I first read Nigel Barley’s account of his early anthropology field work in the 80s, not long after it was published in paperback. I read it again recently; my new regime of picking books by random cards threw up ‘re-read a book from the shelf’ and this was the one I chose.
The strangest thing was that I remembered it as a very funny book but, on this re-reading, I could not find the comedy at all. It was still a worthwhile reading since most of the substance I had completely forgotten.
Nigel Barley entered field work among the Dowayo people of Cameroon in Africa. The book shows the reality of life in the field and the extent to which the very cultural differences being studied can, themselves, cause problems with conducting the research. He spent a year among the people learning about their culture, something which was built around the concept of becoming a man through circumcision. He also shows how hard it is to complete a study without affecting the community by his very presence. He writes well on the contradictions of ‘them watching me while me watching them’!
I was amused at the way Barley decided on the Duwayo people for his study. It owed more to the idea that other parts of the world were ‘already taken’ or tied up in war or strife. His ‘choice’ was a good one, though, since the differences were suitably remarkable from the tonal language to the extreme style of circumcision. His study of the people is less frustrating that his dealing with the state bureaucracy; he needs to stay on the right side of the law to obtain the permits and visas necessary to stay. After 18 months, leaving is also a bureaucratic process!
I was glad to re-read the book and was amazed that I remembered so little of the detail, remembering instead the theme and tone of the book. It made me wonder how many other books on my shelf would also stand a second go at reading them.
In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
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?
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?
This 1996 film from Czech film-maker Jan Sverak is a wonderful exploration of how a life can change and find meaning in an unexpected way. The director’s father Zdenek plays the central role of Louka, a dedicated bachelor who earns his living as a cellist, or struggles to by playing at funerals; his previous job with an orchestra was lost when he was considered to be politically unreliable. This is Czechoslovakia in the late 80s and, although the Soviet bloc is disintegrating, the regime is still a totalitarian one.
Louka struggles to make a living and agrees to marry a Russian woman for cash. Things go wrong when she uses her new citizenship status to esacpe to the West, leaving her five-year old son behind. The boy is the Kolya of the title.
The story is one of a growing bond between man and boy, despite the language difficulties and the other problems of an inexperienced bachelor trying to look after a young boy. What becomes clear, though, is the sense that both need each other. For Louka, in particular, the change to his life is positive; he finds purpose in the role of parent.
Towards the end of the film, the events of the late 80s in the Eastern bloc affect both man and boy. The ending plays cleverly on the idea of freedom and loss, for both individuals and groups.
The film is never sentimental but it is affecting. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have been trying to remember the title of a television drama I saw back in the 80s with Harvey Fierstein and Stockard Channing which looked at the effect of a man’s death from AIDS related illness on his partner, former wife and son.
The play had a significant effect on me, back then and it came to mind again recently only I could not remember the title. On line research has shown that it was called ‘Tidy Endings’ and was based on Fierstein’s own theatre play, ‘On Tidy Endings’.
The action takes place in the confined space of Arthur’s apartment to which Marion brings her son. The boy can barely look at Arthur and this is significant as the play develops. The connection between man and woman is a man who has recently died. She was his wife and he was the lover he left her for. In part, they have gathered to sort out his effects. As they do so, the conflicting emotions emerge and the fragile bond between the two people who loved the same man is tested.
I love both Harvey Fierstein and Stockard Channing so this was a real treat. It would have been an amazing play to have seen on the stage but I settled for this television version. As they complete their arrangements, it is the son who utters the words of reconciliation although he is not fully aware that his words are healing.
Directed by the great Gavin Millar, this television play is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I saw this movie one late night in an Oxford cinema back in the early 80s. The film. itself, was released in 1971 but I saw it when I was a student, having first read the novel by Thomas Mann. I was always keen to see a performance by Dirk Bogarde and I was fascinated by the fact that he turned his back on a career in popular films, he chose an art house route, one that involved him in great work like this picture.
It was directed by Visconti so the visuals are amazing. The subject matter of the novella translates well to film since dialogue is at a minimum and the interior monologue becomes slow moments of focus on expressions. Bogarde’s face is the most important ‘tool’ in the film. The central conceit is that the main character, a composer in Venice to recuperate, observes a pretty boy with his family of older sisters and mother and becomes fixated with him since he is a thing of beauty.
The difficulty of translating this to film is that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and the final version has to reflect one person’s vision. Yet Bjorn Andreson, chosen for his looks, does a good job of looking like a pretty young man might in the early years of the twentieth century. What is convincing about the film is the notion that an artist can be transfixed by beauty.
The ending is tragic but as the whole film has a melancholic feel, somewhat at odds with the theme of artistic beauty. ‘Death in Venice’, directed by Luchino Visconti is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?