In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
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?
This book by Benjamin Law takes a look at how different Asian societies treat and view gay people. As a gay man himself, he sets off to experience different societies from Bali’s tourist directed gay services to Japan’s popular culture exposure of gay people. The result is a book that is funny at times but ultimately serious in its assessment at how the gay minority presents itself in different places and how it is viewed.
The journey starts in Bali which offers services to the gay tourist, including resorts that are exclusively for gay clientele. Around these resorts young Balinese gather as sex working can be lucrative; not all of the young men are gay themselves, it is a ‘day job’… or more often a night one.
The journey moves on to take in China, Japan, Malaysia and India. It is interesting that each country has a different expression of gay culture. In China the view of the authorities is apparently neutral but most gay life is online and a lot of self censorship goes on to avoid being shut down. In Japan, gays are out in the open but it seems that the more flamboyant, the better. As Law shows, in the end it seems that the great Japanese public accepts gays as long as they are feminine and in the entertainment industry. Trying to be out in any other way is still hard.
Benjamin Law is an Australian and he travels as a gay man who has no trouble with his identity. This book is a reminder that some places have a long way to go but it also demonstrates the power of the human spirit. Even in the hardest places, he found people who were not going to hide their sexuality.
‘Gaysia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the novel ‘The Orientalist and the Ghost’ by Susan Barker when I read it last year so I was keen to read her latest, published in 2015. ‘The Incarnations’ has a central spine of a story concerning taxi driver Wang and his relationships with members of his family including his wife and daughter and father and step- mother. Someone is leaving him strange messages in the form of written stories, though, and through these stories we learn a lot about Chinese history.
We know a few things from the start: Wang has fallen into the job of taxi driver and life is a bit of an effort for him; his relationships are all fraught; his early promise has not been realised. The messages discomfort him, not only because he doesn’t know who sent them but because they claim an intimacy he rejects.
Each ‘story’ told within the novel comes from a different era. We go from the Tang dynasty to the upheaval of the cultural revolution in the 60s. Each story is also about two people, how they meet and how they part. As the writer suggests to Driver Wang, he is one of the two. The writer is the other!
Finding out who the writer is occupies Wang’s time and contributes to his feelings of victim hood and, just like Wang, the reader is left guessing until the end. My knowledge of Chinese history needs increasing but the novel was engaging. I admire Susan Barker’s ambition and look forward to her next book.
After an absence of about thirty years, I took the journey back to Oxford to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum. This anthropology museum remains a fascinating place and was just as I remembered it. I am sure it has been through many changes but entering through the doors at the back of the University’s Natural History Museum is like stepping back in time.
I remember the national museums in London looking just like the Pitt Rivers in my youth but modern changes and views about accessibility and communication have resulted in better displays with less crowded display cabinets. Here, the artefacts are packed in and the dark rimmed cabinets look as if they are from a different age. There is a sense that the items on display speak for themselves and do not need cards of information for the public to understand.
The whole world is here, or so it seems. Artefacts are grouped by concept rather than country but all continents of the world are represented with items from Africa and Asia being the most stunning. It was hard to see the wood for the trees at times and it was the overall impression of awe and wonder rather than individual pieces that I found stunning. However, I was struck by the beauty of the Benin palace plaques. The rest… it washed over me, in the most positive possible sense.
The collection was started by Lieutenant General Pitt Rivers who donated about 15,000 items to the University of Oxford. As was the case with Victorian Empire builders, his easy access to far flung parts of the world enabled him to amass a collection of some size and worth.
The Pitt Rivers Museum is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This British television series from the 80s tells the story of how Britain disengaged from the Empire it had ruled for centuries. The story starts with the Second World War and ends in the early 80s when the Rhodesia question was finally settled.
The series was timely because it managed to capture the voices and opinions of colonial types who were elderly and, mostly, in retirement in the home counties of England. Had the series been made any later, many of the people most closely involved would have passed away.
It was the nature of the Empire, and a symptom of the times, that most of the talking heads were male. What made the series riveting was the fact that both sides were interviewed and, because time had passed, most were candid.
The defeat of the British by the Japanese in Singapore was a pivotal moment in history. It shocked the British but it proved to many countries living under the rule of Great Britain that the mother country was not all powerful and could be removed. When the war was over the time had come test the power of the Empire.
There were forces at home helping the freedom movements, though. Fenner Brockway was interviewed talking about the feelings emerging from the war that you could not fight tyranny in the form of the Nazis only to insist that other people lived under British rule.
Figures such as Gandhi and Nehru feature in the early programmes but their roles as thorns in the side of the powerful were replicated across the world. There were fourteen programmes in the series, each one covering a colonial struggle. It was, like ‘The World at War’, a major television undertaking. If only we saw more like it now.
‘End of Empire’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Tan Twan Eng is another of the books that has lodged itself inside me. Set in the 50s, the 80s and the Second World War, the main protagonist is Yun Ling Teoh, a judge whose time as a prisoner of the Japanese scars her throughout her life. The events of the war and the subsequent struggle for a new country to emerge from the British Empire continue to affect her in her retirement. Having stepped down from the bench she returns to the Cameron Highlands in Malaya where she spent time years before.
In the background is the sister who suffered in the war at the hands of the Japanese. Her fate defines the later years for the judge, a situation made more poignant by the fact that Yun Ling Teoh studied garden design under Nakamura Aritomo, once gardener to the Japanese Emperor. This apprenticeship is part homage to her dead sister who was herself interested in the gardens of the Japanese. Planning a garden and learning at the feet of a great teacher is in many ways part of the healing process, even though she remains conflicted throughout.
Two empires have held the country in their grip and both are shaken off in the 80s section of the story. Other characters appear and illustrate that many and varied are the people who made Malaya their home and sought to build its future. Themes such as colonialism, repression, recovery and identity permeate the novel.
The book won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 as well as the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?