Tag Archives: Politics

There be monsters

 

 

Some time ago, I discovered Stephen Prince’s website A Year in the Country.  It sought to investigate the strange, frightening and paranormal aspects of the English countryside through his own photography and also by analysing other artistic work such as the writing of Alan Garner and John Wyndham, films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Winstanley and A Field in England, music by folk-rock artists of the 1970s and some later musicians like Kate Bush and Virginia Astley, and some neglected TV drama.

I have since found that Prince’s successful completion of one year has spawned several more, plus a published book and music production.

A recent musical work which fits perfectly into the ambit of A Year in the Country is Pastoral by Elizabeth Bernholz, who performs under the alias of Gazelle Twin. I was guided towards it by two trusted sources, the BBC Radio 3 programme Late Junction  and the online publication The Quietus, who both regarded it one of the best albums of 2018.

The title suggests its subject is a peaceful and stable English countryside. The landscape on the album sleeve evokes the sylvan landscape of painters like Claude Lorraine. The tracks have titles like “Little Lambs”, “Tea Rooms” and “Sunny Stories”.

 

 

However, Bernholz’ music shows that she does not believe in an idyll of stability and safety. It is cluttered and dissonant. Sometimes there are heavy bass-like beats, sometimes the sounds are higher-pitched and meandering. The instruments will mostly be keyboard synthesisers but others sound like the flute and the harpsichord. Singing voices are sometimes individual and female, sometimes in choral ensembles. Various speaking voices interject, both male and female, which are usually unhappy and anxious and angry: “it was much better in my day…the streets were safe then…trust no-one…picking the wound bleeds, pus flows…is it not just criminal…I don’t know what I’m doing here…dirty brawl by the town hall.”

The fools in Shakespeare’s plays are usually characters who disturb the equilibrium and challenge the established order, such as the fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It. The figure on the cover of Pastoral appears to be a contemporary equivalent, dressed in red and white motley but also with a baseball cap, a balaclava mask and training shoes.

The tone and atmosphere of Pastoral is similar to what I understand is the tone and atmosphere of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Where the countryside is vulnerable to the modern urban infections of crime and drugs and where one larger-than-life individual demonstrates that the ideal of a settled community respecting tradition no longer applies.

Journalists are fond of linking every piece of contemporary arts work to the UK electorate’s recent vote to leave the European Union  and to the UK parliament’s debates and disagreements about how and whether this should be carried out. But it is true that the populations of small towns and villages are often older and socially conservative and that they did tend to vote to leave the EU as they seemed to feel membership was responsible for their poverty and deprivation and poor economic prospects.

The Gazelle Twin website describes Pastoral as “a deranged absurd reflection of deranged and absurd times”. Certainly an alternative vision for Easter and St George’s Day.

 

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The ancestors of the Sex Pistols

 

I was slow to start record buying in my teens in the 1970s and most people I knew had larger record collections than I had. Nevertheless, by the time I was in my mid-30s, I was comfortable that, through the rigorous process of listening, buying, borrowing, reading and talking, I was as knowledgeable about the contemporary music culture as the next person. Except on one aspect. I hadn’t yet read the book which everyone agreed was the major piece of critical writing on the subject between hard covers: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, published in 1975.

Three more decades further on, that gap remains; I still haven’t read Mystery Train. Now at least, though, I have read another of Marcus’ books, Lipstick Traces, first published in 1989. A fascination with both low culture (pop/rock music) and high (literature, visual arts) and an ability to combine the two within the same piece of analysis has always been Marcus’ stock-in-trade. As fellow journalist Kitty Empire put it, Marcus is “probably the rock and roll era’s most lateral thinker”.

Unlike many US journalists of his era, Marcus was just as impressed with UK punk music of the late 1970s as he had been earlier by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan or Sly Stone. It is that era of music which formed the foundation of Lipstick Traces – although only the foundation. As Tony Wilson says at the start of the 1989 TV interview with Marcus about the book, “It’s got a picture of Johnny (Rotten/Lydon) on the front, but it’s about much, much, much, much, much more.” In that interview, Marcus summarises the book as an investigation into a long “heretical tradition”, which first took form in continental Europe as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries and then developed into the 20th century, especially around World War One in Dadaism and then again in the 1950s and 1960s in Situationism. Sometimes this tradition took form in political manifestos, sometimes in individual subversive actions, sometimes in works of avant-garde art, and one of its most visible later incarnations was the short career of the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren.

 

A San Francisco street, photographed in 2000. The Sex Pistols’ final concert in 1978 was at the now demolished Winterland Ballroom, a few blocks west of here, and is the starting point of  “Lipstick Traces”.

 

Marcus’ long narrative is not always easy to read. As he explained in another interview with Simon Reynolds in 2012, “I realised that I didn’t have a talent for extended narrative…I had to write (the book) in short fragments, maybe a page, maybe six pages. The book would proceed in these almost arbitrary sections, and that relieved me from having to write a transitional sentence. And in fact there pretty much isn’t one in the entire book; there are no phrases like ‘as we have seen’ or ‘and now’.  Every time I would start a new section I would title it after the first one two three words of the first paragraph.” However, you might well consider this individual literary style, plus a highly varied selection of illustrations, as perfectly appropriate for a book which spends a lot of time in the world of avant-garde artists and political anarchists.

 

The main façade of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, photographed in 2005. “Lipstick Traces” describes the incident on Easter Sunday 1950 when, during Mass at Notre Dame, four men, one dressed as a monk, walked onto the altar and read a sermon announcing “God is dead” and accusing the Catholic Church of “swindling (and) infecting the world (and) being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.”

 

Some of Marcus’ musical favourites from the late 1970s and early 1980s were the less well known from the era, like X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, the Gang of Four, Essential Logic; music which often included brass and jazz rhythms as well as guitars, drums and  vocals. This pushed me towards several more of the maverick outfits from the period whose names I knew better than their sound, like Rip Rig and Panic, the Pop Group, Shriekback, Durutti Column, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Some of the music relevant to the book is included within the frankly breath-taking Ubu anthology of avant-garde material compiled by one Kenneth Goldsmith. But, of course, in the wonderful modern world of the internet, audio and video files are also available on You Tube or elsewhere!

Marcus saw Lipstick Traces as his anti-Reagan book. Elsewhere in his interview with Simon Reynolds he describes the “depression” which he felt during that time in US public life and how he viewed the writing of the book as an “act of cowardice or betrayal” when he should have been joining in political activism.

Lipstick Traces certainly brought back many memories of my own 1980s. That was a time of the fresh popularity of Brecht  and Weill, the profusion of small touring theatre companies, writing about eastern Europe and the Middle East championed by Granta, the popular battleground of protests against Thatcherism and nuclear weapons, the politically engaged Mayfest arts festival in Glasgow, the contemporary art presented by the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, the New Musical Express  with its mix of new music, old music, politics and wider culture.

It may be that such periods of political and cultural ferment belong to particular circumstances of the past. However, Marcus says that creative and valuable voices of protest come around often in forms you don’t expect. Perhaps I just have to look more closely.

 

Reference : Marcus, Greil (1989) Lipstick Traces : a Secret History of the Twentieth Century   London: Secker and Warburg

 

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The modern shape of the news

 

“Brexit continues to suck the life out of the British news cycle,” said journalist Andrew Neil on the BBC programme This Week recently. He might reasonably have omitted the last two words of that sentence.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union after 40 years has been the main story for all of its news media for many, many months.

I am old enough to remember that the issue of membership of what was first called the Common Market has long been an issue of discussion and even controversy in UK politics. Margaret Thatcher’s successful Conservative governments of the 1980s frequently criticised the organisation even while they maintained membership. Divisions within the John Major government of 1992-1997 over the issue of the Maastrict Treaty led to the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government.

The major difference today is how much more ubiquitous and dominant are news programmes within national television. In the UK thirty years ago each weekday had about five hours of news within 36 hours of programmes on two BBC channels; nowadays we have the two 24-hour TV news channels provided by Sky and the BBC, plus nine hours of news each weekday on the two main BBC channels as well as the regular news bulletins on the other networks.

Both BBC News and Sky News tend to follow each other closely in the stories they cover and how they prioritise. The topics are often London- and Westminster-centred; also acts of violence, perceived terrorism, natural disasters. This has led to a climate where the same few news stories are endlessly repeated and the way they are reported uses the same language and the same people and the same video footage.

24 hours a day of TV is a long time to fill. So other resources have emerged to supplement. New media organisations like Spiked and Novara Media sprang up alongside the long-established but less popular print newspapers. Think tanks with different interests and shades of political opinion conduct research and write articles which the news media pick up on. Each of the two news channels has devised many programmes of political conversation. Unfortunately these have learned to prefer confrontation and shouting rather than clarity and balance. And there is “social media”, especially Twitter, which staff of both TV news and print newspapers have long used as a major source and which they also have adopted as their own principal broadcast conduit. The journalists do less independent research and reporting but more commentary and their language has become less nuanced and less temperate and less impartial.

We had political divisions in the past, of course. Industrial disputes always polarised opinion, especially the miners’ strike of 1984-85.  The British military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to sustained protests and arguments.

So, what about the discussion over leaving the European Union? It’s surprising to remember that during the campaign before the referendum in 2016, the word “Brexit” was almost never used: we all just talked about leaving or staying in the EU. Only when the incoming Prime Minister Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit” did the word start to gain popularity and notoriety. Although, as conceded above, it is certainly an issue which divided opinion within political parties and within different geographical areas in the past, many of us have still been shocked about the extent to which it created hostility and hysteria and accusations of treachery within all age groups and social groups. Especially since the poverty and social problems which people were angry about had obviously been caused not by the EU but by the neglect of successive national governments, both Labour and Conservative. The TV producers’ fondness for headlines like “Brexit Crisis” and “Brexit Britain” and for raised voices and personal insults has allowed this evidence to be ignored, and for the actual closeness of the referendum vote to be forgotten.

A robustly free and impartial press is the feature of a just society and Amnesty International and kindred organisations remind us that in other countries more journalists are being intimidated, imprisoned and killed than ever before. However, I do feel that a large part of the blame for the anger, aggression and fear around “Brexit” can be fairly laid with our media, principally the television news programmes. Why might they have behaved as they have? Many possible reasons: technological changes within their industry, difficulties in coping with these, a long-standing gluttony for political drama, the laziness of individual executives and producers. What I am quite sure about is that we are not living through the finest hour in the history of the UK free press.

A perceptive reminder came recently from the Canadian academic Steven Pinker. Why, he wondered in his recent book, are people so unhappy, when all the evidence shows that the whole world is wealthier, healthier and more peaceful than ever before?

His answer: because the picture of the world which the media presents is so different. “Journalism has a built-in bias towards the negative, in that it covers events, and it is easier for something to go wrong very quickly rather than right very quickly.” An explosion or a terrorist attack can break out rapidly, but improvements in well-being arrive more slowly and gently and so are very seldom deemed worthy of a news report.

 

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No peace in the Holy Land – or even in talking about it

 

Six years ago, Leaf Collecting began with a post about Bethlehem. After a lifetime’s interest in the town, informed first by Christianity and later by politics, I had finally been able to visit.

Bethlehem is situated in the West Bank, the area of Israel which since 1994 has been administered by a Palestinian executive but under the strict control of the Israeli government. Every year, as we move towards Christmas, the normally secular media remembers this part of the Middle East as the Holy Land, the homeland of Jesus Christ. Life here gets a little more news coverage.

 

Part of the separation wall through the West Bank.

    

 

Manger Square in Bethlehem.

Beit Sahour in the West Bank.

 

Palestine did get some news attention earlier this year, with the protests associated with the anniversary of the Naqba, the expulsion of Palestinians which took place at the time of the founding of Israel in 1948. The media always loves an anniversary.

A separate but connected news story during the summer was about alleged anti-semitism within the UK Labour party. The issue provided endless opportunity for individuals to be rude to each other, which the TV news channels were happy to co-operate with – but nobody seemed to want to explain to the viewers why members of the Labour party might be so interested in the actions of the foreign government of Israel.

I wonder if this might be connected to the education of the generation currently working in the media and party politics and think tanks. For a long time now, Nazism and the Second World War has been a common topic in History classes in Scottish schools. I imagine a similar case applies in England. A History teacher once wryly said to me about that you could study History from S3 to Advanced Higher (ages 13-16), and then through university, learning little more than that single topic. The Holocaust Educational Trust has for many years provided educational materials to schools; they and conventional travel firms organise trips to the former Nazi concentration camps. Cinema films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are still made; documentaries about the 1930s and 1940s are regularly screened on TV.

So a lot of people know something about the Holocaust, and probably more than when I was in school. Possibly they know less about the founding of the state of Israel, including the British involvement, and the history of that country during the past 70 years. In recent times there have been wars in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and younger journalists and politicians may feel the electorate (and maybe they themselves) can only deal with a certain amount of Middle East conflict at any one time. Also the only Labour party which younger people have known is the Labour governments of 1997-2010 for whom this was not a favourite foreign policy issue. So they may tend to see all Palestinians fighting as the actions of malign terrorists because that’s what so many other people say.

Not only is it strange that the impartial news media omits important context but people who appeared on TV supposedly to support Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not explain why the issue of Israel and Palestine has become important for many in the Labour party. About how the Palestinians have been oppressed by the policies of successive Israeli governments, about how Israeli violence is not merely for self-defence, about how the Israeli government is determined that the validity of Palestinian complaints does not get widespread acceptance, about how successive Israeli governments have been condemned by the UN and how their actions have often been compared to the apartheid policies of the white South African governments.

 

Two views of Jerusalem from its upper slopes.

Two views of street life in Jerusalem.

Women praying at the female section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

 

Somehow the idea continues in the UK media that Israel is in danger from the Palestinians. Yet Israel has a successful economy, very powerful armed forces and receives about a billion dollars a year from the USA. Once it was in danger from a unified Arab world, but it has long ago made peace with former enemies Egypt and Jordan. It would not be in danger from any single Palestinian if it ended its blockade, made an effort to make peace with them and help them to rebuild their government and economy.

Following the South Africa parallel, Nelson Mandela was jailed in 1964 because he encouraged the use of violence to achieve his political ends. Yet, while he was still in jail during the 1980s and criticised by many world leaders like Margaret Thatcher, the mainstream UK media still felt able to analyse and criticise the apartheid policies and actions of the South Africa government. Equally, they felt comfortable in reporting the actions of the African National Congress, which sometimes used violence, without automatically condemning them as terrorists or belittling their cause.

Of course, the anti-apartheid movement was strongly united inside South Africa and outside. In addition to the imprisoned Mandela, it had a number of major spokespeople like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In contrast, the Palestinian cause has always been divided, especially, in the last ten years, between the Fatah party which governs the West Bank under approval by the Israeli government and the more militant and controversial Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas’ continually aggressive language (in response to continued aggression from Israel) has allowed their opponents to caricature them as terrorists who would never accept peace. We in the UK might remember that it was only twenty years ago when a long period of political violence in Northern Ireland was ended relatively quickly because all partners showed the will and the effort. Militants from the republican and unionist sides were still publicly holding positions of intransigence while taking part in negotiations behind the scene.

Regardless of our increased education about World War Two, it does seem that the further we move from 1945, the more difficulty we seem to have in understanding or sympathising with other people elsewhere in the world who feel so oppressed or in such danger that they feel it legitimate to use violence in their protests. Such people are often blithely dismissed as terrorists and their sufferings and grievances ignored.

Six years after that first Leaf Collecting post, life for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has seen little improvement and certainly less attention from the UK media. Al Jazheera News is one notable media exception so it was a disappointment for many of us to have it removed from our Freeview TV channels choice in 2016.

As Michael Beer has observed in his Wild Olive website, the Christian churches are always strong and forthright in condemning the oppression of the Palestinians and in calling for peace initiatives. The World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme provides valuable support in situ.

When Christmas has passed and the media has reset to its usual secular position, the churches may be among the few public bodies who continue to give the lives of the Palestinians the appropriate attention.

 

 

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Rebuilding

 

Broken,  recently screened on UK BBC2, may seem to have several differences in tone and style from the channel’s earlier Rev. After all, the latter was scheduled as a comedy rather than a drama, in 30 minute rather than 60 minute episodes. However, at their hearts, their two presentations of society, religion, Christian ministers and their congregations are very similar.

In Broken, Fr Michael Kerrigan, a middle-aged Catholic priest from a northern English parish, attempts to help with a number of serious problems suffered by individuals in his local community. For example, Christina is a single parent who loses her job as manager of gambling arcade and then postpones reporting the death of her mother so she can illegally claim her pension income for one last week. Roz is another single parent from a slightly more prosperous background who confesses to Michael of her embezzlement and huge gambling debts and who sees suicide as the only escape from her predicament. Helen is an African mother whose mentally disturbed son Vernon, returned home prematurely, is killed by police during an episode of his violent behaviour.

Three more individuals are involved in the aftermath of Vernon’s death. Andrew, a policeman, knows that the boy was killed unnecessarily but gives into pressure from peers and superiors to compile a false report. Daniel, Vernon’s uncle, supports Helen in his fierce contact with the police, but his conservative views about homosexuality prompt him to insult and assault the compassionate but vulnerable gay neighbour Carl, who immediately makes a formal complaint of a hate crime to the same police.

Inside this multi-stranded plot, Jimmy McGovern’s script still spends a fair amount of time analysing the character of Fr Michael. Studious and interested in literature as a child, abused by a teacher-priest but then disbelieved by his parents, inheriting some of the conventional working-class morality of his 1970s childhood and passing on to others some of the cruelty he personally suffered. Nevertheless, he has sought to assuage early ills by decades of service as a priest, and is depicted as a kind and brave leader of his community even while still haunted by his past.

So the drama’s title clearly applies to its lead character. Also, unsurprisingly, it describes his community, with its areas of unemployment and poverty and a prevalence of gambling outlets, and also his parish church, an old building, architecturally impressive but perhaps overwhelming and unwelcoming, certainly shown to be frequently empty with Masses attended only by small congregations.

A striking visual comparison between Broken and Rev. is that directors of both used repeatedly a shot of high church doors being opened by the priest to let the daylight in. In Rev. this appeared to represent Anglican priest Adam Smallbone’s attempt to address his church’s diverse local community; the equivalent in Broken seems to presage Fr Michael’s regular recall of scenes of past personal anguish.

Michael’s immediate family places heavy demands on him as much as does his parish, although we do see him able to relax at church socials and with his brothers, and his relationship with his frail housebound mother clearly brings him joy. Throughout the episodes of Rev., Adam faces many of the same problems, doubts and opposition as Michael, although he is younger, has a supportive professional wife and benefits from additional administrative assistance in managing his myriad responsibilities.

In Broken, Michael sometimes discusses his problems with Peter, a fellow priest. We learn so little about Peter (despite him being played by a well-known actor) that gradually it is tempting to see him as the personification of Michael’s conscience. Certainly the way in which the camera moves away from him in the last episode also reminds me strongly of the final exit of the angel Dudley in the film The Bishop’s Wife. That further reminded me that Rev., mostly convincingly realistic in tone, also has one notable scene towards its end which seemed more spiritual or fantastic: where Adam, in the depths of despair, meets a friendly stranger in scruffy sportswear (also played by a well-known actor) who already knows his name and who tells him “I’ll always be here” before disappearing.

Both Rev. and Broken have similar conclusions which are encouraging to those of us who believe in the value of religious faith. In Rev., Adam’s church is due to close and he to resign from the ministry, but friends and colleagues coax him back to carry out an Easter Vigil service and his daughter’s belated baptism. Broken shows Michael persuaded out of his vow to leave the priesthood both by his siblings attending Mass and receiving Communion at his mother’s funeral and by those individual parishioners from the previous crises all quietly praising him as “you wonderful priest” as they receive Communion.

Both Broken and Rev. were excellent pieces of television drama about Christianity in modern Britain, and if I find Broken prone to stereotype a little more than I do Rev. it is probably only because I know the Catholic church and the Catholic religion much better than I do the Church of England.

 

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Some linguistics research – or perhaps just complaining about the way younger people speak…

 

Words come in and out of fashion. “Groovy” came and went fairly swiftly, “cool” has stayed around longer. Of the many words which changed meanings after medieval times, one of the most widely known is “fond” : meaning “stupid” when King Lear applies it to himself in Shakespeare’s play in the early 17th century, shifting to “affectionate” by the 20th century. I am sure the phrase “disc jockey” which I grew up with amused or annoyed older people who were accustomed to use the noun to describe someone who rode horses. I remember distinctly my surprise the first time I read a sentence including the phrase “spin doctor”, around the 1992 UK General Election, and, coincidentally, also around the namesake US band’s brief fame – and this phrase it is still commonly used.

All this is a prelude to listing some phrases which have become common parlance, even among journalists and broadcasters who are not young, but which sound rather ugly and unhelpful to my ears. Probably many of these usages have emigrated from the USA or Australasia and via cinema and TV – routes of travel heavily used for many years. Of course, such a list shows that the list-maker is more prone to nostalgia and conservatism rather than looking forward in optimism…

Anything which is unlikely or unachievable is now “a big ask” rather than “asking a lot” or “expecting a lot”.

A new feeling or attitude or condition will now “kick in” rather than “take effect”.

If something which needs caution or action is about to happen to you, you now need a “heads-up” rather than a “warning”.

An event which will begin immediately starts “from the get-go” rather than “from the word go”.

A permanent happening or condition is taking place “24/7” rather than “24 hours a day”.

An event will “not happen anytime soon” rather than “not happen soon”. Always used in the negative, this one, so possibly seen just as a more forceful emphasis.

If you are making things difficult for someone, you are “playing hardball” even if you know nothing about baseball.

A cause or practice which you feel strongly about or carry out continually is one you are “passionate about” rather than “dedicated to” or “committed to”, although “passion” is also often used as a euphemism for levels of anger.

Finally, since we’re in constant voting mode, it appears that people rarely now refer to others’ political “principles” or “beliefs”, but you talk about their “ideology” if you want to be pejorative and their “values” if you want to be polite and respectful.

About 20 years ago, the writer and broadcaster Clive James commented on how the word “enervate” seemed to be getting used more often as if it meant an increase in energy and strength rather than a decrease, because its sound, like “invigorate”, suggested such a meaning. He concluded that, if the majority of people come to use a word in one particular way, even if it is the incorrect way, that has to be accepted as appropriate and reasonable practice. A prescient idea.

 

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Home, sweet home

 

Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter  in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.

Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.

The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.

The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2  – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.

However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.

At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.

It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.

The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.

The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.

The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.

 

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The drama of news headlines

 

Newspapers are less important than they used to be, as proved by years of declining circulation. Perhaps no surprise, then, that newspaper headlines now are often long, plain and inelegant.

One recent example which bucked the trend was “Enemies of the people”, the Daily Mail’s concise and provocative description of the High Court judges who ruled that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, should vote to begin the UK’s process to leave the European Union.

It recalled another Daily Mail headline from those earlier days of high circulation and political influence: “The Enemy Within”, supporting Margaret Thatcher’s criticism of the miners’ during the 1984-1985 strike.

A few more from that era stick in my mind. When Arthur Ashe defeated the favourite Jimmy Connors to win the men’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon in 1975, more than one paper saw the available pun. “King Arthur’s court”, The Observer stated. However, the Sunday Express extended it more eloquently to “Connors bows at the court of King Arthur”.

In 1979, the announcement that Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, had been a Soviet spy since his youth resonated perfectly with the popularity of John Le Carré’ s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its TV adaptation. The Glasgow Herald borrowed one of Le Carré’s great pieces of espionage jargon for their headline of “Mole at the Palace”, but I thought Blunt’s character suited better the more old-fashioned, and more stylish, phrasing by the Daily Mail: “Traitor at the Queen’s right hand”.

This September sees the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the most dramatic media events in my lifetime. Most of the press and TV coverage at that time made me wince, and its polarising effect is shown well in the Peter Morgan/Stephen Frears film The Queen.

However, one headline which I did admire came from the Glasgow Herald at the start of that dramatic week in 1997 when Diana’s body was flown back from Paris to RAF Northolt. “Home – to a nation of broken hearts” displayed assonance, alliteration and an appropriate sense of rhythm.

 

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The future of political activism

 

The political world has become more confusing and less understandable, so it is often argued, by such unexpected events as the election of US President Donald Trump and the vote for the UK to leave the European Union. 

So how might an informed and sensitive citizen respond? What ideas and actions might be appropriate? Inside or outside the conventional political system?

One of the more successful single-issue activism campaigns of the recent past in terms of media attention gained was Occupy. Micah White, a former leader, said on TV around the time of Donald Trump’s election that Occupy had once united right and left wing activists in a single issue but now the two camps had been split. He felt that activist groups now had to build towards the old-fashioned target of winning elections to legislatures and executives.

In turn, former US President Barack Obama, in his farewell speech in Chicago,  encouraged his audience to participate politically both through community organising and through elected office.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that any social and political challenges might be best addressed by “the technology sector” rather than in “politics”. I interpreted his term “politics” as meaning in the party and electoral sense in which he had been so successful rather than in street protests. By “technology”, he may mean private technology companies, private-public partnerships or future life-transforming inventions.  

In the past, single issue campaigns often gained separate long-term and substantial support within electoral and party politics. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign  – I’m sure they all still lobby at political party conferences and other big events. We all remember the past cross-party celebrity-led campaigns against third world poverty and debt, against apartheid in South Africa.

Single-issue campaigns seem to have lost their profile in recent years. Organisations like Amnesty International do sometimes gain a media platform for their arguments, but equal if not greater attention seems to now go to the well-funded think tanks like the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Tax Payers Alliance, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

How is political activity carried out now?  People often create new personalised political protest groups rather than join existing ones. The internet, especially the existence of Facebook and Twitter, has allowed events to be quickly organised but has also led to the phenomenon of “clicktivism”, by which people do little more than read a website or e-mail the promise of a donation. I have also long felt that users of Twitter express their political views in a particularly  aggressive and unhealthy way and have long felt alarmed by the way that the mainstream press and TV depend on it so heavily. 

 Although relatively young at 36, activist artist Ellie Harrison is part of an older tradition.  Her most recent project, The Glasgow Effect, got a huge amount of media attention when it was launched a year ago and rather less during its year-long progress. The talk she gave last month when the project ended  was thought-provoking in its analysis of the allocation of wealth and public resources within Glasgow and further afield and how people might work to improve it. .

A practitioner in the conceptualist tradition, Harrison sees the artist as being someone who can and should  channel his/her creative energies away from career indulgence, which merely adds “unnecessary objects to the world”, and towards efforts to create a more just society.  The personal qualities which artists possess and develop, like persistence, willingness to work hard, confidence, arrogance, flexibility and spontaneity, make them particularly suited to such activism.   

Following that dictum that artists should not merely create new objects, Harrison stated that, during the 12 months of her funding by Creative Scotland, she spent most time and energy in organising and participating in political events and campaigns, and her literary output consisted mostly of newsletters and e-mails and Facebook posts canvassing support for and reporting on these.  

Old fogies like me are used to hearing younger people exalt modern technology (just like we did to our parents) so I was especially interested that Harrison feels like me that social media is not a good forum for activism. It is good for organising public events, she agrees, but otherwise it is “a beast out of control” where people behave much more badly than they do in public spaces or in one to one contact. “It is not social in the slightest”, she added; the individual user is already usually in a private space and the technology tends to increase the sense of isolation. 

Harrison’s talk referenced an earlier project where she devised guidelines by which artists (by which she probably means everybody) might live their lives fruitfully in the modern world. These guidelines included: view the world objectively, analyse critically the way it works, develop ways of working outside established institutions, work collectively rather than competitively and resist career ambitions.

So it might be said that Ellie Harrison has reached similar conclusions as has Carol Craig –  mentioned in a Leaf Collecting post last month, if from a different direction and through a slightly different perspective. By further coincidence, Think Globally Act Locally –  a phrase recalled in that previous post – was an earlier working title of Harrison’s project. 

 

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The personal benefits of looking outwards

 

Often society can agree on a problem without agreeing on a solution. In recent times, many people across all age groups have been felt to be suffering from anxiety due to a range of causes, and mental health is a great social and political concern.

Although we might hesitate to apply blame too specifically, especially if it would make us seem too conservative or old-fashioned, there is often a general shared diagnosis that some of the forces which used to help keep society calm and healthy  – family, employment, religion, community – no longer, rightly or wrongly, are able to do so in the same way.

Carol Craig, in a post from her Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, encourages a move away from materialism and towards spirituality as one step which would reduce anxiety in modern life.

Interest in conventional religion has dropped significantly in the UK in recent decades, so it is striking that often we try to hold on to elements of spiritual and religious life even as we re-characterise ourselves as secular. One of these elements which has come into vogue is mindfulness, being aware of yourself and your thoughts and feelings with a view to striving to develop senses of calmness, gratitude, pleasure and kindness.

Some educationalists have gone so far as recommend the practice of mindfulness in schools as they feel that the decline in Christian or other religious assemblies has made pupils less aware of the importance of reflection and spirituality. 

Although media reports usually mention the Buddhist origins of mindfulness, it bears similarities also to Christian prayer. Those of us who are Christians know we should pray to God to thank him for the physical and spiritual benefits he has already given us just as often as to seek help and support for the future.  I was struck to read a Christian minister and academic, Dr Ian Bradley, recently make this point explicitly.

 “Mindfulness is a profoundly Christian thing”, he said, so “the Church…should be encouraged to get more involved in pilgrimage, spiritual adventures that focus on mindfulness and meditation.”

Moving a little from the personal to the public space, Carol Craig suggests another valuable way to improve well-being is to look away from yourself and your immediate feelings and problems. Instead, take part in community activities, or in the work of organisations which share your views and values – a church, trade union, charity or political party.

Mindfulness was among many ideas covered in Swapping Psalms for Pop Songs, a rather non-pithy title for a recent BBC Radio 4 programme on the Sunday Assembly. This organisation, which launched itself as “the atheist church” which celebrates life and helps others, identifies itself specifically with community and social co-operation.  Its various local branches have allied themselves with food banks, health groups and housing associations.  

Ministers from different Christian denominations were both supportive and critical of the Sunday Assembly and presenter Mark Vernon suggested that this might mean that the organisation was “refreshing” a modern concept of spirituality. In the programme, academic Linda Woodhead emphasised that many people nowadays who see themselves as non-religious are not atheist. In the past, church congregations regularly included people of modest faith who saw them as “hospitable…filling stations” at certain stages of their lives. Nowadays, she argued, churches are seen primarily for the strongly committed and the more agnostic do not feel they have anywhere to go.

I do tend to share the view that any individual who has been a practising Christian all his or her life has probably become more strongly committed as the years have passed. It is also true that different times and events in your life might attract you towards or discourage you away from an organised religion. However, I definitely do not think that most Christian church leaders nowadays are dogmatic. Most whom I have observed have a very strong sympathy towards human frailty and inconsistency, and they both speak and practise the language of compassion.  They are very happy for people to join or rejoin their congregations at any time when those people feel that God is speaking to them.

I strongly share the view of Carol Craig and others that a way for any individual to reduce personal anxiety and to increase personal happiness is to practise a positive appreciation for the things which every day are going well in your life, and to share your talents and interests with others.

And to apply anew that dictum which was often quoted among political and social activists in the past:  think globally, but act locally. 

  

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