilly persona. Which all goes to show the gulf between our perception of ourselves and how we actually come across to others, as well as the role self-confidence and fear plays in our formative years and beyond. Darcy has just walked out suddenly on a confused Elizabeth for just such reasons.

It was lovely catching up with Jason after so long, last time we met he was still in Capital City with Clive Owen et al. [Correction – see comment below: Make that Douglas Hodge – Clive Owen was in Chancer which aired the same year with Peter Vaughan and Leslie Phillips, written by Tony Grounds.] Since then he’s been to Hollywood (Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, Armageddon, Harry Potter, etc.) and back (to be able to raise his daughters properly) and the night of the RTS was playing Harry H Corbett in The Curse of Steptoe and Son on BBC4 to enthusiastic reviews. We chatted about the urban myth that was the Edgware Walker (as brought to the screen by the maverick Lee Kern), about mutual schoolmates including the legendary Laurence Gould, broader than he was tall, famous for launching two skinheads down the stairs at Stanmore Station, and that was another subject of conversation, the neo-nazi violence of the mid-70s which Jason recalls much more vividly than I can. My first gig was the Tom Robinson Band at the Hammersmith Odeon – TRB introduced me to Anti-Nazi League activism, as well as the notion of gay rights – but it was all a bit theoretical for me. It seems like the couple of years age gap between us made it all much more real for Jason. He also spoke insightfully about his own craft. Producer Vadim Jean (Leon the Pig Farmer, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather) joined us for that bit of the convo – he held up Gene Hackman as one of the most consistently excellent screen actors. Watching Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennett does make you think about consistency – the man from Mash and Klute is also the winner of the all-time worst accent award for his role in Goldcrest’s disasterous Revolution. But in the end it’s all just make-believe. Jason’s older brother, a doctor, it turns out saved a man’s life by performing an emergency tracheotomy (with a biro!) on a plane heading to North Africa. In the light of that, Lydia running off with the perfidious Wickham seems to pale into insignificance.

A few years ago I was filming in Northern Ireland with Eddie McCaffery of Joose TV (then Emerald Productions) and Roddy Gibson (now a TV specialist course director at Middlesex Uni). We had a break from filming and headed up to Horn Head in Donegal. Whilst walking out on the bog of the headland we came across an older man collapsed with blood coming from his mouth, his distraught sister kneeling at his side. The three of us had recently spent weeks in an edit suite cutting a scene involving first aid and so were quite up on our life-saving. We did all the right stuff, got blood all over Roddy’s new jacket which served to cushion the old fella’s head, ended up carrying the prone body (surprisingly heavy) by stretcher back up off the bog to the ambulance which took him to Letterkenny hospital. We never heard a word from the man or his sister. Jason’s brother was given an airline voucher for £30 for his trouble. Elizabeth Bennett may be struggling a bit with her values here but those are both seriously out of whack. Jason’s brother was, however, invited to his emergency patient’s subsequent wedding where he came to see for himself what the act meant to the young man’s parents. Lady Catherine de Burgh (Judi Dench, who also featured in Cranford) has just been shown the door by the feisty Elizabeth, a frock-coated Matthew Macfadyen is striding through the mist, so wedding bells are just around the corner now as things trundle to their happy ending.

Too Long in Exile

stolen paintings

I’m sitting here in the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich with in front of me a copy of ‘Thom’s Official Directory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for the year 1904’ published in Dublin by Thom & Co. (Limited) of Middle Abbey-Street. 1904 is the year in which Joyce’s Ulysses is set. This big red volume is the reference book Joyce used to recreate the detail of Dublin from exile here in Zurich. Joyce came to the city on leaving Dublin in 1904 (hence the choice of date for the novel – it is Dublin as fixed at the point of exile) accompanied by his other half, Nora Barnacle. They moved on to Italy/Trieste, back to Zurich, and on to Paris. Much of Ulysses (1922) was written here in Zurich. Joyce left occupied France in 1940 for Zurich where he died in 1941 (aged 59) and is buried.

So I’m flying in this morning with my iPod Shuffle on and up pops Van the Man singing ‘Too Long in Exile‘ with the line “just like James Joyce, baby / Too long in exile” – one of those meant to be moments.

And on the subject of Abbey Street and occupied France, in my hands is a copy of a classy thriller ‘The 6th Lamentation‘ by William Brodrick whose two central characters are a monk and a victim of the occupation of Paris. Another key character is a refugee to Switzerland. So I’m psyched for the Stiftung James Joyce.

I’m welcolmed by a friendly American academic and by the Director and prime mover of the Foundation, Fritz Senn, a Joyce specialist and as near as a Swiss man can be to being Irish.

In the back of Thom’s is an advert for Uska-Slan – Water of Health – in the form of Cantrell & Cochrane’s Table Waters. Just the kind of ad Leopold Bloom would have dealt in. I’m fresh from a lunchtime conversation which included the benefits of Badoit and the insanity of bottled still water. There’s a wonderful passage in Ulysses about water I heard declaimed atop the martello tower in Sandycove, South Dublin on the centenary Bloom’s Day on 16th June 2004.

I can, for example, look up my sister-in-law’s street in Ballybough (PoorTown) and see exactly who lived there in 1904. Mrs Grace at No. 24. A draper at No. 1, a jeweller at No. 14 and Mr John Killen of the GPO at No. 16. It tells you where the pillar boxes were (“Pillar Letter Box adjoining Raglan-road”). I’ve just spotted my father-in-law’s namesake (Murphy, James, esq.) at No. 26 Clyde-road which was valued at 70 pounds – and a certain William McGee at Cobourg-place (next door to Jasper Monahan the spirit grocer, which I assume is a far more colourful name for an off-licence).

My wife has now lived in London – many miles away from the cemetry at Kilbroney, Co. Louth where James Murphy after James Murphy is buried – for more years than she’s lived in Ireland – she went past the mid-point a couple of years ago, very significant really.

When I was in Ireland for the summer holidays last year, staying at said sister-in-law in Ballybough, I picked up a copy (at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham) of ‘That Neutral Island‘ by Clair Wills about the Irish home front in the Second World War. I often wonder what similarities and differences there are between the Irish neutrality and the Swiss. Joyce spent most of the First World War (July 1915 to October 1919) in Zurich, as well as getting the permit for entry from occupied France in late 1940.

A few weeks ago there was a big art robbery just outside Zurich from another Foundation – the Emil Buhrle Foundation. Buhrle was a Zurich-based, German born industrialist who sold arms to the Third Reich. After the war 13 paintings in the collection, which was raided in February by armed masked men, appeared on a list of art looted by Nazis from Jews and eventually he handed them over, getting some compensation from the Swiss government. The provenance of other works in the collection remains shady. Much like the Russian collection currently on show in the Royal Academy, London (in the From Russia exhibition), where the British government had to provide an official ‘safe passage’ document to insulate the dubious pieces from any chance of investigation and return to their rightful owners – Russia’s art galleries are peppered with works ‘nationalised’ after the Revolution or looted in the Second World War, many ultimately from murdered Jews. So one has limited sympathy for the Emil Buhrle Foundation as whose work the masked raiders with the Slavic accents actually stole is a moot point.

I recently came across this quotation by the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner (and man behind another foundation, this one a Foundation for Humanity, which bears his name) Elie Wiesel (through A.Word.A.Day – a daily email with an interesting new word – might have been Joyce’s cup of tea [my philisophical Zurchner taxi driver earlier today was tickled pink by this British idiom]):

“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

And this popular one attributed to Edmund Burke also comes to mind from the Last Message SMS competition on Lost Generation:

“It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.”

Reckon I’ll give the last word to Van the Man (not to be confused with White Van Man – the Buhrle robbery was carried out in a white panel van) and his collaborator on ‘Song of Being a Child‘, Peter Handke (not Swiss but Austrian like Adolf Hitler and Simon Wiesenthal, born in 1942, also a collaborator with Wim Wenders [Wings of Desire], a writer who has lived in self-imposed exile in Berlin, the US and for the last two decades Paris):

When the child was a child
It was the time of the following questions
Why am I me and why not you
Why am I here and why not there
Why did time begin and where does space end
Isn’t what I see and hear and smell
Just the appearance of the world in front of the world
Isn’t life under the sun just a dream
Does evil actually exist in people
Who really are evil
Why can’t it be that I who am
Wasn’t before I was
And that sometime I, the I, I am
No longer will be the I, I am

A little more magic from the Hiberno-Germanic melting pot.

Warum bin ich ich und warum nicht du?
Warum bin ich hier und warum nicht dort?

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

There’s snow business like show business

Floating in the sky

Took the Enfants Terribles last night to the 25th anniversary celebration of The Snowman, one of Channel 4’s first commissions, originally TXing in November 1982, the month the Channel took to the air. It had been commissioned that February from John Coates (who also produced Yellow Submarine for The Beatles) – he was at the event yesterday evening at the Peacock Theatre near Lincoln’s Inn. Camilla Deakin, former Channel 4 Commissioning Editor for Animation, introduced me to John, a stalwart champion of British animation.

I’m currently working with Camilla and her business partner at Lupus Films, Ruth Fielding, and the comfortable creatures at Aardman in Bristol to explore where the next 25 years of Channel 4 animation may go in the networked, on demand world we now inhabit.

I bumped into David Baddiel for the first time in a long while and his charming Mrs, Morwena Banks of Absolutely Productions. In the wake of his recent BBC1 documentary on the question of restitution for property stolen from Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators in Germany, Poland and Eastern Europe, he is keen to move beyond Jewish and football themes to explore lively approaches to documentary in other areas, more allied to his novel writing themes.

Fellow comedian Rowland Rivron, as dapper as ever in a pinstripe reminiscent of that other groovy fella Jools Holland, seemed to be an afficianado of The Snowman stage show, highlighting variations of scenes and costumes from the previous times he has sat through it over the child-rearing years. Since returning purified from Extreme Celebrity Detox, he seems to have lapsed a bit from the strict regime of vomit-inducing fluids he bravely tested out on behalf of Channel 4 and is comfortable again sipping a drop of wine and downing a petite mince pie.

Don’t think Tamara Beckwith downed even one of the mini mince pies – there wasn’t room in her spray-on jeans. Other glam in the place included Natasha Kaplinsky and two this-generation female Blue Peter presenters who I don’t know the names of but of whom the older Enfant Terrible asked me: are they lesbians? Not sure what prompted the question but brought to light what a different world we’re in compared to the innocent days of Valerie Singleton.

Said Enfant was delighted to chat with Duncan Ballantine of Dragon’s Den – “I wouldn’t have invested in those smiley stickers – there are loads of things like that in schools” he confidently pronounced to the tanned tycoon, evidence of the real educative value of the Den.

Meanwhile the Mrs was altogether more interested in John Simm of Life on Mars and Human Traffic fame (which was produced by my one-time flatmate and old friend of the Mrs, Emer McCourt – check out her first novel Elvis, Jesus and Me).

Reflecting back on that first month of Channel 4 chimed in perfectly with the evening before – the first annual 4Talent Awards, at which I had the honour of presenting the New Media award to Mark Bowness, the fella behind the brilliant TribeWanted. The warm, intimate event at C4 HQ in Horseferry Road was perfectly MCed by comedian Paul Tonkinson, light but respectful of the young talent in the room. And the winners – 20 selected from art forms ranging from sit-com writing to architecture, from documentary photography to fashion design – were buzzing with fresh talent. Bastards.

No, it was fabulous – and very C4. Had me floating in the moonlit sky. You can peruse them all here on 4Talent / Ten4. The recognition clearly meant a lot to the bearers of the illuminated, chameleon-colour-changing awards (from Matmos, the lavalamp supremos) and was a clear motivational boost. As Channel 4 moves into the fully digital age and its next quarter century, the kind of energy and fresh talent in the Drum (the round room in the basement of the Channel where the post-awards drinkies took place) will be central to the evolving organisation and the beat to which it marches.

Meta more thesis

kafka

Dale Hergistad of Schematic kindly pulled by the Channel to show us some of their recent work. He’s based in the LA office and looks like a (very nice version of a) baddie from a Hollywood movie, one of those peroxide blonde ones (can’t quite pin down which Die Hard or Lethal Weapon or whatever I’m thinking of).

The presentation kicked off with some interesting analysis of our evolving relationships with different size screens – from the personal mobile to the massive public display a couple of hundred feet away – and how this relates to the journey from viewer to user. So far so good. We moved on then to look at a range of implementations and mock-ups of next-generation navigation, mainly TV-based.

Fast forward twenty minutes and these are the notes on my page, reflecting I think something of the culture gap which still exists between the US and UK:

* the navigation’s all well and good but look at the crapola content we’re navigating through
* the interface experience is over-complex
* (with regard to some of the game-type implementations like Battlestar Galactica or whatever it was) people are fiddling while Rome burns – the world is coming apart at the seams while people fiddle with their joysticks
* pretty much every example is driven by buying and consumption
* who the fuck wants to interact with a car advert? haven’t they got better things to do?
* there’s an incredible greed not to miss anything, with screens within screens and the like.

So, nothing to do with Dale personally – he was very generous with his time and clearly enthusiastic about his work – more to do with the kind of project that was being illustrated, I left feeling uninspired and couldn’t get back to my (rather British) neck of the woods quickly enough.

I’m sitting writing this in Prague airport coming home from the Eureka Mobile Awards with Alfie Dennen of Moblog UK. Big Art Mob was one of six finalists. It was pipped at the post by some porno service which gets its average punter to part with $55 a week to interact via their mobiles with Russian girls (live on webcams) whilst playing with their joysticks or whatever. Kafka would have loved the scenario, and he might well have had a word or two to say about the kind of Amerika reflected in the bloated, greedy world implied by the kind of television/media Schematic find themselves engaging with.

As Alfie and I supped a mojito with a TV producer from Cologne last night in the backroom of a Prague cellar guarded by a smileless skinhead, a ‘TV producer’ hot from a shoot of “erotic sports”, my first experience of Prague was shaping up nicely. Alfie and I were fuelled up with dumplings and heavy meat – consumed just before in a restaurant decorated with copulating Czech cartoon couples (4 Cs copyright Alfie’s mum, Head of Stats at Young & Rubicam) – while Alfie’s long lost and newly rediscovered old flatmate Stormin’ Norman was fuelled with something altogether smaller and rounder. He was kindly leading us to the main event but unfortunately got sidetracked by the other pornographers by the exit.

So Alfie and I had to hijack a cab which pulled up beside the awards venue. It happened to be set in a bar adjacent to the Kafka Museum. A huge K stood in the courtyard beside two statues of naked men holding their joysticks and pissing at each other (I hesitated for some reason to snap it for Big Art Mob, I’m not sure whether that was more about aesthetics or light conditions). So a dark surreality was the dominant atmosphere with Das Schloss looming above us.

The Eureka Awards, run by World Telemedia, had a certain Kafkaesque quality about them, like playing a game whose rules nobody has explained, Byzantine, 1,000 Russian sex-workers voting online, bizarre voting patterns worthy of Richard & Judy, Ant & Dec, Blue & Peter, text votes too for no clear purpose, and a panel of journalists expert in joysticks and other mobile stuff. Big Art Mob, an innocent abroad, a naïve player in a dark game of intrigue.

As I walked home over the unlit Charles Bridge, past shadowy lovers and silhouetted lone men, my long black coat was just right for the Third Man atmosphere of the famous landmark and adjacent streets. The meter on the cab home whirled as if possessed – “it’s night” explained the lugubrious driver. As I crossed the hotel lobby two blondes sat by the lifts ready for the simple pleasures. Who the fuck wants to interact with a post-Communist cliche? Is everything driven by buying and consumption these days? Josef – as one letter (G) to another (K) – any advice on how to navigate our way out of this dark, consuming maze?

I headed up to my (rather British) neck of the woods. My Agatha Christie novel (4.50 from Paddington) where the only thing two ladies do is walk around Miss Marples’ garden admiring the planting. Announcement of a two-nil victory to Spurs on Sky News, a crack of light in the dark surreality of this season? (Kafka may not be a bundle of laughs but following Tottenham is only just the right side of waking up as a giant insect).

Image designed by Liv Ducci – Creative Studio – http://www.kafkamovie.com

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