I loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past. ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard. The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’. Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format. People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.
Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.
The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history. So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment. Here, at least, we have the real people talking. Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.
Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’. People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War. This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.
‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Grayson Perry is always worth listening to. I loved his television series about identity and the exhibitions that have emerged. I also enjoyed his Reith lectures so I was keen to read about his views on modern masculinity. This book sets out his perspective on male behaviour. The list of negative factors is high and I can see some of these traits in myself but the answers are more elusive. The book is still enjoyable, though, even with some contradictory features: at one point he praises National Service as a rite of passage for young men while also decrying the violence that seems to be latent in all males. He sees gender equality as a good thing but National Service targeted only young men.
The illustrations are amusing, as you would expect and I was struck by the fact that one double page spread was more eloquent than the narrative on the pages that led up to it.
Obviously, he has a certain outsider perspective since he dresses as a young girl as part of his persona. He does not use this as a special platform from which to view manhood, rather he is clear about the masculine traits he sees in himself. However, as a transvestite he has developed an ability to observe men from a different angle.
The status quo for males is not healthy for men or women and this is an attempt to draw attention to it. I read it because Grayson Perry always has something worthwhile to say. At the end, I should have been more satisfied with clearer points for action. After all, recognising the need to win or to dominate every situation is only recognising the problem, not solving it.
This is another Charles Causley poem that I love. His ability to distill messages from small moments is impressive. The musicality of the poem helps to keep it in the mind and adds to the sense that the observer is being misled over the nature of the show in front of them.
My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear
My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.
And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.
They watched as for the Queen it died.
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
‘Now, roly-poly﹗’ ‘Somersault’
And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.
They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin’s aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.
The poetry of Charles Causley is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book is just right as a ‘coffee table’ book! The pictures are amazing and the page layout uses the illustrations to good effect to give an overview of the British Empire over a hundred year period from 1850. Each chapter has a theme exploring the century when the Empire was at its height. Actually, the book does touch on the declining years as well, in part because Imperial attitudes continued long after the Empire had metamorphosed into the Commonwealth. Sport, the role of British public schools, the military and trade all have chapters which show how the Empire was built and sustained.
I am fascinated by British Empire history, not just the idea of a small nation crossing the world and building countries in its own image but also the idea of a country that was influenced and altered because of its fascination with far away places.
Ashley Jackson has written a very good overview of the century when Empire was at its height. The sense of entitlement can be seen in the selection of images; advertisements, book covers and magazine articles all show that the Empire attitude felt itself to be beyond question. It is striking to see the attitudes of some of the subject people who view Britain (or England) as a child views a parent. Coffee table book by nature and probably design, the book is still worth reading in its entirety. The text is as illuminating as the pictures.
My favourite chapter was the one that covered popular culture. Many of the books were ones I read as I grew up with the imagery and messages of Empire even though I was born after the period covered here; the books were still here on the shelves in the London libraries I frequented in the 60s searching for a wider world I longed to visit. It took a long time for Empire attitudes to fade away.
‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 2014 film from Germany explores an eye opening period of recent history. The story follows young state prosecuting lawyer, Johann Radmann. In the course of his work, he comes across a journalist who is trying to draw the attention of the authorities to the fact that former Auschwitz guards are walking around free, despite their cruel actions in the war. No member of the prosecuting team will take the case seriously. For many, the truth of the matter is too close to home.
Young Herr Radmann may be at the start of his career, but he takes up the case. He is encouraged by the Attorney General to dig deep. He takes this on and will not let it drop even when faced by hostility by his superiors in the law, politics and the police. Once camp survivors have been tracked down, and their stories relayed to a disbelieving Radmann and his secretary, the need to bring perpetrators to justice grows.
The eye-opening aspect for me was the very idea that the general public knew so little of the concentration camp called Auschwitz and what went on there. The film starts with a camp survivor seeing an ex- guard he recognised working as a teacher in a school. The shock of seeing these guards at large and accepted as valued members of society is the motivating factor in trying to get the matter to court. There are many who resent a young person making judgements on their actions and what they went through.
Radmann tries to track down Mengele, especially after he has been told that the sadistic doctor makes frequent visits back to family in Germany; an enterprise with which many levels of authority collude. Yet Mengele is protected while others are not and it is the others who end up in court. The American authorities open their files for the young prosecutor but only after advising him not to open the can of worms; Germany is a country trying to recover from a trauma. This is the central point of the film: should the country be allowed to forget when living in it are citizens who cannot move on and cannot forget.
The film ends with the start of the trial. Today, we know about the atrocities of a regime at camps such as Auschwitz but it is only because a country was forced to acknowledge its past. This film is a reminder that it is often individuals who make the difference. Radmann did not give up, even when the most difficult is posed. What did your father do in the war?
‘Labyrinth of Lies’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Back in the 80s the BBC broadcast two series of ‘The Chinese Detective’ with David Yip in the central role of John Ho, a keen policeman in London’s East End who has to solve crimes as well as battle the racism of his bosses.
It was a time when new police dramas were appearing, each with an ‘angle’ that made them distinct. The angle for this series is obvious but the distinction of being British Chinese did not last much beyond the first few episodes. There was a running sub- plot about clearing the name of Ho’s father who had been wrongly convicted of a crime years before. The suggestion was that his father took the blame because of his minority status.
In most episodes, and in series two there was no other Chinese face to be had, and very few faces characters that were not white- strange, really as this was London’s East End!
I had seen David Yip on stage a few years before and it was great to see him as the first British Chinese actor in a lead role. I watched the episodes again many years later as a box set and loved seeing the old East End scenes, in the years before the area was transformed. The idea of a maverick police officer, ignoring procedures and protocol to solve a crime is somewhat tired now, and may have been then, but it was still an enjoyable experience to revisit old times.
‘The Chinese Detective’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The best thing about reading A Level textbooks for history is the knowledge that there is no exam at the end of it. Add to that the fact that there is no course work either! For both of these reasons studying units of the History curriculum for A Level is pure joy. Maybe this is what education used to be like before politicians got involved. Maybe studying for the sake of it is what is needed to produce good learners. I should not like to deny the students seeking validation the experience of exams but, for me, those days are over.
The A Level textbooks continue to provide the right level at which to access high quality information on a topic or period in history. The Access to History series I have used also directs you to particular historians if you want to study specific areas in greater depth.
I started a couple of years ago with a unit on the USA involvement in Asia after the Second World War, particularly in Korea and Vietnam. Since then I have studied a unit on Presidents of the USA in the later half of the Twentieth Century (but I did this before the last Presidential election), a unit on the Indian fight for independence and, most recently, a unit on Germany from defeat in 1945 to reunification.
I studied British and European history for my own A Level back in the 70s, before many of the events in these books had even taken place! This, though, is the way to study history without tears. I recommend it.