issue 249 - November 1993
directed by Ken Loach
directed by Mike Leigh
Ken Loach can always be relied upon to passionately tell it like it is. Since his groundbreaking TV play Cathy Come Home was broadcast in the 1960s he has been committed to investigating the lives of those in Britain who have been disenfranchised through class and economic disparity. His latest film, Raining Stones – written by Jim Allen, who has a similar track record in TV films like Days of Hope and The Spongers – is no less harsh an indictment of social inequality.
Set in a rundown housing estate in Oldham, it follows an out-of-work couple’s attempts to find money to buy their daughter a confirmation outfit. The documentary style and the exceptional cast of actors mostly new to film give the story a wholly naturalistic edge. It is a sadly simple tale that speaks volumes about contemporary British society. It is also a tale that could so easily have dripped with patronizing sentiment. But, as with Loach’s last film, Riff-Raff, Raining Stones is not a gloomy survey of working-class life but rather burns with a fierce and poignant humour. From the opening scenes in which the father and his best friend set out to steal a sheep, have it slaughtered and then sell bits of the meat in a pub, there is a caustic appreciation of the ripe farce of the situation. This comes from the characters themselves, who respond to their plight with humour and wit as much as anger.
And with the family priest proving that liberation theology has as much a place in Britain as, say, El Salvador, the film is one of the best arguments yet for Britain to be viewed as a Third World country.
Loach’s indictment of modern Britain is seasoned with compassion and warmth. In comparison, Mike Leigh’s Naked seems devoid of any humanity. Leigh also attempts to portray the contemporary social malaise and diagnose the ills of post-Thatcherite Britain. His film is also fired with anger. But it could not be more brutishly apocalyptic.
The film opens traumatically as a young couple’s grapple in the dark turns into rape. Absconding from the incident is the film’s ‘hero’, Johnny, a deeply disturbed young man who takes the road south to London to seek refuge with his ex-girlfriend Louise. The film follows his messianic odyssey as he takes to the soulless streets, preaching despair and damnation – a man angry with the injustices of the world. David Thewlis’s astounding performance as Johnny rips out at the audience, helping to make Naked an exhausting physical experience.
Leigh offers no measure of hope for any repair in our lives. The film is cut with divisions between classes, between regions and most emphatically between the sexes. In Naked, men can only ever feel cold disdain for women. The opening rape scene sets the tone: men fuck women over, time and time again. It is not that Leigh approves of this – it is a situation about which he is in obvious despair. But his vision is fundamentally negative.
Dark and depressing, Naked whips up a storm of stones.
The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions
by Fela Ransome Kuti & Nigeria 70
Although Fela Kuti was destined to spend only a matter of months in the US in 1969-70, the visit was to assume a profound significance. Kuti, a phenomenally gifted Nigerian trumpeter who had studied music at London’s Trinity College, had – in 1968 – begun to reformulate his jazzy, R&B sounds into an indigenous format he called Afrobeat.
This was, he acknowledged, a reaction to the way much African music at the time was taking its cue from America’s James Brown. Paradoxically it was the American experience – and time spent with friends like Black Panther activist Sandra Isidore – that was to spur Kuti’s reorientation towards Africa and an overt embrace of pacifist politics. Introduced to the writings of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and black radicals who looked back to the ancient civilizations of Africa, Kuti promptly changed the name of his band from Koola Lobitos to Nigeria 70. It was, a few months later, to be changed again to Afrika 70, by which time Kuti’s songs – fierce indictments of corruption and oppression – were already beginning to attract the unwelcome attention of the Nigerian police.
Politics and music – not least the freedom to make music – were to become inseparable elements of Kuti’s career. But here he was only just beginning.
The utter freshness of the ten Sessions tracks belie the urgent conditions under which they were recorded. Having been dumped by their tour promoter, Kuti and his band were days away from an unceremonious deportation. A lawyer managed to get the Nigerians a 60-day visa extension to enable them to record the album. Without a record deal or cash, the session was pulled together with remarkable good will. Ghanaian trumpeter Duke Lumumba joined Kuti on horns while friends led by Isidore called in cash and favours.
In later years Kuti’s music was to be characterized by lengthy, full-blown pieces that would bob and weave their sinuous course over periods of 20 minutes or more. Not so here. Never outstaying their welcome, these jazzy, intricate highlife sounds sweep down like a hot wind.
There’s a wonderful vitality in the tapes that is undimmed by 20 years spent in an archives cupboard. Kuti is economical when it comes to vocals – in either English or Yoruba – and this explains the impact of a song like Viva Nigeria. ‘Let us bind our wounds and live in peace,’ he sings above a mesh of horns and guitars. ‘Tribal war will never be the answer.’
It might not have the acerbic ring of later songs like International Thief or Vagabonds in Power but the authoritative tones are audible for anyone to recognize.
The term barbarian comes from the Greek barbaroi, meaning ‘babbler’ or one who could not speak Greek. For the Greeks this automatically meant someone had no faculty of reason and was unable to control their passions. With refreshing simplicity this fast-paced book – subtitled A Manifesto on Western Racism, traces how that xenophobic equation of Other with Barbarian has endured in Western civilization’s relationship with the rest of the world.
We have the flesh-hating, nature-hating, heretic-persecuting Christian crusaders, conquistadors and missionaries confronting people who have a non-adversarial relationship with nature, who are not ashamed of their bodies, and who are different. The Christian response is well documented: convert or kill.
We have Columbus, unable to handle the idea that the inhabitants of the New World had no concept of property ownership, thereby concluding that they must be barbaric, barely human.
The Columbus mindset, the myopic oculis mundi of the West, lives on through imperialism and post-colonialism to the present day.
So is there hope of a better relationship ever developing between the narrow-minded, dominating West and the rest of the world? Yes, say the authors. ‘The real peoples of the not-West... can offer the mental tools with which to cut through the intellectual and cultural rubbish of the past accumulated within the present’ and to work towards ‘a polylogue of cultures’. But the West also needs to understand itself, to see that underlying its arrogance is an unnecessary fear that accommodating difference will necessarily destabilize the Western self.
Barbaric Others concludes on a high note: ‘A multicivilizational future is not a recipe for conflict... or chaos but the means to a new multiverse of possibilities, to a more sustainable and just future in social, economic and environmental terms.’
This is a fresh, inspiring and illuminating perspective and – save for the occasional lapse into academic jargon – is clear and accessible. It deserves pride of place in schools and among history books everywhere.
Several years ago I visited the village of Sanna, at the tip of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. My trip to this remote and isolated area was as a direct result of reading Alasdair Maclean’s remarkable book on the last days of a crofting family. Anyone who has visited the Highlands will have been struck by the way the terrain and the elements combine to produce a land of breathtaking beauty and wildness in which eking out any sort of living takes a miracle of human cussedness and endurance. What is a joy to the casual tourist is misery to the resident crofter.
The poet Alasdair Maclean wrote Night Falls on Ardnamurchan in an attempt to unravel his feelings about the land and about his family, as well as provide a record of a disappearing way of life. At the heart of the book are extracts from Alasdair’s father’s journals of the crofting year – a minimalist record of an unrelenting struggle to survive in the face of harsh nature and neglect by ‘the authorities’. Alasdair fleshes out his father’s terse comments with a much more discursive parallel commentary, bringing vividly to life such subjects as the economics of gathering whelks (dubious); the centrality of animals in the crofting scheme of things; and the unremitting strain that living in a ‘marginal’ community entails.
Alasdair Maclean had a love-hate relationship with the crofting life. As a poet he could recognize the way in which the work contributed to a sense of self and individuality but he detested the grinding poverty and insularity of outlook. Raging against the shortcomings, he is honest enough to admit the pull of loyalty and obligation that such an upbringing provides.
Reading the book (and visiting Sanna) I felt a strong bond with this struggle and was reminded of the line in Hamish Henderson’s song Come All Ye which links the pitheid (coalmine) and the clachan (rural village) as symbols of working-class hardship and solidarity. When I was growing up in a mining village in England’s North-East in the 1960s, pits were closed at a barbaric rate, leaving workless communities classified for quiet disappearance, a process being repeated and compounded with the present pit closures.
Marginal in strategic if not physical terms, the worth of these communities was sacrificed to economic gods over which they had no influence. As with crofting, the urgent thought is: what are societies for? When the closure of a monoculture or industry spells the death of a community, are balance sheets enough? There is, I think, a failure of imagination, of empathy, here on the part of governments. While people do not necessarily value the jobs for themselves – who would choose to be a miner, to be a crofter, with all the backbreaking and health-damaging work involved? – people value their communities and their culture. They recognize that while economic logic may dictate extinction for their way of life, economic logic is wrong; that there are more important things than the bottom line.
Maclean’s use of language is resonant and rhapsodic – the account of the yearly haymaking is both a thing of beauty and a factual treasure trove. He also displays a coruscating wit as, for instance, in his description of the Highland custom of visiting, in which timing is crucial both in visiting before you are visited yourself and in nipping out the back way to avoid the unwelcome guest. If the author is not always tolerant of failings or stupidities – and he can be as harsh with his ain folk as with the follies of bureaucrats – his understanding of the importance of the small coinage of human kindness is unsurpassed.
The book ends with Alasdair returning to Ardnamurchan after his father’s death and attempting to continue the crofting tradition. He is candid about his own failures and short-comings but manages to complete a connection that is crucial to any understanding of our place in the world. ‘If I have done nothing else in my life that will count when the time for counting comes,’ he says, ‘I have at least sat on a hillside in Ardnamurchan and looked down on a croft that I had harvested unaided and against con-siderable odds. I have watched the shadows creep out from the dotted ricks and the stubble take the evening light in the impress of the vanished swathes. And if I felt sad at being the last in a long line I also felt for the first time, truly and confidently, that to be last in a line is still to be part of that line.’
This is a book like no other that I have ever read. It moved me to tears of outrage, sorrow and laughter. Books that claim to ‘change your life’ are ten-a-penny. Books that actually do are extremely rare. This is one of them.
Night Falls on Ardnamurchan – The Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean (Penguin).