The Fire Last Time

Dany Laferrière has suggested – with a hint of provocation, no doubt – that the greatest novel of the Duvalier dicatatorship was written by an Englishman: Graham Greene’s The Comedians.1 In the same spirit, perhaps, we might add that the best film of the Haitian Revolution was made by an Italian: Queimada (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo.

Pontecorvo, best known for The Battle of Algiers (1966), named Queimada after the fictional Portuguese colony in the Caribbean he chose for its setting. Filmed in Colombia, it is a defiantly unglamorous period drama that tells of the struggle against slavery and colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century.

William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives on the island and helps to rekindle a slave rebellion, which he then recommends the white mulatto elite support in order to win independence from the Portuguese. Walker is an British agent whose objective is to get the Portuguese out of the way so that the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can profit from its plantations. Once independence is won (and slavery abolished), Walker persuades his protege, the black leader Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez) to convince his men to return to the cane fields. The reluctant mulatto figurehead Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) becomes president and Walker leaves.

Ten years pass. The sugar company effectively rules Queimada instead of the Portuguese, but precariously. For the last six years, Delores has been leading a guerrilla campaign and has proved unwilling to negotiate. At the government’s request, Walker returns. He advises the army to ruthlessly destroy key villages, but the campaign continues. The army stage a coup against Sanchez (who is prepared to capitulate) and General Alfonso Prada calls in the British Army. With their superior fire-power, the scale of devastation multiplies, and the sugar company is concerned that its plantations are being destroyed in the process. With Dolores still at large, it wonders whether the price is worth paying. But Walker reminds the company’s representative Mr Shelton (Norman Hill) that even if Queimada is burnt to the ground, it would be worth it, because it would at least stop the revolution spreading to other islands where the company also has sugar interests.

Finally, Dolores is captured, but he maintains an enigmatic silence, and refuses to talk to Walker. The government discusses the preferred form of execution. Walker reminds them that Dolores would be much more dangerous dead than alive. They try to offer him freedom if he leaves the Caribbean but Dolores laughs. He knows the value of martyrdom. And, as he explains to a black soldier guarding him: ‘If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take. Do you understand?’ On the day of his execution, Walker offers to allow him to escape, asking for nothing in return, but Dolores again refuses. He is led to the gallows.

Walker leaves before the execution takes place. On the quayside he is approached by a young man offering to carry his bags (as Dolores did in the two scenes that bookend the first half of the film depicting Walker’s arrival and departure). Momentarily caught unawares, Walker turns round and the stranger stabs him fatally in the chest.

Two versions of Queimada were released. The original version (132 minutes) is dubbed in Italian. To hear Brando’s own voice (and his plum accent), you will have to make do the English-language version that is 20 minutes shorter. Lawrence Russellclaims that it was Brando’s favourite film, despite the tribulations of the shoot itself, in which the star and the director disagreed over just about everything. It is certainly possible that he was attracted to a script that ‘fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement’. Or admired it as a ‘furious Vietnam allegory’, as Stephen Hunter has described it.

But its allegorical possibilities do not stop there. The Somali teenager Sagal in Nuruddin Farah’s novel Sardines (1981) has production stills of Brando from Queimada on her bedroom wall, along with posters of Che, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but she cannot explain to her mother the story of the film or which revolt was being depicted. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as its parallels are legion. One reason, no doubt, that, as her mother goes on to inform her, it was only shown once in Mogadishu and then only in a highly censored version.2

And indeed, the parallels may continue to proliferate. For instance, during the second half of the film, it is not hard to think of the current war in Afghanistan and the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden. The title is even a close anagram of Al-Qaida.

But the historical events they most closely resemble are those of the Caribbean itself, notably the struggles that led to the abolition of slavery in the French islands in the 1790s and the brutal attempt to restore it – successfully in the case of Guadeloupe, but not Saint-Domingue, which became the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.

What is striking is the way Pontecorvo captures the complex, shifting political allegiances of metropolitan governments, private companies, white settlers, prosperous free people of colour, and the black slaves. We might have got a sense of this in the film Sergei Eisenstein planned in 1934 to make about Toussaint Louverture, starring Paul Robeson.3 And may still yet in Danny Glover’s rumoured-to-be-forthcoming biopic, based – it is alleged – on a screenplay by Med Hondo.

But it is a book – C L R James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian revolution – that Queimada most resembles. In particular, the emphasis on the importance of the decisions that Toussaint made to accept or reject offers of help from those whose commitment to black freedom were suspect. The British and the Spanish for instance. Or even the representatives of the French Revolution, which had promised to abolish slavery, like commissioner Sonthonax. In each case, James spells out the political and military calculations Toussaint had to make when choosing his allies.

In Queimada, these dilemmas are dramatised clearly in a series of three scenes early in the film which show Walker and Dolores preparing to join forces.

The story of Queimada is told from Walker’s point of view, an outsider – like the audience – unfamiliar with the island which he first sees through an eye-glass from the deck of his approaching ship. And yet Walker is ultimately out-manouevred by Dolores. They both die at the end but it is clear that it is Dolores who will be remembered, not Walker.

In this clip, the two characters are at first glance, presented as equals who can help each other, who share a common goal. But in fact the formal equality suggested by the presentation (the scrupulous attention to both partners in the dialogue, filmed chiastically in shot reverse shot), in the end draws attention to their differences.

In the church, Walker proposes they join forces to rob the bank and split the proceeds. But of the 100 million gold reales, fifty go to Walker while the the other half is shared between Dolores and his men.

On the hillside where he outlines his plan, it becomes clear that they won’t be escaping together. While Walker intends to flee to England, Dolores and his men dream of Africa.

Once the preparations are complete, Dolores and Walker drink to the success of their mission. They drink each other’s habitual tipple (Walker tries rum and Dolores whisky) and toast (separately) ‘England’ and ‘Africa’ before finding something they can both pronounce: ‘the world’. But it is the thinnest cosmopolitan veneer. Pulling faces, neither manages to down his cup, and, relieved, they switch back. Each to their own. May the best man win.

Notes

  1. Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2010), p127.
  2. Nuruddin Farah, Sardines (London: Heinemann, 1982), p29.
  3. Scott Allen Nollen, Paul Robeson: Film Pioneer (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2010), pp52-3.

An Outline of a Critique of Political Economy

I am old enough to remember decimalisation, which finally took place in Britain forty years ago this week. As an eleven-year-old in his first year at secondary school, who had never been abroad, it was my first taste of that slightly queasy feeling you get when you have to think in two different currencies at once. I recall the frisson as p’s and d’s mingled promiscuously in my pocket, the conversion tables on the walls of post offices and newsagents, the impending obsolescence of the eleven and twelve times tables.

But above all I am reminded of an event some ten years later: now a student at Birmingham University whose routes across the city often took in one of the alternative bookshops that nurtured the subculture. These institutions, defined negatively in that they offered what mainstream bookshops did not – a good coverage of left-wing politics, imported fiction and poetry, alternative health and non-western religion – nevertheless came to feel as if they obeyed a single organic principle.

They flourished in university towns, but not exclusively. As a teenager, I regularly visited a tiny one in Blackburn, Lancashire on my way home from school, spending money from a paper round on treats like How to Grow Your Own Marijuana, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and the latest issues of Peace News.

Nowadays, that rapprochement is almost over, the trade fragmented between Buddhist Centres, herbalist emporia, welfare rights offices, with gentrified boutiques like the London Review Bookshop virtually the only places left for readers who think of themselves of independent mind. Where now can you walk in off the street and pick up a copy of Amilcar Cabral, Alexandra Kollontai or Ernest Mandel?

The nearest to my first flat in Birmingham was in Moseley, its volumes of Gramsci and Jung always faintly perfumed with jasmine and patchouli, although, with its squeaky wooden floors and gloomy mezzanine to the rear, retaining a studious air missing from its more activist-oriented twin situated on the curve of St Martins Circus Queensway in the city centre, filled with natural light that nurtured house plants and made hand-written cards curl around drawing pins on the noticeboard.

A mile away was the Communist Party bookshop, tucked away a block or two back from the busy A38, which pretty much stuck to printed material and felt a little more intimidating and austere in comparison, although it was already livened up with the snazzy covers of Martin Jacques’ Marxism Today and Robert Natkin’s colourful abstract paintings that adorned the cover of the first generation of Verso’s translations of French, German and Italian socialist intellectuals (most of whom are hardly spoken of today).

Not that these developments left much mark on Progressive Books and Asian Arts in Selly Oak. There were fans, incense, some fabrics and posters, but I was drawn to the shelves lined with the cream paperbacks of Peking’s Foreign Languages Press editions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and of course Mao himself, alongside the darker hues of the rather more durable hardbacks that offered their Selected or Collected Works. A ramble on the web just now tells me that the bookshop was run in the 1970s by Jagmothan Joshi, General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association, a fact of which I was completely unaware at the time. When I used to visit, the proprietor was a taciturn and somewhat intense man in his late twenties or early thirties, perhaps an eternal postgraduate, whose longish hair, cardigan and brown suede shoes made me think of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Not long after I discovered it, the shop was holding a closing-down sale, offering two-thirds off all stock. I chose The Poverty of Philosophy (60p, still pencilled on the now rather faded cover), Selected Letters of Marx and Engels (also 60p), Anti-Dühring (which seems to have disappeared from my collection) and a volume of Mao’s Selected Writings that included the Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan and On Contradiction (£2). Even at marked prices they represented excellent value for money at a time when – as a glance at the back covers of other books I bought around the same time reveals – a copy of Discipline and Punish would have set me back £2.95 and Althusser’s For Marx a stomach-clenching £4.25.

And for each one, Stockhausen diligently calculated the promised discount. And what I liked about this ritual was, when he took up the Penguin edition of Engels’ Selected Works and noticed that the price printed on the back cover – for it must have been on the shelf for more than a decade – was an uncorrected 7 shillings and sixpence, without missing a beat he rapidly executed the mental arithmetic and informed me, with a hint of a smile, that I owed him 12½p.

I don’t know if this sale made the slightest difference to his fortunes as he made his way in the world following the shop’s demise. But in honouring the agreement to reduce his prices to the point at which they became almost meaningless I think he made a tiny difference to mine.

The Guinea’s Stamp

When Robert Burns published his first book of poems, he intended it as a parting shot before leaving Scotland for good. A position had been arranged for him on a plantation in the West Indies, and he was due to set sail from Greenock in September, 1786. ”Twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow,’ he wrote in a letter of August 1787, ‘even though it should never reach my ears a poor Negro-driver.’

But he never did cross the Atlantic. Instead he set out for what he called the ‘new world’ of literary Edinburgh to follow up his recent success there and exploit the tempting prospect of a second edition. Today Burns is more likely to be remembered as the friend of liberty, man of the people, and composer of the sentimental abolitionist song ‘The Slave’s Lament’: ‘It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral / For the lands of Virginia-ginia O.’

In 1846, fifty years after his death, he was paid homage by someone who had travelled in the opposite direction to escape the long arm of American slavery. In a letter from Ayr printed in the New York Tribune, the fugitive wrote animatedly of the romantic setting of his Monument. He took delight in being able to see with his own eyes the places named in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and ‘Ye Banks and Braes.’ And he was honoured to meet Burns’ 80-year-old sister, ‘a spirited looking woman who bids fair to live yet many days.’1

The author was Frederick Douglass, already well-known in the United States following the appearance of his autobiography the previous year. Its graphic descriptions of life on a Maryland plantation, and of the cruelties he witnessed as a child and later endured himself, made the book an instant classic. It told how, against all odds, he taught himself to read and write, and – barely out of his teens – engineered his escape, equipped with forged papers, to the free North. In New England he hooked up with radical anti-slavery campaigners and became one their leading spokesmen.

But in publishing his story, he increased the chance of being identified and recaptured. So in 1845 the fiery abolitionist sailed for Britain, where he stayed nearly two years. Douglass captivated audiences at hundreds of speaking engagements across the country. He made several extended tours of Scotland, where the anti-slavery societies were especially active. His slogans were carved on the turf of Arthur’s Seat and his visit celebrated in popular ballads of the time.

In his letter from Ayr, the former slave made common cause with the former ploughman who saw through the empty rhetoric of the ‘bigoted and besotted clergy’ and the ‘shallow-brained aristocracy’, and ‘broke loose’, as he put it, ‘from the moorings society had thrown around him.’ But he acknowledged his faults too. ‘Like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths’, he observed – perhaps alluding to some of his own.

Both men rose from lowly origins to become figures of major historical importance. Douglass himself went on to hold government posts during the Civil War and afterwards, including that of Minister to Haiti. His books are nowadays required reading in schools in the United States. And he has become a cultural and political bone of contention, claimed by black nationalists on the one hand and those who think of him as more a typical American on the other – in much the same way that Burns can appear in turn the quintessential Scot and the hybrid cosmopolitan.

Douglass was not the only African American writer to have found much to admire in Burns. In James Weldon Johnson’s introduction to the Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), his work was held up as an example of how sophisticated a vernacular literature could be, comparable to that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

The similarity between many phases of their lives is remarkable, and their works are not incommensurable. Burns took the strong dialect of his people and made it classic; Dunbar took the humble speech of his people and in it wrought music.

The Caribbean-born poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was dubbed the ‘Jamaican Burns’ for his early dialect verse, though it is possible that Louise Bennett might be more deserving of the title (so long as we also allow that Burns might be the ‘Scottish Bennett’). More recently, Maya Angelou celebrated the Burns bicentenary in 1996 with a visit to his homeland, the subject of a fascinating documentary made for television.

Douglass’ interest in Scotland did not stop at Burns, though. His surname – adopted after his arrival in Massachusetts – he took from the hero of The Lady of the Lake. A rather cheeky gesture, perhaps, given the popularity of Walter Scott among the Southern planters he left behind. In view of the continued appropriation of Scottish emblems on the part of white supremacists in the United States – from the pseudo-celtic rituals of the Ku Klux Klan to the tartan wallpaper that adorns Confederate websites – his choice invites us to imagine a different Scotland, one less amenable to fantasies of racial purity and ethnic exclusion.

Another Scot who inspired Douglass was Lord Byron, particularly the lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?

As far as I can tell, he quoted them first in an article entitled, appropriately enough, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, published in the North Star, the newspaper he founded on his return to the United States in 1847. No doubt a certain impatience with white abolitionists contributes to its subsequent reappearance in his fictionalization of the 1841 mutiny aboard the slave ship Creole in The Heroic Slave (1852) and at the end of the chapter that records his triumph over the notorious slave-breaker Covey in his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).2

But if Byron provided the slogan for an emergent black radicalism breaking free of white patronage, it was the words of ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ by that other Scots poet which were called on time and time again to underscore Douglass’ robust egalitarianism.3 Most poignantly perhaps in an address at a Burns Supper in Rochester, New York in 1849.

He began by admitting that ‘I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, but if a warm love of Scotch character – a high appreciation of Scotch genius – constitute any of the qualities of a true Scotch heart, then indeed does a Scotch heart throb beneath these ribs.’ He described to his listeners his recent travels in the country – where ‘every stream, hill, glen, and valley had been rendered classic by heroic deeds on behalf of freedom’ – and his memorable visit to the poet’s birth-place.

‘And if any think me out of my place on this occasion,’ he concluded, pointing to the portrait of Burns on the wall, ‘I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that “a man’s a man for a’ that.”‘4

Notes

  1. Frederick Douglass, ‘A Fugitive Slave Visiting the Birth-place of Robert Burns’, extract from a letter dated 23 April 1846, New York Tribune, 9 July 1846, reprinted in Alasdair Pettinger (ed), Always Elsewhere: Travels of the Black Atlantic (London: Cassell, 1998), pp95-7.
  2. Frederick Douglass, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, North Star, 14 July 1848, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), p315; The Heroic Slave [1852] in William Andrews (ed), The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p157; My Bondage and My Freedom [1855] (New York: Dover, 1969, p249. The lines also appeared in Henry Highland Garnet, An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America [1843] (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p93; they were used as masthead of Martin Delany’s paper The Mystery, launched New York, 1843) (see Robert S Levine (ed), Martin R Delany: A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), p27); cited in James McCune Smith, ‘Outside Barbarians’, Frederick Douglass’ Paper (25 Dec 1851), reprinted in John Stauffer (ed), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p80; and featured as the epigraph to Chapter III of W E B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903] in Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986), p392.
  3. Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, London, 23 May 1846, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp170-1; ‘The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Delivered in Hudson, Ohio on 12 July 1854’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), p523; ‘Our Recent Western Tour’, Douglass’ Monthly, April 1859, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade, 1850-1860 (New York: International Publishers, 1950) p451.
  4. Frederick Douglass, ‘On Robert Burns and Scotland: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York on 25 January 1849’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp147-48.

(Revised and expanded version of an article first published in the Sunday Herald, 23 January, 2000).

Our Future

Yesterday, the Observer, followed a long – but not, I think, distinguished – New Year tradition of asking a panel of experts to predict the future. Specifically, their brief was to identify the key developments they expected to take place in the next twenty five years in various fields, ‘from the web to wildlife, the economy to nanotechnology, politics to sport.’

What is troubling about this – and similar – projections is not their proverbial inaccuracy. An AIDS vaccine, driverless cars, the answer to the dark matter question. Who knows if and when they will arrive? The problem is their use of the first person plural.

  • ‘We will be sharing videos, simulations, experiences and environments, on a multiplicity of devices to which we’ll pay as much attention as a light switch.’
  • ‘I think we’ll be cycling and walking more.’
  • ‘We’ll learn more about intervening in our biology at the sub-cellular level and this nano-medicine will give us new hope of overcoming really difficult and intractable diseases.’

What is it about the future tense that makes ‘we’ so attractive? Switch it to the present or the past and the universality it seems to imply would look distinctly forced. Is it not possible that some people might benefit or suffer from these changes more than others? Will the shining rays of the world to come strike us all at the same angle?

Why is it that these predictions always seem to invoke an undifferentiated ‘we’ when the disappearance of social division and inequality is not one of them?

Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins

I just came across this paper I gave at the Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass conference, held in New Bedford, Mass. in June 2005. I suppose it has been waiting for me to turn it into something more substantial, but I doubt I ever will. So here it is, in its flawed, elliptical original state. 

What follows is the summary of an experiment: a report of the results observed when two characters from Melville and Douglass are placed alongside each other. One day, perhaps, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins will have their own conference. Until then, they can briefly make an appearance in the shadow of their creators.

Continue reading

Playing with Chekhov

I recently came across an old notebook in which I scribbled a holiday diary of sorts. As usual it petered out quickly into merely practical memos (addresses, phone numbers, train times) but it began well – as these things often do, with the enforced captivity of a transatlantic flight as inspiration. In this case, it was en route from Amsterdam to Washington DC that I read Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with Lapdog’ (in David Magarshack’s translation), and felt compelled to record my responses.

The dog plays only a minor role in the story. G, a late thirties’ serial adulterer, is in Yalta, his curiosity excited by a new arrival, a lady with a lapdog. He sees her first walking along the promenade as he sits in a restaurant. And then again, and again. Always ‘followed by the white pomeranian’. ‘No one knew who she was, and she became known as the lady with the lapdog.’

The narrator tells us a little about his marriage and his attitude towards women, which is disrespectul, and yet he is drawn to female company, as women are to him. He is seized with the desire to seduce her, and his chance comes when she happens to sit at the next table in a restaurant in the park. The dog provides useful pretext to talk to her, for G first attracts its attention, and in fact she speaks to him first: ‘He doesn’t bite,’ she said and blushed. She says she’s bored in Yalta and G makes a droll remark that gently chides her statement as a somewhat ridiculous cliché.

That’s what one usually hears people saying here. A man may be living in Belev and Zhizdra or some other God-forsaken hold and he isn’t bored, but the moment he comes here all you hear from him is “Oh, it’s so boring! Oh, the dust!” You’d think he’d come from Granada!

She laughs. We learn her name, A, and she’s quite young, only two years married, although she doesn’t know what her husband’s job is. G is attracted to her youth – only recently ‘she had been a schoolgirl like his own daughter’; to her ‘diffidence and angularity’ evident in her laughter and her conversation with a stranger. G concludes that is is the first time she had found herself alone in the company of predatory men.

He gets off with her, but the time comes for her to return home to S__ and they both seem to agree that they will never see each other again. But G is unable to get her out of his head and in December he tells his wife he is going to St Petersburg, but instead goes to S__ where he takes a room in a hotel and, having learnt A’s address, observes the house from the street. He hears her playing the piano, and even sees an old woman appear at the front door with the lapdog. But he can’t risk announcing his presence, and returns to his hotel, deciding to go to the theatre that evening to the first performance of The Geisha Girl. And of course A is also there, with a man he supposes is her husband. During the interval he takes advantage of her husband’s absence to approach her seat in the stalls. She hurriedly leaves the auditorium and they steal a few tense, intimate moments on a narrow staircase. She implores him to leave immediately, but promises to visit G in Moscow.

And she does. Every few months, she leaves P__ to visit her Moscow gynaecologist (so she tells her husband, who believes her and doesn’t believe her), takes a room at the Slav Bazaar, dispatching a porter with a message for G when she arrives.

The story concludes with an account of one of these secret meetings. (On this occasion, he doesn’t receive her message till the following morning, and he goes to the hotel after dropping his daughter off at school). She bursts into tears, wanting so much the secrecy to end, while G glances at himself in the mirror – reflecting on his advancing years and realizing that he had fallen in love for the first time in his life. And Chekhov leaves us on the threshold of a complicated future.

Then they had a long talk. They tried to think how they could get rid of the necessity of hiding, telling lies, living in different towns, not seeing one another for so long. How were they to free themselves from their intolerable chains?
‘”How? How?” he asked himself, clutching at his head. “How?”

And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin; but both of them knew very well that the end was still a long, long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.

If we rewrote this story and moved it closer to home, with a title like ‘Lady with Laptop’, how would this work? The opening scenes could take place in Rothesay. G would be from Glasgow. A from a small town outside Edinburgh: Musselburgh perhaps.

A would certainly attract some comment if she appeared in Rothesay, sitting down in parks, restaurants, opening up her laptop and typing away. Certainly it would provide a useful ‘way in’ for a predatory male such as G to initiate a conversation.

The laptop, like the dog, could fade into the background once it had served this purpose (maybe reappearing – like the dog – once more, as G stalks outside her Musselburgh home, and catches a glimpse of it through the window?). But it would be good to introduce a twist.

One possibility is that she herself is writing a story. So while Chekhov’s story privileges G’s point of view – and it is his transformation from adulterer to genuine lover that is its focus – this reworking would offer a glimpse of A’s version of the affair as it appears in the story or diary she is writing on her laptop. Or perhaps she’s posting updates to a blog or social network account of which G, but not the reader, is totally unaware.

Not Biking but Hiking

In a previous post I drew on a much-quoted passage from George Orwell – the miscellaneous catalogue of what he thought were ‘characteristic fragments of the English scene’ which included that line about ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings’. It wouldn’t be quite so well known, perhaps, if John Major hadn’t used it in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1993, changing ‘biking’ to ‘cycling’, presumably to make sure we didn’t confuse these old maids with Hell’s Angels.

And then last night I started reading Stuart Maconie’s Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England (2009). I’m not sure why. I guess books about Englishness are my version of car crash TV. There is something compellingly baffling about the way journalists, travel writers and cultural critics talk about Englishness as if it were a remotely meaningful concept. You won’t find its equivalent anywhere else. The French obsessing over francaisitude or an Italian crisis of italianità? Even the Scots only talk about Scottishness in order to disown it. In fact if there is one thing that the English do have in common, it is an uncontrollable urge to talk about Englishness, something they never define, just illustrate with lists which they trade with each other like marbles or cigarette cards.

Anyway, Maconie writes just two pages before he cites Orwell. And then he makes the following remark:

Orwell actually had his maids ‘hiking’, which sounds oddly transatlantic; Major’s misquotation is the one that has passed into legend.

This rather took me aback. Had I got it wrong? I surely wasn’t the only one. I hunted out my copy of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume II: ‘My Country Right or Left’ (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968). There on page 57 it was unmistakable: ‘biking.’ It is the only edition I had and the library was shut so I couldn’t check further. But what is Maconie’s authority for ‘hiking’?

Comparative web searching produces surprising results. On Google, ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion’ yielded 1,120 hits, while ‘old maids hiking to Holy Communion’ gave 258. Google Books scored 122 and 3 respectively. ‘Biking’ was a clear winner, but why so many for ‘hiking’?

It would seem that the culprit is an electronic version of the essay, available online from K1 Internet Publishing based in Vienna. Like many electronic books – especially unauthorized ones – it does not specify the source document. Even in the single paragraph in which this line appears I spotted at least three more variations from the Secker and Warburg edition. Is this a case of careless editing by the team that digitized it? Or is it – unlikely as it may appear – an ur-text that deserves wider recognition? Somehow, I don’t see the – notoriously litigious – Orwell estate giving out prizes any time soon.

House Music

David Toop’s latest book, Sinister Resonance, subtitled ‘The Mediumship of the Listener’, makes much of a remark by Marcel Duchamp: ‘One can look at seeing; one can’t hear hearing.’ What I heard – or think I heard – at Instal 2010(Tramway, Glasgow) the other night seems to suggest otherwise.

Earlier in the year, the House Project began with two sound artists, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Eric La Casa, being invited into four Glasgow homes, and the householder asked to play their favourite music, to identify their favourite room and to talk about their acoustic environment while a roving microphone, as it were, went exploring. They were also asked to comment on the recordings when they were played back to them on headphones. You can listen to the original recordings made at the time here. (See also this blog post by a guinea-pig for their next project).

But we heard almost none of this during the live performance. On stage were three musicians and two actors, listening to carefully edited and co-ordinated versions of these recordings played to them through headphones. The actors seemed to be responding to a spoken-word track, repeating the voices word-for-word as far as they could. The musicians seemed to be responding to a track consisting largely of ambient sounds, mimicking with their instruments (a prepared guitar, a saxophone and a basic drum kit) the sound of doors opening and closing, floorboards creaking, toilets flushing, the music playing on the stereo. Occasionally, excerpts from the raw field recordings were played through loudspeakers, as well as some spoken word samples taken from elsewhere.

It is quite hard to describe, and may well sound like a recipe for disaster. But it made sense. It was intriguing, unpredictable and often funny–though it’s true some of the humour came from the foreign accent (real or feigned) of one of the actors that meant his performance sounded at times like a routine by Peter Sellers or Sacha Baron Cohen.

It was also unsettling because of the way it turned conventional relationships on their head. For example, this was not free improvisation. The actors and musicians were not just following some previously discussed guidelines; they were effectively realising a score. But a score that took the form of recorded sounds rather than notated paper, and one revealed to the performers – for the first time perhaps? – in real time, so that what we witnessed was a cross between an aural test and sight reading.

The ‘score’ did seem to allow enough latitude, though, to make us think again about hearing and listening. About how they are, even at their most passive, still activities – improvisations, even (to cite Toop a second time) – which involve fluctuating levels of attention, changing focus and depth of field. Damn, I’ve resorted to visual metaphors again. Perhaps the only way you can avoid them is to, well, listen to people listening.

 

Run This Way – 1

A young child – as parents will know – makes no strict distinction between walking and running. They do not – as adults do – compartmentalize them and see walking as the normal, default form of self-locomotion with running reserved for special occasions (proverbially, when you’re late, pursuing someone – or being pursued, or doing it as a form of regular exercise or competitive sport).

Adapted from Wikipedia

Small children constantly change their velocity – compared to the regular speed of an adult, they are often frustratingly slow (executing detours, pausing to examine something, or simply to stop and sulk) or worryingly fast (looping off to suddenly chase something or sprinting ahead, usually in the vicinity of a busy road junction). In both cases they force the adult to adjust to their pace and thus, as it were, become children again, if somewhat against their will.

I was thinking of this while reading Barbara Bodichon‘s American Diary1, in which the British feminist artist and journalist recorded her tour of the United States in the late 1850s.

It seemed to me that walking and running carry a certain rhetorical emphasis in her text . Early on she remarks that ‘slavery makes all labor dishonourable and walking gets to be thought a labour, an exertion’2; in other words it is stigmatized by the privileged elite as something only black – or poor white – people would do.

For this reason then, at least in the South, her and her husband’s fondness for talking walks – and long walks at that – would seem to carry a political charge, as if they were a form of discreet abolitionism. References to their walks appear frequently, although they gather added momentum in New England, starting with a ‘lovely walk with Mr [Theodore Dwight] Weld‘ – compiler of the influential American Slavery As It Is (1839) – in New Jersey,3a walk that becomes a distinctly abolitionist one in that it leads them to the grave of James G Birney.4

So much for walking. Running, though, has rather different associations. A Southern woman she meets tells her, ‘If you teach them [slaves] to read they will run away’.5 And the image of the runaway slave recurs at several points in the diary, a figure to which Bodichon is drawn. Indeed at one point she writes, ‘I hope to paint a picture of a runaway slave in these woods’.6

Running, you might think, is a dynamic contrast to the rather muted activity of walking. A suitable figure for immediate rather than gradual emancipation, perhaps, or an emblem of the black radical rather than the white abolitionist. And yet Bodichon’s sentimental eclipsing of the slave’s feelings by her own – to paint a runaway would seem to presuppose capturing him or her stalled in flight, perhaps even hiding from pursuers not far behind – allows even less agency to the runner than her Southern companion, who does at least, if somewhat ruefully, allow that they might actually get away. This would also seem to be the view of Marcus Wood, whose survey of 19th-century visual representations of the male runaway concludes:

In its literalisation of the concept of ‘run-away’ it is a negation of the slave’s most radical anti-slavery gesture. The slave does not guilefully depart under shade of night, but stands out bold and supid on the bleak white background of the printed page. He does not steam on a boat …. or travel … by train, or ride… on a horse. Comic, trivial, pathetic, and always the same, with his bundle of goods and one foot eternally raised, he proclaims his inadequacy for the task he has set himself. The very engraved lines which make up the the slave are running round in circles, running everywhere and nowhere. One arm and the legs form triangles | thrusting forward; the stick, bundle and other arm form another set of triangles hanging back. The net result is that the head – poised, straining, perfectly still – is itself a motionless O.7

If the antebellum South coded walking as a form of undignified labour, then running was an expression of cowardice. In Honor and Slavery (1996), Kenneth Greenberg argued that the ‘man of honour’ was expected to betray no fear of death and to be willing to be killed rather than lose face. And so if challenged to a duel he would confront his adversary rather than make himself scarce.8 What is interesting is that despite, for instance, Austin Steward’s loud condemnation of the ‘inhuman practice’ of duelling and its ‘barbarous code of honor’ in Twenty-Two Years a Slave(1857), these values were espoused even by slaves themselves, however much they sought to distance themselves from them as adults once they had reinvented themselves as bourgeois Northerners.9

Steward himself relates the story of a fugitive slave, Doctor Davis, kidnapped on a boat bound for Buffalo. ‘Give me liberty or death! Or death!’ he repeated, with a shudder’ before cutting his own throat with a razor.10 This motto – of Virginia patriot Patrick Henry11 – is quoted by both Douglass and Jacobs in the course of narrating their first escape attempts.12 Related to this are the episodes which permit the writer to express their admiration for a courageous – if ultimately suicidal – defiance of a fellow-slave, such as Big Harry and Ben in the narratives of James Williams and John Thompson.13

Thompson proclaims his own allegiance to this code when he refuses to flee from the company of a ‘pretty young lady’ as a band of patrollers catches up with him on a forbidden visit to a neighbouring plantation. He explains that ‘no person is allowed to possess gentlemanly bravery and valor at the South who will run from the face of any man, or will not even courageously look death in the face, with all its terrors.’14 Similar considerations inform Josiah Henson’s and William Parker’s choice of the right time to escape. Parker finds that when an opportunity presents itself, he finds he ‘did not like to go without first having a difficulty’ with his master. ‘Much as I disliked my condition, I was ignorant enough to think that something besides the fact that I was a slave was necessary to exonerate me from blame in running away.’15 Henson, notoriously, delays his departure many years, a ‘sentiment of honor’ preventing him from succumbing to the temptation of absconding as he escorts eighteen slaves across the free state of Ohio from Maryland to his master’s brother’s plantation in Kentucky; only much later, when he finds that neither his new master, nor his family, seem to be ‘under any, the slightest, obligation’ to him for saving his life, does he feel ‘absolved’ of his obligation to them, and determines to make his escape to Canada.16

The episode that comes closest to a duel is probably Douglass’ celebrated fight with Edward Covey, after which the ‘tyrant’ never again laid on me the weight of his finger in anger.’17 Again, its significance is that it allows Douglass to condemn Covey as a ‘coward’, and to represent himself as one no longer; a slave now only in name, his ‘spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence.’18 When he does escape, it can no longer be understood as running away; rather it is simply the taking possession of a freedom he has already won in a fair contest.

[To be continued.]

Notes

  1. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, An American Diary 1857-8, edited from the manuscript by Joseph W Reed, Jr (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).
  2. Ibid., p56.
  3. Ibid., p142.
  4. Ibid., p143. For further references to walks and walking, see pp67, 96-7, 111, 115, 122, 124, 135, 145, 146, 147, 152, 154, 160.
  5. Ibid., p62.
  6. Ibid., p77.
  7. Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp93-4.
  8. Kenneth S Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Death, Humanitarianism, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 19960, esp. Chapter Four, ‘Death.’
  9. Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1857), pp67, 47.
  10. Ibid., p143.
  11. In a speech to the Virginia Convention 1775. See William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), p123.
  12. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom [1855] with a new introduction by Philip S Foner (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), p. 284; Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [1861] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives(Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p99.
  13. James Williams, Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), pp53-59; John Thompson, The Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and his Providential Escape [1856] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p427.
  14. John Thompson, op. cit., p444.
  15. William Parker, The Freedman’s Story [1866] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p751. The ‘ignorant’ here is the Northern adult chastising the Southern child.
  16. Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada [1849] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 1: 1770-1847. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), pp734, 743-44.
  17. Douglass, op. cit., p246.
  18. Ibid., p247