Category Archives: Politics

Berlin, the undivided city

After what seemed to be a very short night, we were back in the group for an East meets West tour of Berlin.

This is obviously an impossible task. There is so much to see and visit and whizzing by in a coach hardly scratches the surface e. I have been to Berlin before and so has Corin, but if this is a first visit you must feel at sea.

The coach sweeps past famous buildings and famous landmarks and the guide, who was very interesting covers as much as it possible but the clash has swept on by before there is time to see from the left or the right exactly which building/monument is being described.

It is also hard to imagine the huge changes that have happened since re-unification. Not just the bringing down of the Wall but all the new modern buildings that are now towering towards the sky.

We had the afternoon to ourselves, so after lunch and a short rest we set off again, just the two of us. Corin had not seen the Memorial to the European Jews and that was one of the sites that interested me, so we went there. The queue for the underground information centre was long, so we gave that up and also looking to see if we could hear nightingales in the Tiergarten, it was tòo breezy and probably too cold.

We walked back through the ministry area, big neo-classical blocks, some more modern brutalist style buildings.

It is a city of great contrasts.

Her humour was dry., so I can imagine that she ruffled a few feathers. She gave no quarter: she was explicit about her views on Brexit and what she described as “the cherry-picking whingers” in Britain.

Our guide, Constance, was an interesting person. An East German, she was nearly 30 when the Wall came down and in a private conversation she was telling me that as a young woman she worked as PR/tour guide to East Germany but lost that job as she made caustic remarks about the authorities.

An East Berlin tram
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If we forget history…

I am about to set out on an adventure across Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway. As a result I have been reading books and novels that get me into the mood. One of them is the astoundingly detailed and forensically researched history of the Soviet Gulags. Gulag by Anne Applebaum.

It always surprises me that while many people know the names of at least one, and probably more than one, of the Nazi concentration camps, they cannot name a single one of the equivalent camps in Russia. In spite of copious literature, both fiction and non-fiction, that has been published (notably only since the death of Josef Stalin) about the camps: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov and Evgeniya Ginzburg to name but a few, still the nature, extent and organisation of the camps has been largely ignored.

This is the first comprehensive study to appear, apart from The Gulag Archipelago which was a must read (and mostly never finished) book of the 1970s and Solzhenitsyn’s first book published in 1962, with the permission of Nikita Khrushchev, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which was more widely read.

Praised by historians and writers alike, this is an astonishing book. Divided into three parts, it details the early development of the camps: their nature and purpose and the grandiose schemes that were undertaken by the slave labourers; the progress from freedom to arrest, transport and arrival, and daily life and work in the different types of camp, the rations, the punishments, survival and death; and finally the end of the gulag.

I, and my fellow travellers, will be passing through Perm one of the most populated areas of industrial gulag factories, we will travel on a railway parts of which were laid by slave labourers and we will end up in Vladivostock, the dreaded embarkation point for the terrible hardships of the Kolyma gold mines.

I have a feeling that not much of this, if any, will feature in the literature or talks which will be delivered during our journey. But I will be remembering the millions and millions of often innocent people who passed through the gulags, the unnumbered deaths, unmarked graves and wasted lives.

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Resistance

If you are wedded to cookery programmes, then the phrase “three ways” may be a death knell to this post. This is three books which show three ways, and in two instances people, who outwitted the Nazi Reich.

The Cut-Out Girl, worthy winner of the Costa Prize 2019, is the extraordinary story of a young Jewish girl who survived in Amsterdam, hiding in plain sight, from the German Occupiers and how after the end of the war, she was lost, and nearly forgotten, by the family who saved her.

Her remarkable survival and this book is the result of a search by the grandson of the foster family, who looked for her, found her and reconnected the broken threads.

This is neither a comfortable, nor a totally neutral story. Lien was not treated very well by her new family, and one incident alone is enough to explain why she might never have wanted to see them again; but that is not the reason for the severed relationship – that came from within the family.

This is a story of persistence, misunderstandings, courage and love and Bart van Es has written hauntingly about this strange, life changing event for his grandparents, his own father and Lien de Jong-Spiero herself.

The second book is rather different. This is a novel for a start, but it is based on the true story of one of Italy’s heroic youths. Guiseppe Lella, Pino for short, is about fifteen at the outbreak of the Second World War. He lives with his parents, a younger brother and a sister, in Milan. Other members of his family live there also and they are principally engaged in the making and designing of leather travel bags, handbags and purses.

At the beginning of the book, Pino is concerned with girls, jazz and the cinema. But the bombing of Milan changes his life and the life of the whole family. He and his brother are sent into the mountains to an Alpine school run by a priest, Father Re. Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the strange, searing and ambivalent story of a youth who encounters first hand the terrible evil that is Fascism, and subsequently the evils of Nazism.

While in the mountains, he is secretly trained to guide Jewish families and escaping pilots who have landed in Italy across the Alps into Switzerland. This is not without danger, not least from the elements. But also, obviously from German patrols, and also Italian brigands who latch on to the advantages of the situation to bully money and food, in the name of the Partisans (though not for them in fact), from the local population.

But just before he turns eighteen, Pino is summoned back to Milan by his parents and forced to enrol in the German army. This is because young Italian men that are drafted into the army are sent immediately to the Russian front, if they “volunteer” they are enrolled in less combative branches of the force, and stay behind enemy lines. That is the theory, anyway.

Reluctant, but obedient, Pino joins up. But is then slightly injured in a bombing raid and ends up, by a curious accident of fate, as the driver to a German officer, Hans Leyer, one of the shadow men and one of the most powerful Germans in Italy towards the end of the war.

Pino’s story is extraordinary and baffling, and it is not until many years after the war that it comes to light. Mark Sullivan was at an exceedingly low ebb when at a dinner party in Montana, USA he heard a modest and sketchy outline of the tale. He followed this up with visits to Italy to meet Pino, now a man in his mid to late eighties and the novel is based on his several prolonged visits and interviews with Pino.

Pino Lella had never spoken at length to anyone about the course of his war, what he did and who he did it with and until Sullivan turned up, that is probably how it would have remained, unmentioned until he died with his memories untold.

The third book is by the late Paddy Ashdown and tells the story of a group of people who did everything, except the one thing that might have made a difference, to stop Adolf Hitler and his rise to power and the inevitable consequence of the German rush to war.

Nein, Standing Up to Hitler 1935 – 1944 is the history of a massive failure. Had any of the schemes that are outlined in this well researched book come to fruition then the history of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century might have been very different.

A failure to cooperate, a failure of nerve and several missed opportunities meant that Hitler rose inexorably to power, and just as inexorably took German into war.

All three of these books are a revelation. Each showing what a slender gap there is between what happened and what might have happened. They are all incredibly lively, exciting and devastating in the ways humans deal with danger. It shows too, how depraved and ugly humans can be and how unfeeling.

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Crum and Cram

Twin pillars of the English Reformation, though neither of them knew it at the time. Diarmaid McCulloch has written two magisterial biographies, first Thomas Cranmer and just lately Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell, A life was published last year and I was given it for Christmas. While I did need some light relief between sections, I found the whole book an astonishing glimpse into a world so distant, and yet still affecting life today.

What everyone knows about Thomas Cromwell is that he destroyed the monasteries, this of course, is wrong. That is to say, an oversimplification of his intentions and his actions. The initial move towards reducing the monastic life in England was Cardinal Wolsey’s, and Thomas Cromwell was his agent. The movement started by closing the houses that has fewer than 12 inhabitants; this seems reasonable enough. After Wolsey’s fall from grace, the process continued with what were called “visitations”. These were undertaken all over the country to assess the religious practices in each house.

But with the dramatic events in Germany, the new thinking of Martin Luther and others, there came a slow recognition that relics, idols and images were probably deviations from true religion. The net result was a mass confiscation of such things, and destruction of statues of veneration – probably the worst act of vandalism this country has ever seen, possibly not even dwarfed by the more recent activities of the Taliban and ISIS.

Diarmaid’s book fills in all the gaps left by Hilary Mantel, Tracy Borman and Michael Everett; these three have each approached Cromwell’s life from a different angle. Mantel notoriously and brilliantly making it a novel, so filling in the inevitable gaps and silences with imagination; Tracy Borman looked at the context of his life as a faithful servant of King Henry VIII and Michael Everett looked at his life through the lens of politics and power. What Thomas Cromwell, A life does is to look forensically at each year of Cromwell’s life more or less from the moment he joins the household of Cardinal Wolsey, from near disaster to a meteoric rise to power until he was closer to the king than anyone else in the land.

The most revealing moments are the times when his grasp slips, not once but several times Thomas is on the very brink of annihilation, but manages to slip away unhurt. Until finally…

We know the ending: short, brutal and profoundly sad. Such that even the mercurial Henry, only months afterwards was railing against the decision – as if he had nothing to do with it.

The equally enthralling book Thomas Cranmer, A life, fills up the remaining gaps in the story of the Anglican Church. This too, is filled with details that come to the surface in surprising jolts. These two Thomases, both from quite humble backgrounds, between them caused a seismic alteration in the destination of England and the English way of religion.

There are so many “what ifs” in these two volumes that it is hard to pick out one or two illustrative examples. But one stand out case is the direction of travel away from the pure Lutheran austerity towards a softer, but manifestly different catholicity which came from the influence of the Swiss theologians – Huldrych Zwingli and the Swiss/French theologian John Calvin.

Both Thomases ended their lives hideously and one cannot help wondering what would have happened if either one had lived a full life to its natural end. But they lived in turbulent times, and in many ways were directly responsible for the schisms, the brutal and bloody retributions that followed from the English Reformation and which carried on killing and torturing dissenters from the regal norm, long after their deaths.

These are very serious books but utterly readable, enthralling and enlightening for anyone wanting to know more about where we are now and how we got here.

Who knew, for example, that the voting divisions on acts of Parliament into the “ayes” and “nos” lobbies, which we have just seen profoundly shake the country, were an idea of Thomas Cromwell’s to wrest from the ducal landlords the power to make decisions and towards a more equitable contribution from all members.

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London Film Festival 2018/7

If yesterday was a marathon, today was a double marathon! I had not fully taken on board that the first film was three and a half hours long. Then they added a fifteen minute interval (which says a lot about the decision of the director) so my scheduling became critical.

The plan

The Plan that came from the bottom up is a documentary about labour relations in the 1970s, seen through the lens of the Lucas Aerospace company. Director Steve Sprung clearly believes in “slow cinema”. There was a huge amount of mood setting, relevant once or possibly twice but not more. The film started in Lisbon, in a terrible fog and then there was a billboard which stated in three languages, Portuguese, English and Chinese, that “you can buy this view”. Following that there was an equally magnificent aerial view of London, with the legend “London, open for business”.

I do not want to trash this film as it is important, both for its message about top down industrial management, about the level of government payback to big business (leaving aside the bank bailout of 2008) and how this affected both the workforce and manufacturing in Britain.

The talking heads were all one-time workers at Lucas. Now retired, (actually they were sacked) but who, when they were shop stewards created a cooperative committee who tried, but failed, to persuade the management that the workers were able and willing to diversify production to more community based products – like wind turbines. Unbelievably, Lucas Aerospace felt that this did not fit with the company image and turned it down, the workers also created a proto-type of an electric bus that could run on rail and road. Also vetoed, although it would save millions in under-developed countries because it would run on concrete, rather than rails, what’s not to like? But no, Lucas preferred making killing machines.

With substantial editing this would be, as it is described above, “a gripping essay”, reflecting on the darker side of capitalism. What is really astonishing though, is the level of behind the scenes collaboration between the Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and the management of these vital industries.

There were figures, which I did not copy down, but which showed that after a turnover of tens of millions, what with cost of production and Labour government subsidies, Lucas Aerospace paid only £470,000 to HMRC in tax. Does anyone else immediately think of Amazon and Starbucks?

I wish I could say this was a must see. Maybe a four-part-series on television. Because what it has to say about our choked up cities, about climate change and industry, and the death of manufacturing, is important; because there are people out there who have ideas that would help, if only they had been listened to in the 1970s!!!

It was a rush to get to the next film, which was a shame and this was redoubled by the fact that my neighbour (not the friend I was with but on the other side) seemed oblivious to the fact that a garlicky, chilli wrap followed by smelly, crunchy tacos are not suitable fodder for the cinema. I felt like asking her if she thought she would starve if she waited to eat until after the film.

Bisbee

Bisbee ’17 was not exactly the film I thought it was going to be. 2017 makes it one hundred years since a mass deportation of striking copper miners and other supporters was effected in Bisbee.

The town decides on an re-enactment. This film is the result. And while shining a light on the trauma of a single town, is probably a good thing for the town, I suspect that there would have been better ways to do this for the cinema. It was fractured and over-sentimentalized, which rather drowned the horror of what actually happened.

In July 1917, over 2000 people, nearly all of them Central Americans and Eastern Europeans, were transported into the desert in cattle trucks and left to die. No amount of re-enactment is going to bring to life the absolute inhumanity of that act; yet Bisbee survives – with the visible scars of copper mining all around them and the Mexican border just a short distance away – what better reminder is there?

Finally tonight a beautiful French film set in Paris and India. Two men get off a French Republic flight and are greeted by François Hollande. In spite of public denials, these two are hostages freed with a slush fund, held under wraps for the French Government.

This is another film with a female director, Mia Hansen-Love. Beautifully realised and filmed, but a bizarre choice of music – as Gabriel wanders around Indian cities, throbbing with colour, noise and traffic – we are hearing Shubert – why?

Maya

After a few weeks, young Gabriel goes off to India, a country where he grew up until his parents separated. We travel to India with him and it is utterly gorgeous, as he also travels. Starting from Goa, where his godfather has a hotel, he travels throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Maya is both a love story and a commentary upon what tourism is doing to India, to the farming community and to the still unspoiled places, with unscrupulous developers forcing sales of land and houses by fair means and foul. And possibly a gibe at the French government whose aid programme is dwarfed by the funds paid out to rescue French hostages.

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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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London Film Festival 2018/2

UnsettlingThe first film that I saw today was a documentary, Unsettling. The clue is in the title, since this was an exploration of how people feel living, as they do, in the West Bank settlements in Israel/Palestine.

Iris Zaki set up three cameras and had several conversations with young people who had either been born in Tekoa or had moved there. The cameras were deliberately unmanned, she set them running together, two on the face of the subject and one on her. In the Q&A she revealed that the conversations went on for up to an hour or an hour and a half, and covered numerous topics: dating, childcare, schools and also the feelings of the settlers, their awareness of the Palestinian village just nearby, and whether they met each other.

There are panoramic landscapes and pictures of the settlement and indeed of the Palestinian village nearby; the inevitable queue of workers at the Tekoa checkpoint; plenty of barbed wire. Houses tenaciously clinging to the hillsides, like their inhabitants.

It was very important for Iris that the conversations were not conducted like an interview, which was part of the decision not to have a cameraman. The table with two chairs was outside a local shop, which also seemed to sell coffee and other drinks.

This is an important film because it does give a very open view of the vast differences of opinion between the people living in this one place. Tekoa was settled first in around 1978, and deliberately invited both strictly Orthodox and non practising Jews to live there. Now those people are elderly and it is their children whom Iris most wanted to speak to.

She rented a flat in Tekoa; it is clear from the beginning of the film that she is not entirely welcome and it does take quite a while before anyone will engage with the project, but when they do, one can see what a very complex, diverse and difficult situation they have to deal with.

Some people are fearful, some arrogantly entitled, some conflicted themselves – one young man who was not religious actually felt bad about living there, but the schools were good and his wife had family and friends, so he decided that they could live there, but not in a new house – in other words he was not prepared to advance or enlarge the existing settlement; on the other hand, a young woman who had grown up in Hebron had no empathy for the previous inhabitants of the land, they were Arabs and they had no business to be on “our” land; there was another remarkable woman who had even been attacked and stabbed by an Arab – this she saw as a message from God, a way of making her think differently and to act differently, and so she and her family are actively seeking rapprochement with Palestinians, indeed after the attack a group of Palestinians came and prayed in her house and asked for forgiveness; the shopkeeper who had let Iris set up more or less on his premises, had grown up with Arabs, his family farm was mostly worked by Palestinians, even to this day.

While filming, a Rabbi and his family were shot at, the Rabbi was killed and the mother and two children were seriously injured; then Iris discovered that her neighbour in Tekoa was their eldest daughter. This too, put another perspective on the film.

This is a thought provoking film. It is provocative but not a polemic. Unsettling indeed.

The Old Man

This is brilliant and there are so many reasons why everyone should aim to see it. The casting is unparalleled. Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek had never acted together before, indeed hardly knew each other and yet the rapport between them is tender and authentic; the cops are a wondrous bunch, straight out of Keystone school of policing, but Casey Affleck as the detective, John Hunt, is understated, determined and finally frustrated.

While filming was actually going on Robert Redford announced that he was retiring and if this is really his last film, it could hardly be better. It is an all round heist caper, based on a true account that Redford read about in the New York Times and thought would be fun to make.

The cinematography is brilliant at evoking the times, but also captures something of the essence of Redford’s entire career. Quite outstanding and a highly, exceptional and poignant swan song. Do not miss it. UK distribution will start on December 7th.

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