"Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. - Helen Keller
O.K., I'm still trying to finish up my review of Chariots of Fire, so in the interim, I'll just say a few words about the iconic beach scene at the beginning and end of the movie. It was filmed in St. Andrews, Scotland, on the beach which borders the famous St. Andrews golf course.
The first time I went to Scotland, I took a bus trip out to St. Andrews. When I got home to Canada, a friend who is an avid golfer eagerly peppered me with questions about the historic course. I had to admit that I hadn't actually viewed it, my interest in golf ranging somewhere between undetectable and nonexistent. While most people got off the bus and swarmed the course, I made my way to the beach to see where the Chariots Of Fire scene was shot.
After that, I headed off down the road to see the spectacular ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, which was built in 1158 and was the largest church ever built in Scotland. It fell into disrepair and then ruin following the Scottish Reformation of the 1500's when the Catholic mass was outlawed. It's really quite awe inspiring. Long story short, I didn't go to the golf course. Here's an interesting bit of trivia, however: in the beach scene, the other runners were caddies employed by St Andrews golf course, who were asked to be extras in the scene.
She's a former secretary, not an English teacher, but the result is the same: grammar zealotry. When our local school system went through an "educational" phase of declining to correct the spelling and grammar of young elementary level students, Mom's head nearly exploded. Suffice to say, no one from our household ever submitted anything grammatically incorrect or misspelled. Incidentally, for the results of these sorts of policies, check out this article: University Students Can't Spell. I hear the echo of my mother's voice saying "What did I tell you?" in a tone of vindication.
O.K., I'm going to stray into politics for a few minutes, so bear with me. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. I didn't vote for him, and I disagree with pretty much all of his policies... including his decision to make half of his cabinet women. When asked the reason for this, his response was "Because it's 2015." Implying of course that it's hopelessly outdated to have more men in the cabinet than women. Yes indeedy, heaven forbid that people be appointed for their competence rather than their sex or race... what a backwards, parochial idea. Let's face it: because there are so many more men than women in parliament, it's statistically improbable, not to say impossible, that insisting half of the cabinet be women will result in the most competent and deserving people being appointed. I'm relating this to point out that Trudeau has expended a lot of time and effort to present himself as a bastion of women's rights... the "pope of feminism," as one snarky online commentator called him. Which makes the incident which I'll discuss below particularly galling.
I read Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time when I was in junior high school, then saw the film when I was in grade 10. I was of course horrified by the endemic racism which was so much a part of life at that time in Alabama. I was particularly struck by how the scene in court exemplified this, with all of the black people being forced to sit in the balcony because they weren't allowed to sit with white people. How terrible when one group seeks to demean and devalue another group based on unchangeable and unimportant characteristics like race or skin colour. Which brings me back to Mr. Trudeau.
On Monday September 12, Mr. Trudeau visited an Ottawa mosque to celebrate the end of Eid al-Adha. We will leave aside the fact that the lead Imam at this mosque has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, a recognized terrorist organization, and instead concentrate on another point. See that balcony in the back of the room? Well, that's where the women are, because they aren't allowed to sit with the men. Also, Trudeau brought a couple of his female MPs with him; I'm not sure if they were some of his "empowered" cabinet appointees or not. They were not permitted to enter the mosque with their leader... they had to enter from a separate door, and stand separately with their heads covered while Justin spoke. Being women, they of course were not allowed to say a word. Personally, I wouldn't darken the door of an establishment where I would be treated as a second- or third- class citizen, but if these ladies choose to do so, whatever. For Trudeau, however, who basically said it was sexist to have less women in the cabinet than men, to participate in an event where women- including his colleagues- were subjected to literal segregation, thereby giving tacit approval to this behaviour, is beyond hypocritical. You know what, Mr. Trudeau? This isn't seventh century Medina... it isn't even 1930's Alabama. It's Canada, and yes, it's 2016. "Equal rights for all, special privileges for none."
I recently came across this article, which lists some of the most visually impressive libraries on the planet: The Most Beautiful Libraries In The World. This made me think of the greatest looking library that I've ever been in- The Reading Room at the British Museum.
The Reading Room was built in 1854, used to house the British Library, and then became incorporated into the British Museum. Below is a picture of the entrance to the reading room in the great court of the museum:
I did go on to view the rest of the museum, but could very easily have spent the entire day right here.
Incidentally, the climactic chase scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 film Blackmail takes place in- and on- the Reading Room:
Choir started up again last week, and we've started practicing music for our Christmas concert. To my pleasure, one of the pieces we're working on is a medley of Irving Berlin Christmas songs. It includes Happy Holiday, I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep, Snow, and- of course- White Christmas. Love it! Our second practice is tonight.
This illustration is from Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel, Kidnapped. It portrays the scene in which David Balfour's vile Uncle Ebenezer attempts to cause his death in an "accident" by sending him- in the dark- up tower stairs which abruptly end, unfinished. A false step will result in a deadly plunge to the courtyard below.
In the shot of Eric Liddell running along the beach in that opening scene of Chariots Of Fire, Eric has a look that will become very familiar over the course of the film. It is one of almost exultation, as he tips back his head to an awkward angle and keeps pace with his teammates. Liddell's rather ungainly running style is something which was accurately portrayed in the film, as you can see in photos of the real Liddell racing.
This look seems to indicate when Eric draws upon an inner reserve of strength and speed, and when he feels, as he described to his sister, God's pleasure in his ability.
As Chariots Of Fire starts out, one would assume that Eric Liddell would be a lot more of an insider than Harold Abrahams. After all, he is a Protestant- certainly a more acceptable choice of religion in Britain. He's also a celebrated athlete in Scotland, not only as a runner but as a rugby player as well. Even at worship services admirers approach him to ask for his autograph. Liddell's personality is also a lot warmer than Abraham's, who is frequently aloof and abrupt with those outside his social circle. At the track meet where they first race against each other, Eric approaches Harold, offers his hand, and wishes him well. Although he harbours no ill will toward Eric, it wouldn't occur to Harold to do such a thing. In such situations it is Eric's nature to reach out, Harold's to withdraw inward.
To an extent, both Harold and Eric are motivated by their respective faiths, though in completely different ways. For Harold, his running is a way to push back against an establishment he perceives as, overtly or covertly, looking down on him for being a Jew. As for Eric, he believes that God has made him fast for a purpose, that when he runs he is fulfilling the will of God. This purpose is to use his ability as a tool to witness to others about Christ, as we see him do after one of his track meets. And also for a purpose which becomes obvious in the controversy over the Sunday heat.
As mentioned, Harold and Eric have very different running styles. Harold's is a testament to his devotion to professional training. He has honed his running style to waste no effort, to make every stride and breath count. Eric's running is a lot less polished; he frequently looks a little awkward when he runs. But he has a raw talent- a gift, if you will- an inner fire when he runs which supercedes his lack of formal training. This is why when Harold watches Eric run, he can't look away... he's transfixed by the look of inner joy on Eric's face, something that he never feels while running. Running doesn't bring Harold joy or contentment: it is a compulsion not an enjoyment. For Eric, it's the means to an end; for Harold, it is the end. This is why, when it's over, he feels empty, like there's nothing left. With Eric, however, winning is only the beginning, an affirmation of his faith and his plans for the future.
As I pointed out earlier, at the start of the film it is Harold who appears to be the outsider. As the athletes head for the Games, however, the situation reverses itself; success goes a long way to reconcile those who disapprove of one's actions- or background- to a person. We see this happen with Harold, as even the crusty elders at Cambridge hope- in their stiff, stuffy way- for his win. Eric, however, as he takes a stand for what he believes, loses a lot of the good will and admiration he had commanded previously. We see this exemplified on the ship crossing to France. Harold is surrounded by friends and other athletes, the center of attention as he performs some of his beloved Gilbert & Sullivan on the ship piano. In contrast, Eric is seen as drawing himself apart, alone mentally as well as physically, as he contemplates what he must do.
We see this isolation even more clearly when Eric meets with the British Olympic Committee to discuss the situation. Almost all of the committee members are aghast that Eric is contemplating dropping out of his race because he will not run on Sunday. As it turns out, his variety of Protestantism, which takes faith seriously and considers it of more importance than worldly concerns, is just as foreign to these men as Judaism... maybe more so. In this scene, we get a fuller sense of Eric's character. Previously, he has appeared a devout but easygoing, even-tempered person. As he is confronted by the committee, however, we get a glimpse of his iron, unmovable core. Polite and unassuming in most circumstances, when it comes to his faith he is implacable, refusing to compromise on any point, however minor it may appear to others. For this, he is accused of being selfish, putting his own wishes ahead of the good of the country. In truth, however, he is sacrificing his own ambitions, because he desperately wants to run but will not do so at the expense of his faith. This brings us to one of the themes of Chariots Of Fire, which I'll discuss in my final post on the film.