Issue 213 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

REVIEWS

FILMS

A tale of two cities

LA Confidential

Dir: Curtis Hanson

James Ellroy's novels set in 1950s Los Angeles are blisteringly fast paced and violent stories of crooked cops, the mob, and the seamy side of life in the movie capital of the world. Ellroy counters the official mythology of LA as the glitter of Hollywood where the rich and famous live charmed lives alongside the reality of harsh poverty, racism, despair and widescale official corruption.

LA Confidential is a faithful adaptation of one of Ellroy's best novels. It achieves the same relentless pace of action and dialogue, and doesn't whitewash any of the fairly unpleasant characters which is one of the great strengths of the film. All of the central characters are nasty and corrupt in different ways. The story follows three policemen Ed Exley, a clean, upright careerist and snitch; Jack Vincennes, a 'Hollywood cop' (the excellent Kevin Spacey) who advises on a cop show and takes backhanders from a sleazy newspaper writer (Danny De Vito) to make celebrity arrests which make good stories; and Bud White, a brutal thug who takes on some extra-curricular work for his captain, beating those who escape official justice.

The three are brought together when two policemen are beaten up and several Mexicans are arrested for it. The 'culprits' are brought into the station house on Christmas Eve and drunken police beat them and are witnessed by reporters. White and Vincennes are disciplined after Exley testifies against them as a sop to public opinion, and as a result they end up on the trail of different crimes, investigating a porn ring and a coffee shop massacre, which draw them into a complex web of sleaze and violence. Each of them has their own motive either for advancement, revenge or redemption wrapped up in a pretty loose interpretation of justice.

Corruption in Ellroy's books is never confined to the lower echelons. The message is always that the scum rises to the top and LA Confidential is no exception. Here is the LAPD and indeed the city establishment in all its true bigotry and brutality.

LA Confidential is stylish, exciting but not easy to watch it is violent and disturbing. As a thriller it succeeds almost entirely, though it is not quite as dark as Ellroy's book.

The plot is complex, the outcomes are not perfectly worked out and the characters are not heroes, but complicated and damaged human beings, brutalised in part at least by the job they do. It requires concentration to follow the twists and turns of the story, but is well worth the effort.

LA Confidential both manages to hark back to classic film noir, and to be a very nineties thriller. You can feel the shadow of Rodney King and the LA riots in the tale the US police and justice departments are as crooked now as in the 'golden age' of the American Dream.

My one criticism would be that the end is slightly more sentimental than necessary, and the more jarringly so because of the lack of slush in the rest of the film. But if you like hard-boiled fiction and fast moving thrillers with intelligence rather than formula, you'll love this.

Megan Trudell


Capital gold

London Film Festival

Your chance to catch new films before they go out on general release and to see some of the best of films from around the world is at this year's London Film Festival.

The festival opens with a film based on George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying. It is a semi-autobiographical story of a penniless writer in London, written in 1936 when some of the content had to be edited out for fear of libel and outrage at the sexual relationship between Gordon the writer (Richard E Grant) and his girlfriend Rosemary, played by Helena Bonham Carter.

Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway is also brought to the big screen by the director of Antonia's Line, Marleen Gorris. Mrs Galloway (Vanessa Redgrave), the wife of an MP, spends a summer's day at the end of the First World War thinking back to her first meeting with her husband 30 years before. Her life becomes entwined with another man whose life is falling apart as he descends into madness from shell shock.

The Woodlanders is based on a Thomas Hardy story which looks at the tragic effects on two people's lives of the social snobbery and family pressure which keeps them apart. Yet another British production of the many this year is The Winter Guest which is Alan Rickman's first venture on the other side of the cameras. In a cold coastal town in Scotland Emma Thompson and her real life mother, Phyllida Law, play a mother and daughter struggling to come to terms with the death of the daughter's husband and the effect it has had on their whole family.

Still in Britain, 1950s London is the scene for Mojo, a black comedy with Harold Pinter as Mr Ross the gangland boss, and Twentyfour Seven is set on a council estate in the East Midlands. It stars Bob Hoskins as Alan Darcy, an ordinary man determined to give hope to a bunch of local unemployed kids by setting up a boxing club.

Resurrection Man is the latest of many films which look at the troubles in Northern Ireland. This time the subject is the Shankill Butchers, a notorious gang of Loyalist murderers whose name derives from the mutilations they inflicted on their victims. Another, This is the Sea, tells the story of a couple, one Protestant and one Catholic, and the tragic effects their relationship has on their respective families. It is set during the ceasefire of 1994 and despite its subject is an optimistic film.

Foreign films include The Other Shore, the story of Georges Nontero (Claude Brasseur), a Frenchman still living in Algeria who travels back to France for an operation and finds his surgeon is an Algerian. He is forced to confront his past, and his surgeon unexpectedly becomes his ally.

The latest release from the director of the brilliant Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources is Lucie Aubrac. Described as a historical thriller, it is set during the Second World War and follows two young Resistance fighters (Daniel Auteuil and Carole Bouquet) and their courage in the struggle against the Gestapo.

The war in ex-Yugoslavia has already produced a number of films. The latest, Welcome to Sarajevo, is based on the experience of ITN journalist Michael Nicholson, who reported on the war. The film mixes drama with real life news footage and includes Woody Harrelson as a US journalist. Others to look out for include Wim Wenders' latest, The End of Violence, with Gabriel Byrne and Andie MacDowell, and Afterglow, with Nick Nolte and Julie Christie, a comedy satire set in Montreal.

Judith Orr


THEATRE

Stars in their eyes

A Brief History of Time the Stage show

From the book by Stephen Hawking

For all those put off physics by school, Stephen Hawking's bestselling A Brief History of Time recaptured a fascination for science's big ideas.

But a quantum theory stage show? This is the question everyone has been asking director Jon Trevor. 'I never quite understood why in my school career I was made to decide whether I was going to study "the arts" or "the sciences" I couldn't really ever see there was a divide,' he says.

Trevor, through Hawking, introduces us to the places 'where clocks all run at different speeds, where stars collapse to the size of a pinhead, where hordes of curious subatomic particles live impossible existencies controlled by the rule of chance.' It's not quite 'Stephen Hawking the musical', although his machine-made voice does feature in a dance routine with a certain rap style resonance!

Trevor's ambitious production is more 'Big bangs to Black Holes the Quarks Story.' Quarks, which have names like 'strange', 'charm' and 'top', are those very subatomic particles which are the fundamental stuff of life.

Here the animated quarks, as colourful as sunflowers, are given their own distinctive characteristics as they set about explaining the universe from Newton's mechanically developing world to Einstein's breakthrough in shaping the revolution in physics. The show, like its subject, is full of energy. In fact, the cast is supercharged as they act as our guides to the stars, transforming, with engaging wit and charm, the language of the theoretical physicist into a theatrical experience.

Dance, drama, comedy and music are mixed in a way that is both funny and weird at the same time like the universe. Some parts work better than others, occasionally balancing precariously between Blue Peter style presentation and theatre workshop. Mostly, though, the quantum leaps and bounds through time, parallel universes, existing and non-existing states are as enjoyable as they are energetic.

Towards the end we are presented with Hawking's three options for the universe. Either it will continue to expand indefinitely or at some point it will run out of energy and implode, returning to a concentrated bubble of matter and energy which could blow up again. The third option is that it will achieve stability. This, as the show claims, is the big narrative drive!

The director is to be congratulated for an innovative work on how knowledge and understanding of the universe are still developing. Although it makes no great political points apart from a passing reference to Hiroshima as the consequence of splitting the atom and lacks any historical perspective, it encourages you to think. Go and see it because it makes science funny!

Phil Turner

A Brief History of Time is showing throughout Britain during November


Animal farm

Faith

by Meredith Oakes

Faith is a play set in the midst of the Falklands War, where a local farmhouse is being used as a billet for British soldiers. The farmhouse is occupied by a woman, Sandra, who moved to the Falklands to escape 'the riot police...the wogs...and war...in Brixton'. Her retreat has suddenly been interrupted by two armed forces engaged in armed combat in her backyard.

The play is centred around the conflict between the sergeant with 'sore feet' and thus a reluctant soldier, and the lance corporal, Adam, who aims to replace the sergeant by offering leadership to a battle weary regiment through the strict enforcement of orders from above.

The other characters are two rank and file soldiers who through their own experience of battle, and the arguments between the sergeant and corporal, independently begin to question their role in defending the British Empire. Mick, a Liverpudlian, explains that loyalty is not 'being proud of things that are clever. Loyalty only comes into it when you're proud of things that are utterly utterly stupid.'

The conflict focuses on when the British capture an American mercenary. This poses a myriad of problems and questions. When an order comes in for the American's execution, the sergeant vacillates and raises the moral issues of the act. Is this a legitimate act of war or is it murder? The corporal sees this as an example of the sergeant's inability to lead and carry out orders.

The situation is not solely a military one but is also a political issue. The orders for the immediate disposal of the American mercenary are sent from senior politicians. Yet in the long term they wish to keep their distance from the dirty act of execution to maintain the special relationship between Britain and America.

Faith is well worth going to see. It has a strong cast, though the role of the sergeant is sometimes weak. The last words must, however, be given to Mick and Lee, rank and file soldiers who, a long way from home, war weary and lacking sleep, begin to question, 'Why am I here?'

Unjum Mirza

Faith plays at the Royal Court Theatre, London, during November


BOOKS

When the tide broke

The History of the Russian Revolution

Leon Trotsky Pluto 19.99

Ten Days that Shook the World

John Reed Sutton Publishing 19.99

Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?

V I Lenin Sutton Publishing 2.99

These are books which every socialist should read not simply because they recall the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution but because they are written by those at the very heart of greatest revolutionary movement ever witnessed.

Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, republished this year with a new introduction by Tony Cliff, remains the greatest account of how the working class took centre stage to shape its own destiny. For Trotsky the revolution in 1917 cannot be explained without understanding how the crisis developed and how, in turn, this shaped the consciousness of the masses. As he says, 'The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis.'

Russian society at the beginning of 1917 was characterised by extreme backwardness with a large peasantry. But it also had one of the most advanced and concentrated working classes. Trotsky describes how it was the combination of these two classes, under the leadership of the working class, which united with such force throughout 1917.

It was not just a crisis at the bottom of society, but at the very top with a monarchy that was increasingly detached from the reality of everyday life. Trotsky brilliantly captures how Tsar Nicholas was unable to comprehend the growing crisis in the army and on the streets. And when the revolutionary wave broke in February it did so from the most unlikely section of the population women textile workers marked International Women's Day with a strike and demonstration that spread rapidly to other sections of the working class.

This was to unleash a movement so strong and powerful that all in its path was swept aside, culminating in the working class seizure of power. In a book of such magnitude nothing can substitute for the words of the author who was so central to the events at the time: 'The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime.'

For a revolution to be successful, organisation is key. In Russia the Bolshevik Party was the driving force within the revolutionary movement. 'What distinguished Bolshevism', argues Trotsky, 'was that it subordinated the subjective goal, the defence of the interests of the popular masses, to the laws of revolution as an objectively conditioned process.'

If there can be any doubt as to the popularity of the Bolsheviks among the masses and the support they had among the Russian working class (and there are many today who still wish to deny the democratic character of the soviets), there can be no better refutation than John Reed's eyewitness account. In each and every one of its splendid pages Reed lives, eats and breathes the revolution from the side of the working class. This new, illustrated edition is, in the words of its greatest participant, Lenin, 'the most vivid exposition of the event'.

Reed recalls the seizure of power as follows:

'So it was beginning! They made towards the battle; and the worker hordes pouring out along the straight roads quickened their pace... Thus along all points of attack automatically converged angry human swarms, to be met by commissars and assigned positions, or work to do. This was their battle, for their world; the officers in command were elected by them. For the moment that incoherent multiple will was one will.'

What distinguishes Reed's account is how he captures the ebb and flow of the revolutionary masses, and the importance he gives to the propaganda at the time. Lenin's polemical pamphlet Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power? is a lesson in revolutionary tactics. It was written at the beginning of October when the question of state power began to dominate not only the working class movement, but also sections of the Bolshevik leadership.

Lenin was obsessed with convincing the most advanced sections of the working class that if they overthrew the old order, the soviets could establish and, even more importantly, hold onto power. This occurred at a time when the Bolsheviks had growing strength and influence within the soviets as the working class became more conscious of its revolutionary potential. Lenin had to fight against those conservative elements in the revolutionary leadership who were slow to grasp the situation. He also had to convince them of the potential of establishing a new society under workers' control. As Lenin saw it, this was a fight that had to be won. 'If not', he says, 'we will ruin the party and the revolution.'

But the party wasn't ruined and the revolution won. For that the we owe an enormous debt to the Bolsheviks and their leadership under Lenin and Trotsky. These books stand as a tribute to all those workers who fought in 1917 and are a valuable weapon for those who stand in their tradition.

Pete Morgan


Mind The Gap

No Sweat

Ed: Andrew Ross Verso 14

Pinky, a Bangladeshi girl, pointed at her feet. 'Look,' she said. 'From standing all day at the factory.' Her feet looked like the webbed feet of a duck, so spread out and flattened were they. The deformity is a trademark among the thousands of children in Bangladesh who work in clothing factories for up to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, for about 7 a month.

Around 150 years ago Karl Marx graphically described how wage slavery distorts the human body, each limb and muscle shaped by repetitive and relentless work. If anyone believes that Marx's ideas are outdated, then a quick look at the world's clothing industry should put them straight.

In Haiti, for example, a young mother works for Disney, sewing Pocahontas shirts. The plant is hot, poorly lit and dusty. Rats are everywhere and the one toilet is filthy. Supervisors constantly scream at her to work faster, often abusively. She handles 375 shirts an hour, each selling in the US for $11.97 more than her average weekly wage of $10.77. She hates her work and is constantly made ill by it. But she has no choice. Without it, she and her children would starve to death quickly rather than slowly.

A very different life is enjoyed by the man who indirectly employs her, Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive officer. In 1996 he earned the equivalent of $97,600 an hour, 325,000 times her hourly rate, taking home over $200 million from salary and stock options.

The brutal exploitation of workers in the clothing industry is not confined to the developing world. In fact, some of the most shocking examples can be found in the richest country of the world. In 1995 US government officials raided a compound in El Monte, California. They found 72 Thai garment workers who had been held in slavery for up to seven years, sewing clothes for some of the nation's best known manufacturers. The women worked more than 18 hours a day in a compound enclosed by barbed wire. Armed guards imposed discipline and imprisonment.

The prevalence of such appalling working conditions is partly explained by the nature of the industry. Much of clothing manufacture cannot be easily mechanised, so production remains small scale, labour intensive.

These factors encourage subcontracting, both to small 'sweatshops' and to home workers. In both situations, working conditions are difficult to monitor (by unions or government agencies), workers are isolated and vulnerable, and the big industrial names can distance themselves from the slaves.

Wages are also driven down by threats to transfer production to countries where labour is cheaper. Nike, for instance, closed its New Hampshire and Maine factories and subcontracted its work to factories in Korea and Taiwan. As unions spread in these two countries, the company shifted its suppliers to Indonesia, China and Thailand, where the governments still successfully suppress independent trade unions.

The US government has encouraged companies to find cheap labour abroad so keeping the pressure on local wages. For example, it gave over $100 million to the Salvadorian Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) via the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to start up factories in new free trade zones. In case the message was lost at home, FUSADES placed ads in US journals saying:

'Rosa Martinez produces apparel for US markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for 33 cents an hour. Rosa is more than just colourful. She and her co-workers are known for their industriousness, reliability and quick learning.'

The impact of the corporate strategy can be seen in the US. In 1961, 4 percent of garments sold in the US were imports. Today, the figure is over 60 percent and climbing. Half a million jobs in the industry have gone since 1979. Studies by the US Department of Labour show that laid off apparel workers return to the labour market earning on average 85 percent of their former (miserable) pay.

No Sweat is a powerful collection of essays by people involved in the US garment workers' union UNITE, journalists and academics. By giving voice to the workers, it eloquently answers one of UNITE's sayings, 'The care tag tells you how to treat the garment but not how the worker who made it was treated.'

More importantly, the book shows how workers have fought back, staging strikes that have had influence beyond the industry. Inspiring pictures accompany the accounts of resistance, covering everything from the dramatic walk out by mainly Jewish workers at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909 to recent more mass rallies by Chinese workers in Los Angeles.

No Sweat also shows the link between working conditions and worker organisation. By the mid-1960s more than half the workers in the US garment industry were unionised, real wages had been rising for decades, and 'sweatshops' were few and far between. After the subsequent onslaught on trade unionism, particularly under Reagan, 'sweatshops' have returned with a vengeance and El Monte style stories abound.

In the face of such defeats, the contributors to this book seem to have forgotten their own evidence that workers can improve or transform the world which so exploits them. Instead, the writers look to consumer campaigns, claiming they have made people, especially the rich, feel embarrassed about their designer labels and have forced companies such as The Gap and Levi to ask suppliers to abide by codes of practice.

Even at their most successful, the campaigns can only achieve temporary or superficial changes. The book itself shows the problem: the US Department of Labour has 800 inspectors to monitor 6 million workplaces. Even if they all monitored the 22,000 registered clothing plants, they would have their hands full. When they did do a random survey in 1996 in southern California, they found 99 percent of clothing plants visited violated regulations in some way; 96 percent broke health and safety rules (72 percent of these to the extent that conditions were life threatening); and over half failed to pay overtime.

It is not difficult to imagine how much worse it must be where there is no monitoring, in the backstreet shops in California, in the free trade zones of Central America and the Caribbean, or in China or Indonesia.

Iqbal Masih, a child labour activist in Pakistan, recently told the world how at the age of nine he had been chained to his loom. He certainly had nothing to lose but his chains, and fought until he was murdered to prove it. And people still say Marx's ideas are outdated!

Clare Fermont


Heroic but hopeless protest

Damned to Fame

James Knowlson Bloomsbury 8.99

Samuel Beckett, arguably the greatest European playwright of the 20th century, is conventionally regarded as an 'apolitical' writer. Literary critics tend to treat his plays and novels as stylistic experiments, interpreting their content as an abstract meditation on something called 'the human condition'. In fact, his often pessimistic work cannot be understood without reference to the age of extremes through which he lived. James Knowlson's official biography proves this conclusively, though it does not go quite far enough in relating Beckett's life to his times.

Beckett grew up in a comfortable middle class village on the edge of Dublin, insulated from the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the First World War. But his social conscience was awakened when he moved to the centre of Dublin as a student in the 1920s. At Trinity College, under the influence of anti-clerical tutors, he abandoned his Protestant faith which could not explain the inequalities and sufferings that he witnessed on the city's streets.

He began his restless career as a writer, straining often unsuccessfully to have his novels and plays published. His attitude at this time may be summed up by a character in his later play Endgame (1957): 'Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!'

Visiting Germany in the mid 1930s, Beckett was disturbed by the Nazis' anti-Semitic propaganda and shocked by their censorship of so called 'decadent art'. As Knowlson shows, this was a formative experience in two ways. Firstly, Beckett went on to fight for the Resistance while living in France during the war. Secondly, he was to struggle against censorship in the post-war years, as the Lord Chamberlain, responsible for vetting British theatre, regarded Beckett's work as blasphemous. Despite official disapproval, his reputation as a playwright grew rapidly from the 1950s, climaxing in the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. He felt constrained to accept this accolade, though his contempt for celebrity prevented him from receiving it in person.

In Beckett's writing, the personal is both the beginning and end of the political, and this is, respectively, its strength and weakness. His most famous play, the 'tragicomedy' Waiting for Godot (1952), is a powerful exploration of human beings' daily struggle to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world, and to find comradeship in a cruelly unequal society. What it lacks is an answer to oppression that looks beyond the heroic but hopeless protest of the individual. Even his most politically explicit play, Catastrophe (1984), dedicated to the imprisoned Vaclav Havel, is subject to the same dilemma: the only character is an actor who, brutally manipulated by his dictatorial director, rebels by subtly contravening instructions.

Like the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, Beckett was a brilliant interpreter of the psychological consequences of living in a society based on economic alienation. But, unlike Brecht, he was unable to dramatise the ways in which such a society might be changed.

Knowlson's biography of Beckett is a highly readable and enjoyable account of his life. It dispels the image of him as a detached and clinical literary formalist by drawing attention to his personal warmth and humour and to his commitment to the fight against fascism and censorship. In addition, by exploring the rich biographical associations that underlay Beckett's evocative use of language, it makes the reader greedy to turn to his novels and plays.

Matt Beaumont


Villains and victims

Different for Girls

Joan Smith Chatto and Windus 10

When Beatrix Campbell suggests that a book should have been pulped then the book in question suddenly becomes more alluring especially as her criticism is based on a first chapter on Princess Diana. Entitled 'To Die For', this was written before the Paris car crash and so should be commended for the accuracy of its prophecy.

Different for Girls is a look at women cultural icons of the late 20th century, how ordinary women fit in with the stereotypes created and how they are treated when they digress. With references from everything from Little Women and Greek mythology to the film Double Indemnity, Smith shows up the contradictions of the media and sections of popular culture which say that women and men are now equal, or even that women have won the sex war, while at the same time demonstrating quite the opposite in the way in which they portray women.

The chapter on Diana is a welcome breath of fresh air after the weeks of sycophantic eulogy that her death provoked. Smith shows how adept Diana was at cultivating her 'victim' image while living a lifestyle of which most divorced single mothers could only dream. She points out that if Diana had really wanted to act away from the limelight and the royal family she could have moved out of her palace, changed her name back to Spencer and got a job.

She goes on to issue the warning which so enraged Beatrix Campbell who claims that Diana's story tells us about pain, power and protest: 'What Diana seemed to have forgotten...was the traditional fate of the women with whom she had chosen to bracket herself...Phaedra...Desdemona, Madame Butterfly, Violetta, Norma, Mimi...they all wind up young, beautiful and dead. Poison, strangulation, speeding trains...these are what lie in wait for the donna abbandonata: it is emphatically not a long term career option'!

The book's style continues in similar vein although she does address more weighty subjects. The section on fertility reveals the continuing pressures on women to fulfil the ultimate female role as mother while the figures show that record numbers of women are having children later in life or not at all.

Sources from the bible to 20th century gynaecologists are quoted to demonstrate how childless women have been regarded as incomplete. Professor Ian Craft, renowned for his work on in vitro fertilisation, is said to believe that for most people finding out they are infertile is harder to deal with than being told they have cancer. Another proposes that infertility treatment 'should come before chemotherapy for advanced cancers, hip replacements and cataract surgery'. Apart from the fact that any health rationing should be opposed, such priorities do tell us something about the values of society.

Another chapter, 'Unnatural Born Killers', looks at the cases of Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, both jailed for life for their part in a series of horrific murders. Smith shows very well that in each case the women are treated with a venom and hysteria that the men involved did not receive. Although there is evidence that both women were entrapped in an abusive and violent relationship with the male with whom they murdered at the time of Hindley's trial in 1966 newspaper reports referred to her as the older Ian Brady's 'sex slave' current popular opinion is that in each case the woman was the prime mover and inherently evil.

Most commentators overlooked the fact that Rosemary West was convicted only after the jury asked the judge, 'Is the total absence of direct evidence, other than the presence of remains linking the victims to 25 Cromwell Street, an obstruction to bringing in a guilty verdict?'

These examples do make a stark case for the fact that women are not yet treated equally with men, yet there are so many unanswered questions most importantly, why? And in one case in particular Smith's feminism gets in the way of seeing beyond the gender divide to the real forces at work when she writes about the role of the Child Support Agency. She bemoans the fact that mothers are always seen as responsible for the moral and material upbringing of children when it's normally men who leave women in the lurch. But she then goes on to talk in positive terms about an agency which was not set up to right the wrong about women's role in society but to save the state money, as the only fathers who are chased for maintenance are those whose ex-partners are claiming benefits. Here she pinpoints individual men as the problem when a look at the wider issues would have exposed the contradictions of the situation, something which the rest of the book does attempt.

Judith Orr


The price of a cup of tea

Fruits Of Empire

James Walvin Macmillan 15.99

What could be more British than a cup of sweet tea? The potato? Early morning coffee? Chocolate? The cigarette? But none of these goods originated in Britain. They were first produced in Africa, South America and Asia. And they became popular in Britain only in the second half of the 17th century during the period of capitalist expansion following the revolution of 1640-60.

This excellent book traces the processes by which these tastes were introduced into British society. Tea drinking, for example, began in China and spread first as a byproduct of trade. In the 1660s and 1670s afternoon tea became an important social custom among the ruling classes in Britain and Holland. By the 18th century it had spread to the mass of the people.

Coffee originated in Ethiopia from where it spread to Yemen. It was imported to Britain from Turkey. Like tea, it gained popularity from glowing medical reports. The companies promised that coffee would cure 'rickets and swooning fits; it helps digestion, eases pains of the head, raises the blood, suppresses vapours, gives life and gaiety to the spirit, hinders sleepiness after victuals, provokes urine and the courses, and contracts the bowels.'

Chocolate came from Mexico, where the cocoa bean was mixed with chilli, allspice, achiote and vanilla. This sour blend was whipped into a froth and then allowed to cool until it was almost solid. Chocolate, like tea and coffee, was popular with Europeans because of its sweet taste. But in their original conditions all were drunk bitter. It was the introduction of sugar which enabled these products to succeed.

By the 1660s the English consumed two pounds of sugar per head every year. This sugar was brought from the Caribbean. Millions of slaves were taken from Africa to work in the plantations. A small number of European merchants were able to make fabulous profits, while millions of slaves died labouring in the cane fields or working the processing factories.

For the merchants to be able to bring back these pleasures for the tables of rich Europeans, they had to clear the land. In South and Central America the indigenous people were slaughtered. They were murdered in war, and then decimated by the diseases brought by their conquerors. Between Columbus and the plantations the population of Mexico fell by 95 percent, Peru by 93 percent, Nicaragua by 92 percent, Guatemala by 94 percent.

After the merchants, the soldiers and the explorers, came the priests. Christianity took root in the Americas among the most miserable, the worst defeated tribes, and the fastest declining populations. It was where people were most desperate that the missionaries had their most success.

One of the most interesting things about this book is its willingness to portray the bloody nature of Britain's colonial past. Walvin stresses again and again the brutal history of the foods and drinks that we take for granted. He also shows that the success of imperialism made it easier for the rich to attack the workers and peasants in their home countries. At exactly the same time that rich London merchants began to set up coffee houses for their idle pleasure, so peasants in England and Ireland were forced to adopt the American potato as the main part of their diet.

At times the book seems underwritten. There are too many repetitions and the argument is weakest when James Walvin comes nearer to the present. Walvin makes the mistake of presenting all Europeans as slavedrivers and oppressors. In reality, there were hundreds of thousands of working class people who campaigned against slavery or who supported or identified with the great slave revolts. By ignoring the people who did protest, Walvin lets the real exploiters off the hook.

Overall though, the book is lively and well argued. It is full of interesting detail. It blames our rulers for the crimes they committed. I would certainly recommend it.

Dave Renton


Memories were made of this

Were you Still Up for Portillo?

Brian Cathcart Penguin 5.99

Rifkind, Lang, Newton, Forsyth, Waldegrave, Freeman...and Portillo. One day every good school will require its pupils to learn the names of these Tory cabinet ministers of 1997 by rote and to recall the particular crimes of each. The next lesson will describe how they were humiliatingly rejected, trashed and trodden on by the voters on 1 May. Brian Cathcart's book will be enjoyed by almost everyone in Britain because it is a description of the massacre of the guilty.

You may already know a lot about that wonderful night. You were there, you devoured the papers the next day and may well have a scrapbook of pictures of crying Conservatives. Of course you know that it was the worst Tory share of the vote since 1832 and their lowest number of seats since 1906. But did you know, 'In all the years between the landslide of 1945 and 1997, through 13 general elections, just six serving cabinet ministers had lost their seats. Now seven had gone in a single night.'

However much you followed every detail you will have missed something mentioned in this book. For example, I was probably out collecting a bottle from the fridge when Norman Lamont's defeat was announced. I had not known that a group of students drowned out the former chancellor's speech with a recording of Je ne Regrette Rien and that they also unveiled a banner saying, 'If it isn't hurting, it isn't working.' Or was it just that the BBC didn't show this marvellous moment?

The book brings home how Labour's 'modernisers' were determined, as soon as the result became clear, that they would take all the glory for themselves and their strategy. Peter Mandelson, for example, declared, 'What swung it was New Labour, it was the transformation of the Labour Party in the last two or three years that really clinched it.' But Cathcart shows that the Tory defeat was practically sealed in 1992 by Black Wednesday and the pit closures revolt, not after Blair's election.

A revealing quote comes from Chris Mullin, the MP for Sunderland South, the first seat to declare its result that historic night. 'Nothing prepared me for what happened. During the campaign I saw no particular enthusiasm among my own electorate. I've been involved in every election since 1970 and I've never seen such apathy and indifference.' It is a sign of how out of touch the Labour Party was almost all the leaders were shocked to the core by what happened. But the quote also demonstrates that the real enthusiasm was not directly for Blair's New Labour but for the changes a Labour victory might open up.

Indirectly Cathcart shows that Labour's win had nothing to do with the clever 'targeting' of seats by the Millbank Tower team. For example, Thanet South, the constituency of Jonathan Aitken, was regarded as unwinnable by New Labour's election team. Labour activists in the area were told to go elsewhere. In fact, Thanet South went Labour by 3,000 on a 15 percent swing.

This book is not the definitive analysis of the election. It does not show how much it was a class vote or how much it was a mandate for fundamental change. It has far too much on the media coverage of the night.

It has also missed one of my favourite stories. Rupert Allason, the Tory MP for Torbay, was a confidant of the secret services and a jet setting right winger. The story is that, despite his immense wealth, he declined to tip the staff at a restaurant a few days before the election. They had all been planning to vote for him but now changed their minds. This cost him 14 votes. He lost by 12.

But Were you Still Up for Portillo? is worth its price for the pictures of unhappy Tories alone. You will enjoy it.

Charlie Kimber


Lessons in learning

Rethinking Education and Democracy

Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty The Tuffnell Press 7.95

The constant blast of right wing rhetoric about education from all the major political parties excludes rational, humanistic, socialist thinking on the subject. So when a book appears reiterating the old ideals of all round, lifelong learning, it comes like a breath of fresh air.

Rethinking Education and Democracy makes the education of a rounded, cultured, collectivist society seem extraordinarily simple and reasonable. In so doing it shows up the current competitive market ideology for what it is anti-educational, anti-cultural in any broad sense, confining the spirit, narrowing the outlook, increasing social polarisation, and thus serving to discipline the vast majority for the profit of the small minority.

The book presupposes that capitalism 'is not likely to survive unquestioned' and its educational proposals serve both to challenge capitalism and present a model for a future socialist society.

It deals with the requirements for 'creative and scientific advance through collaborative learning' without any selection, with common entitlements and equitably funded juxtaposing its proposals to the regressive changes of the Tory and present Labour governments.

The book places a heavy emphasis and devotes much space to post 18 education that is, lifelong learning, which, because the majority work, would be part time and locally based in 'comprehensive' networks of institutions that cover the country. The authors sum up their work in a way that, in the present educational climate, is most refreshing: 'Education in the 21st century should be for human development, sustainable economies and equitable societies.'

There are a few comments I would make. One concerns a final school examination which the book envisages as incorporating GCSE, A level, GNVQ etc into a single system of modular courses with transferable credits leading to an exam at 17 or 18 in a variety of modes for the entire age group. Assessment of educational achievement will always be required. But the form it takes in a socialist society cannot be predicted. Every big social upheaval brings the subject to the fore, and the book's prescription may well be one examined when the time comes.

A different prescription was that which was carried out immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917. This was to abolish all exams (but not assessment as such). As a result university entrance in 1919 in the most dire circumstances of the raging civil war doubled, showing the great eagerness for 'lifelong learning' without the hurdle of an exam to overcome.

Another comment concerns the transition to a socialist society which the book does not deal with. The authors' thinking on that question cannot be judged. But the history of social change has given many pointers to the direction education will take.

The apex of social change is revolution, and the numerous revolutionary movements we have seen this century even though failing in the end to achieve a socialist transformation have been, for education, wonderful laboratories of polemic and experimentation. I feel the book, travelling along the same highway as those revolutionary innovators, would have benefited by having a brief insight into the educational theory and practice of these attempts. But in the current dearth of progressive tracts on education, this book makes a very refreshing change and should be read.

Chanie Rosenberg


Don't mess with Britain?

Dangerous Men

John Newsinger Pluto 10.99

John Newsinger's book examines the reality behind the myth of the British SAS. In recent years there has been a glut of highly publicised SAS memoirs, which have served to reinforce the image of the SAS as the 'world's premiere elite unit', capable of making the difference in war between winning and losing. Newsinger debunks the myth, tracing the history of the SAS from its formation in the Second World War, through its clandestine post colonial role as British government backed mercenaries, to the publicly promoted and hyped image of the 1980s.

From the Second World War to the Gulf War, the involvement of the SAS was not decisive in any battle the outcome depended instead on the scale of conventional weapons ranged on either side.

One of Newsinger's main arguments is that the public promotion of the SAS fitted the needs of the British ruling class in the 1980s, wishing to recreate a popular idea of Britain as a great power, when in reality it was ever declining. The prime time images of the SAS's storming the Iranian Embassy in 1980 fitted the bill perfectly.

The extent to which certain sections of the ruling class believed their own propaganda is demonstrated in the accounts of Thatcher sitting with members of the SAS watching video replays of the storming of the embassy.

The book examines the huge range of SAS literature magazines, autobiographies, fiction, history and films which expose the institutional brutality of the SAS. In Northern Ireland the politically sanctioned 'shoot to kill' policy was carried out by SAS soldiers who describe their frustrations with politicians who 'did not have the courage to let the lads sort it out'. No surprise then that between 1976 and 1978 the SAS killed ten people seven IRA volunteers and three bystanders a proportion of 'mistakes' considered sufficient to lower the profile of the regiment in the North until 1983.

Newsinger clearly exposes the mixture of 'Boy's Own' fantasy and right wing paranoia which makes up the SAS myth. However, John Newsinger does much more than just poke fun at the SAS. He concludes that the establishment's attempts to popularise the SAS is already waning. Ministry of Defence top brass have clamped down on SAS memoirs because they are increasingly revealing widespread contempt for officers and dissatisfaction with aspects of army life and security policy.

Suzanne Jeffrey


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