Footfalls echo in the memory

Footfalls echo in the memory

TS Eliot  Gerald Kelly portrait

TS Eliot: portrait by Gerald Kelly

‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future’: the instantly-recognisable opening lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets have surfaced and re-surfaced in my conciousness this past couple of weeks.  They occurred to me while reading Stephen King’s recent gripping novel 11.22.63, which is but the latest addition to the vast body of speculation about time, time travel, whether it might be possible to alter an event in the past, and – if it were – what the consequences might be.  11.22.63 also represents the fruits of years of Stephen King’s sifting through the speculations about the assassination of President John F Kennedy, an event from the past that continues to inhabit the present of those of us alive at the time.

I had only just finished reading 11.22.63 when I tuned into the BBC Radio 4 production of Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which the past is forever disappearing, the future forever being born, and the present forever being renewed into a single moment: time and eternity, the future flowing into the present and the present flowing into the past. The poem was beautifully read by Irons with a measured delivery that certainly aided this listener’s understanding (also enhanced with an introduction by Michael Symmons Roberts).

Then there was this week’s Radio 3 Essay by actor and director of Theatre de Complicite, Simon McBurney – one of a series, The Book that Changed Me, in which each essayist discussed the book that inspired them in their chosen career. McBurney described how John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos – another text concerned with ideas about time and place, memory and mortality – had inspired his theatrical work with Complicite.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
– ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot

File handout image shows President Kennedy and  Jacqueline Kennedy riding in motorcade in Dallas

John F Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally with their wives in the presidential motorcade moments before the assassination

In Stephen King’s 11.22.63, school teacher Jake Epping enters a dark passage at the back of Al’s Diner, edges slowly down some steps and slips from 2012, through a wormhole in time, back to 11:58 am on 9 September, 1958. Epping has embarked upon his journey back in time at the insistence of Al, owner of the eponymous Diner, who has already made the trip several times.  Al was on a mission he’s now unable to complete: to prevent the assassination of John Kennedy by Lee Oswald- and, perhaps as a consequence, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the deaths of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam.  Dying from cancer, Al wants Jake to do the honours.

Al explains to Jake what he’s learned so far about this time present and time past present in time future business. First, it’s not a one-way trip; but when you return, no matter how long you’ve stayed in the past – two days, five years, whatever – only two minutes have gone by in the present. Second, each time you go back to the past, there is a reset.  It’s 11:58 am on 9 September, 1958, and everything you did on your previous trip has been erased.

Stephen King’s books may not be great literature, but he’s a damn fine storyteller and knows how to keep a reader gripped, turning the page through 700 of them.  11.22.63, finally published in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, actually consists of three stories in one.

The first is a prefatory murder story set in 1958. Here Al, Jake and King himself are exploring the old vexed question: if you went back in time and changed something, might there be unforeseen consequences?  What Jake learns is that, while history can be altered, it resists with all its might.

So, next, in the longest section of the book, Jake returns to live out the years between 1958 and 1963, preparing for the day when he will attempt to thwart the assassination.  This is classic King territory – a hymn to a wholesome, simpler, uncommercialised fifties America where Jake teaches at a school in a small Texas town, falls in love with a librarian  and becomes a fixture in the local community. In 1958, root beer is ‘tasty all the way through’ But, King also throws in some qualifiers, highlighting aspects of America at that time which were less than wholesome:

In North Carolina, I stopped to gas up at a Humble Oil station, then walked around the corner to use the toilet.There were two doors and three signs. MEN was neatly stencilled over one door, LADIES over the other. The third sign was an arrow on a stick. It pointed toward the brush-covered slope behind the station. It said COLORED.

Curious, I walked down the path, being careful to sidle at a couple of points where the oily, green- shading-to-maroon leaves of poison ivy were unmistakable. I hoped the dads and moms who might have led their children down to whatever facility waited below were able to identify those trouble-some bushes for what they were, because in the late fifties most children wear short pants. There was no facility. What I found at the end of the path was a narrow stream with a board laid across it on a couple of crumbling concrete posts. A man who had to urinate could just stand on the bank, unzip, and let fly. A woman could hold onto a bush (assuming it wasn’t poison ivy or poison oak) and squat. The board was what you sat on if you had to take a shit. Maybe in the pouring rain.

If I ever gave you the idea that 1958’s all Andy-n-Opie, remember the path, okay? The one lined with poison ivy. And the board over the stream.

For much of this part of the narrative King pushes Oswald into the background as Jake settles into the life of a small town outside Dallas where, ‘I stopped living in the past and just started living’. As well as telling a beautiful love story, this stage of the narrative allows King to further explore the consequences of messing with the past as unintended examples of the ‘butterfly effect’ multiply, leading Jake at one point to muse:

Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, O.K.? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald: a loner?

Finally, we begin to ease into the final stretch of the narrative in which Jake, utilising the latest early sixties technology (from Japan) bugs Oswald’s home and shadows his every move. It’s here that King tentatively probes the conspiracy theories: was Oswald really the shooter, and if so, did he act alone? I must admit that when I started the book I thought that this would be a much larger feature of the story.  In the end, King has Jake, there on the ground in 1963 in the months before the assassination, as unsure as many remain today who have devoted much time and effort to investigating the matter. For the past,Jake learns, is obdurate. It guards its darkest secrets. Weeks before the 22nd, he is living below the Oswalds, listening in on bugged conversations in the flat above , and he still can’t be sure:

I tried the distance mic, standing on a chair and holding the Tupperware bowl almost against the ceiling. With it I could hear Lee talking and de Mohrenschildt’s occasional replies, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.

In an afterword, King admits:

Almost half a century has passed since John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, but two questions linger: Was Lee Oswald really the trigger-man, and if so, did he act alone?  Nothing I’ve written in 11.22.63 will provide answers to those questions, because time-travel is just an interesting make-believe.

As Mark Lawson observed in the Guardian:

A novel about thwarting Lee Harvey Oswald is crucially different from one about killing Hitler because many readers will question whether the hero is going after the right man. Jake regularly frets that, even if he changes the shape of Oswald’s day on 11.22.63, he may discover that the conspiracy theorists were right and JFK is taken out by another gunman from the grassy knoll or elsewhere.

Through his central character King communicates his own nagging doubts – after all his personal research – about the certainty of the history of that day. He also cleverly exploits a major fascination of time-travel or counter-history stories: the historical adjustments that might result from meddling.

In a thoughtful afterword in which King suggests that he partly intends the novel as a warning against ‘the current political climate of my country’ and the consequences of political extremism in contemporary America, he reveals that he first tried to write this book in 1972 but felt too close then to the raw pain of the assassination.

There’s an image that’s repeated several times by King during his account of the passionate love affair between Jake and Sadie, the clumsy librarian: the image of dancing which both of them love, being dazzlingly proficient at dancing the jitterbug:

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. . . . A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

What did that remind me of?

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot

The Essay on Radio 3 is often a source of stimulating listening, and since the start of the year has being having a particularly good run, and time – ‘present in the past, past in the present’ – featured in a series of essays to mark the centenary of World War One that offered perspectives on the capital cities of the major European powers – London, St Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin and Paris – on the eve of war in 1914.

In St Petersburg, the Grand International Masters’ Chess Tournament exemplified the international rivalries of Russia, Germany, France and Britain, and also demonstrated the Russian passion for chess that continues to this day. In London, complaints about the Tube were as frequent as they are today; to divert travellers from their misery, Macdonald Gill – the brother of Eric Gill, the sculptor and designer – was commissioned to produce a ‘Wonderground‘ map.


Macdonald Gill’s 1914 ‘Wonderground’ map: details

Berlin today is a place utterly unlike the city on the eve of war a century ago, argued Stephen Evans. ‘The ghosts are all around … but the buildings they might inhabit have often vanished, turned to rubble’. Berlin ‘reaped its own whirlwind in the wave of catastrophes that followed that first great war’.  Hugh Schofield wondered to what extent Parisians felt that they were living through the era of La Belle Epoque. Our image of the city on the eve of war tends to overlook the extent to which modernity was the moving spirit of the city: cars and planes, Cubism and Marcel Duchamp’s first ‘readymade’.

In a vivid account, Bethany Bell spoke of Vienna on the eve of war: capital of Austria-Hungary’s multi-national empire with its simmering tensions, and home in 1914 to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky and Sigmund Freud. I was particularly struck by her account of the men’s hostel in Meldemannstrasse, in the working class district of Brigittenau which for almost a century provided shelter for the homeless of Vienna until it closed ten years ago.  Five years after it opened, Bell reported, Hitler moved in, remaining, down and out and unnoticed, until 1913. The hostel was financed by the Rothschilds.

Last week The Essay’s theme was The Book that Changed Me, in which five people discussed the book that had inspired them in their chosen career.  There were two outstanding talks, one by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson who described how David Copperfield mirrored his own deprived childhood in London. After the death of his mother, the discovery of Dickens’s novel gave him hope: ‘I was thirteen years old and had read lots of books but nothing like this complex saga; so moving, so emotionally intertwined’. It’s a theme developed more fully in his acclaimed memoir This Boy, which I must read.

And our faces

The Book that Changed Me: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

The nature of time is central to John Berger’s lyrical and meditative And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, chosen by actor and director Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite, and one of my own favourite books, first published in 1984.  McBurney described how Berger’s exploration of ideas about memory, space and time, storytelling and mortality became infused in his theatrical work.

McBurney admitted that, on a first reading, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos can seem a bewildering collage of ideas, poetry, prose, polemic and autobiographical glimpses. With repeated readings, however, Berger’s slim work has become a point of reference for McBurney’s art and his life.

In an account as fragmentary as the book he discussed, McBurney spoke of how for years he had been a nomad, touring theatre all over the world. ‘Never before our time have so many people been uprooted’, writes Berger, ’emigration, forced or chosen across national frontiers or from village to metropolis is the quintessential experience of our time’. Memory and storytelling become the mortar that preserves identity. Berger:

Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as though through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless In our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.

Storytelling is McBurney’s profession, and he noted how Berger begins his book by examining the essential element of all stories, time:

We are both storytellers. Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky. The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky. Every event is inscribed in its own time. Events may cluster and their times overlap, but the time in common between events does not extend as law beyond the clustering. A famine is a tragic cluster of events. To which the Great Plough is indifferent, existing as it does in another time.

Simon McBurney

Simon McBurney

Berger reflects on the nature of time: the length of ‘lived’ time, the deeply experienced moment, as opposed to the seeming brevity of other moments. Time is perceived as a force which people either take to be annihilating or capable of being, if not controlled, at least opposed (in political action). Parts of Berger’s book are reminiscent of

that state between waking and sleeping. From there you can wander towards either of the two. You can go away in a dream or you can open your eyes, be aware of your body, the room, the crows cawing in the snow outside the window.

Love’s opposite is not hate but separation, said McBurney, quoting Berger. Death separates eternally – an unbridgeable gap.

When you are away, you are nevertheless present for me. This presence is multiform: it consists of countless images, passages, meanings, things known, landmarks, yet the whole remains marked by your absence, in that it is diffuse. It is as if your person becomes a place, your contours horizons. I live in you then like living in a country. You are everywhere. Yet in that country I can never meet you face to face.

Partir est mourir un peu. I was very young when I first heard this sentence quoted and it expressed a truth I already knew. I remember it now because the experience of living in you as if you were a country, the only country in the world where I can never conceivably meet you face to face, this is a little like the experience of living with the memory of the dead. What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.

Time and memory, love and separation:

When I open my wallet
to show my papers
pay money
or check the time
of a train
I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen
is older than the mountains
Aravis is young
as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules
will be seeding still
when Aravis then aged
is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s
wallet, the force
of what lives us
outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

John Berger

John Berger

McBurney’s father was an archaeologist and knew, he said, about bridging gaps.  The bones he dug were more fragile than the earth that surrounded them.  He would reassemble shards of bone or flint that revealed the truth about our past, and joined us with it. That, argued McBurney, is what Berger’s book does: it joins – the local to the universal, the immediate to the distant, the living to the dead. Berger’s tools are words.  He ‘digs  in the vulnerable earth of human experience, and joins the fragments he uncovers with an eye as sure as an astronomer, a gesture as gentle as a carpenter’.

From the last page of And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos McBurney quoted this heart-stopping image:

What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.

Time past and time future.

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot

See also

John Berger About Time

A year after John Berger had published And our faces, my heart, Brief as photos, this visual essay on time, based on ideas in the book, was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1985 (when C4 did such things).  Simple format – Berger in check shirt in front of the camera, telling and reading enigmatic and compelling stories about our desire to outwit time. Deceptively simple and unimaginable on today’s Channel 4.  It’s an old VHS video, not very good quality – best watched in the small window.



12 Years a Slave: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’

12 Years a Slave: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’

12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup was my name!

Steve McQueen’s magisterial film Twelve Years a Slave opens with Solomon Northup, the free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, whittling a stick into a makeshift pen and attempting to write a plea for freedom in self made ink.  This powerful image prefaces the story of a man who endures unspeakable hardship and brutality, just barely managing to hold on to the faith that his own words put down on paper, and the words inscribed in the American constitution, can free him.

As Northup falteringly scratches his words on paper we are reminded also that, eventually freed after twelve years from a system founded on the implacable belief that he was not a human but an animal, Northup would write one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, a bestseller when it appeared in 1853.

Solomon Northrup's signature

Solomon Northrup’s signature

There are reckoned to have been at least a hundred American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with even more following after the end of the civil war. The Life of William Grimes, published in 1825, was the earliest full length autobiography by an American slave. Grimes concludes his narrative on a note of sarcasm:

If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America.

In his own book, Northup adopted a similar tone, recalling how his kidnappers had hauled him:

Handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!

Fiddle player Chiwetel Ejiofor as NorthupFiddle player: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup

In Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story, the ironies and iniquities residing in the words of American law are emphasized repeatedly. The constitution might speak of inalienable rights, but the law of the southern states made slave-owning a question of property. The system was upheld by perverted religious belief and blind racial hatred, but its fundamental bulwark lay in the fact that the law deemed Northup not a man, but chattel which could be bought and sold like a bale of cotton.

12 Years a Slave Brad Pitt

12 Years a Slave: Brad Pitt as the Canadian ‘with noble and generous emotions’There’s a key scene (lifted straight from the book) in which a Canadian carpenter, ‘a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions’, debates with Northup’s brutal plantation owner who advances the well-worn justification for slavery: that black people were naturally bestial and ignorant, and thus deserved subjugation Furthermore, he argues, ‘There is no sin. A man does as he pleases with his property’.

The response from the man whose actions would lead ultimately to Northup’s freedom goes right to the hypocritical heart of the white slaver’s argument:

These niggers are human beings.  if they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers and can go where you please, and can gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? … If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it.  There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet … there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. …Talk about black skin, and black blood … what difference is there in the colour of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is as absurd as it is cruel.

At the end of the film an epilogue informs us that,when liberated, Northup managed to bring to trial the men who had sold him into slavery.  But the action failed because, as a black man, Solomon Northup could not testify in his own defence – anywhere in the United States.In interviews around the release of his film, Steve McQueen has said that he had wanted for some time to make a film about a free black American kidnapped into slavery. Then, a friend suggested he base the film on the true story recounted in Northup’s 19th century best-seller Twelve Years a Slave. In 1841 Northup, the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist, had done some farming and was working as a carpenter.

After seeing McQueen’s film I’ve been reading Northup’s original text -in Kindle format. (Go to the Kindle store and you will find multiple editions have been rushed out to capitalise on the film’s release.  If you want one, make sure you choose the one edited by Dr Sue Eakin who, whilst at Louisiana State University, completed painstaking research into Northup’s life, using the legal and financial records of the men who owned him to corroborate his account of his enslavement.  This new Kindle edition has copious footnotes by Eakin that confirm or explain points in Northup’s narrative: for less than £1 it is superb value.)

I mention all this in order to make the point that McQueen’s film is absolutely faithful to the book – except in one regard.  At the beginning of the film Northup is presented as a model of prosperous bourgeois respectability, living in the elegant spa town of Saratoga Springs with his wife and children in a rather elegant house, well dressed and conversing at ease with his white neighbours.  It wasn’t quite like that, as Eakin explains in her notes.  Northup picked up seasonal work in the hotels at Saratoga, and odd jobs as as a carpenter and fiddle player at dances and other social occasions, while his wife worked as a cook at a Saratoga hotel moving 20 miles away in the ‘off season’ to work in a coffee house.  In his narrative, Northup honestly admits that:

Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place, were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shiftlessness and extravagance.

I can only assume that McQueen sought, by depicting Northup living in bourgeois respectability and with seemingly secure employment, to dramatise the rupture in his circumstances brought about by the kidnapping.  With that one exception, however, the film renders Northup’s story with great integrity. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his Guardian review, there is ‘passion and moral force’ here, coupled with a ‘powerful visual sense’ and the ‘determination to look at ugly realities head-on’. While in the Independent, Rupert Cornwell wrote:

Everything about it feels authentic, right down to the language, the antiquated cadences and biblical rhythms of which are pitch perfect. Its historical accuracy has been vouched for by none other than Henry Louis Gates, the leading and occasionally prickly scholar on black America and its culture, and a consultant for the film. ‘It was much like studying… and I didn’t have to make any corrections’, he has said, calling it ‘the best film about slavery ever made from the point of view of a slave’.

McQueen tells Northup’s story with clarity and attention to period detail, and not a scintilla of standard Hollywood sentimentality. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s central performance is truly outstanding, brilliantly capturing Northup’s sense of bewilderment at his plight, his initial despair, his resilience and his battle to keep his dignity and self-respect. Advised how best to ensure his survival by a fellow captive, Northup retorts: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’.  McQueen’s camera lingers in closeup for long moments on Ejiofor’s face. With precise, wordless expression, Ejiofor acts with his eyes, as a clench of his jaw and the slightest parting of his lips speaks volumes.

By this time he is no longer Solomon Northup, having been stripped of his birth name (ironically the surname of his father, a freed slave who in his early life had been so named by his owners, the Northup family), sold in a slave auction and taken to a plantation in Louisiana and renamed Platt – after one of the local slave owners.

Having been  approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show, Northup had travelled to Washington DC with them, where he had been drugged before waking in chains on the floor of the notorious Williams Slave Pen, ‘within the very shadow of the Capitol where patriotic representatives boast of freedom and equality’, as Northup observes.

Protesting that he is a free man, Northup was beaten to within an inch of his life in the first of the film’s unbearable, but totally necessary, scenes. A slave now, with no rights, Northup described being marched through the nation’s capital in chains:

So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!

Sold at auction, Northup is transported to a plantations in the Louisiana bayou country. For the next twelve years, Northup was beaten, whipped, starved, and forced to work six days a week for a series of increasingly brutal masters. He is finally sold to Edwin Epps, a drunken, sadistic bully, who runs the plantation where Northup will work until he being finally rescued. Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, it’s and a measure of his skill as an actor that he is able to hint at the insecurities in a sadistic man who has nothing remotely sympathetic about him.  The most unbearably shocking scene in the film comes when the young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who has been repeatedly raped by Epps, is whipped on a pretext urged on by his wife. It is a scene that drips with the self-loathing and sexual guilt that lay at the heart of the system of slavery.

Michael Fassbender stars with Lupita Nyong'o

Michael Fassbender with Lupita Nyong’o

There has been much discussion of the unbearable scenes of violence in 12 Years a Slave.  But how could there not be such scenes?  Steve McQueen made this point in an interview:

If you read the book, we pulled back a lot. There are only, I think, five acts of violence in the whole film – a film which last two hours and 11 minutes. That’s five acts of violence. You know, any thriller, or any horror movie, has someone being shot in the head at least every 15 minutes, or cut up or whatever. So as far as violence is concerned in our film, it’s kind of minimal, to be quite honest. But maybe in the context of the truth it becomes quite different, I suppose.

McQueen spoke, too, of how he drew upon images from the history of art to guide him in his presentation:

Think about Goya, for example, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, “Look – look at this.” So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what’s wrong with the image rather than looking at the image. It’s about looking. Looking at the image, because it’s important. That’s what Goya is saying. And this [film] is something that’s kind of gone through art history, in a way – the frame, the image; it’s what we’ve been dealing with for hundreds and hundreds of years.

12 Years a Slave is not an easy watch and nor should it be.  There is one long, uninterrupted long shot in which Northup is left hanging from a noose for several hours, his toes desperately scrabbling in the mud as he tries desperately to preserve his life. It is uncomfortable and becomes increasingly difficult to watch:

Yes, it does. Again, I don’t, it’s not a trick to use the long shot – it’s what’s necessary for the scene. Cinema is 120-odd years old, and, therefore, the whole idea of me using film language, however I use it – there no right or wrong way of doing anything, it’s just if it works or not. For example, the hanging scene, for me, was “how do you talk about two things, even three things, in one shot?” Sometimes people do six shots to say one thing and I’m interested, in this situation, in one shot to show not just physical abuse, but mental abuse. Solomon is hanging in the tree struggling, but, at the same time, you had these slaves creeping out of their hut and going about their daily chores. And [they’re] noticing Solomon, but not reacting to him because they know that if they get involved in it, they’ll be strung up beside him. So, there’s that kind of mental abuse and mental torture. And you have the kids running behind and playing while Solomon is suspended. The whole idea of normalizing that particular situation, it was very necessary for those scenes to hold the shot. And time passing as well, because he’s hung up there for most of the day.

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender)

A drunken, sadistic bully: Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps (notice how he rests his elbow)

There has been much discussion, too, of whether there is any relevance in making a film about slavery today.  For white Americans (and Europeans) it’s something in the past that we can put behind us.  Some black American critics have argued that the last thing young black Americans need is to be continually be reminded of slavery days.  McQueen’s response is that Northup’s story is, essentially, a narrative about today: ‘It’s not a black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything’.

Look at the prison population. Look at the mental health issues, the poverty, the unemployment. You could go on and on and on. The evidence of slavery is all around. This is not a coincidence. There’s a cause and there’s an effect. It’s one of those things; someone asked me the other day, “What was it like when you first discovered slavery?” And I couldn’t remember when I first discovered slavery. It’s like asking me, “What was it like when you first discovered your name?” It’s one of those things where I thought about it, and I thought about the question, and the only answer you can give was a sense of shame and a sense of embarrassment – and that’s how a young person, as a kid, one starts off their life, because you’re embarrassed about that part of your history.

The repercussions of slavery are still seen today. The high numbers of black people in prison, mental health issues within our community, drug abuse, single parent families – these are the repercussions of slavery and we have to acknowledge that.

We have to recognise our past in the same way that other ethnic groups like the Jewish community have. They believe in the saying ‘never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery.

McQueen has also made the point (explored in this article from the Independent) that there has hardly been a superfluity of films about slavery. As McQueen points out, the Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and yet there are less than two dozen films about slavery in the United States:

Some people just don’t like to look at this chapter of our history because it makes them feel ashamed. But in order to get over it, in order to understand who you are mentally and spiritually, you have to understand slavery.

McQueen, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Grenada and Trinidad, believes it’s also important to note that slavery was not just an American thing.

This wasn’t just North American history, this was global. I’m from the diaspora of slavery. My parents are from the West Indies. My mother was born in Trinidad, my father was born in Grenada. Malcolm X’s mother came from Grenada, Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase ‘black power’, came from Trinidad. Colin Powell was born to Jamaican parents, as was Harry Belafonte.

For myself, I think. like Mark Kermode, writing in the Observer, that ‘if you have any interest in cinema – or, for that matter, in art, economics, politics, drama, literature or history – then you need to watch 12 Years a Slave’.

12 Years A Slave featurette

Saratoga Springs honours Solomon Northup in 1999

Saratoga Springs honoured Solomon Northup in 1999

See also

A Hologram for the King: today we are not needed

A Hologram for the King: today we are not needed

King Abdullah Economic City, Jeddah

King Abdullah Economic City, Jeddah: a hologram

Before Christmas I read Dave Egger’s latest novel A Hologram for the King, the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged, American businessman who is at the end of his rope: divorced and deeply in debt, with a daughter he can’t afford to support through college.  With a fondness for alcohol, and a horrible growth on the back of his neck, he has flown to Saudi Arabia to make a presentation to King Abdullah in the hope of selling the Saudis hologram technology.

Day after day Clay is driven to a large white tent on the outskirts of the King Abdullah Economic City (or KAEC) that is rising out of the desert.  There, he and three young colleagues sit around with laptops waiting to show a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah, on behalf of Reliant, an American company that is the largest I.T. supplier in the world. Day after day, the king fails to arrive and the Americans lie around, worrying about the absence of wi-fi and trying to kill time in the emptiness.

The American businessman’s story that lies at the heart of A Hologram for the King is more than an individual drama. Clay’s story is closely intertwined with recent American economic history, in a narrative that Eggers has forged into a dark comedy, a kind of Waiting for Godot thing. This reflects the way in which, in his own career, Eggers has combined activism with writing that has increasingly had the state of America as its central concern.

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

I’m a great admirer of Dave Eggers.  Though highly mannered and conscious of its own bravura stylings, I  enjoyed hugely the wit and humour of his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he told the story of his parents’ deaths within weeks of each other, and of how he raised his kid brother while living out a Generation X lifestyle in San Francisco. I thought What Is the What, his non-fiction novel about Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese ‘Lost Boy’ who survives civil war and refugee camps only to meet with pain and heartbreak in America, was superb, while Zeitoun, was a brilliant account of an American heart of darkness in the aftermath story of Hurricane Katrina.

I admire Eggers, too, for the work his philanthropy and activism.  He co-founded the 826 Valencia project, a writing workshop for teens in a rundown district of San Francisco that evolved into 826 National, with writing workshops springing up around the country, and the non-profit organization ScholarMatch that connects donors with disadvantaged students who can’t afford to go to college (so it’s perhaps not surprising that Alan Clay, the protagonist in A Hologram for the King is anguished at the thought of not being able to support his daughter through college).

The new novel is a parable of America’s slow slide towards obsolescence in a globalized economy. Clay started out selling bicycles  for Schwinn bikes, the Chicago manufacturer – bikes made by American workers until the company abandons its factory in Chicago. Clay ponders the repercussions:

We’d tossed out a hundred years of expertise. You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish. Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are being made there, in one province.

Now Clay is facing an existential crisis. He’s divorced, he drinks too much, and the recession has worn down his earnings to practically nothing. He’s ‘virtually broke, nearly unemployed’, and needs to pull of this assignment in Saudi Arabia so that he can pay his daughter’s college fees. Reliant, a huge multinational, has sent him to Jeddah to pitch for the IT infrastructure contract for King Abdullah Economic City, a massive new development in the desert. Alan and his team aim to impress the king by showing him a cutting-edge holographic teleconferencing system, magically enabling a colleague in London to appear in 3D in their tent in Saudi Arabia.

Eggers makes everything about Alan’s crisis noticeably symbolic. During long hours of boredom as he waits for the king’s appearance, Alan muses that at Schwinn, he had been one of the executives who pushed for the bicycles to be manufactured outside America, in order to outflank the unions.  So the process was outsourced to Asia. The firm went bankrupt was Alan ‘left with nothing to sell’:

More efficient without the unions, cut them out. More efficient without American workers, period, cut them out. Why didn’t I see it coming? More efficient without me, too… I became unnecessary. I made myself irrelevant.

He’s had a career as a salesman, selling things. Now he’s selling an illusion to a man who never appears.

Eggers writes here with great spareness and clarity, conjuring the hallucinatory, weightless sense of Clay’s team waiting to make a holographic projection in the empty landscape of a puritan kingdom where everyone seems to be boozing on the sly.  Egger writes from personal experience of time spent in Saudi Arabia and cleverly evokes the absurdities of the scenario, at the same time affording glimpses of connections with the world beyond the kingdom’s borders.  In a half-finished apartment block in the desert he finds, just two floors below the gleaming finished apartments, a squalid bare concrete room where two dozen foreign labourers are crowded into a tiny space and fight over a discarded mobile phone.

A review in the New York Times described A Hologram for the King as ‘a clear, supremely readable parable of America in the global economy that is haunting, beautifully shaped and sad’, and continued:

Eggers speaks for a new America that has to think globally and can’t be sure where the country fits on the planetary screen. … Eggers, with ferocious energy and versatility, has been studying how the world is remaking America.

Before the start of the novel Eggers offers an epigraph from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett:

It is not every day that we are needed.

Egger’s message for Americans (for us Europeans, too, no doubt) seems to be: get used to it.

See also

Nebraska: a dream gone sour

Nebraska: a dream gone sour


Bruce Dern as Woody in Nebraska: look into those eyes

As we get older we tend to live more in the past.  Yet at the same time our memory begins to fade.  So things can get a little confused. In Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (who gave us the funny and moving Sideways), Woody Grant is an elderly and increasingly confused old alcoholic who is convinced that has won a million dollars and is determined to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska (having lost his driving licence through some past infraction) to claim his prize in person.

Nebraska on the road

Nebraska: on the road

Payne has shot the film in black and white, filling the screen with wide-screen images of big sky and open country, the highways and tired urban landscape of the decaying towns that squat on the plains of the American Midwest.  In the opening sequence Woody (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) trudges up the highway, heading out of his hometown of Billings, Montana, intent on walking the 750 miles to collect his winnings. His son David (Will Forte)  collects him from the local police station. After Woody sets out again on his pilgrimage despite his family’s insistence that he is being conned by a marketing scam, his harassed son decides to humour him by driving him to Lincoln.

They haven’t gone far when Woody gets drunk, gashes his head and has to be taken to hospital. The upshot is a detour to the town where Woody was born and grew to manhood. The road movie morphs into a grotesque family reunion, with the screenplay treading a fine line between affection and caricature in its depiction of Woody’s relatives and old friends.

Nebraska the cousins gone bad

Nebraska: venal and grotesque cousins

Here are people, battered by recession and America’s fading economic power, who cling to each other in gloomy bars or slump for hours before TV screens.  In one scene, Payne films Woody’s relatives gathered around the TV to watch a football game.  We see them from the vantage point of the television set: old men in check shirts, all facing in the same direction, all silent and still, utterly impassive, their faces blank and inexpressive.

Nebraska watching TV again

Nebraska: the thrill of watching the match on TV

Payne (who hails from Nebraska himself) portrays these characters as venal and grotesque.  But along with the caustic humour that at times makes you wonder whether Payne is mocking his characters there is an elegiac tone that places them within the context of the fading of the American Dream. These broken people, Payne seems to suggest, once were the backbone of America – the farmers and industrial workers who powered the American century.

It’s not all grotesquery, though; as Richard Brody observed in his review for the New Yorker:

The loveliest, most poignant scene in the film takes place in the sleepy office of the town’s newspaper, where David goes in quest of information and chats with the elderly editor (Angela McEwan), who, it turns out, has history with the family. It’s the scene that quietly wrenches the movie apart and makes the distant, unspoken past vibrate with a revived passionate power.

Nebraska watching TV

Nebraska: watching TV again

That sense of a people living in hope that the dream they were promised will one day materialise is crystallised in this exchange between Woody’s son and the receptionist at the office of the marketing company in Lincoln.  She has just confirmed that Woody has won nothing, and offered the consolation prize of a free baseball cap on which are inscribed the words ‘Prize Winner’:

– Has he got Alzheimer’s?

– No. He just believes what people tell him.

– Too bad

Payne ends the film on an uplifting note that doesn’t sweeten or weaken the stringency of its earlier observations of character and context.  Richard Brody puts it well in his New Yorker review:

Payne wraps things up with a moment of cheerful satisfaction that packs bitter ironies. David and Woody don’t return home better equipped to face their troubles; Woody is still in decline, and David’s job and solitude await him in Billings. The knowledge that David brings back and the experiences that he’s had in Hawthorne won’t be of much help to him. Rather, the knowledge is life itself; the movie is the story of a life deepening and filling out, as if in real time—but that deepening life doesn’t improve in any practical sense. Nothing changes; and yet, at the end of the movie, nothing seems the same.

The film is never sentimental, nor unduly melancholic, and Payne downplays the story’s larger symbolic implications by keeping his focus on the behaviour of the characters, giving us a nuanced portrait of small-town life; an intimate tale, rooted in family and community, that resonates with echoes of  forces that lurk just over the horizon.

Nebraska old homestead

Nebraska: Woody returns to the old homestead


Footnote: films in 2013

Without doubt, Nebraska stacks up as one of the best films of 2013 – though, at least as far as feature films go, this has not been an especially memorable year.  I have seen excellent feature films – but you can count them on the fingers of one hand: Museum Hours, Terence Malik’s To the Wonder, and the Chilean election drama No!  I have also seen, but not written about here, Captain Phillips, the thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks that dramatises the true story of Phillips, taken hostage after the container ship he was captaining was seized by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.  That led us to watching a slew of his other films at home – some of them that I hadn’t seen before: the Bourne trilogy (the last two parts energetically directed by Greengrass), the white-knuckle United 93 and Green Zone, originally announced as being based on the award-winning book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, but turning out to be a thriller having more in common with the Bourne films (not least the leading actor, Matt Damon) than the book.  We also saw Gravity (who didn’t?), Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant 3D epic starring Sandra Bullock as the beleaguered astronaut floating in space, and – as a family Christmas outing – the second part of  Peter Jackson’s overblown Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. It was, at least, an improvement over last year’s execrable The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

But the genre that consistently came up with the best films was the documentary.  There was a time when documentary films would not have been destined for cinema release, but these days they are as finely-edited and presented in high definition as feature films.  Seen this year were: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, Springsteen and I, Ken Loach’s The Sprit of ’45, and McCullin, the stunning documentary  about the war photographer Don McCullin.

Re-reading Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit

Re-reading Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit
‘And this … is the Land of Liberty is it? Well, I’m agreeable. Any land will do for me after so much water.’

As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathize with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.

Continuing my journey through Dickens, I’ve reached his sixth novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, another first reading for me. Although Dickens regarded the novel as one of his best, it failed to capture the public imagination when it was first published – through 1843 and into 1844 – with sales of the early monthly parts being particularly disappointing compared to previous works.  I can see why: the novel definitely has weaknesses.  It is slow to get started, and seems to struggle and lose momentum in the final episodes. Yet, overall, I still enjoyed the book, and was entertained especially by the American passages and by some classic Dickensian characters, especially, of course, Mrs Gamp.

Dickens couldn’t understand Chuzzlewit‘s comparative failure (at its height it sold 20,000 copies a month whereas The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby sold between 40 and 50,000). He was so pleased with the opening chapters that he declared to John Forster that it was the best thing he had ever done. But, after the first few episodes had sold disappointingly, he realised he had to do something to retrieve the situation.

In 1842 he had travelled across America with his wife Kate On returning to England, Dickens had published American Notes in which he attacked slavery, and American politicians motivated by money, not ideals. He criticised the hypocrisy he had found in the republic for which he had held out such high hopes beforehand:  ‘I am disappointed,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend. ‘This is not the republic of my imagination’. In American Notes, Dickens wrote of ‘despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers’. Now he saw an opportunity to vent his feelings about American society in scenes of fierce, satirical comedy by sending young Martin Chuzzlewit to America –  a move he hoped would also revive his readers’ flagging interest in the novel.  It did, but only marginally.

Charles Dickens by Francis Alexander, 1842
Dickens, painted by Boston artist Francis Alexander at the start of the American trip in 1842.

Dickens had already established the novel’s overarching theme of hypocrisy in the opening episodes in which he had introduced the complex genealogy of the Chuzzlewit dynasty and the greed of Old Martin’s relatives, in particular the unctuously hypocritical Pecksniff, each of whom hope to inherit the old man’s wealth.  Now, in the sixth instalment, Dickens had the young Martin Chuzzlewit, the old man’s grandson, sail to America with Mark Tapley, who will come to represent the opposite virtues of selflessness and concern for others.

In her concise survey of Dickens’s life and work, Jane Smiley makes some interesting observations about the way in which Dickens’s thoughts about society and reform were developing at the time of writing Martin  Chuzzlewit – thinking that found its way into the novel.  Dickens, she says, differed from many fellow reformers of the period – people like Lord Shaftesbury, who were Evangelicals and ‘promoted, first and foremost, the prohibition of sinful acts such as prostitution and alcohol consumption, and who combined teaching the poor to read and write with rigorous religious instruction’.  Dickens, Smiley says, ‘always ridiculed the Evangelical impulse to look for sinfulness and evil nature, instead interpreting kindness, fellow-feeling, charitableness and social conscience as virtues of generosity and love.  Society would be reformed through an expansion of love and responsibility, through the cultivation of comfort and beauty, not through clamping down’.

When I read Jane Smiley’s words it seemed to fit right in with James Kincaid’s observations on Sairey Gamp in his Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, which can be found on the Victorian Web.  At first, it might seem that Dickens has no sympathy for the outrageous Gamp, the gin-sodden midwife and nurse to the poor who treats those in her care with cavalier roughness.  But Kincaid regards her as ‘the central moral figure in the novel’, the morality she lives by being ‘much more humane and more adequate to the demands of the bleak world’ she inhabits.

Though purely selfish, she is never mean and, more important, directs our attention and our values far away from such narrow moral verdicts. Mrs. Gamp is selfish only from the perspective of a fool like old Martin; Dickens and his readers saw her as a triumphant expression of selfhood.

Mrs Gamp, Kincaid points out, ‘continually satirizes the barbaric consolation offered to the poor by religion and its basic appeals to envy and vindictiveness’:

Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ’em. to see out of a needle’s eye. That is my comfort, and I hope I knows it.

For Kincaid, Gamp is the archetypal anti-Puritan, ‘who would drink and laugh even in the Slough of Despond’.  She hates the prudential life which does nothing more than prepare for death, and she is dedicated to the happiness to be found in society.  ‘She functions’, Kincaid writes, ‘to provide a way out of despair, through imagination, versatile artistry, and resiliency’.

The American episodes are a rollicking good read.  Like Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit sets off for America full of hope that he will quickly make his fortune in this new land full of promise.  But, like Dickens, he is disillusioned. Observing America through the eyes of Martin and Mark, Dickens develops a sweeping critique of America, embracing aspects such as spitting in public, lack of respect for individual privacy revealed in impertinent questioning of strangers, voracious eating habits, pompous oratory, and misuse of the English language (Dickens’ ear for how people speak is as sharp as always).

But, most of all, Dickens turns his spotlight on the failure of the country to live up to the constant proclamations of the founding ideal of democracy he heard from the mouths of Americans while he was in the country.  Dickens presents America as being as hypocritical as Pecksniff – but this greed and hypocrisy is systemic, rather than individual. In one passage, Martin observes that all conversation is about money:

Dollars! All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures were gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Nature and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them!

Dickens focusses on slavery over to reveal, as Martin puts it, that in getting rid of ‘masters’ the country has simply substituted ‘owners’. One scene in particular reveals Dickens’s loathing of slavery; Mark Tapley introduces Martin to a man he has just met on the street:

And may I ask,’ said Martin, glancing, but not with any displeasure, from Mark to the negro, ‘who this gentleman is? Another friend of yours?’

‘Why sir,’ returned Mark, taking him aside, and speaking confidentially in his ear, ‘he’s a man of colour, sir!’

‘Do you take me for a blind man,’ asked Martin, somewhat impatiently, ‘that you think it necessary to tell me that, when his face is the blackest that ever was seen?’

‘No, no; when I say a man of colour,’ returned Mark, ‘I mean that he’s been one of them as there’s picters of in the shops. A man and a brother, you know, sir,’ said Mr Tapley, favouring his master with a significant indication of the figure so often represented in tracts and cheap prints.

‘A slave!’ cried Martin, in a whisper.

‘Ah!’ said Mark in the same tone. ‘Nothing else. A slave. Why, when that there man was young—don’t look at him while I’m a-telling it—he was shot in the leg; gashed in the arm; scored in his live limbs, like crimped fish; beaten out of shape; had his neck galled with an iron collar, and wore iron rings upon his wrists and ankles. The marks are on him to this day. When I was having my dinner just now, he stripped off his coat, and took away my appetite.’

‘Is THIS true?’ asked Martin of his friend, who stood beside them.

‘I have no reason to doubt it,’ he answered, shaking his head ‘It very often is.’

‘Bless you,’ said Mark, ‘I know it is, from hearing his whole story. That master died; so did his second master from having his head cut open with a hatchet by another slave, who, when he’d done it, went and drowned himself; then he got a better one; in years and years he saved up a little money, and bought his freedom, which he got pretty cheap at last, on account of his strength being nearly gone, and he being ill. Then he come here. And now he’s a-saving up to treat himself, afore he dies, to one small purchase—it’s nothing to speak of. Only his own daughter; that’s all!’ cried Mr Tapley, becoming excited. ‘Liberty for ever! Hurrah! Hail, Columbia!’ […]

‘Lord love you, sir,’ he added, ‘they’re so fond of Liberty in this part of the globe, that they buy her and sell her and carry her to market with ’em. They’ve such a passion for Liberty, that they can’t help taking liberties with her. That’s what it’s owing to.’

Martin soon hands over all his savings to an agent in order to purchase a ‘location’ in ‘the thriving city of Eden. In a passage with echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress, Martin and Mark arrive in Eden:

As they proceeded further on their track, and came more and more towards their journey’s end, the monotonous desolation of the scene increased to that degree, that for any redeeming feature it presented to their eyes, they might have entered, in the body, on the grim domains of Giant Despair. A flat morass, bestrewn with fallen timber; a marsh on which the good growth of the earth seemed to have been wrecked and cast away, that from its decomposing ashes vile and ugly things might rise; where the very trees took the aspect of huge weeds, begotten of the slime from which they sprung, by the hot sun that burnt them up; where fatal maladies, seeking whom they might infect, came forth at night in misty shapes, and creeping out upon the water, hunted them like spectres until day; where even the blessed sun, shining down on festering elements of corruption and disease, became a horror; this was the realm of Hope through which they moved.

At last they stopped. At Eden too. The waters of the Deluge might have left it but a week before; so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name.

Eden by Phiz
Eden: original illustration by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)

Martin succumbs to despair and depression.  But, after nearly dying from malaria himself, Mark Tapley sees Martin through depression and desperate illness. Mark is a figure of genuine, even heroic, goodness His self-proclaimed mission in life is to remain ‘jolly’ at all times, no matter how challenging the circumstances.  It is  his concern for others that helps keep him happy.  Both men manage at last to return to England: penniless, they are loaned the fare home by a Boston doctor they had encountered soon after landing in New York.

Chuzzlewit, Pinch, Pecksniff and his daughters Charity and Mercy. Illustration by Fred Barnard

The American passages are, primarily, hilarious satire.  Back in England, the comedy is uppermost, too – at least until the final episodes. The comic characters and scenes are as funny as any I’ve read in Dickens (indeed, James Kincaid has asserted that Martin Chuzzlewit is Dickens’s funniest novel).  He may be right; chapters eight and nine when the Pecksniff family go to London, for example, comprise a brilliant passage of comic writing.  And then there’s Mrs Gamp:

She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye … Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. … The face of Mrs Gamp – the nose in particular – was somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits.

The sense-crunching, gin-tippling, patient-abusing Gamp is regarded by many as Dickens’s finest comic creation. Yet, although she appears to us now as grotesque, he saw her as realistic; in his Preface to the 1850 Cheap Edition, Dickens wrote: ‘Mrs Sarah Gamp is a fair representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness.’  So Dickens clearly intended Mrs Gamp and her partner Betsey Prig to represent a critique of ‘nursing’ in poor neighbourhoods at the time.  Gamp appropriates her patient’s pillow in order to make herself more comfortable, and administers medicine to another patient by squeezing his windpipe to make him gasp and then pouring the medicine down his throat. She shakes old Chuffey so hard that his bones rattle.

Mrs Gamp gives Chuffey a good shake.

Dickens’s rendition of Mrs Gamp’s behaviour and language is priceless. There is her fondness for the bottle:

‘Tell Mrs Gamp to come upstairs,’ said Mould. ‘Now Mrs Gamp, what’s your news?’ The lady in question was by this time in the doorway, curtseying to Mrs Mould. At the same moment a peculiar fragrance was borne upon the breeze, as if a passing fairy had hiccoughed, and had previously been to a wine vault.

Her eccentric speech, with its confused sentence structure, chaotic syntax and strange allusions, is best summed up in her words – those with which she concludes each one of her speeches: ‘Gamp is my name, and Gamp is my nater’.  She’s always coming out with statements that stop you in your tracks and cause you to laugh out loud.

A remarkable aspect of Mrs Gamp’s speech, used by Dickens to reveal not only her thoughts but also her conviction that she is not alone in her thinking, is her constant evocation of the imaginary Mrs Harris. Mrs Harris exists not only to let the world know what Gamp is thinking, but also makes Gamp look good:

I knows a lady, which her name … is Harris, her husband’s brother bein’ six foot three, and marked with a mad bull in Wellington boots upon his left arm, on account of his precious mother havin’ been worrited by one into a shoemaker’s shop, when in a sitiwation which blessed is the man as has his quiver full of sech, as many times I’ve said to Gamp when words has roge betwixt us on account of the expense–and often have I said to Mrs Harris, ‘Oh, Mrs Harris, ma’am! your countenance is quite an angel’s!’ Which, but for Pimples, it would be. ‘No, Sairey Gamp,’ says she, ‘you best of hard-working and industrious creeturs, as ever was underpaid at any price, which underpaid you are, quite diff’rent … But he never said it was an angel’s countenance, Sairey, wotever he might have thought.’

Mrs Harris asserts that Sairey Gamp is sober, trustworthy, hard-working – and exploited:

Mrs Harris,” I says, “leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don’t ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I am engaged to do, according to the best of my ability.” “Mrs Gamp,” she says, in answer–“if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people and three and six for gentlefolk–nightwatching … being an extra charge–you are that inwalable person.

Perhaps the best testimony to Sairey Gamp’s qualities is provided in the ironic observation of Mr Mould the undertaker:

I’ll tell you what, my dear,’ he observed, when Mrs Gamp had at last withdrawn and shut the door, “that’s a ve-ry shrewd woman. That’s a woman whose intellect is immensely superior to her station in life. That’s a woman who observes and reflects in an uncommon manner. She’s the sort of woman now,’ said Mould, drawing his silk handkerchief over his head again, and composing himself for a nap “one would almost feel disposed to bury for nothing; and do it neatly, too!’

In the last part of the novel Dickens returns to the murder mystery form he introduced in Barnaby Rudge (this time, complete with his first detective, the shadowy Nadgett).  The murder subplot involving Jonas Chuzzlewit has only a loose relationship with the main plot, but it does have the virtue of introducing Montague Tigg and his fraudulent, wonderfully-named Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company.  Tigg blackmails Jonas into investing heavily in the Anglo-Bengalee and when it collapses, Jonas seeks revenge. The passage in which we first learn of this venture is eerily reminiscent of events in recent times:

The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is rather a capital concern, I hope, David,’ said Montague.
‘Capital indeed!’ cried the secretary, with another laugh — ‘ in one sense.’
‘In the only important one,’ observed the chairman; ‘which is number one, David.’
‘What,’ asked the secretary, bursting into another laugh, ‘what will be the paid up capital, according to the next prospectus?’
‘A figure of two, and as many oughts after it as the printer can get into the same line,’ replied his friend. ‘Ha, ha!’

The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company started into existence one morning, not an Infant Institution, but a Grown-up Company running alone at a great pace, and doing business right and left: with a ‘branch’ in a first floor over a tailor’s at the west-end of the town, and main offices in a new street in the City, comprising the upper part of a spacious house resplendent in stucco and plate-glass, with wire-blinds in all the windows, and ‘Anglo-Bengalee’ worked into the pattern of every one of them. On the doorpost was painted again in large letters, ‘offices of the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company,’ and on the door was a large brass plate with the same inscription; always kept very bright, as courting inquiry; staring the City out of countenance after office hours on working days, and all day long on Sundays; and looking bolder than the Bank. Within, the offices were newly plastered, newly painted, newly papered, newly countered, newly floor-clothed, newly tabled, newly chaired, newly fitted up in every way, with goods that were substantial and expensive, and designed (like the company) to last. Business! Look at the green ledgers with red backs, like strong cricket-balls beaten flat; the court-guides directories, day-books, almanacks, letter-boxes, weighing-machines for letters, rows of fire-buckets for dashing out a conflagration in its first spark, and saving the immense wealth in notes and bonds belonging to the company; look at the iron safes, the clock, the office seal — in its capacious self, security for anything. Solidity! Look at the massive blocks of marble in the chimney-pieces, and the gorgeous parapet on the top of the house! Publicity! Why, Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance company is painted on the very coal-scuttles. It is repeated at every turn until the eyes are dazzled with it, and the head is giddy. It is engraved upon the top of all the letter paper, and it makes a scroll-work round the seal, and it shines out of the porter’s buttons, and it is repeated twenty times in every circular and public notice wherein one David Crimple, Esquire, Secretary and resident Director, takes the liberty of inviting your attention to the accompanying statement of the advantages offered by the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company; and fully proves to you that any connection on your part with that establishment must result in a perpetual Christmas Box and constantly increasing Bonus to yourself, and that nobody can run any risk by the transaction except the office, which, in its great liberality is pretty sure to lose. And this, David Crimple, Esquire, submits to you (and the odds are heavy you believe him), is the best guarantee that can reasonably be suggested by the Board of Management for its permanence and stability.

It’s in the final third of Chuzzlewit where, for me at least, the weaknesses of the novel are most apparent. In the convoluted amalgamation of the Jonas murder sub-plot with the muddled resolution of the main plot concerning the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits, Dickens seems to struggle to tie up loose ends and complete his overarching critique of hypocrisy and selfishness.  As often in Dickens, this is largely a result of the fact that he tended to be more fascinated by, and draw more convincingly, characters that displayed the darker side of humanity. This is a problem if you want to convince readers that individuals who are selfless, loyal and in all ways virtuous are better people.

Many of the ‘good’ characters here are hardly developed at all by Dickens: Ruth Pinch is the classic ‘little woman’, while Mary Graham is all but invisible.  Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley are both selfless and never sure they’re doing enough for others.  Of the two, Tapley is perhaps the strongest and more fully developed character. He’s always looking for opportunities for to gain credit for being ‘jolly’, but reckons that it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so comforts himself in bad situations that remaining optimistic and helping others will eventually allow him to stand out in the world. His care for the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit when they are in desperate straits in Eden is the nexus on which the book turns.

Despite the weaknesses of its construction Martin Chuzzlewit is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled with some memorable characters, teeming with wickedly satirical and hugely comic passages, and ringing with the voices of individuals of all classes and conditions from both sides of the Atlantic.  The novel sees Dickens presenting a unified social vision, even if that vision is belaboured at times.  As Martin Chuzzlewit was about halfway through its run, he distilled that vision into his everlastingly popular work, A Christmas Carol.

See also

Ry Cooder’s Election Special

I’ve got a bad feeling about the American Presidential election, and so has Ry Cooder.  He’s so worried that he’s rushed out a new album, Election Special, on which every track is dedicated to alerting his fellow-countrymen and the rest of the world to evil intentions of the Tea Party Republicans and their wealthy backers only interested in power, profit and war. Yes, it’s uncompromising, unapologetic, and concerned that this may be the last chance for ‘the 90 and the 9’ to hold on to their rights, their jobs, and a future for their children:

This may be the last time , I don’t know
It may be the last time for the 90 and the 9

If the Democrats don’t make it
Then I’ll have myself to blame
If we don’t raise some sand
Then our votes might slip away
And our civil rights and our equal pay
And then it’s too bad, Jim, for the 90 and the 9

They promised war was done but peace didn’t declare
Our young folks are still going there
I didn’t raise our child to go to war this time
Honey, they’re just shootin’
At the 90 and the 9

Opinion polls show Romney and Obama neck and neck.  Some say that the sane majority of Americans will remember why they voted for Obama in the first place. But, is there a sane majority in America these days? That’s what worries me.  Yesterday, The Guardian reported that an attendee at this week’s Republican party convention was removed from the conference after allegedly throwing nuts at a black camerawoman from CNN, saying ‘this is how we feed animals’.

Released in the US just in time for the Tampa Convention, Ry Cooder’s album features a cheeky ditty, ‘Going to Tampa’, voiced by a delegate who’s heading there to get ‘my ashes hauled’:

Goodbye my honey, farewell my baby
Don’t look for me around convention time
I’m bound for Tampa, in the great state of Florida
To see some distinguished friends of mine

Mitt and Rick and the pitbulls, the jolly ride and step forth
To the highest bidder each will guarantee
I’d give all my money sir if Palin calls me honey
And shakes the pizzas on my tree

‘Cause I’m goin’ to Tampa in the morning
Got my credentials in my overalls
But I can’t take you with me little darling
I’m going down to get my ashes hauled

If they can just find another Willie Horton, he opines, ‘we can petrify the nation and bring the votes from Mexico somehow’.  This guy dreams of reasserting states’ rights and Jim Crow laws.  In his sleeve notes to the album, Cooder wonders whether ‘as a mother, will Sarah Palin lead the Republican convention in a prayer for Treyvon?’

Election Special is full of folk, blues, and gospel themes brilliantly played by Cooder on guitar, mandolin and bass, with his son Joachim on drums.  Its songs draw upon old traditions of radical America reinterpreted for 2012, and in them Cooder takes direct and sometimes humorous aim at rapacious capitalists, big corporations and corrupt politicians.  An album consisting of nothing but political songs could end up an unlistenable disaster, but Election Special is entertaining, enjoyable to listen to, and musically seductive.  Many of these songs will last, like Woody Guthrie’s did.

In an interview with The Guardian, Cooder explained how these songs differ from the protest songs of the sixties:

Well, I don’t know how to write soldier music. They were soldiers’ songs so people could go out and hit the frontline. We shall overcome and so forth. And you need those types of songs. Especially in the Occupy movement. I think they’re going to want to have songs like that, it’ll be helpful. But I don’t know how to do that really. That’s a different kind of musical brain up there. So what I look at is these bleak stories: they’re narratives and they introduce you to a character and the character says something.

The album opens with the plaintive ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, voiced by the dog that Romney once strapped to the roof of his car for a long family road trip.  In his  forthright Guardian interview, Cooder explained that his loathing for Romney is fuelled as much by the way his business interests have raped the environment, as by his policies:

Romney is as bad as anyone can be. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a cruel man. He’s a perfect creation for what the Republican party is all about. And that is to say, a rapacious capitalist.  Anyone who ran Bain Capital is not your friend. All they’re going to do is rape and pillage the land.

The targets in ‘Brother Is Gone’ are the Koch Brothers who head up Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States and who liberally fund a bewildering range of conservative, free market and libertarian policy groups, lobbying organisations and right-wing foundations in the United States.

In an article a couple of years ago in New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote:

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests…. Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial’.  The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program – that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

In his sleeve notes, Ry Cooder observes, ‘The only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan. Satan will need to get paid, but in the meantime, they are doing everything in their power to hurt you and me. The big hurt’.

Oil spills and cancer towns was our stepping stones
Immigration bills and foreclosure homes
States’ rights we proclaimed
Like in the good old Jim Crow days
Our highest aim was to take your vote away

So, in the manner of Robert Johnson’s encounter with the devil at the crossroads, and decorated with a lovely mandolin arrangement, ‘Brother is Gone’ imagines the Koch brothers owing the devil, as Cooder explained in a New York Times interview:

I thought how could you – in a song phrase – explain them? Then I thought the crossroads. Everybody understands that. I thought, That’s how I’ll start: “We made the deal, and Satan’s deal was good, ’cause he said we could have all that horrible power and do anything we want.” But Satan’s price is he’ll come for one of the Koch brothers and take him back down. He won’t say which one. He won’t say when.

‘The Wall Street Part of Town’ was clearly inspired by the spirit of solidarity invoked by the Occupy movement:

I’m in trouble again but this time I’m not the only one
I was hurtin’ before but this time I’m not a lonely one
Divide and rule, that’s always been their plan
We’re in trouble again but this time we’ve got friends

So I’ll keep walkin’ if it takes all night
Hopin’ we gonna make things right
I’m lookin’ for the Wall Street part of town

‘Is there a Wall Street part of town in your town?’ Ry asks in his sleeve note. ‘Start your own, it’s easy. When the police come, remind them that you pay their salary, such as it may be’.  Or, as he put it more bluntly in the New York Times:

The only way we are going to save the country from these bastards is unity and solidarity, and the conservatives went after unity and solidarity when they started to dismantle the labor force under Reagan.

‘Guantanamo’ is not the lilting Cuban song about a country girl from Guantanamo, but a thunderous attack on prisons everywhere, and one notorious one in particular: ‘You can’t come back from Guantanamo’.

The striking thing about this election is the lack of any of the fervour that surrounded the Obama campaign in 2008, and there’s certainly no ‘Yes We Can’ video this time. Then, youth voter turnout was the highest it had been in 35 years, and it helped propel Obama to the White House. Now, according to an article in The Guardian earlier this month, as Obama strikes a centrist tone in order to reach crucial swing voters and conditions on the ground worsen, rappers see him as ‘part of the very political establishment rappers have long held in contempt’.

But Cooder will have none of this: at the heart of this collection of songs is his belief that Americans who want to preserve their liberties, defend jobs, health care and public services must stand up for Obama.  In ‘Cold Cold Feeling’  he imagines the president, alone in the dark, walking the Oval Office floor. ‘Before you criticize and accuse, walk a mile in his shoes’, he says on the album’s sleeve.  In the Guardian interview, Cooder was asked whether he saw Obama as a good man trapped in an impossible situation:

Yes, 110%. He’s set upon by dogs. He’s prevented from doing anything because the Republicans ensured that no president and no Democrat president can ever do good again. That’s what Bush was sent in there to do: destroy the presidency, and that’s what I think he did. How do you come back from that? How do you make the presidency good again? They talk about bi-partisanship but that’s an empty word, doesn’t mean a thing. So what is Obama supposed to do? How can he operate? This healthcare thing is really quite something, if it lives. They’re going to go after it and try to destroy it, that’s the leading end of the Republican effort right now, that’s going to sink the Titanic, you know?  I mean, I think he’s a good man. He’s a smart man. He understands the constitution, therefore he must respect it. They don’t. I believe that he does.

‘Kool-Aid’ is a fearsome blues enhanced by some classic Cooder slide guitar that gives voice to a poor man who swallowed conservative arguments. Too late, he realises that the rich have given the the poor gun rights and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws – but  defaulted on the promise of well-paid jobs and a secure future. He drank the Kool-Aid, they really drank it down.

Your poor white people — conservatives want to split them off and say, “We are going to engineer it so these people will vote against their own self-interest.” But this character in the “Kool-Aid” song says I did everything that was asked of me but I’m still losing my job and I’m going to lose my house. Finally, it occurs to him at 3 o’clock in the morning, what my friend Jim Dickinson used to call the moment of the horrible hillbilly reality, as his wife’s asleep and he’s smoking Chesterfields, and he says: “Wait a minute — this didn’t work at all. I’m hung out to dry. I’m twisting in the wind. I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Perhaps the best tracks on the album are the two with which it closes – the aforementioned ‘The 90 and the 9’ and ‘ Take Your Hands off It’, an out-and-out rocker co-written with his son Joachim.  They see this as a re-working of Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Land is Your Land’. In it the Cooders storm, ‘take your hands off my Constitution, my Bill of Rights, my polling rights, my reproductive rights’. ‘Take your hands of it, you know it don’t belong to you’.

Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world
And your war machine and your corporation thieves
That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary
Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you

This isn’t the first time that Cooder has gone overtly political: his last album, Pull Up Some Dust opened with ‘No Banker Left Behind’ and may prove to be the record that future generations look to in order to understand this recession. And, of course, throughout his lengthy musical career Cooder has immersed himself in Dustbowl era music and social history, always seeing the parallels to the modern-day situation.

Ry Cooder first surfaced in 1964, at the age of 17, playing in the blues-rock band Rising Sons with Taj Mahal. They recorded an album’s worth of material that was not released until 1992.  After that, Cooder was in demand as a studio musician, working with everyone from Captain Beefheart to the Monkees, and making classic contributions to Rolling Stones recordings, including the mandolin break on their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’ (on Gimme Shelter) and the slide guitar solo on Sticky Fingers‘ ‘Sister Morphine’.

His first solo record came out in 1970 and largely consisted of old folk and blues covers, including radical classics like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’. That began a pattern of albums early in his career that had at their centre classics of the Dust Bowl era, with songs by by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others.

More recently he produced two concept albums that documented social change in America in the years before and after the Second World War.  His 2005 masterpiece Chavez Ravine, dealt with the true story of destruction of a Latino neighbourhood in Los Angeles, a land grab to build Dodger Stadium. It was a heartfelt work about the forgotten victims of political and corporate shenanigans, built around the Hispanic sounds that permeated that displaced community. He followed that with My Name Is Buddy, a collection of songs imbued with socialist values about unions in the Depression as seen through the eyes of a cat named Buddy and his friends Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad.

A Ry Cooder radical America playlist

No Bankers Left Behind (from Pull Up Some Dust)

Do Re Mi (from Ry Cooder, 1970)

Strike! (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)

One Cat, One Vote, One Beer (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)

The Bourgeois Blues (from Chicken Skin Music, 1976)

Vigilante Man (from Into The Purple Valley, 1972)

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? (from Ry Cooder, 1970)

Take Your Hands Off It (from Election Special, 2012)

Patti Smith’s Banga: new lands to be explored

Patti Smith’s Banga: new lands to be explored

PattiSmith Banga

Reviewing Patti Smith’s new album, Banga, for Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz writes:

Remember those words that shot out of her lips like hot lightning on her brilliant 1978 record Easter: “I don’t fuck much with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future.” Well, more than three decades later, Banga is the work of someone interested in fucking with everything. […]

Smith is still the eternal college freshman at heart, constantly stumbling upon new artistic heroes and then drawing from them fathomless and unabashedly ebullient inspiration. […]  Ultimately, it’s Banga‘s earnestness about the thrill of discovery that makes it feel so out-of-time and refreshing. It runs counter to that sense of maxed-out ennui that governs the way so many people talk about art and artists in the age of Wikipedia– when posturing that you know it all is more attractive than confessing blind spots, if only so you can bemoan the fact that it’s all been done before. Though more in spirit than in sound, Banga pulses with the notion that there are still good books we haven’t read, old ideas waiting to be fucked with, and new lands we haven’t yet explored.

This, for me, states exactly, precisely, why a new album from Patti Smith is always so exhilarating – she isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve, and to joyfully stir into the mix imagery and thoughts provoked by art, poetry, film or literature which has recently inspired her.  On Banga, set to some of the best musical arrangements to have graced her albums, played impeccably by familiar collaborators –  guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Tony Shanahan, guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Jack Petruzzelli, and her children Jackson and Jessi on guitar and piano – her lyrics encompass a dog in Bulgakov’s  Master and Margarita, Nikolai Gogol, film director Andrei Tarkovsky, actress Maria Schneider and ill-starred Amy Winehouse.  About the dog, Patti explained in an interview:

The album title came from the dog in The Master and Margarita. It was Pontius Pilate’s dog and his dog’s name was Banga. The reason I wrote a song for Banga, for those who have not read the book, Pontius Pilate waited on the edge of Heaven for 2000 years to talk to Jesus Christ and his dog, Banga, stayed faithfully by his side and I thought that any dog that would wait 2000 years for his master deserves a song. Its really a song for my band and for the people. It’s a high-spirited song, dedicated to love and loyalty.

Patti Smith seeks out – and yearns to espress – the ecstatic: as she cries in the chorus of ‘Banga’: ‘believe or explode!’  Her imaginative cosmos is inhabited by Blake, Dylan, Jim Morrison, Rimbaud, Gahndi, Baudelaire and Burroughs – all part of a flowing conceptual continuity.

Banga evolved over four years, the songs emerging as Patti wrote her first memoir, Just Kids, the chronicle of her deep friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, which won critical acclaim.  This perhaps explains the variety of subjects and musical moods on the album.  There are catchy, sixties-style pop songs like ‘April Fool’, ‘This Is the Girl’ (for Amy Winehouse), ‘Amerigo’, and the elegaic waltz  ‘Maria’ (written for her friend, the actress Maria Schneider, and evoking, Smith writes in the sleevenotes, ‘the wanderings of the nameless girl in the desert that Maria portrayed in Antonioni’s The Passenger‘).  ‘Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)’ is a jam inspired by the free jazz of Sun-Ra and Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, Ivan’s Childhood, in Patti’s estimation ‘the most beautiful movie about war’.  Its repeated phrase, ‘The boy, the beast and the butterfly’ recalling a key scene in the film.

Ivan’s Childhood

The band really rocks out on the title track and ‘Fuji-san’, a remembrance for the victims of Japan’s Tohoku earthquake.  Patti writes  in the notes to Banga:

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced the Tohoku earthquake. The concern for our friends and all of the Japanese people led Lenny [Kaye] and I to write ‘Fuji-san.’ It is for them — a call of prayer to the great mountain — for a protective cloak of love.

Hokusai : from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji

But it is the songs that bookend the album on which I’ll focus in this post. ‘Amerigo’ and the epic ‘Constantine’s Dream’ are romantic critiques of conquest and environmental degradation that spiral out into meditations on art and spirituality. ‘Amerigo’, with a lilting and infectious chorus, extrapolates from letters written by Amerigo Vespucci after discovering the New World. Smith imagines his Catholicism and colonial ideology being turned inside-out following his encounters with its indigenous people.

In this land we placed baptismal fonts
And an infinite number were baptized […]

Ah the salvation of souls
But wisdom we had not
for these people had neither king nor lord
And bowed to no one
For they lived in their own liberty

Vespucci arrives in the New World

Amerigo Vespucci was a Florentine merchant and explorer who led four expeditions in search of a western route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, and whose name was given to the American continents by the mapmaker Waldseemüller.  Patti Smith has drawn on letters Vespucci wrote to those who had sponsored his voyages back in Florence.  This is an extract from a letter to Pier Soderini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence that gives an account of Vespucci’s first voyage in 1497 (known as the Soderini letter).  If his claims are in this missive accurate he reached the mainland of the Americas at least 14 months before Columbus:

They are not accustomed to have any Captain, nor do they go in any ordered array, for every one is lord of himself: and the cause of their wars is not for lust of dominion, nor of extending their frontiers, no for inordinate covetousness, but for some ancient enmity which in by-gone times arose amongst them: and when asked why they made war, they knew not any other reason to give than that they did so to avenge the death of their ancestors, or of their parents: these people have neither King, nor Lord, nor do they yield obedience to any one, for they live in their own liberty: and how they be stirred up to go to war is (this) that when the enemies have slain or captured any of them, his oldest kinsman rises up and goes about the highways haranguing them to go with him and avenge the death of such his kinsman: and so are they stirred up by fellow-feeling: they have no judicial system, nor do they punish the ill-doer: nor does the father, nor the mother chastise the children and marvelously (seldom) or never did we see any dispute among them. […]

They sleep in certain very large nettings made of cotton, suspended in the air: and although this their (fashion of) sleeping may seem uncomfortable, I say that it is sweet to sleep in those (nettings): and we slept better in them than in the counterpanes. […]

They use no trade, they neither buy nor sell. In fine, they live and are contended with that which nature gives them. The wealth that we enjoy in this our Europe and elsewhere, such as gold, jewels, pearls, and other riches, they hold as nothing; and although they have them in their own lands, they do not labour to obtain them, nor do they value them. They are liberal in giving, for it is rarely they deny you anything

In the Mundus Novus or Medici letter sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Vespucci describes a later voyage to South America in 1501-1502. In it, Vespucci gives a description of the Carib people of the southern Caribbean and the northern coast of South America:

Albericus Vespucius offers his best compliments to Lorenzo Pietro di Medici. On a former occasion I wrote to you at some length concerning my return from those new regions which we found and explored with the fleet, at the cost, and by the command of this Most Serene King of Portugal. And these we may rightly call a new world. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about them. […]

We found in those parts such a multitude of people as nobody could enumerate (as we read in the Apocalypse), a race I say gentle and amenable. Ali of both sexes go about naked, covering no part of their bodies; and just as they spring from their mothers’ wombs so they go until death. They have indeed large square-built bodies, well formed and proportioned, and in color verging upon reddish. This I think has come to them, because, going about naked, they are colored by the sun. They have, too, hair plentiful and black. In their gait and when playing their games they are agile and dignified. […]

They have no cloth either of wool, linen or cotton, since they need it not; neither do they have goods of their own, but ali things are held in common. They live together without king, without government, and each is his own master.[…]

Beyond the fact that they have no church, no religion and are not idolaters, what more can I say ? They live according to nature, and may be called Epicureans rather than Stoics. There are no merchants among their number, nor is there barter.

And the sky opened
And we laid down our armour
And we danced naked as they
Baptized in the rain
Of the New World

Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map grew out of an ambitious project during the first decade of the 16th century to document the  new geographic knowledge gained from the discoveries of the late 15th and the first years of the 16th centuries. Waldseemüller’s large world map included data gathered during Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages of 1501–1502 to the New World. Waldseemüller christened the new lands ‘America’ in recognition of Vespucci ’s understanding that a continent new to Europeans had been discovered as a result of the voyages of Vespucci  and Columbus. There is only one known surviving copy of the first printed edition of the map which probably consisted of 1000 copies.

Waldseemüller’s map supported Vespucci’s revolutionary concept by portraying the New World as a separate continent, until then  unknown to the Europeans. It was the first map to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map represented a huge leap forward in knowledge, recognizing the newly found American landmass and forever changing the prior European understanding of a world divided into only three parts: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Martin Waldseemüller’s world map, 1507

Patti explains in the sleeve notes for Banga:

I misplaced the postcard, and confused by the soldiers’ armour, I was unable to locate it in the realm of Spanish art, yet the image haunted me.  Years later, on a plane to Rome, about to embark on an Italian tour, I mentioned the coveted image to Lenny, pledging I would one day find it. Our tour ended in Arezzo. That night, I had a troubled sleep and dreamed of an environmental apocalypse and a weeping Saint Francis. I awoke and went down to a courtyard and entered a church to say a prayer. I noticed a painting on the back wall. Piero della Francesca had created the frescoes of The Legend of the True Cross. There, in all its glory, was the full image that the postcard had detailed – The Dream of Constantine!

Piero della Francesca Dream of Constantine

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

As fate would have it, it was in the Basilica of St. Francis. I decided to learn more of his life and contribution and also of the painter of The Dream of Constantine. This opened a period of intense study and pilgrimage.

Our friend, Stefano Righi, guided Lenny and I through the stations of Saint Francis’ life: the mountain where birds covered him, singing, the forest in Gubbia where he tamed a wolf, the frescoes of Giotto and finallyhis magnetic tomb, beneath the lower Basilica ofthe Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. We left the memorial card for our beloved friend, the poet Jim Carroll, who revered Saint Francis.

There are many stories I could tell in the creation of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, but let it suffice that Lenny and I prayed before the painting for the strength to achieve our mission. Lenny conceived of the musical themes and guitar figures, and our band recorded a strong basic track. We then took the track back to Arezzo and recruited the band Casa del Vento, whom I met during a benefit concert for EMERGENCY. The band from Arezzo improvised on the track of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, only steps away from the Basilica of Saint Francis, where the piece was born.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is an improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation, recorded live in the studio, that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm. It is a major piece of work, exploring the relationship between art, knowledge, spirituality and humanity: rich and compelling, as deep and fully realised as anything she’s ever recorded.

The narrative consists, not of one dream, but a telescopic series of dreams, each one merging into the next like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes. Smith makes connections between seemingly unconnected events; in her hands, time flows like liquid.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis

who kneeled and prayed
For the birds and beasts and all humankind

In the early light, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco where she finds peace in a vision of the world of Saint Francis:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing of him
All the beauty that surrounded him as he walked
His nature that was nature itself

But Patti is senses another call, ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross.  Patti here draws on the account of Eusebius, who wrote, ‘he saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces or ‘In this sign, you will conquer’.  In her extemporisation this becomes:

And the angel came and showed to him
The sign of the true cross in heaven
And upon it was written
in this sign shall thou conquer’.

From Constantine’s dream, the poem shifts into the dream of the artist:

From the geometry of his heart he mapped it out
He saw the King rise, fitted with armour
Set upon a white horse
An immaculate cross in his right hand.
He advanced toward the enemy
And the symmetry, the perfection of his mathematics
Caused the scattering of the enemy
Agitated, broken, they fled.

Patti sees Francesca wake and cry out:

All is art – all is future!
Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The blind and aged Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Now, Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a sleep and in a dream of his own, sees all of this beauty ‘entwined with the future’ in an apocalyptic vision of nature destroyed – the ‘terrible end of man’, the ‘cross to bear’:

The 21st century advancing like the angel that had come
To Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

Here, Patti echoes Rousseau’s reversal of the Christian theme of the human fall from grace.  The direction of the fall is reversed: no longer into nature, but into culture.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is not the final track, though.  The album concludes with Patti’s own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home. Patti, accompanied by young children, sings:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

In the album notes, Patti describes how the last two tracks came into being:

Back in New York at Electric Lady Studios, I summoned all I had experienced in the last year. I considered the night of my apocalyptic dream and finding the postcard image. I thought of the painter who went blind and died October 12, 1492, the same day Columbus set foot in the New World. I thought of Saint Francis and his bond with nature and the threat of environmental devastation in our own century. Surrounded by my supportive camp, I stepped before the microphone. All the research I had done fell away, as I improvised the words, driven by the deep personal struggle of the artist, who by the nature of his calling is obliged to manifest the spiritual as physical matter in the material world.

My daughter Jesse and son Jackson open the Neil Young song. I chose it to follow the dark apocalyptic vision of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, as it offers a new beginning. Tony Shanahan recorded his young nephew Tadhg and friends singing the last refrain. Thus Banga closes with my son and daughter, and the sons and daughter of others – all our children, the hope of the world, embarking on adventures of their own.

At a performance in San Francisco in October 2010, Patti prefaced a performance of her beautiful song ‘Wing’ with a reading of Saint Francis’ prayer.  For the first time I was able to sense the true meaning of his words, free from the defilement that Margaret Thatcher imposed when she intoned them on her election victory in 1979:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Patti Smith’s Banga is, both lyrically and musically, a superb album, bursting with inspiring and challenging ideas.  It comes in a beautiful special edition a 65-page book of original images, complete lyrics, and liner notes by Patti Smith that is a gorgeous artefact in its own right.

See also