Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Breathes There a Man with a Soul So Dead" The Last Certain Day of the UK As We Know It

The UK is on the eve of possibly coming apart at the seams, and so the Twitter feed is filled with all things Scottish. A CNN post declares Sir Walter Scott the first literary superstar, and Wiki agrees, saying he was the first English-language author to be celebrated internationally in his own lifetime. He was born in 1771, after the England/Scotland marriage. He manifested the oral tradition of Scottish lore into sweeping historical novels that gave flesh and blood and Tartans to a war-strewn history of his country in the Waverly novels, Ivanhoe Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermore, and so helped to create a national identity.

The famous canto from The Lay of the Last Minstrel is uniquely fitting for the day, although both sides have claimed the Great Scot for the WWSWD.

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my own, my native land"?
Whose heart hath n’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned...?
If such there be, go mark him well...
The wretch, concentrated all in self,
...Doubly dying shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung. —


******

No politics here, but the CNN story reminded me of this post I wrote a few years ago when I learned some lovely tidbits about one of my favorite stories from childhood, Scott's Lady of the Lake.




My father bought me used books for many years to build a library of classics for me. One of them was a small book of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). As a child, I thought it was wonderful that the Lady is named, well, L.N (as M.A.’s alter ego is known to her RL friends).

So, I developed a deep attachment to L.N. Douglas and Scott’s work.

Now, jump to almost any Catholic wake or wedding you’ve been to, or the first scene of the film Prizzi’s Honor. There you would have heard someone singing Schubert’s Ave Maria. It’s a beautiful, beautiful melody, which Schubert wrote around 1825, set to the Latin words of the prayer to the Virgin: “Áve María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum. Benedícta tu in muliéribus, et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus. Sáncta María, Máter Déi, óra pro nóbis peccatóribus, nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen."

All of the 3 tenors have recordings of this, and Andrea Bocelli, and Celine Dion, and everyone and their aunts.

(This is not to be confused with the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, which is less often heard.)

Except, that Schubert did not set the words of the Catholic prayer. And if you listen closely, you will hear that the melody and the tune are not tightly in sync. Unlike the Bach/Goudnod, where the music moves perfectly with the words.

Schubert actually wrote his haunting, beautiful melody to a “song” from The Lady of the Lake. At one point in the action, Lady L.N. goes to a cave to pray to the Virgin for protection from being discovered by the enemy clan. Scott calls it a song in his text, and the first words are Ave Maria. The rest are English words that he wrote for his poem. Schubert was a fan of Scott, and so he set one of the songs of his great poem. In German, he called it “Ellens dritter Gesang,” “Ellen’s Third Song.”

It was some time later that an anonymous person, inspired by the opening words Ave Maria, squished the Latin prayer into the haunting melody. It was so successful to generations of listeners, that it became known as Schubert’s Ave Maria. Schubert died in 1828, three years after his “Ellens dritter Gesang,” so he never heard the permutation of his music that became so famous.

Here are the words to Scott’s song, and below is Barbara Bonney singing the German translation of Scott, which is what Shubert actually set to his melody (although from the comments, people don't seem to know it's not the religious text). This wikipedia page is very clear bout this strange twist of fate.


Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden's prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish'd, outcast and reviled -
Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem this down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern's heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, list a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! stainless styled!
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled;
Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer,
And for a father hear a child!
Ave Maria!




And,  here’s one more amazing thing about Scott’s Lady of the Lake. It is the origin of the song “Hail to the Chief.” Scott wrote it as the “Boat Song,” for the arrival of the clan’s chieftain.

It was set to music in 1810 by James Sanderson for a stage version of the epic poem. In 1812 the stage version opened in New York. By 1828 the piece was well known as popular music, and the Marine Corps. Band performed it at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was attended by John Quincey Adams. The song was first played to announce the arrival of the president at James K. Polk's inauguration on March 4, 1845. It was Julia Tyler, wife of Polk's predecessor, John Tyler, who suggested that the song be played when a president made an appearance, and in 1954 the Department of Defense made it the official music to announce the president. (All from Wikipedia.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

If It's Tuesday, I Must Be Going "Over There"



I have had a cosmic connection with Belgium since childhood, and this week I am finally visiting the country, in connection with the 1914-2014 Centenary Anniversary of World War One. I'm almost giddy.

It started when I was in 6th grade. We had to do a major "country report" in the form of an extreme outline, to teach us how to outline ideas. We were assigned countries, and I got Belgium.

These were the day of having to get in the car and go to the local library to get books to do research. And it turned out the local library had almost nothing about the history or the culture of Belgium.  I was quite the little student at 11, and I started to panic that I would not be able to complete the assignment.

The teacher had suggested we might contact the Consulate General of our assigned country for information, and so with a heavy heart I wrote to the Belgian Consulate General in NYC, which today is near Bryant Park, telling them my tale of woe.  In a short two weeks, I received a large envelope from the Belgians with the most glorious gift: a huge sheet of images of paintings of Belgian history and photos of Belgian culture, all with generous explanatory text. It was astonishing. What wonderful people these Belgians must be.

A few years after that the delightful romantic comedy If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium was on TV, and my family watched it together. It's seared into my brain how much we laughed out loud together. A wonderful memory.

The next touch points were in college, finding both Jacques Brel & Paul Fussell.

I memorized the Ne Me Quitte Pas album, including the lovely Marieke, the one song where Brel sings in both his native French & Flemish.

Ay Marieke, Marieke, je t'aimais tant
Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand


And with Paul Fussell I studied the literature & poetry of the First World War, where I first heard the words Passchendaele, the Ypres Salient.

Bruges and Ghent and the Last Post Ceremony in Ypres
And now I am going to "Bruges et Gand" and Ypres, with a group called Run by Singers, who gather in various cities to rehearse great choral music and then give a concert.

We will sing the Faure Requiem in Bruges, visit the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, and participate in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres. That's a ceremony that the townspeople have been holding since November 1929, every day without fail to show their appreciation to those who died for Belgium's freedom. The Menin Gate Memorial commemorates the names of over 54,000 soldiers from the UK and the Commonwealth who died on the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917, and whose remain were never found for an individual grave.

The photo at the top is of the Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade at the Last Post Ceremony.  Lots of information about the ceremony and its history here.

My Grandfather's WW1 Was "Over Here"

Because of the WW1 Centenary I started looking into at my Grandpa Brown's WWI service. He's my mother's father, and he died before I was born, but connecting with the some of the traces of his service has given me a little bit of his life that I didn't have.

Arthur Cornelius Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1892 to immigrant Norwegian parents. (The family name Jacobsen was changed to Brown as they came through Castle Clinton.)

He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, David's Island, New Rochelle, on May 10, 1917, when he was 23 years old.

Wiki: By the onset of World War I Fort Slocum had become one of the busiest recruiting stations in the country, processing 100,000 soldiers per year and serving as the recruit examination station for soldiers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the New England states.

He was not sent "over there." The family explanation was that he could not wink, and therefore couldn't shoot properly. I have a feeling if the war had gone on longer, an otherwise healthy man would have been shipped out.

But he was not sent overseas.  Grandma said he never got out of Fort Hamilton, which is in Brooklyn. Grandpa served his two years in the 22nd Infantry, which was headquartered in Fort Jay, which is on Governors Island. He was promoted to Private First Class to Corporal in 1918 (above), and given the all-important honorable discharge in June 1919 (below).




And so I began my journey to the WW1 battlefields of Belgium by going to Governors Island in New York Harbor,  a short 15-minute ferry ride from downtown, from the slip right next to the Staten Island Ferry.

Once on the island I visited Fort Jay, walking under the entrance to the main part of the fort, which Grandpa must have done many times in 2 years, to do things at battalion headquarters. Fort Jay is now a National Monument under the U.S. Parks Serviced, and served by Park Rangers.

Now my journey will take me from our U. S. Army fort to Flanders, in my grandather's stead. I am grateful that he was not sent into the hell that was the trenches and mud and disease and death that met far too many who served. He was able to continue his life after his war service, and get married, and have two daughters, one of whom I'm lucky to call mom.

In Flanders I will pray for the souls of all who were slaughtered during the Great War, which is thought to be about 8.5 million people, not including casualties. And for the victims of all the recent wars and war-like acts.

And I will hold one particular death in my heart. My grandfather's British Army, Royal Army Service Corps counterpart, Lance Corporal Arthur Brown. He was sent "over there" from Mother England's shore and is one of the hundreds of thousands whose bodies were never found.

The Imperial War Museum has digitzed the records of those who served on an amazing website, where the digital age let's you note "Remembering."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 9/11 Museum and Memorial: 13 Years On



I visited the 9/11 Museum and Memorial this weekend. It's a lot to take in, I will need to go back to really absorb everything.  The space itself is extraordinary. You descend down a series of very steep ramps. They do a good job showing schematics of how deep you are on different level, and where you on in relation to where the shopping mall once was, where the original PATH station was, etc.

I didn't take too many pictures, but I wanted to capture some of it.  I think they've done a good job. It's essential to tell the story of mass murder of 3,000 people who just went to work 13 years ago. The majority of the visitors on Saturday evening were foreign tourists, which I think is a good thing.

The photo above does not capture the piercing blues of the tiles.  Different artists were commissioned to try to capture the actual blue of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a color that is seared into the memory of anyone who was there.





The actual slurry wall, that held, keeping back the Hudson River. A small miracle.





The broadcasting antenna from on top of the North Tower, which was the main broadcasting vehicle to NYC for decades. Close to my heart, given my career at Paley Center.   The intensity of the blue panels is captured more accurately in the background here than in the top photo.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Two Women for the Ages: Princess Diana & Mother Teresa, 17 Years in Heaven

 Princess Diana died 17 years ago today. Mother Teresa died six days later. I wrote this post seven years ago on the tenth anniversary of their deaths.

How oddly fitting that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who had some connections in life, are connected to each other in death because they died six days apart in 1997. The coverage of Diana’s death made for a somewhat memorable Labor Day weekend that year, which then rolled right into the coverage of Mother Teresa.

And now, this week, we pause to remember that it has been ten years since Diana died in a car crash, just as we are absorbing the news of a book coming out that reveals the extraordinary idea that Mother Teresa basically lost her faith just at the moment she started the work with the poorest of the poor for which she is known.

Princess Diana, Escaping for Love
I happened to be awake 10 years ago when the first reports of Diana’s car accident broke into CNN. Shortly after, her death was announced, and it was shocking, in the way that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was—-young people with all the earthly gifts possible dying in sudden, violent ways makes one stop for a moment. You intellectually know that this very day can be your last, but incidents like this make that idea more tangible.

I haven’t read Tina Brown’s book nor any of the cottage industry of tell all rags on the princess, but I have kept up with her story over the years. We share a birth year, but while she was getting married in 1981, I was off crewing on a schooner and didn’t get to see the wedding. My feminist friends at college had given me a “Don’t Do It Di” button, which their English counterparts had made up following a headline in the feminist magazine Spare Rib. But I didn’t understand it back then. I didn’t know what they were talking about, why shouldn’t she marry her prince, an actual prince? I think theirs was a general invective against the patriarchal monarchy, but how eerily prophetic was their warning.

The draw of the Royals, for most people, is simply that it’s a family writ larger than in our own homes. The saddest part of their particular mess is the triangle of Charles and Camilla and Di. Having a husband/lover who is always thinking of another is a soul crushing, living hell. It’s a shattering experience, and whatever personal struggles and demons Diana had herself—-bipolar/borderline personality, bulimia-—the unrelenting presence of Camilla in her marriage doomed any spec of happiness she might have known.

And to make it worse, Diana was horribly subjected to the subtle and not so subtle power plays from everyone around her. For instance, Camilla supposedly is responsible for Di getting into that monstrosity of a wedding dress, under the guise of the old guard helping her. Parker-Bowles supposedly laughed and laughed with her friends at how successful she was in making the wedding of the century look buffoonish. (This sickening power play is at least a plausible explanation for that nightmare in taffeta.)

It also illuminates how utterly Diana’s mother was missing from the whole equation, and what a devastating absence it proved to be. Frances Althorp Shand Kydd was an enigmatic woman. She also married young, to an older man of stature, and found herself in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair with Peter Shand Rydd, and a year later divorced Diana’s father and married him. (He would leave her years later for a younger woman.) It seems that with this kind of split, where Lady Althorp's own mother testified against her in the custody hearing in favor of Lord Althorp getting custody of their children, she wasn’t very close to her daughter at all, and that’s very sad for both of them.

In the end, I admired Diana for playing the hand she was dealt. She developed her dazzling style and looks as a way to parry the blows to her self esteem from the Royal family. She refused to stay in a sham marriage, and believed that she could have actual love with the right man, if she could find him. She saw two little boys through their early childhood with much genuine love and caring. And in the larger historical dimension, she reinvigorated the monarchy for all time. It was a short life well lived.

Mother Teresa, Losing Her Faith
Mother Teresa died six days later on Sept. 5. She was 87 years old, and her death was neither sudden nor violent. At this ten-year mark we learn of the forthcoming book with letters in her own hand that speak to her loss of belief in God. Teresa had been an ordinary teaching nun of the Sisters of Loreto of Ireland for 15 years when she received a “call within the call” to leave her convent and work with the misery of the world’s poorest poor.

What follows is a life that has been lionized and pulled apart from every angle. Either her homes for the poor are badly run or they aren’t. There are questions of where all the donations to her Sisters of Charity go—so the accounting is questionable. There’s the question of her judgment, in aligning herself with the likes of Charles Keating. Nothing here is surprising. Human institutions and their leaders are always corrupt in some way.

But her internal loss of faith is startling. For fifty years she struggled to regain her faith in Christ: “for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"

Even the Eucharist had no meaning for her, which pretty much caps it: “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist]."

For the cynics team, this means she lead a life of complete hypocrisy. That she “knew” there was no God, and she didn’t have the courage to admit it. Of course she has no more actual knowledge on the subject than any of us.

Just as Princess Diana was subjected to much armchair psychology, there are theories in the Time piece that Mother Teresa needed to sabotage her own success. Maybe. Maybe she wanted to leave her institution just as much as Diana wanted to leave hers, but didn’t have the strength or ability to make it happen.


I find much to learn from both of these larger-than-life women, and it all comes back to love. As a late teenager Diana thought she had found it in Charles, and she paid for her misperception for the rest of her life, and one could argue, with her life. Mother Teresa once felt a presence of Christ’s love so strong that it negated the need for the love of an earthly kind. She was surprised and saddened when she later felt that His love had abandoned her, and she faced fifty years in a depressed darkness where she simply continued on as best she could. Such is the reality of many lives.

The two women admired one another, and I read somewhere that Diana is buried with a rosary that was a gift from Mother Teresa. Considering what an RC custom that is, it seems a little unlikely, but it’s a lovely thought.

Here’s the stirring hymn from Diana’s funeral, I Vow to Thee My Country.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Borges Updated: Happy Birthday Jorge Luis!





Umph.

I’m pretty sure I’m not seriously hurt--no broken bones, a skin scrap on my leg that’s all. Not terrible for just climbing out of a Borges labyrinth.

It started in the light well enough, as it often does. I was looking at a book on my shelf—a collection of essays by Christopher Morley—and I went from the world of 20th century Man of Letters to the idea of canine vivisection in the 17th century to solve the problem of maritime longitude. (This could make a great Simpson’s episode; I’m sending Matt a spec.)

This spiral started twenty years ago in a Methodist church thriftstore. My father had the habit of picking up used books for me for a quarter, or fifty cents, to build my library

One very quirky selection is the Christopher Morley collection. His is a dusty, dusty name from the 1920s. If we sweep away the cobwebs, we see he was a Rhodes scholar to New College, Oxford; cofounder of the Saturday Review of Literature in 1924 with Henry Seidel Canby; founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only club for Sherlock Holmes fanatics, which is still in existence; and the author of "The Bowling Green" column for the old New York Evening Post.

Morley also wrote the novel Kitty Foyle in 1938, which went to Hollywood and brought Ginger Rogers a Best Actress Oscar, beating out Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord.

I have a miscellany collection of his called The Powder of Sympathy. The short musings, from the 1930s, are blog posts before their time, and so I was drawn in by their familiar feel and sound.

“Hail, Kinspirit” is one essay, about an item in the Personal column of the London Times.

“Lost in Taxi last week, small portfolio containing colour diagrams and newspaper print of Lamb’s portrait of Lytton Strachey. Finder rewarded. Y. 1926. The Times E.C.4.”

Pica for pica, Morley’s essays are more jammed with old Big Lit names than the frames of Mrs. Parker and her Vicious Circle.

“Well, well, we say to ourself: then there is one other person in the world who felt just as we did about that gloriously entertaining portrait of Mr. Strachery, and who carried it about with him just as we did ours, clipped from the Manchester Guardian.”
I think we can forgive Morley his royal plural, because we so like the sentiment of his post.

From there I wandered into the world of the book’s title, “The Powder of Sympathy,” and Sir Kenelm Digby.

The book is excellent, but I need to know more. I start Googling and learn that Sir Kenelm Digby was an eccentric privateer and a member of the Privy Council of Charles I. He advocated the concept of the Powder of Sympathy—-a sympathetic magic first proposed by the German physician and professor of physics, medicine, and mathematics Rudolf Goclenius. The idea was that you treat the agent of the wound, instead of the wound, with a salve. The salve is made from Roman vitriol [copper sulphate] and the Sun when it is in Leo.

I want to break out and watch a Friends rerun, but I’m in too deep now.

I imagine someone stabs me. My 17th century doctor applies the Powder of Sympathy to the knife, and my wound heals. I Google deeper into the e-labyrinth: there are 2 more very important points: the healing is not contingent on geographical proximity; and when the salve is applied to the knife, I will be affected, and may cry out.

I can't stop clicking deeper down, more pages, more connections: I learn that some bright mind decided to apply this "system" to the very serious issue of “the longitude problem.” The Brits ruled the waves in the 17th century, but a staggering number of them died in shipwrecks because captains were never certain where they were.

Latitude reckoning was determined by the stars. But longitude is a measure of time from a fixed, constant point.

More search, more clicks: I find Dava Sobel to explain it:

“As early as 1514, navigators well knew that the secret to determining longitude at sea lay in comparing the time aboard ship to the time at the home port -- at the very same moment. They could then convert the hour difference between the two places into a geographical one. Unfortunately, although navigators could figure out their local time at sea by watching the sun every day to see when it reached its highest point in the sky (at noon), they could not keep track of time at another place. For that they would have needed a clock or watch set to the home port. But pendulum clocks went haywire on the decks of rolling ships: they slowed down, or sped up, or stopped running altogether.”

So that was the problem. Then an anonymous pamphlet called “Curious Enquiries” suggested that a wounded dog be put aboard ship, leaving the knife and discarded bandage with a trusted timekeeper on shore. He would apply the Powder of Sympathy at agreed upon times, and when the dog yelped, the seaman would know the exact time on shore.

Apparently it’s not known if this pamphlet was “in jest” or the idea of desperate, desperate men as the sailor body count rose.

As late 1712 the British Empire was still searching for better navigating instruments, which was a major plot point NBC's short-loved Crossbones, with John Malkovich as the pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard.

Umberto Eco uses the Powder and the longitude problem as a major plot point in his 1994 novel The Modern World.

Now I’m really worried. With Eco in the picture, I’ll never get out of here. I can't see my living room anymore, just pages and pages and pages of connected ideas that keep pulling me into my computer. Eco is a labyrinth himself—-I could rattle around here for hours more. I want to come up for air.

Finally, between clicks of the website Porta Ludovica, I’m able to free myself from the endless information on Eco and make my way back to Morley, hoping he is a piece in a breadcrumb trail that will let me find my way out.

Morley echoed Digby: “This theory of treating not the wound but the weapon might be well meditated by literary critics. For instance, when some toxicated energumen publishes an atrocious book, the best course to pursue is not to attack the author but to praise Walter de la Mare or Stella Benson. This may be termed the allopathic principle in criticism.”

I’m rising toward the surface--Morley’s quip is funny--but I don’t know who Stella Benson is. I’m so close but I can’t quit out of Firefox just yet. I Google her to a literary encyclopedia, which is edited by Janet Todd.

Janet Todd. I know her. I studied at Southampton University in England with her. A real person I have known.

Ahh, that does it-—I can see the way back. Just one more tight passage to squeeze through, then . . . .

Umph.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Trip to Assisi, the Land of Saint Francis


Another summer, another workshop of Renaissance polyphony. This year, it's Assisi, Italy. The repertoire is yummy: Palestrina, Victoria, Josquin, Richafort, Clemens, Morales, Gesualdo.

I have never been particularly drawn to St. Francis. The Pope taking the monk's name was the first tangible sign that he would try to bring a sense of simplicity  and sanity back to that exalted office, which much of the world found encouraging.

The Feast of St. Francis means the blessing of the animals in many Catholic & Protestant churches, because of the monk's association with nature.

To prep for my trip I read Chesterton's appreciation of the saint, and found that he tried to reestablish the seriousness of the Friar, and save him from the Disney-fication that is easy to do when nature is invoked. Case in point: the drawing below looks like it's right out of Enchanted, with Amy Adams just out of the frame.

"St. Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott, it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight) might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague.

"In short, the hermit might love nature as a background. Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting,  in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man." G. K. Chesterton

The other thing that I learned is that Wiki says that "The Prayer of Saint Francis," which most of contemporary Christendom knows well because of its hymn setting, is not from Francis's writings at all. There is no record of it before 1912, in French! 

It's one of those odd cultural mistakes. It's a shame, because it does "sound" like the teachings of Francis, so I doubt he minds the error.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 Follow me on Twitter for thoughts from Rome & Assisi. 

Westminster Abbey Choir, singing the hymn at Lady Diana's funeral.



Monday, August 4, 2014

England Declares War on Germany Aug. 4, 1914: Oh, What a Lovely, 4-Star War


Update, August 24, 2014: Sir Richard Attenborough died today. Born between the World Wars, in 1923, he lived to see the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. I've never seen Jurassic Park, but I am very happy to have recently seen this first film that he directed. I highly recommend it.

The centenary of World War One is being played out against our current multiple world crises. The pain, death, and confusion of a commercial airplane shot down during a civil war and Israel and Palestinian annihilating each other are being processed in the daily news narratives that are the first draft of history. CNN just gave a recap of the death of 3 Israeli teenagers and how it did or did not lead to the current situation. That's what we do, we continually try to connect the dots of our personal lives, and our world events.

Amid such atrocities there is an implicit privilege in being able to spend time and energy to commemorate a 100-year-old touchstone like the beginning of the Great War.

I don't know if we actually ever learn from the past, regardless of Santayana's exhortation, but human nature yearns to understand how we got to where we've gotten to, and cultural memory is a big part of that understanding. And so we gather, in different ways, to remember.


August 4, 1914, is the day that the ultimatum for a cease fire that England issued to the Germany that invaded Belgium following the assassination of the Archduke expired at 10:59 pm, and at 11:00 England was at war.  There is a candlelight ceremony at Westminster Abbey tonight, which will end in the darkness that consumed the world for 4 long years. It's part of a country-wide #LightsOut commemoration, 10:00 to 11:00pm, bringing to life a grave pronouncement by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, as the clock struck 11:00pm:
  
 “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”


Oh, What a Lovely War & Roger Ebert

Another gathering was on Twitter and the #TCMParty for their recent screening of the 1969 film, Oh, What a Lovely War, during TCM's month-long salute to WW1 films. It is the first film Richard Attenborough directed, bringing the 1963 stage revue of the same name (except for dropping the musical's exclamation mark) produced by Joan Littlewood & her Theatre Workshop to the screen.


The film is a fantastical re-imagining of the stage revue, kicking out the confines of the stage into cinema's fullest power. I found it completely riveting. It is the visualization of a nation adjusting its cultural memory, its national identity, fifty years after the horror.  Much of the action takes place on the pier and pavilion at quintessentially English Brighton, which starts as a fanfare for the Edwardian visitors and slowly gets darker and more sardonic in tone, including the appearance of a cricket board tallying the deaths on the Somme and Passchendale day by day, with the ground (rarely) gained. 

Another connection for me was finding Roger Ebert's original 1969 review of the film when it popped up in a general Google search for the film. He gave it fours stars.

 It's a mistake to review "Oh! What a Lovely War" as a movie. It isn't one, but it is an elaborately staged tableau, a dazzling use of the camera to achieve essentially theatrical effects. And judged on that basis, Richard Attenborough has given us a breathtaking evening.

As a student of WW1, I found it very moving to hear his own connection to the history:

"Like most people, I know World War I at second or third hand, through such sources as Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That." The most dramatic point Graves makes is that the war almost literally exterminated the generation that would have ruled Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Something like 90 per cent of the field officers were killed on some fronts.

And so this tragic event sank into the bones of the British memory. America, which came into the war rather late and sustained much lighter casualties, could afford the luxury of a "lost generation" in the 1920s. England literally lost her generation; it was dead and buried, and we seem to see it beneath the countless crosses stretching out behind John Mills in the last, stunning graveyard shot in "Oh! What a Lovely War."


As always, his whole review is worth reading.



The stage revue was based on a radio program by Charles Chilton, from 1961. He never knew his father, who died in the Great War, and he wrote a musical documentary in his memory that layered facts and figures about the war within a scripted story,  surrounded by songs of the period. The statistics of the deaths are staggering, and in this form, they were so clear and easy to understand, perhaps for the first time for the nation.

The visuals of Littlewood's film made the juxtaposition of the slaughter with jaunty songs even more powerful than on radio. And so the film is often credited with contributing to the shift in the British cultural memory in the 1960s from a general support for WW1 (though never reaching the "popular" stasis of WW2) to seeing it as an enormous, generation-destroying, soul-crushing catastrophe.

The film is a who's who of British actors: Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Paul Shelley, Malcolm McFee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, Susannah York, John Clements, Phyllis Calvert, and Maurice Roëves.

Pauline Kael did not very much like Oh, What a Lovely War, calling it a "big, heavy anti-war musical in the pukka-sahib tradition of English moviemaking," along with a swipe at Attenborough, who "has a stately, measured approach--just way the 50 musical numbers don't need."




I don't agree. I found it an engrossing tribute to the British nation coming to terms--50 years after the slaughter--with the slaughter and how it plays into their national identity.

The final scene is a helicopter shot of thousands of crosses on a green field. Oddly, they did not go to one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries in Europe for it.  Wiki tells us instead that they put the crosses up on hills around Brighton. It's an extraordinary shot,  done "for real" with no CGI.

Something like this cultural reckoning will need to happen in Ukraine. Russia. Israel. Gaza. Syria. and too, too many other places, in the decades to come.