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Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] New Internationalist 338[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] September 2001[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

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Click here to email the reviews editor, Vanessa Baird. book reviews

The Selfish Altruist
Relief Work in Famine and War
by Tony Vaux
(Earthscan, ISBN 1 85383 776 8)

This timely inquiry into the philosophy and politics of aid begins with the conundrum ‘how can an aid worker be happy?’ How is it possible to remain true to humanitarian principles in desperately difficult situations where compromises, fudged decisions and moral ambiguities are the norm? Drawing on almost three decades of frontline work for Oxfam, Vaux highlights the difficulties of intervention in the world’s disaster areas. He questions whether it is correct to categorize the motives of aid workers as purely altru-istic, arguing that the reality mixes elements of social concern with an unacknowledged search for power and attention.

The Selfish Altruist The author argues that ‘we are groping for a global culture to match our global economy, global science and global technology’ and, to further this goal, aid work urgently needs to re-focus on ‘the person in need’. In eight closely argued chapters we are taken on a tour of humanity’s tragedies and crises. We see how, in Kosovo, aid agencies were sucked into a compromised relationship with NATO and how, in Afghanistan, their refusal to deal with the Taliban led to much avoidable suffering. In case after case, from Mozambique to Bosnia, Azerbaijan to Sudan, Vaux shows how aid can become a tool of Western self-interest.

This is a serious and heartfelt challenge to the whole basis of developmental aid from the standpoint of a concerned insider. If it sparks a wide-ranging discussion of the present failings and future priorities of humanitarian intervention then Tony Vaux will, I believe, feel that he has achieved his aim.

RATING [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      PW

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Invisible Thread
by Maree Giles
(Virago, ISBN 1 86049 886 8)

Invisible Thread Maree Giles’s publishers describe her first novel Invisible Thread as ‘semi-autobiographical’ and ‘based on a true story’ – neither of which is necessarily a recommendation, as such phrases are often used to deflect criticism or excuse poor writing. Happily, with this moving and emotionally involving début, no such pre-emptive hype is necessary.

It is 1970 and 14-year-old Ellen Russell decides to move in with her older boyfriend, the druggy surfer Robbie. Her weak and unstable mother is unable to cope and the Australian state, fighting a rearguard action against hippiedom and free love, declares Ellen guilty of being ‘neglected and exposed to moral danger’. She is sentenced to nine months at the Gunyah Training School for Girls, aptly described by its inmates as hell on earth.

At Gunyah, even when it is discovered that Ellen is pregnant, there is no respite from the harsh and punitive regime administered by the sadistic nuns and warders. When her baby Alicia is born she is immediately removed and Ellen is coerced and duped into signing adoption papers.

On her release, she embarks on a personal crusade to regain her daughter and, aided by an alcoholic gynaecologist turned backstreet abortionist, she discovers the shocking truth about the secret state-sanctioned trade in babies.

This is a gritty and unflinching book with a strong narrative pull and a well-drawn and likeable central character. Ellen’s struggle to transcend her troubled upbringing and disastrous surroundings is told with honesty, integrity and the authentic tang of firsthand experience.

RATING [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      PW

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The Limits of Capitalism
An Approach to Globalization without Neoliberalism
by Wim Dierckxsens
(Zed Books ISBN 1 85649 868 9/1 85649 869 7)

[image, unknown] It’s easy to see the cracks in capitalism. They are everywhere you look and increasing at an alarming rate. Dierckxsens analyzes the internal contradictions of neoliberalism – capitalism’s dominant ideology of ‘more market, less government’. Leaving aside the WTO, IMF and World Bank, the author focuses instead on the role of speculative capital which, ultimately, these organizations serve. The exponential rise of speculative capital is a bubble waiting to burst, triggering worldwide economic collapse. When that collapse comes, faith in neoliberalism will collapse with it and provide a historic opportunity to provide radical ways forward. Dierckxsens proposes market-based solutions, but with the need to make profits subordinated to principles of vitality and a citizen-based Common Good. Speculative capital would be tackled with the Tobin Tax, the elimination of tax havens, and by replacing pension funds with other forms of retirement protection. These are not new ideas but ones which are gaining increasing currency and respectability.

Dierckxsens’ original contribution to the debate lies in his suggestion to control the rate of depreciation – both of the means of production and of end products. This, he predicts, would counter the culture of built-in obsolescence and the waste involved in selling people things they don’t really need. It would also reorientate economic priorities around use-value and providing for the real needs of those currently excluded by the market.

Timely food for thought, if not presented in the most reader-friendly way.

RATING [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]         PE

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music reviews

This Sentence is True
(The Previous Sentence is False)
by Sheila Chandra
(SHAKTI 70876-15315-2-7 CD)

[image, unknown] Envy those who only remember Sheila Chandra as the star of Monsoon, the airy Indo-pop Eighties group that had too many ideas to make it big in the commercial world. Envy them only because, in the intervening 20 years, Chandra has gone on, as a solo artist, to make some of the most beguiling albums known to humankind. This Sentence is True (The Previous Sentence is False) is the singer and composer’s tenth studio album and, despite the heft of its title, one to be returned to time and again.

So what makes this so good? A blend of economy and excitement. Its seven tracks are all lean preparations in which Chandra and the Ganges Orchestra – that is, her box of studio tricks – take the phase-shifting techniques of minimalism and blend them with the drones of sampled sitars and her singular vocalizing. There’s an undoubted shimmer-factor as gentle waves of sound are slowly built into rich tapestries of oscillating harmonics. And yet This Sentence is, as a listening experience, a far from passive activity. On pieces such as ‘Is’ – with its rapid, staccato syllables – and ‘True’, Chandra’s multi-tracking results in an oscillating mass of sound, where the intensity has a resolute focus. ‘True’, with its text of a Latin Sanctus, in particular, benefits from this approach. Chandra’s slow accretion of sonic texture in the service of a vibrating whole is no less than an epiphany.

RATING [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      LG

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A Better Destiny
by Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali
(Real World CDRW98 CD)

[image, unknown] When Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan released Sacrifice to Love, their début major label album, some two years ago, much was made of the fact that the two brothers were nephews of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Nothing much wrong with that: after all, the family were steeped in the tradition of Sufism’s qawwali, a song-based music which exists only to praise God. Yet if there were any lingering suspicion that the two brothers needed to invoke the name of Uncle Nusrat in order to gain credence, then A Better Destiny is the album that reiterates the brothers’ claim to qawwali’s crown.

Unlike much religious music, the sheer exuberance of Rizwan-Muazzam is immediately striking. It’s almost as if the singers (augmented by six others, a tabla- and a harmonium-player) have their own relationship with the infinite. The contemplative spaces that one finds in, say, Western liturgical music, exist here in the way phrases are vocalized and adorned, urged on to faster tempi in their ecstasy. Such a format is apparent from the off. ‘Ay Sarwey Naz Neney Mun’ (Holy Friend) announces itself with a frenetic flurry of tabla and a few vigorous handclaps before the brothers’ voices lead and shape the song. That the first voice begins with almost a sigh is an exquisite touch.

But it’s also possible to detect traces of a playful humour on A Better Destiny. As virtuoso musicians, the brothers have an interesting range of global experience. This year already they’ve collaborated with dance act Temple of Sound on People’s Colony No 1 (also on Real World) and jammed with David Bowie, Patti Smith and Philip Glass on stage in New York. Is that really a boogie-woogie line creeping into ‘Petey-Petey’ (While I was Drinking)? It is entirely possible.

RATING [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      LG

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[image, unknown] Dorothea Lange was a photographer of extraordinary sensitivity and empathy. Her pictures of the 1930s’ Great Depression in the US have become iconic, while retaining a heartrending intimacy. She worked with absolute respect for her subjects, seeing and immortalizing their dignity even in the depths of adversity. If you had to be photographed at the lowest point in your life, you would want Dorothea Lange to do it.

An expert at capturing the telling physical gesture, it has been suggested that Lange ‘viewed the trials of the Great Depression as something registered and grappled with first and foremost in the body’. She herself suffered from recurrent physical ill-health and disability caused by a bout of childhood polio. In the 1960s she said that this ‘formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me’. She’s wonderful – and so is this book.

Dorothea Lange is published by Phaidon in their budget-priced 55 series (ISBN 0 7148 4053 X).

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film and video reviews

The Gleaners and I
directed by Agnes Varda

[image, unknown] This invigorating new film by legendary French new wave film-maker Agnes Varda is an idiosyncratic personal essay that also provides a fresh perspective on French social history. Varda travels through the countryside with her camera exploring the current state of ‘gleaning’, a remnant of pre-capitalist economic relations still provided for in the French penal code. According to medieval common land practices, the produce left in the fields and on the vines and trees after the harvest were fair game for anyone who wanted to do the backbreaking work of collecting them.

Today, even with the ubiquitous trucks hustling produce around the country, Varda finds that practices of gleaning persist. But she doesn’t romanticize the rural gleaners, who can be seen in famous 19th-century pastoral paintings. Varda also returns to the city to observe modern-day gleaning. She finds the practice alive and well in an industrial society that wastes almost as much as it consumes. Indeed, for many of the gleaners Varda speaks with, collecting and reusing the wasted food, furniture, appliances and piles of nameless junk that stuff our landfill sites, is a question of ethics.
But Varda pushes the theme of gleaning further still, into the realm of perception. We glean information. Representational practices, like film and video-making, skim their images from the surrounding world. Indeed, Varda is enchanted by her tiny digital camera and her ruminations about the process of filming and its connections to her own creative process and fears of mortality are, by turns, delightful and harrowing. In The Gleaners and I Varda has created a unique film that courageously weaves astute social commentary together with reflections on art, history and biography. In the end, gleaning is nothing more nor less than living.

RATING [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      ZD

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Click here to visit the Spectrezine website. www.spectrezine.org/
An unfussy, intelligent, unabashedly lefty site, with a good letters page, interesting interviews and articles, weekly news and a global coverage. Activist in inclination, it’s not devoid of humour or pragmatism. Look at ‘Couch Potatoes of the World Unite’ ( ‘lazy people have rights too, you know’) for ready-made protest letters you can just add your name to – provided you agree, of course!

sharp focus on photographing ward

A US chaplain administering last rights to photographer Dickey Chappelle, captured by Henri Huet.

Alex Burmaster looks at photographers who died in action.

Vietnam provided a marker for photojournalism that will live through the ages. This photographic legacy came at a price that is brought home stunningly in the book and exhibition Requiem: By the Photo-graphers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina. Every photograph in the book was taken by a photographer who was killed, or went missing, during the Indochina and Vietnam conflicts between the 1950s and 1975.

Vietnam provided a unique set of conditions and opportunities that enabled photojournalism to explore new ground that may never be travelled again. Requiem highlights the staggering intimacy that the photographers were afforded by the brutal conflict.

Photojournalists took advantage of the confusion in the battlefields and the loose nature of the conflict. There were no rules, no pools, they were able to go wherever they wanted, do their own thing and simply join in. They got right up close. Many simply documented what was happening, regardless of which side it suited the most.

This new-found freedom of mobility in the battlefield would be short-lived. In future American conflicts such as Grenada, Panama and the Gulf, photojournalists would face many restrictions. The endless media exposure of the Gulf War provided myriad clips of the Baghdad night sky illuminated by the Patriot-Scud fireworks display but little insight as to what was actually happening on the ground.

The photojournalists of Vietnam stumbled into an extraordinary loophole. This was an accidental liberalization of the old restrictions of war reportage. Soldiers themselves facilitated this unbridled opportunity. For the South Vietnamese it showed the world cared about what was happening to them in their own country. American soldiers wanted people back home to know of the horrors they were experiencing. As soon as the military and the Government saw the consequences they resolved to close the loophole.

Before the Vietnam photographers trained their lenses, the US public back home had little idea of what was going on in Southeast Asia. As the photos of uniformed Americans in situations of violence and suffering were published, the word ‘Vietnam’ became indistinguishable from war. Photo reportages that appeared in Life, Time and Newsweek shocked the nation. Requiem includes many of these photos.

The common fate of those whose work appears in the book shows us that the role of messenger carried a huge price. Requiem’s tribute becomes all the more resonant knowing that many of the images were the last the photographers ever took. Some shots come from the roll of film still in the cameras when they died.

None highlight this poignancy more than Henri Huet’s tender photo of a US chaplain administering the last rites to photographer Dickey Chappelle. A dying female photographer in the context of Vietnam shows that the war wasn’t just a male preserve, forcing us to reappraise the Vietnams given to us by Stone, Coppola and Kubrick. Chappelle was not the only female correspondent in the conflict. Women such as Le Thi Nang and Ngoc Huong covered the war from the North Vietnamese perspective, while too many other tragic photographs remind us of the thousands of women and children caught up in the futile war.

For whatever reason, we are unlikely ever to see photos from this intimate perspective again. This is, perhaps, Requiem’s most significant legacy.

Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina by Horst Faas and Tim Page is published by Jonathan Cape (ISBN 0 224 05058 3). Requiem is on show at Proud Camden Moss, 10 Greenland St, London NW1.


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New Internationalist issue 338 magazine cover This article is from the September 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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