The legacy of November 22nd

If you were alive at the time, it’s accepted convention that you know exactly where you were on this date 51 years ago, when news broke that JFK had been assassinated. I was not alive, but I do remember exactly where I was on 21 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the event – in bed, with the flu, listening to a Radio 4 documentary about the assassination. [I was 12, I’m pretty sure Radio 4 wasn’t my choice.]

It stuck in my mind for a few of reasons:
1. I was 12, and I’m pretty sure this would have almost been the first time that I was properly aware of the events of 1963.
2. In the same documentary, I discovered that C.S. Lewis had died the same day – a death that was completely overshadowed by events in Dallas. To my 12 year old, Narnia-loving mind, this was a travesty.
3. Being ill had meant that I missed out on my best friend’s 13th birthday party. [12 year old priorities…]

Over the years, obviously, I heard more and more about the disputed and theorised events of November 22nd, 1963. It became pretty much the only thing I knew about Dallas. In fact, in 2008 when my Dad visited the city, he sent me a postcard with this famous photograph on it, and a note on the back that “this is still the only thing that Dallas is famous for…”.


To be honest, he was right! I’m too young to remember Dallas and quite honestly, didn’t know the city for any other reason than the terrible events on Dealey Plaza. When the trip to Dallas appeared on the horizon, I figured I’d make a pilgrimage to the spot at some point – because I like my history and US Politics – I did not expect to be looking out upon it for day after day…

I was in Dallas because it’s recently become the US hub for Matryoshka Haus (the missional community/social enterprise incubator I’m a part of). An element of that ‘hub’ is a desk at The Grove, a collaborative co-working space in downtown Dallas that’s situated on the corner of Elm and North Houston, just across the street from Dealey Plaza. About a month before I visited, a fellow Matryoshka Hausien was among the first to visit the desk, and tweeted about the view from its window:

Rachel & the grassy knoll

And the view?

Dealey Plaza

I really was not expecting to come face-to-face with a site of history – or at least, not quite so frequently. For several days I sat either at our desk or one near by, overlooking a site that many would argue changed the course of world history. [What would the world look like if Kennedy had lived? Would he have won a second term? What would have happened in Vietnam? In Cuba? To civil rights in the US? To his brother? Endless questions…] On my final day at the office, this was my view:

Texas School Book Depository

This is what used to be the Texas School Book Depository Building. The window on the far left, second floor down, is the corner in which Lee Harvey Oswald stood (or did he??), with the gun pointed out of the window looking out of the front of the building. The 6th floor is now a museum dedicated to the events of 51 years ago, complete with a large quantity of conspiracy theorising. You can’t get away from the theories…

Heritage sign, Texas School Book DepositoryThe heritage sign outside the museum – note the underlining of ‘allegedly’.

To be honest, I’m not a great one for theorising. The fact remains that JFK was killed and the world had to find a way to move on from that point. But, it turns out that pretty much everyone you talk to has a different theory on why he was killed  – and these range from possibly illogical, to virtually insane. No one will ever know the reasons behind the assassination, but that doesn’t mean that people will stop trying to find out! The museum is worth a visit – I was surprised at how anxious I became as the chronology moved towards the shooting. But I got bored with the long section at the end about the various Commissions and rehashing of evidence. It’s also very protective of the windows in question, you’re not allowed to take photos at all on the 6th floor, which of course only fuels speculation further. I had a much better view from over the road!

X Marks the SpotX marks the spot on the route of the motorcade.

I’ve returned home with a pile of fridge magnets and postcards, all showing the same view of the Texas School Book Depository building, and the plaza:

TSBD & GroveNot because I feel the need to be reminded of the events of 22nd November 1963 every day – but because in the photo, you can see the window that the Matroyshka Haus desk is next to. The building across the street from the book depository is unchanged, save for the loss of a fire escape, and if you count four floors up (where ground = 1) on the side adjacent to the depository, you find ‘our’ window.


Last night, via a Guardian news alert on my locked iPhone screen, I heard the news I knew was coming, but rather hoped might never appear. Nelson Mandela had died aged 95. [Actually, there were two Guardian alerts. The first got his age wrong by a year – classic Grauniad.]

I’d looked at my phone just as I entered my building after an evening out. I let out an audible groan and made my way up the 6 flights of stairs with more speed than usual in order to get the TV on and settle down for some rolling news coverage. I’m not going to lie, there were tears in the offing, which might have fallen, had my flatmate not appeared. Mandela has entered the ultimate freedom and the world mourns its loss.

Later this afternoon, I’ll take a walk to South Africa House to view the tributes. As I stand there, I’ll remember Theo – a South African woman at our church in the 90’s, who voted for the first time in that building in 1994. Previously, she’d watched as her passport was destroyed in front of her in the very same building, at the height of apartheid. I might go as far as Parliament Square to look at the statue of Mandela that stands at the corner nearest Westminster Abbey.

Mandela, Parliament Square

I could write a whole post about what Mandela meant to me, my family, our friends, the world, but I won’t. In fact, I wrote a post about my regret at never seeing him in the flesh over four years ago, so in a rare move, I’ll repeat it here. It deserves it.


Reading an excellent article in the Guardian today, a sobering thought struck me:

It is pretty inevitable that I will now never get to see Nelson Mandela in the flesh.

The article outlined how South Africa have recently done a poll similar to the BBC’s ‘Great Britons’ poll of a few years back. Thing is, with the top 10 announced, the winner is so clear that there will simply be a contest as to what order the other 9 will be in. As the article states: “Mandela is that rare thing: a man turned into statues in his own lifetime”.

Mandela is most definitely the living person I most admire. I can’t actually remember a time when his name was not in my brain. I grew up against a backdrop of parents passionately involved in the anti-apartheid struggle (even if the first I understood of this was why we didn’t buy Shell petrol or Cape apples). Watching Cry Freedom, probably aged no more than 10 (I blame the babysitters) had a profound affect on me. Aged 9, with a bad dose of the flu, I lay on a chaise lounge at a friend’s house, watching Mandela being driven into freedom.

He’s my mother’s ‘memorable figure in history’ for her bank security questions. (She should worry about how much info I have on her banking – pin number, special date, maiden name…) The sharing of this fact at a social function resulted in an awkward conversation. Someone present insisted that Mandela was a no good terrorist – I believe the phrase “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” was used. It went down like a lead balloon.

The thing that bugs me is that I’ve had missed opportunities to see this man in person. Whilst at university, he gave a lecture at my campus – but in the holidays when no students were around (or even informed). When he launched the Make Poverty History campaign from Trafalgar Square I was stuck at my desk in the first week of a brand new job. My last opportunity – his birthday concert this time last year – was a missed one.

In four days time he will turn 91. His health is failing and he rarely travels, let alone leaves South Africa.

There are plenty of people I’d like to meet one day, from George Clooney (on a shallow level) to Judi Dench or even Obama (I have met Clinton – of the Bill variety – that was exciting), but Mandelas come along once in a blue moon. In fact, less than that. His life brought hope to so many and changed a country some though unchangeable (no matter what has happened since).

I just hope that when the sad day comes and he is no longer with us, he doesn’t do a Mother Theresa and become overshadowed by the death of someone much less worthy.


I am thankful that that last line wasn’t a piece of terrible foreboding. In April, I genuinely feared that Mandela’s death might be overshadowed by Thatcher’s. I was perpetually concerned that a royal death might do it. But now that it has happened, there is suitable space for mourning, reflection and memories. I’m hoping that this will be an excellent opportunity for the generation born since his release from prison to understand more of just how important he was. How many in the 1980’s believed apartheid might never end, yet by 1994 a former prisoner was president.

Last night, someone observed that December 5th in the Church of England calendar has no saints day and perhaps Mandela would be a suitable addition. I’d be on board with that.

May the memory of Mandela never be allowed to die.

‘Children’s TV’ for all

Over the weekend, I was moved to ask “have you been watching the latest series of Horrible Histories” a couple of times, while away with a group of friends. As I mentioned several Friday Fun’s ago, I’ve only recently been introduced to its joys, but have subsequently become quite the fan. Every single person I asked replied with: “No! Liz, you do realise that’s a children’s programme?” and proceeded to mock me. I leapt to its defence, but no one seemed convinced.

Yes, HH is on CBBC. Yes, it’s aimed at children under 10. But no, it’s not just for children! Even the Guardian says it’s not.

For a start, as I mentioned previously, it’s song parodies only make real sense to grown-ups with an eclectic taste in music. Perhaps kids would have appreciate Joan of Arc’s Jessie J inspired number, but surely yesterday’s end of series (end of final series, in fact) ‘We are the World’ parody would have been lost on anyone under the age of 30?? My cup overflowed with joy while watching last week’s Kylie Minogue themed song about the colonisation of Australia – not just because it was excellent, but because it was an awesome collision of two significant elements of my life: my first album (Kylie, 1988) and my MA in Imperial & Commonwealth History (one half of which was Australian history). Gen-i-us.

Secondly, it’s not dumbed down ridiculousness. I have two history degrees and constantly learn new things. I don’t feel patronised, instead I’m informed with new fascinating facts to share with friends. [Friends, be grateful.]

Thirdly, it’s funny – and not just in a childish way. Yes, there are plentiful jokes and a facts about farts and bodily fluids, but I have laughed out loud multiple times at some of their more refined humour. (Though I have to confess that I find the ‘stupid deaths’ segment slightly scary, but that’s owing to my issues with full-face face painting. I’m special.) Adults will be particularly amused by the parodying of ‘grown up’ TV shows – Don’t Tell the Spartan Bride; The Only Way is Hertfordshire; Gross Designs; Come Dine With Me; and anything involving Professor Brian Cox…

Fourthly, since when did we discount good quality stuff just because it was marketed at children? Hello, Harry Potter anyone?

If you’re still not convinced, catch up on iPlayer, or explore the cornucopia of clips on YouTube. If you’re really looking for something to settle down to, watch the Horrible Histories Prom (and make a date in your diary for this year’s prom) Or, you can buy the preceding 4 series on DVD.

It has to be said that the popularity of HH has to partly thanks to the iPlayer. Without that, there’s no way hoards of adults would have discovered a show broadcast at 4.30pm on a weekday. But with iPlayer, no one knows what you’re watching, and no one can judge you…

…which is also how I’ve ended up becoming a massive fan of The Dumping Ground (and by affiliation, Tracy Beaker Returns). I’m not a Tracy Beaker fan – I was too old to read the book when it came out and I’ve always found her quite an irritating character. But earlier this year I somehow stumbled upon The Dumping Ground, which is a spin-off from the final Tracy related series. I was sucked into a phenomenal drama with excellent storylines and pretty decent child acting. How many shows do you know that can sensitively deal with a storyline involving a child with aspergers being adopted by a lesbian couple? Or child abuse? Or death? All in a format that’s accessible for tweenagers? I realise I’m very much not it’s target audience, but honestly, it’s an impressive feat! I highly recommend seeking it out.

Finding escape…in prison

As my July bucket list explained, a key element of this month’s ‘vicar school is over – for now’ rejoicing was the reading of books that are not theological.

I do love my current life, vicar school and everything, but I really, really miss my old life’s space and time for non-educational reading. (I also miss singing. That’s a whole other issue.) Whether that’s commuting time spent engrossed in a good read, or the guilt-free pleasure of reading whatever I wanted, it’s certainly not something I have much space for these days. I commute rarely; my bag usually contains some worthy tome; reading anything not on a module guide induces guilt that my time could be better spent working towards the next essay. For a voracious reader who finds their escape in other worlds, this is a sad state of affairs.

So, in preparation for my summer freedom, I ordered a very large book. It arrived the day before my last essay was due (a Friday), so the parcel was hidden under a cushion until the essay was handed in. Saturday morning was spent on the sofa engrossed. Sunday afternoon saw a couple of hours in the sun with it. By Monday night it was finished – all 750 pages of it. Oh. Happy. Days.

Sunshine ReadingSunday afternoon perfection.

The book in question was a blow-by-blow companion to the making of Tenko – the classic TV drama set in a women’s Japanese internment camp during WW2, shown in the very early 1980’s. I’ve written about it before – most recently on how getting lost in a blackhole of its episodes inevitably results in a ‘Tenko Mentality”. It might not sound like a literary masterpiece (it’s not really) but for a die-hard Tenko fan and historian, it was a joy. All of a sudden, I had escaped a world of ecclesiology and taken refuge in mid-twentieth century history and early 1980’s television making.

In the fortnight leading up to the end of term, I’d re-watched all three seasons of Tenko (and the reunion episode) for possibly the fourth time. I’ve definitely written about the show before, it’s something of an obsession amongst the female Clutterbucks – and an reference point for many every day facts of life. (For example, “it’s so humid, my hair makes me look like an extra in Tenko”.) Watch too many episodes in one go and it’s very difficult to re-adjust to the world around you – we are not in a Japanese internment camp (thank goodness!) It’s utterly addictive too. I’m still both impressed and slightly shocked by my ability, the penultimate Monday of term, that I ran 5km and watched an episode of Tenko before I left for college at 8.30am!

It’s total escapism and it’s only struck me in the last couple of days that it seems to have become comfort viewing in times of stress – the last time I watched it all was the week I started vicar school. Like Chalet School books, the world of Tenko is an alternative universe to escape into when the real world is not all that it should be. [As a result, if you ever see me mentioning that I’m watching it, perhaps check that things are ok…]

Back to the book. It was a joy. If you’re slightly OCD about needing know why things happened the way they did; why plots evolved; how things might have happened; and how it all fits together with reality, then this is perfect. For goodness sake, it’s 750 pages long, and there are photos! It includes possible story-lines that never made it to filming, the experiences of the cast and crew, why cast changes happened the way they did and the real-life experiences of life in the camps that inspired the series. It even includes a bibliography for further reading…

…thus, three days after finishing the book, I returned home to another piece of holiday reading – Women Behind the Wire, a collection of experiences of women who lived through Tenko in reality. It really comes to something that my idea of ‘holiday’ reading now that I’m a theology student is historical stuff! Again, it’s not a literary masterpiece and hasn’t aged particularly well – what counted as ‘popular’ history in the early 80’s doesn’t compare well with that written 30 years later. It’s rather sentimental and its references to the Japanese soldiers verge on the patronising, but it does tell the stories of some incredible men and women.

Tenko was the result of the producer’s earlier job researching those honoured by This Is Your Life, specifically Brigadier Dame Margot Turner, who had been interned by the Japanese. After making the first series of Tenko, Lavinia Warner researched the stories of many of the women interned alongside her, producing a book that chronicles the experiences of one community of women throughout their internment. It’s fascinating, heart-breaking and an example of just how horrific humanity can be. At the same time, it provides an idea of where some of the Tenko storylines came from – though it’s abundantly clear than the women of Tenko had things a lot easier than was really the case!

Now, I feel I have something like closure on this episode of history. True, I still need to get hold of a copy of Paradise Road so I can watch it again (this film depicting a vocal chorus in a camp was also inspired by Women Behind the Wire) and there are one or two other books I’d like to read, but I think it’s enough for now. Next on my summer list is a few more titles from that ever-reliable stalwart of my library: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer…

Bad gore, good gore?

I don’t really do gratuitous gore. My days of staying up late with a horror-fiend friend watching ‘torture porn’ (i.e. the Hostel and Saw genres of film – not actual porn) are long gone. I do not, as a mature grown up person with a LoveFilm subscription, enjoy films containing gore for gore’s sake.

However, I’m of the opinion that some forms of gore are necessary in films and that in those cases, saying that you don’t want to watch them because of the gore is verging on the unacceptable.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had negative responses to tweets mentioning a couple of ‘gory’ films. The first was Looper [recent blockbuster starring Bruce Willis]. Friends stopped watching it because “we found it too gory”. That’s probably fair enough, given as a major plot element involves shooting your future self in the head. The second was The Killing Fields [Oscar winning true life story], which after I tweeted that I was watching it received the response: “I can’t stand gore”. That may be your standpoint on gore, but quite frankly, it’s utterly essential to the film and its message…

I found myself watching The Killing Fields after a long Saturday of theology reading. I’d had it for a while, but was inspired to finally watch it having read a Guardian article about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Yes, I do realise that the film is set in Cambodia, but I think you can see the connection. I’d been trying to remember the name of a Rwandan film I’d watched a while ago and ended up in yet another Wikipedia vortex – this resulted in my wanting to do nothing more than watch another genocide film. I know it doesn’t sound relaxing and it wasn’t, but once a historian, always a historian.

There are several films relating to genocide which could be described as ‘gory’ and they are. But you know what? So is genocide. Most of these films are based on true events and tell stories that the rest of the world need to hear. None of them could possibly depict violence, death and destruction that’s even half as bad as what actually happened. Avoiding these films because of their gore is effectively denial. Denial that this has happened multiple times in the last century. That it keeps on happening in this self-destructive world. That it’s probably happening right this moment in Syria. That it may happen somewhere else in the very near future.

If the gore upsets you or makes you nauseous, close your eyes; walk out of the room briefly; hide behind a cushion; or fast forward – but whatever you do, don’t use the violence within these films as an excuse to not watch them. The people who died in the real versions deserve to be heard.

The_Killing_Fields_-_3Dith Pran & Sidney Schanberg as they appear in the film.

This may seem a bit wrong, but here are some of my ‘must watch’ films on this subject:

The Killing Fields – The massacre that took place under Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia in the 1970’s. Tells the story of two journalists (one American, one Cambodian) who work together to share the truth of what was happening prior to the Khmer Rouge’s invasion. The fields in the title were paddy fields covered with the bodies of thousands of Pol Pot’s victims.

Shooting Dogs; Hotel Rwanda; Sometimes in April – All cover the Rwandan genocide, from slightly different perspectives. All are well-worth watching.

Schindler’s List; The Piano; Sarah’s Key – Obviously, there are hundreds of films featuring the Holocaust, but these are three that spring to mind. Schindler’s List depicts the utterly mindless violence of the death camps. The Pianist evokes the terror of being a Jew in Warsaw, while Sarah’s Key does the same but for Paris. The latter (which is the most recent of the trio) is utterly heart-breaking.

As I wrote this, I tried to think of films that are set during the conflict in former Yugoslavia – all I could think of was Welcome to Sarajevo which I’ve never actually seen. It’s strange that given the atrocities there, few films have emerged. If I’ve overlooked any you know of, do let me know.