Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Years ago, in Lima, Peru, I stumbled across a film club at the Anglo-Peruvian Institute; they were showing a 1943 film based on an Agatha Christie novel with Flora Robson playing Miss Marple. The setting was a Cotswold village full of ivy covered cottages. The crime, of course, was committed in the village church, and solved over tea and scones at The Old Pewter Pot Tea Shoppe.
This was a favourite image of the British countryside, the idealised landscape of the rural gentry--orderly, green, and securely under the joint control of the vicar, the magistrate and the captain of the village cricket team. The only 'other' in the place was the son of some local labourers, whose learning difficulties were reassuringly genetic, and who was always willing to oblige and carry Miss Marple's shopping home. The crime was almost invariably committed by an outsider, and once the case was cracked, everything resumed its proper place again.
When the Countryside Alliance marched in their gumboots and waxed jackets, their flat caps firmly pulled down over their ears, I imagine we were supposed to think of that imaginary rural Britain about to be disrupted and destroyed by the intrusions of a colonising city full of violence and conflict. Would there still be scones for tea?
The murder of a 16 year old burglar has exploded that myth of rural England once and for all.
For a start, that countryside is not open land that belongs to us all--that 'heritage' of which we are all custodians. The land is 'property', and very private property at that. Generations of ramblers facing double-barrelled shotguns and dogs know that the hills and fields are owned and defended. The laws of trespass (although they don't apply in Scotland) affirmed that here was no common land --you could only walk the narrow pathways that allowed workers to get to their ill-paid, exploitative jobs on farms. Unless you're one of the unemployed, that is--thrown out of tied cottages and too far (and too many bus fares) from any of Blair's workfare-type schemes.
After the Martin incident, William Hague began to paint a picture of trembling yeoman farmers under threat. Of course the yeoman farmers--the peasants of old England--have long since disappeared. The British countryside is one big corporate enterprise, owned by big capitalist farmers for whom all the talk of nature and country life is much less important than the bank rate or the suppression of agricultural workers' unions. The farming population of the Scottish highlands, for example, were driven violently off their land to make room for 7 million sheep--the landscape was emptied. The peasant farmers struggling gainfully for a living were swept from their farmsteads to become the labour of the new industries. Worsdworth's long poem 'Michael', describes how the banks and financial institutions foreclosed on the indebted yeomanry of the Lake District 200 years ago.
Under the flat caps are hardnosed capitalists whose commitment to conserving the countryside is a piece of spinning. It's worth remembering that the BSE scandal happened because Thatcher and her pals removed restrictions on animal feed production to boost farming profits. (Jonathan Coe represented them brilliantly in his novel What a Carve Up!) Thatcher and Blair then offered them help to get over their discomfort.
So when William Hague, with one eye on the US, tries to mobilise the gun lobby, it is not just the rights of rural right wingers to murder outsiders that he is defending. He's offering an alibi to a rural capitalist class--for whom the land is just one more production line--to defend themselves against their own workers.
The 'countryside'--the real land--is a pretty miserable place. The standards of living of most of the workers and the unemployed people who live there are miserable--poverty is rife; prices are higher; the possibilities of change are minimal. That's the world in which 16 year olds with little to hope for burgle houses and steal cars.
But wait--you can travel through areas of the countryside today and see renovated Tudor pubs, village greens where people drink real ale in the sunshine, bijou cottages with creepers round the door. The irony, of course, is that these regenerated rural villages are the weekend retreats of the urban middle class, the deliberate recreation of the British gentry's dream of ordered country landscapes designed to fit as closely as possible to the reproduction Gainsborough on the wall. Where the landed aristocracy once invited Capability Brown to design them gardens that corresponded exactly to the controlled and organised nature they so much desired--open to the wind and rain but prohibited to the agricultural labourers--today their middle class inheritors redesign the villages into new safe and pretty enclaves. They call it 'The Country' and sometimes ask for the right to take up weapons to defend it.
Perhaps what they really fear is that one day the people they expelled will come back to reclaim it, like the Diggers in 1649 who took back the land and announced, 'No man has any right to buy and sell the land for private gain. The earth's a common treasury for everyone to share.'
An estimated 35,000 people visited the Tate Modern on each of its first days of opening--that's 10,000 more than went to the Millennium Dome on the same days. The Tate is living proof that popular culture doesn't have to be the kind of lowbrow gimmickry dreamed up by Mandelson and his chums in Greenwich.
The Tate is a showcase of international modern art, normally regarded as too obscure and difficult for the masses. But the Tate isn't just popular--it's a very enjoyable museum. For a start, the main displays are free and commercial promotion is kept at a minimum. There are virtually no queues and the place is accessible in every sense.
The wide and gently inclined entrance ramp draws you into a huge main hall dominated by Louise Bourgeois's massive surreal sculptures. A huge spider seems to dangle in front of three watchtowers from some paranoid nightmare of surveillance or torture. This is modern art that will touch a nerve with everyone. Gilbert Scott's massive postwar power station is a perfect home for a big art collection. Its huge capacity can accommodate thousands without overcrowding, and architects Herzog and de Meuron have managed a conversion that combines impressive spaces with smaller, more intimate galleries. I don't remember being in an art museum where people feel so comfortable just wandering around, looking and chatting.
It would take a few visits to take in everything on display. Most of the big names of modern art are represented from turn of the century high modernism to contemporary Britart. Many of the defining icons of modern art are here. There's Marcel Duchamp's urinal he called Fountain (ironically this is a copy, manufactured by the artist in 1960), a panel of Monet's Waterlilies, Carl Andre's bricks, ridiculed by the tabloid press in the 1970s, and a fantastic roomful of Bridget Riley's mind-bending canvasses from the 1960s. On the top floor there is a room dedicated to directly political work and a further roomful of avant garde manifestos. One of the highlights is a gallery of paintings by the French socialist Fernand Léger, who developed constructivism to fantasise about a future world of harmony between man and machine. There is a room of Frank Auerbach's muddy and sombre portraits of London, and a fabulous group of Cubist paintings by Georges Braque.
The curators have taken the bold decision to group works by theme rather than in the traditional chronological order. This can be historically disorientating but on balance it works; you see well known works afresh, and you are forced by juxtaposition to think through different artists' preoccupations. Hanging Monet's Waterlilies next to a floor sculpture made of quarrystones confronts you with radically different artistic approaches to nature and the environment. Your appreciation of both pieces is enhanced.
There is something odd and uncomfortable about all modern art galleries. So many of the exhibits seem to want to break out of the formality of the museum and invade the real world. Joseph Beuys's huge rock sculptures or Anthony Caro's constructions from industrial scrap seem out of place in these cold white spaces. And yet the museum is the only place you can see them. Like any gallery, the Tate Modern incorporates and deflates the rebellious spirit of modernism. But at least the curators seem to be aware of these contradictions and include work which points them up. Marcel Duchamp's urinal safely enclosed in its perspex case, standing like a shrine at the end of a main corridor, can't fail to raise questions about the nature and social definition of art. Some contemporary political artists like John Keane have justifiably protested at their exclusion from the Tate. Artists will continue to contest the power of the museum. But we should still be pleased that the Tate Modern is popular, challenging and free.
Owain Glyn Dwr 1400-2000
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
Until 30 September
Six hundred years after Owain Glyn Dwr attacked and burnt the town of Rhuthun in north Wales that launched his rebellion, he is still to many the most important and well known of all Welsh historical figures. To nationalists of all shades he represents the struggle against 'English oppression' and the fight for a fully independent Welsh state. The fact that he was not defeated in battle, killed or forced to surrender only adds to his mythical status. An exhibition at the National Library marks this anniversary.
Glyn Dwr himself was an important local lord and landlord, had fought for the English against the Scots and had been trained at the Inns of Court in London. It was a local land dispute that brought him into conflict with the English crown rather than any overt nationalist agenda, although he was willing and able to exploit local unrest to try and boost his own thwarted ambitions. That popular unrest at the rule of predominantly English lords existed and that Glyn Dwr became a focal point for this is undoubtedly true, and its appeal spread beyond Glyn Dwr's heartland to much of the rest of Wales and Welsh centres as far afield as London and Oxford.
As the rebellion grew, Glyn Dwr's ambitions became more explicit, being crowned Prince of Wales in 1404, establishing a parliament at Machynlleth and seeking foreign alliances, in particular with France in the famous Pennal letter to the French king in 1406, the original of which forms the highlight of the exhibition. In this he also sets out his plans for Wales including a parliament, an independent Welsh church and two Welsh universities (in passing, he also called for the pope to 'brand as heretics and cause to be tortured in the usual way' Henry IV and his followers).
Although the French did send an army that got as far as Worcester, from 1408 Glyn Dwr's support began to seep away. Although Glyn Dwr himself escaped, the rebellion gradually petered out by his presumed death in 1415.
The exhibition itself is on a small scale and, other than the Pennal letter, is hampered by the available material on Glyn Dwr himself. Whilst the use of its own collections of contemporary books is fascinating (if sometimes irrelevant) the picture boards explain little of the context and causes of the rebellion and make no attempt to assess its impact. The introductory section telling the story in modern bardic poetry falls into the worst traditions of almost self parodying romanticism. The most informative element is a video of a programme made in 1997 for BBC Wales which also addresses the dangers of imposing modern notions of nation and indeed 'Wales' on 14th and 15th century society. Glyn Dwr's modern rehabilitation was particularly a product of the 19th century--a time when the National Library itself and the National Museum were both established as a self conscious expression of the dominant nationalist ideas of the time. It is unfortunate, if not surprising, that the opportunity to confront the Glyn Dwr inheritance more critically was not taken by this exhibition.
Glyn Dwr's rebellion, at its height representing a virtual national uprising, undoubtedly stirred Welsh opinion at the time--and still does. Its defeat, however, was not the signal for centuries of oppression of Wales by England but the beginning of an epoch in which Wales would emerge as a vital and integral part of Britain's rise to world dominance. A nostalgic romanticising of Glyn Dwr does little to explain Welsh history any more than it helps those who wish to fight against the very real problems that face Wales today.
Ken Loach spoke to Pete Ainsley and Sonia Carroll about his forthcoming film, Bread and Roses, which is about striking immigrant workers in Los Angeles
There is very little information available about Bread and Roses. Can you tell us something about it?
The writer I work with, Paul Laverty, worked in Los Angeles for a year in the early 1990s. He got very involved in the janitors' struggle. We talked about it, and it seemed there might be a film there. We thought that we should try and do one film in the US--because clearly it is the imperialist power. It's from the point of view of immigrants, and on the contradictory way they are treated, criminalised and exploited at the same time. We tried to explore that, but to do it in a way that suggested people had some strengths. We tried to make a film that gave them some heart and a sense of their own strength.
The film is about a Mexican girl who comes to the US illegally to join her sister. It is about her life in Los Angeles. She gets a job as a janitor in an office block and it's about what happens to her as an office cleaner.
Does it end successfully for the workers?
I can't give away the ending! Good in some ways, bad in other ways.
What was the attitude of the trade unions in the US to your making the film there?
We worked with the local branch of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union in downtown LA. They were terrific--good fun, lively and gave us lots of support. They became our friends. The film unions were mixed. Some were very helpful. Our film was a very small budget film by Los Angeles standards. They gave us the best deal they could, bearing in mind that their deals are arranged for big films. But some aspects of the Teamsters' union were quite unattractive. In a city where the majority of workers are immigrants, black and very exploited, all the members of the Teamsters' union seemed to be white, middle aged and male. You saw the two sides of trade unionism.
Was there any reaction from other organisations?
There were a lot of human rights organisations. One, called Chirla, was busy fighting the attempt to prevent immigrants having access to social welfare. The proposition which was trying to do this was defeated. At that level it was terrific. It was like there were two parallel worlds--the white world and the people who serviced it.
What do you hope the outcome of the film will be on the community?
I hope they feel that it is their film, that it does justice to who they are, that it is true to them. But I don't know--they might think that it's just a 'gringo' job, really!
Did you choose this topic because all over the world the people who do the cleaning jobs, the janitor jobs, tend to be migrants? In Argentina it is the Bolivians who are attacked, and one man was kicked to death. In Spain we are known as 'sudacas' (South Americans), and two weeks ago an Ecuadorean man was stabbed to death by the far right. The attacks on immigrants are not just here, but everywhere.
It's becoming a big issue in Europe. But the film just came about through Paul meeting the janitors. It's always good to find a story that has a kind of positive angle. Otherwise you can tell a story which is very true but leaves people with no sense of their own strength, and feeling dispirited. That's the problem.
Was Bread and Roses completely scripted in advance?
Well, the same as all of them really. It's scripted, but people will weave around it, and there is scope for them to put things in their own words. A script is more than the dialogue. It's the narrative, the complexity of the relationships--that was really worked out before--and the dialogue and the rhythm as well. But they just skim around it sometimes.
Is it in Spanish, like Land and Freedom?
Yes, and Mexican, bit of Guatemalan, bit of Ecuadorean, North American and 'Spanglish'!
Why did you choose the title Bread and Roses for your film?
It's the title of an old union ballad from the turn of the century, from a strike of immigrant workers in Massachussets. They said they not only wanted bread but roses too, meaning they not only wanted the basic necessities of life but also the good things as well. It's about dignity and self respect.
The Filth and the Fury
Dir: Julien Temple
The Filth and the Fury is a documentary about the Sex Pistols. It starts brilliantly by setting the revolt of early punk in its political context: 'A year into a Labour government and the working class has been let down. Sold down the river.' There follows scenes of riot police clashing with strikers, and anti-Nazi demonstrators battling racists and the cops.
The birth of punk comes over as one response by disaffected working class youth to a situation where our side was still fighting but was not winning any more. The Labour Party was in government, but unemployment was spiralling, public services were falling apart and the established left had no answer. The far left was small and the fascists were starting to gain from disillusionment with the government.
The Sex Pistols expressed a response to the economic and political crisis. They came from the run down west London council estates. John Lydon--Johnny Rotten--recalled growing up listening to radical dub-reggae with local black kids. The 'punk look' originated because angry, unemployed youth decided to turn their lack of money for clothes into a rebellious and unapologetic statement.
Lydon was by far the most politically conscious of the band. He tried to use his aggressive lyrics and snarled delivery to shock listeners into anger against the system, while satirising the inadequacy of music as a vehicle for change: 'I use the NME... I use anarchy!'
The film evokes the period brilliantly, and hilariously exposes the ridiculous media-fuelled hysteria over punk. Conservative Christians sang hymns outside Sex Pistols gigs as the bemused band were left commenting, 'We don't mind--we're in here and they're freezing outside!'
When 'God Save the Queen' was number one, that line in the charts was left blank. The media and the politicians focused on the outrageousness of protest style in an attempt to discredit those protesting--and to avoid discussing the actual reasons for the protest. As Lydon comments, in the end it was easy for punk to become a style uniform rather than a protest against decaying British capitalism. Yet the film provides glimpses of an alternative--the Sex Pistols played the striking firefighters' Xmas party for free in 1977.
To see such a famous and innovative band join up with workers fighting back really is thrilling. Lydon simply said, 'All the Sex Pistols were having a brilliant time at that party,' and it shows. But, sadly, it didn't last--the political situation deteriorated and the Sex Pistols fell apart acrimoniously, isolated and disillusioned.
This is an enjoyable and very political film which really conveys the feeling of hopelessness and the confused revolt of punk at the start of the British downturn. Much of the music still sounds raw and exciting, and the film succeeds in rescuing the spirit of punk rock from periodic nostalgia trips.