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CLARION REVIEW: THE PM WHO TRANSFORMED BRITAIN

In John Wilmot, Reviews, Uncategorized on May 5, 2018 at 10:10 pm

Citizen Clem: a biography of Clement Attlee, by John Bew (2017 “riverrun” paperback)
(a review by J.Wilmot)

It’s instructive to look back to the world and the achievements of Clement Attlee.  He was the man who led the first majority Labour Government, and helped to change the face of a war-battered Britain.

Much to the surprise of the Tories (at least) was the scale of Labour’s victory. It was a clear rejection of Churchill’s vision of a post-war Britain. Constituencies that had never voted Labour before helped to swell Attlee’s majority – as did the “forces’ vote”, still scattered through war zones in different parts of the world.

THE WELFARE STATE:

Looking back, commentators tend to judge Attlee’s major achievement as being the establishment of the Welfare State.  It was the central focus of Ken Loach’s documentary film, “The Spirit of ‘45” which was reviewed in the Clarion when it was released on DVD. He was able to track down a fair number of those who were able to experience those heady days when the Beveridge Report was adopted by Attlee’s government and transformed into our Welfare State.

Of course there was more to Clement Attlee than that – and he had plenty of other problems to grapple with in post-war Britain. And in many ways he was an unlikely figure to transform our society.

As John Bew, the author, points out Clement Attlee was born into a conservative (with a small “c”) family and this conservatism marked his early student years, when he studied Modern History at Oxford. But it was a developing social conscience that opened his eyes and led him into the Labour Party.

By the ‘thirties he had become leader of the party, travelling to Spain to give his support to the Republican cause in the bitter civil war (where he was photographed giving the “clenched fist” salute). When the coalition government was formed following the outbreak of war with Germany, he became deputy Prime Minister – and famously became Prime Minister when Labour trounced the Tories at the polls in 1945.

John Bew makes the point that Labour effectively put Churchill in power in the first place, by backing a vote of no confidence in Neville Chamberlain’s premiership.  As for Attlee’s role as Deputy Prime Minister, there were complaints within his own party that he was too subservient to Churchill.  Certainly, says Bew, Churchill wanted to keep Attlee as close as possible – and Attlee believed that co-operation was essential for the successful conduct of the war – particularly at those times when it seemed that our backs were against the wall.

Attlee’s reputation, even today, rests on the adoption of the Welfare State, with its crowning glory, the National Health Service, under the stewardship of Nye Bevan.  Incidentally, Churchill’s response to it all was to declare that it might seem good on paper, but “we can’t afford it.”

“FROM THE CRADLE TO THE GRAVE”:

To enable the state to pay for it all, a period of austerity was imposed, including rationing which lasted through the Attlee years. But we did gain a society in which the state looked after its people “from the cradle to the grave”.  And a mass housing drive was launched to replace those homes destroyed during the blitz, not to mention slum dwellings that were just not fit for purpose. In this, council homes were given top priority, including the mass construction of “prefabs” which became a familiar sight throughout the country.

“THE COLD WAR”:

But there were other points of policy which at the time (and perhaps even today) were more debatable. This was the era of the “Cold War”. Stalin had ceased to be our ally, “Uncle Joe”, in the fight against Nazism and had become instead the leader of a new threatening empire in eastern Europe. Those in the west were forced to take sides. In Britain, conscription (“National Service” as it was called) remained, and new frightening nuclear weapons were developed.

This, of course, caused new divisions on the Left, and fractured the unity created by the adoption of the Welfare State.  Another point of contention that bubbled vaguely below the surface was Britain’s imperial past. In the post-war period, whole swathes of any world map would be below the surface was Britain’s imperial past. In the post-war period, whole swathes of any world map would be coloured in red, to mark out territories that were still part of the “British Empire”. Those of us still at school during those years just took it for granted.  Others of course didn’t.

John Bew covers the controversy in his book, and suggests that any moves for Britain to divest itself from the trappings of empire moved very slowly. A case in point was that of India (once described as “the jewel in the empire’s crown”). Here some degree of independence had been promised as early as the 1930s – at least for “dominion status”.

DISILLUSION AMONGST THE MIDDLE CLASSES:

Of course, Attlee’s Government didn’t get whole hearted support – and Bew discusses the reaction of the middle classes (living in the fictional county of Barsetshire, popularised by the novelist Trollop).

It was the continuation of austerity that alienated them from Attlee’s Government.  They rebelled against the controls and rationing (particularly when bread was rationed in 1946). Apart from the rationing, it was the loss of that elusive quality in life we call “choice”.

Of course in any class-based society there’s always a difference between the amount of choice that different strata of society may have (never truer than the situation we have today!). Certain elements fail to appreciate the old saying that “we’re all in the same boat” however much it may be true. As far as the Attlee government was concerned, the middle classes targeted three of his ministers in particular – Stafford Cripps (president of the Board of Trade), Hugh Dalton (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and John Strachey (Minister for Food). Those, in fact who were seen as presiding over the “Red Tape and Sealing Wax Office” and the “Ministry of General Interference”.  No doubt the Daily Mail (not to mention the Express) had a field day. And it inspired the American poet, Orville Prescott, to pen the following poem which appeared in the New York Times:

“In Barchester all is not well,
The county people pine and sigh.
They wish the Government in Hell
And long for happier days gone by
When the gloom did not obscure the sky.1”

Only one verse is quoted here, but it does clearly express the sentiments involved!

One point that needs to be made is that the “austerity” imposed under Attlee’s Government was very different indeed from that many of us have to endure under our latter-day Tory regimes. Back then it was imposed to allow our Government to install a Welfare State that benefited all, and endured right through until Thatcher came to power.

All in all, whatever the criticisms that may be made of Attlee’s Government, he emerges in my opinion as one of our greatest Labour Prime Ministers (the other one being Harold Wilson).

As for Attlee, he served one full term of office, before winning the ensuing election by such a narrow margin that he was forced to the polls again in 1951 when the Tories were once again returned.  But the Welfare State remained firmly rooted (and, no doubt, was accepted by the middle classes of Barsetshire).

JOHN WILMOT.

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CLARION REVIEW: HAROLD WILSON – Labour’s face of the ‘seventies.

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 23, 2018 at 5:43 pm

wilsonbook“Harold Wilson” by Ben Pimlott, and published by Harper Collins – a review by John Wilmot for The Clarion.

Most of us (over a certain age of course) remember Harold Wilson. As Prime Minister, he helped to usher in a period of great change – before it was halted in its tracks by the arrival on the scene of Margaret Thatcher, of course.

This book by Ben Pimlott (a former warden of Goldsmiths College, London, and professor at Birkbeck College) is described as a “scholarly work”.  Which means in effect that it emerges as long and over- detailed. He spends one lengthy chapter on Wilson’s childhood, growing up near Huddersfield – and then carries on from there for over 700 pages.  But for those with staying power it’s well worth persisting.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW:

But, to put it into perspective, perhaps a brief overview of Wilson’s political career may be useful. He had studied at Oxford (first taking Modern History before transferring to Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and emerged with a first class honours degree.

He went on to enter Parliament in the 1945 General Election – a Labour landslide. He must have caught the eye of the new Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, as he was made President of the Board of Trade at the age of only 31 – to become the youngest member of the cabinet in the 20th Century.

Atlee’s pioneering government came and went, and Wilson finally rose to become leader of the Labour Party (following the death of Hugh Gaitskell) and from there went on to be Prime Minister on four separate occasions before bowing out of politics.

“MODERNISATION”:

His focus was on “modernisation”, coining the term, “the white heat of technological revolution”. He also did much to liberalise the law (still stuck largely in a pre-war mould) on censorship, divorce, abortion and homosexuality. He also legislated on discrimination against women and ethnic minorities – though it could be argued these days with less success. And he also created the Open University.

Other more controversial aspects of his Government(s) included the Vietnam War, in which Wilson attempted to walk a difficult tightrope. He did his best to maintain good relations with the USA whilst at the same time keeping Britain out of the conflict. He succeeded, but that did not prevent those of us who went on the march in protest against the war from chanting, “Where has Harold Wilson gone? Crawling to the Pentagon!”

STERLING CRISIS:

Another blip in Wilson’s premiership was the so-called “sterling crisis”, when an over-heated economy forced him to de-value the pound in November 1967. He also started Britain’s withdrawal from “east of Suez”, confirming the end of our role as an imperial power. He also applied to join the EEC (the European Economic Council – the predecessor to the EU), but Britain’s application on that occasion was unsuccessful.

In 1970, Wilson lost to Edward Heath, but made a return to power as head of a minority government in 1974. He managed to gain a slim majority (of 3) in the same year – which in a later election rose to 83.

What followed were the final years of Wilson’s premiership. In March 1976, at the age of just 60, he abruptly resigned to be succeeded by James Callaghan.

LAST YEARS:

So why did Wilson resign so suddenly?  According to Ben Pimlott, by 1974 he was ageing rapidly. “He no longer had the same energy… he took less exercise, drank more brandy, spoke at greater length… he looked older than his years.”

There seemed to be good reason to retire at sixty. Indeed, wrote Pimlott, his plan had been to retire at 56, four years earlier.  But it seemed the desire to beat Edward Heath in one last election made him postpone the decision.

Mary (his wife) it seemed was an important influence. “She wanted her husband out of politics. But it was Heath’s victory that stalled that. Wilson decided to put off his decision by a few years.

They talked it over during one of their holidays on the Scilly isles, and agreed on four more years.  Wilson was successful in beating Heath at the ensuing election, before handing the reins over to James Callaghan.

JOHN WILMOT.

CLARION REVIEW: KEIR HARDIE – Labour’s first leader

In A.Graham, Reviews on September 22, 2017 at 1:32 pm

“What would Keir Hardie say?” Edited by Pauline Bryan   and published by Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh. ISBN 978-1-910745-15-1

Clarion Review by Alistair Graham


 

KeirHardieKeir Hardie can justifiably be seen as Labour’s first leader. He was one of those who helped to found the Independent Labour Party (ILP), in I893 – called “Independent” to distinguish itself from those who’d been elected to Parliament as “Lib-Lab” members – in other words who relied on Liberal support for their seats.

Hardie, who grew up in the Scots town of Cumnock, went on to be the first truly Labour MP in the Commons. He opposed the looming clouds of conflict in the years leading up to 1914 and spoke eloquently from anti-war platforms. But worn out with his efforts he died prematurely in 1915.

This book is a collection from contributors assessing Hardie’s record and his relevance to the politics of today – though as there’s been a over a century of change since his day I found it difficult in places to trace the connections. But there are, of course, common themes that run through the decades.

One of the contributors to the book is Jeremy Corbyn, today’s leader of the Labour Party. Others include fellow political activists and academics.

“A LEGACY FOR THE PEACE MOVEMENT”:

Corbyn sees Hardie’s work as a “legacy for the Peace movement”, and introduces his contribution with an account of the mass peace march in London, in February 2003 in which well over a million took part., to voice opposition to the invasion of Iraq. “It was the biggest ever demonstration in British history.” He goes on to look at the carnage of the First World War, and how it is remembered in his own constituency of Islington.

Another contributor is Melissa Benn – writing in the footsetps of her mother, Caroline Benn who produced a definitive “warts and all” biography of Hardie back in 1997. Melissa makes the point that Hardie had no love for Parliament. (And it’s worth adding, Parliament had no love for him). He saw his role more as an agitator. “Agitation was at the heart of three of the most significant movements of his lifetime – the representation of labour, the struggle for women’s suffrage and pacifism”.

Barry Winter, who has had a long connection with the ILP, remembers two old party members (no longer with us) who had memories of Hardie when he was alive. Bert Lea remembered Keir Hardie asking him to sell copies of the ILP paper, the Labour Leader, which he continued to do for the rest of his long life. And in Bradford. May Allinson was one of the children who performed for Hardie at an ILP concert in 1914. She gave a lifetime commitment to both the ILP and the Socialist Sunday School.

Barry’s contribution is in the main a historical account of the foundation of the ILP (at a special conference in Bradford) through the early years of its growth. Hardie saw the need to forge an alliance with the trade union movement which was then finding its feet. In 1899, the TUC voted to form “a Labour Representation Committee” (though not all unions backed it). Then, in 1906 this Committee transformed itself into the Labour Party, though it made slow progress in its early years.

“MORE THAN A CREED”:

A contribution by Richard Leonard describes Hardie as a “visionary” dedicated to the creation of a Socialist society.” He sees Hardie as a man guided by moral principles rather than by philosophical theorising.” He believed that the truths about Socialism were self-evident, rooted in ethical values and moral courage.

“Yet Hardie clearly understood the class-based nature of capitalist society and the need to appeal to workers as a class. He saw the value of the work of Marx and Engels, but he did not believe in following it rigidly. And Richard Leonard quotes from Hardie’s from Serfdom to Socialism “The economic object of Socialism is therefore to make land and industrial capital common property, and to cease to produce for the profit of the landlord and the capitalist and to begin to produce for the use of the community.”

Many I would hope, would see this as a good summary of their own beliefs when it comes to the transformation of society under Socialism.

HARDIE’S “WELSH ODYSSEY”:

During his Parliamentary career, Hardie represented two constituencies – first was West Ham, and then came Merthyr Tydfil. The account of his “Welsh Odyssey” is written by Owen Smith (MP for the neighbouring constituency of Pontypridd).

Smith starts his contribution with reminiscences of growing up amidst the slag heaps of South Wales, with his grandfather telling him of Keir Hardie campaigning from slag heaps when he gained the seat of Merthyr Boroughs in 1900. He “gave a hundred or more such ‘Cinder Hall’ sermons” before his election.

Hardie had lost his seat in West Ham five years earlier, which gave him some time to visit South Wales, and to build up a following for the ILP as well as for himself as a potential candidate. “This period cemented Hardie’s reputation as a standard bearer for the working class,” writes Owen Smith.

Despite Merthyr’s radical traditions, stretching back to the days of the Chartists, Hardie had his opponents. There was a strong Liberal tradition in the area, but there was also a strong conservative element amongst chapel goers. But Hardie was able to capitalise on the anti-war -feelings, stirred up by the Boer war, as well as his support for the miners in the struggle. He won, and was to represent Merthyr until his early death in 1915.

RELEVANCE TO TODAY:

Owen Smith then turns to the relevance of Hardie’s work to today. “How can a Queen’s Speech in 2015 call up the spectre of Taff Vale with its promise to curb the right to strike and break the democratic power of the trade unions?” He asks. “Perhaps Hardie would have been surprised that we still have so far to travel, and that such hard won progress can be halted with such ease.”

In such a rich collection of fact and comment in this book it’s only really possible to skim the surface in a review such as this. But I will finish with one more contribution – on Hardie’s roots in Cumnock, in Scotland.

HARDIE’S HOME TERRITORY:

Kier Hardie was an internationalist, but according to Cathie Jamieson, the Scots community of Cumnock in Ayrshire was always his home. It was where his family was raised, and where he always returned. And even today the town still remembers him in so many different ways

He and his wife Lillie arrived in Cumnock in 1979. He was then involved with the miners’ union in Lanarkshire.

It was in Cumnock that Hardie developed the political ideas that would shape the rest of his life. “The struggle of the miners he represented was fundamental to his work and his emerging political beliefs,” writes Kathie Jamieson. It was here that he realised that the Liberals would not deliver the kind of changes that the working class needed. He was soon backing a resolution put forward by the Ayrshire miners that “the time has come for the formation of a Labour Party in the House of Commons…”

Later he was to declare: “I am a Socialist, and until industry is organised on a co-operative basis, wherein men shall work, not to make profit, but to produce the necessaries of life for the community, the evils complained of will never be eradicated.”

OTHER BOOKS ON HARDIE:

There have, of course, been quite a few books written and published on the life and times of Kier Hardie. That’s only natural. But this volume is different. It sees his life from so many different angles, and though it contains numerous viewpoints, all are sympathetic to a man who, more than most, helped to create a movement that over the decades has helped to shape our society – and hopefully will continue to do so in years to come. If, of course, we remember the ideals that Hardie worked so hard for.

And it’s a compendium to be read from cover to cover – or just dipped into over a period of time.

Life isn’t worth living (a review)

In C.Spiby, Reviews, Uncategorized on July 4, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Hermit_ionescoA review by C. Spiby of the novel ‘The Hermit’ by Eugene Ionesco

One of the most famous philosophical maxims is ‘The unexamined life is not worth living (1)’. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s only novel ‘The Hermit’ (1973) (2) is the absolute embodiment of this aphorism, albeit the conclusion presented being that, actually, life isn’t worth living examined or not.

An anonymous clerk inherits a small fortune which permits him to quit his meaningless office job where he is at most distracted to derision by the romances and mini-dramas that play out before him at work. On his last day, the clerk and his colleagues retire to the local restaurant for drinks – more out of social duty than actual like of one another. And this is where Ionesco excels: a complete affinity for the everyday interactions of ordinary people, most notably their subtexts and suspicions masked by social airs and conformities. It’s what makes ‘The Hermit’ an interesting study of late 20th century man without being particularly kind about him.

And yet somehow we readers warm to the rich hermit who has now moved to the suburbs of France albeit still within reach of the all-important restaurant where he can gorge himself whilst watching the world go by; satisfy his suspicions of the people that pass in the street or spy on him behind net curtains. His outlook tempts our sympathies for the hermit to begin to wain as he descends deeper and deeper into paranoiac excursions compelled by his own loneliness. Imagine a French bourgeois Charles Bukowski where, like Buk, there’s plenty of drink and little work, but where male chauvinism is replaced with a seething disdain for fellow man writ large and even existence itself.

Temporarily distracted by a brief and dour affair with a waitress, her leaving triggers a full-on descent into darkness. His fall coincides with the onset of events which feel a bit like Paris 1968 and the social unease surrounding it. He’s immersed in a fantasy of urban revolt and revolution akin to the civil spark possible from ’68. Except soon, though, there’s blood in the streets and shootings, which reminded me more of the fall of Yugoslavia but happening just a few streets away. Rather than engage in the uprising, our protagonist for the most part sets himself as observer whilst workers drink up their wine, revolvers in their pockets and rifles at their side waiting to return to the barricades. The hermit questions the point of revolution, makes no distinction between left and right but nor can he seem to distinguish between love and hate, participation and non-participation even as violence erupts around him, on the periphery. We’re never told what’s happening and why, just like the hermit we experience the outcome, and for the first time we fully feel the way he does about life in general: as an outsider. It’s quite a feat of writing.

Later still the revolution is now just a mess of reactionary forces and even worse just factions of the same side in some areas (a nod to the example of the anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps?): now though everything is questioned and assessed for its value and meaning albeit without consequence or engagement. At one point the hermit muses that he wishes he’d study philosophy more, to be able to understand the meaningless of the universe as he sees it and perhaps therefore find some kind of purpose.

Best known for his absurdist plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Lesson’, Ionesco spent most of his life in France and help establish the theatre of the absurd in the 1950’s. And yet this novel is at its best when it observes our ordinariness, in my opinion.

Ultimately ‘The Hermit’ is a downbeat analysis of humanity not least since the absurdity of life being meaningless is, in this instance, not providing us with freedom from restrained opportunity or social structures like the church and such like as the existentialists argued. Only love hints at the possibility of meaning but the sad fact is that the hermit in question, despite all his fair riches, just isn’t very good at it.

At one point a waitress observes of him: ‘You keep to yourself too much, Monsieur.’ To which he replies – summing up the book entirely – ‘I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by the crowd. By the crowd or by nothing.’

The Hermit’ is indeed a gloomy book but engaging until the end even as it becomes more and more fantastical. In that absurdity it becomes more satirical, almost a different book. And yet somehow its pace which takes you from the banal to the absurd works – it makes the essence of the absurd all the more believable.

I don’t know why Ionesco never wrote another novel, returning to plays and literary criticism. This might be a shame, as the tension of an impending insurrection is palpable in the second half and the descent into loneliness compelling in the first – and because of this the scope of this possibly allegorical sweep of humanity and the universe of emotion and reality means the work takes on a wider importance than its easy-to-read style would suggest.

It’s moments of cynical humour show Ionesco as a master of timing and it is his ability to make an unappealing protagonist a figure of our continued interest is, in my opinion, always the mark of a good writer. Worth reading. Worth living.

  1. Spoken by Socrates through Plato’s Apology
  2. I was reading the 1983 English translation published by Calder – looks like it’s currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online

Clarion Review THE VICTORIAN SLUM (Documentary, BBC2) & ‘I, Daniel Blake’

In John Wilmot, Reviews on April 24, 2017 at 11:59 am

It’s refreshing to see a documentary on television devoted to the lives of working class people – particularly back at the end of the 1800s.

For this particular venture the BBC chose to select a group of today’s families and take them back in time to experience life in the worst slum dwellings of London’s East End, in order to re-live the experience of life on the edge.

In those days there were no social services. Those at the bottom of the heap survived as best they could. For those who couldn’t, there was starvation on the streets – or the dreaded Workhouse, where families were split up and inmates subjected to relentless and humiliating toil.

PATCHY:

The finished documentary is somewhat patchy, with many sequences which, to me, seemed hardly relevant – whilst other factors gain no mention at all. The programme rightly made the point that the fate of those on the bottom rung of the social ladder often rested on trade cycles. In other words, as the country prospered there would be work available. During periods of slump in trade, they’d be laid off.

Many of those affected were self-employed tradesmen, trying to make a living from their slum dwellings – but still subjected to the trade cycles that came and went.  On top of that Britain’s industrial supremacy was being challenged  (by such countries as Germany and the USA) and the political establishment was divided between those who favoured protection and those who argued for free trade as a response to these challenges.

VOTES FOR WOMEN:

At a time when women didn’t have a vote, much is made of the suffragette movement. Although the campaign for the suffrage did impinge on working class women, it wasn’t so important in their lives as this series makes out. The suffragettes – particularly the wing of the movement led by the Pankhursts – was overwhelmingly middle class.

Another movement that did have more impact on working class lives was the rise of the co-operative movement.  From the cotton mills of Rochdale this was spreading rapidly across the country and was now becoming rooted in the East End.

Through the Co-op, working class families could buy wholesome food cheaply – and also benefit from the “dividend”. Contamination of food by shopkeepers who preyed on working class customers was widespread in those days.

WHAT, NO SOCIALISM?!

One glaring omission from this series was the rapid rise of Socialism and Socialist ideas, which were soon to transform the political landscape. As far as this programme was concerned, Voters were either Conservative or Liberal.

But during the time span covered by “The Victorian Slum” (which stretched through the Edwardian period almost to the First World War), we had the founding of the Fabian Society, and the Independent Labour Party, launched in 1893. Keir Hardie, leader of the ILP, was elected to Parliament, and William Morris became converted to Socialism, launching his own Socialist movement.  Here was a new movement based on a new set of ideas that was forcing itself on to the political scene, and into the minds and hearts of those in the East End of London, as elsewhere.

REPLACING THE SLUMS?

We also saw the first attempts to replace the slums with blocks of flats, by the newly formed London County Council (LCC). Initially these were a failure.  For various reasons, the slum dwellers failed to move on to the new accommodation on offer – and in fact much of the surrounding slum property remained until well into the 1930s. And it was left to Hitler, in the wartime blitz to destroy much of what was left.  But that of course was another story.

Despite its flaws this was an interesting series, giving an intimate view of what it was like to be poor in Victorian and Edwardian England. Other parts of the country, of course, shared similar experiences.  And, gradually, social reforms began to improve conditions.

There was the introduction of old age pensions (for example) when Lloyd George was Prime Minister. Then there was the first meagre payment for the unemployment. But, of course it wasn’t until after 1945 (during the Atlee Government) that the Welfare State as we came to know it, to care for people “from the cradle to the grave” came into being.

Looking back to the days of Victorian and Edwardian Britain it’s something we should cherish – whilst we’ve still got it.

JOHN WILMOT.


“I, DANIEL BLAKE”: Another masterpiece from Ken Loach

Ken Loach has long been the scourge of the Establishment, attacking today’s divided society for the callous inhumanity of those  who administrate it on behalf of those in control. And long after many film directors would have retired (to a life of light gardening, perhaps) he’s carried on.

We were able to see his latest work, I Daniel Blake, at a crowded performance at the Palace Cinema in Cinderford. The film waded into the attack practically from the first reel, pinpointing the inadequacies of the so-called “Welfare State”, and the callousness of its administration, with a clarity that must have left many in the audience seething with anger at the kind of society that we’ve created.

Daniel Blake is a carpenter in his late fifties. He lives in Newcastle, but a heart attack has left him without work, and he has to sign on.  He meets a young woman, Katie, with a young son and daughter. (They have arrived in Newcastle from down south and are strangers to the city), Daniel takes them under his wing.

BATTLING THE SYSTEM:

And here their battle with the system begins.  One of the many hoops that they’re expected to jump through is computer literacy.  And of course there are many who lack it… after all, how many of those stuck in such a position can afford a computer or have had access to one?

The hurdles to be faced to get any support from officials in the so-called “social security” offices with their “jobsworth” attitudes colour the whole system and those who show sympathy with the claimants become ground down.

LIFE AT THE BOTTOM:

Other aspects of a rotten system are highlighted. One young man on a zero hours contract finds himself forced into the black economy in order to survive.  And Katie is forced to join the queues at the local Food Bank when she goes to get food to feed herself and her children.  She gets supplies and sympathy, of course, but still finds the experience humiliating.

As for Daniel Blake, in desperation he resorts to painting slogans on the wall opposite the social security offices, declaring that he is a human being, not just a faceless number to be processed through a heartless system.  Inevitably he’s arrested.

His action gains him support from fellow victims of the system.  But of course his friends are powerless. As the film draws towards its end, he collapses and dies of a fatal heart attack. His funeral is packed, and here Katie  reads out his final statement  that he’d prepared to present at a hearing at the Social Security offices to which he’d been summoned (prior to having his allowance cut off).

The scruffy, hand-written piece of paper is a defiant defence of his own humanity – and of all those who had come to his funeral.

MIXED RESPONSES:

There have, of course been mixed responses to the film.  It’s only natural that  Ken Loach has  chosen a multi-pronged attack on the system.  And most of those who’ve flocked to the cinema to see the film have never shared the experiences of those like Daniel Blake, Katie and others at the mercy of the system.

As for Tories who raised their heads above the parapet, their response has been to condemn the film as false propaganda.  At best, it’s “exaggerated”. Iain Duncan Smith, for example, didn’t like it at all.

But simply on a human level it’s a moving account of those forced to suffer under an unfeeling system that has traduced what was once regarded as part of one of this country’s proudest achievements – the welfare State.

JOHN WILMOT

TRUMBO: WITCH HUNT – the black days of McCarthyism in the USA

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm
Review: Trumbo DVD

The reality of purges, witch hunts, or whatever else you wish to call them is always ugly.  Whether we’re talking about Stalin’s show trials in the USSR in the ‘thirties,  or the purge of all those hauled up before the so-called “Un-American Activities Committee” in the USA of the 1950s, such attempts to purify and cast out “undesirable” elements from any society are based on organised intolerance or bigotry, and lead only to suffering – or (in the case  of Stalin’s show trials) worse.

The film, “Dalton Trumbo” covers the Hollywood screenwriter’s attempts to fight back against the the so-called “UnAmerican Activities Committee”.  He won out in the end, but it almost cost him his family, and the lives of many of his friends. It was an ugly intolerant period for those who were caught up in it.

ATTACK ON HOLLYWOOD:

Although far too many ordinary folk suffered from the bleak attentions of the McCarthyite period, the film industry centred around Hollywood suffered particularly. Actors were blacklisted, as were directors and screen writers such as Trumbo. Only “good” Americans, such as Ronald Reagan or John Wayne were able to flourish, under the baleful patronage of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

Trumbo found himself one of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten” who attempted to fight back. They lost, and Trumbo found himself serving time in prison. On his release he found that he was now  unable to gain work – certainly under his own name. He was forced to take work writing scripts for cheap “B Movies” to scrape a living. His family  begins to fall apart, and he‘s shunned by those who he thought had once been his friends.

Despite all this he did succeed in winning an Oscar for his script of the film “Roman Holiday” – though he had to write it using a false name. But his big breakthrough was the film “Spartacus”. Not only was this released under his name but it also won an Oscar.  It was    to be the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist.

Others were also to suffer of course, including such actors as Edward G. Robinson, and to a lesser extent, Humphrey Bogard, and his wife Lauren Bacall.  Others escaped the net by moving abroad – or leaving the industry altogether.

One example was Sam Wanamaker, who was to settle in  Britain. He went on to become responsible for the re-recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, whilst his daughter, Zoe became a prominent character actor in UK  film and television. Hollywood’s loss was to be our gain!

JOHN WILMOT

REVIEW: Paper Tiger – Inside the Real China

In R.Richardson, Reviews, Uncategorized on October 4, 2016 at 12:31 pm

THE REAL CHINA:

“Paper Tiger – Inside the Real China”, by Xu Zhiyuan (published by Head Zeus and translated by Nicky Harman and Michelle Deeter. Reviewed by RUTH RICHARDSON 

“Paper Tiger” is a phrase coined by Mao Zedong  which originally referred to American imperialism. He said, “In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tigchairman_mao1949er.”

Xu Zhiyuan uses the phrase as the title of his book of essays, but with slightly different connotations. He believes that China gives the appearance of a transformation into the 21st Century, but “under the bright shiny service lies a political and social crisis.”

Xu is a journalist in his 30s and much of his writing is published outside China. He writes of the contradictions of modern China, the dominance of consumer values above any real commitment to social justice. He paints a picture of the elite who live and work inside air-conditioned blocks covered in one-way mirror glass. Salaries in the financial companies are huge and financiers’ “whirlwind  lifestyle takes them to New York one day and Paris the next”.  But, says Xu, they are unwilling to transform their wealth into wider social improvements.

RELATIONSHIP WITH FATHER:
An interesting essay concerns Xu’s relationship with his father, now in his sixties, who has lived through the Cultural Revolution and seen China’s huge economic boom. “Don’t let your tongue run away with you,” he advises. Xu’s  father always cared about his son’s future, but he worries that journalism will get his son into trouble. He is afraid that voices of dissent will disturb the peace.

“It is difficult,” writes Xu, “for him to believe that an individual’s right to enjoy free speech is just as important as his right to an adequate standard of living.”

EDUCATION: THE WAY IT’S DONE:
I was particularly interested in Xu’s essay on education. Unsurprisingly he is critical of the strict discipline and the exam-orientated regime. The one aim is to gain pupils places at top universities. Linchuan Number One  school, which Xu visits, has 14,000 students. Their curriculum comprises maths, science and formulaic essay writing.

Rows of bookshops near the school’s entrance are full of revision materials; there is no poetry, nothing reflecting  China’s cultural heritage. The school’s library is no longer in use and Xu sees thick layers of dust piling up on the books. When we read what amazing results Chinese school children achieve, we would do well to ponder on how they come about.

FREEDOM TO CRITICISE:
Xu does not call for the overthrow of the existing regime in China, but he wants more freedom to be able to criticise it. The media should be able to expose injustices  and call corrupt officials to account. Xu writes, “We will only have security, democracy and individual freedoms if everyone fights for them. Freedoms that are bestowed never really belong to us.”

Most essays deal with China under its previous leader, Hu Jintao, but in 2012 Xi Jinping took office. Most observers feel that under him a stricter regime has been imposd, and academics, lawyers and journalists are under more pressure to toe the line. It will be interesting to read Xu Zhiyuan’s observations on the current regime. I am sure that he will not be easily silenced.

Ruth Richardson

‘City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp’ by B. Rawlence

In R.Richardson, Reviews on May 3, 2016 at 4:51 pm

LIFE IN THE CAMPS:

‘City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp’ by Ben Rawlence. Published by Portobello Books.

 

Ben Rawlence, the author of this remarkable book, is a human rights watch observer. Over the course of four years he was a first-hand witness of life in Dadaab, Kenya, home to half a million refugees. Dadaab is deep in the desert where only thorn bushes grow, hundreds of miles from any other settlement. Aid is provided by the UN and channeled through an army of charities and aid workers, and the city runs on a grey economy.

Most of the refugees are Somali fleeing from the consequences of the civil war of 2008, when control of most of the country was seized by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida-linked organisation. Others are from Sudan, Ethiopia, or Darfur. Many of them walked for days, often in family groups, to reach the comparative safety of the camp.

cityofthorns

NINE STORIES:

Rawlence interleaves the stories of nine individuals – and touches on many more – into his account of life in the camp. There is Guled, taken as a child soldier, who manages to escape and hitch a lift to Dabaab.  Through his story we learn the hugely protracted process of registering in the camp for aid.

Other characters include Kheyro, a dedicated student pinning her hopes on escaping the camp by means of one of the very few available scholarships. There is Tawane, a youth leader, who organises distribution for the newcomers to the camp and does his best to stay out of trouble.

With so many different nationalities in such an environment, unsurprisingly conflicts arise. And there’s always the risk of infiltration by al-Shabaab.  Indeed, terrorist activity erupts more than once, resulting in the temporary withdrawal of aid workers, so that refugees like Tawane with a measure of responsibility have to ensure that basic services keep running.

LIVING IN LIMBO:

The inhabitants of Dadaab are in limbo. No-one wants to acknowledge that it has become permanent, but some have been there for over twenty years.  A few decide to return to their homes and are given a resettlement package, though war in Somalia is by no means over.  A very few are given papers  for a new life in the western world. And some decide to strike out on the long and dangerous journey to Europe by way of the Mediterranean or Turkey.

THE REFUGEE CAMP MYTHS:

City of Thorns came to my notice through an article by Ian Birrell in the “i” newspaper, entitled “Exposing the refugee camp myths”. Clearly, says Birrell,  these camps are not a humanitarian answer, though it is a convenient one for politicians.

Sir Alan Duncan, then Minister of State for International Development,  said in 2014: “You know where they are  when they are in camps.”  Birrell writes, “What human being wants life trapped in limbo dependent on others for everything?”  What they need, says Birrell, is the right to work legitimately so they can build a fresh start.

“PROPER RESETTLEMENT PLAN”:

There needs to be a proper resettlement plan in which all first-world countries play their part. At present the West is considering a deal with Turkey to contain up to two million refugees within their borders, housed in huge UN funded camps. Anyone who thinks that this is an acceptable solution should read ‘City of Thorns’.  We need investigative journalists like Ben Rawlence to tell it like it is.

Reviewed by RUTH RICHARDSON

REVIEW: A MASTER CLASS IN ALTERNATIVE ECONOMICS

In John Wilmot, Reviews on December 22, 2015 at 4:30 pm

The Global Minotaur, by Yanis Varoufakis – with a foreword by Paul Mason. Published by Zed Books.

This is an updated edition (brought out, I suspect with the Greek financial crisis in mind) of a book first published in 2011. The author is an economist of world repute. He has taught in numerous universities in the UK and became an MP for the Syriza party in Greece. On its rise to power he was appointed Minister of Finance.
When the crisis occurred, and the Government finally bowed to pressure from the IMF, Varoufakis parted company with his party – and the deal that was imposed over his head.
Now, any book on economics poses difficulties for the lay reader – and I’m no exception. There’s the terminology used by economists for a start. And this volume, by necessity, is quite dense.
But Yanis Varoufakis writes well, and has a lively turn of phrase which helps the reader over the difficult bits. He has been described as an “opponent of austerity”, which is true – but he’s more than this. He can also be described as a critic of capitalism, noting its lurches from boom to slump – a pattern that can be traced back to its birth when it replaced the old feudal order.
Some slumps, he suggests, are major, like those of 1929 and more recently that of 2008 – capable of turning the established order on its head. But he mentions other lesser slumps – such as that of 1847 in Britain. It ended the railway boom abruptly with  stocks and shares going into a nosedive, and a consequential collapse in a number of banks.
In 1873 there was a similar crisis in the USA, again caused by a stock market collapse in railway shares. This led to a six year depression.
THE WALL STREET CRASH:
Fast forward to the roaring ‘twenties and we see the great crash of 1929. By the end of the year, 40 billion dollars had been wiped out on Wall Street, and banks went to the wall. In America 2,293 of them closed permanently. The crisis went global, reaching Europe like a financial plague, affecting heavy industry and the financial markets alike. The “Gold Standard”, which was meant to regulate commerce and the relationship between currencies, collapsed. Despite the good intentions of the “New Deal” in the USA, it took the Second World War to lift the economy out of slump.
At the end of  the war came the Bretton Woods talks, with the USA now the dominant economic power. With the Gold Standard now dead in the water, American economists brought in a new plan to replace it with the US dollar. The “yankee dollar” was to become the currency on which the capitalist world relied. And so it was to remain until the economic collapse of 1971.
2008:
We remember the crash of 2008, of course. Much of the population of Europe and the USA are still feeling the effects. This was another collapse caused by bankers’ greed and lack of foresight. According to Varoufakis, it saw the banking industry go into damage control mode, “desperately trying to stem the popular demand for stringent regulation of their institutions.”
Their argument was that too much regulation would “stifle financial innovation”. As if this “innovation” hadn’t already caused enough damage!  Of course we’re all aware of who’s been responsible for the crash seven years ago. In popular parlance it was the “greedy bankers”, paying themselves massive bonuses regardless of whether the economy or their own part in it warranted these pay-outs.
In Britain of course the “damage control” (sic) worked. Banks continued to operate without the regulation needed to keep them in line, and the champagne continued to flow. A few heads rolled and then it was back to business as usual. Big bonuses are still paid out regardless. And the rest of us still have to put up with conditions of austerity introduced in order (ostensibly) to deal with a crash that we were in no way responsible for.
In his final chapter (“A world without the Minotaur”), the author decides to re-evaluate his position in order to put it to the test. This chapter is an addition to the first edition of the book, published a few years earlier. And here his analysis becomes complicated!
But just to summarise a few points:  the slump of 2008 resulted in a break in America’s pattern of trade deficits, which had relied on the USA absorbing the surplus production and capital from Europe and elsewhere. To put it simply, after 2008 this inflow of capital and goods slumped. Without this global flow of capital etc., profits could no longer be maintained. Once again it was the banks and financial institutions that went down like ninepins.
As for solutions to the problem, Varoufakis comes up with no simple formula. But he does suggest that neither of the responses put into place in Europe and the USA would work.  European countries opted for austerity – or in some cases had it forced upon them. America tried “quantitative easing”, which he says failed to have any positive effect (though, as I see it,  it had less damaging impact on people’s lives than “austerity”).
LACK OF SELF RESTRAINT:
In conclusion, he suggests that both governments and private capital had been guilty of a lack of self restraint in their dealings in the decade leading up to 2008.
Governments had failed to regulate financial institutions, whilst the banking and financial world had thrown caution (and sanity?) to the winds in its greed to make bigger and bigger profits.
But, as I see it, that is what it will always do unless it’s held in check. Meanwhile this book by Yanis Varoufakis is an interesting guide to both the development of a volatile capitalist system and the roots of its crises in the last century.
JOHN WILMOT

RED LOVE: The story of an East German family

In C.Spiby, Reviews on September 2, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Maxim Leo’s book ‘Red Love’ is so much more than the story of a family from the GDR; it is the story of WW2 anti-fascist heroes, the relationship between parents and their children, and a state and its people. Clarion subscribers will find it a truly fascinating read.

With the unique perspective of author Maxim turning 19 as the Wall comes dored_love_coverwn, and his father, Wolf being 19 when the Wall went up, this family history traces three generations of German socialism.

But as each generation comes of age, there is a lessening of the cause, a lessening of the hope of socialism.

Under Walter Ulbricht and the Soviet Union this road to socialism is replaced at first by a paranoiac state and then by the 1980’s, by a generation who have become so remote from the cause and the possibilities of socialism that the freedom they seek seems indistinguishable from the freedom to be just like those in the West. In the end Maxim feels that “Society isn’t the main subject of my life. I am.” A view probably shared by his entire generation.

Their story is the story of their state. Maxim writes “Our family was like a miniature GDR…where ideology collided with life.”

While his father, Wolf, was not a Party member, it was not because of his opposition to socialism, but his opposition to that particular kind of socialism which destroyed the people’s trust in their own state, the son stating at one point “He sometimes laughs at me for needing so many things to be happy.”

What clearly started as an exercise in family history has become so much more. Its topics range from

  • history (Werner, one of Maxim’s grandfathers shifts from almost ambivalent Nazi supporter to Communist Party member, expressing with real authenticity the experience of life in WW2 and post WW2 Germany)
  • politics (“Others became Communists because they felt drawn to the world of ideas. For Gerhard it’s a matter of experience, of feeling, of friendship.”
  • philosophy (“Man is different from the animals primarily because he deliberately applies laws and thus creates a just coexistence.”)
  • socialism and humanism (the disgrace with himself that Maxim feels when he is interrogated by Stasi and capitulates immediately, giving them the information they seek in a moment while recalling Gerhard, his grandfather who resisted days of torture by the SS for his role in partisan activities is among one of many touching moments – this time of pride and shame).

‘Red Love’ is great journalism: it’s engaging and informative, revealing authentic experiences of real people through hope and trauma. But just as the example of the GDR saddens me, so too does Maxim’s underlying conclusion.

The “GDR was the result of the struggle, the reward. The point of life. He {Gerhard} couldn’t get out of it without losing himself. ‘That was my country,’ he said in that interview. And it sounded sad, but also a bit proud. And I reflected that it couldn’t be my country for precisely that reason. But I said nothing.”

For me the GDR is not something consigned to history. It is a tragedy of what could have been.

From it we can still learn much; of how far it swerved on the road to socialism, how it can warn us, but also that it was not an utter failure. In ‘Red Love’ we are introduced to people who believed in something greater. Totalitarianism and the end of the Cold War never killed that.

‘Red Love’ is published by the Pushkin Press (2014 paperback, English translation).