Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze

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.



Fruitvale Station

This film is important because it dramatises a real incident involving the shooting of a young black man on New Year’s Eve, 2009.  The film follows Oscar through his final day and ends with his death at the hands of police officers at Fruitvale Station on the Bay Area Rapid Transport System in Oakland, California, USA.  Michael B Jordan plays Oscar.

We know from the beginning that this day will not end well but this adds to the poignancy of the earlier interactions.  As the day progresses, we learn that his life has not been trouble-free;  a spell in prison is shown in flashback to illustrate his relationship with his mother and family;  he has lost his job in a supermarket because of poor time keeping; he has been involved in drugs.  The image the film portrays, though, is of a young man trying to rebuild a life and take responsibility for his daughter and wife.

In any case, regardless of circumstances here was a person who was shot by a police officer.  The officer was white and the victim was black. It happens far too often.  This film makes sure we do not forget the person behind the victim. It is an important film.


Whicker’s World

Alan Whicker was a presence on television throughout my childhood and well into my young adulthood.  His career on British television stretched from the 50s to the 90s with some appearances on radio and television in this century, mostly reminiscences and nostalgic returns to locations of earlier films.

The series that stuck in my mind the most was the 1985 one that focused on British people who lived and worked in the USA. It had the sub-title ‘Living with Uncle Sam’ and each episode featured three or four people.  Whicker visited each and interviewed them.  It was in this series that I realised that Americans did not have Boxing Day, a situation that seemed worthy of some sympathy.


The subjects were not necessarily famous but Whicker was the master of finding the most engaging people to interview and film.  I envied him his life of travel and, at that time, I was envious also of the people who lived in America.  Opening shots of an Alan Whicker film usually showed him walking towards or away from an aeroplane to emphasise his globe trotting credentials.  His voice was distinctive as were his blazer and suave British appearance.

It has taken many years, but i have travelled to just some of the hundreds of locations first travelled by Alan Whicker. On arrival, I have his voice in my head!


The Ides of March

This film from actor- director George Clooney is a brilliant story that shows the machinations behind the scenes on political campaigns.  Behind every clean candidate who looks as if she or he is the person of integrity is a politician who must do what politicians do to get elected.  Whether this is true or not, I do not know.  I do know that in Britain as well as the USA there has been a growth of political operators whose business is to ensure their candidate is elected.  As these are paid positions, the concept of working for people they believe in rather than delivering a service takes over.

I find it hard to accept that consultants sell their services in the political sphere rather than work on campaigns they believe in.

In this film from 2011, Clooney plays the candidate who seems true to his beliefs, a liberal with a conscience who will not play dirty just to win votes.  Around him he has the brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the strategist and Ryan Gosling as his deputy.  It is Ryan Gosling’s character that is central to the plot since he is the ambitious one.  He believes in his candidate but cannot resist talking to the other side, a move that, once revealed, damages his career.  His relationship with a young intern played by Evan Rachel Wood leads to his discovery of information that changes his view of his candidate.

What he should do with this information is the central question raised by the film. It is to the credit of the director that the ending is satisfying and, probably realistic.

George Clooney’s presidential candidate is another of a long line of fictional politicians who come across as more worthy and more interesting than the ones the American people really get in front of them at election time.  I am not sure if this is a good thing or not; maybe, the fictional characters are enough to stop the people being completely fed up with the debased political landscape that actually exists.

‘The Ides of March’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The West Wing

I am always amazed at how much coverage the US election gets in Britain.  I am convinced this is because British media are more interested in characters and plot development than in information and news.  If the BBC spent more time reporting policy rather than personality we would probably have better politics in this country.  On the other hand, politics would end up being ignored completely.

Fortunately, the TV remote control was invented with two possibilities: mute the sound or change channels!  What a wonderful device this is and how much have I used it this US election season.  Far better to retreat to fiction, I think, so the West Wing box set comes back to mind.


This series passed me by when it was broadcast in the UK but I was given the complete box set as a present so systematically made my way through all seven series with two observations in mind.  The first was would somebody as essentially good and wise as Jed Bartlet make it to the White House?  The second was the sense that dramas such as ‘The West Wing’ sooth us rather than motivate us to bring around the progressive governments we deserve.  However, I enjoyed the series building to a sense at about series five that this was a truly excellent television landmark.  Series seven was less satisfying since the focus was less on the Bartlet Presidency and more on the race to succeed him.

I have been a fan of Stockard Channing since I saw her in the film version of ‘Grease’ in the late 70s.  Her presence as the First Lady grew as the drama unfolded which was just as well as she always fills every scene she is in.  My favourite character, though, was always  Toby Ziegler played by the brilliant Richard Schiff with Alison Janney’s CJ as another top drawer character.

I did not know at the time I watched the episodes that creator Aaron Sorkin left after series four.  This would explain the slight difference in quality and the change of political direction after this point.

So, maybe the point was to sooth us rather than confront the real politics of the time but ‘The West Wing’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Captured

I was so taken with Scott Zesch’s history book about children captured by ‘Indians’ in the blogcapturedaudionineteenth century that I decided to buy the audio book and listen to it on car journeys.  As I had read it first, I was expecting to ‘know’ the contents.  It was a surprise, therefore, to hear new things. Perhaps it was the narration by Grover Gardner that emphasised points I had missed from the page or maybe it was the slower, somewhat more measured pace you get from listening to a book rather than reading it that helped.

The stories are obviously the same but the added dimension for me, as British, is the American accent of Grover Gardner.  This adds a sense of authenticity that might otherwise be lost.  He was also able to heighten the sense of drama through his reading so that the sections about the Smith brothers were much more emotional than had seemed at first reading.

‘The Captured’ by Scott Zesch as read by Grover Gardner is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Captured

This book by Scott Zesch is a fascinating history of children captured by tribes of ‘Indians’ blogcapturedin Texas in the nineteenth century.  At the heart of the book is the story of Adolph Korn, a distant relative of the author.  Korn was abducted by Apaches in 1870 but then traded to another tribe.  It was the start of a life as part of a tribe, a life that was both challenging and exhilarating.  As the book progresses we gain the feeling that the sense of community to be found in the tribes was something that was hard to give up.  As is well documented, some of the captured preferred the life they had been involuntarily brought into to the one they left behind.  When it came to matters of choice, some chose to stay with the tribe.  In nearly all cases, a return to the previous life was problematic.

Alongside the story of Korn, Scott Zesch tells of other documented cases.  They show the perils of being in the American frontier at the time and the hardships these pioneers faced.  The ‘Indians’ could be brutal and the book might have benefited from more examples of children who were killed rather than captured.  However, all the lives relayed here illustrate the interesting concept of adopting by force a child into a new and alien culture.

The transformation was swift.  Boys were stripped of their old clothes, had their ears pierced and hair altered, all to make them ‘like’ their other children.  If this seemed brutal it had to be weighed up against this complete acceptance of the child as ‘one of us’.  Once the cultural border has been crossed, the way back is hard.

‘The Captured’ by Scott Zesch is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?