Buying for lefties December 13, 2006Posted by franklittle in Uncategorized.
A number of years ago I opened a Christmas present from a very good friend to discover she had bought me a copy of Anthony Beevor’s outstanding book, Stalingrad. She was overjoyed at my visible delight and blurted out that I was a nightmare to buy for. Now from a clothing point of view, this is undoubtedly true, not because I am picky, but because I will wear pretty much anything.
But for those of us who through a lifetime’s involvement in politics have managed to keep a couple of non-political friends, it can be difficult to realise just how tricky it can be for them to pick presents in areas we are interested in when they assume we have all the books and films anyway. A comrade confessed to me some time ago that his little sister, knowing my friend was interested in the second world war, had walked into Hodges-Figgis and bluntly asked whether the store stocked any books on World War Two. Admittedly, she was 14, but still and all…..
Consequently, I thought I’d suggest a couple of books and DVDs for the politico in your life over Christmas. Either ones I have greatly enjoyed, or ones I suspect most people with an interest in history and politics would find something in.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. You will buy/receive a copy of The Wind That Shakes the Barley at some point over Christmas. Loach’s film is an outstanding work and the always watchable Cillian Murphy, who first impressed me in 28 Days Later turns in a fantastic performance. For a Celtic Tiger generation poorly served by the Irish education system, it is a very valuable work. From an historical perspective, it does overstate the socialist element in the thinking of IRA Volunteers, but I choose to interpret this as compensation for the writing out of the role of the trade union movement and socialists in the War of Independence for the previous eight decades. Very enjoyable, moving and dare I say, inspiring.
My next two DVD choices are a little less likely to have been noticed. I first saw Joyeux Noel in the IFI around this time last year and it is a perfect Christmas present. Shot in French, English and German, it tells the story of the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front during World War One. Diane Kruger, previously see in Troy, is the only face that might be instantly recognisable, but a fine multi-national cast provide supporting roles, including a number of British actors whose names escape me at this time. The film is a genuinely moving experience, a tribute to the ability of young men, in extraordinary circumstances, to display simple humanity to each other and to realise that they have more in common with each other, than they do with the men sending them to their deaths. It is also not without it’s own sense of humour and the music, the bringing together of the opposing sides starting, as it did historically, with the singing of carols, is beautiful, even if at times it is a little too clear the actors are not the singers. Highly recommended.
At the risk of seeming like a bit of a luvvie, my next DVD choice is also a foreign film. Sophie Scholl tells the story, almost unknown outside of Germany and I’d be curious about the extent to which it is known within Germany, about a young woman who, along with her brother, set up the anti-Nazi White Rose student resistance group in wartime Germany. Sold out by a janitor in the college, she was arrested with her brother who broke down under torture. The movie gives Julia Jentsch as Sophie the chance to shine and the courtroom scenes where she defends her politics are extremely well done. Sophie, along with her brother and another activist were executed by the Nazis, but her story, and her commitment to the principle of free speech, should serve as a continuing inspiration. As she once said herself, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
One of the surprises for me of the year was Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, both because of the poor opinion I had of Gore, and still do on many issues, and because environmental activism was never a huge interest of mine. It is refreshing to see a politician who clearly has a deep commitment to the work he is trying to do. The film makes a possibly unanswerable case against climate change and presents a challenging number of solutions. While the occasional diversions into Gore’s personal history are a bit disruptive in my opinion, it hangs together very well and for environmental agnostics like me, brings home the importance of what Trevor Sargent of the Greens often refers to as the single most vital issue facing us today, before ending on an optimistic note, pointing out that we are capable of preventing, even reversing, the environmental catastrophes we face, if we have the will to do so.
For those who prefer a book to a film, a couple of outstanding publications this year. For me, first and foremost, Anthony Beevor’s new edition of the Battle for Spain. Even-handed, thorough and insightful, if you read one book about the Spanish Civil War, this is it. Beevor manages to maintain as objective a point of view as possible, outlining the atrocities committed by both sides, and arguing that if the right had won the election in 1936, the left would have risen up. But he reserves his greatest condemnation for the moral cowardice of the British and French governments who sat idly by, abandoning a fellow democractic government, and encouraging Hitler and Mussolini to think they could get away with a lot more. Beevor is a personal favourite of mine and this book, updated from the 1982 edition with the contents of Soviet archives, is one of his best works and was acclaimed in Spain when published earlier this year.
John Pilger is a lefty staple and his latest book, Freedom Next Time, a collection of articles and essays, is well worth passing over the few bob. He describes the book himself as being one ‘about empire’, and his criticisms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US invasion of Afghanistan are vintage Pilger, scathing, factual, honest and important. But for me, it was his passage on South Africa, outlining the economic failures of the ANC government that proved the most thought provoking. The ANC has, internationally, been able to bask for too long in its role as the opponent of apartheid, but as Pilger points out, the politics and skin colours might be changing, but the economic policies could have been written by Friedman. For the poor blacks of South Africa, it truly is, ‘freedom, next time’.
For those with a particular interest in Irish politics, the outstanding book for me was How Ireland Cares by A Dale Tussing and Maev-Ann Wren. It should be required reading of every public figure who thinks to comment on the state of the health service in Ireland. As well as a first class analysis of the state of the Irish health service, demolishing the ‘black hole’ myth and tearing apart the pro-privatisation lobby with a bewildering array of statistics, international comparisons and economics, it goes on to propose short and long term proposals for dealing with the crisis in the Irish health service. It is not just a list of the problems in the Irish health service, it’s a list of solutions.
The first one of these that I haven’t yet read or seen myself is Greg Palast’s latest book, Armed Madhouse…. Palast’s previous book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, was a great read, exposing the myths of the free marketeering globalisation gurus, the theft of the 2000 US Presidential election and more investigative reporting into corporate and business power structures than the rest of the establishment media in the US could begin to generate. Armed Madhouse is, I am told, more of the same. Written in a racy style, Palast has the humour and appreciation for lunacy that Michael Moore has, but coupled with a razor sharp mind and a fanatical devotion to the facts. It’s high up on my Christmas list.
My final recommendations is a tribute as much as anything else. A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya and A Small Corner of Hell were written by award winning Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politovskaya, whom I first read in Pilger’s anthology of investigative reporting, Tell Me No Lies, where she was outstanding. Anna made her name reporting human rights abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya and challenging Putin’s increasingly dictatorial regime in Russia. She was, in a world where free speech is increasingly under threat from Muslim fanatics, from western governments who see civil liberties as ‘luxuries’ and from the excesses of political correctness, someone who was prepared to stand up, tell the truth and try to hold the powerful to account.
She was murdered on the 7th of October, 2006. One of 1,100 journalists, cameramen, photographers, editors reporters and other media workers killed over the last twelve months.