Monday, 18 August 2014

The Call of the Toad...

Is the name of the novel by Gunter Grass that I've just started reading. Ostensibly it's a story about two elderly people, a West German art historian and a Polish widow who meet in Gdansk, formerly Danzig in Germany, who set up a business repatriating dead Poles and Germans in the former Warsaw Pact bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If that storyline seemed droll in 1992, shortly after Helmuth Kohl's expensive reunification of West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, how does it strike you now in post-Maastricht, post-Lisbon Europe, where borders are an issue once again and with Sikhs from Afghanistan turning up in the back of a container in London and claiming asylum?

I'm not sure how it strikes me. I have read 17 pages and apart from enjoying the way Grass builds up the details of the two people and their story through a third person, the narrator, I have one other clear feeling about this book. Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck should write and direct a movie version of it.

Why have a film when you have the book? A film is not needed, but we live in the age of film and are just as liable to come to a book through a film version of it, even a bad or indifferent film version, as we are to a film through a book, out of curiosity if nothing else.

Two weeks ago I watched the film version of A S Byatt's novel Possession. I watched it in the company of Lesley who loves the book, re-reading it once or twice a year. I used to feel the same way about Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. The following day I started reading Byatt's 500-page book, which cleverly weaves together several storylines from Victorian London and the London of the 1980s just past the midpoint.

The protagonists in the present are literary scholars, English and American, male and female, heterosexual and bi-sexual - one of them is Professor Blackadder. Their targets are two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. He's married, she is not. They write letters, exchange poems, fall in love and have an affair which they both know cannot survive its consummation.

The film reflects this reasonably well, certainly well enough for me to pick up the book and read it over the course of a fortnight (on buses, trains, in coffee houses). What it did not set out to do was explore the conflicting existential dramas of Imperial Victorian England post-Charles Darwin but pre-Sigmund Freud, the conflict between religious belief and doubt, reason and faith, the fascinating outer world of empirical science and the inner world of the spiritualism; strong material convictions and other worldly superstitions.

The book, in part a wonderfully observed comic novel about academia, includes a short but vivid sketch of leanly leoline F R Leavis making Cambridge University literature undergraduates feel inadequate. The plot is gradually expanded by extracts of letters, journals and poems invented by A S Byatt to reflect the inner life of her drama's dead dears. I skipped most of the pastiche poetry but read the letters and journals avidly.

The robbery of Ash's grave is the penultimate climax. In the book it occurs on the night of the big storm in 1987 when trees were blown down. The film omits the storm but replaces it with a punch up. In the book the various protagonists come out of the storm and, over a drink, talk about how their desire to possess the truth about Ash and Lamotte led them to do what they did. 

The very end of the book is the point at which the film starts. I thought A S Byatt placed it just right; but then after two weeks of following the evolving story, the weight and tone of the last scene felt absolutely right to me. There was redemption of a kind - but not quite; just like the final scene in Middlemarch which concludes with something of a valedictory by George Eliot for the sensibility of all the Dorothea Brookes of the world.

Possession evidently stirred something because one late afternoon at work I found myself Googling up the theme music of The Lives of Others, the film that Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck wrote and directed eight or nine years ago. The title refers to the lives of two star-crossed lovers in the East Berlin of the early 1980s - before Glasnost and Perestroika blew in from the East.

The lovers are a playwright and an actress, both of whom fall foul of the Stasi through no fault of their own. The life of one Stasi man, who arranges the couple's round-the-clock surveillance, changes as he comes to see and understand more of the world the couple represent and how his world, the world that he thought was driven by principle and moral purpose, is corrupt and driven by lust, jealousy and malevolence. I love this film. It's a rare example of a film with a meticulously appropriate soundtrack - themed music and East German pop songs - all the way through.

In both Byatt's novel and Von Donnersmarck's film the past shapes the present. The drama, the comedy, the pathos, are bodied forth in how this happens. The same applies to Grass's The Call of the Toad in which the narrator quizzically inspects the pieces of the puzzle as he lays out the shape of the story. Von Donnersmarck, who found himself in his story of the past in East Berlin, would do a good job with this book and bring it to the attention of a wider audience. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Up to a Point Lord Copper...

As to all those hundreds of thousands of refugees on the hills of northern Iraq who apparently do not require rescuing, and the Russian convoy reportedly blitzed by Ukrainian forces, I am reminded of a little rhyme:-

As I was going up the stair
I saw a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish that he would go away.

I am also reminded of Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop in which hapless nature-lover William Boot is sent abroad by Lord Copper, owner of the Daily Beast, to shape events according to the editorial policy of the Beast.

News is another kind of fiction. Reality it isn't. It never was.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Goya and the Horrors of War...

Yesterday I came across a newspaper article I wrote thirteen years ago, seemingly at a less fraught time in world affairs. In July, 2001 a touring exhibition of Goya's etchings from the series Capriches (Caprices) and Disparates (Follies) reached Leeds before moving on to Halifax.

These postcard-sized grotesques from the dark realm of horror and farce - the "sleep of reason" was his expression for them, if I remember rightly - evidently made an impact on me because I described three of the Disparates without recourse to the notes that accompanied the show - at least I think I did.

In the etching called Giant, a giant grinning Hannibal Lecter figure, flanked by spectral ghoulish faces, looms out of a dark horizon and lurches towards a terrified woman and a man for whom there is no retreat.

In front of a crumbling wall, a captive looks over his shoulder at the approach of a raging man carrying a lance: this is the moment before the slaughter.

A third picture called Man Being Mocked shows a foolish-looking moon-faced monk, hands churched in pious prayer, surrounded by ugly leering figures clownishly ridiculing him.

These pictures depict a world in which there is no asylum from the lunatics who rule it; a world in which the rational is constantly under threat from dark irrationality  and passion driven to madness.

This is not merely the world of post-Napoleon Bonaparte Europe: it is the world as it is and as it always will be.

A little sententious perhaps; but it was another way of saying that Goya's carnival of mental nightmares was not just of its time but for all time.

A few months later I had cause to write another article, the day after the world watched the World Trade Center towers implode, filling the canyons of Manhattan rolling thunder clouds of masonry dust and shrapnel.

If any of these images bring to mind the pictures you're seeing in Gaza and the hills of northern Iraq you might wonder if the sleep of reason depicted by Goya - troubled by deafness - in the last 15 years of his life haunts us still.

For myself, halfway through Robert Fisk's monumental historical memoir The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, I wonder what Palestinians in Gaza, bombarded by Israel's American weapons, make of America galloping to the aid of non-Muslim religious minorities on the hills of northerrn Iraq.

I'm not entirely sure what I, an unwilling spectator rather than a conscientious witness, make of it other than to say, in the shadow of Robert Fisk, that the morass of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is one legacy of World War 1 - not that you'd know it from the tendentious cant that bombarded the nation earlier this week, on the anniversary of Britain's declaration of war in August, 1914.

I'm ready, I'm ready for the laughing gas...

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

August 4, 1914 - August 4, 2014...


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Carl Sandburg

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Claims and Boats and Planes..Again.

While revisiting this post I appear to have accidentally zapped it. Just goes to show, the post man should never ring twice.

Against the current backdrop of all and sundry blaming Russia's President Vladimir Putin for killing all those people on board the Malaysian airliner in Ukrainian airspace, I recounted a passage from Robert Fisk's book The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. 

During the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), a Iraqi Mirage F1 jet fighter fired two 1,500-lb Excocet missiles at what the pilot assumed was a patrolling Iranian warship in the Persian Gulf. In fact it was a patrolling American missile-carrying frigate, the USS Stark. Thirty-seven US seamen were incinerated in the super-heated blast that followed. Ronald Reagan's Government blamed Iran, as did Margaret Thatcher and other American camp followers.  

Fisk, who was writing for The Times when this happened in May 1987, found out what really happened. The truth made no difference to the narrative that was published and broadcast. Even though Saddam Hussein sent an apology to President Reagan for the Iraqi pilot's error of judgement, the Americans continued to blame Iran.

A few months later the American cruiser the USS Vincennes fired a couple of anti-aircraft missiles at an Iranian civil airliner, blowing it up in mid-air and killing all 290 people on board, including a wedding party. You probably recall what happened next: the Americans said the plane was diving towards the Vincennes in a kamikaze-style attack.

Fisk learned that the aircraft was climbing. Subsequently, he was told that in the weeks prior to the incident, American warships had harrassed many other civilian airliners. The Vincennes was in Iranian international waters, where it shouldn't have been. No matter. Once again Iran was blamed for something it hadn't done.

Using the flimsiest circumstantial evidence a false story was fabricated and put out after both incidents. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? While America and its allies put the heat on Putin (perhaps hoping for a bit of regime change in the Kremlin), the real culprit culpable for causing the civil war in Ukraine, the European Union, stands sanctimoniously in the wings chelping about sanctions and removing the 2018 World Cup competition from Russia.


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

But What Have Wayne or David Got to Say About Isis?

The BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson is in Baghdad: therefore the situation with the masked and scarved gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) must be serious.

The inextricable tangle of tribal rivalries at the heart of it certainly looks ugly and hopeless. Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular used to be like that in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a wretched internicene conflict of different religious militias. Do-good outsiders who wandered between the jaws of it were taken into darkness for four to five years. Remember Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy? 

At least they survived. Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft did not. Accused by Saddam Hussein of spying, he was hanged in March 1990, a fate that was to befall the Iraqi leader after the invasion of Iraq. American journalist Daniel Pearl was captured by Al Qaida in Pakistan, that wonderful country, and beheaded by his captors in 2002. The video of it was posted on the net.

We, for whom a crisis is the telly or the boiler going on the blink or the barn owl population taking a bit of a dip, seemingly don't have the capacity to measure up to the import of these terrible events. If Wayne Rooney or David Beckham had warned (on television news, of course) that ISIS are worse than the Taliban in Afghanistan we might have take more notice.

Instead ISIS insurgents executing Shia men with machine guns came as a bit of surprise on Monday.  We thought everybody was watching the World Cup.

One consequence of all this is the turn-around in diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why, only a few years ago Ben Afleck was making Argo - about the US hostage crisis. Now we're the best of friends with Iran it seems, with the re-opening of the British embassy in Tehran to prove it.   

Nothing should surprise us in the murky world of real-politick. Were ISIS to achieve the impossible and take Baghdad, I wonder if the EU would send envoys to the city to work out a mutually beneficial trade arrangement.  Or am I thinking of Ukraine? 

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Britons Never Will be Slaves...

And so 181 years after Britain abolished slavery in all its forms, the Coalition Government puts an anti-slavery Bill before Parliament to curb and punish more severely the practice of trafficking in human beings.

This, of course, has got nothing to do with the illegal transportation of immigrants in the backs of trailers. Human trafficking means the forcible coercion of others and the use of, or the threat of, physical violence or intimidation.

Seventy years ago Allied armed forces took a trot across the Channel to Normandy to abolish the Nazi enslavement of most of mainland Europe - 49 months or so after they'd been driven off the beaches of Dunkirk.

Less than 30 years after D-Day, lest we forget amid the flag-waving and bunting over the next few days, Edward Heath and his clever chums in the Foreign Office knowingly signed away Britain's sovereignty, as well as the country's fishing rights, steel making and ship building, for membership of the European Econmic Community. In reality it was the EPP: the European Political Project.

During the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979, I covered the Conservative Party rally in St George's Hall, Bradford. The main speaker in support of Lord St Oswald for Yorkshire West was Harold Macmillan, the old shaman, who spoke movingly of how Britain would once again rise like a lion strong and proud in its new role.

It didn't happen, of course. It was an illusion. The irony is the old man began his speech by describing a royal cavalcade he had seen in the streets of London when he was a child. Old Queen Victoria was passing by, the Empress of India, monarch of territories from Britain to India, Canada to Australia. "But it was all an illusion," Macmillan whispered.

Perhaps we all prefer illusions if, as T S Eliot observed in Four Quartets, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality."

The reality of human trafficking, of slavery, is not something we should bear at all. However, I am inclined to think - if that's not too grand a word for what passes through my brain - that the stiffer prison sentences and other measures in the anti-slavery bill are merely symptoms of a sickness that seems to have been allowed to get out of hand in parts of this country.

Can this be, I ask myself, because human trafficking is one of the consequences of demographic diversity that old Britannia has been obliged to embrace over the last eight or ten years especially? It's a multi-billion dollar market, so who's profiting by it? Where do the slave masters come from and what are they doing here?  

Immigration isn't merely about Africans appearing in large numbers all over the country, suburban open air high streets turning into down-at-heel, shady-looking souks or gentlemen from Pakistan grooming teenage girls in the backstreets of Oxford, Rotherham, Rochdale and Keighley. Its about criminal behaviour we thought we'd rid ourselves of in 1833 and went bankrupt fighting in World War 2.

But best not talk like that, not just now. Perhaps in another 70 or 181 years.