Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Let us pray

He who sings prays twice, so the saying goes. So it's appropriate that today's post, following my interview here with the young chanteuse Emmie Beckitt, should be about prayer. Serious stuff, I know. But then, today is a serious day. Holocaust Memorial Day, to be precise. The day 71 years ago that the Auschwitz death camp was liberated by the Soviet army. So bear with me...

My musing on the subject began early - very early - this morning thanks to being woken by Charlie. He'd had a bad dream. Settling him, cuddling him and gently persuading him back to his own bed, I climbed back into mine certain I was unlikely to sleep. So, my nocturnal friend, the radio. (I have a pillow speaker, so as not to wake my wife) came to my rescue as I lay in the darkness.

Early on BBC Radio Four, following the Shipping Forecast, after an item rather misleadingly called News Briefing and the weather forecast and before Farming Today there is an anachronism known as Prayer for the Day. It's preceded (the prayer, that is) by a short sermon. Today it was about the holocaust - specifically, the liberation of Auschwitz.

In the course of Rabbi Julia Neuberger's two minutes on air she happened to mention that not only did the liberation free the Jewish inmates of that and all the other death camps but also a number of Allied POWs (as well as other opponents of the NAZI regime, of course).

This was the story: these POWs had been used as forced labour, but had secretly sabotaged the building project they were engaged in. A German engineer grew suspicious. The men were lined up against a wall to be immediately shot if tests confirmed that sabotage had, indeed, occurred.

As they waited, one man prayed. And at that moment, the air-raid siren sounded. Everyone fled to the shelters. A bomb fell, and fell (miraculously) on the very building project that was about result in the execution of the POWs.

It's a lovely story. Anything that provides a glimmer of light in the evil darkness of the death camps is to be welcomed, of course. But were the man's prayers really answered? If God exists, would he - could he - intervene to save a handful of POWs when the combined prayers of six-and-a-half million of His chosen people would appear to have been ignored?

The religious answer, the cop-out clause if you like, in cases such as this is that we can't know the mind of God, He moves in a mysterious way, etc. Which is a bit like saying you're right even when you're wrong. Or swearing black's white. Because it simply won't do.

I've thought about this a great deal, as an average agnostic with an interest in (and sympathy for) the spiritual and an unwillingness to close my mind to any of its many possibilities. I'm not certain (is anyone?) that God exists, let alone that prayer 'works' in the sense that it is heard and acted upon by this potential divinity.

My best guess is that - if God exists - then whatever He might do to intercede in world affairs is done through the actions of humans - each and every one of us - and not through divine intervention of the Almighty Hand variety, whether that's by dropping bombs on NAZI building projects or anything else.

This isn't because it's otherwise impossible to explain why God should intervene in certain circumstances and not in others. No. It's because, quite simply, an intervention of a supernatural nature would be the end of the world as we know it. Such things really are impossible. God either works within the laws of nature, within the limits of human imperfections and the gift of free will, or he doesn't bother. Try telling the mother of a dying child that 'God' has chosen to heal the warts on Mrs Herbert's hands instead - and I've been at a service where thanks were given for just such supposed divine interventions.

That doesn't mean, of course, that prayer is useless. As a meditation, as a way of engaging with our deepest thoughts and interrogating out own motives - mindfulness, maybe - it might be an extremely worthwhile activity.

I just can't quite accept that Arthur Dodds, as he stood with his back to the wall with his fellow POWs in 1943, waiting for the inevitable, suddenly happened to get through to The Almighty while the men, women and children across the camp whose bodies were being incinerated failed.

If I'm wrong, of course, then I'm with Job and Ivan Karamazov - the whole thing is an appalling travesty. No God can possibly allow such a thing.

But then, as Dostoevsky also said, if there is no God then everything is permitted.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Rudyard Kipling 150th Anniversary

On 30th December 1865 in Mumbai, India, John Lockwood Kipling and his wife Alice celebrated the birth of a son, whom they named Rudyard.

150 years later Kipling is known (if not always loved) for such timeless classics as the poem, If, his Jungle Book stories (no less than two new animated feature films of which are in production) as well as a host of other easily memorable verse and expertly-crafted stories.

He is, perhaps, less well known as Britain's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (and the youngest winner ever) or the man who, while dubbed the 'bard of empire' nevertheless manages to think the unthinkable and express both admiration and understanding for Britain's (then) subject creeds and cultures. There seems to be a slight embarrassment about him, based on simplistic, literal readings of some of his apparently tub-thumping texts.

Yes, he was a propagandist; yes, he was an unabashed (but not unashamed) imperialist. But he was also an establishment figure who saw and spoke up against the hypocrisy and folly of the ruling classes, a friend of kings and princes who understood and loved the ordinary man - whether Tommy Atkins or Kimball O'Hara.

He was also the writer of so many memorable phrases that people know and use without often realising that it was Kipling who was their coiner:

  • East is East, and West is West.
  • Take up the White Man's burden... (send forth the best ye breed - go, bind your sons to exile to serve your captives need).
  • What do they know of England who only England know?
  • The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
  • Somewhere East of Suez.
  • We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.
  • We're all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding
  • A woman's guess is much more accurate than a man's certainty.
  • For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
  • If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.
That last, especially, should give lie to the myth of Kipling as a jingoistic war-monger. Kipling the man was an intelligent, sensitive critic of establishment prejudice and pride. Kipling the writer was - like the best writers - a ventriloquist, able to utterly inhabit views and mimic voices for literary effect. It's what writers do. That he held views now utterly objectionable to most people is undoubtedly true. But he was also self-aware enough to appreciate his own folly, not least in what he came to most regret - attempts to instil patriotic fervour into the youth of empire so that their ranks might swell the ranks of the volunteers for war, one of whom - his only son, Jack, was among the millions never to return.

And it is as a war poet, perhaps surprisingly, that Kipling achieves some of his most powerful effects. Before Wilfred Owen's verse was known ('the old lie') , Kipling was indicting the morally bankrupt ruling classes responsible for sending a generation to their deaths, as in this, one of his finest works, on the British defeat in 1915 at Kut el-Amara, and published two years later under the title, 'Mesopotamia'. 

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,

    The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
    Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
    In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
    Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
    Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
    Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
    When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
    By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
    Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
    To conform and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
    The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
    Shall we leave it unabated in its place?




Sunday, 27 September 2015

My Boy Jack

Lieutenant Jack Kipling, an officer in the Irish Guards, only son of Rudyard Kipling the great Empire poet and writer, was killed in action on September 27th 1915 - one hundred years ago today.


His parents searched - in vain - for years: first for their son, then for his body. Until recently he was commemorated in the memorial the the missing at Loos Military Cemetery. That's where the protagonist of my novel, Known unto God, meets a mysterious stranger as he digs the graves that are to receive the bodies of men buried hastily in battlefield cemeteries...

‘Hello down there!’
Smart boots, well polished; thick woollen stockings and the point of a stout stick. 
‘Don’t let me stop you working,’ the man says. ‘I merely hollered so as not to startle you while you were below ground.’
‘Oh aye?’ Jack says and the noise of the shovel stops. He lifts himself out of the hole. 
The man smiles. ‘Forgive me,’ he says and offers his hand.
Wiping the wet soil from his palm Jack takes it and their eyes meet: bold, brown eyes that maintain a steady gaze from behind small, round steel-rimmed spectacles; bushy, beetling eye brows; a bristling brown moustache. A tired, careworn face. The blue of Jack’s clear eyes hold the moment and the two men stand in silence looking at each other for several seconds. The stranger’s eyes are the first to glance away.
‘A lovely afternoon,’ he is saying. ‘Fine weather, wouldn’t you say?’ The stranger’s manner isn’t hostile. Nor is it that of an officer - certainly not an officer who might have seen service here. The man is too old for a start.
‘Aye,’ says Jack. ‘A perfect day for digging.’

A perfect day for digging, just
As sweet and dry was the ground as tobacco dust.

‘Cigarette?’ the man asks, opening a small, silver cigarette case. His appearance is smart: belted Norfolk jacket, plus fours, stockings – quite the country gentleman, thinks Jack. He has removed the large flat cap that he was wearing and is holding it in both hands as if he were in church. The April breeze disturbs the few stray strands of hair combed across his otherwise bald head.
‘Looking for someone?’ Jack asks.
‘In a manner of speaking,’ the man says, and turns his gaze again over the untidy rows of crosses. Jack says nothing. ‘I expect it won't be long before the headstones start arriving.’
‘Oh aye?’ says Jack. ‘I wouldn’t really know about that. I just…’
‘Just imagine,’ the man goes on, ‘row upon row of bright, white Portland stones, all of uniform height and width, inscribed with the names of the men who lie here below, complete with regimental badge and rank - an eternal army battalion in parade ground order. Magnificent!’
‘Aye, well…’ says Jack.
‘Did you serve?’ the man asks.
‘Aye,’ says Jack, ‘I did.’
‘Which regiment?’
‘2nd Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment. Prince of Wales’s Own.’
‘Ah!’ the man smiles. ‘A noble history.’
Jack narrows his eyes.
‘Oh, yes. I know a little of your regiment’s story. I’m researching a regimental history of my own at present, as it happens.’
‘Right?’
‘Yes. I’ve been engaged to write the history of one of the Guards divisions.’
‘Is that why you’re here?’
The man doesn’t answer. He points instead with his cane to the small inscription on a nearby cross. ‘It is so important, don't you think, that these Regimental details should not be lost when carving a man’s headstone?’
‘Aye, I suppose…’
‘My feeling is that whatever a man’s civilian position, when he is once in the Service of the King then it is for the Regiment he works, with the Regiment he dies, and in death he should be remembered as one of the Regiment.’
Silence. Jack stares across the rows of temporary wooden crosses. The cemetery suddenly feels exposed. The eyes of snipers or enemy observers could be on them, everywhere. ‘You said you was looking for someone,’ Jack says.
‘Indeed,’ the man goes on. ‘Although I am unable to find his name in any of the cemetery lists. Look,’ he holds out a thick wad of paper fastened in the top left hand corner with a treasury tag. ‘I've got the cemetery register here for this very plot.’
‘Oh, aye?’
‘Yes,’ the man holds up a thin, bundled section of the register. ‘Look!’ he points a triumphant finger and smiles. ‘It includes the very graves that you are digging.’ 
Jack takes the neatly typed list of names and numbers, rows and plots and starts to turn the pages. 
‘It’s from the the War Graves Commission. I do a little work for them you see, in an advisory capacity.’
Names and names, rows and plots; ticks in blue, then red - marks against the graves whose details have been checked once, twice, three times. Handwritten notes in the margin; a few corrections; and a big, blue rubber stamp bearing the initials I.W.G.C.
‘Anyway, as I was saying,’ the man goes on, ‘the soldier whose remains I seek served here in this very area.’
‘Oh, aye?’
‘Yes. And there are several men of his regiment listed in the burial register and, well, I wondered…’
‘Wondered?’
‘Well, I… I suppose I wondered if you or any of the chaps might have come across his remains. I understand you are clearing some of the smaller battlefield cemeteries. Here are his details.’ The man hands Jack a handwritten card. ‘Of course I know that according the register he isn’t here…’
Jack continues leafing through the pages of the burial roll, this neatly typed directory of the dead. Each of the graves he digs is numbered, referenced, and recorded. Plots and dates are written down along with ranks and regimental numbers. Even the bodies that he buries without a name are listed and their plots located with - of course - military precision.
‘But I am also aware from the register that many of the men you are re-burying were unidentified when first laid to rest.
‘That’s right,’ Jack says.
‘Well, it’s just a thought,’ the man goes on. ‘A hope; a slim chance.’
‘A chance?’
‘That something was, perhaps, overlooked when the man was first placed underground. I’ve no doubt some of these early burials were hastily conducted.’
‘Oh aye,’ Jack says. ‘Under fire, at times.’
‘Of course!’ the man exclaims. ‘That’s why it would be so easy to have overlooked some… some vital clue, some small item, maybe personalised, a maker’s name on a shirt, a brand of boots, a style of breeches.’
‘We always check,’ says Jack. ‘If there’s any ID left, we’d find it.’
‘I’m certain of it,’ the man says. ‘Yes, of course.’ They glance down at the yawning, earth-brown hole beside them. ‘So who is this plot for?’ he asks.
‘This is for…’ Jack looks down at the burial returns, ‘- Plot IX, Row D… Unknown,’ he says. ‘Unknown British Soldier.’
‘Unknown,’ the man says quietly.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jack says.
‘Oh no,’ the man shakes his head. ‘No, no. Not at all,’ he smiles. ‘Not unknown.’
‘No?’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘Not ‘unknown’ at all. Never ‘unknown’. Because,’ he smiles, ‘ultimately, all these men are known, aren’t they?’
‘Are they?’
‘They are indeed,’ the man frowns. ‘All men are known personally to the One to whom they have returned in glory.’
‘Well, I suppose…’
‘Yes, corporal,’ he adds, quietly. ‘Known unto God.’ 
Birds sing, far off. Skylarks. The man looks down and prods the earth with his walking stick. ‘Ah well,’ he says at last, ‘I shall continue my search. Having this,’ he shakes the wad of paper in the air and smiles, ‘having this makes the task so very much easier.’
‘Aye,’ Jack says. ‘But if the name you want to find isn’t on the list…Which regiment did you say this fella fought with?’
The man looks at him, but doesn’t answer.
‘I just thought, if you told me…’
‘My son,’ the man says, quietly. ‘Irish Guards... Forgive me,’ he says. ‘But it is so very hard, having no grave. His mother, you understand…’
‘Aye, o’ course,’ says Jack.
‘Well, you’ve been most helpful,’ the man says, replacing his cap. ‘May I ask your name?’
‘Yes, sir. Patterson sir,’ Jack replies. ‘Jack Patterson.’
The man smiles. ‘Well Jack, I shan’t keep you from your digging any longer. What shall I do? I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.’ And he turns on his heels and walks, head down, towards the cemetery gate. 


Have you news of my boy Jack?' 
Not this tide. 
'When d'you think that he'll come back?' 
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Has any one else had word of him?' 
Not this tide. 
For what is sunk will hardly swim, 
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?' 
None this tide, 
Nor any tide, 
Except he did not shame his kind - 
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more, 
This tide, 
And every tide; 
Because he was the son you bore, 
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Happy Birthday ITV

Yes, the commercial channel - the one whose opening night was rubbished by The Archers - is 60 years old today. It's come a long way. And so has advertising. Look at this example from the original year of broadcast, 1955, the very first ad to appear on the new TV channel.


Compared to today's creative extravaganzas it's like a Public Information Film. Yes, things have certainly moved on. Though I do lament the passing of the ITV regions with their regional 'idents' - those little jingles that announced who was broadcasting what and where and to whom. It was a bit like local radio in telly land but I loved it. And now, from Norwich, it's the Quiz of the Week...


Or how about... How?


I must confess I was always a little disappointed by the static nature of my own regional station, Yorkshire.



Still, it was better than what they had in Lancashire.


That was it. No music, no animation, nothing. And usually (in our house) followed immediately by the whining, muted trumpet signalling the start of Coronation Street. And I mean Coronation Street. Not 'Corre' as it's now become. Ee-nay, Mr Wilks. Oh sorry, that was Emmerdale. Farm. When it still was. 

But I digress. If there was a poll for the best ITV ident of all time it would have to, surely, go to this wonderful example of what creative heights can be achieved with an Airfix kit of the Golden Hinde, a bit of silver spray and a turntable. Ah, happy days... in fact, Happy Birthday. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The 30,000th Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres

Writing my book on post-WW1 Ypres has led to some fascinating discoveries. Did you know that Winston Churchill, no less, wanted the entire city left as a ruin? He said, 'I can think of no more fitting monument to the dead...'

Needless to say, the people of Ypres disagreed. But they did leave a large swathe of the city untouched until the British decided what they wished to build by way of a memorial - and where.

Ultimately, what they built was the Menin Gate, designed by Reginald Blomfield (who was also responsible for the sword/cross of sacrifice that adorns almost all British war cemeteries). The monument was unveiled by General Plumer who had commanded V Corps and was later in charge of the Second Army responsible for the overwhelming victory at Messines. The ceremony was relayed live back to Britain by the BBC - the second outside broadcast ever - and concluded with the Last Post being sounded by buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry.

Since then - and with a brief hiatus during WW2 - the Last Post has sounded beneath the memorial arch every night at 8p.m. It is a tribute maintained by members of the Ypres Fire Brigade. And this evening, at 8p.m., they will sound the Last Post for the 30,000th time.

Anyone who has ever been to the ceremony knows how simple and how moving the whole thing can be. We took Charlie there a couple of years ago when I was researching Known unto God and despite his tender years he was keen to understand what was happening and why, as well as to show his respects.

At eight o'clock tonight local time (GMT+2) the Last Post Association is asking people all over the world to join this milestone ceremony online or at participating fire stations. The event will be televised live and you can follow it by logging on to www.deredactie.be.

The huge arch contains the names of over 50,000 of those killed but whose remains were never found. Even that number wasn't enough to account for all those men recorded missing in the Salient. Tonight, as every night, traffic will stop and crowds will fall silent and the Last Post - that simple, soulful, musical lament - will sound for an astonishing 30,000th time.

Lest we forget...


Friday, 22 May 2015

Known unto God

The cover of my latest book is here.


It's only a draft but seeing it at least makes you realise that the book itself - and three years labour - is at last closer to becoming genuine, physical reality.

It's about the Great War. Here's the blurb. And you can read the first three chapters - and leave a comment should you want to - here. I'd love to know what you think.

Synopsis

When the guns stop firing, JACK starts digging - not trenches now, but graves. But will those like him who bury the dead also lay to rest their own wartime ghosts? And what secrets remain to be discovered on the abandoned battlefields of Flanders? 

Amid the ruined city of Ypres, one enterprising local has opened what he cleverly calls the British Tavern, and Jack and the men quickly become regulars. The landlord’s daughter, FRANCOISE, takes a romantic interest in Jack as he makes faltering attempts to learn the local language. But Jack’s interests lie elsewhere until the girl becomes another victim of the winter 1919 outbreak of Spanish ’flu and he at last begins to realise that the living matter more than the dead that he is still burying.

But even a year after the Armistice, the Western Front is still claiming its casualties. And when the youngest member of the party, FULLER, is killed by an unexploded bomb during a mysterious night time exhumation, their officer, Lt INGHAM, seems to know more about the incident than he will admit. Jack and an Australian straggler, OCKER, take it on themselves to find out the truth and to administer summary justice.

Finally the British Army packs up and the last few demob papers are issued. But on the morning of his departure, Jack is suddenly confronted with the secret of his own past when a visitor to the cemeteries comes searching the battlefields - for Jack’s own grave.


Monday, 27 April 2015

Opera properer

A conversation about opera with a friend who cheerfully admits 'not getting it' promoted an introspective moment wondering what it is I get about it.
I haven't always got it. And there are still things k don't - like overlong recits, for example, or sets that contort the singers into ridiculous, semi-hidden poses.

But that's not the point. I hugely enjoy opera. The magical blend of music - usually the best music written - and high drama, extreme emotion, passion - usually succeed in making any opera experience worthwhile. There was a time, though, when I didn't get it. And so I wondered what it was that did it and whether it might do the same for other people.

I came to opera piecemeal. I grew acquainted with, and grew to love, the tunes - the arias - and knew little of the story or the context in which they were sung. Get a classical opera highlights CD - one sung by the really best singers - and you're on your way. Next, narrow  your composers.

Opera is a big beast (that's the art-form - not the singers) and there is a huge range of periods, styles and flavours. It doesn't have to be restrictive: you can, as I do, love Mozart as much as Benjamin Britten. But there will be certain composers whose music your prefer, whose language speaks louder to you than the others - go with him. And it will, unfortunately, almost certainly be a him.

Now, choose some of your favourite arias by this composer - and identify just one opera. Maybe the one with the most of the best-loved tune or the one blockbuster aria that you can't get over. It doesn't matter. A small amount - not too much - research into the plot (if there is one - plot isn't usually very complicated in opera) and you're ready. Now, choose a performance - the best you can afford tickets for. And sit back, relax, and wait for those arias you love. You'll probably hear them first in the overture, then maybe little snippets at different junctures, before - wham! - you'll be hearing it for the first time in context, sung beautifully and with what should be a wonderful orchestral accompaniment.i almost guarantee you'll be bowled over. Almost, becausr opera may not be for everybody. But if you'd like it to be for you, try my tried and trusted technique and... wallow!