rs21 members round up their culture picks of 2022.
Becky B reviews Granny Made Me an Anarchist (2004) by Stuart Christie
I was tempted by the book’s name, Granny made me an anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me, which appeared to promise dramatic tales of political agitation, apparently stemming from the influence of Stuart Christie’s grandmother. Not wanting to do ill-justice to his grandmother, but now from having read the book, it seems that Christies’ political consciousness was concocted in a rather more messy and fractured manner than simply being a genealogical hand-me down. He reports on a childhood spent in impoverished Glaswegian communities, amongst sectarianism, veterans of the Red Clydeside, ardent socialist miners whose pub evenings were settled with a punch-up between Trots and Stalinists, with child-Christie himself ping-ponging between the Orange Order, this pub of Socialist miners, the Scouts, the Labour Party, socialism and anarchist groups.
Following this veritable feast of political influences, he finds his political outlet in anarchist organising, plumpened on tales of the Spanish Civil War and heavily involved in anti-fascist resistance. All this leads to a decision at eighteen to dedicate his services to the anti-Francoist movement led by exiled Spanish anarchists. Armed with a kilt (a form of self-marketing that apparently makes hitchhiking easier in Europe) and explosives, Christie is sent to assassinate Franco. As we know from history, Franco was unfortunately not assassinated in 1964, the plot having been foiled. The autobiography that follows records his experiences of the Spanish judicial system as it was under this fascist dictator. The account gives great insight into the various ways by which brutalities are levied on the imprisoned population, be that psychologically, judicially, extra-judicially or bodily, though equally it records the solidarity and community that was bred amongst these inmates of diverse backgrounds.
Christie again encounters the force of the law in 1971 when he is later imprisoned in the UK, accused of conspiring bomb plots with The Angry Brigade. His account of this experience, as well as the sheer level of oppression and police spying he was subjected to since his release from Spanish jail, gives an interesting testimony to the eery similarities reflected in the British (supposedly democratic) judicial system, as the government rabidly excited state power against the backdrop of a politically agitated and radicalised period of British history. Christie’s story animates the fight that took place in this period and provides a necessary record of the machinations of state power as it thread through the life of one individual, bringing to the fore the injustices that have been replicated over and over, committed upon countless, nameless others.
Colin Revolting watches Living (England, 2022), directed by Oliver Hermanus
The film Living is about the pointlessness and mundanity of so much of our working lives – bullshit jobs as they have been called. Bill Nighy is brilliant as the walking dead civil servant ‘Mr Zombie’ at the centre of the film. He has allowed himself to become a cog in a bureaucratic system, a system which actively stops people from pursuing their human wants and needs. The affect of profound news wakes up Mr Zombie, and with encouragement from Margaret Harris (Aimee Lee Wood), who had coined the name Mr Zombie, he starts a journey of living. He chooses to do something which could be seen as modest by many of us who hope to change the world. However, it is the fact that the act is small and achievable which makes it such a potent symbol of change. We can make relatively minor actions, or indeed encourage others to do the same, and that can be a crucial part of the process of making change. It’s never too late to start living…
Úna O reviews Ballad of a White Cow (Iran, 2020), directed by Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghadam
Mina’s husband is convicted of murder and executed under the death penalty. A year later, he’s proven innocent. This film unpicks the injustice of the death penalty, and reveals the exoneration of the judiciary who have killed. It sheds light on the entrapment and paralysis of those working within the court system, and shows Mina’s challenges living in and against the state’s legal structures.
A wanton eviction by a prudish landlord and vengeful patriarchal relations conspire to hound Mina and her daughter into the care of a mysterious stranger, who weaves a comforting lie around their new friendship. Deceit is pervasive in the world of this film, and struggles for interpersonal honesty echo out into the empty smile of the bureaucracy.
Mina works at a dairy processing plant, and the motif of a white cow between dead prison walls is a chilling symbol of innocent life wedged into brutal state machinery. This year saw a wave of arrests of Iran’s finest filmmakers and actors. Documentary filmmakers Mina Keshavarz and Firouzeh Khosravani were arrested in May but released on bail. Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad are still in prison since the summer. Just this week, Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who expressed solidarity with Iran’s recent protests, was imprisoned. When power attempts to silence truth at every turn, it becomes all the more important to share those films which speak it.
Gus W rounds up some climate-themed works of the year
This year there have been many standout books. Vron Ware’s Return of a Native was a wide-ranging and instructive work on the British countryside. Threading together concern for decolonisation, agriculture, and environmentalism, it’s an instructive lesson on many concerns British socialists often neglect. Released towards the end of the year, Erica Borg and Amadeo Policante’s Mutant Ecologies provides an extensive investigation and theorisation of gene technologies in modern capitalism. In particular, they point to capitalists’ increased use of genomics as a way to overcome environmental crises – flailing desperately and dangerously with gene technologies as techno-fixes to the crises of capitalism. Mixing serious work on the political economy of the industry with the ruling classes’ absurd ideas of heat-resistant cows and the like, it’s an impressive work.
Outside of these recent works, the republication of Marika Sherwood’s Claudia Jones: A life in exile is to be celebrated, as it will hopefully introduce a new generation to the thought and practice of Jones. Similarly, this year I also read for the first time The Heart of the Race, written by members of the Brixton Black Women’s group in the 1980s. It is central to understanding the experiences of black women in Britain in the 20th century, as well as the role of racial and gender oppression in buttressing British capitalism more generally.
Kate B takes a look at Squid Game (2021)
This year I finally got round to watching Squid Game. I don’t think it loses anything for viewers who are late to the game(s). Joining the ranks of excellent recent anti-capitalist satires, Squid Game is similar in some ways to films like Sorry to Bother You (2018), Okja (2017) and Dead Pigs (2018), only it’s a series, enabling it to explore its themes over several episodes. The ultra-rich in these satires are shady characters whose real motivations are often obscure while they pull the strings; absurdist scenes devolve into the endgame of violence; trauma and alienation are woven through the plot, but so is resistance. The programme depicts the experiences of Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a South Korean man who is down on his luck, who decides to take the offer of a stranger on the metro who invites him to join an exclusive reality TV show. In the reality show, participants play games in which losing is fatal. In a sidelong way, Squid Game gets its audience thinking about capitalism, poverty, class, friendship, work, violence, power, and reality TV itself. Whether or not it’s always totally coherent, and despite the fact it’s not for the faint hearted, Squid Game is an enthralling watch.
Colin W attended Francis Bacon: Man and Beast at the Royal Academy
Francis Bacon was the most significant British painter of the post-war years, best-known for his depictions of twisted, distorted bodies shown in abstract, cage-like structures. Part of the intellectual context for this art was the austere mental world of existentialism and the impact of knowledge of the holocaust.
Bacon had relationships with men when it was illegal – the word ‘gay’ hardly seems appropriate – and made a life within the restrictions that imposed. Bacon sought out working-class men, one of whom beat him in drunken rages, while George Dyer, his most significant partner, killed himself two days before a high-profile Bacon exhibition opened in Paris.
But Bacon was absolutely not any kind of victim in all this. The income from his painting supported a life robustly defiant of convention and his upper-middle class Irish background, days spent gambling in casinos and many more in Olympic-level drinking sessions with friends in Soho clubs.
Francis Bacon: Man and Beast at the Royal Academy provided masterly examples of Bacon’s art – one of the triptychs of Dyer against a black background, made to exorcise his memory, as well as versions of the most famous images associated with Bacon, that of a screaming pope and of his career-making 1944 painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
In addition, the show included paintings of animals, which have in common with Bacon’s other work a stress on physicality and violence, potential or actual, most plainly in depictions of bullfights. All of the paintings are superb and deeply moving depictions of human and animal bodies, their power and vulnerability, combined in the case of Dyer and other male humans with sexuality. In some ways, art from another world – yet, at a time of war, Covid and mounting attacks on queer people, also a familiar one.