Friday, 26 December 2008

war remnants museum

I drag myself around town in the sweltering heat like a reluctant snail.

I seek refuge in an icy air-conditioned cafe for a premature lunch.

Reluctant ever to leave I get stuck into Graham Greene's 'A Quiet American', which is set in a Saigon of almost 60 years ago. All the street names are French, and the Americans are only just beginning to become deviously involved. A city of terrorist attacks, bombs, assassinations. Marvellously evocative, like a 'film noir.' Did they ever make a film of it? I must track down the Hotel Continental where the expats and journalists mingled on the terrasses, and killed time in drink. Does it still exist?

I crawl across the road to the War Museum, and stay there for hours, rapt.

The 'Quiet American' of the story was killed early on, before even the French had left, but many hundreds of thousands came here to replace him in subsequent years, and the museum traces the ensuing conflict, mainly in photographs.

Many photographers of all nations died here.

Larry Burrows, a Londoner, worked for Life magazine and pioneered the use of colour photography in his photo-journalism, which was still rare. An unprecedented and highly influential 14-page colour spread was published in Life. He was killed in a helicopter crash in Laos in 1971, with several colleagues.

Dickey Chapelle from Wisconsin, christened Georgette Louise, died in 1965 of wounds.

Sean Flynn (son of Erroll), went missing with his companion Dana Stone on Cambodian Route J. They are pictured, young and dashing on their motorbikes, the day they left towards a Vietcong roadblock.

Kyoishi Sawada, a Japanese, died in Cambodia 1970. His Pulitzer prize winning photo of escaping villagers crossing a river is on show, as is a later picture of him and the same villagers in safety.

Many others are remembered.

Perhaps the most famous was Robert Capa, who had already covered Spain, and many terrains in the Second World War. He was at the Normandy landings in 1944, and followed on to Paris. He was a Jew from Budapest, glamorous and brave it's said, and had a romance with Ingrid Bergmann, which was apparently the subtext and inspiration of Hitchcock's Rear Window! He also found time to set up Magnum Agency in 1947.

David Halberstam wrote in his book 'Requiem ' :

"We who were print people, and who dealt only with words and not images, always knew that the photographers were the brave ones, and they held in that war - which began in an era of still photography and ended with colour film and videotape, beamed by satellite to TV stations all over the world - a special place in our esteem. We deferred to them, reporter to photographer, as we did in few other venues"

While I look at the deeply moving photos the air seems to congeal, I sweat profusely, and the heavens open with a massive and prolonged hammering on the tin roof of the Museum. The tanks and airplanes in the yard disappear behind sheets of rain. Catharsis? How would it have been to fight in conditions like this? Unimaginable. I spend another couple of hours wandering, and wondering at all this madness. More terrible images of the aftermath of War. Too much to bear really, but I need to see it all. To witness and honour.

blues continued....

a computer blip......

.......with calf eyes, who mysteriously failed to reappear after a summer break; indiscretions in the changing room it was conjectured. We giggled heartlessly in prurient clusters.

'Boggy' Marsh was a lovely gentle man, who usually taught Latin and Maths; he was doomed, on Wednesday afternoons when it rained, to lead Religious Studies in a tiered chemistry lab to a horde of frustrated athletes, and sports skyvers ( a volatile mix). One very rainy season we ploughed chaotically through the Book of Job. What a pain that was!

Young Mr.Dixon, fresh from some brilliant university, who never stayed long enough to acquire a nickname, inculcated in me a love of English literature, although I could never see the point of scanning a sonnet; hero-worship glosses easily over the unpalatable and incomprehensible.

There was the old guard who had fought in the War - one in Korea - and the new generation who had just missed National Service. They floated and glided around in the same black togas, but were poles apart, from different planets it seemed.

To find out more about my old school, and a boy's growth to manhood, read a semi-fictional account of it in Julian Barnes' first novel 'Metroland'.
He was a year above me in the Sixth Form. I breathed the same air, but would never have dared speak to him, august as he already seemed. I note with sadness that his wife Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent, died in October.

Back to the present, David is languishing in his room with a temperature and a sore throat, and watching movies. He went to hospital yesterday, and dengue fever (from mosquito bites) is a possible diagnosis. He seems to be on the mend, and has eaten a fried egg for breakfast, with gusto.

I am off to visit air-conditioned museums.

boxing days blues

I note with sadness that Eartha Kitt has died.

And Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate for literature; born to Jewish immigrants in the East End, he was brought up and educated in Hackney as the family prospered, and died in a beautiful Georgian square in Notting Hill, married to that scion of the Longfords, my heroine Lady Antonia Fraser. A fine actor himself, he wrote some of the most iconic plays of the twentieth century. Rags and schmattes (he was born in Fashion Street) to literary riches.

Last night I dreamt of Mecca. No muezzin sounded , only cries of schoolboys, 'See you outside Mecca at one.' This was Mecca by-the-Thames. Mecca the caterers did our school lunches half a century ago by the water at Blackfriars.

The dream was no doubt prompted by sight of drying cassava roots on our biking odyssey. Cassava roots? Miraculously, and unbeknownst to me, that bane of English school dinners, tapioca, is extracted from the root! The tapioca was always cold by the time I got to the sweetie counter - I was a shy and unpushy child. I never knew it otherwise. 'Toad spawn' we'd cry in unsimulated disgust, and pass on to the wobbly pink blancmange. Sometimes the damp glutinous globules became ammunition when the teachers backs were turned, and flew through the air.

Where are those teachers now?

'Boggy' Marsh, and 'Bonso' ? Monsieur Le Mansois -Field (Froggy) who gave up trying to teach us French before Christmas, to enchant us with his reading of ghost stories? 'Narbo' - the slave driver - we called our Latin teacher, the mildest of men. 'Jock' (Dr.Law-Robertson) , was a refined Scotsman who taught me Goethe and Schiller; his discreet use of peppery cologne ( I can smell it still) excited ribald gossip in the locker-room, in an age when real men wore only Old Spice and, that, never on a weekday. What a long way mens' cosmetics have come since those ante-diluvian times! Now we boys are awash in potions and lotions, and splash on fragrances, from vile to intoxicating, as though there were no tomorrow. What a marketing triumph!

What has become of the softly-spoken and rather unathletic gym teacher with calf eyes