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lifestyle, with its ancient knowledge, was already withering on the vine as the magnificent heavy horses were being superseded by noisy tractors.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.

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.

Righteousness and humidity

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Yankee Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is found wounded in the Virginia woods by schoolgirl Amy (Oona Laurence) and brought to Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Prim and proper Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney’s leg wound in the name of Christian charity and, as he recovers, they all vie for his affections by dressing to impress and offering gifts and banquets in their isolated mansion with its candles and Doric columns. The enemy soldier, using sly charm, disrupts their genteel routine of French lessons, prayer, sewing and music until matters come to a shocking head. McBurney fled the gunpowder and shot of a Civil War battlefield only to discover southern hospitality can also be deadly with its righteousness and humidity. Writer-director Sofia Coppola channels southern gothic in her screen adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel. It made me want to revisit Don Siegel’s 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood as the wounded Yankee.

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”.

It’s bleak up north…

170622SalvageEdric

Salvage by Robert Edric is a bleak novel about inertia and our inability to cope with environmental disaster.
It is set in the 22nd century; the UK is a barren country blighted by pollution, erratic weather systems and flooding. Livestock have long since been culled due to contagion with farms being converted into landfill sites; the nation is choked by crumbling infrastructure, corruption and red tape.
Quinn, a disillusioned civil servant, is sent to a remote northern town to write a report designed to pave the way for its rapid expansion in order to resettle families fleeing the floods.
He encounters selfish individuals desperate to maintain their own fiefdoms while everything around them is falling apart. Tragedy is personified by a son of the earth crushed by the loss of his family farm and a jobless journalist driven to drink by professional impotency.
Edric depicts a ruined land where politicking reigns supreme. In creating characters reduced by their grubby little compromises, he shines a critical light on contemporary Britain.

Playing with words

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How did The Beatles graduate from callow boy band to sophisticated bohemian artists capable of creating a cultural masterpiece in only four years?
This was the question explored by sociologist Colin Campbell in an illustrated talk called Sergeant Pepper: Playing With Words where he examined the lyrics of selected songs from that seminal album.
His Festival Of Ideas lecture attracted a capacity audience at York University’s Ron Cooke Hub last night (June 15th). This attendance alone suggests the great British public is far from being “peppered out” by the mass media fanfare that has greeted the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The critic Kenneth Tynan has been mocked for describing the album, released on 1st June 1967, as “A decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation.” However, Campbell put Tynan’s ambitious claim in context by stating The Beatles were more than pop stars; they were artists who influenced millions of people throughout the world. Along with fellow musician Bob Dylan, they were the beating heart of 1960s counter culture.
They achieved this status with their songs. As boys, they played with words before they played the guitar. Being Scousers, they were addicted to puns; the band’s name, after all, is a pun. They also adored alliteration and instinctively used rhetorical forms, such as anaphora, epiphora, symploce and oronym.
Campbell defined good lyrics as being effortless, succinct, pleasing to the ear and original. The lyrics of The Beatles demonstrate these four characteristics. They put music in their lyrics through creative word play. They wrote songs, not just melody; strip away the lyrics from the music and you are left with something that’s vaguely dissatisfying.
Campbell added Lennon was the master of ambiguity, while Paul was the master of word sounds. All the while, curious George was learning the art of song writing by observing his band mates; Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun was, somewhat appropriately, revealed as Campbell’s favourite Beatles song.