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Saturday, 30 August 2014

Watching the film, Closely Observed Trains

Last night, I sat at home and watched Jiri Menzel's film Closely Observed Trains (premiered in Czechoslovakia 1966 released abroad 1967). I don't know how many years it is since I last watched it.

Memory (which may be false) tells me that I first watched it in 1969, when I was 22 and living in the first of several Communes at 154 Barnsbury Road, Islington, North London - known to some as the "Horror Commune". Under the direction of the house's owner, Hilary Rawlings, this large North London terraced house had been refurbished to make it communal-activity friendly. The open plan ground floor incorporated a stage at the garden end. In the centre of the room, a circular or egg shaped table had a central hole cut into it through which gas pipes led to several gas rings - the idea, to make cooking a more communal activity with people sitting round rather than facing the wall at a gas stove.

Someone - maybe Vivan Sundaram, studying film at the Slade - had the idea of whitewashing the rear garden wall, thus enabling films to be projected from inside the house through the large rear sash window. People could then sit on the stage to watch. My recollection is that Closely Observed Trains was projected onto that garden wall. Whether other films were ever projected, I don't recall.

In memory, the film is linked to an incident a year or so before, when I was a student in Oxford. A young male Czech student and a girlfriend arrived (I don't know how) as refugees from Czechoslovakia, looking for help to get asylum - I think this must have been around the time of the Soviet invasion. They were put in touch with me ( as someone active in socialist politics) and I arranged for the student to meet Robert Maxwell MP at his Oxford home, Headington Hall. We went there on a Sunday morning. I remember a harp on display in the hallway and then the three of us in a large drawing room. The boy's English was not so good and Maxwell switched into his native Czech. Afterwards, he expressed some ambivalence about helping. He was worried that the student might be a provocateur and Maxwell had business interests in Czechoslovakia, where books were printed for his Pergamon Press company.

I have no memory of what happened after that meeting.

Watching Closely Observed Trains last night, I was surprised first by its candour about sexuality and its sexual liberalism. Czechoslovakia was never as prudish as the Soviet Union and though the heavy hand of Communism may partly account for scenes which fade to black, sexual humour is central to the film and is allowed free expression. The centrality of sex in the film reflects a reality of war time: faced with daily danger, people want to have sex and if it's fun so much the better.

The young hero of the film - all of 15 or 16 - wants to have serious sex (with his eager girlfriend) but suffers from premature ejaculation. He tries to commit suicide and then, recovered, talks about his problem to anyone who will listen and asks for their help. All this in Nazi - occupied Czechoslovakia circa 1943.

In the end, it is the Czech Resistance which comes to the boy's rescue: his older (and cheerfully promiscuous) colleague in the railway station where they work (and where the whole film is set) sets him up for a night with a female Resistance worker who has just delivered a package of explosives for use against a German munitions train. She does the trick. I laughed when I made the connections: The Resistance will make a Man of You!

And it does make a man of him. When the boy's Resistance colleague finds himself trapped in a gorgeously farcical disciplinary hearing (pure Bakhtin carnivalesque you might say), just at the time when he is supposed to place and detonate the explosives, the newly masculinised hero steps in, does the job for him - and gets machine gunned by an alert Nazi guard. But he died happy - he'd fucked.

As critics I have Googled remark, all this is unfolds with great sympathy and tenderness against the backdrop of a brutal war. Some of that brutality is alluded to by the railway station staff when they talk about how terribly the Germans mistreat cattle, visibly so in passing trains headed for the slaughter house. At their station, it is only cattle trains which pass but the allusion to the human cattle trains which everyone in the cinema audience knows about is very effective.

Googling I found that Ken Loach picks this as a film to be passed on to future generations. I think he's right.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Iraq: What I thought then and what I think now

Back on 31 January 2005, the Independent newspaper published this letter from me. It's what I thought then and it's what I think now:

Sir: The awful daily carnage in Iraq arises at least in part from the American decision to impose national elections on an artificial nation, created by the First World War victors and sustained ever since by not much more than foreign occupation and domestic force.
I do wonder what would have happened if separate elections had been offered to Shia, Sunni and Kurd regions with the option to federate afterwards or go for independence. It may be that this path was not followed because of the hostility of Iraq's neighbours, notably Turkey, to a separate Kurdistan and because of American fears of a pro-Iranian Shia government.
But then that is simply to say that "Iraq" is something foreign governments want to exist, whereas democracy is about securing governments wanted by peoples.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists

People - ordinary people, civilians - are going about their daily lives - shopping in the market, travelling on the train, flying on a plane - when suddenly, without warning, a bomb explodes or a missile hits and everywhere there is death, terrible injury and destruction. Those who died instantly did not even experience a moment of terror but if the bomb was placed or the missile was launched by someone or some group intent on causing such destruction, then such an event is our paradigm case of terrorism.

In the beginning, it was not like this. Spreading terror was historically an instrument of state and military policy. When there were only foot soldiers to do it, they might be sent out to kill and rape, more or less at random, in a densely populated town or city either as revenge for some slight or as a lesson designed to cow those who survived into terrified submission. Soldiers terrified people and they created an atmosphere of terror.

The invention of air planes added new possibilities. In the 1920s, Arthur Harris - later "Bomber" Harris of Britain's World War Two Bomber Command - wrote this in a 1924 report from his RAF base in Iraq:

"They [ the Arabs and the Kurds] now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village, vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza, can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape, and little chance of retaliation or loot such as an infantry column would afford them in producing a similar result" [ quoted from Y.Tanaka and M.Young, editors, Bombing Civilians (2009) page 21]

In other words, the British used aerial bombardment in 1920s Iraq -  a new country which they created and controlled, one of the spoils of the 1914 - 18 war - to terrify and cow the local population. 

But though we think a man a terrorist - occasionally a woman - who nowadays walks into a crowded Iraqi market and blows himself up along with as many other people as he can manage, we probably don't think that of the pilot of a small bi-plane dropping bombs from a great height - possibly even heaving them over the side of the plane by hand. 

Partly it's to do with the fact that we are unnerved by the ideological fanaticism of a volunteer who deliberately blows himself up. In contrast, the RAF pilot did not choose his mission. He had signed up to serve and his country, as it happens, sent him to Iraq and told him to drop bombs on defenceless villagers. He was carrying out a policy of terror without being the maker of that policy.

In this case, the maker of the policy was Arthur Harris and his policy was not uncontroversial. There were RAF officers and local civil servants who were opposed to what he was developing as an instrument of Imperial policy. But in the end, the extremist Harris won out over the moderates who opposed his policy of indiscriminate violence. 

Fifty years later, bombing civilians from a great height had become central to the Imperial military strategy of the United States in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The planes were bigger, the bombs bigger and more lethal (and some of them chemical: remember Napalm?), the accuracy of bombing probably as dismal as ever: American pilots off their heads on the illegal Substances of the era.

The strategy was to break the will of the peasants who happened to survive the fury of the American onslaught, to cow them into submission.

Interestingly, it didn't seem to work.