issue 161 - July 1986
by Barry Lewis and Peter Marshall
(Zena Books UK/ Alfred Van der Marck Editions US)
Dive into Cuba head-first. This book has some of the most spectacular photographic imagery of Latin America you are likely to see. Barry Lewis's pictures are reproduced with a quality seldom seen in serious books about developing countries - striking enough to shunt a few gardening books off the coffee table. And Peter Marshall's measured accompanying text also helps penetrate Cuba's intriguing political and social history.
The photographs are, if anything, too good and too distracting. Even a shot of two hats and a couple of brushes is so composed and expressive as to seduce you away from the adjacent description of Cuba's tobacco cultivation.
And given the opportunity for a two-page seascape, Lewis seizes it with an open lens and draws the lingering eye across striking panoramas.
The political line is even-handed (which should do little for the book's US sales) and the text has lots of interesting detail. Did you know that Castro's is the only beard allowed in the Cuban army?
None of this comes cheap (about one and a half NI subscriptions, if this can be used as an international unit of currency) - so bullying your local library into getting it may be the most practical approach.
The real cost
by Richard North
(Chatto and Windus), UK
From tea to hamburgers, jeans to Coca-Cola, Richard North has delved into the story behind more than 30 everyday products and issues with a Third World link - and explains concisely just who is exploited and who benefits
He looks at the Third World's declining return from raw materials. A ton of cotton will buy only a third of what it would a decade ago. He points out that, until recently, Native American Indians produced ten per cent of the world's uranium. And hamburgers are, he argues, heavily implicated in the destruction of the forests of the world' (the land is being cleared to raise cattle).
North admits that he discovered few 'monsters' in his researches. When multinationals are not always angels it is usually because consumers 'want their products cheap'.
Black Sisters, Speak Out
by Awa Thiam
(Pluto Press UK)
A very disturbing book: women from Guinea, Senegal and Mali describe experiences of infibulation (the sewing closed of the vaginal opening), clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris), polygamy (allowing a man to have several co-wives) and skin whitening. The horror of these practices is lessened only by the courage and strength of the women whose voices are recorded here.
The author's anger scores every page. She denounces the violent operations which prevent women from enjoying sex or feeling proud of their bodies. But Ms Thiam doesn't believe that black African men are wholly to blame. African women are partially responsible. They have often held onto cruel customs as a means of rejecting colonial cultures. African men, she says, were pushed into brutalizing women because they, in turn, had been made to feel inferior by white colonialists.
World of Wonders
by Bruce Cockburn
It's hard to imagine anyone writing a good song about the International Monetary Fund. But on his latest LP, Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has done just that. Call it democracy crackles with controlled outrage and may just be the best political song of recent years
Cockburn's smooth baritone voice sings
padded with power here they come
international loan sharks backed by the guns of market hungry military profiteers
whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
with the blood of the poor
Cockburn is a rarity in popular music - a brilliant guitarist, a talented lyricist and a radical Christian who is deeply committed to the struggle for justice in Latin America. In his nearly 20 years of playing he has gained an enormous popular following in Canada and, since the early 1980s - in the US.
World of Wonders showcases an artist at the peak of his creative powers. The subjects range from government counter-intelligence operations to the joys of love. The music is richly textured and the arrangements crisp and precise. And what shines through it all is passionate musicianship, wistful humour and a riveting intelligence.
Hoja de Coca
Andean musicians blowing furiously down huge cane pipes that would not disgrace a church organ create an earthy excitement and a lot of noise. But the music may not bear constant repetition on record. Rumillajta take a sweeter, more lyrical, approach. Theirs is the criollo sound of the city of La Paz in Bolivia and this is an engaging collection, mostly of their own songs, contemporary in style, but maintaining the mystical altiplano quality.
Hoja de Coca, the title track, means 'coca leaf' and the group are at pains to point out that the plant's significance in the Quechua Indian tradition is far removed from that of the refined drug of the West.
Rumillajta do more than perform in Bolivia. They work with village communities that have traditionally made musical instruments to help develop their production and markets They also regularly tour overseas Indeed one of the songs on this record, 'Carnaval de Ia Feria' was written for the Elephant Fayre they appeared at in Cornwall, UK
Treat your ears to this one.
directed by Julien Temple
This film has pretensions. Its director, Julien Temple, is an intellectual who dragged pop videos into the art world.
The film combines 1980s pop tunes, a 1950s cult novel, and deservedly unknown lead actors to make a musical with a clichéd teenage love story for romantic interest, choreographed race riots for action and a fantasy set which relies too heavily on flashing neon and wet pavements
According to Julian Temple: 'the greatest aim you can have is to entertain and to be able to smuggle ideas and comments in at the same time'.
The major set piece and climax of the film is a race riot in inner-city London fomented by greedy landlords and fascist rabble-rousers This is where the politics come in, and where, for me, the whole thing falls apart The ideological lines are correctly drawn amidst the flaming wrecks and pirouettes ('Jobs for all the Christian whites Hate's the way to win our fight.')
But the action has no conviction: cause and effect are swamped by spineless scripting, shallow characters and flashy editing. We know whose side we should be on but we don't feel it
In the shadow of war
Clear and effective, this is a powerful video testimony from, and for, Nicaragua The country's advocates are farmers and health workers, foreign volunteers and local clergy - ordinary people caught in a crosscurrent of international power politics. They speak without bitterness - making a simple plea to be left in peace.
Newsreel shots of an overweight Somoza holding a cocktail party in his swimming pool launch a lightning visual history of the revolution. Indeed the video starts with the polish and pace of a snappy TV documentary - an effect sustained by a voice-over from Glenda Jackson.
The focus is largely on Protestant communities in Nicaragua (they make up 15 per cent of the population) and the work of the Protestant development agency CEPAD. And, although made for Christian Aid in the UK, the material would be useful anywhere for giving a sense of what Nicaragua is going through. It comes with an accompanying booklet to suggest ways in which the video could be used.
Available from: Christian Aid, PO Box No.1, London SW9 8BH, UK
.being the poet who cleansed ears
'To be honest as this world goes,' said Hamlet, 'is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.' William Blake was an honest man but his writing was hard to understand and liable not to be taken seriously. Many of his contemporaries chose to flatter themselves that he was mad rather than to expose themselves to his fiery truth, and Blake himself chose to give them an excuse for this by claiming that his poems were dictated by spirits. Today he has been made respectable and part of the 'Eng Lit' canon, his fire doused by the river of time and the floods of scholarship.
He has even been mistaken for a pillar of society.
I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant Land.
It is ludicrous that these revolutionary lines should regularly be sung at meetings of the Women's Institutes - groups of staid English countrywomen who channel their surplus energies into making large quantities of jam. Yet this is not a Machiavellian plot to render Blake harmless: more likely it seems to the singers to be a poetic way of asserting their patriotic, Establishment sentiments.
Like the Bible, Blake should be read spiritually - which doesn't mean evasively in the way that the intoxicating spirit of the Christian gospels has mostly been processed by the churches into a tasteless temperance beverage (Oh, it doesn't literally mean becoming poor, or not hitting back,' etc). Like the Bible, Blake does not sidestep politics but undermines its worldliness.
Some of his doctrines are alarming, for example that 'Everything that lives is Holy'. Blake knew just what he was saying; that as well as the lamb he must include not only the tiger but also 'The Earwig arm'd, the tender Maggot, the Flea, Louse, Bug, the Tape-Worm, all the Armies of Disease' - though personally I would want to take this as advocating an ecologically reverent attitude rather than a call to action with the Germ Liberation Front.
Blake looked with horror on the world he lived in, the mechanical universe and materialistic world of eighteenth-century rationality. He is almost more relevant today because this is the legacy, hugely increased by investment, on which we still live. Probably the cornerstone of Blake's thought is that a lack of imagination is spiritual death. To him it was blasphemous and disastrous to pretend to measure and confine the immeasurable and infinite. The images of cruelty he used were always shackles, of restraint, and of what was worse, the 'mind-forg'd manacles' by which children were robbed of their spiritual inheritance of joy. Blake is the poet of joy and freedom.
But liberating though he is when you begin to see the immensity of what he is saying, he is difficult to approach; and not only because of our comparative dishonesty. What are we to make of all the weird proper names - Los, Enitharmon, Urizen, Golgonooza - which jostle with those of Milton and Jesus, and his own friends, and English place-names? Surely poetry should enlighten? And yet Blake's so-called 'prophetic books' - long, metrically anarchic narratives with an invented mythology - may seem wantonly obscure.
What I do understand makes me certain I should persevere. Reading Blake can be like having your ears syringed: the flesh is reluctant to admit the alien thing with its terrible roar; you feel invaded, even disgusted. You feel your brain might burst; then discomfort changes to pleasure at the cleansing warmth; then - glory and trumpets! - you can hear clearly.