Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Letter in Guardian 17.02.2010
A tighter regulation of advertising as advocated by Jackie Ashley (Let’s take on the ads that fuel such waste, debt and misery, Guardian 15 February) could have a real impact on the way we live. It is ironic that she also suggests that Karl Marx, if he were alive today, would call for a ban on advertising. In the country which claimed to be his legacy it was indeed the case. I lived in East Germany during the sixties when there was virtually no advertising at all (apart from a few political slogans).

That’s why it was a shock for any visiting westerner and labelled ‘grey and boring’. Grey it may have been, but hardly boring. You soon adapted to the lack of garish colour and the dictatorship of ‘in your face’ advertising. Instead your eyes were attracted to buildings, to people and places; it also evoked an air of tranquillity and rest for the eyes, something impossible to find in our cities with their dazzling and seductive/offensive advertising culture. These tell you nothing about a product, merely stimulate your sexual/consumer urges.

The other upside of no advertising in East Germany was that products had little symbolic status value and young people didn’t compete with each other on the basis of what they could buy. A natural, relaxed and unhyped sexuality pertained, with no sexual objectification of women, no epidemics of anorexia, bulimia or concepts of corporeal inadequacy.

Monday, 15 February 2010

A tighter regulation of advertising as advocated by Jackie Ashley (Let’s take on the ads that fuel such waste, debt and misery, Guardian 15 February) could have a real impact on the way we live. It is ironic that she also suggests that Karl Marx, if he were alive today, would call for a ban on advertising. In the country which claimed to be his legacy it was indeed the case. I lived in East Germany during the sixties when there was virtually no advertising at all (apart from a few political slogans). That’s why it was a shock for any visiting westerner and labelled ‘grey and boring’. Grey it may have been, but hardly boring. You soon adapted to the lack of garish colour and the dictatorship of ‘in your face’ advertising. Instead your eyes were attracted to buildings, to people and places; it also evoked an air of tranquillity and rest for the eyes, something impossible to find in our cities with their dazzling and seductive/offensive advertising culture. These tell you nothing about a product, merely stimulate your sexual/consumer urges. The other upside of no advertising in East Germany was that products had little symbolic status value and young people didn’t compete with each other on the basis of what they could buy. A natural, relaxed and unhyped sexuality pertained, with no sexual objectification of women, no epidemics of anorexia, bulimia or concepts of corporeal inadequacy.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The onward march of religious fundamentalists in the USA
The Left is often accused of being anti-American simply because it often pillories the stupidities of right wing fanatics and the power they wield in the country, but they do hand it us on a plate sometimes.

Only last week the news broke that a science teacher, John Freshwater, in a school in Mount Vernon, Ohio was under the spotlight for telling pupils that ‘evolution follows theory and not fact’. In one of his lessons he scattered a few Lego blocks on a table and told pupils that however long you left them there they would not build themselves into anything more complex. He also apparently had posters of the Ten Commandments on the classroom walls. Following his sacking, he has been vociferously upheld, as a Christian martyr, by religious fundamentalists throughout the state.

The infamous 1926 ‘monkey trial’ formally known as State v. Scopes case in Tennessee, was an American legal case that tested the Butler Act making it unlawful "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals" in any Tennessee state-funded school and university. This trial was given a powerful evocation in the film Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy. But such battles are, amazingly, still being fought in a number of states and counties today. A whole number of states have either banned books in schools on evolution or have demanded equal prominence for those advocating wacky creationist theories.

Democracy US-style means that local legislators, who have much more power than their British equivalents, can decide on anything from rubbish collection to the books allowed in school libraries or bought by schools. Visitors to the USA are often bemused or horrified by the amount of ignorance of many ordinary North Americans about the wider world. We wonder why there are so many religious fundamentalists and right-wing pundits. But if you see what brain fodder many grow up with it is hardly surprising.

The battles are ongoing. On January 27 this year the Texas Education Board accidentally banned a popular children’s author in an amusing but sinister episode. The Board was determined to change the state’s social studies curriculum to marginalize progressive authors and ideas.

What do you imagine the authors of the children's book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and a 2008 book called Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation have in common? Both are by an author called Bill Martin and, for now, neither is being added to the Texas schoolbook list. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram revealed that the popular children’s author Bill Martin Jr is among the latest to be accidentally axed.

In its haste to sort out the state’s social studies curriculum standards, the State Board of Education rejected children’s author Martin, who died in 2004, from a proposal for the third-grade section book list. A Board member cited books Martin had written for adults that contained “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.”

Trouble is, the Bill Martin Jr. who wrote the Brown Bear series never wrote anything political, unless you count a book that taught kids how to say the Pledge of Allegiance, his friends said. The book on Marxism was written by a different Bill Martin, a philosophy professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

But wait, it gets even better. For months, the Texas State Board of Education has been hearing from “experts” about the direction of the state’s social studies curriculum and textbook standards. The advice to the 15-member board — which is composed of 10 Republicans — included a demand for more references to Christianity and fewer mentions of civil rights leaders, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Its motto seems to be: out with civil rights leaders and in with national conservative leader, Phyllis Schafly and the infamous Joe McCarthy.

The State Board of Education took up these recommendations in a lengthy and heated debate. Here below some highlights of what the Republican-leaning board ended up deciding and the debates that went on:
It decided to add ‘causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s to the curriculum’, including the right-wing Phyllis Schafly and organisations like Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association. It voted against requiring Texas textbooks and teachers to cover the Democratic late senator Edward Kennedy, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayer, and leading Hispanic civil rights groups.

An amendment was carried to include documents that supported Cold Warrior Senator Joe McCarthy and his contention that the US government was infiltrated with communists in the 1950s.

Another Republican board member, unsuccessfully this time, tried to delete the names of monkey trial attorney Clarence Darrow and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey from the standard texts. Asked by another member about her opposition to Garvey, the board member explained that her concern was that ‘he was born in Jamaica and was deported’. The board also included a requirement ‘for students in U.S. history classes to differentiate between legal and illegal immigration.’

This debate in this School Board was important not only because it dictates how the state’s 4.7 million schoolchildren will be taught social studies, but also because Texas is one of the nation’s biggest buyers of textbooks. Publishers are often reluctant to produce different versions of the same material, and therefore create books in line with Texas’ standards. Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list. This is how the right wing determines not just what is bought and read in their state, but what publishers actually publish. No publisher is interested in producing books that will be banned, so they play safe and avoid anything that could be considered controversial.

These attempts at blatant censorship and brain-washing are not, unfortunately, confined to Texas. Similar battles are taking place in most states. Only recently Californian Schools were banned from stocking the Merriam Webster dictionary, which had been used for a number of years in fourth and fifth grade classrooms (for children aged nine to ten). A parent's complaint over a 'sexually graphic' definition has seen dictionaries removed from southern Californian schools because a pupil had apparently looked up the definition of oral sex. In Menifee Union school district, it has been pulled from shelves over fears that the ‘sexually graphic’ entry is ‘just not age appropriate’, according to the area’s local paper.
While some parents have praised the move – ‘it's a prestigious dictionary that's used in the Riverside County spelling bee, but I also imagine there are words in there of concern,’ said one. Others have raised concerns: ‘It is not such a bad thing for a kid to have the wherewithal to go and look up a word he may have even heard on the playground,’ ‘You have to draw the line somewhere. What are they going to do next, pull encyclopaedias because they list parts of the human anatomy like the penis and vagina?’ others said.

A panel is now reviewing whether the ban will be made permanent. The Merriam Webster dictionary joins an illustrious set of books that have been banned or challenged in the US, including Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, which last year was suspended from and then reinstated to the curriculum at a Michigan school after complaints from parents about its coverage of graphic sex and violence, and titles by Khaled Hosseini and Philip Pullman, were included in the American Library Association's list of books that inspired most complaints last year.

I am reminded of Mark Twain’s wise words: ‘I never let my schooling interfere with my education’. If only more US students took that to heart.
END
What do you expect a best-selling novelist to be like? Perhaps with an inflated ego and over-conscious of their new celebrity status, somewhat condescending. Marina Lewycka certainly defies any such expectations; she is disarmingly modest and cordial with a Northerner’s down-to-earthness. On the other hand, it is perhaps not so surprising, as she found success as a novelist only in her late fifties, after years of hard work as teacher and lecturer. She’s clearly not letting things change who she is. She has kindly agreed to give the Morning Star an hour of her time to talk about her writing before taking her train back home in Sheffield.

After dozens of rejections from publishers for her previous attempts at novel writing, she decided to stop trying to write for a publisher and just do it for fun. The result was A Story History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It was not only published, but became an overnight best-seller and has been translated into 32 languages. She went on to write a second successful novel, Two Caravans. Both deal with the experience of immigrants to Britain. But they are not heavy political or social tracts; she prefers to let ideas trickle down through the lives and adventures of her colourful characters. Her novels maintain a fine balancing act between subtle irony and gentle humour allied with a keen sympathy for the underdog, and a sensitivity to human foibles and weaknesses, and she gives expression to people’s hopes and dreams.

How did she start writing? Even as a child she enjoyed making up stories with her dolls, she tells us, then later, as a mother, she would fabulate bedtime stories for her daughter and now wishes she’d written them down.

Marina came to Britain as a small child. Her Ukrainian parents had been deported by the nazis from the Ukraine to work as forced labourers in Germany, where Marina was born in a British refugee camp in 1946. Soon after, the family moved to Britain. So, as immigrants, how did her family experience Britain? ‘We were given a very warm welcome by most people’, she says, ‘but I did suffer some taunting at school. It was the early fifties and memories of the war were still very much alive and the Soviet Union having been our ally, meant that we were associated positively with them. The Cold War had not yet taken a deep psychological hold; people were curious rather than oppositional.’ Today’s immigrants undoubtedly encounter a more hostile and challenging environment, vividly reflected in her novels.

Many Ukrainian √©migr√©s to Britain after the war were anti-Communist and staunchly conservative, so how comes that she has a very different outlook? She explains that her family come from the Eastern Ukraine, where there is an Orthodox, rather than a Catholic religious tradition and where the population has felt closer historically to Russia than western Europe. And, after all, her family had been victims of nazi persecution themselves. But her progressive ideas were also forged in the turbulent sixties, when as a student at Keele University she became radicalised by the feminist movement and student politics. ‘It was a wonderful time to be alive,’ she says, ‘we had a real sense of empowerment and felt we could change the world’. At the time, she even began a PhD on the Diggers and Levellers and the English Revolution because, as she puts it, ‘that was also a time when ordinary people felt a new sense of their own power’.

Is she still a radical? ‘Well, my ideas have changed over the years. I’m a member of the Labour Party but severely disillusioned with New Labour and the ballot box political system. It has disempowered people. I now feel a better way forward is perhaps through single issue campaigns rather than through formal political party structures. The great Stop the War march, before the outbreak of the war on Iraq was a tremendous coming together of people with so many shades of opinion and from diverse cultural backgrounds; it was an expression of widespread public anger, but it didn’t stop the war and that was a big disappointment.’ Despite it all, she still, remains an optimist and retains a basic faith in people which shines through the pages of her books.

In the blurbs, her novels are described as ‘hilarious’ and ‘uproariously funny’ and there is no doubt they do make you laugh, but wouldn’t a better description be ‘tragi-comic’ we ask? She agrees: ‘We all have our tragic and comic sides and I try to capture those in my characters. No one wants to be depressed by a novel, they want to be cheered’. And her novels certainly do that without descending to the banality of a TV game show ‘life is just one big laugh’ mentality.

Are her novels primarily for entertainment or is there a more serious purpose? ‘Novelists can’t solve political problems, nor make policy, but they can bring about a change in the human heart and where better to start doing that than with fiction? Converting experience into narrative is a human instinct,’ she feels. What she tries to do is to show a side of reality through her own experience or knowledge that many of her readers will not know about and in this way allow them to see through the eyes of others or even, as she does in Two Caravans, through the eyes of a dog.

A supreme example of this different vision is her description of a battery chicken farm in Two Caravans. It is a graphically horrendous picture. Immigrants form the core of the workforce and the way they are treated is, in a way, mirrored by the treatment doled out to the chickens. It forces us to draw uncomfortable comparisons. One or two readers have been so horrified by this description, she says, that they have refused to continue reading after this scene. But even here she is able to alleviate the horror by picking out comic moments in what is, essentially, a barbaric situation.

In the book’s acknowledgments she pays tribute to the work of the TUC on immigrant workers and even has a small but significant character part for a trade unionist in the novel. That is certainly unusual if not unique for modern British novels, which invariably ignore the trade union movement. Perhaps the fact that she married a trade union official played its part, but she fully realises, she says, that trade unions play a life-saving role and are certainly vital in defending the rights of immigrant workers.

While doing research on the internet for her first novel, which is a portrait of a Ukrainian family living in post-war Britain - and clearly has strong autobiographical elements - she discovered other family members in the Ukraine. She visited them and found great pleasure in hearing Ukrainian being spoken on a daily basis. She also discovered the realities of life in the post-Soviet era. ‘People in the former Eastern Block realise that while they have gained new freedoms, they have also lost some positive aspects that a socialist society offered, things they would like to regain but don’t know how’, she says.

She is also perturbed by the rightward trend being taken by the new governments in Eastern Europe and sees the siting of US military installations there and the drive to incorporate former Soviet states into NATO as a dangerous and unnecessary revival of the Cold War. She hopes that a fuller integration into the EU – one in which Russia should also be a part – can provide an antidote to this trend.

So, is there a new novel in the pipeline? Yes, a big departure from her previous two in the sense that it will not be about Eastern European immigrants this time. It is a novel that deals with the intractable problems of the Middle East, but centres on an old woman with a dark secret, living alone with seven smelly cats in a crumbling old house in North London…but we’ll have to await publication to know more.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

US novelist Barbara Kingsolver doesn’t receive an awful amount of publicity despite being an international best-seller. This is perhaps not altogether surprising as she doesn’t fit comfortably in any mould but is very much a mould-breaker, particularly those so beloved of the mainstream media. She is a somewhat anachronistic writer in a positive sense. She writes tightly structured, allegorical novels with a strong social and political commitment, but without the reader feeling that they are being lectured at. Her characters are believable and well-rounded; her stories grip the reader. She has an eloquence of language, a wonderfully ironic sense of humour, a powerful and vividly descriptive style combined with an unfettered imagination, rooted in solid soil. She questions accepted US shibboleths and interrogates lazy thinking and simplistic philosophies. Her essays are particularly illuminating and outspoken, often laced with a winning self-deprecatory humour. She has said, ‘If we can't, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread.’ And you feel she would be happy to go down this road if she felt her books really made no difference.

She is very much a writer of the left but has largely been able to elude simplistic labelling or categorising. She has written, or collaborated on, 13 books, most of which are novels, but she has also written poetry, short stories and essays. Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for ‘literature of social change’.

At the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1990, she was so horrified by the gung-ho militarism gripping the nation that she emigrated temporarily to retain her sanity.

Her books have been widely praised both for their passionate moral commitment and for their evocative writing style. Every one, since Pigs in Heaven, has been on The New York Times bestseller list. Community, economic injustice and cultural difference inform the themes of her work.

Kingsolver was born in Maryland and grew up in Kentucky but spent some of her childhood in Africa where her father was a medical doctor, and it was there that her best-known book, The Poisonwood Bible was set.

Her first novel, The Bean Trees, was published in 1988. Her subsequent books were Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (non-fiction); a short story collection, Homeland and Other Stories (1989); the novels Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and Prodigal Summer (2000); a poetry collection, Another America (1992); the essay collections High Tide in Tucson (1995) and Small Wonder: Essays (2002) Last Stand: America's Virgin Lands, prose poetry with the photographs of Annie Griffiths Belt; and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007), a description of eating locally. The Poisonwood Bible (1998) was a bestseller that won the National Book Prize of South Africa, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2000, Kingsolver was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton.

In The Bean Trees, the main character acquires a child named Turtle and meets a family of Guatemalan immigrants whose daughter was taken by the government in an effort to force them to speak out about their underground teaching circle. They were forced to escape torture and death in their home country, but are also forced to evade the authorities in the United States. The sequel to The Bean Trees, her 1993 novel Pigs in Heaven, examines the conflicts between individual and community rights, through a story about a Cherokee child adopted out of her tribe. In Animal Dreams, the American sister of the main protagonist is kidnapped by US-back Contras while working to promote sustainable farming in Nicaragua In The Poisonwood Bible Kingsolver looks at early post-colonial Africa (The Congo) at the time of Lumumba’s murder and the suppression of a genuine anti-colonial movement. She does this through the eyes of the wife and daughters of a fundamentalist US preacher, charting the way their strongly held beliefs are challenged by the realities of Africa and colonial oppression.

Barbara Kingsolver now lives on a farm in Emory, Virginia with her husband Steven Hopp, their daughter Lily, and her daughter Camille from a previous marriage.
Her latest novel, The Lacuna – her first in nine years, came out this year. See review below.

The Lacuna
By Barbara Kingsolver
Pubs. Faber & Faber
Hdbck. £18.99
507 pp.

Anyone who has read any of Barbara Kingsolver’s previous novels, but particularly her classic The Poisonwood Bible about a US missionary family’s confrontation with the brutality of neo-colonial politics in the Congo, will value her work. She is one of North America’s leading social realist novelists. Her most recent work takes the form of a fictional diary written by a young man who worked for Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Trotsky during the latter’s exile in Mexico. It provides us with an imagined account of the tempestuous relationship between the trio, against the background of pre-war world politics. All Trotsky’s children and most of his former comrades were bumped off by Stalin and he himself is in constant danger.
Although I find the diary form unnecessary and at times irritating, Kingsolver’s spare but concise prose, laden with evocative imagery always keeps the reader involved. Her witty descriptions of the main protagonists, their daily spats, their passions and tragedies are riveting. Only at the end does she reveal the reason she chose the diary form in a clever twist to the story.
The first half of the book is set entirely in Mexico, up until Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, after which our diary writer and protagonist, Harrison Shepherd returns to the United States, the home of his estranged father, and becomes a successful novelist.
He unwittingly finds himself entangled in the nascent anti-Communist witch-hunt and becomes a victim of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Kingsolver chillingly describes how the post-war US state played on people’s fears to gain tighter control; anti-Communist hysteria swept the country, and the lives of many, including our protagonist’s, are destroyed by the witch-hunt. It becomes a cancer infecting the whole of society. It made the US an even more insular society, with a fear of outsiders and with a fixed idea of what the USA is. The present demonisation of Muslims and the way the events of 11 September have been used to whip up a terrorist hysteria are uncomfortably reminiscent of that era.
The title of her book,’ The Lacuna’, refers to many things, but primarily to the holes and gaps that are left out of our historical narratives: for the post-war West Germans the nazi period became a blank and for the USA the genocide against the Indians, the period of slavery and the hysteria of post-war anti-communism all became historical black holes. ‘The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know’, she writes in the novel.
The McCarthy witch hunt is portrayed in all its petty-minded viciousness and the way it penetrated the interstices of a whole of society – it was a ‘Stasi state’ with neighbours spying on neighbours, friends shopping friends and lives destroyed. It is a powerful reminder of that dark period in US history – a period many wish to forget – but also, by implication, a warning, by demonstrating how easily it could happen again with centralised control of the media, advertising agencies running election campaigns and intimate linkage between government and big business.
END
1230 words
John Green

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Listening to Grasshoppers – field notes on democracy
By Arundhati Roy
Hdbck. £14.99
Pubs Hamish Hamilton

If anyone truly deserves both Nobel Prizes - for Peace and Literature - it is Arundhati Roy. She is one of those very few people who campaign fearlessly and eloquently for human rights and at the same time possess a sharp and insightful understanding of Real-Politik, class forces and economic pressures. She also commands respect and admiration because she does not allow herself to become captive of any single political movement, pressure group or lobby; she is who she is.

Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for ‘God of Small Things’, which established her as a writer of consummate skill. In her non-fiction writing too, she manages to forge her language as a campaigning tool while at the same time maintaining its poetic magnitude. Her prose is a sobering antidote to the poisonous Orwellian newspeak that dominates elsewhere.

This collection of essays deals centrally with the catastrophe that is overwhelming India after its departure from the non-aligned movement, throwing itself into the arms of the US and neo-liberal economists. However, Roy shows how India’s problems are also the mirror image of our own decrepit system and how the issues facing the world today are indeed global and only to be solved globally, even if we can only act locally.

She highlights the dark side of Indian ‘democracy’ which the mainstream press ignores, whether the genocidal military campaign in Kashmir, the rabid anti-Islamic policies of the BJP or the persecution of the Maoist Naxalites. She shows how all the mainstream parties demonstrate cowardice when confronted with race, religious or caste discrimination, either by ducking the issues or joining the perpetrators.
While China is vilified as a totalitarian state, responsible for the Tiananmen Square killings, the ‘the world’s largest democracy’ is condoning the torture and murder of thousands each year. She reveals the hollowness of its claims of being a truly democratic state.
My only quibble is that as the essays in this collection have appeared elsewhere, there is a certain amount of repetition which takes the gloss of what are seminal and illuminating analyses.
END
Michael Mansfield – Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer
Pubs. Bloomsbury
Hdbck £20

Michael Mansfield, the larger than life barrister, renowned for his defence of the victimised, despised and marginalised, here provides his own account of events. As an outsider, even though from a Conservative, lower middle class family, gaining entrance to the hallowed cloisters of the legal profession was an almost insurmountable task. A broad and liberal education at the then (in the sixties) innovative new university of Keele certainly broadened his horizons but didn’t make him a left-wing firebrand. He did though emerge with a healthy distrust of authority and the police as well as a disdain for an arcane and class-dominated judicial system. To challenge all this was, in his early years as a legal practitioner, was more mischievous fun than ideological conviction.

He did join the cloisters of the renowned left-wing barrister, John Platts Mills, for a short time and I’m sure the latter must have made a deep impression on Mansfield the young lawyer, but he says little about this and doesn’t even mention Platts Mills’ own fascinating memoirs in his bibliography which is inexplicable.

By challenging some of the sacred shibboleths of the legal profession and taking up unpopular cases like that of the Angry Brigade in the sixties, he soon found himself cast as the ‘subversive red under every legal bed’. He says, ‘My first brush with radicalism had aroused only a spirit of enquiry rather than conversion,’ but even this was sufficient to alarm the establishment. Since then, of course, and particularly through his work defending miners’ pickets during the ’84 strike, he became politically evermore radicalised.

He gives fascinating accounts of a number of his more famous cases and illustrates how justice can go awry and ‘scientific evidence’ can be far from scientific. He demonstrates how easy it is to arrive at lazy conclusions which are often erroneous, and how easily we unquestioningly take on prejudices. Perhaps even more importantly, he reveals how social causes are very often at the root of so much crime, but are invariably ignored. He also demonstrates the social and economic context of most trials. He reconfirms that the law should not be left to lawyers alone – it is not above society but part of the whole and should not be divorced from social care and social understanding. He tears away the veil of secrecy over state collusion in the capitalist system and reveals the hollowness of police impartiality. No wonder the establishment hates him.

Talking of the present crisis, he says: ‘None of this is the result of unpredictable international forces, but rather a consequence of deliberate policies aimed at bolstering the institutions of capital, and readily explains why striking mines were demonised as the “enemy within”.’

His final chapter, ‘Yes, we can!’ is fired with inspiration, hope and a deeply-felt humanity rarely found, particularly perhaps among lawyers. We have to be extremely thankful and proud that we have lawyers like Michael Mansfield willing to stand up to the forces of authority in the name of the people and, like his hero Tom Paine, challenge ingrained class hegemony and injustice.
END
Thinking Hands – the power of labour in William Morris
By Phil Katz
Pubs. Hetherington Press
Pbck £10

Do we need another book on William Morris? So many - good and bad - have been written about this giant of a man. Among them, the much lamented Ray Watkinson, a stalwart of the William Morris Society, left us many excellent essays and a book on William Morris, which are still obligatory reading for any serious Morris student today.

However, the simple answer has to be, yes, we can always do with another book if it adds something new to the already copious Morris literature. Phil Katz’s book certainly does that in a number of ways. The present era is characterised by the hegemonic domination of globalised capitalism. With the demise of the former socialist countries, we have, according to some pedants, reached ‘the end of history’. There is no alternative, we are told incessantly; we must learn to live with capitalism. By reminding us of the rich legacy of William Morris, of his idealism, his vision of a socialist future, Phil Katz gives a resounding riposte to such Jeremiahs. Never has the need for an alternative social model been more pressing than today if we are to regain our humanity and save our world for future generations. And on these issues, Morris still has valuable ideas to contribute, as this book reveals.

Katz explores much ground covered by other Morris scholars, but he does so with a freshness, a very readable style in a superbly designed volume. He establishes the clear connection between the Victorian industrialisation and mechanisation of life and the concomitant devaluation of human labour. Morris was angered by what he saw as the deskilling of craftsmen by industrialised production. Work and labour largely defines who and what we are, he emphasises; it gives us a sense of social purpose, dignity and satisfaction. But if we become mere cogs in the wheels of production, our labour only valued in terms of quantitative accumulation, then we become alienated and dehumanised. With today’s call centres, computerised offices and factory assembly lines, this principle has hardly changed.

Morris had an abundance of ideas about work and society which are as challenging today as they were in the 19th century. ‘To him, work was central to life. It determined both its character and quality. It was the prism through which people came to discover social relations and develop an understanding of nature and the place of people in it.’ Katz writes. He deals also with Morris’s relationship to the social movements of his era, with the general impact of machinery and monopoly, as well as the fraught subject of nation building. Morris also had considerable impact on our whole aesthetic and on post-Victorian architecture. This was admirably demonstrated in the classic tome: William Morris und die Sozialen Ursprunge der Modern Architektur (William Morris and the social roots of modern architecture) by Edmund Goldzamt, published in the sixties. I mention such sources because an unfortunate ommission in this otherwise excellent book is an index and, more importantly, a bibliography.

Morris saw clearly the duality of technological innovation as, on the one hand, a potential release from the drudgery of labour but, on the other, that under capitalism it can only mean deskilling and increased exploitation. Readers may remember how, at the height of the Wilson era, with its emphasis on ‘white-hot technology’, we were encouraged to learn how to utilise our soon-to-be increased leisure time. We would be released from drudgery and long working hours by technological advance. Today those exhortations sound like a very sick joke.

Katz’s chapter on Morris and nationalism is also of particular interest for us in view of the present passionate debate around national identity. ‘Morris loved his England’ but abhorred imperialism’, Katz says. Morris’s fidelity, however, was not to the state but to its working people and landscapes.

Morris was a leading light in the main socialist organisation of the time: the Social Democratic Federation. However, he very soon had an acrimonious disagreement with Hyndman, its chief ideologue and, shortly afterwards, left to form his own Socialist League. Hyndman, he felt, wanted to turn Marxism into a schema, a credo. Morris saw it rather as a historical method and viewed education of working people as central to building socialism. In his copious writings for the magazine Justice, his books, essays and lecturing tours, Morris made a considerable contribution to that end.

How was it, many of Morris’s contemporaries wondered, that one of Britain’s greatest craftsmen and cultural icons could jump the capitalist ship?’ At the time, he was viciously attacked as a class traitor. For us, he remains a giant alongside the other pioneers of justice and socialism: Thomas Paine, Robert Blatchford, Engels and Marx. He is much more than the quaint designer, craftsman and cohort of the Pre-Raphaelites, as so often depicted.
This book by Phil Katz is an excellent introduction to the ideas and thoughts of William Morris, set in the context of his times, but revealing his continued relevance for our world now.
END
The Lacuna
By Barbara Kingsolver
Pubs. Faber & Faber
Hdbck. £18.99
507 pp.

Anyone who has read any of Barbara Kingsolver’s previous novels, but particularly her classic The Poisonwood Bible about a US missionary family’s confrontation with the brutality of neo-colonial politics in the Congo, will value her work. She is one of North America’s leading social realist novelists. Her most recent work takes the form of a fictional diary written by a young man who worked for Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Trotsky during the latter’s exile in Mexico. It provides us with an imagined account of the tempestuous relationship between the trio, against the background of pre-war world politics. All Trotsky’s children and most of his former comrades were bumped off by Stalin and he himself is in constant danger.

Although I find the diary form unnecessary and at times irritating, Kingsolver’s spare but concise prose, laden with evocative imagery always keeps the reader involved. Her witty descriptions of the main protagonists, their daily spats, their passions and tragedies are riveting. Only at the end does she reveal the reason she chose the diary form in a clever twist to the story.

The first half of the book is set entirely in Mexico, up until Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, after which our diary writer and protagonist, Harrison Shepherd returns to the United States, the home of his estranged father, and becomes a successful novelist.

He unwittingly finds himself entangled in the nascent anti-Communist witch-hunt and becomes a victim of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Kingsolver chillingly describes how the post-war US state played on people’s fears to gain tighter control; anti-Communist hysteria swept the country, and the lives of many, including our protagonist’s, are destroyed by the witch-hunt. It becomes a cancer infecting the whole of society. It made the US an even more insular society, with a fear of outsiders and with a fixed idea of what the USA is. The present demonisation of Muslims and the way the events of 11 September have been used to whip up a terrorist hysteria are uncomfortably reminiscent of that era.

The title of her book,’ The Lacuna’, refers to many things, but primarily to the holes and gaps that are left out of our historical narratives: for the post-war West Germans the nazi period became a blank and for the USA the genocide against the Indians, the period of slavery and the hysteria of post-war anti-communism all became historical black holes. ‘The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know’, she writes in the novel.

The McCarthy witch hunt is portrayed in all its petty-minded viciousness and the way it penetrated the interstices of a whole of society – it was a ‘Stasi state’ with neighbours spying on neighbours, friends shopping friends and lives destroyed. It is a powerful reminder of that dark period in US history – a period many wish to forget – but also, by implication, a warning, by demonstrating how easily it could happen again with centralised control of the media, advertising agencies running election campaigns and intimate linkage between government and big business.
END

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Advertising is not bad for your health according to new Labour

Few will be aware that the Department of Culture and Sport has recently undertaken a consultation on product placement advertising in television which closed last month. How such so-called consultations are used as a fig leaf is demonstrated by the statement in the consultation document that: ‘The government is currently minded to permit product placement on UK television.’ In other words it has already made up its mind.

With the recession and the diminishing returns from presently permitted advertising on commercial television, the multi-nationals have been lobbying harder than ever for governments to permit ‘product placement’ as is already the norm in the USA and several other countries. If the government allows this here it will hand television programming over to big business. They will then largely determine programme-making and this will badly compromise artistic and journalistic integrity. Such advertising is insidious because with advertising breaks at least you know when you are being ‘got at’, but by surreptitiously placing products within programmes we are taken unawares and can never be sure what is simply a director’s decision or what the result of the backing company’s marketing strategy.

You can imagine updated television versions of Shakespeare: Lady Macbeth crying, ‘Out damned spot’, as she tries to wipe Duncan’s blood off her hands, is then undercut by a close-up of a strategically-placed ‘Instant Stain Remover Cream’ on her dressing table, or when Juliette asks, ‘Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ we see him hurriedly taking a packet of Durex from his codpiece. These are frivolous examples but this sort of thing, on a different level, will be happening in every programme you watch.
We only need to look at the USA to see how product placement has warped programme-making and unduly influenced film-makers. There, big commercial advertisers are often involved from the early stages of programme development, scripting and editing to ensure the best and most effective placement of their products. To argue that such placement would not affect artistic creativity and freedom is ingenuous. Any creative artist or broadcaster who wishes to challenge their proposals should beware. Product placement only helps the big global players, as they are the only ones who can afford the high advertising fees. So we would have product placement for the likes of MacDonald, Coca Cola and other junk food producers as well as the big drinks and drug manufacturers.
The arguments about the need to protect children, and excluding children’s programmes, as the consultation documents suggests, is spurious, as most children also watch adult programmes. The repercussions on health – obesity, alcoholism particularly – would be enormous. Sleight-of-hand product placement is, in reality, blatant propaganda and to pretend, as the apologists do, that it would have no affect on artistic creativity or influence programme content, is cynical obfuscation. It would also mean that even fewer minority interest programmes are made, nor those on controversial subjects, as big advertisers would not want to have their products associated with such programmes. Television programming is already based on the ‘lowest common denominator’ policy and audience ratings are central to any discussion; these factors would be even more paramount once advertisers call the shots. We would very soon end up with the sort of trash programming that they have in the USA of unwatchable soaps and sitcoms and populist, right-wing chat shows.
For what it’s worth, I did express my opposition to the government’s proposals as part of its consultation exercise. Below is an abridged version of the Department’s reply.

‘Thank you for your recent letter to the Secretary of State, Ben Bradshaw, about product placement on television. He announced in September 2009 that he wanted to change the approach to product placement on television since most of the rest of the world, including the United States, other English speaking countries and many European countries either already allow product placement or intend relaxing their rules in the light of the recent EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive.

Were the UK to retain the status quo of prohibiting product placement on television, our programme and film makers would be at a serious competitive disadvantage with their foreign competitors. Our film, television and other creative industries are a major part of Britain’s economy and we lead the world in many of these sectors.
In considering changing the approach to television product placement, we recognise the need to weigh the potential economic benefits, for broadcasters and advertisers, against potential health and viewer concerns in respect of, for example, the placement of alcohol and fatty foods and the possible loss of editorial integrity for programme makers. Ministers plan to make an announcement shortly on how we intend to proceed.’

I find this reply preposterous. It emphasises how our creative industries are a major part of the British economy, but fails to appreciate how such interference by the marketing industry will undermine that creative edge.

The proposed safeguard of not allowing placement on children's programmes is inadequate. According to Ofcom, 71% of the television watched by children is outside dedicated children's programming, so would not be covered by the proposed "safeguard". It is particularly hard to protect children when product placement is integrated into programmes and will not be recognised as such. Health experts have also warned that allowing TV product placement can only fuel childhood obesity and worsen other health problems.
The British Medical Association (BMA) warned that allowing alcohol, gambling and unhealthy foods to be advertised through product placement will fuel obesity and alcohol abuse: 'The BMA is deeply concerned about the decision to allow any form of product placement in relation to alcohol, gambling and foods high in fat, sugar or salt as this will reduce the protection of young people from harmful marketing influences and adversely impact on public health,' the BMA said in a submission to the Department. Opposition is also coming from public health experts, scientists, broadcasters and the general public, but this government isn’t listening. I am also appalled that the question of ethics or morality appears not to be part of the Department’s deliberation.
That the USA already has such a system is certainly no argument in its favour, as it is perfectly clear that television programming and quality in the USA is, with few exceptions, very poor and centred around selling products rather than having, as a priority, educational and/or entertainment goals.

As far as competitiveness is concerned, Britain has always been competitive on the basis of the high quality of its programmes and why should this not continue; to compete on the basis of who can best advertise products is to let the commercial market dictate. Surely we have learned through the recent banking scandal that to let everything be determined by markets is the road off the cliff. I believe strongly that television programming should be based on clear ethical, educational and artistic criteria and not be subject to the undue influence of powerful corporations and lobby groups.
END