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Greek tales with Irish twist

The woe-begotten stories of the House of Atreus are familiar to many people. Even if we do not know who wrote the original story or the exact reference, nearly everyone knows the expression ” a bit of a Cassandra” meaning someone who always predicts the worst; and the names Electra and Agamemnon generally ring bells even if you cannot remember exactly who they were.

In one of the more infamous moments of this family mythology, Agamemnon sends to his wife, Clytemnestra to bring his daughter for marriage to a place where he is waiting. But there is no marriage, Iphigenia is to be sacrificed to the Gods in a hope that the Gods will send a fair wind so that he and his warriors can sail off to the Trojan War. A story which I think pretty much everyone has heard of even if they do not exactly remember it.

ToibinColm Tóibín in his new novel, House of Names, has re-worked this whole ghastly story into a shockingly vivid narrative of betrayal, fury, lust, revenge and tragedy. It had all these elements already, but it is in the finer detail that Tóibín makes us look at this again.

He describes the smell of blood and death, the flies and the stink; he dresses his characters in fine robes and we can hear the rustle of silks as they sweep the floor; we feel the hunger and fear of the captured Orestes and we rejoice when he and Leander escape. It is in the detail that we begin to properly understand the horror.

We do not begin at the beginning of this sorry and sordid tale, but at the point when Clytemnestra has taken her revenge on Agamemnon after his return triumphant from the wars; bringing with him his new mistress Cassandra, the voice of doom. While he has been away, Clytemnestra has been disporting with Aegisthus and between them they have cooked up a deadly revenge. Clytemnestra has had woven a deadly garment, the poison in its threads will hold the victim paralysed but aware, while his lovely welcoming wife slits his throat. Clytemnestra then kills Cassandra for good measure.

Meanwhile, her other daughter Electra is locked up downstairs and her son, Orestes hurried off to a place of safety.

We then go back to the moment she has prepared her beloved daughter in the finest wedding clothes for marriage. as she thinks. to the hero Achilles. So she is a bit amazed when he denies it, but still unsuspecting, for who could imagine the truth. And although she does not witness the sacrifice herself, having been tied up and thrust into a hole, we learn later that Iphigenia went bravely forward, pleading with her father not to do this awful thing and it was only when she threatened to curse them all that they tied and gagged her before cutting her throat. But the detail that her black hair was cut short, and her neck nicked in the cutting so that she cried out, is entirely Tóibín’s addition, part of the added detail that makes all this so profoundly real.

But, of course, this is Greek tragedy so nothing goes quite according to plan and one act of murder follows another until the final gore-fest ends steeped in blood.

I suspect that an Irish writer, more than most, would understand the nature of the festering wounds that are inflicted generation after generation as families divide and fall apart in a welter of blood and revenge. The Troubles, in real life, mirrored some of the more horrible aspects of Greek tragedy. Not that I am imagining that they were provoked by an effort to appease, placate or influence the Gods, but one murder led inexorably to another until the country was steeped in blood in a war just as profound as that on the cliffs of Troy.


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61st London Film Festival Day 10.ii

My second film of the day was in some ways rather a disappointment. A documentary about a Zen Buddhist community in the South of France, Plum Village, known now because of its “mindfulness” programme and the philosophy of its leader Thich Nhat Hahn.

Walk with meWalk With Me sounded as though it was a meditative look at Zen Buddhist life, and indeed in some ways that is exactly what it was, but I expected something a great deal more abstract. While several scenes were of sky, clouds, trees, water and sunrise; there was also a considerable amount of busy-ness.

Walking mindfully, eating mindfully, teaching and listening mindfully – so far so good, except there was so much of it; no sooner had the camera focussed on one thing, when it switched to something else.

Mercifully there was no sound-track as such, so we heard the natural sounds and the gongs, bells and singing; but mindfulness is as much about breathing mindfully as anything else, and this left one with hardly any time to draw breath.

AND THEN…my worst fears: Benedict Cumberbatch sententiously reading extracts from the journals of Thich Nhat Hahn. I understand that Mr Cumberbatch does actually follow this mindfulness practice, so was probably the ideal choice in that sense, but the solemn, sepulchral tone was a mistake; the thoughts were themselves profound, possibly; personal, evidently; and spiritual, definitely and as such, they did not need any added depth of feeling.

Made by the same team (Marc J Francis and Max Pugh) as Black Gold (LFF 2006) this was a good idea which missed its mark, for me at any rate.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.i

Anyone who regularly visits my blog will know that if there is an Australian film available I will be at the first screening. Sweet Country is no exception.

Sweet Country
Made by the same director as Samson and Delilah (LFF2009), this film shows Australian history from a slightly different perspective. Warwick Thornton is himself of Aboriginal lineage. His two feature films show primarily the lives of the aboriginals, in the first feature it showed the lives of two teenagers struggling against the perceived wisdom of twentieth century whites that all “blackfellas” were useless, ignorant and frequently drunk. The protagonist was Delilah, it was glue-sniffing Samson who need help, this was a beautiful love story.

In a way, this second film Sweet Country is a meditation on how that impression might have come about and why. Directed as a faux-Western in the Spaghetti-Western mode, no one is entirely wrong or entirely right, we first meet Fred Smith (Sam Neill) a solid Christian rancher who treats his Aboriginal workers as equals, a new neighbour comes to ask for assistance and obligingly Fred sends off his main worker, Sam (Hamilton Morris) with his wife and niece. But things do not go according to plan and Harry March (Ewen Leslie) sends them back. Harry then goes to another neighbour, Mike Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) who also obligingly sends two hands, Philomac, a young half-breed (almost certainly Mike’s own son) played by the twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan and another older man, Archie (Gibson John).

At this point things really begin to unravel, though this film has more twists than a barley-sugar stick ( a reference probably lost on anyone under the age of 65), there is a pivotal moment when everything that could go wrong begins.

Like any good Western, there are wild chases across vast empty landscapes, night camps under glowing starlit skies and beautiful scenery. Led by the aboriginal tracker Archie under the direction of Sergeant Fletcher (SELRES_536f5180-6f65-42a8-b453-bfb117386342SELRES_b0e2f459-a8dc-4527-943b-00451404098cSELRES_2669b097-aa74-427d-b908-ec7ef25a0033SELRES_1e329570-c06b-49f7-ade1-324f8502e245SELRES_86b44485-81d7-41c3-862d-8d85f6748c48Bryan BrownSELRES_86b44485-81d7-41c3-862d-8d85f6748c48SELRES_1e329570-c06b-49f7-ade1-324f8502e245SELRES_2669b097-aa74-427d-b908-ec7ef25a0033SELRES_b0e2f459-a8dc-4527-943b-00451404098cSELRES_536f5180-6f65-42a8-b453-bfb117386342).

It is not for nothing that people who go to Australia and people who live there think this is God’s Own Country, it is indeed sweet country. Filmed on location in the area surrounding the McDonnell Ranges, this is grass plains, light scrub and acres of flat land in every direction under an enormous sky, and then you get the mountains, rising like stone giants from the plains they are vaguely reminiscent of Monument Valley, but of a very different composition. Iron-stone, I would guess, craggy, crevassed and opening into deep gorges. It is an arid land and there are large salt-lakes of piercing whiteness.

The story unwinds to its end with occasional flashes of precognition, which only make sense once the film has ended.

Everyone needs to face the facts of the brutal history of Australia. Before European settlers (mainly British) arrived there were at least 900 different nomadic groups living there, not necessarily peaceably, but at least not rapaciously. White settlers changed all that and although the start was slow and devastating in small areas, after World War I land grabs of gargantuan proportions began in earnest. Central Australia and Western Australia, until then hardly touched, were plundered remorselessly, native bush scrubbed out and cattle grass laid, and cattle and sheep brought in and with them the infamous flies! With the land grab came the indenture of many aboriginals, anyone on the land, nomadic or not, became the property of the owner.

Unpaid, indentured labour, treated like dogs or worse than dogs. Introduced to alcohol, tobacco and small pox, the effect was devastating. And that does not include the “abo-hunts” where white settlers went about killing every “blackfella” on sight, until the population was suitably reduced (ie: they had enough hands and no more). If you think I might be exaggerating, I can assure you that I wish I was not. I have heard it told without a trace of shame by the grandson of a rancher in Northern Territories.

Failing to catch up with either of these films would be a pity, but you can also read the novels of Mary Durack Kings of the Grass Country, which is about her grandfather and his “appropriation” of land, though that is not exactly how she presents it and Kate Grenville who also writes, but with a good deal more self-awareness about her family history and its good and bad effects on the local (New South Wales) population in her trilogy that begins with Sarah Thornhill. Then there is Thomas Keneally in both fiction and non-fiction.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 4

You haven’t missed anything, I went a whole day without going to the cinema!! The LFF means lots of late nights and lots of inadequate meals, and I was working on Friday as well.  So, unusually for me, took a break from screenings.

DarlingBack on stream today. Saw Darling, a new film by the Danish director Birgitte Stærmose, award winning and versatile, this is her first feature film. Set in the competitive environs of the Royal Danish Ballet Company, we see the new prima ballerina, “Darling” played by Danica Curcic and the new director, Frans played by Gustaf Skarsgård arriving to start work on a new production of Giselle.

This is a work of great intensity and drama, ballet is full of pain and this in no exception. Neither is the competitive nature of the jostling for rôles at the highest level. Every dancers’ dream is for the superstar to fail so that they can step into their ballet shoes. In reality no one wants to be the ‘willis’, they all want to be Giselle, herself.

This film is also about success and failure, physical and mental and the enormous stress of fame, and the end of fame – the nothingness that follows a career broken off suddenly by ill-health or accident.

I think this film could do with some closer edits and some corrective continuity, there were some very awkward transitions where the editing was all too obvious and one really terrible continuity gaffe. But that is to be extra picky, this is a very interesting and well acted film. Danica is not a dancer, so her transformation “into” a prima ballerina is nothing short of miraculous.

Her training with a real ballerina was gruelling and meticulous, which probably helped with her later role as dominatrix over the dancer, Polly, who replaces her Giselle, played by Astrid Grarup Elbo, a real ballet dancer from the Royal Danish Ballet Company.

This is a much better film than Black Swan, but similar in the intensity of the identification with the character and the dancer/actor. Personally, I could have done with more of the ballet, but that is my opinion only.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 1

The films have begun, you will not find the blockbuster movies here, for that you must go to the national press. My choices are for the small films, the competition entries and films that I suspect will never make it to any screen near me.

Today I went to see The Mærsk Opera. This comes under the Experimenta section: films that transform our experience of the moving image. You take quite a plunge in this section, I have seen films that are as boring as watching paint dry and others that are so visually gorgeous that your heart beat quickens.

Maersk OperaThis was exactly what it said on the tin. It is a film of an opera written by Anders Monrad, to a libretto by Nikolaj Heltoft about the building of the Mærsk Opera House in Copenhagen and is utterly, breathtakingly wonderful.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is the name of one of the largest shipping companies in the world. Every film I have ever seen, fiction or documentary, that includes a container shipping port or a container ship (eg: Captain Phillips) has this brand somewhere in the frame, and the company is Danish.

Visually stunning, the images morph from landscape to seascape, from a dog chasing sticks on a beach to ants building a nest, from abstract images that are hard to fathom to the tortured hands of an old man and from a Red Bull Cliff diving competition to an asteroid swirling in space. Meanwhile we hear throughout this astonishing opera about the building of the opera house.

Not without controversy. At some point the architect’s plans were altered and he lost control of the project, his role taken over by Mærsk McKinney-Møller himself. The glass exterior being replaced with stone.

The public were not overwhelmed either. There was some disquiet about the siting of the building which broke the visual axis between the palace and the principal church, and the conditions made by Mærsk that it should be on the harbour. There was also disquiet about the corporate gains made in VAT and tax benefits in exchange for this “gift”, and there is a really telling moment when the Minister goes to the Mærsk offices to sign the documents and is made to climb the stairs.

The visual presentation of this shows the elderly hand twisting a pen in his fingers, you never see more of the figure; through the window you can see that he is at the very least on the sixth or eighth floor, no wonder the Minister wishes to take the lift, but he is informed that at Mærsk one climbs the stairs. He wonders whether a government official, appointed by the people, should allow himself to be dictated to…but relents and climbs. The singing stops and a rather out-of-breath voice says “I didn’t know there were this many stairs in Denmark”.

Presented like an opera with a prologue and three acts, this is opera at its strangest. Entirely about Mærsk, about the Opera House and these disquieting popular views, but against the most marvellous music and singing, the last words are “tak, tak, tak“, which everyone who watches Scandi noir now knows means “thank you”.

I suppose the oddest thing about the film was that there were very few views of the opera house itself.

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Water, War and Loss

MichaelsWhat is lost when a great monument is moved to make way for a reservoir? Anne Michaels‘ second novel The Winter Vault, starts in the Nubian desert. Avery Escher and his wife, Jean, are living on a Nile houseboat while he supervises the project to save the Abu Simbel statues from the creation of Lake Nasser.

Avery grew up near his father, William, an engineer. His mother had died so Avery accompanied his father on many of his project visits, most of them the filling of valleys with water.

I think subconsciously, we all know that the making of a reservoir costs more than the money that is spent on its construction. The making of Lake Nasser destroyed 27 Nubian villages; removed 70,000 people; sank 7,676 houses; transported 34,146 goats, 19,315 sheep, 2,831 cattle, 608 camels, 415 donkeys, 86 horses, 35,000 chickens, 28,000 pigeons and 1,564 geese and ducks all to a place so foreign as to be a different country still in the same land. The new places, built meanly and insensibly in another piece of desert, with a miserable gutter of a river would never been “home”. This vast displacement, while deemed “necessary” at the time, altered the lives of far more than the 70,000 that were moved.

Making the lake, while taking utmost care to preserve the great statues of Rameses and Nefertiti, destroyed the natural rhythms of the Nile, thereby changing the agriculture and livelihoods of the farmers downstream.

This novel, through the lives of the two characters and the people they meet, echoes and reflects that enormous loss. While the work is going on, Jean suffers a loss even more horrible and it drives these two apart. She ends up meeting another man, whose loss is even greater than her own; Lucjan, an exile from Warsaw, who as a young boy lost first his father, then his mother and finally his step-father, along with countless other people, known and unknown. Surviving the war, and being part of the rebuilding of the city over the graves of the unburied in the tonnes of rubble.

We hear all this, and much more in the pages of this novel, as each person reveals his or her innermost secrets and longing, losses and griefs to one of the others. Some of it, unbearably painful, but a necessary hearing. Driven apart by their colossal sadness, Avery takes up architecture, intent on creating rather than destroying and Jean takes to planting, grafting and gardening, sometimes in public places in secret. It is here that she meets Lucjan, who is the “Caveman” a Banksy-like painter at night on fences, walls and in narrow passages, caveman-like paintings of bison, wild horses and strange neolithic creatures.

This is a novel that is very apposite for our times, because it delves deeply into the experience of migration, not simply the packing up and leaving, but the tremendous tearing up of lives, the dead in their graves moved to a new unfamiliar place, or not moved and left to be drowned, a sort of second death.

The very staples that the Nubians had so expertly cultivated would now have to be bought at market – lentils, beans, chickpeas, lupins, and peas. In the new settlement there were no terraces for the women to sit together, no Nile with its green inlets and islands where they could sail their feluccas and watch the steamers passing to and from Egypt, loaded with goods. Now there was only the steep gorge of the Atbara River, with its barren banks, the dry thorny acacia scrub, the rainy savannah. There were no palm date forests and no limitless hills of the Sahara. The women permanently gave up [wearing] the elegant gargara because it now simply trailed in the mud.


The Nubians, who had given up everything for the hydroelectric power provided by the new dam, were themselves without electricity. The cables passed right by the new settlements; only some extra poles and wire would have been needed to bring electricity into their houses. But the Nubians had to wait seven years to turn on a light.

The horror of this loss is borne in on Avery and Jean when their friend, Daub Arbab, takes them to the village where he grew up, emptied now of all its people but not yet drowned. It is when they see the buildings in Ashkeit, houses that stood rooted in the land they were built on, walls made of mud and plaster, painted with pictures of animals and plants in pigments found naturally: “cinnamon, rust, phthalocyanine green, rose, Antwerp blue, tan, cream, madder, lamp black, sienna and ancient yellow ochre”, it is their understanding of this loss, felt by both of them in the sudden realisation of beauty expressed in the hunger for a home, one which was both found and now lost.

This is a seminal moment in the novel. The moment when the absolute harsh reality broke through, what it costs a person to lose his or her roots.

Today, as after the Second World War, migration is on our front pages and in the news. The Syrians, Ethiopians, Rohingya Muslims – and many others – all in one way repeating the terrible pattern of loss of homeland. Ever since homo sapiens settled down and began cultivation, most of people stopped wanting to be hunter-gatherers, and generations since then we have clung to land, our land, our homeland. We lose much more than our material homes when we are forced into exile.


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India – then and now

While I am still struggling with Infinite Jest, I am interspersing the agony with other reading.

This week it is India. I thought in honour of the year, I should re-read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. A Man Booker prize winner at the time and then a Man Booker of the decades with this novel, the prize winner of all prize winners. Worthy, deserved and hugely rewarding to read.

SalmanI think everyone knows that it is the life story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight at the moment India and Pakistan were divided. This was only Salman Rushdie’s second novel and what a towering success it became.

I think it is true to say that many people reading “Indian fiction” got their insights from Europeans writing about the British Raj.  There were, in the early twentieth century, very few India writers being published in Britain. So the sources were Paul Scott‘s The Raj Quartet, EM Forster The Passage to India, JG Farrell Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur and similar, not forgetting Rudyard Kipling, of course.

Then a trickle began, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with Heat and Dust, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and others, but what was significant about these was that they all lived abroad. But they were a post-partition generation and wrote about India now. The trickle became a flood and then a cataract, and with Arundhati Roy we got a writer who lives and works in India. She too won the Man Booker prize for her novel The God of Small Things.

ArvindaSo we come to today, with both Indian and Pakistani writers publishing in Britain. Among them, Aravind Adiga, whose first novel The White Tiger also won the Man Booker Prize. The White Tiger was about young entrepreneurs making money in the new booming Indian economy. His latest novel, Selection Day is a similar story of rags to riches, but set in the world of International Cricket as played in India. Two brothers, brought up in the slums, are forcibly trained to be good with bat and ball by their cricket-obsessed father, successfully to start with, they are both marked for great triumph, but when a sponsor arrives things begin to change and a sudden realisation dawns on the younger of the two boys.

From rags to riches has a very unique connotation in a land like India, where there is no health care, no welfare state, no safety net. You only have to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo to understand that. Aravind Adiga has touched the same nerve in his fiction. Katherine’s book was also turned into a play by David Hare and this is what I wrote having read the book and seen the play.

The book [Behind the Beautiful Forevers] was written as a result of Katherine Boo’s personal involvement in the slum dwellers who lived beyond the wall on which the “Beautiful Forever” tiles were advertised. The people living in this squatters’ slum were much more than cyphers, they had relationships well beyond what was portrayed in the play. They had back-stories, their current circumstances and the exigencies of living on the edge, at the mercy of police brutality and veniality; at the mercy of the weather and at the bottom of society – rag pickers, garbage sorters living on the detritus of a much wealthier and prosperous elite, living literally cheek-by-jowl with the evidence of wealth – smart hotels and smart cars and living right beside the most flagrant example of wealth: the airport. All this and more one felt at a visceral level when turning the pages of the book. Largely lost in the play. I doubt whether anyone in the audience who had not previously read the book could have come to anything like a real understanding of the degradation oddly coupled with the sense of personal pride that lived side by side in that slum

There are so many more that I haven’t named, but they are out there and waiting for you to pick them up.

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