issue 259 - September 1994
All the news that’s fit to sing and I ain’t marching any more
by Phil Ochs
(Re-released on CD, Hannibal 4427 and 4422)
In Phil Ochs’ self-penned sleeve notes to I Ain’t Marching Any More the young songwriter tells how ‘people walk up to me and ask: ‘Do you really believe in what your songs are saying?’
Ochs clearly did. He was, until his suicide in 1976, the impassioned voice of America; an agitator whose songs about Vietnam, civil rights and ordinary working people were the direct descendants of folk music’s most radical traditions. Some regarded him as the missing link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, or perhaps, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Ochs had only an acoustic guitar and a limited vocal range delivered in the phraseology of WC Fields, but the fiery conviction he gave to songs like Too many martyrs, Iron Lady and The power and the glory still crackles.
It’s therefore something of a surprise that these two albums, dating from 1964 and 1965 respectively, have been unavailable for so long. Their re-release on CD format is long overdue. Containing between them nearly 30 songs, they take a sidelong glance at life in the home of the brave and the land of the free.
Ochs was not impressed with what he saw. Too many martyrs (on All the news) was a response to the murder of civil rights leader, Hedgar Evans; Knock on the door was about the terror of totalitarian regimes, although it could easily encompass American activity during the years of Cold War paranoia. While Ochs’ music is a scuttling, no-nonsense country affair, his lyrical style is full of wry jokes and potent ironies. Talking Vietnam and Talking Cuba shared the same music, Ochs updating his lyrics to suit the occasion.
On a more gentle seeming note The power and the glory is a lilting journey across America which starts by describing the country’s assets and – at the moment when the listener is basking in descriptions of fields and valleys – peoples the land with the dispossessed.
In 1965, the year that Marching was first released, Ochs’ imagery and allusions are no longer veiled. Although the album is momentarily softened with a reverie on the assassinated JFK – That was the President – the prevailing mood is much sterner. Iron Lady – Ochs’ phrase for the electric chair – is a chilling indictment of capital punishment. Racism is also tackled squarely in a number of songs and in several areas: in the unions, in Government and in the American Deep South. Ochs had an unerring eye for hypocrisy and these songs go straight to the heart of sanctimonious cant.
So far from God
by Ana Castillo
(The Women’s Press, ISBN 0 7043 4396 7)
This is the brave and witty story of five women: La Loca, who miraculously rises up from her coffin aged three; Fe, who is jilted by her lover and poisoned by her work in a factory; Esperanza, who becomes a journalist and disappears in the Gulf; Caridad, the healer who leaps out of this world with the woman she loves, and Sofia, their mother who survives them all.
It is a tale both tragic and funny; a hymn to women’s endurance and to the harshness of their lives. Sofia has a feckless husband – who suddenly appears after an absence of twenty years – and four daughters who suffer all the indignities known to woman. But she decides to become the Mayor of Tome and goes on to found a workers’ co-operative and MOMAS (‘Mothers of Martyrs and Saints’). Sofia endures, no, she triumphs – while at the same time retaining her sense of humour.
Set in Chicana country the story is both down-to-earth and full of unearthly happenings. Its matter-of-fact delivery serves to make the magical believable. When La Loca is dying of AIDS, Doctor Tolentino and his wife come to help her. His ministrations involve prayers and cotton wool soaked in holy oil. But then he reaches into La Loca’s stomach ‘maintaining his left “material” hand in the opening, while the right “spirit” hand sought out the maladies’ and ‘pulled out some cystic fibroids and finally a tumour...’ The lines between the surgical and the miraculous are blurred and anything seems possible.
Ana Castillo uses a direct colloquial style with little regard for punctuation, almost as if the writer is confiding her thoughts directly to the reader. Each chapter is prefaced with a description of what is going to happen next but phrased in such a way as to make the book impossible to put down. For instance: ‘Of the Hideous Crime of Francisco el Penitente, and his Pathetic Calls Heard Throughout the Countryside as His Body Dangled from a Pinnion like a Crow-Picked Pear; and of the End of Caridad and Her Beloved Emerald Which We Nevertheless Will Refrain from Calling Tragic.’
Caridad’s end is in fact tragic, but it is also an heroic choice. Like Thelma and Louise in the film of that name, there is a final leap into the air with Esmeralda ‘flying off the mesa like a broken-winged moth, and holding tight to her hand was Caridad, more kite than woman billowing through mid-air’.
The themes and preoccupations of the 1990s continue to bump against far older traditions in a way which becomes not only believable but funny. Take Doña Felicia, the traditional healer who looks as if she were ‘at least 90 years old’, lives in a ‘traila’ and spends her time keeping up with her favourite soap operas on Spanish cable TV in between ‘patients’.
So Far from God is wacky and powerful. Its humour belies a strong political message – that in a world which deals them many harsh blows, women are still survivors. After death as well as during life.
No man’s land
by George Monbiot
(Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-60163-7)
Nomads and the nomadic way of life are under attack – both culturally and physically – by an alliance of governments, farming and conservation lobbies. Travelling through the traditional nomadic lands of Kenya and Tanzania, Monbiot charts the terrible human and ecological degradation caused by the governmental pursuit of tourist dollars.
In a prose that is lucid and unhysterical, the author describes the Kenyan Government’s practice of arming the nomads’ tribal enemies and encouraging raids upon them. The nomads – whose lifestyle is co-operative and use of resources appropriate – suffer beatings, ‘confiscations’ and torture at the hands of the landgrabbers.
Their old ways of life are being subverted in innumerable ways. Barter is forcibly replaced by cash, and the land, no longer able to regenerate since the herders cannot move on, is exhausted after just a few months.
Monbiot is not afraid to challenge guilty officialdom – the directors and officials who sanction illegal ploughing of tribal lands and the slaughter of cattle are clearly in the firing line of his criticism.
But he also feels deeply for the cultural loss of the rituals and ceremonies among the nomads once they have been dispossessed of land and heritage by ‘civilized’ interests. Contrasting civilization (civis or ‘town’ – ‘not moving’) with horde (ordu or ‘camp’ – ‘mobile’) he considers how static societies inevitably attempt to ostracize any travelling culture – usually by denying it the means of survival.
Monbiot is also keenly aware of the ways in which the appropriation of commons and the privatization of land has affected the quality of life and eroded civil liberties in Western society. Ironically, he has recently been moving around on crutches as a result of injuries sustained at the hands of guards from Britain’s infamous private security company, Group 4. He was taking part in a peaceful protest to defend Solsbury Hill in England from the Government’s ecologically-devastating road-building plans. Monbiot took considerable personal risks to expose abuses of power in East Africa, only to be injured by similar abuses in his own country.
The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc. – also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort – to give it its full title – first appeared in monthly supplements to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine between 1859 and 1861. The 1,112-page tome which followed gives the appearance of being the Gray’s Anatomy of cookery. It certainly resembles this 1858 textbook in typography, illustrative layout and general organization.
More than 900 of its closely-printed pages are engulfed by one of the most compendious collections of recipes and culinary advice ever assembled. Its length is not only a result of its breathtaking attempt at comprehensiveness (which alone generates an analytical index of more than 30 pages) but also of Beeton’s wish to give ‘an account of the natural history of the animals and vegetables which we use as food’. At the mention of a herbal or vegetable ingredient in a recipe the reader is usually offered, in tiny type, something akin to a concise encyclopaedic entry. Thus under Chantilly Soup and Parsley and Butter Sauce Beeton elaborates on the various uses of parsley by the Greeks and Romans and tells us that ‘to rabbits, hares, and sheep it is a luxury, to parrots it is a poison’. Sprinkled throughout a chapter of mutton recipes are, likewise, miscellaneous digressions on the general theme of sheep. For example, the myth of the Golden Fleece is told, poetry on sheep is quoted and the process of woollen manufacture is explained.
Although The Book of Household Management can still conceivably be used as a straightforward recipe book, my own tendency is to dip into it for its informative, sometimes eccentric, words of wisdom on a particular food item. For instance, on vinegar: ‘Spartianus, a Latin historian, tells us that, mixed with water, it was the drink of Roman soldiers.’ This immediately dispelled my puzzlement, first felt as a child, as to why the dying Jesus Christ was reportedly given vinegar to drink. The book also has a multitude of unwittingly amusing aspects which I am often tempted to exploit. I recently read its outrageous code of dinnerparty conduct to three women with whom I was eating (‘it is not usual, where taking wine is en regle, for a gentleman to ask a lady to take wine until the fish or soup is finished...’)
But I also find myself using the sections which have nothing to do with cookery as a reminder of how oppressive and cloying Victorian England must have been. Some of these, such as the potted chapters on medical care, were no doubt useful reference guides in their day. Others, such as the legal memoranda, reveal the truly grim side of Victorian domestic life: ‘The law does not at this day admit the ancient principle of allowing moderate correction by a husband upon the person of his wife – he may, notwithstanding ... keep her under restraint, to prevent her leaving him, provided this be effected without cruelty.’ The euphemistic phrasing here suggests a strong belief in the unquestionableness of male power.
Such chapters were not written by Beeton but ‘contributed by gentlemen fully entitled to confidence’. But her own writing is also astonishingly reactionary: ‘If the mistress be a wife,’ she advises female heads of bourgeois households in the key first chapter, ‘never let an account of her husband’s failings pass her lips.’ This is followed by utterly authoritarian instruction on dress, visiting, conduct at evening parties and balls, the passing of leisure hours and house-hunting (‘the neighbourhood of all factories of any kind, producing unwholesome effluvia or smells, should be strictly avoided’). A modern reader, whatever his or her ideological persuasion, is likely to be left agog by the staggering exactitude with which Beeton lays down her quite arbitrary laws on female behaviour, and stunned by the sublime confidence with which she offers for universal adoption the mores of her own tiny and bigoted social class. The Book of Household Management shows an admirable concern, even in its title, to promote social transformation in attempting to win for women’s domestic work the status of a profession; at the same time, it is blissfully happy to preserve the class and gender relations of the 1860s in its all-pervasive, prescriptive moralizing. The result is an extremely contradictory reading experience: practically useful, historically illuminating, politically disturbing and unintentionally comic, sometimes all at once.
The Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton is published in a first edition facsimile by Chancellor Press, 1987.
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