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new internationalist
issue 201 - November 1989


Star rating system. Book reviews

Broken Promise
by Annie Allsebrook and Anthony Swift
(Hodder & Stoughton)

Broken promise The promise? That of growth through childhood as well as guardianship by the adult world. Broken? Each year some 14 million young children die of preventable diseases. Estimates of street kids vary between 30 and 100 million worldwide. Goodness knows how many others are emotionally or physically crippled.

Broken Promise is a collection of vivid personal accounts by 'endangered children' - and it conveys the reality and universality of the problems they face better than a hundred or more straight world-development textbooks. The pages seem to turn themselves, partly thanks to fluent writing and an attractive design but also because the subject is so compelling. There are the teenage hookers in the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal and the beach gang with their guns in Recite; there are the granite-quarry labourers in Bangalore and the Ugandan child soldiers toughened by the Luwero Triangle massacres.

Yet in the interstices of the personal accounts, the authors never lose sight of the political issues which underpin the problems: the relationships between rich and poor, women and men, North and South. The only real fault is the looseness of the structure: in higgledy-piggledy fashion and at breathless speed, we move from female infanticide in Tamil Nadu to disabled babies in Nairobi. A touch more organization might have made even more of this rich material.

This autumn the United Nations is due to pass the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Kids will not overnight be protected from warfare, child labour, or sexual abuse as a result. But it is a start. Since countries which have ratified the Convention can be taken to task if they refuse to allocate resources to deal with these issues domestically. To heighten concern about the Convention, Broken Promise could not have come out at a better time.

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Music reviews

Mind Bomb
by The The

Mind Bomb Matt Johnson, who constructs The The out of different musicians for each album, continues to skirt the fringes of commercial success. Critical respect is no problem - and the innovative video for his last album, Infected, even won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, despite the troubling sexism of a couple of its sequences.

Mind Bomb offers as uncompromisingly bleak a world-view as ever. As before, Johnson rails against injustice and oppression, but more as an everlasting fact of human existence than as something that might be fought and corrected. You get the feeling that if a genuine utopia ever came into being, Matt Johnson would be the one person wanting to tear it all down.

His 'love songs', for example, are like nobody else's on earth - they positively scream with the pain of relating. 'You will come to me,' he says, 'to stroke my hair, to cuddle my flesh, and to quell the torrents in my subterranean depths.' This is uncomfortable listening, especially when coupled with Johnson's own determinedly spoken' singing. But the discomfort is cased in rich and even beautiful arrangements. Johnson has always had the ability to find haunting musical settings for his songs and here they have the extra benison of ex-Smith Johnny Marr.

If there is a theme here, it is religion. At first it seems to be an entirely negative force. Yet at other points the problem is rather the hijacking of the original message, as in the phenomenal lines: 'If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today! He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA! Oh the lights that now burn brightest behind stained glass! Will cast the darkest shadows upon the human heart! But God didn't build himself that throne/ God doesn't live in Israel or Rome! God doesn't belong to the yankee dollar! God doesn't plant the bombs for Hezbollah' Few Christians would quibble with that, and by the end Johnson is even talking about 'previous incarnations' and straining for 'a happiness beyond human reach'.

He's confused. But he is also utterly compelling.

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Barbarous English Fayre
by King of the Slums
(Play Hard)

'Political' pop needn't put text before textures, needn't deliver messages or manifestoes or imagine that it can recreate community', 'roots' or 'pride' (as do senior ambassadors like Tracy Chapman, Elvis Costello and U2). King of the Slums manage as much social comment in a dozen songs as others do in a decade but they belong among bands that eschew political persuasion in favour of chronicling the lives of the despairing or dispossessed, the people for whom political solutions have failed.

King of the Slums are the sound of people going nowhere. Their post-punk scaffolding of taut bass and clenched guitar attack meets up at acute and difficult angles with the chafing, jagged white bars of violin and the half-guttersnipe-half muezzin wail of vocals. This band sounds like an ulcer, a festering sore, a self-consuming but nonetheless exhilarating secretion of bile.

King of the Slums' cast of losers, survivors and sharpers turn their disappointment against themselves and their own kind. All that's left for them are the smallest triumphs, revenges or consolations - together with a fascination for the England of 15 or 20 years ago. They have been left behind by the economic restructuring of the 1980s, shunted off on a branch line of history and left back in the twilight of the 1970s along with flares and skinheads, a time when demagogues made last-ditch efforts to salvage working-class pride and channel it in a fascist direction. King of the Slums make distempered, dyspeptic pop about forgotten people - and it's grievously, frettingly good.

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Film reviews

produced by the Bedford Falls Company / MGM

Cosy, yes, but sharply observed too: the thirtysomething world. For once this is going to be a personal review, since I'm well aware that (even within this office) for all the people who take this programme to their hearts, there are at least as many who can't abide it.

For those who haven't yet encountered it, thirtysomething is a weekly US TV show which has reached the end of its second series. It focuses week after week on the same seven characters, all of whom have reached that certain stage in life - they're having children, their marriages are foundering, they're wondering what on earth they're doing in their work, or their parents are dying. In that sense it's a glorified soap - and I've heard it dismissed more than once as a yuppie Dallas, though I find it as difficult to understand how anyone could see it that way as those people would find it to understand how I can curl up, laugh and cry with the characters each week and carry their dilemmas around with me in the days in between.

Why do I care about these people? Probably because it's as close as I have ever come to seeing myself and my friends up on the screen. Soaps don't usually focus on characters like this, people who grew up with the idealistic values of the 1960s and early 1970s, who have put off having children until their thirties, who worry about the environment but also worry about how they're not managing to do enough about it. Charitably, you might say they represent the struggle of a generation to come to terms with a responsibility and authority they would once have rejected. Uncharitably, you might say they were middle-class people who have long since sold out and ceased to do anything about changing the world short of creating more personal angst for themselves.

Still I care because I recognize the life that Hope and Michael, Melissa and Ellyn hold up before me. But I also care because of the high quality of the scripts. thirtysomething is to soaps what Hill Street Blues was to cop shows: sharp, iridescent and innovative. The writers take risks and every episode has something wacky about it: elaborate dream sequences; an argument played back four different ways from the perspective of each of the participants; the cast transported into the world of the Dick van Dyke Show. Occasionally they go over the top - but that's in the nature of risk.

Besides, the fantasy moments are balanced by and anchored in an amazingly acute eye for detail, for the nuances of real relationships: in this sense thirtysomething produces the quality of the best feature films, week in week out.

And because of that it matters to me that Michael never seems to share the childcare, that Melissa always winds up alone, that Gary is losing his teaching post. Perhaps they have been a touch too comfortable - but the collapse of Elliot and Michael's business has put paid to that. They could certainly do with more political fibre in there somewhere - and hopefully a new character, the abrasive community activist Susannah, will supply that. And maybe you need to be thirtysomething yourself to feel as I do about these people.

But on the other hand a quarter of the total US TV audience tunes into it each week. And I find it somehow very encouraging that television can present us with real people instead of the usual cyphers and still strike such deep and resonant chords in so many. thirtysomething is a minor source of hope from the very heart of the beast.

Chris Brazier

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Burger's Daughter
.being the book about white South Africans of conscience

Nadine Gordimer has written eight collections of short stories and nine novels, most of which have been widely translated. She is often seen as the 'unofficial interpreter' of life in South Africa. While black South Africans are imprisoned and their works banned, she travels and is published with reasonable freedom. She is often criticized for exercising a weaker voice than she 'should' but replies that those critics who live 'safe from midnight arrests and solitary confinement' are unreasonable in the extreme in calling for those in oppressed lands to take risks the critics themselves would avoid. Besides, there is no doubting where she stands. 'Art is on the side of the oppressed,' she writes in her stimulating book of essays, The Essential Gesture. 'For if art is freedom of the spirit, how can it exist within the oppressors?'

We meet the heroine of Burger's Daughter, arguably her best novel, at the awkward age of 14: the first stirrings of womanhood, the growing pains and the explorations. In the hands of a writer as skilled in her craft as Nadine Gordimer, with her ability to shape a character and her eye for detail, the tracing of a girl's development through adolescence and early adulthood might be enough of a story in itself. But Rosa Burger's emergence is entwined with events that are far larger than any individual, yet deeply part of each person around her.

Rosa is the daughter of white people committed to fighting apartheid. She grows up in a household which defies the law by bringing black and white people together, one in which the challenging of racism is a 24-hour living presence and is the only thing that really matters. Constant surveillance, clandestine meetings and the arrest of family and friends are part of everyday life. Both her parents are put in prison and her father dies there, a hero, a martyr to the cause.

This is the story then, not of personal development against a colourful political background but of what it really means to live as a white person of conscience in a country whose rulers decree that individuals should be ranked according to the colour of their skin. And of what it means to be born into 'the struggle': to be expected, without question, to be part of it. She absorbed her parents' convictions, says Rosa, much as children 'learn to eat with a knife and fork'.

As if, for a young woman, the quest for identity is not painful and confusing enough, she must find a way of lifting the burden everyone implicitly assumes she will carry. And to do this she must get away. must 'know somewhere else'. She thinks of this step in terms of her 'defection'. At last, in Europe. where 'nobody expects you to be more than you are', she finds a few answers.

But there are no easy ones. Gordimer knows the ins and Outs of South Africa, its people and politics, far too well for any smooth analyses or soft options. Rosa has to come to terms not only with what her inheritance means to her but also with accusations that her parents brand of Communist radicalism ducks the real issue - the oppression of the black majority by the white minority. And then there is the anger of her adopted black brother, who smashes down the martyrdom of her father: 'I know plenty blacks like Burger

And this is Gordimer's great strength: the tangling of the personal and the political. How much harder it is to turn away from Rosa Burger, from her internal wrangling and the external forces that bear down on her, than from a faceless newspaper report. Or from Jessie Stilwell in Occasion For Loving, who watches a white woman on the lookout for adventure fall in love with a black man, and who proclaims from her liberal stance: 'We don't see black and white and so we all think we behave as decently to one colour face as another. But how can that ever be, so long as there's the possibility that you can escape back into your filthy damn whiteness?' Or from the black servant who protects his white employers when fighting breaks out, in July's People.

White and black, male and female, racist and revolutionary, Gordimer's subtle, lyrical writing lures you inside these people's heads. It is an enlivening but uncomfortable place to be. Rosa Burger, by the end of the book, is a woman in her mid-twenties. As a person in her own right she takes up her destiny. But beyond her is that other destiny as yet unfulfilled - the struggle for justice in South Africa today.

Tess Lemmon

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (1979, available in Penguin).

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New Internationalist issue 201 magazine cover This article is from the November 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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