Archive for September, 2009

Thomas Paine as Che Guevara

29 September 2009


There’s still time to catch the last few performances of A New World at the Globe Theatre in London, Trevor Griffiths’ adaptation for stage of his unmade screenplay about the life of one of Britain’s greatest radicals and campaigners, Thomas Paine. Commissioning the stage version to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Paine’s death in 1809 (in obscurity) was a smart piece of scheduling by the Globe.

Griffiths is a fine radical playwright, and this is a ‘big’ play, covering a sweep of history – in three hours – which takes in the American and French revolutions and the turmoil in Britain at the time. But it doesn’t forget the personal as well as the political. And the Globe is a good setting for such a play, with the groundlings’ space acting as an extension of the stage when necessary. This post isn’t a review – I’ll leave that to Michael Billington and Stuart Weir – but for me the play conjured brilliantly the fragility of the events of the revolutions as they unfolded, and the uncertainties of the participants who lived through them from day to day.

It also succeeded in a way that I imagine that Griffiths would wish for; there’s enough of Paine’s own writing – from Common Sense and the Rights of Man – in it to make me realise that I should have read more of it than I have. And enough, too, to make his present relative obscurity puzzling; as if his long-standing career as a member of the awkward squad had carried over into his historical legacy.

‘My country is the world’

As it happens, Verso has just published a new edition of Paine’s writings in their Revolutions series, with a fine introduction by the historian Peter Linebaugh (review via Verso’s blog). I’m just going to share a few notes from that introduction here.

Paine is a puzzle. He left school at 13, and was 37 when he went to the United States, and there was apparently little in his background – save, perhaps, the petition he wrote to Parliament on behalf of fellow exciseman in support of higher wages – to suggest that he would, over the next twenty years, become the most influential political writer of his time. The clues are there, though, in his engagement with local learned societies, his spell as a teacher, his study of science and engineering.

By the time the two parts of the Rights of Man had been published, he was both widely read and widely feared, partly because it had been priced cheaply (Part I cost only 3/-) and sold widely. The language was sharp and also uplifting: “All the monarchical governments are military. War is their trade, plunder and revenue their objects”, contrasted with “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good”. As Peter Linebaugh writes, Part II was dangerous to the British government because of “its forthright translation of equality in economic terms, and its overall tone of democratic confidence”.

‘Where liberty is not’

Linebaugh has a deep knowledge of the 18th century, and he situates Paine’s work at a moment before the commons had been closed off by landowners, when the American revolution had created new ideas of the possible. He makes the analogy to Guevara, and it seems a fair one; a revolutionary who fought (and wrote) in one revolution, was centrally involved in the politics of a second one (he was a deputy to the French National Convention), and was pursued by a government deeply fearful of a third (the full powers of the British state – spies, hired mobs, and lawsuits – were turned on him).

His work was also influential in the United Irishmen movement in the decade in Ireland before Wolfe Tone‘s failed rebellion; 10,000 copies of the Rights of Man sold in the country. A British military commander wrote that “The north is certainly inoculated by Paine, who persuades every man to think himself a legislator”.

Paine seems, now, impossibly modern, with his opposition to the death penalty and slavery, and his scepticism about organised religion. He spoke for the rights of the native American nations. His judgment on contemporary events appears astute; he refused to vote for the execution of Louis XVI, because of the harm it would do to the revolutionary cause; he thought Washington, after the revolution, unprincipled (and Washington, in turn, left Paine to languish in a French cell); and called Napoleon a charlatan. He influenced independence struggles in India and Indonesia.

His books – and a biography – were banned from American public libraries in 1949, as part of HUAC’s mission (oh, irony!) to defend “the form of government defended by the Constitution”. His history is entwined with that of American Presidents; Monroe freed him from jail in Paris, Jefferson invited Paine back to the United States. Paine was, it was said, Lincoln’s favourite writer, and also seems to be a favourite of Obama’s, who quoted him without crediting him in his inauguration speech. In short, the exchange which is quoted by Linebaugh at the start of his introduction, between Paine and his sponsor Benjamin Franklin seems apposite:

‘”Where liberty is, there is my country”, declared Benjamin Franklin, to which Thomas Paine replied, “Where is not liberty, there is mine”‘.

The picture at the top of this post shows John Light as Thomas Paine, and Daniel Anthony as Will, in the Globe’s production of A New World.


Idling away

27 September 2009


On Friday I picked up An Apology for Idlers, the Penguin mini-edition (or ‘Great Ideas‘, to use their label) of some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s journalism, prompted in part by a glowing review a while back by Nicholas Lezard. There were other motives as well. I love Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, which conjures, tenderly, a whole pre-electric childhood, and having been partly educated in Scotland Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was inescapable. I’m sure that I read Treasure Island at some point, of course. But although I’m interested in journalism I’ve never read any of  Stevenson’s.

I’ve only dipped into the title piece over the weekend. It was written in 1877, but there’s a section at the start of it which seems strangely topical:

Just now, when every one is bound, under pain of a decree in absence convicting them of lèse-respectability, to enter on some lucrative profession, and labour therein with something not far short of enthusiasm, a cry from the opposite party, who are content when they have enough, and like to look on and enjoy in the meanwhile, savours a little of bravado and gasconade. And yet this should not be. Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.

The text – now out of copyright – can be found online here.

The picture, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’, is by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent.

Return journey

15 September 2009


I thought about writing something here when the journalist and novelist Gordon Burn died, quite young, earlier this summer, but realised that I had nothing to add to the encomia that littered the obituaries pages.  “One of the greatest – and arguably underrated – British writers of his age*, said one, and I don’t really disagree with that. His journalism – for me a former journalist – was exceptional. In a world where there is plainly too much journalism I’d seek his pieces out.

But looking through an old notebook I found recently – which read a bit like a longhand blog – there was a piece on an article by Burn from 2005 that was worth sharing, a meditative reflection on a return home to Newcastle after the death of his father, even if his memory, perhaps appropriately for such a genre, is playing tricks. The whole thing is worth reading, even if you know nothing of Newcastle and care even less, but there’s a striking quote and a striking image.

The image is of some elderly Tynesiders singing songs in a pub in the late afternoon. It turns out that they are tourists, living in Greece now, come back for a nostalgic visit. “They were voluntary exiles, travelling in the opposite direction to the economic migrants from the former eastern bloc and elsewhere for whom they had made space; ex-pats come back to revisit not what was actually there, but what they wanted to see.”

The quote is from the American writer Toni Morrison:

“They straightened up the Mississippi river in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use but in fact it is not flooding, it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.”

Towards the end of the article Burn acknowledges that he has only recently “admitted” the claim of Newcastle on him.

“It is a nostalgia prompted by the sense that the entire world is now a space traversed by signals, everything virtual, nothing solid; our employments increasingly having to do with abstract operations, every operation stroked one way or another into the digital network economy. To go “home” was to return for a time to a time where, at the risk of sounding like the bleary-eyed saloon-bar crooner, and to quote the historian Robert Colls, nobody talked of “community” and everybody belonged to one.”

Cutting novels

13 September 2009


James Buchan had a review in Saturday’s Guardian of Colum McCann’s novel Let The Great World Spin, which I mentioned last week. Although he’s broadly sympathetic, he thinks it too long, and suggests a useful rule of thumb for editing novels which is worth repeating here:

Almost all novels are improved by cutting from the top. On their first pages, authors parade those favourite effects which disgust the impartial reader. McCann’s first chapter reads like Time magazine at its most solemn and sentimental. (“Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey.”) The story proper, as in so many novels, begins some way into the second chapter.

I liked his combination of ‘parade’, ‘effects’, and ‘disgust’. He also has another rule of thumb about the role of vintage cars in fiction: don’t do it.

Two of his characters, downtown junkie artists, are given a 1927 Pontiac Landau, which is forever parked across the narrative. Classic cars should be avoided in fiction.

The rest of the review can be read here.

The picture, of Chris Locke’s ‘scissor spiders’, can be found at the 2dayblog.

Ramblin’ Jack and the country blues

12 September 2009


It seems that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, sometimes described as Woody Guthrie‘s musical heir, should be in his 90s by now. But Woody died young and it turns out that Ramblin’ Jack is only 78, which is, it also turns out, the very best age for making a record of country blues songs.

In other words, A Stranger Here, released earlier this year, a collection of classic country blues songs from the ’30s. Not any old blues songs, but ones chosen by the producer, Joe Henry, to resonate with the present times. And written by some of the great bluesmen, from Blind Lemon Jefferson, to Son House, to Lonnie Johnson, to Furry Lewis (“when Furry signs the blues” sang Joni Mitchell on Hejira.)

If Elliott has a great producer, he is also blessed with a fine band, which includes Van Dyke Parks and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos), and the overall effect is, well, to underscore the timelessness of the songs. Elliott admits on the sleeve notes that the musical selection was made by Joe Henry; he sang the songs he was presented with.

The first track, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues”,  continues a theme in Henry’s production work of music which evokes the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Henry’s recent productions include Elvis Costello’s collaboration with the New Orleans pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint, A River In Reverse, and of Toussaint’s more recent solo record The Bright River, which both have the spirit of New Orleans embedded deep in them. My own favourite on A Stranger Here is Elliott’s version of Soul of a Man, by Blind Willie Johnson, which could easily have given the record its title.

By chance I also recently read an essay by Geoff Dyer, “Blues for Vincent”, in his collection Anglo-English Attitudes, in which – among other things – he reflected on the blues. Dyer’s essays are so rich that reading one is like drinking a glass of dessert wine – slowly, in small quantities, a thing to savour – and this passage helps explain why:

The message of the blues is simple: as long as there are people on earth they will have need of this music. In a way, then, the blues is about its own survival. It’s the shelter the black man has built, not only for himself but for anyone who needs it. Not just a shelter – a home. No suffering is so unendurable that it cannot find expression, no pain is so intense that it cannot be lessened – this is the promise at the heart of the blues.

My related posts:

Singing the blues

Highway 61: Dylan’s blues record

The dust on the shoes

8 September 2009

manhattan after attack

I had thought that there was nothing new to say – or at least nothing new to say worth saying – about the attack on the World Trade Centre towers in 2001. The symbolism of the event and the scale of the response – emotional as well as political – had wrung out all of the meaning. But it seems that I was wrong. There’s a short reflection in last Saturday’s Guardian Review by the Irish-born, New York-resident writer Colum McCann on the pair of shoes which his father wore on the day of the attack, when he was fortunate enough to escape from the building. He then walked to McCann’s apartment on 71st Street:

My daughter, Isabella, jumped into his arms. She recoiled from the hug and asked if he was burning and, when he told her that it was just the smell of the smoke on his clothes from the buildings that had collapsed, she said, no, no, that he must be burning from the inside out.

My father-in-law immediately swapped his clothes. He couldn’t stand the thought of the suit, the shirt, the tie, what they held, what they carried. He threw the clothes away, but left his shoes by our door. They stood there for weeks, until we finally figured that we had kept them there precisely because they had carried him out and away to safety. They were, in whatever small way, a beacon of hope.

It is still a difficult thing, these days, to pull out the shoes. I still think that every touch of them loses a little more dust. I am paralysed by the notion of what the dust might contain – a resume, an eyelash, a concrete girder, plasterboard, a briefcase, a pummelled earring, another man’s shoe. They sit in a cupboard behind me, over my left shoulder, a responsibility to the past.

McCann has just published a well-reviewed novel about New York and the World Trade Center, Let The Great World Spin. He also writes about the difficulty of finding meaning in the events of that September when, in its aftermath, everything seemed charged with meaning. One way in was through the astonishing 1974 tightrope walk by Philippe Petit, even though it had become a familiar event, through novel, plays, and even documentary film:

But stories are there to be told, and each story changes with the telling. Time changes them. Logic changes them. Grammar changes them. History changes them. Each story is shifted sideways by each day that unfolds. Nothing ends. The only thing that matters, as Faulkner once put it, is the human heart in conflict with itself.

The picture is from Ellen Sanders’ Crackpot Chronicles, and is used with thanks.

Lost in exile

2 September 2009

I’ve been listening to Christy Moore’s song Missing You (written by Jimmy McCarthy) and realise that it is – in some ways – a reworking of the traditional Irish song Carrickfergus (versions here by Van Morrison and Bryan Ferry), about the pain of exile and the impossibility of returning home. In Carrickfergus, “I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober”, and home is simply too far away: “But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over/ And neither have I the wings to fly”.

In Missing You, the singer is a building labourer, closer to home in England, and the song captures the casual discrimination of the sites in one fine stanza:

To where you’re a Paddy, a Biddy or a Mick
Good for nothing but stacking a brick
Your best mate’s a spade and he carries a hod
Two work horses heavily shod.

The singer can’t afford the price of the flight home, but in any case. sleeping rough, “I’ll never go home now because of the shame”.

Both songs are cautionary tales about the losses of exile, but in Carrickfergus there’s still some of the delusions of the blarney (he’s still “a handsome rover from town to town”). Missing You, in contrast, is bleak; almost too bleak, in that it is a song with a rich melody which the lyric strips of hope.