Category Archives: Modern History

London Film Festival 2018/6

A marathon three film day, meaning atrocious diet of coffee and Maltesers, plus a hurried sandwich, but I would not have missed any one of them.

First up was a fictionalized account of a South Korean spy working in North Korea. This was one of the only South Asia films in this year’s list, most of them have been hived off into a separate film festival of their own, which follows hard upon this annual London Film Festival, by which time I am filmed-out for a while. Pity, as those are the films I used to choose most.

The Spy

This was a brilliant start to the day. Although my knowledge of South Korean politics was limited, so that possibly some nuanced chicanery passed over my head, this was a spy drama of immense tension and interest. It will certainly lead me to do a bit of post-film research since the story, largely true though fictionalized, was of immediate interest in view of the current situation on that peninsula, right now.

But even without the relevance of today’s situation this was a marvellous look at the inscrutable East, being at its most opaque. Who was on to the bigger picture and who was not? Which of them was on the side of honour and which was the snake in the grass?

Brilliant acting, vibrant and astonishing glimpses of Korean politique and possibly even pictures of North Korea – though since the credits were not translated at all, it is impossible to know where exactly the film had been made.

The second film I am also glad to have seen, although it was a filler for a film I wanted to see but could not get tickets – a situation I might address later.

Putin's witnesses

This rather intimate picture of the Russian leader, is of Putin visiting his old school teacher in St Petersburg. She had twice been primed for this visit, the first time when Putin was meeting the British Prime Minister – Tony Blair, on that occasion for some inexplicable reason he failed to turn up, though his security turned up in advance anyway. The second occasion Putin was there for a funeral of his political mentor, not Yeltsin but someone else.

A great deal of this film was made before the country really knew who Putin was, and before Yeltsin’s sudden announcement on 31st December 1999 that he was retiring. Putin took over as Acting President from that moment, though the elections, at which he got 52% of the vote, were some months later.

He arrives with flowers and kisses. The genesis of this visit comes from an idea presented by the film’s director – Vitaly Mansky. Mansky is a well know and highly respected Russian documentary maker and he and his team got intimate and extraordinary access to both Yeltsin and Putin, especially before Putin actually became the Russian leader.

This was a thought provoking film, not least because in spite of being close to Putin, being invited several times for quite intensive interviews while Putin explained himself, Vitaly Mansky and his family now live abroad and not in Russia. At the Q&A Mansky made it clear that his exile was voluntary, but during the film, his commentary also made it quite clear that opposing the present leader can lead to significant difficulties and sudden death.

Manksy’s decision to leave with his family came after the Ukraine debacle.

Finally, a touching and tragic film about a family split by religion and ideology. Sami, the son of the title is seen suffering from acute migraines, for which there seems no obvious cause. But we know that all is not quite as it seems.

Dear Son

The father-son relationship is tender but complicated. Sami is clearly lying to his parents, who think he is studying for his baccalaureate. When he vanishes, Riadh finds that he is beginning to lie to Nazli. This is a family torn apart in a devastating and emotional roller coaster. The acting is superb, both parents show deep and convincing tenderness for their son, who acts like many another moody teenager – but with tragic consequences.

 

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a whole pile of books

I have been reading a lot since the bad weather started and three books were literally un-put-downable, such that I was still reading at 3AM. Which is fine, but I realise rather indulgent.

The Collector

So for the serious one first. The Collector is a translated recollection (in a very real sense) of the life and collections of a Russian family called Shchukin, but particularly Sergei Shchukin, by Natalya Semenova and André Delocque, translated by Antony Roberts.

The Shchukin family were immensely wealthy Russians, they had a near monopoly on fabric manufacture, and interior fabric items such as curtains, bed linen and bed covers and other designer accoutrements of the bourgeoisie.

There were several brothers who collected: Petr whose interest was mainly in Russian artefacts of all sorts, a John Soane of Russia you could say; Ivan, who collected paintings and Sergei who collected specifically French Impressionists.

André Delocque is Sergei’s grandson and helped with the material and research. Sergei was a man of extraordinary vision, buying paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes, Cottet, and a great many more. Sergei went regularly to Paris and met most of these painters, particularly Matisse and Picasso, whose pictures he bought long before either of them were famous.

Even before the Revolution in Russia, this outstanding collection was willed to the people of Russia together with the impressive Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow, for which many of the paintings by Matisse were commissioned and in which they were housed.

This I followed with a wonderful new historical novel by Victoria Glendinning about a group of nuns in Shaftesbury Abbey in 1535, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Abbess was confident that such an Abbey would not be targeted, she was Dame Elizabeth Zouche and had influence in high places. How wrong can one be?

The main character, Agnes Peppin, has been sent to the Abbey by her parents because she fell pregnant. Obviously, unmarried and now spoiled, her only recourse was to take holy vows. Actually, this never was fulfilled as the Abbey was destroyed, stone by stone before her novitiate was completed.

So she was out in the world again. But her life, and her observations, since this is a first person narrative, give us a very complete insight into the gentle, and not so gentle life of a community, followed by its exceedingly painful exodus. More painful for the elderly nuns and for the Abbess herself.

Glandinning

It is both a gripping look at the times and an affecting story of the strong and the weak, and the powerless. Agnes lives to see Thomas Cromwell executed, Henry VIII dead and her own lover, Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet) imprisoned and executed.

This reminded me very strongly of HMF Prescott’s A Man on a Donkey, but The Butcher’s Daughter is much more concentrated than this older novel, though the earlier book remains one of my favorite historical novels of all time.

The other three by Simon Mawer, AN Wilson and Louis de Bernières were all of a completely different sort. And these were the ones that I read through at one sitting each.

So Much Life Left Over has characters that appeared in a previous novel, The Dust That Falls from Dreams; though cleverly it is a stand-alone novel and not having read the previous book would not detract in any way from this emotionally taxing story. In fact, my tears streamed through the first three chapters and then the last three, but that says more about me than maybe anything about the book.

Rosie and Daniel have moved to Ceylon with their daughter Esther to start a new life after the horrors of World War I, in which Rosie had been a VAD and Daniel a fighter pilot. Daniel loves everything about the life they lead there, but Rosie finds herself increasingly bored and dissatisfied, a personal loss which has affected them both drives a wedge between them, and eventually Rosie insists that they return to England.

This is a love story as much as anything, but also has humour and beauty; the characters of Rosie’s family in particular are uniquely individual and unusual; her mad mother and strangely peripatetic, golf-loving father; her sisters and their wonderful partners and then Daniel and his friends. It is all captivating and brutally sad, as the end comes as World War II starts in all its forbidding darkness.

Prague Spring has one of those giveaway titles that tells you where you are and when. Two rather feckless university students decide to hitch-hike around Europe together in the long vac of 1968; but lacking a definite destination and due to a lot of arguing and finally, decisions made at the toss of a coin, they end up in Dubček’s Prague.

Having got through the Czechoslovakian border, they are trudging along the road hoping for a lift, when the diplomatic car of the First Secretary to the British Embassy draws up. Simon Wareham, with his girlfriend Lenka, have returned from a visit to Munich and thus accommodated they all arrive in Prague.

Lenka is living, unofficially, with Simon in his embassy flat so Ellie and James go to live in her apartment. And so there they all are, with the nemesis of the Czechoslovakian dream hovering on the borders…

Aftershocks was a very strange novel for me to read.  In a preface, AN Wilson writes very firmly that this is not a book about the earthquakes in New Zealand. Now, I have been to Christchurch both before and after the earthquakes, and so although this novel is set in an imaginary island in the Pacific, I could not but read it as if, in spite of what Mr Wilson said, it was about New Zealand.

His discretion lies in the knowledge that he was only a visitor to Christchurch, that therefore he could not possibly know what is was  like to live through such a traumatic experience – but at the same time, he fills the novel to the brim with what amounts to an hour by hour description of those events.

All that said, the novel is seen with a perceptive and kindly eye upon a number of characters who for one reason or another will turn out to be closely related. It has a first person narrative of a slightly different complexion, since much of the time this “voice” is more that of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, rather than the straightforward narrator.

To the extent that I accept his disavowal with a pinch of salt, this novel touched me deeply and was read in a single day. It is a beautiful story, not least because it captures something of the distance that there is, emotionally, between families that are left behind in England when, say, a beloved daughter takes up a job, in this case Dean of Aberdeen Cathedral in the far-off Pacific Island.

 

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A Book for Giving

It is not Christmas yet, but you might get copies of Sea Prayer ready for anyone with a heart. It is a short book, the best prayers are. It is not too expensive at about £13. It is exquisitely beautiful and painfully relevant.A Sea Prayer

Khaled Hosseini shot to fame with his first novel The Kite Runner, about a young boy who let his friend down in a crisis, and never really recovered. Hosseini’s later books also dealt with loss, family crisis, pragmatic choices and all of them dealt with emotional pain.

Inspired by the images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year old, whose little body was found on an Italian beach, this book sends up a prayer to the indifferent sea, for Marwan. His father stands on the edge of a moonlit sea, praying for a safe passage to a better life.

The sadness, as the father recalls his home, is palpable. He wishes that his little son was older, would remember the beautiful things about his homeland, rather than the mortal difference between dark blood and bright red blood; that he would remember the olive and fig trees and his grandmother’s cooking rather than the dark cellars with too little to eat or drink; that he could remember the sound of bleating goats rather than the scream of dropping bombs; but above all the father’s prayer is:

Pray God steers the vessel true,

when the shores slip out of eyeshot

and we are a flyspeck

in the heaving waters, pitching and tilting.

easily swallowed.

Because you,

you are precious cargo, Marwan,

the most precious there ever was.

I pray the sea knows this.

Inshallah.

You can only just see it on the far left of this part of the double-spread illustration, but there is a tiny overloaded speck of a boat, on the surface of this wild, swaying, indifferent sea.

sea prayer illus

The exquisite watercolour illustrations by Dan Williams, move from glorious, painterly, golden hues of vibrant wild flowers, olive trees and busy markets through a dread-filled palette of greys, browns and blacks into this sweeping, moonlit, green sea.

Nothing could be more impactful.

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Souvenir de temps perdu

Two very different novels, both revisiting France in World War II.

Manda ScottA Treachery of Spies is a thriller, as well as a police procedural that starts in March 2018 with a ritualized killing. Manda Scott has revived her detective Captain Picaut, last seen in an extreme trauma unit having suffered burns to the right hand side of her body. [Into the Fire]

Picaut has reported back fit for duty just as a new crime scene emerges in an Orléans car park. In a stolen, or borrowed, Citroën BX there is a hideously mutilated, but still obviously beautiful, elderly woman of about ninety five; killed by three shots, one to the head and two to the chest, and with her tongue cut out.

She has identification papers, elegant (but not French) clothes and apart from the grotesque manner of her death, there seems to be no reason why she is where she is, or indeed who attacked her.

The thriller switches between present day Orléans and the search for answers to this and other killings and 1940-44 in Occupied France and the activities of the Résistance and SOE As one might expect from this talented writer the plots, double crossings, red herrings and altered identities are numerous. The team on the ground in 2018 have to follow leads that reach right back to a period in France even before some of them were born.

The chapter headings make it quite clear which period we are in, but the many different identities that were taken up by members of the Résistance and SOE makes it important to keep a firm grasp of who everyone is, at which point in time – for all is not what it seems.

Captain Picaut is struggling to see the direction that this investigation is taking, and one of the hazards lies in the very people who seemed to be helping.

The second novel by Sebastian Faulks is in familiar territory for him, though a very different and blistering novel, quite unlike Birdsong and Charlotte Grey.

FaulksTwo characters descend on modern day Paris. Tariq from Morocco, in pursuit of his mother’s family, and Hannah, an American, who is doing some post doctoral research into the lives of women in Paris during the Occupation.

We meet Tariq first, just at the point at which he makes the decision to go to Paris, he has no money and therefore goes under the radar; his first encounter once in France is with Sandrine and together they hitch-hike to Paris, and find somewhere fairly insalubrious to doss down.

Next we meet Hannah, just arrived and with an address to find, a small flat which she is renting for a few months. She later finds Sandrine, weakened and feverish, who she takes in temporarily out of sheer kindness.

Once Sandrine is better, she goes back to where she thinks Tariq is, finds him and brings him back to Hannah’s flat. Thus far, so simple.

But Paris Echo is about re-membering (literally putting flesh upon ghosts). Hannah uses the audio recordings of women who lived in Paris during the Occupation, two in particular –  Mathilde Masson and Juliette Lemaire. Juliette died in 2001, so the record says but it appears that Mathilde might still be alive, though now about eighty five. Hannah listens to their accounts of what life was like for them and goes for a revealing interview with the old lady.

Meanwhile, Tariq keeps looking at women, and for people who might be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of his mother’s family. He does discover something, from a man who claims he is Victor Hugo, though it is not quite what he was expecting.

With two first-person narrators, it can sometimes takes a few words to work out who is speaking, but it quickly becomes apparent, for both Tariq and Hannah have very different pursuits and voices.

There are many and wonderful characters in this novel: friends (or ghosts) that Tariq makes and follows; lines of enquiry that Hannah follows and her friends in Paris and beyond. This is also a poignant love story, a journey of self-knowledge and an exploration of a period in France which was temporarily buried in shame and is slowly rising again to the surface.

There is one character, though, who is not fiction. One of the best and bravest SOE women of the betrayed Prosper circuit, Andrée Borrel. Caught, tortured and executed in the only concentration camp in France, the terrible and notorious Natzweiler-Struthof. Hannah takes the train from Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg, very probably the very train that took Andrée and her three companions, to the camp. There she has a very out-of-body experience and from which she returns, changed and aware of something she has missed.

It is also, in passing, a salute to the Paris Metro, very decidedly one of the more interesting characters in this sublime novel.

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Another for the reading list

Glos CresThis time an eloquent coming-of-age memoir by William Miller, son of the more famous Jonathan; neighbour to Alan Bennett and the Lady in the Van, Nicholas and Claire Tomalin and then Michael Frayn, George and Diana Melly, Colin and Anna Haycraft, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Max Stafford Clark and other, presumably less famous, neighbours and in the next street Sir AJ Ayer and Dee,  Shirley Conran and then all their many and various children.

The time was the 1960s and the place was Gloucester Crescent and the other street was Regent’s Park Terrace, the book is Gloucester Crescent, Me, My Dad and Other Grown-ups.

Colin Haycraft was the founder of Duckworth’s the publisher, so as well as publishing a lot of books by the writers listed above, he also published Oliver Sacks, Beryl Bainbridge, Robert Lowell, the American Poet and William’s godfather, and a host of other luminaries all of whom drifted in and out of each other’s houses as guests – long stay, short stay, coffee, dinner or lunch – and talked and talked.

The abiding impression of this fascinating and gossipy book, written now the author is in his mid-fifties, but from his perspective as a child, is of someone who longs to get a word in edgeways.

It all sounds rather chaotic and free, happy and unclouded. But actually, small children do need attention and preferably from their own parents, William seems to have got most of his parenting from some of his adult female neighbours. And that might equally go for some of the other children in this remarkable list of extraordinary people.

The section on William’s schooling is simply chastening.  Shades of Philip Larkin spring to mind as the political philosophy of the left leaning, public school educated adults choose the State system for their own off-spring. Even the journey to and from Pimlico School is fraught with stress and incipient danger, it breaks one’s heart.

This is the Bloomsbury Group of the nineteen sixties, the Gloucester Crescent set, I suppose you could call them, though I have never heard them described like this. It was a time of febrile activity for the grown-ups, William describes the tattoo-sound of typewriters pinging across the gardens of the surrounding houses, the pauses to drag deeply on a cigarette, then the tap, tap, tap. Some fluently hammering out words, Alan Bennett for example, played his typewriter as if it were a piano, using all his fingers, Jonathan Miller was a two-fingered typist, until the lovely Stella Coltman-Rogers came to type his letters, then the sound changed to a flowing, professional typing speed.

The games and the gardens, the dogs and the other children. All wonderfully present. The epilogue is a recap of where we are now, the departed (and lamented) or the simply moved away; Alan Bennett is one such, and he moved with Rupert into the house opposite my own in another North London crescent.

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Off piste – not The Man Booker

Two other books I have completed are neither of them alternatives to the Man Booker Longlist. Tracy Borman‘s first novel, The King’s Witch is possibly the start of an historical trilogy and Red Sparrow is a spy story.

Red SparrowJason Matthews, the author of Red Sparrow, was once in the CIA, so like Ian Fleming and John le Carré, he writes about something he knows intimately: spying against the Russians.  The Cold War while technically over, continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. This book is set in present day Russia and comes with glowing recommendations from various sources. It is American, unlike the other two authors cited. The story is gripping and the book an absolute page turner. A riveting novel, for me it slightly disappoints because there is an element of magic involved.

One of the main characters, the eponymous heroine, is a synesthete – this is a relatively rare condition in which the person emotionally sees and feels everything in colour, Domenika however, is an extreme case and can also “see” personal auras, which gives away the moods and feelings of the people she is with. And here is my problem – whether or not such a condition exists, in a spy novel this capacity becomes part of the toolkit and for me that makes it magical.

Everything else is as one would hope: suspenseful, alarming and first rate. And there is another novel to follow this one, and naturally a major motion picture to be released!

BormanThe King’s Witch [hopefully the first of three novels, which is suggested in one of the tributes] is set just at the point at which Elizabeth I dies and James I of England and VI Scotland arrives on the throne of England.

As history relates, this was a difficult time for Catholics and for healers.  James had a phobia about both and many, many innocent women died as a result of his obsession with witchcraft, and the machinations of his sycophantic disciple, Robert Cecil, eventually created Baron, Earl of Salisbury as a reward for delivering both Catholics and witches to the evils of torture, burning and disembowelment.

Frances Gorges ( e pronounced as in Ganges) is a young woman, a herbalist and daughter to two secret Catholics.  Longford Castle in Wiltshire is their family home, still standing and now owned by the Pleydell-Bouverie family. She becomes, against her wishes, companion to Elizabeth, the daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark, but she is caught up in the web of fear, conspiracy, suspicion and licentiousness that dominates James I’s court.

Tracy Borman has filled in the gaps of this remarkable story, with a believable ingenuity. The characters all exist in the historical sense, quite how strong and to what extent their relationships follow exactly this pattern, is part of the craft of historical fiction writing. Like Hilary Mantel, the research is thorough, the inspiration and imagination still abides by certain rules, but expands and elaborates for the enormous benefit of the readers

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/8

A first novel is always a joy to find, whether good or bad, it is a new voice with new potential. In this case, The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, the writing has already been recognised in the short story genre, but sustaining a novel is quite a different task.

2018 BLL MackintoshThis is a mildly dystopian novel.  Three girls and their parents are holed up on what the daughters think is an island, surrounded by protective wire, they are under the impression that they are being saved from pollution, and male savagery.

Their father takes a boat and gets stores; in the early days women (no men allowed) used to come in various states of weakness, to be cured. They were tended by the mother until they were well enough to undergo the water cure, total immersion in a salt bath with incantation.

One day, the father does not come back. They wait and then their mother vanishes…

The writing is good enough for this story to become compelling, although once read to the end it seems to have been slightly flimsy. There are so many “whys” that remain unanswered. It is not really my sort of novel, so maybe I am being unnecessarily harsh, but with other more believable and more engaging dystopian fictions abounding, many of them on the subject of female disempowerment, I think that this one rather misses the mark.

My alternative offerings are completely different. Both are love stories, one a defiantly gay novel, the other slightly adulterous in the human sense and utterly focused in another way.

Alan Hollinghurst is well known and unashamedly a gay writer of gay novels. His early novels, The Swimming Pool Library might have been a bit lubricious for general taste, but his new novel is more refined and covers the English homosexual scene from before the time it was legal right through to the present day.

SparsholtThere are two main characters in The Sparsholt Affair, though this is not quite accurate, they are the hooks upon which the whole book hangs. David Sparsholt and Evert Dax. We see them first in a University setting (Oxford as it happens) just immediately before the Second World War takes young men from their studies, David is learning to fly and Evert is undecided. In the final intense flurry before the war collects them and mashes them up in its jaws, these two form a strong and abiding friendship that lasts to the end of their lives.

At University they belong to a small group, men like Freddie Green who is doing something secret at Blenheim Palace and women like Connie who is also there in a different capacity.

Hollinghurst describes and covers all the situations that have taken and destroyed men and reputations; then the changes that made the whole thing different but privately acceptable and finally brought the rainbow spectrum fully into the open. This is a very subtle and complex history and it is beautifully discovered and displayed in this delightful novel. The relationships between the older men and their younger companions, the women that have admired and adored them, the unrequited and the fulfilled loves are all here in this loving and delicate story.

VickersThe second, The Librarian, is also a love story, but the main characters are the children’s books that the librarian of the title helps her young readers to enjoy and explore. In this novel, Salley Vickers is doing two things. She is writing about a beautiful love story between the librarian and the local doctor, and banging the drum for the importance of libraries in the development of the imagination of young children. In fact, libraries in general, but especially those for children.

Set in East Mole, the first part of the book is about the arrival of Sylvia Blackwell as the local children’s librarian. The Senior Librarian, a Mr Booth, is a decidedly reprobate character, his envy of her ability and evident success leads on to its bitter conclusion; the second part of the book tells of one of the characters returning, now herself a successful children’s author, to speak up against the closure of the East Mole library, and what happens as a result.

Salley Vickers has paid tribute to the librarian who inspired her as a child, her name was really Miss Blackwell. She also helpfully lists all the books that she has cited in the novel, many of them real favourites, especially Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, which links lots of the characters who have read it (or not read it). She also reveals that two of her own children also write, Rowan Brown (one of three dedicatees, the others being Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson) and Richard Kingfisher – which I never realised and am please to learn, since I love their books too.

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