There is, somewhere in Prague, a most peculiar cemetery – I cannot say where, for I was taken there by car when fog lay over the city like a fetid blanket. It’s for musicians. But not any musicians. Only amateur musicians who have played in an amateur symphony orchestra or chamber ensemble at least three times.
‘Before their death, that is,’ said Pavel my guide. He gave a solemn laugh. He also explained that a condition of their being buried in this cemetery was that they were devoid of talent. ‘To a most remarkable degree,’ he said.
‘Come,’ he added, ‘let us visit.’ We left the car and walked between two high wrought-iron gates and to the gravel path that wound its crunching way this way and that between expanses of grass on either side.
‘You will like what you will see,’ said Pavel.
His English has a peculiar intonation that makes a simple prediction sound like an order. ‘You will be able to amuse your friends,’ he tells me.
The path came to an end and the cemetery lay before us. On each horizontal grey marble slab there was a musical instrument, of stone. Here a violin, there a cello; somewhere else a trumpet and further on a drum. A stone clarinet stood at an angle of thirty degrees, possibly at the same angle at which it had been played.
Pavel gave one of his laughs, and pointed. Someone had placed two testicular-shaped pebbles at the base of the instrument.
We inspected the entire cemetery. Pavel stopped sometimes to comment on a grave. This one played like an angel, a fallen angel but an angel nevertheless. That one’s violin screeched like a banshee; he was so bad that he was allowed to play in public only if he sat as far back as possible only pretending to play. The conductor had allowed this because the talentless wretch’s mother doted on him and paid for tickets for all the family so they could come and hear ‘my son, the violinist, play’.
She was tone deaf, it was said, to the extent that she never noticed anything was amiss when, like a screech owl, he played his practice sessions. There was also the rumour that she was totally without hearing and that her violinist son only simulated play even when rehearsing. But of this there is no proof that might stand up in a court of law.
‘Even here,’ said Pavel.
He added that there seemed to be no lengths to which some parents would not go to convince themselves that the hopes they had cherished for themselves might at least be realised in their sons or daughters. It was, he added further, the triumph of narcissism over mediocrity.
He gestured to where a harp of stone with wire strings, now rusty, commemorated a harpist who had lost a finger from each hand and had been in much demand despite the curiosities of her performance. Further away to the left was a lute (or was it a flute?). Played by someone who’d had a cleft palate, hence an eccentric embouchure, it had left much to be desired.
Perhaps the saddest of all were the half pianos. Of these there were two. Pavel explained that each half had once been a half of a whole. ‘Do you mean to tell me,’ I asked him, ‘that these are replicas of two halves of the same piano?’
‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘One for the musician’s left hand whose right had become incapacitated due to an embolism or an amputation,’ he hardly remembered which. ‘The other, for the right hand because the left had been damaged by machinery or a landmine,’ and again he could not recall which of the two it was.
But the most sinister stone was that of the conductor. You might be pardoned for expecting to find a magisterial figure in full evening dress, poised, on his toes perhaps, a grimace of intention on his brow or some such expression commensurate with his calling. But all there was to be seen was a small square of concrete, just large enough to accommodate such a person, and on it, a little to one side, a baton. Lying there as if it might have fallen from the grasp at his last performance (several more examples were included but these have been removed on the grounds of good taste).
Finally, Pavel turned to me. ‘What do you have to say?’
‘It is remarkable,’ I told him, ‘in almost every respect.’ He paid no attention to my implied criticism.
‘You will tell your friends, you will instruct them to come here.’
‘I will be delighted,’ I said. ‘You must give me the address and how to get here.’
‘Just imagine,’ Pavel said as we drove away into the fog, ‘how it will be on judgement day. They will all rise up and join into their orchestras and play with such intensity, such fervour, and such,’ he paused and did his laugh, ‘such cacophony as has not been heard for centuries, millennia even. Of course by that time music will have changed so much that how they play may well be in fashion.’
He laughed and gently nudged me in the ribs as we drove deeper and deeper into the fog. The next day he accompanied me to the airport. The fog had thinned considerably and the augurs for our departure were promising.
It was only when I sat observing the clouds and meditating on mediocrity that I realised he had not given me the location of the cemetery.
Pavel passed away soon after and I was told that he was probably interred in the very same cemetery we had visited. But no one seems to know where it is and as the years go by I wonder more and more if we went there at all. Such is the conflation among memory, truth and fiction these days it is difficult for me to know what to believe.
Harry Greenberg was a counsellor to victims of torture, and spent many of his latter years writing and publishing stories, articles and witty asides on Jewish life and upbringing. His Letters to Kafka is published by CentreHouse Press and is available at Amazon Kindle and on most other ebook platforms. There are plans to publish more from Harry’s backlist.
Assessing Robert Harris’s1Conclave is not only a question of style. Also singled out are the quality of the dialogue, the architecture of the narrative, the balance between different sections, the sharpness of the characterization, the economy and precision of the descriptive writing, the ability unerringly to choose the telling concrete detail, and the sheer readability of Harris’s prose – the sense that the narrative practically reads itself without requiring any indulgence from the reader.
Conclave concerns a convocation of cardinals to elect a new pope on the death of an incumbent who clearly resembles Pope Francis.2 Historical persons – Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI – are interwoven into a narrative whose fictional characters, in the words of the now customary (and legally obligatory, even if disingenuous) disclaimer, bear no intentional resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead. The central characters are the papabili: namely, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, an urbane papal diplomat and canon lawyer; the Secretary of State, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, an aloof, austere intellectual and liberal theologian; the Nigerian Cardinal Major Penitentiary, Joshua Adeyemi, whose robust views on homosexuality appall the liberals but delight his fellow Africans; the suavely photogenic French Canadian Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, the Camerlengo or Chamberlain; the ultra-traditionalist Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco,3 a wily ecclesiastical politician and a perpetual thorn in the side of the late Holy Father; and Cardinal Vincent Benítez, the Filipino Archbishop of Baghdad, whom the late Pope had elevated to the cardinalate in pectore.
Lomeli himself has no ambition to be Pope, but one by one the other candidates fall by the wayside. Bellini shows himself to be lacking in moral courage. It transpires that Adeyemi as a young man had fathered a child out of wedlock by a girl who was probably underage at the time. Tremblay is exposed as a blackmailer whom the late Pope, in one of his last acts, had dismissed from all his offices for gross misconduct. Tedesco overplays his hand and alienates the moderates whose support he needed to secure the necessary number of votes. Lomeli’s election seems inevitable. But, in another twist, it is Benítez who is elected, to Lomeli’s mingled relief and disappointment. His election is succeeded by a final revelation which it would spoil the reader’s enjoyment of the novel to disclose.
The plot is, of course, implausible, as the somewhat contrived and convoluted plots of thrillers are apt to be. Conclave was published to mixed reviews, and several reviewers criticized the less credible aspects of the story. But they missed the point, which is not that such a concatenation of events is at all probable, but that it is (just about) possible. They also missed the skill with which Harris recreates the atmosphere of the Vatican, with its characteristic juxtaposition of splendid opulence and spartan austerity, and the distinctive tone of communications between senior clergy, which is compounded in equal parts of urbanity, indirectness, candour, self-restraint, articulacy, courtesy, precision, and intellectual clarity. It is a tone perhaps best summed up in the Greek word, parrhesia – a term derived from classical philosophy, but hardly heard outside the Church nowadays. It means to speak frankly, but to ask forgiveness for so speaking.
Harris perfectly captures the pervasive climate of secrecy and intrigue which many Vatican observers have noted. Scandal is to be avoided at all costs. In some ways, this is laudable, especially in an age of such vulgarity as ours, with its insatiable appetite for the lurid details of any salacious goings-on. But it also causes as many problems as it solves or avoids. The scandal of clerical sex abuse, which has done such serious reputational damage to the Church since it first broke in 2002, would have been far less traumatic had it not been for the misguided attempts to cover it up, shield the perpetrators, silence the victims, preserve the appearance of decorum, and protect the Church’s good name. Even today, after almost two decades of appalling revelations, there is scant evidence of the kind of rigorous self-examination and profound cultural change in the Church that are needed in order (1) to address the fallout from the scandal, and (2) to ensure that it never happens again.
Harris also conveys the sheer impossibility of the papacy’s demands – the scale of the job; the weight of responsibility; the unreasonable expectations placed upon the incumbent; the relentless scrutiny, the investigative endeavours, and (often) malicious intentions of the media; the physical and mental stamina required; the intellectual qualities; the extensive knowledge of history, theology, philosophy, canon law, politics, current affairs, and diplomacy; the personal holiness, and the other pastoral and spiritual attributes…and the list could go on. The Pope is expected to be without sin, no matter how often popes reiterate that no one is sinless. Moreover, that expectation is by no means confined to Catholics, for many non-Catholics would also condemn a pope whose sins had been uncovered. Most of the popes have been old men, some very old. None has been young. For how much longer can we expect septuagenarians and octogenarians to shoulder the insupportable burdens and impossible demands of this job?4 Surely, ordinary human decency necessitates a more collegial approach to the governance of the Church of the future – this fast-expanding, global Church with around 1.3 billion members worldwide. The burdens and responsibilities of the papal office will have to be dispersed and shared, and Church governance will have to be more transparent. The Church will also have to find meaningful roles – i.e. roles which involve the bearing of administrative responsibility and the exercise of executive power – for the laity, especially for women. It is no longer acceptable for all the power to be concentrated in the hands of the clergy, let alone in the hands of one man. The popes of the future will probably be more like prime ministers – primus inter pares – than absolute monarchs.
None of this is explicitly stated in Conclave; but, first, there is little doubt that Harris’s sympathies in the theological and ecclesiological controversies currently raging between liberal-progressives and conservative-traditionalists in the Church lie with the former; and, second, the clear implication of his account of the tortuous process of electing a new pontiff (and the extremely slender – some would say, manifestly insufficient – grounds on which some candidates are eliminated from the election), is that what is now demanded of a papabile is unrealistic, and it can only be a matter of time before a pope is elected who is subsequently found to have a skeleton in his closet.
Harris hints that at the heart of the present dysfunction in the Church is the prevailing attitude among the clergy to women. He quotes as follows from Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul:
‘As for women, and everything to do with them, never a word; never; it was as if there were no women in the world. This absolute silence, even between close friends, about everything to do with women was one of the most profound and lasting lessons of my early years in the priesthood.’
This [adds Harris] was the core of the hard mental discipline that had enabled Lomeli to remain celibate for more than sixty years. Don’t even think about them! The mere idea of going next door and talking man to man with Adeyemi about a woman was a concept that lay entirely outside the dean’s closed intellectual system.
Harris does not pose the obvious questions, but they insistently obtrude themselves nonetheless. Is this healthy? Is it normal? Is this how a priest should live – by forcing himself to ignore the existence of half the human race? Is this conducive to growth to sexual and psychological maturity? Does the discipline of celibacy result (in some cases) in a malformation of ordinary human sexuality, and, if so, does this explain why so many among the senior clergy were apparently less able to empathize with the victims of clerical sex abuse than with the perpetrators? And does it also explain why they display a certain tone-deafness to the needs of women in the Church?
Conclave shows that serious issues can still be raised in works of popular fiction. This would not have seemed an unfamiliar idea to the Victorians – or, for that matter, to the Edwardians and Georgians. If it has become strange to us, that is because of the comparatively recent emergence of new forms of popular literature – e.g. airport fiction, beach reading, ladlit, and chicklit – which combine poverty of language, triviality of subject, and vacuity of thought to a degree one hopes will be unsurpassable. It is good to be reminded that not all writers and publishers have given up even trying to produce intelligent popular fiction, and that the term is not yet an oxymoron.
1It is worth mentioning that Harris is not himself a Catholic. However, he writes with considerable insight about the Catholic Church and the clergy, and his tone is unfailingly respectful. It is sad that this is so uncommon today as to deserve special mention.
2In a prefatory note, Harris says that, ‘despite certain superficial resemblances’, the late Holy Father depicted in Conclave is not meant to be a portrait of the current pope. This should be taken with a pinch of salt. The resemblances are more than superficial, and are too numerous to be coincidental. For example, Harris’s late pope is a reformer who has alienated traditionalists in the Church and has aroused much determined opposition in the Curia and in the college of cardinals. He is dealing with scandals in the Church, but is handicapped by feeling surrounded by enemies with no one he can trust (cf. Pope Francis Among the Wolves by Marco Politi). And he lives in the simple Casa Santa Marta in preference to the luxurious papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
3Is his name accidental (Tedesco = German) or is this meant to be a reference to Ratzinger/Benedict? However, while the fictional Tedesco shares some of Ratzinger/Benedict’s views, he does not appear to possess the Emeritus Pope’s formidable intellectual qualities, theological expertise, or gentlemanly manners.
4The demands of the papacy have been enormously magnified by the relentless, unceasing scrutiny of the modern mass media – not only their focus on what the Pope says and does in the present, but also their determination to ransack his past for any indiscretions, errors, or missteps. And the worse they are, the better, as far as the media are concerned.
Jon Elsby is the author of numerous books on aspects of Roman Catholicism, and is a specialist in opera, on which subject he has written a wide-ranging survey of operatic tenors, titled Heroes and Lovers.
So you have lived deep and extracted all the sweetness out of life, and you have had your last meal. But, what food and drink would you like people to remember you by? What wafting smell would have the power to conjure you up from the grave, or draw you back down through the portals of heaven; to tempt you back onto this lovely balls-up of a planet?
Were you the Queen of buttered, slightly crisp and salty asparagus? Were you the King of French Cognac? Were you the Polish Prince of English wild forest mushrooms? Were you enslaved to Arabica? Were you an advocate for English cheese? Did you murder for a drink? Were you an innocent victim of chocolate? And, did you see the world in a grain of rice and eternity in a glowing coal of truffle?
On All Hallows, on November 2nd, in an act meant to both evoke and invoke the dead, Mexicans put up altars and lay out the favourite food and drink of those that they loved, respected or just plain put up with.
Traditionally, Mexicans are both comforted and comfortable in the company of their dead.
How to set up an Altar to your Dead
Only two months to go to the day of the Dead. Why not try setting up a homemade British altar of your own; fumigate the demons of Halloween with some Mexican magic. The day of the dead is beautiful, spiritual, and it is also therapeutic.
Push two tables together and cover them with sheets of orange, blue, white or purple crepe, with ribbons cut out into patterns of the same material. Decorate the surfaces with lots of Marigolds and then place photos of your dear ones on the table.
Carefully, lay out the food and drink they liked, together with a few of their possessions: those tortoiseshell glasses, the hand illustrated book of German aphorisms, the teddy bear, a handful of garden flowers.
Then, before you go to bed, scatter a trail of bright yellow petals right up to the window ledge. Leave the window slightly ajar. Light the candles on the altar. Think of your muertito and go to bed. If you are lucky they will come back in the early hours, and keep you company once more.
In the morning, have a nibble or a sip from the food and drink on the altar. You will find, as Mexicans have repeatedly pointed out to me, that the food and drink have lost a little of their flavour. This is the positive proof that the essence of the food has been consumed by visiting relatives and friends.
When I die, on the altar, next to my picture, I want a bowl of cold purple beetroot borsht with sour cream, and a taco or two made with cuitlacoche and melted Oaxaca cheese. Don’t forget the tequila.
Bread of the Dead for Masterchef
Another key signifier of the Day of the Dead is a special bread. I made it to try to get onto Masterchef. I remember Bread of the Dead from Xalapa. I was studying at the university of Vera Cruz in 1984. It was a chilly November morning.
Xalapa is the centre of a coffee growing region. It has a view of two volcanos: the Pico de Orizaba, rising in the distance like Kilimanjaro, and the Cofre de Perote, a smaller, broken little thing.
It’s the day before my birthday, the Day of the Dead, and at the university, in the cafeteria they are selling a simple lumpy looking cake-bun sprinkled with sugar. And they are selling cups of hot, chocolate, pineapple and vanilla flavoured atole, serving it from large aluminium pots.
My classmates laugh.
This is Pan de Muerto. they say and point out that it is made in the shape of a corpse.
Is it? I look at it. It tastes better than Panetone, buttery, fragrant and yeasty. The sticky atole warms me in the autumn morning.
I make the Pan de Muerto carefully for Masterchef and it rises three times. Then I make the rompope and they both taste as I imagine they should, and I am sure its good because my Mexican family eats the whole batch. My wife tells her mother:
Yes, he really did make bread of the dead and it tasted just right.
I make another batch. The crust is a little darker this time, better, ready for tomorrow morning.
They have asked me to come at breakfast time. My Pan de Muerto and rompope will go down well.
London is almost deserted. It’s early. I arrive and they take me to a room and a tall young woman with glasses films me and smiles. A more serious and older woman interviews me.
But she doesn’t seem too concerned about the food or what it means.
I take out the green Tequila shot glasses and pour them a taste of the cold yellow Rompope, and then I take out the Pan de Muerto and place it on its large decorated clay plate and they both try a little piece and drink the rompope.
The interviewer says:
Cake. Hmm, nice. But she doesn’t take another piece.
She asks me. Why do you want to come onto Masterchef?
It would be nice. I say. And I smile, relaxed.
Well, I love Mexican food.
What would you do if you won? she asked.
I’d be really pleased, and…
Well, perhaps a restaurant.
You would be the cook?
Not really. My wife would be in charge. I would help.
Do you cook Sunday lunch?
I help my wife.
Why don’t you ask her to come along?
No, I don’t think she would like that.
There was a silence.
Well, thank you for coming. ‘I’d just like you to know that you reached the final stage of the eliminations. Very few people do that.’
Thank you. I left the building, walking out into a cold, bright empty street, the shutters just opening.
I walked into a smart Italian restaurant and ordered Eggs Benedict by way of consolation.
The Eggs Benedict were very good, with their Hollandaise sauce, and before I left the waiter came back and I told him what had happened. He sounded interested.
I’ll take some to the cook.
It’s like Panetone, I called after him as he went to the back of the restaurant, but with orange water, more butter and a little anise.’
The chef tried it. He liked it. The waiter smiled at me, ‘He wants to know the recipe.
I noted the recipe down for the chef, contented, and then left.
Calavera for the selfish
Another essential part of the Mexican tradition is the Calavera. You have to write a poem ending in the punchline, Death. In it you make fun of people’s foibles. My calavera is dedicated to the supporters of Adam Smith and the idea that greed is good.
Death came today and gave me some advice. She said;
‘Good news: I’ve designed a special diet for you. If you follow my instructions Two years from now you’ll be as thin as I am. After all, isn’t your health the most important thing? And your own happiness must be your prime concern. If you know what I mean.’
And death winked, knowingly and smiled.
‘Only when you are happy can you make others happy. Do you agree? Only when you are satisfied can you satisfy others. Only when you have gathered enough money Do you have money to share.
Forget thinking about what’s wrong before you act. It’s not your job to put the world to rights. And all your reading and writing. What’s it for? It’s intellectual masturbation, and changes nothing. It won’t change anything. Stop pretending to be nice.
Human nature is human nature. Get real, you shlemiel!
The body is where it’s at, not the mind. Exercise instead: swim, run around, cycle about Exorcise the ghost of your conscience. It’s an illusion anyway, a category error.
Enjoy the things you choose to buy! To live needn’t be to suffer. Be detached from the poverty and unpleasantness That very occasionally surrounds you. You’re not responsible for it. Think of other people’s misfortune as instructive. These are not your problems, they are someone else’s. “Il faut cultiver votre jardin” remember.
Look, my little Arjuna, be all that you can be! It’s meaningless anyway. Be consummately free.’
Then death smiled again.
‘But one day, perhaps, even sooner than you guess When you’re fed up with your, precious Atman, and your self Meet me in Switzerland, and I’ll put a stop to your life And crush your wizened little heart, like this.
She closed her fist.
And you’ll get what you deserve. That heaven of nothingness You always secretly believed in Will be your place of rest and Proof of your Inconsequence.’
Part of this article was originally published in the Guardian, the Word of Mouth section
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.
In 2015, the Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún published Los afectos (Affections), a slim volume loosely based on the Ertl family, a clan foisted on the reader with precious little introduction. “The day papa returned from Nanga Parbat (with some heart-rending images, of a beauty that wasn’t human), he told us while we ate dinner that mountain climbing had become too technical and what mattered was being lost, that he wouldn’t climb anymore.” His wife and daughters take in their papa’s words, careful not to interrupt, as he sermonizes about communing with nature. These speeches – the reader learns – go on uninterrupted for lengthy periods and, finally, culminate in a bruised vision of the world that, in a fine turn of phrase, can only be healed by seeking out those places “where God is untroubled by our ingratitude and sordidness”. A lofty sentiment and one that is in lockstep with the character’s historical counterpart: the Nazi cinematographer and alpinist Hans Ertl – the same man who, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, fully earned his reputation as Hitler’s photographer. Hasbún, however, is not deeply invested in this aspect of Ertl’s story; he is drawn to the private life of the family man. Untethered by all but the most tenuous historical references, Ertl and every character in the book become protagonists in a private tragedy.
Throughout this tragedy, the intimacy of perspectives creates the feel of memoir, albeit one that is subject to fragmentation. Although Hasbún is best known as an acclaimed author, his scholarly work focuses on the interconnectedness between diary, biography and literature. He takes issue with the idea that diaries must be read as at face value, as testimonials, when their very existence opposes worldly interests and demands. The diarist writes for a reader of one, presumably herself without, as Hasbún contends, “deference to the literary institution or publishing world”. Diaries may enter the public domain but their purpose is other. They are reclusive, hermetic. It is as if there is no activity more solitary – or personal – than that of the diarist. Nor is it coincidental that Los afectos is a book imbued with solitude. Hans Ertl’s treks up mountains and through Amazon forest are journeys into the heart of solitude. He is the man who “leaves”. His wife, Aurelia, languishes in the imposed solitude caused by her husband’s absence. Each of his three daughters is a solitary creature unable to sustain familial ties and relationships. Solitude of this sort is profoundly Heideggerian, that is, inescapable.
In fact, the entire novel reads like a Heideggerian fable. The characters are cast into a strange, new world to live out their finitude with precious few inner resources. Severed from their German homeland because of Hans’s Nazi past, their identities are stripped away; they must begin from scratch in Bolivia. In the high-altitude, low-oxygen city of La Paz, time is as precious as air. Hans wastes no time between expeditions. He returns from filming in Nanga Parbat already determined to set off again in search of Paititi, the lost Inca city of gold. His two eldest daughters, Monika and Heidi, are intensely aware that the clock is ticking and they are growing older by the second. The youngest daughter, Trixi, spends a melancholy Christmas alone with her mother, Aurelia, who tells the nearly thirteen-year-old that life is longer than people imagine, and that at times it feels “interminable”. Trixi sees her mother as terribly lonely. She fails to understand how she has too much time on her hands. In her abject pronouncements, Aurelia echoes Heidegger’s assertion that it is through boredom our awareness of time is heightened. Boredom leads to gloominess but forces us to reflect upon the groundlessness of our existence. Aurelia smokes, drinks, and reminisces but, most importantly, she philosophizes. Sadly, it’s all downhill for her from there.
In contrast with Aurelia’s lassitude, the eldest daughter, Monika, suffers fits of anxiety. Heidi, who fears and resents her sister, describes these episodes as grotesque. “It was ugly to see her writhing about, I won’t deny it. It was shocking, horrible even, to the point that, the last time, we had to tie her up.” The episode passes and Heidi suspects that Monika’s outbursts serve an ulterior purpose: they are a means of holding her distracted parents’ attention. Her resentment of her sister intensifies when she learns that their father is taking Monika with him on his next expedition. Heidi demands to go. Her father agrees in a way that unnerves the girl. “As if he had predicted all of it, including the questions I was asking, a strange smile appeared on his face. My chest froze and I looked at my sister and she at me and at that moment neither of us knew what to say.” A limit has been reached. Words fail. There is no turning back for Heidi. Now, like her father, she is the one who leaves. She also falls in love with Rudi, one of Hans’s assistants. Most significantly, she becomes lost, psychically speaking, unable to remember the day or the reason for the journey. This stripping away of perspective, time, and purpose brings her closer to what Heidegger calls authenticity.
Authenticity, for Heidegger, refuses imitation, it can’t be contained in archetypes. Rather, it prefigures socialization as an ideal mode of being. Hans may be the paterfamilias of the Ertl clan but he is, above all things, a man who is true to himself. He becomes disillusioned with mountaineering because alpinists have become mere technicians. Averageness disgusts him. In contrast, he aspires to all things sublime. The rain forest is no less sublime than the glacier. Sublimity involves terror. It is awe-inspiring. Add to that a mythical Inca city of gold – buried in all that forest – and the quest promises certain glory. At one point, he heaps praise on Hiram Bingham, the man credited with discovering Machu Picchu, thus inserting himself in the tradition of great explorers. But then he has already proven his worth by filming the 1936 Olympics and being at Rommel’s side during the war. Hans also possesses a certain erotic magnetism. When Trixi asks her mother if she fell in love with him at first sight, she replies, “The second I saw him…. But I wasn’t the only one. I think everyone on the committee was a little in love with him.” And then, not least, his eye never fails him. Whatever he films turns to magic. Authenticity – the discovery of the ideal self – goes hand in hand with exceptionalism.
For Hans’s daughters, living with such a man is overwhelming. Their feelings for him cause rifts and divisions – an utter lack of peace reigns over the family. It’s apparent that Hans loves Monika the most, ostensibly because she tests him. Of all the ironies to be found in the novel, the fact that Monika will go on to become a left-wing revolutionary is the most poetic. (But then, Heidegger too was a revolutionary. He found academic philosophy guilty of all manner of sins, not the least of them complacency. There is an air of nihilistic joy that runs throughout his writing, a sense that once the old norms have been destroyed, philosophy will arise like a phoenix from the ashes. And no doubt, Heidegger thought of himself as that phoenix. It’s also true that he was a committed Nazi and antisemite.) In Los afectos, it is Monika who forces the issue of Hans’s Nazism. She accuses him of being a “lackey of the powerful, a disgusting fascist”. Her words open a great wound in him. After her assassination by the Bolivian military, the elderly Hans has a grave dug for her, literally forcing him once and for all to stare into the abyss.
When Los afectos first came out, it was marketed as a historical novel. From the disclaimer on the first page of the book to his assertions in numerous interviews, Hasbún is adamant that the book is historical only in the broadest sense of the term: as story. The story involves multiple points of view, lack of chronological cohesion, and a directness of expression that breaks down aesthetic distance. Instead of history, we are presented with instances that turn inward, personal, and reflective. Out of this assemblage of disparate voices, the question that arises is why history at all? Especially since Hasbún claims to use as little biographical detail as possible. The author seems to be pulled in by the unwritten aspects of the story – in what the historical record either suppressed or omitted. Nazism recedes into the background, almost imperceptible, as if opening a window to let in some fresh air.
In the essay “Fascinating Fascism”, Susan Sontag remarks that it may “seem ungrateful or rancorous to refuse to cut loose” the work of Nazi propagandists from their past. She takes issue with the rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl despite the cinematographer’s ongoing commitment to fascism. The same could be said of Hans Ertl. He never became disillusioned with Nazi Germany: it was post-war, democratic Germany that failed him. Moreover, during his self-imposed exile in Bolivia, he sought out the friendship of the notorious Klaus Barbie. Barbie is thought to have been involved in Monika’s assassination by Bolivian security forces in 1973. Given his friendship with Barbie – and, as mentioned in the novel, Ertl’s relationships with high-ranking members of the Bolivia military – he may have had more to do with his daughter’s death than the novel suggests. Whatever role he played (active or passive), Ertl never repudiated Nazism or his fascist associations. He would go on to write two memoirs, both of which are imbued with sentimental accounts of mountaineering and exploration. Both memoirs pay homage to the Germany of his youth.
However Hasbún adjusts the lens – the ever-shifting angles – it’s scarcely possible to insulate Los afectos – or any work of art – from its source material. The connection between old-world fascism and new-world exile is not severed but revised. Nazism may find itself reduced to mere figments, but even these have the power to mesmerize. The Argentine writer Manuel Puig, in his masterpiece El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman), explores the Nazi aesthetic, and how it catches us in a web of repulsion and attraction. The goddesses of Nazi cinema are no less beautiful because they are instruments of a brutal regime. They fascinate regardless. They provide an ideal of physical beauty and an antidote to the ugliness of existence. Fascism is predicated on a host of aesthetic values, among them the dictum that, without beauty, life is simply not worth living. Los afectos offers us a taste of such a life in the Ertl family saga. They are doomed and therefore beautiful. To paraphrase Heidegger, beauty is only as true as it is tragic.
Kathryn A. Kopple holds a doctorate in Latin American literature (NYU). Her focus is the surrealist poetry of the Rio de la Plata. She has also published original poetry and prose in multiple venues, including The Threepenny Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. She has published two novels – Little Velásquezand The Leaving Year – set in Spain. Kathryn also hosts the literary blog The Leaving Year.
Just about everyone old enough to remember the football World Cups of the 1990s and early 2000s will remember the Three Tenors. The open air concerts they gave, cleverly timed to coincide with those World Cups, converted Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras from operatic superstars into household names, and briefly catapulted Pavarotti’s rendition of ‘Nessun dorma’ into the pop charts. Never mind that he held the climactic top B for much longer than the score stipulates. Who cares when the tenor can make a sound like that – a sound that gives goosebumps to just about anyone with an ear for music?
Of course, the Three Tenors, although they were undoubtedly the biggest names and the most prolific classical recording artists of their day, were not the only great tenors who were then active. But they impinged on the consciousness of the general public in a way that their competitors didn’t. For better or worse, they defined the expectations of the tenor voice for at least two generations of listeners, many of whom would never have dreamt of setting foot inside an opera house.
They weren’t the only great tenors whose fame spread far beyond the rarefied world of opera. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Enrico Caruso and John McCormack achieved comparable fame. The extent of Caruso’s renown may be judged from a story about a boxer (of all things). Jack Doyle was a colourful Irish heavyweight and a promising tenor – when he could be kept off the booze. On more than one occasion, however, he entered the ring too drunk to stand, let alone fight. Despite a few fiascos of this kind, he claimed that he could ‘fight like Dempsey and sing like Caruso’: a boast which prompted a veteran boxing reporter to remark that the only thing Dempsey, Caruso, and Jack Doyle had in common was that all three could knock out Jack Doyle.
After Caruso, few tenors, even the greatest, became well known to the general public. In Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables, there is a scene where Al Capone (played by Robert De Niro) is attending a performance of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and is moved to tears by the tenor’s singing of ‘Vesti la giubba’. Although we are not told so, it is pretty clear that the tenor is meant to be Caruso. But not many viewers identified the owner of the voice on the soundtrack as Mario del Monaco, one of the greatest tenors of the 1950s.
The relationship between operatic tenors and the movie industry is an interesting subject in its own right. Several tenors appeared in movies, including Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tauber, and Lauritz Melchior, which shows that, even in the days before Arnold Schwarzenegger, acting ability was not a sine qua non of a film career. Most tenors are indifferent actors on stage, and have absolutely no idea how to act for the cameras. They weren’t interested in learning either. As far as they were concerned, they were hired for their voices, and, as long as they sang well, nothing else mattered. Or, if it did, it was somebody else’s problem.
Part of the appeal of the Three Tenors phenomenon was the sense of friendly rivalry it generated. For a time, the question who was the greatest tenor was discussed with the animation normally reserved for debates about the relative merits of centre forwards or fast bowlers. Even dedicated opera buffs, who are apt to be scornful of that sort of thing, found themselves drawn into discussions about what a Three Tenors line-up of the past might have looked like. What about a 1930 version comprising any three of Giovanni Martinelli, Aureliano Pertile, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Gigli, for example? Or a 1950 line-up of Jussi Björling, Giuseppe di Stefano, and del Monaco? Or a 1960 trio of Richard Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi, and Franco Corelli? The possibilities are endless.
The Three Tenors concerts also served as a reminder that tenors are not only classical artists: they are also performers, and the first duty of a performer is to connect with his or her audience. Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras proved themselves consummate communicators. The hype which preceded the concerts would have counted for nothing if the tenors hadn’t delivered what the audience wanted – and what it expected. In fact, hype can be a problem if it generates expectations which are then not fulfilled. Connoisseurs of singing may have disliked the concept of an open air concert in a huge venue with artificial amplification, and may have objected that the tenors all gave full-on performances with very little interpretative subtlety or nuance, but they missed the point. On these occasions, the tenors were not performing for their normal audience of opera lovers. They were performing for the general public. If opera lovers objected, they didn’t have to watch – or listen, for that matter: a point Domingo forcefully made in several interviews. For most people, the sight of a beaming Frank Sinatra standing and applauding the tenors’ joint rendition of ‘My Way’ probably summed up how they felt. This was not so much a classical concert as a musical party to which all were invited. There was something in it for everyone, except those too precious and priggish to shed their inhibitions, loosen their ties, and enjoy the performance.
The Three Tenors were criticized by some for the substantial sums of money they made from these concerts. It is hard to see any reason other than envy for this. In the first place, other performers, like elite sportspeople and rock stars, make far more money without exciting any comment. Secondly, Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, individually and jointly, have raised and given staggering sums to charity in their careers. Why should they not be properly recompensed for their work?
The criticism also overlooks the sheer precariousness of the singer’s career. It depends entirely upon a physical part of him – namely, his voice. An illness, an accident, an injury, or a surgical operation, may deprive him of his voice at any time. He has no way of knowing how long his career will last. It might span four decades, or it might be over in less than one. Tenors are not salaried, nor do they get an occupational pension. They rely wholly on the fees they can negotiate with tough, hard-nosed record company executives, opera house administrators, and impresarios for their appearances. A tenor who is not equally tough and astute in his business dealings is liable to leave the negotiating room in his underpants.
There are many cautionary tales of tenors who fell on hard times after their careers ended. One of the most poignant is that of Tom Burke (1890–1969), who was known as ‘the Lancashire Caruso’. Well, he wasn’t quite that, but he was a fine tenor and he should have enjoyed a long and successful career. Unfortunately, his gifts were accompanied by serious flaws. The son of poor, working class parents, he harboured a towering contempt for well-heeled opera audiences. He drank too hard and too often, and he was an inveterate philanderer whose womanizing got him into trouble with Jack Dempsey, then the former world heavyweight boxing champion, and (as if that were not bad enough) the Mafia. The tenor who had favourably impressed Caruso and Gigli, and sung to audiences at La Scala, the New York Met, and Covent Garden, ended his days in penury and obscurity, living in a single, rented room and working as a barman in a golf club.
So, three cheers for the Three Tenors. The concerts they gave together belong to the history of show business rather than opera. But, between 1990 and 2002, for a few hours every four years, untold millions of viewers and listeners were held spellbound as three of the greatest opera singers of their generation worked their inimitable magic. That, surely, deserves a celebration.
Jon Elsby is a specialist in opera, on which subject he has written a wide-ranging survey of operatic tenors, Heroes and Lovers, published by CentreHouse Press in paperback in 2019, and now available at Amazon Kindle and on most other ebook platforms.
Ian Herbert, another friend from King’s, was working for Pitman’s. He commissioned a book on French theatre. I decided I would try to interview Samuel Beckett, intending a whole chapter just on him. I wrote to ask if I could see him and gave him some dates I could be in Paris. For six months I kept this up and received eight tiny letters scribbled almost illegibly in a right-slanting hand on flimsy tissue paper saying he was never there when I was there.
It must have been rather like God that Harold Hobson interceded on my behalf, for after these very polite but ‘sorry-to-disappoint-you’ evasions, Beckett, in much bolder ink, and with fluctuating pen strokes and stronger legibility, wrote ‘I could meet you for a drink May 28 in the bar of the “Closerie des Lilas”, 171 Bld du Montparnasse. If this suits you do not trouble to confirm.’ I had found the combination to access the inaccessible.
I arrive at the Closerie full of excitement. He was waiting but I had been forewarned, ‘I hope you do not expect me to talk about myself or my work, there’s not a squeak left in me on that sore subject!’ There were two faces of Beckett confronting me over glasses of whisky. One was upright and severe, that of a lean but august figure dressed in baggy clothes, a tweed jacket which had very padded shoulders just like a superior working man from an O’Casey early play. The hands weren’t those of a Dublin labourer, but very long, very fine – aristocratic. He could have been an ascetic Irish priest, even a mystic, a saint – or a pope.
The other face was warm but animated, etiolated and linear like that of a racehorse – again Irish. Its fluidity and mobility reminded me of Jackie McGowran whom I’d seen in Endgame (was I thinking of Lucien Freud’s male faces, which look similar to those of horses?).
He talks very quietly, but he is not at all dry in manner. I had translated some of Céline’s work for the RSC, and hear that the famously denounced collaborator, lauded for his Voyage au bout de la nuit, ‘went to Germany where he sided with Laval, and then to Norway. After the war they left him alone [as they did Maurice Chevalier]. He lived in Boulogne with his wife, and Gallimard [his publisher] tried to screw the most out of him!’
He left London because he couldn’t find a publisher. A certain resentment for publishers and exploiters, or neglecters, of Beckett’s talent, can be detected. Dare one call it paranoiac? He decries the ‘nakedness of his own self-pity’ in the true and steeply paranoid decline of Ionesco in his last plays.
‘What do you think of Jean Genet?’ I ask.
‘Genet?’ he replies.
‘Yes, Genet,’ I repeat.
‘Genet?’ he says a second time, with a frown as if I am obscurely trying to confuse him.
‘Jean Genet,’ I repeat so there should be no doubt.
‘Oh, Jean Genet,’ he says at last with a surrendering flicker of recognition.
‘Genet doesn’t want anyone to do his plays anymore.’
He isn’t altogether happy with Genet’s plays. We were edging into personal areas. I don’t push it. I had the sense, in the way between us the time passed, that he likes spending time for its own sake – this is quite mystical – that time for him passes very slowly, in contrast to people who are diffuse, through whose hands time passes quickly.
He talks so quietly that I have to keep asking him a second time, or in silence wait till I feel I can complete his sentence. He looks away frequently, as if he is extremely shy. I leave long silences, which he breaks about fifty-fifty. He will sometimes resume with the same subject.
‘I spent two miserable years in London, in [Chelsea’s] World’s End, in a bedsit for thirty shillings a week. I regretted it…. I don’t want to go back to Ireland, I had lots of relations and children [not his, for he was childless] in Wicklow. Last time I was in Ireland was in 1968 for two weeks.’
The Irish poor mouth! Oh God, not shades of…Marlowe’s, ‘I have run up and down this world with a case of rapiers, wounding myself when I had none to fight withal.’ Marlowe could well have been Irish.
He offers me a cigar, before lighting one. He says that he is worried about his eyes: he’s had two cataract operations which have succeeded, so why does he worry? I haven’t asked personal questions, or about his work, and I can sense this is a relief. Unprompted he starts to tell me in awe that Joyce, his friend and mentor for whom he worked as secretary, spent seventeen years on Finnegans Wake,while ‘even the Sistine Chapel took Michelangelo only four!’ He receives letters from ‘a lunatic asylum’ from Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, to whom, long ago, in the early 1930s, he had become attracted. Joyce’s son Mario is in ‘Germany, married to a rich American; his grandson, Stephen, lives in Paris and works in an office.’ He says his own work is quite paltry and unimportant compared to that of Joyce. Chesterton’s definition of a saint is someone who is always in the presence of one greater than himself, so here the description fits.
We’ve drunk several rounds by now. I have been with him for over an hour and a half so my audience is almost over. He plays obsessively with something from his pocket, rolling it on the table, then with an almost compulsive movement puts it away. His body and movements are tense: of someone who has eliminated most forms of emotion or spiritual despair from his mind, I guess, but not from his physical being, where the tension is still manifest.
It’s not so hard to believe that here is someone who suffered considerable if not continual rejection all his life until Peter Hall’s production of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre came along. But one mustn’t forget he didn’t really like how Peter Hall had made Godot into a burlesque, with hilarious comic routines, drawing out audience laughter he hadn’t intended.
He had written up all those reflexes of being rejected, but fashioned fastidiously and with exquisite workmanship, into literary art. Where from? Was it in the first instance from his middle-class family, in the second by the literary world? He destroys all letters, he tells me. Rejection, resentment, and bitterness can indeed by very funny, and wonderful for actors to explore. […]
When we part he seems regretful of leaving, saying very lightly ‘Enjoy yourself!’ He has a profound twinkle in his eye. I gently tease him with ‘Did you vote in the last election?’ to which he replies,
‘No, no – I don’t do anything like that!’
Dislocation of consciousness is the name of Beckett’s game, life through a lens giving it distinctive distortions. It reminds me of some work done by Johnny my brother: curious, anamorphic paintings of intricate detail which require a glass cylinder to be placed on top to reveal the full image. Given that Beckett destroys all letters, I can’t understand why he is so keen to have my address which he asks for.
I won’t forget the eight tiny missives. The first few were tentative, spidery, evasive in the handwriting, almost unreadable. As he decided to see me they grew bolder and stronger in pressure and use of ink on the flimsy paper until he splashed out an assent. Beckett was master of forging a merciless no out of a longing for yes, showing a world constantly on the edge of disintegration.
Jean-Paul Sartre – much less likeable but an interesting playwright – had one answer to why Beckett was so popular. He dismissed ‘the solitude, the despair, the commonplaces of non-communication’ as being ‘profoundly and essentially bourgeois’. He scorned Godot, ‘by far Beckett’s best play’ for being ‘pessimistic, expressionist’, yet he pointed out that it was ‘the kind of thing which appeals to the middle class’. […]
I fail to understand the quasi-religious obeisance to those increasingly hermetic late plays, which are hallowed like relics, variations of focus on a vanishing point of faith, hope, and love, playing the game of hunt the thimble, man’s reduced soul. The endgames of Beckett and Pinter would have us believe that Nature has forgotten us and is no more.
HAMM Nature has forgotten us.
CLOV There’s no more nature.
Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Vagabond Lover, his father-son memoir, is an incisive probe into the life and career of his father, Cavan O’Connor, famous as a popular tenor and active throughout most of the twentieth century, and into his own life and career as a writer. The above is an excerpt from it, published by CentreHouse Press in hardback, paperback, and on most ebook platforms.
A favourite saying amongst Tories, not least the late demented Margaret Thatcher, is that the Conservatives are the natural party of government in the UK. Simply in terms of incumbency that statement is just about correct: since the end of the Second World War, when regular TV schedules really began, the Tories have been in power for 47 years to Labour’s 30.
Has television played a part in maintaining the status quo? Although this post is not limiting itself to discussing the BBC, it’s useful to take a look at the key points of its charter:
To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them.
To support learning for people of all ages.
To show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services.
To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations. and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the United Kingdom.
To reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world.
Those with an interest in politics and the arts would probably say the corporation has very mixed success in achieving those aims, particularly with regard to impartiality and quality of broadcasts.
Certainly the first fifteen years of TV viewing following the war was deeply establishment-orientated, plummy and patronising. Classical music, earnest discussion programmes, the Reith Lectures, documentaries typified by the Hans and Lotte Hass undersea exploration films, Armand and Michaela Denis “On Safari”… middle- and high-brow tastes were well catered for; while for the plebeians there were dramas such as Emergency Ward Ten and Dixon of Dock Green, entertainment in the form of the Black and White Minstrel Show and the Billy Cotton Band Show, and comedies such as The Army Game and The Larkins… A diet of safe, reassuring content, during a time of peace and economic growth (the Korean War, Suez, the Kenyan liberation struggle and many other conflicts notwithstanding). We’d never had it so good. And what we watched on TV backed that message up relentlessly.
Then the 1960s happened. The Cuban Missile Crisis, CND, disclosures about the Cambridge Spy Ring, James Bond, the Profumo Affair, the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial, Swinging London and Harold Wilson. The stuffy UK started to loosen up and consequently a small portion of television content became a little more daring; TV satire was born. That Was The Week That Was, TW3 and the Frost Report trod a virgin path, discussion programmes grew teeth, and politicians and the great and the good were shocked to find the customary culture of deference no longer applied when they were grilled by such sharp-fanged interviewers as Bernard Levin and David Frost.
That “golden age of satire” was short lived, and interviewers have since been reined in, although over the years certain TV journalists – such as Robin Day, Brian Walden, Jeremy Paxman and even Andrew Neil – have enjoyed a reputation for giving politicians a rough ride… particularly those on the left wing of the divide.
A small fringe of television output has striven to push the boundaries in every decade since the 1960s, notably the Dennis Potter dramas, Spitting Image, The Naked Civil Servant, Boys From The Black Stuff, Clocking Off, Auf Wiedersehen Pet… all part of a minority of TV programmes that commented on the human condition and questioned the status quo of the day.
Meanwhile, from Ken Tynan’s first utterance of “fuck” on TV (1965), attitudes to on-screen swearing have relaxed enormously, while similarly since Frank Finlay’s almost innocent gaspings in Casanova (1971), sex and nudity have become standard fare. What is in much more limited supply is not so much quirky TV, or cutting edge TV, but TV that not only states something about our lives in our increasingly dysfunctional society – the unhealthy status quo in most western nations – but raises a voice about our ovine acceptance of it.
Television at its best stimulates the grey matter, but the reality is that for the most part it has the opposite effect: it is a heavy sedative. And nowhere is that more true than in situation comedy, the shows we all grew up with and clustered around the box at the same time every week to devour. I thought I’d take a closer look at some of them.
I’ve taken the British Comedy Guide’s top 50 sitcoms as my source. Naturally it’s not exhaustive, but all of them have evidently been much loved by large portions of the UK’s population. They are:
Are You Being Served
As Time Goes By
Birds Of A Feather
Drop The Dead Donkey
Gimme Gimme Gimme
I’m Alan Partridge
It Ain’t Half Hot Mum
Just Good Friends
Keeping Up Appearances
Last Of The Summer Wine
Men Behaving Badly
One Foot In The Grave
Only Fools And Horses
Open All Hours
Rab C Nesbitt
Some Mother Do ’Ave ’Em
Steptoe And Son
The Brittas Empire
The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin
The Good Life
The League Of Gentlemen
The Likely Lads
The Royle Family
The Thin Blue Line
The Vicar Of Dibley
The Young Ones
Till Death Us Do Part
To The Manor Born
Waiting For God
Therein we should be able to see a portrait of how we’ve lived during the past sixty or so years, and in a way we do. Many are distinctly middle class, about dentists and solicitors and bored stay at home mums, who have multiple cars and clutches of kids at uni, but just as many other are about working class families, dads who are plumbers, refuse collectors, out of work, mums who are shop assistants and caterers, kids at the comprehensive… But while many of their lives are portrayed with sympathy, their realities are almost invariably trivialised.
To the Manor Born
Maybe we shouldn’t expect too much from such programmes. To The Manor Born, a down on her luck aristo falling for a gauche new money magnate, of foreign extraction too! A set of ready-made tensions drawn out week after week, which could hardly have any sort of bearing on any real lives. The Last Of The Summer Wine, harmless old buffers up North who indulged in hilarious slapstick, episode after episode. The Vicar Of Dibley: horror of horrors, a female curate in a staid, sleepy, quintessentially English village, where scandals didn’t get any worse than unexpected changes to the skittles team. In all fairness, no one would really have tuned into any such programmes in the expectation of seeing any real life drama. They were the televisual equivalent of a mug of Ovaltine.
In others, however, could we have expected more? Sitcoms in which lives were supposedly slightly less cosy? In Bread, Only Fools and Horses and the Royle Family, stories often revolved around bucking the system. The crafty fiddlers, the grandiose little entrepreneur whose schemes never bore fruit, the work-shy paterfamilias who considered everyone else bone idle. Ricky Tomlinson, a real-life socialist, starred as the larger than life Jim Royle in the Royle Family, yet writers Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne created a lovingly-drawn working class family without speaking of many of the more worrying issues a family near to the breadline would inevitably have faced.
The Royle Family
With only a few exceptions, disturbing reality was always kept at arm’s length in the sitcoms listed above. In The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin writer David Nobbs created a superb satire involving a man crushed by a stultifying suburban existence and an absurd corporate world. Phoenix Nights lovingly recreated Northern Clubland, and Drop The Dead Donkey hilariously exposed the cynicism of the news media. But perhaps the most biting on the list is Till Death Us Do Part, Johnny Speight’s portrait of a working class East End family and lumpen, racialist, bigot-in-chief Alf Garnett, wonderfully played by Warren Mitchell. This was thought provoking comedy at its best and aroused a great deal of controversy – not the least because some brain-dead viewers actually regarded Garnett as some sort of role model. But such programmes form a very small minority of TV sitcom output.
Is it fair to single sitcoms out in a medium that as a whole appears to be increasingly hell-bent on reducing our brains to a pottage-like mush? Perhaps not, but their overall effect is to facilitate an uncritical acceptance of the nation’s status quo; whether that is by design or just a by-product of having timid, acquiescent programme commissioners I couldn’t possibly say. But one thing is sure: the vast majority of situation comedies act as the TV’s audience’s comfort blanket. The characters in them will have their minor trials and tribulations, but they exist in a thoroughly safe world where they’re largely insulated from the harsher realities of life, a make-believe land that the Tories would love us to believe we most of us share. I’m certainly reminded of Margaret Thatcher and her notion of the Conservatives as the natural party of government, and I can’t help thinking that TV helps foster that illusion.
I’ve left one of the best until last, the immortal but sadly mortal Tony Hancock, a small time Everyman with deeply Conservative instincts, forever brought back down to earth by his working class mate Sid James – wonderful character-led comedy written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. This is from The Blood Donor:
Tony Hancock and June Whitfield
Hancock: I did not come here for a lecture on Communism young lady!
Nurse (June Whitfield): I happen to be a Conservative!
Hancock: Then kindly behave like one!
Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.
My march through the relative silence of nine years
Has brought me to a small house
With a green garden
A son and
Where are my brothers?
Where are my parents?
Where are my uncles and cousins?
Not to mention aunts?
They are gone.
Turned into frogs and birds.
Where are my friends?
I don’t have any
I won’t pretend.
I ever did –
Cats and dogs!
In my house
With a well-kept garden
Occasionally, two daughters visit
And from time to time a son.
Is the source of these other people
We brought them into the world together.
(Well, she laboured,
But I helped.)
We’ll be even older soon enough;
In our 70s
In this house
With its pretty garden
And on special occasions
Two daughters and a son will visit
With their families…
Then, if all goes well
I will disappear, too and
My wife will remain here
In this house with its garden,
A little more unkempt
And I hope they visit her often,
My two daughters, and my son
And bring along her grandchildren.
Tomorrow, for our protection;
To protect this little house
And its green garden,
In the morning
I will make a mandala.
I will walk around the block
6 times widdershuns
While muttering to myself
And spinning in the dust.
And in the evening
I will wind around the clock
6 times deosil,
While murmuring under my breath
And hopping into puddles.
And I’ll thump my stick as I walk
Once for every year
I’ve been alive
And jump over imaginary clouds.
I’ll thump sixty times
Cursing those with the evil eye
Through my long moustache,
Spraying the air
And banging my stick
While whistling a sinister tune;
If you heard it you would shiver.
And for every day I have been alive
I will chant a Tantric mantra:
Om vajrapani hum! Om vajrapani hum! Om vajrapani hum!
And so, break the jar of my memory open
And so, stamp away my silly disappointments
And so, admit my cruelties and failures
And so, shake off the weight I carry needlessly
And so meet every curious look with a glare
And forked fingers.
So you fancy being a dancer, huh? And who doesn’t want to be paid to do something they love? Well, that’s the name of the game in the arts world. Only trouble is, that’s what everyone wants, right?
So, firstly, before you consider a career as a dancer, you need to be aware that competition is fierce. And I’m not talking just a little bit, I’m talking so fierce that those beautiful, somewhat dainty dancers are ferocious, sharp-clawed tigers inside. How do I know? Well, I danced professionally for about 10 years.
I was stung by the bright lights of theatre when I was 15 years old but had been ‘on stage’ so to speak, all my life. I started as a small child in amateur musicals that my parents were a part of, in addition to being thrust into the limelight in all the school plays and shows that were produced. So, you could say, I certainly wasn’t looking for the stage, rather, the stage found me.
those beautiful, somewhat dainty dancers are ferocious, sharp-clawed tigers inside.
I was a gymnast as a child and that equipped me well for rigorous dance training that I embarked upon, aged 16, along with singing and dancing at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London. Upon graduation, I was employed in musicals up and down the country, in the West End, abroad and across all the seas and oceans of the world.
I had a great time. But what are the pitfalls? What’s really goes on behind the scenes in the world of dance or musical theatre? What should I have known at the time which in retrospect, I didn’t?
Well, I suppose it all depends on how serious you want to be, what level you wish to achieve, and in what area of dance. After all, dance is as varied as music, with as many styles as there are dancers to perform them. There are, however, a few things that you really must be aware of before embarking on a pirouette of a lifetime.
An ideal body for a dancer would be a fairly short body in relation to long legs
Firstly, lets start with the body. After all, it’s that which is going to be telling stories through movement, not the spoken word. An ideal body for a dancer would be a fairly short body in relation to long legs. Long legs always look better attached to a short body when performing leg kicks, jetes and the like.
So, if you’re reading this and have short legs, I will be blunt, you will need to consider that this will not go in your favour. But if that has not put you off, consider the amount of constant hard work and training that is required to make it and stay at the top.
I was lazy. After I graduated, I kept myself in shape by working professionally and doing 8 shows a week, in addition to working out at a gym whenever I could. However, in hindsight, this was not enough.
While I was in the musical Miss Saigon in London’s West End in the early 1990’s, I was appearing with dance ‘legend’ (sic) Louie Spence, who also happened to be a contemporary of mine at theatre school. Whilst I was waking up late after a show and going shopping during the day, Louie was busy taking classes at Pineapple Dance Studios in Covent Garden. You see, he was already an amazingly accomplished dancer but more than that, he was committed to maintaining and improving his overall dance technique and expanding his dance vocabulary. In essence, he was in love with dance and for him, I’m sure, all that physical agony was pleasure and he seemed to live for dance. I can’t say the same was true for me.
Auditions can be somewhat degrading. You might get a moment or two to learn a routine and then be expected, along with countless others, to perform the newly learnt routine at your optimal, all the while hoping that you have been one of the lucky ones, noticed and plucked from the crowd. If you cannot bear the thought of that, then show business is definitely not for you. And the audition treadmill never ends. As soon as one, usually short contract ends, its back to square one again. You see, there’s no real career path for a dancer. Dancers always consider themselves to be lucky, just to be in work.
If money is your goal, then you should probably become a hedge-fund manager.
If you plan to make a lot of money as a dancer, then again, I feel I will have to disappoint you. Though there are possibilities to earn money commercially through concert tours backing current pop artists, these jobs are few and far between and never long lasting. So, once again, you’re back on the audition treadmill, unemployed and looking for work. If money is your goal, then you should probably become a hedge-fund manager.
All in all, if you have a desire in life to make plans, make money and have some stability then you should definitely not consider dancing professionally.
All that being said, if you have an unquenchable passion for dance, long legs, and would be happy to dance, even for free, then you probably have some chance. It’s an extraordinarily tough world out there. Good luck.
Adam Lickley is an English Teacher, writer and traveller. Formerly a dancer and actor in musical theatre and then a barrister, Adam now spends his time traveling the globe teaching English while at the same time trying to find answers to the small and large questions of life.
It’s surprising how often I’ve been asked how one becomes a comic strip story-writer. My first reaction is usually to try to figure out if the person asking me is a, just being polite, b, gobsmacked that anyone should ever dream of entering such a bizarre profession, or c, actually interested. Anyone in the last category, read on…
There really are people who want to write for comics. I first realised this when I attended the Lucca Comics and Animation Festival (now comics and games), as a fledgling Disney comics writer back in the early 1980s. We creators were outnumbered 100-1 by all the fans and comic nerds, most of whom wanted nothing more than to be in your place. No matter that you were involved in kids’ comics, these were genuine aficionados and they were very clued-up on everything we had churned out. Writers and artists were met with a mixture of envy and awe, scripts and drawings thrust into your hand at every opportunity, as if your being a tiny cog in a great machine automatically gave you the powers of a commissioning editor.
Anyone wanting to make money should stay well clear of creating comics, unless they are ready-made geniuses. In fact delete that; I know a few creators I’d class as comics geniuses, and they still don’t make big money. I’d hazard a guess that if your brain is hard-wired to creating comics it’s probably completely lacking in the personality defects that turn people into high powered CEOs or hedge fund managers. No one goes into the creative side of comics creation to make big bucks. You can do okay – I made a decent living writing comics for forty years – but the suits invariably hold all the cards, and know how to keep you just hungry enough to keep you hard at it without your telling them to shove their one-sided ‘buy-out contracts’ where the sun doesn’t shine. In the end, we comics people do what we do because we love doing it – and we’re probably ill-suited for doing anything else.
At festivals, the fans pester you with their work. No matter that it’s your jobs they’re after, and you have precious little power to help them even if you could. So what would give them a better chance of getting started?
First and foremost, one has to have a little bit of story-making flair to work with. Without it all the learned technique in the world will be of little use. The good news is that many of us don’t know we have it until we try. Raw talent can be refined; no talent means one’s talents lie elsewhere.
Get good at it. The easy part of it is reading loads of comics; no one wanting to go into the business would not be an avid comics reader to begin with. But it’s also important to read comics critically. See what the story is about, does it follow logic, are the characters in character, does it flow or is it ponderous, does it make sense, what is it about it that makes one want to keep reading, what’s the hook. Many comics are wonderfully cinematic, and others can resemble the best in TV situation comedy – when the writing and illustration are working well enough. I attended a couple of seminars on comics creation in the distant past, but felt that if you measured the benefits against all the woffle they were not a profitable use of time. The best grounding I ever had was film editing classes at film school. There I learnt about economy of visual storytelling, about economy of verbal narrative, when to pause and when to expand, about points of view, angles, continuity, all about pacing. There are numerous videos on editing in YouTube, and I have no doubt many would be useful.
Write, and keep writing. Some people use matchstick people storyboards to help them, others just visualise a finished comic in their heads. I do the latter, but the important thing is to keep the stories coming until they’re whole and satisfying. Get critiques. Other people see flaws one may be oblivious to. And if they’re too fulsome in their praise, take it with a pinch of salt. If anyone is really brilliant from the word go I hate them; it takes time and effort.
There are two ways to go for the proficient comics creator. The first is to create one’s own comic from scratch – make a brand new concept/set of characters/periodical/web-comic/graphic novel. One’s own creation. It helps enormously if the writer and illustrator are the same person, but to even stand a chance the product must be first rate. Going down this route is a brave venture, because the investment in time and effort to produce something worth showing a prospective publisher or backer – or even just popping it online – is enormous. I doff my hat to those who succeed. I’ve been down this route a few times without success, but every graphic novel to reach the book-stands has surmounted these obstacles.The other route is to work for an established publication or web-comic. This offers slightly fewer impediments, but is still not easy. Many of the hundreds of Disney comics fans I met would have loved to work for the magazine, and would get frustrated and sometimes resentful at meeting a what seemed to be a brick wall. There are ways of shortening the odds, whether it be for Disney or any other comics.
First of all, don’t go in half baked. It should go without saying, but I’m still saying it and for good reason. If one wants to write for say, DC Comics, get to know the comics in question through and through. Know everything about the characters, what they do in any situations, the universe they exist in, know all the rules. Immerse oneself in it. A commissioning editor will sniff out anything that doesn’t jive instantly, and won’t make any allowances. They will have scores of better options battering down their door.
(That I’m able to pontificate on this is down to the most outrageous good luck. When I “auditioned” for Disney comics in the late 1970s the Swedish editors who ran the rule over me forgave a poor, very undercooked first attempt at a Disney story because at the time they were recruiting established UK sit-com writers who didn’t know the Disney universe very well. They gave me a second try, for which I made sure I was much better prepared. That would not happen now.)
To approach a commissioning editor one must know one’s stuff inside out. Read the comics and find out everything possible about who is publishing or producing them. By all means swot up on the normal channels for submitting work to editors, but forging personal connections really gets you ahead of the game. Do go to the festivals and conventions. Schmooze people shamelessly (but don’t expect many favours from fellow writers. Go above their heads). Make contacts and nurture them. I know that a lot of us don’t find it all that easy, because many of us story writers are not only hopeless at business, but hopelessly introverted too. That’s why we read comics and sit at home writing. But making contacts is the way to go. One has to earmark the people with with the power to give you a chance, but don’t pass up chances to create contacts – even ones that don’t look initially promising. Unlikely contacts can lead you to unlikely places. It was through getting outrageously drunk with an American science fiction novelist that I was given an introduction to the Swedish Disney editors. Work on the skills, work on the contacts, and work on getting that stroke of luck. And it’ s best not to get outrageously drunk when one’s writing. It only seems a work of genius at the time.
Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a selfdescribed Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political.He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.
Now everything begins to move and everything stays where it is each ash tree and each hummock shifts against itself even the grass shifts and the electric lapwings cry change change because the common melts and flows even the earth flows like thawing ice how lost the senses are in this disturbance here it comes again the new electric cry change change as it moves past us
Fiona Sampson is a leading British poet and writer. Published in thirty-seven languages, she’s received international awards in the US, India, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the English Association and Fellow of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s received an MBE from the Queen For Services to Literature and published twenty-seven books. National prizes include the Newdigate Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, Hawthornden Fellowship, and numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her works are frequently selected by national periodicals as Book of the Year. She’s also a broadcaster and newspaper critic, librettist and literary translator, and was editor of Poetry Review 2005-12. Her biography In Search of Mary Shelley was internationally critically acclaimed and shortlisted for the Biographers Club Slightly Foxed Prize. She recently received two major European prizes, the 2019 Naim Frashëri Laureateship of Albania and Macedonia, and the 2020 European Lyric Atlas Prize, Bosnia. She holds the Chair of Poetry at Roehampton University, and recently completed a new biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Ars Notoria is pleased to present episode 10 of Dan Pearce’s groundbreaking graphic novel, Depression.
Dan has written two graphic novels. One of them, called Critical Mess, was against nuclear power and the most recent is Oscar: The Second Coming. Dan is a painter, he has always painted and the last time he exhibited was at Sussex Open in 2017. His Labour of love is a graphic novel called Depression which is unfinished. Dan lived in Andalucia and Umbria for 18 years before coming back to England to live in Hastings.
Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974
Paul Robeson was a superstar in the USA in the 1930’s and 40’s despite the fact that he was African American. In 1915 he was twice an All American football star and while playing for the NFL got his law degree summa cum laude. Robeson was a key figure in the HarlemRenaissance putting on songs and shows. In his career he recorded almost 300 songs.
We fight in many ways. From my experience, I think it’s got to be a militant fight. One has to square off with the enemy once in a while.
He went to the UK in 1922 and built up his reputation there performing in Showboat and other productions. He played Othello in three RoyalShakespeareCompany productions. Robeson also played Toussaint Louverture in a play by C. L. R. James. Toussaint Louverture defeated the armies of Napoleon, Nelson in winning freedom for the slaves of Haiti. Robeson’s version of Othello ran for 295 performances. He started acting in films and became a famous movie star in the 30’s.
In the UK he became aware of the suffering of people in the British colonies, of the injustices of the SpanishCivilWar and of the difficult situation of the British working class and all this made him draw closer to socialism and communism.
PaulRobeson had been outstanding in almost every single way a human can be outstanding
Robeson returned to the USA in 1939 and immediately got involved in the CivilRights movement and he also got involved with socialist and communist causes including solidarity with the USSR in the face of the Nazi invasion.
At the end of the war the FBI put Robeson on its list of subversives and Senator McCarthy accused him of socialist and communist sympathies. He refused to deny his principles and as a result his passport was taken from him and a concerted campaign began to reduce him to obscurity.
Imagine all sections of our people in the United States, their organizational and programmatic differences set aside, joining together in a great and compelling action…
It succeeded. Despite the fact that PaulRobeson had been outstanding in almost every single way a human can be outstanding: he was a sports star, an academic star, a superstar singer, a film-star, a Shakespearean actor and he was a representative of the Council on African Affairs. Paul Robeson, according to his wife and children and his friends, was a mensch. Who in recent history can compare with PaulRobeson?
PaulRobeson deserves to be remembered and his words deserve to live on in memory without being layered over and re-contextualised by reactionary liberal hogwash.
An Open Letter to Jackie Robinson* By Philip S. Foner, Quartet Books, 1978 Pages 342-347
Paul Robeson, “Here’s My Story,” Freedom, April 1953
I notice in a recent issue of “OurWorld” magazine that some folks think you’re too outspoken. Certainly not many of our folks share that view. They think like you that the Yankees, making many a “buck” off Harlem, might have had a few of our ball players just like Brooklyn. In fact I know you’ve seen where a couple of real brave fellows, the Turgerson brothers, think it’s about time we continued our breaking in to the Southern leagues – Arkansas and Mississippi included.
I am happy, Jackie, to have been in the fight for real democracy in sport years ago. I was proud to stand with JudgeLandis in 1946 and, at his invitation, address the major league owners, demanding that the bars against Negroes in baseball be dropped. I know from my experience as a pro football player that the fans would not only take us – but like us. That’s now been proven many times over.
Maybe these protests around you, Jackie, explain a lot of things about people trying to shut up those of us who speak out in many other fields.
You read in the paper every day about “doings” in Africa. These things are very important to us. A free Africa – a continent of 200 millions of folks like us and related to us – can do a lot to change things here.
In South Africa black folks are challenging Malan, a kind of super Ku Kluxer. These Africans are refusing to obey JimCrow laws. They want some freedom like we do, and they’re willing to suffer and sacrifice for it. Malan and a lot of powerful American investors would like to shut them up and lock them up.
Well, I’m very proud that these African brothers and sisters of ours play my records as they march in their parades. A good part of my time is spent in the work of the CouncilonAfricanAffairs, supervised by Dr. AlphaeusHunton, and expert on Africa and son of the great YMCA leader, the late WilliamHunton. Co-chairman of the Council is Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. We raise funds for Africans and bring information to Americans about the conditions in Africa – conditions to be compared with, but worse than, those in Mississippi and Alabama.
We bring the truth about Kenya, for example – about a man like Kenyatta, leader of the Kikuyu, a proud African people of centuries of culture. He’s a highly educated man, with many more degrees than we have, Jackie. He’s getting seven years in jail because he wants his people to be free. And there are Americans of African descent who are today on trial, fugitives, or dead (!) because they fought in their own way for their people to be free. Kenyatta’s sentence calls to mind Ben Davis, Henry Winston, James Jackson, Claudia Jones, Pettis Perry and yes, Harry Moore.
And it seems and still seems unthinkable to me that colored or working folks anywhere would continue to rush to die for those who own most of stocks and bonds, under the guise of false patriotism.
What goes here, Jackie? Well, I’ll tell you. The same kind of people who don’t want you to point up injustices to your folks, the same people who think you ought to stay in your “place,” the same people who want to shut you up – want to shut up any one of us who speaks out for our full equality, for all of our rights.
That’s the heart of what I said in Paris in 1949, for example. As a matter of fact he night before I got to Paris 2,000 representatives of colored colonial peoples from all over the world (most of them students in English universities) asked me and Dr. Dadoo, leader of the Indian population in South Africa, to greet the Congress of Peace in Paris in their name.
These future leaders of their countries were from Nigeria, GoldCoast, SouthAfrica, Kenya, Java, Indonesia, India, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, the Philippines, Japan, Burma, and other lands. They were shapers of the future in the Eastern and colonial world and they asked us to say to this Congress representing about 800 million of the world’s 2,000 million that they and their countries wanted peace, no war with anybody. They said they certainly did not want war with the Soviet Union and China because these countries had come out of conditions similar to their own. But the Soviet Union and China were now free of the so-called “free western” imperialist powers. They were countries which had proved that colonial countries could get free, that colored peoples were as good as any other.
All these students made it clear that they felt that the nations who wanted war wanted it in order to head off struggles of colonial peoples, as in Indo-China, Malaya, Africa and Korea, for freedom. For example, if you could stat a war in Africa the authorities could clamp down completely with war measures. (It’s bad enough now!)
The students felt that peace was absolutely needed in order for their peoples to progress. And certainly, they said they saw no need to die for foreign firms which had come in and taken their land, rubber, cocoa, gold, diamonds, copper and other riches. And I had to agree that it seemed to me that the same held good in these United States. There was and is no need to talk of war against any nation. We Afro-Americans need peace to continue the struggle for our full rights. And there is no need for any of our American youth to be used as cannon and bomb fodder anywhere in the world.
So I was and am for an immediate cease fire in Korea and for peace. And it seems and still seems unthinkable to me that colored or working folks anywhere would continue to rush to die for those who own most of stocks and bonds, under the guise of false patriotism.
I was born and raised in America, Jackie – on the East Coast as you were on the West. I’m a product of American institutions, as you. My father was a slave and my folks worked cotton and tobacco, and still do in Eastern North Carolina. I’ll always have the right to speak out, yes, shout at the top of my voice for full freedom for my people here, in the West Indies, in Africa – and for our real allies, actual and potential, millions of poor white workers who will never be free until we are free.
And, Jackie, the success of a few of us is no final answer. It helps, but this alone can’t free all of us. Your child, my grandchildren, won’t be free until our millions, especially in the South, have full opportunity and full human dignity. We fight in many ways. From my experience, I think it’s got to be a militant fight. One has to square off with the enemy once in a while.
Thanks for the recognition that I am a great ex-athlete. In the recent record books the All-American team of 1918 and the nationally-picked team of 1917 have only ten players – my name is omitted. And also thanks for the expression of your opinion that I’m certainly a great singer and actor. A lot of people in the world think so and would like to hear me. But I can’t get a passport. And here in my own America millions would like to hear me. But I can’t get auditoriums to sing or act in. And I’m sometimes picketed by the American Legion and other Jim Crow outfits. I have some records in the market but have difficulty getting shops to take them.
People who “beef” at those of us who speak out, Jackie, are afraid of us. Well, let them be afraid. I’m continuing to speak out, and I hope you will, too. And our folks and many others like them all over the world will make it – and soon! Believe me, Jackie.
Jackie Robinson was the “first black Major League Baseball (MLB) player of the modern era”. Like Paul Robeson in American football, and Jesse Owens in athletics, Robinson broke through the colour bar to become a top athlete in his discipline, baseball.
Paul Robeson Urges Support for Jailed Leaders and Freedom Struggles in Kenya and South Africa
Statement issued by Paul Robeson, Chairman of the Council on African Affairs, New York, April 13, 1953 – Paul Robeson Archives, German Democratic Republic. We Americans of African descent are fighting for our full rights as citizens, and must keep fighting until we achieve these rights. In this fight it will be well to remember that as American citizens we have interests and responsibilities abroad, as well as at home. Our Government is very interested and active, and very busy, in Europe, Asia and Africa. We as black and brown people are especially interested in what our Government is doing in Asia and Africa, because Asians and Africans are Colored People like ourselves. In Africa our Government is actually supporting and doing business with the white colonialists, not the African people. It is suppoting Malan in South Africa and the British in Kenya and Rhodesia.
We Colored Americans will especially want to support our African brothers and sisters in South Africa who are now being jailed by the Malan Government for peacefully resisting segregation and discrimination. We will especially want to support our African Brothers and sisters in Kenya who are being tried and imprisoned for insisting upon the return of their land.
We know that sending leaders to prison who fight for our just demands does not in any way solve our problem, but rather increases our resentment, thereby aggravating the problem. We know that trying to send to prison respected and responsible leaders like Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois and William Patterson; sending men and women like Benjamin Davis, Claudia Jones, and Jomo Kenyatta to prison; and murdering men like Harry T. Moore, will only serve to unite Americans of African descent and the African people. Imagine all sections of our people in the United States, their organizational and programmatic differences set aside, joining together in a great and compelling action to put a STOP to Jim Crowism in all its forms everywhere in this land, and to further the struggle for land reform in the deep South. Think how such an action would stir the whole of America and the whole world. Think what support we would receive from the colored peoples and advanced white peoples of the world, – literally hundreds of millions, – strengthening in untold measure the struggle for freedom and peace. Let us protest the jailing of the black leaders in Kenya. Let us call upon our Government this week to stop helping the Ku Kluxer Malan and help the South African people who are marching irresistibly toward freedom. Let our voices be heard in thousands of telegrams and letters to the President in Washington and to Ralphe Bunche at the United Nations in New York City.
Paul Robeson defends the Council on African Affairs
The Real Issue in the Case of the Council on African Affairs Statement issued April 24, 1953, by Paul Robeson, Chairman, on behalf of the Council on African Affairs, concerning the Justice Department’s order for that organization to register under the McCarran Act – Paul Robeson Archives, Berlin, German Democratic Republic
The consistent job of the Council on African Affairs through the years since its establishment in 1937 has been to provide accurate information on the conditions and struggles of the peoples of Africa and to support their efforts towards total liberation. In recent months the Council has endeavoured to rally American assistance for the desperate fight of black and brown South Africans against Malan’s fascist oppression, and for the Africans of Kenya whose struggle for land and survival the British seek to crush with the most ruthless and inhuman punitive measures.
For such work as this the Council, I am proud to say, has received many expressions of gratitude and appreciation from African leaders. It would appear, therefore, that in branding the Councils as “subversive” and ordering it to register under the notorious McCarran Act, U.S. authorities are at the same time branding as “subversive” all the millions of Africans who are today determined to be free of the stigma of colonialism and white supremacy domination.
This attack upon the Council represents an attempt to frighten and silence all those Americans, particularly the Negro people, who are in any way critical of U.S. policies in Africa.
Those policies are directed towards establishment of military bases in Africa without consultation with or the consent of the people in the so-called strategic areas. They aim at the extraction of the maximum quantities of uranium, manganese, copper, bauxite and scores of other African raw materials for U.S. war stock-piles and industry. They entail U.S. financial and diplomatic support for the Malan regime and for the European bosses of Africa in order to maintain the white supremacy
status quo (as in our own Dixiecrat South) and “security” for the expanding American investments in Africa.
All this may be found explicitly or implicitly stated in numerous statements of administration leaders and in such documents as “The Overseas Territories in the Mutual Security Program” issued last year by the Mutual Security Administration. These policies and practices are a matter of official U.S. record, and not simply “Communist propaganda,” as is alleged.
The Council on African Affairs opposes these policies because they are detrimental to the interests of both Africans and Americans. The Government in its charge against the Council dodges the real issue of the right of American citizens to criticize the policies of the state and poses instead a wholly false issue. Is it “subversive” not to approve of our Government’s action of condoning and abetting the oppression of our brothers and sisters in Africa and other lands?
It is a matter of shame that at the recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly it was our own country, the United States, which voted with the European colonial powers against resolutions in the interest of the people of Africa, – resolutions which were supported by the majority of the U.N., including India and the other Asian-Middle Eastern-African member states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. The real issue in our case is the right of advocacy and support for the freedom of Africa’s enslaved millions, – including the descendants of Africa who have yet to achieve their full liberty and rights here in the United States.
The Council on African Affairs will continue to carry forward its work and will fight all efforts to restrict its usefulness to the cause of African freedom by means of the unconstitutional and un-American McCarran Act.
You must be logged in to post a comment.