Novels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear. It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception. ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity. In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.
The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth. The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times. This is where the insights of the invited guest come in. We see how other audience members react.
There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.
David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned. His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to. He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.
This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East. I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me. He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.
The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things? Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out. There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though. He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.
‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film, while not destined for classic status, reminded me of the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s when historical settings showed Britain as a good-looking country at the same time as reminding us that the views and standards of the time are best left in the past. In this case, the story from the early part of the Twentieth Century is based on the real case of an Indian man whose genius with number leads him from his home to Cambridge where he studies with the famous G.H Hardy.
Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor family in Madras, India. He performed menial tasks to earn a living but found beauty in mathematics. His employers realised he had exceptional skills and used him for accounting purposes until they decided his personal journals on number should reach a wider public. This led to Britain, Cambridge and Professor Hardy at Trinity College.
The stuffy and hierarchical nature of Cambridge is well portrayed along with the stereo-type that academics are not quite part of the real world. Real enough, though, is the racism Ramanujan faces in pre- First World War Britain. Not only are the dons suspicious of his ability but they also see him as an upstart for moving into their world without moving through the proper channels.
There is a sub-plot set against the First World War showing how academics split in terms of their support for the war. Key figures from that time took different paths: Bertrand Russell to pacifism (and consequently to prison) and John Edensor Littlewood to the army (to help with ballistics).
Dev Patel played Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played Hardy, the significant difference in their ages not reflected in the real story! It works as a film, though, because it shows that some people will fight against racism and pursue their ambitions despite it. It also shows that academic endeavour is worth the years of struggle. For Ramanujan, the return to India, while in triumph as an accepted academic, was personally difficult and he did not have a long life.
Jeremy Irons is always worth watching and so, it seems, is Dev Patel. This film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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.
The 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?
Back in the 70s, this television programme broadcast on ITV was a popular one in my family. It tells the story of one extended family at the start of the Second World War and follows them through the war years to peacetime, with the inevitable loss of family members on the way.
My young self was most interested in the idea of war and it was hard, back then, to see that the title was a metaphor and a pun and that the home front was very different from the war films of my youth. However, the story of one family was compelling. Britain is obsessed with class and, while the distinctions may be disappearing, they were quite clear back then.
The Ashton family live in Liverpool. Edwin, the father, has moved up the social ladder, mostly because of his marriage to Jean whose brother owns a business. Promotion at the factory seems assured but it is his nephew who is brought in above him, putting him firmly in his place. Interestingly, his nephew is closer to his uncle than to his own single father and the two households are often shown in contrast to each other; the wealthy Briggs family has little of the heart shown in the Ashton household where four sons and daughters fill the house.
The accents of the four younger Ashtons vary but the sense of upwardly mobile people in a world where barriers have been shaken by the war is a strong element.
Ultimately, the programme’s strength is showing family dynamics when under pressure. Jon Finch wrote the series. His later television series ‘Sam’ set in an earlier time also showed families fracturing under difficult circumstances. As with most dramas made back in the 70s, it was mostly studio based so the sense of it being a city as large as Liverpool was minimised.
‘A Family at War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I sought out this film because it starred James Rolleston who was so good in both ‘Boy’ and ‘The Dark Horse’. In this film he plays the son of a tribal chief who looks for peace between the villages only to be double crossed. It is left to the son, Hongi, to restore the honour of his people by tracking down the warriors who attacked his village in the dead of night.
To find them, he must cross the Dead Lands, so-called because a whole tribe died out there and the souls of their dead lay in wait for anyone who enters.
Hongi is not a proficient fighter but he understands his duty so he does not shy away from tracking down the killers of his father. On his travels he meets an old warrior who has the reputation as a man-eating monster. Hongi’s youth and his relative innocence leads him to seek help from this man rather than fear him and since the old man is, himself, in need of redemption, he agrees to go with him.
The film is quite violent; the body count is high even though the paddle like weapons look deceptively harmless. The dialogue is in the Maori language and the scenery is amazing but it is the performance of Rolleston that gives the film its heart. Trying to do the right thing and knowing that a man braver and stronger than he would do better, he completes his task with honour.
‘The Dead Lands’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Here is another film that sent me back to the cinema to watch it again, within the same week. It is one of the very best of the films of Louis Malle, a director I admire very much. This film from 1987 is his most personal work so it is no surprise that it came towards the end of his career.
Julien is a young boy at a Roman Catholic boarding school during the winter of 1943- 44 who notices everything. He wets the bed and misses his mother, characteristics that do not fit with the tough image he likes to portray. Life at the school is mostly boring but the arrival of some new pupils add interest to Julien’s life. The boys have been enrolled by Pere Jean, the headmaster. One of them, Jean Bonnet, is in the same class as Julien. Although he takes against him at first- he is too good at mathematics for his comfort- he changes his view when he discovers him praying one night and wearing a kippah. This discovery changes the relationship between the two boys and they become closer; the secret of Bonnet’s Jewishness is safe with Julien but events in the wider school cause problems. The black market run by the school’s assistant cook is discovered and he is sacked. As an act of revenge, he denounces the headmaster for giving refuge to Jews.
The ending is inevitable and a voice over by an adult Julien from 40 years later makes clear the fate that awaited the Jewish boys and their headteacher.
‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a moving film which shows the dilemmas faced during wartime as well as the extreme risks some people will take in the name of humanity. The film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?