Archive for the ‘auschwitz’ Tag
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 have to admit I was a bit worried when I heard Channel 4 were making a film about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strike. Having sat through shite like Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ I feared the worst. But ‘Hunger‘, by Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, is an artist’s film of intense emotional impact and real insight. And it belongs on the big screen, its compositions and rhythms fill the space. That it is a London born film-maker, a black film-maker, that provides such insight into so fraught and sensitive an Irish story is all the more remarkable.
It was commissioned by my colleague Jan Younghusband, Commissioning Editor for Arts and Performance at Channel 4. She is a woman with a purist and committed approach to art, as I learned from working with her on projects like Big Art Project and 4mations. ‘Hunger’ was five years in the making and conception. Through her work on the Turner Prize Jan came into contact with McQueen, hooked up from time to time in a cafe on Old Compton Street and gradually homed in on this most demanding of subject-matter. Film 4, in the person of Peter Carlton (who I worked with last year on My Movie Mash-up/Faintheart, which amply demonstrated his ballsy approach) came in to back the film as a theatric offering. I have to say, having just emerged from a viewing of the finished film, I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an organisation that creates a work like this.
I walk past Bobby Sands regularly in the form of a Christ-like statue of him in Newry, the town in County Down where my wife was born. She grew up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s – I can hardly imagine how she and her sisters will watch this film. Whatever you feel about the politics behind Bobby Sands (of which most of our (British) population is incredibly ignorant, and was so back in 1980 – as a suburban London teenager it was right off my radar beyond what I gleaned from Stiff Little Fingers) the portrayal of political conviction and of inhuman bigotry is as powerful as it comes. Thatcher’s voice, heard in voice-over punctuating the film from time to time, comes across as truly monstrous. Everything about its coldness and stridency speaks of the huge cultural gulf between the Lincoln grocery and a family gathering in West Belfast or Gweedore, Donegal (where the key flashback scene of the film takes place) or pretty much anywhere in Ireland or an Irish home.
My wife recalls how her life and the lives of all around her were overshadowed by the hunger strike. A time punctuated by the staggered deaths (they deliberately spaced the starts of their hunger-strikes two weeks apart to maximise the impact of their sacrifice). Looking back from the last few years it is only now she truly recognises what a troubled, hard childhood she and her contemporaries lived through. A couple of years ago we were in the (old) Tate with the children. They were copying some of the pictures in the Pop Art rooms. As we emerged from the gallery I noticed my wife was really upset. I asked her what was up and it turned out walking through a room of Richard Hamilton images of soldiers on the streets of Belfast [The State 1993] had really disturbed her and awakened ghosts. (Richard Hamilton of course also portrayed Bobby Sands draped in blanket in his picture ‘The Citizen’ [1981-83].)
When I first visited Newry in 1986 I was greeted by the most surreal of experiences – walking down the high street I watched British troops, armed with machine guns and equipped with radios, ducking in and out of shop doorways between little old ladies struggling along with their shopping bags. Nothing in my North London childhood had given me the slightest clue that such dark comedy was to be had on the streets of ‘my country’.
On my way out of the screening I met a woman who looked pretty shaken by the experience (naturally enough). It turned out her daughter works at the Channel and she comes from Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh. Needless to say she knew the one family I know in Crossmaglen, as that is the way of Ireland. I knew the hospital she was born in in Newry, Daisyhill aka Crazyhill, as my wife was born there too. I knew her school in Kilkeel as my wife went there too. It’s a small, connected place. In her family home this woman I got talking to has some of the tiny notes smuggled out of the Maze – that’s how connected it is.
I thought the starvation in Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild‘ was painful to watch and moving but it goes nowhere near the forensic observation of this film. The skeletal bodies are resonant of Auschwitz – and the crucifixion. And yet the film captures something incredible, something transcendent about the human spirit and will.
Towards the end of the film we see a flashback of the Belfast boy on a coach traveling over the border into Donegal to attend a cross-country race put on by the Christian Brothers (purveyors, as Pete McCarthy amusingly put it, of “the carrot and stick method of Education – only without the carrot”). Behind the face of the young Bobby is a blurred swoosh of gold, low sunlight on the ferns and bogland. It represents a paradise to the starving man.
Recalling when I first went to that place – Gweedore – brings a smile to my lips. I’d followed the roadmap and came to what I thought was not far from Gweedore. I stopped at a junction, reminiscent of where Cary Grant gets off the bus in ‘North-by-Northwest’ and gets attacked by a crop-spraying plane. There was a small shop at the junction, outside of which stood an old fella in a flat cap. I wound down the window and asked him where Gweedore was. You’re in it. Where? All around. He was trying to explain the concept of a ‘townland’ which was foreign to me. ‘Town’ I get. ‘Land’ and ‘country’ I get. But this was something in-between, half way to the imagination, between the word on the map and the ground beneath me was a cultural gap and an imaginative leap. ‘Dhun na nGall’ (Donegal) means ‘fort of the foreigners’ – foreigners have given the people there a tough time since way back – from the marauding Vikings (who probably explain my wife’s love of the battle and fighting scenes in ‘Gladiator’) to the screws beating the living shit out of Bobby Sands and fellow prisoners with their truncheons and tattooed knuckles. The same shit these men smeared on the walls of their cells in an astonishing act of defiance for over 4 years, the shit McQueen turns into a kind of circular abstract painting in one scene. The ability of people to survive that kind of degradation and brutality for the sake of an idea is ultimately uplifting. The ability to inflict that kind of degradation and brutality is to be the subject of one of my next posts (bet you can’t wait😉 inspired by Philippe Sands‘ recent book Torture Team about torture in Iraq, where Steve McQueen served as a war artist in 2003.) So shifting Sands from Bobby to Philippe – not easy subjects but then 7/7 isn’t an easy day…
Notes for a movie by Albert Camus & James Cameron
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.
Marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27th January 1945
He was inspired to act after seeing Charlie Chaplin.
He was born in Strasbourg. His father was killed in Auschwitz.
22.iii.1923 – 22.ix.2007
Photo © Estate of Yousuf Karsh