Toiling the soil

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Adrian Bell writes about British agriculture between the wars in his book Men And The Fields (Little Toller Books) when farmers and their labourers eked out a living during a protracted slump.
It was a challenging time when toiling the soil and tending livestock did not pay well. The characters Bell describes were familiar with the different rhythms of the seasons; they lived in harmony with their environment and were at ease with the plodding of hooves.
The tasks they carried out would have been familiar to previous generations, including those so recently named on the war memorials standing sentinel-like in each parish.
Bell, father of the journalist and former MP Martin Bell, left Uppingham School, Rutland, and apprenticed himself to a Suffolk farmer in 1920, aged 19, farming in various locations over the next 60 years.
He describes his beloved countryside through the practical, non-sentimental eyes of a farmer; he realised this rural lifestyle, with its ancient knowledge, was already withering on the vine as the magnificent heavy horses were being superseded by noisy tractors.
Only months after Bell’s book was published in 1939, Britain was plunged into another world war, an event that hastened the industrialisation of agriculture. After the war, farming, lubricated by Whitehall subsidies, continued to change the landscape with its labour-saving machines and relentless quest for increased output and profit.
Bell’s prose is illustrated by his friend John Nash, the distinguished war artist, with a series of evocative colour lithographs and monochrome line drawings.

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Dunkirk veteran saluted

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Jack Danby shows the bullet hole in his D-Day helmet

Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk tells the story of the British Army’s miraculous escape from the advancing German army from three perspectives: Land, Sea and Air. In weaving together three different timelines, Nolan successfully depicts the chaos of what was a colossal military defeat; the viewer is plunged right into the middle of the action where the fear and tension is amplified by Hans Zimmer’s intense musical score.
This movie is timely as, more than 75 years after the rescue that entered British folklore, so few Dunkirk veterans remain. One who has passed away is Jack Danby, of Selby. He survived Dunkirk and, four years later, returned to France in the first wave of D-Day where he was nearly killed; while trying to rescue a wounded comrade, a German bullet passed through his helmet inflicting a flesh wound.
Watching Dunkirk brought home to me the bravery of men like Jack. After the war, Jack was headmaster of four different schools in the East Riding where, after experiencing the horror of Dunkirk and D-Day, his motivation was to help build a better post-war world. His distinguished service included 12 years as the first head of Etton Pasture boarding school for disabled children; his pioneering work there was recognised by the award of an MBE in 1965.

Postcards of protest

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote, attributed to the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke, came to mind after I watched Alone In Berlin at York City Screen today. Brendan Gleeson plays a Berlin factory worker who defies the Nazi regime after his son is killed in combat by secretly casting scores of hand-written postcards across the city. He naively hopes those finding them will pass them on and the anti-Hitler messages will eventually clog up the Nazi war machine like so many grains of sand. He is aided in this act of subversion by his grieving wife played by Emma Thompson. Daniel Brühl plays the professional detective who gets on the wrong side of his SS boss while trying to track down the furtive scribe. The film is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Their defiance of Hitler inspired the novelist Hans Fallada to write a fictional account in 1947 which was published in 2009 under the English title Alone In Berlin.

Restoring skiffle’s reputation…

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Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, shines the spotlight on skiffle in his latest book Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.
This primitive music, with its tea chest bass, washboard and guitar, energised the lives of British teenagers in the 1950s; a mainly drab world where the shadow of World War Two loomed large with certain foodstuffs still on the ration.
Bragg, in this well-written and diligently-researched work of scholarship, argues that skiffle lies neglected in the dead ground of British pop culture. Yet skiffle was where the “pop royalty” of the 1960s learned their musical chops and paved the way for the British invasion of the US charts; as Beatles guitarist George Harrison once said: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would be no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
Donegan was skiffle’s biggest star but his swift decline into novelty songs, such as the 1960 hit My Old Man’s A Dustman, tainted skiffle with an odour of embarrassment that still lingers.
Now Bragg believes the time is ripe to restore the genre’s reputation. He stresses skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history and he dedicates his book to “every kid who picked up a guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan”.

Churchill’s black dog

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Winston Churchill has entered British folklore as the statesman who saved Great Britain in its darkest hour when the country stood alone against Nazi Germany.
But Churchill was not the invincible warlord that he liked to portray to the British public with his “V for Victory” salute, morale-boosting oratory, homburg hat and trademark cigar.
He suffered from depression, dubbed his “black dog”, which he self-medicated by consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol.
Brian Cox brings out this private vulnerability in Churchill, a movie depicting the Prime Minister during the final days before the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Churchill tries to persuade General Dwight Eisenhower, the American Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, to call off D-Day because he fears the amphibious assault will end in disaster as it did at Gallipoli during the First World War. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill felt responsible for Gallipoli and the ghost of its failure still haunted him 30 years later.
Cox puts in a bravura performance as Churchill; Miranda Richardson also impresses as his formidable wife, Clementine. However the film is flawed mainly due to a screenplay that condenses Churchill’s concerns about D-Day into the final hours before its launch.

A rum do

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James Sandilands, aka Sandy

“If my men are going to meet their maker, they will meet Him sober.”
So said Colonel James Sandilands, known as Sandy, after he had controversially deprived the 7th Cameron Highlanders of their traditional tot of rum as they prepared to go “over the top” at the start of the Battle of Loos in 1915.
The regiment took heavy casualties during the attack; Sandy averted disaster by rallying the troops and ordering them to dig in on the reverse slope of Hill 70 after watching many of his men cut down by German machine gun fire as they advanced down the other side of the hill.
However, after the battle, the survivors talked more about the lack of rum rather than their appalling losses; they were still indignant that Sandy had ordered his sergeants to up end the jars and pour the precious liquid away prior to the dawn attack.
Members of the Yorkshire Branch of the Western Front Association gathered at Manor School, York, this afternoon to hear Terry Dean give a talk about Sandy, entitled Monty’s Mentor.
His lecture was an engrossing combination of text, audio, maps, video clips and photographs that brought to life Sandy’s distinguished military career.
Sandy was mentioned in despatches for bravery as a young subaltern during the Mahdist War in Sudan in the 1890s and was badly wounded in the Second Boer War; one of his NCOs won the Victoria Cross for carrying him to safety while under heavy fire, thereby saving his life.
Sandy was promoted from Captain to Brigadier-General during the Great War; one of his protégées was Captain Bernard Montgomery who later found fame as a Field Marshal during the Second World War. Monty said Sandy “was the best general I ever served under” and the two men kept in touch.
As a Major-General, Sandy was appointed Commander of British Troops in South China in 1929 and retired in 1933. When war broke out in 1939 he was a founder member of the Camberley Home Guard in Surrey.
Sandy died in September 1959, aged 85 with associates recalling the modesty of this very gallant and distinguished soldier.

War-time cinema

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Their Finest is a movie set in the dark days of the Second World War when Britain stood alone after the defeat of France and the Nazis were trying to bomb London into submission.

Life during the Blitz is precarious as Londoners cope with meagre rations, shattered buildings, dingy bomb shelters and losing loved ones. Many escape this harrowing routine by going to the cinema.

What’s needed is a rousing movie to lift the nation’s flagging spirits. Backed by the Ministry of Information, three writers hammer out a script on clunking typewriters about the miracle of Dunkirk, focusing on twin sisters who absconded with their father’s boat to help evacuate British soldiers from the beach.

Welsh valley girl Catrin (Gemma Arterton) is hired to write dialogue for the female characters (aka “slop”) and it is her highly-charged relationship with fellow scriptwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) that gives the movie its emotional heft. However, Bill Nighy steals the show with his entertaining portrayal of Ambrose Hilliard, a fading matinee idol desperate to make the most of the limelight.

Adapted from Lissa Evans’s 2009 novel Their Finest Hour And A Half, the movie portrays the war-ravaged London with a deft touch where the making of a propaganda film offers ample opportunity for both comedy and tragedy. I enjoyed watching Their Finest at Vue Cinema, York, last night.