Category: Guardian

The Mythmaker

James Campbell writing for the Guardian
After Heaney

In this 2006 Guardian piece, James Campbell talks to Seamus Heaney about growing up on a farm in County Derry, politics and his project inspired by a 15th-century Scots poet:

In 1977, Seamus Heaney visited Hugh MacDiarmid at his home in the Scottish borders, when the great poet and controversialist was in the final phase of life. MacDiarmid had been overlooked by the curators of English literature: compiling the Oxford Book of English Verse, Philip Larkin asked a friend if there was “any bit of MacD that’s noticeably less morally repugnant and aesthetically null than the rest?” Heaney, who has always felt at home with Scots vernacular takes a different line. “I always said that when I met MacDiarmid, I had met a great poet who said ‘Och’. I felt confirmed. You can draw a line from maybe Dundalk across England, north of which you say ‘Och’, south of which you say ‘Well, dearie me’. In that monosyllable, there’s a world view, nearly.”

In a literary career that spans 40 years, Heaney’s appointed subject matter has been largely extra-curricular: Irish nationalism, “Orange Drums”, the sod and silage of his father’s 45-acre farm at Mossbawm, County Derry. In 1999, he took the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and hammered it into a weathered English, which sold in astounding quantities and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. However, it is “the twang of the Scottish tongue”, audible throughout his Derry childhood, particularly “over the Bann in Country Antrim”, that has given him his current project, a modern English account of the work of the 15th- century Scottish makar Robert Henryson. Last year, the small Enitharmon Press published Heaney’s retelling of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid – praised by Bernard O’Donoghue in the TLS as “a poem which is unmistakably his own” – and he is now engaged on the same poet’s witty, homely Fables, with one eye on a new book and another on dramatic recitation.

“I read Beowulf at the Lincoln Center in New York, and a woman said to me, ‘You should do something that actors could do’. And I thought right away of Henryson’s Fables. Billy Connolly would be the ideal speaker. I’d seen him in the film Mrs Brown and I thought that if he stood up and read this stuff – ‘The Two Mice’, for example: ‘Still, being soothed so sweetly, she got up / And went to table where again they sat, / But hardly had they time to drink one cup / When in comes Hunter Gib, our jolly cat’ – he has enough insinuation and intelligence to help bring it within reach of a modern readership. These things are popular, they’re talkable, they’re full of horse sense and roguery.” The limited edition of The Testament of Cresseid apart, his Henryson exists mainly in typescript. He is planning a recital on stage for this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

The only books in the farmhouse at Mossbawm, County Derry, where Heaney grew up in the 1940s, resided “on a high shelf – a dictionary, an algebra and other things I don’t know what. They belonged to an aunt who had done a clerical course and became known in the family as ‘Susan Heaney, a typewriter in London’, where she had gone before the war. The book house, for me, was my Aunt Sarah’s. She had sets of Kipling and Hardy, which she had bought as a young schoolteacher, and which I now have.” Their shared name and initial, “S. Heaney”, decorate the inside leaf, which tickles him. “On Saint Patrick’s Day, a gathering of men would come to the house. There would be some drinks and singing and recitation. So there was a certain sense of ritual enjoyment, but nothing that resembled high culture, no.” His mother was “very devoted to singing and Scottish songs, though she wasn’t a singer herself”, his father “didn’t particularly like music”.

In “The Famous Seamus”, a sometimes tart but truly affectionate profile of Heaney that raised eyebrows when it was published in the New Yorker in March 2000, his lifelong friend Seamus Deane wrote that the very act of bestowing the Celticised Christian name on a boy in Northern Ireland was “a signal” that a family “was loyal to the Gaelic, and not the British, account of things”. This account – related to what Heaney has called “the Catholic imagination” – is something to which Heaney pledged loyalty in the opening lines of his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), “Between my finger and thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”, even if history has given them a more emphatic ring than the poet foresaw. He and Deane were fellow pupils at St Columb’s College, a diocesan grammar school for boys from the city of Derry and its surrounding farmlands. The country Seamus was a boarder, the town Seamus a sophisticated day boy. With a fond jab in the bumpkin ribs, Deane remarks that the boarders talked so slowly, “Maghera and Magherafelt … with all their ‘gh’s squatting on the wide vowels … that sometimes you thought a sentence had been spoken when in fact only a place-name had been”.

(…)

Moonlight portrays black gay life in its joy, sadness and complexity

Steven W. Thrasher writing for the Guardian
5760

Following the success of  Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Steven W. Thrasher writes about the film’s unique treatment of the male queer black experience, for the Guardian:

The film Moonlight is extraordinary for many reasons, but to me it is most so for two. First, it considers black boys to be precious, at a time when news stories perpetually make it seem as if the United States considers them to be utterly expendable. Second, it acknowledges the effects that the stalking ghosts of premature death and incarceration have upon gay black masculinity – and it manages to do so without ever diminishing the lives full of complex humanity that black gay men still manage to have in America while navigating that reality.

So often, gay lives in America are coded as white, and the forces that shape the lives of queer people of color – say, how immigration affects being Chicano and gay in Calfornia, or how police surveillance affects being black and gay in the New York – are ignored, as gay identity is usually swept up into whiteness. Moonlight eschews this reductivism entirely, brilliantly portraying in a lyrical story how love and connection attempt to take hold.

The fact that there are about a million and a half black men disappeared from American society by early death and incarceration is not a side issue to black gay men. It’s certainly no side issue to Chiron, Moonlight’s hero, who successfully seeks out a father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), only to lose him to an early death. And yet, Moonlight also shows how creative and brilliant black humanity is at being so much more than its pain. Director Barry Jenkins doesn’t dwell on Juan’s death as much as he does on the beauty of his embrace of Chiron in his arms in the sea, on his smile, on his joyful proclamation that you can find black people wherever you go in the world.

Another gift Jenkins gives not just to American cinema, but to American culture, is that he depicts black boyhood as something worthy of rooting for to succeed. It is not especially difficult to make white boyhood precious. In the 2014 movie Boyhood, director Richard Linklater encouraged the audience to hold as precious and unique Mason, a banal and totally average white American child who existed in an imaginary nearly all-white Texas. Mason and his friend engage in petty vandalism, and also drink and drive – and yet, Mason, “no angel”, was excused and held dear in a way a black child never would be.

(…)

The Ruthlessly Effective Rebranding of Europe’s New Far Right

Sasha Polakow-Suransky for Guardian Long Reads
Marine Le Pen

Across the continent, rightwing populist parties have seized control of the political conversation. How have they done it? By stealing the language, causes and voters of the traditional left, argues Sasha Polakow-Suransky in an in-depth analysis for the Guardian:

In April 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned all of Europe by defeating the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the French presidential election, and advancing to the final round between the top two candidates. Terrified by the prospect of a far-right victory, the French left – including communists, Greens and the Socialist party – threw their support behind the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, a pillar of the centre-right establishment who had served as mayor of Paris for 18 years before becoming president in 1995. This electoral strategy effectively isolated Le Pen’s Front National (FN), depicting it as a cancerous force in the French body politic.

Two weeks later, on 5 May, Chirac won the election with an astronomical 82% of the vote, trouncing Le Pen by the biggest margin in a French presidential election since 1848. Raucous celebrations spilled into the streets of Paris. “We have gone through a time of serious anxiety for the country – but tonight France has reaffirmed its attachment to the values of the republic,” Chirac declared in his victory speech. Then, speaking to the joyous crowds in the Place de la République, he lauded them for rejecting “intolerance and demagoguery”.

But May 2002 was not, in fact, a moment of triumph. Rather it was the dying gasp of an old order, in which the fate of European nations was controlled by large establishment parties.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was an easy target for the left, and for establishment figures such as Chirac. He was a political provocateur who appealed as much to antisemites and homophobes as to voters upset about immigration, drawing his support largely from the most reactionary elements of the old Catholic right. In other words, he was a familiar villain – and his ideology represented an archaic France, a defeated past. Moreover, he did not seriously aim for power, and never really came close to acquiring it; his role was to be a rabble-rouser and to inject his ideas into the national debate.

Europe’s new far right is different. From Denmark to the Netherlands to Germany, a new wave of rightwing parties has emerged over the past decade-and-a-half, and they are casting a much wider net than Jean-Marie Le Pen ever attempted to. And by deftly appealing to fear, nostalgia and resentment of elites, they are rapidly broadening their base.

Le Pen’s own daughter is a prime example of the new ambitions of the right: unlike her incendiary father, Marine Le Pen is running a disciplined political operation and has already proven that her party can win upwards of 40% of the vote in regions from Calais in the north to the Côte d’Azur in the south. She and her Danish and Dutch counterparts are not – as some on the left would like to believe – neo-Nazis or inconsequential extremists with fringe ideas lacking popular appeal.

(…)

War, Love and Weirdness

A Matter of Life and Death - 70 years on
Dillon P&P

Writing for the Guardian, Brian Dillon revisits Powell and Pressburger’s strange masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death, seventy years after its original release. Brian Dillon’s Essayism will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in June 2017:

The opening scenes of A Matter of Life and Death are among the most audacious and moving ever confected by the cinematic magicians Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. After the whump of arrow on target that announces a production by the Archers, we are pitched into the blue-black vasts of space – the film-makers had consulted Arthur C Clarke about the design of their cosmos – where a voiceover guides us past eerie nebulae and exploding stars to our own fretful corner of the universe. On Earth it’s the night of 2 May 1945, a thousand-bomber raid has left a German city in flames, and British pilots have turned for home. Fog rolls across the screen, radios crackle with the voices of Hitler and Churchill. “Listen,” says the narrator, echoing a line of Caliban’s in The Tempest, “listen to all the noises in the air.”

Cut to a red-lit control room, a sinister nest of Anglepoise lamps, and in their midst a young American radio operator named June (played by Kim Hunter) who is trying to speak to the pilot of a damaged Lancaster as it limps across the Channel. The bomber is on fire, its fuselage gaping, ruined instruments rattling around behind Peter Carter (David Niven) as he recites into the ether lines of poetry by Raleigh and Marvell. His crew have all bailed out or been killed; the plane’s undercarriage is gone, and with it any hope of landing safely. Will he jump too? Yes, he tells June; but there’s a catch: “I’ve got no parachute.” The exchange that follows between the Boston-born WAAF and the doomed English airman is absurdly (and knowingly) exalted: “You’re life, June, and I’m leaving you!” On the film’s release 70 years ago, some critics balked at the cardboard romanticism of the scene. But I’d challenge anyone to stay untouched to its end, watching Peter steady himself for a chuteless fall into the fog.

Miraculously, the young pilot survives, and is washed up on a beach in Devon, where he meets June cycling across the sands. But Peter was meant to die, and the authorities in the next world will not let him go, just because he has fallen in love. So far everything has been in ravishing colour, but suddenly we are in a black-and-white modernist heaven where the first bureaucratic mistake in centuries has set off celestial alarm bells. A heavenly “conductor” – Marius Goring as a French aristo fop – is dispatched to retrieve the undead man, but Peter resists, and a trial looms at which he must plead for more time on earth. A Matter of Life and Death is a self-consciously Shakespearean comedy of sorts, and a lurid experiment in cinematic colour and scenography. But it’s also an end-of-war reflection on the living and the dead, including those who have been missing for a time, stranded in between.

The film began as an expressly propagandist project. Jack Beddington, head of film at the Ministry of Information, asked Powell and Pressburger over lunch: “Can’t you two fellows think up a good idea to improve Anglo-American relations?” By the time they made “AMOLAD” (as all involved called it), the Kentish director and Hungarian screenwriter had twice exceeded their war-effort brief, with controversial results. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – whose star Roger Livesey returned in A Matter of Life and Death as the neurologist Frank Reeves – scandalised Churchill with its portrait of a good German and its mockery of a certain English bluster. And in A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger revelled in a twisted vision of old England at the near-gothic (but again comical) expense of the film’s message about Anglo-American cooperation before D-day.

(…)

The Man Who Brought You Brexit

Sam Knight on Daniel Hannan for Guardian Long Reads
3228

Britain’s vote to leave the EU was the grand finale of a 25-year campaign by a lonely sect of true believers. Daniel Hannan wrote the script. Another great piece of reportage by Sam Knight in the Guardian: 

Until about nine months ago, leaving the European Union was not something that sensible British politicians talked about. They hadn’t, really, since the country entered the bloc in 1973, the year that Theresa May sat her O-levels. In the intervening 43 years, as the EEC became the EU; and Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair came and went; and the Channel Tunnel was dug; and the borders spread to the east; and the euro was launched, and then foundered; our relationship with Brussels seemed, more or less, to embody a settled ambivalence towards the European continent that most British people instinctively recognised as their own. Close, but separate. In, but not integrated. Related, but not the same. We did not learn French.

And then 17 million people voted to leave. Everyone has their own explanation for why. Not all of them make sense. I found out the other day that my wife’s uncle voted for Brexit because his son is training to be a doctor, and doesn’t like Jeremy Hunt, who campaigned for remain. Victory, as they say, has many fathers. Since 23 June, a great many things have been blamed – or thanked, depending on your view – for convincing the population that staying within the European Union was hurting us. Their names are more than familiar now. Nigel Farage. Globalisation. The rightwing press. The left behind. Professional politicians. Absent politicians. The financial crisis. Boris. Migrants. Project Fear. Sunderland. In their own way, and over time, these things helped create the feeling that we were trapped in something so defective, so inimical to our interests, that our best hope was to climb through a high window, and out.

But you don’t get to Brexit without someone dreaming up the window – the remedy of leaving – in the first place. And during those long years inside the European project, that was the work of the right wing of the Conservative party. To be specific, a small, somewhat esoteric part of that wing: a flash of feathers, almost, a sect of true Eurosceptic believers who dreamed and schemed for this moment for the last 25 years. Most worked for little else, with no reward, and with no sign that they would ever prevail. “Like the monks on Iona,” as one of their former parliamentary researchers told me, “illuminating their manuscripts and waiting for the Dark Ages to come to an end.”

But you don’t get to Brexit without someone dreaming up the window – the remedy of leaving – in the first place. And during those long years inside the European project, that was the work of the right wing of the Conservative party. To be specific, a small, somewhat esoteric part of that wing: a flash of feathers, almost, a sect of true Eurosceptic believers who dreamed and schemed for this moment for the last 25 years. Most worked for little else, with no reward, and with no sign that they would ever prevail. “Like the monks on Iona,” as one of their former parliamentary researchers told me, “illuminating their manuscripts and waiting for the Dark Ages to come to an end.”

And no one in that group worked with more devotion than Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European parliament for south-east England. Hannan, who is 45, is by no ordinary measure a front-rank British politician. He has never been an MP, or a minister, or a mayor. Instead, since the age of 19, he has fought for what he calls British independence – fomenting, protesting, strategising, undermining, writing books, writing speeches and then delivering them without notes. For the last 17 years, Hannan, a spry, fastidious figure, who likes to read Shakespeare once a week, has done this mainly from the other side of the English Channel. He knows what it is to toil for a lost cause. “Here I am, Ishmael,” he told me recently, in his office at the European parliament in Strasbourg, invoking the Old Testament as he gestured around him. “Every man’s hand is against me.”

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions