Records of War: Film, History and the Art School

Conny Klocker, intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) and PhD candidate at the School of Law writes on a recent screening of 1930s propaganda film. 

As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) was showing two propaganda films about the Italian invasion in Abyssinia in 1935/36 according to a programme first presented at the London Film Society in 1937. One film depicted a Soviet account of the events from the Abyssinians’ perspective, the other from the invaders, the fascist Italian perspective.

The screening itself presented a difficult task for the two projectionists, who were doing a live montage of the films. Having to perform quick changes of 35mm film rolls, to work with two projectors at once, to rewind film rolls to the exact starting point and to turn projectors on ahead of their use to get their motor warmed up over and over again certainly includes complex manoeuvres which they performed brilliantly. In that sense, the Record of War screening could be rather seen as a performance by the two projectionists, not just as a screening.

In 1937, Thorold Dickinson, the director of the programme shown at the London Film Society, saw an opportunity to confront his ‘fashionable Sunday audience’ with a challenging screening programme. The films were shown in dialogue to each other, with one depiction of, for instance the preparations for the war from the Italian side, followed by the war preparations undertaken by the Abyssinians. The chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Italian side followed by their impact on Abyssinian civilians. This direct interaction illustrated the contradicting narratives of the same event. And the audience in 1937 was seemingly not prepared for it. As one of the organisers of this year’s event, Henry K. Miller, pointed out, 1937 was ‘a time when seeing was often equated with believing’. Film material on recent affairs was shown to the public only occasionally, for instance in cinemas before the start of the film screening.

Taking up on this aspect, the reconstruction of the programme in 2017 (the third time that the programme has been shown in this form at all) appears timely. Although seeing does not equate with believing in today’s reality, it is rather a form of seeing but not believing. The sheer amount of film material on current affairs on offer on news portals or sometimes rather flooding one’s social media accounts might well lead to a certain degree of scepticism. Of mistrust or suspicion towards “the media”.

war

However, the challenge presented to the audience in 1937 and the audience today has remained the same. It is a question of making up one’s own mind. Of consciously deciding to take a stand. And that of course, means to defend it if challenged. Today it appears that more and more people do not want to engage with their environment in that sense and most discussions on political issues come to a quick halt after everyone has repeated the most recent one-liners. Anything going further than that is rather considered an annoyance, something people do not want to engage with in their spare time.

The resurgence of such sentiments requires to be challenged. And events such as the Record of War screening can contribute to that aim. Seeing the themes coming up during the invasion of Abyssinia and the way in which they were communicated by fascist as well as Soviet propaganda, one is invited to reflect on the presentation and narration of current affairs. Of the glorious restoration of peace in Abyssinia by the Italians or the struggle for independence of the Abyssinians, trying to fight against foreign occupation and colonisation. Similarly, there are quite a few issues today which are framed in such contradicting, opposing ways by various interest groups. The question here is then, if one decides to take those narratives as presented and to repeat them unfiltered, or, if one decides to question those narratives and to take a stance.

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Soldiers’ homecoming in poetry and prose

This post was written by Bryony Merritt, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern-1821-John Cawse-Copyright-Ownership of Natinoal Army Museum London

John Cawse ‘A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern’ (1821) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The transition from military service to civilian existence has never been easy, as demonstrated in the accounts presented by Dr Kate McLoughlin on the first day of Birkbeck Arts Week 2014. Despite covering a period of over 2000 years, during which methods of warfare have changed beyond recognition, the emotions and experiences of the homecoming soldiers revealed striking similarities.

After the Battle of Waterloo, all veterans of the Battle were awarded a medal, one of which can be seen on the soldier’s uniform in John Cawse’s A Soldier Relating his Exploits in a Tavern (1821), while he proudly expounds upon his heroic feats. Dr McLoughlin drew our attention, however, to the more ambiguous response of his audience, whose demeanour suggests that they are less than enthralled by the soldier’s storytelling.

This kind of scene may be ambivalence towards the heroic status of the returned soldier is captured also by William Wordsworth in The Discharged Soldier. When pressed for stories from the war, the soldier responds with

A strange half-absence and a tone

Of weakness and indifference, as of one

Remembering the importance of his theme

but feeling it no longer

The discharged soldier’s reluctance (or perhaps inability) to share his story, contrasts to the British Government’s 1915 poster, encouraging men to sign up for the army by appealing to their desire to be able to recount their contribution to a future family. The poster shows a little girl asking “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” However, the father’s pensive gaze, to me, suggested he was not about to launch into tales of bravery and heroics. At first glance it seems to me that the poster aims to evoke a feeling of embarrassment at the idea of not having a heroic tale to tell in future. But the artist has unwittingly captured an expression which could be translated as the reluctance of a discharged soldier to brag of his former actions.

Henry Nelson O'Neil 'Home Again' (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

Henry Nelson O’Neil ‘Home Again’ (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The ‘soldier as hero’ can be a difficult role to fill, suggested Dr McLoughlin. On homecoming, soldiers are welcomed as heroes, as depicted in Henry Nelson O’ Neil’s Home Again (1858). However, Henry Metcalfe’s memoirs describe how, following his return from India in 1859, the warm welcome by a “grateful public” was soon forgotten and Thomas Jackson’s memoirs (I missed the date of this publication) describe how he “sees himself as an isolated being”.  The hero of Eric Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) describes how following the reunion with his family he sensed “a veil between us.”

The change which creates this distance between soldiers and the people and places that were previously so familiar to them was so pronounced in some of the accounts that the soldier was not even recognised by his family. Upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca it is only his dog and his former wet nurse who recognise him (and the latter only because of a scar on his leg). Even the wife who has faithfully seen off suitors during his 20-year absence fails to recognise her husband. John Ryder, who published his memoir in 1853, describes how on his return to Twyford he went first to the pub where he met with lifelong acquaintances, and later his father and mother, none of whom recognised him.

The final returning soldier to whom we were introduced was the captain in Helen Ashton’s novel The Captain Comes Home (1947). On learning that his wife has remarried during his long absence during World War Two, the captain returns to his village and assaults her new husband, for which he is put on trial. Identifying the significance of this literary trial, Dr McLoughlin concluded by noting that the weight of expectation on homecoming soldiers throughout history and today means that they all face trials of their own.

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Loose Muse: Four Women Poets

This post was contributed by Emily Best, who will be starting an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck this September.

A week before the Orange Prize winner is announced, the debate rages on about whether there is a “canon” of women writers. Last week in a little room at 43 Gordon Square four lady wordsmiths made their case in favour. Loose Muse is a collective run by Agnes Meadows and runs London’s only all-female writing open mic night at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. It’s not just poetry: women writers of all genres and experience can take part. Last week’s event was a showcase for some of the finest she-poets in the capital to showcase their work amongst a small audience, discuss their poetry and open up the floor.

The event opened with Kate McLoughlin, whose poetry collections Plums is a response to William Carlos Williams’ great American fridge-note-poem This is Just to Say. Kate’s fifty-eight variations on a reply to Williams, which also allude to Picasso’s reimagining of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, explore the variances and nuances of domestic interaction. Kate moves beautifully and sensitively from flippant to epic, on occasion nearing parody, engaging wholly with Williams’ poem (and in turn addressing the critical tradition that surrounds it) but at the same time reclaiming what Williams leaves unsaid and open-ended. I couldn’t help thinking as I listened, is that what these women are doing? What so many people do? Establishing a new tradition; a new canon; picking up where others have left off.

Following Kate was Agnes Meadows herself. I immediately warmed to Agnes – a force of energy in the room, inspiring and welcoming. As she talked of Poetry Café and the work of Loose Muse I knew that in front of me was a woman genuinely committed to the promotion of women poets. I was very happy to discover that her poetry had the same enthusiasm as she did for the project. Reading from  At Damascus Gate on Good Friday, This One is for You and Woman, Agnes went from recounting the fear of sleeping through bombs in Palestine in They’re Bombing the Port again at Gaza to the pain of watching a sibling get your man in Juliet’s Sister. The passion and sensitivity in these poems tell of a woman who has lived and of a poet who feels and writes to the tips of her fingers.

In a complete change of pace, Sally Blackmore came next. Sally had to give up work five years ago and, wanting to use the time usefully, started writing and painting and took a creative writing course at the Open University. Her son, who is in the army, recently got sent to Afghanistan and Sally found that her new-found gift provided a tool for dealing with this. To begin with, I couldn’t believe that Sally had only been writing for five years. The first poem she read, Soldier, had a bittersweet wariness and grace to it that seemed borne of a mind that had always worked in verse. Here was a woman who took pain and fear in her hand like a proverbial nettle and refigured them as something good.

The final poet on the bill was Camilla Reeve. Again, Camilla brought a different energy to the room. Though Camilla has an aura of earnest seriousness about her, her poetry had a lyrical, tender and humorous quality that reminded me a little of Jake Thackray. Where Kate had acrobatic wit and Agnes had exuberance Camilla, like Sally, had contained dignity. Winter Angel was a particular favourite and, on further research, I discovered Dark Bird Turning and fell a little bit in love. Camilla’s poetry concerns itself with trajectories of emotion and the rudiments of relationships between people and places and things. It is entirely and only what it needs to be.

In a nice epilogue to the event, the floor opened up to poets in the audience. Somewhat ironically the two volunteers were both men and I was intrigued to see how this would work. Criton Tomazos read some extracts of what he announced to be nonsense poetry – Unspecified Space-Time was my favourite – playful, witty and at once hesitant and determined in a style reminiscent of Cummings. Criton was followed by Marcin Gozdzik who writes all his poems on a smartphone, each one lasting precisely the length of his tube journey. In his poems that seemed to concern themselves mostly with his being a bad boyfriend, Marcin was affectionate and self-effacing with a detached irony. These two gentlemen, bravely standing in a room of confident women poets whose womanliness defined their union, proved that there is a voice to be welcomed no matter how many chromosomes you have. More importantly though, they demonstrated what the four women proved, each in their own way – every voice is there to be reclaimed and used as necessary and at a time when women are still fighting for those voices, reclamation is as important as ever.

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WAR-net meeting

This post was contributed by Kate McLoughlin of the Department of English and Humanities.

On 9 March 2012, I organised the fourth biannual WAR-Net meeting at Birkbeck. The meeting was a showcase of members’ interests. Papers ranged from Virtual Iraq to the comedy of war in eighteenth-century novels and prints. Panels covered Holocaust representation, the First World War, the Second World War, visual representation and gender. 

The opening keynote, by Professor Debra Kelly of the University of Westminster, was a fascinating exploration of the Free French presence in Second World War London, a presentation that resonated with many of the French delegates to the conference.

Professor Mary Favret closed proceedings with a keynote on wartime Britain’s Fast and Humiliation, a thought-provoking presentation on an eighteenth-century practice now most closely mirrored by the twenty-first-century apology. 

You can download speakers’ abstracts and listen to podcasts of the keynote talks on the WAR-Net webpages.

 

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