Keith Richards and the Decade That Exploded

Keith Richards and the Decade That Exploded

A few nights ago we watched Julien Temple’s super film, Keith Richards: The Origin of the Species, covering the guitarist’s early years, from birth to 18, following it with Jon Savage’s film, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, based on his expansive book which I’ve just finished reading.

Who would have thought it? The reprobate Keith Richards re-imagined as an avuncular national treasure? Temple’s film was a delight; I don’t think I stopped grinning once. Cleverly weaving Keith reminiscing about his childhood and family connections into an intricate montage of archive newsreel, TV commercials, old public information films and dramatic reconstructions in monochrome, Origin of the Species successfully evoked what it felt like to be part of the generation born in the 40s who grew up in the still grey and hidebound 50s. Continue reading “Keith Richards and the Decade That Exploded”

Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Stories of exile: <em>Queens of Syria, Exodus</em> and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Another day, yet another atrocity hurled from the maelstrom of conflict in the Middle East, the turmoil which has also resulted in over half of Syria’s people being killed or forced to flee their homes to become refugees. In the evening I attend a performance at the Liverpool Everyman of Queens of Syria, a remarkable touring production, performed by Syrian women from a refugee camp in Amman, which weaves the women’s own stories of exile and war into passages from the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, theatre’s earliest dramatisation of the plight of women in war.

Earlier this week I watched the BBC documentary trilogy, Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which told the stories of some of the refugees in last year’s huge movement of people fleeing disaster – on dinghies crossing from Turkey to Greece, along the migrant trail through the Balkans, and in the Jungle at Calais – filmed along the way by those same people on mobile phones.

After a referendum campaign which seemed to establish the expression of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment as respectable once more, these three films gave voice to those who have truly lost their homeland, in stark contrast  to those in this country who, having ‘wanted to get their country back’, now truly believe that’s what they have achieved. Continue reading “Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group”

My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement

My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement

A couple of weekends ago in The Observer, there was an article, 50 documentaries you need to see, introduced by Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville. The following night the Storyville slot on BBC Four featured an outstanding documentary concerned with history, guilt and justice directed by David Evans in which human rights lawyer Philippe Sands – whose family, all but one, were Jews murdered by Nazis at Lviv – accompanied the sons of two prominent Nazi leaders on a journey across Europe and into the darkness of the past shared by all three men. Continue reading “My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement”

The Innocence of Memories: a story of love, obsession and a city

<em>The Innocence of Memories</em>: a story of love, obsession and a city

A city, Orhan Pamuk once told me, would be a museum for our memories if we live in it long enough.
Narration, ‘The Innocence of Memories’

Director Grant Gee’s last film was Patience (After Sebald), a film in which passages read from Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn complemented images of the Suffolk landscape with absolute perfection. Now he has done something similar with Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence, taking the viewer on atmospheric journeys, drifting through the deserted streets and alleyways of Istanbul at night, accompanied by readings from the novel and extra material also written by Pamuk. It’s a stunning film, perhaps the best invocation of the spirit of a work of literature that I’ve seen.  It also provides a guided tour of the Museum of Innocence itself, established by Pamuk in Istanbul to house real objects that trace the fictional love affair described in the novel. Continue reading The Innocence of Memories: a story of love, obsession and a city”

Janis: Little Girl Blue: break another little bit of my heart

<em>Janis: Little Girl Blue</em>: break another little bit of my heart

Janis: Little Girl Blue is a documentary directed by Amy Berg about Janis Joplin.  It’s a story with which you’re already familiar, and a subject that might too easily appeal to those harbouring a lurid interest in drug-fuelled sexual excesses or a tie-dyed nostalgia for the sixties. Berg, though, avoids sensationalism or pathos (except perhaps in the title), and her film features few of those music biz talking heads, familiar from Friday evening BBC 4 music documentaries, blathering on about how so-and-so was such a wonderful person who single-handedly changed the course of modern music. Continue reading Janis: Little Girl Blue: break another little bit of my heart”

The Salt of the Earth: Sebastião Salgado’s own way of seeing

<em>The Salt of the Earth</em>: Sebastião Salgado’s own way of seeing

The photography of humanity.
Gabriel García Márquez

There’s a moment two-thirds the way through watching Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders’ stunning new documentary about the work of Sebastiao Salgado, when you feel crushed by the same existential despair felt by the photographer in 1995 when, after years photographing famine, war and genocide in Africa and Europe, he witnessed atrocious scenes in Rwanda and the Congo that left him shaken to the core, despairing of any hope for humanity. Continue reading The Salt of the Earth: Sebastião Salgado’s own way of seeing”

Fred Wiseman in the National Gallery

Fred Wiseman in the National Gallery

The other day I caught up with Frederick Wiseman’s epic documentary about the National Gallery, shown recently on BBC 4.  In characteristic fly-on-the-wall style, Wiseman spent much of 2012 prowling the corridors, boardrooms and backrooms of the National Gallery, having been given exclusive access to film anything that took his fancy. Continue reading “Fred Wiseman in the National Gallery”

Citizenfour documents the monitoring and curbing of dissent

<em>Citizenfour</em> documents the monitoring and curbing of dissent

I’ve come to this late, but I must salute one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen in recent years.  Filmed in real time, Citizenfour documents the tense negotiations leading up to whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the massive state surveillance of British and American citizens.  The film appeared last autumn, and I have just caught up with a recording of its Channel 4 broadcast some weeks back. Continue reading Citizenfour documents the monitoring and curbing of dissent”

Growth: the destructive god

Growth: the destructive god

Manufactured Landscapes 1

A piece in today’s Guardian by George Monbiot summed up my thoughts about the destructive nature of the economic system that we live under, with its blind commitment to constant growth, and also reminded me of a documentary film I saw recently.

Monbiot began his piece in a tone far from upbeat: ‘Another crash is coming. We all know it, now even David Cameron acknowledges it. The only questions are what the immediate catalyst will be, and when it begins’. He went on to relate the threatening symptoms of economic collapse to global capitalism’s addiction to constant growth:

If it goes down soon, as Cameron fears, in a world of empty coffers and hobbled public services it will precipitate an ideological crisis graver than the blow to Keynesianism in the 1970s. The problem that then arises – and which explains the longevity of the discredited ideology that caused the last crash – is that there is no alternative policy, accepted by mainstream political parties, with which to replace it. They will keep making the same mistakes, while expecting a different outcome.

To try to stabilise this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, burning the furniture, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night. They are breaking up the postwar settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years – all are being stacked on to the fire, their protection characterised as an impediment to growth. […]

Is it not time to think again? To stop sacrificing our working lives, our prospects, our surroundings to an insatiable God? To consider a different economic model, which does not demand endless pain while generating repeated crises? […]

Monbiot concludes by asking ‘the question that never gets asked: why?’

Why are we wrecking the natural world and public services to generate growth, when that growth is not delivering contentment, security or even, for most of us, greater prosperity? Why have we enthroned growth, regardless of its utility, above all other outcomes? Why, despite failures so great and so frequent, have we not changed the model? When the next crash comes, these questions will be inescapable.

Super Pit #2 Manufactured Landscapes 10

Monbiot’s words recalled the striking documentary I watched a few weeks ago: Manufactured Landscapes by Edward Burtynsky, a photographer who is internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of the ‘manufactured landscapes’ created by humans – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams. The film follows Burtynsky through China, as he films the evidence and the effects of massive economic growth. There are long, breathtaking sequences, such as the opening tracking shot through an almost endless factory.

"Manufacturing #17", Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Manufactured Landscapes 3

The film is an extended meditation on the human impact on the planet through the cycle that begins with the extraction of resources, continues with industrial production and ends with the dumping of waste. It’s a testament to the unsustainability of our economic system that Monbiot writes about today.

After the mesmerising tracking shot that opens the film, we hear Edward Burtynsky’s words as he explains his objective in making Manufactured Landscapes:

Is there some way I can actually talk about nature and bring a certain appreciation for what it represents?  That we come from nature, and that we have to understand what it is so as not to harm it and then to ultimately harm ourselves. That there is an importance to have a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it and we are part of it. And if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.

So I believe that as a fundamental philosophical position when I look at the world.  I started thinking, maybe the new landscape of our time, the one to start to talk about is the landscape that we change. The one that we disrupt in pursuit of progress. I’m trying to look at the industrial landscape as a way of defining who we are and our relationship to the planet.

It’s  this thing that’s just growing, and it’s part of our economy and it’s part of our politics, and it’s a part of how we elect our governments. It’s part of everything we do. But it’s this big machine that started rolling…

Manufactured Landscapes 5 Manufactured Landscapes 7 Manufactured Landscapes 12

In a TED talk on YouTube, Burtynsky presents a slideshow of his photographs, which reveal vividly how industrial development is altering the Earth’s natural landscape: mountains of worn tyres, the hulks of rusting oil tankers waiting to be dismantled on a Bangladeshi beach, a river of bright orange waste from a nickel mine, women and children sifting through mountains of computer waste to pick out toxic but precious metals. Often the images are beautiful, but at the same time, as their significance dawns, they are horrifying.

Manufactured Landscapes 2India Climate

Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

The opening tracking shot from Manufactured Landscapes:

BB King: no Life of Riley

BB King: no Life of Riley

BB King

BB King performs during a concert in Denmark in 1969

Speaking of bad luck and trouble
Well you know I had my share
I’m gonna pack my suitcase, move on down the line
Yes I’m gonna pack my suitcase, move on down the line
Where there ain’t nobody worried
And there ain’t nobody crying
– ‘
Every Day I Have the Blues‘, recorded by BB King in 1955

BB King was born on 16 September, 1925, on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi.  It would be many years before he lived the life of Riley.

Riley B King’s life started out far from carefree: born in a shack whose walls had gaps wide enough to look through and tell the time of day, his mother died early from diabetes and before the age of nine he was working the cotton fields, steering a plough and holding the reins of a mule.  Jon Brewer’s superb documentary The Life of Riley, shown on BBC 4 last Friday, is a film I have wanted to see since it was released to great reviews last summer.

Riley King was born in a cabin on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi delta. His father left when he was five, and after his mother remarried, he was raised by his maternal grandmother. In the film, King tells Brewer of how he was doing arduous farm work, cotton-picking and driving a mule, from the age of seven. Even small children toiled, he says, ‘from can to can’t . . . from when you can see to when you can’t.’  King speaks of witnessing the lynching and castration of a young black man by a white mob – his crime had been to wolf-whistle at a white girl.

‘I remember the holler,’ says BB. ‘Holding the reins of a mule pulling a hoe through them cotton fields.’ The field holler, he explains, was a lament sung by a single voice. It also served to alert others in the field that the boss was coming, or that water was needed. ‘Yeah, the holler is where it all started. I think it’s in all of us.’

He sang gospel at the local Baptist Church and first heard the blues listening on his great-Aunt’s phonograph to records of Blind Lemon Jefferson. His uncle, the bluesman Bukka White, would sometimes visit from Memphis, and  play and sing.

Brewer’s film draws on old and new interviews with King himself and the recollections of people who knew him as a young boy to vividly bring to life the story of those years.  After his grandmother died, Riley went to live with his father 50-miles away. But, missing the Delta and the life he had known, he returned, riding his bicycle. An elderly couple sit on the porch of their home remembering that day when the nine-year old Riley cycled home. They talk movingly of the four years that he lived alone in a shack, working to pay off his dead mother’s and grandmother’s debts.

In 1943, King left to work as a tractor driver and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet of Inverness, Mississippi, building a local reputation performing at area churches and on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi. The film focusses heavily on the early years, piecing together his path to success.  In 1946, King followed Bukka White, his mother’s first cousin, to Memphis where Bukka and other musicians were willing to help him learn. He served time as a disc jockey at WDIA, America’s first all black radio station. His nickname there – Blues Boy – was soon shortened to B.B.

Now here it is three o’clock in the mornin’
And I can’t even close my eyes
It’s three o’clock in the mornin’, baby
I can’t even close my eyes

In Memphis BB King developed his unique guitar style – the vibrato that is instantly recognisable as BB King’s after only a single note. He was staying with Bukka White, and as he tells it:

Bukka used to play slide using a bottleneck, or just a piece of pipe. I wanted to do that, and I tried and he showed me how – but I got stupid fingers, see, and I just couldn’t do it.  But the sound Bukka made went all through me, and I devised my own technique for producing the tremolo without the slide. I swivel my wrist from my elbow, back and forth, and this stretches the string, raising and lowering the pitch of the note rhythmically. With my other fingers stretched out, my whole hand makes a fluttering gesture, a bit like a butterfly flapping its wings.

King built his band and released his first hit, ‘Three O’Clock Blues’. In The Life of Riley, King and band members recall the days of performing on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit, playing to strictly segregated black audiences. ‘Though I never called it any Chitlin’ Circuit,’ says BB King. From that time on, the road became home for King.  Sometimes he would perform 350 days a year, staying in segregated hotels, eating at segregated restaurants.

Everybody wants to know
Why I sing the blues
Yes, I say everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
I really have paid my dues

When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
And everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
Mm, I’ve really paid my dues

‘I’ve put up with more humiliation than I care to remember,’ King says at one point. ‘Touring a segregated America – forever being stopped and harassed by white cops hurt you most cos you don’t realise the damage. You hold it in. You feel empty, like someone reached in and pulled out your guts. You feel hurt and dirty, less than a person.’ He tells of one night at the Gaston Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was staying at the same time as Dr Martin Luther King, when ‘they bombed the place. The bomb rocked my room.’

I’ve laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
To give the roaches some
Everybody wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
Yes, I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve paid my dues

King re-tells the story of how he came to name his guitar Lucille.  A fight in a juke joint led to a can of kerosene being knocked over and the place catching fire.  Everyone fled, but BB realised he had left his guitar inside and ran to get it. Discovering that the fight had been over a girl called Lucille, ‘I named my guitar Lucille to remind myself not to do something like that again, and I haven’t.’

I walk through the cities, people
On my bare feet
I had a fill of catfish and chitterlings
Up in Downbill Street
You know I’m singing the blues
Yes, I really
I just have to sing my blues
I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve really, really paid my dues

In Brewer’s film, there is a montage in which several great blues guitarists acknowledge King’s unique style, and their ability to recognise it instantly. King says: ‘I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.’  One of the most moving aspects of the film is the way in which BB King speaks of the white British blues musicians who recognised his qualities and so enabled him to break through to a much wider audience.  He describes playing a gig one night in Chicago when four white guys arrived. ‘One of them was extra white,’ he recalls, referring to the albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter. BB suspected they were tax inspectors, so when Winter asked if he could sit in on a number, King was initially reluctant. But he relented, and, he says, ‘He was good. I tell you, he was good.’

From interviews with many of the British musicians who followed his example, Brewer’s film tells how King’s unique electric guitar sound – a sound that blended delta blues, jazz, pop, swing, and jump blues – inspired the 1960s generation of rock artists and introduced him to young, white audiences.  We hear from John Mayall, who nurtured a stable of King-admirers that included Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor,and others such as Keith Richards. ‘I can tell BB from one note,’ says Eric Clapton in the film.

In another memorable sequence, King describes the first time he played at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco. At first, seeing the lines of young white people queueing outside, King thinks he is in the wrong place.  He is overwhelmed by the audience reception and confesses that he was so moved after several standing ovations that he ‘cried back up the stairway’.

Yeah, they told me everything
Would be better out in the country
Everything was fine
I caught me a bus uptown, baby
And every people, all the people
Got the same trouble as mine
I got the blues, huh huh
I say I’ve been around a long time
I’ve really paid some dues.

What emerges from this fine film is a picture of BB King as a warm and generous man who has worked hard and lived life to the full.  In the end, I guess, he really did live the life of Riley.

The Stuart Hall Project: who are we, what are we and what could we become?

The Stuart Hall Project: who are we, what are we and what could we become?

The Stuart Hall Project 2

When I saw John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat in November 2012 I was deeply moved.  Like everyone else I know who saw the three-screen installation based on the life, work and thoughts of the Jamaican-born sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, I loved it so much, I had to go back and see it again several times.

Since then, Akomfrah has expanded his exploration of Hall’s life and legacy in a documentary film, The Stuart Hall Project, that was released last year. Following the news of Stuart Hall’s death, we watched the film on DVD last night. However, watching the 90 minute film turned out to be very different to the experience of being immersed in the multiple screen poetry of The Unfinished Conversation. At twice the length, The Stuart Hall Project obviously shares the same genes as the installation, but is a quite different creature: the film, mainly utilising different archive footage, is structured in a more linear fashion, and is less lyrical, poetic and moving than its antecedent.

If that makes it sound as if I am unimpressed, I must make clear that The Stuart Hall Project, although having a more conventional documentary format, is nevertheless intellectually stimulating, and beautifully composed.  At the film’s close Akomfrah adds a personal dedication, ‘with deepest gratitude and respect’, and now that Stuart Hall is dead, Akomrah’s lovingly compiled film will stand as a testament to Hall and the ideas of the British New Left to which he contributed so much.  In the generous booklet that accompanies the DVD, Akomfrah explains:

I always wanted to try to do a film about the New Left in Britain, that postwar period that is so often ignored. And the more we looked at it the more we realised that we could tell this whole story through Stuart’s amazing life.

Akomfrah’s film is not a straight biography, although it is more conventionally chronological than the installation in the way it organises its material. Crafted from a meticulous sifting of over 100 hours of archival footage featuring Hall (mainly gathered from the BBC and Channel 4), it unfolds simultaneously as a tribute to a great academic and communicator, a study of the emergence of the New Left and its political ideas, and as an essay on post-colonialism and diasporic experience in Britain.

There’s another key element: the music of Miles Davis. The soundtrack is dominated by the cool, languid music of Hall’s favourite musician: Miles ‘put a finger on my soul’, Hall says. Akonfrah – quoting Hall’s words, ‘nostalgia for what cannot be is in the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet’ – uses Miles’ music to structure the film’s narrative, an alternative, intersecting route through the same historical period that the film tracks.  This is more than just a question of favourite music – it is also symbolic of the contention by Hall and other New Left thinkers in the late 50s and early 60s that shifts and insurrections in popular culture were as significant as economic and ideological questions.  In other words, Miles’ music and persona represent not just the Birth of the Cool, but also the birth of cultural studies.  Having recognised its significance, however, I do feel it was a mistake to insert a caption on screen every time a new Davis track floated on the soundtrack: distracting and a little too pedantic.

TheStuartHallProject_still1_StuartHall__bysmokingdogsfilms_2012-11-25_07-44-54AM.jpg_cmyk.jpg

‘I was an outsider from the time I was born,’ Hall says at one point.  He identifies himself as a ‘twenty-first century man’ who does not ‘belong anywhere any longer’, a man of many ‘routes’ (he chuckles as he spells out the word he means).  Hall, then, is representative of the strand of thought with which he is most associated – the social and political implications of post-war immigration patterns that created a multicultural Britain, a country with an increasingly mixed heritage inhabited by growing numbers of people of mixed heritage. Hall identifies himself as a man of many origins, born into a middle-class Jamaican family of mixed Portuguese-Jewish, African and English descent, he was ‘three shades darker than my family’.

This is the Unfinished Conversation that was Stuart Hall’s personal experience and the subject of a lifetime’s analysis:

Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history.  Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.

Akomfrah’s film traces Hall’s trajectory, from his childhood in Jamaica to his career as a very public British intellectual. ‘Stuart Hall was kind of a rock star for us,’ Akomfrah writes in the DVD booklet:

For many of my generation in the 70s… he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. His very iconic presence on this most public of platforms suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities.

Certainly, one of the remarkable things about watching this film is the revelation of how deeply committed Hall was to the task of communicating complex and challenging ideas to a mass audience.  The clips from the archives of the BBC and the early Channel 4 that have been excavated from the archives by Akomfrah take us back to a time when television discourse was much more open than now, when audience share and marketing are the prime drivers of programming.

I think that it is this to which Mark Fisher refers when he writes in the DVD booklet:

I wept when I saw The Unfinished Conversation at the Liverpool Biennial – not something one expects to do in the largely arid and affectless terrain of contemporary art. Others told me that they, too, had cried. We were weeping because we had only recognised the full extent of what we had lost when Akomfrah recovered it.

Akomfrah’s film follows Hall from his arrival at Oxford University, through the foundation of the New Left following the crises of 1956, to his founding, with Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, of the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies and his work with the Open University.  Throughout, Hall writes for New Left Review and other journals, travels the country addressing public meetings and lectures extensively on the subjects of race, identity, and social change in Britain.  And, as the archive footage assembled by Akonfrah makes evident, Hall is constantly on TV – articulate and assured, with that mellifluous voice explaining matters with clarity and forthrightness. That voice spoke from and for a new kind of Britain – one in which you need not be white, or speak with a Home Counties accent, to be respected and accepted as an authority.

In the DVD booklet, Akomfrah pinpoints the impact which Stuart Hall’s TV appearances had for him and other black teenagers in the 1970s:

In those heady, mono-cultural days, he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. I loved all the athletes and singers and dancers too but when you are a black teenage bookworm in seventies West London, let’s just say a public intellectual of colour disseminating ideas on television offered other more immediate compensations. Stuart Hall was a kind of rock star for us; a pop icon with brains whose very iconic presence on this most public of platforms – television – suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’. By just being there in our bedrooms and living rooms, he opened up pathways into that space that he has referred as the place of ‘the unfinished conversation’, that space in which the dialogue between us and the external world begins, that place of identity. With him and through him we began to ask the indispensable questions of that conversation: who are we, what are we and what could we become.

In his essay for the DVD release, Akomfrah states that all of his work has been concerned with ‘the presence of memory’, as a way into describing all our lives:

It begins there; with memory, with uncovering the stems of memory, the ghosts of history sifting through the debris and detritus of past events for traces of the phantoms. It begins with searching and rummaging through all those itineraries, those collective unfinished conversations that tell us something about how a bright young Rhodes scholar from colonial Jamaica, became ‘Stuart Hall’. In understanding him and the movements he shaped and was shaped by, we begin to understand something about how we became what we are: the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution, the anti-colonial project, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the new Left, feminism, class politics, cultural studies. All these interventions, these unfinished conversations. And, in honouring him, we honour the best in ourselves.

‘Amen to that’, Akomfrah concludes, and one can only agree, heartily.  For those events, issues and changes are what have  shaped all our lives, whatever individual routes we traced through the postwar decades. We have all benefited from the legacy of that politics of inclusion, the values that Hall fought and argued for. As Akomfrah – a migrant of another, younger generation, the son of Ghanaian political activists – told Tim Adams of the Observer:

Every time I look at my own life here, and the lives of my children, I see something that the work of Stuart and others allowed. They helped to create a way for us to really live here. It didn’t happen by accident but through example and struggle; looking back it might be easy for some to be dismissive of that, but I think my daily life is a validation of that work.

In his Observer article, Tim Adams remarks that:

Watching Akomfrah’s film, which traces Hall’s journey from childhood in Jamaica, through his arrival in Britain and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1950, to now, you come to see how pivotal his voice has been in shaping the progressive debates of our times – around race, gender and sexuality – and how an increasingly conservative culture has worked lately to marginalise his nuanced understanding of this country.

If Stuart Hall heard in Miles Davis’s music a ‘nostalgia for what cannot be’, watching John Akonfrah’s account of Hall’s life, with its commitment to multiculturalism and progressive ideas, evokes a different nostalgia – for a time when such ideas and arguments made a vital contribution to debate about British identity.

See also

Snow in 1963

Snow in March 1963

Snow in late March 1963 

Not much snow here today – though a ‘snow event’ in many other parts seems to have brought things sliding to a halt.  It wasn’t like this in the old days – as recorded in this fantastic film from 1963.

Comprising train and track footage quickly shot just before a heavy winter’s snowfall was melting, the award-winning classic that emerged from the cutting-room compresses British Rail’s dedication to blizzard-battling into a thrilling eight-minute montage cut to music. Tough-as-boots workers struggling to keep the line clear are counterpointed with passengers’ buffet-car comforts.

In a mere half-dozen films released between 1959 and 1975, director Geoffrey Jones revealed himself as an outstanding talent, embracing industrial filmmaking as consistent with a personal style, blending movement and sound into a joyous, rhythmic whole. Brilliantly aided by Wolfgang Suschitzky’s shimmering camerawork, the Oscar-nominated ‘Snow’ is Jones’ masterpiece. It’s crisply invigorating enough to induce brief amnesia about our trains’ notorious inability to cope with the white stuff – then and now. (Patrick Russell)

More films from the BFI National Archive