Saturday, 10 November 2018

How and why we remember

In Dorothy L. Sayers' 1928 novel 'The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club', the two minutes silence on November 11th is not only a plot point, but also gives the author, through the hero (of the book and holder of the DSO) Lord Peter Wimsey, the chance to offer a contrarian view as to how the anniversary of the Armistice should be marked. His Lordship observes: "All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don't it? It's my belief that most of us would be only too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn't run it for all it's worth. But it don't do to say so.".

So, ninety years on and the situation, in the UK at least, is if anything worse, with the poppy police constantly on the look out for deviations from regulated observance. Back in 2013 MPs complained that Google displaying a single poppy on their home page was 'demeaning'; there should apparently have been far more. I cannot be the only one to have been disturbed by the increasing replacement of simple paper poppies by ever larger and more elaborate designs which can serve no other purpose than to signal that the wearer is more virtuous than everyone else. Far better writers than me have been wrestling with all this, so I thought that I would share a few links to their articles; I hope that you find them thought-provoking.

The Conversation on why wearing a poppy is political

Stumbling and Mumbling on not wearing a poppy

Slugger O'Toole asks 'A Great and Just War?'

Ian Jack argues that conceptual art can never convey the tragedy of the Great War

For the record I have not worn a poppy for some years, but I do donate to the Royal British Legion and I shall be observing the silence tomorrow.

Friday, 9 November 2018


There hasn't been very much gaming recently, and certainly no wargaming since Ravenna at Fiasco, the result of which escapes me for a moment. Someone has been concerned enough about this state of affairs to ask me when I intend to spend this money supposedly burning a hole in my pocket, and on what. The answers, as you had probably already guessed, are nothing and don't know. Firstly, I haven't actually been paid yet and I stick closely to the accountants' maxim: Cash is Queen. Secondly, well, too much choice. Spending at Fiasco was some Hexon slopes from Kallistra and some trees from the tree man; basically the same as at every other show ever. The boat has been pushed out very slightly since though. I have settled on To the Strongest! as my rules of choice for both Early Roman Empire and for the various 15th century dabblings that I do. Figures for the former are individually based and I acquired movement trays quite a while ago. The latter are all on 40mm square bases and the size of the table, and consequently the squares, mandates three stand units. I have therefore bought some 120mm x 40mm sabot bases to make movement easier, plus a few 160mm wide for units with attached commanders. Painting (green) and varnishing (gloss) is under way.

Boardgaming has more or less stopped completely as I have found both the groups which I used to attend becoming cliquey and off-putting; it seems it is no longer enough to like playing games, one must like playing the games that are, by some mysterious collective decision, determined as being currently fashionable. A cynic - that would be me then - might suggest that having paid a lot of money for a game on Kickstarter is the main criterion for whether a game is so deemed. Which brings me on to about the only game that I have actually played recently. I was invited by a regular five strong gaming group to make up the sixth player in Quartermaster General: Cold War, which one of them at least had funded. I have raved on here often enough about the World War Two game, plus this new game covers a conflict through most of which I lived myself, so I was definitely up for it. The format will be familiar to those who have played/seen the other games in the series (although naturally there are sufficient minor rule differences to catch everyone out) and the first thing to say is that, as with the games for the two World Wars, the card decks do a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the political, military and indeed wider cultural events that we all remember or have read about according to age. In fact I would go so far as to say that it makes a brilliant three player game. Sadly, as mentioned before, we played with six players, which didn't work at all. The mechanism for dividing competing blocs into teams of two players each positively detracts from the gaming experience, not least by making the bloody thing last for ever. So, highly recommended for playing with three players, despite me never having done so.

The once a month Sunday afternoon group to which I used to go is changing venue this weekend and I was wondering whether to give it another try. The likelihood of me doing that increased significantly when I discovered that the new location has a pinball machine. I spent almost as much of my time as an undergraduate playing pinball as I did table football; in other words, a lot. I used to own a pinball machine: a proper, old-fashioned, heavy thing, stuffed full of electro-mechanical relays, with plenty of satisfying heft when you gave the flippers some welly. I bought it from a man I met in the pub. In my experience no story that starts with those words is ever likely to end well; this one certainly didn't.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Unhasty orison

I have mentioned before that I find coincidences interesting, but I am am obviously aware that they don't really signify anything. The brain looks for patterns (especially if one is as analytical by nature as me); if it doesn't find anything it moves on and makes no note; if it does spot something then it says "Aha", or "Would you believe it?" or "Bugger me" according to taste. And given that we are in November 2018 it is also no coincidence that I have seen another play about the Great War, this time a new production of "Barnbow Canaries", which I first wrote about here. It's still funny, still sad and still relevant. I suspect I was the only member of the audience trying to shoehorn the play's message into one of two competing interpretations of the relation between state and capital and I can't pretend it added all that much to my enjoyment. The play is about the sacrifices demanded by total war as viewed through the sufferings and solidarity of women, and to any sensible person that would be enough.

What definitely does count as a coincidence is the close proximity in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery of the graves of Private John Parr, the first British soldier to die during the war, and Private George Ellison, the last such. The juxtaposition comes about because Mons was where the BEF first sought to delay the German advance and was also where the British had themselves reached again by the time of the armistice. The irony of spending four years and millions of deaths to get back to where one started needs no elaboration from me. On Friday the British Prime Minister will lay wreaths on both their graves; we shall have to wait to see what lessons regarding how to conduct relations with other countries that she chooses to draw from her experience.

Private Ellison, who was already in uniform when the war started and had served throughout, was from Leeds and yesterday (understandably a little earlier than the centenary itself because Sunday will be a very busy day for all concerned) was locally honoured with unveiling of a plaque in a short ceremony attended by members of his family and representatives of the successor regiment to that in which he served.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

                          - Wilfred Owen 

Friday, 2 November 2018

Art is a hammer

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” 

                                                     - Bertolt Brecht

And so to the theatre and indeed to the opera. Much of October's fare had a more or less overt political message. Brecht's 'Mother Courage and Her Children" isn't just anti-war, but also makes the point that anyone who thinks they can profit from war without being affected by it is deluding themselves. The eponymous vivandière, played in this Red Ladder production by Pauline McLynn of 'Father Ted' fame, isn't to be sympathised with for her losses, but rather criticised for not understanding the reality of the situation in which she finds herself. If I were to offer advice to Brecht (and given that I have previously been known to point out where Mozart got it wrong then why wouldn't I?) it is that the character's name does tend to mislead the audience as to how they should view her. Brecht's trademark Verfemdungseffeckt was on this occasion achieved by it being a promenade performance around a deserted warehouse of the type much favoured by villains in the Adam West Batman TV series.

The reason for the location was that Leeds Playhouse, as it has reverted to being called, is having a year long refurbishment, which also meant that I had to trek across to York to see the latest Northern Broadsides production 'They Don't Pay? We Won't Pay!', an adaptation of the Dario Fo farce 'Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!' by Deborah McAndrew. I've never been sure if Fo, who was certainly influenced by Brecht, was as much of a straight down the line Marxist as his predecessor, but this play leaves one in no doubt that he believed the problems of the working class to be caused by both capitalism itself and by capital's use of the state's (*) powers of coercion in order to suppress opposition and maximise profits. It's also very, very funny, drawing on verbal dexterity, physical comedy and amusingly out of context props; a coffin in the wardrobe anyone? I was also very pleased to see the false moustache given a twenty first century run out with its comedic validity emerging intact.

Coming back to state repression, this is very much the background setting for 'Tosca'. Opera North have a new production, and it's wonderful. Beautifully sung, with the orchestra on top form, if the bleak ending doesn't make you cry then you have no heart. Whilst we are all pleased to see the death of chief bad guy Scarpia (**), played here as a Gestapo/NKVD type boss, we would be advised to bear in mind another quote from Brecht: "Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.".

Opera North's 'Merry Widow' is set in a political and diplomatic milieu, but that is presumably merely because it has to be set somewhere. Even I can't pretend that there is anything substantial in it - despite the many jibes against bankers that make the audience laugh, perhaps in recognition of their own powerlessness against the forces represented by what Marx referred to as money capital (***) - but it's great fun. Let me give a special mention to Any Freston as Valencienne for combining excellent singing with the occasional cartwheel across the stage, just to show off.

* NB 'State' in this context is not identical to 'nation state'. There are (at least) two distinct strands of Marxist analysis regarding the relationship between nation and capital: state as superstructure (e.g. as per Marx and Miliband, father rather than either son) or state as capital (e.g. as per Lenin and Bukharin). I would suggest Brecht leaned to the former in 'Mother Courage', but feel free to disagree.

** Scarpia was of course based on a real person, one who co-operated closely with the British in Naples. We turned a blind eye to his brutality because it suited us politically. Plus ca change.

*** "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" - Bertolt Brecht

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Post-completion Fiasco

Don't fear, I am intending in due course to bore you all with more details of my trip to Spain plus of course all my other cultural activities (there's been a lot of political theatre this month; bet you can't wait), but once again I find I have other, and frankly more interesting, demands on my time. Therefore this just a quick follow up on Fiasco. For those who haven't seen it already James has posted a report here with lots of pictures, plus a rather a laboured joke about a lost D8. Let me add another photo, which I pinched from here, showing James saying "I spent hours writing those scenario notes and you tell me you haven't bloody read them!" to a suitably shamefaced Holy League commander who wishes to remain anonymous.

You don't have to be bald to play Piquet, but it helps

And finally, there is still no sign of any photos of the game in the Daily Telegraph. This is one of the pictures they have found space for instead; as so often with that newspaper it's hard to fault their editorial judgement.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018


"Table Football is a combination of Soccer and Shish Kebabs." - Mitch Hedberg

It is my practice to every now and then publish a photograph of a bunch of grizzled old men with no accompanying explanation. Here is another one:

There are herein a couple of coincidences of the type much celebrated by your bloggist, but of no interest whatsoever to anyone else. Firstly, did you know that table football - a game that I really love playing by the way - was invented in its current form in Spain during the civil war, a topic in which I have obviously been immersed for the last couple of weeks while I was there (*). Secondly, one of the chaps in the photo spontaneously and with no prompting brought up (**) the subject of the Gong concert about which I blogged a few weeks ago. He claimed to have 'looked after' me at the time and added a lot of spurious, and - given the length of time that has passed - obviously unreliable, detail about just how unwell I was.

*   There will be no Spanish Civil War project in the annexe; should any Spanish speaking rebels ever appear on the table they will be Mexicans.

** Pun intended.