issue 207 - May 1990
by James Robertson
The first symptoms of millennium fever are already upon us. No-one doubts the potential for catastrophe. But it's going to be a tricky task to sift out real threats and genuine possibilities from the hallucinations that come with the fever.
Convinced Greens have something of a head start in the futurology business. Theirs is the priceless, almost unique advantage of having been proved right already. The difficulty with being taken seriously, however, is that you have to start sounding sensible. Future Wealth is a welcome and sometimes stimulating contribution to the debate. Economics, and the 'standard of living' over which it rules as a largely phoney science, are still the 'bottom line' of political reality. Here is a book that starts at the bottom line and tries to work upwards, reinterpreting the economic balance sheet in unfamiliar, humanistic terms.
The approach is largely that of the World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland Report, after the former Norwegian premier who chaired it), so it is no radical departure. Robertson - and the New Economics Movement with which he associates himself - replaces a good deal of the dead economic jargon with words like 'purposeful', 'enabling' and 'conserving'. In the process he raises important questions about the purpose of economic development. He travels 'beyond' materialism, production and consumption.
But where does he arrive? On the key issue of economic growth he parts company with Brundtland - he is against it. He is also not happy with international trade. Self-sufficiency is what matters to him. We must begin to lose our interest in anything else. The flavour is decidedly pastoral.
This is where the trouble begins. More people live in the cities than the countryside. World trade is busily making us all more, not less, interdependent. You can be against this. But it's not so easy to seem relevant and credible if you've set yourself firmly against the world as it is actually experienced by most people.
The result is a book that rests heavily on moral assertion rather than detailed analysis, travelling more in belief than expectation. If you were to subject it to a modern 'textual analysis', you'd come up with a very high percentage of 'shoulds', 'oughts' and 'musts' - and without them the thing would begin to come unstuck. It is a remarkable, but not always helpful achievement in a book about economics to find just one reference to market forces, and that in relation to the Soviet Union.
This may meet with nodding heads in a converted audience or even on the international conference circuit. But for the rest of us, Future Wealth should be read, and doubtless will be used, more as a contribution to continuing debate than as the manifesto it sometimes aspires to be.
Through Brown Eyes
by Prafulla Mohanti
'Are you black?'
'No, I'm brown.
'Light or dark?'
'Is the colour of my skin important?'
'I'm sorry, the room is gone.'
So began Prafulla Mohanti's search for lodgings in Leeds in the early 1960s. The experience was, and still is, a commonplace for all black and ethnic communities living in Britain. But there is something peculiarly shocking about this particular account.
Prafulla Mohanti is a good man - the sort of writer you want to meet. Apart from his writing, he is also a professional architect and town planner, painter, choreographer and polymath - a gifted man with what would once have been called 'enlarged views'. He lives in England but has never lost touch with the village in India where he grew up. Almost completely without affectation, he seems equally at home helping local kids with their paintings in the East End of London or treading the thick-pile carpets of international hob-nobbery.
So when he is slung out of a cab, or spat at, or savagely beaten up, or has a letter he is writing stolen from him in a park in central London, the disgrace and shame that attaches itself to the 'culture' that spawns such acts seems all the greater.
'When I first arrived', he says, 'London was a safe place to live in. Gradually violence has become a natural part of life.' His grief for a society he once respected is poignantly expressed in simple language that becomes a searing indictment.
But if this is the shocking part of the book, it is not what the book is really about. Mohanti has pointed things to say about everything and everyone he sees, from the need to meditate before being able to get to sleep on the soggy beds of Surbiton, to the cautionary tale of Kaliyuy, the Age of Destruction, with which he finishes. At once sad and enchanting, Through Brown Eyes can be read for pleasure, too.
directed by John Duigan
If ever there was a life story that cried out to be translated into the most popular of languages, that of celluloid, it is that of Oscar Romero, El Salvador's Catholic primate until his assassination in 1980. Most of us know little more about him than that he stood up for human rights and the poor, and that he died for it.
In fact, the movie reveals, he was a quiet, bookish man, unwilling to believe that his country's government was so brutal, its military so callous or its peasants so exploited. So his gradual awakening to the grim reality of El Salvador in the late 1970s, his development from meek mouse into liberating lion, is the very stuff of drama.
Or should have been. The pity is that this film is really not very good. It has the odd ringing line; its politics, like its heart, are unquestionably in the right place: and it has a fine central performance from Raul Julia (from Kiss of the Spider-woman). But it is unconvincing from the very outset. There is the decision that all dialogue should take place in English with a thick Spanish accent. There is the casting of a blond US actor as the firebrand Father Grande, the soul of liberation theology.
But most of all there is the hammy handling of key moments. Take the scene where a father comes looking for his ten-year-old son, only to find that he has been murdered by a death squad. It ought to have been the most moving of moments; instead it is clumsy and artificial, the fault both of John Sacret Young's screenplay and John Duigan's direction.
Say what you like about Oliver Stone, but as a depiction of the Central American nightmare his Salvador leaves Romero limping.
by del Amitri
Much heralded some years ago, del Amitri have finally resurfaced with a global hit (the acoustic troubadour protest of Nothing Ever Happens), this LP - and irrefutable evidence that you can't expect great pop from a deferential reshuffling of pop's past forms, or from an endorsement of consensual values under the guise of a social conscience.
Waking Hours is laundered 'dirty realism'. It's full of the voices of small-town losers and casualties. But don't expect the festering no-exit complaints of King of the Slums or the sublime despond of Band of Holy Joy. Always 'classy', del Amitri's pop is self-consciously respectful towards authentic blues guitar, good soul influences and traditional musics like cajun. It is music for the discerning, not the despondent.
And del Amitri think they can transcend the dead zones of life. Which brings us to Nothing Ever Happens. True, it's a protest against the poverty of everyday life. So were the most challenging pop moments, such as early rock, punk and psychedelia. But those moments tested the social fabric we live in to destruction or challenged it with unreasonable utopian demands. Whereas del Amitri are more like Phil Collins: they don't reinvent the world, just join in the chorus of voices lamenting modern, alienated values and hoping to improve us.
Worse, it's fuelled, as such plaints often are, by a very mid-1960s contempt for conformity - very Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James. They won't see that we all contribute to, resist or simply negotiate the 'real world' we live in. Instead we are 'like doped mice in the college lab' and del Amitri will awaken us with their decorous folk-roots.
Sorry, but del Amitri's common sense is the real opiate.
Reviews Editor: Chris Brazier
Jude the Obscure
.being the book that outraged conventional pieties
The publication of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure in 1895 caused something of a scandal. One of the novel's two main themes, that of misery in marriage, was widely regarded as blasphemous. The Bishop of Wakefield told readers of the Yorkshire Post that he had burned his copy, and he then successfully persuaded Smith's Circulating Library to withdraw it. Hardy later wrote that the novel's message was simply 'that marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty so either of the parties - being then essentially and morally no marriage', but this did not prevent Blackwood's Magazine depicting him as a devilish apostle of free love. The New York Bookman called it 'simply one of the most objectionable books that we have ever read in any language whatsoever', and such universal condemnation, Hardy was later to claim, cured him of any further interest in novel-writing: he wrote no more fiction between 1895 and his death in 1928.
The novel tells of the fortunes of Jude Fawley, a poor orphan in a rural district near Christminster (ie Oxford) who entertains the unrealistic desire to be a student there. His zealous private studies are interrupted when he is tricked into marriage by a local girl, Arabella Donn. The marriage fails and the pair separate, Jude deciding to ply his trade as a stonemason in Chnstminster, hoping that his early ambitions will be nurtured by residence there. But his abiding experience of University is one of exclusion from it: the nearest he gets to the academy is toiling to maintain the stonework of college buildings. After a few alcoholic binges to relieve his frustration, Jude gradually becomes inured to his lowly social position. He then falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead (an early feminist), but finds that his devotion to her is continually compromised by her surviving moral inhibitions. His hopes and passions thwarted, Jude slips into a rapid decline and dies an early death.
A summary does little to explain the major offensive which this novel launched against the conventional pieties of Victorian England. The attributes of all the major characters (Jude's educational aspirations, Arabella's determination to fulfil her sexual appetite, Sue's frequent scorning of moral orthodoxy) all threaten a status quo in which ordinary working people are discouraged from questioning their station in life. It is the fact of these characters' struggle, rather than their ultimate defeat, which is important, because it represents a major historical process getting under way. By the time of Hardy's death, certainly, most of the dominant social mores depicted in Jude had been shattered.
It is argued that the book is of only historical interest. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine many readers getting worked up now about its treatment of marriage. But its second main theme, that of access so education, remains as politically germane as it was in 1895. Jude the Obscure is one of those books in which I find my own social experiences deeply entangled with those of the author and major character (Hardy, like Jude, was a self-taught boy from the provinces). Successive experiences as school pupil, student and teacher have confirmed my view that the book describes today's education system as well as that of 1895. It wouldn't even be inaccurate to say that I, and some others like me, are Jude Fawley, a century on. Coming from a council-house family and attending a run-down state comprehensive school, my chances of ever attending Oxford University were slim (although only seven per cent of children in Britain attend private school, over half of Oxford's undergraduate intake is still from this sector). The fact that I did so is often held against me in argument as proof that there is genuine equality of opportunity in British education. Of course, nothing could be more facile. The general picture, as opposed to peculiar isolated cases, tells a familiar story of the advantages of social privilege.
In purely educational terms, there are much better places to obtain a degree than Oxford, but the truth remains that it and Cambridge exercise inordinate influence on British political life, as stamping grounds for the rich and powerful. This is why they retain as much of an air of exclusivity as they viably can, and a vigorous contempt for the people whose productive labour pays for all their intellectual endeavour. This state of affairs is continually registered by outsiders. A recent editorial in the NI itself, ironically published in Oxford, complained of the 'closed to visitors' signs displayed by many of the University colleges
Hardy's achievement in Jude the Obscure was to give voice to the frustrations which such an elitist institution engenders in people who have an interest in democracy and equality; it reveals more sharply than any other novel that scientific and cultural pursuits cannot be sustained without an enormous amount of (usually undervalued) physical work: and it gives the lie to Oxford's claim to be a repository of civilized values by depicting it as an agent of educational rejection.
No wonder this caused an uproar in 1895. It still applies, with a few qualifications, in 1990.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.