Heroes and Villains

I went to see Darkest Hour at Reading Film Theatre this week. I had expected it to be quite busy even before the Oscars, and so it was. Conveniently, it follows on more or less directly from my recent reading of Winston’s War, as Churchill takes up the office of Prime Minister, and covers the days and weeks of May 1940 leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation.

It’s not difficult to understand why Gary Oldman had reservations about taking the part; after all, it’s a well-trodden path and you have to feel there is something new to offer. I think he does. The storyline might be hagiographic, but the portrayal isn’t; Churchill is, to say the least, a heavy drinker, who keeps odd hours and, despite his personal convictions, is wracked by insecurity, yet, like an actor, when he takes to the stage, he delivers a fine speech. Disliked by most of his own party, by the opposition, and by the monarchy, he has to find ways to persuade them of his cause and course. The attempts by Chamberlain and Halifax to force him into negotiations beggar belief with the hindsight of history; but even in 1940, I wonder, how could they still believe, after all their previous negotiations with Hitler, that this would end any differently? Halifax, in particular, is portrayed here as a malevolent influence; Chamberlain is already a broken man, suffering from ill health, and perhaps recognising his own denial of events.

Did Churchill really sneak off to the Underground? Probably not, and that scene does require some suspension of belief. It’s a weak point where the film ceases to be historical and becomes entertainment, but not really convincingly so. It’s not altogether impossible, but it risks adding to the already overflowing mythology of someone who was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time, but otherwise would have been a minor irritation in the footnotes of history.

Oldman plays the lead role, but the quality runs deep throughout the cast, and I also felt there were strong performances from Kristin Scott Thomas (Clemmie Churchill) and Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain), and Ben Mendelsohn provides an enigmatic portrayal of King George VI.

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Two Spains; Two Books

Book Review: Ghosts of Spain – Travels through a country’s hidden past, by Giles Tremlett
I picked this up a few months ago from the book-swap shelf at work, primarily for the possibility of insight into the Franco regime and its aftermath, but in subsequent months, also for potential insight into the Catalan position. The first four chapters or so of the book deal quite well with the first of these areas, covering the division that erupted (but did not start) in Spain in the 1930s and contending it has never really gone away; in particular, that Spaniards have dealt with the dictatorship years primarily by forgetting about it since, but that familial, communal and political feuds simmer under the surface and periodically re-emerge. There’s a useful discussion about the history of Valle de los Caídos and other Franco-era symbols and rituals that persist in some form to the present day. Sometimes it does feel like reading through a Louis Theroux documentary with interviews of dubious personalities giving uncomfortably frank answers.

The remaining two-thirds of the book are a bit of a disappointment, however, drifting through what might be broadly grouped as non-Castilian communities (Gypsies, Moors, Basques, Catalans and Galicians) without really constructing any coherent theme beyond varying degrees of corruption at all levels of government. There is some useful analysis of the domestic politics surrounding the 11 March 2004 attack in Madrid, in which the governing party determinedly and persistently attached blame to ETA despite an initial lack of evidence, and in the following days in the face of rapidly collating evidence that the perpetrators were Islamic terrorists. But there’s no convincing insight into the Catalan independence movement. The recent referendum would seem farcical were it not for the heavy-handed violence with which protests were closed down, and the behaviour of the Catalan leadership since has made it a laughing stock, at least in my view. Tremlett contrasts the Basque and Catalan positions with that of the Galicians, where there is no significant separatist feeling. The final chapter returns to the theme of dealing with the past in Spain – essentially by forgetting it, demolishing it and building over it.

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Book Review: The Upright Thinkers, by Leonard Mlodinow
Having enjoyed previous works by Mlodinow, I picked this one up straight away at a work book sale some time ago. In this volume Mlodinow takes the rather broad subject of – more or less – everything that has ever happened, from a human point of view.

He begins by pointing out that, although chimpanzees can communicate with human researchers, and can answer questions posed, they never show evidence of asking questions, and that this is a very fundamental difference from even a quite small human child. The first few chapters examine prehistory and early history, from before the Neolithic revolution through Göbekli Tepe and the writings of Aristotle, with an emphasis on the rational inferences and behaviours that were drawn by early humans from the evidence around them. The second part of the book considers the way Aristotelian science was cast aside from the seventeenth to nineteenth century, with a focus on Galileo, Newton, Mendeleev and Darwin. The third part focuses exclusively on physics, which is Mlodinow’s profession, in the twentieth century, with a non-specialist overview of quantum physics. It is, perhaps, a shame that other scientific achievements, such as the discovery of DNA or the development of the electronic computer, are omitted. The book is interspersed with memories and anecdotes of his father’s time as a survivor of the Holocaust, perhaps in part as a memorial and also as a cautionary tale of un-thinking. Overall, this is an entertaining and eminently readable book, and Mlodinow’s dry humour also frequently shows through.

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We were warned it was going to be bad, but somehow we didn’t believe the experts, or though it wouldn’t happen to us. It’s the first severe snowy weather in this area since 2010/11 I think, though there were bad floods in 2013/14.

It was an awkward week at work for this to happen. Wednesday was book-sale day, so for entirely self-indulgent reasons, I was determined to go in, despite GWR cancelling the 0745 train from Mortimer, giving me a half-hour of quality time in the waiting room (which is, at least, heated). Of course the following train turned out to be a short train, so it was cosy, though I reckon enough people had already written off the day and it wasn’t the worst it has been for overcrowding. Following on from that, the train in to Paddington was delayed because of a broken-down Heathrow Express service; then the tube was unusually awkward as well. Door-to-door was about 3 hours. Fortunately the book sale was worth it. The journey back was smooth as far as Reading, where it all went wrong because of a broken-down freight train on the line between Mortimer and Reading West. I endured an additional hour in the rather chilly waiting room at Reading station, leading to a 3-hour duration for my return trip too.

On Thursday I had an all-day training session, and I didn’t want to be the one to cancel it, so I got up early and checked all the travel websites. The 0745 was cancelled – again – but the trains from Reading to Paddington appeared to be running as scheduled – and so I skipped half of breakfast and caught the bus into Reading instead. The roads were snowy but not too bad – clearly gritting and so on had been done appropriately. Unfortunately, by the time I got to Reading station, a quiet chaos ensued. Much of the station concourse was taped off, and powdery snow was swirling all around inside and on the (covered) footbridge. Again, many people had clearly abandoned plans for the day, otherwise it would have been much busier. By now (around 0800) all the trains to Paddington were listed as cancelled or delayed; as usual, information was scarce and you tend not to believe what little the staff tell you. It later emerged that Paddington station had been closed due to slippery platforms. It’s a really poor fitting choice to cover the platforms with highly polished tiling and there are regular announcements warning passengers about slippery surfaces. At this point I logged on to work email and discovered that the course had, after all, been cancelled, so there was no point waiting and battling in on a slow train to Ealing Broadway, and I decided to return home. Unfortunately by this time Reading Buses were running 25 minutes late on a half-hourly service, but they got me home safely. It took me 2.5 hours to get to work – from home.

I’d guess we’ve had 2-3 inches of snow here, much lighter than some parts of the country. Given the forecast I had always intended to work from home on Friday. In the end, Storm Emma turned out to be a bit of a non-event here, though it kept things cold. Today the snow is thawing fast, and I reckon it will almost all be gone tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I have sympathy for the actions of passengers who abandoned their train at Lewisham, although it is crazy and dangerous. Instead of getting steamed up about passengers doing the wrong thing, I would suggest train operating companies should actually take a look at how they are perceived and what the root cause of such desperation is. To some extent, I accept that the operators can’t win: they will be damned if they cancel a service, and damned if they don’t but it then fails before reaching its destination. However, the reaction of passengers doesn’t seem so irrational after the reports of passengers stuck on freezing trains overnight the previous day. In a situation where the level of care is inadequate and untrusted, it’s inevitable that people will eventually take matters into their own hands.

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House of Cards

Book Review: Winston’s War, by Michael Dobbs
This came to me as a second-hand find from in-laws. There can’t be any shortage of books, films, TV dramas, etc., on Churchill’s years in the wilderness in the late 1930s, so I wondered whether this novel would have anything different to offer.

The answer is yes, it does. The story begins in October 1938 with a visit by Guy Burgess to Churchill’s house Chartwell, in Kent, just as Chamberlain is in Munich. Dobbs probably correctly presents Munich as a popular triumph in Britain, though over the following months it becomes apparent that Chamberlain and his government are increasingly in denial on the dichotomy between the agreement and Hitler’s subsequent words and deeds. The paths of Burgess and Churchill are destined to cross at several pivotal moments in the book, perhaps with increasing fantasy but never going completely over to incredulity. There’s quite a large cast including Brendan Bracken, American and Swedish diplomats, barbers, sub-post-mistresses, and illiterate cleaners, and the weaving together of their lives is clever. As might be expected from this author, though, there’s quite a political focus, with the battle being more within the Conservative Party between Chamberlain and Churchill (and their cronies) than Britain and Germany, with a mixture of motives from the relatively honourable desire to avoid war through to less agreeable commercial considerations, Party machine, or downright quasi-fascism. Overall, it’s entertaining, though it certainly isn’t subtle and you get the feeling Andrew Davies wouldn’t have to do much sexing-up in order to turn it into a TV series.

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Two Shades of Blue

Book Review: Oxford and Cambridge – An Uncommon History, by Peter Sager
I had seen this years ago and added it to a wish list, so I was pleased to receive it as a Christmas present. I hadn’t realised until I read the blurb that it’s a translation from the German, by a German writer, so it’s interesting to see an outsider’s perspective.

After an introduction, where inter alia Sager notes that Thackeray produced two imaginary place-names, “Oxbridge” and “Camford”, but that only one of them has lasted, the book is evenly split (strictly so, perhaps) between Oxford and Cambridge. Despite their current reputations (the Head of Sixth Form laconically referred to them as “Thames Valley College of Arts” and “East Anglia Institute of Technology” respectively), Oxford has a scientific history, particularly in the first few hundred years; and he also draws attention to the wide range of writers who have hailed from Cambridge (though, it seems, Oxford is more often written about).

I’m only really familiar with Oxford, so my judgement of the book is based principally on this half. Sager begins with an overview, and considers broad culture, architecture, artistic and literary history. He takes a notionally geographic meandering around the city centre and the colleges, though as any fan of Inspector Morse is aware, the geography of Oxford is sometimes notional. And Sager is definitely a fan of Inspector Morse, with nods to Dorothy L Sayers, Edmund Crispin and others in the detective genre; though perhaps he didn’t see Yes Minister as, though he notes the two St John’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge are named after different saints, there’s no mention of the famous gaffe (“Isaac Wolfson, apparently, is only the third man in history to have a college named after him at Oxford and Cambridge. Jesus and St John being the first two.”). But it did add to my knowledge of Oxford, too: who knew the first chancellor was a Robert Grosseteste (surely an Oxonian variant of the Viz character Buster Gonad) or that the Dean of Balliol in the 1920s was one Francis Urquhart? Among the lesser-known attractions mentioned is the ethnomusicology collection at 60 Banbury Road in the section on the University and Pitt-Rivers museums.

The Cambridge half of the book follows a similar pattern, and though I’ve only visited a few times, it matches what I know and adds to it. It does seem particularly striking that the same names frequently occur in both places, especially in an architectural context, from Wren to Gilbert Scott and Stirling (the Florey Building in Oxford is “a pretty monstrous specimen of functionalist architecture”; Sager doesn’t volunteer an opinion of his own on the History Faculty library in Cambridge, but is content to share others, which are less than complimentary). As a whole, the book is quite thorough and amiable.

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Ultimate Steampunk

I’d missed Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge at Reading Film Theatre a couple of weeks ago due to illness, so I was pleased that last night I went to see Loving Vincent. The story is principally that of Armand Roulin, whose father, a postman, dispatches him, about a year after Vincent’s death, to deliver a letter from Vincent to Theo van Gogh (by this time also dead). Armand travels first to Paris and then to Auvers-sur-Oise, in search of Theo’s widow or another suitable recipient. In his task he meets several of the villagers who all have their own stories and recollections of Vincent, some of which cast doubt on the circumstances of his death.

But the story is only a part of the film, and probably wouldn’t have drawn me on its own. What is perhaps unique about the film is that it’s an animation, produced in oil painting, in the style of van Gogh. I had wondered whether this could be true – surely this could also have been done by CGI, and would have been more cost-effective – but the long list of sponsors at the start of the film, and the long list of animation artists (mostly in Poland and Greece) at the end, verifies it. The result is intensely atmospheric, and very cleverly done, as many of the characters were painted by van Gogh and are clearly based on those paintings. Like The Death of Stalin, there’s no attempt to give faux-French accents to the characters, although in some of the flashbacks the voice of Vincent does seem to have a Dutch inflection. Amidst a strong cast I thought the voices and performances of Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Chris O’Dowd (Joseph Roulin), and John Sessions (Pere Tanguy) particularly stood out.

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