Cheapness and Beauty
by Boy George
(Virgin CDV 2780)
Thirteen years on from Boy George and Culture Club’s first foray onto global TV screens, people can still remember the impact that this be-frilled, dreadlocked creature made. The tabloid press coined the phrase, gender-bender, to describe George O’Dowd.
Returning with his solo album Boy George is using the occasion to cut through any remaining ambiguities. The shadowy genderless figure that many of Culture Club’s songs addressed is gone. Amongst Cheapness and Beauty’s 13 tracks, there are songs addressed to George’s boyfriends past and present. There are posthumous farewells to friends like performance artists Leigh Bowery and designer Stevie Hughes, both victims of HIV-related illness. God don’t hold a grudge and Same Thing in Reverse deal with coming out as gay, while Evil is so civilized is a chilling number, written in response to reading about a spate of homophobic murders in Texas. Not suprisingly, the music is substantially different. George has shelved many of the poppy romantic mannerisms of his earlier records in favour of a fierce and edgy glam-influenced rock. Cheapness and Beauty is powerful, witty and justifiably angry.
It is also, perhaps, George’s riposte to other gay artists that he wasn’t doing enough for the cause, going for the blusher-and-pout rather than banner-and-placard style of protest against homophobia. With this album, George’s position is completely clear. He demands tolerance and understanding and does so with typical wit. ‘Is it twisted, is it sick? Mother Nature’s little trick?’ he asks in Same Thing in Reverse, before replying ‘I don’t have to feel no shame, in God’s image I am made’. As protest songs, this collection goes beyond the dourly political. It’s a statement articulated as only one of pop’s most indomitable figures could: fabulously.
Altered States: A reader in the New World Order
edited by Phyllis Bennis and Michel Moushabeck
(Olive Branch Press, ISBN 1-56656-112-4)
States of Disarray
by United Nations Research Institute for Social Development
(UNRISD, ISBN 92-9085-013-2)
Books on ‘the state of the world’ are appearing thick and fast in the current period between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the new millennium. These two books are diametrically opposed in style though not necessarily in content or message.
Its blurb describes Altered States as ‘a comprehensive guide to the emerging new world order’. ‘Guide’ is perhaps not the right word. It’s a collection of essays by an impressive and international array of over 50 thinkers and commentators including Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Mary Kaldor and Tony Benn. The emphasis is very much on the role of US foreign policy in the post-Cold War, post-Gulf War, post-Soviet world. Given the editors’ penchant for the Middle East, there is a strong and incisive focus on this political hotspot and the effects of the Gulf War regionally and worldwide.
Divided into thematic and geopolitical sections, this book provides informed and often overtly polemic, reading. But it is dense – and best suited to dipping into if you want to read a thought-provoking essay about a particular subject or area.
Quite different in approach is States of Disarray. This can properly be described as a ‘guide’. Instead of just putting together essays or papers by prominent academics, the editor – former NI staffer Peter Stalker – has drawn on different reports and studies, digested the material and produced a book that is far more journalistic in feel, though equally stimulating and informative. The central theme – the social effects of globalization – takes in subjects as varied as the war on drugs, ethnic conflict, migration, transnational corporations, and the changing fabric of personal relations, and weaves them together into a coherent whole. It also manages to conclude positively with ideas on how to build international solidarity. Lucid in style, rich in facts and figures and containing some quite startling photos, a vast and ambitious project has been turned into something that pretty much anyone can read and learn from with maximum ease.
Entertainment BS and VB
Burnt by the Sun
directed by Nikita Mikhalkov
Set in 1936, Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov’s latest film reflects on a period of history that it’s only been possible to renegotiate in the past few years. Ostensibly the film is reminiscent of a Chekhov play as a large eccentric family gathers for its summer holidays in a rambling house belonging to Sergeant Kotov, a military hero of the Russian Revolution. The days are eternally sunny and there is plenty of food and wine in the larder as Kotov relaxes with his young wife Marousia, and their sprightly six-year-old daughter Nadia.
But into the idyll arrives Dimitri, a rather dashing young man who it transpires was Marousia’s lover a decade earlier. This is not his only secret: he is on a mission to collect Kotov and take him back to Moscow. For Dimitri is a member of the newly-formed secret police and Kotov has been targeted by Stalin for a show trial.
Burnt by the Sun is a film about betrayal in the most obvious of ways. A man who fought for the White Army while Kotov was on the side of the Revolution, Dimitri has been reinstated for the price of his dreadful task. But the film is equally concerned to draw on the more universal nature of emotional betrayal as the tensions between Kotov, Marousia and her former lover are explored. It is this, one suspects, rather than the politics that helped the film win its Best Foreign Film Oscar at Hollywood this year.
In a rather loaded symbolism, fireballs become recurring motifs presaging destruction. It is the dark side to the sunny idyll – as if to say one shouldn’t invest in any notion of perfection. Even as he is driven off to his execution, the ardent patriot Kotov still believes that one phone call to Stalin will sort out the ‘problem’. But as the film draws to a conclusion, with little Nadia waving her daddy good-bye as he goes on his trip, the sun feels decidedly cold.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Brigitte Scheffer, Vanessa Baird, Lizzie Francke.
Reviews Editor: Vanessa Baird
On 31 August 1946 the New Yorker published an extraordinary edition. The cover – an anodyne picnic scene – carried no clue as to the shattering contents. Inside were no cartoons or fiction, no gossip from the metropolitan scene, no reviews. The entire magazine consisted of a 30,000-word article by the journalist and author John Hersey. The introductory note explained why.
‘The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all-but-incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.’
The title of the article and the name of the city was of course Hiroshima. Hersey arrived in the city nearly a year after the bomb. He spoke to many people and built his tale around six individuals who, through luck, judgement or blind fate, survived. At the moment of the explosion we meet and follow the lives of Toshiko Sasaki, a clerical worker; Masakazu Fujii, a doctor in a private hospital; Hatsuyo Nakamura, widow of a tailor; William Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit priest; Terufumi Saki, a junior hospital doctor and Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor.
The lives of these six people and their families vividly personalize for us the bland euphemism ‘civilian casualties’. Names are important: the crucial first step in the ability to kill in war is to demonize the enemy, to turn soldier and civilian alike into something less than human whose destruction can be justified. The overwhelming sense one gets from these stories is of ordinary people living their lives as best they can amid the privations and arbitrary tyrannies of war; coping, in much the same way as did the inhabitants of London during the Blitz or the denizens of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Hersey’s manner of telling is unmistakably journalistic; sparse and measured descriptions of a cumulative horror and a dawning realization among the people in the days and weeks following the bombing that the worst was not over with the explosion. The writing is stripped of novelistic conceits, the better to explain how the survivors, bewildered, sick, often badly injured, dealt with the overwhelming shock of the destruction of their city.
What had the Americans done to cause such wholesale destruction? Could they have used gasoline to cause a firestorm? Had they used explosive magnesium powder or did they have some new and terrifying weapon? Rumours spread in ripples as people hunted for lost families, a doctor, a place of safety. Here the Reverend Tanimoto realizes for the first time that the bombing was not confined to his area of the city as he meets fleeing multitudes.
‘The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Often, because of pain, they held their hands up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies the burns had made patterns – of undershirt straps and suspenders and on the skin of some women... the shape of flowers they had had on their kimonos.’
It was not until a week after the explosion that vague notions started circulating that the city had been destroyed by the enormous energy released in the splitting of atoms, the citizens of Hiroshima being the last to discover the truth about the cataclysmic experiment to which they had been subjected. In a hideous irony, deaths from radiation sickness began at about the same time, cracking the stoical bafflement of many of the victims and bringing a hatred of the perpetrators. Dr Sasaki said later: ‘I see they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo just now. I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the Bomb and they should hang them all.’
The decision made by the US military and political authorities 50 years ago to drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima bids fair to be the defining moment of our century. The world changed for ever on Monday 5 August 1945 and the shadow of the bomb has fallen over every moment since. Much is being made at the moment of ‘remembrance’, as we are enjoined to celebrate the victory over Japan. A partial, self-righteous remembrance, without humility, mocks not only the 200,000 Japanese men, women and children killed and injured in Hiroshima but also all the civilian dead, from whatever country.
John Hersey’s account of Hiroshima has in common with Schindler’s Ark and Primo Levi’s books about the Holocaust the sheer necessity of telling; the urgency of the message forces a clarity and simplicity on the writing. Hersey’s conclusion, in 1946, is one we are still pondering today. Questioning whether total war and the targeting of non-combatants is ever justifiable, he asks: ‘Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?’
Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946). Still available in Penguin.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995