This is such a relevant play for socialists organising today. It spans a period from 1645 to around 1649-50, the decisive phase of the English Civil War which saw parliament victorious, the king beheaded and a republic declared under Oliver Cromwell.
The period was preceded in the 1630s by many years of famine, rising taxes, enclosure of common lands and a massive build up of discontent and hatred of the ruling order.
Eventually this discontent exploded in social revolt. Importantly for socialists this explosion was initially a grass roots one which sent shock waves throughout the rest of society. As Brian Manning's brilliant pamphlet, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution points out, 'In August 1642 the Civil War began in Essex with a large scale riot at Colchester, directed against the royalist Sir John Lucas...the crowd swarmed through Sir John's house...seizing much armour and many new pistols and carbines ready charged.'
The ideological reverberations of this action lowly commoners seizing hold of their lord's property and threatening his life is superbly reflected in Churchill's play. Her peasants and artisans argue and struggle to make sense of the times and decide what they should do. Recruiting sergeants for the New Model Army Cromwell's army of 'Saints' which rapidly defeated the king's forces cajole villagers with wit, bluff and fervour. Villagers debate openly whether to join.
The whole play is suffused with the sense of open democratic debate which permeated the times.
Its high point, not surprisingly since it was also a high point of the civil war itself, is the play's depiction of the Putney Debates the discussion at Putney in August 1647 between the army grandees of Cromwell and the army's rank and file representatives the Agitators, advised and assisted by the Levellers.
Dramatically executed, the scene builds to a climax of the Leveller Rainsborough's declaration after exhaustive argument with Cromwell that true liberty can only be achieved when there is no private property. The scene never openly takes sides between the Levellers and Cromwell's men, simply reveals the logic of the class position of each.
By the end of 1647 when the Putney Debates took place it was in the interests of Cromwell and his clique to begin to limit the gains of the revolution. The Levellers, along with their army allies, the Agitators, needed to push the democratic content of the revolution still further if they were to maintain a longer term influence on events. Sadly, they were outmanoeuvred and later defeated by Cromwell.
The second half of the play deals with the period immediately after 1649, the beheading of the king and the consolidation of Cromwell's power. The retreat from open debate and discussion is sensitively done. Army officers reluctantly but forcefully contain the Agitator movement. The Digger movement, which occupied common land and tried to cultivate it in the spirit of communism, is smashed. The play ends reflecting the collapse of the ideological turmoil into religion. The play moves from a crisis of society creating a political fightback, to reaction and the individualism and idealism of despair after the defeat of the grassroots forces. The final line of the play, 'Let god be me and wait', reflects Churchill's own dissatisfaction with this outcome.
Interestingly Churchill completed and first performed the play in 1976, two years into the last Labour government which had ridden to power on a wave of working class optimism, confidence and fightback in 1974. By 1976 Labour had begun its attacks on the very people who had given it office, demobilising, demoralising and defeating that workers' movement in the process.
As EH Carr says in What is History, 'The past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past.' We can learn important lessons from the last Labour government when Churchill was writing and we can certainly learn hugely from the English Civil War.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is touring through to March 1997
Willy Loman, a travelling salesman, has worked hard all his life, driving thousands of miles each week for 34 years selling women's clothing. In the past, he saw himself as a somebody, an important representative of the firm, a man who won respect from colleagues and buyers alike. 'I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. "Willy Loman is here!"... I go right through.'
But now he is 60 and past it. He has devoted his life to the firm but still has to borrow to meet his mortgage and insurance payments and he is haunted by a sense of failure. He can't afford to stop working but is endangering his life by continuing to drive. In the end, unable to work as he used to, he is ruthlessly humiliated by his old boss's son, who he has known since birth. Sentiment has no place in the firm's profit and loss account. Willy also relives his envy and admiration of his brother Ben who hit the big time. 'Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of 21, and he's rich.'
Willy Loman is the embodiment of the American Dream, the idea that America is the land of freedom and equal opportunity, a country which ignores social and economic background, only recognising ambition and application. Anyone, however humble their origins, can make it to the top by dint of hard work and perseverance.
But the play also traces by implication the degeneration of this ideal, from the Founding Fathers' commitment to building a new society by the sweat of their brow to the 20th century glorification of salesmanship. Clinching the deal is everything, whatever one is selling, whatever the degree of manipulation required. Selling one's personality becomes an integral part of selling the product. 'The man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.' As Willy advises his elder son Biff before an important job interview, 'Walk in with a big laugh... It's not what you say, it's how you say it...personality always wins the day.'
The play deals with the family, showing both its oppressiveness and its character as a haven. From childhood, Willie tried to instil ambition into his two sons. 'Remember, start big, and you'll end big.' He encouraged them to look
up to him as a role model, transferring his puffed up view of himself onto them. But they are a disappointment to him, particularly Biff, who, as a teenager, he pumped full of ambition but whose confidence mysteriously slumped as he was due to graduate. Biff has since bummed around wasting his life, yet Willie continues to fantasise that Biff is going to make it big. Possibly the play's single weakness is the way it attributes Biff's downfall to a single event.
Towards the end, Biff struggles to drum some sense of reality into Willy, to convey how destructive his overblown view of them and of himself has been. At the end he tells his father quietly, 'I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!...I'm not bringing home any prizes any more, and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home.'
The play with its tragic end is arguably the most powerful indictment in postwar drama of a society that only values the rich and famous, that drives its members to devote their lives to individual success, instilling a sense of worthlessness unless they achieve it.
The play is as absorbing and relevant as when it was first produced in 1949. It works so well partly because it approaches its characters both critically and with enormous sympathy. It broke new ground in its blending of past and present, its mingling of fantasy, memory and reality, an approach ideally suited to convey the stark contrast of aspiration and defeat.
David Thacker's production is impressive. And Fran Thompson's imaginative revolving set, on which are parked key items from the past such as the 1928 Chevvy, captures the play's trance-like quality, the sudden shifts of time and the way Willy's dream of success flows into the nightmare of failure. The acting is strong throughout. Alun Armstrong is a wholly believable Willy and Marjorie Yates is excellent as his devoted and long suffering wife, Linda.
When the director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? decided to stage the 35 year old play he could not have known the performance would take place at a time of much public hand wringing about the breakdown of morality. It is a happy coincidence. American playwright Edward Albee's masterpiece is a compelling antidote to politicians' hymns of praise to 'traditional' family life.
The play centres on four characters in one room on the fictional university campus of New Carthage in the early 1960s. The historian, George, is married to Martha, the daughter of the head of the university. It is late, they have come back from a faculty party, but Martha has invited the newly arrived young biologist Nick (handsome) and his wife Honey (vacuous) round for drinks.
The names are not accidental. The first president of the US, George Washington, was married to Martha. The character Nick takes his name from the 1960s Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Honey is...well, sickly. The city of Carthage was annihilated by the Romans.
Standard raw material for a cocktail party farce is transformed into an excoriating night of verbal violence.
Nick notices early on that his middle aged hosts are having some sort of domestic. But what follows is more than an embarrassing spat.
George and Martha tear chunks out of each other, and the guests, as they go beyond the witty sparring that clearly draws them together.
The story telling games George and Martha set up are aimed at pinpointing personal weaknesses and exposing innermost secrets. At times this becomes literally ritual humiliation.
George goes for Nick from act one. He accuses the younger man of raw ambition and paints him as a cold genetic engineer seeking to build some monstrous Brave New World. Nick's initial attempts to fight back are pathetic. However, any sympathy you may have with him rapidly disappears. Many of George's accusations are fantastic, but Nick does not directly deny any of them. His claim to decency evaporates when he reveals he married Honey for her father's money conned out of the Christian faithful. After Nick jokily predicts sleeping with the faculty wives to advance his career, he promptly heads upstairs with Martha in her 'game' of getting even with George.
Exposing the double standards of cosy middle class morality is central to the play. Nick thinks the relationship between George and Martha is grotesque. But his own marriage is built on a series of lies and convenient delusions.
Early on Martha lets slip that she and George have a son. They are in fact childless. The son is a private fantasy they have constructed. The illusions and rituals George and Martha create for themselves are extreme. But Albee suggests contemporary society forces us to such strategies to overcome the gap between reality and the ideal. Two of his earlier plays, The Zoo Story and American Dream, savagely laid bare the lie of the perfect 1960s family replete with consumer durables.
Actor David Suchet conveys George's world weariness and cynicism without losing the character's deep humanity. He is, however, upstaged by Diana Rigg's outstanding performance as Martha. From the opening line she dominates the stage and even at her most formidable reveals Martha's precariously protected vulnerability. You are drawn into the claustrophobia of the living room, and left utterly absorbed for two and three quarter hours which seem much shorter.
Albee shocked the respectable audiences of the early 1960s. The optimism of the Kennedy years may have gone, but this production is powerful enough to disturb. Albee hints at no solutions to the shallowness of the world he describes. But he is determined we cannot hide behind the pretences of conventional life.
'Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference?' George asks Nick.
George decides the pain of the truth is better than the analgesia of illusion. He forces himself and Martha to face the cold light of day by ending
the life of the fantasy son in the last act appropriately called 'The Exorcism'. The scene is gruelling. The rapid fire dialogue is no longer cushioned by comedy. At the end George asks, 'Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?' (who is afraid of a life without illusion?) 'I am,' replies Martha, 'I am, George.'
This is a very moving, funny film with a tale to tell. It is centred around the fortunes of the pit colliery band in the fictitious Grimely.
The backdrop to the film is the pit crisis of 1992. The miners are facing the despair of the pit closures and their communities being wrecked by the Tories.
The music is grand and brings back memories of the strength and solidarity of the big miners' galas of the 1970s. Twelve years on, the film shows the despair and legacy of the 1984-85 strike.
One of the first scenes of the band has its leader, Danny, dismissing the surrounding crisis with the statement that 'music is the only thing that matters'. For the rest of the band the outcome rests on the future of the pit.
The film revolves around a small group of miners in the band. Phil, Danny's son, is torn between his principles and the aftermath of his sacrifice during the year long miners' strike. Jailed during the strike, he owes £12,000 to debt collectors, resulting in rising tension inside his family. He wants to fight but is torn by the lure of redundancy money which he sees as relieving the pressures in his life.
The film comes close to the mark at a union meeting where miners divide sharply.
The majority still want to fight but their local leadership abdicate responsibility. Andy speaks for many who see a sell out coming and the pit review as a cosmetic exercise, but the vote is four to one to take redundancy.
The band finds out the result on their return from their semi-final victory in the nationwide brass band contest. A slogan is painted on the pit entrance: 'We fought and lost'. Here is the weakness of the film. The miners fought in 1984 and were sold out, not defeated. The leaders of the Labour Party and the trade union movement refused to deliver solidarity, keeping the miners isolated. The feeling of betrayal was still there in 1992.
When Heseltine announced that 31 pits were to go the Tories were met with a massive wave of anger leading to two enormous demonstrations. The first was supposedly a march on parliament. The TUC, with the support of the leadership of the NUM (including Arthur Scargill), made sure it marched in the opposite direction from parliament!
The Tories survived. However, the immense solidarity had its effect on the miners, overcoming the legacy of 1984. In 1992 the miners did vote nationally for strike action. This was well before demoralisation set in and miners accepted redundancy and closures. This dimension is never examined, instead the story is restricted to a few individual experiences.
The women's pit camps are shown as passive although initially they were part of acampaign with many women involved in the resistance.
The Tories and British Coal had decided well before October 1992 to try to finish off the NUM and wreak revenge for the miners' victories in the 1970s and the defeat of the Heath government. In the film the local pit manager arrogantly announces that 'coal is history' and admits the sham of the pit closure review.
The miners were betrayed. Labour MPs on the parliamentary committee accepted the need to close 15 of the 31 pits. The review lasted six months. The Labour leadership and the TUC had by then been able to stifle the movement and discipline the left leaders.
Brassed Off's main characters show the hatred towards the Tories. Danny, now dying of emphysema, makes it to the band final in the Albert Hall and shocks the audience with an outburst of political anger denouncing the Tories' destruction of his pit and his community.
The film is sentimental but saved from being overtly so by its raw touches, humour and flavour of the time. It has the audience in tears, but it also makes you angry. See it and draw the lessons the Tories and the bosses are history, but we have to fight for the socialist future.
Over the Xmas period record companies sell between 60 and 70 percent of their total annual sales. To ensure they grab as much of the market as they can, they tend to play it very safe. So Oasis will bring out a live album and Robsom and Jerome will bring out a new album that will sound just like their previous one. However, some great music will get through.
One album to look out for is Bally Sagoo's Rising from the East. For the past few years the argument about Brit pop has raged over the Beatles and retro-1960s groups like Oasis, Blur et al. However, the music press seems to ignore the real change that is occurring in British music, which is the massive growth in multi-racial bands who refuse to be pigeonholed and who borrow their musical roots from reggae, jazz, soul, funk and rap and are creating exciting new sounds. Until now, with the exception of Apache Indian, there has been no breakthrough from a band which draws its influence from traditional Asian music.
Bally Sagoo uses classical Hindi songs and introduces house, drum and bass and rap styles, making the sound more accessible. One listen to the haunting and beautiful track 'Dil Cheez' (my heart) will get you hooked. The rap remix of 'Dil Cheez' really brings out the contradiction between Asian youth looking both to their parents' history and western influences. It really marks the integration of Asian music in the pop world.
Tricky's new album, Pre-Millennium Tensions, although not as good as his first, is well worth listening to. Along similar lines Indo Aminita (from New Guinea, who now lives in Italy) is bringing her first album out after Xmas titled Greatest Dream, and the single will be the lusciously spiritual 'Love Will Be On Your Side', with mixes by The Fugees and Massive Attack.
The drive-by murder of rapper Tupac has brought home the reality of gangster rivalry. In the light of this, one of the main exponents of gangster rap, Dr Dre of NWA fame, is dropping his violent image and, in his own words, is 'concentrating on creating more mature and positive music'. His new album, which is untitled at the moment, is brilliant. Another west coast DJ who rejects the violent and sexist material of his counterparts is DJ Shadow whose new album, Endroducing, is an aural landscape that samples everything from Art Blakey to Public Enemy.
It is not just new artists who are creating new and exciting music. The soul legend Curtis Mayfield, who was responsible for such classic tracks as 'Move On Up', 'Superfly' and 'Freddie's Dead' has just released an album, despite being paralysed from the neck down after an onstage accident in 1990. On New World Order his vocals are not as powerful as they once were but he still retains his political insight, and combined with his more melancholy ballads this creates a sound that is still fresh after some 40 years in the music business.
Another old timer from the blue note era is Joe Henderson, who has just released his new album, Big Band. It is a big band recording of his greatest musical arrangements. Artists playing on the album include Chic Corea and Freddie Hubbard. It's worth buying for the recording of 'Black Narcissus' alone.
Not only is it politically exciting at the moment, but there is also some great music being made. This reflects the cultural changes that are taking place, but much of the music has a sense of history and a dynamic that is driving it to find new ways of expression. That, after all, is what creates great art.
When there's nothing on television but the queen's speech and the Xmas Generation Game it's time to catch up on some films on video that you might have missed in the cinema.
Ken Loach's Land and Freedom is now available on video. Set in the Spanish Civil War, it is an inspiring and moving account of the struggle of the Spanish people against Franco's forces. The arguments among the population of one town and members of the International Brigade about collectivising the land are one of the best examples of portraying living struggle and debate at a time when people are beginning to take control of their lives.
There's Trainspotting (Dir: Danny Boyle) which has 14 seconds of cuts to pass for video release and Braveheart (Mel Gibson); two very different views of Scotland past and present.
Seven (Dir: David Fincher) is a stylish, dark and ultimately pessimistic thriller about a serial killer who chooses his victims according to the seven deadly sins.
Get Shorty (Dir: Barry Sonnenfield) starring John Travolta is a hilarious look at Hollywood as Travolta tries to sell the story of his insurance heist as the plot for a movie.
Leaving Las Vegas (Dir: Mike Figgis) is the story of an alcoholic (played by Nicolas Cage) determined to drink himself to death. This may not be an obvious film for the Xmas season but it is worth watching for Cage's performance alone as he meets and builds up a relationship with a woman which could signal his salvation.
Ruth Rendell's novel, A Judgement in Stone, is the basis for La Cérémonie (Dir: Claude Chabrol) where class bitterness and family enmity provide the background to deceit and murder.
Finally, Heat (Dir: Michael Mann) brings together Al Pacino and Robert De Niro for the first time and caused much debate about who out-acted whom. Pacino's life and work as a cop eerily mirrors that of De Niro as a professional criminal, and they play cat and mouse games which may not keep you guessing but certainly look good with great photography.
Also out are Terry Gillam's 12 Monkeys, Spike Lee's look at drug dealing kids in a black ghetto, Clockers, and Casino with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.
Peter Hain visited South Africa as an international parliamentary observer during the 1994 elections when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Millions of blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in their lives, which signalled the formal end of apartheid. Hain brilliantly captures the mood of excitement and euphoria.
Witnessing the elections was all the more moving for him because in March 1966 he and his family were forced to flee South Africa because of their opposition to the regime.
In his new book Peter Hain has written a part autobiographical, part historical account of the fight against apartheid. He recalls how his parents got involved in the local branch of the Pretoria Liberal Party which, at the time, was organising against the extension of the Pass Laws to women. Because of their activities both his mother and father were subjected to a banning order which was intended to prevent them engaging in political activity. But like many others they continued their opposition to the regime.
Opposition to the South African authorities was at great cost. Many were killed, including friends of Hain's family. He gives a moving account of the death of their friend John Harris who was hanged for illegal ANC activity in 1965. Just two hours after the hanging Hain, a 15 year old dressed in his school uniform, gave the main address at the funeral because his father had been banned from attending. It was after this, with repression increasing and political opposition almost impossible, that the Hain family left and came to live in London.
What follows is an account not only of his own activity in the Anti Apartheid Movement, but also of how the opposition to apartheid began to take on a life of its own involving tens of thousands of people. Direct action became the favourite tactic whether it was invading the rugby pitch during a match of the touring South African Springboks, or breaking into the cricket ground and ruining the pitch to prevent the South African cricket team from playing. The apologists for apartheid were harassed and faced demonstrations wherever they went which led to the eventual isolation of South Africa from nearly all international sporting competitions for the next 25 years. This, coupled with the protests against Barclays Bank, the boycott of South African produce, and the call for sanctions, all helped increased the pressure on the South African regime.
Not surprisingly Hain had his enemies. In June 1972 the South African Bureau for State Security ('Boss') sent him a letter bomb which failed to go off. Boss also tried, but failed, to fit him up for a robbery of Barclays Bank, having an agent lookalike snatch money from the local branch at a time when he was in the area shopping. Luckily for Hain, he had visited the barber earlier in the week, so the likeness between him and the Boss agent was not so similar and one of the witnesses was able to recognise that he was innocent.
Most importantly this book pays tribute to the millions of blacks in South Africa who refused to give in, who continued to protest and who eventually forced the South African government to grant concessions, unban the ANC and release Mandela from prison, and grant blacks the right to vote in elections.
Just two years on from the elections South Africa faces a more uncertain future. The reforms that Mandela and the ANC promised have failed to materialise.
Poverty and homelessness, continue to dominate the lives of the majority of blacks. Unfortunately this book ends at the 1994 elections. This may be a watershed in the struggle for South Africa, but today answers are needed about why the ANC has failed to live up to expectations.
In his final comments Hain appeals to the international financial markets to give South Africa 'a decent chance' to overcome unemployment and he calls for 'supportive' trade and investment. But it was capitalism that denied the black population their rights for so long and which today fails to satisfy their needs. Fortunately this book shows that power exists among ordinary people to force concessions, and this is key to the battles that lie ahead.
In broad terms these two books cover the same ground the effect of being the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors. This fact dominates their growing up, Anne Karpf from birth after her parents succeeded in coming to England from post-war Poland where they had miraculously survived the death camps, Silvia Rodgers from the time her family escaped to England from Germany six months before the war when Silvia was 11.
Their families, however, were very different. Silvia's mother was an active Communist in Poland and was forced to flee, with only the clothes she was wearing, to Germany in the early 1920s. She married another Polish Jewish refugee who was a tailor, and converted him to Communism.
Silvia's life was totally dominated and shaped by her mother's political fervour her pro-Russian Communism, her atheism, her feminism, her abjuring of Jewish ethnicity and the Yiddish language till Hitler forced the issue. She was therefore always on the periphery: a Polish child in the German capital, a Communist child in the Nazi state, a Jewish child in a German school, then an atheist child in a Jewish Orthodox school, and then a refugee child in England.
Later she married Bill Rodgers, a right wing Labour MP and cabinet minister, one of the 'Gang of Four' who broke from Labour and founded the SDP in 1981. Her politics followed the people she lived with Communist till she married, then right wing Labour, then SDP.
The book charts at length her early life in Germany, through the Weimar Republic, then the tightening up after Hitler took power in 1933. She shows the growth of active and humiliating anti-Semitism as the 1930s wore on, and the very dangerous time after the Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, when gangs of Nazi hooligans smashed every Jewish building and every Jew they could.
Silvia's father escaped by pure luck: his name, Schulman, could be taken to be non-Jewish German, and the porter (a Socialist Party member) could use this to say, 'No Jews here', and thus save his life. He fled to England and got permission to have his family with him just in time.
Anne Karpf's parents were very different. Her father was a prosperous businessman living in a Polish village and her mother was a very accomplished pianist. This gift saved her life when she was asked to entertain the guests at a birthday party for Amon Goeth, the concentration camp commandant. He liked her playing. This was December 1943, at the height of the slaughter. Yet 120 of the father's family alone were killed.
The survivors of the Holocaust in general felt guilty to be alive when all their family and friends were horribly butchered, and this guilt communicated itself to their children. Anne Karpf devotes much space to the psychological difficulties of survivors' children.
Both authors pull no punches when it comes to exposing the callous disregard of the British establishment for the plight of the Holocaust victims and survivors.
Silvia Rodgers' exposure of the unwillingness of the government to allow Jewish survivors to enter Britain and their spurious excuse of too many immigrant Jews arousing anti-Semitism is taken up powerfully in Anne Karpf's book. She devotes a sizeable section to a history of anti-Semitism in Britain and official callousness to the Holocaust of which they claimed, falsely, to be ignorant.
She also shows how the official Jewish organisations led by the Jewish Board of Guardians, presided over by a small group of wealthy families, the Rothschilds, Mocattas, Montefiores didn't lift a finger to assist Jewish victims to enter Britain.
Though these two books do not deal in any way with the causes of the Holocaust or ways to prevent a repeat, that is not the brief they set themselves. They do provide a wealth of detail and insight into the effects of the Holocaust on the few survivors and their families, which is enlightening and potentially useful, particularly in view of the subsequent trail of wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Sigmund Freud has been one of the most influential thinkers of this century. Why Freud Was Wrong by Richard Webster claims to be the first book to attempt a 'comprehensive and conclusive' refutation of Freud's ideas. How successful is this attempt?
The first part of this book undoubtedly contains one of the most convincing critiques of Freudianism that I have read. It successfully challenges the scientific basis of Freud's work.
At the heart of Freudianism is the idea that biological drives, in particular the sexual drive, underlie every aspect of our mental life. Freud saw our biological drives as being in continual conflict with our actual life experience. In short, our biological side will always strive towards attaining the maximum amount of pleasure. But this brings us into conflict with our relations with other people and society as a whole. To lessen this conflict much of our biological side must be repressed, a process which takes place overwhelmingly at early childhood. The repository of all our repressed desires is what Freud called the unconscious.
This book shows how many key concepts of Freudianism were based on flawed scientific notions. One of these was the idea that repressed thoughts can manifest themselves in physical symptoms. Freud borrowed this from the work of the famous French doctor Charcot who studied hysteria, a common illness of women at the time. Yet through meticulous reappraisal of the original case studies of both Charcot's hysterics and Freud's early patients, Webster argues that the observed symptoms were more likely to be due to serious neurological conditions. This helps explain why the once common women's 'disease' of hysteria is now almost unknown.
But surely there is a lot more to Freudianism than the actual practice of psychoanalysis? What about the theory of the mind which Freud used as his framework of explanation? Webster argues that much of this too is scientifically flawed, for instance Freud's concept of the sexual stages of development. Freud believed that we pass through oral and anal stages of sexual development before we achieve a mature sexuality focused on the genitals. This notion is central to psychoanalysis and was the basis for Freud's claim that gay men are arrested in their sexual development.
Yet the concept was based on a mistaken interpretation of evolutionary theory.
Freud accepted the notion that as we develop as embryos in the womb we go though all the past stages of evolution. This idea, common in the 19th century but now known to be complete nonsense, was at least only meant to apply to the development of the foetus. Freud on the other hand extended it to the sexual development of the child.
If the critique in the first half of this book is brilliant, the second half is much less convincing. It is almost wholly taken up with the claim that Freudianism can be seen as more akin to a religion than a science and that Freud himself behaved like a messianic founder of a great faith.
The problem with this second line of argument is that it is both weak and suspect as an explanation of Freudianism's flaws. Firstly, Freud himself was a committed atheist. Secondly, great scientists can hold all sorts of confused and mystical ideas and still produce great science. Thirdly, the charge of pseudo-religion is often levelled at any science which challenges orthodoxy as Marxists will be fully aware. Finally, Webster's notion of Freudianism as a religious sect doesn't explain why it has had such resonance as a theory of the mind. Webster's critique ignores the fact that there are still some great revolutionary insights within Freudianism. In particular, Webster seems oblivious to the significance of Freud's discovery of the unconscious which was undoubtedly a great step forward for psychology.
The final problem with this book is the weakness of the alternative which Webster offers us, based on a purely neurological model of the mind. But this tells us nothing about what makes human behaviour so qualitatively different from that of animals. For all its faults, one of Freudianism's positive features was that it did recognise some of the unique and complex dynamics of the human mind. It will be the task of a Marxist psychology to incorporate the more valuable insights of Freudianism with the sort of scientific framework that Freud himself failed to provide.
Poetry, not necessarily the navel gazing darling of academia, can be the pulse of revolt as shown by these two collections. Benjamin Zephaniah's poems are best experienced 'live', but his poems in Propa Propaganda are powerful 'on the page'. The dub poet's roots sink deep into popular music; 'Terrible World' is a parody of Louis Armstrong's 'Wonderful World'. Zephaniah turns the song into a protest against capitalism, piling one disturbing image on another:
'I've seen friends put in jail For not being rich And mass graves made From a football pitch'This poem leaves us in no doubt that Armstrong and Zephaniah are truer artists than the 'dead poets on tours'. In 'Silence in our Screams' Zephaniah mobilises subversive word-play against the Criminal Justice Bill: 'We shall not be moved
Until free to wander around'. The poem contains more verbal pyrotechnics, and also political perception:
'When they should consider Miscarriages of justice, In come de criminal justice kill. Can't see no justice, Just us An dem...'In 'Death of Joy Gardner' Zephaniah tells of 'So many poets trying/ To articulate the grief'. He succeeds in doing just this, particularly in one short stark line: 'A child watched Mummy die'. Grief does not prevent Zephaniah from encapsulating the anger. He speaks with biting irony:
'Let it go down in history the word is that officially She died democratically In 13 feet of tape.'But his suggestion 'We must talk some Race Relations
With the folks from immigration' falls short unless by 'talk' he means the measures advocated in 'More Animal Writes':
'Picket, Protest, Let them be gone, Us animals should stand as one...'
Michael Rosen's The Skin of your Back is more restrained and thoughtful though also accessible and humourous. But to my ear his poems often sound like chopped-up prose, albeit with a kind of eye-music. However, in 'Typewriters' Rosen captures the staccato (didn't-didn't) rhythm of his typewriter, and wittily hymns the machine with 'its mistakeful old stuff its grils [sic] and boys'.
Rosen never fails to stir and challenge. 'Crematoriums', describing 'Old Jewish Communist funerals', ends on a note both critical and tender. Yet the poem also evokes the contradictoriness of old Communist Party diehards who 'blocked tales of murdered Bolsheviks.../ and nomenklatura privilege', but also 'stopped Moseley.../ levered the dockers out of Pentonville'. As well as a sad farewell to 'sad minds', the poem is a call to less compromised, more effective socialists today.
An enemy within more pernicious than ageing Stalinists is the Blairite careerist of 'The Ballad of Roger Ball'. Roger changes from armchair socialist armed with Althusser to hatchetman for a Labour borough. He closes schools, sacks teachers, yet 'felt insulted when he was called a Tory'. The ballad's last line adroitly sums up Roger: 'useful to the system'.
'The Job' narrates a familiar occurrence in an imaginative and entertaining way. The police use force to defend the BNP and fail to protect anti-Nazis from the thugs. Finally the police mingle with the Nazis from whom they're barely distinguishable. Disappointingly the Nazis aren't the casualties, but Rosen realistically depicts the police's 'democratic' role.
Both poets attack political subjects (and other subjects) with confidence, force and wit. If you like rhyme, rhythm and rebellion, then Zephaniah is the one for you. If you prefer poetry more cerebral but also more acute, Rosen offers this. But variety is the spice of life, and both Zephaniah and Rosen are living poets.
Leo Abse, a South Wales Labour MP for more than 30 years, an ardent Bevanite in the 1940s and 50s, CND campaigner and tireless reformer, will ruffle few feathers on the Labour front bench with this book.
The Man Behind the Smile is an attempt to explain and criticise Blairism as the personal phenomenon of Tony Blair and little else, principally because Abse sees the previous history of the Labour Party as being characterised almost exclusively by other 'great men'.
Abse opens the book with a chapter lamenting the loss of John Smith, who we see through Abse's eyes as an idealist and perfectionist whose decency alone would have guaranteed the type of Labour government which would presumably have righted the wrongs of the last 17 years.
That Blair succeeded Smith is, for Abse, less due to the fact that a modernising agenda already existed inside the Labour Party, and more attributable to Blair's personal ambition and his charisma! Abse compares these qualities in Blair to those of Gaitskell and Bevan as the only other really charismatic leading Labour MPs. The main method that Abse uses in this comparison and throughout the book is a kind of half baked, obscure, amateur Freudian psychoanalysis to explain away politics.
In this context, Bevan packed out public meetings and led the left in the party because of a personal need to be adored and to enrapture (mainly male) audiences, which stemmed from the lack of attention he received from his mother, his homoerotic tendencies, and his sexual inadequacy.
Likewise, Gaitskell stood on the right of the party and challenged Clause Four because his psychology was much more masculine than Bevan's. Gaitskell was not subject to oedipal restrictions on his sexual prowess and therefore identified more freely with the paternal authoritarianism of the Tories rather than the maternal welfarism of the Labour Party.
Little wonder then that when we come to Tony Blair, there is nothing here about the inability of Labour in opposition to deal with a prolonged capitalist crisis and promise real benefits for the millions who still support them.
In short there is no material explanation of why Labour and many workers look to Blair. Blairism, for Abse, is purely concerned with the personality and psychology of Tony Blair himself: his hangups about a promiscuous grandmother, his androgyny and repressed aggression as a result of an overbearing authoritarian father and the consequent 'maniacal evangelicalism' with which he embraces religion.
The fact that this book has been published is not entirely irrelevant. It is an anti-Blair book written from the standpoint of Old Labour. It has developed from the milieu inside Labour at the moment and the resentment at the changes that have taken place. But it is by and large devoid of political content, overemphasising the personal aspect of Blair's leadership, and missing the point about Blairism altogether.
When war broke out in 1939 the French artist Henri Matisse was 70 years old. Photographs show him to be a trim, well groomed, perhaps slightly eccentric man, still photogenic as he approaches old age.
In this novel Peter Everett contrasts Matisse's war years with that of the writer and surrealist poet Louis Aragon. In 1927 Aragon joined the Communist Party and thereafter devoted himself mainly to realistic and political fiction.
This made him a thorn in the flesh of Leon Blum's pre-war government. He was saved from prison by a petition devised by André Breton, founder of the surrealists. It was signed by, among others, Brecht, Thomas Mann, Le Corbusier and Picasso. In 1939 Aragon joined the medical corps and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for rescuing the wounded from behind enemy lines. On leaving the army he worked for the resistance.
The experiences and struggles of these two artists run like parallel threads throughout the book. They are interwoven with the wartime hardships of others from France's literary and artistic community, many of whom were mutual friends of Matisse and Aragon.
To survive at all in an occupied country under a right wing collaborationist government seems achievement enough. To produce artistic work is a near miracle.
But many of them did, and Aragon published work as an act of resistance. Matisse either could not or would not confront his feelings about the occupation. When he learns that his son Jean has joined the resistance and is hiding dynamite under his sculptures in the old studio at Issy he will not discuss it. Bonnard says of him, 'We share the same inability to deal with the world we have to live in.'
Despite this, Aragon idolises Matisse. In the novel they meet when Aragon interviews him for a book he is writing about him. As a guest in his house and because of his great admiration for the master, Aragon feels he cannot challenge him.
Eventually the war does impinge on Matisse's world in a cruel and bitter way. He is listening to Toscanini conducting Verdi's Requiem when he hears that his beloved daughter Margot has been arrested as a resistance agent. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Whereas Toscanini had spoken out early against fascism, Matisse had never come face to face with anything except nudes and still lives.
Peter Everett has written a remarkable book about exceptional people. Around these photographs, stories, paintings and events he has created an engaging novel that raises as many moral questions as it answers.
Even in a state as corrupt and rotten as Northern Ireland, the Kincora child abuse scandal and its subsequent cover up must rank among one of its most appalling episodes.
The quashing of the murder conviction of Colin Wallace last month opened up once again the whole sordid story of the lengths to which the British state is prepared to go to maintain and hide its role in Northern Ireland. Wallace was framed because of his revelations over the role of British intelligence, including around Kincora.
This book helps lift the veil that shrouds these events. Its weaknesses do not take away from its proof that a leading Unionist extremist was recruited to MI5 and was allowed to run a boys' home and sexually abuse its residents over a period of 20 years.
Kincora Working Boys' Hostel was opened by Belfast's welfare authority in 1958 .
It was intended to be a refuge for troubled and deprived teenage boys. Instead the boys in its care were the victims of sustained sexual abuse by first its warden, Joe Mains, and then by Raymond Semple and William McGrath who were later recruited to work under him.
It is William McGrath's story that is exposed in this book. McGrath was an evangelical Christian who set up religious organisations for young people in the early 1950s and preached a bizarre mix of political and religious sermons at churches and Orange Halls all over Northern Ireland. His favourite theme was the prediction of a 'doomsday' scenario when, to smash the 'menace' of Communism and the IRA, true Protestants would rise up to take power and all opposition would be annihilated. He set up a group, Tara, as the embryo of the elite who would be prepared to wage bloody war in defence of Protestant rule. His propaganda from the period shows an obsessed bigot with delusions concerning his role in the salvation of Ulstermen. Moore describes how this obviously unstable man was used by British intelligence to keep them informed of the opinions and plans of Unionists and Protestant paramilitaries. In turn he appeared to have a uncanny knowledge of the thoughts of politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea.
McGrath's usefulness to the British meant that any complaints about assaults in Kincora were swiftly blocked. The first official complaints were recorded as early as 1967, yet it took a total of six enquiries and press exposure to get the home closed in 1980. The three men involved were finally jailed in 1982.
Moore shows that when the case became public knowledge leading Unionists were desperate to distance themselves from McGrath, a man with whom they had been happy to socialise and work for nearly 30 years. Ian Paisley, known for his rabid views on homosexuality, even tried to hide the fact that he had been so close to McGrath that he had officiated, in his own church, at the marriage of two of McGrath's children.
It is excellent to see this case documented but there are a number of problems with the way Moore has presented his evidence, particularly his attitude to the police. He paints the police as skilled and trusty detectives intent on bringing wrongdoers to justice. This naive approach to the majority Protestant RUC is scarcely credible.
When describing George Caskey, the head of the crime squad who investigated the case in 1980, Moore writes, 'By 1980... he had witnessed eleven years of seemingly mindless violence which had left a scar on society and on the police officers themselves.' To dismiss the violence and social upheaval of the 1970s as 'mindless' displays either ignorance or journalistic laziness, neither of which sit well with what is supposed to be a detailed and researched exposé of precisely that period.
The final criticism might appear only one of style. When Moore refers to the abuse that the young boys at Kincora suffered he writes of 'homosexual perversions' or 'homosexual abuse', and that 'McGrath lived a secret and perverted homosexual life for years'. Thus the concept of homosexuality is rolled in with that of perversion in a way that, had the abuse been of young girls, would not have been applied to 'heterosexuality'.
Nevertheless this book gives a useful insight into some of the darkest corners of the state of Northern Ireland.
Milton was one of England's greatest poets. He was also a revolutionary, a defender of the execution of Charles I and foreign secretary to the government of Oliver Cromwell.
The monarchy was restored in England in 1660 and by then Milton was blind, increasingly poor and living in fear of royalist reprisals. Peter Ackroyd's novel creates an imaginary final chapter in Milton's life, where he makes a daring escape from persecution. He teams up with a young east Londoner who he calls Goosequill because he becomes Milton's guide and scribe. Together they join a party of Puritan pilgrims leaving for New England.
Their journey to the new world ends in a disastrous shipwreck. Only Milton and Goosequill survive and are washed up on the shores of America. The new world proves to be very different from the Eden they hoped to discover. They are menaced by wild animals, new diseases and they do not find an uninhabited wilderness. Instead they find Indians who are reluctant to accept the superiority of Milton and his religion.
The Puritans, encouraged by Milton, attempt to impose their way of life on everyone with barbaric cruelty. They have fled from persecution in England, but themselves become the persecutors. Their narrow minded, repressive community is contrasted with the tolerant, pleasurable lifestyle led by the Catholic settlers at Mary Mount, who live in harmony with the Indians. The tension between these opposing worlds inevitably deepens with dreadful consequences.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the relationship between Milton and Goosequill. Goosequill does not have Milton's learning, but he sees the truth clearly and always opposes bigotry and cruelty. In contrast, Milton's physical blindness is symbolic of his blindness towards sensual pleasure and the value of other people. Significantly, it is when he does succumb to the temptations of the flesh that his sight is temporarily restored.
Ackroyd's Milton is a brilliant portrayal of vanity and hypocrisy, but I could not help feeling that this was unfair on the real John Milton. Like many Puritans he enjoyed fine clothes, ale houses, dancing and theatres, and argued in favour of passions and pleasures.
Despite this weakness, Ackroyd builds up his story through journals, letters, stories and memories which also show the characters' inner lives and motivations. It is because of this subtly interwoven structure that we know Milton is driven by the need to subdue his own desires. The novel gives a timely insight into the dehumanising effects of repression and hypocrisy on individuals.
Barry Unsworth has set his latest novel in central Italy. The story starts with a dispute over a fallen wall between the Checchetti, a peasant family, and the Chapmans, who have a holiday home nearby. Then there is the tension between Fabio, an injured former racing driver, and his young lover, Arturo, an ex-waiter and ex rent boy, who resents his dependency on his 'rescuer'.
There are also the Greens, a retired American couple who have fallen in love with a dilapidated farmhouse which they hope to restore, but who fall into the clutches of a con man, the aptly named Blemish. Isolated by guilt or failure are two other characters, Ritter, a former German interpreter with a Nazi father who committed atrocities against the partisans, and Monti, a local history professor who muses on the treachery and bloodshed which have shaped the area.
What connects them all? The first words of the novel give us a clue: 'They are called strade vicinali, neighbourhood roads. They are not intended to join places, only to give access to scattered houses... The important thing, really, about roads like this is not where they end but the lives they touch on the way.'
It is one such road going nowhere, the one on which the wall falls, that touches the lives of the characters and brings them all into contact. The Chapmans' marriage falls apart: Harold's crude bullying nature comes to the fore and what Cecilia hopes would mend their relationship (time together in Italy) does the opposite.
The novel is full of houses which fall, including aristrocratic houses from several centuries earlier, whose fate Monti explores in relationship to his own collapsed relationship with his wife. An earthquake is the climatic moment of collapse.
But by the end of the novel the different strands of the story play into the hands of the rather mysterious lawyer figure, Mancini. We begin to detect that the present tale of conflict reflects much older patterns of history, which it seems are doomed to be repeated. The history takes us back to Hannibal who tricked the Roman army into defeat, and to an early Renaissance pope who exploited the murderous divisions of the local leading families to seize and crush Perugia.
Unsworth's novel is an attempt to view the greed and arrogance of some of the leading characters, as well as the way in which others have their humanity and compassion exploited, as part of an unresolved past which lives in the present. What starts as an intriguing set of possibilities becomes a bit banal by the end.
Unsworth is intrigued with how human beings both shape and fight against their past. After Hannibal has its moments. But the story peters out much like the road which is such a central image to the novel.
For anyone looking for a very well written and political novel to read or give as a present this Xmas I strongly recommend Peter Wood's The Price of a Cigar. Don't be put off by the strange title it is not an anti-smoking tract. It's a novel about the 1889 dock strike.
As a historical novel it is particularly well researched full of fascinating detail which made the significance of 1889 much clearer to me. It explains with dramatic clarity the important role played in this strike by socialists and fighters like Eleanor, Karl Marx's daughter, Ben Tillet and John Burns. One of the important themes of this book is to bring the historical role of characters like these to life to a new generation of socialists.
So when Eleanor Marx comes under fire because of her middle class background there is never any doubt that the reader sympathises with her and understands the depth of her commitment to the strike.
Within these historic figures, Wood creates a different narrative of authentic but fictional characters. Particularly impressive in his handling of these different kinds of character is that he resists making the historical figures dry and lifeless, yet he also resists turning his fictional characters free of the real story and political lessons of the strike. So Wood creates a memorable fictional figure in the poverty stricken orphan Emily who cannot believe her luck when she gets her first pair of shoes only for her to be killed in an accident by Norwood, one of the real life port employers.
This is more than just a historical novel. One of the important elements of the book is that it's almost a manual of how to organise an successful strike. If only London dockers had followed this example in 1989 we might not still be under a Tory government. It is a sympathetic, even generous, image of the working classes. Even the poorest of families find enough to share with the strikers.
Yet it also shows the violence and self hatred that poverty like this can produce. It is often a moving book, but it is never over-sentimental. It is a book which captures the spirit and optimism of a class fighting back. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson would hate it. What better recommendation could there be?