New Internationalist 360 September 2003
You’ve Never Seen Everything
For a songwriter as prolific as Bruce Cockburn – 27 albums over 30 years – the long gap between You’ve Never Seen Everything and 1999’s New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu has been an anxious one for his fans. Wait over. Not only is Cockburn back, but with an album that typifies the man’s scrutinizing eye on the world.
For new listeners, an album inspired by such disparate events as 11 September, Cambodian landmines and rampaging capitalism may offer a formidable introduction. But there’s nothing to fear: Cockburn’s songs – built around a solid blues foundation, augmented by subtle arrangements and featuring guest appearances from Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and Sarah Harmer – combine content with impeccable musical direction. Cockburn continues in the best tradition of political songwriter, approaching his subject matter with a real humanity. Sure, there are songs that hint at a real rage – the ‘village idiot’ of ‘All Our Dark Tomorrows’ needs no introduction to the voter who didn’t elect him – but there are many others that float a stream of images on a wave of steel guitar and flowing percussion.
No surprise then that ‘Postcards From Cambodia’ started out as a poem following Cockburn’s visit, at the invitation of Vietnam veterans, to the killing fields. ‘This is too big for anger,’ he sings, and he’s right. For an album that shines a light on the grim things of life, it’s apt and necessary that the last word of the album is ‘hope’.
Hail To the Thief
For such a shy bunch of superstars, Radiohead have been playing the promo game a lot recently with TV shows and graffiti attacks in Britain and, as a special provocation for the US, aeroplanes trailing banners with the album’s title. This is mild behaviour given rock’s enduring capacity for self-aggrandizement, but such is the critical weight now attached to the Oxford-based outfit that it was inevitable that the advent of Hail to the Thief would occupy an equivalence in hype and anticipation as, say, the latest Harry Potter.
The band’s seventh album is by no means an anticlimax. It has a great Bush-poking name, a position that’s amplified by Radiohead’s consistent alignment against war, be it in Bosnia or Baghdad. The band’s literate mournfulness is given a new unease with bursts of electric static and – to dispel any complacency from the outset – ‘2 + 2 = 5’s unheralded blasts of guitar.
Hail To the Thief has some truly great moments. The yearning encapsulated in Thom Yorke’s falsetto and the eerie undertow of ‘Where I End and You Begin’ is heart-stopping. But if you’re looking for any raging statements here, forget it. ‘I Will’ is as sharp as it gets – and even this is a message of quiet defiance to those who’d destroy the world.
Don’t get the wrong impression – a beautiful-looking film with a highly photogenic cast, set on a sun-drenched Mediterranean island with stunning cliffs overlooking crystal-clear water. Respiro does look good, but Lampedusa, off Sicily, is more than a setting and is rarely pretty. Colour is bleached away by sunlight, dust and salt. Local kids hunt birds and crabs and barbecue them in the abandoned concrete shells of buildings their gangs hang around in. The boys fight – viciously. Respiro is about life in a coastal community that still depends on fishing to survive. It’s specifically about a young family – and community expectations of how women should behave.
Grazia is the mother of three children and wife of Pietro. He’s very loving, honourable – and conventional, often bewildered by Grazia’s spontaneity and sense of fun. She works, like the other village women, in the fish-packing plant, but hasn’t settled for maternal dignity. She swims – bra-less – in the sea with her kids. She joins in kids’ games, colouring (Heaven help us!) boys’ lips with lipstick. She rides with her kids, four-up on a scooter. And so she upsets the grown-ups, particularly her mother-in-law.
Francesco Casisa, cast after he turned up to sell sandwiches at a Palermo audition, is brilliant as Grazia’s 12-year-old son, torn by his need of her love and affection but horrified by her free spirit. The story, based on a local fable, doesn’t quite come off, but the final scenes, accompanied by John Surman’s hallucinatory solo saxophone, will stay with you.
A World Out of Control
Following the success of Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine we may be getting more documentaries on the big screen. This is no bad thing if the 35 films curated by Marie Wright at the recent OXDOX - A World Out of Control festival are anything to go by. These docs tell stories packed with warmth, humanity, pain and humour.
In Dance Grozny Dance, directed by Jos de Putter, a boy dances on despite a dislocated knee and a girl collapses while performing, providing a powerful metaphor for the vulnerability and daily reality of Chechnya’s children.
Mai Masri’s Frontiers of Dreams and Fears shows teenage girls in Dheisha refugee camp exchanging adolescent notes with pen-pals from Shatila and flirting with bashful baseball-T-shirt-clad lads. The next day they bury yet another of their young friends, shot dead by Israeli occupying forces.
In Clown in Kabul, by Enzo Balestrieri and Stefano Moser, 21 clown doctors from all over the world try to bring smile therapy to traumatized children in Afghan hospitals. While Ben Hopkin’s film Footprints records the daily yet extraordinary bravery of bomb clearers in Laos and Afghanistan, true war heroes who work without funds, robot technology or Princess Di protective suits.
A number of films, including Aftermath by the Guerilla News Network and Bremner, Bird and Fortune’s Between Iraq and A Hard Place, point to the part oil plays in spiralling the world ‘out of control’. Fascinating but chilling stuff, laced with grim humour directed at the US-British agenda.
For more information: www.oxdox.com
The premise for Tony Saint’s début novel is extremely promising. Saint is a serving officer in the British Immigration Service and the book is set amid the bustle and chaos of passport control at an unnamed London airport. The central character, Henry Brinks, is a disillusioned immigration officer who desperately tries to avoid the scams and shabby deals his colleagues indulge in. Henry’s profoundest wish is to get out of what he sees as a fundamentally corrupt service. However, the suicide of a colleague, the arrival of a Chinese Triad killer and the uncovering of a people-smuggling ring mean that keeping his head down is no longer an option.
Tony Saint clearly knows this grubby world inside out. The book is crammed with telling nuggets of insider information, from the quasi-religious significance of each officer’s landing stamp to the meaning behind the title; that entry to Britain is routinely refused for such capricious reasons as wearing the ‘wrong’ sort of shoes.
Unfortunately, reading the book is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. The unrelenting squalour and nastiness of Saint’s cartoonish characters and the casual racism and sheer hatred that prevails at the arrival desks leave the reader feeling relieved to be out of this foetid world of ‘raw, almost unbearable cruelty’. The author seems unsure whether he is writing a thriller or a satire and, with his clunky prose and rudimentary plot, ends up doing neither. We could certainly do with an exposé of Britain’s iniquitous immigration system but Refusal Shoes lamentably fails to be that book.
One Man’s Justice
Originally published in Japan in 1978, One Man’s Justice is only the second of Akira Yoshimura’s many novels to be translated into English. Set in the decade following the end of World War Two, it follows the life of Takuya Kiyohara, an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. When he is demobilized, Takuya returns home to find that the occupying US authorities are pursuing and hanging suspected war criminals. Because of his part in the execution of American bomber pilots, Takuya is forced to go on the run. For two years he hides in the devastated cities of a defeated Japan. Through the eyes of this proud, unbending military man we see a demoralized, starving nation slowly, agonizingly attempting to rebuild a shattered society.
Yoshimura contrasts Takuya’s martial code of honour with the summary judgments meted out by the courts of the occupying power. In trying to come to terms with his own actions, Takuya asks by what right those who conducted a savage carpet-bombing campaign against civilian targets and dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima are entitled to dispense international law.
One Man’s Justice is a fascinating portrait of an individual and a society forced to confront their own self-images in a period of unasked-for change. In the quarter-century since its first publication, the questions it asks about the mutability of morality and the ownership of justice have arisen time after time. In Bosnia and Chechnya, in Afghanistan and Iraq, as in post-war Japan, is the justice of the conqueror any kind of justice at all?
The Age of Consent:
The emphasis of the social justice movement has increasingly moved from identifying problems to proposing solutions – particularly since the establishment of the annual World Social Forum in 2001.
In The Age of Consent Monbiot ratchets the debate up a notch by proposing that we now adopt a single programme for change which we can all get behind.
He’s kick-started the process by studying many of the proposals on offer and presenting this draft plan of action. In essence, the world’s poor would use the threat of defaulting on their combined debt in order to turn the World Trade Organization into a Fair Trade Organization, allowing them to apply protectionist measures to boost local industry while giving them access to the rich world’s markets.
Once wealth had been redistributed between countries by these means, an International Clearing Union – replacing the IMF and World Bank – would provide disincentives for the accumulation of debt and normalize the balance of trade between nations.
A self-establishing ‘world people’s assembly’ – run on the basis of representative democracy, unmediated by the nation-state and where everybody in the world had a single vote – would have the moral authority to pass judgment on the other global institutions. Different readers will be left with different questions but the scale of Monbiot’s thinking is of the order we need if we are to address the problems that now confront us. The muscles he suggests we flex could grow in equivalence to the vested interests we need to overthrow.
Let the debate begin!
Web of Deceit
‘If we were honest,’ writes Mark Curtis, ‘we would see Britain’s role in the world to a large extent as a story of crimes against humanity.’ He should know: in 1996 he broke the story of British complicity in a million Indonesian deaths at the hands of General Suharto. In his third book on British foreign policy Curtis shows how the historic pattern of securing and exploiting resources from developing countries remains unchanged whichever party is in power. Installing and maintaining brutally repressive regimes (such as the Middle- Eastern client states) and compliant ‘polyarchies’ is all part of the picture. The name of the game is maintaining and consolidating privilege and élite power.
Using declassified Foreign Office records Curtis unearths hidden aspects of British history in Iran, Kenya, Malaya and British Guiana in the 1950s but he also comes right up to date to expose the reality behind Tony Blair’s sadly laughable liberal-humanitarian rhetoric and the ‘War on Terror’.
Since World War Two Britain has fallen from ‘great power’ status to playing ‘junior partner’ to the US, acting as its leading apologist, propagandist and diplomat. But Britain still plays a leading role in arms proliferation and in spearheading trade liberalization – to the delight of big business and the detriment of the world’s poor.
This substantial (512 pages), damning indictment rescues British history from its rehabilitation by propagandists and amnesiacs. It does for Britain what William Blum’s Rogue State did for the US and demands to be read.
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