Letters from Baghdad

I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film.  Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East.  In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.

The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen.  That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected.  Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.

The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one.  Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War.  Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed.  In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’.  She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives.  She was not really accepted in either group.

The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out.  It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman.  ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?





I Must Belong Somewhere

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?

BlogIMustBelongSomewhereUsing 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?


A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia

Reading Anthony Sattin’s book reminded me of this television drama from 1992 with the excellent Ralph Fiennes as T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia.  In this particular film, the drama revolves around the post- war peace conference in Paris where the victorious allies carved up the world.  This was the stage on which Lawrence, acting as an adviser to Feisal, the would- be leader of a new Arab nation; one that they believed had been promised by Britain during the war in return for Arab support.

BlogLawrenceDangerousThe Ottoman Empire collapsed and the spoils were there for the taking by Britain and France.  Both countries wanted influence in the area and the claims of the Arab peoples, themselves, were forgotten.

Denis Quilley played Lord Curzon and Nicholas Jones played Lord Dyson.  The fact that both key players on the British side were Lords says a lot about the times!  Feisal was played by Anthony Siddig.

The film shows clearly the growing British exasperation with Lawrence, especially over what they see as his disloyalty, while Lawrence shows his contempt for duplicitous politicians. The peace conference is the perfect setting for the political manoeuvering of nations.  It also shows how the establishment deals with outsiders.

At this stage of his life, Lawrence is famous.  A stage show in London portrays him as a heroic figure in the Middle East. Whether the man himself is happy to be portrayed in this way is left open but the film does show that identity can be forced on people as well as embraced.  By showing how awkward he is with women, the implication is that he prefers men for intimacy.  I prefer Anthony Sattin’s conclusion that we do not have the evidence on which to conclude whether or not he was gay.  I suppose in a way it proves its own point: identity can be forced upon people.

‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


There are only three films that affected me so much I returned for a second viewing the next night.  This is the first. In fact, so important to me was it that I returned four times in one week and took a different friend each time.

This isn’t the greatest film ever made and it doesn’t appear in many lists of the best films of all time but it makes it onto a list of films that had a profound effect on me. The year was 1981 and home cinema was an unknown concept to students like me so I had to rely on the ABC Oxford.

The film starts with a young man, Archie, practising sprints on the farm in Australia.  He is a gifted runner and is being trained to compete in prestigious finals in a nearby town.  When there, he runs off since he is determined to enlist to fight in the war.  He races against a slightly older man, Frank, and beats him but when the two meet up again they team up. Frank is not interested at all in fighting a war for the British since his heritage is Irish.  However, they head for Perth and join up.  Archie joins the cavalry, his farm background in Western Australia helps him here but Frank ends up in the infantry with three of his friends from the railways where he used to work.

In Egypt, Frank and Archie are reunited and Frank transfers to the cavalry to join his friend.  Unknown to the two young men, they are heading for the Gallipoli peninsula and will be in trenches and not on horses. However, their athletic skills prove useful and, for one of them, lifesaving.

I knew nothing of the place of Gallipoli in First World War history and knew nothing of its importance to Australians and New Zealanders so I was not prepared for the most dramatic of endings.

Mel Gibson before his Hollywood career played Frank and Mark Lee played Archie.  The Major was played by Bill Hunter, a most amazing actor.  It was directed by Peter Weir, a director who went on to even greater success in later years.

I had the poster on my college room wall for some years and it moved with me several times before it found its way into the attic.  The image shows clearly what happens at the end.  Nevertheless, it is still the most monumental shock when it happens.  ‘Gallipoli’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


A Place Called Winter

BlogPlaceWinterSomething perverse happens when Patrick Gale publishes a new novel!  I buy it immediately and then wait for an extended time before reading it.  This is odd because the wait for the next book always seems longer than necessary (why is he taking so long?) yet once I start reading, I know I will get through it as quickly as possible and emerge from the pages back with another long wait for another new novel.  It has been this way for some years.  I started with ‘Rough Music’ having heard the author speak at the Bath Literature Festival.  I then read my way through what was then his back catalogue.  This was a satisfying experience but, once exhausted, there was the frustration of waiting for Patrick Gale to write another book.

Love is where it falls, as I have always believed.  This novel shows the truth of this saying through the story of Harry Crane, a product of his English upbringing in a society that protected traditions and felt threatened by anything that deviated from the norm.  The time is 1908 and, although in a loving family with his wife and daughter, the attraction and excitement he feels for another man proves too strong and he starts a relationship that is, in the context of the time, criminal in nature. When exposed, he faces public humiliation or exile.  He chooses exile and gives up his wife and daughter to hide in Canada, a place where his sexuality will surely not feature or cause him a problem.

The British Empire proved useful as a way of removing embarrassing problems from the homeland.  How many men trod the path of Patrick Gale’s character?   Harry may have chosen exile to avoid dishonour.  His former lover, an actor, retreats to the continent without giving Harry a second thought.  Canada, though, has men and love is where it falls so part of the joy of this novel is hoping that the attraction between Harry and his neighbour in the town called Winter will lead somewhere satisfying for both of them.

This is the early part of the Twentieth Century though and war is around the corner; happiness may not be on the agenda.

What is satisfying about a Patrick Gale novel is the way other characters and minor plot diversions serve the purpose of the main story.  In this book, the reflections of a recovering Harry show the diversity of the human condition and illuminate the way in which people who are different are treated.  A minor character here is the Two Spirit Native American who finds that a modernising Canada has no room for her.

I am back to the waiting game.  When will the next Patrick Gale come along?

Here Dead We Lie

It is National Poetry Day in the UK so who better to reach for to celebrate than A. E. Housman!

Here Dead We Lie

Here dead we lie BlogHousman
Because we did not choose 
To live and shame the land 
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,  
Is nothing much to lose, 
But young men think it is, 
And we were young.

A E Housman

To An Athlete Dying Young

This poem by A E Housman is another that resonates.  The theme of dying young with so much promise unfulfilled is a poignant one.  It was written at the end of the nineteenth century so it is little wonder that it became popular in the First World War.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race,
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

A E Housman