Between The Lines of Shared Learning and Personal Development

A WorkLife Book/Film Club Experience of Self Directed Learning

Learn Through Reading & Doing
Learn Through Reading and Doing

Between The Lines Book/Film Club moves through the streets of Shoreditch each month for a showing of the film of the book the group had all just read, followed by their discussion of both book and film.

It had been a hot day, and the group welcomed Antoine’s suggestion of an alfresco screening in his garden. A small but beautiful garden that looks wonderful all year round, thanks to Antoine’s gardening and design skills.

As Antoine set up the screen, Lily, Ben and Emily laid out their picnic blankets with the pot luck picnic food they had each brought (made at home or picked up from the nearby Mediterranean Deli), which comprised of crudités and hummus, olives and cheeses, a selection of sandwiches, roasted tomato, basil and parmesan quiche, fig and serrano ham picnic bread, scotch eggs and sausage rolls, a summer allotment salad with English mustard, an epic summer salad, a chickpea salad and chocolate dipped strawberries. Ciara and Juan filled their glasses with the perfect accompanying rosé wine.

The book they read this month was The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell. The book was the inspiration for the motion picture Official Secrets.

Their chatter died down as the film started rolling. There was a quick burst of applause for the wonderful home garden screen Antoine had set up — the film was being projected onto a sheet held up by a clothesline of sorts, followed by an attentive silence, which was only broken to welcome sighs of relief, every time a fresh breeze rolled in.

As the credits rolled, the group’s attention was brought back to the room — the garden room, that is. As Ciara and Juan refilled their glasses, Lily rather pensively said, being reminded how brave Gun was in breaking that story is humbling. What I mean is, she was a regular person, like any one of us, not a covert spy.

And so, the discussion began. Here’s a flavour of what each of them had to say:

WorkLife Book / Film Club

Emily: I think both the book and the film got across who Gun is — a regular person, as you say, who was also a frustrated citizen. I read she worked closely with the film crew, which perhaps helped Knightley portray her so truthfully.

Antoine: Yes, that life-changing moment when she drops the letter to the press in the postbox. It was perhaps a relief to have made the decision, but terrifying too, because she didn’t know what was to come.

Ciara: And what was to come was terrifying. Those people in power were willing to stop at nothing.

Ben: That she did know. Because it was the classified memo from the NSA asking her and her colleagues to dig up dirt on several United Nations delegates, with the hope the US could blackmail them, that began the stirring of her conscience and the sequence of events that followed.

Juan: I think the story told through both the book and the film captures not only what was going on behind the scenes in the governments, the intelligence agencies, and the press, but also the mood of the public, many of whom were opposed to the war.

Lily: I think the story shone the camera on our values as a society, those fighting against what they believed was the injustice of the war, fighting by taking a stance through the anti-war protests, and the media fighting to bring the truth ahead of the crucial vote to invade Iraq. Well, the part of the media that questioned the powers that be.

Emily: Exactly, and the story also shone the camera on those who were willing to look away from the truth and those who were spinning the truth through whatever means it took. It was dirty, and it got even dirtier for Gun.

Antoine: That’s what made those who were willing to take a stance stand head and shoulders above those who cowered in the background. When Gun was asked why she leaked the memo to the press, she replied: “I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.” Although she didn’t consider herself to be brave, that was extremely brave.

Ciara: Yes, and, although surprising, it also didn’t come out of nowhere which I liked. We got a sense of her strong moral backbone throughout the story. When she posted the letter. When she owned up to the leak to save her colleagues from a witch-hunt. Her behaviour was in character. What I mean is her bravery came from a good moral compasses as opposed to, for example, a noble cause.

Ben: I think that can be said for many of the characters — the Observer journalist and the team at the newspaper fighting against time to get the story out there, the human rights lawyer and his team, fighting to defend Gun when the government tried to charge her with treason and also fighting to save her husband from deportation. That sense of strong moral backbone ran throughout the story, as did the bravery of so many of the characters that were fighting to do the right thing.

Juan: And yet they couldn’t stop the war. This raises the question, are we powerless against those in charge?

Lily: Sadly, no, Gun’s whistleblowing and the collective fight weren’t enough to stop the war. But the story didn’t go away either. It’s taken time, but truth has a habit of finding a voice, which is what brought this film to our screens. There are questions to be answered as to the legality of the invasion.

Emily: Answered, yes, but too late for the hundreds of thousands of people who died and were injured in the war. The Chilcot report proved the belief of those who opposed the war to be true — the invasion happened before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. But I’ve strayed from the book and film.

Antoine: I like stories based in truth that can be picked up after the book and film end, many years after in the case of this story.

Ciara: Yes, while we knew that Gun lost her job and the case against her was dropped, we, of course, also knew her story didn’t end there. I later read her response to being asked about how she felt when the case against her had been dropped, and she replied saying, “On the one hand, I was relieved because my life wouldn’t have to be scrutinised in court. But a part of me thought: ‘Damn — we could have put the war on trial’.

Ben: I think I read the same article. When asked how she rebuilt her life, she said, “It was very difficult initially. Just trying to figure out what to do next. I was very concerned about joining any kind of organisation like Stop the War and being used as a focal point or something. I didn’t want to be that. So I tried to look for work. I took up teaching. I was teaching Mandarin in the local college in Cheltenham. I ended up, bizarrely, teaching a couple of my former colleagues at GCHQ. In the very typical British manner, we just pretended we had never met.”

Words of Wisdom

Juan: All these years later, and we’re still faced with mendacious people, companies and governments. I don’t know if it can ever be stopped, but I think this story serves as a reminder to people not to take things at face value, to ask questions, to be willing to take a stand in search of the truth and to be brave in sharing that truth to hold people to account.

Epilogue

Juan’s words were the perfect summation of the group’s shared experience of reading the book, watching the film and the ensuing discussion. Each lost in their thoughts, they lingered just a little longer, appreciative of the cool night air that had descended upon them, before journeying home through the streets of Shoreditch.

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The book featured in the story is The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell. The film featured is Official Secrets.

The story was further informed by articles from the Guardian, The Independent and The New York Times.

The Mediterranean Deli mentioned in the story was featured in my book, WorkLife Book Club Volume One Shoreditch.

This story is part of a series of stories that share insights into the characters in my book WorkLife Book Club Volume One Shoreditch. Stories that share insights that aren’t shared in the book to the main characters, the support characters and the behind the scenes characters. While the characters in the stories are not based on real people, they are representative of the people who are an integral part of Shoreditch life, the neighbourhood I live in, which is full of people with different WorkLife experiences.

Shoreditch is a special place, and I believe what makes it so is the incredible diversity of life paths that cross here, spanning the whole globe and many walks of life.

You may also like my Learning Through Reading Series: A collection of stories inspired by real WorkLife struggles and successes presented as case studies for group discussion. The case and the recommended book are the required reading for each book club meeting and help frame the subsequent discussion.

Published by Carmel O' Reilly

Carmel O’ Reilly: WorkLife Learning Practitioner & Writer Author of WorkLife Book Club, Your WorkLife Your Way and The School of WorkLife book series. Created to help you manage your WorkLife Learning. Blogger & Podcaster: Telling people’s powerful stories about WorkLife challenges & successes Founder of www.schoolofworklife.com My guiding statement is to help people pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, passion, purpose and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes that are accessible to everyone.