Category Archives: history

What can He-Man and Mary of Scots have in common?

They both ended in 87…400 years apart.

And they’re both royal.

And their stories are about leading with justice and tolerance.

The link between Mary Stuart and the royal family of Eternia may take imagination to see. But in the new film with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, I felt there is an interpretation, if not an intention, to use this historic story to speak to us in our time, just as He-Man and She-Ra were, I believe, meant to have greater morals than the ones spelt out at the end of each episode.

I know this film has now left most cinemas, but I took the time to see it twice and to watch all the other available films/TV and do some reading before commenting, and my observations remain pertinent to our times.

I liked the lack of polarity which I observed in some other stories about Elizabeth and Mary.

It seems to me that these women say: if we’d trusted our hearts, and each other, might all this not have happened? If we’d not let our advisors poison us – several of whom wanted the throne for themselves, or to steer its occupier…if we’d let our draw as women, as sisters guide us…

This is not an anti-men story, but I think it is anti the traditional male rule. Elizabeth felt that society only offered her the choice of wife and mother. To reign, she must cast off her gender, or the limitations of it. Even today, women expect to lead but also be defined by our status usually in relation to a man, and by the children we bear.

The 16th century courts were aberrations of what ought to be. Even the most intimate relationship had become a commodity, a business transaction, nothing to do with love and companionship, but forming an allegiance and keeping bloodlines pure and heirs unambiguous.

What a dreadful way to live – for women and men.

Many of us are feeling that it’s time to do differently. We feel that feeling is a good thing, not something to be suppressed or ignored. In another new film, On The Basis of Sex, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is told she can’t be a lawyer because women are too emotional. What’s wrong with caring? Doesn’t that make better lawyers, politicians, and any role I can think of?

But Ruth wasn’t content, and changed the law, and history.

Mary and Elizabeth were told that a woman couldn’t reign alone. But as Saoirse as Mary says in the film, she’s done lots of things which her male advisors told her were impossible.

The old way – adopted by women as well as men – was all about fear. And so we watched our backs and plotted and tried to never reveal a weakness, which included caring. We tried to amass power through titles, land and wealth to make us unstoppable. We tricked and trapped  and changed loyalties. We made laws which suited ourselves, making us immune but others culpable. We imposed our version of truth and made violent repercussions for those who disagreed.

We pretended that a strong ruler was one who never showed vulnerability, who had few manners and lots of arrogance; was quick to punish and didn’t do mercy, let alone ask for it. We preserved rank and kept those below on their knees.

We’ve too long cited Machiavelli as our political manual. Utopia is sometimes better, but still far from Eternia, and that’s the imaginary world I’d rather look to.

What if we took from She-Ra and He-Man? They forgive, they save even their enemies (is Skeletor an Earl of Moray?). They care about goodness, and about others. Their power is not used selfishly. And they’ll work together, and with other leaders, not to expand their boundaries and their gold reserves, but to fight injustice – never to harm or kill.

She-Ra, like Wonder Woman, has used her womanhood to recruit and turn wicked people to the side of right; like Xena, Warrior Princess, She-Ra needed turning herself – by her brother. Theirs is not a violent rebellion; it’s not about one set of ugly, inflated power overturning another and then behaving in much the same way.

I’ve often wondered: what would British history be if Mary and Elizabeth had been allowed to work together rather than against each other? Where would we be now? Not in terms of our current royal family, but the governance we have, which like the rest of the world, is all out of shape.

I think these stories invite us to put it back again.

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Middlemarch and Sherwood

What links a Lincoln green clad arrow pinger, a mine magnate’s niece who’s chased by horses and her teacher, and a bonnet wearing philanthropic clergyman’s wife?

If you’ve read the blurb to my novel, you’ll know that I like making unlikely comparisons. If you’ve read the rest of this blog, you will see more of them.

The answer to the first question is firstly geography – for they are all located in the East Midlands; secondly, literature and film; – and lastly – well off people fighting to support the cause of the poor.

Thus Sherwood and Eastwood and Middlemarch are not so far apart.

I wrote my thoughts on Eastwood’s famous son – and the escapades of Ursula Brangwen – on Good Reads.

The rest of this concentrates on Sherwood – whose forest’s inhabitants need no introduction – and the fictitious manufacturing town invented by George Eliot, filmed in Stamford.

I like to read and watch and visit in themes, so if you want to know what my days out to Nottinghamshire and Stamford (and elsewhere in the East Midlands) involved – read them here.

Robin Hood and Dorothea Brooke are further linked by the fact that they are in some ways superhuman archetypes. Robin is borderline superhero, and in some versions (such as 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood) he has a higher calling from a deity, the son of a god, the fulfilment of a long promised title: he is, as the theme song goes, The Hooded Man. (Does anyone else find the otherwise excellent Clannad’s keyboards tinny and dated?). Dorothea – ‘of the gods’ – is likened to not only famous mystic and theologian Theresa of Avila, but saints, angels and the Virgin Mary. (I ruefully acknowledge that Schmoop pointed that out to me).

Robin too has a special Mary in his all male band of called followers, who live rough and itinerant and give, in their way, good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed… strange how closely Robin’s mission matches Isaiah 61, Jesus’ own self confessed mission statement. Robin descends from the higher echelons to save the people.

Dorothea also cares about the poor, about justice – and mercy – letting sheep stealers off fatal sentences, providing better homes for tenants, doing good with her money, such as supporting overlooked but genuine clergy and would be world changing doctors.

Both though are truly human as well as divine.

There is much in common with 1195 – the years leading to Magna Carter, 1832 – the Reform Bill – and now. All these are the cusp of a sea change  against long oppression and imbalance. Hence these stories keep coming round again. The 2006 BBC Robin Hood (with Jonas Armstrong) made explicit parallels to the middle eastern wars funded at the expense of the poor and where fair justice was dispensed with, and that there was no need to travel to Arab countries to see evil – “the real cancer is right here”.

Hence my satisfaction that seemingly disparate reading and watching material has a common thread.

I’ll talk more about Middlemarch in my next piece, but I wanted to round up by a final parallel which is more than pedantry.

It’s about accents in the TV versions.

In his otherwise excellent site Bold Outlaw, Allen W. Wright says that Kevin Costner’s infamously poor/non English accent in the 1994 Prince of Thieves film doesn’t matter, because we don’t know how people talked in Robin Hood’s day, and some say that the modern American accent is more likely than today’s English one.

As a North American, he would say that.

As an English person, I feel that Americans not adopting the accent of the characters they play is not only cultural laziness but symptomatic of America becoming a synecdoche for all the English speaking western world. If actors of other nationalities play an American part, they change their voice – but not in reverse. Many dramas exported to America are remade, or redubbed.

Only one Robin Hood so far has used the right accent for Robin, going by what we today recognise as Nottinghamshire, and that again is the 2006 BBC series with Richard Armitage.

All the others do what Middlemarch also did – as well as so many films. The rich have a British gittish queen’s English accent, and the serfs and villagers and tradesfolk have the general lazy west country bumpkin voice that I have moaned about so many times. It’s not even true of the West Country! It’s not how people in the Midlands speak. And that accent serves to delineate class via accent and associate the country one with being not only rustic but stupid, poor, ill educated, lower, subordinate.

Thus class – a distinction and divide that Robin and Dorothea are working to erase – is demarcated for yet another era, and that shorthand is perpetuated and spread across not only Britain but all the countries who watch our dramas.

I shall be back with more about Middlemarch (or truly, Lowick and Tipton) shortly.

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I have at last seen this, as promised when I began my Edith Cavell commemorations.

I still don’t understand the film’s Monday release date, but then, James Bond was also released on a Monday. So perhaps it wasn’t to link with an historical event, as I thought.

Do see my earlier post (Edith I) with a picture of a Norfolk suffragette act. I take issue that this film is so London based, but women were busy all round the country.

On the posters for Suffragette, there’s Meryl Streep with Carey Mulligan and Helena BC. The list of actresses sometimes includes Ann-Marie Duff, one of my favourites. It does not mention Natalie Press, who is the key…. shall I spoil this? If you don’t know who EWD is, and you want to see the film, look away now (or at the start of the next paragraph).

Emmeline Pankhurst, Ms Streep’s character, is kept mysterious and does a short speech, recalling Streep’s earlier British historical role – the Iron Lady. Here she’s another, doing a kind of reverse of Maggie leadership, but who also harms in the name of her vision. Yet Emmeline’s work is often more sympathised with and its wake left good for society after her death in 1928 – the year of full voting rights for women in Britain.

This film is set earlier than those events, and its denouement involves Natalie Press’s character’s famous deed of 1913. It is unclear as to how many other characters are real – such as Helena’s good doctor Edith Ellyn whose husband (a minor role) was the only man who showed any kindness – though shutting your wife in a cupboard for her own protection may be a controversial expression of it.

The lack of good men was an issue, for the men are too evil: The laundry boss yells cruel orders and a more intimate kind of abuse. The main character, who is fictional, has a weedy but traditional husband who I expected to come on side and support her as Maud’s own draw to the suffragette cause grows.

What was most powerful about Suffragette was the closing list of years  that women’s voting rights were granted. New Zealand led the way in the late 1800s. Sadly, many of us weren’t shocked at the recence of Saudi Arabia – and that its promise is still unfulfilled; what made me gulp was that countries in Europe we may consider enlightened – such as Sweden – took till the 1970s. Many women had to wait til World War II was over to slip into a ballot box.

And yet the system is still one that doesn’t give fair voting rights, despite being legally allowed to cast a vote.

More film reviews soon – Steve Jobs, The Dressmaker and Carol

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Seeking the Good Germans in Edith Cavell’s story

At the supermarket, I walked round dazed, feeling it sacrilege to walk aisles of tins after what I’d just been to. When asked what sort of day I’d had, I said – I’ve seen a woman tried and shot. Again.

This is part IV of Edith Cavell week.

I went to two other one woman shows, by JAC Intimate Productions and Broad Horizons, both again in Norwich’s Forum. And I’ve been to a talk and book signing “Faith Before the Firing Squad” by Catherine Butcher, as well as another exhibition at the Norfolk County archives, and words and music for Edith at St Peter Mancroft church – all still in Norwich.

I’ve seen the letter Edith’s mum got from Buckingham Palace after that firing squad. I’ve seen her copy of The Imitation of Christ with the prescient record of her own death. I heard she may’ve loved her cousin, to whom that book was inscribed.

Each thing I read or watch gives new information, some contradictory, some filling in a piece like a fat jigsaw. It’s all swirling about. But by the end of the week, much of it’s becoming familiar.

What’s missing still for me is that story; it is series of events more than a narrative.

Today I learned she was a fun loving woman. But Ediths of the stage seem as starched as those nursey sleeves of hers. She’s still not really in a relationship with anyone, although I know she picked up stray dogs and humans – I’m seeing a sort of magnetic compassion in Edith who built a family although she didn’t bear one herself. I felt myself wanting to meet the others in Edith’s story, for she interacts little – even with her own demons, as the premise of the Broad Horizon production promised.

The perspective I want to hear is that of the Germans. They are villains in this piece, but like the George Clooney and Cate Blanchett movie, I want to find Good Germans in this story.

What would have been better than doubling army subscription at home would have been for Edith’s death to change hearts of the German army and secret police. Yes I know what the Kaiser said. I know that a German rep laid a wreath at her London memorial for the first time this year. But what of a German’s change of heart?

What goes on in the heart of a Sgt Pinkoff or Lt Bergan? What kind of man was Pastor Le Seur who took her to the firing range and buried her? In Julie Ann Cooper’s play, Edith resists this German chaplain at first, and then sees it as her last life challenge. There is a good German. But he only got a part in one of the plays I’ve seen – the focus is on the Anglican chaplain he worked so hard to fetch.

I turn to the next war and to a German philosopher. Edith read several of these, as did her father at Heidelberg university. Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1960s that Nazi war criminal Eichmann was not debauched, but bland. His evil came through doing his duty without question. He never stopped to think and see people beyond what he had been told about them from his work and from the government. In Edith’s interrogator Pinkoff’s eyes, he too was following orders and doing his duty; Edith had broken the military code – even she agreed that – and this troublesome woman was rightly being stopped.

I’ve been thinking about how to stop such a machine – the duty, non thinking killing machine. What would I do if a foreign army came to occupy my country, as it has in the past, and as mine is doing now? I know that change of heart is the most powerful force for a literal revolution – turning round. I want to uncover a story of someone who was turned because of Edith and her friends. No I don’t mean they became Allied undercover agents. But that they saw a different way to live. That they couldn’t help but see her as a good human, not the enemy.

That she was a woman doesn’t make her death more shocking, because men’s lives aren’t more expendable or less valuable.

I was angered that it was alleged that as a non mother, Edith’s death was acceptable. Who we have in our lives or what biological functions we’ve exercised does not give meaning or greater importance. Edith was caring for many – two young women, two dogs, her mum, her nurses. and those many, many men – not just those who escaped, but those Germans too, whom she noted stalked into town with weary, damaged feet.

As I continue my search for Good Germans, I state again the perceptive words of a more contemporary one who suffered at a German army in her own country – and the warning exhortation to never stop thinking, never stop seeing people as human, and never to put duty before humanity.

I have decided that I do admire Edith because that’s what she did with her duty. Her soldier saving was an easy extension to her nurses’ philosophy – help and save lives.

The keeper of the Swardeston Collection (Edith’s natal village) called her a Good Samaritan in the Norwich diocese magazine. Yes, but only when she was binding German wounds.

I wasn’t comfortable with the Joan of Arc suggestion. She did not lead her country into battle – though her death was used as a call to do so, I don’t think that was what Edith was about at all. I heard evidence from Catherine Butcher that Edith was passionately patriotic, walking out of the room when the Queen was insulted, so perhaps her famous quote was actually a deathbed revelation for her. But news or no, it was a powerful realisation to share with the world. And I will be wearing a badge with it on poppy day.

There are two versions of Edith’s final speech. I prefer the less used one. Not having hatred and bitterness is a negative statement. She also says she must not have it – not that she doesn’t. It is another duty, an ideal state. The other version recorded by Rev Gahan, the chaplain who met with her on her last evening, is that “…it is not enough to loves one’s own people. One must love all men and hate none.”

Still, she did not speak actively of love and forgiveness; still it is an ideal, not something she is actually doing. But it one that those who hear her words can do.

It is here I want to leave Edith; and whatever I’ve said about allopathic medicine and propaganda, I do not think she intended to be used as a pawn and poster girl for either. She meant to do good, I think. I’d like to think that if she didn’t change any German hearts at the time, that those of that same ilk, of whatever uniform, could be changed now.


My vision for Edith’s old home                                                     

Edith provided a place of confidential safety when people were in need. There are already nursing homes named for her. I’d like the old vicarage or Cavell House in her natal village of Swardeston, Norfolk to be the Cavell house of Compassion and Contemplation; open to the public as a museum, to pray and meet, and also have a separate residential area with a warden – something like The Elsie Briggs House of Prayer in Westbury on Trym, Bristol, crossed with the Bronte parsonage and a safe house – for whatever the needs might be.

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Edith and Espionage

Edith Cavell Part III: It’s Edith week, don’t you know. And I’m participating

A German official gave a mean response (unlike the Kaiser) to Edith Cavell’s death, but one that actually has a point: so many have been killed in the war. Why single this woman out?

It’s said that lady spies were recruited as more fuss would be made of their deaths, which could be useful. Was Edith one? Some are saying she was. It’s what the Germans called her.

I am suspicious that Edith said her sentence was just, and she refused to don her nurse outfit for the trial. Would you normally wear one to court? But did she do things that she knew weren’t under the nurse answer to the Hippocratic oath? And do they make her a spy?

Espionage is about collecting information to pass on, often to use against someone. Spying was a wide definition used when condemning people, but it didn’t always fit. Edith did have a relationship with the resistance and undercover people, and despite her faith and what’s been said about her not lying, she did dissemble by giving disguises and false documents to those she conducted out of occupied Belgium.

Britain’s national left wing broadsheet The Guardian did cover Edith as a spy yesterday, though most of the article was on her earlier life. All it said was that she snuck soldiers out of the country. No news there. They let The Telegraph actually dish the dirt on a ‘shock’ radio programme featuring former M15 chief Stella Rimington. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the suggestion – book about Edith’s spying came out in 1968, by Adele De Leeuw.

I don’t have access to those MI5 files that Stella speaks of. I don’t have the clothes of soldiers with info sewn into them. And I don’t know how we can know who did the sewing, or if Edith was cognizant of it. Even Stella says we’ll not ever know. So why bring it up, then?

Also, The Guardian’s not a religious paper and likes to uncover government secrets – and I admire its work on speaking out and exposing. But it does colour it a little on this matter. The Guardian made a blooper – its picture tag said that Edith’s first grave was in France. Now what country is BRUSSELS in?

At the time, effort was made in keeping Edith and espionage apart. Interesting that martyrs are popular passion and pity raisers, spies aren’t. Angels in either sense – and the Eastern Daily Press just called Edith both – do not go with the image of deceit and betrayal at the heart of spying. Spies may be glamorised in film and book, but her ‘holy and pure’ epitaph wouldn’t have matched if Edith was known to be a spy. It would have dirtied her white and blue wings.

More on Edith soon as I continue to research and attend events at her centenary this week – and continue with my novel campaign

PS Historians Georgette Vale and Catherine Butcher agree that they no of nothing that makes Edith a spy

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Unravelling Cavell

That rhymed. Just so you know how to pronounce her name. Norfolk people aren’t like Hyacinth Bucket.

This is Edith Cavell part II; the first came earlier today, in time for her death.

Is Edith truly world famous, or was that just 100 years ago, when the British army wanted more recruits and the Commonwealth more hatred of the Germans?

Did the Cavell bridge in New Zealand have a memorial service at 7am today, when Edith was shot? Norwich had one. I know of only one other death we remember in real time, and that’s on Good Friday. Will Brussels’ memorial be adorned with a wreath? Will the one in London, that had the “patriotism is not enough” quote added later in smaller writing?

I found out and was intrigued by who did and didn’t recall her. Brussels has its own Edith centenary website. Peterborough, where she was at school, is having several events; a Leicestershire village will plant a wreath. Leeds will show a silent film about her called Dawn. London’s pretty busy with Edith events – nearly all the venues are churches or nurse related. My favourite is that Edith has her own mountain in the Canadian Rockies and it will be climbed in her honour today. But Edith lived and worked round the UK and there are no events on the official website in some of those places.

In her native Norwich, Edith is almost as prominent as the poppy itself – coming out early this year and already on her grave, in various wreaths. I checked – they were laid by nursing and military organisations in an annual outdoor service. The Belgian ambassador joined us and was one of the few who laid a wreath of his own. I’d have been more impressed if a German had. I’m concerned that we still demarcate Germans as enemy, even though we’re supposed to have let our wartime sides and deeds be water under a bridge – one we like to collect and swim in.

I peeked in guides to Norwich. Edith’s mention under famous sons and daughters gets bigger over the years. The secular books quote her as the brave nurse who was shot for letting allied troops escape. They don’t mention her beliefs or her indiscriminate care. One mentioned her nursing advances, but not what they were. One made a mistake that she helped all soldiers escape – but it was only allied ones.

The local rag’s pull out did speak of her faith, alarmingly comparing her death to her Lord’s. There may be a little overlap, but if you’re Christian, suggesting that a mortal can be compared to Christ’s passion is theologically offensive. Yet Norwich cathedral’s art display is called just that – the Passion of Edith. The artist’s naive works claims to strip her of the propaganda. I don’t think he stripped off too many layers. I also went to the Hostry exhibition at the other end of the cathedral, which was less on Edith than her times and related themes, but it did include her devotional books.

In Norwich, the Forum is the most prominent spot in the city. Since local TV is broadcast within it, you could say it’s central to the region, of which Norwich is capital. And here are two more important ongoing Edith events. One is outside, a much photographed and easily passed spot, where the Cavell Van stands as a mini museum. It’s the rail wagon that brought her body back to England after the war ended. She was buried at the Belgian shooting range where her body fell until May 1919, when it was paraded in military style though three cities, and had two cathedral/abbey funerals on the same day. One was at Westminster, then again by train to her natal city, to be escorted through the tall stone gatehouse built at the battle of Agincourt (also having an anniversary this year) where her bust now stands.

In 2010, the year that austerity began in Britain, £27,000 was given to restore this carriage and make it into a museum. Most of the space inside is taken up with a coffin and then some panels about Edith and also the two other British bodies which were expatriated after the war, both military.

If you’re in Norwich, you can’t easily avoid going in the Forum, it has 50,000 visitors a week, and it’s filled with Edith stuff, or more truly, nursing. You’re hit with her on the way to the various information centres, main city library, cafes, or toilets. In a former visitor attraction, the story continues by pushing military nurses, Edith’s nursing charity, and the local university hospital’s nursing. It’s more about nursing that Edith.

I’m not sure how I feel about Edith’s nursing. She was taught by a friend of Florence Nightingale. She’s credited with assisting nursing becoming a serious trained profession. Without willing it, Edith’s nursing reforms helped the hegemony of allopathic medicine and the spread of central control via those involved in sanitation. Diana Souhami, whose biography is the most pushed work on Edith, has also written the Pitkin guide, the cheap and quick readily available introduction series, on Edith. Diana says that Edith’s work helped all society realise that poor sanitation was key to illness, and that there needed to be joined up thinking between plumbers and water companies, epidemiologists and doctors. Hm, what an interesting alliance. Diana then says that Edith would be amazed at today’s medical technology, she’d consider it heaven come to earth. And that Edith believed that disease could be eradicated though medicine and sanitation. If true, Edith is not wise, for it misses out the spiritual and psychological role in illness, and that sometimes it is needed for our development. Technology is not the only or always the best way to deal with illness. It is also quite a lucrative one.

The part of Diana’s Souhami’s biography that most interested me is chapter 49 – propaganda, and the next one about the German reaction to Edith’s death. Diana is well aware of the use of Edith’s shooting in the Allied cause, and so was the exhibition in the BBC lounge in the Forum. I attended a brief 1 woman show there – there’s a spate of these, apparently, which I preferred to Saturday’s ‘Remembering Edith Cavell’. In the question time, it was asserted that the public response to Edith’s death was akin to Princess Diana’s. Living Historian Georgette Vale stated that despite the images on posters, Edith did not die in a nurse’s uniform: she was nearly 50, and her death pose would not be the young swoony immaculate corpse shown in the pictures of her “murder” – always by the GERMANS so we know who to hate and rally against. Diana’s biography tells us that the then bishop of London said at Edith’s state funeral no 1 that Lord Nelson (another Norfolk war hero) would not sit about with diplomatic meetings after such an event – he’d get his guns out. Shocking words for a man who is supposed to be about love and peace and wisdom. Again I reference the Community Of The Cross Of Nails born after the next world war. I’m far more impressed by the bishop of Coventry’s response to being bombed.

Facts and ideas overlap with interesting new titbits –

  • Edith’s dog Jack was stuffed and is currently at the Florence Nightingale Museum, London
  • Edith now has her own beer, brewed locally and available in gift packs; profits to Edith’s charity.
  • Edith’s mother never got to read her daughter’s final letter to her
  • Edith’s body was exhumed 4 years on and found uncorrupted – so surely she’s a saint. If she’d been Catholic, she’d be canonised, but she gets her saints day anyway. How convenient, a month before armistice day, just right to kick off poppy sales. I’ll be wearing white and purple ones, as usual.

I do hope to read and watch some more on Edith. What’s emerging is a disparity between the Edith that the Edwardians wanted to be believed in and who she would like to be remembered as. A perceptive audience member at today’s show said, “So Edith’s death saved others” – for some associates due to be shot were not, and eventually released. Her death was convenient for those who wanted a catalyst – some say that America joined the war because of Edith. Martyr, matron, heroine, patriot, Christian, philanthropist…. all useful descriptions to be spun together.

What is still worrying me is how this quietly spoken and dry humoured 5’3” matron is being used now. If Elizabeth Gurney Fry or Harriet Martineau had centenaries, would they be this big? because neither of them are connected with war or country. Mystic Julian of Norwich’s 625th and 640th anniversaries weren’t as obvious – but then she preached a God of love and that’s not so marketable and useful when you’ve other wars to wage at unpopular times…

I will report on other Edith Cavell things tomorrow

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Edith and Emily

Two women are being commemorated in Britain today: Edith Cavell, the Norfolk nurse who was shot by Germans and Emily Wilding Davis, via the release of the film Suffragette – two women who lost their lives for their beliefs.

Thus my schedule is busy – already with my also Norfolk set novel campaign now over half way – and with trying to fit in attending commemorative events for both these women.

I shall be back when I’ve seen Suffragette, released today (why, on a Monday? I can’t find an anniversary to match). In the meantime, here is my painting about the suffragettes, who were seen as responsible for the occurrence below. Their pamphlets were found at the scene. It is another Norfolk connection:

bye bye Britannia - the burning of Yarmouth pier

Bye Bye Britannia: The burning of Yarmouth pier, by me.

I’ve also got a full week of Edith Cavell, but I have seen a new musical and dramatic piece about her in the place that she is buried – Norwich cathedral, which I review anon. I shall add other thoughts as I attend other events during the week.


I’m trying to understand who Edith is – or who she is said to be. At first, I thought her fame came through helping injured soldiers in the first world war, regardless of their uniform – an humanitarian act driven by her faith. Or was it that she harboured soldiers from her own side, sneaking them out through Belgian streets via her underground contacts to safety? The patriotic angle has seemed more prominent lately, and I note the phrasing of her gravestone: –

“To the pure and holy memory of Edith Cavell

who gave her life for England

12th October 1915

Her name liveth for evermore.”

-Classic military memorial mixed with virginal hagiography.

I’ve even heard her called a spy. What is she – plucky honourable Norfolk girl, exemplary nurse, brave British martyr, or compassionate Christian aid worker? Who wishes to claim her for what?

I would like to attend events with different perspectives on her. I thought that Saturday’s “Remember Edith Cavell” by Searchlight Theatre was going to represent the Christian angle on her. Her faith is integral to her deeds. Her final words were about believing that her soul was safe and that she feared not death; one of her final acts was taking communion. her reading material in her 10 week solitary stretch was “The Imitation of Christ”. I was most touched she told that the German pastor who took her to the shooting range that she hoped to welcome him into heaven. He had to bury her moments later.

However, those thoughts were not the one most propounded in Searchlight’s production. Its title is from contemporary recruitment propaganda. The piece began and ended with the same words – those of the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. His official statement about Edith’s death concluded with “She has died as she has lived – for her country”.

What is Edith’s most famous quote?!


Yet for this piece, patriotism seemed to be the not so subtle theme, odd to come from an overtly Christian theatre company, being shown in a place of Christian worship. It seems to me from this and another play I’ve seen (by Chris Joby) that Edith was first and foremost a nurse, and her duties to that profession guided her actions. Though one might argue how nursey it is to smuggle and hide people, how often finding counterfeit papers and liaising with secret networks is just another day on the wards.

Edith often spoke of her faith; it is naively given in the play as a reason to expect her not to lie at her inquisition. Edith’s not very savvy with her answers at that – I’d have enjoyed courageous, witty replies, but hers are almost Enid Blyton truthful. I understand the trial was quite different from this scene. But here, she is interrogated by only one man – the writer – who tries to steal the scene as a heavy guard.

I wonder what sort of person Edith was; both plays I’ve watched had her as formal, earnest, but quite flat. I don’t recall her laughing or smiling, or showing any emotion. The weeping here was done by her fellow nurse Elizabeth Wilkins, the only other woman on the stage.

There was much to improve upon, I think, in this piece. The orchestra was sometimes a little off key, yet it was the solo violinist (Fiona Hutchins) who alone got a picture in the programme, and was first to receive a bouquet at the end – not even the actress who played Edith (Rebecca Rogers) got a headshot or her image on the publicity. The writer (David Robinson), who played two roles including Sir Grey was named before Edith in the programme. The show felt like David and the violinist’s vehicle more than Edith’s, for whom of course the audience had come.

The musical pieces didn’t often fit with the dramatic scenes. Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending began the performance. That was a hint that this was going to be a “Edith realised that patriotism’s not enough – but we haven’t yet” show. We were invited to sing along to classic war song “It’s a long way to Tipperary” – is Edith from Norfolk or Eire?! and All Things Bright and Beautiful, which felt compiled on the same basis as the songs in Mama Mia. I was expecting “I vow to thee my county” – with the emphasis on the second verse, but we heard “Abide with me” twice – once from near death Edith, which was touching, and at her reconstructed state funeral with full choir, orchestra – and our own contribution. There was a hint of the use of the hymn in football – a side-making hero’s welcome anthem, not the final song of a woman facing death and asking her God to be near her. A woman who repeatedly said that she didn’t take sides – just dress wounds.

The shooting of Edith happened live, which was disconcerting, with big screens down the nave and uncomfortably overloud sound, but they missed an obvious and powerful reconstruction around Edith’s funeral service, actually held where we sat. The current cathedral Dean was asked to reprise her predecessor’s eulogy for Edith, but no coffin was carried in.

But unlike Edith’s actual funeral 100 years ago, the church wasn’t full. In fact, it was rather gappy, with the three seat prices meaning that some were alone or in pairs, preventing the effect of solidarity with the rest of the audience. Cathedrals weren’t built for concerts and I wish they’d not be used for them, for it feels like the public did when the monks occupied the quire stalls: that you can listen in, from a distance, but it’s not really for you.

The actors spoke in over egged theatrical tones, and I question Edith’s accent: being brought up in rural Norfolk as a parson’s daughter, might she not have sounded more native of that county? And wouldn’t the audience here be most acutely aware of her accent, which is often badly represented in film and theatre.

There seemed little real story or narrative here, little drama, little pathos – save for Edith’s shooting (or was that more loud and unpleasant) and of the tears of Sister Elizabeth. We never meet the mole in the clinic who gives Edith away. There’s no tension at her trial. We don’t see her for long in her cell – that’s the sole premise of another play on next weekend. Did Edith ever love? She’s called passionate and loving, but I didn’t see that in her.

I left feeling that the contribution I paid for my ticket and programme – which went into a charity bucket of something not previously explained – might have funded something not very akin to the No Glory In War campaign. In fact, I think I may have inadvertently supported its nemesis. I’d have rather given the money to The Community of The Cross of Nails, or to the many homeless people I met afterwards.

More anon after I’ve visited Edith’s death train, local exhibitions and other performances.

I’d be interested to hear what’s happening beyond Norfolk and how other people view her. How well known is she?

And why at this centenary of Norwich’s famous dead daughter is there roadworks around her memorial?

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I’ll make you a bloody poppy!

After reading No Glory in War’s link to the Guardian piece on the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London for remembrance day, I felt I wanted to make my own response. You’ll know my thoughts on poppies from my previous year’s posts and they haven’t changed – save being all the more non red poppy due to hearing arms makers sponsor it. As ever, my two poppies did not feature the colour red (white for peace -jingoism; purple for animals).

Here is my freshly painted piece on war – it’s harsher in real life. Look hard. It’s visceral, violent, scarlet against sable, pink of flesh, black for the darkness of war, full of runs and clots, thorns and barbs, bile and blood.

But note the white…. I hear the Peace Pledge union ran out of white poppies this year! (alas I saw few on bosoms, except my own) and I was so pleased that anti war veterans had an alterative gathering at London’s cenotaph, just as my local Quakers popped a white wreath by the red military ones and wrote in big (so we could see, since it was placed at the back) for ALL victims of war – ie whatever country – not just ours.

Here’s the picture. Poppy

If you want to buy it in various forms, pop over here

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Compassion – Hanna(h)s and the Holocaust

I revisited The Reader, the film that finally saw Kate Winslet get her Oscar – as Ricky Gervais predicted, it was about the holocaust. There’s been other such observations (such as in new film The Congress) that this most sensitive subject, often cited as the greatest horror of this or any time, garners recognition.

I shared my initial thoughts on Bernhard Schlink’s tale – five years on, I stand by them all. I had further thoughts on the writing, which in neither case (book nor script) was perfect, but that’s not the focus of this post. You can see them on my Amazon reviews.

The impression that left me with was the assumption that awfulness and shame is the only response that Germans leave themselves for the events of and around World War II; that it is beyond forgiveness, and to attempt it is offensive to Jews – and I again point out that they were one of at least 4 groups (gay, gypsy, disabled too) who were targeted.

There is nothing to be learned, says the daughter who was in the fire and in concentration camps. In the film, Hanna Schmidt says it after her 20 years in prison, before taking her life. Neither party is allowed to grow; the whole story is about stagnant people, in victimhood and guilt. Although I am aware that what holocaust victims endured is something many of us have no idea of, I think all of us have experienced suffering and therefore am not unqualified to suggest that it is those darkest times especially where we see growth.

The Reader is about a court case of six SS guards. My response drifted from the legal response to – what would a counsellor or a minister say to these guards? Their business is not justice in the philosophical sense of logical wranglings, but of the heart.

Hannah Arendt is a film about a very similar subject – the 1960s trial of SS workers. This time, the trial is real and there is only one employee in the dock – an infamous senior one, and whose actions make far more sense to bring to court. (One of my criticisms of The Reader is that the church on fire was a case of manslaughter/Samaritan Law, not a war crime – the things the guards did which might have been weren’t the focus of the trial, thus weakening the premise). In both stories, the defendants are a synecdoche, standing for the vast army of SS workers during Nazi Germany, and the persons are made to represent a historic moment rather than the deeds of the individual.

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who was captured in the war, and yet her attendance at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem yields more generous results than the immature fictional Michael Berg who was not implicated or involved in the camps – he wasn’t even born.

Both stories involve a defendant who seems to have lost their moral compass, and can only think in terms of their duty and orders. They cannot grasp their part in sending people to their death; it is a conveyor belt, and once they have done their part on the assembly line, they do not think about the next.

Hannah Arendt’s summation was that Eichmann’s lack of thinking was what made the atrocities he masterminded possible. It is true of Hanna Schmidt, the imaginary guard and lover of Michael in The Reader. Hanna doesn’t just not think, she can’t read; in learning, she faces some of her past by reading about the Holocaust, including Hannah Arendt’s. This hugely important point was left out of the film and Hanna is given even less scope for anything positive than in the book.

What most made me angry was that Kate Winslet, who I admire, said that if viewers sympathised with Hanna whom she played, they would (or should) feel morally compromised.

Wrong. You are never morally compromised for feeling compassion.

That means, to feel with: it is not about endorsing, just listening and empathy.

I again bring up my therapist and pastor, whose business it is not to condemn, but to facilitate a way back to wholeness. I again note how The Reader uses theological terms, which are actually from the legal – redeem, atone, justification, propitiation, expiation. They are ugly in pulpit and court; the two shouldn’t be conjoined.

What scares me most, what makes these stories relevant, is not perpetuating the suffering of the groups who were killed and the now remorseful perpetrators of the last world war. It is that the mindset that made that Nazi movement possible is still with us.

It starts with the milder things, with something that seems reasonable.

But I warn against creating enemies and unquestioning allegiances.

You are never just doing your job – you are never excused from thinking, or your conscience. Conscience is knowing with, and that is not a matter for only thought – it is a feeling, and intuition.

If your role takes away liberties, crushes, oppresses; if you are afraid to stand up to your employer – than something is gravely wrong and needs to be stopped. No contract should ever ask personal principles to come second to work.

It can be in smaller ways – random searches, taking or demanding money that causes poverty and fear; refusing an appeal. Many of us have opportunities and powers in this way. Thinking of them as papers or stats to clear, not as real people, is the first step. That’s how the army gets its staff to kill – targets are other, they are not like you. But this can be true of judges, police and enforcement, customs staff, welfare. Belle is the story of a judge who used his power well.

In small ways, we can begin that change: to refuse to act out of suspicion and prejudice, to break the chain of command which puts pressure on the next person, which uses fear to coerce. We can choose not to believe hype that would justify such actions.

If we never lose sight that the other person isn’t other, they’re a person, we could halt the fear and aggression and ensure dictatorships never again rise.

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Can there ever be a “Great” War?

I browsed in a large local museum this weekend and noticed how all the augmented war related items in the shop were one view: heroes. Book titles ranged from “We’re here to win the war for you” (the American airmen’s reply to what they were doing on East of England airbases) to local memories and series on historic war campaigns and vehicles. Even the chocolate was supporting wounded soldier heroes.

There was nothing on the shelves to show the other view of WWI, which seems as controversial as the Middle Eastern conflicts. People are being encouraged to see this centenary one way, that of pride in militancy, in battle driven victory, in uniformed heroes that touched our local lives.

People are encouraged to say, My great granddad fought in the war, but not, my great granddad refused to fight and was a conscientious objector, or: my solider granddad was deeply traumatised and the rest of the family suffered too. Only one book in the museum had anything about peace protesting, and even that was coming from a skewed view. “Are they anti troop?” the author wondered of a group he saw at Parliament Square, who he approached nervously. He defended them by saying (surprise implied) that they were intelligent – what did he expect?

I’m very supportive of No Glory in War, who will be meeting in that same Parliament Square, Westminster next month. Details are found here: london-4-august-event-in-parliament-square

And yes, I filled in a comments card.

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