issue 195 - May 1989
by Elvis Costello
The only thing in doubt about Elvis Costello's first album since 1986 is whether it is his best ever or just very good. Throughout his career, launched on an angry-young-man ticket next door to punk, Elvis has justified his reputation as one of the most intelligent and literate people ever to embrace the popular song. And he's retained a biting edge that so often deserts artists once they become comfortable.
And yet all but a couple of his albums (My Aim Is True and Imperial Bedroom) have been frustratingly uneven. Spike benefits from the longer preparation time - there's a care for detail here which has inevitably slashed the failure rate. Recording each song with different musicians has allowed Costello to choose the most appropriate setting for each lyric, instead of just pumping up the old fairground Attractions. So on the late-night angst of Baby Plays Around he is alone with his guitar and his ruefulness; while the staggeringly bitter Tramp the Dirt Down is ironically accorded the prettiest of soundscapes as he dreams about standing on Margaret Thatcher's grave ('When England was the whore of the world/ Margaret was her madam/ And the future looked as bright and clear as the black tarmacadam').
As those words suggest, Costello is a passionately political person - and he wrote perhaps the finest and subtlest political song in rock in Shipbuilding - but he only ever allows himself a couple of forays outside his traditional territory of somewhat jaundiced observation of people. And this is probably wise, since being confronted ten times over by the well of anger he feels for Thatcherite values would be a daunting prospect indeed. Not least because it would deny us wonderful pieces of frippery like Veronica, written with Paul McCartney, and a more successful evocation of carefree middle-Beatles than that fallen hero has managed for decades.
The wordplay is streamlined. The boy is leaner and (if possible) meaner. And Spike is essential.
Brought to Light
by Eclipse Comics
(Ecllpse US, Titan UK)
This is a new way of publicizing an important political story: some big names in US comics have come together to produce a book based on the sordid background to one part of the Iran-Contra scandal. The book tells how two journalists started to delve into the background behind the attempted assassination of renegade Nicaraguan contra leader Eden Pastora in 1984. They discovered that the explosion, which killed five journalists, had been planned by the CIA in order to eliminate a competitor to the contra faction supported by the US Government.
The two journalists - Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan - joined forces with the Christic Institute, a non-profit public interest law centre, who dug deeper and proved that, in their words: 'Iran/Contragate did not begin with Oliver North. Nor is the scandal just about Iran and Nicaragua. For 30 years, a Secret Team of US military and CIA officials, acting both officially and on their own, have waged secret wars, toppled governments, trafficked in drugs, assassinated political enemies, stolen from the US Government, and subverted the will of the Constitution, the Congress and the American people.'
Strong stuff, and the comic book tackles it in two different ways. The first is a creditable straight-on treatment of the story of the Pastora bombing and the subsequent investigation as a Marvel/DC-style adventure which only stumbles because the story is so complicated. The second - written by Alan Moore and drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz - takes a more surreal approach both with words and pictures. A crazed drunk in a bar telling his life story turns out to be a CIA operative who's been in on every covert murder and destabilization from the Bay of Pigs to Nicaragua. It's a nightmare representation of a genuine nightmare world but you have to wonder whom it's written for. The dark style IS innovative but makes no attempt to persuade anyone sceptical that the CIA is actually this guilty.
Still, the comic book is underused as a campaigning format and the material here is important. Meanwhile the Christic Institute is still trying to bring the case into the open by suing the 'Secret Team' in the US courts. The stifling of their first attempt may not have been unconnected with ex-CIA director George Bush's election campaign. Will their appeal get heard and publicized? Now that's the real adventure.
The Christic Institute can be reached at 1324 North Capital St NW, Washington DC 20002
The Politics of Breastfeeding
by Gabrielle Palmer
The babymilk scandal in the Third World continues, and children continue to die as Western companies persuade mothers that their products are superior to breastmilk. The cost in human life is incalculable but the financial cost alone to developing countries is staggering: the Mozambican Health Ministry calculated in 1982 that a 20-per-cent increase in bottle-feeding would cost the country 10 million dollars, even without taking into account extra fuel, distribution or health costs.
But 'the politics of breast-feeding' affect us all. Even informed women in the West who accept that breastfeeding is best often see it as something to endure for two or three months before returning to work. At that point they will wean their baby onto a mixture of solid food and infant formula. But breastmilk would still be better for their baby even then: there are still risks in infant formulas, as recent publicity about their alarmingly high aluminium content has shown.
Gabrielle Palmer sets all this in context admirably, showing how the issue links up historically with the pursuit of profit, the unthinking exploitation of the Earth's resources and the oppression of women. The only issue she tails to address is the dilemma of today's mother confronted by workplaces without nurseries and a society which makes no provision for breast-feeding: an all- or- nothing breastfeed- for- two- years approach is unlikely to be seen as a practical option.
This is an excellent book: clear, comprehensive and entertainingly written. And it may help reverse the process noted with relief by an eminent doctor in 1772 of 'men of sense rather than foolish, unlearned women' taking over the supervision of infant care.
A Rustling of Leaves
directed by Nettle Wild
Not so much is heard these days about the 'Philippine Revolution', largely because Cory Aquino's regime resembles the previous dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos much more than it does a revolution: land, wealth and power are still just as firmly in the hands of a ruling elite. Canadian director Nettie Wild's feature is subtitled 'Inside the Philippine Revolution', by which she means not the short-lived exuberance of people's power' but rather the leftists who continue to campaign on behalf of the poor, from priests and civil-rights workers in Manila to the guerillas of the New People's Army (NPA).
Shot entirely on location over eight months, often in dangerous conditions, Wild's film is far from being a dry study of the complex ins and outs of Filipino politics. Instead it follows five characters through the post-Marcos world: two NPA guerillas, one of them a priest and the other the political leader of the shadow government; the original founder of the NPA, known as Kummander Dante, who is testing Aquino's commitment to democracy by running for the Senate; a rabidly right-wing radio broadcaster who spreads anti-communist propaganda for a vigilante group; and a priest-activist in Manila who has since been forced into exile.
The result is a fascinating insight into a dangerous world of political activism where the stakes are much higher than they are in the West. Wild's sympathies are unashamedly with the various Leftist forces: this is a committed personal view rather than 'balanced' reportage. But this approach clearly unlocked doors which otherwise would have been shut in her face. Particularly astonishing is an agonized debate within guerilla ranks about whether to execute an informer who has endangered many supportive villagers. The NPA deserve much credit for exposing this most terrible of dilemmas. Doing so cost them dearly: one of their members died protecting the film's crew during a skirmish with the Army.
.being the book that understood the Chinese Revolution best
Here is one of history's great moments,' said William Hinton to the president of the Chinese university where he was teaching English in 1948. '1 want to see and take part in it more than I have ever wanted to do anything in my life.' Supremely aware of the huge upheavals taking place in China then, and imagining he would be sent to a remote area to watch the changes, he described himself as 'a little disappointed' when he was sent instead to a small village just a mile to the south.
For the vital months before the Revolution in 1949, an underground Communist movement was slowly coming into the open and dividing land among the peasants in its liberated zones - without ever quite knowing whether the landlords would be back with US planes and weapons. Hinton spent this time living and working in the tiny 'liberated' village of Long Bow. He watched ideology turning into concrete detail, watched the 'fruits of struggle' come to mean a broken pot or a quarter of an ox. The result was Fanshen, a classic that showed the West the human detail of a China then hidden and feared.
Four decades after Liberation, in the midst of the Deng Xiaoping reforms of which Hinton so strongly disapproves, it is important to remember how much the Revolution was needed. Hinton's introductory chapters sketch the widespread usury and corruption and show just how little control ordinary people had over their lives:'. . - landlords so stingy that they would not allow their hired men to defecate in the fields but made them walk all the way back to the ancestral home to deposit their precious burden' for use as fertiliser.
This kind of detail is part of the beauty of the book: Hinton takes the reader right down to the nitty gritty while never forgetting the large-scale implications of the tiniest action. A man steals a piece of steamed bread while carrying lunch to comrades working in the fields. Cross-examined much later by 'the masses', the man cannot pass their detailed appraisal until he realizes how much more he has taken than one piece of bread. In this newly self-aware world of fanshen - which means 'turning the body', or 'turning over' to anew world of freedom - ideas are the power behind every newly symbolic action.
But, standing back a little, why does Hinton's record of minutiae make such compelling reading? Partly it is because of the frankness with which he records all the difficulties: there is a great gap between the doctrinal quotations from China's leaders that head each chapter and the often messy process of putting theory into practice. The peasants get bored: when there is no material gain to be had, they make excuses, head for the fields, go to sleep - anything to avoid endless meetings. The Party members are discouraged when they feel they have made mistakes. These are real human lives suddenly coming into contact with the exactingness of absolute justice and that is what gives the book its power.
As an American living in China in the late 1940s, Hinton is a tactful intermediary. In interpreting China to the West, he omits his own judgments and tries to minimise the Westerner's sense of shock. In a sense he certainly failed in this, since his manuscript was considered subversive enough to be impounded by customs on his return to the US and was not published until long after the McCarthyite anti-communist hysteria had subsided in 1966.
And for all its tact, the book can still be deeply shocking even to the sympathetic reader. When I arrived to work a couple of hundred miles south of Hinton's Long Bow village, I asked new Chinese acquaintances about the fate of former landlords and discredited political figures. I wanted to hear that they had been sympathetically reformed, but instead people opened their eyes wide and answered 'Oh no, of course we smashed the bastards'.
So in Fanshen, when the thuggish Party member is trying to find a rich widow's hidden wealth and hating the constraints of a new Party directive against violence. ' "We aren't allowed to beat her. Very well then, tie her up and throw her in the pond," said Man-hsi. "Let her drink some good ditch water. Then everything will spill out. We are just wasting our time this way. If this were the year of Liberation (of the village), ten rich peasant bastards would have been beaten to death by this time"... Just in time, Hsin-fa took the men aside and told them that under the new code drowning was no more acceptable than beating.'
At the start and the end Fanshen is about Communist morale in countrywide battles against the Japanese and the US-backed Kuomintang Nationalists. For most of the book, this large-scale view is illuminated by the very small scale. So when hail batters the crop, destroying most of it, a meeting tries to apportion taxes according to storm damage. Some peasants offer too little, hiding their real yield; some offer far too much, searching in the hills for leaves to eat; and somewhere in the middle is the newly elected people's government, working by trial and error towards an ideal of justice.
Fanshen by William Hinton (Monthly Review Press, New York 1966). A second volume, Shenfan, took the story of Long Bow through the early Maoist years and a third, Li Chun, has yet to appear.
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