Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The other day I found myself thinking of the 1963 film ` The Great Escape.’

I saw it as a schoolboy. I also remember a book – it was a compilation of articles from Readers Digest – procured by my cousin’s family, which narrated the real story that inspired the movie. The film was hugely popular. For me, the bulk of its appeal revolved around Captain Virgil Hilts, the character played by Steve McQueen. I was too young to understand the gravity of war and the value of freedom. To my schoolboy brain, the act of tunneling one’s way to freedom from a Nazi prison camp resembled a cat and mouse game; an exciting one. It was another dimension added to the war comics and adventure novels that boys of that age indulged in. I loved the footage of Steve McQueen trying to escape on a motorcycle.

As I aged, the list of war movies I saw grew and my perspective became more critical. Both The Great Escape and films made so attributing a brand of smart bravery to the main protagonists, lost some of their old sheen. I began suspecting an element of playing to the box office in the film, which despite the holes critical gaze pokes in it, ranks even today among my all-time favorites.  Impressions from childhood are difficult to alter!

The Great Escape slipped into my imagination recently, in an unexpected way.

Cambridge dictionary describes the usage “ having a ball’’ so: to enjoy yourself very much. According to the website, “ having a ball’’ has its origin in the British culture of throwing balls (dances) in the 1900s. “ They would throw one to get to know each other in the society, show off their wealth or merely to have some fun in the times where entertainment as such, was not given priority in daily lives,’’ the website explained. If that be true, then in my opinion, that is a rather late association of the word `ball’ with fun. According to Wikipedia, the first authoritative knowledge of the earliest ballroom dances was recorded in the 16th century. On the other hand, by virtue of the fact that it moves, rolls, flies through the air and represents tremendous possibilities, the idea of ball as used in games, is older. From animals to human beings, everybody has fun with a ball. Its irresistible. Ideally, “ having a ball’’ should have originated from that simple, easily accessed fun; not some stylized dance. But then ` ideally’ is well just that and etymology is not always rooted in the ideal.

As the lockdown due to COVID-19 graduated from novelty to routine with commensurate alteration to the human experience alongside, I realized that I didn’t have a ball in the house. Given life in apartment complex, a tennis ball would have been apt. Bouncing it off the ground or a wall, while likely nuisance to the neighbors, has a calming influence. Not to mention – it improves eye muscle coordination and is, fun. Somewhere deep in the brain, a neuron fired and Steve McQueen’s Captain Virgil Hilts floated up in the imagination. Frequently dispatched to solitary confinement, Hilts – in the movie – was called “ The Cooler King’’ (cells holding just one prisoner were called coolers).  He would go in with baseball glove and ball, sit on the floor and pass his time bouncing the ball off the cooler’s wall. That’s how the movie signs off too. After most of those who escaped are killed or returned to camp, Hilts is locked up once again in the cooler. The guard, who is walking off after putting the prisoner in his cell, pauses to listen to the sound of ball hitting the wall.

This film poster was downloaded from the Internet. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Released in June 1963, The Great Escape became one of the biggest hits of the year. It won Steve McQueen the silver prize for best actor at the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival. Over time the movie – it was directed by John Sturges – acquired the reputation of being a classic.

In May 2006, The Guardian published an obituary for Squadron Leader Eric Foster. It noted how on the night of March 24, 1944, roughly 76 years in the past from our times lost to lockdown, Stalag Luft III near Sagan (north of Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland) became venue of the biggest British led Prisoner of War (PoW) breakout during the Second World War. Three tunnels were dug – Tom, Dick and Harry – with Harry (the longest tunnel) accounting for 76 escapees. Three made it home, the rest were captured. Of them, 50 were killed. The story became well-known after the publication in 1951 of Paul Brickhill’s book: The Great Escape. The movie was partly based on the book. Eric Forster served as adviser to the filmmakers; he had been PoW at Stalag III but was not part of the famous escape. However the obituary mentioned at least three other attempts to escape from various PoW camps after Foster’s plane was shot down in June 1940 and he was taken prisoner. There were instances of solitary confinement. According to the obituary, he eventually faked madness and was repatriated home in 1944.

The Great Escape’s Captain Virgil Hilts is a fictional character.

Foster’s experience served as background material for the character.

Squadron Leader Eric Foster died on March 26, 2006, aged 102.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

One talent that is a blessing in times of lockdown is the ability to play music.

Ahead of COVID-19, the world was a very busy place. Not having time for anything other than work was perceived as sign of person’s success or potential for success. As lockdown took hold, many of us were thrust into the unfamiliar territory of having time, not knowing what to do with it and even if you did repeating some routine or the other, not knowing how to manage the monotony. Being creative – like being able to compose music – can be a gift for such challenging times. It keeps you engaged.

In early April, Mumbai-based rock climber Franco Linhares, shared a video of him essaying bouldering moves using the furniture at his house. Given their appetite for climbing moves and tendency to infuse daily view of world with hunt for such possibility, climbers have been known to ascend the outside of buildings (it is called buildering) and attempt complicated moves on chairs and tables. It is a way of challenging oneself and having some fun. Franco, 69, titled his simple video devoid of any background score: Lockdown Blues.

The name begged music for not only is the blues an engaging genre of music but the present times of people restricted to their homes for weeks to prevent infection is a study in pathos. It is perfect substratum for the blues. Decades ago, the genre was born from the suffering of people working the plantations and railroads of the US. Few styles in western music pour forth human emotion and feelings, likes the blues does. No matter how politically correct you wish to be about lockdown, there is no denying the human experience as you sit cooped up in your house, weathering the hours and days while a virus stalks the spaces beyond, you once roamed. Why not sing about it?

Late that evening, Franco sent across one more video. This time, it was Ernest Flanagan singing Lockdown Blues, lyrics credited to Prabhakar Mundkur. A subsequent search on the Internet yielded further perspective. Lockdown Blues appeared to be a generic series inspired by pandemic with plenty of versions and no genuinely convincing beginning to the trend (to borrow virus jargon: it may have an index case but I couldn’t trace it). The versions available ranged from raw, bare and personal in the tradition of the blues, like Prabhakar’s (uploaded on YouTube April 5, 2020) and Ernest’s (uploaded on YouTube April 10, 2020) to humorous, reflective and musical-like as Dominic Frisby’s (premiered March 31, 2020) to upbeat, sounding like a band and close to studio quality as the version performed by Shannon Rains (uploaded on YouTube, April 3, 2020). Plus the search yielded a Wikipedia page for a song called “ Lockdown Blues’’ by Danish band Iceage but it released on April 2, 2020, by when thousands of people had already endured lockdown for weeks in various parts of the world, some of them likely singing about it too. In fact, on April 9, 2020 Tamil rapper Arivu posted a feisty number titled “ Vanakkam Virus,” his take on the lockdown and its impact on the economically disadvantaged. By mid-April major names in the music industry overseas, were also getting into the act of connecting with world under lockdown. There was the One World: Together at Home Concert organized in collaboration with Lady Gaga that saw many artistes take part. There was also news from Pink Floyd that starting April 17, the band will stream its full length archival concerts for free, every Friday.

A longstanding pianist and jazz musician in Mumbai, Ernest is known to pen poems and lyrics on a frequent basis. He likes it when lines rhyme. On the internet you come across videos posted by friends, of them singing his songs. Associated in the past with well-known names in the Indian jazz scene, Ernest’s last job was with the financial institution IL&FS. Until it sank into troubled times, with corresponding retrenchment of employees, Ernest had been pianist playing every evening at the lobby of the institution’s headquarters in Mumbai. “ It was a dream job,’’ he said. He lost it in December 2018. A year and three months later, India was in lockdown to combat COVID-19. Ernest was no stranger to the blues. On YouTube, you will find a delightful little blues number he wrote and sang called ` Kickback Blues,’ posted October 2019 on the Jazz Goa account. Naturally, he channeled the lockdown experience. “ I wrote my version of Lockdown Blues and sent it to some of my friends hoping they would sing it. For some reason, nobody took it up,’’ Ernest said when contacted in mid-April. In the meantime, ad industry veteran Prabhakar Mundkur wrote his version of Lockdown Blues and posted a video. It was a brief take (about a minute and a half); it was also rather bare in terms of arrangement. Ernest then sang his version of Prabhakar’s song.

He introduced two differences. Being adept at keyboards he was able to infuse the song with that impression of band playing along.  He also added some lines to the lyrics. Ernest’s version is longer and its lyrics have a circular structure with the whole song running like a conversation with a nurse; a cry for help. Someone who likes to do things well, Ernest said he was not happy with the audio quality. He wished he had access to a studio (Kickback Blues, which has superior audio quality, was recorded in a studio). “ For Lockdown Blues I had to sing with one hand on the keyboards and the other pressing the recording icon on the mobile phone screen,’’ he said, adding, “ there’s only so much you can do from home.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Thanks to Franco Linhares for sparking off this rendezvous with the Lockdown Blues.)