issue 179 - January 1988
Diesel and Dust
by Midnight Oil
Midnight Oil are one of Australia's most militant cultural forces - they have been prodding social consciences with their concern for the oppressed and weak for years. But they are also very popular, being to Australia what U2 are to Britain. This latest album, which hit number one there in its first week of release, strengthens their reputation without compromising.
Inside the album is a large photo fold-out of the kind we have come to expect from today's marketeers. But printed on the other side is a chapter from Andrew McMillan's book Warra Kurna - Strict Rules. In it he describes Midnight Oil's journey to the outback and their emotional response to the area's Aborigines. The region is the home of two peoples: the Ngaatjatatjarra and Ngaanyatjarra, whose ancestors 'were chained to logs and forced to cook for the newcomers. Others were shot or fed slabs of fish laced with poison'.
Such comments are not surprising for those familiar with Aboriginal history but are still unusual in the context of a pop record. Diesel and Dust belongs to these people: in a very real sense it is their story even if it is relayed by a white rock band.
Themes range from colonialism and the relationship to land, through to nuclear disarmament and the desecration caused by mining. On Beds Are Burning they plead
'How can we dance when our earth is turning? How can we sleep when our beds are burning?', challenging the superficial bicentennial celebrations planned for 1988. In fact this album is probably the most authentic bicentennial product yet to emerge.
It probably still seems strange to readers outside the South Pacific that the NI uses the Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa. But the name has been widely adopted by progressive organizations there who see it as a symbolic break with the colonial past.
The band which bears the name is, fittingly, half-Maori and half-Pakeha (European) and the words alternate between English and Maori. But there is little musical sign on this mini-album of anything distinctly Aotearoan. The sound they make is very similar to that of other more famous multi-racial groups such as UB40 - a light, pleasant reggae which would sit easily enough in the CD players and car stereos of Europe and North America but is probably not special enough to make the trans-Pacific leap.
directed by Peter Watkins
Peter Watkins is one of the most insightful and politically committed of contemporary film makers. As a result he has been forced to ply his trade on the margins of the film industry. In 1965 his docu-drama The War Game about a nuclear attack proved too hot for television to handle. And ever since then Watkins has run up an impressive string of credits dealing mostly with war and psychology and ideology which fuel militarism.
The Journey is over 14 hours long. Filmed in locations as diverse as Japan, Mozambique, the South Pacific, the US, Norway, the Soviet Union and Britain, it is both an exposure of the nuclear system and a critique of the media ideology that has helped it to become an accepted part of our lives. The critique is implicit in the form as well as the content: Watkins has refused to adopt orthodox models of media manipulation. Instead he opts for a series of dialogues both on the screen and between the film and its audience.
The film brings together the experiences of anti-nuclear activists, victims of the Hiroshima bombing and the views of families who live close to nuclear bases. The viewer glimpses a worldwide apparatus of terror - everyone doing a particular little job in the nuclear system without anyone asking the big question Where is the whole thing headed?'
The Journey deserves to be shown - as the equally long Cold War Amerika series was in the US - on prime-time network television. As it stands it will prove a useful educational tool in church basements.
Adjustment with a Human Face
When countries seek financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund they are invariably forced to go through a process called 'adjustment'. This entails reducing public expenditure on welfare and food subsidies and removing controls on the 'free market'. The problem is that such policies make it certain that the poor are the first to suffer in a time of economic hardship.
The authors of this important UNICEF report studied the impact of adjustment on ten countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In only three - South Korea, Zimbabwe and Botswana - have the poorest groups been protected from the worst ravages of recession. in the Chilean capital Santiago, for example, child malnutrition increased from under five per cent to over 15 percent during the adjustment period of 1980 to 1983. While in Jamaica between 1978 and 1985, the numbers of children admitted to hospital with hunger-related diarrhoea trebled.
UNICEF argues that the lowest commodity prices for 30 years and spiralling debt have made adjustment inevitable - itself a conclusion which accepts the skewed priorities and vicious assumptions of the global economic system. But it also argues that the poor and vulnerable, especially children, can and must be protected: when tough economic changes are demanded of Third World countries there should be 'adjustment with a human face'. This is not just morally right but will actually assist future economic growth. Zimbabwe comes in for particular praise for increasing health spending by7O percent between 1980 and 1982. After independence help was concentrated on small-scale farmers and the numbers of children in primary schools rose, despite the recession. But to protect the poor for long periods even Zimbabwe will need greater assistance from richer nations And after the stock market crash the chances of debt relief are even more remote than before.
The Ayatollah and I
by Hadi Khorsandi
'In Fundamentalist Woman we not only inform our readers of issues as diverse as the latest fashions in designer veils and how to get on with your husband's other wives, but we also keep them abreast of the exciting goings-on in the privacy of the homes of the Nation's leaders, men who have suddenly emerged from oblivion and are determined to take the whole country back there with them.'
Hadi Khorsandi writes and edits the satirical magazine Asghar Agha, which is aimed at the significant number of Iranians who are in exile. This collection of humorous excerpts from the magazine is scathing in its parody of the fundamentalist mullahs and their pronouncements. It could never be called subtle but humour is a valuable weapon for dissidents to turn against the Khomeini regime.
Whether it is useful for Westerners to read this is a matter for debate. Iran, like Libya, is already popularly dismissed as a country full of raving, mindless thugs. And these knee-jerk responses could probably do without reinforcement by sentences like this, put in the mouth of ex-President Bani-Sadr: 'in my opinion, within minutes of capturing Basra and raising the Islamic Republic's flag on its buildings, we must stone a few women to death so that Mr Saddam Hossein knows that the Islamic Revolution has arrived'. Iranian readers can put this in the context of a more balanced knowledge of Islam and their culture. But the rest of us find that more difficult.
Turning the tables
compiled by Sue O'Sullivan
Frustration rather than salivation was the response evoked by this book. It's a compendium of recipes from feminists of different class and racial backgrounds, plus the thoughts of each on food, cooking and eating. The frustration was at the waste of such a rich opportunity to make political what is such an everyday experience for women. Instead of a series of illuminating analytic and emotional insights we are offered a patchy, unbalanced mish-mash of musings. The recipes, on the other hand, are great. Which means, we're afraid, that the book has to be classed as half-baked...
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
...being the book that drew back Stalin's Iron Curtain
Halfway through the book, I noticed it didn't have a plot. No plot at all. I'd been so absorbed I hadn't noticed till then. The novel begins by observing Ivan Denisovich getting up in the morning and thinking about breakfast. Halfway through the book, he was preoccupied by lunch. Doubtless, I thought, towards the end of the book he'd be wondering about dinner and bed - and so he was.
According to the conversations of Western novel-writing, novels must have plots to keep the reader's attention - plots that weave mysteriously, or gallop along, or have cliffs on which gasping readers hang at the end of the chapter. Or at least, in lieu of action, they must have deeply significant vibrations between complex characters.
Not here. Ivan Denisovich, the star, is a simple peasant and a thoroughly unglamorous fellow. A typical highlight in his day, for example, is when he and a rival silently stare at someone else smoking a cigarette, until our hero wins the contest by being awarded with the butt.
So why is the book so fascinating? It is because of its extraordinary context, both moral and geographical. The novel is set in a forced labour camp in Stalin's Siberia. The characters are inmates and guards. It is a world of its own, where the chief protagonists, locked in relentless struggle, are death and life, death grandly threatening in the dual form of the Siberian winter and human tyranny; life, in response, showing itself through tiny sparks of decency (the prisoner giving away his cigarette butt) and in the minute, ingenious manoeuvres people find to preserve themselves for one more hour, one more day.
Even Ivan Denisovich's acceptance of imprisonment is a form of fighting for survival. When he is presented with a trumped-up charge he signs a confession - knowing that if he doesn't, he will be shot summarily, but if he does, he will 'only' be imprisoned for ten years. Unless he displeases one of the guards in some way; then he could be there for another few years.
This is the 'plot', the tension between the will to live and the pressures that crush the spirit and the body; the goal, the treasure attained at the dénouement of each day, is the reality of having survived another 24 hours. On the day we are his unseen companions, Ivan Denisovich not only survives but ends the day triumphant, a little more alive, a little fitter to survive; he has managed to scrouge an extra bowl of soup for lunch and an extra hunk of bread for dinner, he has escaped by a hair's-breadth a fearful punishment and drawn a few heart-warming puffs of hat delicious cigarette. A magnificent roller coaster of a day.
Part of the power of the book comes from its measured authenticity. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced in 1945 to eight years in Siberia for making a criticism of Stalin in a letter to a friend. He served his term plus three years. There are no histrionics in the book, no melodramas and purple passages. There is no need since the reality is harsh enough; you don't need to add theatrical blood to a stab from a cold knife.
And there is surprisingly little hate. Solzhenitsyn goes out of his way to recognize that the guards too are caught in a sadistic web. Nor does the book seem anti-Russian or anti-Communist. Even the strikingly detached, objective tone of the book is not the note of an individual voice but is in strict accordance with the literary criteria for 'Socialist Realism' set down by the Soviet authorities in 1932. What the book opposes is capricious and faceless tyranny, trickling down from the top - whether from top left or top right is not the issue. It is not surprising that Krushchev, in the liberal, anti-Stalinist era of the early 1960s,endorsed the book.
That was a quarter of a century ago. In the less liberal years that followed, Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts were confiscated, his life was threatened and he was deported. Twenty years after One Day, in London, he managed to embarrass even a reverent, established audience by the bitter virulence of his attack on Russia, I was slipped into the hall by a well-connected friend - and found myself recoiling. In 1980 he published a book called The Mortal Danger, because he feared that Americans weren't paranoid enough about the Russians. Was Solzhenitsyn becoming more right-wing than Reagan?
But, as Ivan Denisovich declares, 'A man who's warm can't understand a man who's freezing.' Those of us who live in ready warmth might beware of dismissing Solzhenitsyn too glibly. We theorize. He stood, integrity intact, on the frozen brink of death for all those terrifying years.