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She will have a headstone (Ross and Demelza, Aidan Turner, Elinor Tomlinson, Poldark 2017, Episode 8)


Warleggan harassing, destroying Drake’s business (Sam telling Ross, David Delve, Robin Ellis, Poldark 1977, Episode 8)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been too long since I lasted posted on the 3rd season of the new Poldark compared to its source book, The Four Swans, and the previous film adaptation: 3 Poldark 6 & 7: Coerced and reluctant Relationships. I was away for at least two weeks of the intervening month but but something more stopped me.

These last two episodes took to an extreme a tendency seen through this season and the first and second. Both are made up of the shortest scenes, sometimes lasting a couple of seconds interwoven or blended into another. Sometimes the scene itself is a pantomime or has one epitomizing line; but often it’s cut up into several independent shots interspersed with other scenes where this is done. In both episodes there is also much repetition: Ross refuses offers of position first by Sir Francis Bassett (John Hopkins) and then by Lord Falmouth (James Wilby); which scenes are recurred to again and again, and half-repeated. We have Osborne Whitworth (Christina Bassington) forcing himself on Morwenna (Ellise Chappell), praying, at least three times indignant at Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) for telling him to desist demanding sex from Mowenna, and countless seductive moments from Rowella (Esme Coy) which become several scenes where Rowella and her librarian accomplice-betrothed, Arthur Solway (Will Merrick) demand slightly decreasing yet large sums. Repeatedly George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) is a cold bully to Elizabeth (Heida Reed); and when she finally rebels at his cruelty to Drake (Harry Richardson), their paired accusations and defenses are broken up and repeated. The men practice war and confront Ross; we have two rebellions. The women writhe.


Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus) when Elizabeth visits the Whitworths with her son

The effect on the mood and acting of the episodes is strong. It’s like a song, where language (the dialogues short) and repeating short scenes become like motifs. This dramaturgy is so consistent and so different (let’s say) from the previous mini-series, and even episodes 1-7 of this season that it must be deliberate. We almost don’t think about what’s happening at any particular time. In the 1970s episodes and in Graham’s book, we have reinforcement of explicit agenda: feminist. Insofar as the love and adultery stories go, and the ones on sexual discomfort and even impotence (in the book Dwight and Caroline, Gabriella Wilde, are not a “sane choral” couple but themselves are straining against Dwight’s deep disquiet and weakness), we are made to think realistically about them more. In 1977 the themes was a frank presentation of women’s sexual experiences and feelings as they emerge or are impinged on by their communities (some forced to marry, others stopped); the individual stories are kept original, the scenes given much more time and we get exploration of angles that emphasize anger and hatred and despair prompted by the disloyalties and human jealousies and ravaging demands of others.

In 2017 I didn’t feel individual decisions made by the women. The blending of the four stories of love (Demelza’s, Elizabeth’s, Emma’s, Morwenna’s) and marriage leaves an impression against marriage. That it is a troubled condition for most. Rowella’s actions reinforce this. Were the 2017 to have been true to Dwight and Caroline in the book (incompatible in values, he half-impotent in bed), the inference would have been stronger.


Ross (Aidan Turner) realizing

In 2017 the other political or male-centered theme is, when will Ross realize he has to engage himself deeply in his community according to his rank and capabilities, to try to bring justice and a decent way of life for himself and his neighbors. George (and others) will just continue to gouge everyone unless he (and they) are stopped. This trajectory of taking responsibility and compromising while it’s there in the book does not control it; it’s not the shaping force in the 1977 film; in the 2017 it seems the climax of the two episodes is Ross realizing he is now working for Warleggan to hurt people starving for bread, seeing he has almost been pressured into gunning these people down, and realizing he must define his own role and its function and can only do that with power. All Ross’s friends, Demelza and Tholly (Sean Gilder) and Bassett, have been trying to get him to see this.

The modern adaptation is melodramatic in the original meaning of the word and it’s fitting the episode 8 almost ends on Demelza’s song, and episode 9 begins with Prudie’s (Beatie Edny), and across them Hugh Armitage’s (Josh Whitehouse)’s poetry to Demelza (from the book) is over-voiced either by Demelza or Hugh, with their respective presences overlapping. The older one is theatrical and the psychology of the scenes subtly nuanced (as in the book). To offer an outline of the modern one is monomaniacal, so for this last blog of this season I’ll switch my procedure and offer a summary and evaluation of the 1977 episodes on the blog itself, with the 2017 sing-song in the comments.

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1977, Episode 8 (click for 2017 Episode 8). In order not to be too mono-maniacal, I’ve made the 2017 concise.

It’s a second (the 7th was the first) where the screenplay is by John Wiles, Richard Beynon producer, directed by Roger Jenkins. (There were hardly any women directors, producers or screenplay writers in the BBC in the 1980s.)


Drake and Emma in Drake’s forge, he working, she talking ….

The episode shows how these one hour programs do fit together thematically. The material taken for it is in different places in Graham’s Four Swans. The haggling over money between Whitworth (Christopher Biggins) is just one scene, but here it’s juxtaposed to the increasing dissension and anger and even dislike between the married couples. The 1977 program has it that Rowella (Julie Dawn Cole) may not be pregnant by Solway (Stephen Reynolds) and she and he hatched her pregnancy to threaten Whitworth with; the book only brings Solway in as a deluded man and is mum on what happened to the pregnancy (it is never mentioned in next book, The Angry Tide). Doing it this way enables the 1970s film-makers to de-emphasize the sexual angle and emphasize the give-and-take conflict which parallels Warleggan’s (Ralph Bates) destruction of Drake (Kevin McNally) out of sheer spite. It is bold of the 1977 team to show and emphasize Demelza (Angharad Rees) committing adultery, which done highly romantically of the pair of lovers with a long tracking shot along the beach. The full context prevents us from taking it romantically though.

Several people threaten to kill someone — their rage against life is so strong: Warleggan would kill his brother-in-law, Drake who his step-son Geoffrey (Stefan Gates) prefers; Whitworth keeps saying he’ll kill Rowella who threatens to expose him as having made her pregnant, Morwenna (Jane Wymark) will kill her child by Whitworth if Whitworth tries to rape her again. Warleggan’s men beat Drake and throw him in the water; he could have died. Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) finally turns on Warleggan and lets him know her life with him is a hell on earth if all that is said about him is so.

It opens with George Warleggan’s mad ride across the countryside with his chief henchman, ruthless bully, gamekeeper, Sid Rowse (Michael Cox), who points to Drake’s forge just outside Warleggan property. George nods. The plot to wreck all that Drake has thus far built is signalled.

We switch to the forge to find Emma (Trudie Styler) talking to Drake complimenting him on what he’s done. Drake asks how’s it going with his religious brother, Sam, and she says “comic” and she’d “poison Sam’s godly life honest I would.” “Do you love him?” “I don’t know what love be, but I can’t be free the way I used to be.” “People say I’m a whore. What is a whore. A woman that’d sell her body. I never selled nothing to nobody.” “Since I’ve seen him … I’ve lost the pleasure of things … I wish to God I’d never met him.” They hear a neighing horse and they rush out to see his place set on fire.

As in Graham’s books there is real sympathy for the promiscuous woman; she helps both Drake and Sam in this episode — the action we see her in is not in the book but the thrust of the presentation is the same.

Switch to Nampara: now Sam is telling Ross at Nampara of all the wrecking and terrorizing that has happened since. A messenger scene in effect: “since then there’s been more trouble, they’ve broken his fences & his streams run dry. Last night someone dropped a dead dog down his well … Water well is poisoned too. Drake losing custom because locals told not to go . it’s Sid Rowse. Under Ross’s question the story of how Geoffrey Charles had spent all his time at Pallys shop emerges, “Mr Warleggan put a stop to it boy went on with his visits just the same …”

Then interthreaded are a series of scenes where Rowella and her apparent off-screen lover, a librarian (a little joke of Graham’s own — he seems aware of how librarians are ridiculously despised) gradually negotiate and bully Whitworth into paying a substantial sum to them. In the book there is a scene of bargaining, but it’s not threaded in in this dramatic way. The emphasis in the book is the sex, particularly the sadistic sex between Whitworth and Rowella. This the films avoid and erase altogether — we’ve no idea what sex between Whitworth and Rowella could be. It seems hard to imagine they could manage with her hypocrisy and his crudity.

So we see Vicarage Whitworth in satin yellow reading, Morwenna in green. She says it’s time for Rowella to go home, she seems to spend most of her time with you. She’s just 16, that is why I feel she needs companions of her own age .. Rowella appears. She will go immediately; but both say no. Morwenna says will resume some of her duties … meantime go to her bed. Whitworh doesn’t mind as he has Rowella. Rowella “She knows” .. she tells him “I am pregnant” and he looks appalled.

Back to Nampara, Demelza working on her flowers, Ross talking of what George Warleggan is doing to Drake: “intolerable .. he’s trying to ruin the boy …” Demelza clearly angry about something and it’s not Drake. She refuses to talk, and says going out “Don’t ask me … ask his wife” (Elizabeth).

Back to scene of Whitworth now horrified “go away do you hear … do not touch me.” Rowella offers to take “nostrum’ and he agrees eagerly, she “sometimes they are dangerous to the mother … loud quarrel ..shall I see you later … after blustering, he says yes. Whitworth cries — yet we do not feel for him.

Nampara, Ross reading something; Demelza comes in late, she had a disturbed night out-of-doors (with Hugh? Brian Stirner), he is riding over to Drake. It’s an acceptance from Sir Francis Basset (Mike Hall) to come to dinner. Demelza “I am no society hostess,” Ross says ask “Caroline (Judy Leeson) to advice you, I’m sorry my dear we are committed to receive them … tells her Hugh Armitage is returning to his squadron … I thought you’d like to know .. ” (quiet sarcasm).

Ross rides to Drake’s place and it’s all in ruins. Drake tied up, “who did this to you?” Drake lying to protect Ross himself: “I don’t know twas the middle of the night .. “I’ll turn the other cheek.” Ross at first rejects Drake’s response: “Well then Christ be a fool for twas his advice,” to which Drake replies: ” Ross, oh spare me” Drake determined to hold out, you put me here, tis my place well.” So Ross plunges in to work with him.

Osborne Whitworth bothered — in suit with book, knock, it’s Rowella who tells of her librarian (who we saw briefly in Part 7), Mr Arthur Solway from county library; he may expect something of a dowry … how much how much…”

Then the dinner party — a fine gay and witty scene. Bassetts, Caroline and Enys (Michael Cadman); the rebuilding of the library. Caroline very witty, and gay, how is it Hugh Armitage has not returned to sea again; he has returned to lodge with Lord Falmouth (Hugh Manning); Caroline to Demelza: “strange Demelza I thought you would have heard ..” Ross’s jealousy clearly aroused: “why should she have heard …:

Now bargaining scenes are threaded in: the librarian obsequious but determined … Whitworth offers the sum of 20 guineas .. “you see Vicar there is just one thing” … Solway knows she’s pregnant and he has no money but a tiny salary as a librarian.

Switch to Nampara with Demelza and Bessy Martin polishing the table. Bassett comes in, he wishes Ross had accepted and stood for parliament … Bassett asks what is the cause of bad blood between Warleggan and Poldark … they are all courtesy to one another.

The bargaining between Whitworth, Rowella and Solway continues: Whitworth is heard shouting “Out I say out out.” Whitworth says that Rowella is a penniliess girl pregnant without hope or prospects,” how can Solway dream of “1000 pounds!” Rowella comes in, and says she thought “at least 100 pounds.” “Oh you thought that. did you?”

Nighttime storm, Nampara; Demelza and Ross. He: “damn the weather.” She: “I said jealousy and bad feelings shouldn’t be between people … but he’s a man” and then she turns the conversation “Look why shouldn’t I have heard that Hugh Armitage is back … why shouldn’t he write to me why shouldn’t anyone write to me?” Ross stalks out and she sits over fire; a voice-over of Armitage reading his poem to her aloud


Demanding money

Another bargaining scene: shot of Solway and we hear “30 pounds” “a thousand” “40 pounds” “a thousand” “45 pounds” The librarian seen shaking his head, a thousand .. there 100 pounds that it’s …shakes head “a thousand”

Now vicar and Rowella are talking in attic, and she cites the miserable conditions of Solway’s large family. “100 pounds that”s what I’ve gone to try him once mor. “Oh Osborne do

Librarian “My final word: 120 pounds, 900, I cannot go below 900” Vicar: “Are you mad?” We now see Rowella nods to Solway: we can see, they are in cohoots. Solway: “it will take us all of 700 to support ward and child, then there’s the question of a cottage.” She mouths to him and he says “and the furniture” Now Whitworth goes up to 200 pounds; Rowella signals to Solway and he turns and says 850. Whitworth: 210 He: “800 not a penny less”

Morwenna upstairs in bed listening

Drake tries to pass gate to get to Mrs Warleggan and is beat up badly It begins with him saying to the gamekeeper and his bullies “I”ve come to ask a favor or Mrs Warleggan that maybe she’ll see me for five minutes.” They accuse him of poaching; beat him badly, then they throw him in river to drown and die. We see only the water

Rowella now writing, and she finds and reads aloud a letter about a vicar suspended for 3 years for getting young girl with child. Whitworth comes in as she’s reading : “I shall kill you” Rowella now says he may be persuaded to take a somewhat lower figure of — 600 pounds! Whitworth’s reply: “I’ll see you dead first,” to which she replies “I should think it quite likely Morwenna heard too …”

Now we are in Drake’s forge and Emma and Sam comforting and nursing him. “They could have killed thee.” “Course” he knows. He’s now determiend to go to Truro and speak with Misstress Warleggan. He feels she would be fair. (She is pro-hierarchy but fair).

Whitworth in attic (we hear church bells). He now threatens to return Rowella to her mother: “I know nothing of any baby.” Rowella: “I shall accuse you Vicar I’m a dean’s daughter,” and she knows details about his anatomy “You have a scar on your belly made by a boy you were tormenting at school …” Whitworth again “I will see you dead before I pay a penny to you.” Now she says 500 pounds. He looks down defeated.

Church scene, the marriage and we see Solway and Rowella laughing together and we wonder if the baby is his after all. (In the book this is not so, it is Whitworth’s.)

Ross tells Jud to saddle my horse he has a list of addresses of people he must go to. Ross getting involved in politics slowly. The dinner was the first sign he sees he must.

Demelza with Drake in his forge: “What do you think she can do …:” Drake: “She can talk” Demelza says that Ross off with volunteers at Falmouth — so French politics impinging too.


Morwenna

Morwenna sewing, Whitmore reading. Now she is strong and bitter. (This is most unlike book where she remains abject until she finally flees to Drake.) She says she was conscious of the liaision every day every minute of every night. Then the startling threat (which is in the book): If he resumes his physical approaches to her, she will kill his son. “This is how it will be until the day death separates us.”

Now at Truro and the Warleggan mansion there (a set): we see Jill Townsend as an indignant Mrs Warleggan: “How dare you” It emerges Drake is there and he stays controlled, respectful: “Everyone has seen them.” When he cites as one of George’s motives “the business of Miss Morwena,” she jumps up “I don’t wish to hear about it.” She knows she did Morwenna wrong to marry her to Whitworth at least. George comes in, becomes an ugly bully to Drake, threatens to kill him. George turns round to demand she go to London with him, to which she replies: “to London … if what I Just heard is true, I would rather go to hell first ..”


Demelza and Armitage

Then the final very long sequence which ends in love-making between Armitage and Demelza: Armitage come to see Demelza (Ross gone from house) “I am begging you” to come with him to the islands of seals they spoke of. She says the seals are not there, “to lead you to something that doesn’t exist.” “To grant me a favor .. ” Then she yields “oh wait I’ll have my horse saddled — then series of long tracking shots, over the countryside, round the cliffs, then sea by coast. We hear a bit of conversation: the seals are several cliffs away, in a place that look like a cathedral beyond cove and cove .. (where all) booms and crashes. Flute music as they run amid the rocks. When he tells her he’s not on leave, he’s going blind, she finally yields and it ends on a passionate kiss …

Freeze frame.

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1977, Episode 9 (click on comments to see 2017 Episode 9 tapestry). The 2017 kept shorter though material confrontations so fascinating.

I will keep this summary more compact too; merely saying the dramaturgy is as the eighth episode above. Much of real interest, and a good deal sheer transposition from the book. Ross is coerced by Bassett into putting into jail the leaders of the miners and agricultural workers who had attacked a granary and corn place and taken the corn. They were starving and the price never came down nor did the government provide a subsidy. Ross loathes having to do it, but he does obey this law. He is made to see that were he an MP he might have power to ameliorate — he could have pardoned the man whose body we see hanging and rotting on a gibbet as the community returns from a ritual Sawle Feast (3/4s through the Part).


Elizabeth trying and failing to reach George

Elizabeth now threatens to leave George. She will not live with him if he carries on his horrible behavior to Drake; he tries to deny what he is doing, trivialize it, but she is having none of it. He demands to know if she loves Ross and she laughs, then they finally confront one another over the issue of whose son Valentine is. She on the Bible swears she has never had sex willingly with any man but her first husband and George. George does not recognize the gap in the oat,h but in any case he gives in only because she would indeed leave him.

The role is very hard to play: Elizabeth is supposed an upper class woman taught repression and guardedness, also a kind of frail character unable to act out high emotional scenes; at the same time high self-esteem and adherence to hierarichal norms governs here. She is destroyed by these norms acted out by George and Ross over her pregnancies and children — she tries to make her third child appear to be 8 months by a dose which brings on a labor that kills her (the plan Ross hatched in the church meeting which in 1977 occurred in the 7th episode). She is also highly intelligent and realizes just how imprisoned she is, straining at the frustration, anger, itself partly at herself for having married George. She does refuse to go with him to London full-stop even if he wins the new election.

Sawle Feast done superlatively well. Like the Rudruth fair, done with real flair, not overproduced, the height a wrestling match between the bully henchman of George, Sid Rowse, and Sam Carne, egged on by Emma who offers to come to church for 3 months if he fight. Sam almost wins but at the last moment throws the hard struggle because he sees her wanting him to win and he actually fears she will pull him from his strong adherence to his God and faith which is central to his world view and self-esteem.

the 9th episode of 1977 takes us much further along in The Four Swans. As in soap opera aesthetics (which most of these mini-series costume dramas use) the fair is a place where we see all the characters come together and interact characteristically. Ross has bet George 100 guineas, but the guineas are to go to a fund for the starving — so when Sam loses, it matters not to Ross. Whitwoth is there with Morwenna now holding her own through her threat and having made her body off-limits; he has discovered Rowella was not pregnant and she is again making up to him (for his money). Demelza and Drake hover over Sam.


At Falmouth’s house where Demelza again meets Hugh

We have the visit to Falmouth’s house, an election where we understand the electors vote publicly and are under pressure from who they owe money to (Warleggans), vote by personal liking and other norms of admiration. Ross makes it by one vote.

Another thread of the series is the real love affair of Hugh Amitage and Demelza. Part 8 ended with them making love on the seals’ beach. IN this part as at the end of The Four Swans Armitage dies; his blindness a symptom of a larger disorder gotten in the prisons of France; Demelza called to his side. Threaded in are scenes where Ross is aware she is in love with this man and tolerant of it; in one he tells her of his continued affection for Elizabeth and how he can understand hers, but he cannot it seems when he discovers a compromising poem tolerate physical infidelity. The last scene has her having wandered out in the moor and come back to find Ross incensed. Where have you been? he angrily asks and so the episode comes to an end (the previous ended on her adultery).

The 1977 film most differs from the book by its presentation of Rowella and Whitworth and Solway, the librarian husband. The film softens this enormously: that Rowella and Whitworth enjoy nasty sex together is central to the book’s story, and not here (but it is so in the 2017), and Solway is a lower class innocent sensitive man who is quite unaware of the liaison between Whitworth and Rowella; and when he discovers this reality, that the vicar is giving Rowella money his love turns to rage and murder (another motif in Graham but more in evidence in his murder mysteries).

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Touching moment (pun intended) as he reaches our to her and she slips into his arms: Demelza and Ross as 2017 season ends

It’s telling that the older series was much more interested in the fates of women, while this new one has imposed a new trajectory so the story of Ross gaining power and respect becomes the central interest. The final season of the new episode 9 centers on the inner life of Ross as much as the inner life of Demelza. Both mini-series, 40 years apart try for depictions of 18th century lives while mirroring analogous situations for the years they were made in: Marriage, customs and politics too.

In 1977 the next episode or The Angry Tide started the following week; this year we have to wait a whole year for the ending of The Four Swans and The Angry Tide.

Ellen


Cromwell, thoughtful (Mark Rylance)

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in the ending we all know (Claire Foy, 2015 Wolf Hall)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Ten Mondays, 11:45 to 1:15 pm,
September 25 to November 27
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll discuss 3 winners: Paul Scott’s Staying On (1979), Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996) and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009). We will explore our prize-obsessed culture, how the Booker functions in the fiction industry. The Booker is more than a marketplace niche, though. The books characteristically share a group of themes: historical, post-modern, post-colonial, self-reflexive, witty, melancholy books. Many are masterpieces. All three choices also have also been made into brilliant and successful films, and we’ll discuss film adaptations as well.

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Scott, Paul. Staying On. 1977; rpt. Chicago: University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-226-74349-7.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. NY: Vintage, 1996. ISBN 978-0679-766629
Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. NY: Picador [Henry Holt], 2009/10. ISBN 979-031242998/978-0-8050-8068-1

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 25: 1st week: The politics of selling good books: history of the Booker Prize; we begin with Paul Scott and Raj Quartet (aka The Jewel in the Crown)

Oct 2: 2nd week: Paul Scott’s Staying On; historical fiction & post-colonialism

October 9: 3rd week: Staying On; film adaptation; clips from the film and discussion

October 16: 4th week: Finish Staying On; Graham Swift and and context for Last Orders

October 23: 5th week: Last Orders; clips from the film and discussion

October 30: 6th week: Last Orders and post-modernity, streams of consciousness

November 6: 7th week: Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More

November 13: 8th week: Begin Wolf Hall

November 20: 9th week: Wolf Hall; mini-series; clips from film and discussion

November 27: 10th week: finish Wolf Hall: final comments on prestigious prize books

From Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2004): Jack’s four friends (Ray Winston, David Hemminges, Bob Hoskins, Tim Courtney) on the pier, by the sea, and his wife, Amy (Helen Mirren) getting on the bus

Suggested supplementary reading & films,audio reading:

Bannerjee, Jacqueline. Paul Scott. Plymouth: Northcote, 1999.
Cooper, Pamela. Graham Swift’s Last Orders. NY: Continuum, 2002
English, James. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.
Last Orders. Dir and Screenplay. Fred Schepisi. With Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine … Sony, 2004.
Moseley, Merritt. “Britain’s Booker Prize,” The Sewanee Review, 101:4 (1993):613-22.
Showalter, Elaine. “Coming to Blows over the Booker,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 48 (June 2002):42
The Jewel in the Crown Dr and screenplay Christopher Morahan and Ken Tayler and Irene Shubik. With Peggy Ashcroft, Geraldine James, At Malik, Tim Piggot-Smith, Judy Parfitt, Eric Porter, Nicholas Farrell. Granada TV, 1984.
Staying On. Dir and Screenplay Silvio Narizzano and Julian Michell. With Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Saeed Jaffrey, Pearl Padamsee. Granada TV, 1980.
Spurling, Hilary. Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. NY: Norton, 1990.
Strongman, Luke. The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire. Netherlands: Rodopi, 2002.
Suneetha, P. “A Note on Wolf Hall,” Journal of English Studies, 5:3 (2010): 45-53.
Sutherland, J. A. Fiction and the Fiction Industry. London: Athlone Press, 1978.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.
Wolf Hall. Unabridged text read aloud on CDs by Simon Slater. Macmillan Audio. 2009.
Wolf Hall. Dir and Screenplay Peter Kosminsky and Peter Straughn. With Mark Rylance, Damien Lewis, Claire Foy, Anton Lesser, Charity Wakefield, David Robb, Saskia Reeves. BBC TV, 2015.


Tusker and Lucy Smalley (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, 1980 Staying On)

Ellen


George Bain, for his Book of Kells, Plate 14, and a mural: Highland games

Friends and readers,

One last briefer blog on my Road Scholar Tour in the Highlands area just around Aigas House. I’ve arranged my memories (from notes on a stenographer’s pad) thematically, and so we have left scenic drives and walks. Non-human animals, ruins, a small museum, lunch in an apparently well-known pub liked by tourists (and it was the one place I was at where the food was pompous and absurd, and I could find very little edible so the less said the better). On Thursday night there was the splendid treat of Celtic folk music by three musicians who appear also to live at Aigas House, which prompts me to end on the house itself.


Western Coast, Isle of Skye … much that we saw looked like this from the bus ….

Thursday was the long drive day – to the Western coast and back; part of Friday we drove around the Black Isle, a peninsula. We used observation equipment to see birds (all sorts), bottlenose dolphins (sunning themselves on stones in the sea), deer — and everywhere sheep (including black face, rams) and goats. We sat by a lovely beach in a quiet cove. Some brave souls were actually trying to get into the water. There was what was farmed, what was grazed, where there are attempts to bring back the original plants, trees, and landscape. Attempts have been made to have a railroad going through some of this but there is just not enough traffic.

On the West Coast tour, we got as far as across the way to the Isle of Skye whose “song” serves as one of the thematic tunes for the opening paratexts of Outlander. I discover that I can no longer transfer YouTube music and videos to another site so you will have to be satisfied with these (said to be) original lyrics;

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the wind howls
loud the waves roar

Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes
stand by the shore
Follow they will not dare

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

One of the most interesting drives was around a bay which served as a military installation during World War 2 — one can still see the re-fueling installations, places for submarines and planes to land. We stopped off at an exquisite museum, very small, a perfect place: Groam House Museum or Taigh-Tasgaidh Taigh Ghroam). Downstairs was relics of Pictish art, complete with stories of savage rites around some of it; upstairs the work of a local artist, George Bain (1881-1968), who is said to be recognized as an artist of “national significance.” He worked during World War One and there were drawings and paintings of the local area in that time, of his time in Bulgaria, and later work in a children’s art center; he is important for having studied, understood and and re-created central Celtic patterns and designs. Here is a picture by him of an ordinary day for someone driving through the area:

Bain, George; Highland Picnic; Groam House Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/highland-picnic-166734

Two ruins of note: an 18th century Priory in Beauly, in much better shape (destroyed by wars rather than time) 12th century Fortrose Abbey, Erchelss Motte (a museum of archaeological sites). The guide had much to tell about one of the Beauly Priory early abbots who amassed a great fortune for himself (not easy in the 15th century), robbed his nephew of what was due him, and left the first endowment for the present University of Edinburgh. Frontose Abbey, a later 17th century building was in much better shape; it was one fought over in the Civil War, Cromwell had meant to destroy it and didn’t but I find I did not take any photos. I did not get to Ercheless Motte: it was one of those places where a choice of place was given and I chose a walk by a lake (loch).


Beauly inside — we were shown where the prior is said to have made very comfortable quarters for himself; I kept asking about some stones dedicated to mid-20th century people but the guide would not answer (not in his remit?)

Blair Castle is notable because of its continuous existence as working place and political linhpin where a family connected to the most powerful in the UK lived, or some which was used by some institution got-up for the moment (it was a hospital during the two world wars) from before the time of Robert Bruce until today. The family members appear to have had no interest in art (mostly sportsmen and women having babies and social lives), but the family included Lord George Murray (he was deeply against fighting that day at Culloden) and a couple of other highly controversial (and sometimes executed) people; the place was burnt down more than once; it contains relics of its Balmorality period, of the empire the younger sons traveled to. The place is nowadays painted white (which seemed to me ludicrous somehow, it made the building unreal, like a piece of cake). This entrance hall shows typical sets of guns, fireplaces, mahogany.

I saw intelligent faces on the people, sportsmen and women alike, a interesting nursery recreated. A fascinating recreation of a ship during Nelson’s time — by one family member. In the shop, there was a slender biography on sale of a female member of the family who spent her life embrodering exquisitely; more interesting (but no biography) plaques and photos in the house showed a woman who was among the first women MPs and a fervent supporter of the labor party. Like Longleate, the place is today supported by the tourists (there are summer gardens with sculptures in them), by having on places for picnics, racing and shows of horses, working and tenant farms. There is a generosity of social spirit: local people come to walk with their dogs. The usual sheep and cows in the fields.


Not the band lodged at Aigas House, but instruments they are using are what was used, and they sat close together

Thursday night after dinner was great fun. We as a group were invited to get up and speak, sing a song, tell a story. I was the only one of the 16 to stand and read aloud some lines of poetry I thought in the spirit of place. I quoted some of it as the epitaph to my first blog. There are many beautiful pastoral passages in John Lister-Kaye’s books: “All deep thought leads to the spirit” is his; give the natural world a chance. Rachel Carson: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.” “Reserves of strength” in the beauty of the earth and living things. A couple of the guides stood up and talked of how they felt about their work. The musicians then said they’d bring the “tone down a bit” and gave us some rollicking and melancholy songs. Bag-pipes much used. I remember tonight some of the most enjoyable passages from Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours are evenings of dance, song, and drink.

I haven’t got a text from that night to share so hope this poem by a 19th century Scottish woman poet will do: if it’s not jolly, it’s not as desperately sad as so many of the Gaelic songs’ lyrics originally were. It comes out of that tradition as a Scottish woman’s poem:

Who hath not treasured something of the past
The lost, the buried, or the far awav
Twined with those heart affections , which outlast
All save their memories? these outlive decay:
A broken relic of our childhood’s play,
A faded flower that long ago was fair
Mute token of a love that died untold.
Or silken curl, or lock of silv’ry hair,
The brows that bore them long since in the mould.
Though these may call up griefs that else had slept,
Their twilight sadness o’er the soul to bring.
Not every tear in bitterness is wept.
While they revive the drooping flowers that spring
Within the heart, and round its ruined altars cling.
— Isabella Craig-Knox (1831-1903)

I come back to the house. The next day I was told one of the musicians was blind (I hadn’t noticed) and he and the woman among them lived on the estate, she in the Lister-Kaye gatehouse lodge with her autistic son. The son was said to come to the great or central house frequently to talk to people. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was this place, Aigas house and its surrounding lands. It upstairs and behind the scenes. Its show spots.


Dining room (aka Baronial Hall where most of us ate — also in the nearby small library)

It was like living in a version of Downton Abbey vastly updated and kept up for quite different reasons, but the connections were clear: one can see the Granthams becoming tour masters to keep their estate and income flowing in. All the people stay in cottages around the estate; the “staff” who come and go (including bus drivers and all sorts of people like tour-bus drivers) stay in the house in the turrets and other tucked-away places. I didn’t walk around the estate half-enough: it was cold and at night dark. I was told the remains of the iron-age fort were a few rocks.

It was easier to cuddle into bed, rest and relax in the bedroom in the cottage I was in with Winston Graham’s Poldark novel, The Angry Tide. My roommate had a copy of Outlander, which some evenings she read too, probably much more appropriate. I’ve listened to this fist of the novels read aloud very well by Davina Porter, and have now finished watching the second season of Outlander, the mini-series, and will probably listen to Dragonfly in Amber read aloud by Porter too.

What I mean to end on is the familiar comfortable intelligently done hospitality of Sir John and Lady Lucy Lister-Kaye was crucial. When we left on another big bus, she and he (Sir John had both hands up and was waving away) and all the staff on hand at that moment came to the door, lined up and waved us goodbye. Just like in Downton Abbey.


Photograph in the house

Ellen


Culloden battlefield today

My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers — Jane Austen as Elizabeth, P&P, Chapter 17 or 2:4)

Dear friends and readers,

A second of probably three travel writing blogs on what I saw and experienced of the Scottish Highlands from the Aigas Field Center. The focus the first day we left the center was archaeology and history: the first in order to reach pre-written history of life in the Highlands dating back to the neolithic age when these rings of stones (the most famous Stonehenge and Avebury in England) were first built. The second day we explored the landscape of the area, some of it reflecting deep past, other parts showing conservative efforts after a couple of centuries of destruction. The third and over three afternoons we went local, towns there now, commercial enterprises (whiskey distilling); and three women showed us their “gardens:” Lady Lucy across the grounds of Aigas; a crofter named Anne Macdonald on land adjacent to Aigas, and J-P (I never got her last name) who has created and manages an organic farm, making a place for bees, kitchen gardens, beer refinery, sheep, cattle and deer. Each talked to us for a couple of hours about how she spends much time in her life this way.

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Probably one of the more crucial events/dates in Scottish history is 1745 when a continuing civil war not just between those groups of leaders and their (often conscripted, forced) armiese supporting the Hanoverian dynasty from Germany fought those groups of leaders and their (equally forced, but as tenants, as clan members threatened by fire and death) armies of Scots, but rival and enemy clans of Scots trying to take over one another, and stray groups of mixed bands of men all fought in England and Scotland in the context of a larger global imperial war at sea and across lands from Europe. This global war affected the attitudes of the local generals and trading and land owning classes: where say England won here, or the Dutch there, anxiety and/or triumph changed the mood of events. The people under Prince Charles (the young pretender) got as far as Derbyshire, but turned back (the explanations for this are various). This third campaign (the 1690s in Scotland under Claverhouse, 1715 for James III) came to a head in Inverness on April 16, 1745. The Scots were not just technologically at a severe disadvantage; the terrain was vulnerable and several of the leaders were against fighting that day. Prince Charles prevailed out of pride and (it’s thought) an inadequate understanding of battle. Within 45 minutes there was a slaughter of a couple of thousand Scottish leaders and key followers; this was followed by an aftermath of flight by the Scots and brutal annihilation (the aim) by the Hanoverian authorities of the Jacobites (all Scots said to be in any way involved in the fight), which changed Scottish history forever. The country was decimated, emptied of people, their houses and villages destroyed. The books to read are John Prebble’s Culloden and The Highland Clearances. What was left was enclosed by chieftains turned landowners to put sheep in the place of people; and on top of that following myths of “Balmorality” by the upper class of England and lowlanders brought the ravages of deer to the landscape.


The heather along the line where these people stood and killed others or were killed themselves — as they dared not do otherwise even if they didn’t want to

Well we began our touring by spending much of Monday morning (8/14) at the Culloden battlefield where there is now an effective museum taking visitors through the phases of these battles. One room is set up so the visitors in the center see on all four walls the men killing one another while the sounds of battle echo very loud. In other a lit board shows the disposition of the bands of men. Halls take you through global and local events. I was struck by how small the Scottish shields or targets were, and how crude and (from the perspective of today’s huge guns) feeble, and (from the perspective of the professional Hanoverian armies with canon, real guns) ineffective, their axes and broadswords. It was the battlefield itself which is so moving. You can go out and walk along the line that was “no-man’s land” between the two armies before Prince Charles and Lord Murray’s Scottish armies so foolishly attacked from an indefensible vulnerable position. All along the way are rough rocks carved with names of clans or individuals who were killed.


A cottage on the Culloden plain at the time and left standing

We then (early afternoon) traveled back in time far (but not in geographical space) to Clava Cairns, a site of four rings of stones (each one bigger than the next as you walk from a fence), with free standing stones all around, from the Bronze age, about 5000 years old. These stones are not the huge standing stones of Stonehenge (or the type of time capsule for them seen in Craig na Dune in Outlander) but mounds made up of hundreds and hundreds of small stones. These are exceptional mesolith tombs from the Bronze Age. At the time the climate might have been subtropical so an agrarian culture had emerged. There are also the free-standing stones (more like Avebury) all around, and many outside a fence placed around the central circles: into picnic areas (where we had lunch), and the nearby surrounding hills. They were probably places where the people buried their dead. Coffins are thought to have been removed long ago. Very little is known about these people as they left no writing; it’s thought they (called Picts, a mixture of Scots and Irish) decorated their bodies (tattooed) and performed rituals around these stones. There is something uncanny, creepy about supposing (as the Ranger suggested) bodies were left in the open at first to be “de-fleshed,” and then the skeletons put in coffins or underground. It poured rain as we stood there and the ranger unflinchingly lectured on about what is supposed about these people’s customs and agricultural.


One angle on the largest mounds of stones, and the smallest circle seen from a distance (Clava Cairns)

The last stop on that day, middle to late afternoon we spent at Cawdor Castle. a vast castle-house only recently opened to the public. It is the place where Macbeth was said to have met with witches in Shakespeare’s famous play. John Lister-Kaye had said this place was owned by a friend of his and we should be sure and read all the plaques and inscriptions because they are witty. He and this friend had discussed together the cost of maintaining Cawdor and just about rebuilding Aigas, and (after much less renovation) he had opened his ancient home estate to the public. Instead of the usual solemn drone-like recitation of how serious and interesting (great, wonderful) all we were seeing is, they described in a wry truthful way, satirically reductive, the furniture, pictures, objects. His aunts had been indefatigable in making tapestries; he called figures in painting The Unknown This or that (according to function); there was a rare truthfulness, plainness, and when an object was nicer, it was done justice to against this context. The house was lived in until very recently and one felt this in some of the rooms (plugs, modern comfortable chairs). There are said to be beautiful gardens created and maintained by the Countess; there’s a cafe, a shop … Since the bulk of the standing house is from the later 19th century, one could say the group had covered Scottish history over the course of the day.


Cawdor Castle/House from the outside (part of a wall) and an art object in the gardens I was drawn to

Tuesday (8/15) we spent in “Caledonian” glens and forests, hiking walks along rivers and streams, waterfalls. The scenery was beautiful and much of it in a now restored state after half a century and more conservation’s efforts to bring back native trees, bush, shrub, to reconstitute the land after the ravages of the 19th and early 20th century. Some of the rocks are like those found in the Bronx or Central Park: they are not brought there by ice but formed in the ground over the centuries. The Highlands of Scotland are said to be a break-away piece of plate from North America. The landscapes are immense when you climb high and look down over the hills and see lakes and here and there someone’s (expensive) summer home. Balmorality has morphed into 20th century holiday houses. The Royals were said to have a house “just out of sight” (Fussell in his book on the class system remarks the really high status house is ever out of sight). We had lunch on picnic tables again, and in the afternoon drove to another large piece of scenic glen, with spectacular water falls. This one included the ruins of house where (it’s said) “Winston Churchill learned to drive” (why he looms so large in the public imagination I don’t understand).


People clambering about, a stunning waterfall, slate rising out of the ground

So much for the big picture.

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Now locally temporally and nearby (place and space)


The town of Beauly, close to Aigas

Wednesday (8/16) we spent the morning first in the near-by town of Beauly, saw the shops where people living in the area come for tea, cake, cheese, to socialize, an antiques shop, a store where they sold excellent knitted and woolen garments of all sorts (sweaters, scarves, throws, hats, and leather boots too), the most obvious tourist place sold cards, pictures, souvenirs. There was a butcher’s shop — individual cuts of meat! bakery. All but the butcher’s shop were run by women.


Inside the Glenn Ord distillery — where there is much mechanization … (and few employees involved in the manufacturing of the whiskey itself)

Then a very educational (for me) couple of hours at a whiskey distillery which was first founded in the early 19th century. It made single malt whiskey, and we were taken from huge room to huge room to see how the slow process worked (five stages) until the mixture was in casks to wait for X number of years before being bottled. That evening after dinner there was a “whiskey tasting:” I had never been to such a ritual before. A young man in a kilt with the panache of a salesman brought forth four different bottles of whiskey, talked them up with much hype and then passed the bottle around the table where all 26 people were to have a dram or two. It seemed to me a very strange experience, this controlled ritual drinking where we were to decide which whiskey we liked best. A great deal was made over the subtle nuances of taste.


From one corner of Lady Lucy’s Flower garden

I suggested that the Scottish highlands are clearly a patriarchal society. Nowhere was this more apparent in the hard work three women showed us were either their lives or central to them. All three women’s working garden/farms were on or close to Aigas. I should not omit the Countess of Cawdor’s whose gardens and landscape I didn’t walk in; she is said to be a formidable woman. This too is a male-shaped concept, male language for a determined strong woman, which offputs them. In no case was a man held responsible for the beauty of the garden though I daresay many staff members are male.

Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours, Lucy Lady Lister-Kaye took us around the property to show the gardens, landscaping, bridges, small fowl and all sorts of contrivances for children and adults it has taken her forty years to bring to a kind of continuing flourishing and blooming. She has a full staff of course (like Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey), but she invented the schemes, manages, supervises — she also (doubtless with a cook and staff) prepares three meals a day for her household, visiting tour groups, children coming for school agendas; there is each day afternoon tea and cake, and most evenings some social event (lecture, whiskey tasting, folk song fest were among those I experienced). A domestic existence? With her domesticity is the foundational reality of all else. A pretty, soft-spoken woman who knows how to take and keep herself in charge, in control. I forget what clan she comes from, but she is said to be proud of her heritage. She showed us a wooden bridge, very picturesque, which she said was a present from Sir John. I shall probably remember her best though in front of her aga stove in a very modernized great square kitchen in the 20th century part of Aigas house, showing us her porridge pot.


One corner of Ann’s property — I could not take photos of her barns, the vast spread of machinery, the trees, what is seen visually is not much

Lucy’s gardening is mostly ornamental, not so Ann MacDonald’s, the generous-spirited crofter who met us off a road and took us round her property that Wednesday afternoon. (Lunch had been at Aigas house, some splendid soup and salad.) Ann is a remarkable woman who has made a success of what is now several crofts put together from non-arable land, where the profits are so meagre but can be lived upon because the land was given her very cheaply, she has complete security of tenure (laws can change of course but have not for a couple of centuries), she pays hardly any taxes. The work she showed us she did with her husband and now her son alone is very hard: the son has modern huge equipment (enormous machines) and now makes money making and selling fences. She seemed to me so in touch with the natural world, her body and face shows years of hard work, effort, weather-beaten and contentment too: she was clearly a smart woman, and had a constant flow of talk (she was glad to show her life’s effort to people and tell us all about it) and until her husband died a year ago a satisfied one. The last part of the tour was her garden in front of her house, which included areas for growing vegetables and a greenhouse. John Lister-Kaye presented crofters as privileged people; if so it’s a privilege she has spent her life working hard to sustain. He admitted the laws could be changed as there are groups of people (large landlords and those without land) who are resentful or want the land themselves. I was struck by the sheer energy and difficulty of some of the tasks that still take hand-labor (like sheering sheep); she talked animatedly of cows, of the timber on the hills, and showed a continual sense of humor.

I wish I had photographed Ann’s happy collie dog who stayed close to her the whole time … I spoke briefly with her, and unlike most of the people who were “official” (rangers, staff, the Lister-Kayes), she seemed to talk directly to me, to listen to what I said, something genuine in her ways


Allangrange — this is a promotional on-line picture; tour and lecture groups are invited and pay to come

The third woman we met on the Black Isle, a very fertile peninsula sticking out from the northeast of the Highlands (vis-a-vis Aigas). This was the last day of the tour, Friday afternoon (8/18), J-J (probably a “lady” but she did not use her title, perhaps her or her husband’s family name is Godwin): Allangrange, the name of the house and estate has at its center a house built in the 18th century (I’m sure all is renovated). She began by showing us a garden set up to attract and sustain bees (so she is a beekeeper); she uses and sells the honey. She then showed a vast garden of flowers and vegetables; near this was a brewery whose profits she said paid for her garden. I saw sheep from afar and cattle. Her garden and hay feed these animals; in the brewery was a room where she sold sweaters (from the sheep). Nothing wasted. She told us what she serves for lunch each day in a given season. Like Lucy, like Ann, her existence is wrapped up in immanence. She was in appearance, accent, clothes the most elegant of the three, I could see her in an evening dress showing not a iota of the work she did daily.

In my third and last we’ll turn back to geography and history.

Ellen

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


A Promotional photo of the house from the website advertising programs


My photo of the Aigas common room where the group gathered periodically — that’s Lucy, Lady Lister-Kaye at the center in front of the woodfire stove

Friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged here for more than 3 weeks because I’ve been away: I journeyed by plane (8/10-11/17) and bus to what John Lister-Kaye calls “the Aigas Field Center,” a large mansion not far from Inverness (the closest big Scottish city) made up, on the one side, of a large 19th century-built wing (in the cake-like or phony 19th century style he names Balmorality), “baronial hall,” library, withdrawing room, a gallery with bedrooms, one of which nowadays is one Lister-Kaye’s writing rooms, a much smaller central wing from the later 18th into early 19th century Georgian style, and a later 20th century addition (warm comfortable rooms, including a modern style kitchen with Aga stove). It sits on a several hundred acre ground where there are other buildings, some for tourists and guests, others for the ranger and guide staff, some for staff of the kind seen in Downton Abbey (front gatehouse for lodgekeeper, gardening and house staff who sometimes live there, holiday guides, drivers), some for ecology restoration projects (the wildcat is one, native trees another, a large pond with beavers and “hides”), others for lectures and schoolchildren as well as adults to have learning experiences in, and lots of small animals (from chickens and roosters, to pine martens, beavers, many birds, and cattle and sheep, and the occasional deer too. Enormously old trees.


My photo of the terrace in front of part of the Aigas House (taken from window of common room)

From there starting on second day (Monday, 8/14/17), 26 or so people traveled several hours a day to public sites and buildings in and about the immediate area and to the western and northern coasts (Isle of Skye, Raasay across the way), to the Black Isle (a fertile peninsula stuck out into the North sea. We also explored the Aigas landscape: the whole of Sunday, the first full day there (8/13), was a tour of the house, the immediate grounds, of Lady Lucy’s gardens, which we were to wander in at any time of day or night after we arrived). We were privileged to be invited to go, meet and talk with a crofter’s house and acres not far from Aigas (a friend of Lister-Kaye or “Sir John” as he is familiarly called by everyone), as well as a local landowner and aristocratic lady’s (“J-j”) organic farm-garden, where she is developing bee centers, keeps sheep, grows native trees, has an extensive kitchen garden, all of which is supported by a beer distillery using hops from her land, by selling sweaters from the sheep. All of this arranged around a somewhat renovated 18th century mansion. We also had a 5 hour Saturday drive (8/12), up to Aigas where we visited Glenn Coe (where a massacre occurred and is now a site for arduous walking) and a week later (8/19), away from Aigas (where we visited the historically laden Blair Castle, there since the 12th century or so) and a couple of other sites.

Before launching into a eight day and evening travelogue, I want to imitate John Lister-Kaye (whose nature writing books are rightly much admired — at his best he can match Loren Eiseley for poetry and geology, and animal studies, Annie Dillard for weaving significant autobiography, and is often implicitly political in a mildly socialistic, occasionally paternalistic and green party mode) and provide a framework for what we saw. It seems to me gaping at places without giving them context is like presenting photos and expecting them to tell their story. They don’t. I won’t have many pictures, since I’m not a photo-taking type (I’ve never taken even one selfie) and when I do take photos they are often at odd angles I happen to be standing or sitting at. But I do have a couple of hand-outs to share as well as my photos and pictures found on the web. There were several excellent presentations, most of them at most 20 minutes long, but three stand out, Robin MacGregor’s explanation of the maps of the Scottish Highlands he gave us the first evening we met, the first Friday evening (8/11) we most of us arrived at Glasgow airport and a nearby Holiday inn on Friday afternoon.


A simplified map of geology, waterways of Scottish Highlands

Robin MacGregor was a lawyer and accountant when younger, now is a guide leader and is an expert on Scottish geology and World War One. He began by impressing us with the difference between lowland and highland Scotland: the north comes a plate previously attached to North America, is mountainous, rocky, a lot of sedimentation, while the south is green, meadow-y. The present small population results from a 2 century diaspora it’s fair to call ethnic cleansing, or sheer ejection by chieftains become landlords determined to make a large profit on the land by filling it first with sheep and later with deer (for rich people to come and slaughter. He talked of how romanticized the descriptions of its civil social society, which is now based on commercialism laid over family biology bonds and the original tribal laws and customs of clans, as well as results of warfare and sex. We might call them an edge people, a people descending in written history from Celtic culture which was pushed back by the more modern Roman culture, successful war machine from the Mediterranean, found along Northern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, down to Basque country. Tribal people forced into the peripheries where it’s hard to make a living on much non-arable land. Little of Northern Scotland is more than 37 miles from the sea, it’s crossed by faults as are the lowlands. and rivers. Large cities include Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Sterling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness. One of the maps had pictures of food and fish that are indigenous to each area.


I’ve made this one bigger in the hope the print can be read

The most peculiar of these maps was of the clans — which are still remembered by many Scottish people and are seen in their last names — Lady Lucy is a descendant of clan Mackenzie. Robin named all the clans including his own, MacGregor, and told us about their specific rivalries, whose side they were on at Culloden (a central historical moment, a watershed defeat in Scottish history taking 45 minutes). I was cheered to realize that the novels and mini-series of Outlander (the books are found in most decent bookstores and the TV programs have been big hits) are in large outlines historically accurate: so clan Fraser is where the stories say, its relationship with clan Mackenzie generally accurate. He did keep emphasizing that Scottish and English people while intertwined utterly are nonetheless part of different cultures, with distinct identifications and histories.


One wing of that fabulously wealthy woman, Elizabeth Windsor’s Balmoral Castle, first started in the 19th century by Victoria

I believe it was Saturday evening (8/13) that in one of the buildings on the estate, Magnus House, Sir John gave his extraordinary lecture (he’s been giving it since 1986) “Balmorality.” I feared it would include yet another rehash of the Jacobite disasters (hundreds of people killed each time, not counting the states’ savage reprisals) or be just about the myth of Balmoral beauty promulgated by Victoria’s vacation life. It was in effect a debunking of some silly clothing, and recent made-up customs (especially believed in it seems by US people) and a genuine history of the mid- to later 19th into the later 20th century. He contrasted the reality of the experience most Scots people knew against the imposed picturesque narratives of the wealthy who came north to exploit the people left and their land. He explained why northern Scottish landscape looks and often is so empty, how it came to have species of animals and plants not indigenous to it at all, the abject poverty of what we can call the 99% until the early 1980s. In 1972 one could easily find people living in huts with no central heat, not running water, poor windows and ventilation, no electricity, without shoes. He stressed that a lot of the emigration from early 19th century on became voluntary: when the Scottish reached North America, they realized a much better life was on offer for them all.


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother Mary (Wife of George VI) photographed in the highlands as soothingly beautiful, with vast old houses whose cost no one minds, with hardly a servant about to keep everything up, was an embodiment of the most recent melancholy-sentimental myth-making

“Balmorality” stands for the way wealthy, naive and often non-Scottish people project images of Scotland (as seen in Downton Abbey‘s visits to Scotland for Christmas and again in Queen Mary’s visits to Scotland in the Netflix series, The Crown) the way Edward Said’s “orientalism” stands for the way prejudiced western people describe and pervert and misunderstand Islamic, middle eastern and South-Asian cultures. He showed Landseer paintings of animals who couldn’t exist (great stags with astonishing antlers), quoted the abysmal poetry of William McGonegal, which he averred was nonetheless often more accurate about the highlands than say Burns or Scott. He explained one of the uses of Aigas house was a site for restoration ecology: restoring Scottish land to be as productive, fruitful, and beautiful as it can. Rebuilding the place that capitalism, rentier-landlords, colonialism destroyed. Put the wolves back, the lynx, small and large animals almost gone extinct, make a habitable lifestyle cooperated in by all.


The story design of the chapters of this book is a history of Aigas House,and stories attached to it and its lands — beginning with an iron age fort, moving on to a Jacobean house, then the couple of hundred years the house now represents; how it was a run-down home for poor aging people until he took it over, renovated it at great cost

His second lecture, which I regret not taking better notes on, was originally going to be reading aloud in the drawing room from his books on Wednesday (8/16), while we had roarding fire and drank and ate. Instead he gave another hour and one-half lecture at Magnus House, this time on his recent life-writing cum-nature writing book, The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood. In a way he retold the same history of Scotland starting with his parents’ lives (though the family is England, and its estates in Yorkshire, with money coming from mines) in terms of his personal life, with an extended section on the man who he feels brought him to be what he is and does today: Gavin Maxwell


Sir John is hardly seen without one of three dogs very much attached to him


Gavin Maxwell when young

Sir John’s talk included Maxwell’s intimate relationship with the poet Kathleen Raine (whose poetry I had read but did not know she was all her life in love with Maxwell who was however homosexual (one of the reasons for his reclusiveness); I remembered Raine as a poet strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf in French.

As someone who taught Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences and Technology for over 17 years at George Mason (to junior level students) and in the first ten years read with students, concentrated on nature writers (I assigned Eiseley, Dillard), people who cared about non-human animals and conservative (I assigned Joan Goodall, Sy Montgomery) I recognized where his deep Thoreau-like impulses to retreat came from: a detestation of the ludicrous cruelties of so many human institutions. It was a litany of his miseries in public schools, of how he was forced into working as an engineer for a profit-driven inhumane company polluting vast lands and waterways, of the great poverty he first saw in gypsies and the state schools he also apparently attended, and the story of how he broke away to live differently. Gavin Maxwell’s retreat and stubborn return to nature, the book, Ring of Bright Water, was a great revelation, their relationship one of the most important in his life. It must be admitted Maxwell was a little mad: he broke with Raine because she was accidentally responsible for the death of an otter she bought for him.


This statue of an otter overlooking Front Bay honors Maxwell

I’ll end on a poem by Kathleen Raine, who I once intended to write a foremother poet blog on but never got to it. A chapter in Didier’s book on l’ecriture-femme is dedicated to Raines and she is one of those poets chosen by Catherine Kerrigan in her An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets:

Heirloom

She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the bum.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boad,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

If I seem strangely to have begun and ended on women writers, what bothered me all week was the preponderance of people in the tour (2/3rds), the rangers (about the same), the staff were women. the relief was to find myself in a genuinely socially-rooted society, one where people identify and pull together: they believe they have a right to health care, a right to education up to and including university, a right to housing, a right to a decent life together. It was Lady Lucy who provided the very good food and ran the place. But all the people named as important historical figures, described, pictured were men. In other words, it is at the same time still a patriarchy. In my next I hope to tell of Lucy’s descriptive tour of her gardening on Sunday afternoon (8/13)– really a creation comparable to areas of Central Park in little — and what I saw of women’s lives through her, the Crofter Ann MacDonald and some other Scots women writers and artists too.


A wide and far shot of the property probably in winter — there are the tiny remains of an iron fort too

Ellen


Agatha Poldark: this is from one of her earnest conversations with Ross; but she has the same expression when she urges Morwenna that she cannot marry Drake (2015 Episode 6)


Agatha now near death, muttering, asking Elizabeth’s now frightened forgiveness because she knows she should not have responded to George’s tormenting of her with tormenting him (2015 Episode 7)

Dear friends and readers,

My header this time refers more or as much to Graham’s books, The Black Moon and The Four Swans, and the 1977 second season episodes 6-7 as it does to this new third season episodes 6 & 7. Horsfield has begun to depart as radically and anachronistically from Graham’s books as Jack Pullman did in the first season of the 1975 Poldark Episodes 1-4, which so incensed Winston Graham. She is not merely taking liberties but she is changing the meaning of the events crucially.

It will be said that if this pleases and is understood by the TV audience of 2017 (much larger than the numbers of people who will read the Poldark books in question), so what? I answer the original presentation is understandable by a contemporary audience and would teach them much more about the history of women, which sheds light on their present condition. The new sensational dramas where remarkably contrivance has replaced plausibility may excite an audience more, but if the reaction of the online and paper press is any measure, the reaction is increasing mockery (see the in-house Guardian snark of Viv Goskop, on Episode 6 and Episode 7).


George’s contrived question: what would you give, Morwenna, to see Drake acquitted


Morwenna as a frightened animal caught in headlights in a traffic accident (2015 Episode 6)

Take how Morwenna Chynoweth (Elise Chappell/Jane Wymark) is pressured into marrying the sadistic hypocritical vicar Osborne Whitworth (Christian Brassington;Christopher Biggins): in the book and in the 1970s series it is a slow application of pressure; from Elizabeth (Heida Reed/Jill Townsend) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing/Ralph Bates), from her mother, and from her sense of what her class status demands, what the norms of her society demand of her. Several scenes. As Verity wanting Captain Blamey and the abused penniless Demelza leaping at a chance to be a landowner’s wife in Ross Poldark; the widowed harasssed Elizabeth in Warleggan, so Morwenna has no “right” to “a choice of life;: subdued and oppressed by loaded phrases like “your natural place,” “your bounden duty,” “a false and romantic idea,” “obduracy” rather than the “gratitude” due someone (BM II:4, 276, III:12, 519), Morwenna falls back on vague mutterings like “I cannot see myself . . . I cannot think that this is [to be my life]”. In the book and the 1970s Elizabeth genuinely hesitates and feels unable openly to countermand her husband George’s plans for Morwenna, asking herself “why she was not more afraid of him.”. “Flight” is not an option. Instead we are given the improbable swift bargain that Morwenna agrees to marry Drake to stop George from hanging him for having Geoffrey Charles’s Bible in his cabin. In both the book and the 1970s, the threat of another riot is what gives him pause — plus he knows GC did give Drake the Bible as a gift. Is this weak of Morwenna? how do women fare up against laws and customs against abortion, supporting male rape, smaller incomes, men with power and property, the demand they marry successfully, have children? instead as re-told by Horsfield the story becames fodder for a joke.

I enjoyed the new episode 6 and 7, for all the reasons of the 2017 art (uses of montage, fine acting, the costumes, setting), but the book and the 1970s versions are in this case superior and in my summary and evaluations of these in my comments I do the two earlier episodes the respect and justice of serious recapping before we go any further. This for those who’d like to remember and for those who’ve never seen these. Then I’ll proceed to comparison.

The 1977 Episode 6


Dr Behenna pitying Elizabeth stuck with George, but giving bad advice for Valentine’s rickets


George like some dark spirit unreasonable, harassing Elizabeth (1977 Episode 6)

The 1977 Poldark Episode 7


At Tehidy Demelza charmed by Armitage


Caroline disappointed in Dwight (bored), also charmed (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Morwenna’s and now Elizabeth’s is not the only coerced relationship. In the book and 1970s Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson/Angarhad Rees) falls in love with Armitage because he is the first young man ever to court her, the first time she is romanced, offered poetry, valued for her singing: Ross was much older than she, and took her as his servant; his marrying her was ethical of him, and he has learned to value her sexually and as a wife from a realistic relationship. She couldn’t care less if he accepts a political position or not. She does see that if he did, he would do some good, and says this but she is not disgusted with him for his lack of ambition for status. Demelza? Importantly left out of this new iteration is Bassett’s (John Hopkins/Mike Hall) support of William Pitt in the book (a deep reactionary, who made of the 1790s a kind of McCarthy era) and his voiced expectation that Ross would support Pitt. This is not brought into the 1970s series, but not as much is made of either refusal.

It is to Horsfield’s credit that she sees that the trajectory of the three books is to pressure Ross into compromise, into accepting the patronage system and working within it, but she is using it to present Delmelza as falling in love with a callow romantic young man. In the book and the 1970s series Demelza says she loves Ross still and after sex on the shore, much more than Armitage. People have complicated adult conflicting emotions. Certainly Ross does.


Invented scene of high anger between Ross and Demelza (not in book or 1970s) where she is disgusted because he won’t obey the world’s ways and he is angry she wants him to follow her advice because it’s hers (2015 Poldark Episode 7)

In the book and the 1970s Ross says he cannot forget his love for Elizabeth but he at the same time loves Demelza and differently, as his wife. I’ve read that the film-makers are hesitating over going on to a fifth season because Turner and Tomlinson will ask too much money. Hitherto it was also said that would demand they move forward ten years (Stranger from the Sea is set in 1810, with Jeremy and Clowance grown into young adults): should they “age” Turner and Tomlinson (a lot of trouble) or hire new actors (and lose the audience they hope is into worship for this pair of people). If so, why invent Ross’s suspicion Elizabeth’s baby is his. Why have him and Demelza give one another pointed looks over his refusal to accept any responsibility for what is happening to baby and soon young boy Valentine? The tragic results of this in a twisted personality emerges in The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (Poldarks 8 and 9) and the catastrophic dark conclusion of Bella (Poldark 12). why prepare for what you don’t intend to film, especially if in the book Ross has no suspicion the child could be his and is not an 8th month baby (why would he? he hardly ever has seen the baby) until the scene in the churchyard with Elizabeth in The Angry Tide. The treatment of this in this new series is ludicrous. If you don’t want to comb or brush Ross’s hair and leave his black curls all awry (but in the era he would care for his hair or, as in Ross Poldark, he’d fear lice), don’t give this to the baby as a sign.


Obligatory romance scene between Dwight and Caroline (2015 Poldark Episode 6)

Enough is the same as in the books and the 1970s episodes to give the new drama and interpretations depth, interest, passion. Yes when Dwight Enys (Luke Norris/ Richard Morant/Michael Cadman) comes home, he is depressed and guilty that he survived; he cannot lend himself to sexual passion at first; Caroline (Gabriella Wilde/Judy Geeson) wants an aristocratic idle prestigious life and he yearns to return to his profession. Theirs is another reluctant relationship, a half mismatch. Yes there is a beautiful romance between Drake (Harry Richardson/Kevin McNally) and Morwenna, the boy Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus/Stephan Gates) values the inner spirit of Drake, who is very young and risks bodily harm to spite George with toads; who when he loses Demelza falls into a deep depression. Yes Sam (Tom York/David Delve) falls in love inappropriately with the wanton Emma (Ciara Charteris/Trudie Styler). Yes at the end of The Black Moon George is incensed at Agatha (Caroline Blakiston/Eileen Way) and refuses to allow her to have her 100th party, and she retaliates by planting suspicion in his mind that Valentine was a full term baby, after which as she lays dying she regrets having hurt Elizabeth for life this way.


Tholly Tregirls (not Jud) (Sean Gilder) is the gravedigger but when Agatha’s plain coffin is brought with no ceremony, Ross buries her — this is a moving moment

But why must we have these debasing exaggerations. At no point in the book or the 1970s does Demelza mock Sam’s religion. Emma is a daughter of Tholly but she is kindly. In the book and 1970s George does not openly rejoice at war because he is hoping to make more money; Farthing is made into a cardboard silly (transparently so) villain. Although George is deeply suspicious once Agatha alerts him, and does go about to question people (Drs Choake, Richard Daws, Behenna Hugh Dickson/ and Enys), it is not until The Angry Tide that he feels he has evidence to demonstrate that Elizabeth’s child is Ross’s son — which at that point brings ends the book in great tragedy. And neither Elizabeth nor Ross is really sure — how could they be? Horsfield disrespects her audience in many of the changes of these two episodes — or she is desperate for very high ratings (and a budget to support a fifth season).


Like Demelza Drake takes on a dog for a companion (there is a pro-animal theme in Graham, 1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Most of all what is hard to take is the violation of the characters as Graham conceived them and in the second season of the 1970s Poldarks (1977-78), to which Alexander Baron and John Wiles remained true. Demelza has made Ross the center of her meaning; he deeply bonds with her. They do not bicker; the sex she knows with Armitage is not fundamentally serious; his love for Elizabeth is vestigial. This core of validation of a marriage for love despite life’s ordeals is lost. A eecondary one is the defiance of the world’s perverse values; as in the first season, Horsfield again reverses and reinforces deep compromise (though how seriously we are to take this here it’s hard to say except we can see in her scripts art as saleable commodity).

Not that Turner and Tomlinson do not play their roles with what depths they are offered from the script and direction. Elizabeth is an interesting character as is George; he is the world’s successful man, she the woman caught up because she has twice been for sale. There is opportunity for Drake to come back (as a man he is given a profession to develop his talents as a blacksmith; he gets himself a dog), but for Morwenna she is rescued too late, and is forever shattered. Sam and Emma are a contrasting pair, with Emma as a hard well-meaning (she is well-meaning in the book, not a slut) and Sam a kind idealist, who church officials want to put down as revolutionary (this is lost altogether as his religion is turned into bigoted fanaticism over sex when it is also about all souls being equal before God). The lowest are the desperate Rowella (who sees in the Vicar an opportunity to rise somehow) and the vicious state clergyman given a big income and status. She does not have sex with Whitworth for her sister’s sake (what nonsense): her sister, Rowella, does not have sex with the Vicar for her sister’s sake, but for herself — as eventually will be seen unless Horsfield changes the story line altogether in the fourth season and I can’t see how they can (I see the librarian to whom Rowella is married off is in the coming cast)


Rowella (Julia Dawn Cole) and Whitworth about to use one another sexually (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

My reader should read the books and watch the previous Poldarks which are available in good digitialized versions. See my blog on “Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years On,” and Graham’s Four Swans and The Angry Tide.

Ellen

Dunkirk, the movie


Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Friends and readers,

I’ve just read that Dunkirk is this summer’s “big movie.” In his column about it in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen wrote “since July 21 opening, it has taken in more than $100 million in North America and been hailed by ecstatic critics everywhere.” Richard Cohen professes to “admire it even more the second time. It is a stupendous achievement, although more than a little odd. It’s a film for the Trump era. It is deaf to history.” He then goes on to trash it.

My view is more akin to Anthony Lane in the New Yorker — unless I’m misreading him. I wish it were better. It is worth seeing as long as it’s not prefaced by what it was prefaced with in the AMC movie-theater I went to: 20 minutes of trailers for coming film and TV shows, each more horrifyingly violent, fascist,and racist than the one before: advertising a TV film on the Detroit riots which appears to be a Trump vision of cities where the majority of people are African-American as places of wild carnage; two films ratcheting up paranoia over ISIS and terrorist states (of which obviously the US is not one; we are the good guys). Or, one could say, in comparison with these, this is a sane decent truthful film.

What the film-makers do is attempt to make us experience what it was like to be on Dunkirk beach on those few nights. Chistopher Nolan dramatizes what it feels like to be in what MacNamara called “the fog of war.” We experience Dunkirk from the point of view of several individual men trying to escape the beach onto a ship, any ship. Nothing makes sense; there are few boats to rescue them, and the boats that have come are torpedoed by German airplanes. No false explanation, no heroics except for the people on the one small boat we are permitted to experience and the stubbornness and hysteria of those who want to live. It feels like a fragment off another movie the rest of which has been mercifully cut. That’s the point: each person’s experience of war is like a fragment and many young soldiers have no idea what the real quarrel is about or what group of people have incited it.

Cohen complains that we are given no history, no context. He is indignant because he assumes most young people (those who go most to films) will have no idea what this is about. Well, first of all there is an explanation (if brief) at the opening: this is World War Two, the British are caught on this beach, attempting to flee the Germans who are occupying France; they have been beaten back to the channel. Actually his word is “dolts.” No we are not told what happened: that thousands of small British boats (pleasure, yachts, fishing and working boats) crossed the channel and rescued some 300,000 or so off the beach. (The boats were mostly requisitioned.) A huge number of people also died, were badly wounded. The film has a right to set up suspense. Cohen is complaining that Nolan did not make the film he would have made, which appears to be a lecture on the “evil rapacious regime” run by Hitler. Worse, says Cohen, Nolan has done this deliberately since it stands to reason the conversation (if there were some — there is very little) would naturally include references to Germans. “Nolan had an obligation” to make this as well as the Nazi concentration camps and the destruction of the rich European culture of the 1920s clear. Really?

If Cohen were the only person reacting in personal angry ways, I would not be writing this blog, but a number of critics (not all are ecstatic) are indignant. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street journal wants to know why Churchill’s role is so minimized. This is a dumbed-down film from the maker of Batman. Well, ’nuff said.’ I’ve come across ordinary people’s comments making adverse comments about the film too. The friend I went with, seeing I liked the film, didn’t want to say she didn’t, so simply contented herself with agreeing this was like a fragment (to her ears that was an unfavorable criticism), and saying “I should have read the reviews, my fault [for going].” It wasn’t what she expected.

Dunkirk, this movie, seems to have hit some sore nerve in others, made sorer by having a dangerous (evil? implicitly rapacious) man in the White House. I picked Cohen to summarize because he makes the connection openly: “This [the need to inform] is especially the case in the age of President Trump when it is necessary to appreciate that the ugliness he has exploited could escape its confines and metastasize.” My objection: why is it his age? and what makes Cohen think this ugliness has not already metatasized? Is Cohen not paying attention to the thousands and thousands of deaths in Yemen (hundreds of civilians each week), joined by hundreds killed, imprisoned, starving, in other states whose dictators Trump regularly calls to congratulate?

The ordinary viewer seems to want heroism, something monumental. This movie was apparently made on a small budget. During most of the action, we see only three Spitfire planes, and we see only one small fishing boat crossing the Atlantic. The boat makes it, and is filled to the brim with soldiers, and turns round back to the (of course) white cliffs of Dover. Where else? Two of the spitfires are shot down. All three importantly shoot down as many German airplanes as they can, because the German airplanes during this evacuation, were throwing bombs, firing, doing all they ferociously could to annihilate (one of our War Department head’s favorite words — General Mattis) everyone in sight. The proportion is right. Ridiculously, many people still think the Spitfires were glorious experiences, and in Penelope Fitzgerald’s gem, The Bookshop, never tire of seeking memoirs. There are very few, because something like 80% of the British airplanes (especially the Spitfire) were destroyed, 3 out of 4 (with all on board killed). One of the two very great anti-war BBC mini-series of the 1970s shows this viscerally; most of the characters in Piece of Cake are dead before the series ends.


Mark Rylance as the father/captain of the small boat

The small fishing boat is central. It is in this boat we experience what is best and what are the flaws in this film. Rylance embodies not so much (as Lane has it) the “gallantly narrow squeak through”, “the makeshift,” and is not just your stoic Englishman “wearing throughout the ordeal, a white shirt, a tie, and a sweater, as if he were doing a bit of Sunday gardening rather than hauling a shoal of his countrymen, drenched in oil” from death by drowning in that dark blue cold sea or bombs, fire, shots. He makes it a patriotic British film. He loses a son while crossing — killed by accident by the first numb and shuddering man they rescue, who under PTSD, becomes frantic when he realizes the boat is headed back for France and attempts to try to force Rylance to turn round. He is revealed as Cillian Murphy and knocks Rylance’s son down to the hold where he receives a fatal concussion.

But does Rylance flinch? well, maybe, but he carries on quietly, regardless. Later Murphy is seen pulling others into the boat, leg, body, arms over. All are doing their duty by this time — when they see they have a chance to live. Rylance is clearly a shining example to his second son with him on the boat. When we get back to shore, we learn a third son has been previously killed. But there he sits at the kitchen table, now drinking his tea, reading the paper while an overvoice of Churchill calling out the famous exhortation, “We will fight them on the beach …,” defending their island to their last breath.

Nolan punts at the film’s close; he gives it a close. The one Spitfire that survives is seen floating down out of gas and the man is able to throw off the glass top and Tom Hardy emerges. Elgar’s music is heard softly and then swells up. As the men arrive, the people on shore are waiting for them, blankets, more tea, biscuits, sandwiches in hand. Like some chorus in a play. Late in the film Jack Lowden (perfect as Nicholas Rostov in Davies’s TV War and Peace) is seen busy doing effective things. From afar in the train soldiers glimpse British people at work on the railways, undaunted. Kenneth Branagh is the other famous box-office pull older actor in the film: he is the grimly cheerful man, facing up to this colossal catastrophe, who stands at the head of whatever it is, binoculars in hand.


That’s James D’Arcy with him

His faith is rewarded when he sees (as we do) the flotilla of small boats speeding in, and pulling people one by one, aboard. It is moving. I don’t say it’s not. But the emotion worked up to this point didn’t need Elgar. Nolan cut one of Churchill’s often forgotten lines: we do not win wars by magnificent evacuations (words to this effect). I admit the sentence is seen in the newspaper print but I who have poor eyesight was able to read it. And until near this conventional movie ending, Noland attempts to be as true to experience as his limited budget will allows.

The film begins with a soldier running frantically through the streets of a French village (seemingly empty) leaping over a wall, to find himself on the beach, where he sees long lines, crowds of soldiers waiting at its edge. Hitherto the films I’ve seen which included Dunkirk, made it look like a party (almost); not here. If I’m not mis-remembering we see a horse killed (again just one — very economical, we can call it epitomizing). This Frenchman does manage to grab someone on a stretcher and together with another man (stranger to him) they push their way onto a boat. Later he is almost murdered by the British on that boat when they discover he is not English; at first they think him “the enemy” (not German, the word is not use); when they find he speaks French, that seems just as bad.

Attention is paid to making us experience what it is to be in a war zone directly attacked by ferocious weapons determined to destroy you (me, the individual). This reminded me of a play written in 1929 which Jim and I saw in a London theater the last time we were in England: R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. the audience was made to feel through noise and lights that bombs were raining down on us – as they would have the men in the play. That’s why we are not told the names of the individual stories we glimpse. What happens is and slowly he begins to talk and act to help others. Of course he helps others.

There are no women with real roles. We see them in the teams of people down in a hole in the boat, on shore, serving food, handing out blankets. This is kept up and is a conscious choice for when Rylance and son get home, there is no wife/mother at the table. See Meherer Bonner’s well-taken complaint about having no women; on story lines they are over-rated and impose meaning. This film displayed the meaninglessness of death; it held no briefcase for justified “good” wars. On this watch Howard Zinn’s lecture on three “justified” or good wars: the US revolutionary, the US civil war, and World War Two.

But in our time where what is shown to us in films is cruelty, inhumanity and torture almost as a norm, deep distrust and far from social behavior, individual ruthlessness, this is tonic. It is good. No it’s not a true expose, like Danger USB (the other great mini-series of the 1970s, about a bomb disposal unit), not searingly anti-war so that you not soothed, cannot be mistaken, like Kilo Two Bravo. Kilo Two Bravo was not distributed in the US (though it was in the UK under the name of the place where the British troops came upon a landmine, Kajaki). Dunkirk is reaching a huge audience.

I wonder how it would compare with the 1958 Dunkirk with Richard Attenborough and John Mills. The reviews declare this older film to have been one of the best war films ever made (!): the wikipedia article shows this earlier Dunkirk was presented with a historical context.


Richard Attenborough, John Mills (Platon Karatayev in the 195 War and Peace), Bernard Lee

Quite a number of people on my Trollope19thCStudies listserv at Yahoo have been moved to tell of parents, grandparents and if they are old enough, their own memories or experience of Dunkirk. It is not that long ago. I had a friend who was on the listserv for a few years (not a Trollopeian, she gave it up), who would tell me of what it was like at age 6 to hear the German airplanes come over the channel nightly. It’s only 90 miles. Nowadays if a soldier carries some form of iphone, he may be kept informed – though not of the larger picture or politics. I had an uncle “missing, believed killed”in World War Two who it turned out was not killed; he hid out on an Asian island. When he returned home, he acted differently than most people: he would not go to parties or large gatherings of people; he’d break off suddenly in response to others, but would not say what had bothered him. He was a fruit and vegetable peddler in New York City for a while, and then was given a job (compensation) at the post office. He slept in a separate room away from from my aunt. There were no children. I feel my aunt led a sad lonely life. They had been married before he went away to war.

Ellen