Lincoln Drill Hall

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Awake remembrance of these valiant dead

Awake remembrance of these valiant dead, and with your puissant arm renew their feats.

2015 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and the time I played a very young looking Bishop of Ely in Shakespeare’s Henry V. This line from the first Act has stayed with me over the last fifty years but its resonance has changed. The valiant dead we honour today and indeed sang about in our hymns. This time of year when we remember All Saints and, in All Souls, those whom we love but see no longer, we do awake the remembrance. These days though we have many reminders as in my childhood when wounded servicemen were quite common sights; so too in the 21st century with casualties from Afganistan and Iraq. What has changed is the imperative to renew their feats.

Something seems to have changed, whether in me or more widely. The bellicose reaction of George W Bush to the twin towers is replaced by the way the west now looks on as Syria destroys herself.
A question that perhaps I never expected to ask is whether we can be sufficiently valiant to say no to renewing their deeds. This is not that we don’t honour; it is that we do. It is about politicians being brave enough to say to the electorate, force will not work; our sons and daughters will lose their lives along with the sons and daughters of those whom we oppose, and nothing will change. This is not something that would command universal support and equally it is not the focus of what we are doing today. I am simply reminded by the death of Senator George McGovern who stood against Nixon over the Vietnam war. He came to politics from a distinguished service career and he said after losing the election that if his standing had brought peace one day closer it would have been worth it.

The reading we heard from St Mark’s gospel is about Jesus calling his first disciples. These men followed quite oblivious to their destination, their route or the hazards they may encounter en route. Those whom we honour today may have found themselves in not dissimilar situations. I remember my Uncle, who with my father fought in the first world war, telling me of the jubilation in the streets following the declaration of war. He then fell quiet.

The same is shown in a film I have watched more than almost any, Richard Attenborough’s a Bridge too Far. This is a crazy thing to do; it is an horrific film, showing as it does in graphic detail the consequences of an overly ambitious decision by a great war leader, Field Marshall Montgomery. There is one sequence in the film that always sticks in my mind. Somewhere in then free France, a hall is filled with British army officers chattering nervously; there is an overwhelming air of expectation. We see why as General Sir Brian Horrocks enters; a huge round of applause and this lauded general takes the stage to his obvious delight. He tells his assembled officers what lies in store. It is an ambitious plan. He tells them, it not the easiest party we have been too, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. He goes on with a joked allusion to Henry V at Agincourt. It is perhaps quintessential fiction, but may well be based on truth. The inspiring speech, necessarily skirting round the fears of what the reality might be and we know he has fears since only a little later he discloses them; you didn’t actually believe all that rubbish?

It is inappropriate to draw on the hype of war movies when we are here to remember those who sacrificed actual lives in two world wars and later conflicts, inappropriate but perhaps revealing.
Our reading was from the very start of St Marks gospel, the shortest of the four accounts of Jesus’ life and one where no word is wasted. Jesus made no great speeches to encourage Simon and Andrew, James and John to follow him, simply the request. So why did they? Was he charismatic as, by all accounts, Horrocks was? Was it just an attractive young man with fresh exciting ideas that made sound men leave all to follow him? They had no idea of what was to come.

I am reminded of another film, that of Churchill in the year preceding the second world war, the Gathering Storm. Churchill is talking about the young civil servant who at great personal risk fed him the secret information that enabled him to bring parliament to appreciate the danger that was mounting in Nazi Germany. He said of the young man and of bravery, ‘it is one thing to undertake a dangerous task blind to its dangers, it is true bravery where fully aware of the dangers that the task is undertaken.

This brings us to the essence of remembrance. Who could have watched the Paralympics without a sense of awe at how these people had overcome the difficulties they live with. It all started with those young men at Stoke Mandeville inspired to take up the life that had so nearly forfeited. They, I believe, may have done what they did in the full knowledge of what lay in store. True bravery for which we give thanks.

This all begs a massive question: if they knew so too did their leaders: Churchill, Bush and Blair. Sometimes it feels with this latter group, the politicians, that they don’t truly think through the consequences of their demands. The demand is massive; can the end possibly justify it? It is the oldest question in the world, but perhaps one that is now at last being asked. We sit in agony as we see Syria destroying herself. We should send the troops in, is the kneejerk reaction that cost so many lives in Iraq and Afganistaan. Perhaps the world is learning however painful it may be.
That though is not our focus today. We remember, we give thanks too for those many, I fear probably like me, who were not so obviously brave, but rather were scared and died in fear. For them too we give thanks, but also for those caught up in the cross fire, the innocent victim, as if any victim was ever anything else. Those whose young lives were stolen from them. All these we honour and give thanks.

But what of Jesus and his call? Do we take a reality check and ignore it? Or for the sake of those whom we remember, respond to it in the faith that by doing so we make the world more like the heaven for which we pray.      

Monday, 30 October 2017

Calais Children

The film Calais Children - a case to answer is a terrible indictment. I would like to say on the British government and that would be entirely true, most particularly the Home Office from top to bottom.

However, and there always is an however. We allow the problem of refugees to disappear from view. It is both too big and too small. Too small because we are talking about a few thousand children who are entitled to come to the UK. Too big because it is difficult to imagine how mass migrations of people seeking a better life either could be stopped or argued against.

The film focuses on the Dubs amendment which caused the British government to promise a place of safety to child refugees particularly those caught in the Calais Jungle.

The film tells the stories of individual children: how they are in near constant danger from adults, authorities and weather. It tells of the cynical approach adopted by Home Office officials and the Home Secretary's refusal to treat numbers as people.

This is the link to the film's website. Please take a look at this trailer

If you want to do something albeit small and you live in Lincoln, please contribute to the CompassionateLincoln collection for both refugees and those homeless closer to home.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Frequency 2017

I'll admit it; however hard I tried I couldn't 'get' Frequency. Until this year.

A couple of years ago, I was given Arduino by my children and made some circuits to see how analogue signals could be translated into digital. It kind of worked. Talking to friends around the city though, I still found myself agreeing that it was all flashing lights and sound.

Until this year; until I saw Daz Disley's Blooms and Bloom (at Lincoln University). He had produced images of space and time from flowers. He could have done it much like cartoons used to be made. Instead he harnessed the power of Boolean logic to translate one into the other.

It is all 01, 01.

Or rather it is capturing the world as we see it in a parallel binary world of millions of tiny spots. These spots, this data whether it be of image, sound or temperature, can then be worked at will.

For me this was shown in the Empire Soldiers virtual reality piece (at the Drill Hall) which took a story from the world and, with a combination of live and virtual performance, translated it into an immersive experience which communicated in a deeply effective way the story.

There is so much more. Log Book in the cathedral; Worldless in the Drill Hall cellar. Deep Data Prototype at Posterngate reminded me of Victorian scientific instruments many, possibly most, of which were beautiful in their own right. Science and Art meets.

What is most exciting is that they now have funding for the next two festivals and so can now plan to reach even further. The Festival has been recognised by no less than the New Scientist

You can visit this year's Festival website

Friday, 6 October 2017

Who was this man, William Smith Williams, who discovered Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte described him as pale, mild, stooping man of about fifty.

We know, or can infer, that his schooling brought him into contact with boys, including Keats, who would go on to careers as significant thinkers and writers. We know that his social group included or was close to some of the most exciting thinking of his time: people such as Ruskin, Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell.

He grew up close to theatre land and both had a great love of theatre and a deep knowledge of it. He had a love of painting, Turner in particular; he wrote on the place of Art in Design. He worked for many years for a ground breaking Lithographer, Charles Hullmandel and he wrote on the techniques and impact of Lithography.

Yet, his emergence into the public view was from a position as a book keeper, and it would seem not a very good book keeper.

But who really was William Smith Williams?

The book I am researching sets out to trace whence he came and whither he went to paint a picture of this incredibly creative time in our history which included the groundbreaking shift in the English novel that was Jane Eyre.
WSW's tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery

Monday, 2 October 2017

Lincoln Book Festival 2017 - a personal reflection

The Mona Lisa and the Pre-Raphaelites; Victorian Body Parts and The mysterious Mr Black and the Rooks; Powerful Queens and Medieval Saints; the Battle of Bosworth and the Tudor Myth; Historical Romance, the Fascinating story of The Huntingfield Paintress, and Gothic Revival at Scott's St Nicholas Newport. All this and the wonderful gothic flash fiction pieces and local history.

We have drunk deep and drunk very well.

High points? They all were.

If you click on the links you will be taken to some great pieces by Young Journalist, Ellen Lavelle.

Some 350 people wrote a gothic story in exactly 50 words; well most of them did. As I said, in some cases literacy was ahead of numeracy. The quality was high in each of the three classes: Primary, Secondary and Adult. As well as hearing the winners of our competition we heard wonderful pieces by the students of First Story. Well done to all concerned, not least the hard working English teachers and First Story's Writer in Residence, Kerry Drewery.

I move quickly to Dianne Setterfield

Dianne spoke very openly about her gothic novels and what gothic means to her. Two short quotes I will keep with me:

"Death is the counterpoint that enables us to take joy in life"

"I've got no time for Scooby Doo and the ghosts that turn out to be the janitor in disguise"

With Dianne, and Romance writers Janice Preston and Jenni Fletcher,  my understanding of gothic and romantic fiction and how they relate to each other has advanced leaps and bounds: subtle intermeshed depths.

“Romance would not be so enduringly popular if us writers failed to display the freedom and equality of women today”

I unashamedly relish David Starkey's irreverence, and how great to see teenage boys queueing to take a selfie with him. He dug back into medieval England to find the thin line of legitimacy for the tudor dynasty but then exploded it all as a carefully crafted myth.

“The myth is there from the very beginning, they didn’t just win at Bosworth, they won the ideas”

Kirsty Stonell-Walker's stories of the Pre-Raphaelite women, set alongside Kathryn Hughes entertaining survey of Victorian body parts, helped me to see much more clearly a hugely creative time in our history.

Alison Weir and Sarah Gristwood , strong women talking of strong Queens has to be a winner with comments like:

"I'm an Elizabeth Girl all the way - Take your side, Mary or Bess!

"It could never be said that these queens were mere cyphers"

Janina Ramirez held her audience in the palm of her hand as she unpacked saints and sainthood. On my bookshelf are the six volumes of Butlers Lives of the Saints. Yet I walk the coast of Northumberland and Cornwall and feel beneath my feet the prints of saints who have gone long before. I now see that sainthood digs much deeper than two millennia; our saints go back to our very beginnings.

The penultimate event was a morning on Local history revealing yet again the riches of Lincolnshire.

Topping and tailing the festival week were Martin Kemp's fascinating insights into who the Mona Lisa actually was, and the Fascinating story of The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes.

Gilbert Scott's St Nicholas Newport was the perfect place to finish with an afternoon on Gothic Revival.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Patrick Bishop at Lincoln Drill Hall 3 October 2017

I am lucky enough to have been invited to introduce Patrick Bishop when he speaks at Lincoln Drill Hall on Tuesday 3 October.

I first read Patrick ten years ago when I was staying in Kent. I found Fighter Boys in my host's bookcase. I couldn't put it down. To make the experience complete, I could hear the scream of a Merlin engine as a Spitfire was put through it paces nearby.

Bomber Boys was next, some years later when I was researching MacRobert's Reply. It was chilling and I could begin to understand what Don Jeffs had gone through as the sole survivor of the crashed Stirling bomber that bore the name MacRobert's Reply.

When I heard about Air Force Blue and knew that it would be a must read. I can't wait to hear him speak. Click here to book.

This is what his publishers, Harper Collins, have to say

In a return to sweeping social history of wartime, Patrick Bishop – author of bestselling Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys – explores the lives and wartime experience of thousands of men and women who served in all units of the airforce. To mark the centenary of the RAF in 2018.

Air warfare was a terrible novelty of the modern age, requiring a new military outlook. From the beginning, the RAF’s identity set it apart from the traditional services. It was innovative, flexible and comparatively meritocratic, advancing the quasi-revolutionary idea that competence was more important than background.

The Air Force went into the war with inadequate machines, training and tactics, and the early phase was littered with setbacks and debacles. Then, in the summer of 1940, in full view of the population, Fighter Command won one of the decisive battles of the struggle. Thereafter the RAF was gilded with an aura of success that never tarnished, going on to make a vital contribution to Allied victory in all theatres.

Drawing from diaries, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Air Force Blue captures the nature of combat in the skies over the corrugated wastes of the Atlantic, the sands of the Western Desert and the jungles of Burma. It also brings to life the intensely lived dramas, romances, friendships and fun that were as important a part of the experience as the fighting.

Air Force Blue portrays the spirit of the RAF its heart and soul during its finest hours. It is essential reading for the millions in Britain and the Commonwealth whose loved ones served, and for anyone who wants to understand the Second World War.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Lincoln Book Festival 2017 - the story

The Lincoln Book Festival emerged in the early summer from a long winter, paralleling the blossoming of soaring gothic architecture from the dark ages…possibly! It actually emerged from a period of hard work seeking out interesting books and more importantly interesting authors who enjoy talking about their work.

This year, the 800th anniversary of one of the pivotal battles in English history, demanded attention. Its date of 1217 would also have witnessed St Hugh’s gothic cathedral towering majestically over hundreds of small dark dwellings in the town. This contrast between light and dark begs a gothic theme.

For the battle, I spoke to David Starkey and he suggested a broader theme of battles and dynasties. The battle though speaks also of strong women and temped us toward a look at influential queens. The thirteenth century gothic of the cathedral invited a glimpse into the gothic revival architecture of the 19th century, Sir George Gilbert Scott and our own St Nicholas Newport. That gothic revival in turn beckoned us into 19th century and later ‘scary’ gothic literature. 19th century tempted us into the Pre-Raphaelites and painting back to the Mona Lisa.

But, why history?

When we revived the Lincoln Book Festival a few years ago, we debated long what its theme should be. We had to do little more than look out of the window of the room where we were meeting to see some of the city’s Roman remains. Over the road was the Gothic Cathedral and on through the Georgian Minster Yard was the Norman Castle.

Lincoln is a place where history seeps from every stone.

The city’s origins are owed to the Romans – whose ancient city can still be seen today – and ‘Lindum Colonia’ has played an influential role in English history ever since.

In 1215, an original of Magna Carta was brought to the city and today Lincoln Castle is the only place in the world where the great charter can be seen side-by-side with an original of the 1217 Charter of the Forest. This year with the added attraction of the Doomsday Book.

Thousands of years of history can still be seen in the fabric of the city, known as the ‘Birthplace of the Tank’ due to its engineering heritage from the early 20th century.

So, history chose itself. To be honest, so did gothic as this year’s theme.

Yet, for all our wonderful speakers, what I looked forward to most was reading the shortlisted pieces of our flash fiction competition. We invited people of all ages to write a piece of gothic fiction in just fifty words. At the first evening of the Festival we will hear the winners. I can’t wait.

Details of the Festival can be found on the website 
Tickets from Lincoln Drill Hall

The Lincoln Book Festival is in many ways remarkable. Some years ago it was in effect run by the local authority and was really quite big. Then its funding vanished and a dedicated group of people fought to keep it alive. Many are still trustees and without them it simply wouldn’t be here.

Festivals need money, as indeed do charitable arts venues like the Drill Hall 

In the early days of independence the Book Festival received vital support from the Lindum Group. Since then there have been a number of wonderful and loyal sponsors.