Darkest Hour

chruchillNot a film review

Darkest Hour, much like “Dunkirk” in 2017, is a refreshing film, beautiful to watch, clever and powerful. Its gift is that it does not seem to preach, but tells the story. The story in this case of the man who, disliked by almost everyone in his later years, was called upon to the lead his country in possibly its most dangerous time.

I grew up with Churchill. As a child in the 50’s the war years were recent memories for my parents and my mother could spend hours recounting personal stories of the Clydebank blitz. She would describe what it was like to be in a country at war, always had her take on the politics of it and never far away was the admiration for the man. Even my father who found the cigar smoking, heavy drinking, and load mouthed aristocratic antics quite distasteful held a grudging recognition that Churchill was somehow the man for the time and without him the world may well have descended into the “ the abyss of a new dark age” he ominously described in his speech to the House of Commons in June 1940. These words were pregnant with foreboding and with a chill I could feel even as a youngster. So I was imbued with the simple narrative of these times: from its beginnings in Poland to its ending in the South Asian sea, from Chamberlain to Macarthur, from the Bren gun to the atomic bomb and somehow, while terrible things, some of indescribable horror, were done in the course of it all, the cause was just and the end was for the good.

That narrative has taken a severe battering over the years and, while I know that we must always revise orthodox interpretations of history and challenge any complacency over the horrors of war, I cannot help but feel that we can revise it out of its significance and its relevance in understanding where we are today. It is so easy for those of us who have never known anything but peace and who have enjoyed unprecedented levels of freedom and comfort to pontificate and judge the actions of those who lived in a quite different time. We need to have the imagination to think our way into what it was like for them and the film does that brilliantly

The darkest hour, it seems, was the time when a terrible decision had to be made and the nightmare of being the one on whom that decision lay most heavily. What the film seemed to suggest was that Churchill was tortured by the decision and seemed to carry the burden alone. In 1940 the war could have ended with a peace treaty. The route to such a treaty was in place and the negotiations almost begun. Instead the conflict escalated to include the whole world, involving millions of deaths and the most diabolical destruction. The dilemma is a recurring one and strangely one that is hard to debate in the face of polarised views on defence, the protection of interests, defending the oppressed, militarism and pacifism.

The Darkest Hour, to its credit, opens up that vexed question. It doesn’t answer it. It just leaves it there.

Of course it is only a film not a documentary or a detailed historical account. It is a drama. The underground scene, for example, is a very fanciful one but it serves to illustrate how Churchill seemed to connect directly with the people over the normal political channels. The intriguing thing is that the connection was not made by any attempt to be ordinary or be like the “common people”. From his pedigree and privileged background, he couldn’t have been more different. Yet he somehow sensed what the people needed to hear so that resolve could be galvanised and victory achieved

Whatever we think of the man, and in there is no love lost for him in my own city of Dundee, he had that special quality of true leadership, not to shirk from making a fearful decision and to carry the people with him.

I loved the film.

Crawford Mackenzie

Postcards from Haiti 10

GETTING USED TO IT

It as amazing what you can used to. The dismal dribble of water from the tap in the hand basin, the hit and miss electricity, the teasing hint of WiFi, the dust and rubbish, the incessant thumb of dance music pounding out at all times of day and night and even the heat and humidity, which you think your body could accommodate to, given time. But there are some things you just can’t get used to.

IMG_9840I went with the  Pastor and Richard on my first, and only, home visit this time round. The pastor had identified some families who were particularly needy and so we purchased some food, a bag of rice, pinto beans, a tin of tomatoes, some biscuits, stock cubes, spaghetti and a jug of vegetable oil and took them to the home of a member of the church. I didn’t hear her full story but learned enough to know that her situation was desperate. We drove through the dirt streets, tightly packed with dwellings constructed from wood, corrugated iron, tarpaulin and rags and sometimes cardboard. It was shocking. We passed an open space piled with stinking garbage and smouldering fires, picked over by goats and chickens with a desultory donkey tied to a burnt out tree. Where there were flood drains at the side of the road, these were always full of rubbish, plastic bottles and polystyrene food containers. The smell at times was overpowering with slow moving and stagnant grey water and a strange black mould growing.

It was late in the afternoon, with darkness approaching and the air was tense. A group of young men gathered at the corner showing off the one possession they could boast of, an enormous speaker blasting out music. “We may have nothing, but we have noise” was the message. We left the car and followed the lady to her home up a narrow lane with all eyes on us and the odd cry of “Blanco”. When the children shouted to us in this way, it was with a smile and laugh. We laughed too. Now it carried just a hint of menace. There was suspicion in the eyes and a threatening body language. The home was the size of a garden shed divided into four for four families. We followed her round to the back squeezing through a gap in the corrugated iron. She parted a torn curtain and we deposited the food on the dirt floor. There was only a moment to take in the scene, a bench, a plastic bucket with clothes and a dish of beans. We spoke for a moment or two and then left. We didn’t pray with her and I am not sure why, but the pastor was anxious for us to be going. “This is a dangerous place” he said. I did wonder if picking her out for this food parcel might make her life even more difficult or if some of the watching eyes would pounce once we had left. I prayed that they wouldn’t. Earlier Richard said the visits are the best part. They were the worst. I was seeing things that I didn’t want to see.

Last night I slept in a hotel close to the airport transiting through the Dominican Republic. It was not the one I had booked but because of a mix up of dates the taxi driver found me another. I had a room to myself almost 10 times as big as the ladies home. (I measured it). I had free access to an all-day buffet, eat and drink as much as I wanted, beer and soft drinks in the fridge, a choice of three swimming pools and a private beach.

IMG_1786Watching the Caribbean dawn break spectacularly through the parting clouds of petrol blue, chromium and gold, I knew this grotesque divide was one that I could never ever get used to.

Postcards from Haiti 9

IMG_9883THE SCHOOL

It was the school that brought me here and, as always, it’s great to have a specific job to do. The site has been purchased and significant funds raised. The design has been finalised and it’s now a question of resolving constructional issues and procurement. This,for me, is uncharted territory.  The architecture in the town of Ounaminthe does not inspire. Buildings are almost exclusively in concrete reinforced and in blocks, generally haphazard and incomplete with a tendency towards kitsch which becomes extreme in the larger houses and hotels. Concrete allows any amount of hideous frivolity. The streets however form a grid and there are parks and squares to give relief and the whole,  saved by the furious growth of all kinds of trees which makes the city breath with a Caribbean lushness set against the craggy tree lined mountains. The media impression is that Haiti unlike the Dominican Republic is a deforested desert wilderness. This is not the case as almost 1/3rd of the land mass is forest and the mountains are covered in trees. Where there has been deforestation this has been blamed on charcoal production but again the situation is more complex.

We visit some buildings and to see how they are constructed. One was an active building site. Formerly a house,now a school. A roof is being finished on the first floor with classrooms underneath These have bare block wall with vents, tight bench rows, and a blackboard (actually green).  There are no children as this is Saturday and the school is closed for the weekend. The only resource I see are mathematic text books in French and Creole and a computer room. The building is three storeys and, with the exception of the roof, built entirely of concrete. On the building site health and safety is given no quarter. The top floor is very high off the ground and a home made ladder bends it’s way to the ground at a terrifying angle. What terrifies me more however is how this building will cope in an earthquake. A tremor could cause it all to cave in on itself and the prospect of these concrete floors descending on packed classrooms below is too awful to think about. This is not how we will build the school.

IMG_9885IMG_9875IMG_9877IMG_9861IMG_9826Later in the week we returned to see the school in action and stayed there for three hours. It was an amazing spectacle seeing hundreds of children in smart uniforms lining up for their classes and rounded up by stern teachers in immaculate grey uniforms with a belt in the hand which they used without hesitation, giving a child a smack across the ankles to get them moving. It reminded me of sheep being herded into pens but it didn’t make a lot of difference to the children who just took it in their stride and it clearly didn’t hurt. The playground was supervised by a man in a blue uniform also welding a belt. This time it looked more serious. It was made of leather like the Scottish tause and if there was any doubt about how serious he was, a rifle was under his arm and hand cuffs hung from his side. Security in and out of the playground was tight and parents had to demonstrate their authenticity before being allowed in to collect the children. The younger children were dressed in pink, the older pupils in grey and blue while seniors wore grey skirts and trousers and white blouses emblazoned with the emblem of the school “Institute Academique de Saint Israel”.

IMG_9954IMG_9944IMG_9955IMG_9931The school has over 1,100 pupils and 25 teaching staff. I did wonder, if, in the longer term these children may have greater prospects than the children brought through the system in the UK. I just wondered. Haitians who can, and who have opportunity to, often leave for the Dominican Republic , the USA and most recently Canada, but the prospect of an educated population remaining to live and work in their own country could transform the nation economically, socially and culturally beyond all recognition. That is the hope and that is the main driver behind the project.

IMG_9815

Postcards from Haiti 8

IMG_9980Dàvid.

Today* I met Dàvid. (I can’t show his picture). The others have been speaking of him and I got my first chance to speak with and hear his story. We chatted as we made our way back to the centre of town. He lost both his arms in a horrific accident. He was working with high voltage cables and received a severe shock which set his arms on fire. At the hospital without knowing or with out been asked, the surgeon removed both arms at the elbow. That was two or three years ago now, but he still feels pain. He says “My arms are dancing” which might be what we describe as pins and needles. He was particular distressed that his favourite uncle had died the previous day in Port O Prince. He just heard. Dàvid. speaks four languages English, Spanish, French and Creole and is clearly very intelligent but won’t be able to work. No one is likely to offer him a job as he would be considered cursed. People have told him, with his obvious disability, he should beg on the street and make some money that way, but he refuses. “I will not beg” he says, “I trust in God and I know that he will supply my every need” 

When I practice my creole and ask how he is ” Kooman ou yè” he replies “M’ bien avek Jesus”

*9/10/2017

Postcards from Haiti 7

IMG_9780The Church

The church meets in a rented building outside the courthouse. Like everything else it is built of concrete and tin and has a bombed-out look with vent holes, which, for all the world, could have been made by shells. It is filled with wooden benches, a dais at the front with fabric drapes, a lectern and a band section with drums and massive speakers. At the rear is a small room with a toilet and here a homeless family live. From the outside it looks grim, all misshapen concrete with holes as windows and two ill fitting metal doors opening out wards onto sand. At the top is an attempt at a church like pediment unfinished. These are all things you notice at first, but strangely with every visit it becomes familiar even homely and invested with a sense of peace and blessing. It is open every day and people come to pray or sit or lay out on the benches while prayer and praise services happen in the middle of the day.

The service begins at 8am but we get there at half past and mingle with the crowd outside. The pastor leads us in, through the narrow aisle between swaying sweaty bodies up to the front . The band is in full swing and the congregation with raised arms are dancing in praise. The noise is incredible, as the silence is remarkable when the bible is being read and the sermon preached punctuated only by a chorus of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” . Various elders take turns to lead in praise and we are welcomed. Richard brings greetings from the church in Scotland.

Later he preaches with the Pastor translating, but before that, the proposal for the new school and church building is presented and discussed. This was particularly useful as we now have a much clearer picture of what the people want and need and not so much what we or the architect, think they should have. Despite my initial misgivings (my design was effectively binned) I am heartened, as it represented an act of genuine consultation. The service continues, with the sermon, more praise and prayer and closes with the blessing. A Sunday school starts followed by a second service and, six hours later, we make our way back to the hotel in the ferocious heat. It was hard to take in. There were 400-500 at each service and 300plus at the Sunday school. The congregation is exploding. There were 6 new communicants admitted that day. The irrepressible joy expressed in worship seems contagious and we need time to think.

Postcards from Haiti 6

Mornings

IMG_9838Morning is the best time. With no street lamps, when light does starts to come through the windows, you know that dawn is on its way and it moves quickly. There is a stillness in the air broken only by the birds singing as they scavenge in the undergrowth, the sound of water being poured from a bucket,the rumble of a motorbike, cockerels in competition and a dog barking in the distance. From the balcony we see across the yard, the cluttered houses beyond, framed with luscious palms and giant Stingingtoes, the mountains in the distance, before a perfect cloudless sky. We know it will be hot soon, unbearably so, but for the moment this a time to enjoy. We can be thankful for this special moment when we can be refreshed with a delicious breakfast of banana, papaya, egg and some fine coffee and sit around the table in the bar to talk about the day ahead, share experiences, discuss and plan, fired by laughter and soaked in prayer.

Postcards from Haiti 5

The Big Question

IMG_9839This is a great team. Richard, Ross and Vic were the trailblazers making contact with Pastor Rolex Poisson and his church following the devastating earthquake in 2010. They simply asked if they could help and under the banner of Mission International visited, offered practical help and over the past seven years established a bond with teams, visiting, sometimes three times in the one year. The whole issue of helping poor communities in the world (Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere) is a vexed one. The tales of situations where aid makes matters worse are countless: teams coming to plaster and paint schools when there are good local artisans who could use the work, water pumps installed to villages that break down and the village women resort to carrying water for miles, the white man’s money buying some feel good merit being parachuted in and airlifted out and the crippling effect of aid like American rice which kills off the nation’s own rice growers who cannot compete with the low cost of the imported grain. These stories alone would make you reluctant to help at all, but that is not an option for the guys on this team. There is a sacrificial commitment that is humbling. They come at some cost to themselves and their families. The clear principle is simply one of enabling and encouraging the local church in its ministry within this benighted community. I think that is the right way. The work that is done will be by Haitians it will be the resource that they identify and they will own it.

Paul and myself who joined previous teams together with Dave make up the remainder of the team. In the long spells when nothing much is happening we sit and share our experiences and wrestle with the big questions laced with raw Irish, Yorkshire and Glasgow humour. These were special times. We were often expressing diverse cultural and political views, sharing differing theological standpoints, arguing about conspiracy theories, nationalism and Margaret Thatcher, yet all with a sense that when it came to what really mattered we were one. In a very short time I felt a wonderful bond was being fostered

A recurring theme of our discussions focused on our shared dismay at the sustained attack on the family in our society back home and the destruction of this singular foundational block of our society. It’s not new of course but we felt that the destruction was progressive and accelerating. There seemed to be an increasing sense that the civilisation known as Western Christianity will follow the other empires that preceded it and simply collapse in a spectacular manner. The possibility that somehow it will morph into a liberal world of justice, peace and equality, adrift from its Greco/Roman/Judeo/ Christian foundational base, seemed to me belonging to a fantasy of wishful thinking. It was against this back cloth of gloom that what we saw in Haiti sparkled with hope. When Richard declared to the 400 plus at the early church service. “You may think that you are poor, but you are rich” the congregation responded with a loud and assured “Amen” you could see it their faces brimming with confidence “Yes we are rich”. Europe may well be descending into a new dark age but there are places in the world where there is hope of a new dawn ripe with opportunities grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.