Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (Part 3)

Peter Sellers: The Early Shorts (UK) (BFI article)

In the 1950's, before Sellers' career really got going, he starred in a handful of short films, a trio of which were shown here.  The common link between them is Sellers' character, Hector Dimwiddle, a hardworking but often unsuccessful middle class gent, put upon by his inlaws, and unknowingly reliant on his dependable wife.

Two of the films, Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You were considered lost for many years before turning up in the late 90's.  These were presented in what looked like a restored digital print.  The third, Cold Comfort, was in much poorer condition, but still watchable.  You can see clips of the first two here.

These films were roughly cut, and it was clear both actor and director were feeling their way with the filmmaking techniques at the time, which lends a certain charm.  Sellers later talents of vocal mimicry and physical slapstick are seen in an early stage, and it was nice to see some examples of the proving ground he used to hone them.  But ultimately, these films are more of a lighthearted distraction than a necessary pilgrimage for Sellers' fans, and if you were not to catch them in your lifetime, you have more accessible and entertaining examples of his work to fall back on.  6/10

A Life of Crime (US) (wiki)

Jennifer Aniston gets a bit of flak as an actress, probably due to being the most annoying one from Friends, plus some pretty awful adverts ('here comes the science bit...!').  But she's also managed a few unexpectedly good turns as well - she had a credit in South Park, of all things, and you can't fault her in Office Space, and...

Well, we can also add A Life of Crime to that list.  Aniston's character, Mickey, is the frustrated trophy wife of Tim Robbins' Frank, and they spend their time letting everyone know how happy they are together, at golf clubs and swanky parties.  It's all a front, and the love left their lives long ago.

But it was convincing enough to encourage small time crooks Louie and Ordell to take a pop at some amateur hostage taking, using the local nazi gun nut's house as a place to keep her while they wait for the money to roll in.  But when Frank sees this as an opportunity to get out of his nightmare marriage without having to pay divorce fees, Mickey's future depends wholly on the unpredictable nature of her captors.

A pretty standard crime caper is made much more fun by some well-known faces and some sharp dialogue, the main thrust of the plot nicely complicated by the sleuthing of good-intentioned but unappealing neighbour Marshall, who has always been hovering around the cadaver of their relationship waiting to see what he can salvage for himself.  7.5/10

I Believe in Unicorns (US) (official site)

Director Leah Meyerhoff laid herself bare on the celluloid in this semi-autobiographical, kickstarted film about Davina, a young teen who one day leaves her life of caring for her sick mother, and takes off with an older boy with which she falls in desperate love.  A moody, petty criminal, Sterling can do no wrong in her eyes, even when it is clear he could be a danger to be around.  When he suggests they climb into his battered car and keep driving, she can't help but follow.

Mayerhoff's film is about a young woman maturing both sexually and emotionally; the audience is asked to sit there helpless, hoping that Davina can see for herself whether Sterling is the right man for her before she passes the point of no return.  Cleverly, the film presents some degree of ambiguity, suggesting that these two can be happy together, and, as in Davina's emerging fantasies, she can soothe the wounds that cause the problems between them, so it is some way in before we can guess the outcome.  Some of it can be difficult to watch, such as Davinas' ever willingness to present her body as a solution whenever there is a problem between them, but this is necessary in a realistic character study of blind love and desperation for a life less ordinary.  7.5/10

The Case Against 8 (US) (official site)

This documentary comes at a time when many have heard about the changes in the US constitution that came about largely as a result of the retelling of events.  In California in 2008, same-sex couples were allowed to marry, but, as is often the case with progressive gains, there were many who took offence to this (gee, I wonder who they could be), and very quickly, Proposition 8 was created - which reinstated a previous ban not more than a few months after same sex marriages were allowed.  All those couples who had been married in the interim received an impersonal letter telling them it had been annulled.

Two couples however decided to fight the ruling, and brought an appeal that was to stand out for two reasons - first that it would take five years to finally be resolved, and that it brought together the legal minds of two individuals you would have expected never to agree on anything.

David Boles and Ted Olsen were on opposite sides of the 2000 presidential election controversy, where Al Gore's people were demanding a pivotal recount.  Taking sides reflecting their political colours, Boles fought for Gore, and Olsen for Bush.  Bush won and the rest is history, so to find common ground in marriage equality from both sides of the political spectrum was both a surprise and a feather in the cap; cross-party support showed that this was not a political issue.

Some may ask: what's the big deal?  Same sex couples can have civil partnerships and receive all the same rights as hetero couples.  But people are being discriminated against based upon nothing more than who they are.  If a law was to be passed requiring that people with black hair were not allowed to ride on the front seats of a bus, would those affected be happy as there are lots of seats they could sit on?  I suspect even those who never use public transport would feel aggrieved about such an arcane decision.

The Case Against 8 tells the story from the appeals side, using footage filmed in the legal offices and courts, with news reports and talking heads mixed in for good measure.  It's an important historical document of how the right will eventually happen, told with surprising humour and a focus on the human lives hanging in the balance on the decision.  Many times over the years they seemed to have won, only for the opposition to appeal and take things higher.  Victory would take a long time coming, but eventually it did, and the eventual ruling - that same sex marriage bans do not benefit anyone and discriminate unfairly, and is thus unconstitutional - became the catalyst for other states to follow suit.  Many subsequent statues have fallen with 19 states currently supporting same sex marriage.  Hopefully, eventually, they will all fall. 8/10

Violet (Ned/Bel) (review)

Who can tell how a person will react in the heat of the moment?  For Jesse, a young teen in a shopping mall, his is to stand dumbfounded as his friend is stabbed and killed in front of him.  Quiet and introverted, he relies on the comforting embrace of his other friends to help him through the difficult aftermath, but when it becomes clear that he failed to do anything to stop it, some of his peers begin to push him out of the group.

Violet is very bare-boned, with a lot of long, drawn out shots with not a lot happening.  Some of this is down to the tension of the moment, of Jesse's racing mind behind a stoic expression, but it can get a bit samey and feels forced sometimes.  The first, lauded feature film by director Bas Devos; it does tackle the aftermath of such an event in a very atmospheric manner, it does feel like a film that was stretched out to pass the hour milestone required to count as a full feature.  And celebrated talk of a final scene being 'amazing' - well, I couldn't see what the protracted 9-minte shot ending in an overenthusiastic smoke machine was really trying to say. 5/10

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (Part 2)

Tir (Ita/Cro) (imdb)

The lonely life of a long distance lorry driver doesn't have a lot of leeway to grow into something larger, and one way to make sure of that is to confine the majority of the film to inside the cab.  Despite this, Tir does well with it's confinements.  Branco has been with his firm for a few months, earning a substantially larger wage packet than he did as a teacher.  Though this provides for his far-away family (which he keeps in touch with via the cab radio), it means a lot of time away from them on the road.  Shot much like a documentary, we join Branco and his cab partner Maki as they take turns sleeping and driving across Europe.  Moving slowly, the film captures the increasing realisation that Branco needs to reassess his career once more, as Maki moves on without a replacement, his bosses want more and more from him, and the increasingly strained conversations with his wife suggest he might want to be at home more, lest she start some shenanigans with a family friend.

Tir will probably be too slow for some, but what eventually emerges is the not so glamorous life on the road for thousands of truck drivers the world over, the film highlighting the early starts, claustrophobic conditions and the colourful characters encountered along the way.  I certainly have a better appreciation of such careers, and would be quite happy not switching mine, thank you very much. 7/10

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellbecq (Fra) (review)

Did you notice that 'Fra' bit in the title up there?  Did that set off any alarm bells for you?  If you wondered maybe this might be an annoying French film, you would be right!

I didn't know who Michel Houellbecq was prior to this film, and maybe it would have been a good idea to find out who he was before watching the film.  He is apparently a prolific and controversial author and filmmaker, who during a book tour in 2011, fell off the radar for a while.  Some people thought maybe he had been kidnapped, and thus the premise of the film was born.

Houellbecq decided to lend himself to the title role, and plays what the blurb assures me is a caricature of himself, although not one as entertaining as Bruce Campbell did in My Name is Bruce.  Instead, he is a shambling, withered and thoroughly annoying man, forever trudging the streets of France being philosophically French (yes, again) at the most mundane of subjects with anyone who will engage him in conversation.  His flappy, gummy mouth bibbles out guff and spittle, and do please cover your ears when he is eating, as it is not a sound you want your head to be invaded by.

I would like to think that this thoroughly dislikeable character is indeed a caricature of the man, but I will have to blame that on my optimistic outlook on life.

The film, never intended as a serious character study, fulfils the intention of the title - eventually - as a trio of brothers, all meat-headed bodybuilders, follow him, bundle him in a box, and take them to their parent's house, who seem completely okay with holding him to ransom.  Everyone is uncharacteristically polite, and very little goes on outside the house - either to hurry along the ransom demands (they just seem to wait for someone to notice he is missing), or for any alarm bells to be raised.  Instead, the whole experience focuses on a variant of Stockholm Syndrome; after some polite introductions and more than a little chainsmoking, the captors relax their already limp grip on him, and begin to debate with him at the dinner table.

As a kidnapping film, Houellbecq falls flat on it's face.  Too busy having fun with itself, any believability is thrown from the window and it's mildly entertaining silliness is all it can fall back on - something it loses somewhat with the introduction of a local prostitute part way through, which I felt ran contrary to the lightheartedness of the rest of the film.  I find it difficult to recommend to anyone, which is a shame as the mechanic of a bunch of bodybuilders and a frail intellectual introducing each other to their experiences could have been used so much more effectively. 5.5/10

Ningen (Jap/Tur/Fra) (synopsis)

The stories of the Fox and the Tanuki (Raccoon-type creatures native to Japan) are prevalent in Japanese folklore, and most Japanese children, and the adults they grow into will know at least a few of them.  In them, the animals are mischievous shape-shifters who often assume the form of human beings, in order to trick us out of our belongings.  The Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko plays on elements of several of the stories, although mostly from the point of view of the Tanuki.  Mostly, though these stories are relatively unknown outside of Japan.

So it was with some surprise to learn that the directors of this film were Turkish and French, who went to great lengths to tell a Japanese story as it would be told by a Japanese director.  I think they managed it pretty well.

In Ningen, a fox and a tanuki collude with each other, betting that they can swipe the gold from a human through trickery.  As a proviso to make things more interesting, they agree to maintain human form until one of them wins the bet.  But many years later they still haven't succeeded, and in the meantime, they have forgotten what it was like not to be in the human world.

This doesn't immediately fit into the world we are introduced to; a middle-aged and tired looking businessman and his secretary wife struggle to come to terms of their departments' dire-looking sales forecasts.  He spends his evenings downing Saki with his friend at the red light district bar, while she broods at home over her decreasing health.  Eventually, the pressure of the job and the disgrace of failure gets to him, and an attempt to throw himself from the window of the high-rise building lands him in a mental home for a spell.

Ningen uses a traditional eastern way of storytelling that relies more on the viewer working things out for themselves rather than being obvious about it; it doesn't make clear until some way in who are the fox and tanuki, and who is their human target, to the point where you are wondering whether the story was merely a metaphoric introduction to the film.  However, this is a strength, rather than a frustration of the film, which weaves the initially separate tales loosely together at first, tightening them together until they merge as the story matures.

The result is an initially quite ordinary film that develops into something much more rewarding, and well worth a look. 7.5/10

Magic in the Moonlight (US) (wiki)

Woody Allen, despite being well over 200 years old now, is still pumping out those films.  They seem to coincide nicely with the festival circuit.  One seems to be doing the rounds every year.

Magic in the Moonlight is a jaunty tale set in 1920's France, populated by affable Brits larking about instead of doing proper work.  Colin Firth is your natural affable Brit, and he does a pretty good job of playing Stanley, a magician turned professional skeptic who, when not exciting the crowds with his magic tricks, uncovers the palmreaders and spirit realm soothsayers for the charlatans they are before any more grieving widows hand over their moneys for a last chat with their departed other halves.

Something of a celebrity in the circle, he is confounded by Sophie, a young woman who claims to have psychic powers, who appears to be the real thing - and after several demonstrations of her abilities comes to a crashing realisation that there is more to life than he has allowed himself to believe.

Now don't worry, I haven't gone all new age here.  Sophie is indeed unmasked as a fake, and Allen is not trying to tell us we should all believe in the unknown wooery peddled by these people, or even in some general higher order.  Firth's skeptic is an arrogant, narrow minded boor, whose likability is down to the fact that it's Colin Firth underneath it all; a caricature of the sort of person some would lazily term as having 'militant' views.

My take on the message here is in response to the rise of a more skeptical way of thinking in recent times, which is - sure, question and be critical of limp-minded explanations of the way the world works, but don't be a dick about it, and don't close your mind so much that the beauty of the world is also lost, a message that I can get behind given some recent events in the atheist community.  My only real problem with the film is with Stanleys' portrayal of a skeptical mind, which some will take away as being synonymous with unlikability, and perhaps even some mild mental disorder.   But if you can put that aside for a second, it is actually a pretty good film, and one of the stronger Woody Allen films I've seen in some time.  7.5/10

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (Part 1)

So, yes.  You might be wondering what the hell is going on with me at the moment, by now I should have done some of the Bradford, and maybe Edinburgh, film festivals.  I blogged neither, because I have been to neither.  As detailed earlier this week, it's been a strange sort of year for me, simultaneously more and less crowded with things to do.  One of the casualties unfortunately, has been the festival circuit.

But, we did manage to make the first few days of Cambridge this year, after a years' break.  Cambridge is a beautiful city and it was nice to get back for a little while at least.  I wish we could have stayed longer (it's still going on) but the pull of the working week dragged me back.

We stopped briefly outside Leicester to see the Parrots at Tropical Bird Land, but unfortunately the many characters that I remembered from two years before had gone.  As it does so often in Desford, it was raining hard and the birds looked miserable.  When I asked specifically about Rio, the quiet and adorable Galah Cockatoo I saw on many other occasions, I was told he was missing.  When the relatively new assistant went away and asked around, he came back with the unfortunate news that poor Rio had a stroke not long after I saw him last and died.  The similar looking but altogether more rowdy cockatoo I had on my shoulder was actually Phooey, who was far less easy going on the fingers.

A few days in Kings Lynn (better considered a base of operations than a destination itself) and then we headed to Cambridge, just as the weather got better.  We made use of the bulk discount cards for the films, and chose as many as we could fit in.

Supernova (Bel) (review)

Our first film was technically the opening film of CFF, time-wise at least, although didn't have the reputation behind it to give it an opening film 'oomph'.  Meis is a precocious young girl, bored and living with her mother and step-dad in a strange backwater.  A single house perched on a sharp bend has had it's fair share of accidents with drivers high on adrenalyn or booze careering into it.  It seems this is the only way that new things happen, and Meis' step-dad is only the latest of these to enter their lives.  Unfortunately, he's a bum, and wants intervention to come crashing through the living room just as much as the other two.

Though Supernova does take some time to get going, and suffers from that perennial French film problem of the characters spouting philosophy needlessly at you, at least the film uses it to give it a stylish, sharp edge.  This time it comes from the thoughts and musings of Meis herself, whose long, bored childhood she is beginning to leave behind seems to have been filled with her nose in the science books.  Much less than a bookish nerd, she applies the cold logic found within to the world around her, in a strangely likeable way.

Supernova was not a brilliant start to the festival, but given it's not readily accessible ingredients, it could have been a tonne worse.  It's offbeat and left-field, bordering on art-house in places, but has a redeeming attitude that saves it from the depths of rubbishness.  7/10

The Woman Who Dares  (Ger) (review)

The blurb for this film was a little misleading, as it suggests a documentary of sorts.  It isn't.  The main character Beate, as best as I can ascertain, is not based on a real person and the story is complete fiction.  Well into middle age, she is given terrible news by her doctor - she has a tumor.  Reacting as many would in such a situation, she looks at her life, and things maybe now would be the time to achieve some of her remaining goals.  Most people aren't in her position however; an ex-olympic swimmer who gave up her dreams to start a family, now stuck between a needy daughter and a bumbling son who still seem to demand her constant attention.

These things drop away when you get news like that, and so she launches herself at her goal - swimming the English channel - to the dismay of friends and family alike.

The film is a pretty standard 'overcome adversity' fare, with a solid, dependable story underneath.  It doesn't give many surprises along the way - and it's no spoiler to say she manages it - but it was solidly acted, entertaining and a satisfying watch, even if you knew what the ending was going to be from the start.  7.5/10

Sacro GRA (Ita/Fra) (wiki)


We were hoping to see this - which was a genuine documentary.  The drab-sounding blurb talked of a ring road around Rome and the people who inhabit it was made all the more interesting when we learn that it was the first documentary to receive a Golden Lion at Venice.  Unfortunately, the DVD gremlins were in force, and the film had no subtitles, rendering it pretty much unwatchable to anyone not speaking the lingo.  Hopefully I can catch it elsewhere.

The London Marathon (belated)

Yes, I know it was in April and it's now September.

Just a quick update to bring some closure to things.

In short, I messed things up a bit.

5:18 is not a great time for a marathon, especially as I was aiming for less than five, and it was five minutes SLOWER than my time at the far more hilly Liverpool marathon from 2 years previous.

I put it down to training - I just didn't do the distances.  You are told that, before it gets to the 4-weeks to go mark, you need to do a big practice run - about 20 of the 26 miles - and then taper until the big day.

I held steady at a half marathon distance and no further.

Perhaps unsurprisingly when I was in the race, the first half marathon went fine.  I made it over London Bridge - the halfway point - without dropping my pace.  I'd passed the 4:30 pacesetter and was going well. Then my thigh muscles turned into plates of iron as if to say 'you usually have a bit of a lie down about now, so why are you still moving?', and I hobbled around painfully the rest of the way. 

I just couldn't get back on the horse - the lactic acid buildup in the legs was just too much.  Although my performance might have also been affected by the thousands of other runners squeezed into the narrow roadway, either going too fast to allow me to move away from the 'hard shoulder' and thus stuck with the walkers, or stop-starting right in front of me so I couldn't build momentum.  Some less than helpful spectators shouting encouragement - if it can be called that - right into your earhole as you passed didn't help either.

Anyway, despite remarking to Ms. Plants that I was never going to do that ever again, I will be doing it again next year, assuming I make it through the ballot.

And, I still have a chance to get a sub-5h time this year.  I'm also doing the Jane Tomlinson York Marathon, and well in training.  I did 17 miles last weekend in under 3 hours, and next weekend, I'll attempt 20 or so.  Hopefully, this will give me the edge I was missing in the race.

Wish me luck.

Changes

Hey,

The cobwebs are back, a little thicker than before.

I can see why so many blogs go south; a few posts and then they fall silent.

Things happen in people's lives which can preoccupy them to the point where some of the things they used to do regularly get pushed to the back of the queue, or maybe even fail to happen at all any more.  So many things I used to do with all the time I used to have - where did it go?

Not after any sympathy, here.  I'm just waxing lyrical.

DVD's and video games, for example.  Two things that would eat up serious time in my life, barely get a look in now.  I have piles of both still to watch or play, some of which stretch back a decade.  And yet I'm still sucker enough for a cheap bargain to add to the list of 'to watch', or 'to play'.

For the past decade - from 2005 to the present day, my days have mostly involved 'the films', 'the running' and 'the garden'.  The former two are pretty familiar if you have been here before - my obsessive-compulsive need to see every film I can at the festivals around the UK, and my strategy to maintain a reasonable weight by jogging the flab away have been well documented.  But the garden has been going on largely in the background, although budget- and time-wise, it has certainly been the focus of many a summer; heaving soil into skips and building retaining walls, laying patios and building fences. 

This year, however, it was finally completed to much relief.  Slowly but surely, year after year, the garden turned from unmaintainable wreck to tamed, patio'd sun trap.  The last ten years spent making a home that myself and Ms. Plants can enjoy has come to an end.  I consider it a distinct chapter of my life, done and dusted.

You would think maybe that some of my old pursuits might now get a look-in, but life has a way of making such abandonments pretty permanent, and the next big thing is just over the horizon.

We are expecting our first child in November. 

We have just hit the third trimester.

We are very happy, but we are also bricking it.

The last six months has been a bit of a whirlwind, and any thoughts of far off holidays or festival excursions were put on ice once we knew for sure.  We are not young parents, so we were conscious of the risks of complications, which thankfully have not appeared.  Hopefully, it's a clear sprint to the finish.

During this time, the blog has been the last thing on my mind.  I am sorry, both to any visitors who may read with interest my blatherings, and to myself, as I have found it a useful external memory to remind me of my comings and goings.  I have just not been in the frame of mind.

We've been working hard and altering the house - again - for an extra pair of legs toddling around.  Our biggest scheme - a major kitchen redesign that will involve bricking up doors and knocking down walls, isn't even started yet.  We hope to have it done before the big day.

I hope to be able to return to some form of regular posting at some point; I tried in March, but that didn't keep up for long.  A blog needs an author to be in a communicative mood, and that is something I have just fallen out of being for the moment.

So my life is about to change once again, and some of my older pastimes will no doubt be pushed away as my new role as a parent begins, and replaced by at least a few of the joyful times that parents and children get up to.

Letting go of the old won't be easy for me, but at least some of those unwatched DVD's might come in handy during those sleepless nights..

A Polish Holiday 2

Even though yesterday was quite the emotional rollercoaster ride, the main event was still to come.  Today, we were booked onto a trip to see one of the surviving death camps at Auschwitz, the German name for the small, leafy town of Oświęcim during the Nazi occupation.

For the purposes of retaining a connection to it's horrific past, even though it is a constant reminder to the locals, two of the three main death camps in the town still stand, and there is no shortage of people willing to travel through the plain, unassuming countryside packed into coaches to experience them first hand.  Today, we would take our turn.

We pre-booked online, and for a little lighter relief afterwards, we added the tour of the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine, as by that point we figured we could do with something to take our minds off what we had just seen.

Early in the morning, we boarded a mini-bus close to the hotel, which was tasked with hoovering up tourists from around the city by negotiating it's way through the narrow, parked car-laden streets.  Once pretty much full up, we headed out of the city and onto the motorway, a grey morning stretching out in front of us.

Fortunately, there was some entertainment of sorts, in the form of an English language documentary of the history of Auschwitz.  It was dry and sober, and as you would expect, mostly in black and white, but it gave us a fair primer of what was to come.

An hour or so later we arrived at Auschwitz-I, the first and most well-built of the death camps in the town.  A large car park, flanked by book and souvenir shops bustled with cars and coaches, and we filed into our spot.  We filed through a security checkpoint and were given our headphones, and exited out of the modern building, into the past.
The view in front of us is one of the most recognizable locations from tales of the second world war.  A neatly trimmed path circles around a grass lawn, innocently passing under the branches of a now-mature oaks and weeping willows, and towards the entrance gates.

'Work sets you free', says the sign, a grimly sardonic hint to the thousands of poor souls who passed under this sign that the only way out was being flogged to death, as many of them were. 

It was clear that in the early days of the regime at least, the Nazi army had at least taken the time and effort to create sturdy, brick buildings to house the inmates.   The majority of the inner compound was made up of a grid of two-storey buildings that looked well constructed and almost homely from a distance, with the sun peeking through the clouds and the sound of birdsong filtering through the voice coming out of our crackly headphones.  We were about to find out what the insides had to say for themselves.

The tour guide took us on a very deliberate route through the compound, stopping off at the few buildings that were open to the public.  Some had been closed for refurbishment, others were too unsafe to go inside.  Almost as a way of darkening the atmosphere, the sun went in and a dismal greyness took over the sky.  It began to rain.
The first couple of buildings were largely empty and devoid of period features, and had been stripped mostly down to just the walls and the unsuitable heating units that must have been little use in the winter months for the inmates.  On the walls hung diagrams of the camps, of the town of Oświęcim, and of the Nazi stranglehold on the entire region.  Krakow was at the epicentre of Hitlers' plans for Jewish extermination, and one room-high map in particular highlighted the extent of the extermination engine.  On it, the three camps at Auschwitz were surrounded by forty or so smaller camps, all set up for the same purpose.  Further afield, as far away as the Netherlands and France, another thirty or so camps were marked on the map.  Their inmates were all destined, sooner or later, for Auschwitz.

Padding through the rain showers between buildings became a source of refreshment and pause, as we moved from the inmates buildings into the 'processing' areas.  In the process of the dehumanization and eventual extermination of the prisoners, the Nazi occupation exploited every resource that the bodies of the inmates could provide.  Their belongings were taken from them, and anything worth money was put aside and sold.

But it didn't stop there.  Personal items - shoes, spectacles, jewellery, and even things like toothbrushes and false teeth were removed and confiscated.  Hair was cut from their heads and hoarded for the production of 'wool'.  And this was while each able man, woman and child was subjected to long hours of hard work, medical experiments, or forced into the Sonderkommando - prisoner units forced to do this work on their fellow countrymen.  The infirm and unable were, perhaps mercifully, the first to the execution chambers.

When the camp was liberated, huge stockpiles of untransported personal effects were discovered, and are now stored in glass booths that take up half of several of the voluminous rooms.  The stash of human hair alone, bundled tightly into sacking, was over 7 tonnes in weight, and sits silently in it's glass presentation case, a pile of human hair six feet high and thirty feet wide.  This, alongside some of the other confiscations, conveyed more powerfully the sheer scale of what was going on more than words or pictures ever could.

Though we were generally allowed to take pictures anywhere in the buildings, we were asked not to photograph the hair as a mark of respect.  Most people were just standing, mouth agape and too preoccupied with the sight in front of them to remember they had cameras in their hands.

Three or four buildings later, we reached the end building, where the yard between it and the adjoining building was open to us.  This was one of the execution yards.  The windows on the buildings either side were boarded up to heighten the mental torture of those inside, who heard the shots and screams of those who were to be executed that day, and when they would be next.  At the far end of the yard, a section of the original, pock-laden wall stands, surrounded by wreaths and candles, struggling to stay alight in the wind and rain.

Shattered from the weight of it all, we turned back and were led towards the entrance, but unfortunately we were not quite done yet.  Auschwitz-I had it's own gas chambers, and they hadn't been destroyed like in some of the other camps by Nazi's trying to cover up their atrocities.  We were led inside, and shown the hatch where the Zyclon-B cannisters were dropped through, from the point of view of the victims who died slowly and painfully, often at the hands of their Sonderkommando brethren.

A little way beyond, and through a double-fenced blockade, the world changed.  A heartbeat away from the torturous atrocities were the officers' camps.  Quiet, leafy office buildings of substantially better quality.  Some of the officers, and even their families lived here on-site.  Their children innocently played in the grounds a stones throw away from the gas chambers.

Our tour of the compound ended on a high - of sorts - with the gallows that Rudolf Höss, the first commander of the camp was summarily executed on in 1947, after his trial at Nuremberg.

Our guide gave us a meager ten minutes or so to work our way through the queues for toilets, book shops, or just simply to have a breather outside.  We felt pretty emotionally flattened, even though our minds, used to the detachment of seeing so much through a TV screen, filtered out a lot of the impact.  Looking back on the pictures from the comfort of my front room, is somehow more unsettling.

Our journey into the past was barely half over.  The rain continued to fall from the skies in a manner that suggested it could not make up it's mind whether to turn into a full-on storm or just sod off, and it continued to patter down just enough to be noticeable on the short drive to our next stop.


If the gates of Auschwitz-I drew a blank, then the iconic train tracks and guard house of Auschwitz-II Birkenau should trigger memories of a thousand Channel 5 documentaries.  When it became clear that - even when the prisoners were packed like sardines into the rooms - the first camp was nowhere near big enough a place to carry out the final solution, the Nazi's looked upon the wide open fields on the outskirts of Oświęcim as a suitable location for a second camp.

By this point, the Nazi's were more confident of their aims and goals, and were less motivated to try and hide the true purpose of their construction.  Whereas Auschwitz-I was modeled almost as a 'stopover' for the Jewish people on the way to some better land, Birkenau's buildings were brutally functional and honest.

We were dropped some way from the entrance, as if to heighten the anticipation of entering.  We were told to watch out for cars roaring past on the tight, narrow tarmac - the locals in the houses not so far from the entrance would take no prisoners on a road they considered to be theirs alone to drive on.  It seemed incredulous that some people, with a constant reminder of what it is to be an arsehole so close to their doors, could choose to act in such a way.  Almost on cue, a car whizzed past, and it's irate driver shouted abuse at one of the tourists.  It was surreal.

In 1941, a newly laid track branched off the nearby main-line and into these fields, where brick huts were built by the dozen.  With only a single floor and huge slanted roofs taking up at least as much space, the design required few windows, allowing little to no light to penetrate inside.  No water or electric like they at least had in the other place.  The interiors were dank and dark, with a cold stone floor, and brick and wooden frames for the beds. People slept three high, cramped together as many as could fit.  By 1943, the extermination camp, as it was officially designated by that point, had the capacity to hold 200,000 people - four times it's originally planned capacity.

And it worked like a factory.  Trainloads of prisoners rumbled in, through the guard house tunnel and past the walking dead, staring at them helplessly as they milled around waiting for the inevitable.  Halfway down the long central track, the carriages stopped and they got out.

The infirm were shot immediately.  Those who could work did so at the nearby factories - their pay being allowed to live another day.  Eventually they would become sick or otherwise problematic, and then they were killed.  Birkenau eventually had four buildings - combined gas chambers and crematoria, as well as the famous 'red house' and 'white house' crematorium buildings - converted barns that sufficed in processing the bodies during the early days before the influx of new bodies became too much for them alone.

The rain continued as if it was perpetual here.  We walked the long track next to the railway that cut through the centre of the massive compound.  To the left, the buildings were shabby but mostly intact.  To the right, the semi-complete process of the fleeing Nazi's, covering their tracks by burning everything to the ground, had left the area with little more than a perimeter of razor wire guarding some foot high foundations.

Wherever your eyes wandered was a gruesome mix of nature and the awful man-made structures that it was slowly re-taking.  The walking route, the whole length of the camp, was deliberate to allow time to ponder on the sights in front of us.  We were heading to the memorial at the end.

I'm not exaggerating for effect: as soon as we arrived it began to rumble with thunder ominously, and the clouds, relieved of their static electricity, proceeded to drench the air.  A grey and sombre structure, built at the far end of the compound midway between the two sets of crematoria buildings servicing each side of the camp, was backed by trees and nature and peace.  The structure and it's border appeared to be a final statement, that the horrid excesses of human cruelty should stop at this point and carry on no further.

As with Hiroshima and Nagasaki before, this was a place of international remembrance, and it was clear the cobbled ground would occasionally be populated by rows seating for visiting dignitaries. Flagpoles for each nation stood empty but ready, and plaques were set into the ground in every language, a mirror of the same message over and over.

In total, it was estimated that 1.5 million people passed through the three Auschwitz camps over the seven years of occupation.  We were given a little time to stand and read in our own languages the message of caution to the world, off our respective rain-splattered plaques, and think.

The rain finally made up it's mind and lashed down heavily, so the guide picked up the pace and headed through the destroyed remnants of the crematorium buildings and towards the womens' camp where we shook off our clothing and gathered inside one of the few remaining huts considered safe enough to enter.

The insides felt like a relief from the cold and the wet outside, but they could not have been much comfort for their original residents.  Barely enough room had been apportioned for each person to sleep, several bunks high, with small, dusty windows letting in precious little light, casting ghostly patterns on the ashen-coloured concrete structure within, and dimly illuminating the huge wooden structure of the timber roof above - where any heat would retreat to, out of reach of the freezing prisoners in the darkest depths of winter.

The rain never really stopped, but abated enough for us to chance en masse a trot back towards the entrance, stopping off briefly at the huge communal latrines.  During use, the prisoners would have to defecate together in large groups - no privacy was permitted, as you would have to sit cramped together in long rows on a cold concrete pot.  As bad as the job of cleaning them would have been, we were told that the few prisoners who had that unenviable task were among the lucky ones as aside from the obvious ickyness, it was one of the easier jobs in the camp.

With some gratitude, we finished the tour and emerged out through the guard entrance into freedom once more, where kids waiting for their parents in the souvenir shops balanced on walls and messed around.  We have never had it so easy.

Our day had one final stop.  As the sun hovered midway between the heavens and the horizon, we took the little bus about an hours' drive to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  After the heavy emotional load around our necks, it would be a duller, but lighter and welcome change to the subject matter.
We pulled up as the clouds were parting into a semi-full car park.  A neat and trim garden welcomed us in, proudly displaying a UNESCO world heritage site sign.  Everything was neat and tidy, and though we were eeking the last of the pleasant autumn days out of the year, the gardeners had worked hard to keep it all flowery and colourful.

(I must confess, at this point I had little idea of what we were going to be seeing. Aside from the vision of some salt in a big hole in the ground, I hadn't got past the whole atrocities thing to consider what it might involve)

The mine was, as you might expect for a tourist destination, not in full use any more.  The office buildings had all been prettified and turned into tourist shops and mini museums, but we were here for what was under our feet.  We were advised to join the long queues for the toilets in the short while before our guide had finished with her current group, and we bought some much needed beverage for our journey.

Eventually it was our turn.  The first part of the tour basically involves traversing a massive staircase - heading down about fifty floors until you hit the upper levels of the mine - which takes some time to do.  When you eventually arrive at the bottom, a massive air lock door (which might have been made a bit more fancy for the tourists than the more functional original) is prised open, and a massive gust of air billows about us from the depths below.

It would have been quite natural to assume that the 1000 or so feet of depth is just salt deposits and the odd rusting bucket - and there was certainly plenty of both.  In most places on the walls and above our heads, the rock was covered in snow white salt crystals, covering the old pickaxe marks of ancient workers by some inches in places.   Nice though it was to look at, the thought of spending the remainder of the day being bustled by wind and having the top of my head scraped off by sharp salt crystals was not so appealing.  Mercifully the depths had a bit more to offer.  Only recently has it totally stopped being mined for salt, and before 2007, it had been a source of gainful employment for the locals going back to the 1200's.  In that time, an awful lot of salt has come out, and thus a whole lot of tunnels have been dug through the rock, and in places these tunnels have opened out into some pretty spacious rooms where the surprises were kept.

As we made our way through a succession of draughty airlocked corridors, the path consistently sloped slowly downwards.  Periodically we passed distance and depth markers, and several branching tunnels off route which were either closed to the public (some volunteer miners still worked in some of the more remote branches) or were being refurbished.

It became quite pedestrian going through the long corridors, and in the early stages the occasional stopoff was not that exciting; often they would containing one of several pieces of antique machinery used to either dig out the salt or transport it back again.  Often these were set in motion by modern electric motors that replaced the grunting labourers, or quite often, horses whose whole life would be spent below the surface.  The machines were often joined by manikins of miners and their horses in action poses.

Other areas displayed scenes from local history; kings and knights doing battle or somesuch.  Life-size stone statues played their part, carved by some of the more artisan miners to make it more bearable below the surface.  Here and there, small shrines or memorials to the hard work of the miners were displayed.  Often, though these were the work of artists and sculptors from modern times,  commissioned works to remember the thousands of men who flogged their bodies and ruined their health over the years.

About two thirds the way to the bottom, we were shown something that, thanks to my lack of research beforehand, took me by complete surprise.

We were several hundred feet below the surface of the earth, and yet here we were in a cathedral, carved out of the granite rock.

We started down the twin staircase from the entrance, and marvelled at where we were.  On the wall was a relief of The Last Supper carved with great precision into the rock.  Huge chandeliers made of salt crystal hung from the ceiling.  Statues of martyrs and bishops lined the walls, and the floor was polished granite, carved to look as if it were covered with hexagonal tiles.

This was, and still is a deeply spiritual hall, known as St. Kingas Chapel.  It has been party to many religious ceremonies; it's acoustic qualities make it ideal for classical music performances and has hosted weddings for a lucky select few.  We had barely enough time to take in the surroundings before we were moved on.  The beloved Pope John Paul II, whose visit here as with many other places around Poland, is commemorated by a statue.  This one was carved from a huge rock of salt rock and stood guarding the exit.

There were several subsequent open areas although none as spectacular as the first chapel.  One of the most eye-catching was a large, open chamber near the bottom.  We entered from a high vantage point and were not able to take in the scale of thingsThe rock disappeared into the darkness high above us, but was replaced by a beautiful and seemingly infinite framework of white painted timber joists, presumably there to stop the whole thing falling in on itself, but lending the spacious cave a strange claustrophobic feel.  Large salt chandeliers hung from the lower timbers and lit the room beautifully.

Right at the bottom - and we should have guessed this given the nature of museums, although it still came as a surprise this far from the surface - was a gift shop.  And a restaruant, and a load of other rooms and facilities that just seemed to be there as if nothing was strange about it.  We were given a hurry-up-and-buy five minutes to look around the trinket shops, including two or three selling off carved jewellery and those lumps of rock split in half to show beautiful crystalline structures inside.  I doubt they were from the area, as none of them looked remotely salty in origin but then at least you could say you bought them from a thousand feet below the earth I suppose.  We ummed and ahhed, but ended up coming away empty handed without regrets.

The final part of our journey was to get back to the top - and this was a bit of a bottleneck.  A single elevator - not much more spacious from being a double-decker one - was crammed full of a score of tired tourists and then sent upwards.  When it was finally our turn, we were placed well inside the intimate zone of several complete strangers, and then sent upwards - in complete squeaky, draughty, creaky darkness all the way back to the top.  The blackness occasionally abated by the bright flourescent lights of areas we had walked through and went back to darkness just as quickly, and then just as it seemed we were all going to start screaming for it to stop, it did and we fell out into the (other) gift shop at the surface.

We gathered our nerves and headed back to the coach.  In our absence, darkness had fallen outside, and once everyone had been accounted for, we went back to Krakow old town, got back into our room and collapsed into bed.

That was our final full day in Poland.  The next morning we packed and were picked up by a cab which took us straight to the airport.  We spent our last Zloty on choccy for workmates back home, and then got on the plane.

Though we had not really looked at Poland as a place to visit, I'm certainly glad we did; the atrocities of Auschwitz and the shadow of the nightmares still present around Krakow in particular are haunting in a way that I had felt when I was at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and it felt somewhat fulfilling to visit all three at last.  Although Poland could have used it's past more to fund it's future with such dystopian tourism there was a sense of keeping it measured and low key, but making sure it is remembered, and the balance feels about right.

It would be nice to go again and explore some more.

A Month..

Even less than that, now.

After we had returned from Poland last September, and we had got around to sorting out the big pile of post stopping the front door from opening, I happened upon a large, red package.  Upon opening it, I started jumping up and down and shouting.

It was a confirmation letter - I would be doing the London Marathon in 2014!

In 1996 - and I recall it clearly, I was told by a physio, who was at the time kneading my knotted muscles after a bad sciatica flareup, that my dreams of ever running a marathon should be stopped in their tracks.  'A half marathon is the best you can hope for in your condition', he said.

Right, I said.

Admittedly, it did take me about a decade to get around to it (my first proper 10k was in 2007) but I eventually got the bit between my teeth, worked off the videogaming flab and built up my distances.  In 2011, I did my first half marathon, In 2012, I did my first Marathon...

Hey, maybe it's time to take down that old Liverpool Marathon sponsor link and replace it with something a little more.. current? >>>>

So, I managed to stick one into the face of that damned physio two years ago, so what's the big deal?  Well, I did Liverpool because I wasn't having much luck with the London registration, receiving only a handful of failed ballot letters and a Jimmy Saville-style track suit top that is for some reason out of vogue right now.  London is the big one.  So when I got that letter, well things were pretty sweet.

Of course now that the thing is about four weeks away, I'm bricking it.  I've got my final instructions through this week (and bloody hell is is more complicated than your average 10k).  I'll be lining up alongside 36,000 other people as opposed to the 8,000 or so in my usual competitions, including world class athletes on a 'world marathon major' competition.  I've got my tickets and hotel sorted and my distances are about right, and a knee injury that showed up as the year incremented has thankfully been seen to (thanks again to a physiotherapist, but this time not the same one).  I'll study the course map like it's a final exam cram, so the last few miles of twists and turns don't turn into psychologically draining surprises.

I'm as set as I'm going to be.

So, here's the badgery-bit:  Please sponsor me.  I will - as ever - be running for MacMillan Cancer Support, as they are a very worthwhile network of supporters of victims of cancer and their families.  Though I have run for them many times now, this past couple of years I have felt a particular need to run for them.  My father is currently recovering from cancer, and will be hitting the operating table not long after the run to have the last stage of his reconstructive surgery completed, so this will be a personal goal I want to achieve in more ways than one.

Oh and just for good measure, there will be a handful of 10ks, a half marathon, a decent sized walk and the York Marathon in October, just for good measure...