The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford

img_1080In 1564 the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, decided to try to put paid, once and for all, to the religious-fanaticism tinged piracy on Turkish shipping of the Knights of St John. To do this he aimed to capture their base on the island of Malta. By early summer 1565 he had put his plan in motion and managed to land a force of over 30,000 crack troops on the island to confront the ten thousand or so knights and men-at-arms under the command of the Order.

So began the first great siege of Malta, and it was an extraordinarily vicious and bloody affair.

Ernle Bradford (1922-86), the author, was a participant in the second great siege of Malta, during the Second World War, as a navigator on a Royal Navy destroyer. So he brings to this account of the battle a strong sense of what it means to wage war on this island.

Bradford is a generous and fair-minded chronicler of the battle, recognising the extraordinary courage of both Christian and Ottoman forces, and the extraordinary barbarism with which they fought each other. For example frequently the Ottomans would execute their prisoners by means of bastinado. Or, following the Turkish capture of one of the Knights’ forts, St Elmo, La Valletta, the Grand Master of the Knights, ordered the Ottoman positions to be bombarded with the heads of murdered Turkish prisoners of war. Such courage and barbarism had the same roots: a belief in the evil of their opponents and a conviction that death in the Holy War in which they fought was the noblest thing, and that it would lead to immediate transportation to paradise.

The outcome of the battle shaped decisively the course of European and Ottoman history. But more than that, the conduct of the battle remains vitally relevant. It gives an insight into the frightening violence that can emerge when human beings believe themselves in possession of so absolute a truth that it not only allows them, but requires them, to be the judge of others.

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Free State of Jones: film review

Free State of Jones, got rather mixed reviews when it was released. Having finally watched it I cannot really understand why that should be. Perhaps, paradoxically, because it is a serious movie which tells an important story that eschews many of the normal Hollywood cliches?

The movie focuses on a little known aspect of the American Civil War in which a guerrilla army of former slaves and deserters, drove the Confederacy out of a portion of Mississippi. Matthew McConaughey plays the guerrilla leader, Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter disgusted by the pointless brutality of the civil war who decides he is no longer going to fight for a system that he does not believe in. What begins initially as a flight from the authorities in which he finds refuge with a small group of runaway slaves slowly grows into a rebellion against the brutal and corrupt Confederacy as Knight begins to transform his small group of fugitives into an increasingly potent army.

The climax of their military campaign, as depicted in the film, was the capture of the town of Ellisville, after which they haul down the flag of the racist Confederacy that is flying over the Jones County courthouse, and raise the Stars and Stripes instead. That’s the bit that made me cry. I found it a particularly poignant moment given the intent of so many of Donald Trump’s acolytes to figuratively and literally replace the US flag with the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy instead.

One would normally expect the movie to end there on that triumphant note. But it does not. Instead it follows the characters through the post Civil War betrayals of their dreams of justice, and the resurgence, through Ku Klux Klan terrorism and federal government failures, of the systems of segregation which replaced the systems of slavery.

It might be the most honest movie yet about the Civil War and its aftermath. In short it is a sombre and downbeat movie about the betrayal of brave patriots who deserved much better from those they fought for.

But for all that the movie is not without hope: the love and friendship between the central characters played with great subtlety and conviction by McConaughey, the always sublime Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell, is something, the film asserts, that the world will finally recognise as shaming the the corrupt and the racist.

It is a fine movie that deserves to be recognised as an important one and seen by many more people. Whether that happens or not it will remain a rich credit to everyone involved in its making.

The Other Side of Silence, by Philip Kerr

It’s 1956 and Bernie Gunther, social democratic Berlin detective, and former whipping boy of Heydrich and Goebels, is living incognito on the French Rivera, working as a hotel consierge with only a regular bridge game by way of diversion. However, as usual, trouble, in the form of a former Gestapo acquaintance intent on blackmailing the English novelist, Somerset Maugham, finds Bernie.

While the main action in this novel relates to the Cold War, significant parts of what happens find their origin much deeper, in Nazi era Germany, and in particular the 1945 Battle of Königsberg that has featured in other novels of the series, in which Bernie was captured by the Soviets. For Bernie “the past is not dead, it is not even past,” as William Faulkner put it elsewhere.

The same can also be said for the character of Somerset Maugham in this novel, whose clandestine life as a British agent and as a homosexual comes back to haunt him.

The Bernie Gunther series is a particularly rich and wry meditation on history. This instalment is no exception, and as always Bernie remains an engaging guide though Europe’s shameful past. True he has become morally diminished by years of war and bloodshed, but he still struggles to hold on to a sense of humour and some modicum of basic human decency in the midst of it all. And that, sometimes, may be the best any of us can hope for.