Nostalgic memories of Durham
JOAN: There is evidence of a huge amount of preparation and commitment to the New Zealand Latin America and Spain Film Festival. Whanganui is fortunate to be involved again this year, the 17th such event. The Davis Lecture Theatre is the ideal venue for the 11 films we are invited to attend. Entry is free and those involved in presenting the films here are friendly and knowledgeable. The films come from all parts of the area and are shown in 12 different towns in New Zealand.
The Chilean Ambassador attended and the ambassadors of the various countries contributed to a joint message which fronts a booklet giving us a resume of the films. All have subtitles and give us a varied view of life in a world far from our own.
I was fascinated by the Chilean film about the present members of the Allende family and the effect on them of the death of President Salvador Allende, his democratic election and forced suicide when he was overthrown. It offered a glimpse, too, into the lives of a family of upper-class Chileans. I was especially touched by Allende’s widow, in her 90s and very frail but who had been an amazing woman at Salvador’s side. Keyla, a totally different mooded film offered us a view of life on the small island of Providentia, an exquisitely beautiful environment where existence is harsh and the temptation of drug smuggling great. A family again, fictional, who we cared about but were left wondering where their future would lie.
Three films remained to be seen — on Thursday at 7pm, and 4pm and 7 pm on Saturday. You get the chance to view filmmaking different to our American and European styles, but entry is free, and we were offered drinks and food by the generous hosts!
MIKE: This second instalment of my paean to Durham consists largely of nostalgic memories of my student days there, probably induced by the ever-persistent, inexorably creeping forward of the years. During my final undergraduate year I studied Roman Britain as the special subject of my Classics degree, as did my best friend, a History student. There were other interesting topics from which to choose, but Roman Britain held the strongest attraction for various reasons. Durham is situated only a few miles from Hadrian’s Wall, one of the outstanding achievements of the Romans, with a large portion of the wall still visible and accessible today. Stretching from Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west, it is a magnet for hikers, historians and archaeologists. Positioned along it are the remains of several forts, housesteads being the most substantial, milecastles and turrets, all providing rich material for students. The main reason, however, for our selection of that topic, was that the Professor of Archaeology at Durham was Eric Birley, acknowledged as the greatest living expert in that field.
One of the most photographed views of Durham is from the bank of the River Wear opposite the cathedral, which stands proudly against the skyline. Below it, descending to the river, is a path, shaded by trees, leading down to the towpath. Across the river runs a weir, at the far side of which is a sturdy, imposing building, which served in earlier days as a mill, powered by the weir on the Wear. Subsequently it became the Department of Archaeology, where we listened to lectures from, and had tutorials with, Professor Birley and other members of the department. Birley was always interesting to listen to, though at times rather annoying . He would expound the accepted information on the given item, tease us along, then prove it incorrect by describing a recent inscription discovered on the wall, and offering us his novel perspective. We listened, took notes, put a line through them, and took more notes! At least in tutorials it was easier to draw him onto the right track!
My friend Terry and I enjoyed these lectures, which always began on the hour. Chatting in my room in Hatfield College, we would grab our books as the cathedral clock began to chime, race over the road and past the looming edifice, then scamper down the path to the mill. We would usually make it by the last stroke, though occasionally a 9am start found us a few seconds late. Noon lectures offered greater leeway!
Birley was an authority on the Roman army, their movements and campaigns. During World War II he served in North Africa, forecasting for British Intelligence, the likely movements of Rommel and his forces via his knowledge of what the Romans did in that harsh desert environment. Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but it was widely accepted in the old mill, as being yet another string to the bow of his amazing knowledge.
For my dedicated readers — or should that be in the singular? — the third and final instalment of this fascinating memoir will follow shortly.
MIKE: With reminiscences of World War I flooding the media just now, as the armistice of 11/11 draws near to its centenary, it was fitting that Rebecca Holden’s exhibition should open last weekend at the Milbank Gallery, adding both local and personal touches to the memory chest. Home Away from Home is the story of eight nurses from Whanganui and Wairarapa, who ran a convalescent home which they named Aotea for Kiwi soldiers wounded in the Middle East campaign. Letters and poems from these soldiers described how important it was to them to have New Zealand nurses caring for them. They termed “Aotea” a “home away from home,” since the home relied hugely on fundraising activities and donations from Whanganui, Rangitikei and Wairarapa.
Rebecca’s portraits of the nurses are mainly in acrylics, occasionally pastels, all on blue paper. Apparently Kiwi soldiers were recognisable by the blue paper in which their sandwiches and rations were wrapped, hence Rebecca’s choice. The portraits are sensitive, clearly defined, revealing the different characters of the individuals. Some items on display contain simply a number, a reference to the community sponsorship of certain beds in the home. In addition, eight nurses’ veils have scenes and portraits on them, in blue fabric paint. To me it seemed that painting on to such a delicate medium would pose more difficulty than on board or firmer canvas.
“It’s certainly unforgiving,” she said. If you make a mistake, you have to go with it.” There were no obvious mistakes! Three poems written by soldiers have been included, providing an insight into the hardships of their campaigns, but with a wry, laconic Kiwi sense of humour. The poems were written for The Aotean, an in-house magazine from 1916.
Several family members of the nurses were at the opening, adding memories and human touches to Rebecca’s story. It is extremely interesting and well worth a visit. It runs until Nov 18.
Durham Cathedral with the red roofed building in the foreground, previously a mill, subsequently the Dept of Archaeology.