ankuendigen – to announce
achten – to respect
anblicken – to look at
aufarbeiten – to reappraise
– to look at again………………………………………………..
Over the last few months I have been keeping a word book; noting down all the new German words I come across. Before the book, which is really 3 notebooks joined together to make something that looks like an alphabetically ordered phonebook, I had been writing everything down on bits of paper. However, having hundreds of scraps of paper lying around flat was too over whelming; can there really be so many German words? Now the book keeps all the words in one place and makes the flat a little tidier, although it has brought to my attention just how many I am forgetting; when I read or hear a familiar word, I say, ah yes I came across that word last week and logged it in the book. Only, I haven’t got a clue what it means, let alone its gender, if it’s a noun (very important in German) and its conjugation if it is a verb. It feels like stacking a shelf with books from one end and as you add more the first ones you put up, are being pushed off the other end, disappearing behind the sofa or through the cracks in the floorboards.
Christmas brought a new batch of books and DVD’s. Two have been of particular interest; the Bill Douglas Trilogy and the writings of Ian Jack; The country formerly known as Great Britain.
The 3 films by Bill Douglas are a wonderful retelling of the director’s difficult early life growing up in the East Lothian mining village of Newcraighall. I first saw the films in the 1980’s and remembered them as pretty dark, certainly My Childhood and My Ain Folk. Watching them again, I’m struck by their direct beauty, economy and intelligence in telling a story. Perhaps my awareness of the filmmaking of Bresson, Pasolini and Fassbinder in the interim has helped me to view them afresh, but there is no doubting, the power of Bill Douglas’s own forcibly silent voice throughout. The Trilogy is a gently epic composition, from darkness out into an intense euphoric light, leaving me with many of the film frames burnt onto my retina. In recounting his past Bill Douglas often makes a rich painting from something otherwise very ordinary; I note here one particular view of a bend in the road, which I take to be the one leading out of Newcraighall. The view goes far beyond one found by a location finder; we are looking at memory, a brotherly bond of image and storytelling embedded within the landscape.
My good friend Keith Grant who gave me the Ian Jack book for Christmas, thought I may find an interesting link with the Bill Douglas Trilogy, he was right. Ian Jack also grew up in a Scottish Mining village, Hill Of Beath in Fife. The opening piece is about the writers childhood there, and indeed that of his parents; raising a family, growing old and dying in and around the same location. I am enjoying dipping into the various essays which I tend to read just before bed. The 12.10 to Leeds, written in 2001 following the Hatfield train crash inquiry, has reminded and re-appalled me of certain social/political changes that occurred in Britain during the 1980’s and 90’s,changes which confused and angered the public then and have continued to do so. Whilst reading I sensed it oddly melding with another lengthier book I was working my way through, Isaac Deutscher’s third volume biography of Leon Trotsky.
Before moving from London to Berlin I got rid of so many books. Most of them I gave to the Oxfam bookshop on Kentish Town Road. Over several months I sorted out the ones I would part with and once a week, take a couple of carrier bags full of them to the shop. I found it difficult not to look at the other books they had on sale; reminding myself I already had too many unread books and if I just took those to Berlin I would be enough reading for several years. On the last trip I saw the biography in the window. I knew next to nothing about Trotsky; something about his death with an ice pick in South America, but had a strong feeling I should know more. Although my packing was 3 thick books heavier, it’s been a purchase I’ve not regretted.
Throughout 2009 I was gripped by the first two books – the Prophet Armed (1879-1921) and the Prophet Unarmed (1921-1929) last week I finished the final book the Prophet Outcast (1929-1940). In all, over 1,500 pages filled with facts, figures, names, events, politics and Ideologies from a pivotal point in modern History. Unlike the Bill Douglas Trilogy, Trotsky’s life (in terms of his years alive) begins light and leads into a central point of extreme brightness which fades abruptly to complete darkness. By Christmas 2009 I was wading through the darkness of Trotsky’s descent from political power and Stalin’s ascendency.
Ian Jack’s essay, also packed with facts, figures, names, events, politics and Ideologies from another pivotal point in modern British history, runs to just 40 pages. In these pages he sticks to a type of investigative writing, advocated by Katharine Whitehorn; that is to give voice to someone who is member of the concerned public and not that of the know it all authoritarian. Having said that he does come across as a rail enthusiast and this we can sense in the brief history of The Railway he tells; from Babylonia 2245 BC, through to the national rail chaos in Britain at the time of his writing. I was drawn into the story through his notes of conversations with various engineers and how they illuminate the subject of the Permanent Way; how a track is laid and fixed. Likewise, how the steel track was produced and developed. One engineer refers to this as a living thing, due to the skill and care needed in making, laying and maintaining the track.
Piece by piece we are given information making us appreciate just how complex a thing, a rail track is. Perhaps a lot of people know this? I have to confess I didn’t. However, what I do know and what I had forgotten before reading The 12.10 to Leeds is that one day I sat on a train and the announcement referring to me and fellow travellers as Passengers had over night changed to Customers.
From about half way his writing explores how this change came about. From the policy of the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher to privatise the nationalised industries of Gas, Water and Telecommunications (the author quotes Harold MacMillan, who called this selling off the family silver) Responding to criticism of the first sales not being competitive enough, the next, Electric, was broken up into smaller units. This increased competition, produced a highly successful sale and by doing so, secured a rosy future for popular capitalism in the UK. After the fall of Margaret Thatcher, Railways became John Major’s baby. In spite of rail privatisation being highly unpopular with just about everyone, he was determined to see the sale through. Following the example set by the sale of Electric, it was decided the railways would be carved up into smaller units. New controlling bodies appeared:
TOCS, (train operating companies) 20 of those.
ROSCOS,(Rolling stock companies)3 of those.
And RAILTRACK, was to over and under-see: Signalling, the Permanent Way, Bridges, Tunnels and some larger stations.
Leading up to privatisation, it was noted that the emphasis switched to an operators rather than an engineer’s railway. This strikes a chord with a comment from one of the disillusioned Permanent way engineers who Ian Jack interviewed, he said that most people where only interested in trains from the wheels up. He emphasized the upmost importance of what goes on below. Operators were also dominant in management; of the 13 board members of Railtrack only 2 had any previous railway experience. The confused and chaotic privatisation rumbled on:
6 Transport Ministers in 7 years.
British Rail, carelessly and cheaply sold off for £5 billion
Profits: for the private shareholders as share prices rise sharply.
Track Maintenance: under pressure from efficiency savings, leads to work being put out to competitive tender.
Resulting in: fragmentation in knowledge of the Track, the Living thing.
Accusations fly: putting profit before safety.
At Howe Dell, The 12.10 King’s Cross to Leeds express enters the curve at 115 mph- the maximum speed for that stretch of track – and comes off the rails. Four people die.
From the offset of rail privatisation we, the public had been bombarded with facts, figures, names, events, politics, Ideologies, scandals, sackings and deaths. We have been informed of everything and more through a flood of media reporting. And with bewildered disbelief we repeatedly witnessed the chaos at first hand.
(It should be noted that The Labour Party, then in opposition, made the appropriate, vote winning noises to the public; Tony Blair, the then leader of the party said, They (the trains) should be run for the public and stay in public ownership for the people of this country, while his shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown was privately saying to colleagues that, Privatisation will make the Tories unpopular and will save us from having to do it). [taken from the 12.10 to Leeds text.]
To say exactly how the Trotsky Biography and the Ian Jack article merge is difficult; both writers strive to inform the reader clearly about their chosen subject and I believe they achieve this while never resorting to hindsight. But the melding I feel is something else and appears on another level, in contradiction to the black and white compositions that tell each story. I felt my role as a reader activated the text and brought me closer to the events described. At times becoming the everyman, a participant and witness of the period being described, one who is struggling to remember and process the mass of information being thrown in my direction. In such a position and in spite of my determination to maintain a clear picture, very often my view would cloud over into a very murky and inactive grey hue.
Here is a particular section from Isaac Deutchers biography of Trotsky. At this point (1928) Stalin has already had Trotsky forcibly removed from Moscow to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, severely restricting his political activities and that of thousands of his supporters. (pg 457, The Prophet Unarmed )
He [Stalin] still shrank from sending the killer; he did not yet dare even to throw his enemy into jail. The odium would have been too heavy, because, despite all that had happened, Trotsky’s part in the revolution was still too fresh and vivid in the nation’s mind. He therefore planned to expel Trotsky from Russia. He knew that even this would shock; and he carefully prepared public opinion. First, he put out rumours about the new banishment; next he ordered the rumours to be denied; and, finally, he gave them fresh currency. In this way he blunted public sensitivity. Only after rumour, denial, and recurrent rumour had made the thought of Trotsky’s expulsion from the U.S.S.R. familiar and therefore less shocking could Stalin carry out his intention.
erinnern – vr: sich ( an akk etw) to remember
vergessen – vt to forget