Every year I try to post about some aspect of the situation faced by those who flee their homes due to violence, famine and persecution, each day during Refugee Week. I emphasise ‘try’ – this year I have been struggling with a bit of writers’ block: I have at least two pieces partially composed in my head but can I get them actually onto the page? Can I heck as like. Still. Whilst the commitment to honour Refugee Week in this way is entirely self-imposed, that doesn’t make it any easier to just say, soz, not in the mood right now, quite the opposite. So I will try.
And to begin, I want to remember some of the people who sum up this year’s theme, ‘You, me and those who came before’, which invites us to explore the lives of refugees – and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations.
Refugee Week, since 2016, has been inextricably linked in our minds with the murder of Jo Cox, an outspoken advocate for refugees, for kindness and compassion. We remember her assertion that immigration has enhanced our communities, and that we have more in common than that which divides us.
She was murdered because of her values, because of what she said and what she represented. When I heard of her murder, I thought that this must change things, that the toxic rhetoric of the EU Referendum campaign must, surely, be at least reined back. I thought that those who use the language of hate carelessly would be horrified that this language had been turned into brutal action. I was sadly mistaken. All the more reason, however, to remind ourselves of what she said, and what she represented and to assert the values that we share, the things we have in common with each other.
Judith Kerr lived a long and happy life. But she so easily might not have done, had her parents not found a way to escape Nazi Germany (and subsequently France), just in time. Her autobiography is dedicated to “the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted”. Her parents saved their children from the horrors that would have faced them had they remained – but both parents were, in her words, ‘destroyed’ by their exile. The children were young enough to adapt, to accept the changes in their lives and to embrace the new possibilities, even before they could understand what their fate might have otherwise been. The parents took on all of the fear, all of the horror, all of the vertigo of exile, and the weight of it all was too much for them. Like so many who have had a narrow escape, they could never shrug off the fear that the hatred they had fled from would catch up with them somehow, at some point, that the escape had been illusory.
Pia Klemp is a 35-year-old ship’s captain from Bonn, Germany, whose ship, the Iuventa, is believed to have saved 14,000 people in total, working closely with the Italian search and rescue services. Klemp herself skippered the boat on two missions, saving up to 3,800 people in distress in just one day. But the political climate has shifted in Italy, as it has elsewhere. Her ship has been seized, she’s been accused of cooperating with human traffickers, and she currently faces 20 years in prison in Italy. In her words, the Italian government’s approach stigmatises refugees, and criminalises solidarity with them.
She is unrepentant.
“There is no way I am going to prison for saving people in distress,” Klemp said. “It is the most ridiculous thing on so may different levels. And I will never accept anything else but acquittal.”https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/15/captain-of-migrant-rescue-ship-says-italy-criminalising-solidarity
You can find out more about what’s happening across the country during Refugee Week here. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Sheffield, don’t miss the Migration Matters Festival, with events and exhibitions happening every day at various venues, between now and Saturday 22 June.
It’s too early to know what’s been lost, what’s been saved. It’s too early to know what started the blaze. All we know is that a beautiful place has been ravaged by fire, and that not only those whose city it graces but all of us who care about history and beauty feel a sense of shock and loss.
The great cathedrals were intended to inspire a sense of worship, a turning of the heart and the mind to God. For me, what they inspire is certainly awe, but awe of the human beings who imagined and then built something so extraordinary. Without any of the knowledge we now have of materials science, of engineering and physics, they built something that has survived (and survives still) for centures, that has outlived wars and revolutions, and has remained (and will remain still) a place of contemplation and stillness.
A place of Christian worship has occupied this site since probably the 4th century. Notre Dame itself dates from the 12th century – obviously since then there have been alterations, additions, refurbishments, renovations and repairs. The flying buttresses were added in the 13th century, and then strengthened again in the 14th. The Cathedral suffered damage at various times – Huguenot riots, the Revolution, the street fighting during the Liberation. The spire which collapsed in the blaze yesterday was from the 19th century.
That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars. And although some speakers, by their own free judgment, because [they are] able to see only a few things easily, may say that some other is more beautiful, I believe however, respectfully, that, if they attend more diligently to the whole and the parts, they will quickly retract this opinion. Where indeed, I ask, would they find two towers of such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments? Where, I ask, would they find such a multipartite arrangement of so many lateral vaults, above and below? Where, I ask, would they find such light-filled amenities as the many surrounding chapels? Furthermore, let them tell me in what church I may see such a large cross, of which one arm separates the choir from the nave. Finally, I would willingly learn where [there are] two such circles, situated opposite each other in a straight line, which on account of their appearance are given the name of the fourth vowel [O] ; among which smaller orbs and circlets, with wondrous artifice, so that some arranged circularly, others angularly, surround windows ruddy with precious colors and beautiful with the most subtle figures of the pictures. In fact I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.”— Jean de Jandun, Tractatus de laudibus Parisius[
For me, Notre Dame has other connotations. In this place, inspired by this place, composers such as Léonin and Perotin wove extraordinary, other-worldly sounds with human voices, using the acoustics of the cathedral to worship God in song. The idea of polyphony was regarded with suspicion by some – the fear was that the listeners would be swept away by the beauty of the sounds and forget to take heed of the words:
Bad taste has, however, degraded even religious worship, bringing into the presence of God, into the recesses of the sanctuary a kind of luxurious and lascivious singing, full of ostentation, which with female modulation astonishes and enervates the souls of the hearers. When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of voices … whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale; so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes are so mingled with tenor and bass, that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion; but if it is kept in the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels.
John of Salisbury (1938) . Pike, Joseph B, ed. Policraticus, sive de nugis curialium et de vestigiis philosophorum [Frivolities of courtiers and footprints of philosophers: being a translation of the first, second, and third books and selections from the seventh and eighth books of the Policraticus of John of Salisbury]
It is deeply touching that the response of Parisians to the sight of this place, so deeply a part of their (and our) culture and history, engulfed in flames, was to sing.
• «Tous les yeux s’étaient levés vers le haut de l’église. Ce qu’ils voyaient était extraordinaire. Sur le sommet de la galerie la plus élevée, plus haut que la rosace centrale, il y avait une grande flamme qui montait entre les deux clochers avec des tourbillons d’étincelles…»
Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831).
One is not, sadly, surprised to note not only an outbreak of ‘whataboutery’ (as if those of us who care about the damage to this beautiful place must therefore not care about, for example, the burning of black churches in Louisiana) but a rush to blame, to line up the usual suspects. I won’t dignify the latter with any further words.
Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Notre Dame will survive. Notre Dame reminds us how extraordinary human beings are. That we can imagine and create something like this, envisage something bigger and finer and more beautiful than we have ever seen and then make it reality. That we can hear the way sound echoes in the vaulted roof and creates harmonics, and compose music – and systems of notation which enable us to see and study and play that music today – to glorify God with many voices weaving together. Many voices, making harmony. That we could do those things must surely give us hope for humanity.
Oh, before I get started, just a heads-up that International Men’s Day is on 19 November, as always. You’re so very welcome.
The theme of this year’s IWD is balance. A tricky concept, when considered in conjunction with even trickier concepts like equality, or justice. The BBC gets entirely justified flak for its apparent conviction that if a scientist speaks about climate change, reflecting the views of 98% or so of the scientific community, that must be balanced by a non-scientist telling us at equal length that it’s all made up. When Woman’s Hour recently did a piece about the decline in vaccinations for potentially fatal infectious diseases, and the extent to which that was attributable to the anti-vaxxer movement’s spurious and deadly linkage of MMR vaccines with autism, a caller took them to task for their ‘lack of balance’.
And when women work to get closer to balance in terms of representation in industries, in positions of political power, on the screen or behind it, the response from certain quarters is as if we’re proposing the silencing, even the annihilation of men.
So silly, and so dangerous.
Brie Larson, one of today’s brightest stars in the movie world, is using her clout there to influence for change, using the fact that she’s an immensely bankable star to insist that her press days aren’t entirely populated by white men, and – along with others – to use the ‘inclusion rider’ to influence the balance of women both on screen and behind the screen in the movies she works on.
About a year ago, I started paying attention to what my press days looked like and the critics reviewing movies, and noticed it appeared to be overwhelmingly white male. … Moving forward, I decided to make sure my press days were more inclusive.’(Marie Claire, 7 February 2019)
So, she made sure she was giving opportunities to female/black/disabled journalists when she did press interviews. That makes her a man-hater, right? Because all white male journalists are forever silenced, thanks to her, right?
Of course, she’s attracting particular attention just now because her new movie is the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel. She makes the connection herself to Wonder Woman.
Keah Brown: What do you think it means for young girls and people who identify as female to see this woman not need to be saved, but to do the saving and be the strong person in the face of so much adversity?Marie Claire, 7 February 2019
Larson: ‘It’s so interesting, as it’s not something I thought about until I was in the cinema watching Wonder Woman. About two minutes in, I was sobbing and thought, “Why am I crying so much over this?” But it was seeing all of these warrior women who were so self-sufficient. That wasn’t something I identified with growing up – my hero was Indiana Jones. To have the chance to be one example of this is powerful and exciting.’
Of course most heroes are still men, in the MCU and more widely. And neither Brie Larson nor anyone else I have come across is suggesting that all heroes should now be women. Just that half the human race could see more often on our movie and TV screens heroes who are (more) like us.
Obviously, this is, nonetheless, deeply threatening to (sure, not all, indeed one hopes a small minority of) men. The notion that Captain Marvel might be stronger than Thor (funnily enough, I suspect that Thor would be entirely cool with that), as suggested by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige (‘Her powers are off the charts, and when she’s introduced, she will be by far the strongest character we’ve ever had’), when it hasn’t merely induced apoplexy, has been interpreted (by a contributor on Quora, just as an example) as being ‘because of female empowerment. Because of SJW. Because it would show how cool a female could be, how a woman doesn’t need a man’s help or something like that. Basically something along the lines of feminism or feminazis.’
That’s quite a stretch. From merely showing how cool a woman can be, to feminazism in a couple of sentences. Tired, and tiresome, and so very familiar, after Wonder Woman and Doctor Who, and the most recent additions to the Star Wars franchise prompted similar hysterics.
I’ll be seeing the movie on Monday. I’m excited and nervous – just the same kind of nerves I felt going to see Wonder Woman, and awaiting Jodie Whitaker’s debut in Who. I so want it to be good.
I know that there are more vital battles to be fought. But International Women’s Day isn’t just about battles, it’s about inspiration. It’s about what makes us keep on keeping on – and part of that is seeing ourselves on screen.
Balance doesn’t solve everything, but it helps. We’re nowhere near it, and every step we take towards having more women in positions of authority and influence, more women’s voices being heard, matters. Every step will be contested, but we will persist, because we must.
This is what I wrote last year on this date, inspired by Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to shut up.
Men keep on warning us. They keep on explaining why we need to leave things to them, to stop being so pushy, so strident. And nevertheless we persist.
We always have. Any woman who’s ever achieved anything – pretty much any woman – has had to deal with men telling them that they couldn’t do things simply because they were women, because their brains weren’t sharp enough, they weren’t rational enough, they were too emotional, too fluffy, because trying to be otherwise would make them poorly, shrivel their ovaries or something, stop them getting a man, or being able to bear children. We’ve been told we’re too pushy or not ambitious enough to succeed, too plain or too pretty to be taken seriously, that our choices are all wrong (have babies/not have babies, go back to work/stay at home).
And nevertheless we persist.
Women throughout the centuries, across the continents, at times and in cultures far more restrictive than our own, have nevertheless become warriors, monarchs, visionaries, writers, leaders, artists, scientists, inventors. And we go on, pushing at the barriers, cracking the glass ceilings. We carry on speaking out when they interrupt or talk over us. We carry on campaigning in the face of internet abuse and threats, or worse.
We’re half the human race. We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all. We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers. We are beautiful and we are ordinary. We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above. We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists. We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men. We are unapologetic Remainers and we are hardcore Leavers. We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
We don’t agree with each other, we don’t always understand each other. There’s no unifying glorious, supportive and empowering sisterhood – how could there be, when we’re half the human race? But we can choose to support each other, to celebrate achievements that otherwise might be dismissed or forgotten, to amplify voices that might not otherwise be heard, to bring into the light wrongs that otherwise might be hidden.
We’ve come a long way, baby, but not yet far enough, no way. We still lack anything resembling proportionate power, resources, influence. We still face horrific violence, on the streets and in our homes. We still carry disproportionate burdens when it comes to feeding and raising our families.
But we will persist.
PS, International Men’s Day is on 19 November. Do support @Herring1967 in his annual fundraising for Refuge, as he painstakingly passes on this information to every single bloke who tweets asking if there is an International Men’s Day…
Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust. But not just The Holocaust. It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.
If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France. Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpetrators and bystanders. We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films. There is thus a vast archive of material on which we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.
If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘Torn from Home’.
This reminded me of an early blog post, published on 16 July 2012, the 70th anniversary of the massive round-up of Parisian Jews, which heralded the start of mass deportations to Auschwitz.
Thursday 16 July. At 4 in the morning, it is still very dark. The streets are deserted, the doors and windows closed. But on this early Thursday morning, police cars are converging on pre-arranged spots, carrying officers and civilian assistants. They consult their instructions, block the streets. Each small team has a list of names and addresses. Alongside the police vehicles, buses are parked along the pavements, awaiting their passengers. At the appointed moment, the teams go in. They knock. ‘Police – open up!’.
The occupants are escorted to the buses, and taken on to one of two destinations – single adults to transit camps, including a half-built housing estate on the edge of the city, recently cleared of many of its occupants to make room for this influx, and families to a nearby sports stadium. At the latter, no food or water is provided. It’s mid-July, and once the building is sealed, the heat rapidly becomes oppressive. The few working toilets don’t work for long. The people in the stadium are afraid, and some in despair throw themselves from the balconies to the floor below. A few manage to use the general chaos to slip out, provided that the police at the entry are either sufficiently distracted, or willing to be suddenly inattentive. A few manage to get themselves transferred to hospital (this may prove to be only a temporary respite). Once space in the transit camp has been cleared again, the families in the stadium are transported there. Until the trains take them, too, to their final destination.
Thursday 16 July 1942, Paris. The Vel’ d’Hiv round up, named after the sports stadium used to house the Jews who were dragged from their homes that morning and in the hours that followed. Drancy camp, next stop en route to Auschwitz. 13,152 were arrested, of whom 5802 were women, and 4051 children. Some of the adults – less than 3% – made it home after the Liberation, to search fruitlessly for news of their children at the Hotel Lutétia. None of the children came home.
It wasn’t the first round-up, but it was the first to seize women, children, babies, the elderly, the sick. It gave the lie to the official explanation, that the Jews who were being interned were heading to labour camps in the east. And the sight of it, for some witnesses at least, and for some of those who escaped the net this time, was a catalyst that led to resistance.
Torn from home.
But the process had started well before that July morning. The process had begun with rhetoric, feeding on the anti-semitism that was so strongly present in French politics. The Dreyfus affair which had divided the country had been concluded (with the full exoneration and restoration of military honours to Captain Dreyfus) less than forty years earlier. (Dreyfus himself died in 1936, and members of his family fled to the Unoccupied zone from Paris when the Occupation began. His granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was a member of the Resistance, who was arrested in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz. ) The anti-Dreyfusard contingent had continued to be active in nationalist and often explicitly anti-semitic politics and the Occupation gave them their opportunity. (Indeed, Charles Maurras of Action Francaise called his conviction in 1945 for acts of collaboration ‘the revenge of Dreyfus’.) From the very beginning of the Occupation, anti-Jewish sentiment was nurtured, rewarded and disseminated.
Exhibitions were held using stereotypical images of Jews, and portraying a narrative of covert networks of Jews controlling the financial sector and influencing political decision making. (In our own time there has been a resurgence of this narrative, purveyed by both the far right and by the left, invoking, for example, George Soros and the Rothschild dynasty.) This kind of propaganda was not new to the French. The anti-Dreyfus press used such caricatures and stereotypes to attack both Dreyfus personally, and by extension all Jews.
The stereotypes and canards perpetuated in the caricatures drew from both the antiquated ideas of Jewish usury and greed, but also modern ideas of conspiracy, as well as industry domination and control, which had been made popular by the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Those ideas rose in prominence through the publication of caricatures showcasing Jews attempting to disguise themselves as non-Jews, Jews being portrayed as world dominators, and manipulators of finance and politics.
The Nazi message was in itself therefore not radical or shocking. And to a nation reeling after a sudden and unequivocal defeat, the handy provision of a scapegoat was, to some at least, very welcome. The propaganda went hand in hand with the implementation of a range of measures designed to say to all Jews, whether French citizens or immigrants, that they were not at home. It was all done incrementally – Jewish businesses had to declare themselves with posters in the windows, Jews had to register at the police station, Jews could only travel in the last carriage on the Metro, Jews could only shop between certain hours of the day, Jews could not go to the cinema or the swimming baths, Jewish businesses had to be owned by an Aryan, Jews were barred from an extensive list of professions, Jews could not attend University, Jews had to wear a yellow star sewn securely on to their coats… Every step led closer to the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp, but by stealth.
Louise Doughty’s novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, describes this process – and how it reaches its conclusion – vividly:
How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss. You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have. When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine. Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads. Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more. Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in. When we got here, they took those. They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp. So many people have been separated from their families. Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)
The Jews of France – many of them, at least – accommodated themselves stage by stage with the restrictions that were placed upon their freedoms. Until the round-up, the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp. Because each new restriction was designed to say to them, whether they were French for generations or new arrivals, you are not at home, can never be at home here.
The round-ups went on, right to the bitter end. As Allied troops were fighting their way through France after D-Day, Jews were still being arrested, herded into cattle trucks and deported to their deaths. Helene Berr and her parents, French for generations, were arrested in March 1944. The 1942 round-ups had targeted ‘foreign’ Jews, but by this time such distinctions were irrelevant. The Berrs were clearly being watched – they’d moved from place to place for months, staying with friends but never for very long, and went home just for one night. The knock on the door came the following morning.
And for those few who survived, the idea of ‘coming home’ was never really going to be possible. When they arrived at the gare de l’Est, they were often unrecognisable even to their closest friends and family. They were broken, physically and mentally. They were changed, utterly.
The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers.
(Levy & Tilly, p. 229)
They returned to find that they were alone, that everyone they cared about had perished. They returned to the place where neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.
I began this piece by explaining why, on Holocaust Memorial Day each year, I often focus on this particular bit of history, on what happened in France during the years of Nazi Occupation. There’s another reason.
Anti-semitic rhetoric, racist language, xenophobia, are all more prevalent today than for a long time. No one is suggesting that we are on the road to Auschwitz, but if we let ourselves become immunised to the shock of this language and of overtly hostile behaviour to perceived ‘foreigners’ we risk being numb to worse things. As we leave the community of Europe behind that risk is too great to ignore. As the hard right targets Muslims and Eastern Europeans, and invokes George Soros as a hate figure, whilst the left invokes the Rothschilds and a worldwide Zionist conspiracy, we have to speak out.
Britain is home to people from all over the world. It always has been. It must continue to be. We must never contemplate with equanimity the idea that anyone whose home is here might fear a knock on the door, might be interned indefinitely awaiting deportation, might be sent back to somewhere where their life is at risk because of their politics, their religion, their sexuality. We must never contemplate with equanimity our colleagues and neighbours being told to ‘go home’, that they’re not welcome any more. We must never contemplate with equanimity the casual slurs; the stereotyping of people of a particular nationality or religion; the language of ‘queue jumpers’, of ‘citizens of nowhere’, of ‘swarms’; the repetition of lazy untruths, whether about the largesse handed out to refugees or about the truth of the Holocaust.
The Jews of France registered without much protest when required to do so. They did not believe, could not believe, that anything too terrible could happen to them in the land of ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’, a land that for some had been home for generations, and for others that had offered a haven when persecution drove them from another country. They could not see where this path was leading. We know.
Helene Berr – Journal (trans. David Bellos, Quercus, 2008)
Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark (Harper, 2005)
Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Tallandier, 2010)
Renee Poznanski – Jews in France during World War II (Brandeis Univ. Press, 2001)
A fascinating and troubling reflection on history and on today, from Phil Davis’ excellent A Darkened Room blog.
We’ve been on holiday in America. Again raising the question ‘How does a country full of such interesting people elect a parody Twitter account as President’?
The logistics of the trip left us in Washington on the day we were to fly home. In the middle of a Government shutdown. Washington is pretty much a company town. When the Government shuts down, then the City (or at least the eclectic collection of Government and civic institutions and museums that make up the charmingly titled ‘National Mall’) shuts down too. The one exception was the Holocaust museum, sited in a suitably sober building just off the Washington Monument. With only a couple of hours before we had to go to the airport, we couldn’t take in more than a fraction of the museum, and so, following advice, we took a guided tour of the ‘America and the Holocaust’ exhibition, which explores…
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Family circumstances make it unlikely I will have time to do my usual detailed breakdown of my favourite TV programmes, books, music and so forth for the year just about to end. I managed the film review, but for now, I will make do with mere lists, and hope to have time at some later point to talk a bit more about why.
TOP TV – not ranked in any way!
- Derry Girls
- Black Earth Rising
- They Shall Not Grow Old
- No Offence
- The A Word
- Killing Eve
- A Very English Scandal
- Star Trek: Discovery
- Agents of Shield
- The Bridge
- The Walking Dead
- Doctor Who
- The Cry
- Secrets of Cinema
- Black Hollywood
2018 in Music
- Songhoy Blues – Resistance
- Bjork – Utopia
- Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet – Illuminations
- Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth
- J to Z (BBC Radio 3)
- Tosca (Opera North)
- Don Giovanni (Opera North)
- Madama Butterfly (Opera North)
- Salome (Opera North)
- Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita (Music in the Round)
- Kiss Me Kate (Opera North)
- Silent Night (Opera North)
- Terry Riley – In C
- Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint/New York Counterpoint (Music in the Round)
- Steve Reich – Different Trains/John Adams – Fellow Traveler/John Zorn – Cat o’Nine Tails/Tanya Tagaq – Sivunittinni /George Crumb – Black Angels (Ligeti Quartet)
Books of the Year
- Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13
- Naomi Alderson – The Power
- Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know
- Thomas Mullen – Darktown
- Cath Staincliffe – Girl in a Green Dress
- Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk
- Lawrence Wright – The Looming Tower
- Stephen King – The Outsider
- Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho
- Sarah Hilary – Come and Find Me
- Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race
- Stephen King & Owen King – Sleeping Beauties
- Eva Dolan – This is How it Ends
- Robyn Hollingworth – My Mad Dad
- Paul Dobraszczyk – The Dead City
- Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
- Caitlin Moran – How to be Famous
- Henry Marsh – Do No Harm
- Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale
- Dervla McTierney – The Ruin
- Keith Richards – Life
And a mention also to the Crucible Theatre production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to Philippe Sands’ superb podcast, The Ratline.
Thanks to all who shared these delights with me – the usual suspects (Martyn, Arthur, Viv, Ruth, Liz, Jane).
These are my picks for films of 2018. As usual, I’m resisting the urge to rank these, because they’re so diverse, but there is a top 3 which I will reveal shortly.
2018 had two huge additions to the Marvel cinematic universe. Black Panther has a significance that goes way beyond its contribution to the Avengers’ narrative arc. It gives us, all of us, a cast that is overwhelmingly made up of people of colour. Good guys and bad guys and somewhere in between. And not just guys – a whole lot of magnificent, clever women too. The film had, as one might have expected, a huge impact on black audiences. It’s not that they hadn’t ever seen people who look like them on screen, or even in superhero movies, but up front and centre? All over the damn screen? But it had an impact on all of us, I think. It didn’t make a big deal of what it was doing, it just got on with it, as this review in The Daily Telegraph, of all places, points out:
The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is. For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume. … Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.
It worked on every level – there was much fighting, and things exploded, and there was moral ambiguity, and there was witty dialogue. And it was visually stunning – our first view of Wakanda was breathtaking.
And then there’s Avengers: Infinity War. Now normally I walk out of the cinema after a Marvel movie with a big daft smile on my face. Not this time. I was braced for deaths – I thought I knew what was coming and did a bit of advance grieving for my most-loved Avenger (Captain, oh, my Captain). What we got was much more confusing than that. We lost so many, but not the ones we expected to lose – in fact, many of those who we saw turn to dust were the ones we know absolutely can’t be gone. It’s fine that in fantasy death is not always the end – why bother creating a fantasy world if it has to obey all of the same rules as the real one? – but the risk is always that death loses its sting if we too often can just nod sagely to each other and say, ‘they’ll be back’. So, which of these deaths are going to stick, and which will be reversed? We have to wait until April 2019 to find out.
The Last Jedi features
a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.
As I’ve said previously, Star Wars isn’t my thing, although I’ve very much enjoyed The Force Awakens, Rogue One and this one. But I don’t feel quite the exhilaration that the true fans feel at the resurgence of the series, nor can I understand the sense of betrayal from fans who believe that the recent films get it wrong.
Annihilation was released on Netflix so we saw it on the small screen. It’s a shame – it’s visually stunning and would have really benefited from being shown in the full cinema setting. However, it’s a superb sci-fi film, which has the courage to leave plenty of ambiguity, right to the end. And, refreshingly, the crack team that’s sent in to try to investigate the mysterious ‘Shimmer’ is made up of women – scientists and a paramedic. That’s one of the areas of ambiguity – were they chosen solely because of their specialist expertise, regardless of gender, or is their gender a factor in their selection, that the failure of successive teams of military men to emerge from the Zone is actually to do with gender?
A Quiet Place was one of the tensest ninety minutes I can recall (and I endured Forest’s last ditch Championship survival on goal difference a couple of seasons ago). It was initially a hard sell – you watch this film, you have to sign up to the discipline of no coughing, no rustling of crisp packets or sweet wrappers, no sotto voce asides to your neighbour. Silence is survival in this world, and we rapidly become part of it, as we see how this family has adapted every detail of their life to enable them to function in silence. It’s made very clear early on that the peril is real, and it gets realler. We watched this on the small screen but there was never any question of hitting pause to fetch a cuppa or go to the toilet. We sat so very still that my Fitbit thought I’d had a 90 minute sleep…
First Man was 60s science fiction become reality, portraying the build-up to the 1969 moon landing, focusing on Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on another world. Armstrong (as portrayed here by Ryan Gosling) was in many ways a hard man to root for, his emotional distance shown vividly in the final scene, where after his return to earth and still in quarantine, his reunion with his wife is through the barrier of a pane of glass.
A rather odd (and atypical) review in The New Yorker complained that:
there’s no sense of what Neil’s perspective might be on the Twist, the Beatles, or anything else going on in the turbulent sixties.
I can’t say I was particularly troubled by that – it is actually refreshing to reflect that probably most people in the sixties were not caught up in that cultural maelstrom. The reviewer goes on to claim that:
Chazelle openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly—those pesky intellectuals, blacks, and Hispanics who go on TV or into the street demanding “gimme” while the likes of Neil and his exclusively white, male colleagues uncomplainingly put their lives on the line to accomplish historic things in the interest of “mankind.”
This seems to me an extraordinary claim. Nothing in the movie suggested to me either that Armstrong’s emotional closedness was being lauded (indeed, the damage to himself and to his family was very clearly shown), or that Chazelle was pushing some kind of MAGA patriotic agenda. A much more perceptive – but not uncritical – review appeared in The Culture Vulture .
One of the most striking things about the film was the sensation of the physical reality both of the machines that transported these men into space, and of the claustrophobia of being strapped into those machines – the sheer noise, the jolting and juddering, the shots of sheets of metal held together by nuts and bolts. We’re used to space craft as bright white shiny machines, not as something that might have been built in someone’s garage. I watched that first landing on TV, having been allowed a special dispensation to stay up after normal bedtime. Back then it might as well have been sci-fi – in First Man it’s science, it’s engineering, it’s mechanics and it’s fragile human bodies making it all work.
Three Billboards featured the redoubtable Frances McDormand, who was as magnificent as one might have expected. McDormand’s Mildred wasn’t readily likeable, even when she was being admirable, and she got it horribly wrong in many ways, but she was a powerful presence.
The heart of the film was Woody Harrelson’s police chief, trying to find the best in everyone. And the moment that touched me most was when as they confront each other he is racked by a cough that spatters blood over both of them, and she says, ‘oh, baby’, as she realises how very ill he is. It’s often a brutal film, and often brutally funny.
Cold War is a musical history of postwar Europe, shot in luminous black and white, a story of doomed lovers who find and lose and find and lose and find each other, always searching, never settling. The film’s last line is “Let’s go to the other side. The view is better from there”.
The lovers’ story is told through music, from the raw rural folk that Wiktor and Irena are attempting to record, to the ‘Stalinisation’ of that tradition, the Parisian jazz and chanson that they immerse themselves in after their defection and back to the bastardised pop of Zula’s final performance. The chill referred to in the title is political and personal. Irena stands up during the first full-on Stalinised performance and walks out, never to be seen, or spoken of again. Zula admits in passing to having informed on Wiktor. Those were the realities, but they’re not underlined or over-explained. It’s beautiful and devastating.
My final pick for 2018 is Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful, as is Laurie Metcalf (always one of the best things about Roseanne). As a former teenage girl, and more recently as the mother of a teenage girl, I identified with both the eponymous Lady Bird (aka Christine) and with her mother Marion. This was real, and touching, and often very funny. There were scenes that I could swear were ripped from my own life:
Do you really need to use two towels?
Ah… No, I guess no.
If you need two towels you just have to say so because this affects my whole day. Because I have to do laundry before work, and I need to know if there are more towels that I need to wash.
Family life, summed up in one short exchange. And then there’s the sequence where mother and daughter attempt to choose a prom dress. I laughed and winced.
OK, so I kind of committed myself to a top 3. Black Panther, A Quiet Place, Three Billboards. Such very different films, which is why I’m not willing to rank them within that top 3. I hope the comments above explain why I’ve chosen them.
Honourable mentions to: Death of Stalin (Jason Isaacs!), the Showroom’s Bergman season of which I managed to see only Persona and Smiles of a Summer Night, and their Varda season of which I saw only Jacquot de Nantes. Both seasons whetted my appetite for more from those directors. I particularly loved the humour and warmth of Agnes Varda’s love letter to her husband, Jacques Demy. Also the first part of the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which was infinitely better than the previous version, and the second part of which I await eagerly.
It’s also important to recognise the old movies that I enjoyed this year. A bit of a Powell & Pressburger retrospective with Blimp, A Matter of Life & Death, and I Know Where I’m Going. Lord, those guys were brilliant. And a couple of Billy Wilders – the familiar (Some Like it Hot) and the new to me The Apartment (I’d seen the Bacharach musical based on the story but not the movie). Rewatched West Side Story as a birthday treat, and had my annual sobfest watching It’s a Wonderful Life just before Xmas.
Small screen will have to be a separate blog. Given current family pressures, it may be more of a list than a blog, but hey-ho, that’s how it goes. I also hope to look at how the Bechdel test stands up in terms of contemporary films, where it still has validity and importance and where it falls down.
Thanks to those who’ve shared these cinematic pleasures with me (Arthur, Viv, Martyn, Liz).