Tag Archives: Paris

Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.


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60th London Film Festival – 4

Two strange and very different films today. The first was quite an intellectual stretch, The Dreamed Ones or Die Geträumten is by way of being a cinematic essay. The decision to realise on film the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann could have been handled in one of two ways; to fictionalise the true life story of these two unique poets and lovers or simply to allow their words to speak for them. Ruth Beckermann chose two speakers, the woman – Anja Plaschg is a composer, musician and many things, and is well known in Germany but is not an actor; Laurence Rupp is not well known at all. They did not know each other before being brought together for this piece.

7-10-1-the-dreamed-onesSo, in a series of steps, they read the letters that were exchanged between the two poets, who met briefly for two months in Vienna immediately after the war; Celan, a Romanian Jew and a concentration camp survivor, had lost all his family in The Holocaust, Bachmann was a young Austrian, she had survived the war and she never told Celan that her father was a well known Nazi.

Between takes, the readers discuss what they have been reading and what they think was going on in the minds and hearts of the two separated lovers, how much influence did the separation have on their work.

By the time Celan committed suicide in Paris in 1971, Paul and Ingeborg had corresponded, sometimes with long pauses, sometimes over several weeks in a constant stream of letters and cards. Bachmann remained in Germany, planning to visit France but for one reason or another failing, they did not see each other for many years, until Celan returned to Germany for a poetry symposium, where they rekindled their affection, only to part again for many more years.

Some of the time they even hated each other, but the long-distance relationship while fractured, survived and although in the end it was recognised between them that it was no longer a love affair, the relationship was important to both of them, professionally as poets especially. Though he did not, and could not admit it, Celan was a better poet because of Bachmann.  It took him years to accept that she was brilliant, eventually writing after one of the readings, that he now finally realised and appreciated the quality of her work.

Ironically, she was famous in her own country, while he being Jewish and Ukranian, was mocked at readings, which caused yet another painful rift. In a strange way, both of them regarded themselves in some way as victims; in was in expressing herself in tune with the pain the Celan felt on account of his background that caused a big rift, but it is also clear from her poems and her letters that in her own way, Ingeborg Bergmann also felt a victim of her heritage, which while different in scale and substance from Celan, might also been seen as valid, since having a Nazi father was not comfortable for her once the full horrors of the regime came to be known and understood.

This observational method chosen by Ruth Beckermann and Ina Hartwig, has its merits though for an English audience, many of whom would have had to read the subtitles, it probably left too much out. One needed far more information that was presented on the screen, unless already in tune with the letters, 300 of which are published and translated, and the poems.

The second film was Adieu Bonaparte, a collaboration with Egypt and France from 1984. This film, set during the 1790s when France occupied Egypt, paints an intimate portrait of General Caffarelli, who famously denounced Bonaparte’s war of occupation and favoured a more gentle approach of cultural exchange.

7-10-2-adieu-bonaparteYoussef Chahine‘s vision received a mixed reception when first screened, however another chance to see this extraordinary film, showing Cairo and Alexandria as cities of great variety, and its people filled with a great passion, hopeless bravery and a perpetual quest for independence.

The film opens with the arrival of the French fleet, shortly followed by the news that the supply ships have been sunk in the Battle of Aboukir Bay (or more accurately called The Battle of the Nile) by Admiral Nelson (1798). The film collapses eight years of occupation in which hideous attrition was visited upon the Egyptian villages, and concentrates on the conflict between Bonaparte and his generals, many of whom died during the campaign.

The portrait of Louis-Marie Caffarelli du Falga, played by Michel Piccoli, a high born member of the French military, is sympathetic. A common criticism of his attitudes was expressed as “Caffa doesn’t give a damn what happens; he’s always sure to have one foot in France,” referring to the fact that he had his leg amputated at an earlier Napoleonic battle. He was responsible for the establishment of the Institute of Egypt concentrating on moral and political sciences, and formed part of the commission for drafting the Institute’s regulations. He also accompanied Napoleon on the surveys to trace the route of what later become the Suez Canal.

Patrice Chereau gives a brooding, intense rendering of the young Napoleon.

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59th London Film Festival Day 9

Three more cracking films. Francofonia, Youth and Sunset Song. The first was a mesmerising mixture of Skype messaging, archive film footage, montage and docudrama, all with a voice-over in a language I did not recognise but suspect might have been Eastern European or even Russian.

FrancFrancofonia was a homage to Paris and specifically The Louvre, but it travelled from many points. It will be nearly impossible to make the case for how good it was in words, partly because it was so visual, but also because it was so mixed up. The Skyping was between a Ship’s Captain, Dirk, this is a container ship in heavy seas and on board, among other things is a crate from a museum with valuable art works. It is not completely clear from where to where, but that is insignificant.

Then there is a meditation upon the Western European passion for portraiture, how looking at the faces of the past we can understand ourselves better and differently. Then there is a view of Paris, homing eventually upon the buildings that comprise The Louvre. The archive footage was mostly of the Occupation in World War II, so scenes of the Germans in Paris, and the refugees fleeing South, Petain etc. The treasures of The Louvre having been moved to safety, the Director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lancquesaing) is required to handover to the Germans the control of all French art works, museums and places of cultural and historical interest, this is Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). These scenes were all reconstructed as accurately as possible.

Finally there were scenes with Napoléon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth) and Marianne. Bonaparte was there because of course, as he pointed out The Louvre is filled with his trophies from war. There has been an agreement that where possible antagonist combatants would respect the works of art and buildings… Hitler followed this principle and when the French capitulated Paris was declared an “open city”;  this agreement did not sadly apply to Russian art treasures for some reason and The Hermitage and Leningrad Museums and Galleries were mercilessly destroyed, and not those alone.  Archive footage showed the damage to The Hermitage and also the grosser effects of the Siege of Leningrad.

I cannot do justice to this film, it was enlightening, compelling, interesting and magnificent. It belongs in the DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION Section and was directed by Alexander Sokurov.

YouthYouth was an entirely different film. hugely enjoyable and a stellar cast including Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. They play two elderly men who for several decades have had a holiday in a Swiss Spa, a deluxe outfit with every treatment you can imagine. Caine has been the renowned conductor and composer, Fred Ballinger, and is retired; Keitel is the film director, Mick Boyle, making a new movie with one big star, the big star turns out to be Brenda Morel, played by Jane Fonda. The rest of the cast are equally mouthwatering. It is very funny, The Queen’s Emissary (Alex MacQueen) comes to ask if Ballinger will play for Prince Philip’s birthday party and is astonished to discover that the composer is not going to. MacQueen does ‘obsequious’ and ‘surprise’ as no other, it is a gem of a performance. The scenes between MacQueen and Caine are priceless, also the scenes between Ballinger and his daughter (Rachel Weisz). There is humour, pathos, anger and grief…it will come to a cinema near you. See it for yourself. You are worth it!!!!

SSFinally Terence Davies new offering, Sunset Song.  An adaptation of the 1930s novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, of which this is the first part of a trilogy covering the early years of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) who is a schoolgirl at the beginning of the film and a young widow of twenty by the end. Another sob-fest, another tremendous film and another tremendous cast: Peter Mullan as Chris’s brutal father, Jack Greenlees as her brother, Kevin Guthrie as her husband. This is also in the OFFICIAL COMPETITION Section.


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Priscilla in Occupied France

In his latest book, Nicholas Shakespeare has chosen as his subject Priscilla Thompson of East Wittering, Sussex. This enigmatic, beautiful and tragic woman was his aunt. She was his mother’s sister, she lived in Sussex and was married to Raymond Thompson and was step-mother to two of his children by a previous, unmentionable, marriage. His parents only gave him the barest indication of her history, though such information as he gleaned from them and from snatches of conversation led him to believe that his aunt was someone who had to be more interesting than the bare facts seemed to suggest.

How right he was! Priscilla The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France, is the result of his curiosity.scan0003

The daughter of one of the more famous BBC broadcasters and brought up by his ex-wife Doris, Priscilla Mais had a difficult and unhappy childhood, she went on to have an extraordinary life, often difficult and unhappy.

Always more fascinated than knowledgeable, Nicholas was given Priscilla’s own scrapbook from which he gleaned more about his aunt’s background. He found a picture of himself as a small baby, and as he turned the pages more interesting items, from an article in the Chichester Observer stating that she had been in court for smuggling an undeclared item (a crocodile-skin handbag) into the country without paying the required duty on it. She pleaded guilty but in a statement to the court cited her experience in wartime France at the hands of officials as the reason for her unprecedented lapse of truthfulness.

Priscilla died in 1982, but it was not until 2004 that her step-daughter Tracey gave Nicholas a box of Priscilla’s personal effects that started him on the trail of this extraordinary woman. The box, which had lived in full view for all to see, under the television contained photographs, letters, notebooks and journals of a secret life that had absolutely nothing to do with her life as Mrs Thompson. The letters were a passionate assortment of love letters from a number of different men, the photographs were mostly of these same lovers, husband, friends and the journals were a mixture of facts, aspirations and blatant lies.

But from one thread followed to its end, picking up another seemingly insignificant thread and following that, Nicholas Shakespeare managed to reconstruct Priscilla’s life as Vicomtesse Priscilla Doynel de la Sausserie, her whole life made up from interviews with people who actually knew her, from the strange box of letters and from extensive research in libraries and archives in England and France.

Not only does Nicholas Shakespeare bring his aunt very much back to life on the page, but through his research he also presents the reader with a very complete and disturbing picture of what exactly it took to survive Occupied France. He went looking for a Resistance heroine, which he did not find. What he found instead might fill some people with revulsion, but only because it is almost impossible to judge from this historical distance what it must have been like, there is a huge national amnesia in France about the War. There are lots of notable examples of collaborators, and equally rank upon rank of people who were supposedly in the Resistance and between those two extremes there were a great many people who got along with the task of survival as best as they could.

Maybe Priscilla was free with her morals, she certainly mixed in a very strange set but she was undeniably often in danger, sometimes without the correct papers, sometimes with dubious papers to which she was not entitled, but abandoned by her husband’s family for being British at the beginning of the Occupation, and eventually by her husband, Robert, in order to protect his mother and the family estate, she was friendless in a city full of men who desired her and were prepared to keep her, indeed wanted to protect her. So she passed from Daniel, to Pierre to Otto.

She survived.

Nicholas Shakespeare has written a superb book. We should not judge her life by our comfortable and unchallenged standards but marvel at it.

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Le Banquet des 5000 PARIS 2012

I think that I can fairly say that I do not usually blog (or should that be brag) about Tristram, but Feeding the 5000 is such a brilliant and uncomplicated way of demonstrating to the general public, be they Londoners, Bristolians or Parisians (and many other people besides) that throwing away good food is not only immoral, impractical and environmentally unsound but also unethical.

You no doubt remember the story in The Gospel according to Matthew: after the loaves and fishes had been distributed ALL THE FRAGMENTS were gathered up.  Now Tristram, it is true, does not attempt to feed five thousand people on a few loaves and fishes, his banquet is created from tonnes of vegetables collected from the farmers’ fields, having been rejected by supermarkets for being the wrong size or cosmetically challenged; chopped by willing volunteers; cooked by Para (the wonder chef) with all the genius that comes from the Hare Krishna methodology (no onions, no garlic) providing a nourishing, delicious, and generous meal; served as a hot, FREE curry lunch.

We have not always been blessed with the weather, our first banquet was in Trafalgar Square in December, 2009 – it snowed.  It did not stop the queues forming a whole hour before we were due to start serving and Tristram noted that people arrived cold and miserable and a few minutes after they had taken their first mouthfuls, were looking decidedly happy.  We were luckier in 2011 – the banquet in Trafalgar Square was in November, but it was warm and people queued up happily chatting, and then sat around the fountains in the sunshine eating their free lunch.  A great cheer went up as the 5000th plate was handed over.  There was more to see in 2011, as well as speeches and demonstrations, there were live pigs being fed on apple pulp, the apple pressing was a great success and litres of fresh juice was served.  All there to show that there are other ways of using this than dumping it in landfill sites.  The ‘guests’ also lined up to pack bags of vegetables for FARESHARE, who redistribute food to people who need it; not just after F5K events but every day! The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Bishop of London, The Rt. Revd. Richard Chartres, both came and served some of the curry and wandered around enjoying the party.

This year, lucky people, we were in Paris.  Canal+, the independent French TV company, came over to Trafalgar Square last year and clearly were impressed with Tristram’s message, so impressed that next week on French TV there is a 90-minute documentary called Global Gâchis which is all about immoderate and unnecessary food waste.  Articles about Tristram were all over Paris in the magazines Elle, Grazia and others, he will be on TV thanks to Canal+ and of course, he was there in person.

On Friday, the day before Le Banquet des 5000 on Saturday 13th (unlucky 13 it rained solidly), volunteers from Canal+ chopped vegetables in their marvellous canteen.  In just over two hours carrots, potatoes, cabbage, cauliflour, tomatoes fell under the knives ready for Para’s pots the next day.  Para’s pots, more readily described as vats, were set up on the square which is a first.  One vat would comfortably have concealed Ali Baba and his forty thieves!  Instead it was full of curry gently steaming away, ready for the banquet.

Le Banquet des 5000 PARIS 2012

Although is rained, quite hard, people still came sheltering under their umbrellas and trying to eat curry.  We fed more than 5000, there was lots to see and the mood was festive and wonderful.  What can one say?  Well done Tristram and thank you, thank you, thank you Canal+!!  L’Hôtel-de-Ville with never seem the same again.

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