Tag Archives: World War 1

Mid-town culture lunch

The Bridewell Theatre nestles down behind Fleet Street and St Bride’s Church, in a narrow lane called (unsurprisingly) Bride Lane. The theatre specialises in short 45 minutes dramas that start at 1:00pm. Visitors are encouraged to bring their lunch, to sit for 45 minutes munching while being entertained: a break from their computer screens, blackberries, iPhones – a quiet refreshment of stomach and mind – the imagination workout.

poppyToday (and all last week) The London Ballet Company were performing Poppy, A Symbol of Hope and Remembrance.  A balletic interpretation for Remembrance and Armistice Day. While perhaps the choice of music was sentimental and somewhat unsophisticated, it was nevertheless, a moving and beautiful piece. [There are reasons for this, performance copyright being only one].

It is hardly surprising to learn that we followed the fortunes and misfortunes of a single artillery soldier in the First World War, back home on leave with his family and then back to the trenches where he meets his end. His loving wife, meanwhile, joins the VADs, leaving a young daughter with her grandmother.

It was intensely moving. It is hardly a spoiler alert to say that both parents die, one in an incredible ensemble piece, where the dancers were clearly dressed as “poppies”, in scarlet floaty dresses with a thick black waistband, but with German helmets on. Here they enact the death of the soldier, eventually carrying him off stage.poppy-6-star-3

At this point you see his wife, wakeful and worried and you see her decision to “do” something; anything. She appears then in a veteran’s ward with another ensemble of suitably clad nurses, there is a touching simplicity to the arm movements of this troupe, it is clear that they are healers, but also nervously religious. [rehearsal picture only]. After an air-raid, the wife is also killed.poppy-rehearsal-nurses

The final ensemble, shows the daughter, dancing a solo, visiting a graveyard, now dressed in her mother’s coat over a scarlet dress. She dreams of her parents meeting in heaven, they appear happy and together. The ensuing pas de deux replicates many of the early dances that we have already seen. Then more dancers appear carrying poppies, and symbolic helmets from WW I through WW II and on towards today.

The finale shows them laying these at the feet of the couple, who now stand slightly apart, and facing away from the audience, while Joan Baez sings Where have all the Flowers gone?

The dance and the choreography were accomplished and imaginative. The sound system was not of the finest, but over all this did not matter terribly. A moving and appropriate way to offer remembrance and respect to the dead.

snowIn case you are annoyed that this is a post-performance piece, may I add that the same company are performing Snow Queen – The Loss of Love (based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy story) on 2nd and 3rd of December in the Canada Water Culture Space.


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Interconnectedness or what we can learn from our grandparents

WAGTwo fictionalised memoirs and a complete fiction, the first one being The Book of Wag by Paul Sidey. Although this is a novel, it arose from speculation and research into his own family, whose background was South London.  In the fictionalised account the chapters switch between Wag and Jack, his great nephew.  Wag was knocking around during World War 1, so much of his account was life in the trenches and back in South London, where he was an engraver.  Engraving, at which he was uncommonly skilled, led on to some rather underhand dealings with a friend, and on the point of discovery, luckily Wag was able to join the army and go out to France with the British Expeditionary Force; returning, his faith in the might of the British Army somewhat dented, via Dunkirk.

Jack’s life is very much in the same vein, he starts out honest and then gets in with a very unpleasant crowd, and more or less at the point of a gun has to find a way to forge some passports, whereupon he turns to his great-uncle…

Each chapter in turn fills out the story of these two branches of the same family and all the interconnected relationships of cousins, uncles and aunts which are set against the background of London during, after and beyond two world wars, up to the point when South and East London were run by two of the most notorious gangs – the Richardsons and the Krays.  Not a good time to have a half life in the underworld.

Brilliantly evoked, this is quite a page turner. But it also demonstrates the rising interest in ancestry and heritage. There are some bruising encounters, moments of terror and wonderful family parties, memories of happy times and sad times in a large Victorian family and its varied descendants…wonderful stuff.

It is a great sadness that the author died from cancer before the book was actually published. This is a marvellous tale, well told.

Everyone BraveThe second book which has its roots in the memories of a grandfather is Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. This novel is very definitely set in the Second World War. Alternating between London and Malta.  It is the Maltese part which closely follows the actual service of the author’s grandfather, who was stationed there. For those who do not know what Malta suffered as a result of the German and Italian blockade there are several interesting and riveting accounts. The island was brought to near starvation, and almost total collapse and held out against enemy action with unparalleled bravery for which the island and the islanders earned the Victoria Cross.

Everyone being brave in this novel switches between a young woman who joins the war effort at the outbreak of hostilities, only to find that far from being trained as a spy she is actually being recruited as a teacher and a soldier who is posted to Malta. Just as Mary is getting the hang of it, her school is evacuated and the head teacher tells her that her talents are not required. One of the evacuees is a little black child – Zachary. Mary remains concerned about him, but can do nothing for the time being.  But losing her school she goes to the Education office to badger them for another job, thereby meeting another character who figures in the novel – Tom. Tom and his friend Alastair, Mary North and her friend Hilda make up the quartet of protagonists in this book, Alastair is the one posted to Malta.

Chris Cleave went to Malta as part of the research into this book and was amazed to find that from the details in his grandfather’s notebooks on his service in the war, he could pinpoint exact sites, beaches and lookout points – something that his grandfather had done in his own way, pinpointing exact places visited by Saint Paul based on the account in The Acts of the Apostles.  History turns and turns upon a small island in the Mediterranean, run and overrun time and time again for thousands of years.

Another page turner.  Beautifully and wonderfully constructed from fact to fiction. Importantly, bringing to life something (especially memories) that will soon be lost as that generation passes on to wherever it is our spirits go at the end of our lives.

Now and AgainThe final book has no roots in real memory. Now & Again is only here because its construction is the exact replica of The Book of Wag, though switching between the Iraq war and a group of civilians in the United States centring on Maggie Rayburn. Charlotte Rogan has imagined a world filled with interesting and odd characters, from Maggie – whose epiphany occurs when she swipes a top secret document out of the office of her boss.  She herself cannot account for her actions, but it precipitates firstly, a change of job – her new employer being the prison service in a private prison facility and secondly a campaign against all sorts of injustices about which she had not the vaguest notion until she began reading other documents which certainly were not meant for public consumption.  In her circle and deeply affected by her strange behaviour are her husband, Lyle and son, Will and various friends and colleagues.

Counterbalancing the civil side of this book is a small group of soldiers, whom we first meet in action in Iraq. Back in America and out of action their lives are unbalanced and steadily degrading, until formed back into their original grouping under Captain Penn, so that Danny Joiner, Le Roy Jones and Joe Kelly begin a ‘truth about the war’ campaign on the internet – with interesting and connected results which in turn link with Maggie’s campaign.



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And now for a film

This is just so exciting. The film Theeb, a Jordanian UAE joint enterprise is coming to the big screen in the UK. In London it will probably be in the Curzon Group cinemas, it is that sort of film, but I do urge you to try to see it.

scan0008Set in around 1916, it covers a similar ground to Lawrence of Arabia, but from a different point of view. Seen through the eyes of a young Bedouin, the tale unfolds in an entirely unexpected fashion. The Bedouins in the film are not actors, they are the real thing and most of them still live a nomadic Bedouin life, not one of them had ever seen a film or been to a cinema before being ushered gloriously around the Film Festivals last year. I saw them in London by which time they were less over-awed but still beautifully giggly and appreciative of the audience.

I posted very enthusiastically last year see 58th LFF Day 4 Evening posted on 11th October.

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58th LFF Day 4 Evening

Theeb Jordan-UAE-UK-Qatar First Feature Competition


Awesome! This film demonstrates the reason why Film Festivals are such a joy! Full theatre, super-enthusiastic audience, very little popcorn/cola swilling, and the Q&A.

This debut film from Writer-Director Naji Abu Nowar is wonderful, the actors in the film (who are not “actors” and had never been to a cinema before the opening at The Cannes Film Festival) are genuine Bedouin. This is their oral history on screen.

Set around the time of the Arab Revolt in a corner of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, a tribe of Bedouin are approached by a brother Bedouin and asked to take a British Officer across the desert by the old pilgrim route. The two strangers walk out of the darkness and partake of the traditional Bedouin hospitality. Two young brothers, sons of a deceased Bedouin Sheik are living there; we see Theeb and Hussein engaged in camel watering, play fighting, and all the significant tasks that keep nomadic tribes safe and surviving amid the hostile desert. The screen relationship between these two is palpable, there is a tenderness and a sense of closeness which is evident from the moment they appear together at the beginning of the film.

The elder brother is tasked with the journey, but Theeb follows first on a donkey and then on foot. Naturally, this complicates the situation but once united, the two are not to be separated, so the party journey on together. The nature of the Englishman’s purpose is not explicit, but he has with him various objects of interest to young Theeb, including a mysterious locked box to which Theeb, like any curious young thing, is drawn with an irresistible magnetic force. This object of absolute fascination tempts him again as they are gathered in a ravine, and the Englishman lashes out – the resulting quarrel has all the authenticity of a real fight, Hussein leaps to his brother’s defence, it is a moment of true emotion.

The pilgrim way is not in regular use for reasons which become explicit later on, and the way is not easy as there are bandits and deserters all with guns and a purpose, which may not be conducive to the Englishman’s ambition.

This film got a standing ovation, everyone was there: principal actors, Writer-Director, Producer, Dario Swade – the sound effects technician and Jerry Lane – the writer of the music which was completely brilliant, using genuine Bedouin traditional songs written up to form the sound track.

The film has all the depth and romantic beauty of Arabic poetry and calligraphy while at the same time describing a period of extreme violence. There are inevitable, but inaccurate, comparisons to be made with Lawrence of Arabia, the second time that this iconic film has been mentioned in relation to the modern film. But Theeb is not that film, it is not trying to be and in reality has more soul, more truth and more honesty. The Englishman is the fulcrum for the action of the story, but the story itself is a Bedouin story told by people whose grandparents, and great grandparents lived through it.

It is a really interesting companion to The Cut, I am really glad to have seen both. The directors in both films said that they had Westerns in mind, and though neither of them are Westerns at all, I can see exactly where they are coming from. Look out for them both, you will not be disappointed.

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58th LFF Day 3 Afternoon

The Cut Multi-national JOURNEY section


This is a film in two parts, but two parts which belong entirely together. In the first part we see one man’s journey towards survival through the comfort of strangers; the second part is this man’s search for his surviving family against all the odds.

Brilliantly filmed and acted, we start our journey in the last days of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. It is a tale told often – neighbours live in peace and amity for hundreds of years, a corner-stone slips and they turn around and kill mercilessly. So it was for the Armenians in 1915-16. The young men were conscripted into the Turkish army, driven into the desert and worked to death, then the few who survived were marched into the hinterland and massacred. The women, children and the elderly were marched into oblivion, many starved and thousands died on the road; the genocide was complete and frightful, more than one and a half million people died. The resulting Armenian diaspora spread to Greece, America and Cuba. Many young girls were sold to Bedouin tribesmen in an effort to save them.

Through a small miracle, our hero Nazaret Manoonigan, survives the massacre and lives to walk out of the desert with the help of various people, some Christian but mostly Muslim, people of deep faith and goodness who hide him, succour him and assist him. The wound intended to kill him has rendered him mute. Tahir Rahim plays the father, since for most of the film he has no voice this is an interpretation of immense power, showing through his expression alone the melancholy, the anger and the determination. This is an epic film, with aspects that touch upon the works of great directors like David Lean and John Ford, where landscape and distance are as much part of the characterisation as the acting; the harsh light and dry, arid desert owes much to Lawrence of Arabia, and the later scenes in Cuba and America owe something to the Westerns of John Ford. There is a strong supporting cast and the dirge-like music, which is largely Armenian in tone, is hauntingly beautiful underscoring the emotion without emoting itself. If that makes any sense.

The Director, Fatih Akin was at pains to point out that this is not a “genocide” film. It contains the barest outline of the Armenian genocide but, he said, to make a genocide film you would need to make a documentary that spanned a history of more than 700 years.

This film has UK distribution and I urge you to go to see it when you can.

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First Nation Canadians

I am not sure why I have never posted about Joseph Boyden before. As in so many cases, it might be that I was reading his books before I started my blog; or because my blog was centred on the listed books for the Man Booker Prize. But now I am seeking to redress that omission.

Mr Boyden was recently on Radio 4 talking to Libby Purves on Midweek, probably still available as a MP3 download (though quite what that is, I am not sure. I just know that they exist somewhere.) If it is still out there and this blog interests you at all I do recommend that you listen to his voice, and obviously to what he says.

I have just finished The Orenda. It was recommended to me by a Canadian cousin, thank you Isobel, but at the time it was not available in the UK. So I waited until November, putting it on order at my FAVOURITE bookshop, Primrose Hill Books. Thus, I was rewarded by hearing Joseph Boyden talk about the book, before reading it, so could read with his voice in my head.

Now to his books. The first was a book Three Day Road about World War 1, following the story of two snipers hidden in the trees for hours at a time, first class killing machines. The snipers are attached to the Canadian Army, and the story follows the tale from the wilds of Ontario to the mud soaked trenches of France. They are Cree. The story is told backwards, an old Oji-Cree medicine woman, Niska hears of the return of her son from France, he has been badly wounded and is now addicted to the morphine that has been used to aid his recovery. She travels from the North, paddling for three days to town to find him; but when she arrives she finds not her son, Elijah, but her nephew Xavier who somehow has got confused with his cousin. In her attempt to heal him she tells stories of their ancestral past and he raves and mumbles out his own devastating tales of his personal battles.

Based on the real life experiences of two relatives, Joseph Boyden has created for us a dramatic reconstruction of front line war; Xavier has noticed that three (the number) has a mutual significance for his European (ergo mostly Christian compatriots) as well as for himself. There are three lines of battle – the front line, the support line and the reserve line; their God (the Christian God) has three parts, one of them spent three days in the land of the dead which exactly mirrors the journey that Cree warriors and hunters make towards Death, which if they survive the three day journey without passing into the Land of the Sky, then they live to fight another day on earth.

Niska and Xavier struggle together along this terrible path: she fighting to keep him on earth while his subconscious or spirit is fighting to escape from the damaging memories of his recent past.

The second book Through Black Spruce won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. This is the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker. It switches more neatly between two stories, that of William Bird a pilot, who is in a coma after a flying accident and his niece, Annie Bird. She sits by him and tells him about her life, and we follows his story which is going on in his head. While fascinating to read, there is slightly less to engage with in this book. Which is not to say I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The newest novel is The Orenda. scan0003Here Joseph Boyden takes us back into early 17th Century Canada where the French (the Iron People) have a tiny toe-hold in a place on a cliff that they call Kebec. They are trading with the First Nation tribes. In this story the Huron burst into the scene after a terrible massacre, killing a whole family barring one daughter; they are travelling with a Jesuit priest (the crow) who makes himself responsible for this traumatized child. There are three voices in this drama and we switch, chapter by chapter between them. The Jesuit – Christophe, the child – Snow Falls (an Iroquois) and her Huron (adoptee) father – Bird.

Although written in a different order, this book is an historical novel that takes us back to the beginning of the story of the Bird (possibly Boyden) family. It is in three parts, the first part deals with the childhood of Snow Falls, who constantly wishes for the revenge of her family’s slaughter.

The second part, three years later follows the Huron in their trading adventures with Champlain, part of the trading deal means that Bird agrees to take back two more crows (Jesuits or Charcoals, as they are called), and also Christophe who has saved Snow Falls from a rape by one of the French soldiers. There is yet another battle with the Haudenosaunee tribe, Snow Falls’ own tribe, which results in one of the Jesuits, Isaac being caught and tortured, but he gets returned hugely damaged both physically and mentally, while the Huron also have captives whom they torture in turn, though Snow Falls persuades Bird not to kill the youngest, but to adopt him. Against his better judgement, Bird agrees.

The third part is the most difficult to read, disease (probably brought by the Europeans) ravages the Huron village, Bird sends Snow Falls away to live with the Jesuits. When she returns she is no longer sure who she is, for she realises suddenly that she is neither truly Huron nor still Haudenosaunee. So we follow their story to its conclusion…though we already know that it is not the bitter end because of the other two books.

The Orenda is the natural magic of the tribe but also its over-arching spirit. The magic-medicine woman in this story is Gosling, from a tribe in the North, different again from the Huron or the Iroquois.

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