“But I am Free”


It is a week or so now since I watched Terence Malick’s “A hidden Life” but it still haunts me. It must be among the finest films I have ever seen. It moved me deeply. Like all great works of art it strikes in lots of different levels and like all great works of art it cuts to the core of things. It digs deep into the struggle of the human heart with what must be one of life’s greatest dilemmas.

James Macmillan has said that listening to music involves sacrifice, but watching a film like this involves sacrifice too. It is not the ticket price or giving up an evening but the demand to sit for three hours in silence and simply absorb the work in its entirety. Many may find the length and the apparent slowness of the action, the long scenes and the minimal dialogue wearisome. Half way through, that thought also crossed my mind, but by the end I realised it needed all the time. It needed the long shots to communicate the anguish of the story It needed the space to let the thoughts sink in and the economy of words meant that when words were spoken, they were deeply significant and profound.  

The cinematography alone was breath-taking. The stunning landscape of the Tyrolian Alps with their crazy spiked peaks snow-capped and bathed in beautiful sunshine or clouded with forbidding skies and thunder. The sloping land with the constant, digging, planting and harvesting barley, turnip, tending goats among the simple dwellings and outhouses, grinding wheat with children playing in the cornfields. It was an idyllic scene. The human love and joy in the family that spread out to the community was portrayed with a delightful tenderness. Even the shadow of what was to come was treated with such sensitivity that in so many ways it seemed perfectly reasonable. The soldiers the the town major, the local priest and even the villagers who turned against them with their ugly glances, spitting and the children throwing stones, were not evil, but people with their own demons to fight, their own families and lives to protect.   

The music throughout, sensitively and beautifully arranged under the hand of James Newton Howard with pieces from Handel, Gorecki and  Pert woven seamlessly into the whole provided the backdrop

The towns and prison courtyards with all the of skilfully underplayed. Malick understand more than most how the greatest impact is achieved with the merest hint. There was no gratuitous violence or sex which under another director’s hand would be exploited. You don’t need to be shown everything. The brutality was clear and the passion real.

The principal actors: August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter and Valerie Pachner his wife Franziska (Frani),

along with the supporting cast, none of whom were known to me, worked with astonishing skill and sensitivity drawing you directly into their anxious internal struggle in what can only be described as an exquisite performance. They are totally convincing and believable. Erma Putz, Jägerstätter’s biographer who based her account on his letters from prison has said that it was an accurate representation of the principal characters from what she learned from the letters and directly from Franziska.

Many, I am sure, will use the film to support some current political stance and point up the dangers of populism and xenophobia. Others may take it as a statement on conscientious objection. There may be something in that, but I saw it as something much deeper and altogether more significant. For me it was about that undervalued virtue of Integrity, the cost and the ultimate sacrifice to be true to the lord of your life.  Jägerstätter’s issue was not over military service or war but in swearing allegiance to another God. That was where he could not go.

Despite all the persuasive arguments arraigned against him: From the mayor of his town, “You are worse than our enemies. You are a traitor”, the local priest, “Have you thought about the consequences of your action?.. Do you know what this will do to your family?. Don’t you know that you will almost certainly be shot?…your sacrifice will achieve nothing.”. Just say the words, God knows what is in your heart”, the Bishop “St Paul told us to be subject to the governing authorities whoever they are…your loyalty is to the fatherland” The atheist inmate “Your God doesn’t care. He didn’t even listen to his own son”

His own family, his mother , his sister in law and even his wife at one point offers him, a little shyly, a possible way out. From the plausible, the reasonable to the aggressive and dismissive each charge must have shot arrows into his heart. After almost each accusation he remains silent, as if accepting that it may be true, but that make no difference. Before his court appearance his solicitor is frustration and bewilderment offers him the easiest way out. “Just sign here and you will be free”  Frantz responds which for me are the most revealing words in the whole film  “But I am free”.

Crawford Mackenzie

The western mind

History has to be more than just a catalogue of events with dates, and kings, battles, revolutions, the rise and fall of civilisations and the ideas that inspire them. It has to be a story. The clue is in the name. Tom Holland has written a great story of western civilisation, (Dominion – the making of the western mind) stretching across centuries from antiquity through the Romans and the Greeks to the liberal democracies of the 21st century. It is a beautifully woven story with the characters, kings and emperors, dissenters and prophets, philosophers and generals, tyrants and bishops all stitched together in a wonderful tapestry.  All the twists and turns of the story the refining, realigning, reforming, and the waves of understanding bear down on the irresistible conclusion that it is Christianity, more than any other, that has made the western mind what it is. It has been the root of western civilisation, the structures the culture, the arts, the engineering, the science and the philosophy. The conclusion, that the western mind has been forged in Christianity, a world view different and distinct from any other, having at its core the outrageous and offensive idea that the God would become a slave and face, without protest, the most brutal and ignominious death, has all been said before, of course.  It is not new.

Larry Siedentop “The invention of the individual – the origins of western liberalism” and Theo Hobson “God created humanism- the Christian basis of secular values” amongst many others, I am sure, have made the same point but Tom Holland has set it out in what is a delightful read. He races through the centuries lacing the stories to together, yet providing enough time to pause and describe the scenes in a way that  you almost feel you are there: with Boniface on the banks of the river Bourne,  with the Dominicans at Chiaravalle, with the diggers on St George’s Hill, and watching the tortures, the hangings, the immolations and standing near enough to hear the terrible sluice of the guillotine.

Then there are the characters: Aristotle, Augustus, Paul, Constantine, Augustine, Gregory, Martin, Origen, all the way to Orban and Merkel.  Knowing who is likely to enter on the stage provides an interesting game. When will Martin Luther, or Voltaire or Freud appear? And you can indulge in a wry smile when you scent their appearance. In one chapter, Holland introduces us to Otto Dix who carried both a copy of the Bible and Nietzsche (The Gay Science) with him in the trenches and imagines him surveying the landscape “turned to mud and ash and littered with the mangled bodies of men” and how he would “shiver before the possibility that there might not be after all any redemption in sacrifice” with Nietzsche ringing in his ears “Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying god? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even gods putrefy! God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” After taking time to explore the work of this the bleakest of philosophers,  Holland leaves us at the end of the piece with just a hint of where it is going “Meanwhile, in basements stale with beer and sweat, men with strident voices were talking about Jews”  

Because it is such a wide subject and stretches across centuries it will no doubt be an easy target for criticism. There will be whole areas that will be ignored while others are laboured on. Even the fact that it is easy to read would inevitably lead to it being dubbed populist and not a serious work. Well, I am not a historian and cannot say, but he seems to me to have a wide grasp of history, of the Jewish and Christian scriptures and a clear grasp of philosophy, and, he knows how to write. The style is appealing. The chapter headings with places and dates, the linking of themes and so much ground covered with a crisp economy of words.

The sharpest criticism seems to be over his instance that the western values came solely from Christianity and this is hotly contested, notably by AC Grayling.  The point made is that the virtues and values were not exclusively seen in the Christian world but were clearly existent in older societies, which predate Christianity. They are universal and that Christianity has no monopoly on them. From my point of view this is a sterile argument. If you believe that God created the world and human beings uniquely in his image, it is no surprise to find that people from any background culture or society wherever they may have lived, quite unrelated to any other civilisation, can still embody and express wisdom, kindness to strangers, a spirit of hospitality and a genuine respect for the other.  These attributes have still come from the creator God. The Christian position is that all of the wisdom, all of the virtues, all of the goodness , all of the truth and all of the life have been uniquely revealed in just one person – Jesus Christ.

Tom Holland keeps his own personal beliefs pretty close to his chest. He has sought to keep the writing of the story as impartial as possible, but recognises, at the end, that with Christianity, it is not possible to be neutral. “To claim as I most certainly do, that I have sought to evaluate fairly both the achievements and the crimes of Christian civilisation is not to stand outside its moral framework, but rather as Nietzsche would have been quick to point out – to stand within them.” This then is the thesis and it is hard to argue with.

The Needle of Death

The tragic figures for drug deaths in Scotland, issued this week, should shock us out of our complacency but I don’t think they will. Already politicians have sieved the opportunity to round on the government. But who seriously believes that a labour or labour/libdem coalition, or a conservative administration, for that matter, could have made any difference?  Laying this at the feet of the SNP, who are probably doing their best  is simply unfair. Blaming the government is the easiest game in the book. The truth is that facing up to this problem is way beyond the power of any political grouping. It is a much deeper disease at the core of society and not within the gift of any politician to resolve.  All that can be done, I suspect, and all that will be done, will be a containment exercise. The issue will be moved further away from law and order and be embedded in health and safety. It will be a harm reduction measure and, while this may bring the figures to a more acceptable levels (If drug deaths are ever acceptable), it will not address the real problem.  Instead it will give a renewed push towards decriminalisation and legalisation and the culture of death will be made “safe”.

Like all almost all the serious issue of the day, the responses will fall along predictable lines, attitudes will harden and views become increasingly polarised. That’s a tragedy.  Because there is truth and real evidence in both sides.

I believe that addiction is a real phenomenon and people can be enslaved, trapped in a dependency that will drive them to the most selfish, self destructive and  appalling behaviour often involving deceit, manipulation and  sometimes real cruelty to those who love them most and who have done everything in their power to help. It is ugly and heart-breaking to watch. The terrible destruction of families and relationships by addictions is a great blight on society and the individual at the vortex seems locked in a vice unable to free themselves. I believe it, because it resonates with my understanding of the human condition. The spiritual analogy is sin, and what it does, which is why we need a Saviour.

But I also believe in free will and that at some point along the line the individual has made a deliberate choice to pursue their own pleasure and to hell with the rest. To deny the individual’s responsibility here is extremely  patronising as it deprives them of their human dignity – the ability to choose. That is why I am uneasy about treating dependence and addiction as purely health issues as it parks the issue of responsibility. One of the best gifts you might be able to give a sufferer is the hope in the belief that they can break free, if they really want to. I remember the testimony of a doctor who had worked with addicts and alcoholics over many years. He had seen all the programmes and methods for rehabilitation and come to the stark conclusion that people only recovered if they really wanted to.

If we care at all we should do everything we can to help, no matter how costly that might be.  But the person needs to really want it. They have to come to the place where they face the reality of who they are and seek the help that can only come from beyond themselves. That is the basis of the  AA and DAA programmes and why they, more than other, have been successful.

I think that we have to do the same. We have to look beyond ourselves. We have to seek help from a higher authority. We need to put our trust in a Saviour.

Na Mheoig gan Breith

The Westminster vote for Abortion in Northern Ireland, like the Irish vote last year, left me with a sick feeling in the stomach, but it was the celebrations that was the most difficult to understand . How could this be? How could there be such exuberant rejoicing over a law that would allow the taking of life. I still can’t get my head round that. People could not have been celebrating the poisoning, stabbing with a sharp tube the breaking of bones and the suction pump to destroy human life in a womb.  The facts are there and we don’t need a lot of imagination to know how horrific the “procedure” is.  I often wonder how something as awful as this has been sanitised and smoothed over so that it has become a simple aspect of contemporary life, one we simply accept, almost without question.

I remember the passing of David Steel’s bill in 1967. I knew then that it was wrong but I also knew that it was complicated and that I was pretty ignorant of the facts and not sensitive to the nuances. Over the years, I have known friends , close friends, who have had abortions. Some described the act as “handing the suffering little life into God’s care”. I have also known other couples who have defied the doctor’s advice and the mother has carried the baby for the full term only for that life to have a few hours post birth.  I also know two amazing young women who would not be alive today, and the world poorer, if the doctor’s advice was taken. One was said to be living off the other and the only hope was that the weakest be aborted in the hope that the stronger would survive. The parents with astonishing faith and resolution defied the advice of the medics to abort both lives, stuck their ground and the miracle is there to be seen. I also have many Irish friends and I often wonder if some of them are alive today simply because they were born in Ireland. Still, I cannot judge anyone and I would not, but I do know that the passing of that law then and now was an evil act. 

It was the facts that rattled me out of my complacency. I heard little of them in 1967. I don’t remember any great protest and even the church (the catholic church being the exception) was surprisingly mute. I heard a lot about the curse of “back street abortions” as the main driver behind the law. It happens anyway so legalising would make it safe. I never saw the illogical nature of that argument. If you applied it to any other social evil it would make no sense at all. Just think about it. But of how abortions were actually carried out, I remained blissfully ignorant. Why should I need to know? The pro-abortion agencies were shy on the detail too with good reason. They still sugar coat the thing as the briefest of looks at the Mary Stopes or Planned Parenthood websites will show. They don’t tell you about the sharpened tube, the breaking of bones and the suction pump and they do their utmost to avoid any suggestion that it is nothing more than a simple medical procedure. Now it is difficult to be ignorant and unaware. The facts are out there despite the attempt to stifle them. The testimonies of so many people who have had direct experience, as well as those who have survived the attempt to kill them before birth, demonstrate what a truly abominable thing we have been complicit in.

John Waters, the Irish journalist, speaking before the vote in the Republic put it bluntly:  “If this abomination passes, it will be the first time that a people have voted to strike down the rights, the fundamental human rights, of a section of their own number….It’s unprecedented in human history.”

Striking at the fundamental right of the unborn – the right to life in the name of human rights, as it was defended by politicians including our first minister, this week, makes the whole idea of human rights now quite meaningless.

Na Mheoig gan Breith – the living without birth.

The Cold Blue

A trip to our local art house cinema last night presented us with what was a very unusual film. We go regularly and sometimes the experience is shared with a mere handful of folk in a pretty empty cinema. It is often the case, after sitting through a performance, that we realise why the cinema was so empty. Last night the cinema was full, mainly with men and with more than a fair scattering of greying heads and white beards. From the beginning the audience watched in silence and rapt attention to a 72minute documentary. In fact, it was a documentary about a documentary with a documentary at the end about how the most recent one was made. Now, I am beginning to make it sound like it was watching paint dry, but it was riveting.

In 1943, William Wyler made a film about the progress of the war in Europe, following a bomber crew. This with the return and tour of the B17 bomber the “Memphis Bells”, was used as a propaganda tool to help raise moral at home back in the United States. The raw colour footage was recently discovered in a vault and  Erik Nelsen and his team painstakingly restored, remastered the material, sharpened the colour and the images and developed it for the big screen.  The original film was silent and the sound was added for this work, in a fascinating way with actual recordings of flights in similar aircraft including gunfire and flak. Over this Nelsen played the personal accounts and moving testimonies of men from the 8th Airforce now in there 80’s. Richard Thomson’s music which eventually morphed into his instantly recognisable guitar style matched the mood perfectly.

The technical aspects of the project alone were fascinating but what pinned me to my seat was the transparent honesty and warmth of these men who were willing to say something of their own personal stories caught up in the awfulness of it all. There was something transfixing about the poignant detail in their commentaries. While cockiness slipped in after the 20th mission they still knew they had a 50/50 chance of survival in the 21st.  There was something beautiful about their loyalty to their family in the “ship” and their resolution to do their duty. Over the course of the war the 8th Airforce division lost 28,000 men. On the other side 300,000 German civilians were killed and 7.5 million Germans made homeless in the final stages of the campaign when the change from target to carpet bombing was made. The placing of these harrowing facts before the viewer provides the most solemn moment of the film.

And that was the films success. It was neither filled with patriotic fervour nor disillusionment and yet it was both. Erik Nelsen with Richard Thomson’s weeping guitar just left it there. And that’s the way it should be.

“What would you say now to your 20year old self?” a veteran was asked “Don’t go” he said.


“Licence to Kill, Britians’ surrender to  violence” David Fraser

I remember my mother telling me how when a murderer was convicted and was about to be sentenced the judge would put on a black cap before detailing the gruesome means by which his life would be taken from him (it was most likely to be a man) and it sent a chill down my spine that I can still feel today. That was the early sixties when capital punishment was still enacted in the UK. It was abolished in 1964, temporarily at first, then permanently and finally made more secure through the adoption of the provision in the European convention of human rights in 1981. It was decision made by our representatives in parliament. The people, controversially were not allowed a vote. Public opinion seemed to have been against that decision for many years. The public mood today, however has changed and a plebiscite now is unlikely to achieve a return to “state killing”.

Despite my over vivid imagination and weak stomach, that decision troubled me at the time and does still. I was never convinced that it was right, but with the strength of emotion that it provoked, it has never been an easy subject to discuss. The idea that the state, to which I belonged, could sanction the taking of any life, doing so in my name, was utterly abhorrent. Strangely the same sympathy, somehow, was not extended to enemy combatants or civilians who were killed in war, to those yet unborn or those in a “vegetative” state. It was the taking the life of a fit viable person, who otherwise had a future, that was so appalling.  George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging” captures this emotion so grippingly especially in the way the condemned man avoids a puddle in the road on the way to his death.

So through the years, in my mind there has been this unresolved battle between the logic of just retribution and the emotional flood of sympathy for human life. To my mind, the logic of just retribution, the state taking vengeance for the individual is unrefutably.  It draws a line over the event in the sense that it has been paid for. The moors murders took place when I was only 15, and I often wondered if the murderers’ were executed then, there would be a genuine sense of public closure. As it happened, the presence of this evil was never far from the news throughout the next five decades. It also gives the victim’s family and loved ones some form of satisfaction in a sense of justice and at the same time takes away the impulse for revenge. Despite arguments to the contrary it does provide a demonstratable deterrence to would-be killers.

David Fraser in “Licence to kill”  points this out in his meticulous researched and powerful study “Licence to KillBritain’s surrender to violence”. He does not advocate a return to capital punishment, nor would I, but he does show with clear evidence and thorough research that the absence of this option has led to a steady increase in murder and not the opposite as is so often perceived.  

When it came to life sentence, I believed, as I guess most people did at the time, that it meant what it said; that the individual would lose their freedom for the rest of their life. It seemed at the time a just and fair outcome and avoided the state actually taking someone’s life.

Now we know how movers and shakers play with language often quite dishonestly to shape opinion in the way they want and make inconvenient facts more palatable. Tower blocks become “courts”,  killing innocents becomes “collateral damage”, unborn infants, “foetus”, euthanasia, “death with dignity”, but, at the time, I honestly believed that “life” meant life. But it never did it was 20 years halved for remission and here David Fraser’s exposure of the abject failure of the justice system combined with the probation service in a systemic propensity to lenient sentencing and careless early release, is devastating. Violent criminals, who knew how to work the system, were all to soon back on the streets to reignite their own brand of havoc and misery. The poor, as they inevitably do, were the ones who suffered. Meanwhile the people responsible for the leniency, the politicians, judges and probation officers were generally unaffected, living in quiet suburbs away from the urban war that was raging and able to sleep easily at night.

The issue is, of course, an ideological one.  It is whether we believe that every human being is inherently good with a propensity for doing bad things depending on environment, upbringing and circumstance or whether we believe that while individuals may be basically good there are those who are essentially evil, who given the freedom, will steal rape torture and maim at will and  who can only be restrained with proper retribution and with the fear that, if caught, they would face the most severe punishment. That’s the ideological battle and one that those in power in the UK have been winning since the sixties. Against the common sense of the people, Britain has surrendered to violence.

The Flowers of the Field

It was book I read a while back by the American novelist  Sue Miller “The story of my father”. It was not a novel and not the kind of book that I would naturally go to, but I heard her read part of it on the radio and it touched me.

Maybe it was something about the father daughter relationship, maybe it was the account of someone who was a believer by someone who wasn’t, but somehow it resonated with me and I was deeply moved. In my excitement I bought a couple of copies and gave them to friends. They didn’t share my enthusiasm and I have since learned that this emotion is not always contagious. They were unmoved by the story and critical of the authors’ motives

Sue Miller’s father died after a long period of Alzheimer’s, during which time she tried hard to hold back the inevitable break down that was taking place in his brain. Later she painfully recognised that all her efforts had no effect. What was happening to him, the fracturing of his mind, was taking its own inevitable course and nothing she could do would change that. At his memorial service she was asked to read psalm 103 which may have been a favourite of his. He was Christian pastor. She, though not herself a believer, was able to read through the beautiful words of this ancient song until she got to verse 15 where she almost choked. “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field: the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”    She resolved there and then to show that her father’s life was not like that “I saw now, that my father was not as a flower of the field, dammit; there was sense, meaning to be made of his life in terms of a narrative structure, an explanation of his self – the story of my father- as told my me” She would, in the writing of this memoir, redeem his life from oblivion.

I was recalling this when talking with a client, who is also a friend, over a long car journey recently. He is a lawyer and recently retired and we were musing on reaching this stage in life and wondering what actually we had achieved. What had we got to show for a life’s labours? “At least you will have designs and buildings that will outlast you. All I did was put words together and now they are gone.” It was true I might have buildings and designs that I have had some part in creating but they too will only last for a little time. They will change, be demolished and many probably are already on the way to decay. It is true that if you are famous your name might still be known and your achievements documented, or your legacy, recorded in history. But as for you, yourself, your essential being, it will be forgotten.  People will quickly counter that your memory is retained and kept alive in your children and grandchildren if you have that privilege. The curious phrase in obituaries “He/She is survived by…” comes to mind, and there is certainly a lot of comfort sought in these words. But the fact is, it is simply not true. 

I remember my parents, I don’t think of them every day, maybe not every week but I do remember them and at times wish they were here to talk over something or just for who they were. I knew my paternal grandparents but only a little. I seldom saw them and they seemed distant and stern. I didn’t really know them. As for my great grandparents, I know nothing. I don’t actually know their names (though guess I could find out) I know nothing about what they did or who they were. So in such a short space of time, three generations, they are forgotten and in three generations I will be forgotten too. “The place will remember (me) no more” It is a desperate and despairing thought to dwell on and yet its reality cannot be denied. The fact that our life is so very brief and it will be forgotten so soon isn’t something you really want to dwell on too long.

Sue Miller was devoted to her project but when she got to the end of the story which hinged around Psalm 103, it came to her with astonishing clarity that her father didn’t need her to make sense of his life. “What I learned was that in this way, as in so many other ways, my father didn’t need me to rescue him, to make sense of his life. He accepted what was happening to him, the way he was fracturing and breaking apart, as he had accepted it in possibility well before it happened. For him his life and death already made sense. For him, Psalm 103 could be read through without irony to its conclusion, which goes as follows:

But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children, to such as keep his covenant and to those that remember his commandments to do them… Bless the Lord O my soul”

Crawford Mackenzie