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Inside the Zone of Alienation

7 August 2017

The mini bus for the organised tour that you had to take for a visit to Chernobyl was easy to spot in Maydan. This was plastered with radioactive warning signs and the guide was wearing a tee shirt with Chernobyl Hard Rock Café on the front and a list of the chemicals which followed the nuclear fire on the back. Like the ingredients for a Sex on the Beach in Benidorm but marginally more ominous. Plutonium, Strontium and that sort of thing.  

Some of our travelling companions and Hans Blix wannabees were busy hiring Geiger counters. Of course this is all meant to ramp up the excitement and make us feel dangerous. On the bus it was stories of foreign adventures which culminated in the travel trump card of someone maintaining they were going to try to get to the frontline in Iraq to finish their tour. Literally maybe?

After the two-hour drive north from Kiev to near the border with Belarus we got off the bus at the security post before the 30-kilometre exclusion zone and told not to take photographs. For the generation that something hasn’t happened unless it is photographed this proved too much of a temptation but luckily the guards didn’t seem to be taking an awful lot of notice. While we were waiting we liberally doused ourselves in the insect repellent designed to combat the sort of things which prosper in an area which has been left to overgrow for over thirty years. Now it either doesn’t work or I was too bothered about ruining my clothes as I ended up with a bite which looked like it was going to envelop my arm a couple of days later.

As we entered the zone my what seemed a morally dubious first thought was articulated by the man in front who made the observation that it felt like being in an episode of “The Walking Dead”. I would have said Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” but that is because I am pretentious. After this the first stop at one of the 200 villages which were evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster was sobering. Walking along a narrow path through dense foliage to a deserted house the sight of everyday items such as cooking utensils and discarded comic books undoubtedly haunting.

Outside one house was the rotting carcass of a Soviet era car which its owner would have waited on a two-year long list to acquire before being given 36 hours to leave it in April 1986. Inside what seemed like a village hall was a slogan extolling the delights of the command economy that roughly translated as “Let the Communists live for the future of humanity”. At this point the Geiger counters may have remained stable but the irony meter spun off the scale. Nevertheless it was people’s homes and about 1,000 mostly elderly “self-settlers” returned illegally but with the authorities turning something of a blind eye as one lady lived here until she died in 2015.      

Any idea to dash off a film script was completely extinguished by the when in the Ukraine moment of a trailer for “The Chernobyl Diaries” being played on the bus. Written by Onen Peli from “Paranormal Activity” the premise was that a group of twenty somethings on trips not dissimilar to the ones on our bus got stuck on theirs during an ill judged bout of “extreme tourism”. Following this the “liquidators” who had become radioactive zombie like creatures while averting a second blast which would have dwarfed Hiroshima finished them off in a way which would have clashed with many westerner’s notion of good taste.

Initially helicopter pilots from the war in Afghanistan flew over Reactor 4 while sand bags were dropped into it and thousands of miners dug underneath it in an attempt to create a cooling area. Other people worked in 45 second bursts clearing rubble or burying trees and houses in ditches before many died predictably horrible deaths shortly afterwards. Having dinner in what may have been the staff canteen I wondered what would have been my view of a group of tourists sat eating a three course meal. These are now mostly people who maintain aspects of an enormous dome that was wheeled into place over the original ramshackle construction last year and is forecast to contain contamination for about 100 of the 24,000 years the area has been declared to be radioactive for. There are limits on the hours these people can work but in reality the Americans on our trip will have been exposed to more radiation on their flight to Europe than on today’s tour. Areas were things have been buried produce “hot spots” but even the spectacularly titled “Death Claw” used for dropping things from the helicopters only caused a small spike in radiation levels.

Inside the 10-kilometre zone and after a cursory look at the new construction with some more photography flouting it was time for the town of Pripyat which was built in 1970 to house the workers and families of the power plant. Deemed a triumph of Soviet urban planning its flats and leisure facilities an anomaly Communist regimes are fond of escorting visiting dignitaries to. Having now gone to seed in spectacular fashion it was a mini bus of rubber neckers who because of the decay were not supposed to go inside the buildings anymore. We were even given a code word to alert each other if we spotted any officialdom: the thought of a flustered back packers shout of “Cheese Burger” echoing around the derelict Olympic sized swimming pool seeming like it might be worth a night in the Gulag. All that really seemed out of bounds was the hospital and possible bad taste destination too far where fire fighter’s clothes had been locked in a basement which had been broken into and was now consequently the most radioactive building in Pripyat outside of the reactor.

The tour seemed to be building to the show stopper which is the amusement park that has ironically become most synonymous with Pripyat and all the more poignant by the inauguration of the Ferris Wheel due on the May Day a few days after the disaster happened. Other particularly striking sights were the most distressing football ground this side of Elland Road and a previously uncharacteristically fully stocked Soviet era supermarket which looked like George Romero had forgotten to lock up after “Dawn of the Dead”.

If it’s not too ridiculous to judge “The Chernobyl Diaries” on an aesthetic level combining some stock Chernobyl footage with film of empty flats near woods in Hungary and Serbia unsurprisingly fails miserably in conjuring up anything like the reality of what could be seen as a triumph of nature. The return of animals to the area has seen wolves and pigs returned in the absence of humans while introducing wild horses in a bid to keep the grass down has clearly proved less of a success. In the aftermath of the explosion dogs were shot to prevent contamination and in “The Chernobyl Diaries” they tore tourists apart. Today in Pripyat perfectly placid dogs follow humans in the hope of food in much the same manner as anywhere else.  You will also not encounter the rampaging bear in the film as they probably only inhabit the Belarussian side of the exclusion zone but a large mural of one has been handily depicted on the side of a derelict building to keep visitors happy.

In the Ukraine the desecration of statues of Lenin in imaginative ways has an artistic element but in Chernobyl he remains completely intact and without comedy clothing to be eternally taunted by the mess they feel he started. The secrecy which characterised the Soviet Union being manifest in initial denials of the incident which was then seen as part of the dysfunctional system used by Gorbachev to highlight the need for reform. Back in Moscow he claimed he was told the reactor had been made safe enough to be put in Red Square. That must have seemed quite appealing over here as the guide directed my gaze towards what turned out to be a ballot box just inside a doorway and said it was the “most useless thing in the Soviet Union”. Its position did seem a little staged but with comic delivery this deadpan I wasn’t about to object.

After walking through what felt like something from a Dan Dare comic that was supposedly monitoring our contamination levels there was a video from a nu metal band who did seem to have been let loose in Pripyat on the bus. As we got off back in Kiev our top notch guide said with a wry grin “that we will see you after the next disaster” which bearing in mind the country is currently at war with Russia shows you how high the bar is here. Meanwhile me and the gang had already agreed to message each other about a reunion stride around Fukushima.

War, what is it good for?

28 January 2017

Films and tourism it seems. Whether either act as some sort of warning from history or simply provide vicarious thrills for the sort of men who cannot watch enough documentaries about Hitler I’m not sure. The Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies exhibition at the Imperial War Museum was never going to resolve this but it might have proved tempting enough to get him out of his chair.  

Establishing my credentials early on was the thrill of seeing manic GI’s in battle scarred Vietnam being complimented by the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” on the soundtrack. That Stanley Kubrick’s fear of flying meant he shot much of “Full Metal Jacket” in East London’s Beckton Gasworks only adding to the sense of wonder. It might also be difficult to reconcile principle to the tailor made trench coat displayed impressively here and worn by Clark Gable when he turned up for the Second World War.

Uncomplicated by any ethical considerations was the enjoyment derived from the 1941 Ministry of Information film “Hoch Der Lambeth Valk”. This combination of cockney knees up music with cut up footage of goose stepping Nazis in a way that is reminiscent of computer generated footage today ridicules Hitler and his fascist automatons in excellent fashion. Watching it in a museum in Lambeth and knowing cinema audiences of the time would wait for it to come around again even more strangely satisfying.   

The exhibition itself was timed to coincide with the War Office “The Battle of the Somme” footage which was watched twenty million times in six weeks during 1916 but it is perhaps the general change in tone during the hundred years it examines that is most illuminating. Somewhere around the midpoint of this period saw the gung-ho superseded by the nuanced. In America the involvement in Vietnam may have delayed this for a few years but Britain’s decline of empire slowly allowed for something more challenging.

Two films which were made only five years apart by David Lean and feature prominently in the exhibition illustrate this. It was maybe just too soon as 1957’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” descends into an entertaining enough adventure romp that reflected little of the savagery of the conflict it was set in. Based on a fictional novel the plot entails British prisoners of war building a stretch of what became known as the Death Railway from Bangkok to Burma during World War Two. At the centre the struggle between two men hidebound by convention. The Japanese Colonel Saito played by Sessue Hayakawa charged with getting a railway bridge built and Alex Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson eventually agreeing to help in order to demonstrate British engineering prowess.

The tourist industry which has grown up around the international success of the film is fittingly if depressingly deceptive. There are thoughtful memorials to war but this isn’t one of them.  People arriving in Thailand wanted “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and the town of Kanchanaburi obliged in 1960 by changing the name of a stretch of river nearby to Kwae Yai or greater tributary. With mini railway rides over a metal bridge which doesn’t even resemble its own World War Two self the area around it feels like a particularly tawdry theme park.  During the war the town ended 5 kilometres away from the POW Camp which is now the site of the car park for the market. With business dependant on it questioning the validity of all this produces some very defensive locals.

Unsurprisingly what Lean describes in a letter at the Imperial War Museum as “cardboard cut outs” satisfied nobody involved either. Australians who were forced to work on the railway and overlooked by the film found it becoming emblematic of their experience offensive. There was also no mention of what Commonwealth troops were doing in this part of Asia in the first place. After Lean orchestrated multiple cameras for the one off and entirely fictitious blowing up of the bridge the film had to be transported back to London by air rather than boat due to the Suez crisis. To many this Christmas viewing staple would have been better off left on the tarmac in Cairo where it was rediscovered after being lost for a week.   

By 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” Lean was tasking Peter O’Toole with crossing the canal to tell the British Army about an Arab victory against Turkey in the First World War. On arrival in Cairo his Bedouin companion is referred to as “wog” by officers straight from a malevolent “Blackadder” before British High Command tell Lawrence to lead a guerrilla army in a fight for an Arab homeland in Palestine after the war. O’Toole is memorably referred to as an “offstage roisterer” in an article from the museum but it is the machinations of Empire which provides the back drop to his most famous role. That and sand.   

Rather than a clichéd English eccentric the portrayal of Lawrence allows for something much more enigmatic. Sometimes corresponding more closely with Lawrence’s memoirs than historical fact major events from the inspiring declaration that “Nothing is written” to his participation in the massacre of Turkish soldiers on the way to Damascus are present and correct. This multi-faceted man on the verge of madness may have put film makers off in earlier decades but it was the psychological warfare of a British Government which had already agreed with the French on how to divide the Middle East which may have proved his and earlier attempts undoing.

After portraying the Arab Chieftain Prince Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia” Alex Guinness took centre stage again in 1973’s “Hitler: The Last Ten days”. At the Museum his relief at the conclusion of filming is captured by a diary entry in which he describes himself as feeling “extravagant and light headed” when he removed the moustache and need to try and occupy the character of Hitler.  

America’s move towards more introspection in war films is represented by story boards from “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter flight and the “Dealers in Death” playing cards which were left on their victims in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now”. Visitors to the Saigon area of Vietnam can easily visit the Cu Chi tunnels that the Viet Cong used to stage surprise attacks from. If the ever expanding western waistline makes it through a specially enlarged tunnel real Movies4Men aficionados can pay by the bullet to fire an AK47.  

There was no Wagner but the playing cards and a section on film music which featured the theme from “The Dam Busters” in the museum reminded me how elements were co-opted by the football fan experience of the eighties. At the other end of the spectrum and also represented here is protest musical “Oh! What a Lovely War”. Enduring a school production of this in a brand new comprehensive now seeming like something from a bygone golden age of education.

The stylised depiction of the quest to find Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” and the insanity which surrounds it felt like an acknowledgement of the futility of conventional attempts to portray the horror of war. By 1998 Steven Spielberg was trying to show D-Day as realistically as possible in “Saving Private Ryan”. The start of the film being run alongside actual footage from the landings at the exhibition.

One appeal of war to story tellers like Spielberg is the way the protagonist learns about his new world. Discovering the situation in a different country alongside the viewer clears away the need for exposition and inherently provides a vehicle for drama. As flickering images of war becomes the war the portrayal of it in a heroic light will become increasingly difficult.  Here the debate about whether it is possible to make an anti-war film which doesn’t excite the viewer may reach a bloody resolution.

The 2016 film about drone warfare “Eye in the Sky” brings the century to a close at the Imperial War Museum. With this and the likes of WikiLeaks footage of air strikes in the Middle East the circle is complete.  From the dim witted big game hunting of Prince Harry comparing his killing of people to a computer game and drone warfare conducted from a building on the outskirts of Las Vegas the new armchair warrior is doing it for real.

The National Picture Theatre

8 April 2016

On the night of the 18th March 1941 the National Picture Theatre on Beverley Road was one of many theatres bombed in Hull during the Blitz. Taking refuge in the strengthened foyer or on the back rows under the balcony all of the 150 patrons escaped unhurt whilst the the area behind it was completely destroyed by a parachute mine. Being an easy target for the Luftwaffe in terms of location and defence this has almost passed unnoticed in the history of a “north eastern coastal town” which was attacked from the beginning to the end of the war and saw only 5,945 of 92,660 thousand houses escape bomb damage.

The bombing of Coventry is symbolised by crosses formed from melted roof nails sent around the world whilst in Hamburg the remains of the St Nikolai church tower is visible throughout much of the city. Drinking in the next door Swan Pub I was only dimly aware of the Theatre's facade distinguishing it from the many bomb sites that had littered Hull. It is however the theatre's status as the only remaining civilian rather than church or military bomb damaged building in Britain and the apposite nature of the film that had been showing when the curtain came down which is remarkable.

As a result 75 years after the bombing and a fund raising rerun of “The Great Dictator” at a sold out Kardomah94 I am meeting with The National Civilian World War Two Memorial Trust to discuss their aims. Having started in 1999 you cannot fail to be impressed by the commitment of founder member Tom Robinson and secretary Alan Canvess. As Tom puts it is to turn the remnants of the theatre into “ a place of education about the home front and how ordinary men, women and children were affected by the war” but while it's primary focus will be to honour Hull's civilian war dead it was good to hear a vision of a forward looking space prepared to consider the global impact of war on non combatants.

Unfortunately this couldn't be more timely in the face of the greatest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War and the prospect of forging links with the diverse population of the Beverley Road area is something the Trust would be keen to see. To this end a role as community hub or catalyst in the much needed regeneration of the area is possible. Alan feels all manner of period yet contemporary uses are up for discussion: “Growing your own veg, making clothes or an outdoor cinema as people are learning about these things now”.

It is even more apt to have these plans for the National Picture House as cinema played a pivotal role in the war as a source of news and morale raising entertainment. “The Great Dictator” auteur Charlie Chaplin was aware of the anti semitism in Europe and based his mockery of Hitler on the propaganda film “Triumph Of The Will”. Finding the fact he was born four days apart from Hitler in 1889 disquieting he nevertheless used his physical similarities to great effect. Described with characteristic stupidity by the Nazis as as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” because his Little Tramp character fitted their racial profiling Chaplin's riposte went on to be his most commercially successful film with attendance figures of nine million people in British cinemas.

Now with the Council ready to use a Compulsory Purchase Order to buy the site sometime this year the Trust is readying itself for a big push. As Alan describes it they “need to see we can raise money” for the running costs whilst a “youthful input to take it forward with history qualifications or an interest in the the Second World War” to help facilitate the events and education is required.

Hitler is rumoured to have seen the film twice and whilst his reaction was not recorded the synchronicity of possibly the two most well known people in the world coming together in a street in Hull helps the story hang together. The real story is though that while Hitler may have won the battle and Chaplin had the last laugh it was the people of Hull with their humour and resilience who helped to win the war.

 

If you want to join the Trust, make a donation or get involved as a volunteer please consult the Trust website

www.ncww2mt(_AT_)freewebspace.com
or contact Alan at alan@canvess.karoo.co.uk

 

 

 

The Ego, The Id And The Third Man

5 March 2015

Vienna the self styled City of the Waltz. During the anniversary commemorations of the First World War there has never been a more prescient time to experience its more disreputable side. Rather than Strauss and his Blue Danube the soundtrack for an exploration of the cities dark side should be the “Harry Lime Theme” from cinema classic “The Third Man”. Set in Vienna a city has never played such a starring role in a film and Anton Karas' zither score could prove the most ubiquitous mental accompaniment. This will be more apt than the Tokyo metro using it to signal the boarding of trains but the 400 versions available to listen to at the 'Third Man Museum' may still prove challenging.

Written by Graham Greene “The Third Man” portrays a post war Vienna divided along Cold War lines and the mood of mistrust is wonderfully palpable. Summon the requisite amount of misanthropy to recreate one of the most iconic speeches in film when the enigmatic Orson Welles meets Joseph Cotton on the ferris wheel at the Prater Amusement Park. Looking down at the “ants” below “would you really feel pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” Nearby is the Museum of Crime which whilst largely sign posted in German has enough self explanatory exhibits to make it worthwhile. Indeed the mummified skull of an executed man whose eyes seem to follow you around the room like a butcher shop Mona Lisa needs no translation.

 

By this point refreshment is in order. Into central Vienna and visit the Cafe Mozart to envisage Cotton's character meeting Lime's accomplice Kurtz but don't be fooled into thinking it was shot there as it deemed itself to up market to permit filming at the time. So shortly afterwards head to the area nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle which with it's refreshing absence of Irish bars and enough locals who look like they enjoy a drink makes for a decent evening.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the food. Prominent on every menu was the Wiener Schnitzel which didn't seem to be for the tourists as several Austrians were seen ploughing through it in what can only have been patriotic obligation. Another soundtrack to any stay in Vienna will be the sound of desultory hammering as someone tries to flatten the pork or veal usually sacrificed for the dish. The Schnitzel has it's roots in Byzantium where meat was eaten after being sprinkled with gold. This seems to fit a nation which was at the centre of world history until relatively recently but now finds itself a bit part player.

Having what can seem a disproportionate amount of history is highlighted by the Sigmund Freud Museum in the apartment he lived in prior to going into exile from the Nazis in 1938. It contains much of the original furniture and an audio guide which highlights his major works and least successful ventures. Despite his protestations the claim to have cured a friend of a morphine addiction by giving him cocaine had all too predictable results.

 

In the same area of medical institutions and the University is the Pathology Museum but be careful what you ask for when trying to find it. Part of a large hospital complex considerable time was spent following instructions to the Pathology Department before locating the imposing looking round building and 18th-century “fools tower” for people with mental health problems. Inside exhibits illustrate various pathological changes to body parts in an atmosphere of period decay or almost eastern bloc neglect depending on your disposition.

 The Viennese love a coffee but attempts to explore the myriad of options in the student area were hijacked by locals knocking back beer and schnaps. One gentlemen who described his condition as “delicate” insisted on spending an inordinate amount of time writing down offbeat visitor attractions before the waitress equally insistently transcribed his handwriting.Indeed the Karlsplatz Christmas market which forms part of the cities famous festivities has the quality of an alcohol induced nightmare with children in bird's cage fairground rides and buskers resplendent in Wicker Man style masks.

Less central but only the last stop on the U4 metro line is the enormous “Red Vienna” apartment block which runs the length of four tram stops and is where where communists retreated during the short lived civil war of 1934. Described to Graham Greene by friend and double agent Kim Philby their escape through the cities sewer system gave rise to some of the most famous movie locations ever.If you need to refresh your memory don't despair as “The Third Man” is screened at the centrally located Burg Kino indefinitely. As you leave in the early hours the flagstones might be glistening in just the right way and even without the spirit level prescribed by American Director William Wyler to Carol Reed one of those disorientating shots from the film will surely suggest itself.

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