Yanks

This film from 1979 was directed by John Schlesinger.  It was the first film he made in Britain since his amazing, ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ in 1971.  He directed films in the USA between these two.  The film was written by Colin Welland who also wrote the screenplay for ‘A Dry White Season’.

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‘Yanks’ told the story of a two love affairs in wartime Britain.  The American soldiers were brought in the northern town to train and await D Day.  Known to the locals as ‘Yanks’ despite coming from all over the States, they quickly got to know the local population.  Richard Gere played Matt Dyson a soldier who notices and falls for Jean Moreton, played by Lisa Eichorn.  Their relationship develops over the course of the film despite Jean being ‘promised’ to a British lad who is away serving in the army.

Meanwhile, in the upper classes, Helen as played by Vanessa Redgrave is doing good works for the war effort.  Her husband is away at sea and her son is at boarding school.  Her work brings her into contact with the Captain of the US camp.  They develop a relationship which, because of their status, is easier to pursue.  The Captain, played by William Devane, whisks her off to other places to carry on their affair.

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Both relationships encounter difficulty, though.  For Jean, the death of her fiancée brings condemnation from her mother who, originally pleased to get to know Matt sees his presence as an insult to the memory of the dead man.  For Helen and the Captain, though, her son’s unhappiness at boarding school and his persistent requests to be allowed home bring an end to what might have been.

Throughout the film we see the effect on the northern town of the Americans.  The cultural differences between wartime British and the Americans are clear to see, and are evident in the title of the film which is a misnomer for most of the US troops.

The film was a project John Schlesinger wanted to bring to the screen.  He was able to do so because he had experienced such success in the USA; his previous film, ‘Marathon Man’ had been a huge hit.  Throughout his career, he mixed large scale films with smaller, more intimate films on subjects he particularly wanted to explore.

‘Yanks’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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The Bermondsey By- Election 1983

Reading about the racist tactics used in the Smethwick constituency during the 1964 General Election reminded me of that other unfortunate election where fear and personal attacks were used instead of debate about policy and principle.  In 1983 the by election in Bermondsey was won by the Liberal candidate Simon Hughes, now, as a Liberal Democrat, a government minister. He defeated the Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell, in what was then a safe Labour seat.

During the campaign, the smears against Tatchell grew.  He was on the left of the Labour Party and, more important in this context, was a gay man.  The Liberal leaflets reminded voters that it was a ‘straight’ choice.  Some Liberal activists wore badges that said “I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell” or “I haven’t been kissed by Peter Tatchell”.  An anonymous leaflet showed a picture of the Labour Candidate with the Queen with the slogan ‘Which Queen will you vote for?’.

The Labour Party did little to support their candidate, being too caught up in internal battles between left and right and too scared to counter homophobic accounts.  The tabloid press was interested in lurid stories rather than political debate and, as a result, all the negative attention went to Peter Tatchell while the Liberal candidate did not get much close scrutiny.

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As campaigns go, it was a nasty homophobic affair that worked for the Liberal Simon Hughes.  He won a convincing victory.  He went on to have a successful career in politics and he remains the MP for the area today.  Many years after the by election that sent him to parliament he admitted that he had had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships himself.

Peter Tatchell went on to become a leading activist for gay rights and has always been remarkably lacking in bitterness at his treatment.  He has also spoken well of Simon Hughes and his record as an MP.  His book about the campaign, ‘The Battle for Bermondsey’ is worth reading.

These Are The Hands

This poem by Michael Rosen was written to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the National Health Service in Great Britain.  Long may it last.

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These are the hands
That touch us first
Feel your head
Find the pulse
And make your bed.
These are the hands
That tap your back
Test the skin
Hold your arm
Wheel the bin
Change the bulb
Fix the drip
Pour the jug
Replace your hip.
These are the hands
That fill the bath
Mop the floor
Flick the switch
Soothe the sore
Burn the swabs
Give us a jab
Throw out sharps
Design the lab.
And these are the hands
That stop the leaks
Empty the pan
Wipe the pipes
Carry the can
Clamp the veins
Make the cast
Log the dose
And touch us last.

Michael Rosen

The Racist Smethwick Election

This weekend a British politician (his name is irrelevant, why learn it?) talked about British towns feeling ‘swamped’ and ‘under siege’ from immigrants.  Apart from the mixed metaphor, the saddest aspect of this news item is the fact that, once again, a Conservative politician has used fear of outsiders to make a political point.  We recently passed the 50th anniversary of an unsavoury event in British political history: the victory of a Conservative candidate in the 1964 election after an overtly racist campaign.

The Labour Party won that election, displacing the Conservatives after 13 years of office.  The seat that bucked the trend was Smethwick in the West Midlands.  Peter Griffiths, the successful candidate, always denied that he was a racist but he benefited from a campaign that made use of the unedifying line: ‘If you want a coloured for a neighbour, vote Labour’.  (Other versions of the same slogan were used.) The race hate worked in favour of the Conservatives and Smethwick became their most significant victory in an election which saw many more seats lost.

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The British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, made a speech in the House of Commons in which he argued that Mr Griffiths should be treated as a political leper as a response to the campaign he ran.  It is worth remembering that the MPs in the Commons were more shocked by the Prime Minister’s use of the word ‘leper’ than they were by the substance of the Smethwick campaign.

Instead of being a political outcast, Mr Griffiths found himself treated as a hero by many in the Conservative Party, he had won them a seat against the odds, after all.  Such was the notoriety around the election that Malcolm X visited the Midlands town.

Malcolm X in Smethwick

I recently read the book about the campaign by the late and much missed journalist Paul Foot.  The saddest thing of all is that all the arguments used in 1964 about immigration are still in use, as exemplified by the politician this last weekend.  There would be some comfort in all this if we could hear the counter arguments being put, by the modern Labour Party for instance.  Instead, the Labour politicians, scared that a point of view might alienate a voter, continue to steer clear of standing up for anything.

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Paul Foot

 

Qasim Riza Shaheen

I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of video art.  I love visiting galleries and I can spend hours in front of paintings and sculpture.  I love going to the cinema and I can sit through film marathons.  Yet, watching video art has never appealed.

Mostly, I catch the glimpse as I walk past to the static works of art; paintings, photographs and sculpture obediently stay still while you ‘work them out’ or they have an affect upon you.

So I must declare that, when visiting an exhibition at mac Birmingham (the lack of capitals is theirs, not mine!), I had a revelation.  I went to see the work of British artist Qasim Riza Shaheen in his exhibition called ‘The Last Known Pose’.  There was an eclectic mix of work on the theme of identity and relationships.  Towards the end, there was a work called ‘Xavier Leroy Frasier’.  This is not to be confused with a still photograph with the title, ‘The Last Known Pose of Xavier Leroy Frasier’.

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Qasim Riza Shaheen

It was this video piece that caught my interest.  I found myself fixed to the spot until it ended. I estimated that it lasted about seven minutes but this was based on my third viewing as, you see, I watched it from the beginning again, all the way through, and then returned to see it after lunch and then again after another tour of the gallery.

I could describe it to you but I would not do it justice.  I can tell you that it was two men sitting, facing forwards, sometimes looking directly into the camera but mostly not.  That is it!  Except that this was captivating.

The gallery attendants, plural because they changed shifts and I kept returning, must have wondered what I was up to.  I wanted to sit but, hey I’m British, so I stood and watched and watched.  At times it was only me and the member of the gallery staff ther

What else to say? Oh yes, it was silent.  Wonderful!

Double Negative

BlogDoubleNegativeThis novel by South African Ivan Vladislavic is an interesting take on the transformation of a nation from its Apartheid years to the Rainbow Nation of today.  Told in three distinct sections we follow Neville Lister at three points in his life.  In the first, he is the university dropout looking for a purpose and unsure of what he believes in other than he knows he is disgusted by the country he lives in, and the attitudes of the entitled whites.  He is desperate not to be like ‘them’ but unsure where to put his energies.

His father suggests he spends a day with celebrated photographer, Saul Auerbach.  Tagging along he sees the work of the artist and his British journalist friend up close.  They sit on a hill above Johannesburg and pick three houses. They will knock on each door in the search of a story.  The photographs from the first two become famous in the body of work of Auerbach while the third house is missed because of fading light.

Years later, Nev is drawn back to the new South Africa and to the house they never visited.  Here he gains entry by telling an untruth and uncovers the story they missed years before.  Vladislavic tells us about the transformation of a country through the story of the young man who went away and the woman in the house who  never left.  In the third section of the novel, in a modern country, Neville is now a photographer in his own right making pictures and developing projects that tell us something of what it means to be a South African today.

At the heart of this novel is the idea that the photographer selects what to capture and what to ignore… or maybe what has to be left out.

A Dry White Season

This film from 1989 and starring Donald Sutherland is a powerful story of the political awakening of an Afrikaans school teacher, Ben du Toit.  Set in South Africa, the film shows the impact of Apartheid on two families.  Ben du Toit has all the advantages of the white superior class.  He has black servants and black gardeners but he considers himself to be compassionate and a caring employer.  When his gardener, Gordon, comes to him for help after his son is beaten by police his instinct is that the boy must have brought the problem on himself.  He does not want to get involved in politics and has no reason to doubt that the police act fairly.

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Things change when he sees the effects of police brutality for himself.  Gordon’s son is killed by police after protesting and the gardener, refusing to let matters rest puts himself in danger.  When the police get hold of him his fate is sealed.  Ben hears that his gardener committed suicide but, when he sees the body in the morgue, he understands what Gordon had been trying to say to him about justice.

Standing on the side of justice brings Ben du Toit in conflict with his community or ‘tribe’.  Indeed, the word ‘traitor’ is used by his head teacher when he is dismissed by him.  Marlon Brando steals his scenes as a world weary lawyer who agrees to take on the authorities on behalf of du Toit even though he knows the outcome before he begins.  Janet Suzman is excellent as du Toit’s wife who sympathises with him but fails to see why their lifestyle should be threatened by his awakening.  Zakes Mokae is the black activist who is first dismissive of du Toit but then shows him up close what damage Apartheid is doing.

The opening titles of the film show du Toit’s son, Johan, playing with Jonathan, the son of Gordon the gardener.  Equal in their play, we know that their life chances are radically different.

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In the 80s there was some criticism of films like this and ‘Cry Freedom’ that told stories of Apartheid through white eyes but, in the end, it was the white minds that needed to be changed for the system to fall.   The film is based on the novel by Andre Brink and he, let us not forget, is a very brave writer.

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‘A Dry White Season’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?