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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‘Blue And Sentimental’: it’s Herschel, not Pres!

May 3, 2013 at 6:02 pm (BBC, jazz, music, protest, wireless)

From Just Jazz magazine:

 Three tenors: Herschel Evans (left), Eddie Miller (centre), Lester Young (right) in the late 1930s (the clarinetist on the far-right is Matty Matlock)

Lester Young? Surely not!

By James Hogg

You wouldn’t think anyone could mistake Herschel Evans for Lester Young, but BBC Radio 4 managed it in a recent ‘Archive on Four’ programme on the history of the saxophone. I understand that amongst those who spluttered into their Horlicks on hearing the howler was Wally Fawkes, who should be protected from such shocks.

The irony was that the presenter, Soweto Kinch, had reached a point in the programme where he wasa discussing with Courtney Pine the particular qualities that made Lester unique. And up comes the somewhat different sound of Herschel doing his featured number Blue And Sentimental. Producer’s clanger, definitely! The guilt of the two speakers has to remain ‘unproven’ because we don’t know whether they heard their words juxtaposed with the wrong recording or not.

The BBC has form in misidentifying Lester Young – incredibly for one of the most distinctive voices in all of jazz. Dave Green recalls a similar instance: “the ‘Archive on 4’ fiasco reminds me of a story that Humph once told me about Steve Race. Apparently Race played Humph a pre-transmission tape of a programme he had just done on Lester Young using one particular tune as an example of Lester’s Style – it may even have been Blue and Sentimental. Humph pointed out about half way through that it was a very good analysis, but the only problem was that it wasn’t Lester playing, it was Herschel Evans. Race’s response was: ‘Oh, it’s too late to do anything about it now, it’ll have to go out as it is’ – and it did.”

I suggest that in expiation Radio 4 should broadcast a whole programme on Lester Young entitled ‘Lester Leaps In – At Last.’

Fat chance.

JD adds: The great irony of this repeated misattribution of the tenor playing on Blue and Sentimental to Pres is that he and Herschel Evans were great rivals and competitors when they sat alongside each other in the sax section of the Basie band. Indeed, they were considered to represent polar opposites in tenor playing: Pres with his light, airy almost delicate sound, and Evans with a big, heavy, ‘muscular’ tone. Billie Holiday described the relationship between the two, thus: “Pres and Herschel Evans were forever thinking up ways of cutting the other one. You’d find them in the band room hacking away at reeds, trying out all kinds of new ones, anything to get ahead of the other one. Once Herschel asked Lester, ‘Why don’t you play alto man? You got an alto tone.’ Lester tapped his head, ‘There’s things going on up there, man,’ he told Herschel. ‘Some of you guys are all belly.'”

Compare and contrast Herschel’s playing on Blue and Sentimental (above, recorded 1938) with Pres playing Ghost of a Chance (below, recorded 1944):

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Peggy Lee: Is That All There is?

February 9, 2013 at 5:48 pm (BBC, Jim D, music, philosophy, song, Soul, wireless)

Radio 4’s excellent Soul Music series today dealt with Peggy Lee’s 1969 recording of ‘Is That All There Is?’, one of the strangest and most enigmatic chart hits ever.

Soul Music takes takes a piece of music or a particular performance, and simply carries interviews with people (some directly connected to the music/performance, others not) about what it means to them. It’s often very moving.

The interviewees today had very different interpretations of what the song, and Ms Lee’s performance, meant…

Hope or despair? For or against suicide? Existential angst or a simple statement that friends and family are all that really matter in the end?

One person we didn’t hear from was Peggy Lee herself: she died in 2002. But here’s what she wrote in her autobiography:

‘Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball,
If that’s all there is…’

I picked up the needle from the demo record on the turntable and said to Snooky Young, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’

‘Thats’s a weird song,’ he said. ‘You going to sing that?’

‘Yes, I think so. I can’t get it off my mind.’

‘Well, you do all those kind of arty songs and people seem to love them…’

I thought of ‘Don’t Smoke in Bed’ and a few others and remembered how I often had to fight to get to do things I believed in, but little did I know at the time what a battle I’d have with ‘Is That All There Is?’ Before this, its authors, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had written ‘I’m A Woman’, truly my cup of tea, and, of course, their huge success, Elvis Presley’s record of ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’ (although I still think ‘I’m a Woman’ was more colourful, filled as it was with word-pictures, and it did swing).

When I came to record ‘Is That All there Is?’ there was resistance everywhere. They said it was too far out, they said it was too long, they said and they said … So I went to Glenn Wallichs with a demo record (something I hadn’t done before), and Glenn seemed embarrassed. ‘Peggy, you don’t have to play a demo, you helped build this Capitol Tower. You just record anything you want.’

Delighted to hear it, Jerry and Mike and I set about doing just that. Earlier, Johnny Mandel had brought me one of Randy Newman’s very first albums, telling me, ‘You’ll love this fellow,’ which I did, and asked him to write the arrangement. It turned out to be perfect for his style.

So now the record was made, our faith in it ran high — I couldn’t believe my ears when Capitol Records said they were turning thumbs down on it.

Is that all there is?

No, because, fortunately, there was a television show they wanted me to do, which I wasn’t keen about. Well, you know what I did. I said, ‘Yes, if you’ll release this record, I’ll do the show,’ and they agreed.

Hallelujah. It became a hit, went ‘across the board’, but that’s not all there is to it. It dramatized for me what my life had been and would continue to be, a struggle, sometimes for things more serious than a song, but the lesson was there — stick to your guns, believe, and more than you ever imagined can happen.

Wikipedia, however, states:

The song was inspired by the 1896 story Disillusionment (Enttäuschung) by Thomas Mann. The narrator in Mann’s story tells the same stories of when he was a child. A dramatic adaptation of Mann’s story was recorded by Erik Bauserfeld and Bernard Mayes …

One difference between the story and the song is that the narrator in Mann’s story finally has a sensation to feel free when he sees the sea for the first time and laments for a sea without a horizon. Most of the words used in the song’s chorus are taken verbatim from the narrator’s words in Mann’s story.

Judge for yourself:

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‘Tombstone’: Radio 4’s Book of the Week

October 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm (BBC, China, history, Jim D, stalinism, terror, wireless)

‘I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my foster father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book’ – Yang Jisheng

BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week is Tombstone, Yang Jisheng’s shocking, almost unbelievable account of the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’ of 1958-62, the biggest manmade disaster in history. The author saw his own foster father die of hunger in 1959 (described in episode 2), but as a member of the Communist Youth League at the time, did not blame either Mao or the Party.

Mao’s crazy policy of unrealisable industrial tragets in the town and forced collectivisation in the countryside was driven by no more than the desire to outstrip Moscow (ie:Khrushchev) as the supposed leadership of international “Communism.” It resulted in mass starvation, cannibalism and terror. Those who dared question the policy were denounced as “right-deviationists” and “counter-revolutionaries” and suffered torture and death. The top echelons of the Party remained silent. Twenty years later Deng Xiaoping said, “During the Great Leap Forward, was it only Mao Zedong who was so fanatical and none of the rest of us? Neither Comrade Liu Shaoqi nor comrade Zhou Enlai nor I opposed him.”

The greatest manmade disaster in history? If you doubt it, listen in every morning this week at 9.45 am or catch the 12.30 pm repeats. Or read the book itself. Here’s a flavour:

A 41-year-old woman, Pan Suhua, in March 1960, dug up the body of her husband after he had committed suicide, and apart from cooking and eating his flesh, sold 5.875 kilograms of his bones as bear bones at 75 fen per kilogram.”

“In the spring of 1960, a four-member family had been reduced to just the mother and her emaciated daughter. Driven to madness by starvation, the woman killed her daughter and cooked her flesh to eat, after which she became completely deranged and repeatedly cried out her daughter’s name.”

“When [the brigade leaders] went inside they saw something being cooked in a wok, and when they raised the lid they saw it was human flesh. The wok contained an arm that still had a hand attached, from which I could see that it had come from a child.”

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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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Charlotte Green’s greatest moment

September 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm (BBC, comedy, Jim D, Sheer joy, wireless)

As the nation mourns the departures of Harriet Cass and Charlotte Green from Radio 4, let us remember Ms Green’s greatest broadcasting moment, the “Abby Mann” incident, allegedly caused by fellow Today programme presenter James Naughtie describing the world’s first sound recording in the previous item as “like a bee buzzing in a bottle.” Ms Green immediately apologised to the family of Mr Mann.

I have searched in vain for a recording of Ms Green’s other – equally great – moment, the “Jack Tuat” incident (which I remember hearing at the time). If anyone can track that down, please let me know.

In the meanwhile, here’s Ms Green’s tormentor Naughtie talking about the man who’s now the health secretary:

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Maajid Nawaz, Derren Brown, Gerard Hoffnung: in praise of Radio 4

August 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm (BBC, comedy, good people, Jim D, Sheer joy, wireless)

It occurs to me that I often use this blog as a form of therapy – sounding off about the stupidity, hypocrisy, pretentiousness and sheer meretricious garbage that I observe, read and hear more or less every day. It’s probably just as well that I have this outlet and, of course, it’s up to you to decide whether or not my opinions are worth bothering with.

But I am aware that sometimes I come over (even to myself) as a bit of a miserable sod with nothing much positive to say about anything or anyone beyond the occasional jazz record or musician.

So I thought I’d share with you some excellent stuff that has really brightened up my day – and it all comes from the wonderful BBC Radion 4, a station that (if you leave aside The Archers,  Saturday Live, You And Yours and most of its attempts at ‘comedy’) can in general be relied upon to reaffirm your faltering faith in humanity.

So may I recommend the following, all of which (thanks to ‘Listen Again’) can still be heard for the forthcoming week?

* Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation talking a whole lot of horse-sense on Any Questions ? (despite the inanities of the other panellists);

* Illusionist Derren Brown, a man of delightfully self-deprecating wit and evident decency, interviewed on by Chris Addison on Chain Reaction: as I understand the format, Brown will return as the interviewer of someone else next week;

* Best of all, Jack Dee introducing Gerard Hoffnung’s extraordinary Bricklayer’s Lament, a comic monologue (yes, I know: they’re usually terrible) delivered to the Oxford Union in 1958. It was on the wireless quite frequently in my youth, but I hadn’t heard it for years before today and had forgotten just how funny it is. Happily, it’s alo on Youtube:

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Vidal Sassoon: anti-fascist street fighter

May 9, 2012 at 10:05 pm (anti-fascism, anti-semitism, BBC, good people, Jim D, wireless, zionism)

Vidal Sassoon cuts the hair of sixties icon, designer Mary Quant

Above:Vidal Sassoon, cutting Mary Quant’s hair, fought pitched battles with fascists (the Telegraph)
Above: the “43 Group
Sassoon, dubbed the “anti-fascist warrior hairdresser” by the Telegraph joined the East End-based 43 Group as a 17-year-old trainee hairdresser.
The 43 Group was formed by Jewish ex-servicemen in the wake of World War II who returned home to the UK to see Nazis in Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) organising openly, and resolved to continue their fight against fascism.The organisation fought pitched battles, often armed with knives and razor blades, with the BUF and eventually smashed them off London’s streets. Sassoon’s weapon of choice? Fittingly, a pair of scissors.In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle he recounted his involvement in the group: 
“It was a rather strange situation because the war was over. Before the war there was quite a strong fascist party led by Oswald Mosley and he and his cohorts were put in detention (jail) during the war by Churchill. After the war they came out and immediately started up again with their anti-Semitism and running through the streets and having meetings, it was quite ridiculous. Many truly brave Jewish ex-servicemen started the “43 Group” because there were 43 people at the first meeting they had. These were tough men who had been through the war. Of course volunteers were needed, I was 16 or 17 at the time, most of my friends joined the 43 Group and there were quite a few hundred of us. Truly the fascists were smashed in the streets and yes if you were scared at times [it was] because it was scary. But after we saw the pictures that came out and the whole story of the Holocaust, there was actually no way we could allow fascists to run through the streets. I was arrested one night and put in jail, the following day the judge told me ‘to be a good boy’ and let me go. That was our life in those days, we decided that we were absolutely not going to allow what happened pre-war when Jews were just beat up indiscriminately in the streets. It worked beautifully because of mainly the tough Jewish characters that were in the British armed forces during the war, they were the people that did it. But also there were quite a few gentiles who had seen the camps, the horror of Europe and fought with us.”

In a recent BBC documentary he told how he once turned up to work with a black eye after a night of fighting.

“I’ll never forget one morning I walked in and I had a hell of a bruise – it had been a difficult night the night before – and a client said to me, ‘Good God, Vidal, what happened to your face?’ And I said, ‘Oh, nothing, madam, I just fell over a hairpin’.”

Later in life, Sassoon helped revolutionise hairdressing in the 1960s as his geometric, sharp hairstyles overtook the high maintenance, heavily hair-sprayed styles of the 50s.

(Later Sassoon and others in the 43 Group fought for the creation of Israel, which of course I and many other anarchists/communists would have serious issues with, but nobody’s perfect… For information about the 43 Group I recommend reading Morris Beckman’s excellent book, The 43 Group, to which Sassoon wrote the foreword)

(From libcom.org, not me – JD)


From 9 October 2011: well worth a listen (he had good taste in music as well).

Kirsty Young’s castaway is the veteran hairdresser Vidal Sassoon.

He developed the architecturally precise bobs and cropped styles that were a defining look of the 1960s. Mary Quant, Mia Farrow and Twiggy were among the glamorous clients who came to his salons in London and Beverly Hills.

His scissors and ambition lifted him out of the grinding poverty of his childhood – he spent six years in an orphanage because his mother could not afford to keep him at home. Now aged 83, he says:” I’ve had the best adventure you could possible have, for a kid that started from nowhere.”

Record: Mahler’s 8th Symphony Book: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Luxury: A dozen bottles of Vidal Sassoon hair shampoo

Producer: Isabel Sargent.

Music played

  1. Dinah WashingtonDinah Washington— What a Difference a Day Makes

    Composer: Adams/Grever

    Label:  EMI

  2. Billy Eckstine— Everything I have is yours

    Composer: Lane/Adamson

    Billy Eckstine Greatest Hits, Polydor

  3. Anton BrucknerAnton Bruckner— Part of the first movement from the 9th symphony

    Artist: The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis


  4. Charles AznavourCharles Aznavour— What Makes a  Man

    Composer: Aznavour/Aznavour/Craig

    The Best of Charles Aznavour, Premier

  5. Giacomo PucciniGiacomo Puccini— Un bel di – One beautiful day – from  Madame Butterfly

    Artist: Kiri Te Kanawa

    Arias by Puccini, ERATO

  6. Bryan FerryBryan Ferry— The Way You Look Tonight

    Composer: Fields and Kern

    As Time Goes By, Virgin

  7. Gustav MahlerGustav Mahler— Part of Symphony No.8

    Artist: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra  – with Jon Villars, The City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Youth Chorus. With the London Symphony Chorus & the Toronto Children’s Chorus all conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

    Symphony No.8/Gustav Mahler, EMI

  8. The Count Basie Orchestra— April in Paris

    Composer: Vernon Duke

    Count Basie and His Orchestra April in Paris, Verve

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Hobsbawm on Radio 4 tonight

April 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm (BBC, history, Jim D, Marxism, stalinism, terror, war, wireless)

Eric Hobsbawm

BBC Radio 4 once again justifies the licence fee with what should be a fascinating programme at 8.00 pm tonight: Simon Schama interviews Eric Hobsbawm.

Hobsbawm is generally considered to be Britiain’s greatest ‘Marxist’ historian (though cases could be made for Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson – never mind Dorothy Thompson), but I must confess to mixed feelings about him.

On the plus side is the sheer erudition and elegance of books like The Age of Extremes, his dogged, non-careerist,  life-long commitment to what he regards as the “left” in politics, and his insistence that Marxism must retain its roots in the enlightenment values of the late eighteenth century (an unfashionable view in this era of identity politics).

On the minus side is his persistent lack of identification with the working class (indeed, he now seems to say that it no longer exists), his “reality denial” (Robert Conquest’s term) over the Soviet Union, his shameful and evasive record over Hungary in 1956 (the Soviet invasion led Hill and Thompson to resign from the CP while Hobsbawm remained) and his persistent refusal to come to terms with Stalinism itself. The fact that he was – and remains – a person of towering intellect makes these shortcomings less, not more, forgivable. While working class Communist Party members could be forgiven for not knowing about, or believing the truth of,  the full counter-revolutionary barbarity of Stalinism, an intellectual like Hobsbawm has no such excuse. As David Caute put it “One keeps asking of Hobsbawm: didn’t you know what Deutscher and Orwell knew? Didn’t you know about the induced famine, the horrors of collectivisation, the false confessions, the terror within the Party, the massive forced labour of the gulag? As Orwell himself documented, a great deal of evidence was reliably knowable even before 1939, but Hobsbawm pleads that much of it was not reliably knowable until Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956.”

Very reluctantly, I tend to come down against Hobsbawm. I think my mind was made up when I read Interesting Times when it came out in paperback a few years ago. I’d been looking forward to reading what this great historian and critical Eurocommunist would have to say about what was probably the single most despicable and shameful episode in the history of  the Comintern: the Stalin-Hitler pact. Here’s what he wrote (in its totality,  in that particular book) on the subject:

“[S]ince the line-change of the autumn of 1939, it was not the war we had expected. in the cause for which the Party had prepared us. Moscow reversed the line which the Comintern and all European Parties has pursued since 1935 and had continued to pursue after the outbreak of war, until the message from Moscow came through. Harry Pollitt’s refusal to to accept the change demonstrated that the leadership of the British Party was openly split on the issue. Moreover, the line that the war had ceased to be anti-fascist in any sense, and that Britain and France were as bad as Nazi Germany, made neither emotional nor intellectual sense. We accepted the new line, of course. Was it not the essence of ‘democratic centralism’ to stop arguing once a decision had been reached, whether or not you were personally in agreement? And the highest decision had obviously been taken. Unlike the crisis of 1956 (see chapter 12) most Party members – even the student intellectuals – seemed unshaken by the Moscow decision, though several drifted out in the next two years. I am unable to remeember or to reconstruct what I thought at the time, but a diary I kept for the first few months of my army service in 1940 makes it clear that I had no reservations about the new line. Fortunately the phoney war, the behaviour of the French government, which immediately banned the Communist Party, the behaviour of both French and British governments after the outbreak of the Soviets’ winter war against Finland made it a lot easier for us to swallow the line that the western powers as imperialists were, if anything, more interested in defeating communism than in fighting Hitler. I remember arguing this point on the lawn in the Provost’s garden at King’s [college of Cambridge University – JD] with a sympathetic sceptic, the mathematical economist David Champernowie. After all, while all seemed quiet, if not somnolent, on the western frront, the only plans of the British government for action envisaged sending westyern troops across Scandinavia to help the Finns. Indeed one of the comrades, the enthusiastic public school boy and boxing half-blue J.O.N.  (‘Mouse’) Vickers  —  he actually looked more like a large weasel than a mouse, thin, quick and mobile  —  was due to be sent there with his unit when the Russo-Finnish war ended. For communist intellectuals Finland was a lifeline. I wrote a pamphlet on the subject at the time with Raymond Williams, the future writer, critic and guru of the left, then a new, militant and obviously high-flying recruit to the student Party. Alas, it has been lost in the course of the alarums and excursions of the century. I have been unable to rediscover a copy. And then, in February 1940, I was at last called up.”

So, we know what Hobsbawm thought about the Stalin-Hitler pact at the time; we know what he thought about the Russo-Finnish war; we know about his Cambridge student comrades and the lost pamphlet written with Raymond Williams: but what we don’t know, because we’re not told, is what Hobsbawm thinks now (or at least in 2002) about the pact. This evasion is, ultimately, inexcusable.

I will listen to tonight’s interview with very great interest. If you listen as well, feel free to let Shiraz know what you think.

iPlayer here.

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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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