Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Gwendoline Strong, C707/446/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: What about – was there a cinema in Oxford before you went to school, or when you were at school?

A: Yes. Yes, there was a cinema – we also had a cinema here.

Q: Did you go there?

A: Yes. Yes, but that was only on Saturday evenings. And it was sixpence. The – the fee to go in was sixpence and I remember on one occasion – the film caught fire, and we – oh it was a terrific – of course it was great fun for the children, it was a – almost a children’s cinema you see, but a few older people went, and there was one old lady went who was a cripple, and she was – she had crutches you see, under the arm crutches, and her name was Mrs Gardner, well now she could never move without these crutches but when there was a fire nobody will ever [k]now how she got out of the hall, but she got out and the crutches were left behind, which was very amusing to the children you can imagine.

Comments: Gwendoline Strong (1898-?) was the daughter of a gentleman’s outfitter, who was brought up in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Film fires were not uncommon in the early cinema period, owing to the nitrate film stock used and the poor conditions of some cinemas. It was after a number of fires in which children were killed that the 1909 Cinematograph Act was passed, requiring all cinemas to be licensed. Ms Strong was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

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A Cinema in the Harbour

Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘A Cinema in the Harbour’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 64-66 . Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 4 November 1925

Text: The cinema faces the ships. From out at sea a man who has long lived without the pleasures of terra firma can take out his binoculars and make out the large, colourful posters. The cinema goes by the modest name “Cosmos.” Today, it is showing the film called Red Wolves.

The Red Wolves are a band of robbers in the Abruzzi. They have kidnapped the beautiful Margot and hidden her in a high tower miles from anywhere. Ah, but what is miles from anywhere, how high is high? A brave young man by the name of Cesare joins the Red Wolves, but only for appearances: What he really wants is to free Margot.

You probably imagine joining a band of robbers is a simple matter? Let me tell you! It’s incredibly difficult.You need to take a battery of tests, in wrestling, in knife fighting, and in arm wrestling. This series of tests takes up most of the film. Cesare comes through them and gains the applause not only of the Red Wolves but of the audience here, who dream of being robbers in the Abruzzi.

The film about the Red Wolves is screened eight times a day, from ten in the morning until midnight. Cesare passes his tests eight times a day, and eight times the audience gets enraptured, a third of them spending the entire day in the cinema. This one-third are women and children. By day it’s cooler in the dark cinema than it is in their own cramped apartments and in the even more cramped streets. So the women go there to cool off. Children get in for nothing. Every adult visitor brings at least four children with her. She pays for one seat and occupies five.

In the evening the men, dockworkers in the harbour, come along. They eat, they wash, and they go to the cinema. They watched and cheered Cesare’s deeds yesterday and the day before yesterday. But it’s not possible to see enough of such heroism, if you are nothing more than a dockworker – with the dream in your heart of being a robber in the Abruzzi.

Even more romantic than a harbour is the robbers’ cave in the Abruzzi. The day labourer who is today a fisherman, tomorrow gets taken on as a seaman, and the day after finds himself in a distant port watching the film about the Red Wolves finds his life insufficiently romantic.

I like to imagine the robbers in the Abruzzi going to the cinema to see a film about the sea dogs of Marseilles. The robbers in the mountain envy the men of the port. The robber treats his calling as a humdrum job, and dreams of something romantic and exotic elsewhere. It is these reciprocal yearnings that make the film industry tick.

And yet the men in the harbour have roughly the same traits as the men of the mountains. The dockers stab with Corsican knives; they are passionate arm wrestlers with their friends, a stage wrestling matches with their colleagues. They are pleased to see that these same recreations are also popular in the Abruzzi. While still sitting in the cinema, they pull out their knives, and, not taking their eyes off the screen, give their neighbour a playful little stab.

The neighbour, who doesn’t stand for this sort of nonsense, challenges his friend to step up in front of the screen and make like Cesare.

So in the cinema, you don’t just see the deeds of men of the Abruzzi but also those of the men of Marseilles.

Meanwhile the pianist keeps banging out La Fille du Régiment. No wonder the viewers are getting restive. They want a different tune. The pianist gets up, walks out, and the film continues without music.

A little later I see a large, angry-looking man. He’s not putting up with the piano-player’s rudeness. One knows what it means when a very large, very broad man, with a broad red belt slung around his hips, with about one inch of forehead and with hands like iron shovels, won’t stand for the impertinence of a tiny piano player in evening dress and umbrella.

Five minutes later the pianist is wriggling in the iron grip of the irate cinemagoer, the lights go on, and everyone laughs. The giant waves to the crowd with his left hand, plunks the pianist down in front of his instrument, and decrees the tune desired by the majority.

And the film carries on. …

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. I have not been able to identify any film of this period called ‘The Red Wolves’ (or a translation of this) or which features a robber band called by that name.

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Ancient Mysteries Described

Source: William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described, Especially the English Miracle Plays, Founded on Apocryphal New Testament Story, Extant Among the Unpublished Manuscripts in the British Museum etc. (London: William Hone, 1823), pp. 230-231

Text: The English puppet-show was formerly called a motion. Shakspeare [sic] mentions the performance of Mysteries by puppets; his Autolycus frequented wakes, fairs, and bear-baitings, and ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son’ On a Twelfth night, in 1818, a man, making the usual Christmas cry, of ‘Gallantee show,’ was called in to exhibit his performances for the amusement of my young folks and their companions. Most unexpectedly, he ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son‘ by dancing his transparencies between the magnifying glass and candle of a magic lanthorn, the coloured figures greatly enlarged, were reflected on a sheet spread against the wall of a darkened room. The prodigal son was represented carousing with his companions at the Swan Inn, at Stratford; while the landlady in the bar, on every fresh call, was seen to score double. There was also Noah’s Ark, with ‘Pull Devil, Pull Baker,’ or the just judgment upon a baker who sold bread short of weight, and was carried to hell in his own basket. The reader will bear in mind, that this was not a motion in the dramatic sense of the word, but a puppet-like exhibition of a Mystery, with discrepancies of the same character as those which peculiarized the Mysteries of five centuries ago. The Gallantee-showman narrated with astonishing gravity the incidents of every fresh scene, while his companion in the room played country-dances and other tunes on the street organ, during the whole of the performance. The manager informed me that his show had been the same during many years, and, in truth, it was unvariable; for his entire property consisted of but this one set of glasses, and his magic lanthorn. I failed in an endeavour to make him comprehend that its propriety could be doubted of: it was the first time that he had heard of the possibility of objection to an entertainment which his audiences witnessed every night with uncommon and unbounded applause. Expressing a hope that I would command his company at a future time, he put his card into my hand, inscribed, ‘The Royal Gallantee Show, provided by Jos. Leverge, 7, Ely Court, Holborn Hill:’ the very spot whereon the last theatrical representation of a Mystery, the play of Christ’s Passion, is recorded to have been witnessed in England.

Comments: William Hone (1780-1842) was a British satirist, bookseller and campaigner against censorship. A Galantee show was one provided by a travelling entertainer of the first half of the nineteenth century, whose entertainments could include magic lanterns, puppets, shadows shows etc. Autolycus is a character in William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. Hone’s book Ancient Mysteries Described traces the history of the English miracle and mystery plays, and here finds traces of their survival in the magic lantern show performed for a child audience.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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Cinema Hero

Source: Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Cinema Hero’ in Picture-Show (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1920), pp. 27-28

Text:
O, this is more than fiction! It’s the truth
That somehow never happened. Pay your bob,
And walk straight in, abandoning To-day.
(To-day’s a place outside the picture-house;
Forget it, and the film will do the rest.)

There’s nothing fine in being as large as life:
The splendour starts when things begin to move
And gestures grow enormous. That’s the way
To dramatise your dreams and play the part
As you’d have done if luck had starred your face.

I’m ‘Rupert from the Mountains’! (Pass the stout)…
Yes, I’m the Broncho Boy we watched to-night,
That robbed a ranch and galloped down the creek.
(Moonlight and shattering hoofs. … O moonlight of the West!
Wind in the gum-trees, and my swerving mare
Beating her flickering shadow on the post.)
Ah, I was wild in those fierce days! You saw me
Fix that saloon? They stared into my face
And slowly put their hands up, while I stood
With dancing eyes, — romantic to the world!

Things happened afterwards … You know the story …

The sheriff’s daughter, bandaging my head;
Love at first sight; the escape; and making good
(To music by Mascagni). And at last
Peace; and the gradual beauty of my smile.
But that’s all finished now. One has to take
Life as it comes. I’ve nothing to regret.
For men like me, the only thing that counts
Is the adventure. Lord, what times I’ve had!

God and King Charles! And then my mistress’s arms. …
(To-morrow evening I’m a Cavalier.)

Well, what’s the news to-night about the Strike?

Comments: Siegfried Sassoon (1866-1967) was a British poet, renowned for his poems about the First World War which revealed much of the reality of life in the trenches. This poem comes from his 1919 collection Picture-Show, whose title poem has the famous lines “And still they come and go: and this is all I know / That from the gloom I watch an endless picture-show … And life is just the picture dancing on a screen.”

Links: Copy of Picture-Show at Hathi Trust

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D.V.

Source: Diana Vreeland (ed. George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill), D.V. (New York: Harper Collins, 2011, orig. 1984), pp. 48-50

Text: One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German movie called L’Atlantide, with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.

We sat there, the movie started … and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! I have no idea if I actually saw the movie I thought I was seeing, but I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes … they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration … And then you see the fata morgana. That means if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.

Then … a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm … and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine-looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…

And et cetera.

This goes on and on, I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand … to here … where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was simply sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who ever lived … and her cheetahs! The essence of movie-ism.

Then … the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down — and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!

“Oh,” I said, “you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s exactly what I did.”

She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed. She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt — no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and of course the great thing was to get out of the theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.

Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed … and they were off!

Ah! What a gesture! I’ve never seen anything like it. It was speed at its best, and style. Style was a great thing in those days.

Comments: Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was a fashion writer who worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, where she was editor-in-chief. Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who gained great fame in France. Her pet cheetah’s name was Chiquita. L’Atlantide (Germany/France 1932) was directed by G.W. Pabst. My thanks to Artemis Willis from bringing this unique passage to my attention.

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The Great Fight at the Aquarium

Source: ‘The Great Fight at the Aquarium’, The Era, 2 October 1897, p. 18

Text: The “sensation” at the Westminster Aquarium on Monday last was a splendid cinématographe exhibition representing the fight for $50,000 between “Bob” Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett. For some time before the commencement of the exhibition the pay-places of the Aquarium Theatre were besieged by hundreds of eager, pushing people, ready to pay their guinea or their five shillings for admission. When, at last, the audience was seated, Mr Ben Nathan gave them a few necessary and valuable pieces of information. It did not – as it turned out – prove difficult to distinguish the tall figure of Corbett from the “stocky” shape of Fitzsimmons, but it was as well to know that the plump gentleman with his coat off, who hovered near the combatants, and occasionally drew them apart, was the referee, and that a personage in a soft hat, who took it off and waved it a few moments before the conclusion of each round, did so as a signal to Corbett. The great fight, it will be remembered, was fought in fourteen rounds, and took three years in arranging, having been stopped in Florida, where a special law was passed forbidding it. The same was done in Texas. The Government of Arkansas called out the military and stopped the preparations, and the Senate of the United States Congress obtained the signature of the President to prohibit the conflict, thus stopping the contest in all the territories and neutral districts in the United States. The fight ultimately took place in Carson City, in the Nevada States, in the presence of 6,000 people, many of whom paid £10 a-head to see it, others further incurring upwards of £50 expenses a-head in travelling many hundreds of miles to witness it. The films used measured over two miles in length. Upon these were photographed upwards of 165,000 moving living pictures. Spectators with sharp eyes found on Monday that every line of the competitors’ faces was clearly traceable, and that Corbett’s awful look of despairing agony at his defeat was marvellously reproduced. After the fight was finished the beaten combatant, on his partial recovery, became frantic, broke away from his seconds, and rushed about after his conqueror, striking blindly right and left, his seconds having finally to carry him by force from the ring. This finale was truly depicted in the show at the Aquarium, which is said to have cost in obtaining and in production upwards of £5,000. The exhibition at the Aquarium supplies the spectator with much novel information. One’s imaginations of a prize-fight are completely corrected. Instead of the savage and repulsive butchery, the mighty blows, and the liberal supply of “gore” which fancy depicts, the unscientific spectator sees an agreeable display of skill and activity. The knowing ones, however, well realised on Monday the terrible force with which Fitzsimmons “countered” Corbett’s blows; and, frequently, some unusually spirited “rally” evoked a hearty round of applause. The exhibition, which lasted an hour and a half, was judiciously curtailed by the omission of some of the intervals between the rounds; and excitement was intense when Corbett, who appeared to have been already overmatched by Fitzsimmons’s strength and experience, fell to the ground after receiving the now almost historical blow on the heart, which, by “knocking him out of time,” concluded the combat. “The fight for $50,000″ is one of the biggest things ever secured by the energetic and indefatigable Mr Ritchie for his establishment. As an achievement of “animated photography” this representation of the Fitzsimmons and Corbett fight is remarkable for the elaborate manner in which the incidents of the combat are represented. First, the men are seen walking about the ring in their long overcoats. After certain preliminary delays, Corbett advances towards Fitzsimmons and offers his hand, which Fitzsimmons appears to refuse to take, or, all events, not to accept cordially. At first the non-sporting spectator will be puzzled by the frequent recurrence of embracements between the combatants; but this is explained by the necessity of parting them whenever they become locked, and the dread of each pugilist lest the other should get in a quick blow at the moment of separation. This fear is the reason of the extreme caution with which the pair come apart. As the fight proceeds there is more boxing which can be appreciated by the ordinary spectator; though, as most of the hitting is done at half-length, there are few of those sensational “slogging” blows which we read about in accounts of the old-fashioned prize-fights. Only once is Fitzsimmons’s face disfigured by his blood; and towards the close both men appear to suffer more from exhaustion than from actual punishment. Of course the scene to which we have alluded, when Corbett falls on the stage something in the attitude of the “Dying Gladiator,” and his subsequent attempts to get at his rival after the referee has declared time to be “up,” are specially sensational. A large number of the sporting fraternity were present in the Aquarium Theatre on Monday; and they showed by their remarks that they fully appreciated both the marvellous fidelity of the reproduction and the skilful tactics of the combatants. The importance attached to the fight in pugilistic circles, the discussions to which it gave rise, and the deep interest which it excited on both sides of the Atlantic fully account for the eagerness to witness the cinematographic wonder which was shown on Monday night. It supplies, in fact, all the scientific interest of a prize-fight without any of the disgusting or brutal accessories which we are accustomed to associate with such conflicts.

Comments: The first world heavyweight boxing championships was fought at Nevada, Colorado on 17 March 1897 between the American James Corbett and the Briton Bob Fitzsimmons, who won. The bout, which lasted fourteen rounds, was filmed in its entirety by the Veriscope company, using three cameras in parallel and employing 63mm-wide film. The film, which lasted over an hour and a half, was first exhibited in Britain at the Royal Aquarium, a multi-purpose entertainment venue in Westminster, London. Few people had actually seen a boxing match before 1897 (the sport existing in a semi-illegal state in Britain), and the film attracted huge attention for making visible that which had been much read about but seldom seen by most.

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Astor – Harmonie

Source: Frank Kessler, ‘Astor – Harmonie’, in Arthur Knight, Clara Pafort-Overduin, and Deb Verhoeven (eds.), ‘Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World’, Senses of Cinema, issue 68, March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/senses-of-cinema-going-brief-reports-on-going-to-the-movies-around-the-world

Text: Growing up in the town of Offenbach, Germany, just across the river Main from the much larger city of Frankfurt, my memories of going to the movies as a child and a young teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s are in fact more about the theatres than the films. Or rather, when I do remember a film, I almost always recall the cinema where I saw it, while I do have quite vivid memories of the theatres anyway, even when I only have vague recollections of the films I went to see there.

When I was first allowed to go to the movies without a grown-up by my side, mostly accompanied by a friend from school, I must have been twelve or thirteen years old. We had a preference for films with soldiers in them, ancient Greeks or Romans, but sometimes also World War II battles (Catch-22 [1970], which we saw even though we were under age, turned out to be an utterly disturbing and confusing experience). The cinema we usually attended was an already relatively run-down theatre that has now been closed for many years. It was called the Astor and situated quite conveniently in the centre of Offenbach, directly opposite the bus stop. The somewhat faded charms of the Astor, together with the program consisting mainly of action movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and comedies (Catch-22 was actually shown in the more up-market Universum), had a paradoxical effect on me: alongside the excitement and the curiosity about what the film would bring, there was also a feeling of a certain uneasiness, a tension as if I was about to do something illicit. I am sure that many others will have similar recollections of going to the movies during puberty. There was of course the occasional nudity and, more generally, a confrontation with images that made me wonder, “do I actually want to see this?” — the violence, the sensuality, the things that a child definitely was not meant to behold. And thus there was deep inside a realization that movie-going somehow was related to moving out of childhood into something else that was both attractive and repulsive, both exciting and threatening. The Astor, for me, was a curious place, one that both promised and refused a sense of belonging.

A few years later, when the Astor had probably already closed down or was about to do so, my taste in films had changed considerably. I was a student by then at the University of Frankfurt, had managed to live through fifteen months of military service, had my driver’s license and could use my parent’s car in the evening. This newly acquired independence and mobility took me regularly to a cinema that was the first art house in Frankfurt, the Harmonie. Once a neighborhood theatre, it had ended up showing X-rated movies before being taken over by a cooperative of five young cinephiles. So it was not only a place where one could watch an ambitious mix of newly released art films and classics from the repertoire, but it was also perceived as something like a political experiment, a collectively owned cinema where people associated with what was then called “the non-dogmatic left” went to see films that often told stories about unconventional lives. Among the most successful films, which had runs of several months and re-appeared regularly in the program afterwards, were Alain Tanner’s Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 (Jonas Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976), Coline Serreau’s Pourqui pas! (1977) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971 — it must already have been a re-run when I first saw it) — and, not to forget, the almost always sold-out Saturday night cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The Harmonie had (and still has) a balcony where one tried to get a seat, preferably in the first row. The Harmonie was also a door to something else, to another way of life maybe, even if that only happened on the screen. However, there was nothing threatening about that. Going to the Harmonie clearly was about “belonging” as well, but this was where one wanted to belong.

In the end, of course, the difference in my experiences of movie-going at the beginning and at the end of the 1970s was only partly due to the cinemas as such. Obviously, the Harmonie could not have existed in Offenbach in the early 1970s, but even if it had, it would have been as ambivalent a place to me as the Astor. At that point in my life, it was the age much more than the films or the theatres that determined the way I felt about going to the movies — as something both alluring and frightening, or, later, as something I wanted to be part of. So when, and where, exactly does one become a cinephile?

Comments: Frank Kessler is professor of media history at Utrecht University. His recollections of cinema-going in Germany in the 1970s were originally published in a special issue of the online film journal Senses of Cinema. I am grateful for his permission to reproduce the piece here.

Links: Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World

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Travels through Arabia and other countries in the East

Source: Carsten Niebuhr (trans. Robert Heron), Travels through Arabia and other countries in the East (Edinburgh, R. Morison and Son, 1792), pp. 144-145, abridged version of Reisebeschreibung von Arabien und anderen umliegenden Ländernorig pub. 1772/1774)

Text: The magic lanthorn is a favourite amusement in the East, I was not, however, fond of such entertainments; as their scope was always to turn the dress and manners of the Europeans into ridicule.

Comments: Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) was a Danish cartographer and explorer who took part in the Danish Arabia expedition of 1761-67, visiting Egypt (in 1762), Arabia and Syria. The above comes from an account of public shows seen in Cairo, which included plays, puppet shows, jugglers and performing monkeys (dressed as Europeans).

Links: German original
English translation at Hathi Trust

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Reminiscences of an Early Motion-Picture Operator

Source: Francis Doublier, ‘Reminiscences of an Early Motion-Picture Operator’ in Marhsall Deutelbaum (ed.), ‘Image’ on the Art and Evolution of Film (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), p. 23 (text of 1949 lecture originally reproduced in Image magazine, vol. 5 issue 6, 1956)

Text: The Dreyfus affair was still a source of great interest in those days, and out of it I worked up a little film-story which made me quite a bit of money. Piecing together a shot of some soldiers, one of a battleship, one of the Palais de Justice, and one of a tall gray-haired man, I called it L’affaire Dreyfus. People actually believed that this was a filming of the famous case, but one time after a showing a little old man came backstage and inquired of me whether it was an authentic filming of the case. I assured him that it was. The little old man then pointed out that the case had taken place in 1894, just one year before cameras were available. I then confessed my deception, and told him I had shown the pictures because business had been poor and we needed the money. Suffice to say, I never showed L’affaire Dreyfus again.

Comments: Francis Doublier (1878-1948) was a camera operator and projectionist for the Lumière company, and toured Russia with their films 1896-1898. This incident, which took place in southern Russia, refers to exhibiting films that supposedly represented the original trial of French artillery captain and victim of anti-Semitism, Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus’s second trial took place in 1899, and was filmed in actuality (exterior shots) and dramatised on film.

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Climbing the Mango Trees

Source: Madhur Jaffrey, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India (London: Random House, 2005), pp. 94-95

Text: We liked all movies but going to Hindi movies had added benefits. These Indian films were particularly conducive to whetting and then satisfying our appetites. They generally lasted about four hours. Whole families, including infants, would come to view the mythological-historical-tragi-comical musicals. There was a great deal of yelling, crying, getting up, singing along and sitting down in the audience throughout the show. Certainly no-one minded the noisy unwrapping of paper cones containing chane gor jaram, small chickpeas that had been flattened and roasted, then flavoured with cumin, chilli powder, sour mango powder and black rock salt. We would much on the chickpeas as we watched Hanuman, the Monkey God, fly across a dark sky dotted equidistantly with hundreds of five-pointed stars, all cut from the same stencil.

During the intermission we would all go in a horde to buy potato patties, aloo-ki-tikiyas, from vendors who had carefully posted themselves outside the cinema doors. These patties were a Delhi speciality and their unique flavour depended partly on the way they were cooked and partly on the spices in the stuffing. They were not deep-fried or shallow-fried but pan-roasted instead.

Each vendor carried a brazier on which he had set up a large cast-iron griddle (tava). Patties that were ready to sell sat waiting on the outer fringes, staying warm until needed. Those that were still cooking were in the centre, sizzling away in a few tablespoons of oil that pooled in the middle. in one pot were the vendor’s seasoned mash potatoes, and in another the mashed potatoes, and in another the stuffing made out of highly spiced split peas that had been cooked until dry and crumbly. To make a patty, the vendor would pinch off a ball of mashed potatoes, flatten it into a small patty, pinch off a smaller ball of the stuffing and place it in the centre. Then he would cover up the stuffing with the potato and make a ball. The ball was then flattened and slapped onto the griddle.

The squatting vendor kept turning each patty this way and that until it was reddish brown and completely crisp on both sides. By this time our mouths could almost taste the tikiyas. As soon as he got the order, the vendor would place a patty on a leaf, split it open and smother both parts with sweet and sour tamarind chutney. We would carry these hot patties back into the dark cinema house and eat them as we watched Hanuman trying to rescue Sita, the good queen, from the clutches of the demon King of Sri Lanka.

Comments: Madhur Jaffrey (born 1933 is an Indian actress and cookery writer. At the time of this extract from memoirs of her childhood spent in India, it was the mid-1940s and her family was living in Delhi.

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