I Am Not Your Negro, Film Review, Raoul Peck, 2017

Based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, this is an important piece in the jigsaw of America’s Civil Rights Movement. But it is so much more. Baldwin was attempting, in his final work, to link together the lives, criminally cut short, of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the lesser known civil rights activist, Medgar Evers into a coherent whole. And Raoul Peck does full justice to that unfinished work. He does so by allowing plenty of space for Baldwin to speak his own wonderfully eloquent words rather than allowing others to speak for him. And the key message that this fine intellectual has for his white neighbours; America does not have a ‘Negro problem’ but instead, he makes abundantly clear, America has an unresolved problem with race. Peck, in this fine documentary, gives plenty of room for Baldwin’s thesis to be aired and, by interspersing the narrative with some contemporary footage, brings the message bang on up to the present day. Full marks.

 

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Brick Lane, Monica Ali, Transworld Publishers, London, 2003

This one is important, and perhaps more important than its author might have originally imagined. In an age where religion and other assorted superstitions are making something of a comeback, here is a novel that tenaciously works, on every front, to deconstruct all the nonsense about gods, fate and the god-given, subordinate role of women. That the novelist achieves this with much humour and empathy for her characters, whilst maintaining throughout a growing level of tension, is an achievement in itself. That the novel stands out, fifteen years on, as a searing indictment of all things patriarchal and metaphysical, is its real achievement.

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The War on Women, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, Simon & Schuster, London, 2016

For a harrowing journalistic account of how a violent, misogynistic patriarchy still rules our planet, you could do no better than to read Sue Lloyd Robert’s ‘The War on Women’. It’s not a theoretical exposition but the theoretical questions behind the viscous misogyny that continues to plague our species emerges clear enough. The book feels a little unfinished and that is probably because its author sadly died before she could tidy things up. And one cannot help but feel there is a vital missing chapter. Robert’s does a heroic job of presenting the global picture, but where are the all damning chapters recounting Britain’s shameful record of domestic abuse? The statistics emerging from the so-called western developed countries are truly shocking. By the time you have read this short blog, half a dozen women would have been battered nearly to death in their own homes by men they thought they could trust. Every week two will die of their injuries. This is truly a war on women and it’s happening right in front of our noses.

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Another Country, James Baldwin

The title of this powerful novel is somewhat ambiguous and probably deliberately so. It might refer to the very different experiences that Black and White people experience in the USA. It might equally refer to the different worlds and experiences of gay and straight people, not to mention the many shifting shades in between. It might actually refer to the dreams and aspirations that we all have, contrasted with the hum-drum reality that most of us inevitably lead. ‘Another Country’ could even refer to that geographical place that we all dream about; some place that we imagine is so much better than where we actually are. I suspect ‘Another Country’ for Mr Baldwin, is all of these things; metaphysical, socio-political and geographical. Either way, Baldwin produced something of a classic, quietly simmering away until it explodes into anger, recriminations and personal revelations. But what I found both intriguing and shocking about this novel was that some fifty years on, the sickening reality of racial discrimination is as alive today in America as it was in the 1960’s. Just why is it, I kept asking myself, is this supposedly most modern of nations stuck in a social dead-end when it comes to the question of race?

 

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Shooting in the US of A

I’m shooting from the hip

I’m shooting with red hot lead

I’m shooting at the passers-by

I’m shooting till they’re dead.

 

I’m shooting from the rooftop

I’m shooting ‘em in their beds

I’m shooting up my local school

I’m aiming for their heads.

 

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Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, No Brexit: It’s all quite irrelevant really.

Under the forty-year golden era of British EU membership, we had the introduction of zero-hour contracts, the rise of food banks along with poverty wages, chronic levels of personal debt, a chronically underfunded welfare system, a crumbling transport infrastructure and a completely dysfunctional housing system. The reason was simple. The EU was, despite some useful social and environmental legislation, firmly in the hands of the transnational corporates and the big banks. Neo-liberal globalism was the order of the day and to hell with the indigenous working class. In the southern nations of Europe, some 50% of the youth population were and still are unemployed. The vicious and self-defeating policy of austerity was imposed on all the nations of Europe while a tiny elite of corporate bosses and money speculators became obscenely rich.  Greece was reduced to pauperism and politically, the widely discredited neo-liberal economic model has ushered in the rise of the far-right parties. So, regards to the benefits of the EU for Europe’s working classes, not that much to cheer about. And after Brexit, it will be more of the same.

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Prison Ping: Coaching to a Captive Audience

Got an invitation recently to help out with a table tennis coaching session at one of Her Majesty’s maximum-security prisons. I duly accepted the invitation, grabbed my bat and ball and set off down the road. This was to be part of an ongoing project to get the best ping players in the prison up to scratch and ready to take their official Level 1 coaching badge. From there, they would fan out across the prison wings, passing on their newly acquired skills to anyone and everyone that cared to learn. And, as an added bonus, when they had done their time, they would leave prison with a marketable skill which just may help with their reintegration into the outside asylum.  I was arriving about mid-way through the project so I would get a fairly good idea of how it was all going.

 

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The State, Channel 4, 2017, Review

Someone should be congratulated for having the presence of mind to put this four-part drama onto our screens. Islamic State is not, I imagine, the easiest political beast to get one’s head around, and this drama, while far from exhaustive, was a genuine if tentative attempt. The Daily Mail hated it with a passion, so by that measure it must have had something going for it. The drama focused on a handful of British recruits to the IS battle fields somewhere in Syria. The acting from these British Jihadists was woefully wooden - central protagonists that looked and sounded as if they had just stepped off a Holby City set. But the acting was not the key thing here. What the script writers had set out to do was to present something of a human dimension to the Islamic State Jihadists. Not an easy task I admit, given that Islamic State has morphed into something quite barbaric; a cross between an extreme religious death cult with fantasies of establishing a world-wide medieval Islamic caliphate, and a good old modern fascist police state.

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Terrorist, John Updike, Penguin, London 2006

I need to be careful I don’t do a spoiler in this review. There must be still millions of people out there who have not read this magnificent novel and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for them should they find the time and mindfulness to get a hold of a copy. Such efforts would not be wasted. John Updike needs no promotion to those that follow US 20th

century literature. But after the glory days of the Rabbit novels, Mr Updike somewhat faded from view. This post 9/11 offering merely reaffirms Updike as the master novelist the world knew him to be, both in terms of language, plot and theme. It is a sheer joy to read his prose; sparse, taut and invariably authentic. But this is not a literary blog. No, it is the central theme of the novel that interests me most; the social psychology of the would-be terrorist and the environment that nurtured that mindset.

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White Teeth, Zadie Smith, Penguin, London, 2000

I first read this seventeen years ago – back in the day, as they say, when everybody was going crazy over White Teeth and a shining new novelist called Zadie Smith. It was the ultimate millennium novel.  And I, like everybody I knew,  just loved every page of it. It brought us bang up to date on the theme of the day – the search for identity and meaning. It was philosophy and politics and sociology and any other ‘ology’ you might care to name but above all it was damn funny. Blisteringly funny but not of a slap-stick verity. No sir. This was political humour that was both subversive and personal.

After the excitement had died down I just locked the glorious memories of White Teeth in the classic novel section of my cluttered brain, along with ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘God of Small Things’ and got on with my life.  Seventeen years later, looking for some good old-fashioned holiday reading, I dug it out of the shelves, dusted it off and started to enjoy all over again. But I had reservations. Serious reservations. Would it be dated? Would it still be funny? And would it live up to my ideal of an all-time classic novel? I’m happy to announce that on all three fronts I can answer in the affirmative.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, Penguin, UK 2017

Here we have genius at work. Not just the genius of Roy’s hypnotic prose, but also the genius of how the disparate threads of her story so effortlessly come together as the novel concludes. I’m talking also of Roy’s genius in presenting so many conflicting world views; the view of India’s teeming dispossessed and marginalised masses, of which India’s brutally marginalised transgender community serves as the perfect metaphor for all those suffering a similar fate. Then there is the viewpoint of India’s regimented military personnel – ruthless yet human and even humane all at once. And there is the genius of Roy’s representation the Kashmiri struggle both in its nationalist and cross-border Jihadist incarnations. Muslim, Hindu, Maoist and Sikh; the middle classes and the untouchables, the winners and the losers. All come to life with Roy’s expert imagination, all jostle for our sympathies, all form part of India’s rich but desperate tapestry of life.

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Dunkirk: Another Mindless Brexit Film, Review, 2017

The acting was wooden, the script banal, character development non-existent and the two hours of mindless patriotism quite sickening. Leaving aside some clever camera work, this film has very little to recommend it. It was, in fact, no better than the originals (1942 &1958), both produced as morale-boosting pieces of propaganda. This latest offering on the Dunkirk story also comes across as a piece of cinematic propaganda but the question then arises; propaganda for what?

Separating fact from fiction is never easy in history and in the final instance all history can only ever be a collection of subjective assessments. Every nation loves to tell itself its own warm and comforting stories and we should never forget also that it is the winners who tend to write history.

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Soul of the Nation, Exhibition Tate Modern, 2017

Enjoyed this exhibition, if enjoyment is the right word. More like an awkward mixture of nostalgia and anger. Nostalgia for an era that, from a relatively safe distance, was a magically heroic time. With all those iconic black leather coats, cool shades and defiant Afros, what youthful man or woman with half-formed ideals of equality and justice would not be inspired.  And then there were the guns. By any means necessary. Afro-Americans defiantly standing up to the racists – those in uniform, those in white hoods and those just in everyday clothes. Yes, the nostalgia was definitely kicking in but so too was the anger. Here we were, seventy years on and still the police brutality. Still the racist murders. Still the extremes of poverty between Black America and the white middle classes. Endemic poverty that living under eight years of a Black president could not even shift.

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The Handmaids Tale, TV Drama, Channel 4, 2017

Based closely on Margaret Atwood’s haunting 1985 novel, this TV series is compulsive viewing and, given the recent political climate in the USA, should be compulsory viewing for all citizens – east and west. Fascism can take many forms; religious cult, national fantasy, international utopia, but in all its varied forms it represents at base, capitalism in crisis. This has been largely misunderstood even by the most well-meaning critics of brutal authoritarian regimes. Mankind has created many such regimes in its ten-thousand-year history of ‘civilisation’ but these should not all be carelessly confused with fascism.  Fascism is a particular and precise form of capitalism but capitalism it still is. Feudal or slave-owning dictatorships were always and everywhere brutal in the extreme but they were not fascist dictatorships. They could not be because fascism is a product of capital in crisis and capital is a relatively modern historical economic phenomenon. This may seem to some as a particularly pedantic point of definition but without it the cause of fascism cannot be understood let alone combatted.

 

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The Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009, Film Review

Apparently based on a piece of non-fiction research into US Army Psychological Special Ops, this quiet little gem, which had escaped my attention until now, is broadly speaking a comedy. But not of the slapstick variety. More in keeping with the Dr Strangelove/ Catch 22 genre, though in places you might say it borrows something from the irreverency of the US TV series Mash. Is it funny? Well, like all attempted comedy, it really is a subjective call. But perhaps a more apposite question is rather; is comedy a fitting genre to tackle the untold pain and suffering unleashed on Iraq and elsewhere by the US military-industrial complex and its corporate vultures?

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Monument for Margaret Thatcher

They’ve been talking about a statue for Mrs Thatcher

Remember her – they called her both the Iron Lady and the school milk snatcher

Remember her – she said this lady isn’t for turning

Hold on a moment, is that the sickening smell of something burning?

 

She’s the one who said there is no such thing as Society.

‘Just balance the books, hard work and sobriety’

Remember her – she ordered the destruction of the Belgrano as it was turning

Just a second, is that the sickening smell of conscript sailors burning?

 

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