Saturday, 11 July 2015

Motherland - a novel by Jo McMillan

Motherland – a novel
By Jo McMillan
Pubs John Murray
Hdbck £16.99

Imagine growing up on the losing side of history, the blurb about the book proclaims.  This is a personal memoir thinly disguised as a novel.
Jess, the protagonist, is a teenager living with her mum in Tamworth, a small town on the outskirts of Coventry and Birmingham during the seventies. Her mother is single, a teacher and also a committed and passionate communist as well as an avid peace campaigner, insulated and isolated from the real world. Jess follows in her mother’s footsteps, selling the Morning Star at weekends in the town square, joining the Young Communists League and accompanying her mother on several trips to the German Democratic Republic, where she helps organise further education courses for GDR teachers of English.
McMillan gives us the nitty-gritty of what growing up in that environment was like, but with a large dose of retrospective and jaundiced hindsight: was the Young Communist League really still using Stalin as a model twenty years after Khrushchev’s revelations?
Her descriptions of her mother, as a rather dotty, warm-hearted but naively utopian believer in the dawning revolution, is a sad caricature. Alexei Sayle’s similar descriptions of his communist family are at least leavened with genuine humour, but this story is a tedious traipse through a very muddy field. It is as if a teenager’s diary entries have been strung together as an over-long essay.
            Of course, a positive or more sympathetic story of communists and a communist upbringing would not be touched by a mainstream publisher and McMillan here, consciously or not, feeds the seemingly insatiable desire for denigrating and belittling descriptions and a portrait of the GDR that underlines the clich├ęs of mainstream narratives. It is not that she distorts the facts so much as that what she selectively describes are the superficialities of life which, taken as a whole, convey a desolate and melancholic reality: all the East Germans are cold, inscrutable or devious. There is no character development or the profundity of perception, one would expect in a worthwhile novel, but merely casual observation and sketchy portraits. The description of her mother’s short love affair, cut short by the inhuman intervention of the GDR authorities, reveals a rare moment of novelistic imagination, but it has nothing to do with the factual reality of the rest of the book. It will, though, feed the propaganda image of a callous and inhuman system.
            The moral of this ‘novel’ is, to paraphrase Noel Coward, don’t let your daughter write your story, Mrs. Worthington!

The Bloody Trail of Imperialism

The Bloody Trail of Imperialism – the origins of the First World War
by Eddie Glackin
Pbck 8.00
Pubs. Communist Party of Ireland

This slim volume packs a big punch. Although its subtitle could lead to misconceptions that the book deals only with the immediate causes of the First World War, whereas Mr. Glackin begins his historical analysis a hundred years prior to 1914. And he is no doubt right to do so, because he takes us back to the true causes of the ‘Great War’. He demonstrates concisely how it resulted from the ongoing battle between competing imperialist nations for the spoils of Africa, Asia and Latin America which had been rumbling on since the early 1800s after the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of feudal power in Europe. This is a classic history primer for young people, but also extremely informative for an older generation that has perhaps forgotten or never knew how bloodthirsty, rapacious and vicious the competition for colonies was, as well as to what depths of human depravity, and untold greed this scramble for land and resources reached. The emerging capitalist nations were desperate for new markets and sources of raw materials – the African, Latin American and Asian continents offered easy pickings. With their superior weaponry and industrial power, the big colonialist nations of  Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and, somewhat later, the USA, pillaged and massacred their way to achieve their goals. Glacklin expertly and with utmost clarity charts this process with many examples to underline his points: the virtual genocide of the Herero people in what is today Namibia by the Germans, the first concentration camps set up by the British in South Africa, the murders and horrendous mass mutilation of the Congolese as a means of intimidation by Belgium, as well as many other examples. Of course, these rampaging colonial nations were bitterly and heroically resisted by the indigenous populations, but they didn’t stand a chance. The First World War represented the culmination of this battle for colonies and resources with one of the most senseless examples of mass murder on European soil. It left an emergent USA as the strongest global power, consolidated British dominance in India and Africa, leaving France and Spain with a few sops, and Germany routed and robbed of all its colonies.

This book is well worth the 8.00 and should be on the bookshelf of  anyone who has a keen interest in history and wishes to have it explained as a process seen from an intelligent Marxist perspective.