Mud and blood

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THE FALLEN: Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres

Passchendaele holds a distinctive place in British folk memory due to the atrocious conditions in which it was fought.
Professor John Derry spoke impressively for an hour without notes on the controversial battle during the April meeting of the Western Front Association at Manor School, York, this afternoon.
He told the capacity audience there were good strategic reasons for the British to try to force the Germans off the ridges overlooking the battered city of Ypres in 1917.
If the Third Battle of Ypres had achieved its objectives German supply lines would have been disrupted and the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge would no longer have been a haven for U-boats.
However, heavy rain turned the battlefield, churned up by intensive artillery shelling, into a stinking quagmire that swallowed men and horses, thereby hampering the advance.
When British and Canadian forces finally reached Passchendaele on 6th November 1917, after three months of hard fighting, hardly a trace of the village remained. However, its capture enabled Field Marshal Haig to end the offensive.
Professor Derry argued the Third Battle of Ypres diverted German attention away from the French army, which was in a fragile state due to the mutinies that followed the failure of the Nivelle Offensive.  Who knows what might have happened if the Germans had launched a major offensive against the French in 1917.

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The past is a different country

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A retired divorcee, living alone, re-evaluates his life after a mysterious legacy sends him on a fraught journey down memory lane. Jim Broadbent is excellent as the curmudgeon haunted by his past in a screen adaptation of The Sense Of An Ending, the finely honed novel by Julian Barnes. I enjoyed the movie at York City Screen today.

Hidden civilisation

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The Lost City Of Z tells the story of Lt Col Percival Fawcett who became convinced, during a series of mapping expeditions to the Amazon, that somewhere in the jungle lay the ruins of an ancient civilisation. James Gray’s movie is a sumptuous period drama featuring stag hunting in Ireland, the panelled rooms of polite society, the mud and blood of the Somme and the grandeur of the Amazonian rainforest. Actor Charlie Hunnam portrays Fawcett as an explorer guided to his destiny by a relentless inner voice. I enjoyed the movie at York City Screen today.

Musical storytelling

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What is it like to be a gifted musician? This question is explored by the bestselling author Mitch Albom in his novel The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto. It tells the story of a young orphan born into a Spain torn apart by civil war. The boy learns to play guitar and flees death and destruction to end up in the United States where he has encounters with Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Frankie eventually retreats from soulless fame and fortune to live a life of obscurity. But his legend refuses to wither and die – despite his best efforts.
What makes this novel memorable is its narrator: Music. Another of Albom’s creative coups was persuading the likes of Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Tony Bennet and Paul Stanley, of the rock band Kiss, to bear witness to their part in Frankie’s incredible story – hinting at how his musicianship influenced theirs. The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto is an inspired work of fiction that strives to articulate the essence of music; its rigorous technique and potent emotion. The novel even has its own musical companion to enhance its atmospheric storytelling.

Bishop’s move

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Richard Holloway, the former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland who stopped believing in God, does not like being called an atheist because he “doesn’t do certainty”; if you must stick a label on him, he would suggest “expectant agnostic”.
He told a packed audience at York Explore Library last night (20/02/2017) he was fascinated by three questions that had taxed philosophers and theologians for centuries:

What are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?

In promoting his latest book A Little History Of Religion, the former bishop argued there were four approaches those questions:

Strong Religion: Humankind’s encounter with God was all truthful, all actual, all real. This fundamentalist approach left no room for doubt.

Critical Realism: There was an encounter with God but, due to human fallibility, we must be modest about the claims we make. It adopted a fluid approach to history.

Post Religion: (non-realism): This approach was sympathetic to religion; it regarded it as a colossal work of the imagination that spoke to the human condition in the same way as great works of art, such as an opera, play or novel. You can be a religious belonger without being a religious believer; it can challenge you to be a better person.

No religion: These people don’t get religion. They ask the question: “Why waste your time with it?” Some in this camp were benign while others, such as Richard Dawkins, attacked religion with vigour and a certain amount of anger by adopting, ironically, a religious, evangelical approach.

Holloway ended his stimulating talk by referring to Yehudah Amichai’s poem:

The Ecology of Jerusalem

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
like the air over cities with heavy industry.
It’s hard to breathe.

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives.
Houses and towers serve as packing materials
later thrown away and piled in heaps.

Sometimes candles come in place of people.
Then it’s quiet.
Sometimes people come in place of candles.
Then there’s noise.

Amid enclosed gardens, among jasmine bushes
replete with balsam, foreign consulates,
like wicked brides who were thrust aside

lie in wait for their moment.

Morality Play

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The Machine Stops explores our complex relationship with technology. The play, presented at York Theatre Royal this week, is based on a chilling and prophetic short story by the acclaimed writer E.M. Forster, published in 1909. The barren earth forces people to live underground in an intricate honeycomb of individual cells. The essentials of life are provided by an omnipotent, self-repairing machine, leaving people with nothing to do but communicate with each other using a system reminiscent of the worldwide web. Physical contact and travel is frowned upon; individuals live a solitary, insulated life, seldom venturing from their hexagonal cells. Ideas are constantly recycled; consequently there is no creativity; original thinking withers on the vine. The moral of this agile stage adaptation, with its haunting electronic soundscape, is: “Humankind cannot live by technology alone.”

What is happiness?

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Comedy is a serious business. Berlin director Maren Ade uses it in her acclaimed film Toni Erdmann to explore the relationship between a father and daughter.
“Toni Erdmann” is the scruffy alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher in his late 60s who loves to play pranks, with wigs and false teeth being his props of choice. His thirtysomething daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a cold, calculating corporate consultant whose current contract has landed her in Bucharest. In a series of comic vignettes, “Erdmann” sets out to sabotage her career in a bid to convince her there’s more to life than bullet points, spreadsheets and presentations. This movie is a bitter-sweet German comedy that reflects on the notion of happiness. I watched it a York City Screen last night with Janice Olsen and my daughter Sophie Foster who is visiting the UK from Weimar, Germany, where she is studying for a masters degree in public art.