I heard Jonathan Dean, the author of this excellent book, speak at the Bath Festival this year. Having heard him talk about identity and nationality I was keen to read his story of a search into family history; his grandfather and great- grandfather had both been refugees in their early lives. What makes this book stand out from others of a similar vein is the background in which he is writing. The UK referendum on EU membership has changed the way we talk about belonging and foreigners. There is a new found assertiveness among those who voted Leave for saying what they think about people who are different. This raises questions which Jonathan Dean uses in his exploration of his own family: would they be welcome now? Would Britain accept people fleeing for their lives or does the fact that modern refugees mostly have different coloured skin make a difference?
Using his grandfather’s diaries and letters and his great- grandfather’s memoir, the author shows that leaving home is never easy. Trying to make a new life in a new country is full of difficulties. What does it mean to fit in?
Throughout the book, he traces their steps, taking in significant places on both men’s journeys. Heinz, his grandfather fled Vienna for Britain before the start of the Second World War. With his brother, he left his parents behind to be sent to concentration camps. Being Jewish, the need to escape to safety was obvious but they had to go without their parents. Heinz’s story is one of becoming British. He stayed here and raised his family as British.
David, his great- grandfather, lived out his life in the Vienna from which Heinz fled. But this was not where he was from. Just as his son made Britain his home, the father found sanctuary in Austria as a refugee from a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine. It is one of the fascinating aspects of this book that he returned to live in Vienna after the concentration camp experience, living among people who had been happy to see him carted off.
The book is an important one. The rise of a new nationalism is fed by the Leave result of the referendum but casual xenophobia should not be allowed a free ride. This book reminds us of the humane reasons for refuge and the fact that for many people seeking asylum is a necessity, not a choice.
‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In Bath, so off to the Holburne Museum to see their exhibition of paintings by artists associated, by marriage or birth, with Pieter Bruegel. I have seen several Bruegel’s in galleries in different cities over the years but it was a treat to see these paintings collected together. The connections between father, sons and others were well made.
The museum is rightly proud of its collection of works by Pieter Breughel the younger. ‘Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ has been restored and now firmly attributed to the artist. The work that captured my eye the most was ‘The Procession to Calvary’. This was a painting to spend time in front of… lots of time to take in the detail and wonder at the way
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ has long been one of my all time favourite paintings and this work is similar in the way the import of one event is shown in contrast to the fact that most people are oblivious or disinterested in it. Two paintings: one by the father and one by the son. They both resonate.
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.
It is rare that I think any version of a book is better than the original. Stories which are told as a novel are created in that form for a reason and versions, for screen or stage, are often derivative rather than expansive. So, I was blown away by this theatrical interpretation by Simon Stephens of Mark Haddon’s original novel.
The 2003 novel is narrated by a young man called Christopher. He does not tell lies, not as he says because he is good but because he has asperger’s syndrome. His interest is in numbers and space. When he finds his neighbour’s dead dog in the night, he wants to find out who killed it. His investigations lead him to uncover family secrets, not least the fate of his mother who he believed died two years before.
Christopher’s view of the world is one without pretence or metaphor. He may not understand the nuance of social interaction but his straightforward approach to people allows him to find the truth that is obscured for others.
The novel is brought to life by an ensemble that takes on the neighbours, family members and teachers that surround Christopher. Their presence on the stage throughout the action adds to the sense that others understand the world better than Christopher does. The stage is lit by grids of LED lights demarcating acting spaces and adding to the impression of a mind that is differently wired.
In the performance I saw the part of Christopher was played by Sam Newton, affecting as the young man who struggles to navigate a world he does not fully understand. In the end, the play is about difference, growing up and identity. I read the novel when it first appeared. I enjoyed it and I am glad I read it first but this production blew me away. It really was a case of a book coming to life.
I make a point of seeing every Matthew Bourne production I can. This show called ‘Early Adventures’ put together three dance pieces from the choreographer’s early career. As I came to his work quite late, I am so pleased to have the opportunity to see the earlier pieces.
‘Town and Country’ is a work of two halves, as suggested by the title. The ‘Town’ section was my favourite suggesting the British post-war world of Noel Coward and films such as ‘Brief Encounter’. Bourne’s talent lies partly in referencing cultural worlds in vignettes while building a sense of one story. He also represents love between two men without fuss. Love is where it falls and this is always made clear in Bourne’s work.
The other pieces, including the ‘Country’ half of ‘Town and Country’, are as much fun. The dancers exude a sense of joy as they perform and, whatever the production I have always come out of a Matthew Bourne work wondering why I never took up dance!
I saw this film by director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert at the Bath Film Festival. It is based on the book ‘Colour Bar’ by Susan Williams and tells the story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams who met in post war London and fell in love. The film centres on their love for each other and the difficulties this caused, not only because he was black and she was white in a society that was shocked by any mixing between races but also because he was heir to the throne of Bechuanaland and whoever became his wife became Queen.
It is the love story that is most affecting and cinema always does a good job of showing the detail of the period. London in the 40s looked a bit grim but Bechuanaland looked amazing in ways that I could not picture for myself when reading Susan Williams’s book.
David Oyelowo played Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike played Ruth Williams and made me believe they would have moved heaven and earth to be together. When everything was stacked against them, they continued in their quest to be married and take their place in Africa. This would be enough of a challenge without the forces of the British Empire working against them. As the film shows, the need to keep mineral rich South Africa sweet was the major reason the Labour government would not help the couple. I was pleased to see a young Tony Benn and an older Fenner Brockway portrayed as principled politicians eager to help the cause.
The couple were pawns in a political game, not helped that Churchill did not keep his promise when he returned to government. Yet, they won through and went on to lead Botswana to independence and Seretse Khama assumed the presidency by democratic election. Jack Davenport had the difficult job of playing a stiff servant of Empire but did it well, just stopping short of villain status. The despicable role of the Church of England in their story was missed and it the agony of their years apart, when Seretse returned to London to negotiate his way to the throne, were conflated into a few scenes.
However, this film was a triumph of storytelling of a period of our history that needs to be discussed rather than ignored. It would be good to think that such a circumstance would be greeted differently now, in modern Britain. Who knows!
I was fortunate to see the great actor Richard Johnson play Atticus Finch in the play version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when it came to Bath. Written by Christopher Sergel, the play worked best as a courtroom drama as this is the setting where the skill of Atticus Finch, as an attorney, is seen to its best advantage.
The scenes with Jem and Scout were less well realised but it would take very good casting to be able to live up to the book or the film. In any case, the drama is in the court. This is the place where the racism of the time and place was exposed yet stood intact. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt and the arguments expressed, although elegant to the ears of the liberal listener, could not overturn years of tradition entrenched by fear.
Interestingly, my memories of the play centre completely on Johnson as Atticus. I have little memory of the other actors or scenes which were dramatically expressed in book and film.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?