issue 183 - May 1988
Three Men and a Baby
directed by Leonard Nimoy
From Mr Spock to Dr Spock Leonard Nimoy has beamed himself down from the Starship Enterprise to direct a comedy about babycare. Well, it's not just about babies, though it makes the point abundantly clear that looking after a child is an exhausting, expensive, relentless business that no man should dump on a woman to cope with on her own. The movie is more profoundly about egotism - it shows how limited the egoist is, how exploitative and terrified, within his narrow, barricaded world. He is afraid of intimacy because it requires a responsiveness to the needs of other human beings: he locks up his heart to avoid responsibility.
The three men of the title are handsome, egocentric bachelors living in a designer apartment crammed with big boys' toys. The world is there for their consumption ('so many women, so little time'). For feeling they substitute sex - until along comes one female they cannot relate to through self-centred dominance: a six-month-old baby left on their doorstep. The bachelors' hearts begin to open and their lives are transformed; and taking responsibility brings unexpected rewards...
The movie is based on the award-winning French film Trois Hommes et Un Couffin. The American version is fast, funny, touching - not wildly original (like, say, Raising Arizona), but a straightforward family film making important points with a light, sensitive hand.
Any Child is My Child
directed by Barry Feinberg
Any Child is My Child was made as a result of a conference in Zimbabwe last year about the South African Government's violence against children. Combining news footage with testimonies of the children at the conference - international delegates and South African lawyers, doctors, social workers and religious leaders - it is an incisive 30 minutes. It is also a reminder of the intensity and immediacy of the situation in South Africa at a time when public attention has drifted off elsewhere.
In the film children tell of their torture at the hands of the authorities: torture involving electric shocks, being shut in a fridge, bound and forced to stare at bright lights, being hung upside-down holding a board for police target practice. Army, police and prison officers are indemnified against prosecutions resulting from charges brought by detainees, so the children are completely at their mercy. Jailed, tortured, arrested, assassinated, intimidated and abused: but these young people's resistance remains strong. The film ends with a song: 'They think they can break our spirit. But we the people say they can't'.
Films and videos are available from IDAF, 64, Essex Road, London NI8LR, UK (01-359-9181).
The Lonesome Jubilee
by John Cougar Mellencamp
To the uninhibited the muddy waters of American chart rock music seem to be mostly shallows, with nobody plumbing any real depths. This is probably why The Lonesome Jubilee sounds so refreshing - because there are some acutely observed and challenging songs on offer.
The overall sound is unashamedly trad American rock with the occasional nod to foils cajun and country. But it is the lyrics which distinguish this album. 'Down and Out in Paradise' and 'Empty Hands' reflect Mellencamp's own small-town background, painting a vivid picture of the American Dream gone wrong. In these songs the writer conveys the sense of confusion and lost hope rather than indignation or anger. And it is the resignation of his characters which makes them so plausible, heightening our sense of injustice.
Mellencamp also tackles the Indian issue in the track 'Hot Dogs and Hamburgers', in which a young man tries to force himself on a young Indian girl. This becomes a metaphor (if rather a heavy one) for colonialism generally. But the dramatic arrangement and soulful vocal help him carry it off. If all this seems rather serious, 'Cherry Bomb' and 'Rooty Toot Toot' get back to the 'good times, fast cars and lovin' women' school of song writing.
The People who Grinned Themselves to Death
by The Housemartins
On hearing The People who Grinned Themselves to Death, one of the first things to strike the listener is the sheer variety of music on offer. This would come as no surprise to anyone knowing the band's wide-ranging influences - punk, gospel, Northern soul and hip-hop are all elements of the Housemartins' sound. On their first album the politics was broad-based, covering wider moral issues. Here they are focussed on subjects closer to home. Heaton has selected his targets well and tackles them with direct, challenging lyrics, mercifully free of the heavy-handedness which typifies much political pop music.
The songs are all very well-crafted: tight guitar-based Sound augmented occasionally by keyboards, brass - even a full school choir. The title-track puts me in mind of The Clash backing Sam Cooke, as Heaton's vocal soars over a gutsy instrumental track 'The Light is Always Green' is a gentle ballad lamenting the pampered life of a pop star. In 'Me and the Farmer' the Housemartins lay out their agricultural policy 'All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all we've got is London Zoo, 'cos the farmer owns them all'. 'Johannesburg' sees the band at their stripped-bare best in a simple vocal and single guitar number that genuinely touched the heart. The album closes with 'Build', a stirring indictment of urban architecture arguing that property speculators are the inner-city's real vandals.
Green Politics in Australia
edited by Drew Hutton
(Angus and Robertson)
Australia is 10 years behind Europe in terms of ecological devastation. This is not a terribly encouraging piece of news. In many ways Australia has more to lose than other continents - and it may have the most to teach, too.
Major media attention has focused on the battles which continue to rage between national parks and mining companies. The Labor Government has taken a weaker line than it promised, leaving environmental matters in the hands of the marketplace. This is hardly a surprise. But this book moves far beyond these specifics to contribute to the international debate from an Australian perspective.
Green Politics challenges, above all, the legacy of an industrialism which encourages us to see the world as a machine. And the essays are at their most interesting when they show how Green ethics are connected to other issues such as technology, investment and education. Some of the contributors are predictable - Franklin River crusader Bob Brown, peace senator Jo Vallentine - but the best material comes from elsewhere. Drew Hutton's overview, Ariel Salleh's ecofeminism and Jack Munday's vision of a 'citizen-worker' alliance all help to map out a direction for the near future.
Anthills of Savannah
by Chinua Achebe
Fleeing from the security police, ex-Minister for Information Chris Oriko takes his first bus ride for years.
It is journey of revelation. Reading a book would make him stand out from the other passengers. Instead he daydreams: about Sam, President of the country and former school-friend, whose wrath he is escaping. Sam is a military tyrant in the making who has turned on his former allies following the failure of a referendum to transform him into President-for-Life. Chris also thinks of another friend, Ikem Osodi, recently deposed editor of the National Gazette.
Ikem is the conscience of the country, an intellectual gad-fly whose biting editorials had grown increasingly irritating to the President. Repression follows, along with the familiar point-counter-point of popular unrest and ministerial sycophancy.
The tale is absorbing and the end unexpectedly optimistic. Drawing on his store of proverbs and story-telling traditions, Achebe's writing is colourful and energetic. If anything the book is too short. Characters are thinly drawn, the feminism seems tacked on, and several interesting themes are lighted on but abandoned before they can be properly explored: the similarities between current African rulers and medieval monarchs, for instance, or the way Western-educated elites fit back into their country - or not, as the case may be. It's a book that leaves you thirsty for more - like the dry savannah of the title.
The Malay Archipelago
...being the book in which the Victorian social conscience discovers the noble savage
I worked for a publisher in Java once, and edited a small educational edition of Alfred Russel Wallace's Indonesian travels between 1854 and 1862. Few people in Indonesia had heard of Wallace, though no country can ever have had such a glorious portrait painted of it. Indonesia is a vast country, comprising some 13,000 islands in an area the size of Europe. To explore even a fraction of these cost me considerable effort.
Effort, however, was never a problem for Wallace. In that age of the meticulous and industrious, he was unsurpassed. Sometimes, wondering perhaps if I had the energy to make an overnight bus trip across Java to visit friends, I'd read a chapter of Wallace and blush 'I was just eight years away from England, but as I travelled about 14,000 miles and made 60 or 70 separate journeys, I do not think that more than six years were really occupied in collecting. I find that my Eastern collections amounted to 125,660 specimens of natural history.'
But what journeys! No night buses then. Wallace went by horse, canoe, or simply on foot. In many areas he was the first European visitor, and the difficulties involved were staggering. Once, sailing in a small boat to the island of Miscol, he missed the island by just 50 yards, helpless against the currents and the primitive design of his boat, which led so his being swept back out to sea again. He never visited Miscol. He ran the gamut of risks from pirates to tigers, by way of sickness and serpents - once he shared his bedroom with a 12-foot snake without realising it. He almost drowned. He often starved. On the remote island of Waigiou, prostrated by fever, he reports that my life was saved by a couple of tins of soup which I had long reserved for some such extremity'.
But nothing stopped him from collecting. From the moment he touched shore anywhere, he was in hot pursuit of Nature. One day he found 30 species of butterfly. On another 95 species of beetle in six hours. Many were new species, but preserving and transporting the treasure was not easy. Ants ate many of his specimens. His jars of preserving alcohol, although full of toads and lizards, were surreptitiously drunk by his Dyak hosts.
Nor was he a 'mere' collector. He observed and explained the divide between Asian and Australasian flora and fauna (still called the Wallace Line). And while lying sick in a shack somewhere, he had some interesting thoughts about natural selection, which he sent to Charles Darwin, prompting the latter hurriedly to publish his Origin of Species. Yet Wallace never resented this. In fact The Malay Archipelago is dedicated to Darwin.
I flatter myself that I have wide-ranging interests. But comparison with Wallace is humiliating. He wrote (in delightful witty prose) of trade and tiger hunts, of Dutch missions and the manufacture of native flintlocks, of head-hunters and birds of Paradise, of the customs and laws of the Malay princes. Some of these he applauded. Others - such as tying naked adulterers together back to back and throwing them to crocodiles - repelled him.
The book is the product of a different intellectual age. For Wallace the natural world was a cornucopia of infinite and unadulterated riches. He has no need of the modern naturalist's preoccupation with pollution or extinction. He was a High Victorian, much concerned not only with the classification of birds, but also of peoples. Having sorted out the human types of the Archipelago, he concluded that' the intellect of the Malay seems rather deficient'. He makes similarly sweeping judgments about Papuans and others. Unable to resist moralizing, he ascribes the rapid ageing of Malays to 'bad habits and irregular living'.
While generally impressed by the efficiency and wisdom of the Dutch colonial administration, he nonetheless looks everywhere for evidence of more 'natural' laws of social behaviour. After some weeks in the remote seasonal trading station of Dobbo, with no official or police presence whatsoever, Wallace decided it was the safest and best-regulated place he'd ever been: 'Trade is the magic that keeps all at peace,' he commented.
The Malay Archipelago is as trenchant a statement of the nineteenth-century social conscience as one could wish. At every stop Wallace compares British industrial civilization with 'savage' society - and finds the latter superior, almost ideal: 'I have lived with communities of savages (where) each man (sic) scrupulously respects the rights of his (sic) fellows. (By comparison) our vast manufacturing system, our gigantic commerce, our crowded towns and cities, support and continually renew a mass of human misery absolutely greater than has ever existed before'.
I used to try hard to imagine what Wallace would have made of the Indonesia that I knew. There is quite as much human misery there now as in Victorian cities. And the cornucopia has been thoroughly plundered and befouled.
Jo Hugh-Jones The Malay Archipelago by A R Wallace.