LOVE IN A WAR ZONE

LOVE IN A WAR ZONE

Milcho Manchevski’s 1994 movie Before the Rain, which won the Golden Lion at Venice that year, and which is structured in three interweaving parts, begins with an idyllic vision of rural peacefulness, a cruel mirage if ever there was. It is late evening above a massive beautiful lake and we are in the rugged hills of Macedonia (currently the Republic of North Macedonia and before that and to placate the Greeks, FYROM, meaning the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). We are also in the vicinity of a remote Orthodox monastery where an old bearded abbot is chatting to a clean-shaven and handsome young monk called Kiril (played by French actor Gregoire Colin, born 1975) though the chatting is unilateral as Kiril has taken a vow of silence and not spoken a word for 2 years. Later we listen to the monks singing their resonant Macedonian Orthodox liturgy, which sounds very much like the Greek kind, and the air is ripe with transcendent peacefulness so it seems. But warning signs to the contrary are already apparent among the raucous little boys playing outside the monastery. They have found 2 wild tortoises, have tied sticks above their heads, and are urging them to charge and kill their opponent. Later these kids chance upon some discarded ammunition, so they light a fire and the bullets start up a ricocheting and deafening pyrotechnic display which delights them no end…

When Kiril gets into bed that night in his spartan wooden chambers, he immediately leaps out of his skin. There is someone in the bed, and though it looks like a young boy in his mid teens, it is in fact a girl with her hair cropped short. She is an ethnic Albanian called Zamira (played by Labina Mitevska, born 1975) who understands no Macedonian, and he likewise has no Albanian, and in any case is a deliberate mute. Nevertheless, she manages to communicate that she is a fugitive on the run from a bunch of local Slavs, as she had killed one of their goatherds with a pitchfork. The film which is in three interlocking sections entitled ‘Words’, ‘Faces’, ‘Pictures’ never explains why exactly she killed the Slav in her nearby village, but the best guess is that being at least twice her age he was molesting her or worse. The goatherd’s friends and relatives are in rapid pursuit, and very soon are battering on the door of the monastery, demanding to search for the Albanian ‘whore’. The old abbot demurs and urges them to turn the other cheek, but their gun-toting leader quotes Mosaic law and says no it must be an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…

To put things in context, Macedonia is principally a Slav country, but with a substantial 25% Albanian minority. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia into its constituent republics, Macedonia escaped the worst horrors of genocide evident in Bosnia and parts of Croatia, and only started to suffer serious ethnic tension in 1999, when adjacent Kosovo with its Albanian majority was invaded by the Serbs. This film is set somewhere in the early 1990s around the time of the Balkan War in Bosnia, and although there are no bloodbaths, there is no love lost between the Christian Slavs and the mostly Muslim Albanians, and especially in remote rural communities. When Kiril who is a supposedly sacrosanct priest, makes a mild attempt to restrain one of the vigilantes in his hunt for the ‘slut’, he is punched viciously in the face. The search party are a motley and unsavoury crew, including cousins of the murdered goatherd plus a rowdy and disturbed young thug who plays aggressive punk music on his Walkman and is trigger happy to boot. Just for the hell of it he blasts a little cat to pieces, and fires his gun off into the night when everyone else is trying to sleep. Despite a thorough search of Kiril’s quarters and the rest of the monastery, the invaders find nothing, and they decide to camp down outside for the night. At this stage, Kiril makes a crucial resolution regarding himself and his vocation, for he packs a battered suitcase and escapes with Zamira across the hills, and he also breaks his vow of silence and indicates that for her safety he will take her to the Macedonian capital of Skopje, or even to his uncle in England. To cap all that, he declares in Macedonian that he loves her, whereupon Zamira stares at him in surprise, then smiles and apparently understands.

The film’s director Manchevski (born 1959) is a Macedonian Slav who has spent much of his adult life in New York, where as well as penning memoirs and theoretical works he has made epic multilingual movies (typically in Macedonian, English, French and Albanian) which are structurally sophisticated and seem to prefigure directors like Inarritu and his 2006 Babel. Best known perhaps is the 2001 Dust starring Joseph Fiennes, that weaves a tapestry of narratives across centuries, and features a contemporary New York thief, as well as Macedonian revolutionaries under the Ottoman empire. One indicator of Manchevski’s impressive maturity as a film maker, is his rigorous even-handedness when it comes to political and social realities, and which is not always comfortable for the audience. For just as the two waifs Kiril and Zamira are successfully escaping from the Slav pursuers, they are surrounded by a group of rustic Albanians in their typical Shiptar hats, all of them armed and all of them furious with their relative Zamira who they are trying to rescue from the vigilantes.

“Christian scum!” snarls the old man who is Zamira’s grandfather, and one of his sons kicks Kiril to the ground and stands on his back.

The grandfather then starts slapping Zamira hard across the face, and tells her she is behaving like a whore when she is alone and unchaperoned with this Christian.

“I cut your hair to make you behave yourself! Do you want me to shave your head?”

Zamira tells him that Kiril risked his life by sheltering her in the monastery, so that her smileless grandfather relents and orders Kiril to disappear. The Slav monk who loves Zamira hesitates but several rifles are pointed at them, and fearing for her safety he moves off across the hills. The young girl can’t control herself then, but shouts out that she loves Kiril and races after him, ignoring all commands to return. At which point her brother blasts her with his huge automatic, and her grandfather indicates no more than a stern resignation as she lies dying on the grass with Kiril kneeling over her.

Such is the first section ‘Words’, and like the two that follow on, it is about 40 minutes long. The second, ‘Faces’ switches to the polar opposite of rural Macedonia, in the form of fashionable central London. We are now with a press photographer in her early thirties called Anne, played by the late Katrin Cartlidge (1961-2002) who died tragically young at only 41. Aside from being an award-winning Mike Leigh regular, Cartlidge is esteemed all over the Balkans, for in addition to working with Manchevski, she was in Danis Tanovic’s 2001 film about the Bosnian war No Man’s Land, which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar that year. Anne is in an unhappy marriage with Nick (Jay Villiers, born 1961, familiar from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and is also romantically involved with a celebrated war photographer called Aleksander who happens to be a Macedonian, and is portrayed by the Croatian, Rade Serbedzija, born 1946, one of Yugoslavia’s best known actors in the 70s and 80s. They meet up in London where Aleksander kisses her feverishly inside the taxi, then tells her that despite all his worldly success he doesn’t know what to do with his life. He is also consumed with guilt, as he happens once to have killed a man. Anne cries to hear this, but on pressing him learns that it is a guilt at one remove so to speak. Years ago, interviewing some revolutionary cadre in the Middle East, Aleksander had joked that he had nothing very exciting to show him, whereupon the swaggering captain had pulled a nearby prisoner out of his line, and shot him dead on the spot. Today Aleksander suddenly invites Anne to move to Macedonia and settle down with him, which of course she tells him is impossible, though she does not reveal one significant reason. That evening she is meeting in an expensive London restaurant with her husband Nick (they are currently living apart) where she is obliged to give him both good and bad news. She tells Nick that she is pregnant and by him, but as he forces celebratory champagne on her, and begs for reconciliation, she informs him that no, she wants a divorce. Nick is terribly upset and about to leave, when suddenly an altercation breaks out nearby. A bearded and arrogant foreigner in his forties, who is speaking some Balkan language, possibly Macedonian, instead of quietly paying his bill, starts shouting at the waiter and contemptuously flinging notes in his face. Before long things escalate, and the ranting customer starts viciously beating up the waiter and anyone else who tries to intervene. Finally, cursing angrily at everyone, the assailant is propelled out of the door, after which the silky old manager apologises humorously to his customers, and everything settles down. But ten minutes later the same man returns with a gun, and for a full five minutes starts blasting at everyone inside. Anne crouches down and screams her terror and when the gunman departs, gropes blindly for Nick on the glass strewn floor. Eventually she turns over a body, and beholds the face of her husband, which is a gory and shattered mess…

“Oh your face,” she gasps, in her choking grief. “Your face…”

‘Faces’ ends on that tragic note, just as ‘Words’ finishes with the young girl Zamira being grieved over by Kiril the former monk. The last section, ‘Pictures’, shows Aleksander hoping to find a meaning to his hectic life by returning to settle in Macedonia. His remote and primitive village is split into its Slav and Albanian halves, and the two have virtually nil contact.  On his walk from the bus to his ruin of a house, he is stopped by a long-haired gun-toting kid, unaware he is the villager who made it big as a leading war photographer. Aleksander seizes the weapon, then clouts the surly youth, but once reached the village he is rapturously welcomed by his relatives. Partying in earnest begins, and during the table conversation his cousin Zdrave remarks with disgust that the Albanians breed like rabbits. The next morning a divorced female cousin gets into his bed, but the new arrival is half dead from the celebrations and can barely stir. In any case, one very disturbing elephant in the room is that Aleksander is still emotionally attached to an Albanian woman Hana (Silvija Stojanovska, born 1960), recently widowed from her Albanian husband. He decides he will go and visit his teenage love and take presents for her children, so crosses to the Albanian side where he is greeted stonily by her father. As he shows his gifts for the grandchildren, the old man relents and shouts of Hana who is in the women’s quarters, to bring the guest some coffee and loukoumi. In the meantime Hana’s brother arrives and asks what the hell the Slav is doing here. His father orders him to shut up, whereupon he glares at Aleksander and calmly offers to slit his throat. Then Hana appears, looking statuesque and seemingly without emotion. She shows no signs of her teenage attachment, nor is she responsive to Aleksander’s gifts. Indeed, she has something far more pressing to tell him, which is that his cousin Zdrave has just kidnapped her young daughter Zamira. Zamira had stabbed one of the Slav goatherds, so they have taken her captive, and both she and Hana need Aleksander’s help. Can he go and talk to Zdrave, and get her daughter back before they kill her?

Aleksander proceeds to do just that, and as he enters Zdrave’s house and sees how young the captive is, he cannot hide his contempt.

“But she is just a child…”

Ignoring Zdrave, he takes Zamira’s hand and leads her out, just as if he was leading out any other child by the hand. His cousin blusters panicky warnings, but Aleksander keeps on going, until urged on by his friends, Zdrave lifts his automatic and shoots him dead. Unlike the endings of ‘Faces’ and ‘Words’ there is no one here to grieve over the dead hero Aleksander, who has sacrificed himself for a child. For terrified Zamira races off from the gang of Slavs, and as we learn in ‘Faces’, ends up hiding in a monastery where she is temporarily protected by a Macedonian monk. Aleksander who had felt painful guilt at indirectly killing a man, has sacrificed himself for what will only be a delayed death for the child called Zamira, albeit he was unable to foresee the cruelty of her future. And you will also note the ingenious and moving premise of this 3 part film, and reflect that it could have been ordered in any of 3 possible sequences, and to that extent perhaps Chronology and the Sequential are more like mirages than what we choose to call Realities.

The next post will be on or before Wednesday December 11th

BEGGARS AND BARGAINS

BEGGARS AND BARGAINS

Those who know me appreciate how much I like a bargain, and that I am an unashamed fan of charity shops, where I can regularly acquire some gem of world cinema on DVD for £1 (recently that flawless masterpiece Three Colours: Red by Kieslowski with Jean-Louis Trintignant), or world literature ditto (two weeks ago The Zafarani Files by the Egyptian genius, the late Gamal al Ghitani). I am even of such unbelievably low scruples that I like going into pound shops, where being a keen cook I can find bargain casserole tins for a pound apiece, meaning 5 of the buggers for a fiver or 10 for a tenner, catering quantities no less, now we’re talking eh. However, 2 days ago I truly excelled myself by discovering in a pound shop in Hackney a pristine and massive brand-new boxed DVD set, containing no less than six DVDs on the History of the Second World War, with a total playing time of 12 hours. The whole lot cost me a pound, meaning each DVD cost me 16p, which these days wouldn’t even buy you a bit of bubble gum. It is an American production (hence they refer to Ay-dolf Hitler), is full of rare archive footage, has an incisive and intelligent commentary, and is giving me an education and even making me ashamed of my relative ignorance. I thought for example that the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Nazis on the west and the traitorous Soviets on the east, was all over in 5 minutes, but not at all, the Poles kept on fighting bravely for as long as they possibly could, and with scant timely assistance from the Allies. Nor did I know that the hideous Josef Goebbels (1897-1945), Nazi propaganda minister and Final Solution enthusiast, was a rare Nazi inasmuch as he was highly educated and had a PhD in literature. He was also only 5 feet tall and had a congenital deformity, a severe limp due to childhood illness, which perhaps partly explains the rabid savagery of his demented antisemitism, PhD or not.

As I roam my favourite East London charity shops, I bump into 2 things on a regular basis, namely beggars and dogs, and of course sometimes the two are combined. There were only a handful of dogs on the Isle of Kythnos in the Greek Cyclades where I lived for 6 years, whereas London is bursting at the seams with them, especially if you spot someone who exercises other people’s for a living, typically a thin young woman with up to 10 canine charges, everything from lofty Afghan Hounds to squawking Yorkshire Terriers scampering alongside, a boon for me as I have always been dog daft and always want to pat every one I see. As for the beggars, the bulk of them are seated on the ground, either next to a supermarket or a cash machine, with an empty plastic cup as receptacle for coins, their typical age being early to mid-30s. Those squatted on the ground are unfailingly polite, offer eloquent thanks for anything you give them, and they usually invoke God’s blessing on you too. Maybe about a quarter of these unfortunates also have a dog, and whereas the sight of a dogless beggar on the ground with a coffee or often a can of lager for sustenance, can instantly alienate some folk, a beggar plus dog nearly always melts the heart of everyone, Daily Telegraph readers included. This is very likely because the homeless dog wears the true and painful vulnerability of its owner on its face, for it is an animal that cannot feign nor dissimulate its feelings. The dog also knows in every nerve that it is homeless, that it does not have a house to sleep in, no more than its owner does, and to that extent like all stray animals it has a poignant aura of forlorn abandonment, so that the non-beggar, me and you that is, feels not just morally but cosmically obliged to alleviate that arctic feeling of cruel dispossession. 

Beggars on the move are a different phenomenon, and it is partly the fact they are mobile and active, meaning there is a subliminal suggestion they could work or somehow support themselves if they tried hard enough, that makes them less effective in their task.  A few days ago, as I was walking through a busy thoroughfare, a young Caribbean man of about 30 with a hectic nervous energy about him, came lurching up and informed me he hadn’t eaten anything for 10 days, which seemed to me overdoing it as the usual fasting quota never exceeds 2 days. I fished out a pound and without a word of thanks he staggered off. Belatedly I called him back as I had discovered more small change, and I told him he could have that too. Again, he offered no thanks, which perhaps explains why when he begged from a second white gentleman who was walking behind me, he got short shrift.

“No mite,” said the man, with a nasal tone of scornful incredulity. “Juss fack off will you.”

The beggar fucked off and in doing so rolled on, and the man who’d refused alms kept on walking behind me, obsessively ranting, possibly at me the gullible giver. But his voice had become lower so that he was mumbling unintelligibly and I could only guess at the contours of his particular misanthropy. His babbling suggested he might possibly have been drunk by 11am, and of course a large proportion of beggars have some sort of serious addiction, cheap drugs if not cheap booze. But this seeming drunk was not a beggar, for he had money which he would not part with, and the gulf between the moneyed and the unmoneyed is more absolute than any other.

The next post will be on or before Saturday 30th November

THE STRANGE HOTEL

THE STRANGE HOTEL

In March of 2013, when its streets were covered in snow, I went over to Poland to visit my 23-year old daughter Ione, who had been working there for a year. She was teaching English in the outstandingly beautiful city of Wroclaw (its historical name is Bratislava, confusingly the same as the Slovakian capital), which then had no direct flights from the north of England, meaning we found it easiest to meet up in Krakow, a 4-hour bus ride away. Thanks to the impeccable Rynek Glowny Square, as well as the handsome 13th century Wawel Castle and Cathedral, and St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow is a world heritage centre, and is so well known that certain pocket travel guides have all of 95 pages on Krakow, but only 5 on the rest of Poland, Warsaw included. Other compelling attractions include a great deal of live jazz mostly in subterranean clubs on Rynek Glowny, where both the entrance fee and a bottle of beer cost 1 euro. The jazz musicians are Poles in their early 20s, none of whom you’ve heard of, but all of them virtuosos nonetheless. You will also notice pristine horse drawn carriages with liveried drivers, as the Krakow equivalent of the London Sightseeing Bus. Less pristine are the frequent raucous stag parties of young Englishmen who long ago discovered that booze and accommodation in Eastern Europe can often be got for a song, and where you can get away with doing more or less what you like. One evening I was in a Krakow pub where one of a stag entourage was dressed as a caricature of lipsticked womanhood, and he and his cronies in their standard trainers and denims, did not even once glance around at the Poles surrounding them, to check if they were amused or shocked by their performance. I reflected that if a group of heedless young Poles had walked into a smart Manchester or Liverpool pub, and commenced a drunken cross-dressing rumpus, they would have been bawled out and turfed out of the premises faster than the speed of light.

The real shock when you’re in Krakow is of frequently coming face to face with at times chilling polar opposites. Next to the glamorous horse drawn carriages you will observe numerous smart minibuses doing shuttle trips to nearby Oswiecim, better known to you and me as Auschwitz. Those barbaric and quite unbelievable death camps of 70 odd years ago, are a popular tourist draw, if only because no one can assimilate the sheer magnitude and rank horror of the Holocaust, and has to see it with their own eyes. It is indeed vital that people see and learn from these terrible monuments to societal derangement and gratuitous evil, but perhaps the minibuses could be more discreet and respectful in their prominent pick-ups and drop offs, and for that matter the liveried carriages might decide to avoid the same city routes. Meanwhile, the first thing you’ll be told by your English-speaking guide is that Auschwitz-Birkenau was not a single entity, but a massive and extremely elaborate complex with a total of 40 dedicated units, some of them extermination facilities and others labour camps. 1,300,000 people entered it, of which 1,100,000 were exterminated. 90 per cent of them were Jews, but there were also 150,000 Poles, 23,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners, and 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is to say that next time one of the latter knocks determinedly on your door, instead of groaning you might perhaps show them a new and deserved respect…

There was even more shock when it came to our Krakow accommodation, though only at the end of our stay it needs to be stressed. In this connection, my daughter Ione who has been backpacking everywhere from Iran and Iraq to El Salvador and Honduras, actually prefers communal dorm-sharing to the pampered self-contained en suite. I told her in advance I didn’t wish to stay in a hostel-style dormitory, and she nodded and laughed, and got me a single room and a dorm for herself in the same hotel. As it transpired, just down the road against a brick wall, was a large framed poster advertising the nearby Museum of the Krakow Gestapo, replete with harrowing archive photos taken by the Nazis of the Polish inmates they dragged in and tortured and often murdered. Back at the hotel my en suite room was fine, we were there 2 nights, and throughout my stay I made no connection whatever between our accommodation and that disturbing poster in the street below. But on the day we left, as we walked down the stairs with our bags, I noted for the first time a plaque on the wall with an inscription in both Polish and German. Ione had good Polish while I only had O level German, though it was enough for me to make out that the hotel where we had been staying was formerly the Krakow Gestapo’s HQ…

The grisly conclusion was obvious. The room where I had been sleeping unawares, might not have been the principal interrogation room, but whoever had been incarcerated there would have been able to hear the horrific screams emitted from close by. The same applied to Ione’s dormitory, and I checked with her and of course she had known nothing whatever of the hotel’s wartime history when she booked our stay in Krakow…

The night before we left for Wroclaw, we went to the cinema, where we were delighted to find that the excellent film they were screening, Slawomir Fabicki’s Milosc/Loving (2012) was provided with English subtitles. Ponder for a while that the equivalent scenario would be for a Pole holidaying in Britain to go to a cinema where an English or American movie was provided with Polish subtitles. This of course is wholly improbable, though not in any fair or objective sense, given that certain UK cities like Carlisle have substantial populations of Poles (at Carlisle railway station, for example, the parking instructions are in both English and Polish). That aside, we watched one of the most profoundly moving films I have ever seen in all my life, which makes it all the stranger that most of Ione’s Polish friends have never even heard of it. This is particularly baffling, as it has the gifted and handsome star actor Marcin Dorocinski (born 1972) playing the lead of Tomek. He and his wife Maria (Julia Kijowska, born 1981) are a professional couple living quietly in a small obscure Polish town, and she is pregnant with their first child. One day when Tomek is out, the town’s mayor (Adam Woronowicz, born 1973) turns up at their door, and seeing her alone rapidly forces himself on Maria and assaults her. The cruellest twist, while convincing enough, is that when Tomek learns from traumatised Maria what has happened, he is stonily alienated rather than sympathetic. Soon afterwards he decides to go to the mayor’s house to confront him, but the quaking official orders his wife to do the dirty work by offering Tomek a heap of cash as compensation. Foolishly Tomek takes the money, and his alienation from Maria grows exponentially as a result. As subtle counterpoint to this haunting parable, Tomek’s mother (Dorota Kolak, born 1957) is in the last stages of cancer, and is at home being nursed by her husband (Marian Dziedziel, born 1947).With the mother blindly groaning and weeping piteously in her bed, as if she were regressed to primitive babyhood rather than infancy, for the first time ever I beheld a truly credible depiction of the cruel disease in its terminal stages. The poignant twist is that Maria is a special favourite of her mother-in-law, and so she is there to tenderly nurse her towards her end, while Tomek with his wounded selfish egotism does not have the same power, and thus fails his mother and his wife and for that matter his grieving father when they all need him.

The next post will be on or before Sunday, November 24th

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

A few years ago, when I was living in the small market town of Brampton in North Cumbria, UK, I had an unusual and theoretically impossible encounter. I was just about to go into the smaller of the two Spar supermarkets on a warm summer evening, when someone approached me to ask a favour. It was a smiling and heavily made up woman in her late sixties who I’d never seen before. She had a number of furrowed lines on her face and was visibly dishevelled, her jeans and blouse in grubby disarray, and she also exuded an odour of beer and wine that effortlessly overpowered the evening air. She also had a little dog on a lead and the dog was a tired but amiable old Lakeland Terrier, with a hint of lengthily acquired dopiness that possibly correlated with its mistress’s recreational habits. The woman looked at me and said could I please stand and hold the dog for her, while she went inside the shop. Somehow, I felt a premonitory unease at the request, and asked her why she just couldn’t tie him up at the convenient post nearby, like every other dog owner.

“Tommy doesn’t like being tied up,” she said. And then she hiccupped.

I stared at Tommy and decided I couldn’t imagine him disliking anything much, other than being forced to walk up a steep hill in the adjacent North Pennines.

“OK,” I said.

The woman disappeared for what turned out to be an endless 15 minutes. I stood there staring at the traffic going past, and feeling rather stupid. I even had the mad idea that possibly the woman wanted rid of Tommy, and this was an elaborate albeit drunken ruse for his abandonment. I said to myself that I would stand another 5 minutes of being a sentinel with his canine adjutant, and then I would shout inside the Spar to tell her to hurry up. Just as I was rehearsing all of that in my head, I suddenly felt something very warm on my left leg, and then within a second the warm turned to cold and then wet…

Tommy had treated me as a lamppost, even though one of unusual design, and had decided to piss on me…

Dog piss on your lower leg when you’ve been doing someone a handy little favour, fills you with a painful sense of melancholy and even of self-pity. I didn’t blame daft little Tommy of course, I even felt sorry for the feckless little blighter… but I did blame his stupid bloody mistress. When, after a marathon wait, she emerged, and I was starting to smell like a social work case, like the swaying lady herself in fact, I snorted:

“Your dog’s pissed on me! Look here! Look! It cocked its bloody leg, as if I was a lamppost.”

She tried not very hard to restrain her quaking mirth, and without a trace of guilt, embarrassment, dismay, much less any mordant self-reflection. Then what she said took my breath away…

“Are you sure it was my Tommy?”

For a time I was speechless, for she was seriously frowning as if I must be the fanciful kind.

I snapped at her, “Who else could it be? Ordinary Brampton folk aren’t in the habit of randomly pissing on locals, nor even on passing strangers. Look. The wetness stops exactly at Tommy’s height…”

She shook her addled head with haughty finality.

“That’s not the way my Tommy would behave!”

I reeled at her righteous use of the subjunctive. Meanwhile she assumed a majestic disdain, surveying me as if I was the inebriate, and she a woman of sobriety and immaculate habits, not to speak of flawless control of her autonomic nervous system.  

“Try looking closer to home,” she advised, before revolving on her heel and departing with Tommy.

The next post will be on or before Friday November 15th

WAR IN THE CLASSROOM

WAR IN THE CLASSROOM

If you have ever taught 14 to 15-year olds in a tough urban school, you will know that the experience varies from life-affirming and warm-hearted hilarity, to trawling the lowest depths of Hell, and with a regular emphasis on the latter. At one stage in the acclaimed 2008 film The Class (aka Entre Les Murs ) a curly haired and gentle young teacher, plunges into the staff room after a particularly infernal session, and exclaims in despair and rage:

“I’m sick of these clowns. They know nothing. They can stay in their shit. Kevin for example, spent a whole hour in class doing this (pulls a grotesque sideways leer) Nyah, nyah, nyah!

The teacher looks close to breakdown, but will rally, pick himself up and start again with his next class, as will the rest of his dour, infinitely resilient and touchingly principled colleagues. It is somewhere around 2005, in a deprived multi-ethnic area in the Paris suburbs, and most of the film is set inside the classroom of Francois Marin, an idealistic though assertive French teacher, who is in his early thirties. Marin is played by the journalist and author Francois Begaudeau (born 1971) a former Parisian schoolteacher who wrote the novel Between the Walls, on which the film is based. It was directed by Laurent Cantet (born 1961) both of whose parents were teachers, and deservedly won numerous awards, including the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2008. One of the judging panel at Cannes was the celebrity actor Sean Penn (born 1960) who described it as ‘a perfect movie’.

Marin’s struggling attempts to be an effective teacher inside his classroom, are interleaved with briefer playground and staffroom scenes, where for example the teachers confer and argue about how to reward and discipline the more troublesome of their students. One conservative colleague believes an incremental points system like that of a driving licence might get more compliance, but Marin is sceptical. There is also the business of indirect, i.e. at a remove responsibility, for if they punish any of their pupils with sanctions, and their parents learn of it, some of them will also beat their erring child and thus inflict a double punishment. Add to that, and this is one of the few things that is not forensically explored in The Class, but only via the justifiable scepticism of the students themselves, much of the syllabus Marin works through with the kids, is of a top heavy and antiquated nature, including highly technical grammatical terminology such as the imperfect subjunctive (of which more later) as well as decorous metrical analysis on the lines of tercets and quatrains. All of this makes for ripe comedy, as the class of about 20 kids, a goodly proportion being of North African, West African or Chinese extraction, are grilled on the matter of comprehension and vocabulary specifically.

MARIN: Yes, there are some difficult words here: ‘condescension’, ‘argentites’ and ‘henceforth’. No, no, Rachid, ‘argentites’ doesn’t mean ‘from Argentina’. And Rachid, you didn’t know what ‘succulent’ meant (someone at the back ventures ‘suck off’, followed by general hilarity, which Marin expertly ignores). Well it means ‘juicy’, ‘ripe’, ‘appetising’, and if we are talking of food ‘delicious’. So, let me give you an example on the blackboard

Bill enjoys a succulent cheeseburger

SOULEYMANE (his parents are from Mali, and he is portrayed here by Franck Keita) : But cheeseburgers are really shit, they’re not succu…

ESMERALDA (who has a North African surname) What’s with the name ‘Bill’ anyway? Why do you always use weird names?

MARIN: Weird? Why, a recent US president was called…

ESMERALDA: But you always use whitey, honky names! Why don’t you use Aissata or Rachid or Ahmed?

Her scepticism is even more justified when Esmeralda asks him why the indicative as in ‘imperfect indicative’ is so called. Momentarily speechless, Marin ingeniously throws the question open, whereupon a dozy looking lad at the back stuns everyone by saying:

“To distinguish it from the imperfect subjunctive!”

Esmeralda sneers, then demands that Marin give an example of the latter on his blackboard

After some thought, he scrawls laboriously:

I wished that I were fit

As distinct from the present subjunctive, which he also scrawls:

He demands that I be fit

ESMERALDA: You are kidding! Do you think I’m going to talk to my Mum like that? ‘I wish that I be fit, Mum!’ Don’t you see? None of this shit applies to us.

These vaudeville exchanges are extremely entertaining, but the banter can get far more seditious, barbed and potentially humiliating. This occurs when Marin is asked to explain what the word ‘posh’ means, because Khouba, a resentful West African girl (played by Rachel Regulier) does not understand it. Marin tries with the synonyms of ‘affected’ and ‘mannered’, which of course none of them recognise, but then Boubacar who sits in front of Souleymane, suggests it might mean ‘homosexual’. After the general merriment, Souleymane then slyly asks Marin, and as if he has rehearsed it:

“I shouldn’t say this, sir. But it’s what I’ve heard. They say that you like men. Is that true?”

Marin is impressive at this crucial point as he gently berates the boy for several things, including idle gossip and sexual prejudice, and then, after quite some time, quietly affirms that he is not gay, and leaves it at that. As it happens, Souleymane has an impressive track record of insolence and bare faced lying to all his teachers. He regularly says he has forgotten his schoolbooks, and will write it all up at home tonight, which of course he never does. When his brother and Mum come in for Parents’ Night, they are baffled to hear this, as he had assured them that he worked hard at school and was doing very well. His school reports are far from positive, but he craftily makes sure that his Mum and no one else sees them, as she can neither read nor understand French. Meanwhile, the precise manner of the taunting and needling of teacher Marin, varies with the gender of the student and two girls in particular, Khouba and Esmeralda, are experts at tying him in knots with their accusatory arguments. In effect, and this applies to all Marin’s colleagues, the staff spend most of their lessons defending their professional and personal cases, like battered litigants who are attacked by up to half a dozen antagonists in a row, rather than just one. Khouba, for example, refuses to read aloud from The Diary of Anne Frank, and when Marin insists, barks back, No way, and claims with nil justification and just for the hell of it, that he is picking on her. Marin’s unfortunate if understandable tactic, is to respond with mannered (posh?) irony, which of course a tough nut like Khouba can brush off with steely contempt.

“So the class here has to revolve around your desires, does it?” he asks far too reasonably.

“No way!”

Marin is worn out by this permanent battle to get them to do their work, but being an idealist heroically persists. He has them all write Self Portraits, and remarkably Souleymane illustrates his with moving photographs of his family and friends, as well as a close up of the tattoo calligraphy on his arms, which he claims is from sacred scripture. Marin is delighted and pins it up for all to see, while Souleymane grins and modestly says no it’s just shit really. Equally touching. is the Chinese boy Wei who reads aloud his Self Portrait, where he admits his French isn’t very good, and that there is much he cannot understand going on around him, and so feels lonely. He says he spends at least 4 hours a day on video games and rarely goes outside, as he also has an allergic condition. Allergic to what, someone interrupts. I don’t know he replies. Esmeralda then wisely snaps, you’re allergic to yourself! This is the same Esmeralda who in her Self Portrait says that when she leaves school, she wants to be either a policewoman (they are all supposed to be bad, so I want one of them to be good) or… a rapper. Souleymane takes umbrage at these crazy choices and sneers at anyone wanting to be a cop. As the argument escalates, he nastily assures her that she has bad breath, and even offers to buy her a toothbrush.

Souleymane’s next argument proves fateful, for he falls out with a Moroccan boy who is giving a talk about Africans and their role in World Football, so that they angrily dispute the merits of Malian and Moroccan soccer stars. To make things worse, Marin is very angry with the 2 student representatives, Esmeralda and Louise, who have disclosed to Souleymane that in a staff meeting their teacher described the Mali boy as academically ‘limited’, scarcely as incendiary a comment as they would have it. As they sneeringly justify themselves, he also says they behaved appallingly in the same meeting, giggling and even guzzling snacks like a pair of petasses, meaning like ‘sluts’. This of course is a grave mistake on his part, that as a teacher in loco parentis, he chooses to use loaded and inappropriate language towards two 14-year-old children. Now, as Marin intercedes in the football row, Souleymane who has just been told that he is ‘limited’, shouts and swears at his treacherous teacher. He then storms out of the classroom, but his rucksack catches Khouba near the eye with the edge of a metal clasp. There is a great deal of blood, and she needs stitches, so that a staff meeting is soon convened to decide on the disciplinary measures. Marin again argues for leniency, and especially when injured Khouba insists that it was an accident, and she also adds that if he is expelled his Dad will probably send him back to Mali, a fate worse than death. Then when Souleymane eventually turns up to the disciplinary meeting, he brings only his Mum along. She is decked up in her best and very beautiful Mali clothes, and is eloquent in her son’s defence, though sadly not in French. Her son has to translate for her, for of course the teachers don’t know any Bambara nor any of the other dozen Mali languages. According to his translation, she says Souleymane often looks after his younger siblings and helps his Mum in the house in many ways, and is generally a fine and unselfish son.

None of which pleading works, and Souleymane is permanently expelled from the school, though the headmaster says they will do their best to find him another. The film ends with a hectic and hilarious end of year football match between the students and the staff, which seems in a wisely understated manner to spell out how much real affection exists on both sides, as when both parties step outside their customary roles. But before the match, Marin asks his class what they have learned and liked in the last 12 months at school. Most of them have something positive, or at least polite to say, but fearless Esmeralda is true to form, when she declares that she has enjoyed nothing inside the school, and that everything here is shit.

However, she adds in a rush, at home things were a bit different, for there she had read and had liked a certain book called The Republic.

Marin asks her in wonderment. “By Plato?”

“Yes,”

“Really? Is it your own book?”

“No, it’s my sister’s. She’s a university student.”

“A student of philosophy?”

“A student of law.”

Then Esmeralda adds victoriously. “And The Republic is not the book of a slut!”

The next post will be on or before Friday, November 8th

FEAST AND FAMINE

FEAST AND FAMINE

I have only once been seriously hungry for an extended period in my 69 years. Back in 1971 when I was 20, my friend Marty and I were hitchhiking through Germany when a 3 day public holiday meant that we were unable to change our travellers’ cheques (google that antediluvian quaintness if you are under 55) and we had run out of cash. I recall being stranded at some bustling motorway café where I felt so hungry, I feverishly contemplated eating the grass to the rear of it. As it happened, we had a tiny amount of deutschmarks, so that with my worthy O level German I went inside, and asked what they had in the way of a snack, as opposed to a meal. I used the word Imbiss which translates literally as ‘bite in’ and believe me I’d have loved a ‘bite in’ on the analogy of a ‘love in’, but no such thing was to be had. The three young women assistants couldn’t make any sense of the term ‘bite in’, and in any case the cheapest thing on offer was a minute Kartoffelsalat for which we had inadequate marks. In the end Marty in his desperation went hurriedly round the nearest small town, where he found a kindly long-haired record shop owner who changed one of his cheques. We then, I remember as if it was yesterday, gorged and spluttered on egg and chips and wurstel sausage and beer, until it came out of our 20-year-old ears.

Fast forward exactly four years to the opposite scenario in the summer of 1975. I was living in little known Irish West Cumbria, which is to say a small town called Cleator Moor, and I had been out for the evening with my landlady Beth and two of her friends, a couple called Katie and Luigi. Katie who barely drank had driven us to a pleasingly obscure and old-fashioned pub in an atmospheric hamlet just off the Egremont to Cockermouth road. Luigi, who had a strong West Cumbrian accent (yis marra, ah bliddy dyeuh hev) but whose Dad hailed from Reggio Calabria and had once worked the Whitehaven pits, consumed the same as myself which is to say 4 pints of lager which then cost 22p per pint. Katie sipped just half a pint of shandy and Beth two bottles of sweet stout Mackeson, so neither of them were as painfully hungry as Luigi and I were on the return to Beth’s house. It needs to be emphasised that we had had an extremely ample dinner (tuna bake, roast potatoes and green salad) cooked by Katie before we had gone out, but of course alcohol in quantity can renew and exaggerate one’s appetite as if by totemic magic. Luigi and I therefore demanded that Katie stop at a chip shop half way down a very long cowboy town called Frizington, where as it happened my grandfather also called John Murray (1878-1951) had once rented out two small terraced cottages at a peppercorn rent. There we ordered mountainous portions of fish and chips, while the women ordered nothing, and sure enough Luigi and I devoured most of our malodorous repast in the back of the car, breaking off now and again only to sing from Stevie Wonder’s latest mesmerising album Fulfillingness’ First Finale of which we were both enraptured addicts…

They won’t go when I go…

They certainly wouldn’t. We had brought 4 cans of Harp from the country pub, and once reached Beth’s neat little kitchen, both of us reeking of chip fat whilst still warbling that admonitory gospel song of Stevie Wonder, we broke open the Harps then immediately decided that we were still very hungry.

“I don’t believe it,” said Katie in a tone not of justifiable reproof (Luigi, who was a talented artist, was decidedly a podgy bloke, while I was as thin as a lath) but of sincere and open-mouthed wonderment. I walked without delay to the cupboard where I kept my lodger’s supplies, and then to the fridge, and before long had prepared massive doorstop Mature Cheddar sandwiches, that lacking any chutney, I had daubed with Coop marmalade, which of course supplied the complementary fruit element to the pungent cheese, though not the desirable astringence of the vinegar.

Beggars can’t be choosers, I thought to myself, and anyway marmalade will give the cheddar a bit of zesful elan and a bit of needful tang. We both snorted and wolfed down 3 of the ungainly sandwiches, as if they were gourmet baguettes or bistro panini, neither of which of course had reached West Cumbria as a standard snack or Imbiss or bite-in by Neanderthal 1975.

Suddenly Luigi the artist took on a profound and altogether pained look, and remarked in a not unslurred tone:

“I like it when it’s mature, you know…”

I garbled through a gag of marmalade and strong cheese, “When woh is?”

But he had forgotten what it was he liked about maturity, culinary or otherwise. Plus Stevie Wonder, as ever, was to come to his aid.

Heaven is ten zillion light years away,” Luigi crooned with a tender, heartfelt passion, indeed with a remarkably resonant and powerful, almost operatic tenor.

Regarding which, it is easy to forget that the backing vocals on that particular song are provided by the Fifties pin up Paul Anka (born 1941) who was a Canadian, and not as widely believed, an American. But that explains why, without notice, and devotedly gazing at his tall and beautiful girlfriend Katie, Luigi rose with a stagger from the table and the Mature Cheddar, and started to carouse after the manner of some ardent troubadour, Oh please stay by me, Diana! which was Anka’s bewitching worldwide hit when he was a mere 16 years old.

The next post will be on or before Friday 1st November

THEY BURNT HER BOOKS

THEY BURNT HER BOOKS

Edna O’ Brien (born 1930) arrived with a considerable fanfare in 1960 with her first book The Country Girls. Born and raised in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, in the west of Ireland, she wrote vividly about the claustrophobia of rural Irish life during WW2 (when Ireland significantly was neutral) and for the first time ever a female Irish novelist was to write candidly and with authority about passion generally and sex specifically. In her native land, where the Catholic church wielded immense secular as well as religious power, her fiction was deemed incendiary, and under Irish censorship her books were banned, denounced from the pulpit, and even publicly burned in several places, including her native Tuamgraney. Later, one of the most flagrant crooks in the history of Irish politics Charles Haughey (1925-2006) pronounced that the novel was ‘filth which should not be allowed in any decent home’.

O’Brien was educated by the Sisters of Mercy between 1941 and 1946, and she described the experience as coercive and stifling, frightening and all pervasive, so that she couldn’t wait to get away from it. By the age of 20 in 1950, she had a licence to practice as a Dublin pharmacist, and a few years later found herself in London where she married a minor and older novelist called Ernest Gebler (1914-1998). Gebler eventually became jealous of her meteoric success, and proved to be tyrannical and controlling, even making out that it was he had half written her books, so that the marriage was to end by 1964. In fact, her first book was helped by the fact that she was a publisher’s reader at Hutchinson’s at the time she wrote it, and they had commissioned her with a £50 advance to write a novel. Once published, it was loudly acclaimed by Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) who was a major cultural arbiter of the day. Amis with his irreverent and sardonic first novel, Lucky Jim (1954) had been granted that post-war iconoclast category known as the Angry Young Man, alongside writers like John Wain (author of the 1953 Hurry on Down) and the dramatist John Osborne with his splenetic Look Back in Anger (1956). These Angry Young Men were deemed notionally leftist at the time, though by the mid-60s Amis had metamorphosed into a far right satirist tainted by misogyny and racism, and a few years later Wain was to be made the Oxford Professor of Poetry. In O’ Brien’s case, politics are to a certain extent beside the point, for she and her characters are so painfully shaped and fragilely defined by their claustrophobic upbringing, that their mere physical survival is an achievement in itself.

That said, in latter years O’Brien has touched courageously on matters so sensitive in the Irish context, that she can be defined as a true radical. In 1997, based on real events from 1992, in Down by the River she writes of an underage Irish victim of her father’s sexual abuse fleeing the country to seek an abortion in the UK. Later in 2002 there is In the Forest where we have the fictionalised account of the real life Brendan O’ Donnell who abducted, raped and murdered a woman, her 3 year old son, and a priest in rural Ireland. By contrast The Country Girls Trilogy that also includes Girl with Green Eyes (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) seems almost like a world of lost innocence, even though the last one in particular reveals not only a sardonic and sceptical take on marriage, fidelity and parenthood, but is also downright blasphemous at times, albeit delivered in a context of comic farce rather than one of earnest ideology (e.g. Kate down on her knees praying during Baba’s fumbled abortion attempt, much to the latter’s chagrin).

In Girls in Their Married Bliss we are once again with Kate and her friend Baba, both now living in London, and both married to Irishmen. Kate like Baba is in her mid 20s and is wedded to Eugene, a documentary maker, and has a small child by him, a son called Cash. They live in some splendour in a large house, and with a maid called Maura who is a hopeless cook, as is Kate. Kate is having a covert affair with a rather dull and staid British politician called Duncan, and in order to meet him one night lies that she is going to stay overnight with Baba. Eugene is suspicious and goes part of the way on the bus with her, where things reach a crux of alienation when Kate suggests it would be more comfortable if they sat on separate seats. In fact, Eugene follows her to see her liaising with Duncan, and later unearths their clandestine love letters which he passes on to his solicitor. Before that at Christmas, he gives a present to Cash and one to Maura, but nothing at all to his wife, and their mordant exchange is economically done.

‘“You forgot me,” she said to him, sullenly

 “I give presents when I want to,” he said, “not out of duty.”

“You’re quite right,” she said, but in the wrong tone.

“I see you’re getting your persecution complex back, put a sign out,” he told her.’

Once he has removed her love letters, Kate rummages frantically through his desk, and inside an accounts’ ledger reads his diary entry about herself

‘So this is her, my special handpicked little false heart, into whose diseased stinking mind, and other parts, I have poured all that I know about living, being and loving.’

Kate’s tragedy is that when they had first met, Eugene was the epitome of romantic tenderness. But now that she has betrayed him, he regularly unleashes the opposite, of a loaded and limitless venom.

‘“I must say it took quite a time to get to know you…I must congratulate you on your simpleton’s cunning, and your simpleton’s servile ways.”

The chapters of this novel are structured in roughly alternating fashion, with Baba’s dour and irreverent first person recollections, alongside a more sombre and troubled third person account of Kate’s marital anguish. In some ways it reads like the story of two separate and distinctive émigré friends, straightforward young Irishwomen both with healthy sexual appetites, both adulterous, and both of them rebels of a kind. But at other times, and with O’Brien being such an autobiographical writer, it comes across as being the two halves of the authorial personality, one guilt free and relatively liberated, the other tormented with contrition, so that it could almost read as some sort of attempt at private reconciliation. Baba like her friend Kate has married an Irishman, but nothing like the cerebral and wordy Eugene. She is wedded instead to dumb Frank, a wealthy London builder who splashes his money about, and especially if there are people with titles or artistic credentials, however modest, at the frequent parties he throws. Kate’s sad descent into dissolution as she reels from her husband’s refusal to forgive, is skilfully offset by the comic counterpart of Frank, a man so ignorant and unworldly he doesn’t have a clue what is happening when he first sees Baba menstruate.

‘“It must be the food,” he said…

“Don’t you know about women?” I said. He just looked at me with his big, stupid, wide open mouth. He didn’t know. What sort of mother had he? He said to leave his mother out of it, that she was a good woman and baked the best bread in Ireland. I said there was more to life than baking good bread.’

Eugene is now threatening Kate with solicitors and limited parental access to Cash, so that she panics, takes her son, and lands up on Baba’s doorstep. Baba is not at all pleased, as she knows that Frank who is a good Catholic, will not appreciate the scandal, and especially when Eugene comes knocking at his door in the middle of the night demanding to know where they are. After futile attempts to find accommodation for them both, Kate soon realises how limited her options are. She hands Cash back to his father and eventually ends up alone in a bleak and godforsaken place where the wiring is so bad there is no electricity, and she has to survive by candlelight. Cash on his first visit to his mother, cannot bear the cold, the dark, the lack of TV and toys, and cries to go back to his father and Maura who seemingly is now cohabiting with her employer.

Frank who does not understand the phenomenon of menstruation, also needs to have the business of lovemaking explained to him (what do we do now?) so that understandably Baba feels the need to spread her wings and have some excitement. In her case, she meets her lover at a party, a drummer in a band called Harvey, who by agreement comes to the house when Frank is away. As pure farce he turns up wielding a massive drum and clutching drumsticks. Harvey is theatrical in other ways, and having taken a mouthful from the brandy she has offered, he subjects her to a species of regurgitation which Baba finds the last word in erotic stimulation.

‘Then he beckoned me to come over near him, and I leapt across and he put his lips to mine and gave me brandy from his mouth. I nearly passed out with the thrill. I don’t want to get all eejity about nature and stuff, but it was just like the way birds chew the food and feed it to the mouths of their young. He could twist me around some barbed wire if he wanted to.’

Being a percussionist, Harvey can also impress her by using her body for drumming practice. He starts with his drumsticks across her breasts, which Baba finds the opposite of aphrodisiac, more like painful pummelling, then turns her round and drums her backside, so that she begins to worry how she can lie to Frank about the bruises.

Harvey as it happens is a reckless boaster.

‘“I’ve studied the art of lovemaking since I was fourteen,” he said. He said he had his muscles under such control that he could make love to twenty-five women in an evening. He pointed to a little line of hair on his chin and said that it was put to use in lovemaking too. “My hip bones, every part of me is brought to bear,” he said. Talk about the secrets of the orient. I was rearing to get upstairs.’

Once in the sack Harvey proves less than proficient, and even walks out on her in the small hours, to see some other woman, Baba surmises. Fidelity aside, she ends up pregnant and Harvey promptly vanishes to Budapest. Later, with Kate in attendance, she tries to abort herself using a hot bath and castor oil. When that fails, and with Kate once more in tow, she confesses the truth to Frank who at first threatens to kick the arse off her, then subsides and decides he is pleased to have an heir after all.

Kate makes one final attempt to be reconciled with Eugene, and they meet at a train station where he curtly refuses to take her back. Thoroughly traumatised, she then enters a bizarre mental state, where she stands on a weighing machine and hallucinates the voice of a friendly Irishman talking to her in a warm, consoling voice. Suddenly and without warning, all her backlog of suffering and petrified emotions starts to shatter and pour forth.

‘Then something broke loose inside her and she started to scream and bang the glass that covered the numbered face. She hurled insults at it and poured into it all the thoughts that had been in her brain for months. She lashed out with words and with her fists and heard glass break, and people run, and say urgent things.’

An ambulance comes to takes her to the casualty ward, and later her GP sends her to a psychiatrist for fruitless discussions which Kate abruptly terminates. In the interim Eugene slyly takes Cash out of his school and they plus Maura the maid emigrate to, of all places, Fiji. Kate, mad with panic, is angry enough to approach a bumbling old, hand-pawing solicitor, but the cost involved in pursuing them to Fiji is beyond her. In a kind of shutdown stupor, she contents herself with writing letters to Cash, while Baba to her surprise suggests she come and live with her and Frank and the baby. After that Kate takes the symbolic step of having herself sterilised, whereupon she enters a state of emotional remove that somehow seems to rescue her from complete vulnerability. And so, to the novel’s final sentence.

‘It was odd for Baba to see Kate like that, all the expected responses were missing, the guilt and doubt and sadnesses, she was looking at someone of whom too much had been cut away, some important region that they both knew nothing about.’

The next post will be on or before Thursday 24th October