Moby Dick: Leviathan

I’ve been reading a lot about whales recently. I’d bought Philip Hoare’s 2009 Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction prize-winner, Leviathan, but felt I needed to read Moby Dick first (since Philip Hoare’s book was inspired by Melville’s book), so that was where I began. Those books led me back to Whale Nation, first published back in 1988. Continue reading “Moby Dick: Leviathan”


TUC returns to Liverpool after 103 years

This week the 141st annual Trades Union Congress was held in Liverpool for the first time in 103 years. In 1906 the TUC met at St George’s Hall; this year’s conference takes place at the new BT Convention Centre on the Albert Dock.

One of the key issues facing this year’s Congress is the link between the Labour Party and the unions. Some, like the RMT and NUM, have already severed their connections. The Communication Workers Union,  currently greatly concerned by the threat of Post Office privatisation, will almost certainly disaffiliate if privatisation goes through. In fact, the union has proposed a motion for the Liverpool Congress which should cause great concern to the Government. It observes that New Labour is failing to attract trade unionists and is pursuing policies of cuts, privatisation and has refused to repeal anti-trade union laws. The CWU wants an urgent conference of Labour affiliated unions to “consider how to achieve effective political representation…”. Meanwhile, Unison has suspended constituency funding to 35 Labour seats including  Liverpool Wavertree, held by Jane Kennedy.

This all has curious echoes of the 1906 Congress; back then Liverpool was not a bastion of Labour support: there were divisions among trade unions and debates over affiliation to the new Labour Party, the result of casual work and sectarian politics. Yet nationally 1906 was the year of the great Liberal Party landslide election victory and the passage of the Trades Disputes Act which for the first time granted the right to strike.

1906 was also the year that the Labour Representation Committee, established at a special meeting of the Trade Union Congress in 1900, adopted the name Labour Party. In the 1906 election, the party won 29 seats. Within 17 years the Liberal party was in ruins and Labour was in government.

The introduction to the report of the 1906 TUC asserts proudly:

Never in the annals of the Trades Union Congress has there been so large and representative gathering as the one held this year at Liverpool, 191 delegates being present, representing a membership of 1,555,000. Among the delegates there were no less than 30 Members of Parliament, one Mayor, and a large number of Magistrates and Councillors from all parts of the country, showing thereby that the Congress is maintaining its importance. Although differences may exist as to the solution of certain social problems unity prevailed throughout the week, and sincerity marked the tone of the speeches. On the whole, business was conducted in a most satisfactory manner…The Congress at Liverpool of 1906 will always stand out conspicuous in the history of the Labour movement as the most successful and business-like ever held.

I’m sure the 2009 report will adopt a similar tone!

When the TUC met in Liverpool in 1906 they were coming to the second city of Britain and the Empire. The phenomenal nineteenth-century growth of the city had been based primarily on trade: British industrialisation brought massive increases in the imports of cotton and other raw materials and the exports of manufactured goods, and Liverpool became the largest port serving the industrial north.

The rise of the city drew in many thousands of migrants from the rest of England, Ireland,Wales and elsewhere who formed a huge and varied labouring force. Liverpool became a great proletarian centre, therefore, and it was out of its working class that the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party evolved.

Everton fans in London for the FA Cup Final in 1906 (Everton won)

The ‘new unionist’ strike wave of 1880s broadened trade union support, especially in Liverpool. A series of major strikes in Liverpool amongst unskilled workers in 1889 and 1890 led to the unionisation of dockers, seafarers, gasworkers, post office workers, tramway employees, and others. Women workers in the workshop trades of cigar-making, book-folding, coatmaking, upholstering, sack and bag making and laundering were also organised . By early 1891 the Trades Council had 47 affiliated unions, representing 46,000 workers, and in October 1890 it voted to admit women delegates for the first time.

However, the relationship between the Trades Council and certain unions, particularly the Dock Labourers Union, which represented the largest single group of male workers in the city, was fractious.  There was a series of disputes between the leader of the dock workers, James Sexton, and the Trades Council. A social and cultural gulf divided the regularly-employed, relatively well paid time-served workers that dominated the Trades Council, and the low-paid casually-employed workers. From the other side, the attitude towards maritime workers was expressed succinctly in the pages of a local socialist newspaper as follows: ‘The ways of those amphibious trade unionists who work ‘along the line of the docks’ are not easily understood by those who find employment on terra firma’.

There was a thriving socialist movement in Liverpool around the turn of the century, with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party engaging in campaigns over unemployment. But it was only in 1900 with the development nationally of the Labour Party that the local craft unions  were finally won over to the idea of independent labour representation. The Trades Council joined with the ILP, Fabians, SDF, and the Edge Hill and Garston Labour Clubs to form what became by 1903 the Liverpool Labour Representation Committee. Later, in 191 7, this body formally adopted the name of the Liverpool Labour Party.

One historian of the early years of the Labour Party points out that Merseyside was an extremely weak area for the party, due  to the combination of religious sectarianism with the predominance of casual, unskilled labour in the area. In the dockside wards of Liverpool, the Catholic areas, and the areas of predominantly unskiued, casual labour, the Labour Party won little support. Nevertheless,  a number of significant figures in the local labour movement had connections with the Labour Party, including union leaders like James Sexton and Jim Larkin of the dockers, and Bob Tissyman of the Policemen’s Union.

Labour made only limited gains in local elections before the First World War. It won its first two seats in 1905 when the dockers’ leader James Sexton won St Anne’s ward and John Wolfe Tone Morrisey (great name!) took Kensington. Even then, Morriseylost his seat three years later leaving Sexton in splendid isolation in the council.

While the TUC was meeting in Liverpool in 1906, a painter, Robert Noonan was working in the building trade in Hastings, experience he was to transform into  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,  published under his nom de plume, Robert Tressell in 1914.

He had died, aged 40, in Liverpool Royal Infirmary three years earlier from tuberculosis. There is now a plaque (above) on the old Royal Infirmary building in Pembroke Place which records this. How did he come to be in Liverpool?  Unhappy with his life in Britain, he had decided that he and his wife, Kathleen should emigrate to Canada. He had been influenced by William Morris, and had joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. The following year, after a dispute with his employer, he lost his job. His health began to deteriorate and he eventually developed tuberculosis. Unemployed and unable to remain politically active, he started writing, something he hoped would earn enough money to keep him from the workhouse. In Liverpool he was buried in a mass grave with twelve other paupers opposite Walton Hospital. The location of the grave was not discovered until 1970. Subsequently, a memorial was placed on the grave (below).

“As Owen thought of his child’s future, there sprang up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against his fellow workmen. They were the enemy – those ragged-trousered philanthropists, who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to their miserable slavery for the benefit of others, but defended it and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion of reform. They were the real oppressors – the men who spoke of themselves as ‘the likes of us’ who, having lived in poverty all their lives, considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for their children” – Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

One of  the designs painted by Robert Noonan in St Andrews Church, Hastings and saved before the demolition of the church.

The Grapes of Wrath and Route 66

The Guardian has, this last few days, been running a series The Grapes of Wrath Revisited, a journey along the old Route 66 – following in the footsteps of the Joads, the central characters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath who fled the Oklahoma dustbowl for California – to see whether the tragedy and despair witnessed in the Great Depression is a long-forgotten nightmare or a present-day reality still haunting Barack Obama’s America.

Four classic images from Dorothea Lange are a reminder of the circumstances that inspired Steinbeck’s novel:

The first article in the series began:

Seven decades later, the machine grinds on. It remains as faceless as back in the 1930s when John Steinbeck described the banks which forced Oklahoma’s destitute subsistence farmers from their land as institutions made by men but beyond their control.

“The banks were machines and masters all at the same time,” explains one of the land owners come to evict tenant farmers in the Grapes of Wrath. “The bank — the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t stay one size… When the monster stops growing, it dies.”

The evictions set the fictional Joad family on a trek west to California that was the real experience of hundreds of thousands of Americans escaping drought and the towering clouds of soil carried on the wind across the midwestern dust bowl and from the mass unemployment of the great depression in northern cities. The road they flooded, Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, later became a symbol of prosperity and the new found freedoms of the rock’n’roll era. But in the 1930s it played host to years of misery as destitute families, some on the brink of starvation, struggled along in search of work.

Then the poor looked to President Franklin Roosevelt as a shield from the excesses of capitalism and his New Deal to alleviate the worst hardship. Today, from Oklahoma to California, there is suspicion and outright hostility with even some of those who arguably have most to gain from liberal policies and social programmes speaking of all government as if it is the enemy.

The Joads began their journey just outside the small Oklahoma town of Sallisaw. Richard Mayo was 10 years old when Henry Fonda and the cast arrived in 1939 to make the film of the book. He said the townspeople resented the Grapes of Wrath for making Oklahomans appear ill-educated and backward.

“There was a lot of anger at the book, anger toward John Steinbeck: that’s not us, that’s not the way we are. I don’t think the anger subsided until the sixties. But there was a truth to the book”.

Each episode of the series has featured photo galleries (from which the images on this page are taken) and telling extracts from The Grapes of Wrath:

Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of  Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the kind and steel what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight…

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.

In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children—corn-headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare foot, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent.

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do. and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…

The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and then took the migrant way to the West. In the daylight they scuttled like bugs to the westward; and as the dark caught them, they clustered like bugs near to shelter and to water.

And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country. Thus it might be that one family camped near a spring, and another camped for the spring and for company, and a third because two families had pioneered the place and found it good. And when the sun went down, perhaps twenty families and twenty cars were there.

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream...

And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that man could not even conceive of them any more, so large that it took batteries of book-keepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss; chemists to test the soil, to replenish; straw bosses to see that the stooping men were moving along the rows as swiftly as the material of their bodies could stand. Then such a farmer really became a storekeeper, and kept a store. He paid the men, and sold them food, and took the money back. And after a while he did not pay the men at all, and saved bookkeeping. These farms gave food on credit. A man might work and feed himself; and when the work was done, he might find that he owed money to the company.  And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.

And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry, twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food and most of all for land…

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.  The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage…

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed…

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was published in April 1939. The book and the film must, I think, have had a big impact on the development of my political outlook in my early teens. When it was published, Steinbeck’s novel had an enormous impact – it was widely read, debated and denounced by right-wing and business groups as communist propaganda. In 1962, the Nobel Prize committee cited The Grapes of Wrath as a ‘great work’ and as one of the key reasons for awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The film version, starring Henry Fonda, was directed by John Ford in 1940. In the same year, Woody Guthrie composed his ballad, Tom Joad, which told the whole story in one song. In 1995, Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad incorporated lines from Tom Joad’s famous speech:

I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready and where people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build. I’ll be there, too.

NY Times Critics’ Picks: The Grapes of Wrath

Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
But where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.

Woody Guthrie: Tom Joad

The Northern Clemency

How many miniature quiches can you eat without coming to the conclusion that it’s only so much stodge?
The Guardian

Indeed. I’ve  just finished wading through this turgid, uninspired and uninspring book that must come close to being the worst, most pointless novel I’ve read. You have to ask – how does a book like this get published? The characters are unformed – there’s little sense of their interior lives or their physical appearances – and the episodes that make up the narrative are described in dreary prose extended over endless pages. Who was the literary editor who let all this stand? How did it get on the Booker shortlist?

Both the Guardian and Observer were highly critical of the book; this is the Observer:

…the plot lurches from non-existence – shrubs are pruned, chilli con carne is prepared – to wild melodrama. Katherine Glover, Daniel and Tim’s mother, finds out that her florist boss and one-time crush was using the business for money laundering and ends up testifying in court. Another character is eaten by a shark (though not in Sheffield, obviously).

Hensher is deeply involved with his characters – he tells us their every thought, their every move – yet I could not escape the uncomfortable feeling that he is sometimes patronising them, with their nice little local supermarkets, and their dried flowers in glass domes.

More difficult still is his refusal ever to describe what they look like or even, having failed to do that, to define their characters: the Glovers and the Sellers are almost universally diffident, gauche, shy, vague and elusive…

Sorry, I can’t waste any more time on this.

The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Sarajevo Rose

A Sarajevo Rose: a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell explosion, later filled with red resin.

I’ve been reading Steven Galloway’s novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, set during the siege of Sarajevo – the longest city siege in modern history, lasting from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. The novel’s action is compressed, and is a meditation on the life-affirming significance of music and how neighbours and compatriots can be reduced to non-persons, hated simply for being ‘one of them’.

The novel, written in spare prose, details the daily struggles for existence of three of the city’s inhabitants: a sniper who calls herself Arrow; Kenan, a father traversing the city to get water for his family; and Dragan, whose wife and son managed to escape to Italy.

The novel opens with a cellist sitting by a window. He is playing Albinoni’s Adagio while outside a queue of people wait to buy bread. Seconds later, a shell explodes in the marketplace and they are killed. Next day, he carries his cello down to the carnage-strewn street. He positions a stool in a crater and begins once again to play the Adagio. He goes on to do this every day for 22 days, one day for each victim.

Galloway has avoided using any ethnic or religious labels in The Cellist of Sarajevo. The main characters are simply referred to as Sarajevans, their common enemy described only as ‘the men on the hills’. Arrow, the sniper, wonders about these men that she kills every day:

Do the men On the hills hate her or do they hate the idea of her, because she’s different from them, and that in this difference there might be some sort of inferiority or superiority that is hers or theirs, that in the end threatens the potential happiness of everyone. She begins to wonder whether they fight against an idea, and that fight manifests itself as hatred. If so, they are no different from her. Except for one key detail that simply can’t be ignored or pushed aside.  The idea she felt prepared to give her life for was not one that could include the hatred she feels for the men on the hills. The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what they were.  It didn’t matter what you were, what your ancestors had been, or what your children would be.  You could hate a person for what they did. You could hate a murderer, you could hate a rapist, and you could hate a thief.  This is what first drove her to kil the men on the hills, because they were all these things.   But now, she knows, she’s driven mainly by a hatred of them, the idea of them as a group, and not by their actions.

In The Guardian, Zoe Green wrote:

Galloway threads these individual stories together, narratives criss-crossing: three weeks in the lives of individuals struggling to survive as their beloved city is besieged. The characters of Arrow and the cellist are based upon real people, but in his examination of their feelings and motives, Galloway makes them his own. They are worn out with war, fearful of what will become of them and their loved ones. Only the cellist and his music brings hope – hope that mankind is still capable of humanity, that the old world is not completely lost, that the war has not destroyed everything. Galloway’s style is sparse, pared down; his prose has the deceptive simplicity of a short story. The work of an expert, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a controlled and subtle piece of craftsmanship.

Cellist Vedran Smajlovic in the ruins of Sarajevo Library

Cellist Vedran Smajlović in the ruins of Sarajevo Library

There really was a Sarajevo cellist: Vedran Smajlović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo String Quartet who endured the Siege of Sarajevo, survived the cold, food and water shortages, the constant bombings and sniper fire in the street. In 1992, Smajlović played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello at various times during the day to honour the 22 people who had been killed while queuing for bread at 10:00am. This act caught the imagination of people around the world. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello called “The Cellist of Sarajevo” in his honour which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma. He now lives in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, and is reportedly non too-pleased with Galloway’s portrayal of him:

I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.  They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at ten in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.  I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello.

The book opens with another historical distortion: the story of  how, in the ruins of firebombed Dresden,  an Italian musicologist found four bars of  a sonata’s bass line in the ruins of Saxon State Library. Remo Giazotto believed they were by Albinoni and he spent the next 12 years reconstructing the piece. The Adagio in G minor for strings and organ continuo is still referred to as ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’, but has now been established as an entirely original work by Giazotto. Since Giazotto’s death in 1998 it has emerged that the piece is entirely his composition, as no such fragment has been found or recorded to have been in possession by the Saxon State Library.

Ruins of the National Library Sarajevo

Ruins of the National Library, Sarajevo

Footnote on the burning of the Bosnian National Library during the siege:

Robert Fisk, reporting the war in the early 1990s, coined the term culturecide to refer to the deliberate destruction of art, archaeological artefacts and historic buildings that he saw happening around him. Destroying tangible cultural artefacts strikes at the heart of the people who cherish them. Kemal Bakarsic, chief librarian of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina before the war, said, “I think the aim of this kind of aggression, against museums, against libraries, is to erase our remembrance of who we are”.

In late August, 1992, Serbian forces began a careful attack on the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Library had been established in 1945 from several much older collections and contained somewhere in the area of a million and a half books which represented, according to book historian Nicholas Basbanes, “a common heritage that Muslims, Serbians, and Croatians had shared for more than four hundred years”. It was not only an attack on non-Serbian ethnic culture, it was an attempt to destroy any record of multiple ethnicities living in harmony.

The bombardment of the National Library was not an isolated book-burning incident in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. A few months before the Library was bombed, Serbian nationalists had targeted the Oriental Institute, also in Sarajevo, destroying thousands of Jewish and Islamic manuscripts in a variety of languages, along with thousands of documents. Other libraries were also attacked, including the Library of the Museum of Herzegovina and the Archives of Herzegovina as well as the library of the Roman Catholic Archbishopric in Mostar


John Berger: From A to X

A’ida writes to her partner, Xavier, who is imprisoned by a nameless authoritarian regime. The book consists of her letters, ‘recuperated by John Berger’, in which she records small, life-affirming moments that resist the forces of oppression.

Just as her letters reveal Aida’s love for Xavier, so they confirm her dedication to the cause for which they are both fighting. ‘The more we are,’ writes Aida, ‘the larger the target we make, and the larger the target, the stronger we are.’ It is never specified who ‘we’ is and the landscape could be anywhere from Mexico to Palestine. The enemy is injustice and oppression itself.

The vignettes of daily life and the shared moments with friends and neighbours are described beautifully and poetically and are the strength of this book. However, much as I really admire Berger and his work, I always have this problem with him, and I feel it particularly acutely with this book: it’s his old-fashioned, romantic view of the guerilla fighter, the liberation movement (in the last decade he’s been especially infatuated with Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas). In his review of the book, Sam Leith lambasted ‘its gross sentimentality (all faceless oppressors and noble peasants)’, pinpointing its central weakness. Ursula McGuin makes a similar point in the review quoted below.

In the Independent, Melissa Benn wrote:

Set in the imaginary town of Suse, a warm, embattled landscape that could be anywhere in the middle East or central America, every page is suffused with a sense of a terrible unnamed threat. Berger upends conventional assumptions on the causes of conflict. For him, the threat emanates not from some faceless, fundamentalist terrorist waiting to perpetrate violence against the massed ranks of good governments and law abiding citizens but from the defensive and aggressive stance of the globally powerful. His heroes and heroines, the subject of many of his novels and documentary books, are the salt of the earth, those who experience and resist injustice.


At 82, Berger remains an unashamedly committed novelist. As Geoff Dyer observed in his perceptive 1986 study of the writer, “His belief in socialism animates every line of his work… Like Sartre, he believes that at the heart of the aesthetic imperative there is a moral imperative.” It has made him many enemies over the years. Many loathed what they saw as his uncritical Stalinism, although he later repudiated this misguided loyalty, and his decision, after winning the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, to give half the prize money to the Black Panthers.

Berger remains unapologetic about publicly taking sides, in life and art. He once spoke of “feeling so deeply inside me… a gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged.” It is this visceral partisanship that gives his best work true greatness, while at the same time opening him to the charge of self righteousness and piety.

Ultimately, From A to X is best understood, like all Berger’s best work, as the record of one restless, committed, brilliant consciousness; a late showcase of a mind and sensibility of astonishing range and depth, which should be read as an epic poem or a lyrical essay as much as a novel.


In an early essay on Ferdinand Leger, Berger wrote that “in a utopia there would be no need for tenderness, for tenderness is the result of understanding human weakness.” From A to X shows us just how far we are from utopia, and how much we still need tenderness and its chroniclers. Towards the end of the book, A’ida adopts a cat that gives her great comfort. Meanwhile, a little white kitten drops into the prison exercise yard, where Xavier and his fellow inmates quickly realise that its back is broken. They persuade the guards to take it inside, where the animal turns on her back. “With her two front paws, she wiped her face, beginning with the ears down to the white mouth, over the eyes. She wiped her eyes as if wiping away the illusions of life, and this done, she was dead… She had escaped.”

When death is the welcome way out, we know we have come to a bleak place indeed, however beautifully evoked.

In her Guardian review, Ursula LeGuin wrote:

A’ida comes across in her letters as a passionate, generous, immensely likeable woman with an excellent mind, completely devoted to her cause and her man…She describes with wit and kindness the people she deals with in her work as a pharmacist, and gives a clear though never explicit picture of the endless crisis of violence her people are living through – the power outages, shortages, flyovers, raids, disappearances.

Who, then, are her people? Where are Sucrat and Suse? No religions or religious observances are mentioned, no sects or dialects, no political parties or factions. The names of A’ida’s friends lead us all over Europe and the Middle East, although seldom, if ever, to an English-speaking land – Gema, Amitera, Yaha, Emil, Zakaria, Susan, Naci, Valentina, Koto, Yasmina, Ved . . . “We”, then, are individuals free of the bonds of religion, nation or party. The reader may imagine these people anywhere, anytime. But “they”, while individually nameless, are explicitly identified and localised by their weapons and acronyms: WTO, Nafta, Apache aircraft, Predator drones, Hellfire missiles, Humvees. “They” are world capitalism and its chief instrument at the moment, the US.

To my mind, this one-sided identification sadly diminishes the moral reach of the book. Because their religion and politics are never mentioned, A’ida’s people are exonerated from bigotry and political folly or factionalism. All crime and error accrue to the named, known enemy. Perhaps A’ida has to believe that, but I cannot.

Late in the book she writes of “a secret practice of women, men, old people, children”:

“Now consider human lives, their every-minute, every-day lives! Their lives depend upon an agreed regularity to which each contributes. Maintaining this regularity is the forgotten practice I’m talking about. It explains the arrival of the fruit in the market each day, the lights in the street at night, the letters slipped under the front door, the matches in a match box all pointing in the same direction, music heard on the radio, smiles exchanged between strangers. The regularity has a beat, very distant, often inaudible, and at the same time similar to a heartbeat. No place for illusions here. The beat doesn’t stop solitude, it doesn’t cure pain, you can’t telephone it – it’s simply a reminder that you belong to a shared story.”

This is a beautiful, moving description of community, of human civilisation, of how we fit into our ecosystem, our rightful place in the world. But it goes on: “And in our life today we are condemned to endless irregularity. Those who impose this on us are frightened by our irregularity. So they build walls to keep us out.” The enemy are frightened of our irregularity, so they impose it on us? The argument has gone to pieces. There are other such passages in the book where wisdom and tenderness descend abruptly into political sentimentalism.

In praise of … John Berger

A couple of weeks back, John Berger donated his lifetime archive to the British Library – for free, as long as a member of the library staff goes to his farm high in the French Alps and helps bring in the harvest.    The Guardian responded with this editorial:

John Berger’s most tangible influences were that tiny band of intellectuals who combined fine-art criticism with a social conscience: John Ruskin; Oscar Wilde; Walter Benjamin. Great writers all, and 82-year-old Berger is their equal. Indeed, that was true as early as 1972, when he published Ways of Seeing, the classic work of art criticism that became a founding text of cultural studies and still has a huge influence on art teachers and their students. What is most gratifying about the report we publish today is that Berger still holds to the humane, generous values set down in that book, rather than make that long, cliched voyage to being a reactionary with a desiccated heart. The archive of one of the greatest thinkers in postwar Britain – a Booker-winning novelist, an artist, a critic – would have fetched a usefully-high price from any number of American universities, but Berger has given it for free to the British Library. All he wants is for the BL’s representative to help him with some farmwork. That is a typically bit of puckishness from a man who, when he claimed the Booker for his novel G, delivered a tirade of an acceptance speech against the event’s corporate sponsors and promptly handed over half his prize money to the Black Panthers. Gestures like that distracted (how could they not?) attention from his aphorisms such as “Nobody had ever sworn in paint before Picasso”. A sharp, bold statement – but it is also generous, helping the reader see the work under discussion. Those same qualities are true of its author.

Beijing Coma

I’ve just finished reading Ma Jian’s monumental novel of the Tiananamen Square protest, Beijing Coma. ‘ History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, said Stephen Daedelus in Ulysses. That could be the epigraph for this novel of which has its central character Dai Wei, lying in a coma, conscious but paralyzed, since he was shot in the head near Tiananmen Square on the terrible night of 4 June 1989. Trapped in Dai Wei’s mind, the novel alternates between his childhood in the cultural revolution and involvement in the 1989 student movement, and China’s transformation in the decade from 1989 to the millennium, as he overhears it from his bed in his mother’s apartment.

Beijing Coma appeared immediately before the 2008 Olympics and a year before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre. As such, it is not only a powerful novel but also an important political statement. Ma Jian has made his intentions clear in a preface included in the Chinese edition, where he states that it is the Chinese people who are truly comatose: “Inside Dai Wei,” he writes, “there is a strong, resilient person who remembers, and only memory can help people regain the brightness of freedom.” As Ma Jian himself has said, for the Chinese ‘remembering has become a crime’.

The major part of the novel consists of drama-documentary style scenes from the weeks leading up to and the days during the occupation of Tiananmen Square. There’s a huge cast of characters (including at one point Ma Jian himself), and an enormous attention to details of the organisation and daily routines of life in the Square.What comes across from this account is the disorganisation of the student movement, conflicts over its aims and tactics and the emergence of opportunistic or extremist leaders. Nevertheless there’s always a sense of the immense weight of history that rests on this generation’s shoulders. who believe, against all odds, that some good can emerge from the wreckage of their childhoods during the cultural revolution and the terrible losses of their parents’ generation.

The intensity of the intertwined narratives increases as their ends draw closer: the massacre itself, with Dai Wei shot in the head, and, lying in a waking coma 12 years later, as the heart is ripped out of his neighbourhood in Beijing to make way for the Bird’s Nest stadium and other Olympic developments.

Dai Wei has discovered that most of his friends who survived the aftermath of Tiananmen Square have fully embraced the motto of the Deng Xiaoping era: ‘To get rich is glorious’. His first girlfriend, now in property development, has bought his mother’s building so that it can be torn down as part of Beijing’s redevelopment in preparation for the Olympics. Driven insane by her own imprisonment after a brief flirtation with Falun Gong, Dai Wei’s mother refuses to budge.

You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning. But once you’ve climbed out of this fleshy tomb, where is there left for you to go?’