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.

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What were they like?

Here is another powerful poem that should be more widely known.  The layout is significant.  It has the appearance of a school comprehension exercise with questions that suggest that research is needed to get to the answers.  Americans knew little of the tradition or the history of a country on whose soil they fought a war.  The Vietnam War took many lives, more Vietnamese than Americans.

What Were They Like?

1. Did the people of Vietnam
use lanterns of stone?

2. Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?

3. Were they inclined to quiet laughter?

4. Did they use bone and ivory,
and silver, for ornament?

5. Had they an epic poem?

6. Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

1. Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens the lanterns illumined pleasant ways.

2. Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,but after the children were killed, there were no more buds.

3. Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.

4. A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.

5. It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
And the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.

6. There is an echo yet
Of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

Denise Levertov 

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