issue 164 - October 1986
Is That It?
by Bob Geldof
(Sidgwick & Jackson)
Bob Geldof's autobiography is very refreshing. As always, you take the man warts and all or not at all - he makes no compromises to the casual reader who might be offended by his language or his sex life. If he's writing about his life, he rightly decides, then he's writing about all his life - and that means the beatings by his father, the blistering contempt for the Catholic church, the teenage addiction to masturbation and the pop star indulgence as well as the fund-raising for Africa. He's certainly redefining the concept of sainthood (and now knighthood) for the better.
The book gives a clear sense of how spontaneous and sudden the original Band Aid endeavour was - one minute he was chasing his tail down the blind alley of a fading career and the next he'd watched the BBC pictures from Ethiopia and none of it seemed to matter any more.
As has been the case throughout the Geldof phenomenon, you'll look in vain here for any political analysis of the problems he's confronted. He knows that the original choice of name was accurate, that all his work was 'like putting a tiny plaster on a wound that required 12 stitches'. But there's no attempt to confront his readers with the roots of famine in the global economic system.
But his fierce independence, outspokenness and compassion still have great political value. He may have helped bring about a sea change in the climate of our attitude to the Third World. Only yesterday we received a letter from a lecturer wishing to take advantage of what he described as the post-Geldof idealism infecting his students.
And for the meantime this is an absolutely riveting read.
Some situations are beyond parody. President Reagan is already a caricature of the worst of US political life. The contras are a fabricated force of hired thugs and captured peasants. Indeed Nicaragua's whole unenviable position in Central America seems to be merely that of a venue for a staged and scripted confrontation.
Such a crude scenario scarcely needs the skills of a sharp cartoonist. But Roger Sanchez draws his political lines with skill and style and does at least serve to remind his readers of the absurdity on which this tragedy is based. Uncle Sam is firmly set up as the villain of the piece and little Nicaragua is the target of his tyranny.
The book has less to say about tensions within Nicaragua itself. Though given that Sanchez works for Barricada, the Government newspaper, it is not too surprising that the Sandinistas do not appear anywhere as figures of fun.
Just the book to buy and leave lying around for casual visitors to pick up. Few people can resist a book of cartoons - and one which carries political conviction can be a very useful weapon.
The Hungry Self
by Kim Chernin
Sneaking yet another cream cake may not be a sign of gluttony - over-eating can indicate a deep-seated identity crisis. Such serious eating problems as anorexia and bulimia (which is bingeing followed by vomiting) are usually found in women, especially those who are trapped within conflicting roles
The modern woman, says the author, is told she can succeed in a man's world yet finds obstacles in her way. By starving herself - to force her body to look more masculine - she gains confidence. But food problems go even deeper than this, we are told. Satisfying (or refusing to succumb to) hunger reflects the image women have of themselves it shows whether they have learnt to respect their needs or to deny them. These food problems (affecting 50 per cent of women on some US campuses) show just how little self-esteem women have within a modern, sexist culture.
This is a deeply personal, compassionate and perceptive book. Surprisingly enough, the author is optimistic. Kim Chernin wants to see old and new types of femininity merge: she argues that the next generation of women need not suffer eating disorders if - without being Superwomen - they can find a way to combine maternal, caring roles with achieving, career-orientated ones
Chimurenga for Justice
by Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited
Thomas Mapfumo is one of Zimbabwe's best-known musicians, and Chimurenga for Justice looks like his big bid for a wider (meaning Western) audience. All the tracks are sung specially in English rather than Shona, and you sense the hope of a Marley-type crossover.
But there's small chance of that, mainly because the music is so infernally repetitive - the kind that makes you keep getting up to make sure your stylus is not stuck
The album-title gives it a radical framework - 'chimurenga' means 'liberation struggle' - and the song it is drawn from talks of one man s decision to join the pre-Independence guerilla army. But the message doesn't bear very close examination. In Rumbidzai Mambo, for instance, Mapfumo prays 'to the Lord to punish those who don't want unity' (adding that 'those who do not pray shall end up in hell'); while elsewhere he asks the spirits for the strength 'to fight the enemy to the bitter end'. All of this would be easily forgiven if the music had more life - as it is, it is more easily forgotten.
directed by Tony Scott
Top Gun stars the latest Hollywood heart-throb Tom Cruise in a film about training America's best and quickest to take on the evil 'Rooskies' in high-speed jet dogfights out on the farthest reaches of the Free World (read American Empire). The film could just as easily be about high-school basketball players with its string of clichés about being a team player, not letting the side down and a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, with the women as cheerleaders egging their heroes on.
But instead Top Gun is part of the new wave of Ramboesque US militarism with which Hollywood is currently filling neighbourhood movie screens. It all plays on the idea that America must be good and strong again, that Americans should stand proud and tall in doing battle with the forces of evil (terrorists, Rooskies, Arabs, the Third World, misguided liberals). The sordid failures of US foreign policy in Vietnam and Nicaragua or equally brutal successes like Chile are forgotten in mind-numbing action that reduces the world to yet another replay of the good cowboys versus the evil Indians.
The credits wind up by thanking no less than four US admirals. In future perhaps these films could be made directly by the military with funds from their ample recruiting budgets.
Politics - ugh!
directed by Dennis O'Rourke
You've been sitting in horror through the nightmare visited upon the Marshall islanders of Rongelap by the US's testing of an atomic bomb in 1954. You've been convinced that the poisoning of Rongelap was planned by US officials as an experiment in the effects of radiation on the human body (it kills - did they really need to experiment?). And then you see Ronald Reagan give one of his folksy fireside chats, talking about the great friendship between their nations. In a way it's the most terrifying moment of the film.
Reagan's chat was broadcast to the Marshall Islands when they emerged from the US 'trusteeship' inflicted on them by the United Nations, and it's just one of the fascinating archive clips that Australian director Dennis O'Rourke has juxtaposed with location shots and interviews to tell his story. His own commentary is muted - you read it on-screen between the shots, in a slightly odd silent-movie technique. But the material speaks for itself, and it is a major contribution to Australia's burgeoning Pacific awareness.
Lord of the Flies
.being the book that propagated the myth of the devil within
Lord of the Flies, William Golding's first novel, is part of the landscape of almost every English-speaking child's education; it usually appears on the time-table along with Romeo and Juliet, to coincide with early adolescence and provide a timely warning against intemperate passion in the one case, senseless viciousness in the other.
Golding's portrait of evil is compelling. It is also increasingly relevant to our contemporary world, as a fable of war and violence realized in vivid detail: the small boys who begin by responding automatically to any raised voice by pulling up their socks, end up planning to offer a boy's head on a stick as a sacrifice to the Beast in the jungle. Infant nightmares about this monster prove to be a projected recognition of their own capacity for ill-doing, and when the boys kill what, in the darkness, they take to be the Beast, it turns out to be one of them. Finally they daub themselves in coloured clay so that they can punish each other, ritualize their behaviour and forget their 'civilized' pasts by not having to keep looking at each other's faces.
Perhaps most telling of all is the fate of Percy Wemys Madison, a four-year old who has been taught to recite his address in case of mishap, a practice and a location evocative of middle-class 'safety':
'The Vicarage, Harcourt St. Anthony, Hants, telephone, telephone, tele.' By the end this bulwark against savagery had faded clean away from his mind.
Yet, despite the freedom with which Golding's portrait of 'the human heart of darkness' is circulated, it still seems true that 'man's capacity for greed, his innate cruelty and selfishness (is) hidden behind a kind of pair of political pants', as Golding puts it in an essay - much as we standardly dress as if we had no genitalia. Why are we so ready to accept the portrait of ourselves painted in Lord of the Flies, to see the collapse of conventional restraint producing an 'inevitable' urge to hunt and kill? When I studied the novel at school, aged 14, we were asked if any of us disagreed with what Golding had to say about the human condition: only one person raised her hand. The rest of us were silent; some through genuine agreement with Golding, who was prompted by 'the vileness beyond all words which went on, year after year, in the totalitarian states'. The rest, I believe, didn't speak up due to apathy. As Hannah Arendt has commented, if evil is banal, great evil is greatly so. We have coped admirably well with the news of our depravity: we hear of children who murder or who are murdered; we accept as part of human history. El Salvador's La Matanza, the massacre of 30,000 people in 1932, continuing genocide in East Timor and customary use of torture and suppression in the majority of the world's nations; we have learnt to live with the knowledge that wholesale destruction of our world, engineered entirely by ourselves, may occur at any moment. These extraordinary truths have become, precisely, banalities, and works such as Golding's socially acceptable. The flaw in Golding's project seems to lie in its religious overtones; he sees people as 'fallen', condemned to act in accordance with a nature they are lumbered with. The boys in Lord of the Flies are 'rescued' from the Pacific island they have burnt to a crisp by a warship which will return them to the adult version of their own small devastation: atomic war. But there is no one to 'rescue' us from that except ourselves.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding.