September in steamy Waterloo

Travelling over to Canada at the beginning of September was something of a movie feast. The flight times have changed, so I was able to get the 2 o’clock flight in the afternoon to Amsterdam to connect with a late evening flight to Toronto, times I consider more conducive to watching films. On the plane from Norwich to Amsterdam was a gentleman travelling to Nashville for a Comic Convention. He informed me (and the cabin crew), that he lived in rural Norfolk, not far from where my family came from. His job: to draw Superman for DC comics.

I was lucky on the flight from Amsterdam to Toronto and got upgraded to business class. Apart from excellent food, it gives one the chance to watch films on a slightly larger screen. Douglas and I had been to see the film Dunkirk in Norwich. On this leg of the journey I watched two other films relating to the Second World War. I am going to spend time reflecting on Dunkirk, before talking about them. I think it is an important, and potentially influential movie, particularly at this point in Britain’s political history.

For those who don’t know, Dunkirk was when Britain snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. A major British expeditionary force that had gone over to face Hitler was surrounded in the port and area of Dunkirk, on the northern French coast. The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces on 25 May and by 4 June 1940, 338,226 had escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch troops. In total there were 861 vessels, many of which were small boats that come to take soldiers from the beaches. This was vital because the dock at Dunkirk was damaged (the sea walls were used by the navy and larger vessels). This story has gone down in history as an example of how the British can come together in the face of overwhelming odds, becoming the origin of the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit’.

I fear the problem with this film is that many will see it as a parallel for the current Brexit negotiations. “Plucky England, back to the wall, facing all these foreigners who have nothing but ill intentions towards us. At the end of the day we have rely on ourselves.” Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The wall is of our making, and while, by and large, international relations are about making the domestic situations better, this is not the case here. There will be no redemption, just the realisation we will have to negotiate from a much poorer position. The situation is depressing and clearly indicates how badly the leadership and bourgeoisie failed to read the mood on the ground. It is interesting that the critics in the New Yorker and Observer seemed to come to similar conclusions.

Churchill is a 2017 British historical war drama directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. It is set in the days and hours leading up to D-Day, the invasion of the continent. It shows Churchill as being extremely cautious and concerned about the landings. Referring back to his experience at Gallipoli, he assumes that it will be a bloodbath. On the whole I found it unconvincing and very hard on Churchill. It also shows the powerlessness of politicians. When war is engaged, their role is to be cheerleaders. Of course with hindsight we know that the landings went ahead, and were successful, leading to the liberation of Europe. I can’t believe that Winston Churchill was as nervous and helpless as he was portrayed.

The second film I watched was Denial. Made in 2016, it is a historical drama based on the story of the court case in London, where American writer Deborah Lipstadt was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving for libel. The case was actually between Irving v Penguin Books Ltd. On 5 September 1996, Irving filed a libel suit against Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin, for publishing the British edition of Lipstadt’s book, Denying the Holocaust. In this Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier, and bigot, and said that he manipulated and distorted real documents. The briefs were the British solicitor Anthony Julius for Lipstadt, Penguin Books hired libel specialist Kevin Bays and Mark Bateman, and together they briefed barrister Richard Rampton QC. The lawyers were well portrayed. The conclusion:

“Not one of [Irving’s] books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject. All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about … if we mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian.” – via Wikipedia

Irving lost the case and was liable to pay Penguin’s costs of the trial, estimated to be as much as £2 million (US$3.2 million). He was declared bankrupt in 2002 and lost his home. He remains a holocaust denier. The film was excellent and the reason I spend so much space on it is that it reminded me of the AIDS deniers we faced in South Africa from about 2000 onwards. What revolting people they were.

The balance of September here in Waterloo was quiet. We have been having regular bashes on the rooftop of the apartment building. These are held on a Monday evening and attendances vary from 5 to 12. They have been a great deal of fun, and last weekend it was sufficiently warm that we were able to sit out until after 10pm. The sunset was superb, and the temperature an unbelievable 28°C. There was a week of really warm weather, but fall is definitely here, and this week the temperature struggled to get up to 20°C. People have been complaining about the unrelenting heat, and I must admit with some justice. The apartments in my building, that face the South are really difficult to keep cool, as there is so much solar gain through the large windows. Mind you we don’t complain in winter.

This will be the last monthly letter from Waterloo for some time. This week I travel back to the United Kingdom, and spend time in Norwich. I then go to Germany for a two-week Fellowship at the University of Konstanz. This will be great fun as Douglas, Ailsa, and Rowan will all join me for periods during my stay. I am required to teach for two weeks and find quite bizarre that most lectures take place in the late afternoon and early evening. Some session are 3 ½ hours and so they will be divided into two. In total I will be doing eight lectures and, I hope, one more public one for the University.

From there it will be back to southern Africa, first to Cape Town where Tim Quinlan and I are running a course on scientific writing with the support of the Gates Foundation. That will take a week and I will then go back to Durban and up to Swaziland for the Waterford Governing Council. From there I return to Durban to have a cataract operation, and then after spending enough time to avoid tax issues, I will go back to England for the Christmas holiday. Finally, after Christmas, it will be back to Canada to prepare and teach for the winter term.