I recently watched this 2005 documentary entitled C.S. Lewis & The Chronicles of Narnia on Amazon Prime. It was fine, but I was a bit disappointed by it; it has very much Lewis and very little Narnia. To elaborate, the documentary provides a good overview of C.S. Lewis' life, but doesn't really give any information about his writings or insights into his character or thought processes. If the viewer doesn't know anything about Lewis' life, this provides a fairly thorough biography of the English writer. If one is looking for something a little deeper, however, it won't be found here. I wouldn't take issue with this if the documentary was called "The Life Of C.S. Lewis" or something similar, but it really seems like the "& The Chronicles Of Narnia" was tacked on to the title in order to attract more viewers rather than as an accurate description of its contents. To sum up, if you want general information about C.S. Lewis' life, this documentary will provide it; for anything deeper, you'll have to look elsewhere.
The Monuments Men is the 2009 book written by Robert M. Edsel about a group of men recruited during World War II to attempt to save the artworks of Europe from destruction and theft by the Nazis. Early in the book, Edsel details how art experts throughout the allied countries secured and protected their art treasures in anticipation of military attack by the axis powers. This included hiding many of them in remote areas, often in climate controlled bunkers. This is something which I never really gave much thought to before: the necessity of keeping cultural treasures safe from destruction during wartime, especially in Britain, which was being routinely bombed by the Nazis. This also reminded me of when, hiking in the Scottish highlands, I passed by a bunker built into/under a hill. Reading later in a guide book I found out that it was used to store gasoline during W.W. II, hidden away a corner of the Scottish wilderness to keep it safe from the Blitz. This is essentially what was done with art treasures as well.
But these experts weren't just concerned with preserving the artwork of their own countries. They were very much aware that, in every country the Nazis marched into in Europe, they were stealing cultural treasures and transporting them to Germany for Hitler's planned Fuhrermuseum, part of his dream to make his hometown of Linz the cultural center of the Third Reich. Something which I learned from Edsel's book was that this thievery was premeditated and calculated. In the years leading up to the war, Hitler had sent his own art experts around Europe, making detailed lists of artwork and statuary. Instead of planning how to preserve them however, they were plotting what they were going to steal once they invaded. The thought of this makes me despise the Nazis even more than I already did, if that's possible. In the grand scheme of things, stealing artwork is nowhere near as hideously evil as their systematic murder of millions of innocent people, but it's just so ... slimy and despicable. A final insult: not only robbing their victims of their freedom and lives, but appropriating their cultural treasures as well- taking their past, present, and future. The fact that this thievery was systematically done, overseen by experts, doesn't change the fact that the Nazis were grubby thieves, no different- and actually worse- than people who rob the dead on a battlefield.
With an eye to attempting to recover Europe's stolen works of art, the Department of Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives was formed. They were on the ground with the regular troops in Europe following D-Day. There were few of them and their task was a daunting one. They were to track down the hidden caches of Nazi stolen treasures, rescue ones still in bombed out churches and other buildings, and preserve and protect the recovered ones from further damage. Working with little equipment, little help, and trying to find clues in bombed-out cities, the MFAA were also grimly aware that they were racing against time. After D-Day and it became clear that they were losing, the Germans were retreating in a panic and many works of art had been left stashed in damp cellars and other places where they were exposed to the elements. Also, the works which weren't abandoned but carried along with retreating troop trucks were in danger of being bombed by pursuing Allied forces. They were also trying to reach the stolen treasures before advancing Russian troops did, reckoning that if they reached them first, the artwork would disappear just as thoroughly as it did with the Germans.
While of course not running the same level of risk as regular frontline troops, the monuments men were not free from risk. They were advancing with the army into enemy occupied territories- one member of the MFAA, Major Ronald Edmund Balfour, First Canadian Army, was killed by shrapnel in Cleves. The men were also working in buildings (churches, etc) with a lot of structural damage, rescuing statues and other works of art. One great difficulty which the MFAA found themselves dealing with was the near impossibilty of finding information about where the Germans had hidden a lot of their pilfered prizes. Many of the towns they entered were bombed-out wrecks, the buildings which had contained the German's records destroyed. In many cases, the Germans had destroyed the papers themselves, to hide their tracks.
One source who became invaluable to the Monuments Men's cause was Frenchwoman Rose Valland. When the Germans marched into Paris, she was working as an unpaid volunteer at the Jeu de Paume museum, adjacent to the Louvre. Instead of fleeing, she remained at the museum throughout the war, pretending to work with the Nazis. What they didn't realize was that Rose spent those years spying on them, keeping careful records of what works they stole and where they sent them. After Paris was liberated and she was certain that she could trust the MFAA, she became invaluable in tracking down the treasures of France. One has to admire her dedication and courage: swallowing her hatred of the Nazis, she worked side-by-side with them for over four years in order to keep track of her beloved works of art. No doubt she also faced resentment from other French persons who, unaware of her ulterior motives, probably regarded her as a collaborator.
The Monuments Men is an interesting and informative read about a part of the Allied efforts during W.W. II that I knew little about. It's also a sobering look at yet another facet of the damage inflicted by the Nazis upon their victims. Who knows how many priceless works of art were never recovered, too well hidden to be found or worse, destroyed. The book also honours men and women who, though going largely unrecognized, managed to recover and save many of the greatest cultural treasures of the western world. In 2014, George Clooney made a movie called The Monuments Men which was loosely based on this book. It didn't do well despite having a stellar cast. I didn't see it, so can't comment on why but suspect that it might have something to do with the difficulties in turning a non-fiction book into a fictional movie.
I recently read Rocket Boys, which is the first of four memoirs written by NASA engineer Homer Hickam, Jr. Published in 1998, it details his high school years in a coal town in West Virginia when he and a group of friends formed an amateur rocketry club. The book became a bestseller and in 1999 was made into a movie entitled October Sky. After its success, Hickam's memoir was republished under this title as well. Inspired by the Russian's Sputnik in 1958 and the resulting space race, Homer takes up designing and building rockets with a few like-minded friends. This is far from easy, since there are few resources for them to draw on. With little money, equipment, or information, they rely on trial and error and for a long time, it's mostly error. Their (sometimes disastrous) attempts are frequently met with mockery and/or hostility from their peers and community. Yet they stubbornly keep on with their efforts, and each rocket goes a little higher, lasts a little longer. Eventually their perseverance pays off, and they end up taking their rocketry project to a national science fair.
Rocket Boys is also the story of a dying coal town. Built up around the mine- its name is Coalwood- the town at the beginning of the book is a bustling, busy place with two interests: coal and football. But the mine is no longer producing as it had in the past, and it's becoming obvious that eventually, in the not-too-distant future, it's going to go under. And when the mine fails, the town will die. As Homer's teen years pass by, the mine undertakes a number of cost-saving initiatives including lay-offs and cut hours, but this is merely delaying the inevitable. Some of the townspeople realize this, while others are living in denial. Most of the high school students are forced to face the reality of the situation as it becomes clear that the business which has employed generations of their families is not going to provide them with jobs. For most of the miners' kids, the only way out is getting a scholarship, either for sports or academics. Of course, for many this isn't possible; Homer relates an incident where two of his classmates ask him if, after he's made it into NASA, he'll try to find them employment. Despite the increasingly bleak outlook- or perhaps because of it- the town gradually gets behind their once despised "Rocket Boys". People begin gathering to watch their launches, teachers find them books on rocketry, miners who put in long shifts at the mine spend hours of their own time building pieces the boys need for their rockets, and their triumphs are now celebrated as much as their failures used to be mocked. Perhaps the people of the town, stuck in their rather grim reality, see in those rockets rising to heights beyond their view hope for a better and brighter future. Or maybe, as the town fails, it becomes more and more important for everyone that they have this one success.
In Rocket Boys, Homer also provides a look at life with his disfunctional family. Homer- called Sonny by his family because he's named after his father- seems to have nothing in common with the man except his name. His father is the mine foreman and coaches the local football team; he has a hard time relating to his younger son who is studious, unathletic, and plays in the school band. He is closer with Sonny's older brother Jim, who is a star football player and popular jock. Homer's mother on the other hand encourages his rocketry endeavors or, at least, doesn't actively discourage them, merely telling him "Don't blow yourself up." Perhaps partially because of these parental attitudes, the two brothers don't get along and actively resent each other. The relationship between their parents is also strained. Homer Sr. is completely devoted to the mine: always there and, when he's not, always on call should he be needed. He is in the early stages of lung disease from working in the mine though he denies it and refuses to step down or even cut back his working hours. His wife, Elsie, hates the mine and refuses to accept that her husband couldn't find another job. She constantly threatens to leave and go live elsewhere away from coal country. Part of the reason she encourages Sonny is that she is determined that he will never go down into the mine.
It's odd, but in the first part of Rocket Boys, Elsie seemed like the more sympathetic of the two parents, but as time and the book went on, I started to actively dislike her and gain more respect for Homer, Sr. I can certainly understand Elsie not being happy about the mine and its effect on her husband's health and not wanting her sons to follow in his footsteps. But she married a miner and, being from a mining family herself, knew what that entailed, for better or worse. Yet she never seems to make an effort to make the best of it. Instead, her actions always seem selfish and self-serving... even her encouragement of Sonny sometimes feels like just one more way to get back at her husband. At one point, angered by Homer Sr.'s continued refusal to give up mining, Elsie withdraws from the family for months, staying in her room- which she doesn't share with her husband- and leaving her sons to fend for themselves, get themselves off to school, get their own meals, etc. It also turns out that for years, Elsie has been secretly taking some of the money Homer gives her to run the house and investing it, until she has quite the nest egg. Is she saving this money to help her sons get an education? No- without telling anyone, she's used it to buy a cottage in another State. When she eventually tells Homer about it, she informs him that she intends to move there. He's welcome to come with her, she says, but she's moving there regardless of what he does. Eventually, after the boys have gone off to university she does so, leaving her husband behind; he joins her there when he gets too sick to work any longer.
Homer Sr.'s inability to connect with his younger son is sad and frequently frustrating. Yet as time goes on it becomes clear that he is supporting Sonny's efforts in his own, undemonstrative way. He frequently- if grudgingly- gets Sonny the things he needs for rocket building, or turns a blind eye when some of his men pilfer company supplies for parts for the rockets. Sonny has a teenage boy's need to make his father proud but for most of the book it's obvious that he believes himself to be a disappointment to him. It's therefore a very important event when Homer Sr. turns up to watch their final rocket launch. The boys talk him into launching the rocket himself and, as it lifts off, we see for almost the first time an understanding between father and son. As Homer Sr. watches with amazement and delight, the rocket gains speed and altitude, disappearing from view and he and Sonny are, temporarily at least, united in their wonder and appreciation for what the Rocket Boys have achieved. I really enjoyed Homer Hickam Jr.'s memoir; he's a talented writer and the book is much more than just an account of rocket building in the early days of space exploration. It also provides a picture of growing up in a small coal town which is slowly declining, and shows that relationships, familial or otherwise, can be just as complicated and fraught with difficulty as rocket science.
I watched the first two episodes of this Netflix series recently. The show is in its second season now, but I'm just starting season one. Each episode examines the history of a classic or immensely popular toy in a lively and informative manner, and is frequently quite amusing. The first episode is about the Star Wars toys and memorabilia, which have made more money than the actual films in theaters. It was really interesting to see how, when George Lucas was making his first Star Wars film, it was next to impossible to get any toy company to take a gamble on him. All of the big name companies like Mattel and Hasbro turned Lucas down and he was forced to use a small virtually unknown toy company called Kenner. Kenner agreed to take on making the movie toys, but only if they retained 95% of the profits. Lucasfilm was desperate enough that they were forced to agree to these terms... and then of course, the movie was a bit of a hit. It would be years, though, before Lucas would be able to get a better deal.
Some of the best parts of the Star Wars episode were interviews with some of the toy designers and builders. Their stories of trying to get prototype toys together on a shoestring budget before the first movie were interesting and often really funny. One describes how, when working on the Jawa action figure, he couldn't find any fabric in the workshop which looked like the Jawa cloaks. Then looking down, he realized that he was wearing brown socks so took one off and cut it up, fashioning a cloak out of it. The Jawa prototype was shipped off to be shown to the executives wearing his worn sock. I quite enjoyed seeing Star Wars on the ground floor, so to speak, before it was the money-making behemoth it became. After the movies became mega hits, they of course get more money to make bigger and better toys- like the model Millennium Falcon- but happily there are also a lot of really cheesy items, like the lightsaber toothpick holder.
The show also interviews various collectors of Star Wars toys, from the casual nostalgic buyers to the dead serious collectors. The guy in this picture owns the biggest collection in the world; at one point he says that his collection has become the most important thing in his life. Which is really sad. The show, however, is light, fast paced, and a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to watching more episodes in the series.
Scientology is a strange religion because it was thought up by an unscrupulous science fiction writer and everybody knows it, yet some people still choose to submit themselves to its control. It's also strange that, while most people know of scientology, few actually know what its tenets and practices are. One reason for this is, as the documentary outlines, the church is outrageously litigious. They employ scads of lawyers who threaten to sue anyone who speaks out publicly against the church. Even corporations are cowed by this threat; Going Clear ended up on HBO because no television station was willing to air the documentary. Scientology's lawfare is also why they retain their tax-exempt status as a "non-profit" organization even though they are obviously and shamelessly all about gaining wealth. Their constant barrage of lawsuits eventually wore down the IRS which decided to give up and turn a blind eye to the church's blatant profit-mongering.
Besides the intimidation which former scientologists are subjected to, I think that there's probably another reason more of them don't speak out: human nature. If I had spent years of my life and thousands of my dollars to reach the level of scientology where its "secrets" are revealed and they turned out to be the bizarre imaginations of a disturbed and quite probably criminal individual, I might be less than enthusiastic about admitting my gullibility and credulousness to anyone else.
Former scientologist Leah Remini has spoken of this embarrassment. After reaching the top level and therefore being allowed to read Hubbard's scientology magnum opus, so to speak, she was incredulous and angry: how could she have wasted so much time, effort, and money to attain "enlightenment" based on what was obviously codswallop? L.R.H.'s rambling screed includes a description of how the alien dictator Xenu of the Galactic Confederacy came to earth (known at the time as Teegeeack) 75 million years ago in airplane-like spaceships with billions of his people. He proceeded to stack these billions in Hawaiian volcanoes and killed them with hydrogen bombs. These poor vapourized aliens were transformed into spirits called Thetans and now they wander about the earth latching themselves onto unsuspecting individuals, leeching off their spirits. The only way to remove them is, coincidentally, through practicing scientology. Make of that what you will.
It should be pointed out that the church of scientology denies every claim of abuse and control made by former church members, and tried to block the release of this documentary. They claim that Going Clear is one-sided and false. Of course, everyone from the church refused to be interviewed for the film, so it could hardly help being one-sided. It makes you wonder, though: why would anybody who believed their faith was so wonderful not want to defend it and tout it to the world?
I confess that I have not personally read any scientology writings though I've been told that Hubbards' book which the religion is based on, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health is almost unreadable. Having seen bits and pieces of John Travolta's astonishingly terrible Battlefield Earth based on L.R.H.'s book by the same name, I can well believe this. Seriously, this film is so awful that it has to be seen to be believed. Further confession: I didn't make it all the way through the movie... I couldn't take it.
Scientology seems to me to give every indication of being a cult. It demands reverance for a man- a seriously flawed one- and enforces a strict adherence to his dictates, no matter how unbalanced. It controls the family lives of its followers, to the point of encouraging abortions and sometimes removing children from their parents to raise. It also insists that people who leave scientology be cut off by the rest of their family. Those who leave report being followed, harrassed, and threatened. They also detail physical, mental, and emotional abuse which members are subjected to. As mentioned, the church denies this but the stories which the ex-members tell are remarkably similar, and there is video evidence of some of the incidents of following and harrassing.
One of the major warning signs is the church's secrecy surrounding its beliefs. Even members cannot be told what their own religious tenets consist of until they reach certain levels within the church. And reaching these levels means paying out large amounts of money. If the church you attend teaches that your salvation or spiritual enlightenment is contingent on the amount of money you give them, it's a cult and quite possibly a Ponzi scheme. Get up and quickly leave, keeping a close eye on your wallet in case someone picks your pocket on the way out. I've attended Christian churches all my life and at every one, the pastors always said that members of their congregation should not simply take their word on Biblical truth, but engage in personal study of scripture and test what they say against the Word. If your spiritual leader tells you that he/she holds all truth and knowledge and you can only know- and accept- what they choose to tell you, it's a fake faith and you need to get out. So I think that covers most of my thoughts about Going Clear. It was a really interesting documentary and left me feeling a lot more informed about the history and beliefs of the church of scientology, not least because it sent me to the internet to do some more research on the topic. I found out nothing which led me to believe that the documentary was inaccurate, and a lot which confirmed its assertions. It seems to me that scientology is an unhealthy belief system run by shady and immoral people.
I recently watched the 2015 documentary Going Clear:Scientology And The Prison of Belief. It's based on the 2013 book by Lawrence Wright Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Obviously it deals with the religion, so-called, of Scientology; it is in fact an expose of the extremes and abuses of the church. It does this through interviews with ex-church members, footage of scientology events and the behaviours of various present members, and also by looking into the disturbing biography of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
The documentary delves into the shady history of Hubbard- his actual history, not the one he made up and told his credulous followers. For example, L.R.H. claimed to be a naval war hero who was wounded in battle and received a Purple Heart. In reality, he was removed from his command due to incompetence, and was hospitalized with an ulcer, not a war wound. Guess which version the Church of Scientology subscribes to.
Going Clear also details how many of the former members interviewed got involved with the church. Some were born into families already involved in the "religion" but many of them joined themselves, of their own volition. A story common to many of them seems to be that Scientology was first presented to them as kind of a self-help movement, with classes which they paid to take. Then, of course, there were more levels which required higher and higher rates of payment to have further truths revealed.
One bizarre- and creepy- practice which the documentary covers is that of auditing, which all church members whatever their level must submit to. In these audits, the subject must grasp the two handles of a device which is supposed to detect thought. The subject is then required to tell the auditor these thoughts, which are all taken down and recorded. All I can say is, if I'd paid good money for some class and the person running it handed me two tin cans strung together with wire, told me that he could detect my thoughts and demanded that I confess what they were, I very much doubt that he'd want to record my thoughts on the matter.
The former members also relate the mental- and sometimes physical- abuse that they were subjected to in order to keep them in line. Also, women who work in the higher echelons of the organization are "encouraged" to have abortions if they happen to get pregnant. If they do not, they frequently have their children taken from them to be "raised" by the church. When they left scientology, the church would not allow their families to be in contact with them anymore. They also described being followed by agents from the church, having their phones tapped, and having their characters smeared by the church. The church, naturally, denies all of these charges.
Going Clear also examines Scientology's love of and dependence on the endorsement and financial support of major celebrities and donors such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise. It suggests outright that the church deliberately broke up Cruise's marriage to Nicole Kidman because she was influencing him to distance himself from scientology. It also claims that girls were brought in and auditioned to be Cruise's girlfriend. The film also hypothesizes that the reason why some of the more prominent members don't leave is because they fear the church will reveal things about them which they confessed to during their auditing sessions. That seems entirely plausible, given what we know about how the church of scientology treats those who dissent from its teaching. So this is a short overview of Going Clear; I'll share my thoughts on the documentary in a follow-up post.
I recently finished reading the first volume of Winston Churchill's four volume A History of the English Speaking Peoples which is entitled The Birth of Britain. Churchill began his history in 1937 while he was temporarily retired from politics, but he was a little busy throughout the 1940's so the books weren't published until the late '50's, when he was in his eighties. The Birth of Britain begins with the invasion of Britain by the Romans in 55 BC. It concludes with the death of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, at Bosworth Field, and the ascension to the throne of Henry Tudor. This was an eminently readable book which I enjoyed immensely. As is of course obvious from his speeches, Churchill had a way with words and it shows in his history series. This is no dry retelling of the facts; it reads almost like a novel of political intrigue, warfare, and power struggles. I was reading the book at work on my lunch hours, and especially through some of the sections on the War of the Roses, I had to force myself to put it down and go back to work. Of course, I'm a bit of a history wonk, but still... it's really good.
The Birth of Britain isn't an exhaustive study of every aspect of life in the British isles. Indeed, when the books were published, Clement Attlee snarkily commented that they should have been titled "Things in history that interested me." Yeah, well, Attlee was the Labour leader opposing Churchill in parliament, so he wasn't exactly unbiased. Still, it's true that Churchill's History doesn't spend a lot of time on topics such as- for example- agriculture, unless it was affecting the political situation in some way. I don't think that this is a flaw, however; a history which closely examined every possible topic in British history would be a lot longer than four volumes. Churchill was a soldier and a politician, so it's no surprise that these are the subjects he concentrates on. What you do get an inkling of throughout this first volume is the way in which Britain slowly and messily worked its way towards its modern parliamentary democracy/ constitutional monarchy system, as the power of the king was gradually curtailed and restrained.
What comes through clearly on every page is Churchill's love for his country. This isn't to say that he doesn't tell the bad stuff, because he does, and comments on why it was wrong for the country. Indeed, his fiercest criticisms are reserved for those who pursued personal gain or power at the expense of the good of the nation. He tends to be gentler and even sympathetic towards those leaders who were bad for Britain unintentionally, such as Henry VI who was hapless, weak, and possibly insane.
It was quite interesting reading Churchill's account of the Roman occupation of Britain. He very obviously admired their skill and discipline as warriors, and also the level of technology they brought with them: "In this period... well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times. From the year 400 till the year 1900 no one had central heating and very few had hot baths. A wealthy British-Roman citizen building a country house regarded the hypocaust which warmed it as indispensible." I myself have visited the Roman baths in Bath, and the pipes and drains are still functioning now, close to 2000 years after they were built. At the same time, however, Churchill understood the native Britons' desire- comparatively primitive though they were- to fight back against their conquerors. For example he describes, during the rebellion led by Boadicea, their attacks on London and Verulamium and slaughter of not only the Romans but the Britons who had befriended and collaborated with them. While viewing this as a terrible event, he approves of the motivation behind it: "This is probably the most horrible episode which our Island has known. We see the crude and corrupt beginnings of a higher civilization blotted out by the ferocious uprising of the native tribes. Still, it is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in, and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invaders' hearth." In this last sentence, we see the immovable and fierce resolve of the man who would face the probable invasion of his beloved island nation by Nazi Germany and vow:
"We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender"
To sum up, The Birth of Britain is a fascinating account of the earliest years in the formation of the British nation. If, like me, you're a history lover and/ or Anglophile, I highly recommend this book. Heck, I'll recommend it even if you're neither of those things. It's really good.
I got this book for my birthday this year, and finished it a few weeks ago. It is a biography of a dozen or so women who worked at Bletchley Park during W.W. II. Bletchley Park was the Buckinghamshire country estate which housed the British codebreakers who worked on the Axis secret codes, like Enigma and Lorenz. The Park and its denizens gained quite a bit of attention after the release of The Imitation Game in 2014, a film about Alan Turing and the other cryptographers who broke the Enigma code. For The Bletchley Girls, the author Tessa Dunlop tracked down a number of women- all in their nineties now- who worked at the Park. The book tells their stories: their lives before the war, their experiences during those years, and what became of them afterwards. At that time, with most able-bodied men headed over the Channel, most of the staff at Bletchley were women. Most, however, weren't working as cryptographers- they were generally doing more mundane, even boring jobs such as collecting incoming information, organizing and typing it up for use. It really becomes obvious that the seemingly miraculous- and truly genius- code breaking that went on there depended greatly on the painstaking and often tedious work of hundreds of individuals who received no recognition for their service, and frequently had little idea themselves of the importance of their work. I find first-hand historical accounts fascinating, so was eager to read this book and learn of the contributions of these women to the war effort in England. Quite a bit of it was very interesting, not least finding out a bit about how Bletchley Park functioned. It seems to have been very compartmentalized, with different departments seldom knowing what others were doing, or even mixing much in their down time. It was also interesting to note the reactions of different girls to the work, depending on their social position. The girls interviewed who were from families of wealth and/or upper class, and were used to travel and interactions in the wider world often found the regimented life at Bletchley limiting and restrictive. Others who were away from home and making money for the first time seemed more likely to find their new positions freeing, even if the jobs they were doing weren't wildly exciting.
Another thing I found interesting was the fact that many of these women were talking about their wartime experiences for the first time. Having signed the Official Secrets Act at the beginning of their employment, they took it seriously and kept quiet for over sixty years. A lot of them never even told their husbands exactly what they had worked on at the Park. Living in an age where people think nothing of blabbing every intimate detail of their lives online, and even many who have taken oaths of secrecy break them with impunity, I find the unwavering loyalty and discretion of these women admirable and refreshing. I also admire the mental toughness that these women displayed. Although not on the front lines, they were contributing to the war effort in important ways and were not immune from the risks associated with living and working in Britain during the Blitz. Also, many of them lost family members- fathers, brothers, fiances- to the war and kept on working through their pain and grief. Again, at a time where men and women in this age group are now shrieking and crying and running for safe spaces when confronted with opinions they don't agree with, I can but contemplate with admiration the generation which faced down Nazi Germany and didn't falter.
Having said all that, I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as I thought I would. One of the reasons for this was that the book follows the stories of a lot of women and it skips back and forth between their narratives frequently and seemingly at random, making it extremely difficult to keep track of who's who. As I was reading this book at work on my lunch hours, I had to keep checking back to previous parts to figure out what girl I had left off reading about. This problem would have been more easily surmountable if, in addition to skipping back and forth between characters, the book also didn't hop between time periods. The Bletchley Girls doesn't relate the experiences of these women in chronological order, and the frequent jumping between characters paired with the temporal leaps makes it almost impossible to get a handle on what was happening to whom, and when it was occurring. I think the book would have been better if, perhaps, the number of women in it had been pared down, although I'm reluctant to advocate cutting any of their narratives from its pages. If, instead, the author had arranged the book differently- in chronological order, and with less skipping between the women's stories- then I think this would have been an easier and more memorable read. Nevertheless, The Blethchley Girls provided me with information about a part of the war effort which I previously knew little about, and I'm glad that I read it.
The man in this photo is Wilfrid "Wop" May, Canadian hero. He was a flying ace in World War I, and was actually involved in the dogfight during which the Red Baron was shot down. He rose to the rank of captain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1918. After the war, May became a bush pilot in Edmonton. During this period, he was hired by the Edmonton police to help in the search for a murderer. It was the first time a plane was used in a manhunt. One of the most celebrated events of Wop May's career occurred in January 1929. In northern Alberta there was an outbreak of diphtheria and May, hundreds of miles away, was asked to fly in the desperately needed medication. The incredible feat is recounted in the vignette below. What the vignette doesn't mention is that in 1932 Wop May was also involved in the most famous manhunt in Canadian history, the search for Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River.
I found the documentary Tim's Vermeer to be really absorbing. Penn and Teller do a good job of putting together the fascinating narrative of their friend Tim Jenison's attempts to prove or disprove the claim that Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce his paintings. Tim comes off as a likable everyman, though he's obviously extremely wealthy... and a bit obsessive. He's extremely creative, and good at working with his hands: he's got a garage/ workshop full of inventions in various stages of development, and which work with varying degrees of success. He seems like a man who likes to tinker and figure out how things work, and the controversial puzzle about Vermeer's painting methods is his latest enthusiasm.
The part of the documentary which shows Tim painting his father's portrait using a small mirror at an angle is extremely interesting. It certainly goes a long way to convince viewers that the hypothesis about Vermeer's methods is at least possible on a practical level. I was impressed by it, but found myself thinking, "It can't possibly be that easy." Besides it- I should imagine- taking some time to get used to painting from a reflection, there's also the necessity of being able to blend the paint colours and hues competently, which takes some skill and practice. I found myself skeptical that Jenison sat down and produced this picture on his first attempt. It's not that I doubt that he did it, but rather that there weren't a few crumpled canvasses from previous efforts in the trash can. Unless, of course, Tim has had some training in painting, which is certainly possible but I don't recall being mentioned. I just find it unlikely that a raw beginner could sit down and produce a picture that well done in one attempt. The process and its results, however, made me want to try it myself, to see if it actually was that easy. Whether I'll ever get around to it is another question.
Tim's rebuilding Vermeer's studio to scale is an impressive accomplishment, and a testament both to his dedication to this project and to his unlimited funds. I found myself thinking at different times during the film that it was a good thing that Jenison owns a successful tech company, because everything he does obviously requires not only a lot of time and effort, but money as well. Not only does he exactly reproduce the studio and all the decor necessary for the Music Lesson portrait, he travels to England to meet with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera. While there, he also gets to see the real painting The Music Lesson, which is in Queen Elizabeth's private collection at Windsor Castle. It's not as if just anyone could get in to see it; I've done the tour at Windsor, and I assure you that the painting isn't on it.
The part of the film which chronicles Tim's painting of the Vermeer reproduction in my opinion does a better job of showing the time and work involved in the process than the earlier scenes about his father's picture. You get a better sense of time passing; the work is exacting and tedious, and Tim is often tired and sometimes frustrated. This seems a bit more realistic, at least to me. The final result is impressive, and one is forced to conclude that it is certainly a distinct possibility that Vermeer employed a similar method to aid his artistic efforts.
The film Tim's Vermeer and also the book Vermeer's Camera suggest a very interesting- and creditable- method which Vermeer could possibly have used to produce his paintings. Inevitably, this leads the viewer to wonder just what this says about Vermeer's art, and more broadly, about what constitutes art. If, indeed, Vermeer employed a camera obscura to capture the images which he painted, does this make him less of an artist?
Certainly Vermeer had to master painting techniques, the fundamentals of the art, but if he wasn't doing the actual drawing himself, and was painting from a reflection, was he a real artist or a merely a competent craftperson? And does it matter? Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt a good deal of the city of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was a mathematician and scientist who used these skills to produce many great edifices. Yet I would argue that the buildings he designed- such as St Paul's Cathedral- are just as much works of art as they are works of construction.
I suppose the real question is, what constitutes art? My usual rule of thumb is that if I can do it, it probably isn't art, which is why I have no time for Jackson Pollack's splatters and dribbles. But, even if I could paint a picture using a reflected image, I couldn't do it with anywhere near the skill and beauty seen in Vermeer's work. Was he an artist or an artisan, or both? Whatever you decide, it is inarguable that Johannes Vermeer gifted us with many works of great beauty for which we can be deeply grateful.