It is tempting to view Cleansed, Sarah Kane's follow up to her controversial Blasted, as a deliberate wind up for Daily Mail readers. Every tabloid notion of perversity is tossed into the stew: its gratuitous kit removal, incest, bondage, hard drugs, homosexuality, transvestism, torture and rape have already ignited the inevitable moral rant in the press. However, theatre goers will find themselves less dazzled by Kane's daring and more in sympathy with the opening week heckler who wailed pitifully, 'What's it about?' not so much a demonstration of ignorance as a plea for some semblance of coherence in this frustrating clutter of shock-horror clichés.
Grace (Suzan Sylvester), the heroine, undergoes a series of ordeals when she enters a strange institutional setting in search of her brother, Graham (Martin Marquez), who has died from a heroin overdose injected by sinister all purpose authority figure Tinker (Stuart McQuarrie). Drawing heavily on Pasolini's banned movie Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, the play shows Grace and the outcast inmates arbitrarily tortured, mutilated and killed by Tinker and an invisible cohort of sadists in a series of disconnected tableaux interlaced with a flowers and sunshine motif.
Sexual love is the last refuge for the oppressed in this world (read: our society), the only chance for transcending the surrounding horrors with change not being an available option. But even that can't prevent grim reality closing in by the end. Grace enjoys sex with her brother's ghost until she becomes him, transformed finally by Tinker's mad surgery rather than her spiritual assimilation of Graham. Carl and Rod are punished for their homosexuality through Carl's gradual dismemberment. Tinker himself emerges as every bit as much a victim of his own warped sexuality as his charges.
Kane appears to launch a remorseless assault on complacent bourgeois sensibilities, bludgeoning audiences into a state of mind that might be receptive to some sort of argument if only the author was presenting one. 'And so what?' was this reviewer's mournful refrain after 95 minutes of unrelenting unpleasantness (but beautifully designed by Jeremy Herbert despite his ostentatious visual druggy puns around 'snow' and 'grass'). Nothing remotely insightful crawls from beneath the minimalist story's surface. Someone should remind Kane that producing banality on stage is not the same as evoking 'the banality of evil' which writer Hannah Arendt famously ascribed to the Nazis. Kane's pessimistic paralysis in the face of social breakdown is an implosion of vision directly resulting from the lack of any ideological analysis.
Her irritating fractured dialogue apes the sparseness of Harold Pinter's, but without the full malevolence lurking in his powerful subtext. In fact Kane's vacuums provide plenty of opportunity to play 'spot the reference'. Star Trek's Dr McCoy punctuates Truly, Madly, Deeply; Orwell's 1984 vies with the Marx Brothers; Pinter and Beckett meet Irvine Welsh and miss. It's as if the playwright, having lost the tools of the trade, resorts to flinging bones in the air whilst hoping for their miraculous transformation into 2001 style spacecraft.
Cleansed is at the Royal Court at the Ambassors Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2
How do you link the 30th anniversary of the events in May 68 with the one year anniversary of the Blair government? The Red Room, an award winning theatre company known for original and critical productions, has marked the occasion with a festival of political writing. The playwrights' brief was to write about either or both of these anniversaries and the result is 15 different productions that look at these events through the eyes of ordinary people. These include Election Night in the Yard written by Roddy McDevitt, centred in the courtyard of an inner city block of squats recently taken over by property developers.
The play covers the euphoria of Labour's triumph and the bitter dawn the next morning as people face the reality of living in poverty and the continued struggle to make ends meet. Les Evenements written by James MacDonald is a drama set in Paris today on the 30th anniversary of the events of May 68. It deals with police violence, racism and people fighting back by taking over the streets and building barricades.
Along with these productions, every Sunday at 8pm the Red Room hosts Conspiracy described as 'an explosion of live performance and participation in response to the politics of NOW.' It includes video, film, poetry, stand-up, music and, above all, audience participation.
Seeing Red is at the Battersea Arts Centre, Wandsworth, until 28 June
The James Gang is the story of a woman and her four children on the run from the law. It was inspired by video footage from a surveillance camera in a London jewellery store of what appeared to be a family of organised jewel thieves. While the children ran amok the parents calmly pocketed the jewels. The family in The James Gang, however, are far from being calculating criminals. I asked screenwriter Stuart Hepburn about the story. He said he was sent the surveillance video as a possible source for a feature film. His task was to consider what circumstances bring people to such an acute state of desperation that they would put themselves and their family at such risk. In this touching and often humorous film Stuart Hepburn makes a creditable stab at an explanation.
Bernadette James, deserted by her husband who has gone off to seek fame and fortune in London, struggles to bring up her four young children in an Edinburgh housing estate, but when her home is fire-bombed as a vicious penalty for her husband's bad debts Bernie feels she has no alternative but to go to London to find her husband.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Bernie's eldest son, Spendlove James Junior, and has much of the poignancy and insight into the child's world of Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog, a film that Hepburn says was a 'major influence'. The main pivot of the film, however, is Bernie, a woman who will go to any lengths to keep her family together. She has to do this without help from her reckless husband (John Hannah) who can't cope with responsibility, noise and nappies. Hepburn confided that 'every one of the characters in the screenplay is some aspect of myself'. While he is the caring loving parent who puts his family before anything, he is also the guy who would rather be down the pub with his mates on karaoke night forgetting he has any responsibility. He has made Bernie the central character simply he says, because he is 'bored with films about men'.
Helen McCrory is superb as Bernie, a woman in the most desperate circumstances but behaving with great
strength and dignity. Bernie's actions are driven solely by love and concern for her family. She has no plan when she embarks on her crime spree she simply reacts to the circumstances in which she finds herself, in what she considers to be the best interests of her loved ones. It is this, I believe, which gives the film its credibility. The story engages both intellectually and emotionally and we are left pondering the scriptwriter's dilemma. What drives ordinary people to desperate acts?
In stark contrast to the bleak, oppressive urban locations of earlier scenes the film ends on the beautiful, golden beaches of Barra on a note of optimism which echoes Hepburn's philosophy. 'Surely' he says, 'in this rotten world we have to hope we can make a better future for our kids.'
This exhibition reflects the lives of the artist's family and friends from over the last couple of generations in Salford: photos from the family album, the young, the old, the friends at work, the days out.
By mixing in photos of Chetham's Library in Manchester where Marx and Engels both worked and some shots of the local mills owned by Ermen and Engels, where Engels worked as a partner, it raises the relevance of Marx and Engels' ideas to working class families in Salford.
It isn't a fashionable question. This modest exhibition, just 50 photographs, is not trying to be fashionable.
Rather it tries and succeeds in provoking a real discussion about what has been going on under the Tories and is still going on under Blair: the decline of established inner city communities, continuing exploitation, unemployment, inequality.
The venue, the new Salford Arts Space, in a converted pool hall and factory, is also connecting with what is going on in the lives of ordinary people. As such it is a wonderful contrast to the planned multi-million Lowry Centre in Salford's new Docklands: 'art as heritage', keeping the working class carefully confined to the pictures on the wall.
This is a powerful and important book. It is a disgrace that the Labour government first attacked it, then considered whether to ban it, and finally unleashed a newspaper lynch mob against the woman who is its subject.
Mary Bell was convicted in 1968 of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. The day before her eleventh birthday she killed four year old Martin Brown. Nine weeks later accompanied by her 13 year old friend Norma Bell she killed three year old Brian Howe.
Gitta Sereny's book makes three crucial points. She shows that even these horrific murders have a context, rooted in social and personal history something that has been largely ignored in the press reviews. She goes on to argue that the present legal system is totally unsuitable for dealing with cases of wrongdoing by children. Finally she shows that people who have done terrible things are not necessarily terrible people and that they can lead normal lives under different circumstances.
Sereny's book matters because she looks at the awful social and economic conditions in which Mary Bell grew up. Some people argue that there must be something genetic or inbuilt about crimes such as murder because people brought up in similarly difficult circumstances to Mary Bell do not commit such acts. Certainly many children were, like Mary, brought up in a poor part of a big city. In her case it was Scotswood, Newcastle, with its 50 percent unemployment rate even in the 'booming' 1960s.
There must be many fewer who would also have to say, 'Apart from my mother's brother who had been in the army, my Auntie Audrey's husband who was a long distance lorry driver and Auntie Cath's husband who worked in the mines until he got ill, I didn't know anyone who worked.' But direct economic hardship was only a small part of the horror in Mary's life. The most immediate danger was her mother, Betty.
By the end of Gitta Sereny's book you are appalled by Betty Bell, but also profoundly sorry for her. An obsessive Catholic, she was sent away to the harsh mercies of the nuns in a convent when pregnant with Mary outside wedlock. She greeted Mary's birth with the cry, 'Take the thing away from me!' On at least four occasions she tried to kill the infant Mary. She repeatedly tried to give her away to relatives and, twice, to complete strangers.
Betty was a prostitute and, from the time Mary was four, Betty offered her to the clients. Mary's reaction to this was anger, terror and deep confusion. To speak out would be to accuse her mother of unimaginable crimes. This she did not do for 30 years, until after her mother was dead. The alternative was to bottle up her feelings and to escape into a fantasy world where real life was a wretched hallucination. But this made it difficult for her to differentiate between right and wrong.
During 1968 Mary and Norma began to test out the world around them. They started with relatively trivial incidents. They moved on to almost strangling a child to death and then Mary actually killed little Martin. She and Norma left notes claiming the murder and visited the grieving family. And then Brian Howe was killed.
Gitta Sereny does not try to excuse what happened, but she certainly helps us to understand it. Mary simply did not understand what death meant. Also, as part of her mother's sexual menu, Mary had been strangled until unconscious during sessions with the clients. She had then 'lived again' why shouldn't the little boys?
The judicial system treated Mary and Norma in the same way as it did adults, just as it did the killers of James Bulger three decades later. Facing the full pomp of the court, Mary lurched between moments when she laughed at its strangeness and moments when she believed that the process would end with her swinging from the gallows. The judge deemed her 'wicked'. Norma Bell was surrounded by a supportive family and was admitted to a mental hospital for observation while she was on remand. She was acquitted.
Mary went to a prison remand home during the trial and the main family support seemed to the court to be her increasingly unstable mother. None of the truth about Mary's background came before the court and she was found guilty. The judge said Mary should go to a mental hospital, but no institution was considered able to take her. So she went into the prison system.
Mary's rebuilding of her life since the trial is a remarkable story. It was achieved despite the system that locked her away. Her first major placement was Red Bank Special Unit, the secure part of an approved school. Revelations since this book was published suggest sexual abuse against Mary may have continued there.
Fortunately a handful of individuals in authority at Red Bank, including the headteacher, treated Mary decently. But whatever the progress at Red Bank, it ended in 1973 when Mary was removed to Styal maximum security prison because she was now an adult. Here, she says, 'I learnt very quickly that the more one was in opposition, the better one felt.' From then, the press were gearing up for their later deluge. Whenever Betty Bell was a bit short of money, she sold a story to the papers. She spiced these with letters and poems, entirely fictional, which she claimed Mary had written. The papers loved it, and paid for the stories.
Mary was eventually released, but the system made very little provision for her. This young woman, who had spent half her life in a variety of prisons, now drifted into a series of dead end jobs. She went to college and was very happy there. But the probation service made clear she could never be a teacher or counsellor as she wanted, so she left. She began geriatric nursing, but again a probation officer insisted she could never work permanently in such a situation. All the time Betty was feeding reporters information and Mary's addresses.
Incredibly, Mary remade herself, had a child and began to confront her past. Not a day goes by without her feeling guilt about what she did and the pain she caused. But she has found some sort of normality. The man she lives with now, pilloried by the press recently, is a committed anti-racist who once stopped work and was sacked because he believed there had been racial discrimination by his boss. Mary, her partner and her daughter had some sort of peace until this book was greeted so disgracefully by Labour and the press. Its great weakness is Sereny's recommendations for the future more discipline in schools, greater sanctions to make parents responsible for their children and so on. The personal tragedies that Mary and others in this book suffered are so awful that it would take a complete change in society to do away with their roots. If you do not have this sort of analysis, you end up with answers that fall far short of the problem or even worsen it. That said, this is still a remarkable examination of someone who was broken by society and then somehow found their way back.
Thomas More is a contradictory figure in British history. The usual picture of him is that immortalised in modern cinema of A Man for All Seasons, beheaded by Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to support the king's divorce from his first wife. More went to his death on a matter of conscience he refused to swear an oath he didn't believe in and he is now a saint in the Catholic Church.
The real history is much more complex, and is the subject of Peter Ackroyd's new biography.
More was part of the Europe wide movement in the late 15th century usually dubbed 'humanism'. The humanists were a loose group of international scholars who communicated in their common language, the Latin of the Catholic Church, which was then the universal religion of western Europe. They pioneered a new emphasis on learning and rational inquiry, and the newly invented printing press gave their ideas wide circulation.
They all worked within the religious framework of Christianity, but within those limits humanism represented a faint 'echo before the event' of the 18th century Enlightenment. The key aim was, to 'modernise' Catholicism, moving forward from the dry scholasticism and dogma of the past, to fit with a new social reality. That reality was reflected by the key centres of the new thinking, the great mercantile cities and their new social classes then developing in Holland, northern Italy, Paris and London. More was a lawyer who rose to public prominence as a spokesman for and adviser to the merchant capitalists of the growing City of London. He was a prolific author, but by far his most important work was Utopia. In it More sketches out a vision of a classless, communist society which has given its name to all such visions since.
More's career was crowned when he, with some reluctance, accepted service in the Tudor state of Henry VIII. Soon he became Lord Chancellor, one of the most powerful figures in Britain. His appointment indicated growing tensions in society. The Catholic Church was the dominant ideological force in feudal society. But the slow development of capitalism was feeding the emergence of new kinds of 'national' state. Inevitably the process led to divisions within religion the central ideology of the time. These divisions came to centre on whether traditional authority and Rome, or rather national rulers and individual conscience, were the basis for religious order.
The tensions in society burst open in dramatic fashion with the eruption of the Protestant Reformation, launched in Germany by Martin Luther in the early 16th century. The Catholic Church and the social order it stood for cracked apart. The potentially dangerous consequences were soon underlined in dramatic fashion for those at the top of society. In Germany and the Low Countries the new religious ideas spilled over into the Peasants' Revolt led by Thomas Munzer.
More reacted with horror to all this. He wanted reform of the old order and its religion, but not their destruction. He had written of a classless society, but when the lower orders took up arms to fight for a better world he recoiled. More shifted into an unconditional defence of the old order and its religion, becoming the hammer of reaction. He blamed Luther and his ideas for the German Peasants' Revolt though in fact Luther violently opposed it. More used the full power of the state to persecute Protestants.
But while equally opposed to any whiff of revolt by the lower orders, Henry VIII and those around him were not prepared to simply retreat to an unconditional acceptance of the authority of the pope and Rome. Matters came to a head with the row over Henry's desire to divorce his first wife. In the end Henry broke from Rome and launched a sort of top down, mild Reformation, putting himself and his state in direct charge of religion with the added and not inconsiderable bonus of seizing the Catholic Church's vast wealth in England with the dissolution of the monasteries.
This proved too much for More, who by now saw defence of the Catholic Church as key to the entire social order. He resigned, but was too dangerous and influential to be ignored. He either had to be won over or silenced. Henry failed in the first, and so More went to the block.
This complex story is told in Ackroyd's book, and those interested in the details will learn much from it. But the book is unsatisfactory in many key respects. Ackroyd has fallen too much under the spell of his subject so underplays More's ruthlessness and viciousness in persecuting heretics. He also fails to locate More and the other key figures in the story in their wider social context.
Ackroyd also takes a controversial view of More's Utopia. Most commentators have seen it as a genuine vision of a classless society. Ackroyd argues it is much more contradictory, and that in fact More is in large measure attacking the possibility of such a society, and defending the importance of religion and authority. My guess is that the truth is somewhere in between. The form of the book, a dialogue, reflects genuine contradictions and debate in More's head and life. He wanted change, and glimpsed possibilities far ahead of his time. But he worried about change and was genuinely committed to key elements of the existing order. Out of that debate he provided a vision of a better world which has echoed down the centuries. But also out of it came the ideas which led More, when faced with the reality of social change, to kill and be killed in defence of the existing social order and its ideology.
'They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other.' So begins this absorbingly rich tale by Toni Morrison.
The town is Ruby, an all black settlement (population 602) deep in Oklahoma. It is 17 miles from a 'convent', where outcast women from all ethnic backgrounds are drawn and which ends up being the outlet for frustrations building up in Ruby in the 1970s.
Through the lives of a vast cast, Morrison tells the story of a group of people who were driven from their original homes. 'From Haven, a dreamtown in Oklahoma Territory, to Haven, a ghost town in Oklahoma State. Freedmen who stood tall in 1889 dropped to their knees in 1934 and were stomach-crawling by 1948.'
Nine families get off their stomachs and begin walking. They walk and walk until they stop. Where they stop they build an oven, which becomes the centre of Ruby (est 1950). They then build an exclusively black town based on the values of the founders, who are described by one of their descendants as 8-R, 'Eight-rock, a deep deep level in the coal mines; blue-black people, tall graceful, whose clear, wide eyes gave no sign of what they really felt about those who weren't 8-R like them.'
At first the town seems perfect. Its inhabitants prosper and they attribute this to Ruby's isolation and purity. But as time progresses, tremors from the world outside upset the calm; Vietnam and the loss of sons; the black power movement; political assassinations; economic downturn. Even the revered oven, or rather its inscription, becomes a source of tension between the traditionalist founders and the younger generation.
In interwoven stories of Ruby's inhabitants, Morrison describes how changes in the world affect each and every person. Looking back to the dark days, one man remembers, 'The winter coat money [my] father saved in secret for two harvests; the light in [my] mother's eyes when she stroked its seal collar.' Looking back to the bright days when household appliances could suddenly be afforded, a woman remembers, 'And there was time; fifteen minutes when no firewood needed tending in a kitchen stove; one whole hour when no sheets or overalls needed slapping or scrubbing; ten minutes gained because no rug needed to be beaten; two hours because food lasted...'
Once again, as she did in Beloved, Morrison portrays the thoughts, culture and language of people who are usually hidden from history, let alone literature. At times this makes Paradise quite difficult to read. But it is more than worth the effort as seemingly ordinary lives grow magnificent in their complexity. And although the book has the feel of an intensely literary work, it is also subtly yet powerfully political. When the black rights movement impinges on Ruby, for example, a teacher reflects:
'Twenty, thirty years from now...all sorts of people will claim pivotal, controlling, defining positions in the rights movement... What could not be gainsaid, but would remain invisible in the newspapers and the books...were the ordinary folk. The janitor who turned off the switch so the police couldn't see; the grandmother who kept all the babies so the mothers could march; the backwoods women with fresh towels in one hand and a shotgun in the other; the little children who carried batteries and food to secret meetings...parents who wiped the spit and tears from their children's faces and said, "'Never mind, honey. Never you mind. You are not and never will be a nigger, a coon, a jig, a jungle bunny nor any other thing white folks teach their children to say."'
The final scenes are as dramatic as you will read in any novel. As the conflicts and fears grow in Ruby, there are no obvious scapegoats in the tightly knit community. So the men turn on the convent, where women have the cheek to prosper without men, welcome any waif or stray of any colour, and live according to their own morals. What finally happens is not without hope.
Guitarist Robert Johnson 'king of the Delta blues singers' earned his living working the rural communities of the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s. Although his entire recorded output fits on two CDs he is 'the touchstone against which the achievement of the blues is measured'. Yet he remains unknown outside specialist circles.
This lucid and compact essay summarises Johnson's life. Without polemic, Guralnick gives us a tantalising glimpse of Johnson's world, destroys a few myths about the origin of the blues, and raises questions for anyone interested in contemporary culture.
From the outset we are reminded that racial segregation is always imposed by terror and has an economic motive. Robert Johnson, born in 1911, was an eleventh child. Robert's mother survived as an itinerant plantation worker, moving from camp to camp.
Robert Johnson was one of those rare individuals who could play any music after just one hearing. Unsurprisingly, he preferred playing music to picking cotton. However, Johnson's life was a million miles away from the image of the 'authentic blues' musician, playing for friends in settled rural backwaters, unsullied by the muck of commercialism.
Racism in the South helped create an incredibly mobile community, as individuals were either evicted or tried to escape the worst effects of segregation. Thus Johnson could rely on a network of friends and family which extended from Illinois to Texas. He was also open to a wide range of musical influences.
The local economy could not support more than one or two musicians, usually acoustic guitarists, playing for tips. Thus Johnson made a living in bars, dances and as a street busker, travelling from one market town to another. Like all musicians in this style, he had to play rhythm for dancing, sing loud enough to be heard, yet still be subtle enough for the listeners in the audience.
Johnson was particularly successful as he could play from memory any song requested. Johnson was also a leading figure in a 'community' of musicians, travelling all over the Southern states. He was only unique in summing up these influences more successfully than others of his contemporaries.
Johnson was 'spotted' by a grocery store owner, who acted as a talent scout for Vocallion records. In two sessions in 1937, Johnson recorded the 29 sides that are his legacy. One year later he was murdered by poisoning. Two eyewitnesses later recalled, 'It had been a casual killing that no one took seriously...he was a visiting guitar player who got murdered.'
Peter Guralnick is able to communicate his enthusiasm. You really begin to get a feel for this place and time. His knowledge of the music is extensive and reliable, and there is an excellent bibliography. Having read the book, I want to hear the music. However, the book tantalises rather than satisfies.
Firstly, £8 is a lot to pay for 83 pages. More importantly, Guralnick gives specifics, but does not connect them with general movements. Showing what is different about Robert Johnson makes the appeal of the blues itself a mystery. And you never learn precisely what it was about his music that so influenced so many outstanding musicians.
In contrast, adding an analysis of the general conditions of wage labour would show why the music of those who picked cotton in the delta of the US has such a resonance, for example with those who wove cotton in Lancashire the British Blues Federation's annual awards are held in Burnley, the old centre of the British cotton industry. And it would underline the fact that processes only now being generally recognised have a long history.
Ernie O'Malley was a key figure in the IRA during the 1919-21 war of independence and in the civil war which followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. To the end of his life he carried bullets in his back from when he was shot trying to fight a way out of being captured during the civil war, and suffered from the effects of a hunger strike he took part in alongside other Republican prisoners in 1923. The wounds he received being captured saved him from being executed along with other leading Republicans by the new Irish government.
O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound is the single best book I could recommend about the war of independence. His memoir of the civil war, The Singing Flame, is also outstanding.
O'Malley spent much of the late 1920s and 1930s in the US where his interest in the arts developed. Among his friends were the painters Georgia O'Keefe and Jack Yeats, the playwrights Clifford Odets and Samuel Beckett, and the poet Louis MacNiece. To cap it all he became friends with the film director John Ford who filmed The Quiet Man in County Mayo, along with the film's two stars, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara.
When I heard that a biography of O'Malley had finally appeared I was excited and fascinated. It is with great disappointment that I have to record that this book does not do justice to O'Malley's life.
The very title seems to suggest surprise that an intellectual could have belonged to the IRA. This shouldn't be so surprising. The Ireland that produced that hymn to modernism, James Joyce's Ulysses, also threw up a layer of young intellectuals who rallied to Republican politics. Culturally O'Malley was raised in the most exciting chapter in Irish history and culture. Partition and the creation of two clerical states brought that chapter to an end.
This book skips over the most interesting years of O'Malley's life, those in the IRA. I suspect that is because the author deliberately does not want to glorify IRA violence which brings me neatly onto the second problem. The book is firmly revisionist.
English talks of an 'IRA cult of youth and violence'. The IRA's violence was directed at 'liberal democracy' and was sectarian. English argues that 'O'Malley and his comrades were, in the overwhelming majority of cases, Catholic revolutionaries and this was very much a Catholic revolution.' He furthers this by claiming, 'Catholicism was a binding and defining force for Irish Republicans.' Finally there is the assertion that 'there is nothing artificial about partition'. An 'authoritative economic history' (all revisionist works quoted are described as 'authoritative' or 'accomplished') proves Ireland was blossoming economically under British rule throughout the 19th century.
Richard English notes that O'Malley took the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and that he had moved in leftist circles in America, but can't resist dropping hints that somehow he was pro-German in the Second World War.
Of the 1918 general election result in which Sinn Fein received 48 percent of the vote we are told, 'More people voted against than voted for Sinn Fein.' This is a standard revisionist argument from people who have no problem fawning over Blair or Thatcher who never received such popular support.
There is a fairly open agenda here. It is to attack the Republican tradition and the whole struggle against British rule in Ireland. This agenda pops up throughout the book before breaking out fully in the last chapter. O'Malley was not a practising Catholic during the war with Britain and certainly was not a sectarian bigot. Republicanism flows directly out of the 18th century Enlightenment and the liberal tradition. In the 1930s a generation of Republicans were won to left wing ideas.
Ernie O'Malley deserves a decent biography. This isn't it.
More money crosses the world's financial exchanges in one month than the total value of goods produced worldwide in one year. Little of this money is directly related to trade.
Free marketeers have praised the deregulation of the major financial markets over the past 20 years, repeating their mantra that global markets will enable funds to flow to those areas where the highest returns can be generated and the greatest rates of growth achieved to the benefit of the world as a whole.
The crisis of the East Asian economies has exposed this. Many erstwhile enthusiasts for deregulation are now urging that some sort of regulation is required to preserve the world from future shocks.
Doug Henwood's interesting book is therefore timely. Henwood edits a newsletter, Left Business Observer, which specialises in analysing the machinations of these extraordinary financial markets and exposing the myths on which they are based.
If you have puzzled over the meaning of such arcane financial products as 'options', 'futures' and 'swaps', the opening chapter entitled 'Instruments' is the best guide both to what they are and to why they have come into existence. Finding new methods of gambling in the casino economy is one factor but there is also the motivation of money managers trying to insure against a risky world. Henwood gives a sober assessment of the implications of these financial transactions which have prompted concern in some ruling class circles about their potential to destabilise rather than stabilise finance capital.
Henwood goes on to examine the economic models that bourgeois economists have developed to try to get some grip on the behaviour of these markets. He makes a good case for the real but limited insight they give to certain developments in recent US economic history. One example he gives is the so called Leveraged Buy Out (LBO) boom of the 1980s which saw merciless asset stripping and eventually the bankruptcy and jailing of some of the key players like Michael Milken.
In another chapter Henwood gives a clear account of some of the key US financial institutions including the most powerful central bank in the world, the US Federal Reserve Board. But Henwood is not just concerned to provide an analysis of the financial markets from a socialist perspective.
The book opens with a quote from the third volume of Marx's Capital, in which Marx, presciently as ever, describes the credit system as 'one enormous centralisation' giving 'this class of parasites a fabulous power not only to decimate industrial capitalists...but also to interfere in industrial production in a most dangerous manner'.
Again in a very useful chapter Henwood provides an accessible introduction to Keynes's theories of money, of which he is critical for their naivety, and Marx's, which he rightly describes as 'mostly fragmentary and underdeveloped' but 'richly suggestive and...central to his analysis'.
Henwood identifies the influence of Hilferding for the relative lack of development of a Marxist analysis of finance capital. I think he is partially correct but he ignores the much more serious damage to real Marxist theorising about economic developments which resulted from the nightmare of Stalinism.
Unfortunately, whilst Henwood selects those aspects of Capital which emphasise the ways in which the financial system assists the expansion of capitalism and the transformation of ownership through share ownership etc, he fails to develop those aspects which relate the financial system to the development of crises. These arise out of both the anarchy of the financial system and its ultimate dependence on the creation of adequate profitability in the process of production. His analysis is further weakened by its exclusive focus on Wall Street and the development of the US financial system.
Henwood provides some good arguments against the effectiveness of some of the more naive proposals for reform and regulation of the financial system. However, he ends up by proposing a dead end himself in the form of a transition to 'something like market socialism'.
That said, this is a very useful book with a detailed and comprehensible insight into aspects of the financial system.
The war to win Algeria's national independence from France was long from 1954 to 1962 and bitter, fought with savagery on both sides, and with torture and racism by the French. The main parties of the French left failed the test miserably. Guy Mollet, leader of the Socialist Party, became prime minister in 1956 with a mandate for peace. In Algiers he was pelted with tomatoes by European settlers (the local Orangemen) and promptly capitulated, stepping up repression. The Communist Party, seeking electoral alliances and afraid to challenge racism among its working class voters, voted 'special powers' to the government to pursue the war.
However, a tiny minority of French people perhaps a thousand committed themselves to supporting the Algerian struggle. These have become known as the 'suitcase carriers' because a major activity was smuggling bags of money, collected from Algerian workers in France, for the National Liberation Front (FLN).
Martin Evans has collected some 50 interviews with former 'suitcase carriers' in order to build a picture of why and how a tiny minority saved the internationalist honour of the French left. There are a few well known names Francis Jeanson, head of one of the main solidarity networks, and Michel Raptis ('Pablo') but most of them interrupted otherwise unremarkable lives to put their heads on the line.
It is an inspiring but sad book inspiring because we see individuals prepared to risk freedom, family and career for a principle. The brief life stories tell of incredible courage and torment. Jean Berthet abandoned Catholicism and became a Communist in Buchenwald; on his return his mother promptly committed him to a mental asylum. Later he broke with the Communist Party because it would not show solidarity with the Algerian struggle.
Evans is concerned with the power of memory not just the memories of former activists, but the memories of previous struggles that motivated them. Many suitcase carriers had been involved in the Resistance against the Nazi occupation, or came from Resistance families. Slowly they came to the horrified recognition that France's crimes in Algeria were comparable to those of the Nazis. Others drew inspiration from earlier struggles the internationalist minority in 1914 or the ideals of 1798. Ideas the books of Fanon, Sartre, Kateb Yacine were a powerful stimulus to action.
But although the 'suitcase carriers' gave useful political and material help to the FLN, they remained isolated from the working class. Those building solidarity networks often preferred to recruit from the middle classes. People with cars and roomy houses were more use in hiding Algerian fugitives; the inhabitants of respectable districts were less likely to be harassed by the police. It is in no way to underrate the courage of such individuals to say they had no impact on the mass of working people.
Yet in 1955-56 there had been mass militant action by reservists recalled to fight in Algeria. Abandoned by the mainstream left, they often became embittered racists when they got to Algeria. None of the fragments to the left of the Socialists and Communists Trotskyists, anarchists, neutralists, left Catholics had the organisation or political cohesion to offer an alternative focus. Disastrously, if understandably, many of the best militants lost faith in the French working class altogether and believed that any change must come from the Third World. Yet only six years after the Algerian war ended, French workers launched the biggest general strike in human history.
Today the French National Front draws on memories of the war and France pays the price of the failures of an earlier generation. Evans has preserved the voices of brave individuals who swam against the stream but the real problem is how to make the stream flow in the opposite direction.
Inman, a Confederate soldier wounded in battle, is haunted by his memories of the terrible slaughter of the American Civil War. Initially left for dead, he survives against the odds and as soon as he is fit to walk makes his escape from hospital. He does not want to be sent back to fight and he is determined to return to Cold Mountain and to Ada, the woman he loves.
The story of this journey across North Carolina is compelling. His allies along the way are the poor, the dispossessed, runaway slaves and American Indians. He walks in pain with little food. The war, its destruction and waste of human life, appear as brutal flashbacks while he tries to focus his mind on his hopes for the future. His disenchantment deepens as he makes his way west across the wartorn South.
In parallel we hear Ada's story. She lives alone in a farm she has let fall into ruin. Being a city born woman she has no idea how to live off the land. Sheep had been bought by her father to make the place look nice, chickens hide their eggs, while all she can do is paint, read novels and play the piano. The arrival of Ruby transforms Ada and her attitude to the natural world around her. Ruby is a young girl who has spent most of her short life fending for herself and so her appearance is a life saver for Ada. She insists she won't be a servant.
The account of the relationship between these two women, their growing affection and their conquering of the wilderness around them, is powerful. The difference in their lives shows up the clash between the new mechanised society intruding into what is portrayed as being the rural tranquillity of the old world. Ada reads novels from England and buys hats from Paris. Ruby has never travelled beyond Cold Mountain, and has no inclination to do so: 'The business of carrying hats halfway around the world to sell made no sense to her... There was not one thing they could make in France or New York or Charleston that Ruby wanted.'
Frazier has created a story where the vast scale of the American landscape often eclipses humanity. Nature is seen as both life giving and life threatening, and although Frazier appears at times to romanticise living off the land, the lasting impression is one of people's constant battle with the elements for mere survival.
Frazier's writing is evocative and lyrical. Images are created that leave you feeling that you've actually seen Inman's epic journey on the big screen. This is a wonderful book which is difficult to put down. It is Frazier's first it will be a hard one to follow.