The White War. Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919

By Mark Thompson.

At the start of World War I, Italy was still a comparatively new country. It was allied to Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but when the war began, it took a neutral stance until 1915 when it launched an attack on Habsburg lands to the northeast, motivated by territorial expansion. The result was the wasteful deaths of hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers, who often had no idea what the war was about, on the altar of Italian nationalism and military incompetence.

On the other side, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its multiethnic army clung on by the skin of its teeth because it had the advantage of occupying the high ground and that ground was often better prepared. Against the odds, especially the geographical and climatic ones, Italian attacks may have reached and taken frontline trenches, but they were regularly rebuffed by counterattacks. On each occasion, nothing seemed to be learnt.

The lot of Italian soldiers was not helped by General Cadorna, the commander-in-chief, who threw away the lives of his men with complete indifference and who instigated decimations to punish rebellious units. Similarly, the Italian government caused the deaths of a further 100,000 men by refusing to send food parcels to Italian PoWs. When the PoWs returned to Italy, they were treated more like traitors.

There does, though, seem to have been a lot of casual betrayal. Defectors and prisoners from both sides seem to have felt little compunction about passing on intelligence about imminent attacks.

The narrative of the war is intercut with chapters about the motivations of the soldiers, and the motivators behind the conflict such as the egotistical poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio. Most of these people could simply be placed under the blanket heading of (extreme) nationalists. There is also a look at war reporting. Journalists had to toe the party line, but were privately appalled by what they saw, and military reports were typically full of empty, asinine bombast.

There were some successes, but they were often costly, and when the Habsburg army pushed back, the entire front collapsed to the point that Venice was potentially in danger. The only thing which saved the Italians further loss of territory was an Austro-Hungarian campaign too far. The Empire struggled to cope with all of the demands on it, and units at the front were usually under strength.

Even after the Armistice, the Italian government showed a knack for being extremely annoying because of its excessive demands for territory to which it had no real claim. As a result, Trieste became an international enclave for a time because these issues could not be satisfactorily resolved, and the matter was not really effectively dealt with until after World War II.

There is an appearance by Erwin Rommel, who won Germany’s highest award, Pour le Mérite, for capturing Matajur and just over 9,000 PoWs with a small band of men.

While the book is not uninteresting, the chapters on the philosophical motivations behind the war and its participants tend to bog it down. The toxic effects of Italian nationalism are established early on, and that should have been enough. Some chapters can be excused for focusing on certain soldiers, but Thompson often waffles unnecessarily.

The book also shows that there was already a very strong Fascist tendency in the newly unified Italy, which makes Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1920s unsurprising. The nationalist demagogues were disastrously effective with more exciting arguments than their opponents could bring to bear.

The Kings’ Mistresses

By Elizabeth C. Goldsmith.

The subtitle of this book is The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and her sister, Hortense, Duchess Mazarin, which is, I think, just as inaccurate as the title.

The pair, Marie (1639-1715) and Hortense (1646-99) were the nieces of the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin (1602-61) who was, in effect, Louis XIV’s Prime Minister for nearly twenty years until his death in 1661. Louis and Marie took an instant liking to each other and even when they were separated, they still maintained a steady stream of correspondence until they finally understood the reality of the situation, that Louis was going to marry someone politically expedient in the form of Maria Theresa of Spain. Marie got packed off to Italy to marry the Prince of Colonna.

Initially, Marie’s time in Italy seems to have been quite enjoyable with plenty of amusements and entertainments, but relations with her status-obsessed husband eventually fell apart until they reached the point at which she decided to flee.

Hortense married Armand-Charles de la Porte de la Meilleraye, who was obsessed with her and obsessively religious, whom Mazarin may have seen as the man to curb Hortense’s somewhat independent spirit.

Stuck with two husbands who were not the best matches, Marie and Hortense both ended up on the run, travelling across Europe often under perilous circumstances, contending both with the conditions and the pursuit of their husbands’ agents and looking for safe havens.

Hortense, aged 19, made her way to England, arriving their at the very end of 1665 to spend the rest of her life there among the French émigré community. She was, for a time, Charles II’s mistress, displacing Louise de Keroualle in his affections. It was in England that she wrote her memoirs, although she doesn’t appear to have made much money out of the book. She may have maintained a salon-cum-gambling den, but her life appears to have become a downward spiral gambling and alcoholism leading to her death at the age of 53 in 1699. Ironically, it was because of her debts that her husband finally spent some of the money he had denied her so that he could recover her body.

Marie was also unfortunate in a different way in that she kept ending up as a virtual prisoner in one place or another, financially supported by her husband only because he did not want to lose face. In 1674, at the age of 35, she travelled to Spain where there would be a partial, but un­satis­factory resolution with her husband. After reading her sister’s memoirs and her own (written by someone who seems to have known her), Marie, too, put pen to paper. Her husband eventually died in 1689 while Marie was to remain in Spain until Carlos II died in 1700. After nearly thirty years, she was on the road again in her early 60s.

The subtext at this point seems to be that the Princess Colonna may have been a little senile because she was deceived by a number of con artists. In 1704, she returned to Paris for the first time in forty-four years to bring legal proceedings against one of these tricksters, but she did not see Louis.

Marie’s remaining time was spent in northern Italy, shuttling between her homes in Genoa, Livorno and Venice before dying in Pisa in 1715 just a few months before Louis XIV came to the end of his own life.

As I said above, the title is potentially misleading. Hortense was a king’s mistress (assuming that to be awarded such a title, the relationship must be adulterous). Marie was merely a king’s girlfriend, although back in the day the word “mistress” probably covered both regardless of the marital status of the participants. They were only the mistresses of kings for fairly short periods of their lives. As for their liberated lives, it is true that they did not conform to the norms of the day, but again, I don’t think the subtitle is exactly accurate, either. Marie seemed to spend a lot of time in one sort of purdah or another as she sought to be permitted certain liberties. Hortense may have been more liberated in one sense, but just as Marie spent nearly thirty years of her life in Spain, she spent over thirty of hers in England. She was ultimately less constrained than her sister, but she remained firmly on the far side of the English Channel.

I have included dates and ages in the review to supply a chronological perspective which is lacking in the book. At one point, Goldsmith mentions that twenty years have passed, but there’s little sense of the passage of time from the text. In truth, the sisters seem to have dined out on their notoriety for a long, long time without really adding anything new to their exploits. Their prolonged disputes with their husbands seem to have been a consequence of the two men’s asinine stubbornness more than anything else.

The story of the Mancini sisters is an interesting one. Their plights do seem to have stirred a lot of debate about marriage and women’s rights in European society, but there is a gap between a debate and taking action over an issue. They may have slightly improved the lot of women in Rome, but their overall impact, beyond being a source of news and gossip, would appear to have been negligible.

A Spy among Friends. Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre.

This is one of those books where at the end of the day, I have little to say about it.

It tells the tale of Kim Philby who got a job with MI6 because of the Old Boy Network, but was, in fact, a Soviet agent. He was charming and charismatic, and an alcoholic. He was lucky that he was not rumbled several times, but was kicked out of MI6 after Burgess and Maclean defected only to be readmitted after the fuss died down. He was also so committed to the cause that the purges of the 1930s did not cause him to waver, and when he was approached by the Russians in Beirut after his period of exile, he resumed his work for them without, apparently, a second thought.

All the while, Nicholas Elliott, who had also been recruited through the Old Boy Network, idolised Philby and strongly defended him against allegations that he was the Third Man; but he also confronted Philby in Beirut when incontrovertible evidence of his treachery came to light and was the one who let him escape to Russia – probably to spare HMG’s blushes as well as MI6’s and Elliott’s own.

Macintyre tells a very readable story about Philby which had me ploughing through the entire book in one day. It tells Philby’s story, but like the two main protagonists, it has a gentlemanly tone, never degenerating into some subjective rant about what a vile traitor the man was.

I myself do not really understand why Philby would have spied for Soviet Russia because presented with the choice of Hitler and Stalin, I would’ve chosen neither, regarding both as equally inimical. Dictators only care about themselves, and one-party states are only paradises for the people who have the power and inevitably the money. Betrayal is not the problem, but rather the wilful preference for a far worse system; but perhaps there was a certain political naivety stemming from the inexperience of youth.

Curiously, in spite of his political leanings, Philby never really seems to have been a man of the people. He never sneaks off to the East End for a convivial evening with “real” people, although because of his job, that would have been a potentially risky proposition. It’s hard not to suspect that Philby would’ve been outwardly jovial, but inwardly horrified by the working classes at close range unless they were female and attractive.

Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

By Richard Taruskin.

(This is part of the series, The Oxford History of Western Music; some reviews on Amazon have complained about not being warned that this is part of a more comprehensive work.) Taruskin opens with a discussion of the appearance of opera, a musical genre which marks out the entire period as distinct from what preceded it. Although he also mentions the rise of purely instrumental music across these two centuries, opera, by and large, remains the focus of much of the book. Throughout, Taruskin also looks more closely at various pieces of music, analysing them to demonstrate what the composer was doing, and show how a lot of works were hardly conventional. He also tries to get away from the notion of defined periods such as Baroque, Classical and Romantic by showing at times how proponents of old and new styles were composing contemporaneously (e.g. Bach and his sons).

Just as Taruskin tries to avoid labels such as Baroque, he also observes that the notion of a classical canon was alien to the age (along with the primacy of the composer and the inviolability of the score), and yet paradoxically, he chooses to focus on Bach and Handel, who are as canonical as any these days, while largely neglecting their contemporaries. More ironically, he notes that Bach was a provincial composer who looked back to a musical tradition and yet composed the harpsichord cadenza in the 5th Brandenburg Concerto which, like these pieces as a whole, was a peculiar thing that was never attempted again.

The culmination of the book is Beethoven, the establishment of a classical canon, and the rise in status of the composer, which contrasts with the reality of the two centuries which preceded this point: no score was fixed, there was a good deal of improvisation, and the composer stood a lot lower in the musical hierarchy of the day.

This is not a book for general readers who enjoy the music of the period, but whose knowledge of composition may be scant or non-existent. Taruskin’s analyses are no doubt interesting to the musically knowledgeable, but for the unenlightened, they are unenlightening pieces of luvvie-ish musical exegesis.

In spite of being published in 2005, the book shows its age. Taruskin is aware of the early-music movement (although rightly excuses any detailed discussion because such things belong to the modern age of musical performance), but seems blissfully ignorant of the revival of neglected and forgotten composers. Corelli is, as far as he is concerned, as occasional amusement for violin students even although a survey of albums of music by Corelli reveals that he is far from neglected. References to the Soviet Union and even Nazi Germany mark out Taruskin as someone whose worldview and thinking belong to a different age.

Another fault, in my view, is the inclusion of occasional references to the US in a book which requires almost no mention of the place whatsoever. It’s another reflection of the parochialism of Americans who often seem to have no conception that they are addressing an international audience and not just a domestic one. In addition, I would have preferred writing that was more objective and more detached.

This is not, therefore, a book I would recommend to anyone who lacks a technical knowledge of music because too much of it will mean little or nothing to general readers. Much of the rest seems to leave large holes (for example, Telemann and Leclair get mentioned in passing), which is understandable because a thorough study of the period would have resulted in a work of monumental proportions.

Appendix 1

While I was reading this book, I was wondering what I wanted in a history of Baroque music. I think that London Baroque, who recorded eight albums of trio sonatas from 17th and 18th century England, France, Germany, and Italy had the right sort of structure to which might be added a half chapters for Spain (name a Baroque Spanish composer; no, I can’t name one either, but I can name several from the Renaissance) and Eastern Europe (because there must’ve been composers who weren’t called Zelenka).

The chapters would not just discuss music in these countries, but also look at them in the context of European culture and the spread of musical ideas. Chapters on music in England would not just be about Purcell and Handel, and ones on Germany would put Telemann back in his place as the real star of the show. Corelli and Leclair wouldn’t just be a couple of violinists who scribbled down some music, just as French music wouldn’t only be Lully, Couperin and Rameau.

Appendix 2

I’ve also been wondering whether much 17th century music should be be classified as something else because it seems to have more in common with the preceding century than it does with the sort of music I think of as typically Baroque. Purcell, for example, may have been composing at the end of the 17th century, but his instrumental music seems antiquated, and I can understand why Charles II preferred something he could tap his foot to. The music, as I’ve noted before, retains a very vocal quality, which is reinforced by the timbre of instruments such as viols and recorders.

Traditionally, 1750 is more or less regarded as the terminus of the Baroque period, followed by the Classical and Romantic periods. There’s no reason why the start of the Baroque period could not be as late as the 1690s, although what the preceding period might be called (Proto-Baroque?), I don’t know.

I also observe that so many so-called Renaissance composers were still around in the early 17th century that the Renaissance period might be extended into the 1620s or so without any undue issues.

There are points in time when things are different. Bach’s sons wrote a distinctly different sort of music, as did Mozart, as did Beethoven to an even greater extent. There is a similar audible gulf between the music of the early 18th century when Bach, Telemann and Handel were hitting their 30s and what preceded it. However, I also recognise that this is a quite complicated matter because the spread of musical ideas across Europe could be slow and even impeded by conservative musical tastes (e.g. Lully in France) so that the Baroque period began in Italy a lot sooner than it did in France and England. At the same time, as I said, there are points where the music of one period sounds different and that is true, I believe, of 17th and 18th century music.

Ikea’s sleepy customers – in pictures | Business | theguardian.com

Ikea’s sleepy customers – in pictures | Business | theguardian.com.

If only this was quite as it seems. In fact, most of the sleeping in Ikea in China tends to be done in the sofa section, which is usually near the entrance. And the Chinese don’t just sleep on them. I’ve also seen women changing babies on the display furniture without the slightest regard for anyone else.

In China, there are two sorts of people – conspicuous consumers, who think nothing of wasting huge amounts of money on, say, overpriced handbags (or products from Ikea), and the rest who may not be that impoverished, but are cheap.

These are the people like the good ol’ boys who used to watch DVDs in the Walmart down 青石路 even although they were never ever going to buy the player or the screen.

These are the people who sit on the banks of chairs in bookshops reading books, but almost certain never buying them.

These are the people who never get the brakes on their electric bikes replaced, but use their feet as brakes instead; and who don’t replace the lights either.

A lot of people don’t have 2角 to rub together, but the culture of parsimony remains widespread in China even among people who don’t need to pinch pennies to that degree.

Since I wrote this this morning, pictures of two bright young female things flaunting copious quantities of cash have been mentioned on line today. One is alleged to have made the money from betting on the World Cup (although isn’t gambling illegal in China?), and the other appears to be some vulgar nouveau riche sporting sums of money beyond most of the rest of the population of the planet yet not above flaunting herself in bra and knickers on a bed heaped with ¥100 notes.

The End of the Current Era

Achievements 3 – Progress 0.

It’s over three and a half years since this year’s A2s started at school. Quite a lot has changed in that time – two permanent CPs, two temporary ones, further expansion of the centre, and an ever-shifting group of teachers. When I look back, it seems like a long time, and yet, paradoxically, the past two years seem to have flown by with proverbially indecent haste. May and exams have suddenly arrived before we’ve had a chance to blink.

This is the first occasion when I’ve mostly taught the same group of students for three years. In the past, I’ve normally declined to deal with the A2 classes.

[H]im on innan oferhygda dæl
weaxeð ond wridað

as the Beowulf poet wrote. But if this year’s classes have one distinction, it is that they were generally far less obnoxious than students in previous years, although A2(1&3) took it upon themselves to stop bothering with my class some time ago.

Normally by the time we get to the final assembly, I notice that my former students seem to look a little older and a little more mature. Not so this time, apart from one or two. What I started with in PAL or gained in AS still looked pretty much the same.

Certainly, I get little sense that my students matured as people. The immature boys were still behaving like infantile 12-year-olds even after three years; the cipher girls were still ciphers, living in terror that I was going to call on them to answer questions and be articulate. While their results were adequate, neither of my classes really seemed to have much spirit.

We had the final assembly for them yesterday, both A2 and IB2. It was the usual affair, which meant that 96% of the entire ceremony was in Chinese and our alleged role in their education was probably largely forgotten. The speeches lasted an hour, which were then followed by the customary audio-visual cacophony. The IB2s’ efforts were pretty decent, but the A2s’ video paled in comparison. I sat watching and every so often, I’d see the face of a student I’d taught for three years and wonder what their name was. The ciphers had already started vanishing from my memory.

I missed out on the handshaking because it got to a point where I needed to go to the loo, and by the time I got back, it was too late for me to worm my way on stage because the process had already started. I didn’t mind, and didn’t feel I’d missed out. As I also predicted, none of my former students sought me out for photos, or even came to say goodbye; but the year is fizzling out as it always does and I’ve been through so many generations of students over the past twelve years that any sense of nostalgia has long been dead and buried.

No, I’m looking ahead to the future, although quite what I’m going to get landed with I don’t know for certain. The original version of the timetable has been scrapped because of changes to the changes, but I may have fewer teaching hours next year. On the other hand, I’ve said I’d be EE co-ordinator, although I’m not sure how much extra work that entails. I suspect it’ll veer between some periods when there’s a lot to be done, and others when there’s only a little.

Now, where’s the end of the term, and can it arrive a little sooner?

Lovely Dragon Boating Weather

Even the ducks have umbrellas.

Today’s forecast was for rain. The forecast was the icon with the big, blobby raindrops, which never bodes well.

There was a little rain last night, but it was mostly dry and overcast this morning. About mid morning, the rain started falling and alternated between light and heavy showers.

By the time I went out, the rain had eased sufficiently for it to be merely bothersome.

My first port of call was China Mobile to put more money on my phone. By the time I left, the rain had almost ceased and was replaced by another problem.

My next destination was Parkson because I wanted to buy another bottle of wine. Big mistake. The traffic along 人民中路 was completely jammed up and I had to squeeze my way past a long line of cars to find somewhere to park.

The traffic was slowly making its way to the next intersection where it was mostly turning left onto 新生路. It’s now possible to go straight ahead, but I’m not sure whether it’s still possible to traverse the next section or it currently remains a dead end. 新生路 is not only unable to cope with that volume of traffic, but the cars were also barely moving. It’s actually quite a busy side street, but is also an utter bottleneck. There’s a car park along there, which is not exactly the best location for one.

I finally arrived at Carrefour with some rain in attendance. I did my shop­ping and departed. The rain was still relatively light, then heavier, then lighter, and just as I reached 远东百货, it became a monsoon.

Every puddle became a pond, every slope became a babbling brook, and all parts of the road were either one or the other.

Why is it that more often than not, the weather worsens when I get near 远东百货? The occasions when it has improved while I’ve been there are fewer and farther between.

More of the same tomorrow according to the forecast, and thus, the Dragon Boat Festival goes down the drain – or would if the drainage was better.

The Plantagenets

By Dan Jones.

The Plantagenets seemed to veer between extremes, either being extremely good at being medieval kings or extremely bad at it. Edward I beat everyone else up; everyone else beat Edward II up.

The family began as Frenchmen who coincidentally ruled England, but often had more pressing concerns on the Continent or in the Middle East (e.g. Richard I); but with the loss of most of their French possessions, they gradually became more English. They were also in the awkward position of being both kings of England and vassals of the French king, which would never have survived such an inherently antagonistic relationship.

It was also a period during which the foundations of some sort of democracy got laid down even although the Magna Carta and Parliament were all about the rights and privileges of the vested interests, and Simon de Montfort, who for some peculiar reason is seen as some champion of democracy, was a.) French and b.) a piggy-eyed, human-rights abusing thug.

And that was another irony of the age. More than one Plantagenet monarch was deposed only to be replaced by a regime (e.g. Isabella and Mortimer) that was just as bad as its predecessor. It was an age of palace coups and frequent civil wars, albeit ones that generally (with the exception of Stephen and Mathilda) didn’t last long.

Jones’s writing is readable and generally maintains a good pace. His summary chapter at the end needed to be tighter and more focused. It waffled and I skipped to the punchline. Another oddity of Jones’s writing, which makes me wonder whether this is the book of the lecture notes, is his tendency to repeat himself at certain points in the narrative. It doesn’t work as a rhetorical device because I’m expecting a continuation of the topic. The effect kept making me think to myself that I’d already read this bit.

I cannot review The Plantagenets as a professional historian, but it is, I think, an interesting read for us amateurs.

Speaking of many things

Lovelace.

In the first half of the film, the 1970s are sexy fun times as Linda Lovelace throws off the shackles of her mother’s oppressive Catholicism, and becomes the poster girl for the sexual revolution.

In the second half of the film, it becomes apparent that it wasn’t sexy fun times at all, and that Lovelace was the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her violent and manipulative husband, Chuck Trainer.

It’s this split approach which makes the film less than satisfying. The whole thing could not be Boogie Nights without being factually inaccurate, but it could be cut in half and turned into some worthy miniseries.


The music industry.

I bought myself an iPod Nano last week partly because I have it in mind to have enough devices on which all my music can be left permanently, and partly because it gives iTunes something to do.

So far I’m very pleased with the iPod. I especially like the earphones which produce decent quality sound and which managed to stay in my ears without being jammed in as is the case with the noise-cancelling Sony ones.

I had thought my days of editing the metadata of sound files were largely over, but it seems I was wrong. I’ve been curious to know how changes made in Windows Media Player, iTunes, Winamp, and mp3tag affect the other programs.

My hypothesis was that whatever change I make in one program should affect how the file is read in all the rest. In reality, they all seem to keep their own counsel. While I prefer using WMP to edit the metadata with new material before I load it into iTunes and Winamp, it seems that the peculiarities of WMP which annoyed me in the first place still remain.

I was trying to correct “Privilege” in Reach the Beach by The Fixx. I may have misspelt the title myself, or it was always that way and I’d never noticed. No matter how many times I corrected it, though, it kept reverting to “Priviledge” in WMP after a second or two until I went into Explorer and moved the entire folder, which seemed to have the desired effect.

I also discovered that right clicking on an album in WMP and selecting “Update album info” caused the entire album to be restored to its original state even although it might’ve been two or three years since that last existed. It also makes me wonder why such information is preserved when it’s either incorrectly presented or completely wrong. In addition, WMP seems to have issues with music ripped using iTunes even although the current version plays m4a files. For reasons I cannot begin to explain, WMP read some tracks, but refused to read others, and even moving folders didn’t wholly correct the issue. (Perhaps there was also a problem with setting iTunes as the default player for m4a files.) Well, at least it was only an experiment.

The behaviour of iTunes is also variable, although it’s not as querulous as WMP. It seems to detect changes made in Winamp and mp3tag (at least sometimes), but also often requires manual updating. It can be quirky in that when I moved some files to a new folder, the album art vanished even although the files were the same as before. (Album art is an odd thing because it may appear in some programs but not in others, and changing it in WMP, for example, doesn’t mean that it’ll change in other programs.) It has advised me on one occasion that about 40 tracks were missing, but this information was volunteered for reasons best known to iTunes. I had to then find the missing files, which included Pachelbel et al. played by The English Concert. Why had iTunes misplaced this particular album? No idea.

Winamp seems to be the most flexible of the media players because it can be told to rescan either the entire Music folder or to reread the metadata in an album. It’s also the most technical, but doesn’t demand a high degree of technical understanding at every turn.

mp3tag is good to a point, but requires every little change to be saved manually, which can be a nuisance.

WMP is mostly all right, but can be temperamental and I don’t like the fact that it seems to retain data that ought to have been overwritten long again. If I’m instructing it to update an album, I mean for it to read the tags in their current state. iTunes seems less temperamental, but could do with options such as telling it a.) to find files which it can no longer find and present them for review, and b.) to have the option to reread the metadata for a whole album rather than individual files. Winamp the least temperamental of all even if it does present a technical face behind. Of course, it shouldn’t matter matter which program I use to edit the metadata of music files because they should reread the data in the Music folder – if not in its entirety each time the program is started, then from the files which comprise the particular albums I’m looking at.

Film reviews Part LXIX

American Hustle.

A couple of con artists are nicked by the FBI and forced to work for them to nick some corrupt politicians. The Mafia gets involved. Things could get very unpleasant, but our heroes manage to wriggle out of trouble and keep everyone happy apart from the FBI.

The film lacked spark, I thought. There were tense moments such as the appearance of Robert de Niro (yes, again) as the potentially über-violent mobster who could speak Arabic, but that was just largely a cameo which resulted in no particular payoff. All mouth and no trousers. No one seemed to be in any real danger and the denouement of the film was not one of those moments when the audience breathes a sigh of relief that the main characters have got away with it.


12 Years a Slave.

Solomon Northup get a job as an itinerant musician, but one night, after imbibing a little too much, he wakes up the following morning to find himself in chains and bound for the slave states where he is called Plat(t) and must hide the fact that he’s an educated freeman. During his time in servitude he witnesses and suffers all manner of barbaric treatment on the plantations, but eventually manages to get a Canadian to get word to people in New York, who rescue him.

Sad to say, Northup never received any justice for his abduction because although he had papers to prove that he was free, the law did not permit him to testify against the men who abducted him. He became an abolitionist and was involved in the underground railway that smuggled slaves to freedom, but the circumstances of his death are wholly unknown.

Not a bad film overall, but it suffered from feeling episodic in that there was this part from the book, that part from the book, and the other part from the book with only a fairly loose connection between them.


Saving Mr. Banks.

P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, proves to be a difficult collaborator during her involvement in the making of the 1964 film because she objects to almost everything about the production. Eventually, Disney mostly wins her over and everyone sings happily ever after.

The story is intercut with scenes from Travers’ childhood when she was Helen Goff, the daughter of an alcoholic bank manager in Australia who died of influenza at the age of 43.

As my subsequent research revealed, this is the Disney version of the making of a Disney film. In reality, much of Saving Mr. Banks is invention. More interesting would have been a biopic of Travers’ life because although she does seem to have had a very prickly personality, she wasn’t exactly conventional, having had a string of boyfriends and a very close, long-term relationship with another woman. She has started out as an actress and won fame and fortune as a writer. Although Travers had no children of her own, she had adopted an Irish boy, Camillus, whose twin brother (passed over by Travers on the recommendations of an astrologer) eventually found him in London. At the premier to which she had not originally been invited, she cried not because she was moved by the film, but rather because she was furious at what it’d done to her books.

But who cares about reality when Tom Hanks is playing Disney’s version of Walt Disney, the genial storyteller rather than the right-wing con­serv­at­ive?


The Butler.

After seeing his dad murdered with impunity, Cecil Gaines decides to leave a life of picking cotton behind him and gets a job in a hotel. He then gets a job in a hotel in Washington where he is headhunted to work as a White House butler, serving eight presidents and finally seeing a black man ascend to the American throne.

The film contrasts Gaines’ subservient role in the White House with events which were affecting black Americans as they fought for equality. One of Gaines’ sons gets involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but another goes to Vietnam and is killed.

Much of the film focuses on the 1960s and early 70s, and is dedicated to the people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Apart from protests against the apartheid regime in South Africa, much of the rest is glossed over.

The film does tend to drag on and I found my interest in it waning. Like other films I’ve been watching recently, this is an American film for Ameri­can audiences.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.

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