Bird Droppings from Estonia: Winter is the time for books and quality television shows
Arvamus 06 Jan 2011 Hilary BirdEWR
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Dear Friends,

Winter is in full swing. The temperature is down to –10 on a warm day and all is white and serene. When the sun shines, which is often, the light is dazzling – my light-sensitive glasses darken as much as on any summer’s day. During the day people clear their gardens, their roofs and the space in front of their houses from the ubiquitous snow. School children are doing what school kids have always done – having a whale of a time sliding down the two-metre (six foot) banks created by snowplough road clearance and displaced snow from yards and gardens. Neighbour Anti, cig in mouth, fell off our garage roof but came to no harm because his fall was cushioned by a great heap of snow - it reaches well above my head. Anti’s snow business is always accompanied by Happy the Hound who delights in chasing the snow thrown from his shovel. When she gets over excited she bites Anti’s shovel. One assumes this is because she is a northern hound – the Labrador was a result of ad-hoc breeding by early settlers of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, in the 16th century. There don’t seem to have been any indigenous dogs when the first fishing companies arrived - the explorers never mention any.

Young humans (thickly muffled against the cold) are dragged on sleds by their mums along pedestrian pathways of solid, packed snow carved out of the icy mounds, to ensure they are getting a daily ration of fresh, if chilly, air whilst the odd skier can be seen dashing down Suur Kaar [the street that HB lives on in Tartu, ed.]. In the evening, around 16.00, as the street lamps light up, the landscape is full of glittering, tiny sparkles. It’s dark by 17.30 and, at night itself, when all sensible folk are indoors, the view from my window, seen through the bare chestnut and linden trees, illuminated by yellow street lights and casting mysterious shadows, is sheer magic… It’s cold, of course, but not the sink-into-your-bones damp sort that I experienced in the UK in December. Here the cold is crisp and dry – any moisture in the air must be frozen solid … and, of course, folk are prepared with padded jackets, sensible boots and woolly hats and gloves - “not the sort of thing I would wear to the Oscars,” as Joanna Lumley says in her wonderful BBC programme about the Northern Lights, but essential …

The freezing nights are best viewed from the window of a cosy, warm room with a cat asleep by the stove. Jelli fits this requirement to perfection. No bold outdoor puss, she, although she did join me on the front doorstep to watch the Happy Hound perform. For 30 seconds. Yesterday she sneaked past the sleeping bag hung between my two front doors – a temporary draught excluder – seeking the grass, I strongly suspect, that she uses as a purgative. Usually I grow some cat grass for the winter months but I have been ill (rotten cold) and have not performed my mog minion tasks as well as I should have. J. Bean was out in the cold for the hour or so that I was away and I came back to find her huddled up to the front door squeaking piteously whilst being watched with disdain by Miisu-kiisu (from downstairs) who demands to be let out in all weathers and a long haired white Persian that matched the snow… Cat grass has now been put to grow and Jelli has been fussed over mightily. While we are on the subject, I recently discovered that the name for a group of felines is a ‘clowder’ … a clowder of cats – love it! The name for a gathering of ravens, as all Ruth Rendell fans will know, is an ‘unkindness’ …

Good crop of reading material
Winter is, more than ever, the time for TV and books and there has been a good crop this season. I was given Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall for Christmas and am in the process of wolfing it down with great pleasure. I have read most of Mantel’s books, as, along with Helen Dunmore, I regard her as one of the best living UK writers. I very much liked Hil’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992) about the French Revolution and Wolf Hall is another historical novel in the same vein - treating characters usually seen in an unflattering light in a more sympathetic way. In the case of the French Revolution it was Marat and Robespierre and in Wolf Hall the central protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, lower class upstart, autodidact and lawyer-bureaucrat extraordinaire. Who ever said bureaucrats were faceless? Thomas Cromwell made a difference – he was the man who, along with Archbishop Cramner, was responsible for the imposition of the Royal Supremacy when Big Harry, not the pope, becoming head of the Church in England and sparked the Protestant Reformation of England.

The facts are pretty accurate – I checked after scrabbling around for my Tudor bible – the Pelican series Tudor England by Prof. Stanley Bindoff (London University), first published in 1950 but still the best there is, in my opinion. Like all people who make a big difference, opinions very a lot. Simon Scharma, in his History of Britain, presents Cromwell as a latter day Stalin but the Pelican Prof takes another view – “great ability, boundless ambition and self-confidence, and insatiable greed, all these Cromwell shared with his first patron [Cardinal Wolsey]. But they drove him forward by a rather different road. Where Wolsey had been a priest, Cromwell was a priest-hating layman; where Wolsey craved the pomp of power, Cromwell was content with its substance; where Wolsey mistrusted parliaments, Cromwell managed them … a political achievement without precedent… Of no other parliament before [the Reformation Parliament of 1529 - 1536] had so much been required in the form of legislation ... It was Cromwell who, under the eye of the King, and with the expert help of the judges and bishops, drafted and redrafted … long and complicated documents until every claim had been pegged out, every contingency provided for, every loophole stopped. It is not only as a breaker of religious houses, but as the architect of a Church that Thomas Cromwell deserves to be remembered. Later he writes, “It is largely to Cromwell that we owe the fact, with its indisputable if immeasurable consequences, that in England the Scriptures thus early ceased to be the forbidden handbook of the agitator and became … the common property of the nation. ” Well, speaking as an ex-workaholic bureaucrat who tried to make a difference, I think the two Hilarys and Prof. Bindhoff (how I love his English!) all agree on the Cromwell verdict - fond of Si Sharma as I am.

All the stars of the English Renaissance appear in Wolf Hall– overbearing, obsessive, mercurial Henry VIII, the much maligned Katherine of Aragon (rather an able consort and very much aware of her status as the daughter of Isabella of Navarre and Ferdinand of Castile), foxy, prick-teasing Anne Boleyn, suave, opulent Wolsey, austere Cramner, clever, hard working manipulative Cromwell. Not to mention a cast of minor characters bristling with life and vitality including dogs (several) called Bella and a cat called Marlinspike. There is no modernistic play with space and time. The narrative is chronological but treated in an impressionistic manner - the author dipping in and out of her large gallery of characters, situations and landscapes with aplomb keeping a grip on the developing big picture whilst not allowing it to detract from the real meat of the novel - the humans. The portrait of Thomas More knocks the sanctimonious Robert Bolt - Paul Scofield Man of all seasons version soundly off its pedestal…

I have been able to complement Wolf Hall with the TV series The Tudors. Accurate it ain’t - Henry is too young, his sister was never married to the King of Portugal, let alone murdered the old sod, and I doubt very much that court etiquette would allow Harry and Anne to schmoozle and snog openly at table, etc. Having said that, it’s good on character. Big Harry is busting with testosterone and Anne B is rather like I imagined, not a raving beauty but with sex appeal and knows how to use it. The series is really just sumptuously dressed, racily directed, soft porn (although the Estonian sub titles are very prim) with an interesting range of Tudor underwear going up and down like a tart’s knickers. A great piece of hokum to amuse oneself when burdened with a filthy cold and honking one’s way through six packs of toilet paper …

Oksanen’s Puhastus
The other Big Book of the season, also dominated by history, meticulous research and the lives of ordinary people caught up in great narratives, has been Purge, [/i]Puhastus[/i], by the interesting Finnish-Estonian writer, Sofi Oksanen. In this case the great narrative is the occupation of Eastern Europe by the USSR and its aftermath. Purge is a book that works on many levels. It takes no prisoners but it’s subtle, managing to be visceral without describing its abundant horrors in lurid detail. Not least of its accomplishments, it’s a conduit for informing an ignorant world (by winning international prizes left, right and centre) about what happened here in Eesti in opposition to Russian crap about all Estonians being 'fascists.' Although, unlike the Mantel narrative, the book bobs backward and forward in time, it builds up suspense in the manner of Stieg Larson’s Millennium Trilogy but like the Mantel, there’s a lot of detail that accentuates the humanity of the characters and makes their environment almost palpable. Oksanen and Larson also share a crusading conscious: Purge contains an important indictment of the thoroughly shameful Tallinn skin trade (mentioned several times in the Millennium Trilogy, by the way) that many Estonians just shrug off. Is this because the thuggery of centuries of occupation has left Estonians unable or unwilling to protest? I don’t know. It’s a marvellous book, too, about women (all so much more 3-dimensional than the men who are cardboard cut outs) and about ‘Estonia.’ A quiet but nervy Estonia, where tension ratchets up in an idyllic rural setting where “crickets chirped and the night grew, little animals ran in the grass, and lights went on in a faraway house” and where a woman goes calmly back to housework after she has been atrociously abused by the Soviet police. The defining moment – the Greek catharsis, the actual purge - is violent, shocking and described with stark brevity, but I shan’t spoil it for those who have yet to read it. Suffice it to say that the action has the aura of necessity about it rather than a hotheaded act of revenge and is followed by a ray of hope. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. The play is on here in Tartu. I must go and see it! More later.

Pick of History Channel TV History Channel (now with subtitles in Estonian)

has been Last voices of WWI. This moving series was completed in 2008. Most of the interviewees are now dead, including plumber Harry Patch who fought at Passchendaele in 1917. In 2004, aged 106, our Harry met up with Charles Kuentz, a 107-year-old veteran who was on the opposite side at Passchendaele (and on the French side in WW II !). "I was a bit doubtful before meeting a German soldier. Herr Kuentz is a very nice gentleman, however. He is all for a united Europe and peace – and so am I." Chas Kuentz brought a tin of Alsatian biscuits and Patch, who was born at Coombe Down near Bath, gave him a bottle of Somerset cider in return. The Last Fighting Tommy (2007) was the old boy’s autobiography: Harry funded the lifeboat Doris and Harry with the proceeds.

It’s one thing to watch military academicians (many who have never been in a battle) analyse tactics and quite another to listen to the testaments of the Daisy and Mildreds, Donalds and Harrys caught up in a vicious war. “We came across a lad from A company,” writes Harry, “He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: “Shoot me.” He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was “Mother.” I remember that lad in particular. It's an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind.” “Too many died. War isn't worth one life". RIP, Harry Patch (1898 –2009), the last Tommy.

A whole episode was devoted to the extraordinary British-German Christmas Truce of 1914 involving around 100,000 troops: it started on 24 December 1914 at Ypres (the Brits called it “Wipers”) in Belgium. The Germans placed candles on their trenches and in Christmas trees and sang carols: the Brits then sang their own carols and all shouted greetings to each other. Soon there were excursions across No Man’s Land where food, tobacco, alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats were exchanged. The guns fell silent and the soldiers collected their dead. Joint services were held. There was a football free-for-all. There was a similar Christmas truce between German and French troops in 1915, and a truce on the Eastern Front during Easter 1916.

Much later, in 1999, an unofficial cross was placed at the Ypres site that reads “1914 - The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce - 1999 - 85 Years - Lest We Forget.” Another, official, memorial went up in 2008 at Frelinghein, France. The unveiling was attended by ancestors of the 371 men of Y Cymry Brenhinol (the 1st Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers) and the German Panzergrenadier Battalion, whose soldiers had also played footy. The Germans won, 2-1. In some sectors, the truce lasted until New Year’s Day. The generals were furious. During the remainder of the war, bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to ensure that there were no more truces. Richard Schirrmann remembering the Truce wondered whether "thoughtful young people of all countries should not have places where they could get to know each other." He went on, in 1919, to found a network of German youth hostels that grew into an international movement. As a lifetime member of this useful institution, I owe Herr Dickie a big thank-you!
One of the most affecting episodes of the series was about the Home Front. There were tales of zeppelin attacks, women breaking with tradition and working in munitions factories, child labour (half a million children were sent to work in factories, often in poor conditions and for 10 hours a day, 5½ days a week for £1.1) and hunger resulting from a German u-boat campaign that attempted to starve the country into submission. One man recalled how his family ate one only square meal a week and how his mum would always eat a tiny amount, saying she was not hungry. Some women went to the fields (with the permission of the farmer, the old boy was careful to say) to pick up greens that had been sliced off turnips. The green were mashed up with spuds and margarine and this was Sunday dinner for many. In the end, the German strategy failed due to the introduction of escorted convoys of ships.

As the war went on farm horses as well as men were sent to the France – one old man recalled how the little mare stayed home but the big, strong shire horses - their names were Boxer, Duke and Violet – were taken away and “of course, they never came back.”

Some stories were almost unbearably poignant – one very old lady recalled saying goodbye to her father on a bright, sunlit day, how he disappeared over the hill to walk to war. She never believed that he would never again come to tuck her in and say “God bless, good night.” Others tell of dread when the postman came with an “On His Majesties Service” telegram knowing it was bad news. And what made it all so much more awful was, as is often the case in war, there was no real closure – no body to bury and no facts about the circumstances of death, just “killed in action” or “missing.” But the families could, by 1914, imagine. By then two million people were going to the cinema. A musician whose first job was playing the piano for silent films recalled that she had to accompany documentary footage of the war. It seemed unreal and the horror and sadness in the cinema were palpable …

One mother, hearing the lines “There's a silver lining through the dark clouds shining, turn the dark cloud inside out 'til the boys come home” would look wistfully into the distance and remark that some never would. Her photograph says it all. One old girl recalled how her brother had gone away a happy-go-lucky lad and came back changed and muted. This happened in my own (UK) family. Grandpa Bird, my father’s father, ended up in Barrow Gurney hospital for the mentally ill, Bristol, after years in the trenches. Uncle George, my dad’s brother, never came back. Another surprising (and unpleasant) fact is that one in eight widows died of a mixture of overwork, malnutrition and grief within six months of the deaths of their husbands. But there was happiness too. One old boy said that he had never seen his mother so beautiful as the day his brother came back safe and sound. One soldier, badly injured in France, was sent to work on the land in Somerset where he met and married the daughter of his landlady. They lived happily ever after for 70 years.

Treat from the Beeb
And a treat from the BBC! I watch the news but don’t bother much with the entertainment programme because it’s littered with Weakest link, My family, Doctors, none of which I would watch in the UK. But I would watch Small island! An adaptation of Andrea Levy’s marvellous 2004 book, funny, compassionate and moving by turns, about post-war immigration and its impact on four people, two black and two white. Small island sheds light on the nastier side of early multi cultural Britain. The widespread bigotry (Rooms to let but “No dogs, no Blacks, no Irish”) and the way that black men who fought for the allies were treated like dirt after the war, not to mention everyday ubiquitous, widespread racism. Levy’s people are the glory of the book – their trials and tribulations are recounted with grace and dignity – and the TV adaptation stars a new and exciting generation of British actors that do the book justice. Naomie Harris is gentile Hortense Roberts who arrives in Britain from Jamaica expecting something rather better than the second class treatment she gets, David Oyelowo is Gilbert Joseph, the husband that tries to break it to Hortense that the “Mother Country” is not as hospitable as she has been left to expect back in JA. Benedict Cumberbatch is Bernard Bligh, the somewhat shell-shocked husband who returns from the war and has to learn to cope with a completely unforeseen set of circumstances. Last, Ruth Wilson is earthy, warm Queenie Bligh – another great performance brimming over with the sensitivity and conviction that made her the greatest Jane Eyre ever.

I cannot leave Small island without a quote from Hortense, trying to instill Miss Jewel, her country granny, housekeeper and general factotum in Jamaica with some book learning. “I taught her the poem by Mr William Wordsworth that I had learned to recite at school.

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.

Even though she asked “Weh yoh seh it name- daffodil?” and did not stop fussing until I had drawn the flower in the dirt, she learned every word. Watching my lips like a child enthralled, moving her own to form the same shapes. Recounting every perfect word with her chin high and her arms folded under her breasts. But soon she was rehearsing her own version as she went about her day.” Ah walk under a cloud and den me float over de ill. An’ me see Miss Hortense a look pon de daffodil dem.” Love it.

I am sitting here listening to Rimski-Korsakoff’s Christmas Eve. It’s a big favourite – based on a Ukrainian tale of a witch and a devil that steal the moon, a Tzarina’s slippers and a blacksmith and his girlfriend. The Games and Dances of the Stars interlude take some beating for charm. How well I remember seeing this opera first at the London Coliseum when the English National Opera premiered it in 1988. I sat in a stage box with my pals for 25 quid and we took our own fizzy booze. God, those were the days! Christmas eve is on the turntable because it is Epiphany - January 6th – and it’s Christmas eve for Orthodox folk in Russia, the Baltics, the Balkans, the Ukraine, Ethiopia and elsewhere … It’s also the eve of my birthday and Jelli’s and my fifth anniversary – she will be celebrating with a tin of tuna and I with a bottle of prosecco … It only remains for me you wish you all a happy and prosperous 2011!
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