Tail end Charlies

18 September 2016

‘The Battle of Britain’, by Paul Nash (Imperial War Museum)

It was Battle of Britain Day last week, the anniversary of the last great air battle over Britain, in 1940, when pretty much every available plane on both sides was up in the sky. It’s well caught in Paul Nash’s huge canvas, which is now in the Imperial War Museum. My father-in-law Denis Robinson fought in the Battle of Britain as a Spitfire pilot, turning 22 during the Battle. Like many others, he didn’t fly combat missions again. After the Battle he was shifted first to pilot training and later to transport, for example running supplies into Normandy after D-Day, and ferrying the wounded out.

He reckoned that he survived through a mixture of having had a decent amount of flying experience pre-war, some luck (he was shot down but managed to crashland the plane), and, reading between the lines, a wilful disregard for some of the RAF’s stupidities.

Flying doctrine in the 1940s had it that the squadron’s four sections should fly in a straight line, one plane ahead, two behind. It took only a little experience to work out that this meant the whole formation was a sitting duck if attacked from behind, especially the “tail end Charlies,” as he called them, at the back. (There’s a good explanation of all of this tactical detail here).

As tail end Charlie, Denis took to weaving around behind the front pair, which made both him and the rest of the section harder to hit. He was, he recalled before his death, reprimanded for this breach of instructions. He promptly ignored the reprimand, as did other pilots in the same position. By the end of the Battle of Britain, it was accepted that the tail end Charlie would weave; by 1942, it was doctrine.

The RAF’s blinkers extended to its prejudice about the Polish airmen who had arrived in the UK after the fall of Poland. They were experienced and committed pilots who had performed creditably against the Luftwaffe in old aircraft, but that wasn’t how the RAF saw it.

The film Battle of Britain has a sequence in which a Polish squadron on a training flight under the supervision of an RAF officer, not yet permitted to fly combat missions,  break formation to attack a group of German planes, and story is broadly true. The squadron was commissioned, and performed heroically.

By that stage in the Battle of Britain, even the RAF’s stuffed shirts knew they needed pilots desperately, and were lucky that the Poles were here and ready and willing to fly. They represented the largest contingent of overseas airmen, as the Statista chart below shows.


There’s a memorial to the Polish airmen—those who flew in the Battle of Britain and also later in the war—just off the A40 on the way out of London, close to Northolt airfield, and an adjacent garden of memory. We visited it on the Augist Bank Holiday. The memorial was refurbished about a decade ago, and is in good condition, but the garden, which is looked after by the Borough of Hounslow and the Polish Government, looks as if it has suffered from local authority cutbacks, and needs a little loving care, if only out of respect for the contribution they made to the Allied cause.


Image: Wikimedia




The Deep Blue Sea

6 September 2016

National Theatre set designed by Tom Scott. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Terrence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is on at London’s National Theatre, is literally a period piece. It premiered in 1952, and the devices and secrets that drive plot and characters are no longer issues. No spoilers, but attempted suicide is no longer a crime, gas no longer poisons you, a woman who leaves her husband to live with someone else no longer has to lie about it.

Rattigan, who was gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, would have known all about the world of secrets, allusion and indirect meanings, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the writing and characterisation are strong. He wrote the play after a lover, Kenny Morgan, had killed himself by gas. There’s no evidence for the claim Rattigan once made in a letter that he wrote an initial version in which Hester, the lead character, was male and gay–such a play would have been unperformable in Britain in the 1950s–there is a later “distaff” version by Mike Poulton that re-works The Deep Blue Sea as if it were Morgan who were the central character and had failed in his suicide attempt.

(On gas suicides, I also recall a play by Alan Ayckbourn, although I forget which one, where he plays this idea for laughs. A woman is lying in the kitchen during a party with her head in the gas oven while party guests traipse through not realising what she’s doing, and engage her in conversation.)

The Deep Blue Sea is a technical tour de force, set in one location and in keeping with Aristotle’s idea of “the unities”, taking place in just 24 hours, or so. The National’s set, seen in the image at the top of the post, makes much of this over-crowded block of bedsits, with its thin walls and well-meaning landlady, although it doesn’t manage to convey one of Rattigan’s stage directions, that it stands in a badly bombed area of Ladbroke Grove.

This is another period piece: for this would have been the Ladbroke Grove of cheap lodgings and Peter Rachman, not of David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set“. Not, in the ’50s, the sort of place that the runaway wife of a wealthy High Court judge would expect to be found.

One other period element of the play that I missed completely in the National’s version: that the struck-off doctor Mr Miller, very much the play’s “centre of good”, was gay and had been disqualified after being jailed for a homosexual act. It’s implicit, but the various reviews of this and other productions seem clear on the point.

But if the play were just a social history, it would not be worth re-staging. It still works in 2016 because at its heart it is a play about desire. Hester leaves her husband, portrayed in the National’s version as generous but not passionate, for a relationship with a younger man, a pilot who is still reliving the war through a haze of alcohol. It’s evident that sex matters to her. Freddy Page, for whom she left her husband, is “the devil” that the play’s title alludes to.

The deep blue sea, in contrast, is the challenge of living with herself, about to be a divorced woman, having transgressed the social and sexual mores of the time.For this is a choice. (And this is a spoiler).

As Terence Davies, who directed a film version of the play, observes of the scene near the end of the play between Hester and her husband Sir William Collyer,

When he asks her to come back, he says, “Can’t you see what I’m offering you?” She says, “Yes, and do you have any idea how difficult it is to refuse it?”

The trangressive women is always a rich theme, and especially so in the ’40s and ’50s, as a decade of film noir reminds us.

And in our cultural stories, perhaps the transgressive woman, or transgressives of any gender, find themselves dead or alone, as the play suggests. Which is one way of making sense of the paean to the virtues of doggedness in Mr Miller’s fine speech to Hester in the final act of the play. Keeping on keeping on is a virtue, no matter how hard it seems at the time.

Voskhod over Edinburgh

21 August 2016


When I was seven, my father took my brother and I out onto the street outside our house to see a Soviet spacecraft whose orbit of earth took it directly over Edinburgh. I think I was seven, at least, but I could be wrong about that, and I think it was the autumn, and although I could check the details, that’s not the point, because this is about the memory. It still seems, at this distance, an other-worldly experience, a moment of wonder. It was still the age of Red Plenty, at a time when the Soviet Union was leading in the space race, before American arms expenditure bled the economy dry. But in truth, it wouldn’t have mattered much whose spacecraft it was; the wonder was because it was up there flashing across the sky and we were able to watch it from the street right outside of our house.

This memory is prompted by finding while tidying a poem I photocopied years ago which captures, more eloquently, the same sense of wonder. From memory, although the name is not on the photocopy, it’s by the Scottish poet Alan Bold, who died suddenly in 1998. Bold was interested in both radical politics and technology (and if I have this wrong, please let me know.) Judging from the internet, it also seems to be out of print, so I trust that the publishers will forgive me from reprinting it here.

On Seeing Voskhod Over Edinburgh

On a cold October night

Edinburgh’s sky was punctuated,

Not by a divine presence,

But by the stabbing cigarette-end-like apparition

Of three men in a spaceship.

I looked out from my house

In a hundred-year-old tenement

And felt that Komarov, Yegerov and Feoktistov

Were fellow travellers of mine.

For it’s a long way from Zazakhstan to Scotland

And it’s a long way my house is from Voskhod.

Yet I saw

The stabbing cigarette-end-like shape,

I watched as the red light flashed

Across the sky.

For four minutes we Scots saw

The scientific age in action.

And as we retreated back into our tenements

And thought once more of slums,

We also saw that an alternative existed.

(Alan Bold)

The image at the top of the post is from the website Spacefacts, and is used with thanks.

Reading Wodehouse

7 August 2016

I’ve stayed away from P.G.Wodehouse, perhaps because I lack sympathy with the aristocratic milieu that his characters inhabit, but my brother, who appreciates writing, insisted. And so I bought one; not one of the Wodehouse series, such as Jeeves or Blandings Castle, which come now with a heavy precognitive load, but the standalone novel Big Money, published in 1931.

Perhaps I was attracted by the title, or perhaps by the Ben Elton cover quote: “Light as a feather, but fabulous.

And Ben Elton and my brother were right. The thing was a pleasure from beginning to end. 

I’m not going to spoil it, but the plot revolves around a penniless heir, Lord Biskerton, and his schoolfriend Berry Conway, now fallen on hard times and reduced to working for a living, and the arrival in London of an American heiress, Ann Moon, the niece of Conway’s boss, despatched to London for the season to escape an unsuitable match. (As in, “The Season“.)

Here’s part of Chapter 2, describing Ann’s social whirl in London:

“She saw the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Madame Tussaud’s, Buck’s Club, the Cenotaph, Limehouse, Simpson’s in the Strand, a series of races between consumptive-looking greyhounds, another series of races between goggled men on motor-cycles, and the penguins in St James’s Park.

“She met soldiers who talked of horses, sailors who talked of cocktails, poets who talked of publishers, painters who talked of sur-realism, absolute form and the difficulty of deciding whether to be architectural or rhythmical.

“She met men who told her the only possible place in London to lunch, to dine, to dance, to buy an umbrella; women who told her the only possible place in London to go for a frock, a hat, a pair of shoes, a manicure and a permanent wave; young men with systems for winning money by backing second favourites; middle-aged men with systems that needed constant toning-up with gin and vermouth; old men who quavered compliments in her ear and wished their granddaughters were more like her.”     

Unexpected alleys

One of the tricks in narrative is how the author, story, and reader stand in relationship to each other. They can be ahead, or behind, or on terms, as fully informed as each other. In crime fiction, the reader always knows less, is always catching up, as Tony Hancock and Sid James discovered in their classice episode, “The Missing Page“. 

In Big Money the reader is often ahead (you can see where it is going) but just as you think you’re going to get there Wodehouse takes you down an unexpected alley on the way, sometimes poking fun at his characters in a knowing alliance with the reader. 

And when Elton says the book is as light as a feather, it’s probably from passages such as this:

“When the public reads in its morning paper that a merger has been formed between two financial enterprises, it is probably a little vague as to what exactly are the preliminaries that have to be gone through in order to bring this union about. A description of what took place on the present occasion, therefore, can scarcely fail to be of interest.

“J.B. Hoke began by asking Mr Frisby how his golf was coming along. Mr Frisby’s only reply being to bare his teeth like a trapped jackal. Mr Hoke went on to say that he himself, while noticeably improved off the tee, still found a difficulty in laying his short mashie approaches up to the pin. Whether it was too much right hand or too little left hand, Mr Hoke could not say, but he doubted if he put one shot in seven just wehere he meant to. …

“At this point Mr Frisby said something under his breath and broke his pencil in half.” 

Finally, the plot is as elegant a thing as I have seen, with scores of moving parts ticking away unobtrusively in the background. I was reminded of Preston Sturges or the best of the screwball comedies. Unpacking it would, I suspect, be something of a master class.

Of course, it’s of its time. Lunch at the Berkeley costs 25 shillings for two (£1.25 in modern money), with a little change; characters can jump into the two-seater and drive down to Dulwich or Esher from Mayfair at the drop of a hat; Biskerton has run up debts of hundreds of pounds at gentlemen’s outfitters and suppliers across town; a man can’t be seen out without a hat; and everyone who’s anyone knows everyone

And being a comedy, of course all of the characters–and maybe this is a spoiler–get the ending they deserve. Well, most of them do.

Notes on RideLondon 100

4 August 2016

I rode the RideLondon 100 at the end of July–a 100 mile circuit on closed roads that starts at the Olympic Park in Stratford, drives south-west through London and onto the Surrey Hills, climbs Leith Hill and Box Hill, then returns to London to finish on the Mall. My interest in doing it: it’s become something of an iconic “century” ride since it was created as part of the 2012 Olympic legacy, and middling sportive riders such as me don’t often get the chance to ride on closed roads.

The ride is huge: 25,000 riders or so, leaving the Olympic Park in carefully managed batches every three minutes from around 6 a.m. (when the fast riders go) or so to the last depart at 9 a.m. My start time was 8.41, based on the 7’15 time I quoted on my application form for my last 100 mile ride. There is a series of cut-off times along the route, selected diversions to shorten the route for the slow, and a sweeper van if all else fails. The reason for this is that much of the course is used for the professional one-day race, the London-Surrey Classic, which starts in mid-afternoon.

I’d been apprehensive about the ride, to be honest. I’d done “century” rides before, and the cut-off times seemed OK, but only so long as I didn’t have any mechanical or physical problems. And I’d been on a club run with the London Dynamos a couple of weeks earlier over some of the same roads, and hills, and had a disaster, cramping horribly 25km from home and limping back slowly, helped by a couple of sympa Dynamos, and towards the end stopping often to pour liquid into me. (Hotter day than expected; not enough water or hydration/electrolytes; not enough food; all the elementary errors. And once you do cramp, it’s too late.)


As it happens, RideLondon this year was strewn with problems. In particular, the route was closed at about the 40 mile mark while an air ambulance lifted a crashed rider to hospital, which in turn caused a huge backlog, which meant that there was a second wave of congestion when the roads narrowed again going through Dorking High Street, which meant that many riders were sent along a short cut to get them back to London within the time limits. But not in turn, before the professional peloton had been halted in mid-race while marshals and police cleared the sportive out of its way. And there were other crashes as well; ambulances at Fen Ditton and on Leith HIll, which has a truly horrible descent (narrow, poor road surface, overshadowed by trees so visibility is poor).

Too many riders out on the course, was the verdict of the Dynamo riders on the club forum the following day, perhaps a sign that the organisers need to trim capacity. And too much variation in skill level. The start times are designed to keep riders with similar speeds together, but it doesn’t always work. I travelled through London at 30-35kph, but the serious riders (the people who race on other weekends) would have been travelling on the same roads at 40-45kph, and a slower rider drifting backwards can create havoc, especially if their bike handling is not so good.

Closed roads

You do travel faster on the closed roads, especially in the city, although you also have to be more alert to riders passing you on either side. And in particular, rolling out along the Cromwell Road and the A4 to Chiswick was an absolute blast, as was the final 6 or 7km from Putney back to the Mall.

I was lucky not to get caught up in the vast delay for the air ambulance, and the luck was in the timing. By the time I arrived at the back of the crowd on the blocked road, it was clear that nothing was moving, and there happened to be a junction to the right and cyclists saying there was a diversion down one of the suburban roads that ran off it. It was, I think, strictly unofficial, and we ended up on open roads for 15km or so before we regained the closed route just short of Newlands Corner. (Which is why the total on the Garmin is just short of the full hundred.) Even on the open roads it was like being on the biggest club run in the world.


Refuelling stop at Newlands Corner

Perhaps because of the closed roads, it ended up being the fastest sportive century I’ve done–my official time was 6’34.22 (the minute’s difference from the Garmin time shown at the top of the post is the time it took to roll across the start line).

Eating well

Some things I learned. Probably because of my disastrous day out on the club run, I was obsessed about both water and hydration tablets, and about eating (you can absorb about 60g an hour on the bike, and it’s best to eat before you think you need to.) I also got through more gels (effectively liquid sugar) than I would have done normally, using the rush of energy to help me up the bigger hills and through the longueurs of the 120-130 km section.

Riding on your own, as I was, it helps to find others moving at about your speed, and the Ride London colour coding helped  with this. My 8.41 start time was “Blue Q”, and 8.38, the previous start time, was “Black H”. So whenever I found riders in Blue Q, P or N, or Black H or G, especially later in the ride, it meant that I’d likely be able to tuck in with them, which also allows you to relax slightly in terms of concentration.

Being alert

But you have to be alert. A couple of women, riding together (matching tops), touched wheels just ahead of me about 20 miles in, where the road both narrowed and started up a small incline, and went straight down. The speed wasn’t high and they were probably only grazed. But as the road had narrowed, I could see they were chatting  and not paying attention to the slowing and the bunching, perhaps from inexperience, so I’d already created space for myself behind them.

There is a lot of hanging around at the start. Blue Q was at its collection point between 7.15 and 7.40, and we then moved slowly round the Olympic Park, wheeling our bikes for at least 800 metres before lining up for our start. The excellent Sportive Cyclist blog recommended keeping a rain jacket on to stay warm during this process, which was good advice. (Monty’s site is full of good advice for we middling sportive riders.)


Heart attack

A couple more notes. I rode to raise money for Unicef, and if you haven’t sponsored me, and would like to, my page is open until the end of August.

Secondly, my thoughts go to the family of the man who died of a heart attack during the ride; he was only 48. Like the great British racer Beryl Burton, who also had a heart attack while out riding, at least he probably died in a good mood; there are worse deaths in the age of dementia and Alzheimer’s. He was riding to raise money for Cancer Research UK, and the donation totals on his Just Giving page have gone through the roof.

Thirdly, it is only a bike ride. The driver who took me to my drop-off point at 6 a.m. in the morning, who worked for a west London hire firm, had been socially cleansed to Clapton by Kensington and Chelsea Council after living in the borough for 27 years. It’s possible to be over-attentive to the visible injuries from a cycling crash and not attentive enough the more damaging forms of slow violence that are going on all around us.


Bleeding them white

2 August 2016


Of course I knew that Verdun was a bloodbath, fought out largely between the French and German armies. But until I heard David Hargreaves talk about the battle at a recent Browser lecture, I hadn’t realised how much of a bloodbath it was, or, by extension, how it shaped the disastrous post-war settlement.

Between February 1916, when the Germans first attacked, and December, when the French regained most of the land lost, 300,000 troops died, split fairly evenly between the two sides. The heavy death toll was the plan when Falkenhayn first formulated the campaign, but he anticipated that the French would suffer casualties in far greater numbers than the Germans. Verdun was chosen because it has a strategically important network of forts, and was also an important transport hub. Falkenhayn believed that the French couldn’t afford to defend it, and also that they couldn’t afford not to defend it. A zugswang, in other words.

As happened elsewhere during World War I, the attacking side made gains before being stalled. As also happened elsewhere, the pre-battle artillery bombardment turned the ground into mud that impeded the infantry attack. 

Fracturing the nerves

The French commander, Joffre, disregarded the initial attack because he thought it was a diversion from another impeding attack (as did Hitler the D-Day landings in Normandy). The constant artillery bombardment fractured the nerves of the defending French troops. The German assault stretched the French forces thin until the British were able to relieve the French 10th Army elsewhere and free them to go to Verdun.

Understanding Verdun also gives a different perspective to the Battle of the Somme, in the summer of 1916. Yes, it was planned before the start of the battle of Verdun, but by the time it came, even despite the terrible level of casualties, it was needed, desperately, to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun and prevent the French army breaking under the strain.

Petain, whose reputation suffered somewhat in the Second World War, comes out of the Verdun story well. Unlike most generals of the time, he would go to visit the troops returning from the front. He realised, looking at them, that even battle hardened troops couldn’t take much of the constant bombardment, and devised the noria system of rapid rotation, so that troops were in the front line for only 8-10 days before being relieved. 

Some of the accounts by soldiers shared by Hargreaves were desperate: a Jesuit hoping that he would die by a bullet rather than a shell, so that his body would not be blown to bits and scattered.  

Shocking the system

Britain’s casualties in World War I were high–The Wasteland, for example, like Elgar’s Cello Concerto, is one long howl of grief– but they were not on the same scale as the French. The French army had indeed been “bled white” at Verdun, but only at the cost of bleeding the Germans white as well. Falkenhayn, the German architect of Verdun, was dismissed sometime before the battle ended.

And although the noria system was effective in maintaining French front-line morale, it also meant that far greater numbers of troops experienced the shock of the battle. David Hargreaves suggested to me afterwards that it transmitted the shock right through French society, which in turn helps to understand France’s intransigent position at the peace talks in 1919.

History’s fingers reach down the years. You can see the shadow of Verdun cast long across the 1930s and the 1940s, and even to the creation of the post-war Common Market.

David Hargreaves’ Century project, following the progress of World War I in weekly instalments, can be found here. The Browser is here.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing

13 July 2016


One of Aircraft Is Missing is not one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films—it’s better thought of as a sighting shot. It is the first film made under the Archers’ banner. But watching it again when it popped up on television, there are already resonances with later work. If there is a theme in The Archers’ films, it is of cultures trying to understand each other—one thinks immediately of Colonel Blimp, but also of the laird teaching “highland economics” in I Know Where I’m Going or the great Anglo-American set piece in A Matter of Life and Death. Or even the failure of the Himalayan convent and the nuns’ departure from India in Black Narcissus.

This might also be a metaphor for the partnership between Powell and Pressburger itself: the patrician Englishman and the polyglot emigré.

So, specifically, my interest in One of Our Aircraft is in the scene about 45 minutes in where the airmen from the bomber crew are waiting in the front room while the Dutch villagers debate what is to be done with them in the dining room next door. The airmen are a social melange, largely for dramatic purposes, though perhaps for propaganda purposes too. They are indignant that the Dutch do not take them at their word, and they start to worry that they might be turned over to the Germans (although, as one of them observes, no-one has left the house.)


Els Meertens (Pamela Brown) explains they’re going to church.

Of course, the villagers are right to be careful, for they are taking all the risks. If the airmen are caught, they will be dispatched to a prisoner of war camp; if the villagers are caught helping them, they are likely to be deported to a forced labour camp, or shot. Actually, we’re reminded of the risks they’re taking even in a pre-credit sequence.

Eventually, the airmen offer a cutting torn from yesterday’s Times (what else) as proof of identity. As the Dutch schoolteacher (played by Pamela Brown, who appeared in several Archers’ films) takes it back into the room where the villagers are debating, she says:

ELS: I thought airmen had better eyesight than that.

Another look around the room identifies the codes of those Dutch opposed to the Germans: orange blossom above the lintel, and a concealed portrait of the exiled Queen.

Pressburger’s cultural fencing continues as the Dutch formulate the escape plan, which involves cycling in disguise to the local church, which is 6 miles closer to the coast, and for which they already have the necessary papers. Of course, it is a Catholic church and two of the crew are “chapel.”

ELS: But it’s our only plan.

EARNSHAW: If this gets back to Halifax, I’ll never hear the last of it.

ELS: We will dress you in Dutch clothes. Nobody will know.

EARNSHAW: You don’t know chapel folk.

The sequence where they disguise the airmen for the journey is also a wonderful piece of film-making: the actor in the aircrew is put into drag, in a shot that tilts rapidly down the RAF uniform, dissolves from his boots through to the clogs now on his feet, and then tilts back up just as quickly to take in the new outfit, along with some crisp luvvie banter.


Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) gets into his disguise.

In his biography of Pressburger, Kevin Macdonald observes that the screenwriter was “immune to cliché.” A quotidian phrase from the news bulletins (“one of our aircraft is missing”) that probably floated past native English speakers, stuck with the Hungarian Pressburger, now working in his fourth language. The choice of Stuttgart as the target of the bombing raid was deliberate:

The references to the girls in Stuttgart and the song ‘I Kiss Your Little Hand, Madam’ (“The composer was a Jew, I believe”) certainly have a personal resonance… [H]e had so disliked the town as a student—it was the place where he had first experienced anti-Semitism.

It is also one of the few Archers’ war stories in which we don’t see a “sympathetic German.” In fact, we barely see the enemy: “We only see their shadows,” writes Macdonald, “or hear their clipped voices shouting orders, the demonic screeching of their vehicles shattering the peace of the countryside, and the clicking of marching boots.” Macdonald exaggerates, but only slightly.

The film is also formally interesting because it has no score. The soundtrack, from the drone of the plane’s engine in the first sequences, to the noise of the Dutch villagers and their British escapees cycling to church, to the canal water lapping the boat and the crowd at the football match, is all “natural” sound. Shades of the 1930s documentary movement. And perhaps because of this influence, the Germans speak German, the Dutch characters speak Dutch (except to the aircrew), and the English mostly speak English. Our confusion as to what is happening matches that of the aircrew; their confusion is often part of the story.

Within this “natural” soundscape there are a couple of moments when the Dutch national anthem plays an important part in the plot. The first time, more low key, in the church, when the organist uses it to distract a German soldier; the second (no spoliers, but more critical to the narrative, and a clever plot device) when some German soldiers are tricked into playing it on their mess gramophone. One of Aircraft is almost an exact contemporary of Casablanca with its famous rendition of “La Marseillaise”; both films were likely borrowing from, or paying homage to, the singing of the French anthem in La Grande Illusion.

Pressburger’s time working for UFA in Berlin weaves its way into the script in his play on cultural stereotypes. Jo de Vries, the woman who engineers the crew’s final escape is thought by the Germans to hate the British because her husband was, apparently, killed in a British air-raid on Haarlem.

I never heard that we bombed Haarlem.

ELS: The Germans want us to believe it, so Jo de Vries obliges them. They like her, because they believe she hates the British. That is what she wants, so everyone is happy.

In fact, her husband is broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda from London.

As both Macdonald and the film critic Ian Christie observe, the film is the inverse of The 49th Parallel, in which a German U-boat crew has to abandon their craft a long way from home. The German crew, in a hostile environment and a hostile society, falls apart, with one member shot for desertion when he tries to join a German-speaking religious community they encounter in northern Canada.

The British crew in One of Our Aircraft, helped by a sympathetic population who have learned to play on German sensibilities, hangs together and escapes. But the two films have this in common: the heroes, in both films, are the people of the country; Canadians in one, Dutch in the other.


Jo de Vries (Googie Withers) helps the aircrew reach a boat to escape

Shakespeare in Silver Street

28 April 2016


It is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this month, so a good moment to write something about Charles Nicholl’s Shakespeare book, The Lodger. It’s about Shakespeare’s time lodging on Silver Street with the Huguenot family the Mountjoys, and I bought it on the strength of Nicholl’s fine book on the death of Marlowe, The Reckoning.

Silver Street, or Sylver Street, doesn’t exist any longer, bombed in 1940, but it ran east to west near the London Wall, close to the present Museum of London and south of the current Barbican complex. The Huguenot church in Fann Street is about five minutes walk to the north. The house was destroyed earlier, in the Great Fire of London, or before.

Old Map Showing Silver StreetsmallNicholl suggests Shakespeare was probably a lodger in the Silver Street house from 1603-1605, which would mean that he probably wrote Othello, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That End’s Well, Timon of Athens and King Lear while he was there.

Shakespeare’s stay at Silver Street is interesting to Shakespeareans because it gave rise to the one document from his lifetime that Shakespeare attested in his own voice, as a witness in a court case between the owner of the house, Christopher Mountjoy, and his daughter, Mary, and son-in-law (and former apprentice) Stephen Belott.

Read the rest of this entry »

In praise of the accordion

11 April 2016

1500px-Accordion_button_mechanism.svgWatching the Donegal band Altan last night I got interested in watching the accordion player Martin Tourish, who’s recently joined the group. The accordion is a complex instrument; the player has to finger the melody, create the rhythm on the chromatic keys, and also not to forget to keep pumping to push the air through the instrument.

What’s odd about the accordion, and other forms such as the concertina, is that it’s a relatively recent instrument—it was invented in Germany in the 1820s—and that makes sense, since it is sufficiently complex that it’s evidently a product of the industrial age. But it spread rapidly, and forms of it are found throughout Europe’s folk music cultures, and beyond to Brazil and North America as well. It’s impossible to imagine Cajun music without the accordion, for example.

My guess is that the reason for its instant success was that in the days before amplification (or electricity, come to that), its sound could fill a room pretty much on its own, at the cafe, bar, or dancehall. And maybe that’s still the case: a New York Times article on the instrument a few years ago quoted a younger player who’d swapped piano for accordion because ‘“it’s pretty hard to carry a piano and travel,” adding that pianos are often out of tune at bars and clubs.’

Perhaps because of its role as a pre-electric instrucment, it’s still strongly associated with folk and ‘world musics’. There are a few exceptions, but it’s never really crossed into the pop and rock mainstream. The New York Times quotes some bands that have used the sound, and it pretty much proves the point. It is a quirkly list: They Might Be Giants, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Beirut, Calexico, Green Day, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly, the Pogues. Springsteen uses it in his lineup when he’s showing off his roots, mostly, as far as I can tell, on songs made famous by Pete Seeger, but also on the much earlier love song to Sandy.

Anyway, Martin Tourish can be seen playing on youtube at a session in Donegal with the guitar player Antoin Bracken. I like this because the first of the two tracks here is slower, and reflects the range in tone you can get from the instrument.

And this calls to mind some of my other accordion favourites.

The first is the English folk classic Morris On, in which a star-studded band plays versions of English folk songs as they might have been heard before Victorian collectors cleaned them up (“Cuckoo’s Nest” has nothing to do with bird-watching.) John Kirkpatrick is the accordion player here, driving along the electric band. Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Barry Dransfield and Dave Mattacks are also in the line-up, and Shirley Collins makes a guest appearance.

And it’s impossible to write about accordion players without mentioning Kepa Junkera, one of the towering figures of modern Basque music, who pays a trikitixa, or Basque diatonic accordion, displayed to great effect on records such as Bilbao 00:00h and Herria.

It happens that it was Kepa Junkera’s birthday at the weeken, and so here are a couple of tracks of his from youtube.

And the second is from his recent record, Trikitixaren historia txiki bat, which translates as “a little history of trikitixa”. This a fine video: as well as having some excellent accordion playing on it, it also reflects the way in which the Basque music culture is a living part of the region’s identity, certainly in the provinces located in Spain. 


“We did him in up country”

28 March 2016

Since it’s Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to share the lyric of “Search and Destroy“, words by Clive James, music by Pete Atkin, in which the Easter story is reimagined as a laconic report about the end of a successful 20th century counter-terrorist operation.

James, who is an outstanding lyric writer, has written better songs than this, but there’s something to admire about the way the final stanza locates the story conclusively and then punctures it decisively:

The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock/ About a spook who rolls away the rock/
At which point golden boy walks out alive/ We’re bumping them all off as they arrive.

One can imagine the likes of Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck being delighted about the way things turned out here.

Search and destroy

I'm glad to say we're mopping up up here
I'm sending you today's report in clear
Security's no problem now at all
You just pick up the phone and make a call

     We should have done all this back at the beginning
     And never let the clowns think they were winning

We took a month to crack their second man
But when he talked the strudel hit the fan
He named eleven leaders who we shot
And then the top guy's girl who we've still got
The chick was tough and held out for a week
But spilled a bibful when we made her speak
We picked his mother up and worked on her
He came in on his own and there you were

     We should have nailed the first ones when we found them
     Before all the mystique built up around them

We never gave the local heat a chance
To get him on their own and make him dance
We did him in up-country, bombed the cave
And made the whole damn mountainside his grave
The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock
About a spook who rolls away the rock
At which point golden boy walks out alive
We're bumping them all off as they arrive

     And that winds up this dreary exhibition
     A total waste of time and ammunition


‘The Cavalry incident’

Of course, Clive James is in good company here. The radical journalist Claud Cockburn recalled in his memoir I Claud rewriting the Easter story in the early 1930s as a parody of The Times’ Berlin reporter Pugge, who tended to see the streetfighting going on in Berlin in somewhat simple terms. This is how Cockburn described it in the book:

It was a level-headed estimate studded with well-tried Times’ phrases. ‘Small disposition here,’ cabled this correspondent, ‘attach undue importance protests raised certain quarters result recent arrest and trial leading revolutionary agitator followed by what is known locally as “the Cavalry incident”.’ The despatch was obviously based on an off-the-record interview with Pontius Pilate. It took the view that, so far from acting harshly, the Government had behaved with what in some quarters was criticized as ‘undue clemency’. It pointed out that firm Government action had definitely eliminated this small band of extremists, whose doctines might otherwise have represented a serious threat for the future.

The youtube clip at the top shows Atkin—who is currently, thankfully, recovering after being hit by a bus in Bristol—performing “Search and Destory” solo in Sheffield.

The recorded version is on the Pete Atkin reord Lakeside Sessions Vol. 2, which is available as a CD online or via iTunes. Or if you want to play it yourself, the chords are here.