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Photo by Beata May on Wikimedia CommonsEvery so often comes a film that finds itself the subject of much earnest discussion – not with regard to the subject matter nor to any particular individual performance, nor even because of the use of some dazzling new studio trickery – but rather because it represents a significant advance in the film-maker’s art.

Such a beast is Christopher Nolan’s film of the miraculous evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940.

‘Dunkirk’ has caused much comment and in the case of the critics this has been overwhelmingly favourable – the great majority being of the view that this is a noteworthy piece of film-making that lends new perspective to an historical event.

In this case I am with the critics. I think that ‘Dunkirk’ is a brave piece of film-making.

Consider:

Nolan determined to make an epic film about this major historical event which featured some 400,000 troops on the allied side alone, along with in excess of 800 vessels, without resorting to the use of CGI. The film also lacks entirely the uber-realistic blood and gore that has become a staple of modern war films; it features very little dialogue and no backstories for any of the characters; it has no scenes showing those in command on either side directing the engagement and no enemy combatants are seen at all until the very final scene.

Bear in mind also that this is a Hollywood film about a battle that not only featured no Americans (Nolan also insisted that the cast be entirely British), but which was actually an epic defeat!

As though all of this were not enough, Nolan’s script is also divided into three elements – the action on land, the evacuation on water and the aerial battle over the beaches. These elements – each of which flows across the entire film – take place in three different time-frames. The land action encompasses a week – the naval component covers one day in the evacuation – and the aerial action takes a mere hour. The three strands overlap at the climax of the piece, which of course means that the viewer sees the same action from multiple points of view.

The effect of the decisions taken by the director is that the film captures in a visceral manner just a little of what the experience of being on the beaches at Dunkirk might have been like. No individual’s story is more important than any other. No-one on the beaches knows what is going on, and nor can they imagine the wider picture. All that they know is that if they are to survive this calamity – for which no training can possibly have prepared them – they must fight against all the odds. The film has been described as ‘immersive’ – and that perhaps best sums it up.

The commentarists on the InterWebNet – those driven to add their voice and opinion to any and every matter –  have been less generous. Complaints include a lack of historical accuracy; an inadequacy of scale; the omission of important characters, events or even themes (including gripes concerning the under-representation of nationalities, races and genders!); the incomprehensibility of the narrative to those not familiar with the history and the supposed incompetence of writing which does not indulge in the usual tropes – well defined characters with revealing backstories and emotionally engaging story and character arcs.

We are all of us entitled to our views – of course – as we are to express the same. It does seem to me a little perverse – however – to apparently willfully miss the point in quite such a manner. To sit through Nolan’s impressionistic work and then to cavil that it is not the film that one wishes the director had made is perhaps – and only a little facetiously – somewhat akin to wishing that Van Gogh had possessed a camera with which he could have taken a few snaps of some sunflowers!

Exaggeration – naturally – entirely for effect!

Anyway – five stars in my book…

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Image from Wikimedia Commons“We have wasted History like a bunch of drunks shooting dice back in the men’s crapper of the local bar.”

Charles Bukowski

I watched again the other night Cambridge University Professor David Reynolds’ fascinating documentary for the BBC on Winston Churchill’s long struggle during 1942 and 1943 to promote his preferred campaign in North Africa – and thence up through Italy and the Mediterranean islands to attack what he called ‘Hitler’s soft under-belly’ – in the face of constant and increasing pressure from the Americans and the Russians to open a second front on the European mainland by effecting a landing in France.

Professor Reynolds provides an excellent summary of the reasons for Churchill’s resistance, long beyond the point at which it must have been clear to him that the Overlord landings were not only inevitable but – in the face of the Soviet advances in Eastern Europe – increasingly vital should the British hope for any say in the shaping of post-war Europe.

Under political pressure in the UK as a result of the military disasters of 1941 and 1942 – the which had led to two votes of confidence in parliament – Churchill (and the country) was greatly in need of a victory. With his understandable fear of another catastrophic stalemate in the fields of France and the low countries (or of an attempted landing ending in disaster) having its roots in his experiences of the first war, Churchill took the view that any such success was more likely to be found in Africa than on the European mainland.

Churchill’s thinking was further informed by considerations that were of little consequence to the Americans or the Russians – those of empire. He saw maintaining control of the Mediterranean and of Egypt as vital to the continuance of British interests in India and in the colonies to the east. Professor Reynold’s documentary (along with Max Hastings 2010 book on Churchill’s war, the which I also read of late) brought home to me anew Churchill’s growing realisation – during the closing years of the war – that Britain’s position in the world order had been diminished irrevocably by the need to rely on intervention by the American and Soviet superpowers to save Europe. Even so, his sentimental attachment to the notion of a ‘special relationship’ with the US prevented him from recognising that the price to be paid for this salvation would be the ultimate surrender of the British empire.

The Second World War and the half century (and more) of world-wide chaos that followed have been so widely documented and discussed that it is difficult to reconcile what we now know and understand of the period – and of the vast change in Britain’s place in the world – with some of the shrill voices that are to be heard from Britannia in these troubled times. It is difficult enough to observe the resurgence of nationalism across a continent that has good cause to fear exactly that, without also having to listen to those voices that seem almost to be calling for a return to the mythical days of yore.

As Churchill knew all too well in his twilight years – those days are long, long gone!

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidI have endeavoured within these jottings over the past four and more years to record at least some information that might be of use to others contemplating relocating from their various loci on the planet – to Canada… and in particular to the Pacific northwest. I have not been alone in doing this, of course, there being plentiful sources of such information on the InterWebNet.

It strikes me that this combined pool of knowledge might find itself increasingly in demand as the uncertain political situation in the UK and in Europe continues to evolve. Should this November’s election south of the border here produce the outcome that all sane men and women must surely be praying could never happen, interest in this idyllic corner of the globe might sky-rocket.

Of course – this ‘public service’ is only a part of the brief that I set myself when inaugurating my own humble ramblings. One of the main reasons for continuing to record our progress, as we departed the English home-counties and commenced the long process of settling in on the coast of British Columbia, is to better inform our loved-ones, our friends and those with whom we have become acquainted over the years on either side of the pond, about the places in which we have been fortunate enough to reside and of the peoples who live there.

Whilst yet in England I tried to give a flavour of life there for those who live in Canada and elsewhere. Now that we are in B.C. I do my best to provide a balanced and compelling – if inevitably partial – descriptive and visual depiction of this beautiful part of the world for all those who have an interest therein.

With this mission in mind I was delighted to find the other day – on the BBC’s fourth TV channel, BBC4 – the first of a two-part documentary by British Museum archaeologist Dr. Jago Cooper, entitled ‘Masters of the Pacific Coast: The Tribes of the American Northwest‘. This exquisitely filmed programme muses upon the extraordinary resilience of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific northwest who have evolved an intricate and sophisticated culture over a 10,000 year period – without ever ‘resorting’ to agriculture!

The programme is fascinating and delightful and offers a good picture of the history of this rugged coast. More information may be gleaned from this review by Marina Vaizey on theartsdesk.com, and the first part of the documentary can be found on the BBC iPlayer – for those who have access to such. The final part will be shown on BBC4 this Thursday – 4th August.

Were the film to do no more than to offer images of the ravishing beauty of this land I would find myself quite choked up thereby. It is, of course, much more that just that as The Arts Desk review attests:

“The programme did with an ease of manner what television in Reithian mode can do so well: deliver a plethora of unfamiliar facts anchored by the amiable charm of a scholarly presenter, made memorable by endless scenes of beautiful wilderness and occasional surprises.”

I firmly recommend catching this documentary before it disappears from the iPlayer.

Erratum – I see that the second part was on today, Wednesday 3rd. Sorry about that. Thank goodness for the iPlayer!

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To Edmonton for a long weekend – on an excursion with two objectives. The first of these – and the subject of this post – was a visit to long-time friends who previously lived in Victoria. It was lovely to see them and they spoiled us rotten – plying us with all manner of sweetmeats and tinctures and laying on the most excellent and generous entertainment (even if the price thereof was having my a*se kicked at street-hockey by our friends’ ridiculously talented six-year-old progeny).

With my Canadian experience limited thus far to British Columbia (it is a very big country!) all that I really knew about Alberta beforehand was that it was flat – relentlessly flat – and that this is not the best time to be in oil! This first visit confirmed that it is indeed flat (with impressively big skies) but also that there are numerous other places of interest in and around Edmonton – a fact to which these photographs will attest.

At Elk Island National Park we had the truly magical experience of being able to get up close and personal with the splendid herd of plains’ bison. It was possible – if only for a fleeting moment – to gain some sense of what this country must have once been like.

Photo by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson Reid

It is also possible to get a sense of the past at Fort Edmonton Park, where the history of the city is brought to life in a series of recreations of the townscapes of different eras.

Photo by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson Reid

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Image from Pixabay“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Bob Dylan

The British people have spoken…

…well – just over half of them have and it was more of an incoherent cry of rage than anything cogent – but democracy demands…

I have pontificated a number of times in these pages concerning the increasing inequality between those in the ‘one percent’ and the rest of the world’s population. In this post from February 2013 – entitled ‘The disenfranchised‘ – I wrote:

History would suggest that were this trend to continue unchecked, at a certain point a revolutionary ire would finally be aroused, the formerly silent majority would declare that enough was enough and an insurrection – in some form or other – would almost inevitably follow. The difference this time is that the 1% – by becoming a global phenomenon and by disassociating themselves from any particular nation state – have thus essentially rendered themselves untouchable.

And if not the state then against whom should we rebel – and how?

I believe that we may just have had the answer.

Consider these details from the polling:

  • London, the major cities, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by decent margins to remain in the EU.
  • Younger voters in the main wanted to stay in.
  • Those who benefited from higher education tended to vote in favour of remaining.
  • Bankers, economists, scientists, academics and other ‘experts’ mostly supported the status quo.

It seems clear that the UK has divided along a fault line that separates those who have done reasonably well over the past four decades and those for whom what can now clearly be seen as the end-game of the Thatcher experiment has seen year upon year of slow decline and ever decreasing influence on the direction that the union has been taking.

There are those – of course – from middle and higher class backgrounds who did campaign for Brexit – both politicians and entrepreneurs. It is quite likely that one of these will shortly hold the reigns of power now that Cameron has done that which he declared Britons would not do – and quit. That his successor will have been elected by the mere 150,000 members of the tory party and foisted upon the rest of the electorate is one of the ‘delightful’ ironies of the situation. Dare we hope for an early election – or is that just too grim a prospect? Actually, now that the Labour party seems hell bent on self-destruction that seems increasingly to be the most likely outcome.

In any event, the motivation of such people should – as suggested in my last post – be carefully scrutinised. We have already been subjected to the most unedifying spectacle of a number of the leave campaigners furiously backtracking on what many voters consider to have been firm campaign pledges – particularly with regard to funding and immigration. Hardly has the dust settled on this grim chapter than those who cynically rode a wave of disaffection to bring about their desired outcome have set about demonstrating just why those on the receiving end were right to be disaffected.

Clearly, if these political (and commercial) chancers have any belief at all it is in taking any possible opportunity for their own advancement, promotion and enrichment. By the time the ‘disenfranchised’ realise that when it comes to ‘taking back control’ they have been sold down the river – simply swapping one unaccountable elite for another – it will be far too late. The victims may at that point attempt a more forceful rebellion against the state, but the culprits will simply take the money and run, merging imperceptibly into the untouchable global elite that sees every world event – however cataclysmic – as an opportunity for personal enrichment.

It is most telling that amongst the leaders (or would-be leaders) of the rest of the world’s nations – who are even now contemplating with disquiet the happenings in the UK – there are only two who – for their own reasons – express unalloyed delight at the decision that the British electorate has taken… Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump!

I trust that no further comment is needed…

One final thought. Some on the far right have been voicing hopes that – following the UK result – other European peoples will demand similar referenda with a view to leaving the Union. The ultimate desire of these right-wingers would seem to be to see the whole European project collapse. Quite apart from the dazzling hypocrisy of those who complained bitterly about the UK having rules and regulations foisted upon it from without now wanting to dictate to other nations what they should or should not do – this hankering in some quarters for a return to a Europe of independent nation states all jockeying for position would seem to betray a longing for the continent to return to its conformation of the years before the Great War.

Perhaps some of those of the far right are hoping for a re-match!

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image from Wikimedia“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

H.G. Wells

I have done my utmost thus far to avoid adding to the hideous cacophony that surrounds this coming week’s grisly event in the UK – the referendum that is in danger of permanently tearing apart a nation that I love. After the appalling happenings of the last few days, however, I find myself compelled to say something – anything – regardless of the utter pointlessness of so doing.

Politicians on all sides are currently performing an intricate dance to avoid drawing any connections between the wicked slaying of MP Jo Cox and the rebarbative and vicious campaigns that have been waged on either side of the ‘debate’. Good form suggests that this is out of respect for the life – and tragic death – of a politician whose example clearly puts to shame the venal efforts of certain others. It would not be entirely cynical – however – to surmise that some of the shameless hucksters concerned are also desperate to avoid their own words and actions becoming associated with – or even blamed for – these awful events. When the full truth finally emerges they may find themselves considerably less lucky than they are hoping for.

Those leading and supporting the campaign to remain in Europe have much to be ashamed of. The manner in which they have tried to frighten voters into backing their position – rather than having faith that a reasoned and full debate would carry the day – betrays the lack of trust that both they and the electorate have in each other.

Those campaigning for the UK to leave are – however – far, far worse – for they are perpetrating a great deception on the British people. That they will eventually be found out and punished for it is of little comfort. By then it will be too late.

These devious villains – whilst peddling a romanticised notion of a ‘golden age’ that never existed but to which an exit from Europe might somehow return us – are banking on the great mass of their acolytes having no grasp of history at all. They are relying on the population not knowing or caring just how and why this great European project came about. They want us to believe that this has all been a plot by those devious foreigners rather than grand scheme for the protection of the entire continent, of which we in the UK were the joint architects.

The Brexiteers dismiss any notion of a united Europe being essential as a means of avoiding a repeat of the calamitous wars of the last century. They posit that times have changed – that there are no more fascist dictators and that with the end of the cold war Russia is no longer a threat(!). They do so – mind – whilst at the same time invoking the spectre of Hitler and Napoleon in reference to our European partners. In any case – they demur – our defence now lies in the hands of the Americans.

What these ‘educated’ men (public school and Oxbridge all) wish their followers to forget is that the causes of the second war are to be found with few exceptions in the outcome of the first. The Great War itself became tragically inevitable as the individual nation states of Europe – competing against each other for power, influence and wealth – bound themselves into a Gordian knot of treaties, arrangements and deals that ultimately tipped the continent into a cataclysmic and unlooked-for war over a relatively trivial issue – because by then none of the ‘educated’ elite could find a way to extricate us from it. It was these events that led directly to the European project – that which some are now determined to dismantle in an effort to return us to a situation not dissimilar to that which led to the conflict in the first place.

The other great lie that these shysters will sell to anyone who can be persuaded to fall for it is the notion that – once we can govern ‘ourselves’ again – all the ills that bedevil the modern UK will be resolved. Let us be clear. These unscrupulous millionaires do indeed want ‘control’ returned to the UK, but they have no intention of sharing it – or any of the corresponding wealth – with any of the ‘great unwashed’ who might be persuaded to follow their cause.

These men (and they are in the main men) would love to see a return to nineteenth century employment practices – to see swept away all of those inconvenient protections that were hard-won throughout a century of endeavour – both in the UK and across the continent. They would also like to see the UK withdraw from that beacon of post-war achievement – the European Convention on Human Rights. Should you believe that those who peddle this line have at heart the interests of the whole of the British people then I fear that you are in for a rude awakening.

Nothing is quite so sickening as observing the carrot of higher NHS spending – posited as a potential outcome of leaving the EU – being dangled by those who do not actually believe in a state-funded health service at all. They would much rather see it privatised and added to the pool of money-making opportunities for them and their egregious buddies to paddle in.

Nothing is quite so sickening as watching those who would happily exploit any source of cheap labour playing the race card to pander to the oldest fear of all – that of immigration swamping all that we hold dear. When those responsible for these falsehoods betray those who have placed their trust in them – as they inevitably will – the guilty men will aim to have made their millions and to be long gone.

Surely in such desperate and dangerous times we should be doing all in our power to find ways to work together across continents – to co-operate with each other? Is that not the true lesson of the twentieth century? The belief that we can isolate ourselves and set ourselves apart from our neighbours sets us on a precarious path that I for one would fear to tread.

It scares me to hear Brexiteers argue that we should stop listening to the advice of ‘experts’. In Wells’s ‘race between education and catastrophe‘ there can be only one acceptable winner.

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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon – ‘For the Fallen’

 

Today is – you will not need to be reminded – the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944.

This major anniversary is rendered more poignant by almost certainly being the last such on which any number of those involved on the day itself will still be alive. This pivotal event from our recent history will slip increasingly quickly into the mists of the past, to become – as has the subject of the other major anniversary this year, the start of the Great War – an event that is now only revealed to us through the history books and to which we can no longer discern a direct connection.

I was born in 1954 – a mere ten years after the events being commemorated today. At that point the memories for my parents’ generation were still razor sharp and the now familiar process of ‘reassessment’ had not yet commenced. So much has changed throughout the world since that day.

No matter how vivid are the accounts that we read – or how searingly accurate the computer-generated movie images with which we are assailed – it is now simply impossible for us to truly comprehend what it must have been like for those who were actually involved. I – for one – am most grateful that I have never been called upon to make such choices – such sacrifices.

Photo by Andy Dawson ReidThere is a connection with the School. Montgomery was an old boy – and when the community decamped to leafy Berkshire to ride out the Blitz the school buildings were requisitioned by the military. The Board Room was used for much of the planning of the British part of the invasion and the final conference at which the decision was taken to launch the attack was held there.

The buildings that housed the School in 1944 no longer exist – the School having moved across the river in the late 60s – but the map used by Monty and the commemorative plaques installed after the war are still extant in the current equivalent space.

These artifacts provide a lasting reminder – lest we forget…

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Photo from Wikimedia CommonsIn my previous post I posited the question:

Which advance in automotive engineering – had it come into widespread use sooner than it actually did – might well have completely changed the course of twentieth century history?

The answer – as I’m sure many of you knew – is… reverse gear!

Though the first production car to be fitted with a reverse gear – Ford’s ubiquitous Model T – made its appearance in 1908, it was some years before the application of this innovation became established practice throughout the world.

On 24th June 1914 the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophia paid their ill-advised visit to Sarajevo in the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, unaware that a group of seven young assassins – their bombs and pistols provided indirectly by neighbouring Serbia’s military intelligence service – lay in wait for them along the route that their motorcade was to follow.

Though several of the would-be assassins lost their nerve at the vital moment, one – Nedjelko Cabrinovic – did throw his bomb as the Archduke’s car passed. The missile bounced off the canopy of the car and exploded under the following vehicle, injuring several of those on board. The remainder of the motorcade continued to City Hall where the furious Archduke rounded on the Mayor of Sarajevo. It was decided that the visit should be cut short.

Franz Ferdinand – however – insisted on first visiting the hospital to which those injured in the explosion had been taken. The motorcade accordingly retraced its passage back along the Appel Quay – the route that the motorcade had already come but also part of the originally scheduled onward journey. Unfortunately the change of plan had not been communicated to the drivers and on reaching Franz Joseph Street, where one of the conspirators – Gavrilo Princip – was still stationed, the cars slowed and made the turn. On being alerted to this mistake the driver of the Archduke’s car braked the vehicle with a view to rejoining the chosen route. The car came to rest a short distance from Princip’s position.

Unfortunately, the car had no reverse gear – and thus had to be pushed backwards onto the Appel Quay. Princip had time to reach the vehicle and to fire the two shots that killed the Archduke and his wife.

Had Princip not been able to fire – or had his shots missed or only wounded the Archduke – Austria-Hungary would not have had a casus belli on which to go to war with Serbia. Had a fresh Balkan war not broken out the Russians would not have mobilised in support of the Serbs. Had the Russians not mobilised, the Germans – who had offered Austria unconditional support – would probably not have launched an attack on Russia’s close ally – France – aiming to remove them from contention before turning attention to the Russians themselves. Had Germany not violated Belgian neutrality to attack France the British would most probably not have become involved in what rapidly turned into the Great War.

Had there been no Great War it is highly likely that the subsequent rise of fascism would have taken a very different course and there may well not have been a second conflagration. Had there been no World War II the course of European history would have been very different. There might have been no impetus to develop nuclear weapons and the standoff between East and West that overshadowed much of the latter part of the century might never have occurred.

Who can tell? What is clear is that none of the European nations that allowed themselves to slide into the war in 1914 had set out with this objective in mind.

If you have not previously done so but now feel impelled – in this centenary year of the start of that lamentable conflict – to gain a clearer understanding as to how this unfortunate sequence of events unfolded, I strongly recommend Christopher Clark’s excellent ‘The Sleepwalkers’. Comprehensive, well argued and splendidly written, this volume cuts through much of the fog that surrounds the causes of this most terrible calamity.

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Image by Damián Navas on Flickr

A little teaser for you…

Which advance in automotive engineering – had it come into widespread use sooner than it actually did – might well have completely changed the course of twentieth century history?

Answer to follow… Let’s see if someone gets there before I post it!

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Image from en.wikipedia.orgI watched last night on the BBC a deeply affecting documentary film by Helen Langridge entitled ‘Moving Half the Mountain’. At the centre of the film was the story of the building of what became commonly known as the ‘Death Railway’ in Burma during the Second World War.

Those of us who grew up with Alec Guinness in David Lean’s epic “Bridge on the River Kwai” (based on the eponymous French novel by Pierre Boulle) will be broadly familiar with the subject, should this be only because – having been absorbed by the film – we engaged in further research to establish the real truth behind this regrettable chapter in the history of mans’ inhumanity.

It is not – however – the narrative itself that imbues this impressive new documentary with its power to move. That comes – as it so often does – from the testament of those directly involved –  from the thoughts and memories of the British and Japanese soldiers that survive still – and who agreed to be interviewed for the film.

The British had been caught up in the cataclysmic events that lead to the disastrous fall of Singapore in February 1942 and were subsequently marched up the Malaysian peninsula and into Burma, where they were ill-used by the Japanese as slave labour to build a railway linking Burma and Thailand. Forced to work in appalling conditions it is believed that a total of some 100,000 men – including more than 6,000 British servicemen – perished in pursuance of this objective.

Of those that survived the ordeal many have never spoken in depth about their experiences – even to their loved ones. That these men have chosen to do so now is a result of most of them being in their 90s, some having even achieved their centenaries. It would be a further tragedy were their testaments to be lost without being heard.

Affecting though they may be – however – their stories are not the most telling element of the film. What really moves is the demeanour of the survivors themselves. Almost to a man they demonstrate a degree of forgiveness, of acknowledgement, of coming to terms with their experience – that is humbling in the extreme. These men had come face to face with the very worst of which mankind is capable, and their survival – and subsequently fulfilled lives – leave us a lesson the we would do well to heed.

In the light of some of the more unpleasantly revisionist thinking that seems to be prevalent in this centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War, I would strongly recommend the viewing of this excellent film to any tempted to make glib judgements as to the expediency of warfare.

 

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