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 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1989 film from Canada is a charming exploration of the creative process. It follows a group of actors who put on a passion play in Montreal. The church authorities take against the main actor, playing Jesus, and, as he and his group deal with the hostility, his life starts to mirror that of Jesus himself.
It is a French- Canadian film from director Denys Arcand with Lothaire Bluteau in the main role of Daniel. At the start of the film Daniel is encouraged to modernise the passion play to bring a new sense of purpose to a tired format. It is the hope of the priest that there will be renewed interest in the play as a result. This mission inspires Daniel who throws himself into research only to come up with an interpretation that offends the catholic church. As the play continues, the church resorts to stronger tactics to stop it.
The film works well when it mirrors the gospel story. Daniel collects his troupe of actors from among the less desirable of society, he is accepted and then rejected by the authorities, he has an outburst when he thinks others have desecrated his craft. The ending is the most problematic because of the obvious links with the bible but it is a satisfactory way of drawing the film to an end.
‘Jesus of Montreal’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
‘I Killed My Mother’ is a 2009 film by French Canadian Xavier Dolan. He directed and acted in the film which he wrote at the age of 16. It shows a young man’s relationship with his mother which is difficult at the best of times. They live together without his father, who he rarely sees and the strain between mother and son is shown from the beginning.
Hubert has an argument with his mother, Chantale, in the car on the way to school. leading to her chucking him out to walk the rest of the way. At school he declares that his mother has died, a lie that is soon found out. The teacher tells him he ‘killed his mother’.
Hubert is gay and in a relationship with his best friend Antonin. He has not told his mother about his sexuality and in the film’s most poignant scene, the mothers of both boys meet at the hairdresser. Antonin’s mother inadvertently lets out Hubert’s secret not realising that he has not been open. This hurts most of all. The honesty between Antonin and his mother and the acceptance by her of her son’s boyfriend acts as a contrast to Hubert’s home life, even though it is not the fact of his being gay that hurts Chantale but the fact that he didn’t or couldn’t tell her.
His father turns up at Chantale’s instigation and the parents inform their son that he is to be sent to a boarding school for some discipline. Hubert is furious but goes only to find a boy there who is highly attractive. His anger continues to build and when he runs away we see the frustration of his mother at trying to cope on her own with a selfish son. It is Antonin who delivers the home truths to is boyfriend while declaring that he still loves him. Few of the characters are likeable but there is humour in the film and it is easy to sympathise with the people who find the ones they love impossible at times.
‘I Killed My Mother’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Thinking about the Italian film ‘Caesar Must Die’ led me back to this Canadian film from 1996, also set in a prison. Here the story within the story is a gay romance but it soon becomes clear why this story is being performed by this group of prisoners and to this audience.
The Bishop is summoned to the prison to hear confession from one of the inmates who is dying. The prisoner is known to the bishop since they were childhood friends. Instead of performing an ecclesiastical duty, the other prisoners lock him in the room with them and then proceed to stage a play which depicts events from the past. The story shows their shared past when they were coming to terms with their sexuality.
One, the boy who finds himself in prison as an adult, is involved in a romantic relationship with a friend. The other, he who grew up to be a bishop, is repressed and anxious to distance himself from his feelings. The inmates take the roles of all characters, including the female ones, and force the bishop to witness.
The film moves cleverly between prison and a wider world of the past as the scenes unfold before us. We are kept aware that this is a play we are watching, the actors have makeshift props and costumes, but the walls fall away to show us the scenes in the world beyond the prison and we move between these two throughout.
The path of love does not run smoothly in this story and there is a violent end, the reason why one of them is in prison. However, this is not a confession by the prisoner but an exposure of the truth and the bishop’s role in the crime means he is the most uncomfortable audience member of all.
The film by director John Greyson is wonderfully creative. The constraints of prison are shown but not maintained when the camera pans out, yet we do not lose sight of the fact that prisoners are the actors here.
‘Lillies’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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?
The British- Canadian poet Robert Service comes in handy when I find myself getting worked up about the state of the world. This poem, over others, serves to remind me to keep some sense of perspective.
Just think! some night the stars will gleam
Upon a cold, grey stone,
And trace a name with silver beam,
And lo! ’twill be your own.
That night is speeding on to greet
Your epitaphic rhyme.
Your life is but a little beat
Within the heart of Time.
A little gain, a little pain,
A laugh, lest you may moan;
A little blame, a little fame,
A star-gleam on a stone.
Robert W. Service
The poetry of Robert W. Service is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?