Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Nocturne DVD Tony Palmer, Belsen, Britten's Dark Side and mine!

Tony Palmer  Documentary
In my blog of Glyndebourne's Ariadne auf Naxos I said that I had experienced two life changing events in my life and that Adriadne was one but there was another and I would relate it.  From the age of four this event has haunted my life. I thought that I had got over it but life has ensured that I never do, even at my age it has returned in a way that has surpassed even my imagination.

In George Orwell's novel 1984 the hero has to confront his greatest horror which for him it is being set upon by rats. Most people have such a fear and can overcome it by ignoring it or taking care that they never have to confront it. My fear is Concentration Camps.

In 1947, my grandfather Henry Thorpe who was the chief accountant at Wembley Stadium was given one of the highly sort after televisions that had just been introduced. Very few were available but my grandfather had one and at four I was an avid fan.  One night without warning on the BBC News the opening of the Belsen Concentration Camp was shown. I watched in horror as I saw for the first time those now familiar  images of the bulldozer moving the corpses into the pit in relentless back and white. The living skeleton figures the horror of the place became indelibly printed on my mind.

I was four and I knew what I was seeing. The unthinkable. I grew up at that moment. I knew that whatever I was taught there was no loving God. God would not allow such horrors. I said nothing to my parents but my childhood slipped from me that night. Although I never saw those pictures again for many years I can remember them in minute detail. They are always fresh in my mind. Today since the internet these pictures are commonplace and even I have been so conditioned that I can watch with impunity. I am not proud of this.

I felt isolated at my convent school because I was the only child who had seen them. The film was considered so horrific that it was only shown in cinemas where children were not admitted. My teachers young Irish Catholic Nuns had not seen them either so in a way I was older and more experienced than them. I could not take their belief in a loving God.

If one really wants to know and understand someone one really has to know a bit about their past. It is no good waiting until the funeral and the eulogy to find out. It is better to know while your friend is living. Many times in my life I have found out too late and prior knowledge would have made life easier to understand.

I never discussed this with anyone. As I said the images were not well known but I did discuss them on one notable occasion. I was playing Flora in The Turn o the Screw for Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh in the summer of 1961. I did not enjoy Aldeburgh as I was a girl and I went completely unnoticed as everyone wished Henry James had not bothered to add a girl to the story except Britten himself who knew just how important a young Flora is to the tale. In fact he had put The Screw back on the shelf until he found a young Flora and I was it but that is another story.

Britten had watched me grow up and he knew and liked me a lot. I was 19 very beautiful and intelligent and he invited me to swim every day in his pool and talk. Britten was writing The War Requiem. I told him of my experience with Belsen and he listened and questioned me about it, the corpses, the bulldozer. He was surprised that I had seen it and he knew I had seen it because of my answers. I said how it had effected my life, that I grew up when I was four and like the child Flora I was an old, old woman from that moment. I saw the world through different eyes from my peers. Britten only said 'I know what you mean' and then we turned to a happier subject Schubert Songs, Die Schöne Müllerin which we both loved.

Britten never told me he had been to Belsen. He sat there and listened to me and said nothing! I only found out in 1996 when I first read Humphrey Carpenter's biography and I felt annoyed. How could he? Britten had visited Belsen a few days after it had opened, obviously it was a bit better than the images but it still must have been horrific and like me it must have coloured his world so why didn't he tell me? He quizzed me about it and how I felt and said nothing.

This year 2013, the Kea biography notes that Britten would never talk about his feelings or the experience and I can vouchsafe for this. I now realise as I did not at the time  that he possibly felt guilty being confronted by the results of something that he had chosen not to fight for.

My father, a Major who had fought through North Africa to Trieste and had had to clean up the Italian version of the German concentration camps was not unsurprisingly a fan of Britten's USA sojourn.  I  found out years later after my father's death from my sort of sister that Britten had rung my father and asked if he could get to know me better as I was an employee. Britten was the perfect English gentleman. What my father said went unrecorded but one can imagine. The only thing I remember is when I was leaving for Rosehill the last thing my father said at the station was For God sake be careful or you'll end up as Mrs. Britten! I did not know where to look I was so embarrassed.

These concentration camps are a horrific reminder for me of man's inhumanity so it is a strange coincidence that images of my greatest fear, Britten and I should feature in Tony Palmer's powerful DVD Nocturne which deals in a moving way with Britten's obsession with a hatred of war. I am proud to do so.

Tony Palmer knew Britten too. You can tell just by watching the DVD. His assessment of this side of Britten's character is very astute. His documentary is not easy viewing but says more about the horrors of war in a couple of hours than years of United Nations deliberations.

Britten hated war and was not afraid to say so but I think sometimes one must fight even if one doesn't want to do so to stop tyranny. Sadly the liquidation of millions was only discovered at the end of World War II's hostilities otherwise many objectors might have thought again about their position. One should never say never but I think and I only think, this may have worried Britten when confronted in person by the results of what he had refused to fight for. It was almost too much for him to bare.

So there you have it. Those pictures I saw in 1947 at the age of four, Britten and Flora have haunted me all my life and will be my passport to posterity. What a way to go!

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