Carla's Song Ken Loach
Glasgow 1987. George drives the 72 to Drumchapel. Single, still living at home, he has a discipline record to maintain. A bad one. His piss taking of inspectors and use of his vehicle for recreational purposes get him the sack. One distraught passenger catches his heart off balance. Carla becomes an obsession at the expense of an existing steady relationship. His fascination with her sorrowful and near fatal distraction provides the mystery to be resolved by subsequent events.
George asserts his dedication by paying for two tickets to Nicaragua. As Carla is virtually mute, what little he knows about that country comes from his kid sister. She relates the difficulty her Catholic schoolteacher has had during `modern studies'. Apparently the Americans have branded the Sandinista leadership as Communist insurgents, yet they include a couple of priests!
Carla comes alive once back on home soil. She is suddenly smiling, vibrant, purposeful. The focus of her painful loss is now revealed as singer and fighter Antonio. Is he dead, or if not, where is he? Comrades and family are sought out.
Ducking and diving a series of murderous Contra attacks, hilarious gatherings and lovers' soul searching, Carla finally reaches her goal Antonio. Her song is finally sung.
Robert Carlyle revels in his lead role. His command of the Glasgow Transport Routemaster enhances George's credibility. Cheeky, chivalrous yet unpossessive, he is rash but tender, pushy but selfless, foolish and caring, in ways which could be misinterpreted as predatory but seem motivated by genuine affection.
Oyanka Cabezas, who plays Carla, is a dancer with some non-English film experience. Her dislike of grey December Scotland is palpable, her transformation under a cloudless sky remarkable. Once at home she takes control.
Writer Paul Laverty claims that everything in the Nicaraguan section of the film had been experienced or reported to him during his years working with Sandinista human rights organisations at the time. However, his and Loach's desire to revisit Nicaragua politically now, through the eyes of an innocent, has not really worked. The film's strength is that it avoids the sentimentality of a fairytale ending for either character. Yet it lacks punch as an exposition of US dirty deeds in Central America.
There seem to be two reasons for this.
The first lies in something which is normally Loach's trump card his unrivalled ability to get convincing characterisation with the minimum professional cast.
His semi-improvisational method of keeping script and plot details from the performers to the last possible minute, and filming scenes in the same order that they will be edited, has produced many vivid first time reactions. Here again there is plenty of wicked humour and totally believable emotion from the Glasgow public, George's family and workmates, Nicaraguan peasants, Carla's family and her companeros almost all non-actors.
But the flaw in Carla's Song is Scott Glenn as Bradley. Both the actor and the role seem to collapse under the demands of the directorial style. He really only has two scenes, yet is crucial to both the plot and the politics.
In his first meeting with Carla and George he completely overacts, and overreacts to George. In the second scene the emotional force of Bradley telling George where Carla has fled and what has happened to Antonio, swamps the political force of his disclosures about CIA support for the Contras and their part in Antonio's fate. George rushes off to find his lost love before any further imperialist beans are spilled. It would have been both late and inconsistent with his character for him to have pestered Bradley for a fuller explanation.
So George the audience's representative in the narrative is denied a fuller analysis of why all the killing is happening.
The second underlying problem is the script design. Ian Hart's Liverpool lad in Land and Freedom has a degree of political commitment at the start which develops during his experiences of Spain. Though baffled and battered, he hangs on to see it through. In Carla's Song the character played by Robert Carlyle is apolitical and naive, unable to cope with much besides his emotional entanglement. It thus becomes more of a romance with a war setting rather than a historical drama.
It would be churlish to expect Loach not to seek a change of mood after the bleak and bitter tales of Raining Stones, Ladybird, Ladybird and Land and Freedom. There is a generosity of spirit and simple internationalism in Carla's Song, which will boost the director's growing reputation.
Crash Dir: David Cronenberg
It's unfortunate for director David Cronenberg that Crash, his film adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1970s novel, had its first UK screening in 1996. Caught in the pre-election collision between two major political parties bereft of any meaningful policies during a climate of moral hysteria, the movie has effectively been pronounced dead on arrival by the media pack.
Attacks came from some unexpected fronts as well as the usual suspects. Alexander Walker, film critic of the Evening Standard and a lifelong opponent of censorship, condemned Crash for being `beyond depravity'.
The Daily Mail's critic, Chris Tookey, called for the outright banning of Crash plus an unprecedented boycott of the parent company. Yet Time Out's Geoff Andrew remembers that only two years ago Tookey, as chairman of the Film Critics Circle, framed a letter to the Home Office and British Board of Film Classification complaining about increased censorship and tabloid hysteria.
So just what is it that the public are being protected from?
In Crash a disparate group of deadened 30 somethings discover, once sex fails them, that they can reclaim a semblance of their lost life force through the trauma of car crashes. They exist at various stages between human and machine, their external injuries visible manifestations of interior damage. The film's imagery crash test dummies, disembodied shots of hands, crotches, a blonde wig representing Jayne Mansfield's decapitated head shot in sickly metal tones and set to a discordant electric guitar, feeds the theme of disintegrated humanity.
Accident victim Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) in her leather and chrome body-brace is already half woman, half machine. Vaughan (Elias Koteas), messiah to the undead and choreographer of celebrity crash reconstructions, is the hub around which his coterie revolve. Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) survives the crash that killed her husband to find sex and death fused in the other driver, James Ballard (James Spader). James and Catherine Ballard (Deborah Unger) have an open marriage but a hollow relationship and the film's slight narrative is driven by the couple's search for the experience that will restore Catherine's soul. Their pitiable realisation at the end is that her goal can only be achieved through death.
There's an eerie absence of violence. As Cronenberg points out, there's more violence to be seen in a mainstream blockbuster like Braveheart.
As for the supposedly explosive sexual content, it's disturbing precisely because it is so unerotic. The long, repetitive scenes of passionless sex in which no one is really communicating with anyone else depict sex as having become a banal, deathly thing to these characters, not the revivifying experience we hope sex to be.
This function is filled by the car crash which, according to Vaughan's philosophy, `is a fertilising rather than a destructive eventa liberation of sexual energy that mediates the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form.' Anyone who finds this pretentious rather than a threat to civilisation (if only!) might be surprised to know that Westminster council leader John Bull recommended that this speech be one of three scenes cut in exchange for a BBFC certificate; the other two being `sex with a disabled woman' (the beautiful Rosanna Arquette), and the final scene where James has sex with `a woman who is in a state'. Could he possibly mean the tender love scene between James and his wife, Catherine, who has just survived her first crash unscathed and is facing up to the pain of life and her wish for death?
Crash is a story about human experience whittled down to the basic urges of sex and death by what Cronenberg identifies as `technology', but what a socialist analysis would recognise as the alienating effect of capitalism. Cronenberg sees human survival as no longer being the survival of the fittest but as depending on technology.
Many artists describe brilliantly the effects of alienation but fail to make deeper connections and reveal relations. Hence Ballard's opinion that there is `a conspiracy of carsas if they're gathering'. This opposition of technology and humankind can be found in many films such as Terminator and Duel. Although effective in terms of story, it keeps technology divorced from the human hands that control it, as if the filmmakers sense something is wrong but ultimately cop out of staring their real demons in the face.
However, Crash is an intelligent film about a deepening malaise. The hysteria it has provoked tells us a lot more about the self styled moral minority than the film itself and provides a valuable insight into the bankruptcy of British power politics.
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg Dir: Jacques Demy
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, originally filmed in 1964, has been reissued in a richly restored colour print. A musical in which every word is sung, it was a landmark in the development of the French `New Wave'.
It is Cherbourg, a small French naval town, 1957. A young woman, Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), whose widowed mother owns a chic but debt ridden umbrella shop, meets and falls in love with Guy, a young garage mechanic (Nino Castelnuevo). Guy has been brought up by his Aunt Elise who is now chronically ill and being looked after by another young woman, Madeleine. Genevieve's mother disapproves of her daughter's attachment to a mere mechanic. She tries to marry her off to Roland Cassard, a wealthy diamond merchant who has helped her stave off a financial crisis with a loan.
However, Guy has been drafted and is about to be sent to fight in Algeria. He and Genevieve make love and she becomes pregnant. To begin with she is distraught at Guy's departure and at the infrequency of his letters. She fears he has forgotten her. She feels isolated and falls increasingly under her mother's influence. This becomes most persuasive when Cassard proposes marriage and offers to bring up the child as his own.
Two years later, Guy returns from Algeria with a war wound (the reason for his infrequent letters) and is shocked to discover that Genevieve has married Cassard and moved to Paris. His aunt dies and he marries Madeleine. He buys a petrol station with the money left to him.
Michel Legrand's musical score owes much to both jazz and the Hollywood musical, though at times its insistence on putting every bit of dialogue to music gives it a flat, monotonous quality. There are strong performances, not least from the two main protagonists.
One of the film's strengths is the complexity of Genevieve's motivation. On the one hand, she is in fear of being disgraced as a single mother in a small provincial town. After all, it is not yet the 1960s. On the other, she is seduced by the promise of wealth and social position.
The film's vibrantly coloured sets are designed to convey the ways in which the changing moods of the narrative are reflected in the four seasons. The film opens to the delicate pastel colours of spring and summer, suggesting the romantic optimism of youth. It moves on to a rainy, autumnal orange and brown, expressing perhaps the suppression of teenage aspirations to sexual and personal freedom by a materialistic adult world.
In the final scene, there are no bright colours. The sky is black and snow is falling over Guy's petrol station. It is Christmas Eve, three years later. The former lovers meet again. A Mercedes drives into Guy's petrol station to fill up. The driver is Genevieve. In the car with her is their child. Guy invites her into the office and she offers to introduce him to their daughter. But he refuses and she leaves after a brief, formal exchange.
The film is a passionate and tragic tale of innocent young love corrupted by provincial, petty bourgeois morality. Demy's sharp social observation shows an awareness of the distorting impact of class on people's lives. At the end, Guy has become the middle class owner of a small garage and Genevieve has joined the Parisian upper class. They have moved up on the social ladder but the gap between them remains the same.
Elsinore by Robert Lepage
On seeing Elsinore you realise why the Edinburgh Festival shows had to be cancelled last autumn due to technical problems. Robert Lepage (of Jesus of Montreal fame) and the Ex Machina company have created a piece of theatrical wizardry which would be nothing without its astonishing stage technology.
Virtually a one man representation of Hamlet, this production is remarkable not so much for what it does with the play as for the way in which it does it. In many ways Elsinore does with Hamlet what Peter Greenaway's film Prospero's Books does with another Shakespeare play, The Tempest. Whereas Greenaway's sumptuous, enchanted movie is primarily a reflection on the powers of the magician Prospero, Lepage's incredible transforming stage reflects the dynamism of Hamlet, and the emotional conflict going on within its central character. From the biggest things (the three huge moving walls which are the core of the set) to the smallest (the magnetised props which allow the table they lie on to move through 360 degrees), the stage magic of Elsinore allows, it seems, Lepage to do, and to be, virtually anything. This is the main source of the work's fascination. However, while the form it takes overrides the content of Shakespeare's text, Elsinore is not separated from the meanings of the original play. Lepage, in his breathtaking stage environment, is almost a metaphor for the whole play, and certainly for Hamlet himself. He is transformed by his circumstances, his position is full of paradoxes and uncertainties and ultimately and more emphatically for Lepage, playing every character, than for Hamlet he is both killer and killed.
In truth Lepage's acting ability is a little overstretched by the demands he makes of himself here, but this never prevents you from being totally mesmerised. The flawless combination of the mechanised set (which really has to be seen to be believed), astonishing projected images and superb original music (which combines the modern with the baroque) make, in themselves, for an absolutely unique piece of theatre.
It is sometimes said that contemporary theatre has become too safe, that there is far more innovation to be found in modern cinema and it has been suggested by one critic that Lepage might as well have made a film of Elsinore. This, however, misses the point the imagery of this work would not have half the power on the screen that it has on stage. Live theatre has an immediacy which the cinema simply cannot recreate, and when it works, as it does here, it is wonderful to experience.
Of course, the use of technology is only one form of innovating within the theatre, but Elsinore shows that, just as the cinema can do brilliant things with stage plays, so the theatre can successfully use some of the magical techniques of cinema.
If all great art is revolutionary in an aesthetic and not necessarily a political sense then it must be about artists' absolute freedom to radically develop the form in which they work, to surprise and shock their audience in a way which makes them look at the world in a new way. Robert Lepage and Ex Machina have chosen the theatrical possibilities opened up by new technology as the basis for their innovation and, in creating a revolving set, have given us a revolutionary piece of new theatre.
Elsinore is at the Royal National Theatre, London, 4-11 January
Revolution: 500 years of struggle for change Mark Almond De Agostinin Editors £19.99
The dictionary definition of revolution is `complete change, turning upside down, great reversal of conditions'. Mark Almond's book describes revolution as convulsive and terrifying, yet utterly fascinating. You would think that a lecturer from Oxford and a Daily Mail journalist would write a terrible book about revolution but you'd be wrong! In 200 pages Mark Almond captures some of the spirit of revolutions from the past five centuries that have changed the course of history and shaped the modern world. He uses eyewitness accounts, reportage photography and contemporary paintings to capture the spirit of revolution.
Revolutions, he argues, are too controversial. The issues they raise are too close to the bone to allow a consensus. He claims this is the reason why there is so little coherent discussion of them today. The book opens up with an analysis of what makes revolutions, which Almond describes as the most fascinating moments in history. Far from them being infrequent events, they have been a constant feature of the last 500 years.
Although as a Marxist I would differ with many of Almond's conclusions, the richness of revolution, its effervescence and Almond's own penetrating analysis help you gain an understanding of uprisings from the Netherlands revolutions of 1566 to the collapse of Eastern Europe in 1989 and the end of apartheid in 1994.
Almond also discusses the causes of revolutions. He argues that revolutions occur because of a combination of all or some of the following general crisis, oppression, defeat in war, foreign rule and new ideas.
He also examines the role of revolutionary leadership. Here he quotes Trotsky on the need for a revolutionary organisation which drives the movement as a piston drives a train. He points out that part of the process of revolution is an intellectual demolition job on the ruling class. For example, the religious revolutionaries in the Netherlands, as part of the iconoclastic furies, literally smashed the icons of the then ruling class (the Spanish cathedrals), while also arguing against the divine right of kings. In Marx's words, `Luther donned the mask of apostle Paul to smite down feudal absolutism.'
But above all it is his examination of the stages of revolution that makes the book most interesting. He discusses the weakness of the ruling class, quoting Plato: `Revolutions in any form of government start from the outbreak of internal dissension in the ruling class.' but furthermore, revolutions are not just a change at the top. As the Romanian saying goes, `A change of rulers is the joy of fools.' Revolutions are a root and branch change, not a coup.
The book has great scope and many strengths. Almond demonstrates the crucial role of strong revolutionary leadership and says, `Indecision in revolution is a recipe for political failure.' He gives the feel of the masses on the streets becoming fearless as their numbers swell. He notes the crucial role of women in all revolutions, and the tendency of revolutions `to try and export themselves'.
Aside from all this, the maps, pictures and diagrams alone would make the book worth having. Pictures from Goya to the Russian futurist El Lissitzky and the photomontage of the 1930s are carefully reproduced.
However, there are three main criticisms of this book. Firstly, as with most historians, he is great at discussing the events of long ago, but the nearer he gets to the present day, the worse the book becomes. He can understand bourgeois revolutions, but there is nothing materialist about his approach. He doesn't understand the transition from feudalism to capitalism although he describes it beautifully, he doesn't explain it properly. Therefore my second criticism is that he doesn't understand the role of the working class and its relationship to a revolutionary party. He sees the whole of history as the actions of individuals.
Almond should read the beginning of his book as it actually sounds without the prejudice of his class! So his description of the Russian revolution is a travesty of history. He acknowledges it as a genuine revolution, grasps the crucial period of dual power, but argues that Lenin simply took advantage of a chaotic situation. For him Lenin quite simply led to Stalin. Thirdly, he confuses the scale and the importance of the 1917-22 revolutions with the nationalist revolutions of the 1960s and the fall of apartheid, so that all these events become mixed up as if there was nothing distinctive about each one.
But these criticisms aside, this is a book well worth reading.
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov Harvill £6.99
Bulgakov finished this, his last novel, in 1938. However. it was not allowed to be published in the USSR for another 25 years. In 1928 it had been decreed that all literature must serve the interests of the Communist Party. A harsh censorship was imposed, tightened in 1932 by the formation of the Soviet Writers' Union, a direct organ of Stalin's power, of which membership was necessary in order for a writer to be published. Then came the adoption of 'Socialist Realism' and ever more crippling decrees on literature.
Bulgakov asked Stalin in 1930 (the year the poet Mayakovsky committed suicide) for permission to emigrate in order to be free to write. His request was denied and no more of his novels were published. The Master and Margarita is about the experience of a writer under such censorship. it is very different from Bulgakov's other famous novel, The White Guard, which is rather dry and was only censored in part. By contrast The Master and Margarita is readable and at times very funny.
There are three strands to the plot. The first concerns the arrival of the devil in Moscow. Chaos spreads throughout the city as Satan deals shortly with obstructive Communist Party bureaucrats and gives a 'Black Magic Show' in the main theatre, at which he causes a near riot by giving away millions of roubles. As the bizarre happenings continue,
Moscow's psychiatric hospitals fill up with people who have been driven mad by Satan. in one of the hospitals is the Master, a long term patient. A talented writer, he had written a novel about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who washed his hands over the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The book had been banned and the Master was denounced in the press as a ' religious propagandist'. He became depressed, burned the manuscript, left his lover, Margarita, and committed himself to psychiatric hospital.
The two strands come together as the Master and Margarita are reunited by the devil, and woven through bath is the third strand, the story of Pontius Pilate, told in flashback.
Bulgakov's characters are superb. The Master is clearly based on his own experience of the censorship laws, but it is not only he who suffers as a writer. Even those who have bowed down to the regime are unhappy. Take the young poet who announces in despair, 'I don't believe a word of what I've written', or the Master's shrewd observation that his critics 'were not saying what they really wanted to say and this was the cause of their fury.'
Satan is an anarchic, liberating figure who devastates people only if they deserve it. There is the corrupt chairman of a tenants' association who takes a bribe in roubles, only for them to change into dollars and for him to be arrested for dealing in foreign currency-or the self important party apparatchik at the theatre who demands that Satan reveals the secret of his magic, only to find that his illicit liaison with a dancing girl is revealed to the audience (including his wife). This is where the allegorical side of the novel comes in: Satan clearly represents 'freedom'.
The story of Pontius Pilate is also allegorical. Pilate is in much the same position as the editors and critics who condemned the Master's work. Although having sympathy for the lunatic Jesus, Pilate does his duty. 'You intended to overthrow the temple building and incited the people to do so?' he asks. This echoes the USSR's legal code (under which millions of people were imprisoned or executed), part of which condemned 'propaganda or agitation containing an appeal for the overthrow, subversion or weakening of the Soviet power'. When Jesus dares criticise the Emperor Tiberius, representing Stalin, Pilate exclaims, 'There never has been, nor yet shall be a greater or more perfect government in the world than the rule of Tiberius', which mirrors the hollow Stalinist slogan, 'The most democratic government in the world.'
This is a very well written novel, rightly acknowledged as Bulgakov's masterpiece. On one hand an engaging, madcap fantasy, on the other it is a deep, many layered political allegory amounting to a bitter comment on censorship and Stalin's regime.
The Harlem Cycle Volume 1: A Rage In Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill The Harlem Cycle Volume 2: The Big Gold Dream, All Shot Up. The Heat's On Chester Himes Payback Press £7.99
Chester Himes was one of a generation of blacks who fled the racism and indifference of
American society in the 1950s. He joined a loose community of black artists, musicians and writers in relatively liberal Paris, already having made his reputation with protest novels like If He Hollers Let Him Go. But even in Paris he found it difficult to find publishers for his uncompromising exposures of American racism.
It was at the suggestion of a French publisher that he wrote his first detective novel, A Rage in Harlem (recently made into a film). This led to a total of nine novels, all based in Harlem and all featuring his two black police detectives, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. These two volumes include the first six of these Harlem Cycle' novels (a third volume is due out some time this year).
Himes wrote crazy high speed thrillers in the hard boiled style of Hammett or Chandler. The plots all take place within the confines of Harlem and often the intensity of the action is heightened by the fact that it spans only a few days. The books have a slapstick, almost comic book feel to them. What set Himes apart from the thriller writers who came before was the openly political nature of his writing.
His two main characters look at the violence, the prostitution and the degradation of the black people in Harlem and see behind it the racism of the system. Ed and Jones are trapped between the racism of the police force and the lives of the black community they try to defend. Himes uses his heroes as mouthpieces to comment on the racism. He has them forever talking back at senior officers and even beating other cops who call them nigger.
Himes is a little too scathingly cynical about the illusions that blacks live with: their religions, the back to Africa movement, and their get rich quick schemes. His strength is that he never portrays blacks as victims, but as absurd individuals laughing, loving, fighting their way through poverty.
One could criticise these novels in that they give no sense of the huge black working class in Harlem or that black policemen are the least likely champions against racism. But Himes never made any pretence that these novels represented a rounded analysis of black life. They should be taken for what they are: some of the greatest thrillers ever written with an uncompromising anger against racism thrown in as a bonus.
The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity Martin Gilbert Weidenfeld and Nicolson £20
There is tragedy hidden even in its deceptively simple title, The Boys, Martin Gilbert's important new book about Holocaust survivors. A few boys survived because they were useful to the Nazis as slave labourers. Girls were .useless' so they joined their sisters, mothers and fathers in death by shooting, clubbing or gassing. And the boys were so young, nine, ten, 11, 12, and 13 years old when, in the words of one of them, the slaughter 'abruptly put an end to laughter, childhood and play'. Mostly they would also die. But for those who did not, Holocaust survival obliterated their boyhood. Hence the poignancy of the description 'boys', one which these survivors keep to this day.
Hundreds of 'boys' tell their own stories in this book including their most famous spokesman, the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, from the prewar years mainly in Poland, but also Czechoslovakia and Hungary, through the Holocaust and their liberation at the end of the war, to the present day. They are all associated with a group of survivors who came to Britain in 1945 and who have kept in close touch with each other through their own organisation, the 45 Aid Society.
Labour camps were really no different from concentration camps. Eleven year old Arek Hersh laid railway lines and sleepers for the Nazis in Poland. The beatings were regular and many slave labourers died from them. One guard used to kill prisoners by hacking them to death with a spade. Others died from exhaustion and malnutrition. 'Surplus' workers were gassed to death in converted lorries. This was at a labour camp called Otoczno. A worker who begged the Nazis for a potato was hanged in public. Twice the rope snapped and twice he begged for his life. He died the third time and Arek helped bury him. Of 900 Jews who were sent to this slave camp, only 11 survived. Arek Hersh's memories provide the only evidence for what happened there.
There are inevitably so many descriptions like this in the book that the reader is numbed. Perhaps the most moving parts are the attempts by the survivors to make sense of their experience. For many it's taken as long as 50 years before they can begin to articulate it. Here is an entry from the diary of Perec Zylberberg, August 1993. 'The very premise on which our culture rested became unhinged. It was a battle of the deepest solitude. We must have a minute amount of hidden spirit of life within us. At that moment when sanity itself was at stake we slowly began lifting ourselves out of that deadly stupor.'
Perec is the brother of Ester Bronstein, well known to readers of this magazine as the remarkable woman who has spoken on Anti Nazi League platforms in the last few years. Ester is one of the tiny number of girl survivors who also feature in The Boys.
One of the moving spirits behind the 45 Aid Society is Ben Helfgott. Physically tough, as all the 'boys' must have been, he devoted much time in Britain to athletics and went on to represent Britain as a weight lifter at the Olympic Games.
Two years ago the Polish government awarded him an order of chivalry for his part in seeking the recognition of the Polish contribution to helping Jews. This is an issue which deeply divides the 'boys'. And Ben Helfgott's position on this troubled matter is especially amazing when you consider that he was nearly murdered by Polish anti- Semites when he went back to Poland immediately after the war. He describes the incident in detail in the book and he says it filled him with greater dread and horror than anything which occurred under the Nazis.
Here then is a truly outstanding survivor, but do not imagine he or any of the others can ever free themselves from their trauma. Here is Ben talking to Martin Gilbert last year, 'I can't get over it. It hurts more and more. My mother and little sister being taken away to be shot... I feel like screaming Why? Why? Why?'
The Hungarian Revolution Of 1956 Ed: György Litvan Longman £12.99
You still meet otherwise good socialists who are still worried by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. They regard it as
suspect, if not as outright counter- revolution. Yet anyone who sees film footage of the revolution-for instance, in the recent BBC programme Cry Hungary-is witness to scenes reminiscent of 1789, of 1848, of 1917 and of Barcelona in 1936.
This is the first history of the revolution to be produced in Hungary itself, using testimony of those involved in the rising and the official archives of those who put it down. It does not add much new to anyone who had read the accounts that came out in 1957-58 (on which the chapter in my own book Class Struggles in Eastern Europe was based) or Bill Lomax's history that was produced in the late 1970s.
It does, however, confirm their essential accuracy-and not only on the course of the revolutionary events. More importantly, it endorses the essentially working class character of the revolution. The street fighters, it proves, were mainly young workers'three quarters of the people sentenced to death for their participation in the rising were young workers around 20 years of age'- while the various workers' and popular councils were rooted in the large factories. By contrast. the peasantry played only a supportive role and the remnants of the old aristocracy none at all.
It also shows how little the American state department or the CIA were concerned about, let alone involved in, the rising. 'The pact of Yalta', it concludes, 'was really written in 1956 when the Western powers indicated by their (in)action and their explicit diplomatic messages that Moscow's tutelary position of the "people's democracies" enjoyed international approval,.
The revolutionary forces did not want to establish Western style capitalism in Hungary, still less revert to a society run by the prewar large landowners.
'The group that contributed the greatest number of those sentenced [to jail] consisted of the members of the workers' councils and revolutionary committees. Most were workers or farmers... From this group came the organisational talent that rose overnight to become the local leadership ... of the revolution. Equal to the demands of the extraordinary situation they were able to act within the direct democratic control obtaining in their sphere... Most members of this group stood for socialist principles, their political views having been formed in the early postwar period in the workers' parties.'
The intellectuals who fought and suffered alongside the workers were likewise from the left, not the right. Among those found 'guilty' for allegedly preparing the rising were historic figures from the left like the Communist writer Tibor Dery and the former collaborator of Bertolt Brecht, Julius Hay. The book tells how 'most people nursed a solution, the so called "third road", that promised to bypass both of the existing counterposed systems in favour of the building of a just society'. And the editors have no motive for exaggerating here, since they themselves regard that aim as 'utopian' and ignoring the importance of 'a more or less free market'.
Hungary 1956 is a central part of our tradition. Those who spurn it are handing over to the other side something which even their historians cannot honestly claim.
Longitude Dava Sobell Fourth Estate £12
By the 18th century Britain had become the most powerful naval nation in the world. It grew to control large regions of the globe. London, Bristol and Liverpool were to become great ports and the centre of Britain's development as a capitalist state.
With the growth of trade, sailing ships went out to conquer, explore, wage war and ferry raw materials. Nearly three quarters of British state expenditure was for military purposes. It was in conflict with other powers and needed to protect the trading lanes of the sea.
To do that, and expand its influence, sailing vessels needed to know where they were, where they were going and where to find other land. The latitude lines, the equator, the tropics and the Arctic were fixed by the laws of nature. However, you needed to be able to plot your longitude.
This book sets out to explain the struggle to solve the greatest scientific problem of its time. It is a wonderful book, written in an easy way. Many people may be put off by the subject it covers, but it reads as a novel and is one of the most enjoyable scientific books I have read. It condenses some key scientific developments
with the great names of science, Galileo and Newton. It brings out the conflict between the admirals and the astronomers with the ,mechanics', to establish the precise measurement of longitude. The idea that a clock, 'a little ticking thing in a box', could be that measurement was denounced as 'preposterous'.
John Harrison, a brilliant clockmaker who was born in 1693, self educated from a humble background in Yorkshire, stood out against the scientific establishment. For most of his life Harrison struggled to develop a 'friction free clock' which would need no cleaning or lubricant, with materials impervious to rust, and, importantly, would keep its balance while being tossed about in high seas.
That struggle led to his greatest masterpieces which can still be seen working today. After a 40 year battle that included political intrigue and harsh setbacks, John Harrison's work was finally recognised. The British parliament, under pressure from the rising and powerful shipping interests of London, passed the Longitude Act in 1714, naming £20,000 as the prize for a reliable measurement of longitude.
It is one thing to be the most important emerging seafaring nation-Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world while Navigation Acts had been passed after the English Civil War to protect trade- it is another to see your wealth sink ignominiously to the bottom of the sea.
Dava Sobell's descriptions of life at sea without a reliable guidance system are harrowing. In 1707 four warships with 2,000 sailors went down off the Isles of Scilly after they had got their position wrong-even though this had been pointed out by an ordinary seaman who had taken his own bearings and who was hanged on the spot for disagreeing with his superiors. The book also brings out the various 'crank' solutions to the problem. My favourite, whether the inventors were being scientific or satirical I don't know, was the yelp of a wounded dog to guide a ship. Read the book to find out the grim details.
Sobell gives a flavour of the revolutionary developments in different scientific fields, which expanded our knowledge and are still important today. If there is a criticism, it is that the book does not deal with the development of capitalism. The measurement of zero degrees longitude-Greenwich Mean Time-was a purely political choice, connected with the outcome of the English Civil War and the development of a British capitalist state.
Lift's Grandeur Stephen Jay Gould Cape £16.99
This new full length book by Stephen Jay Gould will be eagerly snapped up by those who have read his previous works. They will not be disappointed.
Gould's various collections of essays on evolution show that good science writing can be serious and informative, while popular and hugely entertaining. Life's Grandeur, writes Gould, is 'a companion volume of sorts to my earlier book Wonderful Life. Together they present an integrated and unconventional view of life's history and meaning.'
In typical Gould style, however, the first half of his new book is not about evolution, but ... baseball! There is even a helpful introduction to the rules of this US sport. What has this got to do with evolution, you may well wonder.
The connection is in the way Gould uses a debate around baseball to illustrate some general and profound points about statistics and statistical trends, whose application to the field of evolution is the theme of the second half of his book.
His central concern is to demonstrate that there is no trend towards progress or development in a definite direction in evolution. This is a well worn theme from Gould's previous books. He insists that the 'modal' or typical form of life has not changed almost since life began: it is simple bacteria.
Gould does, however, more so than in any of his previous works, recognise there is a problem for his view. This is that despite the unchanging modal form of life there has, or appears to have been, a trend towards the evolution of more complex forms of life.
So, in what I think is a break from some of his earlier polemical formulations. he writes, We rightly embrace the idea that humans are uniquely complex, and we properly insist that this fact requires some acknowledgment of a trend.'
The whole thrust of the argument in Life's Grandeur is how to square this with Gould's central argument that 'progress does not pervade or even meaningfully mark the history of life.'
The solution Gould proposes is that life is characterised by variation, but that once life exists its variation in one direction is limited by a 'wall'. Life cannot much vary from its dominant (in a modal or 'most common' sense) bacterial form towards less complex forms without ceasing to be life.
This limit, he argues, means that simply random processes of variation can lead to a highly skewed distribution of life forms. But this is simply the effect of an undirected process, limited on one side. There is no general trend, the most typical form of life remains unchanged, and there is no causation or drive towards the evolution of more complexity.
Gould certainly builds an impressive and in many areas convincing argument. But some key questions are left hanging. In his stress on the modal bacterial form of life he is in danger of forgetting that it is precisely the development of more complex life forms that is genuinely novel and interesting in evolutionary history.
He is right to stress that when looking at life it is the total picture that is important, and that any full understanding must base itself on this. But this correct point can open the danger of forgetting that parts of which this whole is made up have importance in their own .right, and not all parts are equally interesting or significant.
For Gould his view in Life's Grandeur is a buttress to his earlier arguments about the contingent nature of history (both evolutionary but also in a wider sense). Yet his own arguments here do not in fact quite square with this view.
There is a rich debate on this whole subject. Gould's latest book is a fascinating, entertaining and stimulating contribution. In the introduction Gould asks, 'Please read this book. Then let's talk and have a whale of an argument.' In that spirit he certainly succeeds. This reviewer is sympathetic to many of his points. but doubts he has achieved the solution he hopes he has.