Warren Clarke RIP

November 13, 2014 at 12:27 am (drama, Jim D, RIP, television)

don’t know anything about him, beyond what the obits say.

The Graun says this:

“He was born Alan Clarke in Oldham, Lancashire. His father was a stained-glass window maker and his mother a secretary. On leaving school at 15, he took a job as a copy boy on the Manchester Evening News, but he wanted to become an actor and performed with amateur companies. He also worked at Huddersfield Rep. When, aged 18, Clarke took the role of Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer at the Liverpool Playhouse (1965), he was one of the few cast members to emerge unscathed from the Guardian critic’s review, which noted that he “plays him with placid deliberation … against the surrounding cacophony, but the style is right”. Clarke then turned professional.”

But – bloody hell – sixty seven! That’s just seven years older than me …

He seemed like a good bloke.

His character in Dalziel And Pascoe introduced me to single malts

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Bob Hoskins: working class lad

April 30, 2014 at 10:44 pm (cinema, culture, drama, good people, Jim D, RIP, television, workers)

Bob Hoskins, who died today aged 71, was a great character actor and, in life, one of the good guys. A working class lad, he started his career (accidently and, by his own account, drunkenly) at the left-wing Unity Theatre in 1969. Colleagues who worked with him on one of his last films, Made in Dagenham, (2010) confirm that he was passionate about the film’s main themes of working class women’s rights and trade unionism.

Although he specialised in tough-guys and gangsters, he always managed to convey a sense of vulnerability and even innocence in these roles. – as in the memorable closing scene of his first major film success, The Long Good Friday (1981):

Perhaps his finest role as the tough-with-a heart was as the small-time crook who falls in love with Cathy Tyson’s character in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986):

In fact, reflecting on his work over the years, I find it difficult to decide on a favourite. His role as the Chandleresque private dick in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is a personal favourite, but in the end I’d have to plump for his first major TV role, as the doomed sheet music salesman in Dennis Potter’s masterpiece, Pennies From Heaven (1978):

So long, Bob

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Felix Dexter: a very funny man

October 22, 2013 at 9:24 am (comedy, culture, drama, funny, good people, posted by JD, RIP, satire, television, wireless)

Felix Dexter 26 July 1961 – 18 Oct 2013

Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse pay tribute here

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Wagner 200 on Radio 3

May 18, 2013 at 12:02 am (anti-semitism, Asshole, BBC, drama, fascism, Germany, Jim D, music, Racism, song, wireless)

BBC Radio 3 starts a week of Wagner in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

It begins with:

Wagner In Zurich: 12.15, Saturday 18 May 
Tom Service travels to Zurich, where Richard Wagner the revolutionary lived in exile for nine years, and finds a city which played a crucial  role in the development of the composer’s thinking and provided fertile  ground for his Ring Cycle, and which is marking the 200th anniversary  with a festival including a new musical theatre piece by the director  Hans Neuenfels. Tom visits the home of the Wesendonck family, where Wagner was inspired to write Tristan und Isolde and his Wesendonck Lieder, and also the idyllic Tribschen district of Lucerne, where Wagner later lived and composed his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday gift to his second wife, Cosima. It was from Germany’s 1848 revolutions that Wagner had fled to  Switzerland, and from Leipzig, Wagner’s birthplace and a city which is  central to this year’s anniversary celebrations, the BBC’s Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans reports on the composer’s controversial place in German culture today.

 Other highlights:

Saturday Classics: 3.00pm, Saturday 18 May  
The great English operatic bass Robert Lloyd joins Radio 3’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth with selections from his favourite Wagner operas.
Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Duration: 58 minutes: 1.00pm, Sunday 19 May  
Immortalised by Wagner in his famous opera, Lucie Skeaping looks back on the life and music of the real Hans Sachs and his fellow Mastersingers in 17th Century Germany.
Wagner and His World
At 12.00 pm throughout the week Donald Macleod explores the connections and relationships that helped establish Wagner as the most revolutionary musical thinker of the 19th century.  Includes:

Beethoven 1/5 Donald Macleod explores how Beethoven’s music heavily influenced Wagner: Monday 20 May
Weber and Bellini  2/5 Donald Macleod explores Wagner’s early love for the operas of Weber and Bellini: Tuesday 21 May
Meyerbeer and Palestrina 3/5 Donald Macleod explores how Wagner first cherished, then rejected, Meyerbeer’s influence: Wednesday 22 May
Liszt. 4/5 Donald Macleod explores the relationship between Wagner and Liszt: Thursday 23 May

One Winter’s Afternoon
8.00 pm, Sunday 19 May
The story of the great operatic rivalry between Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner in the year marking the bicentenary of their births. In real life, the two great composers never met.


There’s no denying the fact that Richard Wagner wrote some sublime music. But never forget this, either:

Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite and it permeated his music. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was Adolph Hitler’s favourite opera, as Wagner enthusiast Paul Mason recently pointed out.

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Great Westerns

November 16, 2012 at 10:00 pm (adventure, blogging, cinema, drama, film, Jim D, United States)

In my experience, most lefties dislike Westerns, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Almost by definition, the genre is a celebration of white settlers in confrontation with native peoples. Sometimes the portrayal of the natives is condescending and/or downright racist. It’s also the most macho of cinematic genres, with women rarely playing significant roles except as home-makers and/or romantic ideals (I leave aside, of course, the bordello girls). Westerns also tend to be morally simplistic, good-against-evil stories that leave little room for nuance, socio-economic background or understanding of the “other.”

Well, that’s what a lot of people on the left tend to think. Actually, the best Westerns explore the human condition and individual weakness in the face of hostile, relentless forces, as few other film genres do (the ‘noir’ detective films also do it, but they’re really just updated Westerns anyway). Some Westerns (and not just recent ones) even explore the position of women (Johnny Guitar) and Native Americans (The Searchers). It’s been suggested, also, that High Noon is, at least in part, about McCarthyism.

Anyway, what’s brought this on is ol’ Prof Norm’s latest poll, open until the end of this month: vote for your favourite Westerns. The Prof has provided his list:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson, 1966)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957)
Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1960)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

…but has been (imho) quite rightly denounced for not including the film that many of us consider The Greatest Western Of All Time..

My list would probably include High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952),  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), Shane (George Stevens, 1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959).

But, as I said, this is the best of them all:

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Herbert Lom, last of The Ladykillers

September 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm (cinema, comedy, drama, good people, Jim D)

Herbert Lom, actor. Born Herbert Karel Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru, 11 Sept 1917 (Prague); died 27 Sept 2012 (London).

The Ladykillers Poster

Lom was one of the great character actors of post-war British cinema who rarely played leading roles but regularly stole the show from better-known stars. In his younger days especially, his saturnine good looks might have made him a matinée idol, but his strong accent (he was Czech-born) led to his being typecast as smooth, sinister foreign criminals and villains for most of his career. As he once commented, “In British eyes anyone foreign is slightly villainous.”

He fled his homeland as Hitler invaded, arriving in Britain in 1939 with his girlfriend Didi, who was Jewish. She was turned away at Dover for not having the correct papers. Her subsequent death (from starvation) in a concentration camp haunted Lom for the rest of his life.

Most of the obituaries have emphasised his role as Clouseau’s boss Drayfus in the various Pink Panther films, but to be honest these became less and less entertaining (something Lom was well aware of); even the best of the early ones cannot hold a candle to the funniest Ealing comedy of them all, The Ladykillers, in which Lom played his usual sinister role with a straight-faced menace that was in delicious contrast to the almost farcical antics going on around him. It was, Lom once said, “one of the few films I’m proud to have been associated with.”

He was (as far as I know) the last surviving member of the brilliant cast and production team that made this 1955 masterpiece.

RIP Herbert.

(Graun obit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/sep/27/herbert-lom)

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‘Payback': Radio 4 play on The Yom Kippur War

September 15, 2012 at 3:50 pm (BBC, drama, Egypt, history, Jim D, Middle East, Syria, United States, USSR, war, wireless)

I’ve just been listening to Jonathan Myerson‘s ‘Payback’ on BBC Radio 4. It has a superb cast (including Henry Goodman as Kissinger, Peter Marinker as Nixon, Sara Kestelman as Golda Meir and Kerry Shale as Al Haig and Simcha Dinitz) and demonstrates considerable historical and psychological insight. It’s about the October 1973 ‘Yom Kippur War’ when Egypt and Syria launched an attack to recover the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and very nearly succeeded. The play concentrates on the interaction between the war and Richard Nixon’s increasingly desperate efforts to fend off an investigation into Watergate and the release of the tapes. The behind-the-scenes negotiations/shadow-boxing  between Kissinger and the USSR (in the form of Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin)  is also dealt with very convincingly.

Yom Kippur War

Despite the deadly serious subject matter, there’s some grim humour in Myerson’s script, mainly provided by Nixon’s brilliantly scatalogical and scurrilous use of language, especially when describing enemies and fairweather friends.

The political repercussions of the Yom Kippur War were almost as vast as those of the 1967 War and are necessary for any informed understanding of the Middle East and, indeed, the world, today.

This is radio drama at its best. If you have an hour to spare (and if you haven’t – make one!), listen and learn. Or you can download it from here (Amazon, I’m afraid). Essential listening for anyone interested in recenty history and contemporary politics – or who just enjoys superb radio drama.

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Why Habima’s Merchant of Venice must go ahead

May 28, 2012 at 5:44 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, drama, Human rights, israel, Jim D, Middle East, palestine, protest, solidarity)

Shylock: More a victim of the sins of others than a sinner himself?

Left-wing playwright Howard Brenton puts the particular case in a letter to the Graun:

I was sad to see the letter (30 March) from many eminent theatre workers – including David Calder, Mark Rylance, Harriet Walter, Roger Lloyd Pack, Cherie Lunghi and Jonathan Miller – asking Shakespeare’s Globe to withdraw the invitation to Israel’s Habima theatre to perform The Merchant of Venice in its Globe to Globe festival this coming May. I think it’s wrong-headed – could the signatories think again?

They argue that, by inviting the Habima, the Globe is showing support for the illegal settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories. But by inviting the National Theatre of China to perform Richard III, is the Globe also showing support for the occupation of Tibet?

The Habima’s touring in the territories is sickening. Its staff are deeply divided about it. The arts become so twisted and torn about in a conflict as terrible as that between Israel and Palestine, used as a fig leaf for propaganda. Yet sometimes above the shouts of demagogues a true voice can be heard, even from the stage of an enemy.

I trust the Globe’s international spirit and openness with which it has put together this amazingly diverse season of world theatre. For it to withdraw one of the invitations to the 37 companies – some with very questionable state affiliations – would be a disgraceful act of censorship.

Denounce, don’t censor; argue, don’t ban. I have long supported the cause of Palestinian freedom. But I am distressed to see British actors trying to stop Jewish actors perform on a London stage.

Howard Brenton London

Workers Liberty puts the general case against the ‘BDS’ campaign and the (usually unspoken) politics underlying it:

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign has become the dominant frame for viewing the Israel-Palestine conflict in recent years and Omar Barghouti has been its most high-profile exponent. His book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket Books) demonstrates the real political confusion behind BDS and why socialists should oppose it.

The BDS campaign dates from 9 July 2005, when a gathering of 170 Palestinian organisations, including unions and civil society groups demanded boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. BDS makes three demands on Israel:

• ending the occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands [occupied in 1967] and dismantling the wall;

• recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;

• respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinians refugees to return to their homes and properties.

These are often dressed in the garb of UN resolutions. The first two demands are completely reasonable for any democrat or socialist. However there are fundamental problems with the demand for the right of return.

First and foremost, it is a slippery formula, evasive about who it applies to — is it simply those displaced in 1948 or all Palestinians, does it mean the same place they were living then, or simply immigration into a new Palestinian state? Ultimately the demand is incoherent with regard to the political basis of a democratic solution to Israeli-Palestinian relations. The BDS campaign publicly fudges the question of the political solution. Officially “the BDS movement as such does not adopt any special political formula and steers away from the one-state-versus-two-states debate”.

However Barghouti is quite explicit about his view. He states:  “I have for over twenty-five years consistently supported the secular democratic unitary state solution in historic Palestine”. He laments that now “there is no political party in Palestine now or among Palestinians in exile calling for a secular, democratic state solution”. His politics are the PLO’s, frozen in 1987.

Barghouti is also unequivocally opposed to a two states solution. He says: “The two-state solution is not only impossible to achieve now — Israel has made it an absolute pipe dream that cannot happen — but also, crucially, an immoral solution. At best it would address some of the rights of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, a mere one-third of the Palestinian people”.

But in a moment of candour, he reveals that the political basis of BDS is not compatible with two states either. He wrote: “You cannot practically reconcile the right of return for refugees with a negotiated two-state solution”. There it is in black and white: support BDS and you are tied to a single state solution.

Barghouti offers an impoverished version of self-determination. He moralises that “A call signed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties, unions, nongovernmental organisations, and networks, representing the entire spectrum of Palestinian civil society… cannot be ‘counterproductive’ unless Palestinians are not rational or intelligent enough to know or articulate what is in their best interest”.

He also says no Palestinian party stands for a single state — but there is no need to defer to that opinion! So 170 organisations call for boycott; but no-one is for his real objective — a secular, democratic state. Too bad for the Palestinians — they can be trusted with the means, but not the end. He reduces Palestinian oppression to racial rather than national terms, hence all the rhetoric about apartheid.

On the other side, Barghouti simply denies that Israeli Jews have any right to self determination at all. He cannot conceptualise them as a nation, therefore their self determination is not even discussed. He sugar-coats his “solution”, saying he wants “a secular democratic state where nobody is thrown into the sea, nobody is sent back to Poland, and nobody is left suffering in refugee camps”.

Yet there is no explicit criticism of Hamas in the book. He simply dismisses the problem of Hamas’ politics altogether: “It’s irrelevant whether or not Hamas accepts Israel’s so-called right to exist as a Jewish state (read: an apartheid state) or accepts the ’67 borders …”.

With the single state solution, whether secular or Islamic, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis get to exercise their own, self-defined, self-determination.

Barghouti’s failure to engage with the right of Israeli Jews to self-determination is clear from his contempt for the Israeli left. “…most of what passes as ‘left’ in Israel are Zionist parties and groups that make some far-right parties in Europe look as moral as Mother Teresa”. And “The so-called peace groups in Israel largely work to improve Israeli oppression against the Palestinians, rather than eliminate it, with their chief objective being the guarantee of Israel’s future as a ‘Jewish’ — that is, exclusivist — state. The most radical Israeli ‘Zionist-left’ figures and groups are still Zionist, adhering to the racist principles of Zionism that treat the indigenous Palestinians as lesser humans who are the obstacle or a ‘demographic threat’…”

Barghouti explicitly defames those who argue that the logic of the right of return would be the elimination of the state of Israel: “the only true fighters for peace in Israel are those who support our three fundamental rights: the right of return for Palestinian refugees; full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel and ending the occupation and colonial rule”.

Laughably, Barghouti states that the BDS movement “does not subscribe to drawing up lists to decide who is a good Israeli and who is not based on some arbitrary political criteria”. Yet this is precisely what he does. He narrows progressive Israelis to only those who support BDS – eliminating for example the refuseniks, the peace movement, the unions and various writers. All the rest are branded with inverted commas.

Barghouti is quite upfront that BDS ultimately means ostracising everything Israeli. The campaign is “working to expel Israel and its complicit institutions from international and interstate academic, cultural, sporting… environmental, financial, trade, and other forums.” He soft-soaps that “groups that for tactical reasons support only a subset of BDS, or a targeted boycott of specific products or organisations in Israel, or supporting Israel, are still our partners. Boycott is not a one-size-fits-all type of process.”

He distinguishes between advocating such a targeted boycott as a tactic, leading to the ultimate goal of boycotting all Israeli goods and services, and advocating such a targeted boycott as the ultimate strategy. While the former “may be necessary in some countries as a convenient and practical tool to raise awareness and promote debate about colonial and apartheid regime, the latter, despite its lure, would be in direct contradiction with the stated objectives of the Palestinian boycott movement”.

For Barghouti the boycott of settlement goods alone is not sufficient. At a practical level “Israel has made it extremely difficult to differentiate between settlement and other Israeli products, simply because the majority of parent companies are based inside Israel or because colony-based companies have official addresses there”.

Politically “even if distinguishing between produce of settlements and produce of Israel were possible, activists who on principle — rather than out of convenience — advocate a boycott of only the former may argue that they are merely objecting to the Israeli military occupation and colonisation of 1967 and have no further problems with Israel”.

Finally, there is a moral problem with accepting these “two grave… violations of human rights and international law as givens”.

BDS may seem in the ascendant for now. It may make progress in places, on the back of the Israeli state’s next atrocity. But BDS needs to be fought politically, because it stands in the path of two states, the only consistently democratic solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

BDS is ultimately a pessimistic approach. It put the agency for change outside of the region. It wants civil society, which includes not only NGOs and unions but bourgeois governments and business internationally, to make things right for the Palestinians. There is another road. The Palestinian workers in alliance with Israeli workers fighting for a two state democratic solution to the national question, is the force that could deliver peace and much more besides.

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Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey

November 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm (cinema, class, drama, Feminism, good people, humanism, Jim D, literature)

Shelagh Delany, playwright and writer, b 25 November 1939, d 20 November 2011

Shalagh Delany wrote A Taste of Honey when she was scarcely 18. It portrayed the life of a young working class Salford girl who becomes pregnant following a one-night stand with a black African seaman. Her best friend is a gay art student. It was, as you can probably guess, in start contrast to the sort of plays then being written by the likes of Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward. It was also a more profound and insightful play than John Osborne’s mannered Look Back in Anger of a couple of years earlier.

Delany never repeated the success of her first play, but it’s not entirely true or fair to describe her as a “one-hit wonder” (as does today’s Guardian in a headline that’s been removed from the online edition): her second play, The Lion in Love was actually not bad and she later went on to write the screen plays for Albert Finney’s extraodinary film Charlie Bubbles and Mike Newell’s Dance With A Stranger about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

Shelagh Delaney was a pioneer female working class playwright who dealt with real people and previously taboo subjects with warmth and compassion. Here’re Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin in a scene from the 1961 film:

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The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

September 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm (anti-fascism, anti-semitism, BBC, drama, history, humanism, Jim D, literature, stalinism, terror, war, wireless)

“There is no sense or truth in my present position, in my physical freedom while the book to which I dedicated my life is in prison. For I wrote it, and I have not repudiated it, and am not repudiating it. (…) I ask for freedom for my book” – Vasily Grossman, letter to Krushchev, 1961

Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany (1945).From Wikipedia

In October 1960, the Soviet author and former war correspondent Vasily Grossman, submitted his novel Life and Fate to the editors of the state magazine Znamya, in the hope that it would be published. Friends had warned him against doing this, and called him ‘niave’, but it was during Krushchev’s ‘thaw’ and the author seems to have really believed that the novel stood a chance of being published.

Instead, the KGB raided his apartment and confiscated the manuscript, carbon copies, notebooks and even the typewriter ribbons. Fortunately, they never discovered that Grossman (not so niave after all) had placed another copy with a trusted friend: that copy was eventually (some ten years after Grossman’s death) put onto microfilm and smuggled into the West with the help of the dissident nuclear scientist Andrai Sakharov. It was eventually published in 1980.

Grossman regarded it as the ‘arrest’ of the book, although he himself was never arrested. He continued to demand that his novel be published and in July 1962 the Politburo chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov told him that the book could not be published for two or three hundred years…as has been pointed out, this seems to have been a backhanded recognition of the work’s lasting importance.

Grossman went into a depression from then on and died in 1964, never having seen Life and Fate published and probably believing that it never would be.

The title, of course, invites comparisons with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which may seem presumptious. But Grossman’s book stands up to the comparison with its vivid depiction of of the battle of Stalingrad playing the same role in the saga as Austerlitz played in Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Grossman had spent five months in Stalingrad as a correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (the Soviet army newspaper) during the siege and the house-to-house fighting, and had even spent time with a sniper named (and this must have pleased him) Checkhov. Much of the military aspect of the story involves real contemporary figures in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Gradually, though,  as the book progresses, Grossman seems to lose interest in military matters and, like War and Peace, the story and its various sub-plots revolve around members of a single extended family. The main character, Viktor Shtrum, is a self-portait and the character’s thoughts and opinions are undoubtably those of Grossman at the time he wrote the book. The Nazi death camps and the fate of Soviet and Eastern European Jewry become a dominating theme (Grossman’s reports on Treblinka, compiled as a war correspondent, ensured that the Nazis’ attempt to obliterate all traces of the camp, did not succeed and his evidence was used at the Nuremburg trials).

But as well as Tolstoy, another Russian author – one who worked on a very much smaller canvas – comes to mind: Checkhov. The individual chapters of Life and Fate are rather like Checkhov short stories in their morality, pathos and even humour.

A final comparison is with Orwell: they were near-contemporaries and lived through the same great world-historic turmoils; both were journalists who turned their hands to fiction; both were war correspondents who’d have prefered to have been anti-Nazi combatants; both were men of the left who became disillusioned with ‘official’ leftism, and especially Stalinism; both were flawed individuals only too well aware of their own flaws. Grossman, a Jew whose disillusionment with Soviet “communism” was largely brought about by his experience of Stalinist anti-semitism, nevertheless signed a petition calling for the harshest punishment of the Jewish doctors accused of plotting to kill Stalin in 1952: a capitulation that makes Orwell’s notorious list of “Crypto-Communists and Fellow-Travellers” seem relatively innocuous.

Grossman blamed himself, above all, for his failure to to save his mother from the Germans in 1941: she died in their home town of Berdichev along with most of the other 12,000 Jews who’d lived there. After Grossman’s death, an evelope was found amongst his papers; it contained two letters written to his mother: one in 1950, the other in 1961, on the ninth and twentieth anniversaries of her death. He wrote in the first, “I have tried dozens, or maybe hundreds of times, to imagine how you died, how you walked to meet your death. I tried to imagine the person who killed you. He was the last person to see you. I know you were thinking about me (…) during that time.” Together with the letters in the same envelope were two photographs: one of his mother with himself as a small child; the other, taken by Grossman from a dead SS officer, shows hundreds of naked dead women and girls in a huge pit.

Maternal love seems to have been a theme for Grossman and it bookends his literary career. In his first published story (approved of by the Soviet authorities and in proper socialist realist style), In The Town of Berdichev (1934) he described a tough female Bolshevik commissar who’d become pregnant during the civil war, and gives birth while billeted on a poor Jewish family. As the Polish forces approach, she decides to stay with her baby rather than retreat with her regiment. Then she sees a group of workers marching in a hopeless attempt to stop the Poles. She follows the workers to their inevitable deaths, leaving her child to the Jewish family.

In Life and Fate, one of the sub-plots concerns Sofya Osipovna Levinton, a middle aged Jewish, female Russian doctor, childless and a virgin. In the cattle-truck to the death camp she ‘adopts’ a lone Jewish child, David (who bears an uncannily resemblence to the young Grossman), and then refuses to abandon him, rejecting the opportunity to save her own life when the Germans ask doctors and surgeons to step forward and be spared. Sofya and the boy go to the gas chamber together:

This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.

‘I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.

That was her last thought.

Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.

* Acknowledgements to Robert Chandler, who superbly translated Life and Fate and whose Introduction to the Vintage Books (London) edition provided me with much of the information used above; also to Keith Gessen in The New Yorker of March 6, 2006.

BBC Radio 4 will be dramatising Life and Fate on Sunday at 3pm and throughout the week on all the station’s drama strands.

BBC Radio 4 ‘Start The Week’ on Grossman, with Antony Beevor, Andrey Kurkov and Linda Grant

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