Archive for the ‘World War Two’ Category
Simple Pleasures part 4 was inspired partly by an Ian Dury song (via my first blog Simple Pleasures) and partly by an article from the pen of the poet Andrew Motion. In that line of heritage, I was reading Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From and was much taken with his thoughts on the ‘commonplace book’, the practice of keeping a scrapbook of quotes and thoughts which he traces from John Locke in the late 17th century through to Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), ultimately linking it to Tim Berners-Lee’s inspiration for the World Wide Web. I’ve kept these kinds of notebooks and notes for any years but being reminded of their value in creative thinking, the repository for the ‘slow hunch’ and the petri dish in which disparate but related thoughts grow together, makes me feel encouraged to write here more often and in smaller bursts. Here’s one I wrote a couple of days ago after reading about the Commonplace Book and then chatting to an old friend of mine from the Universite de Savoie, year of 83…
4/8/13 Mangskog, Sweden: Sitting on the deck outside Bjorksuset (whispering of the birches), my friend Hanna’s house, this afternoon overlooking Mangen lake I was thinking a bit about Swedish neutrality in the War before Hanna told me a story from a documentary she made recently for NRK, the Norwegian state broadcaster. It was about so-called ‘war children’ in Norway (the off-spring of Norwegian women and German soldiers) and the on-going impact of the Second World War on Norwegians. Hanna filmed a woman who recently discovered her father was in fact a German bureaucrat of the Occupation, not the Norwegian man whom she had called daddy all her life, father of what had been her two brothers up to the point of this discovery in her advancing years. When she told her mother she had acted on some bothersome doubts from her childhood and uncovered her true parentage through a specialist agency her mother went nuts with her, majorly upset by having her secret unburied. And the brothers went crazy too, especially the older one who runs a big well-known Oslo-based shopping mall (he threatened to sue). In revealing her discovery the family imploded and she lost mother, (half-)siblings and extended family at a stroke. Although she acquired some half-brothers in Germany in the process. So seventy years after the occupation of Norway the dark forces still swirl, much as in France, like molten lava beneath the crust busting out when cracks appear.
6/3/13 I’m sitting on that same deck behind Bjorksuset, listening to the wind in the canopies of the silver birches. My grandparents had silver birches which fascinated me as a child in their inappropriately named street Cyprus Avenue. Their shiny trunks punctuated the way to the red postbox twenty yards down from their house, which at the age I am recalling seemed a major journey to be let loose on alone. The sound of the rustling leaves is a constant in this beautiful place in the West of Sweden. I think ‘suset’ in Swedish must be related to ‘susurration’ in English. The whispering sea-like sound made me think of the soundtrack of Antonioni’s Blow-Up – the mysterious breeze in the trees of the South London park where the ‘corpse’ lies worked its magic on me big time. And my train of thought then headed off down the line of the sound of wind in films and pulled in to these three stops:
Blow-Up (1966): the wind in the trees makes the park where the photographer (David Hemmings) accidentally photographs a dead body weird&wonderful – I always meant to visit that location, I’ll have to rewatch the movie then make the trip this autumn
Ryan’s Daughter (1970): The eponymous Irish colleen and the English captain make illicit love among the bluebells in the West of Ireland and what David Lean shows us is the strong breeze shaking the treetops above them
Black Narcissus (1947): Michael Powell set nerves on edge in this English Romantic Technicolor tale by having the Himalayan wind blow constantly through the mountain-top convent in which a nun gradually succumbs to an irreligious magic
In all three (the last one in too sparse a landscape for leaves to accompany moving air) the whispering of the wind brings the magical and mystical to the scene.
At the nadir of my teenage years, when I retired to a room with David Bowie and Jane Austen to see me through, just like Renton prepares the room for going cold turkey in Trainspotting, Wild is the Wind struck me as a uniquely Romantic song a bit apart from his others, with a touch of epic, majestic magic.
The song was actually written for a film of the same name made in 1957 and recorded by Johnny Mathis. Bowie was inspired to cover it by Nina Simone’s version. It is to be found on his 1976 LP Station to Station which neatly brings this thought-train to its terminus.
Like the leaf clings to the tree
Oh, my darling, cling to me
For we’re like creatures of the wind
Wild is the wind, wild is the wind
1 Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France
A bravura opening sequence of some 25 minutes in near real-time a la Once Upon a Time in the West, part of the linkage of Westerns and War Films explored in Inglourious Basterds. Christoph Waltz rachets up the tension with his stand-out performance as the insidiously suave SS ‘Jew Hunter’ Colonel – as scene stealing as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goetz in Schindler’s List. The interrogation through chat is as good a dialogue as Tarantino has ever written.
As well as Austrian Waltz’s excellent performance which bagged him Best Actor at Cannes, Brad Pitt does a great – slightly cartoonish/Cormanesque yet highly compelling – turn as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a no-nonsense Tennessee kickass (fellow native of Tarantino’s home state) playing the equivalent of the Lee Marvin role in The Dirty Dozen, pulling together the dirty Basterds to go kick some Kraut ass behind the lines in the run up to D-Day. He squeezes plenty of comedy out of the part, not least in his undercover I-talian.
Mélanie Laurent is also very charismatic as heroine Shoshanna, last survivor of a massacred Jewish family who takes refuge in Paris running a back-street cinema, resonant of wartime films like Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. Inglourious Basterds is very much the lovechild of Sam Peckinpah and the French section of the International shelves of QT’s legendary video store. Laurent has a perfect deadened steeliness about her, an angel of death set to visit the Nazi basterds.
3 Bar room brawl
The second bravura talkie set-piece is a long sequence in a cellar bar culminating in a Mexican stand-off (worthy of John Woo). Like the opening scene, it is driven by interrogation through chat, the tension tautened to breaking point as a Gestapo uniform gets his terrier teeth into an undercover Englishman (played by Michael Fassbender, brought to prominence in FilmFour’s Hunger). The ebb and flow of tension is reminiscent of the Joe Pesci restaurant scene in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, with echoes of Hitch.
4 Putting out fire
As ever, Tarantino’s use of music is palpitating. The scene where the scarlet woman puts on her war paint to Bowie’s Cat People theme is a good reason in itself for the invention of Dolby. I’m going back to see Inglourious Basterds again just for that moment.
It’s a film which keeps you thinking after your initial somewhat bewildered exit from the movie theatre. It was good to see a bunch of Northern Irish teens having an animated discussion about the film as they sparked up outside the multiplex in Newry. I suspect this one will bear multiple viewing (probably more scene by scene than end to end, which says much about QT’s style of film-making) and like a blood red Burgundy get better with age.
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.
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.”
“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?
Exodus: Movement of Jah people
Bob Marley recorded Exodus in punk London (he referred to London as his “second home”). He took refuge in the city after having been hit by a bullet the previous year in a politically motivated assassination attempt. The record was released on 3rd June 1977.
The ship Exodus 1947 sailed from the small port of Site near Marseilles on 11th July 1947. On board were 4,515 immigrants from post-war Europe, including 655 children. It was heading to British Mandate Palestine.
As soon as it left French territorial waters British destroyers shadowed it. In the wake of the Second World War, the British had severely restricted immigration to Palestine and eventually decided to stop illegal immigration by sending ships running the gauntlet of the British patrols back to their port of embarkation in Europe. The first ship to which this policy was applied was the Exodus 1947.
We know where we’re going
We know where we’re from
We’re leaving Babylon
We’re going to our Father’s land
On 18th July 1947, nearing the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and illegally boarded it. Two immigrants and a member of the crew were killed defending the vessel, bludgeoned to death, and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to Haifa and the immigrants were deported on prison ships back to France at the suggestion of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (better known for his role in establishing the NHS).
Men and people will fight you down
The Exodus recording sessions, produced by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, took place in two west London studios: a converted Victorian laundry at the back of Island’s headquarters in St Peter’s Square, Chiswick, and the Basing Street studio, a former church in Notting Hill.
The nightly recording sessions were attended by a sizable rotating posse including the young members of Aswad and their manager, Mikey Dread (who I saw perform with The Clash at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town); Delroy Washington; and Lucky Gordon (of Profumo Scandal notoriety). Journalist Vivien Goldman remembers the sessions as being recorded “in a mood of exuberant creativity”.
At Port-de-Bouc in southern France the Exodus passengers refused to disembark and remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heatwave – this despite a shortage of food, the overcrowding and dreadful sanitary conditions. The French government refused to co-operate with British attempts at forced disembarkation. Eventually, the British decided to return the would-be immigrants to Germany. These people were mostly survivors of the concentration camps and Nazi German persecution.
So we gonna walk – all right! – through the roads of creation
We the generation
Trod through great tribulation
They were shipped to Hamburg, then forcibly disembarked and transported to two camps near the German port of Lubeck on the Baltic Sea.
World public opinion was outraged by the callousness of the British behaviour and the British were forced to change their policy. Illegal immigrants were no longer sent back to Europe, but instead transported to detention camps in Cyprus.
Open your eyes and look within…
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
The escorting British soldiers never returned to their units in Palestine. The ordeal had such an impact on them that a near mutiny erupted among them. The British army decided not to press charges and closed the matter quietly.
The events convinced the US government that the British mandate of Palestine was incapable of handling the issue of post-war Jewish refugees and that a United Nations-brokered solution needed to be found. The US government intensified pressure on the British government to return its mandate to the UN.
Throughout the recording sessions, Bob continued writing songs – Exodus itself emerged quite late and, as Vivien Goldman recounts, “there was a fizzing excitement around that track from the moment it was first laid down.”
Many of the musicians were exiles. Beyond their Jamaican roots was the urge to return to Africa, a desire central to Rastafarian belief. Bob and the Twelve Tribes (a Rasta organisation to which he belonged) were actively exploring the possibilities of land made available by Haile Selassie in Shashamane, Ethiopia.
Goldman recalls: “When the night came to finish the Exodus track, the Basing Street studio was alive with excitement. From the start, the song had its own impetus … at four o’clock in the morning a moment hit when the whole room knew that this one was it.”
Within a year, over half of the original Exodus 1947 passengers had made another attempt at emigrating to Palestine – most found themselves detained in camps in Cyprus. One witness describes the DP (Displaced Persons) Camps on Cyprus thus: “a hot hell of desert sand and wind blowing against tents and tin Nissen huts, a hell circumscribed by two walls of barbed wire whose architecture had come out of Dachau and Treblinka”.
Eventually, after the events around May 1948, the majority of the Exodus exiles made it back to Israel.
Exodus, all right! Movement of Jah people!
Went to a screening of ‘Zwartboek’ (Black Book) attended by the director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Totall Recall, Basic Instinct). It is his first film made in Holland for two decades, since he took up residence in LA.
So it is an engaging blend of European film and American movie. It combines the strong narrative drive of the former, complete with car chases and tense thriller moments, with the complex characterisation of the latter and precise sense of historical moment.
Verhoeven has that easy Dutch charm and (to my ears) irresistable accent (I think of my old friend Mirjam saying “lecker”) and speaks interestingly about gradually losing the passion in his projects, hence this return to Europe for a passion project, seemingly some 20 years in the gestation. He has applied the storytelling backbone and action forms of Hollywood to a complex political and historical subject with many shades of grey.
The lead actress, Carice van Houten, a theatre performer well known in the Netherlands, is very charismatic and accomplished. Verhoeven said he knew she had the lead role, Ellis, which demands being on screen for most scenes of a long movie, within 20 minutes of the casting session, the kind of casting he could never have done with a Hollywood name (they deem any such thing an insupportable insult). He carried on casting for a couple of days but knew he had his woman.
The emotional core of the film is subtly contained in the bedroom scenes, indeed in the bed, of Ellis, the undercover Jewish resistance member, and Muntze, the Nazi commander. A strange love develops between them which is entirely convincing. It is here that the emotional experience is focused – more than the slaughter of betrayed Jews and even the unwarranted humiliation of an innocent ‘collaborator’.
It would be good to see more European fiilms with the high entertainment values of this thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking work.