Archive for the 'history' Category

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) 

18 September 2017


I watched Sherlock Homes and the Secret Weapon because that series of films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes were a bit of a mystery to me. They certainly banged them out: 14 were made between 1939 and 1946, and updated to the present, often with the lightest of nods to the Conan Doyle canon.  

Rathbone plays Holmes, Nigel Bruce plays Watson, Moriarty appears, and is killed off a couple of times. But, as in the original, of course, Moriarty never dies. 

In 1942, in Secret Weapon, Holmes has to spring a scientist from Switzerland under the eyes of watching Gestapo agents, and once in London spring him once again from the clutches of Moriarty. Of course, it is a propaganda film. The MacGuffin is a bombsight that the scientist has designed that is far more accurate (yes, I heard it as “bombsite” in the film until I saw it assembled).  

The Conan Doyle reference is to the Dancing Men code, used by the scientists for a critical plot point. Watson is bluff. Lestrade is a comic plodder.

The moment is certainly a spoiler: yes, Holmes foils the plot and saves the scientist and the RAF gets its bombsights. This is from the very end of the film, when Holmes and Watson are watching squadrons of bombers equipped with the sights heading for Germany. (The usefulness of that is for another post on another day). Shakespeare is invoked. But unlike Nolan’s Dunkirk, when audiences first saw this film, in 1942, they didn’t know how things were going to turn out. The TV version I saw had left an advertisement for war bonds on the print they screened, after the credits.

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Film moment #23: Dunkirk (2017)

14 September 2017


I might as well acknowledge from the start that I’m suspicious of Dunkirk, just as I’m suspicious of this year’s Churchill film and suspicious to the point of despair about the about-to-open Victoria & Abdul, no matter how well Judi Dench plays Victoria, again. I’m not sure that the world needs any more cultural objects right now that are basically rehashes of Britain as world power, even if, as Churchill said of Dunkirk at the time, “an evacuation is not a victory”, and, come to that, Christopher Nolan is a consistently interesting film-maker.

Having seen it quite reluctantly, I’m not with those critics who were gushing, or come to that the British writer who hated it

So, on the upside, it is technically interesting, in that Nolan refuses almost all of that tedious backstory stuff that usually clutters up films, especially films in which the characters have a risk of death, and which allows us to attach judgmental labels to them. The illusion he is creating for us is that he is putting us face-to-face in the moment with the characters (although unlike them, we know how it turned out.) This also means it must have one of the shortest scripts of a modern full length film. And Nolan refuses to use CGI, which is laudable, since CGI is clearly the drug that has destroyed Hollywood’s imagination. 

Except: that in telling a story that involved evacuating 50,000 people a day from a beach for a week he clearly hasn’t got enough extras to convey the scale of the operation, and one of the things that attracted Nolan to the story was the scale of the operation. (There are ways around such things. I’m thinking of the visual innovation Edward Dmytrk brought to Crossfire when the shooting schedule didn’t allow for proper lighting set-ups, but Nolan doesn’t opt for this.)

On the downside, I hate films where the music tells me blatantly what I’m supposed to feel. Hans Zimmer’s score plays with the chords of ‘Nimrod’ from the moment it looks like the evacuation plan is going to work, and by the time he’s got to the end he’s gone full Elgar (“Variation 15”). Like I said, enough of that age of empire stuff.

The moment. Nolan sees the film in an elemental way, as being earth, sea and air. The earth is the ‘mole’ or beach area of Dunkirk, protected by two long breakwaters, and as he introduces these elements (pun intended) he adds a caption with their ‘time’ attached to them. The mole is a week–which is how long they have before the Germans overrun the defences. The sea is a day–how long it takes the boats to go there and back. And the air is an hour: the flying time of a Spitfire across the Channel before they run out of a fuel. I’ve never seen a director share with the audience the way their film thinks about time in such a straightforward way. 

   

The Septembers 11th

11 September 2017

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It’s been many times observed that the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 fell on the anniversary of the overthrow in 1973 of the Allende government in Chile, in which the CIA was deeply complicit.

The two events echo around each other. I found an old notebook in which I’d written about reading on the same day both Ariel Dorfman’s book, Exorcising Terror, on the detention of Pinochet in Britain, and articles in Le Monde Diplomatique on the American export of terror.

The engagement by the CIA in the Chilean coup, according to some of the accounts of the torture which followed it, sounds like a set of early rehearsals for the treatment of the detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. And probably in quite a lot of other places in between. The Agency, it would seem, does as much as it thinks its political masters will be willing to turn a blind eye to.

In the same notebook, I also found a quote which offered a different, if related, perspective from the Pakistani-born/British-resident writer Nadeem Aslam, in a short review of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday:

A novelist votes every time he writes a sentence. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a lovely and profoundly serious act of engagement with our age. The collapsing of the Twin Towers on 9/11 gave many people – including, I feel, Saturday’s protagonist Perowne – their first glimpse of another kind of world that had been existing alongside ours for some time. It is almost as though the Towers had been blocking a view.

The image at the top of the post is of Salvador Allende’s glasses, recovered from outside the Moneda Palace after his death. It was taken by Roger Espinosa and is published here under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.

Bernie Gunther, post-war

17 July 2017


I’ve stayed away from Philip Kerr‘s crime novels. This wasn’t because I doubted the universally positive judgment of readers and reviewers as to the excellence of the writing or the depths of the character, Bernie Gunther, but more because you get too much Nazi history in real life, even in 2017, without having to turn to fiction for it. (And maybe I get weary and wary when people compare other writers to Raymond Chandler.) 

So I was pleased to find in a second hand stack in the corner of a cafe a copy of one of his post-war Gunther novels, The One From The Other, set in the ambiguous demi-monde of reconstruction Germany and Austria, with war criminals trying to escape from justice, identity and personal history written in shades of grey, the “Amis” army of occupation resented, and Gunther played for a fool, and painfully, by people who are almost always one step ahead of him. Beautifully plotted, well written. 

The next one, no spoilers, looks to be set in Argentina.  I’m looking forward to finding it. 

The dangers of snap elections

2 June 2017

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Stewart Wood worked with Gordon Brown in late 2007, when as a new Labour party leaders, and therefore a new but unelected Prime Minister, he dithered about calling a General Election, and then decided against. The financial crisis evaporated his poll lead, and he never recovered politically from that.

Wood posted a series of tweets reflecting on that moment through the lens of the difficulties Theresa May is having with her equivalent election, which are worth sharing so they don’t get lost in the Twitter firehose.

Five years on from Brown’s decision not to call with an election, Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride wrote up the day-by-day inside story (in the Telegraph) of how an apparently inevitable decision to go to the polls became a decision not to.

On the other hand, we all should be grateful that Brown was Prime Minister in 2008; he held his nerve, and used his knowledge of economics and history, to make sure that the British banking system didn’t collapse, and helped stiffen the resolve of the  world’s leaders at the height of the crisis. People forget that we were hours away from a collapse of the banking system.

As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote:

What sticks out about that period is how Brown and Alistair Darling were not only acting without a roadmap, they were driving with Cameron and Osborne right on their bumper telling them to do a U-turn. The diagnosis that British banks were dangerously low on capital was correct – but it was the opposite of what most bankers were saying.

Had Brown called an election, and not won, the thought of Cameron trying to make those decisions is frankly terrifying.

The image at the top of the post shows Brown arriving at No. 10 as new Prime Minister in 2007.

Shooting the past

26 March 2017

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There’s a scene in Mark Herman‘s 2008 film The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in which the concentration camp commander plays for his family and officers, by way of an after-dinner entertainment, the Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City. It is a fabricated account of Theresienstadt which portrays life in the camp as a kind of Butlin’s with a dash of Mittel European cafe culture. (23 minutes of rushes survive; there is an extended sequence on youtube.)

In the context of The Boy it is a moment in which a half-fiction is wrapped inside a half-fiction in pursuit of a greater truth. Theresienstadt was briefly converted into a model camp in 1944 as a result of political and diplomatic pressure by the Danish government, which wanted assurances about the well-being of Danish citizens sent there. With hindsight it is interesting that diplomatic pressure by the government of an occupied state had such an effect on the German government during wartime.

Most of the prisoners who did the work of sanitising the camp were shipped out immediately to Auschwitz, including the director of the film Kurt Gerron, a Theresienstadt inmate, and his family, who were murdered on their arrival there. The Nazis thought about distributing the resulting film, but decided against; it’s not clear, at least from some brisk online research, how the rushes were found.

When Herman decided to use sequences from the Theresienstadt film as part of his version of John Boyne’s novel, he found (unsurprisingly) that the surviving prints were old and scratched, and would not have looked good cut into a modern feature film. So they set about re-shooting the Nazis’ propaganda film. There are scenes from this modern shoot on the DVD of the movie. Mark Herman said that re-making it made him feel uncomfortable. I bet it did.

The image of the crew shooting The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Village is a public domain image via Wikipedia.

Tail end Charlies

18 September 2016
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‘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.

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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.

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Image: Wikimedia

 

 

 

Shakespeare in Silver Street

28 April 2016

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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.

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“To be given back your life”

16 September 2015

_48646848_3511975a-2c11-48e9-bf53-76d73ad84431My father-in-law, Denis Robinson, who fought in the Battle of Britain, died some weeks ago. He was in my mind on Battle of Britain Day. At 97, he was the last member of his Squadron (152) that flew in the Battle.

For the Order of Service at his funeral, I edited his long account of how he came to crash-land in Dorset in August 1940, and it seems appropriate to share that here today.

On 8th August 1940, we were returning to RAF Warmwell to refuel and re-arm from a patrol in which we had intercepted the enemy and had used all our ammunition.

Unfortunately, a group of Me109s spotted us and attacked our unprotected rear. The first thing I felt was the thud of bullets hitting my aircraft. In a reflex action I slammed the stick forward as far as it would go. For a brief second my Spitfire stood on its nose and I was looking straight down at Mother Earth, thousands of feet below. I could feel the straps of my Sutton harness biting into my flesh as I entered the vertical with airspeed building up alarmingly. I felt fear mounting. No ammo and an attacker right on my tail.

All this happened in seconds, but now the airspeed was nearly off the clock. I had to pull out and start looking for the enemy. Suddenly the engine stopped. Apparently a bullet in the glycol tank had dispersed all the coolant and even the faithful Merlin could not stand that for long at full power.

By now, my eyes were searching wildly, frantically looking for my adversary, but as often happens in air combat, not a single plane was to be seen. The release of tension as I realised my good fortune is something that cannot be described. If you have been through that experience you know what it is like to be given back your life.

The problems that still confronted me now seemed almost trivial. I experienced this feeling several times during the Battle of Britain and it had a profound effect on me. It somehow changed my value system, so that things that had seemed important before never had the same degree of importance again. Maybe this is what generated the anti-authority behaviour amongst us.

I prepared to bail out and began going through the procedure in my mind. During this I’d got the Spit into a steady glide. I surveyed what I could see of the damage from the cockpit. Not much, apart from a few bullet holes. It worried me to abandon the old bus to certain destruction on to heaven knows what, perhaps a school full of children. Besides, I convinced myself that bailing out was too bloody dangerous. I would stay with her and force land in a suitable field. Full flap and a flare out near the ground achieved a creditable touchdown.

Then suddenly, I felt her going up onto her nose and, I thought, onto her back. With an almighty crash the canopy slammed shut over my head. I grabbed it with all my might and threw it backwards. Now I could see that the aircraft had finished up vertically on its nose, in a ditch I hadn’t seen from the air.

Next day I was back on ops again.

Telling this story helps me to deal with my survival syndrome. It is as though I am speaking for the other chaps who did not make it. One constantly asks: ‘Why did I survive … why did others not?

After he crashed he went back to the field the next day to take the picture that’s at the top of the post. The full-length version of this account can be found at website of the Battle of Britain London Monument.

After his death, my wife – Denis’ daughter – was talking to the curator of one of the Battle of Britain sites. He said he often finished his talks with a phrase from an interview that Denis had given:

I flew 60 sorties and at 22 I had lost my youth…I did not like the killing and did not want to be given medals for killing people.

I usually think that as humans we can empathise with things that are a long way from our experience, if we wish to, however incompletely. But reading his account, and those of other pilots, I think it is impossible to have any understanding of what they went through. And other combatants too, of course. Even the survivors paid a large price.

Making claims

6 June 2015
One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, held at the British Library.

The long history of the Magna Carta turns out to have been a lucky accident, or at least that’s my reading of it from the 800th anniversary exhibition at the British Library. King John signed it to placate a powerful group of barons who had taken up arms against the king in response to his heavy taxation and arbitrary behaviour, and had captured London. Having signed, John immediately cried foul, telling his protector, Pope Innocent III, that he had signed under duress (shades of Charles I, who has his own part in this story.) Innocent promptly issued a Papal Bull annulling the Charter.

Popes being Popes in the Middle Ages, that should have finished it off, except that John died a year later, leaving the 9-year old Henry III on the throne and his advisers needing to appease the barons, with Britain still in a state of civil war. The advisers reissued the Charter in both 1216 and 1217, the second time as part of the peace treaty that ended the civil war.

But the real breakthrough came in 1225, when Henry, no longer a minor, issued the fourth version of the Magna Carta in exchange for the grant of taxes, which also created a connection between representation and taxation.Importantly, he also stated that he did this with his “spontaneous and free will”, and affixed the Royal Seal.

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