Friday 21 December 2007

What is a good man like?

What is a good man like?

It is not really fashionable to speak of this today. Men, particularly white European men, are, in today's supposedly "anti-sexist", "anti-discriminatory" world, so often disregarded and too often considered to be the suitable butt of rather unpleasant Feminist jokes and insults. That this is, in itself, "sexist" and "discriminatory" is either not realised or just ignored.

Of course, women are interested in men but not always the good men. They are all too often more interested in the fashion icon, the pop star, the actor or the popular hero. In so wasting their time, they often miss the good man, the one who would make them the best sort of husband and so they end up with someone rather less good for a husband. In far too many cases, divorce follows.

They may then, all too often, blame the entire male sex and jump to the false conclusion that there are, in fact, no good men.

The media - especially the advertising media - all too frequently mocks the good man, the loyal and faithful husband and the gentle, loving father. He is too often presented as pedestrian or foolish or "uncool" (that most fatuous of descriptions!).

So, what is the good man like?

Well, we have the model of our Lord and the saints, particularly St Joseph, the Prince of Juda who humbly worked as a tradesman and carpenter. These are our best models, of course, but sometimes they can seem too remote.

Perhaps it is good to look around us, among our friends and family, for good people. If we look we shall see them.

But good men are often overlooked and not seen. Why is that? Well, perhaps it is because they are less obtrusive and do not press themselves upon others so much and so are not so readily seen. They are often not the centre of attention because they dislike that. They are not part of the glittering, glamorous, worldly beau monde. They are not the pop star or actor of the moment, nor the popularist politician who features in all the papers or the multi-millionaire who is feted by the media.

Personally, for men, I think a particularly fine example is that portrayed in the film Dr Zhivago by Sir Ralph Richardson - himself, in real life, an excellent Catholic gentleman, by the way, and a traditional Catholic at that.

He plays the wonderful character of Zhivago's father-in-law, Alexandr Alexandrovich Gromeko.

He is, in the film, a composite character combining two characters from the book but I particularly like the way he is portrayed in the film by Sir Ralph. It was an inspired choice by David Lean. Sir Ralph, in real life the quintessential English Catholic gentleman, is the perfect choice for this character.

He is a constant presence but never obtrusive. He is father to Tonya, Zhivago's wife.

Both book and film concentrate upon the famous poet, Yury Andreyevich Zhivago, and his affair with Larissa Feodorovna Antipova, a central figure, Lara, played by Julie Christie, as they are both caught up in the drama and terror of the Russian Revolution.

But whilst we have some sympathy with both these central characters we cannot, of course, approve their affair. We think of poor Tonya and little Sasha and his unborn sister. We might even think of her loving father, Alexandr Alexandrovich, except that he does not obtrude upon us. Why? Because he is the model of a good man and a good father. He provides the safe and reliable background upon which his wife, family, son-in-law and grand-children can depend.

Sir Ralph Richardson as Alexandr Alexandrovich Gromekin in the David Lean film of Dr Zhivago

His first care is his wife and family. He is a devout Christian, is patriotic and is patient and long-suffering. He is a loving and indulgent father and a safe and reliable husband. He has impeccable manners and is kind to all. In Gromeko's case, he is also a gentleman and something of a scholar.

When the film begins we see him burying little Yury's mother, his wife's good friend, and taking little Yury into the family as if he was his own son. He follows the coffin of his wife's good friend, praying with the priests, removes his hat and crosses himself as the prayers are said and does his best to comfort the women and children. He is on good terms with the priest and is known and respected by his neighbours.

He is well-to-do, has a big house in Moscow and an estate beyond the Urals.

Zhivago watches as Tonya lights a candle on the tree at a Christmas party before the Revolution but, unknown to all, Lara (left) is preparing to shoot the exploitative Viktor Komorovsky who has abused her

When the revolution comes, his world is turned upside down. Zhivago goes to the front as an Army doctor, and Alexandr Alexandrovich, his wife and daughter and grand-child are forced to occupy a small part of his house which is seized by the Bolshevik government, and they have to take orders from a pair of brazen liars and thugs who are the Political Commissars that now occupy the best parts of his house.

The Bolshevik Army on the march in Moscow

They live in great poverty, scrimping for food, lacking fuel to heat even their small part of the house. His beloved wife grows ill and dies and he is left alone with his daughter and grand-child. He bears his grave misfortunes with Christian fortitude.

When the war ends, Zhivago comes home. He is feted by his family and his wife cooks up the best of their carefully preserved rations for him. Ever solicitous for the comfort of others, Alexandr Alexandrovich asks "How was it?". "Excellent!" says Yury. "Say something to her, won't you?" says his father-in-law, ever anxious that his daughter's special efforts for her husband will be noticed and thanked by him.

The gentlemanly Alexandr Alexandrovich (right) is ever-solicitous for the welfare of his family

When they are able, they escape from Moscow to the Gromeko estate near Yuryatin beyond the Urals, miles away, so that they can hide from the Communists who are determined to slaughter Christian gentlefolk like them.

Gromeko and his family, having been used to comfort and wealth, are penniless and in mortal danger. They must queue and sleep on the platform at Moscow station and then take a filthy cattle truck full of starving peasants, brutalised prisoners, sick and even mad people, on the long, long journey to get to Yuryatin.

At Varykino, their estate has been impounded by the local Soviet and they must make do with a ruined cottage to house themselves.

A touching scene is enacted at Yuryatin station when they arrive. The new station master is the Gromekos' old servant, Petya. Upon seeing Gromeko he cries "Is it really you, Alexandr Alexandrovich?", who replies in fatherly tones, "Yes, it's me, Petya" and Petya runs to kiss his hand in the old way calling him "your Honour". "Now, now, Petya", he says, "That's all done with, you know" seeking to forestall any possible problems that might arise from the old pre-revolutionary and very Christian relationship of master and servant.

But the old retainer will not have it, so fondly does he remember his old master and so favourably does he compare the old Christian gentleman with the foul, new, Bolshevik masters who are burning, murdering and ripping up the whole country. He quickly takes up his former role as a servant of the family and drives them in the horse and carriage to Varykino and settles them into the cottage. It is almost like those old, happy times before the Revolution!

One day, Petya brings some supplies from Yuryatin but his master sees that his mind is saddened. "What is it, Petya?" he kindly asks and Petya gives him a newpaper he has managed to find.

The Tsar has been murdered, together with all his family.

Tsar Nicholas II and his family who were mercilessly murdered by the Boshevik Communists

"Oh, that's a savage deed!" groans the old man putting his hand to his eyes and then cries out in compassion "Oh, what's it for? What's it for?".

The old master and the old servant, both deeply Christian, share the same sadness for the destruction of the old world, the savage murder of innocents and the horror of the new world that has engulfed them all. They are both good, compassionate, Christian men.

Throughout, the family is penniless and scratch and scrimp just to live but the old man continues to do his best to dress as a gentleman ought, though everything he possesses is threadbare and worn and almost falling apart - his old grey Homburg hat, his tattered Inverness cape, his threadbare suit.

Yet through all the horror and penury, he even manages to keep his sense of humour and, when they are still in Moscow, he tells Yury, jokingly and with mock triumph, to watch as he smokes the last half of the last cigar in all of Moscow.

This good old man also greatly loves his daughter who is also a wonderfully good person.

Zhivago, too, loves his wife but, in the chaos of the times, he sees, again, Larissa Feodorovna Antipova in Yuryatin and falls in love with her. He later tries to break off from her, especially as Tonya is pregnant with their second child, but on his way home, lost in thought and heart-break, he is captured by Red partisans and forced to become their Army doctor.

Varykino beyond the Urals, in mid-winter

Tonya and her father have no idea what has happened to Yury. Disaster has struck. After this, in the film, we do not see them again.

We learn later that they went to Yuryatin in search of Zhivago and were led to the house of Lara Antipova after which they understand that part of the story, doubtless to their intense sadness. But the good Tonya leaves a touching letter for her husband hoping that he might one day be able to re-join them if he is still alive.

Later still, we learn that they returned to Moscow but that they were later exiled by the government as being hated bourgeois in touch with "White" or monarchist emigres. They are sent into exile and go to Paris, happy merely to have escaped being shot.

We also learn that they have been in touch with expatriate Russian monarchists with the aim of enlisting their aid to try to help get Yury out of Russia.

But it comes to nothing and they never see Yury again - as happened to so many Russian emigre families.

What sadness must have engulfed those unhappy families, so brutalised and buffeted by those evil times!

We can readily imagine how the old man will have done his best to comfort his beloved daughter and to help and protect his grand-children since he is now the nearest male relative able so to do.

Cheated of all his wealth and estates, ill-used by the Bolsheviks, deprived of his wife and then, later, his son-in-law, exiled with his daughter and grand-children to a foreign city and forced to make ends meet as best he can, this gallant old gentleman does his best to rise to the occasion, retaining his honour, his dignity, his faith and even his sense of humour, putting always before himself his daughter and grand-children whom he loves with all the love that a good man can muster.

This, I suggest, is an accurate portrait of what a truly good man is like.

God grant us all the grace to conduct and bear ourselves in the same way!


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