Friday, 30 January 2009

The Anglo-Zulu Wars

130 years ago last week, over 24,000 Zulu warriors attacked a British Invasion Force as it encamped on the slopes of Isandlwana, Zululand. Both sides fought with amazing bravery, both sides suffered severe loss.

It was a terrible defeat for the British Army. Of the 1300 plus troops only a handful survived but over 3000 Zulus also died. On the same day the British troops at Rorke’s Drift, a few miles away, were also attacked but after many hours of fierce and furious battle the British troops repulsed the Zulu warriors.

Rob Gerrard (the resident historian at the stunning Isandlwana Lodge overlooking the site) guides tourists through every angle and nuance of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. He brings the events to life – so to speak – in the most vivid detail. The experience is guaranteed to move even the most unemotional of men.

What is less than impressive is the arrogance and ineptitude that was shown by commander of the British forces, Major General Lord Chelmsford. Men such as he rose to positions of power, due less to ability and more to connections, and their lack of professionalism had disastrous results. What is even more shocking is that many a similar thing continued to happen, later, in the First World War.

As in any war, it is not just the lives of soldiers that are lost, it is the lives of their families that are blighted. Every man who died on the 22nd January 1879 was a son; many a father, some a brother. Most would have been a breadwinner, others a potential one. British and Zulu families would feel the consequences for generations to come.

If I were to consider the Anglo-Zulu Wars on a totally uninvolved level, I should find the amount of interest that they exert for military historians - amateur and professional alike - surprising. The wars were condensed into a very short period, over a very small area. Could it be the complexity of them, the tactics, the reasons for them or the results of them that are so gripping? Or perhaps it’s the astounding bravery that was displayed: five VC’s were awarded at Rorke’s Drift alone.

But, in actual fact, I’m involved on a very personal level: my great-grandfather died at the Battle of Isandlwana. His name, Charles White, is on the memorial at Isandlwana. Somewhere, under one of the cairns – a pile of white stones – or scattered on the battlefield lie his remains. He left behind a family and dependents in Natal: seven children and a pregnant wife. Mr Kipling was wrong; there is very little glory in war.


Saturday, 17 January 2009

Mark Rothko

Tate Modern is the perfect place for the Mark Rothko exhibition that's on at the moment: it's awesome, large, dark red with strong lines. Just like most of Rothko’s later paintings. For years his murals have hung in the Tate but for the first time his late series of paintings are on show.

In 1958 Rothko was commissioned to paint some murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Mies van der Rohe’s (of 'less is more' fame) stunning Seagram skyscraper in New York. But the paintings Rothko produced were not the colourful pieces of his previous works: they were dark. Layer upon layer of red, of black and, finally, brown and grey. Nothing is flat, varying tones and intensities give the finished works a luminosity and depth you wouldn’t think possible in such dark canvases.

Rothko never completed the commission. The story is that he felt they were works that should be seen by the ordinary man, not simply rich diners: that the space in the restaurant was too cramped for his vision of their hanging. This may well be true but I think these abstract works also show us a man who was not happy. He killed himself in 1970 as the first of his works arrived at the Tate.

Rothko’s death brought his works back to the attention of the art world: a whole new interest in his latest works grew. Rothko had wanted his works to create a sense of place. And hanging together as they do in the central room of the exhibition they certainly do. They are brooding, magnificent, deep and, well, kind of melancholy.

He had felt that the works should be looked at close up – as close as 18 inches from the surface – and I tried it. I’m sure other visitors – who quite sensibly stood well back as one would expect to be in order to see the whole canvas – thought I was short sighted, mad or both. But it gave me the feeling that I was really entering the painting. Like a dark cave. A doorway. That close you can see the built up layers of colour and feel that there is something more there. Something to ponder.

Rothko’s earlier paintings had used glorious exuberant colour. Specialists have researched the materials he has used for these Seagram murals by putting ultra-violet light behind them. The results show the layering of colours that have made up the finished canvas. The back-lit examples are absolutely stunning in their vibrant colour, wonderful shading and clarity. It’s difficult to believe that these are the basis for the Seagram murals.

I used to see Rothko’s paintings as landscapes (I suppose that’s an occupational hazard). But many of these later works are very similar, the only difference a change in the level of the horizon. And that change in level alters ones perception. Just as the subtle changes in colour do. Now, I think, the paintings are to make the spectator do just that: think.

There’s a great photo of Rothko sitting in his chair just contemplating his canvas. Is he thinking ‘What do I need to do: to add, to detract” or is he just sitting there meditating, monk-like, wondering what is in there. In that deep fathomless, bottomless, colour and shape. I suspect that he is: he’s thinking about life, the world, the universe and everything.

And I guess if his murals make us stop, and think deeply about these imponderables too, then that has to be a good thing in this too-busy-to-stop, no-time-to-do-it, running-late world we all inhabit.


Sunday, 11 January 2009

Simone de Beauvoir and Rachida Dati : a co-incidental pair.

Co-incidence is a funny old thing: when it happens we think it is magical but I suppose – if you are a mathematician – it is only a matter of odds. For example, here’s my latest little co-incidence. Years after struggling with Simone de Beauvoir’s dense book, The Second Sex, I found a slim volume of hers on my bookshelf that I had never read (put off, no doubt, by the earlier struggle).

Well, I picked up A Very Easy Death – possibly had the subject on my mind as the anniversary of my father’s death is about to be - and a very easy read it turned out to be. Quite unassuming and virtually without incident – if you don’t count the death of her mother– it raised subtle questions about relationships with ones parents that gave me pause for thought.

Then blow me down, only a few pages off finishing it I hear a Radio 4 programme all about Simone de Beauvoir: 2009 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Second Sex. The gist of the message enshrined in its pages is that women are not simply adjuncts to men.

Now, this might be assumed as quite obviously the case today, but SdB (somehow it’s inconceivable to call her Simone) was from a bourgeois Catholic background, living in a period – in France – when a woman’s place was definitely in the home and her time fully for the benefit of her husband.

She was against obligatory motherhood, advised women not to live solely as a housewife and, in the book, described women’s sexuality: her views caused, as you might expect, quite a stir. SdB had enrolled herself at the Sorbonne and studied philosophy: here she met Jean-Paul Sartre and their passionate partnership – and intellectual harmony - lasted for decades. SdB, like Sartre, espoused personal freedom and this included their sexual life.

She was at the time - and has been since – labelled a feminist by some, not a true feminist by others. On the one hand she felt strongly that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one” (a winner with the feminist and nurture-not-nature view). On the other, she was a victim of all those emotions (jealousy being one) that women fall prey to whatever their views: she was hurt by Sarte’s sexual affairs. Nevertheless, in spite occasional forays into other men’s beds, she was always ‘his woman’. Not a winner with the full-on feminists.

But SdB’s feminism was always – in its simplest form - towards gender equality. Now, here’s another co-incidence: 60 years on. In the press this week we were treated to the headline news that Rachida Dati, the unmarried French Justice Minister, has returned to work only five days after giving birth to her daughter.

She has since been alternatively praised and pilloried: the feminists argue that she is just acting like any one of her bread-winning, ambitious male colleagues and why not. The opposite camp argue that she has not done any favours for her gender: that her decision is not only an unnatural action but one that puts at risk their hard fought-for maternity leave.

Now, I’ll come clean: from choice I stopped work to have my children and did not consider the role to be second-class. Indeed, I considered myself lucky to be able to make that choice, not least because I had a husband to pay the mortgage. Unlike the unmarried, un-partnered, Ms Dati. Surely, she is just a very modern Simone de Beauvoir: gender equality is her aim and personal freedom her choice.


PS Having enjoyed A Very Easy Death I have now dug out (you can see how old the books are by the covers!)the two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography. The titles are challenging in themselves.