This terrific novel by Helen Dunmore reminded me so much of ‘The Railway Children’ although it is adults who take centre stage in this story of the fall- out from espionage in 50s Britain.  It is an ‘ordinary’ family that suffers when things go wrong for the husband; his wife and three children have to pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of public exposure.

Simon Callington is a man trying to escape his past but whose friendships threaten his new life with his wife and children in a comfortable corner of London.  In particular, his past association with Giles causes him trouble.  They were lovers when Simon was a student with Giles, as the older man, enjoying the patronage he can bestow.  They have moved on but the friendship continues… and when Giles presumes on this friendship it starts a chain of events that lead to disgrace.

Lily, Simon’s wife, has already made a new start in life when her mother brought her from Germany to England and safety in an earlier era.  Lily knows what it is like to start again with nothing.  She did not think this would be her fate twice in her life.

Simon, Lily and Giles all feature prominently in a novel which reminds us of 50s attitudes to outsiders.  The paranoia around cold war spying adds another dimension to the suffering of one family.  As the novel moves towards its end, I was reminded again of the connection with ‘The Railway Children’ and I hoped for that dramatic moment (from the film at least) of a father being reunited with his children.  Life is rarely so neat and tidy, though.

Acting with integrity and honour is an important theme in the book.  Simon’s past has not been shared with his wife and the effect on her and his children is central in his thinking as he faces disgrace.  Lily is the most impressive figure here, her determination to survive and to shield her son and daughters from the shame.  1950s Britain fares less well; the sense of who can and should belong in our society is one of the less admirable features of that era.

‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


The Cold War

BlogColdWarI 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?

A Level History Without Tears

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.

Das War die DDR

This television series from Germany is a fascinating insight into the world of East Germany.  I watched a version with an English translation of the commentary as my German is not good enough to follow completely in the original language.

The series was made up of seven films each covering an aspect of daily life in the DDR. The sub-title, ‘A History of the Other Germany’, suggests that West Germany was better known to us in the west and life behind the Iron Curtain was, for me, something of a mystery.

The films were made in 1993 when the people most affected by the regime were able to talk.  What struck me was the mixture of the historic and the mundane.  Daily life is daily life wherever you live, regardless of political regime.  Some complaints were about the restrictions of living in the country but others were about the loss of things since the unification of Germany.  Of most importance, though, were the voices of people who felt the full force of the state.  Some actively sought to be provocative but there were also the people who did not understand why they had fallen out of favour.

As the series progressed, I got the sense that any country which is so scared of its own people that it had to suppress any dissent does not deserve to survive.  This point was most clear in the episode which explored artistic expression in the DDR.  I also gained a clear idea that the country was not as independent as it pretended; the power from the Soviet Union acted as big brother on the playground. When fortunes changed there, the writing was on the wall for East Germany.

History is told by the victors but this series is worth seeing because it does not take a simplistic approach to the subject; many voices are heard and no easy answers are given. The final moments of the last episode prove these points.  Figures, famous and not, provide a one sentence answer to the question of what the DDR meant to them.  It was a powerful ending to a fascinating series.


Call Mr Robeson

This one man theatre piece was a superb review of the life of Paul Robeson. The sub-title, ‘A Life with Songs’ is apt as Tayo Aluka is an excellent singer as well.

Paul Robeson rose to fame because of his singing voice but his increasingly vocal criticism of the US government brought him difficulties in later life. His socialism along with his views on racial discrimination ensured he rubbed up against the authorities.  It was his views on the Soviet Union that did the most damage.  By saying what he thought was impressive about the communist system he was branded unpatriotic and constraints were put on his travel and movements.  From 1949 onwards his career suffered.

Interestingly, Robeson forged a bond with Welsh miners when in the UK in the 40s.  He made a film here called ‘The Proud Valley’ which I saw on television as a boy without realising the significance of the actor playing the lead role.

Tayo Aluka is a commanding presence on the stage in a play that he also wrote.  He makes the most of the props which furnish the stage around him; photo frames, flags and artefacts of a life are called upon as he relates the rise and fall of his career.  Robeson’s personal life is dealt with briefly; it seems he had multiple relationships, some of them overlapping.

‘Call Mr Robseon’ sent me off to learn more about this remarkable man.  This is why Tayo Aluka’s play is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Letter to Brezhnev

It is actually hard to remember how Russia (or the Soviet Union) was regarded back in the 80s.  The sense that there were two competing philosophies and every nation had to choose which side they were on was real, as was the idea that the ‘other side’ meant us harm.

That is why the 1985 film ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ was such a hit.   Written by Liverpool writer Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard it showed the city of Liverpool as a place suffering from the worst aspects of the Thatcherite policies of the time.  A key theme of the film was how the hopes of working class people, and women in particular, can be stolen.

Frank Clarke cleverly showed how the freedom of the west was not so free for everybody, especially those trying to make a living in difficult times.  But this is not a heavy or gloomy film but rather a romantic comedy.  Teresa and Elaine are two friends who enjoy nights out, especially as Elaine is out of work and Teresa has a bleak job in the chicken factory. They meet two Russian sailors, Sergei and Peter, when out on the town and they spend a night together.  While Teresa is looking for a good time, Elaine wants love and romance. So Teresa hooks up with Sergei for the night of sex that is on both their agendas.  Elaine and Peter, though, use their hotel room to talk… all night long.  Something happens during this night: Elaine and Peter fall in love.

When the sailors have to return to their ship the future for Elaine looks bleak once more and she seems doomed to spend the rest of her life in Liverpool.  Yet, they made a pledge to each other during their night together: they would love each other for ever and get married one day.  In the days that follow, Elaine decides to take action and the title of the film is important at this point.

The charm of the film comes down to the two central characters whose love for each other seems genuine.  Elaine’s actions may seem fanciful but they are actions we hope will succeed.  The ending is particularly charming.

Love is where it falls and this film reminds us of that.  The two individuals care little about systems and politics but a lot about each other… and that is worth making a film about.


Dance to Freedom

The BBC drama- documentary ‘Dance to Freedom’ was an excellent portrayal of the events leading up to Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from the Soviet Union in 1961.  A professional dancer was obviously needed to recreate the skill and talent of someone as famous as Nureyev and Bolshoi Ballet star Artem Ovcharenko took this role.

For many years, when growing up, Rudolf Nureyev was the only male ballet dancer I had heard of, and what I knew about him had more to do with the fact that he had defected to the West rather than anything to do with his dancing prowess.

The facts of the case are shown in this film by film- maker Richard Curson Smith broadcast by BBC television in December 2015.  On 16 June 1961, Nureyev escaped  from his KGB bodyguards at Le Bourget airport.  He pushed his way across an airport concourse to the arms of the French police.  In interviews, archive footage and the reconstructed drama we see that, rather than being a spontaneous act, political intrigue may have had a part to play and Nureyev, himself, may have been a bit player in a larger cold war game.

What is clear, though, is that there were costs to this action for the dancer as an individual cut off from his homeland as well as for his colleagues and family he left behind.  As is often the case with Cold War stories, individuals are less important than the forces at work.  The Soviet Union was keen to show off its ballet company, considered the best in the world; a cultural coup would add to the prestige the regime felt after putting a cosmonaut in space.  Nureyev was the best young dancer the company had, yet he was volatile and felt constrained by company rules and expectations.  He did not always behave well.  In some ways, the talented dancer comes across as selfish; his talent brings a certain sense of entitlement. In the dramatised scenes in Paris he acts as the young star making the most of nights on the town.  Why wouldn’t he enjoy this level of freedom?  Yet, his colleagues were not able to enjoy this freedom in the same way.  As a punishment for enjoying the Paris nightlife, he was recalled to Russia instead of heading to London and this news may have led to his decision to defect.

‘Dance to Freedom’ is an excellent survey of one Cold War’s cultural skirmish.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?