New Internationalist

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Issue 284

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Film

The Secret of Roan Inish
directed by John Sayles

The Secret of Roan Inish John Sayles is one American director who manages to survive and make films that have a political dimension when all around seem to be driven by more commercial considerations. It is something that he has been doing for the last 15 years. Sayles’ films have tackled questions of sexual identity, with the ‘coming-out’ tale Lianna; race with Brother from Another Planet; union politics with Matewan, set in a West Virginian mining town in the 1920s. His last, Passion Fish, is one of the few films to have dealt sensitively with disability but, as with Sayles’ other work, without treating the issue on the nose. For Sayles sews the politics most subtly into the seams of his films.

This is very much in evidence in his latest film, The Secret of Roan Inish. Set on the Irish coast just after World War Two, ostensibly it seems to be ‘family’ fare, with its tale of Fiona (Jeni Courtney), a little girl who goes to stay with her grandparents and becomes entranced by the stories of the ‘Selkies’, mythical creatures that are half human, half seal who supposedly live on the islands nearby. She also hears about how her baby brother was swept out to sea in his cradle and starts to have sightings of the cherubic sibling. Fond fancy, or is there a truth to this? Exquisitely photographed by Haskell Wexler, The Secret of Roan Inish celebrates the beauties of the land and seascapes, while drawing on Celtic culture and legend. It also infers how communities can be swept away, not by the elements, but financial considerations – Fiona’s grandparents are threatened with eviction to make way for a holiday home. In this it is a moving reflection on Fiona and her family’s relationship to the land and sea that they have worked and fished, and how that forges the folklore. Ever intelligent and quite captivating, The Secret of Roan Inish will not fail Sayles’ fans, while it should recruit more from a younger generation.

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Books

In the Cities of the South: Scenes from a Developing World
by Jeremy Seabrook
(Verso ISBN 1-85984-081-7)

Cities of the South There is much Western agonizing over the exact moment when we can say that over half of the world’s population is urban. Has it already happened? What will be the consequences? Are terms like ‘population explosion’ and ‘catastrophe’ useful ones? In a long and committed writing life, Jeremy Seabrook has written widely on themes of urbanization, development and poverty. In his new book he focuses on the experiences of people in the rapidly expanding cities of South Asia. Looking beyond the shibboleths like ‘tiger economy’ and the convenient and dismissive shorthand of sweatshop labour, he examines the realities that shape the destinies of those for whom the concept of a global economy is of more immediate importance than the ready availability of consumer goods. Drawing striking parallels with the earlier industrial expansion of Britain, he charts the rise of the megacities and graphically illustrates how transnational capitalism with its ‘structural adjustment’ and ‘export zones’ has failed and continues to fail those to whom the city has become an irresistible magnet. From Jakarta to Bombay, Kuala Lumpur to Manila, the picture is of communities under siege but forging collective defences of organization, education and association.

While Seabrook applies a scholarly rigour to his work, he does not patronize and he does not preach. Rather, he is open to learning from those to whom he talks and is able to communicate what he has heard; what Brecht called ‘watching the people’s mouth’. What sets this book apart from the standard, arid academic discourse on ‘the poor’ or ‘the South’ is involvement.

In setting down the mosaic of lives that constitute the body (and soul) of his narrative, Jeremy Seabrook does so as an active participant, not an outside observer. He rightly remarks on the sentimental falsity of calling ‘heroic’ lives of such stringent adversity; adding the burden of noble suffering to those already carried.

Like a city, this wonderful book seethes with light, action and endlessly varied personal dramas. I can only, in a spirit of solidarity with the many lives it describes, urge you to read it. It will make you weep, it will make you angry, but it will give you an abiding sense of the human capacity for hope, struggle and progress.

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Music

S’amore ‘e Mama
by Tenores di Bitti
(Virgin/Real World CDRW 60)

One of the stranger releases of the year, S’amore ‘e Mama (The Mother’s Love) is, perhaps, also one of the most compelling. A collection of Sardinian folk song, using styles that date back to the Bronze Age, it is a music that reflects its geographical home. Sparse and unadorned, these are chants and songs that have been sung by shepherds into the face of the wind, their language a barely recognizable Italian. The guttural, four-part harmonies of the singers seem resilient to the ravages of time. If the stones of the island’s ancient circular stone buildings – nuraghes – could speak, they might well sound like this.

The Tenores are four musicians from the small town of Bitti, and they have compiled a series of ‘canti’ which deal with every aspect of day-to-day life. There are songs about nature, artisans’ chants and, for recreational purposes, dance songs. There’s a smattering of religious ones, which, nominally Christian, display in their lyrics a residue of a religion much older. Musically, the Tenores’ material reflects not just the natural sounds of the island – hissing wind or bleating sheep – but also the history of the place. Isolated from much of the everyday traffic of Europe, Sardinian music has hung on to sounds, cadences and tonalities that suggest all the influences of the continent’s early migrants. It’s not only Italian music, but also Greek, Arabic and Spanish, meeting in a heady ancient mix. It’s not surprising, given jazz music’s interest in the unconventional, that Lester Bowie and Ornette Coleman have picked up on the Tenores’ singular style.

Produced by Canadian musician Michael Brook, S’amore ‘e Mama has been recorded with minimal studio interference. Recording the songs in their natural habitat, the churches, bars, canteens, and countryside, Brook has added a modicum of ambient sound into the mix. Too often, ‘world music’ can veer in two contrary directions: the ethno-musicologists or the purely ‘exotic’, as if the music existed either for academics, in the first instance, or the stereo system tourists, in the second. This is neither. It’s certainly functional music, but it’s also social and joyful in a quite, idiosyncratic manner which makes this an altogether captivating record.

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Reviews by Louise Gray, Peter Whittaker and Lizzie Francke
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Spartacus
...being the book of rebellion and hope

If there’s a single image that most of us have of Spartacus it’s that of rows upon rows of slaves standing up at the end of the 1959 film, all of them shouting out, ‘I’m Spartacus!’

But the story of Spartacus the slave is even more remarkable than the story acted out by Kirk Douglas in glorious wide-screened Technicolor, although there are of course some points of contact. The film was inspired by a novel of the great American radical author Howard Fast, and traced the course of the slave rebellion from its beginnings with a small group of Gladiators in Capua sometime around the summer of 73 BC, through to their defeat and mass crucifixion along the Appian way in the Spring of 71 BC.

The very duration of the Spartican war provides a hint that there may be something more to tell.

It took another book to tell it, Spartacus, written in 1931 by Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James Leslie Mitchell).

Mitchell belonged to that rare category of socialist authors who can write entertainingly about the things they believe in.

What is particularly striking about Mitchell’s account is the way in which he manages to place the tensions inside the slave camp rather than between Spartacus and the Roman leader, Crassus. In Mitchell’s book the group of around 70 gladiators, who had managed to secure their escape to a defensible position on Mount Vesuvius and repulsed the local Roman troops, quickly became a rallying point for all manner of slaves from the surrounding territories. Their attempt to secure personal freedom rallied together a small army of Thracians, Germans, Gauls and Roman-born slaves, not all of them pulling in the same direction.

Spartacus

The course of the revolt shows the tremendous tensions which this created within the slave ranks. For the Germans and Gauls ‘home’ lay to the north and over the Alps. Others in the slave camp were already ‘home’ and had nowhere else to run to. For almost two years the slaves wavered between a policy of holding on to southern Italy and one of breaking out through the north and into freedom.

In Mitchell’s book, and in the various Roman accounts of the revolt (notably Plutarch’s Crassus and Appian’s Civil Wars), the slave army managed to destroy legion after legion of Roman troops, inflicting five humiliating defeats upon the previously undefeated forces of Rome. Then the slave army aimed for an assault upon Rome itself.

The reasoning behind the attempt upon Rome is a matter of debate. Were they simply a predatory force drunk with their own success and hungry for an impossible plunder? Were they inspired by some primitive notion of ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ which is lost to us? For what it’s worth, my own belief is that given the composition of the slave army, the conquest of Rome was the only possible resolution of the conflict which could satisfy the aspirations of the whole body of the slaves, by destroying both the domestic masters and allowing a return to their homelands for those who still harboured such desires.

Yet this too is conjecture. Fresh Roman Legions, the advance of autumn and the threat of winter drove the slave army back down into the south leaving them trapped in the peninsula of Bruttium. Their subsequent escape from the peninsula, through the snows and their outmanoeuvring of the Roman Legions gave them a stay of execution but only until the spring. The end, in Mitchell’s version, came when Gauls and Germans split off from the main force to try and break out through the north. Instead they quickly found themselves trapped and were defeated by Crassus. The truth is probably simpler. The slave forces were continually having to split up to secure forage. Crassus had been exploiting this for months, by picking off small bands of slaves.

Mitchell doesn’t shy away from the brutality of ancient slavery and the related brutality of the slave army. The central focus is on the tension between the half-articulated notions of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ which he gives to the slaves, and the brutalizing reality of slavery. The course of the rebellion is itself a passage from brutality to hope, hope which is at its peak in the last desperate throes of rebellion.

Tony Milligan

Spartacus by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James Leslie Mitchell) is available in a reprint by Redwords, London, 1996.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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