Review
Community
Culture
3 min read

One life's relevance to today

One Life is a historic story retold for today audience, highlighting the response of individuals, families and leaders. Krish Kandiah ponders what it can teach us about sanctuary.

Krish Kandiah is a social entrepreneur building partnerships across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He is the founder of The Sanctuary Foundation.

An old man wearing a suit and tie sits in a TV audience as people stand around him.
Anthony Hopkins plays Nicholas Winton.
BBC Film.

There’s an elderly man with thick-rimmed glasses sitting in the studio audience of a popular 1980s television programme. The camera lingers on him as the presenter on the stage, in her signature blue dress, opens up a scrapbook detailing a hitherto unknown mission at the beginning of the second world war that rescued 639 Jewish children from the Nazi genocide. 

The man in the audience was the force behind this rescue mission, and the camera is focussed on him because there’s about to be one of the best television moments in history. Unbeknown to him, he is sitting next to a lady whose life he once saved. As Esther Rantzen reveals the connection, a look of shock, wonder and amazement crosses his face.  

The story that was kept secret for nearly a lifetime was broken in front of a live television audience of millions. I’ve watched the recording a hundred times; it never fails to make me tear up. I’ve spoken to people who were on the production team of that show who say that this programme was the highlight of their careers. It was a truly brilliant piece of television. 

40 years later and I am sat in the Royal Festival Hall next to another elderly gentleman. We have just watched Anthony Hopkin’s incredible performance as Nicholas Winton, that man in the studio, in the new movie One Life. The director of the movie, James Hawes, makes his way to the front and asks if there is anyone in the audience who is alive today because of Nicholas Winton. The elderly gentleman beside me stands along with hundreds of others. Some of those standing were on the Kindertransport in 1939. Others were their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  

It was an immense privilege to spend some time with these survivors. Many had their original identity photographs with them. It was an emotional evening as I heard stories from those who remembered boarding the trains in Czechoslovakia in 1939 and saying goodbye to their parents for the last time. 

Many of the Kindertransport descendants had met Nicholas Winton personally before he died and were astounded by Hopkin’s ability to capture his likeness and his story.  

I never met him myself, but as I watched One Life, I felt like I was in the room with him. The audience meets him as a young man discovering the terrible situation for Jews in Europe and deciding to take action. We journey through the many obstacles to the rescue mission.  At first nobody would take in the Jewish children because of the misconception that migrants would overwhelm local services at a difficult time for the country. Yet through savvy use of media, great administration and pure unrelenting persistence, Winton and his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) were able to get a system running that meant hundreds of temporary foster parents not only came forward but paid for the privilege of helping to save the lives of these children.  

As many of the children lost their families to the horrors of the gas chambers and could not be reunited with their families, a large number were adopted by their foster carers and grew up in the UK. Some went on to greatness, others lived quiet lives of service. The 91-year-old man who sat next to me at the premiere had dedicated his life to the church and also to making sure the next generation didn’t forget either the horrors of the holocaust, or the hospitality of ordinary people. 

One Life is a deeply inspirational film. As I reflected afterwards, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the situation in the world I live in now with terrible wars that are in full swing. I wondered what Nicholas Winton would do for the children being slaughtered today. What would a modern equivalent of the Kindertransport look like? Who could step forward to inspire our nation once again to offer sanctuary, protection and hope to our world’s most vulnerable children? 

  

https://youtu.be/8u1UAc7GKek 

Watch

Kirsh Kandiah reports from the One Life premiere.

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.