If every gnu in London zoo
You’d have to say, ‘That’s the end of the gnus –
– And now it’s time for the weather.’
– by Rod Hull
If every gnu in London zoo
You’d have to say, ‘That’s the end of the gnus –
– And now it’s time for the weather.’
– by Rod Hull
Down near the jungle
From whence we get our zoos,
Cub reporters are a-hunting
– by Julie Holder
The performance I attended was held on Saturday 3 September 2016 at The New Theatre, Cardiff.
No Man’s Land is an absurdist play by Harold Pinter written in 1974 and first produced and published in 1975. Its original production was at the Old Vic Theatre in London by the National Theatre on 23 April 1975, and it later transferred to Wyndhams Theatre, July 1975 – January 1976, the Lyttelton Theatre April – May 1976, and New York October – December, returning to the Lyttelton, January – February 1977.
“A large room in a house in North West London” on a summer night and the following morning.”
Hirst is an alcoholic upper-class literature who lives in a grand house presumed to be in Hampstead, with Foster and Briggs, respectively his purported amanuensis and man servant (or apparent bodyguard), who may be lovers. Spooner, a “failed, down-at-heel poet” whom Hirst has “picked up in a Hampstead pub” and invited home for a drink, becomes Hirst’s house guest for the night; claiming to be a fellow poet, through a contest of at least-partly fantastic reminiscences, he appears to have known Hirst at university and to have shared mutual male and female acquaintances and relationships. The four characters are named after cricket players.
Patrick Stewart as Hirst, a man in his sixties
Ian McKellen as Spooner, a man in his sixties
Damien Molony as Foster, a man in his thirties
Owen Teale as Briggs, a man in his forties
Following their hit run on Broadway, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to the UK stage in Sean Mathias’ acclaimed production of No Man’s Land, one of the most brilliantly entertaining plays by Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter.
“One summer’s evening, two ageing writers, Hirst and Spooner, meet in a Hampstead pub and continue their drinking into the night at Hirst’s stately house nearby. As the pair become increasingly inebriated, and their stories increasingly unbelievable, the lively conversation soon turns into a revealing power game, further complicated by the return home of two sinister younger men.”
A man in his sixties named Hirst begins a night of heavy drinking (mainly Scotch) in his drawing room with an anonymous peer who he only just met at a pub. Hirst’s overly talkative guest, calling himself a poet, long-windedly explains how he is penetratingly perceptive, until he finally introduces himself as “Spooner”. As the men are becoming more intoxicated, Hirst suddenly rises and throws his glass, while Spooner abruptly taunts Hirst about his masculinity and wife. Hirst merely comments “No man’s land…does Not move…or Change…or Grow old…remains…forever…icy…silent”, Before collapsing twice and finally crawling out of the room.
A young man enters and suspiciously questions Spooner, who now becomes relatively silent, about his identity. The younger man introduces himself as John “Jack” Foster before the entrance of a fourth man, Briggs, who is in his forties and who also unsuccessfully questions Spooner and then bickers with Foster.
At last, Hirst re-enters, having slept, and struggles to remember a recent dream. Foster and Briggs have also started drinking, and they refill the older men’s glasses. Hirst mentions an album of photographs he keeps, commenting on the appearances of the people in the album. He does not appear to fully remember Spooner’s identity, insisting that his true friends are kept safely in the album. He begins drinking straight from the bottle, mutters incoherent statements, and continues to ponder his dreaminvolving someone drowningwhen Spooner abruptly says that he was the one drowning in Hirst’s dream. Hirst drunkenly collapses and Spooner now rushes in to Hirst’s aid, brushing away the two younger men and claiming to be Hirst’s true friend. The younger pair becomes defensive and accusatory, asserting their obligation to protect Hirst against “men of evil”. Foster openly criticises his own past, as well as Hirst’s impulsiveness and alcoholism. It gradually becomes apparent that Foster is Hirst’s apprentice and housekeeper, and Briggs is Hirst’s personal servant. All exit except for Spooner and Foster, the latter of who says, “Listen. You know what it’s like when you’re in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I’ll show you. It’s like this”. He flicks off the lights, causing a blackout.
The next morning, Spooner, alone, stands from his chair and attempts to leave, but the door is locked. Briggs soon enters to deliver Spooner food and champagne, rambling on about how he met Foster and ignoring Spooner’s desire to know why the door was locked. Spooner thinks of a quick excuse to leave; however, when Briggs mentions that both Foster and Hirst are poets, Spooner show vague recognition of this fact.
Hirst himself bursts in and is delighted to see Spooner, whom he oddly mistakes for (or pretends) is an old friend. He speaks as though the two were Oxbridge classmates in the 1930s, which Spooner finally plays along with. Hirst and Spooner then bizarrely discuss scandalous romantic encounters they both had with the same women, leading to a series of increasingly questionable reminiscences, until finally Hirst is accused of having had an affair with Spooner’s own wife. All the while, Hirst refers to Briggs by a variety of inconsistent names and then launches into a rant about once-known faces in his photo album.
Spooner says that Foster, who now reappears, should have pursued his dream of being a poet, instead of working for Hirst. Spooner shows great interest in seeing Hirst’s photo album, but both Briggs and Foster discourage this. All four are now drinking champagne, and Foster, for his own pride and dignity’s sake, abruptly asserts that he desired to work in this house of his own choice, where he feels privileged to serve as famous a writer as Hirst. Suddenly, Spooner asks desperately that Hirst consider hiring him as well, verbosely praising his own work ethic and other virtues. After all this, Hirst merely replies “Let’s change the subject for the last time”. And after a pause worriedly asks “What have I said?” Foster explains definitively that Hirst’s statement means that he (Hirst) will never be able to change the subject ever again. Hirst thinks back to his youth, when he mistakenly thought he saw a drowned body in a lake. Spooner now comments, “No. You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.” Hirst responds “I’ll drink to that!” and the lights fade slowly to black.
Production Design and Costume:
The safety curtain (well not the safety one but the scene setting one I’ve forgotten the name of) had imagery reminiscent of a dark, foreboding, forest and tattered edging so it didn’t meet the stage floor uniformally. Somehow due to the 2 or maybe three thin layers of gauze it had a 3D like effect.
The single room setting of the performance has a semi-circular design, as if we were in the keep of a castle except the walls have a square glass brick effect (which seemed to be popular a few years ago or at least my local cinema and bingo hall use a similar effect) due tinged a dark turquoise. The floor has pale pine wooden slats following the semi circular design and a mat/rug with fleur de leis on it coloured deep turquoise and paler turquoise respectively. This carpeting is slightly off centre from the circular pattern of the floorboards as if to non-verbally indicate to the audience that things are not quite as simple and straight forward as they initially appear. To the rear, of centre to the left, is a window hidden behind heavy, dusty it seems, curtains obscuring any natural light entering the room despite the possibility of Hirst going out for his daily walk (which he refuses as it isn’t very light outside when he looks).
On the right is the single door on and off stage. A plain, varnished, wooden door. To the rear a well stocked bar with a cupboard in the bench hiding even more bottles. A few glasses are used during the performance as Hirst always needs another drink and often so do the others.
The room is sparsely furnitured. To either side are free standing lamps, the right of which has a small table with it. Three chairs populate the room. Two are simple wooden ones but the third, off centre to the left, is the most important. It is Hirst’s green Chesterfield chair which only he ever sits in as the master of the house. Next to it is a small side table which he places his whiskey glass upon. A trolley, with fold out wings and covered in a white sheet to make it a table, is used for Spooner’s breakfast at the start of the second half. It is wheeled in and abruptly out by Briggs.
Costume wise Hirst wears a navy three piece suit but for most of the first half this is replaced by a striped night gown. Spooner wears a dull great suit and in the second half for a brief time has on his Mac in readiness to leave. Foster and Briggs wear clothes in the style of the 1970s i.e. brown boots, leather jackets and bellbottom trousers. In the second half, with their roles as house staff revealed, Briggs wears a blue three piece suit, later discarding the jacket with his sleeves rolled up, and Foster reappears in the last few scenes in a pastel suit. In contrast to the Americanised version I have to immediately note Stewart didn’t have a wig during the performance I saw and I don’t think McKellen had a ponytail (and obviously the roles of Foster and Briggs were different actors).
The venue was sold out and it was the final night. As is often the case here when its sold out there was barely any room to move at the entrance as they put the programme selling stall at the bottom of the stairs which start right by the left side of the entrance doors. Across the small entrance way is the box office with one, maybe two, people able to serve through the small windows. Of course people queue here too and I haven’t accounted for the people standing around chatting idly having gotten themselves drinks from the bar. Saying that once you got up stairs there was more room, not much seating but that is to be expected due to the limited space.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the boxes were used for their original purpose of ‘being seen to be seen at the theatre’ thought they are renowned for their poor view of the stage. As it is they probably worked out cheaper than some of the stall seats for tonight’s performance.
The New Theatre used to be the premier location for stage plays in Cardiff but after the establishment of the Wales Millennium Centre it was quickly usurped and although still respectable it never regained this position. It’s heyday, during my life time, was probably around 1996 when Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, directed his stage adaptation of Uncle Vanya transposing Chekov’s Uncle Vanya to a turn-of-the-century Welsh setting, emphasising the hardships of Welsh industrial life in the slate quarries and Welsh-English turmoil. Aside from the New Theatre and WMC Chapter Arts Centre, the Sherman Theatre and recently the Gates Art Centre have grown in prominence as venues for the arts in Cardiff.
The play itself I enjoyed but I think there is an important caveat to this: I knew what the meta-narrative of the play was regarding Pinter’s mindset when he wrote it and what it represented to him. What we see portrayed on the stage is not literal. Metaphor is heavily used in this play and the audience are hinted towards this reading when Spooner proclaims his joy at its use by Hirst in the first act.
Hirst is an old man at the end of his life consumed by memories which he cannot recollect with any accuracy. He often talks of a photo album he has and the faces in it yet he himself doesn’t recognise Spooner at the start and indeed we as an audience must ask if, when he does acknowledge him as a friend from his youth, if the conversation they are having is actually between old acquaintances or if Spooner is playing along and making up stuff which Hirst, being a braggard, pretends to remember but doesn’t. In fact we could ask if any of the characters, apart from Hirst, even do exist at all or perhaps speculate that they represent different aspects of himself – Foster as his young brash self who sees opportunities in the future and is very cocky; Briggs as his masculine side aggressive, objective and arrogant; Spooner as his poetic aspect and view of old age reflecting how, now at the end of his days, he thinks back to his youth but cannot recall it with accuracy and wants to ignore, if not outright dismiss, his old age from himself and instead ‘remembers’ someone drowning but can’t recall their face. Perhaps we take this as it is him seeing himself drowning metaphorically in life unable to escape from himself.
Of course there are many ways to read this play and that is, for the most part, intentional. It is however also its weakness as you must have some knowledge of Pinter, or at least writers of his generation, and how the use of language is multilayered with more than a single understanding. Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett, (premiered on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris) is perhaps the greatest example of this use of dialogue. Symbolism and metaphor are replete throughout the work and for an audience not prepared for this they may declare it pretentious as they are unprepared. If you have not watched a work like this before I think it wise to watch the film version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first staged in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) to see if this sort of play is to your liking. In fact it would be hard to deny the influence Beckett and Stoppard must have had on Pinter when you make comparisons.
It would be easy to see this play as a response to Waiting For Godot. There are parallels between Vladimir and Hirst contrasting that of Estragon and Spooner but in both pairs certain aspects are exchanged. Beckett, in a correspondence reflects that “Estragon is inert and Vladimir restless.” In a twist we see Hirst, who of the pair is the slightly better off as Vladimir is, is mostly sitting for much of the first act despite how spry he is in the second, and in contrast Spooner, a poet (just as Estragon should have been Vladimir comments) is very spry unlike Estragon who is mostly seen to be sitting or reclining. In Waitng For Godot it is Vladimir who is constantly reminding Estragon but here Spooner reminds Hirst. In the first stage production of Waiting For Godot, which Beckett oversaw, both are “more shabby-genteel than ragged…Vladimir At least is capable of being scandalised…on A matter of etiquette when Estragon begs for chicken bones or money.” In No Man’s Land Hirst is scandalised by Spooner’s accusations of youthful infidelity and, while eating his breakfast, Spooner uses the serviette as a bib instead of placing it on his lap (and indeed when putting his coat on forgets to remove it). There are many facets which could be explored in analysing the intertextuality of the pieces but that should be left for another time and place.
This is not a play of events but of moods. It is a dialogue about themes which often haunted Pinter throughout his career – most obviously those of memory and death. I highly recommend it but this is one of those occasions where you are better off knowing what happens so you can focus on the nuances of the actor’s performances. If I had a criticism of the one I attended it was the audience not knowing the tone. Some laughed at any point that might be potentially comedic, for example when Hirst collapses and then crawls out of the room, but these scenes could also be played very seriously (which I believe was the intent this night) so it seemed there was a dissonance between performance and audience on the night. Of course we must reflect that the line between a tragedy and comedy is a fine line. In tragedy we identify with them and their inability to prevent the course of events but in comedy we anticipate it and take joy in their suffering. I feel the play could easily be played to either extreme. Certainly McKellen was playing to the comedic angle while Stewart played a very serious figure and somehow, as hard as it might be to believe, they did not gel on stage although this may have been intentional due to the characters’ contrasting natures. As for Molony as Foster he played his role with much energy and easily interacted with McKellen who he has directed in other plays a number of times now. Teale as Briggs was suitably intimidating and stern. He did however remind me of Danny Dyer and, unsurprisingly, I discovered that Dyer had performed this role a few years ago in another production which lead me to question if Teale was imitating Dyer or if Dyer, by some fluke of nature, had discovered a role all but made for him he fit it so perfectly.
It was an excellent performance in every respect but the audience seemed to be at odds with the intended tone at times.
Outside the stage doors I didn’t see the autograph hunters who are always present at these things. There was an A4 printed sign in the stage door saying the cast would only be signing things to do with the production (i.e. Don’t you dare come here with things relating to Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Stella, etc). After the show the theatre manager, who for some reason was wearing a full white tie dinner suit, said no one could take selfies and you probably wouldn’t even get an autograph. Ian McKellen to his credit tried to sign as many autographs as possible as did Damien Molony and Owen Teale. Unfortunately Patrick Stewart had to rush off as he was about to miss his train though he did try to sign some brochures before leaving.
In summary: Go and see it as it is a classic of modern theatre but know what you are getting into regarding Pinter’s intent. Don’t just go because there are recognisable names otherwise you will be lost when you realise it isn’t going to be as straight forward as something you watch on television or in the cinema.
During this article I replicate the names according to the book’s translation.
The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks are two graphic novels by the Italian graphic novelist/journalist Igort recounting selected experiences of people who lived through the Soviet era. There was an extra modern day chapter at the end as this was a combination of the two previous books in a single volume. It was more or less negative. Interesting but negative. I have read a few reviews which say that he just lets people tell their stories and offers no commentary but I have to protest that as he chooses which stories he recounts, just as a photographer can crop out undesirable elements to compose an image, so I find it is a very negative portrayal of the Soviet era and Russia in particular despite apparently there being some ‘positive’ stories according to other reviews. In all honesty I seriously doubt this book would be allowed in Russia due to its tone (and touching on the experiences of Anna Politkovskaya recounted by her French translator and friend Galina Ackerman.
The book is very beige in colour intentionally as if to replicate the natural deterioration of old documents. Everything looks like it was painted with coffee and reminds me of when I was little staining drawn pirate treasure maps with tea to create this aged effect. His artstyle is very…basic… would be a charitable description for all but the set pieces and portraits in the book. I would not be surprised to find out he is self taught but shocked if I learnt he was professionally trained. The imagery gets across most of the scenery of these accounts but is bland. It often reminds me of the stiff artwork you see on medical boxes or emergency signs intended to give visual instruction. The art work suggests these are unbiased accounts but by their very nature of being personal recollections the narrators are unreliable, intentionally or not, so there is a dissonance between the author’s intent and his results. It is as if he used tracing paper to draw over someone else’s art as his hand is so often unsteady in his line work and when ever he attempts artistic flourish, usually when depicting trauma, so instead of static figures it becomes a confused mess of mixed together metaphorical elements.
It was an interesting read and certainly the things it mentioned will stay with me but then since each part seems to last no more than 2 to 6 pages you have many short anecdotes but none have detail nor alternative perspectives of events so it is hard to come away from this with any other view than it is sensationalism meant to shock rather than inform its audience.
Names and events mentioned in the book include, but are not limited to:
Lazar Kaganovich, Vyaceslav Menzhinsky and Vsevolod Balitsky; Anna Politkovskaya, Galina Ackerman (her friend and French translator), Stanislav Markeov and Anastasia Baburova; Natalia Estemirova, Akhmed Zakayev and Alexander Litvinenko. Walter Duranty regarding his pro-Stalin reports. Talk of the Holomodor and Chechen conflicts. Various stories of people growing up in the Soviet era, secret police, disillusioned young soldiers. The Dubrovka theatre crisis 2002. A school being taken over by Chechens. A part where Anna, according to Galina, believes Homo Sovieticus – the soviet man – is coming back. Accounts of how the conflict began back in 1785 with Giovanni Battista Boetti who called himself Al-Mansur challenging Tsarist Russia and being defeated by General Potemkin. Then mention of Shamil Basayev and his filmed foot amputation where he didn’t flinch.
It then skips to Tolstoy as a young man going to war and then in 1855 declaring the military wasn’t for him and a desire to focus on writing. “Thus began a period of travel and deep reflection. Russia underwent a major social the abolition of serfdom. Tolstoy devoted himself to mediating conflicts between peasants, and he developed sensitivity to social injustice that remained his point of reference, a north star guiding his moral and literary quest.” Anna, according to Galina, ‘…felt Pity for the perpetrators. Pity, because they were broken, miserable people, with their own difficult fates. But it takes a soul of a writer to understand these things. Anna especially loved Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.’ Then we get a bit about how Dostoevsky epileptic fits were caused by the mock execution after arrest for being accused of consorting against the tsarist government in 1849. Then how he was deported to Siberia, wrote House of the Dead and was a foot soldier on the Chinese border.
At this point it covers Anna’s visit to a military base where she insults a major saying ‘he could never understand what kind of woman she is, or about life, as ‘… you’ve never read a single line of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’. Which Personally I don’t believe she did as in such a circumstances that is just begging for him to attack her. And yet, at the same time, journalists do seem to be in a mindset of wanting to be martyrs in their coverage and what better than injuries caused during the visit which would be hard to deny so I can imagine it happening sadly as much as it flies in the face of logic to do something like antagonise someone who is interrogating you. Also it included telegram no. 181 from OGPU deputy chief G. G. Yagoda and director of the Secret Operations department of the OGPU E. G. Evdokimov to local leaders regarding the mass deportation of the kulaks on 15 March 1931. Then a bit about the Ukrainian mystic Paisius Velichkovsky who believed ‘one cannot understand the Russian soul, this people’s ability to endure all kinds of deprivation and suffering without knowing…’
The Ukrainian Notebook
Serafima Andreyevna – lived through the early Soviet takeover etc. Misha whose father had to join the communist party to go up in rank. (Apparently the mentally ill, or anyone whose had treatment, can only ever be a factory worker as they are deemed unstable/unreliable). The persecution of the Kulaks with mentions of Lazar Kaganovich, Vyaceslav Menzhinsky and Vsevolod Balitsky.
Nikolay Vasilievich – forces took over his village, his wife left him for someone with better prospects, he found someone else but she took his children etc. Then he grows ill and is bed ridden. Neighbours provide for him for a while but gradually dwindle away. A guy moves in and secretly signs his name onto the house’s deed and kicks Nikolay out but he gets the house back eventually. His second wife is with a new man and refuses to let Nokolay see his children. OGPU directives regarding kulaks. Walter Duranty speaking positively of the Soviet Union (but framed in such a way as to suggest him being a communist sympathiser. In fact George Orwell wrote a list of people and his name was on it! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orwell’s_list ).
Talk of the Holomodor. Maria Ivanovna speaks of her time growing up. The family owned cow providing enough nutritious milk it saved her life so she carried a photo of it around with her in a locket. She learned to read, became a secretary, went to university, her husband worked in a factory but now years later she doesn’t live with her daughter (who cannot have children and whose husband is on a disability pension)… soSoes the bias stories. Nikolay Ivanovich recollects how in the Soviet era people helped each other and times were good but in modern Ukraine the prices are up and no one has jobs. Radiation affects the landscape and people. The final part covers Serafima’s death.
The Russian Notebook
Events involving Anna Politkovskaya are recounted by Galina Ackerman, her friend and French translator. Basically she is portrayed like a saint who could do no wrong. Novaya Gazeta is spoken of in a similar ‘champions of truth and justice’ blinked manner as Charlie Hebdo was.
He went to where she lived, 8 Lesnaya Ulitsa, and saw the murder scene, went up in the elevator with a mother and child and then left. (Actually this part comes across uncomfortably as he seems so intent on depicting the small girl who seemed afraid of him, a stranger, being in her home building. Whether he understood it was him she was scared of not the circumstances of living in the building where some one was killed seems to have escaped him). He says a painted Christmas sign is ‘rough; not well done’ covering where the blood splattered as if having the right of judging the environment as an outsider. This part ends with Igort recounting that her children told her that someone killed there while she was away in Vienna was an intended assassination of her. Then at Ulitsa Prechistenka it recounts memorials for Stanislav Markeov and Anastasia Baburova. Then some talk of how assassins go about killing dissidents and Stanislav was beaten up by 5 men in Dimtrovskaya Metro.
Chechen police are common in Moscow apparently and have a license to kill, abduct people, beat them up and consider themselves masters of the city. Elza Visaevna Kungayeva – and 18 year old in Grozny who was kidnapped, wrapped in a rug, tortured, raped and buried. Musa – Chechen recounting how Russian soldiers assault, beat, rape and kill in their path. Roman Bagreev – a soldier who refused to carry out orders so was tortured, burned with quicklime, put in a pit (as they do with Chechen civilians. and the captain drops into it and tears his ear off with his bare teeth. Anna wanted him to get a medal of valour his actions (meanwhile he was ostracised and treated like a traitor). The ministry of defence stated there would be no medal or recognition. Dubrovka theatre crisis 2002. She recounts the initial facts and the Chechens declaration that Russia is the real criminal. This is followed by Galina saying Anna could have made a difference but the authorities refused her access though the terrorists knew ad respected her. Instead it was stormed and as the gas used was a secret so no medical aid could be given.
Then there is a part where Anna believes Homo Sovieticus – the Soviet man – is coming back. This is followed by a discussion of where it all began back in 1785 with Giovanni Battista Boetti who called himself Al-Mansur challenging Tsarist Russia and being defeated by General Potemkin, but not before becoming legendary apparently. Chechen soldiers who were captured by the Nazis begged no to be repatriated because life is worse in the Soviet Union (of course this account ignores what we now, many years later, know about the treatment of people by the Nazis which these people at the time would have been ignorant and believing the grass is greener on the other side) . Then mention of Shamil Basayev and his filmed foot amputation where he didn’t flinch.
It then skips to Tolstoy as a young man going to war and then in 1855 declaring the military wasn’t for him and a desire to focus on writing. “Thus began a period of travel and deep reflection. Russia underwent a major social the abolition of serfdom. Tolstoy devoted himself to mediating conflicts between peasants, and he developed sensitivity to social injustice that remained his point of reference, a north star guiding his moral and literary quest.” Then a one page account by Anna of a 19 year old soldier from the 22nd brigade stationed in Chechnya in Summer 2001 saying he justified scalping a man because he was Chechen. Next: Recorded by Zainap Gashaeva, chairwoman of the Women of Cacasus Committee and noted human rights activist – A woman was shown the mutilated and beheaded corpse of her son. An account of a zachistka for a few pages. A young soldier is forced by special forces to shoot tortured men. Later, during a night time operation, he has his legs blown off – which is revealed to be an account from a Chechenya veteran’s forum desantura.ru.
Back with Galina she speaks of Natalia Estemirova who was Anna’s source of information in Chechenya. Akhmed Zakayev who tried to gather information and testimonies regarding crimes. Anna knew Alexander Litvinenko. Anna ‘felt pity for the perpetrators. Pity, because they were broken, miserable people, with their own difficult fates. But it takes a soul of a writer to understand these things. Anna especially loved Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.’ Then we get a bit about how Dostoyevsky’s epileptic fits were caused by the mock execution after arrest for being accused of conspiring the tsar in 1849. Then he was deported to Siberia where he wrote House of the dead and was a foot soldier on the Chinese border.
Then an account where Anna went to a military base, Colonel Alexei Romanov showed her the pits then Major Durakov takes her into a tent verbally berating her, asking if she wanted to go to the banya with him etc and eventually he apparently retorted ‘I I don’t think you could ever understand what kind of woman I am. What would you understand of life? You’ve never read a single line of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’. (Personally whenever I hear things like this I highly doubt them. Under those circumstances it would be asking to be killed. The book comes across like she wanted to be a martyr for journalism which is something I see often over here too). Then apparently at night they had her stand with her back to a grad multiple rocket launcher bas they fired it which carpet bombed a nearby Chechen village. Then they let her go once they had broken her though she said they got nothing from her after days in a bunker and endless interrogation. For the following months she was paranoid whenever she saw a uniform. Crossing the street and having nightmares.
September 2004 – Chechens seize a school and Anna is getting on a plane but she has been poisoned not to mention the seige ended how OMON opened fire after some corpses were thrown out the windows – then a closing line saying Anna had liver and digestion problems up until her death. Then there are page of ten regarding everyone thought she was invincible but we need to keep her example in mind. The next part recounts telegram no. 181 from OGPU deputy chief G G Yagoda and director of the Secret Operations department of the OGPU E G Evdokimov to local leaders regarding the mass deportation of the kulaks on 15 March 1931. Then a bit about the Ukrainian mystic Paisius Velichkovskywho believed ‘one cannot understand the Russian soul, this people’s ability to endure all kinds of deprivation and suffering without knowing…’
Then Galina recounts an old Soviet story of a Jew who asks to emigrate to Israel, returns, asks to go again and again and the immigration office tell him he cannot do this and he must make up his mind once and for all. Which does he prefer? He admits to them ‘I prefer the journey’.
At the end of the book Igort has added a few more modern pieces. Young soldiers, June 2014, were sent to Ukraine without training. Their leaders returned for information. Time passes and the soldiers and the community get on with them helping build things etc for supplies and eventually a message comes for them to return (their leaders are never seen again). They had been abandoned it was felt.
Coal – Yakymivka. Ukraine. People cannot afford the costly coal so they go and cut down forest trees in the dead of night and ‘men who would not hurt a fly’ were implicit with the black market. This was due to a fear/knowledge gas lines to the region were going to be cut off.
Evgeny Myazin- Part 1 young man goes into the army. Sees atrocities and friends killed. Hands in his resign ation and is berated by senior officers. Leaves and is run over by a truck, His remains cannot be repatriated as he was not part of the military at this point. Dead on 3 Sept 2014. Part 2 – 15 Sept family make collections to repatriate his remains. The autopsy indicates her was dead long before the truck incident suggesting he was beaten to death. His mother launched a facebook page which was taken down then put back up. End note regarding censorship laws etc curtailing social media use.
I dislike the profound arrogance of journalists in Britain and this in some ways extends to a jaded mistrust of them on an international level. It is hard to tell what is truth and what is embellishment. There is a profound arrogance to those in the industry and a belief they are above the events they cover. Often the language of speaking down to people is employed as shown with Anna’s pitying the soldiers. Once I attended, in Chepstow, a talk by the BBC’s former political head Nick Robinson and who afterwards insulted the audience, via twitter, mocking how very few of the, mostly OAP aged, audience used Twitter as so few hands were raised when he asked who was on twitter. He is incredibly smug and even recently in a different role he comes across as such. Considering how much lying and manipulation we have had here in Britain during the past decade even the best of them is viewed in a jaded manner nowadays even without similar acts of self aggrandisement and disrespect to those who would give the time to listen to them.
Maybe Anna was an honest, good, journalist but this book is so biased in its coverage of her it’s hard not to automatically baulk and challenge it. It certainly presents her having no concern for her own safety which is meant to come across as a positive but instead seems more like an arrogant death wish as if believing she was beyond challenge – as if a press pass gave her immunity to prosecution. It even goes as far as to say everyone thought she was invincible and were shocked she could die! I suppose you could compare it to Charlie Hebdo. Though they are, at least here, hailed as champions of free speech if you look at some of the things they publish it does come across as them seeking to cause controversy not take the unpopular step of presenting hard truths people refuse to admit to themselves about the world around them. Journalists have a fetish for martyrdom to order to create a legacy for themselves. If a person kept walking on a cliff edge and suddenly a gust of wind pushed them off would we speak of them as a brave person or as a fool? There is a fine line between intellectual courage, to expose the obscured truth, and being foolhardy in opening Pandora’s box. Hmm this is making me sound very much a russophile though I can recognise the weaknesses there too as I do in any country – especially my own.
As much as it was good to read (and I would be interested in his other works) I found the book distasteful and incredibly biased in the modern sections. I believe the military events happened but at the same time believe this sort of thing happens in military organisations around the world including, most notably, Guantanamo Bay and many events of the Iraq War. Even recently yet another training exercise in Brecon (Mid-Wales) resulted in more deaths! There are many things that happen in the military that would be unacceptable otherwise – to pretend it only happens in one country is blind rhetoric. It must be understood the circumstances which military personnel find themselves in calls for certain mindsets and an understanding that orders are absolute not optional whether you agree with them or not. There is a reason in English we have the oft used phrase ‘the dogs of war’ referring to soldiers and it has long been a cliche when used.
Maybe you wouldn’t agree but in these days of myriad truths its hard to not be weary of everyone who tries to speak with authority. It is a sign of the anti-intellectualism arising in Western culture nowadays sadly that people are not ready to question and challenge having replaced the opiate of religion with that of social media and instant gratification via the internet making them more docile than ever. Too many lies, like the fable about ‘crying wolf’, from those we are meant to trust has made everyone a non-believer sleep walking towards danger due to overstimulation induced apathy.
However allow me to end on a more positive note – In this day and age of multimedia and the Internet we are no longer restricted to accepting one or two sources of information. We can consume it from a number of different sources; from different nations, creeds, ideologies, political leanings, languages and so on. We must take responsibility for our own perspective and be proactive in gaining knowledge to gain our own, balanced, understanding of the world we live in. We must always be willing to challenge our own perspective on events and accept if we were wrong or misinformed initially. It is all too easy to allow ourselves to sit in an echo-chamber listening to the opinions of those we know will agree and re-enforce our own views. We must be ready to, as Plato’s metaphor of the cave demonstrates, emerge from the cave of ignorance into the light of knowledge. I do believe that, to some extent, the events recounted in the book occurred but to what extent what we are presented with was the unbiased reality and not a constructed truth must be questioned. Always be ready to question otherwise you will be serving someone else’s agenda.
The yak is the talkative species of ox
and that’s how he passes the bull.
And over the eyes of the sheep in their flocks,
he’s usually pulling the wool.
The way you can tell them apart is a snap
for the fact of the matter is
the bull never bothers to open his yap
and the yak never closes his.
The leopard, the lion, the hawk and the dove
are scribbling notes in the snow
as they listen to speeches and sermons on love
from the yak who surely should know.
Not a bull can be heard in the Himalayas –
the bulls have gone home to relax.
The racket you hear in the mountains all day is
– by J Patrick Lewis
A tutor who taught on the flute
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot,
Said the two to the tutor,
‘Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?’
– by Anon.
He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again and found it was
A letter from his wife.
‘At length I realize,’ he said,
‘The bitterness of Life!’
He thought he saw a buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.
‘Unless you leave this house,’ he said,
‘I’ll send for the Police!’
He though he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
‘The one thing I regret,’ he said,
‘Is that it cannot speak!’
He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
‘If this should stay to dine,’ he said,
‘There won’t be much for us!’
He thought he saw a Kangaroo
That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
‘Were I to swallow this,’ he said,
‘I should be very ill!’
He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bear without a Head.
‘Poor thing,’ he said, ‘poor silly thing!’
‘It’s waiting to be fed!’
He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
‘You’d best be getting home,’ he said:
‘The nights are very damp!’
He thought he saw a Garden-Door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A double Rule of Three:
‘And all its mystery,’ he said,
‘Is clear as day to me!’
He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said,
‘Extinguishes all hope!’
– By Lewis Carroll