In Ayub Khan-Din's play we are brought face to face with conflicts and contradictions both class and cultural that have been the unique product of immigration to Britain in the past 50 years.
East is East is set in the early 1970s in Manchester. The play centres on the lives of six children and their parents. But, this is a family with a difference the father is Pakistani, the mother white, and the children are of mixed race.
When we meet this family it is at a moment of profound crisis. We are given warning quite early on when the father, George Khan, describes his humiliation upon finding out in his local mosque that his son has not been circumcised. His frantic pacing up and down the stage, combined with the constant radio reports of an escalation of the war between India and Pakistan, warn that there is worse to come.
His wife Ella is relatively calm in the midst of George's histrionics because she senses that there is a deeper underlying reason to his footstamping. She knows, as we do, that there is an impending conflict that is about to arise about the one subject they do not ultimately agree on their children. It is not until we meet the children that we see why this is so.
Each of the six children seems to symbolise, in different ways, the conflict of being forced to live between two worlds. Two of them have rejected Britain in completely different ways one by clinging on to his Moslem faith, the other by retreating into his parka coat that he never takes off. In contrast, two of the other children have embraced living in Britain, racism and all, to the point of calling themselves Pakis. The remaining two (which includes the one girl) seem to have opted for taking an equidistant position between assimilation and rejection.
These children, however, are a lot more than symbols rather, at different points throughout the play we see each child shift position in the face of new circumstances. But all become united in rejecting their father's proposal for an arranged marriage.
The play shows the potential for antipathy between different ethnic groups. Even though people can face similar oppression they do not automatically band together a point poignantly made with George's near refusal to have his son circumcised by an Indian doctor.
More importantly this play shows in an open, unadorned way that even what seems to be the most ethnic of conflicts between a white wife who rejects arranged marriages and her Pakistani husband who sees it as a rallying cry to save his culture is in reality an attempt on the part of the mother to reject the class bias underlying the marriage. On the part of the father it is about using his highly adapted version of Islam as a bulwark against the racism in society.
Unlike so many plays in this genre, which are full of speeches condemning racism but empty when it comes to characterisation or drama, East is East has managed to mix together a Molotov cocktail of conflicts that shows explosively black and white workers' co-existence and shared interests which are not only an essential part of British working class history but are the key to any successful future.
East is East plays at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, until 8 March and then transfers to the Royal Court, London
Cardiff East tells the stories of people who live on a South Wales housing estate over a period of 24 hours. From the beginning these stories seem to have little in common. There are a pair of teenagers coming to terms with their shared past and present; a mother and son failing to deal with their family disintegrating; a couple continually tearing each other apart with their arguments, and other plots. And there are other characters with no particular story, who are an integral part of the community.
That sense of community is one of the threads which ties the play together. Worries, triumphs, memories and ideas are shared, and everyone has someone they can turn to, which is a strength in the group as a whole, and a testimonial to the working class it represents. But how far can a character interfere with his or her neighbour's life? And where does the strength come from to keep a person together? This community is not a romantic haven. It is a place no one can afford to move away from they know they need each other.
The way in which characters react to the constraining but supportive group forms part of the tension in Cardiff East, but mostly the 'sense of community' is not the theme or the plot so much as the background. It is an effective forum for debate, from the distrust between parents and their children 'He may not be as innocent as Kevin Maxwell or as blameless as Azil Nadir, but he is no worse than a lot of them' through to sexuality, ageing, religion, the morality and reality of abortions as well as Welsh nationalism.
To judge by the publicity for this production, you would think that Welsh nationalism was a major theme, but that's not what comes across. There is only one conversation about the Welsh identity, and the strongest statement is, 'I feel foolish and proud to be part of the tradition of these parts, of the labour movement, of the Methodist tradition, the Welsh and the Spanish miners and the Italian cafes and the English and Welsh and the Irish... It was an aim to liberate Britain.' An uncompromising nationalist would not say those things. They are the thoughts of someone who feels a part of history, someone who wants to retain collective strength but isn't sure how.
What does unite this with all the other aspects of the play is the search for what could make us whole. It is a beautifully subtle study of alienation. And it is very powerfully performed. To honestly portray the feeling of being worth nothing that goes with unemployment, or that vague but insistent sense that your life is not yours is not easily done on stage.
But Cardiff East works well as a stage play because it is so intimate and so public. There are no walls on the set and the characters very rarely leave the stage. So it is a place where everybody can know everything about everyone else. But the audience is only gradually let in on their secrets and allowed to become involved in the community. Like any community it isn't only tragic, it is funny, touching and exciting too.
Cardiff East is at the National Theatre, London, until 17 March and then the New Theatre, Cardiff, from 8 to 12 April
It's not often that a film can be recommended purely on the strength of its lead performance but in Mother Night, the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's 1960s novel, Nick Nolte pulls off a feat of emotional and intellectual complexity that is a sheer pleasure to watch.
Nolte plays Howard W Campbell Jr, an American playwright and Nazi propagandist whose Second World War broadcasts earn him celebrity in Germany and infamy in America. However, known only to a few, including the regularly targeted President Franklin D 'Rosenfeld', Campbell is really a US spy sending encoded messages over the airwaves. Years later, as a broken down old man living in New York, Campbell is recognised as the wartime traitor he played with such conviction. Subsequently embraced by American neo-Nazis and pursued by the US, Soviet and Israeli authorities as a war criminal, he finds himself confronting the enigma of his true identity was he hero or villain or both?
The Israelis finally capture him and ask him to write his memoirs while awaiting trial in Tel Aviv. It's in recollecting his past that Campbell finally untangles who he really is and pitches moral culpability against legal guilt or innocence. Campbell becomes his own judge and jury with a lacerating honesty no other force could possibly bring to bear. The final act of redemption earns him the same heroic status he previously romanticised but now finds meaningless and trite.
Throughout Campbell's quest for the essence of his humanity Vonnegut's message comes across clearly. 'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.' In fact nothing is as it seems in this darkly ironic tale. Everyone is revealed as playing someone else.
Campbell's wife (Sheryl Lee) is Germany's top actress and the other player in Campbell's self absorbed 'nation of two' from which all others are excluded. Her little sister, Resi (Kirsten Dunst), is less of a blank canvas for men to project their desires onto than Helga and she emerges as harbouring some dark secrets from behind the iron curtain. Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), Campbell's recruiting officer and 'blue fairy godmother', can't be pinned down to one identity, and neither can Campbell's best friend, George Kraft (Alan Arkin).
Mother Night is unfortunately marred by some crudely drawn caricatures of neo-Nazis which jar with the style of the rest of the film. This is especially disappointing because of their delightfully whacky introduction in which the decrepit old monsters climb the stairs to Campbell's grubby attic, pausing to count to 20 every few steps.
After one of them collapses and dies from the strain and excitement of meeting his hero, the opportunities for some wit at the expense of Nazis everywhere are sadly wasted, strangled at birth by self indulgence. The Nazi's chauffer, the Black Fuehrer of Harlem (Frankie Faison), in full SS kit and Hitler moustache, is a particularly fatuous creation, despite the film makers trying to say something about power and self loathing. The comic timing during these scenes goes completely to pieces, leaving even the lead actors looking awkward and redundant.
But if you can forgive the moments when irony slips into cynicism, you should love the rest of the movie. And watch out for a cameo from Vonnegut, billed as 'Sad Man on Street'.
If the main themes of Flirt love, betrayal and commitment win no prizes for novelty, Hal Hartley at least deserves praise for his imaginative treatment of them.
The first of three stories opens in a bedroom in New York in which the beautiful Emily lies back in post-coital languor and says rather unconvincingly, 'I feel disgusting.' The remark is addressed to the affable but somewhat laddish Bill (the flirt). The predicament: Emily loves Bill and he says he loves her. She is supposed to be flying out to Paris that evening for three months to stay with and possibly marry her full time boyfriend. What should she do? She asks Bill if there's any future for him and her. He replies, can he have 90 minutes to think about it? In those 90 minutes all manner of inconvenient things happen to him, including getting shot by the husband of a woman he fancies. But he recovers in time to make up his mind what to do about Emily.
Almost the exact same situation, with different protagonists, is replayed in Berlin and Tokyo. But Hartley conducts his not-to-be-taken-too-seriously experiment in a way that saves the repetitive plot from becoming tedious. What he sets out to discover is: given a similar set of circumstances, but played out in different contexts, will the outcome always be the same?
So can we tell whether, in Berlin, the flighty and flirtatious Dwight will stay with older German art dealer Johan? Or whether, in Tokyo, happy-go-lucky dance student Miho will commit herself to her American film maker boyfriend Hal?
There's lots of fun on the way to helping the characters reach their decision. For example, the confused Bill asks strangers in a New York bar for advice, while Berliner Dwight turns to a group of workmen on scaffolding in his friend's art gallery.
For a film that hinges on shifting contexts, this scene is peculiarly context free. That is, free of any social stereotyping or prejudice. The white, working class, straight workers don't care that Dwight is black or gay, they are simply concerned with the question he puts to them: should he make a commitment to Johan?
What is so intriguing about the movie is that we only know the three 'flirts' are at all bothered by the ultimatum they've been given because they say so. Little in their manner or tone of voice (the at times sparse, punctuated dialogue wouldn't be out of place in a Harold Pinter play) gives you any sense of this. Love, devotion and sexual fulfilment are all mulled over with the same level of passion most people would devote to a discussion about choosing a new CD player. Less, in fact.
Yet, amazingly, it works, with the changing backdrops and different characters lending the situation a new freshness each time.
Flirt is not a film to philosophise over into the small hours. It is just fun, quirky and visually pleasing. And it manages to give a different spin to a time honoured theme.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Weimar Germany was at the centre of an artistic revolution. Film makers such as Fritz Lang, architects like Walter Gropius, novelists such as Thomas Mann and playwrights like Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht all contributed to the creation of new artistic forms. The new style, Expressionism, tried to break down the old idea that art should represent the 'reality' of a static image. The new artists combined different forms of art, music with images, movement with comedy. They wanted to portray feeling and emotion, to present society in flux.
Many of these artists were overtly political. Piscator's People's Stage put on plays beside socialist banners, slogans and posters. His theatre distributed free tickets in factories. The idea was to link art to people's real experiences. The plays that were produced, such as Brecht's Threepenny Opera, portrayed a world of poverty and exploitation. They turned the audience of spectators into actors, and consciously tried to change the world.
Even the 'non-political' artists set themselves the task of transforming their art. One composer, Arnold Schoenberg, experimented with 12 tone and atonal music. Other composers, such as Eric Korngold and Ernst Krenek introduced into opera the sounds of everyday life under capitalism: the noise of trains and cars, sirens and industrial machinery.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they sought to eradicate this whole culture. They had their own vision of art: neo-classical architecture, paintings of rural idylls, portraits of the Führer. Any art or music which didn't fit the nostalgic, reactionary tastes of the Nazis was banned. It was labelled 'entartete', or 'degenerate'. Books were burned. Artists were driven into exile. Many were imprisoned or murdered.
To demonstrate their victory over the brash, democratic art of the Weimar period, the Nazis staged two major exhibitions: one, in 1937, of degenerate art; the other, in 1938, of degenerate music. Millions of Germans were desperate for art with humour and life. Not surprisingly, the two exhibitions were both successful. In fact too successful: their very popularity demonstrated a resistance to Nazi ideas.
After the war there was no return to the vivacity of Weimar culture. Many of the artists were dead 35,000 artists and musicians had been killed in the Holocaust and of the rest, the majority chose to remain in exile. This was especially true of the musicians and composers. With the war and the Holocaust hanging over them, this generation turned their backs on independent creativity.
It seemed that the work of the musicians of Weimar Germany was to be quietly forgotten. Fortunately, this has now begun to change. Many of them are having their works produced, often for the first time in 60 years. Now Decca has commissioned a series, Entartete Musik: a collective biography of the music that the Nazis destroyed.
This is an enormously ambitious project. The Nazis set themselves against not only opera and atonal music, but operetta, chamber music, jazz and cabaret. Judging by the first CDs, however, the collection does seem to have captured the humour, enthusiasm and the revolutionary sprit of Weimar. I would especially recommend the CD Berlin Cabaret Songs. This collection ends with 'Munchausen', a half humorous, half honest description of the world that Hitler's opponents wanted to create:
'I saw a film the other day That really varied from the norm There were no soldiers on parade And no one marched in uniform... I saw a court of law where all The justices were just again Their hearts were young, their minds were free They judged all men equally...'
The modernists who exhibited in London and Europe from 1910 to 1914 introduced both artists and the public to the new art movements sweeping through Europe, including Post Impressionism, Fauvism and Futurism. This did not go down well with the deeply conservative art establishment which was suspicious of anything new. For this was also the time of the Great Unrest, of working class militancy that was shaking the ruling class. The First World War was to halt this militancy and the modernist movement in their tracks. But both would reappear at the end of the war in more revolutionary forms.
This exhibition is worth a visit for the little gems by artists such as Paul Gauguin, Umberto Boccioni and Paul Cézanne. There are also paintings by women artists who very rarely get a mention, such as Jessica Dismorr, Sylvia Gosse and Helen Saunders.
There are problems with this exhibition. British artists are juxtaposed with the European modernists. Many of these artists did not develop, and look poor alongside the modernists. That aside, it's worth seeing the beginnings of modernism in Britain.
Modern Art in Britain 1910 to 1914 is at the Barbican Centre, London, until 26 May.
Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain 1840-1914 Eds: David Englander and Rosemary O'Day Scolar Press £16.95
The spectre of revolution rose during the depression of the 1880s to terrify the middle and upper classes. And they had good reason for anxiety. A massive unemployed demonstration in February 1886 culminated in rioting and looting of luxury West End shops and stoning of 'gentlemen's clubs'. It took a 'Bloody Sunday' the following year to clear Trafalgar Square as troops fired on demonstrators. Agitators from the socialist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) were gaining a hearing among quite wide sections of the working class.
With the decline of old industries compounded by cyclical depression, relatively secure workers were thrown out of their jobs and divisions faded between them and those who had been only casually employed. This was a truly frightening situation to all persons of privilege, in particular those grouped around the Charity Organisation Society (COS). These people were mostly higher professionals busily engaged in promoting missionary work among the heathen poor visiting their homes and trying, through intensive individual casework, to break them from their feckless sexual, drinking and gambling habits. They were motivated not by guilt but by fear of the 'residuum', akin to contemporary anxieties about an 'underclass' incapable of living and working with the methodical regularity demanded by modern capitalism.
The COS members were ideologues of economic liberalism, opposed to job creating public works and ruthless in condemning anybody on the dole as merely encouraging dependency and thriftlessness. Many of its prominent supporters urged the establishment of labour camps for the 'residuum' outside the city where perhaps some could be rehabilitated and the rest die out safely away from their contaminating influence on the 'respectable' working class.
The Liverpool shipowner Charles Booth, although not a member of the COS, endorsed this 'solution' to the problem of poverty. But he also engaged in a distinctive form of intervention, namely detailed documentation of the circumstances of the poor in particular in the massive study he edited, Life and Labour of the People in London. In spite of the class prejudices of Booth and his collaborators, this pioneering piece of social science research threw light on the forms and depth of poverty, showing it to be far more extensive than Booth had expected. In this respect, the research confirmed the assertions of the SDF though Booth's own position remained anti-socialist. However, he did depart somewhat from economic liberalism since social investigation could provide the knowledge base with which an 'enlightened' state could engage in social engineering. This theme certainly inspired Beatrice Webb, one of Booth's assistants, in her lifelong promotion of 'socialism from above'.
This book delves into the assumptions and methods used by Booth and other early social investigators. The editors assemble some interesting information about Booth's debates with (reformist) socialists, and José Harris traces back notions of 'residuum'. There are also interesting chapters on gambling, Jews, education and religion which draw on Booth's archive as well as published material. The book has been carefully edited and contains work of considerable scholarship but the reader should be warned that it is written in an academic style, is overly respectful of Booth and doesn't adequately express the turbulence of the period to which social investigation was one form of reaction.
Ulster Protestants can find themselves inhabiting a strange area where, no matter how they consider themselves, they are thought of as not really Irish, but not really British either. Seen as separate, 'Prods' are lumped together as Loyalist, reactionary and incapable of change so that all we can hope for in Northern Ireland is that the 'two traditions' be given 'parity of esteem' and kept well apart.
This thoughtful series of 40 interviews with Northern Irish Protestants uncovers the diversity behind that stereotype and tells the personal history of people who have broken away from the Unionist culture they grew up with. It makes a fascinating read.
Who would have thought, for example, that many of the famous Republican murals in West Belfast were painted by a man who has attracted the epithet 'a good painter, but he's a Protestant, you know'? Or that Just Books, for years the only radical bookshop in Belfast and a haven for anybody interested in left wing politics, was also set up by people from a Protestant background?
Here too are amusing insights into the lives of ordinary men and women in unusual circumstances, like the neighbour living behind the much bombed Europa Hotel who had kept and labelled all the pieces of shrapnel to come through her window, making her shed like the Imperial War Museum. There is an anarcho-punk who fielded Hagar the Horrible in an election against the local Unionist councillors, even beating some of them. Further on, an artist remembers the visit of a minister to his school who told them to write an essay on what happens to you when you die. 'You rot,' he wrote.
Ministers, the church and the Boys' Brigade are common references in the book, but apart from their religion at birth these people cannot easily be classified, though the interviewer has tried. Most are working class, a few from very privileged backgrounds. Some have broken the Protestant mould by coming out as gay or lesbian; others by taking up Republican politics. For many, however, socialism has provided an alternative to Unionism and these stories are amongst the most inspiring.
An old Communist tells of building trade union branches in the linen mills and standing up to the vilification from bigots in his own community for being 'worse than a Catholic'. A lifelong militant complains that the Northern Irish are so full of respectability. 'To me that is our greatest failure,' she says. Another states, 'I have always believed that the North was a capitalist pigsty and so was the Republic, and I believe in the emancipation and unification of the working class.' Young people who are active in socialist groups in Belfast discuss their confidence and excitement about the future of Ireland.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s is one of the threads through many of the interviews and in particular the police ambush on peaceful marchers at Burntollet Bridge which forced many to question the state they lived in. Because all of them had gone to Protestant schools, FE colleges are mentioned as places where they could mix with Catholics and break down prejudices. Almost all those spoken to had left Northern Ireland for some time and having left found the freedom and perspective to examine their background and reject parts of it. On returning, Nationalist areas have often been found to be safer and more tolerant, whether they are Republican or not.
Many of the people interviewed have had to make decisions with often difficult personal consequences families left behind and threats from former friends. Above all these are stories of conviction, independence and quiet courage.
What this book tells us is that there is no monolith and that David Trimble and Ian Paisley do not speak for all Protestants. Politicians who talk of 'two traditions', Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist, not only choose to ignore the thousands who do not fit in, they also choose to ignore the existing and demonstrable fact that prejudice is not inevitable and that Catholics and Protestants can live and work together. As one person puts it, 'Protestants are part of Irish culture; we've been here for hundreds of years; we can be here for thousands more. This is where we belong and where our future lies.'
I found this an optimistic and moving book that opens up the lives of some of those who could shape that future.
In the initial chapters of this book you see why many Labour Party supporters view John Prescott as the champion of 'Old Labour values'. He is seen as supporting the trade unions, having had a background as a shop steward in the National Union of Seamen who was involved in unofficial strikes.
He is known as 'Thumper' to his friends for his strong verbal attacks on the Tories.
The book describes the experience of his early life which has clearly left its mark on his ideas and views today. He failed the 11 plus, and millions of people were left in no doubt about his anger over Harriet Harman's decision to send one of her kids to grammar school.
The author, Colin Brown, acknowledges how Prescott's 'raw northern humanity' is such a vital asset to Tony Blair's ability to modernise the Labour Party.
'Thumper' himself sums it up with the Heineken comparison between himself and Blair 'We're different characters we represent different parts of the party each of us reaches the parts the other can't reach.' It is this which stands out all through the second half of the book.
The author describes how Prescott's career led to him becoming deputy leader. He outlines the tensions between Prescott and many of the modernisers, especially Neil Kinnock, during the 1980s, as well as his differences with many on the left. However, you are left well aware of how politicians like Prescott are crucial to the maintenance of the Labour Party. He has been a crucial player in the decisions moving Labour rightwards.
In October 1993 it was he who made the passionate plea, 'Give us a bit of trust', while defending John Smith's move to one member one vote (OMOV). And it was Prescott initially against removing Clause Four who ended up advising Blair on how to get rid of it. He told Blair to talk about socialism and public ownership of the railways so that 'they will be so made up with socialism and public ownership that when you come to make the speech you can move them on.' Clause Four was removed.
Prescott used his understanding of ordinary rank and file members of the Labour Party in order to defeat them. For Prescott getting Labour elected overides everything. Loyalty to the leader is essential. His 'guiding light' from the past is Ernest Bevin, the right wing trade union leader, and his relationship with Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister. Bevin was at the centre of intrigue to dump the then leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury, over his pacifism before the Second World War. Again in 1947, after a series of disappointments of Labour in office, Attlee faced a challenge from the left. Bevin exposed the challenge, remaining ferociously loyal and protective towards Attlee. It is that kind of relationship that he wants with Blair. At the same time, for all his success in acting as a cover for the move rightwards in the Labour Party, the book highlights the continuing slaps in the face he receives from the modernisers.
The Campaign group of MPs broke from Prescott over issues such as Clause Four and OMOV. He also refused to back the left wing challenge of Benn and Heffer to Kinnock and Hattersley in the late 1980s.
Prescott himself singles out two important attributes in his makeup: conscience and sensitivity. It will be interesting to see how John Prescott reacts to the attacks that a New Labour government will carry out.
Prescott is now a Privy Councillor. Palace aides outlined to him the role he was to play: first kneel on a stool, hop to another, then kiss the queen's hand, brushing the lip lightly over the fingers. On receiving the honour he had to stand up, treading carefully backwards, without turning his back on the queen in a sort of crab walk. Don't count on Thumper landing a knockout punch on the rich and wealthy.
The book fails to deal in depth with the role of Prescott in the 1970s under the last Labour government. But most of all it lacks any real substance. The politics of the book is summed up in the last paragraph. Brown sees the role of Prescott as determining the success or failure of a Blair government. As always what is missing is what happens in the real world of conflict between bosses and workers.
In one of the contributions to The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories the narrator describes her lover thus:
'His name was Roland. He was not a hero, he did not even have a country; he was from an island, a small island that was between a sea and an ocean, and a small island is not a country. And he did not have a history; he was a small event in somebody else's history, but he was a man.'
The author of Song of Roland, Jamaica Kincaid, sums up beautifully the tension that exists at the heart of the Caribbean. On the one hand, there is the smallness of Caribbean society and culture. The area is not of strategic importance to the capitalist system. However, that is not to say that the beast which dominates the Caribbean, the United States, takes no notice of what goes on there. This year marks the 14th anniversary of the invasion of Grenada by US forces against an administration which was friendly to Fidel Castro's Cuba.
It is also impossible to talk of the Caribbean as being a homogenous entity. The Caribbean is made up of a whole number of islands, from tourist islands favoured by the rich to islands based on industry, such as oil and gas producing Trinidad.
Yet on the other hand the Caribbean of the past was of vital strategic importance, as the continual invasions by European powers at the dawn of capitalism bear witness.
In the capitals of the Caribbean islands stand splendid, if fading, buildings erected by colonialist administrations, while in the countryside plantation houses stand as a reminder of the barbarity of slavery and the importance of commodities such as sugar to early capitalism.
The colonial era infused the Caribbean societies and politics with a powerful contradiction. Slaves and foreign workers were either kidnapped or drawn to live in the Caribbean. Their arrival and existence was brutal and hard. Yet it also meant that the Caribbean became a 'melting pot' of different peoples, bringing with them echoes of different cultures that has made, for example, its writing extraordinarily rich and diverse.
Eric Walrond's excellent story The Wharf Rats describes how, 'Among the motley crew recruited to dig the Panama Canal were artisans from the four corners of the earth. Down in the Cut drifted hordes of Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Negroes a hardy, sun defying set of white, black and yellow men. But the bulk of the actual brawn for the work was supplied by the dusky peons of those coral isles in the Caribbean ruled by Britain, France and Holland.'
The background of probably the most famous Caribbean fiction writer exemplifies this mixture. V S Naipaul, whose short story The Baker's Story is included in the collection, is a Trinidadian whose forbears were indentured East Indian Hindus bought over as sugar cane cutters to work the plantations after the abolition of slavery.
Nearly all these stories are driven by the complicated social tensions that rage in the Caribbean islands. For instance the V S Naipaul story is about an Indian baker who comes up against an invisible but strict social code people will only buy bread from Chinese bakers. Everyone has their allotted role: 'Then I see that though Trinidad have every race and colour, every race have to do special things... Who ever see an Indian carpenter? I suppose the only place in the world where they have Indian carpenters and Indian masons is India. Is a damn funny thing.' The divisions and lingering influence of colonial domination are ever present.
Displacement, isolation, feeling a foreigner in all sorts of different ways, feature strongly in this collection. Some of the stories are set abroad, in London or America or Canada, wherever West Indian diaspora has reached. The urge to get off the island and find a life somewhere 'bigger' is a constant theme.
In this collection politics is generally spelt with a small p. Yet there are some trenchant criticisms of Caribbean society. We are left in no doubt that class dominates this part of the world. So the immediate setting may be unfamiliar but the struggles, such as putting food on the table, are familiar.
This book contains some beautifully told stories. It will leave you wanting to read more substantial works. There is plenty to choose from. V S Naipaul's work, such a Miguel Street, A House for Mr Biswas or his recent works, can be judged by any standard.
The work of Barbadian George Lamming, such as In The Castle of My Skin and The Emigrants, is brilliant. The stories by Michael Anthony which light up the fight against colonial rule, such as his new book In The Heat of the Day, are exciting, accessible reads.
And of course don't forget CLR James, the revolutionary from Trinidad. The Black Jacobins, about a slave revolt in the Caribbean, stands as an elegant, powerful argument that Marxism is a weapon in the armoury of workers everywhere including those from small islands.
The Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Holocaust. Many were worked to death in labour camps. Among these slaves were, amazingly, children. This book narrates the author's memories of life in the work camp and life as an orphan after the war.
Wilkomirski believes he was born in either 1938 or 1939 in a 'Latvian farmhouse'. His earliest memories revolve around this farmhouse and the signs of the approaching war: the murder of his father at the hands of an anti-Semitic militia and the rape of his mother by a soldier. These atrocities, at the time of which he cannot have been more than three of four years old, are all narrated in the uncomprehending way of a child.
Early in the book Wilkomirski acknowledges that he is dealing with childhood memories mainly before the age of six or seven. 'If I'm going to write about it', he concludes, 'I have to give up on the ordering logic of grown-ups; it would only distort what happened.' What results is a series of memory snapshots (the 'fragments' of the title) arranged loosely into chronology, but often skipping backwards and forwards in time as one memory awakens another. It is left to the reader to piece together the fragments and this enforced involvement gives the book an even greater impact.
Memories of home soon give way to memories of the concentration camp of Majdan-Lublin in south east Poland. There are many disturbing memories of the camp, not least the occasion when the children examine two young babies who were thrown into the barracks on the previous night. 'Their hands were black, as they were the night before, but now their fingers were white snow white. Except that they weren't proper fingers. What I could see were little white sticks that looked broken, each pointing in different directions.
'"Are they ill?" I asked and Jankl said: "Yes. It's a sickness called hunger. Frozen fingers don't hurt. Sometime during the night they chewed their fingers down to the bone but they're dead now."'
Yet even in this horrific environment, where brutality from camp warders was commonplace and death or torture was only a minor infringement away, there is the memory (in common with many other accounts by Holocaust survivors) of human solidarity.
There is the 12 year old Jankl, who endeavours to care for the younger children, feeding them stolen scraps ultimately at the expense of his life. Or the strange episode where a female camp warder takes Binjamin to see his mother (a word which by this time he does not understand), who is about to die. The warder's action is not explained. Was it some sort of sympathy for him?
Eventually, as the Russians advance, the guards abandon the camp and the women and children are left. 'No one freed us, nobody brought us food and nobody tended us or stroked us the way it happens in the films.' In a Polish orphanage, he experienced the anti-Semitism which continued after the war in many places. Rescued by a Swiss woman, he is placed initially in a Swiss orphanage.
Wilkomirski's story, after the camp, is one of misunderstanding and disbelief on the part of the adults he meets. Even the foster parents he is placed with, non-Jewish and middle class, are unsympathetic. As he says, 'They reacted allergically to all these things and the entire subject was taboo.'
This book was written by Wilkomirski in an attempt to set himself free, to tell the memories to which nobody had been willing to listen for many years. There is little in here of explanation (try Martin Gilbert's new book Boys, which is a history of child labour in the camps), but it is a very readable and deeply moving story of survival, as well as testimony to the lack of effort by postwar governments to counsel and rehabilitate the living victims of the Holocaust.
Race and immigration are central questions in American politics and these books focus on different aspects of the argument. In Black Intellectuals William Banks looks at the struggles of black Americans from slavery to the 1980s, first for even a rudimentary education then for access to academia, the arts, the media and the legal profession.
Immigrant America attempts to put modern immigration in perspective. The foreign born proportion of the US population has been declining for 80 years. In 1910 it represented 14.7 percent of the population and in 1990 the figure was 7.9 percent.
Portes and Rumbaut challenge the argument put forward, that the relaxation of US immigration controls and increasing levels of Third World poverty will lead the poor and destitute to migrate to the US and other developed countries. They argue that the majority of immigrants are not an underclass of rural poor but are among urban skilled and semi skilled workers. This is true even among illegal immigrants. In the 1970s between 35 and 70 percent of illegal immigrants from Mexico had left behind white collar, skilled or semi skilled jobs. This was at a time when these occupations accounted for only 30 percent of the Mexican population.
According to Portes and Rumbaut most emigrants tend to migrate to the country that dominates their own region. More importantly they argue that the main factor influencing the levels of immigration is not strictness of the immigration controls nor the poverty of the immigrants' home country but the actual demand for labour in the receiving country. They point out that Mexican immigration was initiated by US growers and railroad companies who sent recruiters to the Mexican interior to bring back much needed workers. Despite government attempts to restrict levels of immigration and penalise employers who hire illegal immigrants, it is clear that large sections of the textile and electronics industries
rely heavily on cheap immigrant labour and are only too happy to play on workers' fears about deportation to increase the level of exploitation.
It is disappointing therefore that Portes and Rumbaut stop short of actually calling for an end to all immigration controls and fail to really address the inherently racist nature of these laws. Nevertheless they do provide a wealth of information and some key arguments for those who do wish to do so.
William Banks' Black Intellectuals is well worth reading despite what at first sight seems like a rather narrow focus on the 'talented tenth' of black Americans. In fact Banks' loose definition of the term intellectual allows him to discuss a wide range of black individuals and movements from slavery to the 1980s. The book includes short biographies of over 100 of what Banks considers to be the most important black intellectuals.
This makes extremely interesting reading but there are a number of criticisms to be made. Firstly Banks manages to dismiss the influence of Marxism on black American struggle in just over one page and despite acknowledging that working class whites, particularly in the South, gained nothing from racism, he is dismissive of the possibility of class solidarity. It is clear from the beginning that Banks has set out to emulate Harold Cruse's Crisis of the Negro Intellectual written in 1967 under the influence of the Black Power movement. But whereas Cruse's work was a biting criticism of black intellectuals for failing to develop a distinctive black American culture, Banks seems more concerned to excuse the retreat by many of the activists of the 1960s into middle class academia.
Despite their shortcomings, however, both books are well worth reading.
Significant in undermining the rosy view of social workers was the death in 1973 of a seven year old child, Maria Colwell, at the hands of her stepfather. As Dave Merrick notes in this study of social work and child abuse, if a person on probation carries out an armed robbery, nobody asks, 'What was the probation officer doing?' In the case of Maria Colwell, however, and in the cases of several other children who died as a result of abuse by parents or stepparents over the next 15 years, 'it appeared that everybody wanted to know "What was the social worker doing?" 'To complicate matters further, in Cleveland in 1987 and later in Orkney, the charge against social work was precisely the opposite: far from being guilty of complacency or neglect, social workers, it was argued, had been over-zealous and had trampled on the rights of parents and children.
It is the roots of this 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' dilemma that Dave Merrick seeks to uncover in this book. Through an analysis of key childcare policy documents from the 1920s to the present, he argues that previous analyses of social work and child abuse by writers in the radical social work tradition have failed to grasp the way in which the contradictory demands placed on social workers make social work, quite literally, an 'impossible profession'.
These demands stem from the ever present discourse of 'familialism', which sees the family as both solution and problem, and which results in a statutory responsibility being placed on social workers both to prevent abuse in families and also to investigate and intervene where abuse occurs. Even where the emphasis is on treatment rather than punishment, 'familialism' reigns. For while the role of poverty and disadvantage in child abuse may be acknowledged as causal factors, they are immediately 'forgotten' when it comes to proposing responses, where the emphasis shifts to better inter-agency cooperation or more skilled social workers or identifying the characteristics of 'dangerous families'.
One strength of such an analysis is that it undermines the rather crude arguments put forward by some left leaning social work theorists who see changes in family policies resulting either directly from changes in government or as mechanically mirroring the ups and downs of the class struggle. As Merrick illustrates, the role of poverty in child abuse was acknowledged in official reports as early as the 1930s, even if 'treatment' models did not come into their own until the 1960s. It is also refreshing to read a social work text which talks about class and which is rightly critical of much of the post modernist rubbish currently written about Marxist social work.
That said, I have some reservations about this book. Firstly, the method of discourse analysis, derived from Michel Foucault. While an analysis of key documents can usefully highlight hidden ideologies as well as shifts and continuity in social policy, unless it is rooted in a concrete materialist analysis, then the 'discourse' can appear to have a life of its own. It is one thing to argue, as Dave Merrick does, that ideologies or policies do not automatically reflect class struggle. It is another thing to see them as timeless and 'above the struggle', and at times there is a danger of familialism being portrayed in that way. The reality is very different. The furious reaction to the recent Panorama programme which suggested that the children of working mothers suffered educationally, for example, reflects both the huge changes in the role of women within the home and within the workplace as well as the unwillingness of women to be scapegoated in this way.
Secondly, the practical conclusions. A criticism of radical social work theory from its inception has been its inability to develop a radical practice. I'm not sure that for social workers to know they are walking a 'discursively constructed tightrope' between punishment and treatment, in which further child abuse tragedies are inevitable, takes us much further forward in developing such a practice. In fact, whatever the limitations of the treatment model, by highlighting causal factors in child abuse it allows at least for debate on how these factors might be addressed. At a time when Glasgow council, among others, has just offered all of its community workers voluntary redundancy, and when local authority social work is being transformed into the controlling means testing bureaucracy beautifully portrayed by Ken Loach in Ladybird, Ladybird, that debate is more urgent than ever.
Enoch Powell: A Biography Robert Shepherd Hutchinson £25
I came to politics in the late 1960s and I knew one thing for certain about Enoch Powell he was an odious preacher of racism. But I was repeatedly told three other things about him that he was a genius, that he was honest, and that his principles came before his career.
This was always a dubious defence, and this book, I suspect unintentionally, lays bare the claim that Powell's actions were those of a man with no view to his career. Indeed quite the opposite.
This man of the lower middle classes was, contrary to popular myth, a ruthless, even recklessly ambitious, politician with a desperate desire to reach the very top of the Tory Party.
This ambition took Powell in an assortment of different directions. The narrowness of his upbringing led him to worship the British Empire and he therefore hated the decline of empire. This led him as a young MP to identify with the most reactionary backwoodsmen in the Tory Party.
But for all his Little Englandism, Powell was a supporter of the EEC when Britain first applied for membership, and only later, when he hoped to dethrone the Tory leader Edward Heath, did he become a rabid Europhobe.
The greatest irony of all was Powell's attitude to race and immigration. As minister for health in the late 1950s he had overseen a department which encouraged Commonwealth immigration. Yet within a few short years Powell would catapult himself onto the front pages of the media with views on the subject of immigration that made him the champion of racists everywhere.
Powell's famous 'rivers of blood' speech was the nastiest piece of racism to be uttered by a senior politician in postwar Britain. Of course, Powell, the great classics scholar, would dress this shabby racism up in a cloak of intellectual respectability the rivers of blood reference came from ancient Roman history. But the cloak was a thin one and beneath it was an appeal to much more base feelings.
Little wonder that racists everywhere looked to him, and that racist attacks grew. Even worse, as postwar certainties and the economic boom began to shatter, groups of white workers began to rally to him most famously the dockers in the East End of London, and the Smithfield porters who took strike action in support of him. The ultimate beneficiaries were the fascist National Front whose vote began to grow alarmingly in the early 1970s.
The popular myth is that Powell took his unfashionable stand without heed to his political prospects. The truth, as Shepherd shows, is very different. Powell hated his party leader and did not believe that his career would advance much under him. He therefore took a calculated gamble. He hoped by playing the race card that he would win over a wide groundswell of support in order to strengthen his position within Heath's shadow cabinet, to put him in a stronger position some future leadership challenge.
That gamble failed, and Powell's political ambitions were permanently thwarted sacked by Heath, he was never to return to the government ranks. But he was thwarted not by his own honesty and bravery, but by the huge anti-racist backlash which was to dog him for years afterwards.
Eventually Powell took one last desperate gamble to resurrect his career by throwing his lot in with the reactionary Ulster Unionists. But here this bigot among bigots was never quite trusted, and his career faded into oblivion, with only past infamy to sustain the Powell legend.
This book goes some small way to debunk part of that legend, but there is a much more savage one still to be written. savage one still to be written.