Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Byron struck an image that still enthrals many. Mike Gonzalez traces the sources of his popularity.
|Byron as a schoolboy overlooking Harrow|
Lady Caroline Lamb's spiteful description of her ex-lover Lord Byron--'mad, bad and dangerous to know'--has remained with us in a cascade of society scandals. Now it is the title of a new travelling exhibition, linked to a new biography by Fiona McCarthy. Suddenly Lord George Gordon Byron is everywhere. In an age of tabloid fascination with 'celebrity', it is the flagrant, challenging homosexual, the athletic lover, the dandy with the club foot, the merciless satirist, the man who courted scandal by parading his love for his sister, who is rediscovered. 'Byronic' then becomes a description that, in McCarthy's view, can link Byron to Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, Che Guevara and Mick Jagger in a continuous line.
But there's much more to Byron than the travelling aristocrat with a penchant for living and a wicked line in deflating the pompous and the priggish--and much more than the dressing up and the sexual athletics. In a letter to Marx, Engels says, 'Byron and Shelley are read almost exclusively by the lower classes; no "respectable" person could have [their] works on his desk without coming into the most terrible disrepute.' Strange that 100 years on, and suitably diluted, both would be regarded as essential reading for the educated middle classes. We know that for many years anthologies of Shelley's work left out the magnificent political polemics like 'The Masque of Anarchy'. We know too that Byron's friends got together after his death and burned his memoirs--presumably because of their celebration of homosexual love and vicious attacks on some of the leading figures of the age.
Byron was not, like Shelley, a revolutionary. But like Shelley he was appalled by the massacre at Peterloo and praised Milton because, unlike Wordsworth and Southey and the older Romantic poets, he never lost his rage or his political independence:
'Would he adore a sultan? he obey
The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?'
Byron's huge popularity began with 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' (1812-16). This long narrative in verse recounted a journey across a Europe torn by conflict and violence. The hopes awoken by the French Revolution lay in ruins. Napoleon, for whom Byron always expressed an enormous admiration, was defeated. In fact, Byron spent the last ten years of his life wandering across this dark landscape--Shelley called him 'the pilgrim of eternity'.
Childe Harold is, of course, Byron himself--or perhaps Byron became increasingly like his own invention. He was an isolated individual--isolated from his own class (the landed aristocracy), from his literary peers and from his own country. When Byron left Britain for good in 1816, it was almost certainly because his homosexuality was about to be exposed--and in those black times of reaction, sodomy was punishable by death.
'Yet Freedom! yet thy banner torn but flying,
Streams like the thunder storm against the wind;
Thy trumpet voice, though broken now and dying;
The loudest still the tempest leaves behind.'
Why was this poem so hugely popular, selling more than 10,000 copies at its first publication? Was it the cult of youth at its heart ('Who loves, raves--'tis youth's frenzy...')? Or was it its affirmation of individual freedom, rebellion and a defiance of moral regulation? As we use the word today, 'Byronic' has come to mean just that--a defiant, nihilistic, sometimes melancholic, sexually daring and morally unhampered human being, an isolated hero, insisting on the right to imagination even amid the debris of earlier hopes.
Byron came back to that idea in his last great work, 'Don Juan', its subject a man moved by passion alone, restless, constantly moving, but still obsessed by some vision of human freedom.
We know that in the end Byron plunged full length into the Greek war of independence against the Turks. He armed a force of 1,500, though he couldn't resist paying for golden helmets to go with their red tunics, and financed the squabbling freedom fighters' first warship. And he died--absurdly as it turned out--at Messalonghi, of a mistreated fever. In Greece he is a celebrated hero. In Britain he is being rediscovered only as a kind of emblematic celebrity.
Perhaps Marx was right to say that Shelley, had he lived, would have become a political revolutionary--while Byron, had he survived, would have turned into an old reactionary. But he died at 37, and left an idea of the poet not just as an outsider, but also as an iconoclast, a smasher of images, a sexual adventurer, a 'conduit of feeling'. And although it might not seem so now, he spoke--from his aristocratic comfort--in a language that was accessible and a form that broke the mould and was vibrant and alive.
Byron's writings reach us from a time of change, upheaval and uncertainty across Europe. And they still speak of defiance, and of hope.
The Quiet American
Dir: Phillip Noyce
Upon its 1956 release Graham Greene's original novel, The Quiet American, was attacked for its anti-American sentiments. Despite this, Hollywood pressed ahead with a film adaptation two years later, simply changing its ending to accommodate McCarthy-charged expectations and champion Western ideology over Communism. Now a new film version, directed by Philip Noyce, is having the same accusations levelled at it as the original. Its distributors Miramax, having already delayed its release for a year, are nervous, and the film's lead, Michael Caine, has felt compelled to declare, 'I'm the most pro-American foreigner there is.'
It is set in Saigon in 1952, amid the Communist-led fight for Vietnamese independence from French colonialism. The fighting taking place largely in the north of the country is beginning to impact upon the south. Fowler (Michael Caine) is a politically neutral, embittered reporter for the Times. He meets the title character, Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a younger man who idealistically extols the virtues of American liberal democracy. He is there under the pretence of being an economic aid worker and seems eager to learn about the local political situation. All is not as it appears though and Pyle's true identity as an agent in the fledgeling CIA soon becomes apparent. Recognising that French defeat is inevitable, Pyle is overseeing US backing for an emerging nationalist force as a realistic alternative in the region. This 'third force', aligned neither with the French nor the Communist Party, has embarked on a campaign of terror. It is designed to frame the Communist Party, to strengthen ideological opposition and, most importantly, to guarantee increased financial support from the US.
The fact that the US is shown to be participating in acts of terrorism to promote its own ideology does not sit comfortably with the current 'war on terrorism'. In the aftermath of 11 September the last thing the film's distributor wanted to be promoting was a film that seemingly criticised US imperialism. Do not be surprised if The Quiet American is now billed as a love story in an effort to detract from its political content. Although romance does form a substantial and influential part of the narrative, the love triangle between Pyle, Fowler, and his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (played by first time actress Do Thi Hai Yen) serves merely to facilitate the political developments and fails to stand up on its own merits. This is due largely to Phuong's character, which is not developed in any meaningful way.
One scene is particularly harrowing and poignant. There is a terrorist attack at the heart of Saigon, and both Pyle and Fowler are involved. The camera remains in the carnage that follows and time slows down. It is the moment when Pyle's true colours are exposed, and his culpability realised. It is powerful stuff--especially if you know that many of the extras used in the shoot were suitable because of injuries incurred in landmine explosions, or as a consequence of Agent Orange. Whether this is out of convenience or deliberate on the director's part, there is no denying the continuing relevance to American intervention in the world today.
Anita and me
Dir: Metin Hüseyin
|Growing pains for Anita and Meena|
Anita and Me is funny, clever, and very moving. It is a brilliant observation of life in the early 1970s, set in a working class ex mining village, viewed through the eyes of 12 year old Meena Kumar.
Meena is the daughter of the only non-white family in Tollington--a fictional village near Wolverhampton. Life is not easy for her, as she is often both embarrassed and amused by her quirky family, and wants to be a gorgeous, blonde writer called Sharon de Beauvoir when she grows up. All of this is rather unlikely, as she has black hair and her parents are more concerned about stopping her fibbing, thieving, and generally wayward behaviour than listening to her unconventional plans for the future. To her parents' horror, Meena falls in with an older, local (blonde) rebel, Anita Rutter, who has a dog called 'nigger', and seems to find in Meena a fellow outsider who isn't scared of an adventure. Together they terrorise the town, read Jackie magazine, and dream of buying a flat together in London.
However, Meena's life turns horribly sour. Racism sweeps the village in the form of 'Paki-bashing'. As friends become enemies, Meena is left alone to reflect on her old, desperate aspirations to 'fit in', and finds a guide in the form of her visiting grandmother from India. Nanima, as she calls her, is imaginative and strong like Meena, and becomes a positive role model. She also speaks four languages fluently, and carries a huge sword around with her, hidden under her sari!
The film has the same powerful sensitivity to issues of class, race and gender that comes across in the original novel, probably because Meera Syal, the author, also wrote the screenplay. Anita and her neo-Nazi boyfriend, Sam Lowbridge, are portrayed as terribly bitter youths who are hardened by the conditions of their lives. Syal observes how this generation of working class, rural youth have been abandoned to face a bleak future without jobs or educational opportunities.
Although Anita feels she belongs in her new world, really her life is still miserable. She seems to unconsciously decide that the only power she can have in society is as a racist and as the object for Sam's sexual desires. She admires Sam, but he only really sees Anita as a young woman he can use. Meena is devastated by Anita's betrayal of their friendship. The Kumar family is fraught with a terrible fear for their lives. Racism is shown to affect people of all social classes.
Most of the local village residents are portrayed very warmly. Many of them have contradictory views on race, but are still always pleased to see their 'Meena chick'--even if she is a heathen! The film is a snapshot of a community, flawed and small-minded though it might be, on the brink of massive social change. The local mine has recently been turned into a very big pub. Jobs were lost, and a new motorway threatens to open up (and pollute) the close-knit community. Meena's parents' traditional Punjabi culture is also under threat by a second generation in Britain, and making their own cultures. One of the most moving parts of the film is where Meena (still aspiring to be exactly like Anita) complains to her father that he didn't fight any 'Jerries' like Anita's dad, and get lots of medals. Her father quietly says, 'We didn't fight any Jerries. We fought the British. No one gave us any medals.'
Meena's story is a journey towards discovering her own strength, and her growing identification with the struggles of her parents, and her brave grandmother, is part of this process. Her ability to feel such compassion and solidarity with the others in her community leaves her feeling so betrayed as racist tensions rise. That compassion and her fighting spirit also make her a likeable, admirable character.
Meera Syal has said that the film is a homage to the first generation of Indians born in Britain, and is autobiographical in many ways. At some points, the film powerfully reminded me of when I was growing up in the only non-white household on my road, just streets away from where Stephen Lawrence was murdered. It reminded me of why racism has to be fought, of the horrible emotional effects as well as the material effects that it can have on a community. The figure of Meena is also inspiring, as unlike her parents she understands that education alone can't be her 'passport' in life. Meena's willingness to question authority, to fight to defend herself, and imagine more beautiful worlds through her stories, is also her strategy for survival.
Dirty Pretty Things
Dir: Stephen Frears
|Okwe and Senay are Dirty Pretty Things|
Okwe is a Nigerian refugee trying to get by in London. He's an illegal immigrant. He was once a doctor but now has two low paid jobs, as a minicab driver and a hotel receptionist, and takes drugs to stay awake. He is a quiet, intelligent, proud man, forced to live as a hunted animal, forever on the lookout for the authorities. He lives in the tense, hidden world of the migrant worker--the world of sweatshop labour and prostitution, exploitation, misery, isolation and pain. He's resigned to this desperate situation, knowing that as an illegal, he is 'nothing'.
He stays with his friend Senay, an asylum seeker from Turkey, who is a cleaner at the hotel. She's not allowed to work, but has to. He's not allowed to stay at hers, but has to. The thuggish immigration officers, who force their way into her flat and threaten her, upset the friends' fragile existence.
Someone asks Okwe, 'How come I've never seen you before?' He says, 'We are the people you never see. We're the ones who drive your cabs, clean your rooms and suck your cocks.' This is the 'nickel and dime' world we're not supposed to see.
The film is not just a snapshot of underground urban life and the atomised individuals who work in the hotels of Russell Square and the sweatshops of Stoke Newington. It's also a thriller. The writer, Steven Knight (bizarrely, the co-creator of the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), says that he didn't want the film to simply 'show a white middle class audience how awful it must be to wash dishes and shine shoes'. Criminalising migrant workers forces them into highly dangerous situations making them vulnerable to the possibility of murder, violence and rape.
For Knight, 'If you stop any minicab on any London street, the life story of the driver will almost certainly be more interesting than the passenger's.' Migrant workers do have stories to tell. But there's a danger here that the exploited are romanticised--their lives portrayed as an exciting escapade, when much of what characterises the lives of refugees is the dull, repressive boredom of being locked up or dispersed without work or friendship.
However, Dirty Pretty Things manages to avoid sentimentality, yet still be powerfully emotive and gripping. The characters are rounded and well acted. Their interrelationships are often subtle and contradictory.
London Film Festival
|The Magdalene Sisters--touring as part of the Londond Film Festival|
Amid the choking fumes, overcrowded tube and ludicrous house prices the London Film Festival is a welcome reminder of the benefits of living in the capital. A chance to see many films weeks, if not months, before their general release, it features works from most nations and every genre. From guaranteed high-grossers like Anita and Me and Eminem's thespian foray 8 Mile, to documentaries such as Don Vitaliano, about an Italian priest hounded by the Catholic church for his participation in the Genoa protests, over four hundred features and shorts were crammed into this year's two-week schedule.
The latter film was shown alongside Carlo Giuliani, A Boy, which traces the last day of Carlo's life before the Italian police murdered him. His mother, Haidi, gives an in-depth interview which, as well as providing a moving account of her son, highlights the deliberately brutal and provocative tactics of the police. Though it excellently recreates the fear and intimidation of the Friday of his killing, it's a shame it doesn't also present Saturday's determination that we wouldn't allow his murderers to drive us off the streets.
Dramatisations worth looking out for include Roman Polanski's The Pianist (reviewed next issue), and The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan's powerful condemnation of the Irish Catholic church's brutal treatment of 'immoral' young women. The Children of Russia, based on the evacuation of Republican children during the Spanish Civil War, is one of many intriguing European films that are unlikely to be on at your local multiplex.
Two films that thoroughly deserve a wide release (though sadly probably won't get one) are In This World and Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The first is a barely fictional account of two young Afghans who make the tortuous journey from Peshawar to start a new life in London. Its unshowy, digital camerawork and minimal script allow the actors to be refreshingly naturalistic, and it furthers a strong polemic against racist scapegoating by the director of 24 Hour Party People.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 14-year labour of love, finally got its premiere at the festival. Those of us who came to hear the story of the Funk Brothers were pleasantly surprised by Joan Osbourne's unexpected introduction. In Standing... Osbourne, along with other modern singers such as Chaka Khan, performs with the surviving Funk Brothers. You may not have heard of them, but as the studio musicians behind Motown they had more hits than the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis combined. To hear them play in a packed cinema with good acoustics is to feel like you're at their comeback gigs--and what gigs they are! While holding yourself back from dancing in the aisle (or, if you've more sense than pride, giving in to the urge), you'll empathise with their deep love for their craft, and the communal bond that it created. When one of the white guitarists is asked if the riots in Detroit following Martin Luther King's murder caused friction between them, he breaks down in tears at the possibility. Such camaraderie was not shared with the company's bosses, who tried, and failed, to bribe one of them to spy on his moonlighting colleagues, and who informed them of the company's move to Los Angeles with a note on the studio door. The Funk Brothers' cruel treatment by Motown is nonetheless transcended by the warmth of their friendship and the spirit of their music. This inspiring documentary really is a must.
It's unfortunate that festival ticket prices are so expensive, starting at £5 but going up to several times that. This combined with the need to book most of the high-profile films well in advance makes the event unnecessarily exclusive.
Still, if geography is your main barrier, and you don't enjoy the mixed blessing of living in London, then you may still be able to catch the festival on tour. It's due in Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow between 29 November and 5 December, and in Canterbury for three days after that.
Royal Academy, London
The Aztecs exhibition will stun and perplex many people who see it. There are displays of magnificent sculptures from pre-Hispanic Mexico. There is a beautiful filmed reconstruction of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, one of the biggest and most magnificent cities in the world before the Spanish conquistadors tore it down to build Mexico City. But there are also written descriptions of how many of the sculptures and buildings were used for gruesome religious rites.
How are the two sides of Aztec civilisation to be reconciled? The notes to the exhibition describe the succession of civilisations in Mexico and Guatemala over a 2,000-year period and provide a chronology of the rise of the Aztecs in the 13th to 16th centuries AD. They contrast the figurative art of early civilisations with the realist sculptures of the Aztecs. But they do not account for the mixture of refinement and barbarity that is on show.
All the ancient civilisations originated, like modern capitalism, out of a combination of human ingenuity and crude exploitation. Ingenuity led to new ways of producing wealth, especially the food needed for people to ward off malnutrition and starvation. Exploitation channelled the new wealth into the hands of minority ruling classes who used it to live in luxury, creating elaborate structures for themselves, while the mass of people continued to lead lives of poverty and toil.
The Aztecs were originally foragers--people who survived by gathering wild fruit, nuts and roots and by hunting. They were an egalitarian, classless group. Early in the last millennium they began to move southwards from their original home region to the area around the Valley of Mexico. There they came into contact with peoples settled into villages and towns who sustained themselves by growing crops. The Aztecs began to copy their ways, but were subjugated by the rulers of one of the towns and forced to hand much of their harvest to them. Eventually they rebelled and fled, in 1322 AD, to marshy islands on one of the valley's lakes.
Here ingenuity led to more advanced ways of growing food, by covering rafts of branches and roots with earth to create chinampas or floating gardens. Over the next century, the increased productivity of the Aztec cultivators provided the means to building Tenochtitlan as a city and to wage war successfully. A people who had once been subjugated began to subjugate others until Tenochtitlan was the centre of a huge empire, extracting wealth as tribute from subject peoples.
The growth of the empire did not, however, benefit all the Aztecs. It was accompanied by a polarisation between a small aristocracy of warriors and priests headed by a royal family on the one hand, and the mass of toilers, who lost their rights as they were reduced to serfdom.
A transformation in religious beliefs and ceremonies took place alongside this. The Aztecs had a set of beliefs about gods associated with life as foragers and cultivators--with fertility, the seasons, the rising of the sun, rain and water. But an emerging aristocracy needed religious sanctity for its power. It found it in the cult of Huitzilopochtli, the hummingbird god. It ascribed to him a role similar to that of Jehovah in the Old Testament, as a god of war leading a chosen people through various hardships to their present eminence. His supremacy was embodied in the temple towering over Tenochtitlan.
The cult involved rites of human sacrifice. This had existed in the preceding civilisations of the region, as in many early urban civilisations elsewhere in the world (early ancient China and early ancient Egypt, for instance). But as in these other cases, there were signs of the practice dying out. The god Quetzalcoatl had supposedly brought it to an end among the Toltecs half a millennium before. The rulers of the Aztecs now revived it on a massive scale, claiming that unless Huitzilopochtli and his fellow gods received repeated libations of human blood the sun would stop rising. The blood was to come from the peoples conquered by the Aztecs.
These bloody rites fulfilled a triple function. They glorified the conquering, military role of the ruling class. Like the gladiatorial conquests of ancient Rome, they provided a ghoulish spectacle to distract the Aztec serfs from their own discontents. And they terrorised the subject peoples into submission.
As in other similar societies, the costly superstructure of ruling class power began to have a debilitating effect on the serfs' agricultural output, and a series of famines beset the Valley of Mexico in the last decades of the 15th century. The rulers reacted by staging ever more spectacular sacrificial ceremonies--even waging mock battles against the subject peoples (by agreement with their local rulers) so as to provide an endless stream of captive victims.
Bitterness at Aztec rule grew ever more intense among the subject peoples and classes. A widespread myth arose that the god Quetzalcoatl would return from exile in the east to bring to an end the blood sacrifices, the tribute and the oppression. Interestingly, the lower class artisans who made religious sculptures produced many more of Quetzalcoatl than of the bloodthirsty Huitzilopochtli.
Then in 1519, as the empire and the bitterness were both at their height, Cortes landed with a small band of Spanish soldiers intent on establishing an empire of his own. To some it seemed that here was Quetzalcoatl returned to free them from their servitude. The oppressed peoples flocked to fight for him against the Aztec rulers--only to find within a couple of years that Spanish oppression was as bad as the Aztecs had been. The Spanish even had their own version of human sacrifice to intimidate opponents of their rule--an auto da fé for burning heretics alive in what had been the Aztec market place.
by Moira Buffini
National Theatre, London
Dinner is brought to us by the sisters Moira (writer) and Fiona (director) Buffini and features a number of familiar faces from the stage and screen. Nicholas Farrell plays Lars, who has given up on his career in the city to pursue life as a writer of philosophical tomes. The success of his latest book Beyond Belief is being celebrated by his wife Paige (Harriet Walter), who plans to hold a dinner party in his honour. At least, that is the apparent reason for the dinner party. Yet even as their guests arrive, events are slowly unravelling, setting up the tone of the rest of the play.
Ostensibly Dinner begins as a farce, a comment on the pretensions of middle class convention. What is surprising, and refreshing, are the continually dark crevices Buffini explores to uncover deeper truths about the nature of polite society. We are treated to an early glimpse of this when Lars puts his philosophy to his guest Hal (a scientist) in a pre-dinner discussion: 'Would you rather consume or rot?... Do you want to eat or have things eat you?' Lars is something of a social Darwinist, content to let others fall by the wayside while he forges ahead.
Other characters also show darker sides to their personalities. Hal's new wife Sian is a journalist who has little compassion for the events that she reports on, proclaiming, 'People don't give a fuck about massacres and famines. They watch the news because they want to be reassured.' The husband of one of the guests has failed to show, having run off with his secretary.
At the heart of all this is the hostess, Paige. She can be as cold and unfeeling as any of the other characters, but it seems that her barbs and occasionally callous comments may nevertheless be driven by a sense of morality that the others lack. She finds a like-minded individual in van driver Mike, who chances upon the morass of sarcasm and recriminations that is Paige's dinner party, unaware that his presence will play a vital role in its outcome.
Mike seems to be the only character aware that something more profound is occurring than a social gathering. He condemns all of the guests initially, disgusted by their attitudes towards him, but finds fun in spinning a yarn about how he has just robbed next door when he is accepted as a guest. He has actually just crashed his van full of cakes. Despite the bizarre meal Paige has concocted, Mike is grateful. When Paige offers up the main course, live lobster, Mike 'liberates' his lobster into the ornamental pond. When she unveils the dessert, an assemblage she calls 'frozen waste', Mike happily chows down. Mike seems to be the most adept at handling relationships, and more than able to argue on the same level as the upper middle class 'intellectuals' that surround him.
The organic nature of the play means that it would spoil it to reveal too many of the details; suffice to say that the first half-hour is full of surprises. A production that could have been as staid and uninspiring as its subject matter--the social morass of the middle classes--turned out to have a real satirical bite to it. What the play turns out to be about is, I think, appreciation, and the final scene in particular communicates that. Perhaps the ending, bleak as it is, confirms an appreciation for life for the one who craves it most--Paige. I'll say no more than that, and recommend that you see this unusual play.