Margaret MacMillan is an historian worth reading and listening to! I heard her speak at a Literature Festival but had previously read three of her books, the latest of which is an exploration of the way personality can shape history or vice versa.
What fascinated me about her book ‘History’s People’ was the way MacMillan made connections between different figures based on sets of characteristics. When exploring the concept of leadership she explores the lives of Bismarck in Germany, MacKenzie King from her native Canada, and FDR in the USA.
She marks out the risk takers, some constructive and others destructive, and the big thinkers and dreamers. She has big personalities here but also lesser known figures who were the observers and, most often, the diary writers of the past.
I am interested in the notion that events shape people as much as people shape events. The skill of Margaret MacMillan as an historian is to show us the wider context in which people functioned. Some of the names in this book did indeed shape their times but others were in the right place at the right time and rose to the occasion. The figures I admired the most were the women, like Fanny Parkes and Elizabeth Simcoe and unlike Margaret Thatcher, who took their own paths despite society’s expectations.
Listening to Margaret MacMillan speak, some months after reading the book sent me back to explore again. ‘History’s People’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
John Schlesinger was an amazing director. This film from 1971 tells the story of a young bisexual artist who has a relationship with a middle aged doctor called Daniel Hirsch at the same time as he carries on a relationship with an older woman called Alex. Both Alex and Daniel know of the existence of the other but each puts up with the situation rather than push the young man to make a choice.
As the great Peter Finch played Dr Hirsch and the equally great Glenda Jackson played Alex the film had all the requisite factors to make it a great one. The subject matter was controversial for the times since it involved a gay relationship but it also portrayed a gay man at ease with himself and his sexuality.
All three main characters live a middle class existence at a time when class structures in Britain were stronger. The clothes and hairstyles were of their time but show levels of affluence enjoyed by only some in that society. The Jewish background of Daniel Hirsch is shown to emphasise his success within his family but also his normality. This was in itself a radical thing to portray since we have a gay character who is not tortured or suffering because he is homosexual.
The young artist, played by Murray Head, does not feel constrained by his relationships and plans a future for himself in the USA leaving both his lovers to move on without him.
Part of the film was shot in Greenwich Park, London, near where I lived. At the time the time the film was released, I was too young to see it in the cinema. I watched it some years later on television but that kiss between Peter Finch and Murray Head was an important one for me growing up.
‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book is the third part of the ‘Surya Trilogy’ by Jamila Gavin. Set in India in 1951 the family of Govind and Jhoti and their son and daughter, Marvinder and Jaspal, are reunited following the separations we witnessed in the previous two books. Yet they remain separated from each other since they each try to make a life in a newly independent country. Govind retreats into a traditional role as he tried to reform a family he abandoned when he left for England. Marvinder struggles to accept a dutiful role as daughter but cannot forget the relative freedom she enjoyed in post war London and, in particular, she cannot forget one boy who was so welcoming to her back then.
Jaspal, always the one most affected by the upheaval of partition, finds an identity in his religion. What marked him out as different in London becomes his point of honour to the extent of rejecting his childhood Muslim friend.
In many ways, this book brings the threads of the earlier books together even though it does not resolve all the issues of the characters and we are left unclear about what future there is for the brother and sister in the new India. We have only glimpses of the British characters who played a prominent part in the previous novels but one of the minor characters from the earlier books is instrumental in bringing the trilogy to a close.
‘The Track of the Wind’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
It is time for another ee cummings poem! Here is one I first came across when young myself.
you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young, whatever life you wear
It will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love
whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time
that you should ever think,may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation’s dead undoom.
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
The poetry of ee cummings is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The second novel in Jamila Gavin’s ‘The Wheel of Surya’ trilogy is fascinating since most of the action takes place in post war London where Sikh children Marvinder and Jaspal have found their father but discovered that he is not the worthy man they thought he was.
The novel shows different cultures and different lives as they weave in and out of the events leading up to the partition of India and Pakistan. It also shows the effect of the war on people and places. The London where Jaspal runs with his gang is war damaged and reduced to rubble. The kindly doctor befriended by Marvinder, attracted to the playing of his violin, has lost his family in the holocaust. Both brother and sister miss their father, in prison for his wrong doing, but unsure of the fate of their mother back in India.
Throughout the story, we see the effect of a different culture on the children. For Jaspal, his inner rage surfaces as a need to fight but Marvinder finds solace in music, especially the violin. Both are shaped by Britain at the same time as being identified as foreign because of their religion and appearance. It is a book about being torn between two worlds.
Characters from the first book in the trilogy return and scenes set in India make us hope, like Marvinder and Jaspal, that the mother is still alive.
‘The Eye of the Horse’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am a fan of the work of Brian Patten. There are so many poems of his that I like that they must each take their turn to be my current favourite. Here is the latest to have that status.
One Another’s Light
I do not know what brought me here
Away from where I’ve hardly ever been and now
Am never likely to go again.
Faces are lost, and places passed
At which I could have stopped,
And stopping, been glad enough.
Some faces left a mark,
And I on them might have wrought
Some kind of charm or spell
To make their futures work,
But it’s hard to guess
How one person on another
Works an influence.
We pass, and lit briefly by one another’s light
Hope the way we go is right.
This television series from Germany is a fascinating insight into the world of East Germany. I watched a version with an English translation of the commentary as my German is not good enough to follow completely in the original language.
The series was made up of seven films each covering an aspect of daily life in the DDR. The sub-title, ‘A History of the Other Germany’, suggests that West Germany was better known to us in the west and life behind the Iron Curtain was, for me, something of a mystery.
The films were made in 1993 when the people most affected by the regime were able to talk. What struck me was the mixture of the historic and the mundane. Daily life is daily life wherever you live, regardless of political regime. Some complaints were about the restrictions of living in the country but others were about the loss of things since the unification of Germany. Of most importance, though, were the voices of people who felt the full force of the state. Some actively sought to be provocative but there were also the people who did not understand why they had fallen out of favour.
As the series progressed, I got the sense that any country which is so scared of its own people that it had to suppress any dissent does not deserve to survive. This point was most clear in the episode which explored artistic expression in the DDR. I also gained a clear idea that the country was not as independent as it pretended; the power from the Soviet Union acted as big brother on the playground. When fortunes changed there, the writing was on the wall for East Germany.
History is told by the victors but this series is worth seeing because it does not take a simplistic approach to the subject; many voices are heard and no easy answers are given. The final moments of the last episode prove these points. Figures, famous and not, provide a one sentence answer to the question of what the DDR meant to them. It was a powerful ending to a fascinating series.