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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Holger Meins

Holger Meins was a member of the German urban guerrilla group the Red Army Faction, and before that a film-maker, who died on hunger strike in prison in November 1974. Although he may be less universally known than those core members of the group who inhabited Stammheim prison, and who went on trial in the period 1975-1977, his is nonetheless an interesting and revealing story, and this is explored in some depth in the 2001/2002 documentary "Starbuck Holger Meins", directed by Gerd Conradt.

The title refers to the code-name, taken from a character in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", allocated to Meins as part of the communications system devised by the members of the group whilst they were incarcerated. The documentary is made up primarily of recollections and reflections from friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives of the subject. Part of the narrative is told in the "first person", courtesy of extracts from Meins' writings. There is lots of rare footage and material, much of which I had not seen before.

I was interested to note his early Christian leanings, in common with some other prominent German activists and militants of the time. It would have been good if this aspect of his life could have been developed more in the film, in the context of his political beliefs.

Due attention is paid in this film to Holger Meins' film-making and other artistic activities, and how these became more and more entwined with his political commitment, as the social atmosphere in Germany and elsewhere grew increasingly fractious and polarized. Some of the rhetoric both contained in the art, and expressed in writing and sound-bites, now seems somewhat dated , such as the worship of Mao Zedong. 

Although the documentary contains some elementary examination of, and insight into, Meins' personality, and the contradictions therein, I would have liked some greater stress on the ideals which persuaded him to become embroiled in the armed struggle. What effect, for example, did some of the pivotal incidents of the student protest movement have on him personally, or was it a gradual and inexorable process which stemmed largely from within?

The selection of contributors and "talking heads" is well-judged, constituting a good cross-section of the people with whom Meins had contact. Some of the names are well-known, but they do not overshadow or marginalize the thoughts and observations of those people who Meins associated with before his rise to "notoriety".

The hunger-strike is given surprisingly little coverage, only being fully scrutinized in tandem with Meins' death itself, although the scenes in this section of the film are quite powerful and well-judged. There are what I see as gaps in the story, but the producers were seemingly not striving for chronological rigour, but for overall impact and symbolism, and in this they generally succeed.

This documentary is a good piece of work, quite imaginatively and stylishly put together, but if anything it further hardened and soured my view of groups such as the RAF. Whilst being in sympathy with many of the grievances which they expounded, I feel that the methods and solutions which they offered were misguided, confused and often counter-productive.





Tuesday, 12 August 2014

All The President's Men - Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

The Watergate affair, in its broader definition, remains the most compelling political scandal of modern times. This is not just because it brought down a President, but because of the nature of the episode itself, and the manner in which the case escalated from relatively innocuous beginnings. The most famous, but by no means the only, journalistic investigation of the affair was the one conducted by the Washington Post, and the paper's probe is related in "All The President's Men", by the Post's two reports, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
 
 
 
The great thing about this book is that it works on more than one level. It appeals to those interested in the political process, but it is also a gripping detective story, and reads like a thriller. Later adapted into a superb motion picture, "All The President's Men" is a delicious, but often disturbing, plum pudding of intrigue and subterfuge. The story in book form is naturally more detailed and comprehensive than seen in the later motion picture adaptation. More scope is permitted for analysis, nuance and character projection.

One is struck by the amount of patience, tact and inventiveness which the reporters were required to exhibit and maintain. We learn much both about the methods employed by the two men, but also about their personalities, and how they fashioned a tolerable and fruitful working relationship as the scope of the investigation widened and the stakes grew more and more momentous.

These pages help to underline the sheer amount of hard work, often tedious and repetitive, which had to be conducted to help crack the story. It was not all about dramatic revelations, inspired guesswork and unexpected disclosures. The old phrase "ten per cent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration" comes to mind.

The book also highlights the role played by other publications and media outlets in uncovering the story, and the authors are at pains to thanks those who helped them to bring things into the open. To cite this saga as a vindication of a free press is possibly a little trite, but still very much valid. 

In addition to the heartening and positive signals which the ultimate outcome contains, this book is also at times sobering and disconcerting. The tenuous nature of cherished institutions and principles, and how susceptible some of them might be to subversion and corruption. Close scrutiny of these events should occasion a jolt to those who are inclined to give "the powers that be" the benefit of the doubt.

On a more general note, this work does also provide a cultural snapshot of life in the early 1970s, an uncertain, transitional phase in history. The optimism and excitement of the 60s had gone, but at the same time the problems and concerns which were to characterize the 1970s were not yet fully in focus. A time of ennui in some ways?

The closing chapters are amongst the most illuminating, as they chronicle the slow unravelling of the White House position in 1973/74, and concentrate less on the Washington Post's involvement in the process.

The world can never have enough investigative journalists, and I dare say that reading "All The President's Men" has persuaded quite a few people that it would be a stimulating and noble vocation to pursue.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Russian Revolution - Sheila Fitzpatrick

As one of the most complex, traumatic and seismic episodes in recent world history, the Russian Revolution can be a daunting subject to tackle. For such topics, a well-written, authoritative and compact account is always valuable and welcome. This requirement has been fulfilled for me by Sheila Fitzpatrick's excellent work, simply entitled "The Russian Revolution".
 
 

When I picked up this book, I expected it to deal almost exclusively with the events of 1917/18, with perhaps some coverage of the Civil War. To my surprise and delight, it also encompasses the "revolution" in its broader sense, taking a look at various phases of development leading up to the eve of World War Two.
 
Fitzpatrick does a solid and credible job of setting the scene for the upheavals, and observing how the state of flux in Russia's economic and social development provided fertile soil for revolutionary sentiment to thrive and flourish. The nature of dissent and organised opposition in the late Tsarist era is also outlined, and how the forceful personality of Lenin began to make its present felt. Contrary to what many people might imagine, the fortunes of the various opposition factions fluctuated. Ultimately, however, the course of events was going the way of the Bolsheviks, and they were usually quick to capitalise on these trends, and prod matters actively further forward.
 
Reading this book, one has to wonder whether the "liberal" elements opposed to the autocracy treated the workers patronisingly, and how much they attempted to use the "lower orders" in order to try and save their own skins. They were also probably victims of their own scrupulousness on certain matters, their own bourgeois sensitivities, and of course a failure to fully comprehend the importance being placed on an early end to Russian involvement in the First World War.
 
Once the Bolsheviks had grasped what had occurred in February 1917, they kept their eyes firmly on the prize, and refused to dilute their principles and demands, knowing that things were developing to their advantage. Of course, a healthy dose of revolutionary ardour, and an absence of scruples or prevarication did the rest.
 
What I really like about this book is that it doesn't bother slavishly relating every minute twist and turn, and does not try to give dramatic accounts of some of the supposedly iconic moments in the story of the revolution. Instead, it concentrates on scrutinizing the political background to each stage, and the possible explanations for how the participants behaved. This can leave the revolution appearing to lack overt drama and even grandeur, certainly in comparison to the version with which most of us were inculcated in our younger days. When one looks at the how revolution unfolded, in its early phases at least, it was perhaps not as spectacular and explosive as we sometimes imagine. How much this has to do with a "post-Soviet" reappraisal is open to question.
 
I found the most enlightening and illuminating sections to be those dealing with the period between February and October 1917, the ebbing away of the Provisional Government's credibility and power, and its eventual impotence and demise. There is also some musing on just how much support the Bolsheviks actually commanded around October/November 1917. 
 
The Civil War is also given due prominence here, but more in the context of how it affected the domestic situation and the power struggles in Russia than of military events. Particular note is taken of how the conflict led to the regime becoming more authoritarian and militaristic, and also of the importance of the peasantry.
 
We are given a clear and persuasive analysis of how the Bolsheviks handled the reins of power once the situation had become relatively settled and stable, and I was intrigued by the question of the balance between the involvement of the party in the implementation of government, and that of the bureaucracy.  The New Economic Policy is also an integral part of this portion of the book.
 
"The Russian Revolution" concludes with a look at the power struggles after Lenin's death, and the subsequent "revolution from above" overseen by Stalin, including the Five Year Plans, the collectivization of agriculture, and of course the purges. There is an interesting summarization of the changes which overcame Russian social, economic and cultural life in these times, and whether they did indeed represent the realisation or accomplishment of real socialism and the vindication of the revolution.
 
This was an instructive read. Clearly not the definitive tome on the subject, but admirable all the same. A good "one stop shop" summary or refresher, and a possible stimulus for deeper research.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Protest Songs

The early years of rock & roll were primarily notable for songs about the pleasures of the flesh or youthful rebellion. However, as the Sixties wore on, and the social and inter-generational atmosphere grew more febrile and unstable, the frontiers of rock expanded, and lyrics became more diverse, experimental and profound. The protest song genre was very much part of this overall pushing back of the boundaries. I have lately embarked on an intensely "political" phase, and this subject therefore came to the forefront of my mind.
 
Protest songs take several forms, all of which have their own virtues and hallmarks. The most overtly powerful, but also the most ephemeral, is the song written on the spur of the moment, often in a spontaneous outpouring of rage, indignation or dismay, and in reaction to a traumatic or tragic incident. An example which springs to mind instantly is "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Songs such as this make up in rawness and sincerity what they may lack in long-term universal anthemic potential. Even if some of the precise cultural references may mean less these days, they are formidable period pieces, with a unique appeal.
 
The track which for me stands out as the ultimate protest number is "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Clearly addressing an emotive and topical theme of 1969, but also espousing many sentiments which have remained common ever since. The clinching factor is the fact that "Fortunate Son" is, in purely musical terms,  a rip-roaring piece of rock & roll. John Fogerty could be singing about washing-up liquid and it would still be a great record.  However, the lyrics elevate it to something else again, the frenetic pace of the arrangement ideally complementing the anger being expressed.

The other "Vietnam era" protest song which still packs a real punch, and stands up well, is "Draft Morning" by The Byrds. An ethereal vibe pervades this one, punctuated by sound effects depicting the horrors of war. A different approach to "Fortunate Son", but still highly effective and memorable.

Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded one or two other excellent protest records. "Bad Moon Rising", to the uninitiated, could be open to several interpretations, but now it seems clear that it was a lament about the political events of the late 1960s in the United States. "Who'll Stop The Rain" is a more wide-ranging, if equally forthright, commentary on the ills and turmoil of those times. John Fogerty's passionate songs had an honesty, directness and clarity which was sometimes lacking in the "social commentary" and posturing of the psychedelic and singer-songwriter crowds.

Jackson Browne, initially renowned for his introspective and personal lyrics, grew more overtly concerned with social and political issues as his career developed. In his case, I always found the satirical approach more convincing than his direct "protest" material. "The Pretender", from 1976, was eerily shrewd in its assessment of where the wind was blowing, and prescient about the careerism and economic rapaciousness which would fully emerge in the decade which followed, even raising concern about "work/life balance".  "Lawyers In Love", released in the early 1980s, is a cynical, if astute and amusing, take on the Cold War and cultural imperialism. If not "protest songs" in the conventional sense, both "The Pretender" and "Lawyers In Love" deliver a thought-provoking and coherent message without sounding either self-righteous or corny.

Then there is the carefully researched campaigning song, bringing an injustice to wider attention, as perfectly exemplified by Bob Dylan's "Hurricane".  The Rolling Stones delivered their own distinct, and sometimes ambiguous, verdict on the upheavals of the late 60s with songs such as "Street Fighting Man" and "Gimme Shelter".

These are just examples from what may loosely be termed the "classic rock" era, and of course other musical genres have been equally prolific in commenting on political matters. The concept of "the protest album" is most popularly encapsulated by Marvin Gaye's magnificent "What's Going On".  Of course, protest and activism is in the very DNA of folk music and folk-rock.

An interesting debate would be whether the protest song is less prevalent and favoured than it used to be, in "mainstream" music at least?  Did the financial crisis of a few years ago produce any great protest songs, or is the music scene now so fragmented that such tracks do not gain widespread recognition?
 

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Flute

It took a while to properly register with me, but it seems to me that of all the instruments employed in any form of music, classical or otherwise, the flute is amongst the most undervalued and underappreciated, in its melodic and rhythmic dexterity, not to mention its ethereal beauty.
 
Flute music was a prominent feature of the output of baroque-period composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel, but the flute seemed to be marginalised during the Romantic period, being drowned out by the masses of strings and horns and the general air of grandiosity. However, the instrument appeared to suit the mood and requirements of the post-Romantic and Impressionist music which began to emerge in France during the latter part of the nineteenth century, including that by Debussy and Ravel. It continued to be favoured by composers into the twentieth century, such as Francis Poulenc. His Sonata for Flute and Piano (1956) is one of the most enchanting and arresting pieces of music one could wish to hear.
 
The exponents of progressive and experimental rock certainly understood the effectiveness and sonic quality of the flute. The most famous use of the flute in prog was almost certainly to be found in the antics of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. However, flute was prominent on early Genesis records, most notably "Firth Of Fifth" and other numbers on their 1973 release "Selling England By The Pound". Other prog-rock acts to make memorable use of the flute were Focus (Thijs van Leer), King Crimson, Camel, and probably numerous others which I have not mentioned here!  Even in an era of increasingly sophisticated synthesizers, electronic gizmos and studio effects, there was still something about the humble flute which stood out and gave songs a distinctive character, charm and texture.
 
Flute has also been a staple of television theme tunes and incidental music, producers and composers finding it an ideal device with which to create atmosphere and seduce and entice the ears and senses of the viewer/listener.
 
There are some great flautists out there today.  Two who spring instantly to mind are Juliette Hurel and Emmanuel Pahud. Listening to them will give hours of unalloyed pleasure.
 
So let's hear it for the flute!
 
 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Time Machine - H G Wells

Probably the second most famous work written by HG Wells, after "The War Of The Worlds", "The Time Machine", originally published in 1895, is a novella which tells the story of an inventor type who devises a contraption to enable him to travel through time. Once he has travelled about 800,000 years into the future, he finds himself in a world seemingly idyllic and perfect, but things are not what they seem.

The way I interpret it, the "Time Traveller" character is articulating some of Wells' own beliefs, concerns and opinions. It was a good idea to have the introductory chapter (s), where the scientific principles supposedly underpinning and enabling time travel are debated and discussed. This gives the story a grounding of sorts, instead of the reader being asked to totally take for granted outlandish or fanciful ideas. I always like an author to take me with him in this manner.

In the initial descriptions of the Earth in 802,701 AD, I detect echoes of children's fairy stories, in the invoking of a kind of idyllic wonderland, albeit one with a few quirks and incongruities. At first glance, the Time Traveller thinks that he has landed in some utopian communistic, egalitarian paradise. He reflects on the implications of this apparent absence of fear and insecurity.
 
As he accepts that his initial diagnosis has been erroneous, the Time Traveller pieces together the grim reality of the dystopian vision before him. Humanity has diverged into two "species", due to social fragmentation and segregation, encouraged supposedly by the industrial and economic systems of earlier times. The insinuation is that this is all the logical and inevitable outcome of the way things were moving even in the late nineteenth century, suitable extrapolated. Of course, social injustice and the iniquities of capitalism were very much a favoured topic of writers and thinkers in Wells' time, and this was an imaginative means of getting his point across.

In this case, the "aristocracy", as represented by the ebullient but frivolous and shallow Eloi, had become decadent, and were being tormented by the brutalized Morlocks, the subterranean dwellers who had hitherto been industrial fodder. Was the author being prescient here, anticipating the conditions which gave rise to certain proletarian uprisings which were to happen in the twentieth century? Rather than grimly declaring "I told you so", Wells makes clear that such a society would not be worth living in, being characterized by fear, terror and unease.
 
The most resonant part of the equation for me was the notion of the death of the intellect, in exchange for comfort and security, with all its manifold, and insidious ramifications. One can argue whether or not the plot details are more plausible than "The War Of The Worlds", but I found "The Time Machine" more stimulating from a philosophical standpoint, as it contains starker warnings about what man's folly can create. The vision and imagination on display are also more lively and fertile to my eyes, and ironically the fruits are more relevant, even though most of the story is set far far into the future. Whether or not one totally concurs with some of the writer's premises, this is a work to jolt the complacency.

 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Desire - Bob Dylan

Conventional wisdom has it that "Desire" was Bob Dylan's last record before his career entered another creative dip, lasting the best part of two decades. This may indeed be true, but the album merits examination, as one of the most enigmatic and intriguing of the great man's career.
 
One difficulty which some new listeners may encounter with "Desire" is that of "accessibility". The record is cloaked in an intangible shroud of mystery and vague nebulousness.  It is only when one sees through this cloud that the confidence and substance of the record can be fully savoured.
 
It is a more eclectic and varied album, lyrically at least, than "Blood On The Tracks", with the songs addressing a range of topics, from social injustice and relationships to travel and spirituality. Amid the diversity, some cohesion is supplied by the violin and the vocals of Emmylou Harris. These elements lend a pleasingly melodic and exotic texture to proceedings. It is surprising to note how little guitar work features here.
 
 
 
The mournful and reflective nature of some of the compositions, and the outward impression of sonic ennui and melancholy, are deceptive. I detect a real freedom about the work here, of a singer-songwriter warming to his task, bolstered by the presence of new collaborators and a sense of liberation from any straitjackets. The songs are perhaps less immediately engaging emotionally, but the subject matter is challenging, provocative and fresh. The songwriting tie-up with Jacques Levy doubtless contributed to the impetus and creative vigour. In places even Dylan's singing exhibits a certain exuberance.

"Hurricane" is the imposing and relentless opener, one of the most notable protest songs ever recorded. Unlike many protest numbers, this one stands up musically in its own right, and the melody and backing also ideally complement the message. If anyone doubted Dylan's capacity to still turn out music of power and relevance in the mid-1970s, this was their answer. Still as potent and resonant almost four decades later.

Serving as the other "bookend" of "Desire" is "Sara", one of  Dylan's most nakedly personal and candid songs, harking back to "Blood On The Tracks" in some ways. The presence at either end of the album of emphatic social commentary and frank confession is proof that all the bases of singer-songwriterdom were comfortably mastered, although Dylan stood, consciously or otherwise, outside any particular movement or "scene" by 1976.

Of the songs in between, "Isis" is to me the most affecting, combining lyrically the flavour of Dylan's mid-60s work with his less cryptic and oblique later style.

If there is a theme to this album, one could argue that it is preoccupied with drifters, outlaws and outcasts, if one also notes the presence of such songs as "One More Cup Of Coffee", "Joey" and "Romance In Durango". Whether this direction was itself a commentary on the times, or on anyone's state of mind, is open to question.

On first listen, "Desire" can seem like some of the jaded and listless American singer-songwriter fare being released circa 1976. However, it has much more vibrancy, focus and depth than that, and stands as possibly Dylan's last truly important record.