Truth stranger than fiction

It seems to me that many of the events of last year would have been rejected as a scenario for a film if they had been put forward the year before.

With hindsight we know that Britain would vote to leave the European Union in the so-called “Brexit” and that Donald Trump (yes Donald Trump!!) would become the 45th President of the United States.

In the last two days I have watched a film called “The Primary Instinct” which was made in 2015. The film is a one-man show, really a long ambling true set of stories taken from the life of the protagonist, Stephen Tobolowsky.

Tobolowsky is a veteran character actor who freely admits to having appeared in about a quarter of all films made in Hollywood over the last forty years (or at least he says  it feels like that). He is also a great storyteller. The important point though is that all his stories are true, always based upon events in his life. He lives by the maxim “truth trumps fiction”.

The joy of Tobolowsky is that he is able to ramble down what look to all the world like blind alleys and then hit you with a powerful point that has been made by the story. It is homespun philosophy that can make you cry. He talks about his father’s blindness and his mother’s Alzheimer’s. He tells you about an incident that happened as a child that would have a powerful implication to an event that happened much later in his life. He talks about his mother attending his Hollywood house in the midst of a drunken, drug taking near orgy and making a point that put all of the events into perspective.

Like all great storytelling it takes you on a journey and you feel compelled to follow it until the end.

It made me wonder though at the power of truth over fiction. As I said at the beginning of this post, who would have believed the events of 2016 if it would have been written down in 2015? Here’s another one for you. I am sitting in a room in Los Angeles in late 2000 at a large film studio. A writer comes in with a scenario for a film.

The film is about a group of fanatical Moslem extremists who would hijack planes and fly them into the famous twin towers of the World Trade Building in New York and also attempt to crash into the Pentagon in Washington.

The long suffering script reader would have a short answer…. I don’t need to tell you what that would have been.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. We live in very strange and frightening times. I cannot really conceive of where we are heading but past experience tells me that whatever I forecast will be miles away from what transpires!

One Small Voice

Last Saturday thousands and thousands  of people from all over the World marched in protest against the threat to women’s rights and indeed human  rights with the election of Donald Trump to 45th President of the United States.

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Carole King took part in a small march in her home town in Idaho. She held a placard about marching for human rights and a smaller notice that simply said “One Small Voice”.

This was the title of the song that she had written years earlier and never recorded. The words are self-explanatory.

One Small Voice
Words and Music by Carole King

The Emperor’s got no clothes on
No clothes? That can’t be; he’s the Emperor
Take that child away
Don’t let the people hear the words he has to say

One small voice
Speaking out in honesty
Silenced, but not for long
One small voice speaking with the values
we were taught as children

So you walk away and say, Isn’t he divine?
Don’t those clothes look fine on the Emperor?
And as you take your leave
You wonder why you’re feeling so ill-at-ease
Don’t you know?

Lies take your soul
You can’t hide from yourself
Lies take their toll on you
And everyone else

One small voice speaking out in honesty
Silenced, but not for long
One small voice speaking with the values
we were taught as children
Tell the truth
You can change the world
But you’d better be strong

The Emperor’s got no clothes on, no clothes
He doesn’t want to know what goes on,
though everyone knows
One small voice: The Emperor’s got no clothes on
One small voice: The Emperor’s got no clothes on

One small voice can change the world
But you’d better be strong

She later wrote a letter to the Huffington Post and stated:

I wrote the words and music for the song “One Small Voice” in 1982.  More than two decades later I re-recorded it because I wanted a version without synthesizers. I had forgotten about the second recording until January 20, 2017.

On January 21, 2017 men, women, and children of all ages with a variety of political views marched peacefully in “Women’s Marches” on seven continents around the world. I marched in a snowstorm in Stanley, Idaho (pop. 63) with 29 other people comprising half the town. I carried a handmade sign that said “One Small Voice” because I’ve never stopped believing that one small voice plus millions of other small voices is exactly how we change the world.

I’m making the updated recording of “One Small Voice” available to everyone because it will take the strength and persistence of many small voices to overcome the lies of the loudest voice with our message of truth, dignity, and decency.

I loved the idea behind the song and believe that the “small voice” of reason is maybe drowned at the moment by the cacophony of hatred, bigotry and despair but maybe it can become louder and louder in the future. It is all any of us can hope for.

The joy of competing

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The lady in this picture is Dawn Nisbet from Oldham who had just competed in the Oldham Parks 5K run. She was last and came in ten minutes from the runner in front of her. The man behind her is a park-keeper who was tidying up so as to prepare the park for public use after the race.

The sheer joy on Dawn’s face at having finished the race became something of a minor internet sensation. I first heard about her endeavours on Radio 5’s late night show with Phil Williams.

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The thing that came out of the conversation was the sheer joy that she has in running. She said that she was always on the large size and suffered from bullying and jibes about her size. Her size created a downward spiral of feeling that she was too embarrassed to go to a gym or run in public. The lack of exercise led to a “couch potato” existence that meant she went upwards and upwards in weight.

She married and had two children and a couple of years ago she decided that she wanted to stay healthy and have as long a life as possible for them. She took the first tentative steps to jogging a few yards.

For those of us who have trodden the same path and that includes me, the first few steps are the most difficult. I got into running after watching my youngest brother compete in the London Marathon. I stood by a wall in Docklands and watched thousands of people run by me of all ages, sizes and state of fitness and I felt ashamed that I never really did any form of regular exercise.

Within a few days I was attempting to jog around the block in the village where I lived at that time. It felt like a marathon! I felt like I was going to collapse and I got home panting and realising that I had made a start but had a long long way to go.

Over the next few years I competed in 5K, 10K, half-marathons (including the Great North Run) and eventually in 1991 and 1992 I competed in two successive London Marathons.

I have to say that it was not easy by any means but is probably the events that I am most proud of in my lifetime.

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As you can see from the picture above my second marathon was run in 4 hours 26 minutes and 36 seconds. I was not first and I was not last. I collected money for charities in both races. I was exhausted at the end. I could hardly walk up the stairs to get to a train to collect my clothing. But it was so so worth it.

In the process of running I stumbled many times, grazed my leg, had to have a tetanus injection, hurt my arm, leg and shoulder. I ran in pouring rain and people stared at me as if I were completely mad! (it helps).

The highs though of finishing and achieving your aim of competing makes it all worthwhile. I also lost weight and became the fittest I have been at any time in my life.

I applaud anyone like Dawn who is willing to take the first difficult steps. I understood only too well the sheer joy that can be seen in her photo at the end of the Oldham 10K and look forward to seeing her photo when she completes her London or New York Marathon.

What the National Health Service means to me

What does the National Health Service mean to you?

In this video patients and staff in Wales state what the NHS means to them. It was filmed to celebrate the 68th birthday of the service. On 5 July 1948, at the Park Hospital (now known as Trafford General Hospital) in Manchester, Aneurin Bevan unveiled the National Health Service and stated, “We now have the moral leadership of the world”.

Bevan had to fight Doctor’s opposition to the service and skilfully offered the doctors and consultants incentives to get them to agree. It came into the world kicking and screaming but it was a fledgling organisation that was to make its mark on the country and indeed, as Bevan had predicted, on the world.

This morning I used the Catch-Up service on my television to view a documentary called “Call the Midwife, The Casebook”.

Cal the Midwife Casebook

This was presented by the actor Stephen McGann who plays Dr Patrick Turner in the excellent series “Call The Midwife” based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth of her time as a midwife in a catholic mission in Poplar in London’s East End in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

In this documentary McGann does not just look into midwifery, which in itself was an interesting subject that was covered, but also gives the background to the pre-NHS healthcare system (which was a mixture of charity and private organisations and individuals). He talks to the first baby born under the NHS (at just after midnight on the 5th July 1948, Aneira Thomas (named after Aneurin Bevan!)  at  (fittingly) Amman Valley Hospital, Carmarthenshire in Wales.

She told  of her grandfather, who had an accident whilst working as a miner and was operated on, without anaesthetic, on their kitchen table. To pay for the operation the family had to sell the only valuable possession they had, a piano.

Ms Thomas said that she was so proud of the NHS because it had given everybody the right to medical support, free-of-charge. The years of having to avoid any treatment because you couldn’t afford it were over. It meant that anybody, whatever their means had a right to treatment.

I was born in 1953 and according to a Labour Party site I was able to find the following

birth

Over the years I have had free injections, a free hospital stay for my  one one and only operation the removal of my tonsils and adenoids, free health checks, dentistry (until I was a working adult) and now that I’m over 60 I get free medication.

My family has been covered by the NHS in so many different ways  and two of my cousins became nurses in the system. Like so many in the Call the Midwife  documentary and in the 68th birthday video I am immensely proud of the NHS and feel so fortunate to have grown up with it as a part of my life.

Unfortunately, the service has been under severe stress due to continuous cuts by successive governments. Many of the facilities are now privatised and this last year has seen doctors and nurses taking to industrial action to defend the service and their future within it.

Like Stephen McGann the NHS means so much to me. It is something that,as a nation we can be really really proud. It is something to fight for and preserve.

What does the NHS mean to you?

The Displaced Persons Orchestra

After the Second World War, the western Allies established Displaced Persons camps in the Allied-occupied zones of Germany, Austria and Italy.

The first inhabitants of these camps were concentration camp survivors who had been liberated by the Allies on German soil.  Conditions in these camps, especially at the beginning, were very difficult. Many of the camps were former concentration camps and German army camps. Survivors found themselves still living behind barbed wire, still subsisting on inadequate amounts of food and still suffering from shortages of clothing, medicine and supplies.

In the midst of these difficult conditions and with undernourished victims who had witnessed events that would have traumatized anybody, amazingly, a number of the survivors were able to use their talents as actors, singers and musicians to entertain their fellow camp –dwellers.

A number of famous or soon to be famous  musicians appeared in concerts given  by these orchestras (for example):

On MAY 10, 1948, a young Leonard Bernstein, invited to conduct in Munich, travelled to the nearby Landsberg and Feldafing Displaced Persons camps to perform Rhapsody in Blue with an orchestra of 17 musicians. These musicians were all survivors of Nazi internment at St. Ottilien, and for three years — from 1945 through 1948 — they travelled by bus all over Bavaria, wearing their striped concentration camp uniforms, and performed some 200 concerts at 100 Displaced Persons camps.

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The St. Ottilien Displaced Persons Orchestra performed in their concentration camp clothes as can be seen from the picture of the violinist above. They used these clothes for every performance that they gave between 1945 and 1948.

In June 2007 in New York City a documentary about the St. Ottilien Orchestra premiered. A section of it can be seen here.

The story of the art, music and drama produced by the Displaced Persons Camps is nothing less than the triumph of  humanity over horrific events. It is an inspiring story which more people should know about. I hope in my own small way that I have contributed to this aim.

Teaching hate

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This morning I watched the BBC Programme “Antiques Roadshow: Holocaust Special”. I cannot improve on the following Tweet by the comedian David Baddiel

 

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It was superbly done with Holocaust survivors and their descendants showing artefacts that had been kept from that horrible experience. It reminded me so much of my visit to Israel in 2002. I visited Yad Vashem with a coach full of tourists and we walked around the many displays showing the most horrific pictures, films and explanations about the death camps and the “Final Solution” but it was the artefacts, the gold stars, the child’s shoe the striped pyjamas, that grabbed you and had the most emotional impact.

I remember that I had been told about the one child’s shoe that represented all of the 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, I steeled myself not to break down when I saw that exhibit and I just about managed it. Then I walked outside and saw a tree that had the simple legend: “To the people of Denmark” and I broke down!

Artefacts are powerful. They say so much more than words ever can. They have the power to move you, to make you think. I suppose it is why museums have always been such important places for learning and have played such an important part in my life.

In this programme there were rings, jewellery made in Belsen, old photographs of people who perished in the camps, a pair of striped pyjama trousers worn by one of the inmates, but the most surprising artefact to me was a board game.

The board game came from Germany and was intended for commercial sale. It is a game where you round up Jews and win if you manage to get six of them in a detention centre (a corner of the board) where they are taken to another part of the board for expulsion to Palestine!

This game can be seen in the second photograph above. It left the presenter of the programme Fiona Bruce, temporarily speechless. It shows the extent to which hatred became a part of the culture and indeed it left me thinking about the role of education in “brainwashing” young German children in the Nazi era.

I found a superb lesson plan from the excellent “Facing History and Ourselves” website. The lesson plan looks at “Life for German Youth in the 1930’s “with the subtitle: “Education, propaganda, conformity and obedience”.

There were some  excellent insights in the lesson plan into the role of education in Nazi Germany. An example is:

German school teachers and university professors were not Hitler’s adversaries. . . . Quite the opposite; the teaching profession proved one of the most reliable segments of the population as far as National Socialism was concerned. Throughout the Weimar era, Germany’s educational establishment, continuing its long authoritarian tradition, remained unreconciled to democracy and nationalism. Once in power, the Nazis expunged dissenting instructors, but there were not many. On the other hand, at least two leading Nazis, the rabid antisemites Heinrich Himmler and Julius Streicher, had formerly been teachers. Eventually more than 30% of the top Nazi Party leadership came from that background. Teachers, especially from elementary schools, were by far the largest professional group represented in the party. Altogether almost 97% of them belonged to the Nazi Teachers’ Association, and more than 30% of that number were members of the Nazi Party itself. From such instructors, German boys and girls learned what the Nazis wanted them to know. Hatred of Jews was central in that curriculum.5

I feel that the last sentence is the most telling sentence is the last one. Hatred of Jews was central in that curriculum. It made me think about the curriculums taught in Apartheid South Africa, in the southern States of America. How can teachers live with themselves teaching, literally teaching hate?

If you haven’t seen the programme I strongly recommend that you do. Maybe you will stop and think just as Fiona Bruce did when you get to the board-game  part.

A tale of two Presidents

This post is written just a few days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.

In the past few days there has been a number of articles focussing on the outgoing 44th  President Barack Obama. One of the most interesting of these was “Obama’s secret to surviving the White House Years: books”.

Obama is a keen reader and has made sure that he has read books regularly in his two terms as President. He has been a champion of independent bookstores and has regularly issued a summer reading list of his favourite books.

This contrasts greatly with the incoming President who,as far as anyone can make out, does not read books!

Now this difference in the characters of the two men would perhaps not seem to be the major difference that people may concern themselves with but I feel that it says so much about the kind of men that they both are.

Despite the failings of the promise of the Obama years, Obama himself has always come across as a humane person who is very concerned about the plight of the less fortunate in society and is aware of the massive divisions caused by race and religious bigotry in his country. He has championed the idea of empathy in respect of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and walking around in them” (to quote Atticus Finch in my favourite book “To Kill A Mockingbird”).

He has said that he learns from books and loves novels as much as non-fiction. Having done some research into the reading habits of past Presidents I found that many of them enjoyed reading a book in their spare time, even George  W. Bush!

This contrasts greatly with the incoming President. The fact that he admits that he does not read books says so much about him. He does not come across as someone who has developed any type of empathy. His reading material is limited to memos, business reports and a lot of Tweets!

Reading fiction and non-fiction changes us in subtle ways. It allows us to see someone else’s point-of-view. Reading as widely as possible is an education in itself.

I worry about someone taking over as the leader of the world’s most powerful nation who seems to glory in not reading books. This aspect of his personality says so much about his narrow point-of-view, his lack of understanding about what it feels like to be poor, powerless and without hope. His male chauvinism, attitude to minorities, and towards those of a different sexual persuasion.

The problem for us all is that he will be the President and his White House will be a very different place with very different attitudes to the literate place that it has been for the last eight years.