Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The House of Dog

How many times have you walked past an abandoned church and thought " I wonder what they did with the vicar?".

No?, maybe it's just me then...

They have sanctuaries for donkeys, greyhounds and woodlice (probably) so why not one for abandoned clergymen?

Perhaps there is a farm somewhere out in the country where retired vicars are free to frolic, running in slow motion through cornfields, the wind blowing through their cassocks as they taste freedom for the first time.

It can't be easy for them.

A lifetime of ministering to wizened old coffin dodgers who smell of peppermint and dust and baptising babies that look like Gollum's elbow takes a special type of parson, and being shunted into the ecclesiastical sidings at the end of it all must be difficult.

I have a mental picture of them lined up in their hundreds like redundant penguins, hoping someone will adopt them and offer them a new life where it's ok to say 'bum' and wear an egg stained tracksuit without people writing to the Telegraph.

In the meantime, some daft bugger has put a little tribute to our brothers of the cloth in the cages outside the old St Nicholas church in Bristol.

Nice to know someone shares my view.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Shadows Part 2

"The action of saving or being saved from sin, error or evil"  (OED)

When a story finds me, I follow it .
Sometimes, however, it leads to places I would rather not go.

On  June 10th, 1944 at Salon la Tour, near Limoges, an SS Panzer Division set up a temporary base.
Halted in their rush to Normandy to engage the Allied invasion by the activities of the local resistance, they set up roadblocks and began a search of the surrounding villages.

This was the web that Violette Szabo was caught in, but she was not the focus of their attention.

 Helmut Kampfe, a battalion commander, had been captured by the local Maquis, and executed.
On discovering his fate, his friend and fellow commander ordered a reprisal of staggering brutality designed to stun the local population into obedient complicity.

Even by the standards of the day it was a horrific reaction and had he not become a casualty of the war shortly after, he would have faced a court martial for his actions.

 Entering the village of Oradour sur Glane his troops gathered the entire population of 642 people, separated them into manageable groups and murdered them.
The women and children were herded into the church and killed, and the whole area looted and burned.

The village has been preserved intact as a memorial and a shrine to these, and other victims of a systematic destruction that we struggle to comprehend.

Visiting it now is a strange experience.

Tourists in summer clothes walk round its frozen tableau in respectful silence, amazed at the sewing machines still left on decaying tables, bicycles propped in sheds and ancient cars slowly collapsing into rusting heaps.

People entering the church take care to soften the sound of their shoes on the flagstones for fear of disturbing the silence, as if the air itself was charged with the horror of what took place here.
A small boy is reprimanded for asking what happened in a normal tone, as if the enquiry is insensitive and disrespectful.

But there is another aspect to this place, which nothing can prevent.
Despite all their efforts to freeze this place, time and nature have conspired to reclaim it.
Birds do sing here, and flowers grow in the corners not cleared of new growth by the site's curators.

There is something uncomfortable about the need to promote the pain and suffering that took place here with no respite, as if only by provoking us into imagining children dying in fear and pain can we learn from history.
Everywhere are signs encouraging us to remember, but remember what?
It is too huge, to vile and too far from my experience to comprehend, and the site itself has a life of its own now, like an abandoned film set.
A survivor of Auschwitz, on returning decades later was heard to say "It looks so lovely now."
What she saw was ordered tidiness and lawns where before there had only been frozen filth, and she struggled to connect it with her recollections of her time there.

Maybe those who follow have an obligation to keep faith with these times and places but in a way that allows redemption and offers a place in our world now.

I returned the following morning to pay my respects and offer an alternative.
I wanted to celebrate what had been here before this happened, and take a moment to try to imagine what things were like when this was just a place where children were daft, and made a noise, and ran about and laughed.

It only took a few seconds to float some childish bubbles through the burnt out shell of the church.
A few seconds that was about hope, and fun, and life.

Security did not agree.

I left, stung by their disapproval, and made my way out through the visitor centre where, for 10 euros you can buy an account of the massacre at Oradour, complete with photographs of charred children's corpses and pornographic descriptions of their suffering.

I think they deserve better.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Shadows Part 1

Where do you begin with the past?
How do you bridge the gap between human experiences then and now and why should it matter?
But it does matter.
It matters a lot.

In October 1942 a little girl named Tania lost her father to the war.
Sometime around Jan/Feb of 1945 the same seismic convulsion claimed her mother too.
She has grown up with no memory of her father, and only two fleeting recollections of her mother, and yet her whole life has been accompanied by the legend of her mother's heroism.
Even if she wanted to, she can never escape the iconic status of her legacy.
For her, the past still defines the present.

There are books, a film, even a museum to Violette Szabo, and like Joan of Arc she has been passed into public ownership as a national heroine, a poster girl for the appalling conflict that shaped my parents generation.

Her story is almost unbelievable, and not helped by post war flag wavers who couldn't resist adding layers of sensational speculation and inaccuracy.
The truth is available now, 70 years on, and no less extraordinary.

Married to a French Legionnaire she had known for only 6 weeks, she was widowed at 21.
He died at El Alamein 4 months after the daughter he would never see was born.
Violette was inducted into the Special Operations Executive, trained like a commando and sent into occupied France to work with the Resistance.

Everything about her story is tinged with a terrible, tragic romance.
The coded poem she was given to memorise is both touching and hauntingly prophetic in the light
of events.
In photographs she looks so young, so beautiful and so resolute that it's hard to separate her from the image history has bequeathed her.
And yet she was just a girl who married, had a child, joined up with all the others who were eager to do their bit and tried her best to survive the nightmare.

On her second mission into France, in support of the Allied landings on D-Day, she was travelling as a courier between two resistance networks when the car she was in was stopped at a roadblock.
She and the driver, a local Maquis leader, made a run for it but it was already too late.
They escaped through a farm but a damaged ankle slowed her down and she was forced to stop.
She held them off for half an hour with a Sten gun which gave her companion time to get away but her capture was inevitable.
At that arbitrary spot on the map, and in that twist of circumstance, she was lost to the darkness.

After the war her daughter, now aged of 5, was taken to Buckingham Palace to collect her mother's posthumous George Cross from King George VI, and the world moved on.


It's just a junction on a country lane on the outskirts of a quaint but unremarkable French village.
It's hard to imagine roadblocks, the sounds of gunfire, and shouting, and running feet.
Most of the cottages are owned by Brits now, and since the best of summer has gone, so have they.
Little has changed here in seven decades, though.
The farm looks the same as it did then, as do all the other features that figure in the evidence of a drama that happened so, so long ago.
I've made images from old photographs of mother and daughter and try to catch their shadows in the afternoon sun but the clouds roll in, the rain falls and the light fades.
Did I really think I could make something happen here?
What on earth was I doing, trying to pull the past into the present, chasing ghosts down blind alleys and hoping for significance where it no longer existed.

And then the lights on the farm buildings come on, and there they are, together.
For a brief moment they are in the same place, at the same time, their shadows as real as yours and mine.
And in a moment, they are gone.