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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).

REVIEW: ‘The Establishment – and how they get away with it’ by Owen Jones

In R.Richardson, Reviews on March 5, 2015 at 8:13 pm

Reviewed by RUTH RICHARDSON (‘The Establishment’ is published by Allen Lane).

Who’s in charge?

Owen Jones is one of our most able young political journalists. Aged just 30, he is a regular columnist in the Guardian, as well as a former contributor to the Independent, the New Statesman and other publications.

owen_jonesJones’ first book, in 2011, Chavs: the demonisation of the Working Class, was acclaimed both in the UK and elsewhere. Now he has published a searing account of the all-powerful network of the real people with power – the Establishment.

Systematically, chapter by chapter, Jones gives his account of the workings of those at the top of our society – the politicians, the media bosses, the financiers and the big businessmen. He shows how they are interconnected, bound by a common mentality, a set of ideas that helps  to rationalise and justify behaviour directed at maximising wealth and power.

THE “REVOLVING DOOR”:

The Establishment is cemented by a “revolving door” culture – ie, powerful individuals moving between  political, corporate and media worlds, and sometimes managing to inhabit these worlds at the same time.  Political debate is largely dictated by a media controlled by a small number of extremely rich owners,  whilst political parties are funded by wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Many politicians and top civil servants are on the payroll of private businesses, and personal contacts and family connections often make for even closer ties.

THINKING ALOUD:

Jones first chapter is on the “Outriders” – a term with which I was unfamiliar. The Outriders are political “think tanks”, non-accountable bodies which shape political theory and give validity to policies.

He gives a brief but interesting history of the setting up of such think tanks. Immediately post-war, workers in Western Europe demanded far-reaching social reforms at the expense of big business, and the policies that emerged were perceived as mainstream until the 1970s. Meanwhile in !947, the Mont Pelerin Society was born – a think tank of forty academics, economists and journalists. They aimed to turn the clock back to a supposedly “golden age”  of laissez- faire politics at home and free trade  abroad.

The Institute of Economic Affairs was founded in the 1950s, promoting similar ideas. One suggestion of theirs was the privatisation of the telecommunications industry – a notion that was considered totally mad. But the Institute was doing an excellent job disseminating free market ideas, particularly in universities.

ADAM SMITH:

The Adam Smith Institute  was set up in 1977, and following the wave of strikes and the “Winter of Discontent”, in the late ‘seventies it began a relentless campaign of agitation.  The Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs joined with other free marketeers to form the St. James Society. They would meet regularly with senior members of the Tory shadow cabinet, such as Keith Joseph. They helped to make acceptable policies that would soon become the cornerstones of Thatcherism – privatisation, de-regulation and slashing taxes on the rich.   When Margaret Thatcher came to power, much of the hard work of laying the foundations  of her policies had already been undertaken.

To be an outrider in modern Britain is to wield considerable power.  Corporate interests, links with the media and political connections can all be exploited. Exactly who funds right-wing think tanks, such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Policy Exchange is not always clear. “We have some donors who would cease giving us money if their name was to be put out in the public domain,” said the  director of Policy Exchange.

The outriders have laid the intellectual foundations of radical right-wing ideas, and then popularised them to a mass audience. They connect together the worlds of business, politics and the media, and are a crucial part of Britain’s ruling elite.

“GREATEST  ACHIEVEMENT”?

In 2002,  the Tories held their party conference in Southampton. Only eighteen months before, Tony Blair had won a second landslide victory and Tory morale was at rock bottom.

But Margaret Thatcher was not daunted. She declared, “Our greatest achievement was Tony Blair. We forced our opponents to change.” “New Labour “ in office was keeping the flame of Margaret Thatcher’s beliefs well and truly burning.

Although Blair was happy to embrace free market principles wholeheartedly, others in the Labour Party were not.  When Ed Miliband was elected leader he was labelled “Red Ed” by the media and portrayed as being in the pockets of the unions.

Miliband made three commitments in 2013:

  1. To take action against firms which hoarded land waiting for its value to increase.
  2. A tax hike on big businesses to fund tax breaks for struggling small businesses.
  3. A temporary freeze on energy bills.

DANGEROUS EXTREMIST?

The Establishment’s response was to paint Miliband as a dangerous extremist. Yet opinion polls showed that three quarters of voters backed the proposals.  And an earlier You-Gov poll showed  60 per cent of the population backing a 75 per cent tax band for millionaires. Polls like these, says Jones, show how out of touch with ordinary people the Establishment is.

Jones touches on many events in recent political history – such as the miners’ strike, the events at Wapping,  the rise of UKIP, and the 2008 financial crisis. The power of the Establishment is highlighted throughout.

POSITIVE POLICIES:

Jones final chapter is entitled “a Democratic Revolution”  He ends on a positive note – that with collective action we can create a new and  fairer landscape for Britain. He sets out a number of policies that could lead us there.

Trade union laws should be reformed and democracy in the workplace put in place (such as workers’ representatives on company boards). Rail franchises should be brought back into public ownership as each comes up for renewal.  There should be public ownership of utilities involving both service users and workers. Banks that were bailed out could be turned into publicly-owned regional investment. Financially more capital controls should be put in place which should shift economic sovereignty from corporate interests to elected governments. The top rate of tax should be raised, and there should be an all-out assault on tax avoidance.

MPs should be barred from taking a second job and former Ministers should be barred posts that operate in their areas of interest and “expertise”. The revolving door should be firmly shut.

“Change is not won through the goodwill and generosity of those above but through the struggle and sacrifice of those below,” says Jones in conclusion.

R.R.

READ MORE OWEN JONES HERE: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/owen-jones

REVIEW: Coal On One Hand, Men On The Other: The Forest of Dean Miners’ Association and the First World War 1910-1920.

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 30, 2015 at 1:08 pm

 THE FOREST MINERS AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Written by Ian Wright, and published by the Bristol Radical History Group, 2014 

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, mining was an important (indeed arguably the most important) industry in the Forest of Dean. Some 6,000 were employed down the pits, plus of course the Dean’s freeminers.

There was also a strong sense of militancy amongst the miners – and a high level of opposition both to the war and to the demands made on those who hewed the coal. But back then they lacked any central union organisation. What did exist was a loose federation grouped together under the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB).

In the Forest, most (though not all) miners belonged to the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association (FDMA). But whilst there was an obvious level of collaboration, the federal structure did not necessarily guarantee solidarity with miners elsewhere in the country.

CROSSCURRENTS:

In this booklet Ian Wright has done a good job in piecing together the events of the war, and how these affected the miners of the Forest of Dean.  Coal was vital both to the war effort and to keep the country running, and consequently mining was a reserved occupation – ostensibly exempt from conscription when this was introduced in 1916. But this did not prevent several hundred miners from volunteering for the armed forces in the early years of the conflict.

To try to keep up coal production in the pits, inexperienced men had to be recruited to work underground. Meanwhile, whilst there were strong anti-war sentiments amongst the miners, their agent in the FDMA,  Henry Rowlinson,  was a strong supporter of the war – as was the Forest’s Liberal MP, Henry Webb (himself a coal mine owner).  Indeed, in many ways they worked together to try to sustain the dwindling support for the conflict.

GROWING OPPOSITION:

But as the casualties of war increased, so did opposition to the slaughter. Meanwhile calls on the miners to increase production intensified. And the ideals of Socialism began to permeate the Forest – so much so that by 1918, the constituency was able to elect its first Labour MP, and the Liberal stranglehold on the Dean came to an end.

All in all it was a toxic brew as far as the Forest’s establishment was concerned.  Strikes were outlawed – though this did not prevent stoppages from taking place, particularly in the South Wales coalfield.

THE “COMB OUT”:

One issue that caused a degree of controversy was that of “combing out”.  In other words, removal of men from the pits, to fight at the front. In April 1917, the MFGB was called to a meeting with the military authorities, to assist in the direct conscription of 21,000 miners – with some 140 from the pits in the Forest of Dean. By August opposition to the “comb out” had grown and resolutions were passed condemning the scheme.

By this time, Rowlinson’s authority was on the wane, and by the end of the year he was forced to leave his post as agent for the FDMA.

Ian Wright’s booklet is extremely well researched (with copious footnotes), and it’s not possible to do it justice in a brief review. He carries his account up to 1920 – the immediate aftermath of the war – with a description of the new order of things emerging in the Forest. The miners now had a new leadership, and a fresh sense of militancy. By 1919 there was also an eruption of mutinies and strikes within the British military. The world was changing in those immediate post-war years.

Many of the leaders of the Forest of Dean Miners Association were blacklisted following the miners’ strike of 1926.  But the radical spirit that had grown since 1914 was to remain.

JOHN WILMOT.

REVIEW: THE NIGHTMARE TRAIL – Scenes from the life of poet and war casualty, F.W.Harvey

In I. Wright, Reviews on January 30, 2015 at 1:04 pm

by David Adams

Reviewed by Ian Wright.

The poet F.W. Harvey (1886-1957) spent the last thirty years of his life in Yorkley, in the Forest of Dean.  I was brought up in the Dean, and was always taught that Harvey was our very own war poet and First World War hero who won a medal for “conspicuous gallantry” which included killing a number of German soldiers at close quarters.

However, this book is about Harvey the man, who was both human and flawed. The book challenges some of the myths surrounding his story and places his poetry in the context of the violent and turbulent times in which he lived. It even goes as far as to challenge the myth of his status as a war hero.

Adams, referring to a theory from a medical writer who has worked with current soldier sufferers, wonders whether Harvey may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder when he wandered into the German lines.  Adams goes on to question whether he was captured, confused or, like others, just wanted to escape from the war. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, traumatised by his experiences and sinking in and out of depression.  It was during this period that he wrote the poetry for which he became famous.

A LIFE AFFECTED BY WAR:

Adams’ father Ivon and his grandfather Edgar, a Forest miner, were both good friends of Harvey.  As a result, Adams was able to gain access to memoirs, to tell a revelatory and sympathetic story of a man whose life was so affected by the First World War. His story is told by tracking his life backwards through a series of snapshots from his death to his first memories as a child, much in the poet’s own words. In the process Adams offers fresh insights into his poetry as he re-examines Harvey’s attitude to war, poverty and social justice.

GENEROUS AND ACTIVE:

Thanks to this emphasis on the development of his ideas, Harvey emerges as a more interesting poet than history has recorded – a generous and active member of the Forest of Dean community, a great humanitarian and fascinating and complex man.

After the war, Harvey set up as a solicitor, but often represented his impoverished neighbours in the local courts for little or no fee. He could often be found in the local pubs, the Bailey or Royal Oak, drinking with the local miners and offering free legal advice.

THE NIGHTMARE:

The title of the book is from an elegy that Harvey wrote on the death in a lunatic asylum of Ivor Gurney, his friend, fellow soldier, poet and musician. The war is described as

That devil’s wonder   

That tore our lives asunder             

And left behind a nightmare trail     

Of horrors scattered through the brain,

Of shattered hopes and memories frail.

I recommend this book to anyone who seeks an understanding of the damaging effects of war on the mind of one young man and how such experiences could inspire great poetry and change a life, in a land which many hoped would be fit for heroes.

The Nightmare Trail (£7.50) is published by Yorkley a&e (a not-for-profit co-operative).
Email:  yorkley.ae@gmail.com