Having read Ben Judah’s excellent book on Russia under Putin, I was keen to read his insights into London in the twenty- first century. As a Londoner, I am a keen Londonophile even though, like all enthusiasts, my affection is kept intact by no longer having to live there!
This is first class reportage of life in the capital as experienced by those on the fringes, politically and economically rather than geographically. Apparently, over 40% of the population of London was born elsewhere in the world. Yet London remains a magnet and the route to the city is well worn by those with great hopes.
Ben Judah states that he needs to see things for himself. He distrusts statistics. So, in this book, he beds out for the night with rough sleepers near Hyde Park and meets people in diverse situations across the capital. One of the most interesting interviewees was a policeman, offering his views from one side of the law. His insights are made more interesting by the fact that he is Nigerian.
It becomes clear that there is a congregating of ethnic groups in particular corners, a fact that is articulated by many of the subjects interviewed here. Sometimes this is for safety and companionship and other times it is the economics that keeps people in their place.
Judah does not often pass judgement on what he sees; he communicates his findings which are all based on what he encountered by crossing London. At times, things seem grim yet this is still a city that welcomes people. London is continually renewed by the injection of differing cultures. The views of the migrants on the British are illuminating.
The interviews are thorough and Judah’s gift is to let people speak for themselves. The stories they tell show that there are many Londons; some are places worth visiting and others you might wish to avoid.
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.
This Norwegian television series broadcast by Channel Four in Britain, in the excellent ‘Walter Presents…’ strand, was a superb thriller. Henning and Philip are two school boys who have fallen in love. They intend to keep their relationship a secret so head to a cabin in the woods using Henning’s well-known excursions for motocross rides. Unfortunately, they are interrupted when a gang arrives with a prisoner in the boot of the car. It is obviously an execution situation between rival gangs but it goes wrong when the prisoner gains the advantage and kills the others. He then spots Philip and Henning so heads their way.
This is the scenario that turns into a police investigation; one that would be easier to solve if both Henning and Philip revealed their involvement. Scared of being outed as gay, they continue to keep quiet even though they know that their information would help. To make matters worse, Philip’s foster-mother, Helen, is the chief investigating officer. With her husband, Sven, they look after Philip and presume every sign of odd behaviour has more to do with his concern for his mother than anything else.
Over six episodes, we see the investigation make headway despite some difficulties. When the killer turns up in the most unexpected place, the heat is turned up and the tension increases. Two young men, desperate to keep their relationship secret, and a police investigation stymied by lack of important information makes for a high-class drama.
‘Eyewitness’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Channel Four strand ‘Walter Presents…’ is a fantastic way of discovering television from across the world. I loved this hard- hitting drama from Iceland even though the subject matter under discussion by the detectives was grim.
A teenage girl is found hanging in the theatre in Reykjavik in what is an apparent suicide. This is the start of a stream of events that unravel showing how vulnerable young women are treated by disreputable men.
At the heart of it is Gabriela, a determined detective who investigates the case while lawyers acting on child protection cases also take an interest. Also involved is a chaotic, alcoholic lawyer called Logi. What starts as a police procedural soon becomes something more complex as lawyers, family and police all try to sort out what led to a promising ballerina killing herself on stage.
In the course of the series, it becomes clear that polite society in Iceland isn’t! The central plot is hard to see at first since there are blind alleys involving the ballet company’s bullying ballet master, the youth worker with an unhealthy interest in his charges, and the use of websites to humiliate and expose.
Complexity makes the series worth watching. The first two episodes seem to head in one direction only for the third episode to open up a new route. It is worth pursuing to the end. ‘Case’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
For most of my adult life I have been an Americanophile (if such a word exists). I dreamed of visiting. Obviously, growing up in the 60s and 70s much of my cultural background is American- the blog entries here show that! I finally made the journey there in the 90s, when I could afford to fly. I have been back many times since! San Francisco, Boston and Chicago all vie for status as my favourite city.
So what changed? First, the referendum in June 2016 showed me that my own country is divided. I am part of the 48% (this would be the near- half of the voting public discounted by the British Prime Minister as she tries to make Brexit work) and I am part of the majority (?) of people from around the world stunned by Trump’s victory in the USA. I have read acres of journalism on how we got to this point. I am tired of reading about ‘uniting’ as if the diverse views of broken Britain can be reconciled. Instead, I am finding my own way of coping with the current situation.
One of the slogans used by the Leave camp in the referendum was ‘Out and Into the World’. Given that many of the Leave voters were Little Englanders, I cannot believe they actually subscribed to this view but I accept the ‘Into the World’ part of that slogan.
I have decided I need to explore film from the wider world and read more books from, or about, other cultures. My gesture to the Brexiteers is to ensure I read more from Europe and see more European films. My gesture to the USA is to reduce its influence in my cultural life: fewer books from the States; fewer American films. In fact, the wider I spread the net, the better. We could all do with more of the world and less of America.
Others may think my gestures are futile. I will feel better.
This 1963 book by Anne Holm is a classic. It tells the story of a young boy who escapes from a concentration camp in an unnamed country, but probably in the East of Europe, and makes the journey towards Denmark and home.
The book has an enigmatic quality because there are many questions unanswered. We do not know which country he is in at the start of the book or why he is in a camp. It is not clear what a child of 12 is doing in the camp without parents or even why a guard helps him survive and then escape.
The journey takes the boy through Europe. He has been told to catch a boat from Salonika to Italy. He is heading for a country in the north that has a king. David has been cut off from normal life so does not know how to interact with people but, as he travels north, he meets people who teach him how to socialise.
There is an opportunity to live in a family when he saves the daughter from a fire in a shed but, after a time, the parents become unnerved by David’s worldly wise and woeful outlook, which seems out of step with his age.
This is a book about heading home and the ending reflects the hopeful aspect of the book. Yet the most important journey is the one David takes from being a damaged child to somebody who belongs in society.
‘I am David’ by Anne Holm 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?