#BalanceforBetter – International Women’s Day, 2019

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?

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.’

Marie Claire, 7 February 2019

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…

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Torn from Home – Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

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.
http://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/English/collections/PersonalWebs/Dreyfus/Pages/viralnatureantisemitism.aspx


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.

SOURCES

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)

http://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/English/collections/PersonalWebs/Dreyfus/Pages/default.aspx

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Rhymes

A fascinating and troubling reflection on history and on today, from Phil Davis’ excellent A Darkened Room blog.

A darkened room

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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2018 – the best bits

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
  • Strike
  • The A Word
  • Killing Eve
  • A Very English Scandal
  • Bodyguard
  • Star Trek: Discovery
  • Agents of Shield
  • Humans
  • Hidden
  • The Bridge
  • The Walking Dead
  • Unforgotten
  • Doctor Who
  • The Cry
  • Treme
  • Secrets of Cinema
  • Black Hollywood

 

2018 in Music

 

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).  

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2018 on screen – the best bits

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).

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Danube Diary

I wouldn’t have expected, even a few months ago, to have been sailing up the Danube on a luxury floating hotel.  But my 90 year old father, who is partially sighted and deaf, needed a companion for his chosen cruise holiday, and, well, someone had to step up to the plate.  Someone had to take one for the team.  And it was fabulous.

The chances that I’ll ever be able to do it again are remote but if I could, I would, and if you can, do.  (Riviera Travel, highly recommended (no, I’m not on commission…) – everything fantastically well organised, and the boat fantastically well appointed).  

We arrived in Budapest on Day 1, too late to do any more than enjoy looking at the city lights as we had dinner.  And then the real magic thing about a river cruise – you nod off to sleep and when you wake up you open the curtains to somewhere new. 

Ezstergom, once the capital of Hungary, and now known for its basilica, the top of which apparently is and must by law remain the highest point in the country.  Then onwards, and from Hungary to Slovakia, and its capital city, Bratislava. 

That November afternoon as we sailed on up river it was unseasonably warm, and we sat out on the sun deck.  The river was so quiet, all we could hear was the low hum of the boat’s engines, and the splash of the cormorants’ wings as they skimmed the water.  I can’t remember when I last felt such peace.  

On the cabin TV there was a channel which just showed the view from the camera on the front of the boat, all day and night.  I took to leaving it on as I fell asleep, loving the tranquillity.  (It was also reassuring when we were going through some huge locks, and things got a bit bumpy). 

The first view of Bratislava from our mooring point was less than prepossessing, but the old city is beautiful.  And part of the fascination of these cities that once lay behind the Iron Curtain is the juxtaposition of utilitarian concrete blocks from the Communist era with the rich baroque heritage.  Many of the plaques in Bratislava commemorate the Second World War rather differently to those in Western Europe, mainly recording the heroism of the Red Army that liberated them from the Nazis.  But others record the corrective to that simplistic version of history, as with this memorial to Anton Petrak:

For a history buff with a particular obsession with WWII and the postwar period, this stuff is obviously richly fascinating. And our local guide added to the story, with his parents’ memories of the Prague Spring, and of how after the fall of Communism the country split (‘without so much as a referendum’, our guide said, in one of many ironic Brexit references during the trip). 

I’ll go back to Bratislava, if I can, and explore properly.  

Onwards.  En route, on the sun deck again, we glimpse a castle on the shoreline, Devin castle.

We slip quietly into Austria.  Next stop Durnstein.  We’ve lost the sun now, it’s a bit misty in the morning, which means the photos don’t do justice to the cruel crags above the village, and the ruined castle. (According to legend, Richard II of England was imprisoned there, and his loyal minstrel Blondel found him by singing outside the fortresses of Europe until he heard Richard joining in.  Well, I did say it was a legend).  

Durnstein is gorgeous, beautiful old – really, really old – buildings, and a fabulously ornate church.  Back to the boat for lunch and on to Melk Abbey.

No photos allowed inside, but a really fascinating tour of a very imaginatively organised museum within this still functioning Benedictine abbey.  

Next day we are moored at Linz.  We’ve been forewarned that we’re going to be double parked, so we don’t fling open our curtains in the morning inadequately clad, only to see the passengers on another boat staring back. Another misty morning. 

Some of our group go for a tour of Linz, but we board a coach and head off to Salzburg, which is just as fascinating and picturesque as I would have imagined. 

It’s also my first sight of Stolpersteine, literally stumbling stones, plaques set into the cobbles of the city, commemorating those of its citizens who were  murdered by the Nazis, usually adjacent to the houses where they lived.  There are over 70,000 of these across Europe, and whilst some cities have rejected this particular way of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, the project has prompted them to find alternatives, ways of giving back to those people the names and the homes and the stories that the Nazis took from them, along with their lives. 

These two Stolpersteine commemorate Catholic priests who were murdered by the Nazis.  Father Gottfried Neunhauserer died at Schloss Hartheim, used by the Nazis for their T4 euthanasia programme, and the place where thousands of prisoners from Dachau, Ravensbruck and Mauthausen were taken to be gassed.  He’d been a patient in Salzburg-Lehen mental hospital from 1920, and was taken to Hartheim in 1941 where he was murdered.

Brother Jakob Furtsch was murdered in Ravensbruck in 1943. He’d been expelled from his abbey in 1942, and went back to his home town, Neuensee, where he was arrested as a dissident and deported to Dachau, then to Ravensbruck. 

We also saw plaques for Rudolf Erich Muller, a Catholic convert arrested as a Jew in November 1938, deported to Vienna and then to Theresienstadt where he was murdered,  and Karl Rinnerthaler, a school janitor, who died in 1948 due to the injuries he’d received in various prisons, after his arrest in 1942 as a member of the illegal Austrian Revolutionary Socialist resistance group. 

So through chance, in just a small area of the city,  we encountered these stories which convey so much about the Nazi horror.  A victim of Aktion T4, a worker who took part in resistance activities, a Jew and a Catholic dissident.  

We’d sailed straight past Vienna on our way to Linz, so now we head back there. 

Obviously, there is no possibility of doing justice to Vienna in the time we have, though our guide is (as they all have been) well informed and does a brilliant job of showing us as much as we can in the time.  I will have to come back some time.  

That evening we have a classical string quartet performing on the boat.  Yes, they do play the Blue Danube waltz (I guess it was a contractual obligation) but also some Mozart and Haydn.  I quite fancied a bit of Schoenberg but there you go… More seriously, it was lovely, and well pitched for the audience.  (My father has fond memories of a previous Danube cruise where there were such concerts on board most days, as well as musical outings in several of the cities they visited, including one in Vienna with the orchestra all in full 18th-century costume. ) 

We’re on the last leg now.  Onwards to Budapest.  But the low water levels which have been causing problems for river traffic means that we aren’t going to get there in time for a proper visit, so instead we dock again at Esztergom and get a coach to Budapest, whilst our boat carries on (less heavy laden!) without us, to meet us again for our last night on board after we’ve toured Budapest. 

Despite this, the daylight is already fading once we have the chance to walk around the city.  We look around Heroes’ Square, and then on to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic/neo-Romanesque terrace which provides a wonderful vista of the old city, as the lights come on. Then we’re back to the boat for a gala dinner, and a performance of Hungarian folk music and dance to mark our final evening.  

We didn’t get to see the Shoes on the bank of the Danube due to the rescheduling of that final day.  Our Hungarian tour manager couldn’t speak of this, of its history and meaning, and of the fact that people still leave flowers there,  without choking up.  I will record it even though I didn’t see it for myself. 

Film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created this memorial on the east bank of the Danube.  Many Hungarian Jews were murdered even before the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944.  But in those last months of the war, as the Red Army surrounded Budapest, the murder of those who remained was regarded as an urgent priority, hampered by the fact that they could no longer deport to the death camps. So, with the help of the fascist Arrow Cross militia, 3,500 people, including 800 Jews, were taken to the banks of the river, ordered to take off their shoes, and shot, so that they fell into the river. 

This trip has been full of such contrasts.  The picturesque alongside the reminders of genocide.  The Communist concrete blocks alongside the baroque.  If I get the chance to come back to these cities, it’s these contrasts that I will want to explore. I want to find the Stolpersteine in all of these cities, as I sought out the plaques on the walls of Paris that tell of resistance and persecution. In these cities that embody our notions of culture, of beauty, of civilisation, people were rounded up, herded into ghettos, deported to camps and murdered because they were Jews, or Roma, or gay, or communist, or because they opposed the murderous ideology that would destroy people because of who they were.  That history is ever more vital, as so many European nations seem to be drawn to nationalism and xenophobia once again. 

It was poignant to be in Europe on the centenary of the Armistice, and to recall that the young men in those three nations who would be commemorated would have all fought against ‘us’.  I thought of this again watching Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall, which portrayed the 1914 Christmas truce through the voices of German, French and Scottish soldiers. 

And I thought, with sadness and anger of how our union with all of those European nations is portrayed as something that oppresses and exploits us, rather than something from which we gain immeasurably, economically and culturally and in so many other ways.  And I so wanted to dissociate myself from my government (and opposition) and from so many of my compatriots as our tour managers and guides made reference to Brexit, ironically, regretfully, in bafflement and in hurt.  

So if I can I will go back, to Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, and wander around in the way I enjoy, looking for the places where history bubbles up into the present. 

I’d also love to go back on the river though, to recapture that sense of peace.  

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To Hell in a Handcart

Seems to be where we’re heading.  I do try, really I do, to retain some optimism, some faith and some hope.  I think I’m just weary now, of hoping that some coherent opposition will emerge, hoping for evidence of a truly significant shift in public opinion (here and in the US), hoping that the bad guys won’t win this time.  

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up – I’m at a low ebb for personal reasons, and that’s sapped my capacity to muster up some positive thoughts.  

(The other thing, of course, that militates against my traditional end-of-year musings on the state of the world, is that by the time I have drafted anything events will have moved on, for better or (more likely) for worse, and I’ll have been left behind by them.)

To paraphrase Brando in The Wild One: “What are you despairing about?”  “What you got?”

Brexit (obvs) – is it even going to happen? I desperately want it not to happen but so much damage and division has already been created that it isn’t a straightforwardly comforting thought that there might yet be a way that we can Remain.   

If it does happen, there will be, I believe, a very great deal more long term damage, and much more profound division.  It’s not the consequences for me personally that concern me, it’s about the consequences for all of us.  But most particularly for European citizens in the UK, for anyone ‘foreign’ in the UK, for my kids’ generation whose opportunities will be so curtailed, for the poorest who will be hardest hit by recession and tightened austerity, for the sick who will suffer as the NHS runs out of resources.  

I am fearful, and I’m sad.  I recently travelled up the Danube on a cruise ship – our hotel manager and tour managers were from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary respectively, our tour guides were from Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava.  All of them mentioned Brexit, and the tone was one of bafflement, of regret, of hurt (‘You don’t want us any more’).  

I’m also angry because this whole mess could have been so easily avoided.  If the referendum had been clearly and publicly stated to be advisory (as it legally was), if under-18s had been enfranchised (as in the Scottish independence referendum), if EU citizens resident in this country and UK citizens long-term resident in Europe had been able to vote, then the outcome might well have been what the majority of MPs and Cabinet members hoped it would be.  If, when the result was known, the powers that were had said, ‘OK, we weren’t expecting this and we haven’t exactly planned for it, but now we know that is the view, we will put together a cross-party team of the very best minds we have (yes, ‘experts’), and work out how we can do this without damaging the country.  If we conclude there is no way, we will revisit the outcome, having made our findings known to Parliament and to the nation’…  But that would have taken courage and integrity, qualities in woefully short supply.

Instead, those tasked with negotiating our exit have demonstrated no understanding of the issues, no aptitude for negotiation.  They’ve faffed and fannied about for two and a half years.  They’ve been smug and arrogant and dishonest.  The only consistent thing has been the way in which everyone is to blame other than them, the EU, the ‘unapologetic Remoaners’, the business community, everyone. And at this late stage, our hapless and hopeless PM is reduced to desperate pleading with EU leaders, and – because she really can’t help herself – pronouncing even in those last ditch meetings, as if it means anything at all, that ‘Brexit is Brexit’.  

That’s just us.  But wherever we look we see the same, or worse, sometimes much, much worse.  Where do we look for comfort and hope?  

As always in dark times there are people striving to bring light.  As always when the haters are out in force there are people speaking truth and love.  As always when there’s mess there are people who will move heaven and earth to clean it up.  The light-bringers, the truth-sayers, the open-hearted, the problem solvers may not hold power but we have to hope they have influence, that their voices will be heard, in all the parts of the world where they’re most needed.  

It’s been a while since I posted anything here at all, and I’d really rather that I could have broken the silence with something stronger, something more uplifting and positive.  But that’s all I’ve got, folks, right now.  


“Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

― E.B. White

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