Ryszard Kapuscinski (1993) Imperium.

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in 1932 and grew up in the Polesie region on Poland (today Belorussia). Pinsk was liberated by Soviet troops in 1939. From what wasn’t clear. He learned the Cyrillic Russian alphabet as school from a single copy of Stalin’s Studies in Leninism, watched arbitrary mass deportations to Siberia and starved with his family. He remained liberated for most of his adult life and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The unravelling of the Imperium: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1992.

The system that governs us is a combination of the old nomenclatura, the sharks of finance, false democrats, and the KGB. I cannot call this democracy—it is a repugnant historically unprecedented hybrid, and we do not know in which direction it will develop…[but] if the alliance will prevail they will be exploiting us not for seventy, but for one hundred and seventy years.   

We do know the direction Russia took under Vladimir Putin. Kapuscinski marks out the direction of travel. He speaks of the old native Russia. His reading and understand of Bierdayev’s book as a student at university who tried to outline what the Imperium was and the paradox of what does a Russian think when he is somewhere such as the shore of the Yenisry.

He can walk along for days and months and always Russia will surround him. The plains have no end, nor the forests, nor the rivers. To rule over such boundless expanses, says Bierdayev, one had to create a boundless state.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace showed the hubris of Napoleon and the triumph of Mother Russia. The Great Patriotic War as the Second World War was called was when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic defeated the Nazis (that had an alliance with until 1942). There were two superpowers in the world when the war ended and America was the enemy. They fought proxy-wars, Korea at the beginning of the 1950s. Communist China, a pauper state, under Chairman Mao provided unlimited manpower and around one million troops. Soviet MIG fighters protected ground troops. General McArthur, holed up as proxy-Emperor of Japan wanted to fight on, go all the way to China, all the way to Russia. War weary, General, later President Eisenhower, divided Korea. Both superpowers had nuclear weapons. China acquired them from Russia.

The Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy at the end of 1962 called the Russian’s bluff over Cuban missiles. I was too young to remember. Now we’re too old to care. Then Putin, 24th February 2022 threatens nuclear war for interference over his invasion plans of Ukraine.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia for eight years. It used to be the breadbasket of Russia and exported grain to Germany, now it exports its crops to China. Its soil was so fertile it was said that if you left a stick in the ground a tree would bloom. Yet, during Stalin’s purges millions starved. Putin’s military has annexed Crimea. The second day of their full-scale invasion and troops surround the capital Kyiv. But with amphibious landings on Mariupol and Donbas.   

Kapuscinski reminds us of falling into the abyss. The massacre of around 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey in 1915, the greatest mass genocide until Hitler. Regarded as traitors and infiltrators. In Putin’s terms neo-Nazis and drug addicts.    

‘Nationalism is the forbidden fruit.’

The Chechen Wars were good wars for Putin. The use of overwhelming military force, mass murder and torture quelled the North Caucasus. Puppet government.

‘A state that does not have a state seeks salvation in symbols. The protection of the symbol is important to it as protection of borders to other states. The cult of the symbol becomes a form of the cult of the country. Protection of the symbol becomes an act of patriotism.’

Look at the map, Kapuscinski says of Aremenia, but he could also be speaking of Ukraine.  The Russian bear wants to swallow it up. But he offers another lesson.

Look at the history books, ‘A magnificent ascent, and then, a dispiriting fall’.

The West (by which we mean President Joe Biden) offers overwhelming sanctions against Russia, but not if it pushes up the price of petrol for the average American. I wonder when the backbiting will start about the four million refugees not coming into Europe, because they’re already here. Are we sliding down the same road, taking sides, picking allies? Imperium is an insider account of a refugee that’s not a refugee in the old Soviet Socialist Republics Putin thinks still exist. Keeping your mouth shut doesn’t guarantee you’ll be OK. Not taking sides is taken sides. I’m not taking sides. I hope Ukraine wins, whatever that means. But I doubt its people will. Putin will win—for now.  I don’t know what that means either.   

The Keeper, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, written by Michael J Schofield and Marcus H Rosenmüller, director Marcus H Rosenmüller.

The Keeper, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, written by Michael J Schofield and Marcus H Rosenmüller, director Marcus H Rosenmüller.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000zhk8/the-keeper

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Trautmann

I usually check out late-night films to see if there are any worth watching. I wasn’t sure of The Keeper. Advertised as a biopic of Bert Trautmann, my first thoughts were it was something to do with music, and I probably wouldn’t like it. Before I pulled up the preview, I realised it might have something to do with goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, (yeh, I know, it’s in the title) but I didn’t remember his name. My memories are as fragmentary as the bones in his neck. I couldn’t remember what team, but knew it was a post-war English team.

Celtic’s John Thompson died as a result of an accidental collision with Rangers player Sam English during an Old Firm match at Ibrox on 5th September 1931. But not many English players played in Scotland. Our best players usually went the other way, to play in England, where players were paid two or three times as much as a normal working man, down the pits. Example Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby.  The Celtic team that won the European Cup was famously made up of eleven players that lived with twelve miles of Glasgow. Bobby Lennox, being the furthest, living in Saltcoats. Even the quality street Celtic team that destroyed Leeds but lost the European Cup final to Feyenoord in 1970 was also home grown. We’d have probably won that game if instead of Evan Williams in goal we had Billy the Fish, or Rocky and Rambo combined in Sylvester Stallone who famously made the Nazis pay by not only saving everything flung at him in a match against the guards, but also sneaked out of the stadium, incognito, with Pele in  Escape to Victory.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Half_Times_in_Hell)

I can’t think of any other films about goalkeepers. Bernhard Carl ‘Bert’ Trautmann played for Manchester City from 1949 to 1964. He’s played by a fresh-faced David Kross in the film. Lots to work with here. But, basically, it’s a love story.  He falls in love with Margaret Friar (Freya Mavor).

The ‘meet-cute’ is he agrees to a wager. He’ll save penalties taken by other inmates in the prisoner of war camp in Lancashire between St Helens and Wigan, and if the taker scores he will give them a cigarette, if they miss, the inmate pays double. Margaret Friar watches him making save after save. She steps up to take a penalty. I expected him to let her score, but no. We know he’ll score with her later.

A few rudimentary obstacles stand in his way. Firstly, he’s interred and classified as a Nazi. Evidence of this is he won a handful of medals, including the prestigious Iron Cross. His past was later to surface, and crowd protest took place outside the Manchester City ground when he signed.  

The war ends, he can go back to his homeland. First, he’s got to win the heart of the number one babe. He’s a bit of help from her dad, Jack Friar (John Henshaw) an Arthur Daly type with ties to the camp and his own shop. He’s also manager of non-league St Helens. A team struggling and in a relegation battle. They have a goalkeeper, but you guessed it, he’s the type of keeper Celtic signed from Greece and couldn’t catch a cold.  Of course, Friar brings in Trautmann, ‘Bert’, to his new pals and he plays like Billy the Fish.

Bert, of course, has other fish to fry with Friar’s daughter. But she’s got a boyfriend. And her best pal, Betsy Walters (Chloe Harris) is snuggled up with the current, woeful, goalie. Ho-hum, kick up the park and he moves in with his boss. Only a blind goalie would miss what happened next.

How to deal with collective guilt and the Nazi murder of six million Jews? Bert had previous; he’d spent a few years on the Eastern Front, where a large part of the genocidal killing took place, arguably, more than took place in concentration camps.  His argument that he’d just followed orders had the familiar ring of an Eichmann before being hanged by Albert Pierrepoint.

Bert, being a good German, and not a Nazi, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He suffers flashbacks of the boy he couldn’t save. Shot dead by a Nazi, who stole his leather football. The same boy turns up later in the film. A cosmic equaliser and forbearer of bad tidings. Hokum.

Bert wins over the Manchester City fans by his performances. He was simply an outstanding goalkeeper, and innovative in his use of flinging the ball out to a wing-half (as they were called in those days) to start attacks. Simple. You’re no longer a Nazi when your team keeps winning. In the same way, the current Manchester City team is sponsored by a Saudi regime that has committed mass murder and sponsored one of their citizens Osman Bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, who helped plan bringing down the Twin Towers, the Taliban and most extremist Muslim groups that follow their brand of religion, but nobody seems to care. There’s some archive footage, as football was played then. Not only was it a black-and-white world, but seems in slow motion. Maybe we could send our Greek dud out on loan to 1950s Manchester. He’d fit in just great.   

Boris Pahor (2020) Necroplis. Translated by Michael Biggins, introduction by Alan Yentob.

With most of the world in lockdown now is perhaps a good time to spend reading about Boris Pahor in the land of the crematoria. Spare a thought for those in refugee camps and prisons. Necropolis is a story not about them, but about us, common humanity. Pahor writes about his life not in the past, but in the present and also the future, when he’ll be like so many of his comrades.  About the stripping away of citizenship until a person becomes a thing—a number. One object among many. Pahor doesn’t just implicate the Nazis. Or the Italian Fascist Party that sought to eradicate any signs of the Slovak culture in Trieste by burning down The Slovenian National Home and taking away their language and schools, forcing them to integrate, but only as second-class citizens that weren’t to be trusted. Pahor asks questions of us.

He was born an Austrio-Hungarian citizen, a victim of arson and pogroms, without moving his home became an Italian subject. Later he became subject to internment in the Nazi military industrial complex and death camps. The familiar names of Bergen-Belsen, Harzungen, Dachau, and the smaller and relatively unknown Natzweiler-Struthof. But it is here as a post-war-day visitor, a tourist, to the concentration camp located in the Vosges Mountains close to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller in France, near Stasbourgh, but neither French, Italian or German, a former ski resort, transformed into a place of death, like other camps, gallows and crematoria combined that Pahor has his epiphanies.  

Natzweiler-Struthof is a jumping off point for Pahor.  Primo Levi asks the rhetorical question, What is a Man? Pahor lived the answer.

‘Europeans, despite their high-flown phrases, are basically thoughtless and cowardly. They become accustomed to a comfortable existence. And now if they feel shame, they drown it out in an orgy of moralising.’  

Pahor accepts his survival was a fluke, he cannot properly explain. ‘An exception was made for me throughout my life. I am never weighed on the usual scales.’

 An injured finger and gift for languages got him a job inside as a medic. But his education was in humanity.

‘In the necropolises it did not matter what depth you worked in. Barbers shaved death, quartermasters dressed it, medics undressed it, registrars entered the dates of death after serial numbers, and in the end, they all, each of them, were sucked up the huge chimney.’

Pahor’s meditation on his past life and present circumstances is a reaffirmation and warning.

‘At best I could, I give testimony to the living about those who turned into bones before my eyes’.

The hungry days of Nazi night and fog are not in the past, but bleed into the present if we let it. You embrace an evil, when you allow it—like now?