Category Archives: Modern History

Dancing on the head of a pin

There is an old philosophical argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some of the answers lie in the twelve-part chronicle of the twentieth century in Anthony Powell‘s series Dance to the Music of Time, itself an homage to Nicolas Poussin‘s painting of the same name in The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London.

spurling 1Now Hilary Spurling has brought out her biography of her great friend and mentor Anthony Powell, called unsurprisingly, Anthony Powell Dancing to the Music of Time.

There are other novels by Anthony Powell, as there are other books by Hilary Spurling. But this one is a marriage made in heaven, with plenteous angels dancing on pins.

Early on in her career, when she had only one book published, she was invited by AP to compile a sort of dictionary/encyclopaedia companion to Dance to the Music of Time which he had completed in 1975 with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of the series. This admirable little volume is called Invitation to the Dance, it is a handbook to the characters and situations found in the long series.spurling 2

Powell lived a typically literary life of the twentieth century, sometimes radically short of money and often hard pressed for the next payment; he had a wife, Violet and two children. Violet is described by a contemporary and friend as “the right-arm of Tony’s imagination”. This I suspect, exactly represents their long relationship and intense marriage. Violet, born of a great literary family herself, the Pakenhams, had a marvellous memory for the detail in the sequence, and was always the first reader of any of Anthony’s books; but this came into its own once he began the series, which was first of all to be a trilogy, but then extended almost by its own volition into a twelve volume sequence which took almost twenty five years to write, a new volume coming out at almost two yearly intervals.

The delight of this biography is that it puts names of real characters to their fictional avatars in The Dance. Some fall straight from life on to the page, others are a combination of characteristics drawn from life and combined in fiction and a few characters in The Dance are completely original.

In the three volumes that cover the war years, more characters fall straight from life into fiction and Anthony Powell had a nervous lunch with one of them when his commanding officer invited him to lunch; AP was expecting a dressing down and possibly a legal action, but to his relief the Colonel had mis-identified himself with another much more likeable and congenial military figure, actually based upon a Major in Anthony’s unit of the Welsh Regiment.

In this biography, we meet more literary giants than you can imagine.  The Powells were well connected through Violet’s family and had a web of literary friends through Anthony’s other work as a reviewer, variously for Punch and The Daily Telegraph and other papers and periodicals. So parties and country weekends seem to burst with talent:  Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, T S Eliot, Philip Larkin, John Betjemen, Graham Greene and many others; not confined to the literary arts they were also friends with the painters Edward Burra, Edward Bawden, Henry Lamb, Osbert Lancaster, Adrian Daintrey, John Banting and Augustus John; through their friendship with Constant Lambert they mixed with the ballet crowd, including Margot Fonteyn and Michael Helpmann and through the Pakenhams (Lords Longford et al) they were connected with many other strands of society, both literary and nobility, and were often found to be staying with the Duke of Wellington in Granada, Spain, with the Sitwells at Renishaw, at Pakenham Hall in Ireland (in case you have not made the connection Lady Antonia Fraser, later wife of Harold Pinter is one of many) and the Mitfords.

This makes for fascinating reading because it is a glimpse into the lives of writers, artists and others that have figured enormously in the lives of anyone between the ages of 95 to 65, because these were the writers of modern fiction when we were “growing up”.

This large and talented group were the social opposite of the other famous, not to say legendary, literary giants of a slightly earlier period, the Bloomsbury Group. While the later group were all equally “well connected”, their lives were predicated upon the different mores that followed the First World War and during and after the Second.

If you have never read anything by Hilary Spurling, there are twelve other books to choose from, ranging from biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett to Pearl Buck, taking on Matisse and Paul Scott and the Raj Quartet as well and if you have not read Anthony Powell – I sort of envy you, because you have such a treat in store. The Dance to the Music of Time is one of the very few re-reads I make, and I follow through by re-reading Marcel Proust The Remembrance of Things Past, for they are enduringly fascinating, wonderfully revealing and each time make the reader feel differently, as you perceive more layers and meaning in the increasingly familiar texts.

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Reading Australia 2

If you read my posts at all regularly, you will know that I have an unbridled passion for Australia: its land – which I consider God’s Own Country; its history – which makes me want to weep; and its culture – in which I include novels by English and Australian authors as well as everything else: film, painting and all things man-made.

My great hero in the writing world is Thomas Keneally. His output is prodigious and unfailingly interesting, gripping even, and apart from once straying into foreign fields, seems always to have a tenuous link to his own country.

KeneallyCrimes of the Fathers, his latest novel, is no exception. The fathers in question are priests and the crimes are all too awful and apparent. Being of Irish-Catholic extraction himself, Thomas Keneally knows at first hand about the rituals and confessionals of the Catholic faith,

In this novel, he is both channelling the good priests and chastising the bad ones. He obviously knows whereof he writes, which is not to say at all or even to suggest that he was himself a victim of child abuse, but who nowadays can honestly say that they know nothing about it. He was himself training for the priesthood but recognised, in time, that it was not the place for him.

We are all aware now that abuse exists throughout society, in almost every conceivable walk of life where children and young people are vulnerable to approaches of an abusive nature by a responsible adult behaving irresponsibly.

The protagonist in this novel, Father Docherty, has returned from Canada to his home turf, Sydney, to give a lecture in an archdiocese from which he was expelled some years earlier. His topic is child abuse: its foundations and the Church’s response, which to say the least, has been inadequate.

In this searing, insightful account as exemplified by the narrative, Thomas Keneally exposes a wearisome conundrum. As an ex-seminarian, he knows at first hand how the training and practices of the Catholic priesthood – celibacy and the confessional – can lead inexorably to corruption and abuse in the hands of a few emotionally stunted men; a situation that leads them into sexually abusing young men and women, exposure following them in secret, but not public censure; the Church hierarchy moving them on, often to repeat their offences; shielded by a system whose fear of scandal, and worse, whose fear of being undermined allowed the top people, all of them men, to cover up a practice that should have been rooted out and exposed and dealt with long ago.

Only the threat of national media exposure has changed everything, and this novel shows both the damage and the insidious cancer, to both victim and the Church that this avoidance of acknowledgement has caused.

RhoadesA second Australian novel The Woolgrower’s Companion is a book of a different order of narrative. The chapter headings all start with a quotation from the The Woolgrower’s Companion 1906, this is a double bluff, no such book or pamphlet exists. But it is a deceit which adumbrates the many different deceits inherent in this story. Joy Rhoades‘ novel is a heartbreaker.

I mentioned in a previous post the treatment of the Aboriginal People, I forgot to mention the equally appalling treatment of half-caste children, these were unfathomably always taken from their mothers and brought up, trained and sent out into service – generally into the service of white farmers, the very colonials who had often abused their kind.  Orphans were also treated this way and always sent to places far from their origins so that they could not go walkabout and find their own people.

Set in 1945 Longhope, New South Wales, the family in this narrative, the Stimsons, were on the surface wealthy landowners. The book opens with Ralph and his married daughter Kate Dowd, waiting at the local station for the arrival of Italian prisoners of war who were detailed to help on the farms in the absence of the young men still fighting.

Kate Dowd and her father live on a large sheep farm in New South Wales, a farm that Ralph had extended from a Soldiers’ Settlement after the First World War. This was a scheme parcelling out of plots of land for returning servicemen; some thrived and some failed and in Stimson’s case he was a thriver, and had bought up his neighbour’s plots as they went under, not without some chicanery on his side.

As well as the POWs, they have picked up a young boy, Harry, the nephew of their overseer, Grimes.

There are, on the farm, Grimes and another hand, Ed (who is possibly of Aboriginal descent) and two Aboriginal People and the two POW’s. Ralph Stimson the owner, his daughter Kate and an Aboriginal girl, Daisy, a half-caste from the local Domestic Training Home live in the house.

The whole area though is suffering from extreme drought, so all farming is on the knife edge of disaster, Amiens (the name given to this farm) has a dammed reservoir (an advantage not unconnected with the failure of his neighbour’s enterprises), but the water level is getting dangerously low.

This combination of adverse weather conditions and a small team make for intense relationships, each person relying on another to make things work. Ralph, however, has been slipping into a state of absent-mindedness and erratic bursts of fury, brought on partly by the death of his wife and partly as a result of his experiences in the First World War. So Grimes, and eventually Kate, are having to manage the farm, knowing all the time that soon the Second World War will end, their men will return and the Italians will go.

As I indicated earlier, this is a novel full of deceptions and one by one, they reveal themselves, with devastating consequences.

Taut, evocative writing – suspenseful and poignant – this is a story of universal appeal.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 12

What a glorious finale to my festival! Going back to who I wasIn this extraordinary film, we follow in the footsteps of a young Buddhist monk, Padma Angdu a reincarnated Rinpoche. Once the little boy monk is around six or seven his disciples are expected to come to find him and to take him back to their monastery.

In the case of Padma Angdu though, this is unlikely to be possible, for he is the latest incarnation of a teacher from Kham in Tibet and he has been born in Ladakh, India. For a while he is allowed to stay, but eventually the monastery reject him and he goes to live with the village healer, Urgyan, also a monk, who has been chosen as his guide.

The socio-political situation in Tibet makes it unlikely, if not impossible, for anyone to come and get Padma, but as a Rinpoche he needs teaching at a higher level and eventually to return to his “home”. So he and his guide, Urgyan have to make the journey themselves.

This is no small undertaking. Padma is about twelve and Urgyan must be about seventy or eighty and the journey will take about two to three months, much of it on foot . But full of hope, they set off on this perilous journey, stopping at various monasteries along the way to see if one will accept Padma for higher training.

This documentary was filmed on location, by a small crew of only two or three and took eight years to film and nine years to edit. This was mostly because the two main people on the team, Chang-yong Moon and Jin Jeon are based in South Korea and make documentaries for television so had to keep dropping this film, to work and to find funding.

Leaving aside the amazing and heart-breaking story, the spectacular scenery and visual delights of the settings makes this a film of exceptional interest. At its centre though is the astonishing love and fidelity shown by the older monk for the younger, and the desire of the younger one to return to Tibet.

We leave Padma Angdu in Sikkim, the nearest place he can get to near Tibet where a monastery accepts him for the training he needs and we see Urgyan turning for home…

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.ii

Angel wear white

Angels Wear White could not have been more different. Though also a film about exploitation, this is set in a seaside town in South China. Directed and written by Vivien Qu, it follows the lives of some young schoolgirls and their indirect relationship with a young girl working in a motel.

Brilliantly cast, with young girls who were not necessarily actors, this film explores Ms Qu’s observation that in modern China, where families are becoming dis-united, parents sometimes working in different cities, leaving children with grandparents, relatives or alone, there is a growing and disturbing rise in young people living rough on the streets, sometimes working in the sex-industry or simply giving “favours” for food and accommodation.

Runaways without ID are also vulnerable to exploitation and do menial work in hotels and restaurants, low paid and borderline work which is neither legal or safe.

In this film the setting is a coastal town, there is a huge funfair at the gates of which is a gigantic statue of Marilyn Munroe (who some might also see as an icon of exploitation) in her famous dress malfunction pose in Some Like it Hot. Her high-heeled shoes are just about the same height as the first girl that we meet, the runaway hotel worker.

The story focuses upon bribery and corruption in the highest echelons of the justice service, and the behaviours which lead to blackmail and beatings. It is a compelling look at the underworld and although set in China, it has a universal message about how young people are treated in the 21st century.

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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 8.ii

The second film of the day was completely different. A re-mastered documentary from the 1960s. New technology had transformed the possibilities of this medium. No longer the images with a voiceover, it became possible to film and record simultaneously and two masters of the art, Albert and David Maysles with a consummate editor, Charlotte Zwerin made a series of cinéma verité or “real life” films and Salesman is one such.

This is a film that puts The Bible into Bible-belt America! We follow four salesman flogging Bibles and Catholic Encyclopaedias through Boston and then through Miami. On the way they are given pep talks and instructive lectures on the “good work” that bringing the Bible into people’s lives is going to do.

With their promotional material and sample bibles, they are also evidently provided with cars: in snowy Boston they all have identical saloons, in Miami suddenly, open-topped Cadillacs!

A premier salesman gives an inspiring talk about Jesus saying “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business”, and this salesman equates flogging Bibles to people as just that “our Father’s business”. The double-entendre was not accidental!

These men are going into homes of people for whom the word ‘dirt-poor’ is no exaggeration. The terms of the deal is $1 a week payment for one year. But many of them cannot even raise that amount. There is an absolutely desperate scene in which the woman can hardly bear to say no to this frantic saleman, and even though she already has a Bible, she faces a complex problem. She doesn’t want to say no, but she doesn’t have the money to say yes. The emotional agony for both of them bleeds from the screen.

There are four salesmen that we follow, and they have varying success, but one has clearly lost his mojo, and the final shot of him, the final screen shows his face: an absolute picture of defeat and misery.

Made in conjunction with the Mid-Western Bible Society, this is cinéma verité at its most telling. A powerful and woeful story.Salesman

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61st London Film Festival – Day 6

Guardians

I went in to this screening without reading up my notes, so I had forgotten that I chose this on account of the director, Xavier Beauvois. The Guardians comes from the same place in the heart as his previous film Of Gods and Men (LFF 2010). In the former film, it was the monks who were taken hostage.  In this film it is the women: farmers’ wives, daughters and cousins, left with only the old men while their young men fight in the First World War, it is they who are hostage to the exigencies of farm life in an age when farming was manual labour.

Early scenes show Hortense, a woman of around seventy (at a guess) labouring across a field ploughing with a horse, sometimes even with oxen. It is hard work, men’s work but these women must keep it going or starve.

The film concentrates on a single farm run by Hortense, the matriarch. It becomes apparent that she has two sons at the front and a son-in-law, Clovis. His wife works on the farm with her mother, but eventually they need more help, which arrives in the form of Francine, an orphan – therefore protected by the State until she becomes 21 – but who is an excellent worker, durable and honest.

The casting is magnificent: Nathalie Baye plays Hortense, and her real-life daughter, Laura Smet plays her daughter, Solange. But the newcomer Iris Bry, who plays Francine, shines out like a torch. Her subtlety of movement, facial expression and air of dogged goodness makes her story in this profound meditation on hardship and grit and grief all the more telling. Very many of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Hortense’s husband is played by Gilbert Bonneau, who makes his film debut at 78.

The cinematography is exquisite, with slow panning views across the farm at different seasons; the farm itself is lovely, gorgeously rural, well-set stone dwellings, with dark, cramped interiors. But for all that, somehow very compelling because it meant that many of the interior scenes were close up to the actors, so every lip tremble and tear was right there.

I have no idea where this was filmed, but I suspect not in France. But wherever it was – I want to go there.

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