Thursday, December 13, 2018

Film Notes: For The Love of God

I have to confess to being a bit of a history nerd. Having spent several years studying it, accumulated countless books and an insatiable reading habit, I find the past utterly absorbing. It's common to hear politics, ethics, education, nationalism or multiculturalism being described as 'a battleground of ideas', but every historian is equally aware that our view of the past is every bit as contentious. We are all aware of "Black History Month", which has grown steadily in significance, as the once accepted racism which erased Black people from our historical consciousness has been increasingly rejected. Historians once looked for great themes and great men (yes, it was usually just men!); many these days look for "usable pasts"; which are often little more than selective trawls for evidence with which to weaponise history for contemporary polemics.

Religious history, has of course been subject to both these trends. Biographies of saints and martyrs have been produced to stir the devotions of the faithful; while the memory of atrocities committed in the name of "belief a", are kept alive by the adherents of "belief b".

What we make of the history of the church, is then something of great importance, and not just for history geeks like me. How the history of Christianity is handled is a significant marker in the current battle of ideas. Of course some Christians want to paint a picture of unbridled progress and blessing; while some atheists, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, wish to portray every aspect of the church's record as being fundamentally malign.


Perhaps only the foolish, unwary or brave would step into this vast field of two millenia of contention! Certainly the aim of presenting a fair and balanced picture of the church's moral and ethical record, which is neither a Hitchensesque hatchet-job or a series of 'lives of the saints' hagiographies is a bold one. However, this is exactly what CPX (The Centre for Public Christianity in Australia) have done in a 90 minute film entitled "For The Love of God: How The Church is Both Better And Worse Than You Ever Imagined". Fearing the worst, I watched this film with some trepidation, but they have really pulled it off, it is a great piece of work.
Filmed with high quality production values, CPX presenters John Dickson, Justine Toh and Simon Smart, are filmed in locations around the world, where Christians have made an impact for good or ill; and assessed the history. They tell stories such as massacres in the Crusades perpetrated on innocent Muslims in the name of Christianity, to Martin Luther King Jr's noble quest for Civil Rights; from Christian failures to oppose Nazism, to roots of Western charity and philanthropy in the early church as it was persecuted by Roman Emperors. The story telling is enhanced by dramatic readings of historical texts, and segments of academics discussing and assessing the meaning of the stories.

Wonderfully put together, well-researched, and presented in a lively style, the film itself is compelling viewing. The analysis is fascinating too; as they seek to assess where the church has gone wrong and where it has made a contribution. John Lennox, the noted Christian professor of Mathematics at Oxford describes the 'shame' of some of the things done in Northern Ireland in the name of Christianity. On the other hand Rowan Williams explores the way in which many disputes driven by other factors such as land, power, or resources have gained a religious veneer or justification; but were not inherently caused by clashes of belief.

The treatment of Colonialism is quite remarkable. Coming from Australia the film begins with the damage done to Aboriginal people by the white settlers, who brought everything from land-seizures to new diseases to Australia; sometimes justified in the name of Christianity. Yet, they also show that it was Christians who almost uniquely rejected a racist hierarchy of races, because they couldn't accept social-Darwinism, as their faith told them that all people were made in the image of God. Likewise the role of William Carey in India is examined, and not just in term of his exemplary work in education, and development. His long campaign against 'Sati' (widow-burning) can be seen as either imposing western values on India; or as a bold step towards the equality of the sexes, and thoroughly in line with the idea that basic human rights are universal, not allocated by the powerful; or awarded in response to capacity or contribution. This, likewise is an idea which only became embedded in western culture when Christian ethics replaced Greco-Roman morality in which things such an infanticide were almost de rigueur.

Robert Woodberry's thesis that Protestant missionaries have left a massively positive contribution towards social and economic flourishing in virtually every context in which they operated, is also given a well-deserved hearing.

Equally fascinating was the (perhaps not immediately obvious) subject of character. The weight of evidence that the ancients, despite all their philosophical sophistication, saw humility as despicable; was very well explained. The Christian view of the cross of Christ. the humiliated God, was radically counter cultural; and leads directly to so many of the values which we in the west assume are universal, but actually are rooted in Christianity.


Finally the filmakers ask us to examine the record of the church, as it stands up against the teachings of Jesus Christ himself. The obvious point that Jesus' ethical teaching commands great respect isn't laboured, but rather what is observed is that where the church has stuck to his words and example, it has been beautiful; but where it has veered off into contemporary cultures, it has looked ugly. Central to this discussion is Jesus' charge to his people to "love their enemies". This main thesis is explored through a charming musical metaphor, which I won't explain, but will leave you to enjoy on the film.

The film can be viewed as a single 90 minute "Cinema Cut" or in several shorter episodes; 1) War and Peace, 2) Rights and Wrongs, 3) Rich and Poor, 4) Power and Humility. It can be rented or purchased online, for streaming or by buying the DVD from from where free clips, and study guides for groups or schools can also be downloaded.


This honest film leaves little room either for Christian triumphalism on one hand, or mud-slinging anti-Christian polemics on the other. In that sense, CPX have done a remarkable job in opening up a sensible discussion in which the very real contributions of Christian ethics, and Jesus' teaching can be  seen alongside many of the sins of the church. As such the film will perhaps contain surprises for people on both sides of that debate. There is some uneasy viewing for Christians, especially on the Crusades and the Nazis; while some secularists will be alarmed at the extent to which so many of the values we celebrate in the western liberal tradition have distinctly Christian roots, and were pioneered in history by Christians. Furthermore, many of them are grounded in Christian beliefs, and sustained by them, and indeed inseparable from them.


CPX are to be congratulated on the way in which they have stepped so nimbly across this historical minefield, and produced such a stimulating, thought-provoking film, which is both visually stunning and academically rigorous.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Christmas Collage

Here's my "Christmas Collage". A few weeks ago I e-mailed a few friend with two questions: 1) How will you celebrate Christmas, and 2) What does it mean to you! Here are some responses! Enjoy..

Christmas day in our house starts with the kids opening up the presents Santa has left in their stockings before we head downstairs for everyone to get stuck into their bigger presents. After everything’s been opened and the wrapping paper has been tidied away, we all get ready to head out to church. I’m usually on the sound desk for the Christmas Day service where we have an orchestra belting out Christmas carols to good effect. Once the service has finished, we head back to our place to start getting ready for the Christmas meal. I cook the meat and prep the vegs the day before to make things easier but I still seem to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen. That’s ok though as everyone helps out. We usually have a set of parents round for the meal – this year it’s my mum and dad – and we have a great time eating too much and laughing loudly. Once our visitors are gone and all the dishes are done, I usually sit down to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special which, in good old timey-wimey fashion, happens to be on New Year’s Day this time around. Christmas Day – a time of food, fun and family but not necessarily in that order!


When I am tempted to don my “Humbug” hat, I am equally reminded of the crushing Narnia sadness, “forever winter and never Christmas”. This salutary reminder brings me quickly to my senses. Yes, I dislike the relentless retail feasting and somehow thirst instead for the simplicity of a divine birth in a humble stable. This for me is Christmas. God came to dwell with us and life for individuals in the human race changed forever!


When my wife was pregnant with our now 18 year old we were discussing the core values we wanted to instil. One was truthfulness. In our family, anyone will always be in more trouble for a lie they tell to cover something up than whatever it was they were covering up in the first place. We decided that we could not credibly tell the children to be truthful if we set an example of lying to them – so no Santa. We still do everything associated with Christmas but without the scarlet-clad obese Laplander. We still do stockings, but I take them into the children’s rooms – always wearing a particular red jumper so that they can say ‘some fat guy in red brought them’. 
This has had an unplanned side-effect – the children buy each other presents (as no magical mystical reindeer driven apparition is going to do it for them). I tend to go into a nearby large town with all 3 children one Saturday; when one sees something which they want to buy for one of the others, the other 2 make themselves scarce in the same shop and I go with the buying child to the till. All 3 arrive home with bags laden with gifts for their siblings and hurry to their own rooms to wrap them up – so Christmas morning always has the element of surprise and humour with the stocking gifts. Also, from the age of about 11 (eldest), they have started buying and filling stockings for my wife and I – so we pretend to be asleep as the 3 children, when they wake approximately 4.30am, trounce into our room hissing ‘SHHHHHHHH’ loudly to each other and put stockings at the foot of our bed. Now aged 18,16 and 13, we all still give and receive stockings of gifts in this same way. When my middle child was about 9, a friends mother was complaining to me that her daughter had lied to her ... to which I unhelpfully replied ‘but you started it ... we reap what we sow!’


I am one of those people who enjoys the festive season. Christmas is a real marker of time and as our family has grown, and changed, so have the memories. It brings back both happy and sadder times. The wise men had a long, exciting, and expectant journey ahead of them. Mary also looked forward to the birth of her first child in such unexpected circumstances. I try to relate these different elements of the Christmas story to my own life and am aware of the  excitement I feel at the prospect of my eldest son returning from university in a couple of weeks to spend time with the rest of the family. I am truly blessed, and am being given so many gifts on a daily basis many of which I take for granted. God sending his own son to this earth, well, that is the gift of all gifts. Christmas fills me with hope and expectation for a New Year and new challenges, and for what lies ahead. As God promised to shine his light into our darkness, he promises to be with us in the very personal areas and experiences of our lives if we let him. I am thankful that whatever lies ahead in the coming year for good or ill, that I do not face it on my own. As Mary faced her future, unknowing what lay ahead, so God promises to be in our unknowns. As Mary did not expect God to work in her as he did, sometimes God surprises us in how he turns up in our lives and can use the most unlikely scenarios for good.  


I Love Christmas Time! For me, Christmas is in 3parts. (1) as someone who believes in the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is a reminder of Christ's coming into the world, God as man. My faith revolves around this, God in Jesus becoming human and living amongst us. So we celebrate Christ coming amongst us. (2) These days, Christmas is celebrated as a time for family. Unfortunately my family do not, as yet, follow what I would say is a Christian path. Yet Christmas. draws us all together. I love driving down to Bristol (~440 miles) for Christmas listening to the Drive Time phone in. Everybody driving home for Christmas, to be with family. (We don't win, but generally come in about 3rd, 420miles, Perth to Bristol. (3) Christmas for most is a fun, family time. But I always think of an ex colleague who, for him, was a terrible lonely experience. No family. Lonely. Nothing. Seeing everyone have fun apart from you. Tough So I'll celebrate Christmas this year with my family, for whom I'm so grateful to God, yet for whom I pray every day, and remembering those whose Christmas will be particularly lonely.


Christmas 2018 - for the first time we will be in Canada, with family, for Christmas. Suitcases and jet lag but no Church catering, a rest. Don’t know whether we will get to church but snow is guaranteed. For us Christmas is a time to remember the birth of Jesus with family and friends!


This Christmas we will stick close to home. No crowded airports or icy highways planned for us. We’re hoping a Scottish friend will come to stay for the holidays, as she’ll be working in the southern part of our province. We will host Christmas dinner for my family, so it will be busy and loud (and fun). My older daughter has a soccer tournament between Christmas and New Years, so there’ll be no staying in pyjamas for days on end. For our family, Christmas is about celebrating Christ’s birth by spending time together as a family and being thankful for all the gifts of health and prosperity that we have been blessed with in our part of the world.


For me this year, Christmas falls at the same time as my main deadline in the six years of studying architecture. I think that will lead to Christmas having a different feeling from usual. So in my situation, Christmas, and it’s associated festivities, will be about Peace - a time away from the work where I can rest and focus on Jesus. I plan on it being a period where I can switch off from the demands of the course and instead reflect on God. Whilst I may not be able to enjoy the holiday as much as I usually do, I hope that it can impact my faith and understanding in a fresh way to how it normally does.


Rather than the traditional meal, each member of the family says one item of food which they really enjoy and would like incorporated into our main Christmas meal. We then concoct a 3 course meal which incorporates the 5 items chosen by the 5 members of the family. The items chosen over the years have varied and have now matured (I think the smoked salmon (child 2) and asparagus (me) starter was 3 years in a row), but one year, when young, one daughter chose scrambled egg and the other chose poached egg .... so we did have scrambled and poached egg on the same plate. When the children were young (and the choices of food reflected that), my wife and I would have a quiet candlelit Christmas evening meal after they went to bed. Now they are teenagers, it’s a fabulous family time – like every Sunday dinner, but with everyone’s favourites in one meal. I may ask for lamb this year.


If we're spared" (as my old mother used to say) until Christmas we will be involved in the following: Church, Family, Food, Holidays. I love Christmas time for all sorts of reasons, however mainly because I get a rest from work. Nobody wants to hear too much from a charity like Mission International at Christmas time, other than to report on how well the BIG meal has gone, so we get a lull in the regular activities of fundraising etc which is great. The BIG meal is over, the teams are all home, the many activities are on hold until the New Year. Its also a time for me to reflect on how the year has gone and to seek God for the future. Maybe I'll read a new book, listen to some guys preaching, store up some 'food' for the incoming year.


Christmas this year will start with an Advent wreath so we can anticipate Christ's birth by candlelight after tea each evening. (That's my intension, but reality of homework and family schedule may mean we only have candles once a week.) The wait involved with Advent is something I value and desire to pass on to my children. We'll attend service at church on Christmas Eve which leaves Christmas Day wide open. On Christmas morning the kids will wake, there will be presents under the tree, a leisurely breakfast, FaceTime family across the time zones, then a drive down the mountain so we can wander along the beach, look for whales in the distance and shells at our feet. 


We will be celebrating Christmas with our lovely family in Scotland!!   I love all things Christmas - seeing family and friends, carols, the Christmas Eve midnight service at church, presents, decorations and not least it always prompts me to really think about what my faith is all about and to thank God.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Short Answers

Last week I did some work for this chap, Andy Bannister. Amongst other things, like writing and debating, he makes these little "Short Answers" videos about various aspects of Christianity. I've been thinking about which one to post up here as a sample. I suppose the best would be these two as they are about Jesus himself, the heart of the faith. They are nicely made, and only a few minutes each. There's loads more  of these online here, where I've just noticed you can ask a question too.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tonight's Sunset in Perth

Film Notes: Son of Saul

Son of Saul, is without any doubt, the most horrific film I have ever seen. It left me numb,and in shock, while my wife felt physically sick. Watching it is something of an endurance test for the viewer - and yet despite this, it has won countless accolades including the Cannes Grand Prix, and the 2015 Academy Award for best foreign language film. What is it that made the film juries, and the countless critics who's scores accumulate to 95% approval on the Rotten Tomatoes meta-critic site, so endorse this appalling spectacle? There are several reasons:

The first is that this is a film about truth. The action takes place over two-days in the heart of the Nazi's death-camp at Auschwitz. Using the best first-hand account of how the industrial scale murder-factories looked, were run, staffed and organised, the details of the story-line might be fictitious; but they are rooted in truth. Life in the camps has been depicted before, in films like Schindler's List,  where the viewer thought for a moment that they were going to be asked to watch a mass murder by gas; but are spared at the last second. Likewise, I've seen disturbing depictions of the labour-camps before; but Son of Saul, is set right in the heart of the killing. László Nemes might just spare us the sight of the asphyxiations themselves, but he does not spare us the victims screams - and hopeless banging on the gas-chamber doors.

The central character, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), is a Hungarian Jew. imprisoned in the death-camp. Primo Levi, in "The Drowned and The Saved", his Auschwitz memoir, describes the various roles prisoners were given. The useful like him, were put to hard labour, others were selected for medical experiments, while others were condemned to what he called "The Gray Zone", that is joining the Sonderkommando. These most wretched of souls gained a few months of life, by running the death-machine. Saul, was a Sondercommando, and we first meet him herding fellow Hungarian Jews to their death, taking their possessions for the Nazi's, hauling out the naked bodies from the gas-chambers, and scrubbing them clean for the next train-load. This is so intense, so incomprehensible, that it is hard to watch. However, the fact that this happened, as recently as in my parents' lifetime, means that it has to be faced.

The second reason that the film has been so lauded is the extraordinary cinematography. In interviews, László Nemes has described shooting the film in a messy way, all from human-eye-level. The fact that the narrow depth of field means that the main characters faces are in focus, but the background is constantly out, is also remarkable. It creates initially a sense that Saul has his head-down, trying to avoid seeing, what is all around him; the eye-level filming drawing the viewer right into the hell. The strangely muffled sound-track adds to this curious sense of the recoiling-self seeking to protect itself through a form of cognitive dissonance. This technique also allows the filmmaker to allow the horror of the gas chambers to appear on screen - while seeking to avoid the gratuitous, or prurient details the focus of the shot. Saul, has to help remove the naked corpses of the newly-slain from the gas-chambers. Yet, while the bodies are dragged, with no ceremony or dignity whatsoever; László Nemes places them just beyond the focal length of his cameras. The result is visually striking, absorbing and deeply, deeply disturbing.

The third, and most important reason that Son of Saul resonates so powerfully with audiences and critics, is that it is ultimately a film about humanity. The underlying narrative is that the Nazis denied that the Jews were human; and treated them in accordance with this twisted view - and as a result lived in complete denial of their own humanity. I was sickened by the way the Nazis called the dead "pieces", unable to face up to, or even comprehend what they had just done. I believe it was Auschwitz survivor Rabbi Hugo Gryn (1930-1996), who says that he never once asked "Where God was in Auschwitz"; but was constantly asking, "Where is humanity?". Despite the loss of his liberty, dignity, morality, hope and the abject denial of his humanity, Saul, of the Sonderkommando, holds onto one tiny shred of his personhood. Without spoiling the plot, Saul is determined to find a Rabbi, amongst the prisoners, and give a proper burial to one small dead Hungarian-Jewish boy from the holocaust. This one body, like that of the 'unknown soldier' of WWI, comes to mean much more than just itself; but a representative of wounded humanity. Saul's bewildering desire to commend his 'son' to the earth and to God, is a powerful portrait of a man clinging to some shred of humanity, while living in a hell-on-earth. The one thing with which he will not be parted, is his desire to give one little human the right departure, and to commend him to God with some dignity. 

That beautiful, yet minute thread of light, is the only hope found in this horrendous depiction of evil. I'm sure that watching it was the right thing to do. I don't think I could watch it again though.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Through The Chalamain Gap to Lurcher's Crag

Creag an Leth-choin, or Lurcher's Crag, is a wonderful top, high in the Cairngorm plateau. Apparently, it was once considered to be a Munro in it's own right; but now is simply listed as a 'top'. I have previously blogged 'in defence of Munro-bagging', but the down-side of it is equally obvious; walks like Lurcher's Crag are missed-out, when they are so worth doing.

We began our walk at the 'Sugarbowl' Car Park on the road from Rothiemurchus up to the Ski Centre. Our oldest has left for university, so it was just the three of us, who crossed the road and followed the well-engineered path down into the gorge of the Allt Mor, and across the wooden footbridge. Here we caught up with a group of fifty or so folks walking up, with guides, to visit the reindeer enclosure in Glenmore. The guides were carrying sacks of feed, and were happy to chat about the 60+ years of reindeer in these hills, since re-introduction; how the tourists pay far too much for guided trips to see them, and how they control their numbers through surgery (!), not culling.

The Chalamain Gap

Our conversation was brought to an abrupt end, as they took the right fork in the path to the enclosure, while we veered left; across open country, towards the famous Chalamain Gap. Without the large group in our way, we were able to pick up speed and follow the excellent path, uphill all the way into it. The Chalamain gap was carved by post-glacial overflow at the end of the last ice age; in a very short space of geological time; when vast quantities of meltwater, trapped behind the retreating ice-sheet found a run-off from the Lairig Ghru to Glem More. What is left is a steep, boulder-lined defile, cutting into the side of the mountain - through which access to the Lairig Ghru can be gained.

I've been through the gap once before, many years ago, on my way through to mighty Braeriach. Scrambling through the boulders in first-light, the moon was framed in the gap.... a sight I'll never forget. This time is was bright, sunny and very cold, as we ascended through the increasingly rocky terrain. My younger son and I enjoyed the rough ground; my wife and daughter did not! However, the excitement is short-lived and a good path resumes, from the exit from the gap, all the way down into the LairigGhru - through which I walked just a few weeks ago

Across the Lairig Ghru

The path up Lurcher's Crag is very easy to miss, from the main track. A tiny cairn, above a bog to the left of the path marks it's start; but it soon becomes an obvious route - only petering out on the rocky ground on the summit. The view though, get better as the ascent continues, not just of the Cairngorms, but of everywhere to the North of them initially; and then from the summit, right down the great Lairig Ghru itself; between Ben Macdui to the left and Braerich to the right, with the Devil's Point just visible at the back.

Down the Lairig Ghru

Were it not for my daughter's complaining, we would have continued along the tops, around to Cairngorm; however she was at her tolerance point for hillwalking (mental I should add - physically she could walk for ever, if motivated!) and so we planned a route down. Rather than retrace our steps, we traversed to the Lairig Ghru viewpoint at 1010m, and the around to the Miadan Creag an Leth-Choin ridge, from which there is a path back to the ski-centre. By this stage is it was bitterly cold, and large hot chocolate drinks at the ski lodge were in order, before the trek back down the road to the car. 

Meall a' Bhuachaille

Meall a' Bhuachaille is a delightful Corbett, set amongst the high Munros of The Cairngorm, offering a lovely easy, family walk - with one of the best viewpoints in the National Park. As if that wasn't enough, it has the added advantage of being accessed via the delightful footpath  Ryvoan Pass with it's charming green 'fairy-lochan'.

The track continues past the lochan, climbs slightly and breaks free of the woods, revealing expansive views south and east across the Nethy River and on to Glen Avon. We took the left hand fork, towards the Ryvoan Bothy, but whenever I pass this spot I cannot help but remember a trip down the right fork to climb Bynack Mor, with the late, great, Kevin McPhee.

Behind the bothy, a well-engineered footpath takes to the hill - twisting and turning its way around various obstacles until a massive cairn is reached. The Great Cairngorm peaks of Cairngorm itself, along with it's giant neighbours from Braeriach to Beinn Mheadhoin fill the sky to the south, while beautiful Loch Morlich glistens in Rothiemurchus to the North-west.

It's possible to return by the ascent route, but a circuit can be made by dropping Westwards to the bealach between Meall a' Bhuachaille and the adjacent Creagan Gorm, from where a path descends back to the roadside through the gentle woodlands. A  felled section of woodland, on the way down, created a large glade - which was being patrolled by a huge bird of prey (probably an eagle) which we stood and watched as it's broad wing cast a wide shadow, moving through the land.

What a marvellous place!

Friday, October 05, 2018

Film Notes: Rome, Open City

Sometimes when films are billed as "classics", or "unmissable" they fail to live up to the hype. My Mum is likewise always suspicious when the reviews of a book use the word "achievement"in the publisher's blurb. Roberto Rossellini's "Rome, Open City", is somewhat weighed down with heady reviews, which both elevate expectations and make objective appreciation of the film difficult. 

The film, made in 1945, concerns the Nazi occupation of the city during the latter stages of The Second World War - after the decline of the Italian Fascist State; and during the Allied Invasion of
Italian territory. The ruthless rule of the Nazi occupiers is depicted, along with the exploits and sufferings of the Italian Catholic and Communist resistance movements; as they joined forces against a common foe. Marcello Pagliero and Aldo Fabrizi lead the cast as the communist resistance leader, Georgio Manfredi and Catholic Priest (and document forger, and resistance messenger) Dom Pietro, respectively.

Without giving away to many spoilers, Rossellini uses these characters (their lives, loves, families, etc) to write a a fictional account of life under occupation - which is based on real events. It is a tale of live, loss, betrayal, cruelty, death, defiance, painted against the backdrop of the inevitable destruction of the Third Reich.

Old films, especially those which date back this far, can seem desperately slow and contrived to contemporary audiences. Rome, Open City shows its age, but isn't slow or clunky; but is absorbing and moving - mostly due to the compelling acting of characters like Anna Magnani (as Sora Pina - embroiled in the struggle, as she is marrying into the Resistance), and Maria Michi (as Marina Mari), struggling with drug addiction, compromised loyalties, and treachery. The acid test for me in so any films is whether the plot and characters and good enough to make me care about the outcome. Rome, Open City passes this test absolutely.

Two aspects of the film will trouble contemporary audiences. The first is the bizarre staging of the
Nazi head office, with offices, torture chambers and drinking clubs being three adjacent interconnected rooms. Perhaps such a strange place existed (almost anything is possible); but it did look rather odd - even if it facilitated easy scene changes. The second is that the two most sadistic Nazi villains, Harry Feist as Major Hartmann and Giovana Galletti, as Ingrid; are to varying degrees portrayed as homosexuals. This is obviously going to be interpreted today as the stereotyping of a minority community in overtly evil terms, and summarily rejected. Perhaps though it can be interpreted within an Italian context in 1945 in slightly more sympathetic terms, (while we would want to avoid endorsing such stereotyping obviously). I think the filmmaker is referencing the decline of the Roman Empire which is characterised as being decadent in its power - with the final throes of the Nazi Empire in Rome, - using cultural mores from the 1940s as a device. Many viewers today, are still going to find that aspect troublesome however.

Rossellini brings his film to a climax, which is something akin to the New Testament gospels. As Manfredi is tortured in front of Dom Pietro; his sufferings and wounds (which he chooses to bear, rather than betray his fellow resistance fighters), save lives, and are deliberately filmed in a way which evokes the passion of Christ. (Spoiler alert!) Prior to the torture scene (which earns the film a (12) certificate - but which might disturb many an adult), the Nazi commander expressed his total confidence that a Nazi torturer could beat an Italian resister - on the basis of racial superiority. The fact that he then betrays no-one is not referenced, but the unspoken implication of the fallacy of racial theories thunders though the end of the film. Evil is once again trounced, not by superior fire-power but through redemptive suffering. This aspect of the film is powerful and profound.

The film, it is often claimed, was written in order to re-brand Italians in the wake of their calamitous experiences in the war, under Mussolini, Nazism, and Allied occupation. Rossellini wanted to make a film in which Italians were 'good', and who suffered for their goodness, alongside the other victims of Nazism. Tales of the French Resistance were well-known at this point, and the sufferings of the Jews and others in the camps was soon to come to light too. Rossellini wanted to make sure that the world knew that there were Italians too, who were suffering in order to redeem Europe from evil. Historians have made much of the fact that in order to achieve this he downplayed the role of the Italian fascists, and over-estimates that of the Nazi occupiers. Perhaps so, but nevertheless he achieves his goal of producing a gripping, sympathetic reading of Italian resistance to Nazism and Fascism.

On a personal side-note, my Grandfather fought in the Second World War, and spent the final part of it, guarding POW's in various camps in the UK, including one in Scotland. He told me that while some of the POW camps were high security, the job guarding the Italians was easy. In general, he said, the Italian POWs were relatively content to be there, had no desire to escape, let alone fight any more; and shared the universal opinion that Mussolini was a fool, best avoided until peace came. I suspect my grandfather would have understood Rossellini's remarkable film, better than me.

Friday, September 21, 2018

At the Uath Lochans

Creag Mhor & Beinn Heasgarnaich

Creag Mhor and Beinn Hearsgarnaich (the latter sometimes spelt Shearsgarnaich) are two remote hills in the Forest of Mamlorn, tucked away in the remotest corner of Perthshire. The round of the two hills involved a lot of climbing, and over fifteen miles of walking; and so an early start was required. Leaving Stewart's at 7:15 we drove from Perth, through over Glen Ogle and down to Killin - where we were too early to find a coffee anywhere!

The day before we climbed these hills, the country had been battered by 'Storm Ali', which had caused travel disruption, knocked over countless trees and dumped incredible volumes of rainwater on the land. The river and burns were all high as we drove west, but we weren't quite prepared for the sight of The Falls of Dochart in full spate, as we entered Killin. They were thundering with the most impressive display of white water crashing through the village, under the old stone bridge, and down into Loch Tay.

Our route took us North from the village and then westwards again alongside the other major river which feeds the Tay at Killin - The River Lochay. The Glen Lochay road is unclassified and unsignposted, and we weren't far along it before our hill-day appeared to be postponed. A large tree-trunk, felled by Storm Ali, lay across the road. Thankfully it was rotten enough to be light and between us we were able to roll it to the side, and drive the 10 or so kilometres down this dead-end road, to Kenknock. Older hillwalking books like Irvine Butterfield's suggest that it is possible to drive to Kenknock or even beyond it to Betavaime; but this is no longer possible. A walkers car park (no charge) has been provided, before the road-end, with the request that no parking takes place beyond it.

In steady rain we marched down the road past the farm. My hillwalking books (SMC and McNeish), all suggest that the route along the glen follows the valley floor track. However, a new track has been formed recently as part of the hydro-electricity works which cover these hills, which provides a better route. It runs along the North side of the glen, at about 380m, and is accessed from the old Kenknock to Loch Lyon road, veering left from it by the large hydro-pipeline.

Me, striking an inelegant pose; buffeted by strong winds in Glen Lochay -
 Ben Challum in the distance

There are several new deer-fences in these hills, however, the new hydro-track has walkers gates at every point, so there is no problem with access - in fact the estate has provided a map at the car  park, showing walkers where the new fences are, and the access points too. Once beyond the last deer fence, above the lonely farm building at Betavaime, we turned sharply into the hill, and began the huge ascent of the Sron nan Eun ridge. Above us, rocky outcrops loomed imperiously above us, while below, the lonely upper reaches of The River Lochay gave a real sense of isolation. The head of the glen is dominated by Ben Challum, which I climbed in 2011, but the view of it from Lochay shows its best side!

The Sron an Eun is hard work; it is steep, pathless and after the heavy rain, rather slippery. The best way up seems to follow the line of gully which cuts through the rocks. A path appears for a while, then fades again, and can't be trusted as a route-guide. The narrowing ridge up onto Creag Mhor was probably the finest part of the walk, but going was difficult here in high, blustery winds. Wind and rain, meant that this was quick (photo-less) stop; although Stewart mentioned that as this was his hundredth Munro, a dram was in  order. Toasting his milestone with a rare (and expensive) Tomatin, we got off the summit in search of some respite from the fierce wind.

In between rain-storms, expansive views across Mamlorn opened up.

The descent from Creag Mhor involved heading westwards, then northwards to avoid the steep cliffs which shape the summit cone. A distinctive lochan on the ridge (to Meall Tionail) is the cue to turn eastwards to the pass between this and Beinn Heasgarnaich. Again there is no path, and picking a route between the peat-bogs is the priority here. 

The climb towards Beinn Heargarnaich  goes up the Sron Taibh, and over the intermediate summit of Stob an Fhir-Bhoga. Not as long or quite as steep as the Sron nan Eaun, it is nevertheless a 500metre slog. A feint path appears after the first hundred metres or so, and is quite a good guide around some of the obstacles on the route. The top of Heasgarnaich is a long, broad ridge with a wide elevated end, where a large cairn marks the summit.

Broad summit, high winds. Stewart on the top of Heasgarnaich.

Picking a way down from here isn't obvious. We wound our way down past a series of lochans NE of the summit, before heading eastwards across the estate road over to the Loch Lyon dam. We met a mall shooting party heading up into the corrie, and the keeper gave us some advice on the best route through the peatbogs, and where to go to avoid the hunting.

Looking back along our route

The later half of the day had cheered up, weather-wise, but the weather had one last surprise for us. As we headed down the old crumbling tarmac of the Lochay-Lyon estate road, the wind picked up, the sky darkened and the rain once more lashed down. Back at the car, we extracted wet feet from wet boots, and drove home - back to Perth for 7. Two hard-won, but memorable Munros.

Back to the car, the Lochay-Lyon estate road

Thanks Stewart, for the photos!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Uath Lochans

The Uath Lochans are a delightful little spot in Glen Feshie, in the southern part of the Cairngorms National Park. Pronounced 'Wah- Lochans', this collection of four little lochs in the heavily wooded glen, look like a pawprint on the map.

Despite the many days I have spent in this area,  walking and cycling, this was a place I had never come across, but I read a friend's Facebook post about it and decided that next time I was in area, I'd find it. 

The Uath Lochans turned out to be everything she described; charming, alluring, gentle, peaceful, lonely, isolated and yet easily accessible. Unlike other places like this in The Cairngorms, it's possible to drive right up to the first of the lochans.

Way-marked routes lead round to a charming craggy viewpoint in a lovely position over Glen Feshie.