Saturday, 10 November 2018

Remembrance ~ A Changing Meaning

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."

Laurence Binyon "For the Fallen".

When those words were written, writer, and readers, and hearers, would have real, vivid, memories of the men who had gone to war, and didn't come home. They were real people, people they'd talked with, laughed with, worked with, maybe touched, and held. There was something to remember, a collection of scenes and sounds and stories in the memory.

That is all gone now. No one living remembers anyone who died in the Great War which ended, by armistice, one hundred years ago tomorrow. My father's senior cousin Doris would be 100 now - but she died in 2011 aged 93 - she was born in 1918 whilst her father was on active service. He died in 1919, on Thursday Island, off the coast of Australia, on service, but actually of influenza - the infamous "Spanish Flu" that killed as many people as the war itself. We learnt much later that he was never planning to come home - he'd arranged for his wife and the daughter he never saw to be Australian citizens, and come to join him. In her 70s, that's what Doris did. But she never knew her father, like all the children born to the war dead.

Before she came to see us - I'd found her through an old address book of my Grandad's - we'd never seen a picture of the man we referred to as "Uncle Harry" - Grandad had rather idolised his eldest brother, thinking that were it not for the war, and Doris's mother, taking him away from them, he might have saved the family after their mother died in 1914. Doris showed us his handsome face in photos from long ago. A face that was never going to come back to England, instead, he was going to get his wife and daughter to come out to Australia and start a new life without all the others. In a way, I'm glad Grandad didn't live long enough to know that.

These are memories - not of the man, but of what was said by people who did actually know about him. And this is what interests me about this centenary - we aren't capable of remembering, that isn't an honest word for what we are doing. Uncle Harry is a part of history now. No one who knew him is alive. There are few who even knew someone who knew him. He can be researched, but not remembered.

In 1990, when the first Gulf War was brewing, on Remembrance Sunday I held back after church, in the hall, as the others trouped out to the War Memorial. There was just one other person left with me, a lady of senior years (as we thought then, we wouldn't now!) whose father had died in the Great War, and she'd never known him. I asked why she wasn't going out to the memorial. "Because they have remembered nothing".

She was right. The "peace" terms after the First World War directly caused the Second. We've had wars somewhere in the world ever since - the UK military has seldom been idle. There is the danger of idolising the sacrifice of young life for "King and Country". That isn't how it happened. They were willing to serve, most of them, but they were sacrificed by those in command, the masters of the "cannon fodder" strategy. They obeyed orders. They didn't "give" their lives, their lives were squandered. "The glorious dead"? Ask the fiancées, the widows, the fatherless children, the parents without sons. There is no glory there. But you can't, because they too are dead now.

We cannot remember them. We can learn of the horrors they went through, and the misery war left behind. And will we then toil for peace?

Thursday, 16 August 2018

"The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996)

A most unusual film, for America, and yet very apposite just now, in the world of "fake news" and the silencing of people we disagree with.

Larry Flynt was a pornographer, presented sympathetically as a man who didn't use or exploit his models beyond what they were prepared to offer. In the circumstances, that doesn't limit it so much. But he was good at his trade, and he met a commercial need.

What's intriguing is that the case that went to the Supreme Court isn't about naughty pictures, it's about whether you can say outrageous things about people and get away with it. In this instance, it was the mad frothing evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, and Flynt's "Hustler" magazine said he'd had sex with his mother in a cowshed. It was obviously ludicrous, and no one would believe it. So, there was no case to answer, and the Supreme Court got it right.

Fascinating to watch, as Flynt is not portrayed as an attractive character, nor engaged with an honourable trade, but yet he has right on his side.

It's really "Larry Flynt vs. the State".


Wednesday, 15 August 2018

"The Duchess" (2008)

Lots of wigs, obviously. Even the chaps. Makes you think how ludicrous the 18th century was, and then, with a sense of foreboding, how utterly absurd the 21st century is going to look to normal people who come along later.

It's a horrid story. It's not meant to be. What could go wrong? A young Spencer girl marrying the most powerful aristocrat in the land? But he just wanted a brood mare. And she wanted .... well, she didn't know, until Charles Grey came along.

There's astonishing privilege and indulgence in this story, but underneath is another story of entrapment and imprisonment. Even the Duke of Devonshire envies the freedom that his children have as they play - although they will, in due course, all lose it.

Keira Knightley plays the duchess with aristocratic dignitity (and I think she could have pulled a bit more rank over the Cavendishes - an older family, but less money). Ralph Fiennes plays the lordly arsehole. You just can't like him. He's got principles, some are good. But he's just basically bad.

I think it's a tragic tale. But it's well-told.

Monday, 13 August 2018

"Blood Diamond" (2006)

Rather unusually for me, I think this counts as "an action movie". There's certainly lots of action, shooting, bombing, and the all too graphic portrayal of mautiliation in the ghastly Sierra Leone civil war.

At one level it's about the continued Imperialist pillaging of Africa, whilst at another it's about Africa's peoples pillagning each other. As a distant descendant of imperial colonisers, I can relate to the vicious indifference of the white minority to the people they considered themselves born to rule. Leonardo DiCaprio's character is avaricious and beneath contempt until he manages to pluck noble martyrdom out of extremis - when he really has nothing to lose.

DiCaprio fascinates me. I don't like him. I think it's because he's not pretty. He's a Hollywood type, he OUGHT to be pretty, otherwise any old monkey could be doing it. And yet time and again he plays a role which is the person, not himself, real acting. I saw it first in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" I don't know him, of course, nor have any idea what the real Leonardo is like, but it can't be like all the people he's played well.

The film was a tragic montage of despicable war scenes with glorious African countryside. And it also portrayed the instability and cruelty of nations founded on corruption and greed.

I've seen this film before, but noticed far less. It's unsettling, and all the better for that.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

"Victim" (1961)

Starring Dirk Bogarde as a blackmailed barrister in the grimy days before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised gay men. Quarter of a century later, he said that it now seemed absurd that the film might have been "courageous, daring, and dangerous", but in its own context, it was. It may well have contributed to the change in the law, which followed the earlier report of the Wolfenden Committee in 1957.

Most people think that Bogarde was himself gay, which made taking the role the most daring thing about it, even though sexuality is played down throughout. The only kiss is between the hero and his wife. I don't buy the line - which is the film's, not some subsequent spin - that the Melville Farr character was merely attracted to Boy Barrett, and remained chaste. I can't see him feeling vulnerable to blackmail just for feelings. But maybe that's how they had to tell the story.

Equally, the situation of his wife is over-sympathetically drawn if all her husband has is a roving eye. The film allows her to question her feminitity, her wifehood, even her womanhood, in the context of a man who is attracted to other men, and not merely attracted, but emotionally drawn.

It's a grim picture of a horrible age - the shadow of the vile Lord Kilmuir who first as Home Secretary and then as Lord Chancellor waged a war on gay men, leading to record prosecutions for "gross indecency". Alan Turing was one of his many victims. It became the age of "the Blackmailers' Charter", and led to the eventual change in the law.

The most interesting character in the story is the police chief who is more concerned to stop blackmailers, than bothering about what consenting adults do in private, despite the reservations of his "puritan" junior. When the constable replies "there's nothing wrong with that", he says "puritanism was against the law, once".

Although the film leaves us expecting doom for Farr, his wife's determination to stand by him, and his impeccable establishment credentials, make me think he's have survived - as Jeremy Thorpe survived a much worse scandal some years later. But that is a pleasant speculation we are given to ponder.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Strange dream

Extraordinary dream - one of those slumber ones, when the radio's on, and bits of the broadcast are becoming part of your story.

I was leaving my office and walking down the main corridor, only to find two jaguars which had obviously escaped from the zoo nextdoor (it's actually St Peter's College), and I was non-plussed. I tried to lock the doors to contain the beasts - who were exceptionally beautiful - but our system allows the doors to be fixed open, but not closed. Then I was trying to find a telephone number, but I couldn't remember the name of the zoo, nor the name of the town we were in, so I wandered through into the chapel, noting on the way that the lobby had become a medical ward, and the jaguars were quite interested in it, but no one seemed to be noticing them. The chapel was much bigger now, size of a cathedral, and the service was communion, and they'd come to the eucharistic prayer. I thought perhaps it better not to make a public announcement that there were dangerous big cats loose in the building until after communion. As I walked down the steps (which don't exist) to get to my office and work out how to use the sound system, I saw that the words of institution were being said by a person sitting on the floor with no legs and a microphone, and not even within reach of the bread and wine. I was concluding that this might count as "irregular but not invalid", but that I really did need to do something about these jaguars, when I woke up.

What a curious bundle of memories and priorities!

Friday, 20 July 2018

How to startle a foreign visitor to Oxford

It had to be the bus, because I was runnning late. Much prefer not to - the bus is hot and sweaty, and full of hoi poloi.

This week started a little oddly with the monthly requiem mass on Monday for the Sisters at Fairacres. It happened to be the 41st anniversary of the death of my great-grandmother in 1977. Grannie was the only great-grandparent I'd known, and hers was the first funeral I ever went to. She was a tiny little Italian lady - been here for nearly 80 years, never bothered with the language, found us all quite funny, though.

Half-way along the route, the bus started to fill up with Italian summer school students - there was absolutely no reason why they couldn't have walked into town, they had the legs for it, but no, on the bus it was. And they were quite fun, chatting and joking amongst themselves, and eventually drawing me in. One of them said "Oxford is the new Pisa", which left a whole load of questions dangling.

And then one of them turned his name badge round. "GianLuigi Pisani". And I said, much more loudly than I meant to, "that's MY name!". Grannie was Rosa Pisani before she married. And we chatted about this, and I said obviously, Pisani is a common name, but no, he and his friend were both from Campagnia, the southern state of Italy where Grannie was born, and Mr Pisani came from Naples, just round the coast.

He might just have been my cousin.