Issue 212 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1997 Copyright Socialist Review



The Fabian nightmare

Heartbreak House

by George Bernard Shaw

The critic Eric Bentley wrote of Shaw's play Heartbreak House that it represented 'the nightmare of the Fabian'. He was absolutely right.

Shaw started to write the play in 1913 as the rulers of the West prepared for world war. Fabianism, which by this point Shaw adhered to, with its creed of gradual change, was ideologically challenged by the great convulsions that the 1914-18 war bought on - both reaction and revolution.

It is clear that Shaw's conception of socialism from above, that change would come through the 'permeation' of rational thoughts of the wise, was increasingly under siege in the run up to 1914. Heartbreak House is really the creative result of that contradiction.

In the play all hopes of the piecemeal 'civilising' of the present system are dashed. No longer can society's betters be trusted with steering a course to a decent future.

Heartbreak House describes a society drifting, in a kind of false calm, towards the rocks. The class at the helm are unable to do anything about it or are too self consumed to see what is coming. It is here that the play resembles Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, which is why Shaw subtitled the play 'A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes'.

The house is actually a ship. The play's action mostly takes place in a room designed 'so as to resemble the afterpart of an old fashioned high-pooped ship'. The patriarch of Heartbreak House is Captain Shotover, a retired seafarer whose final aim in life is to attain the 'seventh degree of concentration'. This will enable him to produce a ray that can 'explode the ammunition in the belt of my adversary before he can point a gun at me'. Shotover keeps a gravel pit stacked with dynamite in the grounds of the house and is quite prepared to blow up the human race 'if it goes too far'.

During the course of the play the captain's house is inhabited by his cultured but useless family: daughter Hesione Hushabye, her faded Don Juan style spouse Hector, and his other daughter, the haughty and thoroughly reactionary Lady Utterword.

The house receives various guests including a young woman, Ellie Dunn, who arrives carrying an innocence of which she is rapidly disabused. The house breaks her heart early on. Ellie is joined by her doting father, Mazzini, and her suitor, the city capitalist Boss Mangan.

Mazzini is an interesting figure. He is part Shaw having a go at himself. When he was young Mazzini admits that he 'joined societies and made speeches and wrote pamphlets' (as did Shaw as a member of the revolutionary Socialist League until he split with William Morris in the aftermath of 'Bloody Sunday' in November 1887).

Mazzini got disillusioned. 'Every year I expected a revolution, or some frightful smash up: it seemed impossible that we could plunder and muddle any longer. But nothing happened except, of course, the usual poverty and crime and drink that we are used to. Nothing ever happens. It's amazing how well we get along, all things considered.'

Of course things are about to 'happen', in the play - resulting in death. In the real world it would end in monumental bloodshed as well, a revolutionary wave across Europe including the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Throughout Heartbreak House the characters do nothing of significance. Sometimes they pour their hearts out to one another, but more as a diversion than any deep emotion. Lady Utterword's consuming worry is whether she has a heart to break at all. The most intelligent amongst them see that the rocks are coming up fast, but do nothing to alter course.

The play rips into the capitalist system. Shaw puts great speeches into the mouths of his creations. Captain Shotover asks at one point, 'What then is to be done? Are we to be kept forever in the mud by these hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts?'

The play is a whole mish mash of styles, which come out in this excellent production directed by David Hare. The names of the characters - 'Hushabye', 'Shotover' - indicate that they are 'types', written with broad brush strokes and designed to be played large, which the actor who plays Boss Mangan does really well. You are not encouraged to identify emotionally with any of the characters, although that doesn't mean that you don't care about what is about to happen. Then the play has a Brechtian feel to it.

At other points there is a naturalism about the play - for instance each of the three acts of the play is set in 'real time' and the characters enjoy long 'natural' conversations with one another. And then again, especially through the character of Shotover, the play becomes dreamy and surreal. The overall impression is one of experimentation. It is almost as though Shaw was trying to search for a form to encapsulate the political conflicts he was grappling with.

The Almeida production is very well staged and played by actors including Richard Griffiths, Patricia Hodge, Penelope Wilton and Peter McEnery. Heartbreak House is a very good entertaining play. You will laugh because Shaw is a very witty writer.

Hass Mahamdallie

Heartbreak House plays at the Almeida Theatre, London, until 11 October

Good for your health

An Enemy of the People

by Henrik Ibsen

Although this play was written in 1882 there is much in An Enemy of the People that relates to today - greed and corruption, the power of big business, dissent and protest. This is why it has appealed to so many people over so many different periods.

Set in a small Norwegian town during the last century the play centres around the character of Dr Thomas Stockmann, played superbly by Ian McKellen. He has been behind the project to build a spa bath for the town which would improve the health of the local population, and would draw in visitors from all over Norway.

But because corners were cut in the production of the spa, Stockman discovers that the water used will be severely contaminated. This would seriously damage the health of all who use it. So he sets out to do what he thinks is right, and what he believes will be supported by all right minded people - to stop the spa opening until the water problem is sorted out.

It is then that he comes up against the interests of local business and the council who are determined to press ahead with the project. Yet Stockmann is a courageous individual who is prepared to stand up for what he believes is right. He has the support of the local paper - the People's Messenger - and a young radical journalist (Marston Bloom) who believes a revolution will be caused by Stockmann's actions. But when the mayor, Stockmann's brother (Stephen Moore), raises the prospect of a local tax to pay for improvements to the spa, everyone turns against Stockmann.

The dilemma for Stockmann becomes one of what to do when he is in a minority of one - yet believes himself to be right. He decides to confront the people at a mass meeting in the town and argue his case.

Stockmann appeals to the majority and tries to convince them that the enlightened view of the individual is of more value than that of the 'ignorant mass'. It is here that the play comes up against the limits of liberalism. Stockmann despises the majority - the mob - who cannot be trusted to form the right opinion. Rather, the difference between right and wrong can only be left with the educated few. It is a view that leaves him isolated - but Ibsen ensures the sympathies of the audience stay with Stockmann. Despite his elitism, and despite his contempt for the mass of the people, he is only trying to do what is right - representing the truth, and protesting to ensure the truth prevails.

This production is set in the Olivier Theatre, where the semicircular auditorium gives the mass meeting an authentic feel. Not often do you see a play where the characters are running up and down the isles with flamed torches, shouting and heckling, and distributing propaganda to the audience. And there are some fine performances - in particular John Woodvine who plays Aslaksen, the local representative of the Property Owners' Association who constantly appeals for moderation, and Lucy Whybrow as Petra Stockmann who provides the backbone of family support when Stockmann's wife argues for him to give up the cause.

When An Enemy of the People was shown at the Moscow Art Theatre in Petrograd during the 1905 Revolution it was a favourite of the revolutionaries because it supported the idea of the individual fighting back. In 1950 Arthur Miller adapted the play in the US as a fight against the McCarthyite witchhunts which saw the persecution of trade unionists and Communists.

This production is clearly intended to provide comparisons with public health issues today - the programme accompanying the play has a montage which shows a variety of paper clippings and pictures highlighting BSE in meat, the Thalidomide drug scandal, and nuclear dumping. For all right minded people the argument is simple - the public's health comes first. The problem comes when you come up against the interests of big business. Is the campaign to be left with an enlightened few, or win the mass of people to fight for what is right? You decide.

Pete Morgan

An Enemy of the People plays at the National Theatre, London, in repertory

Journey with no return

A Tainted Dawn

Dir: Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith

Originally working under the title Partition, A Tainted Dawn is Tamasha Theatre Company's excellently named play about the effects of the division of India which accompanied the subcontinent's independence from Britain in 1947. Nehru called Indian independence 'a tryst with destiny'. However, between half a million and a million people died in the intercommunal violence which was Britain's parting gift.

It is in reflecting how great hope quickly turned to one of the century's terrible horrors that A Tainted Dawn's strength lies. The play, based on eight short stories about partition, stands in the dramatic tradition of history from below. The cataclysmic events of 50 years ago are seen through the experiences of workers, peasants, students and the middle class, rather than the 'great men' who oversaw independence and separation.

In the story of the students on the Delhi campus, for example, we have an excellent challenge to the myth that communalism in India was, and is, to be found only among the 'lower classes'. It doesn't take long for the supposedly enlightened, cosmopolitan upper middle class students to find Hindus in their number advocating the migration of their Muslim colleagues to Pakistan, regardless of personal or romantic attachments. Secularism, they conclude, is dead, and India is nothing more than a Hindustan.

In the story of Pali, a little Hindu boy lost as his parents fled pogroms in Pakistan, we see the role of the religious authorities in stoking the vicious communalism. Sheltered and adopted by a Muslim couple, reclaimed by his Hindu parents, and encountering the unforgiving dogmatism of the leaders of both religions, Pali becomes a powerful symbol of the tragedy of partition.

A Tainted Dawn brilliantly exposes the irrationality of communalism, but also helps explain the conditions in which it gained such incredible momentum. The two armed supporters of MA Jinnah's Muslim League, who extol the virtues of the 'great man' who is creating Pakistan, are the exception to the rule of the mass migration. Most people making the journey one way or the other across the border are fleeing for their lives.

Tamasha's eight person cast wonderfully represents the striking similarities in the experiences of a divided community as each actor plays the roles of Muslim and Hindu or Sikh. The acting is superb throughout, in turns poignant, frenetically powerful and darkly humorous. The set, by the Birmingham Repertory Company, is an excellent combination of menacing bleakness and simple versatility.

There is, however, one significant drawback. While the piece benefits from the many narrative strands it draws from the stories upon which it is based, the play's whole never quite amounts to the sum of its parts. The weaving together of eight separate texts is no easy task and, in the end, the play loses more than a little pace and tension in the switches between narratives.

However, A Tainted Dawn is a remarkable play. This production serves not only as a window to India's recent past but also as a lesson for all our futures.

Mark Brown

A Tainted Dawn is showing in Birmingham and Leeds during October

Not a lot of class?

Chips with Everything

by Arnold Wesker

Three and a half decades have not been kind to Arnold Wesker's fifth and most successful play. Although his aim appears admirable - the class nature of postwar Britain examined through the metaphor of an RAF barracks - Wesker now denies that his play is about class divisions and insists that it is about anger at acceptance of the mediocre, the third rate, people who eat 'chips with everything'.

In the play a motley intake of National Service conscripts is turned into fighting material; men whose every step, every thought, even each eye movement, is finally controlled by the RAF officers. Initially goading his fellow squaddies - all working class lads - for 'making babies' and eating 'chips with everything', general's son Pip Thompson (Rupert Penry-Jones) emerges as the hero of the piece.

As a rebellious member of the ruling class, Pip knows that behind their paternalistic facade the officers harbour massive contempt, even hatred, for their charges - although quite why Pip is 'slumming' among the lower orders we are never told. In the funniest scene ruling class psychosis is laid bare when the pilot officer declares, 'I don't want rigid men, I want clean men. Real men are dirty. I want unreal, super-real men. These men win wars.'

The Christmas party turns into a class warfare battlefield with the Wing Commander slyly encouraging the men to 'do a turn' so that the officers can laugh at their unsophisticated performances of hit parade songs. It backfires when the men's singing session turns into a threatening group rendition of the peasant rebellion song, The Cutty Wren.

Some good moments aside, Chips With Everything is closer to It Ain't Half Hot, Mum than Full Metal Jacket. Peopled by cheeky working class chappies and comic book villains, the story never develops beyond a dull series of events that fails to make you care about the one dimensional characters. Pip's absorption back into the establishment once he realises the lads don't have it in them to understand their predicament, let alone fight back, is one of several key events that come out of the blue.

Wesker has the reputation of being a working class writer, yet he has so little faith in the working class that he has to rely on the nob to assure the hoi-polloi that things can change - 'Your grandfather said there would always be horses. He said there would always be slaves.' And when Chas (Eddie Marsan) pleads with Pip to teach him 'ecomonics' [sic] and that Pip could 'draw diagrams... I could grow with you', Pip yells that he should 'ask someone else'. Chas simply wants to swap masters but it takes Pip to appraise him of the fact - Chas can't work it out for himself. Someone even asks after a raid on the coke store, 'Could we have pinched the coke without Pip's mind?'

Equally dismaying, despite Wesker's Jewish background he assumes that audiences can't imagine working class pain without the aid of that most hackneyed of all images of suffering. After being thrown in jankers (barracks gaol), no-hoper Smiler (Julian Kerridge) is transformed into a Christ figure complete with outstretched arms and bleeding feet, and yes, he even gets his feet washed.

It is difficult to compare this work favourably with other writers of that period; Osborne (Look Back in Anger), Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Ionesco (Rhinoceros), Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Arthur Miller (The Crucible).

Wesker asserted on Radio 4 that Jews should fear the working class because that's where pogroms came from. He also identified with Pip, his beautiful Aryan upper class hero, in his condemnation of working class tastes - leading to a blistering defence of the working class from Melvyn Bragg. How does this raise him above the third rate he so despises?

Anna Chen

Chips with Everything plays at the National Theatre, London, in repertory


Wilde at heart


Dir: Brian Gilbert

As the film opens, the camera pulls back to reveal the wide open spaces and rugged terrain of Leadville, Colorado. The year is 1882 and Oscar Wilde, a young man of 28 and already a major public figure, is in the middle of a tour of the US and Canada. We discover him on a visit to a silver mine. This dramatic and seemingly incongruous setting for the urbane Wilde immediately reveals important aspects of the man. He is as charming and courteous with the Colorado miners as he would be in any London salon. As they gather round the intimate 'theatre' space created by the mine shaft, the men are captivated by his wonderful storytelling, and he, in turn, is in his element as he holds his audience in thrall.

The film script is based on Richard Ellman's biography and shows Oscar Wilde as he has rarely been shown before. Certainly, the main thrust of the story is the writer's destructive and ultimately tragic relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas but there is much more to the film than that. Wilde is portrayed here as a complex and multi-layered character, a proud and ambitious man but with impeccable integrity in his work, and a lifelong determination to stand against the hypocrisy so prevalent in his day.

On his return from his successful year long tour the flamboyant Wilde is the toast of the town. In an attempt to dampen rumours about his sexuality, he courted and married the beautiful and intelligent Constance Lloyd (Jennifer Ehle). They seem loving and happy but it is shortly after this that one evening Robert Ross, a young Canadian house guest, seduced Wilde. He finally had to confront the homosexual feelings that had gripped him since his school days. This was a turning point in his life. His work thrived on the realisation that he was gay, but his private life flew increasingly in the face of the conventions of late Victorian society. A new law had recently been passed against 'indecent acts' between men in an attempt by the ruling class to enforce family relations and to scapegoat anyone who stood outside them.

Wilde's literary career achieved notoriety with the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel. Its treatment of homosexuality was considered scandalous, and Wilde was ostracised by sections of society but his brilliant career forged ahead. His plays took the West End by storm.

In 1892 on the first night of his acclaimed play, Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde was introduced to a handsome young Oxford undergraduate, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed 'Bosie' (Jude Law). Wilde was captivated and so began a tempestuous and passionate affair which was ultimately to destroy him.

Wilde's love of Bosie drew him away from his family and into a different world but he was consumed by guilt. He appeared a tragic figure unable to reconcile his deep love for his two sons and his loyalty to his wife with the new life that he had embraced.

The Marquess of Queensberry, Bosie's father, as depicted by Tom Wilkinson, is the epitome of all that is to be despised in a man of his time and class, and one of the most frightening characters I have ever seen on a cinema screen. Violent, brutish and eccentric, he relentlessly bullied his family. He displayed little grief at the suicide of his eldest son who was rumoured to have had an affair with Lord Roseberry, but rather anger that the family name had been besmirched. He saw an opportunity for revenge when he discovered that Bosie, whose 'unmanly' behaviour he despised, was to be seen dining out most evenings with Oscar Wilde. There is a delightful scene where Queensberry bumps into Bosie and Wilde at the Savoy and proves to be almost as susceptible to Wilde's charm as is everyone else. Nonetheless, he is not so easily mollified and he writes to Wilde accusing him of 'posing as a sodomite'.

Against his better judgement Wilde was persuaded by Bosie to take a libel action against the Marquess. Queensberry was able to destroy Wilde's case at the trial by calling as witnesses rent boys who had been bullied and bribed by Queensberry's lawyers into describing Wilde's sexual encounters in court.

Friends did their best to persuade Wilde to flee the country but he refused and was arrested and sentenced to two years hard labour. The brutal Dickensian prison conditions destroyed his health and brought him to death's door. The long suffering Constance's visit to the prison is particularly poignant. Still loyal, loving and supportive, almost saintly in demeanour, she was obviously heartbroken to see the great man reduced to a broken wreck and promised that she would never keep his sons from Wilde and hoped that he would give up Bosie and return to the family. On his release he tried to do as she wished, writing a moving letter to Bosie explaining why he could never see him again ('De Profundus'). When Constance died in Italy, however, loneliness and longing overcame his best resolve and he and Bosie were reunited with tragic results.

This is a deeply moving film with fine performances from all of the cast. Stephen Fry is a totally convincing Wilde. If you already love the writings of Oscar Wilde, see this film and rejoice in the wit and wonderful language. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I urge you to go and be entranced.

Pat Smith

Real lives

Nil by Mouth

DIr: Gary Oldman

Nil by Mouth became 'the one to see' at the Cannes film festival. Gary Oldman directs this film and wants to show the sickness of a society that is trying to ignore its own ugliest aspects. He calls it 'peeping through the keyhole at something you are not supposed to see'. The film describes his own experience as a child and his longing for a father who would love him.

Nil by Mouth concerns alcohol and drug abuse. It centres around a family and their friends whose lives consist of petty crime and violence. It shows their hopelessness and despair and is punctuated by occasional bursts of desperate humour.

Gary Oldman found it very difficult to find funding for this film. He was unwilling to change the dialogue: the swearing is not for the faint hearted.

The film is set on the Bonamy estate in south east London and it looks like a welcome stable for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The corridors are like a prison. The film was shot during winter, adding to the dark, menacing nature of the estate. It was also shot with a super 16 camera which gives it a voyeuristic quality, a sort of fly on the wall effect. The film is very enclosed, reflecting the limited outlook of the people's lives.

The main character Raymond, an ex-boxer, is brilliantly played by Ray Winstone. He is a violent alcoholic who spends his life bullying his family and his wife's kid brother Billy, a heroin addict.

The climax of the film is the horrific beating by Raymond of his pregnant wife Val (played by Kathy Burke). This seven minute beating was so sickening that many of the crew were physically ill after shooting it. Oldman was challenged as to why he made such a violent film and he said, 'Because it happens'. But the film tries to show that the violence takes place in a context of the hopelessness and bleakness of people's lives. The violence isn't irrational if your whole life is contained in this physical and mental hell-hole. It's about maintaining a gruesome pecking order.

Kathy Burke's character plays a pivotal role in the film's theme of hopelessness - whereas her husband doesn't really ever change, she can't ever really leave. Neither of them can see much beyond the life that they have - they are impoverished economically and emotionally.

This film is powerful and disturbing because of its gritty realism but there is a debate as to whether it is a true portrayal of ordinary working class life. The Daily Telegraph described the film as 'superb' and claimed that 'it faithfully reproduces the dialogue of working class Londoners'. Others argue that it shows an underclass. Neither is right. The film is a brilliant illumination of the lives of some working class people but if Oldman is trying to say that the whole working class is like this then he is wrong.

We should welcome the fact that someone has made a film about one part of working class life. But it's an even better thing that working class life is not all about hopelessness.

Weyman Bennett


Quarter pound of flesh

McLibel John Vidal Macmillan 15.99

Hope springs eternal because every day people fight back against injustice. Two such people are Helen Steel and Dave Morris, who together took on the might of the McDonald's Corporation.

In 1990 McDonald's sued Helen and Dave for libel for distributing (not writing) a factsheet entitled, 'What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know.' This well worn tactic of such corporations, apparently known by them as SLAPPs - Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation - usually results in instant submission, especially in Britain. Legal aid is not available for defending libel, the onus of proof is on the defendants, and if you fight you risk paying all legal costs.

For McDonald's there appeared to be no risk. They could hire the best lawyers (which they did), rely on a sympathetic judiciary (which they could), and even if the case cost them millions (in fact it cost them 10 million), the money was a fraction of their 1,000 million global advertising budget. What they were incapable of anticipating, however, was the spirit not just of Helen and Dave, who describe themselves as anarchists, but also of countless expert witnesses and supporters who would refuse to be intimidated by one of the world's most powerful corporations.

So the David and Goliath battle began. With no legal aid, Helen and Dave had to conduct their own defence. Immediately Mr Justice Bell exposed British 'justice' by his outrageous ruling that there should be no jury. Again and again Helen and Dave lost on points of law. But they also began to win the arguments over the leaflet's message. McDonald's in their arrogance had demanded they prove every sentence true. That meant the two defendants could defend the leaflet's claim that McDonald's and other multinationals promote unhealthy food, damage the environment, exploit workers through low pay and hostility to unions, cause suffering to animals, and exploit children through advertising. As a result, the 'McLibel' case lasted 314 days in court and revealed a wealth of disturbing information about McDonald's and the world in which it operates.

For example, the corporation employs an astonishing 1.5 million people worldwide, of whom two thirds are under 21 and almost all of whom are paid the minimum legal wage or below. In Britain 80 percent of McDonald's workers are part time and have no guaranteed hours or pay, and get nothing for meal breaks. Managers compulsorily cut or extend workers' hours as needs dictate.

Everywhere staff are routinely dismissed if they try to unionise. More than 400 attempts in the 1970s were crushed. The McDonald's man in charge of stopping unionisation explained, 'Unions were inimical to what McDonald's stood for and how they operated.' Paul Preston, McDonald's UK president, testified, 'It's not that I don't like communicating with unions, it's just that I would consider it as failure if we did.' He admitted that workers would not be allowed to collect union subscriptions, put up notices, pass out leaflets, organise a meeting for staff or inform the union about conditions in the store (this would be deemed gross misconduct and a 'summary sackable offence'). The trial also forced McDonald's to admit that employees had been illegally underpaid, particularly for overtime, and some of these workers are now suing for their stolen wages.

Vidal describes the rise of McDonald's, comparing its fast, standardised food to the Ford car lines. By revealing the composition of the meals and the way corners are cut in hygiene and cooking times in the search for profits (to date more than $9 billion), Vidal does for hamburgers what Howard Fast did for sausages in his 1906 novel The Jungle. Yet every day 35 million people eat at McDonald's, and a new restaurant is opening every three hours.

Vidal uses the book to rail against multinationals in general. Fewer than ten transnational corporations, he says, control virtually every aspect of the worldwide food chain. The largest 500 companies are responsible for 42 percent of global trade. Only 27 countries have a GNP greater than the sales of Shell and Exxon combined. McDonald's, which he describes as a relative baby, has a turnover of 30 billion, roughly equal to that of Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mali and Sudan combined. Vidal also describes powerfully the devastating economic and social impact of multinational projects and expansion in South America, Africa, China and India.

Yet he locates the solution to such awesome power and destruction in small groups of people involved in the politics of 'localism': people like Dave and Helen; road protesters; Greenpeace; community groups and so on. The left, he claims, has 'failed'. Industrial struggle is barely mentioned, and is certainly not the 'seed', as he describes local struggles, for a new and better world.

But this book seems to undermine his argument. Despite the McLibel campaign, which has seen two million 'libellous' leaflets distributed outside McDonald's stores, McDonald's profits have risen by more than 25 percent since the trial began.

A much bigger army is needed to confront the companies and system Vidal so hates, and it must be one that is united by its common interests and across all 'localities', not separated by different concerns. Whether he likes it or not, that army exists, and it is called the working class.

What is true, however, is that every struggle encourages other people to resist, and to this end Dave and Helen have made a great contribution. The campaign arising from their action, for instance, continues to leaflet McDonald's workers, urging them to join unions. On the last day of the trial Dave and Helen stood outside the court to face the press. Dave smiled and said in a loud voice, 'So, anyone wanna leaflet?'

The judge's ruling (to be included in the forthcoming paperback) unsurprisingly found against Helen and Dave on most counts, although there were notable exceptions (such as on low wages and unethical advertising). He awarded McDonald's a derisory 60,000 damages, which Helen and Dave couldn't pay and which McDonald's did not pursue within the four week deadline. (McLibel Support Campaign phone: 0171 713 1269).

Clare Fermont

Culture shock

Milton and the English Revolution

Christopher Hill Faber and Faber 14.99

Christopher Hill's book, republished this year, is remarkable for its thoroughness and its engagement with the revolutionary writer John Milton and the revolutionary mid-17th century. Though the book was first published in 1977, it is still relevant for those seeking a historical understanding of poetry and attempting (like Milton and many of his generation) to change the world.

Hill begins by placing Milton's writings, and the social eruption of the mid-17th century, in the context of a conflict between what Hill calls 'the two cultures'. There was the 'first culture' of the king and most of the nobility, who believed in absolutist monarchy and the authority of bishops with their rituals and image worship. Then there was the 'second culture' of most of the middle class, with its beliefs in the autonomy of ordinary Christians, and the sovereignty of parliament, if not of the (propertied) 'people' who were the electorate.

Milton, Hill explains, was born into the 'second culture'. His father was a London professional and businessman with Puritan leanings. While Milton came from a middle class background, his father was wealthy and well connected enough to provide him with the best education, to support him in the occupation of his choice, and to finance his tour of the continent from which he returned to participate in the English Revolution.

He became an official of the English Republic, and its propagandist in chief who defended the execution of Charles I and the abolition of the monarchy, House of Lords and church hierarchy. When these institutions were restored in 1660 Milton had to go into hiding, was thrown in prison, only narrowly escaped torture and death, and was silenced. Even when he came to devote himself entirely to poetry he remained an enemy of kings and priests.

Hill also demonstrates that Milton does not fit in with the stereotype of Puritans as killjoys. He was denounced for leading an immoral life. He came under fire because he spoke out in favour of divorce and press freedom. His writings celebrate sex, and abound with jokes which are mischievous, even rude. The English Revolution, far from being a 'puritanical' time, was one of unprecedented freedom and experimentation. Milton was a man of his time, only he went further than many of his class.

Hill links Milton to the radicalism and heresy of artisans and labourers who were the backbone of the revolution yet deprived of the vote or even property. There was a 'third culture' of democratic levellers, communist Diggers and anarchist Ranters which became vocal during the revolution. Milton argued for the freedom of this 'third culture' to express itself, and also shared some of its ideas - he straddled the second and third cultures. While some Christians like to see Milton as a model of orthodoxy, Hill shows that he was a heretic.

Hill places Milton's three greatest poems, 'Paradise Lost', 'Paradise Regained' and 'Samson Agonistes' in the context of the defeat of 1660. But, in the case of 'Paradise Lost', he does not subscribe to the romantic view that Satan is the hero of the poem, an archetypal revolutionary of whom Milton secretly approved. Hill sees in the portrayal of Satan the parliamentary leaders and Ranters, whose egotism Milton blamed for defeat, but also royalist rebels against the people. Hill's approach to this poem is not reductionist, and he pays due regard to its complexity and ambivalence.

One criticism of Hill's book is that sometimes it lacks a material context. He relates Milton's writings to the radical ideas of the time but doesn't always relate the ideas to the time itself. Also, when Hill relates poems to ideas, he tends to repetitively list names and sects, a practice I began to find irritating.

As Hill admits, Milton was a man of his time in ways not only positive but also negative. He believed in male supremacy, and opposed rights for Catholics. Also, after 1660, if not earlier, he began to move in an idealist and elitist direction. But in his last poem, 'Samson Agonistes', the defeated revolutionary Samson has his demolitionist revenge on royalist ruling class philistines who no doubt shared the views on architecture of a certain modern day Charles.

Brin Price

When east meets west

Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond Cape 18.99

In Guns, Germs and Steel Diamond sets out to demolish some of the myths about the development of human societies put about by white supremacists.

His starting point is to ask why people from western Europe were able to develop the attributes of modern 'civilisation' and to use them to conquer the rest of the world. He rejects any idea that this was because Europeans were more intellectually able. Partly this is on the grounds that his own experience working in New Guinea proved to him decisively that the indigenous population were easily as intelligent as the average westerner. Partly it is because it is only in the last few hundreds years that societies originating in north western Europe have come to dominate the world.

Instead he bases his account on the way in which in some parts of the world people began, some 13,000 or so years ago, to turn to new ways of obtaining a livelihood from nature. Foraging - 'hunting and gathering' - gave way to the earliest agriculture using the hoe or digging stick.

Over a period of several thousand years some societies made further changes, to more intensive agriculture, reliant on irrigation or draught animals and the plough. They were then able to produce a surplus over and above what was necessary simply to keep the population fed and clothed. The surplus could then be used to sustain a growing population of specialised craft workers, to build up professional armies to wage war and to provide a comfortable existence for a ruling class 'kleptocracy'. It could also provide for full time priests and administrators who, by using markings to symbolise words, embarked on the path of literacy.

He shows how the whole of social life was transformed with these changes in production. The foragers lived in stateless, egalitarian 'band' societies. Non-intensive agriculture was carried out by small village communities where material egalitarianism continued to prevail, although certain individuals enjoyed high prestige. Intensive agriculture was accompanied by a growing stratification into 'chieftainships', with some family lines enjoying hereditary advantages over others. From this it was not that great a step to the emergence of a full grown ruling class, complete with formal state machines that concentrated the surplus into their hands as they exploited the local population and carved out empires over other peoples.

Once this stage had been reached, any society which had not made the transition from the egalitarian foraging band or the village community to the state ran the risk of suffering at the hands of those which had.

It was this process which enabled rulers from Sargon to Alexander and Caesar to incorporate vast swathes of the ancient world into their empires. It was this process too which enabled those late comers, the north west European ruling classes, to conquer two thirds of the world by the beginning of the 20th century.

But Diamond shows that the changes in production which made such conquests possible were not the result of any innate differences in intellectual ability between human groups. The requisite changes only occurred when two conditions were met. Firstly, people had to be motivated to make them, for getting a livelihood through agriculture was often more arduous than hunting and gathering. And so the changes only occurred when climatic or environmental conditions made it more difficult than previously to get a livelihood in the old ways. Otherwise it was simply not rational to adopt agriculture.

Secondly, the geographic environment had to provide the means for beginning to make the move. There had to be local plant and animal species that humans found relatively easy to cultivate and domesticate. But they were only to be found, Diamond argues, in a few areas of the world - the fertile crescent, China, highland New Guinea, West Africa, Sahal Africa, the Mexico-Guatemala area of Central America, the Peru-Ecuador area of South America. Only the diffusion of the new techniques from these areas could allow other peoples to make the transition. But, Diamond argues, geographic obstacles could prevent or delay such diffusion to very large regions of the globe: until the modern period Australia, southern Africa and eastern North America remained without cultivatable crop species, and all of the Americas, Australia and southern Africa without domesticable animals.

Hence, argues Diamond, the ease with which their peoples were conquered by the invaders from Eurasia.It was here that societies emerged with the iron, the cavalry, the gunpowder, the guns and the battle fleets to conquer the rest of the world.

On one issue, however, Diamond's arguments are weak. He does not provide any adequate explanation as to why it was one of the last developing areas of Eurasia, north west Europe, which undertook such conquest. The fault lies with the very approach of geographic and ecological determinism which is so useful in explaining where agriculture took off.

Geography alone cannot explain what happens once class societies emerge. Then something else plays an increasingly significant role - the interacting between newly developing ways of creating wealth and old established ruling class institutions. Or, as Marx used to put it, between 'base' and 'superstructure'.

Diamond fails to see this, and his account of later history suffers as a result. Nevertheless, his book is a useful addition to our knowledge of some of the most important changes society has undergone.

Chris Harman

All in the family

The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy Flamingo 15.99

This first novel by Indian writer Arundhati Roy beautifully draws out the ways in which injustice and loss destroy people's lives and the senselessness, and in particular cruelty, of caste prejudice and a conservative and restrictive 'morality'.

The novel focuses on the family who live in the Ayermenem house in Kottayam, a small town in Kerala. Rahel returns as an adult to the house that she lived in as a child to be reunited with her 'two-egg twin' brother, Estha, who, traumatised by memories, has retreated into a world of silence. The novel shifts around in time to gradually reveal the tragedy at the heart of these memories. This centres on the violent reaction to the discovery of a relationship between the twins' mother, Ammu, who has left her alcoholic and violent husband, and Velutha, an 'untouchable' who works for the family. Alongside this is the tragic and connected death of Sophie Mol - the daughter of Ammu's brother Chacko and his English ex-wife.

The story is told largely through the eyes of the twins, Estha and Rahel, who are seven at the time of the tragedy. The novel is given depth by the tales of the characters who come together at the Ayemenem house, the skilfully drawn relationships between these characters, and the observations and details of life in Kerala.

Set in 1969, The God of Small Things is full of references to the Indian Communist Party which has historically played a strong part in the political life of the region. The Communist Party is shown as something of a local institution. Chacko is a communist but also a local small businessman. The local leader, Comrade Pillai, despite his sloganeering (and calling his son Lenin!), is shown as a self interested opportunist. When Velutha, who is a member of the Communist Party, turns to him for help, he is betrayed and Comrade Pillai tacitly gives the police the go ahead to lynch Velutha. Although we see Velutha participating in a workers' demonstration, we get no real feeling in this novel for why people such as him might be attracted to the Communist Party.

For me, the failure to develop the character of Velutha was one of the biggest disappointments of the novel. Velutha, an 'untouchable' in the Communist Party, is obviously not willing to accept the injustices of his life and is contrasted with the deferential attitudes of his father, showing the potential for change.

Roy shows the injustice of the caste system and the stifling and constructed nature of Christian 'morals' as represented by the twins' vitriolic and manipulative great aunt, Baby Kochamma. Roy shows how these touch the lives of people. These are seen as products of society - 'human history masquerading as God's Purpose'. Yet Roy also seems to contradict this approach when she generalises from the events she depicts, suggesting that there is some 'primal' and 'subliminal' fear that causes the police to beat Velutha up. Violence against caste, like communalist violence, is not a product of some innate primal instinct but a product of a class society that fosters violence and discrimination by pitting people against each other.

Despite this sometimes flawed explanation, The God of Small Things is a wonderful book.

Esme Choonara

On the road to nowhere

Freeways - A Journey West on Route 66

Lewis Davies Parthian Books 10

When John Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath, documenting the forced migration of starving Americans in the 1930s, he left one thing out - before the migrants arrived in California the Growers Association already had Mexican Americans with citizenship rights. To make way for even cheaper new migrants the Mexicans were driven south. To help drive them out welfare assistance was denied.

In Freeways Lewis Davies travels Route 66 - 'a drive along Route 66 from Oklahoma though New Mexico and Arizona to the promised land of California'. It is the highway trecked by the escapees of the dustbowls, destroyed by the depression in the 1930s.

Reaching California, Lewis spent time with organisers of the United Farm Workers Union which was formed in the mid-1960s. In 1965 Filipino vineyard workers struck for higher wages. Attempts to use Mexicans as scab labour led them to vote unanimously to strike as well. In the spring of 1966 they won a wage increase and union recognition. At its peak the union had 100,000 members but shrank during the 1980s, partly due to the Republicans' attacks but also because of the 'realism' of the union leaders.

The union has now gone back to the fields. On a 343 mile march through the San Joaquin valley they recruited 15,000 new members. In the summer of 1994 the 'Save Our State' (SOS) campaign was in full swing in California because Pete Wilson, the famed reactionary state governor, faced re-election. SOS and Proposition 187 set out to attack and scapegoat Spanish speaking immigrants as a drain on the state. Lewis quotes a study which estimates illegal immigrants contributed $4.3 billion to the economy while costing only $947 million in support payments. Total immigrant contributions came to $30 billion.

The union couldn't hide from the politics of 187 - at recruiting meetings Pete Wilson was one more reason to join the union. But Proposition 187 was not about driving out the Mexicans as they had in the 1930s. It was about making Mexican labour even cheaper by cutting all state support.

Freeways is mainly about Lewis's story of Route 66. It delves in and out of the history and people of the road and the history of migration. It is made valuable to socialists by the story of Mexican labour getting organised against SOS and Proposition 187.

Pete Jackson

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